Building a workers' party? Lessons of the MDC experience for Nigeria

This article was first published in the October 2000 edition of the Nigerian Marxist journal, the Workers’ Alternative. We think the analysis developed here by the Nigerian Marxists is still valid, and that the development of the MDC in Zimbabwe is full of rich lessons for the Nigerian and other labour movements. It shows that a mass party based on the trade unions can be created, and can be very successful - but also that this is not enough. To prevent the party from being taken over by capitalist elements, it must be controlled by the working class and have a socialist programme.

[Note: this article was first published in the October 2000 edition of the Nigerian Marxist journal, the Workers’ Alternative. In the light of recent developments in Zimbabwe we think the analysis developed here by the Nigerian Marxists is still valid.]

The development of the MDC in Zimbabwe is full of rich lessons for the Nigerian labour movement. It shows that a mass party based on the trade unions can be created. It also shows that it can be very successful. In the recent elections in Zimbabwe the MDC won 57 parliamentary seats against ZANU-PF's 62. In the cities where the working class is predominant, it won the majority of votes. The party claims 1.1 million members (in a country of 12.5 million people).

It is worth noting that the MDC emerged from the general strike of December 1997 against tax increases, from the mass protests in 1998 against the rising prices of domestic goods and foodstuffs and from the mass movements of workers and youth against the ZANU-PF government's IMF-imposed austerity measures. The recent general strike in Nigeria against fuel price hikes was also a movement against IMF imposed policies, i.e. the elimination of the fuel subsidies! Therefore any worker or youth in Nigeria who is intent on struggling for the formation of a Nigerian Labour Party should study the experience of Zimbabwe, because it is full of both lessons and warnings.

The MDC promised free primary and secondary education, free health care and a massive house-building programme. At its founding rally held in Harare on September 11, 1999 (where 20,000 took part), the MDC announced that the party is "a focused continuation of the ages-old struggle of the working people. The MDC is coming together, through a united front of the working people, to pursue common goals and principles that advance the interests of all people across Zimbabwe - workers, peasants, the unemployed, women, students, youths and the disabled people..."

The working class masses that have joined the party and voted for it believe the party will defend the interests of the workers. But recent developments inside the party indicate that the leadership is moving to the right and adopting the idea of a "social market economy". This means that it would reduce government spending and abide by the requirements of the IMF, the World Bank and Western powers. In April, the party committed itself to a programme of privatisation of all state-owned companies. It also stated it would eliminate all price subsidies. It would reduce taxation for companies and "middle income earners" while at the same it would introduce a goods and services tax.

But these are precisely the types of policies the MDC was built to fight against! All these measures, if implemented, would represent a blow against the workers and the poor people of Zimbabwe. The party has also abandoned its initial radical position on land reform. All this may explain why the MDC did not get all the potential support it could have mobilized. Mugabe's ZANU-PF was able to muster support among the rural population precisely because it demagogically raised the slogan of expropriation of the big white farmers.

How could such a sharp change in direction have taken place? Patrick Bond (an expert on Zimbabwe and author of the book, Uneven Zimbabwe: A Study of Finance, Development and Underdevelopment) recently wrote the following revealing comment: " it not the case, as of February, that the MDC began to receive generous funding by (white) domestic and foreign capitalists, including white farmers? At that stage, didn't Zimbabwe's skewed land relations and abominable property rights simply drop off the MDC's campaign agenda? Wasn't a representative of big business put in charge of its economics desk, and wasn't his first major speech a firm endorsement of the International Monetary Fund and wholesale privatization for post-election Zimbabwe?" In fact, the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries strategist Eddie Cross was appointed as the party's economics policy secretary!

Thus a party, which was created by the workers of Zimbabwe through the trade unions, is now seen by the capitalist class as a possible instrument for carrying out the same discredited policies of Mugabe's government! The capitalists in Zimbabwe do not have their own party so they corrupt the workers' party and try to use it to their advantage. About a third of the MDC's national executive is made up of trade union leaders and activists and only nine of the MDC's elected MPs come from a trade-union background. The rest are middle-class academics, lawyers, some business people and one or two farmers. And this non-working class layer is playing an increasingly dominant role in deciding the policies of the party.

The leader of the party, Morgan Tsvangirai (also leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions), believes that it is necessary to accept these policies in order to widen the base of support of the party. He has achieved the opposite by alienating a section of the rural population!

On top of this, the 60 percent inflation and the 50 percent unemployment levels will not be solved by the programme the MDC has adopted. Privatisation will involve massive retrenchment of workers. The elimination of price subsidies will lead to further impoverishment.

The workers' leaders in the MDC must break with the capitalist newcomers to the party. The working class activists who built the party should have control over its leaders and its policies. The party should support the expropriation of the big landowners, but it should also raise the demand of expropriation of the big industrial and finance capitalists. Unless a future MDC government can put its hands on the resources of the country through the nationalisation of the means of production then it will be forced to buckle under the pressure of the domestic capitalists and their imperialist backers.

The lessons for Nigeria are that, yes, it is possible to build a trade union-based workers' party and this can win mass support, but that is not enough. Oshiomhole, the president of the NLC is already thinking along the same lines as his Zimbabwean counterpart. Therefore, the workers of Nigeria should be forewarned: the party must be controlled by the working class and it must have a socialist programme.

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