Learning from the South

A review of Pascal Bianchini, Ndongo Samba Sylla, and Leo Zeilig, eds., Revolutionary Movements in Africa: An Untold Story (London: Pluto Press, 2024).

I am always excited when there are new releases on the history of revolutionary movements in Africa. Two reasons: 1. I’m of a generation when national liberation struggles in Africa with a socialist bend still were a thing among radicals. 2. Extensive travels on the continent between 1997 and 2004.

Revolutionary Movements in Africa is an anthology edited by Pascal Bianchini, Ndongo Samba Sylla, and Leo Zeilig. It is based on a conference held in Dakar in late 2019, and carries a subtitle it could have probably done without. “An Untold Story” sounds a little too tabloid for the quality of the contents. Then again, titles are never easy to choose. The publication has been supported by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA).

Anthologies, in particular anthologies based on conferences, always suffer from the same problem: there is a common denominator, but what’s been collected under its name can be rather random. To the editors’ credit, they name the most obvious gaps in this selection: there is no article on the plethora of revolutionary movements in Ethiopia, the revolutionary movements of the former Portuguese colonies are missing, and North Africa is entirely absent as well. Yet, the fifteen contributions gathered in the volume are still of great value. It’s a rich history to choose from.

True to the book’s subtitle, the editors stress in their Introduction that “the history of revolutionary left movements in Africa is largely ignored and disregarded” in academia, even in Africa itself. They also write that “most of the existing literature consists of memoirs from former activists,” which made me wonder whether that was a bad thing (I don’t think so). While the editors acknowledge relevant titles that have been released over the last decade or so, including an excellent anthology on Thomas Sankara I reviewed some years ago, I would have loved to see a reference to a body of literature that is indeed largely ignored: the pamphlet series edited by the Liberation Support Movement in the early 1970s (which is worth checking out for the cover art alone, as Josh MacPhee from JustSeeds has discovered).

Back to the anthology at hand: It is always unfair to single out particular pieces in a collection that holds a high standard throughout, but it suffices to say that this merely depends on subjective preferences. I particularly enjoyed the pieces outlining Brazzaville and Dar es Saleem as hubs of socialist and anti-colonial thought in the 1960s and 70s. The final piece, a mini-biography of Dimitri Tsafendas, who killed South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966, was also a compelling read.

There’d be nice things to say about all of the other contributions as well, but it would go beyond the scope of reviews on this blog. In any case, even readers who are well versed in African revolutionary history will most likely come across new bits of information. Pro-Albanian militants in Upper Volta? Entryism in Nigeria? North Korean propaganda in Uganda? The original Black Bloc(k) in Sudan? Plenty of enticing stories…

If you have any interest in the subject matter, it’s near impossible to regret checking out this book. As far as the omissions go, the editors promise another volume – if they’ll get around to it. “We are exhausted by the task of publishing this volume,” they write. Fair enough. Let’s hope for a speedy recovery!

Gabriel Kuhn

(December 31, 2023)