By Sithembiso Bhengu and Samukele Hadebe
On Thursday, 28 February 2019, the Chris Hani Institute (CHI) hosted a discussion seminar themed Emerging from the Shadows: Is Marxism Still Relevant to our Struggles? The guest presenter was Helena Sheehan, an Emeritus Professor at the University of Dublin, Ireland. The discussant was Alex Mashilo, the National Spokesperson for the South African Communist Party (SACP).
Professor Sheehan began her presentation by outlining her own history as an activist, first in the United State (US) as a student, and later in Ireland, how she was introduced to Marxism as the main epistemological framework that scientifically explains the totality of the crisis of capitalism, which manifests in economic, political and cultural forms.
She also outlined the articulation of Marxism with political (ideological) education and actual activism (involvement in the various forms of struggles) against oppression and exploitation. What is significant in this statement is her strong emphasis on Marxism, not just as a theory (explanatory tool), but as an ideology that moves people into action (activism and struggles).
Prof Sheehan went further and explained that Marxism continues to be relevant as a philosophical framework, arguing that while theories applied in many progressive struggles; either against racism, sexism, exploitation of workers, imperialism, fascism, etcetera are necessary, none has the conceptual and scientific underpinning to wholly characterise the collective crisis of modernity; namely. the crisis of capitalism.
Two important takeaway points that emanated from her presentation are as follow:
- Marxist (communists) organisations have always placed a strong emphasis on ideological, political, organisational discipline, and wrought through intensive educational programmes, which are absent in many of the new left formations, with negative consequences as seen in regressive developments that erode advances made by the working class in post-colonial revolutions, as well as the recent reverse return of neo-fascist politics in Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, etcetera.
- While there has been a proliferation of theoretical and ideological streams, many of which have become emblematic of a myriad of struggles across the globe, the fragmented nature of these theories and identities greatly hamper the progressive potential of many of these struggles. Marxism continues to serve as the best scientific tools of analysis to explain problems associated with poverty, inequalities, war and discrimination in modern society.
In response, discussant, Alex Mashilo gave a summary of key points raised by the guest speaker and concurred with her on the continued relevance of Marxism as a liberatory theory even in contemporary times. He furthermore, highlighted that political education in South Africa declined after the democratic breakthrough of 1994.
He noted that at the 2012 Mangaung Policy Conference the ANC adopted Marxism-Leninism as its ideological framework, but that not much has been implemented since then. He added that while the SACP has political education programmes in place, and is involved in campaigns on political education, these tend to be isolated incidents, because these programmes are unevenly offered at branch and district levels.
Comrade Mashilo alluded to the SACP’s tactical shift in 2017, and advocated for a Popular Left Front, calling for an even Broader Patriotic Front of all progressive forces. He argued that pursuing Marxism at a time of declining political education poses a challenge to all involved. The South African variant of identity politics, with some undertones from people espousing decoloniality and pan-Africanism is very hostile to Marxism. He concurred with Professor Sheehan that there is a need to build our own institutions such as Chris Hani Institute, Mzala Nxumalo Centre, and even universities.
The presentations were followed by robust and vibrant discussions, not only between the audience and presenters, but among all participants. The main discussion revolved around identifying challenges in the South African national democratic revolution within the current crisis of global capitalism, but also looking at local scenarios and contradictions affecting the trajectory of democratic transition in South Africa. The discussion coalesced on the significance of building campaigns-based broadest alliance of left formations in South Africa.
Chris Hani Institute acknowledges the Mzala Nxumalo Centre in Pietermaritzburg for hosting Professor Sheehan as visiting scholar from Ireland.