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  • Response to Eddie Webster’s review of Choosing to be Free:The life story of Rick Turner, in Transformation 851
  • Billy Keniston (bio)

‘Where Turner argued for individuals to make ethical choices unconstrained by prevailing relations of power, Webster’s concern is to locate him – and through Turner, Webster himself – as far as possible on the winning side.’

(Andrew Nash 1998)2

For decades, Eddie Webster has spoken up repeatedly and consistently in defense of the idea that Rick Turner’s approach to politics was faithfully carried on by the organisations of struggle that developed after Turner’s death. Given this remarkable consistency, Webster’s recent comments in reaction to my biography of Turner are utterly unremarkable. Anyone who has followed these debates – even only marginally – over the years could have guessed what Webster might say. Already in 1993, Webster went so far as to claim that COSATU’s policies reflect ‘the core values of Turner’s vision of participatory democracy. This is the contribution of the life and writings of Richard Turner to the process of transition in the nineties’.3 For decades now, Eddie Webster has been doggedly concerned with placing Rick Turner on the so-called ‘winning side’ of history.

The question is, why is this such a compelling point of view for him? What is at stake in interpreting Turner’s legacy in this way? Why would I, after five years of extensive research into the subject, insist, in contra-distinction, that Turner’s political vision was largely eclipsed by the ‘one-dimensional heroes’ of the liberation struggle? I would like to try to grapple with the significant difference between Webster’s position and my own. [End Page 78]

As Webster has had plenty of space to frame his argument, I will not recount it here. In sum, the crux of his argument is that Rick Turner advocated for ‘radical reform’ (this term is entirely Webster’s, not Turner’s) and that I have over-emphasised Turner’s Utopian notions at the expense of his strategic proposals towards reform. In sum, I reply that Rick Turner clearly advocated for an approach to politics that privileges dialogue and democracy above discipline and structure (and never abandoned his longing for a Utopian society) and that this methodology was openly opposed and eschewed by the organisations that developed during Turner’s lifetime, and even more so in the years after his death.

I have no disagreement with Webster regarding his assertion that Turner had a strategic sense, and was keenly interested in practical initiatives towards the kind of social change he desired. Indeed, Rick Turner played a critical role in encouraging young whites to develop a class analysis, and even to make connections with struggles of the black working class. However, there was, at the core of Turner’s politics, a steady attention to qualitative aspects of social transformation. For example, Turner attempted to make an alliance with trade unions in the hope that they could be part of an overall process of transforming what he called the ‘human model’ that governs our affairs, away from the capitalist human model and towards a Utopian model in which everyone is guaranteed meaningful participation both in their workplace and in all of the decisions that affect their lives.

Webster, and others who claim loyalty to the trade union movement, are fond of referring to the unions’ traditions of internal democracy and nonracialism. Surely there is some substance to this, but the attempt to draw a clear link between these traditions and Turner’s vision of participatory democracy is exaggerated at best, and disingenuous at worst.

Turner insisted on the need for organisations that, in his words, ‘prefigure the future. Organisations must be participatory rather than authoritarian… if people are to become conscious of the possibilities of freedom’. That is, Turner insisted that organisation – in-and-of-itself – is not a value; organisations must value ‘people over things’, resist hierarchies and encourage a climate of love and autonomy. It was precisely this insistence that alienated him from the trade union movement, and in particular men such as John Copelyn, Alec Erwin and all the rest that preferred power over process, structure...


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pp. 78-81
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