Armed struggle and workers’ power
Originally published in Inqaba No. 10 (August 1982).
In the present period, the struggle for power between the forces of capitalism and the forces of the working class is opening up in countries around the world.
In South Africa over the last decade, the workers and youth have surged forward in wave after wave, only to find themselves confronted with the guns of the police. Many hundreds have fallen victim to the regime. Since well before Sharpeville it has become clear to many workers that there is no peaceful way of removing the apartheid regime.
After Sharpeville there was a massive, spontaneous strain towards the use of armed force against the state which induced the leaders of the ANC and the SA Communist Party to abandon their policy of non-violence.
Marxism has always combatted the illusion that the ruling class can be persuaded to peacefully surrender its power. Violence is daily used by ruling classes against the oppressed, in countries throughout the world.
The state power of the capitalists depends on armed bodies of men – the army, police, etc. – defending their privately-owned factories, mines, banks and land against the workers’ struggle to take over that property in order to organise production for the common benefit.
Every struggle should therefore be approached as a step towards building the organised strength of the workers for the ultimate exertion – the seizure of power and the total destruction of the capitalist state.
In the wake of the Durban strikes and the Soweto uprising there has been a re-emergence of actions by ANC guerrillas. In the past year there has been a 200% increase in the number of attacks. In June 1982 alone, nine attacks were reported in virtually all centres of SA.
There is widespread sympathy and support for the guerrillas. But despite their bravery and their determination to fight the regime, guerrillas are no answer to the need to protect the mass movement against police attacks, to prevent arrests or killings, to free political prisoners and drive back the forces of the state.
The most serious crisis for the whole strategy of guerrilla struggle arose with the struggles in Soweto. The massacre of schoolchildren provoked calls among wide sections of the youth and workers for the means of armed resistance against the regime.
But it was unprepared and unarmed that they were obliged to confront the forces of the state. Again in Cape Town in 1980 the youth died with sticks and stones in their hands, without means or training to defend themselves. Most recently in July 1982, black miners found themselves defenceless against the guns of the police.
Clearly, the question of how to build the armed force capable of defending our struggle, of defeating the regime and placing the working people in control of society has still to be resolved in our movement – over twenty years after the turn to ‘armed struggle’.
At the Morogoro conference in 1969, the ANC leaders in exile declared that “general strikes as a method of mobilisation, suppressed with the utmost vigour at the end of the fifties, could no longer be effectively employed as an instrument of mass struggle” (Strategy and Tactics of the ANC).
The struggle, they went on to say, should be fought as a “guerrilla struggle”, initially “outside the enemy’s stronghold in the cities, in the vast stretches of our countryside” (though, it was added, “guerrilla activity in the urban areas of a special type is always important as an auxiliary”).
The Central Committee of the SACP in 1970 pledged “unqualified support for the liberation army in its aim to recruit and train guerrilla fighters, to spread the area of guerrilla war to the heart of the Republic” (A. Lerumo, Fifty Fighting Years).
But the perspective of rural guerrilla war spreading to the cities has failed to materialise. In fact, the social conditions for a struggle of this nature are completely absent in SA.
In countries such as China, Vietnam, Mozambique and Angola, the victories of the heroic guerrilla armies were the result of specific conditions created by an extremely low level of capitalist development and, internationally, by the relative weakness of imperialism since the Second World War.
The class basis for guerrilla armies has always been the peasantry. With the capitalists a puny force, a mere pawn of imperialism and incapable of developing the economy; with the working class correspondingly small; and with the state apparatus weak and unstable, the armed peasant masses have been able to defeat the regimes of the capitalists and landlords.
(However, in the absence of a Marxist leadership of the working class with a programme for workers’ democracy, power fell into the hands of the leadership of the guerrilla armies, giving rise to bureaucratically deformed states. These questions are discussed more fully in Inqaba no. 5.)
In comparison with these countries, SA has undergone a powerful development on a capitalist basis. Massive foreign investment, and the growth of a national bourgeoisie, have built up an industrialised economy and called into existence a powerful working class.
The ruling class has been able to develop mass support among the white middle class and workers. Out of white conscripts they have built a military machine equipped with the most deadly weapons, which is comparable in its ruthless ferocity to the Israeli army in Lebanon. This is in sharp contrast to former colonial countries where guerrilla forces have been able to wear down and defeat unstable, weak regimes.
Capitalism in SA has also transformed the countryside. The bulk of agricultural production is in the hands of big capitalist farmers and even international monopolies. A peasantry, to the extent that it ever existed, has largely disappeared.
The rural areas are inhabited by agricultural workers and impoverished masses whose liberation depends on the expropriation of urban industry and mining, as well as the huge agricultural enterprises, in order to replace capitalist ownership with democratic working-class control and management.
Thus in SA the future of the whole population lies in the urban centres. The cities are not only the capitalists’ stronghold but are also the central battleground in the liberation struggle. Society is polarised between the capitalist class, relying on the guns of the state, and the mass force of the working class.
Only the working class is able to defeat the regime, to smash the capitalist system and thereby to liberate all the oppressed. All other sections of people in struggle must throw in their lot with the workers’ movement to ensure the enemy’s defeat.
As this has become more and more clearly understood in the ranks of the working class, the youth and all militants, renewed debates have opened up as to when, where and how to use arms in the battles that lie ahead.
Unable to base themselves in the countryside, the guerrillas – drawn by the magnetic power of the workers’ renewed upsurge – have turned increasingly towards urban and industrial targets. This becomes clearer if we look at the guerrilla actions carried out last year (this breakdown is based on press reports and is not necessarily complete):
Bomb attacks 21
- electricity installations 6
- railway lines 5
- government offices 5
- business property 3
- other 2
Shooting attacks 8
- police stations 6
- military base 1
- individuals (C. Sebe) 1
These actions, involving great personal danger, show a high degree of courage and commitment on the part of the guerrillas. Even so, the sum total of what was achieved in the course of a year’s struggle, measured in terms of damage suffered by the regime, is minimal.
The intended strategy has been to strike at the material resources of the regime and bring about a breakdown of the system. But SA’s developed economy has been able to absorb the destruction of facilities, and replace them, on a much greater scale than the guerrillas have been able to inflict.
The damage to railway lines etc. can be repaired sometimes within hours. Even the spectacular Sasol bombing in 1980 meant no serious setback for the ruling class. The production of oil from coal has continued.
Even the bold assaults on police stations (totalling 12 between October 1976 and December 1981) have been little more than symbolic challenges to the authority of the state. There is no prospect of seriously weakening the regime’s armed power by this means.
On the contrary, it is the guerrillas, with their small numbers and limited resources, who would risk being weakened and ultimately destroyed in a drawn-out military struggle against the police and army. This has been the fate, for example, of the ERP in Argentina and the Tupamaros in Uruguay.
The limitations of the current armed actions were recognised by the ANC President, Comrade Tambo, in his recent statement in Zimbabwe that “sabotage attacks alone would not bring South Africa to its knees” (reported in the Herald, 21 June). Less clear, however, was the alternative he put forward: “We are moving from sabotage acts to attack the enemy face to face”.
Does this mean a serious offensive by MK against the SADF? If so, MK would find itself isolated and outnumbered by enemy forces with an overwhelming superiority in terms of weapons, equipment and morale.
The mass of the workers would be overwhelmingly sympathetic to the guerrillas. But the workers’ movement, greatly matured after ten years of struggles, will not easily commit itself to bloody battles led from outside its own ranks, with no control over its programme and no clarity as to where it will lead. There can be no prospect of military victory under these conditions.
More likely, Comrade Tambo meant a stepping up of sporadic raids on police stations, military installations etc. But such attacks would amount to no more than pin-pricks against the regime (a point conceded by Comrade Nzo, Secretary-General of the ANC, in a TV interview in Britain) which would goad it to greater fury and rally the forces of white reaction, while the decisive struggles are fought out in the factories and mines.
A hint of the real implications of increased guerrilla attacks has been given by ANC leaders who have pointed at the Israeli invasion of Lebanon as an example of the murderous reprisals the SA regime would be capable of launching against the countries where the guerrillas are based.
The crushing defeat of the PLO and the savage slaughter of Lebanese civilians should stand as a tragic monument to the consequences of trying to fight a guerrilla war under conditions where no basis exists for its success. For the masses of Southern Africa, the military programme of the ANC leadership holds out the deadly danger of turning the region into a new and bloodier Middle East.
The writing is already on the wall – Kassinga; Matola; Chimoio; the assassination of more and more activists in neighbouring countries.
The conclusion needs to be clearly drawn: to launch armed attacks against the regime at a stage when the workers’ movement has not yet decisively weakened its social and material base is to challenge the enemy at his strongest point – which is also, at this stage, the weakest point of our own movement.
The ANC leadership itself has correctly recognised that “to ignore the real situation and to play about with imaginary forces, concepts and ideals is to invite failure. The art of revolutionary leadership consists in providing leadership to the masses and not just to its most advanced elements … Untimely, ill planned or premature manifestations of violence impede and do not advance the prospect of revolutionary change…” (Strategy and Tactics).
These remarks also sum up the weaknesses of the guerrilla strategy in SA, and identify the mistakes which the workers’ movement must avoid in preparing for the armed struggle that will be capable of smashing the regime.
The central task in SA is the mobilisation of the workers’ movement to end apartheid, abolish capitalism and carry through the socialist transformation of society. Urban guerrilla action, by its very nature, can provide no basis whatsoever for carrying forward this struggle.
This has been implicitly recognised in Strategy and Tactics: “when armed actions begin they seldom involve more than a comparative handful of combatants whose very conditions of fighting-existence make them incapable of exercising the functions of all-round political leadership”.
Twenty years after the founding of MK, armed actions have not yet progressed very much beyond this ‘beginning’ stage. Nevertheless, proponents of guerrilla war continue to argue that the guerrillas’ isolated mode of operation – which is inevitable under the conditions of a powerful police state – is only temporary. Increasingly, they believe, the masses will be mobilised and turn the scales against the forces of the state.
These arguments, based on the experience of peasant wars, are dangerously misleading in the context of an industrialised country.
The guerrillas may attempt in every way possible to link up with the workers. In some cases – e.g. the bombing of Leyland showrooms during the Leyland workers’ strike – the intention was clearly to support the workers.
Similarly, blowing up the Soweto railway line can prevent workers from going to work; and bombing the Rosslyn electricity sub-station can shut down factories in the area, thus bringing about a ‘strike’.
But the method of guerrilla struggle cannot serve to mobilise the mass of workers.
On the contrary – if the Leyland bosses can be forced to make concessions by a bomb placed in their building by a single activist, why should the workers have to organise and strike? If a stay-away can be ‘organised’ by placing explosives on a railway line, what need is there for political leadership to unite the workers behind a programme of action?
But in reality, no armed individual or group of individuals can take the place of the collective organisation and power of the workers as a class in the struggle to defeat the apartheid regime and replace it with a system of workers’ democracy.
The guerrilla method cannot contribute to the building of a revolutionary leadership among the workers and youth. In fact, more often it has the opposite effect.
This applies very clearly at the level of human resources. Thousands of the bravest and most dedicated youth, recruited for military training abroad, are in practice unable to return. Confined to military camps, they have been effectively removed from the struggle on the ground and are even prevented from supporting the workers’ struggle actively in exile.
For those who return on missions, the rate of casualties is high, not only to themselves but to the movement as a whole.
Every guerrilla action is followed by intense police reaction, roadblocks, house to house searches, detentions of known activists, etc. Solomon Mahlangu became the first freedom fighter to die at the hands of the apartheid hangman since the early 1960s. There can be no doubt that in future the regime’s reaction will harden, with a spiralling increase of hangings and long-term imprisonment.
At the same time, the regime’s vicious weapons for smashing guerrilla action are pointed against the movement as a whole. Measures such as the ‘Sabotage Act’ and the Terrorism Act were originally intended for crushing armed insurgency. But in practice they have been used against all opponents of the regime.
Thus conditions have been created for even more vicious attacks against the movement of the workers, which have only been held at bay by the strength and militancy of the workers’ organisations themselves.
Conversely, the regime’s own support among the whites has undoubtedly been strengthened by what is seen as ‘external attack’.
Bombings, raids on police stations, etc., point out no alternative to the present system. Their main effect is to harden white reaction and divide the working class still further. This prepares the ground for the militarisation of white youth, and to divert attention of the whites from the hopeless failures of state policy.
Carried to their logical conclusion, these methods would serve to confront the working class with a united enemy, with armed forces hundreds of thousands strong, which could only be defeated at the cost of a bloodbath that would leave the revolution nothing to inherit except the smouldering ruins of the cities and the farms.
All these aspects have to be taken into account in drawing up a sober balance sheet of the gains and losses of twenty years of guerrilla struggle.
There remains only one force potentially strong enough to liberate SA: the revolutionary movement of the working class. It is that force which must be built and armed.
Armed mass insurrection
Armed struggle aimed at the taking of state power cannot take place separately from the mass movement of the workers. The power of the capitalists can only be dismantled by the organised power of the workers, linking the day-to-day struggles to the organised seizure of power.
The need for the workers to develop the means of armed struggle is experienced by the workers themselves through their confrontation with the armed forces of the state.
The armed police at the factory gate, driving away striking workers and letting the strike-breakers through; the baton charge which breaks up a mass meeting – it is these turns in events which lay down the limits of unarmed struggle and make it clear that to carry the struggle further, it is necessary to beat back the forces of the state.
But simply putting rifles into workers’ hands, or organising guerrilla support, will not solve the problem.
Any use of arms by the oppressed inevitably triggers off the most vicious state reaction. To seriously put up armed resistance, the workers’ movement must be able to withstand the attacks that will follow and sustain the struggle at a higher, more intense level.
For this, a massive degree of organisation and unity will be essential – trade unions able to unite the key sections of workers in action on a country-wide scale; and political leadership able to coordinate the struggle as a whole, open and underground, armed and unarmed.
Such a leadership can only be developed out of the ranks of the oppressed working class itself, and can play an effective role only to the extent that it remains rooted among the active sections of the workers.
Therefore it is necessary to build the ANC not for the purpose of recruiting youth for guerrilla training, but to engage in the mass struggle of the workers and provide a revolutionary lead.
We must build branches of the ANC (initially as an underground network) in every factory, mine and township and link them together regionally and nationally. We must mobilise in every district on the basis of the workers’ most pressing demands, and link these to the struggle for power. We must fight for trade union unity as the backbone of working-class power, and link the trade unions of the workers with the workers’ ANC.
In the course of this struggle all questions of policy, strategy and tactics, including the question of armed struggle, have to be addressed.
In the early stages armed struggle is likely to have the character of armed self-defence against the terror tactics of the state. But as the masses gain strength, confidence and skills, and as the camp of the enemy gets divided, the basis will be laid for passing over onto the offensive.
Only armed detachments of workers, feeling the support of thousands of toilers behind them, can successfully prevail against all the pressures of the state, the ruling class and the agents of capitalism warning against ‘going too far’. These detachments would be able to protect the picket lines outside factories on strike, the homes of people threatened with eviction, mass meetings, etc.
How will the workers’ movement become armed?
In SA there is no shortage of weapons. A workers’ ANC, based in every district, would find the ways of transferring these into the workers’ hands and teaching workers how to use them, as and when this becomes possible.
An important part will undoubtedly be played by those comrades who have already received military training as guerrillas. Once they become fully involved in the day-to-day struggles of the masses, they will be able to assist in the training and arming of the movement. The supplies of weapons which they have brought into the country can then be used for this purpose.
What will be decisive, however, will be the development of the ANC as a revolutionary mass organisation putting forward a clear programme for the dismantling of apartheid, the smashing of capitalism and the socialist transformation of society. While rallying the overwhelming mass of the oppressed, such a programme can also present an alternative to the most advanced sections of white workers, thus beginning to drive a wedge into the social basis on which the regime depends.
No one must underestimate the difficulties which this process will involve, or the patience and firmness with which black workers will need to explain the advantages of a revolutionary workers’ South Africa to those among their white fellow-workers who are prepared to listen. The alternative, however, is to prepare for racial civil war that would devastate the country and inflict a terrible toll on our movement.
Even sections of the existing police and armed force, not only blacks but also some whites – especially conscripts – could be won to the side of the workers’ movement on the basis of a genuine socialist programme. They could bring with them not only their own guns but also the keys to the armouries of the state.
Correctly, an ANC statement on 16 June encouraged young whites who find themselves in the SADF to form clandestine groups and start operations against the government. But such a call could only be heeded by significant numbers of soldiers if it is linked to a programme for the complete transformation of society and the establishment of workers’ democracy, in which working-class whites could recognise their interest.
The weakening and division of the capitalists’ white support; the power, unity and determination of the workers’ mass movement; the clarity of the revolutionary leadership provided by the ANC – these are the basic elements that will determine the ripening of a revolutionary situation in SA. When that situation arises the armed insurrection of the oppressed masses, under the leadership of the working class, will be on the agenda.
Under these conditions the armed workers will be able to take by storm, disarm, and conquer the armed forces of the state.
The capacity of the working class to do this was shown by the Paris workers in 1871, the Russian workers in 1917, the Spanish workers in 1936, the Iranian workers in 1979, etc. These revolutions – their victories and defeats – should be carefully studied today.
The task of all comrades is to help prepare our movement for the battles that face us by building the ANC and the trade unions, and explaining the need for a socialist programme that can show the way to national and social liberation.