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Thomas Sankara and national liberation

August 23, 2017

Internationalism and popular democracy in Burkina Faso, 1983-87

Sankara Poster

By John Riddell: David Crawford Jones’s article on Thomas Sankara, posted earlier this week on this blog , is a perceptive and eloquent tribute to the achievements of Burkina Faso’s revolution under Sankara’s presidency (1983-87).

Yet the text by Jones also criticizes this West African revolution for what he considers to be a fundamental error in strategy, concluding that Sankara represented an oppressive if benevolent Stalinism.

The tension between these two judgments, Jones suggests, arises from two counterposed assessments of Third World revolutionaries like Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh either as “great revolutionaries in the tradition of Vladimir Lenin” or as “ruling class tyrants whose revolutions have nothing to do with socialism.” His own view, he says, lies “in between these two adversarial positions.”

As a result, Jones’s paper, “Exhuming Thomas Sankara,” provides a particularly stimulating starting point for analyzing the legacy of this great African revolutionary, still so little known outside his continent. Although some of Jones’s criticisms do not seem well taken, he is right on one supremely important point:

Mass movements on the [African] continent today can draw inspiration from Sankara’s revolution, while simultaneously studying its limitations. [This is] a usable history, responsive to the needs of global socialist struggles that must insist on the centrality of African experiences.

Even today, Jones shows, the memory of Sankara and his presidency is cherished by the people of Burkina Faso. He demonstrates this by a touching portrayal of how a large crowd gathered in 2015 in the destitute outskirts of the country’s capital, Ouagadougou, to bear witness to the exhumation and reburial of the bodies of Sankara and several close associates, murdered during a counterrevolutionary coup 28 years before. This tribute followed closely on a mass uprising in 2014 that ousted the regime installed by Sankara’s executioners, a movement for which Sankara was, as Jones says, “a primary source of inspiration.”

‘Another world is possible’

When a wave of popular struggles lifted Thomas Sankara into the presidency of Burkina Faso (then known as Upper Volta) in 1983, his country was among the most impoverished victims of colonialism, with adult literacy of only 11% and meager life expectancy of 44 years.. Yet as Jones records, the Sankara government “sought to defy the international neo-liberal order that crippled countless Third World countries.” During its four years of existence, he notes, Sankara’s government:

fought illiteracy, hunger, infant mortality, and desertification, all while insisting on a more equitable relationship with the nation’s former colonial master, France, and demanding an end to the austerity programs that had plagued countless African states due to IMF and World Bank structural adjustment policies.

Sankara’s revolution, he continues, “offered a bold step forward, with vast improvements in health… and literacy campaigns that offered real, tangible improvements.”

Even more important, Jones says, Burkina Faso under Sankara broke ties with the IMF and World Bank, defying their demands for austerity – “his single most important legacy.” The achievements of Sankara’s government, he continues, “demonstrate conclusively that, as our banners often put it, ‘another world is possible.’”

‘From above’ vs. ‘from below’

Inevitably, battered by fierce imperialist hostility, the Burkina Faso revolution suffered from many shortcomings. But such weaknesses are not the focus of Jones’s analysis. Instead, he contends that the revolution as a whole was fundamentally misconceived, dooming it to failure.

Alongside his generous praise is an imposing list of its supposed failures, described in terms of state capitalism, socialism in one country, Stalinism, revolution from above, nationalism, exploitation of working people, repressive and dictatorial rule, and lack of an internationalist perspective.

Jones is applying here a theoretical system developed to analyze the Soviet Union under Stalin that hinges on defining revolutions as either “from above” or “from below” – an approach associated with “state capitalist” analysis. Yet his application of this analysis to the Burkina Faso revolution is singularly incongruous.

Socialism in one country?

It is quite misleading, for example, to fault Burkina Faso’s revolution for embracing “the Stalinist model of socialism in one country.” Sankara never proclaimed socialism as the revolution’s goal. He laid out his strategy in detail in his “Political Orientation Speech” of October 1983, which is well summarized in Ernest Harsch’s recent biography, Thomas Sankara: an African Revolutionary, as follows:

The character of the revolution … was “democratic and popular.” Its long-term goal was “to eliminate imperialist domination and exploitation and to purge the countryside of all the social, economic, and cultural obstacles that keep it in a backward state.” In place of the old state machinery, a new one would be built that would be “capable of guaranteeing the democratic exercise of power by the people and for the people,” with the CDRs [Committees for Defense of the Revolution] as the main agents of that process.[1]

As a Marxist, Sankara here used the word “democratic” not in reference to parliamentary structures but in a “participatory” sense, referring to the capacity of all citizens to take part in exercising political power and determining its course.

The CDRs were rank-and-file action committees formed throughout the country, beginning in the first few days of Sankara’s presidency. The CDR concept comes from revolutionary Cuba; the committees’ role as the foundation for the new revolutionary state seems patterned on the role of workers’ and peasants’ soviets (councils) in the Russian revolution.

In the same speech, Sankara identified the revolution’s social base as the “people,” principally wage workers, the petty bourgeoisie and peasants. Its enemies were “parasitic classes”: that is, the commercial bourgeoisie that relied on foreign trade; the “political-bureaucratic bourgeoisie” that occupied state offices and plundered the public treasury; and the “traditional, feudal-type structures” in the countryside, that is, customary chiefs.[2]

Anti-imperialist revolution

Sankara called this process an “anti-imperialist revolution” that was “still unfolding within the framework of the limits of a bourgeois economic and social order.”

This concept clearly has nothing in common with Stalin’s “socialism in one country.” Instead, Sankara, well-versed in Marxist writings, is drawing on the strategy of Lenin during the run-up to the 1917 Russian revolution – an approach then shared by other Russian revolutionary Social-Democrats within and outside the ranks of Bolshevism.

Sankara women's liberation.jpgIndeed, Burkina Faso’s social structure had a lot in common with that of Russia at the dawn of the twentieth century, particularly with regard to conditions in rural areas. However, Burkina Faso lacked the modern industrial sector and concentrated working class that, in Russia, was the leading force pushing for revolution. This difference provided all the more reason to avoid projecting an immediate leap to socialism. Sankara made this point in his 1987 interview with Radio Havana:

In our country the question of the class struggle is posed differently from the way it’s posed in Europe. We have a working class that’s numerically weak and insufficiently organized. And we have no strong national bourgeoisie either that could have given rise to an antagonistic working class. So what we have to focus on is the very essence of the class struggle: in Burkina Faso it’s expressed in the struggle against imperialism, which relies on its internal allies.[3]

Sankara’s anti-imperialist vision was broad and inclusive. It encompassed, for example, an ecological emphasis rare for his time and bold measures to promote women’s rights and women’s protagonism in the revolution.

As a Marxist, Sankara believed in a socialist future for his country and the world. He saw anti-imperialist struggle as a strategy to help create preconditions for socialist revolution in his country.

Sankara’s internationalism

The sharpest criticism raised by David Crawford Jones concerns Sankara’s alleged narrow nationalism, and specifically his having “accepted the boundaries as they were imposed by the French colonial order, whose entire aim was to create artificial territorial states designed to fail.” Jones is right about the colonialist heritage expressed in Africa’s borders. However, he does not suggest any alternative framework within which working people in Burkina Faso could have sought revolutionary power – and in fact, there was none. Moreover, Jones stresses that the Burkina Faso revolution had positive results both for Sankara’s country and for freedom struggles across Africa.

Burkina Faso’s only hope, Jones says, was “as part of a broader international,” adding that “[at] some level, Sankara recognized this.”

Indeed, as Jones indicates, Sankara sought to link up with global anti-imperialist forces on every level: coordination with anti-imperialist governments in Ghana, Cuba, and Nicaragua; promotion of anti-imperialist pan-African unity; strong initiatives in support of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa; and eloquent acts of defiance of the great imperialist powers.

The years after Sankara’s death brought severe setbacks to many anti-imperialist movements. It may appear implausible that revolutionary Burkina Faso could have survived into the 1990s, the heyday of neo-liberalism. Yet that outcome did not seem inevitable during Sankara’s lifetime. In particular, South African apartheid was then taking heavy blows, and  there was reason to hope that a free South Africa would soon offer Burkina Faso much-needed assistance.

All proportions guarded, Sankara’s approach had a lot in common with that of Lenin: seek power in a single state and then seek to extend the process internationally. In both cases, the revolutions were ultimately defeated, but the impact of the world working-class struggle was positive. There is no cause here to criticize Sankara for nationalism.

Sankara Pathfinder

The fullest collection of Sankara’s works in English is available in “Thomas Sankara Speaks” from Pathfinder Press.

The Land of Upright People

Challenging the country’s colonialist frontiers was neither possible nor of any conceivable advantage for the people of Burkina Faso. Their revolution did something better: it set out to refound the country in a new non-colonialist framework. That was the purpose of changing its name from “Upper Volta” to “Burkina Faso” – words from two African languages signifying, roughly, the land of upright people.

The revolution also set out to extend the reach of the state to the rural population – the vast majority – with which it had previously had almost no contact. Rural CDRs implemented and initiated self-help projects, rallying villagers’ energy and initiative. Through that process, the new nation was endowed with an engaged citizenry.

Indeed, encouragement of local initiative was so successful as to greatly complicate the work of government planners. “The popular masses are going faster than the government,” commented Sankara in 1987. “When we ask a province to build four schools, they end up building twelve. This causes problems, since we have to provide the seats, tables, chalk, schoolmaster, and so on.”[4]

Here speaks the genuine experience of grass-roots planning, where the initiatives from the ranks reshape and redefine the economic projections – the polar opposite of Stalinist and capitalist top-down methods. Nor should the empowering role of unpaid voluntary labour in such self-help projects be dismissed, as Jones appears to do, as a form of capitalist exploitation.

Development efforts launched by revolutionary governments are inevitably marked by reverses and failures, and there were several such setbacks during Sankara’s presidency. However, Jones’s report of a failed campaign to build a railway into the country’s interior is contradicted by Sankara biographer Ernest Harsch, who reports that track was within a few kilometers of its target, completion of its initial spur to Kaya, when Sankara was killed (p. 76); the rail line is now in operation.

Did Burkina Faso exemplify Stalinism?

David Crawford Jones concludes that Sankara’s “system of government closely resembled the Stalinist model.” He believes it corresponds to four of the five criteria presented by the noted U.S. Marxist historian Paul Le Blanc: it sought “socialism in one country,” was “anti-democratic,” was a “revolution from above,” and engaged in “internal repression.” Le Blanc’s presentation is nuanced and deserves to be read in full.[5] None of his five criteria, as he presents them, seems a good fit for Burkina Faso under Sankara.

Le Blanc summarizes Stalinism as “authoritarian modernization in the name of socialism.” But this definition is inconclusive. The Burkina Faso revolution did not claim to be socialist. The concept “modernization” is embraced in some form by nearly every government in impoverished countries. And every state apparatus, by definition, is “authoritarian”; Frederick Engels famously commented that “a revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is.”[6]

Branches of Sankara’s government did prosecute not only lawbreakers and avowed class enemies but also, on occasion, dissident voices in the revolutionary camp. Sankara opposed this trend, favouring a course of persuasion, not coercion. His leniency displeased some government supporters, and the resulting tensions were a factor in his overthrow.

Instances of excessive severity can be found in actions of Lenin’s government as well. The marker for Stalinism is not the existence of bureaucratic abuse but its triumph.

But I fear we are missing the essential here. Stalinism is not simply excessive severity by a left-leaning government.

Stalinism originated as the ideology of the ruling layer in the Soviet Union, which carried out massive repression of revolutionaries and working people in order to consolidate elite privilege. Stalinism was counterrevolutionary to the core. During the mid and late twentieth century Stalinism was embraced as an  ideological reference by some currents leading revolutionary movements – currents also influenced by progressive goals such as national liberation (China, Vietnam, Korea, Yugoslavia). But the influence of Stalinism weakened and deformed such movements.

This reality is confirmed by the Burkina Faso experience.

Sankara’s view of Stalinism

Stalinism operates as a current in the workers’ movement, and revolutionary leaders must often, in the interests of unity, exercise tact when discussing it. This was the challenge faced by Thomas Sankara. Nonetheless, he condemned Stalinism – using diplomatic language but in no uncertain terms. Thus, in his 1984 address to the UN General Assembly, after lauding the achievements of Russia’s October 1917 revolution, he added that the Burkina Faso people had “learned from some terrible failures that led to tragic violations of human rights.”[7]

Sometimes he was more direct. The journalist Sennen Andriamirado wrote that, according to Sankara, “Stalin killed Leninism by stifling the soviets and making all-powerful the Cheka [secret police], the military, and other repressive bodies.”[8]

Sankara put this understanding to work by taking strong measures to rein in the privileges and power of elite and bureaucratic layers. Salaries and perks of government officials were reduced, bonuses were abolished, cars previously at their disposal were sold off. Government expenditure was shifted toward assistance to the rural poor. He worked consistently to rein in repression and bureaucratic abuses by branches of the government.

Sankara declared the goal of development to be “two meals a day and drinking water” for everyone. This modest goal has proven behind the reach even of wealthy Canada. For Burkina Faso it was a very radical target that directed attention to the well-being of the grass roots.

Authentic Stalinism at work

Unfortunately, Sankara’s vision was not shared by all forces in the revolutionary leadership. A number of small dogmatic currents found Sankara’s policies too inclusive and flexible. They claimed as their models Stalin’s regime in the USSR and that of the avowedly Stalinist ruler Enver Hoxha in Albania. Privately, they complained of Sankara’s austere vision of public service and his anti-corruption campaigns.

These groups sought to fuse into a “revolutionary” party that could take charge and supposedly radicalize the revolution. They looked for leadership to Blaise Compaoré, a prominent government leader who had once been Sankara’s ally.

Sankara favoured forming a revolutionary party, but he sought to postpone such a step until it could be carried out on a broad basis, encompassing CDR activists and other rank-and-file forces. He hoped such a party could rein in abuses of power in the revolution. He called for a party that would be “pluralist, diverse, and enriched by many different thoughts and actions … rich with a thousand nuances.”[9]

Radical in verbiage but elitist in social outlook, the Stalin-inspired forces linked to Compaoré murdered Sankara on October 15, 1987. The coup was probably encouraged by enemies of the revolution domestically and in the region; it amounted in effect to a “revenge of the elites.” With Sankara’s fall, the revolution came to an abrupt end. Compaoré seized the helm of government and made peace with privileged layers within the country and with imperialism.[10]

Analytic tools

The story of this deadly division among the revolutionary forces does not come through clearly in David Crawford Jones’s otherwise perceptive account. Perhaps this is because of the analytic model he uses. “From above – from below” analysis or, if you will, “state capitalist” theory, does not have a vocabulary to describe the contending forces. Both sides are “authoritarian,” both are acting “from above,” both are “nationalist,” and both are “Stalinist.” The “from above” label discourages further inquiry.

This model suggests that working people have succeeded only once in exercising state power “from below” – in Russia following the October 1917 revolution. It dismisses the many subsequent attempts to achieve revolutionary workers power by applying the “from above” label. This approach tends to overlook the weaknesses of the Soviet process, of which Lenin himself was a severe critic, and obscure the achievements in many attempts that followed. Above all, this approach obscures the role of Stalinism. A focus on unconscious or structural Stalinism, supposedly exemplified in Burkina Faso, obstructs analysis of how real and conscious efforts to follow Stalin’s model have undercut or undone revolutionary regimes in Burkina Faso and many other countries since 1917.

Significantly, the same type of split in the revolutionary camp that brought down the Sankara government also led, in the very year Sankara took power, to the overthrow of a similar regime in the West Indian nation of Grenada headed by Sankara’s ally, the great revolutionary leader Maurice Bishop. And twice during the 1960s, a similar sectarian current – identified with Aníbal Escalante – imperiled the Cuban revolution.

A distinction must be made between genuine, conscious Stalinism – as reflected in currents seeking to apply Stalin’s method and example – and efforts by revolutionaries, like Sankara, Maurice Bishop, and Fidel Castro, who sought by word and deed to counter the Stalinist danger.

The contribution of David Crawford Jones

Jones’s thoughtful and perceptive study of Thomas Sankara is a useful stimulus, as the 30th anniversary of his execution approaches, to learn more about this outstanding African revolutionary.

Although aspects of Jones’s analysis seem flawed, his paper encourages a much-needed reconsideration of the Burkina Faso experience.

In addition, Jones’s contribution illustrates the limitations of “from below – from above” analysis, weaknesses that he freely concedes. His text serves as a useful starting point for reconsideration of the role of Stalinism in Burkina Faso.

Jones’s study is thus is a useful and timely contribution to memory of a great revolutionary.

English-language resources on Thomas Sankara

  • Pierre Engelbert, Burkina Faso: Unsteady Statehood in Weat Africa, Westview, 1996.
  • Ernest Harsch, Thomas Sankara: an African Revolutionary, Ohio University Press, 2014.
  • Ernest Harsch, “The Legacies of Thomas Sankara: A Revolutionary Experience in Retrospect,” Review of African Political Economy, 40, no. 137 (September 2013).
  • Ernest Harsch, Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest, and Revolution, Zed Books (forthcoming), 2017.
  • Michel Prairie, ed., Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution, 1983-87, 2nd edition, Pathfinder Press, 2007.
  • Thomas Sankara, We Are Heirs of the World’s Revolutions, Speeches from the Burkina Faso Revolution, 1983-87, Pathfinder Press, 1990.
  • Thomas Sankara, Women’s Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle, Pathfinder Press, 2007.
  • Video: Thomas Sankara: The Upright Man. Amazon/CreateSpace, 2009.
  • Website:


[1]. Ernest Harsch, Thomas Sankara: an African Revolutionary [TSAR], p. 45. A full translation of Sankara’s speech is available  in Michel Prairie, ed., Thomas Sankara Speaks [TSS], 2nd edition (2007), pp. 76-109.

[2]. Based on Sankara, TSS pp. 81-91 and on discussion with Ernest Harsch.

[3]. Sankara, TSS, p. 384.

[4]. Harsch, TSAR, p. 72.

[5]. For readers’ convenience, here is the text of Paul Le Blanc’s five points on Stalinism:

  1. A definition of socialism that excludes democracy as an essential element, positing a one-party dictatorship over the political, economic, and cultural life of a country.
  2. An insistence that it is possible to create “socialism” in this single country – by which is actually meant some variation of socioeconomic modernization.
  3. A powerful and privileged bureaucratic apparatus dominating both party and state, generally with a glorified authoritarian leader functioning as the keystone of this political structure. (For some analysts, the existence of extensive material privileges and outright corruption among the powerful bureaucratic layers are key aspects of the crystallization of Stalinism.)
  4. The promotion of some variant of a so-called “revolution from above” – often involving populist rhetoric and mass mobilizations – driven by the state and party bureaucracy, on behalf of modernizing policies but often at the expense of the workers and peasants which the party dictatorship claims to represent.
  5. Related to the authoritarian modernization: extreme and often murderous repression, as well as propagandistic regimentation of education and culture and information, and systematic persecution of dissident thought.

Excerpted from Reflections on the Meaning of Stalinism.

[6]. Marxists hold that a popular revolution, by imposing the will of the majority, is a supreme expression of democracy. Engels, who shared this assessment, wrote the quoted passage in 1872 in response to anarchist-leaning  forces who condemned the Paris Commune for enforcing its decrees with excessive severity. Engels’ text continues as follows:

A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists.

Quoted from Marxists Internet Archive.

[7]. Sankara, TSS, p. 165.

[8]. Andriamirado, Sankara le rebelle, p. 116, with thanks to Ernest Harsch for drawing my attention to this quotation.

[9]. Harsch, TSAR, p. 139.

[10]. The foregoing paragraphs draw on the discussion in Harsch, TSAR, pp. 129-43.

One Comment
  1. John,

    Thank you so much for publishing my talk on your site and for giving this thoughtful reply. I wanted to use the opportunity to leave a comment to clarify a few things about my piece that might help to further the discussion or at least shed more light on the argument.

    This talk was originally written with a specific audience in mind. Nonetheless, I stand by what I wrote with a few necessary amendments.

    First, I want to say that I do not use the Stalinist label pejoratively, nor do I mean it to imply that Sankara (or any other revolutionary given that label by me or anyone else) is somehow on a moral or even necessarily an ideological plane with Stalin. Rather, I think that Stalinism can be an umbrella term for a particular approach to revolution that flourished in the twentieth century for a variety of reasons that were largely outside the control of any particular individual.

    Lenin imagined the Bolshevik revolution as the spark for a global revolution that would sweep away the communist order and usher in socialism. When that failed to materialize, socialist revolutions in the twentieth century cohered around the nation-state: this was true in the Soviet Union, it was true in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Burkina Faso, etc. That Sankara’s revolution would take a nationalist form is thus not surprising, and, given his own position, largely unavoidable. My “criticism” of Sankara is therefore less of a second-guessing and more of an argument about the kind of socialist politics we should embrace in the twenty-first century. In other words, it is not a personal criticism but a broader critique of a particular Cold War political context.

    That said, it is very difficult for me to see Sankara as an African Lenin (if such a person would even be desirable is a separate question.) He seized power through the military, after all. I think this background deeply shaped his approach to revolution, giving it a very strong state-centered approach that sought to achieve rapid change through largely undemocratic military-style campaigns that would rapidly improve the standard of living in the country.

    It is true that Sankara did not describe himself as a socialist. However, when you consider his unmistakeably Marxist discourse, and the similarity between his specific tactics and, say, Castro’s in Cuba, it is hard for me to resist using that label. In fact, my suspicion is that his focus on “democracy” (as well as nationalism, in the sense that he always argued that the solutions he came up with were fit for Burkina Faso and could not necessarily be applied to peoples of other countries), was more a way of eliding a troublesome label, rather than an attempt to make an actual ideological distinction. But there is certainly room for debate on this question.

    I don’t find the argument that the revolution was democratic credible. Sankara himself critiqued his own revolution on these grounds. Yes, he talks about the peasantry being inspired to build schools, etc., but this does not demonstrate that there was genuine popular control over the revolution. In fact, the structures for this did not exist. On a related note, I think that we need much more data on peasant perspectives on Sankara and the 1983-1987 revolution. In other words, I’m less interested in hearing what Sankara said, and more interested in learning what ordinary Burkinabe thought of the revolution. During Compaore’s long rule of the country, such research would have been very difficult if not impossible. I hope that changes in the future.

    Finally, I think we need to really think about why this revolution failed, and whether this failure was avoidable. Sankara demanded a lot from the population during his reign…it is difficult for me to see how the revolution would have sustained itself beyond the 1980s. It needed many more allies, a much more robust and international left to defend it from its many enemies. When you consider the country’s position vis a vis France, Cote D’Ivoire, the IMF, etc., I think its failure was quite foreseeable during the 1980s. Part of the argument of my piece is that the liberation of the African continent will require a far stronger left in the US and Europe than certainly existed in the 1980s. Or, for that matter, than exists today.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to engage in this debate.

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