And now for something painfully familiar.

The seizure of white farmland in Zimbabwe posed a problem for the Left to which, fortunately, they had easy solutions.
The basic problem was that the seizure was a redistribution of wealth. Some of the wealth, admittedly, was grabbed by the greedy, but some of it went to the needy (even if much of the wealth melted away in their hands). A related problem was that it looked a lot like a revolution. The Left is in favour of the redistribution of wealth and invariably romanticises revolutionary acts and militant behaviour carried out by people who are using Left rhetoric. This explains why the Left across the entire world supported Mugabe’s actions.
Not.
The way of avoiding having to deal with the problem was by saying that it wasn’t a revolution and it wasn’t a redistribution of wealth. Instead, it was a cruel attack on the innocent farm-workers on industrialised white-owned farms, many of whom lost their jobs (though, of course, many seized plots of land on which they could work for themselves). It was also a vicious attack on civil liberties by a brutal authoritarian government. Aha! Problem solved!
Now, when land, or any other means of production, is seized by a government, the Left supports it even if it leads to grave problems. Allende’s nationalisation of the Chilean mining industry was problematic (quite apart from the impact of sanctions and destabilisation) but the Left supported it. A bit further back was Mossadegh’s nationalisation of Iranian oil, which the Left also supported. The Left in South Africa is quite noisy about the failure of the South African land redistribution efforts.
Yes, but what was happening in Zimbabwe was the seizure of white farms. Therefore the British and South African white ruling classes were violently opposed to this and so were all the newspapers. The Left did not have the courage or integrity to challenge any ruling class on any substantive issue. It had previously notably failed either to support Zimbabwe in its challenge to the International Monetary Fund (an institution which the Left had constantly demanded that someone challenge, until Zimbabwe actually did it) or in its defense of the independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo against the Rwandan-Ugandan invasion (whereas the Left shrieked with anger when South Africa invaded Lesotho, even though that was actually at the request of its elected government). So, the Left’s action was taken out of cowardice. And, to be fair, the Zimbabwean government is an ugly thing to be on the side of, rather like the old Soviet government in some ways. The Left preferred to keep its distance while abandoning its principles, and, incidentally, becoming de facto stooges of white racists and international imperialists.
So, no change there.
Recently, however, the Creator was startled to pick up the Mail and Guardian and discover something interesting — interesting, that is, to someone who is not a connoisseur and archivist of ruling-class propaganda. This was an article about the Zimbabwean land seizures which did not denounce them. That seemed startling.
It was less startling, perhaps, because it was written by a Trotskyist, Ben Cousins, the Pope of PLAAS, the University of the Western Cape’s farmworker rights organisation. In the South African ruling class, Trotskyists enjoy a decided benefit of clergy, because they have been so useful in making left-sounding propaganda against the ANC. If Cousins had written an article praising coprophagy, the Mail and Guardian would probably have printed that — which seems fair, given all the shit which that newspaper expects its readers to swallow.
The article was based on a small study of 400 households around Masvingo, a farming community about 250 kilometres south of Harare. Basically, the researchers went around asking people who they were and what they were up to. The study’s conclusion, according to the article, was that agriculture had changed rather than being destroyed, and that it was more distributed than concentrated, that it had “reduced gross racial and class inequalities in land ownership and has brought into being a potentially productive agrarian structure”.
It is extraordinarily rare that someone actually goes to Zimbabwe and looks around a bit, outside Harare and Bulawayo, the two MDC strongholds in the country where all journalists go. Therefore Cousins’ article was a breath of fresh air. It was also welcome to see that Cousins did not simply assume, as virtually all journalists (not only in South Africa) do, that everything that happens in Zimbabwe must be bad.
On the other hand, there were strong signs that Cousins had instead assumed that, in this particular instance, everything which happened had to be good, and therefore the conclusions which Cousins drew were a lot more optimistic than his data. 25% of the seized Masvingo land was still arranged in large farms, which was mainly controlled by the rich. (Of course, the ruling class would want to be absentee landlords rather than peasants.) In other words, a lot of the land was transferred from the white ruling class to the black ruling class.
But it was, nevertheless, a land redistribution. Was this good for the people? Apparently the people said that they were better off. More people were living on the land concerned than had been employed there when the land had been under mechanised farming or tourism-focused game reserves. Of course, this does not mean that in the end more people were benefiting from the land; tourism and mechanised farming have impacts away from the land, whereas subsistence farming generally does not.
More to the point, in 2008 maize production was still down by 25% on pre-redistribution levels (the previous year it had been down 65%). Cousins ascribes this to the government’s failure to help the farmers, but it seems likely that this is a structural problem. Export crops such as tea, coffee and sugar had declined sharply, as had the biggest export crop, tobacco. The fact that Cousins provides no figures makes the reader wonder whether he is hiding the bad news. The simple fact being that a lack of export crops, combined with a shortage of staple food, is a devastating indictment of how the system has worked.
The fact that Cousins doesn’t want to acknowledge this is a problem of his political understanding, and is actually a product of his Trotskyism. On one hand he is hostile to the Zimbabwean government because it is not Trotskyite. On the other hand he is unwilling to criticise the rural poor, because they might someday become Trotskyite. The latter perspective enables him to see that a situation which benefits the rural poor is not necessarily a bad thing, but the former perspective prevents him from seeing that it is not necessarily a good thing, either.
Cousins exults in the redistribution of land (which was carried out by ZANU [PF] ) in a rather questionable fashion. However, his only mention of ZANU (PF) is hostile, as an “elite” which must be watched and exposed. He does not mention the MDC at all, although he does mention that some say that a new government should redistribute the land towards the rich. Who these some are, or who the new government is, he does not state. Indeed, his assessment of land redistribution is astonishingly depoliticised.
Cousins may well be right in thinking that a restoration of commercial farming is not a good idea. It would probably, however, be easy to restore commercial farming to that portion of the farms which were seized by the elite — the 25%+ in Masvingo, and probably considerably more elsewhere. In addition it is probable that some of the small peasant farms could be collectivised. What will probably actually happen, however, will be the reduction of the small peasant farms to grinding poverty followed by wholesale buyouts at very low prices.
In other words, commercial farming will come back in the future, by decree or stealth, unless it is prevented from coming back, and that means securing a government which is interested in preventing it from coming back. It’s not clear that ZANU (PF) is such a government, but unfortunately they are the only conceivable government which might preserve the status quo. Unless, of course, some outside broker, such as the South African government, compels the preservation of the status quo or even its reformation in an egalitarian direction. But the present South African government is hardly more likely to do that, than the British or American governments are, whereas ZANU (PF) is right there.
The reason why Cousins is taking this stand against the people who took the action which he applauds, and tacitly endorsing the people who are likely to oppose the action which he applauds, is not clear in the article, but fortunately Cousins has clarified his stance on a website called concernedafricascholars.org. (Whenever you hear the word “concerned”, release the safety-catch on your pistol; sooner or later you will probably hear the words “I feel your pain”, which is the moment to start shooting.) The relevant article is “A Reply to Mamdani on the Zimbabwean Land Question”, posted on the 16th March 2009.
Cousins agrees with Mamdani over the notion that Zimbabwean land reform was not a total train-smash, which is tenable provided you define the train-smash as “going over a cliff and into the mouth of an erupting volcano” rather than simply “derailment with many dead”. However, Cousins disagrees with Mamdani over the question of whether ZANU (PF) enjoys support in Zimbabwe. Mamdani says, reasonably enough, that a regime which survives massive external attack and propaganda must, on some level, command internal support. Cousins declares that Mamdani is “simplistic and specious”, quoting Patrick Bond as proof. (Using Patrick Bond against Mahmood Mamdani is like using a peashooter against an armoured car, but obviously Cousins does not realise this.)
Cousins basically says that ethnicity, the urban-rural divide, and foreign efforts to manipulate Zimbabwean politics, all of which are obvious and important factors, are unimportant, whereas repression is important. The repression which Cousins cites is the Gakurahundi massacres in 1982 (which has fairly little impact on contemporary Zimbabwean politics except where the MDC makes propaganda about it), the dispossession of farm workers (which affected a small part of the population) and the forced urban removals of “Operation Murambatsvina”; the latter being the only contemporarily significant episode, but happening well into the decline of the authority of ZANU (PF), so not really explaining why ZANU (PF) was able to hold on for so long. Effectively, Cousins is saying that he does not like to hear what Mamdani is saying, so he discounts Mamdani’s arguments, but has none of his own to account for the non-disappearance of ZANU (PF). No doubt ZANU (PF) has a corrupt ruling class assisting it, but so has the MDC, and the MDC’s is certainly a lot richer and better-connected in global terms, so one actually has to return to Zimbabwean internal politics, and here Mamdani seems to know what he is talking about far better than Cousins.
Cousins constantly talks about “Mugabe”, following the traditional mode of white conservative discourse in personalising the black enemy in order to demonise him. He also claims, likewise following the discourse of white conservatives rather than reality, that the South African government under Mbeki and the SADC organisation supported “Mugabe”, a claim with no basis in fact. (What he probably means is that they did not help Western imperialism in their efforts to overthrow ZANU [PF], which is not the same thing at all.) In bolstering his assault on Mamdani, he uses words like “simplistic”, “specious”, “selective”, “myopic” and “fantastical”, all terms which could much more accurately be applied to Cousins if one wanted to be completely unhelpful.
The question, therefore, is why Cousins wants to be unhelpful; why he wants to smear Mamdani and, in doing so, misrepresent the Zimbabwean situation and indeed his own position on it (towards the end of the article he suddenly admits that “Even in the most recent elections there was evidence of continued support for Mugabe” (actually, for ZANU [PF]), which essentially makes nonsense of his attacks on Mamdani. He praises “property rights” and “effective, transparent and accountable institutional frameworks”, which is obviously desirable. However, he then says that “Only a government with real democratic credentials can create such institutions, which is why a way must be found to exit Mugabe”.
Well, a way has been found to “exit Mugabe” — the installation of the MDC in power, under the auspices of Anglo-American finance capital and with the blessing of Anglo-American imperialism. By implication, Cousins is endorsing this, which in the end is why he does not like Mamdani, who (with every other serious intellectual who has studied the matter) is extremely suspicious of Anglo-American finance capital and imperialism. This means that on one hand a Trotskyite is cheering for peasant agriculture, and on the other hand he is cheering for multinational capitalism of a kind which will destroy peasant agriculture. Cousins is abandoning his principles and adopting fresh ones with such sequential speed, and with so little justification or excuse, that it makes the reader quite dizzy.
Clearly, Cousins does not like large-scale mechanised agriculture, and prefers peasant agriculture to this. (Possibly he is hostile to corporate agribusiness, or possibly he believes that peasant agriculture is more empowering.) This is a tenable position (whether or not it is substantiated by the facts on the ground).
Cousins clearly also does not like ZANU (PF). He does not like them because they are repressive, which is also a tenable position (although his attacks on them are fundamentally depoliticised and ahistorical, probably because his attacks are more extreme than circumstances warrant).
The problem is therefore that ZANU (PF) have expanded peasant agriculture and are the only Zimbabwean political organisation likely to maintain it. So a thing which Cousins considers bad has brought about a thing which Cousins considers good. The only question to ask here is whether the good outweighs the bad, or vice-versa; whether peasant agriculture can be sacrificed for the sake of getting rid of ZANU (PF), or whether ZANU (PF) should be allowed to survive, for all its odiousness, for the sake of preserving peasant agriculture. It would be a hard decision for anyone to make.
What Cousins is trying to do is to have things both ways. He wants to be seen as supporting good on both sides, so therefore he pretends that ZANU (PF) can be got rid of without undermining land reform and peasant agriculture. This is rubbish and makes Cousins’ work worthless.
One can only speculate on why Cousins has chosen this path. One reason is Trotskyite loyalty, which is absurdly important. Among the most docile supporters of the MDC in Zimbabwe is Brian Raftopolous, one of about a dozen Trotskyites in Zimbabwe, who has played a leading intellectual role in providing the MDC with some leftist credentials. Cousins has to stick up for Raftopolous, so he has to support the MDC, if only tacitly.
On a larger scale, attacking Mamdani bears powerful political advantages. Mamdani is an “Africanist”, meaning that his anti-imperialism and his hostility to neoliberalism is driven by a desire to protect Africa (and by implication all other poor countries) from imperialist assault and immiseration. Therefore he has the “wrong” politics for a Trotskyite, and so it is proper to attack him — the fact that his political conclusions are acceptable to Cousins is less important.
In addition, there are less creditable points. Mamdani has consistently opposed imperialism and neoliberalism and has taken a lot of flak from the Western capitalist press for his stand against them on Zimbabwe and the Sudan. Therefore, attacking Mamdani is bound to earn you brownie points from the Western ruling class. Zimbabwe is a flashpoint for imperialist aggression, and therefore Mugabe has been demonised in the West (he is not a demon, merely a corrupt and opportunistic politician). In South Africa, white racists have hated Mugabe ever since they heard his name, and therefore attacks on him dominate the ruling-class press. If Cousins had stood up for ZANU (PF), he would have faced criticism and perhaps expulsion from ruling-class discourse. (Merely supporting land reform earned him almost unanimous odium from his white readers on the Mail and Guardian website.) Therefore, shouting along with the racists and imperialists seemed safer.
In saying this, Cousins sounds like a quite despicable person. Perhaps he is. However, let’s not forget that in mid-1939, George Orwell’s principal concern was to campaign against rearmament and against any attempt to prepare for war against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. His subsidiary concern, which he took quite seriously, was to set up an underground organisation to overthrow the British government and replace it with a government devoted to opposing rearmament and war. Orwell had fought in the front line in Spain, and knew as well as anyone else in Britain that the Nazis were preparing for war and that a Nazi victory in any such war would be a catastrophe. The Spanish Falangists were murdering his friends after their final victory even as Orwell plotted to facilitate a Nazi victory in Britain. Compared with Orwell, Cousins seems like a man of absolute integrity and good sense.
Orwell’s problem was almost exactly the same as Cousins’. He knew what he wanted — both the overthrow of Fascism and the installation of Socialism. Unfortunately, he couldn’t possibly get them both. He knew that mobilisation for the war against Fascism would happen under a conservative government, and he did not want that to happen because it would mean lining himself up with Winston Churchill. He therefore decided to proclaim that, as an opponent of Fascism, his first duty was to overthrow his own government, and adopt pacifism into the bargain because mobilization for war would play into the hands of the conservatives. Eventually, as he admitted, he suddenly realised that he couldn’t in conscience refuse to oppose the Nazis, and since the only people fighting the Nazis were the British and French conservatives, he had to endorse them. But well into the Second World War he had to tell himself that the war was going to bring Socialism, despite all evidence to the contrary, since otherwise he couldn’t have legitimated it to himself.
So maybe we should feel sorry for Cousins and even support him. To the extent to which he is able, he is trying to tell the truth. Unfortunately, his ideological perspective makes it impossible to do this on any large scale. However, compared with virtually all the other sleazy Trotskyites in South Africa and elsewhere, Cousins smells sweet as a freshly-opened rose.

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One Response to And now for something painfully familiar.

  1. Johan Meyer says:

    Seeing as the left is by now mainly a middle-class movement/tendency, I have a modest proposal, that I’ve made elsewhere (in Afrikaans).

    Most whites in RSA are landless (ok, maybe a suburban plot, but even then, it’s the bank that owns it). Many would like to have land (witness the promises by apartheid leaders of land in Namibia if their ‘grens oorlog’ worked out. The majority of whites (in RSA) are slowly being impoverished. Can we work out a scheme, by which people join a ‘co-operative’ entity, in which they work e.g. four years on a farm, in order to work as a farmer the fifth? This way, both white and non-white poor can have opportunity to farm, learn about crop and livestock illnesses and their treatments, etc. This also avoids legal fights about redistribution, and can over time become a form of stealth socialisation, without involving the government, outside the question of enforcement of contracts.

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