The SACP since 1990: The weight of Stalinist history

James Hamill writes on how the Party dealt with the collapse of Soviet communism

On its legalisation in February 1990 after 40 years as a proscribed organisation, the South African Communist Party (SACP) faced multiple dilemmas. Its modus operandi had left it if not wholly unprepared then at least under-prepared for this eventuality even if individual communists (although lapsed in some cases) had been involved in some of the subterranean contacts between the African National Congress (ANC) and the apartheid regime which had preceded formal legalisation.

The SACP’s approach, in alliance with the much larger ANC, had been essentially insurrectionary based upon armed struggle, people’s power and the revolutionary seizure of power, in effect the physical overthrow of the regime. As of 1990, despite the turbulence and economic and political malaise of the 1980s, that still remained a distant prospect.

F W De Klerk’s decision to pursue a post-apartheid solution through negotiations propelled the SACP into an environment where the fundamental truths by which it had previously operated, namely, that the prospect of negotiated settlement was a chimera and that only revolutionary force could destroy white minority rule, looked obsolete.

It now had to fashion a new strategy consistent with the realities of an era of legality and negotiation which, by definition, would involve compromise. Moreover, it had to achieve this while simultaneously coping with the existential crisis posed to communist ideology - and therefore to all communist parties - by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and its visible disintegration in the Soviet Union culminating in the dissolution of the state itself in December 1991.

For Western communist parties this was a major blow but, through the Eurocommunist phenomenon of the 1970s, some of those parties had already begun to detach themselves from Moscow and to move towards some still ill-defined form of democratic socialism. However, the SACP found itself in a more invidious position. It had long shunned such liberal deviationism and both before and after its banning in 1950, it had a reasonable claim to be the most ideologically orthodox, pro-Soviet and Stalinist party in existence.

The SACP had followed the Soviet line over the years with unswerving devotion repeating, almost to the letter, Soviet rationalisations for the invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968[i], and Afghanistan in 1979[ii] and taking the most unyieldingly dogmatic pro-Soviet positions during the Cold War and naturally siding with Moscow in the parallel Sino-Soviet conflict.

As late as 1990 it was still peddling the view that the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 had been an act of self-defence by the leadership of East Germany ‘to seal itself off from infection.’[iii] Now, like the wall itself, all of this had collapsed in some ignominy amid a chain reaction of popular protests as communist rule in Eastern Europe was exposed as a fraud built upon a vast edifice of lies, lies which the SACP had enthusiastically embraced for decades.

This embarrassing record placed the SACP firmly on the backfoot. It was now tarnished by its attachment to an ideology which had produced such sclerotic, authoritarian regimes outperformed by the West on every conceivable economic and social indicators.

The important point which the SACP managed to miss, whether deliberately or through a process of ideological self-deception, was that despite the deployment of the stale vocabulary of Marxism-Leninism about ‘vanguard parties’, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and ‘socialist democracy’ this was no more than an ideological façade for one-party dictatorships.

These were societies run by and for the benefit of a self-appointed and often self-enriching party elite and nomenklatura which presumed the right to speak for workers irrespective of those same workers’ actual opinions on the matter. Should the working class in such states reject the party line, or even actively resist it, such protests could be mercilessly suppressed as they demonstrated that the working class had succumbed to ‘reactionary tendencies’ and did not understand its true interests which could only be understood and expressed in their purest form by the revolutionary vanguard party itself.

Thus, a vibrant, creative and popular innovation like the ‘Prague Spring’ – the attempt to devise a form of ‘socialism with a human face’ as an alternative to the stifling bureaucratic authoritarianism of existing party rule – was crushed by Soviet tanks - the involvement of other Warsaw Pact states being merely a fig leaf to provide the illusion of a collective endeavour - with the SACP and ANC applauding enthusiastically from the side lines.[iv]

Working class interests were only to be defended so long as the working class did not decide those interests for itself and agreed to channel them through communist oligarchies foisted upon them by a foreign power rather than through any organic domestic process.

Nor should workers seek to form independent trade unions as the most appropriate vehicle to represent their workplace interests, for, as these were workers’ states, their interests were already adequately safeguarded by the party and by official trade unions which served as transmission belts faithfully conveying the party line to workers.

Inevitably, this also meant that strikes were suppressed as why would workers wish to take strike action in a state run by and for workers unless they were in the grip of a false consciousness?

For the SACP, all of this constituted ‘socialism’, a term it never subjected to any critical scrutiny. In an editorial in The African Communist written in 1990 in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communist states, the SACP continued to take refuge in falsehood by maintaining that ‘the achievements of the socialist countries have always been an inspiration to working people throughout the world’, an assertion for which the evidence was, at best, meagre.

Moreover, in a classic case of being more Stalinist than the original Stalinists, it also criticised Eastern European communist parties for their tendency ‘to belittle their real achievements and exaggerate their shortcomings.’[v]

With its legalisation in 1990, the SACP was now vulnerable to the charge that if it could endorse tyranny in Eastern Europe with such equanimity – this, after all, being a political order ultimately imposed and sustained by brute force - how could it be taken seriously when it claimed to be fighting for democracy in South Africa itself?

How could a party which was prepared to endorse unconditionally the actions of the Soviet Union and its satellite states of Eastern Europe in crushing liberalisation in Budapest and Prague or in imposing martial law in Poland[vi], speak with any moral authority when deploring authoritarianism and the crushing of protest in South Africa itself?

If bannings, harassment, arbitrary arrest, torture and censorship were wrong in South Africa what made them right in Moscow, Prague, East Berlin, Budapest and Warsaw? If a party stood so firmly against freedom of association, freedom of expression, political pluralism and independent trade unionism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union - and in resolute defence of the worst excesses of state power there - how could it be trusted to champion those ideals in South Africa? How could a party preaching the virtues of the dogmas of Leninism and of vanguard parties remain committed to a constitutional democracy where the power of any ruling party is necessarily limited?

SACP responses to the collapse of communism

As they surveyed the ideological wreckage in Eastern Europe in late 1989, F W De Klerk, and those advising him ahead of his speech of 2 February 1990, felt these events provided them with a propaganda windfall and a unique opportunity to construct a new political arrangement on reasonably advantageous terms for the National Party (NP).

They calculated that the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, and its ongoing decay in the Soviet Union itself, was a blow to the solar plexus of the SACP from which it would struggle to recover. In many, though not all, respects this has been proven to be an accurate long-term forecast, but it did the NP little good in the short to medium term as it failed to weaken the ANC, its principal adversary.

Since 1994, although formally a part of the Tripartite Alliance and with its members in parliament and government - and with a significant presence in the Congress of South African Trade Unions - the SACP has struggled to advance its broad macro ideology; indeed it is not entirely clear if it any longer has such an overarching ideology.

It remains extremely ambiguous about concepts like ‘revolution’ and ‘socialism’ preferring to talk in more modest terms about what is achievable in the ‘current conjuncture.’ Except for the 2005-2009 period – when, in a move with disastrous consequences, it helped secure Jacob Zuma’s elevation to the ANC and state leadership - its post-1994 trajectory has been one of steady marginalisation reflected in its visible discontent with the policies of the Mandela, Mbeki and eventually even Zuma administrations.

The SACP is clearly not what it was, and, to a significant extent, it is the author of its own misfortunes in this regard. Having wedded itself so completely to Moscow the relatively swift and total collapse of the Soviet Union was shattering to the SACP, leaving it in a political wilderness and without any kind of ideological compass to navigate its way forward, its entire worldview shredded.

That there was no unified SACP response to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe pointed to considerable confusion within its ranks with responses taking various forms from outright denialism; a more limited denialism recognising the failures of the Soviet model but reasserting the relevance of Marxism-Leninism; a blunt recognition of the failures of the one party model and of Soviet ‘socialism’; and a plea in mitigation that the party’s slavish adherence to Moscow was essentially a product of the constraints and demands of exile politics.

Each of these responses was highly problematic. Denialism and a stubborn commitment to Stalinism was a head in the sand approach which simply refused to accept the evidence of 1989 when communist regimes, once viewed as immovable, were dismantled inside a year, even if the pressures and forces sweeping them away had been building for some considerable time.

Mass pressure from below and a more enlightened leadership from above – signalled by the unwillingness of Gorbachev and the leaders of eastern Europe (with the obvious exception of Nicolae Ceausescu) to use military force to sustain communist rule – created an irresistible momentum for change in a process memorably captured by Timothy Garton Ash’s phrase ‘refolution.’[vii]

To argue in the face of such overwhelming evidence that the Soviet model was still valid and inspirational strongly resembled the argument deployed by apartheid’s flat earthers in the Conservative Party, Herstigte Nasionale Party and assorted far-right paramilitaries that a return to Verwoerdian orthodoxy was both possible and desirable. For example, the SACP’s Harry Gwala, an unreconstructed Stalinist, simply decided that the collapse of communist rule had changed little and insisted that ‘people like Stalin must be given their place. You can criticise him for the mistakes he made but you must respect his achievements.’[viii]

Nor was this this instinctive Stalinism confined to Gwala. The SACP’s Brian Bunting made the obligatory reference to Stalin’s ‘errors’ – an interesting euphemism for the death of millions - but argued that ‘he made an uncontestable contribution to the struggle for socialism.’ [ix]

In fact this ‘contribution’ was highly contestable as Bunting wilfully ignored that Stalinism and its apologists were a millstone around the necks of generations of democratic socialists who wanted no part of a system rooted in dictatorship, mass murder, state terror, arbitrary execution and gulags and did not consider it either socialist or democratic. In this sense Stalinism was not, as Joe Slovo described it, ‘socialism without democracy’[x], it was totalitarianism without democracy or socialism.

This illustrates a wider problem within the SACP vis a vis Eastern Europe. Its actual understanding of the dynamics of those societies was extremely limited as its sole source of information was the decaying regimes in those countries which fed it the standard verbiage of state propaganda.

This had two consequences. First, we had the tragic spectacle of the SACP supporting the suppression of supposed ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and ‘agents of imperialism’ who were actually far more progressive in character than the moribund regimes the SACP was allied with.

Second, it meant the SACP was still talking about East Germany and the Soviet Union revitalising themselves as late as mid-1990. Gwala, for example, managed to convince himself that the changes in Eastern Europe were simply a matter of the socialist system getting stronger by ‘ridding itself of waste’ and he considered it inconceivable that the Soviet Union or East Germany would return to capitalism. [xi]

Similarly, the African Communist assured readers in the same 1990 edition that ‘what is going on in the international Communist movement today is not a process of demolition but of cleansing.’[xii] Yet, within eighteen months both states had ceased to exist. This was self-deception on a grand scale.

It is a subject worthy of further research in its own right as to how intelligent people, who could analyse South Africa’s own problems so forensically, and often with such insight, could so casually abandon their critical faculties with regard to the ‘socialist bloc’ and swallow whole such official nonsense and lies.

Limited denialism too had its problems. This SACP body of opinion acknowledged that the Soviet system had become overly bureaucratic and centralised but, like Bunting and Gwala, they took refuge in their own euphemisms. Here the emphasis was on the ‘distortions’ rather than the fundamental failings of the Soviet system whilst still arguing that this in no way undermined the continuing relevance of Marxism-Leninism.

This was to seriously underplay the crisis of Soviet communism which had failed on virtually every level. It had certainly not expanded human emancipation – quite the opposite, it had produced a string of authoritarian police states.

In the case of East Germany – towards which the SACP was particularly fawning[xiii] – it had produced a monstrosity, a vast surveillance state regulated at every level by an all pervasive secret police force – the Stasi - such was the paranoia of the party leadership and its acute awareness of its own lack of legitimacy. Nor did the dogmas of Leninism have anything to offer in a constitutional democracy given its emphasis on vanguardism, the elimination of dissent and its antipathy to pluralist politics.

These societies had also lagged well behind the West in economic dynamism, technology and the simple ability to provide the most basic goods to their populations as their emphasis on commandist models and centralised central planning produced cumbersome, rigid and dysfunctional economies.

The approach taken by Joe Slovo in his ‘Has Socialism Failed?’ essay provided a fuller though incomplete denunciation of the Soviet system with Slovo still very reluctant to jettison the entire political culture of Bolshevism which was what was actually required to begin making a credible case for democratic socialism.

True, Slovo was sharply critical of the one-party system and his critique went much further than any SACP member had dared go previously and he amplified this a year later by saying it produced ‘tyranny, corruption and the assumption of power by a small self-perpetuating elite.’[xiv]

However, because he continued to deify Lenin, he was also inclined to over emphasise ‘distortions’ or ‘deformations’ of a basically sound framework rather than rigorously questioning the entire Leninist dogma. His essay also suffered from a more obvious deficiency. It smacked of the death bed conversion, one foisted upon him and the SACP by stark reality rather than one willingly embraced.

It invited some obvious questions: where were these sentiments ten, twenty or thirty years earlier when the crimes of that system were glaringly apparent in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary? Instead, the tightening of Moscow’s grip on Eastern Europe reflected in the limited sovereignty of Eastern European states under the so-called ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ - merely old fashioned power politics given an ideological makeover about the need to defend ‘socialism’ – was fully supported by the SACP; in fact, Harry Gwala was still supporting it in 1990.

Slovo’s article, with its narrow focus on the shortcomings of Soviet and Eastern European communism, largely ignored that particular elephant in the room, namely, the SACP’s unconditional loyalty to Moscow and the regimes of Eastern Europe all the way through to 1989 which received only token references throughout.

This allowed him to sidestep some potentially awkward self-criticism and avoided placing an obvious question before the party, namely, if we in the SACP can support such regimes so steadfastly for decades what does this say about our judgment, ethics and political credibility and what else does it suggest we might be capable of?

It should also be noted that Slovo fully embraced Gorbachev and his reforms from 1985. This reinforced the belief that he had become an enthusiast for reform only when that was compatible with the new Moscow party line and not before during the Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko era of stagnation.

Finally, it was argued that while, with hindsight, both the SACP and ANC positions were reprehensible, one must recall that the liberation movement was in exile and not entirely the master of its own destiny. Its shunning by Western states (at least in terms of granting it significant support) led to a reliance upon the Soviet bloc for training, weaponry, and propaganda facilities.

This, in turn, required a quid pro quo in the form of a staunch support for Soviet foreign policy positions. The SACP, as a party particularly close to Moscow, was an important conduit for Soviet military support to the wider liberation movement whereas criticism of Moscow might have seen that link closed down or substantially reduced.

Needs must, so to speak. However, this argument would carry greater weight had the SACP (or indeed the ANC) ever given the impression that this was merely the stuff of realpolitik - a cruel necessity.

Instead, the SACP viewed it as a highly principled position and it positively brimmed with enthusiasm and pride at the Soviet connection. This is reflected in the uncritical, highly sycophantic, commentaries on the Soviet Union and the ‘socialist community’ in every number of The African Communist.

This servile attitude also contaminated ANC publications such as Sechaba which was testament to the role played by SACP personnel in setting that journal’s ideological trajectory. This also begs the wider question as to whether a freedom struggle can be built upon and traded off against the denial of freedom for other peoples?

Both the ANC and SACP, in their natural focus on the South African liberation struggle, were prepared to be quite cavalier in trampling on the rights of others as their attitude to Stalin, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland and Afghanistan demonstrated.

This was a dangerous mindset and it is no great surprise to see it reappear in post-1994 foreign policy as the commitment to an ethical foreign policy has receded and the ANC government has bound itself quite closely to grotesque human rights abusers in Russia, China, Syria, Sudan, Myanmar, and Zimbabwe, although the SACP did at least take a more hostile position than the ANC towards the ZANU-PF authored disaster in the latter country. The ANC even deployed the language of ‘constructive engagement’ towards those regimes, the very approach it deplored when it was adopted by the United States and Britain towards apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.

A busted flush?

Yet, despite the umbilical cord attaching it to the calamities of Soviet communism, the SACP could not be considered a busted flush as of 1990 – far from it. To view it as a washed-up political force was to misread the South African political scene and to overstate the importance of these great global events at the expense of local dynamics.

The SACP’s implacable opposition to apartheid, its prominent role in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the bravery of individual communists, and the fulsome praise heaped upon it by Mandela in the speech following his release on 11 February 1990 for its ‘sterling contribution to the struggle for democracy’,[xv] all gave it a mystique and a stature which inspired admiration even among non-communists.

Also, given the stark levels of poverty, deprivation and inequality in South Africa a traditional communist narrative was still quite compelling and well received in some constituencies. Over the years the party had also had some very able leaders and members who were widely revered in the black community – Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Moses Kotane, Ray Mhlaba, Joe Slovo, the decidedly anti-Stalinist Ruth First, Ray Alexander, Jack Simons, Bram Fischer, Rusty and Hilda Bernstein, Ben Turok (until 1976), and Raymond Suttner all of whom had made important contributions to ANC debate and policies under the dual membership formula.

Moreover, in December 1991 one of the ANC’s most charismatic figures, Chris Hani, former MK Chief of Staff, became the SACP General Secretary. Hani was a lionised figure in the townships further adding to the party’s lustre. The key point here is that while the party had sustained huge collateral damage from the collapse of communism in terms of its ideology and international reputation, this did not necessarily translate into a crisis of popularity inside South Africa itself - or a crisis for the ANC through its intimate association with the party - where its role in the struggle outweighed and even eclipsed such concerns.

In fact, both Lodge and Adams have highlighted a considerable expansion in SACP membership with legalisation – reaching 75,000 by 1995 from 5,000 in 1990 - with members seeming largely impervious to these wider global events. [xvi]

At the 1991 ANC national conference in Durban active SACP members accounted for 20 of 56 positions on the National Executive Committee and 9 on the 26-person National Working Committee.[xvii] The SACP was intellectually bruised by communism’s collapse for sure – and there appeared to be considerable disarray within its ranks - but it was hardly a spent force.


[i] See the editorial ‘Czechoslovakia’ The African Communist, Number 36, Fourth Quarter 1968

[ii] See the editorial ‘The Afghanistan crisis: imperialist threat to peace and socialism’, The African Communist, Number 81, Second Quarter 1980

[iii] See the editorial, ‘The class struggle is alive and kicking’, The African Communist, Number 120, First Quarter 1990, p. 19

[iv] Leopold Scholtz, ‘The ANC/SACP and the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring’, Politicsweb, 19 September 2008 (with additional comment by Paul Trewhela)

[v] ‘The crisis in the socialist world’, The African Communist, 2nd Quarter 1990, p. 15

[vi] See the editorial ‘The fight for Poland is a fight for peace’, The African Communist, Number 89, Second Quarter 1982

[vii] Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Revolution in Hungary and Poland’ New York Review of Books, 17 August 1989

[viii] ‘The socialist path is the only one open to the oppressed’, Interview with Harry Gwala, The African Communist, Number 120, First Quarter 1990, p.66

[ix] Cited in Tom Lodge, Post-modern bolsheviks – SA communists in transition’, South Africa International, April 1992, p. 175

[x] Joe Slovo, Has Socialism Failed?’ The African Communist, Number 121, Second Quarter 1990

[xi] ‘The socialist path is the only one open to the oppressed’,p.68

[xii] ‘The crisis in the socialist world, The African Communist (editorial), Number 121, Second Quarter 1990, p. 19

[xiii] The class struggle is alive and kicking’, The African Communist (editorial), Number 120, First Quarter 1990

[xiv] Andrew Hogg, ‘Bogeyman goes wooing Boers’, The Sunday Times (UK), 22 July 1990

[xv] Stephen Robinson, ‘Armed struggle will go on, says freed Mandela’, The Daily Telegraph, 12 February 1990

[xvi] Lodge, Post-modern bolsheviks’, p. 174 and Simon Adams, ‘What’s Left? The South African Communist Party After Apartheid’, Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 24, 2, 1997, p. 237

[xvii] Front File, ‘Separating the yolk from the white’, July 1991, p. 4