Withdrawing into trenches hinders progress

Two weeks ago the Mail & Guardian chose the lazy and unhelpful “ultra-left” label to obscure the issues in understanding the new post-1994 social movements (“Social movements: ‘ultra-left’ or ‘global citizens’?”, January 31). The M&G used the label without pausing to provide a serious analysis or substantive definition of social movements and “ultra-leftism”.

This has the effect of delegitimising social struggles, and of profiling small and loud-mouthed sectarians.
This was a disservice to much-needed analysis of the totality of social movements and community-based organisations involved in hundreds of struggles in all parts of this country.

For example, the South African Communist Party-led financial sector campaign has opened a bridgehead into a range of struggles for sustainable livelihoods, for example, burial societies, stokvels, spazas, hawkers, cooperatives, and so on. These are unique and diverse social movements, which have the potential to be engines of transformation.

The key point is to understand social movements, their origins, their contributions to transformation and their relationship with political parties and, importantly, with the government.

So what is ultra-leftism? The defining feature of ultra-leftism is an excessive exaggeration of subjective factors. The subjective feelings of militancy of a small group of revolutionaries; or the anger and impatience felt by masses of workers and the poor; or the attractiveness of an immediate advance to socialism — important, understandable and, in many cases, even admirable subjective feelings of this kind are assumed to mean that the desirable is also, more or less, immediately possible.

The excessive subjectivism of the ultra-left also expresses itself in the ways in which it tends to explain away reverses or difficulties. These, too, are excessively subjectivised — leaders are “sell-outs” and “traitors”, the masses are “misled”, or suffering from a “false consciousness”. These accusations may or may not have some relevance, but ultra-leftism tends to default to them all too hastily.

The flip side of this subjectivism is that ultra-leftism tends to underrate or even ignore the objective factors within a given situation. The real and potential impediments to a rapid advance are discounted. The strength of opposition forces and the dangers of counter-revolution are neglected. The objective weaknesses of progressive classes and strata are also characteristically ignored.

The conflation of what is desirable with what is possible results in adventurism, a tendency to reckless voluntarism, the advocacy of reckless leaps forward, based on sheer will-power, that can result in serious defeat and disaster for a progressive agenda.

As a consequence of this, ultra-leftism tends not to understand the struggle as process. Everything is immediate, all-or-nothing, victory or sell-out. This, in turn, results in many of the zigzags that are often a feature of ultra-leftism: bouts of optimism followed by depression and the accusations of betrayal and sell-out.

Because of its exaggeration of the immediate, ultra-leftism tends to exaggerate tactics over strategies. Tactics become strategies, and even principles. For instance, ultra-leftism often rejects compromises on principle.

Participation in parliamentary democracy is sometimes rejected and the tactics of a general strike or an insurrectionary seizure of power are simply counterposed to any other approach and turned into timeless strategies, if not principles.

The ultra-left approach is also often characterised by tactics of negation. We see signs of this in our current reality (anti-globalisation, anti-New Partnership for Africa’s Development, anti-African National Congress government).

All of these characteristics result in a general inability to appreciate or participate in the often long haul of organisation-building and the concomitant need to work patiently and manage the complexity of mass movements, alliances and fronts.

As a result, the organisational practices of ultra-leftism are characterised by factionalism and the propensity to splitting and fragmentation. Other related features of ultra-leftism’s approach to organisation are a pro-pensity to boycott institutions or campaigns regardless of circumstances; or to enter into a parasitic relationship with established organisations, institutions and campaigns, using the tactics of entryism.

Organisationally, ultra-leftism has defined itself outside of and in opposition to the ANC and the alliance. Much energy has been devoted to breaking our alliance, to “weaning” workers away from the “nationalist” ANC, the “Stalinist” SACP or from the “reactionary” leadership of the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

This is the kind of sect that the M&G profiled at the expense of real analysis. Certainly, the Treatment Action Campaign, National Association of People Living with Aids, the Landless People’s Movement and most of the organisations the M&G focused on do not fit the above characterisation.

Many of these social movements are constituted by an important layer of the working class, which is largely outside of workers organised in unions — the unemployed, the landless and the youth. From an SACP perspective, this is important in building their organisational and political capacity and the unity of broad sections of our people behind a progressive agenda.

To optimally harness these social movements towards a mass movement for socio-economic transformation requires tactical flexibility from both the government and mass movements in a relationship of unity and struggle without submerging the autonomy, independence, militancy and traditions of social movements. A withdrawal into “anti-government” and “anti-ultra-left” trenches hinders this dialectical possibility.

Mazibuko Jara is the national spokesperson for the SACP

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