Neo-liberalism, reformism, populism and ultra-leftism
IDEOLOGICAL STRUGGES WITHIN THE PEOPLE’S CAMP IN SOUTH AFRICA, REFORMISM, ULTRA-LEFTISM AND POPULISM
Unlike liberalism (and its modern variant, neo-liberalism), and unlike, say, Marxism-Leninism (and its many variants) - “reformism”, “ultra-leftism” and “populism” are not, per se, an identifiable body of ideas. They are, rather, styles of approaching political theory and practice. You will find, for instance, a wide variety of populisms – ranging from ultra-right fascist populism, through to left and ultra-left variants. Marxism-Leninism will also be found in reformist, ultra-left and populist variations/deviations.
For these reasons, it is easier, when dealing with reformism, ultra-leftism and populism, while noting some general features (as we will), to focus on concrete situations.
But first let us consider some of the general features of these three tendencies.
The general features of ultra-leftism
The defining feature of ultra-leftism is its excessive exaggeration of subjective factors. The subjective feelings of militancy of a small group of revolutionaries; or the deep anger and impatience felt by large masses of workers and poor; or the attractiveness of an immediate advance to socialism – important, understandable and, in many cases, even admirable subjective feelings of this kind are assumed to mean that the desirable is also, more or less, immediately possible. This is why Lenin, appropriately, referred to this tendency as “infantile”. He writes, for instance, of the ultra-left tendency in Germany in 1920:
“It is obvious that the `Lefts’ in Germany have mistaken their desire, their politico-ideological attitude, for objective reality. That is a most dangerous mistake for revolutionaries to make.” (Lenin, “Left-wing” communism – an infantile disorder, Selected Works, p.541)
The excessive subjectivism of the ultra-left also expresses itself in the ways in which it tends to explain away reverses or difficulties. These, too, are excessively subjectivised – leaders are “sell-outs” and “traitors”, the masses are “misled”, or suffering from a “false consciousness”. These accusations may, or may not have some relevance, but ultra-leftism tends to evoke them all too hastily.
The flip-side of this excessive subjectivism is that ultra-leftism tends to underrate or even ignore the objective factors within a given situation. The real and potential impediments to a rapid advance are discounted. The strength of opposition forces and the dangers of counter-revolution are neglected. The objective weaknesses of progressive classes and strata are themselves also characteristically ignored.
The conflation of what is desirable with what is possible results in adventurism, a tendency to voluntarism, the advocacy of reckless leaps forward, based on sheer will-power, that can result in serious defeat and disaster.
As a consequence of all of this, ultra-leftism tends not to understand revolution as process. Everything is immediate, all-or-nothing, victory or sell-out. This, in turn, results in many of the zig-zags that are so often a feature of ultra-leftism, bouts of excessive optimism, followed by depression and the predictable accusations of betrayal and sell-out. Lenin writes of this tendency that it “easily goes to revolutionary extremes, but (it is) incapable of perseverance, organisation, discipline and steadfastness.” (p.520)
Because of its exaggeration of the immediate, ultra-leftism tends, also, to greatly exaggerate tactics at the expense of strategies. Tactics are elevated into strategies, and even principles. For instance, ultra-leftism often rejects compromises on principle. Participation in parliamentary democracy is sometimes rejected, for all time, and the tactics of a general strike or an insurrectionary seizure of power are counter-posed to any other approach, and turned into timeless strategies if not principles.
The ultra-left approach is also often characterised by what Lenin neatly described as the “tactics of sheer negation”. We see signs of this in our own current reality (anti-globalisation, anti-NEPAD, anti-ANC government).
All of these characteristics of ultra-leftism result in a general inability to appreciate or participate in the often long-haul of organisational building and the concomitant need to work patiently, resolve secondary contradictions, and manage the complexity of mass movements, alliances and broad fronts. As a result, the organisational practices of ultra-leftism are typically characterised by factionalism and the propensity to endless splitting and fragmentation (which is why, incidentally, the 2002 ANC S&T Preface attempt to present the ultra-left as a vast South African conspiracy with global tentacles is not only factually incorrect, but simply bizarre). Another related feature of ultra-leftism’s inability to build organisation is a propensity to enter into a parasitic relationship with established organisations, institutions and campaigns, using the tactics of entryism.
These are the characteristic features of the ultra-left tendency. We have tried to show that these features are inter-connected and mutually reinforcing. In real life, of course, ultra-leftism will manifest itself in many varieties, and with varying degrees of “purity”.
In South Africa, ultra-leftism has had a presence over many decades, with all of the endemic characteristics, noted above, featuring in one way or another. The following are the most recurrent specific characteristics of ultra-leftism in our country:
The inability to understand the national question as an objective reality that is a core feature of South Africa’s capitalist development path, structurally linked to our deep-seated legacy of under-development. Instead, ultra-leftism in South Africa tends to conceptualise the national question, and progressive nationalism, as “false consciousness”, or inherently “petty bourgeois” – once more subjectivising what is, in the first instance, a profoundly objective reality.
As a consequence, ultra-leftism has tended to oppose the entire NDR strategy, rejecting it as the pursuit of a “capitalist road”, or as a “detour”, an “unnecessary delay” in the struggle for socialism;
Organisationally, ultra-leftism has, generally, defined itself outside of and in opposition to the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance. A great deal of energy has been devoted to breaking our alliance, to “weaning” workers away from the “nationalist” ANC, the “Stalinist” SACP, or from the present “reactionary” leadership of COSATU. But, as with ultra-leftism elsewhere, there have also been various entryist attempts into all three of the alliance components.
Of course, organised ultra-left factions and groupings are one thing, but there is also the reality of influence. As in any revolutionary movement, none of our Alliance formations is immune to the influence of ultra-leftism on the one hand, or (as we shall soon see) to reformist opportunism on the other. Labelling and witch-hunting are the least effective ways of countering such influences.
The general features of reformism
Even when he was focusing his polemical attention on ultra-leftism, Lenin never forgot that the principal internal danger to a revolutionary movement came not from the ultra-left, but from reformist opportunism:
“First and foremost, the struggle against opportunism, which in 1914 definitely developed into social-chauvinism and definitely sided with the bourgeoisie, against the proletariat. Naturally, this was Bolshevism’s principal enemy within the working-class movement. It still remains the principal enemy on an international scale. The Bolsheviks have been devoting the greatest attention to this enemy.” (ibid., p.520).
This is what Lenin says before going on to deal with ultra-leftism. Not only does he prioritise the danger of opportunism even when his main topic is ultra-leftism, but he also affirms that the spread and impact of ultra-leftism is often directly linked to the damage caused to a revolutionary movement by reformist opportunism.
“[ultra-leftism] was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement. The two monstrosities complemented each other.” (ibid., p.521)
So what are the main features of reformist opportunism?
Whereas ultra-leftism grossly over-rates the subjective dimension, opportunism greatly exaggerates the stability, durability, and the “unchallengeable” character of objective factors. You will find, for instance, this kind of argument in the 2002 intervention of Moleketi and Jele attacking the SACP, which comes very close to promoting just such an “unchallengeable” version of the current global balance of forces:
“Capital is stronger than it has ever been, globally. It is in search of and hopes for a challenger who will have the temerity to launch a general offensive against it. In crushing such a challenger, as it would, it would not only send the message that the age of revolutions is over, but would also get the matter fixed firmly in the minds of the international proletariat that capital, exclusively, has the right to determine the destiny of the world.” (Moleketi and Jele, p.15)
Of course, Moleketi and Jele are not wrong to argue that a “general offensive” against global capitalism could be adventurist, but in the absence of offering any other line of march against capitalism, it is hard not to be left with the impression that capitulation is the order of the day. This impression is reinforced by other passages in their pamphlet, for instance:
“Logically, accumulated capital in the world economy cannot be anywhere other than with the bourgeoisie, even in our country.” (our emphases, Moleketi and Jele, p.21)
If accumulated capital resources are privatised, commercialised, concessioned-out; if the public and parastatal sector is plundered by an emerging bourgeoisie; if worker pension and provident funds are invested purely in terms of the logic of the capitalist market and profit maximisation - then accumulated capital will not be found anywhere other than with the bourgeoisie. But there is nothing necessary, still less logical about this.
In our view, passages like this illustrate the impact of reformism on the thinking of some within our movement. In particular, they resonate with the first and principal feature of reformism, its over-rating of the “unchallengeable” character of the dominant objective realities.
This is not to say that reformist opportunism does not seek to change things. But, and this is its second defining feature, it sees change as reforms that do not challenge the core structural and systemic features of capitalism. Let us be clear, there is nothing wrong with reforms, but for a revolutionary movement, reforms must have a transformational character, they must introduce anti-systemic possibilities, momentum towards, capacity for, and elements of far-reaching structural change. In our situation, however, reformist opportunism sees change as being about “regulating” capitalism; modernising our economy; catching up with “international best practice”; and correcting for “market failure”.
And this results in reformist opportunism sharing with ultra-leftism the tendency to turn tactical choices imposed by particular realities into strategies and even into timeless principles. The strategic objectives of one’s struggle (a national democratic revolution, for instance) tend to be endlessly postponed, or emptied of substantial content. Ultra-leftism elevates what might be, in a particular situation, a correct tactical choice (“no compromise”) into a strategy and even a principle (“never compromise”). Opportunism does exactly the same thing, but in reverse (“always compromise”). As Lenin puts it:
“Naïve and quite inexperienced people imagine that the permissibility of compromise in general is sufficient to obliterate any distinction between opportunism, against which we are waging, and must wage, an unremitting struggle, and revolutionary Marxism, or communism.” (Lenin, ibid., p.549)
While ultra-leftism tends not to understand process, reformist opportunism does not understand the DIALECTICAL nature of process. Thus the history and trajectory of contemporary capitalism tend to be understood as a relatively smooth, evolutionary flow, rather than a crisis-ridden, thoroughly dialectical reality in which progress and barbarism, development and underdeveloped are systemically linked, each the structural condition for the other. In our situation, the absence of dialectics can result in the unworkable dream of “deracialising” our society by modernising, applying “international best practice”, aligning with “global standards”, becoming more competitive, achieving good investment ratings, and, in short, by “normalising” South Africa in the absence of any fundamental transformation.
A clear contemporary example of the tendency to obscure the dialectical nature of key realities in our society is to be found in the “two economies” discussion. Leading comrades in the movement have, quite correctly, identified the dualistic character of our economy and society, and they have equally correctly characterised this as a process of under-development. However, in practice and in theory, this dialectical reality is often quickly re-conceptualised as “two” economies – the one developed and the other un-developed. The dialectical relationship is neglected and a programme of “consolidating” advances in the “first economy” to produce growth that can be “redistributed” to the second economy in order to promote it upwards becomes the programmatic vision.
While the posture of ultra-leftism is often one of “sheer negation”, as Lenin puts it, (anti-globalisation, anti-NEPAD, etc.); the posture of reformist opportunism tends to be one of bland optimism. The “revolution” is forever being declared “on track”, as if, precisely, there were some straight-line “track”.
However, since objective reality (not least a reality dominated by capitalism) is not evolutionary but thoroughly dialectical, uneven and crisis-ridden, reformist opportunism frequently finds itself confronted with “discrepancies”. And so, like ultra-leftism, opportunism tends to have recourse to the subjective in order to “explain” away obstructions and crises. While ultra-leftism invokes the subjective “betrayal” of “sell-outs”, reformist opportunism invokes plots and conspiracies; our continent’s systemic underdevelopment by decades of capitalist progress tends to be attributed largely to attitudinal prejudices (Afro-pessimism); the deep-seated structural legacy of racialised poverty is mythologised (the “demon” of racism); and the motives of journalists and statisticians are queried when bland optimism is not confirmed by their reports. (We should emphasise that we are not denying the possibility of plots, nor the fallibility of statistics or the media, nor the existence of colonial prejudices about our continent, nor the persistent and abhorrent reality of racism in our society – but over-reliance on these subjective explanations goes hand in hand with reformism’s inability to scientifically analyse the contradictory objective character of our global and national realities.)
The general features of populism – “Emotive forces”
You will find both reformist and ultra-left versions of populism within the people’s camp, although there is often a greater affinity between some versions of ultra-leftism and populism. You will also find (as we have noted above) other versions of populism – including ultra-right, fascist populism.
In fact, one of the features of populism is that it will often mobilise quite diverse (and even opposed) ideological currents around a single issue/personality.
Populism is essentially a tendency that focuses on the emotional mobilisation of popular forces. While popular mobilisation is essential in any progressive politics, it runs the risk of becoming merely populist when the long-term sustainability of the campaign, serious organisation, and the effective self-empowerment of the popular forces mobilised in the campaign are all relatively neglected.
Populism tends to mobilise popular forces demagogically as emotional fans of a particular cause, often of a particular personality. The demagogic mobilisation also frequently agglomerates a whole series of diverse grievances and unites them around a single issue or personality – but also AGAINST some demonised arch-enemy – the “Jews”, “foreigners”, “Osama Ben Laden”
Populism, as the name implies, seeks to mobilise a collective force as “the people” – there is nothing inherently wrong with the notion of the “people”, of “popular forces”, of “people’s power”, etc. (Indeed, we have used these terms in the course of this intervention). However, populism tends to invoke the “people”, “popular sentiment”, the “nation” etc. in ways that ignore, or deliberately obfuscate diverse class, gender and other diversities and potential contradictions within the people’s camp.
While we tend to think of populism in its more militant (whether ultra-left or ultra-right) variants, there are also more moderate versions of populism – a politics of personal reassurance, of top-down patronage. If the contradictions within our society and movement deepen, we can anticipate certain reformist projects focusing increasing attention on popular unifying projects (2010 for instance?) to the detriment of more deep-seated challenges and contradictions.
However, the more obvious variants of populism tend to have a militant character, associated with a politics of “high drama” – whipping up a fever of emotional sentiment, and playing to the gallery of popular prejudices and aspirations, or seeking to satisfy some immediate demand, even if it is not remotely sustainable.