Anarcho-syndicalism for South African unions today? A talk by Lucien van der Walt
Speech to Metalworkers: Anarcho-Syndicalism for South African Unions Today?
Lucien van der Walt
This is an abridged transcript of Lucien van der Walt’s discussion at National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) Political School. The school was held on the theme of “The Political Role of Trade Unions in the Struggle for Socialism” in September 2013. NUMSA is the largest trade union in South Africa. It is an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and has been a radical opponent of the policies of the ruling African National Congress to which both COSATU and the the South African Communist Party (SACP) are formally allied.
Lucien was debating anarcho-syndicalist versus Leninist views of the potential of trade unions, with Solly Mapaila, Second Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP). He makes an interesting case for the revolutionary potential of (some of) today’s trade unions. So, for those of you who have abandoned such hopes, read on.
A much longer version was printed in ASR #61 2014, pp. 11-20. The PDF is available here
Lucien begins by responding to David Masondo’s presentation, titled “From Rustenburg to Ongoye: The Evolution of the SACP’s Programmatic Approach”
[…] LUCIEN: Okay now, Comrade David, you lay out only two options.
First: we fix the SACP or, second, maybe we set up a SACP Mark 2, the new version, the new edition.
Comrades who are auto workers know that every couple of years you bring out a new car. The problem is that a car is a car. And a car can’t fly, and if there is a problem with cars only some changes can be made. There are certain things that they can’t do and certain things they can do. Same for parties.
Maybe the question is to think about the political form itself. Is the political party an appropriate form? Do we need a party to carry out the political vanguard role of the working class? Why can’t this role be done by a trade union? Right now, actually, that’s what’s happening. We are debating if it’s a possibility, but right now we have a situation where NUMSA is ALREADY providing a vanguard leadership to the working class. Not just in its own ranks. Sections of COSATU [the Congress of South African Trade Unions], sections of the unemployed, sections of social movements, they all look to NUMSA.
You now want to bring the SA Communist Party back on track, although you have left it far behind. You’ve left it behind; you, the unions, are far ahead of that party. You are also two steps to the left of the Communist Party. You are playing a vanguard role that the Communist Party hasn’t done. But then, you say: “No, we must go back to the Communist Party to have a vanguard”!
FLOOR: Laughter and applause
LUCIEN: So that doesn’t make sense to me. I am saying that it’s a issue about the form, and the method. If you want to give political direction to the working class, why can’t you, the unions, do it?
Why can’t the union be a vanguard ideological and mobilizing force? Why can’t NUMSA, for example, be the core of a union movement that shifts things?
That’s what you have done already! It’s not my idea, it’s YOUR idea and it is what you have done already.
So that would be my suggestion:… I ask: is there not a third option? Not SA Communist Party Mark 2. Not SA Communist Party, the 2014 edition. Not SA Communist Party rebranded as a “mass worker party.”
But rather, a third form of politics here, which is a REVOLUTIONARY TRADE UNION MOVEMENT that will provide a link between the different layers of the working class. Provide the basis of a bottom-up coalition of social movements and other unions in class struggle. And that will put on the forefront, not nationalization by the state, but collectivization: workers’ control of the means of production through the union. Through the union, not through the state: through the union.
So, I will leave it there…
MC (Oupa Bodibe): […] I have several questions for you. Lucien, there are two arguments that should be taken forward today. One is the view that trade unions tend to “standardize” capitalism. They support it, okay? Because if you looking at the capitalism that has become more social friendly, or more developmental and also more pro-poor, workers now have a much bigger role to ensure the equal distribution of resources. That is the point I want to make.
The second argument is that one that Comrade Dinga Sikwebu talked about earlier: the inherent conservatism of the trade union movement. This is something that is coming up in meetings.
Do you think these statements are valid for all times? Or do they speak to different historical positions and balances of power in the trade union movement?
LUCIEN: Let’s step back. The arguments that I will criticize, the arguments that Comrade Oupa is alluding to, the arguments that unions are always inherently limited, reformist and economistic, are summed up in V.I. Lenin’s What is To be Done?
So what does that work say? And is it right? If we take What is To be Done? at face value, it essentially suggests that it is the normal nature of unions to be concerned only with day-to-day and narrow economic issues.
If we have to take Lenin’s What is To be Done? at its face value, it also says that unions are reformist, in the sense that they only look at small issues. That in fact they are unable, in a fundamental way, to look at larger issues. That this is partly because they supposedly divide the working class. And there’s something in this: NUMSA deals with metal and allied industries, while other COSATU unions deal with, for example, teachers and schools, and you are all in different unions.
So from Lenin’s perspective, part of the problem is that unions are dealing with small issues, they are dealing with the narrowest economic issues, and they reflect the divisions within the working class.
And for Lenin, these reasons meant that unions really struggle to think beyond the immediate issues. They struggle to think beyond capitalism and to imagine a better, transformed society. And this is where Lenin then brings in the argument for the unions having to be permanently led by a so-called Marxist “vanguard party,” a party of the type that the SA Communist Party claims to represent. To put it another way, the unions cannot be revolutionary, and cannot play a key role in fighting for socialism, UNLESS [says Lenin] a Marxist vanguard party is giving them orders. They can be “revolutionary” only when they aid a Communist Party, and even then, only by providing some muscle, not a political direction, not a leading role.
But is this line of thinking really correct? Well, I think one way to look at all of these issues is to be historical. And if we do that, we have to admit that some unions – and there is no way we can doubt that – some unions are conservative. Some unions are reformist, and all they interested in is better wages and better conditions. In this sense they are also economistic. They fit Lenin’s model.
But that’s not the same thing as saying that ALL unions, in ALL circumstances, are narrowly trapped in reformism and economism. I think if we want to look more historically, it becomes possible to see a range of union experiences that go far beyond what Leninist theory would predict
The problem with Lenin’s argument is that while unions have reformist tendencies, they are just TENDENCIES. There are OTHER forces going in other directions, and these can take unions much further than Lenin’s What is To be Done? suggests.
So we can find many unions which conform perfectly to Lenin’s model. And maybe the Russian trade unions that Lenin was dealing with conformed perfectly to his model.
But if we look historically and globally there is a wide range of unions which are something beyond reformist, something beyond economistic, something beyond simply dividing the working class.
I find it strange at a NUMSA Political School, a union political school, which is dealing entirely with socialism and larger issues of strategy, and which is almost being driven entirely by union activists and intellectuals and associated people, a whole congress that isn’t being led by a party, to be debating whether unions are reformist and suggest unions are helpless without parties.
Right here, you are refuting Lenin through your actions. If Lenin’s argument is right, this Political School could not be happening. This could not be happening! This event is all an illusion. If unions are always reformist and economistic, and Lenin is right, well then maybe you are not even in this room. And if you are, you are wasting your time here. You get me?
But I don’t think it is an illusion… I think Lenin is simply wrong.
A refutation provided by the anarcho-syndicalist Spanish Revolution
Now let’s take this argument another way, which is to look at an example from history.
Where a trade union that did something that sets the bar on what unions can do. Seeing as we have spoken a bit about historical circumstances, I am going to mention a trade union federation that existed in Spain, one that was founded in 1910. This trade union in Spain, we will call it by its initials, the CNT.
The CNT means the “National Confederation of Labor,” and it was set up in Spain in 1910. It was by the mid-1930s, in Spain, the leading force in the working class. By that stage the CNT had organized nearly 2 million workers. Spain’s population at the time was round about 24 million. So if we want to put it into South African terms of today, in our own proportions, the CNT would be around 4 million strong.
It was a union in the Bakuninist tradition – that’s to say, in the anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist tradition. And the CNT did not confine itself to wages or to working conditions. Yes, it fought those fights. Fiercely. But it never stopped at dealing with those fights. It ran 36 newspapers and periodicals, 36 publications, including the biggest daily newspaper in much of Spain.
Comrade Solly is quite right, a large amount of the press is controlled by private capital in our country. You can go to a shop here, and what do you get? Capitalist media.
But what do OUR unions have in the way of mass media in South Africa? We have our internal union newspapers. But basically we wait for the capitalist press to print our press statements, and do what they like with them. Publicly we have nothing.
Well, the CNT produced its own newspapers. And these newspapers outsold and out-competed the capitalist and government newspapers. It had its own radio station and its own movies. In every single working class neighborhood where the CNT was strong, the CNT set up workers’ centers. These workers’ centers organized people, it gave a space where people could organize. These provided a space where the working class outside of the union was educated, including kids. Millions of people went through these centers. The CNT printed millions and millions of books and pamphlets.
And the CNT was a union which stressed direct action. It did not vote in elections. It REFUSED to vote in elections. It did not ally to any political party. It said: “What do we need a political party for?” It out-competed, in the Spanish case, the Spanish Communist Party (PCE).
This party, PCE, claimed to lead the working class, to be its most revolutionary force – it was far less radical, and certainly far less popular, than the CNT. When CNT was reaching 2 million strong, the Spanish Communist Party was 10,000 strong. And this is the Marxist “vanguard” party. With 10,000 members! Well, workers didn’t believe it was the “vanguard” – they believed CNT was the vanguard, in the sense of being the leading radical force in the class.
Now the CNT built up over the years generations of anarchist/ syndicalist cadre. And it trained them through what it called “revolutionary gymnastics.” Does anybody here go to gym? A gymnasium, where you train.
[…] Well, what the CNT did was, because they believed that the real power of the working class lay in its own action and its own resources and its own self-reliance, the CNT consistently tried to use direct action. This was the “gym” to train revolutionaries.
It didn’t use the courts or elections. It didn’t use the courts to try and stop evictions; it would rather stop the evictions physically; it would rather use a rent strike. If somebody in the union was assassinated by the state, it would… It would do what? Tell me what you think they did? They shot back, shot back. CNT developed its own military structures. The CNT worked inside the army as well, and built cells among the soldiers.
Now, these struggles, these experiences, these methods, were a “revolutionary gymnasium,” a training ground, a place where the working class could get stronger, and fitter, and trained for the battle of the classes. Even a small wage struggle could, treated properly, be part of the training in the revolutionary gymnasium.
Now you can imagine that any state, any state, seeing a union like CNT emerging, would start to get quite alarmed. Spain in those days was attracting a lot of foreign investment. It was a country with a lot of poverty, a lot of unemployment, a lot of struggle. This sounds familiar to us as South Africans…
[…] This was a trade union federation, a revolutionary trade union. The Spanish ruling class did not take comfort in Lenin’s What is to be Done?, with its predictions that such a thing as the CNT was impossible. The CNT was doing this without being told what to do by a Communist Party. A revolutionary trade union, it had allies among youth structures; it had allies within community movements, allies among woman’s structures.
But it had no Communist Party that led it. It didn’t NEED it, didn’t WANT it, and it wasn’t worried about Lenin’s What is to Be Done? telling it that could not do what it was ACTUALLY DOING.
An alternative to electoral politics
Now, I am NOT saying that every union can be revolutionary. But I am saying that with the correct ideology and with bottom-up CNT- (or NUMSA-) type structures a union CAN be revolutionary. It can play the political role that is usually taken by political parties. AND DO IT BETTER.
The last thing I will just say on this, Comrade Oupa, is this. The CNT didn’t see revolutions as which party you vote for in elections. It didn’t see revolution as who you vote for. It didn’t see the options for the working class movement, as this party or that party, or this faction of that party, and this faction of that party.
It was quite clear, the state is an enemy. The state, by its nature, is part of the ruling class. The people you vote for join the ruling class. You can put the best man at the top, three years later, he will look like the man you threw out.
LUCIEN: The anarchist Bakunin said “You can take the reddest radical and put him on the throne of the Tsar, and within three years you will have a new Tsar.”
LUCIEN: Now because they had this politics, what they did was, rather than set up a party and vote for it, and then get disillusioned in elections, and then look for a new party or a new party leader to fix the mess, they understood why ELECTIONS DON’T WORK. Not for the working class.
Elections, they argued, were a graveyard of politics. You send your best cadre into parliament, and they never come back!
FLOOR: Laughter and applause.
Revolutionary unions and movements, not party politics
In the 1980s the anti-apartheid struggle wasn’t fought by parties, … it was fought by mass movements. There was the United Democratic Front which brought together churches, community organizations, youth organizations, unemployed movements and various political organizations. It wasn’t led by a party, even though it leaned one way. It worked alongside trade unions, like FOSATU and then later COSATU.
This was political action; this was political in profound ways. But the UDF was not the one who negotiated in the 1990s, that was the ANC, and this people’s power and this type of politics was lost.
The ANC leadership came later, from exile in the 1990s when the job of struggle was done, and said “Well, we led the struggle. Well, we have the right to make decisions.” They then closed down the UDF and they made an elite pact, they made a pact with white monopoly capital, at the same time as the important 1994 democratic breakthrough was happening.
We can talk all we like about “primary” and “secondary” enemies. But the current and ANC-headed state apparatus is ALLIED to white monopoly capital. But it’s not just a tool; it’s not just a victim. It’s an active participant. It is an ACTOR in that situation, a strategic enemy in its own right, from the view of the anarcho-syndicalists at least.
The ruling class in South Africa has got two wings: it’s got white monopoly capital based in the private sector, and it’s got the black state elite, that is the state managers who are based in the state: they are wielding the state. The state controls 45 percent of fixed capital assets in South Africa. It is a major economic player: the state is the biggest employer in South Africa, it’s the biggest land owner, and it has an army as well.
Who controls that? It’s NOT white monopoly capital, in some sort of surreptitious way. IT’S THE BLACK POLITICAL ELITE. White monopoly capital is working in ALLIANCE with this state elite because they have the same interests. But it’s not just giving the orders.
What I am saying is: it’s not like we have the situation where we have some sell-outs in the government who (if we change) will fight white monopoly capital. What we have is a situation where the black political elite allied to the white economic elite and around a common programme of neo-liberalism, and they are therefore united against the whole working class, including the black working class majority. And the ANC is embedded in this elite pact.
It’s not a situation of a few bad apples; it’s a situation of a tree that bears bad fruit. And you can give that tree fertilizer, like by voting, it just gets bigger.
Taking the state seriously: Outside and against it
[Anarcho-syndicalism] takes the state very seriously. It doesn’t see the state as a “thing” out there, where you can just elect a few people and they will just change the system.
Anarcho-syndicalism and anarchism says that it is not the politicians who change the state. RATHER, IT IS THE STATE THAT CHANGES THE POLITICIANS. It is not the politicians who change the state; it is the state that changes the politicians.
Who would have thought in 1990 that Nelson Mandela would be the president when the ANC and the country’s state adopted the neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR) in 1996? Who could have even imagined that?
We have to explain that scientifically. Marxist comrades keep talking about “material conditions.” But the NDR strategy ends up with idealist approaches.
Well look, you put someone in charge of the state, a capitalist state, they have to keep capitalism going. Those are “material conditions.” And they are not doing it for free either. Cyril Ramaphosa was a heroic leader of workers in the 1987 miners’ strike, and now where is he? He is a billionaire who owns mining shares, including at Lonmin, where the Marikana massacre took place a year ago. And evidence shows he called on police to “deal” with those Marikana workers. A changed man!
You don’t change the system by changing a few people; you change the situation by putting in another system.
States cannot be wielded by the working class.
You don’t just keep changing the ingredients in a soup and think it’s not soup. You’ve got to cook to a totally different recipe. As I was saying this morning, comrades, if a car doesn’t fly, a car does not fly. You can paint it purple and it still wouldn’t fly. You can call it the new model, it won’t fly. The state, and this is the thing to think about from the anarcho-syndicalist tradition, is something which cannot be wielded by the working class. It CANNOT be wielded by the working class.
Either you elect a reformist party, and that party ends up, over time, being co-opted in to the ruling class, like the ANC, or a revolutionary party, like the Russian Bolsheviks, seizes state power.
But such a revolutionary party doesn’t just seize power from capital; it also seizes power FROM THE WORKING CLASS. And you can find, even as Comrade David on the panel was saying this morning, that your socialist party can, in fact, be the biggest enemy of the working class that you can get.
When you look at the situation of the Soviet Union, the heartland of Marxism-Leninism, comrades call that “socialism,” people call that “socialism.”
Well, comrades, that was a country with mass murder perpetrated by a Communist Party. That was a country with forced labor camps, with a pass law system and with no free trade unions. Why do you think the working class overthrew that system from 1989-1991? Why do you think a Communist Party can’t get elected these days anywhere in Eastern Europe? Because people have had a Communist Party in power. They’re fine, they’re covered, they’re DONE with such parties.
Comrade Solly makes the point that the Paris Commune was defeated and comrades: sadly that is true, it was defeated. But was that BECAUSE it lacked a party? He makes the point that Spain 1936 was defeated. Was that because it lacked a party?
In Spain in 1936-1939, what Comrade Solly isn’t mentioning, it was the Communist Party, the Spanish Communist Party, working with the bourgeoisie, that destroyed those anarcho-syndicalist collectives I was speaking about. It wasn’t something out there called “the bourgeoisie,” it was the Communist Party backed by Stalin and backed by the KGB secret police, that were working in concert with the bourgeoisie, that destroyed the Spanish revolution. Long before the right-wing military took over.
It’s well documented. This isn’t a matter of opinion. They, the Party, said it’s “ultra-left” so unfortunately the “ultra-left” workers who were running society had to be put down. Put down like dogs.
Confusions on the state
Meanwhile, our SA Communist Party comrades are getting confused. They talk as if the state is a neutral entity which is only SOMETIMES against the working class. And then they also talk about Marxism and Leninism but that says something totally different, that the capitalist state, is anti-working class; that is what Lenin himself said. And then they try to put these two contradictory political things together: being in an alliance with a capitalist ANC which uses the capitalist state, and then also calling themselves Marxist-Leninists.
They want have the cake and eat the cake at the same time. If you agree with Marxism-Leninism, this is a capitalist state and no amount of changing the people at the top will make any difference. But then you get told: “No, vote for the ANC, that’s the way.” This makes no sense.
But the problem is even bigger; it’s a problem in Marxist theory itself. Marxist materialism says the economic “base” determines the political “superstructure.” Marxist materialism says the “superstructure” includes the state. But then Marxism often says something illogical: use the state to change society. The revolutionary strategy boils down to setting up a so-called “workers’ state,” a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” to change the base, a state to abolish capitalism. This is no different in essence from trying to use a capitalist state to change society; in both cases, the idea is that the state is the motor of change.
Now isn’t it illogical in Marx’s own terms to say we can capture the state and change the “base”? If the “base” determines the “superstructure” and it is a capitalist base, you cannot change that base using the state. That’s a really idealistic approach; the anarchist Bakunin was not an idealist like this. He saw this contradiction. So, you certainly can’t use a capitalist state to bring about socialism if you accept the theoretical basics of Marxism itself. But that’s what Marxist political strategy demands! And that’s what the whole NDR idea involves too.
A more sensible approach may be this: if you study anarcho-syndicalism, it’s argued that the state is allied to capital and it can’t break that alliance. It is an unbreakable marriage. They have a common interest. The state needs the capitalist to pay taxes; the capitalists need the state to shoot people, crudely speaking.
Okay, now, if this is the case how do you move forward? And this is where I am going to start pulling this input together.
A strategy for a bottom-up anarcho-syndicalist socialist transition
The working class needs a theory and it needs to translate that into a strategy for DEEP CHANGE.
You need a strategy and you need tactics. Comrade Oupa was saying that you need something appropriate to South Africa. Well, to have a strategy you have got to have a vision where you want to go. To have a vision of where you want to go, you have to know what is wrong in society. And you have to look at specific societies closely.
Fundamentally what anarcho-syndicalism argues is that what is wrong with society is that a small elite runs society. But it’s not just an economic elite, it is also a POLITICAL elite. So as long as an elite runs society it will run society by the elite, for the elite and the state leadership will be of the elite.
And this is part of a whole society, based on exploitation and domination, on top-down power relations, in inequality, inequity, exploitation and suffering, a society where the National Question cannot be fully answered…
Comrade Solly said that Bakunin ignored inequality; that is just not true… The anarchists insisted that all relations of oppression, by gender, by race, by class, by nation, come to an end. That includes the oppression meted out by the capitalists and politicians against the working class. But it also means resolving the National Question in a progressive, working-class way, and it also means fighting for complete gender equality, including in our own movements, and aiming at getting rid all elites, black or white…
For the anarchists, the only way out of this endless circle of “vote for that party, vote for this party, vote for that party and never get anywhere” is if you actually remove that system.
Where you can create a democracy that is bottom-up, based on workers’ collectives, the socialization of production, that is based on an educated population that understands its rights and understands how to run things, that is based on human need before profit, that gets rid of the commodity form entirely, that gets rid of the market but also does not replace it with a central plan and a central dictatorship, but with bottom-up plans…
Well, there is nothing idealistic here, we are talking about a working class democracy, about a free socialist society, the aim and vision of anarcho-syndicalists. Now, if you want that world you have to build a type of movement that does two things. An anarchist/syndicalist movement, first that builds COUNTER POWER in the working class, that builds institutions in the working class that can govern society.
Not institutions that hand power over to politicians, but working class institutions that will THEMSELVES take power – first and foremost revolutionary trade unions. But also organizations in other sectors, including working-class communities.
Organizations that are the EMBRYO of the new society, organizations that BUILD TOMORROW TODAY, within the shell of the old society. Organizations that resist ruling class power now, with working class counterpower, that build to eventually themselves directly REPLACE ruling class power with working class power.
So: counter power. A CNT- or NUMSA-type union is key here.
Secondly, you need a REVOLUTIONARY COUNTERCULTURE which is a radical mass consciousness. It’s a mass consciousness that understands what is wrong in society and how to fix it.
A consciousness that tells people we are in a class-divided society. You can vote for Helen Zille of the Democratic Alliance, you can vote for Jacob Zuma of the ANC. But those are just different wings of the same upper class. That the solution isn’t that empty choice, it is to build something else, new.
A position that says society needs to be based on grassroots democracy, on a democratically planned participatory economy, based on distribution according to need, based on common property, and without a state elite and without a business elite.
And to get that society, to reiterate, for anarchists, for anarcho-syndicalists, for Bakuninists, you need to build counter power: the organizational forms that prefigure the new society. Those are the seeds of the new society.
And the ideological forms that need to become hegemonic within the working class: those are the ideological forms of the new world in the making, that is revolutionary counter-culture.
The aim is not the rule of a political party that is supposedly revolutionary, but a revolutionary WORKING CLASS, with revolutionary ideas promoted by FAI-type and CNT-type structures, that the working class can directly implement, through its organizations.
Now the TACTICS to build such a project are a separate matter. I have laid out a strategy, I have laid out an aim and I have laid out an analysis. The tactics, what you would need to do in a given situation – that is not a simple thing of just sucking it out of your thumb. You would need to think very concretely how you would build such a project. You would need to think about how you lay the basis for a CNT and FAI in South Africa.
I’m not saying anyone HAS to build it, I am saying you should think about if you want to build it. Need revolutionary theory? That’s fine, what is your revolutionary theory then? If you agree with a certain theory, you need different tactics at different times. That needs a whole other discussion and a whole other afternoon. But I have given the elements of an anarcho-syndicalist approach, and the case against our current trajectory as unions….
Now I think with that I can leave most of the remaining things raised aside. I would like to thank NUMSA for giving me this opportunity here. And I would like to thank all of you for participating in a larger discussion over these days that allows us to recover the memory of our own class, the different political traditions of our own class that are very diverse and rich and provide an armory of intellectual and ideological tools for struggle. Because when I talk about anarcho-syndicalism, I am not talking about something new, something alien. I am talking about RECOVERING AND ACTIVATING THE COLLECTIVE MEMORY OF OUR OWN CLASS, the political traditions of our own class, arming ourselves from the armoury of intellectual and ideological tools of and for the working class.
Okay. Thank you!
FLOOR: Sustained applause