Sunday, June 19, 2022

State and class in pre-colonial West Africa

 From the May 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Was the state instituted for mutual protection or did it arise when society became divided into classes?
Long before Marx and Engels, political thinkers and philosophers had written extensively on the concept of the state. In the 1640s, Thomas Hobbes had argued that the state was essentially a contract between the individual and the government. The alternative, called by Hobbes the state of nature, was a thoroughly unpleasant life—solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

This, according to Hobbes, the state emerged to improve mankind’s lot. However, Engels, summing up his historical analysis in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, argued that the State was a product of class society: “It is an admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel.” As if to echo Engels, Marx pointed out that the state could not have arisen, let alone maintained itself, had it been possible to reconcile classes. According to Marx the state is an instrument of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another.

Marx revealed that a definite level of development of labour productivity is essential before there is real opportunity for humans to exploit other humans. If people produce only the minimum of products required to maintain their physical existence and reproduction, any systematic appropriation of someone else’s labour is out of the question. The opportunity to appropriate someone else’s labour appears only when the productive forces have developed to the level at which the quantity of goods produced somewhat exceeds the minimum required to maintain the direct producers’ lives. The question then arises: Did Africa’s labour productivity reach a level that provided the opportunity for humans to exploit their fellow human beings? The answer is both no and yes. The appropriate answer to this question would enable us to determine the original of the state in pre-colonial Africa.

But it would be absurd to think of only the level of productive forces without the relations of production. Productive forces cannot be developed in a vacuum. People produce them jointly—in groups rather than on their own. People’s relationship to the means of production determine their position and place in the production and the mode of distribution of the products. Where one group of people makes its living by appropriating the labour of the other, then society is divided into the exploiter and exploited. The need to maintain this vampiric relationship of production leads to the rise of an apparatus of coercion and conditioning to systematically brainwash the exploited into accepting their exploitation as a normal condition of life or to crush their resistance.

Before private ownership
If this analysis of state and class is anything to go by then one cannot authentically talk of the state among some of the communities in Ghana before the 14th century. The predominant principle of social relations was that of the family and kinship associated with communalism. Among the Gur social groups in the Upper East Region of Ghana, for example, every member of the society had their position defined in terms of their relationship with their mother’s or father’s family. Leadership was based on religious ties to the Tindana, or custodian of the land, who ran the affairs of the people with a committee of elders chosen from all the families and clans of the territory. This committee administered land, the major means of production not as its personal property, but as the property of all the people in Gurum-Tinga (Gur land) who had the right to till it. Hunting, fishing and grazing grounds for animals were organised in a similar manner. No-one starved whilst others stuffed themselves with food and threw the excess away or sold it for profit. The basic economic law was that of providing the members of society with the necessary means of subsistence through communal ownership of the means of production. The absence of private property in the means of production, of the division into classes and the exploitation of man by man excluded the need for a state. Production was essentially of use values; and there was no alienation of the producer from his means of production.

The fundamental flaw in the social organisation of the Gur however was that the position of the Tindana was supposedly sanctioned by the gods, and therefore permanent. This notion also applied to the elders of families and clans who served in the committee of elders. Only death could loosen their grip on authority. This meant that people occupying positions of trust could use their positions for personal gain, taking a significant share of communal property and becoming rich; indeed vestiges of private ownership of property began to rear its ugly head in the Gur community around the 16th century. However this development did not reach its fullest maturity before the violent intrusion of British colonial rule. To a very large extent, this explained why the British colonial government had to create chiefs in Gur land and use them as instruments of its policy of exploitation and dehumanisation.

It is also important to note that once African societies began to expand by internal evolution, and the instruments of labour were perfected, people obtained more means of subsistence than was essential for their survival. The restricted nature of communal property and the egalitarian distribution of products of labour that characterised people such as the Gur acted as a drag on the further development of the productive forces. The need for joint labour disappeared with the appearance of sickles, iron-tipped hoes, spears and arrows. What this meant was that the possibility of individual labour also emerged. But individual labour brought about private ownership, private ownership brought about inequality between the people; and rich and poor people emerged. In the Mali empire, for example, the dominant mode of production was feudalism even though the communal and slave modes of production had not completely died out. By the end of the 15th century there were both chattel and domestic slaves in Mali comparable to the feudal serfs in Europe. In Senegal Portuguese traders also found that there were elements in the population who worked most days for their masters and a few days per month for themselves—a budding feudalist tendency.

A cursory look at the socio-economic and political scene in Africa before colonisation does not reveal one dominant mode of production. Also it is not easy to compartmentalise the socio-economic formations and arrange them in a sequence as some writers do, because the social and economic terrain reveals considerable unevenness in development. There were social formations representing hunting bands, communalism, feudalism while other formations represented a mixture of these. It was upon these that colonialism was superimposed.

Adongo Aidan Avugma

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