Amilcar Cabral, a fighter for national independence and social change in one of Africa’s smallest countries, became an international hero in the 1960s. He remains an inspiration for many African socialists today.
Cabral was born in Guinea, a Portuguese colony of West Africa, in 1924. His parents were middle class, part of a tiny group in a sea of desperate peasant poverty and colonial imposed backwardness.
Even by the 1950s, Cabral said 99 percent of the population could not read or write.
Some 60 percent of babies died before the age of one, 40 percent of the population suffered from sleeping sickness and almost everyone had some form of malaria.
There were never more than 11 doctors for the entire rural population, or one doctor for every 45,000 Africans.
Anyone who revolted faced murderous repression.
Yet by the time Cabral was murdered in 1973, his political party had led an armed struggle that shattered Portuguese rule and played a role in detonating revolution in Portugal itself.
Portugal controlled parts of West Africa from the 15th century, making it a centre for the blood and filth of the transatlantic slave trade. Later it became a colony without the slightest shred of democracy or hope of economic improvement for Africans.
Portugal also colonised Angola and Mozambique in southern Africa, Goa in India, and Brazil.
Excelling at school, Cabral was one of a very small number of students who were sent to Portugal to study. He arrived in a country that since the 1920s had been a dictatorship with fascist characteristics.
The colonialists hoped people such as Cabral would be added to the 1 percent of Guinean society known as “assimilado”—the assimilated. This educated layer was designed to give a loyal native face to Portuguese rule.
But several of these students became central parts of the anti-colonial revolt.
In Portugal Cabral came across the ideas of Karl Marx, or at least the Stalinist version pushed by the Portuguese Communist Party. This stressed unthinking support for the Soviet Union and state control from above.
Cabral was excited by Marx and other revolutionary writing. But the Communist Party refused to support freedom for the African colonies on the racist grounds that Africans were too backward to run their affairs. Cabral was repulsed by this.
Returning to Guinea, Cabral launched his African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) group with six people.
He was realistic about its roots, saying, “We were just a group of petty bourgeois who were driven by the reality of life in Guinea to try and do something.” At first they hoped for a national freedom movement embracing all layers of society. But that yielded no results. So they turned to Guinea’s working class which, although very small, had a record of militancy.
The PAIGC concentrated on dockworkers in the capital city of Bissau and people who moved goods by boat.
These groups “took the initiative of launching strikes without any trade union leadership at all. We thus found our little proletariat,” wrote Cabral.
In 1959, with the support of the PAIGC, the dockworkers launched a powerful strike over pay. When the police arrived to attack them, workers barricaded entrances and armed themselves with harpoons.
The police then carried out a bloody assault, shooting and throwing grenades. They killed up to 50 people.
The PAIGC reacted to what became known as the Pidjiguiti massacre by abandoning agitation among workers and turning to armed struggle. This shaped everything that followed.
Armed resistance was certainly justifiable. But not combining it with organising workers as a class intensified all the tendencies to see the battle as about delivering freedom for people rather than by the people.
Armed resistance faced massive odds.
Despite much international condemnation of Portugal’s brutal colonialism, as a member of Nato, it was sustained by Western backing.
The British Tory government had a particularly despicable position. It said it would stop sales of weapons to Portugal that are used to repress Africans but would continue sales for Portugal’s domestic defence.
There was of course no mechanism for ensuring the arms bought apparently for keeping the Russians out of Lisbon was not used to slaughter peasants around Bissau.
But through courageous resistance, the PAIGC gradually forced back the imperialists. Within a few years 10,000 guerilla fighters confronted 35,000 Portuguese troops. The PAIGC forces withstood bombings and napalm attacks.
And increasingly the PAIGC won, beating the Portuguese in set piece battles as well as raids and ambushes.
The revolutionaries grew their popularity by building schools, hospitals and cheap food centres in the areas they liberated.
The PAIGC argued for women’s rights, against tribalism and tried to raise the cultural level of the peasantry.
It also worked to win over the Portuguese forces, appealing for a common struggle against the dictatorship in Lisbon.
Along with revolts in its other African colonies, Guinea became “Portugal’s Vietnam”.
The colonial wars became increasingly unpopular as young men were conscripted for four years, including two years in Africa.
The PAIGC was sustained by arms supplies and training from the state capitalist countries of Cuba, Russia and China who saw it as a way to extend their influence in Africa. This further developed the moves towards seeing Russian or China as the model of development.
It was a vision of society driven by a group that ruled on behalf of the masses—and increasingly separated themselves from them.
In the early days of the PAIGC, Cabral argued intellectuals must commit “class suicide” and adopt the standpoint of the working class.
Now his party tried to create activists “from the people employed in commerce and other wage-earners, and even some peasants.
This was so they could acquire what you might call a working class mentality.
“You may think this is absurd—in order for there to be a working class mentality, the material conditions of the working class should exist,” said Cabral.
“In fact we managed to inculcate these ideas into a large number of people—the kind of ideas which there would be if there were a working class.”
This “working class revolution without a working class” was doomed.
Cabral himself said, “There are only two possible paths for an independent nation—to return to imperialist domination (neo-colonialism, capitalism, state capitalism), or to take the way of socialism.”
Socialism was not possible in a single country such as Russia, even after a successful workers’ revolution. How even less possible was socialism built in a country of 750,000 peasants that had won national freedom through armed struggle?
Cabral did not live to see the end of colonialism. He was murdered in 1973 by rivals in the PAIGC, possibly with the involvement of pro-Portuguese traitors.
But a year later a revolution erupted in Portugal itself. Many of the officers involved in the movement acknowledged the influence of Cabral on their thinking.
This revolution ended Portugal’s empire and the independence of Guinea-Bissau was secure.
After Portugal withdrew, Cabral’s brother Luiz tried to implement a programme of development and improvements for ordinary people. This involved nationalising key industries and extending the welfare services in the liberated areas.
But, forced to rely on their resources and at a time of world economic downturn, this could be financed only by taxing the peasantry more heavily.
The peasants turned against the PAIGC which became more centralised and repressive.
In 1980 the military removed Luis in a coup—the first of nine coups or attempted coups—and Joao Vieira introduced a free market government. Its policies were dictated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Amilcar Cabral is inspiring because of his determination to struggle against inequality, not just to denounce it.
Winning his vision of the world will require an international working class revolution.
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
We shouldn’t let them hide from the truth