Communists need to take a sho't left
The now famous town of Polokwane is due to host yet another important political meeting: for four days from Wednesday next week close to 1 000 delegates will constitute the biggest political gathering of communists in South Africa.
Can this special congress of the South African Communist Party (SACP) result in a party that has a rigorous analysis of society as well as the political will and programme to build the social forces that can challenge capitalism?
Since 1994 the SACP’s strategic option has been to critique existing policies in favour of state-led pro-poor policies. Integral to this strategy have been ritual mass campaigns to show that the working class is a force to be reckoned with.
In a letter to Amandla, written after he was appointed deputy minister of transport, SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin wrote that ‘through a combination of effective government interventions AND public campaigning, we will be able to make progress (and also illustrate the need for a developmental state working with mass power)”.
While perfectly legitimate, this stills falls short of building mass struggles and democratic social power, challenging the power of capital, winning transformative policies and ultimately putting socialism firmly on the agenda.
In other words, SACP strategy is almost exclusively reflected through the prism of the ANC.
This distances party strategy from grassroots organising and mobilising and makes it shy away from the litmus test of struggles on the ground and democratic contestation for societal power.
There is no grassroots socialist work that is feminist and ecological and that also focuses on undoing the systemic race, gender, sexual orientation and other inequalities in South African society.
It is a rather constrained communist party that is more comfortable with the levers of state power in a capitalist society than with the economic and political struggles of the people. Yet it can be argued that the SACP is unique as the largest political party of the left, looked up to by many poor and working people.
This SACP advantage should not foreclose new possibilities. That is, there must be another choice: that of building a social and organisational base to contest power relations in society. This requires a sustained mass participatory politics as opposed to alliance insider trading and the ritual of a Red October campaign.
Sustained mass participatory politics is about patiently building the independent self-capacity and critical anti-capitalist consciousness of ordinary people to organise themselves, use their power and act in their own interests.
But, in contrast to the logic of sustained mass participatory politics, the SACP discussion document prepared for next week’s special congress opts for the vanguardist safety of the tripartite alliance because of ‘the ability of the party to achieve [an effective] level of strategic impact”.
To maintain this influence an even weaker SACP is required. A strong SACP would have to overcome the contradictions of its main strategic choice, including challenging the pro-capitalist policies of the ANC-led government.
There is an absolute need for poor and working people to build united-front platforms of anti-capitalist action. This should be focused on building a mass movement around basic demands such as:
- A basic income grant;
- A public national health insurance scheme that builds the public health system;
- Universal and decommodified education;
- Thousands of additional jobs to provide a decent level of services;
- Redistributive agrarian reform; and
- A massive housing programme and a decent public transport system that can overcome apartheid and capitalist patterns of privilege.
Such a movement would be markedly different from narrow mass struggles limited to winning piecemeal concessions through being nice to President Jacob Zuma. Such action, struggles and debates can provide the conditions to construct, express and advance the values of a new left politics and programme. This is a task that is simply beyond the forthcoming SACP special congress.
Where does this argument put the SACP? Is the renovation of the SACP into a party of united anti-capitalist action possible? Are genuine militants in the SACP willing to extend their hand of solidarity and join up with the broader left and mass-based organisations in united anti-capitalist action?
These questions do not judge the SACP but rather pose a direct challenge to those in the SACP willing to take the path of struggle to move beyond the confines of noisy and choreographed congress halls that can blur vision and non-sectarian solidarity.
Obviously, the controversial question regarding a new left political pole in South Africa cannot be avoided, even by diverse social movements.
In this regard the SACP congress discussion document triumphantly dismisses the non-SACP left as extreme and sectarian; and says it has no understanding of ‘racialised” capitalism; that it unwisely regards the ANC as a sell-out bourgeoisie party that tends to exaggerate mass struggles; and that it has no capacity to provide an alternative concrete solution.
Such self-serving triumphalism is possible only in the absence of a significant alternative left political pole and given the objective limitations of social movements and community protests.
This triumphalism contrasts with what Cronin told Amandla (in a July 2007 interview): ‘With regard to the broad left — we need to — unite ourselves, perhaps not theoretically at this stage, even though that would be desirable, but — in practical action around the issues that affect — millions.”
Taken to its logical conclusion, Cronin’s appeal required a far-sighted and creative SACP that would have remoulded itself to attract other left forces into its ranks and encouraged healthy inner-party plurality.
Instead, the SACP opted for arrogant and paranoid vanguardism that can be seen also in its current response to the call for a conference of the left that will be convened in 2010 to discuss the kind of unity that Cronin called for!
At the same time, the broad left cannot simply ignore and dismiss the SACP, despite its many shortcomings and failures.
The non-SACP left must also honestly admit its weaknesses, the fratricide, infantility and dogmas of the past and so seek to fashion a new democratic left politics.
All this will require patience, activism, the ability to seize the moment and other strategic and tactical astuteness. Ultimately, it is in the process of struggle that questions about the appropriate political forms of socialist organisation will be answered.
Mazibuko K Jara is a member of the SACP and the co-editor at large of Amandla.