‘Ordinary People will drive our change’ by Imraan Buccus

10 September 2013

IN THE week when Pretoria University philosophy lecturer Louise Mabille had to resign her post after expressing racist views it was easy to feel depressed about the academic world. But at the same time, as news of Mabille’s disgusting racism was breaking, I had been through one of the most important books I’ve read in years – Gillian Hart’s Rethinking the South African Crisis.

The American university system is probably the best in the world and Professor Hart, who heads the Development Studies Department at Berkeley in California, is the leading scholar of South Africa in that system. Hart, originally from Joburg, also has a long-standing relationship with my own university, UKZN, where she worked closely with trade union cultural activist Professor Ari Sitas for many years. Hart is very much a scholar of the left and she is particularly inspired by the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci who, writing in a fascist prison, tried to rethink radical politics. Before Gramsci it was often assumed that radical political change needed to be led by a small group of enlightened intellectuals (a self-appointed “vanguard”) who would lead the masses to a better future. But Gramsci insisted that “all men (sic) are intellectuals” and focused his analysis on the fact that political systems rely on consent as well as force to sustain themselves.

For Gramsci, social change should be a democratic process rooted in the everyday lives and experiences of the working class. In Gramsci’s analysis it is the understanding of the world developed among the working class that will shape society. Since 1994 the independent left in South Africa has been dominated by Trotskyism. Trotskyism, along with a tendency to sectarianism, is often a highly dogmatic form of leftism and it is always based on the idea that left intellectuals should provide leadership to an unthinking mass. There are some left intellectuals who have followed the more democratic ideas of thinkers such as Antonio Negri and Franz Fanon, but they are a small minority. Hart’s new book is a Gramscian analysis of the South African crisis and this adds a welcome diversity to the debate on our society and its future.

Hart ends her book by warning that the politics of Julius Malema and his cronies is fascist. Others have made this point before but it is the intellectual journey that leads Hart to this conclusion that is so gripping. Her analysis is driven by two concerns. One is the argument that South African capital was able to escape national borders after 1994, and that at the same time as capital escaped the control of a newly democratic nation, there was a rise in nationalist feelings. Hart’s second concern is a critique of the bulk of the independent left in South Africa. Hart argues that the rise in nationalist feeling is rooted in deeply felt memories of oppression. For her, nationalism is something that should be taken seriously, and engaged with. She excoriates the bulk of the left for not taking nationalism seriously. She is also very critical of those parts of the left that have not taken the everyday life of the working class and the poor seriously and which treat the working class and the poor as an unthinking mass requiring leadership from above. For Hart, following Gramsci, effective political movements can only be built when they are based on what others have called a “living politics”– a politics rooted in everyday life and in the ideas and symbolic worlds of the people.

For Hart, again following Gramsci, the left intellectual who talks about abstract ideas such as neoliberalism, finance capital or socialism while treating ordinary people as an “unthinking mass” will never connect to the experiences and thinking of ordinary people. It is only those left intellectuals who take ordinary people’s everyday lives and ideas seriously who will be able to participate in building real movements. The book is not without flaws. As some readers have noted, the section dealing with social movements has quite a few factual errors which should have been picked up at the editing stage. Also, the book keeps stressing Zuma’s popularity but doesn’t deal with the fact that elections and opinion polls show that the ANC’s support has declined under Zuma. Zuma is popular in sections of the ANC, especially here in KZN, but he is not, as Hart implies, popular with South Africans across the board. It is also a pity that she doesn’t give any real attention to those grassroots struggles that have succeeded in building a mass base, or on the thinking of grassroots activists. Her critique of the left seems to be largely a critique of the academic left, which is really quite irrelevant because it has no real connection to grassroots politics. But every book has its limits and Hart has clearly produced the most sophisticated study of the South African crisis, the growing threat of fascism, and the failure of most of the left to connect to popular struggles. She shows, very clearly, that our future will be determined by the form of politics that comes to dominate the rebellion of the poor. This is a book that deserves the widest possible readership.