Consciencism, an African World View

The word Consciencism was coined by President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Co-President of Guinea, in a small book named, ‘Consciencism: Philosophy, and Ideology of Decolonization’, first published in 1964. The word Consciencism is a construct of the word conscience and the suffix ism. For our purposes, the root word, conscience, can be defined as, ‘the capacity and urge to distinguish right from wrong as a guide to human activity’. The suffix ‘ism’, in this instance, is, ‘the theory, practice, and philosophy of that to which it pertains’. Accordingly, Consciencism is, “The theory, practice, and philosophy of distinguishing right from wrong as a guide to human action.”

As stated in the title of Nkrumah’s book, Consciencism is both philosophy and ideology. As philosophy, it explains the world and the principles that govern it. As ideology, it directs our actions toward our collective political, economic, and social objectives. 

For more than six decades Pan-Africanists have been analyzing, constructing, dissecting, and categorizing the moral, social, economic, and political implications of Consciencism. Over these years we have listed and defined ethical rules, determined tools of analysis, clarified objectives, and identified the component parts of Consciencism. Notwithstanding our studies, the practical experiences of African people demonstrate that Consciencism is more than the sum of its theoretical component parts.

Consciencism is more than the sum of its aspects because it is a living ideology manifesting in various forms around the world and throughout time. Over the last 117 years alone African Philosophy has been called; Garveyism, Race First, Nkrumahism, Nkrumahism-Tureism, Cabralism, Lumumbaism, The Third Universal Theory,  Africanism, Black Consciousness, Black Power, Pan-Africanism, African Internationalism, African Nationalism and Black Nationalism. To us these are but a few of the many expressions of Consciencism. All of these expressions of African philosophy and ideology are partial theories that express connected, entangled, and interrelated aspects of Consciencism. Consciencism concerns all aspects of African life.

African people have always had some philosophy and the ethical principles of Consciencism, (egalitarianism, humanism, and collectivism) are traceable to the philosophical principles of early communal African life. More important is the recognition that Consciencism is not a complete system of thought. Consciencism cannot be completed because its dynamic nature is permanently engaged in the process of becoming.  Consciencism lives, changes, adopts, adapts, develops and, like all other philosophies, is partial. As a partial theory that is permanently becoming, Consciencism incorporates emergent understandings, technologies, and principles and applies them in service to African People. The difference between Consciencism and all other partial theories is that it speaks primarily to the African Personality, addresses questions that arise from the African reality and accepts itself as a partial theory eternally becoming.

This philosophy of conscience does not claim or seek to answer all questions once and for all. Consciencism cannot be fixed in space or frozen in time. Instead, Consciencism must be understood as a dynamic continuum, connecting the past to the future in space, through us in the active moment (time).

Thought In Action

“Thought without action is empty. Action without thought is blind.”  -Kwame Nkrumah-

Conscience is the inherent human capacity to distinguish right from wrong as a guide to behavior.  At base, it is instinctive, intuitive, and directive thought. Unlike consciousness, which is awareness without ethical obligation, conscience is susceptible to ethical influence. It is an expression of self-consciousness, self-determination, and self-contestation. To accept Consciencism is to act conscientiously. That is to consciously subject action and behavior to the dictates of conscience.

In evolving space-time, conscience-inspired thought is spoken and transformed. Conscience becomes word. Speaking the conscience-inspired word is action. Hearing and internalizing the word of conscience informs new action, transforming it into conscience-in-action. Conscience-in-action is an immaterial force that propels society forward and gives birth to human culture. It is a process by which intangible conceptions, aspirations, or ideas become compelling material forces. It is a quantum dynamic that is a culture-creating process that is only evident in the now, it only exists in the present. All action, driven by conscience or not, happens not only in space but also in a particular moment in time. (No one can act in the past or future. All actions, without exception, happen in the present.) To the extent that revolution is an action, “The revolution is always now.” The dynamic interplay of conscience and human activity drives society, imbuing it with collective impulse and creative capacities. Conscience-in-action is the living pulse of human life on the planet earth.

A thought can have many possible outcomes. A thought can be unexpressed, it can be expressed non-verbally or expressed verbally and not heard. A thought can be expressed-heard and not internalized and even internalized and not acted upon. The possible outcomes of a thought have various probabilities of developing into “Conscience-in-action”. Any given thought has a quantum of probable outcomes. Only a certain number of these possible destinies will result in a Conscience-in-action dynamic. Those possible outcomes that include the communication and internalizing of conscience have the greatest probability of generating the Conscience-in-action dynamic that creates a culture that serves the People. When people are exploited and oppressed the culture in need of creation is characterized by resistance.  Thoughts that are not conscience inspired, not communicated, and/or not internalized, will have a lower probability of generating the Conscience-in-action dynamic and will not likely possess the capacity to create a culture of resistance.

The Conscience-in-action dynamic has to do with transforming an immaterial idea into a material force for the pursuit of a specific interest. It is the epistemology of an ontology. For this transformation of an immaterial idea into a material force, the idea must be embraced by the masses of the people who take ownership of it. The people embrace ideas through the Conscience-in-action dynamic.

Consciencism, like a tree with deep roots, is nourished by many sources. These sources include African history, the struggles of the aboriginal peoples of the world, humanity’s engagement with capitalism and imperialism, the world socialist movement, the struggle for the rights of women, worker’s rights, civil rights,  human rights, and scientific inquiries.

Because Consciencism exists in the context of oppressive economic, social, and political conditions, it constantly confronts the realities of domination and disenfranchisement. It is thus compelled to oppose capitalism, imperialism, racism, Zionism, and a host of other social inequities.  For this reason, Consciencism is necessarily a philosophy of resistance bread by the perpetual oppression of the people. Oppression breeds resistance!

Universal Philosophy

We are often encouraged to adopt philosophies claiming to be Universal Philosophies. The Universal Philosophies are said to answer all questions and address all of our philosophical-ideological needs. We find invitations, to think as others think, misplaced at best.

In many revolutionary philosophies, the general explanation of the world, its contents, and the laws that govern them are identical to our own. Certainly, the laws of science and even society are, in general, the same for every human culture. Yet the practical purpose of philosophy is not to give a general understanding of the world, but rather to address the specific needs of the people who live it. Our philosophy, Consciencism, includes but is not primarily concerned with understanding society in a general or abstract way. We study the world in order to change it. Our understanding necessarily arises from our cultural-social-historical reality. That is, our experience is the primary source of our knowledge. Our understanding is an examination and expression of African life. Consciencism is the African part of philosophy in general. African Philosophy is not to be replaced by universal philosophy and it must be distinguished from philosophy in general.

The world looks and works differently to those trapped on its bottom. We, upon whose backs the world is built, do not see life from an abstract, detached perspective. We are part of the world we are assessing. We see the world, through our own eyes and from the vantage point of our own experience. Our story, identity, personality, and culture inform us.      

To suppose that we adopt a universal philosophy is to imply that we should base our struggle on the culture and experience of others. Which of course we cannot do. Those who have no respect for our culture, push the idea of a universal philosophy at us in denial of the existence of African Philosophy. It seems they do not want us to have a philosophy of our own because they believe that African philosophy will pit us against them in a critical way.  The presumption of a universal philosophy at its worse is a claim to universal cultural foundations. This is chauvinistic, and euro-centrist and views African culture as inferior and dispensable. Universal Philosophy is, in practice, a claim to cultural stratification and racial superiority. It is paternalistic, chauvinistic, and often racist.

 Upon careful examination, the so-called Universal Philosophies arise from particular social milieus and serve specific class, national, religious, gender, and even racial interest. These philosophies are not universal at all.  They cannot be Universal Philosophies because, in the real world, Universal Philosophy does not exist.

Partial Theories

What exists in the real world, are numerous partial philosophies. These partial philosophies address aspects of reality but not all of reality and they are sometimes portrayed as universal. We reject partial theories as universal. We instead assess them as partial theories, each on its own merits. We acknowledge that many partial theories have aspects that serve African people. Progressive partial theories or aspects of them are valid and extremely useful. These characterize, explain, and elaborate parts of our world correctly. They also discover and elaborate laws and principles that universally apply to both society and nature.

An example can be made of Karl Marx’s conception of capital. This theory properly explains how capital (surplus value or profit) is produced and stolen from the workers who produce it. Marx shows the true essence of capital and capitalism. His theory explains how capitalism functions and why it is against the interest of working people worldwide. Marx does not adequately elaborate on imperialism or explain how capitalism emerged from the conquest of the planet and the enslavement of humanity in general or Africans in particular. Marx’s partial theory shows how capitalism works. Marx did not adequately explain how capitalism originated in the imperialist reach around the world to exploit the labor and resources of humankind and the planet. Nor does he adequately explain how finance capital brought modern imperialism into existence as a stage of its development. Marx had a partial theory.

It was Lenin who explained to us the workings of capitalist imperialism, its colonial apparatus, and monopoly-finance capital as a stage of capitalist development. Lenin’s theory did not address neo-colonialism, Nkrumah later elaborated on Neo-colonialism in relationship to modern imperialism by exposing the stages of imperialist development under conditions dominated by monopoly-finance capital. Lenin and Nkrumah both had Partial Theories.

These partial theories on capitalism and imperialism and their stages are interrelated. They overlap and complement one another. When taken together these partial theories explain the internal and external working of capitalism and imperialism as a unified system. To embrace one of these partial theories without the others is to accept a perspective that will not give a complete picture. You will understand part of capitalism when you need to understand all of capitalism to fight it. It is like studying addition and subtraction but dismissing multiplication, division, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and physics. One who does this will be able to count but not be able to make complex calculations. Counting is important but complex calculations are also necessary. 

Another example of partial theories is found in physics. Classical physics describes the laws that govern large objects and systems such as basketballs, stones, mountains, planets, stars, solar systems, and the universe itself.  These laws explain, with great precision how gravity works, the relationship between time and space, the movement of objects, and the speed of light. Classical Physics are partial theories that explain many aspects of reality but are almost totally inadequate when it comes to the movement and development of things at the atomic or subatomic level. To understand the laws that govern these very small things, such as molecules, quarks, and atoms, one needs to turn to quantum physics. Similarly, to understand the laws that govern things that are very hot or very cold, one needs to look at thermal dynamics.  Classical Physics, quantum physics, and thermal dynamics are partial theories in physics. None of them alone can explain everything. They are partial theories that overlap and reinforce each other and to a certain extent are dependent upon each other. While they remain partial theories, when taken together as a system of related thoughts, they appear to be able to explain almost everything in nature.

The difference between partial theories in science and social philosophies is that the laws arising from scientific theories are derived from an examination and observation of nature and its properties and are expressed in thermos and equations. Individually these laws apply to various categories. Collectively they apply to all of matter, the components of matter, and the properties generated by matter.

In philosophies of social change, the range of partial theories cover all aspects of human life. Social theories arise from and relate to specific social milieus and cultural matrices. These cultures are the categories from which these theories arise. The specific cultural impetus for a philosophy does not prevent that philosophy from discovering and advancing universal laws, principles, or aspects that apply to all cultures.

The so-called Universal Philosophies and scientific theories of learned friends and foes remain partial theories. Some, like dialectical materialism, classic and quantum physics, nationalism, internationalism, and Marxist conceptions of class, imperialism, and socialism, have contributed to our understanding of the world we seek to change. They are capable of meeting some of our needs. We find it necessary to link partial theories to one another and make Consciencism a Unified Philosophy, not a Universal Philosophy.

The Myth of Duality

In this analysis, we must also guard against simplifications of valid and useful universal laws. For example, dialectical materialism has been clearly explained in meticulous detail by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and others. Still, it is commonly presented as the mere unity and conflict of opposites. This unity and conflict of opposites is a valid analytical tool when properly understood. However, it is popularly expressed as a simple duality put forward as positive versus negative or a choice between this good and that bad. This leads to the false assumption that all we need do is choose good over bad and we will get where we want to go.

For example, based on this type of analysis people choose between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King: Garvey or Dubois: Sobukwe or Mandela: Black Power or Civil Rights: integration or separation, religion vs. science, revolution vs reform, etc.  Implicit in the presentation of these dichotomies as dialectical analysis is a judgment that affirms one as right and the other as wrong. We proceed to believe that one course leads to freedom and the other to our continued domination and subservience. In this way, by rejecting that which is considered wrong, we arrive at the idea that our struggle follows a single path or will succeed in this way and be diminished in that.

The reality is far different. Our experience shows that in the movement of the people, each line of struggle has both positive and negative aspects and that there is positive in the negative and negative in the positive. The opposing perspectives are intimately tied to one another and develop in contradiction and interaction with one another. In fact, there is no simple duality rather there is a plenum (intense assembly) of forces in tension. This plenum describes a space that is over-filled with repulsing and attracting forces in relation to one another. For us, this ‘Space’ consists of All African people both at home and abroad. The forces in tension consist of the objective and subjective conditions, interactions, and contradictions, between and within contending classes, genders, ideologies, religions, geographical locations, interests, and cultural expressions.

Our philosophy, as an instrument of African culture, is based on the complex quantum reality of the African culture it serves. Culturally, in real life, Africans do not move forward in this direction or that. We do not follow Sobukwe or Mandela, rather we follow all of them. We do not move in one direction or another but rather we move in all directions simultaneously. Often one direction leads to and/or gives rise to another direction and often apparently opposite directions develop in contradiction or interaction with one another.

History is not a straight line nor is it made by one sector of the people to the exclusion of others. History is made by the active culture of the Masses of the People. This history is objective in the sense that it is more than the sum of all it parts, both positive and negative. For African people, the scope of history is defined in time and in relationship to the space we occupy around the world. Its determining active factor is the daily actions (culture) of our scattered and suffering people.

When seen in this light we find that Africans followed both Garvey and Dubois. Dubois, who attacked Garvey, ended up pursuing Garvey’s Pan-African Dream and died in Ghana under the protection of Nkrumah. Nkrumah’s greatest influence was Garvey. Malcolm X was killed seeking to build an African United Front with the very forces like MLK, he became popular for criticizing. Martin King became more militant as he aged and died fighting the economic exploitation, racism, poverty, and militarism practiced by the very capitalist system his Civil Rights Movement sought to integrate into. He began to think more like Malcolm X. The point is that we proceed along every possible course. Not by any means necessary, but by every possible means. What determines the value of the means chosen is the interest served and the results produced.

The people are both a collective mass, and at the same time, manifest only through the action of the individuals who comprise them. The people are the source of beauty, justice, and creative force while being infected with ideals, values, and objectives that are ugly, unjust, and destructive. We are flawed oppressed souls who are integral parts of a perfect whole, capable of defeating humanity’s most vile enemy and building a just and equitable society. All are part of us and any can be the perfect expression of our collective passion. Again, the quantum phenomena of serving the individual and the collective simultaneously. This is the egalitarian principle. We are each an end unto ourselves and not merely means to collective ends.

A Quantum Process

Our fight for unity, freedom, and socialism is a quantum process. It proceeds on every front and the moving Masses give it force and impact. In a revolution of this sort, all areas of human endeavor are required. Every skill set is necessary, and all information, data, and intelligence have value. The moving dynamic mass must direct itself along lines most likely to result in the defeat of capitalism and imperialism. So while moving in every direction we must adjust by eliminating the options with a low probability of serving our interest or defeating our enemies and their ideas. The quantum approach also equips us with the law of uncertainty. This gives an understanding of the insignificant, disregarded, irrelevant aspect that imposes itself as a determining or decisive factor. Philosophy and ideology are among these seemingly insignificant factors.

Positive Action (Conscience-in-action) is an action that weakens the enemy and strengthens the people. It is that action that answers only to our ancestors, the living masses, and generations to come. It is that action that builds the individual while at the same time empowering the collective.

Explaining dialectics as “duality” is a good way to introduce the concept of contradiction to the initiate. It allows them to explore the dialectical process and arrive at a general understanding of the world and how it works. But when plotting the actual process of pursuing our unity and liberation generalities will not suffice. There is no general program, strategy, or tactic. These must be perfectly suited to the conditions within which the struggle is waged. The needed precision comes only from an analysis that takes all the variant forces and probabilities into consideration.

Our world is a complex place that, if it is to be truly understood, cannot be reduced to simple dualities. Oversimplification, slogans, and catchphrases cannot express the infinite complexity of the struggle being waged by over a billion Africans, living in 140 countries, and speaking almost every language. It remains for philosophy to conquer these complexities and effect the change we seek. Such a philosophical statement must be applicable to all situations while at the same time cognizant of the concrete realities to be confronted in each zone of struggle. Philosophy must advance correct ideas that lead to the transformation of our world.

The Revolutionary philosophy fights the enemy within. This is an essential struggle in the neo-colonial era. There exists a whole class of people who are aligned to and in cahoots with our enemies. Here these elements hide in private companies or government bureaucracies. They also have ideological allies who have the same material and economic conditions as the masses but ally with the enemies of the people.

The revolution takes up the permanent fight in the ideological arena against the backward ideas implanted among the people by our capitalist and imperialist enemies. Ours is much more than the struggle of a simple duality.

The enemy knows that the people move in every direction. They also know that some of the directions chosen are in opposition to the needs and interests of the mass. These are the areas of the people’s activity that the enemy supports and promotes in a million different ways, both overt and covert. In this way, the people’s efforts are undermined by a section of itself that has been enticed, bribed, confused, and co-opted. Promoting and elevating the individual over the masses is one of the weapons in the arsenal of the enemy. Personal greed, consumerism, organized criminality, and corruption are others. By these means, capitalism multiplies its capacity to slow the people’s movement and transforms the fight with the external enemy into a fight among the people themselves and between the ears of the individuals that comprise the people.

The philosophy of the people must therefore confront the enemy on at least three levels simultaneously:

  1. We fight the external enemy: capitalism, imperialism, Neo and Settler Colonialism Racism, etc.
  2. We fight the internal enemy (The enemy agents among us).
  3. We fight the backward ideas and reactionary ideological influences (values, ethics, objectives of the enemy) within us all.

Failure to successfully engage the enemy on any of these levels will spell defeat for the revolution and the people who wage it. Here the simple duality, the People versus the Enemy only partially explains the fight to be waged. To be effective our fight distinguishes the relevant aspects of the enemy (external/internal/ideological) and wages an appropriate fight against each aspect. To be reduced to a fight with the external and internal will get you killed by the ignored ideological other. Philosophy, if it is to have value, must reveal the workings of all the forces involved in the fight for the people’s liberty.

Finally, our worldview affirms the reality of the African Nation we seek to build. It confronts the patriarchal superstructures of ideas, traditions, and practices that oppress our women and divide us on gender lines and it directs the essential class struggle that characterizes every aspect of our exploitation and oppression.  Again, in the context of this three-pronged nation-class-gender struggle, fighting only two of three aspects is to be defeated by the forgotten other. Conscience-in-action or Consciencism, explains the world that exists, to change it into the world we want and need.

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Profession: Muralist/Artist, Writer, Poet, Lecturer Politics: Revolutionary Pan-Africanist and cadre in the All African People's Revolutionary Party Interests: Africa, Culture, Philosophies of Liberation Studies: Advanced Revolutionary Thought Mission: One Love!