Site of struggle

Peter Manson calls for a serious orientation towards the South African Communist Party

Last week I examined the role the South African Communist Party is continuing to play in keeping the masses loyal to the capitalist government of the African National Congress (Weekly Worker January 20).

I described the deep divisions and contradictions that are coming to a head. On the one hand, the SACP maintains that it is helping to build "elements of socialism, here and now" and calls on workers to wage an "anti-capitalist class struggle". Millions recall the party's leading role in the revolutionary anti-apartheid struggle and still have illusions that it will not only free the working class and township masses from poverty, but lead them to power. On the other hand, the SACP plays a highly significant part in implementing the ANC administration's anti-working class policies, including the Thatcherite 'Growth, employment and redistribution' programme.

For example, public enterprise minister Jeff Radebe, who fronts the ANC's privatisation programme, and social welfare minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, who last year attempted to force through effective wage cuts on the public service unions, are both SACP central committee members. As are Alec Irwin, the minister of trade and industry, responsible for 'liberalisation', and Essop Pahad, minister in the presidential office. The party chairman, Charles Nqakulu, is parliamentary adviser to president Thabo Mbeki.

General secretary Blade Nzimande, considered by some to be on the left of the SACP leadership, has relinquished his own role in the administration. He is only too aware of the impending crisis within the organisation he heads. Sooner or later he must lead a carefully managed break from the ANC-led alliance, or risk a damaging split outside his control. That would open up the possibility of an independent working class organisation with a genuinely revolutionary leadership - a nightmare for the present SACP tops.

The South African left must aim to thwart Nzimande's dream of a safe, social democratic opposition grouping, which would seek to fulfil the counterrevolutionary role that the Labour Party has historically played in Britain. It should be self-evident that the central strategic task of the left must be to achieve the very thing Nzimande fears. Clearly what is required is a serious orientation to the SACP with the aim of splitting it to our advantage, not that of the current misleaders of the working class.

On my recent visit to South Africa I met with leaders of both the Workers International Vanguard League and the International Socialist Movement. They are the only two left groups with any sort of public face - the WIVL because of its policy of contesting elections, and the ISM because it is the only group that publishes regularly (albeit bimonthly). I stressed my view that such an orientation should include the possibility of influencing militants and helping to determine the outcome of the SACP crisis from the inside.

Some on the left have already embarked upon such a course. The remnants of the Cliffite Socialist Workers Organisation were instructed by London a year ago, in true SWP bureaucratic style, to 'disband' their organisation and enter the SACP in Johannesburg, where they joined a handful of comrades from the Keep Left group. Nevertheless this tiny caucus has been able to make its presence felt, and the Johannesburg district has recently enhanced its reputation for dissidence.

Shaheed Mohamed, general secretary of the WIVL, told me that he believed such tactics to be entirely unproductive, as they tend to "lend credibility" to the SACP amongst the working class - for example, in appearing to vigorously oppose the ANC's 'iGoli' package of privatisation of the city's public services and attacks on council workers. Against all the evidence, comrade Mohamed asserted that the SACP was a declining influence amongst the working class, despite the fact that its members dominate the main trade union centre, Cosatu, at every level, including the leadership. Cosatu encourages its affiliates to support the SACP financially and significantly its September 1997congress decided by acclaim without a vote to "build the party".

Yet the WIVL in much of its literature refuses to draw any distinction between the ANC and the SACP. The obvious call that needs to be made, in order to expose the treachery of the working class leaders, is the demand that organisations claiming to represent workers' interest - ie, both Cosatu and the SACP - should break with the ANC. Instead the WIVL calls on Cosatu to "break with the capitalist ANC and SACP". This is tantamount to demanding that trade union bureaucrats break with themselves. In its 1999 election manifesto the WIVL even went so far as to describe the SACP as "openly capitalist" - ignoring the fact that the SACP is only able to get away with its current crucial role in achieving a stable bourgeois South Africa rife for exploitation precisely because it is not "openly capitalist".

Such absurd formulations can be partially explained by the WIVL's Trotskyite antecedents. Five years ago it broke with the Workers International to Rebuild the Fourth International, the 'international' set up by the Workers Revolutionary Party (Workers Press). In its split document the WIVL described how "the international committee and some of its leading elements, mainly Cliff Slaughter, were held in awe of legendary mystique by South African revolutionaries. To us they were giants doing battle against the dragons of Stalinism and revisionism" ('It would be indefensible to remain any longer in the same international with the current leadership of the Workers International', undated).

Not surprisingly, the Cape Town-based group was soon disabused of its illusions in the likes of Slaughter by the antics of his rapidly right-moving, soon-to-be-liquidated WRP. There is no questioning the comrades' dedicated commitment to the cause of the working class, but they need to go much further, and shed the stultifying dogma of 'orthodox Trotskyism' too. It is this which leads the WIVL to characterise "Stalinism" as a counterrevolutionary force, pure and simple. Thus, according to the comrades, the SACP played no progressive role whatsoever in the great anti-apartheid upsurge of the 1980s, seeking only to dampen initiative and hold back the movement.

This is an entirely one-sided view of history. The SACP contained (and still contains) sharply contradictory elements - not only the right wing with its hopes for a peaceful transition to a liberal bourgeois democracy, but the left with its militant talk of insurrection and revolution that would proceed uninterruptedly to socialist tasks. There was not only the tendency to bureaucracy, but also the undoubted revolutionism. How else could the party have won such enormous prestige? The WIVL's position on the SACP has led other left groups - correctly in my opinion - to dub it "Stalinophobic".

The International Socialist Movement has a different reason for refusing to engage more closely with the SACP. According to Terry Bell, editor of the ISM's bimonthly paper Revolutionary Socialist, there would be nothing unprincipled in working inside the party. But he believes that such an intervention would be ineffective because of the small size and relative inexperience of his group. There is of course one way to overcome inexperience - and that is involving comrades in practice, by which they learn from their mistakes, rather than attempting to shield them. But perhaps comrade Bell is also influenced by a continuing desire to distance himself from his former comrades in the Socialist Workers Organisation, from which he and other current ISM members were expelled in 1994 for daring to question SWP wisdom.

In my view an energetic intervention by the left within the SACP would be political dynamite. Such action would not necessarily entail silencing your press or officially disbanding your organisation, SWO style. Far from it. On the contrary it would mean stepping up the frequency of your publications in order to back up the inner-party struggle. In 1999 - an election year - the SACP managed only two editions of its 'quarterly', African Communist. Its more widely read newspaper Umsebenzi was not much better. This dearth was not due to any lack of funds - the SACP coughed up R1 million (£100,000) for the ANC's election funds. No, the SACP has a deliberate policy of minimising the frequency of its journals in order to reduce the risk of controversy that could tear it apart.

Think how a regular revolutionary paper which reported the ins and outs of SACP life, the contesting factions and differing views amongst the leadership would be welcomed by many. Not only would it provide a unique source of information, in sharp contrast to what the leadership is prepared to allow, but it could come to be regarded as the place where the future of what hundreds of thousands of workers regard as their party is debated. A whole section would become influenced by revolutionary politics.

What of comrade Mohamed's concern that such an intervention would "lend credibility" to the SACP leadership, if certain branches, or whole areas, started to take up unambiguous, pro-working class positions? That is hardly likely. Nzimande and his deputy general secretary, Jeremy Cronin, would, if they could, come down like a ton of bricks on the opposition. Workers would then be in a better position to see who really is on their side.

Such a strategy would not preclude the standing of socialist candidates at the polls. The working class needs an independent voice, including during elections. This policy would be complemented by the SACP left, which would energetically demand that the party itself stands, as part of its continuous campaigning for a break with bourgeois politics. An SACP forced to make the break because of the strength of its left wing would be a very different organisation from one where the current leadership has effected an orderly departure from the ANC-led alliance.

The WIVL has, correctly, been contesting elections since 1994. Last year it could stand only in one province - the Western Cape - because of the outrageously prohibitive deposits required under electoral law. Parties presenting a national list must find R100,000 (£10,000), while R20,000 (£2,000) is demanded for provincial elections. Such sums would signify quite an obstacle for most of the left groups in Britain, but in South Africa, where a large part of the membership of socialist groups is poverty-stricken, it is regarded as impossible. The WIVL is therefore to be congratulated on standing. However, it recorded only 672 votes out of 1.6 million in the elections for the provincial parliament.

It was the only left group that stood anywhere. In 1994 the Workers Organisation for Socialist Action formed the backbone of the Workers List, which stood on a platform calling for a "mass workers' party". It is all very well making such a call in the abstract, but translating it into reality is quite another matter. Like the WIVL, Wosa has no serious orientation towards the SACP, from whose membership the bulk of any new mass organisation would have to come. Since then the Workers List grouping has faded from the scene and Wosa itself is much weaker, both numerically and organisationally.

No other left group gave the WIVL even critical support. The ISM called for a boycott of the elections, despite admitting it was "a wholly negative act" (Revolutionary Socialist March-April 1999). In fact a minority of the organisation, while backing the boycott nationally, was in favour of voting for the ANC in the Western Cape, so as to prevent the New National Party from retaining control of the provincial administration. This is the politics of the lesser evil, pure and unadulterated.

The situation was crying out for independent working class intervention, yet the ISM was not the only group to call for a boycott. The tiny Labour Left Collective, while rightly calling for Cosatu and the SACP to break their alliance with the ANC, like the rest of the left is content to make the purely abstract call for "an independent workers' party": "But, if by the time of the elections such a party failed to materialise, then we will campaign for a boycott of the elections, since no party will be able to take forward working class interests" (LLC Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC: the parting of the ways? Cape Town 1998, p21).

Late last year the ISM seemed to be changing its tune: "There is a strong argument to be made for a socialist electoral alliance," proclaimed Revolutionary Socialist (November-December 1999). It suggested a common minimum platform, including "taxing the rich, cancelling apartheid debt, nationalising the mines, banks and monopoly industries and giving 50 litres of water free to every person per day".

Like others I misunderstood this as a call for a joint list alongside the WIVL, Wosa, etc for this year's local elections. However, comrade Bell informed me that it was not directed at the left, but at the SACP itself. In his opinion there was nothing to be gained for revolutionary groups in standing independently - a view which betrays not only a lack of self-belief, but a failure to grasp the politics of the necessary, as opposed to what, at a given moment, seems possible.

As I have said, it is perfectly correct to call on the SACP both to break with Mbeki and to stand in elections. But the ISM comrades are labouring under an illusion if they believe that the present SACP leadership needs their help in drawing up a platform, should it decide that the time is right for an orderly break from the ANC. Nzimande, Cronin, etc are perfectly capable of thinking up their own programme to suit the changed circumstances, although they are astute politicians who know how to make small left groups feel important.

The ISM should not only draw up its platform, but act on it. It should open up negotiations on its contents with the WIVL and the rest of the left. A determined united challenge to the SACP tops, launched both internally and externally, would really make them sit up and take notice.