The Drift Goes On.

September 2, 2014

In the South African government, nothing has been attempted, no new initiatives established, not a single challenge confronted, since the elections. It is not necessary now that the elections are won and Zuma does not need to take any action to confirm his position in power. So we continue to drift towards the rocks, with only a few gentle bumps under our keel to illustrate what awaits us.

Such as the exposure of Pallo Jordan. Such as the bailout of African Bank. Such as the dismal failure of the Farlam and Seriti Commissions. These are not substantial events, but they are pointers towards our ultimate disaster.

Jordan’s is a mildly interesting case. He constructed a remarkable career as a victim of the ANC’s anti-intellectualism. He had been, it will be recalled, the chief of the ANC’s public relations in exile, not an inglorious job but not actually one providing much access to serious popular attention. The people from whom Jordan received substantial attention, however, were the whites who went to meet with ANC delegations in the late 1980s. As PR boss Jordan was naturally involved in all such meetings and was thus able to focus attention upon himself. Whites returned from these meetings to say that while there were a lot of fools and extremists in the ANC, still there were also some decent people in the ANC, like Jordan. Why, he had, according to him, almost been imprisoned by the ANC for speaking his mind! Anyone who was almost imprisoned by the ANC had to be a good guy, obviously; just as Vaclav Havel had to be a good guy because he had almost been imprisoned by the Czech Communists.

Jordan was an ideal person for this particular job. He had slipped into the ANC almost by default — his tradition was not Charterist, but Non-European Unity Movement. Not only did he thus come from a political heritage of being an impotent blowhard, but his dad was a novelist whose main work was so thoroughly uncontroversial that it was made into a TV series by the SABC in the 1980s. (Not that it’s a bad book, by the way.) He was university-trained, urbane, had a Western accent — everything which whites liked about black people.

The only thing which held him back, apart from his drinking problem, was the fact that he was not sufficiently subservient to white capital. The trouble was twofold: as a senior ANC member, but not very high up, he was not free to sell out; as a member of the ANC’s nominal left wing and Africanist wing, selling out to white capital was theoretically against his principles. Meanwhile, because he was not one of the party bosses he was not offered enough of a bargain by the whites to overcome his scruples. Hence he remained, very conveniently, as a mildly pink (but black) liberal with good connections in the white political and academic world, available after the unbanning of the ANC for parties and functions generally (at least when sober) and always ready to say things which sounded radical without actually either breaching the limits of permissible rhetoric within the ANC or alienating his support-base.

All this was very fine, and yet there was something which he lacked, something needed perhaps to earn the respect of his white bourgeois support-base if he were to be seen as an intellectual. So he falsified his curriculum vitae; he pretended that he had completed his abandoned degree at an American cow-college and he then pretended that he had acquired a doctorate from the London School of Economics. Risky? Who was going to check? He was not using academic credentials to apply for any job. But Pallo Jordan was merely a motormouthed ANC member; Dr. Pallo Jordan was an intellectual with a capital i, a man to whom you had to listen even though he had nothing to say that you had not heard before.

Since he was a man congenial to the white ruling classes, they were not going to ask too many questions. And, since having a man with a doctorate was handy for the ANC’s image, they were not going to ask too many questions. So he was safe — for a while. As it turned out, he was safe for twenty years, though for every one of those twenty years he must have had at the back of his mind the question of what would happen when he was found out. He never had the power to suppress exposure. Meanwhile, he could do nothing about it having once made the lie public; he couldn’t even register for a real PhD, because that would require him to admit that he didn’t have an undergraduate degree in the first place.

The only other question to ask is why he has been exposed at this late date. It is not really plausible that Gareth van Onselen went through the credentials of every ANC cabinet minister since 1994 looking for evidence of fakery. (Apart from anything else, he would doubtless have found a lot more stuff.) Someone must have decided to pass the Jordan story on to Van Onselen. Was it an ANC person? Then why not nail him much earlier, when he was still an undistinguished cabinet minister? Thabo Mbeki had reason to nail him long ago, when he was siding with Mbeki’s enemies — instead, as was Mbeki’s habit, he put Jordan in the Cabinet, where he remained even after Mbeki’s downfall as the least distinguished of Ministers. Of course, someone could have developed a personal antipathy to Jordan — he slept with the wrong person, he spoke to the wrong people — it is hard to guess. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely given the white liberal conduit through which the message passed, perhaps the white ruling class decided that Jordan was no longer of interest to them and could safely be sacrificed. And then came the usual flurry of humbug, fools and charlatans defending Jordan, fools and charlatans attacking Jordan, fools and charlatans distancing themselves from Jordan. Nothing is to be gained from that, of course.

But is anything ever to be gained? It is only seven years ago that the global financial system was brought to its knees by unsecured lending — that is, banks lending money to people who could under no circumstances pay it back, and then lending more money out by pretending that those people would be able to pay the money back and hence it could be counted as good debts. At that time South Africa’s banking system still existed in the shadow of a cautious Minister of Finance named Manuel; dishonest and reactionary he might have been, but he had one thing which distinguished him from the pure neoliberals — he was prepared to tolerate banking regulation, at least within some limits. So banks were required to have some solid basis for the money they loaned out, and the South African banking system itself remained largely unaffected by debt crises which destroyed banks bigger than the whole South African economy.

But then we were in a depression, and in a depression people need money, especially rich people who already have money. And the banks were getting few deposits because nobody had cash to put in them. (How foolish of the people not to have money, as the corporate economists always point out!) And meanwhile all the restraints on corporate neoliberalism were removed when all the social democrats in the ANC were kicked out of government. The next step was obvious — let the banks do whatever they want, mix and match all the “registered financial services providers”, a term which sometimes seems to mean the financial equivalent of spaza shops but usually just means bucket-shops. Confuse everybody and unleash the dogs of capital!

And so a couple of years ago a brilliant idea came to South Africa — unsecured lending! All those people out there with no money — let’s lend them money! What could go wrong? And indeed we were told that this would save everybody from loan-sharks because these were serious banks with serious knowledge of the market, and who were we to criticise them? Why, loan-sharks were responsible for Marikana! (Yes, people really said that. It’s as plausible as anything that comes out of Dali Mpofu’s mouth, after all.) And needless to say the leading light in unsecured lending was the African Bank, a bank not controlled by africans, but who asks questions when Afrika is calling? As recently as a month or so ago the corporate pages of the newspapers were telling us that African Bank would overcome the collapse of its share price and defeat the creditors circling it like bacteriophages.

Well, of course they were lying. African Bank turned out to have lent money to serious creditors on the basis of ten billion rands of bad debts and was placed under curatorship by the Reserve Bank, which had permitted it to get into such a pickle in the first place. No doubt someone will make a pile of money out of African Bank’s assets — the debtors are already being ordered to keep hurling their money into the financial bonfire which African Bank has become. No doubt nobody will be punished for the deregulation which led to the problem, and no doubt other banks which are engaged in the same practices will not stop their unsecured lending, but will instead work harder to cover it up and to try to make deals with creditors. At present the economy is moving slowly into depression. How many other banks are in African Bank’s position? Unfortunately, if we find out, the consequences are likely to be catastrophic on our already anaemic and half-dead economy.

And will our anaemic and half-dead civil society be able to bear up under the strain of such economic crisis? Not if its performance at the Farlam and Seriti Commissions is anything to go by.

These two Commissions exemplify everything which is wrong with our civil society, which runs largely on money and lawyers anyway. They were both set up on the supposition that when you put a judge in charge of something, something will get done — which is true, although since our judges are a pack of bought rascals and nincompoops, we can usually be sure that this “something” will not be worth the candle. Like all Commissions of Enquiry, they were also set up to cover the arses of government by pretending to get something done on an issue of supposed importance. However, what’s interesting is how differently they have pursued their paths, sought their goals, and been responded to by those who have pretended to clamour for truth and justice.

The Farlam Commission investigating events surrounding the 2012 Rustenburg mine strike, the violence which accompanied it and the police massacre at Marikana in August that year, was headed by a white man, the Seriti Commission by a black man. This difference accounts for much of the different treatment of the two commissions by the whites who own or control civil society organisations; the Seriti Commission was denounced from the start whereas the Farlam Commission was welcomed from the start.

However, it’s not only about racism. The Farlam Commission would potentially expose wrongdoings of the ANC government which were known to exist. The Seriti Commission would potentially expose wrongdoings of the ANC government which were claimed to exist. In the former case it was simply about revealing what was known; in the latter case, people who had been making claims for a decade and a half would have to provide evidence that their claims were real. In other words, civil society had no problem with Farlam, because they could lose nothing by prancing about making accusations about events which everybody had watched on Youtube; the problem with Seriti was that many leading lights in civil society might find themselves having to confess that the accusations which they had already made were not founded on any factual information.

Farlam’s commission stumbled about like blind men, failing to focus on anything clearly, evidence appearing before it chaotically and with endless debates over whether or not anyone could be found to pay the ludicrous, exorbitant fees which all the lawyers for the various parties — the so-called “evidence leaders” — were charging, and without which, supposedly, the Commission would grind to a halt. Farlam exerted all the physical authority of a quadriplegic with a speech impediment; he failed to provide leadership or guidance for any of the evidence leaders, allowing them to rant at will but without seemingly showing any concern about accuracy or relevance, and certainly without participating himself as all competent commission judges in the past have done. In short, it was perfect, so far as civil society was concerned — but completely useless so far as an investigation into events at Marikana was concerned, which is why nothing has come out of the commission but blather, bullshit and repetition of what had already been said many times before.

Seriti’s commission has been brisk and well-organised. Since they were (allegedly) supposed to find out whether anything had gone wrong apropos the arms deal, they structured the commission as an investigation — first call in the people responsible for the whole affair, and then call in their critics to explain what they had done wrong. So they called in the military to say whether they wanted arms (yes, they had) and whether they were happy with the arms they had got (yes, they were) and then called in the politicians involved in the arms deal to say whether they were crooks (no, they weren’t).

The whole sequence, of course, provided a glorious opportunity for the representatives of critics of the arms deal to have their say. They could provide evidence that the military had not wanted or needed arms. They could provide evidence that the arms acquired had not fulfilled the desires of the military. They could provide evidence of political corruption in the arms deal. Nothing whatsoever was stopping them.

Instead, they did essentially nothing. They called the bona fides of the witnesses into question, which would be significant if a crime were being discussed, but no evidence of any crime was presented. They cited unsubstantiated newspaper reports (probably planted by themselves) that the witnesses were lying. They blustered a lot; Paul Hoffmann even tried to bully Thabo Mbeki, and burst into tears when his bizarre boorishness led inevitably to accusations of racism against him. But nobody provided any evidence to justify having set up the Seriti Commission in the first place.

We are still waiting for the second half of this commission, during which the people who failed to provide evidence during the first half will have an opportunity to provide evidence. But why should they do so later, having failed in the first case? After all, many have already been revealed in previous court cases to have lied about having evidence, such as Patricia de Lille and Terry Crawford-Browne, or have become laughing-stocks like Paul Hoffmann. Others, like Richard Young, have (after a decade and a half darkly proclaiming what they could reveal if given the chance) suddenly discovered prior commitments and sound excuses for not turning up on time, if at all.

Manifestly, our civil society loves commissions of enquiry led by flabby weaklings which fail to confront the issue, but hates commissions of enquiry which attempt to actually investigate anything. In other words, our civil society is a crowd of bullshitters with plenty to hide. Presumably they can be bought by any bank, however insolvent, and no doubt any of them with a false CV can be sure of mutual protection. But, Lord, aren’t they good at making accusations against everybody except themselves!

Problematising the Left (IV): The Loss of Realism.

September 2, 2014

If one reads George Orwell as a leftist instead of as a neoconservative or a liberal (the images which current propaganda provide for him) one comes across two very interesting aspects of his work.

Towards the end of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell talks about the compromise with which the war would inevitably end due to the Republican government’s refusal to adopt revolutionary tactics. He was writing in 1937, after having fought with the POUM militia on the Huesca front and in the Barcelona street-fighting, and it was understandable that he had a parochial attitude to the war. Still, he understood fascist ideology; he had no excuse for imagining that the fascists would compromise if they were winning. He was simply so angry with the Stalinists for their behaviour in crushing what remained of the revolutionary movement in Catalonia (although, as Trotsky rightly pointed out, that revolutionary movement essentially connived at its own crushing) that he couldn’t see the Stalinist obsession with class compromise and alliance-building was very different from the Fascist agenda.

A related matter appears in several of Orwell’s essays between the publication of Homage and the outbreak of World War II, and also appears in diluted form in the novel Coming Up For Air. This is Orwell’s profound hostility to militarisation. In the novel it takes the form of the bomb accidentally dropped by a British bomber on manoeuvres on a British town. In the essays it takes the form of hostility to arms manufacturing, conscription and regimentation, which are persistently gibed at or denounced.

Orwell understood that fascism was planning war, but believed that this would be an imperialist war between capitalists and super-capitalists (the latter being the fascists). Therefore he did not want either side to win; rather, he wanted the capitalists to be overthrown in a socialist revolution, after which the socialists would defeat the fascists. The stronger the capitalists were, the more difficult it would be to overthrow them; therefore they should not be armed. Besides, Orwell convinced himself, the capitalists might sell out to the fascists, in which case all that weaponry would be used to crush the social revolution.

This isn’t a completely absurd assumption, but it turned out to be a disastrous one, because it assumes that the war at home is more important than foreign aggression. If Orwell’s desires had been fulfilled, Britain would have been conquered by the Nazis in 1940 and Orwell would have ended in a concentration-camp. (Orwell delivered brilliant rhetorical attacks on his own position during the 1940-42 period, especially in Partisan Review and Tribune, denouncing pacifism and anarchism in terms which he privately admitted to be unfair — sometimes in apologetic letters to the people whom he was attacking.) Orwell’s assumption seems to have underpinned a great deal of the left’s inchoate hostility to rearmament during the period.

It is sometimes claimed that this was all the fault of the Communists, but up until the Nazi-Soviet Pact the Communists strongly supported resistance to fascism, and some of the most powerful proponents of the anti-force line came from the anarchist and far-left movements who were also opposed to the Communists. If the left were unwilling to struggle against fascism, did they believe that fascism was a paper tiger, as Orwell seemed to have felt (against all evidence) immediately after his return from Spain? Did they simply think that the whole struggle was game, in which the rhetorical point-scoring of a badly-chaired party branch meeting counted for just as much as the conquest of the Sudetenland or Catalonia? Were they, in short, cut off from reality? Orwell later, bitterly, referred to much of the left as “masturbatory”, and the appellation seems appropriate to the times.

Fast-forward to the 1980s in South Africa and one sees something quite similar. The apartheid regime was trying to legitimise its rule by co-opting a black elite into serving as subordinates for the white elite. This was quite obvious, resembling what had happened in the late 1970s in Rhodesia and Namibia. Meanwhile, although in some ways apartheid repression was relaxing (for instance, in terms of censorship) numerous political leaders were disappearing or dying mysteriously, detention without trial was intensifying, and after 1984 the army was increasingly used to suppress demonstrations, while the country was placed under emergency rule after 1985. The left had an ideological duty to oppose apartheid (especially because it was increasingly conniving with multinational capital) whereas if the left failed to do this, apartheid was breeding a death-squad state which would surely crush the left in the way that it was being crushed in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, as everybody on the left knew.

But much of the left was conspicuously not struggling against the apartheid state or its minions. The elements of the National Forum — the Trotskyites around Neville Alexander, the Black Consciousness proponents of AZAPO and the various other groupings which joined or associated themselves with this movement (such as the PAC) — were not running around organising rebellions, boycotts or anything of the kind. On the contrary, they were condemning rebellions, breaking consumer boycotts, calling for people to break strikes and cross picket lines, and sometimes physically attacking members of organisations who were rebelling, boycotting and striking. Simultaneously, however, they were producing documents which proved that their own political line was infinitely more anti-apartheid than the line taken by those supporting the Freedom Charter, and also that whereas the Charterists were merely non-racist, they were anti-racist, and therefore they ought to be supported.

Why were they doing these things? They believed that their political positions were the correct ones, whereas the Charterists were incorrect. Therefore they felt that it was more important to ensure that the correct political positions prevailed rather than allowing the incorrect ones to prevail, even if that meant delaying virtually all political activity until the incorrect political position could be demobilised and defeated. They were pretending that resolving the political differences between themselves and the Charterists were more important than either getting rid of apartheid or defending the left against a potential massacre.

How could anyone sustain such a nonsensical position? This was done by demonising the Charterists in order to glorify themselves. Specifically, the National Forum contended that the Charterists were essentially in league with the whites because they were not as anti-white as the PAC and AZAPO pretended to be, and that the Charterists were essentially in league with the capitalists because they were not as anti-capitalist as the Trotskyites around Neville Alexander pretended to be. (In reality, the former were less anti-white, and the latter much less anti-capitalist, than they claimed. Alexander was the toast of the liberal white community, and the white liberal media constantly tried to promote AZAPO and the PAC as alternatives to the ANC. In the end this was a rhetorical distinction which the National Forum elevated into the status of a doctrine.)

Again, the term “masturbatory” does not seem inappropriate; the far left in South Africa at the time were fantasising in order to give themselves pleasure. This was obvious to the Charterists, who developed a deep contempt for the National Forum supporters (having earlier been willing to work with them during the period of the tricameral constitution referendum of 1983). More to the point, it meant that the National Forum opposed every anti-apartheid initiative and thus became irredeemably tainted with suspicion of being actually pro-apartheid, and of professing radical positions while actually holding reactionary ones. From this it was not far to concluding that the Africanists and Trotskyites were apartheid agents, a notion naturally congenial to the Charterist leadership and especially to the SACP, who particularly hated Trotskyism because of Martin Legassick’s failed coup against them in the 1970s. This simultaneously made the conflict between the Charterists and the far left more bitter, and ensured that the far left would lose support which it never subsequently regained because it was trapped within its negative posture.

What do these examples tell us about the contemporary realistic attitude of the far left? Logically speaking, the far left should be in a stronger position than it has been in for many decades. The SACP and most of the leadership of COSATU, for long the bellwethers of the Charterist left, have utterly discredited themselves as leftists and are simply providers of patronage — which enables them to hang on to their leadership positions but ensures the erosion of their popular support. The neoliberal business elite has largely wrecked the economy, trapping it in a low-wage, low-productivity, low-investment neocolonial mode, and its control of the government ensures that this will continue while the government only discredits itself further. It is obviously time for alternatives, and the far left can make huge play from providing them. Indeed, most of the success of the EFF, despite its inchoate policies and its problematic organisation, derives from this obvious point.

However, it is also obvious that precisely because the people have been repeatedly betrayed by their leaders, they are not going to simply support an alternative automatically. What if the person providing the alternative is a huckster, as so often in the past? What if the alternative provided turns out to be a pyramid scheme, or a system for siphoning cash into the pockets of the elite, as so often in the past (and particularly in the present). Why throw the rascals out, only to throw the other rascals in? It’s a question endlessly asked by those facing precisely the same problem all over the world.

So the far left has to show that it has a solid ground in reality and in what the people want, and here, it seems, the far left has floated away from the shore, way out of its depth, clutching concrete lifebelts.

The far left appears convinced that the masses support it and that the government is unpopular. Therefore it is not necessary to persuade the masses of anything, or indeed to provide a serious alternative to government policy. The far left has also bought into the 1960s Trotskyite concept that the masses are necessarily more radical than the leaders — a notion necessary to sidestep the “vanguardist” Leninist notion that the leaders have to educate the masses into radicalism — and therefore that a revolutionary situation always exists.

As a result, the far left has offered its support for service delivery protests and for the platinum-belt strike (interestingly the far left offered much more unconditional support for this strike than for the NUMSA strike even though the NUMSA strike was conducted by a union actively cooperating with the far left). The problem with this support is that it is support for reformist initiatives which do not in any way further the organisational or political interests of the far left. Of course such support could be used to build organisations and disseminate political ideas, but the far left has not been doing this — and as a result the platinum-belt strike benefited only the highly dubious union AMCU, while service delivery protests serve, as usual, the interests of local ANC politicians who organise them.

On the other hand, the far left also supports whatever anti-ANC campaign is available. Sometimes this entails wildly exaggerating the significance of very small local initiatives which sympathise, or pretend to sympathise, with the far left. Very often, however, this entails collaborating with right-wing anti-ANC initiatives which ultimately serve neoliberal goals, simply because this collaboration gives the far left an easy opportunity for a mention in a reactionary newspaper article. (The far left also is fond of utilising mendacious discourse around such issues as “democracy”, which the far left does not conspicuously support in practice.)

As a result the far left continues to have the reputation of being possibly closet neoliberals but undeniably untrustworthy for any serious purpose, while simultaneously arousing the hostility of local ANC supporters by their support for local anti-ANC initiatives. Hence the far left gains no reliable support at any level from these campaigns. The problem is compounded by the inability of the far left to combine; the far left in Gauteng, Johannesburg and Cape Town seems incapable of any effectual union, and even within those areas, egotistical leaders of tiny organisations insist on their own independence, probably so as to appropriate the funds flowing in from abroad (not only the Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung, but also, much more problematically, the Open Society Foundation which has links with the US State Department.)

If the far left were realistic, they would be more homogeneous and their policies would be consistent instead of being opportunistic to the point of incoherence. If they were realistic, they would be much more effective, and would have a chance of growing. Unfortunately, if they were realistic they would have to acknowledge that they have a long way to go before building a real organisation (which has been blindingly obvious for forty years). It seems that most prefer to live in a dream-world in which such organisation is unnecessary and in which they are always-already victorious, and always-already robbed of the fruits of their victory by the evil ANC. It is largely a replay of the 1980s or of the 1930s, except that there is little evidence that anyone else, whether the Tories or the ANC, will step in to save the country from the neoliberal capitalist elite whom the far left consistently either ignore or pander to.

Problematising the Left (III): What Causes The Disconnect?

September 2, 2014

There is surely no reason to become a leftist for the money or the power. Nor is there a good reason to become a leftist in order to support the established elite. Therefore we can assume that bribery or good connections are not in themselves reasons why leftists come to support imperialism or plutocratic capitalism.

Still, they do. The previous couple of posts demonstrates this in some cases, and there are many more. The “neoconservative” movement in the United States, and the “New Labour” movement in Britain, rely heavily on former far-leftists who have shifted to reactionary positions. The reasons are obviously not simply idiosyncratic — the occasional intellectual who happens to have psychological problems, as one could argue that Arthur Koestler did. There are too many cases for that. Hence it must be some sort of problem arising out of some ideological assumptions or organisational circumstances related to the left.

It is tempting to see this as an epiphenomenon of the collapse of Communism; certainly that event did immense harm to the self-confidence of actual Marxists. (Nearly three decades later people like David Harvey are terrified of being overly prescriptive for fear of seeming Stalinist.) On the other hand, a lot of the people who are in this space, like most organised Trotskyites (and their predecessors) were always opposed to the USSR and the Communist Party (and are currently opposed to the Chinese government). So that might be a contributing factor for many, but not the sole or even the most important one.

Perhaps it is a more complex variant of such an epiphenomenon, however. The collapse of Communism meant the collapse of left-wing disciplined organisation, the collapse of confidence in the idea that socialism could be attained by the efforts of a massive phalanx of intellectuals and activists backed by the gigantic fist of the working class. Under such conditions all that was needed was unanimity around the correct line, which usually turned out to be the line provided by the Central Committee who received it from the Chairman, and which usually turned out to be the wrong line, so that the entire party and its allies marched together towards disaster. It is easy to see why this kind of political activism lost its attractiveness once it lost power — although in practice, despite their disavowals of it and their endless blather about democracy, most left-wing organisations adopt strikingly similar techniques.

But these techniques do not work without a tight-knit organisation backed by a powerful guiding ideology. Therefore left-wing organisations fragment and their members see themselves in individualist terms rather than in collectivist terms. Therefore again, such members, having adopted left-wing principles, feel no organisational or ideological allegiance. Nothing overrides their private opinions, as it does in an organised political movement; there is no sense of “Well, I don’t really like this, but I’ll do it for the good of the cause”.

In the contemporary world, this is particularly problematic because the overwhelming propaganda of the neoliberal reactionary movement is everywhere. Thus on one hand such individualistic leftists are in danger of buying into the propaganda inadvertently, and on the other hand, because they are individuals and lack collective support, they are in danger of adopting the position that since the propaganda is overwhelming and there is no visible sign of an alternative, some kind of compromise is necessary and even sensible. This compromise would probably take the form of accepting some of the policies of the neoliberals while rejecting (or pretending to reject) others. This is exactly what the social democrats did, and it proved to be suicidal; the left condemned them only, seemingly, to fall victim to the same disastrous practices.

So the left is not only organisationally dissipated, but its members are liable to become stealth supporters of the current oppressive and exploitative regime. This is not the same as the way in which non-members of left-wing organisations have always flitted in and out; people who impulsively decided to join a radical movement and then equally impulsively decided to leave were leftists before they joined and remained leftists afterward. What seems to be happening now, however, is that many leftists are finding ways to cease to be leftists after they have become dedicated leftists, and therefore use their existing leftist techniques to pursue their no-longer-leftist policies, while continuing to pretend to be leftists! What we have, therefore, is a flood of Koestlers rather than Burnhams; a flood of people who insist that their socialist god has not failed, but who, when you look inside their temple, turn out to be worshipping the golden calf with a cartoon of Marx sellotaped onto its face.

Since these people don’t know that they are frauds, because they are fooling themselves, they are convincingly self-righteous, and many who see through them are repelled from the whole left, deeming this a typical characteristic — which all too often it is.

Another problem which may help account for the curious disconnect of the left from sane or healthy political standpoints is its state of being frozen in time. There is a sense in which the left’s lack of faddishness is healthy. Admittedly, the left does have its own intellectual fashions, certain ideas or patterns of ideas which are (or were, back when the left was more coherent) in vogue from time to time. However, for much of the history of the left there was a strong sense of not being fooled by the accident of contemporary circumstances. Believing that they were in touch with a historical movement which might take centuries to work out but which would almost certainly end up in their favour — a coherent popular exponent of this was Jack London in The Iron Heel — they did not allow themselves to be distracted by momentary issues whether these were for or against them. (Of course, this was taken to mad extremes by the Stalinists, who didn’t allow trifling problems like the suppression of the German Communist Party to distract them into focussing much serious attention on the Nazis until it was much too late.)

But today the left takes this to even more of an extreme. Louis Proyect, for instance, refers to those who choose to support the Eastern Ukrainian resistance (or at least condemn the imperialist project which installed the junta in power in Kiyiv) as “campists”. Does this mean that he is accusing them of being ostentatiously homosexual? No, he is accusing them of dividing the world into a socialist camp and a capitalist camp, unlike sensible Trotskyites like himself who recognise that the two sides are both capitalist and therefore should both be rejected. In other words he is living in the 1960s, or at least wishes that he were and wants his readers to believe the same. A large part of the left, at least the renegade, pro-NATO left, has adopted comparable tactics — where appropriate, adopting Cold War attitudes towards Russia or China, or transposing these onto the Islamic world (while, usually, finding themselves able to support those “Islamofascists” who happen to be receiving military assistance from NATO and its Wahhabi friends in the Gulf).

But the world is not exactly the same as it was in the 1960s. The left is in an infinitely weaker position across much of the world than it enjoyed in those days. The most important problems confronted by the world are even worse than they were in those days — and meanwhile most of the problems which existed in the 1960s have not gone away. It’s just that the left no longer possesses the power to address them, which makes it tempting to assume that they cannot be addressed except by more powerful forces — which usually means forces which are actually opposed to the left, like “civil society organisations” and plutocratic entities and so on, but which are often perfectly willing to adopt leftist guises and even permit leftists to act as their frontpeople. There, again, the left is fooling only itself — especially since the left’s ideological structures are increasingly unknown to the broader public which is not exposed to them because the left lacks the means to promote its ideas.

Can all this, then, be solved? Can the left avoid this process by which so much of its leadership, and sometimes even its organisations, turn into the opposite of what they set out to be, while loudly declaring the success and integrity of their positions?

One hopeful point is that this doesn’t really seem to happen so much in situations outside the ambit of the Western left. The Maoists in India and its environs, or even the more left-wing of the Bolivarians in Latin America, do not seem so liable to fall into this trap — perhaps because, however improbable their causes, they nevertheless have something which needs to be accomplished and which they know cannot be accomplished by reciting the phrases of their enemies while implausibly mumbling about one’s commitment to Marxism in stale jargonistic phrases. Nor are they, by and large, plagued by a lack of organisation, or even of desire for organisation. They know that there is real danger out there with which they must deal, even if their response to this danger is often irrational. Even our own Economic Freedom Fighters, however doctrinally insipid or intellectually shallow they may appear, know that things are tough and getting tougher and that someone has to fight their corner if they are to survive, and that if they don’t, nobody else will, and that their enemies are not going to magically transform into their friends through compromise or adopting their phraseology.

However, the Third World is not the solution. Ultimately, the leftists of the developed world are needed to bring about revolutionary change and stop the developed world from attacking the rest of us. Somehow, then, the wealthy leftists of the world need to be persuaded to shed their insufferable smugness and their treacherous weakness and become real leftists again, or else we are all still in big trouble; victory in Vietnam did not matter when the Western far right was able to transfer its aggression to other things, and today Vietnam is more neoliberal than not. It’s hard to see how this can be done, but perhaps South Africa and Latin America are the places to learn how to do it.