The Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP): A major distraction

According to a recent NUMSA statement, the SRWP is a Marxist-Leninist party fighting to overthrow the brutal capitalist system. Photo by Mzi Velapi

The author argues that the formation of the SRWP is premature as it is not born of workers’ struggle and lacks a clear programme of action.

NUMSA has now formed a party called the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) and registered it to contest the 2019 national elections. Many leftists have uncritically embraced the SRWP and joined it. This is not surprising as the formation of a workers’ party is seen by many leftists as a panacea to all problems confronting the movement of the masses.

It is my contention that the formation of the SRWP is a distraction and not the appropriate call in the present conjuncture. Also the SRWP is being formed with no regard to history, context and working class experience.

What does the SRWP say about its formation?

There is no position paper that outlines the perspective on the SRWP. The only documents that contain some perspective are the Manifesto of the SRWP and the party’s constitution. However nowhere in the Manifesto is there any outline of the nature of the present period, the balance of forces, the state of the working class and its formations. Such an exposition could have assisted in contextualizing why comrades find that the SRWP is a necessary, immediate and concrete task for the working class.

What we encounter rather are generalities that could have been written at any stage of the development of the working class movement. Reading the Manifesto this is all one could find on this question:

“All these ills (of capitalism) and many more, we are convinced, can only be tackled and abolished by the South African working class organised as a socialist fighting block [sic] against capitalism, both at home and abroad.

 To achieve this organisation for Socialism, the working class must play their vanguard role in the struggle for a Socialist South Africa…..

We believe only Socialism, as espoused by Karl Marx and developed by subsequent genuine revolutionary Marxists such as Lenin, is the only viable alternative to the ongoing global savagery of the world capitalist system.

That the Programme of the Socialist Revolutionary Party is the abolition of the supremacy of the capitalist class, the organisation of workers into a revolutionary working class and the conquest of political power for a truly democratic, united, free and prosperous Socialist South Africa.”

In essence what is being said is that:

  • Capitalism is the problem
  • Socialism is the answer
  • Workers must be organised into a revolutionary vanguard party in the struggle for the conquest of power

This is the sum total of the perspective on the SRWP.

A problem of formulae

This abstract and almost religious phraseology, on the need for the workers party is symptomatic of a formulaic approach to the question of the party. Because Lenin once said that in order to overthrow capitalism and usher in socialism the working class needs a revolutionary vanguard party, the task is to build such a party regardless of time and context. Such an approach absolves the person from taking the time to make a concrete analysis of whether the conditions (especially the subjective conditions) are ripe for the formation of a workers’ party.

This formulaic approach to the party question is also characteristic of propagandistic politics. Propagandism is a type of politics where a group believes that through calls, it can make the rest of the working class leap from where it is politically to the group’s “profound and more advanced” understanding of what the tasks are. Although conditions for the SRWP are non-existent, it is believed that forming the party now would allow the masses to jump from where they are in terms of consciousness to where the party leadership is.

Like all other forms of propagandism, there is something elitist about this type of politics. Instead of putting at the centre, the building and strengthening of existing defensive organisations of the working class such as the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), there is a pre-occupation with taking the masses across river Jordan – where the task is to build the SRWP.

There is nothing wrong in discussing the idea of workers party within the ranks of the working class and poor. In fact it is necessary to discuss with activists and militants how previously and on different occasions, the working class in conditions similar to those that working class face resorted to the establishment of workers parties. These discussions will have to deal with successes and failure of workers parties to resolve political problems of the working class. This method is different from the formulaic approach where it has been decided that the solution is a SRWP and that what only remains is to bring along “uninformed masses” to the party’s political conclusions

Conditions are not ripe for the SRWP

We have not yet arrived at the point where question of power is on the agenda. If we understand working class power we would realise that working class power resides primarily on its mobilised strength. Working class power also lies on the class’s vision of itself as alternative rulers. This is how workers and youth arrived in the 1980s to the question of alternative power.

Working class organisations such as unions, civics, women’s groups and youth organisations were strong in that period. In addition to building its mass organisations, the proletariat had also forged organs of self-rule like street committees and people’s courts. This class – organised in its mass organisations and active in embryonic organs of self-rule – did not only rally other oppressed strata, it struggled on the basis of a different political programme. The working class movement in the 1980s, knew that it wanted socialism as an alternative economic system.

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The struggles against capital and the ANC government’s neo-liberal agenda are very important but these have not as yet begun to pose questions of alternative power.

Firstly, the movements that have emerged remain isolated both in terms of being localised and in their inability to win over to their banners other oppressed layers. Although in townships pitch battles have been fought over the years, ideas of self-rule and self-government have not emerged.

Secondly, there exist no discernible alternative political vision and framework that the emerging movements and activists share.

Thirdly, the working class and its new movements have not won recognition among lower sections of the middle class, rural poor and other township dwellers as representatives of alternative pole of power. Questions of alternative power arise in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary periods. Presently, we are far from both. We are neither in pre-revolutionary nor revolutionary situations.

The SRWP has no conception of power

Another weakness of the SRWP’s position is that it has no conception of political power. Although the SRWP’s manifesto mentions the conquest of power nowhere in it does the SRWP says what it understands as power. Nowhere does the SRWP define what the sources of working class power, are. If the SRWP had a conception of power it would not have made its first port of call the Independent Electoral Commission where it registered to contest the 2019 national elections.

As stated above the power of the working class lies in its mobilised strength, its unity in action and in its clarity of political perspective. The fact that all these sources of power are accumulated in the context of class struggle, working class power lies in its ability to resist, disrupt, block and replace plans of its class enemy, the bourgeoisie.

We know that initially, after a period of illusions about the new government, sections of the working class are waking up. They are beginning to resist and disrupt ruling class plans. This is an important part of any re-wakening and the building working class power. But as socialists we need to be honest and recognise that much effort and struggle is required before we can say that proletariat has begun to replace the ruling class plans with its own.

The formation of the SRWP is a distraction for militants and activists and disarms them

The SRWP takes militants away from the immediate task of building and strengthening the defensive organisations of the working class and of forging unity across these formations.

The establishment of SRWP takes militants, especially NUMSA militants, away from building existing fighting battalions of the working class and poor. The question that comrades must answer is: what will the SRWP do which other organisations/movements of the working class cannot do?

The SRWP would not be in a position to answer this question because for the initiators of the new party, the division of labour works like this: worker parties are for the fight for socialism while mass formations like trade unions are for defensive struggles. This is an obsolete schema. Leon Trostsky wrote in the 1930s about how in the period of imperialist decay, to fulfill their ameliorative tasks mass organisations that were established for reforms have to take a revolutionary approach to their tasks.

What this means is that the divide between reforms and revolution, between party and mass organisations becomes blurred under imperialism and neoliberalism. Mass organisations established to deliver on their members’ basic needs and demands, need under neoliberalism to be socialist and revolutionary in their methods. The formulation that ‘unions are reformist by their very nature’ that SRWP leaders quote repeatedly and which they attribute to what Lenin said in 1902 does not apply today and under neoliberal conditions.

But more serious, the obsession with the SRWP separates and compartmentalises the working class and its organisations. It also takes away activists from the day’s pressing tasks to build defensive organisations such as unions and social movements, and to forge unity within and between them.

Presently the most important task of militants is to bring about the organic unity between the myriad fighting battalions of the working class and poor – located at the point of production and in the sphere of reproduction. For the past twenty years of anti-neo-liberal struggle, unity has been very elusive despite many attempts. There is another chance of building unity through the process of the SAFTU Working Class Summit (of Movement). This is what militants are to focus on; and that is why the SRWP is such a distraction.

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The SRWP’s disregard of working class history and experience

A more serious problem with the establishment of the SRWP is its failure to look at the experiences of the workers and socialist movement over the last 100 years. Workers political parties have been important weapons in the arsenal of the workers and socialist movement. Since the 1800s, the working class formed parties for political representation of the proletariat. Unions in Europe and countries like Australia were important in the establishment of labour and other mass social-democratic parties.

Lenin’s intervention through his pamphlet What is to be done, raised the question of a workers party not only for political representation but also as instrument for coordination of workers’ struggles. He also saw the vanguard party as vital for two other reasons. Firstly, Lenin saw a vanguard party as important for synthesising of workers’ experiences- i.e. theorisation of struggles. Secondly, he saw it as repository of the class’ historical memory. For Lenin, the party was important for ensuring political continuity as one generation passes proletarian experiences to another. Many communist parties were formed in the 1920s to fulfill these three tasks.

A recent statement by SAFTU’s NEC reiterated its political independence, saying it would “resist being stampeded into becoming a labour desk for, or forming an alliance with, any political party.” Photo by Mzi Velapi

It is common cause that despite the existence of mass communist parties, many of revolutions of the 20th degenerated. In fact many mass parties contributed to the degeneration of many revolutions. One of the pronounced lessons of the 20th century is how possible and easy it was for revolutions to degenerate when all the three historical tasks outlined above (coordination of struggle, theorisation and ensuring historical memory and continuity) were concentrated in one working class organ.

The concentration of all the tasks in the political party was tragic. It meant that with the degeneration of the party, there were no other working class organs and institutions to act as counterweight to the retreat. As revolutionaries we should learn from these experiences of failed revolutions and the contribution of parties to such failures. Location of the three revolutionary tasks in multiple institutions of the working class may be a necessary, even if not watertight, guarantor against degeneration of revolutionary experiments and working class parties.

The second count in which the SRWP’s lack of history of the working class movement fails them relates to numerous revolutions and breakthroughs that took place in the 20th century without mass workers party. Here we refer to Cuba, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique and many other revolutions in the African continent.

Confusing form and substance

One of the basic tenets of Marxism is for us to distinguish form from substance. This is what the formation of the SRWP misses. The Workers Party is the organisational form to carry out three of historical tasks – coordination of struggle, synthesis of its experiences and provision of historical continuity and memory. The party form is also the embodiment of the proletariat’s political independence.

The party is therefore the organisational form and the substance are the tasks outlined above. There is, however, nothing that says that these tasks cannot be fulfilled outside the organisational form of the party. We have shown how in certain countries and circumstances other formations and fronts executed the historical tasks associated with the party form. Our focus must be on the tasks and not the organisational form!

The key task of the period – build the defensive organisations of the working class into revolutionary organs and forge unity

No revolutionary will disagree that the three tasks historically associated with the party form are still relevant today. Recent experiences in South Africa show that questions of working class independence, coordination of struggle, drawing of lessons, theorisation of working class struggles and the passing of these experiences from one generation to the other are pertinent. It is the tasks of all revolutionaries to ensure that that these tasks are executed.

Where such an execution of the tasks takes place is something that cannot be determined through old schema as the SRWP does. Whether this will be in a party form or in a front or any other combination of working class institutions cannot also be predetermined. The task at hand is to see that all three historical tasks are executed.

Mass organisations like the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in their heydays have shown that this is possible. Always being on the search for ways of linking up struggles is key. Drawing lessons from our struggles is a beginning of theorisation. Political and Marxist education needs to be intensified. Passing the experience of previous struggles to new layers is what we need to do all the time. If we do all of this we will be building existing defensive organisations of the working class into revolutionary organs. This is not less revolutionary as the SRWP initiators would like us to believe.

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