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Sunday Times STLive By Ray Hartley, 2012-03-11

To rephrase the words of Joe Slovo: has democracy failed?

Sunday Times Editor Ray Hartley outside parliament, Cape Town
Image: Paddi Clay

WHEN the Soviet Union collapsed, the South African Communist Party - until then one of the loyal standard-bearers of "Soviet accomplishment" - faced an existential crisis.

Would a party that had tied itself so closely to the Soviet apron strings survive on its own? The jury was out.

In January 1990, the party's leader and its leading intellect, Joe Slovo, filled the void with a paper entitled "Has Socialism Failed?".

It was a remarkable intervention because it unflinchingly accepted that the Soviet project had been an abomination. But it was remarkable for a different reason, too: it was written in one of history's rare political interregnums. The SACP had returned from exile and apartheid was doomed, but the party was not yet in power with its ANC allies.

Free of the pressures of incumbency and freed from the long journey of exile, Slovo was able to craft a paper without the coded subservience of an underground movement. He produced a damning critique that, with the value of 22 years of hindsight, was perhaps also a clear message to his comrades about the dangers that lay ahead.

He quoted murdered Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg: "Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party - however numerous they may be - is not freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently ... its effectiveness vanishes when 'freedom' becomes a special privilege."

This definition of freedom, which placed individuality - "one who thinks differently" - above freedom "for the members of one party" - would be captured in South Africa's post apartheid constitution in 1996. How ironic that what are today described as "neo-liberal" values rolled off the tongue of the SACP's most powerful ideologue in 1990.

In the paper, Slovo said this about Luxemberg's definition of freedom: "Without a limitation on democracy there was no way the revolution could have defended itself in the [Russian] civil war and the direct intervention by the whole of the capitalist world. But Luxemburg's concept of freedom is surely incontrovertible once a society has achieved stability."

Lenin, wrote Slovo, had envisaged a diminution of the state after the revolution.

But the opposite happened: "We know that all this is a far cry from what happened in the decades which followed. The whole process was put in reverse. The complete "suppression of the exploiters" was followed by the strengthening of the instruments of state suppression and the narrowing of democracy for the majority of the population, including the working class."

Powers that were supposed to belong to the people were steadily eroded under Stalinism. "The legislative organs did not, in any case, have genuine control over legislation; by their nature they could only act as rubber stamps for decisions which had already been taken by party structures. The executive and judicial organs were, for all practical purposes, under the direct control of the party bureaucracy. In practice the majority of the people had very few levers with which to determine the course of economic or social life."

Slovo's critique of Stalinism captures quite magnificently the corruption (in the moral rather than monetary sense) that can turn noble ideals into the playthings of a power-hungry bureaucracy. All in the name of the struggle, of course.

The state subsumed all. The trade union movement, wrote Slovo, became "became an adjunct of the state and party. Workers had no meaningful role in determining the composition of the top leadership which was, in substance, answerable to the party apparatus."

The party, inevitably, underwent "negative transformations".

"Under the guise of 'democratic centralism', inner-party democracy was almost completely suffocated by centralism. All effective power was concentrated in the hands of a Political Bureau or, in some cases, a single, all-powerful personality. The control of this 'leadership' by the party as a whole was purely formal. In most cases the composition of the highest organ - the congress which finalised policy and elected the leadership - was manipulated from the top."

The party as the centre of political organisation and debate gave way to the party as the organ of the powerful. Slovo again: "In practice, the basic party unit was there to explain, defend, exhort and support policies in whose formulation they rarely participated."

In Luxemburg's words: "Without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element."

South Africa might not be there yet, but Slovo's warning has long been forgotten.