This article argues that active abstention is the only strategic and tactical approach to the 2009 South African elections which is consistent with revolutionary anti-capitalist politics. It was written for a forthcoming issue of Khanya: A Journal for Activists, which will present a range of different approaches that social movements may take in response to the 2009 elections. It has been aptly noted that, on the ground, in townships and poor communities across South Africa, people’s faith has been restored in the ‘new’ ANC, that their hope has been renewed that change can come through bourgeois parliaments and political parties, be it the ANC or Cope – or the DA, IFP, ID, UDM, ACDP or PAC. For some, the response to this is that we, the extra-Alliance left, must consolidate our forces and contest elections against these parties in order to provide an alternative to their rule. But where is the alternative in so doing?
Throughout our lives under capitalism, from the earliest age, we are disempowered; we are taught not to think or act for ourselves, not to empower ourselves. We are taught to rely and be dependent on our political and economic masters; if we have problems with crime in our communities, rather than practicing the tried and tested concept of popular justice, we are encouraged to go to the police; if we have a problem with a co-worker, rather than deal with it between ourselves, we are encouraged to go to our ‘superiors’, that they can resolve affairs on our behalf – perhaps resulting in disciplinary measures being meted out against us or our working class brother or sister; if we have complaints about service delivery we are told to appeal to our political masters. Never, but never are we encouraged to even attempt to resolve things for ourselves. For capitalism to work, for it to keep us exploited, oppressed and in subjugation, it must teach us not to believe in ourselves, neither as individuals nor as a class: the survival of capitalism depends on its breaking down of the collective self-confidence of the popular classes; on its making us dependent and unable or unwilling to think and act for ourselves. Capitalism survives by making the popular classes believe that we need it, that we rely on it for our survival; that without bosses and politicians we would not be able to survive. This is as true in the economic realm as in the political.
The revolutionary maxim is just the opposite. It is the nurturing of our confidence in ourselves as a class, in our ability to think and act for ourselves, as a class, to resolve our own problems and organise to meet our needs, desires and inclinations without relying on or delegating to leaders and masters. Anything that detracts from this task, that holds the popular classes back from attaining the necessary confidence to be able to overthrow capitalism is, at best, disingenuous; at worst, counter-revolutionary.
Hence, in calling for active abstention, we in the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) declare that voting, or registering, or spoiling the ballot, is not, from the point of view of the working class, active at all. It is acceptance of the bourgeois illusion of perpetual inactivity, of the need to trust in leaders. The activity of the working class is on the street, on the shop floor, in fighting for our immediate needs, and for our ultimate great need for freedom and communism. It is outside and against the institutions of capital, outside and against political parties, outside and against the state. This is the way to victory for the working class, as history has shown, from the fight for the eight-hour day to the fight against electricity cut-offs, from the Paris Commune to the Zapatistas, from the Russian Revolution to the Spanish. This is the experience of the social movements in South Africa today: the power of mass struggle, of direct action, of reconnections and house occupations.
This does not mean that we advise comrades never to vote in elections – any more than we advise them never to go to the cops. If you are under threat from some gang of thugs, and aren’t in a position to organise community justice, and the cops are able to help rather than make things worse as they so often do, go to the cops by all means. Similarly, for instance, if fascists or similar thugs threaten to take power, and there is some less dangerous alternative, and a vote for the less dangerous alternative offers some hope for stopping the fascists, it may be worth voting. But these are special cases, and no supporter of electoral politics in the current debate has made any argument that such a special case applies; rather, they maintain that voting is a usual and logical part of revolutionary struggle. This is what we deny. We say: the only possibly revolutionary response when it comes to elections is that which seeks to destroy any hopes that people might have in the established order and the institutions of bourgeois rule; to dispel the illusions that change can come through anything other than the popular mass movements of the exploited and oppressed; to encourage and extend the autonomous self-organisation of the popular classes, independent from the political parties which – no matter what their stripe – wish to impose their leadership on the movements and struggles of the poor and working poor.
As Dale McKinley has rightly noted, the “history of ‘socialist’ participation in national elections confirms the huge gap between intent and practical outcome” and, while the intentions of some of the less disingenuous proponents of an electoral front might be noble, it is, for anarchists, fundamentally incompatible with revolutionary politics. Contrary to dispelling the illusions so many people still hold in parliament and party politics, it nourishes them, reaffirms the false notion that the workers and poor have anything to gain from participating in the electoral circus and, worse than that, does so while parading itself as an alternative to party political rule.
Workers’ International Vanguard League (WIVL), indeed, takes what appears to be a more principled position, explicitly rejecting all hopes in parliament. It stands in contrast to the manifesto of the Socialist-Green Coalition (SGC), a bizarre mish-mash of proposals achievable and unachievable, of calls fitted to the immediate needs of the working class and vague proposals to reform the structure of governance, of support for grassroots democracy and reliance on the top-down structure of the state. WIVL’s election document, at least, rejects reformism and presents demands based on the needs of the class – mostly demands with which the ZACF could agree. But still they want to put up candidates in the election. Why? So they can “expose parliament”! Have they not read history? Do they not know how many socialist parties have gone into parliament to expose parliament, and ended up spouting the same kind of reformist twaddle as the SGC – or completely betraying the working class, joining the repressive structures of the state, reconciling with capital? 
In any case, WIVL does not explain why a revolutionary MP making noise should achieve any better results in exposing capital and the state than the daily struggles of workers, peasants and the poor, or our political discussions among ourselves. Their position rests on a dogmatic faith – a Leninist faith – that true understanding can come only on the top, from the leaders. They are far clearer in their ideas than most left electoralists, and can thus make a strong case that what they are doing is what Lenin would want. But we say – so much the worse for Lenin. It was precisely Lenin’s insistence on leadership from the top that doomed the Russian Revolution.
WIVL says: “The NGO’s want the struggle to be restricted around the fight for toilets.” If any NGO or anyone else wants such a restriction, we condemn this. But where is the restriction? Does WIVL scorn the fight for toilets? We believe that the fight for toilets, for houses, for water and electricity, for higher wages and shorter hours, for better working conditions, all the daily struggles of our class, is the beginning of the revolutionary struggle. It will advance not by the word of leaders, but by the experience and reflections of the class in struggle. Reliance on top-down leadership, on elections, on the state, will not assist this growth of struggle but undermine it.
John Appolis shows in detail how the Operation Khanyisa Movement – a name drawn from direct action but expropriated for elections! – has undermined the APF. We cannot believe that any dismissal of his argument can come from anything other than ignorance or opportunism. Comrade Appolis has made the case, and the results are there for all to see. He, and others, make it clear exactly why putting up candidates for parliament would be a disaster for the social movements. And it is certain that their alternative – a spoilt ballot campaign – would not be such a disaster, would not thus undermine and divide the movements, would leave far more space for continuing grassroots struggle. If the choice was simply between putting up candidates and spoiling ballots, the ZACF would say spoil ballots.
But in truth, we do not understand the spoilt ballot proposal. We believe it still embodies the very principle we are fighting against: the principle that elections are what matters, that participating in the processes of the state somehow advances the cause of the working class. While the threat of electoralism to the social movements discussed by Appolis and others is specific to the present time, the principle of the danger of elections is universal. In calling for active abstention, we highlight this principle, and combat the illusion of elections directly. In particular, we combat the illusion that the strength of our movements is to be measured by how many register, how many vote, how many spoil – how many play some part given to us in the game of the class enemy. We call for measuring our strength through the battles we fight and win on the ground, our ability to act in the streets, the gains we make in our daily life, the growth of our understanding.
The ZACF indulges in no fantasies that revolution is around the corner. We know that soviets cannot be wished into existence, nor can any other victories – and nor can ideological unity of the class. None of this can come from above; it must be won in hard struggles from below. We do not wait for the right moment to make some grand revolutionary move, but build revolutionary struggle and revolutionary ideas today, one brick at a time. We know full well that no boycott call while instantly revive the revolutionary insurrection of the 1980s. But neither will a spoilt ballot campaign, nor putting up candidates, nor anything else that is immediately within the power of our movements. Why then dismiss active abstention? Why pass up a chance to make revolutionary principles clear?
We cannot leap to revolution, nor can we conjure up ideological unity. But the social movements can step up and co-ordinate their existing grassroots struggles, and develop a public statement of the demands and the political positions we all have in common. These are small steps – but still real steps, directly rooted in struggle, in a way that “actions” or “statements” made at the ballot box are not. Proposals for these small steps are on the table in the social movements, and have the ZACF’s support.
Anyone with a bit of common sense and a vague idea of the social and political forces in South Africa will know that the electoral front stands absolutely no chance of gaining any amount of influence in parliament and that, between the ANC and Cope, it matters little who wins or loses, as they both represent the same capitalist class project. What is important for anarchists, then, is the building and strengthening of the extra-parliamentary social movements which, once they are strong enough, would, through mass struggle, be able to force the government of either party to concede, perhaps bit by bit, to our demands. In so doing the popular classes would become more confident in their ability to wrest more and more from the ruling class, each time thus pushing their demands further and further, to the point where we feel confident enough to launch a full-scale offensive against capitalism and the state.
The idea of turning away from the ballot box and taking our fight to the streets is nothing new in today’s South African social movements. Many of our movements have done so already, under such banners as “No land, no vote”. Concerns might be raised about slogans. But if they are raised collectively, they are worthy of support. For as long as capital and the state exist, there will always be those who lack land, or houses, or toilets, or healthcare, or a living wage. And those who are thus deprived will not win their needs by voting, but by struggle; not by putting up candidates to do their work for them, but by “militant mass struggle, organising, mobilising and educating on the ground”; not by passive casting of ballots, but by active abstention.
by Jonathan P
and James Pendlebury
Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front
- See WIVL’s election document here
- See “Don’t Vote, Organise”, anarchist pamphlet, here
- See e.g. “The Russian Revolution Destroyed”, anarchist pamphlet, here