Supposing South African socialism? (I)

It appears likely (though the Creator would be happy to be wrong in this) that there is now no actually existing political organisation devoted to promoting socialism in South Africa. Let’s pretend that we agree that this is a bad thing. How could one possibly be set up?

The usual South African way for setting up a political party is for some very large organisation to fill a grain silo with hundred-rand notes and hand this over to some definitely dishonest political hack, for the purpose of temporarily fooling the public into supporting him or her. This was, more or less, what happened with the African Christian Democratic Party, the United Democratic Movement and the Independent Democrats. Note that the very names of the parties stink of corruption and desperation. They are marketing tools, not political signboards.

Obviously, a real Socialist Party will not be in any danger of any large organisation giving it money. No large organisations exist in South Africa with any sympathy to socialism. On the other hand, a real Socialist Party will be in big danger of being given money to pretend to be socialist; for the purpose of drawing left-wing support away from the ANC and thus giving more power to right-wing parties whose agendas large organisations actually support. This must be avoided at all costs. Hence it will be inadvisable to start, as other politicians with less to lose do, by going around big businesses with a hat held out and a signboard, MANSION, DRUG HABIT AND POLITICAL PARTY LOGO TO SUPPORT.

There is also a problem with going around the left asking for volunteers. A few years ago that might have seemed like a good idea, but today there are plainly problems. For one thing, many of the leftist political parties and organisations appear to be irredeemably corrupt and therefore a lot of their membership must be corrupt too.

Specifically, what seems to have happened is that in many of these parties the older active membership is devoted to the existence of the party rather than to the values and ideology which the party was set up to serve. Therefore, when the party abandons that ideology and they must choose, they unhesitatingly choose the party. Meanwhile, the newer members have often joined, the way one joins any other secret society, in pursuit of money, power and status; access to corporate information and bribes. These people often sound very impressive — they have learned their jargon parrot-fashion and can deliver it in style — but have absolutely no commitment to any cause, least of all the truth.

It would be dangerous to say that no member of a current “left” party could ever be trusted in a genuine socialist party, but it is probably true that such people should be viewed with deep suspicion.

So this means that a Socialist Party would have to start from scratch with no money worth mentioning. That is a tall order. How could it be accomplished?

If it were possible to gather together a hundred leftist activists, preferably experienced, junior in their organisations, and disillusioned, it would probably be possible to begin something. The object would be to assemble some idea of how much left-wing support could be obtained anywhere, and how it could be made use of in practice. Then it would be possible to try to draw on that support and obtain some membership for the proposed party.

A lot of those activists would probably be academics. In consequence, a portion of that membership — initially, perhaps as much as half of it — would probably be drawn from universities, mainly students. This would be a dangerous temptation. Students are passionate and have, relatively, a lot of free time. For this reason, however, they unbalance an organisation, making it appear both more radical and more energetic than it actually is. (Also students tend to be short-term thinkers, and a Socialist Party would have to be in the game for the very long haul indeed.)

Therefore, the organisations set up on campuses would have to be very tightly-structured to maintain discipline. Discipline within a Socialist Party would have to be very carefully monitored; any public indiscipline could damage the party’s image, any private indiscipline could lead to conflict and splits. However, with care, the campus activists could be used predominantly off-campus, for door-to-door work.

The object of this would be to establish a party presence in areas known to be sympathetic to leftist views; to find people interested in socialism and unsympathetic with the leadership and style of the present “left” parties. Therefore the methods would have to be careful and non-confrontational. There would be no denunciation of other parties, apart from observing that they were not doing their jobs as well as a potential Socialist Party would do so. Meanwhile, expense would have to be pared to a bare minimum; one would spread cheap fliers, go door-to-door assessing sympathies and obtaining possible recruits, and gradually move from there to house-meetings at which members might be recruited.

This would be tricky. Most parties are unhappy about other parties moving in on their turf. This is another reason why it would be inadvisable to be too confrontational. It would be bad for the party if recruiters were intimidated or even assaulted. On the other hand, many of the biggest parties have almost given up on left-wing recruiting and therefore it might be possible to get at least a small membership in place without any fracas erupting — and once the membership was there it would be possible for it to protect itself.

One advantage and disadvantage of an initial dependence on students is that many, probably most, of the students would come from bourgeois areas. Socialism is not necessarily unattractive to the bourgeoisie, at least in theory, and recruitment in these areas would certainly be possible. However, bourgeois socialists often tend to skew their ideology drastically towards overly theorised and highly authoritarian structures which would not be healthy for the organisation of a Socialist Party. Therefore it would be vital for recruiters to get out into working-class areas.

Suppose that this worked. Suppose that the party established a membership of a thousand people, with plenty of potential for growth. It would then be possible to set up the party as a more formalised structure. Until this point it would have been a temporary structure, running largely on donations from the self-appointed leadership and enthusiasm from the rank and file. However, the experience of setting up the membership would undoubtedly have shown who were the strong, and who the weak, figures in the party. Thus it would be possible to hold a national congress to approve the Socialist Party’s constitution and rules of governance and to elect national and provincial leaders.

The party would be largely supported by membership fees. The old SACP rules that one had to pay a certain proportion of one’s income into the Party coffers were sensible ones; thus some money could be obtained. Expenditure would have to be kept as low as possible; you would probably have an unpaid Executive in order to have money to pay organisers and clerical staff, and these organisers and clerical staff would have to have a lot of volunteer support. The bulk of the money would go towards hiring and equipping a few offices and providing stationery and costs for a few public meetings. (You gotta have banners, of course.) It might well be possible that some relatively wealthy enthusiasts could chip in more money, but initially, with only a thousand members, administrative support would be strictly limited.

You might ask how it is that other leftist organisations manage to accomplish so much more? The answer is outside funding; the SACP is largely funded by COSATU, while many of the Trotskyite groupings enjoy foreign funding (and some pretend to be academic research bodies, tapping into another source of external funding). This is unsustainable practice in keeping with the general opportunism of these organisations’ current leaders.

But again, if membership could be made to grow reasonably fast, it’s not impossible to hope for ten thousand members. That would actually put the Socialist Party up there with the SACP in terms of real membership. The Socialist Party would not be vanguardist — that is, it would not be a tight-knit elite of whom total sacrifice was expected — but would rather be more democratic and flexible. It could be easy to make it attractive; many members need only be expected to sacrifice a couple of evenings a week and a modest amount of money. (If 10 000 members coughed up an average of R50 a month, that would probably see the party through, financially.) At this point the Socialist Party could also try to expand a little into small towns in poorer provinces such as Limpopo, North-West and Eastern Cape; the danger of remaining an urban party would be as great as remaining a bourgeois party. Let’s not overvalue the proletariat!

Now, what would the Socialist Party do with ten thousand active members? Let’s say that a thousand of those are activists who devote a lot of their time to building the Party, honing its organisation or its ideology, and so on. Some of these are ensuring that the Party’s records are continually up to date and that every possible opportunity is taken to respond effectively to events, whether real or media-generated. Nine thousand are prepared to devote a lot of their time at least over a short period to helping the Party win an election. For this is the object of the exercise: to get somewhere in a national election.

In a national election, there are, say, 12 million voters. The object would be to get 600 000 of those to vote for the Socialist Party. If 10 000 members each visited 1 000 potential voters over a month (and that’s less than 40 visits a day, per member, although members would probably canvass in pairs or even larger numbers — still, it’s not impossible) as many people would have been covered as were likely to vote. It’s very likely that, assuming the canvassers were well prepared and well briefed (and also, of course, well-disciplined and well-supported), a lot of possible voters would be found. Half a million? Possibly. In a time of intense work like this, however, it might also be possible to boost membership at least temporarily and make canvassing even more effective. (A special category of temporary, or candidate, member might be established for this purpose.) As a result the election could serve for long-term recruitment as well as for violent bursts of canvassing which leave the member exhausted at the end of it.

But, perhaps, happy. Because South Africa has proportional representation, there is no deposit to be lost; there is no capitalist plot against parties of the poor. Hence the Socialist Party would be restrained in its success only by the extent and energy of its membership, and the validity of its message. (Assume for the moment that it has a good message.) There is, thus, no real reason why it should be impossible, even without the support of the media and against the hostility of every other political party (although some of the right-wing parties might give it a soft time, hoping that it would draw votes away from the ANC, and the ANC is decreasingly a grassroots organisation) to get half a million votes. About 5% of the electorate. Enough for a number of MPs and Members of Provincial Legislatures. Enough to get the party’s voice across, and to get the party access to state funding so that in the next election it would do better. Unless the party split, or was co-opted, or corrupted, or any of a dozen other problems — if it could negotiate the dangers arising from success, there would be a real left-wing alternative on the South African political scene again.

But this is a pipe-dream, isn’t it?

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2 Responses to Supposing South African socialism? (I)

  1. You are making a claim that the “usual South African way for setting up a political party is for some very large organisation to fill a grain silo with hundred-rand notes and hand this over to some definitely dishonest political hack, for the purpose of temporarily fooling the public into supporting him or her. This was, more or less, what happened with the African Christian Democratic Party” and others.

    You included the African Christian Democratic Party in this claim. What do you base your wild claims on?

  2. The Creator says:

    Glad you asked, not that it is particularly relevant to the point. The ACDP was admittedly an unusual operation as it seems to have been set up by Military Intelligence (its original spokesperson, Johan van der Westhuizen, was exposed as a military intelligence operative working under the chief of Military Intelligence, which mysteriously did not disrupt his position in the party). So the vast amount of money handed over to the ACDP for its founding presumably came from apartheid slush funds.

    However, it must be admitted that the party is probably now much more dependent on religious maniacs and fascist lunatics than on organised racist militarists. So an improvement there.

    Feeling happier, Mr. Dicks? As you were an ACDP candidate, I can understand that you are embarrassed. The sensible thing to do is to leave the party and abjure your reactionary opinions.

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