The Working Class Summit – an historic step forward
by Weizmann Hamilton, Executive Committee
The Working Class Summit convened by South African Federation of Trade Unions over the weekend of 22-23rd July, 2018, was potentially the most important political development in the workers movement since the dawn of the democratic era. A thousand delegates representing 147 community organisations responded to the call. The overwhelming majority of Working Class Summit delegates resolved in favour of the formation of a workers party to lead the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.
Over the past two decades, working class resistance to the ANC government’s neo-liberal capitalist policies has exhibited a growing militancy. The Department of Labour’s latest report shows that strike figures – including “unprotected” (illegal) actions – are the highest since its records began. At the same time, Municipal IQ and the University of Johannesburg released figures showing that community protests, which had already catapulted SA into the position of protest capital of the world, with the highest number per capita, are now at the highest level ever. After a period of quiescence in the student field following the concession of “free education” a new upsurge in struggles is in the making.
The Working Class Summit (WCS) took place at a time when the scene is being set for an explosive intensification of the struggle between the classes. The ANC’s ongoing struggle between factions equally committed to capitalism has resulted, for now, in the ascendancy of the representative of the wing much more closely aligned to big business. Ramaphosa, arguably capital’s most loyal servant, has taken over the presidential reigns with a clear mandate from his masters – to present the bill for the crisis of capitalism to the working class.
Having reaffirmed his credentials with the blood of the martyrs of Marikana, he has embarked on the most serious assault on working class living standards since the ANC came to power. The most savage austerity budget in the democratic era included an increase in VAT last hiked by the apartheid regime, a fuel levy, the maintenance of the policy to allow the fuel price to increase repeatedly, a sugar tax, and eye-watering cuts in social welfare spending that are set to cut even deeper than the measures taken since the 2008 global economic crisis. The simultaneous amendments to the labour laws, especially the attempt to completely emasculate then right to strike, represents a declaration of class war.
But the unity in action that was the hallmark of the struggle against apartheid has been lacking. In the 1980s such was Cosatu’s political authority that it commanded the respect and support of virtually the entire working class well beyond the boundaries of its membership. Cosatu was the coordinating centre of political and class struggle within the workplace and in the communities with the federation’s locals the organizational expression of the unity in action and solidarity of the township and the workplace.
Today Cosatu is a shadow of its former self. The labour movement fractured, divided between a number of federations and non-aligned unions of varying ideological shades. Workers, both organised and unorganized, have been fighting their battles against the bosses in the workplace, separately from both working class communities mobilizing against corruption, commercialization and privatisation of basic services in the townships and students resisting financial and academic exclusion and for free education.
This disunity is based in the political developments that led to the negotiated settlement at Codesa and afterwards. From the experience of the struggle against white minority rule, the working class had drawn socialist conclusions – that the overthrow of apartheid was inseparable from the struggle against capitalism. Whilst the Codesa negotiations pitted against each other the forces for and against democracy, they simultaneously brought into collision the irreconcilable class interests of the working class and those of the capitalist class. For the capitalist class, the strategic objective of Codesa was the preservation of capitalism; for the working class, the aim was to abolish white minority rule to clear the way for the abolition of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society.
However sharp the antagonism between the ANC (and the other smaller parties on its side) and the Nationalist Party and its allies may have been on the question of democracy, they shared a common class interest – the preservation of capitalism. In this context, a vital element in the ANC’s tactical armoury was the subordination of Cosatu’s class interests to its own capitalist aspirations.
Aided by the SACP’s theory of two-stages – democracy now and socialism in the indeterminate future – the ANC leadership was able to strip Cosatu of its political and therefore class independence to clear the way for the realization of its separate and antagonistic class interests – the creation of the conditions for the development of a black capitalist class. With the consent and active collusion of a captured Cosatu leadership, which was increasingly absorbed into both the state and the corporate world, the working class was condemned to the servitude, exploitation and poverty that marks its life today.
Through the mechanism of the Tripartite Alliance, the ANC, with the SA Communist Party playing a leading role, Cosatu – previously the unquestioned centre of class and political struggle against the apartheid regime – was captured politically. Its ideological edge blunted and stripped of its class independence, Cosatu was emasculated and turned into what many activists contemptuously described as the capitalist ANC’s labour desk.
If the negotiated settlement succeeded in bringing an end to formal apartheid, what it did not, could not and was not intended to end, was class exploitation. That the contradictions between the interests of the working class that brought Cosatu into being and those of the capitalist ANC-led Tripartite Alliance would come to be seen as irreconcilable, was thus built into the foundations of the post-apartheid dispensation.
From it flowed a recognition within the working class that whereas the negotiated settlement had armed them with the right to vote, they were in fact politically disenfranchised. The ANC had come to power to promote the interests not of the working class, but those of the aspirant black capitalist class. Portrayed as an alliance of the black population as a whole to dismantle white minority rule, the Tripartite Alliance came to reveal itself increasingly as an alliance between the black capitalist class and white-dominated capital.
Taking the form initially of a growing stay away from elections, the disillusionment in the ANC reignited the yearning for working class political independence. Never completely extinguished, the yearning for an independent voice for the working class was reflected in the growing demand for Cosatu to form a workers party to contest the ANC in the elections. Initially the view of a minority confined to Numsa at the 1993 Cosatu congress, it increased into to a more substantial 30% within the ANC’s first term of office according to its first survey of shop stewards’ political attitudes in 1998, and into a decisive majority of 67% by 2012 even before the 2012 Marikana massacre.
It is the heroic uprising of the mineworkers in 2012 that cleared the way for the reconfiguration of the alignment of class and political forces. The mineworkers’ strike was more than over the demand for R12 500 minimum wage. It was a political rebellion again the entire establishment – the bosses, the ANC and the Tripartite – dealing a decisive blow to foundations of the negotiated settlement signed at Codesa. The political and class differentiation expressed itself first at Numsa’s 2013 special national congress resolutions to withdraw electoral support from the ANC and to form a workers party. The formation of the Workers and Socialist Party by the Democratic Socialist Movement and the mineworkers national strike committee and, in a distorted form, the emergence of the populist left nationalist Economic Freedom Fighters signaled the maturing of the conditions for a working class political alternative. The declaration of the WCS for a mass workers party on a socialist programme is therefore fully in step with the conclusions of organised workers.
There was, however, understandable hesitation on the idea of the workers party participating in the 2019 elections. The betrayals of political parties throughout the democratic era made delegates wary of what some felt was the corrupting influence of parliament itself and the conversion of the working class into voting fodder.
This decision is also a reaction against the creation of another SACP – a party manufactured behind the backs of the working class, imposed on it as the self-proclaimed vanguard of the working class. Inspired by the counter-revolutionary ideas of Stalin whose regime was established on the crushing of the workers’ democracy on which the Bolshevik government was based, the SACP is a model of precisely the type of party the working class does not need. It has been participating in parliament under the coat tails of the ANC mobilizing the working class through Cosatu, to subordinate the interests of the working class to the class aspirations of their Alliance leader, portraying the anti-working class post-apartheid dispensation as the first, “national democratic” stage towards socialism in the indefinite future.
To maintain such a “vanguard” position, the SACP of necessity had to erect a barrier to internal democracy, prevent workers control and even to impose a limit on its own growth to avoid it developing into a mass formation that would by the logic of the struggle against capitalism inevitably have to mobilize against the capitalist ANC.
The declaration of the WCS for a mass workers party on a socialist programme is in fact an attempt to continue on the path towards toward the reclamation of working class and political independence onto which the mineworkers had set the working class. Had the Numsa leadership proceeded with the implementation of its Special National Congress resolutions to launch a mass workers party, even in 2016, late as that itself would have been, the ongoing disunity within the working class and the emergence of reactionary racist and xenophobic ideas and forces could have been confronted much earlier. Notwithstanding this delay, the birth of Saftu, in which Numsa played a decisive role, moved the caravan of history beyond the “Numsa moment” to its next station – the “Saftu moment”.
That the process is no longer in the hands of Numsa alone, but that of Saftu, is a progressive development. The ongoing reconfiguration of class and political forces is thus no longer the responsibility of Numsa alone, but has been thrust onto the shoulders of the much wider forces represented by Saftu, and following the WCS that of the 147 community organisations that participated in this historic event.
The split in Cosatu that prepared the way for the birth of Saftu was more than just the realization of the desire for a new trade union federation. It was an attempt to retie the knot of history of the revolutionary socialist traditions on which Cosatu was founded and which have been trampled underfoot as a once mighty federation degenerated in the political prison of the Tripartite Alliance.
That the WCS summit was convened within a year of Saftu’s founding, confirms the subterranean class processes at play as the struggle between the bosses and the working class has sharpened and the political process that flow from them pose again the need for working class political independence. Once this step had been taken, the question of a workers party moved firmly back on the agenda.
The summit was preceded by Saftu’s highly successful 25th April national general strike against Ramaphosa’s policies – the first consciously political action against the ANC government. This not only brought the major cities to a standstill, but more importantly, established Saftu as a point of reference, and potentially a new command center to coordinate the struggle against capitalism in the workplace and on the political plane.
WASP played an important role from the onset raising the necessity for working class party political unity at Saftu’s founding congress. The adoption of a resolution to form a workers party and the establishment of Political and Ideological Commission to prepare the way for a workers party confirmed that our views resonated with the majority.
Should the workers party participate in parliament?
WASP fully supports the commitment of the WCS summit to roll out summits provincially and locally throughout the country. We agree similarly that the primary role of these summits is to unite the working class across and within all the main theatres of struggle – the communities, the education sector and the workplace – where the intensifying struggle between the classes is being fought out on a daily basis now and to knit them together into a mass workers party on a socialist programme in line with the declaration.
However, understandable as the hesitation to participate in the 2019 elections is, we believe it would be a mistake not to participate in parliament. That parliament is not the seat of power in a capitalist society is of course correct. The power of the capitalist class, resides, in the final analysis, in the state — the armed men and women, as defined by Engels — in the army, the police, the state security agencies etc.—buttressed by the media, the education system etc.
Moreover, it is not the aim of the aim of the socialist revolution to “capture state power” as the SACP couches its empty threats to stand separately from the ANC. The SACP’s formulation is not accidental. If the socialist state is not yet on the agenda, but must await the completion of the “national democratic revolution”, the SACP can only mean that the working class must “capture” the existing capitalist state. This has absolutely nothing in common with either the teachings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, or the experience of the Russian Revolution and the lessons we must learn from it.
The working class can emancipate itself from capitalist slavery not by reforming the capitalist state as the logic of the SACP’s position dictates. The working class must dismantle the capitalist state as a shop steward expressed it at Cosatu’s founding congress in 1985. The working class must construct in its place its own state based on workers democracy, socialism and international working class solidarity – a state moreover that will set into motion its own dissolution into society to clear the way towards a classless communist society that can come about only on a worldwide basis.
But to interpret the stay away from the polls as indicative of a generalized understanding that parliament is an integral part of the institutions of capitalist class rule, is to mistake the first month of pregnancy with the ninth. Significant as the fact that 147 organisations constituted the WCS, the forces present still represent a minority of both the working class in the workplace and in society broadly. Nor is there yet a generalised socialist consciousness. It would be a serious mistake to confuse the understanding of a conscious minority with that of the broad mass. The task of the forces of the WCS summit is to win over the mass to socialism through a combination of action and, to use Lenin’s phrase, patiently explaining that the problems of exploitation cannot be solved within the framework of capitalism and requires workers power and the socialist transformation of society.
The millions staying away from the elections do so out disillusionment with the political parties that dominate parliament and not with parliament itself. To tear away illusions in parliament, a serious revolutionary socialist mass workers party, must participate in it. But it must do so on its own terms, with its own programme, its own principles and with the purpose of dispelling illusions in it. Above all, participation in parliament must be subordinate to the struggle of the masses against capitalism outside parliament.
Those comrades who cite the Bolsheviks in support of boycotting parliament are misrepresenting the history of the Bolshevik’s strategies and tactics. Lenin criticized the Bolsheviks in the Social Democratic Labour Party (in which they operated as a tendency before establishing themselves as separate, independent revolutionary mass workers party on a socialist programme) for boycotting the 1907 Duma elections in spite of the fact that he denounced it as a “cowshed”. The Bolsheviks continued to send deputies to parliament throughout the period leading up to and even (for a brief period before dispersing the bourgeois Constituent Assembly) beyond the insurrection and conquest of power in October. The Bolsheviks did so to aid those more backward sections of the masses with illusions in parliament to unite with the more advanced workers to ensure maximum unity for the conquest of power. We will deal with this question in greater detail in a future publication. In the meantime we urge comrades to read Lenin’s “Should Bolsheviks participate in bourgeois parliaments?”
We do not accept the argument that there is not time to launch the party in time for the 2019 elections. Both Cope and the EFF were able to secure more than a million votes despite being less than a year old when they stood.
The capitalist crisis is not only economic it is also political. Their main parties, the ANC and the DA are in crisis. The factional civil war in the ANC has flared up again and may prevent it from winning enough votes to form a government on its own. The more far sighted strategists of the capitalist class have recognised that the crisis-ridden DA is not capable of forming an alternative government. They are therefore preparing and encouraging the idea of a collation government in which they are willing to contemplate the EFF as a partner as it increasingly shifts to the right on its key “pillars” – land and nationalization. This will be a pro-capitalist coalition presented to us as necessary to unite an increasingly fractured and divided “nation” – a possible second edition of the Government of National Unity that ushered in the democratic era.
The second edition of a GNU will be as short-lived as the first. As the experience of the local government experiments of coalitions shows, it will be unstable and, more importantly be used to legitimise even more savage attacks on the working class in the name of all of us suffering together to “save the country and the economy.”
The working class will then once again have no voice of its own to resist the attacks the capitalist class is preparing. In the heightened political climate that elections create, the forces of the WCS would be depriving itself of a political platform to reach the twelve million who have not been voting as well as those voting for the ANC out of sentiment, or the EFF and even the DA to punish the ANC.
WASP therefore calls upon the WCS to roll out the launch of provincial and local summits. The 16 September Western Cape meeting calling for a Total Shutdown on 25 September, is an excellent example of how working class communities can be united. Unfortunately it appears there was no direct connection between the WCS summit resolution to roll out provincial and local summits. The resolutions of the Western Cape Total Shutdown meeting correctly resolved that the movement it is establishing will not be allowed to be hijacked by “party political agendas”.
To the extent that this is to inoculate the movement against being hijacked by existing political parties, it is entirely correct. But the absence of a commitment to create a mass workers party, will not guarantee its independence. Like the current Saftu policy of being “independent but not apolitical” ignores the reality the most effective way in which to protect the independence of working class movements is by creating our own party, with our manifesto and our own programme of action. To abstain from the political terrain is to leave it to be dominated by anti-working class forces and to reduce the working class to neutral spectators to the class struggle in which we are the main victims. The fact that the likes of Fedusa are party-politically independent has not shielded it from supporting the anti-working class policies adopted by Nedlac on the minimum wage and the attack on the right to strike.
WASP calls upon the Western Cape Shut down to mobilize both for the total shutdown and to create the framework for a mass workers party in line with the WCS resolutions. Such a party can be created in line with the WC Shut Down principles that it must be based on the principles outlined in its resolutions: that it be owned and lead by our working class communities and is grounded in grassroots practices and processes.
WASP believes the raw material for the manifesto of the workers party contemplated by the WCS is contained in the declaration and summit documents summarizing the main discussions of the commissions as adopted.
To this we would add that all publicly elected representatives should be elected from amongst the ranks of working class communities and workplaces on the principle of a workers representative on a workers wage election subject to the right of immediate recall. We argue furthermore that the workers party be federal, allowing for affiliation of all genuine working class formations without the fear of losing their organizational, ideological and political identity subject to accepting the democratic decisions of the structures at all levels adopted after a full, fraternal and democratic debate.