Chapter VII Co-operatives, Unions, Democracy

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Image: The Hand That Will Rule the World – One Big Union. [Source:

Bernstein’s socialism offers to the workers the prospect of sharing in the wealth of society. The poor are to become rich. How will this socialism be brought about? His article in the Neue Zeit (Problems of Socialism) contain only vague allusions to this question. Adequate information, however, can be found in his book.

Bernstein’s socialism is to be realised with the aid of these two instruments: labour unions – or as Bernstein himself characterises them, economic democracy – and co-operatives. The first will suppress industrial profit; the second will do away with commercial profit.

Co-operatives – especially co-operatives in the field of production constitute a hybrid form in the midst of capitalism. They can be described as small units of socialised production within capitalist exchange.

But in capitalist economy exchanges dominate production. As a result of competition, the complete domination of the process of production by the interests of capital – that is, pitiless exploitation – becomes a condition for the survival of each enterprise. The domination of capital over the process of production expresses itself in the following ways. Labour is intensified. The work day is lengthened or shortened, according to the situation of the market. And, depending on the requirements of the market, labour is either employed or thrown back into the street. In other words, use is made of all methods that enable an enterprise to stand up against its competitors in the market. The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are thus faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur – a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.

Bernstein has himself taken note of these facts. But it is evident that he has not understood them. For, together with Mrs. Potter-Webb, he explains the failure of production co-operatives in England by their lack of “discipline.” But what is so superficially and flatly called here “discipline” is nothing else than the natural absolutist regime of capitalism, which it is plain, the workers cannot successfully use against themselves.

Producers’ co-operatives can survive within capitalist economy only if they manage to suppress, by means of some detour, the capitalist controlled contradictions between the mode of production and the mode of exchange. And they can accomplish this only by removing themselves artificially from the influence of the laws of free competition. And they can succeed in doing the last only when they assure themselves beforehand of a constant circle of consumers, that is, when they assure themselves of a constant market.

It is the consumers’ co-operative that can offer this service to its brother in the field of production. Here – and not in Oppenheimer’s distinction between co-operatives that produce and co-operatives that sell – is the secret sought by Bernstein: the explanation for the invariable failure of producers’ co-operatives functioning independently and their survival when they are backed by consumers’ organisations.

If it is true that the possibilities of existence of producers’ co-operatives within capitalism are bound up with the possibilities of existence of consumers’ co-operatives, then the scope of the former is limited, in the most favourable of cases, to the small local market and to the manufacture of articles serving immediate needs, especially food products. Consumers’ and therefore producers’ co-operatives, are excluded from the most important branches of capital production – the textile, mining, metallurgical and petroleum industries, machine construction, locomotive and ship-building. For this reason alone (forgetting for the moment their hybrid character), co-operatives in the field of production cannot be seriously considered as the instrument of a general social transformation. The establishment of producers’ co-operatives on a wide scale would suppose, first of all, the suppression of the world market, the breaking up of the present world economy into small local spheres of production and exchange. The highly developed, wide-spread capitalism of our time is expected to fall back to the merchant economy of the Middle Ages.

Within the framework of present society, producers’ co-operatives are limited to the role of simple annexes to consumers’ co-operatives. It appears, therefore, that the latter must be the beginning of the proposed social change. But this way the expected reform of society by means of co-operatives ceases to be an offensive against capitalist production. That is, it ceases to be an attack against the principal bases of capitalist economy. It becomes, instead, a struggle against commercial capital, especially small and middle-sized commercial capital. It becomes an attack made on the twigs of the capitalist tree.

According to Bernstein, trade unions too, are a means of attack against capitalism in the field of production. We have already shown that trade unions cannot give the workers a determining influence over production. Trade unions can determine neither the dimensions of production nor the technical progress of production.

This much may be said about the purely economic side of the “struggle of the rate of wages against the rate of profit,” as Bernstein labels the activity of the trade union. It does not take place in the blue of the sky. It takes place within the well-defined framework of the law of wages. The law of wages is not shattered but applied by trade-union activity.

According to Bernstein, it is the trade unions that lead – in the general movement for the emancipation of the working class – the real attack against the rate of industrial profit. According to Bernstein, trade unions have the task of transforming the rate of industrial profit into “rates of wages.” The fact is that trade unions are least able to execute an economic offensive against profit. Trade unions are nothing more than the organised defence of labour power against the attacks of profit. They express the resistance offered by the working class to the oppression of capitalist economy.

On the one hand, trade unions have the function of influencing the situation in the labour-power market. But this influence is being constantly overcome by the proletarianisation of the middle layers of our society, a process which continually brings new merchandise on the labour market. The second function of the trade unions is to ameliorate the condition of the workers. That is, they attempt to increase the share of the social wealth going to the working class. This share, however, is being reduced with the fatality of a natural process by the growth of the productivity of labour. One does not need to be a Marxist to notice this. It suffices to read RodbertusIn Explanation of the Social Question.

In other words, the objective conditions of capitalist society transform the two economic functions of the trade unions into a sort of labour of Sisyphus,[2] which is, nevertheless, indispensable. For as a result of the activity of his trade unions, the worker succeeds in obtaining for himself the rate of wages due to him in accordance with the situation of the labour-power market. As a result of trade union activity, the capitalist law of wages is applied and the effect of the depressing tendency of economic development is paralysed, or to be more exact, attenuated.

However, the transformation of the trade union into an instrument for the progressive reduction of profit in favour of wages presupposes the following social conditions; first, the cessation of the proletarianisation of the middle strata of our society; secondly, a stoppage of the growth of productivity of labour. We have in both cases a return to pre-capitalist conditions,

Co-operatives and trade unions are totally incapable of transforming the capitalist mode of production. This is really understood by Bernstein, though in a confused manner. For he refers to co-operatives and trade unions as a means of reducing the profit of the capitalists and thus enriching the workers. In this way, he renounces the struggle against the capitalist mode of production and attempts to direct the socialist movement to struggle against “capitalist distribution.” Again and again, Bernstein refers to socialism as an effort towards a “just, juster and still more just” mode of distribution. (Vorwärts, March 26, 1899).

It cannot be denied that the direct cause leading the popular masses into the socialist movement is precisely the “unjust” mode of distribution characteristic of capitalism. When the Social-Democracy struggles for the socialisation of the entire economy, it aspires therewith also to a “just” distribution of the social wealth. But, guided by Marx’s observation that the mode of distribution of a given epoch is a natural consequence of the mode of production of that epoch, the Social-Democracy does not struggle against distribution in the framework of capitalist production. It struggles instead for the suppression of the capitalist production itself. In a word, the Social-Democracy wants to establish the mode of socialist distribution by suppressing the capitalist mode of production. Bernstein’s method, on the contrary, proposes to combat the capitalist mode of distribution in the hopes of gradually establishing, in this way, the socialist mode of production.

What, in that case, is the basis of Bernstein’s program for the reform of society? Does it find support in definite tendencies of capitalist production? No. In the first place, he denies such tendencies. In the second place, the socialist transformation of production is for him the effect and not the cause of distribution. He cannot give his program a materialist base, because he has already overthrown the aims and the means of the movement for socialism, and therefore its economic conditions. As a result, he is obliged to construct himself an idealist base.

“Why represent socialism as the consequence of economic compulsion?” he complains. “Why degrade man’s understanding, his feeling for justice, his will?” (Vorwärts, March 26, 1899). Bernstein’s superlatively just distribution is to be attained thanks to man’s free will; man’s will acting not because of economic necessity, since this will is only an instrument, but because of man’s comprehension of justice, because of man’s idea of justice.

We thus quite happily return to the principle of justice, to the old war horse on which the reformers of the earth have rocked for ages, for the lack of surer means of historic transportation. We return to the lamentable Rosinate on which the Don Quixotes of history have galloped towards the great reform of the earth, always to come home with their eyes blackened.

The relation of the poor to the rich, taken as a base for socialism, the principle of co-operation as the content of socialism, the “most just distribution” as its aim, and the idea of justice as its only historic legitimisation – with how much more force, more with and more fire did Weitling defend that sort of socialism fifty years ago. However, that genius of a tailor did not know scientific socialism. If today, the conception tore into bits by Marx and Engels a half century ago is patched up and presented to the proletariat as the last world of social science, that too, is the art of a tailor but it has nothing of a genius about it.

Trade unions and co-operatives are the economic support for the theory of revisionism. Its principal political condition is the growth of democracy. The present manifestations of political reaction are to Bernstein only “displacement.” He considers them accidental, momentary, and suggests that they are not to be considered in the elaboration of the general directives of the labour movement.

To Bernstein, democracy is an inevitable stage in the development of society. To him, as to the bourgeois theoreticians of liberalism, democracy is the great fundamental law of historic development, the realisation of which is served by all the forces of political life. However, Bernstein’s thesis is completely false. Presented in this absolute force, it appears as a petty-bourgeois vulgarisation of results of a very short phase of bourgeois development, the last twenty-five or thirty years. We reach entirely different conclusions when we examine the historic development of democracy a little closer and consider, at the same time, the general political history of capitalism.

Democracy has been found in the most dissimilar social formations: in primitive communist groups, in the slave states of antiquity and in medieval communes. And similarly, absolutism and constitutional monarchy are to be found under the most varied economic orders. When capitalism began, with the first production of commodities, it resorted to a democratic constitution in the municipal-communes of the Middle Ages. Later, when it developed to manufacturing, capitalism found its corresponding political form in the absolute monarchy. Finally, as a developed industrial economy, it brought into being in France the democratic republic of 1793, the absolute monarchy of Napoleon I, the nobles’ monarchy of the Restoration period (1850-1830), the bourgeois constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, then again the democratic republic, and against the monarchy of Napoleon III, and finally, for the third time, the Republic.

In Germany, the only truly democratic institution – universal suffrage – is not a conquest won by bourgeois liberalism. Universal suffrage in Germany was an instrument for the fusion of the small States. It is only in this sense that it has any importance for the development of the German bourgeoisie, which is otherwise quite satisfied with semi-feudal constitutional monarchy. In Russia, capitalism prospered for a long time under the regime of oriental absolutism, without having the bourgeoisie manifest the least desire in the world to introduce democracy. In Austria, universal suffrage was above all a safety line thrown to a foundering and decomposing monarchy. In Belgium, the conquest of universal suffrage by the labour movement was undoubtedly due to the weakness of the local militarism, and consequently to the special geographic and political situation of the country. But we have here a “bit of democracy” that has been won not by the bourgeoisie but against it.

The uninterrupted victory of democracy, which to our revisionism as well as to bourgeois liberalism, appears as a great fundamental law of human history and, especially, modern history is shown upon closer examination to be a phantom. No absolute and general relation can be constructed between capitalist development and democracy. The political form of a given country is always the result of the composite of all the existing political factors, domestic as well as foreign. It admits within its limits all variations of the scale from absolute monarchy to the democratic republic.

We must abandon, therefore, all hope of establishing democracy as a general law of historical development even within the framework of modern society. Turning to the present phase of bourgeois society, we observe here, too, political factors which, instead of assuring the realisation of Bernstein’s schema, led rather to the abandonment by bourgeois society of the democratic conquests won up to now.

Democratic institutions – and this is of the greatest significance – have completely exhausted their function as aids in the development of bourgeois society. In so far as they were necessary to bring about the fusion of small States and the creation of large modern States (Germany, Italy), they are no longer indispensable at present. Economic development has meanwhile effected an internal organic cicatrisation.

The same thing can be said concerning the transformation of the entire political and administrative State machinery from feudal or semi-feudal mechanism to capitalist mechanism. While this transformation has been historically inseparable from the development of democracy, it has been realised today to such an extent that the purely democratic “ingredients” of society, such as universal suffrage and the republican State form, may be suppressed without having the administration, the State finances, or the military organisation find it necessary to return to the forms they had before the March Revolution.[3]

If liberalism as such is now absolutely useless to bourgeois society it has become, on the other hand, a direct impediment to capitalism from other standpoints. Two factors dominate completely the political life of contemporary States: world politics and the labour movement. Each is only a different aspect of the present phase of capitalist development.

As a result of the development of the world economy and the aggravation and generalisation of competition on the world market, militarism and the policy of big navies have become, as instruments of world politics, a decisive factor in the interior as well as in the exterior life of the great States. If it is true that world politics and militarism represent a rising tendency in the present phase of capitalism, then bourgeois democracy must logically move in a descending line.

In Germany the era of great armament, began in 1893, and the policy of world politics inaugurated with the seizure of Kiao-Cheou were paid for immediately with the following sacrificial victim: the decomposition of liberalism, the deflation of the Centre Party, which passed from opposition to government. The recent elections to the Reichstag of 1907 unrolling under the sign of the German colonial policy were, at the same time, the historical burial of German liberalism.

If foreign politics push the bourgeoisie into the arms of reaction this is no less true about domestic politics – thanks to the rise of the working class. Bernstein shows that he recognises this when he makes the social-democratic “legend,” which “wants to swallow everything” – in other words, the socialist efforts of the working class – responsible for the desertion of the liberal bourgeoisie. He advises the proletariat to disavow its socialist aim so that the mortally frightened liberals might come out of the mousehole of reaction. Making the suppression of the socialist labour movement an essential condition for the preservation of bourgeois democracy, he proves in a striking manner that this democracy is in complete contradiction with the inner tendency of development of the present society. He proves, at the same time, that the socialist movement is itself a direct product of this tendency.

But he proves, at the same time, still another thing. By making the denouncement of the socialist aim an essential condition of the resurrection of bourgeois democracy, he shows how inexact is the claim that bourgeois democracy is an indispensable condition of the socialist movement and the victory of socialism. Bernstein’s reasoning exhausts itself in a vicious circle. His conclusion swallows his premises.

The solution is quite simple. In view of that fact that bourgeois liberalism has given up its ghost from fear of the growing labour movement and its final aim, we conclude that the socialist labour movement is today the only support for that which is not the goal of the socialist movement – democracy. We must conclude that democracy can have no support. We must conclude that the socialist movement is not bound to bourgeois democracy but that, on the contrary, the fate of democracy is bound up with the socialist movement. We must conclude from this that democracy does not acquire greater chances of survival, as the socialist movement becomes sufficiently strong to struggle against the reactionary consequences of world politics and the bourgeois desertion of democracy. He who would strengthen democracy should want to strengthen and not weaken the socialist movement. He who renounces the struggle for socialism renounces both the labour movement and democracy.

[2] The mythological king of Corinth who was condemned to roll a huge stone to the top of a hill. It constantly rolled back down against making his task incessant.

[3] The German revolution of 1848, which struck an effective blow against the feudal institutions in Germany.


Chapter VI Economic Development and Socialism

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Image: Panorama of the Lujiazui Finance and Trade Zone in Pudong, Shanghai. [Source:]

The greatest conquest of the developing proletarian movement has been the discovery of grounds of support for the realisation of socialism in the economic conditionof capitalist society. As a result of this discovery, socialism was changed from an “ideal” dreamt of by humanity for thousands of years to a thing of historic necessity.

Bernstein denies the existence of the economic conditions for socialism in the society of today. On this count his reasoning has undergone an interesting evolution. At first, in the Neue Zeit, he simply contested the rapidity of the process of concentration taking place in industry. He based his position on a comparison of the occupational statistics of Germany in 1882 and 1895. In order to use these figures for his purpose, he was obliged to proceed in an entirely summary and mechanical fashion. In the most favourable case, he could not, even by demonstrating the persistence of middle-sized enterprises, weaken in any the Marxian analysis because the latter does not suppose as a condition for the realisation of socialism either a definite rate of concentration of industry – that is, a definite delay of the realisation of socialism – or, as we have already shown, the absolute disappearance of small capitals, usually described as the disappearance of the petit bourgeoisie.

In the course of the latest development of his ideas Bernstein furnishes us, in his book, a new assortment of proofs: the statistics of shareholding societies. These statistics are used in order to prove that the number of shareholders increases constantly and as a result the capitalist class does not become smaller but grows bigger. It is surprising that Bernstein has so little acquaintance with his material. And it is astonishing how poorly he utilises the existing data in his own behalf.

If he wanted to disprove the Marxian law of industrial development by referring to the condition of shareholding societies, he should have resorted to entirely different figures. Anybody who is acquainted with the history of shareholding societies in Germany knows that their average foundation capital has diminished almost constantly. Thus while before 1871 their average foundation capital reached the figure of 10.8 million marks, it was only 4.01 million marks in 1871, 3.8 million marks in 1873, less than a million from 1882 to 1887, 0.52 million in 1891 and only 0.62 million in 1892. After this date the figures oscillated around 1 million marks, falling to 1.78 in 1895 and to 1.19 in the course of the first half of 1897. (Van de Borght: Handwörterbuch der Staatsswissenschaften, 1.)

Those are surprising figures. Using them, Bernstein hoped to show the existence of a counter-Marxian tendency for retransformation of large enterprises into small ones. The obvious answer to his attempt is the following. If you are to prove anything at all by means of your statistics, you must first show that they refer to the samebranches of industry. You must not show that small enterprises really replace large ones, that they do not. Instead, they appear only where small enterprises or even artisan industry were the rule before. This, however, you cannot show to be true. The statistical passage of immense shareholding societies to middle-size and small enterprises can be explained only by referring to the fact that the system of shareholding societies continues to penetrate new branches of production. Before, only a small number of large enterprises were organised as shareholding societies. Gradually shareholding organisation has won middle-size and even small enterprises. Today we can observe shareholding societies with a capital of below 1,000 marks.

Now, what is the economic significance of the extension of the system of shareholding societies? Economically, the spread of shareholding societies stands for the growing socialisation of production under the capitalist form – socialisation not only of large but also of middle-size and small production. The extension of shareholding does not, therefore, contradict Marxist theory but on the contrary, confirms it emphatically.

What does the economic phenomenon of a shareholding society actually amount to? It represents, on the one hand, the unification of a number of small fortunes into a large capital of production. It stands, on the other hand, for the separation of production from capitalist ownership. That is, it denotes that a double victory being won over the capitalist mode of production – but still on a capitalist base.

What is the meaning, therefore, of the statistics cited by Bernstein according to which an ever-greater number of shareholders participate in capitalist enterprises? These statistics go on to demonstrate precisely the following: at present a capitalist enterprise does not correspond, as before, to a single proprietor of capital but to a number of capitalists. Consequently, the economic notion of “capitalist” no longer signifies an isolated individual. The industrial capitalist of today is a collective person composed of hundreds and even of thousands of individuals. The category “capitalist” has itself become a social category. It has become “socialised” – within the frame-work of capitalist society.

In that case, how shall we explain Bernstein’s belief that the phenomenon of share-holding societies stands for the dispersion and not the concentration of capital? Why does he see the extension of capitalist property where Marx saw its suppression?

That is a simple economic error. By “capitalist,” Bernstein does not mean a category of production but the right to property. To him, “capitalist” is not an economic unit but a fiscal unit. And “capital” is for him not a factor of production but simply a certain quantity of money. That is why in his English sewing thread trust he does not see the fusion of 12,300 persons with money into a single capitalist unit but 12,300 different capitalists. That is why the engineer Schulze whose wife’s dowry brought him a large number of share from stockholder Mueller is also a capitalist for Bernstein. That is why for Bernstein the entire world seems to swarm with capitalists.

Here too, the theoretic base of his economic error is his “popularisation” of socialism. For this is what he does. By transporting the concept of capitalism from its productive relations to property relations, and by speaking of simple individuals instead of speaking of entrepreneurs, he moves the question of socialism from the domain of production into the domain of relations of fortune – that is, from the relation between Capital and Labour to the relation between poor and rich.

In this manner we are merrily led from Marx and Engels to the author of the Evangel of the Poor Fisherman. There is this difference, however. Weitling, with the sure instinct of the proletarian, saw in the opposition between the poor and the rich, the class antagonisms in their primitive form, and wanted to make of these antagonisms a lever of the movement for socialism. Bernstein, on the other hand, locates the realisation of socialism in the possibility of making the poor rich. That is, he locates it in the attenuation of class antagonisms and therefore in the petty bourgeoisie.

True, Bernstein does not limit himself to the statistics of incomes. He furnishes statistics of economic enterprises, especially those of the following countries: Germany, France, England, Switzerland, Austria and the United States. But these statistics are not the comparative figures of different periods in each country but of each period in different countries. We are not therefore offered (with the exception of Germany where he repeats the old contrast between 1895 and 1892), a comparison of the statistics of enterprises of a given country at different epochs but the absolute figures for different countries: England in 1891, France in 1894, United States in 1890, etc.

He reaches the following conclusion: “Though it is true that large exploitation is already supreme in industry today, it nevertheless, represents, including the enterprises dependent on large exploitation, even in a country as developed in Prussia, only half of the population occupied in production.” This is also true about Germany, England, Belgium, etc.

What does he actually prove here? He proves not the existence of such or such a tendency of economic development but merely the absolute relation of forcesof different forms of enterprise, or put in other words, the absolute relations of the various classes in our society.

Now if one wants to prove in this manner the impossibility of realising socialism one’s reasoning must rest on the theory according to which the result of social efforts is decided by the relation of the numerical material forces of the elements in the struggle, that is, by the factor of violence. In other words, Bernstein, who always thunders against Blanquism [See: Louis Blanqui], himself falls into the grossest Blanquist error. There is this difference, however. To the Blanquists, who represented a socialist and revolutionary tendency, the possibility of the economic realisation of socialism appeared quite natural. On this possibility they built the chances of a violent revolution – even by a small minority. Bernstein, on the contrary, infers from the numerical insufficiency of a socialist majority, the impossibility of the economic realisation of socialism. The Social-Democracy does not, however, expect to attain its aim either as a result of the victorious violence of a minority or through the numerical superiority of a majority. It sees socialism come as a result of economic necessity – and the comprehension of that necessity – leading to the suppression of capitalism by the working masses. And this necessity manifests itself above all in the anarchy of capitalism.

What is Bernstein’s position on the decisive question of anarchy in capitalist economy? He denies only the great general crises. He does not deny partial and national crises. In other words, he refuses to see a great deal of the anarchy of capitalism; he sees only a little of it. He is – to use Marx’s illustration – like the foolish virgin who had a child “who was only very small.” But the misfortune is that in matters like economic anarchy little and much are equally bad. If Bernstein recognises the existence of a little of this anarchy, we may point out to him that by the mechanism of the market economy this bit of anarchy will be extended to unheard of proportions, to end in collapse. But if Bernstein hopes to transform gradually his bit of anarchy into order and harmony while maintaining the system of commodity production, he again falls into one of the fundamental errors of bourgeois political economy according to which the mode of exchange is independent of the mode of production.

This is not the place for a lengthy demonstration of Bernstein’s surprising confusion concerning the most elementary principles of political economy. But there is one point – to which we are led by the fundamental questions of capitalist anarchy – that must be clarified immediately.

Bernstein declares that Marx’s law of surplus value is a simple abstraction. In political economy a statement of this sort obviously constitutes an insult. But if surplus value is only a simple abstraction, if it is only a figment of the mind – then every normal citizen who has done military duty and pays his taxes on time has the same right as Karl Marx to fashion his individual absurdity, to make his own law of value. “Marx has as much right to neglect the qualities of commodities till they are no more than the incarnation of quantities of simple human labour as have the economists of the Böhm-Jevons school to make an abstraction of all the qualities of commodities outside of their utility.”

That is, to Bernstein, Marx’s social labour and Menger’s abstract utility are quite similar – pure abstractions. Bernstein forgets completely that Marx’s abstraction is not an invention. It is a discovery. It does not exist in Marx’s head but in market economy. It has not an imaginary existence, but a real social existence, so real that it can be cut, hammered, weighed and put in the form of the money. The abstract human labour discovered by Marx is, in its developed form, no other than money. That is precisely one of the greatest of Marx’s discoveries, while to all bourgeois political economists, from the first of the mercantilists to the last of the classicists, the essence of money has remained a mystic enigma.

The Boehm-Jevons abstract utility is, in fact, a conceit of the mind. Or stated more correctly, it is a representation of intellectual emptiness, a private absurdity, for which neither capitalism nor any other society can be made responsible, but only vulgar bourgeois economy itself. Hugging their brain-child, Bernstein, Böhm and Jevons, and the entire subjective fraternity, can remain twenty years or more before the mystery of money, without arriving at a solution that is different from the one reached by any cobbler, namely that money is also a “useful” thing.

Bernstein has lost all comprehension of Marx’s law of value. Anybody with a small understanding of Marxian economics can see that without the law of value, Marx’s doctrine is incomprehensible. Or to speak more concretely – for him who does not understand the nature of the commodity and its exchange the entire economy of capitalism, with all its concatenations, must of necessity remain an enigma.

What precisely was the key which enabled Marx to open the door to the secrets of capitalist phenomena and solve, as if in play, problems that were not even suspected by the greatest minds of classic bourgeois economy? It was his conception of capitalist economy as an historic phenomenon – not merely in the sense recognised in the best of cases by the classic economists, that is, when it concerns the feudal past of capitalism – but also in so far as it concerns the socialist future of the world. The secret of Marx’s theory of value, of his analysis of the problem of money, of his theory of capital, of the theory of the rate of profit and consequently of the entire existing economic system is found in the transitory character of capitalist economy, the inevitability of its collapse leading – and this is only another aspect of the same phenomenon – to socialism. It is only because Marx looked at capitalism from the socialist’s viewpoint, that is from the historic viewpoint, that he was enabled to decipher the hieroglyphics of capitalist economy. And it is precisely because he took the socialist viewpoint as a point of departure for his analysis of bourgeois society that he was in the position to give a scientific base to the socialist movement.

This is the measure by which we evaluate Bernstein’s remarks. He complains of the “dualism” found everywhere in Marx’s monumental Capital. “The work wishes to be a scientific study and prove, at the same time, a thesis that was completely elaborated a long time before the editing of the book; it is based on a schema that already contains the result to which he wants to lead. The return to the Communist Manifesto (that is the socialist goal! – R.L.), proves the existence of vestiges of utopianism in Marx’s doctrine.”

But what is Marx’s “dualism” if not the dualism of the socialist future and the capitalist present? It is the dualism of Capitalism and Labour, the dualism of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It is the scientific reflection of the dualism existing in bourgeois society, the dualism of the class antagonism writhing inside the social order of capitalism.

Bernstein’s recognition of this theoretic dualism in Marx as “a survival of utopianism” is really his naïve avowal that he denies the class antagonisms in capitalism. It is his confession that socialism has become for him only a “survival of utopianism.” What is Bernstein’s “monism” – Bernstein’s unity – but the eternal unity of the capitalist regime, the unity of the former socialist who has renounced his aim and has decided to find in bourgeois society, one and immutable, the goal of human development?

Bernstein does not see in the economic structure of capitalism the development that leads to socialism. But in order to conserve his socialist program, at least in form, he is obliged to take refuge in an idealist construction placed outside of all economic development. He is obliged to transform socialism itself from a definite historical phase of social development into an abstract “principle.”

That is why the “co-operative principle” – the meagre decantation of socialism by which Bernstein wishes to garnish capitalist economy – appears as a concession made not to the socialist future of society but to Bernstein’s own socialist past.

Karl Marx, Class Struggle and Labour-Centred Development

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Image: Ben Selwyn on ‘Labour-Centred Development’ [Source:
Benjamin Selwyn



Karl Marx has often been interpreted as formulating an economic determinist, Eurocentric and historically linear conception of human development. Where they exist, such interpretations understand ‘development’ as capitalist modernisation. If correct, this critique leaves Marxism ill-equipped to interpret and contribute to transformations of the conditions of labouring classes under neoliberal globalisation. This article argues against such interpretations by discussing how, for Marx, the form and content of class struggles, their relations to the national state, and their articulation through the world system were the key to understanding divergent processes of human development. Marx’s insights are particularly relevant under contemporary globalised capitalism. This article argues, further, that Marx provides us with the basis for formulating a labour-centred approach to human development and development studies.

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Marxism & the Class Struggle

intense looking man with thick glasses

Image: Cliff Slaughter. [Source:]

Cliff Slaughter (1975)

VII Marxist theory and class consciousness

Marxism is not a ‘sociology’. It only appears to be so, because, from the point of view of every other particular section of the intellectual division of labour-philosophy, economics, history, history of ideas, etc.-Marxism goes beyond their defined subject-matter, insisting that the real content of each of them is to be found in the contradictory totality of social economic relations from which flow the forms of activity and thought to which the separate disciplines address themselves. Political economy, for example, is ‘negated’ by Marxism, in the Hegelian sense. Marx’s treatment of political economy takes to their limit the contradictory developments of classical political economy. To do this requires the explanation of political economy’s concepts and their real content as the ‘alienated’ consciousness of the development of bourgeois society itself. Thus we find in the Critique of Political Economy and in Capital itself a negation of political economy, which is demonstrated as being an adequate reflection of the sphere of exchange values and their behaviour. But this sphere is shown to be the real world of appearances or illusions as necessarily created by a historically limited social order, capitalism.

Marx’s rejection of bourgeois philosophy is a similar materialist critique. His analysis of political and historical thought and their material sources was the third element of the synthesis achieved by Marx.

Why then do we say that Marxism only appears to be a sociology? Because sociology originated and developed, not as the dialectical negation, the overcoming of the contradictions, of each of the alienated spheres of thought, but as their definition anew in relation to some supposedly more ‘general’ science of the ‘the social as such’ (Durkheim’s ‘le social en soi‘ and ‘social facts’ constitute the acme of this approach). Comte, first to use the term ‘sociology’, invented the word in order to indicate: ‘. . . under one single heading that integral part of natural philosophy which concerns itself with the positive study of the totality of fundamental laws proper to social phenomena.’

Instead of the dynamic synthesis constituted by Marx’s negation of the separated and alienated fields of philosophy, political economy and history (class struggle), we have the static and uncritical synthesis of Comte, to be followed by a century of sterile debate in sociology about ‘metaphysics or empiricism’, ‘generalisation or specialised monographs’, ‘system or action’. Instead of the consistent materialism made possible by Marx’s historical or dialectical approach, we have the pseudo-scientific reliance on ‘experience’, which in Comte’s case ended in the purest mysticism, since his ‘spiritual’ experience was granted just as much validity as any other. Bourgeois sociology in the 20th century is tied, philosophically and methodologically, to the pragmatism of the ruling class. Sociology continues to oscillate between idealism and mechanical materialism: ‘social facts as things’ on the one hand, freedom of the individual on the other; the classical dichotomy of bourgeois ideology. Instead of social analysis in terms of the contradictory development and struggle of opposites in each specific, historically limited, socioeconomic formation, we have in sociology the search for general principles or sociological laws which transcend specific historical stages. Talcott Parsons’ rejection of Marxism, on the grounds that it is a series of ‘genetic’ explanations, sums up this functionalist barrenness.

These aspects of the split in social theory between Marxism and sociology since the second quarter of the last century are of course inseparably linked with the fact that, as against Marx and Marxism’s concern with capitalist society, Comte is the father (though he himself is only the bastard son of Saint-Simon in this and many other respects) of the sociologists’ insistence that they are concerned with ‘industrial’ or ‘modern’ society. This is only a ‘sociological’ version of the political economists’ recognition of the ‘natural’ character of the laws of capitalist economy, which they could not accept as only the laws of a definite and historically limited socio-economic formation. When Marx insisted on the ‘social’ dimension of all spheres of activity and thought, it was with a dual emphasis: first, to grasp each sphere as only one ‘moment’ of a contradictory social whole; second, to put an end to the alienation resulting from exploitation, to give a new life to each activity by making it the conscious activity of the associated producers in a classless society; for this, theory must unite with and develop in unity with the proletarian revolution. Sociology, by contrast, accepts and describes the alienation and even dignifies it by presenting it systematically as the ‘differentiation and integration of roles’ and the ‘structuring of orientations’. A Marxist analysis of sociology would demonstrate in what way these supposedly ‘general’ social phenomena and mechanisms are but an ideological reflection of the surface of capitalist society itself.

The revolutionary political orientation of Marxist social theory, as contrasted with the professed ‘value-freedom’ of sociology, is fundamental to Marxism. And the perennial pleas for separating Marx’s politics from his sociological ‘insights’ are as absurdity misplaced as the similar attempts to cleanse Marx’s social theories of philosophy.

Marxism is then the dialectical negation of the highest developments in bourgeois thought, and through this of the reality from which that thought flows and of which it forms a necessary part. It is this conception which lies behind Lenin’s famous dictum:

The workers can acquire political consciousness only from without, i.e., only outside of the economic struggle, outside of the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships between all classes and the state and the government-the sphere of the interrelations between all classes. (Lenin, What is to be Done?)

Here Lenin expresses politically (i.e. in conflict with political opponents who based themselves on the supposed ‘spontaneous’ development of socialist consciousness from the experience of the working class) the implications for working-class consciousness of the discoveries of Marx. Scientific thought (in the philosophy of Hegel) had arrived at the point where it must accept the conclusion that it could advance further only by grasping activity its real place in the struggle to end the conditions of its own alienated character; this was only possible, Marx said, by grasping the nature of the working class as the agent of the necessary revolutionary change. The working class itself, however, could arrive at the necessary consciousness and thereby the unity necessary for social revolution only by understanding the full historical implications of its role in production and its capacity for abolishing class society. Besides the conclusion that the economic structure is ‘basic’, and that the class struggle of the proletariat is an objective necessity creating the conditions for socialist revolution, there was necessary the whole theory of historical materialism, the understanding of social development as a unified process, with revolutionary consciousness seizing hold of the meaning of the contradictions at the base of society in order to overthrow it. This body of theory could not come from the working class but only ‘from the outside, from bourgeois intellectuals’. From that point on, the development of Marxism takes definite forms in relation to the struggle of the working class, its internal political conflicts, strategy, tactics and organisation, nationally and internationally. While Marx and Engels themselves made great contributions in this field, it has of course been most enriched in the twentieth century, above all by the work of Lenin and Trotsky.

Marx and Engels began their communist political careers with a series of thoroughgoing polemics against other schools of socialism (e.g., in The Comnunist Manifesto). Immediately after the 1848 revolutions they combated the impatience and what amounted to rejection of theory by those who wanted to continue an insurrectionist struggle in unfavourable conditions. They never ceased to participate in and advise the labour movement in every country with which they could establish contact. They insisted – for example, in correspondence with Russian and North American socialists – on a very close and detailed attention to the specific conditions of the history, economy and working-class movement of each particular country. But they always were vigilant against eclecticism and attempts to put aside the theoretical conquests they had made. Writing to Bebel and other leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party in 1879, Marx and Engels returned to a theme which had concerned them as long ago as 1848: the role of bourgeois intellectuals in the revolutionary movement. Then, in the Manifesto, they had written: ‘ . . . a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class . . . in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists.’

Now, in 1879, they make a very different emphasis, and one which shows that Lenin was not inconsistent when he combined his insistence on the decisive importance of intellectuals in the development of revolutionary theory with an implacable struggle against every manifestation of revisionism and intellectual light-mindedness with theory. Marx and Engels go out of their way to warn Bebel and the party leaders that bourgeois and petty-bourgeois intellectuals joining the movement must show that they are willing to learn from the party its theory of scientific socialism in the first place. If this is not done, then they inevitably bring with them elements of the now decaying and disintegrating German bourgeois culture and philosophy. (In other words, what could be gained from bourgeois development before 1848 was the opposite of what flowed from it in 1789.)

Lenin stressed that the fight against revisionism (so called after the celebrated controversy in the German Social Democracy over Bernstein’s criticisms of Marx in the 1890s) was a recurring and inevitable one. He explained that not only individual thinkers in the working class or the revolutionary Marxist party were affected by particular aspects of bourgeois ideology, but that the development of capitalism constantly modified the relations between the proletariat and the middle classes, the latter carrying into the former their ideas, the ideas of capitalism. Revisionism in the labour movement reflected these class pressures. The nearer a revolutionary situation, the more these ideological differences would be expressed in political and organisational differences. Hence the vital importance in a pre-revolutionary period of consciously combating revisionism. This theoretical fight is the anticipation of all the problems and divisions which the working class will have to overcome in its actual struggle for power.

The problem of proletarian class-consciousness is often discussed in a very abstract and general manner, instead of through the analysis of the actual historical process by which the Marxist movement and the working-class movement have developed. These are not two distinct processes: the conscious building of revolutionary parties is the highest form of the process by which the proletariat becomes a class ‘for itself’. In the proper place, there is needed a critical analysis of all those writings on the working class and its consciousness which rely on concepts lie ‘affluence’, ‘prosperity’, ‘embourgeoisement‘, ‘social mobility’, and so on; and this analysis would have to deal with all the superficially very different and ‘radical’ approaches of writers like Marcuse. For the Marxist, such an analysis is of interest as an insight into the ideology of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, reflecting their own historical situation and its changes, but it would at the same time be important in relation to the development of Marxism itself, because it bears directly on the most characteristic ‘revision’ of Marxism in our epoch: the rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class and of the need for revolutionary parties.

Class, for Marx, is rooted in social relations of production, and cannot be referred in the first place to relations of distribution and consumption or their ideological reflections. In considering the class consciousness of the proletariat, Marxists are therefore not concerned with the ideas of individual workers about their position in society (no matter how many examples are collected and classified) so much as with the following series of categories: relations of production (sale of labour-power, exploitation); conflict of workers and employers on this basis (economic struggles, trade unions, elementary political battles for economic ends); conflict at the level of class (economic struggles which merge into the conflict between classes, which is organised through the political parties and the struggle for state power); the theoretical and practical struggle to build revolutionary parties of the working class, in conflict with non-revolutionary and counter-revolutionary tendencies in the class and their reflection inside the revolutionary party.

Thus, for example, a worker in the motor car industry will move through his elemental experience to an understanding of the gap between his own standard of life, income and conditions of work, on the one hand, and the mass of wealth to whose production he contributes, on the other. He will recognise an identity of interest, on this basis, with other wage-workers. ‘Combinations’ or trade unions are the adequate expression of this level of consciousness. To this ‘trade union consciousness’ may correspond other ideological, critical views on various aspects of capitalist society: for example, such consciousness can easily co-exist with that view which lays all the stress on differences or similarities in patterns of consumption; thus, elementary socialistic propaganda of the moralising type, and modern pessimistic speculation about the workers’ consciousness being dulled by the abundance of consumer goods, are types of consciousness which do not penetrate to the basis of class differences and class struggle and therefore cannot facilitate the development of political consciousness.

More ‘sophisticated’ socialist views of class-consciousness often refer to a process of more or less spontaneous political maturing through a series of economic struggles which take on greater and greater magnitude, finally posing demands which the system cannot meet. Here again the same basic error, from the Marxist standpoint, is made. In all such approaches, the class and its consciousness are seen in terms of a pre-Marxist theory of knowledge and of history. Those who put forward these ideas are unable to escape from a conception in which the separate individuals in the class move from their own working and other everyday experience to a higher level of consciousness, in this case political consciousness.

In point of fast an individual worker does not arrive through his own experience at a scientific consciousness of the actual relationships at work, let alone the political relationships. It u only when a worker comes into contact with the products, in political programme and action, of Marxist theory in politics – i.e., with the outcome of theoretical works produced in the first place by non-proletarian – that he can conceive of even his own working experience in terms which go beyond those of the prevailing bourgeois ideology. These works take the essence of the experience of the proletariat as well as all developments in economy, politics, science, the arts, etc.

Only a historical view of the working class and of the theory of Marxism, in their mutual interrelations, can produce a theory of class consciousness. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels, working on various fields of learning, as well as analysing the experience of the struggle of the working class to that date, elaborated their theory of socialism. The theory is henceforth the essential component of the process by which the working class becomes a class ‘for itself’. As a theory, it had first to penetrate beneath the day-to-day phenomenal form of capitalist society to the social relations of production. It demonstrated that production under capitalism continues, and society develops, not through any conscious plan, but through the drive to produce surplus value, consequent upon the reduction of labour-power to a commodity, to units of ‘abstract labour’. This is the essence of the worker’s exploitation, rather than the fact, say, that he does not own the cars he produces. What he produces is essentially surplus value, the augmentation of that same capital which oppresses him.

From these basic relationships, Marx demonstrated the reality of the history of capitalism, the way in which private ownership came to a revolutionary clash with the further development of the forces of production. For a political or socialist consciousness of the struggle against the capitalist class, there is necessary the understanding of this historical tendency of the capitalist system. This means not just an abstract knowledge of the theory of historical materialism, but the concrete analysis of, and active engagement in, the development of the class struggle in all its forms and at all levels, in the period of capitalism’s historical decline.

It was” Lenin’s major special contribution to Marxism to elaborate this theory of leadership and the revolutionary party, first of all in What is to be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. But the whole of Lenin’s work is an expression of this central concern. Later, Trotsky devoted a series of books and articles to the defence and development of the ideas worked out by Lenin (cf. particularly his In Defence of Marxism and Lessons of October). Gramsci also worked on important aspects of the relationship between Marxist theory and class consciousness, and developed further the critique of notions of spontaneity.

We have seen that even though the mass of workers experience capitalist exploitation, it is necessary for a struggle to take place between their existing consciousness, on the one hand, and Marxism on the other. This struggle is conducted, as part of the struggle of material forces, by the revolutionary Marxist party. The socialist revolution, like every social revolution, occupies an entire epoch. Its outcome is decided by a series of battles in every country, requiring the developed strategy and tactics of revolutionary parties and a revolutionary international whose whole outlook and experience is guided by the theoretical foundations laid by Marx.

Through the socialist revolution, men will enter ‘the realm of freedom’, says Marx. Consciousness will then not be the distorted ideology of oppressive social relations, resulting from the product’s domination over the producer, but will be the expression of the scientifically-orientated will of the collective producers, of ‘socialised humanity’. ‘The free development of each will be the condition of the free development of all.’

Already the struggle of the working class against capitalism raises this fundamental question of the relation between subject and object, thus bringing Marx to say that philosophy can realize itself only through the proletariat. Capitalism poses the question in generalised from for the whole class in its relation to the rest of society, and thus demands nothing less than a revolutionary solution: ‘… the labour employed on the products appears here as the value of those products, au a material quality possessed by them.’ (Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme‘)

This ‘reification’, the value-form, in which a social relation between men in their most fundamental activity is transformed into a ‘thing’ standing outside and against men, is specific to the way in which the capitalist system continues the enslavement of man by man. This ‘topsy-turvy world’ becomes in sociology a world of ‘social facts’, of ‘roles’, faithfully recorded as the necessary framework of experience.

Just as the working class in its struggle must reject this split between subject and object as a threat to its very humanity, so must Marxist theory penetrate beneath it and point the way to its internal contradictions and historical fate. The real relation between the working class and its product is obscured in the first place by the fact that the labour appears to have been paid for in wages, and that there the matter ends. Marx says that this illusion of wages as the proper reward for labour is the key to all the ideology of capitalism (Capital, Vol . I, p. 550). Marx exploded this illusion in theory, and thus opened the path for its being exploded in practice. That path leads from trade union consciousness (a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work!) to socialist consciousness.

Working-class consciousness is then, for Marxists, the comprehending in struggle of the process through which the proletariat develops from its identity as formed by capitalism (the mass of exploited wage-labourers, the class ‘in itself’) to the working class organised as a revolutionary force for the taking of power and the building of socialism (the class ‘for itself’). This process must be grasped dialectically, i.e., as a conflict of opposites, a real conflict between the class as it is and as the Marxist movement fights for it to be, on the basis of analysing the objective developments in society. It is the failure to recognise and to begin from this conflict which restricts, for example, the work of Lukacs in his History and Class Consciousness (1923-1924). Lukacs cannot get beyond the concept of ‘adjudged’ or ‘adequate’ consciousness, which is abstracted by the investigator according to his scientific estimation of the needs of the class historically. This remains at the level of the type of concepts developed by bourgeois sociology (particularly Max Weber), and fails to reach the level of dialectical materialism, at the centre of which is the unity of theory and practice as a contradictory process. Lukacs’ own subsequent capitulation to Stalinism, whatever other causes it had, was rooted in this static and essentially idealist conception of class consciousness, imported from neo-Kantian philosophy. It helped him in a very crude way to accept and become an apologist for Stalinist orthodoxy in the communist movement.

Lukacs asserted that the central concept of dialectics is ‘totality’; and here again he shows the inadequacy of his outlook for a theory of class consciousness. For Marx, the struggle, the unity and the interpenetration of opposites is the essence of dialectics, and this dialectic is materialist, so that for Marxists the notion of totality must have a meaning different from that presented by Lukacs. ‘The unity of the world consists in its materiality,’ wrote Engels. It is characteristic of Lukacs’ agnosticism on the question of the objective nature of the external world (in History and Class Consciousness) that he must take ‘totality’ and the proletariat’s grasp of this totality as an abstraction. Only a view of the ‘unity’ or ‘totality’ of the objective world of nature and society which sees this unity as arising continuously from a changing conflict of material opposites can form the basis of ‘revolutionary practice’, the sine qua non of Marx’s theory of knowledge.

Henri Lefebvre (in his The Sociology of Marx, 1968, and elsewhere) has criticised Lukacs for his stress on ‘totality’ and has argued that ‘the conflict of opposites’ is in fact the core of dialectics. However, in Lefebvre’s work this correct criticism remains purely abstract, and leads him eventually to Utopianism. He starts from the concept of a struggle of opposites, but leaves it at the level of the very general concepts of praxis and alienation. These terms, taken from Marx’s early work, enable Lefebvre to make often penetrating exposés of capitalist culture, but they remain altogether too abstract for a revolutionary theory of class consciousness. The theory remains purely critical, aloof from practice, i.e., from the activity of the class and the fight for a working-class leadership on a Marxist basis.

Lefebvre criticises, for example, Lucien Goldmann, because the latter, developing the work of Lukacs, over-emphasises the phenomenon of ‘reification’ so much that his argument amounts to a virtual acceptance, rather than a criticism, of the forms of objectivity imposed on consciousness by capitalist society. But this criticism is inadequate, and needs in the end to be turned against Lefebvre himself. Goldmann in the period between 1957 and his death in 1973, expressed complete scepticism about the revolutionary role of the working class under modern capitalism. He did so on the grounds that, besides certain economic and political changes in the capitalist system, such as the part played by state intervention in the economy, the ability of capitalism to supply an ever-increasing amount of consumer goods had eroded working class consciousness. This suggests immediately that Goldmann’s original reasons for accepting the revolutionary character of the proletariat were unsound, from the Marxist standpoint (see his articles in Les Temps Modernes for 1957 and 1958, reprinted in Recherches Dialectiques, Paris, 1959). Goldmann conceives of ideas and ideologies as mental translations of economic and social patterns, rather than as the outcome of the struggles of the class at all levels of social reality (see chapter VI above), and this has provided an avenue for him to accept the fashionable ‘structuralist’ school of idealism in France.

The actual contradictory process of the struggle for revolutionary consciousness, the conflicts between theory and practice, between party and class and, concretely, the struggle of tendencies within the labour movement and within the revolutionary party, and the class bases of these struggles-all these are almost completely lacking in any of the often interesting commentaries of these writers, whose works appeal so much to those who look for some pure or ‘restored’ Marxism, rediscovered by removing all the results of a century and more of bitter struggle as the theory has taken on flesh and blood. The ‘young Marx’ is the usual gospel of this faith. It would be in the spirit of Marx himself to aim for a Marxism which is rich and concrete, and at the same time warlike, having worked over and ‘negated’ all the contradictory developments in the proletarian revolution, and above all in the communist movement itself. For the various ‘schools’ of Marxism in France and their faint echoes outside, the issue is indeed presented much more concretely than they would like: to really develop the Marxist method and concepts for the analysis of modern capitalist society and of the USSR, it is necessary to start from a conscious reintegration with the whole actual past struggle for Marxism against the social democrats and then the Stalinists and revisionists who distorted it. That means an identification with the continuity of the fight for Marxism of Lenin and Trotsky, and in particular against the Stalinist domination of working-class politics and of ‘Marxism’ in France.

In the most fundamental theoretical terms, Lefebvre has missed out what was potentially correct in Lukacs’ insistence on ‘totality’: the struggle of opposites in society must be taken as first and foremost a class conflict, at the level of the social whole. To analyse, and to start in all social analyses from this, requires of course a concentration on the specific contradictions of capitalism and of the development of the working class and its revolutionary consciousness within capitalism. Marx himself developed his ideas from the general notions of praxis and alienation of humanity in his early works to the specific analysis of the historically developing social relations of capitalism, out of which grew all the ‘praxis’ and ‘alienation’ of modern man. By returning to the early Marx for the key to capitalist society today, Lefebvre opens the door to a reformist and Utopian critique of culture, instead of a consistent and revolutionary theory and practice, in conflict with the Stalinist distortion of Marxism in every field. His works Critique de la Vie Quotidienne (Vol II, 1960, Editions de L’Arche) and Introduction a la Modernite (Editions de Minuit, 1962) reveal this tendency very clearly: a searching for a ‘poetic’ quality in particular aspects of life, a contrast between creative and repetitive actions which is made a more general and important distinction than the specific historical contradictions of capitalism and the tasks of revolutionary transformation which they pose to the working class and to Marxists.

Our argument here does not simplify the question of class consciousness. On the contrary, it opens up a prospect which cannot be settled purely by words. Theory must become conscious of its real relationship with its subject-matter, and consciously guide the revolutionary struggle to transform it. This is the essence of dialectical materialism in Marx’s work. For the working class to become a class ‘for itself’ requires not simply the absorption of the experience of capitalist society, but the critical struggle against this experience by a party armed with the whole theory of Marxism. Party and class are two interpenetrating opposites at one level (the class ‘for itself’ and the class ‘in itself’). These two poles at the same time constitute a whole (the working class) which itself is one pole as against its opposite (the capitalist class) in another contradictory whole (capitalist society). Society confronts nature as its ‘opposite’. The working class must realize itself, against capitalism, subsuming all the historical gains for humanity made by capitalism at the same time as overthrowing it. This it can do only when the outlook, strategy and tactics of a Marxist party predominate in the actions of the class as a class, in revolutionary struggles. A similar process is necessary within the party: only if it can study, unify and transform through struggle all the experiences of the class can its theory be saved from one-sidedness, dogma and idealism. Within the Marxist party, once again we have a struggle of opposites, a struggle for the development of Marxist theory and its application to the struggles of the proletariat, in constant struggle against every mode of adaptation to the existing position of the working class, its disunity, fragmentation, etc., those aspects of its situation which predispose it towards acceptance of its oppression. Then theory itself must also be considered as a struggle of opposites. We have seen that at every level, each pole of a unity of opposites contains a recapitulation of the total opposition within itself (e.g. the party has both its own essence and its opposite within it and not only as an external opposite, etc.). Marxist theory develops by proving the ‘concreteness’ of its abstractions against the apparent concreteness (really abstractness, because abstracted from the changing forces which produce them) of uncritically accepted empirical reality. It does this through a struggle to change that reality, capitalism, by placing itself politically in a relation of political consciousness, leadership, with the working class. That means the struggle to build revolutionary parties able to lead the working class to power. Marxism is this struggle: it is not a sociology or an abstract theoretical system of any kind.

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Image: FOR MARXISTS, the division of modern socioeconomic classes is not the cause of the problem of capitalism but rather its effect. [Source:]


Marxism & the Class Struggle, publ. by New Park Publications. Last chapter reproduced here.


The South African Working Class and the National Democratic Revolution

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By Joe Slovo, General Secretary South African Communist Party

1. Introduction

The increased tempo of struggle in our country in the last few years has stimulated a great deal of theoretical debate and political discussion among those in the very front line of the upsurge. Workers in the factories, youth in the townships, mass and underground activists, radical intellectuals, cadres of Umkhonto we Sizwe, militants at all levels are seeking answers to the pressing strategic, tactical and organisational questions of the day. Increasing numbers of our people understand the essence of Lenin’s political maxim: Without revolutionary theory, there can be no real revolutionary movement.

These discussions and debates keep coming back, in one way or another, to certain fundamentals: class struggle and national struggle, the question of stages of struggle, inter-class alliances, and the role of our working class in the liberation front. Many of these debates are between people who share common starting points; a belief that national domination is linked to capitalism and an acceptance of the goal of a socialist South Africa. But there is not always clarity on the most effective tactical road towards this goal.

A tendency, loosely described as ‘workerism’, denies that the main content of the immediate conflict is national liberation which it regards as a diversion from the class struggle. Even if it admits the relevance of national domination in the exploitative processes, ‘workerisminsists on a perspective of an immediate struggle for socialism.

A transitional stage of struggle, involving inter-class alliances, is alleged to lead to an abandonment of socialist perspectives and to a surrender of working class leadership. The economic struggles between workers and bosses at the point of production (which inevitably spill over into the broader political arena) is claimed to be the ‘class struggle’. This is sometimes coupled with a view that the trade union movement is the main political representative of the working class.

A more sophisticated version of the left-workerist position has recently surfaced among union-linked academics. This version concedes the need for inter-class alliances but puts forward a view of working class political organisation more appropriate to a trade union than a revolutionary political vanguard.

At the other end of this debate there are views which tend to erect a chinese wall between the struggle for national liberation and social emancipation. Our struggle is seen as ‘bourgeois-democratic’ in character so that the immediate agenda should not go beyond the objective of a kind of ‘de-raced’ capitalism. According to this view there will be time enough after apartheid is destroyed to then turn our attention to the struggle for socialism. Hence there should be little talk of our ultimate socialist objectives. The working class should not insist on the inclusion of radical social measures as part of the immediate agenda because that would risk frightening away potential allies against apartheid.

Topical interest in the political shape and content of post-apartheid society has also brought into focus the question of group rights as opposed, or additional, to individual rights. The racists, of course, exploit ‘group rights’ and ‘multi-nationalism’ as a lifeline to their continued domination. But this does not dispose of the question as to whether there is a legitimate basis for a multinational framework in a future people’s South Africa.

The existence of cultural and ethnic diversity side by side with unifying processes, has aroused friendly queries on our approach to the national question. Do we believe that our peoples already constitute one nation? If not, are they (or should they be) moving towards single or separate nationhood? What is the future of the cultural and linguistic diversity and how do we cater for this diversity within the framework of a unitary state?

From some of our left-wing critics comes the charge that our thesis of colonialism of a special type necessarily implies that there are two nations in South Africa – the oppressor (white) and the oppressed (black). A variant of this critique is that the Freedom Charter hints at the existence of four nations when it talks of ‘equal status’ for ‘all national groups and races’.

For South African communists the questions and debates we have mentioned above have not arisen for the first time. For over 66 years we have attempted to find the answers and to apply them in the actual arena of struggle. We do not claim that we have a monopoly of wisdom. But, equipped with the theoretical tool of Marxism-Leninism and the inheritance of an unmatched wealth of revolutionary experience, it is not immodest for us to assert that our Party is uniquely qualified to help illuminate the correct analytical path. This is a process which calls for both creativity and intellectual openness. It also requires a continuing exchange of ideas not only within the ranks of the Party but also between us and all non-Party serious revolutionary activists.

Genuine worries about some of our approaches and formulations (whether from a ‘right’ or ‘left’ position) must be debated and not merely dismissed. In this spirit, then, we proceed to consider the following:

  • Class struggle and national struggle
  • The stages of struggle
  • Working class leadership
  • The building of the South African nation

We hope that this pamphlet will help expand the discussion of the theoretical basis of our revolutionary practice in the present phase of the struggle.

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2. Class Struggle and National Struggle

The South African Communist Party, in its 1984 constitution, declares that its aim is to lead the working class towards the strategic goal of establishing a socialist republic ‘and the more immediate aim of winning the objectives of the national democratic revolution which is inseparably linked to it‘.The constitution describes the main content of the national democratic revolution as

‘…the national liberation of the African people in particular, and the black people in general, the destruction of the economic and political power of the racist ruling class, and the establishment of one united state of people’s power in which the working class will be the dominant force and which will move uninterruptedly towards social emancipation and the total abolition of exploitation of man by man‘.

The national democratic revolution – the present stage of struggle in our country is a revolution of the whole oppressed people. This does not mean that the oppressed ‘people’ can be regarded as a single or homogeneous entity. The main revolutionary camp in the immediate struggle is made up of different classes and strata (overwhelmingly black) which suffer varying forms and degrees of national oppression and economic exploitation. The camp of those who benefit from, and support, national domination is also divided into classes.

Some ‘learned theorists’ are continuously warning workers against talk of a ‘revolution of the whole oppressed people’, accusing those who use such formulations of being ‘populists’ rather than revolutionaries. Let us hear Lenin on this question since he was also in the habit of using the same words to describe the upsurge in Russia:

‘Yes, the people’s revolution. Social Democracy … demands that this word shall not be used to cover up failure to understand class antagonisms within the people … However, it does not divide the “people” into “classes” so that the advanced class becomes locked up within itself … the advanced class … should fight with all the greater energy and enthusiasm for the cause of the whole people, at the head of the whole people‘ (Selected Works, Volume 1, p.503).

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Of course, the long-term interests of the diverse classes and strata of the revolutionary camp do not necessarily coincide. They do not have the same consistency and commitment even to the immediate objectives of the democratic revolution. It is obviously from within the ranks of the black middle and upper strata that the enemy will look for sources of collaboration. We will return to this question.

But, in general, it remains true that our National Democratic Revolution expresses the broad objective interests not only of the working class but also of most of the other classes within the nationally-dominated majority, including the black petit- bourgeoisie and significant strata of the emergent black bourgeoisie. This reality provides the foundation for a struggle which aims to mobilise to its side all the oppressed classes and strata as participants in the national liberation alliance.

We believe that the working class is both an indispensable part and the leading force of such a liberation alliance. But its relations with other classes and strata cannot be conditional on the acceptance by them of socialist aims. The historic programme which has evolved to express the common immediate aspirations of all the classes of the oppressed people is the Freedom Charter. This document is not, in itself, a programme for socialism, even though (as we argue later) it can provide a basis for uninterrupted advance to a socialist future.

The recent surge in workers’ organisation and socialist thinking has highlighted some important questions.

  • Does the immediate emphasis on the national democratic revolution imply that the working class should abandon class struggle in favour of national struggle?
  • Are socialist objectives being shelved in favour of a struggle for so-called bourgeois democracy?
  • Which class must play the vanguard role in our democratic revolution?
  • Above all, how can the independent class role of the working class be safeguarded in a period demanding inter-class alliances?

The answer to these questions and the key to a correct determination of strategy and tactics in our present situation requires a correct grasp of the relationship between class and national struggle.

If we pose the question by asking only whether our struggle is a national struggle or a class struggle, we will inevitably get a wrong answer. The right question is: what is the relationship between these two categories. A failure to understand the class content of the national struggle and the national content of the class struggle in existing conditions can hold back the advance of both the democratic and socialist transformations which we seek.

The immediate primacy of the struggle against race tyranny flows from the concrete realities of our existing situation. The concept of national domination is not a mystification to divert us from class approaches; it infects every level of class exploitation. Indeed, it divides our working class into colour compartments. Therefore, unusual categories such as ‘white working class’ and ‘black working class’ are not ‘unscientific’ but simply describe the facts.

National domination is maintained by a ruling class whose state apparatus protects the economic interests and social privileges of all classes among the white minority. It denies the aspiration of the African people towards a single nationhood and, in its place, attempts to perpetuate tribalism and ethnicity. These, and a host of related practices, are the visible daily manifestations of national domination. These practices affect the status and life of every black in every class. It is, however, the black working class which, in practice, suffers the most intense form of national domination. And those who dismiss the fight against national domination as the key immediate mobilising factor of our working class are living in an unreal world of their own.

It is encouraging to observe the recent spread of an understanding of the link between national domination and class exploitation among organised sectors of the working class. This spread is due primarily to the heightened experiences of the struggle against race domination in the recent period.

Socialist ideas take root not just through book knowledge but through struggle around day-to-day issues. And, for those who have to live the hourly realities and humiliations of race tyranny (at the point of production, in the townships, in the street, etc.) there is no issue more immediate and relevant than the experience of national oppression. This is certainly the starting point of political consciousness for every black worker.

It is mainly in the actual struggle against national oppression that its class roots can be grasped most effectively. It is that struggle which illuminates most brightly the underlying relationship in our country between capitalism and national domination.

Those who would like to restrict the meaning of class struggle to a trade union struggle against the bosses, and who see political struggle only through narrow economistic spectacles, would do well to heed Lenin’s words on these questions:

‘Is it true that, in general, the economic struggle is “the most widely applicable means” of drawing the masses in to political struggle? It is entirely untrue. Any and every manifestation of police tyranny and autocratic outrage, not only in connection with the economic struggle, is not one whit less “widely applicable” as a means of drawing in the masses … Of the sum total of cases in which the workers suffer (either on their own account or on account of those closely connected with them) from tyranny, violence and lack of rights, undoubtedly only a small minority represent cases of police tyranny in the trade union struggle as such’ (Selected Works, Volume 1, p.136).

But as you say, the fundamental stumbling block is the question of the future of the economy. And it's not just the sort of economic laboratory question, of what kind of system would best generate growth, which is the way it's presented.It has been demonstrated that no system, not even the most inhuman, can continue to exist without an ideology.

Class struggle in a period of capitalist hegemony is, in the long run, a political struggle for the ultimate winning of power by the working people. But the content of this class struggle does not remain fixed for all time; it is dictated by the concrete situation at a given historical moment. We cannot confine the meaning of class struggle to those rare moments when the immediate winning of socialist power is on the agenda. When workers engage in the national struggle to destroy race domination they are surely, at the same time, engaging in class struggle.

Class struggle does not fade into the background when workers forge alliances with other class forces on commonly agreed minimum programmes. The history of all struggles consists mainly of such interim phases. What is the essence of conflict during such phases if not class struggle? There is no such thing as ‘pure’ class struggle and those who seek it can only do so from the isolating comfort of a library arm-chair. The idea that social revolutions involve two neatly-labelled armies was dealt with by Lenin with bitter irony:

‘So one army lines up in one place and says “we are for socialism” and another, somewhere else and says, “we are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! … Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is’. (Collected Works, Volume 22, pp.355-6).

However, the combination of civil resistance, of large-scale mass activities and strikes, with a certain degree of revolutionary violence, could provoke a crisis in the enemy's camp that would ultimately lead to essential changes.

The workers in Vietnam were not abandoning the class struggle when they concentrated their main energies, in alliance with other class forces, on defeating Japanese militarist occupation, French colonialism, and finally US imperialism and its puppet forces. When Hitler unleashed world war, the main content of the workers’ class struggle correctly became the defeat of fascism. This task necessitated the most ‘popular’ of Fronts which brought together both pro- and anti-socialist forces. It is a matter of historical record that the anti-fascist victory made possible, among other things, the greatest extension of the socialist world since the October Revolution and opened the road to successful anti-imperialist, anti-colonial revolutions.

When we exhort our working class to devote its main energies (in alliance with the other nationally oppressed classes) to the immediate task of winning national liberation, we are certainly not diluting the class struggle or retreating from it. On the contrary, we are advancing and reinforcing it in the only manner which is practicable at the present time.

Nor are we putting off the socialist revolution by an emphasis on the National Democratic objectives of the immediate phase of struggle. In the words of Lenin, answering critics of Bolshevik policy on the primacy of the democratic revolution, ‘we are not putting (the socialist revolution) off but are taking the first steps towards it in the only possible way, along with the correct path, namely the path of a democratic republic’ (Selected Works, Volume 1, p.435). Our immediate emphasis on the struggle for democracy and ‘People’s Power’ is an essential prerequisite for the longer-term advance towards a socialist transformation.

But national liberation is, at the same time, a short-term class imperative for the working people. Because the tyranny of national oppression weighs more heavily on South Africa’s doubly- exploited working class than on any other working class, its destruction by the shortest route possible is, in itself, in the deepest class interests of our proletariat. Both immediately and in the long-term, our working class stands to gain more from the ending of national domination than any other class among the oppressed.

These realities help define the main form and content of the workers’ class struggle at the present historical moment and the kind of alliances necessary to advance working class objectives. A ‘class struggle’ which ignores these truths can only be fought out in the lecture-room and not in the actual arena of struggle.

But the need to concentrate on the present does not imply an abandonment or disregard for the future. We shall argue more fully in a later section that participation by the working class in the democratic revolution (involving alliances, minimum programmes, etc.) does not imply a dilution of its independent class positions.

There is, moreover, no need for the spread of socialist awareness among the working people to be postponed during the phase emphasising the democratic transformation a belief falsely attributed to our Party by some of its left-wing critics. During this period it is vital to maintain and deepen working class understanding of the interdependence between national liberation and social emancipation. This task cannot be postponed until the ANC flag flies over Pretoria.

It follows from the above that the participation of our working class and its political vanguard in the liberation alliance is both a long-term and short-term class necessity. The SACP’s involvement in such an alliance is not, as our left-wing critics allege, a form of ‘tailism’ or ‘populism’. Nor, as our right-wing detractors would have it, is it an opportunistic ploy to camouflage our so-called ‘hidden agenda’ and to use the ANC merely as a stepping stone to socialism.

We have never made a secret of our belief that the shortest route to socialism is via a democratic state. But, as already mentioned, the SACP takes part in the alliance for yet another extremely cogent reason; our belief that the elimination of national domination (which is the prime objective of the Alliance) is, at the same time, the most immediate class concern of our proletariat.

But it is also the concern of the other main classes within the dominated majority. Bearing in mind their class positions, is there an objective basis for a programme which can attract these classes to the side of the liberation front and do so without compromising the fundamental interests of the working class?

The Black Middle Strata and the Emerging Black Bourgeoisie

We have said that the national democratic revolution expresses the broad objective interests of the working class and most of the other classes which make up the nationally-dominated minority. We will return to the special position of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie in the bantustans and in the townships, whose very existence depends upon collaboration with race domination.

Our approach to the multi-class content of the present phase of our struggle has received a great deal of attention from some of our ‘left’ critics. But because they have distorted our approach by knocking down skittles which they themselves have put up, we need to devote a few words to the obvious.

It is obvious that the black capitalist class favours capitalism and that it will do its best to influence the post-apartheid society in this direction.

It is obvious that the black middle and upper classes who take part in a broad liberation alliance will jostle for hegemony and attempt to represent their interests as the interests of all Africans.

It is obvious that (like their counterparts in every part of the world) the black middle and upper strata, who find themselves on the side of the people’s struggle, are often inconsistent and vacillating. They are usually the enemy’s softest targets for achieving a reformist, rather than a revolutionary, outcome.

All this is pretty obvious. But it is equally obvious that if the working class and its vanguard and mass organisations were to get locked up with themselves, the greatest harm would be done to the cause of both national liberation and social emancipation. By rejecting class alliances and going it alone, the working class would in fact be surrendering the leadership of the national struggle to the upper and middle strata. This would become the shortest route towards a sell-out reformist solution and a purely capitalist post-apartheid South Africa under the hegemony of a bourgeois-dominated black national movement. Along this path, ‘class purity’ will surely lead to class suicide and ‘socialist’- sounding slogans will actually hold back the achievement of socialism.

The black middle and upper strata constitute a relatively significant political force, particularly in community struggles. Whether we like it or not they will participate and, often, take a leading part in such struggles. They are usually among the most vocal articulators of demands and (as we have experienced with black consciousness) they are sometimes the pioneers of new variants of purely nationalist ideology.

The question, therefore, is not whether they are participants in the struggle. The real question is whether the working class, by refusing to establish a common trench, helps push them right into the enemy’s lap. On the other hand, by engaging with them on common minimum platforms, the working class is able to forge a stronger opposition and also to neutralise some of the negative potential of the middle class.

It is, in any case, a basic maxim of working class revolutionary strategy that, at every stage, it is necessary to maximise the forces which can be mobilised against the ruling class around a principled common immediate programme. But this does not depend just on an appeal to the individual conscience which occasionally (as we have recently witnessed among a small minority of the white community) rebels against its class roots and group interests.

When, however, it comes to the behaviour pattern of class entities, experience has shown that, in general, they are motivated primarily by a desire to protect their economic interests. It follows that to determine which social force can, at a specific moment, be won over to the side of the revolution (without compromising its main objectives) requires, in the first place, an analysis of basic economic factors which will influence their participation. In other words, a shared opposition to race domination at the social level may not, on its own, be sufficient to cement an inter-class alliance.

Is there an objective basis (having its roots in economic class interests) for drawing the black middle and upper classes into an inter-class alliance in the immediate struggle to destroy national domination? We believe that the answer is clearly yes. Let us take note of more recent ruling class activities in this area.

In the last decade the size of the black upper and middle classes has increased. The state has relaxed a few obstacles to class mobility. Some sectors of white business have selectively encouraged black entry into previously forbidden territory. Neither the state nor business have hidden their motivation for these measures. They are designed to create a more significant black social force with a vested interest in the status quo and capitalism; a force which, they hope, will distance itself from the liberation struggle or, perhaps, even take it over.

Despite the ‘reforms’ and peripheral concessions of the last decade, the immediate fate of the black middle and upper classes remains linked much more with that of the black working people than with their equivalents across the colour line. For reasons of colour their class mobility cannot proceed beyond a certain point. They are still hemmed in by national disabilities economic, cultural, social and political which separate them from their white class counterparts.

At the economic level, reforms notwithstanding, national oppression continues to affect black capitalists in the accumulation process. With some exceptions, they cannot own land or property in the central business districts. They are disadvantaged when it comes to access to credit and loan capital, etc. And, at the social and cultural levels, a black capitalist continues to share with a black worker most of the humiliations of inferior colour status.

A few black capitalists may now be able to rub shoulders with tycoons like Oppenheimer at some board-room meetings as a symbol of ‘black advancement’, but they cannot leave their ghettoes to live next door to their fellow directors, sit in a common parliament, assert a right for their immediate family from rural areas to resettle in their home towns, and so on. It is only the most vulgar and deterministic forms of economism which can underplay the impact of these, and so many other, ravages of national domination which do not exempt a single class or group within the black community.

But, as we have already argued, ultimately it is the economic factor which plays the primary role in determining class alignments. Conflicting class approaches to the nature of the immediate post-apartheid society may well, in practice, overshadow existing economic discrimination and the common black aversion to white rule. A Motsuenyane is more likely to opt for remaining a capitalist in a race-dominated society if the alternative is that he will become a worker in a people’s South Africa. In addition, therefore, to the social impact of race practices which variously affect all black classes and strata, is there an objective economic foundation for an inter-class black alliance?

There is such an objective foundation. It is grounded in a perspective of an interim phase in the post-apartheid period which neither threatens the immediate economic aspirations of the other nationally-dominated classes nor militates against the fundamental interests of the workers. This perspective is not (as our ‘left’ detractors allege) tailored merely to suck broad elements into the liberation front.(1)

Nor does it, in any way, constitute a retreat from a commitment to end all forms of exploitation of man by man.

We have never hidden our conviction, which we continue to proclaim, that true national liberation is ultimately impossible without social liberation. The Freedom Charter and our Party Programme do not, however, project socialism as the immediate consequence of a people’s victory. During this phase a vital role, under specified conditions, will undoubtedly be required of a private sector.(2)

Even where the socialist transformation is directly on the agenda, the role of the private sector cannot be dismissed. Leaving aside the lunatic excesses of Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, many hard lessons in this area have been learnt by some of the established socialist states and, more recently, by African parties dedicated to a socialist advance. The transition period to socialism may well demand a maintenance of selective parts of the private sector. A mechanical and generalised elimination of this sector for the sake of satisfying sloganised orthodoxy, has often served to undermine the faith of the working people in the capacity of socialism to ‘deliver the goods’.

We will come back to the need for immediate steps to be taken in the post-apartheid period to break the economic stranglehold of the monopolies and to transform a major portion of wealth from private into social property. Suffice it to say that such measures will, of necessity, result in an immediate sizeable contraction of the private sector. Ninety nine per cent of this sector is presently owned and controlled by white capitalists; a race monopoly which constitutes the key instrument of national domination.

At the same time it would be harmful demagogy and a recipe for chaos to proclaim that the post-apartheid state will be able, at a stroke, to do away completely with the market economy, to eliminate the whole private sector and to dispense with the accumulated business experiences and management skills of this sector. With the lifting of the race barriers, those black businessmen who have been the victims of race-stunted growth, will certainly find more immediate room for expansion than they were ever permitted under apartheid rule. The anti-monopoly provisions of the Freedom Charter will also open up avenues for the relative growth of black business in the post-apartheid phase.

In other words, under a people’s government the black middle and upper classes will be better off economically (and in every other aspect of their lives) than they are now. In this sense the national democratic revolution represents their immediate interests as a class; it provides a legitimate and principled basis for the kind of inter-class alliance which is projected by our liberation front.(3)

Those who fear that all this amounts to the expansion of capitalism in the post-colonial state would do well to remember that we are talking about a minute group (the black middle and upper strata) which just about produces two per cent of the gross national product, mainly in the tertiary sector. In any case, the expansion of its growth as a result of the lifting of racial barriers in trade and manufacture will, in terms of the Freedom Charter, be controlled ‘to assist the well-being of the people’.

In the context of a severe clipping of the wings of the overwhelming mass of existing private capital, it is sheer ultra- leftist demagogy to describe this approach as a commitment to a capitalist road in the state.(4) It cannot be denied that a private sector of whatever size will inevitably help to generate negative social and ideological tendencies. But social control over the main means of production and distribution by a political power in which the working class is dominant should more than counter- balance such tendencies.

What we have said about the black middle and upper classes does not apply to all its segments. We have always been careful to treat the emergent black bureaucratic bourgeoisie as a special category even though there is a degree of interchangeability between it and other strata.

The bureaucratic bourgeoisie is a stratum that depends for its capital accumulation more or less entirely on its position within the collaborative structures of apartheid bantustan ‘governments’, community councils, management committees, etc. It enriches itself often through fraud and corruption, and uses access to the collaborative structures to allocate to itself land, trading premises and other resources. Its genesis and demise depend solely on the survival of race domination and (individual defections aside) it will share a trench with the enemy.

The allegiance of the other middle and upper black strata to the immediate objectives of the liberation struggle cannot be taken for granted; it has to be fought for on the ground. The ruling class can be expected to contend with the liberation alliance for the political soul of these strata, exploiting their class potential for vacillation and their preference for reformist, rather than revolutionary, transformation.

The alliance of the working class with forces which reject its long-term socialist aspirations is never unproblematic and without tension. It requires constant vigilance and, above all, the safeguarding of the independence of the vanguard and mass class organs of the workers. The question of the inter-class alliance brings us to a related issue – the so-called two-stage theory of the South African revolution.

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3. Stages of Struggle

The concept of stages in struggle is not an unusual one for any political activist. Those engaged in revolutionary practice, whether in a trade union or in a political party, do not require a seminar to be convinced that struggle goes through stages. Even the most localised struggles, for example the struggle for an annual wage increase in a particular industry or factory, or a struggle against high rents in a particular township, go through stages. The same applies to the overall struggle.

Our belief that the immediate content of our struggle is the national liberation of our whole people and that this process cannot ultimately be completed without social emancipation at once poses a perspective of stages in our revolution. This perspective has generated a great deal of criticism from ‘leftist’ circles.

We do indeed see the current stage of struggle the national democratic phase as the most direct route of advance, in our particular conditions, to a second stage, socialist development. Looking even further ahead, it is valid to describe socialism itself as a major transitional stage on the road to communism.

There is, however, both a distinction and a continuity between the national democratic and socialist revolutions; they can neither be completely telescoped nor completely compartmentalised. The vulgar Marxists are unable to understand this. They claim that our immediate emphasis on the objectives of the national democratic revolution implies that we are unnecessarily postponing or even abandoning the socialist revolution, as if the two revolutions have no connection with one another. They have a mechanical approach to the stages of our revolution, treating them simply as water-tight compartments.(5)

It should, however, be conceded that our own formulations have sometimes been imprecise, and have invited the charge that we treat stages as compartments, as ‘things-in-themselves’.

It is necessary at once to state a rather obvious proposition, namely, that it is implied in the very concept of stages that they can never be considered in isolation; they are steps in development. A stage which has no relation to a destination in itself not final and constituting a stage for yet another destination is a linguistic and logical absurdity. The concept ‘stage’ implies that it is at one and the same time a point of arrival and a point of departure.

The real question is how to reach a stage without blocking the route onwards to the next destination. This depends (mainly) on revolutionary practice. On balance we can justly claim that our own revolutionary practice has not departed from the ‘continuity’ concept of stages.

We reiterate that when we talk of stages we are talking simultaneously about distinct phases and a continuous journey. At the same time revolutionary practice demands that within each distinct stage there should be a selective concentration on those objectives which are most pertinent to its completion. This is no way detracts from the need to plant, within its womb, the seeds which will ensure a continuity towards the next stage.

There is thus no Chinese wall between stages. Lenin emphasised this point when he said:

‘We all categorise bourgeois revolution and socialist revolution, we all insist on the absolute necessity of strictly distinguishing between them. However, can it be denied that in the course of history individual particular elements of the two revolutions become interwoven?’ (Selected Works, Volume 1, p.482, pp.511-2)

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We, for our part, insist on the need to understand the distinct characteristics of the present stage of our revolution, and also the ideological and organisational bridge between this stage and the socialist aspirations of our working class.

It is not inevitable that final destinations follow from particular preceding stages. We have, for example, always believed that under South African conditions the national democratic revolution has great prospects of proceeding at once to socialist solutions. This is because no significant national demand can be completely fulfilled without the eventual destruction of the existing capitalist structure. But this outcome is inevitable only in the abstract sense. Its translation into a reality must be dependent on a number of vital subjective factors. Among the most important of these is the extent to which the most revolutionary class the proletariat is politicised and participates as a leading force in the coming struggles and in the state forms which are constructed in place of the old.

We will come back to the question of the way our working class must assert its role both for itself and as a leading force in the broader revolutionary line-up. For the moment, let us look a little more closely at the terminology we use to define the main features of the immediate phase of our revolution.

Bourgeois-democratic or National-democratic?

The terminology we use to describe the stages of a revolution can either illuminate or obscure its main objectives. The use of a wrong (albeit analogous) descriptive label to characterise a stage can, and often does, lead to wrong thinking about its content. We can easily be misled by images which are conjured up by descriptive labels which have their origin in a different historical period and which refer to a different moment in a different struggle.

In this connection let us examine the descriptive label – ‘bourgeois democratic’ – which has, now and then, been used to describe the present phase of our revolution. We believe this is a misleading description which obscures the true content of the present stage of our struggle. For a start it invokes quite a wrong analogy with the Russian 1905 and February 1917 revolutions.

It could, of course, be said that we are struggling at this stage for some of those political rights which were articulated by the ideologists of the rising bourgeoisie at the dawn of capitalism (the franchise for all, civil equality, national unity, self- determination, etc.). These have become traditionally labelled ‘bourgeois-democratic rights’. The banner of ‘democracy’ helped the emerging bourgeoisie to mobilise the working people in the towns and the serfs in the countryside against the old feudal order and to establish its own hegemony.

Today, in general, it has become an anachronism to link democratic aspirations with the bourgeoisie. A struggle for democracy in the modern era has little, if anything, to do with the ‘bourgeois-democratic revolution’. Wherever democracy threatens the basis of capitalist economic exploitation the bourgeoisie are the first to abandon it. The Fascist experience exemplifies this point.(6) But, in any case, in regard to our own situation, there are even more compelling reasons for rejecting the label bourgeois-democratic to describe the content of our liberation struggle.

In South Africa, in contrast to 1905 and 1917, it is our bourgeoisie (and not a feudally-based autocracy) which wields economic and political power. Our bourgeoisie is the ruling class in every sense of the term. It has achieved and maintained its hegemony precisely through the mechanism of denying ‘bourgeois-democratic rights’ to the majority of the population. The specific route which capitalism took in South Africa has led to the creation of a virtually inseparable bond between capitalist exploitation and race domination.

With the exception of a very tiny and economically weak black bourgeoisie, our capitalist ruling class in general continues to be opposed to the universal extension of democracy (as normally understood) to the majority. On the main issues our capitalist class as a whole is, and can be expected to remain, on the side of the retention of race hegemony, albeit by mechanisms which involve some forms of power-sharing.

This conclusion is not negated by the speeches that we hear from some of our tycoons like the Rellys and the Oppenheimers. A few are undoubtedly stirred by a liberal conscience reinforced, perhaps, by the fact that certain aspects of race domination are no longer as profitable as they used to be. There are undoubtedly significant differences at the top on the choice of strategies for coping with the present political and economic crisis. This fact calls for the use of all means, including dialogue, to weaken the unity of the ruling class and to isolate its most reactionary sector; it does not imply that they can become part of the revolutionary camp.

This reality makes a special imprint on the content of the immediate phase of our revolution. For example, it cannot be said of our revolution, as Lenin was able to say of pre-October Russia, that ‘the revolution expresses the interests of the entire bourgeoisie as well’. It certainly does not do so in our case. We therefore believe that it is misleading to use the words ‘bourgeois-democratic’ to describe the present stage. The words National Democratic are closer to our reality. We will return to this question when we touch on the specific social content of our national democratic revolution.

The analytical path along which we have journeyed has been the target of attacks by critics from different positions. Our enemies on the right (including Botha) allege that we control the ANC and that our hidden agenda is the immediate capture of fully- fledged socialist power. Our detractors on the ultra-left accuse us of the very opposite sins; that we are being dragged in the tail of nationalism and that we have abandoned our socialist goals.

But even among some of our close friends and supporters there is a need to share a better understanding of the real content of the immediate social transformation that we seek. For example, in a recent interview Dr V Goncharov(7) is reported to have said that he detected an attempt by some ANC members ‘to put before the national liberation movement now the tasks of the socialist revolution’ and that this approach poses the danger that they will lose allies in the population’.

Neither the SACP nor the ANC nor any of their authoritative spokespersons have advanced socialism as the immediate objective. Perhaps Dr Goncharov’s fears are fertilised by the fact that our National Democratic Revolution has a special content, necessitating immediate social measures (especially in the economic sphere) which appear to have a socialist flavour. The Freedom Charter (which is not a socialist document) contains such elements. If, analytically speaking, we look at the first stage of our revolution through bourgeois-democratic spectacles, we risk confusing (as, I fear, Goncharov does) some of the essential radical changes with socialist transformation.

In other words, there is a distinction between the social content of our National Democratic Revolution and socialist transformation. For reasons which are special to our own situation, the present phase of our revolution contains elements of both national and social emancipation; it is not the classic bourgeois-democratic revolution nor is it yet the socialist revolution. This is so because of the unique relationship between capitalist exploitation and national domination in South Africa.

In the world as a whole, capitalist exploitation does not necessarily involve race domination. But the historically-evolved connection between capitalist exploitation and race domination in South Africa creates a link between national liberation and social emancipation. In our conditions you don’t have to be a doctrinaire Marxist to conclude that a liberation which deals only with a rearrangement of the voting system and leaves undisturbed the race monopoly of 99% of our wealth, is no liberation at all. Any honest black nationalist understands that white political privilege has been the device to create and protect white economic privilege.

It is therefore impossible to imagine any real form of national liberation which does not, at the same time, involve a fundamental rearrangement of the ownership and distribution of wealth. Even Gavin Relly, the current boss of Anglo-American, was forced to declare:

‘In the economic field, whilst I as a businessman would want the freest environment for the private sector to pursue its interests, I accept that some form of mixed economy is likely … This is so because there is quite justifiable emphasis on the part of black South Africans on a more equitable distribution of wealth, to compensate for the errors of omission and commission of apartheid'(sic). (Sunday Times 1.6.86)

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It is precisely our Party’s emphasis on the economic content of our National Democratic Revolution which has contributed so much towards the spread of revolutionary nationalism. And it is for the same reason that the Party has won such an important place in the liberation alliance and gained so much popularity among the workers and youth as an independent vanguard.

It is, of course, imperative (as we have already stressed) that we mobilise the widest democratic unity around a programme of immediate assault on the racist tyranny. However, the economic content of our National Democratic Revolution has to be guarded even at the risk of losing some ‘potential allies’. If we retreat too far on this aspect we may entice more ‘allies’ but, in the process, we would also risk losing our mass revolutionary following. Compared to analogous phases (the Russian 1905 and February 1917 revolutions) certain of the key elements of our democratic revolution are, therefore, much more closely ‘interwoven’ with the longer-term socialist transformation.

The shortest route to socialism in our country is via a democratic state. But it will be a democratic state which will at once be required to implement economic measures which go far beyond bourgeois-democracy. These economic measures, dictated by the most elementary objectives of our national liberation struggle, will erect a favourable framework for a socialist transformation but will not, in themselves, create, or necessarily lead to, socialism.

A speedy advance towards socialism will depend, primarily, on the place which the working class has won for itself as a leader of society.

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4. Working Class Leadership

If the working class emerges as the dominant social force in a truly democratic post-apartheid state, the possibility is clearly opened up of a peaceful progression towards socialism. Those ‘revolutionaries’ who may throw up their hands in horror at the suggestion that conditions might open up the possibility of a peaceful transition towards socialism should take note of Lenin’s words:

‘To become a power the class-conscious workers must win the majority to their side. As long as no violence is used against the people there is no other road to power. We are not Blanquists, we do not stand for the seizure of power by a minority’ (Selected Works, Vol.2, p.36).

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To eventually win the majority of our people for a socialist South Africa, we must spread socialist awareness and socialist consciousness now, mainly among the workers but also among the rural poor and the middle strata. We must also ensure that the working class emerges as the politically-dominant social class in the post-apartheid state. This can only be achieved if the working class wins a place now as the leading social force in the inter-class liberation alliance.

But, it is not only to ensure a post-apartheid advance towards socialism that the role of the working class is crucial. The immediate objectives of real national liberation as envisaged by the ANC and SACP and whose goals are embodied in the Freedom Charter cannot be effectively fulfilled without the organised strength and leadership of the working class. We emphasise again that if the working class isolates itself from the alliance the result would be to dilute the content of the national democratic revolution, to hand over its direction to the other class forces and, in the long term, to hold back socialist advance.(8)

The working class cannot play the key role by merely leading itself and sloganising about its historic mission. It must win popular acceptance on the ground as the most effective champion of the democratic aspirations of all the racially-oppressed groupings. It must work with, and provide leadership to, our youth, women, intellectuals, small traders, peasants, the rural poor and – yes – even the racially-dominated black bourgeoisie, all of whom are a necessary part of the broad front of our liberation struggle.

It is, however, sometimes alleged that an alliance will tie the hands of the working class and erode its independence. Such an outcome is certainly not inevitable.

The Vietnamese leader, Le Duan, described an alliance as a ‘unity of opposites’. The classes and strata which come together in a front of struggle usually have different long-term interests and, often, even contradictory expectations from the immediate phase. The search for agreement usually leads to a minimum platform which excludes some of the positions of the participating classes or strata. It follows that an alliance can only be created if these diverse forces are prepared to enter into a compromise. And it can only survive and flourish if it is governed by a democratic relationship between the groupings which have come together.

But when a front is created the working class does not just melt into it. It does not abandon its independent class objectives or independent class organisation. On the contrary, the strengthening of workers’ independent mass and vanguard structures is even more imperative in periods demanding organised relations with other class forces. This brings us directly to the organisational instruments of working class leadership.

The Instruments of Working Class Leadership

In general, workers must be active wherever people come together in struggle, whether at national, regional or local levels. The whole mass democratic movement the UDF, youth organisations, women’s organisations, civics, street committees, students, church-goers, etc., must feel the influence of workers’ militancy and dedication. The majority of most of these categories are, in any case, workers who should ensure, through democratic participation, that their interests are not swamped by the other social groupings.

The independent role of the working class and the way it relates to other classes of our society, at once raises important questions connected with the character and role of three key worker-related sectors of our struggle the national movement, the trade union movement and the political party of the working class. It also raises questions about the way in which these sectors relate to one another. Let us say a few words about each of these sectors.

Trade Unions and the Working Class

A trade union is the prime mass organisation of the working class. To fulfil its purpose, it must be as broad as possible and fight to maintain its legal status. It must attempt, in the first place, to unite, on an industrial basis, all workers (at whatever level of political consciousness) who understand the elementary need to come together and defend and advance their economic conditions. It cannot demand more as a condition of membership. But because the state and its political and repressive apparatus is an instrument of the dominant economic classes, it is impossible for trade unions in any part of the world to keep out of the broader political conflict.

Especially in our country, where racist domination and capitalist exploitation are two sides of the same coin, it is even more clear that a trade union cannot stand aside from the liberation struggle. Indeed, the trade union movement is the most important mass contingent of the working class. Its organised involvement in struggle, both as an independent force and as part of the broad liberation alliance, undoubtedly reinforces the dominant role of the workers as a class. In addition, trade unions’ and workers’ experience of struggle in unions provide the most fertile field in which to school masses of workers in socialist understanding and political consciousness.

The very fact that the workers’ economic struggle cannot be separated from the struggle against national domination has helped to blur the border-line between trade unionism and the political leadership of the working class as a whole. It is, however, vital to maintain the distinction between trade union politics and overall revolutionary leadership. A trade union cannot carry out this dual role; if it attempted to do so it would have to change its basic character and risk committing suicide as a mass legal force. In addition, the very nature and purpose of trade unionism disqualifies it from carrying out the tasks of a revolutionary vanguard.(9)

The syndicalist notion that trade unions should act as political parties is so discredited that it has few, if any, open adherents. But, from time to time, the notion is introduced through the back door in the shape of policies which would, in practice, allocate such a role to the trade union movement.

An example of one such tendency is the premature attempt to formally incorporate the objective of socialism into trade unions and the federation to which they belong. Such a move would narrow the mass character of the trade union movement by demanding an unreal level of political consciousness from its members or affiliates as a condition for joining. It would also, incidentally, give the enemy the very excuse it needs to deal with one of its most formidable foes.

Another example, at the level of the mass democratic movement, is a recent suggestion that new grassroots United Front structures should be set up at national, regional and local community levels.(10) These structures would be restricted to sectors which are predominantly of working class origin unemployed, organised workers, rural poor, youth and students, working women, etc. The effect of this approach would be to downgrade the UDF as the umbrella of the broad legal liberation front and to replace it with a narrower front run by the trade union movement(11).

The tendency to mechanically apply the principles of trade union politics and organisation to the broader political struggle is also evident in some of the debates around questions of the democratic content of popular and working class political structures. Using the trade union movement as a model, critics of the UDF allege an absence of democratic control from below. They also express concern that the mass of the workers have very little democratic control over their revolutionary parties which claim a vanguard role. All this is contrasted with the trade union movement which, by virtue of its democratic traditions and practices, is claimed to be better equipped to represent the working class.

These positions (advanced mainly by some union-linked academics, contain a mixture of legitimate concerns relating to the defence of some fundamental principles of trade union organisation and erroneous notions about political organisation. Trade unionism in our country has been guided by appropriate organisational forms and democratic processes. Without open public elections, complete participation of the mass of the membership in all decision-making, day-to-day accountability of officials, etc., trade unionism would lose its effectiveness.

But these very organisational forms and practices (which must be defended and deepened in the trade union movement) would become a paralysing extravagance if transplanted to a working class political party or if applied mechanically to political structures of the mass democratic movement, operating under emergency rule.

Unlike a trade union, a worker’s vanguard does not, and should not, have the character of a mass movement. It cannot hope to survive in illegal conditions without clandestine methods which often, unavoidably, conflict with democratic practices. A worker’s political vanguard is guided by the Leninist principles of democracy and centralism a combination whose precise mixture is dictated by the actual conditions of revolutionary struggle. An attempt to apply trade union organisational practices to such a vanguard would spell the end of revolutionary political leadership in our conditions. Equally, the trade union movement would be doomed if it attempted to act like a Communist Party.

Even a mass political movement like the UDF would be disabled politically if, before each mass action, it were obliged to go through the same kind of democratic procedures which are so vital and appropriate for workers in economic struggle against the bosses. A strike ballot in a labour dispute is a necessity; its rationale cannot be extended to a political struggle situation. The guiding core of a political mass front would paralyse itself by the continuous need for mandates and referenda from its rank and file.

Intensified repression in the recent period has, for example, imposed methods of semi-clandestinity on the UDF, unavoidably affecting some of its consultative and collective practices; a fact unjustly exploited by some of the detractors of the UDF.

We do not claim that the necessary democratic practices have always been implemented within the mass democratic movement, or that Communist Parties have never abused democracy on the excuse of centralism. But such illegitimate departures from the norms must be dealt with as a separate problem; they should not become the excuse for insisting on syndicalist practices which, in the case of the political leadership of the struggle, would lead to organisational constipation.

The ANC and the Working Class

The main core of the whole democratic struggle illegal and legal is the ANC which stands at the head of the liberation alliance. As head of this alliance and prime representative of all the oppressed, it welcomes within its ranks all from whatever class they come who support and are ready to fight for the aims of the Freedom Charter. It is a revolutionary nationalist organisation with popular roots. It is not, however, ‘populist’. The ANC’s Strategy and Tactics recognises that there are different classes among the people with different long-term aspirations.

The overwhelming majority of the people are working class. This explains why the ANC’s composition and policies show a strong bias towards the working class. It also considers it proper and necessary for socialist ideology to be discussed and understood in its ranks. But, despite the fact that the ANC has an understandable bias towards the working class it does not, and clearly should not, adopt a socialist platform which the so- called Marxist Workers’ Tendency (expelled from the ANC) would like it to do. If it adopted such a platform it would destroy its character as the prime representative of all the classes among the oppressed black majority.

At the same time, for reasons already outlined, its revolutionary nationalism does, of necessity, contain a social content which reflects our specific national liberation aspirations a content which will ultimately facilitate the socialist transformation but is not premised on it. Worker participation in the ANC is one of the important ways in which our working class plays its role in the democratic revolution. But, above all, the tripartite alliance, moulded in the revolutionary underground, between the ANC, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), and our SACP, represents a framework which expresses the political interests of our working class in the broad front of struggle.

The SACP and the Working Class

Workers’ political leadership must represent the working class not just in economic struggles against the bosses but, more so, in its relation to all classes of society and to the state as an organised force. We stress again that a trade union cannot carry out this role. Only a political vanguard of the working class can do so.

A vanguard party, representing the historic aspirations of the working class, cannot (like a trade union) have a mass character. It must attract the most advanced representatives of the working class; mainly professional revolutionaries with an understanding of Marxist theory and practice, an unconditional dedication to the worker’s cause, and a readiness, if need be, to sacrifice their very lives in the cause of freedom and socialism. Our SACP is such a Party.

We have made a unique contribution to the ideological and organisational strengthening of the national movement. Today our Party is described as one of the two main pillars of the liberation alliance led by the ANC. As an independent Party, we have devoted our main energies to strengthen workers’ organisations, to spread socialist awareness and to provide working class political leadership.

There is no organised force in our country’s history which has matched our Party’s contribution to the spread of genuine workers’ organisation at the point of production. We can truly claim to be the parent of black trade unionism.

A strong trade union movement and a workers’ political vanguard such as ours are essential conditions for the kind of victory in the democratic revolution which will find a working class equipped organisationally and ideologically to assert its historic role. But we emphasise again that there is both a distinction and a harmony in the character and roles of these two vital sectors. Each has a specific role to play in advancing the interests of our working class as an independent social force and as the leading class in the immediate struggle to build a united, non-racial and democratic South Africa.

This brings us directly to the next related section which touches on the theoretical basis of our approach to the building of the South African nation.

5. The Building of the Nation

At its founding conference in 1912, the ANC issued a clarion call for African unity under the slogan, We Are One People. As head of the liberation alliance, it is committed to working for the creation of one South Africa which, in the words of the Freedom Charter, ‘belongs to all its inhabitants, black and white’.

Are we already ‘one people’ or are we, as yet, only a nation in the making? In the light of the undoubted existence of ethnic differences, is the cementing of our diverse communities into a single South African nation both desirable and realisable? Does the colonial status of the dominated blacks lead us to the conclusion that there are already two nations in our country – the oppressed and the oppressor? What is the role of the working class in the struggle to constitute our nation? These are issues which go to the very root of our struggle against the racist autocracy. The national question (including the question of what constitutes a nation) perhaps more than any other, illustrates the profound truth of Lenin’s remarks to the Communist Organisations of the Peoples of the East that ‘you will not find the (complete) answer in any communist book’. (National Liberation and Social Emancipation, Progress Publishers. 1986, p.269).

Indeed, the Marxist theory of the National Question is perhaps the least developed in our revolutionary science. It offers few propositions which can be used as starting points for an analysis of concrete situations. This is especially so for the developing world where, as we shall show, attempts to invoke European models and analogies completely fail to meet the needs of the real situation.

Stalin’s Contribution

The basic Marxist-Leninist approach to the question of what constitutes a nation was, for many years, guided generally by Stalin’s well-known definition. Stalin defined the nation as a community of language, culture, territory and economy. Unfortunately, there have been tendencies to treat these categories (language, culture, etc.) as a mechanical set of criteria.

As a result, in defining ‘nations’, questions of mother-tongue or of long-established traditional cultures have sometimes come to dominate and even displace the more significant class political and economic issues. This post-Leninist tendency gave pride of place to cultural-linguistic (or ethnic) factors at the expense of a class approach. It infected some of our own earlier debates on the national question and came dangerously close to providing (albeit unintentionally) a rationale for ethnic separatism.

For example the Comintern, in 1932, called on the Communist Party of South Africa, inter alia to advance the slogans: ‘Complete and immediate national independence for the people of South Africa. For the right of the Zulu, Basuto, etc., nations to form their own independent republics. For the voluntary uniting of the African nations in a Federation of Independent Native Republics. The establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government. Full guarantee of the rights of all national minorities, for the coloured, Indian and white toiling masses’.

In the early 50’s Lionel Forman, with a bias in favour of Stalin’s thesis, opened up an interesting debate on the national question which, after his untimely death, was never really followed up in the ranks of the Party.

In a symposium in Cape Town in 1954, he spoke in favour of the long-term aim of ‘one single, united South African nation’. But he insisted that ‘the only correct path towards (it) is through the creation of conditions by which the different national cultures in South Africa may first flower and then merge …’ And he posed the possibility of self-determination for the different ethnic communities.

‘I think’, he said, ‘the majority of communities which have common language and psychology In South Africa are not full nations, but national groups. That is, I think they are aspirant nations, lacking their own territory and economic cohesion, but aspiring to achieve these’ (my emphasis).

Before returning to our own country let us touch on the general question of the genesis of Nations and the problem as viewed from the African perspective.

The Nation and the Colonial Situation

Stalin’s thesis on the National Question may have had validity in the concrete reality of a Europe in the aftermath of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the national realignments which followed. It was obviously also of great relevance to the post-October advance in the solution of the National Question in the Soviet Union. But its application to our conditions or, even, to most parts of the continent of Africa is, at best, questionable.

Using Stalin’s formula as a starting point, we would have great difficulty to find in our continent many state entities that could be described as ‘nations’. Applying the formula mechanically we might even be tended to lend theoretical respectability to neo-colonial inspired secessionary tendencies and (as in the case of South Africa) play about with ethnic constitutional ‘solutions’ which would, in effect, perpetuate minority domination.

The coming into being of an entity which can be described as a nation has a variety of historic roots. Its genesis is not necessarily connected with a single class. The modern Nation-State is not always the creation of the bourgeoisie. Nor can it be claimed, as a universal proposition that ‘a nation is a historical category belonging (only) to the epoch of rising capitalism’ (Stalin). In the post-October period some national entities (e.g. Mongolia which skipped the capitalist stage altogether) have only come into being under socialist power. Most of the world’s nation-states emerged in the post-war period and it cannot be argued that they all had their origins in a new wave of rising capitalism.

In the colonial world generally, nation-formation was deliberately stilted, retarded and under-developed by imperial policy. But, despite this policy, the very spread of the capitalist mode of production made for objective tendencies towards the breaking down of ethnic, cultural and tribal divisions. This process was also subjectively advanced by the need for the dominated people to create a common front in the struggle against a common colonial oppression.

FRELIMO’s approach to the question of nation-formation is illustrated by Marcelino dos Santos in an interview in 1973. We must bear in mind that Mozambique is a vast country with a multitude of diverse tribal and cultural groupings. Even today it could be said that the Makonde in Cabo Delgado have more in common with the Makonde of Southern Tanzania than with the Shangaans of Gaza Province who, in turn, have a close affinity to the Shangaan people of the Eastern Transvaal. Dos Santos said:

The main conditions for (the) successful rejection (of tribalism) are present. On the general point of whether we have already moulded a nation in the true sense of the word, I want to say that a nation is based on concrete realities. And the most important reality in the present stage in Mozambique is the fight against Portuguese colonialism. It is our common fight against our common oppressor which plays an outstanding role in creating a national bond between all the diverse groups and cultures… Of course a nation is a product of history and its formation goes through different phases. In this sense the work for the final achievement of nationhood will continue even after independence although the fundamental elements of nationhood are already in existence and in the process of being further developed in Mozambique’ . (African Communist, 4th Quarter 1973).

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There is no absolute moral test about nation formation. The consolidation or fragmentation of disparate ethnic groups into one or into several sovereign entities cannot be judged by any universal formulas as to what constitutes a nation. The answer for a revolutionary is influenced by far more complex political considerations than can be contained in an enumeration of catalogues of common ‘national’ qualities.

In Africa (more especially below the Sahara) the concrete realities were dominated by a specific form of colonialism. Administrative entities were created which had little, if anything, to do with a common culture, language, economy and so on. The colonial units which imperialism created were, in most cases, determined solely by inter-imperialist power relationships and were made up of an arbitrary mixture of completely distinct socio-economic formations. The 1885 Berlin Conference was one of the high points of this process.

These administrative entities gradually acquired distinct economies. Meanwhile, however, the imperialist powers employed various mechanisms to deliberately perpetuate regional and ethnic differences in the interests of more effective control. Tribalism, indirect rule, playing off one region against the other, and preventing the emergence of a national consciousness or cohesion; these were the prime weapons in the armoury of imperialist domination.

In other words, whereas the economic functions of the nation-state created at the dawn of the capitalist era were served by the breaking down of ethnic, regional, language and cultural divisions, in most of Africa the colonial masters were served by a very opposite process. Colonial control for purposes of economic exploitation demanded ethnic fragmentation and inter-ethnic hostility.

The encouragement of a national awareness and cohesion became the major response from the colonised peoples. Beginning with the ANC in 1912, the creation of a national, rather than an ethnic or tribal consciousness, became a key rallying cry of virtually every liberation movement in Africa. Where a sizeable working class emerged, its work and living conditions helped undermine rural ethnic exclusiveness.

In summary, it could be said that the historic process of spreading a national (as opposed to ethnic or tribal) consciousness and the national consolidation of existing state entities is, in the modern African era, generally a weapon of liberation and social advance. Conversely, the emphasis on regional and cultural exceptionalism (including claims to secession of ethnic regions from existing state entities) is generally designed to serve both Internal and international reaction and is, in most cases, an instrument of colonial, neo-colonial or minority domination.

The struggle for national cohesion in multi-ethnic communities does not imply the imposition of cultural uniformity. Cultural diversity does not stand in contradiction to a national unity. Such a unity can be made up of a totality of both distinct and intermingling cultures which ‘in their totality constitute the culture of the… people as a whole’ . (Interview with Lucio Lara, African Communist, Third Quarter, 1978).

National self-determination correctly remains part of the Holy Grail of Marxist learning. But, for most parts of Africa, the invocation of this right for regional or ethnic entities (either for secessionary purposes or for creating ethnically-defined political groupings) usually serves to undermine rather than to advance the right to national self-determination. And nowhere is this more so than in the context of the South African struggle.

The South African Case

In the South African case it is certainly the emerging proletariat which has become the key class force for nation-building. As the most politically conscious and advanced social force in our revolution, our black working class is, at the same time, the most internationalist and the most committed to national cohesion.

Despite the existence of cultural and racial diversity, South Africa is not a multi-national country. It is a nation in the making; a process which is increasingly being advanced in struggle and one which can only be finally completed after the racist tyranny is defeated. The concept of one united nation, embracing all our ethnic communities, remains the virtually undisputed liberation objective.

Conversely, colonial domination in our country has, throughout its history, employed political and administrative devices to facilitate its policy of ‘divide and rule’ by impeding the process of nation formation. Apartheid is only the most recent and ideologically developed variant of a policy which has been practised from the very beginning of conquest. It was preceded by the British colonial strategies of Reserves and Segregation.

The pre-apartheid strategies failed to stem the tendencies towards the emergence and continued growth of an African national consciousness. Economic imperatives (including the very important factor of permanent urbanisation), and revolutionary nationalist activity combined to undermine these strategies.

The threat posed to race domination by the growing unity within the liberation camp was becoming more evident in the late 40s. To ensure its survival the ruling class sought a way of turning the clock back. Against the background of a heightened level of terror against the people and their organisations, they declared themselves to be the new champions of ‘national self-determination’ and launched their bantustan programme.

Twelve ‘homelands’ were proclaimed and offered ‘independent’ statehood. South Africa, so it was claimed, was now following Europe and proceeding apace with its own ‘decolonisation’ process. But (as the regime itself has been forced to concede) this Verwoerdian plunge into the ‘final solution’ has demonstrably failed. Irreversible economic processes and mass struggle and resistance once again dashed the hopes of those who plotted to reverse the nation-building momentum of the Liberation Alliance.

Despite the substantial failure of its bantustan strategy, our ruling class continues to cling to the rationale which underpinned it. The growing demand for democracy and majority rule in a united South African continues to be met by the diabolically simple answer that ‘South Africa is a multi-racial country’. There is no majority. There are only minorities, all of whom must retain their economic, geographic and cultural ‘heritage’. RSA radio made all this very plain in a BBC-monitored broadcast on the 28th of January, 1987:

‘The government’s preparation for power-sharing is a clear indication of post-apartheid South Africa. Majority rule is nonsense in South Africa as there h no majority. The key issue is the protection of minority rights. There are ten African nations plus whites, coloureds and Indians, and all insist on their right to self-determination. Negotiations for such power-sharing are under way’.

We know what this kind of ‘multi-nationalism’ implies. It is the prime device for continued national domination. Presented in its crude form, this ‘multi-national’ approach has little chance of misleading our people. But we must be on our guard against some of its more sophisticated variants.

Among these variants are the Buthelezi-backed Kwa-Natal proposals, the Tri-cameral parliament (with a possible extension of a fourth Chamber to represent Africans), and federal arrangements which give constitutional recognition to ethnic entities and ‘traditional’ ethnic leaders. We can expect a host of other devices designed to provide group (as opposed to individual) rights and to give veto right to ethnic communities in multi-racial legislative organs claiming to represent ‘national’ entities. These are all nuances of the same recipe; power-sharing without giving up control.

The more recent models of ‘multi-nationalism’ are based on four broad ‘racial’ or ‘national’ categories: African, White, Coloured and Indian. It can hardly be disputed that, at present, the members of each category (to whatever class they belong) share a definable position as a colour group on the political and economic ladder, with the Africans occupying its lowest rung.

The three black groups suffer varying degrees of discrimination; a reality which, ironically enough, is continually exploited by the very perpetrators of the crime of discrimination. Endless attempts are made to persuade the Coloured and Indian communities to cling to their more ‘privileged’ position in the league table of oppression and discrimination. Fear is spread among them of majority African ‘domination’, in the hope that they will opt for ‘the devil they know’.

But, on the whole, these minority black communities have not been taken in. The word ‘black’ is increasingly adopted by them to describe their political and national affinity with Africans. The massive rejection of the Tri-cameral parliament and joint participation in the major struggles against racism are among the signs of togetherness. Thus, although the process is by no means complete, the national bond among the three black groups is growing closer and closer.

The White Community

A combination of economic factors, common responses to domination and ideological activity, have taken the process of nation formation some distance among the dominated. However, the national bonds which are being cemented in our country have not yet greatly affected the whites. The overwhelming majority regard themselves as a national entity not only completely separate from the blacks but also superior to them. And the Afrikaner stands out as the most hard-line partisan of this approach.

This is not the place to trace the complex factors (cultural, ideological, religious, etc.) which have served to entrench white chauvinism and Herrenvolkism deeply into the psyche of this community. But, essentially, the process had its main roots in the economic privileges built on the foundation of the intense exploitation of black (especially African) labour. These privileges accrue, in different degrees, to all members of the white community, to whatever class they belong.

The basic objectives of liberation cannot be achieved without undermining the accumulated political, social, cultural and economic white privileges. The moulding of our nation will be advanced in direct proportion to the elimination of these accumulated privileges. The winning over of an increasing number of whites to the side of democracy is an essential part of our policy. We cannot, however, accept constitutional schemes which are designed or calculated to perpetuate a ‘multi-national’ framework h order to retain the separate national identity and, therefore, the power of white racism.

Our approach is clear and we must spread it ever more widely. The cultures and languages of the white group (like the cultures and languages of all the other groups) will have a safe haven in South Africa which, in the words of the Freedom Charter, ‘belongs to all its people, black and white’; a South Africa which will ultimately realise the idea of common nationhood in its full meaning.

Colonialism of a Special Type and ‘Two-Nations’ Thesis

Neville Alexander believes that our Party’s thesis of ‘colonialism of a special type’ (CST) obstructs the drive towards single nationhood. He maintains that it necessarily implies a two-nations thesis (white and black) which ‘holds within it the twin dangers of anti-white black chauvinism and ethnic separatism’.(12) The thesis has also been criticised on the related ground that it allegedly encourages an approach which underplays or ignores class divisions within the black and white communities and tends to place ‘populist’ rather than class objectives before the working class.

CST does not imply a two-nations thesis, nor does it ignore the class divisions within the communities. The CST thesis correctly describes the reality that, in the post- 1910 period, the substance of the colonial status of the blacks has remained intact, even though its form may have altered. It is this reality which provides a correct starting point for grappling with the complex problem of the relationship between national and class struggle. It is obvious that until the colonial status of blacks is ended the process of building one nation cannot be completed.

The CST thesis neither ignores class divisions within the dominant and dominated communities, nor does it postulate the existence of two fully-formed ‘nations’ – white and black. It does not define the ruling class as consisting of the whole white population.

It is not the CST thesis which fuels the danger of anti-white black chauvinism; it is the fact that the overwhelming majority of the white community (irrespective of class) benefits from and, therefore, supports race rule. Alexander speculates that the liberation struggle can become ‘ideologically insulated’ against the dangers of black anti-white chauvinism and ethnic separatism if ‘the revolutionary classes accept that they are part and parcel of a single nation’. But even ‘revolutionary classes’ would surely find it difficult (and the masses on whom they rely even more so) to accept that this is already so.

Anti-white chauvinism cannot be mitigated by spreading an idea based on a myth. The ‘revolutionary classes’ can best advance the struggle for the achievement of single nationhood if they recognise (and act on) the reality that we are not yet one nation. The strategy and tactics of the struggle to create one united South African nation can neither ignore the significance of the present white-black divide nor the different levels of oppression to which the dominated majority are subjected.

Organisational structures of the constituents of the ANC-led liberation camp and the shape of its alliances at specific historical moments, have always been guided by such factors. For example, the Congress Alliance of the late 40s and 50s consisted of the separate historically-evolved organisations representing the African, Coloured and Indian people and, later, white democrats.

This approach laid the foundation for inter-black unity in action which, more than any other factor, helped to erode ethnic political separatism. It also prepared the conditions which made it possible for the ANC to open its ranks to the other groups. In sharp contrast, the former Unity Movement acted with ostrich-like disregard of ethnic factors. In the process, it may have insulated its own small band against the dangers to which Alexander refers, but it also succeeded in insulating them from advancing the process of unity in the real world.

Group Rights

The very strength of racist state power, the deeply-ingrained nature of white national exclusiveness, and the occasional outbreaks of inter-ethnic strife, have influenced some external academic circles, sympathetic to our cause, to raise the possibility of the liberation movement’s agreeing to constitutional provisions for group rights is the post-apartheid phase. This thinking is also partly influenced by the belief that there is, in any case, no great prospect of welding South Africa’s diverse ethnic groups into one nation.

For example, Dr Gleb Starushenko, a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, told the 1986 Soviet-African conference that, in his personal opinion, a parliament which accommodated group rights should be considered for the post-apartheid period. This parliament would consist of two chambers; one on the basis of proportional representation and the other ‘possessing the right of minority veto’, which could operate on the basis of ‘equal representation of the four communities’. Dr Starushenko (whose pro-liberation intentions are not in dispute) would also like to see the ANC work out ‘comprehensive guarantees for the white population’ and ‘programmes’ which give our ‘bourgeoisie the … guarantee’ that there will be no broad nationalisation of capitalist property.(13)

If this package is motivated by a search for the kind of compromise which would tempt the racists to come to the negotiating table, it is certainly not an acceptable starting point for a negotiating agenda for our liberation movement. Apart from other considerations, the racists’ own insistence on ‘group rights’ is undoubtedly linked to the preservation of control over the means of production. If this control is maintained, through the granting of minority veto powers, the most fundamental features of race domination would be perpetuated, a result which Dr Starushenko would clearly find unacceptable.

The idea of ethnic parliaments may have an additional rationale – a belief that South Africa is, and is likely to remain, a multi-national country, and that future constitutional arrangements must make provision for this reality. In this connection, the Soviet experience of the solution of the national question in the post-Czarist period, understandably informs the thinking of Soviet scholars. But to be guided by this experience in our conditions is in fact to risk bringing about the very opposite results to those which were achieved in the Soviet Union.

In the Soviet Union a recognition of multi-nationalism was the very foundation of national liberation and self-determination; it led to the creation of autonomous and self-governing national republics originally linked to each other in a federation and later in a union.

In our case multi-nationalism, whether in the form of independent ethnic ‘homelands’ or parliaments based on colour-group rights constitutes the main racist recipe for the continuation of national domination by other means.

This is not to say that all traces of ethnic exclusiveness have already been effectively erased from the political arena and that we have already become one nation. The battle is still joined to prevent ethnic separatism from making advances from positions it continues to hold under government patronage.

In particular we must not allow the regime to get away with its claims to be the main champion of ethnic languages and cultures under the guise of its ‘homelands’ policies and its dishonest brand of ‘multi-nationalism’. It is our duty not only to proclaim, but also to ensure that in a unitary democratic South Africa the language and other positive cultural heritages of the diverse groups will really flower and find effective expression.

We stand for one united, democratic South Africa based on universal adult suffrage. This strategic approach is inviolable. We cannot, at this stage, allow ourselves to be diverted by speculation about future justifiable compromises in the interests of revolutionary advance. It is clearly in struggle that we will succeed in forging our one South African nation which is already in the making.

Forging one sovereign South African nation is an integral part of the objectives of the national democratic revolution. Our national liberation movement, welding together millions of South Africans in every corner of our country, is already a major dynamising factor in the struggle to build a unified South Africa.

The winning of the objectives of the national democratic revolution will, in turn, lay the basis for a steady advance in the direction of deepening our national unity on all fronts – economic, political and cultural – and towards a socialist transformation. For our working class nation-building means, among other things, unifying themselves nationally as the leading class whose developing culture, aspirations and economic interests become increasingly those of the overwhelming majority of our people.


. A rather snide example of this is an article in Africa Perspectives (June 1987), ‘The Ideology and Politics of African Capitalists’ by Mike Sarakinsky. Sarakinsky relies on journalistic reports of NAFCOC’s accounts of its meeting with the ANC to suggest that its claim that there was ‘total agreement’ with the ANC on many issues implied that the vision of ‘total liberation’ which was presented by the ANC was tailored for the occasion. The main body of his article was written before the ANC-NAFCOC meeting and draws on NAFCOC pronouncements over a decade old. In an attempt to explain away NAFCOC’s more radical postures in the recent period, which tend to contradict Sarakinsky’s rather mechanical characterisations, he makes these unscholastic additions in a postscript.

2.Even where the socialist transformation is directly on the agenda, the role of the private sector cannot be dismissed. Leaving aside the lunatic excesses of Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, many hard lessons in this area have been learnt by some of the established socialist states and, more recently, by African parties dedicated to a socialist advance. The transition period to socialism may well demand a maintenance of selective parts of the private sector. A mechanical and generalised elimination of this sector for the sake of satisfying sloganised orthodoxy, has often served to undermine the faith of the working people in the capacity of socialism to ‘deliver the goods’.

3. In general, the class interests of the white capitalist class are not served by the objectives of the national democratic revolution. The survival of non-monopoly white business in the post-apartheid state does not provide a basis for regarding it as a potential part of the revolutionary liberation camp. White business is generally helped and not impeded by race practices. In the post-apartheid state those who merit being allowed to continue business activities will have to conduct their operations under the more restrictive conditions specified in the Freedom Charter. However, sectors of white business can be (and have been) drawn into pressing for the abandonment of the worst excesses of apartheid; a process which helps to fragment the unity of the ruling class.

4. See eg. P. Hudson, ‘The Freedom Charter and the Theory of the National Democratic Revolution’, Transformation (1) 1986.

5. It should, however, be conceded that our own formulations have sometimes been imprecise, and have invited the charge that we treat stages as compartments, as ‘things-in-themselves’.

6. Not to speak of imperialism’s unending pattern (in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East) of imposing and helping to sustain brutal tyrannies in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’.

7. Deputy Director of the Institute of African Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences, interviewed in Work in Progress no. 48 by Howard Barrell.

8. Even when the construction of socialism is directly on the agenda, class alliances remain in place, more immediately to maintain socialism in the face of imperialist-supported counter- revolution and, in the long term, to move to a higher stage.

9. In addition, the most basic purpose of a trade union to force genuine reforms in the work situation within the existing economic framework tends generally to nurture reformist rather than revolutionary political tendencies. This perhaps explains why working class parties that have been fathered by a trade union movement and continue to be dominated by it (as in Great Britain) usually pursue social-democratic rather than revolutionary objectives.

0. This proposal is a distorted follow-up of the perfectly correct NUM-sponsored COSATU congress resolution that called for close alliances between the trade union movement and militant sectors of the community; an approach which was adopted by the Congress as a counter to the NUMSA-sponsored resolution which explicitly stressed a front dominated by ‘socialist’ elements.

1. The relationship between a trade union federation and organisations such as the UDF still needs to be worked out more precisely. A case can be made out for the view that direct affiliation of a trade union federation (as opposed to individual unions) is not the immediate answer. But it is vital that institutionalised links be mutually agreed upon between two such key actors in the democratic struggle. This approach appears from the February 1988 UDF circular which defines the United Front as ‘… a close working relationship between UDF, COSATU, NECC and the Churches … There is a need for COSATU and the UDF to create permanent structures at national and regional levels’.

2. ‘Approaches to the National Question in South Africa’, in Transformation 1(1986) p.83. Alexander also suggests that the wording of the Freedom Charter suggests a four nation thesis.

3. Weekly Mail January 9-15, 1987


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