“What has social democracy ever done for us”? (With apologies to Monty Python)
- Norma Craven
- 18 Nov 2015 (South Africa)
I was sad to read comrade Mark Heywood’s latest article in the Daily Maverick which appears to be advocating the politics of despair. No Marxist (including Marx) would fail to recognise the progressive elements that accompanied the birth and growth of capitalism. The growth of cities, the unification of states, and the emergence of parliamentary democracy in many parts of the world were huge steps forward. The development of industry brought untold wealth to some, and huge advances in science and technology. Any cursory understanding of the Marxist view of history will set out clearly how economic development brings such advances in its trail.
“And now for something completely different!” (As Monty Python would say).
There are many points being made in the satirical sketch that comrade Mark quotes, but surely the most important question was: “What have the Romans ever done for us”?
The Romans, like many who were to follow, were an imperialist power over a huge part of the known world. But with the aqueducts, medicine, irrigation and roads etc, came the subjugation, and enslavement of the masses. The Indian railway system, in real terms, is still the biggest single investment the British Government has ever made. Indians got a railway system, while the British Empire got an efficient means to transport troops to areas of revolt and plundered wealth to ports.
Capitalism, by concentrating production in factories, and then internationally, firstly physically as colonial powers, and later by economic colonialism, created great wealth; some came into the coffers of governments, and a few crumbs of their labour into the hands of the workers. Within some imperialist countries, social democracy became the best form of government for capitalism, which needs educated, healthy workers; so why not ensure that this is provided?
There is nothing wrong with workers wanting a better life, a TV, a car, a holiday. The problem is when these are seen as a benefit from a capitalist class, whereas in fact they have been won by the struggles of workers to take back a little more of the wealth they have created. Capitalism exists to make profit. At a time when capitalism has been rocked by banking scandals, and world growth is declining, the benefits that workers have won are the first to be threatened. The TVs, cars and holidays are unsustainable for some, and simply unachievable for most.
Comrade Mark must be aware that these benefits are not the lot of most of the class, for whom hunger and poverty remain the order of the day. It is very patronising to suggest that Marxists somehow object to workers having a better life with comforts. The question, surely, is: How do they get them, and can they be sustained?
If capitalism was capable of providing such a lifestyle, we would not have the upheavals in Europe that we see at present. Why would Greece be looking for bail-outs from the European Union? Why is Spain in such economic trouble? Why is South Africa the most unequal country in the world? They are in trouble because the system that he believes workers look to, to provide colour TVs etc, is in trouble.
It is grossly insulting to workers to suggest that they are bought off quite so easily. For many of the engineering workers who were on strike last year, and employees in motor, the struggle is just for a decent wage. Petrol attendants who still earn less than R20 an hour have more on their minds than consumer goods. When the going gets tough for capitalism any “good times” for workers are the first to be attacked. Jobs and social services are shed as if they are of no importance. I do not know why Comrade Mark thinks that Marxists are unaware of the degeneration of Chinese communism. We are very aware, but he must also be aware that already the fledgling capitalist China is in economic difficulties. Incidentally, nowhere do we suggest that nationalisation means more Eskoms or SAAs; what we are talking about is working class power.
One of the great benefits of being a Marxist is that we do not lurch from elation to despondency in our understanding of how class forces develop, and what brings the masses onto the streets. When the class seems to be in retreat there is no despondency, and a search for alternative solutions. The struggle for working class power will be filled with retreats and victories; the art is to learn from the defeats and to consolidate the victories.
Unfortunately, Comrade Mark sees only the retreats, and has clearly decided that, unfair though capitalism is, there is nothing better on offer, so we must make do with what we have and try to use the hand-outs of capitalism to make it “better” or at least bearable.
Mark talks proudly, as he should, about the success of Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), and access to anti-retrovirals (ARV). There will always be such success stories of struggle, but that is not the question. Capitalism still controls the wealth, and if Mark believes that this ARV victory is assured for all time he is kidding himself. The person who now has ARVs is probably still living in a shack with no job. Probably still has to queue for hours in a clinic or hospital to acquire the drugs. Recently there were reports of shortages of drugs which put patient lives at risk. This is why alongside the single-issue battles for reforms has to be a struggle for socialism.
We did not need Piketty to tell us, the South African working class, that they remain afflicted by the triple misery of unemployment, poverty and inequality, which will not be solved by the Human Rights Commission, the Public Protector or his much vaunted Constitution. I have no doubt that when the United States constitution was first drafted by Thomas Paine it must have been seen as the solution to all ills. It was not, and neither is the South African Constitution. It is a document, and freedom does not come from documents or tribunals or public protectors.
We have already seen how the socio-economic rights in this Constitution can be interpreted in favour of the government and employers, and against the interests of the people. Private property is entrenched, and economic transformation is nowhwere to be found. The Constitution stands like a huge barrier to protect the rich against the demands of the poor. It is no accident that the greatest supporters of this Constitution are from the right of politics. Individual rights must be protected against the needs of the poor. Comrade Mark, the vast majority of South African have benefited little from this Constitution. It has failed to protect the poor against the rich; it has done nothing to change the lot of the masses who live in a totally dysfunctional society. The state runs riot, shooting workers, and suspects.
We are referred to Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Bob Marley as mobilisers, but the issue is not mobilising the class, but what are you mobilising them for. Comrade Mark, your politics are the politics of despair. The words of Robert Burns in his rousing poem Scots Wha’ Hae, come to mind:
By oppressors woes and pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins!
But they shall be free.
Lay the proud usurper low!
Tyrants fall in every foe.
Liberty’s in every blow,
Let us do or die. DM
Norma Craven is Head of the Office of Numsa’s Movement for Socialism.
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