Is the revolution stuck?
Since the democratic breakthrough of 1994, the SACP has consistently advanced the slogan: Advance, Deepen, Defend – the Nation- al Democratic Revolution! Advancing, deepening and defending are three inter-related tasks which, in different situations, may require shifting emphases. Today, more than ever, the task of defending the revolution has acquired special importance. But what are we defending? Is it the unity of the ANC? Is it the state? Or is it something else?
After 1994 the most immediate threats to our post-apartheid democratic breakthrough came from a still recalcitrant white right wing embedded in much of the security apparatus. Two decades later, that threat has dwindled into the margins. In a more general way, monopoly capital and the broader imperialist camp were, and remain, our principal strategic opponents – not through any immediate threat of active regime-change insurgency, but rather through their capacity, both ideological and economic, to blunt and subvert the necessary deep-seated, radical structural transformation of our society.
But today, the gravest immediate threat to the 1994 democratic breakthrough comes from within. In particular, it comes from the endemic proliferation of parasitic interests and networks festering within much of the ANC and therefore impacting upon the state, and, indeed, in varying degrees, on our broader alliance as well.
How are we to understand this distressing reality? And what is to be done? To answer that question and to set our challenges within an internationalist context, it might be useful to briefly remember the work of Samir Amin.
Revolution or decadence?
The most important African Marxist activist-theorist of our times, Samir Amin, passed away on 13 August at the age of 86. In the final chapter of his most recent book, Amin considers the present from the perspective of a lifetime of activism stretching back to the 1940s. The central thrust of this chapter (appropriately titled “Revolution or decadence?” – available at the Monthly Review website, May 2018 edition) provides South African revolutionaries with some important reference points that help to clarify our own situation and help to situate our reality within a wider set of global trends. Let’s honour this great African revolutionary, and do ourselves a favour, by learning from his work.
Importantly, Amin’s strategic perspective has consistently been framed within the broad line also advanced by the SACP. In the chapter, “Revolution or decadence?”, for instance, he writes: “In the periphery [the geo-political South] the socialist transition is not distinct from national liberation.”
Amin proceeds: “It has become clear that the latter [national liberation] is impossible under local bourgeois leadership, and thus becomes a democratic stage in the process of the uninterrupted revolution by stages led by the peasant and worker masses.”
There are several pertinent matters to be noted in this rich formulation.
In the first place, Amin usefully distinguishes between a “democratic” stage and “national liberation” as such, arguing that a local national bourgeoisie (in our case both black and white) is incapable of leading a decisive, if relative, de-linking from the imperialist system – the necessary condition for a serious advance of the national democratic revolution. However, the national bourgeoisie might, nonetheless, be capable of playing an important role in advancing a democratic breakthrough, a platform from which more decisive advances might be made, led by other social forces.
Secondly, although Amin is using the language of “stages”, it is important to note that he speaks of an “uninterrupted” process, and not a stop-start progression in which an earlier “stage” must first be completed (e.g. the “de-racialisation of capitalism” in South Africa, as the Mbeki-ites used to argue) before advancing to the next “stage”. Third, and more importantly, the movement between these “stages” (democracy, national liberation, socialism) is not a guaranteed evolutionary process. For Amin there are likely to be advances and reverses: “The fusion of the goals of national liberation and socialism engender in its turn a series of new problems that we must evaluate. For the emphasis shifts from one aspect to the other, due to which the real movement of society alternates between progress and regression, ambivalences and alienation, particularly in nationalist form.”
The regressive decadence in a “nationalist” form to which Amin refers is, sadly, all too apparent around us in contemporary South Africa. It is apparent in the national chauvinism of demagogic forces like the EFF, a spin-off from our own movement. It is apparent in the daily deluge of yet more evidence of state capture, of tens of billions of rand parasitically looted from state owned enterprises and the public sector more generally. Nor is this decadence confined to the upper reaches of the political and bureaucratic strata, it is in evidence in the smallest local municipal tenders and in ANC branch activity. Trade unions, often via their investment arms, have also been affected by this wave of primitive accumulation.
Decadence of the state, alienation of the popular masses
Amin correctly argues that a revolution cannot be advanced simply with a vanguard political formation, or with state power. Popular forces that are, in his words, “non-alienated” are the critical factor. But decadence in the political-bureaucratic cadre in South Africa has its counterpart in a deepening alienation of the key popular forces, the motive forces of the NDR.
There is, of course, popular activism in South Africa. Countless “protest” actions are a constant feature of our society. The morning and evening radio traffic reports now include, almost on a daily basis, updates on road closures “owing to protest action”. Many, probably most, of these actions have a legitimate basis in social grievances and sheer desperation. But they often (not always) take an alienated form. For instance, there is a demand for a re-demarcation of municipal boundaries and more than 20 schools are burnt down and schooling halted for months. In other protest actions, crèches, university libraries, or community halls are destroyed.
This widespread, self-defeating destruction of what is, or should be, community assets is often the work of a fringe group among the protestors. But this simply underlines another symptom of deepening popular alienation – the loss of sustainable revolutionary cohesion and leadership at the community level. Community alienation and the parasitic looting by the political-bureaucratic stratum reproduce each other. Public property is destroyed because it is seen as “state” property, destruction becomes a symbolic act of revenge against a state from which there is a deepening sense of popular alienation.
There is another symptom of popular alienation in these protests, even those that are more peaceful. One study of the surge of popular protests is aptly entitled The Smoke that Calls. The authors persuasively note that the repertoire of protest action, while often taking the form of “anti-state” actions locally, is very often designed to bring a premier, or a president to their locality. The burning tyres in the road is a smoke that calls, a cry for outside help. And so, instead of organising themselves as their own collective self-emancipators, there is a tendency to recycle a top-down delivery dependency.
Of course it is important to state that decadence in the political-bureaucratic ranks and alienation in the mass base are not the only realities. There are many pockets of effective and principled revolutionary activity. But the danger of the negative tendencies overwhelming advances in the national democratic revolution is very real.
So what is to be done?
Defend our constitutional democracy – build a patriotic front
The SACP’s Central Committee meeting of August correctly noted that the defence of our democracy against large-scale looting of public resources by a parasitic political-bureaucratic stratum is the first order of the day. It is a parasitic stratum that subverted our criminal justice system and key state agencies like the South African Revenue Service to pave the way for their multi-billion rand primitive accumulation that has brought key strategic state agencies and capacity to the brink of bankruptcy and dysfunctionality.
Since his election as state president in February, following his narrow electoral victory in the ANC December national conference, Cde Cyril Ramaphosa, working with key ministers in his cabinet, has deployed the state and his presidential powers to begin the process of dealing with the state-capturers. State owned company (SOC) boards have been changed, disciplinary actions undertaken, life-style audits launched, key new appointments made in the criminal justice system, and criminal cases opened.
But in the face of these long overdue moves, a vicious fight-back campaign has been launched against Ramaphosa and other leading figures. Paradoxically, but not surprisingly, this fight-back has been led from within the ANC itself. Which is why the SACP believes that the ANC is best defended not by mechanically closing ranks, not by defending an artificial unity in the interests of next year’s elections.
We appreciate that for President Ramaphosa as ANC president, a certain degree of circumspection might be necessary – but the SACP is under no such constraint. We have a duty to the ANC that we have helped to build in the trenches to expose and carry out a remorseless struggle against the parasitic forces within. All the more so, because the scoundrels in our ranks seek to camouflage their crimes by pretending to be left-wing, anti-imperialist fighters of the first order, mouthing the words “radical economic transformation” without content.
Which brings us to another paradox. It is a paradox which our brief reflection on Samir Amin’s analysis helps to clarify. As we noted above, in analysing the struggles of the Global South, Amin distinguishes between a democratic constitutional breakthrough and national liberation in the fuller sense. He also argues that, while a local bourgeoisie is capable of playing a central role in the breakthrough to democracy, it is incapable of driving a national liberation process.
If the defence of our national democratic revolution in our current South African conjuncture requires a necessary defence of our democratic constitutional breakthrough of the mid-1990s, we might expect to find temporary allies within the local bourgeoisie itself, whose own profitability is threatened by the current trends towards populist anarchy and predation.
As Marx long ago noted, class struggle always results “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (Communist Manifesto, 1848). We are in a situation in which the prospect of “the common ruin of contending classes” is a distinct possibility. Hence there are also prospects for a broad patriotic front against common ruin.
Interestingly, this is exactly the experience that the SACP had in the latter part of 2017. With ex-president Zuma and his Gupta associates still in place, it fell to the SACP to lead the struggle against state capture from within the Alliance. We were the only mass-based formation within the Alliance that had the coherence, capacity and unity to lead this struggle in 2017.
But as we did so, we found a range of ANC-aligned institutions, like the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and sizeable parts of the ANC parliamentary caucus, turning to the SACP and its organisational and mobilising capacity. What is more, a much wider array of forces including faith-based formations and business associations, among them Business Unity South Africa, turned to the Party and attended our anti-State capture imbizo.
In many respects, this broad-church, nation-building role is, in theory, the strategic task of a broad-church, multi-class ANC – a role it managed to play effectively under the presidency of Nelson Mandela, for instance, in the critical transitional period of the early 1990s.
As we have already noted, since his election as state president in February, Cde Ramaphosa has sought to fill the gap, relying more on the state (and Alliance partners) than on an often paralysed ANC. The SACP has pledged its support to build what is, in effect, a broad patriotic front against state capture, against demagogic populism, social alienation and generalised decadence.
But is ending decadence and state capture enough?
Build left popular fronts! Re-configure the Alliance!
The August Central Committee statement reflected precisely on this question. It stated: “it is…important to realise that dealing with endemic corruption…will not, on its own, fix the problems within thestate and specifically within the SOCs. Many of the present problems can also be traced back to the ill-advised, neo-liberal turn taken by government in the mid-1990s…The necessary task of returning our SOCs to sustainability cannot be a return to the costly neo-liberal errors and illusions of privatisation.”
It is in this context that the Political Report presented to the August Central Committee (which is published in this issue of AC) devoted considerable attention to the idea of left popular fronts (LPFs). As the Political Report argues, it is a mistake to imagine that an LPF is simply an alternative electoral option (it may or may not also be this).
Critically, the LPFs we seek to build must be focused on building the capacity to mobilise the popular motive forces to advance and deepen national liberation. Put another way, the task of LPFs in our situation is to be an active ingredient in overcoming the alienation that is pervasive among the popular masses, helping them to become collective self-emancipators.
But what is the organisational line-up of an effective LPF in our reality? In the past a great deal of energy has been wasted on the left in debating whether the ANC, or those in an alliance with the ANC, should be part of an LPF – as if the ANC (or, for that matter, other formations) were a monolithic reality. Instead, LPFs need to be forged around practical revolutionary tasks on the ground, and not through brokered deals in head-offices.
Where does the Party’s call for a re-configured Alliance fit into this perspective? Again, we must not make the mistake of pitting the idea of an LPF against the task of a re-configured Alliance. They are neither identical tasks, nor are they alternative choices (whether electoral or not). For the SACP, the perspective of a re-configured Alliance is, precisely, to seek to build an ANC alliance that is, once more capable of organising and mobilising the key motive forces of a radical national democratic revolution. But the success or otherwise of such an endeavour remains uncertain – what cannot be doubted, however, is the continued mass support for the ANC.
Traversing all of these tasks and challenges is, at the same time, the imperative of a united, socialist (which is to say anti-capitalist), but non-sectarian, SACP.
Carl von Holt, The smoke that calls, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation 2011
The headline is an adaptation of a statement by French revolutionary Louis Antoine de Saint-Just in 1794, five years after the start of the French Revolution: “The revolution is frozen [stuck]; all its principles are weakened…”, referring to the paralysis then gripping the French Revolution.
This article first appeared as the lead editorial in the most recent edition of the SACP journal, the African Communist, 2nd Quarter 2018