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International Socialism, Spring 2002


Leo Zeilig

Crisis in Zimbabwe


From International Socialism 2:94, Spring 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Zimbabwe is in the middle of a major economic and political crisis. Supporters of the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, are routinely killed. Whole communities are intimidated while the government arms a militia – the Youth Brigades – which threatens even greater violence. Elliot Manyika, the country’s youth minister, is setting up camps to indoctrinate youth so that they ‘fully appreciate their country and stand by it in times of crisis’. [1] The government has pushed through legislation mimicking George Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’ that makes it almost impossible to oppose the government. The Public Order and Security Act carries the death penalty for acts of ‘insurgency, banditry, sabotage and terrorism’. [2] The army chief, General Vitalis Zvinavashe, has said that the army will refuse to recognise a government led by a person who is not a veteran of the war for independence, ruling out the opposition. At the same time the ‘international community’ led by Britain is virtually hysterical. New Labour politicians talk about Mugabe as a madman ‘on the loose’, a crisis ‘driven by one man’s ruthless campaign’, and Zimbabwe as a symbol of the need to reorder Africa. [3] They talk about the importance of guaranteeing black and white harmony in a democratic Zimbabwe. Foreign secretary Jack Straw insists that it is ‘our’ responsibility not to ‘let a great continent go down’. [4] There is not much to choose between the violence and repression of a dying regime, and the hypocrisy and colonial morality of New Labour.

For some time newspapers have written about ‘anarchy’ in Zimbabwe, headlines have proclaimed the ‘Secret Plan To Evict All Whites’ and ‘Lawless Zimbabwe “Sliding Into Anarchy”’. [5] At the same time Mugabe, who was once happy to implement the policies of the IMF and World Bank, has been transformed into the despised tyrant of the continent, a ‘monster’ determined to unleash ‘mob savagery’ against law abiding (white) Zimbabweans. [6] But practically all of the recent coverage sees the crisis from the point of view of the devastation to white farmers in Zimbabwe, hysterical war veterans or ‘mobs’ rampaging mindlessly through the capital, Harare. Even on the left some have seen some truth in Mugabe as the new leader of the fight against imperialism and globalisation. Protesters outside the anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words ‘Mugabe is right! Seize the land’. [7]

The picture in Zimbabwe is very different. Less than 5 percent of the population, a mix of black and white families and businesses, monopolise almost 70 percent of the nation’s income. With 76 percent of the population on or below the poverty line, Zimbabwe is one of the world’s most unequal societies. [8] The country is also facing its worst economic crisis since independence, with unemployment at over 60 percent and inflation hitting 114 percent. Employment in the formal sector has collapsed, leaving thousands of graduates without work or the prospect of getting any. Female students are pushed into prostitution to pay for their studies and food in privatised dinner halls at the University of Zimbabwe. Fuel and food prices are forcing rural communities to move into overcrowded shanty towns on the outskirts of the two major cities, Harare and Bulawayo, while families already living in urban areas face a constant struggle to feed themselves. A quarter of the adult population is infected with AIDS, making Zimbabwe one of the worst affected countries in the world, but healthcare, largely decimated by IMF and World Bank policies, cannot cope with or treat patients dying from the disease. [9]

The country is also embroiled in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), involving more than 15,000 troops, a quarter of the entire army. Army generals and businessmen have been rewarded with contracts on mines and in logging companies. Mugabe’s support for the government of the DRC has been rewarded by the gift of vast areas of the land. One company, run by leading members of the ruling party Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), has been granted what Global Witness calls ‘the world’s largest logging concession by gaining rights to exploit 33 million hectares of forests’ – an area ten times the size of Switzerland. [10]

However, since 1995 Zimbabwe has been rocked by mass struggles which have threatened the regime and the interests of Western imperialism and neo-liberalism. These struggles have received virtually no attention in most mainstream accounts of the crisis, which prefer to see the current situation arising out of Mugabe’s autocratic rule. As one activist observes, ‘The main point I want to make is that we were on the verge of a sort of revolution in Zimbabwe.’ [11]

Out of these upheavals came one of the most powerful opposition movements on the continent. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged out of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in 1999 and became the most important force to challenge Mugabe since independence in 1980. The party almost won the parliamentary election in 2000, winning 57 seats, despite widespread violence by the ruling ZANU-PF which cost 31 lives. The fact that it came close to toppling such a violent regime after having only existed for 16 months is an indication of the extent of the changes sweeping Zimbabwean society. [12]

But the MDC is an enigma. While it was formed by the leadership of the ZCTU – Morgan Tsvangirai and Gibson Sibanda – it includes industrialists and white farmers, and a constellation of smaller pressure groups and left wing parties. Eddie Cross, the party’s spokesperson on economic matters, is a well known entrepreneur who champions privatisation and the policies of the IMF and World Bank. It has also received funding from the Tories, and when presented with the party’s economic programme the World Bank reportedly said, ‘We would have been proud to produce a programme like this, let alone have it handed to us.’ [13] How long this alliance of forces will hold together is a central question in Zimbabwe today.

What has happened in Zimbabwe in recent years that has led to these events? What are the roots of the crisis? Why is the question of land so important? And, crucially for us, what role have Zimbabwean workers played in the struggles that have rocked the country?

The rise and fall of Rhodesia

Zimbabwe has one of the most important economies in Africa. Unlike most African countries it has fairly well developed industrial and agricultural sectors. It has a relatively developed infrastructure, and it produces a range of goods in a number of industries. Manufacturing, at 24.8 percent of GDP in 1990, was about three times higher than most African countries. The sector employed 16.5 percent of all those in the formal economy. Agriculture is also diversified, growing such crops as tobacco, wheat, beef and cotton. Coupled with this is a massive concentration of ownership and control that originates from the state set up by the British more than 100 years ago. Almost 60 percent of industrial production is controlled by foreign capital while, until recently, only 4,000 mostly white farmers controlled 70 percent of the most fertile land, forcing more than 7 million peasants onto dry and drought-ridden plots. [14]

What are the origins of this situation? Zimbabwe emerged out of the authoritarian and racist state established by the British over a century ago. In 1890 the territory was marked out and handed to the imperialist adventurer Cecil Rhodes. He controlled the area for his British South Africa Company. The British confronted wave after wave of resistance culminating in the eventual defeat of Chimurenga – the anti-colonial revolt in 1898. The following 40 years witnessed the mass expropriation of land from peasant farmers and communities, the repression of any form of resistance, and forced labour on mines and in factories. Thousands of Africans were forced off their land and herded into what were called communal lands, or reservations. The racial land division was consolidated by two pieces of legislation, the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 and the Land Tenure Act of 1969, both of which prohibited Africans from owning land in white areas. [15] When Mugabe came to power 97 percent of the population was confined to a quarter of the land. [16]

In 1927 the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) was established as the country’s first trade union. It was founded principally by migrant workers from South Africa. Large numbers of white workers were recruited in both Britain and South Africa to work on the railways and mines. These groups of workers were initially responsible for a high level of militancy, leading strikes, and even forming a Rhodesian Labour Party, inspired by the British labour movement. [17]

In 1923 Rhodes’s company rule was ended and limited self government was granted to Southern Rhodesia. The Reform Party, a coalition of British interests, dominated the political scene, and sought to solidify an alliance between an increasingly militant white working class and the state. Only white workers were allowed to strike or belong to unions, although they were not allowed to form independent trade unions.

By the late 1920s the dye was set for the next 50 years. White workers became wedded to the Rhodesian state, splitting the working class on racial and craft lines. Even so, a small Southern Rhodesian Communist Party emerged from a left wing faction of the Labour Party. However, it was soon paralysed by following Russia’s advice to form ‘popular fronts’. Agitation amongst African workers was deemed provocative to building these cross-class alliances. [18]

The state managed to force through a high level of industrialisation from the 1930s onwards. In the 1950s, for example, annual growth was 10 percent. But as the economy expanded, so did the African working class. By 1950 the industrial working class, concentrated in urban areas around the industrial centre of what are today Bulawayo and Harare, had reached 469,000. [19] The 1948 general strike was the first major confrontation that threatened the state and gave life to the nationalist movement.

At the beginning of April 1948 a derisory wage offer was made by the Rhodesian Federal Chamber of Commerce. On 8 April at a mass meeting in Bulawayo police spies reported a ‘mass in favour of going on strike’. The Southern Rhodesian African National Congress (SRANC), which had been set up in the 1930s, persuaded workers to postpone action until a meeting in July. When the SRANC made the same suggestion a few days later the meeting ‘refused to listen to the leaders and finally broke up in disorder [with] everyone shouting, “Strike! Strike!”’. [20]

The next day pickets prevented workers leaving locations while others travelled to urban areas to spread the action. On 14 April the mass of workers in Bulawayo had joined the strike. Before long the strike movement had spread to the capital, Salisbury. One strike leader complained that ‘extremists’ were determined to subvert the strike: ‘I will use the word “extremists” meaning groups of Africans who probably organised the strike in secret and were opposed to any actions I took, and did their very best to influence strikes against me.’ [21] Another witness to the strike described it as ‘the first strike which threatened the white man’. [22]

Despite its militancy the strike illustrated a weakness in the working class. Although there were African organisations in Southern Rhodesia by the late 1940s, there was not, in the words of one commentator, a ‘single organisation which was able to co-ordinate and unify the struggles of Africans’. [23] This meant that elitist, even conservative forces could come to the fore. Benjamin Burumbo, a local shop owner who became a leader of the strike, falsely assured a meeting of strikers that the government had increased their wages in line with their demands. He became a leading figure in the nationalist movement. Mkushi Khumalo, an activist during 1948, described Burumbo in the following terms:

Burumbo was not an employee. Those who associate him with the strike are making a mistake. He was simply an opportunist ... Burumbo decided to join us and went about giving speeches as if he were an employee, and yet in fact he was a businessman, an employer. It was under these circumstances that Burumbo became a participant in the strike. [24]

The period demonstrated the failure, partly as a result of the political paralysis caused by Stalinism, to build an independent socialist organisation that could develop and lead the African working class. At each point of this failure, during the general strike in 1948 and later throughout the 1960–1961 Zhii strike movement, other political forces and classes were able to capitalise on the organisational vacuum left by the working class. Benjamin Burumbo managed to force himself on the movement, helping ultimately to return the country to the authorities. Joshua Nkomo, the railway union leader, was also a representative of the same phenomenon. He was a young graduate who had made his name in the 1948 general strike, sponsored by the railways in the hope that he could help offset the growth of radicalism. He rose to become the leading figure in nationalist politics in the 1950s and 1960s. The dearth of socialist politics allowed a group of educated Africans, a petty bourgeoisie, to lead a movement that had the potential of far greater liberation. [25]

The 1948 strikes did, however, provide the impetus for the formation of the first trade union congress, and in 1954 the Southern Rhodesia Trade Union Congress (SRTUC) was founded. It was headed by Joshua Nkomo. This in turn precipitated the creation three years later of an overtly nationalist organisation, the African National Congress (ANC). Trade unionists were the main source of support, and trade union leaders occupied most of the main positions in the organisation. Nkomo became the organisation’s first president. After the ANC was banned in 1959, Nkomo formed the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU).

In 1962 the Rhodesian Front, a right wing party headed by the racist Ian Smith, won power. Smith declared independence from Britain in 1965, in what was called a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). The decision was made in the context of the growth of resistance in Rhodesia and the rising politicisation across the continent which came with independence movements. The white minority sought to ensure their supremacy by supporting Smith in a continent that seemed to be turning the white man out. Nkomo sought active intervention against this decision from the UK government, and although British courts condemned UDI as ‘treasonable’ the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson refused to intervene.

Radical members of the nationalist movement, including Mugabe, broke with Nkomo to form the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). By the 1970s the fight against white minority rule was led by a left wing intelligentsia informed by Maoist and Stalinist ideas. They focused on guerrilla war in the countryside. This was reasonably successful, and by the end of 1970s the Patriotic Front forces were somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 strong. The government’s forces were engaged on approximately six fronts, with martial law imposed throughout the whole country. [26] Although these tactics achieved some success, they failed to win a decisive victory over Smith and the Rhodesian Front. For those fighting against the Rhodesians there was an additional risk – even in the middle of the war Mugabe was murdering his opponents in the liberation struggle. [27] Ian Smith was finally forced to negotiate and, largely under pressure from Mozambique, Mugabe accepted the Lancaster House agreement. In 1980 Zimbabwe became independent.

Land, independence and reconciliation

Zimbabwean independence involved one of the most spectacular and instant reconciliations in the history of armed conflict. The 1979 Lancaster House agreement that led directly to independence the following year guaranteed the property of the small white population. Ian Smith’s regime conceded to black majority rule on the basis of a promise that the property rights of the white majority would be safeguarded, and that when land reform eventually came white farmers would be fully compensated. At the same time Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, the two leaders of the independence war, were persuaded to adopt a new constitution that prevented the forced expropriation of white farms for ten years. This was a far cry from Mugabe’s promise a few years before that ‘none of the white exploiters will be allowed to keep an acre of their land’. This promise was extracted with the ‘commitment’ from the Thatcher government to make hundreds of millions available for land reform in the future. [28]

However, the only official commitment secured by the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, was that the first government would not be able to confiscate white property. Nevertheless Mugabe went on to win the election with the pledge that thousands of black families would be settled on white land within three years. The initial resettlement figure was for 162,000 families. In the end only 70,000 families were resettled in that period. However, the 1980s did see a certain amount of successful resettlement, which was often popularly driven through a large number of ‘illegal’ occupations. The period that followed was notable for its failure to continue the limited progress that had been made. [29]

Despite the lapse of the constitutional block on compulsory purchase in 1990, the regime failed to pursue redistribution with any seriousness. There are three principal reasons. Firstly, the huge profits made from export crops by white farmers were a major disincentive to pursue large-scale resettlement. Secondly, the priority during this period was to expand black commercial farmland, a process of ‘indigenisation’, but this was coupled with confusion about whether the problems of communal areas could be resolved through expanded resettlement. Finally, and crucially, the adoption of a structural adjustment programme in the early 1990s led to a massive reduction of public expenditure on social programmes which were essential to the resettlement projects.

Another important factor was the relationship of the regime to white farmers. White farmers, and the white community generally, never integrated socially or politically with the black population after independence. However, they were not the present day ‘colonialists’ and ‘imperialists’ (as they are labelled by Mugabe), but rather useful allies to the regime. [30] As a consequence, 20 years after independence the percentage of white land resettled by black families was a fraction of the total land owned by the white population, while most of the money promised at the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ in London years before failed to appear. From the hundreds of millions promised by the British only a meagre £44 million ever materialised and, like all aid, it came with conditions, meaning that after the wrangling about what it could be used on, not even all of this sum was spent.

Some of the land that was redistributed in the early 1990s was used to create a class of black commercial farmers. Although there were certainly a number of questionable deals over the allocation of land to black commercial farmers, at this point not all of the land went to political friends. Yet the combined effect of structural adjustment and the wave of popular protests after 1996 decisively shifted the pattern and use of land allocation. Two hundred farms were purchased and distributed to army officers and party officials whose loyalty could be guaranteed with the promise of land. One giant estate was parcelled into 27 smaller farms and presented to a handful of party figures, including presidential spokesman George Charamba. The military also benefited – General Vitalis Zvinavashe received his own estate while thousands of poor Zimbabweans were ignored. In the recent land grab it is again political patronage that has determined allocation. Loyal reporters, leading politicians and soldiers have been given land, but title deeds have remained with the government, ensuring continued loyalty to the regime. Still the pattern of current commercial land allocation is a small part of the total picture and it is important to remember that recent land occupations have often been popularly driven, and the government has sought desperately to control them. [31]

The compromises, procrastination and ultimately the failure to confront the issue of land redistribution are representative of the general approach of the regime. In the immediate aftermath of independence Mugabe made his intentions clear. He asserted that there would be no fundamental transformation of society and, despite the change in government, white businesses and farmers could rest assured that their living conditions would be guaranteed. On 17 April 1980, in front of an international crowd that included Prince Charles, Robert Gabriel Mugabe reassured the country:

If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend. If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you. [32]

For a time the desire to seek reconciliation and restore confidence to white farmers and businesses looked as though it would bring down the government. [33] As one writer observed, ‘Despite its Marxist-Leninist rhetoric the ZANU-PF government tried to preserve the largely white-owned productive structures.’ [34] The gross inequalities of ownership and control in the economy were maintained and shored up after independence.

It was not simply the inequalities that remained after independence, but much of the Rhodesian state. A great deal of the colonial legal system remained intact, ensuring unparalleled powers for the president and the ruling party. The state continued to suppress dissent – it labelled oppositionists terrorists and massacred ‘enemy’ communities. The recent violence expresses the continuity and escalation of state repression, not its first appearance. The worst examples of this brutality were the massacres in Matabeleland in the 1980s. The majority of the population were Ndebele speakers who were regarded as supporters of the rival liberation organisation ZAPU, led by Nkomo. It has been estimated that between 1981 and 1988 between 10,000 and 20,000 ‘dissidents’ – the normal euphemism for unarmed civilians – were killed. Thousands more were herded into concentration camps, raped, tortured and starved. [35]

At independence the union movement was fragmented and disorganised. Yet in the first years of independence there was an upsurge of strike action – 200 strikes were officially recorded between 1980 and 1981. [36] In many ways these strikes contained the grievances of a generation. Although many were concerned with low wages, other strikes were against racist managers and the discrimination against trade union representation. The strikes helped to ensure that the government implemented a number of important reforms in the next few years.

Later on the government urged the merger of unions into a central federation, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). To start with, the ZCTU was tied closely to the government. The ZCTU was packed with Mugabe’s friends, and even a member of his family. This relationship persisted while the government implemented limited reforms – a national minimum wage, legislation enshrining labour rights, and health and education provision.

For a few years in the early 1980s the government increased spending on health and education, and picked up considerable support both in towns and the countryside. Between 1980 and 1990 primary and secondary schools were built across Zimbabwe. Enrolment increased in primary education from 1.2 million in 1980 to more than 2.2 million by 1989, and in secondary schools from only 74,000 to 671,000 in the same period. [37] However, by the mid-1980s the economy had begun to stagnate. From 1986–1987 per capita GDP declined rapidly. [38] Loans from the World Bank, happily and greedily accepted by the government, caused foreign debt to rise from $786 million in 1980 to $3 billion in 1990. [39] Having precipitated the crisis a group of neo-liberals gathered around the finance and economics minister, Bernard Chidzero. Thus under some duress, but not without complicity, the government invited the World Bank in to reorganise the economy. Supporters of the state capitalist reforms of the early years became marginalised. [40]

Structural adjustment

The government introduced the first full Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) in 1991, although the IMF had been pressing the government to reduce expenditure and devalue the Zimbabwe dollar from as early as 1982. [41] Following similar – and similarly disastrous – programmes in most of Africa the World Bank insisted on trade liberalisation, the removal of import controls and export incentives, deregulation – including changes to what was regarded as ‘restrictive’ labour legislation – and widespread public sector reforms. The effects were devastating. [42]

The government now pursued policies involving privatisation and the closure of state companies deemed unprofitable by Western donors, the IMF and the World Bank. The year after the implementation of the ESAP saw a huge 11 percent fall in per capita GDP. [43] More than 20,000 jobs were lost between January 1991 and July 1993. In 1993 unemployment had reached a record 1.3 million from a total population of about 10 million. [44] Tor Skalnes reported 25,000 civil service jobs lost by 1995, while ‘inflation rose and exports declined’. [45] The new policies promoted by Washington and the IMF failed to stem, and by all accounts helped to deepen, the recession that continued to grip Zimbabwe.

A new militancy was born out of this turmoil. By the late 1980s sections of society that had previously been termed ‘middle class’ were radicalised by the fall in living standards. At the same time opposition at the University of Zimbabwe emerged, criticising the rightward shift in government policy. Most significant was the rupture between the government and the trade union leadership. The old leadership of the ZCTU that had followed and supported the government since independence was replaced by a new one that was influenced by the radicalisation in society. In 1988 Tsvangirai – a mineworker and activist – became general secretary of the ZCTU. The following year he supported student protests at the University of Zimbabwe and was detained for six weeks on the suspicion of being a South African spy. The period was crucial for a new generation of militants and trade unionists. As Tendai Biti argues, ‘It was the first time people criticised the legitimacy of these heroes. It showed you can make noise and not get killed.’ [46]

While Mugabe’s stories about the role he played in the struggle for national liberation had carried some weight in the 1980s, they now seemed more like the tales of an old man anxious to divert attention from the failure of that liberation. Most Zimbabweans only had access to infertile and barren land, and more often were landless labourers for white farmers who were protected by the government from the land invasions by angry workers and peasants. And those who had only been children during the struggle for independence were now the new working class, who had been brought up under a black government. They saw through Mugabe’s hollow promises and began to mobilise for change. The trade union bureaucracy even proclaimed during the 1991 May Day rally, ‘Are we going to make 1991 the year of the World Bank storm?’ [47] Later the ZCTU produced an alternative economic plan, Beyond ESAP, opposing some of the government’s IMF-sponsored programme. But in the liberal rhetoric of Beyond ESAP lay warning signs for those hoping for radicalism from the new union leadership.

The upheavals

It was not until the mid-1990s that Zimbabwe experienced its first significant upheavals against the austerity policies pursued by the government. Many activists regard the demonstration against police brutality in 1995, triggered by the murder of several people by the police in Harare, as a turning point. One activist, Luke Kasuwanga, who helped to organise the demonstration, recalls how it inspired him:

When I reached home I waited for the 8 o’clock news. The news was read – Harare was burning! You could see fire everywhere. The minister was interviewed and we could see that he was sweating. He was saying, ‘We know the people responsible and we are going to get them. They are going to pay for it.’ And it all came under my name ... At first you have to deny that you are involved [but] later on we are proud that we were at the forefront. And funnily enough one of my workmates – who wasn’t involved in politics – he attended that demonstration, and that demonstration made him solid from that period ... Why am I saying this? It politicised me. That was the first time being in the leading role whilst I was a worker not even having so much confidence.

But it was not until 1996 that Zimbabwean society experienced mass struggle. In August there was the first national government workers’ strike. Tens of thousands came out on strike against job losses, bad working conditions and government corruption. Although health workers, nurses and doctors initiated the strike, it spread rapidly to other workers – teachers, civil servants and almost every branch of the public sector. It affected every area of the country and crippled the government. As the strike continued it developed clearly political aims, eventually even demanding a reduction in the size of the cabinet.

An elected committee of rank and file trade unionists directed the strike. Flying pickets moved from workplace to workplace arguing with workers to join the movement. Tafadzwa Choto, who was active at the time, recognised the importance of the period: ‘I think the turning point was the government workers’ strike in 1996. It really gave confidence to so many workers.’

Trade union leaders ran to keep up with the strike. Before long they forced themselves to the front of the movement and eventually persuaded strikers to accept a government offer. The strike ended in an agreement that included a large increase in wages, the promise of a new labour act, a guarantee that workers would receive bonuses, and the recognition of public sector unions. However, the agreement did not hold. By November health sector workers were on strike again, staying out until February 1997. [48]

If Zimbabwe’s rulers thought the worst was over they would be sorely disappointed. The following year saw more demonstrations and strikes than at any time since independence. Students combined with workers who linked the struggle in the city with the need to distribute land in the countryside. As Tendai Beti, a leading activist at the time, remembers, ‘This was a momentous occasion in the history of this country because it brought confidence – you could smell working class power in the air.’ [49] Rural labourers and peasants invaded commercial farms in various provinces and tried to resist the police who had been sent by the ruling ZANU-PF to evict them and restore ‘law and order’. A radicalised urban working class helped fuel the rural struggle.

The previously marginalised war veterans broke onto the scene. They were for the most part former fighters from the guerrilla war against the Rhodesian state. They had been abandoned since independence, and by the mid-1990s most of them were unemployed, without pensions or land. Galvanised by the mass upheavals shaking society, they joined demonstrations and started making their own demands. They denounced Mugabe at public forums, including at the annual Heroes’ Commemoration. [50]

By the end of the year Mugabe was so frightened by the threat posed by the war veterans that he imposed a tax, a War Veterans’ Levy, which he argued would be used to fund pensions for those who had fought in the war. As a result another strike, a two-day stayaway, was called by the ZCTU. Thousands of demonstrators converged on Harare, and by the end of the strike the government had agreed to remove the proposed tax. The wave of militancy that had started in 1996 continued into 1998. The year started with a ‘bread riot’ led by housewives, provoked by an increase in the cost of basic commodities. It frightened the government. As the minister of home affairs commented immediately after the riots, ‘The just-ended three-day food riots which came soon after the announcement of the general increase of prices of basic commodities, mealie meal, rice, cooking oil and bread, represent the most violent riots the country has experienced since independence.’ [51]

Eight people were killed, hundreds injured and thousands of people arrested. The riots quickly combined workers and the unemployed, while leaders in the ZCTU tried to dissuade workers from joining the demonstrations. [52]

The union congress was not completely wrong-footed. The general secretary, Morgan Tsvangirai, understood the importance of the new wave of militancy. He even called for a general strike without consulting the general council of the congress, and was almost removed as a result. Kasuwanga illustrates the way the movement took the lead:

When ZCTU was calling for stayaways, these stayaways were called after the housewives and the unemployed were rioting in the townships spreading around Zimbabwe. Even the 1998 bread demonstrations, which shook the whole of Zimbabwe [were] done by housewives on their own. Even Tsvangirai said he was nothing to do with it. It began spontaneously on its own.

The war veteran leader Chenjerai Hunzvi became a key loyalist to Mugabe during the period, even though his ‘profile’ as a middle class and privileged member of the establishment could not contrast more with the peasants and ex-combatants he now led. [53]

The ZCTU was mindful of events that had led to the removal of Kenneth Kaunda in neighbouring Zambia in the early 1990s. A movement led and organised by the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions had swept the old regime from power in elections held in 1991. The Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) came to power headed by Frederick Chiluba, the general secretary of the only trade union federation that had helped to co-ordinate strikes and demonstrations that undermined the old regime. [54] Already the level of militancy in Zimbabwe had surpassed the mass struggles that had transformed Zambian politics. But would Zimbabwe follow the same path? What should the ZCTU do?

A workers’ party?

Between 1996 and 1998 the ZCTU repeatedly sought to lead and direct a mass movement that persistently pre-empted their direction. Rank and file activists, often organising in labour forums (where large groups of workers meet to discuss politics) rushed ahead of union bureaucrats in organising strikes and demonstrations. From 1998 a recurrent theme of the labour forums was the demand for the ZCTU to form a workers’ party, a demand that was repeatedly rejected on the grounds that a union’s work should be limited to ‘economic’ and not ‘political’ issues. However, as the crisis deepened so did the urgency of these demands.

Meanwhile Mugabe seemed to be failing everyone. The ‘international community’ who had long regarded him as a reliable partner, and Zimbabwe as proof of the efficacy of IMF and World Bank reforms, began to ostracise the regime. He caved in too easily to an audacious workers’ movement, which was meant to have been subdued by ten years of World Bank led reforms. Gradually various NGOs, academics, businessmen and lawyers added their voices to the calls for a new opposition. The ‘demands’ now carried a contradiction. On the one hand they came from below, the labour forums and the streets that had been involved in mass struggle since 1996. These forces insisted on a reversal of Mugabe’s ‘privatisation and patience’. But on the other hand pressure was mounted by the middle class – academics, lawyers and businesses who were threatened by the movement they now sought to co-opt.

Mugabe began to realise that if he was going to survive where Kaunda and Malawi’s Hastings Kamuza Banda – also ejected by popular resistance – had not, then he must be seen to retreat from an agenda of IMF reform that he had enthusiastically defended. The regime moved quickly, and government rhetoric began to lambast ‘imperialism’ and ‘Western racism’. The effects of this shift helped to consolidate middle class and foreign support for a ‘new party’, in opposition to Mugabe’s new position. ZANU-PF did not move forward in one mass. Factions in the party, principally around Eddison Zvobgo, a longstanding advocate of neo-liberal reform, became a focus of opposition in ZANU-PF, trying and ultimately failing to resist Mugabe.

Land was key to this reorientation. For nearly 20 years the government had failed to seriously redistribute land to the black majority starved of it. The government, which in the mid-1990s had ejected ‘squatters’ from occupied white farms, a few years later sanctioned the occupation by squatters of the same farms. [55] Mugabe began to realise the potential of the war veterans and used Hunzvi – ‘Hitler’ as he labelled himself – to win their loyalty. Before long Mugabe had outmanoeuvred the opposition in his party and won most of the regime behind his new stance. The collapse in value of the Zimbabwean dollar at the end of 1998 was symbolic of what was to come – the isolation and rapid demonisation of the regime by international capital.

The call for a new party was finally answered. In March 1999 the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was initially just a ‘movement’, was born through the National Working People’s Convention (NWPC). The ZCTU had convened the NWPC, and invited NGOs, civic groups and residents’ associations. However, the convention was not a friendly gathering, and attempts were made to exclude leading socialists. Tim Chitambure remembers:

The guys were given special instructions, ‘You should not allow socialists in.’ But you know what we did? We are the leading people in locations, so some went under the banner of residents’ associations, some went under the banner of other groups in the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA).

The aim for many of those present was to form a labour party committed to defending the interests of the working class, but the tension between these activists and the other participants was never far from the surface. As Chitambure remembers:

So we were saying that ZCTU should form a workers’ party. But they didn’t like it – they wanted to separate economics from politics ... They asked: ‘How come you are in here?’ and you say, ‘I am representing Glenfield residents association.’ Those that did not get in were outside with some leaflets saying, ‘In this convention push these points.’ [56]

Until the organisation’s official launch in September 1999 the party was dominated by trade unionists, but a middle class bloc representing local and international business interests quickly began to encroach on the leadership of the party. In the parliamentary elections in June 2000 workers made up only 15 percent of the candidates. Policy also shifted, and the party courted Western leaders and committed itself in the election manifesto to policies of the ‘free market’, ‘privatisation’, ‘direct investment’ and land reform that succeeded in being to the right of ZANU-PF, offering only very limited redistribution to the poor.

The parliamentary vote followed the MDC victory in a referendum on a draft constitution proposed by the government in Feburary. The MDC almost won the parliamentary elections. For a party less than one and a half years old this was an extraordinary result. The party attracted the core of the urban working class in all of the principal cities – Harare, Bulawayo and Chitungwiza. But the election also marked a decisive shift in policy and symbolised the end of what had seemed to be the inextricable radicalisation of the struggle. [57]

How could the MDC have fallen into the hands of the middle class? The answer is the same weakness of the organised working class that we saw in the 1948 general strike. Although the ZCTU had jettisoned the old leadership in the late 1980s, its new leaders were still tied to Stalinist politics. When the regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia collapsed, so did the ideological signposts for a generation of trade union bureaucrats, activists and leaders. At the same time there was no clear organisational or ideological force in the working class with enough influence to make sense of these events. Although the period 1996–1998 showed the power, initiative and creative force of the Zimbabwean working class, the strikes and demonstrations remained ultimately under the control of the trade union bureaucracy. In turn they ensured that ‘stayaways’ would only be used as a means to, at most, pressurise Mugabe while keeping the interests of national and international capitalism on board.

But there was another element to the participation of the middle class in the MDC which was tied inextricably to the struggles that had marked the late 1990s. Kasuwanga argues that it was the threat of mass revolt and revolution that marginalised and frightened the middle class. These tensions forced them to respond to the MDC, as he explains:

The main point I want to make is that we were on the verge of a sort of revolution in Zimbabwe. There was going to be anarchy, whereby revolts were going to be happening any time, any day. So I think some interested groups, to stop this, said, ‘Why don’t you form this NCA and later on the MDC?’ ... Through ... the ZCTU calling for that dialogue thing [it] was trying to neutralise the power of workers. Because workers by then were calling [for] a five-day stayaway, the five-day stayaway was the one needed by workers. And Tsvangirai was calling for one day, two days, one day, two days, every Wednesday. It was a form of trying to control workers. If the MDC was not formed workers were going to revolt on their own. And the middle classes were scared. Do you know what was happening? People like me, I don’t have O-levels, I don’t have a degree. I was even more influential in my area. Our comrades, those who were putting up the barricades in the street, were having more influence. The ‘middle class’ were losing influence because no one could hear them. They couldn’t stand and talk to the people rioting because the language was different. But having that dialogue thing, they try to interpret all of those things to us – the rule of law, the IMF, economics, ‘We want foreign currency. We want this and that.’ They thought that they were talking to the uneducated: ‘You cannot understand this. Do this and do that.’ That is how the struggle was stolen from our hands.

Whether the strikes and mass struggles between 1996 and 1998 amounted to a ‘revolutionary situation’ is debatable. There were never consistent political demands under an independent leadership that could have made the question of state power and the forcible removal of Mugabe more than an issue among a minority of those active. But Kasuwanga is undoubtedly right that Zimbabwe went through a ‘sort of revolution’.

Each step of the way attempts were made to stifle the independent voice of the movement. Organisations that had built solidarity, organised labour forums, set up tenants’ associations, and participated in strikes and demonstrations were obstructed in their work. Despite this, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) won an important seat in a working class area of Harare in the 2000 parliamentary elections as part of the MDC and, despite continued opposition from the party leadership, remains in the organisation. [58] However, regardless of the avowedly Blairite stance of the party, it is the product of the mass struggle that gripped Zimbabwe, and it is still regarded by the majority who participated in that struggle as the only means to get rid of Mugabe. [59]


Zimbabwe today is an oddly familiar place – a government determined to rid the country of ‘terrorists’ who, they declare, are no more than agents of foreign powers, determined to subvert the integrity of a sovereign nation. There is more than a whiff of Rhodesia in the air. At the same time there is a chorus of, ‘I told you Zimbabwe (and South Africa) would never last.’ Countries that had shown so much promise before (in white hands) were destined to go the way of the continent. This of course is racist nonsense. It is, on the contrary, the continuity, not the rupture with colonial practices, that characterises the regime. Recent violence is built on what Mugabe claims to be fighting – the colonial legacy.

The British government were the authors of this legacy, and they have not changed. On the brink of war with Afghanistan, Tony Blair declared that the state of Africa was ‘a scar on the conscience of the world’. He called for a new initiative for the continent that would involve a partnership with Africa. On the Western side it would involve more aid, less debt and ‘training to soldiers’. On the African side it would involve good government, less tolerance of corruption and the activities ‘of Mugabe’s henchmen in Zimbabwe’. This is a sham, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The first ‘initiative’ the British state offered Africa was the colonisation of the continent more than 100 years ago. Since then British companies have profited in every conceivable way from what the great Guyanese scholar Walter Rodney termed ‘how Europe underdeveloped Africa’. [60] The current agents of this underdevelopment, of which Tony Blair is an outspoken advocate, are the structural adjustment programmes and loans from the World Bank and the IMF. These helped to fund the genocidal regime in Rwanda and enrich corrupt governments like Mugabe’s, while decimating healthcare that could have acted as a bulwark against the spread of AIDS. Solutions cannot be found in Western ‘initiatives’ or any form of recolonisation, but through the struggles of those who have resisted the policies of both Blair and Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s partial withdrawal from ESAP was not a principled decision based on socialist politics, but a cynical move forced on him by a political crisis caused by popular resistance and working class struggles. The reality for most Zimbabweans has been a continuation of the same policies, while the regime mouths platitudes about ‘foreign powers’ and ‘racist imperialism’. Privatisation continues, the cost of fuel and food rises, while compensation packages for white farmers are hammered out by Commonwealth leaders who debate endlessly whether Zimbabwe should be excluded from their club. Unemployment now affects much more than half of the population – jobs in the ‘formal’ sector for new graduates and students have all but dried up. The increase in the price of food has meant that thousands of workers and the poor are forced to live on a diet of rice.

Although there is uncertainty about what will happen, it is clear that Mugabe will not tolerate defeat. Yet he is preparing for it. The government has created a paramilitary force among sections of the war veterans and the unemployed (attracting thousands with the offer of free food and lodging) to be called on to prevent defeat – or, in the event of it, to destabilise the country. [61] The choice for ordinary Zimbabweans has already been shown. It is the return to Jambanja, mass struggle, which offers the key. Morgan Tsvangirai threatened to remove Mugabe in 2000 by extra-parliamentary activity if he refused to go legally. As Choto says, ‘Last year Tsvangirai made statements that Mugabe was going to be removed – if he didn’t resign he was going to be removed by violence, and there was going to be mass action. That never took place, and the reason? The MDC was given advice by European countries not to do so.’ His international backers were scared about the consequences of letting the djinn of mass protests out of the bottle. But it is this djinn that offers Zimbabwe the way out of the crisis.

There are many signs that a new radicalisation is already taking place. It is testimony to how quickly the situation is changing that a previously middle class organisation like the National Constitutional Assembly has moved massively to the left as the MDC swings further to the right. Activists in the NCA, anxious not to have only MDC loyalists on the steering committee, put forward an alternative slate in elections at a meeting in July 2001. Every member of this slate was elected, including two socialists. At the same time MPs for the MDC have been attacked by activists at meetings for ‘selling out’, and even Tsvangirai is booed and threatened by those who months ago used to cheer him. Disillusionment with the MDC is growing before the election, in a way similar to the situation in Britain before the 1997 elections. [62]

As I have argued, the MDC is a contradiction. While it was the struggle between 1996 and 1998 that gave birth to it, it was the very weakness of this movement and the political organisations of the working class that led to the party’s failure to resist the pull of the middle class. Although it has been deflected from its founding purpose, it remains to many the crucial repository for their hope for social change. It is clear, however, that the MDC holds none of the answers to the poverty and misery crippling Zimbabwe. It too represents a hurdle that Zimbabwean workers must cross. [63]

Mass struggle is not only the answer for Zimbabwe. If the struggle is connected to Southern Africa’s strongest link, the South African working class – which has repeatedly shaped political development in the region – then a radical alternative to the austerity and privatisation that have ravaged Africa can be found. But central to this is the need to build revolutionary socialist organisations that can give political clarity, practical strength and organisational strategy to the African working class. This has been the central objective and the acknowledged weakness of countless socialists and revolutionaries in Africa. As the Zimbabwean socialist Munyaradzi Gwisai has shown, the example of revolutionaries organising and participating in mass militant action is an invaluable lesson to all those who want to see the self emancipation of those crushed by Western imperialism (by Blair’s ‘initiatives’) and local governments. [64] Conditions for this struggle are better today than they have ever been. The growth of an anti-capitalist movement is having an impact in the South African Anti-Privatisation Forums and in the general strike in August 2001. It is also touching Zimbabwean students and activists. If the hope that ‘another world is possible’ can be translated into socialist politics and organisation, and the development of a strong, independent rank and file movement in the region, then Southern Africa can again show the way to a better world. [65]


I would like to thank Andy Wynne, Miles Larmer, Dave Renton and Jocelyn Alexander for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this article.

1. Business Day (South Africa), 30 January 2002.

2. The Guardian, 10 January 2002.

3. The Guardian, 28 January 2002.

4. Ibid.

5. The Daily Telegraph, 27 August 2001; The Observer 22 April 2001.

6. The Daily Telegraph, 10 August 2001. News programmes are full of the catastrophe for white Zimbabwe. Jeremy Vine, a presenter on the British current affairs programme Newsnight, was determined to present the crisis as one harming principally black/white relations (28 January 2002).

7. Some see Mugabe as the leading figure in a rejuvenated pan-Africanism. He is keen to capitalise on this, speaking in Harlem, New York, in September 2000. See H. Aidi, The Fire This Time: Pan-Africanism Comes to Harlem, See also the absurd article by George Shire, suggesting that Mugabe is in fact the progressive choice in the elections: The Struggle For Our Land, The Guardian, 24 January 2002.

8. M. Gwisai, Revolutionaries, Resistance and Crisis in Zimbabwe, in L. Zeilig (ed.), Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa (New Clarion Press: forthcoming 2002).

9. A. Meldrum, The Observer, 30 September 2001.

10. See Global Witness, Zimbabwe’s Resource Colonialism in the DRC, 26 August 2001, [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

11. International Socialist Organisation activist Luke Kasuwanga. Unless otherwise indicated all quotations are taken from interviews conducted in London throughout July 2001.

12. P. Alexander, Zimbabwean Workers, the MDC and the 2000 Election, Review of African Political Economy 85, pp. 385–387.

13. Cited ibid., p. 394.

14. M. Gwisai, op. cit.. See P. Bond, Uneven Zimbabwe: A Study of Finance, Development, and Underdevelopment (Trenton, 1998), pp. xxiv–xxviii. It is important to remember that the picture of land ownership and control is constantly changing due to recent seizures. The extent of these seizures is impossible to quantify exactly. See the brilliant paper by J. Alexander, Squatters, Veterans and the State in Zimbabwe, in A. Hammer, B. Raftopoulos and S. Jensen (eds.), Unfinished Business: Rethinking Land, State and Citizenship in Zimbabwe (Harare and Oxford, forthcoming 2002).

15. For a detailed study of land in Zimbabwe see J. Matowanyika, The History of Land Use in Zimbabwe from 1900, available on the net, [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

16. C. McGreal, The Trail from Lancaster House, The Guardian, 16 January 2002.

17. C. van Onselen, Chibharo: African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia 1900–1933 (London 1976). See generally I. Mandaza (ed.), Zimbabwe: A Political Economy of Transition 1980–86 (Dakar 1986) and P. Bond, op. cit..

18. See the excellent illustrated history of the Zimbabwe trade union: B. Raftopoulos and I. Phimister (eds.), Keep on Knocking: A History of the Labour Movement in Zimbabwe 1900–1997 (Harare 1997).

19. M. Gwisai, op. cit..

20. Cited in B. Raftopoulos The Labour Movement in Zimbabwe: 1945–1965, in B. Raftopoulos and I. Phimister (eds.), op. cit., p. 65.

21. Cited ibid., p. 67.

22. Cited ibid., p. 68.

23. Ibid., p. 71.

24. Cited ibid., pp. 69–70.

25. A. Astrow’s excellent book looks at this process: Zimbabwe: A Revolution That Lost its Way? (London 1983), p. 21.

26. A. Callinicos and J. Rogers, Southern Africa after Zimbabwe, International Socialism 9 (Summer 1980).

27. See A. Astrow’s excellent book, op. cit., pp. 107–108.

28. The precise figure is still contested. It was subject to the ruling class tradition of a ‘gentleman’s agreement’.

29. Resettlement was quite successful in comparison to similar projects in other African countries. Productivity even outstripped the communal areas on a hectare for hectare basis. For those who experienced the resettlement it transformed their lives, but for the thousands left landless and poor it was undoubtedly a bitter disappointment. See B.H. Kinsey and H.P. Binswanger, Characteristics and Performance of Settlement Programs: A Review (Washington DC 1993).

30. A cursory glance at Zimbabwe reveals the total lack of integration. It is typical across Africa today, even in countries that had no experience of settler communities. The image is identical to the popular conception of apartheid South Africa – rich white suburbs, with large green lawns watered by black staff and black security guards guarding palatial houses with swimming pools and enormous gardens. These areas sit cheek by jowl with sprawling townships and terrible poverty. The lifestyles (and even the attitudes) of those who live like this have not changed substantially since independence.

31. See J. Alexander, op. cit., She argues that, up until February 2000, occupations were often popularly driven and the reaction of the government towards them was contradictory – similar to the situation in the early 1980s.

32. Cited in D. Smith et al., Mugabe (Salisbury 1981), p. 210.

33. It did not take years for bitterness to build up after independence. There were many who were disillusioned with Mugabe’s moderate stand. The incident involving Edgar Tekere, a leading figure in the party and a close confidante of Mugabe, is illustrative. Only a year after independence he was implicated in an attack on a farmhouse and the death of a white farmer. After these events Mugabe, in the words of one commentator at the time, ‘spiked the guns of his troublesome left wing’. Resentment amongst the left wing and thousands who had waited for victory and liberation was growing. See D. Smith, op. cit., pp. 209–218.

34. T. Skalnes, The Politics of Economic Reform in Zimbabwe (London 1995), p. 5.

35. See Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980–1988 (Harare 1997). Also J. Alexander, J. McGregor and T. Ranger, Violence and Memory: One Hundred Years in the Dark Forests of Matabeleland (London 2000). Both these works detail these events and their impact on rural Matabeleland.

36. Department of Research and Planning, Labour and Economy: Report of the National Trade Unions Survey, Zimbabwe, volume one (Harare 1984).

37. E.Z. Razemba, The Political Economy of Zimbabwe: Impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes, 1980–1993 (Harare 1994), pp. 89–91.

38. Bond, op. cit., p. 150.

39. E.Z. Razemba, op. cit., p. 131.

44. Skalnes makes this point: ‘Chidzero was the one who steered the new economic philosophy through the cabinet.’ T. Skalnes, op. cit., p. 131.

41. For an examination of the effects of this intervention see E.Z. Razemba, op. cit..

42. P. Jackson, The Role of the State in Business Development in Zimbabwe: The Case of the Textiles and Garments Sector, University of Birmingham. A summary of the paper can be found on the net:

43. P. Bond, op. cit., p. 150.

44. Ibid., pp. 92–94.

45. T. Skalnes, op. cit., p. 141.

46. Cited in P. Alexander, op. cit., p. 386.

47. M. Gwisai, op. cit.

48. The strike also saw the active intervention of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), the sister organisation in Zimbabwe of the Socialist Workers Party. Although at the time it had only 50 members, they were able to produce leaflets calling for indefinite action and had participated in the strikes in Harare and the second city, Bulawayo. As well as calling for the election of a strike committee to take the strike forward, they pressed for more militant action, including picketing government buildings.

49. Cited in P. Alexander, op. cit., p. 389.

50. It is important to be clear that the ‘war veterans’ are divided. While some support the government, others are aware of the cynicism of the new policy towards them.

51. See the government report:

52. Again the ISO helped to organise similar movements in other towns and produced a leaflet that called on others to join the struggle. The organisation’s slogan ‘Shinga Mushandi Shinga! Qina Msebenzi Qina!’ (‘Workers be resolute! Fight on!’) has become the de facto motto of the trade union movement.

53. Chenjerai Hunzvi was a qualified doctor who had studied and lived in Eastern Europe. He was fluent in Polish, Romanian and French, and did not return to Zimbabwe until 1990, having left the country on a scholarship in the 1970s. See his obituary in The Guardian, 5 June 2001.

54. J. Ihonvbere, Economic Crisis, Civil Society and Democratization: The Case of Zambia (Trenton 1996).

55. ZANU-PF has stated that it intended to seize 8.5 million hectares of land before the presidential elections, which is the majority of land owned by white farmers.

56. Timothy Chitambure, interview July 2001.

57. See Socialist Worker (Zimbabwe), July–August 2001.

58. The MP was Munyaradzi Gwisai, a leading member of the ISO. See his chapter, op. cit., and interview, A Worker’s Voice, Socialist Review, September 2000.

59. This is certainly not the same as arguing that it is a vehicle for social change. The organisation is thoroughly under the grip of a right wing, neo-liberal agenda.

60. The title of his famous book: W. Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (London 1988).

61. The government even established a rival trade union organisation, the Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions, which remains without members or affiliated unions.

62. Many of these observations were made to me by Miles Larmer after a recent visit to Zimbabwe.

63. It is important to emphasise the extent of this contradiction. In a recent interview with Collen Gwiyo, general secretary of the banking union, ZIBAWU, he stated that he did not think Eddie Cross, the right wing economic spokesperson for the MDC, would become the minister of finance, but that the post would go to a figure deemed more acceptable to workers. There is still the expectation, certainly among trade union bureaucrats, that the MDC may play a more progressive role in power.

64. M. Gwisai, op. cit.

65. See, for a Marxist account of the struggles that have gripped Africa, L. Zeilig (ed.), op. cit.

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