Re: R: postmodernism and liberalism

On Fri, 5 Mar 1999, Bob wrote:

> Yes, that's very interesting -- intellectually, theoretically, academically
> -- as well as assisting us to understand our world from our own privileged
> positions of power in the West -- but how relevant is it to those involved
> in the resistance?

It's a very good question to which I can only give anecdotal replies from
my own experience. A couple of things come to mind:

1. In South Africa professional academics have played very prominent roles
in the struggle. Some academics became popular heros of the struggle and
the state certainly saw progressive academics as a serious threat. The
list of academics assasinated by the state includes people like Rick
Turner (Philosopher), David Webster (Anthropologist), Ruth First
(Political Scientist) etc, etc. And of course many more narrowly escaped
assination attempts, were imprisoned, banned, exiled etc. Their
contribution to the stuggle often included sharing knowledge with workers,
rural communities etc. This is one of the reasons why, even today, you can
meet workers (some of whom may be illiterate) who are very comfortable
with concepts like neo-liberalism, socialism, alienation,
internationalism, gender equity, the dialectic and even 'the gaze' (and
familar with the role of institutions like the world bank, IMF, etc.)

This commitment to the sharing of knowledge continues as we speak. Most of
my Department is involved in an ongoing and well organised project to
teach and discuss Political Philosophy with trade unionists and we've also
worked with rural communities. And in fact the university where I work has
made a specific commitment to draw its students from the poorest of the
poor communities. Some of these students do see university as nothing
more than a ticket to a middle class life but all are highly politically
sophisticated and many remain involved in various struggles. In fact just
last week students on this campus were fighting the police - the issue:
the state's attempt to insist that only fee paying students are accepted
into universities. And, of course, they use the skills and knowledge
learnt in class in their struggles.

2. There are also a number of examples of intellectuals outside of the
academy who have used theory to make an enormous contribution to society.
So for example Steven Biko's thought (which is influenced by Fanon, Sartre
and Hegel) was and still is a a huge part of the national conversation and
again its common to meet people who are illiterate or semi-literate and
who know something of Biko's thought. There is absolutely no doubt that
Biko's ideas made difference and continue to make a difference to material
realities. (Incidentally he's another intellectual who was killed by the
police). Those material realities range from the pebbles which people
bring from across the country to place on his grave through to the
enormous number of people and organisations who cite Biko as a profound
influence in their life and work.

3. There's also something of a tradition here of academics engaging in
popular journalism in popular idiom (but trying to say the same things
that they'd say at a conference.) I contribute regularly to the popular
press (newspapers and radio) as do most of my colleagues. In fact Dum'sani
Hlophe who is in this office as I type writes a weekly column in the
Sowetan (a tabloid with a circulation of well over a million). His column
usually generates a lot of interest and all sorts of people discuss the
ideas he presents to the readership of the Sowetan.

4. Right now, for better or worse, academics play a very large role in
designing government policy and in supporting resistence to it. (eg, The
Communist Party of South Africa still has a strong intellectual
component as does the still strong union movement).

5. And then of course the intellectual still has a role as a social
critic. Here in Durban the work of people like Chomsky has been used to
develop a criticism of the (racist, conservative etc) Durban press that
when expressed in popular form (pamphlets, graffitti, etc) had a powerful

Writing has never physically put food in anyone's mouth, given AZT to an
HIV positive pregnant women, prevented another immigrant/refugee from
being beaten by the public or the police etc, etc. However it clearly can
inspire, contextualise, explain, refute etc, etc. But perhaps the bottom
line is that when knowledge is shared as widely as possible it *does*
become empowering. When a shop steward can deconstruct the rhetoric of the
bosses and meet theory with theory, or if a homosexual can argue that it
is a metaphysical error to assume that the material struggle of the
working class has some sort of transcendental ontological priority over
all other struggles, or when students and workers can use Fanon to
articulate their suspicions about a transformation agenda that wants to
reduce change to deracialisation than, I think, something has been

Many of the more dramatic popular struggles have a clear debt to theory.
Think of Che Guevarra or the Zapitistas talking about Foucualt. Here in
South Africa Mahmood Mamdani has shown (in Citizen and Subject 1996) how
the 1972 Durban strikes were given crucial support by Communist Party
intellectuals and academics at the university and how the 1939 peasant
uprising led by the Zoutpansberg Cultural Association was also greatly
assisted and inspired by intellectuals from the Communist Party. But
perhaps doing critical theory and sharing it with as many people as
possible can also contribute to less dramatic, more quotidian progress.
Knowledge *is* a form of power. Sharing it as widely as possible must,
surely, be a good thing.


Partial thread listing: