After the “Numsa moment”: towards a party of a new kind.
Niall Reddy | Amandla 75 | March 2021
Over the last decade, the Left in a number of Western countries has undergone a historic transition from “protest to politics”, to borrow the words of the late Canadian Marxist Leo Panitch and his frequent co-author Sam Gindin. From Podemos to Sanders, a new wave of parties and electoral coalitions have emerged and made rapid gains.
None of these provide us with formulas for resolving the vexing dilemmas facing the socialist movement in our globalised present, and virtually all have witnessed major defeats. But in their determination to take state power seriously they constitute an unmistakable step forward, after decades in which the Left’s confinement to episodic instances of mobilisation left the electoral field wide open to the parties of business. Part of this “new new” Left’s success stems from a willingness to shake free of its own past. Building a viable socialism of the 21st Century, P&G argue, requires dispensing with the outmoded parts of the Leninist model, like its wager on insurrection, while retaining what still holds value, like its internationalist spirit.
These developments hold important lessons for us on the South African Left. Just under a decade ago it seemed that we were on the verge of effecting a similar transition “from protest to politics”.
During the first phase democracy, a socialist opposition had found a locus in the so-called “new” social movements which grew in reaction to various parts of the ANC’s neoliberal agenda. These waged a number of important defensive struggles and scored a few key victories but fundamentally did nothing to loosen capital’s grip on policymaking. By the end of the 2000s most were a spent force. It became increasingly clear that lasting gains would not be possible until we could find ways of connecting social agitation with efforts to seize governing power.
The “Numsa moment”
The ability to think in these bigger terms received a major boost when Numsa, the nation’s largest union, redrew the political map of the country by breaking from the ANC, amidst a wave of working class militancy.
Of course for the “official” left which Numsa represented there had never been any turn away from politics as such. But decades of compromise had bred a kind of politics that had become completely unmoored from the foundation of class antagonism. Numsa’s move thus constituted a kind of mirror image transition – from a back-room corporatism to a politics more informed by the methods, and enlivened by the spirit, of protest.
This is what imbued the “Numsa moment” with such hope – it promised to re-connect the two sides of South Africa’s bifurcated Left and supply the strategic elements that had been missing from each. By matching the militancy and class-independence of the social movement Left with the structural and organisational might of the “official” Left, it seemed possible that a mass socialist movement could be rapidly brought into being.
That was not to be. From today’s vantage it’s impossible to regard the Numsa moment as anything but an abject failure. The political party which eventually emerged from it is the farthest cry from the unifying force that so many had hoped for. While the international left has been able to advance by breaking with its shibboleths, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party has fallen back on a slavish appropriation of Bolshevik ideology that is almost comical in its extremes. Despite enormous resources, a large part supplied by a US-based billionaire, the party ran a dismal first election campaign in which it failed to get even a tenth of Numsa’s own membership to vote for it. Perhaps most damning of all, it seems to have re-created a Stalinoid internal culture every bit as bad as the SACP’s.
What are the right lessons?
The foundering of the Numsa moment is a terrible blow. But the setback it inflicts on us will be far greater if we fail to draw the correct lessons. Perhaps the scariest outcome is that it precipitates a slide back into movementism and closes off our chance to transition from “protest to politics”. Party politics acquired a bad name during the era of “protest” in South Africa, and many on the Left already feel the example of the SRWP to have vindicated their worst suspicions.
But what the SRWP actually reveals to us are not flaws inherent in the party-form as such, but rather the limits of a certain kind of party, one founded on a hidebound Leninism. If the Left were to abandon party building altogether there would, quite simply, be no socialist future. The defect at the heart of all visions of radical change that eschew parties and an active takeover of the state is a misunderstanding of the nature of class formation – the process by which individuals become aware of their class position and begin to articulate their politics through it. This is presented as as a quasi-automatic effect of the capitalist class structure.
But this is inaccurate. Class is impactful because it frames the options we have over so many major decisions in our lives – but not so narrowly as to make resistance to one’s employer, or the system behind them, inevitable. Indeed, the extreme vulnerability of workers under capitalism means that individualised modes of coping tend to be more commonplace than collective action. That’s why socialist consciousness has been more the exception rather than the norm in the global history of capitalism, and exceedingly rare in the absence of a well-organised party. As Panitch tirelessly argued, parties make classes as much as they are made by them.
Thankfully the variant of movementism which took hold in South Africa was not for the most part this more extreme kind, which denies the ultimate need for a party. Rather what it advocates is a downgrading of the role of party building or its deferral to some indefinite future.
The common premise for this position seems to be that party building can only succeed when perfectly timed to the right “objective conditions” – conditions which are only likely to form in the wake of a ruptural moment defined by intensified street-level mobilisation. Only the transformation of mass consciousness brought about by such an episode of struggle can furnish the base for a party. Moreover, efforts to “impose” a party on the working class before this are liable to be rejected by its most conscious and active layers. The task of socialists in the present, therefore, is devote ourselves to strengthening movements, and hope that a party may gestate from within them in some future context.
Related but distinguishable from this is an ingrained hostility on the South African Left towards electoral politics. This view tends to draw a sharp line between the electoral arena and that of movements. While movements unlock popular power by sensitising their participants to potential for collective action, elections offer no such platform for consciousness raising. Instead they tend to reproduce the atomisation of liberal democracy, and to fortify the myth that progress is possible within it. Moreover, movements which take the electoral road subject themselves to debilitating pressures. The logic of vote-getting tends to conflict with the logic of grassroot mobilisation, and all too often to overwhelm it.
Movementism alone is not enough
This position fails to take seriously the inherent weaknesses of social movements, while overstating the pitfalls of electoral politics.
Of the numerous movements which sustained the first era of “protest” in post-Apartheid South Africa virtually none remain (barring one major exception). New ones have of course cropped up, and a tide of less organised community protests has continued unabated across the country. But these show equally little likelihood of autonomously cohering into anything bigger or more resilient.
The model that informed these movements rested on localised mobilisation around immediate issues, while actively eschewing efforts to politicise a leadership layer. They were promoted as crucibles of anti-capitalism, in which the mere experience of collective decision making offered a form of political education beyond what any party or theorist could hope to match.
But this betrays the same fallacious thinking about class formation that informs all ventures aimed at “transforming society without taking power”. Much less a break with capitalism, it’s not clear that social movements even succeeded in getting most members to question their loyalty to the ANC. That left them prone to demobilisation and disorganisation when circumstances changed, when defeats were incurred or when key individuals drifted off or were co-opted.
One strategic upshot of this critique is that the trade-off between movement and party building posited by movementists is a false one. It’s likely that there is no winning formula for transforming single issue mobilisations into lasting, mass organisations without NGOifying them. But what we can do is to ensure that the small advances made by movements each time they arise are not dissipated. After all, the notion that struggle develops consciousness is not false. What movementists get wrong is overstating the extent to which it does so organically. Virtually every movement throws up militant leaders, who stand to become tribunes for socialist politics if they can be identified, recruited and supported appropriately. This is work that a party is best suited to undertake.
But the limits of social movements should, I would argue, lead us to question the overwhelming strategic significance that they have been accorded in the politics of the “independent Left”.
The arena of organised labour
Of course, this was a strategic orientation that was largely foisted on us by circumstance. The stranglehold that the Alliance exercised on organised labour and mass politics generally left little room for an alternative. But the situation has changed. The factionalisation of the ANC, the split in Cosatu and the emergence of Saftu have created an opening for a more militant socialism to regain a foothold in organised labour. In my view this ought to be the clear priority of socialists.
For all their infirmities, unions still present a much more promising site for reinvigorating our political project. Although this may not hold for much longer, they remain mass membership organisations with considerable resources. Most importantly, and most differently from social movements, they have access to structural power. Here is one pillar of Leninism which the decades have not invalidated – that our project will most likely fail unless that structural power is at its centre.
If organised labour is once again to become our strategic focal point, this strengthens the case for not consigning the party to an intangible future. The synergies between party building and organisation building are arguably stronger in the case of unions than social movements. At a fairly abstract level, one reason for this is that union building (or revitalisation) typically relies on a few individuals taking bold action out of moral conviction. Marxists have often argued something very different – that shopfloors collectivise as soon as workers wake up to their material interests. But narrow self-interest is unlikely to ever motivate someone to take the first steps towards organising their co-workers since doing so incurs enormous risks but yields no extra benefit – the essence of the “free-rider” problem.
Thus it’s not a coincidence that, across time and place, socialists of various stripes have been significantly overrepresented among the “militant minority”. The values that draw people to the banner of socialism are often the same as those that move them to action against workplace injustices. It’s also not a coincidence that a militant minority is more likely to emerge and proliferate when socialist ideas are more prominent in the public realm.
With the right perspective, a party thus stands to make a powerful contribution to the task of union revitalisation by buttressing the ranks of the militant minority and arming it with better analysis and ideas. More simply it stands to contribute to the enormous organisational undertaking that will be required to build a broad movement for grassroots democracy in our unions.
Class struggle elections
There’s therefore a case for not delaying in building a fighting organisation that tries to cohere leading militants from workplace and community struggles around a socialist programme. But such an organisation should, I would argue, do more. As soon as it has the numbers needed, it should seek to involve itself in elections. In all likelihood it would have to start with local elections, and to work in partnership with community and social movements. But as quickly as possible it should seek to graduate to the national arena. South Africa’s unusually proportional electoral system, which was in fact designed to provide space for smaller parties, makes this a reasonable short-term goal.
Sceptics of this strategy tend to overstate, or misunderstand, the legitimacy problem facing formal political institutions. The SRWP seems to think that any worker with lingering attachments to electoral politics is suffering from “false consciousness”. But in our current circumstances, there is nothing the least bit irrational about remaining invested in the electoral arena, even while recognising the severity of its class bias. The simple reason for this is that there is no existing social force capable of challenging state power while remaining entirely outside its institutions, nor is there a prospect of one emerging in any foreseeable horizon. Worker organisations in SA are locked in a desperate defensive struggle, not preparing to set up a parallel state.
It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections – but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.
Thus it’s not surprising that despite decades of growing alienation under neoliberalism, electoral movements in the West have been able to engineer a political realignment that was much deeper than what post-2008 movements were able to achieve on their own. Their location within the domain of mainstream politics provided both visibility and also a kind of credibility – they promised to take over the institutions in front of us, rather than replace them with ones we can’t see and can scarcely imagine.
Several of these examples stood the movementist model on its head. Rather than an electoral breakthrough growing out of a period of intensified movement activity, it was the electoral arena itself that has delivered the ruptural moment, the energy from which then filtered down to social and labour struggles.
In the process they have challenged another fallacy of movementism – that the electoral arena is entirely inimical to a politics of struggle. Sanders, Corbyn and others imbued their campaigns with a spirit of insurgency that succeeded in appealing to many of those most turned off by politics, particularly among younger generations. Rather than sucking energy from the streets, these examples provided a renewed model of “class struggle elections”.
Class struggle elections seek to deliberately leverage electoral campaigns, and political office itself, to bolster movements. They use every platform available to raise awareness of, and encourage solidarity with, labour and social struggles. In doing so they try to inculcate the understanding that radical policies can only be won with an inside-outside strategy, in which legislators are supported and pushed forward by powerful movements. At the same time they use campaigns as tools of organisation building. They recruit and deploy a mass of activists to spread a socialist message and try at the same time to develop those activists by building political education into their activities. Done properly, this can bridge the gaps that supposedly separate movement from electoral organising, infusing the latter with a powerful a sense of collectivity. That’s why so many thousands of young Americans were politically activated through their involvement in the Bernie campaign, which became a gateway to organising in other fields.
Note that this is completely different to the SRWP’s narrowly propagandistic approach to elections, which didn’t promote social struggles so much as a fantasy of revolution, whilst denouncing “bourgeois democracy” as a sham and doing nothing to actually win. Contrast the resulting disaster with the early trajectory of the EFF, which leveraged the electoral know-how of its ex-ANCYL cadre, and Malema’s media savvy, to run an enormously successful first campaign. It then steadily expanded its vote share in each cycle, whilst using parliamentary office to bolster its national profile. Sadly, it departed the orbit of the Left along the way. But the two diverging cases provide an obvious lesson – if elections are to be useful to us, we have to show that we are capable of succeeding in them. If we can’t, how on earth will we convince anyone we’re capable of transforming society from its roots up?
None of this is to suggest that the concerns movementists raise about electoralism are meritless. It’s unquestionably true that electoral competition imposes its own logic, which can be ruinous if it totally subsumes the party’s strategic purview. We can trace the decline of many a worker’s party, at least proximately, to ill-fated efforts to capture middle class votes by abandoning a politics of class antagonism. But all socialist strategising in our dismal conjuncture is the consideration of perilous alternatives. Far better to confront the dangers of succumbing to a narrow electoralism than the near certitude of permanent marginalisation should we choose to abstain from mainstream politics altogether.
Party and class
The Numsa moment may have come and gone. But many elements of the broader conjuncture which produced it, and which seemed to augur a new direction for socialist politics, persist. The Alliance coalition is in the doldrums. Predicting its early demise is of course a pastime of which we “independent leftists” should now be wary. But the material facts this time really are different. The state faces a fiscal crisis that Ramaphosa has neither the wherewithal nor the institutional tools to escape from. His factional opponents preach a “radical economic transformation” that offers nothing whatsoever to workers.
Social strains look set to keep accumulating. But assuming that any crisis they produce will redound automatically to the Left’s benefit would be folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision and the organisational capacity to ensure that class becomes the fault line of social polarisation. And for that we need to face up to the challenge of constructing a new party.
Niall Reddy is a political economist and organiser.