Things have to change. We have to change things. We have to struggle for working class rule

by Jul 26, 2009All Articles

July 13, 2009 By Trevor Ngwane

Everyday working class life is a life of pain. It is a life in which no ordinary person is free of oppression and exploitation. If you do not have a job, you are a victim. If you have a job, you are the victim of exploitation and alienation. That is the truth of capitalism. Sometimes individuals can fight and claw their way out of the worst of capitalism. But that leaves everyone else behind to suffer the worst of capitalism. Sometimes a few people can defend themselves against the worst of capitalism. Sometimes, through struggle, there can be victories against capitalism. None of these is ever secure. Each one is threatened the next day. There is no stability, no security, no solidarity. This is not life for human beings. It has to change. It has to be changed. We have to change it. We have to make the future free from all oppression, exploitation and alienation into the reality of everyday life. That is the communist future.
These things are necessary. They are very hard to achieve. Communism will not come easily or quickly. There is no shortcut, no easy road and no simple guarantee. So, is there no alternative? Is there no other way except the long hard road of struggle? Yes. There is an alternative. It is exactly what is happening today. These are the two alternatives: the road of capitalist rule or the road toward working class rule.

We know it is necessary to free ourselves from capitalist rule. But is working class rule possible? Can it really happen? My main point in this opening essay for the Reimagining Society Project is that there is only one way to answer this question finally. It is to make it happen, to make it possible. We cannot afford to wait because in any case “we are the ones we have been waiting for”.  It is the millions and millions of ordinary working class people whose organization and action will make a communist future possible and a reality. Our job as the left is to strengthen and support their effort. This means supporting working class political organization. It also means critically assessing and then enhancing our politics as the left.


Doubt has set in among the left. Worse, doubt and despair has set in among millions of ordinary people who cannot see an alternative to capitalism. To make my point clear I want to tackle briefly the question of the revolutionary subject. In South African left circles you will come across a debate that says we must not fetishise the revolutionary subject and we must not fetishise forms of organization. In ordinary language what is meant is that we must not act as if the working class, in particular, the industrial worker, will automatically make the revolution. It also means that we must not act as if trade unions are necessary and progressive. Lastly, it means we must not act as if a political party, a working class party, is always necessary to take the struggle forward to socialism and communism.

Where does the doubt and demoralization come from which leads to a questioning of the first principles of (Marxist-inspired) revolutionary struggle? A cursory examination of the history of the left in South Africa, I am certain there are parallels in other countries as well, shows that the left must first blame the enemy, the capitalists, and then blame itself for its present demoralization and loss of direction. Because you are drifting when you begin to question what you are about, what you stand for, when you start to doubt whether you will reach your goal using the old tried and tested methods of your own movement. And you are lost when you reject the theoretical foundations, political principles and organizational methods of the workers’ movement. The left are demoralized today because when they look at their own history they find a lot to disappoint them.

They remember the time when some of them announced that the industrial workers were automatically the vanguard. Today, they think that the industrial worker has become a new aristocracy – comfortable, secure, and not interested in struggle.  In this view, the industrial worker has betrayed their hopes. They remember the time when they occupied positions inside the trade unions and won victories in policy conferences. It is very different for them now. The trade unions have betrayed their hopes. In South Africa many lefts, including myself, were purged right out of the unions. And the union leadership continues to drum up support for the pro-capitalist neoliberal ruling party.

They remember when they were members of left groups of ten and twenty and a hundred people who thought that they were the centre of the political universe. They thought that their ideas and politics was leading thousands and millions. And it is not like that today. Everything and everyone has betrayed their hopes. They look around and find the individualism and self-indulgence of loose autonomism. They saw and participated in the rise of the social movements and found their new answer. They join these things together. Some of them announce that the working class does not even exist anymore. Some of them announce that Marxism is dead. But it is not easy. Not long ago they placed all their hopes in the social movements – and they are finding that the political problems of everyday life and struggle do not go away if you sidestep the unions and you sidestep political organization. Now they are shifting – and placing the same hopes in the “service delivery struggles”. The latter are the protest actions, demonstrations, marches and riots that pepper the South African political landscape which, together with strikes, are occurring at the rate of 10 000 a year, according to official estimates.

There is another way of looking at the question of the revolutionary subject. Instead of making it a question of theory, categories and concepts, it can be a question of political action. In fact, it must be a question of political action. What happens if we ask the question from this viewpoint – the viewpoint of struggle and action? It becomes a different question and, though daunting, it does not lead to demoralization, blaming and feelings of betrayal.  Is there a revolutionary politics? Is there a revolutionary vision? Are there ways of acting which are revolutionary – a revolutionary practice? Are there mobilizations which promote the revolutionary struggle? Are there revolutionary agents? This is not just a set of questions which can be answered in front of a computer or by looking in a book or many books. They are questions which can only be answered in struggle. They are not just questions of analysis and understanding: they are also a call to action.

From this point of view we can say with some certainty: there will be revolutionary subjects when, through mobilization, with vision, organized together – we help each other to become revolutionary subjects. There will be revolutionary organization when, mobilized together, with revolutionary vision, we organize together in struggle.

The lesson is that the revolutionary subject does not come and go, develop and disappear out of analysis. The revolutionary subject comes and goes, develops or disappears through action and struggle. If through struggle itself there is no development of the revolutionary subject then we have one major problem: there will be no revolution. If through struggle the millions of ordinary working class people do not make themselves – with whatever support and encouragement – into the revolutionary subject – then again there will be no revolution. We can say the same things about the revolutionary form of organization.

The analysis, theory and understanding we need is not about whether and where there is a revolutionary subject and revolutionary form waiting and ready to be defined. It is about what is necessary, and how we work together to build the strength and capacity of the mass of ordinary working class people. It means understanding, vision, organization and action. Demoralization and viewing ourselves as centres of the political universe are take us away from doing this necessary job. We need to restore our hope and confidence in the capacity of ordinary working class people. We need eyes that are constantly on the look out for signs and confirmations of the capacity of workers to build their own organization and mobilization together.


Society needs a socialist revolution if it is to build a communist society. The socialist revolution depends on millions of ordinary working class people taking history into their own hands. It depends on their organization, action and interference. Without that, the revolution will not happen. There has to be a socialist revolution against capitalism. However, these things will not just happen. They have to be made to happen in struggle and through struggle. If there was going to be a day when the millions suddenly all just decided to make a revolution, then we could just wait patiently for that day. But it is not like that. Many things happen in the lives of ordinary working class people everyday to deny them as agents of their own revolution. Capitalism itself survives by undermining the strength, confidence, mobilization and independent class organization of the working class. As Marxists our politics and our perspectives tell us these things. Our politics also tells us that despite all of this, we have to have confidence and hope in the capacity of ordinary working class people and that we must be constantly searching for the signs and possibilities of this capacity of ordinary working class people to build their own organization and mobilization together. A healthy left cannot survive and continue to struggle unless it has that hope and confidence. It cannot survive unless it can see contradictions – the pressures to move forward unified in struggle as well as the pressure to give up and fight with other workers over the crumbs from the capitalist table. But the truth is that many of the left in South Africa have lost that hope and confidence. Here we are talking about the old left, that is, people my age (50 years or so). Many of the young left, such as my son who is a 24 year-old revolutionary socialist, have never had that hope and confidence in the working class. They have become politically conscious at a time of mass demobilization, not a time of mass mobilization like the old left. Most of them have never been in a democratic meeting of ordinary workers or been part of a mass action of ordinary workers. They have not had the chance to feel and see the solidarity and strength of working class mobilization on the ground.

All around we see a left that is directionless, tired, demoralized, lacking energy and enthusiasm. Above all else, we see a left that is not willing to engage politically with ordinary workers. In particular, it is a left that will not engage directly with workers around the real fears and real obstacles which stop them from moving forward together. It is not a left searching with hope and confidence in workers to move forward against and in direct confrontation with all the problems and obstacles. Instead, it is a left searching for echoes. It is a left looking for a place of refuge. Like refugees.

We don’t mean that the left in South Africa is doing nothing; far from it. There is a lot of commitment and activity. But too often, there is a pattern: it is a pattern of people who have lost hope in the power of the millions. Indeed, some of them never had such hope in the masses of ordinary working class people. This pattern is of people looking for ways of finding refugees and echoes. What do we mean by refugees? We mean people who themselves are not searching for the ways to reach the mass of ordinary workers, but instead searching for ways to get away from them. People who are not looking for ways to struggle against bureaucracy in the trade unions, but people who are instead looking for ways to get away from it. People who are not looking for ways to struggle with their class brothers and sisters around them against the pain of everyday life – but people who have started to think that ordinary workers do not feel that pain and will never be willing to do anything about it. People who are not looking for ways to challenge the loss of hope and the theft of hope among ordinary workers – but people who are looking to escape that job. What do we mean by echoes? We mean a chorus in which the left speaks to itself, trying to speak louder and louder – and engages only with those who will simply echo the chorus. Preaching to the converted but never repeating the sermon outside the room to the millions and millions. And repeating it to people who are refugees and who will also never repeat it outside the room.

Many of this left are comrades who learnt their politics in the struggles of the 1980’s when the working class was mobilizing against the apartheid regime. These comrades have looked around to find something and someone waiting. When they were involved in building the unions, they thought they had found the millions. They thought they were the centre of the universe – and that the hundreds of thousands and millions were listening and learning from them. When the ANC was unbanned, they went there – many of them also to the SACP. Still, they were the centre of the universe. They proposed policies and found leaders who listened to them. Because these were left wing policies, it was useful for some leaders to borrow the policies to win support from the masses. When the ANC came to run the bourgeois government, they did not need support anymore. They only needed the support of the masses once every election. And so they did not need the left to bring them policies. When this happened to the left, many went running to the social movements. Of course it was necessary and important – as it still is – to build the social movements. But the problems of bureaucracy, reformism and class collaboration do not just go away. And neither did the idea amongst some of the left that they were the centre of the political universe. They found hundreds and thousands of working class people who were frustrated and angry. They issued declarations and made speeches and thought again that the hundreds and thousands and millions were listening to them. The future lay in the social movements – and they were the political heart of the social movements. Now this too is gone.

Some of them have gone as refugees to NGO’s. They are tired and demoralized. They bring exhaustion and demoralization to their old political method. They hear anger and frustration being expressed in the statement: “no land, no vote”, and they applaud.  And they start to claim this as their own political creation. They see the anger of ordinary working people against the union leaders, and they applaud. And they start to claim this as their own political creation. They ignore the loss and theft of hope that is so often there amongst the anger. Just as hundreds and thousands have lost hope that anything can ever change and that they can change everything, so the left has lost hope. It struggles to find echoes – and one by one, they have died down.

Some of them are telling us now that the mistake lies in a lack of understanding and the answer lies in theory. There is no revolutionary agent, they say – and the mistake was ever to think that there was one. It was a mistake to think it was the working class; it was a mistake to think it was the unions; it was a mistake to think it was the social movements. The working class is different under globalization and for some, there is not really a working class anymore. The unions are reformist and for some, the unions are the enemy.  The social movements are getting nowhere. And when they take refuge in the NGO’s, they look for refugees – from belief in the working class; from commitment to the unions; from building the social movements on the ground. There will always be such refugees. And the demoralized left can always find something to do with them, especially if it has resources to attract them. And together they sit and agree that there is no revolutionary subject and complain together about the unions and the political organizations – and the masses.

We have got bad news and good news to share with these comrades. The bad news is this: if there is no revolutionary subject, then there will be no revolution. The good news is this: history happens according to the interference of ordinary working class people – the employed, the unemployed, the skilled, the unskilled, men and women, young and old, gay and straight. That is how history happened – when too many on the left thought it was happening because of the left.  That is how the unions were developed, the ANC unbanned, the social movements mobilized. Yes – the left played a part. But it was allowed to play a part by the mobilization and thirst for organization and action of the ordinary worker. Yes, there is no revolutionary subject just waiting there, ready to be discovered by the left. But again and again, with all the problems and all the contradictions and against all the obstacles, ordinary working class people are forced to look for the strength to move forward – and they are forced to look to each other. This has happened, it is happening and it will happen. It is in that struggle that the revolutionary subject is created – not discovered, created.


South Africa has been dubbed the capital country of protest action. There are strikes and riots everywhere. Many workers are angry with the government. During elections they show their anger by saying they will not vote. “No house, no vote” is not an essentially left wing position. It is increasingly an anti-politics position. More importantly, it is more than likely that this is not a statement of hope in an alternative – but a statement of anger and hopelessness that there can be any real alternative. It is a cry of despair. But the demoralized left applauds and adds that there can be no support for political organization and parties.

Many workers are angry with the union leadership. They show their anger by turning their backs on the unions. Even if they are members, they do not fight for their place inside the union. Instead, they look at it as something separate – sometimes like a shop, selling them something. Anger with union leadership is too often a loss of hope in organization per se. It is not a statement of hope in an alternative – but a statement of anger and hopelessness that there can be any alternative. But the demoralized left applauds and insists that unions are reformist and homes only for the skilled workers.

Many workers have got no hope and no belief in capitalism. But they show this by turning inwards, sometimes with anger, sometimes in silence. Of course workers should have no hope and no belief in capitalism. But this does not mean no hope or belief in anything else. Too often it means that they have lost hope and belief in anything. Some of this is inescapable. Some is of the lefts own making – or something to which the left has contributed. The demoralized left applauds the anti-capitalism. But it does not speak with confidence in the working class and of its capacity to build a real alternative – a socialist alternative on the road to communism. There is applause from the demoralized left for anti-capitalism – and silence or even apology when it comes to socialism and communism.

In these ways, the demoralized left does exactly what every other force is doing in the daily lives of workers. It ends up reinforcing the message that there is no real alternative and undermining the confidence of ordinary working class people that they can and must be that alternative themselves – they can and must make themselves the revolutionary subject through struggle. And then the demoralized left looks at what is happening inside the working class – and starts to blame workers for some sort of betrayal.


We have to remind ourselves that there is nothing of value which is not created by the hands of the working class, forced to work together even under capitalism and the divisions and individualism which it creates. There is no other class which can live without the oppression and exploitation of the working class – and only the working class can create what is necessary for human beings without needing the oppression or exploitation of anyone. We have to restore our hope and confidence in the working class and avoid the mistakes of a demoralized left. We are all part of the left, including myself, and we all face the pressures to make exactly the same mistakes and to do ourselves what we criticize in others.  We need to stop being obsessed with ourselves and each other, we need to stop looking inward and start to look outwards to the millions and millions. In this respect there are no shortcuts – we need patient, consistent, ongoing work amongst ordinary workers. Our starting, middle and end points must be: what is happening amongst ordinary workers? What is happening to hold back unity, organization, struggle, action? What is happening there to build on? What is happening there to challenge the loss and theft of hope? What is happening there to build mobilization against the class enemy?

When we look at the different struggles in South African workplaces and communities questions arise: why don’t we draw all the different demands together and consolidate them into a platform – a programme? There are people already supporting these different struggle, so why can’t we all unite in support of that platform as acts of solidarity and in pursuit of our own immediate demands? Since in each of these struggles we find the direct or indirect hand of the capitalists, why can’t we clearly identify the class enemy, make them visible, and resist any attempt from them to draw us into forms of class collaboration? The struggles are already there – but they are happening separately and without co-ordination, couldn’t we pool our different strengths, unite our mobilization, campaign together in a unified way? Each of the struggles is about something immediate on the ground – water, housing, wages, protection of wages. But isn’t there something more than the same struggles again and again just to defend ourselves and stand still? Couldn’t we guide all this with a vision of solutions. Not just perpetual struggles that never end, just to survive? How possible is it to take all this and say that on our agenda is the struggle to destroy capitalist power? Not just resisting capitalist power and building sufficient power to survive those problems again and again, but the working class and its allies taking power to solve the problems.  And if we think and believe that it depends on the millions – that only the working class can free itself and humanity – then shouldn’t we say it to them, not just to each other?

These things are not impossible, we can make them possible, they can be made to happen. But when we put all these things together we can see that what we are actually talking about is a process of building political organization of the working class – a mass workers party. Such a party can only exist and grow and move forward in the struggles of everyday life – the struggles that people are already fighting. It is about building solidarity. Today, each and every separate group of ordinary working class must fight and win their own victory – even to defend themselves. And they must fight and win that victory again tomorrow. A workers political party is about stopping that. It is about uniting and pulling together and building solidarity so that the victory of one becomes the victory of all. Today each group of ordinary working class people must fight and win its own victory. And then after that – it must face exactly the same enemy which caused the problem in the first place. Because that enemy is still in power. A workers political party is about changing that. It is about defending people against the power of the enemy. But it is more than that. It is about defeating the power of the enemy and replacing it with the power of the working class. Not in one struggle. Not for only one day. Not just in one place. Not just on one issue. Comprehensively, everywhere, once and for all.


Inspired by Alice Walker’s We are the ones we have been waiting for: Light in a time of darkness, New York: New Press, 2007.

See for example Sakhela Buhlungu, “Proletarians or Labour Aristocrats? The Changing Social Composition of COSATU Members” in Oupa Lehulere (ed.) The State of Social Movements in South Africa, Johannesburg: Khanya College Publishing, 2007. In particular, see Lehulere “The New Social Movements, COSATU and the ‘New UDF'”, Khanya : A journal for activists, No. 11, 2005, available online at

The last South African general elections held in April 2009, saw some social movements boycotting under the slogan “No land, no house, no vote”. This slogan was made famous a few years ago by Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Landless Peoples Movement, both organize in urban working class areas especially among shack dwellers.  Please see

Some lefts in South Africa denounce COSATU, the trade union federation, as an extension of the bourgeois state. They base this on the politics of class collaboration that is characteristic of the COSATU leadership which finds formalization in the ANC-SACP-COSATU Alliance.

See Patrick Bond’s latest comments where he quotes research done by the Freedom of Expression Institute on protest action statistics in his paper ‘South Africa’s “Developmental State” Distraction’, 2009, in:

“Scientific socialism is the conscious expression of the unconscious historical process; namely, the instinctive and elemental drive of the proletariat to reconsctruct society on communist beginnings.” Trotsky In Defense of Marxism, London: New Park Publications, 1966.

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