Character and Tasks of the Revolution

The character of a revolution is determined by two things. On the one hand, by the problems which have brought society to a revolutionary impasse; by the real obstacles standing in the way of social progress; by the nature of the changes that must be carried out in order to clear those obstacles away.

On the other hand, the character of a revolution is determined by the class forces which inevitably enter into conflict with each other, and must fight the fundamental issues out.

The coming revolution in South Africa is, by these criteria, clearly and inescapably a proletarian socialist revolution.

Is this not contradicted by the fact that democratic demands, and above all the demand for national liberation, are to the forefront in the revolutionary struggle? Not in the least. The key to understanding this lies in the theory of the ‘permanent revolution’.

This theory, originated by Marx and elaborated in particular by Trotsky, is completely borne out in relation to South Africa – but with a difference from the way in which it applied to Russia.

The objective tasks of the Russian Revolution, in 1905 and again in 1917, were bourgeois-democratic tasks. These were: to expropriate the land from the feudal landlords, and distribute it among a free peasantry; to free the national minorities, oppressed within the ‘prison house’ of the Russian Tsarist empire; and to break Russia from its dependence upon the Western European imperialist powers, particularly Britain and France, which, in 1917, meant above all ending Russian involvement in the First World War.

Capitalism had developed late in Russia; but then it had developed rapidly, transplanted in a concentrated form by foreign capital, interlinked with the Tsarist-bureaucratic state, and interwoven with the feudal classes and institutions.

Russia participated in the world war both as a semi-colonial dependant of the other ‘Entente’ powers and as an old imperialist power in its own right.

To carry-out the bourgeois-democratic tasks necessitated the revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism and the clearing away of all the feudal rubbish. In and of itself this did not necessitate the overthrow of capitalism – but on the contrary would have been necessary precisely to allow the all-round development of Russian capitalism.

On a world scale capitalism, having entered the stage of monopoly, was more than ripe for overthrow. On a world scale it was choking the development of the productive forces, and this was manifested in the inter-imperialist world war of 1914-18.

But its bankruptcy was relative and not absolute; uneven and not uniformly felt. There was undoubtedly still economic ‘room’ for the further growth of Russian capitalism, in a backward country the size of a continent, covering one-fifth of the globe.

Nevertheless, the circumstances of Russia’s belated capitalist development had left the bourgeoisie weak and incapable of playing any revolutionary role against Tsarism. The proletariat, though a small minority of the total population, was concentrated in large industries, fresh and revolutionary. For protection, the bourgeoisie sheltered under the Tsarist state. Of necessity, leadership of the revolutionary struggle against Tsarism passed to the proletariat, which placed itself at the head of the mass of poor and oppressed peasants.

Inevitably, as a result, the bourgeoisie played a counter-revolutionary role against its ‘own’ bourgeois-democratic revolution.

Understanding this, Lenin and the Bolsheviks fought implacably to rid the workers’ movement of any illusions in a progressive role of the liberal bourgeoisie, and to assert the proletariat’s leading role and political independence. Any revolutionary government capable of carrying out the bourgeois-democratic tasks would have to break the power both of Tsarism and of the bourgeoisie itself.

Trotsky’s Analysis

Trotsky, as early as 1904-05, carried this analysis to its full logical conclusion. He explained that the working class would have to take state power into its own hands with the support of the poor peasants, and that, having done so, it would be compelled to pass over without interruption from the bourgeois-democratic tasks to socialist tasks also.

This would be necessitated by the inevitable clash between the material demands of the working class and the material interests of the capitalists. The workers’ regime would find itself compelled to begin the expropriation of bourgeois property and thus the overthrow of capitalism.

Lenin adopted this position fully in 1917. The first revolutionary victory, in February, had not placed the working class in power. The workers led the overthrow of the Tsar, but power passed into the hands of reformist leaders, who in turn handed it to the bourgeoisie.

The bourgeoisie used this advantage to attack the working class, and try to turn the revolution back.

The October Revolution, led by the Bolsheviks, was necessary to bring the working class to power in order that the bourgeois-democratic tasks themselves could be carried-out.

Land to the peasants; the liberation of the nationalities; an end to the war – these tasks were carried out not by the February regime but only after the October victory.

But the October Revolution, carrying out first and foremost bourgeois-democratic tasks, was in character a proletarian socialist revolution – and was compelled to proceed on to socialist tasks. This gave clear historical confirmation to the ideas of the ‘permanent revolution’.

Proletarian revolution in backward Russia would have been considered absurd by all the Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Trotsky themselves, had they viewed the matter solely within the confines of that country. But they saw the Russian revolution as the first in a chain of revolutions, which would link Soviet Russia to the power of the working class in the advanced industrialised countries of Europe.

Colonial Liberation Struggles

In relation to the countries of the colonial world, Lenin took the view that the liberation movements against colonialism – termed ‘bourgeois-democratic’ movements until then – should now be termed ‘national-revolutionary’ movements.

This was to give expression to the bankruptcy, vacillation and even downright counter-revolutionary role of the national bourgeoisie in the colonies – and to emphasise the potential of the proletariat, even in the most backward countries, to lead the nation to liberation, linking its own struggle for power to the progress of the workers’ revolution in Russia and the West.

In the same way, what were previously termed the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ tasks of the revolution in the colonial world could now be termed ‘national-democratic’ tasks, to emphasise that the bourgeoisie could play no role in their solution – that their solution, in fact, was connected with the victory of the proletarian revolution developing on a world scale.

However, as a result of a whole series of terrible defeats of workers’ revolutions in Europe in the 1920s, the Russian Revolution remained isolated and eventually succumbed to the bureaucratic counter-revolution of Stalinism. This substituted the dictatorship of a privileged elite of state officials for the workers’ democracy of 1917-1923, although remaining on the basis of nationalised (i.e., state-owned) and planned economy.

The ‘Communist’ parties abandoned the ideas of Lenin, of the class independence and leading role of the working class. The term ‘national-democratic’ was falsified to imply the ‘unity’ of the proletariat with the national bourgeoisie. The proletariat in the colonial world became subordinated for a whole historical period to bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leadership.

Where capitalism collapsed or was overthrown in the colonial world, this took place in the most backward countries and without the proletariat playing any leading role. Power passed into the hands of petty-bourgeois elites, who have modelled their regimes on Stalinism, i.e. on bureaucratic dictatorship resting on a basis of planned economy.

In the main, however, the passage of the colonial countries to independence has taken place without the overthrow of capitalism – hence leaving these formally independent countries subject to an ever more stifling neo-colonial domination by the imperialist powers.

Without workers’ power, fundamental national-democratic tasks remain uncompleted: on the land, where pre-capitalist and capitalist exploitation remain intertwined; in the continued oppression of national minorities; and in the abject dependence of these countries on imperialism.

Entirely bearing out the prognosis of Trotsky, it remains for the proletariat in the under-developed countries to raise itself to the leadership of the nation and complete the national-democratic tasks by the method of proletarian socialist revolution, linking-up with the new period of advance of the proletariat and of revolutionary struggles in the industrialised world.

In South Africa, which has had an exceptional national capitalist development, equalled or surpassed by few other ex-colonial countries, there has been a partial carrying through of social tasks of a ‘bourgeois-democratic’ character. This may appear an extraordinary thing to say in a country ruled by an ex-settler racial minority, where the regime has long earned itself polecat-of-the-world status for its suppression of democracy and the national rights of the majority.

It is important to remember that what was essential to even the most classical of the ‘democratic’ (more precisely, bourgeois-democratic) revolutions in history was not the institution of political democracy, but the carrying through of fundamental social changes necessary to bourgeois advance.

The (qualified) democracy of the French Revolution, for example, was soon succeeded by the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte – who nevertheless consolidated the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolutionary gains against feudalism.

In Germany, the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ tasks were partially carried out under the Bismark dictatorship.

Writing in October 1945 on the Character of the European Revolution, Ted Grant answered writers who had landed themselves in confusion:

…simply because they have not understood, or have forgotten, the social content of the ‘democratic’ revolution: the creation of the national state; the overthrow of feudalism and the introduction of bourgeois relations; the separation of Church from State; the agrarian revolution.

What they imagine is the basic content of (bourgeois) ‘democracy’: freedom of organisation, speech, etc., is in reality a by-product of the class struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.[1]

Precisely the same applies to the democratic franchise. Historically, universal franchise has been won for society not by the bourgeoisie, but against it – by the struggle of the working class.

Tasks in South Africa

In South Africa, the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ tasks partially carried out under white rule relate to the transformation of the country into a modern capitalist society. This transformation is shown in the development of domestic industry and capitalist agriculture; in the elimination of pre-capitalist forms, such as the wiping out of the basis of tribal society as well as almost all vestiges of semi-serf relations on the land; in the creation of a centralised capitalist state and a unified market.

Yet, what remains to be fulfilled, what cries out to be fulfilled, what can only be fulfilled in a struggle to the end against the white bourgeois regime – is a fundamental task of a national-democratic character: the national liberation of the African majority.

The political system inherited and elaborated from the basis of colonial domination in the past – the system of white minority rule – now confronts its revolutionary demise.

In a certain sense, the relation between white and black in South Africa, the domination of the privileged minority over the voteless, rightless majority, does resemble a kind of ‘internal colonialism’ (as the Stalinists put it).

In a certain (and, we may add, more profound) sense South Africa’s social relations resemble those of the ancient slave-based ‘democracies’ of Greece and Rome – democratic rights and privileges for a citizen minority, depending on the systematic exploitation of a mass of chattel slaves. In our case, however, a system of collective wage-slavery of the oppressed black majority, on which the privileged existence of the whites, their franchise and ‘liberties’ depend.

Nevertheless ‘all analogies are lame’. It would take an idiot to conclude that the concrete tasks facing black South Africans are to be deduced without further ado from such a comparison.

Even if South Africa was a fully-fledged colony, and not, as the Stalinists argue, a case of ‘colonialism of a special type’, this would in no way justify the conclusion that anything other than a proletarian revolution is required for its liberation.

For reasons already explained, South Africa has already passed through whatever ‘stage’ of national capitalist development it could achieve. Yet the middle class in the movement still hanker after the illusion that, if it were possible to have black capitalists instead of white capitalists ruling South Africa, this could lead to a regeneration of the economy. Their idea is ludicrous on economic grounds – and also ruled-out as a political perspective for reasons explained later in this document.

Amongst activists, this idea is already overwhelmingly rejected. Nevertheless, the South African situation still leaves plenty of scope for misleading misconceptions.

National-democratic tasks confront us – that is beyond a shadow of doubt. But it is complete scholastic nonsense to say that the South African revolution is therefore “not” a socialist revolution “but” a national-democratic revolution. This idea, invented by the Stalinists, is very influential among radical intellectuals. Unfortunately, it has also gained a certain confused currency among the youth.

The Russian Revolution fully bore out the ideas of Marxism concerning the class character of the state. There is no such thing as a ‘non-class’ or ‘multi-class’ state. The modern state is, in the last analysis, either proletarian in its class character or else it carries out the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

If proletarian rule was needed in Russia to carry-out the bourgeois-democratic tasks of that revolution, what about the national-democratic tasks facing us in South Africa? The Stalinists are completely wrong to argue that these tasks can or will be carried out under some imaginary state of ‘national democracy’ – something that is neither fish nor flesh, neither a capitalist nor a proletarian regime.

The South African revolution is a proletarian socialist revolution from the outset. From the outset it inevitably develops as a struggle of the black proletariat directed against the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois state. Nevertheless, it is a proletarian socialist revolution in which the carrying through of a national-democratic task is the first item on the agenda.

This task, let us repeat, is the national liberation of the African majority. It goes hand-in-hand with all the democratic changes demanded in every sphere of society.

Because of the impasse of world capitalism in general and SA capitalism in particular; because of the dependence of the SA bourgeoisie on repression, on dictatorship, and for generations on apartheid – the bourgeoisie is obliged to be the enemy of democracy.

The democratic tasks can be fulfilled only by breaking the power of the bourgeoisie. This must become the conscious purpose of the mass movement if the revolution is to succeed.

To recognise this does not weaken in the least the thrust of the struggle for national liberation and democracy, but on the contrary will invest it with redoubled revolutionary vision and power.

Every attempt to separate the issues of apartheid and capitalism; every attempt to deflect the struggle against the state and the bourgeoisie from a conscious struggle for workers’ power, can only lead to confusion, to the weakening and division of the black working class movement, and can so serve only reactionary ends.

Three Determining Factors

The course of the coming revolution in South Africa will be determined fundamentally by three facts:

  • by the weakness and senility of capitalism, which cannot afford to transform the conditions of existence now intolerable to the broad masses;
  • by a bourgeois state dictatorship whose foundations are cemented in white domination and privilege; and
  • by the unstoppable demand for national liberation and democracy in a situation where the oppressed black proletariat makes up the overwhelming majority of society.

For black people in SA, there is no longer any real subsistence possible from the land. The African peasantry in this country has been all but completely eliminated – a process which has been going on for generations. The bulk of the African population was displaced by colonial conquest and by land-grabbing on the part of the whites, backed by legislation.

What remained of peasant farming in the reserves has been undermined and smashed by the combination of deliberate state policies designed in the past to expand the labour supply; by forced over-crowding as a result of removals and the pass laws; and by the operation of capitalist economic laws which ruthlessly drive out of existence small farming conducted on the basis of impoverished and primitive technique.

Now even the small white farmers, with all the advantages of the Land Bank, etc., behind them, are having to give way to the monopolies in agriculture. The big corporations have extended their tentacles very thoroughly into all the most lucrative spheres. Agriculture is indebted up to the hilt, to the tune of R10 billion at the present time.

The 8,000 white maize farmers complain of “virtual bankruptcy”, going so far recently as to threaten to withhold deliveries if the government persisted with its attempted producer price freeze. In an unprecedented development, the government threatened to cancel their subsidy and even use troops to break the white farmers’ boycott and bring in the maize.

If they are bankrupt, how much the more impossible would be any regeneration of African small farming under a capitalist regime?

Paradoxically, however, under a regime of workers’ power – which nationalised under workers’ control and management the commanding heights of finance, industry, mining, commerce and big farming – redistribution of considerable areas of land and state support for a growth of African small farming would be entirely viable. This would be a transitional stage to voluntary collectivisation.

Roughly half the African population on the land are an agricultural proletariat working on capitalist farms. The bulk of the rest of the African population on the land are the families and dependents of wage-labourers, who are compelled by the apartheid system to rot in the reserves.

To an overwhelming extent, therefore, the African population in South Africa is proletarian in character. Altogether the black proletariat, in all its segments, makes up roughly two-thirds of the country’s entire population. This is a proportion without parallel in the colonial and semi-colonial world.

Whether in the cities or on the land, the liberation struggle of the black masses enters into immediate and inescapable class conflict with the bourgeoisie, with bourgeois property and with all the institutions of control designed to secure the property of the bourgeoisie.

The development of capitalism in SA, by concentrating the productive forces in a few capitalist hands, has concentrated immense social forces against capitalism.

It has produced vast concentrations of black population dependent on wage-labour in the urban areas. Soweto, for instance – some ‘township’ this! – has an estimated two million people.

The biggest concentration of the urban population is in the ‘PWV triangle’ – Pretoria, the Witwatersrand, and Vereeniging (including Johannesburg, the gold mines, the big concentrations of the metal and engineering industry, etc.). This area accounts for nearly 80% of all mineral production and nearly 60% of industrial production in SA.

The country’s population, presently about 33 million, is expected to double in the next 25 years. The percentage in urban areas is predicted to rise from its present 35% to at least 70%. Already, if you take a circle with a radius of 25 km from the Johannesburg city hall, 70% of the people in that circle are black.

Despite all the attempts to establish a ‘white South Africa’ where blacks would be merely ‘temporary sojourners’, government policy – which has for decades been to reverse the tide of urbanisation and send it back to the rural Bantustans – has proved a complete failure.

So too has the attempt to develop industry in the Bantustans as a foundation for the break-up and scattering of the African population, despite all the incentives offered to the capitalists. Increasingly the policy has become a defensive one, aimed above all at preventing the concentration of the black proletariat in the PWV triangle.

The emphasis has switched to creating economic ‘growth points’ – East London is a typical example – where incentives for investment are provided, and where there is a Bantustan right on the edge of the city. Thus the black workers sleep in their so-called ‘homeland’ and every day migrate to employment in ‘white SA’.

The pattern is repeated in the Orange Free State, in Natal, in the Pretoria area, and so on. Included in the ‘homelands’ are the urban townships, the industrial proletarian townships, of the so-called ‘white’ cities themselves. So increasingly the whole thing is exposed as sheer political manipulation, to fend off the demand for equal political rights.

Purpose of Democratic Struggle

The whole point of the democratic struggle in SA is this: that the black masses are asserting democratic demands not for the sake of being able to make a cross on a ballot-paper every five years, but precisely for the purpose of clearing away the obstacles for the assertion of their proletarian class interests, their material demands. They want not ‘principles’ of democracy, but its substance, its fruits – jobs, homes, decent education, transport, a living-wage.

While many of the black petty-bourgeois are deluded on this question, the capitalists themselves are quite clear. They understand that the demand for the democratic transformation of South Africa presents a mortal threat to them. It threatens not only the continuation of the cheap labour system – the necessary basis of their profits and economic power – but the capitalist dictatorship as a whole.

Hence all sections of the bourgeoisie, from the most liberal to the most right-wing, agree in their implacable opposition to majority rule.

Hence the declarations of Oppenheimer against a ‘numerical democracy’. Hence the statement of Professor Lombard, who in 1980 spelled out the predicament of the SA bourgeoisie: “If an unqualified one-man-one-vote election was held today in the Republic, a non-white leader with a communistic programme would probably attain an overall majority on a pledge to confiscate and redistribute the property of the privileged classes.”

If the very idea of democracy spells “communism” to the bourgeoisie, what else can a democratic revolution spell to them?

Yet democracy is impossible in South Africa without a revolution – as we shall go on to show. That fact, as it realises itself in action, will drive even the most liberal sections of the bourgeoisie into the camp of outright reaction.

We can see the evolution of the big bourgeoisie towards the right in the statements of their spokesmen, both on political and economic questions.

When troops were sent in to Sebokeng in September last year, the statement of Progressive Federal Party (PFP) chairman Colin Eglin was a typical reflection of the monopoly interests this party represents. He criticised the move as undermining “the effectiveness of the SADF as a shield against external aggression.” If the police were inadequate to quell the township riots, they should be reinforced for the purpose.[2]

Now we have the spectacle of Zac de Beer – this one-time Progressive MP and presently Anglo director, who has always fancied himself as one of the most civilised liberal gentlemen in South Africa – calling for the scrapping of minimum wages.[3] Apparently it is necessary mercilessly to grind the poor into starvation to avoid South Africa’s deterioration into a “banana republic”.

In the past de Beer called for higher minimum wages. “Today I am pleading for people to be allowed to work for any wage, no matter how low, that they are prepared to accept.” Otherwise, he said, SA’s inflation rate would continue to be three-times that of its major trading partners. Previously South Africa was “tolerably prosperous” and could afford minimum wages. This is the case no longer.

If other bourgeois liberals today criticise de Beer’s statement, it is because their hearts are lagging behind their heads. Given time, they will catch up.

In similar vein, we have the aggressive tactics of the ‘liberal’ Anglo American Corporation management against the National Union of Mineworkers. After dismissing 92 union shaft stewards who had been negotiating with the Vaal Reefs management over various grievances, they proceeded to dismiss more than 16,600 black mineworkers who went on a protest strike.

Riot police were called in with dogs, tear gas and rubber bullets, to enforce the deportation of the workers to the Bantustans and prevent re-occupation of hostels in the mine compound which the bosses had closed. At least one miner was reported killed.

Although the reinstatement of most of these mineworkers was negotiated later, many union militants have been victimised. These tactics of the employers are obviously preparatory manoeuvres for the big confrontation that is looming in mid-year between the Chamber of Mines and the NUM over the annual wage claim.

Attitude to Unions

After implacable hostility towards trade unions for black workers, the SA bourgeoisie has retreated in recent years to a position of grudging toleration of unions – but only under the pressure of tremendous workers’ struggles and tenacious organising efforts which have brought the independent unions to around 500,000 members.

Some SA employers have even come to see ‘virtues’ in trade unions, as they enable negotiation to take place over issues that would otherwise have resulted in sudden explosions of mass action.

But it is necessary to see the process dialectically, and not imagine that it can develop in a straight line. Still only a minority of black workers are unionised. As the unions grow the workers’ sense of power, industrially and politically, grows geometrically. It will be impossible for the SA bourgeoisie to tolerate for any length of time a militant trade union movement in which the majority of the black proletariat is organised.

Inevitably, they will resort later to more and more reactionary measures against the unions. Nevertheless, they will not be able to destroy the basis of organisation in the factories, mines, shops, etc., which has now been laid.

Outlook of Proletariat

The industrial proletariat is, by its nature, a modern class, a civilised class. In South Africa the basis of tribal society has been destroyed, and irrevocably left behind by the great mass of the working class.

Significantly the migrant mineworkers in the NUM no longer refer to each other as Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Pedi or Shangaan, etc. “It is just comrade”, they say. “The union brings us together.”

Where sections of SA migrant workers in their consciousness and their conduct still manifest tribalism, this is a shell of the past still to be sloughed-off. It reflects still the early stage in the awakening of the proletarian mass movement, which in time will draw even the most backward sections into common struggle.

With the rise of the proletariat has come inevitably the rising demand for its full inclusion into civil society, for full civil rights equal with the whites. There is no way that this demand can be diverted for any length of time by the conspiracies of the ruling class.

Because the Africans are the great majority of the population, they do not and cannot seek national liberation by the route of separation. The so-called ‘national’, so-called ‘homelands’ constructed for them and imposed upon them by the SA government are plainly seen by the African masses as a device to obstruct their national liberation.

This will likewise be the fate of all the more elaborate schemes for balkanising the country and dividing up the Africans so that any ‘political rights’ conceded to them will have no weight.

So long as the African majority do not have the power to determine by their franchise the shape and composition of the central government of the whole of South Africa, they will continue to attribute every hardship, every suffering, every indignity to that fact. Therefore they will render unworkable all the ‘federal’ and ‘confederal’ schemes which may be introduced by the ruling class in the coming years.

The central demand of the South African revolution is for ‘one-person-one-vote in an undivided South Africa’. Nothing short of this expresses the aspiration of the African people for national liberation.

Against this central democratic demand of the majority all the powers of resistance of bourgeois society and the state will be concentrated in future.

The movement in South Africa must set as its conscious goal to overthrow the state, and with it the bourgeoisie whose property and power that state has been created to defend. Only the black proletariat, its forces united and mobilised to the full, organised, armed and fighting with clear aims and a fully conscious leadership, can draw behind it all the other strata of oppressed society and carry this battle through to victory. But a victorious proletarian revolution – breaking the power of the bourgeoisie, disarming and dismantling the bourgeois state machine – can create in the place of that nothing other than a new state built upon the organisations and armed power of the proletariat itself. That means a workers’ state. Then and then alone will the democratic revolution in South Africa triumph – through the establishment of a regime of workers’ democracy which, from the very outset will be obliged to take into its hands the ownership and control of the main means of production and carry through, together with the democratic transformation of society, the first steps in its socialist transformation also.

© Transcribed from the original by the Marxist Workers Party (2020).

Continue to Chapter Three


[1] Reprinted, Militant International Review, No.26 (1984)

[2] The Star, 15 October 1984

[3] Rand Daily Mail, 28 February 1985