Opinionista Imraan Buccus 8 March 2020

The history of liberalism is entwined with racism

Hitler wanted to do in Europe what the liberals had done in the colonies. This is a very important point as it shows that the deep roots of fascism, including Afrikaner nationalism here at home, lie in liberalism, and its dehumanisation of colonised and enslaved peoples.

Recently, FW de Klerk and his foundation permanently sullied their reputations by trying to deny that apartheid was a crime against humanity. The attempt by both De Klerk and his foundation to downplay the moral crimes of apartheid did not come out of nowhere.

Many white South Africans misunderstood the collapse into a kleptocratic state under Jacob Zuma in terms of their deeply held prejudices about African people. Of course, this is a ridiculous explanation for Zuma’s flaws. Zuma was an appalling president, but he is hardly a worse politician than white politicians such as Silvia Berlusconi, Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro. Closer to home, rogues like Carl Niehaus, the Gupta brothers and the Watson brothers are all as appalling as Zuma. Malfeasance is a question of personal character, not race.

But Zuma’s inexcusable conduct in and out of office certainly emboldened many white South Africans to be more forthright with their racism. We have seen this very clearly with the Afrikaner nationalist tradition, that has been following the model of the new forms of right-wing politics in the United States and Europe, and has been repackaged in terms of “civil rights” by Afriforum. This tradition has been emboldened and now speaks as if Afrikaners are “victims” while downplaying or trying to erase the history of apartheid oppression.

It is a matter of historical record that Afrikaner nationalism as a political project carried by the National Party had its roots in German fascism and that it produced a state that subjected black South Africans to gross forms of oppression. But, unlike in Germany after World War II, most Afrikaners have not been forced to confront the extent to which their mainstream culture and institutions became entangled with a fascist political project. This has left the space for right-wing forms of politics to be transmitted across generations and for young Afrikaners to grow up with no proper understanding of the past or the present.

Nonetheless, the general response to De Klerk and his foundation made it clear that ordinary South Africans, including many Afrikaner intellectuals, will not stand for the apartheid denialism that has now become common in right-wing Afrikaner circles. Notice has been served.

However, denialism about the basic facts of his history does not just come from Afrikaner circles. There is now also a liberal and often English-speaking version of white denialism that is becoming increasingly strident, and which is wildly unhinged from any connection to historical reality. The new push to present “classical liberalism” as a “non-racial” philosophy morally superior to both the left and African nationalism is being vigorously and self-righteously taken up by organisations like the Institute for Race Relations, and a group of commentators whose self-serving denialism about basic historical facts is breathtaking. 

For some time now, this group of liberal zealots have been pushing the idea that “classical liberalism” is the true “non-racial” philosophy and that this means we should talk less about race. They cynically misuse “non-racialism”, a radical anti-racist idea, to try and suppress talk and action about race.

Michael Cardo, a DA MP, is one of these denialists. For Cardo, liberalism in general, and the DA in particular, carry a “historical non-racial mission”. For figures like Cardo, political debate is not required. Instead of argument, all that is necessary is to assert oneself as a liberal. This posture is assumed to guarantee moral superiority. 

However, a quick look at global history shows, without a doubt, that for hundreds of years, liberalism and racism were entwined as a single phenomenon. “Classical liberalism”, to put it clearly, was racism. This is not a hidden history. Every major “classical liberal” philosopher from John Locke to Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill were explicitly racist, and they all made this crystal clear in their writings. Locke, often referred to as the father of liberalism, invested his personal wealth in the African slave trade.

But the inherent racism of the liberal tradition does not just sit in the racist texts left by its philosophers such as Locke, Mill, Kant and others. The classical liberal tradition as a political history is a history of rights being awarded to white elites in Europe and its colonies while at the same time, indigenous people were subject to genocide, and Africans to enslavement. To put it clearly, classical liberalism, as a historical reality, meant rights for whites and genocide, slavery and colonisation for everyone else. 

When there were liberal revolutions against monarchical power in America in 1783, and in France in 1789, these revolutions granted more rights to whites and extended the enslavement of Africans. The liberal zealots that blithely ignore this history and present liberalism as an unsullied historical project can only do so because they see the lives of indigenous people and Africans as disposable. Anyone who thinks that the lives of indigenous people and Africans are of no historical value is simply a racist. Therefore, any uncritical defence of the entire liberal project is rooted in deep and systemic racism.

Of course, it is true that there have been small groups of liberal dissidents here and there who did oppose slavery. In some cases, their actions were heroic and some black activists rallied to these groups. But these were tiny minorities, and there can be no doubt that the bulk of liberal thought and practice was deeply complicit with both genocide and slavery. 

By way of analogy, the fact that small Trotskyist groups operating in the broader communist tradition opposed Stalin does not mean that communist thinkers do not still have to reckon with the historical crimes of Stalin. In exactly the same manner, anyone who wishes to defend liberalism today must start by acknowledging the historical crimes of slavery and genocide under liberal rule.

It’s also important for the new liberal zealots to understand the historical roots of European fascism. Every serious study of Hitler has shown that he was inspired by liberal ideas and figures, including Winston Churchill. Hitler wanted to do in Europe what the liberals had done in the colonies. This is a very important point as it shows that the deep roots of fascism, including Afrikaner nationalism here at home, lie in liberalism and its dehumanisation of colonised and enslaved peoples. 

If we want to get to the heart of racism we must turn our attention to liberalism, to its ideas and its historical record.

At home, an important point to make about non-racialism is that it is true that the ANC organised on a multi-racial basis for most of its history, with whites, coloureds, Indians and Africans often in separate organisations. However, non-racial forms of organising were developed in the Black Consciousness tradition (where no distinctions were drawn between people classified as Indian, coloured or African by the state), in the trade union movement, in the United Democratic Front, in umKhonto we Sizwe and in the SACP.

In all these political contexts, non-racialism was a radical political concept used to commit to anti-racist actions and programmes. Neville Alexander, one of our greatest intellectuals, made this point very clearly: “Non-racialism, meaning the denial of the existence of races, leads on to anti-racism.” The new liberal zealots are trying to appropriate non-racialism from its radical roots in order to misuse the concept to oppose attempts at anti-racism.

This is an incredibly cynical manoeuvre in which a bunch of mostly white people take a radical idea developed in black struggles and try to change its meaning to turn it from a weapon against racism, to support for silencing discussions about racism. We have seen a similar moral cynicism among white liberals in the US who have turned Martin Luther King into a figure used to suppress rather than encourage anti-racism.

Although many of the new liberal zealots have the strong whiff of crankery about them, they do hold positions of power in our society. It is time that we confronted the new race denialism among English-speaking whites with the same directness that we confronted the apartheid denialism among Afrikaner nationalists. 

As a starting point, it must be recognised that the history of liberalism, as theory and as practice, is deeply enmeshed with racism, including genocide and slavery. To speak as a liberal means to speak from this history. This is a simple historical fact, a fact which we cannot continue to deny. DM

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