But SRW party must strive for max­i­mum unity around de­mands


THE re­cent birth of the So­cial­ist Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Work­ers Party (SRWP) is a ma­jor devel­op­ment in the work­ing class move­ment, es­pe­cially at the cur­rent junc­ture of a cri­sis-rid­den cap­i­tal­ism which has had a very de­struc­tive im­pact on the black work­ing-class ma­jor­ity.

THE re­cent birth of the So­cial­ist Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Work­ers Party (SRWP) is a ma­jor devel­op­ment in the work­ing class move­ment, es­pe­cially at the cur­rent junc­ture of a cri­sis-rid­den cap­i­tal­ism which has had a very de­struc­tive im­pact on the black work­ing-class ma­jor­ity. High lev­els of poverty, un­em­ploy­ment and rag­ing so­cial in­equal­i­ties serve to re­in­force the ob­jec­tive ne­ces­sity for such a party.

But what are the prospects and prob­lems con­fronting the SRWP? Es­pe­cially how well is it likely to do over both the short and long term?

How­ever, be­fore an­swer­ing that key ques­tion I want to fo­cus ini­tially on what I think should have hap­pened. Be­sides the for­ma­tion of a work­ing class so­cial­ist party, the Na­tional Union of Me­tal­work­ers of South Africa (Numsa) and sev­eral other left­ist groups also com­mit­ted them­selves to form­ing a United Front, which would unite a broad front of anti-cap­i­tal­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions in a com­mon pro­gramme of ac­tion.

I have ar­gued that it is the for­ma­tion of that UF and in the course of those com­mon strug­gles that the best pos­si­ble ba­sis would have been laid in ac­tion for the for­ma­tion of a work­ers’ party at a later stage. I re­main stead­fast that this would have been a much bet­ter course of ac­tion. It would have in­jected a much more con­crete ba­sis for max­i­mum unity and agree­ment in the for­ma­tion of such a party. But the truth is that the UF has failed to ma­te­ri­alise with any real na­tional sig­nif­i­cance.

It is against such a back­ground that in July a Work­ing Class Sum­mit was held to ex­plore whether a work­ers’ party was a fea­si­ble propo­si­tion for build­ing and achiev­ing work­ing-class unity to ad­vance an anti-cap­i­tal­ist strug­gle for so­cial­ism. Be­sides Numsa and other af­fil­i­ates of the new trade union fed­er­a­tion, the South African Fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions (Saftu), the sum­mit was at­tended by sev­eral other left­ist groups and many civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, an im­pres­sive pres­ence.

But al­though it is still very early days I can see var­i­ous prob­lems which, if not ad­dressed very soon, could scup­per what ap­pears to be the best po­ten­tial thus far to build a mass al­ter­na­tive to the be­lea­guered ANC. In fact, it is pre­cisely be­cause the ANC faces an un­prece­dented cri­sis of le­git­i­macy that this ini­tia­tive bears cred­i­ble hope.

How­ever, it will need much more than hope. It re­quires a clear and co­her­ent vi­sion of it­self and a com­mon pro­gramme of ac­tion with which to build wider and deeper sup­port among the masses, es­pe­cially work­ers in other trade union fed­er­a­tions, such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the Fed­er­a­tion of Unions of South Africa (Fe­dusa) and the Na­tional Coun­cil of Trade Unions (Nactu). It must also nec­es­sar­ily draw in the town­ship mil­i­tants who have been most ac­tive in var­i­ous strug­gles for long. They re­quire guid­ance and broader work­ing-class lead­er­ship.

With the global cri­sis in cap­i­tal­ism and trade unions in re­treat, this is a very tough and tall or­der. But it is that same cri­sis which will gen­er­ate a fight­back by work­ers. The South African black work­ing class has been one of the most mil­i­tant in the world for decades. This in­cludes many of the unions in these fed­er­a­tions, es­pe­cially Cosatu and Saftu. But be­sides this po­ten­tial to build such a united work­ing-class party there are many prob­lems which be­set the SRWP early on.

There is a wor­ry­ing pro­pa­gan­dism I see within the lead­ing ranks of the party. How they see and re­late to other so­cial­ist groups is highly prob­lem­atic. There is too much of a tri­umphal­ist ar­ro­gance in some of the views ex­pressed by them, es­pe­cially wor­ry­ing be­cause, to all in­tents and pur­poses, the SRWP is over­whelm­ingly a Numsa ini­tia­tive.

There is not much of a pres­ence and in­volve­ment in the SRWP of the other af­fil­i­ates of Saftu. This can prove es­pe­cially de­bil­i­tat­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion­ally over the short term, when in fact max­i­mum unity in ac­tion is needed. Right now, one can rea­son­ably equate the SRWP with Numsa. The other af­fil­i­ates of Saftu would have to be­come much more ac­tive within the SRWP to give cre­dence to the no­tion that Saftu as a whole is com­mit­ted to the SRWP.

It is also mis­taken, es­pe­cially at such an early and del­i­cate stage of form­ing a mass work­ing-class party, to pre­scribe and im­pose or­gan­i­sa­tional party forms on other in­ter­ested par­ties. I am con­cerned with the no­tion of a “van­guard party”, which the failed South African Com­mu­nist Party (SACP) was sup­posed to rep­re­sent for decades, with very lit­tle suc­cess.

At a mo­ment of un­prece­dented cri­sis within both cap­i­tal­ism and the ranks of the work­ing class… for the SRWP to be pre­scrip­tive about the van­guard no­tion is highly prob­lem­atic. To­day’s cri­sis de­mands a dif­fer­ent fo­cus: weld­ing to­gether var­i­ous work­ing class in­ter­ests into a united force. Squab­bling about a “van­guard” or­gan­i­sa­tional and lead­er­ship struc­ture or not is a se­ri­ous dis­trac­tion from the key tasks at hand. It is in fact the height of pro­pa­gan­dis­tic folly.

If one stud­ies the work­ing-class move­ment in South Africa over the past few decades, then in­deed a more fed­eral struc­ture of a new party is nec­es­sary, es­pe­cially when there are var­i­ous striv­ings for a way for­ward and when there are burn­ing is­sues right now af­fect­ing work­ers col­lec­tively, ir­re­spec­tive of which po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion or sen­ti­ments they might have.

Frankly, the term “van­guard” sounds hack­neyed, sub­jec­tive and highly pro­pa­gan­dis­tic, es­pe­cially at the cur­rent cri­sis-rid­den junc­ture. So is the purist no­tion, com­ing from sec­tions of the SRWP, of op­po­si­tion or scep­ti­cism to­wards Par­lia­ment and elec­tions as “bour­geois”. This I re­gard as par­tic­u­larly ul­tra-left­ist un­der ex­ist­ing real­i­ties. My frank sense is that this van­guardist fetish em­anates mainly from the Numsa lead­ers who come from the SACP.

One can see why I ear­lier ar­gued that if the UF was formed it would have made unity and a work­ing-class party on a con­crete and prac­ti­cal ba­sis more pos­si­ble. But it is in the light of the fail­ure to form a UF that the struc­ture of a new party must be a bit more fluid. In other words, the party must be struc­tured to do what a UF should do: strive for max­i­mum unity in ac­tion around a com­mon pro­gramme of de­mands, where each rep­re­sen­ta­tive will be man­dated to act both in the in­ter­ests of the or­gan­i­sa­tion it comes from and hope­fully reach agree­ment with the party it is a con­stituent part of. Such flex­i­bil­ity is de­manded by the enor­mity of the tasks at hand.

This is a tac­ti­cal unity which must be forged upon a com­mon pro­gramme of de­mands, the ful­fil­ment of which is the heart of the party. It must be a party of united work­ing-class ac­tion, not an in­tel­lec­tu­al­ist talk shop, ab­stractly pre­oc­cu­pied with whether the party must be a van­guard or a mass party. In fact, to present the ques­tion in those bi­nary terms it­self spells of con­fu­sion. A true work­ing-class party, any­where for that mat­ter, is a much more com­plex dy­namic.

Be­sides, there is noth­ing wrong or un­prin­ci­pled in march­ing sep­a­rately but strik­ing to­gether. In fact, given a very frac­tious left­ist his­tory, it is, I ar­gue, in­cum­bent to do so.

Har­vey is a po­lit­i­cal writer and former Cosatu union­ist.

The So­cial­ist Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Work­ers Party is seen as a boost for the work­ing class, says the writer.

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