So — what is the crisis of the left, and how should the left respond to it in order to succeed in overcoming the crisis, and what would that entail?
It is not a crisis of the left in South Africa all by itself. The global left has lost power, or has changed itself into something no longer leftist in order to retain power. Evidently, something has gone wrong which is not simply South African. But here we are in South Africa, and so let’s see how the crisis here has played itself out.
The general objective of the left — the dissemination of political and economic power throughout society — has been abandoned by those in power for several decades. The economic and political system is now explicitly devoted to destroying this objective by enriching plutocrats and immiserating the rest of us. The “democratic” system is fundamentally separated from actual political power, which resides elsewhere. Hence the “democratic” system serves largely as a technique to persuade the immiserated masses that there is no political solution to their problems. The generally-presented solution appears through attacking carefully-delineated politicians defined as “corrupt” (or whatever concept serves plutocratic interests by enabling them to seize power or wealth on the pretext of struggling against it). Thus the political system today is implicitly Bonapartist, but without a Bonaparte; or perhaps like early Italian Fascism without Mussolini.
The former authority which the left had in respect of public opinion has been dissipated as the right has inserted its values and slogans into the public mind and held them there by propaganda and patronage. The left has meanwhile lost most access to the media, and to other opinion-making sources, except when individuals purporting to be leftists produce material which serves interests outside actual leftist interests — in which cases the leftists involved are often funded by right-wing elements.
Much of this suggests that the left’s external crisis has internal components, of which the following are a sample:
The organised left has ceased to pursue actual leftist interests where it is in power.
The organised left, where not in power, does not pursue truly leftist interests but prefers to pursue the momentary interest of factions and individuals, usually by attacking targets made easy because they are already being attacked by more powerful right-wing forces.
There is more to the problem than this, yet this will surely do for a start! It doesn’t matter much what kind of capitalism is driving the system, nor does it matter much how serious the immiseration problem is (although it is serious and growing more serious and is almost entirely ignored by the public information dissemination systems, the “ideological state apparatuses” as they are correctly called by Althusser). The left is marginalised, and has colluded in this process of marginalisation — which means that there are at least two problems needing to be addressed here, as was evident when looking at Hall and McKinley and seeing that they were devoutly and stridently pretending that there was absolutely no gigantic grey flap-eared long-trunked creature in the room and standing on their toes.
Is there even a constituency for a left to take advantage of any more? Evidently there is. The EFF managed to get a million voters by doing little more than getting a reputation for wanting to nationalise the means of production, declaring that this would be their policy if elected, and then putting their names on the ballot-paper. Granted they eventually threw this policy away, along with most of the rest of the reasons for supporting them, and this must obviously disillusion many or most of their voters. Still, it shows that it is possible to mobilise considerable support for the left if anyone seriously tries. (It is significant that before the EFF nobody seriously tried.)
So if it is possible to do this even with frivolous celebrities taking the lead, with scanty organisation, and against a vast barrage of right-wing propaganda, it might be possible to do much more with a solid ideological base, a clear message of relevance to the bulk of the population, a decent organisation and a more reliable and trustworthy collection of leaders. It might be worth developing a left-wing political party possessing these characteristics, instead of the current stock of deadbeats, hoopla artists, fraudsters, clowns and traitors.
The obstacles to this from outside any possible origin or constituency for such a movement are obvious. The plutocrats will smear such a movement, and will try to buy off its leaders or bully its members. If the movement becomes a serious force, it is quite likely, even in the most purportedly liberal countries, that violence and even murder might be used — especially if the members of the movement are ethnically or religiously different from the plutocracy, as with the war against the Black Panthers in the United States and against the Irish Republicans in the United Kingdom. While the most resolute members of such a movement will resist any and all such attacks — and, paradoxically, the more strenuous attacks often arouse more strenuous resistance — weak or ignorant supporters may be driven away.
A still more important danger is, however, the problem of what those supporters consist of. The rank and file of any such part are usually “all right” in the sense that they have had some experience of immiseration and oppression, or have identified it out of their own experience even if they are not directly immiserated or oppressed, and therefore are eager to resist it. It is among more senior cadres of the support for such a movement that the real problem comes.
Someone who has earned (or been given) status and authority within a movement is naturally eager to cling to such status and authority, especially if it is that person’s only chance or opportunity at getting it. Therefore, that person will want to make sure that the movement facilitates that status and authority — and money, if possible — changing its structure and agendas to suit the process. In other words, such organisations may be subverted by individuals, or groups of individuals, seeking to use those organisations to feed vanity or greed.
So what is needed is not just an organisation with policies which appear right and are couched in ways that appeal to the public, but also an organisation capable of maintaining tight discipline on its membership and at the same time arousing an enthusiasm for relatively selfless behaviour. This is not only about preventing people from stealing the cashbox — it is also about discouraging people from campaigning against the actual interests of the organisation, and against its future success, because their ideologies tell them that these interests are false consciousness and that future success is undesirable. Unfortunately, people following such ideologies tend to be hard-working fanatics.
Also, a disciplined organisation tends to be hijacked by leaders who use the discipline to impose their own ideological preconceptions on the organisation. In order to ward off these dangers, the organisation needs simultaneously to be flexible and rigid; to be filled with a sense of open debate and discussion, and absolutely tied to a programme of action based on a rigid framework through which the political world is understood.
These are impossible contradictions, but they have to be managed through time and through leaders who are prepared to set boundaries and accept challenges. The organisation has to be democratic. But it also has to be authoritarian. Where the leaders exploit a situation for their own purposes without due cause they have to be challenged, or even removed, but not by leaders who are simply exploiting that situation again.
What is needed, therefore, is a clear knowledge of organisational history as well as national history, of ideology and also the meta-ideology which is about how ideology evolves and how it is used and abused. These are issues which are almost never properly incorporated into the tedious brainwashing which South African organisations usually substitute for political education, and this is why those organisations so often collapse into shapes which amount to the opposite of what they purport to stand for. Political education is not just an addendum — it is actually what politics is all about.
And all this has to be done against the background of transforming South Africa. The debate is all very well, but understanding the nation and understanding the organisation are only tools towards changing it. So nobody can get bogged down in the processes of defending the organisation against internal threats and external menace, of education and debate and discussion and continual reformation — a kind of permanent revolution, if you wish, but not exactly as either Trotsky or Mao carried that kind of thing out.
All this surely means that the current organisations cannot fulfil the needs of the left in South Africa. A wholly new organisation, consisting almost entirely of personnel not drawn from the historically corrupted organisations, would have to be set up. Such an organisation could still draw on the kind of people who have supported leftist organisations in the past, but its goal would have to be to reconstruct, from the ground up, the political structures, debates, insights, faiths and values which the South African left once aspired to, between the 1950s and the 1980s.
Even if the South African left of that time did not actually manage any of those things (but in retrospect much of the left, particularly the left which was not ossified by exile, attempted these things much more effectually than any other political tendency in the country) they are worth pursuing as ideals. They are not impossible dreams. They have simply been disregarded and discarded by the corrupt exploiters who have taken over all of our politics. Now that virtually every sane person is aware that our leaders are corrupt exploiters, it is not going to be enough to merely remove them and replace them with someone else who might be marginally less corrupt or slightly less exploitative. We need to purify ourselves, without becoming leftist variants of the Islamic State.
It isn’t going to be easy. But it has to be done.