Shifting the Ground of Radical Reason

The primary challenge for the left today is to break with its elitism.

By Richard Pithouse · 11 Dec 2014

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Picture: Dragaholic
Picture: Dragaholic

For some time now much of the left has either been alienated from actually existing popular mobilisation or unable to make and sustain productive connections with it. But the emergence of new forces to the left of the ANC, forces with money, a national reach, easy access to the media and, in the case of NUMSA, an established and organised membership, is generating fresh optimism.

However, the old fantasy that history will, in time, reward radical patience sometimes functions to prevent serious reflection on praxis, including attempts to think the singularity of the here and now. As French philosopher Alain Badiou observed some years ago, “When the content of a political statement is a repetition, the statement is rhetorical and empty. It does not form part of thinking…True political activists think a singular situation.” Some political principles have a universal dimension, but the demands of practice are seldom stable.

For many forms of leftism the social question is essentially a matter of the struggle between labour and capital, between those who work and those who expropriate the work of others. For crude forms of Marxism, this struggle will be resolved when an enlightened vanguard attains state power and nationalises industry in the name of workers who are taken to stand in for the people as a whole. One of the more obvious limits of this perspective, which has been theorised in a variety of ways over the years, is that oppression is a national as well as a social question in South Africa.

Another limit to the more crude forms of Marxism is that in a context of mass unemployment and sustained struggle in urban communities, the implicit reduction of the primary subject of emancipatory political action to the worker and the primary site of political action to the workplace is inadequate to the realities of our time. An allied point is that given that women often make up the majority of the people engaged in community struggles, the need to take a critical distance from the domination of men and of masculinist conceptions of the political, that are often common in both nationalist and trade union politics, is a strategic as well as an ethical necessity.

But something that is not spoken about enough is that if there is any prospect for the state to discipline or even displace capital in the interests of society rather than a rival elite, it would have to develop a form that is very different to that which it currently takes.

Actually existing forms of state ownership, like Eskom, raise serious questions about the easy conflation of state and society in some of the cruder versions of both nationalist and socialist sloganeering. As the bitter disappointments for the left over the last hundred years have shown again and again, the state cannot be used to subordinate capital to society if it is not itself subordinated to society - and this process is unlikely to have generally emancipatory outcomes if powerful democratising forces have not been developed within society.

Our state form is liberal in principle but its actually existing form includes increasingly predatory and violent aspects. It operates in a manner that is far more conducive to the use of authoritarian strategies to manage our crisis - a process that is already underway - than any attempt to resolve our crisis via an expansion of democracy.

This is not simply consequent to who controls the commanding heights of the state. Already the higher reaches of government are unable to contain local power brokers who are able to capture and distort state projects for their own purposes. In some parts of the country these local elites, whose wealth and power is tied far more closely to the state than to capital, and who are sometimes experienced as people’s most immediate oppressors, have an independent capacity for violence.

We cannot, as the ideology of civil society assumes, hope to deal with the problems of the actually existing nature of the state by simply posing an opposition between it and society. The middle classes are, in the main, entirely unmoved by the routine murder of impoverished people at the hands of the state. Moreover it is not unusual for institutions like, say, the media, which are quick to assume their democratic virtue, to express the most base forms of irrational hostility towards people who are poor and black. This is especially evident when people have placed themselves outside of the order that structures their oppression, be it in spatial, symbolic or directly political terms.

And the entanglement of society and the state is not, as some forms of Marxist thought assume, undone with a quick nod to class analysis. Public sector workers are often among the most committed supporters of the state as it actually functions. In some cases, they have a direct interest in enabling it to function as a tool for social predation. When popular organisation does emerge in the zones of subordination and exclusion and is not crushed by the state, or captured by civil society and its generally undemocratic politics of donor supported and self-authorised claims to representation, it is frequently drawn into local structures of patronage that enable its leaders to join those who profit from the capture of local development in exchange for policing those who do not.

Moreover, at all levels of society there are deeply conservative responses to our escalating social crisis. They are often gendered and are often complicit with the reproduction of a violent and exclusionary social order.

Building democratising social power in society, the transformation of the state into an instrument of society and the subordination of capital to the state are political tasks that require social forces of a quality and scale that are not yet in existence.

There is already something of a discussion about what it would take for the left to attain sufficient scale to become a significant actor. It has, for instance, been noted that there needs to be a principled opposition to the crippling sectarianism, sometimes animated by an authoritarian instinct that rivals that of the state, that is willing to mobilise the most gross forms of dishonesty, along with, on occasion, outright intimidation, to try and supress independent thought and ruin forms of actually existing organisation and mobilisation that it cannot rule.

It has also been noted that the dogmatism, which is often present on the left, is a barrier to the project of developing political ideas and practices adequate to the historical moment. As Uruguayan journalist and political theorist Raúl Zibechi has argued, when actually existing forms of emancipatory political action do emerge, they do not conform to the conceptions of the political “proposed by the state, academia and political parties”.

A left that is unable or unwilling to take this seriously will never attain a sustained and fruitful connection to actually existing forms of popular struggle and will never be able to become a democratic actor itself.

But it is, above all, the relentless elitism of much of the left that has often consigned it to irrelevance in a period of escalating popular struggle. This elitism also propels significant parts of the left towards the fantasy that trickle-down economics can be successfully opposed with trickle-down politics. In organisational terms it is often expressed via an attraction to the NGO form or an assumption, invariably classed and sometimes raced, that popular organisations should be subordinated to NGOs. This frequently militates against the need to build democratising social power within society.

The primary challenge for the left today is to break with its elitism. As Frantz Fanon declared more than fifty years ago, “We must join [the people] in that fluctuating movement, which they are just giving a shape to…Let there be no mistake about it; it is to this zone of occult instability where the people dwell that we must come.” After all as Badiou insists, “A genuinely emancipatory project asserts that emancipatory politics is essentially the politics of the anonymous masses; it is the victory of those with no names.”

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Barry Saayman
11 Dec

Be Careful What You Wish For...

>>"The primary challenge for the left today is to break with its elitism."

What is actually meant with the term "elitism"?

Most people that are gainfully employed in South Africa, because they have to put food on the table and a roof over the head, form part of the top 2% earners in SA.

The way I see it - ordinary working class individuals employed in the formal sectors of the economy, including NUMSA labour union members, are part and parcel of the South African "elite" and many are deeply conservative and find themselves at odds with our supposedly "liberal" constitution.

The NDR "class struggle" in SA is in fact a a race struggle meant to disallow among others white Anglo American liberals in charge of the economy and in top academic positions their perpetual privileged position on top of the pecking order. These 22 571 odd "white elitists" occupying the top positions in the SA economy apparently gives the SACP?ANC and the other leftist drivers of the racist and seditious NDR the right to discriminate against ordinary white workers. When will this end?

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Bobby Marie
12 Dec


Perhaps the primary challenge of the left is to break with the left itself. Ah, then the space opens to think anew, burden free. How radical is that!

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Rory Verified user
12 Dec

Leadership and Democracy

Any movement if it is to mean anything must be organised into an hierarchy. Traditionally it has always been that the social power embodied in the members of an organisation is handed up the hierarchy to the top most level to be exercised. But if an organisation is to be fully democratic then the social power must remain at the bottom of the hierarchy with the ordinary members . Such a practice would be in direct conflict with the tradition. Is there a solution? For more than 350 years Quakers although organised into hierarchies have operated completely democratically. Thus in any Quaker organisation the ultimate organisational decision making power never leaves the bottom most level of the hierarchy. The left could learn something from Quakers.

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13 Dec

Learning from the Quakers

There are many forms of left wing movements around the world that do operate much like this. South Africa is quite unusual to have a left scene so totally dominate by unelected and unaccountable NGOs.

18 Dec

A left in a mess

So the EFF is now split between those who come out of the Mokaba wing of the ANC and those with roots in Azapo. The Numsa United Front initiative has already flopped.

Not much for the left to look forward to in 2015.

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Dominic Tweedie
8 Jan

'This Article Is Also In The New Age Today

- and the hit-and-miss subs of The New Age scored with their headline: "New cash-flush left may have a future".

The idea of pots of money and "an established and organised membership" (which provides money) at the service of the hitherto frustrated so-called "left" in SA is what is exciting them. This is borne out by the front page article, in the same edition of The New Age, that reports NUMSA General Secretary Irvin Jim's undignified efforts to scrounge even more money in the imperialist USA.

But Richard Pithouse soon leaves the hook in his intro, for the sake of a long, ponderous march through his favoured positions, and the revelation of his complaints. It turns out that he is not so much left, as left out - out of the United Front's leadership, that is.

"Reduction of the primary subject of emancipatory political action to the worker and the primary site of political action to the workplace is inadequate to the realities of our time," says Pithouse.

He means: "I am not a workerist". This puts him at odds with one half of the never-launched NUMSA United Front, at once.

Then: "the crippling sectarianism, sometimes animated by an authoritarian instinct that rivals that of the state, that is willing to mobilise the most gross forms of dishonesty, along with, on occasion, outright intimidation, to try and suppress independent thought and ruin forms of actually existing organisation and mobilisation that it cannot rule."

This can only mean that Pithouse has been badly cut up by one or the other, or more likely both, of the contending factions in NUMSA's misnomer "United Front".

He doesn't like "dogmatism", and he’s not happy with NGOs. It looks like Pithouse took his unique (and sensitive) hide to the United Front - and received a hiding.

Maybe the key to the whole obscure article is that Pithouse is in favour of "the need to build democratising social power".

That's as similar to National Democratic Revolution as makes no difference. Didn't Pithouse realise that the NDR is what all the other NUMSA-followers (as well as, conveniently, following NUMSA’s money) were running away from?

No wonder Pithouse has failed to crack the "elite" of NUMSA's misnomer "United Front".

Elite being the bad word for what is otherwise called "leadership".

P.S.: Why does the phrase "actually existing" occur seven times in this short article? Has anyone got time to explore and explain that?

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11 Jun

Tweedie is a Fantasist

This is all in Tweedie's head. It has no purchase, at all, on reality.