Anti-imperialism for the ruling class

Although the material basis for today’s non-alignment movement stems from the constraints imposed on the developing world by American economic primacy, counterbalancing Western encirclement need not mean a pivot East.

Photo by Ivan Lapyrin on Unsplash.

In February, South Africa participated in joint military exercises with Russia and China. Taking place for 10 days just off the stretch of Indian coastline between the country’s largest port cities, Durban and Richards Bay, the timing was provocative: the navy drills overlapped with the one-year anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s foreign minister, defended the initiative, claiming it formed part of the “natural course of relations” and added that the US, France, and Germany had all recently featured in exercises with South Africa. Try as it might to insist otherwise through feigned stances of neutrality, the South African government has pivoted to the East, consolidating closer ties with Russia and China.

At the 6th Congress of the Comintern in 1928, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union resolved its stance on the “South African Question” and the role of nationalism in the class struggle. This took the form of a two-stage revolutionary program, which came to be known as “The Black Republic Thesis.”It consisted first of a national bourgeoisie struggling for national self-determination, followed by a socialist struggle.

Penned by James Arnold “Jimmy” La Guma—who was then on the central committee of the Communist Party of South Africa, as well as secretary for the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape—its draft was supervised by none other than Nikolai Bukharin. The great South African intellectual and anti-apartheid leader Neville Alexander, writing pseudonymously in 1979, summarized its legacy as leaving:

a definite mark on the subsequent development of the liberation struggle in South Africa. For it made it possible for caste organization, and for strategies based on the assumption of the permanency of caste, to find support among members of the Communist Party in subsequent years.

In 1978, one year prior to Alexander’s publication of No Sizwe, Alex La Guma, Jimmy’s son, published A Soviet Journey, a travelog based largely on a six-week trip he took to the Soviet Union in 1975. In one of the longest accounts of the Soviet Union by an African writer, La Guma praised it for resolving the national question, “one of the greatest achievements in socialism, (with) immense international impact.” Yet, rather than receiving a definitive answer, the question was indefinitely suspended. On August 24, 1991, the Soviet Union’s largest constituent republic declared independence. Thirty years later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Putin’s speech defining his view of the conflict (given on the eve of the invasion, on February 21,  2022) places significant blame on the Bolsheviks, who needlessly tried to “satisfy the endlessly increasing nationalist ambitions of different parts of the former [Russian] empire.” At first glance, Putin’s antipathy towards the Bolsheviks and their supposed anti-Russian enmity should have complicated the ANC’s narrative of support for Russia as repaying an historical debt. Not only is the modern Russian state fundamentally discontinuous with the Soviet Union, but Ukraine itself formed part of the Soviet Union and was one of the most instrumental constituent republic as far as hosting and supporting ANC exiles. For the ANC, this distinction is immaterial. The terms on which the invasion is being justified draw on a model of self-determination, which is familiar and purpose-giving to an otherwise directionless and illegitimate political party.

The “Native Republic Thesis” eventually evolved into the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), the framework through which the ANC conceptualized its historical task. The ANC acted as the leader of a multi-class, anti-colonial political formation fighting for national sovereignty. Only once this was achieved could the struggle for socialism be waged.

To date, the ANC still considers itself a vital force spearheading the NDR. At its 55th Conference in late 2022, it affirmed that: “Despite challenges, the ANC remains the leading force for change in the country and carries the hopes and aspirations of our people to realize the objectives of the National Democratic Revolution.” The conference resolutions also conceive of the Ukraine war as driven by Western containment. The party added: “The ANC has been part of the non-aligned movement. We are also part of the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial forces.”

Even after colonialism has ended, at least in the form that existed when the ANC’s mission was first conceived, Africa’s oldest liberation movement continues to define itself ideologically and politically as contributing to anticolonial struggle.

Formed in September of 1961 in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia, the Non-Aligned Movement was the formal culmination of a longer process of Third World interest formation, including a multitude of conferences and meetings, like the All African People’s Conference in Ghana in 1958, Bandung in 1955, and the meetings of the Pan-African Congress, which started in Paris in 1919. The ANC government sees BRICS as extending this process:

a continuation of the tradition that was firmly established 57 years ago, in April 1955, when countries of Asia and Africa met at the historic Bandung Conference to galvanize their collective muscle in the context of the Cold War and assert themselves in the international system.

It is easy to read the ANC’s strategy of non-alignment as merely appropriating Cold War slogans and imaginaries to justify an advance of its own self-interest. According to Atlantic Council Fellow Tim Sahay, countries like South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, and India are pursuing this strategy as an exercise in pragmatism, believing that “their bargaining power in the new Cold War will result in sweeter trade, technology, and weapons deals from the West.”

But the available evidence yields very little indication that South Africa stands to gain much materially from pivoting East. In fact, it has a lot to lose. Combined, South Africa’s trade with the European Union and the US outpaces its trade with China and Russia. Crackling with indignation at Africa’s most industrialized power cozying up to the East, the US Congress has even tabled a resolution calling for President Joe Biden to “review” relations with South Africa.

The ANC’s psychological attachments to modern Russia aren’t easily explained by reference to the Soviet Union’s support for the anti-apartheid struggle either. The modest point is this: even though the ANC itself cites the historical relationship between South Africa and the Soviet Union, its positive identification is with the contemporary Russian state.

Support for Russia is the outcome of the ANC’s commitment to a narrow version of non-alignment informed by its own, internal conception of global power relations, one that fixes the US and the West into a trans-historical adversary of liberation. This follows on from the original non-alignment worldview, which accurately conceived of an international power structure that was first and foremost ethno-racialized, and divided into a dominant white world and a subordinate black world. Although, the primary problem of the 21st century is not that of the color line, as W. E. B. Du Bois originally figured. However, the idea of a global racial hierarchy endures in the language of “ways of life.”

This agenda is effectively the NDR scaled up for the international arena. Lacking domestic political legitimacy, the ANC has found a new lease of life by fashioning an external adversary to explain the mission of the party. And so, unlike the vision of anti-colonial world-making that underpinned non-alignment in its halcyon days in Bandung and Belgrade (which sought to remake the post-1945 international order across egalitarian lines), the international democratic revolution is primarily an assertion of national sovereignty that makes allusions to the transformation of the nation-state, but which in practice, is concerned with securing the relative autonomy of national elites in the international state system.

A question arises here: how does non-alignment today become so disjointed from its conception in the mid-20th century? Although non-alignment, at its best, aspired to world-making, it also expressed more conservative ambitions shaped by global circumstances. According to Immanuel Wallerstein, by 1967, non-aligned states already “wanted entry into the world community as equals but did not seek to transform the nature of this world.” Non-alignment encompassed a heady mix of competing ideas of postcolonial modernization and development. As historian Frank Gerits explains in his new book The Ideological Scramble for Africa: “The wide range of ideological options also made diplomacy within the Global South more convoluted.”

Non-aligned internationalism could never crystallize into a fully coherent program because it lacked a mass character. It was coordinated by esteemed statesmen like Nkrumah, Nyerere, Senghor, and Nasser, but as a politics lacked expression in durable working-class institutions and labor movements. However, working-class institutions were underdeveloped in the first place because the sociological conditions for mass society and associational life—industrialization and collective provision through a strong state—never came to pass.

The aporia of non-aligned internationalism is, thus, that states were mainly fighting for more equitable conditions abroad to pursue development at home, but it is that development which could have helped furnish the base to make non-alignment more robust. Still, the vision of non-alignment offered a reservoir of hope and the sense of an emancipatory horizon. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that has disappeared from view. For the ANC, the commitment to non-alignment may reflect less nostalgia, and more saudade (in Portuguese, a bittersweet yearning) for a simpler time. By the time the ANC was governing South Africa, the USSR had collapsed, and history had ended. Rather than a world animated by a spirit of possibility, as in the first wave of decolonization, the ANC entered a world resigned, leaving it with the unbecoming task of presiding over neoliberal immiseration.

To be sure, the material basis for a non-alignment movement today is borne from the constraints imposed on the developing world by US economic primacy manifested through dollar hegemony. Counterbalancing Western encirclement is a goal few on the left would disagree with. But whether a pivot East along the lines that the ANC is chasing would be advantageous is doubtful.

Non-alignment at the level of state diplomacy that is not subject to bottom-up pressure from popular forces is bound to project only the interests of the domestic bourgeoisie. In South Africa, the ANC’s post-apartheid development model has been premised on propping up the local black elite, an effort to complete the first stage of the national democratic revolution.

The war in Ukraine, then, expresses a conflict between two competing factions of capital in South Africa. One side, loosely classified as advocating for ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ (RET), seeks to transform capital by transforming the economy so that wealth is less concentrated in the hands of white and foreign capital, by transferring ownership of the commanding heights of the economy to politically connected black elites. The RET’s record in power was connected to what is called state capture: the transfer of sovereign decision-making power over public policy to private interests—most infamously, the exiled Indian business clan, the Gupta family.

During his tenure, former president Jacob Zuma, the poster boy for RET, came close to covertly concluding a $76-billion deal with the Russian state energy corporation Rosatom to build a nuclear power plant in South Africa. The ANC has also been the beneficiary of a nearly $1-million donation from a company linked to a sanctioned Russian oligarch in the third quarter of the 2022-23 financial year.

What South Africa and Russia share is a political economy based on patronage, rent-seeking, and accumulation through state-owned enterprises. At the height of social discontent against Zuma, one of the ANC’s most prominent ideologues, Gwede Mantashe (who then served as secretary-general, and is now its national chairperson), characterized significant protests during Zuma’s tenure—including the Marikana miners’ strike, Fees Must Fall, and the Zuma Must Fall marches—as evidence that the party was under threat from a “color revolution” driven by “nefarious NGOs.” (Years later, Mantashe described frontline mining communities’ opposition to Shell seismic surveys as “apartheid and colonialism of a special type”). Mantashe added that, unlike the party of Mandela, the ANC was not “the darling of everybody in the world.”

Non-alignment today cannot be coherent, and it can only articulate the ideology of national elites, as an anti-imperialism for the ruling class. The dream of national sovereignty is ultimately a longing for the completion of a bourgeois revolution in the postcolonial context—one that consolidates the economic dominance of the domestic bourgeoisie, retains their role as political stewards, and ends their dependence on foreign investment. This is what it would actually mean to resolve the “national question.”

Claims to non-alignment are driven by the moralizing power of geopolitical ressentiment; not an objection to an unequal power structure per se, but a bitterness about being at the wrong end of it—a desire not to overcome such inequality, but to jockey for a better seat at the table.

This complicates the meaning of internationalism for the left in South Africa and for the Global South more generally. Firstly, it is unclear what internationalism can mean beyond stated and abstract commitments to universal principles of emancipation. So far, Volodymyr Zelensky’s gravitation to the West has cast the war on the unhelpful, civilizational, East-versus-West terms that obscure cleavages within Ukraine itself. But this itself is unsurprising—we are no longer operating on the ideological terrain of the 20th century, where such vocabulary would have been easily available to the struggle.

Ahead of the 15th BRICS Summit due to take place in Durban, members have been publicly touting plans for the formation of a new joint currency. At present, the New Development Bank is an initiative that seeks to de-dollarize development finance, but this currency, if successful, would help create a new reserve currency by acting as a vehicle for trade settlement between participating countries.

Although BRICS still projects an image of a collective of rising superpowers, it is far from it. China is the dominant partner, with India the only other to exhibit strong economic growth. The rest (Russia, South Africa, and Brazil) are stagnant commodity exporters. Any de-dollarisation strategy pursued by the coalition will only reinforce dependence on China, owing to its substantially larger economy and stronger currency. The widespread enthusiasm for the currency as a potentially game-changing move—which, to be sure, will certainly give wiggle room to the economies of the South—reflects the truncated horizon of the political moment.

As far as facts on the ground, de-dollarisation will certainly offer more room to maneuver for emerging markets. That said, the underlying basis of dollar hegemony is not, as commonly thought, geopolitical ambition, but the interests of transnational elites. As Yakov Feigin and Dominik Leusder noted some years back: “As long as domestic inequalities are not resolved at the expense of these elites, the dollar will remain hegemonic.” Rather than challenge the dollar outright, the rise of a BRICS currency would be a tool to strengthen the position of national elites in this complex, but resilient system.

And so, creating a viable society at home is a necessary step towards creating a viable international solidarity. This demands a confrontation with capital, which requires building the economic and political power of the working class.

The contemporary realities of scarcity, economic decline, and effective “de-development” make the task daunting. But meaningful internationalism must be grounded in real efforts to build a mass, international movement in opposition to capital. To do that, we have to organize ourselves first.

Further Reading