South Africa


SA can learn from Karl Marx when it comes to electoral reforms

Karl Marx

Karl Marx’s demand to bring the vote to the working class came from the six-point People’s Charter of 1838, with its supporters known as Chartists. The name Freedom Charter probably came from this source. Given the issue of electoral reform which has now surfaced in South Africa, it is helpful for voters to read about the history of Chartism.

Karl Marx, while living in London, played a crucial role in bringing the vote to the majority of British working class men through the Great Reform Act of 1867 – an issue worth considering ahead of the general election in May, after the ANC’s party list of candidates revealed a tranche of ministers tainted with corruption in the State Capture inquiry headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.

The ministers on the party list appointed by former president Jacob Zuma are Bathabile Dlamini, Nomvula Mokonyane, Malusi Gigaba and Mosebenzi Zwane.

This has led to an open letter to “corrupt comrades”, from 11 “ANC elders”, calling on them to “Remove yourself from the party list”.

In a recent article, columnist Mpumelelo Mkhabela argues that these appointments show South Africa’s current electoral system is “flawed”, and that the Constitution “must be amended”.

Marx’s demand came from the six-point People’s Charter of 1838, with its supporters known as Chartists. The name Freedom Charter probably came from this source. Given the issue of electoral reform which has now surfaced in South Africa, it is helpful for voters to read about the history of Chartism.

In particular, the fifth demand of the Charter called for “equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing less populous constituencies to have as much or more weight than larger ones”.

The fact is, South Africa’s electoral law in the Constitution of 1993 allows for no constituencies whatsoever for election to the National Assembly and provincial legislatures, and for only half of the municipal seats. MPs in South Africa represent party headquarters, not voters in “equal constituencies”, as the Charter demanded.

Marx’s letters show how, as a member of the General Council of the First International, with headquarters in London, he had helped to found the Reform League, which included leaders of the English trade unions as well as members of the First International, on its executive committee. It organised huge demonstrations for universal suffrage that sometimes ended in violence, as in the Hyde Park Riots of 1866, which frightened the wealthy classes into extending the franchise to the great majority of working-class men.

The legislation was passed under the leadership of the Conservative chancellor and later prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, even though his party had previously opposed an extension of the franchise. Disraeli persuaded his party that electoral reform was essential if the country was to avoid revolution, and so the Second Reform Act was passed, almost doubling the number of voters.

In parallel with his work in 1867 in preparing publication the same year of the first volume of his most major work, Capital, Marx took an active part in the work of the Reform League alongside the English trade union leaders. This resulted in the demonstration and riots in Hyde Park in London in May 1866, which prompted Disraeli the following year to extend the franchise to “lodgers”, in this way including the majority of working-class males.

Marx reported extensively on what he was doing in the Reform League to his close friend Friedrich Engels, in Manchester. One of the best accounts is a letter of 15 January 1866 to his colleague Ludwig Kugelmann in Hanover, in Germany. In English translation, the letter reads:

We have succeeded in drawing into the movement the one really big workers’ organisation, the English ‘Trade Unions’, which formerly concerned themselves exclusively with wage questions. It was with their help that the English society which we founded for achieving universal suffrage (one half of its Central Committee – i.e., the workers – are members of our Central Committee) held a monster meeting a few weeks ago, at which only workers spoke. You can judge of the effect that the meeting was discussed by the Times in leading articles appearing in two consecutive issues.

As for my book, I’m working twelve hours a day in order to produce a fair copy.” (Marx/Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975 revised edition. p.165).

A note to this passage says that the Reform League was “created by a decision of a meeting of advocates of electoral reform held at St Martin’s Hall [London] on February 23, 1865, which had been called on the initiative of the General Council of the International.

Members of the General Council, mainly leaders of the British Trade Unions, were elected to the principal bodies of the Reform League, i.e., its Council and Executive Committee … (The) Reform League, on Marx’s insistence, called for universal manhood franchise. This Chartist slogan, which was revived by the International, found a warm response among the English working class and helped the Reform League to secure the support of the trade unions, that up to then had shown no interest in politics.” (p483, n.148)

Marx was a fellow member on the general council of the International with the English trade union and Reform League leaders George Odger, William Cremer and George Howell.

He was blunt about this in a letter to Engels on 1 May 1867, ahead of a big Reform League meeting in Hyde Park on 6 May: “The great success of the International Association is this: The Reform League is our work.” (Marx/Engels, Selected Correspondence, 1965 revised edition, p.174)

In South Africa, locally-based politicians are often blamed over service delivery and other issues, perceived as being unaccountable by local people. Accountability of politicians is a bread and butter issue, and the need for electoral reform directly addresses this – a direct continuation of the demand for the franchise over the past century.

There is huge scope for a Reform League in South Africa. DM


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