There is little doubt that Nelson Mandela was for a time a member of the South African Communist Party, a fact cited by some on the right as evidence that the man was no saint. I don’t believe in saints, but if I did, Mandela’s communist affiliations wouldn’t be a disqualifier.
Bill Kellar says that Mandela’s long-term alliance with the communists was a marriage of convenience, that it says less about his ideology than his pragmatism. Kellar may be right, but he offers no evidence that Mandela didn’t share many of the beliefs of his longstanding comrades in arms. For all we know, Mandela, like many Third World revolutionaries in the post war decades, might have believed that the Soviet Union represented a model of development that his own country could profitably emulate. We do know that at the time of his release from prison, he still believed in the large-scale nationalization of industry.
But so what? During the Cold War Americans tended to equate communism with more or less absolute evil; accordingly, communists were beyond the pale of respectability and any cause they supported was tainted at best. But knee-jerk anti-communism ignores the fact that for much of the twentieth century many millions of decent people around the globe embraced communism. That embrace typically reflected revulsion at the injustices endemic to capitalism and a passionate belief about the possibilities for building a better society. Communism was very much a secular religion. Its followers, like other devout religionists, were adept at ignoring evidence that contradicted their fundamental beliefs. So, committed communists managed to delude themselves about the palpable evils of actually existing communism. And, certainly, the Soviet Union could count on the blind loyalty of its followers in pursuing its less than idealistic foreign policy objectives. But the universal demonization of communists in the United States (anti-communist hysteria didn’t reach the same levels in other western democracies) only served the interests of the right.
In the United States and elsewhere, communists often made important contributions to struggles for human rights and freedom. American communists, for example, played an important role in building this country’s labor movement and—long before most liberals gave much thought to African-Americans—in the struggle for civil rights. And, yes, South African communists were a major part of the anti-Apartheid movement. Anti-communists tend to dismiss such facts as mere evidence of communists’ efforts to exploit legitimate causes for their nefarious ends. But the fact is that most communists sincerely believed in those causes. It doesn’t bother me at all that Nelson Mandela for a time may have counted himself among those true believers.