Amílcar Cabral, Historical Materialism, and the “Peoples without History”

By Zeyad el Nabolsy

  1. The Basic Problem: Are There Peoples Outside History?

In a speech delivered to the First Solidarity Conference of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America held in Havana in January 1966, Cabral posed the question: “does history begin only from the moment of the launching of the phenomenon of class, and consequently, of class struggle?[1] Cabral raised this question because he is concerned with the fact that maintaining the thesis that the existence of classes is a necessary condition for the existence of dynamic social processes logically commits one to excluding several peoples from the historical process, provided that one accepts that at least some societies were classless until they came into contact with European imperialists. The latter is an assumption that is shared by Cabral and his interlocutors. Of course, in order to understand what Cabral is asking here we have to understand what is meant by the word ‘history’ in this context. I think that if one takes into account the Marxist polemical context that Cabral is wading into with this speech, and his attempt to develop a version of historical materialism that would be suitable for conditions in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, one would be justified in thinking that Cabral is referring to a process of social development (or even progress). In other words, the question at hand is not whether peoples without classes have a past, they obviously do. The question is whether they have lived in societies that were dynamic, and where such dynamism could lead to qualitative transformations in social relations such that one could describe those societies as having specific developmental trajectories. Cabral wants to argue that they did in fact live in societies that were dynamic, even if such societies did not contain classes.

Cabral believed that at least some peoples in Guinea-Bissau, such as the Balanta, lived in a classless society before the advent of Portuguese colonialism, and to some extent even after colonialism.[2] Since Cabral thinks that such horizontal societies existed across Africa, Asia, and Latin America before the advent of colonialism, he believes that to maintain that the existence of class struggle, and consequently of classes, is a necessary condition for the existence of a dynamic society is to deny that those peoples who lived in horizontal societies lived in dynamic societies. As he put it: “It would also be to consider – and this we refuse to accept – that various human groups in Africa, Asia and Latin America were living without history or outside history at the moment when they were subjected to the yoke of imperialism. It would be to consider that the populations our countries, such as the Balanta of Guiné, the Cuanhama of Angola and the Makonde of Mozambique, are still living today – if we abstract the very slight influence of colonialism to which they have been subjected –  outside history, or that they have no history”.[3] The view that Cabral rejects was upheld by the prominent Marxist Hungarian Africanist, Endre Sik, who in 1966, said of the people who inhabited the Guinea Coast that “we cannot speak of their history prior to the end of the 15th century”.[4] Sik essentially wrote African history as if it was only the history of European imperialism in Africa.[5] Sik’s view converged with the views of some colonial bureaucrats like Sydney Caine who also believed that  all African societies are characterized by a “social structure. . .[which] is inimical to change”.[6] We can understand Cabral as arguing that the convergence between the views of Sik and the views of colonial officials is a result of Sik’s misunderstanding of what historical materialism entails.

  1. The Cabralian Alternative: Historical Materialism as a Theory of Modes of Production

Cabral rejects the reduction of historical materialism to a theory of class struggle and instead he stresses the centrality of the concept of a “mode of production”. According to Cabral,the main cause of historical changes in a given social formation is to be located in the mode of production characteristic of that social formation. Cabral defines the mode of production of a given society as the combination of “the level of productive forces and the system of ownership” that is characteristic of a given social formation or society.[7] It might be tempting to read Cabral as some kind of technological determinist, as Makungu M. Akinyela does.[8] For he says that “the level of productive forces, the essential determinant of the content and form of class struggle, is the true and permanent motive force of history”.[9] However, when we reflect carefully upon the manner in which Cabral speaks of the importance of political factors in bringing about social transformations, we recognize that this cannot be a correct reading of Cabral. Cabral argues that it is not necessary to go through all the stages (in terms of sequences of modes of production) that characterized historical developments in Western Europe. He argues that “such progress depends on the specific possibilities for the development of the society’s productive forces and is mainly conditional on the nature of the political power ruling that society, that is on the type of State or, if we like, on the nature of the dominant class or classes within society” [my emphasis].[10] Cabral clearly thinks that societal change and transformation is not just exclusively driven by the growth of productive forces. Rather it is driven by the mode of production as a whole. Note that a technological determinist reading of Cabral cannot even get off the ground because Cabral does not seem to have identified productive forces exclusively with technology. If we refer to his practices as an agronomist, [11] It is clear that Cabral did not think that improving the productive forces simply meant introducing new more efficient technology, Cabral thought that the ways in which humans cooperated with one another was a crucial element of the productive forces. In this respect, he is in agreement with Marx and Engels.[12]

The mode of production interpretation is appropriate for explaining the history of societies without classes, because while it is true that not all human societies have historically had classes and/or stratification along class lines, it is true that all human societies have had to produce (where ‘produce’ means ‘work in a cooperative manner upon nature’) in order to sustain themselves. All class relations are relations of production, but not all relations of production are class relations (e.g., in a communist society without classes there would be relations of production which are not class relations). In any society one can identify relations of production in so far one can identify relations of control over labour-power, productive forces, and the fruits of production. Consequently, one can characterize any society according to its dominant mode of production.[13]

Author’s Bio: Zeyad el Nabolsy is a PhD candidate in Africana Studies at Cornell University. He works on African philosophy of culture, African Marxism, the history and philosophy of science in the context of modern African intellectual history, and history and sociology of philosophy in the context of global intellectual history. His work has appeared in Science & Society, The Journal of African Cultural Studies, The Journal of Historical Sociology, Problemata: Revista Internacional de Filosofía, Kant Studies Online, Liberated Texts, Jadaliyya, among others.

He can be contacted by email at

His Twitter handle is: @ZNabolsy

Further Readings

Amin, Samir. 1964. The Class Struggle in Africa. Cambridge: Africa Research Group.

Bigman, Laura. 1993. History and Hunger in West Africa: Food Production and Entitlement in

Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Blaut, Jim. 1999. “Marxism and Eurocentric Diffusionism.” In The Political Economy of Imperialism: Critical Appraisals, edited by Ronald Chilcote, 127-140. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Borges, Sónia Vaz. 2019. Militant Education, Liberation Struggle, Consciousness: The PAIGC Education in Guinea Bissau, 1963-1978. Berlin: Peter Lang.

Cabral, Amílcar. 1971. Our People Are Our Mountains: Amílcar Cabral on the Guinean Revolution. London: Committee for Freedom in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea.

Cabral, Amílcar. 1973. Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amílcar, edited by Africa Information Service. New York and London: Monthly Review Press and Africa Information Service.

Cabral, Amílcar. 1979. Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings of Amílcar. Translated by Michael Wolfers. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Cabral, Amílcar. 2016. Resistance and Decolonization. Translated by Dan Wood. New York/London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Campbell, Horace. 2006. “Re-visiting the Theories and Practices of Amilcar Cabral in the Context of the Exhaustion of the Patriarchal Model of African Liberation.” In The Life, Thought, and Legacy of Cape Verde’s Freedom Fighter, Amilcar Cabral (1924-1973): Essays on his Liberation Philosophy, edited by John Fobanjong and Thomas Ranuga, 79-102. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Chabal, Patrick. 1981. “The Social and Political Thought of Amílcar Cabral: A Reassessment.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, 19.1: 31-56.

Chabal, Patrick. 2003. Amílcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War. 2nd Edition. Asmara, Eritrea/ Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Chaliand,Gérard. 1969. Armed Struggle in Africa: With Guerillas in “Portuguese” Guinea. Translated by David Rattray and Robert Leonhardt. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Coutinho, Ângela Sofia Benoliel. 2017. “The Participation of Cape Verdean Women in the National Liberation Movement of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, 1956-1974: The Pioneers.” Africa in the World 02/2017 (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung West Africa).

Davidson, Basil. 2017 [1981]. No Fist is Big Enough to Hide the Sky: The Liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, 1963-74. London: Zed Books.

Dhada, Mustafah. 1993. Warriors at Work: How Guinea was Really Set Free. Niwot, Colorado: University of Colorado Press.

Dhada, Mustafah. 1998. “The Liberation War in Guinea-Bissau Reconsidered.” The Journal of Military History 62.3: 571-593.

El Nabolsy, Zeyad. 2020. “Amílcar Cabral’s Modernist Philosophy of Culture and Cultural Liberation.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 32.2: 231-250.

Ferreira, Eduardo de Sousa. 1974. Portuguese Colonialism in Africa: The End of an Era: The  Effects of Portuguese Colonialism on Education, Science, Culture and Information. Paris: The UNESCO Press.

Galvão, Inês, and Catarina Laranjeiro. 2019. “Gender Struggle in Guinea-Bissau: Women’s Participation On and Off the Liberation Record.” In Resistance and Colonialism: Insurgent Peoples in World History, edited by Nuno Domingos, Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo, and Ricardo Roque, 85-122. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Gomes, Crispina. 2006. “The Women of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde in the Struggle for National Independence.” In The Life, Thought, and Legacy of Cape Verde’s Freedom Fighter, Amilcar Cabral (1924-1973): Essays on his Liberation Philosophy, edited by John Fobanjong and Thomas Ranuga, 69-78. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

LSM. 1974. Guinea-Bissau: Toward Final Victory!, Selected Speeches and Documents from PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde). Richmond, B.C.: LSM Information Center.

LSM. 1978. Sowing the First Harvest: National Reconstruction in Guinea-Bissau. Oakland, CA: LSM Information Center.

Ly, Aliou. 2014. “Promise and Betrayal: Women Fighters and National Liberation in Guinea Bissau” Feminist Africa 19: 24-42.

Ly, Aliou. 2015. “Revisiting the Guinea-Bissau Liberation War: PAIGC, UDEMU and the Question of Women’s Emancipation, 1963-1974.” Portuguese Journal of Social Science 14.3: 361-377.

Ly, Aliou. 2018. “Amílcar Cabral and the Bissau Revolution in Exile: Women and the Salvation of the Nationalist Organization in Guinea, 1959-1962.” In African in Exile: Mobility, Law, and Identity, edited by Nathan Riley Carpenter and Benjamin N. Lawrance, 153-166. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Manji, Firoze and Bill Fletcher (Eds.). 2013. Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amílcar Cabral, Dakar and Montreal: CODESRIA and Daraja Press.

Mendy, Peter Karibe. 2003. “Portugal’s Civilizing Mission in Colonial Guinea-Bissau: Rhetoric and Reality.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 36.1: 35-58.

Mendy, Peter Karibe. 2019. Amílcar Cabral: A Nationalist and Pan-Africanist Revolutionary. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Rodney, Walter. 1970. A History of the Upper Guinea Coast. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Rudebeck, Lars. 1988. “Kandjadja, Guinea-Bissau 1976-1986: Observations on the Political Economy of an African Village.” Review of African Political Economy 41: 17-29.

Rudebeck, Lars. 1990. “The Effects of Structural Adjustment in Kandjadja, Guinea-Bissau.” Review of African Political Economy 49: 34-51.

Rudebeck, Lars. 1997. “‘To Seek Happiness’: Development in a West African Village in the Era of Democratisation.” Review of African Political Economy71:75-86.

Stefanos, Asgedet. 1997. “African Women and Revolutionary Change: A Freirian and

Feminist Perspective.” In Mentoring the Mentor: A Critical Dialogue with Paulo Freire, edited by Paulo Freire, 243-271. Berlin: Peter Lang.

Táíwò,Olúfẹ́mi. 1999. “Cabral.” In A Companion to the Philosophers, edited by Robert Arrigton, 5-12.: Blackwell: Malden, MA.

Wolf, Eric. 1982. Europe and the Peoples without History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.


[1] Amílcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory,” Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings of Amílcar, trans. by Michael Wolfers, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), 124.

[2] Amílcar Cabral, “Unity and Struggle,” Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings of Amílcar, trans. by Michael Wolfers, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), 38.

[3] Amílcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory,” Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings of Amílcar, trans. by Michael Wolfers, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), 124.

[4] Quoted from:  Lars Rudebeck, Guinea-Bissau: A Study of Political Mobilization, (Uppsala, Sweden: The Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1974), 76.

[5] Harry C. Meserve, “The Teaching of African History: A Marxist View,” Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies 1, no.1 (1970): 52-63.

[6] Quoted from: Frederick Cooper, “Modernizing Bureaucrats, Backward Africans, and the Development Concept,”  International Development and the Social Sciences, ed. by Frederick Cooper and Randall Pickard, (Berkeley/ Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), 72.

[7] Amílcar Cabral, “The Weapon of Theory,” Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings of Amílcar, trans. by Michael Wolfers, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), 124.

[8] Makungu M. Akinyela, “Cabral, Black Liberation, and Cultural Struggle” Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral, ed. by Firoze Manji and Bill Fletcher Jr., (Dakar and Montreal: CODESRIA and Daraja Press), 448.

[9]Ibid, 125.

[10]Ibid, 126.

[11] Carlos, Schwarz, “Amílcar Cabral: An Agronomist before His Time,” In Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral, ed. by Firoze Manji and Bill Fletcher Jr., (Dakar and Montreal: CODESRIA and Daraja Press, 2013), 86.

[12] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, (New York: International Publishers, 2013), 50.

[13] Richard W. Miller, Analyzing Marx: Morality, Power and History, ( Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 215.

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