How should communists remember their own history?

Jeremy Cronin warns against simple narratives of the SACP's past

As we mark the 90 years of struggle of the Communist Party in South Africa a question arises: How should we communists remember our own history? The answer to that question is, of course, AS communists - or, which comes to the same thing, as Marxist-Leninists. But what exactly does that mean?

One way (a non-communist way) of remembering our history would be to recount it as a succession of great leaders. As the SACP, we can certainly be proud of our many outstanding leaders, stretching back over nine decades of struggle - from the early pioneers of communism in South Africa (and indeed in Africa) like Cdes David Ivon Jones, SP Bunting, TW Thibedi, Eddie Roux, Edwin Mofutsanyana and Josie Mpama, through the years of consolidation and mass building associated with Cde Moses Kotane and JB Marks, into the more recent decades of armed struggle, organs of popular power and underground work, and finally through to the democratic breakthrough of 1994 and beyond. We should cherish the memory of our many outstanding cadres. But our Party's history is richer and more complex than a litany of leaders.

We could remember our history as a simple narrative of humble beginnings, then decades of intense persecution, followed ultimately by the "just reward" of an "inevitable" victory. The Communist Party in South Africa has certainly suffered persecution and we have also been in the midst of important popular victories. But a simple narrative in which history (and therefore our own history) marches along towards a just goal is profoundly non-Marxist-Leninist. There are all kinds of dangers in remembering our history in this way.

To be sure we have suffered persecution - it was the Communist Party that was the very first party to banned by the apartheid regime (10 years before the banning of the ANC and PAC).and we have a long list of martyrs, including Cde Johannes Nkosi in the 1930s, all the way down to Ahmed Timol in the 1970s, Matthew Goniwe in the 1980s, and Chris Hani in the early 1990s (to mention just a few).

The Party has certainly earned the respect of a wide range of South Africans, especially the workers and the poor, because our cadres have been prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. And while we have every right to be proud of our martyrs, the fact that we have suffered persecution does not create any entitlements for us in the present. We have to earn our vanguard role on a daily basis in struggle and through the clarity of our analyses and programmatic lines of march.

More importantly, the idea that history in general (and our own in particular) is a simple narrative moving from lowly birth, through suffering and hardship, to ultimate victory is a vulgarization of what is absolutely central to Marxism-Leninism. Remember what the Communist Manifesto says: history is the history of class struggle. The moment you say "class struggle" you are starting to remember that history does not march in a straight-line. We are not playing solo.

What is especially problematic about thinking of history as a procession is that it can become demobilizing. We can start to believe that the outcome of history is foretold - that socialism is guaranteed by the mere passing of the years.

This evolutionary manner of thinking about history is very different from a Leninist understanding of the importance of active engagement, of seizing the moment. And "seizing the moment" doesn't always mean hurtling into an adventurist offensive - seizing the moment might require making a decisive retreat (as Lenin recognized, for instance, in 1918).

A decisive retreat can be turned into a longer term victory (that's the story of the Chinese Communist Party's Long March). And history doesn't always move from its most advanced point, which is why Lenin could call for an offensive on the weakest link in the imperialist chain (Russia and not the much more developed Germany).

If we approach our own SACP history with these matters in mind, then we will also learn some valuable lessons from that history for the present.

Through its 90 years of struggle, the Communist Party has done great things AND made mistakes. The point, as Lenin puts it, is not to expect never to make mistakes but to LEARN collectively from them and, above all, to correct them as quickly as possible. An organization of activism requires engagement, even when not everything is clear-cut, even if victory is not guaranteed.

This is the difference between a serious communist party and ivory tower debaters, who occasionally dip their toes into the struggle. An organization that is complacent, that is holier-than-thou, that believes that history is "on its side", is an organization that will also fail to admit to mistakes, and that will fall into denial and immobility when hard times arrive.

If we bear all of this in mind, then we will also be better able to appreciate some of the more outstanding contributions our Party has made to the overall struggle in South Africa. Often those outstanding contributions were when history "failed" to march in a straight line.

In the mid-1960s, for instance, our entire movement suffered a serious strategic defeat and the apartheid regime had every reason to believe that it had finally and forever crushed the ANC-led liberation struggle.

It was the SACP that played a true vanguard role in helping the entire movement to understand that there had, indeed, been a serious defeat. The point was not to be in denial about it, but to analyse why we had suffered the defeat and what the way forward was.

Again, with the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 90s, many in our movement who had believed that world history was neatly on our side went into denial. Some pretended they had never been communists or admirers of the Soviet system. They fell into opportunism - "socialism is dead, so let's embrace capitalism".

Once again, it was the SACP that played a vanguard role, taking responsibility for analyzing the reasons for the Soviet collapse (rather than denying it), AND continuing to advance a consistent anti-capitalist perspective. But, above all, the SACP took these steps not as a mere academic exercise - but always to integrate our theory into our daily activism in struggle in the trenches with the workers and poor of our country.

This article by SACP deputy general secretary, Jeremy Cronin, first appeared in the Party's online journal, Umsebenzi Online.

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