Lessons of the 1950s

We are pleased to announce the publication on the internet of Richard Monroe's history of the ANC movement. This pamphlet, written in the 1980s, deals extensively with the struggles of the 1950s and the tactics adopted by the middle-class ANC leaders, who favoured negotiations with the "progressive" section of the capitalists. It was originally printed in issue 13 of Inqaba ya Basebenzi ("Workers' Fortress"), the publication of the Marxist Workers' Tendency of the African National Congress in March 1984. Now we have an ANC government in power which is pursuing capitalist policies, and we have new layers of workers moving into struggle to fight for their interests. The question is whether this time the mass movement will have a bold revolutionary leadership worthy of the name. In building such a leadership, a careful and detailed study of the lessons of the past is indispensable. We hope that this document can help clarify some of the key issues from the history of the movement and will assist those today fighting for the socialist transformation of society. With a new introduction by Jordi Martorell.

2002 Introduction

By Jordi Martorell

Lessons of the 1950s addresses all the main questions of revolutionary strategy and tactics and which is therefore useful for revolutionary activists all over the world today. It deals with the experience of the liberation struggle in the 1950s, not from an academic point of view, but in order to make a critical balance sheet, learn the lessons and arm the revolutionary movement in the 1980s.

One of the central questions which the document analyses is the character of the South African revolution and the role of the Communist Party and its relationship with the leaders of the ANC. This is a crucial question which even today is not clear in the minds of many SACP, COSATU and ANC activists.

The document strongly opposes the "two stage" theory of the revolution advocated at that time by the leaders of the SACP. This theory argued that the tasks of the revolution in South Africa were national-democratic, that is the national liberation of the majority of the population, the oppressed black masses. As a consequence of this, the SACP leaders said, the movement had to try to form the broadest possible alliance of "democrats" fighting for that common goal. In order to do that, socialist demands had to be left to one side in order not to frighten other layers which might join the struggle - i.e. the black middle class and the white liberals. Only after the national democratic stage of the revolution had been fulfilled could the question of socialism be posed. This policy also meant that the leadership of the liberation struggle had to be left to the middle-class leaders of the ANC.

As the document explains, this theory was not the invention of the SACP in South Africa, but rather was the policy that Stalin imposed on the whole of the international communist movement once he had taken control over the Soviet Union. In fact this was originally the position of the Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution and had nothing to do with Leninism.

Lenin's position on this question was quite clear: although the main tasks of the revolution in backward Tsarist Russia were bourgeois democratic, the fact was that the Russian bourgeoisie had come too late on to the scene of history and it was unable to play any revolutionary role. They were afraid of unleashing a revolutionary movement of the working people which would have also questioned the rule of capital itself. On every single occasion they compromised with the interests of foreign imperialist powers and the old Tsarist regime and betrayed the revolution.

Therefore, as Lenin explained, the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution could only be carried through under the leadership of the working class, as part of the struggle for workers power. A successful revolution in Russia would mean the beginning of the proletarian revolution in Europe and this in turn would help the Russian workers move towards socialism.

In fact, South Africa by the 1950s was already a mainly urbanised, industrialised society in which the working class played the key role. The question of working-class leadership of the liberation movement should have been even clearer here than in Russia in 1917.

Instead of this, the CP leaders in South Africa left the leadership of the struggle, in theory and in practice, to the middle class leaders of the ANC. As the document explains, in the 1950s and throughout the history of the liberation movement, this led to one disaster after another.

The events which unfolded in South Africa after this document was written confirm its central theses, although in a negative way. Unless the movement had a revolutionary working-class leadership with a clear perspective of fighting for socialism, the full liberation of the oppressed masses in South Africa could not take place. In the second half of the 1980s South Africa lived through an upsurge of the mass movement which involved all sections of the black population but which had as its backbone the organised industrial working class. The formation of COSATU in 1985, organising millions of workers and adopting a clear-cut socialist programme, was an important milestone in this process.

However, as we know, this period did not end up in a successful socialist revolution but rather in a whole series of negotiations from 1990 onwards which brought about capitalist democracy in 1994. It is clear that from the very beginning, the whole strategy of the middle class leaders of the ANC had been one of putting pressure on the apartheid regime to make concessions. In the early days of the ANC the tactics used were those of petitions and delegations; by the 1940s the more radical leaders of the ANC Youth League imposed the tactic of mass action and mobilisation, but the main aim remained the same: winning concessions from the white establishment which would allow them to join a "normal" bourgeois society. In the 1960s again there was a change of tactics, and, in the wake of the defeat of the mass movement of the 1950s, guerrilla struggle was adopted.

At every stage of the struggle, the interests of the mass of working people who participated in the movement and those of its middle-class leadership came into conflict. So while the workers were involved in mass strikes, organising in the townships, fighting off state repression and the Inkhata thugs, the middle-class leaders of the movement were involved in behind the scenes negotiations with the capitalist class, trying to divert the revolutionary movement along the lines of a negotiated settlement.

The mass of the workers and youth, again and again, showed their willingness to struggle to put an end to their oppression and move in the direction of socialism. The heroic movement of the oppressed masses in South Africa was an inspiration for revolutionary activists all over the world. But in the absence of a revolutionary alternative to the reformist leadership of the ANC, the movement ended up in a democratic cul-de-sac.

As a result of this process we have a situation now in South Africa where the black majority has achieved formal democracy, but the real power remains firmly in the hands of a handful of white-owned monopolies that dominate the South African economy. A few (very few) blacks have become capitalists, but the most pressing needs of the masses in terms of housing, access to running water, electricity, jobs, education, health, etc, have clearly not been met. South African society is still one of the most unequal on earth and the situation is actually getting worse.

The ANC in power has pursued openly capitalist policies, lowering tariff barriers, privatising public utilities, etc, following the misnamed Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) plan. In fact, GEAR has not created any growth, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been destroyed, and the little redistribution that has taken place has been from the poor to the rich!

It is true that these policies have created malaise and discontent amongst the ranks of the SACP, COSATU and even the ANC itself. But unfortunately the leaders of the SACP, and COSATU remain firmly committed to an alliance with the right-wing capitalist leaders of the ANC. And this in the name of the so-called National Democratic Revolution.

As we have already explained, the tasks of the national-democratic revolution in South Africa under the apartheid regime could only be carried through by the taking of power by the workers. Because they adopted the Stalinist "two stage" theory, the leaders of the SACP subordinated the interests of the workers to the middle-class leaders of the ANC. And now that formal democracy has been achieved, we are told that we are in the middle of the "National Democratic Revolution", which has to be "advanced, defended and deepened".

Let us make this absolutely clear. What we have in South Africa is not a revolutionary government in power pursuing a national and democratic programme against the resistance of the capitalist class. No. Quite the contrary, what we have in South Africa is a pro-capitalist government pursuing the policies of the ruling class against the interests of the working class and the poor.

In 1990-1994 the ruling class made important reforms precisely in order to avoid revolution. And these reforms were only granted when they were reassured that the leaders of the ANC were firmly committed to capitalist rule and were able to control the mass movement. This is what created the "talk left, act right" phenomena in which the leaders would make left-sounding speeches to make sure they retained the support of the movement in order to be able to negotiate the democratic transition.

It should now be clearer than ever that the fulfilment of the basic needs of the masses in South Africa can only be achieved by taking the fundamental economic levers of society into the hands of the workers. Only with workers' control over the means of production can the resources be generated to massively increase the living standards of the majority of the population, and provide everybody with decent housing, access to water and electricity, education and health care.

Unless this is understood, the revolutionary movement cannot advance in South Africa. Instead of maintaining the Tripartite Alliance (ANC-COSATU-SACP), which in practice means once again the subordination of the interests of the workers to those of the capitalist leaders of the ANC, the leaders of the SACP and COSATU should be launching an all-out campaign against the policies of the ANC government and for genuine socialist policies. Such a campaign should also be taken in a determined way to the ranks of the ANC and to ANC voters amongst whom it would certainly find a sympathetic hearing. Millions of people did not vote for the ANC in order to get their water supply cut off for lack of payment, or to have the utilities privatised.

But for such a campaign to be organised, COSATU and the SACP themselves have to be won to genuine socialist policies. Within these two organisations there has been strong criticism of the policies of the ANC in government. COSATU has even called two general strikes under pressure from its members. However, until now this has been mainly token opposition. For instance COSATU has recently called off its planned general strike against privatisation. Prominent members of the SACP Central Committee are still members of the ANC government, some of them directly implementing capitalist policies against the working class! This can only increase confusion and cynicism amongst working class and youth activists.

Confronted with the crisis of capitalism, which is particularly acute in South Africa, the workers and the masses will move again into action. In fact this process has already started. A number of struggles have taken place: against privatisation, for housing, against water cut-offs, against the profiteering in AIDS drugs by the pharmaceutical multinationals and the refusal of the ANC government to use them, to defend jobs, etc. Big battles lay ahead. The question is whether this time the mass movement of the workers will have a revolutionary leadership worthy of the name or not.

In building such a leadership, a careful and detailed study of the lessons of the past is indispensable. We hope that this document can help clarify some of the key issues.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.