In the coming year the leaders of the ANC and all its factions are likely to flood their members and supporters with calls to restore the ‘revolutionary discipline’ of the past. Despite tributes to this concept within the ANC, these calls are more likely to resonate with the many thousands of young people newly awakened to activism during the current world wide upsurge in struggles for social change. But however much the new activists in places like Tunisia, Syria, Nigeria, Greece, the USA and Spain will feel called upon to commit to the revolutionary discipline deemed necessary to win the changes they want, they would do well to look critically at the experience of ‘revolutionary discipline’ within South Africa and the ANC, where this idea was used to impose without much resistance, a neo-liberal capitalist programme on a movement with a majority of socialist members.
THE CAUSES AND CURES OF FACTIONALISM
In January the ANC celebrated its hundred year anniversary. Many commentators complained that President Zuma’s speech did not give direction on the crucial questions facing the country he is governing. The speech, however, did give a clear indication of the ideological framing within which the president and his colleagues intend to address these questions. After recounting what he saw as the heroic deeds and leaders of the ANC in the past, Zuma asked what enabled the ANC to survive 100 years. He answered, ‘The ANC has well-built organisational structures that make it change with the times, and adapt to new conditions. It adheres to serious discipline in general and political discipline in particular, and emphasises respect. It has strong internal democratic processes.’ Later on he identified the party’s priority actions, which included the following: ‘We will take urgent and practical steps to restore the core values, stamp out factionalism and promote political discipline.’
These statements should be taken together with others such as the discussion document ‘Leadership renewal, discipline and organizational culture’ released in July 2010 by the national general council of the ANC, where the party’s highest body between conferences described its internal problems as stemming from factions fighting for self-enrichment through control of state funds and in the process breaking both the laws of the country and the rules and traditions of the ANC. The problem is understood as the breakdown of the revolutionary discipline and morality of the past, and the solution, therefore, is its restoration. The methods proposed are new rules, reviews of old rules, stricter enforcement, heavier sanctions for transgressors, and intensified political education and ‘human resource development’ for ANC members.
The whole position is based on a misrepresentation of the relationship between the policies pursued by the ANC in government and the conduct of the members of the party. Without a doubt the ANC government’s commitment to neo-liberal policies and decisions such as privatization, outsourcing, the arms deal, and cost recovery, led directly to its leaders and members being caught up in struggles for tenders, consultancies, bribes, directorships and procurement bonuses. It is the government that created the market for the sale of political influence. And as always in a competitive market, the advantage tended to go to those with the most resources and least scruples. To pretend that the ‘factionalism’ that resulted from this can be stopped by more discipline, political education and invoking the spirits of Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani, without doing away with the party’s commitment to a neo-liberal policy direction and the capitalist system that it serves, is to set up another round of crushed hopes and sold out expectations for the people.
SOCIALISM, REVOLUTIONARY DISCIPLINE AND GEAR
Of course it is possible to say that the ANC never really had revolutionary discipline; that they were from the start an organisation of the black middle class, led by missionary educated liberal intellectuals whose protest was not against capitalism as such, but against their exclusion on the basis of racism from the higher levels of the system. IB Tabata’s classic book ‘The Awakening of a People’ is but one of a large number of studies that support such a view. However, a modification or an addition is needed. It is indeed true that the founders of the ANC wanted above all their right to fully participate in capitalist society, and that subsequent leaders allied themselves with self-styled Communists on the condition that the alliance prioritise the fight for this very right, even while agreeing with these Communists to call this fight the ‘national democratic revolution’. But it is also true that the ANC increasingly adapted to socialist rhetoric and ideology, so that certainly by the 1980s the internal discussions took place in socialist terms, the structure of the organisation was thought of as democratic centralism in the manner of Marxist parties, and the majority of members saw themselves as socialists.
Against this background the turn to neo-liberalism as summarised in the Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) policy is easy to explain. By the time the ANC leadership achieved their founding goal of admission to the upper ranks of capitalist society, this society was dominated by neo-liberalism. The ruling classes and the leading institutions of world capitalism made it very clear that the price of admission for the ANC was a clear commitment to neo-liberalism, which the leadership duly made, coolly announcing to members and supporters that it was non-negotiable. What needs explanation is the relative ease with which the leaders did this. How did they impose, without discussion, and with relatively little resistance, a neo-liberal policy direction on an organisation whose members thought of themselves as socialists or at least social democrats?
The ANC’s tradition of ‘revolutionary discipline’ played a crucial role. Throughout its long life the ANC inculcated in its members a concept of revolutionary discipline that included absolute loyalty to the movement, submission to the decisions of the leadership, elevation of main leaders to cultish figures and suppression of public dissent by members. These attitudes are all very useful to a leadership needing to impose an unpopular decision. From 1996 onward ANC members had to choose between submitting to neo-liberalism and challenging the leadership in public. Very few could break with their conditioning as cadres and do the latter, they submitted with a few grumbles perhaps, but even these were quickly silenced in the universal scramble for positions of power and money that neo-liberalism unleashed.
DISCIPLINE AND SOCIAL CHANGE
The call, no, the cry for discipline from ANC leaders that will reach deafening levels in the run up to their elective conference, has no chance of putting a stop to the neo-liberal ‘factionalism’ in the party’s ranks. This does not mean it will have no effects. Neo-liberalism on top of Apartheid has steadily increased poverty, inequality, frustration and the potential for polarisation. To defend the indefensible, government has had to move in an authoritarian direction, first defensively and lately quite aggressively. The discipline mantra will play into this trend. Once again old comrade Revolutionary Discipline will be deployed to defend the privileged and attack the poor and powerless.
For those with an opposing agenda, who want a society without the divisive injustices of neo-liberal capitalism and state authoritarianism, this presents a crucial challenge. What is their position on discipline and revolutionary discipline in particular? This is especially pertinent given that this conception of revolutionary discipline is by no mean peculiar to the ANC. Not only has it been dominant in the big social change movements of the past like the nationalist struggles against colonialism and the trade unions and political parties of the workers’ movements, it is even the rule rather than the exception within the smaller groups and movements that have challenged the dominance of neo-liberalism over the last two or three decades, certainly in South Africa and Africa.
Supporters of this ‘democratic centralist’ understanding of revolutionary discipline say it is only by exacting obedience from its individual members and submission of its local groups to its central structures that a movement will be able to muster the necessary strength to win deep social changes against a powerful and highly disciplined ruling class. And that internal democracy is maintained because the expectation to loyally carry out decisions once they are made is counter-balanced by the election of leaders and full freedom in debate. Critics say that the most a movement based on this kind of discipline can achieve is replacing one ruling class with another because it divides its participants right from the start into rulers and ruled. Liberal democracy proves that periodic elections and freedom of expression does not add up to democracy if it is understood as the rule of the majority.
THE DISCIPLINE OF AUTONOMOUS ACTIVISTS
Opponents of the ANC’s neo-liberalism and authoritarianism would hardly deny the need for discipline in the struggle for social change. It is the type of discipline that is at issue. The anarchist-libertarian wing of the socialist movement understood that revolutionary discipline does not require submission to the authority of parties and leaders, however wise and revolutionary they might believe themselves to be, or might actually be. In fact, as noted, such a submission places a limit on the revolution. It entrenches relationships based on domination and submission among the participants of the revolutionary movement, which inevitably carry over into the post-revolutionary society creating ruling and ruled classes. The experience of the ANC is one of numerous cases that prove the truth of this view. The discipline of autonomous activists is therefore the most appropriate framework for the conduct of struggles against neo-liberal capitalism and state authoritarianism, if such struggles do not simply want to substitute one dominant group for another, but want to end institutionalised domination as such.
Practicing such an understanding of discipline is perhaps the most difficult thing a movement for social change can take on. It is not that the practical task of co-ordination is more difficult when the movement recognises the right of individual activists and local groups to pursue their own course, it is that the approach goes against the grain of everyday experience in state-capitalist society, where advancement depend on competing for power or working for people who have it. But it is precisely this latter feature of present day society that causes capitalism’s many social problems and that should motivate seekers of social change to organise on the principle of voluntary co-operation between autonomous individuals and groups. In fact practically every revolution in history had its most successful period when masses of people organised themselves in accordance with this principle. Certainly if human society is to have any chance of being genuinely free, of being an association where no one forces anyone to do anything, discipline has to come from the inside, from an ingrained or perhaps an unchained inherent intolerance of injustice and oppression within its members, to which they are loyal above any organisation, leader or ideology.