Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, communists spent endless nights analysing what it was that had brought the
Soviet Union to its knees. A number of causes were found. Chief among them was the realisation that with the act of nationalising the economy and removing it from the hands of the bourgeoisie, the Soviet Union did not socialise the economy but replaced the bourgeoisie with what was later clearly state capitalism — exploitation from above!
In the article “Has Socialism Failed?”, Joe Slovo put it thus: “The unavoidable inheritance from the past and the most serious distortions of socialist norms in most of the socialist countries combined to perpetuate alienation, albeit in a new form. Private ownership of the main means of production was replaced by state ownership.”
The realisation by this communist revolutionary, and many in the early 90s, was that nationalisation in itself was not the sum-total of de-alienation and the destruction of exploitation and stratification. It takes a much more protracted and sophisticated process. In fact, nationalisation in the Soviet Union served as an instrument for the accumulation of an elite seated in the upper echelons of the Soviet state. Therefore in the case of the Soviet Union, nationalisation was used for reactionary ends rather than in the interests of the ordinary Soviet. This experience makes the debate on nationalisation open and complex and a source of much disagreement among the Left.
Surprisingly, those who have dared to differ with the ANCYL’s call for nationalisation have unofficially been branded reactionary. This has muddied the discussion rather than enlightened it. This was not done by the ANCYL leaders but by cadres that have apportioned themselves orthodox supporters of the league and its leadership — on Facebook, on the YCLSA discussion forum and many other platforms. In the face of this, it is necessary to probe whether support for nationalisation or its rejection is the correct yardstick to measure progress and reaction? If a state qualifies to be branded as Left or Right simply on the number of entities it has under its control, we should all be aware that the apartheid state would have collected more accolades based on the number of companies it had under its wing compared to the modern ANC-led government.
Despite the fact that the apartheid state had substantial control of a number of entities — Sasol among them — proceeds from those entities were used to finance the lavish lifestyles of state bureaucrats and segments of capital. Sasol served a different kind of alienation and exploitation to the traditional capitalist form. Today the state has shares in entities like Eskom and for years proceeds from these entities have been used to finance the capitalist lifestyles of bureaucrats and cronies in the form of bonuses and salaries. Instead of benefiting the public, they have been subjected to tariff increases.
In light of this experience, the question needs to be posed: “Who will benefit from a state-owned mine company mooted by the ANCYL in South Africa?” Without attempting to play the role of a prophet, if the current accumulation path is anything to go by, any state entity that would arise out of the government’s need to play an active role in the economy will service the already consumerist lifestyle of the ruling elite. And by ruling elite I do not mean just government officials, I am also referring to bureaucrats.
By the way, I support the ANCYL’s call for nationalisation but believe that if it is done glibly, for the sake of it, we may be creating once more another entity that will be the source of bickering between contending platforms in the ANC vying for its control so as to accumulate through it. Creating any mining entity must be on the understanding put by Slovo that “the destruction of the political and economic power of capital are merely first steps in the direction of de-alienation. The transfer of legal ownership of productive property from private capital to the state does not, on its own, create fully socialist relations of production, nor does it always significantly change the work-life of the producer”.