Is South Africa the weakest link in the imperialist chain?

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 Notion of the weakest link


The failure of a socialist revolution in the developed world has compelled historical Marxism to rethink its understanding of the likely course of the transition to an alternative society. Lenin, who like many other leading socialists, regarded the well organized and socially present German working class as the vanguard of the socialist revolution, reviewed this thesis substituting in its place the Russian socio economic formation with its combined and uneven characteristics. Lenin conceived the notion of the weakest link in the imperialist chain. Examining the Russia of his time, Lenin recognized both its economic backwardness but also that this was combined with the most organized, most militant working class and peasant movement. The demands of these movements, Lenin anticipated, could not be contained or resolved within the logic of an underdeveloped capitalist and semi-feudal Russia.


In this article I want to re-engage with the notion of the weakest link. The concept of the weakest link is used in this instance not in the original instance as an acute configuration of social contradictions on the eve of a mass uprising. It is consciously and specifically used to indicate the probability of an advance to a post capitalist society, in a democratic terrain, through democratic means.


Initially the weakest link was conceived in relation to the struggle for and the construction of a socialist alternative. Lenin had parted company with many of his contemporaries precisely about the possibility of a transition to socialism in Russia. Today, with a century of attempts to build ‘socialism’ behind us, re-examination of some of Lenin’s assertions is in order. I wish also to raise the question whether this conception of the weakest link is applicable to South Africa. Samir Amin (1990) argued, in relation to the semi-peripheral countries, that the organic development of capitalism envisaged in the development theory of ‘catching up’ is doubly impossible because under-development by definition implies the inability of creating an organic and developed capitalism. But under-development is equally an impediment to the construction of a socialist society in semi-peripheral situations. Assuming that Amin is correct, the concept of a weakest link today would be applicable to self-conscious revolutionary attempts, which are neither explicitly socialist nor capitalist. The logic of these revolutions however compels them to adopt fundamental social change of an anti-capitalist character.


The anti-capitalist character the revolution assumes is in response to the polarization within ‘actually existing capitalism’. Amin further asserts that it is no longer useful to understand capitalism in the old way, as defined in the classics, as principally a contradiction between capital and the working class over the extraction of surplus value. To quote him, he says:


“There are two ways of looking at the dominant social reality of our world (capitalism). The first stresses the fundamental relationship, which defines the capitalist mode of production at its most abstract level, and, from there, focuses on the allegedly fundamental class struggle between the proletariat, in the narrowest sense of the term, and the bourgeoisie. The second stresses the other dimension of capitalist reality; its unequal development worldwide, and hence focuses its analysis on the consequences that polarization involves at every level, thus defining other issues in the political and social struggles that occupy the front of the historical stage. Here I opt for the second way of seeing what I as a result call “actually existing capitalism”.


Amin would thus argue that “anti-systemic” forces and movements are those that call into question this inequality and refuse to submit to its consequences. Though the struggle is immediately directed against an immanent feature of capitalist expansion that its constituency socially rejects, this places it in direct conflict with a feature intrinsic to capitalism as it actually operates today.


These challenges to the capitalist order by revolts in its periphery oblige us to seriously rethink the “socialist transition” to the abolition of classes. Regrettably the Marxist tradition remains trapped by its initial vision of a “workers revolution” which would occur in an environment of advanced productive forces. Development would thus make the transition to socialism itself quite short.


All the revolutions of our time - Russia, Yugoslavia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc.- are ill advisedly referred to as “socialist”. The term is applicable to the intentions of the actors who had indeed set themselves that goal  - creating a socialist alternative.  But these revolutions were in reality complex anti-capitalist revolutions because they occurred in backward regions. They could not open up the path of  “socialist construction” consistent with the criteria associated with classical Marxism, precisely because of their under-development.


My second line of argument is built around the observation that the unequal development immanent in capitalist expansion has placed on the agenda a new type of revolution, conducted by the peoples of the periphery. The anti-capitalist character of such revolutions resides in the reality that they are revolts against actually existing capitalist development, which these peoples find intolerable. But that does not mean that therefore these revolutions simply have a socialist character. By the force of circumstance, they have a complex nature. They are the expression of specific and new contradictions, which Marx could not have imagined. The real content of such post-capitalist regimes is a popular national reconstruction in which “…the three tendencies, socialism, capitalism, and statism combine and conflict…”

(Amin, 1990; pp 98-101).


Both the bourgeois revolution (regarded as opening the way to organic capitalist development) and the socialist revolution are impossible in the countries of capitalism’s periphery. The revolt against peripheralisation cannot resolve this dilemma. At best it is a popular national revolution with an anti-capitalist character because it seeks to break out of the immanent logic of actually existing capitalism.


Such people’s movement are thus likely to be the principal determinants of the evolution of the world system toward the transcending of capitalism in both dimensions, by gradually pushing back the effects of world polarization peculiar to capitalism on the one hand, while encouraging  (equally not without contradiction) the social forces that aspire to abolish capitalist exploitation on the other.


The watchword here is gradual. It is a long transition not because we want it to be long but due to circumstances it is proper for it to be so. We have to see it as a long process because of the challenge of the development of the forces of production. Socialism was understood by Marx as a transformation of a developed capitalist society. Because of the level of development of the forces of production it would be possible to share the abundant wealth. This is not the case in the Third World as well as in our own country. There are specific features of capitalist relations, primarily competition and innovation that enhances the process of the development of the forces of production. In an underdeveloped socio economic formation it is advisable to draw on this element, not as the sole factor but nonetheless as a fundamental element. If this is a necessary undertaking, there is therefore a need for predictability, so that individuals who have rolled out their capital can have the necessary horizons, to recoup their returns. A short transition militates against this.


The role and place of the capitalist, statist and socialist elements in the national popular project presents specific challenges whose resolution, by definition excludes short cuts. Let us take the capitalist element. A popular project as defined above is a major challenge to all the forces that are involved. It involves both co-operation and conflict. Each of the actors has to redefine their relationship to each other. In general capital including its black section would find it relatively easy to drive its project of accumulation, but would have to deal with a state that is not solely subject to its interest. Similarly with the statist tendency there would be a need to elaborate its role. Should the state be reduced or should it be expanded?  Which areas should it be involved in and in what form? Which relationship with other tendencies should it elaborate? The socialist tendency would also have to rethink the elaboration of its project. Firstly how do you elaborate the socialist political economy in relation to other classes? What is the content of that political economy today? Is it the shorter working week? Is it co-operatives? Is it the basic income grant? Is it joint ventures between workers and their managers? Is it elaborating economic networks, relations and ventures that are self providing- and therefore promote an exit from the capitalist framework- a radical version of sustainable livelihoods? How do you knit together these relationships?  How can you elaborate a project of this nature, which is complex and difficult and yet approach it as solvable in the shortest possible time?


We have to see the transition as long because we have to stabilize the economy. The challenge of building a dynamic economy, by definition demands stability. Whilst there are many views on the matter it is difficult to ignore the criticism that the Chinese Communists have leveled to the Cultural Revolution. The same can be said about the land invasions in Zimbabwe. Stability is critical in order to be able to plan, to interrogate the interrelations of the various elements of the economy, in order to tease out the most appropriate strategy for accumulation. Stability though should not be seen as counter-posed to transformation. If genuine transformation is to take place, not from above but from and with the people, it has to proceed in a pace and rhythm that is not very far from them. Brazil’s Porto Allegre experiment of popular budgeting was debated for ten years before it was implemented. The radical decentralization project in India’s Kerala province, which was implemented in 1996, was first mooted in 1957. This does not mean that we should prolong things for the sake of prolonging them, but the longer horizon is always more useful if the project itself is to have popular moorings.


For socialism to be sustainable, it has to emerge and to develop as a way of life, a culture and a civilization. A civilization by definition is an evolution of practices, attitudes and ways of being. Whilst force cannot be discounted in political affairs, socialism as a lived reality cannot and should not be solely a product of force, particularly to those who stand to benefit from it. With 1994 having fundamentally redefined the framework of political relations, there is a space to pursue as an element socialist inspired projects and cultures of cooperation and solidarity.


People cannot be dragged into these relations. At most vanguards should mobilize them. But for these socialist relations to be enduring, the people themselves should organize themselves in these ways. They should see these relations as the most natural way of solving their daily life problems. Such an understanding and mutation by definition cannot be imposed. It can be argued for, people can be persuaded, but it has to be their lived experience and that by definition involves time. Civilizations take time. If socialism is a new civilization, time is its ally.


The socialist project, which the socialist tendency has to elaborate as an element within a multi class popular project, is an experiment. It is an historical attempt. It has not existed before, despite attempt that honestly claimed its name. An experiment can succeed or fail. Or there may be many failures in the development of what may end up a successful experiment. You cannot approach an experiment as something that is closed. You should be open ended. Rushing an experiment that involves millions of lives is gross irresponsibility. Again it is better to undertake the project with resources of patience- thus the objective necessity of a long transition to socialism.

If the transition to socialism, has to be seen as a long transition, is our slogan ‘socialism is the future, build it now’ misplaced? No it is not. Precisely because the project objectively has to be long, in the meantime people will suffer from the problems generated by capitalism. This violence of the dominant reality of capitalism calls for socialist measures. Secondly we want socialism because we hold the opinion that its measures hold the most appropriate solution to the problems of capitalism. But reality is not ready for society’s total overhaul in a socialist direction. We have to build elements of socialism now, both as a necessary response to capitalist violence, but also as the building blocks to the alternative society. This project cannot just be about contemplation, propaganda and political education, important as these may be. Primarily it has to be about immersion in socialist activity, distilling lessons from this practice, which will be valuable when the conditions for generalized socialist advance mature. Thus we are correct when we say as the SACP, in preparation for such a future, build socialism now!


Some may argue that the advent of the micro-electronic revolution can minimize the length of the transition. This can come about as a result of the fact that such technologies in their various forms, as biotechnology, flexible micro-electronic products, satellites etc, can be easily applied in rural settings, and be deployed in activities for self production.  Indeed there is some truth in that. However the developed North presently monopolizes the development of these technologies. Very few developing countries if any have the capital goods industry (machine making machines) to produce the micro electronic machines. More critical is the fact that the application of such technologies to radical projects still has to be tested, though there is already pioneering work in this regard in certain progressive circles in the United States. Secondly access to such technologies implies a generalized environment of wealth creation (so as to broaden revenues), which is best pursued in a multi-class project. In the same vein the access to those technologies and their deployment for popular use will be contested by other classes. The education and training for the application and maintenance of these technologies, the infrastructure necessary to roll them out, will demand money and time. More fundamentally, the 35 % unemployment in South Africa an expression of its historical enclave and colonial status, cannot be resolved in a short time, even with the deployment of the most advanced technologies.  Thus again the importance of maintaining the strategic perspective of the necessity of the long transition to socialism.


I have sought consciously to elaborate the strategic implications and meaning of embracing Amin’s reflection on the lesson of 20th century ‘s radical projects. How relevant are Amin’s conclusions to us, as South African revolutionaries? Can they be of any assistance to us in understanding the attempts at ‘socialist construction’? Do they assist us in rethinking our own project?.


Is South Africa the weakest link in the imperialist chain?


Having defined the anti-capitalist character of the popular revolutions of the Third World we can pose the question: is South Africa indeed the weakest link in the imperialist chain? For a country and a society to be regarded as the weakest link it should exhibit characteristics that not only indicate the competence of the popular classes to challenge the logic of polarization, but also the capacity of winning such a contest. It implies that over and above the potential of the popular classes, there must also be the possibility of victory.  I would contend that this is the case in South Africa. To illustrate this let us contrast South Africa with other Third World countries facing similar challenges.


South Africa and progressive movements in the Third World


South Africa shares the violence of actually existing capitalism with the rest of the Third World. More than 35% of the economically active population is unemployed. South Africa also has very high levels of poverty and the illiteracy rate is higher than 50%. South Africa’s democratic victory in 1994 was the only victory the Left scored in the Third World in the recent past. If one links this to the achievements of the anti apartheid movement globally, South Africa occupies a unique position in global geopolitics. This uniqueness gives South Africa a measure of maneuverability, which Chile and the Nicaraguans did not have. But we should guard against this favorable position generating illusions about what is possible.


Though the ANC’s strategic framework of a national democratic revolution emphasized the social dimension of liberation, particularly as captured in the popular Freedom Charter, the ANC ‘s ascendancy to power has principally be about democratization. Of course it has been democratization that has been underpinned by a number of progressive social measures.  Over the past seven years South Africa has witnessed the consolidation of representative democracy expressed through the following institutions: representative democratic politics, with a vocal if rightwing opposition; an independent judiciary with an effective and active constitutional court; various constitutional commissions on gender, fiscal and human rights, all geared to strengthening democracy and a culture of the rule of law. These procedural democratic mechanisms on their own are a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for the consolidation of democracy. However popular forces to keep the government in check as well as to sustain a perspective of radical change for the long haul are also increasingly using this procedural democratic framework. In this regard the South African project seems to be laying genuine foundations for its popular defense from its very inception. East European and existing ‘socialism’ failed to address this and this partially accounts for the reversals that have occurred and might well be threats to the struggle for ‘socialism’ in Cuba, China and Vietnam. 


A second important feature that could strengthen South Africa’s status as the weakest link is the relative development of the South African economy. While the industrial economy was historically built on mining, a considerable manufacturing sector, which is quite efficient and globally competitive, has evolved. At present it contributes more to the gross domestic product than mining. South Africa also has quite a developed, if racially skewed management cadre. Though there is a shortage of highly skilled workers, policies are in place to address this deficit. Whether it is conceived as immanently anti- capitalist or as part of a long global transition to socialism, in the medium term, there is every possibility that these strengths can be used to enhance the transformative project in South Africa.


The relative development of the South African economy presents novel prospects for transformation that might have existed only in Chile. The surplus generated by the urban classes could thus become the engine for the transformation of the rural areas.  To attain this the democratic government must acquire the necessary strategic coherence. The challenges of transformation, given that there are no great prospects for job creation in the urban centers, will increasingly force us to look at rural development. We have not yet fully embraced accelerated land reform, though agrarian reform is increasingly emerging as the way to go. But even with regard to the latter much work still needs to be done.


In its perverse way South Africa does reflect the interconnection between the developed world and the Third World. Indeed the consumption patterns of the white minority together with the black middle class and elite correspond with those of their northern counterparts. This northern dimension is not entirely negative. It was precisely this relationship that brought the traditions of working class struggle, trade unions, political parties and including the Communist Party to South Africa. Since its birth the SACP has emerged as a formidable actor in the South African political drama. The implications of this relative development of the South African economy also has cultural dimensions.


Some might be tempted to view South Africa as a possible mediator between the north and the south. That would be a dangerous illusion. South Africa is part of the South.


It does however appear that this relationship holds out a number of positive possibilities. Because of this relationship with the north particularly, with Britain and Europe, the South African working class was in a position to score certain victories that placed it in a relative strong position even under apartheid. There is a system of pensions, which is quite exceptional in the Third World. Consequently, a considerable body of wealth, running into billions of rands, objectively belongs to the workers. The challenge is to transform this objective resource into a subjective capability that can be deployed to reinforce an alternative accumulation logic.


South Africa has also drawn on the European experience of corporatism. Beginning during the last years of apartheid, the trade union movement strove for the establishment of institutions of social dialogue as perfected by Scandinavian social democratic movements. But in our case the establishment of these institutions has not resulted in the elaboration of a consensus that subordinates everything to the rhythms of capital. Indeed some commentators have insisted that these institutions must be located within a context of an ‘anti-capitalist’ strategy. Conceptually these institutions are different to the European ones. Their composition takes into account our peripheral situation and allows for the participation of social actors beyond the capital, labour and government nexus e.g. representatives of community organizations, NGOs and rural movements. Despite this the community chamber is struggling to make an impact.  Similarly the corporatist structure has not been given the social weight that it has in Scandinavia. The practice over the past seven years has been complicated by attempts to nurture corporatism, whilst simultaneously asserting the unambiguous role of the democratic government.


Of course the question has to be posed, how appropriate are these institutions in the context of a nascent popular revolution in the third world? Though consultation of key social forces is critical, the marshalling of its forces should be the principal emphasis of the national democratic movement. Can one marshal and consult at the same time? However to the extent that it is important to hear first hand the views of the various social forces from the very onset, corporatism provides the movement with a sounding board. These corporatist structures have assisted in making breakthroughs in the auto industry, transforming an industry that was in crisis five years ago, into one of the best performing ones. We will have to see more such successful initiatives before we can draw up a proper balance sheet of these initiatives.



This north south intersection has increased awareness and sensitivity among the advanced and critical sections of our society to the debates and reform strategies in the north. Presently the leading trade union federation, COSATU, is spearheading a campaign for a comprehensive overhaul of the national health system. If implemented this will be a major advance for all the working people as its effect would be the consolidation of all health related expenditure and costs in a single insurance system. In this regard we are drawing on, whilst adapting, from the best of European system. While none of this has yet been finalized, this seems to be the direction that the health ministry is steering.


In a similar vein there is emerging a coalition of forces seeking to overhaul our social security system. In the past the system catered mainly for the aged, the disabled, single mothers and workers for the first six months of unemployment. This social security system is totally inadequate in a context of more than 35% unemployment. Forces ranging from within the ANC, the SACP, COSATU, the NGO coalition, churches all support the implementation of an unconditional solidarity income grant for all citizens. This grant will, of course, be much smaller than any enjoyed by working people in developed economies.


Earlier, under the innovative minister of labour, Tito Mboweni, the government even considered exploring the shortening of the working week as a way of drawing more workers into employment. As originally conceived a shortened working week would have led to a reduction in workers earnings. Unfortunately no one has yet responded to this idea and its implications. However it indicates a willingness on the part of the popular movement in South Africa to draw on the radical traditions of the northern working classes. Such reforms in our context will constitute a revolutionary change, as they will result in a fundamental change in people’s lives. The revolutionary character of these reforms will be further strengthened by the coincidence of these advanced reforms with the massive contradictions of a Third world society.


The tripartite alliance - ANC, COSATU and the SACP - is the ultimate guarantor that South Africa indeed becomes the weakest link in the imperialist chain. Quite remarkably this alliance has survived more than eighty years. It is the only instance, other than the Vietnamese, where a Communist party has successfully implemented the Comintern line of working with nationalism with the intention of radicalizing it. The alliance has evolved to embrace a Marxist culture and methods of analysis by the entire liberation movement. But as our recent history attests, the three tendencies that animate third world revolutions are alive within the alliance, hence the pattern of conflict combined with cooperation that has characterized alliance politics over the past 10 years. Because of our history, our rooted ness amongst the people, the unique traditions of engagement in the Congress movement, it is my view that the alliance will be the bedrock and the guarantor of the elaboration of a  ‘national popular reconstruction’.


Obstacles to the weakening of the weakest link


It would be absolutely wrong to present this project as achievable without problems. I have identified its essential features above. There are real obstacles both inside the revolutionary movement and beyond. More importantly there are vested interests that will be threatened by the measures proposed. A racially based ruling class, which has benefited from a racially based system, is not likely to co-operate to attain these changes without stiff resistance.


This dilemma is more acute when we consider that we view the urban-based classes as the vanguard, leading the rest.  Our economic structure, semi developed though it is, is comparatively weak in terms of global competitiveness and productivity. Furthermore, should the need arise to recompose the class basis of the accumulation path, without disturbing the essential character of the economy, such changes will need the synergy and co-operation between the state and private sector. In the light of our racial past how probable is the positive resolution of these questions?  We nonetheless must find ways of stimulating cooperation between the democratic state and big capital.


In addressing these questions we have to be self-conscious about the overall thrust of our development path. But this is one of our greatest areas of weakness.


There has been a healthy presence of international capital on our shores for the past century. This international factor did not inhibit the consolidation of a dominant national capital. What has to be considered, and has not been addressed with the seriousness it deserves, is our strategy for dealing with international capital. We have been firm with regard to our progressive labour market laws. We are even firmer in our dealings with our own domestic capital, as evidenced by the intention to nationalize mining rights. But are these evidence of a particular  disposition or are they aspects of a conscious plan?


There are also serious problems amongst the revolutionary forces for change. There is a fundamental tension between the professed vocation of the alliance - a working class biased society - and the manner in which the ANC government is pursuing that objective. Ironically it is the bodies that should be the organized expression of the working class within the alliance – viz, COSATU and the SACP – who are experiencing the greatest difficulties with day-to-day ANC government policies.


I would submit that this is an expression of an un-theorized transition. The ANC, like all genuine national liberation movements of the twentieth century, was affected by the fall of Eastern European socialism. However, unlike its Communist party ally, there has been no open and public exchange about the implications of these momentous developments for the ANC. I emphasize public debate, because despite the absence of a public debate, there appears to be a clear line that informs the daily practice of the ANC.  In the main it is a progressive line with a pronounced bias towards the poor. The danger however is that the line is not the outcome of broad popular participation. As a result, we as the ANC, have been shy to clearly pronounce and act out the class character of the society that we are building despite its pro poor orientation.


It is important that we raise these questions because being pro poor does not necessarily mean that your program envisages the poor as the ruling class. Similarly whilst preserving the pro poor orientation of the movement today, we need to interrogate the relationship between being pro poor and being pro working class. Major sections of the working class are not the poorest of the poor, but the advantages they have over poorest of the poor are: organizational infrastructure, the ideology and working class tradition of struggle enable the working class to lead society. The working class, not the poor, has the capacity to lead society. I am raising these questions fully aware of the fact that there have been three major conferences of the ANC since its unbanning in 1990. But despite these and the numerous discussions that have ensued, there has not been serious debate within the ANC about the implications of the fall of East European socialism.


There are however very hard questions that we have to confront, particularly as Communists in the ANC. The involvement and co-operation over more that 80 years of Communists with and in the ANC was aimed at giving and maintaining a working class orientation in the ANC. If we have come to understand that third world revolution are not about the immediate creation of a working class-led society – socialism - but are about popular reconstruction in which the capitalist, statist and socialist tendencies operate, what are the implications of this insight for the ANC? Does this mean that the ANC should abandon its pro-working class bias in favor of the three tendencies?  Is this what is objectively happening? Does this not amount to working class forces handing over the ANC to other class forces? Or is it possible to emphasize the working class bias of the ANC whilst simultaneously accommodating an unfettered expression of the other tendencies? Does not the anti capitalist character of this revolution draw its inspiration and sustenance from the initial working class bias? Is this working class bias not the ultimate guarantor that these struggles do indeed become part of the overall long global transition to socialism? I think to the extent that a fully conscious popular reconstruction is yet to be developed, to that extent Third world movements with a working class bias are still the most appropriate vehicles through which to pursue these objectives.


Another challenge has to be resolved. That is the unique handling of the class and national question in the South African revolution. The South African Communist Party, drawing on its African heritage was able to hegemonise Marxist politics in the entire liberation movement. Unlike the normal contestation in the Euro centric environment, these fundamental questions are resolved in a convivial setting, mainly informal. The watchwords in these interactions are trust. In the neo-liberal environment of today, it is debatable whether the trust, which enabled the hegemony of working class ideas to germinate in the Congress movement, is still possible today. But one thing is clear, without the re establishment of this trust, there will be no popular reconstruction, only compradorisation.


To conclude, indeed South Africa appears to be the weakest link in the imperialist chain. This is a result of the massive movement that the people of South Africa have developed in the struggle against apartheid. This movement together with the huge social problems that the society faces, in the context of its the radical traditions positively disposes it to catalyze a project that can open up sustainable radical possibilities for the third world. However to successfully achieve this there are fundamental challenges that the movement has to confront. These challenges include a fundamental rethink of the very character of the revolution itself.




Amin, S The Social Movements in the Periphery: An end to National Liberation? in

Transforming  the Revolution, Amin, S;  Arrighi, G;  Frank, G; Wallerstein, I (editors) Monthly Review, New York, 1990


Zita, L    Beyond the Social Contract, African Communist, No 134, 1993, Johannesburg


Paper by: Langa Zita, ANC Member of Parliament, SACP Central Committee Member, Co-odinator:  Third World Forum – South Africa.


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