Hurrah for the University of Johannesburg Trots! They have launched the first ultra-left political party since the 1994 elections! Isn’t this what the Creator has been calling for all along?
Well, yes and no. It hasn’t been launched or even registered yet; they are thinking of launching it in a few months, perhaps around the time of the university vacation which will at least ensure enough students to fill a small hall. When and if it is launched will be time to offer it support, because ultimately Trotskyites ought to contest elections just as Bolsheviks did in the Russian Duma.
The organisation proposing this project is the International Socialist Movement, a local affiliate of an international group of Trotskyites who are conspicuous for never accomplishing anything. (It seems likely that, as with so many other local Trotskyite cells, it was promoted by a foreigner, in this case by the British expatriate Peter Alexander, now at the University of Johannesburg on Deputy Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib’s dole for Trots and Africanists. Habib is now moving to the University of the Witwatersrand, which should do a lot for Trotskyism and Africanism at Wits.)
Internationalism has never been tremendously good for radicalism. None of the Internationals ever accomplished anything much, not even the First and the Fourth which were at least relatively honest bodies. (The Second International is now a pro-globalisation plutocratic talkshop, while the Third International was wound up in 1943 and after 1920 or thereabouts became an incompetent pressure-group for Soviet foreign policy.) The problem is that internationalism usually means in practice that you are doing your thing for someone somewhere else, which more often than not entails doing things which don’t help you to succeed locally.
Even when local conditions are favourable, the ultra-left has a poor electoral record. The Workers Party to Restore the Fourth International got risibly few votes in 1994. Trevor Ngwane’s attempt to build himself a power-base in Soweto in 2006 and thus escape from sweating for his boss-boy Dale McKinley, namely Operation Khanyisa, also failed miserably. (Ngwane nevertheless escaped, and now sweats for his boss-boy Martin Legassick.)
Because the Trotskyite left are mostly few, weak and discredited, they don’t do well in elections. One solution to the problem would be to build up numbers, enhance strength and acquire credit by sound political practice. The other solution, which has been pursued by most of what likes to call itself the non-Bolshevik Marxist Left, is to declare that elections are fraudulent and therefore nobody should participate in them, and any socialist who does is a Bernsteinite or worse. This practice is legitimated by the claim that any organised attempt to persuade the workers to do anything is Stalinism (or worse, Trotskyism — although this crowd are usually called Trotskyites by non-Trotskyites, they often hate Trotsky even more than they hate Stalin). The revolutionary road consists of sitting on your arse and waiting for the people to rise up, after which they will infallibly invite you to take direction of the revolution; therefore your duty is to “Prepare for Power” by building a highly centralised subservient cabal of zombie ideologues, the ideal leaders of a democratic regime.
It is therefore good that the Johannesburg ISM are trying to confront the necessity of contesting elections. (The danger is that they might lose their revolutionary impetus and become a mere reformist party, but this is a detail.) However, does the mere act of confrontation serve to overcome the flaws in their world-view, tactics and organisational framework?
The party is to be called the Workers’ And Socialists’ Party, which is the kind of name which stupid people consider to be clever. Presumably, with some UJ academics and students on board, there will be some socialists present, but what about the workers? Ah, say the organisers, this will be provided by the 150 000 workers of the platinum mines around Rustenburg.
Better make that 126 000, since thanks partly to the activities of the people who are founding the WSP, the unions in the Rustenburg region are in such disarray that the mine bosses have been able to plan the sacking of 14 000 workers (this following on from last year’s mass sacking of somewhere between 10 000 and 15 000 workers. Some bourgeois Joburg Trotskyites showed up at mines once the strikes were well under way (and once established mining unions had either been driven out or fled) to tell everybody that they were good and brave and should go on with the strike, and then went on to write articles on websites talking about how good and brave the Trotskyites had been to show up at the mines. This does not automatically translate into a high level of support for the Trotskyites among the surviving mine workers. Actually, it probably translates into near-zero support, and even if they did have support, a minor problem is that virtually all of these workers are not residents of Rustenburg but are resident, and probably voting, elsewhere in the country, far away from Johannesburg where the WSP has no organisers.
So, bluntly speaking, it seems that the party contains a fair degree of fantasy.
The name incidentally recalls the Socialist Workers’ Party, which is still probably the biggest ultra-left organisation in Britain. It is currently in a state of acute crisis, however, produced by the lack of democracy in the party and therefore the fact that when the Central Committee decided to cover up the sexual predation of some favoured members, a few other members got cross and complained about the coverup, whereupon they were of course purged, whereupon a LOT of other members, such as China Mieville the much-tattooed science fiction novelist, and dear old Richard Seymour of the Lenin’s Tomb website, began raising a ruckus. It looks as if a combination of authoritarianism, bourgeois class denialism and power fantasies are not as good a basis for setting up an effectual political party as it was — wait, when did any of those things actually look good? And is this the kind of tradition that the WSP wants to draw on?
Obviously not. To be fair, the WSP does have some sensible policies. It does not wish to draw on external funders, which is a good thing — South African Trotskyites have for too long battened on the external funding of organisations like the Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung, which naturally comes with strings attached in no uncertain terms. However, without any mass base, it’s going to be difficult for the WSP to make any inroads into national politics. It’s all very well to get an article in the Mail and Guardian and in Business Day, but the more astute members of the WSP may notice that these newspapers do not exist for the furtherance of anti-capitalist ideology, and that if they want to get consistent free coverage they will have to make statements which appeal to the ruling class.
In fact the WSP also has the sensible policy of nationalising the mining industry and the banking industry, policies which they have obviously borrowed from the ANC Youth League back when Malema and company were running it. This is not going to get them much joy from the mining or banking industry, but the question is whether it will earn them colossal support from the working class.
After all, it is one thing for a leading light in the youth wing of the governing party to go against the leadership of his party and proclaim his support for radical policies. He at least has something to lose by making such a proclamation, and if he succeeds he will influence a party which has the capacity to implement those policies. WSP, making such statements, has nothing to lose (because they have nothing) but they also do not have any means of doing anything practical about them. So why vote for them? 150 000 supporters translates to under .75% of the electorate, meaning that they might get only 4 votes in the House of Assembly — enough to make a modest noise, perhaps, but certainly not enough to shift government policy in any way at all.
And the question is whether they would actually get anything like that level of votes. In 1994 the Workers’ List Party got just 4000 votes nationally. In 1999 AZAPO, which has vaguely Trotskyite leanings, got just 27 000 votes (barely scraping a single seat in Parliament) — and they had enormously more public presence and a long and relatively successful history. It seems likely that any attempt to become a serious left-wing party will be a long, hard slog rather than a comparatively quick and easy project based upon the momentary advantage of some sympathetic coverage in on-line media.
This might sound overly harsh. It is important to overcome the self-destructive quietism of traditional Trotskyism, and at least the ISM appear to be doing this. However, are they doing this simply because they feel the need to compete with Legassick’s University of the Western Cape-based Democratic Left Front, which is proposing to organise “mass demonstrations” (whatever that adjective really means) in protest against February’s opening of Parliament? Such demonstrations might also be valuable if they fulfilled any significant function to mobilise support around a particular cause — but it is far from clear that the DLF is thinking that far ahead. Certainly, at the moment, the DLF seems to have no intention of contesting elections or even organising much in the way of popular movements (it seems to have been outflanked, in the recent Western Cape farmworker protests, by COSATU, which managed to appropriate these for the ANC — even though a lot of the farmworkers may have wished otherwise).
Let’s hope that this is not the case; that the ultra-left is at last beginning to recognise that there is more to political action than booing at the ANC and cuddling up to big business. If it fails to do this it will continue to be what it has been for so long — a mental annex to the Democratic Alliance and the white elite. But if it actually does start to confront the ruling class, it will, for the first time in its history, be knowingly challenging someone able to hit back at it. (The Non-European Unity Movement was shocked when apartheid regime’s Suppression of Communism Act turned out not to have an exclusion clause for Trotskyites.)
Let’s wait and see, with sympathetic but sadly experienced eyes.