We are living in a world that for most people is broken and that has broken most people. It is not a god given world, but one that has been constructed by those in power and that has left most people mired in deprivation. Under COVID-19, this world has sunk to new lows.
All is not lost though. There has historically been a section within the progressive movement – in different parts of the world and in South Africa – based around forms of radically democratic socialism that has not only tapped into the righteous anger of the working class, but has also sought to create a home and sense of belonging for people based on progressive values and principles such as mutual aid, solidarity and even love. If we want a better world, we need to revive the popularity of the types of politics, ethics, values, principles and practices that formed the essence – at their best – of such movements and update it for the context of the 21st century.
The question of state government elections and running a workers or socialist political party continues to be raised in the working-class movement and the Left globally. As we may know, there was excitement about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party in Britain, about the successes of left political parties in certain parts of Europe and Latin America and, more recently, certain shifts to more centrist positions in the United States amongst a section of the Democratic Party calling themselves “Democratic Socialists.” In South Africa, many workers and some activists seem cautiously optimistic about NUMSA’s formation of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party that participated in the 2019 general elections, but did not manage to get a seat in Parliament.
With this in mind, we need to look at issues of social transformation within the framework of what we want to achieve and the relationship between the means and ends of struggle in pursuit of these aims. The historic and ultimate socialist end is a society characterised by collective democratic control of the political and economic systems and one without class divisions and oppression of any kind – in real terms, a society without the state and capitalism in particular.
If this is so, is this revolutionary transformation possible by means of state power and political parties that aim to capture this form of power?
In examining the possibilities for politics within and at a distance from the state, it is important to revisit the democratic traditions of the working class, which are often learned through struggles and strikes – and which were exemplified by the new unions of the 1970s and 1980s. Not much of this alternative tradition of democracy outside the state has been captured in official histories, which present the attainment of democracy in terms of the formation of a parliamentary government in 1994.
There is a larger problem here of how the working-class heritage – the intellectual and organisational and political traditions of labour and the left – has been side-lined in media, textbooks, monuments and narratives; this also involves a narrowing of our political imagination, with our view of “democracy” itself narrowed dramatically. There has been a focus on elections and political parties and electoral politics. This reflects and reinforces a view that assumes a separation of the political – basically left to the state and the parties – and the economic – issues like wage negotiations are left to unions, and union involvement in politics is increasingly reduced to lobbying political parties.
A video went viral on social media platforms on October 3, outlining how the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigerian police force shot a young man, dumped him at the side of the road and stole his car. What followed was three weeks of protests by young people against such police brutality and the corruption that defines the state; initially via social media, #EndSARS, and later in towns and cities across Nigeria.
Needless to say, the protests continued and grew into the largest in the history of Nigeria. As the protests grew, the state changed tactics and responded to the escalation with outright violence. Part of this involved the state deploying thugs to attack protestors in order to try and intimidate people off the streets. When this failed to produce the state’s desired result, it deployed the military and implemented a curfew in a number of cities. By October 20, however, the protests had spread across Nigeria. Some of the assets of the Nigerian ruling class were also targeted during these protests and the largest and most lucrative toll road in country, Lekki, in Lagos, was blockaded. On that day the military attempted to brutally end the protests and shot dead 12 people at the Lekki tollgate.
Centred on the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and within it, key unions like the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the unions developed an ideological and strategic orientation described by scholars (e.g. Eddie Webster and Glenn Adler, 2000) as “radical reform” or “structural reform.” The thinking of the main unions in South Africa remains, to this day, profoundly shaped by the “radical reform” (RR) model.
The aim of this input is to examine the RR model, which was an attempt to build on the many key progressive gains won by workers and their organisations through struggle in the 1980s, and push through to a deeper transformation in the 1990s. This input defines the key components of RR, and then examines why this innovative response to the parliamentary transition and to capitalist globalisation was not successful. This requires looking at issues of neoliberal capitalist and state domination, the impact of RR on the unions, and the effects of the institutionalisation of trade union activity and dispute processes that have taken place. It raises deeper questions about the unions’ politics as well.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it often seems as if we are stuck in a dystopian movie. In this movie death is stalking us, hospitals overflow with the sick and dying, and the grave diggers are at work. We know more victims will soon die as the folly of millions of workers being forced by circumstances to return into cramped mines, banks, factories and warehouses is so evident. Those that are no longer needed by the billionaires who own the companies are marshalled daily by the police and military dishing out violence and on occasion, humiliation, to underline their power and the power of their bosses.
The trauma of it all has led many people to seek solace in fiction or conspiracy theories. It can be morbidly comforting to believe in fantasy in times of strife. We, however, fall into such fantasies at our own peril. When we try and deny reality and escape from it – even if we are traumatised – we are left powerless. We miss that all of this has to do with the workings and power relations that define our everyday lives – the very workings and power relations of capitalism and state systems.
The ongoing capitalist crisis, and the impacts of COVID19, have made it clear that the capitalist and state system we live under is neither efficient nor just. Inequality has hit record levels and a small elite has more wealth than ever, while the very basics – such as a decent healthcare, water, housing, sanitation, food and electricity – cannot be effectively financed, run nor delivered. Politicians in every state abuse their power too and corruption is rife, only its severity varies. Parliamentary democracy is largely hollow with a majority of people having no real political power. The oppression of women and people of colour continues unabated and imperialism deepens everyday. Due to the ever-expanding nature of capitalism the ecology is on the verge of collapse. It is clear a movement for change and an alternative to capitalism and the state system is needed.
The rise of an authoritarian populist politics, which presents itself as against the “Establishment,”” for the “common” people and “anti-globalisation,” is happening worldwide — and there are dangerous signs in South Africa. The populist upsurge sees voters reject big, established parties that embraced neo-liberalism after the economic crisis of 2007, in the context of a retreating working class and left. The author argues that the solution is to build from below for a new society beyond the state, class rule and capitalism based on self-management and production for need. Continue reading “What is authoritarian populism and why should it be combated?”→
The crisis of the statist politics that dominated working-class politics — social democracy, Marxism-Leninism, and anti-imperialist nationalism — and the rise of neoliberalism, has aided the rediscovery of society-centred, anti-capitalist forms of bottom-up change “at a distance” from the state.
This article critically assess the three main modes of “at a distance” politics: “outside-but-with” the state, which combines using the state with popular movements; “outside-and-despite” the state, aiming at disintegrating the system by building alternatives in its cracks; and “outside-and-against” the state, associated with anarchism/ syndicalism, rejects the state for building autonomous working class counter-power that can resist, then defeat, state and capital. While each mode has limits, the anarchist/ syndicalist approach is arguably the most convincing, and its implications are serious. And it directs militants to work within the mass movements of the popular classes.
The history of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU), formed in South Africa in 1919, is replete with lessons for today’s movements. The ICU, which also spread into neighbouring colonies like Basutoland (now Lesotho), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Southwest Africa (now Namibia) was by far the largest protest movement and organisation of black African and Coloured people of its time. Influenced by a range of ideas, including revolutionary syndicalism, the ICU had both amazing strengths and spectacular failings. This piece explains.