Nelson Mandela: leader of South Africa’s first great revolution

By Tom Castle

Nelson Mandela is a hero to all those who have struggled for freedom, for black liberation and for revolutionaries the world over. He was hounded and imprisoned for almost half a lifetime by the apartheid regime, in close collaboration with the imperialist powers led by the US and Britain. In death he is rightly receive tributes from across the world, even including entirely hypocritical ones from the likes of Obama and Cameron.

Readers of Socialist Action participated in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and rejoiced when Nelson Mandela was released and when the abomination of Apartheid was overthrown. A key aspect of our tribute to him is to learn from the revolutionary struggle that he led.

Marxism and two revolutions

Marxism originated when capitalism held sway in only a small fraction of the world. Marx and his close collaborators were able to witness at first hand and to analyse the struggle against the prevailing order, which was mainly feudalism. The revolutions of the mid-19th century, not just in Europe but beyond, and their failure led Marx to formulate the theory of permanent revolution.

The tasks of overthrowing feudalism in economic terms were to allow unfettered commodity production. Politically this required unifying the nation, the destruction of feudal landlordism, introducing formal liberties such as freedom of association and expression, and other bourgeois democratic rights that had long been associated with the classic revolution in France.

However, revolutions with these aims in the 1840s and 1850s were defeated. Marx drew lessons from his close study and participation in the failed German revolution in particular. In order to pursue a resolute struggle against the feudalists the German bourgeoisie would have to rely on the mass of the peasantry and the small embryonic proletariat in the cities. The revolution failed because in the course of the struggle the bourgeoisie became more alarmed by the revolutionary potential of the peasantry and the proletariat than the counter-revolutionary violence of the feudalists. The revolution was aborted, and some of its tasks were later carried out, in a reactionary and incomplete manner, by the most reactionary forces in Germany society, the Prussian Junkers, who made an alliance with the petit-bourgeois peasantry to win hegemony in society.

Marx, and all leading Marxists after him, adopted the perspective of carrying out what most frightened the German bourgeoisie; that the toilers, the proletariat would lead an alliance with the peasantry and prosecute the bourgeois revolution to the finish. But in doing so they would place themselves at the head of the whole nation and win the power for themselves. From that base they could make the revolution permanent (meaning uninterrupted), leading to the socialisation of property in the cities and agrarian revolution on the land.

However, neither Marx nor any of the great Marxists who followed, argued that no task of the bourgeois democratic revolution could be accomplished without the workers coming to power. That would be nonsense, refuted by everything from the Junkers in Marx’s time, to India’s independence and the national liberation struggles in Africa and Asia in the 20th century. Instead, they argued that the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution would only be thoroughly and fully accomplished through a revolutionary dictatorship, in an alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry.

The struggle against apartheid

There is no obvious parallel between the apartheid regime and other social forms. While capitalism was rapidly developing in South Africa, based on mining and manufacturing, the regime was uniquely based on denying citizenship rights to the overwhelming majority of the population, based solely on the colour of their skin. Land ownership was similarly denied, but also fundamental rights of residence. The notorious townships grew up because black workers and their families were not allowed to reside in the cities, and were legally regarded as migrant workers, subject to ‘deportation’. This was the essential contradiction of the regime. Capitalist production was being carried out within a framework of quasi-feudal social relations.

Nelson Mandela was part of the radical leadership that emerged from the ANC Youth League. Their first impulse was revolutionary African nationalism, characterised by a determination to break from the limits of struggle set by white liberals, and a Communist Party then largely concerned with the interests of its white membership. The course that propelled Mandela to leadership of the ANC and the ANC to leadership of the entire struggle was a refusal to compromise on those tactics, including armed struggle, combined with a recognition of the non-racial content of the tasks of the revolution.

This corresponded to the key tasks of the South Africa revolution: to overthrow apartheid, for the ANC to place itself at the head of the nation in order to smash apartheid and introduce unfettered commodity relations in South Africa. The political content of these tasks were summed up in the Freedom Charter, which bears close comparison with Marx’s democratic Demands crafted for the Communist Party in Germany in 1848.

In all the great revolutions the mass of the population tries first to achieve its aims through the line of least resistance. In the first Russian Revolution of 1917 the masses raised up Kerensky in order to achieve their aims, which were summarised by the Bolsheviks in the slogans of Peace, Bread and Land. Because Russian capitalism was completely in hock to the Entente powers its political representatives were unable to withdraw from the war and because it was socially allied with the landlords they were unable to distribute land to peasants. Starvation, not bread resulted. Only by enacting the Bolsheviks second key slogan, ‘All power to the soviets’, was it possible to fulfil the first slogan of Peace, Bread and Land. That required the second revolution in October which placed the workers and the revolutionary peasantry at the head of the nation.

The South African capitalist class was in crisis by the 1970s. Rapid development and industrialisation had made its narrow coalition with the numerically small white working class untenable. A revolution was possible because both the ruling class could not go on in the old way and because the overwhelming majority of the working classes were unwilling to go on in the old way. Through the uncompromising leadership of Mandela and the ANC, apartheid was smashed.

This was a triumph for all those struggling against oppression everywhere and a lesson for all revolutionaries. But it is clear that the revolution was confined to the task of overthrowing the apartheid state, the legal system which made the majority of the population non-persons in their own land. In the terms of the Freedom Charter, the land has still not been shared among those who work it, the mines, banks and industries have not been transferred to common ownership, contract labour has not been abolished, and so on.

In the course of the struggle it became apparent that it was possible to smash apartheid without placing the working class at the head of the nation and carrying out a socialist revolution. This was the great goal that was accomplished, and so one of the most widely reviled regimes the world has ever seen was overthrown.

It remains the task of future generations to accomplish those remaining goals fully and to the end, so ushering in the socialist revolution. They will be building on the legacy of great revolutionaries like Nelson Mandela and his comrades.