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The Strange and Revealing Choice

Ronald Radosh

So much has been written about Peter Beinart’s essay in the new issue of The New York Review of Books that I will not add to it. The two best critiques of Beinart’s arguments are by Jamie Kirchick and Noah Pollak. You can read Kirchick’s here and Pollak’s here. Many more have appeared since then, including a forum between eight different people in Foreign Policy, and a response by Beinart in The Daily Beast.

Peter Beinart is a proud liberal who grew up as a Jew. His parents were from apartheid South Africa. In a society where the majority of the white community was composed of the Afrikaners who created apartheid, the small Jewish community stood out in its opposition. One question must be asked. If you were a Jew and a liberal opposed to apartheid, what member of your own community would you view as a hero?

I believe the candidate for hero would most likely be the late Helen Suzman, who died at age 91 on New Year’s Day of 1999. Representing liberals in Parliament since 1959, from 1961 to 1974, Suzman was the only member of parliament who day in and day out fought apartheid and defended the rights of the regime’s political prisoners. When a minister said she was asking questions that embarrassed South Africa, she replied: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa. It is your answers.” She was the only candidate, the BBC obituary noted, “since the first South African parliament was established in 1910, to be elected by a white constituency on a platform that clearly rejected racial discrimination.” And she was a Jew in a parliament dominated by Calvinist Afrikaners who were the mainstay of the apartheid government.

Suzman became a major defender of Nelson Mandela, regularly visiting him in prison. When he was released and the new South African constitution was signed, Mandela invited her to the ceremony. He publicly thanked her for her outspoken defense of the opponents of apartheid, and for her decades-long campaign to overturn it. This is how tough she was. The BBC obit points out that as “the lone voice of real opposition in parliament, Mrs. Suzman spoke out against such measures as the 90-day detention law of 1963, which, she maintained, brought South Africa ‘further into the morass of a totalitarian state.’ At a public rally in Johannesburg in 1966, she condemned the use of arbitrary powers by the justice minister and excoriated the government as ‘narrow-minded, prejudiced-ridden bullies.’”

What is important is that Suzman was not afraid to speak her mind, even if she differed with the African National Congress. She opposed the worldwide campaign for sanctions, arguing that they would hurt poor blacks. “She was dismissive of the death threats she received by telephone and in the mail, and undaunted in her showdowns with the men she described as apartheid’s leading ‘bullies,’ who in turn dismissed her as a ‘dangerous subversive’ and a ‘sickly humanist.’”

I have spent so much time on Suzman to illustrate why someone who has a family connection to South Africa like Beinart, and who calls himself a liberal, should have had her as a hero. She was not exactly invisible. That is why it is more than strange to find out who his hero is. He identified the person in a three-part interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Here is Beinart’s answer after Goldberg asks him, “Do you consider yourself a Zionist?” and “What is the goal of your essay?” Beinart writes:

My hero growing up was Joe Slovo [emphasis added] who spoke only Yiddish until he was nine and upon moving to South Africa as a boy from Lithuania (we South Africans are almost all Litvaks, except my mom’s side, who are Sephardi) became the head of the military wing of the African National Congress. There are Slovos in every place Jews have gone, people who have devoted themselves as Jews (though I’ll admit Slovo was not as good a Jew as say, Abraham Joshua Heschel) to the fate of non-Jews. There’s a tension, but for me the value is in the tension, in loving Zionism and Judaism and also feeling that one’s love of who one is impels one towards moral universalism. I see that spirit powerfully in the Israeli left …

Who was Joe Slovo? Was he a liberal like Beinart or Suzman? No. He was not only the leader of the Stalinist South African Communist Party (SACP) whose top members made up the leadership of the African National Congress, but a man whose very concept of Judaism and views on Israel reveal him to be anything but liberal. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is true that Slovo suddenly became critical of Stalinism — in an effort to save South African communism from its critics on both the left and the right. But as one of his comrades, Pallo Jordan, explained at a memorial service for him:

In a world in which people, especially those involved in liberation politics, were compelled to choose sides, many found it very difficult to publicly voice their misgivings about the flaws of existing socialism. On both sides of that great divide, at the height of the Cold War, there was little room to accommodate critical supporters.

Comrade Joe preferred to maintain a public silence about his doubts, questions and very far-reaching criticisms of all the socialist countries. He confided these to his friends and colleagues, but I do not recall him once expressing these publicly. Though I have been one of his sternest critics for such lapses, I can, however, appreciate his motives.

Jordan, a current ANC leader and member of parliament, was quite frank about Slovo’s failings when he was alive. The details can be found in a book written by Arnold Hughes, called Marxism’s Retreat from Africa. Hughes points out that Moscow gave the SACP money, training, weapons and political support. In return, the SACP, and Joe Slovo, had to accept, follow and advocate every turn and twist of the Party line. For Slovo and his comrades, the Bolshevik path to power was the very one they advocated for South Africa. In 1989 the SACP issued its program, “The Path to Power,” which Hughes accurately calls “an unambiguous celebration of old-fashioned Marxism-Leninism,” ironically written in Cuba five short months before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of Communism all through the Eastern European satellites.

Jordan was one of the few ANC leaders to challenge Slovo publicly. After Slovo’s post-Communist explanation for the USSR’s end, Jordan wrote: “While Slovo recognizes that the socialist countries degenerated into police states, with their administrative and repressive organs possessed of inordinate powers, he never seems to broach the rather obvious question: What gave rise to the need for such practices? Was it not to contain and suppress a fundamentally explosive contradiction in these societies that the ruling parties constructed such formidable armories of police powers?”

A critic writing from the perspective of the neo-Trotskyist left, Jordan ably saw the limitations and evasions of Slovo’s attempt to rescue Soviet-style Marxism. This was Jordan’s conclusion about Slovo and the SACP:

One cannot lightly accept at face value Comrade Joe Slovos’s protestations about the SACP’s non-Stalinist credentials. Firstly, there is too much evidence to the contrary. Any regular reader of the SACP’s publications can point to a consistent pattern of praise and support for every violation of freedom perpetrated by the Soviet leadership, both before and after the death of Stalin. It is all too easy in the context of Soviet criticisms of this past for Comrade Slovo to now boldly come forward. Secondly, the political culture nurtured by the SACP’s leadership over the years has produced a spirit of intolerance, intellectual pettiness and political dissembling among its membership which regularly emerges in the pages of the Party’s journals. If we are to be persuaded that the Party has indeed embraced the spirit of honesty and openness, expected of Maxrists, it has an obligation to demonstrate this by a number of visible measures.

And what about Slovo’s view of Israel? They are quite revealing for what they tell us about Beinart’s current views. This is what Slovo had to say on Israel:

Within a few years the wars of consolidation and expansion began. Ironically enough, the horrors of the Holocaust became the rationalization for the preparation by Zionists of acts of genocide against the indigenous people of Palestine. Those of us who, in the years that were to follow, raised our voices publicly against the violent apartheid of the Israeli state were vilified by the Zionist press. It is ironic, too, that the Jew-haters in South Africa – those who worked and prayed for a Hitler victory – have been linked in close embrace with the rulers of Israel in a new axis based on racism.

Here we have the obscenity of a South African Communist Jew, who supported all the Stalinist terror during the years in which Stalin lived, accusing the one democracy in the Middle East of genocide — thereby cheapening the term and revealing its author’s own real commitments. And years before Jimmy Carter, it was Slovo who first branded Israel an apartheid state.

This is Peter Beinart’s hero! He says, as we have seen, that he thinks Slovo was a great man because he devoted himself as a Jew “to the fate of non Jews.” This is the quite familiar theme enunciated by the late Isaac Deutscher, the self-proclaimed “non-Jewish Jew” who saw his ethic identity (not religion, since those who adopt that stance are atheists) as a device to use for the liberation of all the oppressed, as Deutscher believed was what his hero Leon Trotsky had done.

Way before it was popular among today’s liberals, Communists like Slovo who followed the Soviet line on Israel called it an apartheid state and condemned it leaders as racists. Now, their line is being echoed by today’s liberals like Beinart. The Beinart article is just the latest example in a new chorus of Israel bashing. As Noah Pollak says, Beinart has “fallen completely and predictably into line with the demands of his ideological compatriots.”

And given that we now know one of his heroes was Joe Slovo, Stalinist leader of the SACP, why should we all be so surprised? Liberal Zionism is becoming an endangered species, as its once proud members like Beinart have become comrades in arms with the Joe Slovos of the world. By choosing Slovo as his one hero, Peter Beinart has helped us understand his comfort level with joining the Israel bashers. He has also shown us how far liberalism has fallen from its once admired heights.

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