Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A Brief History of Communism in Africa

Despite Soviet rhetoric under Lenin and Stalin denouncing imperialism and colonialism there was little Soviet support of movements seeking independence in Africa before the 1960s. Most anti-imperialist activity undertaken by Moscow during this time focused on Asia. Even here, however, rhetoric trumped actual material assistance. As a result the vast majority of independence movements in Asia succeeded under non-Communist leadership. Nehru and Gandhi in India, Jinnah in Pakistan, and Sukarno in Indonesia to name only the leaders of the three most populous Asian states to gain independence after World War II, threw off European colonial rule without establishing a Soviet style system. The only successful anti-colonial movement to establish a communist government was the Viet-Minh under Ho Chi Minh fighting against French colonial rule. In 1954 they established a communist regime in North Vietnam after the signing of the Paris Accords with France. Successful communist revolutions after Stalin’s death were few until the 1970s. After North Vietnam there was only Cuba in 1959 and South Yemen in 1969. Successful communist revolutions against colonial regimes were even rarer. Cuba was already an independent state leaving only the British colony of South Yemen as an example of communism replacing colonialism between 1954 and 1975. The British and French empires collapsed in Africa without any communist governments replacing them. It was only in the mid-1970s that communism established a foothold on the African continent with the collapse of the imperial regimes of Ethiopia and Portugal.

Although Soviet support for national liberation movements in Africa gets rhetorical and limited material support starting in the early 1960s under Khrushchev it is only later under Brezhnev that this support becomes significant. Soviet support for national liberation movements in southern Africa such as the MPLA in Angola, FRELIMO in Mozambique, ZAPU in Rhodesia, SWAPO in Namibia, and the ANC in South Africa sought to buy the allegiance of these movements should they ever come to power. In the case of Angola and Mozambique this strategy was successful. In Rhodesia, the USSR bet on the wrong horse. Robert Mugabe’s ZANU movement came to power rather than ZAPU. In Namibia and South Africa the Soviet Union’s favored movements came to power, but they did not establish communist regimes. Moreover, the ANC came to power after the USSR disintegrated and ceased to exist as a state.

The first communist government in Africa was not established until 1974. The overthrow of Emperor Selassie in Ethiopia that year made it the first state in Africa to pursue the Soviet model of development. The collapse of the Portuguese Empire led to the establishment of two other Soviet style states in Africa that promptly allied themselves with the USSR, Angola and Mozambique. The MPLA in Angola and FRELIMO in Mozambique had received Soviet military assistance during their existence as guerilla organizations fighting against Portuguese rule. Upon the removal of Portuguese soldiers from Africa in 1975 they continued to receive Soviet military hardware as well as Cuban soldiers in their struggle against armed anti-communist movements backed variously by Rhodesia, South Africa, and the USA. Today Angola and Mozambique are at peace and the ruling parties have largely dismantled the Soviet style economic structures created in the 1970s.

Overall communist movements had limited success in Africa. Outside of South Africa, there were no organized communist parties prior to World War II. Communism came to power in Ethiopia through a military coup and in Angola and Mozambique through guerilla organizations more influenced by Castro’s Cuban Revolution than Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution. Africa provided a weak social, organizational, and ideological environment from which communist movements could develop. Asia proved to be much more fertile ground for such movements. Communist governments came to power in China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and at one time strong communist parties or movements existed in Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

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