Mass-rooted left renewal as the foundation
Mazibuko Kanyiso Jara | Amandla 76 | June/July 2021
The society we are in first
Any call for a Left party as Comrade Niall Reddy has proposed, or undertaking any organised Left renewal initiative, would be a futile arm-chair exercise if it does not start with a rigorous analysis of the post-1994 social formation in South Africa and a realistic appraisal of the possibilities.
Critical questions to pose and ponder in such an analysis would include:
- What are the nature, form and characteristics of post-apartheid capitalism?
- What are the core elements, drivers, features and dynamics of the post-apartheid accumulation regime?
- What is the place of unpaid social reproductive labour and women workers in this accumulation regime? What accounts for gender oppression and patriarchy? What is the strategic significance of the position of women in popular struggles and a long-term Left agenda?
- What post-apartheid social formation has emerged, evolved and taken shape?
- Race, racism and the national question: what are the social constructs on race? From a socialist standpoint, how has the post-1994 dispensation dealt with racism and the national question? What accounts for the re-racialisation of society and the failure of Mandela’s nation-building project? What is the significance of race and the national question in the struggle for socialism?
- What shapes the balance of forces (balance of power or correlation of social forces) and what would it take to tilt this in favour of popular forces?
- What will it take to get to the point where popular forces can realistically pose a real, deep, mass-rooted and sustained challenge to the power of capital and the neoliberal state?
Pondering these questions would crucially ground a Left party and a broader Left renewal process with social significance and weight, cogent politics, and a real and exciting newness and prospects for sustainable long-term success. This also means an openness to experiment, explore, learn and build a Left project from the particular capitalism that has emerged since the political transition of the early 1990s. Despite brilliant flashes in parts, Reddy’s argument for a Left party is impoverished by a lack of this kind of scientific grounding in the evolving post-1994 society.
This kind of grounding is exemplified by the Movement building in the shadow of Covid-19 paper of the Covid-19 Working Class Campaign (C19WCC). The relevant points from this paper are:
- Neoliberalism has profoundly restructured the working class and has led to a significant decline in its organising power and other strategic capacities. Its old and diminishing segment largely remains in bureaucratised and weakened trade unions. It enjoys formal but declining and precarious employment. It was largely defeated in battles against neoliberalism in the 1990s and has now suffered political death. This is being accelerated and finished off by the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Alongside this decline has emerged and grown a new, large feminised “post-apartheid working class”. This includes the unemployed, casual workers, workers who hustle daily at the side of the road, the “self-employed” and others who are reduced to do anything to eke out a living. These strata form the bedrock of survival and social reproduction of the entire working class and have been key in many post-apartheid struggles. Militant sections led the resistance to neoliberalism from the mid-1990s, and were defeated and had disintegrated even before the Marikana massacre of August 2012. A section began to re-organise again after Marikana and can be seen in many continuing protests in the country.
- Factory closures, the collapse of whole industries and the impact of this collapse on state revenues will not just lead to a jobs bloodbath. It will also accelerate a significant and profound shift in the primary terrain of working class struggles from the factories to the townships: “Henceforth, factory struggles will become inextricably connected to struggles for survival, livelihoods and political change driven from the townships. This convergence between these two sections of the working class is the historical and social basis for the resolution of the organisational questions within the working class”.
Indeed, the C19WCC perspectives must still be more widely debated, tested in practice and enriched by also considering urban-rural dimensions, the rural population, the fragile black middle class and the possibilities for reimagining the emancipatory potential of working class livelihoods activity. What the C19WCC perspectives put forward is the kind of necessary social formation analysis required to address the organisational questions facing the left and the broad working class. Without this, Reddy’s call ends up being an abstract scheme. It is largely inspired by external and somewhat inapplicable experiences of inspiring class struggle-based electoral campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Podemos in Spain.
We must envision and build a hegemonic historic bloc
In a Gramscian sense, what the C19WCC is asking the Left to do is to think through the implications of a social formation analysis for building a new historic bloc. This is required to challenge and defeat neoliberalism, whilst also raising the banner of both long-term transformative change and ultimately the socialist revolution. In other words, what set of social forces (conscious of their context and situation and with the social weight, a minimum programme, political strategy, and an organised fighting capacity) are required to best advance anti-capitalist revolutionary change? Already, the restructuring of the working class, as the C19WCC demonstrates, contributes to how we can reimagine such a new historic bloc conceptually and programmatically.
Also relevant is the need to acknowledge the subjective weaknesses of working class organisation today. Key amongst these is the absence of a widely shared structural/systemic analysis. This must explain the many problems facing the working class and the required strategy to win immediate demands in a manner connected to a vision – long-term transformative change. Meanwhile at the other end, we see the emboldening and entrenchment of conservative and right-wing discourses, ideologies, ways of living and doing in working class communities. This underlines how this moment is one of utter defeat of the Left with its thin and fragile web of life.
Reddy’s prime social base for the desired left party is the formally employed working class active in the weakened trade unions. Reddy’s remedy is the very same Left party he desires which would provide the advanced cadreship to rebuild trade unions. In this regard, Reddy commits three basic errors:
- He assumes the existence of progressive political traditions and practices in trade unions. Instead these have actually become so bureaucratised and hollowed out that the more important task is to rebuild them so that they are fit to play their basic primary role. This must take place before taking on the historic task of being key battalions executing the socialist revolution.
- He does not consider the reduced social and economic weight of trade unions in the light of the neoliberal restructuring of work; and
- He underestimates the kind of political resources required (which the Left does not currently have) for what will surely be a complex and long task.
Reddy’s other flaw is to centralise state power as the ultimate achievement of a Left agenda and strategy. He does not consider the historical record of the Left and the state. Overwhelmingly it is a record of defeating the goal of socialism, either through reformism or Stalinist degeneration, which has often led to capitalist restoration. He does not demonstrate how a Left party that contests state power in South Africa would avoid these two typical historical trajectories.
Instead of getting stuck in a limiting pro- vs. anti- party debate, the Left has to focus on a wider process of mass-based Left renewal and rebuilding broad working class hegemony. In a Gramscian sense, the broad working class can become the leading and the dominant class in a new historic bloc of the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state. This is about “leading” where, even before occupying and hopefully transforming power, the broad working class becomes the leading class with capacity to even “dominate” its enemies. The working class has to achieve, sustain and deepen society-wide political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural and moral hegemony as a class.
Stepping into the crisis
A progressive trajectory, let alone the socialist revolution, is not to be taken for granted. Unlike reactionary discourses, progressive change requires hard, deep, long and impactful organising work, ideological work and class struggle. In fact, given that tthe mass of the people do not yet have the power to eject the illegitimate ruling class, there are real possibilities of a Left agenda being overwhelmed and defeated by the re-emboldened reactionary forces. The question for the Left is: how do we rebuild a Left agenda that can gain traction, with the potential to hegemonise and become the common sense of growing sections of popular forces? Reddy’s Left party solution is not a concrete answer to this question.
Stepping into these crises is both a question of orientation and preparation. We have to recognise the openings present in the crises. This moment requires the broad working class to fight like it has never fought before. This fight is going to be messy and difficult for a long time. We are not where we should be. We have what we have. We need to build for what we need. We must work out and put together the building blocks for a new historic bloc. Instead of the silver bullet of a Left party, I suggest the following building blocks:
- Socialist political education;
- A new common sense;
- Mobilisational ability and organising capacity;
- Organising to win transformative reforms in the here and now;
- Anti-systemic alternatives from below.
Socialist political education
We need sustained socialist political education to produce the required critical mass of critical and grounded organic intellectuals, organisers, activists and leaders. No movement forward is possible without several such layers dynamically active across a range of political spaces and mass movements. Such a layer is also key in the redirection of popular struggles in a socialist direction.
A new common sense
We must build critical consciousness amongst wider layers of popular forces, including through progressive working class media, culture and creativity (with mass input, output, outreach and impact). Also critical is knowledge production from below – poetry, song, activist research, activist writing, etc, whilst also working with a grounded, committed and engaged traditional intelligentsia who must be more invested away from the ivory towers and in humble contribution to, and disciplined by, the mass rebuilding effort.
Our many crises mean we have openings to challenge dominant narratives. This is what Africanists, Black Consciousness proponents, decolonialists and conservative social forces have done much more successfully than the traditional socialist Left. The Left lacks a popular narrative that connects directly with how people are experiencing the crises. We need to build this narrative for now, for moments when struggles flare up, and for the long term. We must agitate against logics and discourses that allow people to fall back into conservative narratives based on fear, scarcity and division.
Mobilisational ability and organising capacity (fighting capacity)
We need to lay a clear foundation for organisational power, alternative ideas and radical demands. We need to find ways to mobilise the mass of the people into sustained mass action (not just marches and protest, but transformative organising too). Building mass organisations is critical – informed by the structures, dynamics and actual forms of working class existence (beyond traditional formulas and strategies). This is why we need a critical mass of politically trained cadres. They will be key to inspire, drive and carry the weight of mobilising and organising. We do not have this critical layer. Crucial here are women, students, unemployed youth, rural people, informal workers, employed workers, the fragile middle class, and LGBTQIA people. We need to map and connect with current mass organisations and struggles, and see what this means for a Left strategy. We need to work in democratic ways contributing to a deeper systemic/structural analysis and the need for a long-term strategy for transformative change.
Organising to win transformative reforms in the here and now
During moments of deep-seated crises, it can be more possible to advance bold demands for structural reform than it is in normal times. Indeed, as the Amandla! 75 editorial put it: austerity can be defeated. The crises we have can help turn our weakness around. These crises open windows for change, but those windows don’t stay open forever. Given the rise of conservative forces, do bold radical Left demands even appeal to the reality of millions of people? How do we pose such Left demands in ways that makes mass common sense? How do we connect immediate needs to solutions that go beyond what established mechanisms can address? How do we build from fairly widely shared demands around public goods and a social wage, the municipal and service delivery crisis, the collapse of the state, corruption, free education, land redistribution and access to food? How do we turn these from sterile slogans into living mass demands connected to real struggles and real rebuilding? How do we realistically do this when we are so weak? The popular organising around Covid-19 has some sparks of nimble, quick responses but they have not yet reached the required momentum. How do we build on this going forward?
Anti-systemic alternatives from below
How do we enable a strategic shift from immediate demands to a broader transformative perspective, connecting local immediate struggles with the long-term agenda for revolutionary change?
There is much scope for inserting an anti-systemic logic in the various forms of popular resistance. Already we see land redistribution from below through mass land occupations to build semi-liberated zones of self-sustainability, popular opposition to mining, food sovereignty struggles (communal gardens, food kitchens, seed banks, seed sharing, agro-ecology and other thrusts), cooperatives (which crucially need to include the taking over of closed factories), burial societies and stokvels, child care, the rolling back of outsourcing and other socio-economic struggles. Much work remains to be done in harnessing this resistance into a critical mass and momentum oriented towards anti-systemic logics and long-term transformative change.
Critical here is overcoming capitalist disorganisation. The long queues for social grants and at hospitals and taxi ranks, criminality, domestic violence, the lack of access to basic services, the lack of access to data and airtime, the absence of sufficient healthy food for basic nutrition, expensive electricity, overcrowded housing, hunger and other debilitating socio-economic realities make organising difficult. Even the best of activists are disabled by these, and often organising becomes an opportunity for hustling for life. We have not used these conditions to build alternative collective logics of livelihoods and organising. We must devise strategies to do so.
Also critical is building power: in a crisis, huge numbers of people are open to stepping out of their daily routines and getting involved in social change efforts. This is what we are seeing with Community Action Networks, rural struggles, anti-mining struggles, food sovereignty initiatives, etc. Without organisation, many of these people do not stay engaged after the immediate moment of crisis passes. We need a plan to connect with such mass mobilisations from crisis moments so we can contribute a Left perspective to what happens and harness the individuals who become involved into becoming committed activists for long-term change.
What is required is a coherent perspective, strategy and programme of the long-term, that can deepen organisational, political and geographic depth, sophistication, sustainability, impact, solidarity and unity in action. With such a strategy and programme, there can be real opportunities for the recomposition of a progressive broad mass movement, possibilities for the re-emergence of united workplace and community struggles, and the potential for these to create a political dynamic that can challenge the ANC’s hold over the black working class.
Then the Left party will have a solid foundation
None of the above is possible without an organised Left network which is not yet a party. This would be in order to coordinate, share, learn, reflect and take initiatives, and to attract new and younger layers of activists into Left thinking and getting them to shape and drive Left renewal.
The above pillars also seek to build the strength and development of the self-organisation and fighting capacity of popular forces. Out of such can emerge the forces that can really own and drive the historic project of building a Left party. Also important is the question of envisaging the process towards discussing a Left party initiative. What? Who? How? When? Important here is to go beyond party mania and really connect a party process to the tempo of mass struggles. Ultimately this is about the political consciousness of popular forces.
Also it would be critical to respect and promote ideological openness where we reflect, unlearn, let go, learn and base approaches on the searchlight approach – searching for new pathways instead of predetermined blueprints or classical doctrines. Important here is the Left learning from and contributing to feminist politics.
This moment calls us to step into our most visionary and powerful selves, to move mountains to fight for our survival and for a rebuilding on new terms. This is the fight of our lives; it is also the fight for our lives.
Mazibuko Jara is part of the Amandla! Editorial Collective