Monday, April 25, 2011

Karim Hirji's Expanded Rejoinder to Annar Cassam's 'Citing Nyerere:Communists,Catholics and Cheche Comrades in Context'




Annar Cassam provided her version of the background and context for the quote of Mwalimu Nyerere's in relation to Cheche and communism. I aim to broaden that picture by first reflecting on the general role of religion in politics and society.

1. The right of any person to follow any religion or creed is a fundamental right to be respected. Nevertheless, the role of organized, institutionalized religion in society must be critically evaluated. While the former is a private matter, along the latter dimension, religion and politics have always been intertwined.

2. Religious movements and institutions have played a dual role in human history. At times, they have sided with human liberation and progress, while at other times they have protected the ruling elites, and promoted inequality and injustice.

3. Some examples: Early Christianity was associated with the struggles against the oppressive Roman empire but later the Church hierarchy was integrated with feudal forces oppressing the peasants across Europe. After the tenth century AD, emergent Protestantism was allied with anti-feudal societal tendencies and enlightenment.

Yet again, Christian churches played a key role in providing ideological justification for slavery and slave trade and colonial rule in Africa. Accordingly Europeans came here on a "civilizing Christian mission" -- masking the true motives of commerce, resources and inter-imperialist rivalry. Notwithstanding that, many indigenous Church based groups played a critical role in the struggle for independence. In Apartheid South Africa, one segment of the Christian church backed the system while another stood in opposition to it. In the USA of 1950s and 1960s, right wing church-based groups opposed the moves towards racial equality by claiming it was a communistic idea. On the other hand, Martin Luther King Jr. and black churches joined the fight against racism and discrimination.

That duality was manifested during the Cold War. As Cassam notes, it was strikingly evident in Latin America. Here, the papacy and upper hierarchy of the Catholic Church were firmly allied with brutal dictatorships. But the basic reason, in contrast to what she says, was not just the background of Pope John II. It was based on an alliance that predated his reign. The principal grievance of the peasants and native peoples was the highly unequal and unjust nature of land ownership, the decisive factor perpetuating intense poverty and misery. A few local landlords, foreign corporations, and Churches owned most of the best land. The Vatican was the largest land owner in Latin America. The Churches were fabulously wealthy. The peasants, tenants and workers lived miserably. The Vatican during the Cold War allied with the US imperialism; both used the bogey of communism to hide their true motive -- that of supporting the unjust global order that oppressed the people of Africa and the Third World.

Peasant and urban movements rose to confront these American and Vatican supported dictatorships. Ordinary priests allied with the masses under the ideology of liberation theology but were branded as communists. Many were tortured and murdered by US trained, funded and armed death squads by the hundreds.

4. In Tanzania as well, during Colonial times and the struggle for independence, church based groups played a dual role. In the days of the Arusha Declaration, as Cassam points out, the Vatican induced local churches to oppose socialism in any form, claiming that it would lead to communism. This was in conformity with its global role and not, as Cassam says, "unexpected."

When the Arusha Declaration was announced, there was a ground swell of support from the masses. The elites did not like it at all. The Catholic hierarchy distributed flyers and preached that it would lead to "god-less" communism. In Tanzania, however, no Church based or religious grouping actively or politically favored the Declaration. Many senior party functionaries and bureaucrats opposed socialism in reality though in public, they hypocritically recited Mwalimu's words and writings.

5. This was the context in which the University Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF) and its magazine, Cheche, were born at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) in the late 1960. USARF was a legally registered pan-Africanist, militant student group, completely independent of the ruling party, yet firmly dedicated to socialism and African liberation. Prior to that, the UDSM student body was right-wing through and through. USARF undertook major educational efforts, in alliance with progressive lecturers (as recounted in the book Cheche) to organize public lectures, work in Ujamaa villages and nearby shambas, demonstrations, self education classes, university curriculum review etc. to turn around that situation. In so doing it laid the foundation for the emergence of the most progressive center of scholarship in Africa. Slowly but surely, support for socialism and commitment to the cause of African liberation began to rise among the student body at UDSM.

6. USARF and Cheche were independent, not under Party control. They were critical of the half-hearted, bungled and mis-guided manner in which the policy of socialism and self-reliance was implemented. They organized public debates, challenged cabinet ministers and party bosses, and pointed out the main deficiencies. Big party and state bosses thoroughly hated USARF. And so did the representatives of the Western powers.

USARF was not a stooge of any Eastern bloc nation. It did not get any funds from them. When the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, USARF organized a demonstration in front of the USSR Embassy in Dar es Salaam and issued a strong statement to condemn it. USARF maintained close relationships with all African Liberation movements, raised funds for them, visited the liberated areas of Mozambique, and had good relations with anti-imperialist movements across the world.

The detractors of USARF said it sought to form a communist party, promoted violence and a foreign ideology, Marxism. These were lies and half-truths. USARF and Cheche took Marxism very seriously because its was an essential aspect of the development of socialist thought, and held classes to study it because it was ignored by the university curriculum and TANU's political education classes. So what if it originated from else where? The English language we used in education was not indigenous; nor was catholicism which Mwalimu adhered to (and which, like it or not, influenced his political thought). The ruling party's ideological college (Kivukoni College) was modeled after Ruskin College of UK which espoused Fabian form of socialism and was staffed by people who followed that creed -- how indigenous was that? In terms of violence, Cheche supported the right of the people of Africa to conduct armed struggle for liberation as did Mwalimu Nyerere, as did Nelson Mandela and the ANC. The latter two were branded as terrorists! (It is the same story today -- when they attack Libya with bombs they are protecting civilians, it is only Ghaddafi who is practicing violence, and not the insurgents whom they arm. But in Egypt, they want the demonstrators to be peaceful and even a few stone throwing incidents will be highlighted as violent acts to be deplored).

7. Socialism seeks to use the wealth of the nation for the benefit of ordinary people, not foreign investors, local tycoons or powerful bureaucrats. A socialist government always will encounter a massive opposition from these latter forces to undermine it in every way. When Lumumba said that the wealth of Congo was for the benefit of the people of Congo, he became a target of imperialism. How many times the CIA has tried to murder or overthrow Castro and destabilize the Cuban society -- think about that. The hostility and fire towards Mwalimu was to be expected -- nothing surprising about that, and the reason will always be a strange one. (For example: as John Nichols noted recently and even though Obama has nothing in common with socialism and is quite pro-business "The Republican Party is currently firmer in its accusation that the Democrats are steering the nation “towards socialism” than it was during Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare of the 1950s, when the senator from Wisconsin was accusing Harry Truman of harboring Communist Party cells in the government. Truman had stirred conservative outrage by arguing that the government had the authority to impose anti-lynching laws on the states and by proposing a national healthcare plan." In South Africa in the sixties, as noted above, Mandela was branded a terrorist and a communist, a label which the US government retained in its official record till recently.)

8. There are, in general two ways to follow in that situation of hostility from powerful forces. One is to empower the ordinary people, unite progressive forces and prepare for a long term struggle on the economic, political, diplomatic and progressive front. Another is to compromise on main principles to reassure the powerful forces and minimize their hostility.

Take note of the overthrow of Salvadore Allende in Chile when he sought to move his nation in a left-ward direction. The lesson of history had and has been that if you are serious about building socialism, be prepared to confront intense hostility and sabotage from the West and seriously prepare for that eventuality. Mwalimu Nyerere was well aware of that but he did not try to build a genuinely socialist party to confront that situation.

Unfortunately and in many ways, he elected the latter option. Staunchly socialist voices in the government (like Babu) and party (like Ngombale Mwiru) were sidelined. After nationalization of major firms, the management was handed over to Western companies (as detailed by Shivji in Cheche No. 3 -- The Silent Class Struggle), the World Bank went on to play a decisive role in economic planning (socialism designed by the World Bank is surely the biggest joke in the world); workers were suppressed by brute force when they upheld TANU's socialist guidelines, and so on.

When Mwalimu visited UDSM, USARF members called on him to establish structures to empower the grassroots and set up self-defense people's militias. He derided these as infantile moves. But later the militias were set up and used to herd peasants by force into so-called ill-conceived and unplanned ujamaa villages. Regional decentralization structures were established but as planned by an American management consulting firm and which became the basis for top-down control of the masses and not of giving power to the people. Independent moves and groups of peasants were quashed by the party. (There are many examples. A number of books including Cheche document them).

9. USARF, Cheche and later on, other progressive media exposed this vast gap between rehtoric and reality, and thereby drew the ire of the state. That was the primary reason underlying why they were banned or removed from the university. Yes, there were other reasons, but they were secondary.

10. Mwalimu thereby banned a consistent and dedicated voice for socialism in Tanzania. Progressive supporters of Tanzania were stunned; there was negative reaction in the media; almost the entire student body at UDSM (including the detractors of Cheche) was unhappy. African liberation movements wondered why a group firmly supporting them, espousing Pan-Africanism and socialism (be it of a Marxist variety or not) was banned. The state and the party back tracked a bit but the damage was done. Read the details of this history and its aftermath in the book Cheche.

11. Though progressive students and staff re-grouped and continued the struggle, the party functionaries now running the university administration slowly but surely got rid of progressive lecturers (local and expatriate) till a just few voices remained. What was once a stellar source of serious socialist scholarship eventually became an academic morass that was neither a fine traditional academic institution nor an innovative arena of learning of the left-wing variety. What we got was the worst of both worlds. (There were other reasons for that outcome as well but the gross interference into the academy like that exercised towards USARF and Cheche set the stage for that trend).


Annar Cassam says her aim was to give "background and context." But she only gives a small part of this context, which, moreover, is highly biased. Using the evasive term "altercation" without noting that it climaxed in the banning of a progressive student group and magazine is to mislead the audience. To leave out important aspects of the context is equivalent to decontextualizing the event and Mwalimu's quote.

She says that the move by the President "I believe had nothing to do with the "radical content" [of Cheche] which nobody took to be the gospel truth by the way, beyond the Hill ... but with juvenile intellectual arrogance and serious lack of knowledge about what was going on in the country." With these dismissive and derogatory words, she goes beyond giving the context to passes a strong judgment on the radical students, and thereby tries to justify the moves against them.

She says the students gave "their local magazine the same name as the Marxist publication in Moscow" but fails to mention that Kwame Nkrumah also had a magazine by that name and which was another reason why the students used the name Cheche. Whatever the case, in this day and age, to justify the silencing of progressive or other student voice and magazine by the state authorities because they use a politically embarrassing name sounds distinctively ridiculous.

She says the students "were asked to change it [the name ] and they refused ... hence the altercation with the President ... " This, I can personally attest, is not true. My fellow editor of Cheche, Henry Mapolu, and I had two meetings with Annar Cassam in those days. She came as a representative of Mwalimu (she was one of his assistants). We were asked to cool our rhetoric, that is true; but we refused to compromise. It was not the question of a name -- that was just an excuse used later on. USARF and Cheche spoke truth to power, they were too independent and that could not be tolerated.

She says "I do not mention any group and I did not ban anything!" and she says these things were not relevant! What is this background that leaves out the key aspects of the tale? Yes, she did not ban anything and, indeed, could not have done so. Only her boss had the power to do so. And he did ban. She served him well then and apparently continues to do so blindly by presenting a partial version of history. Sadly, she turns these serious issues into matters of petty mud-slinging by such statements.


While we have to respect Mwalimu Nyerere for many tremendous achievements on the national and international arena, we must be faithful to historical truth and remember accurately what transpired in the days of the Arusha Declaration. Only then can the youth learn from the achievements and mistakes of the past and propel Africa towards genuine liberation and progress.

Do not take my or Annar Cassam words as "gospel truth" or anything like it. Read the many books written about those days; form discussion groups; analyze the current local and global situation in depth and form your own visions and strategies. For learning about the era of the Arusha Declaration, I suggest you start with Andrew Coulson's Political Economy of Tanzania, go on to Henry Mapolu's book Workers and Management in Tanzania, then to Monica von Freyhold's Ujamaa Villages in Tanzania, and Shivji's The State and the Working People in Tanzania, and the latest work, Cheche. And of course, read the Arusha Declaration, Education for Self-reliance and Mwalimu's writings. And there are many more, including those dealing with the global history, the theory and practice of socialism, and the current situation.

The issue of religion should not divide people and progressive forces. Respect all forms of religious and other beliefs but recognize the social role played by some institutional religious forces for their narrow ends, and educate the people about that. For example, today the imperialists like to identify Islam with terrorism and many buy into that bogus rhetoric. Religious groups, like any group in society, have the full right to express and disseminate their political views. Their critics also have the same right. But the rights and expressions of ordinary people and social institutions is not the same as the use of state, financial and imperial power to disseminate, by local and international media, the propaganda serving the interests of the rich, powerful and imperialism. The latter has to be exposed and people have to be educated about its nature and content. Particularly, we have a lot to learn from how Mwalimu Nyerere strove to diffuse religious tensions and promote social harmony.

The main lesson of the Cheche episode is to firmly respect the rights of all viewpoints, however unpopular or unpalatable, to express themselves, and to expand the avenues and ability for ordinary people to express their right of free speech widely, effectively and in a timely manner without undue hindrance.

Read, learn and struggle. Do not look for donor funds to do that. Be self-reliant and dare to sacrifice to serve the masses.


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