I found out this week that Sam Mbah, co-author with I.E. Igariwey of African Anarchism: The History of a Movement (Tucson: See Sharp Press, 1997), died of a heart condition on November 6, 2014. This is sad news. Last summer I reposted an appeal for financial support for Sam’s medical treatment. Last year I posted excerpts from an interview with Sam about the “African Spring” protest movement in Nigeria. In African Anarchism, Mbah and Igariwey relate the libertarian traditions of African communalism to anarchist conceptions of community and the critique of the nation-state, drawing on the work of European anarchists such as Bakunin and G.P. Maksimov. Here I reproduce some excerpts on communalism from African Anarchism included in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, where Mbah and Igariwey draw out some of the affinities between communalism and modern anarchism. In the “Anarchist Current: From Anarchy to Anarchism,” I also discuss some of the anarchistic aspects of pre-statist societies.
African Anarchism: The Communalist Background
Traditional African societies were, for the most part, founded on communalism. The term is used here in two senses. First, it denotes a definite mode of production or social formation that comes generally, though not inevitably, after hunter-gatherer societies, and in turn precedes feudalism. If one accepts cultural evolution, one sees that most European and Asian societies passed through these stages of development.
Communalism is also used in a second, related sense to denote a way of life that is distinctly African. This way of life can be glimpsed in the collectivist structure of African societies in which: 1) different communities enjoy (near) unfettered independence from one another; 2) communities manage their own affairs and are for all practical purposes self-accounting and self-governing; and 3) every individual without exception takes part, either directly or indirectly, in the running of community affairs at all levels.
In contrast to Europe and Asia, most of Africa never developed past the stage of communalism. Despite the indigenous development of feudalism and the later imposition of capitalism, communal features persist to this day—sometimes pervasively—in the majority of African societies that lie outside the big cities and townships. Essentially, much of Africa is communal in both the cultural (production/social formation) and descriptive (structural) senses.
Among the most important features of African communalism are the absence of classes, that is, social stratification; the absence of exploitative or antagonistic social relations; the existence of equal access to land and other elements of production; equality at the level of distribution of social produce; and the fact that strong family and kinship ties form(ed) the basis of social life in African communal societies. Within this framework, each household was able to meet its own basic needs. Under communalism, by virtue of being a member of a family or community, every African was (is) assured of sufficient land to meet his or her own needs.
Because in traditional African societies the economy was largely horticultural and subsistence based, as [Robert] Horton notes, “often small villages farmed, hunted, fished, etc., and looked after themselves independently with little reference to the rest of the continent.” Various communities produced surpluses of given commodities which they exchanged, through barter, for those items that they lacked. The situation was such that no one starved while others stuffed themselves and threw away the excess.
According to Walter Rodney, “in that way, the salt industry of one locality would be stimulated, while the iron industry would be encouraged in another. In a coastal, lake or riverine area, dried fish could become profitable, while yams and millet would be grown in abundance elsewhere to provide a basis of exchange…” Thus, in many parts of Africa a symbiosis arose between groups earning their living in different manners—they exchanged goods and coexisted to their mutual advantage.
Political organization under communalism was horizontal in structure, characterized by a high level of diffusion of functions and power. Political leadership, not authority, prevailed, and leadership was not founded on imposition, coercion, or centralization; it arose out of a common consensus or a mutually felt need.
Leadership developed on the basis of family and kinship ties woven around the elders; it was conferred only by age, a factor that… runs deep in communalism. In Africa, old age was—and still often is—equated with possession of wisdom and rational judgment. Elders presided at meetings and at the settlement of disputes, but hardly in the sense of superiors; their position did not confer the far-reaching socio-political authority associated with the modern state system, or with feudal states.
There was a pronounced sense of equality among all members of the community. Leadership focused on the interests of the group rather than on authority over its members. Invariably, the elders shared work with the rest of the community and received more or less the same share or value of total social produce as everyone else, often through tribute/redistributive mechanisms.
The relationship between the co-ordinating segments of the community was characterized by equivalence and opposition, and this tended to hinder the emergence of role specialization, and thus the division of labour among individuals. Generally, elders presided over the administration of justice, the settlement of disputes, and the organization of communal activities, functions they necessarily shared with selected representatives of their communities, depending on the specific nature of the dispute or issue involved.
Such meetings and gatherings were not guided by any known written laws, for there were none. Instead, they were based on traditional belief systems, mutual respect, and indigenous principles of natural law and justice. Social sanctions existed for various kinds of transgressions—theft, witchcraft, adultery, homicide, rape, etc. When an individual committed an offence, often his entire household, his kinsmen, and his extended family suffered with him, and sometimes for him. This was because such offences were believed to bring shame not only upon the individual, but even more so upon his relatives.
Sam Mbah and I.E. Igariwey, 1997