Once were communists

Phillip Dexter reflects on the 90th anniversary of the SACP

As a critic of the current leadership of the SACP, I read the articles published by Jeremy Cronin and Mazibuko Jara reflecting on the 90th anniversary of the SACP with an expectation of the mediocrity to come.

Neither of the contributions did anything to change that unfortunate premonition. While Cronin's historical account of the party was readable and generally accurate, it was very thin on describing the current challenges facing the SACP, even from his own usual, myopic perspective. It had nothing to offer in terms of the potential or future of the party.

This was repeated in the 90th anniversary celebrations, where the General Secretary of the party and those from the Alliance chosen to speak all reminisced about the party that once was. They said nothing about the present or the future. This reminded one of the communists in Eastern Europe, who, while the Berlin Wall was collapsing, were slapping each other on the back congratulating themselves for the achievements of "really existing socialism".

While Jara was rightly critical of the SACPs bureaucratic approach in general, he reduced an opportunity to reflect on the current state of the ‘Left' to a citing a few differences of ‘principle' between the SACP and the Democratic Left and even worse, reduced divergence in strategy, program and possibilities to the lack of single issue campaigns in the SACP.

In other words, the analysis he has is shared by the SACP, but his ‘Left' group opposes staying in the Tri-Partite Alliance and benefitting personally from the fruits of governing, leaves and forms local organisations to fight important, but obviously limited, campaigns.

Neither of these contributions reflected seriously on the fact that while we are marking 17 years of democracy and freedom, apart from the universal franchise being won, there has been no visible advance towards anything remotely resembling some version of socialism in our country. In fact, all over the world "socialisms" and even social democracies have been defeated, rolled-back, watered down and corrupted.

Apart from China, which is arguably now a capitalist country with hardly any socialist characteristics left, Cuba and Vietnam that are in a similar positions, North Korea, which is a surreal, fascist dictatorship, and a few populist regimes in South America, socialism is a figment of our collective imaginations.

Worse that, while this important franchise has been won in South Africa, neither the SACP nor the Democratic Left have ever contested elections!

It is clear from these rather insipid contributions that what passes for the ‘Left' in South Africa today has no vision of an alternative to the current capitalist order, has limited use for and possibly even a limited understanding of Marxist theory, is engaged in ritualistic political practice and has reduced itself to a carping, proto-religious, millennerial movement that preaches that ‘the end of the world is nigh', but does not want to give up its possessions or positions just yet, just in case.

The stark reality confronting these socialist denialists is that;

1. The world has changed substantially and Marxism needs to be retheorised if it is going to be of any use other than an analytical tool for Sociology 101 courses,

2. The ‘Left' has to develop innovative policies, strategies and programs if it is going to capture the imagination of the people in general and the working class and the poor in particular,

3. Unless it has a vision and a path to political power, the ‘Left' will remain a collection of well meaning, do-gooder, NGOs.

Marxism is a theory that must be materialist in its critique of society, as well as its proposal for transforming society. While our conception of the world has generally advanced in most sciences, arguably approximating more accurately to an objective account of reality, mainstream Marxism in South Africa has remained fairly static.

In essence, we think in Newtonian terms while we live in a quantum reality. The result is that while there are such things as classes, social forces, means of production etc., they do not necessarily function in the manner Marx argued they did. Therefore, if we base our critique of society on such outdated views, we can never offer a realizable alternative for society.

A simple example illustrates this - labour that ‘creates surplus value' is still regarded as a mainly physical act by doctrinaire Marxists. In reality, in contemporary capitalism, services and intellectual property are given actual financial value by the market and play a central role in the processes of production, distribution and exchange.

This leads to a fetishisation of "blue-collar" work and workers, defining an increasingly large section of the population out of the picture in terms of recruiting and mobilizing people to fight for socialism.

While the left constantly harps on about globalization, a phenomenon that is way too complex to be solved in protest action and quite frankly can't be reversed anyway, apart from single-issue campaigns and sporadic moments of political activism in regions and countries, the same Left has offered no policies that have created the momentum for radical transformation under these conditions.

Those countries where there has been significant change, particularly developing countries, whether in capitalist ones such as Brazil or in more socialist ones such as China, this change has been achieved with what are essentially social democratic and worse still, often neo-liberal reforms.

Countries such as Venezuela, and Bolivia, where popular governments have been elected and that have restructured their economies or are doing so, have used crude but effective measures that may have redressed income inequalities, but have not transformed power in any significant manner.

The jury is still out on whether these countries can sustain their current trajectories. In essence, they have done little different from what Gaddafi, the Saudis or the Iraqis did with their petro dollars.

Where revolutions have been occurring of late, such as in places like Tunisia and Egypt, or are being fought for in Libya and Syria, the silence of the ‘Left' is deafening. It is as if democracy is not seen as essential to building socialism, especially if an undemocratic regime recently donated funds to your party!

At least the ‘Left' in some countries; Cuba, China and Vietnam decades ago and Venezuela and Bolivia more recently, had a path to political power, no matter how twisted the vision of what socialism was. The SACP and the Democratic Left amount to left-wing pressure groups that either rely on persuading other parties to adopt their perspectives, or to winning incremental gains in single issue campaigns.

While the latter is possible and important, it does not amount to a strategy or program for building socialism, anymore than building cooperatives does. Even social democratic parties, ridiculed as reformist by the SACP, such as those who have governed in Scandinavian countries and in Europe generally, have had a vision of winning political power and implementing a program.

One suspects that the reality is that while we once upon a time had Communists, who had a vision of the future and a program to obtain it, no matter how flawed this proved to be, today we have little more than pretenders to the title. This is not something to be celebrated. But if there is to be a real alternative to the current capitalist order, then the Left must start from a thorough critique of the present reality, including of itself.

Existing for 90 years is no small achievement, but the truth be told, the latter two decades of this time have been spent on burying collective heads in the sand, reciting the Marxist catechism and worse still often lying to the masses and selling snake oil instead of offering any effective remedy for our current miserable reality.

Phillip Dexter is COPE's Head of Communications. This article is written in his personal capacity.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter