Contribution of the South African Communist Party (SACP) at the 19th International Meeting of Communist and Workers' Parties, held in Leningrad (St.Peterburg), 2-4 November 2017.
The dramatic events unfolding in Russia in late 1917 were eagerly followed, as best as they could, by a small group of radical socialists in the far south of the African continent. On 16 November 1917, less than two weeks after the beginning of the Bolshevik revolution, their weekly newspaper, The International, published an editorial titled, “The Great Events in Russia”:
“The cable news regarding the revolution in Russia is so confusing and every day so contradictory that it is hopeless attempting to build on them”, the editorial noted. Nonetheless, sensing something important was happening, it observed accurately that the “Maximalist [Bolshevik] wing of the Social Democratic Party has been gaining strength since the political revolution.” The editorial ended on a cautionary note, “should the Social Democrats fail, we can expect the most bloody massacre of the working men of Petrograd that history has ever recorded. Long live the Social Revolution, the light of the East.”
A few months later, in March 1918, with the imperialist-directed counter-revolution unleashed in Russia, The International called on the South African working class to show solidarity with their Russian comrades: “Workers of South Africa! Arouse from your submissiveness and lethargy, and show that you see through this foul conspiracy of International Capital against the Russian workmen. The cause of the Russian workmen is your cause. Workers of the world UNITE. You have a world to win.” The references to South African working class “submissiveness” and “lethargy” suggest that The International collective felt somewhat isolated in South Africa in their enthusiasm and concern for the events unfolding in Russia.
The International was the organ of the International Socialist League (ISL) which, like other splits in the socialist movement at the time, had broken away in 1915 from the South African Labour Party. The break was in principled opposition to the South African Labour Party’s support for the newly formed Union of South Africa government’s participation in the inter-imperialist First World War. The ISL was the nucleus of what, in 1921, was to become, the Communist Party of South Africa, affiliated to the Communist International.
Radical socialist traditions were brought into South Africa by white workers and professionals drawn largely to the country by the mining industry which experienced a massive boom in the late 19th century and then, again, following the end of the Anglo-Boer War at the turn of the century, and the establishment of the Union of South Africa as a British Dominion in 1910. Another early radical socialist influence was from Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms in Tsarist Russia and Eastern Europe. This latter group had ties with protagonists involved in the revolutionary events unfolding in faraway Eastern Europe.
By late 1918 the ISL collective began to feel greater optimism about the Russian revolution. The collective published a pamphlet titled “The Bolsheviks are Coming”, in English as well as in isiZulu and seSotho, and addressing itself: “TO THE WORKERS OF SOUTH AFRICA – BLACK AS WELL AS WHITE”. “The hope of the workers is coming from Bolshevism. The free commonwealth of labour is an actual fact in Russia today”, the pamphlet proclaimed.
“Bolshevism means the victory of the wage-earners. It will soon spread to Britain, France, America and throughout the world. Get Ready for the World-wide Republic of Labour.”
Clearly, the ISL collective at the time shared the same belief as the Bolsheviks that the October Revolution was a catalyst in a semi-peripheral society that would soon ignite socialist revolutions in the more developed capitalist societies of the West. The strategic calculation was that the westward spread of the revolution (and, presumably, only the westward spread), would create the conditions both for the defence and consolidation of socialism in Russia, and for a future world revolution.
Yet, as we know, a different trajectory was to emerge out of the October Revolution. It was a trajectory with significant implications for the socialist struggle in South Africa and, indeed, through much of the world.
The October Revolution and the critical strategic role of Lenin
Compared to all other preceding social revolutions, both the timing and character of the October 1917 Russian Revolution was informed by a strategic programmatic theory. As Prabhat Patnaik has recently written, the Bolshevik Revolution was not a coup, but nor was it an unplanned and purely spontaneous event. Unlike the Paris Commune, or the February 1917 Russian uprising, the October Revolution was guided and led by a programmatic strategy, based on a Marxist analysis of the concrete reality. Lenin’s strategic and organisational role in this regard was absolutely central.
At the heart of Lenin’s contribution was his appreciation of the thoroughly dialectical nature of capitalism’s combined and uneven development. Lenin developed several inter-related core organising concepts that were critical for the October Revolution. In the first place, in his polemical engagement with the New Iskra tradition, Lenin argued that in societies coming late to capitalism, the national bourgeoisie was not capable of abolishing the yoke of feudalism and of completing the bourgeois revolution. This leadership task fell to the working class in alliance with the peasantry, and, accordingly, the strategic agenda became a proletarian-led, uninterrupted advance beyond capitalism towards socialism.
This strategic perspective grounded the necessity for a worker-peasant alliance against feudalism in the first phase of the struggle. It, in effect, broke with a mechanical and stage-ist, evolutionism. As Patnaik puts its neatly: “this shift in attitude…made Marxism, till then confined to Europe, a revolutionary doctrine of relevance to the entire world, no matter how limited the degree of its capitalist development had been.”
The second and related insight was Lenin’s analysis of imperialism. In this he differed both with the reformist evolutionism of a Kautsky, who had argued that the imperialist stage of monopoly capital constituted a short and relatively painless stepping stone to socialism, and the more radical argument advanced by Rosa Luxemburg that the crises of imperialism, exemplified by the inter-imperialist First World War, signalled the imminent global collapse of capitalism requiring more or less spontaneous mass strikes to bring it down.
For Lenin, imperialism for all of its chronic instability, was not necessarily on the verge of systemic collapse. Rather, its crises and its uneven development created weak links within its global chain. In 1917, Tsarist Russia, staggering under a multiplicity of contradictions, was the “weakest link” and an active revolutionary advance there would set off a chain reaction across the system – with expectations particularly vested in countries like Germany, with a large working class and a mass socialist party.
The October Revolution turns eastward
The expectation shared by the Bolsheviks and their distant supporters in South Africa that the Russian Revolution would quickly herald successful socialist revolutions in the more developed West was not to be fulfilled. As Lenin and the Bolsheviks were to increasingly appreciate in the aftermath of the October 1917 revolution, there was at least one more national democratic task (historically associated with the emerging bourgeoisie in Europe) that, in the age of imperialism, would now require working class, socialist leadership if it were to be carried through with any degree of effectiveness– the resolution of the “national question” in colonial and semi-colonial societies.
While the Bolsheviks, and Lenin in particular, had, in advance of October 1917, correctly appreciated the imperative of working class leadership in alliance with the peasantry in the first phase of advancing a socialist revolution in the conditions of Russian society, there was initially less clarity about the revolutionary potential of national liberation struggles.
It was at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, that the issue received closer consideration. Lenin and the Indian communist, MN Roy, played leading roles in the “Commission on the National and the Colonial Question”. In his report back to the Congress on the commission’s work, Lenin wrote:
“We have discussed whether it would be right or wrong, in principle and in theory, to state that the Communist International and the Communist parties must support the bourgeois-democratic movement in backward countries. As a result of our discussion, we have arrived at the unanimous decision to speak of the national-revolutionary movement rather than of the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ movement.”
We can see here the origins of the communist strategy of supporting revolutionary national democratic struggles in colonial and semi-colonial conditions. As Lenin goes on to explain, the idea of a “national-revolutionary movement” was advanced to distinguish between two diverging tendencies within national liberation struggles – the one national-revolutionary, the other a “bourgeois-democratic” reformist tendency: “if we speak of the bourgeois-democratic movement, we shall be obliterating all distinctions between the reformist and the revolutionary movements. Yet that distinction has been very clearly revealed of late in the backward and colonial countries…”
The Comintern urged Communist Parties in countries like India, Persia and China to work closely with, and to help radicalise, the “national revolutionary” tendency in the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist national struggles. This line of march had the additional strategic value in that it struck at the colonial under-belly of the major colonial powers then actively engaged in counter-revolutionary occupation and destabilisation of the Soviet Union.
The National Question in South Africa
The possibilities in this important strategic re-alignment were not immediately apparent to the radical socialist movement in South Africa. A December 1917 statement published in The International is fairly typical of both the progressive outlook and limitations of the ISL and of its successor, the CPSA, in the immediate years after the latter’s launch in 1921.
In calling for the abolition of various discriminatory measures directed against black workers (including pass laws, the mine-compound system and the denial of basic civil and political rights) the ISL statement declared that:
“Society is divided into two classes: the working class, doing all the labour; and the idle class, living on the fruits of labour. Strictly speaking therefore there is no ‘Native Problem’. There is only a working class problem.”
For the ISL and the early CPSA the strategic line of march was one of class against class. In the South African reality, this strategic posture was accompanied by largely futile attempts to persuade the bulk of white workers that their racial prejudice against black workers was self-defeating.
Matters came to a head in the 1922 Rand Revolt which was inspired in part by the Bolshevik Revolution. White workers on the Rand launched an armed insurrectionary struggle against monopoly capital, and particularly against the Chamber of Mines. The immediate catalyst for the uprising was the imperialist-aligned mining bosses’ attempt to employ black workers, at lower wages of course, in semi-skilled and artisanal mining jobs previously the exclusive preserve of white workers.
Many of the white workers were newly proletarianised Afrikaners, forced from the land by the scorched earth policies of British imperialism in the course of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1901). These workers brought to the Rand Revolt traditions of militant struggle, forming themselves into armed commandoes. The 1922 Rand Revolt was simultaneously a militant working class struggle against profit-maximising, imperialist-controlled monopoly capital and a racist struggle to preserve white privilege. It was a contradiction captured in one of the prominent banners displayed by the strikers: “Workers of the World Unite, For a White South Africa!”
The CPSA has sometimes been unfairly criticised as the author of the slogan. It was not. In fact, the Party tried valiantly to halt the white worker violence meted out against black workers who were seen as strike-breaking scabs. This white worker insurrectionary struggle was eventually crushed by the Smuts government but not without bloody clashes including the use of the air-force to bomb workers entrenched in positions around Johannesburg. While the insurrection was defeated and white workers lost the battle, they did not lose the war. In a whites-only electoral system, the Smuts government was ousted from office in general elections in 1924 and replaced by a Pact government, an alliance of the Afrikaner National Party and the Labour Party. Among its key platforms was the further entrenchment of white Job Reservation and other related measures.
For the newly formed CPSA the Rand Revolt provided many salutary lessons. The Party now set about focusing more effectively on the recruitment of African workers and already by 1924 the overwhelming majority of its membership was black. This went hand-in-hand with communist-run night schools involving literacy and political training. The CPSA was beginning to learn in practice its own Leninist lessons. The majority of white workers were more obviously fully proletarianised, while the majority of black workers were often semi-proletarians, temporary migrant workers still retaining strong connections to their rural villages. However, this did not make the former necessarily more revolutionary than the latter. Lenin had argued against Bernstein that history does not necessarily progress from its apparently more advanced side. In our own conditions, South African communists were learning a similar lesson.
However, the CPSA had still not developed a clear strategic programme relevant to the actual situation in South Africa. The 1921 Lenin-Roy Second Comintern resolution on the potential of “national-revolutionary” movements in the colonies and semi-colonies does not at first seem to have had any resonance locally. Possibly its relevance was seen as applying to largely peasant-dominated societies with powerful remnants of feudalism like China, India and Persia at the time.
South Africa, by contrast, had undergone a dramatic, imperialist led, forced march into monopoly capitalism based on industrial mining from the last quarter of the 19th century. By the 1920s large swathes not just of South Africa, but much of the region had been transformed into impoverished labour reserves exporting male migrant labour into the mines. The struggle in South Africa appeared still to be one of class-against-class, notwithstanding the reactionary role of many white workers and their political parties.
It was the 6th Congress of the Communist International in 1928 that mandated the CPSA to pursue a national democratic struggle as a “stage” towards a “workers’ and peasant republic”. This mandate called for the recognition that mobilisation around the grievances and aspirations of the nationally oppressed majority of South Africans was the critical motive force in the struggle for socialism against a double colonial reality – the continued hegemony of British imperialist capital and emergent national monopoly capital buttressed by an “internal colonialism” (white minority rule).
While acknowledging that the 1910 Union of South Africa had accorded a degree of political independence to South Africa under white minority rule, the CI correctly argued that South Africa remained an essentially COLONIAL reality. This is how the Executive Committee of the CI in its Resolution on South Africa put it:
“South Africa is a British Dominion of the colonial type. The development of relations of capitalist production has led to British imperialism carrying out the economic exploitation of the country with the participation of the white bourgeoisie of South Africa (British and Boer). Of course, this does not alter the general colonial character of the economy of South Africa, since British capital continues to occupy the principal economic positions in the country (banks, mining and industry), and since the South African bourgeoisie is equally interested in the merciless exploitation of the negro population.”
The same CI resolution instructed South African communists to pay particular attention to the still small emergent black, nationalist formations, with the ANC specifically mentioned. This new strategic line was adopted by the CPSA in 1929.
As an affiliate of the Communist International, the CPSA was obliged to accept the Comintern Resolution. This it did, but not without varying degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance. For many, support for what were seen as small elite black formations like the ANC was felt to be a betrayal of the working class struggle, and a threat to inter-racial working class solidarity.
The CPSA had, however, already been working with the ANC. The Party was instrumental in arranging for the President-General of the ANC, Josiah Gumede, to attend the conference of the League Against Imperialism in Brussels in 1927. From there Gumede travelled on to the Soviet Union and visited its Asiatic regions, witnessing for himself that dark-skinned non-Europeans enjoyed full citizenship rights. On his return to South Africa, Gumede proclaimed that he had seen “the new Jerusalem”. However, his growing closeness to the Communists in South Africa did not endear him to many in the leadership of the ANC, particularly traditional leaders in the ANC’s “upper house”, who argued that the Bolsheviks had killed the Tsar in Russia and that was the fate that awaited them here in South Africa if the Communists were to come to power. Gumede was ousted from the leadership of the ANC in 1930.
Notwithstanding these and other contradictory dynamics, over the following decades and down to the present, the Communist Party in South Africa has had an alliance with the ANC, a relatively unique alliance with overlapping memberships and important symbiotic influences. While Gumede was ousted from the ANC leadership for his close ties with the Communist Party, in subsequent decades many of the outstanding leaders of the ANC were also Communist Party members, among them Moses Kotane, JB Marks, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and Chris Hani.
This revolutionary symbiotic relationship owes much to the Great October Revolution and its direct product – the Soviet Union. In South Africa, the prestige of the Soviet Union amongst democratic and progressive forces grew immensely during the World War 2, especially after the entry of the Soviet Union into the war in 1941. The central role of the Red Army in the defeat of fascism received popular acclaim and helped enhance the local profile of the Communist Party. In the post-1945 years with the onset of the Cold War, the newly elected hard-line racist National Party, with ideological links to fascism, sought to disguise its racist ideology by positioning itself as part of a supposed Western crusade against the “global Communist threat”.
The CPSA, hated and feared locally more for its consistent non-racialism and ability to mobilise the growing black working class than for its socialism, was banned in 1950. Its underground successor, the SACP, was consistently portrayed by the white minority regime as local agents of Moscow, as the “rooi gevaar” (the “red peril”). After the banning of the ANC in 1960 and the strategic defeat suffered by the movement in the mid-1960s, most of the surviving leadership was forced into a distant exile. It was in this exceedingly difficult period that the Soviet Union’s selfless solidarity support to the ANC, and indeed to other liberation movements in southern Africa, played an absolutely decisive role in the ultimate defeat of colonialism and white minority rule throughout our region. In popular black culture, the Soviet Union became a legendary reference point in this period. Many 40- and 50-year olds in South Africa today have names like Soviet, Sputnik, Lenin, Russia and even Kalashnikov.
The abiding significance of the Soviet Union in the South Africa reality had its paradoxical flip-side in the late 1980s. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc of countries from 1989, the apartheid regime no longer served a useful purpose for Western imperialism as the pre-eminent regional gendarme in the Cold War-era regional hot wars of southern Africa costing over a million lives. In fact, thanks to a highly successful global anti-apartheid movement, the apartheid regime had become an awkward embarrassment to ruling imperialist elites. Imperialist pressure on the apartheid regime in the post-Soviet conjuncture was one important factor in propelling the negotiated settlement in South Africa. Of course, the most important factor in the transition to a non-racial democratic settlement was the rolling semi-insurrectionary mass struggles that had been sustained from the mid-1970s, and which were largely led by the ANC-SACP alliance.
Needless to say, it is an alliance that has had many ups and downs. And now, at the centenary mark of the Russian Revolution, it is an alliance that is once more going through one of its more difficult moments.
Southern Africa in the 1960s – 80s: a weak link in the imperialist chain
In seeking answers, as the SACP we have found it useful to (amongst other things) travel back one hundred years to the strategic, and particularly Leninist, advances in Marxism that were forged in the crucible years in and around the October Revolution.
The national liberation struggles against Portuguese colonialism and white minority internal colonial regimes in Zimbabwe, Namibia and pre-eminently South Africa established the entire southern Africa region as a turbulent, unstable, semi-peripheral “weak link” in the post-1945 imperialist chain. Both the imperialist centres and progressive radical liberation forces within our region appreciated the stakes very clearly. The obvious complicity of imperialism and local South African monopoly capital in the vicious national oppression of the African majority meant that the interconnection between the national democratic struggle and the anti-monopoly capital struggle had a direct and obvious mass appeal.
Could a non-racial, one-person one-vote constitutional dispensation be de-linked from an ongoing anti-capitalist struggle? Could a South African “February revolution” be contained, preventing an uninterrupted advance to a more radical “October”? This was the risk that South African monopoly capital and its imperialist backers took in engaging with the ANC-led alliance in the negotiations of 1990-1993. They were encouraged by the collapse of the Soviet bloc as well as by the general retreat of post-independence national democratic advances in the rest of southern Africa – largely as a result of brutal apartheid de-stabilisation and the fomenting of proxy civil wars in Angola and Mozambique.
From within the SACP there was no illusion in the early 1990s that the impending democratic breakthrough in South Africa would quickly lay the basis for a rapid and perhaps insurrectionary advance to a socialist “October”. The post-1945 global reality, and especially the post-1989 global conjuncture, were qualitatively different from the global situation so acutely analysed by Lenin in 1915 and onward. Inter-imperialist rivalry and wars were no longer the dominant feature. There was (and is) now a single imperialist hegemon and the dominance of globalised finance capital, rather than rival national monopoly capitals.
But, in the SACP’s analysis, this reality did not mean that Lenin’s insistence that, in semi-peripheral societies within the imperialist chain, the national bourgeoisie is incapable of consummating a national democratic revolution was irrelevant. On the contrary, we have continued to argue that the advance, deepening and defence of our national democratic revolution requires working class and semi-proletarian popular hegemony.
The SACP has accordingly advanced the strategic perspective of an uninterrupted anti-monopoly capital struggle for deep-seated structural transformation from the bridgehead of the 1994 democratic breakthrough (our “February”). We saw this more as a protracted struggle, a “war of position” rather than an insurrectionary “war of manoeuvre” (to evoke Gramsci’s terms). In our post-1994 situation it was not a question of abolishing our democratically-elected Constituent Assembly, as the Bolsheviks had once done. Rather, it was a question of using its hard-won constitutional outcomes, the space opened by these gains to advance, deepen and defend a national democratic revolution which would necessarily have to have an anti-imperialist and anti-monopoly capital character.
Favouring such an advance were two important factors. First, South African monopoly capital, long nurtured behind the protective barriers of white minority rule, was relatively off-balance following the land-slide ANC-led Alliance electoral victory in 1994. Second, the anti-apartheid national liberation forces had sustained semi-insurrectionary mass struggles over the better part of a decade-and-a-half. The trade union movement was relatively large and ideologically radical and there was a strong mass struggle tactical and organisational repertoire that linked community-based with work-based struggles. In the mid-1990s these mass forces remained mobilized.
What was to be way forward?
The two tendencies in third world national movements
As Lenin and MN Roy had correctly recognised in 1920, national movements in the semi-periphery of the imperialist world are likely to exhibit two divergent tendencies, a bourgeois-democratic and a national-revolutionary tendency. From the mid-1950s through to the early 1990s, it was the national-revolutionary tendency that was clearly the dominant but never the exclusive current within the ANC.
Since at least 1994, a sharp internal debate has been at play within the ANC-led alliance around these two tendencies. For a variety of reasons, it is the bourgeois-democratic tendency that has prevailed over the past two decades. And in its prevailing we can recognise all of the problematic illusions that Lenin so acutely critiqued in his polemics with Bernstein, Kautsky and the New Iskra tendency – notably the assumption that progress is essentially evolutionary, stage-ist, un-dialectical – that progress is made from its most “developed” side and never from the weak-link, never as result of the thoroughly uneven, under-development inherent in capitalist accumulation.
In South Africa this evolutionist tendency has conceptualised our democratic breakthrough as a “return” of a formerly ostracised South Africa into the bosom and “normality” of a happy family of nations (as if the relative and always only partial isolation of apartheid South Africa was not exactly one of the key strategies of the ANC itself). Archbishop Tutu, in his foreword to the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, proclaimed that the demise of apartheid marked the end of the three great “anomalous crimes” against humanity of the 20th century – which he characterised as fascism, supposedly abolished in 1945, Communism supposedly abolished with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and now apartheid in 1994. Radically absent from Tutu’s world-view was any sense of the persisting reality of imperialism and its centuries’ long existence in a variety of colonial, semi-colonial, and indeed internal colonial forms as in white minority rule in South Africa. Apartheid was, of course, never a stand-alone reality but an integral part of a persisting and wider imperialist system which, if anything, had grown stronger and more arrogant with the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
Although Tutu has never been an ANC member, this kind of perspective was generally shared by successive ANC leadership figures after 1994, including many who had formerly been SACP members. The “completion” of the National Democratic Revolution was now conceptualised as “normalising” South Africa capitalism by “de-racialising” (but not socialising) private ownership and control of monopoly capital. A supposedly “patriotic”, emergent black capitalist stratum promoted through a variety of state interventions has been invoked as the leading class force in the National Democratic Revolution. Any serious anti-monopoly capital, anti-imperialist, socialist-oriented advance is deferred to a distant and largely symbolic future “stage”. Lenin’s call for an uninterrupted advance has been forgotten in these quarters.
Sadly, but inevitably, these strategic and programmatic illusions have now resulted in the significant stagnation of democratic advances and of the ANC itself. The supposed black “patriotic” bourgeoisie has inevitably proven to be essentially a parasitic and compradorist force, dependent for its primary accumulation on pillaging public resources through increasingly criminal means that have factionalised the ANC and polluted our hard won democracy. National sovereignty, a key task of the national democratic revolution, is betrayed through illicit capital transfers to Dubai and other tax havens.
The deep structural distortions of our capitalist political economy remain untransformed – among them, extraordinarily high levels of monopoly concentration; a racialised spatial economy now perpetuated by the property market as effectively as any apartheid era social engineering; and our continued semi-peripheral primary commodity exporter status within the global capitalist chain. These structural features, in turn, are reproducing crisis-levels of largely racialised unemployment (currently at 27,7% in the narrow definition), inequality and poverty.
The current cul-de-sac into which our national democratic revolution has run, and the current turmoil within the ANC and between the ANC and its alliance partners, are not sustainable. Turmoil born of social crisis is, we know, not least from the Great October Revolution, the terrain on which both further set-backs or major advances might be achieved. As the SACP we are well aware that our 2017 reality both locally, regionally and internationally is, in many respects, quite different from the reality of 1917. Yet there is still much to celebrate and, above all, to learn from that defining moment of the 20th century when, for the first time in human history, working men and women abolished capitalism and held imperialism at bay, against the odds and at huge human sacrifice for some seven decades.
Long live the living example of the Great October Revolution!
Cde Nzimande, SACP General Secretary
 Prabhat Patnaik, “The October Revolution and the Survival of Capitalism”, Monthly Review, vol.69, July-August 2017