The Thoreau Answer

The story goes that when Henry David Thoreau’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, came to visit Thoreau after he was jailed for refusing to pay taxes in protest against slavery, Emerson asked his friend, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau’s reply: “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

That’s what pops into my mind when I read the various attacks on Nelson Mandela for his ties to the Communist Party, the latest of which is Bill Keller’s in the New York Times:

Perhaps the most important and lasting personal effect of the South African Communist Party on Mandela was that it made him, or helped make him, a committed nonracialist. The A.N.C. in its formative years admitted only blacks. For a long time, the Communist Party was the only partner in the movement that included whites, Indians and mixed-race members. That relationship is one of the main reasons Mandela cited for his rejection of black nationalism and his insistence that multiracialism remain at the heart of the A.N.C. ethic.

A third reason the Communist affiliation matters is that it helps explain why South Africa has not made greater progress toward improving the lives of its large underclass, rooting out corruption and unifying a fractious populace. The many failures of the A.N.C. during its 19 years in power can be explained by the fact that it has never fully made the transition from liberation movement to political party, let alone government. The Communist Party is as culpable in that as anyone, but I think what incapacitates the A.N.C. is not Stalinist doctrine, or any doctrine for that matter. It is something in the nature, the culture, of liberation movements. United by what they are against, they tend to be conspiratorial, to discourage dissent, to prize ends over means.

In the end, of course, the greatest favor Communism performed for Mandela and the A.N.C. was collapsing. Once the Soviet bloc had disintegrated and China had gone capitalist, the last white rulers of South Africa could no longer pose as necessary allies on the right side of the Cold War. They knew the game was up.

Of course, Keller is quick to say that “The A.N.C. in its formative years admitted only blacks,” and that “[for] a long time, the Communist Party was the only partner in the movement that included whites, Indians and mixed-race members.” He fails to mention that almost the entire Republican Party and conservatives in general also supported South Africa’s apartheid government — just as, in the 1960s, Southern whites and others who opposed the civil rights movement constantly accused Martin Luther King, Jr., of being a communist and pointed out the involvement of the left (all members of the Communist Party in their minds) while ignoring the obvious fact — laughable if it hadn’t been so disgraceful — that it was those “communists” who were supporting freedom while white racists championed racial segregation, persecution, terror, and oppression.

Keller’s sole mention of the U.S.-South Africa alliance prior to Congress’s historic 1986 vote to impose sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid government — “Once the Soviet bloc had disintegrated and China had gone capitalist, the last white rulers of South Africa could no longer pose as necessary allies on the right side of the Cold War. They knew the game was up.” —  manages to elide the U.S. right’s virulent support for South Africa’s apartheid government and suggest the alliance was somehow a delusion on their part that the U.S. needed to indulge in order to slay the wicked Communists.

Too bad we didn’t try to slay them by putting ourselves on the right (as in correct) side of history, instead of courting the most vicious evildoers and letting the so-called bad guys do the good that we might have done. And all in the name of capitalism, which this country has for too long confused with freedom:

Marx was never, of course, a bad guy.  He was just a guy who saw the problems of capitalism and we live in a society that — for decades — has been unwilling to question capitalism.

But now we live with the “rewards” of  capitalism, the most notable being increasing economic inequality and a declining participation in our civic life.

… We could use some respect for the Marx considered so “evil” by capitalist purists now that we know  more about capitalism and oppression. As Keller notes, … Mandela found communism useful at one point in his struggle on behalf of… no, not himself as capitalism would teach, but of others.  Of other people.  For the sake of the common good. Some call it Christianity.

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