“How do we organise our movements?’: First reply to Ngwane’s opening essay

In The Politics of Politics on July 24, 2009 at 3:54 pm

In reply to: Ngwane: Things Have To Change

by Mandisi Majavu, Z-Net, 24 July 2009

Trevor Ngwane is right, for most people life under the capitalist system is frustrating, bleak, short, brutal and nasty. I agree with Ngwane that the point is not merely to be philosophical about the social ills facing us in the 21st century, but to overhaul the entire socio-economic structure, replacing it with an economic system consistent with our values. Ngwane is of the view that communism is the future. He refers to such a system as a ‘working class rule’.

However, a question arises: ‘how do we get there from here?’ According to Ngwane,

“it is the millions and millions of ordinary working class people whose organization and action will make a communist future possible and a reality. Our job as the left is to strengthen and support their effort. This means supporting working class political organization.”

Ngwane seems to be making a distinction between the left and the working class people. The working class people organise and struggle, while the ‘job’ of the left is to support and strengthen the working class efforts. Proceeding from this false dichotomy, he asserts that the left is not doing what they are supposed to because of ideological ‘doubts’. “Worse, doubt and despair has set in among millions of ordinary people who cannot see an alternative to capitalism,” points out Ngwane.

He writes that the ‘South African left’ has ideological doubts because they are of the view that:

“we must not fetishise the revolutionary subject and we must not fetishise forms of organization. In ordinary language what is meant is that we must not act as if the working class, in particular, the industrial worker, will automatically make the revolution. It also means that we must not act as if trade unions are necessary and progressive. Lastly, it means we must not act as if a political party, a working class party, is always necessary to take the struggle forward to socialism and communism.”

Ngwane then rhetorically asks “where does the doubt and demoralization come from which leads to a questioning of the first principle of (Marxist-inspired) revolutionary struggle?” The ‘Marxist-inspired first principle’ that Ngwane has in mind argues that workers ought to lead revolutions through a party. Marx and Engels made these observations based on their analysis of the 19th century European social conditions.

Ngwane further argues that the left is ‘lost’ because it rejects its own ‘theoretical foundations, political principles and organizational methods of the workers’ movement.’ He points out that “…you are drifting when you begin to question what you are about, what you stand for, when you start to doubt whether you will reach your goal using the old tried and tested methods of your own movement.”

Ngwane explains that the left is demoralized and doubt its ‘old tried and tested methods’ because of personal reasons — they (the left) ‘look at their own history they find a lot to disappoint them’.

“They remember the time when some of them announced that the industrial workers were automatically the vanguard. …They remember the time when they occupied positions inside the trade unions and won victories in policy conferences. It is very different for them now.

“…They look around and find the individualism and self-indulgence of loose autonomism. They saw and participated in the rise of the social movements and found their new answer. They join these things together. Some of them announce that the working class does not even exist anymore. Some of them announce that Marxism is dead.”

I am of the view that Ngwane’s biographical investigation into why the ‘left’ is abandoning its ‘old tried and tested methods’ does not fully answer the question. An exploration of the trajectories of individuals through left formations leads to a dead-end. It makes sense, however, to assess if there is something in the ‘old tried and tested methods’ that make people change their minds about being Marxists. The first question we have to answer is: ‘what are these ‘old tried and tested methods’ that Ngwane refers to?’ These are the same methods that were implemented to maximum effect in the Russian revolution. So, what lessons can we learn about the methods that were used to bring about the red revolution? According to Albert (1974):

“The Russian revolution has given us a lesson in what is not to be done. It killed the soviets, it bombarded the Kronstadters, it destroyed the Makhnovites, it trampled opposition and reestablished capitalistic authoritarian dynamics, and then later and quite consistently it unleashed Stalin upon the peoples of the Soviet Union and the world.”

This is not to say that the red revolution has no positive lessons to teach us. The greatest lessons revolutionaries can learn from it is that the power of the oppressed lies in organising and struggling for social change. The classic Marxist theory that informed the red revolution equips activists with tools to understand causes of historical change. It explains history’s flow, while, simultaneously, helping activists understand how people and groups can affect the unfolding of history. Most importantly, according to the theory, social classes evolve naturally from the dialectical interactions of people with their socio-economic environments and become the motive actors of all history. This is because, as Marx discovered, people:

“must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before [they] can pursue politics, religion, science, art, etc. And that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, the art, and even the religious ideas of the people concerned have evolved, and in the light of which those things must be explained, instead of vice versa as had hitherto been the case (Albert, 1974).”

As much as the above analysis is accurate, it, however, is too high an abstraction of the socio-economic conditions – especially for 21st century society. To appreciate the above analysis, one ought to take into consideration that Marx made his discoveries in a time when the driving motivations for revolution were survival needs. Hence Marx argued that the working class ought to lead social revolution.  As Albert explains, Marx could not foresee that overtime the economic growth would diminish the “previous overriding importance of material needs, while increasing the influence of power, sexual, racial, community, identity, ecological, and other such ‘higher’ needs.”

Given that Marx was writing in the 19th century, it is understandable why he said what he said. However, what is not clear is why Ngwane still subscribes to the notion that economic needs primarily motivate people to revolt. The Black Panthers were not motivated by economic reasons alone to revolt, neither was the gay and lesbian movement nor the women’s movement. To build a strong movement to attain the kind of future that Ngwane has in mind means that our politics have to go beyond foregrounding the demands of one oppressed group over another. In the 21st century it does not make sense to ignore the revolutionary potentials of women and anti-racist groups, for example.

I agree with Ngwane, class and the economic element are important. However, these are not the only factors. To argue as Ngwane does that “the socialist revolution depends on millions of ordinary working class people taking history into their own hands” is misleading. The various factors of the superstructure – identity, sexuality, etc are just as important, and most importantly they influence the politics and social struggles of the 21st century (e.g the Zapatista). We will achieve a truly egalitarian society when our politics reflect the understanding that there are ‘infinite series of parallelograms of forces’ that give rise to a revolution.

To a certain degree, Ngwane understands this logic. He writes: “When we look at the different struggles in South African workplaces and communities questions arise: why don’t we draw all the different demands together and consolidate them into a platform – a programme? There are people already supporting these different struggle, so why can’t we all unite in support of that platform as acts of solidarity and in pursuit of our own immediate demands?”

However, Ngwane goes on to argue: “Since in each of these struggles we find the direct or indirect hand of the capitalists, why can’t we clearly identify the class enemy, make them visible, and resist any attempt from them to draw us into forms of class collaboration?”

It is true that in South Africa a lot of political struggles focus on the state’s failure to facilitate a dignified existence for the economically marginalised, and other class related issues. However, institutionalised racism is still a major problem, sexism is another major problem, and homophobia and xenophobia are as equally important. To build a strong and diverse movement requires progressive movements in South Africa to start addressing some of these issues. Addressing these issues means that the culture of our movements and the way we organise ourselves has to reflect our practice of anti-racism and our stances on the other important issues.

We do not want to repeat the same mistakes that some of the unions made during the apartheid era. According to Buhlungu (2006), the role of white unionists within some anti-apartheid unions was mainly to perform ‘expert functions’,  while black unionists performed menial and disempowering tasks. To what extent is that happening in today’s social movements? If it is happening, how do we resolve it? It is interesting how some of the unions dealt with this issue. According to Buhlungu:

“The escalation of mass resistance against apartheid and the emergence within the black unions of a critical mass of younger black leaders and organic intellectuals, many previously leaders in the student and youth movements, changed the role and position of white officials and many retreated into policy work outside the union movement (p. 427).”

I am sure Ngwane will agree that progressive movements ought to have better mechanisms in place to counter any mainstream society’s oppressive logic taking root in our movements. As someone who calls himself a Marxist, how do you, Ngwane, propose that we overcome some of these issues?  What do you think is the best possible way to overcome some of the classic Marxism ideological constraints?

Let me be more specific.

Classic Marxism is not fully equipped to challenge racism. Furthermore, classic Marxism places emphasis on classes to the extent that it does not fully take into account individuals, ‘both as components of classes and other groups, and as separate people unto themselves.’ Consequently, the statistically expected average over the whole group becomes the main focus – in other words reality. Generally, people, both alone and in relation to others, disappear.

Over time, “statistical expectations become dogma and the individual realities that could set them right become lost to sight. The focus of attention never swerves from the mass; it becomes dehumanizingly large, abstract, and often even alienated from real people’s real personal needs and desires (Albert, 1974).”

Hence, Ngwane talks about workers and a need for workers party to lead the revolution and to represent workers’ needs – as if workers are a homogenous group. There are gay workers, women workers, black and white workers who exist in a traditionally racist, sexist and homophobic society. So, how would the party counter the tendency to perpetuate some of these oppressive historical legacies within our movements?  What mechanism will be put in place to make sure that the party does not become an oppressive force in the form of a central committee?

I cringe every time I think of what Trotsky once said about how workers should relate to the party.

“They turn democratic principles into a fetish. They put the right of the workers to elect their own representatives above the Party, thus challenging the Party’s right to affirm its own dictatorship, even when this dictatorship comes into conflict with the evanescent mood of the worker’s democracy. We must bear in mind the historical mission of our Party. The Party is forced to maintain its dictatorship, without stopping for these vacillations, nor even the momentary falterings of the working class. This realization is the mortar which cements our unity. The dictatorship of the proletariat does not always have to conform to formal principles of democracy.”

So, Ngwane, in what ways will your party be different to the one that Trotsky has in mind? How would the ‘workers political party’ that you refer to guard against authoritarianism and oppressive hierarchy?  Would your workers party embrace vanguardism? If not, how would it counter vanguardism tendencies? Will the party you have in mind be structured in such a way that the party does not fast-track into leadership roles activists who have class privilege and other social privileges on their side? How would it make sure that the old class president does not automatically become the leader of the party? What mechanisms would your party have in place to counter sexist and patriarchal attitudes? How would you make sure that the party is not just a forum where some people rule or lead while others, who supposedly have ‘false consciousness’, obey? How would the party deal with dissent? Purge it? Send it to modern day Siberia? Or engage it — how?

To move forward requires that we deal with these questions in an objective and sober manner. And, if we do not deal with these questions honestly, what is going to prevent us from making the same mistakes over and over again?


Albert, M. (1974). What is to be undone: A modern revolutionary discussion of classical left ideologies. Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher.

Buhlungu, S. (2006). Rebels without a cause of their own?: The contradictory location of white officials in black unions in South Africa, 1973 – 1994. Current Sociology, 54.

Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1992). The communist manifesto. New York: Bantam classic.


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