Spartacist/South Africa, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), is proud to launch AmaBolsheviki Amnyama [The Black Bolshevik]. With this paper, we aim to create a revolutionary tool of intervention to fight for Leninist-Trotskyist leadership of the struggle for the national and social emancipation of the mainly black proletariat and oppressed masses of South Africa. This is a fundamental break with the politics of our previous paper, Spartacist South Africa, and the programme upon which the SSA was founded.
As the article below elaborates, that programme was non-revolutionary because its method of “opposing” black nationalism and Stalinism consisted in dismissing the national-democratic revolution as a diversion from socialism. To win the masses away from the nationalists, however, communists must push forward the national-democratic and anti-imperialist struggles, showing at every stage that breaking with nationalism is a necessary condition for victory.
This understanding was central to the SSA’s Eighth National Conference, held in late 2023, which refounded the section on the basis of upholding and defending permanent revolution against our previous revision of Trotskyism. This was a continuation and application of central lessons from the re-arming of the ICL (see Spartacist No. 68). The article below is an edited version of a motion adopted at the SSA Conference.
The main task of communists in South Africa is to fight for revolutionary proletarian leadership of the liberation struggle, in counterposition to the black nationalists and in competition with them, by demonstrating to the black masses that only such a leadership is capable of advancing their struggle for national and social emancipation and taking it to victory. This is the key lesson from the anti-apartheid struggle, which was centrally defined by the contradiction that the main social force driving it was the black proletariat and yet it was led throughout by petty-bourgeois nationalists. This leadership, although it represented no independent class force, was able to restrain and contain the power of the working class at every stage of the struggle. This led in the end to the wretched neo-apartheid betrayal, in which the African National Congress (ANC) tops were co-opted to government office, leaving intact the dominance of white monopoly capital and superexploitation of black labour.
The black nationalists’ reactionary role is rooted in their petty-bourgeois class character. On one side, the brutal and totalitarian character of racial oppression in South Africa, which prevented the formation of a black propertied class of any significance, has led the nationalists to adopt a national-democratic programme that is quite radical and at times to engage in heroic and self-sacrificing struggle, while also seeking the support of the proletariat against white domination through an unprecedented degree of collaboration with its parties and unions. On the other, their intermediate class position and bourgeois aspirations make them mortally fear the prospect of the class struggle sharpening into a fight for black proletarian power, while looking eagerly for an opportunity to kowtow to the imperialist masters.
Utterly incapable of playing an independent role, the nationalists are forced to do a balancing act between the black proletariat on the one hand and the Randlords and imperialism on the other. It was the black proletariat’s own reformist leadership—centrally the South African Communist Party (SACP), including through the trade-union federation COSATU bureaucracy—which played the key role in ensuring its political subordination to the petty-bourgeois nationalists. They did this by pushing a Menshevik programme dictating that participation in the national-democratic struggle necessitates binding the working class in a strategic alliance with the ANC.
The fundamental problem with the SSA’s founding programme, and the central reason why it is a revision of permanent revolution, is that it cedes leadership of the liberation struggle to the black nationalists. It does this by painting the nationalist movement, its programme and strategic aims as purely and simply reactionary, dismissing their progressive sides by referencing their non-proletarian class character and rejecting the national-democratic struggle as a class-collaborationist diversion from socialism.
This is a capitulation to imperialist reaction and white domination, doing precisely what the “Theses on the Eastern Question” adopted by the Comintern’s Fourth Congress in 1922 condemned as “opportunism of the worst sort that can only discredit the proletarian revolution in the East:” refusing to take part in a struggle against national oppression and imperialist tyranny under the excuse of supposed “defence” of independent class interests. To be sure, we have given this reactionary programme a centrist cover, with lots of declarations about the national liberation struggle being “the strategic motor force for socialist revolution,” calls to “fight for black proletarian power,” etc. These phrases are exposed as completely hollow by our polemics against the SACP, the NUMSA metalworkers union and others on the left on all the burning questions of the national-democratic struggle. Prominent examples include (but are not limited to):
(a) Rejecting the Freedom Charter. We have argued that fighting to implement the Freedom Charter limits the proletariat to a bourgeois programme and subordinates it to the nationalists. This is completely sterile and lifeless, and leads to reactionary conclusions. It is true enough that the Freedom Charter, although radical, is a bourgeois-democratic programme. It is also true that this programme appeals to the national and social aspirations of the black masses, and that its realisation requires a struggle against the basic interests of the white big bourgeoisie and the imperialists. In fact, it is the refusal of would-be revolutionaries (such as the SSA) to fight for the working class to lead a struggle for the Freedom Charter’s implementation that ensures the black proletariat’s subordination, not only to the nationalists but directly to imperialist finance capital.
This made the SSA stillborn as a revolutionary factor to break the black working class from the ANC’s nationalist popular front (despite our constant denunciations of the Tripartite Alliance and exhortations to break with it). As Trotsky explained, “It is impossible merely to reject the democratic programme; it is imperative that in the struggle the masses outgrow it.” In sharp counterposition to our old programme and practice, this means communists must wage a constant struggle to show the nationalists’ utter incapacity to realise their own programme, using their vacillations and capitulations in order to fight for the proletariat to take leadership of the national-democratic revolution on the basis of its own independent class-struggle methods and programme.
This is the only way to really fight for the political independence of the proletariat from the influence of the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois nationalists. In particular, communists must show concretely how the objective tasks of the national-democratic revolution go beyond the framework of even the most radical nationalist programmes, simply because a decisive victory of this revolution is incompatible with the rule of world imperialism and the nationalists are incapable of breaking free from the thousands of threads tying them to the imperialists.
(b) Opposing nation-building. We have argued that in the epoch of imperialism, nation-building in the neocolonial world can only be reactionary. For example, in Polemics on the South African Left (1997) we argued that whereas national assimilation was a progressive development in Europe during the 17th to 19th centuries:
Yet again we see how the contradictions of the nationalist movement are denied, with abstractly orthodox statements about imperialism and the dependant bourgeoisies wielded to justify utterly reactionary conclusions that align us with the chauvinism of the actually “dominant people”—the imperialists and white South Africans. Yes, the nation-state has become reactionary under imperialism. But this applies first of all to the imperialist nation-states that dominate the rest of the world. In the neocolonial world, on the other hand, a struggle for national consolidation and development can have a profoundly progressive significance, provided it is channelled along the lines of a struggle against imperialism. And yes, it is reactionary to seek to preserve the 1910 borders of South Africa. But using that as a justification to dismiss the strivings of the black African peoples for national unity against their enforced division into bantustans is far more reactionary. The key is to fight for a revolutionary proletarian leadership of the nation-building struggle—which is, of course, impossible if you set yourself against this just struggle.
(c) Dismissing the contradictions of black nationalism. While we have frequently acknowledged that the strong hold of nationalism on working-class consciousness is based on the overlap of race and class oppression in South Africa, our response to this has been to deal only with the reactionary aspects of black nationalism. We have only ever dealt with the fact that the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists exploit nationalist feeling to subordinate the working class to their leadership while serving as front men for the Randlords and imperialists. This is true, but if you use that to dismiss the progressive aspiration enveloped by black nationalism—the striving to smash the brutal national oppression faced by all black people—then you are putting yourself on the side of the oppressor.
Instead, communists must openly and directly take up these contradictions, which are expressed in the nationalists’ role of balancing between the black proletariat and white monopoly capital. Only by grasping and sharpening these contradictions is it possible to expose this role and drive a wedge between the black masses and the petty-bourgeois nationalist tops, which is what it means to fight for revolutionary proletarian leadership of the black majority.
To deny this task simply condemns you to historical irrelevance, or else prepares the ground for a flip-flop over to the nationalist popular front. This is the lesson from the “workerist” trend within the black union movement: when the township revolt of the mid-1980s sharply exposed the bankruptcy of their economist programme, they either faded away or were recruited to the SACP’s programme of subordinating the unions to the ANC. Our task, in opposition to a repetition of these dead ends, is to fight for a revolutionary proletarian pole to wrest the leadership of the liberation struggle away from the nationalists. This means being the most resolute champions of the national-democratic and anti-imperialist struggle while simultaneously seeking at every step to accentuate the clash between the national and social aspirations of the masses and the reactionary restraining role of the nationalists.
With this conference, the SSA is being refounded to fight for this course of genuine Trotskyism. Given that the entire programmatic basis of every article on South Africa that appeared in Spartacist South Africa was contrary to Trotskyism, we are ending its publication and launching a new paper, AmaBolsheviki Amnyama. As Trotsky stated, “The historical weapon of national liberation can be only the class struggle.” We are taking this as our new masthead because it powerfully captures the essence of permanent revolution that is central to the revolution in South Africa. This signifies our determination to forge AmaBolsheviki Amnyama into the revolutionary lever needed to guide the class struggle to smash through the growing contradictions of neo-apartheid and advance to black liberation and socialism.