Is the SACP still relevant?
As the SA Communist Party celebrates its 90th anniversary this weekend, we publish two views on its role today.
Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the liquidation of his own communist party, is not generally well regarded in communist circles. There is, however, at least one pertinent observation in his book, Perestroika. There he writes that he realised there was need for change in the former Soviet Union when the programme of the party was increasingly determined by the march of the calendar, by a ritualistic commemoration of historical dates.
This weekend the SA Communist Party marks its 90th anniversary. But it would be a mistake for us to celebrate the occasion as mere ritual.
As a young operative I was proud of being recruited into a party that, from its outset in the early 1920s, had pioneered non-racialism - not just in principle, but shoulder-to-shoulder in active struggle. It was the party that started night schools and literacy classes.
Like other young recruits I regarded the party's history of persecution as a badge of honour. There was a long list of martyrs - dating back to Johannes Nkosi, assassinated in 1930 while addressing an anti-pass rally. But what most impressed me was the SACP's analysis of the South African reality and how it connected to a wider global struggle. In the 20th century we were not alone. Everywhere communists were at the forefront of struggle and sacrifice.
We had a sense of being a part of shaping world history. Individually, many of us might not survive, but, so it seemed, we were on the side of history in the struggle for a better world. This was not about instant personal gratification.
Everywhere across the 20th century, the left in opposition performed heroically. But what about communists in power? Alas, that was often a different story.
The very sense of history being "on our side", a powerful narrative for communists enduring torture chambers, could turn into an authoritarian arrogance when in power. The 20th century is littered with tragic "great leaps forward" as history was frog-marched in the direction it was supposedly meant to go.
All of this made the dialectical twist of the late '80s and early '90s particularly poignant - but salutary - for South African communists. At the very moment we were poised, locally, to make the democratic breakthrough for which generations had sacrificed, the Soviet legacy which had inspired us seemed to be lying beneath the rubble of the Berlin Wall. History wasn't necessarily on our side, after all.
The imminent breakthrough locally and this wider global context led to senior departures from the party. Politics, for some, became just the art of the possible - and not also the science of the probable, and a passionate struggle for the desirable. It was as if the collapse of the Soviet bloc suddenly made capitalism a wonderful friend. But despite some departures from the party, thanks to the leadership of Joe Slovo and Chris Hani, the SACP grew and navigated the democratic transition as an important protagonist. Our membership now stands at over 140000, making us the second-largest political formation in SA.
But what, in 2011, does the Party bring to the party? In the first place, we remain a party of activism. A key campaign at present is the struggle against the corrosive impact of corruption. It requires no less courage for those on the front line than our struggles of the past. Already, tragically, there are communist martyrs in this new struggle, among them Radioman Ntshangase, gunned down for exposing corruption in Mpumalanga. In the second place, without being the ruling party, the SACP assumes joint and collective responsibility for active governance.
Thirdly, the party continues to advance a critique of capitalism. Capitalism has shown a capacity to survive its crises - at huge cost to the majority of humanity. But the replacement of capitalism has now become a civilisational imperative. Capitalism cannot self-perpetuate without constantly pursuing incremental growth, without transforming everything into a commodity (healthcare, education, water, shelter, and now even carbon emissions). But this relentless drive for profits is leading us into ecocidal extinction. Armed with a proud 90-year history, the SACP seeks to confront these challenges which, after all, are no different from those facing all of humanity.
Cronin is deputy general secretary of the SACP
Mazibuko K Jara:
The South African Communist Party can be faulted on many fronts, but its sterling contribution to defeating apartheid and challenging capitalist exploitation was personified in the principled socialist morality and selflessness of Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and others.
In Hani's words: "To be the general secretary of the SACP was belonging to a party that must link up with day-to-day struggles of the people."
Yet today's SACP is largely invisible in these popular struggles for social justice. At worst, the SACP proclaims these struggles as social liberalism and counter-revolutionary.
For all its 90 years of history, current radical rhetoric and the continued presence of many genuine rank and file socialists in it, the SACP is a shell that stands for a demobilising politics of intrigue, power battles, self-justifications for indulgence in trappings of state power, and promotion of personality cults.
The SACP has failed to move beyond a state-obsessed centralism. The SACP is now reduced to the role of mollifying increasingly desperate and restless poor and working people who bear the brunt of post-apartheid capitalism.
The crisis of the SACP cannot spell the end of left renewal. The challenge for forces of the left, poor and working people, and others committed to social justice is how to engender a new counter-hegemonic politics that is relevant and concrete. The formation in January 2011 of the Democratic Left Front is only one step in the much larger long-term processes of political, social and economic struggles ahead.
One of the most important struggles in this regard is to build alternatives to limited conceptions of political agency where, to count as a political force, a political actor has to form a party and contest elections in a one-party dominant model in a capitalist society.
This conception displaces the politics of the people with the self-serving politics of politicians. Politics can and must be about the people. Ordinary people cannot just be regarded as merely disgruntled and powerless protesters. They can go beyond apathetic one-off voting every five years or limited wage-based challenges to the wealthy business elite, or powerless grumbles against the failures of the ANC government.
Like Abahlali baseMijondolo, the Social Justice Coalition and many other localised struggles, the Grahamstown-based Unemployed People's Movement shows the possibilities of a people-based politics. Formed in August 2009, it has become the most powerful force in the Makana municipality. Its formation represented a collective recognition of the appetite for self-emancipation, and without self-organisation, the unemployed in Grahamstown might as well have remained on the margins of that divided small town.
In its short two years of existence, the movement has marched, written deputations, submitted memorandums of demands, held sit-ins, held meetings with the state, used the law and more.
It has challenged unemployment, poor-quality housing, lack of housing, lack of water and sanitation, lack of electricity and street lighting, violence against women and problems with the social security system. The movement has humanised politics by concerning themselves with how to rebuild the social fabric of a poor community.
In all this, the movement has no illusion that the gradual recognition of constitutional socioeconomic rights and holding government accountable will be the ultimate answer to the systematic and structural marginalisation of the unemployed. The Unemployed People's Movement is grappling with how to connect immediate struggles with their systemic roots and how to challenge the state as the main transmitter of inequalities.
The movement's experience is only the start of what will definitely be a long-term process to renew politics in South Africa.
It is this kind of renewal that Hani yearned for when he said: "In the struggle ... we have always identified the central role of the oppressed." Hani's yearning lives in the Unemployed People's Movement and challenges the many genuine socialists in the SACP's rank and file to ask and answer hard questions, lest they get left behind by history.
Jara is a former SACP member and a co-founder of the Democratic Left Front