…and the split in the CWI and WASP
6 September 2019
Today we announce the formation of the Marxist Workers Party and the re-founding of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) in South Africa. At the same time, this is an announcement that the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) has split.
In a different period of world capitalist crisis, Leon Trotsky, alongside Lenin the leader of the workers 1917 Russian Revolution said that “the world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat [working class].” This description is equally true of today’s world capitalist crisis. The struggle to forge a leadership – a revolutionary party – on a principled Marxist programme remains the historical bottleneck which frustrates the progress of society towards the bright socialist future.
Over the past ten months a political struggle over the ideas needed to build such a party has taken place within the CWI and its 35+ national affiliates, including its (until now) South African affiliate, WASP. Unfortunately, in the course of the debate, fundamental political differences were confirmed which make it impossible for the CWI to continue as a single organisation.
These differences did not of course appear overnight, but developed over recent years reflecting the complications of the world situation. The capitalist system has been in a profound crisis since the 2007/8 financial collapse and the 2009 world recession which followed in its wake. In South Africa one million jobs were lost and the economy has never recovered, creating the foundations for the political instability that we see today.
But, whilst there have been explosions of anger, mass struggles, and even revolutions worldwide, the working class has not yet consciously placed itself at the head of such movements, organised in mass working class parties conscious of the need to take power, overthrow capitalism and build socialism.
Broadly, this has been the situation in South Africa too. The current wave of xenophobic violence is a negative confirmation that society is a powder keg of frustration and anger but the working class has no clear way forward.
Even where ‘new left’ parties have been created, or have been propelled forward by the crisis, they have proved incapable of leading a serious working class challenge to capitalism. In Greece, the SYRIZA party, despite overwhelming support from the Greek population, capitulated to imperialist pressure instead of leading a fightback that could have transformed the balance of forces in the class struggle in Europe and worldwide. SYRIZA was not armed with a revolutionary programme that could lead the Greek working class in the struggle for a socialist alternative. The result was betrayal at the decisive hour and the SYRIZA government led the capitalist class’s attack on the living standards of the Greek working and middle class.
In South Africa, the splitting of Cosatu and the resulting realignment of the trade union movement which has seen the founding of Saftu has been of enormous significance. But the creation of a new mass workers party in South Africa, which would represent an enormous step forward by generalising the economic struggle onto the political plane, has remained elusive. (See The Struggle for a Socialist Mass Workers Party section of our website).
Even amongst the more active layers of the working class in the trade unions, there is still a lack of ideological clarity which limits the forward march of the movement. For example, a recent statement by the leadership of the metalworkers’ union NUMSA, in effect calls for a policy of class collaboration to combat the growing number of job losses. At the centre of the approach they put forward is pressuring the Ramaphosa government to convene a meeting of “social partners”, i.e. the workers and the bosses, to find solutions to the jobs crisis “together”. Likewise, the main alternative in the Saftu leadership’s statement in response to finance minister Tito Mboweni’s economic strategy plan are reforms of the tax system and a reduction in interest rates! The workers movement must fight for all reforms that can improve the lives of workers and their families, but if this is not linked to the struggle for a root-and-branch alternative to capitalism such a programme does nothing to prepare the working class for the struggle for socialism, which is the only way out of society’s dead-end. It is reformism, pure and simple.
The working class will continue to draw conclusions from its experiences, including its frustration at the snail’s pace of developments towards the formation of a mass working class political movement. But, in the meantime, in the absence of such a movement, ideologies belonging to other social classes can fill the vacuum. Disproportionately, the middle class can ‘set the tone’ of the opposition to capitalism in crisis. But despite its pretensions, the middle class is incapable of an independent political position. Ultimately, they will defend the capitalist status quo (however much they may cry about its failings and condemn its ‘excesses’) if the working class does not offer a decisive lead in the struggle for a socialist alternative.
This has been the general situation in which the forces of the CWI have been operating worldwide. It has posed real difficulties for building a revolutionary party on a principled Marxist programme and with a principled Marxist method. The tiny revolutionary minority has been under enormous pressure to retreat from a socialist programme under hostile class influences. Unfortunately, instead of standing firm against this, some in the CWI have succumbed to these pressures and made political and ideological retreats. Marxists have a name for this: opportunism.
Concessions to identity politics by some affiliates was a central feature of the struggle in the CWI. Originating in the universities of the United States, identity politics reflects the individualism and atomisation of the middle class. In a divisive and exclusionary way, these ideas emphasise, and in doing so try to harden, divisions based on race, gender and sexuality. At the same time, as is characteristic of middle class ideologies, identity politics consciously glosses over society’s class contradictions (see Identity Politics and the Struggle Against Oppression).
With South Africa’s history of racism, tribalism, and the current crisis levels of violence against women, it is absolutely crucial that the struggle against oppression is rooted in the maximum unity of the working class. The common experience of united struggle embracing all sections of the working class is the most effective way to change unacceptable attitudes and behaviours. But more, building a mass class based movement is necessary to transform the social conditions which give rise to prejudice and oppression, rooted as they are in the class inequalities of capitalism.
But identity politics is a threat to the unity of the workers’ movement. These ideas would pit black workers against white, women workers against men, and LGBTQ workers against ‘straight’, even though we all belong to one exploited working class. The reactionary political consequences that can flow from these ideas would encourage exploited women workers to identify with a war-mongering capitalist politician like Hilary Clinton in the United States; or encourage black workers to rally in support of the presidency of the billionaire ‘butcher of Marikana’, Cyril Ramaphosa, because he, too, is black.
Revolutionaries have always fought for maximum working class unity and stood firm against tendencies within the working class towards separatism Even before the Russian Revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks refused to accept the separate organisation of Jewish workers in The Bund, insisting instead on one united revolutionary party.
As well as naked racism, the apartheid regime used the identity politics of tribalism as part of their policy of divide and rule against the liberation struggle. The reactionary Bantustans (or ‘homelands’) were built on the basis of sharply defining and encouraging tribal identities to weaken the power of a united movement of the oppressed black working class majority. The Inkatha Freedom Party and other conservative elites with their roots in the homelands supported the apartheid regime as the defender of their relative privileges. They even allowed themselves to be used as a violent ‘third force’ against the liberation struggle.
The struggle against apartheid demanded an approach that would overcome divisions. The ANC adopted the principle of non-racialism and non-tribalism early on. In the 1980s, the then militant Cosatu did likewise. If white workers chose to stand aside from the struggle it would not be because they were excluded on the basis of race. The hand of class solidarity was extended. Even the preceding Black Consciousness Movement defined ‘black’ in a way that embraced the Coloured and Indian populations.
Identity politics pulls in the other direction – in the direction of separatism and division. Unfortunately, some CWI affiliates were starting to adapt to this approach. For example, the Irish and Brazilian CWI affiliates ran election campaigns under the slogans “a socialist feminist voice for Europe” (contributing to disastrous election results for the CWI in May) and “down with the cis-tem” respectively. These slogans were clearly incapable of appealing to the whole working class or even of answering issues of gender oppression from a working class standpoint (see In Defence of Socialist Feminism). So far had the adaptation gone in the Swedish CWI affiliate that internal party documents were being written in the language of identity politics!
These affiliates tried to gloss-over their ideological retreat by portraying those defending a Marxist approach as ‘soft’ on issues of sexism and gender oppression and as old and out of touch with ‘new’ moods. However, the debate was never whether or not to take part in such movements, but how to intervene in them in a revolutionary way, raising class demands, socialist ideas and reinforcing the unity of the working class.
These examples reflected a broader retreat from a cornerstone of genuine Marxism – the use of a transitional programme that seeks to connect immediate struggles to the need for the working class to take power and build socialism. Especially in material used for mass distribution, rather than attempting to raise working class understanding, there was a growing tendency in some CWI affiliates to simply reflect back the limitations of existing consciousness.
The Irish CWI affiliate failed to even raise a socialist programme during their participation in Ireland’s 2018 abortion referendum. This was a repeat of the approach they took to the 2016 Irish general election, where the most ‘radical’ demand raised was for greater taxation on the rich, with the question of which class owns and controls the economy ignored. In the election campaign currently underway in the United States, the former CWI supporters limit their description of socialism to “a fundamentally different kind of society, based on democracy, equality, sustainability and solidarity.” The softest middle class reformists could agree with this description!
Workers in South Africa, with experience of the ANC, SACP and Cosatu leaderships know very well the phenomenon of forces that swear allegiance to revolutionary ideas at Workers Day rallies whilst failing to fight for them in practice – reducing “socialism”, “revolution” and “Marxism” to empty phrase-mongering.
Another area of political retreat was on the question of the trade unions. Both the Irish and Greek affiliates consciously dropped the systematic work of building a base for Marxist ideas in the trade unions. The Irish affiliate had, in their own words, taken a “detour” from the unions. Likewise the Greek affiliate planned to return to the unions “at a later stage, under better conditions”. The existence of conservative bureaucracies in many unions was repeatedly given as an excuse for limiting this work. But this is not a new problem. In both Ireland and Greece, trade union density is over 20%, and in all countries the decisive sectors of the working class in transport, mining, manufacturing and the public sector continue to be well organised giving these workers a far greater social weight than any number alone suggests. Systematic trade union work by revolutionaries is central to preparing the class for the struggle for power. For workers a ‘detour’ from the unions – whether or not they are led by conservative bureaucracies – would in practise mean surrendering the first line of defence against the exploitation of the bosses. This retreat from systematic trade union work reflected a weakening of the central place of the organised working class in the perspective of these affiliates.
To struggle against this political and ideological retreat, an international faction was formed in November 2018 at the CWI’s International Executive Committee meeting. The faction was determined to ensure that an open and organised debate on these fundamental issues would take place and to defend the principled Marxist programme of the CWI. The comrades who have today founded the Marxist Workers Party were the supporters of this faction in South Africa.
Marxism and unity
It was not automatic that these serious differences would lead to a split in the CWI. That depended on the course of the debate which would reveal the possibilities for rebuilding principled unity. Unfortunately, this quickly became the least likely outcome.
Before describing some of the features of the debate that doomed it, a word on the Marxist approach to unity is necessary. Trotsky once said that “…the instinctive urge to unity is quite often an urge peculiar to the masses; but a conscious striving for unity on a revolutionary basis is peculiar to the vanguard of the proletariat…” For the mass of the working class the unity of the greatest number in action is always a decisive question in the struggle with the bosses – numbers pressure the bosses; numbers win strikes.
But in a revolutionary party, unity is first and foremost a political question – a question of unity around a clearly defined revolutionary programme. This flows from the Marxist understanding of the class struggle and revolution – the task for which such a party exists. The class struggle is fought out regardless of the presence of conscious revolutionaries – it is not the task of revolutionaries to create revolutions but rather to prepare for them. Central to this is building a cadre within the advanced layer of the working class, which, as revolutionary situations mature out of the contradictions in class society, is prepared to lead the mass of the working class in the struggle for power.
Especially when the basic task remains the assembly of the initial cadre, a revolutionary party’s success will not be determined by its ideological diversity but its ideological clarity – its “granite hardness” in the phrase of Trotsky. Unfortunately, vastly more revolutions have been defeated than won, and vastly more revolutionary opportunities lost than seized, because the revolutionary character of parties had already been compromised for short term gain in more difficult periods. Splits, fusions and other realignments are an unavoidable part of the process of preparing a revolutionary cadre and a revolutionary party.
But this understanding does not contradict relentlessly striving for the maximum unity of the working class in struggle. In South Africa, as elsewhere, the forces of the CWI have been the foremost champions of broad working class unity. We defend the unity of the workers movement in struggle, and wherever possible the co-existence of different political trends within single democratic trade unions. We have been tireless campaigners for mass workers parties able to unite the struggles of the class, including bringing together the different left, socialist and revolutionary political groups. What we refuse to do as part of this, however, is to surrender our own organisation, whose borders, first and foremost are the defences for the foundations of the revolutionary programme we believe the working class must be armed with in order to transform society.
Refusing to form a faction themselves on the basis of clear political positions, the opposition to the faction took the classic form of an unprincipled bloc. The use of the word “unprincipled” is not intended as an insult, but to describe the fact that the opposition was not united by openly declared political positions, but the organisational objective of dominating the leadership, the result of which would be to shift the political foundations of the CWI in a rightward and opportunist direction.
A decisive contributor to the polarisation in the CWI was a serious abuse against party democracy by a group in the Irish leadership. This was carried out to uncover, in their own words, a “secret oppositional grouping” which simply did not exist. Even if it had existed, any grouping should have been confronted politically, not manoeuvred against bureaucratically. The changing character of the Irish affiliate is part of the explanation for how this could happen. Over time they had become highly dependent on state money to fund an apparatus of full-timers who increasingly dominated the party and were no longer dependent upon its membership. But this incident was defended or downplayed as “secondary” by the leaders of a number of affiliates when it was brought to their attention at the November 2018 IEC meeting.
The opposition repeatedly denounced the formation of the faction as the ‘original sin’ in the dispute and labelled it a threat to the unity of the CWI. They forgot their own history. The formation and dissolution of factions is a time-honoured method in the Marxist tradition for managing political differences and sharpening ideological clarity. The Bolsheviks themselves were a faction – their name nothing other than the Russian word for ‘majority’! Fear against a split was consciously whipped-up with the effect of suppressing any serious political debate – the only basis upon which principled unity could have been rebuilt. In its place was substituted scaremongering and emotion. Almost every political criticism and point raised by the faction was dismissed as an “exaggeration”, a “factional attack”, or even a “witch hunt”. The very right to criticise, the life blood of party democracy, was effectively suppressed in the demand for a false unity. In practise such a method would lead to the de facto introduction of federalism into the CWI – where a united political programme is replaced by an ‘anything goes’ approach. The opposition’s approach to the debate was the clearest indication that there was absolutely no possibility of them changing course.
Eventually, the depth of the political differences was admitted by the opposition. In a document produced some five months into the debate, whilst still denying they were a faction organised around certain ideas, they said:
Differences have arisen over the issue of how to work in the trade unions; in relation to the women’s movement and erroneous claims that some sections have made concessions to identity politics; the national question and the united front; in relation to new movements like the youth movement against environment change and the way such movements should orient to the working class; and over the issue of the transitional programme and method. It also seems that there are differences over the issue of consciousness, though the faction has not clearly stated this. And there are certainly differences in the way the work of the sections was approached by the [international leadership]…
Shockingly the opposition insisted that these differences were “not evolving around fundamental Marxist positions and principles”. This in itself underlined the ideological and political retreat underway. For any serious revolutionary, this list sums-up the entire tool-kit for how we intervene in the class struggle and position ourselves in the workers movement. To expect a single organisation to accommodate disagreement on all of these points was a call, again, for a de facto federal CWI and, in reality, the abandonment of a revolutionary perspective. At the same time it again revealed the opportunist pressure the opposition had succumbed to. They would prefer to huddle together for warmth rather than wage a serious struggle for ideological clarity.
To accept unity on this basis would have been to agree to the destruction of the CWI as a democratic centralist revolutionary international. With the unfolding of the struggle in effect creating two organisations in one, an international faction conference in July took the decision to re-found the CWI on its original programme and principles and to continue the struggle to build a world party of socialist revolution.
The Split in WASP
Unfortunately, support for the opportunist international opposition belatedly crystallised in WASP, recreating the polarised situation that existed internationally within the South African affiliate.
WASP was no less immune to opportunist pressures than any other CWI affiliate. Under the pressure to “get results” for workers on the most immediate issues, a pressure was created on a layer of WASP members with positions in the trade unions to speak with the bureaucracy, especially in Saftu, in one political voice, rather than remaining focused on the need to sharply draw the ideological lines between WASP’s revolutionary programme and the various reformist and neo-Stalinist trends, assisting in the ideological clarification of workers. In GIWUSA, where WASP had a small but important base, routine work was pushing out any systematic revolutionary work amongst the rank-and-file. The question of “deployments” to paid posts became of greater concern than the political work of building support for WASP’s programme. Tension had been building on this issue for a period, with leading members increasingly pulling in different directions. We do not think it is an accident that the two WASP Executive Committee members most directly under these pressures – Mametlwe Sebei and Lebohang Phanyeko – became determined supporters of the international opposition.
The organisation (more accurately – imposition!) of support for the international opposition within WASP followed a tortuous path. This underlined its political foundations of sand. Mametlwe Sebei, unhappy with the formation of the international faction, but unable to find any solid political ground to oppose it from, started a proxy campaign against a suddenly discovered ‘party regime’ in WASP of “bullying and blackmail” – directed of course against leading representatives of the international faction, especially general secretary Weizmann Hamilton. All efforts by faction supporters to organise a structured discussion on these issues in order to resolve them came to nothing. Rather, over several months a campaign of gossip took place that denied its targets the right to defend themselves. This campaign was supported and encouraged by the international opposition, in particular the Swedish leadership, in a mirror of their methods at an international level. But the reality was this campaign was deeply unpopular.
In June a three day WASP Special National Committee was organised to take a position on the struggle in the CWI. The faction won the debate and the vote decisively. This sent supporters of the international opposition into a panic. They cobbled-together a so-called ‘Caucus’ on an unprincipled basis to undermine the decision. A number of members who had voted with the faction on the political issues at the Special NC were manipulated into signing-up to the Caucus in the name of party unity with the Caucus leaders claiming to only want more time for debate and discussion – something which the faction had never refused. However, by in effect creating parallel party structures, the creation of the Caucus instantly split WASP. Not a single structure functioned thereafter. The Caucus had created the split they claimed to want to avoid.
In reality the Caucus was established with a clear but undeclared political agenda to place WASP under the leadership of the international opposition. This was vehemently denied by the Caucus leaders. But in July, lo and behold, a document was produced by the Caucus declaring its full political solidarity with the international opposition.
The Caucus claims to have a majority in WASP. But a majority built on these politically dishonest methods is completely hollow. But even if it were true, it would be politically meaningless – being a majority is not a ruling on the correctness of your politics. We have no more time to waste on an unprincipled opposition of this character. We had hoped to organise an amicable separation in WASP that would avoid a ‘winner takes all’ scenario. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Caucus effectively sabotaged these negotiations. This has left us no choice but to unilaterally declare the split. Even so, we are willing to honour our initial offer that the Caucus takes the name “WASP”. But let everyone be clear that the WASP that is born today is a new WASP. The only members of the Executive Committee that remain behind are Mametlwe Sebei and Lebohang Phanyeko.
For our part, we have full confidence in our programme and have no concerns about ‘starting afresh’. Indeed, we are eager to draw the lessons of this split and return to the task of winning the working class to genuine Marxism. We welcome the opportunity that launching the Marxist Workers Party gives us to make a clear statement of our political ideas.
The organisation of the working class on a global scale by the development of the world economy means that a revolutionary orientation must start with a correct international perspective. In the re-founded CWI we have that. The Marxist Workers Party will be the fifth incarnation of the CWI in South Africa. The founding affiliate, the Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC, existed from the 1970s up until 1996. At that stage, in a different world situation, the small forces of genuine Marxism in South Africa could only have one serious revolutionary orientation – towards the working class pushing forward the organisation of a new trade union movement in the struggle against capitalism and apartheid. Following the adoption of the neo-liberal GEAR programme by the ANC government, we formed an open and independent organisation which was briefly called Socialist Alternative, before becoming the Democratic Socialist Movement, a name that was wound-up only in 2015 in favour of WASP. Our new name reflects and reconnects with our founding traditions.
Notwithstanding the complications of the current conjuncture of the class struggle, the world in general is one full of revolutionary opportunities. We will continue with the painstaking task of building a revolutionary leadership within the working class. The Marxist Workers Party will build a powerful base in South Africa for the ideas of Marxism as part of the struggle for the world socialist revolution.