In the ‘70s and ‘80s the idea of praxis was often taken seriously in the process of building the organisations, movements and unions that undertook the work of developing the counter-power of the oppressed. Praxis was often understood as more than just the idea that effective political work required reflection on action, and action guided by reflection. It was also an idea with democratic and ethical dimensions.
As a democratic ideal praxis based conceptions of political commitment tended to reject the idea, common to both the militarism of the armed struggle in exile, and the fantasies of revolutionary omnipotence present in the both the Communist Party and some small socialist sects, that effective political action was, fundamentally, a matter of imposing the right discipline on the oppressed. In authoritarian modes of radical politics nationalism, which can take the form of popular and democratic politics, was often presented as a project predicated on obedience, conformity and control. And in both Stalinist and some Trotskyist forms of politics there was a conflation between the realm of the political as, in Karl Marx’s phrase, ‘practical, human-sensuous activity’, and the realm of science. When the political is misconceived in this manner authoritarianism is inevitable. When the people come to be understood as ‘the masses’, a tool to be appropriated and wielded by an enlightened elite, democratic forms of popular militancy are likely to be received as a deviation from the true path.
In contrast to authoritarian modes of politics praxis based conceptions of political militancy often took the form of some degree of an immediate affirmation of the capacity of everyone to participate in the work of both reflection and action. There was often a strategic dimension to this commitment in so far as it was understood that building democratic forms of popular politics would offer some insurance against the bureaucratisation of organised resistance and the possibility of, as had happened everywhere from Algeria to Zimbabwe in the postcolonial world, authoritarian forms of rule after apartheid. But there was also often an ethical dimension to praxis based modes of politics.
In the 70s Paulo Freire was, along with Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the thinkers taken seriously by the new forms of militancy that emerged in the intersection between universities and community and worker struggles and enabled the development of both the black consciousness movement and the new trade union movement. For Freire:
Those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly. This conversion is so radical as not to allow of ambiguous behaviour. To affirm this commitment but to consider oneself the proprietor of revolutionary wisdom - which must then be given to (or imposed on) the people -- is to retain the old ways. The man or woman who proclaims devotion to the cause yet is unable to enter into communion with the people, as totally ignorant, is grievously self-deceived.
In Frantz Fanon, a thinker who was an important precursor to Freire’s work, there is a similar ethical commitment to the idea that the starting point of what Fanon, in his original formulations in French often described as praxis, requires mutual respect. In a comment on his work as a doctor Fanon wrote that:
Examining this seventy three year old farm woman, whose mind was never strong and who is now far gone in dementia, I am suddenly aware of the collapse of the antennae with which I touch and through which I am touched. The fact that I adopt a language suitable to dementia, to feeble-mindedness; the fact that I "talk down "to this poor woman of seventy-three; the fact that I condescend to her in my quest for a diagnosis, are the stigmata of a dereliction in my relations with other. What an idealist, people will say. Not at all: It is just that the others are scum.
State repression and the various kinds of popular violence that came to characterise the second half of the 1980s frequently made it difficult to sustain the slow and careful work of democratic organising. Popular politics itself became increasingly invested in a militaristic and, at times, millennial symbolic order. After apartheid the ANC, drawing on a repertoire of authoritarian ideas, steadily turned the party into an effective system of top down control. This, together with a liberal consensus that sought to reduce the idea of democracy to various kinds of representation – voting and the substitution of debates in a resolutely exclusionary public sphere and NGO based civil society for popular participation – put paid to the idea that the people would govern themselves. This was compounded by the technocratic fantasies, also predicated on the illusion that science can replace the political, that were attractive to both the ANC and the liberal consensus.
After apartheid donors have overwhelmingly chosen to support modes of political engagement that are organised through NGOs in which middle class actors assume for themselves the right to enlighten, control and direct impoverished people. This has, with important exceptions, often taken the form of what Freire called ‘manipulation’, ‘prescription’ and other elements of ‘the praxis of domination’. In many instances this has been acutely racialized with the result that putatively progressive spaces are in fact spaces of racialized domination. These spaces have also been subject to gendered modes of domination and are, of course, always classed. In this world a person’s standing as an activist is frequently derived from their access to donor money, their standing in institutions and their prominence in the elite public sphere rather than any sort of mandate from oppressed people or any sort of success in supporting or engaging actually existing practices of the self-organisation of the oppressed. In fact sustained ongoing failure to organise or win any kind of meaningful popular support is often no barrier at all to organisational and personal success.
The practices in these spaces are often systemically ineffective in terms of their stated goals but functional for sustaining NGO power. In some cases they are not only ineffective in terms of their stated goals but are also seriously damaging to actually existing forms of organisation among the oppressed. It is, for instance, entirely unhelpful when people who are not members of a grassroots organisation are bought into NGO meetings and presented as members of that organisation. It is also unhelpful when NGOs seek to gain influence over popular struggles and organisations by offering employment to individuals within those struggles and organisations. This invariably leads to either the rapid decline of those struggles and organisations or to acute internal conflict. It is equally unhelpful when NGOs implicitly construct oppressed people as ignorant and seek to educate them, often in languages that they don’t confidently possess and in spaces which they can’t easily access and in which they don’t feel fully at home, in a manner that is not genuinely dialogical and takes no serious account of their own lived experience of oppression and resistance.
There have been a number of cases where NGOs, across the political spectrum and acting in a manner that is not entirely dissimilar to that of the ruling party and the state, have actively sought to delegitimate popular struggles and organisations that they have not been able to control. This has frequently taken the form of recourse to the standard set of prejudices that fester in elite society against people who are poor and black. There have been cases where an acutely racialized expression of the sort of inevitably toxic recourse to conspiracy theory and character assassination typical of small sectarian organisations has made its way into the heart of donor backed progressive respectability.
There is an extraordinary degree of popular protest in South Africa. It is diverse, dynamic and unstable and of course it carries within it elements that are both potentially emancipatory and reactionary. Nonetheless this degree of popular dissent – long organised and expressed outside of liberal frameworks and increasingly also organised and expressed at a distance from the ruling party – provides fertile ground for building popular organisations. But with important exceptions the vast bulk of the money and energies channelled through the NGO left in recent years has failed, often completely, to support any kind of effective movement building process.
In a moment in which the state is becoming increasingly predatory, the army is back on the streets, torture and murder are being used as forms of political control, millions of people have no viable route into a dignified and fruitful life and there is an active attempt to build new ideologies to divide the oppressed and sustain consent for oppression full measure needs to be taken of what works, and what doesn’t. We know from our own history, and from the sustained mobilisations in places like Haiti, Bolivia and Venezuela in recent years, that modes of militancy that begin from the recognition of the political capacities of the oppressed, and are firmly in the hands of the oppressed, are vastly more effective than bussing people into another NGO meeting over which they have no control. Praxis, emancipatory praxis, is one of a number of useful ideas, ideas that can only be realised in practice, that can help to equip us for the challenges ahead.
A shorter version of this piece was first published by SACSIS.