Cover Image
close this bookThe Crisis in African Agriculture - Studies in African Political Economy (UNU, 1987, 99 pages)
close this folder7: The alternative and its prerequisites
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentEvolution of social stratification in the African states which achieved independence in the 1960s
View the documentWhat popular alliance for the alternative?
View the documentWhat national popular programme might the popular alliance propose?
View the documentThe rural areas
View the documentThe urban areas
View the documentOrganizing the suggestions

Evolution of social stratification in the African states which achieved independence in the 1960s

This stratification itself is the product of the impact of capitalism on precolonial and colonial traditional societies. The most striking impact has been, if not to engender, then at least to exacerbate, the exploitation of man by man within African societies. Thus, at the time of independence, a fraction of the society occupied economically dominant positions, made up for the most part of those who had thrown in their lot with the colonial power. It got a share of the surplus labour extorted from the toiling masses and its political ambitions were strengthened. This fraction included essentially bourgeois strata, bureaucratic strata, and 'feudal' forces, which were usually agrarian and religious.

The bourgeois strata included essentially big traders acting as middlemen between big capital and the masses, and big planters in varying numbers depending on the geographical zone. The African industrial bourgeoisie was still practically non-existent (except for Egypt and South Africa?). The bureaucratic strata included the former African representatives in French metropolitan institutions (Assembly, Senate and even government), officials in the colonial administration and army, and paramilitary forces' personnel. The 'feudal' forces included essentially the religious forces that were sometimes very powerful in the rural areas, both economically and politically.

Alliances of interests generally brought these strata together; they dominated the political sphere at the time of independence even though latent contradictions existed, notably between the petty bourgeoisie of officials without an economic base and the bourgeois strata already possessed of solid bases.

At the other end of society, there was the other fraction which included the mass of small peasants, the small minority of the working class (except in a few rare countries which have marked peculiar features where it was already numerically important: Egypt, South Africa, but their independence does not date from the 1960s). Alongside these two groups of classes, there was the stratum of low-level employees, artisans, etc., the great majority of whom had no well-defined stable job.

The first fraction, dominant on the eve of independence, was often successful in securing the political support of the second to negotiate independence to its advantage. But this was not always without violent conflict.

In fact, there were sometimes sharp struggles within the first fraction despite alliances, which were sometimes only temporary, to determine which stratum would inherit from the colonial power. And these struggles were reflected at the level of the masses with the same intensity, more through manipulation than through class interest.

Thus, in many countries the petty bourgeoisie of officials which was to constitute the backbone of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie confronted bourgeois strata that had an economic base and were more closely linked to the colonial power.

Where this petty bourgeoisie succeeded in taking power it was in general to install a state-run economic system, the means of providing itself with its own economic base. Conversely, the trading bourgeoisies and their class allies generally pursued the same policy inherited from the colonial period, a liberal system which made no attempt to deck itself in an appearance of socialism.

The petty bourgeoisie, especially when it succeeded in mobilizing alongside it the broad masses on a radical platform, generally tried to secure a base for its regime, by, among other things, taking external trade away from the traders, nationalizing the economic interests of big capital, taking a whole series of measures which enabled it to claim to be socialist.

But historical experience has proved that, after a few years of management which amounted virtually to a private management of public property, it was transformed into a true bureaucratic bourgeoisie whose economic base was built up from control of the state and public property.

Like every bourgeoisie in an underdeveloped country faced with the omnipotence of big capital, it is condemned, in order to consolidate itself, to strengthen these links with the world market. Thus, the bureaucratic bourgeoisie always ends up entering the order of the world capitalist system just like any other bourgeoisie. Big capital is all the more ready to make a few concessions to it on statizations because it knows that it can always extract enormous profits from the countries controlled by the bureaucracies, and acquire economic positions out of all proportion to the slight concessions made.

Thus, in the long run, the bureaucratic bourgeoisie and the other commercial or agrarian bourgeoisies always end up looking for a deal, their interests coinciding in the alliance with big capital.

We feel that what has just been described can be said of all African bourgeoisies, and of their composition and sometimes of the way in which they came to be formed. Today they control most African states and manage them in accordance with their common interests.

The increasingly common interventions by the military on the political stage can only be interpreted as arbitrating within the bourgeois classes, or between the bourgeois classes and the radical intellectual petty bourgeoisie. These armies can neither have nor offer new solutions. Their political orientations cannot but be inspired by the lines followed either by the classic African bourgeoisies or by the radical bourgeoisies in transition.

In fact, the most important thing about African armies that seize power is that, in general, they are the product of the colonial system. They are linked either to the African bourgeoisies, or to the radical petty bourgeoisies. In any event, the army as a social group linked to a given class can neither imagine nor have a political line of its own that can be any different.

If we turn now to the broad masses, mainly the peasantry and the working class but also the middle strata that might join it, it cannot be said that since independence consciousness of common interests has strengthened as it has among the bourgeois strata and classes.

They are usually not organized on the basis of their own well-perceived interests. The result is that they act as a force to be manoeuvred and manipulated by ruling political parties that are generally bourgeois in nature. The political organizations that exist in this or that African country (usually, they are only single parties with every possible political language and contradictory political practices) and that claim to be Marxist and try to mobilize the masses so that they can liberate themselves and assume the historic tasks that fall on them are only tiny organizations with a very weak capacity for mobilization because of the petty bourgeois intellectual origins of the militants in these organizations

The classes in power really have no interest in seeing the masses organize themselves freely and develop their political consciousness clearly. It follows that the organizations that represent them officially are, in fact, simply links in the state structures.

And yet, peasantries, working classes, middle classes and petty bourgeois strata represent more than 97% of the population in most African countries. In many countries, the peasantry alone represents 80% of the adult working population. The characteristics of this key stratum naturally vary in detail from country to country, but it has many common traits.

If we leave aside the rural bourgeoisie that is very small in most countries, the differentiations among the peasants themselves are generally not very significant. The most typical feature of the African peasantry seems to be its excessive dispersal in often tiny villages. The consequence of this is that disseminating ideas among the peasants is not easy, which makes it difficult to bring them together in an organization independent of the political authorities and fighting for their own cause.

From that flows the lack of concern on the part of the authorities for their cause. This shows itself in illiteracy and in the inadequacy, even the total absence, of infrastructure in the rural areas. The peasants, the main producers of agricultural products, are the first ones to be affected by famine, malnutrition and poverty. It follows that a radical transformation in an African state ought to take as its starting point a radical change in the conditions of existence in the countryside. And that would require that the peasants be able to come together freely in a solid organization which would be a powerful force of dialogue and decision-making on all the great problems of the nation.

As for the working class, it is only really of any size in a tiny number of African countries. Where it is somewhat organized, their organizations do not escape the rule that in most countries all organizations are subordinate to political parties, to government: the trade unions and particularly their leadership, made up of aristocrats whose job is to muzzle the workers by stifling any incipient sign of combativeness, do not play their role.

As for the middle classes - the clerks, artisans, etc. - sometimes they are organized in trade unions that are independent of the workers' unions, sometimes they are simply integrated into these unions. Their possibilities of struggling are thus no greater.

Only the small intellectual unions of teachers or white-collar workers are frequently active and embark on large-scale actions against governments for their clearly understood interests. But without the active support of the rest of the mass of workers, their capacity for struggle has difficulty pushing the dominant structures in the directions of real and profound change.

Such, schematically, has been the evolution of class structures, types of organizations and forms of struggle in most African states since independence. It gives little ground for hope that, in the near future, there will be any marked improvement. But nor should it lead to total pessimism. The potential forces for change exist. They need to be able to act so as to take in hand their own fates and benefit from the fruit of their creative labour.