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The Value of Rational-Critical Thinking Part III: The Truth Will Set Us Free-Perspectives on the Fisher Controversy
The essence of the philosophical dispute amongst scholars of the University of Stellenbosch (US) merits judicious consideration. The scholarly debacle around Bram Fisher - the late head of the South African Communist Party, has set loose a range of questions of immense proportion, which, it is trusted, should provoke the awakening of South Africa’s dormant class of critical thinkers. The bedrock of the quarrel appears to rest in conflicting rejoinders to a submission from a senior post-graduate that the university bestows honors on Fisher’s thought and work. Central to the dissension is the debate on the political disposition that sustained Fisher’s thinking in his quest to bring about social justice in South Africa. As critical theorists we are obliged to take into account the ideological departure of those who contest Fisher’s prospective veneration. For some of them, it seems, it is quite a simple matter - “Fisher was a communist”. To dispatch judgment on such a crude and naive assumption raises a multitude of obstacles. The Constitution of South Africa pledges to all citizens basic human rights like, freedom of association, conscience, belief, and expression. These fundamental liberties secure in turn, the lawful existence and operation of political parties, associations and workers’ unions, including leftist ones such as the South African Communist Party, the Socialist Party of Azania and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Does it follow then that leading members of such associations similarly should be disregarded for remembrance, be it in the political or intellectual domain?
If this is the ‘logical’ deduction, then South Africans must restrict from winning societal admiration those who embrace the principles of communism, socialism or Marxism. This, we can reliably prophesy, would usher in an enormously outrageous and perilous course of action. Here too the creeds of the Constitution unambiguously veto discrimination or exclusion on the grounds of belief. It is a reality that numerous communists, socialists, and/or Marxists occupy noteworthy placements in the ruling party, the South African parliament, various labor organizations and unions, as well as diverse institutions of higher learning across the South African academic landscape. If, however, Fisher’s legacy is being sidelined by some because of the particular brand of communism he chose to adhere to, then their argument compels elucidation. This prospect imposes consideration of the existence of diverse and often mutually-hostile categories of Marxism. One such category that has caused colossal damage to the socialist cause is of course the tyranny of Stalinism.
The Fisher discord offers scholars of Marxism the rare opportunity to dispel of once and for all the detestable fabrication that all communists are atheists or ungodly, evil, totalitarian, dictatorial or despotic, that they are to be reviled, despised and disregarded by society in its entirety. The equation of Stalin and ensuing Stalinist regimes with the genuine teachings of Marx is one of the greatest inaccuracies in 20 th century history. This historical imprecision as a rule, is upheld and perpetuated by those who ordinarily know nothing or very little of Marx and subsequent schools of Marxism. Conscious scholars are liable to affirm the basic truth that not all communists or socialists or Marxists remotely champion the undemocratic, dictatorial methods of Joseph Stalin.
Since the death of Karl Marx - the founder of scientific socialism, there developed a range of Marxist schools in a number of countries and across all continents. One of the dominant, existing international socialist tendencies was initiated precisely in its defiance of Stalin’s malicious reign. (For this the Soviet persecutor felt compelled to hound down and execute these daring and visionary revolutionaries) The intense labors of this Marxist institution endeavor, on the one hand, to contradict the disreputable Stalinist legacy with its inherently repressive political practice. On the other hand it seeks to promote ideas on social justice and equality, real participatory democracy, critical and informed thought, universal rights and liberties, and the like. The mainstream media rarely, if ever, afford any coverage to the existence and functions of such persuasive and socially-relevant schools of thinking. (The present socialist rule in Spain and France’s 2004 district elections no doubt caught much of the world by surprise)
Another school of Marxism that has gained prominence predominantly amongst artists, writers and intellectuals globally, is The Frankfurt School for Social Research, founded in 1923. This school of thought sought to rise above the fragmentations prevalent in traditional academic branches of learning in order to address questions of broader societal interest. The Frankfurt School contributed immensely to the fertile convention of critical social theorists who are perhaps most celebrated for their critique of mass culture.
Sustaining these is the broader category of Marxist Humanism - the archway into Marxist thinking that reaches into the roots, nature and task of capitalist thought, the character of and reasons for man’s alienation from his fellow beings and society, as well as humanity’s means to collective happiness. This channel of thinking impacted upon the imagination of countless social, political and cultural movements, various and diversely acclaimed writers and thinkers, prominent legislators, as well as ordinary, socially-committed spiritual leaders and especially Christians from across Europe, Britain, Africa, India, and notably Latin America. In revisiting the issue at hand, those who so sweepingly pigeonhole Fisher as a “communist” are duty-bound to explore more precisely the origins and objectives of the philosophical home of his thinking.
If and when public scrutiny of a particular ideology merely activates superficial deliberation and speculation, it is sensible for rational-critical intellectuals to reclaim their space which equips them to probe meticulously and make known scientifically the lineage and moral fiber of that ideological persuasion. Such an exploit optimistically should generate a more rational verdict on Fisher’s academic worthiness and contribution to social fairness. Though the Constitution secures one’s choice of ideology, this does not denote all ideologies are worthy of appreciation. Not long ago ideologists of the Apartheid regime attained special recognition through reverence heaped upon them by the academia of the University of Stellenbosch.
Some of the superseding questions that provoke vigorous deliberation are these: are concepts like ideological persuasion and ideological association not sacrosanct and above all, personal matters? On the other hand, and in direct contrast, one may ask, should ideology constitute a factor in the appraisal of someone’s contribution to a democratic and free society? This line of reasoning at once becomes convoluted in the South African context given the diverse array of public figures who have received state recognition since 1994 - the dawn of democracy in South Africa. Images of the last ruler of the Apartheid regime and the leader of the defunct “coloured” Labour Party immediately spring to mind. The former public figure has/had lifelong ideological ties with the political party that subjugated millions of South Africans for over fifty years, yet he has been conferred with national and international “honors”. The latter personage gained dishonor as a prominent government stooge during the height of the Apartheid era as he chose to work and consequently give credibility to the machinery of the Apartheid establishment. This occurred despite the fact that the majority of South Africans vehemently opposed and boycotted those inferior and pathetically racist institutions. Some months ago this person achieved state recognition for his “role in the anti-Apartheid struggle”. Additional narratives in this genre will assuredly generate further complexity which, for obvious reasons, is rooted in contradiction.
Since the ideology of Fisher and his approach to a new and democratic South African society already are under national inspection, and since so many uncertainties already have surfaced in the public sphere, skilled spectators are best advised to step up their labors in exploring whether Fisher’s mode of freedom fighting - which resulted in his incarceration and demise – in reality translates into hatred, potential anarchy and the slaughter of innocents. Once the true facts are rendered to the academic community of Stellenbosch and in fact, the nation, confusion should fritter away and offenders on either side of the great divide hopefully will learn from their misjudgments, amend them, yield to rationality, and move on with their lives and scholarly pursuits.
© CW Kronenberg
Research Scholar at the Centre for Rhetoric Studies, University of Cape Town