Mass defiance, strikes and armed action were envisaged

Not social democracy

Jack Conrad argues that the SACP is best understood in terms of ‘official communism’ and a tradition that dates back to the 7th Congress of Comintern

Peter Manson’s otherwise useful article, ‘Where next for the SACP’, is badly flawed in one crucial respect.1 He fails to understand the history, programme and actual nature of ‘official communism’ in South Africa. That results in an inevitable muddle.

We are told, for example, that ‘official communism’, circa 1989, had a “largely principled programme for revolution” in South Africa, however, “what it publicly demanded of a post-revolutionary government” failed to go beyond the bounds of capitalism and should, therefore, be classified as “social democracy”. Apart from that contention being untrue - the SACP envisaged a “transition to socialism”2 - it is surely oxymoronic to describe a programme of “social democracy” as stemming from a “largely principled programme for revolution”. Means determine ends and ends determine means.

Banned in 1950, the Communist Party of South Africa not only reconstituted itself as the South African Communist Party in 1953, it proceeded to exert a considerable influence over the African National Congress. Communists were elected onto the ANC leadership and ANC members were recruited into the ranks of the SACP, eg, Nelson Mandela, leader of the ANC Youth. Hence, the celebrated Freedom Charter, agreed by the Congress of the People, meeting in Kliptown, on June 26 1955. Comrade Manson provides this little excerpt: “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole. All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people.”3

This is evidently a measure, which, in and of itself, would put the “commanding heights of the economy” into state hands. Yet comrade Manson complains: the Freedom Charter was not a programme for the replacement of capitalism. He cites this stipulation: “All who work shall be free to form trade unions, to elect their officers and to make wage agreements with their employers.” Does comrade Manson, seriously want us to believe that day one after a revolution in South Africa, or any contemporary revolution, there will no longer be workers and employers … and for some time afterwards too?

Suffice to say, when it comes to South Africa, comrade Manson concludes that the ANC’s Freedom Charter amounts to nothing more than a call “for a range of democratic and pro-worker measures under the existing order, some of which were highly ambitious, given the state of development in South Africa.”

He gives four examples of these “highly ambitious” measures:

  1. Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children.
  2. Rent and prices shall be lowered, food plentiful and no-one shall go hungry.
  3. A preventive health scheme shall be run by the state.
  4. The aged, the orphans, the disabled and the sick shall be cared for by the state.

Comrade Manson seems to believe that such demands were impossible to realise within the narrow confines of South Africa. He refers to the “mass poverty, unemployment and homelessness.” Either way, showing that he is painting from an extraordinarily limited palate, he insists on classifying the Freedom Charter as “social democratic”.

Of course, “social democratic” is one of those slippery terms that have morphed and morphed again. In the mid-19th century it referred to the reformism of Louis Blanc, then Bonaparte’s state socialism, later in the 19th century, from 1875 onwards, it became the party name adopted by Marxists. Eg, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, the Social Democratic Party of Austria, the British Social Democratic Federation, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. The Bolsheviks called themselves “revolutionary social democrats” in order to distinguish themselves from the Menshevik, opportunist, social democrats.

After October 1917, however, social democracy is upheld by that wing of the workers’ movement which wanted to distinguish itself from Comintern, that identified with the existing state and the existing constitutional order. The term then travels, further and further to the right. What once promised to be a reformist road to socialism, became, merely, achieving reforms within the capitalist system that would benefit workers. Eg, the Labour government of Clement Attlee. Nowadays, that is since the 1980s, social democracy serves as a banal label for mainstream bourgeois, ‘centrist’, opinion: eg, Roy Jenkins, Tony Blair, Vince Cable, Chuka Umanna.

How does comrade Manson define ‘social democracy’? He seems to take his cue from the post-1945 version of the term - seeking reforms within the capitalist system that benefit workers.

Applied to South Africa this is myopic in the extreme. The ‘official communists’ were not committed either to seeking reform within the apartheid constitution or via the apartheid state. They were committed to an ‘official communist’ programme of two stages: a revolution that would firstly overthrow apartheid and then, perhaps uninterruptedly, go on to supersede capitalism.

The SACP envisaged a prolonged mass struggle - that included strikes, parallel forms of popular administration and armed actions - culminating in the seizure of power and a popular government elected by universal suffrage. The SACP, note, sought to win a “dominant role in the new government” for the working class, ie, itself.4

The ANC’s Freedom Charter must be seen in this context. A post-apartheid government, a government that comes to power through an insurrection, an act of violence, a popular revolution, that insists on equal rights for all, that proceeds to nationalise the coal, diamond and gold mines; that does the same with the banks and the country’s monopolies; that enacts measures to control what remains of private industry and trade; that breaks up the big, white-owned, farms, and shares out the land amongst those who work it; that introduces a 40-hour week, guarantees trade union rights and promises to house, feed, educate and care for the population - such a government is already breaking through the bounds of capitalism.

Describing such measures - carried out by an SACP-dominated government, remember - as “a (highly ambitious) social democratic programme” makes no sense whatsoever. Any suggestion to the contrary is ahistorical, violates the accepted political lexicon of contemporary Marxism and surely testifies to a failure of the imagination.

Comrade Manson speculates: “Perhaps”, he says, “despite all the talk of a post-apartheid democracy, the SACP hoped it would become the African equivalent of the likes of Czechoslovakia or Poland, operating a Stalinist version of ‘socialism’ under one-party rule.” There is no perhaps about it. Leave aside the fact that formally, in most of the so-called people’s democracies’ there were a range of parties represented in parliament; it was exactly the experience of eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, etc, that the SACP sought to emulate. The same goes for the SACP’s comrades in Frelimo and the MPLA who came to power in 1975 - after the overthrow of the Novo regime in Portugal by the Armed Forces Movement. The SACP’s programme The path to power (1989) says this about Angola and Mozambique: “A product of armed and militant popular struggles, these victories profoundly reinforced the struggles of other oppressed peoples of the sub-continent. These revolutions set the stage for development towards socialist construction.”5

The SACP would not have banned the ANC in order to establish a one-party state. Why on earth would it do such a stupid thing? An SACP-led ANC fitted perfectly with a South African people’s democracy: a “national democracy” in the words of the SACP’s 1989 programme.

A line which goes back, of course, to 1935 and the 7th congress of Comintern. To serve the perceived foreign policy interests of the Soviet state, Stalin required ‘official communist’ parties to subordinate themselves to an alliance with ‘progressive’ sections of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. These popular fronts specifically limited the struggles of the working class to achieving anti-fascist unity under capitalism. Only when fascism had been soundly defeated could working class power and socialism come onto the agenda … so ran Stalinite doctrine.

However, despite these programmatic limits, history provides us with examples of popular fronts coming to power (not just government). It is worth noting then, that in eastern Europe the first priority, following the victory of the Soviet army and liberation from the Nazi yoke, was not to introduce ‘socialism’. Rebuilding the economy topped the agenda for the ‘official communist’ parties and their various governmental allies. Inevitably, that meant attempting to strike a deal with ‘patriotic’ capitalists. True, Nazi collaborators had their wealth confiscated and a few vital sectors of industry were nationalised. But nothing more. There was land reform … but it was carried out gradually. Landless peasants benefitted from the diminution of big estates and expropriating the farms owned by Germans, war criminals and the Church. Only in 1948-49 did such regimes undertake widespread nationalisation and begin the task of “building socialism”.

The same perspective informed Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China. With a view to achieving a ‘new democracy’, the CPC proposed a popular front that would unite the working class with the intelligentsia, the peasantry and the national bourgeoisie. A bloc of four classes. “The present task of the revolution in China”, writes Mao in 1940, “is to fight imperialism and feudalism … socialism is out of the question until this task is completed. The Chinese revolution cannot avoid taking the two steps, first of New Democracy and then of socialism.”6

Can ‘official communist’ programmes calling for a national democracy, a people’s democracy, a new democracy really be categorised under the same heading as social democracy and British Labourism? Surely not.

For the sake of the argument, let us run a counterfactual version of history. The SACP and its ANC ally triumphantly overthrows the apartheid regime. Could it then proceed to implement its “highly ambitious” aim of delivering: (1) “free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children”; (2) lowering rent and prices, providing food in plenty and ensuring that “no-one shall go hungry”; (3) providing a “preventive health scheme … run by the state; (4) guaranteeing that the “aged, the orphans, the disabled and the sick” are “cared for by the state”?

Frankly, with this or that proviso, I see no earthly reason why not.

Industry, agriculture and commercial property have to be progressively put under state control. Foreign trade made into a state monopoly. Need not profit becomes the priority. Experts in ‘planning’ fly in from Moscow to give advice. There are imports of plant and machinery from the Soviet Union in return for gold and diamonds. Undoubtedly, some sections of the workers, especially the whites, see a fall in real wages. Skilled workers tempted to head off to western Europe or north America would probably have to be made to stay put. The secret police becomes ever more ubiquitous. Maybe the Stasi sends advisers too. Obdurate racists might perhaps be subject to ‘re-education’ in remote desert camps. However, there is a drive for rapid industrialisation. Unemployment is quickly abolished. The increased surpluses generated by the workers being made fully available to the state. As a result, schools could easily be opened throughout the country and trustworthy teachers recruited from the mines, factories and farms. A mere governmental decree makes rents nominal and certainly, within not so many years, the state ensures that no one goes hungry and everyone gets healthcare. Possibly Cuba provides doctors and nurses without any expectation of a return. Such a scenario is not hard to imagine.

Of course, bureaucratic socialism is not proletarian socialism, it does not take advanced capitalism and the global economy as its decisive point of departure. Hence it cannot be democratic, cannot make the transition to communism. In fact, bureaucratic socialism proves to be an unsustainable dead-end … nevertheless, between the early 1930s and the late 1980s, this system represented a real option for the millions of people trapped in poverty, hunger and ignorance.

In the first world the second world often represented hell. But in the third world, the second world often represented heaven.


1. Weekly Worker September 20 2018.

2. The path to power, SACP programme - www.sacp.org.za/main.php?ID=2638.

3. www.marxists.org/subject/africa/anc/1955/freedom-charter.htm.

4. The path to power 1989.

5. The path to power 1989.

6. Mao Tse-tung SW Beijing 1967, p358.