Adrian Leftwich: His life reconsidered

Jonathan Katzenellenbogen says the academic's intellectual achievements outweigh his earlier disgrace

Obituary: Adrian Leftwich

When I left South Africa in the mid-1970s to study politics at the University of York in England, the reaction from some old liberals was "oh Adrian Leftwich is there".  I knew the story about how he had turned state evidence resulting in jail and exile for his associates in a bombing campaign aimed against infrastructure. The implication was don't have anything to do with him.

In early April this year Leftwich died of lung cancer at the age of 73. His South African past haunted him, but he should best be remembered for his large contribution to a successful challenge to international orthodoxy on development.

In my first year at York I occasionally saw this fit looking guy with large glasses, wearing corduroy pants and a heavy round-neck pullover, carrying a squash racquet about the Politics Department.

I ended up taking all of his courses and they were all superb. His Politics of Change course was the most stimulating of my years as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. It took one through a swath of world history dealing with the English Civil War and Act of Settlement, the American Civil War, the French Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the late industrialization of Germany and the rise of fascism, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, colonialism, and development. The key text was Barrington Moore's, "Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Lord and Peasant in the making of the modern world."

We were captivated by Leftwich's ability to draw on different disciplines and show us politics and history on a grand scale, yet not be as arrogant and simplistic as the dogmatic Marxists that heavily populated UK politics faculties in the 1970s. There were a few Marxist texts used in his courses, but the texts were eclectic, and he occasionally brought in speakers from the World Bank.  By the end of the course we did not really know much about his politics as his teaching method was Socratic.

We knew he was a Guardian reader and basically a liberal social democrat, but little else.  All the students in my class, as did those in future generations, saw his great zeal in teaching, his sound reasoning, and remembered his deep voice that easily filled a roomand the encouragement he offered. He often ended his emails to students and colleagues with "stay curious".

I moved on to a graduate course, but intermittently kept in touch with him. He always replied quickly and would introduce me to other former students with similar interests. After years of no contact I emailed him last year after seeing him mentioned. "Fab to hear from you," he replied and suggested we have lunch when he was in London the following month. We never did. He developed a persistent chest problem in August, and by November had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and in early April this year he passed away.

The "celebration of the life of Adrian Leftwich" was held on a chilly early Spring Sunday in late April in York. Although Jewish by birth, but not religious conviction, he had arranged a humanist officiant to conduct the service. After more than three years of wandering since his one-way ticket from South Africa in 1965 that was part of his deal with the prosecutors for turning state evidence, Leftwich taught at the University of York for over 40 years. He had retired two years ago as a senior lecturer and become an honorary fellow.

In the foyer of the hall where the memorial service was held were pictures of Leftwich in the early 1950s in SACS junior teams and the school's Afrikaans choir. There were pictures of him in various Rondebosch Boys High rugby teams, and then in the early 1960s pictures of him on the UCT SRC and as President of NUSAS. Those who knew him at UCT saw the same smile, generosity of spirit, energy, and charisma in his later years.

Prior to his death Leftwich arranged the order of service for his own memorial. It began with the South African national anthem, with Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika and Die Stem being played in full. Leftwich's two children asked one of his closest friends since NUSAS days, Adrian du Plessis, to speak about their father's African Resistance Movement (ARM) days as they said it was so much about who he was. Leftwich was an early member of the group that embarked on bombing campaign against public installations, not human life.

Leftwich was a liberal party member and among the founders of the ARM. Being a liberal in South Africa in the 1960s meant opposing the National Party's authoritarianism and fearing of what would develop in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre. Liberals also fretted that the ANC was  heavily infiltrated by Communists that its triumph could result in totalitarianism. Liberals believed in free markets to varying extents, free speech, free elections, and importantly one-man one vote. The NP and the SACP did not believe in any of the above.

The ARM was something unique in that it was a movement of liberals who had turned radical and embarked on a bombing campaign. While some of the members of the African Resistance Movement might have been Communists, Leftwich was not among them. The campaign was aimed at infrastructure and avoiding human injury. There was no connection between Leftwich and the bomb left by Harris at Johannesburg station in l964 that killed a woman and injured many. The South African experience is almost certainly the reason Leftwich taught politics and focused on development issues.

In "I gave the names" a highly eloquent piece of confessional writing published in 2002 in the British literary magazine Granta on how he had betrayed friends, Leftwich writes of how he so sorely missed the Cape.  In spite of his overriding thoughts about South Africa and the frequent examples he used from southern Africa in his writing, he only returned twice for brief work visits since his one-way ticket in 1965. His return to Cape Town in 2006 on work was more than a decade after he could have done so in 1994. Clearly, coming back was extremely painful.

Those who counted had forgiven him. Stephanie Kemp who spent a year in prison as a result of Leftwich's testimony, the author Hugh Lewin who spent seven years in jail, and Eddie Daniels who spent 15 years in prison forgave him. Hugh Lewin wrote a book "Stones Against the Mirror: Friendship in the Time of the South African Struggle" about how he came to reconcile with Leftwich. Yet, Leftwich was excluded and vilified by many South African liberals and the left.

 "They tended not to have spent time in detention in front of the Special Branch. People forget that the list of people who broke down is very long, I knew where he was coming from," says a friend of Leftwich's who spent time in detention and later fled the country for being a member of a liberation movement.

Leftwich should be better remembered for his intellectual leadership in helping bring politics back into thinking about development. than his public breakdown at  the age of 24.  Rather than about financing and technical solutions, development was fundamentally about politics, Leftwich urged.

Contrary to the prevailing western orthodoxy in the early 1990s, he believed that democracy and market systems did not always provide necessary and sufficient conditions for development, and indeed there could be development without these in place. He believed the market mechanism worked for development, but only if there was institutional capacity. Above all, he believed that it was local leadership and the way people and groups played the political game that mattered.

Leftwich's book "States of Development, On the Primacy of Politics in Development" established him as an expert  on the "developmental state- a concept that which Chalmers Johnson had first applied to understanding the role of the Ministry of International Trade and Investment in the Japanese post-war miracle. "Politics matters because politics shapes states, and states shape development," he wrote. He took the view that, "getting the politics right is developmentally prior to getting the prices right."

For Leftwich politics was not only about government and who is up and who is down, but about the, "activities of conflict, negotiation and compromise wherever and whenever human beings in groups have to take decisions about how resources are to be used, produced, and distributed."

Years of aid funding for developing countries had more failures than successes to show. Leftwich believed that the missing factor was the failure to consider local politics and leadership in development. Economists focus on incentives - getting the prices right in development, but Leftwich proposed that while incentives work where they are straightforward, these have less of an effect where there are complicating factors at play such as power.

He had advised the World Bank, the UK's Department for International Development, and the Asia Foundation in the US on how to consider political factors in development policies. For the past four years Leftwich had been the Research Director of the Developmental Leadership Program, DLP, a think tank financed by the Australian government's development agency, AUSAid.  

One part of getting the politics right are the grand political settlements - such as the English Act of Settlement which by laying down the basis for respect of private property and constraints on the monarchy paved the way for the industrial revolution. Leftwich tried to get across the ideas that the political settlement approach could also be applied on the local level or to sectors of an economy or an issue.

Since the end of the Cold War the large aid agencies have been freer to consider whether the politics are right for aid to be successful. However, Leftwich felt that the tools of political economy analysis that have had been adopted by some aid agencies had failed to come to come to grips with the role of local leaders and what drives change.

He was interested in how local leaders, elites and coalitions might work to bring forward an environment conducive to development. Part of this lies in understanding how an advantage might be taken of crisis, or a critical juncture and how room for maneuver might arise despite institutional constraints on change. He felt, it is not only the formal institutional processes that mattered but the informal ones as well. While the institutional frameworks are important, he increasingly saw the choices and actions of individuals, groups, and organizations as critical. How and under what conditions do these agents emerge and how are they helped to emerge, and what shapes the success of their efforts were some of the concerns. Leftwich was increasingly interested in what lay behind the emergence of leadership that put the public good first.

These were subjects to which the traditional literature on development policy paid little attention. "There is simply no alternative to understanding, in detail, who the players are,  what they do, where they come from, their organizational affiliations, networks, ideologies, and interests and the political dynamics of the issue or sector," he recently wrote. It was really all about the "detailed inner politics of regimes, sector, or issue areas," he wrote.

Measures to support democratization and improve governance, which large agencies have increasingly funded in recent years, were a recognition that politics. However, Leftwich argued that these neglected the role of local leaders and organizations, and ultimately good governance could only be sustained through the political process.

In reading the widely acclaimed "Why Nations Fail. The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty" by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson that was published last year, I kept asking myself why is Leftwich not mentioned. To a large extent the book was a recast of much of what was in Barrington Moore's classic. The reason neither he nor Leftwich were mentioned was probably because economists don't talk to political scientists. In a review Leftwich praised the book in identifying the types of institutional characteristics that have facilitated growth. However, he wrote that they had neglected the political paths by which leaders and agents have brought about developments. Key was finding where the blockages lie in a political process and where there might be room for maneuver by leaders within existing political realities.

Although much of what he wrote about development was highly relevant to South Africa, Leftwich, did not comment on contemporary affairs in the country despite the talk by government in recent years on the "the developmental state".  In States of Development, first published in 2000, he said it was too early to predict, but the signs were that SA was  "a non-developmental democracy" as the pressures to redistribute, grow, and maintain foreign investment and political stability were all too difficult given the nature of the class and ethnic settlement. His absence from active participation in the discussion on South Africa can only be attributed to his earlier vilification.

Leftwich wrote about a variety of subjects. His books for undergraduates have become widely used texts for politics students in the UK and other countries. "Writing Essays" was first published as internal document for the York politics department, but has since become widely used elsewhere and is now in its fourth edition.

Essay writing, he wrote involved, "the skills of independent thinking, research, evaluation, critical analysis, coherence of argument and clarity of presentation." Good practice on essay writing was the old preacher's advice on constructing a good sermon ‘Tell ‘em what you are going to tell ‘em; then tell ‘em what you've got to tell ‘em; then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.'

Another of his publishing successes was "What is Politics", a book which he edited and to which he contributed. It was first published in 1984 and then again in 2004 and has gone through 11 reprints since.

He also wrote for the monthly British magazine Prospect about the challenges of being a single father to two young children. Leftwich was thrice divorced and won custody of the children from his third wife. What irked him, he wrote in Prospect, was constantly running up against the assumption that women are the best in raising children. His son Benjamin Francis Leftwich is a well known singer songwriter and his daughter Maddy is an anthropology student at the London School of Economics.

In Granta, Leftwich wrote that the events of 1964 "would always be part of my present" because of his feelings of guilt and anxiety. Given his real commitment to development and ultimately coming to grips with poverty, his proper epitaph should really be " Political Scientist and Idealist".

 Adrian Leftwich: 24 March 1940 - 2 April 2013

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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