Towards Unity of the Left

Against the Current, No. 51, July/August 1994

Langa Zita

WE HAVE CONSISTENTLY maintained that there is a dialectical relationship between the national liberation struggle and the class struggle. We further maintained that there can be no genuine national liberation without class liberation and vice versa.

The critical word is genuine, because there are any number of postcolonial societies—societies without national oppression—which, however, are far from being class liberated. The interrelations between these two forms of liberation are a historical product, and depend mostly upon the investment which the working class and allied forces put into the transition process.

In fact it has always been our contention that for the liberation to be genuine, the working class should lead this struggle. What does this mean? Simply that the perspectives of the working class should be the dominant ones in each area of restructuring and change, and that the workers should lead in all battles waged against the ruling class and its institutions. But we face great challenges to maintain this position.

To understand this, we must consider the past few years of transition. The unbanning of the ANC in 1990 led to a number of dramatic changes in the character of our mass democratic movement. It led to the disbanding of the United Democratic Front It shifted COSATU from the political center stage. It switched the political leadership of the movement from those who served in the 1980s struggle at home, largely to those who were exiled and who served time on Robben Island (the notorious prison camp where Nelson Mandela and numerous others were incarcerated—ed). It also brought substantial changes in function, style, strategies and tactics for trade union, civic, women’s, church and youth organizations.

The unbanning and therefore the commencement of the transition process also took place within an international context of the fall of bureaucratic socialism in Eastern Europe. This had a number of implications for the move ment. It meant that a formidable pillar, which symbolized a “left” side of the ANC, had collapsed, and thus could no longer support the ANC.

This, in turn, signalled a need for the movement to relocate itself within the existing international context, to contend with growing pressures from domestic and international capitalists (notably the International Monetary Fund), which have demanded that we tone down radical demands and maintain the economic status quo—and indeed that we adopt more neoliberal policies than even the outgoing government.

The Contradictions of Power

It has always been asserted that the ANC is an omnibus national liberation movement, with varied class forces. While certain conditions of struggle—in particular, the austere experience of exile in Africa, the mass uprisings of the 1980s and the common intense struggle against apartheid—solidified our movement and concealed the divisions, this has now come to an end.

Today the movement must understand what it means to ascend to the status of a ruling political group within a capitalist framework, continually lobbied by big business and its lieutenants, a situation which actively encourages the consolidation of anti-popular forces within our ranks. Similarly, the absorption of new layers of people into our ranks, unschooled in the radical democratic traditions of the movement, gives real scope to a further neutralization of the movement.

Add to these problems the legacy of the negotiations process, which was carried out over the heads of our people, whose very minimal participation amounted to the occasional mass action “tap,” turned on or off from above, leaving the people isolated and demobilized. Further, there is a growing sense within the movement that “reconstruction” activities should replace mass struggle. Such a trend could effectively conceal the power of capital and the need to fight capital as a critical element of genuine reconstruction and development.

One attempt at reconciling the dialectic of the national and class aspect of the struggle relates to the need to rethink what our transformative project is all about. The coming major conference of socialists in November will help profile and hopefully crystallize the implications of this symbiosis.

Strategic Options for the Left

The past six months have seen a burgeoning of Left discourse on the question of the “Unity of the Left.” This means addressing ourselves strategic challenges such as the prevailing conservative political-economic context Secondly it means reclaiming the radical tradition by deepening and transcending the framework of reconstruction as outlined by the ANC alliance in the interests of broader social transformation.

To do so requires us to undergo an autocritique of the movement as a whole. This means examining the subjective factor insofar as the objective factors are on the whole ripe for democratic transformation. But we can discern clear weaknesses at a subjective level People struggle because this is what makes life meaningful to them, yet the certainty of vision, the old compass, has been lost.

Those who still are guided by a socialist compass have difficulties relating it to their present realities. In this context therefore liberatory ideas are nothing other than faith—which is of course dangerous for a movement.

The question of the Unity of the Left then needs to be located within this context, but also—more hopefully—within a vibrant popular working class movement, which is busy with a process of its recomposition and within a context in which key layers of this movement will be lost to jobs in the state.

Some see the Unity of the Left as a South African version of the São Paulo Forum (a periodic gathering of parties of the Latin American left, so called because it was first held in São Paulo, Brazil, hosted by the Brazilian Workers Party–ed.), a loose plural platform with no program. This view would see claiming the left tradition as a key strategic goal, with the subsequent establishment of commissions on various policy issues. While this view points in the right direction, I think that it is too minimalist.

A different view is that the Unity of the Left should give rise to a united political socialist/workers party. The latter view is quite unlikely presently due to the historical division in the South African Left.

Toward a New Politics

I hold a third viewpoint: that the cry for the Unity of the Left in our country is a particular historical opportunity for the examination of the best weapons of struggle for the working class in our time.

In our country we have all the historical weapons that popular movements across the world have evolved over this century. We have a big nationalist movement including Pan Africanist and Black Consciousness variants, we have a relatively large Communist Party, we have a fairly strong trade union movement, there are healthy social movements. There are also Far Left organizations, various NGOs and leading independent left personalities.

There will also for the first time be a radical and popular superstructure in our society, as radicals and socialists in large numbers enter government.

None of the above is decisive on their own. What the Unity call seeks to address is how best can we develop these tools to maximally serve working class and the popular masses in our country. In summary, we will draw up a balance sheet of the entire movement and its values, strategies and tactics.

The question is how to do this without succumbing to mere, ineffectual pluralism. Put another way, how does an extremely diverse and competitive set of movements endeavor to pull themselves together without degenerating into sectarianism and eventual collapse? The challenge is that of a genuine Left praxis. This problematic is brought into sharp relief if we consider that the objective is not the pursuit of narrow electoralism (we are bringing Unity together on the morning after an election process).

To this extent the event is original, and can be seen to call into existence something more profound than ordinary politics. It is an attempt to bring into being motor forces for a new politics—perhaps more properly a new culture in left politics, and the embryo of a new civilization for our society.

A Basis for Unity

Thus these commitments cannot be realized through a mere platform that meets once a year. They need to be sustained through ongoing struggle coordination. In this regard it is my view that indeed we can draw on the struggles and the experience of the 1980s period of the United Democratic Front, albeit with a more plural and at the same time unequivocal commitment to radical socialist objectives. This is one critical way of sustaining the revolutionary zeal among many of our activists, while at the same time regrouping and rebuilding the Left movement.

For this to happen, minimal positions must be agreed upon, such as some or all of the following:

• The present terrain is within a local and global capitalist context, but the nature of our location and the character of our post-colonialism suggest immense possibilities for more transformative objectives.

• South Africa can and should go beyond limits to development set by the logic of capital, and the Unity of the Left must publicly contest, at every opportunity, bourgeois perceptions of these limits.

• We must acknowledge both the potentially radical state superstructure, and the need to synthesize it with the social weight of our mass organizations, and in the process transform the economic base. This calls for a dialectical, contradiction-ridden reconciliation of the relationship between popular masses and the democratic state.

• We must celebrate the intrinsic value and effectiveness of some of the present tools of the popular and working class movements, and avoid restructuring these instruments for the sake of it. Yet at the same time we must examine new ways of consolidating the Left project. For instance we need to ask whether there is a need for organized platforms within the ANC. Should we talk about a formal Left caucus in the ANC?

• Each participant in the Unity of the Left initiative should commit to a culture of debate and to avoiding sectarian arrogance. We must support and initiate radical socialist research units to enhance the input of the working class in all areas of engagement.

• We must above all commit to the practical development of the class power of the working class, and to support the leading role that this class should play in our society. In doing so we commit ourselves to promoting a radical, democratic and socialist hegemonic project.

• We must, in the process, support internationalist, socialist, and all other democratic links and struggles.

July-August 1994, ATC 51