“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx
Apr 30, 1986
Published in the Fall, 1985 issue of the New International, is the report presented by Jack Barnes and adopted by the Socialist Workers Party National Committee called “The Coming Revolution in South Africa.” What is most incongruous is that Barnes, the leader of a Trotskyist organization, gives a report on the SWP’s position on South Africa whose main premise is that in South Africa the working class will not, it cannot, it must not take power in the coming revolution.
Barnes says, “From the historical standpoint, the South African revolution today is a bourgeois-democratic revolution for these goals.” Under the subhead, “Not a Stage of the Socialist Revolution,” he asks and then answers, “But given the development of modern capitalist industry and mining, and the size of the black working class, won’t the overthrow of the imperialist apartheid state actually establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and open what we might call the democratic stage of the socialist revolution? The answer is, No.”
Later, he explains that the coming revolution will not be anti-capitalist, a point he often comes back to. He says, “it will be necessary to overthrow the apartheid state. That will be the democratic revolution. That is what the ANC is fighting for. And that will sweep away apartheid. But it won’t sweep away capitalist relations.” (Italics in the original.)
Why would a revolutionary organization, whose program is based on the international working class seizing power, whose own organization today is based in the working class, mainly even the industrial proletariat, say that in the case of South Africa, the explosive struggles to overthrow apartheid must not result in the working class seizing power in its own name, in its own direct interests? The SWP explains that the workers cannot take power in South Africa because of the country’s particular, specific historical development.
Barnes, in his report, spends a lot of time describing South Africa’s historical development. He describes South Africa as a settler state. Under the direct or indirect rule of British imperialism, European settlers conquered and then virtually enslaved the African population in order to exploit them to unheard of degrees. Apartheid was the state structure that was built over the last century to facilitate this exploitation. Thus, the Africans were deprived of the land, and most cannot farm. And the workers have not been free to sell their labor power. Instead, where workers travel, where they live, where they work, is restricted and regulated by the state. Therefore he describes the black population as occupying the position of an “estate,” that is, a part of the population whose legal and social rights are limited, just as the estates during the pre-capitalist, feudal times.
There is no reason to dispute this description. And we could go along with the reference to black South Africans’ making up an estate. However, South Africa, economically, is not a feudal country from two centuries ago. It is industrially developed, and even imperialist at the end of the 20th century. And it has a real, modern working class. The SWP concentrates on the surface of South African society, that is, the level of legal and social rights. It dismisses the underlying capitalist class structure that has developed, in which there is a large working class. This allows the SWP to conclude that the dictatorship of the proletariat is impossible in South Africa, and that, instead, the task of the coming revolution, by doing away with apartheid, is to enter into a so-called normal development of capitalism, where there will be normal capitalist social relations. This revolution, Barnes says, “will make possible the development of the South African nation, opening the door to progressive class differentiation, allowing some to farm, some to become professional, some to become retailers, and others to be wage workers – all regardless of race.” (Italics in the original.)
In other words, the SWP believes that since South Africa has not had a normal capitalist development, with normal capitalist social relations, the task of the coming revolution is to return to square one, to try to retrace its development along “normal” lines. Accordingly, the African workers will fight to have normal capitalist exploitation. Only then, after there is a normal working class, a normal petty-bourgeoisie, a normal peasantry, and of course a normal bourgeoisie, only then, at some future date, will it be acceptable for the working class to seize power, and begin the construction of a normal socialist society. Thus the SWP proposes that this coming revolution will be a revolution whose main task is... to redo its capitalist development, in order to develop as a classic bourgeois society.
For a revolutionary communist, to propose to redo capitalist development in South Africa today is absurd on two counts.
First, while South Africa’s apartheid has meant especially abnormal development, South Africa is not alone. Most of the countries on this planet have had in different degrees and ways a very distorted development. There has been no ideal capitalist development. Bourgeois society developed fully in only a few countries in Western Europe, North America and Japan. But even these societies were distorted in various ways. Capitalism developed within feudal, traditional societies. Even the most developed bourgeois societies were still marked for a long time by throwbacks to earlier societies.
The rest of the world was smothered and distorted in its evolution because the development of the industrialized countries was made at its expense. The local economies in Africa, South America and most of Asia were plundered and destroyed by imperialism. Imperialism artificially imposed relations from the outside, but only to meet the needs of the metropolitan centers. Thus these societies, at their economic, political, and social levels, emerged suffocated, twisted, distorted, the vast masses of the population living under worse and worse conditions. Although it could be added that even in the most developed capitalist economies, free labor power has not always been guaranteed. The workers under the Nazi regime in Germany were made into slaves. And as Barnes noted, there are parallels between apartheid today and Nazi Germany. All of this notwithstanding, however, today the entire world lives within the framework of capitalism. And the revolution on the agenda is, at the scale of the planet, the proletarian revolution.
In fact, the capitalist production and social relations which make the socialist revolution possible have existed for a long time now. To examine at the level of each individual country in order to discern if it alone, isolated, is ripe for the socialist revolution is ridiculous. It ignores the international nature of capitalism, the working class and the socialist revolution. And it also ignores the social character of South Africa itself. Although South African society is very distorted, it is also imperialist, with an advanced capitalist economy, with modern industry, and a huge and powerful working class. Barnes recognizes that. But because he wants us to keep in mind only the particular features of South African development, he fails to draw the logical conclusions.
In fact, once Barnes leaves the question of historical development, he even recognizes the importance of the black working class in South Africa. In the beginning of the article he says, “The working class is striding forward to lead the national democratic revolution to overthrow the apartheid state.... The leadership role has been thrust upon the working class by the development of South African capitalism itself.” Barnes discusses the history of the growing strikes and labor militancy and the explosive growth of trade unions in the last years: “Unionization drives and strike actions have become the major new area of organization, education, and combat experience of the working class, increasing its confidence and cohesiveness.”
And according to Barnes, the question is not just that of the working class fighting; there is also the question of it playing the leading role in the fight: “Out of the experiences and struggles that this working class is going through, it has increasingly moved toward the leadership of the fight to overthrow the white supremacist state.” “The decisive weight and power of the working class in South Africa determines the kind of leadership that can and must be built, if the revolution is to triumph.”
So the SWP says that the working class has the “decisive weight and power” to lead the revolution – and that it is moving into the leadership of the revolution. But this is as far as he goes. At this point the SWP completely reverses itself. According to Barnes, “The fact that there is a large, increasingly combative working class in South Africa does not place the socialist revolution on the agenda. The weight of the proletariat doesn’t determine anything, by itself, about the historic character of the revolution.”
So, according to the SWP, despite the working class’s fight, leadership, power, etc. it must not take power. This conclusion is in complete contradiction with what was just said about the working class. It makes no sense. It is a conclusion which is imposed despite the evidence to the contrary. The SWP’s purpose in writing the article is not to discuss perspectives for the working class, but to justify a decision it made to support the ANC. It would seem that this convoluted reasoning was constructed post factum to justify a decision taken a priori to support the ANC.
Writes Barnes: “The SWP recognizes that the ANC is the vanguard of the democratic revolution in South Africa.” The problem is that this vanguard organization which the SWP proposes the black working class follow is frankly and openly bourgeois. Barnes admits this. The ANC program, he writes, “...is not a socialist program. It doesn’t advocate nationalizing all industry, expropriating the bourgeoisie, or the dictatorship of the proletariat.” For the SWP, bourgeois revolution is put on the agenda in South Africa, because the ANC says so. The working class can be in the forefront of the coming revolution, but this makes no difference. Within the framework of the ANC program, all the working class can fight for is to put the ANC in power. It can only fight for a bourgeois nationalist program. Because the SWP throws its wholehearted support behind the ANC, it sees the ANC’s program as the only possible program for the revolution.
Of course, revolutionaries take the side of the African people who are fighting against apartheid. We take their side, no matter what they see their end goal as, even when it is for the end of apartheid and nothing else. It is the revolutionaries’ duty to take the side of the oppressed who are fighting against a monstrous regime. Thus we also take the side of the ANC and all the other nationalist organizations fighting to end apartheid. But for revolutionaries, to support the fight of the nationalists, like the ANC, does not mean that we have to justify everything they stand for, nor to say that there is no other policy, no other road for those oppressed by apartheid than the nationalist revolution.
Yet, this is what the SWP does. In supporting the ANC, they say its policy is the only policy possible. This is no different than the ordinary practice of the Trotskyist movement in general. Most Trotskyist groups don’t bother to question what could be an independent policy for the working class, although the basis of our program, our reason for existing as a separate, distinct movement demands this. Instead, they look toward whatever nationalist, that is bourgeois, organizations, which exist, trying only to figure out which one will be the strongest in leading the struggle. And then they throw their support, whatever that may consist of, behind the nationalist organization. If there are differences between the various Trotskyist currents, it is over which set of existing petty-bourgeois nationalist leaders is the real revolutionary leadership.
This is precisely the dispute within the United Secretariat of the Fourth International today about the current situation in South Africa. The SWP and the majority of the USec have been polemicizing with each other over which organization in the nationalist movement is the “really” revolutionary organization to support, the ANC or AZAPO. In fact, there is no difference in policy between the two factions of the USec, only a difference in the way they justify their policies.
The Trotskyist organizations have usually justified their support by saying that the nationalists are more than they are; that they already are or, at least, that they are becoming socialist or proletarian. The new, original twist in the SWP’s logic is that they have custom-tailored what they say are the tasks of the revolution to the organization they say they support. In the past, they have tried to fit the nationalist organization into a proletarian mold; this time they simply dismiss the need for a proletarian revolution.
However, the SWP finds itself in the middle of another dilemma when it does this. The problem is that the SWP is still a revolutionary, still a communist organization. And it cannot completely dismiss all need for a communist organization in South Africa.
So Barnes writes: “Out of the revolutionary struggle that is being led by the ANC, however, a growing South African communist vanguard will be forged and tested. This will occur as younger forces come forward in this struggle, as more and more leaders emerge from the ranks of the working class. And with this strengthening of a communist leadership in South Africa will come a strengthening of its convergence with communist forces on a world scale.” However, this is only a formal recognition of the need for a communist organization, given that the SWP recognizes no independent role for it to play. The role for communists, Barnes says, is only to support the ANC. But in this case, really, why have a communist organization? The ANC is enough.
In fact, a communist leadership is necessary, if an alternative to the policy of the ANC is to be realized. For there are two possible policies that could be proposed to the masses of the oppressed in South Africa. On the one hand there is the policy of the ANC, which proposes to overthrow the apartheid regime, in order to build up a nation: that is, if it succeeds, a capitalist society made up of a bourgeoisie, workers and peasants, along with exploitation and oppression. This will certainly be the outcome of the coming revolution in South Africa if the ANC is its leader, and if the working class doesn’t build up its own organization in order to take the lead of the struggle.
The other road is that of proletarian revolution, when the proletariat seizes and exercises power. Of course the fact that the working class takes power and wages a fight for a communist society, doesn’t mean that it will immediately expropriate the whole bourgeoisie and nationalize and collectivize everything. The pace and extent of the nationalizations will depend on the circumstances of the revolution, the situation of industry and agriculture. The first task of the proletarian revolution in South Africa would certainly be to do away with the apartheid regime and to guarantee the democratic rights to all those who have been denied them. Perhaps, as the SWP surmises in the case of South Africa, if the peasants and even a part of the working class would want to return to the land, then the dictatorship of the proletariat could give the land to all those who want to farm it. This is not an original idea. It is what another working class power did, in Russia in 1917. A bourgeois state isn’t the only state that can return land to the peasants. The difference between a bourgeois and proletarian state is that under a proletarian state, the goal is the construction of socialism. The proletariat would not seize power in order to build up a so-called normal capitalist society. It is in the workers’ interests to build up a different society, which would free workers and peasants, all the poor and oppressed from the drudgery, wars and starvation to which capitalism condemns them.
But this kind of society can only be built up on the scale of the planet, since the resources and production, that is, the economy, is international. Therefore the revolution in South Africa should be the opposite of a nationalist revolution, which does not call into question imperialism. It should be an internationalist revolution in which the workers and oppressed from country to country sweep away the artificial boundaries drawn and erected by the capitalists to safeguard their interests and to keep the workers separated. This revolutionary process could start in South Africa. The conditions in all of Africa are ripe, overripe. The South African workers could have the honor of beginning the revolution which could first sweep across Africa and then into the heart of the imperialist countries and into the rest of the world.
Yes, there is another policy possible today for the South African workers. This is why a communist organization – which is the only one to propose it – is both possible and necessary today in South Africa.
Today, it should be the task of international communists everywhere in the world to try to help, in all the ways possible, to build up a communist organization in South Africa. Certainly this is very difficult due to the weakness of the international Trotskyist movement. But at least this task starts by clarifying the possibilities that the working class has in South Africa, as well as the policy for the working class to realize these possibilities, a policy which would allow the black workers of South Africa to defend their own class interests, and the interests of the socialist revolution, against the attempts of bourgeois forces to use the strength of the proletariat for its own goals.
Certainly the SWP does not have more possibilities than the other Trotskyist organizations to help build up a proletarian organization in South Africa. But the policy it discusses today turns its back in advance on these possibilities. Under the guise of supporting the interests of the black South African workers, the SWP proposes nothing different for the workers than to follow their class enemies. Barnes’ praise of the workers covers over the fact that the SWP relegates them today, in 1986, to be the tools and wage slaves for a small outdated bourgeois revolution in one small part of Africa, because capitalism supposedly didn’t develop there according to a plan for the normal development of capitalism. In this sense the SWP uses apartheid against the workers: because they are more oppressed than the workers in other countries, according to the SWP they are not ready to take power. Barnes, himself a revolutionary, doesn’t offer the workers the future of socialism, he offers them the past of capitalism. He doesn’t imagine that the black workers of South Africa could have a possibility to play the most important role of starting the world-wide socialist revolution, and thus liberate all of humanity. The SWP doesn’t offer an independent policy for the working class. It is merely scanning the horizon for what existing organization – new or old – it can jump to support.