The events of recent weeks in South Africa, followed by statements from Cosatu about plotting a new way forward, raise again the spectre of the past. And it is an international past. Especially when these events are looked at against the background of conflicts in regions such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia and the politely termed world economic crisis.
I say politely, because it is a potentially avoidable crisis that is causing misery, death and horrendous suffering to millions of people across the globe. This is also an era where that self-proclaimed “great democracy” the United States, practices judicially-sanctioned kidnapping, torture and murder under the euphemism of “rendition”; where acts of state terror are portrayed as examples of lauded patriotism.
Given this situation it is little wonder that there is a growing chorus of voices calling for change. Some change. Any kind of change.
While the world has certainly changed in the years since 1915, all of this has echoes in the writings in that year of a then imprisoned revolutionary socialist, Rosa Luxemburg. She was jailed for opposing World War I at a time, such as now, when lies and propaganda tended to take the place of needed analysis and debate, when a minority controlling international business continued to thrive on destruction and slaughter.
In a famous pamphlet, smuggled out of her cell, she warned that the world faced a stark choice: transformation or barbarism. She saw the necessary transformation as “socialism” a term also appropriated as the goal of Cosatu and the SACP.
Luxemburg clearly understood the absurdity of a world producing a surplus of food alongside millions of people dying of starvation and the diseases of malnutrition. She also saw how business could “flourish on ruins” and how profits can can spring “like weeds, from the fields of the dead”.
So she presented the alternatives as she saw them: “…..the destruction of all culture and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or, the victory of socialism”.
In rather less grandiose and poetic terms, this is what Cosatu’s newly appointed president, Sidumo Dlamini stated last week. In fact, such a general statement would almost certainly find favour with the majority of trade unionists.
But since Luxemburg was murdered in 1919 by rightwing troops on the orders of a “socialist” government, it is best to be clear about definitions. “Socialism” is a label which clearly means different things to different people.
Luxemburg, born in Poland and active in Germany, saw socialism as the extension of meaningful political and economic control to the majority of humanity. That she was totally “unpatriotic” she saw as a prerequisite of her “socialism”.
The last paragraph of her 1915 pamphlet reads: “This madness will not stop, and this bloody nightmare of hell will not cease until the workers of Germany, of France, of Russia and of England, will wake up out of their drunken sleep; will clasp each others hands in brotherhood and will drown the bestial chorus…..with the mighty cry of labour, ‘Workers of all countries, unite!’”
If the only test of truth is the ability to predict, Luxemburg’s 1915 warning was an accurate — truthful — assessment of conditions at the time and where they might lead. But the global barbarism that now threatens seems much worse than what followed Luxemburg’s prediction and culminated in the holocaust and World War II.
In these conditions the trade union movement is again to the forefront in stating that meaningful transformation is an urgent requirement. “Socialism” is the word used. But what, exactly, does this mean?