This article was Co-published with the Hampton Institute.
Western leftists often explain socialism as an extension of democratic values. Across professional spheres, this belief is propagated by some of the most popular figures in our movement. For instance, the acclaimed academic Noam Chomsky described socialism as “an extension of democracy into the social sphere.” Jacobin, the largest socialist publication in the United States, has published writers who explain the Soviet Union’s shortcomings as a natural byproduct of its “rotten foundations of authoritarianism.” Even the controversial NATO-aligned streamer Vaush claimed that the Soviet Union was not socialist because “[d]emocracy is necessary under socialism.”
But this view leads to misguided conclusions. One of which is the condemnation of all revolutions that do not occur at the ballot box. Under “socialism as democracy,” any societal transformation not voted upon by the majority is undemocratic and therefore not socialist.
History provides ample reason to doubt this supposition. Indeed, there is a long and illustrious history of progressive coups that all leftists should embrace. And this shows that revolutionaries should be open to a multiplicity of approaches to building socialism in our lifetimes.
For instance, the legendary pan-African Marxist Thomas Sankara never campaigned to become the president of Burkina Faso. Rather, he seized state power from within the military. Though he was assassinated in a (likely French-backed) counter-coup only four years later, he made immense strides in concretely improving the living standards of the masses in Burkina Faso. Under his direction, Burkina Faso achieved self-sufficiency in food production and vaccinated 2.5 million people (60% percent of the total population), raising the national vaccination rate from 17% to 77%. Literacy rates exploded from just 13% to 73% in less than five years. Additionally, he spearheaded the “One Village, One Grove” policy in Burkina Faso, spurring a grassroots mobilization of tree planting that added 10 million trees to Burkina Faso to combat desertification.
But Sankara’s legacy is not limited to agricultural, medical, educational, and environmental victories. He was also a staunch, outspoken feminist. As a Marxist, Sankara saw clearly how patriarchy was reinforced by the capitalist mode of production, and understood that the liberation of women was an inherent component of destroying capitalism. To that end, he prohibited female genital mutilation and forced marriage, amended the Constitution to guarantee female representation in the Cabinet, and ensured the Ministry of Education would protect women’s access to education.
Few, if any leaders have achieved a fraction of what Sakara was able to do for Burkina Faso and Africa more broadly. Why should we temper our support for him because he came to power undemocratically? His “authoritarian” seizure of the state is precisely what enabled him to achieve so much in such a short time. Nobody can contest that his government was undoubtedly progressive and, as materialists, we are bound to support progressive developments regardless of how “purely” these developments come to fruition. Our sole obligation is to liberate the working masses, and therefore we must uplift Sankara’s legacy.
Sankara is far from the only progressive leader who improved the lives of the masses through a revolutionary coup. In 1968, General Juan Velasco Alvarado seized power in a bloodless revolution and won substantial gains for the Peruvian proletariat — most notably, his large-scale campaign of industrial nationalization and redistribution of agricultural land to over 300,000 families.
Velasco also sought to free Peru from the extractive influence of Western multinationals by nationalizing a wide array of vital industries including telecommunications, energy (such as the International Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil), fisheries, and even American copper mines. His reforms were planned by the leading socialist intellectuals of the time.
Velasco’s nationalization policies were among the most radical in Western hemisphere. His expropriation of the landed oligarchy was second only to Cuba’s. Velasco stands as a powerful example of the rapid progress that follows determined socialist leadership.
Across the Atlantic, in 1974, a group of left-leaning Portuguese military officers known as the Armed Forces Movement toppled the fascist Estado Novo regime in a military coup known as the Carnation Revolution, directly leading to the liberation of Portuguese colonies. The Portuguese regime had spent over a decade fighting the unpopular Portuguese Overseas War to maintain their colonial possessions in Africa, sacrificing thousands of their own young men in the process. Only after the Carnation Revolution could the anti-war will of the people be realized. Who can rebuke such a direct improvement in the lives of both the Portuguese and colonized proletarians? Why should we jump to condemn this movement for its “lack” of democratic purity?
One consistent trigger to these progressive coups is a capitalist sociopolitical system that is most capable of subverting revolutionary struggle in the Global South and against hyper-exploited minorities in the imperial core, because it has the full weight of Western capital pitted against the poorest and most oppressed workers. This can leave revolutionaries with almost no practical solutions to advance material conditions outside of a progressive coup.
As Marxists, we should not celebrate the liberal-democratic dogma that our oppressors use to subjugate us. In the American context, the black liberation struggle provides us with a multitude of revolutionaries who clearly articulated this predicament. For instance, both Malcom X and Chairman Fred Hampton realized that capitalist liberal democracies were directly responsible for the invention of racism and held no qualms about using any means necessary to restore dignity for the colored and working masses of the United States.
Malcolm X most clearly indicated his indifference toward liberal morality in his famous speech ‘The Ballot or the Bullet.’ Throughout his delivery, he referred to those who myopically emphasized non-violent tactics as “chumps.” Challenging the legitimacy of the American political system, he exclaimed, “Uncle Sam is guilty of violating the freedom of 22 million Afro-Americans and still has the audacity to call himself the leader of the free world.”
X was widely known for his criticism of establishment civil rights leaders, lambasting them for advocating purely non-violent struggle against an exceedingly violent enemy. He correctly reminds his audience that “liberty or death is what brought about the freedom of whites in this country from the English.” Here, he implicitly asks the question: Why should we rigidly confine our movement to liberal tactics?
Any listener would ascertain that Malcom firmly believed in the legitimacy of armed struggle if it were to liberate the African American masses. In this speech he positively references the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and the Vietnamese anti-colonial revolution as justified reactions to an oppressive system, contrasting them with the impotent yet palatable strategies that have consistently failed to ensure a semblance of material equality to black Americans.
Chairman Fred Hampton similarly had no issue with waging class struggle outside of democratic norms. In his speech “It’s a Class Struggle, Goddamnit!,” Hampton positively references the non-electoral victories of the Russian Revolution, Chinese Revolution, and the then-ongoing anti-colonial revolutions in Mozambique and Angola. The speech is replete with defenses of armed struggle against capitalist and imperialist forces of reaction. Hampton explicitly reminds his audience that despite one’s “revolutionary” aesthetic preferences, “political power doesn’t flow from the sleeve of a dashiki… [it] flows from the barrel of a gun.” While direct armed struggle was not the only revolutionary strategy that Hampton advocated for, clearly he and the Black Panther Party scoffed at notions of ideological purity that stood in the way of proletarian victory. They would surely reject the Western socialist notion that proletarian struggle should be confined to the ballot box. While many on the Left love to uplift the Black Panther Party’s illustrious history of revolutionary struggle and associate their own movements with it, apparently few have spent time studying Hampton’s own words.
These widely lauded revolutionaries provide insights our movement can and should apply to the present. Since 2020, a wave of progressive coups has swept across Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, and Gabon. Seizing power from compradore governments, revolutionary juntas in the Sahel have deposed “democratic” leaders who have done nothing but facilitate and exacerbate the extractive neo-colonial relations keeping this resource-rich region in a state of destitution. These revolutionary movements realize Africa cannot utilize its vast resources until it neutralizes the influence of western capital, and recognize that liberal democracy often facilitates these interests at the expense of the African proletariat.
In the West, we are told repeatedly that Africa, particularly West Africa, is poor and underdeveloped. While it is true that this region is underdeveloped, it is undeniable that it is also one of the most resource rich regions on the planet. Some of the highest quality uranium in the world is located in Niger, but ironically its largest uranium mine is mostly owned by the French state while 90% of Niger’s population has no access to electricity. In 2010, Niger exported €3.5 billion worth of uranium to France, but only received €459 million in return. Similarly, in Gabon the vast majority of the country’s crude oil is sold abroad. For example, crude oil accounts for 96% of Gabon’s total exports to the United States. This is due to their neocolonial economy having no incentive to build adequate refinery infrastructure, leaving the value of their most profitable export at the whim of Western financial speculators.
Coup leaders like Burkina Faso’s president Ibrahim Traore have recognized that their countries face “the most barbaric form, the most violent manifestation, of neocolonialism and imperialism”. At the Russia-Africa Summit this past summer, Traore articulated how “African heads of state must stop acting like marionettes who dance each time the imperialists pull on our strings”. When the neocolonial alliance ECOWAS threatened military intervention in Niger to restore deposed president Mohamed Bazoum, the revolutionary juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso jointly declared “Any military intervention against Niger would be tantamount to a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali.” A bloc of anti-imperial resistance has clearly blossomed in the Sahel, a movement Thomas Sankara laid the groundwork for. While Western imperialists attempt to destroy Sankara's vision, the popular support for these revolutionary coups demonstrates that the spirit of Sankara is alive and well in West Africa.
The collection of anti-colonial movements across the Sahel are justified and deserve our support. We should not oppose them merely because they defy the dogma that power must change hands electorally. The reality is that, as leftists, we must support any movement seriously dedicated to eradicating extractive neo-colonial systems. And that is the case whether or not it adheres perfectly to Western liberal-democratic ideals, or any other pretentious sense of purity that needlessly prohibits us from supporting anti-imperialist struggles wherever and however they arise.
Yohan Smalls is a socialist thinker analyzing liberal contradictions in the Western Left.