The Debate between Kwame Ture and Molefi Asante
The debate between Molefi Asante and Kwame Ture is, in my view, one of the most important debates on the topic of Pan-African liberation because the debate lays out two similar, but opposing approaches to liberation which each have their strengths and their weaknesses. In this short article I will attempt to outline what I believe were the strengths and weaknesses in the arguments laid out by both men.
I will begin with Molefi Asante’s position. Asante’s position is based on Afrocentricity, which is a concept that Asante developed. This means that Asante believes that the solution for African people is based on African people centering ourselves and viewing ourselves as actors in history. This is very important for challenging the Eurocentric indoctrination which has instilled a sense of self-hatred and inferiority among African people around the world. The aim of Afrocentricity is to challenge racist propaganda which depicts Africans as a people without any significant historical achievements.
The problem with Asante’s approach is that it’s ultimately too vague and too academic. He argues that the answer for African people is to create governments which are based on African ideas and political systems, but it is not clear precisely what type of political systems he is advocating for. Asante implies at the 36 minute mark that a traditional government in Africa could never fail victim to a political coup. Why would this be the case? Asante does not elaborate.
At the 37 minute mark, Asante mentions how the Ghana Empire lasted for more than 1000 years. He cites that as an example of the enduring nature of traditional African states. Asante rhetorically asks how it is that they did so, but at no point in the debate does Asante himself elaborate on how they did so. Is Asante advocating for a return to monarchy like in the Asante or Ghana Empires which he mentions? Or is Asante’s vision one rooted in the political structure of smaller, more decentralized African states such as the Kikuyu people of Kenya? One cannot be sure because in this debate Asante is not clear on which aspects of pre-colonial African political systems he believes should be implemented.
To be clear, I don’t disagree with intention behind Asante’s point. I’ve also advocated that certain African political traditions can be modernized to address present realities in Africa, but the problem with the position expressed by Asante in this debate is that he isn’t specific about which traditional systems he is referring to. He also isn’t clear about which African traditions can be implemented to improve the material conditions of African people.
Ture’s position is rooted in the present realities that Africa confronts regarding the capitalist exploitation of African states by the Western powers. At no point does Asante effectively elaborate on how returning to traditional African values would necessarily lead to the liberation of Africa. I am not suggesting that Asante’s point is wrong, but that it is not effectively articulated in the debate so one is left with an abstract concept rather than a concrete program for liberation.
Amos Wilson warned against the feel-good approach to studying history. To point out that African people ruled over empires challenges the Eurocentric notion that Africans have no history and it instills a sense of pride in African people, but what next? The part that is missing from Asante’s presentation is an actual program to achieve the liberation of African people.
Molefi Asante was arguing from an academic position which was somewhat disconnected from the actual political struggles of African people. Ture, on the other hand, had been actively engaged in these struggles. Ture worked as an organizer in the United States as a member of SNCC and the Black Panther Party. He then moved to Guinea where he worked as an organized for the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. Ture was also involved in the fight against Lansana Conté’s dictatorship in Guinea. At the 1:09 hour mark in the video, Ture expresses the view that one’s political consciousness comes not from reading books, but from being engaged in political struggle. Ture was engaged in the struggle in a more direct manner than Asante was.
The strength of Ture’s position is that his position is rooted in actual experience with political organizing in Africa and throughout the Diaspora. The weakness of Ture’s position is that his attempt to defend socialism leaves much to be desired. The collapse of the Soviet Union put Ture and other socialists in a very defensive position. At the 17 minute mark, Ture argues that a system should be judged by its principles, not by the actions of the individuals who claim to follow these principles. The point that he was making was that the principles of socialism remained valid even if the leaders of the Soviet Union betrayed those principles.
I do agree with Ture’s point that a system should be judged by its principles to a certain extent, but we also cannot ignore the results either. If an idea is implemented multiple times and it fails multiple times, then one should at the very least investigate to find out why this idea failed so many times. Asante rhetorically asks at the 1:26 hour mark about an example of where socialism has worked. This is a valid question. Why hasn’t socialism worked in Africa?
One of the reasons for the failure of socialism in Africa has obviously been Western interference. Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in a CIA backed coup. Thomas Sankara was assassinated in a French backed coup. Mozambique and Angola were both ruined by Western funded civil wars which were aimed at destabilizing the Marxist-Leninist ruling parties in both countries, so it is not as though socialist governments in Africa were left free to implement their plans, but Western intervention alone does not account for the fact that the fall of the Soviet Union resulted in the decline of socialism within the Pan-African movement. Several of the African leaders who had preached Marxism-Leninism dropped that ideology because it was no longer seen as being useful or practical in the post-Cold War political climate.
Even before the end of the Cold War, Sekou Toure himself had reconciled with the capitalist system to the point that we was meeting with Ronald Reagan and seeking capitalist investments from the United States. Toure was also quoted as referring to David Rockefeller as a friend. The New York Times reported that Western diplomats not only attended Toure’s funeral, but they also offered rationales for why Western governments had changed their views on Toure. The same report also quoted Kwame Ture’s defense of Toure’s legacy, which created a rather interesting situation in which Ture joined Western capitalist nations in defending Sekou Toure.
I certainly am not suggesting that socialism alone is to blame for Africa’s post-colonial struggles — this was the argument both forward by George Ayittey from Ghana. What I am suggesting is that the implementation of socialism in Africa was often very flawed. Some socialists themselves were left to reflect upon the failures of socialism. Chris Hani of South Africa, for example, remained committed to socialism, but he also criticized the abuses and undemocratic behaviors which were carried out by socialist regimes.
Part of the problem was that socialist governments in Africa often attempted to forcibly impose policies which were at odds with existing African traditions. At the 35 minute mark, Asante mentioned that he lived in Zimbabwe and he did not see an African government there. He questioned if there was an African government in Guinea. One of Sekou Toure’s greatest errors as president of Guinea was his attempt to suppress African tradition. Toure’s government in Guinea attempted to replace the traditional markets with government controlled stores. The market women in Guinea responded by protesting these new measures. The police were sent to break-up the protests. Some of the protesting women were shot and killed. This example from Guinea demonstrated Asante’s point about African governments not respecting African customs. It also demonstrates the very abuses by socialist governments which Chris Hani spoke about.
At the 38 minute mark, Asante argues that he does not see socialism or capitalism as the only alternatives for African people. The response which Kwame Ture makes at the 18 minute mark is that there are only two systems; capitalism and socialism. Ture argued that an economic system must answer the question of who controls the means of production. Ture explained that the only two possibilities are that only few will own or everyone will own.
I would argue that Ture oversimplifies the matter. In the same debate Ture noted even among socialists there are differing ideologies. Kwame Ture was an Nkrumanist-Toureist, which he distinguished from Marxism-Leninism. Nkrumahism-Toureism and Marxism-Leninism have certain important differences. For example, Nkrumahism-Toureism rejected the Marxist-Leninist position on atheism and nationalism. Ture also noted that the resistance movements of African people have always been mass movements rather than the vanguardism of Leninism. In a separate lecture, Ture explained that he did not look to the Soviet Union for his socialism.
Socialists have differed among each other over what is the proper application of socialism. The All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, which promotes socialism through the ideology of Nkrumahism-Toureism, has received criticism from Marxist-Leninists, but the differences run deeper. Following Joseph Stalin’s death, there was a split between the Soviet Union and China. This split caused a division among socialist nations which sided with China and those which sided with the Soviet Union. For example, tensions arose between Vietnam and China partly because of Vietnam’s relationship with the Soviet Union.
The point here is that socialists themselves have differed on the question of how to build a socialist society or even what a socialist society truly looks like. C.L.R. James was a Trotskyist who broke with the Trotskyist movement over the question of whether or not the Soviet Union could be regarded as a workers state. The Trotskyite view on the question was that the Soviet Union under Stalin became a degenerated workers, but James held the view that the Soviet Union was not a workers state at all.
With all of this being stated, one is left with the very real question of who owns and controls the means of production in a given society. Is it the workers or the capitalists? One cannot avoid this question simply by suggesting that capitalism and socialism are Eurocentric ideas as Asante does. One is still left to deal with the question of how to address the capitalist system which has not only exploited African people, but has also replicated itself in Africa. As I noted before, Asante’s position is silent on this question. Ture, on the other hand, presented a socialist position which he did not effectively defend in the debate.
At the 44 minute mark, Ture argued against the notion that socialism is a European creation. Ture is correct that Karl Marx did not invent socialism. Ture cited Ibn Khaldun, who utilized many of the terms that Marx wrote about such as surplus value. What Karl Marx did was popularize the idea of a workers revolution which would ultimately overthrow the ruling class to establish workers control. This was not something which Ibn Khaldun advocated. The first socialist revolution which took place in the world was led by Vladmir Lenin, a student of Karl Marx. The socialist revolutions which subsequently followed were all inspired by Karl Marx, not Ibn Khaldun. Ture himself studied both Marx and Lenin, and he expressed admiration for both men.
The debate over the role of socialism/Marxism in the Pan-African struggle is one which I have addressed in several of my publications. I invite those who are interested in a more detail perspective to read my ebooks Red or Black International and Black Nationalism Versus Marxism. This debate is much too complicated to fully address in this piece, but the main point here is that implementing a sustainable socialist system has often been the challenge which socialists have confronted.
I don’t think the main focus of the debate was that one side was correct or incorrect. The point of the debate is that both sides brough valid perspectives. Asante is correct that a solution to the problems of African people must seek to build on African traditions and customs rather than trying to adopt foreign concepts and ideologies, but this cannot be a mere intellectual exercise which is removed from the material conditions of African people who are oppressed by a capitalistic system. Ture’s position addresses the material conditions which African people are oppressed under, but I would argue that his socialist vision is one which was lacking because he was attempting to defend an approach to socialism which had not worked.
Ture and Asante did agree on the most important points addressed in the debate. They both sought the unification and liberation of African people globally. No individual leader or particular organization has all of the solutions to the problems confronted by African people. Over the years we have seen a number of ideologies put forward as solutions. I would argue that building an effective Pan-African movement relies on synthesizing these differing approaches to liberation.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.