First Published: Class Struggle, Vol. 9, No. 5, June 1985
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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On March 21st, a League representative spoke at a meeting in the Africa Centre, London, to mark the 25th anniversary of the massacres of Sharpeville and Langa. ’Class struggle’ is printing it now because its major theme has a long term and wide significance, given the fact of the thinking, analyses and strategies of the British ’left’ being dominated by Eurocentrism. The RCL will produce more material arguing this point, and hopes it will become more widely read and discussed.
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We are proud to speak at this historic anniversary. Sharpeville has a deep significance first of all to the people of Azania, but also for all those fighting oppression.
Africa was the birthplace of the first human life, and later of civilised life as well. But the evil colonial system tried to dehumanise Africans, rob them of their history, sever their connection with their own land.
Why? The colonisers wanted to lay their hands on the produce of that land, and turn the people into cultureless slaves. But on the basis of this act of robbery, colonialism also needed an ideology.
Europe used to be just one corner of the world, and a fairly peripheral one in historical terms. Its philosophies, technology etc., drew heavily on the influence of Asia and Africa. But in the colonial era, Europe set itself up as the centre of the world and put together an exploitative system in which other areas were treated as its periphery.
This is an unnatural state of affairs, a brief episode in history which the progressive movement will put an end to. But in order to present this situation as natural and eternal, European and later American society developed a racist myth.
According to this myth, Europe had always been the active force in history and would continue to hold the rest of the world in its orbit, and use it as it saw fit. Hitler did not invent any ideas which had not already been dreamt up by English colonial ’thinkers’.
Any movement to overturn this Euro-American dominance in practice must also, at an ideological level, question the system of ideas which presents this dominance as natural and eternal.
In this respect, the events leading up to Sharpeville – the formation of the Pan Africanist Congress, Mangaliso Sobukwe’s thinking, the Positive Action Campaign reflect a whole process which is of enormous historical importance. The Pass Laws (the target of that campaign) reflect in a very immediate way how Africans were treated as strangers in their own land, as though it naturally belonged to the coloniser. There was a firm break with the sterile approach of begging concessions from the oppressor. Above all, the Azanian liberation struggle emerged early as a movement with its own intrinsic historic logic. It doesn’t need to ask for approval from any outside authority, and the popular masses themselves have the absolute right – which nobody else can grant or take away – to create and develop their own organisations, strategy and tactics in conformity with that historic logic.
This current of struggle has been secure among the Azanian masses through the Soweto uprising and beyond, and has scared the hell out of the reactionaries. So one might expect it to be welcomed enthusiastically by the left movement abroad.
Unfortunately in the industrialised world, and in Britain particularly, the contrary has happened. All too often the Sharpeville experience has been distorted, marginalised and hushed up.
This is disgraceful but not too difficult to explain. The left movement here exists within an overwhelming imperialist climate of ideas. The colonialist view which sees the West as the centre of the world finds its reflection among English leftists, who see themselves in the same light.
This perspective is very deeply rooted. To recognise this does not mean denying the relevance of Marxism. Karl Marx described how exploitation takes place through the appropriation of surplus value, how dead labour – worked up into vast means of production – exercises tyranny over living labour, the sharpening antagonism between a handful of exploiters and the direct labouring masses who are driven deeper and deeper into poverty, how the only way forward is for the oppressed to rise up, smash the chains of this system and create a new, socialist mode of production which really serves the interests of the people.
If we look at today’s world we can see that this same pattern is expressed a hundred times more sharply and on an infinitely greater scale, in the vampire-like system which bears down upon the labouring masses in the oppressed nations of the Third World. Lenin already showed how necessary it is to take this wider view, if we are to understand where the fundamental forces for change are located.
But there is also a certain conception of communism which goes back a very long way in the movement and which embodies a colonialist Eurocentric view-point within it. This trend will need to be rooted out.
It basically does three things. It firstly treats European society and history as a point of reference in imposing external definitions of other societies, so that they are considered ’backward’ or ’stagnant’ if their history doesn’t contain specifically European features, like feudalism. Secondly, it obstinately deals with political economy as though the most important processes are those within or among the industrialised nations, instead of between them and the oppressed nations. It neglects the role played by colonialism and the slave trade and still today played by factors like unequal exchange as an essential and fundamental fact of the capitalist mode of production.
Thirdly, this negative trend peripheralises the oppressed nations politically, treating them as so-called ’reserves’ of the revolution and subordinating their struggles to the supposed interests of the proletariat in the ’advanced’ countries.
This Eurocentric trend turns its back on both the humanity and the scientific spirit which should characterise communism, and shuts its eyes to the realities, to the living essence of human history as a whole.
This Eurocentric trend is a dead weight which needs to be over thrown if we are to make progress in this country. Even if the weight of imperialist ideology is so strong that we could not do this by our unaided efforts, fortunately in the field of revolutionary theory the situation is very healthy. An outstanding body of thinkers and leaders whose names are interwoven with the mass movement has come out of the Third World struggles, thus restoring the universality which should belong to a movement for socialism, and overcoming the alienation of part of humanity from itself which occurred due to colonialism and the slave trade.
But the white ’left’ in this country mostly refuses to recognise all this and persists in its illusions of seeing the world revolving around it – a position where it is in fact peripheralised, at the coat-tails of the imperialist bourgeoisie.
Left-wing racism is a systematic thing: it dictates conditions to the Republican Movement in Ireland and refuses to support the orientation it itself has chosen; it assesses the black uprisings and other black struggles in this country through externally-imposed criteria which are in essence a leftist form of the analyses created by bourgeois sociology. The Azanian question shows this situation with particular clarity. Imperialism not only controls the oppression of the Azanian people but also – here in Britain at least – strongly influences the ideology of the protest movement against that oppression. How convenient!
In the past, political movements in the colonies often used to be led by remote control from the metropolitan countries. Nostalgic for this situation, the left groups are very unhappy about a movement being led by the black people of Azania, and in conformity with their interests. The authentic leaders of the struggle like Sobukwe and Mothopeng are hushed up so that their names are scarcely known over here, and even Steve Biko, one of the great figures of the twentieth century is reduced to a harmless icon and depicted as a victim rather than a maker of history.
Liberal opinion could playa positive role in opposing some abuses, but the ’left’, instead of giving leadership and struggling against the short-comings of the bourgeoisie, in fact reinforces these weaknesses, and insists on imposing their own labels on the Azanian movement. And this in turn creates conditions where the protest movement can be manipulated by those outside forces who also distrust and fear an authentic popular struggle, and whose opposition to western colonial dominance is mainly a reflection of their own great-power ambitions for southern Africa’s rich resources.
The height of this absurdity of this reversal of history, is well illustrated by what happened in London a year ago, when the PAC were prevented from speaking at a meeting on the anniversary of the Sharpeville protest which they themselves had initiated and led. What racist arrogance!
This attempt to distort the history of Sharpeville reflects an inherent colonialist need to appropriate or destroy African history. It is part and parcel of the same trend expressed in the attempts to deny the essentially African character of ancient Egyptian civilisation, to invent a mythical group of whites who built the monuments of Great Zimbabwe, or to pretend that southern Africa was empty when the settlers moved in.
But after all, history is stubborn. The best answer to the distortions can be found in the mass movement in Azania, through Soweto and up to the present. Africa’s history is living! This is a mighty force against racism, for the creation of a truly all-embracing revolutionary movement in which the oppressed peoples play the central creative role. A great storm is brewing, and those who side with the colonisers and express their ideology in a ’left’ form will end up being swept away by it.