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What is the difference between economism and syndicalism?

5 March 2014, Posted in NUMSA Bulletin

Labelling Numsa is nothing but a ploy to silence our criticism of neo-liberalism that is our current South African reality, says deputy general secretary, Karl Cloete.

Not a single day passes by without a label being thrown at the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) from within the National Liberation Movement (NLM). In the recent past the union has been called populist, workerist, syndicalist and ultra-left.

Borrowing from a pamphlet that the leader of the Russian revolution VI Lenin wrote when he criticised ultra-leftism and “left-wing communism”, the National Planning Commission (NPC) accused our General Secretary of suffering from “an infantile disorder that manifests as an acute aversion to anything rational”. Also receiving widespread coverage was the accusation of populism that the deputy secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC) Jessie Duarte made against Numsa in a letter that appeared in Business Day (15 March 2013).

What is confusing about all the -isms that are thrown at us is that however different their meanings are, they are nevertheless used. Unlike in the 1980s when a union or individual could either be “workerist” or “populist”, in today’s labelling, it seems, you can be both a “workerist” and “populist” at the same time.

Not of assistance is the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union’s (Nehawu) general secretary Fikile Majola’s clever-sounding “observation that there appears to be a re-emergence of the twin currents of workerism that have always been embedded in the evolution of our federation”.

Speaking at a Joe Slovo memorial lecture in North West on 27 January 2013, Majola goes back to an article published in the 1980s called; Errors of Workersism, incorrectly attributing the article to the South African Communist Party (SACP) instead of the United Democratic Front’s (UDF) journal Isizwe (Vol. 1 No 3. November 1986), Nehawu’s General Secretary identifies two emerging tendencies within the Congress of South African Trade Union (Cosatu) – “workerism as economism” and “workerism as syndicalism”.

Without telling us about the layers – the social base – within Cosatu and the broader working class on which these tendencies rest, we are left with no substantive or theoretical explanation but with a string of -isms. Without an explanation of why the so-called “tendencies” are re-emerging, we just receive more labels where according to Majola “workerism as economism” is a rightwing version of workerism; whilst “workerism as syndicalism” represents an ultra-left current of workerism. 

A Numsa National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting held on 9-10 July 2013 resolved that as a union we should launch massive internal education and external engagements with the aim of explaining:

All the -isms that have been thrown at Numsa; what they mean and where they come from. The motives behind the accusations that we are “workerist”, “populist”, “ultra-left” and “syndicalist.”

In this brief article we seek to explain and clarify, from a Marxist-Leninist outlook, why the labelling of Numsa has nothing to do with articulating a Marxist-Leninist characterisation of certain historical tendencies that have co-existed, but rather how labelling is meant to shut up those with a class analysis who seek to unmask neo-liberalism in our current South African capitalist reality.

The theory behind the -isms

“Workerist/Populist” debates of the 1980s: The question of what political role emerging unions should play in the 1980s divided the labour movements into different camps. In the mid-1980s, the greatest divide was between two broad groups – the “workerists” and the “populists”.  Although accusations of “workerism” and “populism” were exchanged between comrades within Numsa, in the broader scheme of things the union was characterised as ‘workerist’ within Cosatu.   

At the centre of the debate were questions of political vision and strategy: What was the struggle about? To end apartheid and introduce democracy or was it about socialism?

How do we get to socialism? Was it straight into socialism or do we have to go through a National Democratic Revolution (NDR) first before moving to socialism?

Do we go through a National Democratic Revolution as the most direct route to socialism?

What alliances did the working class have to forge? What was the role of the working class in relation to other classes?

Former Cosatu official Jeremy Baskin in his book on the pre-1994 history of the federation with the title “Striking Back: A History of Cosatu” and in an attempt to capture differences between the two approaches summarised the two groupings in the following manner:

Populists “tend to argue that racial oppression is the central contradiction within society. Class differences, while often acknowledged, are devalued and held to be of lesser importance, and ‘the struggle’ is seen as being against apartheid oppression in all its forms. This requires the unification of all classes and sectors oppressed by the regime. Class differences and class issues are downplayed in the interests of the broadest anti-apartheid unity. A variant of populism suggests that the working class should fight for a socialist future, but only once apartheid has been eliminated”. (p.96)

Workerists, “by contrast, tend to see racism and apartheid as a mask concealing capitalist exploitation. Racism is simply a tool of the ruling class used to enhance the division and exploitation of the working class. Politically, workerists tend to counter-pose the national democratic struggle and the class struggle. The working class alone, on an anti-racist and socialist programme, can effect change. Cooperation with other classes is likely to compromise working class objectives. While class alliances are not ruled out in principle, workerists tend to underestimate them or view them with suspicion”. (p.96)

In his 1988 pamphlet The South African Working Class and the National Democratic Revolution, Joe Slovo defined ‘workerism’ in the following way;

Workersism: A tendency, loosely described as ‘workerism’, denies that the main content of the immediate conflict is national liberation which it regards as a diversion from the class struggle. Even if it admits the relevance of national domination in the exploitative processes, ‘workerism’ insists on a perspective of an immediate struggle for socialism. A transitional stage of struggle, involving inter-class alliances, is alleged to lead to an abandonment of socialist perspectives and to a surrender of working class leadership. The economic struggles between workers and bosses at the point of production (which inevitably spill over into the broader political arena) is claimed to be the ‘class struggle’.

Populism: In a reply to the ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte’s open letter that accuses our union of populism (which article appeared in the Business Day of 15 March 2013), Numsa’s deputy general secretary Karl Cloete argued;

You say we are populists. What do you mean? Your letter does not enlighten us on this score. In our understanding populism has a disregard for class interests, regarding “people, nations, society” as if they are homogeneous…

In this reply to Duarte, Numsa deputy general secretary attempted to use the concept of populism in the same way that VI. Lenin used it in debates with a political grouping called the Narodniks or populists; a movement of young people who went to the countryside in 1872 to mobilise the peasants for revolution.

Lenin challenged the views of the populists who argued that the peasantry as a class in Russia is more or less at the same level of development; i.e. homogeneous. The Narodniks were convinced of the wisdom of the peasants and saw the rural life of the commune as a mirror for the future.

In his book Development of Capitalism in Russia written in 1899, Vladimir Lenin argued that the available evidence did in fact demonstrate that capitalism as a general mode of production has already penetrated into the Russian countryside and a process of ‘de-peasantisation’ or ‘differentiation’ was taking place leading to division of peasantry into two classes viz., agrarian capitalist class and agrarian proletariat.

The populists on the other hand argued that capitalism had not substantially affected Russian agriculture and that the peasantry remained relatively homogeneous in economic terms.

From this debate and in Marxist terms, populism is the approach that denies or de-emphasises class differences. Those that are critical of the ‘populists’ in the 1980s felt that their counterparts in their emphasis on the ‘people’ or the ‘community’ were ignoring class differences amongst ‘the people’ and ‘the community’. The concept ‘populism’ is therefore related to the use of the term ‘people’ as if those who made up ‘the people’ were monolithic or homogenous or the same.

Present day use of the concept of populism: Since World War II there have been several shifts in the meaning and use of the concept of populism, away from the way that early Marxists like Lenin defined the concept.

When trying to understand popular support for totalitarian movements like fascism and Nazism, United States (US) scholars began to define ‘populism’ in opposition to liberal democracy and as a danger to democracy. They described populism as an “irrational protest ideology” and anti-democratic. In addition to a style of popular support for authoritarian regimes, the term ‘populism’ was used to describe the political leadership of Argentine President Juan Peron (1946 to 1955) and Brazilian President Getulio Vargas (1930 to 1945 and 1951 until 1954). In these cases the emphasis was on the style of leadership that stressed the power of the party and the leader as opposed to parliamentarism.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a further shift of meaning of populism occurred. Primarily used by academics in reference to forces of reform in underdeveloped countries. Interest in populism centred on the attempts to understand the changing nature of politics in the underdeveloped countries. Governments and regimes that adopted programmes that led to mass support were described as populist.

This meaning has been extended to present use of the concept where governments that have taken steps in opposition to neo-liberalism such as Venezuela and Ecuador; and which in the course of taking such steps have garnered popular support are described as populist. References to populist demagogy by the SACP have echoes of this definition of ‘populism’. 

Syndicalism: Although manifesting itself in concrete national conditions with each country producing its own specific version of the movement, syndicalism is an international trade union tradition that is based on a belief that class conflict is inherent within capitalism and that the solution to workers’ misery lies with the overthrow of capitalism and an introduction of a system of worker and union-managed socialism.

Syndicalism differs from social democracy and communism in that it considers action by federations of revolutionary trade unions and not action by political parties or the state as the decisive instrument for the overthrow of capitalism. Relying on extra-parliamentary and direct action, syndicalism deems the general strike to be the ultimate revolutionary weapon. A key principle of syndicalism is political neutrality and absolute independence from political parties.

Developing in countries like France, Italy and Spain; syndicalism spread to developing countries like Argentina and Mexico. A few of the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in America called themselves ‘syndicalists’.

During the period prior to World War I and the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, syndicalism brought together different left-wing tendencies within the international labour movement. Thereafter, the International Working Men’s Association was set up as a syndicalist alternative to both the reformist International Federation of Trade unions and the communist-dominated Red International of Labour Unions (RILU). But during 1920-22, the Communist International (Comintern) launched a conscious and determined attempt to win over the syndicalist movement en masse to the communist conception of the revolutionary process.

Economism: One of the targets of VI Lenin’s criticism in his pamphlet What Is To Be Done is economism. In the pamphlet, Lenin accuses his political rivals within Russia’s revolutionary movement of downgrading political freedom as a goal of struggle and putting in its place the struggle for trade union reforms such as higher wages and shorter working hours. For Lenin, economism is a political tendency that puts trade union struggle above the struggle for political freedom. When he referred to economists he did not mean people who had qualifications in economics but those who believed that union struggles were the only form of struggle possible until political freedom was won.

Ultra-leftism: The uprisings that occurred in many countries after World War I (1914-1918) gave rise to a revolutionary situation; accompanied by revolutionary enthusiasm. Many parties and people in the new communist parties felt that they were in a position to overthrow capitalism like it had happened in Russia in 1917. Unfortunately, these conditions changed in 1920/21 and the revolutionary wave ebbed. A number of parties and comrades did not realise these changed conditions and wanted to “force the development of the revolution” through repeated calls for general strikes and armed uprisings. When these attempts were not successful activists were sent to factories to bring workers out, with force sometimes.

Other tactics to “force the revolution” forward were calls for boycotts of elections and a refusal to participate in parliaments. Driven by what happened under revolutionary conditions, these new communist groupings worked out a “theory of the offensive” where they refused to work with reformist unions and parties. They upheld a slogan of “no compromises”.

Lenin identified this tendency as ultra-leftism. In 1920, he wrote Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder to counter this tendency. He called the tendency ultra-leftism because it mistook its desire for revolution for objective reality and conditions. It failed to see that conditions had changed; requiring new strategies and tactics. While millions had flocked to communist parties in revolutionary situations, many more still remained in the reformist parties and trade unions. For Lenin what was necessary was to work alongside the reformist workers and demonstrate to them through common work and joint campaigns that the methods and programme of their leaders were barriers to achieving significant gains for the working class. Lenin’s advice was simple –, don’t confuse what ‘ought to be’ with what ‘is’.

He argued that it was “absurd to formulate a recipe or general rule of ‘no compromises’ that suits all conditions”. Lenin accepted that it was not always easy to distinguish between necessary and treacherous compromises.

Communists had to avoid battle when it was advantageous to the enemy. So for Lenin both parliament and elections were arenas where revolutionaries should intervene to further the revolution and win back the masses that still have faith in parliamentarism. 


With this background of how the labels “workerist” and “populist” were used in the 1980s, do you think that it is correct to label Numsa today as “workerist”?

When one looks at the practices and policies of unions in Cosatu today, how useful are the “populist” and “workerist” labels?

Is there a difference between “workerism” as the term was used in South Africa in the 1980s and “economism”?

What is the difference between economism and syndicalism?