Joe Slovo – Democracy and Socialism

Discussion paper by Jeremy Cronin presented to the Chris Hani Institute, 18th January 2007

Over the past year-and-a-half, the defence of comrade Jacob Zuma articulated formally by the left as represented by the SACP and COSATU has generally been couched in terms that could be regarded as belonging to a discourse of “first generation” individual liberal rights and of the need to ensure checks-and-balances on state power. Frequently used concepts have included the presumption of innocence; the right to a fair trial; “justice delayed is justice denied”; protection against the invasion of privacy; the need for the separation of powers; and the condemnation of the abuse of political office and the blurring of party and state institutions. Even the conservative political notion (first introduced by de Tocqueville) that “revolutions inevitably swallow their own children” has been invoked. It is true that there have been some occasional inconsistencies – including threats (not from the SACP) to disrupt the judicial process – but overwhelmingly the official discourse from the SACP and COSATU has been couched in eminently liberal human rights terms.
It is not the intention of this paper to debate the specific merits, or otherwise, of our defence of comrade Jacob Zuma, still less to enter into a discussion of the relevant merits of potential presidential candidates.. My point of departure is to note the fact that a liberal human rights discourse has been pervasive in the defence of cde Zuma, and to ask: Is this a problem?
In seeking to think through this question, I want to draw extensively on Joe Slovo’s January 1990 pamphlet, “Has Socialism Failed?” Written in the midst of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its East European bloc, the main thesis of the pamphlet is that it was not socialism that was failing, but a grave bureaucratic distortion in which socialism had become separated from democracy. Socialism cannot survive, let alone flourish, without democracy, Slovo argues. In developing this argument, Slovo is compelled to probe the question of the relationship between Marxism and democracy.
Class morality and human morality
The first issue that Slovo tackles is the allegation that the massive anti-democratic distortions that occurred under Stalin were inherent within the classical texts of Marxism itself. Stalin and his emulators, so this argument goes, were able to justify the suppression of human rights and democracy in the name of the “class struggle” and “working class values” by drawing on arguments from the Marxist “classics”. Slovo rejects this argument:
“Marxist ethical doctrine sees no conflict between the contention that all morality is class-related and the assertion that working class values are concerned, above all, with the supremacy of human values. The separation of these inter-dependent concepts (in later theory and practice) provided the context in which crimes against the people were rationalised in the name of the class. We continue to assert that it is only in a non-exploitative, communist, classless society that human values will find their ultimate expression and be freed of all class-related morality. In the meanwhile the socialist transition has the potential of progressively asserting the values of the whole people over those of classes (…) The great divide which developed between socialism and political democracy should not be treated as flowing naturally from key aspects of socialist doctrine.” 
In advancing this dialectical perspective Slovo is critiquing at least three different positions. His principal target here is, of course, all those triumphalist anti-socialist ideologues of the period who were asserting that the terminal crisis in the Soviet bloc was inherent in the fundamental values and theories of Marxism itself. Slovo is also critiquing recalcitrant neo-Stalinists who were persisting in dismissing human rights in the name of class struggle. A third target, although here the tone is less sharp in the pamphlet, is the then Soviet president and CPSU general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, who, in Slovo’s view had a tendency to go too far in the other direction in separating “these inter-dependent concepts” – working class values and human values.
“This type of formulation [Slovo’s own] is preferred to the one occasionally used by Gorbachev that there are certain universal human values which take priority over class values. This latter formulation tends to detract from the inter-dependence of working class and human morality. It also perhaps goes too far in separating morality from its class connection, even though it is clear that the assertion of certain values can be in the mutual interests of otherwise contending classes.”
Is “bourgeois democracy” bourgeois, or does it represent working class victories?
Slovo insists, then, that “the fundamental distortions which emerged in the practice of existing socialism cannot be traced to the essential tenets of Marxist revolutionary science.”  However, this is not to say, he goes on:
“that every word of Marx, Engels and Lenin must be taken as gospel; they were not infallible and they were not always correct in their projections… it could well be argued that the classical description of bourgeois democracy was an over-simplification and tended to underestimate the historic achievements of working class struggle in imposing and defending aspects of a real democratic culture on the capitalist state; a culture which should not disappear but rather needs to be expanded under true socialism.”
Slovo basically endorses this latter perspective. What we commonly call “liberal democratic rights” are fundamentally progressive achievements of the working class and popular forces, no doubt distorted, partial, and unevenly realised within capitalist societies. On this basis, Slovo then goes on to argue for the importance for socialism of a range of these values and institutional arrangements – including a consistent and principled respect for human rights, the separation of powers, and a multi-party electoral dispensation. The erosion of all of these was central, he believes, to the stagnation and collapse of “existing socialism”.
“The steady erosion of the powers and representative character of elected institutions [in the Soviet bloc] led to the alienation of a considerable portion of society from political life. The electorate had no effective right to choose its representatives. Gone were the days when the party had to engage in a political contest to win a majority in the Soviets. The legislative organs did not, in any case, have genuine control over legislation; by their nature they could only act as rubber stamps for decisions which had already been taken by party structures. The executive and judicial organs were, for all practical purposes, under the direct control of the party bureaucracy. In practice the majority of the people had very few levers with which to determine the course of economic or social life”.
On the question of single-party states, Slovo acknowledges some positive if perhaps temporary features particularly of relatively progressive, single-party systems in Africa where they might have helped to overcome ethnic, regionalist and other divisions.  But he is fairly categorical about their inherently problematic nature:
“In relation to the socialist perspective, it is sometimes forgotten that the concept of the single-party state is nowhere to be found in classical Marxist theory. And we have had sufficient experience of one-party rule in various parts of the world to perhaps conclude that the ‘mission’ to promote real democracy under a one-party system is not just difficult but, in the long run, impossible. But, in any case, where a single-party state is in place and there is not even democracy and accountability within the party, it becomes a short-cut to a political tyranny over the whole of society. And at different points in time this is what happened in most socialist states.” 
The Party and the mass movement
If the impact of Stalinist practices was dire for a respect for human rights, for the independence of the judiciary, or for vibrant elected legislatures, it was equally dire for the Party and the mass movement.
“Democracy in the mass organisations was also more formal than real. The enormous membership figures told us very little about the extent to which the individual trade unionist, youth or woman was able to participate in the control or direction of their respective organisations. At the end of the day these organisations were turned into transmission belts for decisions taken elsewhere and the individual members were little more than cogs of the vast bureaucratic machine. 
“The trade union movement became an adjunct of the state and party. Workers had no meaningful role in determining the composition of the top leadership which was, in substance, answerable to the party apparatus. For all practical purposes the right to strike did not exist”
In the immediate aftermath of the October revolution, Slovo recalls, the Bolshevik party shared power with other political and social tendencies, including Mensheviks and a section of the left Social Revolutionaries. In the elections for the constituent assembly in 1918, the Bolsheviks received less than a third of the popular vote. Slovo does not enter into the debate as to whether the Bolshevik abolition of the elected Constitutent Assembly was justified or not (“there may be moments in the life of a revolution which justify a postponement of full democractic processes”). However, leaving aside the detail of this specific debate, he proceeds:
“Suffice it to say that the single-party state and the guiding and leading role of the party subsequently became permanent features of socialist rule and were entrenched in the constitutions of most socialist states. Henceforth the parties were ‘vanguards’ by law and not necessarily by virtue of social endorsement. 
“This was accompanied by negative transformations within the party itself. Under the guise of ‘democratic centralism’ inner-party democracy was almost completely suffocated by centralism. All effective power was concentrated in the hands of a Political Bureau or, in some cases, a single, all-powerful personality. The control of this ‘leadership’ by the party as a whole was purely formal. In most cases the composition of the highest organ – the congress which finalised policy and elected the leadership – was manipulated from the top. 
ected by variations of a ‘list’ system emanating from the top) had only the most tenuous jurisdiction over the Political Bureau. Within this latter body a change of leaders resembled a palace coup rather than a democratic process; invariably the changes were later unanimously endorsed.”
Stalinism and the state of permanent “crisis”
While allowing for the possibility of special periods in which the temporary and partial suspension of some democratic rights might be justified (war, civil war, etc.), Slovo argues that there is a very real danger that exceptional moments become the norm to justify the actions of a bureaucratic elite and its continuous suppression of democratic rights for the great majority.
“The anti-Leninist theory advanced (in the name of Lenin) to ‘justify’ this process was that the class struggle becomes more rather than less intense with the entrenchment of socialism. In some respects this became a self-fulfilling prophecy; a retreat from democratic norms intensified social contradictions which, in turn, became the excuse for an intensification of the ‘class struggle’.” 
Incidentally, one of the questions we need to pose in 2007 is whether in the recent period in South Africa there have not been tendencies (from all sides within our movement) to greatly over-hype the perils confronting our movement and the NDR. Wittingly, or unwittingly, the tendency to present each and every political difference as a matter of life and death begins to justify extreme “disciplinary” measures, suspensions and counter-suspensions some of which, to quote Slovo, start to resemble “palace coups” rather than effective and mature revolutionary political organisational conduct.
Liberalism and the current South African conjuncture
I have quoted at some length from Slovo’s important intervention in 1990 defending the validity of socialism at a time in which it was under attack from all quarters, while many socialists and Communist Party leaders were resigning themselves to what Slovo aptly called “unilateral ideological disarmament”. In quoting from this pamphlet, I have sought to establish some reference points for my original question: Should it be a matter of embarrassment that the SACP and COSATU defence of comrade Zuma has largely been couched in terms that would conventionally be regarded as “liberal individual rights”?
My first, if still provisional, answer is: NO!
It is very important (bearing in mind all that we have noted Slovo arguing) for progressive forces to be clear (and not coy) about the importance of championing democratic values and institutions traditionally associated with 18th century liberalism. In South Africa we have a long-standing tradition that runs at least from the 1955 Freedom Charter through to our 1996 Constitution in which a radical democratic project takes up and takes forward the “liberal” democratic tradition of basic human rights and checks-and-balances on state power. Defending such basic democratic rights is also critically important in the current global context, in the struggle against imperialist barbarism that rides rough-shod over, for instance, individual rights with renditions, extra-territorial detention without trial, “judicial” executions, defiance of the Geneva Conventions, and the general trampling over the principles of the basic equality of nations, the right to national sovereignty, and the requirements of a multi-lateral, rule-governed international order, including a rule-governed and just trading regime.
But in taking up these themes we have, of course, to go beyond (but not back behind) liberalism – which is to say, we can only take up and take forward human rights values if we consistently carry forward a clear critique of liberalism itself.
In this paper I do not want to dwell too much on our major (and generally well known) critique of liberalism – namely, that it conflates two separate issues:

  • The advocacy of individual rights (freedom of speech, freedom of belief, etc.), of basic human equality (regardless of race, culture, gender, etc), and of the need to ensure there are checks-and-balances on state power, on the one hand and
  • The advocacy of the capitalist “free” market and its values of possessive individualism, and a rabid anti-public sector perspective, on the other.

The emergent bourgeoisie of the 18th and 19th century in Europe and North America, and the emergent bourgeoisie in the colonial and semi-colonial world of the 20th century has often been able to forge (or parasitically ride) broad popular democratic fronts built around the advocacy of the first set of values (freedom and equality). But in conflating the struggle for freedom and equality with the capitalist market they have always betrayed and curtailed the fuller realisation of these values in practice. This fundamental critique of liberalism remains absolutely valid, not least for our present South African reality. However, I want to focus on a less noticed tendency within liberalism.
Liberalism and the de-politicisation of the political
Lenin was a great admirer of the Prussian theorist of warfare, Clausewitz, and he frequently refers to him.
“’War is the Continuation of Politics by Other’ (i.e. Violent) ‘Means’. This famous dictum was uttered by Clausewitz, one of the profoundest writers on the problems of war. Marxists have always rightly regarded this thesis as the theoretical basis of views on the significance of any war. It was from this standpoint that Marx and Engels always regarded various wars.” (On Just and Unjust Wars, p.32-3)
Now, if war is the continuation of politics by other means, is it possible to say that non-violent class struggle is also always the pursuit of war by other means? And is it possible then also to argue that, since “all is fair in love and war”, all means are justified in the class struggle? If this is the case, then the invoking of, for instance, democratic rights or the separation of powers in a democratic society is purely a matter of tactical convenience for Marxists.
This is exactly what tended to happen with Stalinism, and it is this kind of thinking that provided the rationalisation for the “permanent state of crisis” approach noted above. However, I think that this is a serious misreading of Lenin. He is not arguing that we are in a perpetual state of military conflict, but he is arguing against the philistine notion that societies (particularly, but not only, capitalist societies) are essentially placid and non-antagonistic.
“This writer [Clausewitz], whose basic views are undoubtedly familiar to every thinking person, nearly 80 years ago challenged the ignorant man-in-the-street conception of war as being a thing apart, a simple attack that disturbs the peace, and is then followed by restoration of the peace thus disturbed, as much as to say: ‘They had a fight, then they made up!’” (ibid. p.85)
In other words, Lenin is seeking to politicise our understanding of war, not militarise our approach to politics. There is an important difference between these two things. Lenin is debunking the notion that societies (and particularly class societies) are essentially conflict free, devoid of fundamental contradictions that only violent outbreaks occasionally “disturb”.
But it is this “ignorant man-in-the-street conception” that has in fact been especially hegemonic over the past decade. At the beginning of the 1990s, at the time that Slovo was defending socialism by advancing a socialist critique of “actually existing socialism”, triumphant neo-liberal ideologues were proclaiming “an end to history”. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc there were, apparently, now no more fundamental ideological or social antagonisms, no serious policy debates to be waged. In short, the “end of history” was also the end of any real politics. There was now a global consensus among all “reasonable men and women” about how states should be run. Politics was reduced to management techniques.
These themes were taken up with zest locally, at first by our own domestic liberals. In the early 1990s, during the negotiations period, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, for instance, warned against “overburdening our new democracy” with the issues of socio-economic inequalities. Those issues were best kept out of politics and left (by implication) to the market and technocrats. Politics for van Zyl Slabbert was reduced to certain constitutional “rules of the game” – a multi-party dispensation, regular elections, the separation of powers, etc. These matters are important, but the big substantive issues were displaced elsewhere.
The same de-politicisation tendencies were also detectable already in this early period within our own movement. In the midst of the negotiations, those who urged against mass mobilisation, against “rocking the boat”, told us, for instance, that the “National Party now agrees with every single clause of the Freedom Charter” (cde Aziz Pahad). There was nothing more to really talk about at the negotiations other than some technicalities.
Immediately after the 1994 democratic breakthrough, another leading comrade declared, in effect, that the struggle was over:
“We are on the threshold of achieving our lifetime’s objectives…We have put national unity and reconciliation on the forefront of the first government…Those achievements are what the people wanted and what the people gave their lives for.” (cde Mac Maharaj, The Star, 1 May 1994).
When,at much the same time, the 2nd Quarter 1994 African Communist had as its front cover slogan “A Luta Continua!”, many feathers were ruffled in the ANC.
The idea of an all-ecompassing, conflict-free, national and global consensus was taken forward in many other discourses. GEAR was floated on this presupposition – “there were no other alternatives”, and besides the Washington Consensus was “the high-road to a prosperous new South Africa”. In defending GEAR, and in belittling its left-wing opponents, liberal journalistic commentators (among them Ray Hartley and Howard Barrell) returned to the theme that there were no more substantive political issues to be debated. Politics, in Barrell’s view, was now reduced to leadership contests and factional rivalries – a position that has now become, it seems, the near official view of the ANC leadership as we will discuss later.
Archbishop Tutu’s introduction to the TRC report spoke of South Africa emerging into a new global order in which the three great “crimes” of the 20th century had finally been defeated – “Nazism, Communism and Apartheid”. We were now living not just in a “normal” rainbow nation, but in a rainbow world of shared rational values. (Tutu conveniently forgot about the great and persisting crime of the 20th, 19th, 18th and 17th centuries, a crime of which apartheid was just a sub-set – the imperial conquest and subordination of the South – with its associated realities: slavery, genocide, racism, dispossession, colonialism, semi colonialism and persisting neo-colonial underdevelopment.)
Tutu’s perspective in this regard was little different from those of many leading ANC comrades at the time, who upheld the notion of a “benign globalisation” process underway in a brave new world replete with post-Cold War dividends. As recently as June 2002, President Mbeki announced “the end of the epoch of colonialism and neo-colonialism”. Returning from (of all things) a G8 Summit in Kananaskis in Canada, comrade Mbeki was quoted in the Sunday Times (30th June 2002):
“I think they [the G8] have addressed adequately all the matters that were put to them… [The summit is] a defining moment in the process both of the evolution of Africa and the birth of a more equitable system of international relations. In historical terms, it signifies the end of the epoch of colonialism and neo-colonialism.”
Even the Sunday Times political gossip columnist Hogarth was moved to ask: “Just how many ends will this colonialism have?” (ibid.)
Liberalism’s intolerance
Our Marxist tradition (and this is the basis of Lenin’s admiration for Clausewitz) has understood politics to be essentially about conflict, antagonism, relations of power, and forms of subordination and repression and the struggle against these. Because liberalism has a tendency to wish away these realities, it reduces political problems into administrative and technical issues, consigning more and more areas to the management of supposedly “neutral experts”, or to the invisible hand of the market.
But this liberal manoeuvre can always only be denialist, and the critique of reality itself always comes back to bite denialism. Real conflicts and their consequences cannot be wished away, they rebound in practice. Chantal Mouffe (see, in particular, The Return of the Political, Verso 1993 and 2005)has written extensively on these themes in her critique of liberalism:
“The illusion of consensus and unanimity (…) should be recognised as fatal for democracy and therefore abandoned. The absence of a political frontier [between “them” and “us”], far from being a sign of political maturity, is the symptom of a void that can endanger democracy (…) When there is a lack of democratic political struggles with which to identify, their place is taken by other forms of identification of ethnic, nationalist or religious nature, and the opponent is defined in those terms too.” (p.5)
This passage, by the way, brilliantly captures the symbiotic connection between the “benign global consensus” liberal politics of Clinton (and Blair 1), and the “axis of evil” “clash of civilisations” fundamentalism of Bush Jnr (and Blair 2). – the depoliticisation of politics in the former case has resulted in the repressed reality (the fact that millions of third world peoples have been profoundly marginalised, alienated and impoverished by “globalisation”) returning in fact (of course in a myriad of political forms, some of them extremely reactionary). But the inability to conceptualise this reality politically persists – it is denied in the first moment and then thought of in “civilisational” (the clash of civilisations) or even apocalyptic terms (the axis of evil) in the second. Because these latter explanations are essentially non-political, in fact racist and delusional, they cannot ground a strategically intelligent politics, even from the point of view of imperialist circles.
As Mouffe goes on to note:
“Democracy is in peril not only when there is insufficient consensus and allegiance to the values it embodies, but also when its agonistic dynamic is hindered by an apparent excess of consensus.” (p.6)
 Democracy and the gradation of contradictory forces
Following Mouffe (and Lenin) in agreeing that politics is essentially about antagonism and contradiction, we need, immediately, to note that not all antagonisms and contradictions are of the same order, nor should they be approached (from the perspective of a progressive socialist politics) in the same way:

  • Some antagonistic forces (antagonistic to our post-1994 democracy, let us say, because these matters are never context-free) are “enemy” forces and our strategic objective must be to uproot and destroy them. These are forces (and they are relatively minimal at present) that have placed themselves squarely outside of the democratic constitutional order (eg. the Boeremag). They are not part of our basic democratic consensus, the “social contract” of 1994;
  • Other antagonistic forces, the array of electoral opposition parties (DA, IFP, ID, UDM, ACDP, PAC, FF+, AZAPO, etc), as well as sundry extra-parliamentary ultra-left forces hostile to the ANC-led alliance are essentially “oppositional” forces – they have a legitimate right to exist, they represent real constituencies (of varying size and significance) within our post-1994 democratic dispensation. As a socialist left we must actively defend their right to exist, and their right to organise and raise alternative perspectives. At the same time we must, of course, actively engage their ideas, expose their errors and illusions, diminish their influence through democratic means, and seek (where appropriate) to win over their constituencies.
  • But there are also real contradictions and real policy debates (at least there should be) within the people’s camp. Borrowing from Mao, these are what we might refer to as “non-antagonistic” contradictions. The fact that they are “non-antagonistic” does not mean that they are not real political contradictions ultimately located in objective realities. These contradictions have to be surfaced, debated and strategically “managed”. Their administrative suppression or the denial of their existence will inevitably undermine the living unity of the people’s camp.

This hierarchy of contradictions is, of course, not timeless or context-free. It is dynamic. “Enemy” forces might, as part of a radical democratic project, be compelled, wooed or otherwise co-opted into the broader democratic framework as has largely happened with the white right-wing generals now located in the FF+, or with the war-lords in the IFP. Conversely, oppositional forces can go over to the side of enemy forces, etc. Clearly, socialist politics should aim to:

  • maximise the size (and hegemonic quality and ideological clarity) of the progressive camp,
  • broaden the wider national consensus around a progressive constitutional playing-field, while weakening, through democratic means, oppositional forces on that terrain, and
  • uproot and destroy enemy forces.

Defining who is the enemy, who are oppositional forces, and what contradictory array of forces constitutes the people’s camp is itself part of a contested political struggle, including a (hopefully) non-antagonistic struggle within the people’s camp itself.
The relative open-endedness of all of this does not mean that it matters little how we conceptualise these things. Very grave strategic and tactical errors which can threaten our NDR can be made either:

  • By exaggerating the levels of consensus (i.e. veering in the direction of a liberal depoliticisation of the political); or, conversely,
  • By tending to portray all differences as part of the “counter-revolution”, and as the “enemy” that has to be destroyed (i.e. veering in the direction of a Stalinist militarization of the political).

BOTH of these inclinations have been present (at least as detectable tendencies, if not always in a full-blooded way), in what the SACP CC 2006 discussion document has characterised as “the 1996 project” within the ANC.
The de-politicisation of the political and the 1996 project
The tendency within the ANC to exaggerate the levels of consensus in the recent period in South Africa obviously owes much to the global dominance of neo-liberalism at the time of our democratic breakthrough, with its various themes of benign globalisation, a “post-ideological” world, a “third wave of democracy”, etc. These themes appeared to sit well with the imperatives of our own negotiated transition – requiring a new inclusivity, reconciliation, and the forging of a national unity. But all of these themes also served tendentially to de-politicise the political terrain.
This process of de-politicisation has also produced a strong tendency towards the technocratic managerialism that Mouffe notes and critiques. The SACP 2005 CC document also elaborates this point quite extensively. It finds its clearest expression in the reiterated claim that “the policies are all in place, it is just a question of more effective implementation”. This is not to disagree that there are not many serious capacity and implementation challenges in the state, but implementation failures are often not unrelated to poor policy (the result of technocratic decisions that have marginalised active political debate and participation).
The tendency to erase the political also accords with some of the more organic traditions of earlier, pre-capitalist societies. President Mandela, for instance, has often evoked his childhood experiences of deliberations in the Great Place in which democratic politics was essentially about achieving consensus:
“The meetings would continue until some kind of consensus was reached. They ended in unanimity or not at all. Unanimity, however, might be an agreement to disagree, to wait for a more propitious time to propose a solution…Majority rule was a foreign notion. A minority was not to be crushed by a majority.”  (Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, p20)
In some respects, this is an inspiring model of how to handle non-antagonistic contradictions within the people’s camp through active and relatively egalitarian (although in this case all-male) participation. But the discomfort with the idea of majority rule and of a minority is problematic for a modern democracy. Majoritarian principles do not have to imply that a parliamentary minority has either to be swallowed up in a GNU, or crushed. Nor is there any shame, within the people’s camp, of being a loyal minority – disagreeing, let us say, with floor crossing legislation, or (as with the recent case of cde Zola Skweyiya) disagreeing with the current ANC 2002 national conference majority position that there should be no Basic Income Grant. Disagreement with floor-crossing or support for BIG does not have to be factionalist, disloyal or heretical. It is encouraging that within the ANC, since the July 2005 NGC, there has been a greater preparedness from diverse quarters to open up policy debate in these ways.
But this development, it should be remembered, is having to assert itself against the recent (and often persisting) background of considerable, often authoritarian, hostility to policy debate and difference within our movement. I have tried to argue that much of this intolerance, paradoxically, owes something to the inevitable political intolerance within liberalism itself. However, a hegemonic neo-liberalism is not the sole source of these tendencies towards technocratic commandism in our movement.
The 1996 project has also frequently drawn upon certain themes and concepts derived from a cut-and-paste, vulgar Marxism that dates back to the academies of the pre-glasnost Soviet era. And this is why it is so important, in 2007, to return to Slovo’s 1990, Has Socialism Failed?.
The 1996 project and vulgar Marxism
When we think of recent examples of tragic denialism within our movement, HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe come to mind. But another major point of denialism has been around the impact of the Soviet bloc on the theory, and organisational culture of our movement. Within the SACP itself, Slovo’s Has Socialism Failed? opened up an important inner-Party debate about the lessons of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Indeed, in the public climate of the 1990s, the decision of party cadres to remain loyal to the basic tenets Marxism-Leninism and to the communist cause required considerable ongoing public explanation and intervention based on criticism and self-criticism, as well as, of course, a defence of real gains achieved despite grave distortions. As Slovo correctly realised, the defence of communism required communists themselves to the take the lead as communists in carrying through an active renewal of Marxism-Leninism, in part, by way of a thorough critique of the administrative command systems that had evolved in the former Soviet bloc.
But at the very moment that Slovo and some of the SACP leadership collective were discussing Has Socialism Failed? nearly half of that leadership collective was in the process of breaking away from the SACP. I am not arguing petulantly that this was some unforgivable betrayal and that those who remained on in the Party at this time should now carry a personal resentment to the grave. But I am arguing that the break from the SACP at this crucial moment served, in practice, the purpose of not having to take collective responsibility for examining the impact of the legacy of Soviet-era theory, organisational culture and practice on the SACP and on the ANC itself. I believe that the SACP in the 1990s did much better in this respect, but there is still no room for complacency. Vigilance in regard to the dangers of organisational and theoretical deterioration and the need to constantly replenish and renew Marxism-Leninism, above all through immersion in popular struggle, remains.
But the failure of the ANC more broadly to take up and to popularise throughout its ranks the debate initiated partly by Slovo in Has Socialism Failed? has, I believe, had a negative impact on our movement. And so, within ANC strategic and tactical discussion, there has often been a strange hybrid of liberalism (not least the possessive individualist discourse of BEE and personal entitlement), on the one hand, and vulgar Marxism on the other. Examples of this vulgar Marxism abound, perhaps one of the clearest examples was the 2002 28-page pamphlet authored by cdes Jabu Moleketi and Josiah Jele, entitled “Two strategies of the national liberation movement in the struggle for the victory of the national democratic revolution”.
This pamphlet, like other examples of the same thing, appropriates “Marxism” (“Marxism” without socialism it should be said) not in order to open up a comradely strategic debate, but in order to label, threaten and generally intimidate. The main thrust of the pamphlet, was that the 2002 SACP congress positions and elected leadership were “ultra leftist”, and that “ultra-leftism” was “counter-revolutionary”, which is to say, part of the “enemy” bloc. Clearly the way was being prepared to move decisively against the SACP, or its leadership collective; to, at the very least, provoke a response that would (as in the earlier case of Bantu Holomisa) lead to disciplinary action and expulsion.
This agenda did not quite succeed in flying within the ANC itself, for a variety of reasons which I will not explore here. But the line of attack is still to be found in a watered-down way in the Strategy and Tactics document which was re-affirmed in the December 2002 ANC national conference, and particularly in the new Preface that was added at the time. In the Preface we are told that:
“The principal ideological currents, in this era of globalisation, in terms of which we need to contrast our own positions are neo-liberalism and modern ultra-leftism.” (p.7)
Clearly, both the ANC and SACP need to guard against the dangers of ultra-leftist voluntarism, but to elevate something called “modern ultra-leftism” (as if there was some coherent ideology of this kind) to an equivalent status of neo-liberalism is patently ludicrous. More threateningly, this passage from the Preface should be read in conjunction with how the body of the ANC’s Strategy and Tactics document (the one originally approved at the 1997 national conference) handles the question of “counter-revolution”. While warning, absolutely correctly, against the danger of treating all opposition as “counter-revolutionary” (“It is always tempting for revolutionary organisations in political office to characterise all opposition to their programmes as acts of counter-revolution”, p.40), and while agreeing that “an opposition that pays allegiance to the constitution and the country’s laws and seeks to modify the programmes of transformation…is a legitimate actor..” (p.40), it goes on to fudge matters somewhat by arguing that most opposition parliamentary parties are “broadly- speaking, counter-revolutionary”(p.40). This “broadly speaking counter-revolutionism” is contrasted with the “narrow sense” of counter-revolution:
“In the narrow sense, counter-revolution can be defined as a combination of aims and forms of action that are mainly unconstitutional and illegal, to subvert transformation. These include setting up intelligence and armed networks parallel to and within the state to sabotage change through direct political activity…They also entail underground efforts to undermine the country’s economy…deliberate acts of corruption driven not merely by greed…illegal and malicious acts of capital flight and so on.” (p.41)
Establishing a pseudo-equivalence between the SACP/COSATU and the DA as was attempted, particularly around 2002, (“they are all raising the same issues – Zimbabwe, HIV/AIDS”), and a pseudo-equivalence between neo-liberalism and “modern ultra-leftism” and labelling them all “counter-revolutionary” in the “broad sense” starts to walk very close (at least in rhetoric) to the edge above the precipice of terror and purges. All that stands between the one and the other (at least in rhetoric) is the slippery slope of relative “broadness” and “narrowness”.
Where are we now?
Although some of these specific 2002 dynamics remain residually within our movement, I believe that the epicentre of internal debate within the ANC-led movement has moved on somewhat, not least since the ANC’s 2005 National General Council. But many of the underlying problems still persist, and in particular the key issue that I have tried to underline throughout this paper – namely a reluctance or inability to surface politically political differences within the people’s camp, and to treat these as legitimate currents that require articulation – i.e. as contradictions that need to be tested and transformed through debate, discussion, activism and even voting into non-antagonistic contradictions (but contradictions nonetheless).
Instead, there have been tendencies towards either:

  • political denialism (“there are no political differences between us” – affirms the joint statement by the president and deputy president of the ANC; “there is no succession race”; “there are no political differences in the ANC Western Cape leadership”, etc.); or
  • technocratic erasure of the political (“the policies are all in place, it is just a question of implementation”); or
  • attempts to intimidate and suppress – of the kind that occurred notably in 2002.

At the end of each of the recent presidential visits to ANC provinces, cde Mbeki has issued a “reassuring” statement that there are no fundamental political differences among disputing factions. This may, or may not, be true. The point I am trying to make here is that rather than grounds for reassurance, the absence of significant political difference between otherwise often highly divided factions is a matter for even greater concern. Political differences can be handled politically (and this, surely, is what progressive political organisations should be primarily about). But if the divisions are not rooted in politics then there are no political solutions to them – only the sheer play of power, of administrative and disciplinary measures, of factions and conspiracies, of judicial commissions, of expulsions and counter-expulsions, of palace coups, or of intra-elite wheeling and dealing.
Which finally brings me back to my point of departure…  
Have the SACP and COSATU been justified in evoking a “liberal” human rights discourse in the defence of cde Zuma?
Leaning heavily on Slovo’s Has Socialism Failed? I have tried to show that there is nothing inherently liberal (or bourgeois) about the defence of individual human rights and of checks-and-balance on state power. On the contrary, it is imperative that socialists take up and defend these rights and principles – and that we do so in a consistent way, and not just tactically, when the occasion suits us.
But we cannot remain locked within the discourse of individual human rights and checks-and-balances on state power. That way the political quickly becomes de-politicised, drained of substantive content. Going beyond these rights and principles does not, and must not, mean falling below them. We need to locate these rights and principles within a wider programme of substantive transformation.
I believe that the ANC’s July 2005 NGC opened up the space for just such a process, unfortunately that space came to be dominated by an implicit (if always denied) succession debate, which in turn has resulted in a considerable de-politicisation of the intra-movement debate. As we move towards the SACP July National Congress, the ANC policy conference and the December ANC national conference, it is imperative that the left rises to the occasion of ensuring that there is, indeed, a carnival of ideas – not only for the mere sake of a carnival, but as the best means for beginning to build a working class ideological hegemony within our movement and society.
This itself will be a struggle. As Slovo writes towards the end of Has Socialism Failed?:
“It would, of course, be naive to imagine that a movement can, at a stroke, shed all the mental baggage it has carried from the past. And our 7th Congress emphasised the need for on-going vigilance. It noted some isolated reversions to the past, including attempts to engage in intrigue and factional activity in fraternal organisations, sectarian attitudes towards some non-party colleagues, and sloganised dismissals of views which do not completely accord with ours. 
“The implications for socialism of the Stalinist distortions have not yet been evenly understood throughout our ranks. We need to continue the search for a better balance between advancing party policy as a collective and the toleration of on-going debate and even constructive dissent.” 
In the coming months and years, these perspectives advocated by Slovo in 1990 constitute an important guide to SACP cadres and to our broad movement in general.

Chris Hani institution 2018 Frontier Theme