Originally appeared in Inqaba No. 11 (August-September 1983)

by Paul Storey

The editorial in this issue of Inqaba calls on the organised workers in the independent unions to go into the United Democratic Front – to build it, transform it, and lead it on a clear program against apartheid and capitalist rule. This position needs further explanation.

At the present time, the policy of a number of major unions, most notably the Fosatu unions, is to remain outside the UDF and instead mount their ‘own’ campaign against the new constitution, the Koornhof Bills, etc.

Much discussion on this question has already taken place in all the democratic unions, and will continue to take place. What is at issue is more than just the UDF – it is the whole question of the political tasks of the working class, and how the workers should organise to lead the liberation struggle.

It is extremely important to resolve the problem clearly as soon as possible, and reach a common position through frank discussion throughout the movement.

Already political differences are posing a serious stumbling-block in the way of the unity of the trade unions in a new national federation. Fundamental differences of strategy, which put the mass organisations at odds with each other, will also seriously weaken any political campaign against the regime, and allow the cunning enemies of the working class to exploit divisions in our ranks.

The developments taking place in the SA Allied Workers Union, on the one hand, and in Fosatu’s Metal and Allied Workers Union, on the other hand, illustrate both the present differences in policy among the unions – and the way forward to resolving these differences in an effective unity.

Saawu is strongly for participation in the UDF; Mawu is against it.

Yet the fighting ranks of Saawu and Mawu share a common interest in the struggle and have a common basic outlook on the vital importance of workers not limiting themselves to the field of economic struggles, but taking the lead in all the struggles affecting the life of the whole working class and all oppressed people.

Saawu, indeed, has inspired working people all over South Africa by its heroic leadership of the mass resistance in the Eastern Cape against the Ciskei puppet state.

To survive the murderous repression against it, Saawu leaders have increasingly stressed the need to solidify their estimated 65,000 members into real industrial organisations, firmly entrenched on the shop-floor. Fusion into national industrial unions, joined together in one national federation, is an urgent necessity. The whole logic of development is towards unity on these lines with Fosatu unions, the GWU, and the other key unions now involved in unity talks.

On the other hand, the rise of Mawu as a well-organised force of some 40,000 of the toughest and most militant industrial workers, has been a big factor impelling Fosatu towards taking up political issues facing the working class.

In an interview with Fosatu Worker News (October, 1983), Transvaal secretary Moses Mayekiso has said of Mawu:

‘It is no longer just a union,’ he said, ‘It is a movement of workers.’

He said the union was not only involved in ‘bread and butter’ issues but was involved in the broader struggle for ‘liberation’.

‘It is impossible to separate the two in South Africa when dealing with the oppressed voiceless masses,’ Brother Mayekiso concluded.

Mawu has resolved to “join other union groupings in their fight against the influx control and pass laws, and the demolition of shacks in black residential areas.” (Sowetan, 13 September, 1983.)

The question is whether this fight, together with the fight against Botha’s constitution and against the state generally, should be carried on only together with “other union groupings”. Or should the Fosatu unions, GWU, etc., make a conscious turn towards active participation in the United Democratic Front?


The tremendous advances achieved in trade union organisation over the past ten years have already begun to transform the consciousness of the black working class. Never before in our history has there been such a sense of their own strength on the part of the organised workers, and this has trickled through to the unorganised and to the class as a whole.

Workers’ awareness of their potential power as a class to combat and overcome their enemies is the ground from which political class-consciousness sprouts and matures.

Democratic shop-floor organisation; workers’ self-management of the unions at all levels; the experience of strikes and other forms of struggle initiated and directed by the workers themselves; the drawing of tens-of-thousands more workers into the unions every year – all this has set up a momentum, leading workers on to higher levels of organisation, to a more general understanding of their problems and their tasks as a class, and to a greater readiness to tackle the political nub of their oppression and exploitation: the capitalist state.

What a contrast now with the early 1970s, when the first seedlings of the new democratic unionism among African workers had to be so cautiously tended! At that time, workers usually had to be convinced that it was actually possible to mount any form of organisation and struggle, because this was at the tail end of the terrible dark period of reaction of the 1960s.

The situation in Natal, after the Durban strike movement, was somewhat different, but nevertheless this was generally the case.

But as the workers took-up, at first in a very limited and modest way, organisation and struggle against the bosses, so they gained confidence – and that confidence impressed itself on their fellow-workers, who said: ‘Well, if they can do it, we can do it too.’

So the movement expanded, until now there are literally hundreds of thousands of unorganised workers ready to be drawn into the trade unions. Remarkably, despite all the difficulties of industrial struggle during the recession, the momentum has hardly flagged. That is proof of the immense reserves of power, pent-up in the working class, ready to be channelled, if a correct approach to organisation, unity, strategy and tactics is followed.

When Inqaba put forward (October, 1981) that the independent unions should set as a target one million workers organised this was seen as too ambitious by many of the union leaders.

Undoubtedly the unions’ resources are limited, and there are difficulties in consolidating the shop-floor foundations of the unions while they are undergoing rapid growth. But the example of Mawu has provided an answer to this general problem.

A report in Saspu Focus (June, 1983) gives this account of the explosive growth of Mawu:

The Metal and Allied Workers Union almost doubled in size to 35,000 in 1982 with most of the growth occurring on the East Rand. At the time there was only one organiser to handle these workers. With some 27 strikes in the first four months of 1982 it is easy to realise the situation was impossible to handle.

Mawu’s treatment of the situation placed a number of interesting items on the labour movement agenda.

To cope with the organisational load Mawu’s organiser decided to shift some of the responsibility for organising factories onto the shop stewards of already organised factories.

A Shop Stewards Council was established to bring all the shop stewards together to discuss the state of organisation in their region and to work out ways of extending and consolidating their organisation.

Now, at the annual general meeting of Mawu in the Transvaal, the union secretary has said that, “by organising all the big steel producers, Mawu should have a membership of about 100,000 by 1984.” (Fosatu Worker News, October.)

It is true that a union like Mawu has advantages in organising in a heavy industrial sector of large firms with a mass workforce. But wouldn’t many of the problems now facing all the smaller and general unions be overcome, and opportunities for massive and stable growth on the Mawu lines be opened-up generally, once the unions fused together into single national industrial unions within a single national federation?

It is vital to recognise that the period has changed. The growth of the independent unions to 300,000 and more means a qualitative change – in the outlook of the organised workers, in the outlook of the unorganised, and in the role thrust upon the workers’ organisations by the general upheaval in society.

If there are serious problems in stabilising rapidly-growing unions, these problems pale in comparison with the crisis which would open up if the unions fail to rise rapidly to their full potential in the next period.

South Africa is entering the first stage of a drawn-out pre-revolutionary situation.

For all the monstrous, racist, anti-democratic and anti-worker features of Botha’s new ‘reform’ constitution, it is a sign of the system coming apart at the seams.

The ruling class is in disarray, and the sense of this fact among the masses is the main reason for the tremendous enthusiastic response to the launching of the UDF – far greater than either the government or even the organisers of the UDF themselves expected.

The high poll and unexpected size of the ‘Yes’ vote in the white referendum is not at all a sign of faith in any quarters that this constitution will be workable or will lead to a solution of any of the problems facing society. Rather the whites voted ‘Yes’ mainly to avoid a paralysing crisis of government and state at what they know to be a critical time.

At precisely this time, the most militant and far-sighted organised black workers and their leaders are recognising that it is their task to lead the struggle to transform society.

All the ingredients are beginning to come together for a thorough transformation of the mass movement; to lift it to a higher stage; to mobilise the whole of the oppressed people consciously under workers’ leadership along a revolutionary road.

This is what gives the current dispute over the attitude of the unions to the UDF a vital significance.


The suspicion towards the UDF, most notable in the ranks of Fosatu unions, is itself a healthy and progressive sign – a sign of rapid advances in class-consciousness which are taking place. This has come from the very fact of genuine, shop-floor, democratic organisation, created by the workers’ own efforts and extending to every level of most of these unions.

To an extent without parallel in South Africa in the past, workers know and feel that they have authentic class organisations of their own, which they themselves independently control. It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this advance.

The interview with the Johannesburg shop steward (read here), sums up the feeling of thousands of the most militant organised workers that bodies such as the UDF and the National Forum do not really belong to the working class; that their leadership is mainly middle class in character and is not democratically controlled by the working class; that, for all their sincerity, they cannot truly and completely express or consistently fight for the demands of working people.

Speaking at Mawu’s annual general meeting in the Transvaal, Brother Mayekiso, for example, said that the union supported the FOSATU stand on the UDF and other political organisations.

“We believe that workers as a class should fight their own problems. As the enemy is only one – capitalism – and all other things like influx control are merely appendages,” he said. (Fosatu Worker News.)

This position far outstrips the public standpoint of the UDF, which confines itself to abstract principles of democracy and fails to link the democratic and social demands in any clear way to the need for workers’ power and the overthrow of capitalism.

But, as our report from the UDF conference clearly shows, the mass of supporters of the UDF (overwhelmingly working class), want working class leadership of the struggle, want power to pass into the hands of the working class, want a program for a thorough-going democratic revolution in which the means of production are taken into public ownership under workers’ control and management, thus clearing the way to a socialist solution of all society’s problems.

Their dilemma is how to organise for that, how to fight for that, in and through the UDF.

Our difference with the present policy of Mawu and other Fosatu unions, as well as the GWU, is that it leaves these workers stranded in the UDF, under essentially middle class leadership, and fails to direct the organised forces of the working class effectively towards the transformation of the entire mass movement on proletarian lines.

This difference reflects the fact, we believe, that the militant workers in these unions have not yet thought through to a conclusion the strategic problems facing the working class in the coming revolution.

They have not been helped in this by the arguments of the union intellectuals, but on the contrary, unfortunately, seriously hindered.

At the same time, however, the unions which have gone into the UDF have, on the whole, not prepared their ranks politically or organisationally to fight there for the leadership of the movement, and have been far too willing to attach themselves uncritically to a mainly middle class leadership, to an amorphous and unrepresentative structure, and to an abstract democratic program of class-compromise which will dangerously hamstring the working class movement on the political plane.

The recognition of these dangers caused worker leaders in Fosatu to hold back from the UDF. In July, Fosatu President, Chris Dlamini told Fosatu Worker News:

I am convinced that the worker movement cannot be pushed to link up with non-worker organisations because they might hinder or misdirect its programme of action.

Workers at this stage are enslaved by the economy and the challenge facing them and their unions is to make the economy their slave.

He recounted what he had recently seen on a union visit to Zimbabwe:

During the time in Zimbabwe, I noticed that although some people were liberated workers were not.

While there I visited a factory where we were shown round by a black general manager who kept on telling us about the good relations there were between the workers and management since they had taken over.

Well, I sneaked off and talked to one ordinary worker who painted a very different picture of what was happening in the factory.

The worker said they did not have a union inside the factory, wages were low and conditions were bad…

It seems to me that the people in Zimbabwe were taken-up with the popular struggle but failed to organise themselves into a worker organisation, like a union, which would have then liberated them as workers in their workplaces.

Now they are faced with the problem of starting from scratch – having to organise themselves into a union to fight the bosses in the factory.

Worker liberation can only be achieved by a strong, well-organised worker movement.

Brother Dlamini’s argument is a powerful one, and it goes very far along the road which Inqaba has also tried to point-out – but it does not go far enough. It does not take the problem fully to its logical conclusion.

Certainly, without powerful trade unions under democratic workers’ control, without an independent class policy in the unions, workers are defenceless. But trade union strength alone is not enough to liberate the working class.

The liberation of the working class depends not only on workers’ organisation in the workplace, not only on “fighting the bosses in the factory” – but on workers’ organisation to drive the bosses out of the workplaces and out of their mastery of society.

The bosses’ power rests on two pillars. On the one hand, it rests on private ownership of the means of production. Unless the workers’ movement succeeds in putting an end to the bosses’ ownership, it will not be possible for workers and their unions to “make the economy their slave”.

On the other hand, the bosses’ power – and the defence of bosses’ ownership – depends on the state, which, as Engels put it, is essentially ‘armed bodies of men’ and their appendages like the courts, prisons, etc., organised to protect the ruling class.

The workers cannot be liberated only “as workers in their workplaces”, but through the conquest of state power by the working class.

Trotsky wrote about this in a letter to a French syndicalist (a trade unionist who believed that trade union organisation would be sufficient for the liberation of the workers), in August 1920:

For we have to topple the bourgeoisie and tear the state apparatus from its hands. The bourgeoisie in the form of its state rests on the army. Only an open insurrection where the proletariat collides face to face with the army, inflicting cruel blows on its counter-revolutionary elements and winning over its better part, only such an open insurrection of the proletariat is capable of making it the master of the situation in the country.

But for the insurrection energetic and concentrated preparatory work is essential: agitational, organisational and technical.

It is necessary, day in and day out, to expose the crimes and villainy of the bourgeoisie in every area of social life: international politics, colonial atrocities, the domestic despotism of the capitalist oligarchy, the rascality of the bourgeois press; all this must form the material for a really revolutionary exposure, together with all the consequent revolutionary conclusions. These topics are too broad for a trade union and its tasks.

Without powerful trade unions the workers in South Africa could win neither economic nor political power. But with the strong shop-floor, regional and national organisations of the workers that have already been built, the workers can enter vigorously into the political field and give the lead to the whole oppressed people in the struggle for power.

The workers have to be consciously organised in the political struggle – in working class organisations under their own control – but the trade union form of organisation is not adequate for that. The central question already confronting the mass of working people – confronting the millions who are unorganised as well as the hundreds-of-thousands organised – is the overthrow of the apartheid regime.

The problem is not that the people are “taken up with the popular struggle”, but that the popular struggle is not yet mobilised round, and led by, the organised workers.

There is no way that the trade unions can be regarded by the mass of the working people to be a substitute for a political organisation for the purpose of leading the revolutionary struggle for power.

There is the struggle of the youth. There is the struggle in the communities. There is the struggle against demolitions and removals. There are the bus boycotts and the struggles over rents. There is the need for a united nation-wide movement to cripple the new constitution.

Any organisation which is capable of coming forward as the political leadership of the revolutionary movement has to give the lead in all aspects of that struggle.

Trade unions as such cannot do that – and in a very real sense Saawu has gone beyond, has been forced by the situation in the Eastern Cape to go beyond – the capacities of a trade union.

The answer, of course, is not to turn the unions’ backs on politics, imagining that the ‘economic struggle’ can live a life of its own. The majority of activists in Fosatu unions, as in Saawu and other unions, already reject that idea.

The problem boils down to this: how to carry the already existing organised strength of workers (on the shop-floor and at every level) onto the field of political struggle – to take the lead in the ‘popular movement’, to show the way forward, to mobilise the youth and the entire working class in the communities, and to weld them together around the hard core of organised labour.

If we look to the future, isn’t it clear that only two possible alternatives present themselves? One would be the creation of a mass revolutionary workers’ party arising directly out of the unions. The other would be the conscious turn by organised workers to the ANC banner.

The problem needs to be worked out as clearly as possible in advance, so that a consistent approach to organisation, strategy and tactics can be followed by the workers’ movement.

Many trade union activists, realising the power of the workers that is still just beginning to rise-up, are already straining in the direction of political action by their organisations. In response to this pressure, Fosatu, for instance, launched its own campaign on the constitution. This is also the reason why some worker leaders are often saying now that their organisations are no longer ‘just’ trade unions, but ‘a movement of workers’.

That expression, ‘a movement of workers’, shows the correct direction of development, but it does not answer the problem we have posed.

In this connection, it is useful to look back at the speech given at the Fosatu Congress in April 1982, by its General Secretary, Joe Foster. In it he set out some ideas on the relation of the unions to political struggle, and these have exerted a considerable influence on the discussion among workers ever since.

At the time, we confined comment to what was the most significant advance, namely the clear recognition that unions could not be non-political, and that a definite ‘working-class politics’ and ‘working-class movement’ had to come and was coming into being.

We also argued, however, that the correct course would be for the organised workers to build the ANC, under their own democratic control, as the vehicle for their struggle for political power. (See Inqaba, No. 6, May 1982.)

Unfortunately, Brother Foster did not develop his points to any clear conclusion in relation either to a workers’ party or to the ANC.

The reason for this was not any necessary caution there might have been about speaking openly in South Africa on revolutionary issues. There was an actual, inherent ambiguity in his position, which has been carried into practice in the Fosatu policy towards the UDF.

(In the following passages, the page references are to the text in the SA Labour Bulletin, July 1982.)

Brother Foster’s starting point is sound:

We have no intention of becoming self-satisfied trade unionists incapable of giving political direction to the workers’ struggle. (p.68)

If we were to think in terms of our members only, we would have a very limited political role. If, however, we are thinking more widely of the working class then we have to examine very much more carefully what our political role is. (p.69)

The working class have experienced a birth of fire in South Africa and they constitute the major objective political force opposed to the state and capital. There is no significant (black) petty-bourgeoisie or landed class with an economic base in our society. (p.74)

“In the economy,” he continues, “capital and labour are the major forces yet politically the struggle is waged elsewhere.” (p.74 – our emphasis.)

Now, why is this the case? If (as is true) the working class constitutes “the major objective political force” opposed to the state and the ruling class, and if the political struggle is nevertheless waged “elsewhere”, then this must surely mean that the political force of the working class has not been mobilised as it should be, and that the political struggle has been suffering from limits imposed on it by the insignificant black petty-bourgeoisie which has “no … economic base in our society.”

But is this the logic which Brother Foster develops and carries into his conclusions? Unfortunately not!

Instead he looks for the reason for the political struggle being waged “elsewhere” in something built into the “South African context” – namely the racist oppression of the black people. This leads him to accept the limits imposed on the mass political struggle in the past by the black petty-bourgeoisie.

Surely, because racist oppression is founded on the capitalist system and the exploitation of the black working class, the racial system would not be a sound reason for the political struggle being waged “elsewhere” – it would rather be the most powerful reason for the organised black workers to take in their own hands the leadership of the entire struggle of the oppressed.

As this has not yet taken place, despite the “birth of fire” and explosive growth of the working class, it must be because the working class has hitherto lacked the strength of independent organisation and the political leadership of its own needed to rouse it and direct its forces to its political tasks.

Unchallenged petty-bourgeois leadership of the political mass movement has been the result of this lack of workers’ leadership.

Instead of posing the problem clearly in this way, however, Brother Foster takes his argument up a cul de sac:

Since “the major political task of the oppressed peoples has always been to attack that oppressive and racist regime”, therefore “what has developed in South Africa is a very powerful tradition of popular or populist politics” in which “a great alliance of all classes [all!??] is both necessary and a clear political strategy.” (p.71)

For this purpose, and for the “mass mobilisation [which] is essential” (p.71), there is the ANC. “Various political and economic interests gather together in the popular front in the tradition of the ANC and the Congress Alliance.” (p.76.)

But, hold it a minute! Haven’t we agreed that the ‘masses’ are overwhelmingly the working class masses?

What Brother Foster ends up accepting – if we connect-up logically all the threads of his argument – is a most peculiar division of labour.

On the one hand, he says, there must be a political mass movement against the state, under the Congress banner, not led by the organised workers but, in the sacrosanct “tradition”, by a petty-bourgeois leadership as in the past, reflecting a “great alliance of all classes”.

And, on the other hand, there must be a trade union and “workers’ movement” with its ‘own’ “workers’ politics”, which is to be kept somehow distinct, “even whilst they [workers] are part of the wider popular struggle.” (p.77)

This is enough to crack the brain!

What could it possibly mean in practice?

What would be the task left to the workers’ political movement, if it does NOT take up the LEADERSHIP of the mass struggle to overthrow the state? The conclusion is inescapable: only the political tasks which flow immediately and directly from the limited economic struggles of workers!

That is an approach which Lenin furiously attacked as ‘economism’ when it was put forward in the Russian workers’ movement some eighty years ago.

That is an approach which would condemn the workers of South Africa to continued subordination politically under the petty-bourgeois democrats, in the UDF and Congress movement.

It is not the approach towards which Fosatu’s own ranks are now groping – even while under the influence of arguments such as those which Brother Foster put forward.


As if sensing this implication in his position and recoiling from it, Brother Foster provided at least some hints in his speech that a “workers’ movement” could or might be taken to mean a workers’ party.

The hint was enough to produce a loud protest from leaders of the SA Communist Party (see, e.g., ‘Toussaint’ in African Communist No. 93), to the effect that it would be criminal to set up “a new ‘workers’ movement’ in competition with or alongside the still living Communist Party.”

Not only is the CP “still living” – apparently it has long fulfilled the need of SA workers for their own working class political organisation! On another occasion, we will take space to show that this claim, quite frankly, doesn’t hold water.

But there is a serious reason why it will not be possible to solve the revolutionary-strategic problems now confronting the SA working class by attempting to move directly towards the creation of a mass workers’ party on the basis of the trade unions.

Clearly the working class needs a party of its own in South Africa, as everywhere else. But we are experiencing the need for this in a revolutionary period in which the working class has to mobilise and organise itself to overthrow the state. No other force will do it. Therefore, any workers’ party that is viable for the needs of the class would have to be a mass party with a revolutionary program. It would have to be capable of drawing the oppressed people in their millions behind it.

How is such a thing to be created? It cannot be sucked out of the thumb, as the silly sectarian grouplets imagine.

It must be built upon the organised foundations already laid by the workers in the factories, mines, docks, plantations, offices, shops, etc. But how is this to be done?

How is it to attract the necessary mass following of the millions of unorganised workers, the youth, the women, the unemployed, the people in the reserves? The combined forces of all of these are essential if the state is to be defeated.

Even the formation of a united trade union federation – so urgently needed by the working class – is lagging dreadfully as a result of all sorts of secondary obstacles.

How long would it take to even begin the formation of a mass workers’ party by this route?

In the advanced capitalist countries the emergence of workers’ parties in the 19th Century was very complicated, was affected by many temporary setbacks, took a number of different forms, and was only consolidated over a long period of struggle, in the course of which the working class differentiated itself from the petty-bourgeois democrats who had held sway over the mass movement in the bourgeois-democratic revolutions of that time.

That was, let us remember, the period of the forward movement of capitalism, not its death agony; a sustained period of capitalist development, with long intervals, often decades between revolutionary explosions.

In South Africa today, revolution is knocking at the door. We are living in a period in which the intolerable burdens of capitalism, of an international economic system in crisis, combine with a racist state system rotting on its feet.

The working people are compelled to make a proletarian revolution in order to carry out even the democratic tasks. The mass of the working class will see no choice but to take what appears the shortest route – the route which seems least strewn with difficulties and uncertainties – towards the building of a revolutionary organisation for that purpose.

In the years immediately ahead, millions of black working people will take to the road of struggle. They will want above all to unite their forces under one banner.

For this purpose, they will seize hold of the main political vehicle already existing, with the deepest roots in the traditions of mass resistance – the ANC.

Anyone who imagines that the attractive power of the UDF comes from the ‘400 organisations’ affiliated to it, is failing to look beneath the surface of events. The support for the UDF – of the millions of working people who are not yet activists, but will later become so – this support comes from the fact that everyone knows that the UDF is a forerunner of the future emergence once again of the ANC at the head of the mass movement inside South Africa.

Because this will be a movement of millions of previously unorganised and previously passive working people, it will break like a wave over the heads of the previously organised trade union workers. Even they will be drawn, despite their doubts about middle class leadership of Congress, towards the ANC banner.

It is essential to prepare the most advanced, organised and conscious workers for that.

The only viable strategy for taking forward the working class political movement to the achievement of its tasks; the only viable strategy for the presently organised workers to fight for and win leadership of the entire mass movement – is to consciously go into the UDF, build it, transform it and lead it.

The arguments of GWU General Secretary, Dave Lewis (Work in Progress, No. 29), against entry into the UDF collapse when tested against this approach.

He wants the unions to stay out of the UDF, while at the same time “supporting” the UDF, having “joint campaigns” with it, and encouraging trade union members individually “to join the UDF”.

This will give us the worst of all possible worlds!

Now and in the past, Brother Lewis has done a service to the movement by spelling out ideas and arguments, so that the level of discussion can be raised, problem areas confronted, and mistakes put right.

In the interview, he makes a number of correct points about the multi-class character of the UDF, its leadership, and the bulk of the ‘activist’ organisations affiliated to it; about the deficiencies of its program of action from the workers’ point of view; about the inequalities of representation within it, loaded against the workers, and the lack of democratic accountability of the leadership to the rank-and-file.

It would at least have had the merit of consistency if Brother Lewis, on these grounds, had urged workers to stay out of the UDF and instead work consciously towards the formation by the unions of an independent party of labour. For reasons given above, however, such a conclusion would nevertheless be mistaken.

But Brother Lewis does not proceed down that track. Much of his argument, in fact, tends towards a non-political conception of the trade unions’ tasks.

For one thing, unions will inevitably be organisations that incorporate a great diversity of political views and affiliations. We’ll have in our ranks members with militant political views, and we’ll have in our ranks members with fairly conservative political views. We’ll also have within our ranks a great many members who have few political views at all, people who have joined the organisation purely to fight their bosses. With a certain degree of tension now and again, these diverse views can all be contained within an organisation, because they are all held by workers.  (p.13)

Firstly, this is an entirely static conception, which seems oblivious of the earthquake that is beginning in the movement of the South African working class, and the rapid changes of consciousness and political outlook that workers have undergone and will continue to undergo through struggle. (Is the thinking among the GWU leaders perhaps weighed down by the effects of the SATS defeat?)

Secondly, there must be political struggle in the unions, to convince all workers of the correctness of revolutionary ideas – not to drive out ‘conservative’ workers, or other tendencies, but through free and democratic debate to win the willing support of the entire membership to the ideas and policies which alone can liberate the class.

Brother Lewis says, “Union leaders don’t claim to represent the views of the working class. They represent the views of their members.”

Trade union leaders are bound by the internal democracy of their organisations to uphold the interests of their members in the way the majority dictates. But take the point any further, and it becomes a sheer cop-out from political responsibility.

Trade union leaders can represent their members’ interests in the final analysis only by representing the interests of the working class. The point of leadership is to help, encourage and persuade the members to clearly understand their interests as a class in the fullest sense.

Thirdly, would Brother Lewis argue, for example, that British trade unions should not be affiliated to the Labour Party because included in their ranks are workers who support the Tories, Liberals and SDP? Most surely he would not – for that would place him in very embarrassing political company.

Fourthly, all the noble concern for the “great diversity of political views and affiliations” among workers in the union, seems suddenly to vanish when it comes to the highly political decision of the union leaders to “encourage our members to join the UDF”, support it, and wage joint campaigns!

So the crux of the argument must be that the UDF is not a workers’ organisation, but is multi-class. Therefore what? Apparently you can support it without a qualm, even encourage your members to go into it individually – the only thing you can’t do is affiliate to it!

You refuse to do the one thing which would put the organised workers in a position to change the UDF and bring it under their control!

The workers are sent in defenceless, disarmed, without organisation – into the arms of the ‘multi-class’ community grouplets and petty-bourgeois democrats from whom, by washing its hands of the UDF at the level of ‘affiliation’, the union imagines it can maintain its independence.


Lenin tirelessly explained when arguing against the Mensheviks in Russia (who also claimed to be for the ‘independence’ of the workers’ organisations) that the only way to preserve the independence of the workers’ organisations was to establish the organised workers’ leadership over the entire revolutionary movement.

The strength, clarity and vigour of the organised workers can win people of all oppressed and exploited classes – including, for example, the small traders – to the side of the working class.

What characterises the middle class in all its various sections is that it has no independent basis in society. It therefore has an inherent tendency to vacillate between the conflicting pressures of the two powerful classes in society: the bourgeoisie and the working class.

In South Africa the black middle class sympathises with the working class, while at the same time clinging to its meagre privileges and tenuous ‘freedom’ from wage-labour. It is itself exploited and oppressed by the capitalist system.

Marxism has long pointed out that petty-bourgeois politicians who compromise with capitalism are not representing the interests of the middle class, but politically exploiting it. The liberation of the majority of the middle class depends on the capitalist system being overthrown – and if the working class is held back from achieving this in a revolution, the oppressed middle class becomes itself a helpless victim of savage capitalist counter-revolution.

For this reason the support of the middle class must be won not through compromising with capitalism, but in an open tug-of-war against the capitalist class.

It is possible, right and necessary for the working class, in its program, to put forward specific demands to cater for the practical needs of various sections of the middle class.

The only condition must be that the program of struggle against the big bourgeoisie must not be watered down in any way, and this means no compromise whatsoever with the liberal capitalists.

The possibility of a revolutionary workers’ government making ample specific concessions to the middle class, without opening dangers of counter-revolution, depends on two things.

It depends, firstly, on the complete conquest of the state power, and the smashing of the capitalist state machine. It depends, secondly, on the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism being carried through completely in the main branches of the economy, so that the commanding heights of economic and political power pass unreservedly into workers’ hands.

When Trotsky was writing on the problem of the German revolution in the 1930s, he answered those who said:

“It’s wrong to talk about a working class revolution because actually 95% of the people are interested in revolution, and consequently it’s really a people’s revolution.”

Trotsky explained that the worker revolutionaries should say to those who put forward that point of view:

Of course 95% of the population, if not 98%, is exploited by finance capital. But this exploitation is organised hierarchically: there are exploiters, there are sub-exploiters, sub-sub-exploiters, etc. Only thanks to this hierarchy do the exploiters keep in subjection the majority of the nation. In order that the nation should indeed be able to reconstruct itself around a new class core, it must be reconstructed ideologically, and this can be achieved only if the proletariat does not dissolve itself into the ‘people’, into the ‘nation’, but on the contrary develops a programme of its proletarian revolution and compels the petty bourgeoisie to choose between two regimes. The slogan of the people’s revolution lulls the broad masses of workers, reconciles them to the bourgeois-hierarchical structure of the ‘people’, and so retards their liberation.” (The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, Penguin edition, p.62.)

The point is not altered by the character of the struggle in South Africa, in which the overthrow of the racist regime is the first point on the political agenda.

It is correct that there should be a ‘popular alliance’ in this struggle – but a terrific amount of confusion is usually buried under the use of this term. The question is, what is the character of the popular alliance to be?

When centred round the organised workers, and driven forward by the workers’ strength and clarity of purpose, the ‘popular alliance’ would resemble the relationship between a magnet and iron filings. That is as it should be.

The petty-bourgeois politicians, however, like to present the ‘popular alliance’ as some sort of compromise arrangement between different ‘class interests’ in which none tries to assert predominance! Such an alliance would resemble a collection of potatoes in one sack – and, while the proletarian ‘potatoes’ would be the most numerous, as we all know it is the few petty-bourgeois ‘potatoes’ which find their way to the positions of real influence on top.

Moreover, because the petty-bourgeoisie can maintain no independent standpoint from the main classes in society, the result is that whenever the organised power of the working class is not asserted, it is the influence of the liberal bourgeoisie (openly or behind the scenes) which becomes paramount. This ends up crippling the mass movement.

Inqaba is preparing material on the struggle in the 1950s, to show how these problems laid the basis for the defeats at that time.

Trade union leaders who abdicate the responsibility of organising the intervention of the advanced workers into the UDF – and later into the ANC itself – only prepare the way for future crippling, division and demoralisation of the entire movement. Can there be any doubt that that would bring a catastrophe on the unions themselves?

We believe that the urgent task of unifying the trade unions should be approached without political preconditions by the leaders of the democratic unions.

Nevertheless, because the policy of abstention from the UDF is not a coherent strategy for the workers’ movement, it is likely even in the short-run to bring disarray and confusion into the attempts to form a united federation.


In a passage which is pleasantly inconsistent with the rest of his conclusions, and gives us hope, Dave Lewis says:

The point of this digression is not to say that workers should never co-operate, never work together with organisations of non-workers, or organisations in which non-workers are also members. We would expect this of our members. But we would not be surprised, and nobody else should be surprised, if when our members do work in this way, they insist on carrying into these organisations the culture and demands of the working class, and the culture and demands of a working class organisation. (p.15)

That is exactly what should take place!

This is an understanding which the leaders of Saawu, Gawu and other unions in the UDF need to take on board.

The present artificial structure of the UDF, undemocratically weighted against workers’ organisations, must be deliberately challenged and changed. We are not arguing for trade union leaders simply to go into the UDF to ‘represent’ their members on their own.

The point is that the workers in the factory committees, shop stewards committees, branches, joint councils, etc., should discuss and organise their intervention into the UDF; should discuss independently their own demands and policies, to be fought for within the UDF; should strictly mandate their delegates, and so on.

Judging by the interview in Work in Progress, the GWU leaders themselves have not learned the necessary lessons either from the experience of the meat strike or from their more recent experience in the Disorderly Bills Action Committee.

If you send one or a few individuals along, to ‘represent’ a mass workers’ organisation in a place where petty-bourgeois ‘representatives’ are swarming, of course it will be a disaster! It would be surprising if any worker put through that experience wasn’t turned off politics for life.

The tactic must be to constantly overwhelm the petty-bourgeois with numbers, in meetings of this kind, to let them feel the hot breath of the workers and never forget it, and make them respond to workers’ initiative and demands. Is it so difficult to organise this?

There is a need for a clear program of national action on the part of the UDF, aimed particularly to mobilise the forces of the unorganised working class, which only the already organised workers would be able to carry forward successfully.

But to get such a program of action, the workers’ organisations will have to work it out, including demands of all the oppressed, but putting workers’ demands to the forefront – and then see to it that the UDF wholeheartedly adopts the campaign.

Dave Lewis is absolutely right to say that “the workers don’t understand what programme of action is envisaged by the UDF.” Talk for no clear purpose is “anathema to an organised worker”. Without active involvement of the organised workers in deciding, organising and directing an action campaign, the UDF itself will be enfeebled.

Of course there will be ‘big’ problems and loud objections to workers’ demands to change the initial ‘structures’ and give class-content to the ‘principles’ of the UDF.

Brother Lewis speaks about the UDF’s present structure as though it is carved in stone. But who can doubt the capacity of an organised workers’ movement which (in a police-state) has learned to deal with such powers as Frame, SEIFSA, the Chamber of Mines, etc., to overcome any petty-bourgeois resistance within the UDF – once the workers set their minds clearly to the task.


If organised workers are to transform the UDF, it will be necessary to have a clear conception of the tasks of the coming revolution, and the tactics appropriate to them.

In the workers’ movement in Russia, the errors of ‘economism’ and Menshevism were bound-up with the false idea of separate revolutionary ‘stages’. Those who thought it was not the task of the Russian working class to lead the struggle to overthrow the Tsarist dictatorship and carry the revolution through, naturally wished to confine the workers’ movement to limited aims within the framework of capitalism.

Politically, they were content to allow the working class to serve as pack-horses for the liberals, petty-bourgeois democrats and intellectuals. If it hadn’t been for the strength of the Bolsheviks and the clear policy for workers’ power which Lenin and Trotsky put forward in the revolution, the ‘two-stage’ leaders would have caused the terrible, bloody defeat of the revolution.

Essentially the same applies to South Africa.

In the August 1983 issue of the ‘liberal and radical’ journal Reality, Steven Friedman uses these words in describing FOSATU’s present policy:

It argues that alliances between black workers and other strata of black society have inevitably become dominated by elite groups to the disadvantage of workers. Because workers suffer from educational disadvantages and a lack of time which are not shared by the black ‘elite’ it is inevitable, they argue, that the elite will come to dominate the alliance and that its priorities will then become those of the elite. (Our emphasis.)

What gross contempt for the power and capacities of organised workers! If this report is true, then it must reflect the attitude of some intellectuals within Fosatu – but it cannot be the attitude of the worker militants in Fosatu.

Friedman goes on:

Behind this is also a fear that any black nationalist government which came to power would tend to rule in the interests of the black elite – unless an independent worker movement existed, articulating specific worker interests which would then be in a position to influence the policy of that Government.

Here we have the two-stage idea stated in all its baldness! How, one may ask, is a ‘black nationalist government’ going to come to power unless it is carried to power by the working class? And this would mean that the working class allowed itself to be led in the revolutionary struggle by a petty-bourgeois elite leadership!

The task of the independent worker movement is not to be in a position merely to “influence” some future government, but to so organise and struggle that government and state power passes into its own hands.

We refuse to believe that the argument reported by Friedman genuinely reflects the views of the fighting ranks of Fosatu and the other democratic unions.

However, there have been several disturbing indications recently from both GWU and Fosatu, which imply that the workers ought to distinguish, for political purposes, between ‘good’ bosses and ‘bad’ bosses – whereas in fact the entire capitalist class, and indeed particularly the ‘liberal’ big capitalists are the most formidable, subtle and dangerous enemies of all the fundamental interests of the working class.

Precisely when the liberal capitalists parade as opponents of the racist regime, they need to be exposed to the workers as the chief beneficiaries of exploitation and oppression, for the protection of whose property every capitalist state primarily exists.

PFP spokesmen, for example, declare vigorous support for the SA military-machine, and for all the core components of the state, not as some reluctant ‘compromise’ to get white votes, but because the bourgeois class they represent depends on this repressive apparatus to maintain its power over the working class.

Heartsore though they may be about the brutal ‘excesses’ of repression, this is the only state they have got. They cannot saw-off the limb of the tree on which they sit.

When Fosatu launched its ‘own’ campaign against the new constitution just before the white referendum, thousands of workers responded eagerly, wearing the ‘One man one vote’ stickers to work. Excellent!

But a grave misjudgement lies behind the idea of Fosatu leaders to make it a point of the campaign to question the bosses whether they supported a ‘Yes’ vote. Consider the implication – the political lesson which this establishes in the minds of workers. That the bosses who favoured a ‘No’ may be considered to be on the workers’ side?!

Oppenheimer, for example – the most ruthless and cunning, as well as the most powerful of the big boss class – tactically changed sides not long before the referendum for the precise purpose of pulling the wool over the workers’ eyes. Having previously indicated support for the permanence of the Bantustans and the sincerity of Botha’s ‘reforms’, Oppenheimer piously switched to supporting ‘on balance’ the ‘No’ campaign.

Can he have been much displeased by the thrust of Fosatu’s pre-referendum campaign? Still more delighted must have been those middle class democrats in the UDF who want to hold the workers to a compromise with the so-called ‘progressive’ capitalists. And these are the very leaders from whose political influence the policy of abstention from the UDF is supposed to save the workers!

For all the bosses, whether to support a ‘Yes’ or a `No’ was a purely tactical decision, calculated from their capitalist class standpoint.

Workers’ tactics in the struggle always involve difficulties – and mistakes happen, especially when an underlying revolutionary conception is lacking or is not clear. But mistakes, once recognised, can be avoided in future.

The main point of political campaigns among workers should be to show – not any fundamental difference between ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ capitalists and ‘reactionary’ capitalists – but the reactionary heart of the entire bourgeoisie which ties it inseparably to the state power; to the forces of ‘law and order’; to the splitting-up of South Africa on ‘federal’ or ‘confederal’ lines; to the holding down of workers’ power and the impoverishment and exploitation of working people for the sake of profit.

Through such an approach alone can revolutionary class-consciousness become generalised in the proletariat.


Finally, and most important of all, a clear political program must be fought for, in and through the UDF.

The Freedom Charter still provides a good basis for a workers’ program. The present UDF leaders have put forward, not the Freedom Charter itself, but a filleted version of abstract ‘principles’ drawn from it.

Workers ought to insist at least on the Freedom Charter as a starting-point, emphasising, together with the democratic demands, the specific social demands contained there, and stressing the nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopolies as an immediate task of a revolutionary government.

The main thing lacking in the Freedom Charter is any explanation that these demands can be carried out only with the conquest of state-power by the working class. This point the organised workers would be well placed to hammer home in the UDF.

If we can reach a common stand-point on these issues of strategy and tactics in the trade unions over the next few months, then much of the ground will have been laid for big advances of the workers’ movement towards power.

© Transcribed from the original by the Marxist Workers Party (2019).