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Jacobin dead-wrong on Zimbabwe & international solidarity

By Dave Schneider |
January 6, 2018
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You would think the most progressive land reform in the history of Africa would be something to celebrate.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for some socialists in the United States last year when Robert Mugabe resigned as president of Zimbabwe. Far from celebrating the achievements of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, or even just taking an even-handed look at the successes and challenges facing the Southern African nation, a number of voices on the U.S. left seized the opportunity to smear the 93 year-old liberation leader’s legacy.

Zimbabwe underwent a tense but peaceful transition of power in November 2017 that saw Mugabe leave office after 37 years as head of state. Though the usual denunciations of Mugabe as a ‘tyrant’ came from the U.S. and British press, the left-wing journal Jacobin joined in the chorus, publishing some of the sorriest articles on Zimbabwe ever.

Jacobin is a social democratic publication that sometimes carries insightful articles about the U.S. economy and the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party. But for all their talk of socialism, they’re remarkably comfortable parroting the State Department’s line on many international issues.

So it is with Zimbabwe.

Writing in Jacobin on December 5, 2017, Benjamin Fogel asks “Why do so many Western leftists defend Robert Mugabe?” According to Fogel, Mugabe did absolutely nothing right. The charges made by Fogel are all familiar to anyone who has read a BBC or CNN article on Zimbabwe in the last 20 years: rampant corruption, opulent wealth, eliminating political opponents and using the nation’s fast-track land reform to enrich his “cronies.” But Fogel takes it one step further claiming “that Mugabe and ZANU-PF betrayed the national liberation struggle” in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle

Let’s look at the facts. In Mugabe’s 37 years as head of state, Zimbabwe transitioned from decades of white-minority rule to an independent Black-majority republic. Under British colonial rule, Zimbabwe – then known as Southern Rhodesia, named after the genocidal imperialist Cecil Rhodes – existed as an apartheid state, where a tiny class of white plantation owners possessed most of the nation’s land and natural resources. A 1962 survey by the Rhodesian government found that while Europeans comprised just 1/16th of the population, they owned more than half of the country’s land—and 82% of the fertile land!

Land hunger by the indigenous Black population fueled the nation’s liberation struggle. Led by the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwean African People’s Union (ZAPU), a popular insurgency of workers, peasants and farmers defeated the Rhodesian Army – and its apartheid South African backers – in 1979.

Mugabe, one of the founders of ZANU, played an instrumental role in the liberation war’s victory, suffering 12 years of imprisonment by Rhodesian president Ian Smith, training guerrilla fighters in neighboring Mozambique, and crafting political and battlefield strategy. It’s hard for many activists in the U.S. to grasp the level of sacrifice it takes to spend 12 years in prison fighting for liberation, but it doesn’t excuse Fogel or Jacobin’s trite dismissal.

ZANU and ZAPU signed the Lancaster House Agreement with Britain and the U.S. in 1979, bringing an end to the liberation war and bringing majority-rule democracy to Zimbabwe. According to the terms of Lancaster House, the newly formed government of Zimbabwe agreed to a gradual land reform, whereby Britain and the U.S. would subsidize the purchase of land from white settlers and its redistribution to the indigenous black population. In total, both countries pledged around $1 billion in aid to Zimbabwe.

The people elected Mugabe prime minister in 1980 because of his revolutionary leadership. But while victorious, Mugabe inherited enormous economic damage inflicted by the white-minority Rhodesian government and severe underdevelopment in the countryside. Worse yet, Britain paid only a fraction of its obligation and the U.S. paid nothing at all. White landowners took advantage of the agreement, only selling fallow land to the government - at a markup! Fogel pays only lip-service to these obstacles, treating them as an after-thought rather than the set of concrete conditions that Mugabe’s government faced.

More tellingly, Fogel completely ignores the devastating foreign intervention by apartheid South Africa in the 1980s aimed at crushing independent African governments, Zimbabwe included. South Africa sent troops to back Ian Smith’s white minority regime as it terrorized indigenous Black Zimbabweans during the liberation struggle, but even after independence, South African destabilization cost Zimbabwe a staggering $10 billion - more than 14 times the total debt left by the deposed Rhodesian government – according to a 1998 study by Joseph Hanlon of the London School of Economics. The disturbances in Mtebeleland during the 1980s, which Fogel also cites, trace back to South African-backed death squads and arms shipments to anti-government rebels in the countryside.

In the 1990s, a series of the worst droughts in modern Zimbabwean history added fuel to the fire of Western betrayal. These challenges forced the government to take loans from international creditors in order to pay workers’ wages, finance future land reform efforts, and continue funding successful social programs, like the public education system. Like countless oppressed nations have experienced though, the IMF and World Bank never loan money without strings attached.

Fast-Track Land Reform

Mugabe’s government found itself between a rock and a hard place, as international creditors pushed for austerity measures while the U.S. and Britain continued to ignore their obligations. War veterans launched protests demanding more radical measures, and trade unions struck government services demanding raises. Something had to give - and it did in 1999, when liberation war veterans began directly organizing peasants, workers, and the urban poor to seize land from white owners.

While initially concerned that the land occupations would worsen the nation’s economic situation, Mugabe’s government came to embrace these actions. In the year 2000, the ruling ZANU-PF party, led by Mugabe, codified these land occupations in the constitution as the ‘Fast Track Land Reform Program’.

This is where the Jacobin drive-by of Mugabe really hits the skids. Fogel offers some mealy-mouthed praise for the “popular movement performing actual land reform” while also making the tired claim that Mugabe “hijacked the land reform project, ensuring his family and their cronies made off with the prime land.”

But that’s just a bald-faced lie. According to a study of Zimbabwe’s fast-track land reform published in 2013 by Joseph Hanlon, J. M. Manjengwa and Teresa Smart, “less than 5% of new farmers with under 10% of the land are ‘cronies’ [of the government]” – a term they heavily criticize as a vague political slur.

In actuality, the vast majority of the land reform recipients were workers, peasants, and farmers. Ian Scoones’ groundbreaking 2010 study of Zimbabwe’s land reform found that 54% of recipients of individual land plots were peasants and farmers, 12% were workers or urban poor people, 17% were civil service workers, ranging from teachers to public sector workers, 4% were security services personnel, 5% were business people, and 8% were former farm workers. For the larger commercial farms, 12% of land recipients were peasants/farmers, 44% were workers or urban poor, 26% were civil service, 2% were security service personnel, 10% were business people, and 5% were former farmworkers.

From 2000 to 2013, 169,000 Black Zimbabwean farmers and their families received land, making it the single-largest and most progressive land reform in the history of Africa. Compare this to South Africa, where white landowners still possess over 73% of the nation’s land 14 years after the end of apartheid, and its clear that Zimbabwe’s example is something to celebrate.

For years, the State Department and the British government churned out this garbage of land reform “cronyism,” which wasn’t backed up by any data, and the corporate media was more than willing to publish it. But by 2009, study after study disproved the claim that the land reform had only benefitted Mugabe’s “cronies.” With so much data at their disposal, Fogel and Jacobin are either stuck in the mid-2000s or just willingly ignorant.

Socialism and National Democratic Revolution

The weirdest part of Fogel’s article is how much time he spends denouncing the idea of “Mugabe as a socialist revolutionary” – an idea I’ve only seen published in the Wall Street Journal.

While Marxism heavily influenced both ZANU and Mugabe during the liberation struggle, Zimbabwe did not pursue a socialist path after independence. Like many oppressed nations that overthrew colonialism in the post-WWII period, Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle was a national democratic revolution, which brought together all classes opposed to imperialism. The government led by Mugabe and ZANU-PF was national democratic, not socialist.

But as socialists living in the United States - the largest and most violent imperialist country on earth - it’s our duty to support the struggles of oppressed nations to win their freedom, whether they’re socialist or not. Workers in the U.S. have a common interest with all people around the world fighting the same class of billionaires, banks and corporations that we do. That’s part of the material basis for international solidarity and Jacobin just doesn’t do that.

Fogel’s opportunism reaches new heights when he compares Mugabe’s government to two other national democratic projects: the socialist-led government in Venezuela, and Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya. While acknowledging that “Venezuela suffers from serious economic problems,” he quickly adds that the oil-rich Latin American nation “reached heights far beyond those in Zimbabwe.” Incredibly, he also writes that Qaddafi “at least built a semi-decent welfare state for Libyans.”

Oh my! What a stunning reversal for Jacobin, which published a disgraceful hit-piece on Venezuela just five months earlier (see: “Being Honest About Venezuela” by Mike Gonzalez) and gave hand-wringing support for the NATO-backed Libyan rebels in 2011, who now operate open-air slave markets along the Mediterranean (see: “Libya and the Left” by Peter Frase).

One wonders what kind of outcome Fogel and the editors at Jacobin would like to see for Zimbabwe. Is it one where the U.S. and British-backed Movement for a Democratic Change (MDC) come to power? MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, a sell-out opportunist trade union leader, regularly meets with U.S. and British officials and lobbies for more devastating sanctions on his own nation. Would his pro-West party better advance Jacobin’s misguided concept of ‘socialism’? Or would they like an imaginary, non-existent clique of perfect socialist revolutionaries, with well-worn copies of Jacobin’s holiday issue tucked in their coat pockets, coming to power like they wanted for Libya in 2011?

Liberation from Zimbabwe to the U.S.A.

While this issue may seem abstract to a lot of socialists in the U.S., some of the implications hit closer to home than many realize. For one, Zimbabwe still suffers far-reaching sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Britain for taking back its land – under Mugabe’s government, no less. Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s promise of financial support in the Lancaster House Agreement goes unfulfilled, as does Britain’s obligations. The enormous economic challenges that Zimbabwe indeed faces today – from inflation to high unemployment – principally come from these outside factors. Socialists in the U.S. owe our support and international solidarity to the people of Zimbabwe as they continue struggling against imperialism.

But beyond the immediate economic struggles, there are many striking parallels between Zimbabwe’s ongoing liberation struggle and the struggle for Black liberation in the U.S.

These parallels weren’t lost on then-Rhodesian president Ian Smith, who looked to another former British colony ruled by a white minority when he issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965. Smith saw a kinship with slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who issued their own “UDI” in 1776. Indeed, Rhodesia’s UDI drew its textual inspiration from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, hoping to stave off the international pressures of decolonization.

Zimbabwe’s ‘civil war’ from 1966 to 1979 brought a majority-Black government to power, just as following the U.S. Civil War – the second American Revolution – the formerly enslaved Black population elected majority Republican state legislatures committed to equal rights, including a Black-majority legislature in South Carolina.

Reconstruction in the U.S. wasn’t a socialist revolution. It was a democratic revolution, whose aim was to bring the political and economic gains made under capitalist democracy to a section of the people – African Americans – that remained in literal slavery after the Revolution of 1776.

But in the U.S., the second revolution didn’t solve the land question. The guarantee of redistribution to the freed Black population - “40 acres and a mule,” promised in General Sherman’s Field Order 15 - went unfulfilled, and the white plantation class was allowed to keep their land and wealth. With their economic power intact, they used paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize the Black population and restore their political power by 1877.

Zimbabwe faced a similar dilemma in the late 1990s. The land question remained largely unresolved, with the white landowning class retaining most of their wealth and angling to restore their political power.

But the Zimbabwean people wrote their own history and took back their land. President Mugabe and ZANU-PF supported these efforts and codified them in the constitution - and they paid an enormous price for this, ranging from sanctions to foreign-backed destabilization. Whatever Mugabe’s shortcomings and mistakes – and he had plenty – his government represented the people’s continued national democratic struggle against imperialism.

Jacobin’s attacks on Mugabe and Zimbabwe’s national democratic revolution are just another sorry example of the chauvinism far too common in the U.S. Thankfully there are better examples of international solidarity we can look to, like the 1,000-plus crowd of African Americans who packed into Mount Olive Baptist Church in New York to hear Mugabe speak in 2000. While discussing land reform in his own nation, Mugabe expressed his solidarity for the fight against racism and white supremacy in the U.S.

Fogel’s piece seems preoccupied with the fate of ex-patriot intellectuals in Zimbabwe, and he seems very offended by the criticism of Jacobin’s position on social media. He doesn’t seem very concerned with the masses of ordinary Black Zimbabweans who, for the first time in a century, own their own land and control their own nation. He should probably spend less time on Facebook and Twitter, and more time organizing against the U.S. government’s imperialist designs for nations like Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Libya.

Jacobin, too, should consider that workers in the United States need every ally we can get in the fight against our own ruling class of billionaires, bankers and corporations. We should put our time and energy towards helping to break the shackles on independent nations, like Zimbabwe, rather than echoing the talking points of the rich and powerful.

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