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Race, class and history

27 September 2011

Back in the 1970s there was a school of Marxist historians who attacked the “liberal” school that had flourished 30-40 years earlier.

According to the “liberal” school, the biggest problem in South African society was “race”, and in particular “native policy”, which they saw as retarding the development of the country.

The Marxist historians believed (with some justification) that the liberal historians had missed the role of capitalism in promoting poverty, oppression and misery. Capitalism was largely invisible to the “liberal” historians, because they assumed that it was part of a normal society, and if they thought about it at all, they thought of it being largely beneficial. Any glitches were simply teething troubles in the development of an industrialising society, and so in an industrial society those problems would be things of the past, just as when a baby learns to chew solid food and enjoy new tastes, it forgets the discomfort of the eruption of milk teeth.

The Marxist historians, or some of them at least, tended to deny that there was such a thing as racism. Racism, to them, was simply a cover up for class warfare, a rationalisation and an excuse for exploitation of the working class. All economic activity, and even government policies were described in terms of “extracting surpluses”.

So there were two competing views of South African history — one with the view that the central issue was “race” and the other with the view that the central issue was class.

Now this is a gross over-simplification, and I’ve been exaggerating the extremes and playing down the middle to try to make the two tendencies clearer, but these tendencies were nevertheless there.

There were other schools of history too — for example, the Afrikaner nationalist school, which tended to dominate school text books in the mid-20th century, and portrayed the main theme of history as the rise and development of the Afrikaner nation, with its own language, culture and territory (which God had given them by displacing the savages who had previously occupied it). Central to this story was the Great Trek.

Marxist historians, on the other hand, tended to see the Great Trek as just one of several similar population migrations (like that of the Ndebele to Matabeleland in the present Zimbabwe) which put the ruling classes in the various groups in a better position to extract surpluses from their own groups or their neighbours.

New History of South AfricaNew History of South Africa by Hermann Buhr Giliomee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More recently there has been, in the true Marxist dialectical pattern, a synthesis. If “liberal” historiography was the thesis, and Marxist historiography the antithesis, then the synthesis combines the two into a new synthesis. And that seems to be the role of New history of South Africa.

But at the moment I’m not just writing a book review, or a review of different schools of historians, but rather recent discourse about “whiteness” (see the previous two posts) seems to indicate a swing of the pendulum, rather than the dialectical pattern of the Marxists. If the focus among the liberal historians was on “race”, and that of the Marxist historians was on class, the pendulum now seems to be swinging back to race. Actually even that is an oversimplification, because the very period in which Marxist historiography flourished was also the period in which Black Consciousness flourished.

For the “liberal” historians one of the desirable aims was the creation of a black middle class, which would be more acceptable to the white middle class, and thus South Africa could become a non-racial society in which middle class values would flourish and all would be well.

The Marxist historians thought a better solution would be more power to the working class, and regarded the idea of enlarging the middle class as a backward step, because it would make the middle class more powerful and they would therefore continue to oppress the working class.

Now along comes “Whiteness Studies” which seems to shift the focus back to race.

It seems to emanate mainly from the USA, where it might be easy to identify “whiteness” with being middle class. But even there, I suspect, it is an oversimplification as this article shows: 6 Ways the Rich Are Waging a Class War Against the American People | | AlterNet:

But there’s another way of looking at “class war”: habitually vilifying the unfortunate; claiming that their plight is a manifestation of some personal flaw or cultural deficiency. Conservatives wage this form of class warfare virtually every day, consigning millions of people who are down on their luck to some subhuman underclass.

The belief that there exists a large pool of “undeserving poor” who suck the lifeblood out of the rest of society lies at the heart of the Right’s demonstrably false “culture of poverty” narrative. It’s a narrative that runs through Ayn Rand’s works. It comes to us in bizarre spin that holds up the rich as “wealth producers” and “job creators.”

To bring it back to a Christian perspective, the liberation theologians of the 1970s spoke of a “preferential option for the poor”. The proponents of “Whiteness Studies” seem to have a slightly different aim: a preferential option for the non-white.

And the Christian answer to those who like to see the rich as “wealth producers” or “job creators” was, I think, given by G.K. Chesterton, when he said:

For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man.

The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor.

A Christian may consistently say, “I respect that man’s rank, although he takes bribes.” But a Christian cannot say, as all modern men are saying at lunch and breakfast, “a man of that rank would not take bribes.” For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes. It is a part of Christian dogma; it also happens by a curious coincidence that it is a part of obvious human history. When people say that a man “in that position” would be incorruptible, there is no need to bring Christianity into the discussion. Was Lord Bacon a bootblack? Was the Duke of Marlborough a crossing sweeper? In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 September 2011 11:20 am

    I was drawn to what I saw as the core of this post:

    ‘…a “preferential option for the poor”. The proponents of “Whiteness Studies” seem to have a slightly different aim: a preferential option for the non-white.’

    In South Africa (and in Africa) poverty has a colour.

    “Preferential”…well, I’ll believe it when I see poverty eradicated, because until then, “preferential” is only in our minds. The majority of the wealth in SA is in white hands, so hell yes, local Christians should embrace a preferential option for the non-white.

    Whiteness Studies is actually about non-racialism. However, it says that we can’t get there by pretending race doesn’t exist (even if it’s socially constructed). It says that much of power, wealth and oppression is based on race; and that the only way we’re going to get to the utopia of non-racialism is to confront race head-on, rather than pretending we’re already at the utopia where race doesn’t exist any more. I know that this is going to make many people (such as yourself) uncomfortable, because it looks like it’s re-creating racism and having to identify ourselves in Apartheid-defined categories…but that’s not the point at all. The point is to deconstruct race, and make it look as absurd as it is (pencil test, anyone?) – and then simultaneously to point out how much race is re-created every day along power/wealth lines, and then to deconstruct that.

    In short, the aim is social justice.

  2. 27 September 2011 6:16 pm

    One of those strange coincidences that I was taking a break from reading Orthodoxy when I checked your blog.

    I’m currently researching the Chinese community in India, all of whom, at this point, are third or fourth generation Christians (although mainly Catholics converted by the Salesian order, I think). They are also culturally committed to financial success and affluence. I was, therefore, touching on the subject of affluence in (all brnaches of) Christianity discourse within the last century or so, as a sort of literature review.

    Would you, perhaps, have suggestions?

    • 27 September 2011 7:25 pm

      I’d like to invite you to join us in a discussion forum called Religionrap. It’s a bit quiet at the moment, but such questions might liven it up a bit.

      The subject of affluence and attitudes towards it in various religious is an interesting one. Some Christians, as you probably know, have even developed a theology of affluence, though I’m not sure that the Salesians 2would encourage that.

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