Changed political landscape swallows post-independence leftist movement

Sometime last year Prof Mwangi wa Githinji of the University of Amherst in Massachusetts, USA, and I were reflecting on what happened to left wing politics in Kenya following the advent of multi-party politics and the current political dispensation occasioned by the 2010 Constitution. Is it still possible to talk about “the left” or has the left of the 1970s and 1980s been consumed in “conventional politics”? Has the left been dispersed in diverse political formations where room for “left wing politics” is extremely limited?

This issue cannot be unravelled unless we first acquaint ourselves with why the left was there in the first place. What actually qualified as the left? What was its politics? How did it distinguish itself from the then conventional politics?

The left, as I now recollect, was a group of intellectuals, nationalists, journalists, progressive clergy, students and parliamentarians—few in number but brave and vocal in expressing their ideas—who were opposed to the authoritarian Kanu regime. The regime was politically oppressive, elitist, anti-people, intolerant, corrupt and blatantly apologetic for imperialism and its deleterious effects on the wretched of the earth. The left rose up to oppose the regime and called for democracy and popular participation in public affairs. It advocated pluralism in politics, including multi-partyism, and even advocated socio-economic changes that would establish a socialist society—through revolution at best.

It is therefore no wonder that a leftist like Pio da Gama Pinto was assassinated; the KPU leaders like Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Achieng’ Oneko, Bildad Kaggia and J.D. Kali were detained and then banished from politics. Progressive trade unionists were rapidly marginalised as COTU became a tool for the state to organise workers. Progressive parliamentarians like Koigi wa Wamwre, Chelagat Mutai, George Anyona, James Orengo and Mashengo wa Mwachofi suffered political harassment, spells in detention and the indignity of exile. From the university emerged a new generation of intellectuals who refused to be apologetics for the regimes and called for politics of liberation: they fared no better.

Detention without trial faced many intellectuals: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Willy Mutunga, Mukaru Ng’ang’a, Edward Oyugi and many more. Raila Amolo Odinga, Maina wa Kinyatti, Oduor Ong’wen, Paddy Onyango Odera and many others spent years in detention for speaking against oppression and calling for democratic governance. After many encounters with the police, long confinements in police cells, physical and mental torture a good number of journalists and intellectuals went into exile: Micere Githae Mugo, Al Amin Mazrui, Kamoji Wacira, Phillip Ochieng’, Salim Lone, and myself—to mention but a few.

One must also pay tribute to the progressive clergy: Henry Okullu, Akexander Kipsang’ Muge, Timothy Njoya, Father Ndikaru wa Teresia, Bishop Ndingi Mwana a Nzeki, David Gitari and Lawford Imunde. The lawyers who stood tall during the “thick politics” of the eighties and early nineties were Paul Muite, Gitobu Imanyara, John Khaminwa and Kamau Kuria.

In those days being to the left of the authoritarian regime was much easier to establish because the dividing line was very clear. People were known by both their words and deeds. The frontiers between the apologists for the regime and the advocates for democracy and social change had clear boundaries: none ran into the other. Because politics of resistance could not be organised openly, we went underground and plotted. We were therefore very careful who knew what, who did what and who was to be trusted with what message.

Come the democratic opening of 1991/92, the arena of organisational politics became wide open, and “democrats” emerged from all crevices of society. Everybody who went for political opportunities within a movement like FORD became a democrat overnight. Seasoned ethnic chauvinists one day forced themselves into the board room of Paul Muite as we were discussing FORD matters and declared themselves “friends of FORD”. That, obviously, was the beginning of problems of FORD as a broad, united and national democratic movement. The rest, as they say, is now history. Now let us wind the clock forward to today: where is the left?

One cannot really say that the left of yesterday is still the left of today. Many reasons account for this.

First, it must be remembered that, as Prof Adam Przeworski once wrote, “institutionalisation of political movements quite often leads to political demobilisation at best, and political decay at worst.” In other words, democratic political competition in elections requires the formation of political parties which seek to form government by winning the elections through majority votes. Majorities can be gathered by political parties through diverse ways, including bringing together various interests, groups, ideologies, beliefs, biases, convictions and so on. When a party wins an election and forms a government, there is always intense intra-party competition among individuals seeking positions in government. Very often such competition, and its outcome, can easily relegate ideological and policy issues to the sideline. This is what Przeworski referred to as political decay.

Second, long drawn struggles that do not achieve intended results for those involved can lead to low levels of commitment among some militants to the ideals of those struggles after some time. The “throw in the towel” syndrome soon sets in. Some militants soon begin to say that “after all, it does not really matter: nothing will be achieved in our lifetime.” In this regard, the dividing line between the left and the rest begins to become vague: politics becomes a game of periodic electoral contests with the only difference being how the contesting political parties seek “to gather their majorities”.

Finally, there is the issue of “internal wars of attrition” within the left. How left one is—purely within the fine ideological debates within the left—becomes more important than educating the public about issues dear to the liberation of society at a specific historical context. V.I. Lenin discussed this at length in his essay “Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.” Removed from the day to day—quite often very dirty—politics in petty bourgeois society, the “radicals” begin looking for “less radical” individuals among them to blame for the pitfalls in the liberation struggle for democracy or socialism.

Taking part in electoral politics, to some of these radicals, becomes an unforgivable sin. The sin is thrust onto the sinners through unfounded gossip, innuendos and name-calling. Revolutionary politics—or shall we say pseudo-revolutionary politics—becomes a cancer gnawing away at the heart of the small community of the left still surviving. These are the “left times” we live in today in Kenya.