Joe Slovo and the South African Revolution

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no 95, June/July 1990

Since FW de Klerk’s announcement of reforms on 2 February which heralded the release of Nelson Mandela, events in South Africa have moved rapidly towards negotiations between the ANC and the regime. What sort of society a post-apartheid South Africa will become has been and will be a central part of the discussion both within South Africa and internationally. The South African Communist Party (SACP) has recently published a number of documents outlining its views on the future. CAROL BRICKLEY reviews Has Socialism Failed? by Joe Slovo, the SACP’s General Secretary.

That South Africa faces a profound economic and political crisis cannot be doubted. And, as in all such profound crises different and opposed forces are at work to influence the outcome.

The class conflict which is at the heart of the crisis is nothing new. It has been at the centre of historical development since the beginnings of capitalism. Politics in this period is relevant only in so far as it addresses this central conflict.

The SACP at last finds itself centre stage. After being banned in the 1950s, exiled and underground in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, de Klerk’s statement on 2 February unbanned the Party. The inclusion of Joe Slovo, in the ANC’s negotiating team, is a clear indication both of the strength of the alliance between the two organisations, and the important part that the SACP will play in influencing ANC policy. Traditional bogey of the Afrikaner Nationalists, the SACP now needs to carve out its role in determining the nature of a future democratic South Africa. Has Socialism Failed? purports to be the SACP’s response to the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe.

It is worth emphasising that the pamphlet is a discussion paper intended to be ‘debated for years to come both inside and outside the ranks of communist and workers’ parties’, and as yet it represents the views of Joe Slovo alone. Nevertheless it is in response to this invitation to debate that we have written this critique of the main theme of this pamphlet.


Slovo’s question, contained in the pamphlet’s title, is intended to address what for him must be a vital question. Criticism of the Soviet Union inevitably reflects on the SACP, for it has derived much of its politics, finance and status from the socialist bloc. At first sight Slovo seems to have been forced to come to terms with his own history and that of his party by the events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe:

‘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.’ (p24)

But the real import of what Slovo writes is rather different. The pamphlet is very careful to avoid any admission of serious mistakes by the SACP. Instead the events in Eastern Europe are used as a cover for promoting and developing a position which the SACP has been covertly arguing for a number of years. In FRFI 62 (September 1986) David Reed argued that the SACP was ‘in fact laying before us the prospect of a peaceful road to socialism’. This has nothing at all to do with Stalin and the Soviet Union, but everything to do with a social democratic solution to the South African crisis.

We should note, however, that the South African working class has not demonstrated doubt about striving for a socialist future. The harsh barbaric realities of apartheid are a constant reminder that capitalism can offer very little to solve the poverty and injustice which afflicts the vast majority of the population. We are dealing here not with the doubts of the South African working class, but those of Joe Slovo.


The central theme of Slovo’s pamphlet is the relation between socialism and democracy. At the beginning he asserts his commitment to socialism:

‘For our part, we firmly believe in the future of socialism; nor do we dismiss its whole past as an unmitigated failure. Socialism certainly produced a Stalin and a Ceausescu, but it also produced a Lenin and a Gorbachev. Despite the distortions at the top, the nobility of socialism’s basic objectives inspired millions upon millions to devote themselves selflessly to building it on the ground. And no one can doubt that if humanity is today poised to enter an unprecedented era of peace and civilised international relations, it is in the first place due to the efforts of the socialist world.’

Stalinism, Slovo argues, is an unnatural distortion of socialism – socialism without democracy. We must be clear, he asserts, that this distortion: ‘cannot be traced to the essential tenets of Marxist revolutionary science’. But there is a problem here and it will rapidly overcome Slovo and his pamphlet. He cannot argue that the ‘distortions’ are a result of the personal characteristics of Stalin and Ceausescu (a very un-Marxist view). Then what are they rooted in?

We soon find out. Within the space of a few pages the unblemished foundations of Marxism come under fire. Classical Marxist theory becomes ‘under-developed’ (p12). ‘Marx, Engels and Lenin . . . were not always correct in their projections’ (p10). The selfless millions who devoted themselves to building socialism on page 2, become ‘blind worshippers in the temple of the cult of the personality’. And almost as an aside:

‘It could well be argued that the classical description of bourgeois democracy was an over-simplification and tended to underestimate the historic achievements of working-class struggle in imposing and defending aspects of a real democratic culture on the capitalist state; a culture which should not disappear but rather needs to be expanded under true socialism.’ (p11)

Where is all this leading? Well, straight to an attack on what Lenin called the very essence of Marxism: the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is a central bit of Marxist baggage which Slovo badly wants to ditch.

The dictatorship of the proletariat, says Slovo, was dealt with ‘rather thinly’ by Marx. Engels dealt with it only in relation to the Paris Commune, ‘an exceptional social experience’. Lenin’s concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was elaborated ‘in the very heat of revolutionary transformation’ (p13-14). ‘On reflection’, says Slovo, ‘the choice of the word “dictatorship” to describe the type of society certainly opens the way to ambiguities and distortions. The abandonment of the term by most communist parties, including ours, does not in all cases imply a rejection of the historical validity of its essential content.’ (p16)

If this pamphlet had musical accompaniment drums would roll at this point. Is the SACP abandoning the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat because it sounds nasty, or is it rejecting its essential content? We should remind ourselves at this point that Slovo is not idly examining the history of communism. He is doing it with a purpose – to lay the basis for arguing for a particular direction for the South African liberation struggle. It is not the first time that the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat has been criticised and it is worth looking at Slovo’s principal predecessor.


By 1917 the once-great Marxist Karl Kautsky had become an out and out renegade – ‘a mealy-mouthed spokesman of the bourgeoisie’. Lenin argued that Kautskyism was not fortuitous: it is ‘the social product of the contradictions within the Second International, a blend of loyalty to Marxism in word and subordination to opportunism in deed’ (Selected Works Vol 3 (SW) p44). By 1918 when Kautsky published his pamphlet attacking the Bolshevik revolution, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, German Social Democracy had sided with its own bourgeoisie in the First World War. Lenin responded to Kautsky with his own pamphlet, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.

Just at the moment when socialism was becoming a practical possibility, one of its most able theoreticians, versed in the language of Marxism, turned Judas and took the side of the bourgeoisie. Precisely because Kautsky had been a giant in the movement, close to Marx and Engels, he was a most dangerous ally of the bourgeoisie. Lenin deals with his arguments with the vitriol reserved for traitors.

The first point which Lenin deals with is Kautsky’s attack on the dictatorship of the proletariat: ‘the very essence of the revolution’. Kautsky tried to identify two methods in the revolutionary movement: ‘the dictatorial’ (Bolshevik) and ‘the democratic’ (non-Bolshevik). Kautsky paves the way for his attack much the same way as Slovo:

‘This view rests upon a single word of Karl Marx’s.’ (SW p46)


‘Marx, unfortunately, neglected to show us in greater detail how he conceived this dictatorship.’ (SW p47)

Slovo’s version is little different:

‘The concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was dealt with rather thinly by Marx as a “transition to classless society” without much further definition.' (Slovo p13)


‘And there was not enough in classical Marxist theory about the nature of the transition period to provide a detailed guide to the future.’ (Slovo p12)

This, for Slovo, represents the ‘under-developed state of classical Marxist theory’. (p12)

Was the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat seized out of context from an isolated word or two by Marx and Engels? Was their treatment ‘thin’? Lenin deals with this head on. Marx and Engels examined this question consistently over a period of forty years from 1852 to 1891. He points out that the concept ‘is merely a more historically concrete and scientifically exact formulation of the proletariat’s task of “smashing” the bourgeois state machine.’ The abandonment of the ‘little word’ dictatorship has profound consequences after all.


Slovo’s apparent aside on the progressive nature of bourgeois democracy (quoted above) turns out to have more significance. This point was also central to Kautsky’s argument. Listen to Lenin:

‘When Kautsky devotes dozens of pages to “proving” the truth that bourgeois democracy is progressive compared with medievalism, and that the proletariat must unfailingly utilise it in its struggle against the bourgeoisie, that in fact is just liberal twaddle intended to fool the workers . . .

‘Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor. It is this truth, which forms a most essential part of Marx’s teaching, that Kautsky the “Marxist” has failed to understand. On this – the fundamental issue – Kautsky offers “delights” for the bourgeoisie instead of a scientific criticism of those conditions which make every bourgeois democracy a democracy for the rich.’ (SW p54-55)

Is it this description of democracy that Slovo lightly casts aside as an ‘oversimplification’? Is this bourgeois democracy the ‘democratic culture’ which should be ‘expanded under socialism’? (Slovo p11). No Marxist talks of democracy without first asking the question ‘democracy for whom?’. No Marxist would doubt that bourgeois democracy will be an improvement for the black working class in South Africa. But we could not doubt either that it would leave the power and the wealth in the hands of the capitalist class.

So how will the proletariat take power from the bourgeoisie? Kautsky was categorically against the seizure of state power and the repressive measures necessary to secure proletarian rule. What about Slovo?

‘Lenin clearly assumed that whatever repression may be necessary in the immediate aftermath of the revolution would be relatively mild and short-lived.’ (Slovo p14, our emphasis)


‘There may be moments in the life of a revolution which justify a postponement of full democratic processes. And we do not address the question of whether the Bolsheviks were justified in taking a monopoly of state power during the extraordinary period of both internal and external assault on the gains of the revolution.’ (Slovo p17, our emphasis)

Lenin is not nearly so mealy-mouthed. He makes it clear that throughout the epoch of transition to socialism, the bourgeoisie will continue to attempt to regain its wealth and privilege: ‘the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is violence against the bourgeoisie; and the necessity of such violence is particularly called for . . .’


How then does Slovo see the transfer of power necessary to achieve socialism in South Africa?

‘We also believe that if there is real democracy in the post-apartheid state, the way will be open for a peaceful progression towards our party’s ultimate objective – a socialist South Africa. This approach is consistent with the Marxist view – not always achieved in practice – that the working class must win the majority to its side: as long as no violence is used against the people there is no other road to power.’ (Slovo p27)

What is ‘real democracy’ in a post-apartheid society which is not socialist? Isn’t this Kautsky’s ‘pure democracy’? Isn’t it bourgeois democracy? What can Slovo possibly mean by ‘winning the majority’ to the side of the working class, in the South African context? The majority is black and already has proved it is on the side of the working class. Does Slovo mean that ‘the majority’ in South Africa is not a majority unless it includes the majority of whites? This is ‘de Klerk-speak’.

And what is the possibility of a ‘peaceful transition’? Lenin did not spare Kautsky for arguing that ‘dictatorship’ (ie revolution) will not be necessary if the majority supports socialism:

‘In these circumstances, to assume that in a revolution which is at all profound and serious the issue is decided simply by the relation between the majority and the minority is the acme of stupidity, the silliest prejudice of a common liberal, an attempt to deceive the people by concealing from them a well-established historical truth. This historical truth is that in every profound revolution, the prolonged, stubborn and desperate resistance of the exploiters, who for a number of years retain important political advantages over the exploited, is the rule. Never – except in the sentimental fantasies of the sentimental fool Kautsky – will the exploiters submit to the decision of the exploited majority without trying to make use of their advantages in a last desperate battle, or series of battles.’ (SW p64)

Isn’t it a sentimental fantasy to argue that the South African capitalist class will relinquish its power and wealth without a fight? Haven’t they been protecting their interests with the maximum brutality and violence for long enough to convince Slovo? Isn’t it a sentimental fantasy to argue that imperialism can suddenly divest itself of its predatory and warmongering nature in favour of an era of ‘peace and civilised international relations’. Isn’t it the worst deception of the working class to argue that Western pluralist democracy can defend the interests of the working class?

Slovo has missed a great opportunity in this pamphlet to re-examine the central tenets of classical Marxism which are by no means ‘under-developed’. He has also avoided the opportunity to give a real accounting for the history of the SACP. The rhetoric proclaims that ‘if we are looking for culprits, we must look at ourselves and not the founders of Marxism’. The pamphlet not only gives the SACP a clean bill of health, in every detail Slovo’s position is a profound attack on the central tenets of Marxism he pretends to hold dear. We will end with Lenin:

‘In defining dictatorship, Kautsky tried his utmost to conceal from the reader the fundamental feature of this concept, namely revolutionary violence. But now the truth is out: it is a question of the contrast between peaceful and violent revolutions.

‘That is the crux of the matter. Kautsky has to resort to all these subterfuges, sophistries and falsifications only to excuse himself from violent revolution, and to conceal his renunciation of it, his desertion to the side of the liberal labour policy, ie, the side of the bourgeoisie. That is the crux of the matter.’


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