Social movements where are we now?

KC JOURNAL NO 5 APRIL 2004

John Appolis* takes a look at the political development within the social movements, and argues for a process of theoretical clarification located within a process of struggle.

Recently there have been a number of discussions on the significance of the new social movements in South Africa.

The discussion have mainly revolved around the Anti-privatisation Forum (APF), Anti-Eviction Campaign (AEC), Landless People’s Movement (LPM), Concerned Citizen Group (CCG) and to a lesser extent other movements. Here we have seen that even from the rightwing political spectrum (for example the Congress Alliance) there is a grudging recognition of the ability of the new social movements to make a significant imprint on the South African political landscape. This grudging recognition comes in the wake of the largest ever post-1994 mass march on the 31st August 2002, staged by movements outside the traditional Congress-aligned Alliance. Probably on this day the South African political landscape was irrevocably changed. More impressively, on a localised level the social movements have been able to win some important victories – like stopping electricity and water cut-offs, stopping evictions, and getting rent and service arrears scrapped – and thereby gaining temporary respite from the neo-liberal attacks of the ANC government.

The question that arises is whether the new social movements have achieved a ‘permanent’ presence on the political map of South Africa. Put differently, are we on the eve of a new 1973-1976, which ushered in a new phase of more sustained mass struggles? Whilst the historic march against the WSSD and its immediate aftermath provided an initial impetus for struggle, we have now seen the first signs of the tapering off of struggles. We have also even seen signs of organisational weakness from some of the movements. On the other hand, organised workers – either in the existing trade unions or new forms of unions – have as yet not entered the stage of struggle in a consistent manner.

A new phase of struggle?

It is probably too early to say categorically that we are entering a new phase of sustained and protracted mass struggle. At this stage our movements can be characterised as (political) attempts to organise effective defence against the neo-liberal attacks, and to address the bureaucratisation of traditional mass organisations. We are at the beginning stages of the quantitative accumulation of progressive left forces.

The most significant feature is that there are signs that a new generation of activists is emerging. In the future this generation will provide the necessary anchor and continuity for struggles, and will make it possible for these struggles to take on a more sustained and mass character. The emergence of this new layer can be seen at a number of levels: firstly, by the extent of our mobilisation (e.g.

WCAR, WSSD, struggles against service cut-offs and so on); secondly, by the increasing presence of young people and unemployed; thirdly, by the drawing in of small numbers from the intelligentsia; fourthly, by a deepening critique of neo-liberalism and of the ANC government as political agent of neoliberalism.

Together these features of the present movement point to an accumulation of left forces. Furthermore, this new generation of activists does not carry the dead weight of the defeats of the 1980s/90s, and to some extent it is not saddled with the old ideological baggage of Stalinism. Evidently the existence of this new generation of activists points out the possibility that the negative period of petty-bourgeois nationalism and Stalinism, and the generalised defeat of the working class, could be in the process of giving way to a new period of politics.

Two currents in the social movements

What should however be admitted is that by and large this new generation of activists has not as yet crafted out ‘a new politics’ for the movements. It has not yet put its own peculiar imprint on the political and ideological discourses of our movements, and indeed of South Africa. Across the major social movements in South Africa the formulation of new politics is to a large extent the preserve of the ‘old left’. At this point this old left is made up of two currents: what I will call the ‘Marxist-Leninist left’, on the one hand, and (a strand of) autonomism, on the other. Both these, but especially the Marxist-leninist left (of which I consider myself to be part of), are the remnants of the previous generation of activists of 70s-90s. The terms ‘marxist-leninist left’/ autonomists are used merely for analytical purposes, rather than fixed determinants. This is because in the current context these currents borrow from each other, and as a result there is sometimes ‘a new mix of politics’. Unfortunately, protagonists from these currents do not acknowledge this conceptual borrowing, and consequently there is no theorisation of this ‘new mix of politics’ and how it takes place. The result of this failure is that there are no new theoretical innovations that have come out of this ‘new mix of politics’.

Instinctively, however, the political and conceptual tools of the marxist-leninist left and the autonomists permeate the new movements’ understanding of the South African and world social order, the methods and forms of organisation and struggles that are appropriate to this period. The political and theoretical approaches of these currents define some of the major differences within the movements at present. I will deal with only two of these key differences.

Social movements and the state

The autonomist strand is against all forms of political and state systems, which is translated into a distrust of state power and a distrust of all political parties. This anti-state and anti-political parties sentiment is in turn translated into opposition to all forms of delegated representative democracy. On the tactical terrain these sentiments lead to the opposition to all forms of bourgeois electoral politics, and to a principled opposition to participation in bourgeois elections and parliaments. On the organisational terrain it finds expression in its resistance to formal structures with representative democracy. In contrast to representative democracy there is a preference for ‘non-hierarchical and non-structured’ forms of organisation in order to prevent authoritarian and undemocratic practices.

Underlying the mistrust of all state-systems and political parties (a healthy mistrust one would say) is the experience of the Stalinist bureaucratised state forms of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. These sentiments also emanate from the inglorious capitulation of the parties of social democracy and Euro-communism to neo-liberalism. According to the autonomists ‘all state power corrupts’, and therefore the struggle is not about the conquest of state power by the working class, but about the construction of autonomous self-management of the means of production and distribution by the working class and its allies. The struggle for state power and for self- management by the working class and poor is treated as if they are mutually exclusive.

On the other hand, Marxist-Leninist strand put the struggle for state power at the centre of struggle of the working class and poor. Depending on the conditions of struggle and the alignment of class forces they adopt a tactical attitude to bourgeois elections and parliaments. As in the case of the autonomists, they would also emphasize mass struggle to achieve working class control and self-management over the means of life, but would argue that the major obstacle in the path of realising this is the capitalist state apparatus. Organisationally there is an emphasis on representative democracy for the purpose of co- ordination of struggles and activities.

Most recently these differences manifested themselves in the approach to the 2004 national elections. Sections of the movements took a principled opposition to the 2004 national elections, calling for a boycott of the elections. Other sections called for a tactical utilisation of the election processes, arguing that whilst the movements should not contest for seats at provincial and national level, the movements should engage with the election process through raising the demands of the communities, exposing the limitations of the existing form of democracy, and exposing the capitalist character of the ANC government.

The principled opposition to all forms of political and state systems on the part of the autonomists has meant that there is no close scrutiny or analysis of the nature of the existing power – in particular its social class base as well as its method and form of rule. Consequently there is no close attention to the transformation of the ANC into a political instrument of monopoly capital, and what lessons the social movements can learn from this transformation so as not to repeat them in the movements themselves.

Despite the ‘marxist-leninist’ emphasis on state power this lack of analysis of the existing state power is also quite prevalent within this current. The local state has been the prime target for the social movements but so far the movements have not as yet systematically unpacked the specific role of the local state in the broader neo-liberal programme, and what this role means for the approach to the 2005 local government elections.

Methods of struggles

Generally the movements have initiated innovative and daring methods of struggle – like the reconnection of electricity and water and the re-instatement of evicted people. There is a need to examine these new methods of struggle and their effectiveness or otherwise. However, ‘direct action’ appears to be the battle-cry of most social movements. Here ‘direct action’ means open confrontation with the state apparatus in its various forms as the most preferred method of struggle. This method of struggle is sometimes articulated irrespective of the prevailing conditions of struggle and the state of the movements. This was the case in point with the march onto the WSSD. In some quarters, the march onto the WSSD was characterised as a political failure because there was ‘ no storming of the barricades of the police and army’. Anticipating the WSSD march would not be a ‘storming of the barricades’ the autonomists argued that the march on the WSSD should also be ‘a march on the (Marxist-leninist) left’. No consideration is given to the fact that the march was envisaged to be legal and peaceful in order to achieve the stated political and organisational objectives of bringing about the broadest possible unity around a common platform.

Despite these differences, ‘direct action’ is also the preferred method of struggle of most the ‘marxist-left’. Here the emphasis is not so much on frontal confrontation but rather a desire for ‘permanent action’. If the movements are not engaged in constant action then there is no struggle, no movement. Whilst the self-activity of the working class is absolutely imperative for the development of the movements, there is sometimes no appreciation of the ebbs and flows of the struggles. Movements are impacted upon by the actions of the state, by the level of political clarification and preparedness for battle. For instance, the temporary retreat of the state in the face of the mass action of the movements – the moratorium on evictions and the partial scrapping of service debt – imposes new conditions of struggle for the movements, requiring new strategies and tactics. An appreciation of the phenomenon of ebbs and flows and a dissecting of its underlying sources will enable the movements to master the art of class struggle.

A rich political mix

Notwithstanding these differences, it should be stated that the cross-pollination of ideas and concepts between the various sections of the social movements has brought about a certain richness in the political discourse even if it is happening without a conscious theoretical reconstruction. What is quite evident is that the movements need to engage around this unconscious reformulation of the new politics ‘ and examine the relevance both Marxism-Leninism and autonomism as a guide to revolutionary struggle in the context of South Africa.

Towards a new politics?

Although the present struggles are defensive in nature and merely confront the plans of neo-liberalism and their consequences, the more intense and broader they become, the more they will place the relations of power on the agenda. The struggles and movements are creating the conditions for the emergence of a new left and anti-capitalist discourse.

For this promise of a new politics to be realised, however, there are a number of challenges that are facing the new movements:

Firstly, an important challenge facing the social movements is to broaden the defensive struggles in order to create the fertile ground for the germination of the new politics. Without the deepening of daily struggles the new politics will be sterile.

Secondly, this re-composition of the left will only come about if the political objectives and theoretical formulations of the new movements are clarified. This process of theoretical and political clarification will have to address the question of the nature of the new power, and the development of appropriate forms of organisation and political strategy.

Thirdly, and more importantly, this process of political and theoretical clarification must be anchored and driven by the new generation of activists within the social movements. The major weakness in the make-up of the social movements is that this process of crafting out a new politics has not as yet become the collective preserve of the movement, and in particular its new generation of activists. This is the major challenge of the coming period: how to situate the reconstruction of a new politics within the new generation of activists. Herein lies the key to the move from a quantitative accumulation of forces to a qualitative new phase of more sustained mass struggle.

This and other weaknesses need to be resolved if we are to move to a new phase of sustained mass struggle.

*John Appolis is the Chairperson of the APF in Gauteng, and is also active in the labour movement.


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