Behind the Lofty Language

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Charlie Kimber welcomes a refreshing history of Africa.

It can be shocking to remember how recently the process of decolonisation took place. Many African countries still haven't celebrated half a century of freedom from control by one of the European powers that grabbed them at the end of the 19th century.

In 1945 only four African countries - Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia and South Africa - were independent, and even in these cases independence was only partial or confined to a white minority. Yet 18 years later 30 African states came together to found the Organisation of African Unity.

The 1960s were therefore a time of great pride, optimism and expectation. This decade is the starting point for Guy Arnold's powerful book. He goes through the phase of pan-Africanist hope, the shattering of these dreams, the new division of Africa on the basis of Cold War loyalties, and then the most recent period of the debt crisis, structural adjustment and continuing poverty.

Arnold deals well with the way in which imperialism stifled the room for manoeuvre of many newly independent states, either by economic means (ownership of key industries, control of trade, manipulation of currencies, etc) or by much more direct and brutal methods. The key case here was Congo, where, as Arnold says, 'the Western powers, led by a resentful Belgium that had not wanted to grant independence in the first place, and the United States whose Cold War concerns and determination to safeguard the Congo's wealth for the West made it indifferent to democratic forms, between them masterminded the destruction of the elected leader Patrice Lumumba.'

He also shows that racist and imperialist attitudes have certainly not disappeared. As late as 1984 Tory Lord Soames, who had been appointed Britain's last governor of Rhodesia to oversee the independence process, could reminisce, 'You must remember this is Africa... they behave differently here. They think nothing of sticking tent poles up each other's whatnots and doing filthy, beastly things to each other. It does happen, I'm afraid. It's a very wild thing, an election.' Perhaps he was getting confused with contests inside the Conservative Party.

Arnold also knows that 'the West may have triumphed in the Cold War and, as a consequence, adopted a lofty language about spreading democracy and good governance. But under the surface, and sometimes blatantly on the surface, its attitudes were arrogant and neo-imperialist.' He concludes that progress will not come through western-imposed economic policies or political formations dictated by Washington or London.

So there is much to recommend about this book. People sometimes ask me, 'What should I read about Africa?' Africa: A Modern History would certainly be near the top of my list. It has an unerring opposition to imperialism and racism, which is immensely refreshing in the era of Bush and Blair's permanent war on the poor. It is also reasonable value for a 1,000-page hardback, and has beautiful maps.

But it has one great absence that limits its value. It almost ignores class, and you simply can't understand African politics (or anyone else's) without class. You can't understand why the rocket of pan-Africanism proved much too weak to escape the gravitational pull of imperialism and simply crashed back into another part of the sea of exploitation. You can't fully analyse the way in which apartheid was defeated in South Africa without understanding how industrialisation had created a working class which then had the power to defeat the racist regime. You can't get the question of the fight for democratic rights in Africa right without centring on a force that is not in the pocket of imperialism but which also doesn't prettify the crimes of local rulers.

Take the case of modern Zimbabwe. Arnold has no time for the western powers which trumpet about democracy because white farmers are dispossessed of the land that their forefathers stole from Africans. He's right that many Africans are nervous about criticising Robert Mugabe because 'he stood for a much-needed and admired defiance of the all-pervasive influence of western power. Africans had become tired of being told how to govern themselves by non-African outsiders.' But that's only the starting point, because Africans are also fighting Mugabe's neo-liberalism and anti-poor policies. In other words there's a working class force opposed to both Mugabe and western imperialism.

Without a consistent focus on that force you are caught between a superpower and its coalition of the killing, espousing liberal democratic values but policing an economic agenda producing widespread global impoverishment, and on the other hand an anti working class authoritarian nationalism.

Most analysts choose just one side of this opposition. The working class resistance provides the way out for people who want a genuinely emancipatory agenda. Africa frequently shows the world system at its most vicious. The battle to stop people who will stop at nothing requires a struggle against imperialism which is also based on working class power.

Africa: A Modern History
Guy Arnold
Atlantic Books £35