No gods, no masters: A reply to Andile Mngxitama
Over the past few months, a range of personas have been projected onto Julius Malema. He has been called everything from South Africa's Robert Mugabe to Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler and Thomas Sankara. Now he has become the reincarnation of chairperson Mao Tse-Tung.
All these absurd comparisons aside, how did Malema become Mao'lema? If you had read Andile Mngxitama, the Economic Freedom Fighters' commissar for land and agrarian reform, in the Mail & Guardian last week, you will have gotten a pretty interesting account of how Malema has become the master of the people's aspirations.
The piece recounts a "magical moment" at the EFF manifesto launch where a portrait of Malema transformed him into the persona of Mao. According to Mngxitama, this reconstitution of thousands of Fighters into a single force in Mao'lema's image, far from idolatry, is necessary because the function of a leader, or "master", will simplify the complex into black and white thereby unifying the masses. We need a "Margaret Thatcher of the Left" is Mngxitama's re-quoting of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. He also cites French philosopher Alain Badiou in support of this concept. The idea is that revolutionaries must not fear their leader but be ready to rally behind him.
Pic by Xcollectiv
The problem is not merely in his laughable misrepresentation of Badiou who actually speaks of the "master" from a psychoanalytic perspective and advocates for collective action against the concept of the party-state as being representative of the people. To quote Badiou: "We know today that all emancipatory politics must put an end to the model of the party, or of multiple parties, in order to affirm a politics 'without party'." (Incidentally, Badiou has an interesting critique of the Chinese cultural revolution and the problematic "cult of personality" that emerged around chairperson Mao).
What is really dangerous however, is that Mngxitama fails to acknowledge the function of state power in our society and how it works to usurp and ultimately contain the aspirations of the people. There were a litany of disasters perpetrated by the authoritarian left during the last century which shows how important it is to break away from personality cults and statism.
We need to leave behind the authoritarian tendencies of some European philosophers such as Žižek (though anti-authoritarian European theorists abound) and acknowledge the many contributions of African revolutionaries who critiqued this problematic reliance on leftist vanguardism.
One of those intellectuals and revolutionaries is Frantz Fanon whose name Mngxitama helped bring into the EFF – a political party that now claims to be "Marxist-Leninist Fanonian".
The EFFs founding manifesto adopted July 27 2013, begins with an often-cited Fanon quote: "Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it". The manifesto is a clear – if not concise – explanation of what it stands for as a revolutionary movement seeking radical change. Its seven pillars include impressive goals such as land expropriation without compensation, nationalisation, the abolishment of government tenders and free quality education. These are ideals that have been immortalised in the Freedom Charter and which EFF, through its seven founding pillars, wants to see actualised.
Yet, Frantz Fanon did not stand merely for this kind of revolutionary nationalism. His most famous book, Wretched of the Earth, warns against the process by which a solely nationalist politics destroys revolutionary movements by bringing them under the sway of the nationalist bourgeois which, while its using radical rhetoric, ultimately wants a chance to enter into the spoils of capitalism through the process of nationalisation. Once this nationalist programme is accomplished, this grouping remains reliant on foreign capital and imperialism to maintain its class dominance. To quote from Wretched of the Earth:
"The behaviour of the national landed proprietors is practically identical with that of the middle classes of the towns. The big farmers have, as soon as independence was proclaimed, demanded the nationalisation of agricultural production. Through manifold scheming practises they manage to make a clean sweep of the farms formerly owned by settlers, thus rein-forcing their hold on the district."
In other words, a land redistribution programme for blacks, as Fanon warned, was in this case not being used to return the land to all its original inhabitants, but merely to a small clique of nationalist party elites.
It seems that Malema is already speaking to "foreign investors", including JP Morgan, to assure them that he was not talking wholesale redistribution. BusinessDay reported that "Mr Malema said the meeting also served to dispel the notion that his party was hostile towards western investors."
To Fanon, going beyond a politics rooted in the narrow concept of nationalism and national consciousness was essential for any post-liberation era, otherwise revolutionary movements will be continually co-opted back into capitalism by elite nationalists.
This is why Fanon was so wary of the hero leader. He saw in that figure the destruction of independent thinking and the seizure of responsibility for the revolution from the people's hands and into the clutches of an all-knowing master. He warned that:
"We must not cultivate the spirit of the exceptional or look for the hero, another form of leader…[P]olitical education means opening up the mind, awakening the mind, and introducing it to the world. It is as Cesaire said "To invent the souls of men." To politicise the masses is not and cannot be to make a political speech. It means driving home to the masses that everything depends on them, that if we stagnate the fault is theirs, and that if we progress, they too are responsible, that there is no demiurge, no illustrious man taking responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people and the magic lies in their hands alone."
Yet, instead of building a programme led by those that white supremacist capitalism have "damned", Mngxitama wants poor blacks to put all their faith in Mao'lema, not to fear him or challenge his policies, and by extension not to challenge his self-proclaimed right to lead.
If Mngxitama is worried that challenging the leader sows disunity, he might find Fanon's view on revolutionary unity to be quite different: "This is why we must understand that African unity can only be achieved through the upward thrust of the people, and under the leadership of the people."
Mngxitama used to be a self-proclaimed anarchist and autonomist. In fact, only four years ago, he wrote that Steve Biko would not participate in electoral politics at all because "Biko's politics at the time of his death ran fundamentally in a different direction to what is being offered by the electoral process today, a process predicated on the preservation of our racist state." It is curious, to say the least, to see him now citing Žižek in support of an ultra-authoritarian political vision.
Mngxitama has also shifted his position on Malema in equally dramatic fashion. In 2011, in a piece in which he confuses Fanon with Amilcar Cabral, he wrote that Malema was a comprador, "an opportunist who raised [real] issues, not to solve them, but to trick the poor" and was "another ruthless politician …. who uses words to deceive". Today he hails Malema in messianic terms.
Either Mngxitama's ideas have changed radically in the last few years or he has altered his principles to fit his new political opportunities.
Either way, he would do well to re-read Chapter Three of Wretched which Fanon aptly titled: "The Pitfalls of National Consciousness".