On land debate in South Africa; what is the working class theory of a nation?

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

Recently inspired by the Presidential contender of the United States of America (Joe Biden), on the day he introduced his running mate (Kamala Harris), he quizzically provoked the state of the American Nation by emphatically interrogating and passionately demanding answers on the Common purpose of the country. This article draws strength from Biden’s progressive question because one of the main problems that have dogged those who have attempted to discuss the national question in South Africa is the deserved reputation of Stalin’s definition of a nation.

Though Stalin pointed out some years after writing his pamphlet on Marxism and the National Question; that his definition referred only to the period of the “bourgeois democratic world revolution”, for example to the period of capitalism up to 1917, it is nonetheless obvious that the form in which his definition is couched (stipulative terms and character of his definition), is a trap for the unwary. Because of the undoubted value which his pamphlet had in exposing the mysticism of the Austro-German Social Democrats such as Otto Bauer and Karl Renner who insisted that a Nation is a “community of fate” bearing a particular “National Character”, Stalin’s definition assumed for most leftists and Marxists the ex-cathedra validity of a papal decree.

The anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles conducted, especially since the end of World War II, in Asia, Africa and Latin America have thrown this originally Eurocentric theory of nationality into a crisis. Theorists in the socialist countries as well as in the capitalist world have been compelled to re-examine the whole question and to face the problem of definition anew. Developments in science itself, for instance, the paramountcy in the West of the idea of operational definitions, have made it necessary to re-investigate first principles, such as the very object of the science of society.

In socialist countries, academics do not seem to have reached any finality on the subject. A controversy on the concept of nation conducted in various Soviet and other East European journals during the period 1961-65 serves to demonstrate the range of disagreement. The most important aspect of this controversy is that, while all agreed that Stalin’s original definition served the polemical purpose of exposing the reactionary and strategically inept approach of Bauer, Renner and others, his examination of the subject was based exclusively on historical material relating to the European experience.

It was further stressed that one has to bear in mind ‘the conditional character and relativity of scientific definitions’. As perfect and flexible as the definitions may be, they can ‘never embrace all the relevant relationships that determine the development of a phenomenon’ (Lenin). From the point of view of the article, an important contribution to the discussion derives from the pen of one M.O Mnacakanjan, who cut through the conceptual jungle by proclaiming boldly that: The limited scientific value of a general definition is evident not only in the fact that it is incapable of revealing the essence of nations and laws of their development, but also in the fact that it cannot characterise fully and in a rigorous scientific manner the multiplicity of forms and the peculiarities of the origins and evolution of nations in all their phases of development, and finally, it cannot include all types of nations with their peculiarities under a general concept. In order to achieve this, differentiated definitions of the concept ‘nation’ are necessary.

In the Western Europe and the United States the same problem has been raised, because of the phenomenon of the ‘emergent nations’ in the Third World. Anthony Smith argues that despite Popper’s logical objections to the possibility of definition (because definitions do not capture the ‘essence’ of phenomena) and despite Coleman’s methodological objections (because of the qualitative nature of the social sciences), the definition of a kind remains a necessity. These have to be ‘ostensive and substantive’ definitions which would demonstrate the limits of the field.

The reason, of course, is that the problem is not one of the definitions. The concept ‘nation’ refers to a category of phenomena that encompass both de-limitable quantitative elements as well as elements of consciousness. This is eminently a historical question, a question that requires an examination of the specific set of circumstances. 

This exposition, therefore, is indicating that even though most writers on the national question in South Africa have not explicitly defined their class position when examining this point, their position is implicit in the answers they penned. On general grounds that the entire one can say about nations in the modern world is that they will consist of antagonistic or potentially antagonistic classes. Although it can be further asserted on empirical grounds that oppressed nations tend to create their own interpretation unless there are insuperable obstacles to such state formation and that consciousness of nationality arises in the course of the struggle for national liberation. It is clear that these features are class determined, and depending on the level of political consciousness.

In the context of South Africa, it is clear that the leading class is propagating its theory of ‘nationality’, while simultaneously the liberal bourgeois faction has put forward mercilessly variants of the pluralist doctrine of ‘nationality’. What is happening today, and what this article seeks to demonstrate, is that the working class in their drive to hegemony are compelled to spell out explicitly what has been mainly implicit hitherto, namely their theory of the nation of South Africa. 

The reason I am quizzing the working class is because I want to assert that as long as South Africa has got no common interest and purpose, it doesn’t qualify to be called a nation, but an accidental, dangerous and harmful geographic space to the majority of its people, predominantly the poor, it is further condescending to even conceive nor believe that it deserves to be called a rainbow nation because of its artificial patronising patriotic ninety minutes of a rugby game of Springbok vs Wallabies. South Africa lacks hope, vision, inspirational leadership, innovation and seriousness for it to qualify as a nation. It is increasingly becoming a jungle, because of the chronic inability to deal with corruption, as a small case in point. 

Mphumzi Mdekazi is a PhD Student at Stellenbosch University.