Review: Julius Nyerere’s ‘Ujamaa’, why a beautiful idea went wrong and how it can be adapted for the 21st century

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Posted Nov 29 2015 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

This is a book that I discovered in my twenties, and it impressed me so much that I ended up making my way to Tanzania in 1991, and staying for a couple of months on two ujamaa villages. Ujamaa means ‘familyhood’, a concept that Nyerere wanted to extend to encompass the whole of humanity, so that there will be no exploitation of humans by other humans. By exploitation, he meant making money from other people’s work, or forcing people to do things that they don’t want to do – either for ideology or for money.

It’s a beautiful idea, but how well did it correspond to what happened in Tanzania, and how well can the idea be applied to the world in the 21st century? I think that the political idea within Ujamaa is the best way I’ve ever come across of producing intelligent, compassionate, incorruptible decision-makers – so much so that I’d like to revive it, and in the age of the internet, I think it has a much better chance of success. But I also believe that the economic system was flawed – both in principle and in practice. I have also discovered recently that I was lied to by people I talked with in ujamaa villages in 1991.

The whole of rural Tanzania was collectivised into ujamaa villages by the 1970s. This made me suspicious of claims that membership of ujamaa villages was entirely voluntary. My suspicions turned out to be well-founded, but it wasn’t down to Nyerere. The idea itself remains a good one, I think.

The Ujamaa idea

here’s a summary of the political idea:

Each group of ten households chooses one of their members to sit on the village committee. Each village committee chooses one of their members to sit on the district committee. Each district committee chooses one of their members to sit on the regional committee. Each regional committee chooses one of their members to sit on the national government. That’s it – no election campaigns, and representatives are always chosen from face-to-face contact, based on intelligence, compassion and integrity, which can be judged because they are known personally by the people choosing them.

Plus here are some other important policies that Nyerere suggested:

  • No absentee land ownership – i.e. no renting land so that other people work to make money for you. Everybody is entitled to some land – but only as much as they can work, themselves, without employing other people.
  • Members of the national government can not hold shares or directorships in any company, or receive a second salary or own a house from which they receive rent.
  • The tools of production (i.e. land, agricultural equipment, workshops, craft tools etc.) must be under the control of the group or individual that depends on them for life.
  • Self-reliance – i.e. Western corporations were not to be allowed to operate sweatshops and plantations, and to export their profits. That way can only support the global corporate sector, rather than the people of Tanzania.

Imagine saying that to our current crop of politicians in the UK. How many would be left if they weren’t allowed to make money, other than their MP’s salary? Not many – but they would be the best people.

The focus should have been co-operation, not collectivism

However, the political idea works just as well if groups of ten families come together to choose a representative, all of whom are living on their own farms.

I believe most people would prefer this. and although Nyerere makes it very clear that membership of ujamaa villages should be voluntary, some comments are worrying. e.g:

In those areas of production where individual ownership of tools is impractical, we are therefore forced to the conclusion that group ownership of the means of production is the only way which the exploitation of man by man (sic) can be prevented. This communal ownership can be through the state, which represents every citizen, or through some other institution which is controlled by those involved, such as, for example, a co-operative or a local authority.

Of course, co-operatives are a good idea – as long as they are voluntary. What if some people want to be independent smallholders, only owning as much land as they work, not employing other people, and operating largely without heavy machinery, and if they need it, getting together with a few other smallholders to purchase it?

He goes on to say:

The greater part of our farming is still peasant or family farming. But although this is not capitalist, neither is it very efficient or productive in comparison to what it could be.

This gives the impression that peasant farmers might be more than just encouraged to collectivised, even if they have no interest in becoming more ‘efficient or productive’. Maybe they just want to produce their own food, build their own home and be left alone. This has to be an option.

And:

It is possible ….. for farmers to be exploited even by their own co-operative and their own state if the machinery is not correct, or if the managers or workers are inefficient or dishonest.

Well of course it is. I worked in Romania before starting Lowimpact.org. Everyone had stories of corrupt local officials who did very little work but reaped all the benefits, and who favoured friends and family members when it came to contracts, housing, employment or positions of power. Collectivism should be an option, that people can participate in and leave whenever they like. It certainly shouldn’t be enforced at the expense of self-employment. Collectivism isn’t for everyone. People can fall out, and some people just like to be left alone to do their own thing, without exploiting other people or nature. That option should be open to anyone. I’m not sure that Nyerere was in favour of forced collectivisation, but that’s what happened – see Ibbott’s revelations, below.

Another quote:

In each ujamaa village, the man who is sick will be cared for; a man who is widowed will have no difficulty in getting his children looked after; the old, the orphans….. will be looked after by the village as a whole, just as was done in traditional society.

This is a fine sentiment, but doesn’t require forced collectivisation, surely? Villagers can support each other even if people have their individual plots and co-operate on an informal basis.

And finally, although I think that Nyerere was an honourable man, this is the one comment in the entire book that I completely disagree with:

Rural industrialisation projects must not be thought of in terms of large, modern factories, but more in terms of ‘cottage industries’. Yet it would be a mistake for such work to be done by separate families in their own homes.

The first part – fine. But the second – well, I think the decision as to whether the cottage industries are carried out by individuals and families or by co-operatives should be entirely down to the people involved. Whether it is a ‘mistake’ to be self-employed should be discovered by the individuals themselves.

Furthermore, collectivism is socialism, which is not acceptable to the right, and always becomes statist, even if it doesn’t start that way. If the right are opposed, then suddenly we’re not the 99% any more, we’re the 49.5%, and that’s not enough to bring about change. Socialism will never be acceptable to the right, and capitalism will never be acceptable to the left, and the two will cancel themselves out forever. A new approach is required that is acceptable to both left and right – a more co-operative, non-hierarchical, anarchistic approach, although whether we reclaim or avoid that word is a matter for debate.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I’m a director of the Ecological Land Co-op. Our work involves purchasing land that is leased to plotholders. They live next to each other, but on their own plot. They can share facilities – like a community hub building, tracks, tractors and other equipment etc, but the amount of sharing is up to them. Lammas ecovillage operates in the same way. The community I used to live in is much more communal, but it’s a hobby farm, and people come and go as they please. These are far better options than forced collectivisation. I don’t think that this is what Nyerere had in mind, but he was overruled by his party, and so, as Ralph Ibbott recently revealed, that’s exactly what happened in Tanzania.

Ibbott’s revelations

In the last chapter of Ujamaa, Nyerere mentions the Ruvuma Development Association (RDA). I’d heard of this organisation before, but had failed to understand its importance. Only by beginning to read a new book by Ralph Ibbott – Ujamaa: the Hidden Story of Tanzania’s Socialist Villages – can I see what really happened in Tanzania. It has also made me understand that I was lied to when I visited ujamaa villages in 1991. I was told that villagisation was entirely voluntary, which was not true.

This book is the first example of a first-hand account of the development and death of the ujamaa system from someone who lived in an ujamaa village for several years. Ralph Ibbott was de-mobbed in 1947, and ended up taking his family to what was then apartheid Rhodesia, to set up a mixed-race co-operative farm. He was hounded out of Rhodesia of course, and ended up in Tanzania, talking with young, idealistic people about setting up co-operative farms in the south of the country. He joined, and the first villages were formed. By the end of the sixties, 17 co-operative villages comprised the Ruvuma Development Association.

All previous literature I’ve found to be biased in a rose-tinted way from the left and in a hostile way from the right. The left claimed that the ujamaa system was killed by the World Bank, who refused any further loans until the system was dismantled. Loans were needed to provide dollars with which to purchase oil (you know of course, that the corporate-controlled US government, backed up by the military, has enforced a mafia-style protection racket on OPEC countries since the early seventies, forbidding the trading of oil in any currency but dollars. Saddam and Gadaffi broke ranks, and were instantly and severely dealt with). They were almost definitely right. But the right claim that the system died because of economic incompetence and forced collectivisation, and they were almost definitely right too.

The RDA incorporated only voluntary co-operation. The government of TZ recognised that organic growth was going to take a long time, and overruled Nyerere to forcibly collectivise the whole of rual Tanzania in the 1970s. This was the end of the experiment as far as I’m concerned. A better approach would have been to outlaw private employment, and allow people to do what they like in their villages. They could become ujamaa-ized, following the approach of the RDA, and ujamaa villages could have existed side-by-side with self-employed peasant farmers. Forced collectivisation removes incentives from farmers, and encourages corruption and nepotism by officials. More importantly, Nyerere was overruled by his party (Chama Cha Mapinduzi – the party of the ujamaa system), but with the face-to-face system promoted by Nyerere, I don’t see the need for a party at all.

This appears to be another example of a more anarchist (or at least anarchist-leaning) approach being crushed by the left rather than the right (the same happened to the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, to Nestor Makhno’s group in Ukraine, and to the workers who took over factories and peasants who took over farms between the February and October revolutions in Russia in 1917).

If you’re reading this, you’ll understand that corporate capitalism is inherently unsustainable and undemocratic, with huge implications for our freedom, and ultimately our survival. But the important thing is that we have a voluntary, co-operative, non-hierarchical, anarchistic approach to change rather than a forced, collective, hierarchical, socialistic approach. I will be arguing this point much more, but I still don’t know if the ‘A’ word should be embraced or avoided.

I’ll also review Ibbott’s book in more detail later.