What is the fundamental question facing the working class in South Africa today?

All over the world, and also in South Africa, the working class is looking for direction and way out of the incredible hardship facing us. The problem in the neo-colonial world reduces itself to one question:

Can the demands of the working class and the rural poor be met by the “national democratic revolution” OR for the achievement of these demands, is the dictatorship of the proletariat [the working class] needed?

The period before 1994
The period before 1994 can be characterized by the domination of 5 monopolies [Anglo American ; Sanlam; Rembrandt; Old Mutual and Liberty Life]. Racism was a feature of the capitalist exploitation and oppression that society was based on. The political weight of the peasantry  was virtually negligible as can be seen from the income from farming activities being 1% from the former TBVC Bantustans while the annual income to commercial farms for the same period was 99% [StatsSA 2002]. Who can dispute that we lived in a capitalist state?
The post-1994 period and the nature of the state
Since 1994 the socio-economic conditions of the working class and rural poor has worsened; Monopolies report unheard-of profits while the life expectancy rate has dropped from 61 in 1994 to 49 in 2003- it is expected to drop to 42 by 2015 [UNDP  report on SA 2003]; unemployment has increased to 40%; it has taken more than 10 years to build 1 million dwellings [not even keeping pace with the growth in housing needs]- in short, the pace of housing construction means a continuous growth of homelessness; the public health system has all but collapsed. In short, key, basic democratic demands of the working class and rural poor are not being met by the current system.

There are those who say that the SA state reflected a progressive Bonapartism between 1994 and 1996. But what was the essence of what happened: The self-defence units were disbanded; the liberation armies were integrated into the SANDF; the Slovo-inspired-sunset clauses ensured that the old repressive apparatus was intact and to this day the majority of the forces that murdered and maimed the resistance fighters before 1994 are still in the ranks of the police, intelligence, army, the justice system, the prisons and the state bureaucracy. The TRC was more about the working class and rural poor reconciling ourselves to continued wage slavery than about the truth emerging. During the period of 1994-1996, as it is largely today, the monopolies such as Anglo-American, still controlled the commanding heights of the economy, the factories, the land, the banks, the mines, etc. ‘Bonapartism’ at this time encouraged the working class to throw their weapons into the sea, not at any time calling for the apartheid forces to do the same. In this context, the ‘Bonaparte’ was not a neutral above-class arbiter but representing the interests of the big capitalists and basing himself on the official police and army. The appearance of ‘neutrality’ of the ruler/state was a reflection of the inability of the capitalist class and the working class forces to defeat each other. This did not mean that the working class were in control, on the contrary, in the absence of a revolution, they were unable to dislodge the capitalists from control of the economy.

What is the nature of the state, even a democratic one? Let us turn to Cde Lenin for some guidance: [We quote extensively from his STATE AND REVOLUTION, written in August 1917, while he was in hiding from the bourgeois democratic forces in Russia]

“ … it [the state] is a product of society at a certain stage of development; …this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it is split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel….this power arising out of society, but placing itself above it, and increasingly separating itself from it, is the state.” and “ According to Marx, the state is an organ of class domination, an organ of oppression of one class by another; its aim is the creation of ‘order’ which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the collisions between the classes.”
“ That the state is the organ of domination of a definite class which cannot  be reconciled with its antipode (the class opposed to it) – this the petty-bourgeois democracy is never able to understand.”

Did a state always exist and how did it come about?
In South Africa, the imperialist forces waged many battles to subdue the local tribes over centuries. With the defeat of the local tribal society the state organs developed [the police, the army, the courts, the prisons, etc]. Such entities did not exist in tribal society. What did exist was an armed people. The ‘Anglo-Boer’ war ended in victory for the imperialists and resulted in the capitalist state, South Africa, as we know it today. Imperialist control of the SA economy was entrenched and remains so until today.
   Engels: “ The second is the establishment of a public force which is no longer absolutely identical with the population organizing itself as an armed power. This special public force is necessary, because a self-acting armed organization of the population has become impossible since the cleavage [split] of society into classes… This public force exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed men but of material appendages, prisons and repressive institutions of all kinds, of which gentilic society knew nothing…”

Lenin further explains: “ What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men, who have at their disposal prisons, etc. … A standing army and police are the chief instrument of state power.” Lenin explains that this has nothing to do with the “complexity” of society and people who use such arguments are … “obscuring the most important and basic fact, namely, the break-up of society into irreconcilably antagonistic classes.” Lenin explains that an armed people under capitalism would come into armed struggle with each other. The capitalist class would have been exterminated.

What is the role of the state?
According to Engels: “ As the state arose out of the need to hold class antagonisms in check; but as it is, at the same time, arose in the midst of a conflict of these classes, it is, as a rule, the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which by virtue thereof becomes also the dominant class politically, and thus acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class…”

It follows from the role of the state under capitalism is the disarming of the masses. Thus the role of the state is not a ‘developmental’ or ‘meeting the needs and aspirations of the working class’ but an instrument of domination of one class by the other.

Is a democratic state any different?
Engels wrote: “ the modern representative state is the instrument of the exploitation of wage labour by capital.” … Lenin quotes further: “ In a democratic republic, Engels continues, “ wealth wields its power indirectly, but all the more effectively,” first, by means of direct corruption of the officials” (America); second, by means of the alliance of the government with the stock exchange” (France and America).”

Referring to the February 1917 democratic government in Russia Lenin refers: “ [Minister] Palchinsky obstructed every measure …restraining the capitalists and their war profiteering, their plunder of the public treasury by means of army contracts; and if, after his resignation, Mr Palchinsky (replaced, of course, by an exactly similar Palchinsky) was “rewarded” by the capitalists with a “soft” job carrying a salary of 120 000 rubles per annum, what was this? Direct or indirect bribery?”

Lenin goes  on: “ A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and therefore, once capital has gained control of this very best shell, it establishes its power so securely, so firmly that no change , either of persons, or institutions, or parties in the bourgeois republic can shake it.
   We must also note that Engels quite definitely regards universal suffrage [the right to vote], as a means of bourgeois domination.” The vote is only an index of the maturity of the working class and nothing else, Lenin explains further.

Lenin quotes a summary of Engels views on the state:

“ The state, therefore, has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies which managed without it, which had no conception of the state and state power. At a certain stage of economic development, which was necessarily bound up with the cleavage of society into classes, the state became a necessity owing to this cleavage. We are now rapidly approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes has not only ceased to be a necessity, but is becoming a positive hindrance to production. They will disappear as inevitably as they arose at an earlier stage. Along with them the state will eventually disappear. The society that organizes production anew on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machine where it will then belong: in the museum of antiquities, side by side with the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.”

How does the working class deal with the capitalist state?
In opposition to ‘engaging with the state’ or ‘waging battles within the state’ Engels is clear: “ The proletariat [the working class] seizes state power, and then transforms the means of production [the land, the mines, the factories, the banks, etc] into state property.”

Drawing the lessons of the Paris Commune of 1871, when the workers took over Paris, Lenin clarifies that what Engels spoke about was “ the destruction of the bourgeois state by the proletarian revolution” … “Secondly, the state is a “special repressive force.” It follows from this that the “special repressive force” of the bourgeoisie for the suppression of the proletariat, of the millions of workers by a handful of the rich, must be replaced by a “special repressive force” of the proletariat for the suppression of the bourgeoisie (the dictatorship of the proletariat). It is just this that constitutes the destruction of “the state as a state”. It is just this that constitutes the “act” of “the seizure of the means of production in the name of society.”…. “ democracy is also a state and that, consequently, democracy will also disappear when the state disappears. The bourgeois state can only be “put an end to” by a revolution.”

As the transition to the 1994 elections was not achieved through a revolution, or even the seizure of the means of production, the 1994 state as well as the current state can only but be a capitalist state. This is further established by the Slovo-inspired ‘sunset clauses’ which left precisely the capitalist repressive organs intact.

Lenin goes further: “ We are in favour of a democratic republic as the best form of the state for the proletariat under capitalism, but we have no right to forget that wage slavery is the lot of the people even in the most democratic bourgeois republic. Furthermore, every state is a “special repressive force” for the suppression of the oppressed class. Consequently, no state is either “free” or a “people’s state”.”

Thus Lenin holds that a democratic republic is an advance over feudalism but that the working class is not free and has to wage a struggle against the very state. Indeed, Lenin clarifies… “It [the democratic republic] cannot be replaced by the proletarian state (dictatorship of the proletariat) through “withering away” [ie gradually], but as a general rule, only through violent revolution.”

Further, in 1905 Lenin wrote “…, the winning of a democratic republic, will be the complete end of the revolutionism of the bourgeoisie, and even of the petty bourgeoisie.” This leads us directly to pose the question as to who will lead the revolution.

Who will lead the revolution?
Lenin says: “ Only the proletariat – by virtue of its economic role in large scale production – is capable of leading all the toiling and exploited masses, who are exploited, oppressed, crushed by the bourgeoisie not less, and often more, than the proletariat, but who are incapable of carrying on the struggle for their freedom independently. …[leading to] the political rule of the proletariat, of its dictatorship, ie, of a power shared with none and relying directly upon the armed forces of the masses. The overthrow of the bourgeoisie is realizable only by the transformation of the proletariat into the ruling class, able to crush the inevitable and desperate resistance of the bourgeoisie, and to organize, for the new economic order, all the toiling and exploited masses.”

Thus it is contrary to Marxism to talk of the workers’ voice in a capitalist state, or to depend on a multiclass formation such as the ANC to lead or even advance the struggle for working class interests. Does the history of the past 12 years confirm the words of Lenin or is it refuted?

Once more on Bonapartism
Marx, in his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte explains how the French revolution of 1789 and subsequent role of Bonaparte developed the centralisation of the capitalist state, perfecting parliamentary power, bringing this machine to greater perfection, instead of breaking it up. Each contending power regarded the capture of the capitalist state power as the main objective of their struggles. Lenin comments “ all revolutions which have taken place up to the present [August 1917] have helped to perfect the state machinery, whereas it must be shattered, broken to pieces.”

On the role of the petty bourgeoisie[the middle class]
Lenin says “It is particularly the petty bourgeoisie that is attracted to the side of the big bourgeoisie and to its allegiance, largely by means of this apparatus [the state].” He explains in Russia after February 1917 when the middle classes formed a capitalist government, they were quick to dish out cabinet posts among themselves while nobody thought of advancing the pressing demands of the masses. These government posts had formerly been the exclusive reserve of the Czarist forces. [The comparison between the privileged middle class Afrikaners pre-1994 and the current regime are there to be made].

Marx and the class struggle
Many have claimed that Marx’s main contribution was to explain the class struggle. Marx himself clarifies that many bourgeois historians had long ago described the class struggle; his main contribution was: “1. that the existence of classes is connected only with certain historical struggles which arise out of the development of production; 2. that class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3. that this dictatorship is itself only a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

In other words, the class divisions did not always exist and the route to abolishing classes is through the dictatorship of the proletariat [working class power], and not the glorification of a so-called second economy and dreams of how spaza shops hold up a picture of a future Socialist society.

As Lenin summarises: “ The transition from capitalism to Communism will certainly bring a great variety of political forms, but the essence will inevitably be only one: the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Paris Commune and the ‘correction’ to the Communist Manifesto
The Paris Commune had such a profound effect on historical developments that Marx and Engels felt they had to make a ‘correction’ to the Communist manifesto. The last preface of 1872 signed by both Marx and Engels says that the programme of the Communist manifesto is in parts out of date. According to Lenin, “ one thing especially – they continue – was proved by the Commune, viz., that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”

Lenin explains: “Marx’s idea is that the working class must break up, shatter the ‘ready-made state machinery,’ and not confine itself merely to taking possession of it.” And further, the “precondition of any real ‘people’s revolution’ is the break up, the shattering of the ready-made machinery.”

It is from this perspective that Lenin wrote on September 1905: “ From the democratic revolution we will immediately begin to pass over, and in exact measure of our strength, the strength of the conscious organized proletariat, we will begin to pass over to the socialist revolution. We stand for continuous revolution. We will not stop half-way.” Contrast this to the SACP notion that our ‘national democratic revolution’ is ‘uninterrupted’, but without the working class taking power. We can only conclude that they mean that there is ‘uninterrupted’ exploitation and oppression of the working class and fellow poor.

What is to replace the shattered state machinery?
In the Communist manifesto this is answered by the phrase: “the proletariat organized as the ruling class, by establishing democracy.”
According to Lenin: “ The first decree of the [Paris] Commune… was the suppression of the standing army and the substitution for it of the armed people, [quoting Marx].” And “This demand now figures in the programme of every party calling itself Socialist.”

Further all officials were to be elected and subject to instant recall and their wages were limited to ‘workmen’s wages’. The police and standing army is done away with; all public officials, magistrates and judges were to be elected and subject to recall; capitalist democracy is transformed into proletarian democracy. But these measures “acquire their full significance only in connection with the “expropriation of the expropriators,”, either accomplished or in preparation, ie, with the turning of capitalist ownership into social ownership.”

On the destruction of parliamentarism
Lenin again: “To decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and oppress the people through parliament – this is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism.”

Thus tinkering with parliament such as introducing partial constituency based elections will not fundamentally change the lives of the working class. We only have to look at England where there has been a long tradition of constituency-based elections; all counting for nothing as the British government continued to pursue the imperialist invasion of Iraq etc, etc.

Lenin states that what we need is a working body that is both executive and legislative. We do not need the deception of idle parliamentary chatter, representatives themselves must work, “must themselves execute their own laws, must themselves verify their results in actual life, must themselves be directly responsible to their electorate[instant recall]”…. “ we can and must think of democracy without parliamentarism,”.

The transition from capitalism to Communism
Lenin quotes: “ Between capitalist and Communist society-  Marx continues- lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the former into the latter. To this also corresponds a political transition period, in which the state can be no other than the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”
In capitalist society, Lenin explains, “democracy is always bound by the narrow framework of capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in reality a democracy for the minority, only for the possessing classes, only for the rich.” The majority of the working class is excluded from political life; when the German Social Democratic Party of the time had 1 million members, only 3 out of the 15 million workers were trade union members.

There are a number of obstacles to workers participation in political life: the right to gather and meet is restricted as the cost of the best venues mean that they can only be rarely used, if at all; many workers stay in group areas far from the city centres so the costs of meeting is prohibitive; workers news rarely features in the media- and workers newspapers are few and far between. There is a huge unemployment rate and millions of working class women are trapped in jobs/subsistence that pays less than R1000 per month. Contract work and casualisation is a major feature of the economy. Homelessness and ghettoes are a permanent feature of South African life while the upper middle class and the capitalists live in luxury beyond imagination. Such is the capitalist democracy that we live in.

Contrast this with the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, where the means of production is in the hands of society. The first time that the majority will take full part in political and social and economic life. The capitalists will resist, and they will be suppressed by the armed people. The capitalists and oppressors will be excluded from democracy; such is the modification of democracy in the transition from capitalism to Communism.


Lenin and the fight for Socialism
Lenin, in April 1917, in his struggle with the opportunist tendencies of the dominant layer of the Bolsheviks, wrote:"The Bolshevik slogans and ideas in general are completely confirmed, but concretely things have shaped themselves other wise than anybody (no matter who) could have expected—more originally, uniquely, variously. To ignore, to forget this fact would mean to be like those ’old Bolsheviks’ who have more than once already played a pitiful rôle in the history of our party, meaninglessly repeating a formula learned by rote instead of studying the unique living reality. Whoever talks now only of a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ is lagging behind Life. He has by that very fact gone over actually to the bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle. Him we must put away in the archives of ’Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary curiosities (you might call them the archives of the ’old Bolsheviks’).”
The essence of Lenin’s April Thesis in 1917 was therefore, for the working class to seize power (supported by the poorest of the peasantry) and not for an alliance and government of the proletariat with the middle class, to achieve the demands of the bourgeois democratic revolution. This rejection by Lenin of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, is the same as the rejection of the ‘national democratic revolution’ with its alliance of the workers and the middle class.
At the beginning of 1922 Lenin writes: “ We have not completed even the foundation  of a socialist economy. This can still be taken back by the hostile forces of a dying capitalism. We must clearly be aware of this, and openly acknowledge it. For there is nothing more dangerous than illusions and turned heads, especially in high places. And there is absolutely nothing ‘terrible’, nothing offering a legitimate cause for the slightest discouragement, in recognizing this bitter truth; for we have always taught and repeated this ABC truth of Marxism, that for the victory of socialism the combined efforts of the workers of several advanced countries are necessary.”

At the third anniversary of the October revolution Lenin confirmed: “ We always staked our play upon an international revolution and this was unconditionally right….We always emphasized the fact that in one country it is impossible to accomplish such a work as a socialist revolution.”

And in February 1921, Lenin declared at the Congress of the textile workers: “ We have always and repeatedly pointed out to the workers that the underlying chief task and basic condition of our victory is the propagation of the revolution at least to several of the more advanced countries.”

Indeed the productive forces of our time have outgrown not only capitalist forms of property, but also the boundaries of the nation states. Liberalism and nationalism become obstacles to world economy. The proletarian revolution is not only directed against capitalist forms of property but also the national splitting up of the world economy. Even if national socialism was achievable, this would reduce by far the economic power of the working class. Starting from the world wide division of labour under the current capitalist forms, to step back into nationalism is to go backwards. Socialism is built out of the highest advances of capitalism and for this reason it must triumph on an international scale. The separate state is too narrow for capitalism today; how can it be the place for a finished socialist society?
Lenin’s realization in 1917, that in the current period of imperialist decay, was that for the achievement of the full democratic programme, the working class had to take power. It followed from this that for the proletarian dicatatorship to hold out or advance, the working class had to take power in a number of advanced countries. The ‘national democratic revolution’ had been decisively placed in the archives of history and was not only out of date but actually going over to the side of the bourgeoisie. The ‘national democratic revolution’ was a Stalinist deviation from Marxism.

The way forward
One of the main obstacles to the proletarian victory in South Africa is the racial divisions among workers. Already the railway and airport strikes show the power of a united working class. If this unity is extended across all sectors in the working class, this would bring us closer to ‘storming the Bastille’. Establishing real working class unity with the white working class is indeed a pre-requisite for advancing the struggle for broader working class interests.

Further, the fundamental alliance needed is of the urban with rural working class. The middle class and capitalists have long lost their ‘revolutionism’.

We should take the route of laying the groundwork for working class power; by this we mean, not the raising of a fist or increasing the number of worker seats in the ANC NEC, or constituency based elections once every 5 years, but indeed the route to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

We live in a capitalist state that is dominated by imperialism; unless the working class takes power into its own hands we will not take a single step forward. Thus and more crucially, we need to address the decided lack of proletarian internationalism and lack therefore of an anti-imperialist tradition in the working class. The fate of the working class in South Africa is interconnected with the fate of the working class internationally. What is needed therefore is the establishment of a revolutionary Communist party in every country on the globe, based on a revolutionary programme, as part of a revolutionary Communist International that continues the spirit of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. We say this should be the rebuilding of the Fourth International.

The path to Socialism goes via the dictatorship of the proletariat on a world – wide scale; anything less would be to bow before the current dictatorship of the capitalists, the modern day imperialists.

Issued by Workers International Vanguard League, 1st Floor, Community House, 41 Salt River rd, Salt River, 7925, [SA] ph 0214476777 ph [0822020617] or ph [Gauteng: ph: 0823349564] or


  1. The April Thesis – 1917 – VI Lenin  ( )
  2. The State and Revolution – VI Lenin ( )
  3. The History of the Russia Revolution – L Trotsky [Ap  11  Vol 1 & Vol 3 ] ( )
  4. UN report on Development in South Africa 2003  (
  5. Cosatu Political discussion document 2006 Congress
  6. SACP Political discussion document, May 2006 Vol 5 no 1
  7. Report on the survey of large and small scale agriculture StatsSA 2002.

For those who require it we can send copies of the April Thesis, State and Revolution as well as the relevant appendices of The Russian Revolution (the full text was used as the official history by the USSR in the time of Lenin).          [A small fee of R20 is requested to cover costs- SA]

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