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Africa

When Nkrumah “met” Karl Marx

15 September 2021, Sean Jacobs
When Nkrumah “met” Karl Marx

Kwame Nkrumah’s Encounter with Karl Marx: Nkrumah’s written works and speeches reveal a selective encounter and appropriation of tools—in this case from Marxist thought—that were translated through Nkrumah’s traveling theory.

In his seminal work Black Marxism, Black American sociologist Cedric Robinson argues that African decolonization movements were born out of a separate radical tradition which came into contact with the European Marxist tradition. When we look at what Robinson calls the epistemological substratum of each tradition, however, we can see not only the points of fracture—which are Robinson’s focus—but also the intimate points of contact and creative reworking. They are not necessarily non-overlapping magisteria, as I argued in a recent edited collection on Marxism and Decolonization. I am interested in this encounter between African decolonial intellectuals and Marxism in the twentieth century.

I begin with Kwame Nkrumah—particularly how Karl Marx was appropriated, incorporated, and threaded through his traveling theory. It is insightful to think of Nkrumah’s thinking as moving through multiple onto-epistemological worlds within and beyond both Africa and Euro-North America. He was adapting to different political contexts; appropriating, engaging with, creating, co-constituting, inspiring and being exposed to a variety of knowledges and critical perspectives; and bringing each of these directly to bear on the questions of decolonization and neocolonialism in Ghana and the world.

This is reflected throughout Nkrumah’s life. His early upbringing occurred among Roman Catholic missions, and in 1930, he attended Prince of Wales College at Achimota, as did many of his generation. He was first shaped by his Akan heritage and early education in Ghana by West African nationalists Nnamdi Azikiwe, from Nigeria, and Dr. Kwagyir Aggrey, a fellow Ghanaian, both of whom introduced him to W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. He attended secondary school in the United Kingdom and the United States and was an active member of a Leninist reading group. His politics developed within the milieu of organizing conferences for the West African Students Union, spending summers with Harlem activists while attending the University of Pennsylvania, and debating the works of Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Working in the colonial administration and then towards independence, Nkrumah also had a profound interest in the economics of Pan-Africanism and sought advisors from the diaspora, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

Where is the line that neatly separates Nkrumah from these entanglements? There is none.

It is within this context that Nkrumah’s written works and speeches reveal a selective encounter and appropriation of tools—in this case from Marxist thought—that were translated through Nkrumah’s traveling theory. Consciencism, for example, is Nkrumah’s attempt to rework historical materialism to account for African thought. He was trying to provide an Afrocentric ontology of non-atheistic materialism that would strategically allow for decolonization and the unification of Africa against neocolonialism. Pragmatically, this ideology was Nkrumah’s way to respond to the limitations of the Eurocentric focus of standpoint Marxism by reorienting historical materialism through his reading of Akan cosmology, quantum physics, and political economy at the historical conjuncture of African liberation and decolonization.

Neocolonialism, the uses of political economy, and the analytical categories of class employed by Nkrumah also provide a relevant example to think about the intimacies between Nkrumah and Marxism. Think about Lenin’s claim about imperialism—that it was the highest stage of capitalism—and Nkrumah’s reworking of this claim, which identifies neocolonialism as the highest stage of capitalism. This is not a minor move; the changing of a word and the development of a concept open up new possibilities for understanding the present and working towards solutions.

In many ways, Marx was also a traveling theorist, moving through the post-Enlightenment and post-German idealist philosophy that saw non-Europeans as outside of the World Spirit, the progressive linear movement of history and human development. But Marx is also a product of the creativity of living labor—what he calls the “form-giving fire”—born out of the specific sociohistorical, cultural, and onto-epistemological conditions of his experiences in Europe and the coloniality of knowledge production. Yet Marx’s works spoke to and contributed to the development of Nkrumah’s thought and action.

The experience and creativities of Nkrumah and his encounter with Marxism demand that we continue to confront the big questions of decolonization and imperialism as manifested in a neocolonial racialized global political economy. They also demand that we try to think and act a way out of them.

By Sean Jacobs
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