Joe Slovo of the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress died in 1995 in the aftermath of the nonracial democratic elections that brought the ANC to power in 1994. Slovo is stil revered inside the country., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
A tribute to Joe Slovo by Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary
6 January 2013
Joe Slovo was not only a towering intellectual and an outstanding communist, but also a symbol of the non-racial character of our struggle against colonialism of a special type and the evil apartheid system.
Joe Slovo’s life also taught our generation the real meaning of the main principle of our movement, which is selflessness. He was a young lawyer who had an advantage of being white in whites-only South African, where blacks were prejudiced and discriminated against. He consciously decided to forgo this ‘position of privilege’ and identified with the cause of the oppressed majority.
In doing so Slovo threw his body and soul into the struggle to free humankind from the bondages of racial and class oppression. He became the first ever white member of the African National Congress’s National Executive Committee in 1985. He later became the first and the only white person to occupy the position of Chief of Staff of the glorious people’s army – Umkhonto Wesizwe. Under his command, Umkhonto Wesizwe became more active and served to inspire thousands to swell its ranks. In the process he inspired millions to join the struggle for freedom.
We know that Joe Slovo became the first Minister to be given a burden of solving the homelessness crisis of our people. He did his best! He even tried to get the banks to cooperate with him, persuading them to sign a special deal but they (the banks) refused to cooperate. Whilst COSATU did not support this deal it nevertheless recognised that it was done in desperation to get the banks to play a more constructive role in solving the red-lining of black residential areas. It is that deal that layed the foundation of the financial charter.
Slovo was an intellectual giant who, together with others before him, such as Moses Kotane and Moses Mabhida, helped the SACP to cement its place in the revolution in terms not only of providing ideological clarity but also to train the most committed and loyal cadres of the revolution. Today, this special role and special place of the SACP is undisputed in our society.
Slovo penned the pamphlet, ‘Has socialism failed?’ which became the source of intellectual reflection not only by the SACP but communist cadres all over the world. This pamphlet is becoming more relevant today in relation to our national democratic revolution, as it was with the failures of the social system in Eastern Europe.
In this 2013 commemoration we will perhaps over-quote this historic writing in order to remind ourselves of the dangers we must always guard against. In our view, the SACP, together with the rest of the democratic movement, must run political schools on the ‘Has socialism failed?’ pamphlet.
We believe many challenges and weaknesses he pointed out remain relevant, not only, as we have said, to the distortions of socialism, but also in the distortion of the national democratic revolution itself.
In this writing, Slovo argued that “the term `Stalinism` is used to denote the bureaucratic-authoritarian style of leadership (of parties both in and out of power) which denuded the party, and the practice of socialism, of most of its democratic content and concentrated power in the hands of a tiny, self-perpetuating elite.”
Let us emphasize the point that Slovo makes - that it was not one individual that bureaucratized the party and Soviet Union, but a collective that thought they were the best defenders of the party, who justified “ terror, brutality and judicial distortions associated with Stalin himself” that history is today judging harshly.
In the pamphlet, and in defense of his socialist ideology, Slovo pointed out that we must not end up disowning the ideology on the basis of mistakes committed by the leadership. He decried the erection of “monuments to the victims of Stalin period “without erecting the same monuments for citizens ravaged by capitalist cruelties nor to millions of victims of its colonial terror”.
This is important to say in this day and age, when many have silently abandoned the socialist ideology and have become its worst critics, just to prove to their new class friends that they no longer share ideological trenches with the downtrodden working class.
Slovo also dealt appropriately with the false notion that democracy and socialism were like water and oil and do not mix. He correctly pointed out that:
“Marxist ideology saw the future state as `a direct democracy in which the task of governing would not be the preserve of a state bureaucracy` and as `an association in which the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all`. How did it happen that, in the name of this most humane and liberating ideology, the bureaucracy became so all-powerful and the individual was so suffocated?”
In grappling with this fundamental question Slovo address in some length with the following concepts:
The thesis of the `Dictatorship of the Proletariat`, which was used as the theoretical rationalisation for unbridled authoritarianism.
The steady erosion of people`s power both at the level of government and mass social organisations.
The perversion of the concept of the party as a vanguard of the working class, and whether, at the end of the day, socialist democracy can find real expression in a single-party state.
Slovo boldly dealt with the impact these distortions had on most communist parties in the world, including the SACP, when he said:
“ The commandist and bureaucratic approaches which took root during Stalin`s time affected communist parties throughout the world, including our own. We cannot disclaim our share of the responsibility for the spread of the personality cult and a mechanical embrace of Soviet domestic and foreign policies, some of which discredited the cause of socialism. We kept silent for too long after the 1956 Khrushchev revelations.”
Of course the SACP consciously dealt with this mental baggage and, as Slovo himself says in the pamphlet, the 7th SACP Congress, emphasized the need for on-going vigilance.
In the same vein Slovo pointed out that the “Stalinist distortions have not yet been evenly understood throughout our ranks.” He concluded this point by stating that:
“We need to continue the search for a better balance between advancing party policy as a collective and the toleration of on-going debate and even constructive dissent.”
Again, moving forward, we must avoid the pitfalls of bureaucratization. The task of our generation is to ensure that as Slovo said:
“It is indispensable for the working class to have an independent political instrument which safeguards its role in the democratic revolution and which leads it towards an eventual classless society. But such leadership must be won rather than imposed. Our claim to represent the historic aspirations of the workers does not give us an absolute right to lead them or to exercise control over society as a whole in their name.
“Our new programme asserts that a communist party does not earn the title of vanguard merely by proclaiming it. Nor does its claim to be the upholder of Marxism give it a monopoly of political wisdom or a natural right to exclusive control of the struggle. We can only earn our place as a vanguard force by superior efforts of leadership and devotion to the cause of liberation and socialism. And we can only win adherence to our ideology by demonstrating its superiority as a theoretical guide to revolutionary practice.
“This approach to the vanguard concept has not, as we know, always been adhered to in world revolutionary practice and in an earlier period we too were infected by the distortion. But, in our case, the shift which has taken place in our conception of `vanguard` is by no means a post-Gorbachev phenomenon. The wording on this question in our new programme is taken almost verbatim from our Central Committee`s 1970 report on organisation.
“The 1970 document reiterated the need to safeguard, both in the letter and the spirit, the independence of the political expressions of other social forces whether economic or national. It rejected the old purist and domineering concept that all those who do not agree with the party are necessarily enemies of the working class. And it saw no conflict between our understanding of the concept of vanguard and the acceptance of the African National Congress as the head of the liberation alliance”.
Slovo continues to crystallize this point in connection with the Party’s “Relations with Fraternal Organisations”, as follows:
“As we have already noted, one of the most serious casualties in the divide which developed between democracy and socialism was in the one-sided relationship between the ruling parties and the mass organisations. In order to prevent such a distortion in a post-apartheid South Africa we have, for example, set out in our draft Workers` Charter that:
`Trade unions and their federation shall be completely independent and answerable only to the decisions of their members or affiliates, democratically arrived at. No political party, state organ or enterprise, whether public, private or mixed, shall directly or indirectly interfere with such independence.`
“The substance of this approach is reflected in the way our party has in fact conducted itself for most of its underground existence.
“Our 1970 extended Central Committee meeting reiterated the guidelines, which inform our relations with fraternal organisations and other social forces. Special emphasis was once again given to the need to safeguard, both in the letter and in the spirit, the independence of the political expressions of other social forces, whether economic or national.
“We do not regard the trade unions or the national movement as mere conduits for our policies. Nor do we attempt to advance our policy positions through intrigue or manipulation. Our relationship with these organisations is based on complete respect for their independence, integrity and inner-democracy. In so far as our influence is felt, it is the result of open submissions of policy positions and the impact of individual communists who win respect as among the most loyal, the most devoted and ideologically clear members of these organisations.
“Old habits die hard and among the most pernicious of these is the purist concept that all those who do not agree with the party are necessarily enemies of socialism. This leads to a substitution of name-calling and jargon for healthy debate with non-party activists. As already mentioned, our 7th Congress noted some isolated reversions along these lines and resolved to combat such tendencies.
“But, in general, the long-established and appreciable move away from old-style commandism and sectarianism has won for our party the admiration and support of a growing number of non-communist revolutionary activists in the broad workers` and national movement. We also consider it appropriate to canvass the views of such activists in the formulation of certain aspects of our policy. For example, we submitted our preliminary conception of the contents of a Workers` Charter for critical discussion not only in our own ranks but throughout the national and trade union movements.”
The demand for a Workers’ Charter evolved and became the Reconstruction and Development Programme. We all know what happened to the RDP. It was largely abandoned and replaced by GEAR in 1996, hardly a year after the death of Slovo, and three years after the death of Chris Hani.
We must revive the debate for a dedicated Workers Charter that will speak specifically to the working class. After all, women and students have their own charter dedicated to their specific interests.
Frantz Fanon said that “each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it”. To fulfill our generation’s mission we first have to be clear about what it entails. And we cannot have a common understanding of what this mission is unless we have a proper, revolutionary political education within our ranks. In fact, since the dawn of democracy we have hardly dedicated resources in a serious way to build new cadres who will be inspired by Joe Slovo and his generation of giants.
Secondly we must build thousands more Slovos who will not just mouth the principle of selflessness but will practise it daily in their political work. One of the biggest challenges we face is the emergence of greed and self-centeredness, which makes individuals pursue personal glory and wealth at the expense of the interests of the many. It is the rise of selfishness that breeds corruption, cliquism and/or factionalism and slate politics.
In his memory we must pursue a class struggle unapologetically and without seeking permission from others. Class struggle as well as the general struggle to build a better South Africa means struggling against the underlying causes of unemployment, poverty and inequalities. This is the struggle against apartheid and colonial-era fault lines – including the struggle for quality education and training, better health care, more and better houses and other services.
The underlying causes we speak about are the colonial and capitalist power relations that define South Africa today, themselves rooted in untenable patterns of ownership and control of the economy. This is the struggle against colonialism of a special type and capitalism. We need to consciously link our struggles to the property question.
This is what, as Marx and Engels said in the Communist Manifesto, distinguishes communists: at all fronts of struggle that the working class is involved in, communists always and everywhere raise the property question as the leading question of the revolution. This is the struggle that COSATU will wage throughout this year without apologizing to anyone or seeking permission from anyone. This is struggle the whole alliance must pursue, as a fitting tribute to the memory of Joe Slovo.
Lastly, certainly not least important, is the project of building non-racialism which itself cannot be seperated from the struggle against patriachy. We are extremely challenged on both these fronts today. Notwithstanding moments of exceptional unity demonstrated during the soccer world cup spectacular, South Africa remains a racially divided society. The most worrying aspects of this is that the black majority remain in the lower rungs of society and some in the white population have reduced themselves to a whining class, which is a reflection of the swaart-gevaar fear that their privileges are under threat.
We must not be apologetic and maintain our revolutionary perspective on this question. The basis of continued racism is that colonial forces continue to monopolise our country’s wealth. We said in 1969 that “to allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact is to feed the root of racial supremacy and does not represent even the shadow of liberation”. Therein lies the problem of racism in our country comrades.
Slovo, the symbol of non-racialism, would have urged us all to do more to address the aspirations of the black majority whilst at the same time getting all whites to understand that our future is intertwined. Failure to address the aspirations of the blacks means we are further delaying the dream to build a non-racial and non-sexist future.
That is the class perspective on non racialism and non sexism.
Long Live the undying memory of Joe Slovo, Long Live!