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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 14, No. 51, 1 December 2015

In this Issue:

Red Alert

National and class struggle: Remembering Joe Slovo

By Alex Mashilo

On January 6 the SACP will be commemorating the 21st anniversary of the death of its renowned leader Comrade Joe Slovo, who was also a leader of the ANC and the joint ANC-SACP armed-wing uMkhonto weSizwe. The first commemoration event will be held the Avalon Cemetery in the proletarian area that is mainly black, Soweto in Johannesburg which he chose to be his final place of rest.  Umsebenzi Online is carrying extracts of his intellectual work as part of the commemoration process.

In his work we are carrying today, `The South African Working Class and the National Democratic Revolution` first published in 1988, Slovo clarified the relationship between the national and class struggle and the national democratic revolution and socialism respectively. Again the National Congress of Cosatu that was held last week could not have come at the right time. This was one of the matters considered by the congress and further came out from the speeches delivered by alliance partners, in particular SACP General Secretary Comrade Blade Nzimande and ANC President Comrade Jacob Zuma.

Important matters of discourse could be helpful both to introduce Comrade Slovo`s extract we are carrying today and to engage with some of the views on this important question relating to our liberation struggle and alliance.


Prior to the our democratic breakthrough in 1994 SACP constitution described the main content of the national democratic revolution as the national liberation of the African people in particular, and the black people in general. After the apartheid regime was dislodged in 1994, it was amended to describe the main content of the national democratic revolution and its aim as that of completing the national liberation of the African people in particular and black people in general, to ensure the destruction of the legacy of white supremacy, and the strengthening of democracy in every sphere of life.

Since the 1994 democratic breakthrough, reference to, or the term `oppressed people` increasingly shifted to reference to or was increasingly replaced by term `historically oppressed` or `historically disadvantaged`. This is how the phrase `the whole of the oppressed` or to some extent even the `nationally-dominated` (although this remains valid statistically in economic terms as well as the continuing legacy of the past) should also be understood in its current context. It would therefore read the whole of the historically oppressed or disadvantaged.

In programmatic terms, the concepts national oppression or domination and consequently reference to the elimination of national oppression or domination as a condition that was imposed and enforced by the colonial or apartheid state of South Africa during its reign pre-1994 were post-1994 increasingly replaced by the term the legacy of national oppression or domination - and its elimination. Thus the problem (of national oppression or domination) was not necessarily eradicated in 1994 when the apartheid state was dislodged. It continued to exist, through its legacy and other channels.

Those who maintained their belief in racial superiority continued, and to this day, to commit racist acts. Some sections among them are wielding the economic advantages that they have gained or inherited from the history of national oppression or domination to do so. But, as during colonial oppression and apartheid, some of them have found, albeit unequal partners from among the ranks of the historically oppressed or disadvantaged who are actively collaborating with them especially with regard to their economic - i.e. class, interests.

As it happened under apartheid, the interests of the black "partners" in class exploitation are subordinate. In equity terms, they are only a fraction of the whole untransformed capitalist and imperialist ownership structure in which they either have been co-opted or inserted themselves. But because these new black bourgeoisie class interests are dependent on the success of the whole capitalist stake (from which the historically disadvantaged majority remains not only exploited but is both excluded and marginalised), their new historical mission is to function as intermediaries and the political capital of those who ultimately wield greater economic power.

This section of the national - i.e., in the context of South Africa black, bourgeoisie, therefore stands between the established colonial-era and imperialist bourgeoisie who ultimately wield greater economic power on the one hand and on the other the masses of the low wage workers, the unemployed and the poor. Their wealth accumulation is as dependent on these three necessary conditions, products and levers of capitalist exploitation as it is with the colonial-era and imperialist bourgeoisie with which they are now in partnership. In this context, the primary class interests for instance which are opposed to the banning of labour brokers are, notwithstanding the complexities of constitutional challenges, not those of trade unions or workers but those of the whole of the bourgeoisie - black and white - who depend on the exploitation of workers and such practices in order to accumulate wealth.

The ideology of narrow nationalism

The problem of the ideology of narrow nationalism, which is in fact at the same time its major, pitfall, is that it is not opposed to the entire structure of colonialism - whose most complex form is imperialism. In particular, narrow nationalism is not opposed to colonialism`s mode of production which is capitalism and is therefore not committed to complete de-colonisation.

What the narrow nationalists seek is simply their inclusion in the ownership and control structures of this mode of production - that is what they refer to as "de-colonisation", ("economic") "freedom" and of course "democracy" on the basis of regular elections. Let us recall that in our land capitalism is a colonial mode of production, and was the basis both of colonialism and apartheid. Its highest stage, as Vladimir Lenin put it succinctly, is imperialism. For the majority of the exploited cannot claim to be free! That is why the struggle will and has to continue.

The ANC rejected the ideology of narrow nationalism as far back as 1969. In its Strategy and Tactics document adopted at its Consultative Conference held in exile in Morogoro, Tanzania, the ANC said:  "…our nationalism must not be confused with chauvinism or narrow nationalism... It must not be confused with the classical drive by an elitist group among the oppressed people to gain ascendancy so that they can replace the oppressor in the exploitation of the mass". The ANC was very clear when it went on in that Strategy and Tactics document to conclude that:

"Our drive towards national emancipation is therefore in a very real way bound up with economic emancipation. We have suffered more than just national humiliation. Our people are deprived of their due in the country`s wealth; their skills have been suppressed and poverty and starvation have been their life experience. The correction of these centuries-old economic injustices lies at the very core of our national aspirations. We do not underestimate the complexities which will face a people`s government during the transformation period nor the enormity of the problems of meeting economic needs of the mass of the oppressed people. But one thing is certain - in our land this cannot be effectively tackled unless the basic wealth and the basic resources are at the disposal of the people as a whole and are not manipulated by sections or individuals be they White or Black.

To be committed to this scientific clarity is to remain true to the fundamental tenets and values of the ANC!

Related to this, it is important to recall that class struggle is not an abstract but a concrete phenomenon. To expect that the working class must be blind to a section of the exploiters simply because their skin colour is black is to misunderstand the whole picture. And let this be said, some of those exploiters have proven to be the worst and politically ruthless in post-colonial societies. This is true to our unfolding post-apartheid South Africa.

Class contradictions are inherent between the exploiters and the exploited. And as the current ANC Strategy and Tactics document adopted in Polokwane and Mangaung in 2007 and 2012 sums it up, class struggle is bound to become acute during certain periods of time. The only thing that the document partly gets wrong in this respect is its proposition that the role of the state is to mediate. This cannot be absolute and given for all the time. It is the balance of power that ultimately determines the role of the state in this process of class struggle. Whichever class gains an upper hand will use the state to pursue its class interests and to hold down the other class if that is possible. Under conditions where the balance of power make that not immediately possible there will be compromises.  

In the same vein, it is inconceivable to suggest that the tripartite alliance of the ANC, SACP and Cosatu is immune from the wider phenomenon of the class struggle taking place in society. For instance it is itself a class position not to express concern and act against attacks, isolation, marginalisation and exploitation of the working class but to express concern when it starts to defend itself.

A revolutionary who clearly understands the science of materialist dialectics appreciates the character of the tripartite alliance in terms of the dialectic of unity and interpenetration of opposites as it is with the relationship between workers and capitalists in production. While the classes in alliance need one another to achieve the shared purpose of their unity, each of them is pushing very hard to secure its own class interests which are contradictory to those of the other class. Major problems arise and become acute when, as it happened towards the ANC Polokwane National Conference, state institutions are abused in the equation.

The relationship between national and class struggle is not a binary two stage process - national and class later. The renowned SACP, uMkhonto weSizwe and ANC leader Comrade Joe Slovo clarified this as far back as 1988 in his pamphlet The South African Working Class and the National Democratic Revolution.   

* Alex Mohubetswane Mashilo is SACP National Spokesperson and Head of Communications, and writes in his capacity as a Professional Revolutionary


Class Struggle and National Struggle

By Joe Slovo, 1988

The South African Communist Party, in its 1984 constitution, declares that its aim is to lead the working class towards the strategic goal of establishing a socialist republic `and the more immediate aim of winning the objectives of the national democratic revolution which is inseparably linked to it`. The constitution describes the main content of the national democratic revolution as:

`...the national liberation of the African people in particular, and the black people in general, the destruction of the economic and political power of the racist ruling class, and the establishment of one united state of people`s power in which the working class will be the dominant force and which will move uninterruptedly towards social emancipation and the total abolition of exploitation of man by man`.

The national democratic revolution - the (immediate task of our) struggle in our country is a revolution of the whole oppressed people. This does not mean that the oppressed `people` can be regarded as a single or homogeneous entity. The main revolutionary camp in the immediate struggle is made up of different classes and strata (overwhelmingly black) which suffer varying forms and degrees of national oppression and economic exploitation. The camp of those who benefit from, and support, national domination is also divided into classes.

Of course, the long-term interests of the diverse classes and strata of the revolutionary camp do not necessarily coincide. They do not have the same consistency and commitment even to the immediate objectives of the democratic revolution. It is obviously from within the ranks of the black middle and upper strata that the enemy will look for sources of collaboration.

But, in general, it remains true that our national democratic revolution expresses the broad objective interests not only of the working class but also of most of the other classes within the nationally-dominated majority, including the black petit-bourgeoisie and significant strata of the emergent black bourgeoisie. This reality provides the foundation for a struggle which aims to mobilise to its side all the oppressed classes and strata as participants in the national liberation alliance.

We believe that the working class is both an indispensable part and the leading force of such a liberation alliance. But its relations with other classes and strata cannot be conditional on the acceptance by them of socialist aims. The historic programme which has evolved to express the common immediate aspirations of all the classes of the oppressed people is the Freedom Charter. This document is not, in itself, a programme for socialism, even though… it can provide a basis for uninterrupted advance to a socialist future.

The recent surge in workers` organisation and socialist thinking has highlighted some important questions.

  • Does the immediate emphasis on the national democratic revolution imply that the working class should abandon class struggle in favour of national struggle?
  • Are socialist objectives being shelved in favour of a struggle for so-called bourgeois democracy?
  • Which class must play the vanguard role in our democratic revolution?
  • Above all, how can the independent class role of the working class be safeguarded in a period demanding inter-class alliances?

The answer to these questions and the key to a correct determination of strategy and tactics in our present situation requires a correct grasp of the relationship between class and national struggle.

If we pose the question by asking only whether our struggle is a national struggle or a class struggle, we will inevitably get a wrong answer. The right question is: what is the relationship between these two categories. A failure to understand the class content of the national struggle and the national content of the class struggle in existing conditions can hold back the advance of both the democratic and socialist transformations which we seek.

The immediate primacy of the struggle against race tyranny flows from the concrete realities of our existing situation. The concept of national domination is not a mystification to divert us from class approaches; it infects every level of class exploitation. Indeed, it divides our working class into colour compartments. Therefore, unusual categories such as `white working class` and `black working class` are not `unscientific` but simply describe the facts.

National domination is maintained by a ruling class whose state apparatus protects the economic interests and social privileges of all classes among the white minority. It denies the aspiration of the African people towards a single nationhood and, in its place, attempts to perpetuate tribalism and ethnicity. These, and a host of related practices, are the visible daily manifestations of national domination. These practices affect the status and life of every black in every class. It is, however, the black working class which, in practice, suffers the most intense form of national domination. And those who dismiss the fight against national domination as the key immediate mobilising factor of our working class are living in an unreal world of their own.

It is encouraging to observe the recent spread of an understanding of the link between national domination and class exploitation among organised sectors of the working class. This spread is due primarily to the heightened experiences of the struggle against race domination in the recent period.

Socialist ideas take root not just through book knowledge but through struggle around day-to-day issues. And, for those who have to live the hourly realities and humiliations of race tyranny (at the point of production, in the townships, in the street, etc.) there is no issue more immediate and relevant than the experience of national oppression. This is certainly the starting point of political consciousness for every black worker.

It is mainly in the actual struggle against national oppression that its class roots can be grasped most effectively. It is that struggle which illuminates most brightly the underlying relationship in our country between capitalism and national domination.

Class struggle in a period of capitalist hegemony is, in the long run, a political struggle for the ultimate winning of power by the working people. But the content of this class struggle does not remain fixed for all time; it is dictated by the concrete situation at a given historical moment. We cannot confine the meaning of class struggle to those rare moments when the immediate winning of socialist power is on the agenda. When workers engage in the national struggle to destroy race domination they are surely, at the same time, engaging in class struggle.

Class struggle does not fade into the background when workers forge alliances with other class forces on commonly agreed minimum programmes. The history of all struggles consists mainly of such interim phases. What is the essence of conflict during such phases if not class struggle? There is no such thing as `pure` class struggle and those who seek it can only do so from the isolating comfort of a library arm-chair. The idea that social revolutions involve two neatly-labelled armies was dealt with by Lenin with bitter irony:

"So one army lines up in one place and says `we are for socialism` and another, somewhere else and says, `we are for imperialism`, and that will be a social revolution! ... Whoever expects a `pure` social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is".

When we exhort our working class to devote its main energies (in alliance with the other nationally oppressed classes) to the immediate task of winning national liberation, we are certainly not diluting the class struggle or retreating from it. On the contrary, we are advancing and reinforcing it in the only manner which is practicable at the present time.

Nor are we putting off the socialist revolution by an emphasis on the national democratic objectives of the immediate phase of struggle. In the words of Lenin, answering critics of Bolshevik policy on the primacy of the democratic revolution, `we are not putting (the socialist revolution) off but are taking the first steps towards it in the only possible way, along with the correct path, namely the path of a democratic republic`. Our immediate emphasis on the struggle for democracy and `People`s Power` is an essential prerequisite for the longer-term advance towards a socialist transformation.

But national liberation is, at the same time, a short-term class imperative for the working people. Because the tyranny of national oppression weighs more heavily on South Africa`s doubly- exploited working class than on any other working class, its destruction by the shortest route possible is, in itself, in the deepest class interests of our proletariat. Both immediately and in the long-term, our working class stands to gain more from the ending of national domination than any other class among the oppressed.

These realities help define the main form and content of the workers` class struggle at the present historical moment and the kind of alliances necessary to advance working class objectives. A `class struggle` which ignores these truths can only be fought out in the lecture-room and not in the actual arena of struggle.

But the need to concentrate on the present does not imply an abandonment or disregard for the future. Participation by the working class in the democratic revolution (involving alliances, minimum programmes, etc.) does not imply a dilution of its independent class positions.

There is, moreover, no need for the spread of socialist awareness among the working people to be postponed during the phase emphasising the democratic transformation - a belief falsely attributed to our Party by some of its left-wing critics. During this period it is vital to maintain and deepen working class understanding of the interdependence between national liberation and social emancipation.

It follows from the above that the participation of our working class and its political vanguard in the liberation alliance is both a long-term and short-term class necessity. The SACP`s involvement in such an alliance is not, as our left-wing critics allege, a form of `tailism` or `populism`. Nor, as our right-wing detractors would have it, is it an opportunistic ploy to camouflage our so-called `hidden agenda` and to use the ANC merely as a stepping stone to socialism.

We have never made a secret of our belief that the shortest route to socialism is via a democratic state. But, as already mentioned, the SACP takes part in the alliance for yet another extremely cogent reason; our belief that the elimination of national domination (which is the prime objective of the Alliance) is, at the same time, the most immediate class concern of our proletariat.

* A Marxist-Leninist intellectual par excellence, Cde Joe Slovo was the General Secretary of the SACP, National Chairperson and leader of the uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), the people`s liberation army, a joint ANC-SACP armed-wing. Slovo became the first minister of housing after the first democratic general election held in South Africa, in 1994 and died a year later on 6 January 1995. This is an excerpt of his pamphlet `The South African Working Class and the National Democratic Revolution` published in 1988. The full pamphlet is accessible from SACP website www.sacp.org.za and the Marxist Internet Archive https://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/slovo/1988/national-democratic-revolution.htm


Umsebenzi Online is the online voice of the South African working class