From the February 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard
When slave labour was no longer profitable as a result of the invention of machines, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished. This created a severe social problem as the ex-slaves could hardly fend for themselves. They became homeless, jobless and hungry. These problems forced them to become vagabonds, outcasts, "criminals", and (owning nothing in a society dominated by money and private ownership of property) an inferior class.
This sorry state of affairs culminated in the emergence of black (ex-slave) radicals such as Marcus Garvey who organised the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Other activists against the appalling situation of the black ex-slaves included W E B. Dubois; James Brown, who sang "say it loud, I'm black and proud"; and several groups of the Black Consciousness Movement which sprang up in the middle of the 20th century.
This wind of awareness and defiance that was blowing across the Americas and Europe naturally touched the black students from mainland Africa who had gone to the USA and Europe to study. Prominent among these were Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Leopold Sedar Senghor. These radicals together with others from the Caribbean like George Padmore were after to become the precursors of the Pan-Africanist movement. It was also known among in the French-speaking world as "Négritude".
It follows from the above that (other considerations aside) Pan-Africanism is a concept that is limited to black people – those on the continent and the ones in the Diaspora. In this regard, one can liken Pan-Africanism to other (albeit better organised) groups like Zionism, Pax Romana, the Arab League, etc. They are concepts and groups dedicated only to the interest of their members.
As explained, the roots of Pan-Africanism can be traced to the conditions, the concrete reality of the newly-"emancipated" slaves in the Americas. Let us assume for the moment (despite all) that they faced those hardships "because of their colour". The question which readily comes to mind, now, is whether we can say it is the same scenario today. Are the causes of our problems today due to our colour? Of course not.
Consider the following cases. Mobutu allowed himself to be used by the Western powers to inflict untold suffering on the people of the then Zaire. Together with these powers he stole all the wealth of the country. In fact, it is said that he was richer than the state. There is also the case of Bokassa who squandered millions of dollars to crown himself emperor when at that time the ordinary people of Central African Republic could not afford one decent meal a day. In Angola, Jonas Savimbi and a few friends (UNITA) teamed up with Western businesses to visit a limitless insecurity on the poor people just to plunder the resources of the land. The story is no different in the case of Foday Sonko and fellow rebels in Sierra Leone; quite recently the chief whip of South Africa, Tony Yengeni, and a senior official of the ANC as such, was embroiled in multi-billion dollar arms deals. Yet South Africa is not at war; meanwhile, millions of ANC supporters do not have drinking water and electricity in their ghettos.
Moving outside the continent, what can Pan-Africanists say about blacks in the Diaspora like the US Secretary of State Colin Powell who ordered the US delegation to walk out of the Durban Conference on Racism because he and his capitalist colleagues would lose if reparations are to be paid to the victims of the slave trade? On the other hand, there are non-blacks who help in various ways many Africans. There are countless families in poor Africa whose survival depend on well-meaning and genuine Europeans and Americans.
But more importantly today, and even during the period of the "liberation" of the slaves and beyond, suffering in the form of insecurity, murders, poverty, illness, misinformation, boredom, exploitation, etc affected both blacks and non-blacks alike, from Africa, America, Asia to Europe. Therefore, we cannot be justified when our suffering is blamed on our colour and their colour. Colour is used as a smokescreen to conceal the real cause of discrimination. There is a deeper factor underneath the black/white ruse.
It was not by accident that the Europeans came to Africa. They were looking for trade routes to the East. They were pursuing their business interests. It was also not by mistake that they started the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. They need cheap labour for their plantations. They were in business. It was again not out of humanitarian considerations that they stopped the slave trade and set the blacks free. Slave labour had become obsolete and a fetter on production. The Industrial Revolution had made it possible for machines to be used in the production process so slaves were no longer needed. Therefore, the real and fundamental cause of the problems of the "freed" slaves (which led to the rise of Garvey, Dubois, etc and Pan-Africanism) was the world economic order.
Interestingly the problems that these ex-slaves faced upon their "release from bondage" are still the same problems facing us – humanity as a whole – today. These are hunger, poverty, disease, insecurity, no job satisfaction and joblessness, etc. These problems are a direct result of the system in operation in the world.
This system is based on private ownership. This means that the means of production and distribution of the wealth (factories, land, transportation, etc) are owned by a minority whilst the majority own nothing. The few owners of the means of production determine what to produce. Since their primary objective is to make profits but not to satisfy human needs, they do not hesitate to produce goods which are not needed by people. For instance armaments and weapons of mass destruction, sophisticated security systems fancy goods, cigarettes, etc are manufactured in huge quantities because they bring in huge profits. Yet food, medicines, textbooks, shoes, housing, etc which are necessities are either in short supply or beyond the reach of the masses. This type of economic system (call it the money-system, the profit-system or the capitalist system) was responsible for the slave trade, colonialism and today's problems. With the majority having nothing and constantly under economic pressure, tension is inbuilt and can at the least prompting explode into real violence such as is happening in many countries including the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the US.
One can clearly see from the above that Pan-Africanism can only be relevant if it seeks to address issues from a much wider perspective. Pan-Africanists have to transcend the narrow scope of seeing things from the point of view of colour. Today almost all countries are multi-racial. This is best articulated in the South African reggae star, Lucky Dube's song One people, different colours. Thus, to continue to harp on the "black race" is a matter of tackling the symptom and leaving the disease in fact.
Pan-Africanists must understand the profit system and learn to analyse issues from the angle of ownership to profit-making property. That is, from the angle of haves and have-nots. The world is divided into two antagonistic groups – the rich minority and the poor majority.
To be to achieve this, and even produce beneficial results, we need to acquire knowledge and live by it. This is tune with the socialist adage that "Practice without theory is blind and theory without practice is empty."
Acquiring knowledge means raising our consciousness. The highest level of consciousness is internationalism. Internationalists see every person as a person regardless of tribe or colour. And the cream of internationalists are socialist. Socialists do not consider the artificial boundaries dividing humanity as a barrier. Wherever they are is home.
However, it is not enough to declare oneself socialist. It is necessary to understand the theory of socialism and how to get the peoples of the world to live by it. This involves, first, the knowledge that society, as at present constituted, is divided into two opposing camps. On the one hand, there are the few privileged owners of the means of livelihood and, on the other, the majority who own nothing and so are forced to slave for the comfort of the propertied minority. The second phase entails striving for a society in which there will be common ownership and democratic control of the means of livelihood; free and equal access to the products of labour; and where, therefore, the concept and use of money (in all its forms) will cease to exist. This society is the socialist society.