Arming the workers’ movement – a reply to Comrade Tambo
Originally published in Inqaba No. 11 (August-October 1983).
After the Pretoria car bomb blast in May a rare interview with Comrade Oliver Tambo appeared in the British press. In a large centre-page article in The Guardian (6/8/83), he explained the strategy of armed struggle put forward by the ANC leadership.
In the course of this, Comrade Tambo was asked by his interviewer, South African Stanley Uys:
“How do you answer the charge by the breakaway (??) Marxist Workers’ Tendency that you cannot win an armed struggle against such a powerful white state – that the black workers alone can achieve this?”
To this Comrade Tambo replied as follows:
“To give up the sabotage campaign would be a disastrous mistake. The workers are potentially decisive, but it is not sufficient to rely solely on them. You are not going to win the vote simply by organising yourselves for higher wages.
“In the 1950s we called a strike almost every year, but it was not sufficient. If we remove the armed component from our struggle, we will be back to square one. No change. We must not have exaggerated notions of what workers as workers can achieve. Power is not achieved without armed struggle when you have a regime which is prepared to shoot and kill to defend its position.
“It would be equally disastrous to say the armed struggle has no need of any other form of struggle. Organisation of the workers is most important. They are a very powerful component of total struggle.”
As pointed out in a letter written to The Guardian (which it did not publish but which is printed here), Mr. Uys’s question diverts Comrade Tambo from addressing the actual position put forward by Inqaba ya Basebenzi.
It is not at all a question of “removing the armed component from our struggle.” Against the vicious state force is obviously needed.
The real questions which we invite Comrade Tambo to answer are: whose force, by what method, used when and where – can achieve the goals to which our movement stands committed?
It goes without saying that the workers, unarmed, cannot triumph against the barbaric SA regime – “a regime which is prepared to shoot and kill to defend its position”.
But does it therefore follow, as Comrade Tambo states, that “it is not sufficient to rely solely on” the workers for victory? Does it follow that there is a need for armed actions organised separately from the movement of the workers?
To: The Editor,
London, United Kingdom
9 August 1983
In his interview with AIM President Oliver Tambo (‘Guardian’, 6 August 1983), Stanley Uys asks: “How do you answer the charge by the breakaway Marxist Workers Tendency that you cannot win an armed struggle against such a powerful white state – that the black workers alone can achieve this?”
There are two errors here. Firstly, as Mr Uys should know from his regular reading of ‘Inqaba ya Basebenzi’, the Marxist Workers Tendency is part and parcel of the African National Congress under whose banner the mass of oppressed South Africans must unite.
Secondly, and more seriously by mis-stating the position of the Marxist Workers Tendency on armed struggle, Mr Uys fails to pose to Comrade Tambo the crux of the issue facing the liberation movement. Instead of answering our position, Comrade Tambo is given – and knocks down – the “straw man” of pacifism.
In South Africa it is not a question of posing the struggle of the workers or the armed struggle. Against the vicious state, force is obviously needed.
Our argument is that the guerrilla method cannot provide the force to overthrow the regime. Only the black workers organised in their millions and leading all the oppressed in struggle for the democratic and socialist transformation of society, can generate the necessary force.
To achieve victory, this movement will have to arm itself. But it will take up arms as a mass movement, when it has gained the strength to carry the struggle forward by these means.
Guerrilla struggle, on the other hand – pitting small groups, necessarily separated from the organised workers, against a powerful industrial state – will produce the opposite of what it intends. Among other things, carried on in the urban areas, it can only drive working whites in to more frenzied support for racist dictatorship.
Comrade Tambo misses the whole point in treating the workers’ movement purely as an economic strike movement. The organised workers, when raised lo their full power, can offer the prospect of democratic rule by the working class, opening the way to security, freedom and prosperity for all. Such a movement rousing the full energies of the oppressed people, could also win support from white workers, and so fatally weaken the basis of the regime.
This is the movement which the ANC must lead, and this is the one which the leadership will be unable to avoid.
For Mr Uys to have posed our position on armed struggle in this way would have made more meticulous – and more penetrating – political journalism.
Inqaba Ya Basebenzi
Comrade Tambo himself concedes that the working class “are a very powerful component of our struggle … potentially decisive”. In another recent interview, distributed by the Mozambique Information Agency (AIM) in July 1983 he has made more or less the same points: “the workers … constitute the most powerful contingent in our struggle … And it is clear to us, as it is to the enemy, that the workers, the black workers especially, constitute a force that could pose a serious threat to the regime.”
In the AIM interview, in fact, he is even more explicit: “Our country is highly industrialised. The oppressed population is the proletariat, the working people … The struggle for liberation is a struggle of the workers who constitute the proletariat.”
But at the same time that Comrade Tambo states that “the struggle for liberation is a struggle of the workers” and recognises the decisive potential of the workers’ movement, he cautions against “exaggerated notions of what workers as workers can achieve.”
If all he means is that an economic strike movement cannot overthrow the regime, then who could disagree with him?
But he goes on to make a very different point. In the interview with AIM, he states, “…we operate on three fronts: the labour front, the front of mass popular actions, as we’ll as the front of armed actions.” But what, in the development of the actual struggle itself, does it mean to talk of a separation of these “fronts”?
Neither in the recent period, nor in the 1950s, has the workers’ movement been confined only within the trade union movement, or limited to “organising … for higher wages”.
In every “mass popular action” – whether in the factories or the townships; in the cities or the countryside – it is inevitably working people and their families who are the “mass” driving force.
This is the case, for example, in the current bus boycott in the Ciskei, as it has been in every serious community struggle of the 1950s or the last decade.
Of course, many such actions draw in also the oppressed middle-class, white radicals, etc, but their insignificant social weight gives them no independent leverage for change. Without the mass force of the workers, “the front of mass popular actions” is a mere phantom.
In reality there can only be one mass movement in the country, with the working class inevitably constituting its overwhelming fighting detachments. In the struggle for liberation the workers’ movement is not just an economic strike movement, not a “very powerful” or even the “most powerful” but the only force with the potential political power to defeat the apartheid state end the capitalist class it defends.
Limits are set on the workers’ movement only by the limited scope and scale of its organisation. Surely it is the task of the ANC to develop and lead this?
Should the case be any different in preparing the armed overthrow of the state? The ANC leadership has stated that military tasks flow from political tasks. What does that mean in practice?
At the present stage of the movement, the workers are compelled to suffer daily indignities and barbarities from the forces of the state, lacking as yet the organised means of stopping them.
For instance, at Crossroads, working people are confronted at dawn every day by armoured police vehicles and armed police who tear down and burn any meagre shelters of brushwood and plastic that they find. These people are thus forced to dismantle and bury the only shelter they can call home each morning before dawn, and re-erect it every evening.
Virtually every struggler who has experienced or witnessed such events burns with an angry desire to resist by force and – yes, indeed – shoot down the barbarous police and officials who carry out these atrocities.
But it would take a lunatic to suggest that either the people themselves (if they had arms), or units of MK, should fire on the police at the present time at Crossroads.
Why? Because, given the present early stage in the development of the mass movement, and the still early stage in the weakening and disintegration of the state under mass pressure, the resulting police retaliation and slaughter of the people would set back the revolutionary movement, not advance it.
At a later stage, as revolutionary crisis develops, the same action would have the opposite, necessary and advantageous effect – despite vicious retaliation – of advancing the entire mass movement to a higher level.
At the present time, indeed, as the case of Crossroads shows, it would be wrong to have exaggerated notions of what workers as workers can achieve” in the sphere of armed confrontation.
Nevertheless, contained within the movement that is developing is not only unlimited political potential, but, with it, military potential. The kind of barbarities occurring at Crossroads, inflicted on the oppressed for generations, are kindling the anger and the determination among the masses to bring to an end the vicious system of oppression and exploitation – by whatever means are necessary.
When the occasion is ripe, the workers will be prepared to ‘storm heaven’, as Marx put it.
Militarily, as well as politically, the workers’ movement requires organisation to bring its potential to fruition.
This is why we argue, in our document SA’s Impending Socialist Revolution (p.155), that “the basis of our military policy in SA must be to prepare the forces for the future armed insurrection against the state” and urge the ANC leadership to “turn towards the preparation of methods and tactics which will lead to” this eventual mass armed insurrection.
It is militarily the case, because it is politically the case, that the workers’ movement is the only force with the potential to defeat the SA state which is the keystone of apartheid and capitalism.
Ironically, while Stanley Uys implicitly pins a pacifist label on the Marxist Workers’ Tendency, the editors of SACTU’s journal Workers’ Unity (April, 1983), wrongly accuse our document of advocating “suicidal missions based on a ‘trained workers’ militia’”.
Unfortunately it appears that these comrades have read our document with insufficient care.
It is there clearly stated (p.155) that preparation “would not imply reckless and adventurist policies in the mass movement, immediately provoking massive military retaliation against the black working class and youth, still in a relatively early stage of mobilising their forces. The point is to prepare – with the eventual aim of insurrection in mind.”
The point which the ANC leaders should answer is this: if the mass movement presently has limits, can any other force, however well-armed, substitute itself for the development of the mass movement?
Since MK units cannot defend the people of Crossroads – who, when the time is right must be able to defend themselves – then what is the present function of MK actions, of the separate so-called “front of armed action”?
Purely demonstrations of ‘strength’?
MK can carry out occasional spectacular explosions, but it cannot substitute itself for the workers’ need for self-defence. And when the workers’ movement is able to take this task of armed self-defence upon itself, armed groups which are separated from it will give no additional muscle-power.
In reality history shows that energy expended on armed actions isolated from the development of the mass movement serves as a diversion from the task of the organisation of the working masses.
In its pre-1917 development, the Russian workers’ movement had also to address the question of isolated armed actions – in that case assassinations carried out by members of the Social-Revolutionary party, who argued that these actions advanced and assisted the mass movement.
Lenin, Bolshevik leader, was quite unequivocal in dismissing their arguments – as his article on the subject republished here makes clear. Since it was the methods of the Bolsheviks – of Marxism – which led the working class to the armed insurrection which overthrew capitalist dictatorship and established workers’ democratic rule in 1917, Lenin’s views are surely worth taking seriously!
No short cuts
In reality, no attempted military short-cuts can substitute for the central task, posed before the ANC leadership, of developing and organising the unlimited power contained in the workers’ movement itself.
Indeed, as is also said in our document, “in the course of the development of a revolutionary situation in SA, there will be occasions for the effective use of arms in and through the mass struggle, leading to the advance of the movement as a whole.”
“What would be involved in this whole development” states our document, “would be the preparation, underground, of the nuclei of a trained workers’ militia and the caching of arms.” These bodies, it continues, would be “democratically controlled.”
Our differences with Comrade Tambo, then concern not the necessity of the use of arms, but the method by which the liberation struggle can employ arms in order to achieve its aims.
A caption to a photograph accompanying the interview with Comrade Tambo in The Guardian correctly states that “Nothing short of the armed seizure of state political power is going to satisfy the oppressed.” The ANC leadership ought to concentrate their attention on preparing the working class for this task.