Adam Habib. South Africa's Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2013. 304 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8214-2072-0; $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8214-2076-8; $21.99 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-8214-4477-1.
Reviewed by Roel K. Rab
Published on H-Socialisms (December, 2015)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Adam Habib’s South Africa’s Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects provides a broad overview of the revolution that ousted apartheid in South Africa and the revolution’s fortunes under the 1994 constitution, which has been undergoing what he describes as a “high-stakes leadership drama” (p. 1). He explores the reasons why the new state seemed to lose its way, essentially abandoning the Freedom Charter that had been so crucial to defeating apartheid. He critically investigates corruption and other issues; social pacts between labor, business, and the state; the evolution of state-civil society relations; and the new South Africa’s place in the world. Chapter 7 assesses the possibilities for change and especially completion of the revolution’s agenda, while chapter 8 places the problems of South Africa in the context of the author’s observations on human agency and progressive social change.
It is usual to distinguish revolutions that are violent from those that are nonviolent, but the truth is that a revolution is in and of itself necessarily a violent process with respect to the status quo ante. It is an abstract kind of violence transcending the historic here and now. Revolutionaries may get shot manning barricades, or imprisoned and tortured by agents of the state, but, like their oppressors, they are only acting out some deeper, compelling abstractions, playing historical roles in a drama they did not write.
The real, abstract violence gives rise to immediate chains of events that ebb and flow in often spectacular displays, or as Karl Marx aptly put it in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “bourgeois revolutions ... storm swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other ... but they are short-lived, soon they have attained their zenith, and a long crapulent depression lays hold of society before it learns soberly to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period.” Marx goes on to contrast bourgeois with proletarian revolutions in language that fairly leaps off the page, speaking of proletarian revolutions as criticizing themselves constantly, “interrupt[ing] themselves continually in their own course,” deriding “with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts,” and so on.
But what exactly is a “proletarian revolution”? A “bourgeois revolution” obviously puts the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class) in power, allowing it to remake human society in the image of the marketplace. Given that all proletarian revolutions—even the Paris Commune of 1871 and the anarchist-led revolution in Spain during the 1930s—have found themselves folded ineluctably back into the prevailing capitalist milieu from which they emerged, there has ultimately been no case on record of a successful proletarian revolution.
So if a proletarian revolution is one that puts the proletariat in power, can anyone truthfully point to any that have finally prevailed? Not one! Yet the Left has traditionally pinned its hopes on the working class—the proletariat—itself becoming a “ruling class” within capitalism, although in more recent times leftist opposition to capitalism has largely withered away. (Habib himself argues for a “progressive” capitalism and has no time for replacing it.) But proletarian revolutions work on an egalitarian model and necessarily have as their goal the abolition of classes altogether; their aim must be to end the class war rather than to win it.
Thus, a revolution that puts the working class in power can do so only if the working class moves to abolish its own subordination to capital first, ending the reproduction of capital in all its forms. If it aims at nothing else, it must aim at this. Capital requires wage labor; without an employment system, it cannot survive. Abolishing this system rests on one indispensable prerequisite: a majority of people who understand that socialism means a classless and moneyless society, and are willing to help make it operate.
In this context, to speak of revolutions “failing” or being “suspended,” as Habib does, is to mistake the vicissitudes of class struggle for real revolutions. Habib’s focus is understandably narrow, an effort to sort out what went wrong following the revolutionary majority’s apparent triumph over the apartheid system. The African National Congress (ANC) rose brilliantly to the challenge of opening up the state to all South Africans yet found itself ultimately chained to the economic legacy of apartheid. Habib’s goal is to propose a new set of ground rules that at least have a fighting chance of restoring the original spirit of the ANC’s victory. In eight chapters and 246 pages (excluding endnotes), he covers the gamut not only of the history but also of the writings on postapartheid South Africa.
However, closer scrutiny does not really bear out his optimistic assessment. In 1990, South Africa’s revolutionary majority had not yet materialized any more than during the “failed” 1917 revolution in Russia. Despite the “explicit mandate” ordained by the Freedom Charter to eliminate the horrors of apartheid and reform South African society in the interests of the majority, the ANC could never really have done more than govern capitalism. It faced an especially daunting challenge in achieving even this limited goal, considering the nature of apartheid.
Apartheid was the product of a struggle between transnational (or now, “globalizing”) capital and the homegrown landed class tracing its roots back to the Dutch Empire. Economic growth after the First World War had come to pose a serious dilemma to the farmers, who were caught between the desirability of fomenting immigration and the rising incompatibility of this with time-honored Afrikaner social controls. Ranged against the farmer-led coalition (the United Party led by Jan Smuts) was the growing strength of industrial-commercial capital, which favored adopting risky political methods in its pursuit of power. This was the Reunited National Party, led by a Dutch Reformed cleric, Daniel M. Malan, and it took its cues from contemporary Fascist and Nazi models. In 1948, the governing coalition fell apart, allowing control of the government to fall into the hands of the National Party, which advocated a rigorous and systematic restructuring of state policy based on the traditional racist institutions handed down from Dutch and British times.
Apartheid, then, was a quasi-Nazi regime that grew up at the fringes of international capitalism. It represented the capture of traditional allegiances grouped around a core of agriculturalists, who embraced the measures enacted by the National Party because the shared power arrangement pushed by the latter allowed all sections of the capitalist class to profit from an inherited status quo. All everyone had to swallow was a problematically extreme form of dictatorship.
As long as all parties to the oligarchy thus formed were happy with the arrangement, apartheid worked beautifully for the capitalists. Of course, they were driven to ever greater excesses in the course of their totalitarian experiment. By 1990, F. W. de Klerk began negotiations to end apartheid. Even with the ANC’s electoral victory in 1994, apartheid did not disappear in any functional sense until the elections put the ANC definitively in power. The rise of the de Klerk faction, then, represents the ultimate victory of commercial-industrial capital, which felt it could dispense with the remnants of the defunct United Party on the excuse of maintaining order, even if at great sacrifice to some of the “stakeholders.”
The result was a not-so-proletarian revolution superseding a not-so-bourgeois status quo, one that created a niche for the new political elites now jockeying for control of the black majority’s widened sphere of poverty and powerlessness. Everyone has come to agree that this is the price capital must pay for any future growth in South Africa. Habib and other left-leaning writers accept this fait accompli, if reluctantly. The National Party perceived an opportunity to consolidate the rule of capital, allowing the ANC to capture the political arena while quietly writing neoliberal ground rules into the economic base of the revolution. In a world where everything has its price, South Africa’s new rulers (the ANC) thus ended up making a very bad bargain: having leapt out of the frying pan of apartheid and into the fire of neoliberalism, they must now somehow prevail over an oppressor class that has made itself politically invisible within the framework of the constitution while retaining—even strengthening—its economic dominance.
How did they ever get themselves into such a pickle? Nelson Mandela’s right-hand man, Thabo Mbeki, had studied economics in Britain and in the process had come to identify himself as a Thatcherite. Elected president in 1999, he used his office to reinforce the new neoliberal ground rules with policies that betrayed the Freedom Charter and crippled the new South African state in its efforts to carry out the will of the majority. “This neo-liberal economic agenda,” writes Habib, “was formalised in June 1996 when the Cabinet adopted the GEAR [Growth, Employment and Redistribution] policy and symbolised in the closure of the RDP [Reconstruction and Development Programme] office, which had taken place three months earlier.... In its essential philosophical thrust, GEAR represented a fundamental departure from the ANC’s 1994 election manifesto” (p. 80).
As a scholar, Habib tries to be impartial in his judgments, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he finds Mbeki’s transformation obnoxious: “the leadership of the ANC must still be held accountable, however. It is one thing to be forced by the realities of the moment to temporarily compromise one’s economic agenda. It is quite another to wholeheartedly buy into a conservative macro-economic programme and then start to believe that it will achieve the ends it promises. The enthusiasm with which the ANC leadership implemented GEAR, and its rhetoric throughout that period, suggests that the latter was at play.” GEAR, in his view, “locked down South Africa’s extreme inequalities and polarised the society.... It represented a regression in social terms for South African society” (p. 86).
This is not a tenable situation in the long run, but Habib bets that “social democracy” can still win the day with astute leadership and “social pacts” between business and labor (chapter 4). The condition into which social democracy worldwide has slid, however, is revealed by the unquestioning assumptions he makes regarding the permanence of capital. The original Social Democrats (apart from the followers of Eduard Bernstein) at least kidded themselves that they could ultimately dismantle capitalist institutions and transform the capitalist social order piecemeal into something they imagined was “compatible” with the ideas of Marx. Habib, by contrast, follows the Tony Blair school in his unruffled acceptance of the capitalist fiat.
The limitedness of such thinking is exemplified in his remarks on the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Speaking of its relations with its partners in the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance, Habib argues that “in this context, it is vital that COSATU maintain a critical distance and retain sufficient independent leverage to enable it to pressurise its alliance partners into taking its interests seriously” (p. 210). This little problem of COSATU’s getting “its alliance partners [to take] its interests seriously,” however, conceals a larger “problem.” Having to fight to be considered important by the ANC leadership demonstrates that the interests of capital have long fingers that extend deep into the thoughts and perspectives of that leadership. The ANC, in other words, sees itself as bound not by the interests of the working-class majority but by those of the elite few at the pinnacle of society created by the blood, sweat, and tears of the working (or unemployed) majority. Even to the ANC, the interests of the majority fall at the margins of power. Everyone has to dance to the tune of the capitalists’ perverse variation on the “Golden Rule”: those who have the gold make the rules. No “reconfiguration of power” can change the fact that keeping capital (and wages) in the picture to begin with means keeping the working-class majority a subordinate and even a subservient one.
The only “reconfiguration” of power that matters necessarily involves a radical rejection of both capital and wages, which can only point to the direct abolition of employment altogether. Habib would assuredly dismiss this view because he is a convinced Social Democrat who thinks such “utopianism” is unlikely to lead anywhere concrete or produce any important practical results. That, however, is just the problem: rejecting capital and wages in an immediate sense can never be a “practical” goal to strive for. A real revolution in South Africa or anywhere else is not “practical” in a capitalist world to begin with, precisely because it aims to gain fundamental control of the rule-making process currently monopolized by the capitalist class. The majority has to both understand and want the change. The revolution Habib has in mind, in contrast, involves little more than a liberalization of capitalist ground rules, with an arguably larger share of wealth and power going to the working class. It is this envisioned process that has become “suspended.”
The finesse with which the rulers of the old South Africa under Smuts’s United Party—thence morphed into the National Party—pulled off their swindle of the African majority sadly suggests that the latter will always have an apartheid devil to conjure away. The only solution for the working class of South Africa is ultimately to abolish working for a living and introduce real socialism—to push for a true proletarian revolution.
. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1969), 19.
. Margaret Thatcher naïvely agreed with Marx on this point in remarking that “there is no such thing as society.” Margaret Thatcher, “Interview for Woman’s Own,” Margaret Thatcher Foundation, September 23, 1987, http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689.
. Mbeki resigned before the end of his second term in office. He was, essentially, impeached. After an interim successor filled out the remainder of his term, Jacob Zuma, a self-proclaimed socialist whose nods toward organized labor and greater political openness Habib in 2013 deemed less objectionable, was elected president; in 2014, he was reelected.
. The National Party suffered a meteoric decline after 1997: “the New National Party (NNP) was a South African conservative political party formed in 1997 when the National Party pulled out of the Government of National Unity with the African National Congress and decided to change its name in the process. The name change was an attempt to distance itself from its apartheid past, and reinvent itself as a moderate, non-racist federal party. The attempt was largely unsuccessful, and in 2005 the New National Party voted to disband itself,” following absorption of its remnants into the ANC. Wikipedia, s.v. “New National Party (South Africa),” last modified August 6, 2015, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_National_Party_(South_Africa).
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Roel K. Rab. Review of Habib, Adam, South Africa's Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects.
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