Permanent Revolution: Yesterday & Today

Table of Contents

  1. Preface, Permanent Revolution Group (New Zealand), May 1993
  2. Introduction: The Theory of Permanent Revolution, Its Origins and Its Application Today, Permanent Revolution Group (New Zealand), October 1988
  3. Contribution to Discussion in the Young Socialists (New Zealand) (1986), David M and Marcus P [below]
  4. What is the Permanent Revolution? Basic Postulates, Leon Trotsky

Contribution to Discussion in the Young Socialists (New Zealand) (1986)

This is a contribution to the Young Socialists Conference Discussion Bulletin for 1986. Our position is opposed to that of the Socialist Action League (SAL) and the Young Socialists (YS). Our main emphasis will be on the question of South Africa, however we feel that this points out general inadequacies in the SAL/YS political perspective.

In recent months we have spent many hours arguing with the Socialist Action League and other Young Socialists members over the question of the coming revolution in South Africa. This dispute is to us of fundamental importance as it is basically between Marxism and vulgar determinism, between, on the one hand, a perspective which sees a combination of material conditions and revolutionary action and, on the other, a perspective which sees inevitable historical "agendas" and makes human beings irrelevant to human history.

In our arguments we have been repeatedly told that what is on the "agenda" in South Africa is a bourgeois-democratic revolution. To expect or to fight for an anti-capitalist revolution is to misread the "historical character" of the struggle there. We have tried to find out exactly what those who use these terms actually mean by them. They have an impressive, rigorous ring to them, which gives the impression that those using them have conducted a wonderfully objective, materialist analysis. This however is only an appearance. These terms are only comprehensible on the basis of the assumptions of crude historical determinism which sees history unfold with an absolute inevitability somewhere over and above the activity of human beings. As such a position is unjustifiable and erroneous, these terms cannot in fact be explained.

We asked ourselves "What does this mean when they say that the historical character of the present struggle in South Africa is democratic and that only?" We first concluded that it referred to the empirical consciousness of the black masses involved in the struggle. They are unable to see beyond the disguised appearance of their oppression to see apartheid as South African capitalism. Thus we decided that saying only a democratic revolution is on the agenda in South Africa today meant that such was the consciousness of those involved in the struggle that they were unable to carry it forward into an anti-capitalist movement. But we were told, "No, it’s more than just the consciousness of the people. Bourgeois-democratic is what the struggle is. This is the task which history has placed before us. The reality of the struggle today is apartheid. This is what the oppression in South Africa today is".

Marxism and the South African Struggle

First, this is not what the oppression in South Africa is, it is merely the disguise that it takes. The reality of oppression in South Africa is South African capitalism. Apartheid is merely the historical form which it has taken. Apartheid does not float in a vacuum of blacks and whites away from the class struggle. There is no dividing line between apartheid and capitalism–they are inextricably linked. Apartheid exists to provide cheap black labour for South African mining and industry, not because Dutch people are bigots.

Second, the arguments of the Socialist Action League/Young Socialists here reveal their erroneous conception of human history. They argue that history has presented the abolition of apartheid in South Africa as the next task for the South African people. This is why the "historical character" of the current struggle is democratic. This is meaningless doubletalk. It says that there is one historical agenda and no others. There is only one historical task before us and that has been decided by the god of history who lays down proclamations to human beings who strangely have no connection with their own history. This conception has history as some supra-human force, existing over and above human individuals.

Now we must of course defend ourselves from the hail of accusations that we are voluntarists which have been thrown at us and which will no doubt continue. As the Socialist Action League/Young Socialists seem to occupy a position of extreme determinism and vulgar materialism, it is hardly surprising that anything deviating from this crude extreme is labelled as "idealism" or "voluntarism". Our point is that there are no "agendas" which preclude all other possibilities, no inevitable "historical characters".

Karl Marx –"History" Is Made by Human Beings

Marx wrote that human beings make their own history but they do not do so just as they please1. It is clear to us that history is the product of the activity of humans, however they do not control the set of historical, material conditions they are faced with. Thus history obviously has an objective force which is beyond the control of humans in some sense but this is not because it exists over and above human beings but because humans come into the world and are faced with material, social, historical conditions which are the product of the activity of previous human actors.

Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology:

... at each stage there is found a material result: a sum of productive forces, an historically created relation of individuals to nature and to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessors; a mass of productive forces, capital funds and conditions, which on the one hand, is indeed modified by the new generation, but also on the other prescribes for it its conditions of life and gives it a definite development, a special character. It shows that circumstances make [humans] just as [humans] make circumstances.2

This passage sums up the conception of humans making their history but not as they please, that they are in one sense determined by the world they find but then act on it and change it. We are mystified as to how Marxists can subscribe to the vulgar materialist position when so much of Marx’s work was directed against such a position. No doubt the Socialist Action League/Young Socialists would consider Marx to be a petty-bourgeois idealist. They completely ignore writings such as "Theses on Feuerbach" where Marx explicitly attacks previous, crude materialism, which failed to see history as human praxis, revolutionary activity.

Marx wrote that at least it could be said of idealism that it developed "the active side"3 which mechanical materialism ignored, even if idealism did develop it abstractly. SAL/YS members have tossed around the term "materialism", without even understanding what it means, without seeing that Marx transcended "all hitherto existing materialism"4 and used the term carefully, mainly to make it clear that he was not an idealist.

We hope that our position is now clear. We are not voluntarists; we do not say: "Anything is possible." As Marxists, we recognise that a set of material conditions provide a number of historical possibilities and tendencies. At certain times, one outcome may present itself as dominant. For example, we regard the historical possibilities at the time of the European bourgeois revolutions as being more limiting than South Africa today. The rising power of industrial capitalism in the face of feudal restrictions made it unlikely that capitalist relations of production would not win out. This was not however because there was one historical agenda but because the material conditions particularly favoured the victory of the bourgeoisie.

South Africa however is different. It is something of an anomaly–the presence of capitalism with a formally undemocratic political structure provides a large degree of ambiguity. In the light of this ambiguity, we think that to talk of one historical task, and one only, is ludicrous. So South Africa merely highlights in this sense the absurdity of the crude determinism which the Socialist Action League/Young Socialists applies to all history and to all countries.

As Engels wrote in The Holy Family:

... history does nothing, has no "enormous wealth", wages no battles. It is not "history" but live human beings who own possessions, perform actions and fight battles. There is no independent entity called "history", using mankind to attain its ends: history is simply the purposeful activity of human beings.5

Since we reject the idea of inevitable history, we have also been accused of seeing communism as an abstract ideal rather than as existing as a movement in reality. This is the crude logic of "either/or"–if you reject crude determinism then you must be a utopian socialist. We find this kind of reasoning extremely frustrating. Marx dismissed the view of the utopian socialists which sees socialism as an ideal to somehow be achieved, disconnected to the present reality. This does not mean however that he considered socialism to be the inevitable result of history. These are the false options which Marx transcended. There are no "ideals" unattached to tendencies and movements in present reality. Similarly, there are no inevitable "facts", such as the fact of the irresistible force of socialism which are separate from the revolutionary aspirations and actions of human beings. In New Zealand today, socialism exists as a tendency and a possibility as capitalism creates the potential source of its own destruction and abolition.

The Future of the South African Revolution

We would now like to discuss the specific situation in South Africa today. The current conditions there present two main possible outcomes (aside from the possibility that the South African regime might defeat all opposition and usher in a new phase of apartheid-capitalism): the present movement may develop into an explicitly anti-capitalist one or it may remain within a purely bourgeois-democratic framework. As we have said, we see the conditions there as ambivalent–in some senses, they favour a limited democratic revolution.

However we see many factors which could push the movement towards socialism. As Marxists, however, we do not bow down to what appears to be the likely outcome and change our theory to cope with it, as the American Socialist Workers Party has done6. We agitate as communists and attempt to create a revolutionary understanding of the reality of South African capitalism.

Of the conditions in South Africa today which favour a democratic revolution, one of the most significant is the complete inactivity of those Marxists who have decided that a socialist revolution is not on the agenda and who have therefore done nothing to try to push the movement and the consciousness of those involved beyond the limits of bourgeois ideology.

What are the material conditions in South Africa today? In discussing this question we will refer primarily to the article by Jack Barnes, "The Coming Revolution in South Africa"7. We think it is appropriate to do so since the arguments of the Socialist Action League/Young Socialists are taken virtually word-for-word from this article. Unfortunately this article is no more than a collection of meaningless slogans, unfounded assertions, circular arguments and faulty logic. Barnes takes fifty-odd pages to say virtually nothing.

It will not be our purpose to argue that the material conditions in South Africa mean that a socialist revolution is inevitable. Nothing is inevitable. We will not even necessarily argue that a socialist revolution is probable–that is not the point. Our argument is that the material conditions are ambivalent and in many ways favour an anti-capitalist revolution.8

Jack Barnes and the Nicaraguan Comparison

Barnes compares South Africa to pre-1979 Nicaragua. The latter, he says, has had an anti-capitalist revolution whereas this is not on the agenda in South Africa. South Africa is qualitatively different from Nicaragua, Barnes writes.

The tasks that have been carried out by the Sandinistas so far have been largely anti-imperialist and democratic in character, he writes. They have nationalised certain holdings including their mineral resources, instituted democratic and other labour rights, begun health and education programmes and have implemented significant land reform. However, 60 percent of the economy remains in private hands. As is painfully obvious, the Sandinistas have so far done no more than is promised by the African National Congress’s "Freedom Charter". But, Barnes insists, the Nicaraguan Revolution is definitely an anti-capitalist one and so far we have seen only the first stage, the democratic stage of the socialist revolution.

However the coming revolution in South Africa will not be merely a stage of the socialist revolution–it will be a separate revolution. Why? Because the South African people have yet to create a nation-state, whereas the Nicaraguan people had. The South African people do not possess formal citizenship rights in their own country whereas the Nicaraguan people did. So here is the crux of Barnes’ argument: the historical task before the South African people is to build a nation-state. The Nicaraguan people had already done so.

Sham Democracy Under Somoza Regime

But here Barnes completely negates and undermines his whole argument even as he puts it forward. Unlike South Africa, the Nicaraguan people still had the right to vote, but then he adds as an afterthought, "even though Somoza’s elections were rigged". It is clear that the important difference between the two countries is, for Barnes, one of legality and formality. The Nicaraguans had the right to vote, even though this was a fraud and a farce; being citizens of a bourgeois democracy, they were entitled to union and labour rights–unfortunately Somoza took them away; the Nicaraguans were not restricted by law in where they could live and work–no, they were only restricted by reality in where they could live and work, by the reality of capitalist, imperialist and Somozan exploitation; the Nicaraguan peasants were not forbidden by law from owning land–no, they were completely free to do so, however the fact that only one third of them did own land, that most of those that did could "barely survive"9, that half the land was owned by Somoza, seems insignificant.

In short, Barnes tells us that there was a qualitative difference between pre-1979 Nicaragua and South Africa today but then proceeds to demonstrate that this difference is largely superficial, having to do with legality and formal rights. Formally and legally, Nicaragua was a bourgeois democracy–in reality, it was oppressively undemocratic, but this is unimportant to Barnes. For this reason, we hold that the real differences between South Africa and Nicaragua are quantitative only. We agree that South Africa is probably more undemocratic than Nicaragua was, however, as we said, this is a quantitative difference and therefore does not mean that the South African revolution will necessarily be qualitatively different from the Nicaraguan Revolution.

Barnes however does argue that the land question in the two countries is very different, in reality. We think this is an exaggeration. In Nicaragua, he says, there was modern class differentiation in the countryside. There was a class of poor landowning peasants, a middle layer of more prosperous farmers and then the large-scale capitalist farmers. But two thirds of Nicaraguan peasants owned no land as it was monopolised by Somoza and foreign companies. Thus, they were farm labourers and/or unemployed. Those that did own some land, in Barnes’ words, "could barely survive" and were no doubt being slowly forced off the land.

These two classes of peasants obviously had their counterparts in South Africa in the farm labourers on the white capitalist farms and those subsistence farmers on the Bantustans, the only place where they could own land and where, like the Nicaraguan small landholders, they could barely survive. The Nicaraguan petty-bourgeois peasantry and capitalist farmers also had their counterparts in South Africa in the small white farmers and the agricultural capitalists. Clearly the farm labourers and subsistence farmers of South Africa have the same class interests and aspirations of their pre-1979 Nicaraguan counterparts: land reform which would redistribute the bulk of the land monopolised by imperialism in association with the domestic ruling class.

Thus we don’t fully accept Barnes’ comments about the Nicaraguan land question. Despite the absence of legal prohibitions against Nicaraguan peasants owning land, the real lack of democracy made "modern class differentiation" rather limited. Thus the differences between South Africa and Nicaragua in this respect are not significant.

Having said this, we do not believe that the "land question" is of great importance so it would not particularly matter if Barnes were right. The battles in South Africa today are being fought in the black townships and being led by the proletariat. In this sense, those on the Bantustans don’t particularly matter. By the nature of South Africa and the current struggle, the majority of the black masses are sidelined. Whether a bourgeois-democratic or a socialist revolution, they will play a subordinate role.

The major role is being and will be played by that class which is in the most direct relation to apartheid-capitalism, that class on whom the apartheid-capitalist economy is founded, that class which is geographically and analytically situated at the point of the fundamental struggle, apartheid-capitalist production, that class which is growing larger, more organised, more unionised, more militant, more impoverished, more revolutionary, more conscious and also more socialist. That class is the black industrial and mining proletariat.

Barnes–Class Consciousness of Black Proletariat Irrelevant

Barnes recognises that there is an increasingly large, combative and organised proletariat in South Africa. The "level of consciousness" and the "development of the labour movement"10 are significant, he says. But, unbelievably, he goes on to say that "the weight of the proletariat doesn’t determine anything, by itself, about the historic character of the revolution"11. No matter how large, how well organised, how class conscious or how revolutionary the proletariat is, so long as formal, legal citizenship rights are denied and a black nation state is yet to be built, Barnes is saying, the historical character of the revolution remains democratic.

This assertion of Barnes reveals where his arguments ultimately rest when he says that the absence of a nation state is what determines the nature of the South African revolution. Not that it is easy to tell, given Barnes’ highly dubious arguments and lack of logic. In discussing the absence of a nation state, Barnes clearly in some places talks about the need for real class differentiation, which the lack of citizenship rights prevents. (We think he’s wrong on this point but his intention is there.) In general however, he emphasises the legal, formal differences between South Africa and Nicaragua, in which case he is obviously not referring to real differentiation but superficialities.

Our reaction to this was to think that, well, superficialities, appearances, can only be important in that they affect the consciousness of those involved in the struggle. So we thought that Barnes’ argument must be that the formal lack of democracy in South Africa means that the South African people can only see their oppression as due to this formal absence whereas in Nicaragua, the people knew they had formal citizenship rights but they saw they were still oppressed therefore it was clear to them that these rights were not enough. Something else must be the problem; therefore they developed an anti-capitalist consciousness.

But as in our debate with the Socialist Action League/Young Socialists who said that it was more than just the consciousness of the people, it became clear that Barnes was invoking something else–the god of history. From his comment on the black proletariat, it is clear that the level of consciousness is unimportant to Barnes–it cannot change the fact that history, because of the absence of legal citizenship rights, has decreed that the character of the revolution is democratic only. Thus it is clear that Barnes’s argument rests on the same erroneous conception of history as does the SAL/YS’s.

Unlike Barnes, we think that what makes the Nicaraguan Revolution an anti-capitalist one (if that is true) despite the fact that it has carried out no more than the Freedom Charter promises, is the fact that political power is held by Marxists who fought for that power with a recognisably socialist programme and that they are the vanguard of a revolutionary proletariat and peasantry. It is the character and consciousness of the revolutionary actors in Nicaragua today that makes their revolution a socialist one and not some metaphysical notion of "historical tasks".12

Nationalism an Obstacle to Socialist Consciousness

We don’t see the great significance of the absence of a nation state. If the issue is the consciousness of the masses, the existence of nation states is one of the obstacles to a socialist consciousness. It is a bourgeois illusion that the real divisions in the world are geographic and national–these hide the real class differences based in production. If the issue is "historical tasks", Barnes seems to be following the model of European bourgeois revolutions which were based in completely different historical situations.

In Europe, the rise of nation states accompanied the rise of the bourgeoisie–in South Africa, this is not the case. If the issue is that supposedly the absence of a nation state prohibits "modern" class differentiation which is a prerequisite for socialist revolution, we do not see that either. Socialist Action League/Young Socialists members have argued that what is required is a modern, hereditary proletariat along western lines. We think this is particularly stupid. It accepts the disguised appearance of oppression in South Africa to be racism separate from ruling-class economic exploitation.

Apartheid–A Specific Form of Capitalism

We don’t think that the existence or lack of a nation state is of significance here. What is significant is the existence of capitalist relations of production–the capital/labour relation. South Africa is currently in the grip of a capitalist crisis. The bourgeoisie are trying to maintain profitability and are doing it as they have always done–not by using new technology to raise productivity but by intensifying even more the superexploitation of black labour, by driving down its value even more. This is what apartheid is, not bigotry. It is South Africa’s historically specific form of capitalism.

In many ways, South Africa is far riper for socialism than any western capitalist country since the formal democratic political structures which disguise the capital/labour relation and make it appear nonexploitative and equal are missing in South Africa. The class struggle at the point of production in South Africa today is naked and bitter and it is clear that the black proletariat is becoming less and less likely to accept a revolution which leaves intact most of what apartheid is all about–capitalist relations of production.

Will the black proletariat accept that the struggle they are involved in is only one about abolishing the legal measures that facilitate their exploitation and not their exploitation itself? We don’t think so. South Africa is a capitalist country. The struggle there is being fought mainly by the proletariat. Those who are not in a direct relation to capitalism do not really enter into the picture. The geographic and economic structure of South Africa excludes them. Given all this, we think it is ludicrous when Marxists say that to talk of socialism in South Africa today is ill-timed and counterproductive. Despite the bitter economic struggle going on there (and that is at bottom what it is all about) we must supposedly wait until South Africa has "modern" class differentiation before we are allowed to say: "By the way, it wasn’t just your lack of citizenship rights, you know–there’s a bit of a problem with the capital/labour relation you’re in as well".

But we are not saying that we should agitate for socialism in South Africa because it’s a question of integrity or revolutionary honour. Nor are we saying that we should do it because we’re not doing anything else this weekend and it would be a bit of a laugh and why go the long way around to socialism and well, why not? We have grave doubts about whether a socialist revolution would ever materialise unless the power of white capitalism and foreign imperialism is broken once and for all.

Barnes on the other hand tries to make a virtue out of being completely witless and saying, well, we don’t really know what’s going to happen: "It is worse than useless to try to make predictions about this."13 Barnes fancies that he’s being wonderfully nonprejudicial and free-thinking when he buries his head in the sand and cries "Que sera". "How will the contradictions be resolved between revolutionary democracy and the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of the white capitalist families?", Barnes asks with a shoulder shrugging, "isn’t life wonderfully mysterious?" ring to his words14. Well, we’ll make a few predictions, Jack.

It could well be resolved by the white capitalists allying with foreign imperialism and the black petty bourgeoisie (which they’ve already created for such a purpose) and wrenching state power back again. A revolutionary democratic government would supposedly represent the workers and peasants but it would support private property, the right of the capitalist to exploit the wage worker. South African capitalism depends on super-exploitation for profitability–that can’t be changed overnight. If the workers are striking for better conditions and the bosses are fighting back, who is the revolutionary government going to support?

This contradiction could alternatively be resolved by ensuring that it never arises, by Marxists now fighting for a socialist revolution and ensuring that there is no dislocation between the holding of political and the holding of economic power.

Unlike Barnes, as Marxists we believe it is our business to make predictions. But even saying that puts it in Barnes’ terms–we do not make predictions about a reality and a history which are separate from ourselves. Predictions are bound up with revolutionary action–with working to realise possibilities. We do not lie down before the steamroller of inevitable history chanting "Speculations are silly."

This brings us to another argument put forward by Socialist Action League/Young Socialists members. We have been told that if we work for a socialist revolution in South Africa today, we are "imposing preconceived schemas" on the situation there. We find this hysterically funny, as should be clear from what we’ve written. We are told that we are imposing our schema on South Africa which does not fit "the facts"; what is in fact happening there is a democratic revolution and nothing else.

The SAL Schema of Inevitable Stages

But clearly, all that has been done here is to replace one "schema" with another–therefore "schemas" as such have not been dispensed with. Equally clearly, we are not attempting to place a schema, a theory of what is unalterably happening, on the South African struggle. That’s the department of the vulgar determinists. You do not, if you are a black South African Marxist, say "This is what is happening"–your predictions are not separate from what you do to realise them. You say: "This is what must be done to achieve our real liberation and it exists as a possibility and a tendency in the present time", and you attempt to make it a reality.

All this talk of preconceived schemas which don’t fit the "facts" is anti-theoretical and anti-Marxist. This is an un-Marxist, positivist approach which separates theory from the "facts", a separation which cannot be made. The "facts" are worshipped and are presumed to speak for themselves. They are self-evident. They are the "concrete reality" and a theory is always placed on top of them. For Marx, the concrete was not nontheoretical facts, it was a theoretically informed understanding of reality. There are no such thing as "the facts". Theoretical assumptions enter into all "facts".

The notion that you just need to look at the facts to see the right course to take is erroneous. It is essential to have a conceptual and theoretical framework with which to understand reality. One cannot, imagining oneself to be clearheaded and objective, drive all theories and models from one’s mind and just look at reality "as it really is". One person’s facts are another’s malicious propaganda.

This positivist attitude is characteristic of the SAL/YS. The newspaper, Socialist Action, has little or no theoretical analysis or explanation of the workings of capitalism. It seems to expect that all it has to do is to present "the facts" and what strike is happening where and people will understand their oppression. This is completely wrong and anti-Marxist. People don’t support their capitalist society because they are kept ignorant of the facts–it is because capitalism presents an ideological shield, a disguise which must be understood theoretically before it can be pierced; without a conceptual understanding, you are nowhere and all the facts in the world can be assimilated and explained, within limits, by bourgeois ideology.

Papa’s Got a Brand New Slogan

We’d like to conclude our discussion of South Africa by getting a few things off our chests. We have been dismayed to find that those we’ve argued against think that the uncritical repetition of a few empty slogans and catchy homilies from the US Socialist Workers Party amounts to an argument or a theoretical position. The old/new favourite, "ultraleft sectarianism", was leapt upon with blind, mindless enthusiasm as soon as the US Socialist Workers Party decided it was the cute categorisation of the day. Having heard the slogans from Barnes’ article, we decided to read it but found that it didn’t have anything more than slogans to offer. His logic is of the "I’ll tell you why it’s not an anti-capitalist revolution–it’s because it’s only a democratic revolution" type, repeated enough times so that hopefully the reader won’t realise that no decent arguments have been given to justify it.

Barnes writes that previously the Socialist Workers Party had wanted to get on with the socialist revolution, the "real" revolution, he adds in quotation marks. "As if the battle to overthrow the apartheid state is not a real revolution", he exclaims with horror, implying that we are arrogant, ethnocentric, maybe even a little racist, if we advocate socialism in South Africa. The whole article reeks of this liberal moralism–Barnes dares his opponents to call a bourgeois-democratic a "second rate revolution". Of course it’s a bloody second-rate revolution. It will not bring complete liberation. Faced with people fighting bravely against horrific oppression but who don’t fully understand the roots of that oppression, we don’t become relativists and shy away from attempting to create a true understanding. Barnes throws objective truth out the window in the name of some benevolent tolerance.

This same approach was echoed at the recent Socialist Action League conference where the arguments against the SAL’s previous "sectarianism" oscillated smoothly between saying that the democratic revolution is the way to socialism (which at least is dealing with the issue) and saying that before, the SAL hadn’t realised just how bad apartheid was. Along with the Socialist Action League, Barnes’ appeal to empty liberal ethics is appropriate to the fake, ideological democracy that he is unwilling to push beyond.

Bourgeois Press

South Africa for us presents two questions: 1. What should we be doing as Marxists if we were in South Africa today?, which we have discussed; 2. What should we be doing in New Zealand today, in terms of what we say to New Zealand workers about South Africa? Here we think the Socialist Action League/Young Socialists’ position is even more clearly wrong than on the first question. The paper, Socialist Action, says virtually nothing about the struggle in South Africa which does not go beyond what the bourgeois press says. Like the bourgeois papers, Socialist Action does not advocate the abolition of South African capitalism; it merely reports the struggle as a democratic one to overthrow apartheid.

We have been told that the way to revolutionary worker consciousness is through getting New Zealand workers involved in these democratic issues, that it will politicise them. This is partially true. It produces a politicised worker who wants to see the extension of democratic rights to all peoples in the world and in his/her country. In short, it may well produce a revolutionary but unfortunately one that is more suited to France in the 1780s than the era of advanced capitalism where the slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity (and sorority) have been revealed to be the sham that they always were.

We are frustrated by the inability of the SAL/YS to see that by advocating the abolition of apartheid in South Africa and no more than that you are telling New Zealand workers that the solution to South Africa oppression is the abolition of apartheid and not necessarily capitalism, and thus ultimately telling them that what we here in New Zealand (the absence of legal, formalised racism) is groovy and the ultimate in human freedom.

The thing is to get "involved", get the workers caring and interested in South Africa and they will become politicised. Unfortunately the SAL/YS have not examined the nature of that politicisation and underestimate the powerful force that bourgeois ideology has in maintaining and reproducing class exploitation in the capitalist world. As Marxists, we should be doing our best to break down that ideology, not reinforcing it.

Focus on "Democratic" Struggles

We find that the Socialist Action League/Young Socialists’ attitude to South Africa is closely paralleled by its attitude to the class struggle in New Zealand. The emphasis goes on democratic struggles–racism, homosexual law reform, women’s rights, South Africa and other overseas struggles (which the SAL/YS say are democratic struggles) and it seems to be considered that if you talk about socialism then you are just alienating people, putting them off and making yourself irrelevant. Socialist Action basically says nothing of an explicitly anti-capitalist nature. Apart from its coverage of overseas struggles, which is generally liberal-democratic in tone, the coverage of New Zealand strike activity can largely be assimilated under a liberal trade-union type of outlook.

It seems that the time is not appropriate for spreading socialist propaganda, for explaining how capitalist exploitation is objectively oppressive and leads to crises, because we are not in a revolutionary situation. This provides a false separation between wholly subjective and wholly objective conditions. Whether or not a revolutionary situation arises depends on what Marxists do in nonrevolutionary situations to raise consciousness, because the subjective is objective.

"Revolutionary situations" don’t just appear with the magic of history. They are not just about economics, not just about the rate of profit falling. They are about consciousness as well; and whether these situations develop depends on what we do now to bring them about, to change people’s minds. You don’t talk about socialism only to people who already agree with you. Marxists have to accept that they are going to tell people often what they don’t like, don’t know and don’t agree with. You don’t capitulate to an apparently discouraging reality.

The Socialist Action League/Young Socialists’ rationalisation for this however is that "Communism isn’t a doctrine, it’s a movement" which in conjunction with the crude view of the hand of history means that anyone is a communist just so long as they are part of the historical movement towards socialism. This would of course include the barbarians who conquered Rome, as they were all part of the long-term movement. This serves as a justification for communists doing just about anything (or just about nothing).

The Socialist Action League and the Vague Left

In following the US Socialist Workers Party’s regressive move, the SAL/YS has made a move towards reformism. They have decided that it seems like the liberals in South Africa will win out and, faced with this depressing thought, they have changed their theory in order to get their hands on some success, on some good news. If socialism seems unlikely, you can just say, "Well, we didn’t expect it now anyway, the time wasn’t ripe for it but we’re on the right road to it. Everything’s going according to plan." The ANC appears to be the most powerful, visible group in South Africa, so you say "Victory to the ANC" and have a big party. Who cares about reality, we can just change our theory.

We feel that the Socialist Action League/Young Socialists have lost a critical perspective on overseas struggles and the class struggles in New Zealand. It particularly underestimates ideology as a major obstacle to liberation. Until they understand exactly what they are fighting against, or should be fighting against, they will only be another two organisations on the vague, nonrevolutionary left.

David M
Marcus P

  1. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852], in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1979, v 11, p 103.
  2. Marx & Engels, The German Ideology (Part One) [1846], ed C J Arthur, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1977, p 59; also available (in another translation) in Marx & Engels, Collected Works, 1976, v 5, p 50.
  3. Karl Marx, "Concerning Feuerbach" (1845), Early Writings, Penguin, London, 1974, p 421; another translation can be found (under the better known title of "Theses on Feuerbach") in Marx & Engels, Collected Works, v 5, p 3.
  4. Marx, "Concerning Feuerbach", p 421.
  5. Marx & Engels, The Holy Family; another translation can be found in Marx & Engels, Collected Works, 1975, v 4, p 93.
  6. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was the organisation of American Trotskyism from 1937, led by James P Cannon. It was the foremost member of the Fourth (Trotskyist) International founded in 1938. Since the early 1960s and its revisionist response to the Cuban Revolution the SWP has made a steady march away from Trotskyism culminating in the formal rejection of the theory of permanent revolution in the early 1980s.
  7. Jack Barnes, "The Coming Revolution in South Africa", New International, Fall 1985, v 2, n 2, p 7. Barnes is National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party.
  8. The material conditions for workers' revolution in South Africa in fact are clearly thoroughly ripe. And workers' revolution, once begun in South Africa would spread rapidly across the continent. Indeed it is one of the possible starting points for the conflagration which will set the world on the path to socialism.
  9. Barnes, "The Coming Revolution in South Africa", p 26.
  10. Barnes, "The Coming Revolution in South Africa", p 32.
  11. As above, p 28.
  12. The writers in 1986 took an unclear position on the nature of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. In fact, of course, political power in Nicaragua was never held by Marxists, or by anyone else "who fought for power with a recognisably socialist programme".

    Nicaragua went through a period qualitatively the same as that of Cuba between the guerrillaist seizure of power in 1959 and the expropriation of capitalist property which began 18 months later; that is, it went through a period in which the newly dominant armed force had not yet developed roots in any stable system of property ownership, and therefore was as yet of an undetermined class character. The guerrilla army had completely destroyed the old state apparatus but had not yet come down on the side of either bourgeois or proletarian property forms, and so, in the strictest Marxist sense the new government and army were not yet established as a state.

    The Nicaraguan Revolution never had a decisive commitment to socialism, although one of its alternative possible outcomes was to develop its roots in statised property, and to establish not a socialist society but one qualitatively similar to Cuba or the Soviet Union. In the absence of the class-conscious proletariat taking the leadership of the revolution, however, the other alternative outcome of the Nicaraguan Revolution was also always possible-the new leadership establishing its roots in the bourgeoisie and its system of property relations. Cuba and Nicaragua each had to settle into one of these alternatives. In the event the new Cuban regime rooted itself in statised property thereby becoming a deformed workers' state where, as in the Soviet Union, political power is held by a bureaucratic caste rather than by the working class. As of November 1988, however, it is unclear to us where Nicaragua's balancing act of mixed economy, nonalignment and political pluralism is leading, but there are indications the regime has now rooted itself in bourgeois property.

  13. Barnes, "The Coming Revolution in South Africa", p 28.
  14. As above, p 29.

Posted: 24 June 2005