Toward the “Next Liberation Struggle”

Noaman G. Ali

Reviewed in this article

Revolutionary Traveller: Freeze-Frames from a Life, Arbeiter Ring, 2009.
John Saul

From 1964 to 1974, the people of Mozambique waged an historic armed struggle against the Portuguese colonialism that had intervened in their lands for centuries. The militants of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, FRELIMO, operated from their rear bases across the northern border in Tanzania, itself recently freed from British rule under the leadership of Julius Nyerere. There, in Tanzania’s intellectual capital of Dar es Salaam, John Saul taught social science at the University of Dar es Salaam, even as he attempted to redefine the very teaching of social sciences. Against the backdrop of the Arusha Declaration – the commitment to building socialism in Tanzania – Saul worked closely with FRELIMO militants in publishing Mozambique Revolution, their English-language organ. From there, they took him down to liberated areas in Mozambique in 1972 where he witnessed firsthand the changes being brought about by the revolution.

Saul has certainly lived in interesting times. His stay in Dar es Salaam takes up the opening chapter, Revolutionary Traveller, which collects many of his more popular writings concerning southern African struggles against colonialism and apartheid since the 1960s. His more “heavily ‘scientific’ books,” he notes, are “out there” for those who are interested – his work with Giovanni Arrighi that first sealed his reputation, his work on the Tanzanian state, and his astute analyses of the revolutionary process in Mozambique, for example. That aside, there is much in these pages that is new. The various essays and excerpts are stitched together by Saul’s reflections on the development of his own thinking. But this collection is not strictly autobiographical. Although we learn some things about Saul here and there, these are freeze-frames from a life of study and activism. What we glean most pointedly about Saul is his commitment to the cause of human emancipation.

The concept of human emancipation may seem quaint, a problematic meta-narrative of sorts. But as Saul argues in a 2010 article in the Review of African Political Economy, it is precisely upon this meta-narrative that the liberation struggles of southern Africa were predicated. They engaged “four terrains of liberation”: race, class, gender, and voice, a strategy that sought to promote the genuine democratic empowerment of the masses in making decisions about their societies.1 For Saul what ties all these terrains together is clear – global capitalism. Human emancipation is, ultimately, freedom from capitalism and its perpetual creation and incorporation of inequalities and anti-democratic aggressions. Anything less than complete emancipation from capitalist forms of social organization, while perhaps important in its own right, is incomplete. The alternative is clear: socialism, although what this means is no longer clear or straightforward. For the most part – that is, with the exception of gender – it is analyses of these terrains situated in the context of global capitalism that tie together nearly all of the essays, written over forty years, in Revolutionary Traveller.

It is easier, as Saul notes, to be a revolutionary traveller, acting in solidarity with struggles the world over, “when one becomes convinced that struggles around the world, in both southern Africa and Canada for example, are linked together by their focus upon a common enemy: capitalism, both local and global” (9). And so, while Saul’s essays largely focus on events in eastern and southern Africa, he repeatedly stresses linking the liberation struggles in Africa to politics at home. In this vein, the bulk of the book is taken up with his analyses of and experiences with three countries: Tanzania, Mozambique, and South Africa (as well as Canada) from the 1960s up until the present day. The concluding sections of the book focus more explicitly on Saul’s analysis of global capitalism and international development, as well as his essays on thriller novels, jazz, and playing basketball.

We learn of Saul’s work in Tanzania in the 1960s with the infamous Committee of Nine Lecturers, which included Giovanni Arrighi and Walter Rodney, who took an active role in attempting to reshape the syllabus of university education to better suit the needs of the socialist society that was to be built – “socialism in one syllabus,” they joked. But Saul’s time in Tanzania was not without controversy. He witnessed state repression targeted at many activists, including some of his own students, as the balance of class forces shifted. Nevertheless, some of his most important academic interventions come from this period, including the collection of essays co-written and co-published with Arrighi as Essays on the Political Economy of Africa (1973), perhaps his most important academic publication on the subject during this period.

Saul’s reflections on the liberation struggle in Mozambique (1962-1975) are accented by a sense of excitement in witnessing the creation of something new – something palpably different from
  what he analyzed happening in Tanzania – a new form of socialist politics where it seemed that political consciousness was being emphasized not only for FRELIMO cadres but for the population as a whole. With this start to the 1970s, Saul returned to Canada to start up, with other activists and academics, the Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Portugal’s African Colonies (TCLPAC) for, in Angola and Guinea-Bissau, guerrilla wars against Portuguese imperialism were raging too. After guerrilla struggles led not only to the end of Portuguese colonialism abroad but also the end of fascism within Portugal itself as a military tired of war was led by left-wing soldiers to topple the government, TCLPAC transformed itself into Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa (TCLSAC).

Saul returned to Mozambique on several occasions in the 1980s. The most poignant moment in the book, in fact, deals with the assassination of South African communist and anti-apartheid activist Ruth First, who was working in Mozambique. Even as he is devastated by the loss of his friend, colleague, and comrade on the very eve of his return to Toronto in 1982, neither Saul nor anyone else can ignore the political context of her death: apartheid South Africa’s unrelenting assault on African National Congress (ANC) activists abroad, and its brutal war, both direct and through proxies, against the socialist-oriented people and government of Mozambique.

The second part of the collection begins with studies of South Africa. With the institution of majority rule in 1994, Saul expresses his misgivings about the path being followed by the African National Congress (ANC) and its precipitous shift away from any kind of socialist or state-led developmental program to one of unabashed neoliberalism. He compares these elections with the first elections held in Mozambique, which also took place in 1994. There, a beaten and corrupted FRELIMO also adopted an unabashedly neoliberal program. Saul observes that these political changes, however progressive, left questions of class, gender, and voice largely unaddressed. Despite the end of apartheid rule in South Africa, the ANC’s pursuit of neoliberalism led to the ever greater impoverishment of the broad masses. With its lack of action on land and other reforms, destitution continues to proliferate. Saul calls for “structural reform,” driven by the already well-organized left in South Africa – changes that will set the stage for further actions that challenge the very logic of capital. By the 2000s, Saul has lost all faith in those parties that led the people of southern Africa to their liberation from colonialism and apartheid. The stage is set, according to Saul, for the “next liberation struggle” in the region.

Yet, understanding the limitations of erstwhile progressive organizations can veer into a moralizing that can become detached from materialist analysis – including an examination of pressures from subaltern groups and how these are negotiated by the machinery of party and state. This is sometimes the case with Saul’s examination of the denouement of parties like the ANC and FRELIMO. And, although there are no essays on Zimbabwe in this collection, condemnations of Robert Mugabe are sprinkled throughout the book. Too particular a focus on leaders and leadership is exemplified in a paper on Eduardo Mondlane, the first president of FRELIMO, who was assassinated in 1969. While admitting that ruminating on particular leaders is not the best way to proceed, Saul wonders how Mozambique might have pursued different paths had Mondlane survived.

This stands somewhat in contrast to Saul’s own astute analysis of the balance of class forces and line struggles in FRELIMO – and their social bases within and without Mozambique – leading up to and following Mondlane’s death (Saul 1973). True, Saul does talk about the national bourgeoisie and its role, and he does talk about how many FRELIMO stalwarts have redirected their attention to “civil society” rather than party and state politics, but one is left feeling that there is much more to be explained. Saul does seem to recognize this, citing Bill Freund’s critique of his work that he and others lost their critical edge and celebrated too much FRELIMO’s socialist efforts without a proper analysis of its structure and character – a critique that echoes that of Aquino de Bragança and Jacques Depelchin (1986) concerning Saul’s glossing over of the class forces and line struggles within the FRELIMO party-state apparatus (ironically, a critique which sections of the FRELIMO state-apparatus made themselves several times). Saul’s response to Freund, however, is to look at the FRELIMO leadership’s voluntarism, sincerity, and policy mistakes.

Saul closes the more political aspects of his book with reflections upon the global capitalist system and the place of the Global South within it. Never a Soviet-type Marxist, he argues forcefully for retaining class analysis in the face of the destruction of actually-existing socialisms. In some ways, this is precisely the moment when Saul admits to becoming more aware of other aspects of struggle, such as “gender, cultural identity, environmental concerns and even the abuse of power/authority per se” (338). However, these are issues that he has been concerned with in one way or another for a long time. Unlike his late comrade Arrighi, who came to argue that the rulers of Africa could do little more than mitigate the depredations of global capitalism, Saul allies himself with Samir Amin in defending the feasibility of launching new socialist struggles by “delinking” from the world system.

Saul’s book is a reminder of an era when international solidarity was not merely an engagement about a particular issue or location, but where both those in solidarity and the actors on the ground were committed to the larger goal of world socialism. It was in 1975, after all, that the defeat of Portuguese imperialism in its African colonies and the defeat of American imperialism in Vietnam seemed to herald the advance of socialism around the world. Today, socialism is making a comeback, though not necessarily in Africa. It is primarily in Latin America (with Venezuela and Bolivia leading the charge) and in South Asia (Nepal and large sections of India) that socialists and communists are still fighting, through elections or with arms, alongside the wretched of the earth. Saul’s contributions remind us that these struggles require our attention, analysis, and solidarity. Struggles for national liberation and anti-colonial resistance are not over, either – even when they are stripped of any erstwhile socialist content (which, we must acknowledge, had huge problems). The fight for national self-determination rages fiercely in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places. And, of course, the struggle against apartheid continues in Palestine.

What are the connections we can draw between these struggles and struggles against capitalism in Canada? Palestine solidarity activists have led the way in exposing how Canadian governments and firms are involved in shoring up Israeli apartheid. But there is often little analysis of the balance of class forces and political elites within Palestine or with respect to Israel, or, indeed, of the fundamentally reactionary role that neighbouring Arab governments have played. When, for instance, it seems that the struggle in Palestine is being led either by the sexist, chauvinist, and reactionary Islamists of Hamas or the deeply corrupt and decrepit Fatah (both “legitimate” representatives of the Palestinian people), how should anti-capitalist and anti-colonialists respond? The struggle for Palestine is foremost a struggle for national liberation, without which contradictions of class simply cannot be resolved. But neither can the struggle for national liberation be achieved without tackling the comprador bourgeoisie that finds its expression in the leadership of Fatah. Moreover, the Palestinian question has always been joined at the hip to questions of the reactionary regimes in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, among others, who have crushed progressive movements at home ruthlessly and have backed reaction elsewhere, in addition to providing support and legitimacy for Israel and the US and their designs in the region. In other words, the Palestinian liberation struggle is more than just a struggle for the liberation of Palestine, and solidarity with it must include both analysis and action on these additional fronts. Doing so requires addressing that old foe, global capitalism, and its local articulations.

Revolutionary Traveller serves as a guide to many of Saul’s most incisive analyses of politics in eastern and southern Africa and to situating those works in the course of his storied life. For those who are less taken with deep social science, the book nevertheless stands as an accessible survey of the more popular writings of one of the Western left’s most remarkable scholars of southern Africa. For those of us who attempt to combine our academics with our activism, Saul looms large as an exemplary scholar-activist – one who combines astute analysis with revolutionary fervour. Indeed, Saul is still working on many books, and he remains an unrepentant socialist. There is much yet to be changed, and much yet to be interpreted.

It is customary for those who were involved in southern African liberation to finish, always, with the Mozambican call – and there is nothing more fitting when it comes to John Saul: A luta continua!