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A Workers’ Party and Elections or Class Struggle?

category southern africa | the left | opinion / analysis author Dienstag Februar 26, 2019 17:32author by Warren McGregor - ZACFauthor email zacf at riseup dot net Report this post to the editors

The Question of State Power and the Anarchists’ Answer

The question of state government elections and running a Workers or Socialist political party continues to be raised in the working class movement and the Left globally. As we may know, there was excitement about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party in Britain, left political parties in certain parts of Europe and Latin America and, more recently, certain shifts to more centrist positions in the United States amongst a section of the Democratic Party calling themselves “Democratic Socialists”. In South Africa, many workers and some activists seem cautiously optimistic by NUMSA’s formation of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party that will seek to participate in the 2019 general elections.
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A Workers’ Party and Elections or Class Struggle? The Question of State Power and the Anarchists’ Answer

by Warren McGregor (ZACF)

The question of state government elections and running a Workers or Socialist political party continues to be raised in the working class movement and the Left globally. As we may know, there was excitement about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party in Britain, left political parties in certain parts of Europe and Latin America and, more recently, certain shifts to more centrist positions in the United States amongst a section of the Democratic Party calling themselves “Democratic Socialists”. In South Africa, many workers and some activists seem cautiously optimistic by NUMSA’s[1] formation of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party that will seek to participate in the 2019 general elections.

With this in mind, we need to look at issues of social transformation within the framework of what we want to achieve and the relationship between the means and ends of struggle in pursuit of these aims. The historic and ultimate socialist end is a society characterised by collective democratic control of the political and economic systems and one without class divisions and oppression of all types – in real terms, a society without the state and capitalism in particular. If this is so, is this revolutionary transformation possible through the means of state power and political parties that aim to capture this form of power? The question is not only one of ideological orientation, but also the strategic and tactical implications imposed by ideological adherence.

Before we get into it, I want to stress that we are participating in and waging a battle of ideas. This is not just between an embattled working class – broadly understood as workers, the unemployed and their families – and the opposing ruling class. It is also a battle of competing tendencies, or ideologies within the working class itself, e.g. nationalism, populism, various Marxist-Leninist tendencies, anarchism/syndicalism, etc. As such, anarchism argues for a political organisation specific to the goals of developing and promoting anarchist ideology, strategy and tactics within the working class and society broadly. The aim is to win the popular classes to its ideas and methods of struggle, resistance and social reconstruction. It is not an anti-organisational approach, but one that argues for an organised, collective and directly-democratic response to the issues posed by the battle of ideas. Anarchism and its trade union strategy, syndicalism, does, however, vehemently oppose the participation of these political organisations in the mechanisms of state rule, including state government elections.

The question of elections and political parties has to be interrogated within the dual contexts of this battle of ideas (inter and intra class) and the relative weakness of union movements in relation to the forces of the ruling class – the state and the corporation. Whereas corporations and their capitalist philosophies have become ubiquitous throughout the world, the influence of unions and the ideas of collective organisation as combative and transformative forces are relatively quite weak. There may be large numbers of workers unionised, but this does not necessarily translate into socio-economic transformative action through the unions. This general weakness is not only characteristic of unions – many other working class social and Left movements are unable to continue struggles against the oppressive nature of modern day capitalism beyond protests and petitions. As such, much action is defensive in nature (e.g. for wage increases above inflation, for access to affordable energy in poor townships, etc.), and rarely are there attempts at changing the relations of ownership and expanding working class control and power into the economy and society.

It is therefore understandable, in a conjuncture of generally weak workers’ and Left formations, that the idea of a Workers Party is appealing for many people and sections of the Left. However, the need to capture state power is also a long-standing idea held and developed by the statist Left ideologies guiding these people. The claim of the need for such a party asserts a new locus for struggle, the voice for socialist ideas and an entity that can bring together working and popular class movements across a range of sectors. Its claim rests on the idea that unions can only ever be economic organisations that aim at day-to-day improvements in the lives of members and workers. An ahistorical claim, if ever there was one! Accordingly, the socio-political realm can only therefore be engaged by a political party that best represents the wishes of the working class as a whole. This they call the vanguard. Another bold claim indeed!

Clearly many people on the Left think the real goal is to achieve state power to realise the promises of the future. In reality this means building a political party and pouring a substantial amount of resources – human and financial – into its development. Many also believe that a Left party, however problematic, would be better than the existing parties, particularly those of the radical right and populists promoting race essentialism and xenophobia, who foment fear of and between different social groupings. History is not too kind, however, to the belief that political parties are vehicles of radical, progressive, socialist transformation.

The idea of state power is wholly under-scrutinised from a critical perspective. Few discussions, if any, exist within working class organisational circles as to the nature and impact of state power on political organisations and mass formations linked to parties in power. Hardly any debates take place regarding the state’s role as an institution of ruling class power and whether or not the state, with its hierarchical structures of centralised, individual control, can ever be accountable to a mass working class base. Also missing in the discussions about elections, parties and the labour movement, is a serious evaluation of the track record of parties – whether in power or in opposition. In this conceptual vaccum, many continue to argue that the problem is existing parties have failed because they have had bad leaders. This may account for the excitement about Corbyn’s influence in the UK’s Labour Party, Cyril Ramaphosa ascending the ANC throne in South Africa, or Bernie Sanders’ popularity in the USA. For others, the problem is bad ideas, with the solution being a better manifesto thereof. However, little attention is paid to structural issues – of organisation, decision-making and control. At the extreme, some of these Left lines of thought propose a better Communist or Socialist Party because of the failure of the historical incumbent. However, there is little interrogation of what these failures were, why they occurred (beyond bad leadership and alliances) and whether or not these failures are inherent to the very idea and hierarchical structure of a self-anointed “vanguard” party.

When we focus attention on these and other such questions, perhaps we can account for what happened to the ANC[2] in South Africa particularly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It suggests more than just the impact of key personalities or even programme. Once in power, the ANC – hierarchically structured and founded on an unprincipled mishmash of neo-liberal capitalist principles trumpeting faith in free markets on the one hand and Developmental State leanings on the other – rapidly developed into a party characterised by state looting, corruption and social repression. There are many similarities shared with liberation movements that came to power elsewhere in the former colonial world, as well as with the old Labour, Workers and Socialist parties in other parts. Once they got into office and despite many promising early initiatives, the new ruling party proved incapable of fostering substantive, transformative socio-economic development.

There are also shared histories amongst trade union movements that chose similar political pathways, particularly of alliance to political parties who claimed to speak on behalf of the working class, or, as in many cases in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the “oppressed nation”. In the South African case, an official alliance between the ANC and COSATU[3] has, for various reasons, had a devastating impact on the union movement. Amongst a host of other issues, it has caused the fragmentation of the workers’ movement and its organisations, a decline of union democracy, individual jockeying for union position to access wealth and future political power via the ANC (leading to assassinations in many cases), and the spread of corruption. Many of these issues stem from the alliance, with union position seen as a ladder for personal political and economic gain.

We need to look at the trajectory of rot, failure and perhaps even betrayal here in South Africa to understand the similarities between events in post-colonial Africa and elsewhere. This can be a basis for a more informed discussion about ideas for the way forward for the working class – away from mere rhetorical flourishes, sloganeering and rehashing of old ideas that have failed our class again and again.

The reality is that a project of building political parties to capture state power to free the popular classes – through elections or force – has been a colossal failure in relation to its initial socialist aims. Once elected, political parties are incorporated into the institutional life of the state machine. However, not only is the state always an institution of ruling class power, run by and for exploitative economic and political elites, one of its primary goals is to secure its power as an institution over society and its politics. This self-sustaining approach is the very design and function of the state. It exists primarily to secure its control over the means of coercion and administration. It is this key form of control that positions top state managers as key members of the ruling class alongside owners of means of production (as an aside, all states also control substantial productive economic means, such as land, property and corporations like Eskom, Petrobras, the Emirates airline, etc.).

All states are structured as hierarchies of control and privilege – structures that centralise more and more power in fewer and fewer individuals as you go up the chain of command. This very structure is contradictory and opposed, in form and content, to a democratic, emancipatory working class project. Once a party is involved in the self-sustaining state machinery, its leaders are drawn into the day-to-day necessities of the interests of competing parties and politicians. The party and individual representative’s mandate must then change from one that may have sought to serve broad social interests, to a primary focus on remaining in political power. Thus, the state, party and politician serve the primary purpose of maintaining their social, economic and political positions of power – control and privilege. The party and its servants are warped to serve this elitist interest, and its leaders, now working and residing in the halls, offices and residences of ruling class political power, become the very problem they may have sought to rid society of. They now have become part of the ruling class.

Power over daily life, the neighbourhood, policing, education (let’s call it the means of administration and coercion) when rested in the hands of the state and its institutions does not and cannot trickle down to the masses; it merely shifts between sections of the ruling class. Let us be clear: the state is a fundamentally undemocratic institution that we have vested with social, political and economic power. Although you may vote for certain representatives in government, government is but ONE arm of the state machine. You do not and cannot, by law, vote to elect leaders of the other arms of the state: the judiciary, the police, the army and state-owned enterprises. Not very democratic, it seems!

If the ANC under Nelson Mandela, the Bolsheviks under Lenin, the SACP under Joe Slovo could not break the pattern – and in many ways reinforced the authoritarian power of the new state institutions they came to control – no way is it going to be different the next time one chooses to vote, no matter the personalities and programmes involved. The desire for state power, and to hold onto it, supersedes all others. There is no basis at all for the faith that new or reformed Left or national liberation political parties will somehow succeed in creating the kind of order that serves the interests (individual and collective) of the working class. This seems a faith based more on ideological dogma, a selective reading of the past, an unscientific analysis, or even just a belief in pursuing a “lesser evil” hoping life would be more tolerable under different rulers. This hope is fair and not to be sneered at, but is not aligned to a vision for a socialist future.

The very act of voting in state government elections is, in and of itself, a dereliction of one’s personal political obligation. The act places your power of decision-making in the hands of representatives, and thus is referred to as representative democracy. This is the power to make decisions on your behalf and, usually, without you. Voting in government elections is not done by citizens informed by any knowledge of the outcome of their vote, but in the hope that those they elect would actually meet their election promises. This particular form of voting, therefore, reduces society to atomised individual actors alone in the vast political world, reinforces the misplaced idea that it is a meaningful political act, and further undermines the transformative collective political action of the working class and poor. Over time and years of ruling class propaganda, we place more faith in this handover of political power than the potential capabilities of our organisations – the trade union and community-based social movement, the realms of economic and political life where working class people can exercise actual control.

An uncritical approach to discussing the state, parties, unions, organisational structure and the role of voting, prevents the development of an adequate ideological and strategic set of conclusions about what has gone wrong in the past. It also may blind one to what has and continues to achieve real victories. We need to focus less on the overall ideological and strategic orientations of parties and the tactical choices that follow. As I have argued, parties and state power are incapable of creating substantive socialist socio-economic transformation. We should focus more on the process that wins real change – working class struggle by itself, for itself. Even to achieve reforms, we need mass-based struggle from below – at the workplace and in communities. For deeper systemic change, a revolutionary change, we need particular struggles from below – workplace and community struggles for reform that aim at constantly broadening working class organisational control over the immediate means of production, coercion and administration, i.e. everyday life. Both forms of struggle, for reforms and revolution, are indelibly linked. These require building working class counter-power – organisations, especially unions, fomenting a revolutionary front of the oppressed classes. These organisations must also be informed by a new worldview that is socialist/anti-capitalist, anti-statist and non-hierarchical, in other words, anarchist/syndicalist. This we can call a counter-hegemonic view, or more precisely a revolutionary counter-culture; the leadership of a revolutionary mind-set won in the day-to-day battle of ideas inside this movement by the political organisation promoting these ideas. This movement of working class organisations, therefore, is to be built on the twin tracks of revolutionary counter-power and counter-culture, focused outside and against the state, and is forged in struggle. The anti-statist position is not one that ignores the state, but realises it as an organ of ruling class power that we are unable to reform in our favour. Our aim is a self-managed, egalitarian form of reconstruction – of our organisations and world – and a future society based on these principles.

This is a call for a prefigurative politics grounded and shaped in working class realities – a politics that marries means of struggle to the social, political and economic ends collectively agreed to. This means revisiting anarchism and syndicalism, and the libertarian left, and leaving the party-state project behind. This means drawing from the deep well of working class history, organisation, theory and practice, moving from a politics of recycling failed statist projects to one that develops confidence in our own initiatives, one that valorises working class unity, ingenuity and independence.


Notes:

1. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.
2. African National Congress, the ruling party since 1994.
3. Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Verwandter Link: https://zabalaza.net/2019/02/26/a-workers-party-and-elections-or-class-struggle-the-question-of-state-power-and-the-anarchists-answer/#more-5750
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Sa 24 Aug, 17:15

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Selby Semela, 1958-2018 imageA South African Revolutionary Passes: Jabisile Selby Semela, 1958-2018 08:14 Do 30 Aug by ZACF 0 comments

Selby Semela, a leading figure in the 1976 revolt against apartheid, political exile, and author (with Sam Thompson and Norman Abraham), of “Reflections on the Black Consciousness Movement and the South African Revolution”, passed away on Wednesday, 22 August, 2018, aged but 60 years.

zacfront_symbol_1.jpg imageThe “Democratic Left”: A Small Step Towards United Working Class Struggle 02:46 Mi 23 Feb by Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front 0 comments

From 20 to 23 January 2011, working class and revolutionary militants from throughout South Africa, including a ZACF delegation, gathered in Johannesburg for the Conference of the Democratic Left (CDL). The gathering ended in the launch of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) as a loose alliance of organisations and individuals in struggle.

In explaining our relationship to the DLF, we will here summarise our reservations, while explaining why they are outweighed by the genuine achievements of the CDL. The reservations cover three main areas: attitudes towards the state and elections; leadership structures; and the DLF programme and demands. (We are also less than enthusiastic about some new terms that have become popular in the CDL and DLF, such as “eco-socialism”; but this is largely a matter of language, which we will not discuss in detail here.)

textIn Solidarity with Cosatu and the Workers of the World 20:26 Fr 16 Mai by Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front 0 comments

The Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) recognises that the crisis in Zimbabwe, ongoing xenophobic attacks and rising food prices are of great importance to the working class, both in South Africa and internationally. Resolving these crises in favour of the poor and working poor will require mass direct action and solidarity. [ Italiano]

textZACF statement on the "racist anarchists" of Potchefstroom 18:10 Mi 27 Jun by Jonathan Payn 3 comments

Right-wingers in the South African town of Potchefstroom removed street-signs with the names of liberation figures and replaced them with those of Boer leaders. But the Potch City Council attributed the actions to "racist anarchists".

textSWAZILAND: Rush hour for liberation movement 19:08 Do 07 Dez by International Secretary ZACF 0 comments

Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation statement on alleged armed struggle tendency of Swaziland pro-democracy movement.

textPower corrupts the left in South Africa 22:26 Fr 19 Aug by Zabalaza 0 comments

Even sitting on the government council at a local level puts a person on the other side of the line between oppressed and oppressor / exploiter and exploited and that is why we say that it is only when we fully control our communities and workplaces ourselves will we be able to provide decent food, clothing and housing for ourselves and our families

textSouth Africa: COSATU & Social Movements 23:15 Fr 12 Aug by Michael Schmidt (International secretary) 0 comments

COSATU has remained an ANC loyalist organisation - despite the 1-million job-losses under ANC rule but a survey by the human sciences research council shows that while 75% of COSATU members still consider themselves ANC loyalists - 25% of its 2-million members have lost confidence.

imageAfter the election dust settles: Class struggle, the Left and power Jun 25 by Jonathan Payn 0 comments

Twenty-five years into democracy the black working class majority in South Africa has not experienced any meaningful improvements in its conditions. The apartheid legacy of unequal education, healthcare and housing and the super-exploitation of black workers continues under the ANC and is perpetuated by the neoliberal policies it has imposed. The only force capable of changing this situation is the working class locally and internationally. Yet to do so, struggles need to come together, new forms of organisation appropriate to the context are needed; and they need both to be infused with a revolutionary progressive politics and to learn from the mistakes of the past. Outside the ANC alliance, there have indeed been many efforts to unite struggles – but these have largely failed to resonate with the working class in struggle and form the basis of a new movement. Nowhere is this more evident than with the newly-formed Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) – which got less than 25 000 votes in the national elections, despite the fact that the union that conceived it, Numsa, claims nearly 400 000 members.

imageLeft unity, left cooperation or a working class front? Jul 21 by Warren McGregor 2 comments

A call for socialist Left unity is heard widely today in South Africa, but is usually taken as a call for unity of praxis (unity in theoretical programme and action). This is sometimes framed as transcending old divides (these seen as outdated, divisive or dismissed as dogmatic), and sometimes as unity in order to have action (rhetorically set up as the opposite of “arm chair” theory).

What do we as revolutionary anarchists think?

imageSouth African ‘Workerism’ in the 1980s: Learning from FOSATU’s Radical Unionism Dez 13 by Lucien van der Walt, with Sian Byrne and Nicole Ulrich* 0 comments

A lightly edited transcript of a presentation at a workshop hosted by the International Labour Research & Information Group (ILRIG) and the Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Centre in Drieziek extension 1, Orange Farm township, south of Soweto, South Africa, on 24 June 2017. It was attended by a hall full of community and worker activists, including veterans of the big rebellions of the 1980s.

imageLessons from the 1984-85 Vaal Uprising for Rebuilding a 'United Front' of Communities and Workers To... Dez 13 by Jonathan Payn 0 comments

A lightly edited transcript of a presentation at a workshop hosted by the International Labour Research & Information Group (ILRIG) and the Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Centre in Drieziek extension 1, Orange Farm township, south of Soweto, South Africa, on 24 June 2017. It was attended by a hall full of community and worker activists, including veterans of the big rebellions of the 1980s.

imageBeyond "Zuma must fall", beyond choosing between elites Mai 14 by Warren McGregor 0 comments

A constant fixation on the machinations of elite power manoeuvring, and persistent, recurring calls for either new leadership, or new political parties, are evidence of a very conservative and authoritarian political culture. These stories may well be important. Indeed, this is the nature of current socio-economic organisation (capitalism and the state). These human-created forms of control always operate to centralise power up the hierarchy, thus investing tremendous power in the hands of very few. This few – race, gender, rhetoric regardless – the ruling class, are those who control the means of production, administration and coercion. Our pre-occupations are drawn to such elite individuals and groups as many of us have chosen to hand over our political power and future to these. Now this political culture usually results in the general and often vain belief and hope that through hierarchical, fundamentally undemocratic organisation, leaders invested with this incredible power are somehow to create the foundations for a more equal society and world. Also important to consider is that all political parties, no matter the colour of its beret, whether in control of the state or seeking to attain this control, centralise the power of decision-making upwards, and are thus fundamentally authoritarian and anti-democratic.

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imageA South African Revolutionary Passes: Jabisile Selby Semela, 1958-2018 Aug 30 ZACF 0 comments

Selby Semela, a leading figure in the 1976 revolt against apartheid, political exile, and author (with Sam Thompson and Norman Abraham), of “Reflections on the Black Consciousness Movement and the South African Revolution”, passed away on Wednesday, 22 August, 2018, aged but 60 years.

imageThe “Democratic Left”: A Small Step Towards United Working Class Struggle Feb 23 ZACF 0 comments

From 20 to 23 January 2011, working class and revolutionary militants from throughout South Africa, including a ZACF delegation, gathered in Johannesburg for the Conference of the Democratic Left (CDL). The gathering ended in the launch of the Democratic Left Front (DLF) as a loose alliance of organisations and individuals in struggle.

In explaining our relationship to the DLF, we will here summarise our reservations, while explaining why they are outweighed by the genuine achievements of the CDL. The reservations cover three main areas: attitudes towards the state and elections; leadership structures; and the DLF programme and demands. (We are also less than enthusiastic about some new terms that have become popular in the CDL and DLF, such as “eco-socialism”; but this is largely a matter of language, which we will not discuss in detail here.)

textIn Solidarity with Cosatu and the Workers of the World Mai 16 ZACF 0 comments

The Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) recognises that the crisis in Zimbabwe, ongoing xenophobic attacks and rising food prices are of great importance to the working class, both in South Africa and internationally. Resolving these crises in favour of the poor and working poor will require mass direct action and solidarity. [ Italiano]

textZACF statement on the "racist anarchists" of Potchefstroom Jun 27 ZACF (southern Africa) 3 comments

Right-wingers in the South African town of Potchefstroom removed street-signs with the names of liberation figures and replaced them with those of Boer leaders. But the Potch City Council attributed the actions to "racist anarchists".

textSWAZILAND: Rush hour for liberation movement Dez 07 Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation 0 comments

Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation statement on alleged armed struggle tendency of Swaziland pro-democracy movement.

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