When he pointed the way out of the cul-de-sac of the white liberalism of the 1970s, Rick Turner directly inspired a radical politics, which reshaped white resistance in the 1970s. Revisiting his life and work offers an alternative to a similar dead end today.
The revival of interest in Turner over the past few years is overdue. He remains one of this country’s most original thinkers and his work offers a unique perspective which still has much to say about the South African condition. But one of his contributions stands out as both the most influential and the most pertinent to South Africa today – his critique of white liberalism which inspired a generation of young whites to embrace a radicalism of thought and action which broke decisively with the suburban milieu in which they were raised. Turner steered a significant minority of white students to think and act in ways which rejected the liberalism of their time and enabled them to play a secondary but significant role in the fight against apartheid. But, perhaps because he was never associated with a political movement and his thought was not influential in black-led resistance politics, the ideas which inspired this new politics have remained the esoteric preserve of some in the academy. This is a loss to the society, for Turner’s critique remains relevant to South African politics and society – now as then, it offers a way beyond the deadening hand of a particular sort of racial thinking.
This article will discuss Turner’s contribution to the radical white politics of the early 1970s and its subsequent impact. It will also seek to show why his analysis of white racial thinking remains applicable today.
Turner and the Turning: The New White Politics of the 1970s
During the last years of the 1960s and the early 1970s, when Turner was most influential, young whites who rejected the racism of the society in which they were reared operated in a political and intellectual vacuum.
A previous generation of whites who opposed apartheid had either embraced Marxism – which almost always meant joining the Communist Party and, later, the African National Congress – or had gravitated to that wing of the Liberal Party which supported universal franchise and militant opposition to apartheid, in contrast to the Cape liberals who wanted only some blacks to vote and favoured moral suasion in white society over joint action with black resistance (Vigne 1997). By the late 1960s, both options had been extinguished by the law and contact between white critics of apartheid and black society had largely been severed. The only anti-apartheid option available in the white suburbs was a liberalism which blamed apartheid on the excesses of the Afrikaner Nationalist government and absolved suburban English-speaking whites of any complicity (Yudelman 1984). It was content to deprecate racial discrimination while doing little to fight it – and continuing to enjoy its fruits (Woods 1981: 90). Its chief form of expression was voting for the all-white Progressive Party, an expression of Cape liberalism which favoured extending the vote to blacks only if they met educational and property qualifications, a fairly ritualised and comfortable campus protest, and a condescending attitude to both black people and white Afrikaners.
The first stirring of a new radicalism was a sit-in at the University of Cape Town in 1968 in protest at its withdrawal of the appointment of a black anthropologist, Archie Mafeje, in the face of pressure from the apartheid state. This protest broke with the established pattern because it held a liberal university rather than the Afrikaner government culpable for discrimination. Most of the participants – who included Jeremy Cronin, now SA Communist Party deputy secretary general, and Mike Morris, who went on to become a Marxist scholar – had broken with liberalism and had embraced more radical ideas: they credit Turner, who was then living in the Western Cape, with introducing them to radicalism (Friedman 2015: 99).
But it was in Durban, where he began teaching Politics in 1970, that Turner exerted his most decisive influence on students – he introduced a generation to a radical perspective and was responsible for recommending worker organisation to them as a means of challenging power relations (Friedman 2014a; 2015: 99). Turner encouraged students to take an interest in the conditions of black workers and to support efforts to organise them – he worked with one of the few white unionists then committed to the organisation of black workers, Harriet Bolton, to encourage nascent unions, and persuaded some of his students to do the same. Several of these protégés played crucial roles in the early days of the union movement, paving the way for the emergence of democratic structures and an elected worker leadership which would reduce them to a more marginal role. Beyond that, his students ‘were to become prominent anti-apartheid activists; some were to take up positions in South Africa’s first post-apartheid government’ (Fluxman and Vale 2004: 175).
Turner was not the only radical influence at the time: the structural Marxism of Louis Althusser, and the critique of capitalism of the revisionist scholars, led by Harold Wolpe and Martin Legassick, was also influential, and some of Turner’s protégés, such as Morris, became important members of this school. But accounts at the time confirm that Turner’s personal influence was the greater: while the revisionist Marxists gave some of the new radicals a theoretical framework in which to make sense of their radicalism, it was Turner who persuaded them to move beyond liberalism in the first place. Morris recalls that: ‘Rick Turner was much less theoretically influential on me than Wolpe; but much more personally influential’ (Friedman 2015: 99). Most of Turner’s Durban students did not ‘cross the floor’ to the structural Marxist camp, remaining broadly within his framework (at least one of them revelled in poking fun at, rather than citing, the structuralists).
The difference between Turner’s position and that of the revisionist Marxists is best understood as a contrast between structure and agency. For the revisionists, capitalism was a social structure which determined human action – so much so that they were criticised for altogether denying agency (Bozzoli and Delius 1991; Mafeje 1981). For Turner, it was a moral problem which required human action. Like the revisionist Marxists, Turner insisted that apartheid was a symptom of a deeper problem – economic exploitation. A democracy in which all enjoyed equal rights was essential but so too was an end to the domination of those who lacked resources by those who owned them (Turner 1980: 86). He advocated worker control of industry and an end to economic and social hierarchies (ibid.: 87). But, while the new Marxism stressed the ‘scientific’ study of the structure of capitalism, Turner offered a moral critique of domination.
Turner was concerned to offer an ethical critique of capitalism, not the structural analysis offered by the Marxist theorists of the period. To the extent that he relied on Marxism as an influence, he turned not to the structuralism of Althusser or Nicos Poulantzas, but to the existentialism of Sartre and Marx’s moral critique (Fluxman and Vale 2004: 178) rather than his analysis of the system’s inner structure. And, while the Marxists saw change as a consequence of social structure, he saw it (again Sartre’s influence is crucial here), as the product of human action, the aim of which was to free people from constraint and to ‘give individuals the maximum possible amount of control over what happens to themselves and hence the maximum possible amount of freedom to decide what they want, and then to act to get it’ (Turner 1980: 91). It is therefore no surprise that, while the new Marxism encouraged as much scholarship as it did social action, Turner’s critique gave priority to the latter. Adherents of the new Marxism were at least as likely to produce learned papers as they were to organise trade unions or organise political campaigns – Turner’s students overwhelmingly chose the latter.
There is a certain irony in this. Structural Marxism was largely the intellectual product of two exiled activists with links to the African National Congress (ANC) and the SA Communist Party: Wolpe was an active member of both while Legassick was expelled from the ANC for trying to move it leftward (Friedman 2015: 108ff.). Turner, by contrast, was not a member of any political organisation. But, while structural Marxism may have helped some of its adherents to tread a political path which impelled them to work for trade unions or join resistance organisations, its impact was felt primarily in the academy. Within a decade of the appearance of the first papers offering a structuralist critique of apartheid, Marxist analysis had moved from the margins of South African social science to a dominance which, in the view of non-Marxists as well as its adherents, was ‘hegemonic’ (Jubber 1983) – it was not only the major stream of analysis, it became the norm. Jeremy Seekings, a sociologist who arrived at Witwatersrand University in 1985, recalls that ‘everyone (in the social science departments) assumed the mantle of Marxism […] – it wasn’t so much that non-Marxists were silenced but that they weren’t there. The whole generation of younger scholars in the 1970s and 1980s, all operated within a broadly Marxist frame’ (Friedman 2015: 13).
This perceived hegemony may not have been quite as pronounced as these accounts suggest: it was concentrated in particular universities and departments, and even there non-Marxist voices were heard. But it is significant that accounts of the period are far more likely to stress the academic role of structural Marxism than its contribution to political practice. Wolpe himself was a loyal ANC member but, by his own admission, his work was largely ignored by it (Friedman 2015: 77). Legassick, as noted above, was thrown out of the movement. But Wolpe’s impact on the academy and intellectual life was substantial enough to prompt a liberal sociologist and businessman, Bobby God-sell, to tell him when they met outside the country that he had ‘a formidable intellectual reputation in South Africa’ (Kodesh 1992). Wolpe debated intellectuals within the country on trade union tactics and strategy in academic journals in the 1980s (Wolpe 1985), but he was less interested in influencing union strategy than in using debates on what unions should do to contribute to academic discussion on other issues – which was just as well since he had no influence on unions’ strategic direction. Structural Marxism’s primary energies were concentrated in the academy, not on the streets or in the factories.
The contrast with Turner’s role is, as suggested earlier, stark. As important as his intellectual contribution was, his corpus of academic work was sparse – his most celebrated contribution, The Eye of the Needle, was, in his own words, intended for a much wider audience than that of the academy. It was, he noted, ‘non-academic and free from philosophical name dropping’ (Morphet 1980: vii). It was designed, like much else that he did, to influence political action more than to break new academic ground. Because he was, in contrast to structural Marxism’s pioneers, based within the country, he could not only encourage his protégés to act in the world but was by their side or at least in the vicinity when they did it. This explains why just about all the first wave of white unionists were Turner students. Morris’s observation that he was personally influenced by Turner but theoretically influenced by Wolpe summed up the primary focus of the two ways of seeing: structural Marxism was more likely to persuade its adherents what to think and write, while Turner was more likely to persuade them to act to change the world.
The Race of Class
Turner’s view of capitalism may have made an impression on his students but it is not the reason why he was so influential. It may also not have been his chief concern.
Like the students he influenced, Turner may well have been far less interested in breaking new ground in economic theory or even in criticising an economic system than in offering a critique of white society in general and its liberal strain in particular. Turner, it has been argued, ‘saw the moral concern and commitment to action amongst whites at the time to be so tepid, so ineffective, that he sought to shock them out of what he called “the impracticality of realism”’ (Keniston 2010: 37). That challenging white society was Turner’s chief purpose is supported by the frequency with which his best-remembered work, The Eye of the Needle, addresses itself to whiteness and its failings: ‘Until white South Africans come to understand that present society and their present position is a result not of their own virtues but of their vices […] they will not be able to communicate with black people, nor, ultimately, with one another’ (Turner 1980: 101).
This critique lay at the centre of a much-quoted article by Turner which discussed Black Consciousness (BC) and its impact on white liberalism. His purpose was to challenge the liberal claim that BC’s stress on race was racist. Elaborating on his observation in The Eye of the Needle that white liberals were ‘white first, liberals second’ (Turner 1980: 82), he argued that their ‘behaviour and beliefs […] often constitute a striking example of precisely how deep the assumptions of white supremacy run’ (Turner 1972: 20). White liberals, he argued, believed that ‘although blacks are not biologically inferior, they are culturally inferior. They may be educable, but they need whites to educate them’. He quotes approvingly the SA Students Organisation’s view that white liberals seek ‘an assimilation of Blacks into an already established set of norms drawn up and motivated by White society’ and adds that the liberal norm is that ‘to behave like whites is the ideal’. Liberals ‘believe that “western civilisation” is adequate, and superior to other forms, but also that blacks can, through education, attain [its] level’. The refusal of blacks to want to be ‘like whites’ was not racism. It was, rather, ‘good taste’ (Turner 1972: 20).
Despite his emphasis on race, Turner was at pains to reject racial essentialism. Racial categories in his view were products of social relations which entrenched domination and so they needed to be acknowledged rather than denied, but this did not justify the assumption that racial categories were fixed and uniform. He noted ‘a difference of degree, rather than of kind, between black and white’ adding that ‘there are also other factors to take into account besides colour […] if black leaders believe that they have an intuitive understanding of the needs of the black people, and no need to motivate them to act politically, then they are not likely to be very effective leaders’ (Turner 1972: 20). His antidote to racism was a common humanity. But to deny the salience of race was, for him, to endorse a status quo defined by racial domination.
It was this critique which was surely the chief influence on young whites whose rejection of racism was accompanied by a growing sense that the suburban liberalism in which they were raised was complicit in the domination it claimed to reject. It is no accident that Turner’s critique was framed as a (critical) defence of Black Consciousness, for it was this view of the world which first prompted some white students to see white society, rather than the Afrikaner government, as the problem. It was Turner who fleshed out this critique and channelled it into a commitment to action in support of black efforts to defeat apartheid.
It was this break with the mainstream which was crucial for Turner’s acolytes. For some, structuralist Marxism’s insistence that the source of racial domination was capitalism, not Afrikaner Nationalism, solidified the rejection of parents, friends and family who benefited materially from the racial domination they deplored. But it was a consequence, not a cause, of the principal rationale of the new radicalism, the sense that domination was the product not of prejudice but of the exercise of power in which suburban liberalism was complicit. The immediate strategic effect was to justify a more radical response to apartheid in which trade union organisation and economic sanctions, both of which challenged the notion that the holders of economic power were innocent of apartheid’s depredations, were key weapons. The longer-term consequence was a commitment to fight domination rather than to blend into white society.
Turner’s Critique Today
To understand what Turner’s critique of white society has to say today, it is necessary briefly to analyse his argument.
While Turner’s critique of capitalism goes well beyond the parameters of liberal thought, a careful reading of his work suggests that his primary concern is less a critique of classical liberalism than a rejection of ‘whiteness’ understood as an ideology rather than an identity: white liberalism is, for him, evidence of how deeply ingrained white supremacy is precisely because its adherents cloaked their white supremacy in ostensibly non-racial garb. Demonstrating this is far more important to him than condemning liberalism tout court.
To complain that white liberals are white first is to imply that there would be some merit in their becoming liberals first. Turner seems to confirm that it is whiteness which is his target when he observes, in defence of Black Consciousness, that: ‘the attack is directed essentially against “white racist society” […] and the question of “white liberals” is considered to be of relatively minor importance’ (Turner 1972: 20). Later in the same article he suggests that aspects of liberalism are compatible with his world view: he observes that liberalism ‘is normally understood as referring to a set of beliefs about the limits of government, the importance of the rule of law, the rights of freedom of speech and assembly, and so on. Now obviously in this sense radicals, including proponents of black consciousness, can also be liberals’ (Turner 1972: 21). It is also important to point out that Turner’s brand of socialism is, as the discussion above points out, uncompromisingly democratic in its commitment both to universal franchise and to human autonomy as the goal of change, suggesting another commonality with some liberal values if not with liberalism’s view of economy and society.
Turner’s challenge is primarily aimed at the particular form liberalism takes among a dominant group in a racist society. As C.B. MacPherson has shown, there are divergent strains of liberalism – the ‘possessive individualism’ of Hobbes and Locke, with its concern to protect the propertied from society and government, differs markedly from Mill’s ‘developmental liberalism’ with its stress on developing human potential (Macpherson 1962, 1973). And, as this author has argued, in a racially stratified society, the white supremacist liberalism which Turner criticises may well be what possessive individualism looks like in the hands of a racially dominant group (Friedman 2014b). Turner’s attitude to liberalism is more nuanced than it seems – while some of his adherents stress his critique of liberalism, implying that he totally rejected its world view, the passages cited above show that he believed that it was possible to adopt a radical position while retaining some liberal values. He may have been less concerned to criticise liberalism than to point to its use by white South Africans as a justification for white dominance. This is the core focus of his critique, for his opposition to white supremacy is total. And his chief concern is a critique of precisely those expressions of white supremacy which mask themselves in seemingly non-racial language.
Turner’s critique is still essential because, while apartheid, racial domination as state policy, is now dead, racial hierarchy is not: ‘When people enter the market place or the broader social world it is on socially distinct bases. Where you live or work, the car you drive if you have one, the education you have received all bear some relationship to “race”’ (Suttner 2011: 11). Neither are the assumptions of superiority which undergird it. In the economy, the professions and the academy, racial hierarchies are often maintained by assumptions of white superiority. The point is captured by political commentator Aubrey Matshiqi’s observation that the new political majority remains a cultural minority: ‘White people remain a cultural majority. And it is their world view that continues to dominate the shaping of social and economic relations’ (Matshiqi 2011).
Equally crucial is that continued assumptions of white superiority and black inferiority seek to conceal themselves, in the currency of the dominant strand of liberalism, by a demand that talk of race cease because to continue to mention it in a formally deracialised society is racist: ‘Liberals would rather we banished race talk because they view such talk as pre-modern’ (Mangcu 2015: 3). This violates reality – ‘Denial of the salience of race […] is at variance with the continued experience of people’ (Suttner 2011: 12) and maintains hierarchy: ‘“race effacers” […] avoid or minimise discussion of race because this might rattle the status quo in which they are heavily invested’ (Mangcu 2015: 14).
The parallels with Turner’s 1972 critique of liberal responses should be apparent. Now, as then, the problem is not liberalism as a set of ideas so much as a brand of liberalism based on assumptions of Western and white superiority, a racial ‘possessive individualism’ which regards white cultural domination as the product of excellence rather than power. And, just as Turner was concerned to seek to persuade white South Africa – and particularly its liberals – that black consciousness’s stress on race was an antidote rather than a support for racism, so too does today’s white liberal mainstream need reminding that liberty and civility are not an expression of European and North American particularism. As Turner and important strands of BC have stressed, this requires a response which seeks not to replace one racial essentialism with another but which validates difference while rejecting its use as a form of domination. Turner’s call to racial possessive individualists to confront white supremacy by recognising its continued existence and to seek to move beyond it to recognise a common humanity has as much to say to the white liberal mainstream today as it did more than forty years ago when apartheid reigned.
As necessary as it is to challenges assumptions of ‘Western’ cultural supremacy, so too is it important to avoid replacing them with a rigid, essentialist, ‘African culture’ which ignores both the multiplicity of African cultures and the reality that, in all cultures, understandings of what is ‘authentic’ differ. The challenge is not to replace one attempt to impose a rigid set of norms and values with another but to validate a variety of value systems, recognising always that valid cultural expression does not entail the right to assert superiority over, or denigrate, others.
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