Capital, State, Socialism: Lessons of Zimbabwe

Against the Current, No. 51, July/August 1994

Tom Meisenhelder

THE REPUBLIC OF Zimbabwe was born in 1980 with a stated commitment to build a socialist society. By 1990 it made an “about-face” to an avowedly capitalist model of development. What happened? What do the events in Zimbabwe portend for the possibility of socialism in the periphery?

Zimbabwe’s “Socialism”

Zimbabwe was born after a long and bloody liberation war. The Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), one of two socialist-oriented national liberation movements, won the country’s first elections. ZANU has won every election since 1980, becoming the dominant political body in Zimbabwe. And socialism was the professed goal of ZANU.

The main agent of socialist change in Zimbabwe was to be ZANU itself. The leadership believed that the socialization of the means of production through, for instance, radical land reform and the nationalization of industry was not possible and that the transitional period would be long, slow and difficult They felt that for some time the country would be economically dependent upon the productive power provided by the forces of capitalism, including white commercial farmers. For most of the first decade of independence, ZANU government documents exhibit a fairly consistent ideology of socialism qualified by a strategy of social reconciliation and gradualism.

Was Zimbabwe on its way to socialism? This question has generated a good deal of controversy since 1980. Zimbabwe did make some progress toward some of the goals normally invoked when speaking of the struggle to create a socialist society. Many social reforms were enacted by the new government, improving the quality of life for ordinary Zimbabweans.

Zimbabwe spent a good deal of public money and effort on redistributive measures to bring education and health care to the majority. It spent nearly one-quarter of budgeted recurrent expenditures on education and almost as much on health care.(1) It tried to improve the lives of workers through minimum-wage legislation and support to unionization. New laws were enacted to improve the position of women in society. Revenue for these projects came from increasing taxes on the wealthy. In addition, the government sometimes provided support for building up the cooperative sector of the Zimbabwean economy.(2)

In other ways, Zimbabwe never positively chose to create a socialist society.(3) There was no attempt to “socialize the means of production” and the masses were “helped” rather than empowered. It seems that the ruling power bloc within ZANU and the state did not consider working-class democracy as essential to the transition to socialism.

Indeed President Robert Mugabe was dedicated to the idea that nation-building and socialism in Africa would be more successful under a one-party state system. He seemed to agree that socialism in Africa could be constructed best upon a common national identity transcending the ethnic differences so often manipulated in the past by colonial and settler rulers. While it is true that this position was never universally accepted within ZANU—and was eventually dropped by Mugabe himself—the one-party state model reveals that ZANU’s vision of socialism was centered on state activity rather than the empowerment of the working and peasant classes.

Likewise some practical policies of the ZANU government seemed to reflect the powerlessness of the working classes: Land reform proceeded slowly, unemployment grew, housing was in short supply, unions were heavily regulated, and basic rights—such as freedom of the press and the right to strike—were unavailable. As a consequence, opposition movements emerged decrying the “statist socialism” of the government. More democratic tendencies were centered in the unions, the independent media, and at the University of Zimbabwe. Too often the government responded to political criticism with the rhetoric of threat and sometimes the practice of political intimidation.

Zimbabwe’s projected route to socialism, then, improved the standard of living of the working classes but did little to politically empower them. As will become cleat this was perhaps a fatal weakness in ZANU’s transitional program.

Throughout most of the 1980s Zimbabwe continued to herald its commitment to the development of socialism. And the government continued to mount programs directed to the reduction of social inequalities, the provisioning of essential social services and the gradual strengthening of the public sector.(4) The key to this pro-grain for gradual transition is encapsulated in the phrase “growth with equity,” used at the time by government planners. This meant that the government would reconcile itself with capital in order to gain the economic resources necessary to create a more just society.

In this sense Zimbabwe’s well-known policy of reconciliation refers not only to racial harmony but also to the acceptance of the economic dominance of private capital. It is captured in the ideological ambivalence of early government statements that at one and the same time called for socialism and reassured private capital its interests would be protected and even promoted.(5)

Zimbabwe decided to try to work slowly within its inherited economic structures. The new ZANU government felt it necessary to ensure economic growth and the increased public revenues required by planned social reforms. In the first two years of independence the economy grew at over 10%, providing for social reforms in areas such as education and health care, with a budget deficit of only about 6% of GDP.(6)

ZANU’s reforms during the 1980s reduced infant mortality rates, increased life expectancy, doubled enrollments in elementary education and improved the productivity and lives of the rural majority.(7) The reforms did expand public services and reduce inequalities, transferring some income away from the capitalist class and into the pockets of workers and peasants.

Yet there was little if any progress toward socialist democracy in the country. ZANU ruled as a de facto one-party state. Party organizations overtly supervised the actions of government ministries and popular organizations. The government used the existence of South African destabilization and related internal ethnic conflicts between the Shona and the Ndebele communities to justify continuing a “state of emergency” throughout the decade. Unions were closely watched and regulated. Peasant land invasions were criticized (though not violently resisted). Cooperatives were underfunded. All in all, ZANU’s socialist rhetoric was much more striking than its socialist action.

Structural Adjustment in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s dream of a gradual transition to socialism came to an end with the switch to a so-called Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) at the beginning of the 1990s. Zimbabwe’s ESAP grew out of a particular interpretation of the Zimbabwean economy’s performance. This analysis originated with a group of “technocrats” under Minister of Finance Bernard Chidzero.(8) They then convinced the leadership of ZANU that ESAP was necessary. The external interests of foreign capital voiced through the IMP and U.S. AID had more input into decision-making discussions within ZANU than did ordinary Zimbabweans.

The fact that Zimbabwe’s way to socialism consisted of top-down reforms made it easy to change fundamental social policies without addressing the opinions of the working masses. Having never really instituted democratic processes in the country; ZANU could change radically its guiding ideology without fear of contradiction, by simply announcing the change to the people. Then President Mugabe and other officials traveled around the country explaining the new policy.

The ESAP was announced formally in a speech by Mugabe in 1989 and first detailed in Minister Chidzero’s 1990 budget proposal.(9) It entails a by now well-known package of economic programs centered on fiscal and monetary policy, trade liberalization, and economic deregulation. It includes reductions in public spending as a way of reducing deficits to no more than 5% of GDP. These reductions will be achieved by reversing many of the early reforms.

School fees and medical care charges have been reinstituted, most price controls ended, and labor relations deregulated. Subsidies to parastatal enterprises are to be greatly reduced, and these firms have been directed to operate as commercial entities. Plans also call for large reductions in the civil service. ESAP will reduce economic regulations and corporate taxes in order to improve the “investment climate” for capital. Additional incentives for investment are to be put in place. Manufactured exports are to be made more competitive by significant devaluation of the Zimbabwe dollar.(10)

As Chidzero concluded, in a 1992 speech at the University of Zimbabwe, ESAP aims at moving Zimbabwe toward an economy led by a “dynamic private sector.” Chidzero also stressed the general world trend away from socialism and argued that in such a historical context Zimbabwe had no choice but to join the trend. Zimbabweans were told that unless economic policies changed, the future held only decline and tragedy.

Explaining ESAP

Some have argued that ZANU and the leadership of the post-independence government were never really serious about socialism. These analysts suggest that ZANU merely adopted socialist rhetoric in order to gain much-needed material support from Eastern Europe and China. They argue that the adoption of socialism during the liberation war was purely manipulative and self-serving. Along a similar line, others have suggested that the ZANU leadership is a state petty-bourgeoisie using political power to build up their own private power and wealth, all the while mouthing the ideology of socialism.(11) The evidence most often advanced for these interpretations is the failure of the ZANU government to implement radical socialist policies.

In itself, however, the failure to socialize the means of production immediately upon independence only meant that ZANU at that time was cautious and gradualist in its approach to socialist transition. This caution is better explained as a desire to avoid the negative consequences of a rapid transition—the flight of capital and skills that might occur if white capitalists were scared away. Indeed exactly this seemed to have been in the mind of Mozambique’s President Samora Machel when he counseled Mugabe to adopt a gradualist approach to socialism, thereby avoiding the traumas that were destroying revolutionary Mozambique.

If the use of a socialist ideology by ZANU had been merely a hypocritical manipulation of public opinion, it should have ceased—or become more muted—after liberation, when sticking to socialism resulted in a series of negative economic and political consequences. Surely if the ideology of socialism were purely manipulative it wouldn’t take ten-to-twelve years to drop the mask!

However qualified, ZANU’s “socialism” resulted in the withdrawal of U.S. aid and the severe limiting of funds from other Western powers, such as England. IMF funds were also withdrawn. Surely a rhetoric more acceptable to capital, as perhaps the history of Botswana shows, would have made the position of the new elite in power much more secure. That ESAP was a radical change in both ideology and policy was clear to ordinary Zimbabweans, who spent 1991-1992 reeling from rising prices and fees and declining public services. ESAP was nicknamed “Extreme Suffering for the African People.”

The Senior Minister of Finance for the government of Zimbabwe and the architect of ESAP, Bernard Chidzero, has another explanation of the recent sea-change in Zimbabwe. Chidzero argues that ESAP was necessary because ZANU’s attempt at socialism was an economic failure. According to this position, as repeated in most press and government reports in Zimbabwe, social spending and the growth of the state expanded public deficits and became a drain on the economy, producing rising unemployment, falling investment ratios, and a fiscal nightmare. With the economy in decline, Chidzero claimed, the government was forced to turn to private capital to restart economic growth.

But it is not true that from 1982 on the Zimbabwean economy was falling into ruin. Indeed after the serious problems of drought and decline (1982-84), the economy picked up during the mid-eighties.(12) The balance of trade improved dramatically by 1986, as did the balance of payments a year earlier. Even the deficit was reduced from 12% (1986) to around 10% by the end of the eighties. Inflation fell from 20% (1983) to 12% by the end of the decade. Between 1985-89, growth was very erratic but averaged 4%. In a context that included the continued negative reactions of the IMF as well as a serious drought during 1987-88, this must be considered a fairly strong performance.

Although it is fair to say that Zimbabwe experienced some very difficult years, it is not true that the country was in an economic shambles. Achieving a 4% growth rate during the 1980s in Southern Africa, after all, represents a degree of economic success. (It should be remembered that the overall GNP per capita growth rate for Sub-Saharan Africa during the 1980s was 1.7%.)(13) Coupled with enviable economic growth, the 1980s also were a period of social development in Zimbabwe.(14)

Still, by the end of the decade, Minister Chidzero had won over some in the government to the necessity of an economic liberalization program. Chidzero’s conclusion was, as he told a group of trade unionists, that “Socialism cannot work in this country.(15) Perhaps what gave the Chidzero position the final edge in policy circles were factors that reflect the power of international capital and the emergence of a more global capitalism.

First, the capitalist world economy was undergoing abroad recession, which restrained growth and development throughout the Third World, and this general economic context certainly made things more difficult for Zimbabwe. Second, Chidzero’s arguments had the authoritative backing of the IMF and the World Bank, which readily supported the idea of the economic failure of “socialist” policies in Zimbabwe.

If none of the most common explanations for ESAP are really adequate, it may be wise to look at a different one offered—though unintentionally—by Chidzero himself in a 1992 speech where he stated: “If we believed in socialism at a certain period, it doesn’t follow not to change when circumstances change.” What were the circumstances that can explain the adoption of ESAP?

A fairly common perspective(16) in the study of policy choices in Zimbabwe and elsewhere stresses circumstances within the government and the ruling party in the form of conflicting leadership factions.(17) A serious split has characterized ZANU’s leadership cadre for a long time. There is a “technocratic” faction headed by Chidzero and other Western-educated experts, who lived in exile during the liberation war. Mildly reformist, this faction believes that the Zimbabwean economy needs high levels of foreign investment.

A second faction is sometimes called the “populists.” It was headed by Edgar Tekere (until he left the party) and includes the remaining “radicals” within the ZANU leadership. This group originated in the military wing (ZANLA) of the liberation movement. It supports the redistribution of wealth and property in Zimbabwe through economic reforms and wants to decrease the role of foreign capital in the economy.

The coming of ESAP signals a low point in the power of the once prominent populist faction. Nearly all have been removed from the highest bodies of both party and state. On the other hand, the technocrats promoted a developmentalist philosophy of economic growth in Zimbabwe, arguing for closer ties with the IMF. The IMF, in turn, ratified these opinions and promoted the leading technocrats. Thus, the power and influence of the IMF during a time of world economic recession assisted the technocrats into predominance.(18)

The fact that an important material source of the influence of Chidzero’s technocratic faction is to be found in the support of international capital suggests that an emphasis solely on government personnel may be misplaced. To understand ESAP more fully, a look at external circumstances also is necessary.

State and Capital in Zimbabwe

Throughout the 1980s the level of investment in Zimbabwe was quite low, around 10-14%. This was especially true for foreign capital and investment, but it was even true during the early “boom” years when increased consumer demand and the bringing on-line of idle productive capacity produced economic growth of nearly 12% per annum.(19) By 1983 the boom had slowed considerably and the level of investment fell even further. During this time there was growing concern over Zimbabwe’s failure to attract significant foreign investment. In 1984 the IMF withdrew from Zimbabwe.

Over the following years the IMF, whose judgments often set international capital’s attitude toward a country, refused to become engaged in Zimbabwe. It claimed to be concerned about a continually high budget deficit caused by expenditures for social services and the subsidizing of parastatal enterprises. By 1986 the United States halted all aid to Zimbabwe in retaliation for the country’s disagreements with U.S. foreign policy.

Were the IMF and the United States worried that Zimbabwe might be able to overcome its problems and continue on the course of social reform toward socialism? Whatever the dynamics it is clear that in a country where foreign corporations account for 70% of the productive capacity,(20) the perceptions and actions of foreign capital are a crucial factor. In 1988, when Chidzero and the technocrats were arguing for a comprehensive review of economic policy in Zimbabwe, they cited IMF concerns with public spending, rising budget deficits, expenditures on parastatal subsidies, and the creation of a poor economic investment climate due to “excessive” government regulations.

Minister Chidzero was most revealing in a recent explanation of why Zimbabwe chose structural adjustment, saying “…we had to do certain things to try to generate more wealth. We had to attract investment…. People feared nationalization of everything, in light of our socialist ideology.”(21)

To summarize, it seems that the country’s key economic difficulty was “the failure to generate foreign private investment.”(22) The history of ESAP in Zimbabwe, then, lends support to the idea that:

“Perhaps the central tension is that while private investment is crucial to maintaining growth …, the ideology of socialism and the long-range threat it poses to private investors continuously weakens the ability of the government to sustain desired levels of private investment.(23)

In this context, ESAP emerges as the Zimbabwean state’s response to the failure of international capital to invest in its project of social reform.

Implications of the Zimbabwean Experience

The success of foreign capital—through the IMF, the World Bank, and Western aid agencies—in pressuring the government to decide for structural adjustment highlights the considerable power of this group in peripheral nations. It also points to the ongoing globalization of capitalism under the hegemony of finance capital.

The renewed influence of the IMF and the World Bank over the economic practices of Third World states is part of a process of recolonization that itself reflects the development of a new stage in the history of capitalism, a stage of globalization produced by the centralization and concentration of capital and the emerging dominance of finance capital.(24)

By turning on and off the flow of investment, transnational finance capital increasingly can command key aspects of national policies particularly in the economies of the so-called “periphery.” Through the power of its transnational agencies and their ability to impose “structural adjustment,” capital is recolonizing its periphery by restructuring nations’ economic policies so that they serve first the interests of transnational capital. Indeed, in the streets of Zimbabwe many people have no doubt that the International Monetary Fund is the real motivating force behind ESAP.

The history of attempted socialism in Zimbabwe reveals the importance of not overextending the idea of the “relative autonomy”(25) of the state within peripheral capitalism. Even if, as Carole Thompson argues, the successful liberation of Zimbabwe illustrates real political autonomy in the frontline states of Southern Africa, the turn to ESAP after ten years of independence reveals the equally real power of international capital.

There also is a practical political lesson to be learned from the Zimbabwean experience. It is simply that socialism will not be built without democracy. The ruling party in Zimbabwe believed that they could create socialism through top-down reforms without empowering the working classes. They felt that slow and gradual transformations in the “command structure” of the economy would both improve the living conditions of the masses and lay the material groundwork for a more complete “socialization of the means of production.”

Many argued that structures of political democracy-such as multiple parties, public participation in national decision-making through an open civil society, independent unions and peasant organizations, and a vital and diverse press-would actually inhibit the transition to socialism by highlighting internal ethnic and class conflicts. The error of these ideas becomes clear with ESAP.

When Zimbabwe’s road to socialism slowed down and was threatened by economic developments within the global capitalist system, ZANU’s weak ties to the people provided no protection for the ideals and goals of socialism. There was no political space within which the people themselves might debate their future. Instead, thinking like the isolated leadership they had become, Mugabe and the powers-that-be in ZANU turned to the “experts” for policy ideas. These experts, trained by the universities of the capitalist “West” and living a privileged life-style, counseled for structural adjustment.

What about the working classes who had been told for a decade that they were building socialism? They were told that socialism had failed and the country must turn to capitalism.

“A luta continua” in Zimbabwe. Hope for the socialist project now rests where it should always be based, in popular movements and organizations. These organizations, new and old, form a growing and significant opposition to ESAP They are anchored in the political left, the media, trade unions, the women’s movement, and at the university. When ESAP crumbles, it will be these forces that will gain credibility as the only bodies that consistently opposed structural adjustment and Mugabe’s earlier dream of the one-party state.

The road to socialism must be expected to have some compromising detours. If “the experiences gained from the various twists and turns in that process are necessary for its future advances,”(26) Zimbabwe still may prove that a socialist perspective in the periphery is possible.


    1. D. Chimanikire, “The Introduction of Liberalization in Zimbabwe,” Southern African Political and Economic Monthly, April 1991, 15-16.
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    2. For reviews of governmental social reforms and economic policies, see D. Chimanikire, “The Introduction of Liberalization in Zimbabwe,” Southern African Political and Economic Monthly, April 1991, 12-17 and Zimbabwe’s National Development Plans for 1982 and 1986.
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    3. There were some limited nationalizations, particularly in the important mining sector of the economy.
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    4. See address by Robert Mugabe to Second Party Congress of ZANU reprinted in A. Patsanza, Our Zimbabwe (Harare: Govazimiwe Mukuruwenzira, 1988) 149.
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    5. See D. Gordon, “Development Strategy in Zimbabwe,” in M. Schatzberg (ed.) The Political Economy of Zimbabwe (New York: Praeger, 1984).
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    6. These and all future statistics on the performance of Zimbabwe’s economy during the 1980s are taken from the quarterly and yearly country reports, Zimbabwe, Malawi compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (London, Business Intelligence, Ltd.). If other sources of data are used, specific reference information will be supplied.
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    7. Republic of Zimbabwe, A Framework for Economic Reform (Harare, 1991) 1-3.

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  1. This has been described in Patrick Bond and Tendal Biti’s “Portrait of a Comprador,” ATC 39, July-August 1992,36-39.
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  2. There was, of course, some opposition to ESAP. In the government and party this was based in a group of radicals with declining influence. Elsewhere opposition was centered in ex-combatants, students, trade unionists, the independent press and a number of small opposition political parties.
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  3. The program is outlined in Dr. B. Chidzero, Macro-Economic Adjustment and Trade Liberalization (Harare: Government Printer, 1990) and the aforementioned Zimbabwe: A Framework for Economic Reform.
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  4. A. Astrow, Zimbabwe (London: Zed Press, 1983).
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  5. B. Raftopoulos, “Beyond the House of Hunger,” Review of African Political Economy, 54, July 1992, 59-74.
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  6. This figure is taken from the World Bank’s Human Development Report for 1991.
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  7. Chimanikire, “Introduction of Liberalization.”
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  8. Quoted in T. Sakaike, “ZANU PF Makes the Big Switch,” Africa South, June 1991, 8.
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  9. See, for instance, Bond and Biti, “Comprador,” in ATC.
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  10. For applications of these ideas to Zimbabwe, see articles by L. Cokorinos and R. Libby in M. Schatzberg (ed.) The Political Economy of Zimbabwe and the work of Patrick Bond in ATC.
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  11. See Bond and Biti, “Comprador,” ATC.
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  12. See Raftopoulos, “Beyond the House of Hunger,” 64.
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  13. Pauline Baker, “Risk Assessment,” in Schatzberg (ed.), Political Economy of Zimbabwe, 167.
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  14. B. Chidzero, “Interview,” Southern African Political and Economic Monthly, December-January 1991/92, 13.
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  15. D. Gordon, ‘Development Strategy in Zimbabwe,” in Schatzberg (ed.), Political Economy of Zimbabwe, 138.
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  16. Gordon, “Development Strategy,” 138.
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  17. See T. Meisenhelder, “What Ever Became of State Monopoly Capitalism” Nature, Society, and Thought, forthcoming; editors, ‘Globalization-To What End?” Monthly Review, February 1992, 1-18; and S. Amin, Maldevelopment (London: Zed Press, 1990).
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  18. Carole Thompson, Challenge To Imperialism (Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1985).” href=”#N25. Carole Thompson, Challenge To Imperialism (Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1985).
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  19. Carole Thompson, Challenge To Imperialism (Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1985).
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  20. Barry Munslow, “Is Socialism Possible?” Monthly Review, May 1983.
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July-August 1994, ATC 51.