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?
Let us learn from our past struggles, in the USA and in Malaysia. May Day should be an occasion to reflect not jubilate, to engage not agonize, to demand not relent, and to organise, not complain. We need systemic change that can guarantee equality, fraternity, self-management and socialisation of the commonwealth, guided by a bottom–up approach to decision making. We need a labour movement that is multicultural and international, feminist, active in urban and rural struggles, and that prizes reason over superstition, justice over hierarchy, self-management over state power, international solidarity over nationalism. We need to fight for a universal human community, not parochialism and separatism. The organisational power and strategic location of the Malaysian union movement provides an excellent point of departure for building this counter-movement. This is our appeal and message as we celebrate this May Day, on the eve of dark days in which the storm clouds gather over humanity – but in which the light of hope of a better future can break through, if we arm ourselves with the correct ideas and approaches. May Day began as an example of globalisation-from-below. Let us rally to it. Let us take back its original vision: liberty, equality, unity.
South African unions are large but fragmented, substantial but politically weak. They represent different political traditions and all are marked by serious organisational problems. They have little impact on the official public sphere. The unions need to work towards realizing a stateless, classless, self-managed society without hierarchy, based on political pluralism and freedom.
Trade unions have played a major role in defending workers’ rights against the bosses and politicians, also in advancing workers’ interests. This is why, even today, workers are still loyal to their unions. However, there are obstacles within the unions – one being the union bureaucracy, of paid and full-time officials. This can develop its own interests, undermining the unions.
This is a challenge faced by many unions. This bureaucracy is at times unable to represent workers’ grievances effectively: they often spend more time fighting amongst themselves for certain positions within the union instead of for workers’ rights. Due to this bureaucracy, which is structured hierarchically, higher positions hold more power, including in terms of decision-making. Those in leadership are often full-time and recieve much higher salaries than those of the workers they represent. This means they often want to prevent union actions that threaten their own positions, like long strikes.
The ideas of anarchism have often been misunderstood, or sidelined. A proliferation of studies, such as Knowles’ Political Economy from Below, Peirats’ Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, and others, have aimed to address this problem – and also to show that anarchism can never be limited to an ideology merely to keep professors and students busy in debating societies.
Anarchists have been labeled “utopians” or regarded as catalysts of chaos and violence, as at the protests in Seattle, 1999, against the World Trade Organization. However, anarchism has a constructive core and an important history as a mass movement – including in its syndicalist (trade union) form. It rejects the authoritarianism and totalitarianism often associated with Marxist regimes, and seeks to present a living alternative to classical Marxism, social democracy and the current neo-liberal hegemonic order. It rejects both the versions of Marxism that have justified massive repression, and the more cautious versions, like that of Desai in his book Marx’s Revenge, which claim that a prolonged capitalist stage – with all its horrors – remains essential before socialism can be attempted. It rejects the ideas that exploitation and oppression are “historical necessities” for historical progress.