The Losing Left.

February 11, 2011

A most appropriate (and charitable) response to the establishment of the Democratic Left Front is “How much longer are you fools going to go on with this laughable charade?”.
The charade began quite honourably in the 1920s, when South African communism was just starting out. The big divide was between the white intellectuals and the black workers; the intellectuals were communists and knew what was best for the workers, but unfortunately the intellectuals couldn’t communicate with the workers and the workers didn’t trust the intellectuals. Within the Communist Party of South Africa the workerist movement eventually took control and began trying unsuccessfully to appeal to workers until the workerist leaders decided to go to Moscow to seek guidance from Stalin, who had them sent to the Gulag, where they died. Problem solved, for the CPSA.
But meanwhile there had been a split (naturally) with some of the white (and coloured and indian) intellectuals hiving off on their own, partly inspired by Trotsky and hence called Trotskyites although they named themselves the Non-European Unity Movement. You can read about them in Peter Abrahams’ Tell Freedom; the Creator’s incarnate uncle on this earth, and the girlfriend of the Creator’s incarnate father, were both Trots of this calibre. The point about the NEUM was that they had absolutely no mass support and did not seek it, since they were too busy debating the finer points of Trotsky’s collected works and whether Rosa Luxemburg could be considered a legitimate ally (although dead) or not. When they were suppressed after 1948, unlike the CPSA, they ran and hid or fled the country, and therefore posed no difficulty for the apartheid state.
But Trotskyism survived elsewhere and indeed blossomed with the rise of the New Left in the West of the late 1950s. This Western New Left was, however, typified by the same characteristics as the NEUM, or as the American Trotskyites of the 1930s and 1940s (again, Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore, and one or two of Saul Bellow’s early works like Dangling Man, are worth looking at). These characteristics were a fear of mass mobilisation (in other words, they formed a “vanguard” party like the Bolsheviks, but unlike the Bolsheviks they did not seek a following because that would have diluted the ideological purity of the vanguard) and a tendency to split (caused partly by their obsession with doctrinal correctness and partly by the fact that since they had no clear goals and no power, they had nothing holding them together).
This came to South Africa in the 1960s, again principally in the white, indian and coloured communities. People like Neville Alexander took up the cudgels for Trotskyism; Alexander managed to go to jail for it (probably the last time an apartheid official took a Trotskyite seriously — but that was in the paranoid sixties). Reading groups were set up. Occasionally leaflets were circulated. However, these leaflets were chiefly concerned with warning the public against supporting the PAC, the ANC, the SA Students Organisation, the trade union movement, or feeling any sympathy for the resistance movements in Namibia, Zimbabwe or the Portuguese colonies. The Trotskyites did not have any energy to challenge the state, for they devoted virtually all their energy to challenging anybody who was not a Trotskyite.
Between about 1976 and 1981 there was a substantial ideological struggle in South Africa, chiefly between Africanists and Charterists. The Africanists had initially dominated; they had been allowed to survive organisationally for a little while, partly because they were mostly middle-class intellectuals and partly because the apartheid secret police hoped that they would turn out less effectual and more controllable than the Charterists. However, presently Africanist organisations were banned and Africanist leaders were murdered, and then there was no existential choice between being an Africanist and being a Charterist, so the fact that Charterist organisation was more disciplined and Charterist goals were more pragmatic and plausible counted for something, and by the early 1980s the Charterists were clearly dominant in black South African politics.
It was at that point that Alexander set up the National Forum, which was supposed to be the organising body uniting all Trotskyites, together with whatever Africanists the Trotskyites were willing to work with. (And vice-versa; most Africanists objected to the Charterists because white, coloured and indian intellectuals played a big role in the ANC and the organisations which eventually coalesced into the UDF; the National Forum, however, was entirely dominated by white, coloured and indian intellectuals and this ought to have been a disturbing factor there.)
One problem with the National Forum was that, unlike the United Democratic Front, it had no agenda and no policies — it couldn’t have such things, because the fractiousness of Trotskyite politics would have torn it to bits. But therefore the National Forum was virtually incapable of taking a stand on any of the major issues of the day. In consequence, the National Forum was essentially incapable of attracting broad public support; instead, its support-base chiefly consisted of those who were critical of the Charterists. Hence it became a kind of factory for calls to refuse to participate in strikes, consumer boycotts, marches, stay-aways and all the other mass organisational tactics which build the UDF into a coherent and effective body. Every time one of these actions succeeded it dealt the National Forum another blow, making the National Forum increasingly obsessed with challenging the Charterists on increasingly trivial and preposterous grounds until it became a meaningless organisation (a Charterist would say it had always been that) and disintegrated. Its successor, insofar as their was one, was the New Unity Movement, a carbon copy of the NEUM with the same policies, ideologies and success.
It’s worth noting that similar Trotskyite activities also existed abroad, chiefly in London, where Trotskyism enjoyed some support among some left-wing SACP members and their colleagues. The SACP being Stalinist, it purged the Trotskyites and campaigned to prevent them, once purged, from getting funds or support from anybody on the Left, while getting them kicked out of the ANC. (In fairness, the Trotskyites pursued policies which were fundamentally damaging to any prospect of success; they campaigned against armed struggle and mass mobilization, because they wanted to disempower both MK and the internal struggle in order to enhance their own importance within the ANC, so therefore expelling them did good for the anti-apartheid movement.) This led Western Trotskyites to oppose the ANC, and such figures as Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers’ Party churned out books and articles explaining why the ANC, the UDF, COSATU and any other organisation associated with Charterism should be opposed, while whatever Trotskyite organisations Callinicos had heard of in South Africa were, ipso facto, the wave of the future. This all helps explain the bizarre hostility which the Western Left has expressed for the ANC.
Meanwhile, of course, the Charterists built up their strength, fought the armed struggle and the popular struggle and the worker struggle and the international struggle, negotiated with and outmanoeuvred the apartheid state in order to first get themselves unbanned, then establish the foundations for a democratic state, and lastly win the general election. They did all this without any help from Trotskyites, whose only actions were to denounce the ANC for doing these things and, rather feebly, try to prevent them from happening. (They also had to do this in the teeth of the opposition of the anti-apartheid Africanists of all stripes, of course.)
Once all the actual work had been done, including the death of twenty thousand people in the civil war with apartheid state proxies, the Trotskyites immediately came out to take advantage of the situation. Their belief seems to have been that, since the matter of apartheid repression was no longer an issue, they would now be free to organise (not that they had been suppressed previously) and therefore they would be able to take charge of the situation. Therefore Neville Alexander triumphantly set up the Workers’ Organisation for Socialist Action (which speedily split with the International Socialists of Africa) and someone else actually set up the Workers’ Party to Restore the Fourth International, while a Zimbabwean Trotskyite named Dale McKinley, a disciple of the Trotskyite group in Harare which had been working with ZANU, returned from doing his doctorate in the United States on how awful the ANC was, to publish it in book form and to join the South African Communist Party with the aim of persuading them to break with the ANC.
The problem with this efflorescence of Trotskyism was that it was based upon false premises. In order to win popular support one needed a programme, and the Trotskyites had never developed one. In addition, one actually needed activists prepared to go out and recruit working-class and unemployed people in order to expand one’s support base, for without this, Trotskyism would be restricted to the middle class. The working class and unemployed people tended to be the great victims of apartheid and of the struggles against apartheid, and therefore the first question they were liable to ask of Trotskyists was “What did you do in the struggle?”, and when the answer came back “I wrote articles attacking the ANC” the level of popular enthusiasm fell noticeably. As a result, the Fourth International got virtually no votes, the Workers’ Organisation organised no workers, and McKinley was reduced to stuffing envelopes for the Party and writing indignant articles for neoliberal publications about how bad Joe Slovo and Jeremy Cronin were, until the Party finally wearied of his nonsense and kicked him out, whereupon he lost his journalistic connections (since his value for the neoliberals arose from his capacity to internally disrupt the SACP and ANC; they had plenty of reactionary propagandists of their own otherwise).
A second wave of Trotskyism then followed, based in universities and mostly funded by the Rosa Luxemburg-stiftung, a German Marxist foundation apparently dedicated to tipping an endless supply of euroes down the toilet. Essentially all of these organisations were based in universities; Patrick Bond and Ashwin Desai at Natal, McKinley and Ngwane at Wits, Legassick at Western Cape — even Alexander was now at UCT. There was the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee which hoped to benefit from the problems arising from mass electricity connection, the Anti-Privatisation Forum which hoped to benefit from the problems arising from mass water connection, and the Anti-Evictions Committee which hoped to benefit from the problems arising from housing provision. All of these organisations (and a few others with similar names) failed to break out of their bourgeois origins and also failed to make any accomplishments. All, however, won the support of the bourgeois press because a) they were bourgeois and b) they were anti-ANC and had no links with the struggle. Because all these organisations focussed on attacking the government rather than the corporate interests which they pretended to challenge (in the tradition of South African Trotskyism they were afraid of taking on powerful people who might criticise them) they were easily co-opted by those corporate interests.
Slightly off campus was the Treatment Action Campaign, which hoped to benefit from the problems arising from AIDS treatment. The TAC was the only Trotskyist organisation which could claim to accomplish anything, but it only did so because it also enjoyed the support of COSATU and (more cautiously) the SACP, and because it was demanding the provision of antiretrovirals which the South African government actually wanted to do once it had found the cash for them. However, because the TAC worked closely together with the AIDS establishment, and with the two main antiretroviral manufacturers Boehringer-Ingelheim and Glaxo-Smith-Kline, it was almost immediately absorbed into corporate propaganda; indeed, once antiretroviral provision was commonplace, the TAC devoted itself entirely to corporate propaganda and shed its Trotskyite roots completely (although the nominal Trotskyite Zackie Achmat remained its principal front-man).
Unfortunately, this ambiguous success, attained entirely with outside support and at the cost of all political principle, heartened the Trotskyites. They adopted the “civil society” and “social movement” propaganda which had been developed in the 1970s and the 1980s by European bourgeois intellectuals to supplant the concept of mass working-class organisations with salaried bourgeois groupings. As a result the failed 1990s Trotskyites reinvented themselves in the following decade as increasingly bourgeois, increasingly wealthy but completely insignificant organisations which existed almost entirely to show up at service delivery protests and band together wearing T-shirts for the cameras of the bourgeois press, afterwards writing mendacious articles for the same press about their famous victory.
Now these little worthless groups have assembled into the Democratic Left Front, which is not democratic, shows no real sign of left politics, and is not at the front (nor has this Front any unifying feature — and, as usual, it has no doctrinal community). Of course it is doomed to fail. It is ironic that so many of these Trotskyites are historians and sociologists and yet they learn nothing from history and have never tried to understand society.
If anyone wants to bring serious change to South Africa, the Creator suspects, with Hunter S Thompson, that change needs to be left to the professionals; these Trotskyite waterheads will only get in the way.