Friday 23 March 2018

Nostalgic Tribalism or Revolutionary Transformation?

Nostalgic Tribalism or Revolutionary Transformation?

Introduction to Stephen P. Halbrook's Anarchism & Revolution in Black Africa

Stephen P. Halbrook wrote this article, which forms part of our African Resistance
History Series, in 1971 at a time when he was completing his PhD in philosophy at
the Florida State University (attained in 1972). It appears that Halbrook went on to
become a leading legal figure in defence of the American constitutional right of its citizens
to bear arms, basing his arguments on Switzerland’s “armed neutrality” stance
during the Second World War. He has written extensively on the issue, but it is not
easy to determine at a glance whether his defence comes from a Right- or Left-wing
perspective as both camps in the US have embraced the right to bear arms for
defensive reasons and Halbrook speaks in the “neutral” tone of the lawyer.
Nevertheless, if Halbrook subsequently defected from libertarian socialism to the
Right, we would say we’d had the best of him while he was with us.
And that best, perhaps reflected in this pamphlet, is flawed by two interlinked
hopes that the indigenous insurgencies of the Mau Mau of 1950-1962, the liberation
struggle of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde
(PAIGC) of 1963-1974 in Guinea, and the Biafran Secession from Nigeria of 1967-
1970 had – not unreasonably given the euphoria of the era – raised in his mind for
more libertarian socialist outcomes.
His one flawed hope was to overzealously apply libertarian socialist intentions and
even programmes to the actors in these insurgent dramas. This is least excusable
in terms of the Mau Mau Uprising because it was sufficiently far in the past for
Halbrook to have gotten a better grasp of its nature – although to be fair, the full
extent of the brutality of the British colonial regime and of the Mau Mau resistance
itself has only recently been adequately documented. (1) Nevertheless, for Halbrook
to hail the Mau Mau as “the expression of centuries of anarchism” was both ahistorical
and a misinterpretation of the true mobilising intent of the historicising of the likes
of Mau Mau leader Jomo Kenyatta and PAIGC leader Amílcar Cabral. The mere fact
that the Mau Mau slogan “Land and Freedom” echoed that of the Mexican,
Ukrainian, Spanish and other anarchists, or that a PAIGC leader extolled the virtues
of the peasantry electing their own removable, non-hereditary leaders is insufficient
proof of their libertarian socialism.
There is in addition – and this is remarkable for a writer supposedly hailing from the 
anti-statist tradition – no understanding of the imperialist interest and role played
by the suppliers of arms and other support to the rebels: the USSR, Cuba and China
supplied the PAIGC, while Biafra was clandestinely supplied by France, Portugal,
white Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa (against an unusual Cold War triumvirate
of British, American and Russian backing for Nigeria). She who pays the piper calls
the tune, so the Stalinist funders of the PAIGC determined in it an authoritarian tendency
to the same extent as the ethnic separatist funders of Biafra determined in
parts its narrow ethno-nationalist outlook. It begs the question of in what way these
realpolitik positions could be considered genuinely liberatory by Halbrook.
Halbrook’s other, closely linked, flawed hope was to assume that an ill-defined
“anarchism” was fundamental to many traditional African cultures – stating wrongly,
given that anarchism only arose as a modern, internationalist, mass-based practice
in the First International in 1868, that “Black Africa has a centuries old anarchist tradition,”
and uncritically echoing Kenyatta’s statements about the historic libertarian
practices of his own tribe, the Kikuyu (against whose ethnocentric, patrimonial rule,
in part, the 2008 Kenyan Uprising was tellingly aimed). Whether the Kikuyu indeed
once in the distant past had a system that could be equatable to a libertarian social
order as anarchists understand it – democratic decision-making power decentralised
through horizontal federations of councils of recallable delegates – is debatable (and
the same goes for whether the Balantes of Guinea or the Ibos of Nigeria can make
a same claim).
Despite the apparently remarkable and worthy communitarian nature of Kikuyu
society as spelled out by Barnett and Njama  the other experts cited by Halbrook  
they and he do not appear to critique the inescapable, non-free-associative basis of
this tribal system, nor of its ageist hierarchy, so common to African traditional cultures,
or its enthnocentrism, and do not appear (in Halbrook at least) to discuss ownership
of land, livestock, goods and services, landlordism and other aspects of what
was still a feudal economy however one may appreciate some progressive aspects
of its social organisation.
Lastly, as with much sentimental outsider support for nationalist politicians like
Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma today, or Nelson Mandela of South Africa in the past,
there is a marked shyness to engage in any substantial critique of either the leadership
cult that is so assiduously cultivated by their supporters, or of the exact form of
economy and class society envisaged by the “liberators” after their despised enemy
is supplanted. These errors-by-omission are commonly committed by the statist
Left, but also recall the rose-tinted view of national liberation struggles by, for example,
a faction of the Love & Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation’s pro-national
liberation stance on the Zapatistas in the 1990s (which contributed to the RAF’s dissolution)
and by much of the International of Anarchist Federation regarding Cuba
in the 1960s (against the legitimate protests of the Cuban Libertarian Movement in
The cellular structure adopted by the Mau Mau rebels, the “bottom-up” decision-making
process of the PAIGC, and the voluntaristic “people’s army” form of Biafran
resistance were in my view less related to libertarian tradition than to the obvious 
demands of clandestinity – and the loyalty given by their irregular fighters to individual
charismatic leaders is not in itself indicative of libertarianism; for fascist militancy
makes similar claims. Similarly, it is a stretch of the imagination to claim for Biafran
leader Chukwuemeka Ojukwu the right to assume the mantle of the great Ukrainian
anarchist revolutionary Nestor Makhno on the basis that Ojukwu consulted with an
assembly of “all the professions” – including no doubt, the businesses and the parasitic
classes (Makhno’s RIAU was by contrast controlled policy-wise by mass
Congresses of Peasants, Workers and Insurgents and it is out of this directly-democratic
experience that the “platformist” political line is derived).
Yet on these slender bases, the evidence of the nationalists Kenyatta, Cabral,
Ojukwu and a few other admirers, Halbrook believed traditional culture could provide
a communalist model for political action in the era of decolonialisation, centralising
national liberation struggles and import-substitution-industrialisation modernisation.
He is far from alone among anarchists in this rather romantic view of the relationship
between African national liberation struggles and tribal societies – and I’m not even
considering the so-called primitivists here, whose anti-modernist tendency is at complete
odds with the progressive, industrial origins of the anarchist movement. In
Zambia in 1998, the late Wilstar Choongo of the Zambian Anarchist and Workers’
Solidarity Movement (AWSM) related to me in some detail the anti-authoritarian tendencies
of his own tribe, suggesting this could advance the anarchist cause. (2)
Similarly, Sam Mbah and I. E. Igariwey, of the anarcho-syndicalist Awareness
League in Nigeria, in their ground-breaking African Anarchism (1998) (3) argued for
anarchic tendencies in the “stateless” (in the modern sense) societies of the Ibo,
Niger Delta people and the Tallensi, stating: “To a greater or lesser extent, all of [...]
traditional African societies manifested ‘anarchic elements’ which, upon close examination,
lend credence to the historical truism that governments have not always
existed. They are but a recent phenomenon and are, therefore, not inevitable in
human society. While some ‘anarchic’ features of traditional African societies existed
largely in past stages of development, some of them persist and remain pronounced
to this day.”
Despite these societies being decentralised, having communal production systems,
participatory decision-making and a relatively flat social hierarchy, they cannot
in any real sense be called anarchist. Rather it is best to describe them as communalist
with some marked libertarian practices. It appears likely that Mbah and
Igariwey were forced to fall back on communalist examples to legitimise the
Awareness League trade union (4) simply because, though they were aware of early
1990s anarchist organisations in South Africa, they were unaware of the significant
syndicalist trade unions in southern Africa and north Africa in the 1910s / 1920s. (5)
The resistance of, for instance, the Zulus during the Bambaata Rebellion of 1906
against the imposition of hut-taxes by the British was indeed among the last of a long
series of anti-colonial actions aimed at preserving traditional culture, and at preventing
the enclosure and outright theft of tribal lands and the impression into bonded
servitude of the black majority – but they were also last-gasp reflex actions of a peasantry
that was rapidly being eclipsed by modernisation (in South Africa at least, where 
they have been reduced to a minority unlike the rest of Africa). And much as
one might dislike it, anarchism with few exceptions arose in industrial (not craft or
peasant) environments – such as the Witwatersrand during the emergence of organised
black labour in the late 1910s and early 1920s, not among the Sekhukhuneland
or Pondoland peasantry, regardless how communitarian or insurgent their traditions. (6)
While anarchists can and should indeed build on any traditional libertarian conventions
within the society in which they live – ably demonstrated by the successful
anarchist penetration of the indigenous population in Bolivia, or of agricultural labourers
in Bulgaria, from the 1920s to 1940s – tribal societies also tend to have strongly
sexist attitudes, ethnic chauvinist practices and demagogic power-structures
enforced by fearful superstition and brute force. These reactionary tendencies are
at least as strong as the communalist tradition and we find similar contestations
between vertical and horizontal power in traditional tribal structures in Asia, the
Americas and Europe. Also, the communalism of many African tribal societies is not
at all ruled by the anarchist concept of free association: one is forced by one’s ethnic
origin, tribal loyalties, locality and family ties into the communalist mode, with no
choice in the matter other than self-imposed exile (which then renders one vulnerable
as an unacceptable outside in another tightly-knit communalist, or even hierarchical,
exclusivist enclave). Let us also not forget that slavery among African tribes
was (and remains somewhat) widespread, the institution only being formally outlawed
in Mauritania in 2007. (7)
None of this, however, detracts from the clear existence of a real and unalloyed
historical anarchist and syndicalist movement in Africa, so present in organisations
such as People’s Free University and the International League of Cigarette Workers
and Millers of Cairo (Egypt) and the Revolutionary League (Mozambique) in the early
1900s, the Industrial Workers of Africa and Indian Workers’ Industrial Union (South
Africa) in the late 1910s / early 1920s, and the Algerian section of the General
Confederation of Labour – Revolutionary Syndicalist in the 1930s. And let’s not forget
the fact that the former Durruti Columnists who seized the honour to be the first
to liberate Paris in 1944 came together in exile in Chad, nor the old post-war anarchist
strongholds of Tunis and Oran, nor the anarchist cells in the Canaries, Egypt or
None of this makes it into Halbrook’s analysis (but then there was precious little
study of such movements at the time he wrote, and he could not have been aware
that within a decade of his paper, new anarchist and syndicalist organisations would
rise in Africa: in Senegal (Anarchist Party for Individual Freedoms in the Republic,
1981), Sierra Leone (Industrial Workers of the World, 1996), Nigeria (Awareness
League, anarcho-syndicalist from 1991), South Africa (Anarchist Revolutionary
Movement, 1992, Workers’ Solidarity Federation, 1995, the ZACF, 2003, and others),
Zambia (Anarchist Workers’ Solidarity Movement, 1998), and Swaziland
(ZACF, 2003).
Materials from and about these movements are available to a greater or lesser
extent on the Internet so I will not detain the reader with an analysis of them. Suffice
to say that Halbrook’s flawed work raises more questions – including the red herring 
of “libertarian” nationalism – than he answers, but as these debates are still somewhat
skewed by wishful thinking, especially among the African anarchist Diaspora, it
is worth reading with a critical eye. (8)

Michael Schmidt,
Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation, March 2008


1. More than 1-million suspected rebel sympathisers were put in concentration camps, a bestial strategy the British had perfected during the South African War of 1899-1902. Starvation and disease killed thousands, while 1,090 were hanged by the colonial regime. Despite the common use of summary execution and torture by white British and black Kings African Rifles proxy forces, no official was ever prosecuted for any atrocity. The Mau Mau on their side killed only 32 whites – but some 1,800 fellow Kenyans. See Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) 2005 / Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins (Jonathan Cape), 2005.

2. The AWSM was founded in 1998 by Choongo, an anarchist librarian at the University of
Zambia (UNZA), and young members of the youth of the UNZA – Cuba Friendship Association and of the Socialist Caucus. The anarcho-syndicalist Workers’ Solidarity Federation of South Africa was instrumental in establishing the AWSM, but it appears to have collapsed the following year with Choongo’s death by meningitis. His obituary is at:

3. African Anarchism: The History of a Movement by Sam Mbah & I. E. Igariwey (See Sharp
Press), 1997. The authors have allowed an identical version, African Anarchism: Prospects for the Future to be published online by the ZACF, and it is available at:

4. A mini-biography of Mbah by the Institute for Anarchist Studies in 1999 said he was born in 1963 in Enugu, Nigeria, and “embraced anarchism shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union while studying at the University of Lagos. Like many radicals, he entered a period of deep political reflection after the breakdown of the Eastern Block, one that prompted him to re-examine his previous Marxist commitments and ultimately led him to the anti-statist, anti-capitalist politics that is anarchism. North American publications such as The Torch and Love and Rage were especially important to this process. Mbah currently makes his living as the Lagos correspondent for Enugu’s Daily Star newspaper. He is also very active in the Awareness League, an anarchist organisation committed to the libertarian transformation of Nigeria. The Awareness League is active in political education, various social campaigns, and environmental protection. It presently has 600 members and eleven branches throughout the country [down from a high of about 1,000 members in 15 states during the dictatorship, but including its own radio station]... Mbah cited two Nigerians when asked to recommend other African authors he finds particularly sympathetic to anarchism: Ikenna Nzimiro and the late Mokwugo Okoye.”

5. The IWW, Revolutionary Syndicalism and Working Class Struggle in SA, 1910 – 1920, by
Lucien van der Walt (Bikisha Media Collective), online at the Zabalaza Books site.

6. For an account of the Sekhukhuneland Revolt, read A Lion Amongst the Cattle:
Reconstruction and Resistance in the Northern Transvaal, by Peter Delius (Ravan Press) 1970 / (Heinenmann), 1997.

7. See the BBC report at: 

8. A far better critique than Halbrook’s will shortly also be made available in this series: Africa, Nationalism and the State, by Sam Dolgoff (1982?). Dolgoff demonstrates the demagogic attitudes of African “liberators” like the neo-fascist Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and the megalomaniac Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.