Workers Hammer No. 237

Winter 2016-2017


Against black nationalist slanders of Marx and Engels

The following article first appeared in Spartacist South Africa no 13 (Spring 2015). We reprint it below from Workers Vanguard no 1095 (9 September 2016), where it appeared with a minor factual correction.

Recently we have increasingly been hearing the charge that Marx and Engels were indifferent to the suffering and subjugation meted out by the European colonialists and that the founders of scientific socialism harboured racist views. This slanderous lie — long peddled by the Black Consciousness Movement, Pan-Africanists and other nationalists — is particularly common on university campuses. For instance, during our subdrive campaign amidst the “Rhodes Must Fall” protests [against monuments to colonial pigs like Cecil Rhodes], we frequently argued with students who dismissed the ideas of Marx and Engels as inappropriate for the African context simply because they were European (white). This is the logic of so-called “intersectionality” — a view promoted by feminists, black nationalists and reformist leftists, among others — according to which if you haven’t personally experienced a particular form of oppression you can’t fight it. Such an approach denies the possibility of mobilising the proletariat to champion the cause of all the exploited and oppressed.

One proponent of this narrow nationalist anti-Marxist slander is Jackie Shandu, a nationalist demagogue who is head of Policy, Research and Political Education for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in KwaZulu-Natal. In an opinion piece filled with distortions, inaccuracies and outright lies, Shandu asserts: “In Marx, therefore, we are still dealing with a white supremacist that believed and stated that the only way forward for all of humanity is through Western intervention, paternalism and leadership” (“Battle for the soul of the Economic Freedom Fighters: Class first or race first?”, Daily Maverick, 18 December 2014).

What a load of crap! It truly beggars belief to claim that Marx was a “white supremacist”. During the bloody Civil War of 1861-65 that smashed slavery in the United States, Marx and Engels not only fully supported the abolitionist cause, but also actively fought to mobilise the British working class in support of a Northern victory. This effort contributed to preventing the British bourgeoisie from intervening on the side of the Southern Confederacy (the slave owners). Marx and Engels wrote extensively about the Civil War, which they saw as one of the century’s major battles, a social overturn and a harbinger of socialist revolutions to come. As Marx later wrote, in Volume I of Capital, “every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

As for their attitude towards the bloody crimes of the European colonialists, you just have to read Marx and Engels’ writings on the suppression of the anti-British Sepoy rebellion in India to see that they were anything but cheerleaders for colonial “paternalism”. For example, in May 1858, Engels wrote an article denouncing the atrocities in Lucknow, where the British Army took the city, pillaged it, and then stole the land of the people they had just conquered and massacred. In that article, Engels wrote: “The fact is, there is no army in Europe or America with so much brutality as the British. Plundering, violence, massacre…are a time-honored privilege, a vested right of the British soldier.” Does that sound like indifference to colonial subjugation?!

While Marx and Engels always condemned the monumental crimes committed by the colonial powers against the peoples of Asia, Africa and the Americas, they also initially held the view that colonial penetration of such backward regions would be a vehicle for promoting their economic and social modernisation. For example, in 1853 Marx wrote, “England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating.” This view turned out to be incorrect. History would subsequently show that even though the advanced capitalist countries introduced certain elements of modern industrial technology into their colonies and semicolonies, the overall effect was to arrest the social and economic development of those areas.

Scientific socialism is based not on received wisdom but on observation and analyses of social reality as it develops. Marx and Engels learned from their observations, and would go on to develop a very different attitude towards colonialism. Particularly important in prompting the change in their views on the oppression of weak, backward states by stronger, more advanced ones was the major role that Britain’s hold on Ireland played in retarding the political consciousness of the English proletariat. By the 1870s, they began to advocate independence for Ireland. An indication of their later views on the colonial question is given by a letter that Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky in September 1882. In it, Engels points to the corrupting influence of stolen colonial booty on the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries, and advocates independence for the colonies.

The most powerful refutation of the nationalists’ slanders of Marx and Engels is seen, however, not in their own writings and political activity, but in the revolutionary-internationalist legacy carried forward by later Marxists. Above all, by the Bolsheviks under the leadership of VI Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who led the working class to victory in the 1917 October Revolution. By ripping power out of the hands of the capitalist-imperialists, the October Revolution blazed the way not only for the proletariat of the West, but also the oppressed masses of the colonial world. After taking power, the Bolsheviks put an end to Russia’s involvement in the imperialist mass slaughter of World War I, and made public the secret treaties and deals that the various European powers had made to carve up the world among themselves. For example, in 1918 they published the Sykes-Picot treaty outlining the division of the Near East between the British and French imperialists.

These anti-imperialist acts were a concrete expression of the understanding that revolutionary Marxists must champion the national liberation of peoples subjugated by the advanced capitalist (imperialist) powers, as a necessary part of the struggle to overthrow the imperialist rulers through proletarian revolution from within. This understanding was hammered home by Lenin and other leaders of the early Communist International (Comintern), founded in 1919. For example, the “Twenty-One Conditions” adopted at the Comintern’s Second Congress in 1920 demanded that the Communist parties in the imperialist countries support “every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds”, and carry out “systematic propaganda among their own country’s troops against any oppression of colonial peoples”. The “Theses on the National and Colonial Questions” adopted at the same Congress asserted the importance of “establishing the closest possible alliance between the West-European communist proletariat and the revolutionary peasant movement in the East, in the colonies, and in the backward countries generally”.

Compare this to the activities of the ANC and other African nationalists of the time, who were busy sending endless deputations to the British monarch and parliament, begging for this or that reform and all the while reassuring them of the loyalty of “his majesty’s subjects” in Africa. For example, the resolutions of the Second Pan-Africanist Congress, held in 1921 in London, demanded not the dismantling of the colonialist structures, but merely that “natives of Africa must have the right to participate in the [colonial] government as fast as their development permits”. These nationalist movements were not “revolutionary”, or even bourgeois-democratic, but rather advocated that the educated and “civilised” African elite be given an opportunity to work out with the imperialist powers a peaceful and ever-so-gradual transition from colonialism to neocolonialism. While these would-be exploiters sometimes tried to mobilise popular support among the African toilers, their programme and class standpoint were always fundamentally hostile to the interests of the working people.

One just has to recall the saga of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, an idol of Pan-Africanism and “African socialism”. When the Trades Union Congress of Ghana prepared to call a 1950 General Strike in support of Nkrumah’s slogan, “Self-Government NOW”, he vacillated and tried to postpone the strike because he didn’t want to disrupt the negotiations with the colonial authorities then underway. When self-government was finally granted, in 1957, it was a “tidy” transition presided over by the colonial authorities, with the explicit blessing of the Duchess of Kent (acting as Queen Elizabeth’s official representative). After Nkrumah became prime minister of Ghana, the British imperialists continued to get their cut, while the bourgeois-nationalist government carried out a vicious anti-labour policy. In 1961, Nkrumah left his vacation in the Soviet Union early to participate in the crushing of the 1961 General Strike.

The same goes for the would-be heirs of Nkrumah, like Jackie Shandu and the EFF. Notwithstanding their rhetoric about “Marxism-Leninism” (which they combine with the Third World nationalism of Fanon), these self-declared “revolutionaries” seek to maintain capitalism and merely renegotiate the terms of imperialist subordination with “white monopoly capital” (with a bigger share of profits going to them and their cronies). For instance, prior to the 2014 elections Julius Malema, commander-in-chief of the EFF, invited investors to Alexandra township to assure them that their investments won’t be touched when they get into government. Slandering Marx and attacking Marxism is just the ideological expression of their class hostility to the proletariat.

Shandu and the EFF’s anti-Marxist, anti-working-class politics are combined with vicious nationalist demagogy in the service of the very same racist divide-and-rule that was promoted by the British imperialists and the apartheid rulers. Another one of Shandu’s recent opinion pieces (“A volatile case of Afrikan vs. Indian in KwaZulu-Natal,” 7 April 2015, Daily Maverick) peddles anti-Indian poison under the guise of championing the rights of black workers exploited by Indian bosses. In fact, the real aims of Shandu and the EFF have nothing to do with fighting the exploitation of workers at the hands of their bosses and everything to do with increasing the access of small-time black capitalists to tenders and markets at the expense of their Indian competitors. The same thing that animates outfits like the Mazibuye African Forum (which includes members of the EFF and the ANC, as well as the National Freedom Party, a split from Inkatha) — a black business forum that spews poisonous anti-Indian racism and organises anti-Indian mobilisations in support of the demand that Indians be excluded from access to BEE [Black Economic Empowerment] deals.

Among other distortions/lies peddled by the “economic freedom fighter” Shandu, is the claim that the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA, the forerunner of the SACP) was “founded…under the slogan ‘White Workers of the World Unite’” and that the Communists “never ‘problematised’ race and racism in the South African context”. Though founded by white immigrant communists, the CPSA was not racist, as Shandu claims. Among its pioneering central leaders were people like David Ivon Jones and Sidney Percival Bunting, who were intransigent fighters against black oppression that fought to recruit black communists. Both Bunting and Jones had earlier split from the right-wing South African Labour Party (SALP) to form the International Socialist League (ISL). They split in opposition to both the racism of the SALP tops and their support for the imperialist First World War. At the First Congress of the ISL in 1916, Bunting moved that the new party “affirm that the emancipation of the working class requires the abolition of all forms of native indenture, compound and passport systems; and the lifting of the native worker to the political and industrial status of the white” (quoted in Allison Drew, Between Empire and Revolution: A Life of Sidney Bunting, 1873-1936). In 1919, Bunting condemned the white trade unions for their racist indifference to black workers, writing in The International: “It is humiliating to have to keep on emphasising that the essence of the Labour movement is Solidarity, without which it cannot win. The outstanding characteristic of the capitalist system in South Africa being its Native labour, the outstanding movement of the country must clearly be the movement of its Native labourers” (quoted in Edward Roux, S.P. Bunting: A Political Biography).

The ISL founded the CPSA in 1920 when it resolved to affiliate with the (Third) Communist International. Although people like Jones and Bunting fought for the party to turn its face towards the black working masses, other leaders of the early CPSA preferred an orientation towards the white trade union movement and were loath to combat the racism of this movement. In 1922, during the reactionary Rand Revolt strike, the Communist Party capitulated to the racist demands of white miners for preserving the colour bar in the mines. It was during this strike that the racist slogan of “Workers of the World Fight and Unite for a White S.A.” was raised (though not by the CPSA) amidst pogroms against blacks and Indians carried out by Afrikaner Commandos. While he was critical of the strike, Bunting didn’t raise his criticisms publicly during the strike. He rationalised their stance on the colour bar by maintaining that the party should struggle for improved working conditions for blacks.

In 1928, during the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, the Communist Party adopted the “Native Republic” slogan at the urging of the Comintern leadership. Although this slogan correctly pointed to the centrality of the task of black emancipation in South Africa, it saw the “Native Republic” as a capitalist republic, which was to be achieved as the first, bourgeois-democratic, “stage” of the South African revolution. Only later (at some unspecified time) was this supposed to be followed by a second, socialist, “stage”. Thus, the slogan basically took the fight for proletarian revolution off the agenda and instead cleared the way for the Communist Party to bury itself in the ANC (for more, see “South Africa — Early Years of the Communist Party”, reprinted in Workers Vanguard nos 991 and 992, 25 November and 9 December 2011).

The fact that nationalist demagogues like Shandu & Co are today able to retail their alternative versions of nationalism as some kind of solution for the continued oppression of the black majority, is in no small part thanks to the continued betrayals of the SACP (and COSATU) reformist misleaders in pursuit of the Stalinist “two-stage” programme (called the “National Democratic Revolution” in South Africa). The “first stage” came in 1994 with the ascension of the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance to power and the establishment of a neo-apartheid system. As has been repeatedly demonstrated by a long history of Stalinist betrayals of proletarian revolution — from the 1927 Shanghai massacre to the decimation of the millions-strong communist movement of Indonesia in 1965 — the “second stage” is not the socialist revolution but the bloody massacre of the workers by their erstwhile nationalist “allies”, like in the Marikana massacre of 2012.

Shandu, the EFF, and various other nationalists in the Black Consciousness and Pan-Africanist traditions, may today denounce the Marikana massacre and the ANC, but the reality is that the programmes they pursue are fundamentally no different from that of the ANC. Witness the ease with which the ANC has co-opted a good chunk of the AZAPO and PAC leaderships since 1994. In contrast, we Trotskyists never gave any support to the ANC-led Alliance, and told the truth in 1994, writing: “A vote for the ANC — including its Communist Party members and affiliated trade-union leaders of COSATU — is a vote to perpetuate the racist oppression and superexploitation of the black, coloured (mixed-race) and Indian toilers in a different political form.” We have a programme that points the way to the national liberation of the black majority and all of the non-white toilers through smashing neo-apartheid capitalism, establishing a black-centred workers government, and fighting like hell for the international extension of the revolution to the advanced capitalist countries. We fight for the political independence of the proletariat from all bourgeois parties — whether the ANC or EFF, PAC or AZAPO, or any other.

This programme is an application of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to the specific conditions of South African capitalism, with its combined and uneven development and heavy overlap of racial oppression with class oppression. It represents a continuation of genuine Marxism. For this reason, we fight to politically smash the nationalist slanders of Marx and Engels, and to arm all those who want to get rid of racist capitalist exploitation with the political and theoretical weapons they left us.