/ 29 July 2022

New Frame closure: Socialism’s problem remains the socialists

Graphic Forrest Newframe Website 1000px
(John McCann/M&G)

‘As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for socialism is its adherents,” comments George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, his analysis of poverty and the failures of the socialist movement in pre-World War II Britain.

Almost a century later the same reproach could be levelled to the South African “new left”, whose sins have been glaringly on display during the rumpus over the closure of online news platform New Frame.

Orwell was an independent, anti-authoritarian socialist who, partly because of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, was hostile to the Soviet Union and its international camp-followers.

He saw democratic socialism as the only answer to Europe’s deepening economic malaise and the menace of fascism — which then, as now, was groping towards a world system. In Wigan Pier he set out to explore why the mass of ordinary Britons shied away from socialist parties.

Central to his analysis is the political style of middle-class socialists. He describes his horror on surveying an Independent Labour Party meeting in London: “Are these mingy little beasts, I thought, the champions of the working class? … Every person there bore the worst stigmata of sniffish middle-class superiority.”

Left-wing writers, he added, were “completely removed from the working class in idiom and manner of thought”, and addicted to the “grand old socialist sport of denouncing the bourgeoisie”.

“It is strange how easily any socialist writer can lash himself into frenzies of rage against the class to which, by birth or adoption, he almost invariably belongs.”

Orwell sees in the piety of the left, its delight in moral/political one-upmanship, one of its most repugnant features. Workers might come to accept a dictatorship of the proletariat. What they would not accept was “a dictatorship of the prigs”.

In the 21st century, the left perspective has shifted to include heightened concerns about race, the post-colonial South, women’s rights and gender identity. But the tactic of trying to seize the ideological high ground and using ideology to stave off criticism remains pervasive.

The New Frame closure aroused intense controversy because of its shocking suddenness, its perceived lack of transparency, and the suspicion that external forces lay behind it. 

A Daily Maverick article by Rebecca Davis reflected this, prompting a race-fixated tirade by Vashna Jagarnath, the ex-wife and political ally of New Frame editor Richard Pithouse.

Jagarnath wrote, or rather screamed: “White female journalists, one of whom writes for Daily Maverick, is [sic] not content on [sic] trading in grossly racist stereotypes on [sic] Indians, she is happy to add Sinophobia to her already existing problematic politics, including white middle-class feminism.”

What have Davis’s whiteness and feminist views to do with the New Frame imbroglio? Jagarnath’s semi-literate post is a crude dog whistle intended to discredit the journalist without confronting the issues.

It is also sanctimonious hypocrisy. As a former senior lecturer and deputy dean of humanities at Rhodes University, Jagarnath is herself a paid-up member of the petty bourgeoisie.

Like an irate suburban madam, this alleged neo-Maoist once railed on Facebook some years ago about the local Pick ’n Pay’s failure to sell whole chickens on Sundays. She contrived to insinuate race into the complaint — she hashtagged the post #Severewhitemediocrity.

(How much she could have taught the great revolutionaries of the past! One pictures Lenin drafting his famous tract What is to be Done, Burning Questions of our Movement: (1) Attack narrow trade union politics (2) Call for a revolutionary party (3) Demand the sale of whole chickens at all times.)

To be fair, Pithouse never censored articles I submitted for publication, though others accuse him of doing so. But in his replies to Davis and amaBhungane on the New Frame closure, he elevates counter-attack by racial and political smear to new heights.

At one point he accepts full responsibility for the platform’s plummeting readership. But every criticism of his editorial direction is angrily dismissed, usually as the work of a white faction on the New Frame staff. 

Lily-white himself, he appears uniquely immune to the epidemic of racism among his colleagues.

Pithouse’s main target is New Frame’s IT man, Aragorn Eloff, whom he accuses in a lengthy tirade of being a philosophical anarchist who undermined black female board members and tried to seize control of editorial policy.

A Twitter post by Pithouse ally Vijay Prashad that “white-wing anarcho-Trots don’t like funding not going to them” appears to be a sideswipe at Eloff. The meaning of “anarcho-Trot” — an exotic hybrid likened by one sceptic to “a Christian atheist” — is unclear.

Prashad is another parlour Bolshie, “born into affluence” — his phrase — this Marxist commentator attended an elite Indian boarding school and studied at two of America’s most exclusive private colleges, Pomona and the University of Chicago, “Harvard of the Midwest”.

Stiffening staff resistance to the publication of his columns, seen as Chinese and Russian propaganda, became a flashpoint at New Frame.

Pithouse also invokes race to counter claims that the New Frame funder, Caribbean tech billionaire Roy Singham, is a fat-cat operator in the Gupta mould. In a tenuous stretch, he argues that the drawing of parallels is an “intensely racialised” exercise in anti-Indian prejudice, based on Singham’s Indian-sounding name.

Even poor amaBhungane is tarred with “implicit racism”, though it is placed in the mouths of “some people” and (nameless) black journalists, who allegedly query the “monomania” of its focus on state corruption.

Pithouse’s explanation for New Frame’s abrupt demise is that poor and worsening readership figures and exorbitant costs made the four-year project unsustainable. 

It did, indeed, fail to build a reader base. But why was that so suddenly an issue? And why, despite the pleas of some staff, was there no concerted move to make New Frame less ideologically hidebound, more readable and better known? 

From the outset its slogan was “quality not clicks” (not for them the grubby task of winning over readers!) Mere months before the closure was announced, Pithouse told staff there was enough money for 20 more years of publication. What happened?

The working theory among observers is that the shadowy Singham — who gives to left-wing causes — became disillusioned with New Frame and its increasingly uppity staff, and turned off the tap in order to redirect its R34-million annual budget.

Russia’s war in Ukraine, on which Pithouse’s editorial line was at best ambivalent, appears to have been the tipping point. He argues that he had to navigate a “racially fractured” staff response — whites rejected the war, blacks supported it.

Pithouse pats himself on the back for refusing to be dictated to by a white man (Eloff). But whites are a soft target. Why could he not engage black staff over a transparently unjust invasion and, if necessary, lay down the line? 

What the staff felt is not all-important. The editor of a self-proclaimed left-wing publication should have adopted a fitting position on an imperialist war of aggression, which violated international law and was overwhelmingly condemned by the nearest thing we have to a world parliament, the UN general assembly.

The same applies to New Frame’s weak or nonexistent coverage of human rights abuses in Myanmar, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, apparently in deference to China. 

It is not a zero-sum game. The US may be a greater threat to world peace, but that does not justify glossing over deeply undemocratic traditions in the Asian giant and the growing authoritarianism of its rulers.

Orwell argues that the main difference between bourgeois and working-class socialists is that the latter understand socialism is centrally about justice — including, but not confined to, economic justice — and common decency. 

British socialism smelt of crankery and the stupid cult of Russia, rather than “revolution and the overthrow of tyrants”.

Toppling tyrants is not Singham’s thing, either: his mission is geopolitical, concerned with rolling back the global dominance of the West.

If he cared about ordinary working people, he would not be trying to strengthen despots such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. 

And he would not, with cavalier brutality, have thrown the New Frame workforce onto the street, without even the courtesy of the prior consultation required by South African labour law.

Drew Forrest is a former political and deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian and former associate partner of amaBhungane

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.