Baruch Hirson

Entrism and Nationalist Movements

(Winter 1995/96)

From Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 1, Winter 1995/96, pp.204–06.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive..

Dear Editor

In a passing reference to the election of April 1994 in South Africa, Al Richardson (Revolutionary History, Volume 5, no. 3, pp. 270–1) dismissed criticisms of those Trotskyists who apparently called for work inside the ANC, and said that there was little purpose in dredging up reference to events in China in the 1920s in discussing the issue. I have not followed the writings of the Workers International League’s group in South Africa, but I believe that the issue was whether the group should call on workers to vote for the ANC/SACP ticket. But whether it was the vote or the entrist issue, it surely required more than a comment on the side.

Revolutionary History does not normally concern itself with contemporary political issues, but it is because I believe that the subject needs more sophisticated discussion that I hope that you will find it possible to print this letter.

Firstly, with regard to lessons that can be learnt from the events in China, I cannot believe that this can be disregarded. The position formulated on work within a national movement was taken appreciably beyond the more generalised formulations of the Comintern in 1920, but it has not been incorporated into many discussions on the subject in the post-Second World War period. If it had been we might have avoided many of the sterile polemics that were initiated by Pablo and others on the Trotskyists’ relations with liberation movements.

There can be no doubt about the lessons that have to be learnt from the events in China. They helped to inform us of relations that could be, and should be, undertaken with liberation movements. Nonetheless, there can be no direct transference of examples taken from events leading up to the tragedy of 1927 in China and events today. The situation has altered radically since 1927, and the historical background of African countries is very different from that of China. To lift experiences from one period and one country and proceed to argue about another situation is to fly in the face of historical materialism. Whatever our perspectives, and no matter how much we might agree or disagree, the conclusions we reach must be based on an analysis of existing conditions.

As I understand the matter, to surrender a Socialist identity in order to merge with a national movement is contrary to all the programmatic formulations of a revolutionary movement, and must be separated from any discussion of entrist policies that apply to Socialist movements. Whatever the merits (or otherwise) of affiliating to a labour (or a Social Democratic) party, that issue is very different from a policy of joining with, or sinking organisational identity in, the many movements that flowered at some stage in the former colonial territories. The independence of Communists (that is, Trotskyists) from such movements, starting with the FLN in Algeria, through a succession of seemingly radical movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, did not mean that there could be no support for them in their campaigns, or in their demand for political independence. Yet such support had to be coupled with a critique of their class composition, their leadership and their programmes.

That is to say, in the matter under discussion it is necessary to look at the conditions in South Africa at any particular juncture. Besides the fact that members of the Workers Party formed the Non-European Unity Movement (a liberation movement) in 1943 and put all their resources into that body, it was possible for some Trotskyists to work in the ANC in the 1950s. I believe that those activities were less than successful despite some limited successes, and led such comrades to a position far too similar to those held by nationalist leaders. But whatever my conclusions on those activities (discussed in Searchlight South Africa, no. 12, and in my autobiography, Revolutions in My Life, Witwatersrand UP, 1995), conditions then were very different from those that appertaining in 1994.

I turn then to conditions as they were in April 1994, when the population voted for parties which would take their place in parliament on the basis of proportional representation. There was no electoral roll, and all who appeared at the polling station voted — and as expected the overwhelming majority voted for the ANC list. They did not necessarily know what the parties offered programmatically, and being largely illiterate they could not read the election manifestos. But they knew that they supported the party of Mr Mandela, and they voted accordingly. They were also probably unaware that there had been pressure from the left wing groups and the trade unions to convene a Constituent Assembly to frame a constitution — before a parliament was elected — and, presumably under this pressure, the ANC had also accepted the need to convene such a body.

If there had been such an Assembly, Socialists would have proposed their own candidates and advanced their own programmes. However, the ANC had no firm principled approach, and it was under the direction of Joe Slovo, the Stalinist director, that the demand for a Constituent Assembly was dropped and the ANC/SACP negotiators opted for a Government of National Unity (GNU) comprising the ANC, the National Party of FW de Klerk, and any party that gained over five per cent of the national vote. The same rule was applied to the regional governments, and that was to lead to a National Party majority in the western Cape, and an Inkatha government in KwaZulu/Natal. Hereafter, under the provisions of the system of proportional representation, a call for a vote for the ANC was not only a vote for members of the Communist Party, but also a vote for the National Party.

To add insult to injury, under the provisions of the agreed provisional constitution, any MP that resigned from, or was expelled from, the party to which he or she belonged automatically lost his or her right to stay in Parliament. That is, there could be no party realignment in parliament for at least five years, and no Socialist representative, save any that were elected on a Socialist platform, could appear in parliament.

There was one other feature of the elections about which the left was silent. They seemed so awed by the extension of the franchise that they forgot the message that had always been a centrepiece of Leninism: namely the need to warn the electorate that the ballot box was not designed to offer the population any effective social change. I think the epithet that was once used was ‘parliamentary cretinism’. This did not mean that Socialists had to ignore the election, but it did place an onus on them to explain the difference between a Constituent Assembly and a parliament, to explain the tight clamp that was placed on all MPs, and to declare that there would be no basic change in the society now that racism was no longer to be the basis of legislation. All other inequalities were entrenched in the constitution that the ANC and the National Party had jointly drafted.

The question was not one of entrism, but of the need for revolutionaries to explain patiently where the electorate was being misled. To call on people to vote ANC was to forget the first principle of revolutionary policy, and, let it be remembered, if the plan was to work inside the ANC, members would have to call for an ANC-National Party victory at the polls.


Baruch Hirson

Last updated on 26 May 2021