The SACP and the Transition to Democracy and Socialism

By Vishwas Satgar, SACP Gauteng Provincial Secretary

Presented in Johannesburg, September 25, 2005


To many in South African society the existence of the SACP and its continued commitment to a socialist alternative seems like an aberration – “an unwanted child that refuses to go away”. Many in South Africa and in the trenches of NDR hold this attitude for three reasons: (1) they equate socialism to the discredited and authoritarian Stalinist experience. Put differently, the shadow of a dead Stalinism still haunts the political imagination in the 21st Century. Many Stalinist excesses are equated to socialism. For example, the terror unleashed on sections of Soviet society or the inefficiencies of a quantitative growth model with its human and ecological costs or the complete lack of democracy are all equated to socialism. (2) The triumphalism of capitalism after the collapse of Eastern Europe, expressed through the “end of history” thesis and its neo-liberal economic offensive have ideologically not only confused but have won over many converts to the idea that capitalism and liberal democracy are the only universal response for humanity- capitalism and all its brutality are the ultimate answer (3) many in our ranks have crossed the class divide. Embourgoisement, enrichment, upward class mobility has softened the ideological and revolutionary commitments and beliefs of many in our ranks. Newfound class positions are now determining and shaping political orientations.

Despite all of this and after ten years of democracy it is abundantly clear that the collapse of the Stalinist regime in 1989 was more of a positive development than a negative one. In fact, freed from the straightjacket of Stalinised Marxism and dogma the Marxist Left is actually in a much better position to think about unlearning the mistakes of Stalinism and renewing the socialist imagination. As important, has been the failure of the neo-liberal agenda. The increasing poverty, dislocation and social marginalisation both in centre and periphery countries are worsening, as wealth is concentrated amongst smaller strata of capital. The bourgeois led world and its aspirations for global domination and a global market civilisation, while not about to collapse, cannot but use brute military force to defend its existence- defensiveness and not an offensive response underpins the war against terror. This period is likely to last a long time but power configurations are clearly changing at a world level. As for the emergent elites in our ranks they don’t have a project for the country beyond their own acquisition, enrichment and embourgoisement. Even if this amounts to new black and white alliances within capital this project of “accumulation for a few” will threaten rather than advance democratic change.

It is in this context that we need to think about our topic.

The Era of Many Socialisms!

After the end of Stalinist authoritarianism in Eastern Europe the intellectual ferment and rethinking that has happened has spawned various currents of “renewed socialism”. The ideological expression of many socialisms was prevalent even in the time of Marx and Engel’s and interestingly the new socialisms contain many of the attributes that they polemicised against.

This paper briefly describes and critiques some of these socialisms.

(1) Utopian socialism – In the world today, we also have a dynamic global civil society that has built solidarity in very creative ways across borders. Many in this “movement of movements” believe that the mere act of intellectually counter-posing global socialism to global capitalism is what the socialist struggle is about – the global bourgeoisie can be rationally convinced through elegant arguments to stop ruling the world. Underpinning this perspective is a theoretical conception that the era of the nation state is over and we all have to become self-declared global citizens. Married to this perspective is the idea of “localisation”, a variant of which argues that communities can seal themselves of from the vagaries and dangers of a capitalist world. Neo-anarchist communes, eco-villages and local currency systems can build autarchic local communities. This approach to localisation believes that state power can be bypassed. This conception of socialism is not grounded in a clear analysis of the nature of capitalism today and has not developed a clear method or politics to overcome it.

(2) Market socialism or “democratic socialism”– was intellectually developed in the West as an alternative to commandist centrally planned socialism in the East. Ideologically this perspective recognises that the market was never intrinsic to capitalism but actually preceded it in historical terms and therefore can be harnessed as an allocative mechanism for a socialist system. The economic theory of this perspective expects that the state would play an important redistributive and regulative function. Many who believe in market socialism use it as an ideological label to describe what’s going in China. Others of the more democratic socialism persuasion see an important role for markets but also place an important emphasis on multi-party democracy. While the SACP would agree with the idea of a qualified role for the market in South Africa, in general terms, this conception of socialism is still grounded in a politics of class compromise very similar to social democracy.

(3) Middle class socialism – this derives mainly from a sociological analysis of advanced capitalist countries. Central to this analysis is the idea that workers (blue collar) are increasingly being replaced by machines and therefore will not be in a position to provide the collective organisational power and strategic leadership for a socialist transition – “the end of the working class” comes through very powerfully in this conception of middle class socialism. Another variant of middle class socialism argues the lack of homogeneity in the ranks of the working class due to multiple identities and together with the existence of other social groups and actors, the central role of the working class in social change has to be rethought. The fact of the matter is that Marxists have never maintained a view that the working class is homogenous and united. Actually, serious Marxists have always tried to harness the socialist potential of the working class beyond narrow economistic struggles. This has entailed building solidarity, unity and strong organisations of the working class. In addition, serious Marxists have never tried to operate in a sectarian way isolated from the mainstream of society and the movement. Alliance politics, with Lenin’s worker –peasant alliance to the idea of a “United Front” of class forces and Gramsci’s hegemonic historic bloc have always been important means utilised by Marxists to build unity against the capitalist system. In the Third World, during the 20th Century multi-class alliances were used against colonial and imperialist forces. In short, the centrality of the working class in any struggle can only be determined by the extent to which it is organised to lead social transformation. Its numerical size in a society is not the most determining factor.

Our Conception of Socialism

We need to start with what our socialism is not about - what it is not? In the first place our socialism is not about finding answers in the canonical texts of Marx, Engel’s, Lenin or any other great Marxist thinker. While the critique of capitalism and classical political economy by Marx is valuable and the practical revolutionary insights of Lenin are useful however the world has changed since their time and there are new problems and forms of social change to deal with. While we are still in the epoch of capitalism our conception of socialism cannot be about taking a thesis written by Marx in 1848 or Lenin in 1917 and applying this to South Africa to build socialism. A doctrinaire Marxism that quotes from the Marxist canon to justify its political actions is not going to assist the struggle for socialism in South Africa within the 21st Century.

Second, our socialism is not about everything that is the opposite of capitalism. In other words if capitalism has markets, then socialism will only have the plan or capitalism has multi-parties then socialism has a one party state and if capitalism has big factories then socialism has to have bigger factories and so on. Basically, socialists are meant to represent the best inheritors of capitalism and social progress. They are meant to work with and transform the technical efficiencies, organisational capacities and technological development of capitalism. In short, socialism is meant to work with the modern and progressive results of capitalisms development to overcome scarcity and ensure a non-antagonistic relationship with nature.

Third our socialism is not about importing or replicating the Soviet model or any other abstract global model out there today. In the 20th century many revolutionary movements copied the Soviet model of socialism and ended up becoming dependent satellites of the Soviet Union. The Soviet model (or non-capitalist path to socialism) in the periphery did not work in most cases.

Our socialism is defined by South African conditions and circumstances. It is a result of our national liberation and class struggle. Its categories are evolving through the unity of theory and practice in a post-apartheid, democratic and transitional economic context. For the past 15 years since the unbanning of the SACP the process of internal ideological renewal has produced important aspects of a South African approach to socialism.

These are some of the aspects or attributes of our socialism:

Self-emancipation of the working class and the poor/ Deepening democracy – this is not about the glorification of spontaneity but is based on a reflection on what went wrong in the Soviet Union. The late comrade Joe Slovo started a critical engagement and disengagement from the Soviet experience. One of the analytical concepts that he used to critique the Soviet experience was the notion of “socialist alienation”, a term referring to the powerlessness of workers in the Soviet Union – a society in which the bureaucracy replaced the workers as the main historical agent for change and transformation. In South African terms it is like saying Pretoria will deliver socialism. Let the bureaucracy lead change in South Africa and the masses will be passive recipients. However, the central insight of Cd. Slovo’s was carried through into our transition as we constantly argued for a “people driven RDP”. At our 9th Congress a people driven reconstruction process became synonymous with deepening democracy. Today our programmatic approach to ward committees, co-operatives and peoples land and food security committees, peoples housing process, microfinance, and so on reflects this important principle of our socialism;

“New vanguardism” – the main debate in our transition has been about whether we are a mass or vanguard party. In the end, there is some kind of synthesis around these ideas. Put more sharply, we are the leading expression of the working class in the NDR but we will also have a mass membership. Many in our ranks have come to believe that on the terrain of legality it is correct for the SACP to open its ranks to the population in general. However, in practice what is distinctive about our role is how we work with working class and poor forces. More and more the party is moving away from propagandistic events and just providing intellectual platforms towards a new type of grass roots organising. In this process the idea “with and for …the working class and the poor” becomes important. This implies a dialectical relationship in which the party leads but with the consent and active support from working class and poor forces. This consent to lead is not based on some kind of superior understanding or “blue print “ for change. While we have socialist answers and programmatic responses to many issues facing the NDR, our method of politics is not about forcing acceptance of these perspectives. An open and genuine dialogue has to happen with workers and the poor to convince them about the correctness of our positions. In short, out of a process of engagement, listening, learning and organising can the party move forward on behalf of and with mass forces. Tactical capacity and socialist consciousness does not only exist in the SACP but already exists amongst working class forces, in the NDR, and the party has to negotiate and contest this in a democratic manner. Where this capacity does not exist the party has to develop it among socialist forces. With this approach, in practice, the SACP is becoming a vanguard party movement.

Our Marxism – is also an important innovation in how we are renewing our socialism. The body of thought that has come to constitute historical Marxism is vast and diverse, based on various interpretations of Marx’s work. For us it would seem more and more a textbook or “Soviet Union style political school” understanding of Marxism is not adequate for the challenges we face. It is generally agreed that Marxism is about understanding capitalism so that it can be changed. To this extent, our Marxism is (i) revolutionary; (ii) a historical social science and a (iii) guide to transformation. There are many challenges facing our Marxism. For example, we still need to develop a much clearer position on ecology in our Marxism, on culture and global issues. Despite these shortcomings our Marxism intends to develop socialist theory in the South African struggle, today, as we build critical mass for a socialist movement and practice;

The Transition – since the April Strategy conference it is apparent that we are developing our understanding of “socialist transition” in South Africa. Our 11th Congress took us up to the point of endorsing “elements of socialism” for the NDR. However, our strategy conference started the process of elaborating a theory of transition in South Africa. The political economy document tabled at the conference mentions three tendencies in our NDR – statist, capitalist and socialist. These three tendencies are meant to shape and define the political economy of the next phase of the NDR. However, we need to further elaborate on this framework. We need to develop a much clearer understanding of what this means for class struggle, for the class character and functions of a developmental state, the limits and extent to which capital (domestic and international) will contribute, the pace and direction of development in the country and the role of the tri-partite alliance.