South Africa has now been a capitalist democracy for 26 years. The leaders of the former liberation movement call this “Freedom” or “Liberation”. But Lenin answered them long in advance when he said that:


“We are in favour of a democratic republic as the best form of state for the proletariat under capitalism. But we have no right to forget that wage slavery is the lot of people even under the most democratic bourgeois republic. Furthermore, every state is a ‘special force’ for the suppression of the oppressed class. Consequently, every state is not ‘free’ and not a ‘people’s state.’”




He concludes with the famous remark that ‘freedom in capitalist society remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave owners.’


What is capitalist democracy?


Bourgeois democracy is another method of capitalist rule. Capitalism can exist under all kinds of regimes — from military dictatorships to facism, and from monarchical rulers to bourgeois democracy. The key feature of all of these regimes is that the means of production are in private hands. This is a system of class oppression of wage labour by capital. Apartheid was a certain method of capitalist rule used at a particular time. Under the threat of the revolutionary mass movements of the 1980s and early 1990s they were forced to grant democratic concessions to the black population.

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Formally the liberation struggle ended in a negotiated settlement when black South Africans were granted formal democratic rights for the first time. However, this agreement touched neither the power nor the wealth of the capitalist class. The essence of the CODESA negotiated settlement was that the means of production and the economy would remain in the hands of the capitalists, while the leaders of the liberation movement would have state power. The role of these leaders would be to hold back the mass movement and channel it into the establishment of capitalist democracy.


To align their interests, a thin layer of the leaders of the liberation movement were absorbed into the capitalist class through mechanisms such as Black Economic Empowerment, and by systematically corrupting them. This is the cause and the meaning of the looting and plundering of resources we see today. Individuals like president Ramaphosa became wealthy capitalists, while those in the leadership of the Alliance who have not yet converted themselves into capitalists are striving to do so!


This is how the ruling class has kept power for the past 26 years. The same bourgeoisie continues to rule society together with this very thin layer of black capitalists who have since joined them. To expect these wealthy upstarts to move in the direction of socialism is to expect them to move against their own material and class interests. 


The plight of the masses


That’s the case with the leaders, but what is the situation with the working class, the poor, and the youth? After nearly three decades of capitalist democracy, the poor masses of this country still suffer from the same social conditions — mass unemployment, a lack of decent housing, inadequate education, improper healthcare, growing hunger, poverty, landlessness, and disease.



Under capitalism there is no future for the working class, the youth, and the poor. Despite the collosal productive forces created under capitalism, because of its inherent contradictions it is unable to use these to raise living standards for the mass of the people. Democracy was indeed a great victory for the people, but it has not solved their main problems.


For the masses the question of democracy is a concrete question, linked to jobs, housing, wages, and decent living standards. These problems can only be solved by a socialist revolution. Only once the working class expropriates the wealth of the capitalist class can it use the vast resources of South Africa and plan production for the satisfaction of human needs, not for the profits of a tiny minority.


The fact that the downfall of apartheid did not lead to a victorious socialist revolution was ultimately due to the lack of a genuine revolutionary leadership at the head of the mass movement. Nothing could have stopped this colossal movement from taking power in the 1980s and 1990s and taking this route. The ANC had behind them the support of the vast majority, while the base of the regime was extremely narrow. No force could have stopped the working class from taking power if there had been a genuine revolutionary leadership to show them the way forward. Instead, the leaders of the liberation movement agreed to a negotiated settlement in 1993 that left power and wealth in the hands of the bourgeoisie. 

Theoretical Roots

For Marxists, theoretical clarity is decisive. To understand what happened we need to look at what the ANC, and particularly the SACP, sees as the character and tasks of the South African Revolution. This can be found in what the Alliance calls the National Democratic Revolution which was first formally adopted in the 1960’s by the SACP.


According to this theory, the road to socialism is paved by supporting the “progressive”, “patriotic” and “national-democratic” bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeois leaders in the ANC. Throughout the history of the liberation movement, the SACP insisted that the tasks of the revolution in South Africa were national-democractic, in other words the national liberation of the black majority of the population. In order to fight for this demand the SACP advocated the broadest possible “democratic” alliance.


So as to form this broad coalition, they argued that all talk of socialism should be left to one side so as not to frighten the black middle class and the white liberals. Only later, they argued, once this democratic stage had been fulfilled could we possibly begin to talk of socialism. In the meantime the leadership of this liberation struggle for the foreseeable future should be left to the middle-class leaders of the ANC.



According to the SACP, the programme of this National Democratic Revolution is to end racism, and to eliminate poverty and inequality. In other words, all of these things, they claim, could be achieved within the limits of capitalism. But the point is that poverty and inequality are the inevitable result of a class-divided society, and racism is a tool to further divide the society to prevent a collective struggle against the ruling class. To expect to abolish these things within the very system which creates the conditions which generate them is to fundamentally miss the point. Moreover, if poverty, inequality and racism can be overcome within capitalism, then what is the point of waging a revolutionary struggle at all?




Where does this theory come from? It was certainly not the invention of the SACP. Rather, as Stalin rose to power on the basis of the degeneration of the Soviet Union, the bureaucratic clique in Moscow imposed this theory upon the whole communist movement. The theory predates Stalinism however. It was the same theory that the Mensheviks held during the Russian Revolution, and against which Lenin fought. This theory has nothing to do with Leninism.


Lenin’s position was very different; he agreed that the main task of the revolution in Tsarist Russia was bourgeois democratic. But he did not agree that this revolution could be led by the Russian capitalist class and their liberal representatives. Unlike in Western Europe, the Russian bourgeoisie came onto the scene of history far too late to play a revolutionary role. In fact, they were tied hand and foot to Anglo-French capital, which funded and established the main industries in Russia, and funded large loans to the regime, which gave it an important economic incentive in maintaining Tsarism in power.


On the other hand, they were afraid a revolutionary struggle by the working class would put a question mark over the rule of the capitalist class as a whole. For these reasons, Lenin explained that the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution could only be carried out by a mass movement led by the working class. A successful revolution in Russia would then mean the beginning of a socialist revolution in the West, which, in turn, would help the Russian workers to move towards socialism.


What is the theory of Permanent Revolution and how was it developed?

The theory of the Permanent Revolution is a key question for South Africa, and for all ex-colonial countries. In the former colonial world the national bourgeoisie came onto the scene of history when the world had already been divided up between the great capitalist powers. In all these countries, this class is conservative and parasitic. They are wholly incapable of carrying out the remaining tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution.


The outstanding problems can only be solved by the revolutionary proletariat. The working class must place itself at the head of the peasant masses in seizing power, abolishing private property and advancing towards socialism. The final victory ultimately depends on the success of the world revolution.


During the time of the 1905 Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky wrote a book called Results and Prospects, in which he sets out clearly what would become known as the Theory of the Permanent Revolution. In this theory, Trotsky clearly maps the character of the Russian Revolution.

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Trotsky’s starting point was with the position of Marx after the 1848 revolution in Europe. Marx and Engels recognised the revolutionary significance of the bourgeoisie in the Great French Revolution in 1789. But, after the revolution of 1848, they recognized that the German bourgeoisie was prepared to compromise with the aristocracy. It had become reactionary before even coming to power.


In his Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League, Marx stated:


“While the democratic petty-bourgeoisie wants to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible ... it is in our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and ... at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers”.


And later Engels added:


“A middle road is no longer possible. In Germany, in particular, the bourgeois has shown itself incapable of ruling; it could only maintain its rule over the people only by surrendering it once more to the aristocracy and bureaucracy. ... the revolution can no longer be brought to a conclusion in Germany except with the complete rule of the proletariat”.


We see that even in 1848, when capitalism was still a historically progressive system, Marx and Engels realised that the bourgeoisie was neither willing nor able to carry through their own bourgeois-democratic revolution.


Trotsky’s analysis began with a description and review of the peculiarities of Russian historical development, which flowed particularly from the lateness of this development. The strong Tsarist autocracy was a massive obstacle to any bourgeois-democratic reforms, including the agrarian revolution. In his analysis, Trotsky shows that all preceding social development of the country made revolution inevitable.


The next question was: what social forces would make this revolution? In a backward country such as Russia, West European capital had introduced the most advanced methods of production, and in the process had skipped a whole series of intermediate economic stages through which Western Europe, itself, had had to pass in its own development. For example, factories had arrived in Russia before the widespread development of town handicrafts, cutting across the creation of a class of middle-class craftsmen, which made up the ranks of the revolutionary masses - the sans-culottes - in the Great French Revolution.

The consequence was that the nucleus of the Russian urban population were not self-employed artisans but wage-workers. This fact was destined to play a decisive role in the Russian Revolution. Foreign capital had set up enormous factories, employing tens of thousands of workers, making the political weight of the working class employed in those factories - their number, strength, and influence - far greater in proportion to that of the national bourgeoisie. 


The late development of Russian capitalism had created an entirely new combination of social and economic forces. The latest capitalist techniques had been introduced into a society in which the vast majority continued to live in near-feudal conditions. This uneven development in the economic and social development of Russia was the reason for the rapid and extensive growth of Marxism before the bourgeois revolution.


Trotsky accepted that the Russian Revolution was a “bourgeois” revolution insofar as its main task involved setting the country free from the restrictions of a semi-feudal character, particularly in terms of land ownership. The late development of capitalism in Russia however meant that the bourgeoisie could not carry out the tasks of their own revolution. In Russia, the principal driving force of the revolution would be the armed proletariat. This meant that proletarian methods and organisational forms would, by-and-large, be adopted in the struggle — in particular the political general strike and Soviets. This was how the 1905 revolution developed, with Soviets springing up all over Russia. The Soviets were organs created by the masses themselves for the purpose of coordinating their revolutionary struggle and the organisation of political strikes. However, in embryonic form they represented the mechanism by which the working class could wield power through a future workers’ state. 


It was in considering the role of the proletariat in the bourgeois revolution that Trotsky drew the conclusion that the Russian Marxists, being the party of the proletariat, should naturally strive to achieve to bring the working class to power. Trotsky then developed the core of the theory of Permanent Revolution:


“It is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically backward country sooner than in an advanced country. ... To imagine that the dictatorship of the proletariat is in some way automatically dependent on the technical development and resources of a country is a prejudice of ‘economic’ materialism simplified to absurdity. This point of view has nothing in common with Marxism”.


Trotsky explained that the political importance and strength of the industrial proletariat was not directly related to a country’s industrial development. Numerous social and political factors of a national and international character also had to be considered. 


The Russian Revolution would create conditions in which power could pass into the hands of the workers. Given that the workers would provide the core of the revolutionary fighters it would not be possible for the revolution against the Tsar to be victorious without power passing into the hands of the armed workers.


On taking power, the proletariat would, by the very logic of its position, move in the direction of the socialist transformation of society. Defining the Russian Revolution as a “bourgeois revolution” in no way answers the specific political and strategic problems which the revolution itself throws up. In an overwhelmingly peasant country, the proletarian government would have to use that power to enact legislation that would secure, for the government, the support of the rural masses. Thus, the fundamental interests of Russia’s peasants were bound up with the outcome of the revolution, and the fate of the proletariat. 


The Theory of the Permanent Revolution predicted that in Russia the fundamental problems of democracy and the end of feudal relations on the land would be solved only by a workers’ revolution. Furthermore, once the workers were in power, they would have to export the revolution, because socialism in one country is impossible, as Trotsky explains:


“Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship. Of this there cannot for one moment be any doubt. But on the other hand there cannot be any doubt that a socialist revolution in the West will enable us directly to convert the temporary domination of the working class into a socialist dictatorship. ... The revolution in the East will infect the Western proletariat with a revolutionary idealism and rouse a desire to speak to their enemies ‘in Russian”.


These are similar conclusions to those drawn by Lenin:


“The Russian proletariat plus the European proletariat organise revolution. In such conditions the Russian proletariat can win a second victory. The cause is no longer hopeless. The second victory will be the socialist revolution in Europe. The European workers will show us ‘how to do it’, and then together with them we shall bring about the socialist revolution”.


This is the essence of the Theory of the Permanent Revolution. It is one of the most significant developments in Marxist theory since the days of Marx and Engels themselves. It is of crucial importance to all the ex-colonial countries. It addresses the burning problems of the revolution: What will be the class character of the revolution that overthrows autocratic rule, that solves the agrarian problem, and which frees the mass of the population (the peasants) from poverty and hunger?


This theory points out that  backward countries like Russia, which had not passed through a bourgeois-democratic revolution, will not follow mechanically the path of countries in the West. The primary tasks facing Russian revolutionaries were confined to ending Tsarism, ending feudal relations on the land, and the establishment of a Constituent Assembly. The possibility of moving toward socialism was not considered as imminent. The Theory of the Permanent Revolution put an end to this crude, mechanical, and anti-dialectical interpretation, as well as pointing the way out for the ex-colonial countries.  


In the last analysis, all theories must be tested in practice. On this score, the Theory of the Permanent Revolution was brilliantly confirmed by the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia. It was also confirmed by subsequent revolutions such as the Cuban revolution of 1959. Fidel Castro had a bourgeois democratic programme; his model was the United States of America. But US imperialism could not tolerate the Cuban revolution, and through their actions forced Fidel Castro to expropriate capitalism. The same situation played out in the Chinese revolution of 1949. Mao’s vision was that of 100 years of capitalist development. But the revolution unfolded in a way that defied his expectations, leaving the means of production in the hands of his peasant army. 


Albeit in a distorted way, the Theory of the Permanent Revolution was confirmed in these countries.


The tasks in South Africa 


The situation should be a thousand times clearer in South Africa than it was in Russia in 1917.

In fact one decade after the end of the Second World War, South Africa was already a largely urbanised, industrialised society, in which the working class played the key role.  


Instead of basing themselves on the working class, and leading the liberation movement in a socialist direction, the SACP leaders left the leadership of the struggle, on all fronts, to the middle-class leaders of the ANC. But as always, these middle-class, “democratic” leaders were quite prepared to stop the struggle once their aspirations had been achieved. 


The results are clear today: what we have now is not a revolutionary government in power pursuing a national-democratic revolution against the wishes of the capitalists. We have a pro-capitalist government, led by Ramaphosa, one of the biggest capitalists in the country, which is defending capitalism while waging waves of attacks against the working class. It is even prepared to shoot down workers who fight against the bosses. 


The tasks of the South African revolution should be clear. The fulfilment of the basic needs of the masses can only be met by taking the fundamental economic levers of society into the hands of the workers. Only with workers’ control over the means of production and the complete expropriation of the capitalist class can the necessary resources be mobilised to massively increase the living standards of the majority of the population. This is how we will provide everybody with decent housing, access to water and electricity, education, and healthcare.


Those unresolved tasks of the national democractic revolution and the fundamental problems of the South African masses cannot be solved within the capitalist system. Inequality, poverty, landlessness, and racism, are still thriving, despite 26 years of bourgeois democracy. Meanwhile, the ruling class is immersed in a repulsive and rampant looting frenzy. The only way out of this state of barbarism and decay is to overthrow this rotten capitalist system and replace it with a democratic, socialist order in which the wealth of the country is under the full control of the working masses.


The Marxists of Revolution South Africa, together with the International Marxist Tendency, fight to spread the genuine and orthorodox ideas of Marxism in an organised fashion through the youth and labour movements. The emancipation of the working class and all oppressed layers of society can only be realised through a revolutionary mass movement, led by the working class. Our goal is to fight with the working class to end capitalism and replace it with a democratic socialist system of production!

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