Karl Marx and the #RhodesMustFall campaign
South Africa came sharply before the British public in the period immediately before and after Christmas, when the #RhodesMustFall campaign in South Africa acquired national attention as a British issue.
Oriel College - the oldest royal foundation at Oxford University, dating back seven centuries to the beginning of the 14th century, and a beneficiary of major funding from Cecil Rhodes at the end of the 19th century - was challenged by student campaigners whose most prominent leaders are a South African Rhodes Scholar and graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Ntokozo Qwabe, and a 33year-old student from the United States, Brian Kwoba, who writes of himself that he grew up in the United States "as a young African-American male in a single-parent household."
The campaigners demand that a statue of Rhodes on the front of the college standing above High Street be pulled down, as well as a plaque in Oriel College commemorating Rhodes's very major grant of funds to the college. Following a demonstration outside the college, senior Oriel authorities have announced that the plaque will be removed and that it will undertake a six-month consultation on the fate of the statue.
The result has been a very sharp division within Britain and internationally, particularly between the student campaigners and eminent alumni of the university, among them RW Johnson - a former Rhodes Scholar and emeritus fellow of Magdalen College - who compared the demand for removal of the statue in Oxford with the destruction of historical sites such as the Roman ruins at Palmyra in Syria by the jihadis of Islamic State.
I set out my own view in a letter published in a London daily, the Independent, on 26 December, under the heading :"Why fight Rhodes when Mugabe is alive?"
Citing the Independent's report of 24 December on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford, I quoted Brian Kwoba as stating: 'Cecil Rhodes is responsible for stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labour exploitation in the diamond mines and devising pro-apartheid policies.
'The significance of taking down the statue is simple: Cecil Rhodes is the Hitler of southern Africa. Would anyone countenance a statue to Hitler?'
I continued that as "a graduate of Rhodes University in South Africa, a political prisoner in Pretoria and Johannesburg (1964-67) and a former journalist banned from being quoted there for over 20 years, I would have thought a doctoral student who can state that Cecil Rhodes is 'the Hitler' of southern Africa puts in question the intellectual rigour of his Oxford college.
"Rhodes died 113 years ago. Robert Mugabe is still alive. His regime has conclusively been found responsible for 'massacring tens of thousands of black Africans' in the 1980s in the genocidal Gukurahundi campaign against the Ndebele people in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). This crime against the African people remains unaddressed.
"Would Mr Kwoba not show more integrity if his energies were directed against a living horror, not a historical statue?"
Ntokoza Qwabe re-emphasised Brian Kwoba's equation of Rhodes's role in Africa with that of Nazism in a report in the Sunday Times (London, 27 December), in which he was quoted as refusing to condemn the slaughter of civilians in Paris by Islamic State in November and January this year, stating: "I do NOT stand with France. Not while it continues to terrorise and bomb Afrika & the Middle East for its imperial interests."
Describing the Tricolore, the flag of the French republic, as a"violent symbol", he urged that it be removed from British universities. "I would agree with that, in the same way that the presence of a Nazi flag would have to be removed."
There is a very different way of viewing the heritage of the past, however.
Writing from the safety of liberal, parliamentary Britain, no writer in the 19th century did more to create intellectual justification for the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century than Karl Marx, through his advocacy of the alleged progressive character of dictatorship ("dictatorship of the proletariat").
From his family home in London, Marx did however also provide one of the best ways of understanding the subsequent role of Cecil Rhodes in southern Africa.
In his articles on British rule in India, published in the New York Daily Tribune, Marx never minimised its cruelties, rapacity and stupidities. Yet in stark contrast with Zimbabwe, and increasingly too South Africa today - shown in President Zuma's political crisis caused by the sacking of his financial minister, Nhlanhla Nene - modern India is now a rising world economic power, while these are failed or failing states. To his great credit, Marx foresaw in 1853 how India could become potentially the rising economic powerhouse it is today, reflected in the prophetic title of his article "The Future Results of British Rule in India" (22 July 1853).
Passages from two articles by Marx make this clear. In the first of these, he writes:
"England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.
"Then, whatever the bitterness the spectacle of the crumbling of an ancient world may have for our personal feelings, we have the right, in point of history. to exclaim with Goethe:
"Should this torture then torment us
Since it brings us greater pleasure?
Were not through the rule of Timur [i.e. Tamerlane, the leader of the Mongol army]
Souls devoured without measure?"
(Cited by Marx in Goethe's original German, but given here in English translation, from Goethe's Westoestlicher Diwan. An Suleika.)
[Karl Marx, "The British Rule in India", New York Daily Tribune, 10 June 1853, in Karl Marx, Surveys From Exile, Political Writings, Volume 2. The Penguin Marx Library, edited and introduced by David Fernbach. Penguin Books, London, 1972. pp.306-07]
Marx developed his thoughts further in another article the following month:
"I know that the English millocracy intend to endow India with railways with the exclusive view of extracting at diminished expenses the cotton and other raw materials for their manufacturers. But when you have once introduced machinery into the locomotion of a country which possesses iron and coals, you are unable to withhold it from its fabrication.
You cannot maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current want of railway locomotion, and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately connected with railways. The railway system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry.
"This is the more certain as the Hindus are allowed by British authorities themselves to possess particular aptitudes for accommodating themselves to entirely new labour, and acquiring the requisite knowledge of machinery. Ample proof of this fact is afforded by the capacities and expertness of the native engineers in the Calcutta mint, where they for years have been employed in working the steam machinery, by the natives attached to the several steam-engines in the Hurdwar coal districts, and by other instances.
"Mr [George] Campbell himself, greatly influenced as he is by the prejudices of the East India Company, is obliged to avow 'that the great mass of the Indian people possesses a great industrial energy, is well fitted to accumulate capital, and remarkable for a mathematical clearness of head and talent for, figures and exact sciences.' 'Their intellects,' he says, 'are excellent,'
"Modern industry, resulting from the railway system, will dissolve the hereditary divisions of labour, upon which rest the Indian castes, those decisive impediments to Indian progress and Indian power.
"All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people.... But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both. ...At all events, we may safely expect to see, at a more or less remote period, the regeneration of that great and interesting country...."
[Karl Marx, "The Future Results of British Rule in India", New York Daily Tribune, 22 July 1853, in Karl Marx, Surveys From Exile, edited by David Fernbach, op.cit, pp.322-23]
The point here is that probably more than any other individual - and certainly, more prominently than any other person - Cecil Rhodes did in southern Africa what Marx here states was done by the British to "lay down the material premises" for the "regeneration" of India. Rhodes's project of building a railway system stretching "from Cape to Cairo" entirely followed this pattern of technological, industrial and overall economic development which Marx saw as leading to "Indian progress and Indian power", through initiating a "fundamental revolution in the social state" of India.
The economy which developed in southern Africa, and which was handed on a plate to ANC government to manage in 1994, was the most advanced in the whole continent. It has been massively undermined and retarded through misgovernment, creating a totally unnecessary degree of poverty, low-grade education and economic failure in the society as a whole.
This gross political failure is the real problem in South Africa today, not the economic heritage created by the "social revolution" represented by Cecil Rhodes.
The heart of the problem lies in the worst, most defective and least democratic area of the new Constitution: the Electoral Law.
The anonymous author of the article "The hollow state" about South Africa published in The Economist magazine in London two weeks ago (19 December), acutely identified this disabling and undemocratic measure. In its final section headed "Rotting from the top", the article states:
"Given Mr Zuma’s foibles, it is unfortunate that the framers of South Africa’s constitution, for all its checks and balances, granted enormous powers to the president. 'When we wrote the constitution we had in mind figures like Mandela,' says Patricia de Lille, who led the Pan Africanist Congress delegation in talks over the constitution ahead of the 1994 election and is now a leading figure in the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).
"Parliament has also proven toothless, partly as an unfortunate consequence of the transition from white-minority rule. When the constitution was being negotiated, whites worried that they would be swamped in a first-past-the-post system. So instead the country adopted proportional representation. This means that MPs owe their positions to those who draw up party lists, rather than to voters in a constituency. If they annoy the president, they may lose their jobs—and the opportunities for patronage that come with them."
By depriving local voters of any power to choose or get rid of individual MPs and provincial legislators, the Electoral Law created not a democracy but a kleptocracy. So long as the party bosses of the ruling political party - whether it is the ANC, EFF, DA or any other - have the power to remove any of its MPs at a second's notice and replace that person with a clone from the party list, the promise of the Freedom Charter that "The People Shall Govern!" is falsified. The party list system in South Africa is the guarantor of corruption and unaccountability. This is the real meaning of the crisis over Nene's sacking, and the threat of the country being reduced to junk bond status.
The problem of the #RhodesMustFall campaign is that by setting up an absurd token fall guy, it conceals the profound political flaw in the struggle for democracy locked in by the Electoral Law.
In that sense, this campaign is serving a reactionary and not a democratic purpose. The problem is not a statue, or a name, or the Guptas, or even a single political individual (Jacob Zuma) but the failure to create a modern, democratic polity which can hold its rulers to account.