Factionalism saps the power of SA’s left

The outlook is not rosy: Ebrahim Harvey says that the leadership of the left, mainly middle-class men, has been responsible for the failure to build a socialist alternative to capitalism. (Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters)

The outlook is not rosy: Ebrahim Harvey says that the leadership of the left, mainly middle-class men, has been responsible for the failure to build a socialist alternative to capitalism. (Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters)

Anybody familiar with the global history of the struggle for socialism since the beginning of the 20th century will know that the movement has suffered many defeats and setbacks.

That is why capitalism, though in crisis, still holds sway. Complex issues underlie this history, but what is beyond any doubt is that recurring internecine rivalry, characterised by factionalism, is one of the biggest reasons for this fate.

The unpalatable but undeniable truth is that the results of the social and political application of Marxism, globally and historically, have not been impressive, however we may want to spin its causal trajectory or try to explain it away.

We have learnt the hard way that it is far easier to talk and write about the revolution than to successfully make it happen.

So many complex requirements in both objective and subjective conditions must be met – in the right measure and at the appropriate time – that it is no wonder that no successful revolution has been carried out in any of the advanced capitalist countries since the 1917 Russian Revolution, despite the many great struggles of the working class.

The internecine rivalry and factionalist splitting of the left has been so debilitating that, even when capitalism was in moments of mortal crisis, the left has been unable to exploit it for revolutionary ends.

This has been evident recently, too, in the wake of the devastating global capitalist crisis that began in 2008. There have been many such moments in leftist history.

I hold the leadership of the left, often middle-class intellectuals, largely responsible for these poor results.
Yet few among them see it this way, because they are more comfortable with speaking truth to the power of capital than speaking truth to themselves and their cohorts in the struggle.

That would be to admit to their own many weaknesses and failures. And yet Marx insisted on the absolute necessity for constant self-criticism and vigorous critical scrutiny, every step of the way, in pursuit of the struggle for socialism.

It is obvious that more capitalism is decidedly not the route to go in view of the sheer social devastation this system has wrought for the entire globe.

Deep, systemic poverty, unemployment, inequality and multiple social miseries were spawned by this system and inflicted on societies globally. Its history has been written in the blood of its victims for centuries. Nobody, not even the capitalist classes themselves, can deny this.

In South Africa, we can see in almost every case of factionalist divisions that the source of the problem is leadership issues and not actual divisions among the rank and file.

It is exactly this problem that appears to be the case in the crisis that has torn the Cosatu trade union federation apart over the past two years. It is now on the verge of a tragic but unavoidable split right down the middle.

The differences between its ousted general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, and its president, Sdumo Dlamini, and the earlier differences between Vavi and the then Cosatu president, Willie Madisha, had serious repercussions for the federation. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) began a breakaway from Cosatu that was made final by Numsa’s expulsion.There we have seen major differences between its general secretary, Irvin Jim, and its former president, Cedric Gina, who now leads the apparently contrived and probably stillborn Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa.

There are many examples across the left in South Africa of debilitating factionalism. The left-leaning Pan Africanist Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement were both racked by leadership squabbles. The Azanian People’s Organisation was also crippled by leadership differences, which led to the formation of the breakaway Socialist Party of Azania.

More recently, another bitter factionalist blood-letting hit the Economic Freedom Fighters (themselves a breakaway from the ANC), mainly between its leader, Julius Malema, and thinker and ideologue Andile Mngxitama.

This led to the expulsion of Mngxitama and a few others from the EFF, not long after it won 6% of the votes in a national election and took up its parliamentary seats.

Few will still regard the ANC as a leftist organisation, but the factionalism in its ranks is driven by leadership and personality differences, plus the fierce rivalry for positions, jobs, access to resources and, especially, monetary gain. There have even been killings allegedly related to this factional war.

There is no instance of factionalism in the ANC since 1994 that had to do with explicit internal policy and ideological and programmatic differences. Instead, fratricidal factionalism in the ANC pursues hidden materialistic agendas.

There is no open, public and transparent expression of such differences, if they do exist. Everybody pretends that the ANC is united when it is not. The ANC’s national general council of the past weekend was no exception to this trend. Winning positions through patronage and the power that goes with it appears to dominate internal tensions, especially in the run-up to ANC elective conferences.

Note, too, the gender dimension of factionalist disputes. Men so dominate our politics, especially the top leadership of parties and trade unions, that almost all these factionalist disputes are about leadership differences between men.

That this happens among leftist parties and trade unions, which are supposed to be gender-sensitive, makes it more intriguing.

Could it be that, independent of the common cause of socialism, which ought to unite them in action, the historical socialisation of male dominance in all spheres of society means that male leaders are more inclined to individualism and are therefore more competitive?

The problem of factionalism has been so debilitating for the left, where it has been much more evident historically and globally than among liberals and conservatives, that a key question arises: How will the current leftist realignment in South Africa, led by Numsa, fare?

Will the movement Numsa is spearheading, especially the moves to form a United Front and thereafter a socialist party, turn out fundamentally differently from the sad factionalist legacy of the left in South Africa?

Will the “Numsa moment” finally achieve what the non-ANC left has striven for over decades: building a revolutionary alternative to the ANC through which to eventually achieve a socialist South Africa? Or will it founder on the rocks of factionalism?

  Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer, commentator and author

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