The National Question, Permanent Revolution and the Democratic Counter-revolution in South Africa

19/02/2014 by socialistfight

The National Question, Permanent Revolution
and the Democratic Counter-revolution in South Africa

By Shaheen Khan
Shaheen Khan is a South African socialist, part of the Political Platform, who have recently split from the South African RMG (Revolutionary Marxist Group.) She is the chief co-ordinator of Bolshevik Study Circles, and an active supporter of  the Workers and Socialist party (WASP ). You can read more about the split in the RMG and South African politics here:
To The Political Platform Splitting From The RMG
On the Differences in the Revolutionary Marxist Group

The National Question is probably the most extensively debated issues of the SA revolution.  This is because it was the central ideological question for all the contending parties representing the poor and oppressed. 

For the white racists their multi-national and multiracial theory was central to the maintenance of their rule over the black majority –splitting them up and into a series of minorities and consolidating the old native reserves into homelands for the so-called nations: Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and Sotho etc.  They had long tried to divide the black working class by playing on tribal (linguistic) differences which has left a legacy of division.

In the anti-Apartheid struggle the most important issue which faced every committed militant in South Africa was the question of the nature of the South African revolution. It is a question which had thrown up a multitude of different and often sharply divided opinions. When sifted through, this multitude reduced itself to two diametrically opposed positions:
1.The struggle for national liberation and political democracy was the most immediate task. To this end all the oppressed must unite around their common lack of democratic rights. Some who held this position declared that after democracy had been achieved, then the struggle for socialism could begin.
2.The struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat was the most immediate task. To this end all the oppressed must be united under the leadership of the working class and against the bourgeoisie. It is the dictatorship of the proletariat which will solve the question of democracy, tribalism and racism and open the road to socialism.

For over a hundred and fifty years, Marxists have chartered the development of nation building, national movements and the multi-faceted ideological self-justifications that accompany them.  I am not going to delve into Marxist writings and positions from the period from 1848 to the close of the century. I will jump straight into the classic definition of a nation which ironically comes from Stalin’s one work of theoretical significance in the history of communism, namely, Marxism and the National Question (1913): “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make- up manifested in a common culture. ( Works Vol 2, p30.)

Trotsky was later to concur with this view; “This combined definition, compounding the psychological attributes of a nation with the geographic and economic conditions of its development, is not only correct theoretically but also practically fruitful, for then the solution to the problem of each nations fate must perforce be sought along the lines of changing the material conditions of its existence, beginning with territory. (Leon Trotsky, Stalin vol I, p230.)

These views of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were developed in opposition to the subjective-idealist national theory of the Austro Marxists Otto Bauer in 1907 who defined a nation as; “The nation is the totality of men bound together through a common destiny with a community of character … a nation exists if its component parts believe it to be a nation”.

Karl Renner – another Austro Marxist – reflected this idealism and subjectivism when he wrote:  “Long before the nation emerged as a political factor it existed unconsciously as a national character, semi-consciously as national feeling and finally as a clear national consciousness. The feeling and awareness of the feeling, that someone who has the same language and culture belongs to us, that we are different from foreigners that we have to stand with our own people and against foreigners…”. This subjective emotional expression of modern nationalistic ideology insists that today’s national community is a result of destiny or fate. The nation is locked between an unalterable past and an inevitable future. This thoroughly a historical bourgeois approach leads inevitably to the fatal national chauvinism which the Austro-Marxists espoused in the First World War. Against it, Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky defined the nation in materialist terms.

A nation is a community composed of exploiting and exploited classes which has developed within a definite territory on the basis of a common economic life, a common language(s) and a common culture which expresses a conscious identity distinct from that of other nations. The development of nations must be understood historically. The nation state is the typical state form of the bourgeois epoch. It sweeps away the political and state forms of earlier epochs. Thus, for example, the feudal state with its local or provincial particularism was based on fiefdoms held together in personal union and transmitted and modified by dynastic means. Its subjects, divided into Orders or Estates, were ruled via a series of privileges (private laws).

Modern nations began to form in the final disintegrating phase of feudalism. National struggles centred on the tasks of unity and independence. Merchant and manufacturing capital sought the formation of a wider arena for the development of exchange and production, free of the multiplicity of customs duties, legal systems, local currencies and arbitrary plunder or extortion by the aristocracy. It sought the freeing of the land from what it regarded as parasites.

In short, capitalism needed an expanded arena for the development of its own productive forces. This necessitated a compact, contiguous bloc of territory, a common language or mutually understood languages as a means of verbal and above all literary communication. It meant the creation of a common economic life based on a uniform currency, weights and measures, external but not internal customs barriers and a uniform legal system. In short, it needed a unified national market.

The ideology of this struggle was nationalism and involved the revolutionary bourgeoisie and its petit-bourgeois allies in the creation of a national culture, with a standardised national language which was a written medium first and foremost, a national education system and a literary culture. All this was enormously progressive as against the remnants of feudalism with its dynastic loyalties, its dialects and its rural idiocy.

Yet, despite the progressive nature of this struggle against all pre-capitalist modes of production, the nation and the nation-state are composed of antagonistic classes. The national state is a state of capitalisms ruling class. All national culture, though shared by other classes, remains predominantly bourgeois (it has as its purpose the domination over these classes). Of course, such national cultures have democratic and popular elements within them. These elements are contributed from the life and struggles of the urban petit-bourgeoisie, the poor peasantry and the proletariat against their class enemies. But these are either appropriated into the bourgeois national culture in so far as they do not clash with fundamental bourgeois values, or they are subordinated into regional, local or class sub-cultures.

This phase of development was experienced in Europe, North and South America and Japan in capitalisms earliest and progressive phase. By and large, however, in Africa and Asia large-scale capitalism came with their domination by imperialism – an aggressive external force which trampled on the existing pre-capitalist modes of production, breaking them up militarily and economically. Consequently, modern nationalism was born in these continents as a response to this onslaught, with the petit-bourgeoisie usually having to stand in for a national bourgeoisie that was either very weak or tied to imperialism.

Petit-bourgeois nationalism found itself in conflict with the bourgeoisie and in fear of the class independence of the proletariat. In the colonial and semi-colonial countries it faced the task of unifying states where the productive forces had not developed sufficiently to create national markets, and where the state borders reflected the division imposed by inter-imperialist rivalries. As a result, the peoples of these states were made up of various language groups, often lacking literacy, and with a history of the cynical exploitation of these differences by the imperialist administrators or rival imperialisms from outside.

This has left to the formally independent states of Africa, the Middle East and Asia a legacy of internal and external divisions which have either prevented or stunted the development of nationalism within these states. They face constant pressure from imperialism. This pressure comes economically from the IMF and the World Bank. Militarily and politically it comes from US and European imperialism either directly or through their minor imperialist stooges and semi-colonial gendarmes. This has led to trans-state nationalisms such as pan-Islamism, pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism. Yet the existing states with their particular history, their economic structure, their culture inherited from capitalist development has made these pan-nationalisms a utopian project, constantly breaking down when faced with the class interests of the semi-colonial bourgeoisie and their military bonapartist representatives.

Thus, the national struggles of the oppressed peoples are on the one hand a justified and progressive force against imperialism and against backward feudal, tribal or collaborationist elements within their own states. Yet, as nationalisms, they are utopian in that in the imperialist epoch no prolonged period of national development on a capitalist basis. This utopian nationalism is in addition reactionary wherever it clashes with the development of the working class into a conscious force defending its own interests and seeking to lead the rural poor and the different nations oppressed by imperialism against it. Furthermore, the attempt by some  to create pure non-class nationalism or even a proletarian nationalism is a utopian and reactionary project.

Lenin and Trotsky’s approach was quite different. Trotsky summed up Lenin’s position on the national question succinctly: “It was Lenin’s view that the right of self-determination was merely an application of the principles of bourgeois democracy in the sphere of national relations. A full bodied, all-sided democracy under capitalism was unrealisable; in that sense the national independence of small and weak peoples was likewise unrealisable. However, even under imperialism, the working class did not refuse to fight for democratic rights, including among them the right of each nation to its independent existence. Moreover, in certain portions of our planet it was Imperialism itself that invested the slogan of national self-determination with extraordinary significance. (Stalin Vol 1 p229)

For them as opposed to all forms and types of nationalists, the national question which arises from this demands only a consistent and total opposition to all national oppression. It however does not oblige the proletarian vanguard to become nation builders. Lenin was quite clear on this question: For Marxists the national programme advocates firstly the equality of nations and languages and the impermissibility of all privileges in this respect and also the right of nations to self determination. Secondly the principle of Internationalism and uncompromising struggle against contamination of the proletariat with bourgeois nationalism, even of the most refined kind.

At the heart of the ANCs and the South African Communist Party’s (SACP) programme:
1.The focus of the struggle was racism and its institutional expression, apartheid.
2.The platform of this struggle was National Liberation. Its programme was the Freedom Charter.
3.The struggle for National Liberation was dominant because of the peculiar nature of South Africa, viz. Internal Colonialism, i.e. the white oppressor nation had colonised the African, Coloured and Indian oppressed nations (diluted occasionally in the official literature as national groups and nationalities). The difference between classic colonialism and internal colonialism is that in South Africa both the oppressor and the oppressed nations occupy the same geographical area.
4.The liberation forces consist of a broad alliance of the three oppressed nations under the leadership of the African people because it was the largest and most exploited group.
5.The working class has a special role in the national democratic struggle.

The ANC and SACP defined the struggle as one of “national liberation” from “alien and foreign oppression”, to strive to lead the “Africans as a nation” to regain their “African spirit” and “race pride” lost in the alienating process of colonisation, to formally reject class divisions amongst Africans, in an attempt to rally the working class around an anti-colonialist (!) struggle. The point was made by Lembede, founder of the CYL, as follows: The basis of national unity is the nationalist feeling of the Africans, the feeling of being Africans, irrespective of tribal connection, social status, educational attainment or economic class.” (Quoted in Gerhart: p.60)

The Manifesto issued by Youth League in 1948 made clear: There are certain groups which seek to impose on our struggle cut – and – dried formulae, which far from clarifying the issues of our struggle , only serve to obscure the fundamental fact that we are oppressed not as a class but an a people , as a Nation. Such wholesale importation of methods and tactics which might have succeeded in other countries, like Europe, where conditions where different , might harm the cause of our people’s freedom, unless we are quick in building a militant mass liberation movement”. (Karis & Cater, Volume 2:p.330)

And first lieutenant A.P.Mda: The Africans are a conquered race, their oppression is a racial oppression, and in other words, they do not suffer class oppression. They are oppressed by virtue of their colour as a race – as a group – as a nation!  In other words, they suffer national oppression …As a colonial people suffering national oppression we can overthrow foreign domination, and win national freedom by organizing a powerful national liberation movement.”

In the era of ascending capitalism, the struggle for the nation state was the struggle for unfettered capitalist development and the con-comitant political freedoms which went with it.  The former simplified class antagonism and the latter opened up the prospects of preparing the proletariat for its dictatorship.

  • However, in the era of degenerate capitalism (imperialism), the struggle for national liberation is directly tied up with the right of the oppressed nation to political independence. Lenin attacked those chauvinists who did not see that talk of national liberation without political secession is opportunism.
  • In our context from whom did we have to become politically independent, from whom did we have to secede? Vast amounts of British, American and South African capital were invested in diamond and gold mining.  A new black working class of migrant miners was created at a forced pace, causing great social misery and devastation in the pre-capitalist societies of South and Southern Africa.
  • Within two decades of the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 and gold in 1886 on the Witwatersrand, South Africa underwent an imperialist capitalist revolution in economic, social and political terms. In a few short decades pre-capitalist societies were converted from self-sufficient agricultural producers to mighty reservoirs of labour for the mining industry and the White farmers. In 1894, the arch-British imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes, spearheaded the Glen Grey Act that provided the model for subsequent apartheid-capitalist rule. The mining magnates, organized in the Chamber of Mines and through the Native Recruitment Corporation, imposed a system of securing vast quantities of black migrant labour that were essential to making the gold mines profitable. However, White skilled labour was in short supply and expensive. To compensate, black migrant wages were kept extremely low with the mining bosses arguing that the ‘free’, i.e. unpaid, agricultural production in the reserves supplemented what they paid their workers. .Agricultural production in the reserves was in a state of decline. For a brief interlude, independent black peasant producers had seized the new market opportunities opened up with rapid population and economic on the Witwatersrand and in the other urban areas in the wake of the capitalist mining revolution. However, the demand for labour on the mines was almost inexhaustible and the colonial state intervened with a range of measures to undermine the black peasant production and force more and more peasant and subsistence farmers into wage slavery. A huge class of black migrant labourers were compelled to work on the mines for poverty wages and endure degrading living conditions in compounds provided by the mine-owners.
  • Within two decades of the discovery of diamonds and gold, a huge capitalist social revolution had taken place, radically transforming all social relations in South Africa. This was a bourgeois revolution from above. A settler-colonial form of capitalism was replaced by a racist monopoly capitalism based on cheap migrant labour.
  • A bloody three-year long imperialist war, the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), was fought on South African soil, resulting in the triumph of the imperialism over the semi-feudal Afrikaner landowners.
  • The Act of Union established South Africa as an independent, unitary, capitalist state. The white settler capitalist class and their political representatives established an independent state – the Union of South Africa – with their own parliament and democratic system for white people. For the White monopoly capitalist bourgeoisie, liberal democracy, with its notions of universal rights and freedoms, including one-person-one-vote, was an unaffordable luxury. The black majority of workers and peasants were excluded from this racist democracy.   Close ties with Britain, the leading imperialist power in the world was retained and the Union of South Africa remained a part of the British Commonwealth.
  • At the same time, the racist capitalist state played a key role in systematically co-opting white workers and the petty-bourgeoisie into supporting monopoly capitalist relations. This co-option largely occurred under the banner of Afrikaner nationalism.
  • Over the past 100 years of monopoly capitalist rule, first the colonial state and then, from 1910, the racist capitalist state assisted in the further expansion of the monopoly capitalist national bourgeoisie from mining into other sector of the economy. To assist overall capitalist development, the state developed infrastructure and systems of transport and communication.  It established parastatals in key sectors (iron and steel and coal production and electricity generation). It also assisted in the emergence and consolidation of an Afrikaans-speaking bourgeoisie, that also became increasingly monopoly capitalist in character.
  • It also guaranteed the maintenance of law and order, including the suppression of strikes and other forms of mass unrest. Even White workers were violently crushed in the miners’ strike of 1922.  In the period after the Second World War, the apartheid-capitalist state brutally suppressed the 1946 mineworkers strike and crushed the mass struggles of the 1950s, banning the ANC, the PAC and the SACP and jailing thousands of leaders.
  • Having crushed the mass uprising, the apartheid-capitalist state presided over the boom years of economic growth in the 1960s. These years saw the further strengthening of monopoly capitalism, including the increased merger of English- and Afrikaans-speaking monopoly capitalist corporations, as well as the establishment of foreign monopoly capitalist firms, especially in the manufacturing sector.
  • Unless one took the Verwoerdian Bantustans seriously, the struggle for national liberation was a caricatured application of Lenin’s “Thesis on the Right of Nations to Self-Determination” to South Africa. With regard to the cultural, language, etc. aspect of the South African revolution, the social revolution would appear to have a national form, but only in the sense that the new non-racial proletarian state would have to bury the corpse of white racism. The systematic counteracting of generations of white domination by the new proletarian state would impart to it a black imprint. But this does not imply confining the content of the struggle to a racist conception of inter-racial struggle, as the ANC did.
  • Could National Liberation be meant to be taken as a call for the unfettered growth of capitalism? In the era of degenerate capitalism, to talk of the struggle for unfettered capitalist development is to talk nonsense. For world capitalism is already caught in the throes of the mortal contradiction between the relations and the forces of production. Far from the need to unfetter capitalist relations, these relations have themselves become fetters upon the further development of the forces of production. Only a revolution which bursts asunder these relations can produce the conditions for the further development of the forces of production.
  • If, finally, the struggle for National Liberation is understood to be the struggle of a formally independent country to free itself from the economic yoke of imperialism, then it is totally bound up with the questions of the class which is brought to power. In this regard it is only the proletariat, organised as the new head of the nation, which can begin to break the imperialist domination by forcibly bringing the means of production under its control –that is, to expropriate and concentrate in its hands the monopolies of trade and the cartels of the foreign overlords, and to join the international struggle for the upliftment of the forces of production.
  • If, therefore, the struggle for national liberation does not mean the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat, it can end only in giving the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie an extra lease of life.
  • In South Africa, the national question could only be seen as an aspect of the general democratic revolution, that is, the destruction of the racist dictatorship over all non-white South Africans… The national question par excellence was to end the brutal oppression by, and monstrous privileges of, the whites and to unify the artificially separated people of South Africa. But the proletariats programme and its demands could not stop there. It had to pose the question of overcoming the tribalism of the Bantustan leaders like a Buthelezi and counter the constant attempts of Botha and company to set the linguistic groups and communities at one another’s throats.
  • The proletarian fight was for a unified South Africa which is free of all racial or national privilege and oppression. This would mean the free use of all languages in education and cultural life, the creation of local government which ensures no oppression of one community by another. It would also mean that, whilst the working class, whether under capitalism or under its own dictatorship, needs as large and centralised a state as possible, this must be a voluntarily chosen centralism.
  • Seen as Lenin saw it, the national question is not an obstacle to the seizure of power by the proletariat. It does not necessitate a separate national liberation stage as the ANC/SACP claim but is a task of the permanent revolution that will only be fulfilled progressively if the proletariat seizes power. The history of the other African states shows that, where national liberation installs the bourgeoisie or its military-bonapartist caretakers, this does not solve the question of nationalism, tribalism and separate communities. The bitter and bloody experience of the Congo, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia and now South Africa has shown this.

The theoretical basis for the continued use of the concept, national liberation, is the internal colonialism thesis: South Africa’s social and economic structure and the relationships which it generates are perhaps unique.  It is not a colony, yet it has, in regard to the overwhelming majority of its people, most of the features of the classical colonial structures:  conquest and domination by an alien people, a system of discrimination and exploitation based on race and techniques of indirect rule. These and more are the traditional trappings of the classical colonial framework.  Whilst at one level, it is an “independent” national state (their use of quotes), at another level, it is a country subjugated by a minority race. What makes the structure unique and adds to its complexity is that the exploiting nation is not, as in the typical imperialist relationship, situated in a geographically distinct mother country, but is settled within its borders. What is more, the roots of the dominant nation have been impelled in our country for more than three centuries of presence.” (Strategy and Tactics of the ANC: Morogoro Conference:  p.195)

Slovo, prime theoretician of South African Stalinism, has been able to perceive the phenomenal “level” at which the Internal Colonialism Thesis is located: If then the overwhelmingly dominant mode of production within this unitary state (i.e. South Africa) is capitalist, is it ANALYTICALLY correct or useful to talk of “two South Africa’s” defined, at a certain level, in national rather than class terms” (Slovo: p. 133)

South Africa is a single capitalist formation which possesses all the general features of capitalism as world – wide mode of production. Its social and economic structure is therefore not unique, but in fact corresponds in all basic aspects to the “social and economic structure” of the majority of the countries in the world. This is, of course, not to deny that South Africa, as a capitalist social formation, possesses certain specific features and national peculiarities.

The law of uneven and combined development posits unevenness as the most general feature of all development and, in particular, capitalist development. In this regard, the rate of capitalist development was different in Britain as compared to South Africa. While the former was moving into the era of imperialism, South Africa, together with so many other colonial countries, showed only isolated capitalist features. While Britain had undergone a capitalist revolution dating from the seventeenth century, in which the internal consolidation of bourgeoisie social relations had been achieved by a struggle against feudalism, South Africa had barely emerged from the domain of tribalism. While the process of proletarianisation was only about to begin in South Africa, it had long ago been completed in Britain. While bourgeois democracy as the best political shell for capitalism had long ago been achieved in Britain, South Africa did not have a unitary state, let alone a consistent political norm. The imperialist yoke which Britain threw over South Africa towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, suddenly brought backward South Africa under the general domain of Monopoly Capitalism. The unevenness of development between South Africa and Britain sought out its counterpart – combined development. Here we have the basis for South African’s specific features as well as its general characteristics. The unevenness of their development accounts for the differences between South Africa and Britain.  The combination of backward South Africa and imperialist Britain accounts for the features in common between South Africa and Britain, viz. capitalist social relations.

South Africa does not thus have unique features because it stands outside the capitalist mode of production, but precisely because of the path that capitalist development took here. South Africa is not unique because it does not quite obey the laws of capitalism but precisely because it illustrates how the laws of capitalism came to be promulgated in the era of degenerate capitalism. South Africa is unique in the sense that the course of its development is different from that of, say, France or Britain. But this uniqueness it shares with all colonial and ex-colonial countries that were late arrivals in the arena of capitalism.

The very uniqueness of South Africa flows precisely from the general features of world capitalism in the era of imperialism. And, as a country forming part of world capitalism, its central contradictions are the contradictions within capitalism. There are thus not two South Africa’s, but one. There is thus no justification, “analytical” or “useful”, to talk about two South Africa’s.

South Africa’s peculiar feature is not internal colonialism, but racism. The result of South Africa’s subsumption under capitalism in its degenerate phase is the complete absence of political democracy.  No one can ignore the effect which these peculiarities have on the class struggle and their importance in the formulation of revolutionary strategy and tactics.  To refuse to take cognisance of national specificities and wage struggle only on the basis of general features is to succumb to the foolishness which sees capitalist social formations as mere carbon copies of one another.  However, it is equally incorrect to wage a struggle entirely on the basis of the “peculiar features”.

When all is said and done, one can only conclude that the Internal Colonialism Thesis is nothing but a piece of deceit (an awkward one at that) –designed by the pedlars of petit-bourgeois revolutionariness to give the “theoretical” justification for the politics of reformism.

The Internal Colonialism Thesis proclaims not only an oppressor and oppressed nation occupying the same geographical area, but goes further to identify four Nations – the white oppressor nation and the African, Coloured and Indian oppressed nations – a scenario which, if the Rights of Nations is to be taken seriously, logically leads to the prospect of South Africa being split into four distinct, independent states. However, even the ANC knew that there is no historical, political or geographical basis for this and did not contemplate such a situation. Instead, it argued that since the three oppressed nations face a common oppressor they should unite in their struggle for national liberation – but under the leadership of the African nation. Furthermore, the ANC has insisted on the need for separate racially – constituted organisations to lead each nation. The Congress of the People, held in Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter was supposedly drawn up, comprised the African National Congress, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Coloured People’s Organisation and the White Congress of Democrats. Not only is the petit-bourgeoisie trying to gain access to the ranks of the bourgeoisies, but in doing so, they also ape the racist categories of their masters.

After the Morogoro Conference in 1969, heavy stress was placed on the idea of the African nation as the majority nation whose national liberation was to be the main content of the present stage of the South African revolution. The upsurge of the Black Consciousness Movement in the mid-seventies, with its insistence on the unity of the non-white population, plus the effects of the Nationalist Governments multi-nation policy designed to minoritise all the black nationalities, obliged the ANC to abandon its own theory of national groups and adopt a two nation thesis: “Today both the ANC and the SACP recognise the existence of two nations in South Africa, the oppressed and the oppressor nations. (Selected Writings on the Freedom Charter 1985).

B Molapo writing in African Communist (1977) reveals the reason for clinging to at least a two nation or nationality thesis: The great disadvantage of the one-nation thesis is, then, that it obscures the colonial nature of our society and in consequence the national character of our liberation struggle”.

In South Africa , where the working class was each day showing its readiness not only to battle with the bourgeoisie, but also to do so on a non-racial basis, to talk of nations which can be specified in no other terms than race, was to present obstacles to the progress of revolution.

The history of the workers’ movement since Lenin’s death is the history of its betrayal by the Stalinist leadership. The fact that capitalism still lurches on (from crisis to crisis) is due, not to the immaturity of objective conditions, nor to the lack of preparedness of the workers, but to its treacherous leadership.  The chief method employed by the Stalinists has been the emasculation of any independent action of the working class. South Africa has not been immune to the stench of Stalinist betrayal.  South Africa has had a Communist Party since 1921 and a thoroughly Stalinised Communist Party since 1928. This organisation has suffered the ignominy of having to follow the Stalinist distortions of Marxism with regard to the nature of revolutions in the twentieth century and the nature of alliances in the struggles of the proletariat:

The two – stage theory of revolution:  the countries of the world are divided into those which are mature for socialism and those which are not. Those countries not deemed to be ripe for socialism (these varied depending on the particular requirements of the bureaucracy at the time) first had to struggle for bourgeois democracy as a separate stage.

The Peoples’ Front:  those countries unfortunate enough to be classified as immature by the bureaucracy would in their struggle for national democracy unite all the oppressed classes (petit-bourgeoisie, peasant and workers) under the progressive bourgeoisie. In the old Menshevik tradition, the bourgeoisie is seen as the natural leaders of the democratic struggle.

Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution was basically an attempt to uncover the motive forces of the coming Russian revolution in the light of the lessons of 1905 experience.  Trotsky was dealing with the class dynamics of the revolution and the role of the working class in this.  Permanent revolution meant simply that the coming revolution in Russia would place the working class in power and that once in power, the workers would be compelled to take radical measures against bourgeois property relations if they were to resolve the problems posed by Russia’s lack of a bourgeois revolution. It was after the experience of Chinese revolution of 1926-27 that the theory was further developed by Trotsky.  The process of Stalinization of the Communist International was well under way and the ‘theory’ of Socialism in One Country had become prime dogma of the bureaucracy.

Against the distortions of the bureaucracy Trotsky in a sense completed the theory by generalising it. The ‘first law’ of the permanent revolution was that the complete and genuine solution of the tasks of the democratic revolution is possible only through the dictatorship of the proletariat. The small national bourgeois and the petit-bourgeois were too weak, small and cowardly, tied in a million ways to the imperialist bourgeois to complete the bourgeois democratic tasks of the revolution as had its brothers in the advanced countries. Secondly, because of the weight of the peasantry in underdeveloped countries there can be no solution to the problems of the revolution without an alliance of the proletariat and peasantry, that this alliance can be forged in practice only under the political leadership of the proletariat and the victory of the democratic revolution can occur only through the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Historical experience had demonstrated that the peasantry was incapable of organising itself into an independent party playing an independent role. The peasantry would follow either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. Thirdly the dictatorship of the proletariat, having to risen to power at the head of the democratic revolution, would be compelled to infringe deeply upon bourgeois property rights.

The seizure of power would mark not the completion but the initiation of the revolutionary process of transformation of the social relations. Finally, this democratic revolution in Trotsky’s words ‘grows over directly’ into the socialist revolution, which in turn can only be completed except on an international scale. The revolution is therefore ‘permanent’ in the twofold sense that the transformation from ‘democratic’ to ‘socialist’ revolution occurs without any discontinuity and that this process of revolution on a national scale must also merge continuously with the extension of the process internationally.

For various reasons, in spite of favourable revolutionary possibilities, the perspective of the permanent revolution did not materialise in our context. In history, if the working class is not ready or fails to take power it presents the bourgeoisie with various options.  In our context it was the democratic counter revolution.

The Rising tide of Revolution: 1973 – 1990: The apartheid state introduced a range of new oppressive laws, expanded its bureaucracy and repressive apparatuses (police, army, courts) and consolidated the monstrous Bantustan system and pass laws to keep the black working class divided and in a state of fear and subservience. Apartheid-capitalism served to stabilize conditions of capital accumulation and to raise the rate of profit to record levels. Apartheid-capitalism combined the most advanced capitalist techniques and economic forms, with a vicious system of racist rule that disenfranchised and divided the black majority.

  • However, these racist, oppressive and brutal forms of development turned into fetters when the boom period came to an end. The new and relatively settled urban black working class that emerged in the boom years began to flex its muscles and challenge the super-exploitation of the bosses and their system of apartheid rule.
  • The Durban strikes of 1973 signalled the beginning of a pre-revolutionary period in South Africa. This was bound up with the ending of the post-War boom period and the period of reaction since the early 1960s.
  • After 1973, a relatively settled urban black working class, filled with a newly acquired confidence, declared class war on low wages, poor conditions and the denial of the right to organise.
  • Largely on the basis of militant strike struggles, a new workers movement emerged. Within six years, a mighty new union Federation (FOSATU), of militant workers was formed. 
  • The Soweto uprising of 1976 signalled the emergence of youth as a radicalised anti-apartheid force.
  • Despite state repression, the rising tide of mass struggles continued. By the early 1980s new youth and student formations and civic organisations emerged in the townships across the country and the UDF was formed. The anti-apartheid struggle reached its highest point in the mid-to-late 1980s. The revolutionary youth had responded magnificently to the ANC’s call to make the townships ungovernable. The wave of mass strikes in 1987 culminated in the miners’ strike.
  • In this period, it was clear that the ruling class could not govern in the old way; nor did the masses wish to be ruled in the old way.
  • Despite the two-stage theory of the SACP, neither the advanced workers nor the revolutionary youth drew a clear distinction between their desire for democracy and their embrace of socialism; apartheid and capitalism were identified as the enemy. 
  • A revolutionary crisis, with elements of dual power, had clearly broken out.

By the 1970s, coinciding with a worldwide crisis in the capitalist economy, the advantages of apartheid-capitalism was increasingly called into question.

  • As it sought to avoid and recover from the impact of the economic crisis and secure for itself regional and global expansion, the more farsighted sections of the ruling class drew the correct conclusion that the old order could not continue indefinitely. By the mid-1980s, recognising the mass militancy of all sections of the working class (employed workers, as well as township residents, youth and students) and the looming threat of socialist revolution, accommodation was sought with the ANC leadership to protect the continued domination of white monopoly capital.
  • Even while the masses were making the townships ungovernable and building street and area committees, ANC leaders (including Mandela from inside prison) were plotting a negotiated settlement. A section of the ANC leadership regarded mass struggle, the ‘armed struggle’ and the sanctions campaign chiefly as different instruments for pressurising the apartheid regime into a deal.
  • A section of the ruling class sought to encourage this. The apartheid-regime under Botha drew similar conclusions. However, fearing especially the black working class and the youth influenced by ideas of socialism, they had a much more reactionary plan with a drawn-out timetable.
  • The collapse of Stalinism in 1989 signalled to the apartheid regime, now under the leadership of De Klerk, that they should take the initiative.
  • Within a few years, a rotten deal was brokered. The basic terms were set by the white monopoly capitalist class. They demanded assurances that their right to private property and make profits would not be threatened. While they were prepared to accept majority rule, they also demanded that the ANC tame it radical base, especially the revolutionary-minded youth and the socialist workers.
  • These class pressures, bolstered by continued repression on the part of the De Klerk regime, resulted in the demobilisation of the mass and the dissolution of the UDF, together with its  civic and youth structures.
  • At the same time, the ANC agreed to ditch the ‘nationalisation’ clause in the Freedom Charter.
  • The revolutionary crisis of the 1980s was therefore brought to an end not as a result of counter-revolutionary violence and but through the machinations of the ANC and SACP leadership. The latter rationalised this liquidation of revolutionary class consciousness and organisation by reference to the ‘theory’ of the National Democratic Revolution, the necessity of a separate ‘democratic’ stage and reliance on the progressive patriotic bourgeoisie.
  • In class terms, our ‘transition’ was not so much from apartheid to democracy but from the impending threat of proletarian revolution to a restoration of stable bourgeois rule. Counter-revolution in South Africa, therefore, assumed a democratic and anti-apartheid but not an anti-capitalist form.
  • This development was part of a global trend: from Central America to Eastern Europe and South Africa, revolutionary threats from below were turned around and supplanted by the institution of formal bourgeois democratic regimes from above. In the case of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, capitalist restoration took the form of ‘democratisation’ and the implementation of neoliberal reforms.
  • For the ruling class, including the imperialist bourgeoisie, the aim of negotiations was a form of black rule that could pacify the masses and open up a new period of stable capitalist accumulation locally and internationally. The ANC was the key to realising these objectives. 
  • Today, essential elements of the plan of the ruling class are in place. We have a majority ANC government that is fully committed to the neo-liberal economic programme of the national and imperialist bourgeoisie. Moreover, the South African ruling class is now a dominant sub-imperialist power on the entire African continent.

WRP Explosion

WRP Explosion

WRP Explosion

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