Ideology, Theory, and Revolution: Lessons from the Mau Mau of Kenya

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Patrick Adams has depicted peasant reaction against colonialism in Africa (including the militant Mau Mau reaction) as somewhat spontaneous, conceptually parochial, and lacking ideological foundation.1 This view is, in fact, not uncommon and can be found in a number of historical accounts of the Mau Mau movement in colonial Kenya. But how valid is this conception of the anticolonial efforts of the peasantry in Africa? To what extent can we regard the specific instance of the militant Mau Mau insurrection against British colonial rule in Kenya as nonideological in its direction? This question obviously demands at least a brief and broad consideration of the history of the Mau Mau movement, to which we will turn first.

The massive land estates expropriated by the British community at the inception of colonial occupation of Kenya, which required an abundant supply of cheap labor, not only displaced thousands of (predominantly Kikuyu) Kenyans and rendered the African land reserves intensely overcrowded, but also transformed thousands of others into landless rural proletarian squatters within the British-occupied farms, generally the most productive agricultural territory. And during the state of emergency (declared in October, 1952) the squatters were forcibly evacuated en masse from the squatments to join the already congested, uprooted, and unemployed population. To aggravate this already volcanic situation, rigid "apartheid' restrictions were imposed on the Africans in the production and sale of certain cash crops as well as in the social and political spheres.

These developments eventually led to a revolutionary upsurge in the 1950s which forced the colonial government to address seriously the agrarian problem. Under pressure from Governor Philip Mitchell, who argued that the seeming political unrest in Kenya had economic roots, the East African Royal Commission of 1953-55 was set up to study the situation and come up with recommendations on agrarian transformation which might help alleviate the agitation among the peasants.

This commission observed that productivity in the reserves and on the land under tribal conditions of tenure was so low as to be unable to supply even a minimum of subsistence for the Africans. Under such conditions it was reckoned that the solution to the agrarian problem was not to allow the Africans to repossess any of the expropriated land, but rather to discover new and more effective methods of land usage that would increase the African farmers' agricultural yield. The formula that the colonial government came up with and imposed on the people to effect such a transformation was the abrogation of all forms of communal land tenure and the substitution of individual ownership. This, it was presumed, would stimulate an element of competitiveness among the African farmers which would (a) increase productivity, (b) lead to the stratification of the agrarian class and the emergence of an agrarian "middle class' which would align itself with the interests of the status quo, while (c) leaving the land estates of the settler farmers completely intact.

This formula explicitly demonstrates the degree to which the colonial government and the British settlers tried to play down the political moving force behind the mounting unrest. They engaged in a kind of economic reductionism that denied the resistance movement its political element. The settlers tended to regard politics (in essence "ideology') as something beyond the simple minds of the peasants, a tendency that would feature once again in postcolonial discussions on the Mau Mau. Contrary to the expectations of the colonial government, however, the objectives of the new formula only led to further agitation. As the Mau Mau themselves proclaimed:

We are fighting for all land stolen from us by the Crown through its Orders in Council of 1915, according to which Africans have been evicted from the Kenya Highlands. …