Das Kapital’s Unfortunate Fate, in South African Left Scholarship and Political Strategy

17 December 2021 by Patrick Bond


“’Das Kapital’ in Yad-Vashem” par barcanna est sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Pour voir une copie de la licence, consultez https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.0/jp/?ref=openverse&atype=rich

Abstract: One of the great paradoxes in what has been for the last half-century amongst the world’s most intense sites of class struggle, South Africa, is how few anti-capitalist activists and scholars are familiar with the main book explaining the capitalist system’s underlying laws of motion, Marx’s Capital. In international polls, the country ranks as having the world’s most unequal society, most corrupt capitalist class, and (from 2012-17) most confrontational working class. Yet the absence of a genuinely informed debate about Capital within not only the proletariat but also amongst nationalist and communist politicians, economic commentators and the left intelligentsia is striking, as is the paucity of reading groups in contemporary times, when Capital is most needed. This paper tracks various epochs in which Capital informed, first, early Communist and Trotskyist mobilisers, and second, by the 1970s also won favour among an inorganic intelligentsia – albeit one with extreme race, class, gender and international-travel privileges – who were generally allowed to propagate the banned volumes’ narratives. To the extent these were imported into ‘Workerist’ trade unions, often through secret study circles, they offered potential for wider dissemination of core ideas. But with a few exceptions (especially the leading organic intellectual Oupa Lehulere), that layer largely abandoned socialist ambitions (preferring the ‘post-Fordist’ reform agenda), so it was up to a layer within the SA Communist Party and African National Congress who next advanced Capital’s idea. Their mistakes and distortions were obvious, soon enough, however. Whether the tragic lost opportunities persist may depend upon new ways of invoking Capital’s analysis – which are yet to be envisaged, much less brought to the stage of praxis-based experimentation.

 Introduction: The challenge of a hard read, and even harder applications

Between 2017 and 2020, Oupa [Lehulere] ran a reading group at Khanya College on Marx’s Capital. Every second Sunday for more than two years we worked through the magnum opus, line by line. The attention to detail was incredible. The slightest moment of miscomprehension was picked up on and thrashed out until, as Oupa would say, we had “ironed out the slippages.” Oupa’s approach to theoretical study reflected his approach to struggle. There are no shortcuts to either. For us, comrade Oupa was not “one of the activists from the 1980s”—he continued to think, to write and to fight until the bitter end.

The Fees Must Fall Collective tribute (published in the popular continental ezine Africa Is A Country) to the tireless left social movement organiser Oupa Lehulere (1960-2021), transmits the desires and potentials for Capital’s dissemination in South Africa. [1]

But in my own personal experience, reflecting just how difficult this has been, similar efforts I made in 2009 in Durban gained nothing like the affection of Johannesburg’s impressive students, who learned so much (as we all did) from Lehulere’s hard work. In our case, once the online video record of David Harvey’s Capital teaching seminars became available, three of us ran a reading group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN): myself (an English-speaking former PhD student of Harvey) and the bilingual isiZulu/English activists Trevor Ngwane from the independent left and Samson Zondi from the SA Communist Party.

For four hours every Saturday morning for a semester, we were armed with transport subsidies, coffee, a fruit snack and lunch for fifty participants provided by a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation political education grant. Much of the discussion was in the vernacular. We had high expectations, for the time was ripe: an allegedly more leftist president (Jacob Zuma, whose main power base was Durban) had come to power with the backing of Communists and trade unions, just after the world economy’s deepest post-Depression financial meltdown, which in South Africa left a million additional unemployed workers.

Also based at UKZN, the heroic revolutionary poet Dennis Brutus (1924-2009) had in 2007 performed (and video-taped) an excellent South African adaptation of Howard Zinn’s one-person play Marx in Soho, which for students was extremely useful to place Capital in context of Marx’s life and times.

Nevertheless, in spite of the optimal objective conditions and promising subjective conditions, the language and abstractions of Capital proved difficult to communicate. The effort, ultimately, failed. So the pages below, aimed at uncovering earlier efforts to disseminate and apply Marx’s ideas in Capital to South African class relations, capital accumulation, social reproduction and ecology, are offered with a great degree of personal regret – and hope to be proven wrong. [2]

 I. Slavery, Super-Exploitation and Capitalist/Non-Capitalist Relations (1860s-1950s)

Historical context is required to understand South Africa’s ever more extreme post-apartheid version of uneven and combined capitalist development. Dating initially to Dutch mercantile conquest in 1652, the occupation of the Cape Colony meant 150 years of the settlers’ primitive accumulation. Britain’s takeover as a spoil of the Napoleonic Wars in 1806 was followed by the banning of slavery in 1822 as the new rulers compelled wage-labour relations. That was a major factor compelling the Dutch settlers’ descendants, the Afrikaners, to leave the Cape, embarking on a “Great Trek” in 1835 to establish their own quasi-states and petty-commodity mode of production as far north as the border of present-day Zimbabwe (the Zambezi River).

The capitalist mode that Marx would have recognised only prospered with the birth of the black migrant proletariat in the early 1870s, after diamonds were discovered at Kimberley and a coercive recruitment system established for 50,000 workers. The black working class was, for the next century, rooted within a rural-urban migration system mixing capitalist and pre-capitalist power relations, as colonial and then apartheid-era control of rural labour drew male “temporary sojourners” into the country’s white-owned mines, fields and factories, subsidised by social reproduction especially drawing on rural black women. [3]

Nascent attempts by Marx in Capital at reconciling the contradictory laws of wealth accumulation between capitalism and pre-capitalist tributary power structures – such as structured South African racism and patriarchy – were certainly obvious to critical scholars, starting with Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919). [4] She recognised how Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902) consolidated settler colonialism after his 1870-80s domination of diamond mines.

Marx too would have understood the very roots of these relations if only because, two years before finishing the 1867 edition of Capital, Volume I, his brother-in-law visited from South Africa (albeit an “unwelcome interruption”). [5] Notwithstanding that link, Capital contains only glancing references to the African continent (e.g. in Volume 1, Chapters 10, 15 and 31), for example, sarcastically, “…the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” [6]

In Volume 2’s long Chapter 20 on capital’s simple reproduction, Marx explains money’s role in the longevity of the slave mode of production from ancient Athens to the U.S. South. These observations allow a fusion of capital’s internal laws of motion and the extra-economic coercion associated with slavery and colonialism.

In the final pages of Volume 3, in which an original capitalist crisis theory is proposed, the last words of Capital concern the colonial conquest of Africa, termed (by Marx’s collaborator Engels) “purely a subsidiary of the stock exchange” so as to reflect the era’s rising financial power. Indeed the 1885 “Scramble for Africa” occurred in a Berlin conference’s carve-up of the continent, just after Marx’s death. [7]

As Marx’s posthumous Volume 3 suggests, colonialism and imperialism were decisively influenced by the late 19th century’s “overaccumulation of capital” emanating from Europe’s stock markets. [8] In 1902, John Hobson (1858-1940) was the first to point out this capital-export tendency in explaining Africa’s colonisation, and a decade later, Luxemburg clarified how because of overaccumulation crises, South Africa emblematised the capitalist/non-capitalist relations that Marx first theorised. [9]

Notwithstanding how severely this system repressed black people, it was not until the 1910s that a widespread movement of urban socialists emerged at the core site of accumulation: Johannesburg’s vibrant gold mines, where between a third and a half of the world’s store of the metal has been dug since 1884.

The Witwatersrand mining and associated industrial complex boasted the African continent’s greatest number of organised workers, and the most militancy, although this initially emerged from the white immigrant socialist cadre (hailing especially from Britain and Eastern Europe, from which Lithuania stood out). But in spite of the 1921 establishment of the Communist Party South Africa (in 1953 renamed the SACP), white workers failed to make common cause with black counterparts, instead witnessing their unions calling out, “Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa!”

This division was debilitating during a 1922 strike of more than 20,000 white mineworkers, known as the Rand Rebellion. As capital and the state regrouped by making concessions to whites, SACP leader Sidney Bunting (1873-1936) shifted the party to support an “Independent Native Republic,” not explicitly socialism.

Bunting’s efforts followed an order given by Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938) at the Moscow-controlled Comintern in 1928, to shake off white proletarian self-interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. and fuse with black nationalist efforts – especially the assimilationist-oriented African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912 – so as to first democratise and deracialise capitalism. Only after a victory over colonialism would the SACP be encouraged to wave the red anti-capitalist flag in the struggle’s second stage (as opposed to immediately organising workers with more socialist aims). But in 1950, the SACP was banned by the apartheid regime, forcing socialist discussions and literature deep underground. [10]

The SACP “Two Stage Theory” approach is, perhaps, one reason that Capital was neglected and never became the local workers’ bible. Indeed there was no South African edition of Capital, notwithstanding Marx’s personal connection to the country’s main 19th century publisher: Jan Carel Juta (1824-1886), husband to Karl’s sister Louise (1821-1893). (Juta and Company still advertise that since 1853, they “have been associated with quality Law, Education and Academic publishing in Southern Africa,” but the portolio devolved into staid textbooks many of which promote apartheid, although its subsequent imprint UCT Press has occasionally produced radical, well-edited books.)

Even SACP interest in political economy was negligible, for according to long-standing Party leader Bunting’s biographer, “He could not manage to read Das Kapital. The Communist Manifesto however with its violent denunciation of the bourgeoisie, its call to the workers of the world to unite, appealed to him. ‘This is the sort of thing we want to study,’ he said, ‘not all this high-flown stuff about theory of value and dialectics.’” [11]

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) also grudgingly read Marx during the 1950s (under firm SACP influence, for he joined its Central Committee before his 1962-90 jailing): “While I was stimulated by the Communist Manifesto, I was exhausted by Das Kapital.” [12]

 II. Uneven Access to Capital in South Africa (1960s-1980s)

Capital was not generally available in South Africa before 1992, so it took many decades for its insights to be invoked in either scholarship, political strategy or polemics. One obvious reason was official censorship of all Marx’s work from 1955 until 1991. [13]

But even if there were some English-language copies in underground circulation, none of the country’s black activists had access to the book in their mother tongue. [14] We have no record of whether leading 20th century organic socialist intellectuals [15] ever studied Capital, although The Communist Manifesto was translated into Afrikaans in 1937, and in 1994 an isiZulu version was produced.

Still, some activists did persevere and acquired Capital in English, even in one of the most unexpected, difficult sites, Robben Island. Offshore Cape Town, this was the main political prison for black liberation activists. Mandela spent most of his 27 years in jail there, overlapping on the Island for several years during the 1960s with two of the country’s most accomplished Marxist intellectuals, Neville Alexander (1936-2012) and Brutus. [16]

Upon request, sympathetic staff at the University of Cape Town’s library sent two inmates – Sedick Isaacs (1939-2012) and Ahmed Kathrada (1929-2017) – books during the 1960s. Among them was Capital, which, Isaacs later remarked, was approved by the Robben Island warder because “he thought it was about money.” But after “it went on the shelves some people borrowed it and didn’t want to return it.” [17] Regardless, there is no evidence that either the Robben Islanders nor the other internal (non-exiled) left activists and intellectuals integrated Capital into their explicit revolutionary thinking.

Outside the country while living in exile (or while engaging in studies and research), many South Africans did indeed engage Capital, adapting basic principles to address the most pressing contemporary concerns. During the 1960s, without referring to Capital specifically, the SACP’s Path to Power documented a strategic approach drawing upon Third Internationalist understandings of imperialism and colonialism, adopting the rubric “colonialism of a special type” to describe accumulation and class formation when a critical mass of white settlers occupied colonial hinterlands (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique – as opposed to colonialists based primarily in the metropole, as in most of Africa). [18] But this was a time of extreme dogmatism, when the opportunistic, exiled SACP endorsed the Soviet Union’s oppression of Hungarian and Czech socialist aspirations.

Indeed, reflecting the lack of deep theoretical consideration of capitalism, during the 1950-90 period of official illegality the party offered only one substantive comment in its periodicals about the merits of Capital (on the occasion of its 1967 centenary), and then only in a few pages mainly applauding the labour theory of value. The book

  • unlocked for the socialist movement the scientific understanding of how society could and would be changed to socialism; [Marx] transformed the socialist movement from a Utopian crusade to a scientific attempt to take control of and direct the forces of social change as the chemist controls and directs the forces of chemical change. [19]

Meanwhile in exiled academic settings, the more privileged (mainly white) South African Marxists read Capital. At the University of Essex during the early 1970s, the leading SACP intellectual, Harold Wolpe (1926-1996), adapted French Marxist anthropological theory of “articulations of modes of production” to explain how apartheid subsidised big business, [20] partly in dialogue with Martin Legassick (1940-2016). [21]

Ann-Marie Wolpe (1930-2018) added a vital feminist angle, given how much the reproduction of male labour in the Bantustans – thanks to women’s (unsubsidized) child-rearing, health care Care Le concept de « care work » (travail de soin) fait référence à un ensemble de pratiques matérielles et psychologiques destinées à apporter une réponse concrète aux besoins des autres et d’une communauté (dont des écosystèmes). On préfère le concept de care à celui de travail « domestique » ou de « reproduction » car il intègre les dimensions émotionnelles et psychologiques (charge mentale, affection, soutien), et il ne se limite pas aux aspects « privés » et gratuit en englobant également les activités rémunérées nécessaires à la reproduction de la vie humaine. and elder-care work – raised the profit Profit The positive gain yielded from a company’s activity. Net profit is profit after tax. Distributable profit is the part of the net profit which can be distributed to the shareholders. rate. [22] At the University of Sussex in the mid-1970s, a Poulantzian interpretation of South African capitalism’s fractions became dominant, including the 1977 doctoral thesis of Rob Davies (b.1948), subsequently South African Minister of Trade and Industry from 2009-19. [23]

But while on the one hand, the Sussex tradition was considered (by Simon Clarke) “the best ‘neo-Marxist’ work on the state that has blossomed in recent years,” on the other, the Poulantzians were criticised for reducing Marxism to liberal interest-group analysis. [24]

Inside South Africa, leftist activists mainly associated with small Trotskyist networks regularly established reading groups (such as had informed Lehulere from the late 1970s), using old photocopied sections of Capital, but risked jail terms when caught. [25]

There was somewhat more protection at South Africa’s elite English-language universities, where Capital could typically be found in their libraries’ locked-up (banned-books) zone, available merely to academics for scholarly consultation. [26]

But political passion for Capital’s message was often lacking there, as witnessed in the first lines of a seminal 1985 labour relations book by Eddie Webster (b.1942), South Africa’s leading industrial sociologist and a decades-long tutor of organic intellectuals in the union movement: “The foundations for an analysis of the transformation of the labour process were laid over a century ago by Marx in Volume I of Capital. It is thus appropriate to begin with an exposition of that forbidding, unavoidable book.” [27]

Webster was explicit in his 1987 denial of a core Marxist argument: “I begin my account of the labour process at Chapter 7 of Volume 1 of Capital in order to deliberately avoid the labour theory of value.” [28]

With a few exceptions, both the internal and exiled neo-Marxists of the era simply refused to grapple with Capital’s deeper-rooted explanations for uneven development, especially capital’s crisis tendencies. [29] Thus armed primarily with a critique of capitalism based on the articulations of modes of production, specifically the apartheid Bantustans’ race-gender-ecological intersections with high-profit capital accumulation, the independent left spent the years prior to 1985 insisting, mistakenly, that to end apartheid would also require a transition to socialism.

More attention to Capital’s crisis theory would have allowed Marxists to anticipate the 1985 economic meltdown that broke the alliance between the racist Afrikaner-dominated state and the big English-speaking capitalists in the mining, manufacturing, retail, and finance sectors.

Not only did that conjuncture split whites between the English running business and Afrikaners running the state, but the latter group themselves divided into bitter-end ‘verkramptes’ who soon lost their earlier hegemony, and neoliberal ‘verligtes’ led by FW de Klerk (1936-2021). He gained the presidency in 1989 and six months later freed Mandela and unbanned the ANC, SACP and other much smaller liberation movements. [30]

In 1991, as the Soviet Union’s collapse ended the red-scare distraction, Capital was finally removed from the apartheid regime’s banned-books list. Within months, the SACP-linked bookstore Phambili Books acquired multiple copies of Volume 1 from Lawrence & Wishart in London. [31] In addition, according to its manager, Dale McKinley (b.1961), Harare’s Grassroots Books supplied International Publishers titles including Capital:

  • An entire trailer-load I managed to bring down in 1992 was initially confiscated at the border post by the old apartheid customs officials. I remember also ordering directly from Progress Press and then later, the Chinese State Press. But by that stage, there were no more sets of Capital available – just compendiums. We sold all of the copies of Capital we ordered and indeed during those 1992-1994 years could probably have sold many more if we had managed to get hold of more. I remember that after 1994 (until we had to close for good in 1997) when the price of international books and shipping etc. started to go up substantially, it became ever more difficult to get and sell copies of Capital – not only because there were fewer publishers but also because the prices sky-rocketed. [32]

 III. Uses and Abuses of Capital to Justify Globalisation and Austerity (1994-present)

Perhaps not coincidentally, after liberation was won in 1994, many of the super-exploitative processes identified in Capital were exacerbated, as corporations once again suffered tendencies to overaccumulation and demanded (and won) numerous concessions in neoliberal economic policy. [33]

From within the ANC, the new ruling party, uses and abuses of Marx’s ideas about globalisation and national debt were repeatedly displayed during debates with the SACP. [34] Indeed the lack of widespread access to Capital was probably a central reason that during the main post-apartheid economic policy debates, Thabo Mbeki (b.1942) – who was Deputy President from 1994-1999 and President from 1999-2008, having once been a star performer at Moscow’s Lenin Institute [35] – had no hesitation to invoke out-of-context arguments from Capital to justify both liberalised trade and budget cuts.

By 2001, a leading pro-Mbeki ANC politician, Peter Mokaba (1959-2002) teased the SACP (in its own African Communist house strategic-intellectual periodical):

  • It is my understanding that some among the SACP delegates are unhappy that some of us from the ANC delegation have quoted from Marx, Engels and Lenin and sought to apply the principles of historical materialism to our current national and international realities…
  • In this regard, given that the SACP claims to be a Marxist-Leninist party, I would like to draw your attention to some observations made by Karl Marx in Capital… Marx unequivocally characterised the accumulation of the national debt, caused by reliance on budget deficits, as a critical part of the capitalist process of “the expropriation of the masses.” It puzzles me greatly that people who claim to be adherents of Marx should go to war against the ANC when it takes decisive steps to wipe out our national debt. [36]

Mokaba went on to defend the ANC’s policy of liberalising exchange controls and trade against those who – as he scathingly put it – believed “the process of globalisation is a subjective invention of a neoliberal cabal located in Washington and slavishly imitated by an ‘Afro-neoliberal’ group of traitors to the National Democratic Revolution located in Pretoria.” Instead, he insisted,

  • The ANC has been arguing that globalisation is an objective social process in which we must intervene to ensure that the masses of the people in our country and the countries of the South in particular, do not suffer further impoverishment and marginalisation. My own reading of Marx, says to me that he saw the emergence of a world market, globalisation, as a natural and explicable result of the development of the means and forces of production during the capitalist era.

Responding on behalf of the SACP, deputy leader Jeremy Cronin (b.1949) was concerned that Mokaba limited his reading to

  • a simple moral condemnation of the way in which (in Holland, England and later in the US – these are the examples evoked by Marx) emerging national bourgeoisies used “public debt” to expropriate wealth from the masses. Marx’s moral condemnation is certainly there, but much more central to Marx’s concerns in these passages from Capital is a scientific analysis of an objective process – namely, how the development of capitalist forces of production requires a “primitive accumulation” process, one key aspect being the incurring of major “public/national debts.” The public pays for a debt that fuels capitalist expansion, the debt is public, but the profits are private. “The public debt becomes one of the most powerful levers of primitive accumulation,” Marx writes, and cde Peter quotes. But has cde Peter grasped the real significance of all of this? [37]

The debate continued and in 2006, an anonymous ANC Today writer (again, probably Mbeki) reiterated Mokaba’s claims that Capital is a policy-oriented book promoting globalisation and austerity.

Rebutting, the then national chair of the SACP’s Young Communist League (and in 2017, the single most popular ANC member elected to the National Executive), David Masondo (b.1974), accused the writer of “Abuse of Marx’s Capital to justify right-wing deviation from the National Democratic Revolution… this dominant petty-bourgeoisie within the ANC has implemented neoliberal economic policies that increased the rate of exploitation of the working class.” [38] (Masondo was from 2018 South Africa’s deputy finance minister, where he was party to the most extreme austerity that Treasury had ever invoked, even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic when the health budget was repeatedly slashed.)

Always sensitive to that accusation (a central reason he was evicted by his party from the Presidency in 2008), Mbeki replied in personal Facebook messages in 2016, citing at length Capital Volume 1:

These distortions were one reason that, a few weeks later in 2016, former Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils (b.1938) – once an SACP leader (and firm Mbeki ally) before his turn towards the independent left after leaving government in 2008 – intervened to explain how Capital disclosed the laws of the capitalist mode of production, laid bare the hidden nature of surplus value and exploitation of labour power, and posited capitalism’s innate contradictions between the productive forces on the one hand and the fetters of its productive social relations on the other…

Marx’s accomplishment in Capital cannot be underestimated, especially when his theory of the crisis of overaccumulation – witnessed in the massive glut of overproductive capital side by side with idle labour – is so much more compelling than the incompetent arguments of bourgeois economists. The latter believe markets equilibrate, that they move towards stability. It was one of Marx’s greatest contributions to political economy to prove the opposite: that the inherent crisis tendencies in the system lead to periodic ruptures.

Class struggle is obviously part of this story, but it is only when class consciousness rises to the point that trade unions’ economistic demands – and communities’ narrow material concerns – are augmented by a critique of the capitalist system, that a revolutionary situation can develop.

Capital is vital to that consciousness, because it separates the reformers from those who believe the laws of motion underlying the capitalist system “cannot be reformed, and must be overthrown.” [40]

 IV. Directions for and from Capital

Kasrils imports from Capital a combination of capital accumulation, capital’s contradictions, and the need for class struggle. Putting these together is relatively rare among organic post-apartheid South African intellectuals. [41]

During the 1970s-80s peak of local Marxist social science, scores of scholars and revolutionary activists attempted to generate neo-Marxist framings of the political economy of race and class, as the apartheid system rose to new heights of power and then collapsed. [42]

The 1990s witnessed many desertions, as former Marxists turned to work within and around the state, often as deradicalised consultants. [43] Failure of analytical nerve was one explanation: because capitalism so obviously profited from apartheid’s super-exploitative conditions, that earlier era of scholar-activists asked: if we want to rid the state and society of legally-structured racism, must we simultaneously also end capitalism?

Their incorrect answer in the affirmative reflected the limits of Marxist theorisation in South Africa, which in turn occurred partly because Capital wasn’t suitably accessible, and then after liberation wasn’t presented in local languages or through a relevant pedagogy to the vast working class, no matter how angry they remained about the capitalist system. This was the tragedy named “the moment of Western Marxism” by philosopher Andrew Nash. [44]

There were many objective reasons why the South African anti-apartheid revolution was so decisively truncated, leaving so many socio-economically worse off today. But the subjective reasons are also worth considering, including the failure to integrate Capital’s analysis.

Had the 1960s-80s generation of anti-apartheid and labour activists augmented by these Marxist scholars and the exiled SACP been better schooled in Capital, perhaps the temporary resolution of capitalist crisis tendencies via post-apartheid economic liberalisation (which restored corporate profits) might not have been so acute.

Perhaps the leading (mainly white) Marxist and syndicalist strategists in the labour movement would not have made the extraordinary political reversals they chose, moving from working-class commitments to post-Fordist fantasies in the late 1980s and then neoliberal policies after 1994. [45]

Perhaps 1980s-90s nationalist activists would have better recognised the tendency for their liberation movement’s political freedoms to coincide with crisis-ridden corporations’ need for economic freedom during the 1990s, picking off some of their most talented ex-’Marxist’ leaders. [46]

Perhaps the caricaturing of Marx’s arguments by the leading ANC intellectuals – especially Mbeki – to veil a neoliberal agenda could have been avoided in the post-apartheid era.

And perhaps had the 2000s generation of independent, radical grassroots activists – especially in various movements fighting for public water, electricity, AIDS medicines and tertiary education – seen their campaigns as anti-capitalist in the broadest sense, in changing the commodity form into a decommodified commons, they might have linked their struggles. They might have connected the production and reproduction processes as part of a generalised attack on capitalism, rather than allowing the campaigns to revert to single-issue moments of ‘advocacy’ and protest.

Social, community, environmental, feminist, youth and labour resistances continue to exhibit potential, for challenging the very logic of capital. The most obvious include ongoing waves of community uprisings and, on the shopfloor, the ability to carry out devastating strike and sabotage action.

In late 2021, the capitalist degradation of the environment became a national scandal when Shell Oil teamed with a local entrepreneur – Johnny Copelyn (formerly a lead Workerist) – to threaten methane gas extraction offshore the country’s pristine Wild Coast.

Moreover, new political forces demand nationalisation of the banks, mines and monopoly capital (as had the ANC long ago, in its 1955 Freedom Charter). For example, the 700,000-strong SA Federation of Trade Unions is dominated by the country’s largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. The metalworkers were radicalised in large part by the 2012 massacre of 34 Marikana platinum mineworkers who were undertaking a sustained wild-cat strike, and in 2018 their leaders launched a Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party for the 2019 national election (although it received only 25 000 votes, not enough to join parliament – and sufficiently disheartening to dissuade a retry in the 2021 municipal elections).

Another party calling for the end of capitalism is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by the firebrand Julius Malema (b.1981) with a declared ‘Marxist-Leninist-Fanonist’ ideology (albeit often exhibiting race-essentialist, thuggish tendencies). The EFF received 6 percent of the vote in the 2014 national election, 8 percent in 2016 municipal elections, 11 percent in the 2019 national elections and the same in the 2021 municipal elections.

The ruling party won 62 percent in 2014 but slid to 48 percent by 2021 (losing five of the six largest metropolitan areas), with centre-right and right-wing parties taking the rest. As a result, the EFF for the first time agreed to formally share Share A unit of ownership interest in a corporation or financial asset, representing one part of the total capital stock. Its owner (a shareholder) is entitled to receive an equal distribution of any profits distributed (a dividend) and to attend shareholder meetings. power in ruling coalitions within a few municipal governments – but without sufficient influence to change the local state’s neoliberal policies especially given that its ruling partners are far to its right.

And on the capitalist side, the dramatic war between the corrupt, patrimonial faction behind former President Zuma (b.1942) and the neoliberal (and also corrupt) “White Monopoly Capital” faction backing his successor Cyril Ramaphosa (b.1952) was in 2017-18 at least temporarily resolved in the interests of the latter.

Nevertheless the capitalist crisis tendencies that Marx described continue to grind towards a much more intense confrontation in coming months and years, as a fixed investment ‘capital strike’ reflects both local and global overaccumulation, and as financialisation has pushed the ‘Buffett Indicator’ (stock market valuation as a share of GDP GDP
Gross Domestic Product
Gross Domestic Product is an aggregate measure of total production within a given territory equal to the sum of the gross values added. The measure is notoriously incomplete; for example it does not take into account any activity that does not enter into a commercial exchange. The GDP takes into account both the production of goods and the production of services. Economic growth is defined as the variation of the GDP from one period to another.
) to more than 400 percent, the highest of any national economy in recorded history.

One result was a ‘powder keg’ explosion in July 2021, when in four major metropolitan areas (Johannesburg, Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Pretoria to use their traditional names), widespread looting and violence led to more than 360 deaths (many from stampedes into and out of shopping malls and warehouses) and $3 billion damage over six days.

Capital will be needed, more than ever, to interpret these, not as South African deviations – but as both reflecting the system’s internal contradictions, and in expressing the need to expand horizons, towards a socialist society. Whether a new set of reading groups or some new form of popularisation can be identified, remains to be seen – but nothing in Capital’s dissemination and influence here since 1867, has so far been even momentarily adequate to what the times have demanded.


Secondary Literature on Capital


Other references

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  • “DENNIS BRUTUS ONLINE ARCHIVE.” Center for Civil Society. Accessed February 09, 2019. http://ccs.ukzn.ac.za/default.asp?4,79.
  • “Dr. Neville Edward Alexander.” South African History Online. August 30, 2018. Accessed February 09, 2019. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/dr-neville-edward-alexander.
  • “Dr. Neville Edward Alexander.” South African History Online. August 30, 2018. Accessed February 09, 2019. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/dr-neville-edward-alexander.
  • Dixon, Norm, “Phambili Books: More than a Bookshop,” GreenLeft Weekly. August 31, 1994, Accessed February 09, 2019. https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/phambili-books-more-bookshop
  • Drew, Allison, ed. South Africa’s Radical Tradition: A Documentary History. Volume One: 1907 – 1950. Cape Town: UCT Press, 1996.
  • Drew, Allison, ed. South Africa’s Radical Tradition, a documentary history, Volume Two 1943 – 1964. Cape Town: UCT Press, 1997.
  • Drew, Allison. “Marxist Theory in African Settler Societies.” Unpublished manuscript, 2018.
  • Engels, Frederick. “Supplement and Addendum to Volume Three of Capital” in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3, edited by Ernest Mandel, 1027-1048. New York: Penguin, 1981.
  • Fees Must Fall Collective. ‘A dedicated teacher of the working class.’ Africa Is A Country, 15 December 2021, https://www.africasacountry.com/2021/12/a-dedicated-teacher-of-the-working-class
  • Filitova, Irena, “Communism in South Africa”, Oxford Research Encyclopaedias, February 2017, http://oxfordre.com/africanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190277734.001.0001/acrefore-9780190277734-e-82
  • Helliker, Kirk. “South African Marxist State Theory.” South African Journal of Political Studies, 15 (1988): 3-14.
  • Hirson, Baruch, ‘Colonialism and Imperialism,’ Searchlight South Africa, 2, no. 3 (1991): 7-18.
  • Hobson, John, Imperialism, London: Cosimo, 1902.
  • Innes, Duncan, Anglo American and the Making of Modern South Africa, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984.
  • Kuhn, Annette and Ann Marie Wolpe, eds. Feminism and Materialism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
  • Legassick, Martin. “South Africa: Capital Accumulation and Violence.” Economy and Society, 3 (1974): 253-291.
  • Magubane, Ben, The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979.
  • Mazrui, Alamin and Alidou Ousina. “The Language of Africa-Centered Knowledge in South Africa.” In National Identity and Democracy in Africa, edited by M.Palmberg, 101-119. Pretoria: HSRC Press, 1999.
  • McKinley, Dale, interviewed by Patrick Bond at Johannesburg, 22 March 2018
  • Meth, Charles, ‘Productivity and South Africa’s Economic Crisis’, Unpublished manuscript, University of Natal Department of Economics, Durban, 1990.
  • Nash, Andrew. “The Moment of Western Marxism, in South Africa.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 19, no. 1 (1999): 61-72.
  • Phimister, Ian. “Unscrambling the Scramble.” Paper Presentation, Wits University African Studies Seminar series, Johannesburg, 17 August 1992.
  • Roux, Eddie, S.P.Bunting: A Political Biography, Cape Town, 1944.
  • Satgar, Vishwas, ed. Capitalism’s Crises. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2015.
  • Stewart, Paul. “Labour Time in South African Gold Mines”. PhD dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand Department of Sociology, Johannesburg, Wits Institutional Depository (https://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/phd_pf_stewart_final_submission_july_2012.pdf)
  • Saul, John and Patrick Bond, South Africa – The Present as History, Oxford: James Currey, 2014.
  • Shubin, Vladamir, interviewed by Patrick Bond at Livingstone, Zambia, 10 August 2015.
  • Simon, Jack and Ray Alexander, Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950, Middlesex: Penguin, 1969.
  • Trewhela, Paul, ‘Golden Dreams,’ Searchlight South Africa, 1, no. 2 (1989): 32-64.
  • Luxemburg, Rosa, The Accumulation of Capital, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968
  • Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom, New York: Little Brown, 2013.
  • Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Vintage, 1977.
  • Webster, Eddie. “Competing paradigms: Towards a critical sociology in Southern Africa,” Social Dynamics, 11, no. 1 (1985): 44-48.
  • Webster, Eddie. “Correspondence,” Social Dynamics, 13, no. 1 (1987): 75-77.
  • Wheen, Francis, Marx’s Das Kapital. New York: Atlantic Books, 2006.
  • Wolpe, Harold. “Capitalism and Cheap Labour Power.” Economy and Society, 1 (1972): 425-456
  • Wolpe, Harold, ed. The Articulation of Modes of Production. London: Routledge, 1980.



Patrick Bond (University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology)
Presented to the panel, ‘Marxian Political Economy in South Africa’
World Association for Political Economy 15th Forum
Shanghai International Studies University, China, 18 December 2021

Footnotes

[1Fees Must Fall Collective. ‘A dedicated teacher of the working class.’ 15 December 2021, https://www.africasacountry.com/2021/12/a-dedicated-teacher-of-the-working-class

[2These pages – in draft form – have not been well circulated yet in South Africa, as I have failed to reach out adequately to all of those who from the 1970s labored to read, discuss and apply Capital. I hope to be corrected, and to provide a much more optimistic version of this analysis when it is in final form.

[3Saul, John and Patrick Bond. South Africa – The Present as History, Oxford: James Currey, 2014.

[4Luxemburg, Rosa. The Accumulation of Capital, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968 (especially Chapter 27). In the Luxemburgist spirit, SACP intellectuals – who spent the 1960s-80s in exile – developed an ‘articulation of modes of production’ argument by focusing on capitalist/non-capitalist relations, partly as a result of their alliance with the nationalists, for the political purposes of justifying a ‘National Democratic Revolution.’ Nevertheless, within official SACP Marxism, applications of such theory were negligible.

[5Wheen, Francis. Marx’s Das Kapital. New York: Atlantic Books, 2006.

[6Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes, 915. New York: Vintage, 1977

[7Engels, Frederick. “Supplement and Addendum to Volume Three of Capital” in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3, edited by Ernest Mandel, 1048. New York: Penguin, 1981.

[8Phimister, Ian. “Unscrambling the Scramble.” Paper Presentation, Wits University African Studies Seminar series, Johannesburg, 17 August 1992.

[9Hobson, John. Imperialism, London: Cosimo, 1902; Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital. Unfortunately, in South Africans’ struggle for freedom from colonialism and apartheid, these works did not feature as intellectual guides.

[10The period is covered best by the era’s main chronicler, Allison Drew, in her South Africa’s Radical Tradition: A Documentary History. Volume One: 1907 – 1950. Cape Town: UCT Press, 1996 and South Africa’s Radical Tradition, a documentary history, Volume Two 1943 – 1964. Cape Town: UCT Press, 1997. More recently see Drew, Allison. “Marxist Theory in African Settler Societies.” Unpublished manuscript, 2018. http://www.africanstudies.uct.ac.za/sites/default/files/image_tool/images/327/2018/Drew-Marxism-African.pdf See also Filitova, Irena. “Communism in South Africa”, Oxford Research Encyclopaedias, http://oxfordre.com/africanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190277734.001.0001/acrefore-9780190277734-e-82

[11Roux, Eddie. S.P.Bunting: A Political Biography, Cape Town, 1944,

[12Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom, New York: Little Brown, 2013 edn, p.104.

[13Capital was banned in both the Customs and Excise Act #55 of 1955 and Publication Act 42 of 1974.

[14There are ten major language groups aside from English (of which only one, Afrikaans, has European – specifically Dutch-Flemish – origins). All 11 became official languages in 1994 with the country’s democratisation. But as two leading historians remark, “Marx’s premier work Capital is not yet available in trans-ethnic languages like Hausa, Silozi or Zulu, let alone in more ethnically bound languages.” Mazrui, Alamin and Alidou Ousina. “The Language of Africa-Centered Knowledge in South Africa.” in M.Palmberg (Ed), National Identity and Democracy in Africa. Pretoria: HSRC Press, 1999, p.113.

[15They included C.B.I. Dladla, Dan Koza, Isaac Bongani Tabata and T.W. Thibedi.

[16Alexander’s writings are preserved at “Dr. Neville Edward Alexander.” South African History Online. August 30, 2018. Accessed February 09, 2019. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/dr-neville-edward-alexander. Brutus’ files are in Brutus, Dennis. Poetry and Protest, Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2006, and at “Dennis Brutus.” South African History Online. October 03, 2018. Accessed February 09, 2019. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/dennis-brutus. and “DENNIS BRUTUS ONLINE ARCHIVE.” Center for Civil Society. Accessed February 09, 2019. http://ccs.ukzn.ac.za/default.asp?4,79.

[17Desai, Ashwin. Reading Revolution, Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2012, p.89.

[18The 1989 rewrite of Path to Power notes, “a workers’ vanguard political party must be made up of the most tried and tested representatives of this class. Its members must be committed revolutionaries with an understanding of Marxist theory” – yet the document has no reference to ideas in Capital. Moreover, reflecting how little attention was paid to accumulation processes, the main text used in the fabled Lusaka Marxist history sessions given to ANC cadres by Jack Simon and Ray Alexander – their 1969 book, Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950 – does not cite Capital or its central ideas such as the labour theory of value, the commodity form or accumulation crisis.

[19SACP, “Karl Marx’s Capital,” African Communist no. 31, (1967): 12-14

[20Wolpe, Harold. “Capitalism and Cheap Labour Power.” Economy and Society, 1 (1972): 425-456ed., The Articulation of Modes of Production. London: Routledge, 1980.

[21Legassick, Martin. “South Africa: Capital Accumulation and Violence.” Economy and Society, 3 (1974): 253-291

[22Kuhn, Annette and Ann Marie Wolpe, eds. Feminism and Materialism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

[23Davies, Robert. Capital, State, and White Labour in South Africa. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980.

[24Clarke, Simon. “Capital, Fractions of Capital and the State.” Capital and Class, 2, no. 2 (1978): 32. See also Helliker, Kirk. “South African Marxist State Theory.” South African Journal of Political Studies, 15 (1988): 3-14,

[25At least one ANC-aligned group was rounded up at Rhodes University in 1982. Also, according to Alternative Information and Development Centre founder Brian Ashley, “Many of the 1980s radicalising students would liberate Capital from the university libraries. The forerunners of Workers’ Organisation of South Africa and other left groups (the Cape Action League, Action Youth, Western Cape Youth League, the Marxist Workers Tendency of the ANC) all had copies, sometimes of all three volumes in their underground libraries.” Ashley, Brian, interviewed by Patrick Bond at Cape Town, 26 November 2018

[26Perhaps ironically or perhaps because the revolutionary flavor of Capital was missing, by 1983 it had become possible for the head of the SA Sociological Association, Ken Jubber, to remark that bourgeois sociology had been supplanted by Marxist social theory in key university departments. See Webster, Eddie. “Competing paradigms: Towards a critical sociology in Southern Africa,” Social Dynamics, 11, no. 1 (1985): 44-48

[27Webster, Eddie. Cast in a Racial Mould. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1985: 1.

[28Webster, Eddie. “Correspondence,” Social Dynamics, 13, no. 1 (1987): 75-77 His approach was criticised by a student: Stewart, Paul. “Labour Time in South African Gold Mines”. PhD dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand Department of Sociology, Johannesburg, Wits Institutional Depository (https://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/phd_pf_stewart_final_submission_july_2012.pdf)f

[29Magubane, Ben. The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979; Innes, Duncan. Anglo American and the Making of Modern South Africa, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984; and Meth, Charles. ‘Productivity and South Africa’s Economic Crisis’, Unpublished research monograph, University of Natal Department of Economics, 1990. In Trotskyist intellectual analysis, see Trewhela, Paul, ‘Golden Dreams,’ Searchlight South Africa, 1, no. 2 (1989): 32-64;.and Hirson, Baruch, ‘Colonialism and Imperialism,’ Searchlight South Africa, 2, no. 3 (1991): 7-18.

[30Saul and Bond. South Africa – The Present as History. That political shift was due to overlapping pressures and contradictions then bubbling up, including widespread township protest and workplace revolts, declining profits in part due to the overaccumulated capital that stood exposed after the gold price collapsed in 1980, growing political delegitimation thanks to ANC sanctions campaigning, and the economy’s overexposure to world financial power. International financiers suddenly turned hostile in August 1985 after a new round of repression by PW Botha’s government, cancelling lines of credit; their hands were forced by solidarity activists promoting banking sanctions and disinvestment.

[31Dixon, Norm, “Phambili Books: More than a Bookshop,” GreenLeft Weekly. August 31, 1994, Accessed February 09, 2019. https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/phambili-books-more-bookshop

[32McKinley, Dale, interviewed by Patrick Bond at Johannesburg, 22 March 2018.

[33Bond, Patrick. Elite Transition. London: Pluto Press, 2014.

[34“The Communist Assault on the Year 1996,” ANC Today. 30 June 2006. http://www.anc.org.za/docs/anctoday/2006/at25.htm

[35Shubin, Vladamir, interviewed by Patrick Bond at Livingstone, Zambia, 10 August 2015.

[36Mokaba, Peter. “Letter from Peter Mokaba.” African Communist 3/4 Quarter (2001): 158

[37[Cronin, Jeremy. “A Response to Peter Mokaba.” African Communist 3/4 Quarter (2001): 158

[38Masondo, David. “Abuse of Marx’s Capital to Justify Right-wing Deviation from the NDR: A Response to ANC Today.” Umsebenzi Online. July 05, 2006. Accessed February 09, 2019. https://www.sacp.org.za/pubs/umsebenzi/2006/no59.html.

[39Mbeki, Thabo. “GEAR and Neo-Liberalism (Part 1) .” South African History Online. March 29, 2016. Accessed February 09, 2019. https://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/gear-and-neo-liberalism-part-1-thabo-mbeki-21-march-2016.

[40Kasrils used this exercise to insist that instead of an inordinate focus on the infamous Gupta family that were then being unveiled as Zuma’s corruptors, “Look at those corporations and see who is quietly co-opting members of the emergent black political elite. The workings of modern capitalism are better studied by looking at how we as government allowed the likes of Anglo-America, Billiton, Old Mutual etc to avoid apartheid-era economic restitution, and through the lifting of exchange control were permitted to export huge sums of capital to list on the London Stock Exchange and incidentally beyond the reach of the quotas for Black Economic Empowerment.”

Kasrils, Ronnie. “The Life and Times of Karl Marx, in the Words of Ronnie Kasrils” Daily Maverick. May 17, 2016. Accessed February 09, 2019. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-05-16-the-life-and-times-of-karl-marx-in-the-words-of-ronnie-kasrils/.

[41Aside from Meth a generation earlier, only a U.S.-trained economist – Christopher Malikane – used Capital in this way, in a 2017 analysis of overaccumulation crisis. Malikane, Christopher, “Profitability and Crisis in the South African Economy,” Munich: Munich Personal RePEc Archive, January 13, 2017. Accessed February 09, 2019. https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/76165/1/MPRA_paper_76165.pdf.

A 2015 book in the Wits University Press ‘Democratic Marxism’ series edited by Vishwas Satgar utilises some crisis theory but focuses nearly entirely on class struggles instead of Capital’s accumulation dynamics. Satgar, Vishwas, ed. Capitalism’s Crises. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2015

One other review of contemporary relevance is Bond, Patrick, “Capital, Volume III—Gaps Seen from South Africa: Marx’s Crisis Theory, Luxemburg’s Capitalist/Non-capitalist Relations and Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions of Capitalism.” In The Unfinished System of Karl Marx, edited by F.O.Wolf and J.Dellheim, 299-330.New York: Springer, 2018.

[42A review is in Bond, Patrick. “Political Economy.” In Encyclopaedia of South Africa, edited by K.Johnson and S.Jacobs, 239-242 Boulder, Lynne Reiner, 2011.

[43The two most prominent were sociologist Duncan Innes, lead critic of Anglo American, and geographer Jeff McCarthy, who had a parallel role against the Urban Foundation (founded mainly by Anglo American), but who U-turned into consultants by the late 1980s.

[44Nash, Andrew. “The Moment of Western Marxism, in South Africa.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 19, no. 1 (1999): 61-72. See also Nash’s website, https://www.dialectic.co.za/

[45A critique of this shift is in Bond, Elite Transition, and Bond, Patrick. Cities of Gold, Townships of Coal. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2000.

[46Those prominent figures who were located within Marxist movements during the 1980s included the once-radical, subsequently-business-friendly politicians Cyril Ramaphosa – who became president in 2018 – and Ramaphosa’s minister of public enterprises, Pravin Gordhan. Though opposed to his political project since he became the country’s (neoliberal) finance minister in 2009, I personally am indebted to Gordhan for an exceptionally enlightening secret teach-in on revolutionary politics that he allowed me to attend, for the benefit of Natal Indian Congress youth activists in late 1984. It was held in the former Mahatma Gandhi ashram in northern Durban’s Phoenix section – a neighborhood which was attacked by right-wing vigilantes in 1985 and then, bearing that (and a similar 1949 pogrom) in mind, in 2021 gained global notoriety for racist attacks (carried out by Indian residents) on nearby Black Africans traveling through the area, during a week of violence and chaos, leaving three dozen fatalities.

Patrick Bond

is professor at the University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology, and co-editor of BRICS and Resistance in Africa (published by Zed Books, 2019).

Other articles in English by Patrick Bond (94)

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