The Crises of Capitalism and the Emergence of the Newer Left
That the world faces a myriad of crises is undeniable; abject poverty, state sanctioned violence, terrorism, climate change and a host of other structural problems confront much of the world’s population. On the one hand there exists a minority whose needs are effectively met. On the other, the majority toil and struggle- in often futile attempts- to satisfy their needs. In a response to these realities, a number of solutions have been proposed. On a grand scale, these have taken the form of economic and political systems. The dominant of these over the past 150 years have been capitalism and state socialism culminating in the so-called “end of history”. Yet the problems that spurred this conflict have not subsided, in fact for many they have worsened.
With capitalism’s contemporary failures in full view, many are seeking a return to some form of state socialism. In the US, the Bernie Sanders Campaign introduced many to the concept of democratic socialism. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have reignited a Labour Party that for 20 years was a bastion of neoliberalism. Mexico has recently seen a self-described socialist win it’s presidential elections. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is a socialist and member of the Labour Party. In South Africa, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a self-styled “Marxist-Leninist-Fanonian” party has captured the imagination of millions, while the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) has recently launched a workers party that it had been contemplating starting since it’s split with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).
The Limits of the Newer Left
With the South African Communist Party (SACP) largely compromised by it’s decision to remain in an alliance with the African National Congress (ANC), the strong presence of the EFF has offered an alternative for South African leftists. Yet progressives of all stripes have legitimate reasons to be concerned with the party. The EFF has been beset by a number of legitimate controversies, including the nativism, the racial chauvinism, and the cult of personality that seem to be a feature of the party. Yet these vulgar and obvious problems are, or should be, fairly low-hanging fruit for people committed to left-wing principles. Of greater importance in assessing the value of the EFF is to evaluate two key factors: it’s approach to the state and the nature of state power itself. Both these factors played a significant role in the success and failures of the 20th century left, and will continue to matter in the long term should we want a reinvigorated progressive politics.
The state of the State
The EFF model of state ownership of the means of production/strategic sectors of industry is perhaps the most important to interrogate. Put simply the EFF, and the bulk of the Marxist-Leninist tradition, believes that state ownership will result in a more equitable distribution of resources. This stems from the belief that the state that they construct will be a workers and/or the peoples state. A question that naturally arises from this position is whether it is possible to have a workers/people’s state under the Marxist-Leninist model? This question was answered in the late 19th century by the ever prescient Bakunin. Simply put, according to Bakunin, the state is bound to function as a bastion of minority rule. As a result nationalisation means that the state replaces the former private owners. The relations of production however are effectively the same, the workers are still instruments to be directed all that has changed is who directs the workers.
Even if one rejects the above a priori dismissal of the legitimacy of the state, there remains a problem with equating state ownership with socialism or some form of equality. This was a problem even Engels identified in his 1877: Anti-Duhring. He highlighted that the transfer of ownership does not change the nature of the productive forces. In fact the more ownership the state controls the more it transforms into a national capitalist and as a consequence it begins to exploit even more workers.
The alienation that Marxists have hitherto spoken of still exists in this regard; it is merely cloaked up in the rhetoric of socialism. This characterisation far from being contrary to earlier and long denounced Marxist-Leninist experiences, effectively replicates them. The lack of autonomy and control that workers experience under such a model seems to run counter to the Marxian position of empowering workers. Engels’ solution to this conundrum was “society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces” [emphasis mine]. It is also important note that that the state and society are not always the same thing.
It is important to stress that this concern with state ownership extends to the question of land reform in South Africa. Calls for the state to expropriate all land are accentuated by these critiques. If the state is either inherently exploitative or the character of the state determines the nature of the expropriation we are right to reject it.
There is no Newer Left
The period of demobilisation that the South African left, particularly the Unions, have experienced since the 1990’s continues to affect the present. We have a highly fractured labour movement, a ruling party once considered to be a vehicle for socialism now, recognised by many as a complex heterogeneous movement that has pushed neoliberal reforms. It is this in conjunction with the stark failures that neoliberalism engendered which led many South Africans towards the EFF.
However this type of desperation should never be a substitute for critical analysis, particularly of those who seek absolute power. Instead these new and emergent organisation must held to the same standards they extol; primarily the extent to which their political project lives up to their ideal of an equal society.
They must be able to account for the vagaries of actually existing socialism and most importantly we must interrogate the role of the state in a historically grounded manner. The issues we currently face call for imaginative solutions, failing that we will find ourselves resorting to the same processes that have failed us in the past. South Africans are fortunate in that many of the key issues were explored by their compatriots after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, our new explorations must build on some of those foundations.
By Rekang Jankie, Managing Editor TheProgressiveCorner.com
Jankie writes in his personal capacity. The views in this piece should not be seen as representing TPC, IFAA or their partners.