Spartacist South Africa No. 16
WASP on the Land Question:
“Colour-Blind” Social Democrats
Fake Trotskyists Spit on Permanent Revolution
What is there to say about self-proclaimed socialists whose main contribution to the land debate is to insist that the land question in this country is not an expression of the continued national oppression of the black majority?
That is precisely what the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) has done with their pamphlet, Marxism and the Land (September 2017) and article, “Land Expropriation without compensation: Will it eradicate inequality?” (Izwi Labasebenzi, Winter 2018). In the latter, longtime WASP leader Weizmann Hamilton goes to great lengths to “prove” that in land ownership, as in all other measures of wealth, inequality in South Africa is “rooted in class, not race”. Hamilton lectures the reader that “Only 8% of whites live in rural areas”, and “Only a tiny minority within the white population...owns the majority of wealth in general and land in particular”, in order to disprove the strawman argument that “ALL whites own SA’s wealth”.
What a bunch of hocus pocus! This is the sort of garbage one expects to hear from white-racist “liberal” reactionaries like the Democratic Alliance or the SA Institute of Race Relations. To state the obvious, the proportion of the white population living in the countryside, like the proportion owning large tracts of land, is completely beside the point. Hamilton studiously avoids dealing with relevant facts—for example, that 72 percent of farmland is owned by whites, versus just 4 percent owned by black Africans—because the point of his bogus “analysis” is not to uncover social reality, but to provide a pseudo-Marxist veneer for WASP’s “colour-blind”, social-democratic politics.
Indeed, WASP’s Marxism and the Land pamphlet begins by discounting the very “idea” that the black majority continues to suffer national oppression in the “new” South Africa. While ever-so-delicately acknowledging “the racial features of class inequality”, WASP admonishes (emphasis theirs):
“However, especially on the basis of majority rule, it is incorrect to try and characterise the struggle against these conditions as a struggle for national liberation. At most we can say that certain elements of a national question continue to exist today. But the way to resolve this is through the class struggle....”
WASP then proceeds to present South African history, in completely “colour-blind” terms, as merely the result of the “economic laws of capitalism”—impacting black people and poor whites in more or less the same way. This serves to cover up the reality that South African whites were consolidated into a (self-imposed) race-colour caste deriving material privileges from the superexploitation of the black proletariat—a feature that makes class society in this country unique.
According to WASP, the Herculean task of liberation from more than a century of national oppression and dispossession at the hands of the European-derived white minority has been achieved thanks to the negotiated settlement between the ANC misleaders and the white rulers. No! The negotiated settlement was a betrayal of the aspirations of the black majority. Contrary to the utterly deceitful, hypocritical phrases about “majority rule” peddled by WASP and openly bourgeois ideologues alike, the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance government does not rule on behalf of the black masses. Nor does it rule on behalf of some (imaginary) new “black capitalist class”. The Tripartite Alliance tops are black front men for the continued rule of the overwhelmingly white South African bourgeoisie.
As under apartheid, the Randlords and their imperialist senior partners continue to amass fabulous wealth through the superexploitation of a mainly black proletariat. The racial hierarchy established under British colonial rule and entrenched under apartheid—with a privileged white minority on top, Indians and coloureds as intermediate layers, and blacks on the bottom—remains firmly in place despite the end of the legal system of racial segregation and white-minority rule. Notwithstanding the emergence of a handful of black capitalists, as well as a broader black petty-bourgeois layer, this society continues to be defined by a near-complete overlap of race and class. Furthermore, the persistence in reality of things like the apartheid wage gap, as well as naked racist discrimination, mean that black people across class lines are subject to intense racial/national oppression.
Since 1994, we Spartacists have characterised this as a neo-apartheid capitalist system. In the past 25 years that analysis has been confirmed many times over, most starkly with the Marikana massacre of 34 striking black mineworkers by the cops of the Tripartite Alliance on behalf of London-based Lonmin. If the land debate shows anything, it is that fundamentally nothing has changed since 1994, least of all the national oppression of the black majority.
Counterposing class struggle to the fight against racial/national oppression (or even the existence of such oppression), as WASP does, has nothing in common with Marxism and its contemporary expression, Trotskyism. For genuine Marxists, the struggle for national liberation of the black majority is inseparable from the revolutionary class struggle to overthrow capitalism. Not so for WASP, for the simple reason that their programme has nothing to do with the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. They abuse terms like “class struggle” and “socialism” to give them a thoroughly reformist meaning, completely limited by bourgeois democracy and devoid of revolutionary content.
For revolutionaries, combatting the many, invidious expressions of national and racial oppression that define this racist society is in no way a diversion from the class struggle—it is central to building the Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party of the proletariat needed to lead the overthrow of capitalism. This is particularly true in South Africa, where the fight for national liberation of the black majority is the strategic motor force for socialist revolution.
Recognising the decisive role of the national liberation struggle in this country, we fight for a black-centred workers government. This is the application of Leon Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution to South Africa. As Trotsky emphasised in a 1935 letter to his followers here: “Insofar as a victorious revolution will radically change not only the relation between the classes, but also between the races, and will assure to the blacks that place in the state which corresponds to their numbers, insofar will the social revolution in South Africa also have a national character.” This is an inclusive perspective: under a black-centred workers government, there would be an important role and full democratic rights for coloureds, Indians and Asians, as well as those whites who accept a government centrally based on the black working people.
Trotsky’s permanent revolution starts from the recognition that, in the countries of belated capitalist development the bourgeois-nationalist forces are far too weak, dependant on imperialism and fearful of the proletariat to complete the historic tasks of national liberation and social and economic modernisation. Their resolution “is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation”. The proletariat, once in power, is in turn confronted with socialist tasks requiring “deep inroads into the rights of bourgeois property” and posing the need for international extension of the revolution (The Permanent Revolution, 1929).
Notwithstanding the rare occasions when they invoke Trotsky’s authority, WASP spits on the programme of permanent revolution and Trotskyism in general. This is what it means to prettify racist neo-apartheid capitalism as “majority rule”. Far from representing a class analysis, their gross “colour blindness” is but the flip side of subordinating the black proletariat to the bourgeois-nationalist ANC—as WASP’s forebears did for years as a loyal faction within the ANC.
These politics are clearly expressed in the WASP pamphlet, Class and Race: Marxism, racism & the class struggle (2015), which also spends pages and pages giving a pseudo-Marxist justification for the bogus line that at most “elements” of national oppression persist after 1994. The whole pamphlet is WASP’s social-democratic response to the resurgence of “radical” black nationalism, which has been embraced by Rhodes Must Fall student activists and others out of disillusionment with the lie of the “Rainbow Nation”. The sages of WASP lecture them: “Under apartheid, the nationalism of the ANC was progressive in overcoming the tribal divisions encouraged by the apartheid regime and by colonialism before that. But today, on the basis of majority rule, nationalism and nationalist theories can play a reactionary role.”
Embellishing the ANC’s nationalism as “progressive”, WASP promotes the lie of “non-racialism”—that divisions among the oppressed can be overcome under capitalism. In fact, bourgeois nationalists necessarily end up promoting divide-and-rule poison, especially once in power, because they uphold capitalism. While WASP has, in recent years, spilled a lot of ink about the need to build a (reformist) “workers party”, up until 1996 their forebears in South Africa fought bitterly against any separation of the black proletariat from the ANC. In 1994, Peter Taaffe, the historic leader of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI, WASP’s international cothinkers) argued in a speech in New York:
“The working class in South Africa has to go through the experience of an ANC government. The slogan of a workers party was an incorrect slogan in the period prior to the elections in South Africa. We wanted the biggest possible ANC majority.”
—quoted in Workers Vanguard No. 602, 10 June 1994
So the “class struggle” back then took a back seat to getting out the vote for the “progressive” ANC! Against such rotten betrayal of the proletariat, the International Communist League opposed, as a matter of principle, giving any political support to the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance. We stressed the need for political and organisational independence of the proletariat from all bourgeois-nationalist forces, declaring: “Those who today call for votes to the ANC are assuming the political responsibility for the inevitable massacres of South African workers by the ANC/De Klerk neo-apartheid regime” (“ANC/De Klerk Deal Is Betrayal of Black Freedom”, WV No. 599, 29 April 1994).
The activities of Taaffe’s followers in South Africa, then grouped in the Marxist Workers Tendency (MWT) within the ANC, were entirely devoted to subordinating the black proletariat to the ANC. This included promoting the most suicidal aspects of nationalist false consciousness by pushing for unity with black cops and jailers. Under apartheid, the MWT’s newspaper Congress Militant (September 1993) demanded: “Hands off Popcru!”, championing the formation of this fake “union” for cops and prison guards as a question of “labour rights”. They demanded that the ANC and COSATU “defend Popcru with all of our strength. Cosatu should make Popcru a full affiliate, and pour as much resources as possible into strengthening the union.” The CWI’s South African supporters never renounced this position—not even after the Marikana massacre.
This vile pro-POPCRU line goes to the heart of the deep-going reformism of the CWI, which notoriously insists that cops and prison guards of the racist bourgeois state are “workers in uniform”. The “socialism” of the CWI has nothing to do with revolutionary Marxism and everything to do with the social-democratic reformism and chauvinism of “Old Labour” in Britain, which Taaffe and his comrades were buried inside for decades. Their reformist conception was elaborated in Taaffe’s 1983 pamphlet, The state: a warning to the labour movement, which is devoted to dressing up as “Marxist” the absurd notion that a “peaceful socialist transformation of society” could be carried out through parliament if a Labour government would only take “bold steps” to nationalise the “commanding heights” of the economy.
This reformist, anti-Marxist nonsense was debunked over a century ago by Lenin in State and Revolution (1917) and The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918). Lenin set forth the Marxist understanding of the state as an instrument of class domination, demonstrated the impossibility of the working class making use of the existing bourgeois state machinery, and insisted upon the need to smash the capitalist state through a workers revolution that establishes in its place the dictatorship of the proletariat. The cops and prison guards of the bourgeois state are not “workers” but hired thugs of the class enemy, who need to be purged from the trade unions and other workers organisations.
WASP’s “colour-blind” fawning over neo-apartheid “majority rule”, like their forebears’ years-long prostration to the ANC, is just the translation of Taaffe’s and the CWI’s Labourite reformism to the South African terrain. With their touching faith in the “democratic” capitalist state machinery, it is no wonder that WASP’s proposed “solutions” to the most burning issues of national oppression are pathetically meagre reforms entirely limited to the framework of bourgeois democracy.
For example, while criticising some of the worst excesses and abuses of the “traditional chieftaincy” system in the former bantustans, their maximal demands in response are to end state salaries for the “traditional leaders” and remove them from municipal councils. At the same time, they advocate that “traditional leaders retain the right to form a political party and contest elections” and promote the grotesque line that “traditional authority” should “be given the status of voluntary associations—if members chose freely to pay subscriptions and maintain traditional leaders as full-time employees from those subscriptions that is their concern; such traditional associations to observe democratic norms of non-oppression, non-discrimination and non-coercion” (Marxism and the Land, our emphasis). This is a prescription for giving the despotic chieftaincy system—which is in fact not “traditional” at all, but has been artificially perpetuated and manipulated to prop up white rule—a “democratic” facelift.
Why on earth would unelected despots agree to observe any democratic norms, particularly “non-oppressive” and “non-coercive” ones, when their rule is based upon oppression and coercion? Zulu “King” Goodwill Zwelithini paraded his Amabhuto and threatened civil war in response to the mere suggestion that the government might “meddle” in his Ingonyama Trust by granting title deeds to his “subjects”. Zwelithini is notorious for stoking tribal tensions and anti-immigrant bigotry to shore up his parasitic, privileged position. As for the idea of “traditional leaders” forming their own political party, just look at the Inkatha Freedom Party and its involvement—with the backing of the apartheid state—in the communal bloodletting of the early ’90s. It is not very hard to imagine the reactionary, counterrevolutionary role such a party would play in the face of a serious threat to neo-apartheid capitalist rule.
In sharp contrast to the suicidally reformist illusions promoted by WASP, our perspective is one of rallying the rural toilers behind the urban proletariat to smash these tools of racist capitalist oppression, expropriating their land and wealth. This is integral to the fight for a socialist revolution to expropriate the white-owned commercial farms and restore land to the black majority as part of expropriating the bourgeoisie as a class. The repressive “traditional” structures, with the House of Traditional Leaders at their pinnacle, are auxiliaries of neo-apartheid capitalism that serve to subordinate women to men and bolster the patriarchal family. Our revolutionary programme for the land and the rural areas is thus central to the fight for emancipation of black women—who are the slaves of the slaves—through permanent revolution. (See “The Land Question and Permanent Revolution”, page 1 of this issue, as well as “Down With the Traditional Courts Bill!”, SSA No. 9, Winter 2013.)
As genuine Trotskyists working to cohere the nucleus of a revolutionary vanguard party of the proletariat, we understand very well the need to politically expose the black nationalist misleaders and combat nationalist false consciousness within the working class. The basis on which we do this is, however, completely different from that of the WASP social democrats. Indeed, their “colour-blind”, Labourite reformism often leads them to oppose the nationalists from the right. For example, in Marxism and the Land, WASP complains that the demand for wholesale nationalisation of the land, such as is raised by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), “is too blunt an instrument, even if it sounds very radical”, because the bourgeoisie will raise a hue and cry. Similarly, they lament that “Nationalists make ‘no compensation’ for land a question of principle.” The sage “Marxists” of WASP, on the other hand, “view the question of compensation as a tactical question and raise the possibility of paying it in cases of proven need”—including, it would seem, to the owners and shareholders of a substantial number of the 35 000 white commercial farms!
Here again, WASP misuses quotes from Trotsky and others to give their craven opportunism a “learned” air. But they are simply invoking the “small farmer” as proxy for the bourgeois masters’ concerns about a possible threat to the inviolability of private property. In fact, WASP is even being disingenuous when they claim compensation is a “tactical” question for them. For many years, the section on “Land Redistribution” in the programme of WASP’s predecessor, the Democratic Socialist Movement, demanded categorically that compensation “be based on current market rates” (“Who We Are & What We Stand For”, Izwi Labasebenzi, e.g. December 2007/February 2008)!
When such timid reformism is passed off as “Marxism” and “Trotskyism”, it makes it easy for nationalist demagogues to posture as the “radical” alternative to the ANC. In fact, the “new” variants of black nationalism peddled by the EFF and others are in reality a rehash of the same bankrupt bourgeois-nationalist politics that paved the way for the neo-apartheid betrayal in the first place. Particularly insidious are the slanderous nationalist lies painting Marx and Engels as “racist” or “Eurocentric” and Marxists as at best indifferent to racial/national oppression (see “Against the Nationalist Slanders of Marx and Engels”, SSA No. 13, Spring 2015). Such demagogy is often used to justify racial exclusionism and crass race-baiting, which the nationalists are adept at exploiting to shield themselves from political criticism, all the better to grease the skids for their own treachery and anti-working-class attacks once in power.
The “colour-blind” social democrats of WASP present the nationalist demagogues with a real gift by abusing Marxist rhetoric to prettify neo-apartheid and dismiss the fight against national oppression. Exposing this is part of our struggle to uphold the revolutionary, proletarian, internationalist programme of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Those who are interested in this programme, which alone points the way to doing away with racial oppression, imperialist domination and capitalist exploitation here and around the globe, should check out Spartacist/South Africa, section of the International Communist League.