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Ujamaa & African Socialism

27 Oct 2020

Ujamaa & African Socialism

In the West, we follow a tendency to think and evaluate society through paradigms of thought that have originated here, often ignoring those that have come from places that have achieved great political transformation in the process. As progressives, it should be to the upmost importance to us that in thinking of ways to change the contemporary social, political and economic landscape, we do not follow this lazy -and to be frank- embarrassing tendency.

Being at the forefront of advocating for various forms of decolonisation can leave progressives at risk of failing to practise what we preach. Our willingness to look outwards sometimes causes us to forget to look inwards. Some of our foundational, and therefore least challenged, knowledge must be decolonised as well.

One thinker I have found a great help in this endeavour of decolonisation has been Julius Nyerere – a prominent 20th century African socialist and the first Prime Minister of Tanzania. Historical figures are always complex individuals to judge, especially when they are not from your epoch, but what cannot be dismissed about Nyerere is his pivotal role in the struggle against colonialism in Africa and the strides he helped Tanzania make towards its independence.

Nevertheless, this article does not look to analyse Nyerere’s historical record, but his contributions to socialism; notably, his introduction of the idea of Ujamaa into socialist thought. Reading Nyerere’s work offers a refreshing take on socialism; where it is identified as an ‘attitude of mind, and not the rigid adherence to a standard political pattern’. Nyerere writes…

“‘The very desire to accumulate wealth must be interpreted as a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the social system. For when a society is so organised that it cares about its individuals on the basis of their willingness to work, no individual within that society should worry about what will happen to him tomorrow if he does not hoard wealth today.”

The utopianism and forward thinking of socialism can sometimes mean getting lost in the world of ‘what ifs’ and allowing oneself to be alienated from the political present. What could be learnt from Nyerere is to revolutionise the self before we look to revolutionise society. By revolutionising the self, we can completely countermand the exploitative power relations that exist today – this is a much more practical and active approach to change.

“This is exactly what traditional African society succeeded in doing. Both the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ individual were completely secure in African society. Nobody starved, either of food or of human dignity, because he lacked personal wealth; he could depend on the wealth possessed by the community of which he was a member. That was socialism. That is socialism.”

This world of traditional African society and what Nyerere later calls ‘tribal socialism’ is a world that is greatly different to our own and so should fascinate us. By offering his perspectives and experience of this context, Nyerere opens our eyes to potential holes in our way of thinking about the social, political and economic system:

"Brought up in tribal socialism, I must say I find this idea quite intolerable. It gives capitalism a philosophical status which capitalism neither claims nor deserves. For it virtually says, ‘Without capitalism, and the conflict which capitalism creates within society, there can be no socialism! This glorification of capitalism by the doctrinaire European socialists, I repeat, I find intolerable.

The true African socialist does not look on one class of men as his brethren and another as his natural enemies. He does not form an alliance with the ‘brethren’ for the extermination of the ‘non-brethren’. He rather regards all men as his brethren–as members of his ever-extending family. That is why the first article of TANU’S Creed is: ‘I believe in Human Brotherhood and the Unity of Africa."

This is something to consider: how helpful or productive is the traditional socialist conception of people and society? Afterall, if we conceptualise human nature as having the capacity for peaceful and familial relations, why further antagonise relations that are already exploitative and risk creating bad blood that may spill over into the new society we wish to create?

Nyerere is acclaimed as both a socialist and an African socialist – his resolute pan-Africanism has earnt him a famed legacy on the continent and we would do well in the West to embrace his contributions to political thought. To conclude, we should consider the core principle of Nyerere’s socialism:

"‘Ujamaa’, then, or ‘Familyhood’, describes our socialism. It is opposed to capitalism, which seeks to build a happy society on the basis of the exploitation of man by man; and it is equally opposed to doctrinaire socialism which seeks to build its happy society on a philosophy of inevitable conflict between man and man."

Time Magazine