By Michael Hartnack
BEFORE Zimbabwe’s land seizures nervously made him into a Zanu PF fellow-traveller, my old friend and colleague, retired South African editor Ken Owen, used to mock the ANC as “Walkies”.
This, he told us, stood for “World’s Last Communists”.
However, one of the blindest things you can do in today’s Africa is mock the thinking of Karl Marx (1818-1883). The more you abhor the societies that once claimed him as their inspirational genius, the greater your duty to learn what the pioneering sociologist actually said.
The easiest way to grasp the blunder President Thabo Mbeki made when he told the National Land Summit in Johannesburg it was “wrong to conclude Zimbabwe’s debt had been accrued through financing corruption and repression” is to think about its history from a Marxist, or “Marxian”, perspective.
Unfortunately, it is hard to get many people to do this nowadays, since minds close up at the mere mention of Marx’s name.
Marx dreamt of creating a future without class and without private property. In the end it was the anthropologists rather than the economists who shattered this dream when they showed that humans, like most vertebrates, let alone higher mammals, are innately territorial and hierarchical in their social organisation.
The best we can work for (from a moral and ideological standpoint), is that we make the best ecological use of our territories, and that our social hierarchies will be creative, allowing those with talent to express themselves or assume responsibility.
The anthropologists confirmed what courageous Eastern bloc scholars reported before they were dragged off to the slave labour camps – that “the Marxist bureaucracy was the most intractable of all class systems”.
The ability of the Soviet nomenklatura to carve out territories for their relatives outdid the Tsarist aristocracy that went before.
Marx was one of those thinkers, like Darwin and Freud, who left us with a wealth of magnificent ideas, even if he was in some areas spectacularly wrong, with dire consequences for humanity.
Whether President Mbeki and the ANC can perceive what those errors were is another matter.
To the immense delight of Zimbabwe’s state propaganda machine, Mbeki told the National Land Summit Zimbabwe’s debt had been accrued “to respond to the demand to meet the urgent needs of the people after liberation. The government of Zimbabwe had to spend more money than it had.”
If that is so, why are Zimbabweans not just vastly worse off than in 1980? Why is the gap between 12 million poor and the rich – the political elite – so much wider?
The particular piece of Marx’s theory most relevant to this is the sage’s view that societies pass through economically “necessary” (unavoidable) phases of development – from feudalism to capitalism, from capitalism to socialism.
He doubted any hope for socialism in Tsarist Russia because, he said, the great, backward empire had yet to pass from feudalism to capitalism, which permitted a widening degree of individualism, particularly for those able to accrue private wealth – capital.
The remaining handful of Marxist ideologues in President Robert Mugabe’s Zion, China, contend, interestingly, that the United States is nearer a socialist revolution than they are, because it is at a much more advanced stage of capitalism.
Under feudalism – to quote a Zanu PF slogan – “Land is the economy and the economy is land”.
Economists define a “pure rent” as a payment for owning “the free gifts of the soil” or “the free gifts of nature”. They talk of “rent-seeking behaviour”: the desire to sit back and have funds roll in without having to make any productive effort, take any risks, keep up-to-date with any new ideas.
Feudalism may be described as a system of licenced “rent-seeking behaviour” but it has the advantage of giving a measure of social stability in a turbulent world, such as Europe in the wake of the Dark Ages.
The nub of it is, if you don’t adore the king, you have nowhere to live, nowhere to farm, you starve.
Does that sound familiar to Zimbabweans? Zimbabwe has certainly been dogged by incessant corruption scandals since Independence: the massive fraud over 1982-84 drought relief, the 1988 “Willowgate” vehicles racket, the 1994 farms-for-ministers swindle, the 1997 “war disabilities” scam. It goes on and on and on. And the guilty were always spared.
These all grew out of President Mugabe’s deliberate gift of “rent-seeking” privilege to his loyal underlings, the gift of impunity, in return for absolute political loyalty. Such is feudalism, Marx would say.
If Mbeki plans to give Mugabe US$1 billion help, he is propping up a feudal state hardly less backward than tribal Swaziland, and not nearly so honest.
President Mugabe’s planned new constitution will entrench his powers of feudal patronage not just by creating a host of sinecures in a Senate, but by giving him ownership of all real estate, to distribute and redistribute among loyal followers at whim.
Those who rage about the evils of Marxist-Leninism often fail to grasp it was an intellectually dishonest system of government for societies such as Russia that had tried to throw off feudalism, with the liberation of the serfs in the 1860s, and failed. Incipient instability drove Russia back into a serf-and-overlord system of social organisation, with its hugely inefficient form of economy.
Say what you will against King Mswati with his brides and palaces, he is not trying to enveigle Mbeki into doing the Reed Dance with the typing pool from Pretoria’s Union Buildings.
Like Stalin and Mao, however, President Mugabe brags that his hopelessly backward, profligate and cruel system is “the wave of the future”.
The brutal fact is that Zimbabweans’ living standards are half those of the war-ravaged 1970s, despite vast sums of (donated aid) money pumped into education, health, roads, communications, land reform and black empowerment.
If South Africa’s presidential graduate of the University of Sussex can’t see that, they need to send him to a Marxist re-education camp, preferably run by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
*Michael Hartnack is a veteran foreign correspondent based in Harare.