How will Numsa’s workers’ party work?


“The movement is in crisis,” says the old trade unionist.

Indeed, even those unions that, at least in principle, want to follow the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) out of Cosatu, are individually in a mess.

The unionist says workers are insulated from the crisis. For years, while union leadership led their organisations to financial ruin, corruption charges and organisational decay, workers were not kept in the loop.

Now some of the breakaway unions have taken to the shopfloor, meeting workers and shop stewards and having frank discussions about the state of things.

It is an important move because, although Numsa has announced it will form a workers’ party, there are fears that workers will not follow if they are not part of the process.

In the nick of time serious discussions, about how and when the left should coalesce around a concrete programme of action, are taking place, specifically, how to take the debate out of the realm of rigid 20th-century Marxist-Leninist ideology, the kind birthed in the Soviet Union, and into the realm of reality. How to build a movement from the bottom up? Is Statism desirable? How can a broad-based democratic, worker-controlled economy be achieved without the imposition of a new political elite?

Fallacy of vanguardism
The notion of a Marxist-Leninist political party is contested among scholars on various grounds. At its most nitpicky, some argue that Marx and Lenin barely agreed on socialism, leading to views that Lenin wasn’t Marxist at all.

This kind of debate aside, increasingly within Numsa and the United Front more broadly, the granular details of the society a new socialist party envisages is being debated.

Perhaps this is a useful analogy for Numsa’s leadership, who seem satisfied with pursuing a Marxist-Leninist party that will implement the Freedom Charter and develop a more detailed socialist programme afterwards.

Here, we have Marx: democratic socialism in theory. And in another camp, Lenin, left to grapple with the economics of a Marxist society, leading eventually to state capitalism.

There are many in Numsa who oppose state capitalism. Lenin believed a “vanguard party” – a term strewn throughout Numsa’s documents – would speak on behalf of workers and lead them to eventual communism.

Then there is Zwelinzima Vavi, off the back of a nation-wide, rock-star tour. Sold-out shows, according to his fellow travellers; his backstage sound and lighting crew, travelling all nine yards to preach the message: don’t mourn, mobilise.

How will Numsa survive?
But mobilise around what? And with what resources?

Donations, mainly, according to the old unionist.

International study tours have been commissioned by Numsa to find answers to this question. But will the establishment of the workers’ party precede the theoretical work?

Here the debate hits a fork in the road: on the one hand, why is a workers’ party necessary; why can’t a trade union advance workers’ struggles on its own? And on the other, aren’t trade unions inherently reformist, working within the capitalist system to assist the circumstances of workers but failing to unpick the entire system?

In 2006, Venezuela’s newly formed independent trade union, the New Workers’ Union, split. The union wanted to start a new movement for socialism. It divided largely because of a disagreement over whether to hold internal elections before or after national elections.

At the time, commentators believed the split was about a disagreement over fundamental ideological debates in the movement about what socialism in the 21st century was.

To survive, Numsa will need to cement its political ideology, analysts say. This means deeper discussions about Marxist-Leninism in the 21st century, and how the mooted “movement for socialism”, or even a workers’ party, will build a new society.

Long way to go
In a statement issued on April 24, Numsa president Irvin Jim said the union would forge ahead with the creation of a Marxist-Leninist “revolutionary working class political party”.

Numsa insiders feel the union has a long way to go before it is ready to form a political party.

There are two schools of thought in the union and its allies: one is that Numsa should finalise a programme of action before it forges ahead with the formation of its workers’ party. The other school of thought – to which Numsa’s leadership belongs – is contained in a discussion document from March this year. It says the implementation of the Freedom Charter should be pursued, and thereafter a more concrete plan for socialism will emerge.

Numsa says its workers’ party will be a strictly Marxist-Leninist, vanguard workers’ party. But not everyone in the union believes this definition is clear enough.

The Mail & Guardian understands that six regions present at Numsa’s recent central committee meeting were against the union making any public announcements on the formation of a party.

In recent discussions during a conference on socialism, hosted by Numsa, some members argued that the formation of a political party was premature, and that Numsa was “not ready”.

Not yet mature
The objections seem to stem from a feeling that more practical discussions about the ideological direction of a workers’ party should be pursued.

A debate within the union is ongoing about whether the party should be a vanguard party or a workers’ party.

Then there is the United Front, a body not political in nature that some in Numsa feel should be fully developed to pursue the implementation of the Freedom Charter before the workers’ party is established.

The Workers and Socialist Party (Wasp), which will probably form part of the United Front, is critical of the United Democratic Front-style formation.

No clear socialist programme
In a critique of the United Front written in November last year, Wasp argued against what it called “unprincipled unity”.

It warned: “Until now, the Achilles heel of the implementation of the [Numsa] special national congress resolutions has been the absence of a socialist programme as a foundation for the United Front. This fact had cast doubt on whether the ‘movement for socialism’ or the United Front were in fact preparatory steps towards a workers’ party. Suggestions that the special national congress resolutions committed Numsa to no more than ‘exploring the possibility’ of establishing a workers party, reinforced this.

“The absence of a clear socialist programme has sealed the fate of many a liberation movement – workers, socialists, communists, social democrats and labour party members – through the world. The restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union set in train an ideological retreat that led to the obliteration of the last remaining vestiges of socialism in their programmes, and either their conversion into openly pro-capitalist forces, or complete disintegration as was the case with the Movement for Multiparty Democracy in Zambia and the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe, both of which arose out of the trade unions.”

Numsa members have doubts about whether Numsa’s aim was to occupy the current state as “it is a mistake to merely replace the organs of capitalism”.

This feeds into a broader discussion about the kind of Marxist-Leninism Numsa wants to pursue.

Marxist-Leninism vs democratic socialism
Devan Pillay, associate professor of sociology at Wits University, says the political character of the proposed workers’ party is a contested issue within Numsa.

Although the top leadership in Numsa might be pushing for a Marxist-Leninist socialist project, Pillay says even this concept is not specific because this can be either a mass movement or a narrow party of “professional revolutionaries”.

He cautioned that the discussion about the party’s ideological direction should be handled carefully.

Many in Numsa see classical Marxist-Leninism as too “restrictive and too 20th century”, Pillay says. But perhaps a broader application – one that takes on a more “open, flexible Marxist approach” – could be appropriate for Numsa’s party.

Ideologically, Pillay says Numsa’s tradition is more along the lines of “strong democratic socialism” and bottom-up democracy than strict Marxist-Leninism.

“So when they talk about nationalisation they don’t mean state capitalism. But the Economic Freedom Fighters really means that. It stands for more Zimbabwe-style, top-down management of the economy. They are a nationalist organisation while Numsa is more socialist.”

Open to other ideas
An anarchist-syndicalist current also runs through the broader union movement, and that ideology is to do away with the party entirely.

“There is a school of thought that says, perhaps political parties are not the silver bullet we thought they were, and that we’ve got to be open to other ideas. Numerically, the anarchist current is not very strong but it has some weight,” Pillay says.”

This view, he says, goes back to the 1970s – Numsa has always been suspicious of political parties.

The United Front is open to all political parties, and there is a strong feeling that the EFF will join it. But within Numsa, insiders say there is opposition to the blurring of lines between the parties.

But newcomers to the “left” political space will want to court the EFF’s constituency, opening up the possibility of strategic alliances.

Shifting power relations
Glenn Moss, author of The New Radicals: A Generational Memoir of the 1970s and a former trade unionist, journalist and publisher, says that the idea of a “workers’ party” becomes difficult to define in the present context.

This is both because the working class has shrunk since the 19th century, Moss says, and it is now difficult to know whether the term “working class” refers only to organised workers employed in the formal economy, or whether it includes the unemployed, the marginal, the poor and disadvantaged in general.

“A workers’ party, possibly locating itself in relation to organised labour trade unions, might fall somewhere between a traditional workers’ or labour party and a vanguard party,” he says. “Classical Marxism would be cautious of over-emphasising the position of trade unionism in a vanguard party, as unions tend towards reformism rather than revolution or insurrection.

“At least theoretically, it is complex to talk about a workers’ party based on trade unions that is vanguardist in a Marxist-Leninist sense.”

And it is difficult to know whether traditional modes of leftist organisation are appropriate in the current global climate at all, Moss says.

Unsuccessful models
“Our models haven’t been very successful in changing power relations in society. There’s a broad sense among the left that none of the existing models have worked well.

“The Freedom Charter isn’t a detailed programme. It doesn’t address how you deal with some of the burning issues – job retention, for example. I’m not sure it can deal with inequality. I would think that programmatically one has to deal with those sorts of issues.

“A new party needs to try to find something integrated that tries to find a way to deal with that. I’m not sure that simply labelling a party as socialist addresses that.”

Moss says that, structurally and formally, South Africa remains a constitutional democracy. A new party will have to decide whether it wants to work within the framework, or whether it wants to overthrow it.

South Africa’s breakaway National Union of Metalworkers needs to get agreement and cement its political ideology.

Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 


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