By John S. Saul
October 17, 2011
This article seeks to identify ways in which those engaged in socialist practice in South Africa might hope to more clearly navigate their way forward. It asks, in short, what is to be done – and how?
I. Beyond the “working class”: expanding the constituency
Of course, within that working class, there are also fissures and hierarchies and divisions (along lines of race, ethnicity, and gender) that impede its self-consciousness and its praxis. As Leo Panitch stated in a recent issue of The Socialist Register, “To speak of strategy for labour needs some justification today… Class, we have been reminded so often, is not everything.” Still, he feels moved to add immediately, “But nor is class nothing.” Fair enough, yet I sense that Marxists must go even further in thinking “outside the box” of rigid class identities, especially in analyzing the realities of the Global South. For there are, indeed, other things out there that are “not nothing” and they are entirely germane to revolutionary aspirations.
For starters, our sense of class contradictions – and of class belonging – has to be markedly expanded, especially with respect to the Global South. For there, in societies profoundly altered by the impact of capitalism, the roster of those exploited (and potentially available for class-based action) is far wider than narrow “classist” categories suggest. Here I have found the formulation of Ken Post and Phil Wright (in their Socialism and Underdevelopment ) to be particularly instructive:
The working out of capitalism in parts of the periphery prepares not only the minority working class but peasants and other working people, women, youth and minorities for a socialist solution, even though the political manifestation of this may not initially take the form of a socialist movement. In the case of those who are not wage labourers… capitalism has still so permeated the social relations which determine their existences, even though it may not have followed the western European pattern of “freeing” their labour power, that to be liberated from it is their only salvation. The objective need for socialism of these elements can be no less than that of the worker imprisoned in the factory and disciplined by the whip of unemployment. The price [of capitalism] is paid in even the most ‘successful’ of the underdeveloped countries, and others additionally experience mass destitution. Finding another path has...become a desperate necessity if the alternative of continuing, if not increasing, barbarism is to be escaped.
We must, quite simply, think outside the frame of the most conventional of Marxisms and look for systemic contradictions where we can find them. And then, much more imaginatively than ever before, seek – in terms of clear principle and by means of compromise and assiduous political work - to develop effectively counter-hegemonic projects arising from such contradictions, projects that represent the “highest common factor” of their social location and that defy, collectively, the rule of capital.
But we cannot stop at merely a more expanded class definition of agency. We must make other tensions in society a positive force in our struggle for liberation. As my old teacher and friend Ralph Miliband noted, capitalism’s grossly uneven development around the world has produced “extremely fertile terrain” for the kind of “pathological deformations” that now scar the global landscape – like predatory authoritarianisms and “demagogues and charlatans peddling their poisonous wares...of ethnic and religious exclusion and hatred.” To which I merely would add that it is easy for people to turn for social meaning to more ready-to-hand identities, often with fundamentalist fervour, when they lose confidence in socialist and other humanely modern projects. And yet, despite this, progressives committed to class struggle can and should continue to view such identities as contingent in their socio-political implications and as not being, in many cases, in contradiction with socialist purposes. And we should, when possible, invite the bearers of such identities – alongside feminists, environmentalists, anti-racists, activists around issues of sexual orientation and the like – to join us within a broader community-in-themaking and within a universalizing democratic project of global, anti-capitalist transformation. In fact, as Miliband continues,
… everywhere there are common goals and aspirations
— for democratic forms where they are denied and for more democratic forms where these are no more than a screen for oligarchic rule; for the achievement of a social order in which improvements in the condition of the most deprived – often a majority of the population
– is the prime concern of governments… In all countries, there are people, in numbers large and small, who are moved by the vision of a new social order in which democracy, egalitarianism and cooperation – the essential values of socialism – would be prevailing principles of social organization. It is in the growth of their numbers and in the success of their struggles that lies the best hope for humankind.
But the corollary of this position is equally compelling: we on the left had better learn to operate in our complex world of diverse faiths, races and ethnic belongings, and to link such “belongings” to our cause of class liberation. Otherwise, they will return to haunt us – as divisive “identifiers” that can, at their worst, turn dangerous to humane purpose. So, too, must gender-defined and environmental projects be ever more assertively articulated as being, not reducible to, but coequal with and enlarged by, class considerations.
In short, one of our key goals must be to define “agency” not merely in terms of some rather abstractly defined “working class interest.” For that apparently simple slogan has presented far too open an invitation to arrogance and high-handedness (in the interest of the “working class”) and to essentialist vanguards of all kinds, ever quick to assert just what “the class” must and should do. Instead we need to embrace the range of shades of identity within and beyond strict class boundaries that can be won to revolutionary praxis. Not that tensions between diverse goals and purposes will then simply disappear, of course. Yet seeking to realize such an enlarged project of “class struggle” also entails much more democratic methods of negotiation of both the means and the ends of revolutionary work than has characterized most past socialist undertakings.
II. Globalization and a socialism of “expanded reproduction”
How, then, can the left balance – on some kind of national developmental balance-sheet – costs and benefits? And how can new and essential kinds of democratic control over such linkages be factored in? For only some such control can make countries of the Global South the beneficiaries rather than the victims of globalization. Without this, there is no intrinsic “magic of the market,” no equal exchange between rich and poor. With the market left unchecked, there is only the upward redistribution of resources from poor to rich.
Small wonder that Samir Amin can point a way forward only through an ever more radical decolonization of central capitalist control and by calling for the actual “delinking” of the economies of the Global South from the Empire of Capital. For Amin, delinking is defined as “the submission of external relations [to internal requirements], the opposite of the internal adjustment of the peripheries to the demands of the polarizing worldwide expansion of capital” and it is seen as being “the only realistic alternative [since] reform of the [present] world system is utopian.” For “history shows us that it is impossible to ‘catch up’ within the framework of world capitalism”; in fact, “only a very long transition” (with a self-conscious choice for delinking from the world of capitalist globalization as an essential first step) beyond the present global polarization will suffice.
Yet, as Amin readily admits, there is no realistic way of avoiding some involvement in the broader market (as opportunity, though not, he argues, as seduction). What must occur, however, is the substitution of the present political economy of recolonization with an alternative whose goal is “delinking.” What would this programme of radical delinking from the current cancerous global capitalist system look like? The answer to this question can only be found in a new project of genuine socialist planning, on a national or regional scale, that seeks to destroy the crippling (il)logic of present “market limitations” on development.
This, in turn, suggests the need for a programme that embodies “the progressive convergence of the demand structure of the community and the needs of the population” (following the formulations of Clive Thomas) — in other words, the very reverse of the market fundamentalist’s global orthodoxy. What is needed is a “socialism of expanded reproduction” - that avoids falling into the Stalinist trap of “violently repressing mass consumption” in the name of the supposed requirements of accumulation. For, far from accumulation and mass consumption being warring opposites, in this alternative, accumulation could be driven forward precisely by finding outlets for production that meet the growing needs of the mass of the population!
An effective industrialization strategy would thus base its “expanded reproduction” on ever increasing exchanges between city and country, between industry and agriculture, with food and raw materials moving to the cities and with consumer goods and producer goods moving to the countryside. Collective saving geared toward investment could then be drawn from an expanding economic pool. Note that such a socialism of expanded reproduction makes the betterment of the people’s lot a short-term rather than a long-term project, and thus promises a much sounder basis for an effective alliance of workers, peasants and others. As such it also promises a sounder basis for a democratic road to revolutionary socialism.
It is important to note that this formulation is not intended to underemphasize the potential importance of South-South relations or of linkages (foreshadowed in the World Social Forum) that seek to redefine the workings of the global economy. Nor is it a call for the destruction, within the national economy, of any and all market relations, dangerous though these undoubtedly can be in terms of the possible generation of class differentiation. For if democratic and needs-focused planning is maintained, thereby ensuring that the centre of gravity of the economy is egalitarian, collectively-premised, and popularly-centred, it can more than counter-balance the costs of any judicious deployment of the market. And in so doing, it can avoid the risk of unduly overburdening public enterprise and the planning mechanism. Yet a self-consciousness about societal transition away from market power and entrepreneurial class interest is obviously crucial. Quite simply, the bourgeoisie, foreign or domestic, plays no role that could justify its long-run claim for inordinate wealth or superordinate power.
III. Democratizing the struggle: revolution by “structural reform” and popular empowerment
In rethinking along such lines, particularly about southern Africa but also more broadly, I’ve been drawn, over the years, to the writing on “structural reform” of such authors as André Gorz and Boris Kagarlitsky. Gorz makes a key distinction right from the outset between a “genuinely socialist policy of reforms on the one hand [and] reformism of a neo-capitalist or ‘social-democratic’ type” on the other. He writes, ”If immediate socialism is not possible, neither is the achievement of reforms directly destructive of capitalism. [Yet] those who reject all lesser reforms on the grounds that they are merely reformist are in fact rejecting the whole possibility of a transitional strategy and of a process of transition to socialism.”
But what distinguishes “structural reform” from “mere reformism”? There are two chief attributes of such “reform.” One lies in the insistence that any reform, to be structural, must not be comfortably self-contained (a mere “improvement”) but must, instead, self-consciously involve other “necessary” reforms that flow from it as part of an emerging project of structural transformation in a coherently left-ward direction. Secondly, a structural reform cannot come from on high: instead it must root itself in popular initiatives in such a way as to foster further empowerment. It must lead to growing self-consciousness and organizational capacity for the vast mass of the population who thus strengthen themselves for further struggles, further victories. As Gorz argues in his Socialism and Revolution , “The emancipation of the working class [and its allies] can become a total objective only if in the course of the struggle they have learned something about self-management, initiative and collective decision – in a word, if they have had a foretaste of what emancipation means.”
My own initial proposal of this approach to transformative/revolutionary/socialist endeavour (presented some years ago in New Left Review, and expanded in South Africa’s journal Transformation [#20]) elicited both favourable response and sharp critique. Alex Callinicos in a subsequent issue of NLR (#195) called my advocacy of “structural reform” “a detour on, rather than an abandonment of, the road to revolution” - but representing, nonetheless, a serious mistake on my part. And yet my claim was actually even bolder than Callinicos suggests, and I stand by it.
Quite specifically, I argued, there is good reason to insist that a strategy of structural reforms not be seen as being, some mere “detour” but rather, under most circumstances, as being the very essence of revolution itself. A strategy of structural reforms, while not suggesting immediate transformation of existing capitalist circumstances, still permits a definition of sites and modes of real struggle, and of tactics and strategies that can open up the possibility of moving towards just such a transformation. Moreover, structural reform entails focusing on substantive issues (rather than vague revolutionary nostrums) in terms of which leaderships can most effectively be held to democratic account by their constituencies. These constituencies can thus become increasingly conscious of their very “classness” – not as some theoretical given, but as the practical content of their own lives and public activities.
Of course, in the real world there are many temptations to abandon reasoned strategy in favour of militant rhetoric, and to abandon processes of negotiation among comrades in favour of vanguardist self-righteousness. The slow, negotiated accretion of a culture of socialist “commonsense” within which conflicting claims on the left can be democratically debated and resolved is key. We need to work towards the establishment of an emerging socialist consensus, not at the expense of politics and difference, but as the ground for their fullest expression and debate -- real debate and struggle, in short, but on the grounds of shared socialist and democratic premises, not capitalist and liberal ones.
Callinicos, for his part, flags many dangers in such an approach. Certainly, one mustn’t be naïve: the side of resistance to revolutionary change – the dominant class, its military and its external backers – will often play pretty violent hard-ball indeed. Then the escalation of confrontation may sometimes, of necessity, pass beyond the boundaries of anything like “structural reform,” with long-term costs to socialist and democratic outcomes that can be very severe. After all, the cost, human and political, of such escalation is one of the main reasons many of us continue to fight so hard against the imperatives of class and profit that have too often put our Western governments on the wrong side of struggles for freedom in the Global South.
Yet to simultaneously caricature the claims (and virtues) of structural reform and of the creative tensions that it can engender, seems to mean, by definition, no opposing leaders, no conflicting political organizations or popular initiatives, no differences of opinion about strategy and tactics – in effect no politics - within the broader movement seeking a transition to socialism. Indeed, when a thinker like Callinicos comes up against the complexities that real politics can reveal, he tends to back away and merely invoke that magic talisman, “mass struggle,” to outrank competing arguments. Indeed, if we have learned nothing else from the history of “socialism,” it is that substituting the pure flame of “revolutionism” for the hard calculation and subtle politics of structural reform is a recipe for disaster.
As Kagarlitsky concludes (in his The Dialectic of Change ), Marx himself “was convinced that reforms prepare not only for revolution but also for socialism. In other words, for Marx the value of reforms was not in that they undermined the old system – sometimes they even strengthen it – but in their creation of elements of the new system within the framework of the old society. This theme in Marx’s theory has been completely ignored by revolutionaries and reformist social democracy alike.” But such a silence cannot be allowed to continue if success in a long, wearing struggle for socialism is to become a real possibility.
John Saul is a political economist and activist.