OPINION: Torching campuses a political mistake

Imraan Buccus says that burning the law library at UKZN was a serious political mistake.

Much attention has been focused on the violent protests at universities, particularly the burning of a library at UKZN. Some have even called it revolutionary. Perhaps understanding all of this requires some lessons from the revolutionary thinking of Leon Trotsky.

Much attention has been focused on the violent protests at universities, particularly the burning of a library at UKZN, says the writer. File picture: Shayne Robinson. Credit: INDEPENDENT MEDIA

Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known to the world as Leon Trotsky, was one of the great revolutionaries of the 20th century. And a political activist. He took the name Trotsky from a prison guard.

In 1918 he was given control of the Russian army, which re-reformed and won the Russian civil war. After the revolution in October 1919 Trotsky worked closely with Lenin. But after Lenin’s death, Stalin, the dictator, ruthlessly purged his critics. Trotsky fled from one country to another before Stalin's agents assassinated him in Mexico.

Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution is considered a great work of modern literature. And Isaac Deutscher’s famous biography of Trotsky has inspired generations of activists. During his exile Trotsky corresponded with activists around the world, including in South Africa, and wrote on the major political issues and debates of the day.

Although the SACP, being allied to the Soviet Union, was pro-Stalin and therefore hostile to Trotsky, there is a strong Trotskyist tradition in South Africa.

The Unity Movement, for instance, was strongly influenced by Trotsky as were activists like Zackie Achmat and intellectuals like Neville Alexander.

But this tradition seems to have run out of steam. The collapse of the Socialist Workers’ Party in the UK, which turned into a sort of political cult in which sexual abuse was covered up, did real damage to the reputation of Trotskyism in the UK and other English-speaking countries, including South Africa.

But Trotsky’s legacy should not be judged by the worst of his followers. He was a great historical figure and a brilliant theoretician.

In 1911 Trotsky wrote a famous essay on violence and terrorism - “Individual terror is inadmissible because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their hopes towards a great avenger and liberator to some day accomplish his mission.”

He writes that “the more effective’ the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organisation and self-education. But the smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears... life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen”,

As a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement comes disillusionment and apathy.

Trotsky takes the view that strikes, protests, mass agitation and elections build the confidence of the working class and develop their power - and only this can really change the world for the better.

It is a great pity that some in the ANC, and a number of other commentators, have compared the burning of the law library at Howard College to the acts of the Nazis. This is nonsensical.

The Nazis burnt books by Jewish writers as part of a racist project. The burning of the library at Howard College was not a racist attack on any group. It was an attempt to put pressure on the authorities to accede to students’ demands.

The destruction of a building is not fascist nor an act of terrorism. For an act to count as terrorism there need to be attacks on people. But Trotsky’s famous essay can still be useful to help us to develop an analysis.

His first point is that when an individual or a small group of people act for the masses the masses do not develop their own confidence and power.

His second point is that acts of violence do not change the power relations in society. If a factory boss is assassinated he will be replaced and things will carry on as before. It is the same with the burning of a building. Insurance will be claimed and the building repaired. But there will be no change to power relations in society.

Trotsky’s third point is that for power relations to really change, the powerless must organise themselves to attain power. It is unusual to hear a student speak today and hear the names of any thinkers other than Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon. Biko and Fanon are hugely important thinkers. But there is a whole world of activists beyond them.

As a student in Paris, Fanon moved in Trotskyist circles. After Biko’s death the Black Consciousness Movement gravitated towards Trotskyist thought - he was a very important thinker for Azapo.

Burning the law library was a serious political mistake. A better understanding of the radical tradition would have made that clear.