Arguing for a workers' party based on the non-racial unions in apartheid South Africa (1985-94)

Submitted by martin on 5 September, 2009 - 7:39

Three extracts on the debate about working-class strategy in the years of the decline and fall of apartheid in South Africa.


Workers' Liberty 3, "Breaking the chains: black workers and the struggle for liberation in South Africa". September 1985:

[There has been] a big growth of the black working class. In 1960 there were 540,000 black workers in mining and 450,000 in manufacturing. In 1980 there were 740,000 in mining and 1,150,000 in manufacturing.

In January-February 1973, 100,000 black workers — shipbuilders, stevedores, drivers, textile, brick and tea workers — round the Durban area struck over pay.

This marked the beginning of a new wave of resistance to white supremacy in South Africa, one in which workers and trade unions became central.

In 1969 there were only about 16,000 organised black workers. In 1981 most observers put the number at over 200,000.

While in 1969 about 3000 black workers were involved in stoppages, the figure was near 100,000 for 1981.

Unions have substantially consolidated their grass roots organisation among black industrial workers; they have begun to build themselves into a national organisation. FOSATU — the Federation of South African Trade Unions — was born in 1979...

The best way forward would be a workers' party based on the trade unions. In form it could be similar to the British Labour Party, which was founded as a federation of trade unions and socialist groups and later developed an individual membership structure in addition. It should be much more democratic than the British Labour Party, and could be so, given that the non-racial unions in South Africa do not have encrusted bureaucracies like the British unions already had to a considerable extent in 1900.

They have concentrated on building up strong rank-and-file organisation, shop stewards structures and direct worker involvement. Strict accountability of leaders — who are to obtain mandates from their members for all that they do — has helped prevent the leaders from being co-opted by industrial conciliation bureaucracy.

Full time union officials are paid similar rates to the workers they represent.

Politically such a workers' party could be very different from the British Labour Party, developing a programme for working class revolution rather than stodgy tinkering with the system. How successfully it did that would of course depend on the work of organised socialists and Marxists within the party.

There are many difficulties with this project of a workers` party based on the trade unions...[But] in the present turmoil the unions are being dragged into high profile politics whether they like it or not... Unless the unions develop politics of their own, they will willy-nilly be dragged behind the UDF or the National Forum. [In fact, the unions got pulled behind the ANC].


The case for a workers' party in South Africa, by Clive Bradley, Socialist Organiser 281, 28 August 1986:

The idea that the trade unions should form a political party in competition with the existing bourgeois parties has a long Marxist pedigree. Engels raised it in connection with Britain, subsequently supporting the formation of the Independent Labour Party, and arguing for it in tum to fight for a trade union-based party.

In the 1930s, the American Trotskyists made a lot of propaganda for a Labour Party, and the American Trotskyists continued to do so after World War 2.

The essential idea is simple: the workers' organisations should break with their existing reliance upon, or alliance with, the bourgeois parties (Liberals in Britain, Democrats in the USA). They should strike out an independent path. It is worth quoting Trotsky at some length.

"The question of the labour party has never been a question of principle for revolutionary Marxists... before the crisis of 1929, and...until the appearance of the CIO, we could have hoped that the revolutionary, that is, the Bolshevik party would develop in the United States parallel to the radicalisation of the working class...Under those conditions it would have been absurd to occupy oneself with abstract propaganda (for a) 'labour party'." But: "The situation since that time, however, has radically changed...

The powerfully developing trade unions, under the conditions of a deepening crisis of capitalism, will project themselves all the more irresistibly upon the road of political struggle and thus upon the road of crystallisation into a labour party". ("The Problem of the Labor Party", in Discussions on the Transitional Programme, Pathfinder Press, p.107).

The crucial factor that put the Labour Party question on the agenda was the development of CIO industrial unionism, in the context of a major 'decline of American capitalism'. Some of Trotsky's comments are useful: "Are we in favour of the creation of a reformist labour party? No. Are we in favour of a policy which can give to the trade unions the possibility to put its weight upon the balance of forces? Yes.

"It can become a reformist party — it depends upon the development. Here the question of program comes in...

" . . .I would not say that the labour party is a revolutionary party, but that we will do everything to make it possible. At every meeting I would say: I am a representative of the SWP. I consider it is the only revolutionary party. But I am not a sectarian. You are now trying to create a big workers' party. I will help you, but I propose that you consider a program for this party...

"...we must be part of the movement..." Engels' comments are equally instructive: "The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all those who resist...will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own." (Marx/Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow 1975, p.376).

The point here is not textual authority; it is to establish the basic framework and political method of the classical Marxists. To be 'part of the movement'; to assist the development of the working class from the point of view of its most advanced ideological current; to help the working class learn, rather than make lectures to it: this, we think, is the essence of their approach.

The idea of a workers' party in South Africa is not one we would advocate at all times. It depends upon 'concrete circumstances'. What are these'?

* A significant layer of the working class has begun to discuss a new, independent politics that is a major departure from the populist-Stalinist traditions of the past. The idea of a workers' party has come from sections of the workers themselves -— it is an issue up for discussion.

* This layer of workers is the product of one of the most important developments of industrial trade unionism anywhere in the world.

* Its political development is the product of a lived experience of class struggle — looked at with great freshness and creativity.

* As yet, the tendencies towards bureaucratisation of this movement are not very far advanced. On the contrary, the unions have developed democratic practices that are consciously seen as prefigurations of future society.

* Alien class forces and ideological movements — i.e. the populist/Stalinists — are hell-bent upon controlling and neutralising this movement as a whole.

The dominant culture of the independent unions has been distinctly syndicalist. This was only viable so long as a) they were regarded with indifference by the populists; b) the general political struggle was at a low ebb. Since 1984, neither of these conditions has held. The populists are desperate to derail the development of an alternative political pole: and the rise of the mass movement has been enormous.

Moreover, the rise in the movement has given greater political weight to the populists, which in turn gives them greater weight in the unions.

In these conditions either the nascent working-class politics that have developed are drawn out, given a coherent programme, and the socialists in the workers' movement actively combat alien class ideologies; or the populists will be victorious.

The workers' party theme codifies the development of working class politics very sharply. It proposes a political rather than narrowly trade-union objective to the socialist militants in the unions (and more generally), and provides an important opening through which revolutionaries can make propaganda — or even direct proposals — for a coherent Marxist programme.

It takes actual developments within the workers' movement as its point of departure, and connects with them. Rather than abstractly counterposing a 'revolutionary party' to the emerging political movement, it seizes on those real developments in the class and takes them a step further.

What are the alternatives? Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers' Party and others have put great stress on the need to build a Marxist nucleus — a small propaganda group. We absolutely agree on the priority of this, and I will discuss it further below. But what will the nucleus say? What will it argue for? One possibility is for the small Marxist group (and by small I mean anything less than several tens of thousands) to concentrate on Marxist propaganda in various forms: education, discussion, and promotion of major Marxist ideas (permanent revolution, for example), propaganda for socialism. This would combine with an intervention into the unions, workplace and community struggles, etc.

This perspective for the building of a revolutionary party would seem to be simply one of one-by·one recruitment. Gradually the party could grow out of the various struggles until it takes on mass proportions.

One particular problem with this perspective strikes us as central. If the populist/Stalinists dominate the political struggle and dominate the trade unions, this will be a setback for any future Marxist movement.

In other words, a challenge to the populists now — i.e. the development of a serious political alternative — will radically determine the possibilities for a Marxist party in the future. And the formation of a Marxist nucleus with a perspective of one-by-one growth is no challenge to the populists now.

In fact this perspective is based upon an acceptance that 'for now', the populists/Stalinists will dominate the workers' movement. 'Our day will come...', but for now alien class forces will ideologically dominate the workers' movement.

It is, of course, possible to argue for the trade unions to engage in political action without forming a political party. A case can be made for this in terms of avoiding an unnecessary provocation of the Stalinists. As a tactical issue that is of course very important. As an alternative perspective to that of a party, it is not a good one.

The unions can 'engage in political action' at all sorts of levels. But a serious involvement in the political struggles requires not just participation, but leadership — and that requires a strategy and a programme.

The more coherent the political strategy, the more effective the workers' political intervention, the more inexorable the logic of forming a party to embody that programme and strategy.

The workers' party idea follows from all this. The alternatives of Callinicos and others amount to an acquiescence in populist domination of the movement in the present, in the name of 'building a revolutionary party' in the future. The alternatives, in other words, give the populists a free run.

The formation and building of a Marxist nucleus is nevertheless a priority. Indeed, without that the slogan of a workers' party has no revolutionary content whatever. If we don't always follow the references to a workers' party with a call for a revolutionary organisation, that's because we don't think you have to say everything all at once. And it makes little sense to appeal to the broad spectrum of trade unionists to form a select Marxist nucleus! 'A workers' party provided there is a revolutionary nucleus' is not a very good slogan.

Assuming that the Marxists are in a minority, then their job will be to organise within the party, win it to a Marxist programme, and thereby win a majority. (This, of course, does not rule out all sorts of possibilities — splits, expulsions, etc., etc.) Callinicos objects that a party based on the unions would by definition not be revolutionary, as it would include all different layers of the class, whereas the revolutionary party includes only the most class-conscious. This completely misses the point. Of course the revolutionary party, in the sense of the Marxist organisation, is demarcated

ideologically from the rest of the movement. It is principally an ideologically selected group: a collective body attempting scientifically to understand the world, the better to know how to change it.

In that sense, a patty based on the trade unions cannot, by definition, be a 'revolutionary party' even with a Marxist programme. In terms of formal definitions, therefore, Callinicos is right. The 'revolutionary party', i.e. the Marxist party, properly understood, would be an ideological organised group within a trade union-based party even under conditions where it commanded a majority.

This issue does not to me seem very interesting. The point about building a Marxist party is to develop an ideological current. On the formalities of that there is no dispute between Callinicos and us.

There is, however, a great deal of political substance in dispute, and the differences over the workers' party idea express a good deal of what distinguishes us from the SWP. Our point of departure is that mass revolutionary parties will be built out of actual living developments in the workers' movement, or they will not be built at all. They cannot be called into being by self-proclamation. (' We are the revolutionary party. . . ').

Developments within the workers' movements, outside of major upheavals, tend to be excruciatingly slow. But Marxists cannot bypass those real developments by an effort of will. Our task is to seize on actual developments and be 'part' of the movement' to participate in the workers' own experiences, and to help them remake their own movement.

That does not mean (after the style of the Mandel tendency) looking about for the latest flagship of the 'world revolutionary process' and jumping aboard, leaving Marxist politics somewhere in transit. We try to build ourselves as a hard, distinct, ideological core — but as part of the labour movement, rather than counterposed to it (or, in Britain, counterposed to its political wing, the Labour Party).

An important spoke in the Comintern's programmatic wheel was the idea of the united front. This relates to the workers' party discussion. Should revolutionaries make proposals for action to the workers' movement as a whole? Should we set objectives for the movement as a whole? We think categorically, yes we should. The workers' party would be precisely this: an objective for the movement as a whole. It seems to us that it is only by this approach that revolutionary politics can be made relevant to the working class.

To conclude: there are, of course, technical objections to the idea of a workers' party — principally that it would be illegal (an objection with particular force since the declaration of the State of Emergency).

I don't want to minimise the importance of this issue. Of course it would be stupid to invite repression, either on socialists or on the unions in general.

The essential question is the programmatic one, though. Is the workers' party a necessary next step for the movement? If it is, propaganda should be made for it. Tactical considerations about how to form it, when and where are vitally important, but secondary.


Socialist Organiser 596, 21 April 1994, reprinted an article from the SWP's South African offshoot deploring the idea of a mass workers' party and calling for an ANC vote in South Africa's first universal-suffrage election, 27 April 1994; and offered a reply.

Far from being an idea whose “time has come," calls for a mass workers' party are merely an old reformist notion dusted down and presented anew at a time of widespread confusion....

In this particular battle, the working class is lined up behind the ANC alliance against the NP.

A massive alliance victory would boost the confidence of the class and encourage demands for change.

Since revolutionary socialists stand for the self-emancipation of the working class, the Left should argue that we vote — without illusions in party or parliament — with the class on April 27. And we should do so while arguing (with clarity) about the best way forward to real social transformation.

In Leninist terms, this will mean the construction of a revolutionary socialist party.

Socialist Organiser's reply:

We consider that an independent working-class party, even initially on a reformist basis, would represent a major step forward for the South African working class in the direction of independent class politics.

Working-class self-emancipation and self-organisation are inextricably linked. You can't be for working-class self—liberation and for voting ANC at the same time.

Without a party the workers do not exist politically. If you call for a vote for the an initiative like the Workers' List Party [launched by South African socialists for the 1994 election], you are saying that the workers should not even try to mount a political challenge to the dominant politics or bourgeois black nationalism, not until they are revolutionary enough to satisfy Bell [the SWP writer]. They can be critics, but only critics from within a populist multi-class alliance in which the guiding ideas are provided by self-conscious bourgeois nationalists like Mandela.

Until the workers register "revolutionary" on Bell's thermometer, politics (i.e. the overall running of society, the passing of laws, the electing of MPs etc.) should be the preserve of other classes! The workers cannot attempt to put their imprint on events directly and independently. That is what Bell is saying when he argues against the idea of a mass workers' party and for a vote for the African National Congress.


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