9. The Political Thought of Julius Nyerere – Cranford Pratt

Professor of Political Science in the University of Toronto, Cranford Pratt was the first Principal of the University College of Tanganyika from 1961 to 1964. In 1981-82 he was a member of the Tanzania Assistance Group (‘Three Wise Men’) to advise the Government and the World Bank on the Tanzanian economy. His book The Critical Phase in Tanzania 1945 to 1968 is a scholarly account of the period.

To apply a famous Shavian aphorism, he who can rule, rules and he who cannot, theorizes thereon; or at least in most cases. However, Julius Nyerere is the exception – a leader who continued to be reflective, philosophic and articulate about his political values and objectives even as he has been engaged fully in the business of ruling. His writings on political issues are therefore of enormous interest and significance.
Yet this is not a good time to attempt an appraisal of Nyerere’s political thought, especially if it is a sympathetic one. No one is in the mood for it. Tanzania’s economy is in disastrous disarray, the capacity of its public service is depleted, its integrity undermined and its morale at a low ebb and there is little confidence remaining in several of the major policies that have been distinguishing features of Tanzanian socialism. The pendulum of international favour has swung away from Nyerere. From the left he is dismissed as a populist whose understanding of the necessity for a vanguard party has been inadequate and who rejected the class struggle. Right-wing observers, for their part, never much liking his thought, now have become increasingly dismissive and sarcastic. All of this has been inevitable. The severe difficulties which have plagued the Tanzanian economy since the late 1970s were bound to generate a tired cynicism toward Nyerere’s more philosophic political reflections. Even the particular sharpness of much western comment could have been foreseen. It is the price which Nyerere is paying (as did Nehru before him) for the telling accuracy over past decades of his criticisms of western policies towards Africa and the Third World. Despite all this, in my judgement, Nyerere’s political thought will be judged in the fulness of time to be amongst the most reflective, insightful and nuanced of all that has been written on African political issues in the first twenty-five years of African political independence.

A re-reading of Nyerere’s major essays suggests that his thought has long been marked by two central features – a deep recognition that Tanzania’s society must be transformed and its economy developed, and a profound commitment to equality. The first of these features he has shared with almost all of the Third World leaders that first came to power in the early years of independence. From Nehru to Nkrumah to Ben Bella to Williams they saw that nothing could be accomplished and rendered secure unless their people were more fully brought into the modern world and more fully enjoyed the improvements in personal welfare that that should entail. No one sought to turn back the clock to pre-colonial institutions and loyalties. Their societies must become productive, stable modern states.

It is the second feature of Nyerere’s political thought, his commitment to equality, that is its special characteristic. The roots of this emphasis on equality can only be surmised. I would expect that his Christian faith and his revulsion from racism and colonialism were centrally important. So also was his perception of what had been his traditional heritage. Nyerere’s equality has never been an equality of initial opportunities for isolated, acquisitive individuals and nuclear families. It is an equality and caring which Nyerere assumed were central qualities of most traditional African societies.

The centrality of his commitment to equality separates him from western liberalism with its primary emphasis on individual liberty and its much weaker acknowledgement of equality as a central political value. In Nyerere’s thought, it is fair to suggest, the emphasis is reversed. Equality is the central value, and the worth of personal liberty is derived from it and is contained within an equal, perhaps greater, intimate involvement with and debt to society. Thus, for example, political participation is to be highly valued but it does not require a system of competitive parties and the full paraphernalia of political liberties which western liberalism rank higher than the achievement of widespread, genuine participation. Nyerere’s central vision for Tanzania is of a united, harmonius society pursuing its economic development in ways that will not generate severe income differentials or stimulate a strong acquisitive materialism and governing itself through representative political institutions in which participation is widespread and meaningful. It can surely be argued that it is, morally and practically, a preferable model or strategy of development for very poor countries than is provided by its two rivals which have, for the moment at least, almost universally swept it or similar strategies aside. The first of these two rivals is a bureaucratic authoritarian capitalist strategy, relying upon a strong government to promote a powerful indigenous capitalism which will produce sufficient general improvements in living standards as to win mass acquiescence without severe repression. The second is the Leninist strategy of an ideological vanguard party what will mobilise the people without severe repression in a sustained and successful developmental effort. Surely there are too few examples of either of these strategies producing sustained growth without severe repression to justify abandoning the search for a more humane alternative.

But do not the severe economic difficulties in Tanzania require an acknowledgement that Nyerere’s egalitarian and participatory development strategy is unworkable utopianism? Two factors suggest this is a faulty conclusion. First, to a very significant degree Tanzania’s difficulties in recent years are due to exogenous factors that cannot be blamed upon her development strategy – the soaring price of petrol, the declining terms of trade, the several years of severe drought and the invasion of north-western Tanzania by Ugandan forces under Idi Amin.

However, very few commentators, Tanzanian or foreign, suggest that these factors provide a total explanation for the present troubles. The interesting question therefore is whether the policy errors that have contributed to the present economic problems are essential and unavoidable aspects of Nyerere’s political thought and the strategy of development that follows from it. I conclude by asking this question of two of the most important of these policy errors.

The first was the major national effort from 1968 to about 1975 to introduce ujamaa socialism in rural Tanzania. This policy was essentially ideological in origin. It was a conclusion indeed that seemed to follow from the two central components of Nyerere’s political thought, its emphasis on development and on equality. Without ujamaa socialism, it was deduced, rural class differences and mounting personal materialist aspirations would destroy the possibility of more harmonious and cooperative patterns. Also, it was assumed that ujamaa socialism would greatly help the introduction of new agricultural technologies and improved farming methods. Thus both development and equality seemed to require the ‘forced march’ to ujamaa socialism which was attempted in the mid-1970s. Both of these arguments flow from Nyerere’s political thought, but neither is essential to it. Socialism is in fact compatible with small-scale peasant agriculture and, even more emphatically, such agriculture can be the basis of a highly productive and comparatively equitable agricultural system. Nyerere and his colleagues had, I believe, begun a serious reappraisal of ujamaa socialism along these lines by 1976.

The second policy error is more serious still because it has had such wide ramifications. Nyerere, it must be conceded, has never adequately recognised the consequences for Tanzania of the scarcity of trained and experienced persons in its civil service; he has not seen that that scarcity imposes very severe constraints on what can be undertaken. Just the reverse, Nyerere hardly ever addressed what was in fact a basic anomaly of the very idea of a socialist strategy of development for a country like Tanzania – that such a strategy assumes the existence of precisely what Tanzania has lacked, a strong, competent and creative public service. Instead a preoccupation with the issue of how to check the emergence of a bureaucratic bourgeoisie, certainly also a real problem, meant that the parallel issue of ensuring a rising level of civil service competency was never given the attention it required.

These are severe criticisms of Nyerere’s political thought, for both these serious policy mistakes flow from important features of that thought. However, the more important question is whether they are inextricably essential to it. If they are, then that thought is profoundly flawed. However, surely they are not. The political ideas of Julius Nyerere can with ease accommodate both the persistence of small-scale peasant agriculture in Tanzania and can also acknowledge and do justice to the severe constraints that are imposed upon a socially responsive regime in Tanzania by the weakness still of its public service.

‘Our strategy has been that of socialism. We have fought against the exploitation of man by man … ‘ … the ratio of urban disposable personal income after tax has changed from an estimated 18.8 to 1 in 1962, through 15.7 to 1 in 1966 and 4.9 to 1 last year. This means that in 1962 the highest income was nearly nineteen times that of the lowest; last year the highest was nearly five times the minimum wage. This is a big step forward.’
Julius Nyerere – Farewell Address to Parliament

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