Alliance of four

by Alex Mashilo writing in Umsebenzi online

In this piece we are engaging with separatism. This a component part of a broader ideological and political current that seeks to drive a wedge against the revolutionary alliance of the African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). The alliance has extended over the years to include a formation of the mass democratic movement the South African National Civics Organisation (SANCO).

While there is a number of ideological and political tendencies and operations, of which all are oppositional in character, the right-wing, workerist and ultra-left, just to mention but a few that attack our alliance and its independent partners, separatism is as such distinguished because it has partly and therefore not exclusively emerged from within our broader movement. Like all who want to be noticed, who are either considering the formation of a new political organisation if not to retreat later based on a set of continually changing circumstances or are completely gone already, separatism uses attacks against the ANC, SACP, COSATU and the alliance as a whole and labels these formations as sell-out. As a launching pad this sort of attacks against our revolutionary alliance are not new, but the starting point of all those who over the years one after another separated from our national liberation movement.

Our focus on separatism in this piece is ideological and political engagement. We start with the basics, the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

‘…the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy’ 
(Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto)

First and foremost, it is not rocket science to learn from Marx and Engels, the greatest theoreticians and founders of the body of work referred to as Marxism, that the motive force of the struggle to overthrow the capitalist class and replace it by the proletariat as the ruling class is not limited to the proletariat alone.

As captured from Marx and Engels, ‘the working classi‘, which is by the way broader than the proletariat, must, as ‘the first step in the revolution‘, fight to ‘raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class‘. As Marx and Engels put it succinctly, ‘the proletariat’ must win the battle of democracy‘. Thus the overthrow of bourgeois dictatorship is the main content of the battle to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class. Why? Basically, democracy is not the same in character, essence and depth. It has class underpinnings and dimensions, and these are inseparable from the historic mission of the ruling class, the class that ultimately controls power in society. Neither is democracy an end by itself. On the contrary, it is a means to an end, the pursuit of the historic mission of the ruling class. As we shall see from Marx and Engels, the working class has an objective programme for democracy.

Secondly, the time for the proletariat to become the ruling class cannot be determined fundamentally by a clock or calendar. Neither can it be declared by anger or noise shouted in the context where, to borrow from Marx writing in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, the state is ‘based on… bourgeois society’. That time is dependent on what the communists refer to as material conditions, which, must be altered and reconfigured differently.

The capitalist class must be overthrown by the working class, which must ‘raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy‘. This is the basic condition for the proletariat to become the ruling class, displace the dictatorship of the bourgeois (a tiny minority) – which is what ultimately “democracy” is in class terms in a capitalist society, and replace it by the dictatorship of the proletariat (an immense majority) – which is what democracy would become in class terms in a socialist society. Marx succinctly captures this in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’ when he writes that:

‘Between capitalist and communist society there lies a period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat‘ (author’s emphasis).

You cannot, therefore, in a capitalist society, where the bourgeois constitutes the ruling class, simplistically declare here and now that it is the time for the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e.:

1.     as Marx and Engels (1848) put it in the Communist Manifesto, the time when ‘the State‘ is ‘the proletariat organised as the ruling classii (i.e. proletarian state); and therefore,

2.     as Marx put it further in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, a period ‘Between capitalist and communist society… a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Dictatorship of the proletariat

But what is it meant by the dictatorship of the proletariat, underlining, of course, that can and must only be ‘revolutionary‘? The answer to this question cannot be understood without understanding that the essential content of a democracy that is based on the state which in turn is based on a capitalist society constitutes, in the ultimate analysis, the dictatorship of the bourgeois, and that, therefore, by the dictatorship of the proletariat it is meant the anti-thesis of the dictatorship of the bourgeois.

As Joe Slovo states in ‘Has socialism failed?’ Marx rather thinly dealt with the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat without further definition (see at least Marx’s letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, dated 5 March 1852 and the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’). Similarly, Joseph Weydemeyer, among the first to publish (an article under) the concept ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, in 1852, prompting Marx to write to him, did not unpack the concept in detail.

Engels developed the theory further in ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’. Building on the works of Marx and Engels, Vladimir Lenin carried on. One of his major contributions which saw Marxism developed in what was to be known as Marxism-Leninism, is his elaboration of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat not only theoretically but also practically through his leadership in the Great October Socialist Revolution that took place in Russia, in 1917. This was the first successful working class revolution that put the concept in practice, and in the process amending particular conclusions reached by Marx and Engels about the Paris Commune. Lenin’s work ‘The state and revolution’ remains our theoretical masterpiece in that regard.

In ‘Has Socialism failed?’, Slovo reflects on the large body of work by Marx, Engels and Lenin in a deep-going yet concise analysis and theorisation. He does this by also looking at some of the practices that emerged from the use of the concept dictatorship of the proletariat. He sums up the attitude of most Communist Parties, including ours, following the history of some of those practices with the collapse of the Soviet Union being the prime example. In this brief reflection on the concept Slovo is therefore our authority.

Democracy under capitalism versus democracy under socialism

In contrast to capitalism where the bourgeois is the ruling class, i.e. under the dictatorship of the bourgeois, and therefore where democracy is ‘curtailed, wretched, false… for the rich, for the minority …the dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition to communism, will, for the first time, create democracy … for the majority … along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters, of the minority’, writes Lenin in ‘The state and revolution’ (quoted by Slovo in ‘Has socialism failed?’). Slovo writes that ‘Lenin was referring to the transitional socialist state… when he emphasised that there would be an extension of “democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population…” The term dictatorship of the proletariat, writes Slovo expanding on Lenin:

“…reflected the historical truth that in class-divided social formations state power is ultimately exercised by, and in the interests of, the class which owns and controls the means of production. It is in this sense that capitalist formations were described as a ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ whose rule would be replaced by a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ during the socialist transition period. In the latter case power would, however, be exercised in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the people and should lead to an ever-expanding genuine democracy – both political and economic”.

The above, particularly the point about the relationship between state power and its exercise on the one hand and the ownership and control of the means of production on the other, returns us to our earlier question about working class programme for democracy. Briefly, the point basically explains why Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto had to write, as the first task of the programme of the working class after attaining the position of ruling class, that:

‘The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

These measures will, of course, be different in different countries.’

From the above programmatic content, it is clear that the working class revolution is not an instant or ultra-left emotion, but rather a long-term, deep- and thorough-going process of struggle which will still need to continue even after the proletariat has seized control of state power. This will involve the exercise of state power as, and combined with, mass power in the eventuality of a bourgeois fight back as a minority after it is dislodged in a similar way as the DA’s fight back occurred after apartheid was defeated.

Dictatorship of the bourgeois masked in democracy

Under capitalism, for example, there could be frequent elections as is the case in South Africa, but the administration (government) that is elected gets essentially constrained by the economic power, not only ownership and control of means of production, but also private accumulation and control of capital by the capitalist class. Marx and Engels sum-up the ultimate essential content of this context in the Communist Manifesto as thus: ‘The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’ (but tis cannot be left unchallenged, uncontested). As such, neither is the state based on a capitalist society the people as a whole organised as the state and the ultimate exercise power democratic.

While certain decisions (e.g. legislation, policy, etc.) that favour the working class are possible, and are thus adopted, the underlying fact is that not every decision that the working class would like goes through. This process becomes inherently part of the class struggle, fought not only in the streets, newspapers, radio, television, in the media as a whole, in the community, at the workplace, in the economy as a whole, etc., but also where political power is most concentrated, in the state. It is partly this clarity that informed SACP’s approach to spare no site of struggle, including the state, in engaging in this class struggle. How would conditions and the situation be without this strategic option exercised?

Indeed many, particularly fundamental decisions, are blocked by the dominant interests of capitalist economic power, but without facing a struggle in the opposite direction this could be worse. And, just as in collective bargaining, there are compromises resulting from the balance of power. Very well some of these are embedded in our constitution, and find their way in various pieces of legislation and certain policies, all of which are, in turn, based on, if not challengeable on the basis of the constitution. But this does not mean then that the struggle reaches a cul-de-sac and terminates. A trade unionist who endorses collective bargaining agreements that are different from the original demands of the workers, at times if not frequently praises such agreements as milestones, and calls on workers to go back to work after a strike whereas he or she knows very well that the first thing they will face is economic exploitation, should not take more than a second to understand this point. This is best summed up by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto when they write that class struggle is constant and uninterrupted.

The working class in South Africa secured the current democratic transition in a similar manner as we point out above about the character of our constitution, especially the compromises in it. Therefore, the struggle continues in all key sites of power until complete victory is secured. Here we should remember what Marx and Engels say in the Communist Manifesto: this struggle could either end in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruins of the contending forces. Clearly, some of the approaches, one of them separatism, risks if not provokes division among organised workers and the working class, and thus will deliver a fatal ruin to our revolution.

Suggestions to move away from our revolutionary alliance and fragment the progressive trade union movement do not alter the fundamental problems of the class balance of forces which are characterised mainly by the bourgeois as the ruling class. On the contrary, such suggestions or similar postures, only stand to serve the oppressors of the working class, the exploiters. There is no way division among the workers and within the working class can serve their interests.

And, still, in future it would not make any sense to advance suggestions for moving away from society as a result of the established capitalist economic power that constrain revolutionary progress and advancement of the working class revolution. Ask those who are outside of our alliance about how much, if ever, more than the alliance, they have achieved for the whole of the working class.

Back to basics, ask Slovo

Concluding on the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Slovo underlines that ‘On reflection, the choice of the word ‘dictatorship’ to describe this type of society [i.e. a socialist society, a society in which democracy is developed to the highest form and expanded to an overwhelming majority] certainly opens the way to ambiguities and distortions’. In his discussion of what has partly contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Slovo highlights some of the practices that progressively denuded the concept of its intrinsic democratic content and signified bureaucratic dictatorship.

In fact, in many parts of the world, indeed not only in Africa, inclusive of South Africa which suffered from colonial and apartheid dictatorship, if you are to campaign for a “dictatorship” there are people who, based on their experiences, might not even allow you to finish: …’of the proletariat’. They might reach their own conclusions before you complete communicating and you might find it an augmented task to convince them otherwise.

Writing in ‘Has socialism failed?’ about how democracy was hollowed out of what was called the dictatorship of the proletariat, and using the case of the Soviet Union, Slovo states that ‘As time went on the gap between socialism and democracy widened; the nature and role of the social institutions (such as the Soviets, the party and mass organisations) which had previously given substance to popular power and socialist democracy, were steadily eroded’.

From Slovo it can be seen that the basic reason why most Communist Parties, including ours, abandoned the term “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which, in all cases, does not imply a rejection of the historical validity of its essential content, as he correctly contends, is the way the term came to be abused and increasingly bore little resemblance to its originality. In other words, these parties maintain commitment to, and continue to fight for the achievement of the proletariat winning the battle of democracy. This is not the struggle for Party rule, but the struggle for the class rule of the proletariat, which, as defined by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, is ‘the immense majority, and will run democracy ‘in the interest of the immense majority‘. We are here dealing with matters of a strategy and tactics of a revolution.

The revolutionary alliance, in conclusion

Our revolutionary alliance, as constituted by the ANC, COSATU and SACP, as well as it is extended to include SANCO, is not a trap to the working class. On the contrary, it is an organisational vehicle through which the working class as a majority can provide leadership. The working class needs a political party, i.e. in Leninist terms, a vanguard party to guide and lead its class struggle against the capitalist class. Contrary a narrow perspective, the vanguard role cannot simply be declared or decreed, the SACP has won its position as the vanguard of the working class and socialism over its 92 years of existence and struggle. The Party correctly understands that this position depends on struggle to earn but cannot be earned in a separatist style of work and organisation by communists as the most advanced and resolute section of the working class separate and apart from the rest of the working class. As Marx and Engels say in the Communist Manifesto:

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

To advocate for a ‘separatist’ approach is therefore un-Marxist. In the present historic period the alliance represents the most suited formation to advance the historic mission of realising the vision of the Freedom Charter. And as Slovo correctly states in the ‘South African working class and the national democratic revolution (NDR)’, the Freedom Charter ‘is not, in itself, a programme for socialism… even though it can provide a basis for uninterrupted advance to a socialist future’. The Freedom Charter ‘has evolved to express the common immediate aspirations of all the classes of the oppressed people’ (Slovo, SA working class and the NDR).

For the communists the Freedom Charter can be characterised, to borrow from Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, as a programme for the achievement of the immediate aims and enforcement of the momentary interests of the of the working class while simultaneously pursuing the struggle for a socialist transition to communism, i.e. the future. There is no contradiction between the two. In fact they are mutually reinforcing and dialectically interlinked.

Contrary to an allegation that our revolutionary alliance and its two primary political formations the ANC and SACP have abandoned the Freedom Charter, as Slovo states in the ‘SA working class and NDR’, both the Freedom Charter and our party programme never projected socialism as the immediate consequence of a people’s victory’. The struggle for socialism and the realisation of the vision of the Freedom Charter has to continue. It is a dialectical interaction between quantitative and qualitative changes in this struggle that, as advances are made in all fronts, will result in a complete revolution, i.e. the negation of the entire legacy of colonialism and apartheid and ultimately the system of capitalism under the national democratic revolution and socialism in their interrelationship. In this process unity of purpose is fundamental under all circumstances.

Also, to say our revolutionary alliance is the best suited organisational formation for our people in the struggle for the realisation of the vision of the Freedom Charter does not mean that there are no challenges on tactics. Challenges are there, and will continue to rise from time to time although changing in character according to the continually changing conditions. But no challenge is bigger than unity. Neither is separatism a solution. Challenges must be confronted and addressed in the revolutionary alliance in a robust yet disciplined manner.

The main question that the working class, inclusive of the proletariat, has to ask itself is how to become the class leader of the alliance and the South African society. This requires constructive self-criticism, instead of scapegoating and blaming this or that organisation. It is narrow, for example, to see the alliance only from the standpoint of the organisations that constitute it, and not from a class perspective. And, narrow as it is, inevitably, could lead to wrong conclusions such as advocacy for separatism, voluntary ideological disarmament and political suicide.

* Alex Mashilo is Deputy National Secretary of the Young Communist League of SA (YCLSA) and SACP Spokesperson, writing in his personal capacity.


i.        All italicised areas reflect my emphasis unless stated otherwise.

ii.        This point should be born in mind in another but related debate, i.e. state ownership. Marx and Engels never divorced state ownership from the class character of the state. As we show, sooner than later, in the Communist Manifesto they make it clear that ‘The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible‘.


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