Death of Joe Slovo

Chris Burford cburford at
Fri Jan 6 04:02:09 MST 1995

Death of Joe Slovo

The news this morning 6th January of the death of Joe Slovo
makes me feel there should be some acknowledgement on the marxism list.
The point of marxism is not only to analyse the world but to change it.

It is difficult to know what to say, because his views and practice
will be controversial for some readers and some sections of the left.
There is no way I am in a position to say anything comprehensive.
Obviously I do not have the knowledge that Ron would have. Nevertheless
I would really like to say my bit. My knowledge of him was as I
gradually got to learn a little of the South African Comunist Party
while being active in the London based Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Some of the political debates perhaps need to be clarified at another
time. Yet for materialists the death of an individual is a very signif-
icant moment. Without implying that everyone should agree with Joe's
views I want emotionally to signal an appreciation of his efforts.

At a time when we are reappraising on this list the relevance of marxism,
it is notable that nowhere in the world could you still say you are a
communist and be treated with more warmth and respect by ordinary people,
than in parts of South Africa today.

Part of that has been the result of work by Joe Slovo as well as a
collective culture in the Party, as far as I can detect.

Once the Party was seen as among the most reliably  pro-Soviet.
Joe Slovo took an active role in an inner Party debate which enabled it
relatively quickly to consider other models of marxism too. Without his
work against dogmatism it is not clear how well the Party would have
absorbed the best lessons of the vigorous mass democratic movement of
resistance in the 80's that has ensured such a lively civil society.

Without Joe Slovo's courage in proposing a debate about sunset clauses
for the whites, it is uncertain whether the bourgoisie could have been
split and political deaths so reduced without the armed power of the
apartheid state having been militarily defeated. Joe's application of
marxist ideas about the continuing nature of the national democratic
revolution were part of the equation.

Some on the left may regard Joe Slovo as a class traitor for sitting in
a "government of national unity", others may see a different form of
quiet self-sacrifice: he was also sitting at the table with represent-
atives of the party that had killed his wife, and rejoiced in her death.

It is too early to say how much that government of national unity will be
able to prepare the ground for progress towards socialism or whether
it will become an establishment with a black middle class recruited to
support an economic status quo. One feature is the looser framework for
members of the Party to participate in both that government and the debate
within civil society including sections that may be critical of some
of the policies of the government. Joe Slovo as understand it contrib-
uted to an atmosphere that there is not a rigid Party Line but a
general direction. Thus while the government is needing to compromise
with the World Bank and the IMF, the trade union federation COSATU,
including influential Party members, will later this year be raising the
whole question of the organisation of the global economy at an internat-
ional conference.

Joe Slovo played a significant part in creating this
sort of flexibility. The Party does not claim with its allies, to have
created a nirvana, but it is trying to help handle the contradictions.

In my very limited knowledge of him I recall him speaking in London at
Conway Hall on I think the sixty third anniversary of the SACP. At the end
of a speech including a careful clarification of the relationship of
socialism to the national democratic revolution the applause came and he
blushed. He was a quiet man who gave the impression of being genuinely
modest. I have no knowledge of his personal relations but the fact that
the Party came to be a party for black people, must have been in part due
to his approach-ability. For South Africans I guess his death will painfully
reawaken the loss of Chris Hani.

Joe Slovo tried at least to make the International the human race.
He helped to change the world.


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