Rhodes Must Fall: Are they fascists?

Matthew Kruger says that in democracies political and moral disagreement must be resolved by deliberation, debate and compromise

A polemic on crypto-fascists and the policy of appeasement

 ‘Violence will bring an end to the world as we know it and cleanse all the evil, give rise to a completely new world where the only race that matters is the human race.’


Burning protest art. Burning a painting of an anti-apartheid activist. Defacing the bust of the first female graduate of UCT. Burning vehicles and petrol-bombing offices? [1] The actions of some thirty or so members of the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement, and perhaps people inspired by them, have become so indiscriminate and grotesque that we simply cannot avoid the question any longer: Are they fascists?

Certainly not the movement in its entirety. This would be an unfair generalisation of a diverse group of unique, complex and passionate individuals—many of whom have been inspired by a genuine sense of grievance. It would be absurd. Would it not? 

That said, some members have proved themselves worthy of the label. Their unwillingness to negotiate, compromise, debate, listen, reflect, or think of others (recall the terrible consequences that the associated #NationalShutDown campaign would have had for the poor), was obvious to anyone willing to listen to their slogans, slurs and stipulations. Indeed, their rhetoric—structures, power, systems, safe spaces, decolonisation, power, bodies—is characteristically Marxist jargon. Last week’s violence was always coming.

‘But, wait’, you might say, ‘you asked whether they were fascists. Fascists are right-wing and Marxists are left-wing. If their rhetoric is Marxist, can they be fascists?’ This is a fair question, given the remarkable success of the left in magically distinguishing the near-identical features, methods and consequences of the two ideologies. So, what do these two great stains on our humanity have in common?

The words and the deeds of these students reveal that they share a view of people and politics that is essentially determinist. They conceive of ‘structures’ and ‘institutions’ as objects that exist apart from the multiple, always ongoing, interactions that constitute them. These objects emerge out of relations of power that are unequal. In fact, all human relationships are characterised by domination. Our ideas, values and identities are products of our ‘lived experiences’, which are the result of what our social norms ‘say’, that is, of structures and institutions. They reject the notion that the humanity of individuals is partly contingent on the choices that they freely and willingly make. In short, all individuals are produced by forces external to their free wills—by the structures of class, race, gender, etc.

These various beliefs explain why we hear so much about the pervasive, all-consuming and inescapable forces of capitalism, neo-liberalism, institutional racism, problematic language, and whiteness—but, so little about individuals and their particular beliefs and actions. For ultimately the individual does not matter. As products of class, race and gender, they are not concerned with our identities as unique and distinct individuals. What matters is the group. As mere members of groups, individuals are in the final analysis irrelevant—dispensable.

Because people are ‘produced’, they do not see their opponents as subjects who are capable of transcending—through imagination and empathy—their given stations. We only ever live our particular experiences. We cannot, except through accident, act on universally valid decisions. Talk of universals, in fact, is an illusion; part of a bourgeois false-consciousness. After all, have we not known for some time that truth is power? 

So, the duty of those in power is to ‘recognise’ and accept without question what those in pain have to say about themselves—and to act in a way that ends or lessens this pain. Only then can the oppressor begin to redeem their original sin, whatever this may be: their maleness, whiteness and/or class membership.

When individuals are understood in this way, it is a small step to conclude that violence is a legitimate political instrument. When politics is seen as a problem concerning produced objects, rather than a question of how to regulate disagreements that arise from the interaction of equal rational agents, it becomes conceptually united with violence. As objects, we do not change our minds through persuasion, deliberation and choice. We are the playthings of History. What matters is the end, with the means always justified by that end. This is why the theorists who are responsible for the jargon used by these students speak of individuals having to be molded, fractured and cut—always for the sake of ‘the cause’.

Because they do not distinguish power and violence, they see violence everywhere. Since it is everywhere, the most effective action will often be a strategic, but indiscriminate, counter-attack against anything and everything perceived to have or support such power. From spray-paint to petrol bombs, all means are legitimate—so long as they are directed against the enemy, which for now are the colonial institutions (read: superstructure) that characterise our society.

Whereas violence is natural—after all, terror is justice—debate is pointless. Just as it is futile to debate the forces of nature, it is pointless to debate the forces embodied in structures. In fact, there is only one way to deal with power: force. As Mmetsa Mahlabela for RMF has put it, ‘you always have to respond violently’. [2] So, they silence, exclude, remove or suppress people or things that they perceive to be their enemies. You are either with them or against them: ally or foe. If you are against them you are ‘illegitimate’ and you must be removed from power (read: liquidated).

A politics that proceeds from and implements this collection of ideas—privileging the group over the individual; claiming to act on behalf of ‘the people’ or ‘the masses’; trying to control language, art and symbols; embracing violence and rejecting dialogue; emphasising the end, but neglecting the means; eliminating opposition; silencing dissent—has a name: fascism. [3]

The fact that some of these leaders are fascists (or, crypto-fascists, since they would probably reject the label) certainly does not mean that the pain and injustice that has elevated them to such prominence should be ignored. So, for a moment, let us turn our attention from these Jacobins, these Thirty Tyrants, instead focusing on the people that really matter: the students.

It is obviously true that the prominent placement of statues, paintings and busts of colonisers and/or racists might offend. When offended, anger and pain are natural responses. We must not recoil from the passions. They are an ‘intensified awareness of reality’, with pain revealing the world as it appears to individuals. [4] These feelings are important. And, they might well ground reasons for action—perhaps, even, reasons to remove a statue, a bust or a painting.

This is why it has proved difficult for many to criticise the RMF movement. 

The legitimacy of our ideas and the morality of our actions, however, are not measured simply by having regard to the desirability of our motives. Hell is full of good motives, but heaven is full of good works.

The world of politics, policy and principle is by nature conflict-ridden. There is almost always reason to act in contradictory ways—to do this, or that, or some other thing. So, just as a single reason for action does not mean that we should ultimately act as suggested by that reason, so a single feeling—even if legitimate, and deeply felt—does not mean that it alone, without regard to any other consideration, should determine how we act.

Crypto-fascists of the kind discussed here deny this reality. Having adopted a Manichean or binary view of the world, people and politics—good vs. bad, capitalist vs. worker, powerful vs. oppressed—the possibility that ideas, opinions and experiences other than their own might be worthy of consideration escapes them. As members of an oppressed group in an unequal power-relation with a university, their pain is conclusive proof of their superior moral standing. So, the university must accept their ‘lived reality’ and it must act to alleviate their pain. It must remove the source of this pain, like a bullet from a wound, thereby making public spaces safe for the students to live ‘bearable lives’.

In the real world—at least, the world outside the genocidal and oppressive tyrannies of Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Al-Bashir and ISIS—political and moral disagreement must be resolved by deliberation, debate and compromise. It must be resolved by means of a process in which we engage others as rational, free and equal persons who are all worthy of respect and concern. A politics that proceeds from and implements these ideas has a name: democracy.

This is the choice that currently confronts us: fascism or democracy.

Last year RMF was mostly peaceful. It has become very violent. Why? There are two reasons. First, some of the leaders are fascists. Violence, therefore, is always an option. Second, our universities have so far displayed a remarkable lack of principle and courage when faced with threats and intimidation. With the universities adopting a policy of appeasement, RMF has been able to achieve its Symbolic Munich. This happened with almost no meaningful discussion of why and whether the demands were all-things-considered just.

When fascists taste power, they lust for more. Since they refuse to deliberate or compromise, they will not be satisfied with anything other than the total destruction, liquidation, of their many enemies. This is what underlies the liturgical call for decolonisation, rather than transformation, of universities.

They pine for a purge.

So, what should people—who think that the rule of law, democracy, compromise and peaceful co-existence with others are ideals and values that should be upheld—do in circumstances such as these? What, importantly, should the universities do?

They need to promote the values on which universities and the Constitution are built: reason, universality, respect for others, transparency, debate and dialogue. They must only engage the students on such terms. They should publicise the terms on which they are willing to engage, and explain that they are not foreclosed to any option when it comes to issues of the type that have motivated the students. They must make clear that the outcome of any inclusive and transparent dialogue will always determine what happens. 

If it is decided—ultimately, by the administration, in its capacity as the representatives of the university and its past, present and future students—that a statue, bust or painting should be removed, it should be removed. But, it must be stressed, this is just one of many options, for it is one of many possible responses when confronted with facts about our shared past that we find uncomfortable or painful.

It is not clear whether this strategy will satisfy this current crop of crypto-fascists. They might reply that their feelings are paramount. The need for a safe space trumps the idea of a university as an intellectual space. This past week suggests that such a response is likely. If they do respond in this way and especially if their response is violent in nature, their appeal to the majority of the student body and the so-far unreflective media will probably wane. We have already witnessed this over the last week, with the extent of the coverage of the protests paling in comparison to the gushing support that we witnessed last year.

A final point is worth making before concluding. 

If the RMF movement implodes, or it fades into insignificance, it is important that we nonetheless proceed with a transparent and inclusive dialogue with the students. It is vital that we discuss issues relating to our approach to history, the importance of symbols, the structure and understanding of public spaces, and the nature of our universities. Despite the anti-intellectual and brutal form that the protests have taken, especially in recent weeks, this is a conversation that must be had.

Matthew Kruger is Legal Researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation.

This article first appeared as an HSF Brief.

*Whilst this is a statement by #FeesMustFall - here, near-identical ideas attributed to the Rhodes Must Fall movement are contained in the same article.

[1] RMF denies that their members are responsible for burning the bus and petrol-bombing the office of Max Price, the Vice-Chancellor of UCT (see here). Given their rejection of non-violent protest on the basis that it is part of ‘colonial mythology’, refusal to condemn these actions, and claim that Max Price is a colonial occupier who holds his power illegitimately, I have my doubts about this denial. Even if they are not guilty, however, there is little doubt that they would be willing to commit such acts—and, probably acts of an even more destructive and bloody nature.

[2] See here.

[3] Fascists with a capital ‘F’ and Marxists typically see the other as an ideological nemesis. But, apart from the former’s emphasis on triumph and distinction (of a group), and the latter’s emphasis on equality and emancipation (of a group), structurally-speaking they are almost identical.

[4] Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (1955) 6.