Cynthia Lucas Hewitt

Associate Professor

Department of Sociology

Morehouse College


Agency, Spirituality, and Identity under Neocolonialism: Nkrumaism and Social Analysis

Nkrumaism is an ideology and perspective reflecting the theory and practice of liberation and redevelopment of “the Teacher,” Osagyefo, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, a leader for African liberation from 1945 to 1972. Kwame Nkrumah was the first president of Ghana, the first African country which regained its independence from colonialism. In 2000, the BBC’s African listeners worldwide voted Kwame Nkrumah “The African of the Century,” and in 2004, the New African magazine’s worldwide readers voted him the “Second Greatest African that ever lived” (New African 2006). Kwame Nkrumah struggled with and studied the socio-economic and political situation facing his people, and articulated the experience of African people in Africa and globally dispersed. His works provide a political, that is to say, “power-relations sensitive,” guidepost for understanding how any research project relating to African or colonized peoples becomes a discursive action within, and affecting, the socio-political context in which they live. What one writes becomes a material force exerting influence on the capacity of people who read it to undertake positive action or negative action. His works are a thoughtful, analytical step apart from both the conflict theories of Marxism and the American race and ethnic relations sociology of assimilation and integration.

Like feminist standpoint theory, Nkrumaism asserts a specific starting point – in this case, the experiences of African people – so the analyses can be understood in context. Nkrumaism emanates from and expresses the integrity of African perspectives on African problems. In this manner, Nkrumaism can be grouped under the growing rubric of Afrocentric theory. Any conscientious social scientist must seek to develop an objective understanding of the social realities of a people s/he is studying, in order to be professional and responsible. I argue that the works of Nkrumah and others consistent with it – the perspective of Nkrumaism – provides a sound basis for understanding and judging the impact of research acts upon African people, in particular. As well, Nkrumaism makes important contributions to our theoretical understanding of the role of agency and identity in social change.

Nkrumaism is an important addition to sociological theory, because it provides a perspective or a standpoint that integrally reflects the experience of liberation struggle of African people. This is a relatively specific claim. It reflects the experience of liberation struggle of people of African heritage. Therefore, it does not express the goal of “going along and getting along,” or trying to “pass” as white, of blacks wishing to become un-African, or the understanding that black people are not oppressed. These perspectives do exist among African people who have not been oppressed, but they are minority trends. Since the formation of the modern world-system of capitalism in the 16th century, African people have been involved in struggle against being oppressed and exploited within its structures. Therefore, I argue, liberation struggle has been a consistent and essential core of the social life of African people and understanding it is indispensable to understanding African people.

By African people, let me clarify, I am referring to all the dark-skinned people with crinkly hair who trace their lineage, historically, to Africa (i.e., not necessarily pre-historically, as all humanity can also trace their origins there). The assessment of the significance and depth of this connection varies considerably among theorists, and is the matter under discussion here; however, for the purposes of this paper, African may be taken as synonymous with “black” people – in the United States, in South America, in Africa, and wherever they may be found globally.

As a perspective, Nkrumaism includes a body of knowledge which clearly lays out a set of social and political goals, and what actions, discourse, and social organization is known to be consistent or inimical to them. Thus it provides a guidepost for those who are concerned with the social outcome of their theorizing and writing their discourse.

Regarding the desirability of objectivity in social science practice, suffice it to state that social science relies on both a subjective assessment of what is a social problem and what is a solution, and an examination of facts relying on a method designed to maximize objectivity. Hence, whether or not one ascribes to the possibility of objective methods or not, subjective assessment is an anterior process intervening between all social scientists and their practice. Open and critical discussion and analysis of subjective standpoints is therefore indispensable if one is to make the decision of what is the goal in a conscious rather than unconscious way. Through presenting Nkrumaism, I seek to contribute to conscious decision-making regarding the selection of issues, the research design, presentation of findings, and discussion and assessment of findings about African people world-wide.

Approximately 1 billion people are clearly of African descent world-wide, or 21 percent of world population, and the continent of Africa constitutes 22 percent of the currently possibly habitable landmass. So equitably, African people and their concerns should occupy approximately one fifth to one quarter of the world’s discourse. By sheer numbers, African people are significant. They are also unique in the position they occupy in the world-system as a people who were exploited as slaves and workers under a consciously imposed regime denying self-identity and personhood for over 150 years. Hence, for African people, all modern paradigmatic understandings of who they are and what social goals apply to them are suspect, because unlike dominant groups, these definitions never have had to be approved or accepted by the people in question or their representatives.

Thus, I would argue that it is extremely bad social science practice to commence theorizing and investigating a people without knowledge of their social goals. Under such conditions, the best possible outcome is that your own social goals may be congruent with theirs, but to the extent they are not, you have produced a discourse that is to a greater or lesser degree, at cross-purposes with the endeavour of this people to survive and prosper, thereby producing a discourse which lacks integrity. Even if your choice is at cross-purpose with theirs, to do this (theorize under the wrong circumstance) without conscious recognition that you have done so is a-scientific and irresponsible. Further, if you are unaware that the people in question are a people with an integral history of struggle toward certain social objectives, then upon learning this fact, it is incumbent upon all researchers and writers to have a conscious position vis-a-vis the articulated interests of the people they are affecting. For a discourse has the power to affect social outcomes.

The greatest damage from perspectives that lack integrity vis-a-vie the social goals of African people is done to African students. African people provide education for their youth with the understanding that it will help the individual and her/his community develop and prosper. Much of what is produced by social scientists, I argue, is damaging to this African social goal, because it focuses on presenting the disadvantages and negative outcomes of oppression while ignoring the struggles toward positive goals and positive outcomes. For instance, sociologist William Julius Wilson has built a career upon denigrating the efforts of black social theorists to uncover the coping and resistance activities and highlight the successes within the black community in favour of a call to focus on the pathologies and subsume the theory and practice of black people under the perspective of working class people (Wilson 1987). If the huge industry of publications purporting to advance social science understanding does not point out to black students how their people have been succeeding, then how can we assume they are receiving an adequate education from reading these works? A one-sided picture is inconceivable as a scientific analysis. It is consistent only if placed in a different framing, generally one of the white world, with its goals and what people perceive to be its problems. In these perspectives, African people constitute a social problem. In African perspectives, the European world-system presents a problem.

Nkrumaism is an important corrective even when dealing with literature not focused on African people, for it speaks to the approach to inquiry. Nkrumah’s writings present to the young or inquiring mind the question of looking at social theory from an auto-centred perspective. In Consciencism, Nkrumah writes:

The ten years which I spent in the United States of America represents a crucial period in the development of my philosophical conscience… I was introduced to Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx and other immortals, to whom I should like to refer as the university philosophers. But these titans were expounded in such a way that a student from a colony could easily find his breast agitated by conflicting attitudes. These attitudes can have effects which spread out over a whole society, should such a student finally pursue a political life.

A colonial student does not by origin belong to the intellectual history in which the university philosophers are such impressive landmarks. The colonial student can be so seduced by these attempts to give a philosophical account of the universe, that he surrenders his whole personality to them. When he does this, he loses sight of the fundamental social fact that he is a colonial subject. In this way, he omits to draw from his education and from the concern displayed by the great philosophers for human problems, anything which he might relate to the very real problem of colonial domination, which, as it happens, conditions the immediate life of every colonized African (1970: 2).

Knowledge of the work of Nkrumah prepares a student or researcher focused on Africa to orient her/his work toward the goals of the African people’s liberation struggle, which is part of the larger human struggle for dignity, freedom and prosperity. When studying philosophy, theory, and research concerning other peoples, a concern for their auto-centric, and in this case, the Afrocentric perspective is critical. When studying and analyzing the social realities of African people, a focus on the positive outcomes, and balancing of the negative factors with positive factors, is in the interest of furthering the positive factors, and inspiring humanity to solve yet contending issues.

Consciencism – the Philosophical Base of Nkrumaism

Nkrumaism is based on making a conscious choice regarding the set of principles and end goals which will form the philosophical framework guiding intellectual or theoretical analysis. Consciencism is a philosophical statement upon which Nkrumaism is based. Nkrumah writes:

Such a philosophical statement will be born out of the crisis of the African conscience confronted with the three strands of present African society. Such a philosophical statement I propose to name philosophical Consciencism, for it will give the theoretical basis for an ideology whose aim shall be to contain the African experience of Islamic and Euro-Christian presence as well as the experience of the traditional African society, and, by gestation, employ them for the harmonious growth and development of that society (1970: 70).

This philosophical base defines what is important and of value to society, and thus guides the development of theory and research questions. On the one hand, it is the underlying basis of research; on the other hand, it provides the explanation for the social order, and all social actions, stratification systems, and power relationships are justified by appealing to these principles. The articulation of the goals, principles, processes and power relations is ideology. Ideology is more or less consciously espoused, but it is the referent of the indispensable activity of explaining society and gaining consent. Social consent underlies social cohesion, and cohesion, or unity, is the indispensable prerequisite for empowerment – for social change, development or, ultimately, stability. Nkrumah writes:

In Africa … there are three broad features to be distinguished here. African society has one segment which comprises our traditional way of life; it has a second segment which is filled by the presence of the Islamic tradition in Africa; it has a final segment which represents the infiltration of the Christian tradition and culture of Western Europe into Africa, using colonialism and neo-colonialism as its primary vehicles. These different segments are animated by competing ideologies. But since society implies a certain dynamic unity, there needs to emerge an ideology which, genuinely catering for the needs of all, will take the place of the competing ideologies, and so reflect the dynamic unity of society, and be the guide to society’s continual progress (1970: 68).

Consciencism is presented most clearly in a small book by the same name (Consciencism 1970), where Nkrumah traces the development of western philosophy and the choices it poses related to social questions of the era when each theorist lived and worked, and then presents the framework of a philosophical outlook conducive to assisting African people in their choices for revolutionary change in their social conditions today.

Consciencism is not an idealistic outlook, rather it is a practical and dialectical approach which recognizes that positives and negatives exist in all systems of knowledge and social movements; the important goal is to achieve an analytical strength that allows one to separate them and give dominance to the positive aspects that support the social outcomes desired by the society. Philosophy asks and answers fundamental questions, providing guiding principles around which to construct institutions of society. Philosophical statements arise as reflections of the contending social forces of a given epoch, provide a coherent distillation, and offer solutions. Stable social orders – societies – reference philosophies whose solutions provide justification for the particular ruling coalition of interests which has successfully achieved hegemony. These principles become the asili1, the DNA model underlying and connecting in a coherent whole all the institutions of the society – from the family, to the educational goals, to the justice system, and the economic distribution system.

Therefore, protracted social dysfunction suggests that a social order’s philosophical base must be examined, and further, it will spawn the philosophical debate that is reflective of its “strain.” A revolution occurs when one philosophical base and its principles are supplanted by another. Nkrumah, in the Preface to his work, Towards Colonial Freedom, quotes the Italian unification nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini:

Every true revolution is a programme; and derived from a new, general, positive and organic principle. The first thing necessary is to accept that principle. Its development must then be confined to men who are believers in it, and emancipated from every tie or connection with any principle of an opposite nature (1970: 56).

Consciencism argues that when the philosophical systems and the principles of one social order are contradictory to those of another, they cannot co-exist, but rather meet as contenders, as each presupposes the illegitimacy of the other. A wide range of institutions and social structures may peacefully coexist where their principles are the same. Likewise, a social order cannot be changed to reflect fundamentally different relations between mankind, earthly resources and trans-generational order, unless the fundamental principles are changed, otherwise reforms become guided by the existing principles and challenges become “co-opted,” – they result in isomorphic change adapting new structures to recreate the old social order. A revolutionary change requires a change in principle.

Once a social system is dominant and stable, its social principles reach a state of hegemony – unquestioned acceptance – and any attempt to introduce new principles with their corresponding social action and structures to bring them about, is “labelled” ideological. Social science practiced in western countries, like the United States, has as its objective mere measurement and adaptation of social forces to bring about the goals of these societies; hence it is foresworn from penetrating to the level of questioning them. It eschews discussion of the subjective values and choices implied and stakes its claim on objectivity.

Again, once the goal and the principles of action have been decided, the questions which need research are given, and the method should be scientific. The issue, as Nkrumaism (and feminist standpoint theory) point out, is precisely which goals and principles are to be hegemonic. Nkrumaism functions by demanding of researchers that they study, analyze, and critique the social goals and principles, particularly of any people who they propose to study, and not assume that they are or should be the same as those underlying the dominant hegemonic people’s theory and research.

Consciencism is a philosophy for African revolution to end imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, exploitation and racism. As such, it is not the same as the dominant American philosophical base which does support all of the above social processes and institutions. Some commonalities are shared, but the differences are critical. Consciencism takes a position in favour of materialism which answers the question of what exists (ontology) by postulating that everything has a common base and thus lays the framework for egalitarianism of the type that acknowledges the intrinsic sameness of all mankind, and indeed, all things. There are not immutable higher (spirit) and lower (matter) types of beings. All matter, and by implication, all beings are capable of transformations under given conditions into all components of what exists, or of the social order, by extension. Consciencism projects the primacy of matter, but does not accept the sole reality of matter as the material cannot always be perceived by our senses. In line with the scientific understanding provided by the General Theory of Relativity of Einstein and Quantum Mechanics, Consciencism postulates the theory of Categorical Conversion: that the material and immaterial world interact in complex processes mediated by their common ability to be defined in terms of relationships of forces, and the material is ultimately only a particular quantitative disposition of forces in tension which we can perceive. Consciencism posits that what we perceive as matter is energy in particular constellations, a particular disposition of forces in tension, which we can perceive as small or large mass, active or inactive, green or red.

This perspective is consonant with the African propensity to utilize spirituality in social control: no separation of spirit (conscience) and state (society) is posited. Yet Nkrumah remains critical of the uses to which religiosity can be put. In reference to Marx’s criticism of religion as an instrument of exploitation used to divert the workers’ attention from the value which they had created to ‘outside’ concerns, Nkrumah writes:

Many African societies in fact forestalled this kind of perversion. The dialectical contradiction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ was reduced by making the visible world continuous with the invisible world. For them heaven was not outside the world but inside it (1970: 12).

The value of the holistic perspective of matter and energy as two aspects of one whole, or the unity of the material and immaterial, notwithstanding, Nkrumah does not denigrate the meaning held within Western concepts of matter/spirit dualism, which reflect the social order which we all now face. Again, Consciencism calls upon the adherent to synthesize the precepts from the indigenous and Western/Islamic experiences. Nkrumah writes:

In present-day Africa, however, a recognition of the dialectical contradiction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ has a great deal to contribute to the process of decolonization and development, for it helps us to anticipate colonialist and imperialist devices for furthering exploitation by diverting our energies from secular concerns. The recognition of the dialectical opposition is universally necessary. Religion is an instrument of bourgeois social reaction. But its social use is not always confined to colonialists and imperialists. Its success in their hands can exercise a certain fascination on the minds of Africans who begin by being revolutionary, but… use religion to make political gains… This idiosyncratic tactic can only create more problems than it promises to solve (1970: 12).

Nkrumaist philosophical orientation of Consciencism constantly draws attention to the possibilities, and indeed, inevitabilities of change. Matter is capable of self-motion and will change because it is composed of forces in equilibrium, and changing conditions alter all equilibriums. Thus, change is permanent and dialectical: the result of forces in tension achieving new dispositions. Mental activity, a particular outgrowth of a particular disposition of matter, is no less real a force in the universe than physical conditions, and society must rely upon principles and ethics to guide and organize mental behaviour to achieve a harmonious whole. This understanding of the change from one apparent form to another is not an evolutionary doctrine, however. It is not a matter of just increasing – for instance, more education and more investment. As Nkrumah writes:

I have suggested that dialectic is that which makes the evolution of kinds possible, that, accordingly, which is the ground of the evolution of mind from matter, of quality from quantity, of energy from mass. This kind of emergence, since it depends on a critical organization of matter, truly represents a leap. When a crisis results in an advance, it is its nature to perpetrate a leap. The solution of a crisis always represents a discontinuity… It is important that dialectical evolution be not conceived as being linear, continuous and monodirectional … for it only represents an accumulation of phenomena of the same sort… In dialectical evolution, progress is not linear; it is, so to say, from one plane to another (1970: 26).

Consciencism is opposed to philosophical individualism which views the individual as capable of independent self-development and establishes on this premise the highest right in society and the basis of common life, as the right of the individual to pursue self-interest and his/her equal right to democratic representation. The materialist holism of Consciencism views the individual as the product of interaction in society and the right to be part of the dialectical whole as an equal participant as the greatest right.

The most debilitating threat is not loss of individual liberty but loss of community. Therefore, decision-making according to the capitalist principle of the right of individuals to control private property to maximize personal gain is contrary to a social order with Consciencism as its philosophical base. A scientific socialist social order is indicated. This is not a “whole” without conflict, but one that, when conflicts escalate to disrupt the harmony, seeks a resolution, a new dispensation of resources and order, in favour of regaining an integrated whole.

Where capitalism works on the principle of competition for efficiency of each of the parts, to the winner belongs the spoils, and survival of the fittest, Consciencism offers the ecological principles of “x-efficiency:” efficiency within the system based on maximization of the use of all resources to optimize the overall functioning. No one set can be tossed aside as the losers in a competitive framework. And chief among these resources which must be maximized is the life of each individual. The calculus of cost and benefit must take into account disruptions to the social whole, such as unemployment and family distress, even if they ultimately result in higher productivity where gains are unevenly accumulated. Both sacrifices and benefits must be borne by all.

Above all, Consciencism is based on the African philosophical principle that each individual must be seen as an end in him/herself and not as a means to an end; that dualism in society where one race or class of people are exploited to the benefit of another is wrong; and therefore capitalism and imperialism are antithetical to the principles of just society which Consciencism advocates.

A Theory of Agency: Positive Action and Neocolonialism

Nkrumaism incorporates a scientific approach and critique of capitalism from the Marxist tradition, yet differs from many Marxist critiques by proposing no fundamental contradiction between the subjective, or immaterial world, and the objective or material world. As Engels clarifies, Marx, himself, was aware of this: social facts emanating from ideological commitments – the subjective – are no less determining than social facts which are based on material resources. krumaism stresses the role of the subjective in social control and change, in a manner similar to Gramsci. Nkrumah writes:

Revolution has two aspects. Revolution is a revolution against an old order; and it is also a contest for a new order. The Marxist emphasis on the determining force of the material circumstances of life is correct. But I would like also to give great emphasis to the determining power of ideology. A revolutionary ideology is not merely negative. It is not a mere conceptual refutation of a dying social order, but a positive creative theory, the guiding light of the emerging social order (1970: 34).

It is only that social forces are necessarily limited by material resources, but often these resources are not determining of the social order. For instance, Japan is a country singularly lacking in natural resources, yet it is among the most materially developed societies in the world. In practice, the objective condition of worker exploitation under capitalism and imperialism is resolvable only through revolution to a social order founded on non-exploitative principles. However, exploitative conditions may be made “acceptable” to major sectors of the working class in core countries and elites under imperialism in other countries by distributing a percentage of the returns to them and maintenance of ideological hegemony.

Nkrumah develops a theory of positive and negative action, and neocolonialism, to orient people to what they can do to bring about social change, how they can be and are agents of change. The Nkrumaist theory of Positive Action states that change comes about due to changes in the balance of positive social forces to negative social forces, both material and immaterial. He initially elaborated this concept based on their decision to launch civil disobedience and continued ideological struggle against colonial rule in 1949. Since material conditions are often structural and cannot be easily altered without power, immaterial changes become the focal point for the creation of new constellations of power. Hence Nkrumaism places great stress on agency, ideology, and mass organization. Nkrumah writes:

I said earlier on that Consciencism regards matter as a plenum of forces in tension; and that in its dialectical aspect; it holds categorical conversion to be possible by a critical disposition of matter. This gives us a clue how to analyze the fact of colonialism, not only in Africa, but indeed everywhere. It also gives us a clue how to defeat it. [for colonialism may be substituted capitalism or imperialism, etc.]

In a colonial situation, there are forces which tend to promote colonialism, to promote those political ties by means of which a colonialist country binds its colonies to itself with the primary object of furthering her economic advantages. Colonialism requires exertion, and much of that exertion is taken up by the combat of progressive forces, forces which seek to negate this oppressive enterprise of greedy individuals and classes by means of which an egotistical imposition of the strong is made upon the weak.

Just as the placid appearance of matter only disguises the tension of forces underlying that appearance, … so in a colonial territory, an opposition of reactionary and revolutionary forces can nevertheless give an impression of final and acquiescent subjugation. But just as a quality can be changed by quantitative (measurable) changes of a critical nature in matter, so this acquiescent impression can be obliterated by a change in the relation of the social forces.

These opposing sets of forces are dynamic, in the sense that they seek and tend to establish some social condition. One may therefore refer to them by the name of action in order to make their dynamic nature explicit. In that case, one may say that in a colonial situation positive action and negative action can be discerned. Positive action will represent the sum of those forces seeking social justice in terms of the destruction of oligarchic exploitation and oppression. Negative action will correspondingly represent the sum of those forces tending to prolong colonial subjugation and exploitation. Positive action is revolutionary and negative action is reactionary (1970: 99).

Dialectical change suggests that new syntheses emerge out of the clash of negative and positive, and that constant reinforcement of the positive will help to bring about qualitatively improved conditions. Positive action is enhanced by political education which makes transparent and delegitimizes the racism, commercialism, misinformation and cultural distortions which create mental dependency and negative action.

Just as in the physical universe. .. every progressive motion, is a resultant of unharmonious forces, a resultant, a triumph of positive action over negative action” (1970:103) … This triumph must be accompanied by knowledge. For in the way that the process of natural evolution can be aided by human intervention based upon knowledge, so social evolution can be helped along by political intervention based upon knowledge of the laws of social development. Political action aimed at speeding up social evolution is of the nature of a catalyst (1970: 104).

Further, the dialectical approach inherent in the concept of positive action promotes a clear understanding that contradictions, or negative action, is not confined to outside the group – a nation or race, adherents of a national front, or any ethnocentric group. Contradictions arise within groups as well, and hence, there is a need for self-critical internal analysis.

To achieve true liberation, positive action must begin with an objective analysis of the situation which it seeks to change… Positive action must, furthermore, seek an alignment of all the forces of progress and, by marshalling them, confront the negative forces. It must at the same time anticipate and contain its own inner contradictions, for though positive action unites those forces of a situation which are, in regard to a specific purpose, progressive, many of these forces will contain tendencies which are in other respects reactionary (1970: 104).

Historically, in the twentieth century, a unified national front of sectors of the population comprising the masses of the people has been an important strategy for empowerment. Such a front may be united for specific anti-imperialist and anti-racist goals, but also retains internal contradictions between groups characterized as dormant or of secondary relationships of inequality and possible exploitation of one by the other. Thus the unity must be re-conceived and recast with each successive stage in the process of building toward a liberated prosperous society. Groups which play a progressive role under the conditions of today may exert a reactionary hold tomorrow in a newly expanded context.

One major contribution of Kwame Nkrumah was the introduction of the analysis of neocolonialism, in his book, Neocolonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism (1973a). Nkrumah is the premier analyst of neocolonialism. An understanding of, and ability to analyze neocolonial processes is indispensable to any social scientist who seeks to contribute to the resolution of social problems of global inequality, poverty and oppression. Nkrumah writes:

The neo-colonialism of today represents imperialism in its final and perhaps its most dangerous stage… The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside…. Control over government policy in the neo-colonial State may be secured by payments towards the cost of running the State, by the provision of civil servants in positions where they can dictate policy and by monetary control over foreign exchange through the imposition of a banking system controlled by the imperial power…. The result of neo-colonialism is that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world. Investment under neo-colonialism increases rather than decreases the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world…. The question is one of power. A State in the grip of neo-colonialism is not master of its own destiny. It is this factor which makes neo-colonialism such a serious threat to world peace” (1973a: ix).

Nkrumaism is unique in locating the primary cause of neo-colonialism in the maintenance of small, economically non-viable states – balkanization.

Neo-colonialism is based upon the principle of breaking up former large united colonial territories into a number of small non-viable States which are incapable of independent development and must rely upon the former imperial power for defence and even internal security. Their economic and financial system are linked, as in colonial days, with those of the former colonial ruler (1973a: xiii).

Neocolonialism operates through assimilating the dependent elites of subject peoples. When these elites are non-European, racism prevents full assimilation, and physical identity with an oppressed people prevents full attainment by the non-European individual of social respect. This results in African people who retain inferiority complexes, abdicate self-definition in favour of pseudo identity as a member of world-polity, or core culture, and thus who lack a community of interest with the oppressed African people and cannot provide leadership with cultural integrity. They are “turned-out,” and view the world through alienated lenses. Such elites do not have the empathy and identity of interests necessary to seek power in the name of their oppressed nation and instead become the main source of negative action, co-opting the struggles of the people into institutions preserving the status quo. Thus national liberation is de-railed before reconstruction can take place.

Class struggle becomes necessary to de-throne this externalized leadership and make the interests of the impoverished and oppressed African people as a whole the ruling interests of the collective effort, a revolutionary process requiring the rejection of all forms of exploitation, including imperialism and capitalism (Nkrumah 1972). Thus, Nkrumaism posits that African liberation and redemption is impossible within the framework of capitalism and neocolonialism; the national liberation of African people presupposes the destruction of capitalism and building of socialism. Therefore, the world-wide Black Power movement is part of the world socialist movement objectively.

Macro Theory: Black Power and Pan-Africanism

Up till this point, it may have appeared that Nkrumaism, while germane to social scientists whose work focuses on Africa, is not particularly relevant to a focus on Africans in the Americas, or African Americans and Caribbean nationals, in particular. However, Nkrumah and his philosophy and theory are bona fide works within the Pan-African, or global black tradition, which is a major segment of African American social action and theory. Nkrumah’s work emerges directly from the tradition of African people in the Diaspora, recognizing that their immediate homes do not and cannot define who they are over the long haul to regaining freedom, just as mobility and conditions in Africa in the past are determinative of their situation in the present.

Many African (black) people are trans-migrants – as a people they are characterized by mass movements, both coerced and voluntary (given the economic push and pull), to locations where labour is needed, and yet they retain ties to their birth homelands, for instance, in the south of the United States, the Caribbean, or Africa. The specific cultural heritage of African people globally tends to therefore transcend national and regional boundaries. While social scientists tend to view African people in static terms, for instance, as urban people in the U.S., or as Nigerians in Nigeria, or members of particular ethnicities, such as Xhosa in South Africa, many are only one generation or less in residence: northerners in the United States – raised with the cultural legacy of rural southern heritage; or only temporarily Nigerian – having migrated from Ghana for work; or the offspring of a melting pot South Africa, having a Xhosa and a Swazi parent and other blended lineage, so they are today multi-lingual and multi-cultural. For example, my Trinidadian father was born there but both parents were from other islands, and I am perceived as urban American, but my mother was from Bayou, New Orleans, and I have already returned to the southern United States! Africans have become a shifting labour pool, forming a global net with its roots in Africa, in search of employment, stability, and prosperity. Nkrumaism is based on the premise that only by acceding to collective ownership over a territory of settlement with sufficient resources – Africa – will African people leave this insecurity behind.

Authentic African Theory: Afrocentric and Universalistic

Nkrumaism incorporates an understanding that African society and culture can be conceived in both Afrocentric and universalistic terms. This is similar to a Diopian (Diop 1989) perspective, which, on the one hand, stresses that there are identifiable traits which are common among African societies which provide a cultural unity, or African Personality. Hence, according to Nkrumah:

The traditional face of Africa includes an attitude towards man which can only be described, in its social manifestation, as being socialist. This arises from the fact that man is regarded in Africa as primarily a spiritual being, a being endowed originally with a certain inward dignity, integrity and value. It stands refreshingly opposed to the Christian idea of the original sin and degradation of man….This idea of the original value of man imposes duties of a socialist kind upon us” (1970: 68).

The African Personality is a product of both the commonality of conditions obtaining on the African continent and in the process of dispersal of African people, and the cultural heritage of normative folkways which provide the social and cultural resources to fashion modes of life and adaptation. Emphasis on the intrinsic value of the individual, displayed in the high social esteem accorded to children, is one aspect. The existence of systems of checks upon the development of arbitrary or unjust state power through government decision-making by representative council is another common trait. Gender equality is a characteristic outcome in African societies to the tensions inherent in gender relations, displayed in the common ancient development of female centred institutions with authority over aspects of spiritual life, healing, and conflict resolution, land, and aspects of commerce, which provide balancing power to male dominant institutions.

On the other hand, African society is universalistic in that many of the principles which have become associated with civilization originated in African civilization, particularly Nile valley civilization, including concepts of humanism and juridical justice, life after death and the human Soul, the concept of one God and the brotherhood of all humankind, among others (Diop 1989, 1974; Bernal 1987). Nile Valley science – geometry, medicine, chemistry, physics and astronomy – ethics, institutions, arts, and folklore became the model and base for much Greek, and later European developments (James 1976; Hilliard 1978). Africans also played major roles in the development of most world religions, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Dravidian beliefs (Hinduism) (DuBois 1965; Williams 2003). In this manner, African civilization is world civilization and universalistic, in the manner stressed by W.E.B. DuBois (1965) and Cheikh Anta Diop (1989, 1973). However, in keeping with the Nkrumahist understanding of the dialectics of historical change, the principles, beliefs and skills which find origin in Africa were often transformed to accord with the character or ansili, conditions, and challenges pertaining among other peoples who incorporated them and utilize them in ways antithetical to their original context. Hence, African culture is both unique and specific to the African personality, and part of the material of the whole of human heritage.

Unlike philosophical liberalism, which seeks to universalize European culture and personality as the best traits for “all people,” Nkrumaism, based on Consciencism, begins with recognition of an African Personality which has been suppressed and impoverished, but which provides the germinal base for the African Renaissance. This base is shared by all African people to greater or lesser degrees, irrespective of where they reside following the dispersion of enslavement. Yet, unlike Negritude, Nkrumaism recognizes no inherent difference due to racial propensity, only outcomes that are distinct due to history, and the adaptation of culture within communities and environment (asili). Therefore, while there are no fully alien cultural traits, all human skills and knowledge are to be judged according to their usefulness in promoting the redemption and development of society in Africa which enhances the African Personality, and its esteem of universal brotherhood. African integrity – the alignment vis-a-vie the authentic African Personality – is critical to the value of any social science research or discursive product.

Nkrumaist adherence to the authentic African asili does not imply a reified concern with past social forms – traditionalism. Here, rather unique among Afrocentric theorists and contrary for the most part to the African cultural nationalist movement, Nkrumah identified scientific socialism as providing the most useful base of systemic principles and productive capacities for redeveloping a social order capable of realizing authentic African social principles. Nkrumah writes:

Whereas capitalism is a development by refinement from slavery and feudalism, socialism does not contain the fundamental ingredient of capitalism, the principle of exploitation. Socialism stands for the very negation of that very principle wherein capitalism has its being, lives, and thrives, that principle which links capitalism with slavery and feudalism. If one seeks the socio-political ancestor of socialism, one must go to communalism. Socialism has characteristics in common with communalism, just as capitalism is linked with feudalism and slavery… Socialism, therefore, can be and is the defence of the principles of communalism in a modern setting. Socialism is a form of social organization which, guided by the principles underlying communism, adopts procedures and measures made necessary by demographic and technological developments… The passage from the ancestral line of slavery via feudalism and capitalism to socialism can only lie through revolution: it cannot lie through reform. For in reform, fundamental principles are held constant and the details of their expression modified (1970: 73).

Further, Nkrumaism’s adherence to socialism is also based on a universally applicable analysis of capitalism.

Contributions of Nkrumaist Theory to Social Science Research

To summarize, the perspective of Nkrumaism provides a valuable resource material and methodology for social science research concerning African people, in particular, and all people who have suffered under imperialism, colonialism, and racism, in general. Its contributions include the following:

(1) Focusing attention on the need for an Autocentred (or Afrocentric) Perspective. The goals, self-conceived meaning and purposeful activity of the group under study must be the starting point for deciding what are meaningful questions to ask. This phenomenological approach guarantees that expression will be given to the positive intent of a people. To conform to this principle, the self-expression of African people must always be a primary component of research problem definition related to black people. To begin to fulfil this exigency, sources that are controlled by (authored or published by) African people must be selected and included in the review of literature initiating research. Their inclusion in the references demonstrates this research step.

(2) The Concept of Positive Action and the Importance of Agency. An Nkrumaist approach requires that research be guided by an ethic of humanism which abjures oppression and human suffering and thus dedicates the professional practice of social science to advancing the struggle of oppressed people and for justice and re-development. This is hindered by a primary focus on cataloguing the ills and barriers facing a people without highlighting and giving expression to the positive strategic actions. This is particularly and uniquely a problem in the literature published regarding African people. An Nkrumaist analysis must seek to promote the positive, or at minimum, balance the negative with the positive. A greater volume of research funding and reporting should be dedicated to researching questions the answers to which are needed by African entities and groups involved in positive activities, and documenting successes while analyzing and debating areas of lacking. In this way, the determination and drive to succeed of African people is supported, reinforced, especially among the African youth.

(3) The Understanding that no situation is Monolithic. An Nkrumaist approach is based on the acknowledgement of the equality of humankind and hence the understanding that no situation of oppression and impoverishment is without efforts toward solution which can become successful. Thus an Nkrumaist approach requires optimism and faith in the ultimate change in the conditions of African people, and hence, dedication to seeking the positive currents among the forces contending in the context of racial strife and neocolonial crisis. Hence, we recognize that no situation is neither monolithic nor should be presented that way. Nkrumaist dialectics stress that every situation of apparent acquiescence to oppressive conditions contains within it a quantitatively changing array of forces, which will eventually result in new qualitative conditions with new possibilities for revolutionary change.

(4) The Pan-African nature (interconnectedness) of African People’s Liberation and Reconstruction movement. An Nkrumaist approach requires that black struggles not be viewed in isolation, but rather that their inter-connections are sought and expressed as they emerge from an interconnected process of dispersion and domination facilitated by the world-system racist order. Given the global aspect of neocolonialism, global organization by African people cannot be overlooked without failing to give expression to positive action. Any assumption of an isolated static fate for African people, whether in a community in the United States, the Caribbean or Africa, is counter to reality.

(5) Neocolonialism and the Revolutionary Tendency of Black Nationalism. The inability of the black elite (middle class) to assimilate within the dominant white social structure leads to their perpetual marginality, and vacillation between identifying with those facing oppressive conditions and status as an African and identifying with the outward success of acculturation as an American, British, Brazilian, etc. Since the black elite is relatively small in number, is marginal, and vacillates, they constitute a wild card, a force which tends to co-opt the movement of the people in support of the system, but can at any time cast their lot with the revolutionary aspirations of the masses. Thus neocolonialism must be viewed dialectically as unstable. For every corrupt dictator there is an African humanist: it is a researcher’s scientific obligation to look beneath the manifest reality that is hegemonic at this point in time.

(6) The African Personality presupposes struggle based on Principles. Poor and impoverished people often rebel, and rebellion is particularly correlated with the development of a gap between what is expected and what occurs (relative deprivation), a situation of illegitimacy. African culture stresses the intrinsic worth of all people, their equality, and therefore the importance of a community of agreement. Consent as opposed to coercion or obedience receives stress. Therefore rebellion in the face of injustice is likely to include a strong response of rejection of false principles and support of perceived just principles. Positive action in the form of appeal to ethics is likely to be effective in promoting social action for positive change. Social science practice that incorporates promotion of positive social principles is good social science, from the perspective of the African revolution and all the globe struggles for freedom and justice, of which it forms a part.

Areas of Debate

In the course of researching the contributions of Nkrumaism to social science theory, several interesting issues were brought up. First, there are concerns about the outcomes of Nkrumaism in practice, as the Nkrumaists in Ghana strove to transform their society and unite Africa in the years 1947 to 1966, when Nkrumah was overthrown by a coup d’etat. Some critique Nkrumah’s preoccupation with the continental level of organizing and decry making Ghana’s future synonymous with Africa’s future. This strategy, however, was overthrown with Nkrumah’s removal and now, forty years later, it is clear that the neocolonial weaknesses and continued exploitation that Nkrumah warned of with balkanization have come to pass. Whether a unified Africa would have fared differently is a conjecture, but neocolonialism has been intense and negative.

Another critique is that Nkrumah’s practice led to the stifling of all opposition under the banner of the one-party state, such as made by Boadi (2000). It seems that the one-party formulation made possible the entrenchment of bureaucracy, such that legitimate debate and change, dialectical processes, could not take place. On the other hand, the purpose of this bringing together of all political impulses within the nation was a somewhat desperate attempt to pre-empt the consolidation of negative action intent on re-establishing colonial privileges and hierarchies.

It may be that the larger error was the failure to use independence to revolutionize the existing bureaucracy, and in particular the military, as the colonial commanding officers and judicial systems judges and personnel were utilized for some time for training purposes. As Nkrumah later wrote: “It is far easier for the proverbial camel to pass through the needle’s eye, hump and all, than for an erstwhile colonial administration to give sound and honest counsel of a political nature to its liberated territory” (1970: 102).

In this respect, it seems that Nkrumah’s contribution to the African revolution may best be thought of as one which underwent development. To some extent, the labour movement encountered the same problem in seeking to create monolithic organization (Michels 1998). The national liberation movements that did not – such as that of Michael Manley, Jr. in Jamaica, where his People’s National Party struggled with the Jamaica Labour Party – suffered from constant, negative action, cynical pork-barrel politics, and the fomenting of bloody internal political strife. It is therefore definitely an open question as to the best method of political organization. Clearly, in no way, shape or fashion have the principles of an authentic African Personality been taken into consideration in the formation of governments – constitutions, armed forces, office of head of state and legislative processes. All were imported wholesale from capitalist core nations, hence, today, an Nkrumaist can only look forward to an opportunity to attempt legitimate political development, or to become more aware of new developments.

Another aspect of the critique of Nkrumah’s practice is the analysis that Nkrumah acted in a self-centred, egoistic manner, and that he sought uniting Africa to arrogate all power unto himself. This critique appears short-sighted. First, it is clear that Nkrumah did seek to centralize power: to bind a continental-wide nation together in a monolithic, centralized, planned social structure capable of resisting external coercion and focusing resources on the critical areas of infrastructure and human development. In many ways, the China of today is a testimony to this path of development. The real issue is one of intent: did Nkrumah want to do this for his personal power and edification, or for the benefit of the nation? I would argue there is much evidence in support of the latter interpretation, including the fact that after 17 years of service as political leader and president, Nkrumah amassed no wealth, in fact, had no house or lands of his own, such that his family even up until recently had no home to return to in Ghana after their exile.

Julius Nyerere, a well-respected doyen of the African liberation struggle, pointed out shortly before his death that he “recognized the errors of those who saw lurking behind Nkrumah’s messianic and evangelical thrust for African union a simple ambition for personal aggrandizement” (Muchie 2000: 299). A year before his death, Nkrumah wrote in his collected works, Revolutionary Path (1973):

I do not think that I have ever attended a single meeting or conference between African states where I have not warned against the dangers of delaying unification. It is not practical politics in Africa today to work for any other goal. There is not an African state which is secure, or which is free to develop its resources to the full for the benefit of its own people. All are economically weak, and all are politically unstable. Unless we unite there can be no progress, and the suffering of the African masses will continue (1973: 140).

What seems pertinent here is the fact that it is one of the distinctive characteristics of an oppressed people that development of the self-respect, love and trust of each other necessary to unify behind a leader is particularly difficult, because of inferiority complexes and self-hatred, and cooptation of the “talented” into the service of the oppressors to serve as middle-men in the enslavement and furtherance of the neocolonial experience. Further, when power is wrested by the actions of the poor masses, and “granted” from above, there are many contenders among the more elite segment of African societies who feel, by virtue of their accomplishment to date, including those made possible by their allegiance to the colonial powers, they should be the recipient of power in the new nations. Nkrumah, from a minority tribe and lower class background, was unacceptable to many of these leaders.

A perhaps more germane critique is of the attempt to establish Nkrumaism as an “ism.” Here it is suggested that generally this leads to dogmatic thinking, a closure of real debate in favour of enshrining the words of a past hero. While there is certainly this danger, the import of establishing a paradigm which may be denoted by an “ism” is that it serves as a basic standpoint from which to proceed. As with an ‘ideology’, it provides a unifying point. Once one acknowledges that their work is Nkrumaist, certain choices are expected to have been made. Just as being in the Marxist tradition presupposes that there is an acceptance that class struggle is the major force for change, that inequality is related to exploitation, that material conditions are primary, etc., so in espousing Nkrumaism it is expected that certain questions have been answered. And this commonality of answer serves notice to other social scientists that they may begin the discussion/inquiry from where those questions leave off. It will not be necessary to argue whether African culture is important to the development of socialism in Africa, or whether traditional communalism is the model instead of employing scientific technologies and social systems. Having a paradigm called Nkrumaism establishes a core of agreed upon theory, literally a summary of what has been learned in the African struggle to date. For this I find it valuable.

Of course, some may debate why not designate it otherwise, such as a Pan-African approach, but many rubrics are too general, such as Pan-Africanism, which is a goal shared by many, including many who conflict on basic issues, such as the need for class struggle in Africa. Other theorists, such as Cheikh Anta Diop, are also seminal to theorizing for the African struggle, and it is valid to describe works and aspects of work as Diopian. However, I would argue that no other theorists offers valuable analyses, principles and theories regarding as many critical issues covered by Nkrumah, hence the importance of designating his work with an “ism.”

Finally, one of my concerns is that nationalism is itself a limited, in some respects, reactionary outlook. It is reactionary because African nationalism emanates from the struggle to repel European and Arab incursions: it is a defensive reaction to enslavement and imperialism. Essentially within the African Personality there is very little to valorise any concepts of xenophobia or elitism. Africans have more been characterized by their openness to other cultures, their tendency to believe that there is truth to be found among all peoples, and their unwillingness to exclude. However, the emergence of the modern world-system of capitalism has shown the tremendous power residing in ethnocentrism – closing ranks around a family or clan, or heritage-based grouping. One is born into such groupings and they are thus formative of the person, and identity is inherent. This identity can be mobilized to create close cohesion and solidarity, and in solidarity there is strength. However, this strength can be used for good or evil: there is little that is inherently ethical about ethnic-group mobilization. Africans, like many other peoples in the world struggling to throw off imperialism and neocolonialism, seek to employ nationalism.

But it is my belief, that Nkrumaism as a form of nationalism does contain its own contradictions which is it incumbent upon Nkrumaists to keep critically in mind and seek to overcome. It is important to remain cognizant of the struggles of other sectors of people, other national groups, gender-based struggles, etc., while pursuing an ethnic-based movement. Nkrumah himself was actually criticized for his tendency to move away from strictly African nationalist concerns. In fact, the overthrow of his regime came when he had travelled to Hanoi to help seek resolution to the deadly Vietnam crisis. Nkrumah worked to serve the interests of other peoples and of global peace. His concern with the anti-nuclear movement, involvement in the Non-Aligned Movement, and close ties to China and other countries display the strength of the global side of his work. This global understanding, beginning from a set of commitments developed within one’s own cultural group is characteristic of just about every theorist representing freedom struggles, including, for instance, Gandhi representing the Indians. It is in some ways consonant with an Nkrumaist understanding that each people has a character and it is necessary to valorise that cultural heritage to find the strands which can be used to fashion a plan for the future which takes as its centre, the struggle of that people, but has as its ultimate objective, interacting in harmony with all people.

If any fault is to be established in Nkrumaism, perhaps, it is really the lack of time expended by Nkrumaists to truly incorporate the African Personality in its principles, discourse, presentation and formulations. This is the historical legacy of slavery, colonialism, imperialism and neocolonialism: much energy has been diverted to fighting for freedom from oppression that could have been used for positive action, searching out, expressing and building upon African culture, ways of living and heritage. Hountondji (1997) points out that Nkrumah himself devoted much of his early research during his education to refuting the theories of western ethnologists on Africa, and that “Nkrumah’s thesis clearly addresses itself to a non-African public… It attempts to have an impact on Western opinions, and not on those of Akan [Akan philosophy was the topic] or African communities.” He also acknowledges that “once he was fully engaged in political life, he was no longer equally interested in this type of argumentation… As far as philosophy was concerned, it would no longer be useful, in Nkrumah’s eyes, to pursue the sophisms of others, but rather to propose to his own compatriots a ‘philosophy and (an) ideology for decolonization and development” (1997: 117). This seems true. Apparently Nkrumah’s solution was to never publish this work.

This is a very important point for African scholars. If one accepts an obligation to engage all that is written and valorised by western scholars on African people before embarking on espousing what one has seen her/himself, then I believe one will never get to it, or only produce a footnoteworth of work authentic to the African Personality. It is a difficult situation: western academics serve as gatekeepers for what is valid, and so long as they rely upon their own colleagues for determining what are important social questions, they will distort and force African scholarship to serve their interests and purposes. For instance, there is a need to enact discussion about Africa in African languages (and then make translations too) so the vast majority of the people who do not use Western languages freely can participate, and so that the nuances, symbolism and paradigms of traditional Africa can inform the discussion. Constitutions of pre-colonial times need to be analyzed and compared for guidance on how the residual structures of clan, tribe, women’s groups, age groups, etc., can be guided into a coherent governance structure. The continental unity of African people, the amazing stories of their migrations, trials and triumphs need to be documented and told, so that again they may inspire new formulations. These things could not come about in Nkrumah’s time. We are only at the beginning. Nkrumaism serves to point the direction, summarizing what has been learned in the struggle to survive and prosper under foreign domination, and suggesting the route forward through Consciencism.


Nkrumaism presents a valuable body of social philosophy and theory upon which to base social science research. The analysis of categorical conversion based on the African concept of the inter-reducibility of the spiritual and the material offers a unique outlook for analyzing the importance of agency and ideology to social change. It also acts as a corrective to the Western penchant to divide reality into the objective and the subjective, and then relegate the subjective to the category of irrational and useless. Philosophical outlooks and theoretical choices precede all modelling of social reality, definition of social problems, and attempts at analysis and understanding. What has been castigated as ideological are works that explicitly designate alternative values, principles and goals from the hegemonic – taken-for-granted – ones underlying the Western worldsystem. These principles and their philosophical base have supported the enslavement and exploitation of African people for centuries, continuing today with the neocolonial debt peonage, financial oversight, and “free market” structure. By insisting on the importance of positive action, an Nkrumaist approach requires that all research and discourse related to Africa begin by exploring authentic African espousals of their principles and social goals, so that one is, at minimum, conscious of the relationship of their intended research questions to the goals of the subjects.

Hence, this paper serves as both a admonition to African scholars to eschew being drawn into defensive scholarship in favour of positive action as proponents of analyses informed by authentic African social goals and forms of knowledge, and an appeal to scholars of the dominant western establishment to discourage publication of scholarship that starts from western world-views and analyses and ends with western world-views and analyses. No African philosopher or social theorist beloved by African people in any manner considered except through the positive contributions of their intellectual effort to the upliftment of African peoples. Louis Althusser stressed in his seminal essay on the ideological state apparatus that individuals can be constituted as ‘subjects’ with two radically different meanings: they may become ‘the subject’ of an imposing power, or they may become the initiator, the ‘subject’ of their own actions. It is in the latter sense that Nkrumaism serves the cause of African Renaissance.


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1 Marima Ani (2000) relies on this Swahili word’s meaning of “generative core,” to describe the discernable pattern of responses to challenges of life that characterizes a particular people which can be traced throughout their history; perhaps similar to what Steinberg (2001) terms a people’s “deep culture.”