Black First Land First (BLF) launch conference on May 14th in Soweto, adopted a resolution to participate in the electoral process more specifically in the forthcoming Local Government Election. The resolution has ignited lots of discussions and disagreements inside the movement. The resolution was the only one which was resolved through a vote where the house was divided in terms of a 40% against and 60% in favor of adoption of the resolution. This shows that there is a large section of the membership within BLF which is anti-participation in the electoral process. It must be borne in mind that the atmosphere of the conference was militant with many delegates calling for armed rebellion against the neo-colonial settlement and direct action against white monopoly capital and land thieves. Therefore, the resolution to participate in the electoral process strikes one at first as being out of sync with the general mood of conference.
The question of whether revolutionaries should participate in bourgeoisie elections has faced all revolutionaries over the ages. This question was faced by the Bolsheviks in Russia as well. Lenin has provided the clearest response at both the theoretical and the tactical level on this question. Furthermore, Steve Biko in South Africa also showed how to practice the dual approach of legal and illegal revolutionary practice. It must be remembered that the 1917 Russian Revolution was the most thorough going and enduring revolution of the twentieth century. No serious student of revolution can accuse Lenin of being a liberal, constitutionalist or Tsarist. Lenin argued convincingly that participation in electoral process should never be treated as a matter of principle. It’s always a tactical question. What this means is that elections can be boycotted or participated in depending on how tactically viable they are towards realising/aiding the movement towards the strategic objective. Political context is always the important determining factor. For instance during apartheid, collaboration through participation in any of the inferior processes given to blacks would be a totally reactionary tactic. However one could, as Biko did, use the loopholes in apartheid legislation to build an above ground movement.
BLF’s revolutionary strategic objective is to overthrow the current racist, white supremacist, patriarchal capitalist order. This essentially means that BLF rejects the post 1994 constitutional dispensation completely. This is a matter of principle which cannot change unless the movement sells-out on its strategic objective However, how to get there requires a number of tactical manoeuvres which may or may not include participation in the electoral processes at any given time. Tactically, this means that there may be times when a boycott of the elections is an appropriate tactical position.
BLF’s strategic orientation is captured in the formulation, “anti-politics-political engagement”, or the idea of using politics to end politics. Here, politics is understood as the current system of power that is geared to serving and protecting white supremacy and is entrenched in the constitution of South Africa. No revolutionary movement in South Africa can move from the premise that the post 1994 constitution must be defended. Such a position can at best be held by “conservative socialists” as indicated in the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels or (in the South African context) by “non-whites” as suggested by Steve Biko. To defend the South African constitution is to place oneself in the same position as the homeland leaders under apartheid.
BLF is essentially anti-establishment and has no allegiance to the constitution or the neo-colonial political settlement. BLF recognises that the SA constitution was written by the same white people who wrote the Freedom Charter. The protection of stolen property as indicated in section 25 of the constitution is not a mistake but defines the very spirit of the said constitution. Those who defend the constitution defend the colonial land theft by whites. There must be no confusion about the position of BLF with regards to the status qou.
A common sense frequently asked question is: if you are against the status qou, is participation in elections not recognising and giving legitimacy to the same status quo? The answer lies is dialectical reasoning. In the same way that speaking English doesn’t make one English so too participation in parliamentary elections should not automatically turn one into a politician or a constitutionalist. At best this is a Trojan horse strategy. Tactically, the revolutionary movement has to pay attention to two lines of engagement: the legal and the illegal approaches must be united into one revolutionary move. The “illegal” or extra-legal, extra parliamentary action is always superior to the parliamentary activity. A revolutionary movement engages in “legal” activity to strengthen the “illegal” arm of the revolutionary process. Of course the militant direct action is only illegal from the point of view of the oppressor. Here the distinction is made for clarification. Participation for legitimation is realised when there is no extra parliamentary revolutionary activity which in the face of the oppressor class is seen as illegal. When a proclaimed revolutionary movement plays the electoral game of deception and crowd pulling, instead of agitating for direct action and rupture, then a claim of legitimation can be made – if such a movement stopped or paid lip service to the “illegal” arm of the process.
If a movement enters parliament and spends all its time in the parliamentary process, it has stopped being revolutionary, it’s merely a political party. If a movement enters parliament and its representatives behave like the rest of the elected politicians and uses the parliamentary privileges to increase the lifestyle differentiation with the mass base, then such a movement has crossed the floor to reaction. In South Africa the Sankara Oath is an articulated policy position to keep in check people’s representatives from falling into the same pattern as the ordinary politician.
There are only three important reasons to participate in elections under certain circumstances. The first reason is to use the given platforms by the parliamentary rostrum to get media exposure and to use the fiction of respectability associated with being a Member of Parliament (MP), so as to agitate for revolutionary ideas and to educate the masses. Such platforms can be used to inculcate radical consciousness and to expose the limitations and hypocrisy of the same system, for example parliament should be used to expose how the constitution denies blacks their land rights. In other words, the systemic demands for decolonization should be echoed inside the chambers of parliament and to this end the complicity of the whole state machinery should be exposed.
The second plausible reason for participation in elections is for resource mobilisation so as to strengthen the extra parliamentary arm of the struggle. A revolutionary movement is not going to be sponsored by the ruling class more so by sections of white monopoly capital. Only agents of imperialism are funded by their handlers. There is massive monetary resources locked inside the electoral process. A political party that gains a mere six percent of the vote is allocated R70 million annually! If this money is used to build and support the revolutionary process, a mass movement of direct action would be possible and sustainable. This is one perfect example of using participation in the electoral process to undermine the very same system. The challenge is that politicians use this money on themselves and on futile processes such as for the filling up of stadiums instead of for the political process of mass struggle and decolonization.
The third and most important motivation is that revolutionary representatives must be trained and to this end even train themselves to resist the corrupting charms of the system. A common sense, albeit correct, argument made against participation is that the system co-opts those who participates in it, that once inside one would become as corrupt as all the others because parliament is a structure of corruption. This is only true if one is not driven by a revolutionary perspective to guide moral conduct.
Revolutionaries must by definition defy the system or they are not revolutionary. Revolutionaries cannot be saved from corruption by shielding themselves from centres where corruption is bred. Revolutionaries must resist the capitalist temptations of the “good life” – just like Che, Fidel, Sankara, Nyerere, to name a few, did.
Lenin castigated his comrades in Europe who were arguing against participation in the “bourgeois parliament”. In this regard he declared with irritation that, “(i)t is very easy to show one’s “revolutionary” temper merely by hurling abuse at parliamentary opportunism, or merely by repudiating participation in parliaments; its very ease, however, cannot turn this into a solution of a difficult, a very difficult, problem. It is far more difficult to create a really revolutionary parliamentary group”.
Lenin was writing from experience. The Bolsheviks had been successful in building a “revolutionary parliamentary group”. This group was able in 1917 to aid the dissolution of the reactionary parliament when it last sat in favour of the revolutionary Soviet System of worker’s and by extension people’s power. The challenge for revolutionaries is to create this “parliamentary group” in the conditions prior to the revolution so as to aid the revolution itself.
Lenin castigated his European “radical radicals” who thought it’s enough to merely boycott elections so as to prove ones revolutionary credentials. He said, “(y)ou want to create a new society, yet you fear the difficulties involved in forming a good parliamentary group made up of convinced, devoted and heroic Communists, in a reactionary parliament! Is that not childish? “.
Lenin argued that the reason to participate was also based on the reality that the oppressed classes had illusions of what the parliamentary system is about. He said that,
“… in Western Europe, the backward masses of the workers and—to an even greater degree—of the small peasants are much more imbued with bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices than they were in Russia because of that, it is only from within such institutions as bourgeois parliaments that Communists can (and must) wage a long and persistent struggle, undaunted by any difficulties, to expose, dispel and overcome these prejudices”.
In South Africa, we have seen how the televised parliamentary process has led to parties performing for the TV cameras, and putting a premium on entertainment instead of providing revolutionary education and building critical consciousness. TV has reduced all parliamentarians into a bunch of clowns in a circus. Representation by TV has meant the demobilisation of the revolutionary people who have been reduced to passive spectators as their representatives perfect the art of insulting each other. No anti systematic demands have been put before parliament. In fact the demands currently being fought for are all in defence of the constitution and in advancement of imperialism. Imagine if EFF is being kicked out of parliament because it is demanding that the President address the land question or if they are being brutalised by parliamentary security because they insist on free education. If these were the demands then the revolutionary masses would be better educated about how the SA constitutional framework is anti-people. EFF is duping the massES into being constitutionalists, the very same thing that is keeping the masses in bondage.
The revolutionary movement must use available legal means for expansion of areas of operation and agitation. Steve Biko decried the position of older revolutionary movements in South Africa who claimed there were no conditions to organise a revolution inside SA. To this end they were all saying that going into exile was the way to go. The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) formations did at the beginning operate openly within the apartheid legal dispensation whilst deepening revolutionary consciousness and preparing for illegal activities to overthrow white power. From about 1969 to 1977, the BCM was operating legally under the rule of apartheid South Africa, while at the same time carrying out many illegal activities and ending up in jail. There is no contradiction in assuming both the legal and illegal route concurrently. Parliamentary electoral participation certainly allows for a process of radical education and for exposing the limits and fundamental anti people nature of parliament. It’s not enough for militants to say that they already know that parliament doesn’t serve the revolution.
Truth is millions of the oppressed have faith in the parliamentary process. The job of the revolutionary militant is not to confuse, its to give clarity to the oppressed masses. Yes, the masses of the people need to be assisted to come to radical consciousness.
BLF’s tactical participation in the electoral system is not to uphold the constitution but, on the contrary, to further expose it as anti-black. The tactic of combining above ground and underground tactics has already been proven by history to be useful in the revolutionary process. It must be remembered all the time that Che Guevarra was captured in the mountains of Bolivia because the above ground arm of the revolution has been cut off by treachery. Being in a revolution means being prepared for a long and protracted war. We must not be carried away by events and moods. Cold as steel clarity on the long term strategic objectives must be the key guiding light and tactical moves worked out carefully as per the circumstances of the terrain at the relevant moment.
It is the revolutionary duty of all militants to understand and elaborate the revolutionary process. In concrete terms BLF must expand out of parliament activities more so those directed at launching blows on land thieves and white monopoly capital. The ANC must be exposed by not fighting it directly (its not the enemy) but by fighting the enemy and forcing it to come out and defend whites against the revolutionary programme of the people. BLF must support militant direct action and provide ideological justification for people’s revolutionary actions on all available actions. BLF agrees with pastor Xola Skosana, land shall not come from the vote. Furthermore, any party that says vote for it now and later it will serve the people, is actually deceiving the people. The correct positon is that a movement must struggle now to change the land dynamics through direct mass action including land occupations against the settler enemy. To wait for the politician to have enough votes is to wait forever!
Lets conclude with Lenin. Some of the European “radical, radicals” had complained that the reason why parliament must be avoided is because of “bad leaders”. Lenin gave a clear message on how a revolutionary parliamentary group should operate. But also how to hold leaders accountable. He wrote:
“The German “Lefts” complain of bad “leaders” in their party, give way to despair, and even arrive at a ridiculous “negation” of “leaders”. But in conditions in which it is often necessary to hide “leaders” underground, the evolution of good “leaders”, reliable, tested and authoritative, is a very difficult matter; these difficulties cannot be successfully overcome without combining legal and illegal work, and without testing the “leaders”, among other ways, in parliaments.”
And here’s Lenin delivering an important message on how to deal with leaders:
“ Criticism—the most keen, ruthless and uncompromising criticism—should be directed, not against parliamentarianism or parliamentary activities, but against those leaders who are unable—and still more against those who are unwilling—to utilise parliamentary elections and the parliamentary rostrum in a revolutionary and communist manner. Only such criticism—combined, of course, with the dismissal of incapable leaders and their replacement by capable ones—will constitute useful and fruitful revolutionary work that will simultaneously train the “leaders” to be worthy of the working class and of all working people, and train the masses to be able properly to understand the political situation and the often very complicated and intricate tasks that spring from that situation”.
BLF has developed instruments to hold leaders accountable. This is not a matter of just putting ideas and commitments to paper but also putting those ideas into practice. The two main policy planks adopted at the launch conference includes the People’s Manifesto and the Sankara Oath and flowing from these positions is a “Sankarist People’s Local Government Manifesto” that gives clarity of vision. Members and sympathisers of BLF are required to read these documents including the resolution on participation in elections. In this context the slogan “by any means necessary” means exactly that. Land or death!
National Convenor BLF
May 27, 2016