Workers Sanctions & Capitalist Sanctions:
Fire and Water'
What attitude should revolutionaries take toward bourgeois sanctions against apartheid? This question, much debated in the international left in connection with South Africa, was similarly posed in the 1930s at the time of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Trotsky sharply criticized those pragmatists who sought to combine workers sanctions and imperialist sanctions. Ernest Mandels United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec), in adapting itself politically to the illusions of the masses, replicates the sanctions policy of Stalins Comintern and the various centrist formations against which Trotsky polemicized:
We support the calls on governments that they impose sanctions against the South African regime. By putting forward these demands, we do not encourage illusions in their capacity or their desire to take effective measures. On the contrary, we urge the workers movement to fight to impose these sanctions. For this reason, we popularize and call on the workers to take direct action initiatives to prevent the exchange of goods and services with South Africa.
The following exchange, between a supporter of the Canadian affiliate of the United Secretariat and a representative of the Bolshevik Tendency, occurred at Comrade Smiths 19 November 1988 Toronto forum:
Robert (Socialist Challenge): Im a member of Socialist Challenge, which is a sympathizing organization with the Fourth International, the USec organization that the brother was talking about. Id just like to say first off that the perspective of Socialist Challenge in South Africa is one of permanent revolution, seeing that the struggle against apartheid for democratic rights and basic civil rights that have been won in this country is combined with the struggle against capital. It is a combined struggle. We see the need for there to be a socialist revolution and expropriation of the capitalist class in South Africa by the black workers. And not simply the black workers, but all those who would take part in the struggle for socialist revolution: blacks, colored, Indian and whites, all those who want to fight for a better future in South Africa; a socialist future in South Africa.
As far as sanctions that were talked about and detailing Reagans swiss-cheese sanctions, of course we cant rely upon Reagan or the U.S. Congress which exercises rule in the interests of the capitalist class in the United States and worldwide, the interests of the big corporationsin South Africa, in Central America, around the worldof course we cant rely on them to fight a consistent struggle against apartheid, against capitalism in South Africa. And our organization has no illusions whatsoever that they will do so.
But we do see the need to put demands on the government, not in the sense that we have faith that they are in any sense out of the goodness of their hearts acceding to these demands willingly, but to [put] pressure on them, to force them to respond, to some degree against their own interests. I mean, if we dont believe that the capitalist governments give in to a degree or make certain concessions to the working class, I mean, thats just fantasy. Of course the bourgeoisie, under the impact of the struggle against their class interest, will back up.
And of course we dont see the need just for sanctions and begging Reagan or Mulroney for sanctions, we see the need for labor action, of boycotting goods coming to and fro on the waterfront. As in, I think, the example people should read maybe, the example in the BT paper about the actions they did in San Francisco. I think that was a good action. I would agree with that kind of action and Socialist Challenge supports that kind of labor action against goods being transported, goods being traded. And I think thats the way to goorganize those in the labor movement to boycott these things and no reliance on Reagan of course.
Tom (Bolshevik Tendency): ...our orientation toward the demand that the Canadian imperialist state act in a progressive fashionwhether it is in regard to South Africa or in regard to Nicaragua or any of the other features of what is a world imperialist system of exploitation and oppressionour attitude toward demanding that our own Canadian rulers and participants in this world system of exploitation act in a way which is diametrically counterposed to their own class interests and, in fact, diametrically counterposed to what we can see as the entire history of Canadian capitalism, our attitude is that for us as revolutionaries, as socialists, this can only create illusions among people who are looking for a lead from the left about how to fight imperialism.
Now there are those (and Robert makes the case about as well as it could be made), who say: well, on the one hand well tell the workers in Canada the main enemy is the Canadian capitalist class, and we must fight the capitalists in South Africa and we must fight the capitalists in Canada and the United States and wherever we happen to be, and we must see this as a world system with the working class on one side and the capitalists on the other side, and we must all struggle against them; on the other hand, it cant do any harm if we ask Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney [Canadian External Affairs Minister and Prime Minister] to be nice guys as wellat the same time as we fight them.
Well, we think that it can do some harm because we think that it is fundamentally necessary above all else to teach the workers and the oppressed that this is not an accident, what has happened to you, and its not your own fault....This is a world system. Botha is their ally. He is their friend. They are working hand-in-hand with him. They think hes being a bit unwise, theyre putting a bit of pressure on him as a friend would....We recognize that comrades of Socialist Challenge and other socialist groups are on our side of the class line. Within that camp, we try to put pressure; we try to influence those people; we try to convince them. Mulroney, Botha, Reagantheyre on the other side of the class line and that is exactly what theyre doing.
And for us to be coming up, and indeed the United Secretariat unfortunately and not uncharacteristically did come out and said well, we support workers action on the one hand, and we support begging the capitalists on the otherand that is basically what divestment and [bourgeois] sanctions amounts to. That doesnt give the people who are listening to you a clear perception of the way things are organized and it doesnt give them a clear road forward. In fact, it confuses them and it makes the job of Brian Mulroneys and Joe Clarkswho get on TV and say well, you know, were progressive capitalists and Botha is a reactionary capitalist so therefore vote Progressive Conservativeit makes their job that much easier.
Published: 1917 No.6 (Summer 1989)