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southern africa / the left / opinion / analysis Sunday September 08, 2019 06:04 byJonathan Payn

The first part of this series stated that, despite various well-intentioned efforts by forces on the extra-Alliance and independent left over recent years to unite working class struggles in South Africa, these largely have and will continue to fail to resonate with the working class, help build unity in struggle and form the basis of a new movement because of the theoretical understandings of class and power – and their strategic implications – on which they are founded and which are prevalent on much of the left.

This article will give a basic overview of these theoretical understandings of class and power and their strategic implications and limitations and why it is therefore necessary to refine and develop understandings of class and power more capable of responding to the context of the neoliberal restructuring of the working class in order to advance the class struggle in pursuit of socialism.

[Part 1]

Class struggle, the Left and power – Part 2

Jonathan Payn (ZACF)

The first part of this series stated that, despite various well-intentioned efforts by forces on the extra-Alliance and independent left over recent years to unite working class struggles in South Africa, these largely have and will continue to fail to resonate with the working class, help build unity in struggle and form the basis of a new movement because of the theoretical understandings of class and power – and their strategic implications – on which they are founded and which are prevalent on much of the left.

This article will give a basic overview of these theoretical understandings of class and power and their strategic implications and limitations and why it is therefore necessary to refine and develop understandings of class and power more capable of responding to the context of the neoliberal restructuring of the working class in order to advance the class struggle in pursuit of socialism.


The strategic approach that Numsa’s bureaucracy and permanent leaders have taken since its 2013 Special National Congress, from calling for the launch of a “United Front against to neoliberalism”, exploring “the establishment of a Movement for Socialism” to the launch of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) is, like Cosatu and the SACP, informed by its class analysis. In fact, it is informed by the same class analysis.

According to this analysis capitalism is a class society in which the ruling class minority (bourgeoisie) exploits the working class majority (proletariat) in order to extract a profit (surplus value) to become even more rich and powerful. It is able to do this because it holds private ownership of the means of production (factories, land, mines etc.), which is legally recognised and protected by the state. Because the working class owns nothing – due to “primitive accumulation” (e.g. colonialism, dispossession of land and the means of production from the direct producers) – workers are force to sell their labour in exchange for a wage in order to buy the goods they need to survive (commodities) on the market. Class is defined primarily in terms of one’s relations to the means of production: the ruling class owns the means of production but doesn’t do productive work, the working class sells its labour for a wage at the point of production but doesn’t own it.

This, inevitably, gives rise to the class struggle for greater economic gains and an extension of rights and freedoms, in which the (permanently employed) industrial proletariat is identified as the only revolutionary subject because of its location at the point of production (factories, mines) and, therefore, its ability to withdraw its labour by going on strike. Because they are not considered to have the potential to be revolutionary other sectors of the working class, such as the peasantry (small farmers and rural workers) and “lumpen proletariat” (the unemployed, people working in the informal economy etc.), are typically ignored. Something which might help explain why, despite all their lip service to the contrary, all the major unions – whether Cosatu, Saftu or others – have by and large not only failed but never seriously tried to organise precarious labour broker, casual and short-term contract workers.

However, according to this theory the working class, including the revolutionary subject (industrial workers), is struggling so much just to survive that they cannot develop a revolutionary consciousness and their demands and struggles are only centred around so-called bread and butter issues. Because the working class is only capable of reaching this, what Lenin called “trade union consciousness” it needs to be led by a political vanguard of so-called revolutionaries organised in the form of a political party that seeks state power in order to implement socialism through the state.

Sectors of the working class outside of the permanently employed industrial proletariat are not only ignored or dismissed for not being revolutionary but even looked down on with disdain by this self-declared revolutionary vanguard – which might explain both the Numsa leadership’s reference to community struggles as “leaderless and disorganised” and the heckling by Numsa delegates to the Working Class Summit when, for example, unemployed community activists and farmworkers expressed different opinions.


As stated, the ruling class minority is able to get away with this situation of exploitation and injustice with the help of the state. The state, according to this analysis, is a neutral institution that can function in the interests of the working class or ruling class depending on what forces are in control of state power. Because the state is understood to be neutral state power is therefore something that, if under the control of a socialist or workers’ party, can be used in the interests of the working class and in pursuit of socialism.

The implication of this analysis, besides overlooking the creative revolutionary potential of the vast majority of the working class, is that the building of a political party to contest state power is both necessary and inevitable. This can either be done by contesting elections (reformist socialism) or an armed uprising (revolutionary socialism).

Because, again according to this analysis, the broader working class is supposedly incapable of being revolutionary and therefore requires an enlightened revolutionary vanguard to take control of the state and implement socialism from above; and because power is seen to lie primarily in the state and as something to be “seized” or “taken” so-called mass movements, such as unions, social movements and the United Front, are but a means to an end. That end is to build support for the party and help get it into state power – either by voting or through revolution.

However, because the state by its nature is an authoritarian and hierarchical institution that centralises decision-making and other power, which flows from the top down, so too does every political party whose aim it is to gain state power replicate this structure. Moreover, because the leaderships thereof – including socialist and workers’ parties – inherit the privileges and power of the predecessors they dispose of, instead of destroying exploitative class relations they tend to and have, historically, simply reproduced them in the name of the workers and poor.

The next installation in this education series will look at a more nuanced theoretical understanding of class and power and the strategic implications thereof for building working class unity in struggle that offer an alternative to the tried, tested and consistently disappointing state-centric one on which the SRWP and much of the left is based.

This article first appeared in issue 113 of Workers World News, produced by the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG)

southern africa / the left / debate Sunday September 08, 2019 05:38 byLucien van der Walt

This is a lightly edited transcription of a talk given by Prof. Lucien van der Walt on a panel on the eve of the 2019 national elections in South Africa: the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG)/ Workers World Media Productions (WWMP) Public Forum, Isivivana Centre, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa 25 April.

Should the Anti-Capitalists Contest Elections?

THANK YOU comrades for the points that you have made. Should anti-capitalists vote? The quick answer is "no." Let's be clear, the right to vote is important. It is better to be under a state where you can vote, where there are some basic civil and political rights, than under, for example, the apartheid state that we had. It is not that there is no difference - it is big victory for the working class that we're under a bourgeois parliamentary democracy.

Having said that, using the state and using elections is not something that is going to take the working class forward, it is not something that is going to enable the working class to build the capacity to take power directly by itself, through bottom-up organs of working class democracy.

Let's be clear: this isn't an argument about whether comrades are sincere in their programmes when forming parties, it is not an argument that genuine comrades who believe in the party model secretly have malicious plans to get rich. We know that there are many politicians who are in it to get money, but not all.

So this is a message to the sincere comrades, of the left.

Fundamentally the state is not an organization that is able to ensure the deeper change, the creation of social and economic equality which we need in our country and in our society. The state is a top-down, centralised pyramid in the hands of a political elite of politicians, and of top government officials, who work with an economic elite, of big business people. Together this is the ruling class, a powerful minority that contrls society, and monopolizes power and wealth through states and corporations.

We can have formal political and civil rights, but in the context of deep, profound, immiserating inequality in power and wealth, those rights are very limited. We all have the right to free speech but one person, sleeping under a bridge, and another person, the editor of a newspaper -- well, one person's right to free speech and another person's right to free speech, can be completely different in reality. If you are desperately dependent on an employer to survive, to get a small amount of money, so that you can feed your kids, you are not likely to cause trouble and invoke your formal rights as a worker.

So, for the proper exercise of rights, you need equality in society -- not just to be equal on paper. To that end we need a massive redistribution of power and wealth in society: we need to move away from a society in which run by, and for, a small ruling class of politicians, officials and capitalists.

As a simple example, to get decent housing in South Africa, we would have to spend billions of rands, we would have to redirect the construction industry away from producing shopping malls, from suburban houses, gentrified coffee shops and craft beer saloons. We would have to control the resources -- the labour, the materials, the infrastructure -- and we would have to have the power to decide that those resources go into housing -- rather than something else.

Then we can start to talk about the large-scale delivery of decent housing for ordinary people. I don't mean a little shacks, I don't mean the tiny two room houses the state provides when pressured.


I am talking about housing where you can live in dignity, where, essentially we abolish the township system of large, segregated, impoverished working class districts, under-serviced, badly maintained, ill-treated, and sharply distinct from the suburbs. A massive redistribution of power and wealth enables us to move away from that system, and create unified towns -- not bigger townships, but the end of townships by making the townships suburbs.

Now, that requires some massive redistribution of wealth and power -- and direct control by ordinary people. And you will never get that by getting a piece of paper in a box every five years and hoping some politician will carry out their promises.

Comrade Zama Timbela, on my left, of the Progressive Civic Movement, was quite clear and totally correct: we have tried, and we are not the only ones who have tried. Many, many people have tried this. People much better than me have tried. If someone like Nelson Mandela couldn't change the system, if pretty much anyone you care to name ended up producing that same inequality in society, why is it going to be different this time? How many more times do we have to form and support parties, and watch them fail the working class?

You cannot with the best will in the world make a car fly. It is the nature of the thing. You cannot make a dog go "meow." You cannot take a state, which has got a very specific purpose in society -- keeping the ruling class on top -- and make it do something different.

I understand comrades' argument that we want to use the state, and parliament, and elections, to make propaganda -- and there we agree. But we disagree on how.

This comes down to how we analyse the state. The nature of the state is twofold. One, it is about the defence of inequality in society. Adam Smith, the famous liberal economist said, the wealthy, could not sleep peacefully at night unless there was an armed body, which could protect them: the state. The state's role is to maintain the status quo.

FROM FLOOR: Thank you!

Second, the state serves is controlled directly by that ruling class, and the ruling class is not just capitalists in the private sector. The ruling class includes those people who control the army, the police, the parliamentarians, the mayor, the vice chancellor -those are all part of the ruling class and they have some disagreements, how much cattle or cash must this one pay to this one in a bribe, who gets a contract from ESKOM for coal, how much tax must be paid, how best to control and exploit the working class.

But all these differences fall aside when it comes to basic things. If you want to occupy some land for a shack, you are going to face evictions, jail. The union comrades will know that when you go on strike, the police will be there -- not to arrest the bosses, but to police you. On strike you can be beaten, you will not get paid, you will get killed in some cases. On the other side, you could be like Marcus Jooste, and defraud people of nearly R40 billion, or like Jacob Zuma and be involved in "state capture" scams that amount to an estimated R100 billion, and you will not be arrested, evicted, or jailed. You will have to testify in parliament, maybe, and then you can go home to your mansion. You can loot ESKOM so much, that South Africa now has less electricity than it did in 2009, and all you will face is a toothless commission.

So, on one side, simply by maintaining the status quo of inequality, powerful monopoly corporations, deeply entrenched inequality in decision-making and income and resources across society, including in the state -- the household of the former president, Zuma, cost tax payers up to R500 million, while people in expanded public works earn less than R20 an hour -- the state ensures the current system goes on.

And, on the other side, the state is an apparatus for the direct accumulation of wealth and power. Senior state office, whether national, provincial or local, gives access to state resources. High salaries and perks -- more than a million rand a year, a house, flights, free airtime just to sit in parliament -- and even more -- access to big money through the Public Investment Corporation (PIC)and state banks, giant state capitalist firms like ESKOM, and thousands of opportunities for graft through state contracts and outsourcing, all the way down. The Eastern Cape province has tens of thousands of "procurement points"; a municipality can have up to a thousand contracts with the private sector. State power means you can give those contracts to family, friends, fronts: then you, the politician, are sorted. And this is, sadly, what a lot of political party activity in South Africa is all about. Not the people, the politicians.

Votes are not going to change the system. Voting is not going to change the system. Major decisions are completely outside of the control of ordinary people on a day-to-day basis. It is better to have a non-racial parliament than P.W, Botha, but parliament is not democracy. It is a shell covering something else. Look on TV at parliament, watch the shenanigans of overpaid politicians, earning a million rand a year, wearing overalls or Gucci suits -- I don't care which -- as they posture, parade and make speeches! These are rich, powerful people; they are not there for you, they are doing a job where you do not even get fined if you never come to work.

If you think they really represent you, then think about what they really do. At elections they talk to you and promise the world, but you will see, sooner or later, what world you will get. We never voted for privatization in 1994, but we got it. We never voted for police to be sent onto our campuses, we got it. We never voted for a job-loss bloodbath, we got it. We never voted for the "state capture" project, we got it.

And this isn't a question of which particular party - I want to be clear - this is not a question of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), or the rival, conservative Democratic Alliance (DA, which rules here in Cape Town) or the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), an ANC breakaway that talks about socialism but has allied with DA all over the country. The DA evicts people, the ANC complains. The ANC evicts people, the DA complains. EFF, well it will evict people all on its own, if it ever had direct control of a municipality - and in fact it has served for years in municipal coalition governments with the DA, and so, been party to DA evicting people.

It is not a question of which party. We also need to get away from the thing that the problem is a few bad apples, a few bad people that we solve it if we replace Mbeki with Zuma, and Zuma with Ramaphosa, in the ANC, or Malema from EFF, or Maimane from DA - it does not matter.

This is where the idea of running a party to use elections for tactical reasons is a mistake. Yes, the masses do look at elections: but why not give them a different message? Why tell people to vote for a party, to expose the system, as if that does not teach people to trust the system? Yes, the political temperature of the working class rises at elections, but why give the message "vote" if know voting is based on an illusion in the state? That is creating illusions.

Yes, comrades, I recognize the new Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, linked to the left-wing National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), wants a "dictatorship of the proletariat" and so on -- and states that it does not believe in a parliamentary road to socialism. I know the party says it's running in elections for tactical reasons, mainly to make propaganda. But the reality is that most people outside the party cadre will and do think the party is promising to deliver more and better, and that the issues is just that the state is run by the wrong party.

Yes, you can use parliament for propaganda, the EFF showed it brilliantly - brilliantly! They made parliament interesting to watch. In the old days it wasn't interesting to watch, unless you were having trouble sleeping and then you could take tips from the people in parliament.

But fundamentally that does nothing to build a bottom-up movement, it makes people into spectators at a show, politics into a performance by a few leaders. And, fundamentally the use of parties in elections, whatever the aims, is a method that sows illusions in the state. The idea that the masses must be encouraged to vote, so they can learn the hard lessons, is irresponsible. If you have a child and they burn their hand, they learn a lesson. But you don't encourage them to burn their hand so they can be learn the lesson: you say "don't burn your hand, don't touch the fire!" The same thing with elections.

To sum up: you are not going to change the system with a piece of paper; if you want to vote, vote, that is your right; but it's not going to change things. If people want to set up a party, good for them. And I respect the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party for at least putting a radical platform out there. But it is still not going to solve the problems.

First, political parties don't change the state, the state changes political parties; people change. High salaries, access to contracts, and the exercise of power -- these things change people. We cannot pretend someone from the working class, now suddenly rich, and busy running the state, is still working class in interest, experience or outlook.

Rather than political parties being the power of the people inside the state, they actually become the power of the state inside the working class, using networks of patronage, providing access for a select few to escape the working class and move into the elite, corrupting and capturing the leadership of working class movements including unions, and teaching the masses to have faith in the state -- an organisation that oppresses them.

The party system generates divisions in the working class, as politicians chase votes: in South Africa, it's perfectly clear that race tensions are inflamed by the parties. The party system creates a culture of dependency on the state: "we want the state to deliver, give us this, give us that." People are left passive, disempowered from decisions, only briefly emerging in voting and --sometimes -- in protests. The rest of the time, they have no control over their daily lives. The party system promotes a Moses syndrome: people are taught to wait for a Moses to bring freedom to take them to the land of Canaan. But none of these politicians is Moses, and there is no Canaan to be found in following them. In electing them, you are putting them in a land of milk and honey you will never enter.

If no state can really make a difference, and I include the so-called socialist states, which were class societies based on state-capitalism, if no state has put the working class, the poor, the peasants in power, then we need to think of a way that ordinary people can take power without the state. We need a politics at a distance from the state, we need to build organs of people's power and of workers' control, that in the current period can defend the working class -- and that can develop the capacities for the people to take over, directly, themselves, without the state.

Second, rejecting the use of the vote is not rejecting democracy, but fighting for democracy: parliament is not democracy, so if you want democracy you need to build it outside the state.

Comrade Mandisi Vatu, from the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party: we have had this discussion before, so I am happy to meet you on this panel again. And I still ask: why does NUMSA want to put their faith into a party? What does a party add? Why doesn't NUMSA prepare its members to seize and occupy and run the metal industry? You have 350 000 people, you have structures of workers' control, so expand the workers' democracy, from your structures outwards. The older unions, in the 1980s, argued that workers' control of the unions should be expanded into workers' control of the economy and we should get back to that. A large section of the anti-apartheid movement aimed to replace apartheid state structures with organs of people's power, where civic organisations would take power in the townships. We should get back to that. Why outsource to a party, when a party cannot do these jobs, and when the state is the enemy?

What we have to do is organize and educate people and what that means is organizing people bottom up, to struggle, bottom-up to empower their daily lives, bottom up so they can actually have democracy. You will not have democracy with the state, but you can get it with your neighbours. You can get it with your workmates. And you can build in that a seed of a democracy where people redistribute wealth and power downwards - that is exactly what I mean. Society based on assemblies, community and worker councils that can plan the economy democratic.


Organise outside the state. The state is part of the problem. It is not the solution! The problem is not the capitalists, somewhere out there, that the state will sort out, that the state will serve the people. The state and the capitalists are two parts of the same, basic system.

We cannot get away from theory and ideology here. The comrade from the floor who raised the question of the importance of a programme is correct: yes, we need to have ideas and we need to think about how we link struggles today to deeper changes tomorrow, we need to think practically without getting stuck in reformism. And this is where theory comes in.

Struggle just isn't enough. We saw this with the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, where people rebelled to demand parliamentary democracy. Just that. And what we saw is that, if we don't have direction, you get pushed back or moved aside, and lose out. In Egypt, the masses overthrew the military regime, and got elections to parliament. A far-right party, the Muslim Brotherhood, was the main force ready to take the gap. It won the elections and was so reactionary, killing opponents, terrorising minorities like the Christians, that millions of people breathed a sigh of relief when the military seized power again. They were back to square one. It is nonsense to think that struggle alone is enough, or even to pretend that struggle automatically takes us towards socialism and democracy. It does not and it cannot.

So, it is not enough just to struggle: we need to link daily struggle systematically towards a larger program of changing society. This is why I am glad that the comrades here, from the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, are raising the issues of a bigger project that builds on, but goes way beyond, immediate struggles, Because, ultimately, we need to be clear about what is wrong in society now, what our end goal of a new type of society is, and how we get from one to the other.

Comrade Ebrahim Fourie, on the panel, representing the Housing Assembly, is right that we need to be clear on words. Just to say that our end goal is "socialism" is too vague, as he notes. What does that mean? How do we get there? We need to engage theory, and history does matter; we cannot just say we're now in the 21st century, everything is new, and the past is dead. We need -- as different socialist currents -- to look at what we did wrong in the past and right as well.

Comrades have labelled me an "anarchist" …

CROWD: Laughter.

But it's a label I embrace! I am arguing for exactly that, anarchism and syndicalism: at the end of the day we need to be thinking about how the working class, and the popular classes more generally, can take power directly, and not keeping handing power over to others. If we reject capitalism, and if we reject the state, if we agree that handing power to politicians and parties has failed -- and failed it has, comrades, make no mistake, there is not one successful example of this freeing the masses -- then we need to build mass organisations that can fight in the present and replace capital and state in the future. So we must always draw a clear class-based distinction between the people of a country, and its ruling classes, and stay steadfast in being politically independent of the state, just as we are separate from the private corporations.

I appreciate that many comrades here feel solidarity with Venezuela, and so do I, since I oppose imperialist interventions. But I feel solidarity with the popular classes of Venezuela, not its regime. I feel solidarity with the people against both the United States government, and the Venezuelan government, both of which oppress the people. I do not choose between enemies and call this strategy. Likewise, I feel solidarity the people of Cuba, against the United States embargo, but I have no solidarity with the Cuban regime or the not Castro family.

A free society is one without social and economic inequality - a society in which ordinary people are in charge. In fact "ordinary people" in such a society are no longer "ordinary people" at all, since there is no elite against which we contrast the masses, the grassroots. There are no classes. We are all collectively owners of means of production, and we all collectively decide on how we use administrative, coercive and economic resources. We are in charge of schools, work and the community, and we can live lives of dignity and equality. We govern through assemblies, committees and councils, from the bottom up, with no ruling class minority. We have freedom of speech and association and belief, and we have equality through cooperation and community.

That means the abolition of the state. None of this is possible through, or under, a state structure. That also means the capitalism. While we live under systems which are pyramids, where a small ruling class holds the power and wealth, we will never be free. The masses cannot control a pyramid which is a way for a minority to centralise resources and decisions. You can vote how you like, but you do not control the MPs or the president, you can have a bank account but you do not control the bank. You can tweet President Ramaphosa, or write him an open letter, but he does not have the read it, and he does not have to do anything about it. That is the nature of the empty democracy we have.

You have to have substantial direct control. And that means that at the end of the day we have got to think how the working class can get some power today, and prepare for taking power directly in the future. We need permanent mass organizations in which we can debate the various perspectives, such as unions, neighbourhood groups, and unemployed organisations. I am against putting our faith in parties, but let's have political pluralism in mass organisations, and hammer out the issues. Let's test our different perspectives. Let's be willing to change our minds and learn from one another. Let us not pretend there aren't differences; differences matter. It should not be a precondition of joining a mass organisation that we support a particular party. And let us not exclude any party either.

This is part of building a counter-power, of mass-based organs of counter-power to resist in the present, and build capacities to take over in the future. We need to rebuild an alternative media and radical education. Today union investment firms hold major shares in Power FM, eTV and other broadcasters, yet these do nothing to promote working class hegemony or socialism or anarchism. We need to have a discussion on how to relink Unions and community. We need to think about ways that unions, and communities, have created alternatives in the past. Unions used the run, here in Cape Town, the Ray Alexander Workers Clinic. Why not revive such things? If the state has failed with public health, let's start asking the state to deliver public health, let's have our own clinics. Let's get workers' radio and TV going -- not just a slot here and there, but as part of a systematic alternative. Let's get the big battalions of the working class onto building alternative institutions.

Let's rebuild worker/ community alliances and fundamentally let's find ways to unite the exploited and oppressed, who are pitted against each other, every day: Coloured versus black versus white, South African versus foreign. And to unite people we have to fight the oppression amongst ourselves. Not as something after the revolution but as a precondition to unity now. But, we also have to understand that without a fundamental change in society, and a new system of equality and freedom, we are not going to tear up the roots of women's oppression, of racism, of anti-immigrant ideas.

So, build alternative institutions that educate, organize people and build an alternative at a distance from the state. If you want democracy, make it. Build it now. Parliament is not democracy, the party road has failed, we need to build organs of counter-power and a project of revolutionary counter-culture. Thanks!


eastern asia / the left / opinion / analysis Tuesday July 30, 2019 05:07 byWayne Price

Elliot Li's book analyzes Maoism, and its roots in the Chinese Revolution, from an anarchist and libertarian Marxist perspective.

This small book is about the ideology of Maoism and its development out of the Chinese Revolution. As the author says, that revolution shook the world. The world is living with its aftermath today. And it is possible, as there is a regrowth of U.S. radicalism, that Maoism may have an influence on a revived U.S. Left. So it is important to understand Mao’s legacy.

Most works on this topic are either academic (and implicitly pro-capitalist) or pro-Maoist (or sometimes Trotskyist). Unusually, Elliot Liu claims to “offer a critical analysis of the Chinese Revolution and Maoist politics from an anarchist and communist perspective.” (2)

It may not be entirely clear what that means,. The term “communist” includes everything from anarchist-communism (the mainstream of anarchism since Kropotkin) to Pol Pot’s auto-genocide. However Liu writes that he is “in line with many anarchist and anti-state communist critics of Marxism-Leninism….” (105) He is identifying with the libertarian, autonomist, humanist, and “ultra-left” trends in Marxism—in opposition to mainstream social-democratic or Leninist versions of Marxism.

This is demonstrated by the theorists he cites and the theories he uses—which he integrates with anarchism. Liu never quite spells this out, but rather demonstrates it in the course of the book. I am in general agreement with this anarchist/libertarian-Marxist approach—often summarized as “libertarian socialism.” (See Price 2017.) This makes me especially interested in how he applies it, which is sometimes problematic.

While presented as an “introduction” to Maoism, this book covers a great deal of material. The conclusions Liu reaches are these: “The Chinese Revolution was a remarkably popular peasant war led by Marxist-Leninists….The Chinese Communist Party acted as a surrogate bourgeoisie, developing the economy in a manner that could be called ‘state capitalist’….[This] transformed the party into a new ruling class, with interests distinct from those of the Chinese proletariat and peasantry….Mao and his allies repeatedly chose…beating back the revolutionary self-activity of the Chinese proletariat and ultimately clearing the way for openly capitalist rule after Mao’s death….I consider Maoism to be an internal critique of Stalinism that fails to break with Stalinism.” (2-3)

In places, Liu refers to Maoist China as “state socialist” without explaining what this means. Perhaps he means that the regime calls itself “socialist” due to its nationalization of industry, even though it is really not socialist but state capitalist. I agree with a “state capitalist” analysis of Maoism and the Chinese state Mao built. (For “state capitalist” theory as developed in the analysis of the Soviet Union, see Daum 1990; Hobson & Tabor 1988.) Liu supports his “state capitalist” view in several ways: by examining the history of Maoism, by considering its theory, and by a political-economic analysis of the Chinese economy.


This little book covers a great deal of dramatic history in a short span, and does it well. At times Liu leaves things out, probably due to this limitation of space. For example, he does not mention how Stalin, preferring to make a deal with Chiang Kai-Shek, tried to hold back the Chinese Communists from taking power after World War II—and how Mao rejected Stalin’s “advice”. Nor does it mention the Korean War and its effects in speeding up statification of industry. But he covers the development of the party and its armies, the conquest of power, the Hundred Flowers, the Great Leap Forward and its concomitant famine (perhaps 35 million died due to Mao’s mismanagement), the Sino-Soviet split, and so on.

Politically problematic is Liu’s coverage of the Maoist “turn to the countryside.” In the twenties, the Communists were driven from the cities and the urban working class. Stalin and his agents in China had told the Communists to ally with the capitalist Nationalists (Koumingtan), to trust them, and in no way to oppose them. This strategy left them open to terrible massacres when the Nationalists turned on them. They abandoned the urban working class, instead building armies based in the peasantry.

Liu describes the historical events but does not analyze their class meaning. According to classical Marxism, the modern working class is collectivized by industry, forced to work cooperatively, and living largely in cities. This creates a tendency (not an inevitability but a tendency) for workers to self-organize and rebel, to fight for their self-emancipation. The peasantry, however, has a scattered existence, away from the centers of power and knowledge. Therefore the peasantry, Marx concluded, has the ability to rise up in fierce revolutionary wars, but it needs to be led by some urban grouping—if not led democratically by the working class than by an authoritarian elite.

I am not going to argue here whether this classical Marxist view is correct—or, rather, to what extent it is correct, and under what circumstances. But Mao’s withdrawal from the urban proletariat and basing his movement on the peasants organized in an army, seems to fit with this theory. In any event, Liu shows that Mao’s forces constantly sought to balance their influence on the peasants: rousing them against the landlords and rich, but then holding them back from overthrowing the landlords and the rich. “Even at the height of the CCP’s victory, Mao was unwilling to sanction agrarian revolution from below or worker self-management in the cities.” (42)

This was in the service, supposedly, of building alliances with sections of the ruling classes. This included a “United Front” with the Nationalists against the Japanese imperialist invaders (which neither Mao nor Chiang fully followed) and then the “New Democracy,” set up during and after the Communists’ victory. Supposedly New Democracy was a non-socialist, capitalist, stage of the economy and the state, which came before socialism. It sounded like the old reformist, Menshevik, two-stage theory—except that the Communists insisted that they, not the capitalists, would be in charge as the ruling party, even during this capitalist “stage.” “New Democratic strategy positions the party as an alienated power in a given territory, standing above and mediating between different classes, while laying the foundation for the future emergence of a ‘red bourgeosie’.” (123)

The most interesting part of the book’s historical survey is its coverage of the “Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (1965—1967). There was a fight within the ruling layers (of the party, the army, the state, and the economy—the nascent ruling class). For support for his side, Mao roused the seething discontent of students and youth. Rebellion spread to the army ranks, to peasants, and the workers. The aroused masses went beyond what Mao had wanted. In Shanghai in 1966, workers from seventeen factories formed a Workers’ General Headquarters.

As in many cases throughout history, the social turmoil generated by the movement compelled workers to begin managing daily life themselves. Transport, water, and electricity…the WGH thus began coordinating production and transportation of goods, as well as public transit, through its own mass organizations. In many factories, worker-elected committees supplanted managers and party committees….Full power seizures eventually took place in twenty-nine provinces and municipalities.” (84-85)

The Shanghai People’s Commune and the other communes were crushed by force. So were all the “ultra-left” radical forces. But they had been vulnerable due to their naive trust in Mao and his supporters.


The book covers Mao’s theoretical writings, such as his discussion of dialectical philosophy. It looks at Mao’s “contributions” but criticizes his perspective as Stalinist and bourgeois. Frankly, I think that Liu takes Maoist theory a bit too seriously, as though it were a real part of the development of philosophy. Whatever may be the strengths or weaknesses of Hegel, Marx, and Engels in using dialectics, for Stalin and then Mao it was no longer real philosophical discourse. “Dialectical materialism,” in the hands of the Stalinists, had become simply what Marx called “ideology”—not a system of ideas but rationalization to cover up class reality. It can be analyzed as ideology in this sense and Liu is best when he does that.

The book examines Mao’s concept of the “mass line.” This means that Communists should find out what working people wanted and develop a program which responded to these wants. As Liu shows, this concept may be interpreted in a revolutionary or an opportunist manner. What he leaves out is the underlying fact that the Communist’ program could not tell the people the truth. It could not say that the Communists would replace the landlords and capitalists with a bureaucratic capitalist ruling class. It could not say that after the revolution the peasants and workers would continue to be exploited and oppressed. So methods had to be found which appeared to support the wants of the working people but really was a lie. That was why “the mass line concept admits an incredibly wide range of interpretations, many of them authoritarian in character.” (118)

Liu correctly condemns the “substitutionist and idealist assumptions” of Maoism. The party is not only one part of the working class and peasantry but supposedly a separate and most important agency. The party claims to know the true science of society, unlike the masses, and knows what to do. It is the rightful leadership of society and should be obeyed in all things. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” (which might have once meant the rule of the actual workers and their allies) is the rule of the party, which stands in for the workers and oppressed. And what makes the party the stand-in for the people is that it has the right ideas. Those who have the right ideas are “proletarian.” Those who do not are “bourgeois”, “reactionary,” and “capitalist-roaders.” “In common with manny Leninist interpretations of vanguard leadership, these methods assume the validity of the party’s political line and obscure proletarian self-activity.” (126)

Political Economy

Liu demonstrates that the Chinese economy is capitalist by showing how it fits Marx’s analysis of capitalism (his “critique of political economy”). He cites a prominent Maoist text on political economy and shows how its description of China is that of a capitalist market economy, following Marx’s categories. And he himself applies capitalist descriptors to China. (Speaking as an anarchist, I find this one of the main advantages of using aspects of Marxism.)

This is true even if we focus on the most “socialist” phases of Mao’s China—after New Democracy (which was officially “state capitalist”) and before the current, post-Maoist, period which is openly capitalist (if still run by a “Communist Party”). The workers and peasants still worked for wages. Ruled by the law of value, they produced commodities—goods which sold on the market, inside China and internationally. Their labor was alienated—working for someone else. There was a labor market, if a controlled one. This is the capital/labor relationship at the base of the economy. Enterprises competed with each other. The overall society produced in order to accumulate, grow, and expand its mass of commodities.

It has been argued that no society could immediately leap from capitalism into socialism—especially not a poor, oppressed, exploited nation such as China had been. Therefore there was bound to be capitalist survivals in the economy, for a period, even an extended period. So therefore the previous argument proves nothing.

Whether or not a partially-capitalist transitional stage is necessary before socialism, this does not refute the evidence. China was not ruled by workers and peasants and other oppressed people nor was it in transition to a socialist (or communist) society. It was ruled by a minority elite of bureaucrats who were agents of capital accumulation. They were increasing capitalist trends not decreasing them.


At times, Liu seems to be (mistakenly) seeking a balanced critique of Maoism, looking for both positive and negative aspects and bringing the positive aspects into revolutionary theory. “Only when Maoism is subjected to an immanent critique…will it be possible to effectively re-embed elements of Maoism in a coherent political project….” (3) In the concluding chapter, he states, “Today’s revolutionaries have much to learn—positive and negative—from the struggles of the Chinese proletariat and peasantry, party cadres and military units, and the actions of the CCP leadership.” (105) But learning positive lessons from the struggles of the Chinese popular classes is one thing; claiming that there are positive lessons to learn from the CCP leadership is quite another.

However, at the very end of this chapter, Liu clarifies his views, “For revolutionaries who aim at a free anarchist and communist society, Maoism as a whole must be rejected. It may be possible to extract particular strategic concepts, work methods, or slogans from the Chinese experience….But these elements must then be embedded in a set of revolutionary politics far different from those developed by Mao….” (126) This seems an appropriate attitude toward Maoism from the standpoint of revolutionary libertarian socialism.

Although stating his “anarchist and communist” perspective, Liu seems to base most of his argument on a libertarian interpretation of Marxism (which he uses well). Unfortunately, Liu does not mention that Mao’s authoritarian assumptions were not only rooted in Stalinism but even in Marxism, or at least in aspects of Marxism. In particular, Marx proposed that the working class could take power by creating a party and taking over the state (either by elections or by insurrection). Anarchists argued that for socialists to set up their own state (a bureaucratic-military machine to rule over society) would result in state capitalism and a new, bureaucratic, ruling class. (For further discussion of the differences between anarchism and Maoism, see Price 2007.)

But at the very end, Liu summarizes his view, “Revolutionaries must oppose the establishment of a state that will direct and reproduce exploitation, and instead encourage forms of mass, federated, armed, and directly democratic social organization. There is no alternative to the anarchist thesis: the state must be smashed.” (128) This is indeed the lesson of Maoism.


Daum, Walter (1990). The Life and Death of Stalinism: A Resurrection of Marxist Theory. NY: Socialist Voice.

Hobson, Christopher Z., & Tabor, Ronald D. (1988). Trotskyism and the Dilemma of Socialism. NY/Westport CT: Greenwood Press.

Liu, Elliot (2016). Maoism and the Chinese Revolution; A Critical Introduction. Oakland CA: PM Press;

Price, Wayne (2007). “A Maoist Attack on Anarchism; An Anarchist Response to Bob Avakian.”

Price, Wayne (2017). “What is Libertarian Socialism? An Anarchist-Marxist Dialogue: A Review of A. Prichard, R. Kinna, S. Pinta, & D. Berry (eds.). Libertarian Socialism; Politics in Black and Red".

*written for

north america / mexico / the left / feature Wednesday July 03, 2019 15:37 byWayne Price
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Many liberals and other Democrats see Trump as the main problem facing the U.S. Therefore their focus is on defeating him in the next election (or impeachment). They focus on the electoral system and hope for salvation through government action. I disagree. Trump is a major problem, but he is the culmination of years of political and economic development, and is related to similar politics in other countries. The fight against Trumpism requires a non-electoral and militant program.

southern africa / the left / opinion / analysis Tuesday June 25, 2019 22:09 byJonathan Payn

Twenty-five years into democracy the black working class majority in South Africa has not experienced any meaningful improvements in its conditions. The apartheid legacy of unequal education, healthcare and housing and the super-exploitation of black workers continues under the ANC and is perpetuated by the neoliberal policies it has imposed.

The only force capable of changing this situation is the working class locally and internationally. Yet to do so, struggles need to come together, new forms of organisation appropriate to the context are needed; and they need both to be infused with a revolutionary progressive politics and to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Outside the ANC alliance, there have indeed been many efforts to unite struggles – but these have largely failed to resonate with the working class in struggle and form the basis of a new movement. Nowhere is this more evident than with the newly-formed Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) – which got less than 25 000 votes in the national elections, despite the fact that the union that conceived it, Numsa, claims nearly 400 000 members.

[Part 2]

After the election dust settles: Class struggle, the Left and power

Jonathan Payn (ZACF)

Twenty-five years into democracy the black working class majority in South Africa has not experienced any meaningful improvements in its conditions. The apartheid legacy of unequal education, healthcare and housing and the super-exploitation of black workers continues under the ANC and is perpetuated by the neoliberal policies it has imposed.

These troubles are part of the world’s troubles; this neoliberalism is part of global neoliberalism. As the global economic crisis deepens, the global ruling class is making the working class pay, transferring the costs to workers and the poor, leading to increased poverty, unemployment, inequality and insecurity. And so in South Africa neoliberal oppression is piled on top of national oppression.

The only force capable of changing this situation is the working class locally and internationally. Yet to do so, struggles need to come together, new forms of organisation appropriate to the context are needed; and they need both to be infused with a revolutionary progressive politics and to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Some such struggles have occurred over recent years, including the historic platinum mineworkers’ strike and farmworkers’ strike in 2012; but the many struggles have not yet pulled together into a new movement.

Outside the ANC alliance, there have indeed been many efforts to unite struggles – but these have largely failed to resonate with the working class in struggle and form the basis of a new movement.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the newly-formed Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) – which got less than 25 000 votes in the national elections, despite the fact that the union that conceived it, Numsa, claims nearly 400 000 members.


When the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) announced its resolutions, following its historic 2013 Special National Congress, to break with the ANC and SACP and to form a “United Front against neoliberalism”, many on the left were hopeful that this would give working class movements the new ideological and organisational direction they need.

The United Front, Numsa said, was not about building a new organisation, party or labour federation but “a way to join other organisations in action, in the trenches”, gaining community support for Numsa campaigns and building “concrete support for other struggles of the working class and the poor wherever and whenever they take place”.

It looked as if there hopes were not misplaced when, for example, unemployed youth and community activists across the country responded positively to Numsa’s call by supporting the 19 March 2014 actions against the Youth Wage Subsidy. Branches were set up and, despite initial scepticism, community activists joined.

By August 2017, however, the Johannesburg branch of the United Front had declared that, “After the initial enthusiasm, there is now a feeling the UF has largely collapsed, with only a couple of local structures still active.” Numsa had shifted its focus and resources to establishing a “Movement for Socialism” because “the working-class needs a political organisation committed in its policies and actions to the establishment of a socialist South Africa”.

Having gained some community support for its campaigns, including the United Front itself, the success of the United Front in building working class unity going forward depended on whether Numsa would reciprocate by putting its resources and capacity at the service of building “concrete support for other struggles of the working class and the poor wherever and whenever they take place”.

Instead, Numsa energies were shifted into calling for a new workers’ party, while presenting itself as the vanguard of the whole working class, and in so doing missed its moment.


Numsa undertook to “conduct a thoroughgoing discussion on previous attempts to build socialism as well as current experiments to build socialism” and “commission an international study on the historical formation of working-class parties, including exploring different type of parties – from mass workers’ parties to vanguard parties”. But it already knew what it was aiming for. It had said that a new political party was on the cards – to replace the SACP, which had become corrupted by the neoliberal state, as the political vanguard of the working class.

The potential of the United Front approach for building working class unity is precisely because it accommodates ideological differences in order to build the unity of working class formations in struggle. But Numsa still looks to the legacy of Communist Parties. And these parties have historically used united fronts to create unity in action in struggles against capitalist attacks, but also with the aim of winning over the majority in these struggles to their programme – in this case the formation of a new party, that they would lead – under their Party leadership and no one else’s.

While Numsa has broken with Cosatu and the SACP organisationally, it has not broken with them ideologically. The belief by a section of full-time Numsa leaders that they are the vanguard of the working class and their insistence on building a party to contest state power are founded on the same ideological certainties and theoretical understandings of class, power and the nature of the state as the SACP – with the same strategic implications that, invariably, will have the same disappointing outcomes.

If we really want to build a movement for socialism, and to avoid merely replacing one set of rulers for another, the state-centric left needs to rethink its understandings class, power and the nature of the state in light of the imperial evidence and learn from the mistakes of the past, instead of repeating them and expecting a different outcome.

This article first appeared in issue 112 of Workers World News, produced by the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG)

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