the unknown revolution: ukraine 1917-21

27 01 2014

Originally posted on the commune:

Much has been written on the revolution in Ukrainian, on the nationalists, the Makhnovists and the Bolsheviks. Yet there were others with a massive following whose role has faded from history. One such party was the Borotbisty, the majority of the million strong Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionaries, they formed an independent communist party seeking an independent Soviet Ukraine.

Though widely known amongst revolutionary Europe in their day, the Borotbisty were decimated during the Stalinist holocaust. Out of print for over half a century Borotbism by Ivan Maistrenko has now been republished. Maistrenko (1899-1984) was a veteran of the revolutionary movement. A red partisan in 1918-20 he was a journalist and opponent of Stalin in the 1920’s becoming deputy director of the All-Ukrainian Communist Institute of Journalism in 1931. A survivor of the gulag he lived as a post-war refugee in Germany becoming editor of the anti-Stalinist workers paper Vpered. His…

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The Scottish Independence Referendum and Revolutionary Socialists

24 01 2014
 Eric Chester writes on Scottish Independence and Nationalism.The question of Scottish independence is a complex one, an issue that requires an assessment on the theoretical level, the attitude of socialists toward nationalism, as well as a critique of the specifics of the question as it relates to Scotland and the United Kingdom. I believe that a genuinely independent Scotland would be a positive development, but that the proposal being presented by the Scottish National Party is a sham, and should not be supported. Indeed, Alex Salmond and the SNP envision a Scotland that is not independent, and is neither socialist, nor a republic.
Socialists have always been skeptical of bourgeois nationalism, correctly viewing it as a diversion from a class-based solidarity that crosses national boundaries and has a vision of a future society that is international in scope. This does not mean that we as socialists do not support the right of self-determination of an oppressed people. In fact, Westminster has conceded this point with regard to Scotland by agreeing to accept the results of the upcoming referendum as binding. Scotland clearly has a distinct history and culture. It was forcibly annexed to England, and many of its people were coerced into adopting the English language and then forcibly removed from their land. Given that Westminster has agreed to accept the referendum’s results, it would be bizarre for socialists to insist that Scotland remain a part of Britain even if a majority of its citizens expressed a desire to be independent.

The issue then is not whether Scotland has the right to be independent, it does, but whether it makes sense for socialists to advocate a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. I would suggest that as a general proposition socialists should only support national independence when this would advance the interests of the working class, and mark a significant step toward a socialist transformation of society. A truly independent Scotland, one that became a republic, that had its own currency and determined its own budget, that left NATO and closed down British military bases, and that left the European Union, such a Scotland would be worthy of socialist support.

The reality is that the SNP is not interested in an independent Scotland. Salmond is eager to placate Westminster and the English ruling class. Thus, the servile praise of the monarchy. This ploy announces loudly to all that Scotland will remain subordinate to England, even after it becomes nominally independent. The monarchy is not a purely symbolic issue. The crown powers would enable the British government to remove a Scottish government it viewed as a threat. Furthermore, the monarchy owns a considerable amount of Scottish land. Indeed, in Scotland ownership of land is concentrated in the hands of a few families, many of them descending from the old aristocracy. A truly independent Scotland would seize large landholdings, either distributing them to farmer cooperatives, or holding the land for use as national parks and wilderness.

Furthermore, Salmond has declared that he hopes that Scotland will continue to use the British pound sterling, which would cede control over interest rates and the banking system to the Bank of England and the City of London. Breaking the stranglehold of London financiers over the setting of economic policy will require a genuine independence that has as a prerequisite control over monetary policy.

Still, the global context has markedly changed since Britain reluctantly engaged in a process of decolonization after World War II. Scotland must also negotiate an acceptable transition with the United States, through NATO, and Germany, through the European Union. NATO will never agree to let Scotland to close its military bases now being used by U.S. troops as a way station to military adventures in the Middle East and beyond. The decision of a truly independent Scotland to withdraw from NATO, and to steer clear of U.S. imperialism, would represent the type of challenge to the global power structure that the SNP leadership is so anxious to avoid.

Instead, the SNP has dumped its long-held position, and voted that an independent Scotland would remain a member of NATO. Furthermore, the SNP has always called for Scotland to be free of all nuclear weapons, insisting that the Faslane base that acts as a home base for submarines armed with Trident nuclear tipped missiles had to be closed. Once having opted to remain within NATO, the SNP has had to agree that Faslane can continue to service Trident submarines until at least 2020.

And then there is the European Union. This is no longer just a common market, but rather an increasingly tightly integrated economic unit in which power is becoming more centralized, with the Germans wielding the real clout. An “independent” Scotland seeking to remain within the EU will almost certainly have to sign on to the new fiscal treaty that greatly restricts a country’s ability to determine its budget. Thus, deficit financing to spur an economic recovery will be prohibited. It is also highly likely that Scotland will have to join the Eurozone after a probationary period, since it is increasingly clear that the European Union will treat an application for membership by an independent Scotland as it would that coming from new members such as the countries of Eastern Europe.

In a globally integrated economy dominated by transnational corporations, the entire question of national independence becomes problematic. Only a rapid transition to socialism can provide a meaningful solution to this problem. Nevertheless, the difficulties confronting Scotland go far beyond this. As the SNP attempts to negotiate a smooth exit from the United Kingdom, its leaders will enter into deals that entangle Scotland in a dense web of agreements that place this supposedly independent country in a subordinate position. In the end, it is probable that the Scottish working class will be no better off than before. Indeed, it is quite possible that the working class will be worse off, confronting even more drastic austerity measures, than if Scotland had continued to move toward a greater autonomy within the framework of the existing state.

Given the choices being offered, our role as revolutionary socialists is to reject both of them and, instead, to advocate a positive alternative to the existing situation, a choice in which Scotland becomes truly independent. A ‘no’ vote is a vote for the monarchy and the British imperial state. A ‘yes’ vote is a vote for a phony nationalism that leaves Scotland still stuck in a subordinate position. Neither choice is attractive.

The referendum has all of the characteristics of the typical election in a capitalist country in which voters get to choose between an array of parties advocating similar policies. In Scotland, this means voting for either the SNP or Labour. As revolutionary socialists, we reject this as a meaningful choice. We should do the same for the options presented in the independence referendum.

Freedom From Wage Labour and Private Property in England 1649-50.

11 01 2014

 “Take notice that England is not a free people till the poor who would have no land have free allowance to dig and labour the commons and so live as comfortably as the landlord in their enclosure” Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, 1649


Over one hundred years before Gracchus Babeuf raised the banner of common ownership  and equality in the French Revolution ,the True Leveller Gerrard Winstanley advocated that the propertyless must free the world by working together in equality without money, wages, and private property.   At the peak of the English Revolution in 1648-1649, as the Levellers tried to push the revolution forward in times of economic and political crisis, Gerrard Winstanley- in a moment of inspiration, and political passion, heard the voice of the poor and landless  as the voice of reason,which he identified as his own personal god and inner light.

The message was clear,practical and direct : work together, and eat together, on the common at St Georges Hill,Surrey. He declared that since all were born equal there was no legitimate right for a minority of landowners to rule over the majority of landless labourers.  Private ownership was rooted in violence, such as the Norman Conquest. Organised religion had also played a  role in tricking the people out of access to their means of subsistence.  Working together on the wastes and commons was merely the first step to freedom.

The true Levellers wanted the poor on landed estates to join them and refuse to work the landlords land. If the landed elite wanted private property let them work the land themselves. When thirty or forty True Leveller poor, led by Winstanley, began their bid for freedom from private property and  wage slavery on St Georges hill in April 1649,there was a violent reaction from local landowners and their clergy who were determined to stop these diggers from creating a movement to subvert the foundations of private  property,  and the  established church.

Throughout 1649 at St Georges Hill and later in early 1650 at Cobham Heath, where the remaining diggers had retreated,there was a concerted violent campaign against their settlement. The savage repression was led by Sir Frances Vincent a local lord of the manor ,Parson Platt, and farmers John Taylor and William Starr and included servants and tenants of these local notables.  Homes and buildings were destroyed,tools stolen or broken,possessions scattered, and diggers were beaten and  wounded. The legal system was used to arrest the True Levellers for trespass,  resulting in heavy fines and imprisonment. As Winstanley wrote :”Freedom is the man who would turn the world upside down. Therefore, no wonder he has enemies” (1)

Conservative writers in so far as they did not leave the True Levellers episode hidden by  a history of winners,indulge in character assassination and the personal denigration of Winstanley as incompetent hypocritical or moved by low motives, which has continued to the modern period. The historian A.L.Rowse accused Winstanley of the Politics of envy which is a very cynical and convenient view for the wealthy. In the polite words of Ivan Roots another historian,the politics of envy is “a cardinal sin in the eyes of those comfortable enough not to be tempted by it. (2) Exactly.   In 1976 J.C Davis “no more approves of Winstanley than he does of Christopher Hill” (3)

Diane Purkiss, who has recently written a book on the civil war, continues these dubious polemics and no more approves of Brian Manning’s books than she does of Winstanley. In her “People’s History” of the civil war, Purkiss sneers that for all his talk of locality Winstanley was an incomer and a townie,he might know how to graze cattle, but did he know how to grow food ? (4) Even if he was successful at grazing, he was a cattle entrepreneur ; hence he was a hypocrite in opposing commercial buying and selling. This is a perverse and poisonous polemic. Even when describing the difficulties of cloth trading in an economic crisis and the disruption of trade due to the civil war-specifically Winstanley’s trade links with Ireland she still has contempt for him as a loser. “He was never much of a business man”. (5) Here we have the conservative stereotype of the inadequate revolutionary projecting his own faults onto Society.

The diggers on St Georges hill were local parishioners. Not all parishioners were born in the Parish. Winstanley had been provided with a small piece of land by his father in law who saved the family from abject poverty. He worked as a cow- herder,scratching a living  from the land without hired labour. The allegation that he was a townie seems to come straight out of the reactionary contemporary politics of the countryside alliance. The diggers seemed to have earned their nickname and strenuous efforts were made to break their tools. If they were incompetents why not leave them to starve on St Georges Hill?  The difficulties of commercial activity for small traders like himself in the 1640’s would have given him insights into the drawbacks of buying and selling and helped him identify with those in poverty who had lost their right to the commons through enclosure. In any case,he understood that the market and capitalist development was separating the people from the land and their means of subsistence.

That only leaves her hint that since Winstanley was some kind of communist advocating common ownership of the land ,he must be some kind of totalitarian; a common theme from the cold war period.  In the words of Diane Purkiss :”By the end he too had come to believe state power might be needed to support and control his ideal society”. (6)  This is a reference to Winstanley’s Law of Freedom in a Platform written following the defeat of the diggers after a year of peaceful and brave resistance to the violent harassment of their community by the local rich.  Purkiss cannot avoid mocking Winstanley as the revolutionary who bent his knee to Cromwell’s authority  by appealing to him to implement the platform.

But Winstanley wanted to do everything he could and have his final say even if it would serve only to pacify his own spirit or the fire in his bones as he put it. Marie Louise Berneri’s opinion is that “from the contents and tone of he appeal,however,it is clear Winstanley had little hope that Cromwell would carry out the programme” (7) Marie added that Winstanley placed demands on Cromwell all the better to criticise him later when the revolution might revive. She might have a point, but it seems more likely that he was putting down a historical marker which would be a historical vindication for the True Levellers, warning Cromwell that if he refused to implement the platform, and look to the interests of the poor, he would lose his reputation in the historical long run.

Winstanley had experienced defeat and was  aware of other digger settlements suffering the same fate in the context of Cromwell’s ruthless crushing of the Leveller rank and file at Burford. He might not have been fully aware that this was a historical turning point ,but he  knew  Cromwell’s army was becoming an instrument of order and reaction. In this counter-revolutionary situation independent attempts to work the land as free men would have seemed impossible to him. Hence a desperate  appeal to Cromwell in the hope that this might influence the army in some way to reverse the reactionary trend. His conscience would not allow him to concede defeat without one last attempt to advocate the virtues of common ownership. We should remember that when he was summoned to explain himself to Fairfax, the practical leader of the army, a few weeks after the occupation of St Georges Hill, he made no such appeal. Both Winstanley, and Everard another digger, refused to doff their hats to Fairfax. They simply informed the general what they were doing.

Far from advocating a form of state collectivism Winstanley made the revolutionary point that there was no middle road :  it was freedom or tyranny. Freedom was sharing the earth as a common treasury without a property-owning state.The social context of older male voting rights was freedom from wage labour and commercial activity. Marie Berneri sums it up in modern terms : in his ideal commonwealth there is neither money, nor wages and each gives according to their ability and receives according to their need” (8) But this description is not accurate because the phrase ” each according to their ability” did not apply to women.  All male  officers of his Commonwealth would be subject to an annual election. Winstanley wanted to see “that the free possession of the land and liberties be put into the hands of the oppressed commons of England” (9) This is the point of the Paris Commune of 1871 : there can be no political freedom without economic freedom.

Winstanley’s views are remarkable from a remarkable period in history. However, he was very much a man of his time in a fundamental sense. Women are almost invisible in his Commonwealth.  The family unit is still in place with an  older man as the head of the family, responsible for children and wives. The family  would be a consumption unit. He envisaged liberty to marry for love, and wives and husbands to enjoy each other.  Adultery would not be a crime subject to punishment. Yet despite his patriarchal views he did propose to have the death penalty for anyone who raped a woman. The executioners like the solders would be elected  locally. There was then a contemporary  stress on punishment. Even so, he was far ahead of his times,in a sense too advanced, since he was out of step with historical development. Cromwell’s regime facilitated the further growth of capitalism and colonialism.  What Winstanley understood was that the separation of the producers from the means of production could only result in oppression, and  inequality.   As Norah Carlin put it : ” in the law of freedom Winstanley is concerned with abolishing the state. (10)

Barry Biddulph

January 2014.


1 Gerrard Winstanley, A Watchword to the City of London. Winstanley and his followers were not in a position to use force against their enemies, but in any case he believed that the sword created the problem of inequality in the first place and was not a solution.

2 Ivan Roots,introduction to David Petegorsky,Left Wing Democracy in the English Civil War,sandpiper books 1999,p.5

3 As above, p.9

4 Diane Purkiss,The English Civil War,Harper Perennial, London, 2007,p.526

5 As above p.520

6 As above,p.524

7 Marie Louise Berneri,Journey Through Utopia, Freedom press 1987,p.150

8 As above p.169

9 Gerrard Winstanley, The law of Freedom in a platform.

10  Norah Carlin,Marxism and the Civil War,International Socialism Journal 10, winter 1980-81 p.122

Why Vote for a Scottish State ?

17 12 2013

Barry Biddulph takes a critical look at, The National Question-Some Basic Principles, by John Molyneux in the Irish Marxist Review and the application of these principles to Scotland by Keir Mckechnie in the same issue.vol 2 Number 8


John Molyneux provides the theoretical framework for the claim that voting yes for independence in Scotland, is not necessarily a Nationalist  vote. In recommending a yes vote Keir Mckechnie maintains that a vote for national independence can paradoxically become a vote against nationalism. Molyneux sets the dogmatic tone : “Marxists support the Right of Nations to self-determination and the National Liberation struggles of oppressed Nations”. (1) In other words,Lenin’s views on the national question are assumed to be true. Yet many Marxists do not support the bourgeois demand of self-determination or regard “National Liberation” as a step to working class emancipation. Rosa Luxemburg  regarded the demand for self-determination as a utopia in the context of imperialism. Indeed,  Marx himself did not support the Right of self-determination as a general principle, even in the case of Poland.

In the words of Michael Lowy, “Marx and Engels supported Poland, less in the name of the general principle of self-determination of nations, than because of the struggle of the Poles against Tsarist Russia”. (2) Nor did Marx support the right of self-determination for the Southern Confederacy in the American Civil War. Engels ruled out the principle of self-determination for nations he regarded , in dubious terms, as ” non historic” or not viable on national or racial grounds.  Keir Mckechnie has a very uniformed  opinion that, “where there is genuine national oppression,then both workers and bosses will benefit from independence”. (3) National unity of bosses and workers is presented in a positive light as if class power and inequality did not exist. This this was not the case in China and many other national struggles in which the worker’s movement and communist organisations were repressed or destroyed. Modern nationalist movements in Zimbabwe and South Africa have not liberated the masses.

There is also a difficulty in Molyneux and Mckechnie attempting to drape themselves in Leninist orthodoxy on self-determination: they accept that Scotland is not and was not an oppressed nation. The division between oppressed and oppressor nations is at the core of Lenin’s position. Then again, the  Leninist Right of Self determination is  rather overcomplicated for a principle.  The right to self-determination does not always apply, and sometimes has to be subordinated to the exigencies of class struggle. So it has the appearance of a principle, but might not apply  in specific conditions. In a sense, it is not a general right. A general right is asserted,  but in a sense you do not have a right,  and  you might ditch it. For instance, Lenin did not always stick to the principle of self-determination following the Russian revolution in the Ukraine ,Georgia and elsewhere. Nigel Harris is clear,that for Lenin : “the issue was still a tactical one has it had been for Marx…. not a matter of general principle” (4)

 Lenin prided himself on what he regarded as his historically specific account of the time and place for the demand for Self-Determination. He situated the demand in the context of what he called the Democratic Bourgeois Revolution .   In Lenin’s view, the period of these revolutions in Western Europe was roughly 1789 to 1871 : ” in England (in Britain excluding Ireland ) the bourgeois revolution has been consummated long ago”.(5) His  historical context for the bourgeois revolution for  self-determination did not apply to Scotland. For Lenin at the time ” it is precisely and solely because Russia, and her neighbouring countries are passing through this phase that we must have a clause in our programme on the right of self-determination”.(6) He saw self-determination  and a radical bourgeois revolution  as  the future in Russia and Asia.These perspectives were proved wrong by historical developments.

Despite all the political rhetoric of revolutionary democracy, the Russian revolution took a different turn. If the spectre of the French revolution influenced the bourgeoisie in a conservative non revolutionary direction in the spring time of people’s in 1848 and after, then the fear of the revolutionary events of 1917 was  also a conservative lesson for the world bourgeoisie . Moreover, the Bolsheviks rooted their regime in the ‘ Party- State’ rather than the Soviets. As a consequence, Bolshevik state building in the “Soviet Union” led to dictatorship over workers. As early as March 1918, Lenin described the international revolution as a fairy tale, and the Soviet State set about establishing  normal relationships with other states. The treaty of Brest Litovsk was part of an overall strategy of consolidating the Bolshevik State rather than a gamble on international revolution. Neil Davidson cynically states that they “decided to survive rather than go down to glorious defeat along the lines of the Paris Commune”. (7)  Communism from below was not given a fighting chance to succeed. Instead, the ‘party- state’ counter-revolution called itself communism.

 Lenin wanted a proper state, a proper army, proper managers in the factories, and proper diplomacy. Defence of the Russian state went hand in hand with  the false perspectives of 1913-14, that the route to socialism in Asia, and other areas dominated by imperialism would be through bourgeois nationalists and bourgeois democracy . Lenin’s address to the All Russian Congress of Communist Organisations of the Peoples of the East,in 1919, made it clear “you will have to base yourselves on  bourgeois nationalism”. (8) The Italian Communist, Amadeo Bordiga described this as revisionism in terms of class struggle.  Hillel Ticktin notes that the Soviet Union came to terms with the bourgeoisie on its borders, and there was a real conflict between the interests of the USSR as a secure entity, and the needs of Socialism. (internationalism) (9) Neil Davidson wants to minimise criticism of the Bolshevik regime prior to Stalinism and puts it in an understatement,”what did not exist at this stage was a consistent policy of privileging Russian state interests over those of the international movement” (9) But there was nationalism,even if it was inconsistent.

Lenin’s Support for bourgeois nationalism in China, whatever the  qualifications placed on it, proved disastrous for the communist  movement. In China the nationalist army,   trained and armed by the Bolshevik state, inflicted a historic defeat on communism, as a worker’s movement in 1927, from which it never recovered. Nigel Harris who is very much part of the IS/SWP  tradition makes the obvious point : How could the Bourgeois Democracy be so foolish as to allow communist parties to direct independent mass class based movements”.(10) The falseness of the Leninist theses on national liberation can be seen from Trotsky’s Leninist view from 1924 : there is no doubt whatsoever that if the Kuomintang party in China succeeds in uniting China under a national democratic regime,the capitalist development of China will make enormous strides forward” (11) Tragically,capitalist development strode forward  over the bodies of thousands of communist workers in Shanghai, in 1927.

M.N Roy, an Indian Communist, corrected Lenin at the Second Congress of the Communist International. His  forecast was that the local bourgeois would not play a revolutionary role due to their links with imperialism . Even today some Trotskyists  and Leninists   still support National Liberation movements when the only liberation taking place is of an elite. Surprisingly, Alex Callinicos makes the main point that Lenin did “not however resolve the problem of how the demands of the national struggle against imperialism-bourgeois democratic demands,since they could in principle be met without overthrowing capitalism related to the specific working class struggle for socialism” (12) Yes spot on.

How does an independent Capitalist state in Scotland relate to the struggle to overthrow Capitalism ? Kier Mckechnie is not entirely confident that a Scottish State will advance the class struggle: “there is no guarantee that in itself an independent Scotland would benefit ordinary people”. So why vote yes? The explicit reason given is that it will be a vote to break up the British State, but still preserving the unity of workers North and South. But, if no national antagonism exits between workers North and South, why support a separate Scottish State?  If the border can be ignored what is the point in erecting a new barrier which might generate national hostility or national exclusiveness? In any case, the yes vote will not establish a fully independent state or break up Britain. What is on offer is a shared Monarch, and  Bank of England. The new state will remain part of NATO and the European Union . In any event, as Hillel Ticktin observes,  national independence in imperialism is formal (13)

This judgement echoes Rosa Luxemburg conclusion that “so long as capitalist states exist, so long as imperialist world politics determine and regulate the inner and outer life of a nation,there can be no national self-determination either in war or peace”. (14) Recent events in Greece support this view.  We are left with the SNP policy on trident. If there is no trident in Scotland this will hardy be a body blow to imperialism.  Although NATO membership will probably result in any SNP government ditching the no to Trident policy.  As Mckechnie writes : the SNP are committing a future independent Scotland,not only to remain in an imperialist nuclear alliance dominated by the US ,but to potential foreign intervention in yet more countries”.  This is what Mckechnie describes as the right face of the SNP. Its right face was shown in the alliance with billionaires including links with Rupert Murdoch. There is likely to be  a low corporation tax, and  harsh cuts to help a small capitalist state fighting for survival. So why vote yes ?

Underneath the Leninist justification, the underlying reason for voting yes is what Mckechnie describes as the left face of the SNP; it’s social democratic public face. Alex Salmond has stated that while independence is our idea, our politics are social democratic. The SNP promise to abolish the bedroom tax among other reforms. Advocating a yes vote is a tactic to push the SNP and the new capitalist state left. The entire project is reformist, since Scottish nationalism is not Revolutionary. The hope is  for some  state reforms despite the reality of Capitalist economic crisis and the difficulties for a new Capitalist class at the head of the nation.

Despite the desire to avoid calls for unity with scottish bosses the yes vote is precisely that. If the no vote   helps British nationalism,the yes vote helps Scottish nationalism. Kier Mckechnie asks the question : will a future Scotland be a society of equality and social justice or a low wage pro free market economy which panders to multinational business? He gambles that the Scottish state will provide the national framework for the former ,but the latter is more likely as the social content of Scottish nationalism. Abstention is not on his political horizon.  We should say no to both a British capitalist state and a Scottish capitalist state. A continuing struggle for working class interests  should not sacrifice its independence by dependency on nationalism.

1 John Molyneux, The National Question-some basic principles, Irish Marxist Review.(vol 2 Number 8 )

2 Michael Lowy, Marxism and the National Question,in Revolution and Class Struggle,Edited by Robin Blackburn,Harvester Press, 1978.p.137, see also Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins, university of Chicago, 2010, p.151 “At no time however did Marx make National Self Determination into an abstract principle”

3 Keir Mckechnie,Yes to Independence-no to Nationalism,Irish Marxist Review. (vol 2 number 8 )

4 Nigel Harris,National Liberation,Penguin Books,London 1990,p.60

5 Lenin, The right of Nations to Self Determination,Progress Publishers,Moscow ,1971,p.83 Lenin stated that in putting forward the demand for self-determination he was not putting forward the ideal of small states. On the contrary,”other conditions being equal the class conscious proletariat will always stand for the larger State”. p.33

6 Lenin, ibid, p.50 see also the Historical Destiny of the Doctrine of Karl Marx, in Lenin : Revolution, Democracy, Socialism edited by Paul Le Blanc, Pluto Press ,London, 2008, “The West had finished with Bourgeois revolutions.The East had not yet risen to them”. p.220

7 Neil Davidson,How revolutionary were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Haymarket Books Chicago 2012, p.245

8 Lenin,address to the Second all Russian Congress of Communist Organisations of the People’s of the East, November 22 ,1919. And again “the task is to wage a struggle against medieval survivals and not against Capitalism” He had already stated in May 1913 in Backward Europe and advanced Asia,that the mighty democratic movement in Asia will show that collectivism lies through democracy,”the Bourgeoisie here is as yet siding with the people against reaction”His position at this point and later was the bourgeoisie might vacillate and, we must put pressure on them. Although there was flexibility and qualifications about independent proletarian activity this was a two stage theory.

9 Neil Davidson, ibid ,p.245. The Bolshevik State supported Turkish Nationalists during the repression of communists and workers between December 1920 and January 1921. Radek and other Bolshevik leaders claimed the  Nationalists were objectively revolutionary in the first phase of the National Revolution.

10 Nigel Harris, ibid ,p.123.

11 Neil Davidson ibid ,p.217

12 Alex Callinicos,Marxism and the National Question,  in Scotland Class and Nation, edited by Chris Bambery, Bookmarks,London,p.44

13 Hillel Ticktin, Marxism,Nationalism and the National Question,after Stalinism, Critique 36-37, June 2005, p.21

14 Rosa Luxemburg, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Edited by peter Hudis and Kevin B Anderson,Monthly Review Press new york ,2004,p.325 (The Junius Pamphlet )

Mandela : A Hero for Capitalism

11 12 2013

Today in Johannesburg the biggest ever gathering of leaders of global capitalism is taking place to honour Nelson Mandela. They have already flooded the media with a chorus of adulation for the man and his achievements. Current and former political leaders have all rushed to heap praise on him and hold him up as a role model for future generations. The stench of hypocrisy is of course everywhere but none more pungent than that provided by the British Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron. In 1985 he was a leading member of the Federation of Conservative Students which produced the “Hang Mandela” posters and tee-shirts in support of apartheid. In 1989 he celebrated Mandela’s 26 years in prison by journeying to South Africa at the invitation of the Botha Government to discuss how to bust sanctions against apartheid. Interviewed this morning in Johannesburg on Radio 4 he did not call him a terrorist but “Madiba”. Vomit bags all round.[1]

Mandela was an exceptional man and in many ways an admirable one, not least for his bravery, his steadfastness to his cause through 27 years in prison and his sharp political insight. However, what today’s world leaders are really praising him for is the role he played in rescuing South African capitalism from the cul-de-sac of Apartheid, thereby preventing the country descending into a bloodbath of civil war and, consequently, for the service he rendered to western imperialism.

Capitalism is a system of class exploitation and oppression which reveals its brutality in naked violence when its wage-slaves stage any fight-back. The leaders it produces, such as those now praising Mandela, are generally unheroic hypocrites. Yet the system has need of heroes. It needs leaders who can camouflage the primary oppression of its wage-slaves by removing non-essential second order areas of oppression, such as racial or sexual oppression. It needs leaders who can disguise the system’s primary oppression of the working class, an oppression based on wage labour, with fine sounding phrases such as democracy, freedom and human rights for all. Leaders who can do this, such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela become its heroes. In reality capitalism has no interest in democracy, freedom or human rights. These are baubles with which it dresses itself up from time to time. We need only to remember how US, UK and European leaders were quite happy to support the Apartheid regime for forty years while democracy, freedom and human rights were trampled underfoot in the most open and flagrant manner, to understand this. Western regimes provided military equipment and intelligence to the regime to help it repress its external and internal enemies, such as the ANC and Mandela himself, and were quite happy to let African Nationalist leaders, who risked their lives for such things, rot in prison. Today Mandela is being elevated to secular sainthood and praised for forgiving his enemies amongst whom, of course, are the predecessors of those global leaders who today sing his praises. He is being held up as an example of how struggles for reforms within capitalism can lead to a better world.

It is now 19 years since the ANC came to power in South Africa and much of the myth of the “Rainbow Nation”, the better life for all, the justice and equality has been exploded. However, the aura of Mandela and the heroic freedom struggle has provided cover to the ANC regime as it enforced continued exploitation and oppression of the South African working class. With Mandela’s death this aura will fade. His death marks the end of a phase of South African history.

Mandela’s Life

Mandela’s life was remarkable by any standard. He was born in 1919 into the family of a minor Xhosa chief, a chief, however, who was not independent but beholden and ratified in his position by the SA state. He was educated at a Methodist mission school and remained a Christian all his life. He studied law, first at Fort Hare University, the school for many future leaders of the national struggles throughout Southern Africa, then at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. From its outset the ANC was dominated by western educated lawyers and journalists who had turned their backs on tribal society and demanded equal rights in capitalist society. It is little wonder, therefore, that Mandela gravitated to the ANC which he joined in 1943. Mandela’s ability and fighting spirit were soon recognised and he rose rapidly in the organisation. He was, however, generally dissatisfied with the passive leadership of the ANC and in 1944 he was co-founder of the youth section through which he tried to pursue a more radical resistance. In 1947 he was elected to the executive committee of the Transvaal ANC. The coming to power of the Afrikaner Nationalists in 1948 saw the start of legal entrenchment of Apartheid making the situation for the African majority even worse. In the early 50s, by which time he had become a practising lawyer, he and other ANC leaders tried to oppose the apartheid system with passive, Gandhi type, protests. However, peaceful protests of the early 1950s achieved nothing but repression.

In 1955 the principal programmatic document of the ANC, the “Freedom Charter” was produced and adopted by the organisation the following year. 1956 saw Mandela, together with 155 others, charged with high treason for attempting to overthrow the state by violence. The trial was to last 6 years and end with acquittal of all the defendants, much to the embarrassment of the regime. In 1960 the notorious Sharpville massacre took place. The police shot dead 69 unarmed people protesting against the internal passport system, which obliged all black people to carry a pass, which was used to restrict the areas in which they could live and work. The massacre was followed by the declaration of a state of emergency and the banning of the ANC. These events convinced Mandela that peaceful resistance to the regime was hopeless. He then travelled abroad to organise an armed resistance wing to the ANC. On returning to SA he was arrested, apparently after the CIA tipped off the SA police, and convicted of relatively minor charges, such as leaving the country illegally and inciting workers to strike. While in prison however he was charged with treason again. This led to the famous Rivonia trial of 1963/64. During this trial he defended himself admitting the charges and turning the trial into an indictment of the injustices of apartheid and the crimes of the regime. His famous final speech stated how he cherished the ideals of a democratic and free society where all were equal and declared that this was an ideal for which he was prepared to die. Instead of the expected death sentence Mandela and the other defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment, with the result that he spent much of the next 27 years in the notorious Robben Island prison off Cape Town.

In the 70s and 80s the social situation in South Africa suffered a sharp deterioration. Protests intensified but massive repression and killing of protesters, on a scale dwarfing the Sharpville massacre, proved insufficient to stabilise the situation. Within the economy it had become clear to the main factions of the South African capitalist class that the migrant labour system in particular, and Apartheid in general were leading the country to catastrophe. The increased capital intensity of South African capitalism meant that a skilled stable working class was required. The strategy of the capitalists was to create an African middle class which they could use as an ally against the working class. They aimed to do this via an organisation they set up called the “Urban Foundation”, and at the same time set up African trade unions which they hoped could be used to control the class struggle. Of course, this strategy meant providing political rights to Africans as well as other rights granted to workers in the metropolitan countries. There was only one political force which could implement such a programme and that was the ANC. One of the problems with bringing the ANC into government was its endorsement of the “Freedom Charter” which called for a raft of state capitalist measures such as the nationalisation of the land, banks and mines. SA capital considered these measures suicidal in the period of globalisation. Therefore, before the ANC was un-banned the key sectors of South African capital, particularly the mining corporations, held discussions with the ANC leadership during which they were assured that the measures of nationalization enshrined in the charter would not be implemented. The ground was now prepared for the un-banning of the ANC and the release of its leaders which occurred in 1990. Mandela walked out of prison in February 1990 and so began a process of negotiations which led to the famous election of 1994 and a democratic constitution. In recognition of his role in avoiding a civil war and a bloodbath Mandela was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1993. The 1994 election led to victory for the ANC and Mandela’s installation as the country’s first democratic president. He remained as president until 1999 when he retired.

ANC and the South African Working Class

The ANC has always presented itself as an African national movement, that is, a movement which represents the interests of the entire African population. In fact the population of any country consists of classes, the main classes being the capitalist class and the working class, the former living off the exploitation of the latter. These classes have diametrically opposed interests. It is therefore simply deception to pretend that a political movement can represent the interests of the nation as a whole. In reality the ANC has always been a party representing the rising African bourgeois class and its period in power has proved this.[2] The ANC’s flirtation with the African working class has been a cynical manoeuvre to recruit workers as its foot soldiers with which to batter down the Apartheid regime and the resistance of Afrikaner nationalism. In its period in power from 1994 the ANC has taken over the management of South African capitalism and carried out this task like any other capitalist government in this period. The famous nationalisations promised in the Freedom Charter have remained firmly on paper and not been carried out. Privatisations, however, and opening of the country to global capital have been carried out. Workers’ living standards have been cut, while unemployment has increased. Where workers have tried to fight back they have been met with the full force of state repression. The most infamous example of this was the Marikana massacre of striking miners on the 16th of August 2012, where the ANC’s police shot and killed 34 striking miners in a display of naked and calculated class violence. At the same time the power of the state has been used to promote the ANC party elite into the top ranks of the bourgeoisie through the famous Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme. This programme has created a handful of black millionaires in positions of power in the mining and industrial corporations, a process which the regime tries to present as compensation for the sins of the past century, and as a demonstration that the position of Africans is improving. However, at the same time as they promote themselves to the ranks of the capitalist class they are creating an ever growing urban underclass dependent on state welfare payments and the gap between rich and poor is getting ever wider. Creating a black bourgeois class was, of course, always the ANC’s programme, but the lie, which it has maintained, is that this would somehow benefit the African working class. This lie has been cruelly exposed. On the one hand the ANC has produced a situation where, according to its own calculations, 9% of the capital of mining corporations is in the hands of black capitalists while on the other hand it has created a situation where:

  • 40% of the working age population are unemployed. This represents 6 million workers 2.8 million of whom are between 18 and 24.
  • The urban underclass, surviving on welfare payments, has increased from 2.5 million in 1999 to 12.5 million in 2012!
  • 50% of the population live below the poverty line

The famous equality for which the ANC stood had produced a society which according to Oxfam is, with Brazil, now the most unequal in terms of wealth, in the world.

Mandela was, of course, aware of the capitalist nature of the ANC’s political programme and stated this at his trial in 1964, where he described the Freedom Charter in these words:

“The charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold mining monopolies that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. The breaking up and democratization of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of this country the non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own, in their own name and right, mills and factories and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before.”

What precisely this entailed has now been shown at Marikana.[3]

Workers and the National Struggle

Today it is a Marxist axiom that the working class should not subordinate its political forces to those of the bourgeoisie, which, of course, includes the bourgeois nationalist forces such as the ANC. As far as South Africa is concerned we have written and spoken many times about the danger of subordinating the class struggle to the demands of the national struggle, pointing out that as soon as the national struggle is successful the national bourgeoisie will turn their fire on the working class. This has happened in South Africa with a vengeance, and not only at Marikana. Empirical evidence of the dreadful situation South African workers now find themselves in is there for all to see. We quote from a recent text by “Abahlali Basemjondolo” the shack dwellers association. In a text called “The housing list versus the death list” they wrote:

“We are supposed to be living in a democratic country, a country of justice, a country where everyone should be treated as one. Yet there is a huge inequality. That inequality is economic, it is spatial and it is political. We remain divided into rich and poor. We continue to be allocated to different kinds of places that are meant for different kinds of people with different kinds of opportunities, different kinds of lives and different kinds of rights. We continue to be divided into those that have the freedom to express themselves and those that face all kinds of intimidation and repression if we commit the crime of telling the truths about our lives.

For the poor this country is a democratic prison. We are allowed to vote for our prison warders and managers but we must always remain in the prison. We must remain in silence when our shack settlements are illegally destroyed leaving us homeless. We must remain in silence when we are forcibly removed to transit camps that are only fit for animals but not for people. We must remain in silence when we are told to return to Lusikisiki*[4]* or taken to human dumping grounds far outside the cities. We must remain in silence when we are threatened, beaten, shot and killed. The politicians think that when we refuse to be silent, and when we resist repression, they can silence us by throwing some meat at us. After all these years they think that we are dogs. We are not dogs. We are people. We will continue to rebel until we are treated as human beings.” (30/10/13)

Another statement, this time from a mechanic, Ntshimane Nolala, reported by the BBC, expresses the view that black workers have been deceived into support of the ANC and the sacrifices of the national struggle have all been in vain. The words are more or less exactly what our previous texts have warned would happen. He told the BBC that:

“The only thing blacks got was the vote after every four years and the spattering of a few black elite [politicians] whose aspiration is to be next to Mandela and those of his ilk.

Today I work as a mechanic, I have no formal qualification; everything I know about fixing taxis I taught myself — this government of black people does not care about me, it has no time for me.

Yes we are free to go where we want to without fear but we are still not free, not in economic terms.

What you have in South Africa now is a handful of black people looting the scraps off the table left by those who control the economy; our leaders are enriching themselves now while the majority still have nothing — that is what has become the legacy of our freedom.

Those who died for this freedom sadly died for nothing in my view.” (6/12/13)

Much of the argument for supporting the national struggle, made by the Stalinists and Trotskyists, started from the view that Apartheid was essential to South African capitalism and hence ending it would bring South African capitalism crashing down. This would weaken western capitalism and produce a crisis in the developed capitalist countries etc. This has been shown to be complete nonsense. If anything South African capitalism is stronger as a result of the abolition of Apartheid, western imperialism has been strengthened and the class issues more confused than before.

The political arguments, these groupings defend for a two stage revolution or a permanent revolution the first stage of which amounts to state capitalism, are equally false. Any political organisation which takes on the tasks of administering capitalism, supposedly in the interests of the working class, can do no more than divide the surplus produced by the system in a more equitable way. The system remains capitalist, workers remain exploited, separated from the means of production and alienated. Meanwhile the demands for capitalist accumulation remain. The infrastructure of this system inevitably imposes itself on the political superstructure and the administrators of the system form a new exploiting class as occurred in Russia in the 1920s.

The ICT has consistently advocated that workers should pursue their own class interests for wages and conditions independently of the bourgeois nationalists. In South Africa this would have allowed the class issues involved to be clearly seen. Instead these issues have been obscured by a smokescreen of liberalism and moral outrage at racism and now, cries of betrayal by the ANC. The result is a great confusion. Projects to change the ANC leadership or to return to the state capitalism advocated in the “Freedom Charter” as, for example, the ex-ANC youth leader Malema and his “Economic Freedom Fighters” organisation advocate, are a great waste of time.

In the longer term the only struggle which can benefit the working class is that to overthrow the capitalist system and the construction of higher social form of social production, namely communism, and this has nothing to do with the system of state capitalism which was constructed in Russia. Attempts to reform the existing system, so it benefits the working class, only sow illusions in a struggle for what is now impossible. The struggle of the world’s workers needs to take a revolutionary direction. This struggle is an international one and the global working class needs to provide itself with the political organisation to carry this through.

As we wrote at the time of the Marikana massacre:

“The tragedy is that the murderous violence of capital has no borders. The same things are happening in China, Brazil and many other countries on the so-called periphery of capitalism whilst in the “democratic” West nothing like this is taking place for the simple reason that there is no visible revival of the class. However at the first significant sign of a working class response even in our political latitudes the axe of repression will not be long in striking. In Italy, for example, the juridical weapons are already in place and comprehensive experiments have already been carried out on the ground (Genoa in 2001) even though this was not realised at the time.

It is no longer a time “just” to denounce the scandal of Marikana, to weep for the dead of the international working class, it is also time to make a real effort and organise a class party, a revolutionary programme, so that the future revival of the class struggle will not have as its target just the repression of the international capitalist class but also the political objective of overthrowing this class-divided society, of breaking the iniquitous relationship between labour and capital and of destroying the mechanism of capitalist productivity. The tragic episode of Lonmin*[5]* and the 34 slaughtered workers is not the local story of a brutal event in far-off South Africa but is one act in a tragedy which is destined to be played out wherever the working class tries to raises its head”.


10 December 2013

[1] Not to be outdone, Blair also lied (surprising that) when he told Radio 4 that Mandela was always magnanimous to “Mrs Thatcher” (who condemned Mandela as a “terrorist” but supported the butcher Pinochet) when in fact he had refused to meet her. Perhaps, though, the hypocrisy of those who are going is matched only by the hypocrisy of those who are not. Benjamin Netanyahu is not going, citing the cost. This from the man who had a $180 000 bed installed in the Israeli state jet he used for his trip to London for Thatcher’s funeral. No mention, though, of the fact that Israel was one of the most resolute and materially supportive of the apartheid regime (and runs a good one of its own).

[2] See

[3] See Both the above articles can be found in pamphlet form in “The New Turmoil in South Africa” (£2 including postage from BM CWO, London WC1N 3XX)

[4] A small town in eastern Cape Province.

[5] Lonmin is the UK mining comp

ANC – A Hundred Years in the Service of Capital

6 12 2013

In January 2012 the African National Congress celebrated the hundredth anniversary of its foundation and spent R100 million (£8.2M) on the party. It has now held power continuously for almost 18 years and so its leaders saw this as a great cause for celebration. However, the celebrations were largely for the political elite and the few who have enriched themselves from the ANC’s rule. The working class, the unemployed and the impoverished millions, who have nothing whatsoever to celebrate, were conspicuous by their absence.

The ANC was founded shortly after the creation of the Union of South Africa by a handful of western educated lawyers and journalists at a time when African society still was largely tribal although the tribal economic subsistence system was being destroyed by capitalism. The ANC’s founders turned their backs on tribal society and demanded equal rights for Africans within the emerging capitalist society, rights from which the settlement after the Boer War and the act off Union specifically excluded them. A further century of capitalist development, which has entirely destroyed tribal society, replaced it with capitalist society, and produced a predominantly African working class, has seen the ANC rise to become the dominant bourgeois force in South African politics.

The ANC which has always presented itself as a national movement, in particular one representing the interests of the entire African population, has in reality always been a party representing the rising African bourgeois class. The ANC’s flirtation with the African working class has been a cynical manoeuvre to recruit workers as its foot soldiers with which it has been able to batter down the Apartheid regime and the resistance of Afrikaner nationalism. In its period in power from 1994 the ANC has taken over the management of South African capitalism and carried out this task like any other capitalist government in this period. Privatisations and opening of the country to global competition, while workers living standards have been cut, have been the order of the day. At the same time the power of the state has been used to promote the party elite into the top ranks of the bourgeoisie through the famous Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme. This programme has created a handful of black millionaires in positions of power in the mining and industrial corporations, a process which the regime tries to present as compensation for the sins of the past century, and as a demonstration that the position of Africans is improving. However, at the same time as they promote themselves to the ranks of the capitalist class they are creating an ever growing urban underclass dependent on state welfare payments and the gap between rich and poor is getting ever wider. Creating a black bourgeois class was, of course, always the ANC’s programme, but the lie, which it has maintained, is that this would somehow benefit the African working class. This lie is now being cruelly exposed. Although the issues of racial division and racial oppression have always clouded the South African situation, and have been exploited to the hilt by both the Afrikaner nationalists and the African nationalists, the real contradictions in South African society, as in capitalist society the world over, are those of class. The interests of the working class and the capitalist class are diametrically opposed and the ANC cannot reconcile the two. On the one hand the ANC has produced a situation where, according to its own calculations, 9% of the capital of mining corporations is in the hands of black capitalists while on the other hand it has created a situation where:

· 40% of the working age population are unemployed. This represents 6 million workers 2.8 million of whom are between 18 and 24.

· The urban underclass, surviving on welfare payments, has increased from 2.5 million in 1996 to 12 million in 2006[1]

· 50% of the population live below the poverty line

· 7 out of 10 black children grow up in poverty[2]

· Life expectancy has decreased from 65 years in 1994 to 53 years in 2009[3]

Such contradictions are threatening to tear the organisation apart. In the shameless enriching of its top members the ANC government has mired itself in corruption and cronyism which extends right up to the presidential office. At the 100th anniversary of its foundation there is actually little cause to celebrate.

18 Years in Power

Since coming to power the ANC has been in a tripartite alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). This has been designed to shore up its power and provide political cover for its attacks on the working class. Needless to say workers have resisted the erosion of their wages and living standards and the last 2 years have seen massive strikes. In 2010 there was a civil service strike involving 1.3 million workers which lasted 20 days, and in 2011 there have been strikes in the mines, energy, petroleum, metal and paper sectors which have seen hundreds of thousands of workers down tools for pay increases. Although COSATU does its best to control and defuse these strikes, the general deterioration of workers’ conditions is putting pressure on the alliance and opening up fissures in the ANC itself. It was undoubtedly pressures from those feeling dispossessed and betrayed by the ANC which led to the ousting of the previous president Thabo Mbeki in 2008 and his replacement by the more populist Zuma. The ousting of Mbeki has led to his fraction leaving the ANC and forming a new political grouping Congress of the People (COPE).

A further rupture, and a potentially more explosive one, has been opened by the disciplining and suspension of the ANC youth leader Julius Malema. Malema was a key supporter of Zuma during the defenestration of Mbeki, but the continual deterioration of the condition of workers and the poor has led him to turn his fire on the Zuma leadership and call for the nationalisation of the mines and the expropriation of white owned farm land. These issues, which are actually specified in the “Freedom Charter,” adopted as the ANC programme in 1956, are now quite contrary to the demands of South African and international capitalists and, of course the ANC leadership. Consequently they are a great embarrassment to the ANC. His raising of these demands from the past is like the proverbial ghost appearing at the wedding feast to wreck the party. Although he has been silenced and suspended from the ANC for a period of 5 years he is giving voice to widely held grievances and the demonstrations at his trial show he has a strong following which is not going to be placated by the silencing of one man.

The unemployed are also finding a voice. A spokesman for the Unemployed People’s Movement accuses the ANC of betrayal:

“During the struggle our leaders embodied the aspirations of the people. But once they took state power they didn’t need us anymore. We were sent home. We are only called out to vote or attend rallies. But all the time our people are evicted from farms, paving way for animals as farms are turned into game reserves under the pretext of tourism. Our people are evicted from cities. Our people are denied decent education.”[4]

In recent demonstrations, the unemployed demanding jobs, housing, running water and electricity have been met with ferocity similar to that of the Apartheid regime. At a demonstration in the town of Ermelo, in one of SA’s poorest provinces, 2 protesters were shot dead by the police. At another demonstration, over precisely the same grievances, in the town of Ficksburg, a protester, Andries Tatane, was beaten to death by police in full view of the television cameras.

An explosive social situation is building up and could detonate if welfare payments are cut back. Certain commentators from within the ANC are looking nervously at the events of the Arab Spring, and seeing them as prefiguring the future for SA[5]. While it is understandable that those in the Unemployed People’s Movement and some in the ANC youth organisation see the ANC as having “betrayed” them is this really true?

Development of the ANC

As mentioned above the ANC developed in a period when African society was in the process of being changed from a tribal economic system with Africans producing their needs directly from the land to a capitalist one in which tribal men and women were converted into wage labourers. However, the enforced separation of tribesmen from their means of production, namely their land[6], and their conversion into wage labourers was accomplished by open violence and a doctrine of racism which tended to obscure the developing class divisions. Marx makes the following observation in regard to the separation of the producers from their means of production in the colonies:

“It is otherwise in the colonies. There the capitalist regime everywhere comes into collision with the resistance of the producer, who, as owner of his own conditions of labour, employs that labour to enrich himself, instead of the capitalist. The contradiction of these two diametrically opposed economic systems, manifests itself here practically in a struggle between them. Where the capitalist has at his back the power of the mother-country, he tries to clear out of his way by force, the modes of production and appropriation, based on the independent labour of the producer. … To this end he proves how the development of the social productive power of labour, co-operation, division of labour, use of machinery on a large scale, &c., are impossible without the expropriation of the labourers, and the corresponding transformation of their means of production into capital. In the interest of so-called national wealth he seeks for artificial means to ensure the poverty of the people.”[7]

The major part of the dirty work of converting Africans into wage labourers was accomplished by the British who were quite clear as to what needed to be done. After the military defeat of the of the various tribes the British authorities started to expropriate their land and impose taxes on them in order to force them into wage labour to get the money to pay the taxes. Even after military defeat, however, this met with resistance just as described by Marx. For example the imposition of a £1 annual poll tax in Natal led to the 1906 Zulu rebellion. Earl Grey the British colonial secretary, writing in 1880, put the issue nearly as clearly as Marx. He wrote:

“The coloured people are generally looked upon by the whites as an inferior race, whose interests ought to be systematically disregarded when they come into competition with their own, and should be governed mainly with a view to the advantage of the superior race. For this advantage two things are considered to be especially necessary: first facilities should be afforded to the white colonists for obtaining the possession of the land theretofore occupied by the Native tribes; secondly, that the Kaffir population should be made to furnish as large and as cheap a supply of labour as possible.”[8]

The process set in motion by the British continued after the creation of the Union of SA and the most significant clearing Africans from the land was accomplished the year after the foundation of the ANC by the 1913 land act. This restricted African occupied land to 7% of the total land, outlawed squatting on white owned land and sharecropping. Africans were forced to become labourers on the white owned farms or workers in industry or the mines. Provision of labour for the mines, however, had been a problem for South African capitalists from the start. In the period after the Boer War the British imported Chinese workers as unskilled labour to work the mines as insufficient African workers could be found. The separation of Africans from their lands was of course the key to the solution of this problem. It allowed the migrant labour system, which was eventually enshrined in Apartheid dogma, to become the norm for the mining industry. The mining houses organised a joint recruitment agency, the Native Recruiting Corporation, which operated from 1912 onwards and recruited from the South African areas reserved for Africans, which were to be reduced to a mere 7% of the country the following year, and from the British protectorates and Mozambique.

The overt racism which accompanied this process obscured the reality of what was really happening, and was of enormous benefit to South African capital since it produced a separation of white and black workers. Enormous pay differentials between blacks and whites existed and strikes on the mines were racially divided and so could be more easily defeated. This was the case for the most significant strikes, the white miners’ strike of 1922 and the black miners’ strike of 1946. The insurrectionary strike of white miners in 1922, actually inscribed on its banner the contradictory slogan “workers of the world unite for a white South Africa.”

This is the historical context in which the ANC emerged, and it was also within this context that African workers imagined that the ANC could represent their interest since both African workers and African bourgeoisie were discriminated against and excluded from political rights. This was, however, a serious mistake as 18 years of ANC power have shown. From its foundation the ANC has represented a westernised elite wanting to have their share of the spoils of capitalism, and has not attempted to disguise this. Mandela speaking about the Freedom Charter’s demand for the nationalisation of the mines and industrial corporations said the following:

“The charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold mining monopolies that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. The breaking up and democratisation of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of this country the non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own, in their own name and right, mills and factories and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before.”[9]

Mandela again returned to this issue in his famous speech at his trial in 1964 where he said:

“The most important political document ever adopted by the ANC is the Freedom Charter. It is by no means a blueprint for a socialist state. The ANC has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society.”[10]

It is therefore incorrect to describe the ANC government since 1994 as having “betrayed” the working class as its opponents now do. It has implemented a bourgeois programme and is doing its best to foster an African bourgeois class in broadly the terms described by Mandela above.

Rise to Power

By the mid 1970’s it was clear to the main factions of the South African capitalist class that the migrant labour system in particular and Apartheid in general were leading the country to catastrophe. The increased capital intensity of South African capitalism meant that a skilled stable working class was required. Their strategy was to create an African middle class which they could use as an ally against the working class via the Urban Foundation, and African trade unions which could be used to control the class struggle. Of course, this meant providing political rights to Africans as well as other rights granted to workers in the metropolitan countries. There was only one political force which could implement such a programme and that was the ANC.

As we have shown above the ANC was on the bourgeois side of the class barricades and this made its co-option as a tool of Western and South African capital possible. Before the ANC was unbanned the key sectors of South African capital, particularly the mining corporations, had received assurances that the statist elements of the ANC’s programme, particularly the nationalisation of the mines would not be implemented. These were demands from the 50s which were considered suicidal in the period of globalisation. The slow deterioration of the social situation in the 80’s finally convinced even the Afrikaner nationalists that bringing the ANC into power was the only route by which South African capital could be rescued from the cul-de-sac in which it was trapped.

Since coming to power the ANC has not fundamentally changed the structure of South African capitalism. Having the ANC in power has benefitted South African capital in many ways, particularly in giving it access to the rest of Africa and making the opening up of trade with China, India and Brazil easier. The programme of Black Economic Empowerment which was, in fact, initiated by the South African corporations, not the ANC, has resulted in a few extremely wealthy black men who have no desire to change the present structure of things, and still remain in the top organs of the ANC. Politicians such as Cyril Ramaphosa, one time secretary of the National Mine Workers Union, and Tokyo Sexwale, ex-Robben Island prisoner, have become two of South Africa’s richest men through BEE. Both still retain their seats on the ANC’s national executive committee.[11]

All the above simply describes how the ANC has become the executive arm of South African capital. It is small wonder that the interests of the working class are ignored. The question which must be asked, however, is this “was the working class correct to ally itself with the ANC.” Our answer is emphatically “NO.”

Workers and the National Struggle

Today it is a Marxist axiom that the working class should not subordinate its political forces to those of the bourgeoisie, which, of course, includes the bourgeois nationalist forces. As far as South Africa is concerned we have written many texts pointing out the danger of subordinating the class struggle to the demands of the national struggle. The events since 1994 have certainly born out our predictions. Many of these texts, written largely during the 80s retain their immediacy and a certain prophetic quality and we intend to republish them in pamphlet form within the next few months. An example of this is a text published in April 1990 in our paper Workers Voice. We wrote:

Many black workers look to Mandela as the man who will free them from exploitation and hardship. They are greatly deceived. ….In fact the ANC’s objectives have nothing to do with the working class’s interests, they are to use the power of the state to foster a black capitalist class. …South African workers have no interest in placing themselves in the infantry of the African nationalists.[12]

Instead we advocated that workers should pursue their own interests independently of the bourgeois nationalists. This would have allowed the class issues involved to be clearly seen. Instead these issues have been obscured by a smokescreen of liberalism and moral outrage at racism. The result is a great confusion with talk of betrayal and projects to change the leadership of the ANC which can only be a great waste of time.

Much of the argument for supporting the national struggle, made by the Stalinists and Trotskyists, started from the view that Apartheid was essential to South African capitalism and hence ending it would bring South African capitalism crashing down. This would weaken western capitalism and produce a crisis in the developed capitalist countries etc. This has been shown to be complete nonsense. If anything South African capitalism is stronger as a result of the abolition of Apartheid, western imperialism has been strengthened and the class issues more confused than before.

Behind these arguments lies the theoretical debate between Lenin and other communists including Bukharin, Piatakov and Rosa Luxemburg on support for the national struggle. This argument was fought out in the period before and during the First World War. Those who argued like Luxemburg, that in the epoch of imperialism the national question is now a thing of the past, have been vindicated by the 100 years of history which have elapsed since these exchanges. However, in the Third International the Theses on the National and Colonial Question were a confused compromise between the views of Lenin, who saw cooperation with the local bourgeoisie as desirable and those (like M N Roy) who argued for an outright independent communist struggle in the colonies. This confusion was to have dire consequences for the revolutionary movement. The most tragic illustration of this confusion came in China 1926-27 when Stalin, following the original Theses but forgetting that they had called for an independent working class movement, instructed the Chinese Communist Party to place itself at the disposal of the bourgeois Koumintang of Chiang Kai Shek. This resulted in the brutal massacre of Chinese workers in Shanghai and Canton[13].

Lenin’s positions were developed in the period before World War 1 when he considered the bourgeois democratic revolution was on the historical agenda for Russia. He changed his position on nature of the future Russian revolution in April 1917 but never followed through the consequences of this. If the communist revolution is on the historical agenda, and this revolution needs to be international, as the Bolsheviks openly admitted, bourgeois nationalist revolutions can only obstruct and weaken the struggle for communism.

Lenin’s support for movements for national self determination in Europe undermined the programme for working class emancipation. This became more confused in the debates in the Third International with Lenin arguing that national movements in the colonies should be supported as they weakened the imperialism of the colonising nations. In this he was following his earlier work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism where he had argued that;

Colonial possession alone gives the monopolies complete guarantee against all contingencies in the struggle with competitors.[14]

He argued that the colonies were a key source of the “super profits” with which the imperialist powers bribed their workers to maintain social peace.

Out of such enormous super profits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their own country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders in the advanced countries in a thousand different ways.[15]

Cutting off this source of super profits, he argued, would precipitate a crisis and make revolution in the capitalist heartlands easier. In the event, decolonisation did not produce the crisis in the capitalist heartlands which Lenin had so confidently predicted. This is because the capitalist system is a global system, extracting and distributing surplus value globally, and the replacement of colonial bourgeois regimes by local bourgeois regimes does not alter the system as a whole in any essential way.

Lenin also maintained that national bourgeois revolutions in the colonies could occur at the same time as communist revolution in the capitalist heartlands and in some way support this revolution.

The social revolution can come only in the form of an epoch in which are combined civil war by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries and a whole series of democratic revolutionary movements, including national liberation movements, in the undeveloped, backward oppressed nations.[16]

On the contrary the communist revolution must be a world revolution and the bourgeois nationalist revolution could never support the world revolution. The world revolution would have to overthrow bourgeois nationalist revolutions if they occurred at the same time.

The mistakes of Lenin and the Third International have bequeathed a poisonous legacy which has been taken up by the left wing of the bourgeoisie, namely the counter revolution, with a vengeance. In the case of South Africa the arguments of a white workers aristocracy of labour, the theory of super profits going to the workers in the capitalist heartlands and the idea that the bourgeois nationalist revolution in the underdeveloped countries supporting workers struggle in the metropolitan countries have all been trotted out in order to justify subsuming workers struggles under the nationalist struggle.

Today the increasing globalisation of capital has made the national state national only in the sense that it is dominated by the bourgeoisie of a certain nationality. In its key aspects it exists as an agent of international capital and the imperialist alliances in which it finds itself. This can be seen in the fact that the coming to power of the ANC was facilitated by US and European capital via financial sanctions and pressure. After the removal of the threat of Russian advances in South Africa in 1989 this pressure became irresistible.

The ANC and African Nationalism in general stand completely discredited after 18 years of power. What is needed now is a clean break from the forces of nationalism and their allies COSATU and the SACP. These forces must be recognised as part of the bourgeois front opposing the emancipation of the working class. Future struggles should be outside and against these organisations. They need to be united across racial divisions and pursue class demands. Ultimately they need to be united with workers struggles worldwide and directed to the overthrow of capitalist social relations and the establishment of a communist[17] world. CP


[1] See Financial Times 5/9/2011 and 28/10/11

[2] Financial Times 12/11/11


4 See Ayanda Kota quoted in Counterfire

5 See for example M. Mbeki “South Africa. Only a matter of time before the bomb explodes” Mbeki is media consultant to the ANC. see

6 Under the Bantu tribal system land was occupied by the tribe. Individual ownership of land did not exist before it was instituted by the colonial authorities.

7 K Marx Capital Volume 1 Chapter 33

8 Quoted in The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa, B M Magubane, Monthly Review Press.

9 Mandela authorised biography, Anthony Sampson 1999

10- Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela p. 435

11 See M Mbeki Architects of Poverty p. 158.

12 See Workers Voice No 51

13 For a description of these events see H. Isaacs The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.

14 Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Peking Foreign Language Press p. 98

15 Ibid, Preface to the French and German editions.

16 Lenin Collected Works Volume 23 p. 60.

17 By communism we mean a system of global production for human needs controlled by workers through workers councils. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the state capitalist systems, incorrectly called communism, which existed in Russia and China.



29 11 2013

In what sense did Marx propose to “smash the state”?

It is well known that one of the formative political experiences of Marx’s life was his effort to mount a public defence of the Paris Commune of 1871. The Commune was the most dramatic and, to Marx, the most inspiring anti-capitalist revolt of his time. As the Franco-Prussian War wound down, the workers of Paris rose up and deposed the French State’s authority, replacing its rule with a new form of popular self-organization that, in Marx’s memorable phrase, did not reproduce or reorganize the state, but “smashed” it.

But what did Marx mean by “smashing the state”? And what was the nature of this Commune that he held up as a model for anti-capitalist revolution?

Should we think of the Commune, as some do today, as a “workers’ state”? Or should we think of it as, on the contrary, a form of participatory-democratic, specifically anti-statist, community-based working-class self-organization?

Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871

Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871

Here, Marx and Engels actually make it hard to say quite which interpretation they would endorse, because sometimes they use language encouraging the statist interpretation of the Commune, and sometimes they deny outright that it was a state, “in the proper sense of the word.”

A typical statist reading can be found in a comment by Engels, in 1891, that the Commune “shattered” the “former state power,” and “replaced” it with “a new and truly democratic one” (628; page #s refer to Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed.). But this suggestion, that the Commune created a “new and truly democratic”state, seems to contradict something Engels said in 1875, when he asserted bluntly that the Commune “was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” Indeed, so insistent was he that the Commune was not a state in the proper sense, that he proposed, speaking on behalf of Marx and himself, that socialists should “replace [the word] state everywhere by Gemeinwesen[community], a good old German word which can very well convey the meaning of the French word,commune” (Letter to Bebel, 1875).

For his part, Marx also seemed ambivalent. On the one hand, he seemed to be alluding to the state when he called the Commune “a working-class government” (634). On the other hand, he regarded the most important lesson of the Commune to be the insight that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” (629). This insight, that we can’t just “take power” by putting the workers’ movement at the helm of the administrative, coercive and legislative apparatuses of the capitalist state, was in fact the only correction to the argument of the Communist Manifesto that he ever explicitly proposed. The Manifesto had failed to insist that a working-class revolution would have to smash the state, rather than taking it over, Marx concluded.

Rather than getting bogged down in verbal technicalities about the meaning of the word “state,” let’s look at what Marx thought the Commune was doing, and try to see, substantively and concretely, what he meant when he said that it smashed rather than taking over the state.

To save time, I’ll get right to the point: As Marx says, “While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society” (633). In other words, the state power, exercised from above, was replaced bycommunity control from below. Thus, the Commune “got rid of the standing army and the police,” according to Marx (632). “The whole of the educational institutions,” he adds, “were cleared of the influence of…the State” (632). “Judicial functionaries,” he tells us, “were divested of” their “sham independence,” and placed under community control. Or, as he vividly puts it, “like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable” (632). Moreover, and also like all other public servants, they were to be paid an average worker’s wage (632). Both the legislature of professional politicians and the administrative branch of government were to be fused (632) into the Commune’s democratic assembly, delegates to which were, once again, “elective, responsible, and revocable,” and paid the prevailing worker’s wage.

The basic idea of smashing the state, as Marx uses this term, is evidently quite clear from these passages, and countless others like them in Marx’s main work on the Commune, and his main contribution to so-called “state theory,” The Civil War in France. What he means by “smashing the state” is that the various elements of state power – the coercive apparatus; the administrative apparatus; the legislative-executive apparatus; and the judicial apparatus – this whole system of state power is either (a) abolished outright (“amputated”), or (b) in cases where it has what Marx calls “remaining legitimate functions,” these are placed under direct community control by the working class, from below.

Community control, as Marx understands it, includes four elements: that all functionaries are paid the prevailing wage in the community, and are elected by, accountable to, and removable by, the community. Thus, smashing the state, for him, means two things: abolition of all illegitimate functions, and subordination of legitimate functions to direct popular control from below.

Now, every reader of Marx will agree that he regards this process as a “conquest of political power” by the working class, or as some now say, the 99%. But is it a state? Certainly workers were governing; they were “dictating” the terms of social cooperation. Workers ruled Paris for the two months that the Commune lasted. But all of this is consistent, perhaps mostconsistent, with Engels’ formulation: that the Commune was “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word,” but a form of community-based working-class self-organization, or what Marx called “the proletariat organized as the ruling class” (490).

Dictatorship, yes; state, no.  Conquest of (social) power, yes; conquest of state power, no.


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