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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 1, No. 2, 6 November 2002

In this Issue:

 

Red Alert
Lessons from Red October 2002

Intensify the struggle to roll back the capitalist market in the provision of basic services!

At the beginning of October we launched our Red October 2002 campaign. Our annual Red October campaigns have proven to be amongst the most popular campaigns in a democratic South Africa. We decided to embark on mass campaigns each October to celebrate and honour the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia in 1917. Much more critically, we use these campaigns to mobilise all communists in the country to take part in concrete struggles around the eradication of poverty, to popularise socialism as the only rational alternative to capitalism, and to build strong SACP structures. It is a month to underline and activate communist activism.

Each year we decide on a focus in line with our programme of action for that year. The following year, we integrate the previous year’s experiences into the new campaign. We launched our first Red October campaign in 1999 around the theme of building the political consciousness and confidence of the working class as the leading motive force of our revolution. But we anchored the 1999 campaign around fighting against job losses and for job creation as a critical platform in eradicating poverty in our country. That campaign was very successful and directed the attention of the Party to the need to root and anchor the SACP amongst organised workers. That focus has paid handsomely in that our strength and popularity amongst workers and the trade union movement has grown in leaps and bounds.

Our most successful Red October campaign was the one we launched in 2000, to mobilise around the transformation and diversification of the financial sector with a particular focus on transforming the capitalist banks in our country to serve the overwhelming majority of our people. Not only did this campaign capture the imagination of millions of our people, but it led to the securing of an agreement with the banks and financial institutions on the transformation of this sector. The momentum built through this campaign has also led to talks by the finance bosses around a financial sector charter to transform this still racially and gender-skewed sector dominated by a white, male capitalist class and management structure.

Curiously, some of our detractors are claiming that the SACP has sought to position itself as an oppositionist tendency to the ANC and government. They claim, without having spent even a minute of their so-called “revolutionary socialist work” time on SACP activities (and some even opportunistically abandoned our Party after the collapse of the Soviet Union), that we have not confronted private capital in our struggles. The financial sector campaign is one of very few post-1994 struggles that have sought to tackle the transformation of the all-powerful private financial sector in our country through imaginative mass mobilisation of the working class and the poor.

In line with our 2002 programme of action, “People and Government: Together building people’s power to meet basic needs”, our 2002 Red October Campaign focuses on the all important question of the need to develop a comprehensive social security system. We are focusing the attention of our people on the need to participate in and shape a social security system capable of responding to the challenge of poverty eradication. Contrary to the neo-liberal argument, in a country with about 40% unemployment, and half of its population living in poverty, expenditure on a comprehensive social security system does not create dependency, but is rather a critical component of a growth and development strategy. It is for this reason that the SACP decided to throw its weight to support the government’s campaign to register all those who are deserving but are currently outside the social security net, whether it be child, disability or old-age state social grants.

Our Red October 2002 campaign has already scored some advances. The first achievement, most notable in KwaZulu-Natal, has been the formation of volunteer groups – The Red October Brigades – going door-to-door and convening mass meetings to engage our people around social security issues and registering for state social grants. In this process we have also held numerous people’s forums around the question of the need for a comprehensive social security system as well as the escalating food prices in our country. As is to be expected, the single most important concern amongst our people is not a cry for handouts but jobs, access to productive land for subsistence agricultural activities, and social assistance for the disabled, the elderly and children. In one of the public meetings we held in Clermont township near Durban, representatives of the disabled argued not for handouts but for job opportunities so that they can contribute to the growth of the country’s economy!

During the campaign hundreds of SACP Red October Brigades visited pay points for old age social grants as well as other grants. The manner in which our elderly and the disabled collect their grants is something that needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. For instance, that 70 and 80 year olds still have to sleep in the veld the night before their pay day is an indignity and an affront to the African elderly of our country. Obviously, the elderly should be paid their grants directly into bank accounts, but banks have very high bank charges that would eat into the already meager old age social grants. The SACP has firmly raised the issue of suspending bank charges for recipients of state social grants, but the banks refuse to do this. This calls for urgent state intervention to create mechanisms for either forcing the banks or using state institutions like PostBank to play a leading role in the disbursement of state social grants. It is for this reason that the SACP welcomes last week’s Cabinet decision to establish a national social security agency whose priority it will be to address this problem.

Visiting pay points for social grants is an experience that all South Africans need to go through. There is a carnival atmosphere, our elderly chatting and smiling at receiving something to relieve some of the worst of poverty. The creativity and entrepreneurship of the poor is most visible: our mamas selling all sorts of things, from clothes, to food, to African paraphernalia.

The most disturbing sight at almost all of these pay points for state social grants is micro-lenders, who dish out loans to the elderly on their payday! Some receive their grants minus the monthly loan repayments to these micro-lenders, and go back there to make new loans. It is the most distasteful experience of capitalism living like a parasite on the elderly poor. Not only has capitalism exploited the last ounce of labour power from these elderly during their working lives – if they had been employed – but further chases their state social grants like vultures preying on a carcass. This is where our 2002 Red October campaign directly links with our financial sector campaign. We are calling for an urgent investigation by government, as agreed to at the Financial Sector Summit, on micro-lenders and the manner in which they have not only enslaved the working people, but also the elderly.

During the launch of our Red October 2002 campaign in Thokoza in Gauteng, we were approached by many retrenched workers who were complaining that they did not believe that the money they got from their employers was what they deserved. Our Party activists took up a few cases and discovered that two of the retrenched workers were indeed underpaid, and had also not received assistance to claim from their life insurance cover. Our Party cadres managed to assist one old worker to claim just under R100 000 of his insurance money, for which instalments had been deducted through his company whilst he was employed. No wonder there are hundreds of million of rands lying unclaimed in insurance companies, as well as billions of rands of unclaimed pension funds. This raises the question of social assistance to retrenched or retiring workers in order to ensure that at least they get what they are entitled to. This is a challenge to both the government and the trade union movement.

Our campaign is also focusing on the need to monitor and transform the Road Accident Fund responsible for insurance cover for those involved in road accidents. There is a lot of corruption around this fund, with lawyers embezzling millions of rands from victims. In raising this matter, we discovered that many of our people do not have the means to access these funds nor to check whether they are getting all their monies. What this emphasises is perhaps the need to create one-stop centres for social security grants, involving the departments of social welfare, home affairs, transport and others involved in payment or monitoring of social grants. Even more critical is the need for effective oversight on social grants and the whole social security system. This underlines the need for a state agency to undertake this task, rather than leaving it to vultures in the private capitalist sector.

For us, the main lesson from our Red October 2002 campaign thus far is that the extent of poverty in our country calls for deepening the struggle against capitalism. Our campaign is a very important platform to highlight the plight of “surplus labour” not needed by capital. It is a campaign we must use to educate our people, from the youth to the elderly, about the evils of capitalism, and the necessity to struggle for socialism. But much more importantly is the need to intensify the struggle to roll back the capitalist market in the provision of basic services in our country. Reliance on the capitalist market, and reluctance to confront this market, whether it be around food prices, the labour market, delivery of social security services or job creation, can only lead to the deepening of poverty in our country. Reliance on, or failure to confront, the capitalist market will serve to reproduce the very same contradictions of apartheid that we seek to overcome.

Our experience further underlines the need to intensify the struggle for an expansion of the social wage (affordable basic services) not based on capitalist market considerations. It further underlines the need for building a strong, democratic and accountable public sector able to drive, as part of a developmental state, a growth and development strategy capable of better responding to the needs of the overwhelming majority of our people. We must focus on developing a growth and development strategy best capable of reversing the current accumulation path premised on outsourcing, privatising and marginalising the working class.


Vuyisile Mini: Worker, Poet and Martyr for Freedom(1)

Vuyisile Mini was born in the bustling and rapidly developing Port Elizabeth in 1920. Charged in 1963 with 17 counts of sabotage and the murder of a police informer, Vuyisile Mini, together with Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayingo, was convicted and hanged in Pretoria Central Prison on November 6th, 1964.

But the development taking place on that important dock-side was not for the benefit of the Black workers who were paid minimal wages by the bosses. His father was involved in the desperate struggle to raise a family on these wages.

When he was a boy of ten, the workers in the nearby East London went on strike to try to improve their situation. The strike was broken by scab labour, and most strikers lost their jobs. The Government demonstrated its ruthlessness, by later removing most of the strikers from the city to remote areas where employment opportunities were virtually nonexistent.
This pattern was to emerge again and again. It did not daunt the militancy of the workers, however. It is a tribute to their dogged determination that they continued to fight, despite being beaten back, and to fight back again.

Trade union struggles

Mini himself became part of this struggle at the age of seventeen. He joined the fight against bus fare and rent increases and the crippling injustices perpetrated against people who could barely afford food. He was active in local campaigns against the mass removal of Africans from Korsten, Port Elizabeth, where he lived.

In 1957, the stevedores in Port Elizabeth struck. This strike received international publicity when convict labour was brought in to break it. The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and African National Congress (ANC), as well as other organisations, protested vehemently against this intrusion of convict labour and appealed to international bodies to help them in that struggle. The International Transport Workers` Federation threatened to call on workers in other ports to refuse to handle goods loaded at Port Elizabeth. The stevedore companies panicked and the Minister of Labour announced the immediate withdrawal of convict labour.

Eventually the Government took revenge. When the stevedore companies offered an increase of 15 pence a day, the Minister of Labour withheld his permission and ordered a Wage Board inquiry. The result of this inquiry was that the workers did not receive the 15 pence increase offered by the employers.

There were many more dock and transport strikes in this period. Most ended in the same way. The Government representatives stepped in, even where companies were prepared to negotiate and complicated the situation. Police were often brought in to clear striking workers out of their living areas, and to bring in scab labour from remote areas.
Government intervention to stem militant trade union action took a new turn. The law was manipulated to harass trade union leaders on political charges and thus remove them from their place of organisation.

Through these kinds of experiences, trade unionists became aware that trade union activity was really part of a wider struggle. The intervention of the State in factory floor disputes showed workers only too clearly that the exploitation of African workers was but an aspect of the overall oppression. Workers not only had no right to strike, but they also had no right to choose where to live, no right to vote, and no representatives in Parliament. The union struggle, trade unionists came to realise, could not be divorced from the struggle for freedom.

Defiance Campaign and Treason Trial

The ANC grew rapidly in strength in the decade after World War II. It formed an alliance with Indian and Coloured and white movements, which became known as the "Congress Alliance" and together they launched the Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws in 1952.
Vuyisile Mini was then the Secretary of the Dock Workers` Union and the Sheet Metal Workers` Union, which were both affiliated to SACTU. A father of six, he volunteered to take part in the Defiance Campaign, and was sentenced to three months` imprisonment for entering railway property which had been reserved for whites only.

Because of his arrest, he lost his job as packer in a battery factory. After release, he combined his trade union activities with political work and became Secretary of the Cape region of the ANC.

The State machinery was soon busily seeking other means of harassing the people`s leaders. In 1956, it arrested 156 persons of all races and charged them with treason. One of these was Mini. The trial dragged on for four years, disrupting the lives and work of the accused and their families, before the State case collapsed and all the accused were freed.

Composer and singer

Through all his arrests and victimisation, Mini reacted with that great gift which heartened all who heard him - his singing. His own compositions, which he sang in a magnificent bass in meetings, in prison and during the mass trials, were militant at times:

"Verwoerd pasopa

Naants` indod` emnyama"

("Look out, Verwoerd, here are the Black people");

and at times, nostalgic, especially the song composed during the long and wearying Treason Trial, which expressed the yearning of the accused to return home:

"Thath` umthwalo Buti sigoduke

balindile oomama noo bab` ekhaya"

("Take up your things Brother and let`s go, They are waiting, our mothers and fathers, at home")

The feelings in this song have now taken on a new dimension for all those South Africans who live as refugees from the land of their birth.

Mini, however, also loved classical music. He sang in various choirs, including the Port Elizabeth Male Voice Choir. Some of the choirs of which he was a member included whites who were not connected with the struggle for freedom. He joked about this afterwards, saying he had carried the "gospel of Congress" further by way of song. This allusion to the gospel refers to a song Mini had composed during the Defiance Campaign:

"Mayihambe le vangeli

Mayigqib ilizwe lonke"

("Let this gospel spread and be known through the world")

The final test

The early 1960s saw an all-out campaign by the racist regime to smash the popular movements. The oppressed people had seen all their appeals ignored and the doors to peaceful protest bolted by the National Party leaders, who had been schooled in the ideology of Nazi Germany. The popular movements therefore took to direct action in the form of limited acts of sabotage against Government installations.

While working in the Port Elizabeth Local Committee of SACTU in 1963, Mini was arrested along with two other prominent ANC members, Wilson Khayinga and Zinakile Mkaba. All three were charged with committing acts of sabotage and complicity in the death of a police informer in January of that year. (None of them were charged with participation in the shooting of the informer: four others were subsequently tried on that charge).

The accused men, as well as all the witnesses who gave evidence against them, were held in solitary confinement under the "90-day law". This law, enacted in May 1963, allowed the authorities to detain any person without charge for successive periods of 90 days. Most Africans held under the Act were tortured severely. Some committed suicide during this period of confinement; others are known to have died under circumstances which have never been explained. These were the conditions under which statements were extracted or even dictated to the detainees by the police.

The three men were eventually brought to trial in Port Alfred, hundreds of miles from their home town of Port Elizabeth, thus making it difficult for their families and friends to visit. Further, the attorney briefed for their defence was forbidden by the authorities to leave Durban, making proper defence and a fair trial impossible.

The three men were sentenced to death in March 1964. Appeals, calling on the South African regime to refrain from executions and release prisoners, flooded into South Africa from all over the world: telegrams, statements and letters came from the Presidents and Prime Ministers of many States; from Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of the United Arab Republic, on behalf of the Conference of Non-aligned States; from U Thant, Secretary-General of the United Nations; from trade unions and private individuals all over the world. The United Nations Security Council called on South Africa to renounce the executions. The United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid did all it could to press for the liberation of South African prisoners. All these efforts were in vain, however. Mini, Khayinga and Mkaba were hanged in Pretoria Central Prison on November 6, 1964.

No turning back

In a statement Mini wrote from the death cell, he recounted that a Captain Geldenhus and two other policemen had come to see him in the cell. The statement read:

"They then asked me about Wilton Mkwayi (2) . They said I saw Mkwayi in January 1963. I said `Yes.' They asked me if I was prepared to give evidence against Mkwayi whom they had now arrested. I said `No, I was not.' They said there was a good chance for them to save me from the gallows if I was prepared to assist them. I refused to assist.

"They then said, would I make the Amandla salute when I walked the last few paces to the gallows. I said, `Yes'. After a few more jokes of that nature, they left. Vuyisile Mini."
It became known soon after their execution that the three patriots, Mini, Khayinga and Mkaba went to their deaths singing Mini`s beloved freedom songs.

The last moments

One of the few people in a position to recount the last moments of Mini, Khayinga and Mkaba is Ben Turok, former Secretary of the South African Congress of Democrats, a white organisation allied to the ANC. Ben Turok was serving a 3-year term of imprisonment at Pretoria Central Prison at the time the three workers` leaders were executed. In an account which he wrote for Sechaba, the official organ of the ANC, he said:

"The last evening was devastatingly sad as the heroic occupants of the death cells communicated to the prison in gentle melancholy song that their end was near... It was late at night when the singing ceased, and the prison fell into uneasy silence.

"I was already awake when the singing began again in the early morning. Once again the excruciatingly beautiful music floated through the barred windows, echoing round the brick exercise yard, losing itself in the vast prison yards.

"And then, unexpectedly, the voice of Vuyisile Mini came roaring down the hushed passages. Evidently standing on a stool, with his face reaching up to a barred vent in his cell, his unmistakable bass voice was enunciating his final message in Xhosa to the world he was leaving. In a voice charged with emotion but stubbornly defiant he spoke of the struggle waged by the African National Congress and of his absolute conviction of the victory to come. And then it was Khayinga`s turn, followed by Mkaba, as they too defied all prison rules to shout out their valedictions.

"Soon after, I heard the door of their cell being opened. Murmuring voices reached my straining ears, and then the three martyrs broke into a final poignant melody which seemed to fill the whole prison with sound and then gradually faded away into the distant depths of the condemned section."

Vuyisile Mini's daughter, Nomkhosi Mary, a founding member of Amandla, the Cultural Ensemble of the ANC, was among those killed in the South African commando raid on Maseru, Lesotho on December 20th, 1985.

(1) Article written by E S Reddy, in "Notes and Documents", No. 31/74, November 1974. This biography of Vuyisile Mini, published on the tenth anniversary of his death, was based on information provided by the the South African Congress of Trade Unions.
(2) A prominent trade union and political leader.

 

The meaning and challenge of Lula's electoral victory in Brazil: Organise against neoliberalism or starve!

The victory of Lula in Brazil represents a historic moment in the struggles of the working class since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lula won the presidential elections by a landslide of more than 60% of the vote. The South African Communist Party welcomes this victory and takes the opportunity to congratulate Cde Lula personally, the Workers Party of Brazil, the workers and the poor of Brazil and other left forces who ensured this landslide victory. Lula's victory represents the first electoral victory in a multi-party context of an explicitly working class and socialist party since the victory of Allende in Chile in 1970.

This victory is primarily significant at a number of other levels. It expresses a decisive rejection by the workers and the poor of Brazil of the neo-liberal economic model of development. It happens in the wake of 10 years of failed structural adjustment programmes pursued by the current Brazilian government. Lula's electoral victory signifies the failure of neo-liberal policies to overcome poverty and answer the very pressing question of development beneficial to the workers and the poor. It is a rejection of liberalisation, the ideology and practice of free markets and so-called "open" economies. It also marks a failure of liberalisation, privatisation, outsourcing and the current restructuring of economies in developing countries in favour of the multinationals and their domestic compradorial elements. Therefore its significance goes beyond Brazil, and will echo throughout the entire developing world and indeed globally. Lula's victory will contribute immensely to building the confidence of the working people and poor of the world, that persistent organisation and mobilisation of the workers and the poor can lead to decisive blows against imperialist globalisation and its domestic proxies.

The SACP welcomes the fact that Lula won this election on a platform to, amongst other things, halt privatisation of state assets as pursued by the Cardoso regime, with a clear commitment to growing the Brazilian economy through development and addressing the plight of ordinary working people and the poor. In addition, it is an election won on a platform of job creation and addressing some of the worst conditions of poverty in Brazil. It heralds a further crisis for the Washington consensus.

An interesting footnote is that Lula also drew support from sections of Brazilian capital fed up with policies favouring multi-nationals and international financial institutions.

We also welcome the fact that despite the difficult global and Latin American political terrain, Lula's platform includes the rejection of attempts by the United States to impose and extend the North American Free Trade Alliance (NAFTA) to the entire Latin and South American region. As we noted in our observations from the Sao Paulo Forum held in Havana in December 2001, NAFTA has been used as a platform to further subjugate the Latin and South American economies to the interests of US multinationals. NAFTA is a strategy to ensure that Latin and South America permanently becomes the sphere of control and backyard of US imperialism. Lula's victory opens an important revolutionary bridgehead, in Latin and South America's largest economy, for progressive forces to intensify their struggles against the US economic and political hegemonic goals in that region.

Indeed, the circumstances under which Lula's victory takes place are vastly different as there is no longer a counterbalancing force like the Soviet Union, coupled with the reality of the overwhelming dominance of private capital globally. This reality poses a huge challenge for the Brazilian left and progressive forces worldwide. It is however a victory all progressive forces must welcome whilst being sober about the challenges that lie ahead. There are real difficulties and challenges that will confront Lula's presidency, the Workers Party and all progressive forces in Brazil, including communists.

Lula's electoral victory takes place in the wake of a US-backed counter-revolutionary offensive against the popularly elected government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. The US, in its quest to control oil, the rich biodiversity and other natural resources in Latin and South America, supports the repressive Colombian regime and its paramilitary apparatuses, under the so-called "Colombia Plan" - a US imperialist offensive under the pretext of fighting drug trafficking. The post-September 11 situation has also created conditions and rationale for the US to intensify its military hegemonic intentions in a number of Latin American countries under the guise of fighting terrorism. The new doctrine of "regime change", as opposed to any pretensions towards "democratisation", provides a global threat whereby any government seen as an obstacle to US imperialist interests can be forcibly removed from power.

The overwhelming and overbearing imperialist reality in Latin and South America underlines, once more, what Daniel Ortega so powerfully observed at the Sao Paulo Forum 2001 in Havana, as both a challenge and threat to the Latin and South American left:

"All forms of struggle to advance the goals of democracy are acceptable. However in the current period the electoral struggle is the predominant form and terrain of struggle. We knew that the struggle between revolution and counter-revolution was going to be extended to the electoral field. Whilst imperialism argues for elections, it does so under conditions favourable to it, and seeks to exclude revolutionary forces from 'free' and 'equal' participation in these electoral contests" (in AC, 1st Quarter, 2002 p.122).

Already, the IMF is sending a very clear signal that the terms under which a Lula presidency will have to confront its huge foreign debt, estimated at about $250 billion, and the high unemployment and poverty rates, will have to be under conditions determined by itself. This is tantamount to exploiting the immense underdevelopment of Brazil not to create conditions to overcome it, but to use it as a weapon to shape the agenda of Lula's government, with a view to undermining it at the expense of the poor.

The continued US and imperialist aggression in Latin America should serve as a wake up call to all those who simplistically argue that the end of the Cold War provides new conditions within which the developing world can claim what rightfully belongs to it, people-centred development and poverty eradication. Whilst the conditions under which imperialist domination takes place today are vastly different than during the Cold War, sight must not be lost of the fact that the agenda of imperialism has not changed. That it now does not always or even predominantly take the form of military aggression, but rather of global, unipolar and totalising imperialist domination, remains an overwhelming reality whose results, severe economic subjugation, are no different from the violent destabilisation of the past.

For Lula's victory to translate into a sustainable and concrete offensive against neo-liberalism and poverty, it is important that it consciously builds on some of the very positive experiences of the governance of the Workers Party in the municipalities it controls. The lesson of combining the electoral and mass terrains of struggles, not as opposites or parallel struggles but as complementary forms of the same struggle, is absolutely essential in advancing the interests of the workers and the poor and laying a firm foundation for defeating imperialist counter-revolutionary designs. Lula's victory comes after the electoral struggles in Latin America over the last few decades have been dominated by the victory of parties bankrolled by imperialist dollars to ensure that the left is defeated.

Lula's victory will clearly impact on South-South and North-South relations. It represents a small but significant shift in the balance of forces. SA developed a significant relationship with Brazil under its previous government. Therefore the Lula victory is an opportunity for the consolidation of a strategic relationship between our government and Brazil under Lula, and also for a strengthening of relations between the PT and both the SACP and the ANC.

We are confident that the Workers' Party of Brazil will build on its experiences from the municipalities it runs. When faced with difficulties and challenges the Workers' Party of Brazil has not defensively sought refuge in the fact that it has an electoral mandate in the municipalities it controls, but has consistently sought to develop mass-based participatory forms of democracy. That is, it has understood that an electoral victory is a necessary but not a sufficient basis for pursuing progressive policies. Instead it has understood that the strength and viability of any policy rests on a truly people-driven, people-centred and popular policy-making process, developed not above the heads of, but always together with and for the workers and the poor. This is the best defence of popular victories in the wake of the imperialist global offensive.

Such an approach has remained an inspiration to many working class parties throughout the world. This is further underlined by Ortega's warning to all left parties in power today that "if the left were to act as managers of policies hostile to and emanating from outside the aspirations of the motive forces of the revolution, then the left would have lost its identity and reason for existence. The path of managing other class forces' policies does not work, and it is tantamount to surrendering our flag". In short, as we say in our South African case, the challenge of seeking to consolidate and deepen the national democratic revolution on a terrain of capitalism requires ongoing mass mobilisation and popularly driven policy positions.

We, as South African communists, will naturally closely follow the experiences of a Workers' Party presidency in Brazil; no doubt, more will be written about this in future editions of Umsebenzi Online. South African communists express full solidarity with Lulu's victory and will do whatever they can to support and learn from this. It is a development where the workers and the poor of Brazil have made an important political choice, to take direct charge of government and seek to chart the political course of the Brazilian revolution itself, and on behalf of itself. It is a victory whose success and consolidation also directly depend on the solidarity and support of all progressive forces in the world.

 

Lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution

On November 7th (in the Western calendar) 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd, then the capital of Russia. This was to be the decisive moment in the unfolding Russian revolution. For the first time in world history, the working class, allied with the peasantry and with oppressed national minorities throughout the vast former Tsarist empire, defeated the bourgeoisie, smashed the remnants of feudalism, and began to build a socialist society.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was a defining moment in the 20th century. But how should we remember this Revolution? There are two obvious dangers. The first is cynicism.

It is impossible to look back from our vantage point without being aware that, seven decades after 1917, the Soviet Union had stagnated and then collapsed, working people had lost faith in a system that was meant to serve them. Reactionaries have exploited this reality to sow their gospel of cynicism. "Socialism can never work". "Capitalism is the only show in town".

At the back of this cynicism is the same offensive that led to the invasion of post-1917 Russia by imperialist armies. It is the same agenda that winked at Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. It is the agenda that waged a decades-long Cold War against the Soviet Union and its allies after 1945. It was this agenda that fostered the brutal apartheid destabilisation of newly independent Mozambique and Angola. It is this agenda that continues to blockade Cuba. The agenda is simply this - working people, the poor, the marginalized, the wretched of the earth must be taught a brutal lesson. Never must they imagine they can shake off the yoke of oppression and defeat their class enemies.

But the liberating lesson of 1917 is that, indeed, it is possible to defeat capitalism and build socialism. It is the lesson that inspired the launch of the Communist Party in South Africa in 1921, and that continues to inspire millions of people around the world. It is possible throw off the shackles of capitalist exploitation, but it is not easy.

The second danger in remembering 1917 is a tendency, especially in left circles, to treat the Russian Revolution as a blue-print, a fundamentalist script, a parable that has said all that has to be said about socialist revolutions. This kind of approach de-codes the present through the language and labels of 1917. The complexities of the present are reduced to allegorical parts in a play that has already been scripted - Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Kerensky, Kautsky, and "infantile leftists". The writings of Lenin, in particular, are raided with a very small pair of scissors. Quotes, entirely out of context, are snipped out and applied to the debates of today. These quotes are often used to show-off, or bully and humiliate, seldom to clarify.

Of course, there are enormous lessons to be learned from, and challenges posed by, the Russian Revolution. But we will not rise to these challenges if we treat 1917 like narrow-minded fundamentalists trawling through some holy script.

Among the key challenges posed to the present by the 1917 Revolution are:

  • Under what circumstances, and how, does the working class take power and then advance, deepen and defend this power?
  • And, having taken power, how does one relate to a wider global reality?

These were the inter-connected problems that pre-occupied the Bolsheviks from the start.

Unlike the Mensheviks and many other socialists, Lenin had an extremely dialectical grasp of the trajectory of history and class struggle. Others expected that the first socialist revolution would naturally occur in the most developed capitalist societies, where the forces of production, including the working class, were at their most advanced. Germany was the favoured candidate.

Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks argued that history does not necessarily advance at its most developed point. Imperialism is a thoroughly dialectical reality, a process of combined development and under-development. Germany was a relatively "strong link" in the imperialist chain. But Tsarist Russia was a "weak link", here the contradictions of simultaneous development and under-development were particularly acute. It was possible for the working class to strike its first major revolutionary blow against imperialism in this weakest link. And so it was that the Bolsheviks dared to "seize" (or perhaps "pick up") power in the anarchic chaos of Russia in late 1917.

However, the Bolsheviks did not expect to be able to advance directly to the construction of socialism in Russia. Russian society and the economy were far too backward for that. They were convinced that their taking of political power would be a signal for working class uprisings in the developed western half of Europe. The "imminent" German revolution would then provide the economic engine for an advance to socialism.

There were some attempted insurrections in parts of Germany in 1919 and again in 1923, there was a short-lived soviet republic in Hungary. But the worker revolutions in the west did not materialise. In the course of the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks, isolated by the imperialist world and by their own sectarian division of the socialist movements in the west, were faced with difficult strategic choices. Should the base of the revolution be broadened to include a much wider range of class forces? Should the advance to socialism be delayed, or approached more slowly? Should increasingly vain attempts to foster world revolution, especially in the west, still be prioritised? In the end, led by Stalin, the choice was made for a rapid and forced march into building "socialism in one country". The classics of Marxism and the Bolsheviks themselves had never before envisaged such an approach.

The choice resulted in a heroic but brutal modernisation of an incredibly backward economy. Vast projects of infrastructural development were undertaken. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, with the world capitalist system in depression and crisis, the Soviet Union achieved unprecedented rates of growth. Full employment, free health-care and education, heavily subsidised housing, food and transport ensured a significant improvement in the quality of life for working people. This accelerated modernisation on the basis of a relatively egalitarian society was the back-bone that ensured the Soviet Union's defeat of Hitler's war machine. It underpinned the emergence of the SU as a second super-power after 1945. But the highly centralised, bureaucratically-driven modernisation programme came at a high price. Independent working class and popular organisation was stifled and repressed, democracy stagnated, and brutal persecution was unleashed. The seeds of the Soviet Union's achievements and of its own eventual stagnation and decay were embedded in the same reality.

The positive and negative lessons of the great Bolshevik Revolution need to be continuously debated and assessed. Over the past decade the SACP has actively engaged in this important task. In our own programmatic perspective, we believe that we are applying some of these lessons.

With Lenin we agree that imperialism is a thoroughly dialectical reality. The combination of development and under-development creates massive unevenness. We do not believe, however, that it is possible to build a full-blooded socialism in one country - especially a country as relatively small and dependent on exports and imports as our own. However, we also do not believe that the simple alignment of our society with the demands of imperialism offers any hope of overcoming the terrible legacy of national oppression, or of sustained growth and development. Nor do we believe that "our" capitalist revolution has still to be "completed", as if you have to become "Germany" before you can think about socialism. South Africa has undergone over 120 years of capitalist development and under-development. We have to break from this ongoing accumulation path, or be condemned to being a peripheral society forever locked into deep-seated and (in our case) racialised underdevelopment.

How do we advance to meet these challenges? We have to move away from the illusion, in our circumstances, of the "total" seizure of power, or of the "complete" rupture with the global system. We also have to move away from the idea that there is a Chinese Wall between the tasks of the national democratic revolution, and the tasks of advancing towards socialism. We need to think in terms of partial political breaks (of which April 1994 was, undoubtedly, a decisive step), and of partial economic and social breaks from the logic of the global imperialist system. Which is to say, we also need to move away, as socialists, from a mechanical separation of political and economic tasks ("first capture workers power, then think about socialism" - first "Petrograd", then "Berlin"). We need to approach the ongoing national democratic revolution to liberate the black majority, Africans in particular, as a complex, dialectical process that must, necessarily, have anti-imperialist, non-capitalist features if it is to succeed at all.

These are the lessons which we believe can be derived, in part, from the great Bolshevik Revolution and its consequences. They are lessons embodied in the SACP's leading strategic slogans - "Advance, deepen and defend the democratic breakthrough!", and "Socialism is the future, build it now!"

 

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