From A Movement For Socialism To A Working Class Socialist Party

Vol 23 No 2

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Figuring out what happened to the Movement for Socialism (MFS) after the 2016 local government election is difficult. The reason for this is straightforward: information about its activities became scantier and inaccessible by the end of 2016. No public record of its official launch exists, fuelling suspicions that it has been aborted and buried. Even so, workers must know what happened to the MFS and study its significance for constructing a genuine workers party in today’s political crises. Our previous article (Vol.22 No.1, July 2016) pinpointed that union leaders at the forefront of the MFS proved themselves unable to forge a consistent and visible coalition with principled socialist currents. These unionists capture media spotlights but remain a peripheral fraction of the country’s fragmented workers and socialist movement. To break out of this isolation they must, as a first step, be liberated from bankrupt political traditions and offer workers a consistent political programme. On what programmatic basis do they seek to organise workers and unite with other radical left formations? This second article answers this question based on developments after August 2016. Given the importance of political organisation in our fight for democratic eco-socialism, the final article raises  questions on why trade unions are incapable of leading the workers’ fight to seize political power.

The 2017 May Day messages of the union leaders that have promoted the Movement for Socialism (MFS) venture are intriguing. For instance, unlike the press releases of the past two years,  the latest versions maintain a grave silence on the MFS. What does this MFS news blackout tell us about the political strategies of these unionists? How do they account for this manoeuvre?

Great Leaps Backward

Hints of a ‘new direction’ showed up in statements that the NUMSA general secretary issued in the months leading up to May Day.  A case in point is the ‘Crisis in South Africa’ press release which boldly declares: ‘We are hard at work forging the working class political party, and we are completing preparations for the launch of our new, socialist, democratic, worker controlled and militant federation. We are also revitalising our United Front.’ [NUMSA General Secretary, 5 April 2017] NUMSA leaders must be elated with the recent launch of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) – a boost to their smugness. However, behind the urgency to revitalise the United Front lurks a grudging admission that this project is in incontrovertible trouble. How did the united front degenerate into this crisis of existence and how do they plan on revitalising the supposed unity of workplace and community struggles? Should operating leftovers of the united front not prioritise frank self-criticism to rescue it from its trauma (death agony)? It would be a mistake to evade this chance to completely reconstruct the united front on the basis of the revolutionary interests of the impoverished and exploited majority.

The excision of the MFS from the April statement is conspicuous. Has the establishment of a working class socialist party replaced the MFS? If so, when and why did this switch transpire? How should anti-capitalist activists interpret this sleight of hand or putrid ad hoc-ism? NUMSA’s response to the February 2017 budget exposes the frenzy behind this abrupt turn to “the revolutionary organisation of the working class behind a revolutionary programme in a revolutionary socialist party to overthrow the supremacy of capital. As NUMSA we will not rest until we have built a Workers Party capable of representing and defending the interests of the working class and capable of advancing to a Socialist South Africa.” [NUMSA Statement on the Budget Speech, 23 February 2017]

Since NUMSA’s 2013 Special Congress, it was generally accepted that the MFS would be a catalyst for a broad-based workers party. NUMSA leaders always insisted that the MFS was not a substitute Æ  Æ for  a working class socialist party. Instead, they conceived the former as an ‘anti-capitalist bridging formation’ for the latter. The dynamics of this supersession was to flow from many tactical determinants, such as exhausting the limits of the MFS (radical left ‘regroupment’), lasting political victories, an upsurge in mass struggles and so forth. With remnants of the united front limping along and the implosion of the MFS without any gains, NUMSA’s reasons for launching a workers socialist party are hard to fathom.


Programmatic Deadlock

The necessity for a revolutionary party of and for the working class to liberate society from capitalist barbarism has been on the agenda for decades. Reasons why tireless efforts for establishing such a party have not been realised yet must be confronted head on, particularly by the newly radicalised activists. Failure to do so would mean that the heavy political costs that radical leftists paid for old party building disasters would have been in vain. Moreover, to qualify for revolutionary leadership means to assimilate the collective experiences of workers’ struggles in order not to be condemned to recyclers of historical errors.

The impetus for a working class socialist party, these popular unionists claim, primarily stems from two intertwined motives. First, in their view, the ANC government (with SACP endorsement) is imposing neoliberal policies on workers and have therefore abdicated the leadership of the working class struggle against capitalism. Second, and closely related to the above, is the fact that the SACP-ANC alliance abandoned the Freedom Charter in favour of an unbridled neoliberal and white monopoly capitalist system.

Radical as this ‘leftist opposition to the SACP-ANC’ might sound, it is far from new, particularly if we lift out the main idea of each criticism. Nevertheless, this justification for a revolutionary socialist party poses a crucial question: why must workers embrace a so-called ‘abandoned ideology’ with an inherent logic which runs counter to  the interests of working people? If NUMSA leaders care about answering such questions they must start from trenchant critiques of the ANC-SACP ideology that date back almost seven decades! This rich history we have inherited from our genuine political forerunners – not the liberals and Stalinists. But blind loyalty to the national democratic revolution is robbing today’s crop of radical unionists of political enlightenment. After all, many of them cut their political teeth and learned the sum total of their politics from this stale and rotten ideology, which the liberals resurrected to wreak havoc on and derail our struggle for freedom – a gruesome record of Communist Party and Congress treachery this generation might be too young to know. In this context, NUMSA’s tirade against the SACP-ANC-COSATU alliance echoes the undertones of a feud among erstwhile comrades, locked in a faction war over the best way to breathe life into a moribund ideology.

At least in its rhetoric NUMSA talks about both a revolutionary class struggle party and a ‘representative of workers’ interests’.  Their bias for a ‘political representative of workers’ poses fundamental questions about the proposed party’s orientation towards bourgeois parliamentary and electoral tactics. This reminds us of its Deputy General Secretary’s rhetorical quip in answering two academics in late 2014: “Are we ready to field candidates for local government elections in 2016, and on what platform, or would a Workers’ Party have been formed to contest elections?” (Karl Cloete Interview, in E-Bulletin of Socialist Project, 20 March 2015)  Almost two years before August 2016 they were seriously thinking about or planning to launch an election oriented party (‘leftist alternative to the ANC’). Back then it would have ended in disaster given the chaos in their ranks. When the ANC suffered the devastating losses in the local government elections, the event in all likelihood reinforced assessments of Cloete & comrades that a decisive opportunity has opened for speeding up the formation of a working class socialist party – and ditch the MFS process.

Let it not be forgotten that as the MFS staggered towards its demise, it failed to agree on the substance of a draft political programme for the new party. It became hopelessly dysfunctional after political currents without the ‘Charterist baggage’ joined its ranks. Programmatic debates plunged into confusion before it grounded to a halt. NUMSA’s flagrant insistence on keeping the Freedom Charter as the new party’s programme obviously could not break this deadlock. One of their ideologues even concocted the lie that the Freedom Charter is a transitional programme, which is not only an absurdity to laugh at but also displays traits of incorrigible opportunism.

Many articles published in the APDUSAN have unmasked how reactionary the Freedom Charter is and picked apart the flaws in its hodgepodge of promises. We have shown how its bourgeois foundations are disguised behind hollow slogans, with their egregious inconsistencies and atrocious distortions of revolutionary socialism. These reactionary slogans match the logic of its political policy which is rooted in compromise and opportunism. It is a charter for diluting and selling out the aspirations of the labouring majority. The so-called ‘radical interpretation of this charter for betrayal’ cannot be but a deliberate or unconscious subversion of our unfinished struggle for democratic eco-socialism.