Reading Cabral in 1993: Killing a Man but Not His Work

Lars Rudebeck

In the first of three essays to mark the fiftieth anniversary of national revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral’s murder in 1973, first published in the ROAPE journal thirty years ago, Lars Rudebeck celebrates Cabral’s extraordinary writing, speeches and interviews. The piece includes reflections on personal conversations Rudebeck held with Cabral at various points. While celebratory, Rudebeck also perceives in the writings and politics of Cabral inadequate attention to the post-colonial situation and the question of how to democratise power over the economy and transform the relations of production.

In the evening of 20 January 1973, Amilcar Cabral was shot to death outside his house in Conakry, capital of the Republic of Guinea. Although acting in collusion with the Portuguese colonial forces, the murderer was in fact a member of the PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde), the liberation movement for Guinea-Bissau that Cabral himself had launched in September 1956, sixteen and a half years earlier, and which he had led since then with striking success up until the eve of independence and state sovereignty for Guinea-Bissau.

PAIGC headquarters in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau. Wikimedia Commons, 9 February 2019.

Twenty years after Cabral’s murder, his name is only rarely mentioned in the international media. His historical significance remains intact, however, not only as an outstanding leader of African decolonisation but also as a political thinker and strategist of unusual merits. Although originating and reaching its most concrete goals in Guinea and Cape Verde, in terms of intellectual scope and political impact his work transcended by far the narrow geographical limits of those two countries. Among the leading figures in modern African history, Cabral was in fact unique in his capacity to integrate political practice and theory into a coherent whole; combining as he did elements of classical Marxism and neo-Marxist dependency theory in his analysis of social reality, and skillfully applying this to the concrete task of decolonising his native land.

Cabral’s Written Work

In contributing to ROAPE’s commemoration issue, I was asked to select excerpts from Cabral’s writings. The editors’ idea was for the selected texts to illustrate, within a few pages/not only Cabral’s historical achievements and intellectual methodology but also the way he wanted to combine the two goals of democratic participation and organisational efficiency. A recent authoritative bibliography of Cabral’s collected writings covers over 50 pages of titles on a wide range of topics (Chilcote, 1991:179-231). Furthermore, these have to be viewed in the context of his practice. The challenge was thus considerable and can only be partially met.

Views on Democracy and Organisation

We will begin at the end by quoting Cabral’s 1973 New Year’s message to his Guinean and Cape Verdean compatriots broadcast in early January 1973 by PAIGC’s Radio Libertagao, only a few weeks before he was killed (Cabral, 1980:288-289, 294). This was to become his political testament.

As Cabral was speaking on the radio in his clear intensive staccato voice (Endnote 1), the armed struggle for independence was still raging in its tenth year, victory was within sight. Cabral speaks of it as certain, without demagoguery. Still, at that moment, nobody could predict that in only a little more than a year later, on 25 April 1974, the fascist regime in Lisbon would be toppled by a coup, swiftly triggering in turn the independence of Guinea in 1974, and in 1975, that of the other Portuguese colonies. The fall of fascism in Portugal was brought about by young officers of the colonial army who had learnt the hard way, not least in the swamps and jungles of Guinea, that classical colonialism was coming to its end in Africa. These dramatic events in the history of decolonisation can be causally linked, historically, to the very successes of Cabral’s political and military strategy.

Our extract from Cabral’s 1973 New Year’s message thus illustrates his greatest and most concrete historical achievement, that of leading Portuguese Guinea/Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde to the threshold of independence, despite the determination of the Portuguese colonial regime to endure. By the attention paid to the 1972 elections in the PAIGC-held areas of Guinea and to the formation of a People’s Assembly — which actually did meet eight months after Cabral’s death, on 24 September 1973, to proclaim unilaterally the de jure existence of the state of Guinea-Bissau — the extract also demonstrates the importance Cabral attached to popular participation and to democratic procedure. The serious question of under what conditions radical democracy could actually have been expected to function in the post-colonial situation is not touched upon, however.

New Year’s Message, January 1973

Comrades, compatriots. At this moment when we are beginning a new year of life and struggle and our fight for the independence of our African people is ten years old, I must remind everyone — militants, combatants, members responsible for specific tasks (Endnote 2) and leaders in our great Party — that it is time for action and not words. Time for action in Guine, action that is each day more vigorous and more effective (Endnote 3), in order to inflict greater defeats on the Portuguese colonialists and remove them from all their criminal and vain pretensions of reconquering our land. Action that is constantly more developed and better organised in Cape Verde to carry the struggle into a new phase, in accordance with the aspirations of our people and the imperatives of the total liberation of our African country.

I must, however, respect tradition by addressing a few words to you at a time when all sane human beings — those who want peace, freedom and happiness for all (Endnote 4) — renew their hopes and the belief in a better life for mankind, in dignity, independence and genuine progress for all peoples.

As you all know, in the past year we held general elections in the liberated areas, with universal suffrage and a secret vote, for the creation of Regional Councils and the first National Assembly in our people’s history. In all sectors of all regions, the elections were conducted in an atmosphere of great enthusiasm on the part of the population. The electorate voted massively for the lists that had been drawn up after eight months of public and democratic discussions in which the representatives of each sector were selected. When the elected Regional Councils met, they elected in their turn representatives to the People’s National Assembly from among their members. This will have 120 members, of whom 80 were elected from among the mass of the people and 40 from among the political cadres, soldiers, technicians and others of the Party. As you know, the representatives for the sectors temporarily occupied by the colonialists have been chosen provisionally.

In the course of this coming year and as soon as it is conveniently possible we shall call a meeting of our People’s National Assembly in Guinea, so that it can fulfill the historic mission incumbent on it: the proclamation of the existence of our state, the creation of an executive for this state and the promulgation of a fundamental law—that of the first constitution in our history — which will be the basis of the active existence of our African nation. That is to say: legitimate representatives of our people, chosen by the populations and freely elected by conscientious and patriotic citizens of our land, will proceed to the most important act of their life and of the life of our people, that of declaring before the world that our African nation, forged in the struggle, is irrevocably determined to march forward to independence without waiting for the consent of the Portuguese colonialists and that from then on the executive of our state under the leadership of our Party, the PAIGC, will be the sole, true and legitimate representative of our people in all the national and international questions that concern them.

We are moving from the situation of a colony which has a liberation movement, and whose people have already liberated in ten years of armed struggle the greater part of their national territory, to the situation of a country which runs its own state and which has part of its national territory occupied by foreign armed forces.

Concern with the war and with political work should not, however, make us forget or even underestimate the importance of our activities at the economic, social and cultural levels, as the foundation of the new life we are creating in the liberated areas. We must all, but mainly the cadres who specialise in these matters, give the closest attention to questions of the economy, health, social welfare, education and culture, so as to improve our work significantly and to be ready to face the great problems we have to face with the new situation … so many new problems, but the more complex the more exciting, which we must be capable of solving at the same time as we intensify and develop vigorous action at the politico-military level to expel the colonial troops from the positions they still occupy in our land of Guine and Cape Verde.

PAIGC soldiers in Guinea-Bissau, Coutinho Collection. Wikimedia Commons, 1973.

Intellectual Methodology

The 1973 New Year’s message is straight and clear. In that sense it does indeed illustrate Amilcar Cabral’s intellectual methodology. But for a more theoretical grasp, we have to consult other parts of his work. The most frequently quoted version of Cabral’s general view of the conditions of social transformation in a colonised, dependent and underdeveloped country, such as his own, is found in the address he delivered to the first Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America in Havana, 3-12 January 1966. (Endnote 5) Cabral adopts the orthodox view that history goes through ‘at least three stages’, each definable by the ‘level of productive forces’ (p.78) which is assumed to rise as history moves on, thus making possible more advanced forms of social and political organisation. Cabral’s scheme differs from the conventional Marxist one by offering a stage of their own to communal societies, thus avoiding seeing these as mere pre-stages to history, while grouping instead feudal and bourgeois societies in the same broad category, thus dethroning capitalism by putting it at par with feudalism.

Here we shall only quote one important introductory point. Cabral had, he said, found that a fundamental part of the struggle for national liberation was actually lacking on the agenda of the conference. This was ‘the struggle against our own weaknesses‘ (Cabral, 1969:74):

Obviously, other cases differ from that of Guinea; but our experience has shown us that … this battle against ourselves, no matter what difficulties the enemy may create, is the most difficult of all, whether for the present or the future of our peoples. This battle is the expression of the internal contradictions in the economic, social and cultural (and therefore historical) reality of each of our countries. We are convinced that any national or social revolution which is not based on knowledge of this fundamental reality runs a grave risk of being condemned to failure.

This is a sternly realistic observation, characteristic of Cabral. But let us turn to an even earlier document, Brief analysis of the social structure in Guinea (Cabral, 1969:46-61), first presented in on 1-3 May 1964, to a seminar held at the Frantz Fanon Centre in Treviglio, Milan to illustrate his way of moving from theoretically penetrating analysis to political conclusions: (Endnote 6)

I should like to tell you something about the situation in our country, ‘Portuguese’ Guinea, beginning with an analysis of the social situation, which has served as the basis for our struggle for national liberation. I shall make a distinction between the rural areas and the towns, or rather the urban centres, not that these are to be considered mutually opposed.

In the rural areas we have found it necessary to distinguish between two distinct groups; on the one hand, the group which we consider semi-feudal, represented by the Fulas and, on the other hand, the group which we consider, so to speak, without any defined form of state organisation, represented by the Balantes.

This distinction between the two groups is theoretically founded in sociology and anthropology. Two years later, in his speech in Havana, Cabral would also use for the first time the terms vertical versus horizontal social structure to denote the conceptual dichotomy implied (p.78). In Milan he still used more common words, although with great precision. The most general point made (pp.49-50) was that it had proved less difficult to mobilise the Balanta and similar groups than the Fula for the struggle against the Portuguese colonial regime, as . . .

the Fula peasants have a strong tendency to follow their chiefs. Thorough and intensive work was therefore needed to mobilise them .. .(on the other hand) … these groups without any defined organisation put up much more resistance against the Portuguese than the others and they have maintained intact their tradition of resistance to colonial penetration. This is the group that we found most ready to accept the idea of national liberation.

Limits of Cabral’s Analysis

It is not possible here to develop the complex theoretical and political issues related to the way Cabral applied the vertical/horizontal distinction. A recent attempt to sum up my own and others’ contributions to this debate is found in Rudebeck, 1992:48-54. In 1964 Cabral consciously focused attention on that dimension of the social structure of Guinean society that was most relevant to the task of mobilising the peasants for anti-colonial resistance. He was successful in this, as we know.

It is easy, today, to point out that Cabral’s analysis was far from complete, and in fact much more limited to the specific tasks of the anti-colonial struggle than was generally thought at the time. This seems to have become clear to Cabral himself, as the struggle went on. In Conakry on 10 May 1972, for instance, he described at length to me the system of government he wanted to see at work in his country after the achievement of independence. This was to be a system with political and economic power firmly anchored in decentralised assemblies of the people. The functions of the state were to be strictly limited. In our discussion Cabral called this ‘cooperative democracy’.

In a revolutionary perspective, the cooperative system obviously rests on the assumption that the people are a ‘revolutionary force’ and not a mere ‘physical force’, as Cabral had labelled the Guinean peasants in his 1964 seminar lecture in Milan (p.50). We see thus, how two different modes of thinking were ambivalently posed against each other within Cabral’s own analysis of the social basis of the liberation movement: one marked by Leninist party theory combined with conventional modernisation thinking, the other revolutionary-democratic. The problem for the future was that the question of the social basis of the democratic alternative was not confronted, thus opening up in practice a one-party system cut off from the majority of the people, once independence had been achieved.

Cabral’s theoretical work mirrors his political task. Taken as a whole, it never reached beyond the point of independence, whether in politics or economics, except for fragmentary pieces. Nowhere in his writings do we find, seriously conceptualised, any realistic way of making the revolutionary-democratic alternative come true in the post-colonial situation. The only way considered is the unrealistic one of asking the ‘petty bourgeoisie’ to ‘abandon power to the workers and the peasants’, as he put it in Milan (1964:57). In Havana (1966:89), in an expression that would become famous, he asked for the ‘class suicide’ of the petty bourgeois leaders of the liberation struggle. The passage is subtly ambiguous. Are we listening to a realist, a voluntarist, or a prophet?

To retain the power which national liberation puts in its hands, the petty bourgeoisie has only one path: to give free rein to its natural tendencies to become more bourgeois, to permit the development of a bureaucratic and intermediary bourgeoisie in the commercial cycle, in order to transform itself into a national pseudo-bourgeoisie, that is to say to negate the revolution and necessarily ally itself with imperialist capital. Now all this corresponds to the neo-colonial situation, that is, to the betrayal of the objectives of national liberation. In order not to betray these objectives, the petty bourgeoisie has only one choice: …the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong.

Woman PAIGC soldier playing cards, Coutinho Collection. Wikimedia Commons, 1973.

The Weapon of Theory

The Weapon of Theory is the title of one of Cabral’s most famous texts. It could have been the title of his entire written work. Let us look briefly at three passages, all of which carry significance beyond the context of the anti-colonial struggle, precisely because they are theoretically founded.

The first may seem initially to be limited to the concrete context of the anti-colonial struggle in Guinea. In reality it points toward the future, by shedding light in hindsight on aspects of the development failures of independent Guinea-Bissau. The quote is from my transcription into Portuguese of a crioulo tape recording from a seminar for Party people held in August 1971 (Cabral, 1971:14):

Regardless of their specific responsibilities, the comrades in charge of all branches of our organisation should help our people organise collective fields. This is a great experiment for our future, comrades. Those who do not understand this have not yet understood anything of our struggle, however much they have fought and however heroic they may be.

What disturbed Cabral was that mobilisation in the PAIGC-controlled areas of the country was mainly political and ideological, while very little economic transformation was taking place. Paradoxically, instead, the conditions of the liberation war tended even to reinforce traditional self-reliance in production, in the sense that commercial and administrative links to the colonial system were cut. Since independence, on the other hand, any attempts to develop agriculture through collectivisation have been undermined by the fact that the leadership gave a ‘free rein to its natural tendencies to become more bourgeois’, to use Cabral’s prophetic phrase.

At least in the short run, that fact has in turn contributed to heightening the significance of ethnicity in politics, in Guinea as elsewhere. In 1993, in times of ‘ethnic cleansing’ world-wide, the following definition of ‘ethnicity’ offered by Cabral thus retains all its validity, theoretically as well as politically (my translation from Guinea-Bissau: Alfabeto, 1984:26):

It is not the existence of a race, an ethnic group, or anything of the kind, that defines the behaviour of a human aggregate. No, it is the social environment and the problems arising from the reactions of this environment and the reactions of the human beings in question. AH this defines the behaviour of a human aggregate.

But how is it possible to change environments that give rise to racist or ethnicist behaviour? In another one of Cabral’s lectures to party workers in 1969, we find a philosophical answer to that question (Cabral, 1980:44-45) (Endnote 7):

Our view is the following: man is part of reality, reality exists independently of man’s will. To the extent to which he acquires consciousness of reality, to the extent in which reality influences his consciousness, or creates his consciousness, man can acquire the potential to transform reality, little by little. This is our view, let us say the principle of our Party on relations between man and reality.

What if Cabral Had Not Been Killed?

We noted that Cabral, in his theoretical work, did not go very deeply into the problems of post-colonial development. We shall never know if he would have had the time and force to develop his analyses, had he survived. But if so, this would most likely have been within the realm of political economy. There is an obvious void in his work, as it stands, with regard to linking the transformation of the economy and the democratisation of political structure to each other. This is also the area where the failures of independent Guinea-Bissau are most visible. At the same time, passages like those quoted on collectivisation and ethnicity do indicate a possible direction of thought. Consider the following much quoted words from Cabral’s General Guidelines, written as early as 1965 for the activists of the liberation movement (my translation, Cabral, 1965:23):

National liberation, the struggle against colonialism, working for peace and progress, independence — all these will be empty words without significance for the people, unless they are translated into real improvements in the conditions of life. It is useless to liberate a region, if the people of that region are then left without the elementary necessities of life.

The sharp formulation does express a basic truth, but not the whole truth. It does not raise the question of how to translate the beautiful words into ‘real improvements of the conditions of life’. Taking that question seriously would have led on to issues of how to democratise power over the economy. Yet however relevant Cabral’s philosophical view on ‘relations between man and reality’, the immediate task of decolonisation spurred cultural and political mobilisation rather than transformation of the relations of production.

Bibliographic Note

Ronald H Chilcote, Amilcar Cabral’s Revolutionary Theory and Practice: A Critical Guide, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder & London, 1991; Amilcar Cabral, Palavras de ordem gerais: Do camarada Amilcar Cabral aos responsaveis do Partido, November 1965, PAIGC, 1969; Cabral, Fondements et objectifs de la liberation nationale: I — Sur la domination imperialiste, extracts from Cabral’s speech at the first Conference of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America, Havana, 3-14 January 1966, Conakry, PAIGC 1966 (mimeo); Cabral, Revolution in Guinea: An African People’s Struggle, Stage 1, London, 1969; Sobre alguns problemas praticos da nossa vida e da nossa luta, transcription from tape recording of a speech at a meeting of the Superior Council of the Struggle, 9-16 August 1971, Conakry, 1971 (mimeo); Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings, texts selected by the PAIGC, translated by Michael Wolfers, African Writers Series 198 (Heinemann, London, 1980). Guinea-Bissau: Alfabeto, texts edited by Carlos Lopes, photographs by G Lodi & M Sabbadini, Terra & Imagini, Gruppo Volontariato Civile, Bologna, 1984; Lars Rudebeck, ‘Conditions of people’s development in postcolonial Africa’ in R Galli (ed), Rethinking the Third World: Contributions Toward a New Conceptualization (Crane Russak, New York & London, 1991).


    1. Tape recording of the original broadcast against which I have checked Wolfer’s translation which follows the original very closely.
    2. Wolfers’ translation, ‘responsible workers’ uses the noun responsavel, plural responsaveis, which is very common in political language but difficult to translate.
    3. Wolfers’ translation, ‘time for action in Guinea that is each day . . . ‘
    4. Wolfers’ translation of todos homens, ‘all men’, is literal; however, from the context I infer that Cabral was not referring exclusively to males.
    5. The text is entitled The Weapon of Theory and has been published in a number of versions, in several different languages. The most complete, in English, is in Cabral 1980:119-137. An earlier English version, Cabral, 1969:73-90 does exist which I have found somewhat closer to the PAIGC document in my possession (Cabral, 1966), used here. ‘
    6. Brief analysis is not included in the Cabral, 1980 selection, for which the texts were selected by the PAIGC. It is however, found in Cabral, 1969:46-61, the only English version available.
    7. The quote is from the second of nine lectures delivered by Cabral during a seminar for Party people, 19-24 November 1969. The lectures were held in crioulo, transcribed into Portuguese, and later translated by Wolfers for publication in English (Cabral, 1980:28-113).

Mike Powell, Editor of the Original Special Issue

Featured Photograph: A painting of Amilcar Cabral hanging on the wall at the headquarters of PAIGC in Bissau. Wikimedia Commons, 3 November 2017.