WORKING CLASS SUMMIT DEBATES | What ‘type’ of party does the working class need?

“Vanguard Party” or “Mass Party?

The Marxist Workers Party welcomes the re-convening of the Working Class Summit on 23-24 October. It could not come at a better time as the economic and political crises of SA capitalism continue to deepen. By building unity around a clear programme of action the Working Class Summit (WCS) has the potential to prepare the working class for a determined fightback.

In 2018 the inaugural WCS adopted a bold declaration in favour of creating a mass workers party. This must be central in the mass movement that needs to be built. The declaration was clear that the new party must be based on, and led by, the working class – workers in the trade unions, casual and unorganised workers, the unemployed and the youth. At the heart of its programme would be the revolutionary struggle for the abolition of capitalism and its replacement with socialism. The re-convened Summit must now discuss how to implement this decision.

In April a Workers Party Discussion Document was written making proposals on how to do this. It will be debated at the re-convened Summit and in the run-up to it. The WP Discussion Document proposes setting a launch date to generate momentum and interest while allowing adequate time to campaign for further support amongst working class formations. It also proposes that different ideological tendencies be given full freedom within the new party to maintain their identities and publish their own material.  The Marxist Workers Party fully endorses this document and looks forward to it being enriched through democratic discussion and debate.

Saftu Debate

The Saftu trade union federation and its 700,000 members are the bedrock of the WCS. Despite having passed resolutions within its own structures in favour of creating (or catalysing) a workers party it remains controversial within the Saftu leadership. We have analysed these factional divisions extensively in other material and cannot repeat everything here. But at the heart of the tensions has been the attempt by a section of the Numsa leadership to impose the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP), created in 2018, and stifle a broader democratic debate within the federation. It is only because they have been repeatedly blocked that the SRWP leaders within Saftu are now trying to build a political argument and engage in debate.

The core of the SRWP leadership’s argument is the idea that the working class needs a “vanguard party” and not a “mass party”. This is not a new debate. In 2015 it was pushed into the foreground by the same comrades in debates in the Numsa-initiated United Front. Then, just like today, this was when momentum toward the creation of a workers party was growing and threatening to escape their control. (See here and here.) This is what the Saftu/WCS workers party process now threatens.

Unfortunately, in resurrecting this ‘debate’ now we do not believe the SRWP leadership is making a genuine attempt to develop the political discussion within Saftu. Their argument amounts to another attempt to try and impose the SRWP. They are denouncing the idea of a “mass party” as counter-revolutionary, bourgeois and electoralist. The SRWP on the other hand is, they claim, the “vanguard” party necessary for the socialist revolution. By self-declaring themselves the working class’s “vanguard”, it follows that all other working class organisations must politically subordinate themselves to the SRWP’s leadership.

Saftu members, including Numsa members, rejected this anti-democratic approach when they broke with the ANC, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party. The arguments of the SRWP leadership will be ringing alarm bells that they are attempting to recreate the abusive political relationship that existed in the Alliance, in particular that between the trade unions and the SA Communist Party.

An important layer of Saftu activists consider themselves revolutionaries and Marxists. This is why the SRWP leadership finds it necessary to appeal to Marxism and the traditions of the 1917 Russian Revolution to try and win support. Many of these comrades want to be members of a party that has as its goal the socialist revolution. Especially after the betrayals of the SACP, they want a party that sees the preparation of the working class for this historic task as the work of today. We want to help arm these comrades with clear arguments to match their healthy class suspicion of the SRWP leadership’s methods and arguments and bring some clarity to the mischaracterisations being made against the Saftu/WCS workers party process.

Mass vs. Vanguard?

The SRWP leadership’s claim that the idea of a “mass workers party” has no basis in Marxism is false. Divorcing the ideas of “vanguard” and “mass” is a creature of Stalinism (misnamed “Marxist-Leninism” by Stalinists themselves). It is the SRWP leadership’s anti-democratic ideas which have no basis in genuine Marxism. The real tradition of Marxism, of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution, has nothing in common with the anti-democratic “vanguardism” of Stalinism. Indeed, the term “vanguard party”, through its association with brutal anti-working class dictatorships, has been so discredited in the eyes of millions of workers around the world, that today we prefer to use the term “revolutionary party”.

In the genuine Marxist tradition, the question of the “vanguard” is first and foremost a question of programme. The “vanguard” are conscious revolutionaries who stand on the genuine methods of Marxism. Thus armed with a clear conception of the tasks that face the working class in carrying through the socialist revolution, revolutionaries must skilfully connect this understanding to the day-to-day class struggle. Conducting this work requires organisation in a revolutionary party. This party may be a small handful, carrying the revolutionary torch through difficult times, as the Bolsheviks were at the start of the twentieth century. Or it may be a mass party numbering hundreds of thousands as the Bolsheviks became in the course of the Russian Revolution. This is a question of the stage of the class struggle and success in the work of connecting with the working class.

The chief task of the revolutionary party is to win the support of the mass of the working class. Whether this support takes the form of mass membership, mass electoral support, support for mass organisations led by revolutionaries (e.g. trade unions), or a combination, also depends on the stage of the class struggle and the traditions of the working class in different countries and at different times. Either way, the support of the working class for a revolutionary party must be earned. It cannot be demanded, let alone imposed. It was Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the Russian Revolution alongside Lenin, who most brilliantly summarised the relationship of the revolutionary party to the working class when he said, “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

To lead the socialist revolution the revolutionary party must become a mass party of the working class. In one of his key works, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder,  Lenin himself explained that one of the tests of a genuine revolutionary party is “…its ability to link-up, maintain the closest contact, and – if you wish – merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people…” For Lenin “…a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement” was an absolute necessity. Lenin described his work in the years 1900-03, when the Bolsheviks emerged as a distinct faction, as “…when the foundations for a mass party of the revolutionary proletariat were being laid in Russia”. This is significant because it is often from writings of this period that Stalinist “vanguardism” tries to find a justification. However, it is clear that for Lenin these concepts were complementary. His life’s work was dedicated to the creation of a party that was both revolutionary and mass.


It was Stalinism that introduced an antagonism between the “vanguard party” and the “mass” of the working class. The rise of Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship in the USSR strangled the workers’ democracy that had been created in the Russian Revolution. To defend the privileged position of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy that seized power, democracy was suppressed within the workers’ state and the Communist Party (which the Bolsheviks had renamed themselves in 1918).

Abroad, so-called “vanguard” Communist Parties (CPs) were required to block the masses from carrying through the socialist revolution. The CP’s were no longer parties that had “no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole”, as Marx demanded in the Communist Manifesto. They were now parties representing the anti-working class interests of the counter-revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy.  The CPs were re-built in the image of the now-Stalinised Soviet CP with undemocratic internal regimes headed by mini-Stalins. Revolutionaries that fought against this were purged or exterminated. Many CP leaders were ‘invited’ to visit Moscow and simply never returned. Leon Trotsky, who heroically led the Left Opposition against Stalin’s counter-revolution, was exiled and later murdered.

Abusing the massive authority of the Russian Revolution the CPs declared themselves “vanguards” with a preordained right to lead. They refused any accountability to the working class and insulated themselves from the pressure of the masses. At the same time they sowed confusion by filling the language of Marxism with a counter-revolutionary content. They worked to defuse and derail revolutions. This was of course the role that the SA Communist Party played. Using the Stalinist idea of revolution in ‘stages’ the SACP leadership were conscious that their role was to stop the struggle against apartheid from developing into a struggle against capitalism and for socialism.

Standing in the Stalinist tradition, and in complete contradiction to Lenin, the SRWP leadership have now invented the idea that any “mass” party is automatically a bourgeois electoral party designed to accommodate the working class to capitalist slavery. They twist the meaning of the word “mass” to mean “multi-class”. After hoping no one has noticed them switch lanes, SRWP leaders then say: the ANC is a “mass” party, Saftu has rejected the ANC, so how can there even be a debate about building a “mass party”!

Both the WCS’s 2018 Declaration and the WP Discussion Document are absolutely clear that the only discussion taking place is about the creation of a working class party. The idea that the working class should ever support a multi-class party or a bourgeois party is also a creation of Stalinism. It led to some of the worst defeats in working class history. The 1927 Chinese Revolution was defeated when Stalin demanded that, instead of taking power, the CP support a bourgeois-nationalist party. In Europe in the 1930s the CPs were told not to take power but participate in “popular” (i.e. multi-class) fronts with bourgeois parties. These disastrous ‘tactics’ will not be found anywhere in the genuine Marxist tradition. The failure of the SRWP leadership to reckon with the Stalinist baggage they are still carrying from the SACP means they are now jumping at their own ghosts.

Furthermore, the WP Discussion Document is clear that Saftu, based on the organised working class, should be positioned as the backbone of the new workers party. It also makes the proposal for the adoption of clear socialist criteria for participation in the Saftu/WCS workers party process. The SRWP’s attempt to link the idea of a “mass” party to mean a narrow focus on elections is also false. The position put forward in the WP Discussion Document is the same as that of the SRWP – participation in elections is only one tactic amongst many and not automatically the most important.

Mass Workers Party

It should go without saying that a mass revolutionary party cannot be declared into existence any more than the SRWP leadership’s “vanguard” party can. The immediate task before revolutionaries in the working class movement is to help bring a mass workers party into existence. For the MWP a socialist mass workers party is understood as a step toward the creation of a mass revolutionary party. It is from this standpoint that revolutionaries must evaluate the potential of the Saftu/WCS workers party process.

The mass workers party we need to ensure comes out of the Saftu/WCS process has the potential to unite a trade union federation of 700,000 with thousands of working class activists in communities, amongst the youth, casual workers and the unemployed. This is the real content and meaning of the word “mass” in the current debate. It is a signpost for a party that is based on the mass organisations and mass struggles of the working class. It is a call to unite existing working class organisations and today’s struggles. It is a call to firmly establish the working class’s political independence as a necessary step for the further development of the class struggle and for raising working class consciousness to a revolutionary level. The word “mass” is a promise to the whole working class that the new party will be their party.

This is why the WP Discussion Document is clear that the new mass workers party must first and foremost be a party of struggle. As well as uniting existing struggles, the adoption of additional campaigns is proposed for discussion. For example, a campaign and struggle for a R12,500 per month minimum wage; linking the struggle against the public sector pay freeze to struggles for improved service delivery; spreading the struggle for permanent jobs of workers on EPWP and other slave-labour programmes across the country. Such campaigns would position the new party as a national reference point for working class struggle.

We believe this is what the working class wants – a democratic and unifying party capable of making a real difference in their daily lives. Building such a party is possible out of the raw material that exists today. Even a modest beginning will be a massive advance for the working class. As Marx once remarked, “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

It is a mistake to answer the SRWP leadership’s “vanguardism” with the argument that “the working class is not yet ready for a party”, revolutionary or otherwise, and to counterpose to a party some vague anti-capitalist movement. This surrenders the political ground to the ruling class, and, within the working class movement itself, surrenders it to the dead-end ideas of Stalinism. It is an abdication of leadership. The task is to assist the working class to find the revolutionary ideas they need to permanently transform their lives.

Genuine revolutionaries should be excited by the possibility of a mass workers party, not scared of it as the SRWP leadership appears to be. A mass workers party will be an opportunity to enter a dialogue with a wide layer of the working class about the ideas, programme, tactics and strategy needed to take the class struggle forward. Revolutionaries will be able to introduce revolutionary and Marxist ideas to thousands of working class people who may never have been exposed to them before. There is no threat to the independent existence of the SRWP. Let the comrades come and defend their ideas before the working class.

It is out of such a process that the nucleus of a mass revolutionary party can potentially begin to take shape. Whether or not the Saftu/WCS process and a new mass workers party leads directly to such a party will depend on how the class struggle unfolds in the years ahead and on the open political and ideological debates that must be a feature of life within such a party.

Those who consider themselves revolutionaries and Marxists should support the Saftu/WCS process and take their place in the new mass workers party. Great opportunities lie down this road for creating a revolutionary party supported by the mass of the working class and capable of leading the socialist revolution.