The Seizure of Power is, obviously, fun. We have to start somewhere, though. Why not Seize Power in a substantial political party, bend it to our will, and compel it to do what we want?
Because it cannot be done.
Political parties are full of political-minded people who think they know what they are doing. Usually they’re wrong, but it is tricky to persuade them so. It can’t be done all at once. Hence, come along and tell them to reverse course and they will tell you where to go, and where to shove it. Very often, many members of a party will actually wait until the party is deader than a doornail before making any changes — changes which often lead to setting up another party just like the first one. (The history of South African politics is littered with such doornails; don’t walk around in it barefoot.)
This kind of seizure of power is termed, by the people against whom it is usually aimed, “entryism”. That is, you go into a party not to serve the party but to serve your own agenda. Well, duh. Everybody goes into a party with their own agenda. Maybe they want to push people around a little, maybe they want to bring liberty to the masses, maybe they want more gold braid on their underwear. Thing about entryism, it’s usually crystal-clear that your agenda is the agenda of another party which you like better than your own party. As a result, unless you can do something to reconcile the two agendas, you are probably not going to get very far.
Consider Dale McKinley as an example of extraordinarily inept entryism. He came to South Africa hating the ANC and with the passionate desire to destroy it because it had betrayed the people. Looking around, he decided the best thing to do was join the SACP and agitate for it to split from the ANC. (Like a proud fighter against British Toryism deciding to join the League of Empire Loyalists.)
He stayed around a while in the SACP, but the trouble was that people had joined the SACP because they supported the ANC’s struggle, so to say that the ANC were the Great Satan who had to be denounced did not play well. Also, the leaders of the Party knew that their best route to high office was to hang on to the ANC’s coat-tails. (In this sense the SACP is also an entryist organisation, though a fairly smart one.) They tolerated McKinley much longer than almost any other party would have — partly because they didn’t always disagree with his analysis even though they hated his tactics — and then booted him out. McKinley failed to move the SACP a single centimetre to the left; on the contrary, the SACP poses a constant temptation for people in McKinley’s camp, like Ebrahim Harvey, to move to the right along with the SACP.
Compare and contrast Tony Ehrenreich of COSATU. Ehrenreich’s politics are very similar to McKinley’s. However, for one thing, COSATU is a less centralised organisation than the SACP and therefore more tolerant of people stepping off the beaten path. For another thing, Ehrenreich embedded his attacks on the ANC in the kind of language and policy which the leadership of COSATU were using — so that he might have been more extreme, but he could always claim, if called on the carpet, that he was saying no more than his President or Secretary-General had said. As a result, Ehrenreich stayed on in COSATU and eventually became Western Cape Regional Secretary. That seems like pretty triumphant entryism.
Yet if entryism is aimed at changing the party you belong to, then Ehrenreich is as much of a dud as McKinley. COSATU is now more right-wing than ever (insofar as it is anything; in the age of Zuma it is also very confused). It is committed to supporting a much more right-wing ANC agenda than the one which Ehrenreich railed against, and as a result Ehrenreich is going to have much less room to denounce the right-wing in the Tripartite Alliance. Ironically, after the victory of what the right called the “left”, Ehrenreich probably runs more risk of being bounced out if he offers the same kind of criticism — which is likely to be more justified than before. Bothersome stuff, for it suggests that if you have no clear agenda and no solid support base, entryism doesn’t really go anywhere — especially not if it leads you to a leadership position in an increasingly conservative organisation.
But if entryism doesn’t really work (and historically it is hard to find an example of it succeeding) then isn’t it better not to have anything to do with big parties? Shouldn’t small parties concentrate on honing their skills and waiting for the exact right moment? No, because their skills are largely useless and the moment never comes. Instead a different kind of engagement with big parties is in order.
Big is a relative term. In South Africa the logical party to engage with is the ANC, which holds 70% of the votes (although it is probably past its peak now). But there are smaller parties, too — although the tendency across the world is towards a few hegemonic parties dominating the political scene. In general, perhaps it might be easier to engage with the Revolutionary Marxist Workers Environmentalist Party, which holds 1,3% of the votes for the Boliguayan Assembly, than with the Socialist People’s Party of Radical Action, which holds 39% and is actually a front-organisation for Octopus Cobalt.
Point is that you have to consider the nature of the party. The Creator is extremely unlikely to be ever nominated for leadership of the Democratic Alliance, but if nominated the Creator would not stand, and not just because it might entail wearing some of Helen Zille’s hideous scarves and horrid hairstyles. The point is that the majority of members of the Democratic Alliance are opposed to more or less everything the Creator supports. Hence, lining up with the DA is bad news. More importantly, even quietly doing deals with them is bad news, because they will only help you if they think that in the long run, helping you will hurt you more. (Thus the DA coalition in Cape Town was bad news for those smaller parties who weren’t completely right-wing and who thought they’d get an opportunistic lift out of it.) If there are leftists in the DA, they must be extremely disturbed, or why else would they be there?
But in every party which pretends to be left-wing (even the DA pretends to be liberal) there are a lot of disgruntled members. This is because the leadership of the party is way to the right of the membership and therefore lies a lot about its actual agenda. One of the errors of entryism is the belief that these members want to go off somewhere and be something else. In truth, they are usually loyal to their party — sometimes fanatically so — and it is hard to persuade them otherwise; rather, what they believe is that they are really the party and they want to reconstruct it in their image. However, they don’t know how to do so, and so they sit around in house-meetings, or in pubs after house meetings, mumbling “One day we’ll . . .” like the Nazi Sturmabteilung after the Night of the Long Knives.
As a result, such people are at least potentially willing to listen to more left-wing viewpoints than their own. These are the people who went on the massive anti-Iraq-War marches in 2003. Notice, however, that the left did not gain from these marches. It’s as if the left had no idea what to do with them, just as the left had no real idea of what to do with the anti-globalisation movement which preceded them.
So what is the problem with responses to such people? The key problem is the contempt which most left-wingers feel for any left-winger who is less left-wing than they are. Leftism is a phenomenally “macho” cultural standpoint, and this applies across virtually the whole of the Left. (If you look at the history of Western feminism, a great deal of it amounts to brandishing imaginary phalluses at one another; “I am more radical than you are! Great Mother, lookit me, lookit what I can do!) As a result there is ridiculous competition, and there is equally ridiculous hostility, between people who have very little objectively to quarrel about. (See the “People’s Front of Judea” episode in the movie The Life of Brian for an unbeatable satire of this.)
This approach of contempt and hostility needs to be curbed. The leadership of the big party probably includes a large number of people who are absolutely incorrigible right-wingers and who should not be endorsed at any price. (This is why a formal alliance between a tiny party and a big party invariably means the tiny party gets shafted; a formal alliance has to get the support of the leaders.) However, that’s not the rank and file’s fault and the rank and file shouldn’t be blamed for this. Also, truth to tell, those leaders usually didn’t start out that way. They got seduced or co-opted or otherwise persuaded that their former radicalism was an obstacle to their personal rise in the party, or even to the party’s success at the polls. Boo to them, indeed, but that doesn’t make them intrinsically evil, meaning that people who support them are likely to be wrong-headed rather than demonic.
This crucial difference is often forgotten about. Some leaders can be brought on side some of the time (but never trust them completely). Many members of Britain’s New Labour, for example, were once quite radical. Some of them have faint embers of radicalism glowing where nobody can see. Could they be talked around to the cause of righteousness? Surely not; but at the same time some of them might sometimes privately be willing to talk to people to their left and perhaps provide welcome information and even cold encouragement.
It’s more or less the same with the ANC, although there, because radical babbling is at a premium, the big problem is identifying people who are really left-wing, despite the fact that they espouse right-wing causes which they cover up with left-wing jargon. Leftists who want to sell out will emphasise that they are selling out to people who use left-wing jargon. Leftists who disagree with the sellouts will respond that those people using left-wing jargon are supporting right-wing policies. Meanwhile, few people actually try to see whether the policy rightists, who publicly use leftist jargon with their fellow sellouts, go home and then secretly sing The Internationale in the shower . . .
The point is, therefore, not to denounce either the party or the leaders. That applies to people outside the party who want to win over members, and to people inside the party who want to band together and press for transformation. There is no need to boisterously attack anybody or make up stories about how they murdered Martin Luther King. Instead, simply go back to basics: do you support the redistribution of wealth? Do you support the democratisation of authority? Do you oppose neoliberalism and Western imperialism? Then you are one of us, bra, and by the way, we are also one of you. Can we come as observers to your next branch meeting, making no commitments? Would you like to send an unmandated delegate to our next street committee meeting? Pass word on to Phil Blank, if you see him, that we liked that bit in his last speech about increasing social grants — why the hell didn’t he say something like that during the Budget debate?
And so on. This doesn’t require abandoning your principles, because tactics are not principles and rubbing shoulders does not mean surrendering to the enemy. Disaffected members of large parties and the members of small, marginalised parties or groups do have a lot in common.
The danger is of purges. There are two kinds of purges here; the first being the leaders of the small parties who panic, thinking that this is going to lead to an expansion of their party which could threaten their control. Hence they denounce the bigger party and then provoke conflict, or if there is some sort of agreement between the parties, a split. This was one of the factors (not the only one) which led to the collapse of the fake-left coalition in Italy, and the return of Berlusconi, which almost everyone except the little leftie party agreed was a bad result.
The other, of course, is that the leaders of the big party suddenly recognise that some of their members are growing too close to the other party, and perhaps are getting ideas above their station. So the big party spins rapidly around and kicks the troublemakers out. Very often, this happens because the disgruntled members have been actively drawing attention to themselves and violently, publicly challenging the leadership. (See, for instance, Militant in Labour in the 1980s, or the Marxist Workers’ Tendency in the ANC.) This isn’t to say that it wouldn’t have happened anyway — Labour certainly needed a scapegoat for its dismal performance — but a lot of the time that macho leftist attitude leads people to thump their chests and shout “We are real lefties, unlike the Chair and the President and the Secretary and those arseholes!” and then wonder why the outside door-handle hits them in the bum. The point is that if you are careful (and a little quiet) you can usually steer a course through the party’s constitution and make a purge more difficult.
Of course, if the party is very right-wing indeed and the membership has been docilely persuaded that right is the way to go, even quiet support for the left is cause for a purge. In early-1990s South Africa the (then) Democratic Party purged members just for being married to ANC supporters. If that happens, then you’ve picked the wrong party to try to win over the membership of. But there was no harm in trying.