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Analysis

Thomas Sankara: Unresolved questions

07 May 2021, David Crawford Jones, John Riddell
Thomas Sankara: Unresolved questions

But to win on a larger and grander scale than was possible during the 1980s, it will be the vital task of the global left to build movements from below capable not only of resisting the forces that brought about Sankara’s downfall, but of actually seizing power in the name of the masses. In this regard, we remain confronted by significant ideological questions.

Without doubt, the capacities of the working class on the African continent are stronger today than they were in the 1980s, when levels of industrialization and wage labor employment were much lower. Nonetheless, the old legacies of colonialism continue to endure, shaping the boundaries of what is politically possible. In this regard, the stark division between urban and rural spaces remains a key dynamic of virtually all African countries in the 21st century, as does the prominent place of subsistence cultivators and participants in the informal economy.

Given these realities, the task in some way remains the question, first posed by Fanon, of how to stretch the Marxist frame of analysis to the African context. These are the debates I hope we can have now and in the future, while always of course keeping in mind that it will be Africans themselves who must write their own histories of struggle, and that on this revolutionary road they will need the engaged solidarity of the working classes in imperialist nations, to check the aggression of more powerful governments against mass struggles waged within the formerly colonized world.

Despite whatever limitations we may find in Sankara’s ideology, this question of international solidarity was central to his own political vision. During a trip to the United States in 1984, Sankara visited Harlem, where he spoke before large crowds assembled at the Third World Trade Center and the Harriet Tubman School. As he said there, “We feel that the fight we’re waging in Africa, principally in Burkina Faso, is the same fight you’re waging in Harlem. We feel that we in Africa must give our brothers in Harlem all the support they need so that their fight too becomes known….When the people stand up, imperialism trembles!”

If the history of Burkina Faso teaches us anything, it is that socialism will never be possible unless and until an international movement emerges that will take just as seriously the futures of African protesters and peasants as it does those of Standing Rock water protectors or the victims of police brutality. By his words, Thomas Sankara understood this fundamental aspect of anti-imperialism, even if his actions and ideology did not always follow through on his internationalist sentiments. Today, 30 years after his assassination, this is the call we must heed, the battle we must fight, the future world we must win.
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