PEN-L exchange on class character of South Africa

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Jun 18 18:53:28 MDT 2001

Chris Burford:
>I checked the web for the South African Communist Party before posting. I
>do not recall their exact formulation and Proyect or others may be able to
>supply a fuller explanation. What I recalled however is relevant to the
>debate: that they needed a formula that took into account the specific
>combination of continuing colonialism with fairly advanced capitalist
>development. That is why there is an objective basis for seriously
>comparing but also contrasting South Africa and Latin America.

Why is it so hard to come up with a straightforward answer to the question
of the class character of modern South Africa? Good old Ellen Wood had no
problem calling France feudal in 1789. Most people have no problem calling
Cuba socialist (or postcapitalist). There is unanimity on Great Britain
being capitalist in 1890 when steam engines, indoor plumbing and the
missionary position were generalized.

Why is it that the most vociferous defenders of the 'mode of production'
approach to defining social systems have trouble writing a simple sentence
like "South Africa was precapitalist". If we call Dixie or 18th century
Bolivia precapitalist or noncapitalist, why not South Africa? In fact, from
1900 to 1940 colonial Africa was characterized by unfree labor. Men were
dragooned from their tribes and forced to build roads and railways. The
rail link between the French side of Stanley Pool on the Congo River to the
sea was completed in 1930. Some 20,000 of the conscripted workers lost
their lives as the tracks were laid through the forests.

In the Congo Free State [sic], King Leopold forced blacks to extract the
rubber that went to Belgian corporations in exactly the same manner as
colonial Spain. You can read "Exterminate all the Brutes" to find out how
it was done. Joseph Conrad dramatized this oppression in "The Heart of
Darkness". What was this plantation-based rubber that cost the lives of
tens of thousands of Africans? Feudalism? Mercantile capitalism?

Eventually the worst aspects of Leopold's rule were ended and a 'normal'
reign of forced-labor terror set in under the auspices of a vast
industrial-financial consortium called the Sociéte Générale. It subdivided
the Congo into regional zones that produced cash crops for export or food
crops for the miners in the interior. What was this? Feudalism? Forced
cotton cultivation was channeled into Belgian textile firms that competed
on the world market. Were the cotton pickers in the Congo not a proletariat
because they were dragooned into picking cotton, while the factory workers
in Brussels a true proletariat because they sold their labor-power on the
open market? What kind of analysis is this? It is an embarrassment to
Marxism to even think in these kinds of schematic terms. We are trying to
create an international movement of working people. If we can't figure out
that the Congolese people or the South African miners were workers, then we
should not kid ourselves into thinking that we have something to offer the

Louis Proyect
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