Monday, 31 March 2014

Taking Politics beyond the Factory Seriously

by Richard Pithouse, Amandla Magazine

Numsa's resolve to break with both the ANC and the authority that the SACP has tried to exert over the union movement carries the potential for a real political opening. The union's commitment to work with other struggles, including community struggles, in a broad united front offers the prospect of these struggles, often isolated in organisational terms, attaining a greater degree of collective coherence and power.

Trade unions, like any other form of organisation including community organisations, social movements and political parties can become overly bureaucratic, reliant on charismatic individuals or corrupt. They can make strategic misjudgements, they can chose to integrate themselves into social institutions and arrangements that reproduce domination and exclusion and they can be captured by elites for their own purposes. In South Africa a number of unions, most notoriously NUM, have not only become bureaucratised and integrated into various kinds of elite power, including capital in the case of NUM, but have also degenerated to the point where there is a vast social distance between union bosses and ordinary workers. But, especially when they remain democratic, unions can be hugely important mechanisms for workers to advance their power and interests against that of capital.

Trade unions can also bring important advantages to broader struggles. Strong unions generate their own resources and can bring real and enduring organisational strength to any struggle. If they are able to remain democratic at all levels and able to prevent the emergence of rule by union bureaucracies, they can be a democratising force in society . Trade unions can operate as a school where people learn democratic praxis and they can become important sites of political education. They are also, via the weapon of the strike, often able to more easily issue direct challenges to elite power than most community struggles which, while they can use weapons like the land occupation and the road blockade, are often spatially separate from sites of elite power. Of course struggles rooted in communities rather than workplaces can become a real threat to elites when they overcome their spatial marginalisation and cohere in central spaces, like Tahir Square in Cairo, but, unlike trade unions, this kind of organisation is difficult to sustain over the long term.

Since the end of apartheid trade unions, with the occasional exception, have tended not to actively support community struggles. Of course there is never an absolute separation between trade unions and communities given that workers live in communities and unionised workers have often been key participants in community struggles. This has enabled some, usually unofficial, sharing of experiences between work place and community struggles. But there was often real pressure from Cosatu for unions to keep their distance from struggles organised outside of the ANC.

The federation was usually silent, and therefore complicit, when independent struggles faced repression. And when trade unions did throw their weight behind campaigns beyond the shop floor they often did so in alliance with NGOs rather than popular organisations. This is also true of Zwelinzima Vavi, a leading figure in the trade union movement, who, in recent years, has often chosen to orientate himself to NGO led campaigns rather than popular struggles. When trade union leaders are more likely to show up at an NGO workshop rather than, say, a land occupation, or after the police have murdered another unarmed protestor, it is clear that their politics has, usually in practice rather than principle, taken on a certain elitism. The elitism that has often compromised the relationship between union leaders and ordinary workers in the shop floor in recent years is also often present in how unions relate to wider society.

Numsa's willingness to engage popular struggles outside of the workplace is certainly a welcome development. It has the potential to develop into an important break with the drift on the part of right wing trade unionists to an alliance with the state and the ruling party and left wing trade unionists into alliances with NGOs. It also has the potential to develop into an alternative to NGOs for community struggles in search of alliances. But as a result of the general withdrawal from community struggles by trade unions after apartheid there is not necessarily a great deal of recent experience in this regard.

One of the more important lessons from recent years is that real solidarity with popular struggles is not an automatic consequence of adhering to a socialist ideology. Solidarity cannot be assumed, or simply declared. It has to be built, in struggle. It requires mutual understanding, mutual respect and, often, an openness to the sort of political encounter that transforms all its participants. Humility invariably goes a lot further than dogma. Socialist theories can be invaluable analytical tools but they don't, on their own, explain everything or guarantee anything. The world is full of would-be socialist vanguards that are deeply immersed in the theory and history of socialism but are largely irrelevant to their societies and the actually existing forms of struggle in their societies.

When rigid forms of socialist theory are applied uncritically across space and time as a body of fixed dogma they can sometimes obscure rather than illuminate actually existing social realities and actually existing prospects for emancipatory struggles. For instance while a lot of left theory imagines the worker, often assumed to be a man, as the most important subject of struggle, and the mine or factory as the most important site of struggle, the reality is that in South Africa a considerable portion of popular political energies are expressed by people without formal employment, many of them women, organised in communities. Over the last ten years or so the shack settlement has emerged as a particularly important site of struggle. This situation is not unique to South Africa. In recent year the urban poor have emerged as an important subject of struggle, and the shack settlements as the important sites of struggle, in countries ranging from Haiti, to Thailand, Egypt,Bolivia and Venezuela. These realities, along with the reality of mass unemployment, are sometimes treated as a temporary aberration but they are, in fact, entrenched realities in much of the global South and need to be taken seriously.

However some forms of left theory have not always been well equipped to take these realities seriously. Karl Marx was a complex thinker whose ideas developed throughout the course of his life. But there were points in his life when his commitment to the workers' struggle blinded him to the reality of the form that actually existing struggles were taking. For instance he understood the Paris Commune, the uprising in Paris in 1871, as a workers' struggle, and he focussed on the agency of men and 'the manly aspirations' of the working class when in fact it was largely a community struggle, organised in neighbourhoods rather than factories, in which women played a leading role. There were also points in Marx's life when he was plainly hostile to the urban poor. As his thought developed he stopped using the contemptuous language that characterised some of his more youthful writings. But the hostility that is present in his early work, and that of people like Friedrich Engels and Rosa Luxemburg, has sometimes become part of the culture of the left with the result that urban struggles have not been taken seriously.

It is not unusual for people on the left to repeat the same set of stereotypes about the urban poor that are commonly found in bourgeois society. After the Egyptian uprising Hazim Kendal, an Egyptian academic working in America, wrote in the New Left Review that "this menacing human mass [i.e. the urban poor] was entirely absent from the revolt, which probably contributed to its civilized and peaceful character". But proper research, on the ground, by people like Selwa Ismail and others have shown that in fact the urban poor were important actors in both the uprising and the more local struggles, often focussed on the police, that led up to the events in Tahir Square. Later on workers started organising strikes in solidarity with the broader social ferment showing, as we have seen in some parts of Latin America, that workers and the urban poor can develop effective solidarities. Nonetheless old prejudices, sometimes dressed up in the language of Marxism, often endure. Raul Zibechi has recently argued that: "The Latin American left regard the poor peripheries as pockets of crime, drug trafficking, and violence; spaces where chaos and the law of the jungle reign. Distrust takes the place of understanding. There is not the slightest difference in perspective between left and right on this issue".

In South Africa some currents in the left have demonstrated a similar hostility to struggles undertaken by the urban poor. There has also been a tendency to dismiss these struggles rather than to seek to understand them or engage them seriously and respectfully. One example of this is when struggles that come out of years of organisation and failed attempts to resolve issues through formal channels suddenly burst into the media after a protest and are then incorrectly described, without any credible investigation, as 'spontaneous', 'leaderless', 'popcorn protests', 'single issue struggles' and so on.

In South Africa, as in much of the world, workers' struggles remain vital. But community struggles have also become very important, as have struggles that don't have a particular spatial location but are organised around matters of common concern and principle. Obviously Numsa will need to sustain its commitment to its primary constituency, workers, as it forges its own path outside of the vice-grip of the ruling party. But if it is to be able to build a united front spanning the workplace and communities, and connecting to wider society, it will also need to broaden its idea of what it means to be committed to a radical politics in South Africa in 2014. It will need to take the reality that there are multiple sites and subjects of struggle a lot more seriously than the rather dogmatic form of Marixst- Leninist theory that saturates its recent documents is able to.

A lot of what Numsa is saying is encouraging. It would, for instance, be very useful for the union to seriously examine the political experiences that have unfolded in recent years in countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia and Greece. Perhaps Haiti and Zimbabwe should be added to the list but the idea of learning from a variety of contemporary experiences, rather than fetishizing the lessons of the workers' movement in Russia almost a century ago, is certainly welcome. There is a lot that we can learn from attempts to theorise the struggles of the past but the world has changed in many ways and this needs to be taken seriously. It is also encouraging to see that Numsa is looking beyond Lenin and plans to take Frantz Fanon, and his theorisation of the crisis of the postcolonial state seriously. But a politics adequate to the challenges that we face would also have to engage a range of other ideas, including feminist ideas, and thinking about the agrarian question, the urban question and popular mobilisation outside of the workplace, a lot more carefully.