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

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.

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