Sunday, January 25, 2009

Kwame Nkrumah's ideology: sources & contradictions

McClendon, John. "On Assessing the Ideological Impact of Garveyism on Nkrumaism: Political Symbolism Contra Theoretical Substance," APA Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience, vol. 2., no. 2, Spring 2003, pp. 61-72.

A positive spin on Nkrumah's cited influence from Marcus Garvey is often cited, but Nkrumah's final rejection of Garveyism is almost always conveniently omitted. McClendon searches for the root of Nkrumah's world view. He goes back to Nkrumah's early engagement with Christianity, evolving from Catholicism to Protestantism, and an inherent tension with African traditionalism even when the two coalesce. McClendon claims that Christianity is ineluctably tied to European imperialism, but find that what it shares in common with African traditionalism is philosophical idealism.

Doctrinaire Christianity, as the cultural expression of Western imperialism, insists on not only conferring the religious judgment that African traditionalism is a form of animistic paganism but also levies the imperialist (cultural) judgment that African traditionalism is primitive. The cultural imperatives inscribed in the Christian missionary movement works hand in glove with the political economic aims of Western imperialism. The common aim continues, for both the Christian missionary and the colonial mercenary, in terms of absolute rule over Africa. Thus colonial domination includes spiritual, cultural and above all political economic control. In light of these contradictions, Nkrumah, as a formally educated (or Western trained) African, attempts to find suitable philosophical resolution wherein the affirmation of African identity is on African rather than Western terms.


The import of Nkrumah’s sustaining of African traditionalism resides in its function as the basis of African humanity. The very nature of being human is mediated through the particularity of African traditional culture. Universality, on these terms, cannot be abstracted from particularity. The particular is always an instance of the universal for Nkrumah. [. . . . ] Though Nkrumah explains this humanist aspect of African traditionalism later in Consciencism; as we shall see, it is an integral part of his worldview from his start as a student in Ghana.
Nkrumah considers African traditionalism to be intrinsically humanist and socialist as opposed to Christianity, and effectively anti-imperialist.

McClendon also seeks to know why Nkrumah would resort to Ethiopianism. The answer can be found in its opposition to anti-African redemptionism which imposes itself on African culture, a stance inherited from 19th century black nationalism. Garvey's adherence to redemptionism proves a sticking point for Nkrumah.

Garveyism serves as buttress for Nkrumah’s assault on cultural imperialism and, in turn, Marxism-Leninism provides a theory of anti-imperialism. Together they expand his nationalism beyond African traditionalism because they engender an appropriately suited nationalism i.e. a modern nationalism capable of confronting and combating national oppression and colonialism. Therefore, the content of Nkrumah’s socio-political philosophy is fashioned by a dialectical relationship between his African nationalism (at substance African traditionalism) with the critical infusion of Garveyism and Marxism-Leninism.
Crucial to Nkrumah's development was his decision to study in the USA instead of Britain. It was an expression of his anticolonialism, yet Nkrumah found himself neck-deep in American apartheid. Furthermore, Nkrumah was irritated with the pervasive bias of Western education. At Lincoln University, Nkrumah was able to imbibe the highest achievements of Western thought and to pursue African history at the same time in association with Black American scholars.

Nkrumah also held Western education amenable to amalgamation with traditional African culture.

These are the roots of Nkrumah's future Consciencism.

My thesis that Nkrumah’s nationalism is in substance African traditionalism is not to claim that his nationalism is reducible to traditionalism. Nkrumah in dialectically incorporating Western culture into African traditionalism recognizes therein the omnipresence of cultural crisis. Nonetheless, the task of forging a modern nationalism can only come by virtue of this crisis, the necessary birth pains for a new African civilization.
Others, such as John H. Clarke, never understood or appreciated Nkrumah's attempted synthesis.

In the USA, Nkrumah was directly connected to the Garvey movement. But the Garveyite movement appears to have inspired Nkrumah only on an emotional and symbolic level, while Nkrumah was intellectually influenced by Marxism. It is also noteworthy that the long time domination of pan-Africanism by Americans, redolent of redemptionism, eventually shifted to a greater dominance of an African leadership. And Nkrumah could not accept Garveyite redemptionism, nor his compromises with imperialism, not to mention Garvey's pro-capitalist and fascist ideology.

McClendon addresses Appiah's notion of intrinsic racism, associated with nationalism, and questions whether this is applicable to Nkrumah's conception of Pan-Africanism, as Appiah charges. But "Appiah fails to recognize the import of Nkrumah’s distinction regarding Black and African nationalism."

COMMENT: McClendon's contextualization of Nkrumah's developing ideology is eye-opening. It's been decades since I read Consciencism, but it never occurred to me to pursue it in this fashion. My memory has dimmed, but as I recall, the book opened with a concise, exceptionally articulate argument for materialism, followed by a lame attempt to make modern socialism congruent with traditional African society. I also think that one edition of the book includes an appendix giving a vacuous and pretentious argument for African liberation using the symbolism of set theory. And the very notion of coining a new philosophy just to call it African struck me as even pettier than the crypto-nationalism of big-time communist dictators like Stalin and Mao. Consciencism is not a real philosophy but an ideology with a philosophical component in it, i.e. the materialist component. But McClendon's essay explains how such an ideology came to be.

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