Originally published in Inqaba ya Basebenzi No.27 (November 1988)

by Peter Fisher and Richard Monroe

The term “workerism” has acquired a certain currency among activists in our movement. But what is “workerism”?

In 1986, the UDF journal Isizwe (Vol I, No. 3) – to which many activists have looked for theoretical guidance – published an article on “Errors of Workerism”. At first glance, this article may seem both radical and convincing. But, the more closely it is examined, the more confused it can be seen to be.

The Isizwe authors begin:

As the name shows workerism concentrates more or less narrowly on the working class. Workerism correctly states that this class is the most progressive class in capitalist societies. But workerism then clings to this truth in a very mechanical, one-sided way.

Depending on the time and place, workerism has some or all of the following features. In the first place, workerism is suspicious of all issues that are not ‘pure’ working class issues. What is more, workerism tends to have a very narrow idea of working class concerns. It tends to think mainly of factory-based struggles over wages and working conditions. These are the really important problems for workerism. Insofar as other issues, beyond the point of production (beyond the factory) are taken up, these are seen as secondary matters. This means that workerism tends to under-rate the very important struggle for state power. By state power we mean control over the police, army, courts, parliament and administration.

Workerism also tends to be highly suspicious of any kind of popular alliance, and of any struggle that involves more than just the working class. [Emphasis in original.]

Within this passage Isizwe identifies a number of ideas which are indeed harmful for our movement. As the article proceeds, however, Isizwe adds to the list, combining under the same label of “workerism”, other ideas which are in fact correct. That, as we shall see, was the real purpose behind the article.

Isizwe says it is in favour of socialism: “A genuine interest in socialism and its propagation is not to be equated with dissidence, workerism, or any other deviation.” (I, 4) Yet close examination will show that Isizwe is in fact carrying out an attack on Marxist, scientific socialist, ideas – lumping them together with both reformist and ultra-left errors under the convenient amalgam: “workerism”.

As we proceed, we hope to show how the Isizwe authors performed this trick.


A word about terminology, to begin with. The purpose of terms and concepts in politics should be to distinguish clearly between different ideas or things, to bring to light different social forces and political tendencies. For this, concepts need to be precise, and clear.

“Workerism” is not such a concept. It does not help to illuminate the real divisions which exist on the way forward for our struggle. It jumbles up quite different things, quite contradictory tendencies and ideas. In fact, use of the term “workerism” can only serve to confuse activists on issues of vital importance.

“In the late 19th century and early 20th century”, says Isizwe, “workerism was one of the false approaches that the new, international workers’ movement had to deal with.”

“Workerism”? In that case, one would imagine the term was in use at the time, for example in the 45 volumes of Lenin’s works, and in the writings of other political analysts and leaders in the international workers’ movement who engaged in sharp polemics against opposing approaches and tendencies. Yet they did not use this term!

Isizwe is right in telling us that wrong ideas were promoted by important sections of the leadership of the workers’ movement in Europe. It was Marxism which identified these and relentlessly combatted them.

These wrong ideas had characteristics which Isizwe includes in the long list quoted above. But they were not called “workerism”. They were called economism and reformism. Why coin a new name for them now?

Economism and Reformism

The idea that the working class should confine itself mainly to “factory-based struggles over wages and conditions” is more correctly called economism.

Economism – identified as such – arose in the workers’ movement in Tsarist Russia at the turn of the century. It wanted to limit the working class struggle to ‘trade union politics’ “viz., the common striving of all workers to secure from the government measures for alleviating the distress to which their condition gives rise, but which do not abolish that condition, i.e. which do not remove the subjection of labour to capital.” (Lenin, What is to be Done?)

Economism is inseparably linked to a reformist approach to politics. The tendency to “under-rate the struggle for state power” – or, more precisely, to deny that the working class needs to overthrow the state in order to liberate itself and the whole of the oppressed people – is more correctly called reformism.

The foremost exponent of reformism at the turn of the century was the German social democrat Eduard Bernstein. He argued that parliamentary democracy based on extension of the vote to wider sections of society, meant that the state no longer served “purely” the interests of the capitalist class.

The state had become an autonomous body, suspended above the classes. Through parliament, he argued, the working class could, step-by-step, “fill” democracy with a socialist content – and achieve its goals without the need to overthrow the state.

These ideas were combatted, notably by Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and the Russian Bolsheviks led by Lenin. They explained that Marxism was not against a struggle for reforms. On the contrary, Marxists support and join in every such struggle by the working class.

Marxism has always explained, however, that all such struggles run up against limits. Capitalism is a system of exploitation and competition, compelling the capitalists to attack the conditions of the working class for the sake of its profits. What they are forced to concede with one hand, they take back as soon as possible with the other.

Improvements are won by sections of the working class, in some places, at some times – but under conditions where the general, global, tendency of capitalism is to promote impoverishment. Capitalism, based on the anarchy of private ownership, is again and again subject to crises which wipe out reforms that have been achieved by the working class.

No reform, therefore, is permanent. The struggle for reforms, while important, cannot remove the burdens suffered by the working class. Reformism bases itself on the idea that the working class can put up with a “tolerable” degree of exploitation, rather than moving to challenge the whole capitalist system. In reality the question of socialist revolution returns again and again to the agenda of the working class.

The working class wins, defends, and regains, both economic and political reforms by struggle, i.e. by the exercise of its collective force. But, in the final analysis, the ruling capitalist class exercises a monopoly of force through its control of state power. Thus the limits to the struggle for reforms bring the working class again and again up against the state, and the need to over-come and defeat it.

Claiming to follow Marx, Bernstein had in fact turned Marxism upside down. “The first step in the revolution by the working class,” Marx and his co-worker Engels had explained in the Communist Manifesto (1848), “is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.” However, the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, when the working class briefly took power, had confirmed for Marx that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” (The Civil War in France).

It could not achieve its goals simply through parliamentary means, leaving intact the courts, administration, police and army of the old state. It must dismantle these, and replace them with its own organs of workers’ democratic rule.

Shrinking from this task, the economist and reformist leaders end-up betraying even the mass struggle for economic concessions and political reforms.

Both economism and reformism lead inevitably to another false idea: that, in struggling for democracy, the working class shares aims in common with “liberal” capitalists and needs to “co-operate” with them and their political representatives.

Rosa Luxemburg explained that the rise of monopoly capitalism, imperialism, and militarism had driven the whole capitalist class in an anti-democratic direction, however much they might disguise this with “democratic” talk. Defending democracy and over-coming capitalism’s crisis demanded working class revolution.

She ridiculed Bernstein for advising “the proletariat to disavow its socialist aim, so that the mortally frightened liberals might come out of the mousehole of reaction.” (Social Reform or Revolution)

Bernstein, she pointed out, had replaced the Marxist explanation of the material necessity for class revolution by the idealistic notion that progress depended on humanity’s “love of justice”.

Lenin led the struggle against the reformism of the Mensheviks in Russia. The Mensheviks claimed that the working class needed to “ally” and subordinate itself to the liberal politicians to end the Tsarist dictatorship and achieve parliamentary democracy.

Bolshevism implacably opposed such an “alliance”. The Russian bourgeoisie, explained Lenin, was too tied to the landlords, imperialism and the Tsarist state, and too hostile to working class power, to join in a real struggle for democracy. The real counter-revolutionary character of the liberals, hidden behind ‘democratic’ sweet-talk, had to be ruthlessly exposed.

It was the working class in Russia, in alliance with the oppressed peasantry, which must lead a revolutionary struggle for democracy and workers’ power, in complete opposition to the bourgeoisie and their representatives.

On this basis, the Russian working class established the first workers’ state in the 1917 revolution.

“Workerists”, says Isizwe, are “highly suspicious of any kind of popular alliance.” Lenin and the Bolsheviks were not merely “highly suspicious” of, but denounced, the idea of an “alliance” of the working class with the liberals. Did this make Lenin a “workerist”? Isizwe doesn’t say. The fact is, “workerism” is not a helpful term in clarifying ideas and distinguishing real tendencies in politics.

Economism and Reformism in SA

Do economist and reformist tendencies exist in our own movement in SA today? Undoubtedly, yes.

In identifying and criticising some of these, Isizwe makes some valid points – which Inqaba has also made in a number of earlier issues.

The Isizwe authors identify one of these tendencies among those in the leadership of pre-Fosatu and Fosatu trade unions of the 1970s and 1980s.

Prominently identified with this tendency is the writer Steven Friedman. In his book on the rebirth of the trade unions, Building Tomorrow Today, he argues for a “new style of politics” in which the trade unions gradually extend the negotiating procedures used in industrial bargaining to the political arena.

He writes of the Fosatu period: “so began the first attempt to build an independent worker politics in Africa – and to bring to the communities a style which stresses the power of ordinary workers, rather than great leaders, to shape their own destiny – and to do it through negotiation.” (Our emphasis.)

The idea of an “independent worker politics” is an attractive one. And the rebuilding of the trade unions from the early 1970s by black workers; the formation of Fosatu and then Cosatu – has been a magnificent achievement, through which many hundreds-of-thousands of ordinary workers have indeed gained confidence in their power to shape their destiny.

Obviously, compromises in the day-to-day economic struggle are an unavoidable necessity – so long as the working class lacks the means to overthrow the bosses. Negotiated agreements arise because of this: because of a clash of two forces, the capitalists and the workers, neither in a position to defeat the other entirely.

While such conditions exist, the working class is compelled to accept the necessity of such negotiations and compromises – but not to make a virtue of it.

Moreover, industrial negotiation, as every worker knows, is toothless without struggle or the threat of struggle. And the power and confidence that has been gained in building the trade unions spurs the working class forward politically not towards compromise with the class enemy, but towards democratic and social revolution.

Friedman, however, advocates his “independent worker politics” of “negotiations” as an alternative to revolution, as an alternative to struggle. “It [negotiation],” he concludes, “offers … the powerful a prospect of orderly change instead of a violent struggle they must one day lose.” (Our emphasis.)

Offers to… “the powerful”: in other words, to the bosses and the state! This so-called “independent worker politics” which Friedman claims to be offering to the workers, he is in reality offering to the bosses and the state as an alternative to a revolution which “they must one day lose”!

In recent months, Friedman has gone further – to publicly advocate blacks to vote in the October elections for the puppet councils: “groups who oppose the system might make more headway, using seats to challenge the local government system rather than relying on a boycott they are unable to organise.”[1] His “independent worker politics” is here reduced, not even to the politics of “negotiation”, but to the politics of submission.

What a classic example of an attractive, apparently radical, and fancy-sounding concept – “independent worker politics” – being used to conceal essentially reactionary, class-collaborationist ideas.

Real working class politics in SA is the struggle of the working class to build the organisations it needs to liberate itself from the problems it experiences, to overthrow the existing state by all the means at its disposal.

But to Friedman, and to all brands of economism and reformism, this is wholly unacceptable. Such tendencies peddle radical phrases to try and gain credibility – in order to confuse and divert our movement from its tasks.

Apartheid rule defends capitalism, and SA capitalism depends on the apartheid state to enforce the cheap labour that is the basis of its profits. The Isizwe authors themselves point out, in criticising the avowed trade union reformists, that: “Without an oppressive machinery (police, army, courts, jails, administration) the bosses would not be able to continue for one single day their exploitation of the workers in the factory.”

Under the mounting pressure of the movement of the black working class, the bosses can at times urge the government to change particular policies – because of their fear of the impending revolution. But all the “pressure” and “negotiations” in the world will not persuade the bosses to surrender their state to black majority rule. Nor will the state surrender.

The democratic question cannot be solved in negotiations with the bosses or the state. To achieve national liberation and democracy, to win decent wages, jobs, homes and education for all, the apartheid state must be overthrown by workers’ revolution, and the rule of the bosses with it.

It is this understanding which constitutes the essential dividing-line between reformist and revolutionary tendencies in our movement. Isizwe criticises that brand of reformists who want to restrict the working class to “trade union politics” – to “the common striving of workers to secure from the government measures for alleviating the distress to which their condition gives rise, but which do not abolish that condition.” (Lenin; our emphasis.)

But in making its criticism, Isizwe by no means goes as far as Lenin did. Nor does it extend, as he did, the criticism of reformism to include every variety of this error.

When we look at how Isizwe takes-up the question of popular alliances, we will see that its term “workerism” is used in fact to cover over reformist features in its own position.

“Workerism” is an Amalgam

“Workerists”, says Isizwe, tend “to be highly suspicious of any kind of popular alliance, and of any struggle that involves more than just the working class”; they are “suspicious of all issues that are not ‘pure’ working class issues”. Then, later in the article, they add that some workerists “would like to see the UDF become a socialist, workers’ party”.

To use the single term “workerism” to cover all these ideas, which are clearly different, is not helpful in distinguishing tendencies. It is true, for example, that the avowed trade union reformists in Fosatu argued against trade union participation in the UDF on the grounds that it was a “popular alliance”. But these criticisms by Isizwe are not directed solely against this tendency.

Far from being “suspicious of any alliance” with other classes, for example, economists and reformists of the Friedman stripe believe that the black working class should ally itself with the bosses to pressurise the state to bring about “orderly change” as an alternative to revolution.

This tendency in Fosatu did not want to build the UDF as a “socialist, workers’ party”, but wrongly argued that organised workers should not affiliate and take the leading role in the UDF. (See The United Democratic Front)

Here it is clear that Isizwe is taking economist and reformist ideas, and lumping them together with other ideas by means of the label “workerism”. The term “workerism”, in short, is an amalgam. The totally false implication is created that any “workerist”, i.e. person holding any one of these ideas must then believe in all of them!

For what purpose is Isizwe trying to create this confusion? Let us try to disentangle their arguments.

Narrowing the Horizons of the Working Class

Economists and reformists, it is true, in trying to limit the horizons of the working class, promote a narrow idea of what constitute “working class issues”. Together with this, they promote a narrow conception of “the working class” – as those who can be organised in trade unions, i.e. employed workers in the factories, mines, docks, farms, etc.

In reality, of course, the unemployed, pensioners, housewives, youth – all those who own no means of production and depend on wage-income for survival – are part and parcel of the working class. Social issues outside the workplace – homes, fares, education, health – are no less working class issues than wages or safety at work. In fact there are no mass demands in SA, including the demand for political rights, that are not essentially working class demands.

Any attempt to divide the different detachments of the working class from each other in struggling for these demands only plays into the hands of the bosses and the state.

This was why it was wrong for reformist leaders in the trade unions to hold them back from participation in the UDF when it was formed. This tended to separate their members off from hundreds-of-thousands of other working class people in struggle.

This was why it was wrong for reformists in Fosatu to oppose general strike actions called by the UDF in the course of 1984-86 – for example in the Eastern Cape in March 1985.

If there is any core of meaning in the concept of “workerism”, it lies in the attempt to persuade organised workers (trade union members) that their own forces are sufficient to achieve their demands. But this is only a particular aspect of economism and reformism, which does not require a new label to identify and criticise.

Today, to build the strength of the Congress organisations equally requires action campaigns uniting organised workers, youth, the organised and unorganised, in the townships and countryside – in struggles which develop their common class consciousness and confidence in carrying through a democratic and socialist revolution.

To mobilise such campaigns – for a national minimum wage of R160 for a forty-hour week; for a national rent strike; for one-person-one-vote in an undivided SA – is the joint responsibility of the Cosatu, UDF, and SAYCO leadership.

The Isizwe authors write, correctly, that “The position, outlook and discipline of the workers must provide direction not just within the confines of the factory – but also in the political struggles, in struggles against gutter education, and community oppression.”

But they then introduce a muddle. “To ensure that our struggle is advanced to the maximum”, they say, “the working class needs increasingly to provide leadership not just to its own members – but to all democratic and oppressed South Africans – to the black middle strata, to the rural masses, to the unemployed, and to the youth.”

Here Isizwe itself promotes a conception of the working class as limited to organised workers – and labels the working class youth, the working class unemployed, the working class rural masses as mere “oppressed democrats” whom the organised workers must ‘ally with’ in order to “lead”.

Such a conception serves only to hold back the remainder of the working class from discovering their common class interest with the organised workers – and to hold back the organised workers from combining with the rest of the working class in a class struggle for democracy and socialism.

Isizwe wants the working class to provide “leadership”, but not on the basis of its own class interests. Isn’t this an idea which, if carried out, would also tend to reduce the politics of the working class to what Lenin called trade union politics… thus strengthening the hand of the economists?

What kind of “alliances”?

Isizwe criticises “workerists” for being “highly suspicious of any kind of popular alliance, and of any struggle that involves more than just the working class”; for being “suspicious of all issues that are not ‘pure’ working class issues.”

Isizwe is correct in emphasising the need for the broadest possible unity of all the oppressed in the struggle.

It is true, moreover, that the concerns of the working class are by no means all “pure” working class concerns.

In struggles against rent or fare increases, in struggles for decent education, etc., the black working class is protecting the economic interests also of many among the lower middle class, who are oppressed by the power of the monopolies and the state – and seeks to involve them in struggle also.

In struggling for freedom of organisation, free speech, freedom of religion, the working class defends the interests of society as a whole, and of every person in society who wants and needs these freedoms.

Lenin stressed the need for the working class to “react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it takes place, no matter what stratum or class of people it affects.” (What is to be Done?)

That idea is among the ABCs of Marxism. The working class has always been the most consistent fighter not only for socialism but for democracy because it has every interest in eliminating, and no interest in maintaining, any kind of oppression.

But this does not mean that the working class should build just any kind of “alliance”, at the expense of its own democratic and socialist interests.

The state must be overthrown: that is the central task. The black working class seeks to lead an alliance of all those able to see that their interests lie in overthrowing the state. But the working class cannot ally with those who cannot accept the destruction of the existing state power – its police, army, courts, jails, administration, etc.

In criticising so-called “workerists in NDS clothing” who “would like to see the UDF become a socialist workers’ party”, the Isizwe authors continue: “They would like to see the petty bourgeoisie and all those democrats who are not socialist ‘weeded out’ from our ranks.”

What “workerists in NDS clothing” actually means, and who these people are, is not made clear by Isizwe. If, however, Isizwe is here referring to Marxists, then they should say so. If that is the case, the Isizwe authors would be engaging in scandalous slander.

Marxism explains that the black working class has every interest in uniting and leading all the black oppressed in struggle. The black middle class, a tiny section of society, is elevated above the conditions of the masses, but is oppressed both by apartheid and the domination of the monopolies. Black shopkeepers, taxi drivers, etc., etc., have nothing to fear from the overthrow of the apartheid state.

But there is a fundamental difference between such an alliance, and an “alliance” with any section of the capitalist class or its political representatives. Reformism creates illusions that the “progressive” capitalists and the “liberals” have a “common interest” with the oppressed masses in getting rid of apartheid – and that “allying” with them can achieve democracy on the basis of negotiations. To sustain such alliances, claim the reformists, the working class must hide its socialist aims. The idea is fundamentally false.

For all the sweet-talk of the “liberal” capitalists – the Rellys, Blooms, etc., – their material self-interest in ownership of the means of production makes them dependent on the state machine, no matter how much they may dislike specific features of apartheid.

Because they are defending capitalism, all the “liberal” politicians – from Van Zyl Slabbert, to Wynand Malan and Van Eck – are defenders in the final analysis of the existing state power (its police, army, courts, jails and administration) and of counter-revolution.

What can an “alliance” with such elements mean, in terms of reinforcing struggle? The reformists do not explain this, or what these “liberals” are supposed to be doing, except talking against apartheid. Moreover, even if we were to try to conceal and dilute our aims for the sake of such “allies”, this does not deceive the class enemy. When they present themselves as “allies” their real purpose is to divert it from its revolutionary aims, in order to maintain their own power and wealth.

This was the position relentlessly explained by the Bolsheviks against the reformist Mensheviks in Russia – a position vindicated by the victory of the Russian working class in 1917 under Bolshevik leadership.

As Lenin put it in 1908, “The experience of alliances, agreements and blocs with the social-reform liberals in the West and with the liberal reformists (Cadets) in the Russian Revolution, has convincingly shown that these agreements only blunt the consciousness of the masses, that they do not enhance but weaken the actual significance of their struggle, by linking fighters with elements who are least capable of fighting and most vacillating and treacherous.” (“Marxism and Revisionism”, Selected Works)

And this was in a country with a semi-feudal regime – against which the capitalists had some genuine oppositional interests!

Today in SA, also, a clear position on this question is precisely what distinguishes reformist from revolutionary currents in our movement.

Isizwe criticises “workerists” for “under-rating the very important struggle for state power”. The authors claim familiarity with the debates in the workers’ movement in the early twentieth century. Yet their article nowhere warns against the fatal dangers for the working class in its struggle for state power in seeking alliances with the ‘liberal’ bourgeois or their representatives.

In criticising “workerism” for being “highly suspicious of any kind of popular alliance”, the Isizwe authors gloss-over and conceal the fundamental issue: of what kind of “alliances”, and with whom. In the name of promoting the “unity of all the oppressed”, they leave open the door to the encouragement of class-collaboration with the “liberals”.

Should our movement promote its socialist aims?

At the same time, the Isizwe authors wish our movement to conceal its socialist aims.

Arguing against those unidentified “workerists” who “would like to see the UDF become a socialist workers’ party”, the Isizwe authors say:

The UDF sees as its main task the mobilisation and organisation of all South Africans committed to non-racial, majority rule in an undivided South Africa. On the basis of this fundamental goal we have achieved major victories.

For those within our ranks who are committed to socialism, these victories have created the space and possibilities of raising the question of socialism not within the confines of a narrow, small sect, but at a mass level.

But there are also other patriotic democrats, who are not necessarily socialist, who are making a large contribution to the struggle. While encouraging debate and discussion about the nature of change in a future South Africa, we must also safeguard and deepen our unity.

So it is acceptable to “raise the question of socialism … at a mass level” – but it is not acceptable (indeed it is the terrible crime of “workerism”) to seek to win the battle for socialism among the masses and so make the prevailing policy of the UDF itself socialist!

What confusion – from a journal which has laid claim to the role of guiding UDF activists theoretically.

Let us leave aside what would or would not have been possible for the UDF, trying to operate as an open, legal organisation. It is clear that, to defeat the state, the black working class (which forms the overwhelming majority of the population) needs to build a mass ANC on a programme for the overthrow of the racist, capitalist state – together with all those who share this aim.

But Isizwe is arguing that, to mobilise “all South Africans committed to non-racial, majority rule in an undivided South Africa”, in order to build and maintain alliances with non-socialist “patriotic democrats”, the working class must not promote its socialist aims.

“There are also patriotic democrats, who are not necessarily socialist, who are making a large contribution to the struggle”, say the Isizwe authors. But who are these “patriotic democrats”, for the sake of whom we need to hide our socialist aims?

It is true that there are many still, even among the working class, who are not yet “necessarily socialist”.

The working class does not enter into struggle as “pure socialists”, but because it needs to find a way out of its daily hardship. It is through the experience of struggle that layer upon layer, contingent after contingent, gain the understanding of what is involved in this, and the confidence to carry it out.

There are many workers still convinced of the “goodwill” of the liberal bosses, many still under the sway of priests, or even under the sway of vigilantes – who nevertheless have a material interest in democracy and socialism.

If we were to base our movement on seeking the lowest common denominator among all these, where would we draw the line?

It is in struggle that the working class casts off its prejudices and fears, builds its power and confidence to defeat the state and capitalism, rises to socialist and internationalist perspectives, and gains the capacity to unite all the oppressed under its banner. This is the meaning of working class leadership in practice.

“The experience of the past two years [1984-86]”, claims Isizwe, “[has] confirmed once more, in the hard school of struggle, the correctness of our broad strategy of national democratic struggle” – separated from a struggle for socialism.

But what “experience”? Never before in our history have so many working people in struggle proclaimed that apartheid and capitalism are two sides of the same bloody coin that, standing together, must fall together also.

This bold and confident standpoint has strengthened, not weakened, the unity of our movement. Nor has it in any way alienated the oppressed black middle class, but, on the contrary, drawn wider sections of the middle class into struggle.

Isizwe accuses “workerists” of having a “very defeatist, passive attitude towards the oppressed black petty bourgeoisie, and middle strata in our country.” Truly, that is a characteristic of economism and reformism.

But Isizwe’s belief that there are “patriotic democrats, who are not necessarily socialist” who would be alienated from Congress by proclaiming our goals of workers’ power and socialism is in reality just as much “defeatist” and “passive”.

The only so-called “patriotic democrats” – in reality not democratic – who would take comfort from the dilution of our programme are the capitalists and their political spokespersons. Is it these whom Isizwe does not wish to offend?

What approach to the whites?

An article in a subsequent issue of Isizwe (I, 4) in fact bears out that this is the case. They write:

But broadening our political and moral influence must go beyond the people’s camp. We must increase our influence over sectors within the ruling bloc. At the national level, our call before the whites-only election in May [1987] was a good example (at least on the propaganda level) of what is meant by seeking to broaden our political and moral influence within the ruling bloc.

This call endeavoured to address a wide range of whites – PFP members, Independent new-Nats, professionals, big business, etc. To each we addressed specific demands, calling on these different groupings to take, at least, some positive steps in the correct direction.

What does Isizwe mean by “calling on these different groupings to take, at least, some positive steps in the right direction”?

To sow illusions that “positive steps in the right direction” can be expected from “big business” is undiluted reformism. And the “positive steps in the right direction” that should he encouraged among “PFP members”, “Independent new-Nats” etc., are to break with their political leaders and political organisations and for support for the state and capitalism.

Some people maintain that organisations like the PFP, NDM, etc., and their leaders, speak for the “interests” of the middle class. In reality these organisations and their leaders are the instruments of the capitalist class, seeking to mislead the middle class by holding them to support for capitalism and its state. They are the political deceivers and manipulators of the middle class, who must be ruthlessly exposed by advancing the struggle of the working masses for democracy, workers’ power, and socialism.

Merely calling on such “groupings to take, at least, some positive steps in the correct direction” does nothing to weaken the power of the ruling class or its state. Where this road leads, when taken further, is brought out clearly in an article in Work in Progress (April-May 1988), “Winning white support for democracy”, by the UDF-affiliated Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee (JODAC):

White politics, i.e. politics in the ruling bloc, differs immensely from politics among the oppressed. The kinds of compromises and flexibility required for building alliances here will be decided by the political, cultural and ideological terrain of white politics. Features of the white political terrain include the following:

* while a broad layer of whites oppose apartheid, they do not support one-person-one-vote in a non-racial democracy. They are attracted by the idea of ‘group rights’ (and privileges);

* whites are extremely insecure about the future;

* whites are generally committed to parliamentary, reformist politics;

* whites generally hold a fundamental belief in ‘free-enterprise’ capitalism;

* they have a benign attitude to the Western imperialist countries, and support the Thatcher-Reagan approach to South Africa;

* they hold to a very firm anti-sanctions position.

Building broad alliances with white opposition groupings will have to accommodate to these core-beliefs. [Our emphasis]

For the “sake of” “alliances” with the whites, in short, our movement must abandon not merely its anti-capitalist and socialist aims, but one-person-one-vote in an undivided South Africa (in favour, presumably, of acceptance of white “ ‘group rights’ and privileges)” – and accept “the Thatcher-Reagan approach to South Africa”.

What else can JODAC mean when it advocates “accommodating” to the whites in such ways?

“Democrats working in broad white politics may have to march to a different drum from those working in the oppressed communities”, continues JODAC. What a muddle! How could either whites or blacks take such a position seriously! It would simply discredit the movement.

These incredible proposals by JODAC could be dismissed with a laugh if it wasn’t for the fact that they reflect thinking at the highest levels, of the Congress leadership. They show the slippery slope down which the whole approach reflected in the Isizwe article would lead: hiding our aims, abandoning revolution itself, for the sake of “broadening” a reformist alliance with the liberals.

Support among the whites is vital for our movement. But the decisive question, so far as winning over whites is concerned, is not the well-off ‘liberal’ sections of the middle class, but the ranks of the white workers and the lower middle class. To defeat the state, the black working class will need not only to rise to its full conscious strength, leading all the oppressed, but to divide the whites on class lines, and strip away decisive sections from support for ultra-right reaction and the capitalist state.

Diluting our programme, failing to direct an appeal on class lines, appealing to big business to “take, at least, some positive steps in the correct direction” only makes this task more difficult. White workers have an instinctive hostility to big business, and will be driven further to the right by suspicions of compromises taking place between the Oppenheimers and the Congress leadership.

Closely examined, it becomes the clearer that Isizwe’s critique of “workerism” provides a smokescreen behind which really serious errors are concealed. Their attack on economists and reformists is all very well. But it has been carefully crafted so as to promote their own brand of reformism – and to label as “workerists” (under this catch-all phrase) the Marxists who seek to identify, expose, and criticise this.

The Fundamental Issue that Isizwe Evades

Examined closely, even the most apparently “radical” elements in Isizwe’s argument show their weaknesses.

Thus, when arguing against the economists, Isizwe states that: “Without an oppressive machinery (police, army, courts, jails, administration) the bosses would not be able to continue for one single day their exploitation of the workers in the factory.”

“The questions of politics, of who holds state power, of who makes the laws, of who controls the police, the courts, the army, prisons and administration cannot be ignored”, they say elsewhere. “By state power we mean control over the police, army, courts, parliament and administration.”

Yet nowhere in their article do the Isizwe authors spell-out the need for the overthrow of the state and its replacement by organs of democratic workers’ rule – the issue which, in the early twentieth century, constituted the fundamental dividing-line between reformism and Marxism.

Perhaps, they might argue, this is not possible in a semi-legal publication. At the same time, it disarms the working class to use formulations regarding the state which leave open the possibility that national liberation and democracy can be achieved on the basis of the existing state machine.

Taken together with Isizwe’s positions on “popular alliances” and on the need to hold back our socialist aims, this reinforces the illusion that democracy can be achieved on the basis of a negotiated settlement.

Karl Kautsky was a German workers’ leader who was, at one time, in the forefront of combatting Bernstein’s reformism. Later, Kautsky degenerated into an enemy of the working class movement – opposing the Russian Revolution, and using his authority to hold back the German working class from carrying through revolution in 1918.

In 1917 Lenin re-examined Kautsky’s critique of reformism, and showed how the seeds of his degeneration were contained even then in his evasion of the central question of the state:

‘We can quite safely leave the solution of the problem of the proletarian dictatorship to the future’ said Kautsky, writing ‘against’ Bernstein…

This is not a polemic against Bernstein, but, in essence, a concession to him, a surrender to opportunism; for at present the opportunists ask nothing better than to ‘quite safely leave to the future’ all fundamental questions of the tasks of the proletarian revolution.

For forty years, from 1852 to 1891, Marx and Engels taught the proletariat that it must smash the state machine. Yet, in 1899, Kautsky, confronted with the complete betrayal of Marxism by the opportunists on this point, fraudulently substituted for the question whether it is necessary to smash this machine the question of the concrete forms in which it is to be smashed, and then sought refuge behind the ‘indisputable’ (and barren) philistine truth that concrete forms cannot be known in advance!!

A gulf separates Marx and Kautsky over their attitudes towards the proletarian party’s task of training the working class for revolution.

State and Revolution

Unfortunately, Isizwe’s polemic against “workerism” suffers also from similar evasions.

Power for the majority can come only through the revolutionary overthrow of the apartheid state, which protects a capitalist system which is bankrupt in South Africa and worldwide. With state power, we will have democracy; without power, we have nothing.

With state power, together with working people around the world, we can abolish for ever the untold misery that capitalism inflicts on millions.

All this is a socialist perspective, in the traditions of Marxism and Bolshevism.

If the Isizwe authors were genuine socialists, then, rather than spreading confusion by equating right-wing with socialist ideas, rather than coining misleading “theoretical” terms to conceal their own errors, they would correct themselves and join in taking this struggle forward.

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

[1] Weekly Mail, 22-29 July 1988