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2: Precolonial African societies

Much work has been done on precolonial African societies in an attempt to determine what modes of production developed there, what types of contradictions marked their evolution and what were their particular characteristics compared to the classic schemes of a certain conception of Marxism. Heated debates have led to the confrontation of various theses. Some maintain that Africa did not escape the general laws of the evolution of societies which proceed from 'orthodox' Marxist analysis. Thus it is said that, apart from a few non-determining specific features, the same types of evolution from the primitive commune to feudal society, including slave society, are to be found there, as was the case in Western European societies. Other analyses try to show that many regions of Africa were marked by modes of production belonging to the 'Asiatic' type of societies pointed out by Marx.

Some students have tried to show that African societies do not fall into any of these well known classic categories current in Marxist literature, and that while respecting the method of approach of historical materialism, analysis of these societies would lead to the discovery of such particular characteristics that it is possible to speak only of a strictly African mode of production.

This attempt to understand the nature of precolonial African societies is not simply of speculative intellectual value. Indeed, it is only knowledge of this past - despite the tentative nature of the conclusions that might be reached, and uncertainty and inadequacy of the archaeological materials and the accumulated sociological data - which can throw light on the history of these societies and make it possible to correctly assess the problems relating to today's struggles, and bring out possible prospects for the future. Better understanding of the earlier societies will make it possible to assess the importance of the resistance to penetration of the capitalist system into the traditional sectors, and to situate the causes of the setbacks to current attempts at modernization in these sectors.

On at least one point all researchers are agreed: precolonial Africa had generally everywhere progressed beyond the stage of primitive communism. Bands of individuals grouped together and lived by hunting and gathering, sharing the common booty or common finds equitably. The very uncertainty of the condition of life necessitated total solidarity resting on an almost total egalitarianism.

If primitive communism had disappeared, then what type of society replaced it? Researchers are divided on the answer to this question. There are many arguments to defend each position, since knowledge of the subject continues to be uncertain and inadequate. Our aim then is not to reveal the truth which others failed to reach, but to attempt a synthesis that might contribute to understanding the stagnation, regression and crises that Africa is today experiencing, which are situated on various levels, political, economic and social.

Stalin, it may be remembered, listed five stages for the known evolution of the history of humanity. Given the very dominant influence of Stalin and the USSR on Marxist thought, and not only the thought but also the whole Marxist practice of the period, this statement was systematized into a catechism. Thus, a schema of the evolution of humanity in five stages on the example of Western Europe was established for the whole of humanity. It was not until the end of this period during which Marxist thought remained frozen, something which is contrary to its nature, that researchers began to ask themselves again about the real nature of earlier non-European societies (Asia and Africa notably) and research resumed leaving aside any schematic dogmatism.

People began again to study the writings of Marx and Engels on the question, as well as the often fragmentary information provided by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, etc. Thus, it was discovered or rediscovered that Marx had detected in the ancient East a quite particular mode of production which he had called the Asiatic mode of production.

It is worth recalling that the Soviet supporters at the Tiflis and Leningrad conferences (1929-31) had rejected this mode of production because of the implications of stagnation that it involved and which might lend credence to the idea that the socialist revolution was impossible in China.

Marx had not examined this mode of production in depth, and after the Stalinist period efforts were made to fill the gap. Later, numerous authors reached the conclusion that this mode of production was typical, in different forms, of both the societies of the East and Far East and African societies.

Numerous publications have appeared, either confirming or rejecting this thesis. In this framework, studies published under the auspices of the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Marxistes - Editions Sociales (C.E.R.M.), notably on precapitalist societies and the Asiatic mode of production, played a pioneering role. In the publication entitled Sur les Sociétés Précapitalistes, Maurice Godelier endeavoured to reconstruct what Marx actually thought using selected texts by Marx, Engels and Lenin, some of which had long been unknown to many researchers, a fact which had led to distortions and deviations throughout a whole historical period. Thus, for example, in order to show that the five-stage schema was never part of Marx's thinking, he quotes a letter from Marx, addressed to the editorial board of a publishing house in late 1877. Marx then wrote:

But that is too little for my critic. He feels he absolutely must metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of the general path every people is fated to tread, whatever the historical circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which ensures, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. He is both honouring and shaming me too much.1

But Maurice Godelier was not satisfied simply to try and re-establish Marx's true thought. He also expressed reservations not on the movement critical of the Stalinist period that began after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, but on the fact that this movement of criticism was at one on seeking a simple return to Marx, which in his view threatened to lead to new dogmatisms. According to him, while keeping in mind this heritage, it was necessary to take account of the much more advanced state of information and scientific knowledge now available about precapitalist societies, in order to purify this heritage and eliminate the 'dead wood' from it.

On the subject of the Asiatic mode of production, he considered as 'dead wood' the notion of 'oriental despotism' and the idea of 'unchangeableness' advanced among the typical characteristics of this mode of production. We shall have occasion to return to these issues in the course of our reflexions on precolonial African societies.

In the C.E.R.M.'s second book devoted to research on the Asiatic mode of production, Jean Suret-Canale concluded that there did exist some forms of this mode of production in some ancient African societies. In the same book, Maurice Godelier moved in the same direction while Jean Chesneaux raised questions, and Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch thought rather that research should be directed at discovering a peculiarly African mode of production, since she was unable to find in earlier African societies the basic features typical of the Asiatic mode of production. There are, however, still many authors who accept the five-stage schema of the Stalinist period, especially among Soviet authors and researchers and those who think like them. They generally place ancient African societies in the slave system or in the little developed stages of the feudal system. Majhmout Diop in his study, Histoire des Classes Sociales en Afrique de l'Ouest, adopts this approach.

We shall endeavour to examine the main theses advocated in order to have at least an outline, inevitably no more than a tentative one, of the nature of precolonial African societies.

In his study 'Les sociétés traditionelles en Afrique tropicale et le concept de mode de production asiatique', Jean Suret-Canale thinks that many precolonial African societies belonged in the family of the Asiatic mode of production2. Broadly speaking, he distinguishes two main types among tropical African societies existing at that time: tribal or tribo-patriarchal societies and class societies. The former he sees simply as societies in transition between the primitive community and class societies. As a result the possibility appears of forming a surplus and hence too the possibility of exploitation. It seems that these societies persisted above all in regions with low agricultural productivity, as was the case, for example, in the dense forest zones where difficulties in clearing land considerably reduced productivity. In addition, the very nature of the products (plantation crops more difficult to conserve) did not make it easy to accumulate a surplus.

It followed that the need for the exploitation of man by man was less marked, and society tended to remain more egalitarian. The families of the first occupants of the land would levy tributes from other incoming families which would form the village. But, in general, these tributes were only compensations for the responsibilities that had fallen upon them, religious responsibilities or responsibilities for distributing land. Even in the event of war, the captured enemy was simply incorporated into the family where he contributed to the common production. But the seeds of class exploitation existed already since the chiefs of the land (the first occupants) who were sometimes also war chiefs could, by conquest, extend their rule and domination over other villages from which they would also levy tribute. That could lead to the exploitation of a whole set of village communities opening the way to the appearance of true exploiting classes.

In short, these were stateless societies, because in them classes were not truly formed - in which the surplus product and productivity were extremely low and in which, therefore, the level of productive forces was still very low and the division of labour still embryonic. The consequence of all this was that there was little exploitation of man by man, with even prisoners of war not being true slaves, that is men who had the right to live only in order to work for others. This type of social organization is said to have existed among the Fang in Cameroon, the Manssangou in Gabon, the Kissi in Guinea, etc.

In his analysis of class societies, Jean Suret-Canale stresses that

without falling once again into an excessive geographical determinism, it is quite clear that the savanna environment with its cereal agriculture and the necessity, imposed by the seasonal rhythm of the climate, to build up reserves with the facilities of circulation, trade and diffusion of techniques that it involves, lent itself particularly well to the deepening of social conflicts.

Quoting Jean-Jacques Maquet, he adds:

the surplus product, the surplus, was particularly significant there because it could be made up of cereals and legumes. They can be preserved almost indefinitely, are easy to transport and easy to measure and are uniform enough to be comparable. These characteristics make possible a certain accumulation of a very movable wealth. Thus, the surplus can be easily separated from the producer, pass from hand to hand and be concentrated in a relatively large quantity.

When therefore the conditions of accumulation of the surplus improved, there emerged a tendency to make the defeated into slaves working for patriarchal families.

The war chiefs and the chiefs of the land then began to embark on raids and wars to extend their power over families and villages, and this became a means of enrichment. Slavery tended to become universal with the constitution of slave families and slave villages and hence of antagonistic classes. Must we then conclude that a slave society existed? Jean Suret-Canale thinks not. Slaves were exploited through being obliged to perform services without them having any well-defined role in the masters' system of production. On this point he notes:

The large agricultural estate based on servile labour or artisanal workshops based on slave labour were always unknown in Africa or only appeared there exceptionally... The condition of captive, although very widespread in Africa, had an essentially legal content and did not imply any given role in the production which characterizes a social class.

Jean Suret-Canale believes even less in the existence of a feudal society, since the relations of production which characterize this mode of production are based on a landed hierarchy, the feudal lords having private and personal rights over land. African societies which did not have private ownership of land could not be included in this framework.

The use of the term feudalism in this case could at most have a political meaning. The contradictory development of class society was to lead to the appearance of the state in its role as preserver of the interests of the dominant classes. The African states would be consolidated thanks to their economic role based essentially on trade, and particularly long-distance trade.

In conclusion, Jean Suret-Canale proposes a sufficiently broad definition of the Asiatic mode of production that it includes African societies:

It remains that, in our opinion, the socio-economic structure characteristic of the Asiatic mode of production is limited to the coexistence of a production apparatus based on the rural community, the collective ownership of the land to the exclusion of any form of private ownership, and the exploitation of man by man in forms which may be extremely varied, but which always pass through the intermediary of the communities.3

That, of course, pushes into the background the problem of irrigation which had struck Marx as the economic role of the state in Asiatic societies. In reality, for Marx this problem of irrigation was never a determining feature of the characteristics of the Asiatic mode of production. As Jean Chesneaux,4 Maurice Godelier,5 Jean Suret-Canale and many other Marxists have shown, this question of irrigation was only emphasized by well-known anti-Marxists, inspired by the determination to ridicule Marx's idea and discredit the socialist world. Karl Wittfogel6 stands out in this respect. Taking the notion of the Asiatic mode of production, he reduced it to a 'hydraulic society' whereas for Marx, irrigation works such as the great unproductive prestige works were only possible bases for the appearance of a state dominating the primitive communities. Thus, according to Jean Suret-Canale, Africa experienced a form of the Asiatic mode of production with trade, and especially long-distance trade, playing the economic role in consolidating the state.

Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch in 'Recherches sur un Mode de Production Africain'7 "disputes the main points put forward by Jean Suret-Canale that we have just examined. First, she thinks excessive importance is given to the notion of state and stateless societies in Africa; next she rejects 'the definition of a surplus value exclusively based on the diversion of the labour of villagers by privileged strata'; finally, she finds the definition of the Asiatic mode of production given by Jean Suret-Canale 'too general to be operational.' At any event, she thinks that the earlier African societies evolved in ways totally different from the ways in which both European and Asiatic societies evolved. Research should thus be directed towards defining a strictly African mode of production. As for the basic difference between the types of evolution observed in Africa and Europe, there does not seem to be any serious disagreement between her and Jean Suret-Canale who also accepts it.

Her analysis is thus centred on demonstrating that the same basic difference exists between the types of evolution that developed in Africa and in Asia. She starts from a narrower definition of the Asiatic mode of production which 'presupposes on the one hand village communities based on collective productive activity' but bound to a 'higher unit' which, in the form of a state regime, is capable of compelling the mass of the population to work collectively; this 'generalized slavery' reveals the 'economic high command' of a despot who 'exploits the communities at the same time as he rules them'.

According to Vidrovitch, the dynamic element, that is, the motor of the evolution of society, in this mode of production remains the massive public works which the village communities are forced to execute by a despotic government. This she finds nowhere in Africa. But rather 'the economic life of precolonial African societies was characterized by the juxtaposition of two apparently contradictory levels: on the one hand village subsistence, on the other, big international, even intercontinental trade.'

With numerous rich historical references she endeavours to show the basic importance of long-distance trade in the evolution of a whole range of African societies. On top of that is the fact that, even in the most centralized societies, the tribo-patriarchal structures remained the form of village organization; she therefore feels it necessary in Africa to get beyond 'the traditional contrast between state society and stateless society.' In addition, according to her, the major exactions, that is, the most intense exploitation was not exercised on the subject village communities; 'they came from outside the territory thanks to annual raids or to peaceful commercial transactions.' 'The specificity of the African mode of production,' if we understand correctly, the motor of the evolution of African societies, is seen as resting in 'the combination of a patriarchal economy and the exclusive ascendancy of one group over long-distance trade.'

Thus, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch concludes that the African mode of production is not reducible to the precapitalist modes of production in the West and the Asiatic mode of production 'in the absence of a true despotism aiming at the direct exploitation of the peasant class'.

As for Majhmout Diop, in Histoire des Classes Sociales en Afrique de l'Ouest he puts himself firmly in the line of classical thinkers who consider that Africa evolved 'like all human societies except for a few minor variations and that it had the primitive community, slavery and if not full feudalism at least its lower forms.' His argument is based mainly on the large numbers of slaves and their integration into the system of production. Not only was the mass of slaves very large, but also only a tiny fraction was considered as domestic slaves, that is, as servants. The others 'slaved away in the fields', that is, they were integrated into the system of production. He illustrates his analysis by statistics taken from Mali and Songhai.

Majhmout Diop concludes the chapter on the 'nature of precolonial society' in these words:

The originality of our society both as regards the castes and in the organization of village communes and collective ownership of the land scarcely goes beyond the framework long ago outlined by Marx, who had elsewhere foreseen the wealth of possible forms and stages. There is, therefore, no need, it seems to me, to seek specific modes of production.

Since we do not intend here to offer anything new with regard to such a crucial problem which would require years of interdisciplinary research, we shall aim for a degree of simplification which might make it possible to bring out the main features of precolonial African societies.

Thus, we have thought to limit to these three main theses those that have attempted to define these societies, given that each of the theses covers a multitude of variants.8 What is particularly interesting in these three theses is that their main exponents, Jean Suret-Canale, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch and Majhmout Diop, looked especially at the case of Africa in the firm hope of discovering the main bases of their theses there.

We shall now compare the three theses to bring out those features on which they seem to be agreed and to uncover the contradictions between them. This will help to pinpoint the structures that seem essential in the socio-economic formations that precolonial Africa experienced, and might contribute to throwing some light on the evolution of contemporary Africa.

A first key point, and one which seems indisputable, is that the basic social organization in these societies was in general the village community with collective ownership of the land. A second important point is the recognition of the existence of slavery in most of these societies. The divergences seem to lie only in the assessment of the type of exploitation to which the slaves were subjected and of their role in the system of production.

For Majhmout Diop, it is enough to observe the number of slaves involved in the system of production, even simply at the level of family lineage, to conclude that a slave-type society existed.

Jean Suret-Canale responds to that conclusion that, so long as the conditions of their incorporation into the system of production do not differ from those of other members of the lineage, slavery cannot be said to exist, the slaves simply contributing an extra labour force to the extended family. According to him, such a conclusion would require in addition large agricultural estates based on slave labour, which did not exist anywhere in Africa.

Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch also recognizes the existence of slaves but thinks that the most significant exactions operated by the aristocracies did not arise from the exploitation of the subject peoples in the territorial framework, but came from outside, through raids or peaceful international trade.

In short, it can be said that slavery did exist in precolonial African societies but in attenuated forms - no large-scale public works being especially set aside for the subject masses - the aristocracies contenting themselves for the most part with levying tributes from the subject peasant collectivities. This would constitute a clear distinction from other societies in which despots subjected the enslaved masses to special labours in which noble or aristocratic families took no part. Because of this, the confusion with societies that were based on slavery is not sufficiently explained.

But other key problems remain and they particularly separate Jean Suret-Canale and Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch. First there is the problem of the state, and second the role of long-distance trade.

For Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch the distinction between state societies, and stateless societies based on the existence of a considerable surplus that is exchanged and leads to a struggle over this surplus, the appearance of classes and consequently of a state power that succeeds in seizing the surplus, seems artificial and not one that can be systematized for Africa. Referring to Georges Balandier who stresses the heterogeneity of precolonial African societies, she insists on the imbalances that can arise in a society based on 'a tribal and lineage structure based on the family and a territorial organization with a more or less centralizing tendency' without that leading to distinctions between stateless societies - in which trade would be virtually nonexistent - and state societies - where trade would constitute vast networks. We are not claiming to settle such an important question so easily.

It seems to us, however, that whatever the heterogeneity of ancient African societies, the key thing appears to be to know whether with the development of agriculture - the primitive commune based on hunting and gathering having for the most part disappeared - the appearance of a significant surplus, whose acquisition would lead to intense struggles possibly involving the appearance of classes and hence of the state, did or did not occur. If it did happen, as we believe, then forms of state existed in most African societies, superimposing themselves over kinship relations of domination and dominating the lineage families and village communities.

Are not the imbalances, to which Coquery-Vidrovitch refers, 'between a tribal and lineage structure based on the family and a territorial organization with a more or less centralizing tendency' tied up with the appearance of social classes becoming detached from the rest of society, dominating it and organizing it in a certain state form? For ultimately, cannot one consider as a state a form of social organization in which one social class - Coquery-Vidrovitch speaks of an aristocracy - dominates and exploits the rest of society whether or not organized into distinct classes? If such is indeed the case, it can be said that the precolonial African kingdoms and empires were states whose nature would of course need to be defined. In support of this thesis, Maurice Godelier maintains that 'in order to find a fully developed state structure, one must leave the Polynesian area and turn to the traditional African states or the states and empires of pre-Columbian America'.9

Finally, looking at most of the authors who have been especially concerned with ancient African societies, one is inclined to think that structured and organized state forms did exist in many societies. Moreover, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch does not deny it since she herself cites the empires of Ghana, Mali, Benin, etc. The nature of these state forms may be similar to the Asiatic mode of production on condition that its geographical character is removed and it is not too narrowly defined. Indeed, some definitions do not reflect the thought of Marx himself, such as the problem of 'hydraulics' as the sole public work activity imposed on the subordinated communities.

As for the notion of 'despotism' that Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch uses in the definition of the Asiatic mode of production, does it not refer to the appearance rather than to the reality of power? The rulers of African states had very wide powers but they did not always exercise them oppressively as the notion of despotism would tend to suggest.

However, Maurice Godelier mentions cases, even in Asia or other regions, where this notion of 'oriental despotism' is more apparent than real. He mentions as examples the power of the emperors of China and the government of the Incas. Here too, then, one is tempted to think that the power of the rulers of Africa and those of Asia was often very similar. But there remains the important question of long-distance trade.

For Jean Suret-Canale commercial exchanges played only a consolidating role in African states, states born of the sharpening of class contradictions internal to these societies and their mode of production.

Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch defines the mode of production that Africa experienced as 'the combination of a patriarchal communal economy and the exclusive ascendancy of one group over long-distance trade.'

For our part, it seems difficult to conceive external trade as a basic feature in the process of formation of a mode of production. It seems to us that long-distance trade, by bringing in external factors, could only act to strengthen or weaken an existing mode of production already formed from social antagonisms internal to the society.

Whatever the importance of unequal exchange, discussed by Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, which operated to the advantage of the aristocracies - 'peaceful commercial transactions which ensured the monopolizing of products at rates lower than their value' - it seems to us that that could at most act to consolidate or weaken the internal relations of production without being responsible for the formation of those relations. One may even wonder about the origin of the products exchanged by the aristocracies with the outside world. Did they not come from the accumulation of the surplus extracted from the exploited village communities? If such is the case, why were the aristocracies not more predisposed to increase the exploitation of these communities in order to ensure for themselves even more foreign goods through long-distance trade?

Finally, one last question, and not the least important one, concerns the forms and possibilities of evolution of precolonial African societies, whether they are considered as partaking of the Asiatic type or are considered as specifically African. Much stress has been laid on the stagnation of societies possessing the characteristics of the Asiatic type. Maurice Godelier maintains the opposite was the case, and with historical examples endeavours to demonstrate rather that they were progressive societies.

Whatever the case, while some societies comparable in many ways to the Asiatic societies experienced stagnation, this stagnation may be explained by the resistance to the explosion of the principal contradiction peculiar to the mode of production involved which is 'class exploitation and maintenance of collective ownership of land'. This resistance itself may probably be explained by the fact that exploitation tended to strengthen the communal structures and the collective ownership of the land and that these same structures facilitated exploitation. The resolution of the contradiction in a progressive direction could only arise from the break-up of the collective ownership of land through privatization of the land following, for example, the development of private trade.

As for the African mode of production as it is put forward by Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, she writes of it:

The occasions for a blockage are certainly more frequent than elsewhere since the productive forces are not true forces based on war or trade, production is sterile, the surplus is certainly assured for the privileged class but it is an apparent surplus, the ransom for which, in the longer or shorter run, is the impoverishment of the country.

This real impoverishment involving regression or stagnation would come about as soon as trade flows move in other directions. It would seem, then, that the tendencies to stagnation or even regression were strong in the earlier societies that existed in Africa. It is striking to observe that even the importance of trade and its volume which constitute the basis of Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch's analysis failed to destroy the system of collective ownership of the land. This virtual absence of a property regime based on private ownership until colonization, and despite the development of trade and a certain amount of accumulation, is doubtless to be explained in part by the relative abundance of land and the rudimentary level of the material means of production.

In conclusion, we shall not try to define the nature of the modes of production that precolonial sub-Saharan Africa experienced. We have simply tried to sketch in the outlines from the work of specialists. More detailed multidisciplinary work still needs to be done to provide more detail on the nature of the precolonial African modes of production and social formations.

However, it is possible to say here that rigid communal structures at the level of village communities dominated and exploited by aristocracies caring more for wealth and display than for the development of productive forces, ruling states that were sometimes politically well organized but with a fragile economic base, meant that precolonial Africa had numerous characteristics that might lead to stagnation or even regression. It was regression which was unleashed by the slave trade that brought large-scale destruction of the productive forces and later facilitated colonial penetration.


1. M. Godelier, Sur les Sociétés Précapitalistes (Paris, Editions Sociales, 1970), p. 14 (Eng. tr. in L.S. Feuer (ed.) Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Garden City, 1959), pp. 440-1).

2. Sur le Mode de Production Asiatique (Paris, Editions Sociales, 1970).

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power

7. Sur le Mode de Production Asiatique, p. 345.

8. Samir Amin's studies of the tribute-paying mode of production in Unequal Development (Hassocks, Harvester Press, 1970) are of great interest as are the criticisms by Amady in 'Formations sociales et commerce à longue distance'.

9. Maurice Godelier, Sur les Sociétés Précapitalistes.

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