Imagination and Alexander’s “war of manoeuvre”

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In search of a constituency

My view is that Marxists are both a united and a divided group of people. They are people who are inspired to write, speak and act on behalf of class and social interests they perceive to be universal and humane. In the world of words, they are presumably committed to literary endeavours that enhance a better understanding of humanity’s conflicts. Marxists are a politically inspired educated elite, associated with some or other shade or variation of Marxism’s incarnations and reincarnations over two hundred years of its evolution. For the most part, people who view themselves as Marxists invoke the theoretical legacies of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to support their changing views of the world. They tend to view Marxism as a maturing and a developing grid through which to view and to reflect on political, economic and cultural practices. This thesis is primarily written for Marxist intellectuals who are engaged practitioners of their respective crafts as dialectical reasoners. The study is also written for non-Marxists, social democrats and ambivalent socialists, especially those who do not subscribe to the belief that the slippery god of money, Mammon, is here to stay. These two groups of people, not unlike Jean-Paul Sartre, may or may not be immune to the idea that Marxism is an analytical and a conceptual tool “in its infancy”3 .

Imagination and Alexander’s “war of manoeuvre”

Alexander’s life started out in Cradock in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. His formal primary and secondary schooling was in this semi-rural village where Xhosa, Afrikaans and English were the languages of communication and study. He was introduced to German at the Holy Rosary Convent, and on completion of his secondary schooling he left Cradock for the Western Cape to pursue his tertiary studies in German and History at the University of Cape Town (UCT). While at UCT in 1953, as indicated earlier, he became a student associate of the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA), an affiliate of the NonEuropean Unity Movement (NEUM). He describes his induction into his first political association and his impressions of one of the “few people [who] have had such a lasting impact on my life as the late Mrs Fredericks [Minnie Gool]”: As an immature 16–17-year-old student at the University of Cape Town, a ‘country bumpkin’ from Cradock in the Eastern Cape whose command of the English language was always somewhat suspect, these character traits constituted a kind of comfort zone for me.

“Race”, nation and Alexander’s paradox

The Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM or Unity Movement), arguably more clearly than any other political organization in South Africa, developed a concept of non-racialism that theoretically precluded the belief in the existence of “races” making up humanity.15 Unambiguously locating his theses on “race” in the conceptual strides made by Unity Movement thinkers and strategists of the 1940s and the 1950s, Alexander’s paradox, “while there is no such thing as race, there is the reality of racism” (Alexander 1985), became one of his seminal contributions to sociological and political theory. Alexander’s association and mentorship with Minnie Gool, I.B. Tabata, Livie Mqotsi and, at a distance, with Ben Kies, introduced the young academic and revolutionary activist to ways of thinking that not only challenged the presumed and superimposed truths of National Party16 rule.

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History and Alexander’s “war of position”

In the years leading up to Alexander’s embrace of the armed struggle in 1961, that is, in the 1940s and the 1950s, the restrained and understated lexicon of liberation politics represented the outer rim of different worlds that people experienced under the roll-out of apartheid and its systemic ideological predecessor, racism. With the exception of literature produced by theorists aligned to the Communist Party of South Africa, explicit references to Marxism and revolution were judiciously avoided and an overt anti-capitalist vocabulary was absent from the statements, declarations and documentation of political organizations representing the interests of oppressed people. For these organizations, defiance to apartheid rule through nonviolent protests was, to a large extent, politically initiated and co-ordinated by activists aligned to the African National Congress and the Non-European Unity Movement. The ANC organized the oppressed people through racially defined structures while the Unity Movement pursued its defiance to apartheid rule through “non-racial” structures, despite its federalism (see, for example, No Sizwe’s discussion about this in his One Azania, one Nation (1979: 54–57)).

A summary and tentative propositions

Alexander’s encounters with the ideologues, closet Marxists and radical nationalists in the Unity Movement lasted eight years, from 1953 to 1961, three of which he spent in Germany completing a doctorate on the Silesian-born dramatist, Gerhart Hauptmann. During these years, his political imagination was widened and he developed an appreciation for drama and writing about human drama. As mentioned previously, his penchant for the dramatic was inspired by, among other people, Minnie Gool. It was also through his associate membership of the Teachers’ League of South Africa that he learnt and refined his abilities to express himself in the English language, and continue his love for English and German literature that he was introduced to by the Catholic nuns at the school he attended in Cradock, the Holy Rosary Convent. Through the intellectual forums and small debating and reading clubs initiated and run by the Unity Movement in the 1950s, and through his studies at the University of Cape Town, he met Kenneth Abrahams, who came to play an instrumental role in his life, both in terms of the armed struggle in South Africa and in Alexander’s role in drawing up the first constitution of the Ovamboland People’s Organisation (OPO), which later became Swapo of Namibia.

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The 1970s: “Azanian moments” and One Azania, one nation

In 1974 Alexander emerged from Robben Island a changed man, less dogmatic but still a convinced Marxist. On the one hand, the proximities and close associations with his fellow inmates in B-section on the island had instilled in the 38-year-old activist intellectual a desire to study African history, to study languages, to study specific anti-colonial struggles, and to embrace an appreciation of “antagonistic” and “non-antagonistic” contradictions, both in South African society and in its liberation movement. On the other hand, his encounters with Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela had not resulted in an embrace of Congress (African National Congress) political positions. He was less severe in his responses to working with other political traditions, and his focus transmogrified into an orientation towards the advocacy of a national liberation movement and the need to build a united front. A new look at Marxist theory as applied to South African society and a reinterpretation of the “class analysis” needed to lay the foundations of a radical social theory for the lead actors in the revolution being planned and “spontaneously” unfolding in what he considered to be a South African cauldron, and potentially new alliances and regroupings were beckoning.

Table of contents :

  • Acknowledgements
  • Dedication
  • Abstract
  • Acronyms and initialisms
  • Chapter 1: Framing the narratives
    • Introduction
    • Rationale for the study
    • Aim and problem statement
    • Key concepts and published works of Alexander
    • A note on methodology
    • A note on disciplinary readings
    • Limitations and delimitations
  • Chapter 2: Imagination, “race”, nation and history
    • Introduction
    • Literary and organizational-biographical sketch of Alexander
    • In search of a constituency
    • Imagination and Alexander’s “war of manoeuvre”
    • “Race”, nation and Alexander’s paradox
    • History and Alexander’s “war of position”
    • A summary and tentative propositions
  • Chapter 3: Politics, organization, vanguardism and Marxism
    • Introduction
    • The 1950s and 1960s
    • The united front and national liberation
    • The 1970s: “Azanian moments” and One Azania, one nation
    • The 1980s: The National Forum Committee
    • Returning to a different source: The dilemmas of a Wosa moment
    • A summary and tentative propositions
  • Chapter 4: The languages of power and the power of languages
    • Introduction
    • The power of the word
    • The languages of power in South Africa
    • The language of liberation and the paradox of English
    • The black middle class and the language of power
    • The power of languages and the Nhlapo-Alexander proposal
    • Debating Alexander’s proposals
    • A summary and tentative propositions
  • Chapter 5: The imagination of a communist
    • Introduction
    • A savant taking notes
    • From “Socratic dialogues” to a “politics of engagement”
    • The dilemmas of historical materialism
    • Politics and engaging the dialectics of reform and revolution
    • A summary and tentative conclusions
    • References

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Dialogical narratives: Reading Neville Alexander’s writings

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