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Conversations about Eleanor Marx: Zackie Achmat


Zackie Achmat (@ZackieAchmat) is a South African LGBT and HIV/AIDS activist and filmmaker. He is a founder of Treatment Action Campaign and co-director of  the social justice organisation, Ndifuna Ukwazi (Dare to Know).

When did you first hear of Eleanor Marx?

ZA:      That would be in about 1977, I was fifteen and a friend of mine who was an activist and understood feminism showed me a whole range of books on Marx, which included the story of Eleanor. She always said that Eleanor was written out of history. Then, I think it was in the early ‘Eighties when Yvonne Kapp’s biographies were published, my friend Jack Lewis got a copy of those.

Were you living in South Africa at this time?

ZA:      Yes. And most of this literature was banned. You weren’t allowed to have them so you’d store them away so that the police couldn’t find them.

Did these books get passed around between friends?

ZA:      Between activists and friends.

Can you say a bit about what Eleanor Marx means to you? Is there a particular part of her story that seems instructive?

ZA:      The first and most important thing is the terrible personal tragedy she suffered at the hands of that dreadful man Edward Aveling, which left an enormous gap in political activism for a generation because Eleanor Marx embodied an intellectual and activist leadership in both the labour movement and the socialist organizations of the time, and in the small, but growing women’s movement.

When you talk to activists and protesters in South Africa today, what sense do you have of how much history matters to them? What can a historical figure like Eleanor Marx offer them?

ZA:      The interesting thing is that today, in South Africa, at the place where I work we teach a course on Politics, Women, and Society, and the tragedy of post-apartheid South Africa, but also the post-Thatcher world, is that the central intellectual and moral capital that the socialist movement had – its ability to disseminate history, politics, ideas, and a means of organizing – is lost to everyone. In South Africa today, most people, particularly young people who come to university, don’t even know about the major struggle of the Pass Laws in 1913. A year after the ANC was founded, women were particularly active, and there was no support from the men for them, so the struggle never gained as much prominence until the 1970s and 80s when women’s history in South Africa came to be seriously written. So in that sense, in terms of creating an internationalist vision and practice, most young people don’t know the name Marx. If they’ve heard about it, it’s only in a passing way, but no one reads the Communist Manifesto, and no one knows about the suffragettes or the early struggles of the labour movement. And it’s so important because at the time Eleanor Marx was living there was a major crisis of unemployment, of hunger, of bad sanitation and bad housing, and all these struggles we are still involved in today. To give people a long historical view, it’s absolutely vital that we recover that history.

So you’re saying there’s an important connection between the nineteenth century struggles that Eleanor was involved in and the problems faced in South Africa today?

ZA:      As far as the question of worker’s right, we have some of the best labour laws for those who are unionized. But the majority of workers aren’t unionized. So, whether it be farmworkers, or casualised labour, or domestic workers, or those in the service industries, there are phenomenal lessons that could be learned about cooperative work. There’s a crisis today, especially for young workers, and the types of knowledge that helped build the labour and socialist movement, and helped build a feminist understanding of society, could all teach valuable lessons. For this reason, I think Rachel’s book will be an enormous hit among young people who are looking for this knowledge. It’s not because people don’t want to know these things. The minute you start speaking, the demand for knowledge far exceeds our ability to supply it.

I understand what you’re saying about the cultural capital of the left having waned and the fear of this knowledge being lost, but there is a lot of information now on the internet. It may not be presented from the left, but it is accessible.

ZA:      And even a phenomenal amount of Marx online. I don’t know if there’s an Eleanor Marx digital archive; I hope Rachel will follow that up as a project. But documents of the left, from anarchism to Marxism, are on the net. People, though, don’t have the basic knowledge of what to look for. They’re searching for Justin Bieber not August Bebel.

And they don’t have the context to understand the material they find.

ZA:      Exactly. It’s not a lack of information, it’s a lack of knowledge.

Olive Schreiner was one of Eleanor’s closest friends, perhaps her closest. Can you say something about the relationship between them, and the legacy of Schreiner in South Africa today?

ZA:      The most important part of Olive Schreiner’s life is that she was one of the people who stood up to Cecil John Rhodes. She was a lifelong friend also of Jan Smuts. Neither of them embodied most of the things Schreiner stood for. Smuts might have embodied her internationalism, but he did so from a very imperialist perspective rather than from a working class perspective. Olive Schreiner campaigned for votes for women, she was also one of the women who had the greatest influence in Cape Town politics.  She tutored a woman who became one of the first women lawyers in South Africa, a city councillor, and a major campaigner against apartheid and pre-apartheid for workers’ rights. So in that sense, there’s a whole range of history that we can recover linking Eleanor Marx with Olive Schreiner, then on right through to a generation of today’s young activists.

It’s important, you’re saying, to make these connections so that younger activists can see that they stand at the end of a line of people, that they are not out there on their own.

ZA:      The critical thing for young activists, whether you’re in Egypt, whether you’re in Ukraine, in Chile, in the East End of London, or in Zimbabwe, is that the questions of internationalism, of where our history of struggle comes from has never been more urgent. Today’s young people have freedom that we never had: we never had access to the internet, we had to type everything, we had to search for books, import them. These days we have the ability to access knowledge with ebooks, books that are available on the internet that are out of copyright, rare books still in copyright but no one wants to reprint them. These can all be made accessible to people. I learned a great thing decades ago when I picked up an article. I was with Rachel Holmes at the queer conference in Toronto when I picked up an article on Bayard Rustin, who was one of the greatest activist in the United States and was the chief organizer of the march on Washington. The reason none of us knew him is because he was queer. There was a struggle over his sexuality in the movement. The FBI had him arrested for indecency and so on and that’s why he was written out of history. Now there are two biographies. He spent an enormous time in jail for refusing to serve in the Second World War. He got out, and became one of the greatest labour organizers as well as organizers of sit-ins across the United States, long before Martin Luther King. He was regarded as King’s mentor. Having knowledge of people like Rustin and Eleanor Marx, their intellectual labour as well as their organizing work, should enable young South Africans today to take control of their own lives. But unfortunately we have lost much of the knowledge of that global moral left.

Zackie Achmat and Nelson Mandela, 2002.

Zackie Achmat and Nelson Mandela, 2002.

In Rachel’s biography she describes Eleanor giving a speech but managing to do it without appearing strident or bossy or putting off men. Women still face the problem of being belittled or denigrated when they speak publicly or act powerfully. I wonder if you could assess the situation for South Africa women activists today? How much of a leadership role do you think they are playing?

ZA:      I think women played a fantastic leadership role in the anti-apartheid struggle. But the problem of the patriarchal values and practices remains one of our most serious problems, both in organizations and in the wider society. Today women have immense freedom, freedoms that they never had: almost 50% of households in South Africa are headed now by women. This gives them much greater freedom over their reproductive choices, and, if they have an income, over how to spend it. At the same time you have enormous and powerful institutional survivals in both formal and radical politics. It remains a constant struggle. In classes at Ndifuna Ukwazi I’ve witnessed older women who’ve spent decades working at community level, and working to raise their family, being laughed at by young men because they can’t speak English properly. They have a greater knowledge than any young man would ever have. It’s not because those young people are naturally bad human beings, they’re good human beings, but they’ve been raised having a class attitude and a masculinist attitude. Whether it’s public speaking, or speaking privately in a meeting, there is a constant need to assist any vulnerable group. Today in South Africa the most vulnerable group is black women and girls, but the most marginal and demonized group is black young men.

Demonised by the media?

ZA:      Demonised by all of us. If you see a group of young black men walking toward you, you will assume that they are criminals. That is true for black people, and particularly white people, then it’s reinforced by the media and society. Because the question of labour market absorption – which is a fancy phrase for mass unemployment – the failure to create employment through the capitalist system, is a huge problem. So the demonization and the criminalization of young black men in South Africa is phenomenal. What those young men do is to retreat into a mythical idea that they have power and this reinforces the problem. So the question is how one bridges the enormous divide between women and men, based on class. And that is what’s vital about Eleanor: connecting the struggle of women for freedom to the struggle of all people for social equality and dignity.

Which links to my next question. One of the problems that her life throws up is the difficulty of people with different levels of power trying to work together across classes and sexes, and obviously in South Africa this would include races. Engels loathed what he saw as bourgeois feminists who only wanted to reform the system.

ZA:      And he had a terrible xenophobic attitude toward the Irish.

Even though he lived with and loved two Irish women. What’s the situation like in South Africa between women of different classes and races working together? Are there such organisations?

ZA:      I think that’s one of the most difficult questions: the struggle of working class women to assert themselves in any context, whether it is with middle class women, or middle class men, or both. It is particularly reinforced by race and language and status. For instance, if a woman from say Khayelitsha or Manenburg entered a meeting with a government official, whether they are black or a woman, and people speak English, they are likely to feel silenced and not up to speaking. Yet, if they were to speak in their own language, they would be not only far more eloquent, but far more knowledgeable. The cross-class/race organizing is very limited. And even in organizations that I work in, it’s a constant struggle because we have to remind white children or young people that this might be the first time they’ve met a black working class person, outside the context of meeting a domestic worker or gardener. And there’s an equality that you have to assert. You come from a position of superiority and there’s a duty of humility on you. I’m a strong reinforcer of that! On the other hand I try to break the ice when sitting in a meeting by saying to someone who’s black working class, and there are a lot of white people sitting in the room, “Now don’t be afraid of speaking to white people.” People have that fear on both sides, but particularly for vulnerable people, there’s an enormous fear of power, whether it’s the power of education or the power of wealth. If you’re a very confident white woman with a really good understanding of socialism, you could so undermine a group of black working class men if you do not understand how to engage in a non-patronizing way on the basis of equality. Because power is always embodied through presence, and the problem with the presence of power is very significant. Put it another way. I was in jail by the age of fifteen under apartheid and I was jailed by white men. If I looked at every white man as a jailer, any white man in my presence could represent that fear. So if I had to struggle against it, just think how much more a black working class woman who lived through the Pass Laws and was arrested by white police, must feel when she looks at a white man, any white man. You look at them with fear of that time, and so you have to overcome that fear. Similarly, a white person raised to see black people as a source of danger, looking at a sort of smart young black human being who gets up and speaks confidently, will either act with paternalism or fear. So in working organizations what Eleanor Marx showed is a complete socialist irritability with bourgeois feminism on the one hand and socialist patriarchy on the other. It’s her ability to acknowledge those two things that made such an enormous contribution. And I think that’s why I can’t say enough about why Rachel’s book is so important.

The fact that Eleanor Marx went out and practiced what she believed: her relationships with those women that she met in the East End of London was so important.

ZA:      With dockworkers, seamstresses, laundry workers: she showed an ability to engage with working class women on the basis of equality.

And to defuse her own advantages in front of them in order not to be threatening.

ZA:      Exactly.

I’ve been talking to other people about the idea that solidarity and internationalism can be a kind of evangelism or meddling. A bit like the way in which some working class people in the 1880s reported that the middle class women coming into the East End to establish settlements or homes for ‘fallen women’ were meddling do-gooders. Kamila Shamsie compared the imperial affiliations of some of suffragettes to the contemporary use of feminism as an excuse for war in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are the failures to connect which we’ve been talking about that socialist feminists of the ‘Seventies criticized and which, today, intersectional feminists rail against. How “joined-up” do you think politics is in South Africa today? How does internationalism work in South Africa at the moment?

ZA:      I think we’ve had some great examples of it working and continuing to work in recent history with the subject of HIV.For instance, the most important achievement of the Treatment Action Campaign, apart from defeating government denialism, was to put an enormous check on corporate power, particularly the pharmaceutical industry.

Was this something that happened in part as a result of internationalist pressure?

ZA:      It could never have happened without the defeat of drug companies. The thousand-fold reduction in prices could not have happened if the poorest of women with little or no education, without knowledge of international property law and science, were not connected to advocating activists around the world in Europe, in North America, particularly in Brazil, in Asia, Thailand, India, and throughout Africa. If we weren’t linked none of this could have happened. And that’s where the internet was so helpful to us in organizing such a phenomenal protest. I remember, I think it was 2003, when we were  having a defiance campaign in 140 cities across the world, because people were dying in South Africa. In most of these protests people took 600 pairs of shoes to put up outside South African consulates and embassies and the drug companies. This linked people and put an enormous pressure on the international pharmaceutical manufacturers and associations. In Paris they blockaded the factory of a pharmaceutical manufacturer and shut it down for a day. But then there was the support that Clinton and Gore gave to the drug companies. So when Clinton started speaking in New York he was followed all over with a placard saying, “All greed kills” and people chanting about access to anti-viral medication. Those sorts of struggles linked us directly to  the world. Then we worked with North American activists with knowledge of science and medicine, and British activists like Polly Clayden, who loves Sylvia Pankhurst. Working with people like that helped us win, and helped us put two million people on treatment in South Africa.

Are there any drawbacks to working internationally?

ZA:      Our campaigning represented the best side of internationalism. The difficult side is what I call managing imperialism. I remember going to a conference where we needed to raise money for the global fund on AIDS and one of the international NGOs came up to me as I arrived in Paris and put a speech in my hand and said, “Here’s what you have to say”. And I looked up and said, “Fuck off!” That’s traditionally, I believe, how organizations like Oxfam behave.

So what you’re saying is that individual support internationally seems to work with a better understanding of these problems of power, whereas institutional internationalism that takes place through big organizations, charities and NGOs, tends to retain more imperialist elements in their relationships?

ZA:      Yes exactly.  It’s not intentional and a lot of it has to do with working class activists from poorer countries, whether it be in Greece or Malawi or South Africa, not asserting our presence. Can you imagine if a South African NGO did a human rights report on Guantanamo Bay, on what is happening in Iran, in Israel, in Afghanistan, in Nigeria, in the jails, in the streets, how women are treated? That could have a much more important status than a report by Human Rights Watch. Not because the HRW people are bad, or because HRW is bad, but because of the colonial and imperial history of the United States and Europe. It’s not just the imperialism on their side; it’s the lack of imagination from our side. To create such reports of course takes money and organization. But also, as you say, you need to be able to see yourself in that role of acting and speaking out against injustice not just in your own country but globally – having an internationalist mind rather than a nationalist mind. And this work shouldn’t just be left to the imperialists.

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