On the “Not Necessarily Atheist” Nature
of Kwame Nkrumah’s Philosophical

Alexander Wooten

Kwame Nkrumah was one of the more salient figures of the post-war anti‑colonial movement in Africa. His contribution to the material and non‑material development of the African continent and its people went far beyond the narrow boundaries of his own country. As the first Prime Minister and President of the West Africa state of Ghana, one of the first African states to struggle for and achieve political independence from European colonial domination, Nkrumah became the symbol of freedom and unity in Africa. The emancipation, unification and development of Africa and its scattered, oppressed people was the all‑consuming passion of Nkrumah's political, intellectual and personal life. Nkrumah tirelessly worked for Africa and its principled advancement. In reaction to his understanding of the social and material conditions of Africa during his time, Nkrumah developed and espoused certain ideas and theories that he thought would accelerate the full development of his homeland.

After his development and avid espousal of revolutionary Pan‑Africanism and his brilliant discovery and analysis of neo‑colonialism, Nkrumah is also well-known for his theoretical treatise, Consciencism. To Nkrumah himself "philosophical consciencism . . . is . . . the map in intellectual terms of the disposition of forces which will enable African society to digest the Western and Islamic, and the Euro‑Christian elements in Africa, and develop them in such a way that they fit into the African personality (Nkrumah, p. 79). On the point of personality, he holds that "the African personality is itself defined by the cluster of humanist principles which underlie the traditional African society" (Nkrumah, p. 79). The Hon. T. Benson, former Information Minister of Nigeria, stated in a speech printed in the theoretical organ of the ruling political party (the Convention Peoples' Party) of Ghana, during the Nkrumah era, that he viewed consciencism as Africanism. He went further to say that consciencism reflects a philosophy which is African in content. The basis for this philosophy, he continues, is the need to unite Africa through an ideology which is essentially African (Benson, p. 6).


At the time of the development of consciencism, the African continent had evolved into a land of three dominant identities: the traditional indigenous identity, and two others which were imposed from without—the Islamic and Euro‑Christian. Nkrumah's philosophical consciencism was seen by many as the answer to the problem of the three Africas by way of philosophical synthesis. A speech given by the Ghanaian High Commissioner articulates this view by stating, "Out of the three Africas must be forged a new Africa which is a philosophic unity distilled out of the best features of the existing three Africas" (Benson, p. 6). He further states, "The philosophical synthesis that consciencism represents is attained through a dialectical growth out of the three strands in contemporary African life" (Benson, p. 6).

Apart from the astute observations Nkrumah has made with regard to the modern reality of Africa's identity and influences, he creates a particular theoretical‑philosophical inconsistency in his theory by attempting to juxtapose and synthesize two fundamentally opposed philosophical schools. In consciencism, Nkrumah's affirmation of the fundamental philosophical materialistic character of his "philosophical consciencism" and his subsequent declaration of the essentially non‑atheistic nature of the same philosophy is, in the final analysis, an attempt to reconcile the two theoretically polarized schools of philosophy, idealism and materialism. In his book, Monism and Pluralism in Ideology and in Politics, Assen Kozharov comments on the natural and historic struggle of the two opposing world views. He states ". . .the history of philosophic thought in its profound essence has been above all, a history of the struggle between the two fundamental philosophical trends—materialism and idealism". (Kozharov, p. 59). George Novack, author of a volume on the origin and history of the materialist school, adds further clarity to this same point. He propounds ". . . materialism and idealism . . . do not exhaust the field of philosophy but they dominate it". They reciprocally determine not only the main course of their development but the real positions of the schools oscillating between them. "They provide the guiding lines which enable us to make our way surely through the maze of philosophical opinions and controversy and not get lost" (Novack, p. 8).

From a position of affirmed materialism, Nkrumah argues and seeks to reconcile these two opposing world views. As a materialist, Nkrumah accepts the primacy of matter. He


states, "the . . . assertions . . . I put forward as philosophical consciencism are . . . two‑fold. First , there is the assertion of the absolute and independent existence of matter; second, there is the assertion of the capacity of matter for spontaneous self‑motion. To the extent of these two initial assertions, philosophical consciencism is deeply materialistic" (Nkrumah, p. 84). He further holds of consciencism that "its basis is materialism. The minimum assertion of materialism is the absolute and independent existence of matter" (Nkrumah, p. 79). Even earlier in this work, Nkrumah not only declares again and again his faith in the materialist world view, but he also demonstrates his disdain for idealism as a tool to understand reality: natural or societal. He writes, "idealism favored a class structure of a horizontal sort, in which one class sat upon the neck of another; . . . materialism, on the other hand, was connected with a humanist organization through its being monistic and its referring all natural processes to matter and its laws, it inspired an egalitarian organization of society. The unity and fundamental identity of nature suggests the unity and fundamental identity of man is society. Idealism favors an oligarchy; materialism favors an egalitarianism" (Nkrumah, p. 75). He also declares, "by reason of the connection of idealism with an oligarchy and of materialism with an egalitarianism, the opposition of idealism and materialism in the same society is paralled by the opposition of conservative and progressive forces on a social level" (Nkrumah, p. 75). And further, Nkrumah's most explicit affirmation of his belief in the materialist school of philosophy is stated as follows: "on the philosophical level . . . it is materialism . . . that in one form or another, will give the firmest conceptual basis to the restitution of Africa's egalitarian and humanist principles . . . It is materialism, with its monistic and naturalistic accounts of nature, which will balk arbitrariness, inequality and injustice" (Nkrumah, p. 76). The concept of monism holds the view that there is only one kind of ultimate substance. "It is a method of viewing the diversity of phenomena in the world that affirms a single principle or source for all that exists. This principle, this source is matter, matter in an ongoing, ever changing process of development" (Soviet Encyclopedia, p. 516). Finally, he declares that "it is materialism that ensures the only effective transformation of nature" (Nkrumah, p. 77).

In the article On Consciencism written at the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute, consciencism is seen as a revolutionary materialist philosophy in its concept, and


dialectical in its method (p. 29). In the same article, consciencism is said to be a philosophy based on the principles that include the following:

1. Matter is the source of all knowledge.

2. The mind has a distinct existence even though it is a product of matter.

3. There is an interaction between matter and mind.

In the article "Studies in Consciencism: What is Categorical Conversion?," philosophical consciencism deals with the interaction of mind and matter in consciencism. Here it is maintained that, "philosophical consciencism . . . while remaining true to the monistic position, is still realistic and circumspect enough to realize that naive monism cuts across the grain of popular experience . . . it rejects the dualism which postulates that both matter and spirit (body and mind) exist independently of each other and in their own rights" (Studies, p. 25). Further, the article states that though body and mind do exist, they are different and thus "form different things. They are in fact one and the same thing. We call matter the primary thing because while we can arrange matter to produce mind, we cannot produce matter by any arrangements of minds. The categories of mind and matter do exist but the one (mind) can be converted into the other (matter)" (Studies, p. 5). The suggestion of "practical dualism of matter" while at the same time matter is understood to be monist, is dealt with somewhat in the article by this pronouncement: ". . . the problem of 'practical dualism' and 'basic monism' can be explained away by reference to categorical convertibility" (Studies, p. 6). This concept of categorical conversion is stated by Nkrumah to be "the transforming of one category into another: the production of one category into another: the production of one category by using one or more categories which are different from the one produced." (Nkrumah, p. 20). The categorical conversion of matter from its material origin to its ideal existence, from material monism to practical dualism, is Nkrumah's suggestion that matter can exist in different and opposing categories and that from within these categories matter is convertible. Nkrumah also implies what is tantamount to an acceptance of idealism by asserting "philosophical consciencism, even though deeply rooted in materialism, is not necessarily atheistic" (Nkrumah, p. 84).


To appreciate the significance and/or the inconsistency of this last statement, it is necessary first of all to understand the two historically opposed world views and the positions they hold. Idealism, the first of the fundamental schools of philosophy, holds that the primary substance of reality is consciousness, spirit and thought, and that matter is secondary and dependent on consciousness. For an idealist, the natural world, from its foundation, derives its being from and can be reduced to thought. In Elementary Principles of Philosophy, the French materialist Georges Politzer says of idealism that it is the doctrine which answers the fundamental questions of philosophy by saying "it is thought which is the principal, most important, the first element, and idealism, by affirming the primary importance of thought declares that it is thought that produces being ... that it is the spirit that produced matter" (Politzer, p. 436). The material aspect of nature is, from the idealist view, derived from, secondary to, and dependent on, the idea. This notion holds that irrespective of the existence of matter, a thought, an idea, a concept can exist. For example, the brain, a highly complex form of matter, is not required for the thought process or an idea in itself to exist. Thus, based on the above suppositions, one must agree with Politzer's assertions that "idealism is nothing other than a polished and refined form of religion" (Politzer, p. 59). He is referring to religion in the sense of the belief in and the service and worship of a God, a supernatural being, a pre‑existing conscious idea.

The second fundamental school of philosophy, materialism, asserts that matter—those objects, forces, and processes—exist independent of consciousness, and is the primary basis of reality and that consciousness, thought, emotion, and ideas are secondary and dependent upon it. Matter is the primary substance and exists independent of consciousness. The category of matter is extremely broad, for it encompasses objective reality in its entirety, and not merely some separate object or process, or even a group of objects and phenomena of being, of objective reality, of existing outside of man's consciousness and being reflected in his consciousness (Afanasyev, p. 54). The Great Soviet Encyclopedia speaks of materialism as "resolving the basic question of philosophy in favor of the primacy of matter, nature, being, the physical, and the objective and regarding mind, or thought, as a property of matter" (p. 509). Recognition of the primacy of matter implies that matter itself is the primary basis of consciousness, ideas, and thoughts.


If one asserts or implies that two realities are each primary, one is saying that they cannot be reduced to each other or anything else. Novack elucidates on this particular paint by stating, ". . . the basic propositions of these two types of thought (idealism and materialism) are absolutely opposed to each other. One must be right and the other wrong. Both cannot be correct. Whoever maintains consistently the position of the one is inescapably led to conclusions exactly contrary to the other" (Novack, p. 6). With naivete, this is precisely the contradictory trap into which Nkrumah falls by asserting his philosophical consciencism as materialist in foundation, yet simultaneously declaring it "not necessarily atheist." This practical dualist position held by Nkrumah is an inconsistent and irreconcilable contradiction. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia aptly states, "since the idealist and materialist solutions to the fundamental question of philosophy are mutually exclusive, only one of them can be true" (p. 117). Recognition of the primacy of matter implies that matter itself is the primary basis of consciousness, ideas, thoughts, and as such ". . . precludes the existence of any God, gods, spirits, souls, or other immaterial entities which are alleged to direct or influence the operations of nature, society and the inner man" (Novack, p. 5).

For one to declare oneself a materialist, one is necessarily declaring his atheism, because within the materialist school no thought, no emotion, no idea can pre-exist nor exist independently of matter. The same exclusion holds for idealism. For the idealist the idea presupposes all things and gives birth to all things. Thus we see under no theoretical circumstances can a materialist be "not necessarily atheist." If philosophical consciencism is not atheist, then it is in no way rooted in materialism. "Atheism is contained in materialism as the fruit is potential in the seed. It is the logical outcome, the necessary conclusion of materialist thought" (Novack, p. 108). Materialism necessitates atheism, theism necessitates idealism. These two views are at war and can never find co-existence. Nkrumah expresses this very similar thought himself in the very work on which I am writing. He says, ". . . societies have both idealist and materialist streaks. But these streaks do not exist in equipoise. They are connected by a conflict in which one streak predominates" (Nkrumah, p. 75). However, on attempting to reconcile these two views while declaring his political ideological allegiance to one, Nkrumah bankrupts his consciencism on its very philosophical foundation.


In Consciencism, Nkrumah takes an explicit materialist philosophical position and also implicitly upholds idealism on the nature of the origin of matter. By declaring that his "materialist" consciencism is "not necessarily atheist," Nkrumah bankrupts his theory by contradicting himself on the very fundamental question of philosophy, the nature of being. Although his analysis of the evolved identities of contemporary Africa and his ability to envision the necessity to develop a conscious ideology to dialectically synthesize Africa's three identities were outstanding, they are still overshadowed by his attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Howard University


Afanasyev, V. Marxist Philosophy. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968.

Benson, T.O.S. "Speech Delivered by Nigerian Minister of Information." In Spark, 28 August, 1965.

Kozharov, Assen. Monism and Pluralism in Ideology and in Politics. Bulgaria: Sofia Press, 1972.

Nkrumah, Kwame. Consciencism. New York: International Publishers, 1980.

Novack, George. The Origins of Materialism. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1965.

Politzer, Georges. Elementary Principles of Philosophy. New York: International Publishers, 1976.

Prokharov, A.M. Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: MacMillan, Inc., 1976.

"Speech Delivered by Ghana High Commissioner." In Spark, 1965.

State Publishing Corporation, Accra‑Tema, Ghana. On Consciencism, 1970.

"Studies in Consciencism. What is Categorical Conversion?" In Spark, 1964.


SOURCE: Wooten, Alexander. ‘On the "Not Necessarily Atheist" Nature of Kwame Nkrumah's Philosophical Consciencism’, The Howard University Journal of Philosophy, vol. 1, no. 1, Summer/Fall 1990, pp. 49-55.

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