The Hidden Face of Capitalism

Current events and history in Kenya are usually seen in the actions related to politics, law, governance and the leadership of the ruling classes. What is not seen or shown is the ideology of the ruling class — capitalism — underpinning all these actions. Historical records of Kenya show what the leaders and their parties say and do, what the constitution, the Parliament and the laws say about social and political issues, policies and events. But the presence of capitalism, which sets the direction for all happenings, rarely appears in the open.

Similarly hidden from news and public consciousness are the lives, livelihood and actions of working people and their struggles for survival in a hostile economic, political and social environment created by capitalism. Nor do their resistance to capitalism or their struggle for socialism feature in official records. Capitalism works behind the scene, unseen and unheard but relentlessly driving its agenda in a pre-determined hidden ideological direction set to defeat socialism and render capitalism and imperialism supreme. There is often a facade of democracy to obscure the hidden ‘private-profitgood’ agenda. What is made visible to the public are constitutions, elections, parliamentary systems, political parties and the legal framework that appear to be the force behind events. This is the situation in capitalist countries where the most obvious aspects are kept well hidden by the state in order to cover up its real purpose, – to serve corporate, ruling class and imperialist interests – at the expense of lives and livelihoods of workers, peasants and all working people. Even those actions that appear to be in the interest of working people have a hidden capitalist motive.

Capitalism then also hides from the public the negative impact of its rule. The first aspect it obscures is its very existence. Capitalism cannot be seen or understood in isolation from its opposite – socialism. A false impression is created that capitalism is the only possible way of organising societies. Resistance to capitalism is shown as acts of individuals driven by evil intentions and forces, for instance, in the case of Kimathi in Kenya and Mummer Gaddafi in Libya to mention a few. Capitalism assigns its own shortcomings and the crises it creates for working people to external factors or to the ‘evil intentions’ of ‘bad’ people, ‘terrorists’ and scapegoats a religion, a nationality, a gender, a region or individuals who support socialism – but never to the very nature of capitalism. It thus shows capitalism as TINA – There is No Alternative to it. It becomes so pervasive in every aspect of life that its very existence becomes invisible. It is everywhere, yet it is never identified as such. 

Another aspect that capitalism seeks to hide is the division of society into antagonistic classes, which are created by capitalism itself. Its solution to problems it creates is ‘we are all in it together’ when obviously the ruling classes are miles away from the reality of working-class lives. In order to silence resistance, it attacks the working class, its organisations like the trade unions and their leaders. Also included in their attacks are peasants, pastoralists, fisher people, as well as progressive professionals, students and activists. They thus clear the way for the bourgeoisie and compradors to gobble up the wealth of the nation without fear of being overthrown. 

The third aspect that capitalism hides is its relentless pursuit for private profit that drives its acts of plunder, exploitation and oppression of working people. Its unseen and unwritten agenda drive events, which are then made to appear ‘normal’. Imperialism, with its support for the ruling class in Kenya ensures that it, and capitalism, remain unseen and un-mentioned in public. Yet, it takes the country in directions that satisfy only its neverending thirst for profit. It manipulates in its favour all democratic institutions, parliaments, political parties and even the Constitution. It uses the civic and military powers it controls to achieve its profitdriven agenda. It sweeps away any obstacle on its way just as a powerful river rushing to meet the sea sweeps away stones and rocks on its way. 

But the stones and rocks are formidable entities. Socialism is the social counterpart of the stones and rocks in a river. People’s resistance to capitalism and the struggle for socialism has now become the defining feature of life. This scenario is true in most of Africa and, indeed, in most of the capitalist world where capitalism always finds resistance to its relentless agenda of exploitation and oppression in people’s search for socialism that alone can provide the justice and equality they seek. 

When faced with increasing resistance from people, capitalism uses events such as the coronavirus to roll back gains people had made over decades of resistance. It is the disaster capitalism, as Klein (2008) shows, that has been added to imperialist arsenal to further attack people, their property, wealth, resources and rights. When no such natural disaster is in sight, capitalism creates similar conditions, for example through wars and invasion of countries on false pretenses.

Capitalism Entrenched at Independence in Kenya 

As resistance in Kenya made independence inevitable, Britain aimed to ensure that Kenya remained capitalist and did not turn to socialism. It overturned the aims of the Mau Mau struggle and its quest for land, freedom and justice. The radicals in Mau Mau and in the early KANU Party were well aware of this neo-colonial danger as they pointed out in 1961 in their document The Two Paths Ahead.2 The British support of Jomo Kenyatta and the moderates he led ensured that capitalism and a Western-orientated government came to power. This support included the suppression of radical political parties, trade unions, political and social organisations as well as the marginalisation and undermining of their leaders. Other methods used to instill capitalist values among younger generations included using education, culture, media, and laws as ways of creating a There-Is-No-AlternativeTo-Capitalism mentality that served the longterm interests of imperialism. This imperialist intervention in Kenya ensured the survival of capitalism after independence. It also removed socialist ideas from the public domain, including education, media and government policies. But they continued underground.

Colonialism attacked the ideology, the organisations and the leadership of all the three pillars of resistance to colonialism, capitalism and imperialism: Mau Mau, the radical trade union movement under the East African Trade Union Congress and people’s resistance in all walks of life. Its first attack was on the concept of classes and class division which capitalism itself had created and whose existence colonialism and imperialism sought to hide. Their reasoning was that working people would find it difficult to attack capitalism if its main manifestation – classes – is not seen by people as their main enemy.

Resistance by Mau Mau was then attacked at various levels. The armed might of the entire British Empire was used against Mau Mau, using the tactics the British had used in Malaysia and Aden. One tactic was to cut its support among the people by a programme of creating detention villages. Yet another was the use of the homeguard troops, which it bribed with looted Kenyan wealth to create colonial-orientated armed forces. In addition, it attacked and killed Mau Mau leaders and weakened its organisation. It then went on to destroy Mau Mau archives and libraries in an attempt to destroy the history of resistance. It used its control over state power to enact laws that protected looters’ right to stolen lands and wealth. It prevented resistance to its rule by introducing oppressive laws that the comprador government was advised to keep in place after independence. 

The next pillar of resistance to be attacked was the radical trade union movement. Colonialism saw the danger that the organised, radical trade unions posed to capitalism and the continuation of colonial and imperialist presence in Kenya. The trade unions, by their very existence, proclaimed that there were classes and class struggle in Kenya – before and after independence. Hence, they became the target of colonialism and imperialism. Legal and illegal methods were used to reduce the power of trade unions, among them the detention or jailing of leaders such as Makhan Singh who was the inspiration for radical trade union movement.

Another aspect that made trade unions dangerous to colonialism was that they were an organised force. Opposition to colonialism and imperialism by individuals could be managed by colonialism but it was difficult for it to manage an organised force, such as trade unions with membership from all nationalities and from all parts of the country. The radical movement was inspired by ideology and experiences from other places, particularly ideas of socialism and national liberation from USSR and India where colonialism had been defeated by people’s forces. It was also inspired by the earlier radical movements such as the Ghadar movement which was active in Kenya. All this made them enemies of capitalism.

The trade union movement in Kenya had been active ever since Britain introduced capitalist relations when it set about building the railways and importing Indian labour. The first strikes were as early as 1900. That history points to yet other factors that Britain feared: the trade unions had no room for the divisive “tribalist” or sexist policies instigated by Britain. Workers were male and female and came from all Kenyan nationalities. The trade unions were thus spread throughout the country, using the railways, among other means, to unite and organise the working class in the country. Plantation and other rural workers not only provided a strong link with peasants but also cemented the urban-rural split that colonialism sought to use as yet another divisive factor against people. It was this unity that the British feared. It was a force that could not be isolated, divided and destroyed easily by colonialism. 

Finally, the trade union movement had a committed leadership that was guided, not by personal greed, but a clear ideological vision in the interest of the working class. Taken as a whole, these factors made the trade union movement a formidable obstacle to the colonial objectives of using the country for its own imperialist interests. And indeed, the colonial fears came true as the trade union movement understood that the economic interests of working class could only be safeguarded if they, at the same time, safeguarded their political interests. The radical trade union movement thus became active in politics and influenced the ideological direction of Mau Mau. 

It is due to the success of the trade union movement in the national liberation movement that the colonial government suppressed prominent trade unionists like Makhan Singh, Fred Kubai, Pio Gama Pinto and Bildad Kaggia. It also passed on colonial laws to the independent Kenya government so as to ensure that future trade unions were forced to take the nonradical approach to meet worker needs. They thus created imperialist-oriented and led trade unions that bedevil working class politics to this day.

The third pillar confronting imperialism was people’s resistance. This brought together several wings of people’s resistance, including resistance by nationalities, women, students, peasants and workers in what can only be described as people’s resistance. While Mau Mau and trade unions were essential in the liberation struggle, on their own they would have faced innumerable difficulties to achieve their goal. Peasants, nationalities, women, children and young people, students, independent churches and independent schools all played a part in reinforcing the organised and ideology-led resistance of Mau Mau and trade unions. Colonialism attacked people directly by putting them in concentration camps, raping, looting at will and creating a lawless society for them. This was on top of looting their land and means of livelihood.

British colonialism then set out to find a leader favourable to its objectives. They had to find someone with creditability among people but also favourably inclined to capitalism and the interests of USA and UK. Malcolm MacDonald, Kenya’s last Colonial Governor, identified Kenyatta right from the beginning as a moderate who could be used to defeat the radicals in KANU as well as nationally. Upon arriving in Kenya in 1962, MacDonald decided to speed up the process of independence, which had been forced upon London for late 1964 or early 1965 by resistance. His reason for early independence in 1963 was related to ensuring that the moderates came to power at independence. MacDonald (1976a) says: 

The reason why I thought the transition should be speeded up was that the “moderates” were in control of both KANU and KADU. Jomo Kenyatta was not supposed to be a “moderate”, but I decided within a few days that he was one… I felt that if independence didn’t come as quickly as they wanted, they would lose influence with a lot of their supporters, and the more extreme, less reasonable and capable politicians would take over. I thought it would be a great mistake to allow that to happen. 

MacDonald was so successful in taking Kenya in the direction that capitalism and imperialism wanted that he was appointed as the first British High Commissioner to Kenya after independence. The Government transformed into the High Commission, but with the same remit, maintained British influence and ensured the victory of capitalism in Kenya. MacDonald’s close links with Kenyatta ensured that he became a special adviser to the president after independence. While promoting Kenyatta, MacDonald sought to reduce the power of Oginga Odinga who opposed the rampant inequality that capitalism and imperialism had brought to Kenya. It was Malcolm MacDonald (1976b), who pushed Kenyatta to distrust Odinga and had the police portfolio removed from him when he became the Home Affairs Minister, thus driving a wider wedge between the radicals and moderates. 

One of the tactics used by Britain to strength of the moderates in KANU was to bring KADU — which was funded by the City of London financiers — into KANU. This also provided a stronger base for the business and financial interest of the West in the newly independent country. Whereas the radical wing of KANU had differences with the Kenyattawing of KANU, there were no ideological divisions between the right wings of the two parties. ‘In fact,’ says MacDonald (1976a), ‘they agreed on an economic policy, social policy and political policy in Kenya’. The isolation of radicals and socialism was now complete.

The Struggle for Socialism
The presence of capitalism in Kenya remained hidden, although there is evidence of its existence everywhere. The struggle for socialism is similarly everywhere, but not apparent to casual observers. The evidence that it was socialism that people wanted can be seen in various documents and speeches by those active in the resistance. The entire history of the trade union movement brilliantly recorded by Makhan Singh (1969,1980) indicates the presence of class consciousness and class resistance among workers. Their struggle was against capitalism, which created classes, class exploitation and oppression. Workers’ demands were for justice for all working people, which implies the establishment of a new system to replace capitalism — socialism. 

The call for socialism can be seen throughout the period of British colonialism in Kenya as well as in the independence period. However, the manifestation of socialism came in different ways, not always as direct calls for socialism. It manifested itself in class actions for workers’ rights, in peasant resistance against capitalist exploitation, in the struggle for land and other rights as well as in references to classes, to anti-imperialism and issues around poverty.

Resistance results from exploitation and may not be always seen easily, but its existence cannot be denied.

There needs to be a systematic research and documentation of all resistance activities if the real history of Kenya is to be written.


MacDonald, Malcolm (1976a): MacDonald Papers, University of Durham. Correspondence re Kenya 1969-1981. 76/7/44. 

MacDonald, Malcolm (1976b): Interview given on April 24, 1976 by the Rt. Hon. Malcolm MacDonald to Arnold Raphael and Celia Curtis. 

MacDonald Papers, University of Durham. Correspondence re Kenya 1969-1981. 76/7/44. Singh, Makhan (1969): History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952. Nairobi: East African Publishing House. 

Singh, Makhan (1980): Kenya’s Trade Unions: Crucial Years, 1952-56. Nairobi: Uzima Pres