Paper presented by Jeremy Cronin to SACP Gauteng Province, August 28th, 2005

Neo-liberalism, reformism, populism and ultra-leftism

In this paper we will first consider some of the main features of neo-liberalism, which is the dominant ideology of global capitalism in the present. We will then consider some of confused ideological currents, "deviations" within the South African people’s camp – including reformism, populism and ultra-leftism (and we will seek to outline the main features of these ideological currents). We will, finally, proceed to consider how various incorrect analyses of the conjuncture (shaped of course by competing class realities) help to shape these ideological deviations within our broad ranks – be they reformism, populism or ultra-leftism.


Neo-liberalism is the dominant global ideology, and, as such, it has an enormous impact upon our own social reality. We call this ideological current NEO-liberalism to underline that it is, in fact, a contemporary, more recent adaptation of an older and underlying liberalism.

Liberalism is associated with the emergence of the bourgeoisie in the 17th and 18th centuries, initially in Europe. Liberalism, like the emerging capitalist system with which it was associated, embraced both a progressive and a class exploitative dimension.

The progressive side of liberalism lies essentially in the challenge it posed to feudal ideologies. Feudal ideologies (those still found in a marginal form in the countryside of our country, and in societies like Swaziland) hold that there are natural divisions between individuals and groups – some are chiefs/lords/aristocrats by birth, and others are commoners.

Liberals of the 17th and 18th century argued, in opposition, that we are all "born equal", and that class divisions are not in-born, natural realities. The French 18th century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote famously that "man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains."

These views gave rise to progressive struggles for individual rights – freedom of speech, of movement, freedom against coerced labour, and, of course, the right to individual property. These struggles for individual rights also in time gave birth to struggles for the right of individuals to vote - one person one vote.

The emergence of capitalism in Europe tended also to be associated with the formation of national markets and of nation states. In many societies (Italy, for example in the 19th century), still dominated by multi-national feudal empires (in the case of Italy, the Austro-Hungarian empire), the emerging bourgeoisie adopted liberalism to the national liberation struggle. The right of individuals to individual choice/self determination was expanded to the nation/people – the nation was said to have a right to "self"-determination – i.e. to be independent of imperial/feudal/external control.

All of these essentially progressive themes developed in European liberalism in the 17th –19th century, were taken up in the 20th century in Third World anti-colonial struggles. This applies very strongly to our own NLM. In an anti-colonial context, oppressed peoples took up the liberal idea that we are ALL EQUAL, we are all the "bearers of individual rights" – in the face of colonial ideologies and institutions that divided people racially, tribally, and into citizens and subjects who were still under the thrall of colonially manipulated tribal authority. The call for self-determination of nations has also had a powerful resonance in the NLMs of the third-world, including our own. It is no accident that our own post-1994 democratic constitution carries forward many important (and progressive) liberal values.

However, since liberalism is essentially associated with capitalism, it has always had a reactionary/exploitative side to it. This reactionary side is essentially associated with two interrelated assumptions/myths:

  • liberalism equates freedom and individual liberty with the so-called "free market". It holds up the (capitalist) market as the ideal model of a free society of "freely contracting" individuals, of buyers and sellers, of suppliers and consumers – in which, supposedly, the market and not anything else (your race, your creed, your gender, etc) determines how much you must pay for a loaf of bread or a barrel of Brent Crude Oil. At the check-out till of Pick n Pay we are "all equals", there is "no discrimination". This myth of the free market disguises, of course, the fact that buyers and sellers confront each other, not merely as individuals, but as different classes, some the owners of the means of production, and others with nothing to sell except their labour power.
  • this myth of the "free market" is related to the second key myth of liberalism – namely its exaggerated belief in individualism. Historically, liberalism critiqued the feudal belief that different individuals are inherently/naturally different (chiefs or commoners). But in arguing against feudal beliefs, it carried its own argument too far. It argued, essentially, that society itself is "artificial", a construct. The liberal theoreticians of the 18th century argued that society was built on a "social contract", a kind of market-place agreement between "freely contracting" individuals. Margaret Thatcher carried this to its logical extremes when she argued that "there is no such thing as society – only individuals". Early societies, by contrast, had understood, correctly, that there is no such thing as a free-standing human individual (a Robinson Crusoe). We are only humans because we develop within societies and cultures. The ancient Greek philosophers said that humans are "political animals" – i.e. animals that only become humans within a political society. In our own southern African cultures the same reality was always recognised – eg. the Sotho saying: motho ke motho ka batho babang (a person is a person because of the other people). The individualism of liberalism tends to be a-historical. It might be right to argue that there are no inherently natural differences of any great significance between human individuals, but it fails to analyse (or, perhaps, deliberately obscures) the historical forces that shape inequality – between classes, continents, social groups etc. We are not "born equal" – some of us are born into wealth and resources, others of us are born into communities that have been dispossessed by capitalist primitive accumulation, by colonialism, etc.

Neo-liberalism is rooted in all of the above liberal traditions and assumptions. However, neo-liberalism is an adaptation of these views and its ideological ascendancy is linked directly to a particular period in the imperialist stage of capitalism.

Its development into global ascendancy can be traced to a particular moment, a moment of structural crisis within global imperialism – the early 1970s. The post-World War 2 decades 1945 to around 1973 have been called the "golden years" of developed capitalism. The US confirmed its global economic ascendancy in this period, but it was also a period of significant capitalist reconstruction and development in Western Europe and of state-led capitalist growth in Japan and slightly later in S Korea, in particular. In this golden era the leading capitalist ideology was a variant of Keynesianism. In the US and Western Europe, in particular, growth and development were based considerably on demand-led expansion, fuelled by a range of welfarist policies. In Japan and S Korea, the state-led developmental growth was premised more upon an export-led orientation, but there was still a considerable and deliberate expenditure on land reform, education, and the capitalist-led development of the national (and regional) markets. State-led developmentalism was also the predominant policy package that was proposed, by the dominant capitalist powers, to newly independent third world countries.

The structural crisis of post-WW 2 capitalism in the early 1970s was triggered, in part, by the 1973 oil price hike. But it was more fundamentally associated with what Marxism calls a "crisis of realisation" – the rapid technological advances and global spread of capitalism meant that, increasingly, fixed capital invested in plant in the developed core of capitalism (N America, W Europe, and, to some extent, Japan) was being outrivaled by new plant in the newly industrialising societies (S Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia…and, more recently of course, the PRC) before the investments in this fixed capital could be fully realised – i.e. before capitalists could effectively recover the costs of their investment in plants by way of realised profits.

This underlying systemic crisis helps to explain all of the key features of the last three decades:

  • in the first place, it helps to explain the intensification in the last 30 years, of the century-long imperialist globalisation process. Resurgent US capital, and recovered, stabilised and now matured capital in post-war W Europe and Japan were anxious to move out of their national markets, and out of their no longer competitive fixed capital investments at home. This "moving out" took several forms, including:
  • a growing shift out of productive capital and into speculative financial capital – and the accompanying vogue of monetarism and macro-economic state policies
  • fixed capital investments and acquisitions (including through privatisation processes in the third world) in external markets
  • investments and acquisitions (including through privatisation processes in the third world) in external markets
  • the break out from national markets also saw attempts to roll back welfarism, to break national social accords between, say, Swedish capital and Swedish workers/small farmers/middle strata, and to privatise key infrastructural service utilites that lay at the heart of the welfare state (water, transport, electricity, housing utilities);
  • this has involved, logically, the re-defining of the state – not its rolling back, so much as developing it much more as a lean and mean entity – lean to diminish taxes on companies and the wealthy, mean to push through the reforms required – privatisation, rolling back trade union influence, swingeing tax cuts on the wealthy, and with power centred increasingly around Finance Ministries and Central banks, etc.

In the Third World, the vogue of state-led capitalist developmentalism (involving, amongst other things, significant investments in infrastructure and import-substitution policies) in countries as diverse as Brazil, Turkey, and apartheid South Africa, also felt the tremors of the global 1970s structural crisis of imperialism. The huge accumulation of of petro-dollars (the consequence of the oil-price hike in 1973) lying unproductively in, mainly European, private banks, became the source of a wave of massive (usually unwise) investments in the Third World – including huge white elephant infrastructure programmes, and arms procurements. Levels of Third World debt rose unsustainably in the 1980s, and the IMF and World Bank (originally RDP-type instruments for post-War War 2 European reconstruction) were refashioned as instruments to take over and "manage" this third world debt, essentially through enforced Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs).

As a result of all of the above adjustments, imperialism has, for the moment, (and with considerable and robust innovativeness) succeeded in surpassing its early 1970s structural crisis – but this surpassing (because we are dealing with an inherently contradictory system) has only really displaced the crisis into a series of scattered regional crises and, above all, future crises for the whole of humanity– not least the bio-physical exhaustion (through the depletion of natural resources, eg. bio-diversity, oil, atmosphere) of the conditions for any kind of sustained human life at all.

Neo-liberalism – and its evolving variants Thatcherism, Reagonomics, monetarism - has been the organising and hegemonic ideology of this overall process of global capitalist restructuring. It has sought (and it has succeeded in considerable measure) to present as progressive, natural, desirable and (in any case) unavoidable all of the key processes underway and the values that underpin them.

The hey-day of neo-liberalism, its period of greatest triumphalism, was the decade of the 1990s, when it was the socialist bloc (and not capitalism) that collapsed. In the last several years, the seemingly impregnable dominance of neo-liberalism has been challenged from several quarters:

In the first place, the ideological challenges have come from within leading imperialist circles, both from the right and centre-left. The right challenges (or rather adaptations) to some aspects of neo-liberalism come from the neo-conservative circles associated with President George Bush Jnr. The neo-cons represent a more naked assertion of US unilateral, imperial and militaristic ambitions, toning down on the global and universalising claims of the more classic versions of neo-liberalism which saw the whole world being unproblematically spurred to growth by the unimpeded flow of capital to the far reaches of the world. Now we have "them" and "us" mobilisation, the "coalition of the willing" versus "axis of evil", etc. The neo-cons represent, in part, the growing paradoxes of US power – it is more predominant than ever before, but this predominance rests more and more on military supremacy, and less and less on productive competitiveness.

A range of ideological interventions of a centre-left, and more classically liberal kind have also increasingly emerged from within the key ideological centres of imperialism – names like Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stieglitz, and, to some extent these moderations of the extremes of neo-liberalism, are also beginning to impact institutionally, in places like the World Bank and some major governments. These alternative currents, which amount to a liberal revisionism, mark something of a rupture and should, without any illusions of course, at least be welcomed for beginning to burst the bubble of self-confidence. These liberal revisions are all, quite self-consciously and openly, rooted in the admission of the manifest failure of neo-liberal policies in addressing, in particular, the crisis of underdevelopment whether in the former Soviet bloc, or in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

The ideological challenges to neo-liberal dominance have also come from without. Some of these ideological challenges assume an essentially conservative/right-wing posture (Islamic fundamentalism, for instance). Others are of a centre left, left and even ultra-left variety – "anti-globalisation" movements, a wave of more progressive governments in Latin America, etc.

It is important to realise and admit, however, that while neo-liberalism retains considerable hegemony and power, the left/progressive alternatives, speaking internationally, are diverse and often mutually incoherent. This is not just, it is not even primarily a reflection of a lack of "thinking" or of "debate" on the left – it is, ultimately, a reflection of what Marx said a century and a half ago – "the ruling ideas of an epoch are the ideas of the ruling class".


Unlike liberalism (and its modern variant, neo-liberalism), and unlike, say, Marxism-Leninism (and its many variants) - "reformism", "ultra-leftism" and "populism" are not, per se, an identifiable body of ideas. They are, rather, styles of approaching political theory and practice. You will find, for instance, a wide variety of populisms – ranging from ultra-right fascist populism, through to left and ultra-left variants. Marxism-Leninism will also be found in reformist, ultra-left and populist variations/deviations.

For these reasons, it is easier, when dealing with reformism, ultra-leftism and populism, while noting some general features (as we will), to focus on concrete situations.

But first let us consider some of the general features of these three tendencies.

The general features of ultra-leftism

The defining feature of ultra-leftism is its excessive exaggeration of subjective factors. The subjective feelings of militancy of a small group of revolutionaries; or the deep anger and impatience felt by large masses of workers and poor; or the attractiveness of an immediate advance to socialism – important, understandable and, in many cases, even admirable subjective feelings of this kind are assumed to mean that the desirable is also, more or less, immediately possible. This is why Lenin, appropriately, referred to this tendency as "infantile". He writes, for instance, of the ultra-left tendency in Germany in 1920:

"It is obvious that the `Lefts’ in Germany have mistaken their desire, their politico-ideological attitude, for objective reality. That is a most dangerous mistake for revolutionaries to make." (Lenin, "Left-wing" communism – an infantile disorder, Selected Works, p.541)

(Lenin, ,, p.541)

The excessive subjectivism of the ultra-left also expresses itself in the ways in which it tends to explain away reverses or difficulties. These, too, are excessively subjectivised – leaders are "sell-outs" and "traitors", the masses are "misled", or suffering from a "false consciousness". These accusations may, or may not have some relevance, but ultra-leftism tends to evoke them all too hastily.

The flip-side of this excessive subjectivism is that ultra-leftism tends to underrate or even ignore the objective factors within a given situation. The real and potential impediments to a rapid advance are discounted. The strength of opposition forces and the dangers of counter-revolution are neglected. The objective weaknesses of progressive classes and strata are themselves also characteristically ignored.

The conflation of what is desirable with what is possible results in adventurism, a tendency to voluntarism, the advocacy of reckless leaps forward, based on sheer will-power, that can result in serious defeat and disaster.

As a consequence of all of this, ultra-leftism tends not to understand revolution as process. Everything is immediate, all-or-nothing, victory or sell-out. This, in turn, results in many of the zig-zags that are so often a feature of ultra-leftism, bouts of excessive optimism, followed by depression and the predictable accusations of betrayal and sell-out. Lenin writes of this tendency that it "easily goes to revolutionary extremes, but (it is) incapable of perseverance, organisation, discipline and steadfastness." (p.520)

Because of its exaggeration of the immediate, ultra-leftism tends, also, to greatly exaggerate tactics at the expense of strategies. Tactics are elevated into strategies, and even principles. For instance, ultra-leftism often rejects compromises on principle. Participation in parliamentary democracy is sometimes rejected, for all time, and the tactics of a general strike or an insurrectionary seizure of power are counter-posed to any other approach, and turned into timeless strategies if not principles.

The ultra-left approach is also often characterised by what Lenin neatly described as the "tactics of sheer negation". We see signs of this in our own current reality (anti-globalisation, anti-NEPAD, anti-ANC government).

All of these characteristics of ultra-leftism result in a general inability to appreciate or participate in the often long-haul of organisational building and the concomitant need to work patiently, resolve secondary contradictions, and manage the complexity of mass movements, alliances and broad fronts. As a result, the organisational practices of ultra-leftism are typically characterised by factionalism and the propensity to endless splitting and fragmentation (which is why, incidentally, the 2002 ANC S&T Preface attempt to present the ultra-left as a vast South African conspiracy with global tentacles is not only factually incorrect, but simply bizarre). Another related feature of ultra-leftism’s inability to build organisation is a propensity to enter into a parasitic relationship with established organisations, institutions and campaigns, using the tactics of entryism.

These are the characteristic features of the ultra-left tendency. We have tried to show that these features are inter-connected and mutually reinforcing. In real life, of course, ultra-leftism will manifest itself in many varieties, and with varying degrees of "purity".

In South Africa, ultra-leftism has had a presence over many decades, with all of the endemic characteristics, noted above, featuring in one way or another. The following are the most recurrent specific characteristics of ultra-leftism in our country:

  • The inability to understand the national question as an objective reality that is a core feature of South Africa’s capitalist development path, structurally linked to our deep-seated legacy of under-development. Instead, ultra-leftism in South Africa tends to conceptualise the national question, and progressive nationalism, as "false consciousness", or inherently "petty bourgeois" – once more subjectivising what is, in the first instance, a profoundly objective reality.
  • As a consequence, ultra-leftism has tended to oppose the entire NDR strategy, rejecting it as the pursuit of a "capitalist road", or as a "detour", an "unnecessary delay" in the struggle for socialism;
  • Organisationally, ultra-leftism has, generally, defined itself outside of and in opposition to the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance. A great deal of energy has been devoted to breaking our alliance, to "weaning" workers away from the "nationalist" ANC, the "Stalinist" SACP, or from the present "reactionary" leadership of COSATU. But, as with ultra-leftism elsewhere, there have also been various entryist attempts into all three of the alliance components.

Of course, organised ultra-left factions and groupings are one thing, but there is also the reality of influence. As in any revolutionary movement, none of our Alliance formations is immune to the influence of ultra-leftism on the one hand, or (as we shall soon see) to reformist opportunism on the other. Labelling and witch-hunting are the least effective ways of countering such influences.

The general features of reformism

Even when he was focusing his polemical attention on ultra-leftism, Lenin never forgot that the principal internal danger to a revolutionary movement came not from the ultra-left, but from reformist opportunism:

"First and foremost, the struggle against opportunism, which in 1914 definitely developed into social-chauvinism and definitely sided with the bourgeoisie, against the proletariat. Naturally, this was Bolshevism’s principal enemy within the working-class movement. It still remains the principal enemy on an international scale. The Bolsheviks have been devoting the greatest attention to this enemy." (ibid., p.520).

This is what Lenin says before going on to deal with ultra-leftism. Not only does he prioritise the danger of opportunism even when his main topic is ultra-leftism, but he also affirms that the spread and impact of ultra-leftism is often directly linked to the damage caused to a revolutionary movement by reformist opportunism.

"[ultra-leftism] was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement. The two monstrosities complemented each other." (ibid., p.521)

So what are the main features of reformist opportunism?

Whereas ultra-leftism grossly over-rates the subjective dimension, opportunism greatly exaggerates the stability, durability, and the "unchallengeable" character of objective factors. You will find, for instance, this kind of argument in the 2002 intervention of Moleketi and Jele attacking the SACP, which comes very close to promoting just such an "unchallengeable" version of the current global balance of forces:

"Capital is stronger than it has ever been, globally. It is in search of and hopes for a challenger who will have the temerity to launch a general offensive against it. In crushing such a challenger, as it would, it would not only send the message that the age of revolutions is over, but would also get the matter fixed firmly in the minds of the international proletariat that capital, exclusively, has the right to determine the destiny of the world." (Moleketi and Jele, p.15)

Of course, Moleketi and Jele are not wrong to argue that a "general offensive" against global capitalism could be adventurist, but in the absence of offering any other line of march against capitalism, it is hard not to be left with the impression that capitulation is the order of the day. This impression is reinforced by other passages in their pamphlet, for instance:
"Logically, accumulated capital in the world economy cannot be anywhere other than with the bourgeoisie, even in our country." (our emphases, Moleketi and Jele, p.21)

If accumulated capital resources are privatised, commercialised, concessioned-out; if the public and parastatal sector is plundered by an emerging bourgeoisie; if worker pension and provident funds are invested purely in terms of the logic of the capitalist market and profit maximisation - then accumulated capital will not be found anywhere other than with the bourgeoisie. But there is nothing necessary, still less logical about this.

In our view, passages like this illustrate the impact of reformism on the thinking of some within our movement. In particular, they resonate with the first and principal feature of reformism, its over-rating of the "unchallengeable" character of the dominant objective realities.

This is not to say that reformist opportunism does not seek to change things. But, and this is its second defining feature, it sees change as reforms that do not challenge the core structural and systemic features of capitalism. Let us be clear, there is nothing wrong with reforms, but for a revolutionary movement, reforms must have a transformational character, they must introduce anti-systemic possibilities, momentum towards, capacity for, and elements of far-reaching structural change. In our situation, however, reformist opportunism sees change as being about "regulating" capitalism; modernising our economy; catching up with "international best practice"; and correcting for "market failure".

And this results in reformist opportunism sharing with ultra-leftism the tendency to turn tactical choices imposed by particular realities into strategies and even into timeless principles. The strategic objectives of one’s struggle (a national democratic revolution, for instance) tend to be endlessly postponed, or emptied of substantial content. Ultra-leftism elevates what might be, in a particular situation, a correct tactical choice ("no compromise") into a strategy and even a principle ("never compromise"). Opportunism does exactly the same thing, but in reverse ("always compromise"). As Lenin puts it:

"Naïve and quite inexperienced people imagine that the permissibility of compromise in general is sufficient to obliterate any distinction between opportunism, against which we are waging, and must wage, an unremitting struggle, and revolutionary Marxism, or communism." (Lenin, ibid., p.549)

While ultra-leftism tends not to understand process, reformist opportunism does not understand the DIALECTICAL nature of process. Thus the history and trajectory of contemporary capitalism tend to be understood as a relatively smooth, evolutionary flow, rather than a crisis-ridden, thoroughly dialectical reality in which progress and barbarism, development and underdeveloped are systemically linked, each the structural condition for the other. In our situation, the absence of dialectics can result in the unworkable dream of "deracialising" our society by modernising, applying "international best practice", aligning with "global standards", becoming more competitive, achieving good investment ratings, and, in short, by "normalising" South Africa in the absence of any fundamental transformation.

A clear contemporary example of the tendency to obscure the dialectical nature of key realities in our society is to be found in the "two economies" discussion. Leading comrades in the movement have, quite correctly, identified the dualistic character of our economy and society, and they have equally correctly characterised this as a process of under-development. However, in practice and in theory, this dialectical reality is often quickly re-conceptualised as "two" economies – the one developed and the other un-developed. The dialectical relationship is neglected and a programme of "consolidating" advances in the "first economy" to produce growth that can be "redistributed" to the second economy in order to promote it upwards becomes the programmatic vision.

While the posture of ultra-leftism is often one of "sheer negation", as Lenin puts it, (anti-globalisation, anti-NEPAD, etc.); the posture of reformist opportunism tends to be one of bland optimism. The "revolution" is forever being declared "on track", as if, precisely, there were some straight-line "track".

However, since objective reality (not least a reality dominated by capitalism) is not evolutionary but thoroughly dialectical, uneven and crisis-ridden, reformist opportunism frequently finds itself confronted with "discrepancies". And so, like ultra-leftism, opportunism tends to have recourse to the subjective in order to "explain" away obstructions and crises. While ultra-leftism invokes the subjective "betrayal" of "sell-outs", reformist opportunism invokes plots and conspiracies; our continent’s systemic underdevelopment by decades of capitalist progress tends to be attributed largely to attitudinal prejudices (Afro-pessimism); the deep-seated structural legacy of racialised poverty is mythologised (the "demon" of racism); and the motives of journalists and statisticians are queried when bland optimism is not confirmed by their reports. (We should emphasise that we are not denying the possibility of plots, nor the fallibility of statistics or the media, nor the existence of colonial prejudices about our continent, nor the persistent and abhorrent reality of racism in our society – but over-reliance on these subjective explanations goes hand in hand with reformism’s inability to scientifically analyse the contradictory objective character of our global and national realities.)

The general features of populism – "Emotive forces"

You will find both reformist and ultra-left versions of populism within the people’s camp, although there is often a greater affinity between some versions of ultra-leftism and populism. You will also find (as we have noted above) other versions of populism – including ultra-right, fascist populism.

In fact, one of the features of populism is that it will often mobilise quite diverse (and even opposed) ideological currents around a single issue/personality.

Populism is essentially a tendency that focuses on the emotional mobilisation of popular forces. While popular mobilisation is essential in any progressive politics, it runs the risk of becoming merely populist when the long-term sustainability of the campaign, serious organisation, and the effective self-empowerment of the popular forces mobilised in the campaign are all relatively neglected.

Populism tends to mobilise popular forces demagogically as emotional fans of a particular cause, often of a particular personality. The demagogic mobilisation also frequently agglomerates a whole series of diverse grievances and unites them around a single issue or personality – but also AGAINST some demonised arch-enemy – the "Jews", "foreigners", "Osama Ben Laden"

Populism, as the name implies, seeks to mobilise a collective force as "the people" – there is nothing inherently wrong with the notion of the "people", of "popular forces", of "people’s power", etc. (Indeed, we have used these terms in the course of this intervention). However, populism tends to invoke the "people", "popular sentiment", the "nation" etc. in ways that ignore, or deliberately obfuscate diverse class, gender and other diversities and potential contradictions within the people’s camp.

While we tend to think of populism in its more militant (whether ultra-left or ultra-right) variants, there are also more moderate versions of populism – a politics of personal reassurance, of top-down patronage. If the contradictions within our society and movement deepen, we can anticipate certain reformist projects focusing increasing attention on popular unifying projects (2010 for instance?) to the detriment of more deep-seated challenges and contradictions.

However, the more obvious variants of populism tend to have a militant character, associated with a politics of "high drama" – whipping up a fever of emotional sentiment, and playing to the gallery of popular prejudices and aspirations, or seeking to satisfy some immediate demand, even if it is not remotely sustainable.


The dominant (but challenged) project within the ANC and ANC-led state

Over the past decade the SACP has sought to analyse and critique what has emerged from around 1996 as the dominant (but contested) project within the ANC and the ANC-led state. In the political report to the Central Committee of August 2005 the principal features of this project were described as being:

  • a socio-economic programme based around modernising (but not transforming) the dominant capitalist accumulation path, aligning it with global "realities" in order to secure stability and capitalist-driven market growth of 6% that will (it has been assumed) provide the means for a progressive social redistributive programme;
  • the overarching objective of 6% (capitalist) growth is also premised on an excessively optimistic expectation of major capital flows from the North. This is where the sobering, but predictable, outcome of the G8 Gleneagles Summit… intersects with the gathering crisis of this project;
  • transforming the ANC into a political instrument to support this economic programme – turning the ANC into a "modern" electoral/governing party, with the emphasis on managerial and technical skills. Seeking to reinforce the central/technical control over the organisation, downplaying inner party democracy and popular mobilisation, and effectively side-lining alliance partners.
  • an implicit cadre policy to support all of the above – in which a new managerial cadre is fostered within the organisation and within the state and parastatal sector – this is a cadre with close and symbiotic links to private capital, especially emerging black capital.
  • the fashioning of a "developmental" state with a presidential power-centre with strong "bonapartist" features, and that increasingly relies on key business-dominated think-tanks for policy development (the investment council, the business council, the black business council) – bypassing, at least to some extent, institutions and formations that the working class has, in principle, a slightly better chance of influencing and even hegemonising (parliament, NEDLAC, the ANC, the alliance)."

If we relate these features to our earlier discussion of different "deviational" tendencies within our movement, then it should be clear that the project described above is, essentially, a reformist project.

Our present conjuncture is marked by the growing crisis of this project:

  • capitalist stabilisation is not overcoming the crises of underdevelopment, it is reproducing them (huge racialised inequality, 40% unemployment, poverty, etc)
  • the managerialist "modernisation" of the ANC has hugely destabilised the popular mass movement that the ANC essentially is;
  • the leading political axis (state technocrats/an emerging black fraction of capital that is essentially parasitic and comprador) is full of internal contradictions, between technocrats and BEEllionaires, between competing BEEllionaires, etc. But, above all, it is this axis that is exposing the movement to high levels of corruption, business-inspired factions and gate-keeping, and to capitalist capture (we are all in danger of fronting)
  • the inordinate focus of power in a presidential centre – intersects with, and concentrates within itself, all of the other problems noted above, and is now producing a "crisis of succession".

This conjuncture carries the possibility of a strategic, and determined "left turn" from the ANC. There are SOME moves in this direction (eg. the Land Summit). But the conjuncture is also marked by other tendencies:

  • A reformism that becomes more desperate, and more centralising;
  • Outbursts of legitimate popular anger, but that sometimes begin to acquire a populist, anarchic character – township revolts, some of the pro- "JZ" mobilisation
  • Abandonment of the democratic state and engagement with it, in favour of pure social movement activism, or dreams of an "alternative" state, and rhetoric about "smashing" this (hard won) democracy.

The danger in the present is that, at the very moment, after the important July 2005 ANC NGC, that there are real possibilities of a decisive left advance within the NDR, these may be squandered by internal disputes, and populist and ultra-left mobilisations that are diversions from the real transformational challenges and possibilities of our situation.