Amílcar Cabral and the African Revolution

The winds of revolution are once again blowing over the African continent. From Burkina Faso to South Africa, from Burundi to Nigeria, we have seen a radicalisation of the workers and the youth and the rise of mass movements that have challenged corrupt capitalist regimes in one country after another.

As part of this revolutionary reawakening, there is also a seeking out of revolutionary theory, and in this context historical figures such as Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Chris Hani and Amílcar Cabral are making a comeback. Cabral was an important anti-imperialist figure to emerge from the convulsive decades of decolonisation in Africa, and as Africa is entering a new period of revolutionary upheaval it is important for Marxists to understand what these historical figures really stood for.

As we will see, although Cabral played an important role in the revolutionary movement of Guinea-Bissau, in the last analysis the isolation of the revolution to one small extremely underdeveloped country, combined with the nefarious influence of Stalinism, meant that the movement he lead was doomed to failure. Today’s generation of revolutionary workers and youth in Africa need to learn the lessons, both positive and negative, from those historical experiences, as they prepare for a new wave of revolution in the coming period.

The Portuguese empire and Guinea-Bissau

Amílcar Lopes da Costa Cabral was born to a middle-class family on September 24, 1924, in the town of Bafatá, in the small Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau, in West Africa. His parents were Cape Verdeans who had moved to the mainland, where his father, Juvenal Cabral, worked as a primary school teacher and his mother as a shopkeeper.

Portugal was the most backward and despotic of the European imperial powers. Despite having entered a prolonged decline after the sixteenth century, this small country still held on to large swathes of land in Africa and Asia. But Portugal was not a classical imperial power like Britain or France. While controlling numerous colonies on two continents, it was simultaneously dominated by British imperialism, which saw in Lisbon a pliable underling that administrated its colonies in the interest of British capital. The Portuguese empire, both dominator and dominated, was thus held together with the invaluable help of London. As Lenin explained:

Portugal is an independent sovereign state, but actually, for more than two hundred years, since the war of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), it has been a British protectorate. Great Britain has protected Portugal and her colonies in order to fortify her own positions in the fight against her rivals, Spain and France. In return Great Britain has received commercial privileges, preferential conditions for importing goods and especially capital into Portugal and the Portuguese colonies, the right to use the ports and islands of Portugal, her telegraph cables, etc., etc. Relations of this kind have always existed between big and little states, but in the epoch of capitalist imperialism they become a general system, they form part of the sum total of “divide the world” relations and become links in the chain of operations of world finance capital.[1]

In later years, Cabral makes a similar appraisal of the Portuguese empire:

Faced with the power of the main imperialist nations, one is forced to wonder how it was possible for Portugal, an underdeveloped and backward country, to retain its colonies in spite of the redistribution to which the world was subjected. Portuguese colonialism managed to survive despite the sharing-out of Africa made by the imperialist powers at the end of the 19th century because England supported the ambitions of Portugal which, since the treaty of Metwen in 1703 had become a semi-colony of England. England had every interest in using the Portuguese colonies, not only to exploit their economic resources, but also to occupy them as support bases on the route to the Orient, and thus to maintain absolute domination in the Indian Ocean. To counter the greed of the other colonialist powers and to defend its interests in the Portuguese colonies, England found the best solution: it defended the 'rights' of its semi-colony.[2]

Guinea-Bissau was one of the most underdeveloped of the Portuguese possessions. Lacking the raw materials of Angola and Mozambique and the strategic and commercial importance of Cape Verde, Macau, Timor, or Goa, it was a backwater in the decrepit Portuguese empire. An outpost in the slave trade until its abolition in the nineteenth century, the province had been languishing. At the time of Cabral’s birth it had a population of around half a million, with the presence of some 15-20,000 Europeans, principally Portuguese soldiers. A brutal system of racism and apartheid prevailed in the towns where the white minority dominated and blacks were divided between “assimilated” and “non-assimilated”, while in the countryside Portuguese power rested on relations of tribal oppression.

Much of Guinea-Bissau were marshy lowlands where cultivation was difficult; arable land comprised only 12.2% of the province. Around 99% of the native population (according to Cabral’s estimates) was illiterate. Whatever education was available to the indigenous community was monopolised by the Catholic church. The rural population comprised two main groups. On the one hand were the Fula, who were Muslim and who Cabral classed as “semi-feudal”, owing to the degree of class differentiations that existed among this community, dominated by a layer of wealthy chiefs that were closely connected to the Portuguese imperialists. These chiefs ruled over the peasants, who had to pay tribute in kind, and also owned slaves. There was a middle layer of artisans that were subordinated to the chiefs. The Fulas also oppressed other, less advanced tribes, a relationship of oppression that the Portuguese exploited. The other major ethnicity was the Balanta, animists who Cabral defined as primitive communists by token of their rudimentary egalitarianism. Off the coast, the situation on the islands of Cape Verde was not much better. Lack of investment by the Portuguese and the poverty of the soil resulted in devastating famines. Between 1941 and 1948, as many as 50,000 people died of starvation.

In the 1960s the province only had 14 native university graduates (including Cabral). Lacking any industry, the working class of the province was virtually non-existent, and was limited to a few hundred wageworkers in the transports and construction sectors. These workers, who Cabral hesitated to refer to as a proletariat, had recently migrated from the countryside and maintained close connections with their villages. Despite their political rawness, this budding working class played an important role in the revolutionary movement, especially the youth that had recently transferred to the towns. It “proved extremely dynamic in the struggle. Many of these people joined the struggle right from the beginning and it is among this group that we found many of the cadres whom we have since trained”, commented Cabral in 1969.[3] In the towns there was also a mass of déclassé and lumpen elements living on the margins of society, always ready to sell themselves to the highest bidder and who became “a great help to the Portuguese police in giving them information”.[4]

However, even Guinea-Bissau was exposed to the revolutionary convulsions that were shaking the world in Cabral’s formative years. A stratum of native intellectuals and educated professionals, who staffed the colonial administration and the service sector, was beginning to emerge that became particularly receptive to radical ideas. While a layer of the petty bourgeoisie was conservative and supportive of the imperialists, another sector, particularly the more poorly-paid strata, were hospitable to revolutionary ideas. In themselves, petty bourgeois intellectuals cannot become a driving force of revolution; their position in society as a small middle layer and their detachment from production prevents them from playing an independent role. Their alienation from society also implies that, when isolated, petty bourgeois intellectuals tend towards impatience, eclecticism, and vacillation. “The vast majority of the petty bourgeoisie”, said Cabral in 1960, “were undecided and are certainly still undecided today”. However, in the context of a mass movement of the workers, the peasants, and the oppressed, as individuals they can provide the most revolutionary elements as organisers and ideologists. Cabral acknowledged this, and observed that the petty bourgeoisie of the colonial countries was torn between continued subjection to imperialist domination, its aspiration to displace the colonialists and become a national “pseudo-bourgeoisie”, and rejecting bourgeois inclinations and organising the revolutionary struggle of the masses.

First steps as a revolutionary

Cabral belonged to this radicalised stratum of petty bourgeois intellectuals. As he said, “We were just group of petty bourgeois who were driven by the reality of life in Guinea, by the sufferings we had to endure, and also by the influence events in Africa and elsewhere had on us, in particular the experiences some of us acquired in Portugal and other countries in Europe, to try and do something”.[6]

Cabral studied at a secondary school in Cape Verde, and then, in the 1940s, went to study agronomy in Lisbon, where he mingled with nationalist African students and circles of Portuguese anti-fascists. He involved himself in the activities of the youth wing of the Movement for Democratic Unity (MUD), where the Communist Party had a strong presence. Cabral started to become influenced by Marxism in this period, when he began to read the classics by Marx, Engels, and Lenin that were published by the underground press. It must be noted, and we will return to this later, that the type of Marxism Cabral was exposed to while in Portugal, was, unfortunately, the rigid and mechanic Marxism of the Stalinist parties. They showed contempt for the national liberation struggles; the Communist Party of Portugal, echoing its French counterpart’s line towards Algeria, did not support the independence of the colonies until the 1960s. For these reasons, Cabral felt lukewarm towards official communism, although he was able to gain an understanding of the fundamentals of Marxism and began to imbibe the materialist and dialectical worldview that would influence his writings.[7]

In Lisbon, Cabral befriended Eduardo Mondlane and Agostinho Neto, who would lead the anti-imperialist struggle in Mozambique and Angola. At the same time, he cut his teeth as a poet and a writer, always conscious of the importance of culture in revolution. Cabral’s thesis was on soil erosion in the poor, rural province of the Alentejo, in south-western Portugal, where a handful of rich landowners owned massive estates while the peasantry suffered in misery and hunger. This experience convinced Cabral of the revolutionary potential of Portuguese society and of the interest of the Portuguese working class and peasantry to overthrow the dictatorship.

In 1951 he returned to Guinea-Bissau, where he worked as an agronomist, compiling lengthy surveys of the local economy, society, and geography. He also travelled to Angola on research missions. These travels familiarised him with the problems of colonial society and with the inability of imperialism to genuinely develop these countries. He became increasingly radicalised as he witnessed the poverty and backwardness of the countryside, but also the ingenuity and creativity of the peasants, and was appalled at the plundering schemes of the Portuguese empire. His interest in revolutionary theory began to take shape in this period as an agronomist.

The ferment that existed in the colonial world after the Second World War, with the outbreak of revolutionary movements and wars of independence in China, Korea, Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam, etc., had a catalysing effect in the Portuguese colonies, and influenced Cabral’s increasingly militant stance. The disappointment after the first round of decolonisation in the aftermath of World War Two, where colonial administrations in a whole series of countries were replaced with bourgeois, pro-imperialist governments, drove the anti-colonial movement further to the left, highlighting that formal independence was not synonymous with genuine emancipation.

Some African leaders, like Ghana’s Nkrumah, French Guinea’s Touré, and Congo’s Lumumba, veered sharply to the left. The Soviet Union, despite its Stalinist degeneration and the pernicious role it played in the international socialist movement, continued to be seen as a beacon for many in the colonies, who saw how the planned economy had developed the former Tsarist empire, a backward, mainly agricultural country, into an advanced superpower, which in 1961 launched the first expedition to space. Influenced by all this, Cabral soon began to involve himself in the protests against the Lisbon dictatorship that were taking place in the colony.

The creation of the PAIGC

After several failed attempts to set up anti-imperialist organisations, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) was founded in September 1956 under the leadership of Cabral and his brother, Luiz. They initially tried to mobilise the working class of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde and to challenge Lisbon through mass protests rather than through clandestine or guerrilla methods. The PAIGC scored some successes and won the support of the colony’s urban workers. The 1950s had been a decade of industrial strife in Guinea-Bissau where an embryonic workers’ movement had begun to crystallise, and the PAIGC was initially able to tap into this agitation, leading several strikes and demonstrations for better working conditions and democratic rights. As Cabral explained:

And so this little group [the PAIGC] began. We first thought of a general movement of national liberation, but this immediately proved unfeasible. We decided to extend our activity to the workers in the towns, and we had some success with this; we launched moves for higher wages, better working conditions and so on. I do not want to go into details here, the only point I want to make is that we obviously did not have a proletariat. We quite clearly lacked revolutionary intellectuals, so we had to start searching, given that we - rightly - did not believe in the revolutionary capacity of the peasantry.
One important group in the towns were the dockworkers; another important group were the people working in the boats carrying merchandise, who mostly live in Bissao itself and travel up and down the rivers. These people proved highly conscious of their position and of their economic importance and they took the initiative of launching strikes without any trade union leadership at all. We therefore decided to concentrate all our work on this group. This gave excellent results and this group soon came to form a kind of nucleus which influenced the attitudes of other wage-earning groups in the towns - workers proper and drivers, who form two other important groups. If I may put it this way, we thus found our little proletariat.[8]

However, the orientation towards the labour movement was contested after the “massacre of Pijiguiti” on August 3, 1959, where 50 dockworkers who were striking under the leadership of the PAIGC were killed by the Portuguese police.

The programme of the PAIGC

The PAIGC had a hybrid programme, that combined socialist and bourgeois-nationalist features. This was not an accident, but reflected the problems of revolution in a country like Guinea-Bissau, which will be discussed in depth later. The main stress of the programme was on national unification and modernisation: to bring together the country socially and economically through education, culture, language, and literature; with the development of industry, communications, and infrastructure; with a land reform to modernise the countryside; and through the creation a strong, modern democratic state. In short, the aim was to create an advanced, secular, sovereign democratic republic. The PAIGC also envisaged the ever-greater cooperation of the country with other African states and with the socialist bloc, and the unification of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. In a country like Guinea-Bissau, populated by isolated and backward peasant communities and dominated by tribal and localist sentiments, and which had been trampled and brutalised by a racist, oppressive empire, this programme for national unification and national independence was entirely progressive. It corresponded to the national-democratic tasks of the revolution that had been accomplished by the bourgeoisie in the West.

However, the programme also included socialist, proletarian elements, albeit in a confused and muddled form. As we will explain later, a genuine bourgeois-democratic revolution in the colonial world could not be carried out on the basis of capitalism, of bourgeois rule. It required the socialist transformation of society, and the combination of national-democratic reforms with socialist measures. The PAIGC called for the nationalisation of all major enterprises and for the establishment of a planned economy. Small private enterprise would be allowed and the creation of cooperatives encouraged. The ultimate aim of the PAIGC was communism (although it never referred to itself explicitly as a Marxist party): the “progressive liquidation of the exploitation of man by man, of all forms of subordination of the human being to degrading interests for the profit of individuals, groups, or classes”.[9]

The planned economy would be “directed according to the principles of democratic centralism”.[10] This is an odd use of the term democratic centralism, which was developed by the Bolsheviks to refer to the unified work of the revolutionary party. The confused use of the term here in reality envisages the management of the economy by an enlightened bureaucracy that runs the country’s wealth in the interest of the people, which in a nutshell sums up the problems of revolution in Guinea-Bissau: the need to carry out a socialist revolution without a genuine working-class movement and under a petty bourgeois leadership. We will return to this question below.

The turn to the countryside

The repression against the workers in the towns impelled the PAIGC to turn to a guerrilla struggle based in the countryside. This coincided with the success of the Cuban Revolution, which increased the appeal of guerrilla warfare as a means to seize power (few remembered the importance of the mass mobilisations and strikes of the Cuban working class and the insurrections that shook Cuban cities in the late 1950s and which were vital to the overthrow of Batista). Cabral and his men set up a cadre school in Conakry, in neighbouring Guinea, which had won independence from France in 1958. Worker-activists and intellectuals that had become steeled in the first years of struggle in the towns were sent to Conakry to receive political training and then transferred to the interior of Guinea-Bissau to organise the guerrillas. The PAIGC was rapid to establish a foothold in the woodlands south of the Geba River, and began a successful attrition war against the imperialists.

The road to revolution differs depending on the economic and social composition of each country. Marxists in general reject guerrilla warfare, and base themselves on the mass struggle of the workers in the cities. However, this is a general premise that says little about concrete struggles. The essence of Bolshevism is the flexibility of its tactics and its adaptation to the real needs and the real march of the revolutionary process. As Lenin put it:

Absolutely hostile to all abstract formulas and to all doctrinaire recipes, Marxism demands an attentive attitude to the mass struggle in progress, which, as the movement develops, as the class-consciousness of the masses grows, as economic and political crises become acute, continually gives rise to new and more varied methods of defence and attack. Marxism, therefore, positively does not reject any form of struggle. Under no circumstances does Marxism confine itself to the forms of struggle possible and in existence at the given moment only, recognising as it does that new forms of struggle, unknown to the participants of the given period, inevitably arise as the given social situation, changes. In this respect Marxism learns, if we may so express it, from mass practice, and makes no claim what ever to teach the masses forms of struggle invented by “systematisers” in the seclusion of their studies.[11]

In an overwhelmingly agrarian society like Guinea-Bissau, controlled militarily by a foreign oppressor, the peasantry was bound to play a central role in the movement, and the use of guerrilla tactics was indispensable. The Guinea-Bissauan peasants, especially the classless Balanta, had a long tradition of struggle against Portuguese imperialism, which had been unable to fully pacify the countryside. Lisbon had launched a series of campaigns into the hinterland to crush the rebellious natives, the last one being as late as 1936. The problem with these early forms of peasant resistance was that they were kneejerk risings against the oppressor that lacked a programme and a strategy to overthrow the imperialists and transform society. It was correct for the PAIGC to try to give a conscious expression to the inchoate rebelliousness of the peasants, bringing a socialist, anti-imperialist programme and organising and unifying the spontaneous risings of the peasants into a nationwide movement.

As Lenin explained, even if guerrilla tactics and terrorism can under certain conditions become a useful auxiliary for the socialist movement, it should prioritise the movement of the workers in the towns, and at all times subordinate the military struggle to political considerations. It should not pander to the prejudices of the masses, particularly the peasants, but always strive to raise the political level and instil a comprehensive, many-sided view of the struggle, shaking selfishness, narrow-mindedness, and localism from revolutionaries. In conditions where the guerrilla struggle becomes necessary, Lenin said, “it must be ennobled by the enlightening and organising influence of socialism”. Under Cabral’s leadership, the PAIGC attempted to do this, and with some success.

It must be pointed out, however, that although the PAIGC’s efforts to mobilise the peasantry were correct, its turn to the countryside after the “massacre of Pijiguiti” was too categorical. The turn had elements of impatience and of impressionism after the defeat of the dockworkers. The PAIGC threw all its weight behind the guerrilla, turning their backs to the towns, where “the Party organisation remains underground, in general under the leadership of a very small number of individuals”.[12] The correct approach should have been to combine the two tactics, the urban and the rural struggle, and to prioritise the clandestine struggle in the towns. A general strike of the dockworkers as the one of 1959, for example, was much more damaging for the imperialists and a greater and less costly propaganda success for the movement than a series of armed raids. As admitted by Cabral itself, the small working class of the province was much more receptive to radical ideas than the peasantry and was more consistent and bold in its commitment to the revolution.

Furthermore, and we will expand on this later, because of the position it occupies in society and the collective character of its exploitation, the working class is the only class in society which can developed a socialist consciousness.

Revolutionary war

The Guinea-Bissauan revolutionaries faced daunting problems: “economic under-development, the consequent social and cultural backwardness of the popular masses, tribalism and other contradictions of lesser importance”.[13] The PAIGC set itself the task of combatting these problems. The organisation set up schools teach the masses to read and write, Portuguese was taught, basic culture and literature were promoted. By 1968, 127 primary schools were being operated by the PAIGC in liberated areas. Cabral’s men set up medical clinics and tried to improve the hygiene of the villages; in 1968 four hospitals were in operation. Doctors who had deserted the Portuguese army and volunteers from other African countries and Cuba staffed the hospitals and clinics. Armazéns do povo (people’s stores) were set up as trading centres to substitute the old Portuguese markets.

Cadre schools were created, and worker-activists and intellectuals were brought in from the towns. Fighters, despite the backwardness of the province and their heterogeneous social background, were inculcated a socialist, working-class mentality:

We were faced with another difficult problem: we realised that we needed to have people with a mentality which could transcend the context of the national liberation struggle, and so we prepared a number of cadres from the group I have just mentioned, some from the people employed in commerce and other wage-earners, and even some peasants. So that they could acquire what you might call a working class mentality. You may think this is absurd - in any case it is very difficult; in order for there to be a working class mentality the material conditions of the working class should exist, a working class should exist. In fact we managed to inculcate these ideas into a large number of people - the kind of ideas which there would be if there were a working class.[14]

Elsewhere, Cabral wrote:

Educate ourselves, educate other people, the population in general, to fight fear and ignorance, to eliminate little by little the subjugation to nature and natural forces which our economy has not yet mastered. Convince little by little, in particular the militants of the Party, that we shall end by conquering the fear of nature, and that man is the strongest force in nature. Demand from responsible Party members that they dedicate themselves seriously to study, that they interest themselves in the things and problems of our daily life and struggle in their fundamental and essential aspect, and not simply in their appearance. Learn from life, learn from our people, learn from books, learn from the experience of others. Never stop learning.[15]

Strict equality between men and women was propounded. Initially, sexism was a blight in the movement, but it was steadily combatted through patient propaganda and discipline: “At the start, the men did not want meetings with women. We did not force the pace, while in some areas women soon came to the meetings without difficulties”.[16] In the course of the struggle, sexist prejudices were gradually overcome and women began to play a prominent role in the movement: “We want to emphasise in particular that the women of our country are winning an independence for which so many have fought unsuccessfully. You saw, surely, how there were women in charge of the committees in tabancas and the zones and even of inter-regional committees”.[17]

Liberated areas were administrated by democratic village committees, where the local population elected new representatives. Although PAIGC cadres often played an active role in the committees, the choice of the villagers was generally respected. It was often young members of the community and women, who had been traditionally held back by the elders, who took a leading role. The committees organised the war effort, propaganda activities, and the management of the new social services that were being set up by the guerrillas. By 1970, there were some 400 village committees in liberated areas. As historian Patrick Chabal from King’s College London observed:

There is little doubt that at the village level itself the system devised by the PAIGC worked satisfactorily and with the support of the population. This was largely due to the way in which the party, the armed forces, and the village committees were able to work together. Cabral’s writings and speeches constantly re-emphasised the necessity to develop and maintain this harmony. Party political control over the armed forces, and the PAIGC policy of ‘respecting’ the villagers and of seeking to improve their living conditions, did much to ensure cooperation between the population and the party.[18]

Although religious freedom was enshrined by the PAIGC, all forms of religious discrimination were forbidden, and superstition and backwardness were contested with scientific, secular education: “we avoid all hostility towards these religions, towards the type of relationships our people still have with nature because of their economic underdevelopment. But we have resolutely opposed anything going against human dignity”.[19]

The rejection of tribalism was an important element in the line of the PAIGC: tribal politics were correctly seen as an element of backwardness that had been used by the Portuguese to divide the people. “They [the Portuguese imperialists] exploited tribal contradictions. They even exploited racism on the basis of lighter and darker people. They exploited the question of the civilised and the uncivilised, etc., as well as the privileged position of the traditional chiefs”.[20] The rule of the tribal leaders, particularly among the more advanced Fula people, was a rudimentary form of class exploitation that had become enmeshed in the colonialist system. A struggle against the imperialists was also a struggle against the tribal chiefs; “even while the struggle is going on we must begin to exploit the contradiction between the Fula people and their chiefs, who are very close to the Portuguese”.[21] However, the PAIGC was careful to respect local customs and languages, insofar as they did not divide the people or contribute to its exploitation: “we would not impose on the Balantes the customs of the Fulas or the Mandingas. We defended these cultural differences with all our strength, but we also fought with all our strength all divisions on a political level”.[22]

Cabral’s overall line to culture was balanced and flexible. He based himself on the most dynamic and progressive aspects of local culture, and combatted its oppressive and backward elements, while trying to draw from and adapt Western culture and science, in a way that recalls Lenin’s approach. Proud of Guinea-Bissauan and African culture, he never fetishized it, and approached it from a dialectical and materialist standpoint. It is worth quoting Cabral at length on this question:

But we must consider our culture carefully; it is dictated by our economic condition, by our situation of economic underdevelopment. We must enjoy our African culture, we must cherish it, our dances, our songs, our style of making statues, canoes, our cloths. All this is magnificent, but if we rely only on our cloths to clothe all our folk, we are wrong. We have to be realists. Our land is very beautiful, but if we do not struggle to change our land, we are wrong. […] We must have the courage to state this clearly. No one should think that the culture of Africa, what is really African and so must be preserved for all time, for us to be Africans, is our weakness in the face of nature. Any people in the world, of whatever status, has gone through the stage of these weaknesses or has to go through them. […] We cannot believe that to be African is to think that man has no mastery over the flooding of rivers. Anyone who leads a struggle like ours, who bears responsibility in a struggle like ours, has to understand gradually what concrete reality is. […] On the cultural plane, our party has tried to derive the best possible result, the best possible benefit from our cultural reality. It does so by not banning what is possible not to ban without prejudicing the struggle, or by creating new ideas in the comrades’ spirit, new ways of seeing reality. And further by making the best possible use of those who already have a little more education, both to lead the struggle itself and to be sent to study how to train cadres for the future.

Political considerations were given priority over military ones; as Cabral put it, “the political and military leadership of the struggle is one: the political leadership. In our struggle we have avoided the creation of anything military. We are political people, and our Party, a political organisation, leads the struggle in the civilian political, administrative, technical, and therefore also military spheres. Our fighters are defined as armed activists”.[23] Political commissars were deployed to oversee the functioning of the different armed detachments. To back the struggle with “the weapon of theory” and to adapt the line of the party to the existing social conditions, “to start from the reality of our land – to be realists” and “not to confuse the reality you live in with the ideas you have in your head”, were the main tenets of Cabral.[24] As will be discussed below, the party also engaged in a constant battle with careerism, opportunism, and isolationism and to raise the level of the cadres: “this vanguard we are creating, this instrument we have forged to build the independence of our land, as a man builds his house, must be constantly more honed, more sharpened, more perfect, and our people must constantly embellish it”.[25] Cabral summarised the tasks and tactics of the movement in 1968 thus:

a) constantly improve and develop political work among the popular masses and the armed forces, and preserve at all costs our national unity;

b) further strengthen organisation, discipline and democracy within our Party, continually adapt it to the evolution of the struggle, correct mistakes and demand from leaders and militants rigorous application of the principles guiding our actions;

c) improve the organisation of the armed forces, intensify our action on all fronts and develop the co-ordination of our military activities;

d) increase the isolation of the enemy forces, subject them to decisive blows and destroy the remnants of tranquility which they still enjoy in certain urban centres;

e) defend our liberated areas against the enemy's terrorist attacks, guarantee for our people the tranquillity which is indispensable for productive work;

f) study and find the best solutions to the economic, administrative, social and cultural problems of the liberated areas, increase industrial production, however rudimentary, and continually improve health and education facilities;

g) accelerate the training of cadres;

h) fight and eliminate tendencies towards opportunism, parasitism, careerism and deviation of our action from the general line laid down by our Party, at the service of our people;

i) strengthen and develop our relations with the peoples, states and organisations of Africa, and tighten the fraternal links which join us with the neighbouring countries and with the peoples of the other Portuguese colonies;

j) strengthen our relations of sincere collaboration with the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist forces, for useful cooperation in the common struggle against colonialism, imperialism and racism.[26]

Using these tactics, the PAIGC won the sympathy of tens of thousands of peasants and townspeople. “Our mountains”, said Cabral, referring to the difficulties of waging a guerrilla war in the Guinea-Bissauan lowlands, “are the people”. “The liberated regions of the country, where we are developing a new society, are a constant propaganda force for the liberation of other parts of our country”.[27] This is a correct approach to this form of struggle that separates it from Blanquism, where impatient minorities throw themselves into armed expeditions without taking into consideration the mood of the masses and the concrete historical situation. Elsewhere in Lusophone Africa the national liberation movement displayed elements of Blanquism: in Mozambique the FRELIMO, in the belief that the masses would rally behind them, threw itself into several reckless offensives in 1961, of which it only recovered in the early 1970s.

On this basis, the PAIGC made rapid gains, and by the early 1970s controlled as much as 60% of the country, leaving the occupiers trapped in their compounds and in the main towns. And this despite the brutal tactics used by the Portuguese, who were provided with the most advanced and deadly weaponry by the Americans. “The areas of rebel control”, commented worryingly the US ambassador to Dakar, “like inkblots, spread over the country and ever closer to the Bissau region itself”.[28]

Internationalism and the Portuguese Revolution

“We have always clearly proclaimed that we never confuse the people of Portugal with Portuguese colonialism”, said Cabral.[29] Undoubtedly, one of the most important aspects of Cabral’s approach to the revolution were his constant appeals to the Portuguese soldiery, workers, and peasants, and the attempts to build bridges of solidarity with the people of the metropole. Cabral understood that Portugal was a class society, and one that was also ripe with revolutionary ferment. Portugal was oppressed by a brutal dictatorship that was sending tens of thousands of young men to their death in a war against their class brothers and sisters in the African colonies, waged not in their interest but in the interest of the capitalists and the imperialists. Unlike other anti-imperialist thinkers like Frantz Fanon, for whom the European working classes were inescapably reactionary, Cabral had an internationalist approach to the struggle, and saw the peoples of Europe as an ally in the revolution:

If, as would seem from all the evidence, imperialism exists and is trying simultaneously to dominate the working class in all the advanced countries and smother the national liberation movements in all the underdeveloped countries, then there is only one enemy against whom we are fighting. If we are fighting together, then I think the main aspect of our solidarity is extremely simple: it is to fight.[30]

For the PAIGC, internationalism was not simply a question of words but of deeds. The guerrillas avoided any form of unnecessary brutality against Portuguese soldiers. Prisoners of war were treated with respect, and they were often released soon after being captured, having had the aims of the revolution and the need to struggle together against the dictatorship explained to them. No systematic attacks against the white civilian population were made. Agitation was carried out among the Portuguese soldiers. A significant number of Portuguese soldiers deserted to the rebels and fought in their ranks, and some anti-imperialist white settlers joined the PAIGC. It is useful to reproduce one of the pamphlets Cabral addressed to the Portuguese soldiery:

Portuguese soldiers, NCOs and officers!
Why did your comrades and so many others die? Why is there mourning and misfortune for so many homes, above all so many poor homes? Why? Because your government and your military chiefs act against the interests of your people and force you to take up arms against our desire for freedom and to destroy our people, who like all peoples want to be owners of their own land and masters of their own destiny. Because – the truth must be told – you have accepted and go on accepting the shameful and unworthy role as unconscious tools in the service of colonial oppression and repression instead of being with bravery conscious being in the service of the true interests of your people. For what did your compatriots die, for what do you go on running the constant risk of dying in our land? For what? To serve the criminal interests of the CUF [industrial company union], of the Overseas Commercial Society, of the Overseas National Bank – of the Portuguese colonialists and their imperialist bosses. In order to serve, in point of fact, the interests of some rich families in Portugal, which have nothing to do with the true interests of your families and people.
Portuguese soldiers, NCOs and officers!
You know that your people, who must struggle for freedom and democracy in their own land, need your help. Your families, who mostly belong to the poor classes of Portugal, are longing for your return in order to ensure their future – the future of your fathers, mothers, sisters, brides, sons and daughters. It is essential to act. As young men, you have the sacred duty to fulfil in your country, namely to struggle to be able to build a worthy future for your people, who are still living in misery, ignorance, and suffering. As conscious human beings you have the duty to do everything to keep safe the potential for friendly co-operation between the African peoples and the peoples of Portugal, between our people and yours, on the basis of equality of rights, duties, and advantages.
Give up serving as tools of colonialism, refuse to take up arms against the freedom and independence of a peaceful people!
Bravely refuse to fight against our people!
Do not seek to serve as watchdogs of the unjust interests of the CUF and other colonial companies, which are not your interests nor those of your people!
Do not seek the wretched fate of your people who fell ingloriously in the service of an unjust and irreparably lost cause!
Rise in revolt against your Fascist and colonialist chiefs who are sending you to death!
Show that you are conscious beings determined to serve the true interests of your people!
Follow the example of your brave companions who refuse to fight in our land, who rose in revolt against the criminal orders of your chiefs, who have co-operated with our Party or who have deserted the colonial army and found in our midst the finest welcome and fraternal assistance!
Demand the immediate return to be with your families in Portugal!
Long live the peace, friendship and co-operation between all peoples!
Long live the struggle for national and social liberation of all oppressed peoples!
Long live the African Independence Party!
Down with Portuguese colonialism and its lackeys![31]

This propaganda had a powerful effect over the Portuguese soldiery. According to Patrick Chabal:

The Portuguese armed forces, especially towards the end of the war, were particularly impressed by the ‘PAIGC professional military conduct’ which contrasted so markedly with their own. The fact that wounded or deserting soldiers were well treated and ultimately released filtered back to the barracks in Guinea. Carlos Fabiao, who was appointed Governor of Guinea after the April revolution, recounted the story of a Portuguese soldier who had been left for dead by his own unit. The PAIGC found him, transported him to safety and provided medical assistance which saved his life. He was later released by the nationalists. Such stories and the statements made by Portuguese deserters who had been well treated by the PAIGC had an enormous influence over the Portuguese conscripts. […] Colonel Fabiao added that the Portuguese army were in the process of losing the war not so much because of strictly military factors, but because of the PAIGC’s ‘psychological victory’.[32]

“We are certain that the elimination of Portuguese colonialism will bring about the destruction of Portuguese fascism”, said Cabral.[33] It is a pity that Cabral did not live to see his internationalist vision play out. In April 1974, a year after Cabral was killed by the Portuguese imperialists, left-wing army officers, organised under the Movement of the Armed Forces (MFA), staged an uprising in Portugal, starting the Carnation Revolution, one of the greatest revolutionary experiences in the twentieth century. The revolution in Portugal ended the colonial war and ensured the independence of the colonies. The officers’ uprising was not only the product of war weariness, but also drew inspiration from the revolution in the colonial countries, whose emancipatory ideas had infected many Portuguese soldiers and officers. It is no coincidence that the most radical, left-wing officers in the MFA had served in Guinea-Bissau. Most of them acknowledged the influence that Cabral had had over them. It was the Guinea-Bissauan wing of the MFA that had the most radical line. Officer Otelo de Carvalho, possibly the most revolutionary and anti-capitalist of the figures that emerged from the MFA, at times referred to as “the Portuguese Fidel Castro”, claimed to have been radicalised as an official in the information and propaganda bureau of Portuguese Guinea-Bissau, when he had to read the propaganda of the PAIGC and the writings of Cabral.[34]

Sadly, despite the weakness of the Portuguese bourgeoisie in 1974-75 and the drive towards socialism of the masses, the Carnation Revolution was kept in check by the leadership of the left-wing parties, which ensured the survival of capitalism in the country. Had Portugal moved towards socialism, it could have provided an additional impetus and point of support to the socialist transformation of the former colonies.

The PAIGC also built connections with revolutionary movements across the world. They participated in the Tricontinental conference in Havana in 1966, where Cabral delivered one of his most famous speeches. Together with the MPLA and FRELIMO, they set up an international body to coordinate the struggle in the three Portuguese colonies in Africa, the Conference of Nationalist Organisations of the Portuguese Colonies (CONCP).

The role of Cuba in the war of liberation and the fraternal relations between the Guinea-Bissauan and Cuban revolutionaries should be stressed. Although the Soviet bloc, China, and other left-wing African governments did send weapons and material aid to the PAIGC, their backing was overshadowed by the enthusiastic support provided by Havana: it sent hundreds of fighters, doctors, mechanics, and advisors as well as weapons and material. Guinea-Bissauan and Capeverdian revolutionaries were given training and medical treatment in Cuba.[35] Cabral befriended Fidel Castro, who referred to him as “one of the most lucid and brilliant leaders in Africa, who instilled in us tremendous confidence in the future and the success of his struggle for liberation”.[36]

This was in the initial period after the victory of the Cuban revolution in 1959, when the Cuban leadership pursued a policy of spreading the revolution internationally, even coming into conflict with the policy of “peaceful coexistence” of the Soviet leadership. Later this was to change of course.

Obstacles to the revolution

Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde were poor, underdeveloped rural economies, a feature they shared with most of Africa at the time of decolonisation. Colonial capitalism, particularly under the retrograde and nefarious Portuguese empire, had failed to harmoniously develop these economies, turning them into providers of cheap raw materials. They invested into a few export-oriented sectors and disregarded the rest of the economy, failing to raise the standard of living of the peasants, which represented the overwhelming majority of the population. The villages subsisted on a rudimentary agriculture, with a low cultural level and dominated by age-old traditions and superstitions, and with deficient or non-existent infrastructures and communications. Moreover, unlike the rural labourers of the Angolan and Mozambican commercial estates, the Guinea-Bissauan peasants, as in much of Africa, were small landowners to whom it was difficult to appeal on the basis of collectivist, socialist slogans, and who inevitably tended to have an individualistic, narrow vision of politics. As Cabral conceded, contrary to the workers, the main desire of the small peasants was to see their taxes reduced and to have better prices for their products and a better access to the markets, not to build socialism:

[In Guinea-Bissau] it must be said at once that the peasantry is not a revolutionary force - which may seem strange, particularly as we have based the whole of our armed liberation struggle on the peasantry. A distinction must be drawn between a physical force and a revolutionary force; physically, the peasantry is a great force in Guinea: it is almost the whole of the population, it controls the nation's wealth, it is the peasantry which produces; but we know from experience what trouble we had convincing the peasantry to fight. […] In Guinea the peasants are subjected to a kind of exploitation equivalent to slavery; but even if you try and explain to them that they are being exploited and robbed, it is difficult to convince them by means of an inexperienced explanation of a technico-economic kind that they are the most exploited people; whereas it is easier to convince the workers and the people employed in the towns who earn, say, 10 escudos a day for a job in which a European earns between 30 and 50 that they are being subjected to massive exploitation and injustice, because they can see.[37]

The peasants’ support for the revolution is more muddled and irresolute than that of the working class. The working class in countries like Guinea-Bissau was minuscule – even smaller than in Russia in 1917. On this basis it was difficult to build a healthy socialist system. This can only be attained on the basis of the urban working class, with its collectivist instincts, its geographic concentration, its higher cultural level, and, especially, with its central role in industrial production and distribution, which allows it to overthrow the capitalists through mass struggles and later to run the economy democratically in the interest of the whole of society.

The peasantry, particularly in backward countries like those of the former Portuguese empire, is too fragmented, divided, and formless to spearhead a democratic, socialist revolution. It can become a powerful force in the revolution, but always under the guidance of another class in the urban areas. In Cabral’s Guinea as in much of the post-colonial world that was gripped by social upheaval, the absence of a proletariat left the peasantry without genuine revolutionary guidance. Leadership was provided instead by militarised organisations headed by radicalised petty-bourgeois intellectuals, like the PAIGC, the MPLA, the FRELIMO, or ZANU. As Cabral admitted in the late 1960s, foreshadowing the problems that would arise after liberation:

Our problem is to see who is capable of taking control of the state apparatus when the colonial power is destroyed. In Guinea the peasants cannot read or write, they have almost no relations with the colonial forces during the colonial period except for paying taxes, which is done indirectly. The working class hardly exists as a defined class, it is just an embryo. There is no economically viable bourgeoisie because imperialism prevented it being created. What there is, is a stratum of people in the service of imperialism who have learned how to manipulate the apparatus of the state - the African petty bourgeoisie: this is the only stratum capable of controlling or even utilising the instruments which the colonial state used against our people. So we come to the conclusion that in colonial conditions it is the petty bourgeoisie which is the inheritor of state power (though I wish we could be wrong).[38]

Waging protracted guerrilla wars, these guerrilla organisations with petty bourgeois leaderships were inevitably hierarchical and undemocratic, and had nothing to do with the workers’ councils and soviets of proletarian revolutions, which are democratic organs for discussion and decision-making. Even the democratic ethos of Cabral’s PAIGC was unable to overcome the need for top-down centralisation of military organisations. This was inevitable to coordinate the struggle organisationally and politically and to avoid isolationist tendencies and the emergence of rogue elements. Indeed, in some areas, guerrilla leaders operated autonomously and even used their authority to enrich themselves. Therefore, the PAIGC had to carry out frequent purges: “certain tendencies towards isolation developed, tendencies to disregard other groups and not to co-ordinate action. In view of this, we decided to hold our Congress in 1964, and this marked a crucial turning-point in our struggle. At this Congress we took a series of disciplinary measures, among these being the detention, trial and condemnation of certain guerrilla leaders”.[39]

Proletarian Bonapartism

In other post-colonial African countries, such as in Burkina Faso with Thomas Sankara, in Somalia under Siad Barre, in Ethiopia with Mengistu, the abolition of capitalism was carried out from above by the army, under the leadership of left-wing putschist officers. What we see again, however, is the absence of the mass, democratic impetus of the proletariat. All these revolutions also tended to display a tendency towards the centralisation of power and influence in the hands of single individuals. Some introduced despotic, tyrannical regimes, such as Mengistu in Ethiopia or Mugabe in Zimbabwe; others, like Sankara in Burkina Faso or Amílcar Cabral in Guinea, played a more heroic role and that is why they remain a source of inspiration for many today. However, be they heroes or villains, the emergence of dictatorial charismatic leaders reflects the absence of an organised labour movement that could have replaced or subsumed these figures. Indeed, the disunity of the peasantry and the heterogeneity and vacillation of the petty bourgeois intellectuals and army officers resulted in disunited, heterogeneous, and vacillating revolutionary movements that opened the door for the centralisation of power in the hands of Bonapartist individuals.

It is no accident that all these revolutionary processes ultimately failed. Radical left governments were either overthrown, as in Burkina Faso, Somalia, or in Ethiopia, or rapidly became bureaucratised and corrupt, and ended up reintroducing capitalism, as in French Guinea, Mozambique, or Angola. What Cabral referred to as the “cancer of betrayal”, after the toppling of left-wing Ghanaian president Nkrumah, spread rapidly. The absence of the solid social basis for the revolution that could have been provided by the working class, and the petty bourgeois leadership of the anti-imperialist movements, ensured their rapid degeneration or overthrow. The failure of the first wave of socialist revolutions after decolonisation in the 1960s-1980s paved the way for a long counterrevolution, characterised by civil wars, the collapse or fragmentation of the new states, the thriving of tribalism and fundamentalism, the rise of brutal dictatorships, and the continued domination of Africa by imperialism.

Amílcar Cabral was assassinated in January 1973 in Conakry by rogue elements of his own movement, led by disgruntled guerrilla leader Inocencio Kani, who had been demoted under charges of gross misconduct. They had attempted to stage a coup within the PAIGC with the active help of the Portuguese. Although tragically Amílcar Cabral was killed, the coup failed and his brother Luiz Cabral took over and oversaw the liberation of the country. He tried to carry out the PAIGC’s programme, nationalising the commanding heights of the economy and launching an ambitious programme for development and national unification. However, Luiz’s attempts to industrialise the country required the heavy taxation of the peasantry and a concentration of investments in the towns, leading to a drop in agricultural production and to food scarcity in urban areas. Thus the villagers became disenchanted with the PAIGC and the party became increasingly ossified and centralised in Luiz’s hands. In 1980 he was overthrown in a military coup d’état that brought to power the regime of Joao Vieira that gradually reintroduced capitalism.[40] In the 1990s the country was devastated by civil war as ambitious petty bourgeois factions within the state apparatus tried to topple the ruling clique. Today, Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in the world, and is defined by many as a “narco-state”, since it has become, with the connivance of the ruling elite, a central hub for global drug trafficking.

It was clear that capitalism was unable to develop these countries and bring them out of their backwardness. Not only that, it was also clear that on the basis of capitalism no genuine national sovereignty could be attained. The national bourgeoisies of these colonial regions, insofar as it existed, could not play an independent role and would become a corrupt crutch for imperialism, which would continue to dominate indirectly. Only a socialist planned economy could modernise these countries; therefore, a genuine anti-colonial revolution for national liberation had to be socialist in character. At the same time, the working class in these countries was extremely small (in some places virtually non-existent), and the material basis to build socialism was very feeble. This gave rise to a phenomenon that South African Marxist Ted Grant referred to as “proletarian Bonapartism”: the overthrow of capitalism was carried out under the leadership of radicalised sectors of the petty bourgeoisie, who, however, would not be able to build healthy socialist democracies.[41]

Cabral was well aware of the problems of proletarian Bonapartism, and much of his writings are devoted to these questions. He was well aware that: “In our present historical situation […] there are only two possible paths for an independent nation: to return to imperialist domination (neo-colonialism, capitalism, state capitalism), or to take the way of socialism”. However, only the working class could build socialism on the basis of its control over the commanding heights of the economy; either imperialist capital dominated, or the working class took over: “political control (the state) is based on the economic capacity of the ruling class, and in the conditions of colonial and neo-colonial society this capacity is retained by two entities: imperialist capital and the native working classes”. The revolution needed “the existence of significant vanguard classes (a working class conscious of its existence and rural proletariat) which could ensure the vigilance of the popular masses over the evolution of the liberation movement.” However, Cabral was confronted with the absence of a genuine working class and the subsequent centrality of the petty bourgeoisie in the revolutionary movement:

The petty bourgeoisie, as a service class (that is to say, a class not directly involved in the process of production) does not possess the economic base to guarantee the taking over of power. In fact history has shown that whatever the role — sometimes important — played by individuals coming from the petty bourgeoisie in the process of a revolution, this class has never possessed political control. And it never could possess it […].

Cabral foreshadowed the fate of many African revolutionary movements:

To retain the power which national liberation puts in its hands, the petty bourgeoisie has only one path: to give free rein to its natural tendencies to become more bourgeois, to permit the development of a bureaucratic and intermediary bourgeoisie in the commercial cycle, in order to transform itself into a national pseudo-bourgeoisie.[42]

Elsewhere, he noted:

We must, however, take into consideration the fact that, faced with the prospect of political independence, the ambition and opportunism from which the liberation movement generally suffers may draw into the struggle individuals who have not been reconverted [i.e., who have not shaken off their petty bourgeois mind-set]. The latter, on the basis of their level of education, their scientific or technical knowledge, may attain the highest positions in the liberation movement. On the cultural level as well as the political level vigilance is therefore vital.[43]

Not only did the risk of opportunist tendencies exist among the assimilated, Portuguese-speaking petty bourgeoisie that had been spawned by the colonialists, but also among the traditional tribal elites:

Several traditional and religious leaders join the struggle from the start or in the course of its unfolding, making an enthusiastic contribution to the cause of liberation. But there again vigilance is vital: holding strongly onto their class cultural prejudices, individuals in this category generally see in the liberation movement the only valid means for using the sacrifices of the mass of the people to eliminate colonial oppression of their own class and hence to re-establish their complete cultural and economic domination over the people.[44]

Indeed, Cabral augured the use of tribalism by opportunist bourgeois leaders that would lead to so much bloodshed in subsequent decades:

Only political opportunists are tribalists: individuals who even attended European universities; who frequented the cafés of Brussels, Paris, Lisbon, and other capitals; who are completely removed from the problems of their own people - they may be called tribal, these individuals who at times even look down on their own people but who, out of political ambition, take advantage of attitudes still existing in the minds of our people to try to achieve their opportunist aims, their political goals, to try to quench their thirst for power and political domination.[45]

In his view, the survival and consolidation of revolutions that in the absence of a genuine labour movement were led by the radicalised petty bourgeoisie depended on the “suicide” of the petty bourgeoisie as a class after having taken power: “to betray the revolution or to commit suicide as a class — constitutes the dilemma of the petty bourgeoisie in the general framework of the national liberation struggle”.[46] As became clear with hindsight, this suicide did not happen. Particularly as the mass movements ebbed after independence, the opportunist elements that had made themselves strong in the liberation movement were able to assert themselves and displace the honest revolutionaries. Control over the state produces the danger of bureaucratic degeneration that can only be curbed through the democratic control of the working class and through the revolutionary vigilance of the leadership. In underdeveloped countries with a small or non-existent working class, where the general cultural and material level is low and poverty is widespread, bureaucratic degenerations emerge faster and more destructively, since there is an unchecked temptation among petty bourgeois officials to exploit their positions of power.

Cabral and the permanent revolution

Cabral understood many of the challenges of revolution in a country like Guinea-Bissau. On the one hand, he knew that the national bourgeoisie, which he referred to as a “pseudo-bourgeoisie” owing to its weakness and backwardness, could not play the progressive role the European bourgeoisies had played in the Early Modern period, developing, unifying, and modernising the country: “the local pseudo-bourgeoisie, however nationalist it may be, cannot effectively fulfill its historical function; it cannot freely direct the development of the productive forces; in brief it cannot be a national bourgeoisie”.[47]

The indigenous bourgeoisie would fall under the influence of the old imperial masters and become a middleman for the continued plundering of the imperialists – independence under capitalism would only give rise to “neocolonialism”. Cabral shared Lenin’s understanding of imperialism: it was “the monopolistic stage of capitalism”, produced by the objective need for the productive forces to break through the fetters of the nation-state.[48] To truly combat imperialism one had to combat capitalism. Indeed, Cabral correctly believed that the independence of the colonies did not contradict the aims of the imperialists, and they were content to give power to local bourgeoisies to administrate their interests. What the imperialists were concerned about was that the national liberation struggle could mutate into anti-capitalist, socialist revolution:

[…] We think there is something wrong with the simple interpretation of the national liberation movement as a revolutionary trend. The objective of the imperialist countries was to prevent the enlargement of the socialist camp, to liberate the reactionary forces in our countries which were being stifled by colonialism and to enable these forces to ally themselves with the international bourgeoisie. The fundamental objective was to create a bourgeoisie where one did not exist, in order specifically to strengthen the imperialist and the capitalist camp. This rise of the bourgeoisie in the new countries, far from being at all surprising, should be considered absolutely normal, it is something that has to be faced by all those struggling against imperialism.[49]

Consequently, the PAIGC adopted a socialist programme for the expropriation of the commanding heights of the economy, the only means to genuinely develop the country. Cabral, says his biographer, “sought to establish a state structure which would pursue socialist policies effectively and without recourse to political oppression. His ambition was to give life to a regime which would be less repressive and more democratic than in most of Africa. The viability of such a project, however, must depend essentially on the gap between the country’s intended social and political objectives and its available political and economic resources.”[50] Indeed, Cabral was haunted by the absence of a working class on which to base the revolution, and the subsequent dependence of the revolution on the petty bourgeoisie. Indeed, he tacitly predicted the rapid restoration of capitalism in countries like Angola, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, or his native Guinea-Bissau:

Likewise, we have to face the question whether or not socialism can be established immediately after the liberation. This depends on the instruments used to effect the transition to socialism; the essential factor is the nature of the state, bearing in mind that after the liberation there will be people controlling the police, the prisons, the army and so on, and a great deal depends on who they are and what they try to do with these instruments. Thus we return again to the problem of which class is the agent of history and who are the inheritors of the colonial state in our specific conditions.[51]

This made him hesitate about the character of the revolution and the feasibility of socialism in non industrialised, colonial countries. Indeed, although his socio-economic analysis of Guinea-Bissau was based on a Marxist interpretation, and his general philosophical standpoint was close to a Marxist outlook, believing in the ultimate victory of socialist revolution, he refused to label the PAIGC a communist or a Marxist-Leninist organisation. Cabral was in fact influenced by Stalinism and Maoism, and that explains why he flirted with the two-stage theory of class collaboration:

We are therefore faced with the problem of deciding whether to engage in an out and out struggle against the bourgeoisie right from the start or whether to try and make an alliance with the national bourgeoisie, to try to deepen the absolutely necessary contradiction between the national bourgeoisie and the international bourgeoisie which has promoted the national bourgeoisie to the position it holds.[52]

However, the corruption and weakness of the national bourgeoisie made him sceptical of this idea. Despite his doubts and unresolved questions about the nature of the revolution, Cabral came to a key conclusion: the ultimate success of socialism in the underdeveloped colonial countries was connected to the overthrow of capitalism in the advanced countries, and the national liberation movements could stimulate and accelerate revolution in the industrialised world:

As we see it, neocolonialism (which we may call rationalised imperialism) is more a defeat for the international working class than for the colonised peoples. Neocolonialism is at work on two fronts - in Europe as well as in the underdeveloped countries. Its current framework in the underdeveloped countries is the policy of aid, and one of the essential aims of this policy is to create a false bourgeoisie to put a brake on the revolution and to enlarge the possibilities of the petty bourgeoisie as a neutraliser of the revolution; at the same time it invests capital in France, Italy, Belgium, England and so on. In our opinion the aim of this is to stimulate the growth of a workers' aristocracy, to enlarge the field of action of the petty bourgeoisie so as to block the revolution. In our opinion it is under this aspect that neocolonialism and the relations between the international working class movement and our movements must be analysed. If there have ever been any doubts about the close relations between our struggle and the struggle of the international working class movement, neocolonialism has proved that there need not be any.[53]

Cabral saw that the combined and uneven development of capitalism allowed backward countries to leap the bourgeois stage of development making use of the enormous technology and wealth that existed in the more advanced countries. The emergence of a socialist camp potentially allowed states to pool resources and for poorer countries to benefit from the help of richer ones. His views on the uneven development of humanity and the capacity to skip historical stages is outlined here:

At the level of humanity or of part of humanity (human groups within one area, of one or several continents) these three stages [primitive communism, capitalism and socialism] can be simultaneous, as is shown as much by the present as by the past. This is a result of the uneven development of human societies, whether caused by internal reasons or by one or more external factors exerting an accelerating or slowing-down influence on their evolution. On the other hand, in the historical process of a given socio-economic whole each of the above-mentioned stages contains, once a certain level of transformation is reached, the seeds of the following stage.
We should also note that in the present phase of the life of humanity, and for a given socio-economic whole, the time sequence of the three characteristic stages is not indispensable. Whatever its level of productive forces and present social structure, a society can pass rapidly through the defined stages appropriate to the concrete local realities (both historical and human) and reach a higher stage of existence. This progress depends on the concrete possibilities of development of the society’s productive forces and is governed mainly by the nature of the political power ruling the society, that is to say, by the type of state or, if one likes, by the character of the dominant class or classes within the society.
A more detailed analysis would show that the possibility of such a jump in the historical process arises mainly, in the economic field, from the power of the means available to man at the time for dominating nature, and, in the political field, from the new event which has radically clanged the face of the world and the development of history, the creation of socialist states.[54]

It is unclear what influence Amílcar Cabral might have had had he lived to see the success of the PAIGC. He would undoubtedly have had a major influence not only on the revolution in Guinea-Bissau, but across the world. He had a more balanced view of the path to socialism than his brother Luiz, who was in power from 1974-1980. He understood that industrialisation had to go hand in hand with the raising of the economic level of the peasants.[55] However, as Ted Grant pointed out, in a colonial country like Guinea-Bissau, even under the most far-sighted Marxist leadership,

The conquest of power by the proletariat and the firm establishment of a workers’ democracy could only be an episode, to be followed by deformation or counter-revolution in the Stalinist form, if it were not followed, in a relatively short historical period, by the victory of the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries. It would, of course, even as an ‘episode’ be of enormous historical significance for the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries as well as the peoples of the underdeveloped areas of the world. But even the greatest revolutionary theory cannot solve the problem without the necessary material base.[56]

In a confused and hesitant manner, Cabral was approaching the theory of the permanent revolution, developed by Trotsky to study the revolution in backward Tsarist Russia. Undoubtedly, the negative influence of Stalinism held back Cabral’s ideas. The Stalinists’ distortion of Marxism and Leninism, the obliteration of Trotsky’s legacy, their class-collaborationist policies, their opportunist volte-faces, their bloody record, dictated by the interests of the bureaucracy; and the corruption of the systems they defended, created a thick ideological and organisational crust that honest revolutionaries like Cabral had to try to painstakingly break through. Cabral hesitated to identify openly with the “Marxist-Leninist” doctrines of the Soviet bloc; according to his biographer, bourgeois historian Patrick Chabal, “he came to view Marxism as a methodology rather than an ideology. […] Although the main thrust of his argument is undoubtedly Marxist, what is more interesting are the qualifications and innovations which Cabral makes”.[57]

The Sino-Soviet split and the squabbles between the bureaucracies only added to the confusion and the distortions, and made it difficult to envisage the solidarity and harmonious integration of the socialist camp. This was compounded with the delay of revolution in the industrialised countries of the West with the post-World War Two economic boom, and the conservatism of the working-class organisations in these countries, which stopped these countries from playing the leading role in world revolution they should have played. The delay of revolution in the West helped give rise to proletarian Bonapartist movements in the colonial world.

In light of all this, it is unsurprising that the main theoretical limitation of Cabral was to try to resolve the problems of the anti-colonial revolution within the narrow confines of Guinea-Bissau, within which they could not be fundamentally overcome. Echoing the Stalinist regimes, he tended to see internationalism as a loose form of solidarity rather than as the interlinking of revolutionary movements and the genuine and harmonious integration of the socialist countries that was envisaged by the Third International in its early years. But this attitude was undoubtedly shaped by the conservatism and opportunism of the Stalinist parties in Europe and the governments of the Soviet bloc. It also reflected the conditions of a national liberation struggle, when the priority is to expel the imperialists from the country. Yet as Ted Grant explained in 1964, talking about the socialist national liberation movements in Africa and Asia:

Internationalism was not conceived as a holiday or sentimental phrase, but as an organic part of the socialist revolution. Internationalism is a consequence of the unity of the world economy, which was capitalism’s historical task to develop into a single economic whole. If Russia, with all her immense resources, and a most highly-conscious proletariat, with the finest Marxist leadership, could not solve its problems despite its continental basis and resources, it is ludicrous for Marxists even to think that in the present world conjuncture it would be possible in any of these backward countries, in isolation from any healthy workers’ state to maintain anything but a Bonapartist state of a more or less repressive character.
Internationalism and conscious leadership—the two go together — are an organic part of Marxism. Without them, it is impossible to take the necessary steps in the direction of socialist society. Not one of these states is, in proportion to population, even as industrially developed as was Russia at the time of the revolution. Industrial development of a backward economy with the pressure of imperialism and Soviet and Chinese Bonapartism, the pressure of internal contradictions which a developing economy would mean, inevitably, in an economy of scarcity, would lead to the rise of privileged layers.[58]

For Trotsky, the Russian bourgeoisie could not play the progressive role its counterparts had played in Western Europe. A historical latecomer, it had entered the world at a time when an organised labour movement, with ideas and a programme of its own, was already in existence, throwing the bourgeoisie into an unholy alliance with the feudal elites and the autocracy. Moreover, with the rise of financial and monopoly capitalism, the old, feudal order was subsumed into the capitalist system: the landlords invested in industry and the factory owners invested in landed property; the Church mortgaged its estates; the imperial armies struck lucrative contracts with industrialists; the old dynasties accumulated massive debts. Therefore the sharp divide between bourgeois and feudal classes that had existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became blurred. The tasks of the bourgeois revolution (dismantling the feudal order, unifying the country, democratisation and secularisation, land redistribution, developing the country and overcoming backwardness, etc.) fell on the shoulders of the small labour movement, which would be able to rally the peasantry behind it. However, it would not be able to stop at the bourgeois stage of the revolution, but, spurred by the opposition of the propertied classes and the incapacity to carry out basic reforms on the basis of capitalism, would have to overthrow the bourgeoisie and move towards socialism. Of course, the material basis for socialism in a country like Tsarist Russia was insufficient, and the long-term survival of the revolution and the consolidation of genuine socialism depended on the revolution in the advanced countries on the West. Revolution in backward countries could provide a powerful push to revolution in the industrialised world.

In the former Portuguese empire, socialist revolutions spearheaded by the petty bourgeoisie could survive and take root if they spread to more advanced countries, that could have provided the technology, guidance, and expertise to modernise and develop less developed societies. The revolutions in the colonial world had a radicalising effect in the whole of Europe and North America. In Portugal, they contributed to create a revolutionary situation that could have toppled capitalism. Perhaps more importantly was the impact of these revolutions on the African continent. In these years the role of spearheading the African revolution undoubtedly fell on the shoulders of South Africa, the most industrialised, modern, and urbanised country on the continent, with a powerful and well-organised working class. If Cuba, a small, poor island on the other side of the Atlantic, was able to provide an extraordinary political, material, and military stimulus to the revolutionary liberation movements in Africa, the role of a healthy socialist South Africa could have been decisive for the building of socialism across the continent. In the 1980s South Africa was ablaze with revolutionary agitation, partly under the inspiration of other revolutionary movements in the region and the world. In the early 1990s the South African working class could easily have taken power peacefully. It was the betrayal of the leaders of the ANC and the SACP that prevented this from happening.

The potential for a socialist Portugal to spearhead the socialist transformation of Lusophone Africa should also be pointed out. As said above, in 1974-1975 capitalism was hanging from a thread in Portugal, and it was only the treacherous role of the socialist and communist leaderships that saved the system. Cabral believed that after fascism had been overthrown in Portugal, the country could play a powerful, constructive role in the former colonies, helping develop the former colonies on a fraternal basis.[59] However, this could only have been done by a socialist Portugal, where the economy is democratically planned for the general interest. Capitalist Portugal has continued to play an imperialist role in its former colonies: today, Guinea-Bissau imports most of its manufactured goods from Portugal (20% of its imports come from the former metropole), while it remains an exporter of groundnuts, as was the case in the days of the empire.

The African Revolution today

Much has changed since the days of Cabral and the PAIGC. In 1966, Cabral foreshadowed that, if the first round of socialist revolution were to fail in Africa, and if the new independent states were to fall once again under the boot of imperialism and capitalism, the gradual industrialisation of these countries would spawn a working class that would rally the other oppressed layers of society behind it and spearhead a new, more powerful revolutionary wave:

[…] The necessarily repressive nature of the neo-colonial state against the national liberation forces, the sharpening of contradictions between classes, the objective permanence of signs and agents of foreign domination (settlers who retain their privileges, armed forces, racial discrimination), the growing poverty of the peasantry and the more or less notorious influence of external factors all contribute towards keeping the flame of nationalism alive, towards progressively raising the consciousness of wide popular sectors and towards reuniting the majority of the population, on the very basis of awareness of neo-colonialist frustration, around the ideal of national liberation. In addition, while the native ruling class becomes progressively more bourgeois, the development of a working class composed of urban workers and agricultural proletarians, all exploited by the indirect domination of imperialism, opens up new perspectives for the evolution of national liberation. This working class, whatever the level of its political consciousness (given a certain minimum, namely the awareness of its own needs), seems to constitute the true popular vanguard of the national liberation struggle in the neo-colonial case. However it will not be able to completely fulfill its mission in this struggle (which does not end with the gaining of independence) unless it firmly unites with the other exploited strata, the peasants in general (hired men, sharecroppers, tenants and small farmers) and the nationalist petty bourgeoisie. The creation of this alliance demands the mobilization and organization of the nationalist forces within the framework (or by the action) of a strong and well-structured political organization.[60]

Cabral was right. In recent decades most African countries have undergone processes of industrialisation and urbanisation, and a powerful working class has come into being in many formerly peasant countries, particularly in places like Nigeria and Ethiopia. Even in Guinea-Bissau, which remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, 50% of the population now lives in the cities, and 40% is now literate. Spasmodic capitalist industrialisation has also exacerbated class contradictions, increasing inequality, unemployment, and throwing entire sectors of the population into marginality and destitution. It has done little to resolve the fundamental problems of African societies, but has rather exacerbated them. These contradictions are now being aggravated by the capitalist crisis and by the slowdown of China. Africa is ripe for revolution. The conditions exist for the overthrow of capitalism which would open the way for the rapid transformation of African societies, and would send shockwaves across the world. Indeed, a successful socialist revolution in Nigeria or South Africa would undoubtedly have a domino effect not only in the region but across the world. We have seen the example of the Burkinabe masses effortlessly bringing down the stooges of French and American imperialism. After the Burkinabe Revolution of 2014, the prestigious bourgeois newspaper The Financial Times spoke about the perspectives for revolution in Africa in these words:

But the events in Ouagadougou should give them pause for thought, for two reasons. First, sub Saharan Africa’s young and urban population, suffering from high unemployment, could be a force for change, through violent protests if necessary. In recent months, they have taken to the streets in Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan on an unprecedented scale. The spread of mobile phones, and the easy access to social media, is helping to increase mobilisation. (…)
The black spring of Burkina Faso shows how the demands of an impatient young population, by 2020 three out of four people in Africa will be 20 years old or younger, are growing. After a decade of strong economic growth enthusiastically branded “Africa rising” most young city dwellers feel left behind. It is hardly surprising that some are following the advice of Thomas Sankara, the late Burkinabè leader killed during the 1987 coup that propelled Mr Compaoré to power: “The future is revolutionary”. The future belongs to those who struggle.[61]

This new wave of the revolution in the African continent comes at a time of global crisis of capitalism and the beginning of the revolutionary stirring of the masses of working people and the youth in the advanced capitalist countries. The weak, rotten, and dependent “national” bourgeoisie in the African continent has proven to be completely unable to develop any of these countries on a progressive basis. The lesson to be learnt is clear: only with the abolition of capitalism, led by the young working class which has developed in recent decades, and linking up with the revolutionary movement in advanced capitalist countries can any perspective for the future be offered.

Armed with the ideas of revolutionary Marxism and the legacy of Amílcar Cabral, Thomas Sankara, and other revolutionaries, it is time to hoist the flag of the African revolution once again and to struggle until victory. A luta continua!

[1] Lenin, ‘Division of the world among the great powers’, Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, 1916.

[2] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Guinea and Cabo Verde against Portuguese imperialism’, 1961.

[3] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[4] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[5] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Party principles and political tactic’, 1960.

[6] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[7] Patrick Chabal, Amílcar Cabral: revolutionary struggle and people’s war, 1983, pp.39-41.

[8] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[9] PAIGC, Statuts et programme, 1962.

[10] PAIGC, Statuts et programme, 1962.

[11] Lenin, ‘Guerrilla warfare’, 1906.

[12] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Practical problems and tactics’, 1968.

[13] Amílcar Cabral, ‘The weapon of theory’, 1966.

[14] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[15] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Tell no lies, claim no easy victories’, 1965.

[16] Amílcar Cabral, ‘To start from the reality of our land – to be realists’, 1960.

[17] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Practical problems and tactics’, 1968.

[18] See: Patrick Chabal, Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War, 1983, pp.108-09.

[19] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Towards final victory’, 1969.

[20] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Practical problems and tactics’, 1968.

[21] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[22] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Towards final victory’, 1969.

[23] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Practical problems and tactics’, 1968.

[24] Amílcar Cabral, ‘To start from the reality of our land – to be realists’, 1960.

[25] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Not everyone is of the Party’, 1960.

[26] Amílcar Cabral, ‘The development of the struggle’, 1968.

[27] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Practical problems and tactics’, 1968.

[28] Quoted in: Pietro Gljeises, Conflicting missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-1976, p.192.

[29] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Message to the people of Portugal’, 1969.

[30] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[31] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Message to the soldiers, officers, and NCOs of the Portuguese colonial army’, 1970.

[32] Patrick Chabal, Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War, 1983, p.148.

[33] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Guinea and Cabo Verde against Portuguese imperialism’, 1961.

[34] Patrick Chabal, Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War, 1983, p.149-150.

[35] See: Pietro Gljeises, Conflicting missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-1976, 2010.

[36] Quoted in: Carlos Martinez, ‘The revolutionary legacy of Amílcar Cabral’, 2014.

[37] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[38] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[39] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Towards final victory’, 1969.

[40] Patrick Chabal, Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War, 1983, p.164-165.

[41] Ted Grant, ‘The colonial revolution and the Sino-Soviet dispute’, 1964.

[42] Amílcar Cabral, ‘The weapon of theory’, 1966.

[43] Amílcar Cabral, ‘National culture’, 1970.

[44] Amílcar Cabral, ‘National culture’, 1970.

[45] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Practical problems and tactics’, 1968.

[46] Amílcar Cabral, ‘The weapon of theory’, 1966.

[47] Amílcar Cabral, ‘The weapon of theory’, 1966.

[48] Amílcar Cabral, ‘Guinea and Cabo Verde against Portuguese imperialism’, 1961.

[49] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[50] Patrick Chabal, Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War, 1983, p.154.

[51] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[52] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[53] Amílcar Cabral, ‘A brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea’, 1969.

[54] Amílcar Cabral, ‘The weapon of theory’, 1966.

[55] Patrick Chabal, Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War, 1983, p.155.

[56] Ted Grant, ‘The colonial revolution and the Sino-Soviet dispute’, 1964.

[57] Patrick Chabal, Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War, 1983, p.169.

[58] Ted Grant, ‘The colonial revolution and the Sino-Soviet dispute’, 1964.

[59] Patrick Chabal, Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War, 1983, p.144.

[60] Amílcar Cabral, ‘The weapon of theory’, 1966.

[61] ‘Africa’s leaders wake up to the “Black Spring” in Burkina Faso’, The Financial Times (03/11/2014).

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