The Poverty of Socialism


Tanzania: A Political Economy, by Andrew Coulson, New York: Oxford University Press, 331 pp., $34.95/$15.95

Forced collectivization of agriculture, extensive nationalization of economic production, and expropriation of private property have been the hallmarks of President Julius Nyerere's economic program for Tanzania. For two decades, Nyerere has single-mindedly pursued his vision of African socialism. Yet even by his own admission, Tanzania is poorer today than it was over a decade ago.

Despite its abysmal economic performance, Nyerere's Tanzania remains the centerpiece for proponents of African socialism. In this light, Andrew Coulson's Tanzania: A Political Economy takes on a special significance.

In concept and execution, Coulson's book is analytical, not polemical. It nevertheless casts doubt on the belief of many secular and religious liberals that socialism is a morally, politically, and economically superior alternative to capitalism for the Third World. Tanzania's experience suggests that socialism will foster neither democracy nor development in underdeveloped countries.

Andrew Coulson worked in Tanzania for nine years, serving first in the Ministry of Agriculture and then, from 1972 to 1976, as a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam. He is scarcely an apologist for the German colonizers of the 19th century or for the British who acted as colonial administrators from 1916 until independence in 1964. Although he acknowledges such European contributions as roads, railways, cities, and formal education, he emphasizes the costs entailed, including loss of life, loss of a reliable and nutritious food source, and loss of many native skills. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Nyerere, rather than his colonial predecessors, must be held primarily responsible for the country's current dismal plight.

Independence was achieved relatively easily, in large part because of Nyerere's tactically shrewd leadership but also because the departing British could legitimately believe that the country had a promising future. There was a national language understood by most; tribal groups were such that none could expect special favors; there were no strong vested interests. The country had trade unions, a cooperative movement, associations equipped to organize effective political campaigns, and an economy that was the envy of many in the Third World.

Twenty years later, Tanzania is a so-called one-party democracy, with power lodged in a nonelective bureaucracy that functions essentially as a ruling class. Dissent is muted, and for some years Tanzania was high on the Amnesty International list of countries with political prisoners. Now an economic basket case, the country is one of the most heavily indebted of the underdeveloped countries.

The most graphic example of the country's economic decline is in agriculture. An exporter of food before Nyerere's policies took effect, Tanzania must now import food to feed its population. Coulson supplies convincing evidence that the drastic decline in agricultural productivity cannot be blamed on such natural disasters as the 1973–75 Sahelian drought. Even in areas where rainfall remained relatively normal, productivity declined.

Nyerere's speeches and writings are copiously quoted by Coulson. They indicate that Nyerere's guiding ideology is a blend of Fabian socialism, to which he was exposed at Edinburgh University in Scotland, and church teachings on social justice. His long-term vision is of a state that owns most of the means of production, equalizes income, and provides a wide range of social services. "A bastion (in Coulson's words) against capitalist domination from outside," Nyerere's "state" is expected to ensure freedom and justice for the poor.

Yet Nyerere has demonstrated an increasing authoritarianism and a willingness to use force, if necessary, to achieve his vision. This increasing authoritarianism is perhaps best illustrated by the process of "villageization," based on Nyerere's belief that the good life is possible in villages but not on small family farms dispersed over wide areas.

Most of the settlements that sprang up in spontaneous response to this view failed to survive, and the first village settlement policy was formally abandoned in 1966. In 1967, an alternative policy provided for small groups of politically committed farmers to work on communal farms, pooling their savings to purchase equipment. Originally, implementation was purely voluntary. But in a second phase, a limited amount of compulsion was allowed, and government aid and concessions were introduced.

Corruption soon developed, and the amount of work performed decreased when it became clear that government assistance did not depend on productivity. Finally, in 1973, Nyerere issued an order requiring virtually everyone to live in villages. Few of the 13 million reported to have been in the villages by the end of 1976 were there by choice.

"Villageization" has meant the end of local government, replaced in each region by an arm of the central civil service, which controls village life. A policy intended to reduce disparities in farm incomes has resulted in both large and small farmers now receiving far less income than they realized from the capitalist methods utilized in the '50s and early '60s.

Coulson offers no reason to believe that Nyerere's motivation is other than idealistic or that he is personally corrupt. Yet his imposition of state control over the economy has spawned a centralized bureaucracy that appears no more likely than any other ruling class to surrender its power and privileges voluntarily.

The implications of the Tanzanian experience should be pondered by those now urging Latin American countries to institute income redistribution measures and greater state control over their economies. If socialist policy has so signally failed in a once fairly prosperous underdeveloped country, why should it succeed elsewhere?

The American Catholic bishops would also do well to ponder Tanzania's experience as they prepare their pastoral letter on capitalism. Why should capitalism be considered less just than socialism when the general population of Tanzania was better served by capitalism during the late colonial period than by Nyerere's attempts to ensure a more equal distribution of income?

It is difficult, if not impossible, to think of any country, lacking both a democratic tradition and a high level of development, that has been able to institute socialism without creating a new ruling class ultimately as authoritarian as its predecessors. Though instituted in the name of freedom and justice for the poor, Nyerere's socialism may prove more disastrous for the Third World than the colonialism it was to remedy.

Mary Mainland is an attorney in California.