Review – Shivji, “Class Struggle in Tanzania”

Issa Shivji, “Class Struggle in Tanzania” (1976) – I picked this one up at a sale at the Brookline Public Library. Who was reading Marxist analyses of Tanzania from the seventies in Brookline, I wonder?

In any event, I have it, and read it. 1976 was an interesting moment in Tanzania. By then, it was almost ten years past the Arusha Declaration, where charismatic leader Julius Nyerere declared that Tanzania was going to build “African Socialism,” based on village cooperation, nationalizing foreign-owned business (much of which dated to the colonial era), and forging the country’s own path in the Cold War. Probably the best known artifact of this era were the “ujamaa villages,” planned cooperative villages where socialism, African style, would supposedly be grown from the ground up.

What did Marxist Issa Shivji think of all this? Not necessarily what one would think, in a number of directions. Shivji taught in Tanzanian universities, and belonged to the prominent Asian minority you see in much of coastal East Africa. He writes in the classic inter-Marxist mode- this is when Marxist and Marx-influenced thinkers were taking the “international development” world by storm, in that brief period between America’s defeat in Vietnam and when neoliberalism really started to hit in the eighties. He understands the books — Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao — and how they apply to the ground better than his interlocutors and he wants to prove it.

Socialism can work in Tanzania, will come to Tanzania, Shivji argues, but it isn’t there as a result of Arusha. Ujamaa is ultimately a conceit of the “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” based in Nyerere’s regime, who defeated the old commercial bourgeoisie (basically, the guys selling sisal and cotton abroad) for power with the help of the emerging working class and the peasants. It’s not an adaptation of socialism- there doesn’t need to be “African socialism” because as far as Shivji is concerned, that’s a patronizing workaround; Africans, like everyone else, can have, will have, deserve to have, socialism, no modifiers necessary. Things don’t look exactly like Russia in 1917, China in 1949, Cuba in 1959, Shivji grants, and we shouldn’t expect it to, but a working class is emerging into class consciousness and will soon get what it is due.

It’s interesting what’s not in this book. I don’t mean this as a dig, really, but you can see it as an artifact of the era just before concern for “human rights” took over the thinking-about-developing-countries realm. Nyerere was far from the worst violator of human rights around, but he did force people off the land into his Ujamaa villages. He controlled the press tightly, and waged periodic campaigns against such “non-Tanzanian” cultural practices as soul music and homosexuality. He also had almost nothing to say about periodic attacks on the Asian community he comes from. You could see this as being beyond Shivji’s strict brief (and this is a short book), but you’d figure the forced migrations would enter into the status of the working class and peasantry… in any event, Shivji’s tradition as he understood it took other stuff more into account. In ten years time, Nyerere (who probably comes up more in this review than he does in the book- it is centered on the reality of class, not the actions of important individuals) would be gone, the dream of Ujamaa and numerous other decolonization-era visions for what Africa could be would fade, replaced by a terrible cycle of exploitation and war. If Marxism provides the blocks with which to rebuild, one has to assume people will have to reach for more elementary ones still than the ones Shivji presents, given the stark realities. We’ll see, I guess. ****

Review – Shivji, “Class Struggle in Tanzania”

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