At the head of the Introduction to Consciencism is a quotation from a letter that Friedrich Engels wrote and sent to J. Bloch on September 21, 1890. (Kwame Nkrumah was born exactly on the 19th anniversary of that letter). Consciencism takes its inspiration from it for its philosophy of history. Understanding that quotation helps deep appreciation of Consciencism with respect to its philosophy of history. That quotation is specifically concerned with the materialist conception of history. This latter conception is a philosophy of history and also goes by the name historical materialism. The two are interchangeable. According to that philosophy of history, history is a process in which some elements interact to maintain the process in motion. Among those elements the economic element or, what is the same thing, material production and reproduction, ultimately determines that motion.
It is instructive that the word ‘ultimately’ is emphasized in the quoted letter. It indicates that the other elements also have the capacity to determine movement of the historical process but only at a secondary level. To ignore this determination and assume that it is the economic element only that determines the said movement is not only to oversimplify the formulation of the process but also to render it mechanistic – that is, to form a one way or linear conception of it. It is this linear formulation that aborts the understanding of the interactive nature of the elements in the process. To see the historical process in this way, in its interaction of the elements, is to see it in its natural state since the beginning of human society. The natural state generates stages or different social formations rather slowly.
It appears to us that an extensive insertion of that part of the quotation that the book leaves out enhances the letter.readers’ understanding. The deleted part gives details of what is meant by the ‘other elements’ and also what makes the historical process natural and assures its slow movement. Expecting readers to insert the deleted part of the quotation into the space marked by dots in the book we quote it from Engels’ letter thus:
‘The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure – political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogma – also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible) the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period in history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.
We make history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds, also play a part, although not the decisive one. The Prussian state also arose and developed from historical, ultimately economic, causes. But it could scarcely be maintained without pedantry that among the many small states of North Germany, Brandenburg was specifically determined by economic necessity to become the great power embodying the economic, linguistic and, after the Reformation, also the religious difference between North and South, and not by other elements as well (above all by its entanglement with Poland, owing to the possession of Prussia, and hence with international relations – which were indeed also decisive in the formation of the Austrian dynastic power). Without making oneself ridiculous it would be a difficult thing to explain in terms of economics the existence of every small state in Germany, past and present, or the origin of the High German consonant permutations, which widened the geographical partition wall formed by the mountains from the Sudeten range to the Taunus to form a regular fissure across all Germany..
In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant – the historical event. This may itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For, what each wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals – each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical condition and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general) – do not attain what they want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it.
I would furthermore ask you to study this theory from its original sources and not at second-hand; it is really much easier. Marx hardly wrote anything in which it did not play a part. But especially The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is a most excellent example of its application. There are so many allusions to it in Capital. Then I may also direct you to my writings; Herr Duhring’s Revolution in Science and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, in which I have given the most detailed account of historical materialism which, as far as I know, exists.’
This portrayal of the historical process, especially likening it to a natural process, rather than developing a feeling of hopelessness in the reader, provides the latter with the opportunity to arm themselves intellectually to intervene in much the same way that the scientist does in their handling of nature.
For this reason, the attraction that this conception of the historical process in the Philosophy of History has for Dr. Kwame Nkrumah is due to the fact that it offers an opportunity for conscious human intervention in that process to speed it up – even to the extent of avoiding one social formation or the other. In the light of the level of material poverty in Africa and with the resolution of the colonial question on his mind he finds the capacity of the other elements, apart from the economic element, to determine the course of the historical process as an opportunity to accelerate the beginning and finalization of the decolonization process. That continent is not to wait for the maturity of its economic base to determine when colonialism will end. The strengthening of the ideological and political-organizational elements in the process is what will speed it up – which it did.
The significance of the quotation from Engels is that it alerts the reader to concentrate on the special emphasis that Consciencism places on the ideological and political elements without disregard for the fundamental importance of the economic element. It is a warning not to be fixated on economic development as the prelude to all-round liberation from colonial and neo-colonial strangulations. Such fixation only unduly delays outcome of the anti-colonial and anti-neo-colonial struggle. Hence, readers of the book are advised to treat that quotation as the strategic indicator of the mode of thinking or concern of its author for the decolonization process and not fall into the temptation of regarding an alterable programme for unification of three cultures as that author’s prime concern.
A programme can be changed but not its philosophical-ideological principle. The author says that the first thing is to understand and accept that principle. That is the focus. It is in this respect that in the Introduction to the book he tells us about three types of colonial student and opts for the third category who views knowledge as an instrument for change. Such students, who acquire a ‘full grasp of the laws of historical development’ unlike the other categories of the colonial student, delved into philosophy and history in their search for that instrument which sums up man’s experience. The Introduction, thus, apart from adverting our minds to the preferred student type, by its quotation from Engels sets the tone for a philosophical discourse towards the crystallization of a set of ideas that provides the political actor with philosophical principles for analysis and ideological principles, informing the philosophical principles, for the formulation of political programmes for the anti-colonial and anti-neo-colonial revolution.
Let the student of Consciencism, therefore, in reading the Introduction, not read the Engels quotation as if it stands alone and aloof but connect it with the third student category that is intellectually armed and is advised to be armed as such with the dialectical but not mechanistic laws of development. Herein originates the original Marxist root, inspiration and definition of Consciencism. Let the student resist and reject the unenlightened opportunism of projecting Kwame Nkrumah, the author, as a latter-day, post-coup Marxist or one upon whom Marxism was imposed by some communists he could not dispense with. For, as he is about to state in the first chapter,
For the third category of colonial student it was especially impossible to read the works of Marx and Engels as desiccated abstract philosophies having no bearing on our colonial situation. During my stay in America the conviction was firmly created in me that a great deal in their thought could assist us in the fight against colonialism.
Yes, we cannot and will not, in our days, also read Consciencism as a desiccated abstract philosophy having no bearing on our neo-colonial situation. But in so doing, we must focus on its intention to place special emphasis on ideological and political elements in the struggle for decolonization to speedily achieve the economic liberation of Africa and its people. That is the essence of the quote from Engels at the head of the Introduction.
[Since new forms of society emerge from but are not imposed on the old a process of evolution and revolution is always involved. It is the task of the revolutionary to discern the evolutionary moments of the newly emerging and progressive trend so as to promote its development and dominance over the old and dying trend. The decisive moment, the revolutionary moment, is when the final act is undertaken to formally assert and constitutionalize the predominance of the new and the demise of the old. Evolution is thus involved in the revolutionary process as its initial stage.]