Amilcar Cabral: developing the ‘new man’ through anti-colonial struggle

Amilcar Cabral’s life was ended prematurely in 1973 by an assassin’s bullet. While there is little and contradictory evidence as to the specific motive of the assassin, this was believed to be the initiation of a coup attempt within the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) the party Cabral founded to lead the struggle for the liberation of his country from Portuguese colonialism.  It is widely accepted that this was orchestrated by the failing Portuguese colonial regime with the knowledge of the CIA.

In April the following year the Carnation Revolution took place in Portugal overthrowing the fascist regime and by September Guinea-Bissau has gained its independence.

Amilcar Cabral was an agricultural engineer.  Like many other leaders of liberation movements within Portugal’s former colonies, he received his university education in Lisbon.  There he became involved with militants of the illegal Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and through them developed a commitment to Marxism.

Cabral recognised however, that the emancipation of the peasants and the working class in the colonial territories could not be achieved until national independence was established. As early as 1956 he formed the (PAIGC), a revolutionary party not simply a national liberation movement.  Later that year he was a founder member of the Popular  Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) along with Agostinho Neto.

Cabral was heavily influenced by Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism.  Ghana provided training camps for PAIGC militants where they not only learned how to fight but also studied advanced agricultural skills.  Once the armed struggle began in 1963 PAIGC soldiers, when not engaged in fighting, worked alongside peasant farmers in Guinea-Bissau teaching them improved production skills and assisting greater harvests.  

This strategy improved the lot of the farmers, helped to feed the local population and at the same time ensured that PAIGC troops would not go hungry. This relationship was extended and deepened with the development of health centres in liberated areas to treat wounded combatants but also to provide much needed drugs and medical services to the people. Cabral’s three priorities of agriculture, health and education were fulfilled with the creating of community based schools as more and more territory came under the control of PAIGC.

At the fore in Cabral’s theoretical writings was the struggle for national liberation.  He argued that Portugal  was weak, with an economy that was not sufficiently developed ‘to become imperialist’. He saw Portugal as ‘… an intermediary in the imperialist exploitation of the African peoples.’;  that Portugal could only maintain control over its colonies with the support of Britain.  Here he agreed with Lenin who claimed that since the War of Spanish Succession, (1701-14) Portugal had effectively become a British protectorate.

Cabral was an internationalist who engaged in solidarity with anti-colonial struggles throughout the world while at the same time seeking to learn from those many diverse experiences.  He supported the resolution on neocolonialism adopted by the Third Conference of African Peoples held in Cairo in 1961 which claimed ‘…that neocolonialism … represents the greatest danger that threatens African countries that have recently gained or are near gaining independence.’

Neocolonialism remained a focus of Cabral’s writing through to his death. While absolutely committed to national liberation, he argued that the fruits of that struggle could only be achieved by ‘destruction of the capitalist structure implemented by imperialism in the national territory …’.  One of Cabral’s significant ideological contributions was his critique of Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’. While largely supportive of its main message, Cabral saw this as Eurocentric without sufficient recognition of the existing reality in much of the world particularly in Africa and other territories occupied by colonialism. He suggested that its proposition that ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is class struggles’ should be broadened with the addition of ‘taking into account the essential characteristics of certain colonised peoples, that is, those dominated by imperialism’.

Cabral took this argument further arguing that no single class could achieve national liberation. He saw the petit-bourgeois intellectuals as potentially revolutionary and capable of leading the national liberation struggle. That the middle and lower range of state administrators along with salaried workers in agriculture and commerce were capable of joining with the mass of the peasantry in common cause. He argued that over time these forces could be won over to a working-class ideology and continue as a united force with the nascent working class in completing the struggle against imperialism and establish a socialist alternative.  In doing this, he argued that, the petit bourgeoisie would effectively have to commit suicide.

In his short life Cabral contributed a wide range of ideas in the fields of agronomy, political sociology and military strategy.  These ideas and Cabral’s close relationship with the people were significant elements of what made him an outstanding leader.

One area of his thinking deserves a special mention. Alongside his thoughts on the ‘history of all existing society’ Cabral was particularly exercised by the history of colonial people, what he described as the re-Africanisation of minds’.  At the heart of this was his belief that economic exploitation alone was not enough to unite people in the struggle against colonialism. Furthermore, he argued that understanding the history of colonialism without understanding the history of the victims of colonialism was severely lacking. Cabral argued that only by taking up the struggle against colonialism could the people regain their culture. In common with Che Guevara, he believed that in the course of that struggle a ‘new man’ would be developed; in this case, reflecting their African history and culture in the process of building a better society.  

Amilcar Cabral was born in Cape Verde but believed that the futures of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau were inextricably linked.  As an African leader his name is frequently associated with Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah. Cabral stands out from those illustrious two because of his strong ideological commitment to Marxism and the need for a revolutionary party, in this case the PAIGC, which he saw as essential to the success of the national liberation struggle and to the subsequent transformation of a colonised country into a thriving socialist state.

Sadly the assassin’s bullet which struck him down at just 48 years meant that Cabral was unable to share in the fruits of his struggle and witness independence. It is an even greater tragedy that he, and so many more of those who shared his fate at the hands of imperialism, did not survive to influence the immediate post-colonial world to which they gave their lives. Despite this, Cabral’s mark on 20th century history is substantial. A true ‘Liberation Hero’.

This is the latest in a series of articles Liberation is running to raise awareness of people, in history or active today, more or less well known who have made a significant contribution to popular struggles for freedom, against imperialism and for peace, social justice and human rights in the Global South. Who is your Liberation Hero? Email us at

Photo: Amílcar Cabral with Fidel Castro in Cuba for the Tricontinental Conference/Creative Commons

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