Neville Alexander (1936-2012): struggling against an unfinished revolution

Submitted by AWL on 31 August, 2012 - 3:04

A descendant of East African slaves and an inmate with Nelson Mandela on Robben island, Neville Alexander should best be remembered as perhaps the greatest mind thrown up by the revolutionary left in the South African struggle.

Born in Cradock in what is now the Eastern Cape he became a Marxist early in life through contacts at school and university. He was influenced by Maoism in his early political life and by ideas of importing guerrilla warfare into the South Africa struggle. By the early 1960s Alexander, at the beginning of a decade of imprisonment on Robben Island, had become significantly attracted to the ideas of Trotskyism, particularly after meeting Natalya Sedova, Trotsky’s widow, in Paris during his overseas studies.

During his time in prison and afterwards he developed an analysis of capitalism in South Africa which critiqued and helped to understand how the class struggle was perceived in racial terms and ‘colour-caste relations’. Although this was criticized within the Trotskyist left by theorists such as Hillel Ticktin, Alexander’s attempt to undermine the reactionary role of the race issue in South African liberatory politics led to major insights into what a post-apartheid regime might look like and how activists could create a truly multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, working-class based liberation movement. The failure of the ANC to do this and to challenge capital in the transition from white minority rule in South Africa led to Alexander seeing the transition as an "unfinished revolution".

Alexander always regretted that he wasn’t able to construct an ongoing dialogue after his imprisonment with Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, but in the early 1990s it was clear that new political questions about the role of the working class in the post-Apartheid era were emerging and it was during this period that he founded the Workers' Organisation for Socialist Action to advocate for independent anti-Stalinist working-class politics in South Africa and to agitate for a mass workers' party in opposition to the stranglehold of the South African Communist Party and its support for the ANC.

He also continued his studies of national liberation begun in prison and, specifically, until the end of his life on the role of education in the struggle for emancipation in South Africa. This led to him to a directing role in understanding the primacy of the idea of a multi-language state – which is undoubtedly one of the few policy successes of the post-Apartheid ANC. In his foreword to the Zulu translation of the Communist Manifesto, Alexander again stressed the importance of struggling against colonial mastery through the languages of the masses and the reassertion of the idea of education as a primary tool of socialism.

He never hid is profound disappointment with the nature of the post-Apartheid state even though he had clearly predicted it. In his Strini Moodley lecture at the University of KwaZulu Natal in 2010 he referred to Hilary Mantel’s great novel of the French revolution A Place of Greater Safety. One of the characters, Lucille wants to know what the philosophy of the Revolution actually was. She was wary of asking Robespierre about this as he would lecture her for hours on the General Will, or of asking Desmoulins who would provide an insightful couple of hours on the Roman republic. So she asked Danton and he just said: "Oh, I think it has a philosophy – Grab what you can, and get out while the going’s good."

This expressed the disillusionment of most South Africans with the new regime and its new elite of millionaires which had left most Black South African lives untouched. In fact Alexander considered the new state much more capitalist that its Apartheid parent. He argued that the settlement of 1994 was about stabilizing and expanding capitalist transformation in South Africa and had little to do with liberation or socialism.

He argued until the end of his life for a relentless criticism of capital, a vision of full rather than constitutional legality, for full gender rights, for access to basic services so absent in South Africa, for workers' control over the means of production. Anticipating the Marikana massacre he wrote in 2010: "The final disillusionment will come, of course, when the repressive apparatuses of the state, instead of supporting the exploited masses and other oppressed strata, turn their weapons on the masses to protect the interests of the capitalist class."

Neville Alexander’s attempt to understand the nature of Stalinism and its pernicious effects on the liberation struggle and his lifelong dedication to developing working class political independence are an inspiration to those he worked with and to our struggles in other parts of the world and certainly in the South Africa in which he was immersed and loved. As he said not long ago "I believe that if, through discussion and practical action, we can again visualise that other South Africa, we will very soon put behind us the barbaric and vulgar universe in which we are forced to try to survive with dignity today."

Current struggles in South Africa mark out the route towards that social liberation that Alexander long planned for and will not now see.

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