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Are Namibian workers a class for itself?

2020-03-06  Staff Reporter

Are Namibian workers a class for itself?
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Shaun Whittaker, Harry Boesak and Mitchell van Wyk

We are grateful for the constructive response from Gerson Tjihenuna (‘A rejoinder to a joint piece by Whitaker, Boesak and Van Wyk’, New Era, 13 January 2020) to our article that appeared in the people’s paper (‘Namibia Post-Swapo’, The Namibian, 20 December 2019. Tjihenuna writes in the spirit of democratic dialogue, and raises significant issues such as the difference between ‘working class’ and ‘working people’, who ‘the left’ is today, and why they have failed in Namibia?

It is undoubtedly true that the character of the Namibian working class has changed remarkably due to the technological revolution and the neo-liberal counter-revolution. That social class has emerged more complicated and fragmented, while the industrial working class has grown smaller with the rise of precarious workers and mass unemployment. In this sense, André Gorz was spot on that the world should say farewell to the working class. This, in fact, is why the Namibian trade unions have become so fragile and how come there is a need for a new political undertaking, i.e. a mass workers’ party that would unite all sections of the working class, as well as the plurality of social struggles of the unemployed, the ecologists, the anti-racists, the feminists, etc.

Even if the (permanent) working class is numerically smaller, however, it still occupies a powerful position in a capitalist society in terms of value creation, and therefore the ability to disrupt the economy. A general strike remains a potent weapon of the Namibian workers. In other words, the social position of the working class in a capitalist social formation means that that social class continues as a powerful actor. That is how come social class – as opposed to identity – is the point of departure for any Marxist criticism of such an exploitative society, and why only that historical materialist paradigm can deconstruct the ongoing capitalist economic crisis. Simply put, Marxism is about criticism from a social class perspective, certainly not from an identity paradigm (e.g. ethnic diversity) that is uninterested in abolishing social class.

For us, the idea of ‘working people’ is broader and includes in particular the lower middle class as this social stratum has historically played a necessary role in radical politics and produces organic intellectuals. In an undernourished society such as Namibia, such organic intellectuals have a noteworthy responsibility in the struggles of the working class for hegemony. Indeed, the merciless process of proletarianisation in Namibia results in the middle class being increasingly radicalised and overcoming their contradictory class location.

Given the failure of the armed struggle to bring about fundamental change in Namibia, another strategy is clearly needed today that includes the mass of the people in politics. And, following the (outstanding) theory of politics of Antonio Gramsci, the anti-capitalist struggle in Namibia should be seen in the first instance as a struggle of (political) ideas. Politics is a central and autonomous activity. Gramsci was the leader of a mass workers’ party and remains a Marxist who can and does still inspire the left wing. He liberated Marxism from vulgar (economic) explanations and autocratic politics, and wrote very little about economic development but in fact emphasised the importance of popular culture. 

For Gramsci, a mass workers’ party (The Modern Prince) can overcome the limits of the trade union phase, and continue the struggle for the hegemony of the working class. That struggle is not only confined to the factory floor, but every area of society is a site of contestation. Gramsci’s central concept of ‘hegemony’ suggests the conscientising of mass consciousness, since a pure form of working class consciousness, does not exist. Tjihenuna is in the wrong about the presence of a specific working class consciousness. The dual nature of the mass consciousness of the Namibian working class should rather be grasped in terms of them being a class in itself and a class for itself. Being a class in itself includes the working class being influenced by ruling class ideas around ethnocentrism, sexism, Christian fundamentalism and so forth, and thus not following their own class interests, but does not mean that ethnicity necessarily has or will forever meaningfully impact on them as implied by Tjihenuna. The notion of ‘mass consciousness’ does, however, reflect the contradictory and complex nature of that broader consciousness. Nevertheless, a crucial goal for the left  wing should be to overcome the difference between a class in itself and a class for itself, which can only be done politically.

With regards to the question of ‘who’ the left is today, the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht showed why the social democrats might no longer be considered as a component of the left wing. Not to mention their recent collaboration with the implementation of neo-liberalism all over the world. Be that as it may, there is in any case no parliamentary (or electoral) road to a post-capitalist society, as the case of Chile demonstrated. Of course, the ecologists, the anti-racists, the feminists and the anarchists are all essential segments of the contemporary left. The Marxists cannot go it alone. And that intersection should be expressed in a mass workers’ party that ought to make mass action – instead of elections - its major focus.

The fiasco of the Namibian left wing has little to do with ethnocentrism as Tjihenuna posits, but firstly with the collapse of the Soviet Union that disorganised and disorientated the global left for the longest time. The modern-day left – including the Namibian left-wing – should never repeat the political mistakes of Stalinism. 

Secondly, another reason for the exhaustion of the Namibian leftists is that the national liberation movement in Namibia was dominated by an authoritarian and anti-intellectualism party that eliminated thousands of progressive Namibians in Angola and Zambia. Those were among the most advanced Namibian activists who would have been the backbone of a left wing in this country today. Other aspects include the situation that left-wing literature was banned for decades and the country was flooded with religious and racial fundamentalist ideas, the limp leadership of those Namibian political parties that identified as left-leaning, etc.

It is so that class and colour are relatively interchangeable in the Namibian racial capitalist formation, but ultimately social class persists as the underlying factor. For Tjihenuna to assume that the ‘white’ working class acted primarily on the basis of their skin colour demonstrates the dangers of identity politics. It asserts some racial or ethnic essentialism that will not be found anywhere, and fails to comprehend the historical situation that those workers derived enormous material benefit from an unjust system. Maybe our interlocutor ought to be reminded of the fact that the current ‘black’ political elite in Namibia perpetuate the capitalist endeavour, while the ongoing revolts of (‘white’) working people in, say, contemporary France, show the limits of such a racial or ethnic interpretation.  

The objective conditions in Namibia are certainly ripe for a mass workers’ party (with the highest level of internal democracy), but the decision of when to form such a formation is always a subjective choice. The core aspect is usually the quality of the political leadership. There is no blueprint for a socialist Namibia, but the construction of it from below should be guided by the political principles of anti-capitalism, anti-racism and anti-sexism. It is high time to form a mass workers’ party in Namibia so that the working class could become a class for itself.

•The authors are members of the Marxist Group of Namibia.

2020-03-06  Staff Reporter

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