Above: pro-Russian protesters storm the regional administration building in Kharkov
By Martin Thomas (at the Workers Liberty website)
On the weekend of 5-6 April pro-Russian crowds staged demonstrations in some cities of eastern Ukraine, and seized public buildings.
In Donetsk the demonstrators echoed events in Crimea by saying that they were constituting a new regional government and would organise a referendum on transferring Donetsk to Russia.
Are these justified protests by Ukraine’s Russian minority, strongest in the east, against Ukrainian chauvinist policies from the new government in Kiev?
Or are they operations fomented by the Russian government, using Russians crossing the border to join the protests, and the east-Ukrainian Russian minority? Operations whose core aim and function is to serve Russian foreign policy, for example by setting up clashes which will give Russian troops an excuse to invade?
The balance of evidence suggests they are mostly the second. The demonstrations do not emerge from a background of growing protest against specific policies and actions by the Kiev government disadvantaging Russian people in eastern Ukraine. Instead, they start immediately by seizing public buildings.
Without question there is a large Russian minority in eastern Ukraine (over 30% in some districts), and many Russians look to Russia.
Without doubt many in that Russian minority dislike the new government in Kiev. In that sense, an element of the depiction of the demonstrations as protests by an aggrieved minority is correct.
However, the broad historical facts which we know for sure are that Ukraine has been an oppressed nation, and mostly oppressed by Russia (Tsarist or Stalinist) for centuries; that for centuries also, Russians have come to Ukraine as imperial colonisers, Russian has been the language of the better-off and culturally-advantaged in Ukraine, and Ukrainian has been disdained as the “peasant language”; and that Putin’s government, keen to sustain Russia as a great power, has been striving to regain some of the reach of Tsarist and Stalinist imperialism (Chechnya, Georgia).
As contemporary evidence we have a large opinion poll conducted across Ukraine and Crimea on 14-26 March, with its results published on 5 April. The fieldwork was conducted by a Kiev-based agency (the “Rating Group”) and funded by the US Agency for International Development, so some bias can be suspected. However, it’s the evidence we have.
In the poll, only 12% of people in Ukraine and Crimea said “yes” or “to some degree” when asked whether Russian-speaking citizens were under threat. Only 29% of people who considered themselves ethnic Russians reckoned that Russian-speaking citizens were under threat, and only 17% of the population in eastern Ukraine had that view.
17% is a big enough minority to provide a base for spectacular demonstrations when the demonstrators know they have support from a neighbouring great power. It is not a democratic mandate for deciding the future of the area.
Only 13% (in Ukraine and Crimea combined) supported the “decision of the Russian Federation to send its army to protest Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine”. Only 14%, and only 26% in the east, were for the federal set-up in Ukraine which Putin demands.
When asked what should the new Kiev government’s priorities be, the big majority in the east as in the west said it should be tackling economic corruption. Only much smaller percentages mentioned minority rights or decentralisation.
27% of people across Ukraine emphatically did not support the Independence Square protests in Kiev which brought down Yanukovych. However, that 27% was a lower disapproval rating than the 33% recorded in February 2014, before the fall of Yanukovych.
In other words, it is not that people supported the movement against Yanukovych, but have recoiled on seeing the new government. On the contrary, some of those who supported or semi-supported Yanukovych to the end have switched sides after seeing Yanukovych flee to Russia and hearing more revelations about his corruption.
The theory that the overthrow of Yanukovych was produced by a surge of the far-right in Ukraine looks doubtful. The far-right Ukrainian chauvinist party Svoboda scores only 5% in the poll, as against 10% in the last elections; the vicious “Right Sector” group scores 1%.
The poll shows low levels of confidence in the Kiev government everywhere in Ukraine, and especially in the east. 50% expressed disapproval of the job the Parliament is doing, and 73% in the east.
That percentage, however, should be compared with 80% across the whole of Ukraine and Crimea who expressed disapproval of the job that Parliament was doing under Yanukovych, in September 2013.
It was not that Ukraine was jogging along fine under Russian hegemony until a far-right pro-EU conspiracy spoiled things. Rather, that the majority of Ukrainians resent both Russian aspirations to dominate, and the rule of Ukrainian oligarchs whether pro-Russian or Ukrainian-nationalist, and rightly doubt that the fall of Yanukovych has changed much about the oligarchic corruption.
The three principles on which Solidarity bases our attitude about Ukraine are:
• Ukraine is a nation historically oppressed by Russia which has the right to national self-determination. Russians living in Ukraine should enjoy democratic minority rights, but their rights cannot cancel the right to self-determination of the whole Ukrainian nation.
• We do not endorse the trade deal which the EU has got Ukraine to sign, and we demand that the Western governments give Ukraine real aid by cancelling its crippling debt to Western banks. But the immediate threat to Ukrainian political self-determination comes from Russia, invading Crimea, massing troops on Ukraine’s border, fomenting small coups in east-Ukrainian cities, and demanding Ukraine fit its constitution to Russian wishes.
• The oligarchs offer Ukraine a bleak, unequal future even if Ukraine manages to conserve its independence. Socialists internationally should back the Ukrainian left and labour movement in its efforts to create a force which can win real victories for the social demands which fuelled the Independence Square protests.
Such a force would provide a solid basis for uniting all workers in Ukraine, Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking, “ethnic”-Ukrainian and “ethnic”-Russian, west and east.
Trust Galloway to revive the ultimate conspiracy theory:
Sadly, such filth and madness is still widespread on both the ultra-right and sections of the so-called “left”, promoted by the likes of Galloway and Atzmon. Sean Matgamna commented upon this sort of lunacy:
With Hitler on the road to Samara
Of course you know the story. A man is in the market place, and he sees Death, and Death looks at him intently, recognising him.
In a panic, the man runs to his horse and gallops away desperately, taking the road to the city of Samara.
As he gallops off, Death turns to his companion. “Strange,” he said, “that was so-and-so. I was surprised to see him here, because I have an appointment with him, tonight, in Samara.”
Death is all-powerful. There is no escape when he reaches your name on the list.
Consider now, and the association is appropriate enough, the fate of poor Adolf Hitler. This heroic son of the German people understood early in life that the Jews were responsible for all the evil in the world.
He knew that the Jews were behind everything! He knew that socialism and communism were Jewish, and that the Jews were also behind finance capital.
He knew that modern art was pornography and corruption, and modern culture decadent — and he knew that the Jews were responsible, as they were for everything decadent and evil in the world. This genius understood that Jewish Bolshevism and “Jewish capital” were all one. Despite the appearance of difference and antagonism between these things, Hitler could see that all of them — communism, socialism, finance capital, cultural and artistic decadence, etc. — were really one thing. They were aspects of one tightly organised and minutely directed world Jewish conspiracy.
And so Hitler fought the Jews. He roused much of Germany against them. In the middle of the 20th century, he re-created the medieval Jewish ghetto in some of the main cities of European civilisation.
When the Jews who ruled in London, Paris, Moscow and Washington declared war on the German Reich, Hitler set out to do the job properly: he organised the killing of six million Jews.
Many responses from the left to the Ukraine crisis have ignored, sidestepped, or downplayed the right to self-determination of the Ukrainian people.
Yet Ukraine is one of the longest-oppressed large nations in the world. In an article of 1939 where he raised Ukraine’s right to self-determination as an urgent question, Leon Trotsky wrote: “The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many ‘socialists’ and even ‘communists’ have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force”.
The same is true today. If the right of nations to self-determination is important anywhere, it is important in Ukraine. If the axiom that peace and harmony between nations is possible only through mutual recognition of rights to self-determination is valid anywhere, it is valid in Ukraine.
Only a few currents on the left side with Putin, and even those a bit shamefacedly: Counterfire and Stop The War, No2EU, the Morning Star.
Others propose a “plague on all houses” response. The US Socialist Worker (which used to be linked with the British SWP, but has been estranged from it, for unclear reasons, since 2001) puts it most crisply: “Neither Washington nor Moscow, neither Kiev nor Simferopol, but international socialism”.
For sure socialists side with Ukrainian leftists in their fight against the right-wing government in Kiev. But as between Ukraine being dominated by Moscow, and Ukraine being ruled by a government based in Kiev and among the people of Ukraine, our response should not be “neither… nor”. We support Ukraine’s national rights.
Nations’ right to self-determination does not depend on them having a congenial governments. The governments under which most of Britain’s colonies won independence were authoritarian and corrupt. The socialist who responded with the slogan “Neither London nor New Delhi”, or “Neither London nor Cairo”, or “Neither London nor Dublin”, would be a traitor.
The even-handed “plague on all houses” response also leads to a skewed picture of reality. Thus, the official statement from the SWP’s international network includes no call for Ukrainian self-determination, for Russian troops out, or for cancellation of Ukraine’s debt; but it declares:
“The anti-Russian nationalism that is strongest in western Ukraine has deep roots. Russia has dominated Ukraine since independence in 1991…” And for centuries before that!
“The memory of Russian oppression within the USSR is still vivid and reaches even earlier to the independence struggles of the first half of the 20th [century]”. Stalin’s deliberately-sustained mass famine in eastern Ukraine killed millions in 1932-3. There is a deep historical basis to Ukrainian nationalism in eastern Ukraine, and among Russian-speaking Ukrainians, as well as in the West.
“On the other side, many of the millions of Russian speakers identify with Russia”. And many don’t. On the evidence of the referendum in 1991, where 92% of the people, and at least 84% even in the most easterly regions, voted to separate from Russia, most do not.
“One of the first acts of the new Ukrainian government after the fall of Yanukovych was to strip Russian of its status as an official language. This encouraged mass protests in the east of the country”. The parliament voted to reverse the 2012 law making Russian an official language. That was undemocratic — and stupid. The new president vetoed the measure, and it was dropped. Even if passed, it would not have applied in Crimea. Russian had not been an official language in Ukraine (outside Crimea) between 1991 and 2012. The protests in the east (often violent, but not, by most reports, “mass”) were generated by Russian interference, not by the language question.
The “plague on all houses” response is an addled version of the “Third Camp” attitude which AWL has advocated on many issues; but a very addled version.
Usually the SWP argues for “two camps”. Really to oppose US imperialism and its allies, they say, you must to some degree support the US’s adversaries, whether it be the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hamas in Israel-Palestine, Saddam Hussein and then the sectarian Islamist “resistance” in Iraq, or Milosevic in Kosova. To do otherwise is to be “pro-imperialist”. Support for an independent working-class “third force”, against both the US and allies, and their reactionary opponents, is ruled out.
On Ukraine (as also on Syria) they break from that “two camps” approach, but to an approach which is more “no camp” than “third camp”. (The “no camp” stance has precedents in SWP history, in the wars for independence of Croatia and Bosnia, for example).
Our slogans of Russian troops out and cancelling Ukraine’s debt to the West seek to support the Ukrainian people as a “third camp”. We solidarise with the East European leftists who, on the LeftEast website, call for “the third position [opposed to both Yanukovych and the new Kiev regime]… namely a class perspective”, and appeals to Ukraine’s left “to form a third pole, distinct from today’s Tweedledums and Tweedledees… You are the only ones who can give meaning to the deaths and wounds of the [occupied square in Kiev]”.
Our position is defined primarily by its positive support for those “third poles” — the people of Ukraine, as against Putin’s troops or the IMF and Western government imposing neo-liberal measures; the working-class left in Ukraine, as against the oligarchs and the chauvinists. When we use negative “neither, nor” slogans, we use them as consequences, expressions, or summaries of that positive alignment; and they do not stop us assessing the other “poles” in the political situation in their varied realities.
The “no camp” stance, instead, offers only abstract ultimate aims (international socialism) as an evasion.
Above: Benn marching with UCS stewards, Glasgow 1971
A number of readers were upset by the piece including an Open Letter from 2005, that we published on the morning following Tony Benn’s death. I, personally, thought the Open Letter made fair and important criticisms of Benn’s politics, and the opening remarks I wrote were suitably respectful towards this major figure on the British reformist-left. One of the authors of the Open Letter, Sean Matgamna, has now writtten an obituary of Benn. It makes many of the same points, and is generally very critical of Benn’s politics and political methodology. But, once again, I’d argue that the piece is fair and also gives credit where it’s due. Benn was a serious politician and deserves to be assessed seriously. We do not subscribe to the universal, and often hypocritical, adulation of Benn that has been prevailent since his death.
Matgamna worked with Benn and others to set up the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, which for a while united most of the Labour Party left, at the start of the 1980s:
The first thing that should be said and remembered about Tony Benn, who died on Friday 14 March, is that for over four decades he backed, defended, and championed workers in conflict with their bosses or with the “boss of bosses”, the government.
That put him decidedly in our camp. The political ideas which he too often linked with those bedrock working-class battles detract from the great merit of Tony Benn, but do not cancel it out or render it irrelevant.
Politically, Benn’s story was a strange one. An editorial in the Times neatly summed up the shape of Benn’s long career. His was “A Life Lived Backwards”. For the first half of his long life he belonged to the Establishment, socially and in his politics. To the dissenting old radical-Liberal and right-wing Labour part of the Establishment, but the Establishment nevertheless.
Both his parents had MPs for fathers. Four generations of Benns have been MPs. Benn’s son, Hilary, has been the third generation of cabinet-minister Benns. His father was Ramsey MacDonald’s Secretary of State for India in the 1929 government.
Benn went to one of the leading “public” schools and then to Oxford University, where he climbed up onto that milestone in the careers of so many Establishment politicians, the presidency of the Oxford Union debating society. He became a pilot in the hierarchical Royal Air Force, in which pilots came from the upper classes, and in 1950, at 25, a Labour MP in a safe seat. His wife, Caroline, was rich, as was Benn himself. This sincere champion of the working class was a millionaire.
Benn became a minister in Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964-70 and was a minister again in the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-9.
Out of office after 1970, he turned left, at the age of 45. Publicly, he shifted during the great occupation and work-in at the Upper Clyde Shipyards (UCS) in 1971. The decision by Edward Heath’s Tory government to end subsidies to ailing industries meant shut-down for UCS.
In office Benn had subsidised UCS, so there was a logic and continuity in this. He marched alongside the Stalinist UCS leaders Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid at giant working-class demonstrations in Glasgow. Read the rest of this entry »
The death this morning of Tony Benn is sad news, and all of us here mourn the passing of an honourable (if sometimes misguided) man who sincerely believed he stood for socialist principles.
In the late 1970s and throughout the ’80s Benn was an invaluable asset to the working class and the serious left. Paradoxically , it was later in his career, when he left parliament to “concentrate on politics” (in fact becoming a “national treasure”) that his politics went badly off the rails and he fell in with filthy, reactionary “anti imperialist” shysters like Galloway, German and Rees. Workers Liberty wrote this open letter to him in October 2005. Note that despite their gloves-off criticism of his utterly foolish softness on Saddam and Aziz, the authors acknowledge and pay respect to his role “as a fighter after 1979 against the Labour establishment”:
Dear Tony Benn
You have put your name to a petition on behalf of Saddam Hussein’s deputy Tariq Aziz. You have by now probably seen the newspaper reports that Tariq Aziz will give evidence against his old boss at Saddam Hussein’s trial — evidence that, among other things, Saddam Hussein gave orders for mass murder.
Tariq Aziz had to be there, that is, complicit in Saddam Hussein’s crimes against the peoples of Iraq, in order to be able to testify to such things. We will see what happens at the trial. But no-one has to wait for the trial to know who and what Tariq Aziz is. Yet you put your name to Galloway’s petition.
You, Tony Benn, unlike your co-signatories such as George Galloway have in the last 25 years been a man of the serious, class struggle left. Not infrequently we have disagreed with you on important questions.
But, comrade Benn, you are seriously out of place amidst the other signatories on Galloway’s petition on behalf of his friend Tariq Aziz. We say that not forgetting that on the eve of the US-British attack on Iraq you went to Baghdad and interviews Saddam Hussein in such a soft and accommodating way that the result, broadcast on British TV, was a “party political broadcast” for Saddam Hussein. Read the rest of this entry »
By Sean Matgamna and Martin Thomas (from the Workers Liberty website):
In the small hours of Monday March 12 1984, hundreds of Yorkshire miners moved across the border from Yorkshire into Nottinghamshire. Their destination was Harworth pit, and by the evening shift they had picketed it out.
Over the next few days, hundreds of Yorkshire pickets came down over the border again and spread out across the Notts coalfield. Their mission was to persuade Nottinghamshire’s miners to join them in a strike to stop the pit closures announced by the National Coal Board chief, Ian MacGregor. Their tactic was to picket Notts to a standstill.
In the great miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, miners had picketed coke depots and power stations. In 1984, for reasons which we examine, it had to be miners picketing out miners. That fact dominated and shaped the course of the strike.
Within hours, 1000 extra police had been thrown into Nottinghamshire against the picketing miners. Within days there would be 8000 extra police – highly mobile, centrally-controlled, semi-militarised police -moving – around the coalfields of Nottinghamshire.
The state had spent a dozen years preparing for this strike and everything had been made ready. Plans to beat mass picketing had been refined; police had been trained; special equipment had been assembled; and a national police nerve centre had been prepared and readied for action.
The Tory government had manoeuvred for years to avoid a premature battle with the miners. In 1981 sweeping pit closures were announced, and then withdrawn when a wave of strikes swept the coalfields. The Tories were determined that the battle would come when the government was ready and thought the time right. In 1981 they weren’t ready. The labour movement had not been softened up enough. So Thatcher backed off from a showdown with the NUM.
In 1984 they were ready. Now they would provoke the miners to fight back by giving them the alternative of surrendering and letting the NCB do as it liked with the industry. Read the rest of this entry »
Between the 1930s and 1950s the revolutionary socialist (ie Trotskyist and, later, Shachtmanite) press in the USA made use of the wit and skill of talented cartoonists such as ‘Carlo’ (Jesse Cohen). In an Era of Wars and Revolutions, a new collection of their work, gives a snapshot history of the times: the rise of the mass industrial union movement in the USA, the great strike wave of 1945-6, the fight against ‘Jim Crow’ racism, World War Two, the imposition of Stalinism on Eastern Europe, and more.
Sean Matgamna (editor of In an Era of Wars and Revolutions) writes:
That “one picture can be worth a thousand words” is true, but only up to a point. A photograph or a painting cannot properly nail down, explain or explore ideas. A complicated piece of writing has no visual equivalent.
Yet a well-done cartoon is a powerful political weapon. A few bold strokes by an artist can convey an idea more vividly and fix it more firmly in the viewer’s mind than would an editorial or an article.
A cartoon is drawn to convey an idea, a point of view, an interpretation of what it depicts, and its meaning. Cartoons by their nature simplify, caricature, exaggerate, lampoon, and play with archetypal images.
A cartoon is highly subjective, yet it draws on commonly recognised symbols. The image, idea, interpretation fuse in the drawing. Drawn to convey an idea of people, things, institutions, classes, states, and of their inter-relationships, a cartoon distills the artist’s conception of what is essential in those people, events, entities, institutions, relationships.
The cartoonist is licensed to distort everyday reality so as to bring out a view, a “seeing”, analysis, critique, historical perspective of it. Its ciphers, emblems, archetypes vary to allow for the artist’s individual slant (like, in this collection, Carlo’s characteristic rendition of the top hat-fat archetypical bourgeois laughing at the gullibility or helplessness of workers).
All of a cartoon, all its details and references, are consciously or subconsciously chosen to convey a point of view, a nailed-down perception, a historical perspective. In old socialist cartoons the worker is always bigger and stronger than his enemies. He needs only to be awakened to an awareness of his strength.
It is almost always a “he”. The socialists who drew these cartoons were, themselves and their organisations, militant for women’s rights, but little of that is in their work.
One of the difficulties with old socialist cartoons for a modern viewer is that the stereotype-capitalist wears a top hat and is stout or very fat. In some early 20th century British labour movement cartoons he is named, simply, “Fat”. Fat now, in our health-conscious days, is seen as a characteristic of lumpenised workers and other “lower orders” people.
Much contemporary comedy is a hate-ridden depiction of the poor, the disadvantaged, the excluded, the badly educated, by physical type – fat and slobby. Where most of the old racial and national caricatures have been shamed and chased into the underbrush, no longer tolerable to decent people of average good will, the old social-Darwinian racism against the poor is rampant still, unashamed and not often denounced.
Even so, the old symbols, the fat capitalist and the big powerful worker, are still intelligible. They depict truths of our times as well as of their own. These cartoons still live.
They portray US politics, governments, the class struggle, the labour movement, America’s “Jim Crow” racism, Stalinism at its zenith, Roosevelt’s New Deal, Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal”, Senator Joe McCarthy, McCarthyism. They present clean and stark class-struggle socialist politics, counterposed to both capitalism and Stalinism.
A few are from the 1920s, but mainly they cover the quarter century after the victory of Hitler in Germany in 1933. and the definitive consolidation of Stalinism in the USSR.
Across the decades, they still carry the emotional hostility to the master class and solidarity with their victims that they were drawn to convey; the socialists’ abhorrence of the Stalinist atrocities that discredited and disgraced the name of socialism (they themselves were often among the targets); the desire, hope and drive for a re-made world — a socialist world. They blaze with anger and hatred against the horrors of America’s all-contaminating Jim Crow racism.
These cartoons were of their time, and what their time and earlier times led socialists to expect of the future. They were often mistaken. Government repression during World War Two was less fierce than the severe persecution of socialists and militant trade unionists in World War One and afterwards, led them to expect.
In the later 1940s, like most observers, they saw World War Three looming. In fact, the world settled into a prolonged “balance of terror” after Russia developed an atom bomb in 1949 and the USA and Russia fought a proxy war on Korean soil which ended in stalemate. The economic collapse which the experience of the 1930s led them to expect did not come (though in fact the long capitalist upswing took off only with the Korean war boom of 1950-3). Plutocratic democracy in the USA, during the war and after it, proved far less frail than the Marxists feared it would.
Over many years I have collected photocopies of these cartoons, buried as they were in files of old publications for six, seven or eight decades. I think others will be moved by them too.
What Peadar Kearney wrote fifty years after their time of the Fenians, the left-wing Irish Republicans of the 1860s and 70s, speaks to the socialists of the era covered by this book as well:
“Some fell by the wayside
Some died ‘mid the stranger,
And wise men have told us
That their cause was a failure;
But they stood by old Ireland
And never feared danger.
Glory O, glory O,
To the bold Fenian men!”
“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.