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Gadflies and Tom-Toms


By Philip Weiss

IF YOU WERE looking for a way to get at the meaning of Saturday afternoon's session on Angola in the Science Center, you might have found it in any of a number of curious features of the ceremony. There was, for instance, the misuse of the word "question," which by the end of the proceedings was referring to speeches instead of inquiries. There was the angry chant by one member of the African Youth Movement--ending, "Long live world revolution, and death to imperialism!"--or the angrier speech by another African attacking the people who had pointed out inconsistencies in the backing of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, both of which drew applause. Or the persistent tom-toms (to borrow a phrase from the African Youth Movement) of the Spartacus Youth League which time and again rose to attack the MPLA for its stance on workers' movements, and who were, at last, hissed back into their seats by more ardent MPLA supporters.

Perhaps the most instructive altercation in the program came when a tall American black man in a shabby coat rose towards the end of the session and said that although he had learned the answers to some questions this afternoon, the meeting had struck him as "intellectual masturbation" by a bunch of closeted academics who haggle too much among themselves in "the Harvard Science Center and other bullshit halls," estranged from the "common man." The man, who would identify himself only as a "resident of Roxbury," later whispered that he felt the need to remind "intellectuals of their responsibility on the other side of the tracks."

His were the first profane words of the afternoon panel discussion, and the speech had a somewhat jarring effect. Sean Gervasi, an officer of the United Nations committee on Namibia, who had earlier opened the session rather ponderously by noting, "We are at a confluence of analysis of practice and theory," now suggested that the type of argument the group of nearly 500 had gone into that afternoon was "a luxury mirroring this hall in nature."

"It is exceedingly arrogant for an American to comment on the niceties of a liberation movement that has already thrown Portugal out of Angola," he added, his voice rising. "While you were sitting in Cambridge, they were dying."

That analysis, however, came as an afterthought to a session that a number of people, who addressed each other as "comrade," had spent wrangling over the politics of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. There was an urgency to the rhetoric; the angriest and least tolerant speeches got the most applause, and despite the appeal by moderator Ernest Wamba, lecturer on African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis, for people to "try hard to analyze rather than recite," those who suggested that the MPLA was being manipulated by the Soviet Union were abused and ignored.

Gervasi said at the beginning," Angola is not a war in a far away country...It may not yet seem a major world crisis but it is," and his message was echoed throughout the session. Angola is important because it represents the organized heart of resistance to American plans to colonize along capitalist lines the countries and resources of Africa south of the Sahara. It is the "type of struggle," Gervasi said, "that will occur until Western nations realize how the world is changing."

Gervasi and the speakers who followed him outlined a pattern of U.S. investment in southern Africa designed to commit those "middle powers" to a policy of support for the American plans for Angola and the resources of the area. "He who controls South Africa," Gervasi said, "holds a dagger at the throat of the west, which guzzles oil at an amazing rate." Ann Seidman, visiting professor of economics at Wellesley, said that the United States had contrived to "create what some people in Africa are now calling a bureaucratic bourgeoisie closely linked with the multinational corporations." Aubrey Williams, an instructor at Yale, added, "What has emerged in Zaire is a new political class led by Mobutu, a class that has divorced itself rather significantly from the lower level of the bureaucracy and indeed from the lower level of the military and has little legitimacy for the significant rural portion of the population."

On these points all seemed to agree, and everyone, even the Spartacists, pledged support for the MPLA. But what underlay the discussion was the profound opposition over what effect the Soviet Union was having through its support of the liberation movement. A group of people steeped in leftist rhetoric continually skirmished over the issue of Soviet "social imperialism." Throughout, however, the Spartacus gadflies persisted with their line.

"We will support the political program of the MPLA," Bonnie A. Breen of the Spartacus Youth League said, rising in an aisle, her voice quavering with intensity. "But the program of the MPLA will mean the smashing of workers' movements in a post-independence period" and also "tribalist genocide." As others called for her to sit down, she asked stridently, "Will we support that? No we won't."

A large African in the front row did not even rise to refute her, but spoke stormily from his seat. Amid a torrent of words that drew "right-ons" from others and smiles and cheers from the Le Monde-bestrewed section where members of the African Youth Movement were sitting, he blustered over the argument that because the MPLA was at one point opposed by the People's Republic of China, it is illegitimate. He concluded with a fiery call for support of the people, including the "Palestinian people, the Angolan people."

Members of the league, who adopt a Trotskyite line on the importance of proletarian origins for a revolutionary movement, were continually ignored by the more ardent MPLA supporters. The criticism that those supporters, many of whom are Africans, were responding to was the Maoist criticism, that the MPLA cannot be supported because it is backed by the Soviet Union and will be used as an agent of "social imperialism."

The Maoist critique was the critique that Ahmed Issa, a Somali in the Graduate School of Education and an organizer of the program, seemed to address when he said, as the hall began to empty after 6 p.m., that "the question of revisionism" doesn't enter until the MPLA comes to power.

In an aisle near the door, Robert Pearlman, who is a teacher in Boston, shouted that a position opposing the Soviet Union is not necessary. "Does the attitude of the Soviet Union mean that the MPLA is being subordinated to some kind of imperialism?" he asked in a booming voice. It is an "essential theoretical point," he added, that imperialism is "something that grows out of capitalism at a certain time...there's no such thing as Soviet social imperialism." After his angry speech, Pearlman stood stonily for a moment in the aisle in a hortatory pose, but his statue-like demeanor and belligerent tone was ignored by an audience that had applauded everyone else.

Even Pearlman, however, emphasized that "the right side is that side that is struggling against the capitalist expansion into southern Africa," which is the same position taken by those who rebut the Maoists in a manner that does not support the Soviet Union.

Later that night, for instance, Calistos Ndhluvo, president of the Boston-based South Africa Research Association and a native of Zimbabwe, argued that Soviet support to the MPLA and Chinese support on the other side are not issues in the consideration of the Angolan War. "I'm not worried about the Soviets or China or Cuba," he said in a direct, realpolitik response to the Maoists. "South Africa and its imperialist backers are a greater threat to me. It is true that China is the purest revolutionary regime in the world. But I would quarrel with those who say that the revolutionary purity of China, say, is the same as her foreign policy. We all know that's not true. But all this talk of social imperialism is nonsense. Social imperialism is nonsense. Social imperialism is as absurd as fried ice."

There was at least one exception to all the political masturbation that the resident of Roxbury was convinced went on: the African students who will return to that continent explained what role they expect to play. When they return, a student from New York (who declined to give his name) said, they will have to "commit class suicide" because they have been educated into the upper ranks of the African bureaucracy. Still, he said, there will be some unalterable divisions. Most of our mothers are illiterate, he said, and it may also be impossible to work anywhere else but in the government. And although he reiterated his earlier appeal for "world revolution" and vowed that he would commit class suicide, he acknowledged a certain contradiction. "You may be working towards crumbling the system for which you may be working," he concluded.

For that student --who called the MPLA "gallant forces"--and for other Africans, the imperative of supporting the MPLA is much more direct than the imperative for Americans who have neither suffered under western-backed regimes in southern Africa nor fought to expel that influence. Most of the argument Saturday was, as Gervasi indicated, condescending to a party that will have to make its decisions based on first-hand knowledge of a wartime situation. All Americans can do, Gervasi said after the resident of Roxbury had dismissed the rhetoric, is give their support to the MPLA in an outspoken and unified way. That may not be very ideological, but it is the imperative.

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