The “Democratic Left”: A Small Step Towards United Working Class Struggle

Statement by the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF)

CDL logo

From 20 to 23 January 2011, working class and revolutionary militants from throughout South Africa, including a ZACF delegation, gathered in Johannesburg for the Conference of the Democratic Left (CDL). The gathering ended in the launch of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) as a loose alliance of organisations and individuals in struggle.

Plans for the CDL began in 2008, and over the years the ZACF has been cautiously involved in these discussions. We have had, and continue to have, reservations about the goals of many of the comrades involved in this process. At the same time, we can only welcome and support a project that is clearly deepening solidarity in struggle among some of the region’s most militant working class organisations (including both unions and community-based social movements). (See Declaration of the DLF).

In explaining our relationship to the DLF, we will here summarise our reservations, while explaining why they are outweighed by the genuine achievements of the CDL. The reservations cover three main areas: attitudes towards the state and elections; leadership structures; and the DLF programme and demands. (We are also less than enthusiastic about some new terms that have become popular in the CDL and DLF, such as “eco-socialism../”; but this is largely a matter of language, which we will not discuss in detail here.)

To vote or not to vote?

The CDL has emphasised the need to expand existing working class struggles while building solidarity among them; in particular, direct action in the form of occupations of land, and of the Mine-Line factory, has been enthusiastically welcomed and recognised as an excellent example for the future. But another challenge will complicate the growth of a class struggle programme: the perennial debate on state elections. The illusion remains widespread in working class movements that the struggle will somehow be advanced by putting up candidates, by electing councillors and MPs, by building political parties. For many years the ZACF has argued against this illusion in the community movements with which we have worked most closely, notably the Anti-Privatisation Forum and the Landless People’s Movement. (see e.g. Passive voting or active boycott) We have continued to raise these arguments at the CDL. But the illusion is deeply ingrained; and while it is being increasingly challenged, it may take some hard lessons before the working class is ready to make a decisive break.

The lessons, indeed, are there to be learnt. Not only has large-scale working class participation in elections inevitably led to disaster throughout history, but small-scale attempts by community movements in recent years have produced pitiful gains at the expense of serious losses. Even some comrades who have no principled objection to putting up candidates agree that this tactic tends to undermine South African working class movements in their present position of weakness. And although even this lesson is not yet generally understood, at least the CDL has come to the realisation that it would be foolish for this new alliance to put up its own candidates at present.

At the same time, the ZACF can stand with the DLF in recognising that some of the movements that have joined this front will wish to put up candidates in the 2011 local elections, and probably again in future. We think such moves are always a mistake at best, but we are in no position to forbid them; and even if we could, on our own initiative, such a ban would be the kind of top-down politics we abhor. Working class movements must be free to make their own mistakes; let DLF affiliates put up candidates if they so wish.

Even so, it is unfortunate that the CDL resolved to endorse such candidates if they met certain conditions. We take the view that no conditions can evade the perils of accepting and joining in the structure of the state. But although we reject this decision, we consider it a minor error. At least the DLF will not make the disastrous mistake of pouring its limited resources into futile election campaigns: each affiliate will make that decision for itself. We are always ready to argue against any particular proposal to stand in elections or endorse candidates. And we as anarchists will not endorse, campaign for or otherwise contribute to any such candidate: we must stick to our principles no matter what the DLF may do. But for the present, the DLF has wisely rejected any focus on elections. No doubt some comrades will continue to propose such a focus in future – and we will firmly oppose them. But today, there is no immediate threat of electoral politics undermining the DLF project of united class struggle.

Who leads the struggle?

This commitment to grass-roots struggle stands in welcome contrast to the CDL’s origins. The process of holding the conference was initiated and long driven by middle-class left intellectuals associated with universities and NGOs, many of them coming from a Marxist background. Now, the ZACF cannot object to the involvement of middle-class intellectuals in struggle: after all, many of our members are just such intellectuals. But we firmly believe that unity-in-struggle can only come from below, from those actually fighting for their immediate needs. A project of unity led exclusively by intellectuals at a distance from the grass-roots would lead nowhere.

In this light, it is somewhat unfortunate that the CDL resolved to maintain the same national co-ordinating structure that had initiated the conference. It would have been better for carrying the struggle forward if the conference had accepted a proposal that the co-ordinating structure be driven by grass-roots mass movements. Even so, we cannot conclude that the national co-ordinators are standing in the way of the masses, since the mass movements did not make alternative nominations to the committee. If the DLF programme is at all successful, we are confident that the leadership of mass movements will be fully established over time. And there is some promise that it will be successful – not least because the conference resolved that the DLF is now to be driven not by the national committee but by local movements. For the foreseeable future, provincial structures will set the DLF’s direction, and these provincial structures will be driven by militants engaged in practical class struggles; they will also have the power to recall and replace members of the national committee. In this way, we can hope that the DLF will truly come to be directed not from above but from below, as it should be.

On programmes and demands

A key challenge for a mass working class movement in struggle from below is to formulate its demands and programme of action. Such a movement should aim to formulate demands that serve the immediate needs of the class, and that can be won through direct action – preferably some that can be won quickly. A truly strong movement may aim for a longer-term programme, proceeding from demand to demand, from victory to victory, until it is strong enough to completely defeat the ruling class, to destroy capitalism and the state. As far as possible it should win demands by its own strength: when demands are addressed to the oppressors, they should not be appeals for mercy but forceful actions to compel the enemy to give us what we need. The working class has no need to advise capitalists and rulers on how to run their system, whether by making suggestions or by sitting in corporatist structures such as Nedlac. All our campaigns should be guided by our own class interests.

But it takes a great deal of experience, informed by clear ideas, to develop such a solid programme; and unfortunately, ideas in the DLF are not yet clear enough. The programme formulated by the CDL does not even clearly distinguish between demands addressed to the class enemy and internal initiatives of the movement, such as political education. While some demands (like the abolition of the bucket toilet system) are identified as “immediate../”, there is no sense of a general overall time frame for demands – and at current levels of ideas and of struggle, there probably couldn’t be. Worst of all, many in the DLF have illusions in the state, as reflected in persistent proposals for such demands as “nationalisation under worker control../” – a confused proposal that utterly fails to recognise that states are always ruling class structures, that state owners are exploiters every bit as much as private owners, that worker control and state control have nothing in common. (See “Taking back what’s yours: the Mine-Line occupation../”, forthcoming.)

The ZACF has played its small part in formulating the DLF’s demands, but without any illusion that the result would lack great weaknesses. We have argued against demands that rely on the state; we have pushed for internationalist positions that break down the barriers between nations, and between citizens and immigrants. If the programme announced by the CDL is weaker than we might hope, this reflects the general weakness of the class struggle in southern Africa – and is no ground for despair. In particular, the conference has recognised that demands will continue to be reformulated in and through struggle; and as with the overall DLF project, there are strong grounds to hope that this process will be driven from below. The lessons of struggle and political discussion can give the DLF far clearer direction than it has so far found, and we will continue to play our part in this engagement.

Forward to revolutionary unity of the popular classes!

The DLF is far from perfect. Much confusion and weakness remains in its analysis, its leadership structures, its programme in general and its approach to elections in particular. Any of these problems could undermine the organisation, turn it into yet another authoritarian dead end of struggle. But the focus on working class resistance from below offers hope. When Mine-Line workers stand alongside Hout Bay shack-dwellers to tell the story of their struggles and their occupations, and when militants from many provinces and many tendencies are inspired to unite in celebration of direct action, we can see hope for all who are exploited and excluded. If we the working class can unite behind these struggles, expand them, build our solidarity and unity and strategy and tactics; if we can advance together with both caution and enthusiastic militancy; if we can learn from our errors and guard against confusion – the DLF may yet be one small step towards our final victory in the class war.

For a front of the oppressed classes!
For class struggle and revolution from below!