By Dale Street (cross-posted from Workers Liberty):
Picture appearing to show ISIS militants loading captives into a truck.
The following article, by Martin Thomas of Workers Liberty, carries weight because it is largely based upon interviews with representatives of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq and the Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan. It first appeared in the AWL’s paper Solidarity:
On Wednesday 11 June, the Al-Qaeda-oriented Sunni Islamist group ISIS seized control of Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul.
It has taken several other cities in the Sunni-majority north and west. Before 11 June it already had control of Fallujah and much of Ramadi, and of significant areas in Syria.
Nadia Mahmood of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq told Solidarity:
“What’s going on now with ISIS is a new phase of the sectarian violence which reached its peak in 2006-7 with the bombings in Samarra”.
That simmering sectarian civil war died down in 2007-8 and after. But, said Nadia: “After the Arab Spring [in 2011], the Sunni [minority in Arab Iraq] became more assertive.
“In 2013, [Iraq's Shia-Islamist prime minister] Maliki ended the [peaceful, and not sharply Islamist] protest camps outside the roads to Fallujah and ignored their demands.
“Now in 2014, after the election two months ago, Maliki wants to stay in power and has marginalised even the other Shia parties.
“Because of the sectarian nature of the government, this sort of violence will happen again and again. Socialists need to call for a secular state.
“The left and the labour movement in Iraq are not powerful right now, so first of all we need a secular state without religious identity which will give us ground to build. The target now is to end the sectarian nature of the state”.
Some of the roots of this collapse of the Iraqi state lie in what the USA did after invading in 2003. It disbanded much of the Iraqi state machine, including low-ranking people, and promoted “de-Baathification”.
At first the USA hoped that pro-US and relatively secular people like Ahmed Chalabi and Iyad Allawi would create a pro-US Iraqi government. But those neo-liberals turned out to be good at schmoozing US officials while in exile, hopeless at winning support from Iraqis in Iraq.
Amid the chaos and rancour which followed the invasion and the destruction of everyday governance, the mosques and the Islamist factions won hegemony.
The US adapted and worked with people like Maliki. As Aso Kamal of the Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan told Solidarity: “The Americans made a political system that depended on balancing three ethnic and sectarian identities.
“Iraq had been a modern society, with sectarian divisions not so deep. These events are the product of the new system America brought to Iraq. Especially with other powers like Turkey and Iran intervening, seeking their allies within the Iraqi system, it has been a disaster”. Now Saudi Arabia has seized on the current crisis to call for the fall of Maliki and his replacement by “a government of national consensus”.
Nadia Mahmood explained: “I think some of the Ba’thists saw the de-Ba’thification policy as targeting Sunnis more than Ba’thists. In fact there were Shia Ba’thists who held powerful positions in the state, and they were protected because they were Shia.
“So the Sunni Ba’athists went to the Sunni side and the Islamist side, not the Ba’thist side. They held to their religious identity”.
According to Aso Kamal, Maliki’s government is seen as a Shia government, and that rallies groups like ISIS and ex-Ba’thists against it.
For us in Workers’ Liberty, the horrible events confirm the arguments we made during the previous simmering sectarian civil war in Iraq (especially 2006-7) for slogans of support for the Iraqi labour movement and democracy against both the US forces and the sectarian militias, not the negative slogan “troops out”. The two-word recipe “troops out” then certainly entailed a sectarian collapse like this one, only worse. Now it is happening, even those who previously most ardently insisted that anti-Americanism must be the first step, and everything else could be be sorted out later, dare not hail the ISIS advance and the Shia counter-mobilisation as “liberation” or “anti-imperialism”.
Of course, rejecting the slogan “troops out” did not mean supporting the US, any more than being dismayed at the ISIS advance means endorsing Maliki.
The sudden collapse of the Iraqi army as the relatively small ISIS force advanced shows how corrupt and discredited the state has become.
Nadia Mahmood explained: “Soldiers from Mosul were saying that even when ISIS were still far away from the city, the leaders of the army took off their military clothes and left the soldiers. The Mayor of Mosul told the soldiers to leave. Some of the soldiers are saying that there was a deal”.
The knock-on effect of the ISIS victories is a sharpening on the other side of Shia sectarianism. As Nadia Mahmood says: “Now the Shia political parties are becoming closer to each other and calling for resistance. There is a sectarian agenda against the Sunni”. Aso Kamal adds: “Sistani and Maliki are also calling for a holy war. This is taking Iraq back centuries. It could become like Somalia. That will destroy the working class. It is a very dark scenario”.
Workers’ Liberty believes that defence of the labour movement in Iraq, which will be crushed wherever ISIS rules and in grave danger where the Shia Islamists are mobilising, should be a main slogan now, alongside the call for a secular state.
“ISIS”, says Aso Kamal, “have announced what they are going to do. Women must stay at home. Nothing must be taught in schools outside the Quran. There will be no freedom of speech. They are like the Taliban”.
“I’m not sure how ISIS came to Iraq”, says Nadia Mahmood, “and whether they are popular even amongst Sunnis. Maybe they are allied with the Ba’thists. But are there more Sunnis supporting them? Many Sunnis seem very scared and oppose ISIS.
“It is horrible what is going on”. But, now they have power and access to big arsenals, “ISIS may keep hold of the Sunni cities, such as Mosul and Tikrit, for some time. It’s obviously not the same for Baghdad.
“Bringing in Iranian groups to fight ISIS will only encourage sectarian discourse and maybe accelerate Shia-Sunni polarisation. Already Maliki is accused by ISIS, and by the Ba’thists, of being an Iranian agent. Whether Iranian intervention calms the situation or it worsens it is unclear.
“Many people in Iraq would prefer the United States to attack ISIS. They have come all the way from Mosul to 60km outside Baghdad, killing in their wake. I don’t know if they stay longer how many crimes they will commit, how many tragedies are going to happen. People in Baghdad feel very scared now”.
That doesn’t mean endorsing US bombing. The US’s 12 years of bombing in Afghanistan have not installed a secular state, but rebuilt a base for the once-discredited Taliban.
As Aso Kamal explains: “The Americans have a common front against ISIS now. But the Americans are playing with both sides. They do whatever they think will stabilise the region and the markets, and ignore the future of the people. In reality, they are supporting reactionary forces in Iraq.
“The effect of the developing sectarian war will be to inflame nationalism in Kurdistan. Already the KDP and the PUK [the main parties] are asking people to support them in order to keep the territory which Kurdish forces have conquered”.
For the Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan, “the main issue is to keep Kurdistan separate from this war. We say there should be a referendum and independence for [Iraqi] Kurdistan”.
Above: Andrew Murray addresses a recent London meeting of Eurasianists (aka ‘Anti-Fascist Resistance in Ukraine’)
Cross-post by Dale Street:
Apologetics, if not outright support, for the forces of political reaction and oppression have become a hallmark of sections of the socialist left in the two and a half decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The “rationale” for such an abandonment of basic socialist principles is rooted in a bogus “anti-imperialism”, according to which any force in conflict with “imperialism” (defined solely as: the USA and/or the European Union) is automatically presumed worthy of some degree or other of support.
Now the “anti-imperialist” left is well advanced in repeating the same ‘mistake’ in relation to the conflict in the south-east of Ukraine.
Obsessed with the role played (or allegedly played) by the US and the European Union, fantasising about the supposed power wielded by fascist organisations in Ukraine, it shuts its eyes to the actual politics of those playing the leading role in the Russian-separatist forces.
On this occasion the result is even more bizarre than usual: the “anti-imperialist” left ends up in a de facto alliance with a political ideology committed to imperialist expansion and containing pronounced elements of fascism.
Eurasianism first emerged as a relatively systematised set of ideas amongst White émigrés in the early 1920s. Central to those ideas was the belief that Russia represented a unique civilisation with its own traditions and path of historical development.
Russia’s future, argued the Eurasians, lay not in following in the footsteps of Europe or Asia (although it would incorporate certain elements of both). Instead, they looked forward to the eventual collapse of the west and the emergence of an expanded Russia as a leading imperial power in its own right.
Eurasianism remained the preserve of Russian diaspora intellectuals until the collapse of the Soviet Union, since when it has become a significant political movement in Russia itself.
The main traits of Eurasianism today are: a commitment to restoring the glories of imperial Russia; the expansion of Russia’s borders to incorporate the territories of the ancient kingdom of Rus; hostility to western liberal values, which it holds responsible for what it sees as the decline and degeneration of the west.
The European Union and the USA — and Jews — are regarded as responsible for the post-Soviet economic and social collapse of Russia. Stalin, on the other hand, is admired as someone who established Russia as a world power.
Eurasianism is socially conservative and singles out gay rights for particular condemnation. Although it frequently presents itself as “anti-fascist”, its “anti-fascism” is no more than a Russian-imperialist glorification of Stalin’s defeat of Nazi Germany and the subsequent occupation of Eastern Europe.
At best, Eurasianism is a form of extreme Russian nationalism. At worst, it is a specific form of fascism which has been shaped by political traditions peculiar to Russia.
And it is the politics of Eurasianism which are espoused by leading figures in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, by the websites which seek to rally support for them, and by those political forces which have taken the lead in Russia in mobilising support for them. Read the rest of this entry »
By Camila Bassi (at Anaemic On A Bike)
“[…] Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”).” (Said, 43)
Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1977) is a retort to his conceptualisation of a dual camp schema of the world called Orientalism, which effectively inverts this dual camp and with a method devoid of class politics. He opens his book with a quote by Karl Marx:
“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”
The tone is thus set for a necessary antidote to a paternalistic and patronising Western system of political representation and domination, of which Marxism is an inevitable part.
Said attributes Orientalism to three interdependent meanings: firstly, the academic discipline of Orientalism and its research on the Orient and the Occident; secondly, a particular style of thought that differentiates, ontologically (on the nature of being) and epistemologically (on the theory of knowledge), ‘the Orient’ and ‘the Occident’; and finally, commencing from around the late eighteenth century, the corporate institution that deals with the Orient “by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it” (Said, 3). With this threefold definition in mind, Said reviews Orientalism as a Western-style discourse employed first by British and French imperialisms and later by US imperialism, to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient.
Orientalism is seen to be heavily imbued with geography, that is, imaginary spatial prejudices infused with power and exploitation, and a Western-centric notion of development and progress. Said goes as far as describing Orientalism as a delusion of exaggerated self-importance:
“Psychologically, Orientalism is a form of paranoia, knowledge of another kind, say, from ordinary historical knowledge. These are a few of the results, I think, of imaginative geography and of the dramatic boundaries it draws.” (Said, 72-73)
This paranoid form of knowledge, Said argues, ennobled British, French, and later US imperial projects:
“The important thing was to dignify simple conquest with an idea, to turn the appetite for more geographical space into a theory about the special relationship between geography on the one hand and civilized or uncivilized peoples on the other.” (Said, 216)
Above: “Posh Boy” Milne
This is becoming worrying; I’m agreeing more and more with the Pabloite revisionist Coates (who’s just posted this about the public school Stalinist and friend of clerical fascism, Milne ):
In 2004 Seamus Milne, an editor at the Guardian wrote,
It is the insurgent spirit of political Islam, however, that has brought the issue of how progressive movements should relate to religion to a head. Modern Islamism has flourished on the back of the failures of the left and secular nationalists in the Muslim world and has increasingly drawn its support from the poor and marginalised.
In 2008 he developed this theme,
Just as the French republican tradition of liberation came to be used as a stick to beat Muslims in a completely different social context from which it emerged, so the militant secularists who fetishise metaphysics and cosmology as a reason to declare the religious beyond the liberal pale are now ending up as apologists for western supremacism and violence. Like nationalism, religion can play a reactionary or a progressive role, and the struggle is now within it, not against it. For the future, it can be an ally of radical change.
In this spirit Milne, who has a problem with French republicanism and secularism, wrote in 2011,
“The once savagely repressed progressive Islamist party An-Nahda (which) won the Tunisian elections this week on a platform of pluralist democracy, social justice and national independence.”
Few would now describe the conservative, anti-secular, pro-free market Islamists of Ennahda as progressive”.
But Milne has not given up.
Woolwich attack: If the whole world’s a battlefield, that holds in Woolwich as well as Waziristan
Denying a link between western wars in the Muslim world and the backlash on our streets only fuels Islamophobia and bloodshed
“Leave our lands and you can live in peace,” the London-born Muslim convert told bystanders. The message couldn’t be clearer. It was the same delivered by the 2005 London bomber, Mohammed Siddique Khan, and the Iraqi 2007 Glasgow attacker, Bilal Abdullah, who declared: “I wanted the public to have a taste” of what its government of “murderers did to my people”.
To say these attacks are about “foreign policy” prettifies the reality. They are the predicted consequence of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the US, Britain and others in eight direct military interventions in Arab and Muslim countries that have left hundreds of thousands of dead. Only the wilfully blind or ignorant can be shocked when there is blowback from that onslaught at home. The surprise should be that there haven’t been more such atrocities.
Mainstream Islamic teaching supports the right to resist foreign occupation, while rejecting violence against non-combatants or outside the battlefield. But it is the US and its closest allies in the war on terror who have declared the whole world to be a battlefield, in which they claim the right to kill whoever they deem to be a threat.
Nobody on the left would make excuses for the actions of the US and its allies in attempting to impose their ideas and power on the rest of the world, least of all their violent methods.
But is this what is at stake here?
Milne complains about the reaction to what he admits was a brutal murder.
What on earth would he have expected in any country in the world?
And is it just foreign policy that motivated these killers?
This is a report of Michael Adebolajo’s speech at Harrow Central Mosque in 2009.
Wearing a white skull cap and a traditional black Islamic robe, he says: ‘You are here only to please Allah. You aren’t here for any other reason.’
The demonstration was organised in response to a nearby protest by the English Defence League and a group called Stop the Islamisation of Europe.
During the 80-second clip, Adebolajo says that the Prophet Muhammad fought against ‘way worse’ opposition.
‘They are pigs,’ he shouts. ‘Allah says they are worse than cattle. Do not be scared of them. And do not turn your back to them. Don’t be scared of them, or police, or the cameras.’
A witness at the rally said of Adebolajo’s address: ‘After the speech some of them started running around. An imam even came out at one stage and told the hotheads to calm down and get inside the mosque, saying that they should be praying.
So the “filthy non-believers” are also a problem.
But Milne disregards evidence of pure religious hate, and tries to give a political lesson on foreign policy without considering that this loathing has its own ideological causes.
He focuses on Western actions,
They are the predicted consequence of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the US, Britain and others in eight direct military interventions in Arab and Muslim countries that have left hundreds of thousands of dead. Only the wilfully blind or ignorant can be shocked when there is blowback from that onslaught at home. The surprise should be that there haven’t been more such atrocities.
It goes without saying that this is a feeble explanation for the violent atrocities taking place every day in Syria, the sectarian violence in “Muslim countries”, and the murders of Africans, Christians and Muslims, by Islamists.
When will Milne ever admit that Islamism is a problem in itself?
It is clear in fights over these (“Muslim”) countries the poor and marginalised are the victims of Islamists
That, in conclusion, it is the duty of progressives, that is, the Left, to fight Islamism.
The whole world is indeed a battlefield, and Milne is not on the right side.
KB Player, December 20th 2013, (cross-posted from That Place)
The London School of Economics (LSE) has today issued a long-awaited apology to students Chris Moos and Abhishek Phandis, representatives of the student Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (LSEASH), who wore t-shirts featuring the popular Jesus and Mo cartoon at the SU Freshers’ Fair on 3 October, and who were asked to cover their t-shirts or face removal from the Fair.
The incident . . . was described as an “effective blasphemy law”, and said to be indicative of a wider trend around various university campuses across the country, wherein minorities are singled out and targeted under the guise of “political correctness”.
The LSE has published a statement (linked to above), including an apology for the disproportionate action and confirming that the students in question did no wrong. The British Humanist Association (BHA) and National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Students Societies (AHS), of which the LSEASH is a member, have both welcomed the LSE’s statement.
What with this, and the UUK “urgently reviewing” their guidance on gender segregation, it’s been a good week.
By Eric Lee (at the Workers Liberty website)
The downfall of Chang Song-thaek, once considered the second most powerful person in North Korea, is a lesson in history for a new generation – and not only in Korea.
The parallels to Soviet history are so striking that one almost wonders if Kim Jong-un read Robert Conquest’s “The Great Terror” – the classic history of the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s.
That’s not an entirely rhetorical question either, as Kim was educated abroad and may well have had access to history books denied to ordinary North Koreans.
In any event, the regime he now heads openly reveres Stalin and is perhaps the only one in the world that does so.
Fidel Castro has criticized Stalin, but also says “He established unity in the Soviet Union. He consolidated what Lenin had begun: party unity.”
People with only a passing acquaintance with Soviet history may be surprised to discover that nearly all the victims of Stalin’s massive purge which peaked in 1937 were not, in fact, oppositionists.
Nearly all the former White Guards, Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries had already been killed or exiled. And there were practically no survivors of earlier purges directed against Bolshevik opponents of Stalin such as Trotsky or Zinoviev by the time the Great Terror was unleashed. (Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and others were kept alive – but their supporters were either dead or in the GULAG by the time of the great show trials.)
Stalin’s victims in 1937 were overwhelmingly loyal supporters of his regime, including almost the entire leadership of the Communist Party and the Red Army.
Chang Song-thaek was, as far as we know, a loyal supporter of the Kim dynasty and the North Korean regime his entire life.
His sacking, swift trial and and even swifter execution fit precisely the pattern seen throughout the USSR in the last years of the 1930s as thousands of Communist Party leaders went to their deaths – often believing that the great Stalin had nothing to do with what was happening.
Media coverage in the West shows some basic misunderstandings of how a classically Stalinist reign of terror unfolds.
For example, as soon as word came out that Chang Song-thaek was executed, some Western journalists speculated that his wife might come next.
But then reports came out saying that Chang’s widow, Kim Kyung-hee, had actually demanded his execution.
Instead of being arrested herself, she was promoted to a prominent state committee.
This process – leading the calls for her husband to be killed, thenapparently being accepted back into the fold – is classic Stalinist practice.
Unfortunately for Kim Kyung-hee, it will inevitably be followed with the discovery that she was as guilty as her late and unlamented husband. Her days are numbered – and she certainly knows this.
The language used by the regime – which referred to Chang as “despicable human scum … who was worse than a dog” reminds one BBC journalist of Shakespeare, but the inspiration surely is the Stalinist prosecutor Andrey Vyshinsky, who infamously declared during one of the Moscow trials:
“Shoot these rabid dogs. Death to this gang who hide their ferocious teeth, their eagle claws, from the people! … Down with these abject animals! Let’s put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses!”
The chronology of Chang’s downfall also follows a template perfected by Stalin and his secret police boss Yezhov during the Terror.
First of all, Chang’s closest associates were brought down – and apparently, publicly executed.
It was standard practice in Stalin’s USSR to discover traitors and spies at lower levels, and then to use this to topple powerful men who had “protected” them and covered up their treason.
One cannot understand what is happening in North Korea without understanding Stalin. This lack of historical context is causing even academic experts to mis-read developments – and to make wildly inaccurate predictions.
One of these is the argument that the current purge will somehow weaken the Kim regime.
Some North Korean defectors now living in the South are spreading reports they’ve heard that some North Koreans consider the execution of Chang a sign of weakness by the young leader.
But this ignores not only the Stalinist template he appears to be following, but even the history of the specifically North Korean variant of Stalinism.
Kim’s grand-father, Kim Il-sung, did not inherit his post as Great Leader from his father, but rose to power on the corpses of political rivals – many of them loyal Communists.
His grandson is simply following in the family footsteps – and continuing with a tradition that began in Russia nearly eight decades ago.
JD adds: the editorial in Monday’s Morning Star indicates a rather dramatic change of line by the Communist Party of Britain since this 2003 internal report (written by our old sparring-partner Andrew Murray) stated “Our Party has already made its basic position of solidarity with Peoples Korea clear.”
By Eric Lee
In early November, Ofer Eini announced the end of his 8-year stint as the head of Israel’s national trade union center, the Histadrut.
The end of the “Eini era” is a good moment to reflect upon some of the extraordinary successes the Histadrut has had in the last couple of years, particularly in organizing workers previously thought of as “unorganizable”.
That these successes are largely unknown outside of Israel is due to the blind hostility shown by some trade unionists to the Jewish state – a hostility that extends to the Israeli trade union movement.
The Histadrut has made extraordinary progress in its organizing campaigns recently by using audacious tactics in the workplace, getting labour laws changed, and using new technology effectively.
The result has been that unlike unions in many other industrialized countries, the Israeli labour movement is growing.
They began the year with union recognition at the mobile phone carrier Pelephone. This victory followed four months of struggle that culminated in a historic decision by Israel’s national labour court which ruled that an employer cannot intervene in the right of its employees to form a union.
They repeated this success in April with Cellcom, another large mobile phone carrier. Hundreds of new members were signed up, initially in a secret campaign and then openly.
Cellular telephone companies have been very difficult targets for unions in some other countries, as evidenced by the campaigns being waged by American unions to organize German-owned T-Mobile, or the struggle Britain’s unions have had with Virgin Media.
The Histadrut’s successes were not confined to the high-tech sector.
In June, the Histadrut’s youth arm announced that it recruited over 7,000 young workers at McDonald’s. In most countries, unions struggle to successfully organize McDonald’s workers – or workers in any other fast food chain.
In late October, the Histadrut announced a “lightning campaign” to sign up one third of the employees of Migdal Insurance on a single day. The campaign followed on the successful unionization earlier this year of Clal insurance. One reporter said the organizing drive “began to acquire the form of a full-scale military campaign.”
“There is no place where we are not active. We came organized and with the goal of winning,” a Histadrut source said. “D-Day was set for today, and all Migdal employees received an SMS and link to a website to join the Histadrut digitally … Activists from the union and employees are distributing brochures as we speak, calling on the employees to enter the special Facebook page set up for the unionization.”
At the same time, the Histadrut launched a 6.5 million shekel (1.36 million Euro) television ad campaign to promote union membership.
The Manufacturers’ Association condemned the planned ad campaign as “wretched timing” — not specifying when precisely was a good time, in their view, to promote union membership.
But Ofer Eini defended the plan: “It is precisely at this time that unionization of employees is needed, especially at a time of vilification of organized labor.”
Few unions outside of Israel will be aware of any of these successes in part because of the reluctance to engage with the Jewish state.
But another problem is that the Histadrut itself makes almost no effort to share its successes with the outside world, and instead focusses its very limited international activity at attempting to block anti-Israel resolutions at union congresses.
It’s very rare for a Histadrut representative at international trade union events to speak about anything other than the conflict with the Palestinians. But when they do – as happened at a global food workers congress in 2011 – they may find themselves facing an audience that is far less hostile.
“We do him no honour to subsume his politics, or his personal peculiarities, beneath an aura of sainthood”
Above: Hugh Masekela’s musical dedication to Mandela
By Robert Fine at the Workers Liberty website
Nelson Mandela was a big man and his long life was punctuated by huge personal and political achievements. Foremost among his personal achievements was the dignity and apparent lack of bitterness with which he emerged from 27 years of imprisonment by the apartheid regime in South Africa. He had the personal grace to embody the long struggle against racism and for democracy when he re-entered the public sphere in 1990 and by nearly all accounts he set an example of leadership during his own long years in gaol. During this period Mandela was himself rather forgotten for much of the time, out of sight in the 1960s, eclipsed in the 1970s by the Black Consciousness Movement and Steve Biko, denounced in the 1980s by various world leaders (including Thatcher, Reagan and Bush Senior) as a terrorist, but increasingly in this period lionised in political and cultural circles. Who can forget Hugh Masekela’s musical dedication to Mandela!
Foremost among his political achievements was of course the role he played in steering South Africa from apartheid to democracy, from a state in which to be black was to be less than human to one man, one woman, one vote. This was no easy road. There was violence from members of the old regime, from Zulu nationalists in the Inkatha Movement, from ‘white’ ultra-nationalist in the AWB, and not least from among some black radicals (including Mandela’s wife, WInnie) within the black townships. Once in power as the first President of the new South Africa Mandela formed a government of National Unity with the Afrikaner Nationalists and Inkatha, oversaw the drafting of the new constitution including a strong Bill of Rights, and gave the go-ahead for Bishop Tutu to establish his famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
One of the many iconic moments of the Rainbow Nation Mandela sought to establish was presenting the Rugby World Cup trophy, held in South Africa, to the Springboks captain Francois Peinaar. Rugby was a generally ‘white’ sport and those of us who remember the anti-apartheid demonstrations we held against the visiting Springboks will understand the great symbolism of this occasion.
Mandela was a human being and despite all the efforts to sanctify him we do him no honour to subsume his politics, or indeed his patrician personal peculiarities, beneath an aura of sainthood sometimes constructed for the narrowest of political purposes. Mandela came from a Christian, aristocratic and propertied African family – very different in culture and social status from the mass of ‘blanket’ Africans. He became involved in ANC politics in the 1950s, when he was active in the non-violent Defiance Campaign and then in organising the Congress of the People in 1955. It put forward the famous and at the time controversial Freedom Charter:
“We the people of South Africa declare for all our country: That South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people”.
In a context of plural political movements vying for popular support, the notion of ‘we the people’ had obvious political advantages for the ANC, but what was more important was that it set a basically multi-racial path for the liberation movement.
There has been debate over whether Mandela ever joined the South African Communist Party, which had of course strong Soviet connections, but whether or not he did join, he worked closely with some of its members. What first thrust Mandela into international fame, his first moment of glory, was perhaps his least auspicious contribution. He was involved in the late 1950s in the turn to armed struggle, the establishment of an armed wing of the ANC, known as MK or Umkhonto We Sizwe, and the reorganisation of the party in accordance with the ‘M-Plan’, setting up a cell structure for military operations. Mandela was acquitted at the long drawn out Treason Trial of 1956-61, but he was then convicted of ‘sabotage’ at the Rivonia Trial in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
We should acknowledge that the so-called turn to armed struggle was a disaster. The bombing campaigns were ineffective and those involved in them were quickly rounded up. More importantly, the mass democratic campaigns, which rocked the apartheid regime in the latter half of the 1950s, all quickly collapsed as sabotage, secrecy and vanguardism took over. The murder by the police of 69 protesters at Sharpeville – a protest organised by the PAC, a rival organisation to the ANC – was treated by the ANC / SACP leadership as a sign that peaceful protest was no longer possible. However, it was also a sign that the mass democratic movement as a whole – which comprised community movements, trade union movements, women’s movements and even tribal peasant movements – was seriously impacting on the apartheid regime.
After the turn to armed struggle there ensued a decade of state repression and intensified racist legislation, marked by the defeat of popular struggles. I do not think this downturn can be separated from the ill advisedness of the ‘turn’ Mandela helped to implement. Mandela was inspired, as many radicals were in that period, by Castro’s 26th Movement, the example of Che Guevara, and by various armed African liberation movements. The long period of his prosecution in the Treason Trial may have cut him off from active involvement in the mass democratic movement (I am not sure of this). In any event the strategic turn taken by the ANC, which Mandela supported and personified, probably had more to do with the wider strategic turn enforced by leaders of the Soviet Union on most Communist Parties they supported, than with any local conditions. Mandela’s ringing speech at the Rivonia Trial – “I was the symbol of justice in the court of oppression” – was undoubtedly true but of course did not address the democratic and class issues involved in turning away from mass struggle.
There was always a patrician and intolerant edge to the ANC movement, but it was the turn to violence in 1961 that for many years broke its connection with grass-roots democracy. The protests that broke out in the mid-1970s, a decade and a half after Sharpeville, were conducted more in the name of Black Consciousness and Steve Biko than the ANC and Mandela. In the 1980s the ANC began to get back into the picture internationally as a largely exiled movement, but the internal movement of new non-racial trade unions (especially under the umbrella of FOSATU) and new community movements (especially under the umbrella of the United Democratic Front) showed a considerable degree of independence from the ANC–SACP alliance. In the UK I remember ANC-SACP people in the anti-apartheid movement denouncing in this period the new industrial trade unions and their solidarity supporters in the UK, including myself, as queering the pitch of the ‘official’ trade union wing of the movement, SACTU, or worse as collaborators.
Once Mandela was out of prison in 1990, his conciliatory strengths were manifold: he certainly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. There was at the time violence in the air – the murder of Chris Hani, massacres at Sebokeng and at Shell House, the AWB car bombs, the ‘necklacing’ of ‘collaborators’ committed by young activists in the townships, even the tortures and murders committed by the Winnie Mandela’s thuggish ‘United Football Club’. Directly or indirectly, Mandela helped to resolve tensions between the independent unions and the ANC and the former head of the Mineworkers Union Cyril Ramapoza led the ANC delegation into negotiations with the government. Mandela was a force for reconciliation but this did not mean that he simply gave in to stronger forces. He was strongly critical of de Klerk, the leader of the Afrikaner Nationalists, when the latter granted amnesty to the police and defended his old Defence Minister, Malan.
However, reconciliation meant not only reconciling oneself to the past but also reconciling oneself to the present – and to forces that would keep the great majority of ordinary black people in poverty and subjection. Strengths can turn into weaknesses and this is what happened to Mandela’s undoubted strengths. The ambitious social and economic plans of the ANC-SACP, articulated in the election campaign of 1994 in the Reconstruction and Development Programme, were frustrated by business friendly policies (tight budgets, fee trade, debt responsibility, etc.), the allure of unheard of riches corrupting all manner of officials, and an increasingly evident anti-pluralist streak within the ANC and SACP themselves. The trade union independence so carefully built up in the 1980s was compromised by its alliance with the ANC and SACP in the 1990s. By the time Mandela decided not to stand again as President in 1999, there were pronounced signs of growing unemployment, inequality and governmental authoritarianism – as well as the peculiarities of certain policy traits like Mbeki’s almost unbelievable refusal to recognise the existence of AIDS or the importance of anti-viral treatment.
Mandela was not uncritical of his own role, notably in relation to the whole question of AIDS, but whether or not he spoke out publicly on these issues, he remained a force for decency in the background of a state that was becoming disturbingly violent, anti-egalitarian and grasping. The police murder of 34 striking miners at Marikana mine, owned by a British company Lonmin, one of whose well paid directors is Cyril Ramapoza, the former leader of the Mineworkers Union and Deputy leader of the ANC, and its cover up and normalisation by leading figures in the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance, is just one exemplar.
Mandela will be missed today not because he was a perfect role model, and he was certainly no saint, but because he knew what is important in life and represented something authentic in the South African revolutionary tradition. Now that he has gone, I wonder what is in store for the revolution, which his presence did much to foster and civilise but which his aura served to insulate from the normal processes of intellectual and political criticism.