ANC and the working class

Submitted by Matthew on 7 November, 2012 - 7:51

I am writing to disagree with one of the arguments Martyn Hudson made in his article on the current situation in South Africa in Solidarity 262 (26 October).

Martyn introduces the article with a quote from Engels in which Engels was discussing the peasant war in Germany. The quote says that “the worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the class which he represents ... what he ought to do cannot be done...he is compelled to advance the interests of an alien class.”

The quote is used to back up his assertion that the ANC government was “governing in the name of a black working class which had hoisted it to power on the back of its liberation struggle but unable and unwilling to challenge the rule of capital.”

This seems to suggest that Martyn thinks the ANC had no choice, and were “compelled” (because “the movement [was] not yet ripe”) to govern in the interests of capital.

For Marx and Engels, the revolutions of 1848-49 could not be socialist revolutions because the productive forces of capitalism were not sufficiently developed. The same argument doesn’t hold for South Africa in 1994. South Africa was a successful capitalist economy with a large urban working class.

By 1994 union membership was 3.5 million — a density of 26%. From the early 1980s, there was a massive upsurge in working-class struggle. On 1 May 1986, 1.5 million workers “stayed away” from work to demand an official May Day holiday — the largest strike in South African history.

Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity), argued then that if COSATU and other workers’ organisations had formed a political party, they could have won power in their own right.

The reason capitalism continued is because the ANC and South African Communist Party’s popular front politics meant the subordination of working-class politics to the national and democratic revolution. They opposed direct links between workers’ organisations to marginalise and isolate the independent voice of black workers and substituted instead guerrilla warfare and diplomatic pressure.

It is not that the ANC weren’t able to act in the interests of the working class — it’s that they didn’t represent the working class at all.

Those who advocated independent working class politics weren’t strong enough to develop the political organisations that were needed.

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