Posts By Daniel Finn

South Africa’s Unfinished Democratic Revolution

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Nelson Mandela’s death has elicited fulsome tributes from those who were happy to truck with the apartheid regime when he was in prison. There’s no need to linger over their hypocrisy here. Those who supported the struggle against apartheid before it was easy or fashionable will rightly mourn a great popular leader whose personal sacrifices are well-documented. 

Yet Mandela leaves behind an ambiguous legacy for South Africa. Strongly influenced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph of neo-liberalism in the West, Mandela and the ANC leadership accepted a peace settlement that left the economic structures of apartheid in place while the political system was being democratized. Two decades after the first multi-racial elections were held, white households still earn almost $50,000 a year on average, compared to $8,000 for their black counterparts. 

This article was first published by the Irish Socialist Network as a pamphlet in 2009. Since it was written, Jacob Zuma has replaced Thabo Mbeki as South African president and ANC leader. More importantly, the massacre of 34 striking miners at Marikana in 2012 has dramatized like nothing else the yawning gulf between the ANC and the people who brought it to power. As Mandela himself warned in 1993: ‘How many times has a labour movement supported a liberation movement, only to find itself betrayed on the day of liberation? There are many examples of this in Africa. If the ANC does not deliver the goods you must do to it what you did to the apartheid regime.’ 

Writing in 1989, the journalist Heidi Holland concluded her sympathetic history of the African National Congress (ANC) with a warning about economic policy in the post-apartheid era: ‘The greatest threat to future economic prosperity under majority rule is that blacks may have become so disillusioned by the capitalist system, identifying it with repression, that they will demand sweeping nationalization of industry.’ Two decades later, her concerns appear totally misplaced. But they would have found support in the early remarks of Nelson Mandela after his liberation from Robben Island: ‘The nationalization of the mines, banks and monopoly industry is the policy of the ANC and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable.’

We know now that a reversal of the ANC’s commitment to public ownership was anything but ‘inconceivable’. The movement that led the struggle against apartheid for half a century has embraced the orthodoxy of the ‘Washington Consensus’ and governed in strict accordance with neo-liberal tenets. Whether this move is considered a welcome embrace of pragmatism or a shameful capitulation, its emphatic nature cannot be denied. Thabo Mbeki’s willing description of himself as a ‘Thatcherite’ could readily be applied to his party and government as a whole.

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The roads to power: capitalist democracy and socialist strategy

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This article comes from an abortive book project that I was working on about five years ago. The questions that it raises about political strategy for the radical left now appear far more pressing than they did when I wrote it, in the light of events in southern Europe and especially Greece. It sets out two alternative strategies for left-wing parties in capitalist democracies—one passing through the established parliamentary institutions, the other going beyond them—by summarizing the views of two important Marxist thinkers, Ralph Miliband and Ernest Mandel. It was originally published in Spirit of Contradicition on the 1st of July.

On the eve of the global economic crisis, the French socialist writer Daniel Bensaid announced the ‘return of strategy’ as a topic for discussion among progressive and radical forces. According to Bensaid, a long defensive period was drawing to a close: ‘We are coming to the end of the phase of the big refusal and of stoical resistance . . . [characterized by] slogans like ‘The world is not a commodity’ or ‘Our world is not for sale’. We need to be specific about what the ‘possible’ world is and, above all, we need to explore how to get there.’[1] Bensaid argued for renewed discussion, not of ‘models’ for radical change, but of ‘strategic hypotheses’: ‘Models are something to be copied; they are instructions for use. A hypothesis is a guide to action that starts from past experience but is open and can be modified in the light of new experience or unexpected circumstances.’[2] 

Labour and socialist movements in the industrialized North have been dealing with the challenges posed by bourgeois or capitalist democracy for many years. These questions are now of equally pressing interest beyond Europe and North America, as various forms of capitalist democracy take root from Brazil to South Africa. A ‘strategic hypothesis’ of the sort called for by Daniel Bensaid must address the opportunities and difficulties which such political systems present for the Left. 

Classical perspectives 

The body of thought known as ‘classical Marxism’ can be of limited use for any survey of capitalist democracy, and for obvious reasons. Marx and Engels died at a time when absolute monarchies still dominated European politics and universal suffrage was a rare phenomenon. The leading thinkers associated with the Russian revolution and the Communist International witnessed a period when parliamentary democracy appeared to be in danger of extinction. As Eric Hobsbawm recalls: ‘The twenty years between Mussolini’s so-called ‘March on Rome’ and the peak of the Axis success in the Second World War saw an accelerating, increasingly catastrophic, retreat of liberal political institutions . . . the only European countries with adequately democratic political institutions that functioned without a break during the entire inter-war period were Britain, Finland (only just), the Irish Free State, Sweden and Switzerland.’[3] 

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