Going to the roots of the SACP’s political weakness

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The SACP’s latest strategy document is called: “Going to the root: a radical second phase of the National Democratic Revolution” (October 2014). The parts of the document which are radical are not original, and the parts which are original are not radical.

The document weakly echoes the diagnosis which prompted Numsa to reconsider the alliance two years ago. South Africa’s ‘persisting structural problems’ (such as rampant unemployment and poverty wages) are rooted partly in the ‘subordination’ of the economy to ‘the imperialist core’, and partly in the stranglehold over the economy by powerful home-grown multinationals. The document is forced to admit the  paradox’ that capital has been the major beneficiary of the first twenty years of ‘democracy’.

The most original, and least radical, thing in the document is an innovation to the SACPs own theory introduces phases into the first stage of their two stage theory, to excuse and obscure a glaring third reason for the lack of structural transformation in the first 20 years of ‘democracy’ – the blatantly comprador attitude of the ruling party to corporate interests, with the result that the end of apartheid has not even ended racism, never mind other forms of inequality.

Not even the SACP can deny that the ruling party since the end of apartheid has moved in the opposite direction to the theory’s prediction. Old and new sections of the ruling class closed ranks at Marikana against strikers with a radically redistributive demand, which shook the prevailing balance of class forces to the core.

To save a flawed theory, the strategy document now claims that we have only achieved only the first phase of the first stage. We have merely ‘abolished (politically, juridically, and constitutionally) white minority rule’ and now we need the next phase of the first stage.

The writers of the document lament that the first twenty years of ANC rule has seen ‘redistribution without sufficient structural transformation’. The second part of the statement is true. The first merely exposes the SACP’s lack of social ambition. What the writers praise as redistribution is merely the trickledown of enormous minerals profits, the barest minimum to prevent the kind of social chaos that might spill over too often to disturb the insulated rich and destabilise profit-making.

From a distance, the party’s ‘structural’ solutions do seem radical. They advocate another New Growth Path based on ‘re-industrialisation’ and ‘relative delinking’ from the world economy.

Re-industrialisation involves ‘rolling back’ twenty years of deindustrialization, that is, export of capital and low reinvestiment in the local economy. They want us to work towards solutions such as using our raw materials in local manufacture rather than export (on which they are again tailing Numsa) and aiming for greater independence from the world economy.

But when it comes to particulars, it seems that when the writers say ‘structural change’ they see something more like ‘infrastructure development to stimulate business’.

The specific measures they outline are much more about the ruling party’s problems with managing a national capitalism than about advancing towards socialism.

Delinking here does not reject the values of the world economy, only South Africa’s inferior place in it. Now, Marx was an internationalist because it is not really possible to delink one section from a world economy where resources are unevenly distributed.

For the strategy document, however, delinking is reduced to forming coalitions with other countries of similar sizes (like Brazil and China) so that their ruling classes can compete more effectively in the world economy.

Surely a first step towards delinking from imperialism, and a step which would weaken international capital, would surely be to forcefully redirect platinum profits from shareholders in London towards reinvestment in people’s needs here.

On reindustrialization, the document casually accepts nuclear and coal energy as a necessary evil for the short term, and lists a number of existing state programs, concluding: ‘As can be seen from the broad outline of key strategic interventions … the second radical phase of the NDR is not something we are just talking about. Many of its key elements are already under implementation. What is required is a more decisive and more coherent effort.’

Finally, for ‘the people’ we find nothing so ambitious or disturbing to capital as bringing the commanding heights of the economy under democratic control.

Instead, under the perfumed title ‘How to leverage a relative de-linking of popular strata from the depredations of the capitalist market’, the document recommends various forms of microscopic self-sufficiency, such as cooperatives, food gardens and extended public works programs.

None of these are objectionable as survival tactics, but they free no-one from the ‘depredations of the market’. Food gardens, for example, need land and water – both still subject to the market in South Africa.

The public works programs but not one that bursts the bounds of capitalism by ‘de-commodifying labour’ as the authors of the document claim. Labour is de-commodified in these programs only to the extent that the wages are lower than the usual labour market rates – but they still have to buy food, clothes and other necessities in the market.

Genuine de-commodification of labour would start at the other end – by taking the necessities of life increasingly

out of the market, for example by subsidizing transport and food. Then people would less and less have to measure how they use their time against earning enough to pay for the basics, and consequently we would be able more and more to value our labour in nonmonetary terms, for its intrinsic value – for the useful things it produces, the lives it improves, the children it raises.

All of the documents measures fit uncomfortably well with an opposite and deeply disempowering agenda: shifting the burden of unemployment onto the unemployed themselves.

The people who are surplus to capital’s requirements for workers must become self-sufficient, even at a very low quality of life, so that they will not be demanding the basics of life from government who would then have to tax capital to provide.

But the party’s document skims over the fact that the proletariat is already self-sufficient, and more: we produce our own means of survival and also all the profit and luxury appropriated by the rich, and live in poverty only because of their grand, legalized theft of wealth.

The party’s solutions, then, are all about once again tying the ‘popular strata’ to government policy, under cover of ‘rebuilding popular activism’. It would be wrong to call the document apologist only because it is completely unapologetic about the ruling party’s failure to confront the root cause of South Africa’s woes, unbridled capitalists.

The writers blame the global economy, an unfavorable shift in the balance of class forces, the weakening of popular organization and a top-down approach to redistribution, without ever acknowledging the role the SACP played in demobilizing the mass movement and then as the left cover for some of the government’s most conservative lurches into the arms of our class enemies.

What the party will not confront is that the commanding heights of the ANC are now comfortably entrenched in the ruling class. They have become the black executive state arm and managers of black discontent for the still mainly white profiteering arm.

They look at the persistence of racism and conclude that we have not yet achieved national liberation and therefore must introduce more phases. They will not contemplate the possibility that nationalist politics can go no further in the prevailing climate because it will not attack capitalism.

They refuse to wonder whether the real lesson of the past twenty years is that the end of racism, inequality and imperialist dominance cannot be completed as long as capitalism prevails.

A cynic might find this blindness unsurprising: even a pseudo-Marxist like Blade Nzimande can recognize his own materialist interests. And this is not wrong. As a cabinet minister, he has a lot to gain from defending the status quo. But we also have to unpack the politics which justified key members of the party squirming into such politically compromised positions in the first place.

The SACP’s original theory advised communists to merge with nationalists in a multiclass alliance, for the first stage, national liberation, which, we were told at the time, would be marked by the end of apartheid (or colonial rule). They expected this state to form the springboard for the second stage, socialism, as the nationalist government used state power to direct development inward, nationalize the commanding heights of the economy, and so on. In practice, we now see how the lack of communist independence from nationalist politics during the antiapartheid struggle has turned the SACP into lackeys of the ruling class today.

The two-stage theory, and its adaption in the October 2014 strategy document, is based on three big mistakes: first, it mistakes the nature of the connection between apartheid and capitalism. Second, it mistakes the nature of the state and of power. And finally, it mistakes the nature and history of nationalism. We will look at these in the next issue.

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