’Old Left’ & Old Formulae (John Appolis)
Wednesday 7 December 2005 by Dale
The “old left” and old formulae: Dangers of calls for a mass workers party (John Appolis )
If there is a practice that is most common amongst those on the left of the political spectrum, it is the repetition of old formulae, regardless of context, history or recent experience. One formula that the “old left repeats constantly is that a of mass workers party. Seen, as the panacea to all the problems of the workers movement, the call for a workers party has become a signature tune for many socialist groups. Like those who write music for television soapies, those who make the call think that through continuous recital, their song for a mass workers party will catch on.
Recently, the Socialist Group (SG) distributed within the APF, a 4-page document where the organisation outlines its ideas on the mass workers party. Similar to calls for a workers party by groups like the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) and Keep Left, the SG paper is a repetition of old formulae, with no regard to history, context and working class experience.
2. What does SG say about the Mass Workers Party?
In its 4-page pamphlet SG outlines the group’s ideas on the Mass Workers Party (MWP). Hereunder is a summary of SG’s views on the MWP:
More and more workers and youth are posing questions about an alternative power and alternative government. Having built the ANC as a “mass party”, workers and youth no longer believe that the ANC represents alternative power. Many workers and youth do not view the SACP as an alternative. Conditions exist to build a movement towards such a MWP. A mass workers party cannot be proclaimed. It has to be built through struggles. To be a genuine MWP such an organisation will have to involve millions of workers. Every opportunity must be used to agitate for the formation of such an organisation. Although aware that COSATU’s leadership will not agree to the MWP call, SG supports “ the militant call for COSATU leadership to form such a workers party”.
3. Inconsistency and incoherence in SG’s position:
While the above summary of SG’s position may sound coherent, the document circulated within the APF is full of inconsistencies. Besides the paper being a repeat of old formulae, it is not clear what SG is really proposing. On one hand we are told the time of the MWP has arrived. On the other, the proposal is to form a “movement towards a MWP”. Any reading of SG’s paper will reveal that what is being called is preparation for the launch of a MWP. The reason why emphasis is on preparation is that the time for the establishment of a MWP is not ripe or the ingredients of such a launch are non-existent. Why then does SG talk about “the time of a MWP having arrived” when conditions for the party’s establishment do not exist?
A similar confusion is displayed when SG deals with COSATU. Despite open acknowledgement that COSATU’s leadership will not take the decision to form a MWP “without a struggle”, in its schema SG puts a lot of emphasis on what COSATU leadership must do. Activists are urged to “call on COSATU leadership to form a mass workers party”. What are the sources of this confusion and incoherence?
a) SG’s propagandism:
What can explain SG’s incoherent proposals is the organisation’s propagandistic politics. Propagandism is a type of politics where a tiny group believes that through calls, it can make the rest of the working class leap from where it is politically to the group’s “profound and more advanced” understanding of what the tasks are. Although conditions for a MWP are non-existent, SG believes that making the call now, would allow the masses to jump from where they are in terms of consciousness to where SG is. In a similar vein, the call on the COSATU leadership is not an indication that SG believes that the trade union federation will do so. The call on COSATU’s leadership is another ploy to pull along “politically backward workers” to SG’s “politically advanced political conclusions”.
Like all other forms of propagandism, there is something elitist about this type of politics. Instead of putting at the centre, the building and strengthening of existing defensive organisations of the working class such as the APF, SG is pre-occupied with taking the masses across river Jordan - where the task is to build a MWP.
There is nothing wrong in discussing the idea of MWP within the APF. In fact it is necessary to discuss with activists and militants how previously and on different occasions, the working class in conditions similar to those that APF members face resorted to the establishment of workers parties. These discussions will have to deal with successes and failure of mass workers parties to resolve political problems of the working class. This method is different from SG’s propagandism where the group has decided that the solution is a MWP and that what only remains is to bring along “uninformed masses” to the group’s political conclusions.
b) SG reads the present period incorrectly:
The second source of SG’s inconsistent positions stems from the organisation’s incorrect reading of the present political situation. It is my contention that SG’s political reading of the strength of the working class is not only way off the mark, but politically disarming. According to the group we have arrived at a point where questions of an alternative power are on the agenda. On what basis does SG reach this conclusion? What evidence is there to substantiate such an assertion?
Surely, SG does not equate removal of councillor X for councillor Y as the posing of alternative power. Surely, SG does not see the pro-Zuma mobilisation as a sign that we have arrived at the point where question of power are on the agenda. Working class power resides primarily on its mobilised strength. Working class power also lies on the class’ vision of itself as alternative rulers. This is how workers and youth arrived in the 1980s to the question of alternative power. Working class organisations such as unions, civics, women’s groups and youth organisations were strong in that period. In addition to building its mass organisations, the proletariat had also forged organs of self-rule like street committees and people’s courts. This class, organised in its mass organisations and active in embryonic organs of self-rule, did not only rally other oppressed strata, it struggled on the basis of a different political programme. The working class movement in the 1980s knew that it wanted socialism as an alternative economic system.
The SG sometimes treats the period that we are going through as marking “the arrival of the working class to questions of alternative power”. While important, the struggles that have erupted in the last few years have not as yet begun to pose questions of alternative power. Firstly, the movements that have emerged remain isolated both in terms of being localised and in their inability to win over to their banners other oppressed layers. Although in some townships pitch battles have been fought in the last few years, ideas of self-rule and self-government have not emerged. Secondly, there exist no discernible alternative political vision and framework that the emerging movements and activists share. Thirdly, the working class and its new movements have not won recognition among lower sections of the middle class, rural poor and other township dwellers as representatives of alternative pole of power. Questions of alternative power arise in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary periods. Presently, we are far from both. We are neither in pre-revolutionary nor revolutionary situations.
SG’s insistence that questions of power are on the agenda is not only an incorrect reading of the balance of class forces presently, it is also a refusal accept that today’s struggles are of a defensive nature.
c) Propagandism and adventurism - two sides of the same coin:
SG’s incorrect reading of the political situation is not leading the group only to propagandism but also to adventurism. Not long ago, SG were proponents of the idea of people’s assemblies. The group counter-posed its notion of people’s assemblies to the local state and to local authorities. SG’s slogan for the coming local government election was “shoot the councillor”.
Clearly, such positions directly flow out of a belief that what we have now are conditions for the posing of questions of alternative power. Such are the consequences of SG’s adventurism. No activists believed that in the context of coming local government elections as well as the state of class struggle, one could counter-pose people’s assemblies to the local state. Only SG could do this because of their exaggeration of current struggles.
d) SG has no conception of power:
Another weakness of SG’s position is that the group has no conception of political power. Although SG’s document talks about having arrived, at a point where questions of “power and alternative government are asked”, nowhere in its pamphlet does SG say what it understands as power. Nowhere does the group define what the sources of working class power, are.
As stated above the power of the working class lies in its mobilised strength, its unity in action and in its clarity of political perspective. The fact that all these sources of power are accumulated in the context of class struggle, working class power lies in its ability to resist, disrupt, block and replace plans of its class enemy, the bourgeoisie. When SG talks about “having arrived at point where questions of alternative power are posed”, such an analysis needs to be questioned as it nothing else but mere exaggeration.
After a period of illusions about the new government, sections of the working class are waking up. They are beginning to resist and disrupt ruling class plans. This is an important part of any re-wakening and the building working class power. But as socialists we need to be honest and recognise that much effort and struggle is required before we can say that proletariat has begun to replace the ruling class plans with its own.
e) How SG comrades substitute what is imagined for actual class struggle?
Besides of having no conception of power, SG comrades have a tendency to substitute what is imagined for what actually takes place in class struggle. In the section on “how to build the movement to form a workers party” in their paper, SG comrades state that they “support the militant call for the COSATU leadership to form a Mass Workers Party”. The question that then arises: who has made the militant call that SG is supporting.
In the last twelve years no mass organisation has made the call for a MWP. The last time such a call emerged was in 1993, when the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) called on COSATU to consider the formation of a workers party. Since that time no union, civic body, sector or mass formation has called for MWP? So, who is SG then supporting?
A little probe by SG on why what was once a popular call for a MWP has disappeared from struggle’s vocabulary, could reveal how in the last 20-years, the working class has been weakened. Because of a refusal to acknowledge these weaknesses, the SG comrades confuse the call that still resonates in their imagination with what is actually happening within the mass movement.
f) A MWP or a movement towards a MWP?
When one reads SG’s document, two interpretations come out. On one hand there is a strong sense that conditions for a MWP are not ripe which is why what must be built is a “movement for a Mass Workers Party”. On the other side one gets a tone of desperation couched in the talk of the “time of an alternative power and government having arrived”. What is it that SG is calling for? Are we called upon to build a MWP or a movement for MWP?
Sadly, it does not look as if SG knows. Nothing demonstrates this confusion like SG’s instrumental role in the formation of Khanyisa Free Service Movement to contest the coming local government elections. Is Khanyisa Free Service Movement, a MWP or a movement for MWP? In its document, SG raises a list of questions about “independent” candidates in the coming local government elections. SG states that “whatever happens there will be independents” and that “the movement for a MWP will have to relate to and grow out of the developments”. Instead of relating to “independents”, SG has spearheaded the formation of Khanyisa Free Service Movement that will contest elections on proportional representation (PR) system.
4. How SG does not stop surprising activists?
In its short history SG has shown to be an organisation that swings from one position to the other. In the run-up to 2004 national elections, SG began its campaign as vociferous proponents of a position that argued for APF’s participation in the elections. Somewhere before the elections, the organisation made 360-degree turn and called for the APF not to put up candidates. As indicated above, in the last few months, SG has made another u-turn. Having started with calls for peoples assemblies and mouthing slogans such as “shoot the councillor”, has now spearheaded the formation of Operation Khanyisa Free Service Movement. This was done before a clear answer to all the questions that SG raises in their paper - the need for a clear political programme on whose basis a MWP or movement for a MWP will be launched.
There is nothing wrong in an organisation changing its position. In fact revolutionary organisations such as the Bolsheviks are known not only for their firmness on principled matters, but their flexibility on tactical questions. What is puzzling with SG, is that the organisation does not indicate when it is about to turn and never explains its twists. This is nothing else but political zigzagging.
The formation of Operation Khanyisa Free Service Movement is nothing else but SG’s attempt to short-circuit its plan for a MWP. The way that the group went about this the formation of Khanyisa Free Service Movement, is also problematic. While the APF was still discussing its approach to the coming local government election, SG was rushing ahead with its pre-conceived ideas. This they did before answering all the questions of platform and political programme that they pose in their document.
5. How SG’s call for a MWP disarms militants and activists?
When one reads the SG document, one cannot stop himself/herself from concluding that militants, activists and members of emerging social movements are nothing else but spectators in SG’s “action plan towards the MWP”. Why are we saying this?
The main tasks of building the MWP or the movement for it, are primarily defined for a COSATU and SACP milieu. The first task is directed at the COSATU leadership. They must form the MWP? The second one is to build minorities inside COSATU. Only those in COSATU can effectively do this be. SG appeals to SACP militants to take the same steps.
Where do social movements and their members fit in all of this. According to SG, they fit in with the third task - use of community struggles to build a movement for a MWP. How these struggles are to do this is left vague and undefined. This is understandable given the fact that the actual battalions for the struggle for the MWP are in COSATU and SACP.
6. SG’s total disregard of working class history and experience:
But a more serious problem in SG’s call is its failure to look at the experiences of the workers and socialist movement over the last 100 years. The question of workers political parties has been an important weapon in the arsenal of the workers and socialist movement. Since the 1800s, the working class formed parties for political representation of the proletariat. Unions in Europe and countries like Australia were important in the formation of labour and other mass social-democratic parties.
Lenin’s intervention through his pamphlet What is to be done, raised the question of a workers party not only for political representation but also as instrument for coordination of workers’ struggles. He also saw the vanguard party as vital for two other reasons. Firstly, Lenin saw a vanguard party as important for synthesising of workers’ experiences- i.e. theorisation of struggles. Secondly, he saw it as repository of the class’ historical memory. For Lenin, the party was important for ensuring political continuity as one generation passes proletarian experiences to another. Many communist parties were formed in the 1920s to fulfill these three tasks.
It is common cause that despite the existence of mass communist parties, many of revolutions of the 20th degenerated. In fact many mass parties contributed to degeneration of many revolutions. One of the pronounced lessons of the 20th century is how possible and easy it was for revolutions to degenerate when all the three historical tasks outline above (coordination of struggle, theorization and ensuring historical memory and continuity) were concentrated in one working class organ. The concentration of all the tasks in the political party was tragic. It meant that with the degeneration of the party, there were no other working class organs and institutions to act as counterweight to the retreat. As revolutionaries we should learn from these experiences of failed revolutions and the contribution of parties to such failures. Location of the three revolutionary tasks in multiple institutions of the working class may be a necessary, even if not watertight, garantour against degeneration of revolutionary experiments and working class parties.
The second count in which SG’s short history of the working class movement fails them relates to numerous revolutions and breakthroughs that took place in the 20th century without mass workers party. Here we refer to Cuba, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique and many other revolutions in the African continent. Even the Bolivar revolutionary process that is taking place in Venezuela presently, is not happening under the guidance of a MWP. One wonders how SG can talk about how workers built the ANC as a “mass party” in the 1980s, but exclude a priori such a possibility for the APF or any other movement or front that may emerge in the future.
7) SG’s call takes away militants from the immediate task of building defensive organisations of the working class:
But it is not just only working class history and experience that SG comrades are short on. Their call for a MWP takes militants away from building existing organisations like the APF. When asked in previous workshops what a MWP will do which a “socialist APF” cannot do, SG could not explain. For them the division of labour works like this: worker parties are for the fight for socialism while mass organisations like the APF and trade unions are for defensive struggles. This is an obsolete schema. Leon Trostsky wrote in the 1930s about how in the period of imperialist decay, to fulfill their ameliorative tasks mass organisations that were established for reforms have to take a revolutionary approach to their tasks.
What this means is that the divide between reforms and revolution, between party and mass organisations is blurred. Mass organisations to deliver on their members’ basic needs and demands, need to be socialist and revolutionary in their methods. SG’s obsession with MWP separates and compartmentalises the working class and its organisations. It also takes away activists from the day’s pressing tasks to build defensive organisations.
8. Confusing form and substance:
One of the basic tenets of Marxism is for us to distinguish form from substance. This is what SG and its call for a MWP misses. The MWP is the organisational form that the working class fashioned to carry out three of historical tasks - coordination of struggle, synthesis of its experiences and provision of historical continuity and memory. The working class also saw in the party form, the embodiment of its political independence.
The party was therefore the organisational form and the substance was the tasks outline above. There is nothing that says that these tasks cannot be fulfilled outside the organisational form of the party. Throughout this paper, we have shown how in certain countries and circumstances other formations and fronts executed the historical tasks associated with the party form.
9. The key task of the period - build the defensive organisations of the working class into revolutionary organs:
No revolutionary will disagree that the three tasks historically associated with the party form are still relevant today. Recent experiences in South Africa show that questions of working class independence, coordination of struggle, drawing of lessons, theorisation of working class struggles and the passing of these experiences from one generation to the other, are pertinent. It is the tasks of all revolutionaries to ensure that that these tasks are executed. Where such an execution of the tasks takes place is something that cannot be determined through old schema as SG does. Whether this will be in a party form or in a front or any other combination of working class institution cannot also be predetermined. The task at hand is to see that all three historical tasks are executed.
Mass organisations like the APF and COSATU in its heydays have shown that this is possible. Always being on the search for ways of linking up struggles is key. Drawing lessons from our struggles is a beginning of theorization. Political and Marxist education needs to be intensified. Passing the experience of previous struggles to new layers is what we need to do all the time. If we do all of this we will be building existing defensive organisations of the working class into revolutionary organs. This is possible and cannot wait for a MWP.