Decolonizing Marxism and reconciling it with real democracy for Africa and the world: An essay


MARXISM, as a theory for critiquing, challenging, and ultimately dismantling capitalist and neocolonial socio-economic and political structures of domination, has often been at odds with traditional notions of democracy—particularly in how such liberal strands of democracy have been historically practiced in Western states. The decolonial project adds yet another layer of complexity as it seeks not only to dismantle hierarchical colonial power structures but also to reclaim and reaffirm cultural, social, and epistemic sovereignty.

ESSAY: Karl Marx, Marxism, Decolonialism, Africa and Democracy

Among those who advocate for decolonialism, especially as neocolonial domination wreaks havoc not only in the global south but worldwide, the goal is to decolonize anti-capitalist ideologies so that they speak more to the context of our daily lived realities, in an effort to achieve empowering, inclusive, bottom-up, and transformative democracy.

This essay aims to explore the possibilities of decolonizing Marxism and reconciling it with genuine emancipatory democracy – and in the process engaging candidly with multifaceted critical insights from various scholars.

To begin, it is of supreme importance to contextualize the relationship between Marxism and democracy; given our conventional understanding of the latter. Karl Marx himself saw democracy as an inevitable stage in the transition from capitalism to communism, where the state would eventually wither away. 

And, important to note is the fact that Marx critiqued a specific form of Western liberal democracy, one that he believed was intrinsically tied to the sustenance and perpetuation of the capitalist mode of production. 

Marx's undying vision of communism ultimately involves the creation of a radical kind of democracy that is antithetical to the capitalist order, a truism affirmed by prominent leftist thinker David Harvey. In essence, radical democracy is the chief requisite for transitioning to a classless society under communism – there can be no communism without democracy; and there is no democracy without communism. These are inextricable.

In most instances, Marxism often appears as a devil in the African fight for democracy. But this is only due to the overwhelming propaganda of triumphant (though shaky and highly contradictory) liberal bourgeois democracy. 

Decolonizing Marxism so that it speaks to our global south contexts this involves critically interrogating its Eurocentric foundations (and the material conditions of that time that led to the birth of Marxism), and addressing its often-inadequate consideration of the role of imperialism and colonialism in the global capitalist system (Vladimir Lenin extensively dealt with the latter aspect, bringing forth Marxism-Leninism).

Traditional Marxist analyses fell short in accounting for the complex interplay of economic exploitation and racial discrimination inherent in the colonial encounter. Walter Rodney stated that Marxist theory needs to be stretched a lot more in order to make it a suitable tool for dissecting underdevelopment in Africa. 

And this is what Amilcar Cabral lucidly explained when he delivered his classic Weapon of Theory speech – that first and foremost, we need to take into consideration the material realities of our African context that prevail on the ground.

Karl Marx was himself a product of the enlightenment period. This is the period that massively influenced the growth of western intellectual thought; which then gave birth to imperialism informed by a rabid racist logic which regards non-Europeans as subhuman, denuding them of their humanity. 

The same enlightenment era exported a Eurocentric worldview and system that whitewashed knowledge [epistemicide] and relegated invaluable indigenous experiences to the periphery of academic systems—and thinkers like Marx, and Engels, even though opposed to the idea, benefited from such white privilege.

Marx was blinded by white supremacy such that he never really pictured the possibility of communist revolution outside the western white world; at a time when all parts of the world had come into contact with European industrial capitalism and imperialism in one way or another. 

In the same vein, as time went on, the revolution to overthrow capitalism that he fantasized about began to materialize in non-western nations like China, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Guinea Bissau, Vietnam, to mention a few. Communist revolution had become a potent weapon for the oppressed masses worldwide; fighting a system of subjugation that was imposed in their territories as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the attendant imperialist missions of conquest and plunder. 

The dehumanizing capitalist system imported from Europe to colonized peoples by the imperialists had to be fought by a divergent ideology that rose as a direct response to capitalism—Marxism. Even though this is something that Marx himself did not originally envision. This is because a revolution is more likely to be waged by those who suffer the most.

The example of the Haitian rebellion against slavery by enslaved Africans on the island is more evidence. Failure to appreciate this logic is that which stagnated the Marxist struggle in western Europe. The white Marxists still borrowed the garment of white supremacy and failed to forge a comradeship with the African, Asian and Latin American anti-slavery/colonial movements which had applied successfully the ideas of Marx. 

And in this, the example of Amilcar Cabral and the armed struggle for liberation in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde rise to the fore luminously. 

Hence, it is important for Marxian thought to address and account for the struggles of the colonized people in the manner that reflects the context and nuances of the reality on the ground. Especially in a world where those in oppressed lands that consume Marx's ideas are attempting to achieve democratization; as opposed to the western context were democratic systems had already been in place since the overthrow of the monarchical system. 

The system birthed by western enlightenment prepared conditions that made it possible for the western left to organize, propagate, debate and publish their ideas to the rest of the world.

The decolonial trend influences the reconciliation of Marxism with democracy by advocating for a pluralistic, non-Western centric approach. Enrique Dussel argues for the concept of "trans-modernity," which is a transformation beyond modernity that involves learning from and incorporating the experiences and worldviews of the global south. Dussel suggests, "Decolonization of Marxism will be, above all, the intercultural translation of its European expressions to the languages and interests of peripheral peoples."

In aligning Marxism with democracy in a decolonized context, Boaventura de Sousa Santos' concept of "subaltern cosmopolitan legality" in Toward a New Legal Common Sense becomes relevant. Santos proposes that the subaltern groups (the working class, unemployed, and peasantry) develop their own unique systems of legality and democracy from the bottom-up, often in counter-hegemonic forms. He states, "These systems represent an emergent form of democratic legality that challenges the top-down, state-centred legal systems inherited from colonial times."

Furthermore, Chantal Mouffe's agonistic model of democracy holds potential for birthing counter-hegemonic forms of decolonized Marxism. Mouffe contends that the essence of democracy is the acknowledgment and legitimation of conflict, which aligns well with a decolonized Marxist perspective that recognizes the ongoing struggles against capitalist and (neo)colonial oppression. She writes, "Agonistic confrontation is far from representing a danger for democracy; in fact, it is the very condition of its existence."

The liberation struggle in the global south had the demands of universal suffrage (one man-one vote), equality, individual liberties, collective freedom, and fair working conditions. Classical pillars of Marxist thought for revolution – but they also sought to dismantle the colonial state which had been imposed by the system that Marxism responds to. 

The enlightenment period influenced the industrial revolution in western Europe through inventions and voyages of discovery. The same phenomenon built the bedrock of the oldest western democracy, the United States, which used the same logic to export its values through colonization. 

Thus, in challenging liberalism and its political systems inspired by colonial logic we have to account for the question to dismantle its legacies in the global south which have been inherited by the older generation of revolutionaries who failed to reconcile Marxian thought with the democratic project as they became an elite themselves who oppress their own kin.

The radical left should make practical considerations of how these theoretical conceptions manifest in real-world political arrangements. Aijaz Ahmad’s reflections in In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures assess the challenges of implementing Marxist theories in non-Western societies, often leading to authoritarian regimes that have betrayed democratic principles. 

Acknowledging this, Ahmad suggests, "A reconstructed Marxism must confront its own history of complicity in the suppression of democratic movements and institutions.

For instance, the one-party state logic and experiment by several Marxist governments in the global south led to the closure of democratic space, suppression of dissent, ailing economies, the creation of predatory states that administer diabolical violence and gross human rights violations in countries like Zimbabwe. Cuba and China are not exceptions. The creation of a state system that is too strong leads to oppressive conditions that pause contradictory outlook for nations in the global south who were toiling for their political freedom and liberty.

Conclusively, decolonizing Marxism and reconciling it with empowering, participatory, inclusive, organic, and transformative democracy is not simply a theoretical endeavour, but a radical transformation in the practice of both. It is not easy, but it can be achieved. It calls for a reflective critique of Marxism's historical applications and an expansion of democratic ideals to embrace diverse, subaltern experiences.

As scholars navigate this complex terrain, there emerges a hopeful vision of a political and economic democracy that is truly inclusive, participatory, and attuned to the legacies of colonialism and the demands of global social justice.

*Liam Takura Kanhenga is a Marxist thinker and human rights defender. He writes in his own capacity. You can reach him via email:

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