Bad Answers to a Good Question (II): Dale McKinley.

July 30, 2018

It might seem a bit silly to follow up a critique of a serious and profound intellectual like Stuart Hall by critiquing a doltish airhead like Dale McKinley, but the step isn’t really from the sublime to the ridiculous, for politics isn’t so much about intelligence as it is about a combination of personal prejudice and social circumstances, and as Hall’s example shows, intelligence and experience count for nothing against a weak position and a dubious ideological analysis.

McKinley was a Zimbabwean Trotskyite who was sent to the United States to study, no doubt because he was deemed the most promising Zimbabwean Trotskyite, and then went to South Africa to launch a campaign against the ANC once the apartheid regime had been defeated by the ANC and it was safe to do so. He wrote a book and headed up a couple of tiny but well-funded fake-leftist organisations, had a brief stint as a columnist for a right-wing newspaper, and generally did all the things which an ambitious fake leftist serving imperialist plutocracy might be expected to do. However, let us pretend that he was actually a leftist, and ask what his position ought to have been when he wrote “The Crisis of the Left in Contemporary South Africa” in 2008.

That was not a good year for the left, in South Africa or indeed most other places. Despite the conspicuous failure of neoliberal economics, plutocracy was able to take advantage of the failure to enrich itself at the expense of taxpayers as it had previously done at the expense of consumers. Reactionary regimes were on the march across the globe, even if the excesses of the Bush administration were clearly leading to the victory of a right-wing Democrat who would be the catspaw of big financial interests.

In South Africa, the long retreat of the organised left from possessing any influence over the government had only been reversed by abandoning all pretense at leftism and throwing their weight behind the most reactionary and plutocrat-friendly ANC leader available, namely Jacob Zuma. This meant that the influence they had was in the direction of increasing the power of the plutocracy, which was also being enhanced by the growing power of openly pro-plutocrat parties like the Democratic Alliance and the activities of non-governmental organisations which were backed by American billionaires with close ties to the U.S. government. Meanwhile the actual power of the plutocracy over the general public was growing steadily and the access of the public to any capacity to challenge it was dwindling.

So the core question would have to be how to do something about this; how to mobilise people against the growing inequality of wealth, how to roll back the overweeking influence of the plutocracy over all spheres of government, and how to promote the basic values of the left which the organised left had so signally abandoned, against the background of a world movement which was increasingly hostile to any such moves.

So, what did McKinley have to say about all this? He acknowledged that all these problems existed, and added that the left had become balkanised on special issues — which was not actually an adequate statement, because the Trotskyite left had deliberately focused on special issues in order to further the objectives of their sponsors such as the pharmaceutical industry, whereas the left of any numerical significance, the SACP and COSATU, had not devoted all their energy to these things. However, such balkanisation was an obvious danger as Hall’s ill-advised recommendations revealed decades before. So we may accept this.

Instead of addressing this, however, the articles goes on an extended whine about how the ANC had supposedly become neoliberal twelve years earlier (essentially repeating the stale and false pretenses of McKinley and Bond at the time) and, simultaneously, supported a German-style corporatist state (failing to notice the contradiction between neoliberalism and statist corporatism). This he also blames on the SACP and COSATU.

But he then suggests that what might be desirable is “vibrant anti-capitalist forces capable of and willing to contest fundamentally the politics, policies and overall developmental agenda of both capital and the state”, although (correctly) he notes that neither the SACP nor COSATU would be capable of this. Of course, contestation is only meaningful if there is a prospect of successful contestation; couching the concept in “contestation” is rather problematic in itself, suggesting a commitment to opposition for its own sake. However, he does suggest the possibility of being able “contest power relations within South African society”, which might offer something meaningful. But it is also painfully abstract.

What does this mean in practice? It turns out that to McKinley it means that “the leadership of the SACP and COSATU” must “cut the long-standing umbilical cord with the ANC”. In other words, there is nothing wrong with the political positions of these organisations (or nothing which cannot be fixed by helpful advice from McKinley and his comrades) but the only problem is that they are linked to the ANC. In other words, the problem is not capitalism, not the intricate structures of exploitation built into society which had been able to interpenetrate the ANC as well as the SACP and COSATU and ultimately take them all over for its own purposes. The problem is simply the ANC. Solution: boycott the ANC. Then the ANC will drop dead automatically, apparently, and all problems will then be solved.

Of course McKinley doesn’t say this. Indeed, he says that “the capitalists who own and manage the means of production” are “the core foundation of South Africa‚Äôs accumulative path”. But then, apart from repudiating the ANC, what’s to be done about these capitalists and stop them from running the whole shooting-match? And how will repudiating the ANC facilitate this process? One waits breathlessly for an answer.

One would probably turn blue, however, if that were the case, for instead McKinley veers off into complaining about the fact that the little front-organisations and NGOs which Trotskyites had set up or successfully infiltrated, devoted to “poor communities'” “basic services and free expression” (actually what McKinley means is electricity theft and corporatised propaganda in the media) were not getting much traction from the SACP and COSATU once they had gained positions in government through their support for Zuma. Is McKinley really interested in solving the problems of the left, or is he upset because he his own slice of the cake is significantly smaller than that of others as a result of his miscalculation of the correlations of power?

Again, when McKinley says that these little front-organisations embody “the possibilities for those implicitly anti-capitalist battles to give birth to more explicitly socialist politics” it is almost amusing to reflect that one of the organisations which he identified, Abahlali baseMjondolo, became explicitly pro-neoliberal when it went over to the Democratic Alliance, while McKinley himself now works for Right2Know, an organisation funded by and for South Africa’s big corporate media conglomerates. Of course, he is right to say that “[t]he question that the South African left needs to ask honestly is whether or not it still believes in the possibilities of actually overthrowing capitalism”, to which the honest answer in the case of the SACP and COSATU (and all other unions and all Trotskyite movements) must be “No”, an answer to which McKinley seems to have no response, since all his ideas depend entirely on the answer being the opposite.

McKinley presumes to advise everybody on the errors of “vanguardist” parties in the “collapse of Communism” (although he is nothing if not a vanguardist) but he also claims that “it is quite clear that concrete struggles against, for example, privatization of the public sector and for socialized provision of housing, water, electricity, basic foodstuffs, and land are aimed at contesting capitalist relations of ownership and distribution”. This is certainly not clear. Anti-privatisation campaigns may simply be based in a desire to get actual services which would not be provided by capitalists — actually, they usually are. None of these campaigns in South Africa has advanced the cause of socialism, and most of them, because they have been opportunistic and unrealistically mounted, have not retarded the cause of capitalism in the slightest.

Meanwhile, McKinley suggests that what is needed “is a strategy that essentially forces unionized workers to respond politically to intensifying mass struggles from . . . grassroots communities”. In other words, McKinley and his friends must organise the grassroots to do things which will enable them to control the trade unions, while pretending that this is a spontaneous process. This is an obvious side effect of McKinley’s delusions of spontaneity against the background of his actual vanguardism.

Such dishonesty is pathetic, but it is also preposterous; if the unions are not responding to the immiseration of their own members, why would they respond to the orchestrated activities of organisations outside their membership? Indeed, although NUMSA is much more influenced by Trotskyites than before, it is not very good at getting workers to respond to anything other than immediate wage demands — even the recent sensible critique of the Ramaphosa assault on the minimum wage and the Labour Relations Act drew very little support from NUMSA members. One can only imagine how little support they would have offered to issues wholly unrelated to immediate union interests. Thus McKinley’s dreams of using his tiny groupuscules to hijack really significant organisations — that perennial fantasy of western Trotskyism — appears to lead nowhere even on its own terms.

For the most part McKinley’s conclusion, avoiding serious discussion, relies on empty and windy phrases like “a new kind of left politics” [read: the same old stuff McKinley had been pushing for twenty years] and “a real and meaningful left unity” [read: everybody at last listening to McKinley’s same old stuff] and “a new organizational form” [whatever that means]. In effect he had, in 2008, nothing to offer except more of the same dressed up as something different.

Which means that after fourteen years of failing to accomplish anything through the familiar tactics of western Trotskyism which had failed to accomplish anything anywhere else, McKinley’s response to a fresh series of crises of the left was to demand that everyone accept that the familiar tactics of western Trotskyism must be accepted by everybody on the left as the solution to all these crises. It’s as if a doctor were to respond to a patient’s diabetes by prescribing leeches, and when the patient then develops lung cancer, the doctor were to prescribe even more leeches.

This is only one person’s incapacity, of course, and he was a fairly incapable person even before he displayed this so dramatically in a long badly-written article in an obscure and uninfluential journal. All the same, it is an example of a kind of ideological paralysis, in which it is simply impossible to imagine that, all other things having changed, anything other than what one has just done and wants to do again can be done. Yet there is also the acknowledgement that those things have changed. This is weird; we have failed, so fail again; fail better. But when we fail worse, fail again, for it is as if failing worse is more important than succeeding, so long as we fail in the proper way.

And, towards the end of this failure in the proper way, reality has to be twisted; the actual problems are pushed into the background, the past failures are forgotten, opponents’ successes are discounted, lies are repeated regardless of whether they serve any purpose, and generally everything is subsumed to the demands of wholly baseless ideological confidence. Any problems can be covered up with jargon, or, in McKinley’s case, wholly spurious statements that this or that dubious claim from a dubious source authoritatively proves whatever it is that McKinley wishes to see proven at the moment. It is strangely similar — or perhaps not so strangely — to the behaviour of the Soviet Communist Party’s ideological “theorists”, or high priests of the dead religion of Brezhnevian Stalinism, in the last years of the USSR.

Which maybe makes sense. But isn’t this, actually, the core of the crisis of the left? The left’s inability to address the crisis of the left? Is this why the crisis became a crisis — wise people were fooled, and fools became dogmatic? It certainly seems so.