Reformism or Revolution – On the YCL congress and the future of communism in South Africa

The Young Communist League of South Africa held its 3rd Congress in the university town of Mafikeng on December 8-12, 2010. The congress was the culminating point of four years of explosive growth and big success for the organization that has quickly grown to be a massive force of more than 56,000 activists. It also brought into sharp focus the conflict between the left and right wing within the South African Communists.

Logo of the Young Communist LeagueLogo of the Young Communist League More than 2200 hopeful delegates and visitors turned up from all over the country to discuss the political situation in the country and the perspectives for socialism. It was an impressive turnout by any standard, but what none of the participants could have prepared themselves for was the disaster that the congress was about to turn into. The agenda of the congress was hijacked by bureaucratic manoeuvring, heavy fraud, corruption, chaos and violence that ended in police intervening with tear-gas – methods that have nothing to do with the traditions of Bolshevism. But these facts, however disturbing they might seem, overshadow the real disaster of the congress – the complete lack of political discussion!

What is a congress?

For any serious revolutionary organization the congress is an event of utmost importance. The main tasks of a congress are not primarily to elect a leadership or to move this or that comma in the constitution. The main task of the congress of a revolutionary organization is to: 1) Evaluate the previous period and the work of the organization, 2) Make an assessment of the political situation and 3) On the basis of these discussions to clarify how to move forward! Only after these discussions have taken place and a decision has been taken on the path to be followed, will the question be posed of who is most capable of leading us there?

Of course it is legitimate that there will be differing and indeed conflicting views in a congress. At times it might even be necessary to set up factions. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. Indeed factions, when necessary, can play a positive role. The Bolshevik party itself was formed on the basis of years of factional struggles within the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. But a factional struggle can only play a positive role if it assists in clarifying the differences and ideas and thus in raising the political and theoretical level of the organization. This, however, was not the case at the YCL congress in Mafikeng.

If anything the outcome of the congress further diluted the discussion by focusing on personal and organizational matters and not on the pressing matters that are haunting the class struggle in South Africa today.

Weak congress = weak organization

The Mafikeng congress did not fulfil any of the above mentioned tasks. Within the two apparent “factions” that emerged at the congress, not many of the rank and file could define any of their political positions.

Officially the division was between the YCL general secretary Buti Manamela and his then second in command KhayeNkwanyama. Manamela on the one side was standing for re-election, and was proposing changes in the party constitution to facilitate this. On the other side Nkwanyama was challenging him, on the grounds that Manamela was too caught up in parliamentary work and that he should leave the leadership of the organisation to someone who could devote themselves to the position on a full-time basis. But this is a completely secondary and insignificant matter! What is important is what Buti Manamela stands for (in or outside of parliament) and what alternative Khaye Nkwanyama has to offer. It was not clear, at least to most people on the ground, what the challenge was really about politically and if there even were political differences.

In any case the congress ended with the re-election of Buti Manamela and a leadership that is seemingly fully in tune with him. But does the election of Manamela mean that the problems have been resolved? On the contrary!

The class struggle in South Africa is intensifying and what is important to analyse is whether the leadership of the SACP and its general secretary Blade Nzimande, who is supported by ButiManamela, is moving in the same direction as the workers and the youth, who constitute the party’s base and membership. But the policies that they are now following were not tested in an open democratic discussion at the congress. As long as this contradiction remains, the party and the youth will face deeper and deeper crises.

Need for a balance sheet

Almost seventeen years after the fall of the apartheid regime in 1994, it is our duty to draw a balance sheet. We must take an honest look at the gains and draw the necessary conclusions.

The fall of Apartheid came on top of decades of mass struggle and, although the official outcome was a negotiated settlement, the real forces behind the concessions were the oppressed masses who against all odds stepped up their mobilizations, especially in the years between 1990 and 1993. Thus, it was the revolutionary force of the masses that won bourgeois democracy for the South African masses and not the negotiation skills of the ANC leadership.

For the first time in a century, black South Africans enjoyed freedom of speech, organization and universal suffrage. The Apartheid regime could accept the introduction of democracy as long as the capitalist system was preserved. With the introduction of the Sunset clause in the constitution, protecting private property, the old regime managed to prevent the movement from achieving its socialist aims and aspirations.

Although the introduction of democracy was the greatest victory ever for the South African working masses, the introduction of the Sunset clause breaking the movement of the masses served society with major obstacles for the future. For the working poor democracy is very important, but mainly in so far as it facilitates the solving of other problems in life, such as unemployment, poverty, racism, etc. But capitalism as a system, even with the most humane and democratic face, is not able to solve these problems.

This has indeed been confirmed by the state of South African society today which is riddled with deep contradictions. It is true that a small group of black people have indeed benefitted from the new state of things. A small black middle class has been developed and an even smaller group of people, especially through the so-called Black Economic Empowerment programme, has joined the forces of the capitalist class. But for the great bulk of black South Africans life remains a struggle.

We cannot deny that some social concessions have been won by the masses, but these concessions are being undermined by the day. For instance the households with no access to water fell from 36% in 1994 to 4% in 2009. Access to sanitation and electricity also improved over the same period – the former from 50% to 77% and the latter from 51% to 73%. At the same time, however, price hikes and cuts in these utilities have caused some of the biggest protests in the country. The fact is that although many have won access to these basic utilities, many cannot afford them! Almost 1.3 million households, which account for almost 5 million people, have been experiencing water cut-offs due to non-payment.

Poverty and unemployment is indeed eating its way into the stomachs of South African workers and youth. Despite the great wealth that lies beneath the soil of South Africa, the country is placed in the top ten most unequal societies in the world according to the Gini coefficient. Almost half the population survives on only 8 percent of national income. On the other side, in 2009, on average, each of the top 20 paid directors in JSE-listed companies earned 1728 times the average income of a South African worker.

Officially 4.2m people are unemployed. This figure, however, does not include 1.7m people who not counted as unemployed since they have been pushed permanently out of the labour force. So unofficially, 5.9 million workers, that is 31.1% of the population, of working age are unemployed. Among the youth the unemployment rate exceeds 70 percent. About a quarter of the population lives on less than $1.25 pr. day.

Life under the present system is proving unbearable for millions of people who risked their lives in the fight against the apartheid regime. In fact if you lightly scratch the surface of the Republic all the old crap is still crawling around. For most black South Africans the apartheid regime is still very much alive. The fact that in the third quarter of 2010, 29.80% of blacks were officially unemployed, compared with 22.30% of coloureds, 8.60 of Asians and only 5.10% gives a clear indication of the real situation.

All this is going on at the same time as the big corporations and mining companies are making colossal profits. Gold prices have more than quadrupled in the past decade, going from US$280 in January 2000 to US$1370 in January 2011. Still, surface workers on South African mines earn roughly R1500 (US$200) per month, while underground workers earn R3 000 (US$400) per month, figures which have not changed much since 2005.

Seventeen years of ANC rule and formal democracy have not changed this situation significantly. On the contrary, today since the beginning of the world economic crisis in 2008 the situation is worsening by the day as unemployment, poverty and inflation are increasing rapidly.

These facts cannot be reduced to bad administration and technical incompetence of the ANC governments. The root cause of the plight of the workers and poor is the system of capitalism that has reached a historical impasse and is unable to develop society or to give any significant concessions to the masses. On the contrary, it is forced to attack the workers and the poor more viciously than ever. The main mistake of the ANC governments is to be found in their belief that the aims of the National Democratic Revolution – a political programme with the aim of combating racism, unemployment, poverty and other social issues – could be achieved within the capitalist system.

The figures listed above give us an idea of the stress and frustrations that the workers have to deal with every day in order to make a living. Their experience becomes even more bitter as the hopes they had for the future under an ANC government slowly begin to shatter.

The workers are realizing the impasse they face under capitalism, not by reading Marx’s Capital or the Communist Manifesto, but through their daily struggles for housing, electricity, water, jobs, wages and equality. These facts are now becoming clear to wide layers of the working masses. Pushed forward by their own plight and disgusted with the obscene wealth of a small group of capitalists and corrupt government officials, the workers are becoming increasingly radicalized.

The South African working class has a long revolutionary tradition. In the last 60 years we have seen an almost uninterrupted series of mass movements. But the ANC, upon reaching power, postponed all talk about socialism to a distant future, while arguing that all the forces should be mobilized to consolidate bourgeois democracy.

But now that bourgeois democracy has been achieved, it is clear that none of the fundamental problems have been solved. In fact the situation for the millions is not even improving. The reason for this is that the capitalist system as a whole, long ago ceased playing any progressive role. Today, especially since the beginning of the world economic crisis, it is unable tolerate even the minimal concessions granted in the boom period of 1995-2008. Therefore the workers and youth have no other option than to turn against the capitalism system as a whole. This is also reflected in the sharp rise in Communist Party membership that has grown from almost 20,000 in 2002 to more than 110,000 today.

The question of nationalizations

This deep radicalisation that is taking place has also been reflected in the recent call of the ANC Youth League to nationalize the mines. This is an extremely positive development. But instead of putting the party at the head of such a campaign and giving it a revolutionary leadership, the leadership of the SACP has opposed it with its full might. In his speech at the YCL congress Blade Nzimande, the general secretary of the SACP said:

“The unfortunate part is that some of us in the working class, when this call about the nationalization of mines was made we jumped onto it and said yes the left has always been calling for this, we support it.

“Be warned, the working class does not behave in that manner. If you catch a bus that has written its destination is Johannesburg Park Station and you simply jump in without checking driver and conductor, you may find yourself in trouble. The bus may be written Johannesburg Park Station, but the driver may have another intention. What is the intention? I want us to debate that.

“Some of these calls for nationalization are not genuine but are aimed at rescuing the BEE deals that are in debt. Other comrades in COSATU have criticized us, we don't mind and we will debate that. But, it is our stance as the SACP. Nationalization for what and for who? If you go blindly and nationalize the mines today you will actually be nationalizing debt not mines. Can you imagine government in the Credit Bureau because they nationalized debt thinking they are nationalizing mines?”

Since the beginning of the world economic crisis in 2008, over one million South Africans have lost their jobs; the official unemployment rate in the country is over 25 %. At the same time trillions of Rands are being extracted every year from the mining industries, money that could wipe out unemployment and poverty instantly. But the capitalist owners of the mines are not interested in this. This fact could not be clearer, especially in South Africa. By taking over these companies one could guarantee that the profits, which are in fact created by the labour power of the South African workers, would benefit the whole of society instead of a small group of parasitic capitalists.

A perfect example is Venezuela where there have been widespread nationalizations in the oil and cement industries, as well as large parts of financial, industrial and commercial companies. This has greatly assisted in expanding the public services. For the first time in the history of Venezuela illiteracy has been wiped out. At the same time “misiones” have been set up to supply free medical and dental care as well as eye surgery for hundredsof thousands who could not afford such “luxuries” in the past.

It is true that isolated nationalizations in themselves do not solve anything. As we shall see later this indeed is also the case in Venezuela. The real problem is the capitalist system, an anarchic system that cannot be tamed or controlled consciously. The only way to solve the main problems of South African society is to take over the commanding heights of the economy and organize them under a democratic plan. The task of the Marxists consists in connecting the inadequate programme of isolated nationalizations with the full revolutionary programme of expropriation of the South African bourgeoisie.

Instead, Nzimande is putting the party in opposition to the ANCYL call for nationalizations andthus sowing immense confusion and, more importantly, drawing the vanguard of the workers and youth away from the mass of workers who correctly see the ANCYL call as progressive and anti-capitalist.

For 20 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ideologues capital have been very busy trying to bury the whole idea that society can function without private property. These same capitalists are now shaking in their boots, not just for fear of the mines getting nationalized, but for fear of the idea that collective ownership of the means of production can actually be seen as an alternative to private property. It is the duty of the SACP to support such a call, but at the same time to patiently explain its shortcomings.

The excuse that Nzimande has made up in order to go against the call for nationalization is that some BEE benefactors who are now stuck in bankrupt mines are looking to be bailed out and have the state buy their debt. Yes, it might very well be true, that there are some significant interests within a part of somebourgeois, who are looking for bailouts and who have pushed for it within the ANC structures. This type of corruption is not alien in any sense to South Africa and the ANC government that Nzimande himself is a part of. But this is still a very bad excuse for coming out full-on against nationalizations.

The problem, however, can be solved with the simple demand that the nationalizations should take place without compensation for any capitalists or with compensation only in the case that the capitalists and bankers open their books and prove that they have invested more in the mines than they have extracted as profit. But this is a closed book for Nzimande who seems determined to oppose the call for nationalization of the mines using any excuse.

Nationalizations and a planned economy

To sow even more confusion Nzimande goes on to talk about nationalizing strategic sectors:

“We are going to engage now and undertake research and say, which strategic sectors do we want to prioritize? Don't fall for our own rhetoric being used to pursue an agenda that in the end is against the interests of the working class.”

At first, this demand sounds like a very sober manner to engage in nationalizations, but there are serious contradictions and mistakes in the statement of the comrade. Does comrade Nzimande mean that the mining sector is not a strategic sector? South Africa is one of the greatest mining countries in the world. Nearly 90% of the platinum metals on the planet are located here as well as 80% of manganese, 73% of chrome, 45% of vanadium and 41% of gold. Nearly all other sectors in the South African economy are partially or completely dependent on this sector. If this is not a strategic sector, what is? How can the expropriation of the capitalist parasites in this sector not be in the interest of the masses?

Also an even bigger mistake is the notion underlying the statement, that it is not necessary to nationalize the commanding heights of the economy, but only the “strategic” parts of it.

Again here Venezuela come sin useful to highlight this point. Although large parts of the Venezuelan economy are in the hands of the state, the main levers are still in the hands of the capitalists who are doing everything they can to sabotage the revolutionary process. On the one side we see many examples of blatant sabotage in the withholding of raw materials and disruptions in distribution. At the same time, investments have collapsed and what we are witnessing is a full blown strike of capital lead by the banks and the big capitalists. The result in Venezuela is quite a severe economic crisis. Unemployment and inflation are rising and all the rights that the masses have conquered are thus being undermined. For real revolutionaries this must be the final proof that it is utopian to try to tame capitalism or build working class influence within it, just as it is utopian to think one can gradually build socialism within Capitalism.

Besides the sabotage of the Venezuelan capitalists, investments on a global level have plunged. The full burden of the world economic crisis is being unloaded onto the shoulders of the working class, not (only) because the capitalists are nasty individuals, but because the system of capitalism does not leave any other way out. Capitalism, with a small group of capitalists controlling the means of production but at the same time competing against each other, is an anarchic system that cannot be controlled by anyone. Only a planned economy can solve these contradictions and utilise the immense potential of South African society.

The market economy must be abolished and replaced by a socialist planned economy. But you cannot plan what you do not control and you cannot control what you do not own. Thus we must say that it is utopian to think it is possible to cure any of the diseases caused by capitalism (unemployment, poverty, racism and corruption) if you do not take over control of the commanding heights of the economy and organize them under a centralized democratic plan. By taking over the economy, it would be fully possible to raise wages significantly and introduce the 35-hour work week thus wiping out poverty and unemployment. The profits of the companies can thereby also be used to develop industry, science and society on the basis of the needs of the majority as opposed to today where the wealth is either channelled out of the country or remains in the pockets of a tiny minority.

This is as applicable in Venezuela, as in South Africa today. Capitalism is in a dead end and only a socialist revolution can solve the main problems facing the masses. Therefore a truly Marxist position on the call for nationalization of the mines would be to firstly give the call full support and set up a campaign to mobilize around it, but at the same time to connect the demand to the need for socialism by patiently explaining the limits of isolated nationalisations to the workers and youth. We must explain that the only sustainable solution is to take over the commanding heights of the economy, place all nationalized companies under workers’ control and finally organize the economy under a centralised democratic plan.

The question of the state

For Marxists the question of the state is a very important one. In South Africa this question is becoming a focal point for many, as the workers are increasingly meeting firm resistance from the state’s repressive forces when they engage in struggles for decent living conditions.

In a speech at the 7th national congress of SADTU, Blade Nzimande said the following about the subject:

“What is the state in terms of our own scripts? A state is an instrument of the oppression of one class by the other. In a capitalist system generally the character of the state is an instrument of the capitalist class to oppress the working class so that it is super exploitive. Under socialism, the state becomes an instrument of the working class initially to oppress the attempts by a defeated bourgeoisie to come back.

“But, an interesting discussion that we need to be having - because the congress is also a political school – is about the character of the South African state today? We live in a capitalist society. Of course, our scripts do say that states are never fixed things. They are sites of struggle and they are contested. Our own state is a site of intense class struggle. Let me give you an example which is small but important. The DA is trying to use the fact that it is in parliament to try and pass a law that if there is violence or damage during a strike a trade union must be charged and be asked to pay. Of course we don't want destruction. Our strikes and marches and demonstrations are overwhelmingly peaceful. Why is the DA saying that? That is a sure route to destroy the trade union movement in this country because it would be easy, for example if SADTU is on strike, for elements to be planted in the vicinity to cause destruction. Then SADT U would be sued and eventually bankrupted due to this.

“We want to say to the DA, forget about what you are trying to do you are not going to get this legislation. The African National Congress is the majority party. Don't try to please your masters at the expense of the progressive trade union movement in this country. Sozebayithole! (you will never get it) That's part of the class struggle. It's part of class contestation of the state, therefore when we say build working class power in the state, amongst other things, it means build strong public sector unions.”

He summarized these same views very clearly in the address to the YCL congress in Mafikeng when he said: “we must build working-class hegemony within the state. If the working class leaves the state, other classes will take over”

The logic of comrade Nzimande’s argument is clear, it is an argument for participation in the parliament, government and other state structures in order to stave off reactionary laws. Of course as Marxists we are not opposed to participation in the parliament. Also we are the staunchest defenders of every single reform that can be won through the state institutions. In fact, Marx and Engels greatly acknowledged the work of the German Social-Democrats (that is, before the party degenerated) in parliament. Also the Bolsheviks greatly utilized parliament in their work. On certain occasions Lenin even made it a principled point to participate in the Duma and the Duma elections. But for Marx, Engels and Lenin parliament was not an institution through which the working class could achieve “hegemony” over the state but exactly the opposite.

For Lenin work in a bourgeois parliament was important because it provided an opportunity to the Bolsheviks to approach the broader movement of the masses – who still had illusions in capitalism, its institutions and their ability to decisively solve their pressing problems – to shatter their illusions in capitalism with its nation state, private property etc! But not for a second did it mean that they themselves shared these illusions.

Firstly, this was because as long as the main economic levers are in private hands this will not allow for the free development of society according to the needs of the working class – no matter how much it controls a state – and, secondly, because the whole nature of the bourgeois state, as a tool for the oppression of the working class by the capitalists, would not allow it. After the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx, Engels and Lenin explained extensively that it was impossible for the proletariat to take hold of the readymade state apparatus and use it for the benefit of the revolutionary proletariat:

In his masterpiece “State and the Revolution”, that all communists should study carefully, Lenin writes:

“The only ‘correction’ Marx thought it necessary to make to the Communist Manifesto he made on the basis of the revolutionary experience of the Paris Commune. (…)

“... One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that 'the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes'.... (…)

“Most characteristically, it is this important correction that has been distorted by the opportunists, and its meaning probably is not known to nine-tenths, if not ninety-nine-hundredths, of the readers of the Communist Manifesto. We shall deal with this distortion more fully farther on, in a chapter devoted specially to distortions. Here it will be sufficient to note that the current, vulgar ‘interpretation’ of Marx's famous statement just quoted is that Marx here allegedly emphasizes the idea of slow development in contradistinction to the seizure of power, and so on.

“As a matter of fact, the exact opposite is the case. Marx's idea is that the working class must break up, smash the ‘ready-made state machinery’, and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.

“On April 12, 1871, i.e., just at the time of the Commune, Marx wrote to Kugelmann:

"‘If you look up the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire, you will find that I declare that the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it [Marx's italics--the original is zerbrechen], and this is the precondition for every real people's revolution on the Continent. And this is what our heroic Party comrades in Paris are attempting." (NeueZeit, Vol.XX, 1, 1901-02, p. 709.)[2] (The letters of Marx to Kugelmann have appeared in Russian in no less than two editions, one of which I edited and supplied with a preface.)

“The words, ‘to smash the bureaucratic-military machine’, briefly express the principal lesson of Marxism regarding the tasks of the proletariat during a revolution in relation to the state. And this is the lesson that has been not only completely ignored, but positively distorted by the prevailing, Kautskyite, ‘interpretation’ of Marxism!”

In these lines it is clear to all that neither Lenin nor Marx had any illusions in the possibility of achieving working class “hegemony”over the bourgeois state. Lenin also further explained:

“On the other hand, the ‘Kautskyite’ distortion of Marxism is far more subtle. ‘Theoretically’, it is not denied that the state is an organ of class rule, or that class antagonisms are irreconcilable. But what is overlooked or glossed over is this: if the state is the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, if it is a power standing above society and “alienating itself more and more from it", it is clear that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class and which is the embodiment of this “alienation”.” (Lenin – State and the Revolution).

For Marxists, the state is essentially an organ of class oppression. An organ formed of armed bodies of men, i.e. the police, military, prisons, etc. Its roots lie in the irreconcilable division of society into classes. Far from being under the control of the masses, who every 4-5 years may be granted the right to elect a few representatives connected to it, it is loyal and connected through a thousand ways to the capitalist class and finance capital, that is in no manner under the influence of anyone but its owners. As soon as the rule of capital seems in any way threatened the whole weight of the bureaucratic state apparatus will unite and try to undermine, sabotage and finally crush the movement threatening it.

Again the Venezuelan revolution provides us with many recent examples and experiences. While Hugo Chavez, pushed and supported by the movement of the masses, has been taking steps towards nationalizations and the raising of the living standards of the masses, the state bureaucracy is proving to be a massive pillar in support of the counter-revolution. We can see this in the nationalized companies which are experiencing sabotage in the form of delays, lack of coordination, lack of response from state officials, etc. It is also clear during workers’ struggles, such as the Mitsubishi strike about a year ago, how the whole regional state apparatus placed its weight behind the multinational company that was trying to oust the striking workers from the factory and in the act killing a union militant as well. Widespread corruption and sabotage within the state is now becoming a serious threat to the Venezuelan revolution, where the working class has perhaps attained the highest degree of “hegemony” possible within a capitalist state. This fully confirms the conclusions reached by Marx and Engels during the Paris Commune, and later on by Lenin.

Dictatorship of the proletariat

Lenin had no illusions that it was ever possible to win “hegemony” over the bourgeois “democratic” state and use it for the benefit of the working class. He had no intentions of fighting corruption within the bourgeois state by making fancy campaigns or reasoning with people who had diametrically opposite objective interests to those of the working class. The crucial thing he understood was that the state serves the interests of the ruling class, it is not neutral between the classes and that for the working class to take power, it cannot simply take over the existing capitalist state structures. On the contrary, these must be replaced by a workers' state, a workers’ democracy, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Bolsheviks, once they had won a majority in the soviets, immediately proceeded to dismantle the old state apparatus and the – bourgeois democratic – provisional government. Instead power was passed on to the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets – councils – that had developed incidentally as extended strike committees, but that in the struggle had taken on more and more responsibilities in administering society.

The soviets were working organs of representatives directly elected in the factories, barracks and working class neighbourhoods. They were to be based on the for principles that Lenin had formulated– which were incidentally developed as a result of the experience of the Paris Commune:

  • All officials are to be elected and subject to recall at any time;
  • The salaries of all state officials not to exceed an average worker’s wage;
  • Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy. The standing army to be replaced by the arming of the whole people.
  • Gradually a system of rotation must be introduced in the workings of the state – when all are bureaucrats none are bureaucrats.

This is how Lenin viewed the question of the state. In his writings you will not find a single word about achieving “hegemony” over the state apparatus.

South Africa today

However, this is not merely a theoretical discussion. How does this apply to the current situation in South Africa? After the 1994 elections we had a situation where the ANC won the elections and thus formed the new government (although at that time it was a Government of National Unity including other parties). But, on the one hand, the state structures were not fundamentally transformed, and on the other economic power was still in the hands of the same handful of (white-owned) monopolies which had dominated the highly concentrated structure of the South African economy for decades. What this basically means is that we are dealing with a capitalist state structure defending the capitalist mode of production.

As we see the masses becoming increasingly disillusioned with capitalism, the character of the state is becoming clearer by the day. Especially the public sector workers’ strike highlighted this fact clearly. The workers, fighting for decent working conditions and a living wage, were met with the harshest police repression since the fall of the apartheid regime.

Unemployment, poverty and misery – all the products of capitalism – are dragging down the South African working class, but when the workers protest they are arrested and oppressed – from the arrest of anti-electricity cut-off protesters to the eviction of squatters fighting for a piece of land to live on. In all these instances the police, a very important part of the state apparatus, is used to defend the interests of capital. The fact that the ANC and SACP leaders are sitting in government does not make any fundamental difference. As long as they are committed to the maintenance of the capitalist system of private property, they are no threat to the capitalist state in South Africa.

It is true that at different levels a whole new layer of civil servants has been appointed who come from the liberation movement. But this is something that the ruling class in South Africa can accept as long as their fundamental interests and property are not affected or threatened in any way. If one morning Zuma were to decide that, for the sake of argument, in line with the Freedom Charter, Anglo-American and De Beers were to be nationalised under workers' control and run for the benefit of the majority of the population, then we would see the state and the capitalist class use all the means at their disposal to prevent this from happening. In this example we can see the validity of the Marxist theory of the state.

The point for communists must be this: As long as capitalism continues to exist, unemployment, poverty and corruption will exist. In South Africa this has been proven by the fact that seventeen years of capitalist democracy have not solved anything for the masses. In order to solve the most basic needs of the masses, what has to be done is to mobilize the masses and expropriate the capitalist class by nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control and management. But the capitalists are not going to accept this and they will mobilize the whole weight of the state apparatus against the mass movement. Thus, a precondition for victory will be, at a certain point in the process, to call for the dismantling of the capitalist state and the handing over of power to the organs of mass struggle that the movement will undoubtedly throw up. Then the building of a workers’ state, based on the neighbourhoods and factories and on the four principles of Lenin can begin.

But, as we said, all this seems to be a closed book to comrade Nzimande who has his mind firmly fixed on “building working class hegemony” within the bourgeois state.

Why (not) socialism?

In his speech at the YCL congress and on many other occasions Nzimande repeatedly talks about the unfavourable balance of forces which makes it impossible to move towards socialist revolution immediately. This is used as the foremost excuse to introduce such policies as the NDR (National Democratic Revolution) and the MTV (Medium Term Vision) that all advocate solutions to problems such as unemployment, poverty, lack of a good education system, racism and corruption in the here and now – i.e. within the limited confines of capitalism – while postponing the concrete question of a socialist solution to these problems to a distant future when the balance of forces will supposedly be better.

Before we proceed in analysing the balance of forces we need to dedicate a paragraph or two to ask comrade Nzimande the following questions: 1. how are you going to solve these problems without breaking with capitalism and the system of private property? 2. If you believe we can solve these questions or even get vaguely close to solving them within the framework of capitalist society, then why would the masses need socialism?

While we wait for the reply from the comrade, we will proceed to explain how Marxists would solve these questions. By expropriating the bourgeoisie and nationalizing their assets under workers' control and management we could immediately shorten the working week and thus wipe out unemployment by sharing out work among all and, at the same time, use the profits to raise wages and general living standards through increased investments in the fields of education, health, housing and infrastructure.

At the same time the removal of an exploitative capitalist class would remove the primary hub of racist policies that aimed at dividing the working class, while full employment and raised living standards would eradicate want and competition between workers, thus destroying the very basis upon which racism in a class society rests.

As for corruption, again we can look at the Bolsheviks who solved it by introducing the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. a soviet state, and workers' control and management in all industries, so all the books were open and all positions were elective and subject to recall while no elected representative receiving a higher wage than an average worker. While we await the reply of the comrade we will continue to look at this concept of the “balance of forces”.

The balance of forces

Although it is never concretely explained as to why and how the “balance of forces” always appear to be unfavourable for socialist revolution, comrade Nzimande is very fond of this logic. But in what ways is the “balance of forces” unfavourable?

Is it because the working class is not willing to struggle? Well that cannot be the case. More than 1.3 million workers were engaged in the fiercest struggle against the government just a few months ago. These workers were more than willing to go as far as fighting with the police in order to win their struggle. Also it is now an almost daily event that whole townships are rising up to protest against the cutting of the electricity and water supply.

Could it then be because the workers are politically backward? But today hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of South African workers are in one way or another politically active in a party or other organizations. The Communist Party and Cosatu have experienced historical growth and activity has never been at such a high level.

Could it be because the capitalists are too strong? Capitalism today is going through its worst crisis ever covering the entire world and with no end in sight. The capitalists have no other option but to attack, not only the workers, but all other layers and classes in society including their own previous pillars of support. The situation with the South African police should be the best proof of this, especially the remarkable announcement of support for the public sector workers by the police union during the strike and the constant reports of refusal of the police forces to crack down on protesters. When the armed bodies of men are no longer prepared to actively defend the interests of capital, we can feel the ground shaking under the feet of the bourgeoisie. But of course if there is no one to offer an alternative, then nothing will change.

Could it be because the class struggle worldwide is at a standstill? Workers all over the world are rising to struggle against the injustices of capitalism. In Latin America, led by Venezuela and Bolivia, the working masses have drawn the most revolutionary conclusions. In Asia there have been uprisings in Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and even India where several areas are in a state of constant civil war. The Middle East and the Arab world now stand out as a shining example of what the masses can achieve once they are mobilised. We have seen the huge revolutionary movements in both Tunisia and Egypt that have led to the overthrow of the hated dictators, Ben Ali and Mubarak. In Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and many other Arab countries we have seen the signs of a rising tide of revolution. In Iran the masses are once more on the move, after the tremendous mobilisations in 2009. In The rest of Africa as well we have seen big movements, especially in Nigeria. Even in Europe we see that the workers are starting to move. Led by France and Greece one country after another has been shaken and more movements are on the way. A socialist revolution in South Africa would immediately win the sympathy of these movements and show the way forward for millions of workers and poor who are fed up with the workings of capitalism. A revolution in South Africa would not be an isolated incident, but would immediately connect with the workers of the rest of the world.

Balance of power in 1917

The Bolsheviks came to power in what today's reformists would consider the most unfavourable conditions ever. Russia in 1917 was a very backward country where the majority of the country was living in distant and isolated areas in the most backward conditions. Reading and writing was a luxury for the few and religious prejudices ruled the mindset of the majority of people. More than 90% of the population were peasants and industry was only located in a few small centres. The working class, although very concentrated, had a very low degree of organization.

Furthermore, the Bolshevik party was in a very bad shape. At the end of 1916 the Bolsheviks had been practically dissolved under the hammer blows of repression and war. Lenin, who was living in Switzerland, was in contact with no more than a handful of people inside the country. In an era of no emails or internet the best leaders of the party were completely isolated from the masses.

Even after the February revolution in 1917 the Bolsheviks did not have more than 5% support within the soviets. Not once, however, did Lenin mention any “unfavourable balance of forces”. The only thing that Lenin did criticize was the political line that Kamenev and Stalin had put forward in the party paper Pravda that argued for a line of loyal opposition towards the provisional (bourgeois) government.

Lenin’s line, that also became the line of the Bolsheviks upon his return, was that of no trust in the bourgeois democratic government or state and all power to the organs of mass struggle – the soviets. Lenin’s tactic was that of patiently explaining to the masses in Russia that the question of war, poverty and land could not be solved in a bourgeois society, but only through another, socialist, revolution. In this manner the Bolsheviks succeeded in connecting the daily struggles of the masses with the perspective for socialism. They never tried to sow illusions in the bourgeois state or claim that poverty and misery could be solved under a capitalist regime.

On the contrary, they insisted on explaining patiently that only by taking power into their own hands, through the soviets, expropriating the bourgeoisie, nationalising the banks and large insurance companies and building society on a socialist basis could the workers and peasants escape the endless horrors of capitalism.

By being firm in their policies they managed to win over the majority of the masses who were quickly becoming disillusioned with the policies of the provisional government led by the “Social-Revolutionary” Kerensky.

Did anyone raise opposition to the Bolsheviks taking power? Indeed! Russia was put under heavy economic pressure and was attacked by more than 21 armies who had the support of all the major powers. On the other side the Red Army was hopelessly backward with old weapons in bad shape and no more than one weapon for every two soldiers. How did the red army, led by Trotsky, overcome this? By appealing to the soldiers who were themselves oppressed workers and peasants. By appealing to the soldiers not to attack their brothers and sisters they not only provoked mass mutiny thus causing the armies to withdraw, but they also laid the basis for the creation of mass communist parties in all parts of the world.

How to win the masses in South Africa

In South Africa today the situation is a thousand times more favourable than in Russia in 1917. The working class, the majority of which are quite well educated, is incomparably larger and gathered in large cities. The Communist Party is a sizeable force and has great influence. There is a large trade union federation with very revolutionary traditions and a large active working class base. At the same time the masses have shown that they are willing to fight. This is not just true today, but a historical fact. Since 1948, there have been very few years without big mass movements in South Africa.

However, what is needed is for the Communist Party to develop a clear programme that links up the daily day struggles of the masses with the perspective of socialism. When the people in the townships protest against the cutting of water and electricity it is the duty of the communists to participate and generalize their struggle by spreading it to other areas and linking it up with other struggles and by also explaining that the root cause of all these problems is the capitalist system, thereby linking their struggle with the struggle for socialism. In this manner the Communist Party would be able to place itself at the head of these struggles and give them an organized expression. This is how the party can mobilize the working class and thus change “the balance of forces”.

What one should NOT do is to accuse striking workers, who are defending themselves against police crackdowns, of being counter-revolutionary. The public sector workers' strike was an amazing opportunity for the SACP to place itself at the head of the South African working class. More than 1.3 million workers were out on strike and hundreds of thousands more were ready to join in. Like the YCL, the SACP should have given the strike full support. And not only that, the party should have started a national campaign for a general strike in defence of the workers who were beaten and murdered by the police forces. By mobilizing the whole working class the reasonable demands of the workers could easily have been won and the party would have clearly presented itself as an alternative to the reformist ANC government. If the party had presented itself as a clear alternative on a socialist basis an even greater victory would have been prepared than that of simply winning higher wages.

But as we all know that is not what happened. In fact the behaviour of the party leadership greatly disillusioned a wide layer with the party and thus it turned the “unfavourable balance of forces” statement into a self-fulfilling strategy. As long as the leadership of the class is not willing to lead it in its struggles, the balance of forces will never become “favourable”.

Independence of the party

To comrade Nzimande explaining the need for socialist revolution within parliament and inside the ANC seems ruled since he has to abide by the discipline of the ANC – meaning in effect that he has to obey the petit bourgeois reformist leadership of the ANC and not its revolutionary ranks. This has pushed some honest comrades to conclude that the SACP must therefore withdraw from the tripartite alliance and stand in elections independently.

However, this would be a mistake and would not solve the main question – the political independence of the party. In fact the events at the Polokwane congress of the ANC, where Thabo Mbeki was toppled as leader, shows that it is completely possible for the SACP to mobilize the ranks of the ANC on a radical basis and thus win the political leadership of the organization.

The Bolshevik party worked in many different organizations, even in the black reactionary state unions. For them the main issue was not which organizations to work, but whether there were workers there to win to revolutionary socialism, while at the same time maintaining strict political independence.

Even when participating in the tsarist Duma they maintained full political independence and went as far as they legally could in exposing the reactionary character of the tsarist regime. And what they could not legally say in public they underlined in writing in their underground papers.

For communists one principle must stand above all others. We are communists no matter where we are, whether in parliament, government or in the ANC, and we must hold to our communist principles. When a communist stands for any leading position it is his duty to honestly and frankly put forward his Marxist views and not accept any position unless he is free to act on those policies. Of course it is permissible at times to take some positions for tactical reasons, but only if those positions serve to build the party and spread the ideas of communism.

But the manner in which leading communists like Nzimande, Cronin and others are now participating in the structures of the ANC, parliament and government – that is without an independent communist line – is only serving to confuse the masses and drive them away from a party that they see as being connected with unemployment, poverty and police suppression of workers' struggles.

It should be made completely clear to all the ranks of the ANC that the communists are fundamentally different to the other ANC leaders who are happy to limit their actions within the confines of the capitalist system. This, unfortunately, is not the case today. The vast majority of the masses see no fundamental differences between Communist Party and reformist ANC leaders. If the communists were seen as a real alternative it would provide them with the opportunity of winning over the majority of the ANC and thus the masses, who are not at all satisfied with their current leaders, to communist policies.

If the Communist Party were to break with the ANC and stand independent candidates it would not be the end of the world – although it would be a mistake for it would serve to isolate the party from the wider masses – but it would not solve the main question, that is, that of political independence, as the party would not have solved the key question of which programme to put forward. The problem is not the party's presence within the ANC, but its lack of a clear, revolutionary socialist programme.

The question of leadership

There are big possibilities for the SACP. To all those comrades who complain about the “bad objective situation”, “low consciousness of the masses” “unfavourable balance of forces” we must say: in reality the situation has never been so favourable as now. If they won't accept our words for it they can dust down their history books and study past experiences and compare them to what we have today.

The objective conditions for socialism in South Africa are riper than ever and the ranks of the SACP are in an incredibly favourable position, but what is lacking is a leadership to connect the party with the living movement of the workers and lead them towards socialist revolution.

The leadership of the SACP, with Blade Nzimande at its head, have not been able to utilize this favourbale situation. The main reason for this is the lack of a Marxist understanding. Marxism is not dry formulae, but a living guide to action. Without it the comrades have been left groping in the dark confusing the ranks and the workers. The result was vividly displayed in the catastrophic congress of the YCL in Mafikeng.

What is therefore needed is to fight to reorientate the party, adopt a revolutionary Marxist policy and dig roots among the working class. Only thus can the party fulfil its full potential.

The alliance at a crossroads

Seventeen years after the fall of the apartheid regime in 1994, South African society is still permeated with deep contradictions. Racism, corruption, poverty and unemployment overshadow every aspect of the lives of the South African masses. It is becoming ever clearer to a wide layer of the workers and the youth that none of these problems can be solved within the limits of bourgeois democracy. This is reflected in the wide echo, which the call for the nationalization of the mines – taken up by the ANC Youth League – has received in the last period. The question of “socialism in our lifetime” is now being posed more clearly than ever before.

It is also in this context that the Young Communist League and the South African Communist Party have witnessed remarkable growth. But as these opportunities appear on the horizon, the party’s leadership is failing to live up to its historical task. Instead of linking the party up with the workers and the youth – and connecting their incomplete programme with the full programme of socialism – the comrades are putting the party in opposition to the living movement of the workers. This is as true in the debate over nationalization as it is in the public sector workers' strike.

Hence the contradictions between the policies of the leadership and the aspirations of the membership are increasingly coming to the surface. This is not just a phenomenon within the SACP or the YCL, but can be seen throughout the tripartite alliance. In all the organizations of the alliance we can see sharp divisions emerging in the form of two distinct camps.

One camp, closer to state power, the parliament and the ANC apparatus are content with the present order of South African society and are in no hurry to take any significant steps against capitalism. The other camp, closer to the rank and file, is pushing to move beyond the narrow limits of bourgeois democracy. They can feel the increasing pressure of the workers who by no means can be satisfied with the present situation.

In fact the latter camp is moving increasingly towards the ideas of Marxism and genuine communism. The Communist Party, if it moved forward with a bold programme of nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy, could win over these layers which today make up the bulk of the ANC ranks. But to be able to do this, the Communist Party itself must first be rearmed with the ideas of Marxism.

In practise this means that the Marxists within the party must gather around a clear revolutionary programme and wage a political struggle to win the ranks to the ideas of Marxism and thus place themselves at the helm of the party.

The dangers of ultra-leftism and the need for a clear programme

As the left wing within the alliance grows the leaderships of the ANC and the SACP feel pressure to go to extreme lengths to defend their positions within the party. These days one report after another tells the tale of widespread fraud and bureaucratic manoeuvring at the general assemblies at branch, district, regional and national level.

The Mafikeng congress was nothing but a step in this development. It was clear from the beginning that Blade Nzimande and Buti Manamela where not going to let the party fall into the hands of its left wing. There are countless reports of different kinds of fraud; from multiple copies of delegate cards to sushi-parties and putting personal pressure on wavering comrades. But this could only have an effect so long as Khaye Nkwanyama was not posing as a real political alternative in the eyes of the delegates. As one talked with Manamela supporters during the congress it was clear that they did not have a clear picture of what they were voting for or against.

Without a clear programme and a plan of action the left wing have only been pushing back with the same methods, with disruptions of meetings, putting pressure on comrades to vote in a certain way etc. We must honestly say comrades, that these methods only play the counterproductive role of lowering the political level of the ranks and throwing the ball into the court of the right wing. Our task is not to win a rigged congress, which is impossible, but to expose the political bankruptcy of the leadership and win the political loyalty of the ranks.

The right wing is quite satisfied in limiting the discussion to organizational matters. The left on the other hand, must not allow itself to be bogged down in such discussions and insist on political debate. Of course we must expose fraud – in a calm manner. But we must first and foremost expose the political bankruptcy of the leadership, even if that means on occasion tactically giving up the struggle for the recognition of a few delegates. The point is this: we want to win the ranks to Marxism by raising their political level; we do not need to simply “win” a congress where the issues at stake are not clear.

What is needed is to formulate a clear programme of transitional demands that can link up the living struggles of the working class with the socialist revolution. Once such a programme is formulated it will be received with great enthusiasm by the workers and youth who are more than fed up with the fog of confusion and deception that has been bedevilling the class struggle.

Such a programme could be based on the following:

  • The People Shall Share in the Country's Wealth! - The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industries shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole. These enterprises shall operate under the control and management of the workers themselves.
  • Full employment! Shorten the working week to 35 hours with no loss of wages.
  • A living wage! Raise the minimum wage to 10.000 rands a month.
  • Price controls on basic goods! Introduction of strict price controls for all goods such as basic foodstuffs, water and electricity. At the same time a law must be introduced banning the cutting off of electricity and water.
  • Affordable housing for all! All large private property rental companies and all empty housing held for speculative purposes should be nationalized and turned into affordable and decent housing for the people. The construction industry must be nationalized and its resources used to solve the housing question within 5 years. Finally rent should not to exceed 20% of tenants' income.
  • Down with racism and sexism! Full equality in legal and in all economical spheres, regardless of sex, religion, sexual preference or skin colour. No to colour based unions.
  • Down with corruption and careerism! No officials are to receive higher wages than an average workers' wage. Abolish all perks connected to public offices.
  • Workers' leaders on workers’ wages! No comrade occupying party or other political positions are allowed to receive more than an average wage of a skilled worker. Money or perks received above this level is to be handed over to the party.
  • For a democratic workers' movement! No to cronyism and fraud in party and union caucuses, congresses, conferences, etc. For fully democratic and honest political discussions as the only way to strengthen our organizations.
  • Once a communist always a communist! All communists occupying any political positions must put forward the policies of the Communist Party or else resign from their positions.
  • For an all-African union of socialist states! The revolution must be spread to all of Africa where our brothers and sisters, like ourselves, suffer severely under the weight of senile capitalism.

If such a programme were put forward by the left wing, it would receive a huge echo. As a consequence we would also see many people changing camps. On the one side the great majority of the honest YCL and SACP ranks who support the flawed reformists such as Nzimande would see clearly the difference between his and a truly revolutionary programme, and on the other side the many careerists who presently take refuge within the left wing because they have been ousted from the right-wing bureaucracy will be forced to either defend a revolutionary programme or move elsewhere.

If the left wing were to succeed in transforming itself from a loose grouping into a real Bolshevik opposition with a clear programme, the road would be open to winning the ranks of the SACP and YCL who yearn for consistent socialist policies. Once the Communist Party is armed with genuine communist policies it would quickly gather the support of the Cosatu membership, ANCYL and the overwhelming majority of the ANC itself to put its programme into effect.

The future is ours!

All forces in South African society are lining up for a showdown between the working class and the capitalists. The workers are willing to struggle, the youth are massively radicalised, the level of organization is very high and rising, the authority of the reformist leaders is in a free fall and the bourgeois political parties have been reduced to a small insignificant minority with very little influence. There have never been more favourable circumstances to mobilize the masses against capitalism.

By taking over the commanding heights of the economy the massive sums, that each year are pocketed by the national and international capitalists, could be used to raise living standard to unprecedented levels. Life for most South Africans would change from being a never ending battle to make ends meet to a path for the development of science and human culture. Such a revolution would immediately get an echo and become a focal point of struggle, not only in Africa but among the workers of the whole world and would change the course of world history.

The apologists of capital will of course continue to talk about the “unfavourable balance of forces”. However, the workers, once on the move would become an unstoppable force. We will let Lenin sum up the discussion:

“Until the 'higher' phase of communism arrives, the socialists demand the strictest control by society and by the state over the measure of labour and the measure of consumption; but this control must start with the expropriation of the capitalists, with the establishment of workers' control over the capitalists, and must be exercised not by a state of bureaucrats, but by a state of armed workers.

“The selfish defence of capitalism by the bourgeois ideologists (and their hangers-on, like the Tseretelis, Chernovs, and Co.) consists in that they substitute arguing and talk about the distant future for the vital and burning question of present-day politics, namely, the expropriation of the capitalists, the conversion of all citizens into workers and other employees of one huge 'syndicate' – the whole state – and the complete subordination of the entire work of this syndicate to a genuinely democratic state, the state of the Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies.”

These words are as valid today as they were 92 years ago. The future of working people can only be guaranteed by socialism, not because we choose socialism. It is not a question of personal choice but one of absolute historical necessity. We have full confidence in the South African workers and youth and the forces of Marxism that are rapidly growing and maturing in the country.

  • Rearm the Communist Party with communist policies!
  • Build the Marxist Tendency!
  • Nationalize the commanding heights of the economy!
  • Forward to socialist revolution!

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