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  • Ivor Chipkin


Updated: Aug 27, 2019

Peter Hudson, my brother-in-law has died. I still have a vivid memory of first seeing him, glimpsing an elusive man on the patio at my parent's house when I was 13. He has been part of my life for 35 years.

He was the finest teacher I ever had, an experience I share with generations of his other students. I was also fortunate to be part of a remarkable Honours class - the class of '92. Like the generation of Wits social historians that insisted on the importance of 'ordinary' people, Peter insisted on the theoretical value of Black politics. The terms and analyses generated during the course of the Anti-Apartheid struggle were not interesting simply for their political effects, forms of protest and revolt. They embodied concepts that had theoretical value in their own right. Terms like 'Colonialism-of-a-Special-Type' or 'National Democratic Revolution' were not just slogans. They referred to concepts that needed rigorous elaboration. Peter was rare in this regard, a 'decolonial' academic avant le lettre.

He was also a scholar in his own right - a legacy that is on a less solid footing for 2 main reasons. He did not publish a lot and had no book to his name. Indeed, I think some of his best achievements are contained in handwritten notes, usually for talks or public lectures, that remain to be collected and edited. The other reason is that Peter's theoretical vocabulary was obscure in South Africa, not because he preferred to write densely or preferred difficult terms, but because he claimed a theoretical tradition that had largely died with the assassination of Rick Turner: Marxism as philosophy rather than as sociology.

As the sociology of labour became the dominant perspective, Hudson's preoccupation with the theory of the subject and the way individuals were interpellated (Althusser) as subjects became increasingly marginal to academic and political discourse. The sociologists then as they do know tend to take class 'interests' as a given, positing the social in what Polanyi once called a 'Newtonian' universe where forces interact mechanically. This was not Peter's world. It was not simply that he emphasised superstructural elements (ideology, culture) over infrastructural elements in the formation of class consciousness. I think he would have agreed with Ranciere that class identities were indeterminate. In the end he did not follow Laclau and Mouffe into 'post-Marxism' and liberalism, however. Raymond Suttner is correct that he was a Marxist. What kept him on side was a niggling sense that despite the force of dominant ideologies, workers retained a 'class instinct'.

In his later work, Peter gave more attention to race politics, not simply as the expression of class interests (an assumption at the heart of the Congress tradition and inherent in the theory of National Democratic Revolution). In other words, he took on board the Black Consciousness critique of the Congress tradition. White racism had a force independent of class domination and its effects could not be reduced to 'exploitation' or 'national oppression'. He seemed to believe that a reconciliation between Fanon and Marx was possible and this is what he was certainly working on. This is why he was sympathetic to the EFF project, beyond his personal relationship with some of the party's leaders. I think he believed that the EFF was engaged in such a reconciliation politically.

Peter took seriously the psychoanalytic tradition - the Lacan-Althusser engagement that started with the famous lectures to the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1964, which Slavoj Zizek is probably the best known heir to. Some of Peter's work in this regard is his most vital and also his most disturbing. He drew on Zizek's definition of the political unconscious to see in 'jokes' and slips of the tongue the new expression of white racism (of sexism too), suggesting that in the post-Apartheid period, white racism had not disappeared, only found new forms of expression.

There can be no disagreement with the broad hypothesis. Yet I am not sure of the theoretical enterprise, and especially not of its political implications. On his terms the meaning of a symptom (like a joke, a comment made unwittingly) did not arise slowly in and through a therapeutic relation - an interactive process between analyst and analysand. It could be interpreted quickly, spontaneously by the researcher (Peter in this case), for whom its real meaning - as racism, for example - would be revealed. I think this represents a grave 'theoreticist' error. More worrying, though, is its politics, which claims to know the truth of an action, gesture or argument, and to judge it accordingly, irrespective of what the subject thought that they were doing or trying to express. As Popper might have remarked, it constitutes a position, both theoretical and political, that cannot be falsified. This argument took Peter to places, both political and personal, that ultimately drew us apart.

Hambe Kahle Peter, my brother-in-law.

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