This paper was submitted to the 1973 Durban Strikes Celebrating 50 Years Conference
ABSTRACT FOR PROPOSED CONFERENCE 26-27 JANUARY, 2023:
‘CELEBRATING 50 YEARS OF DURBAN STRIKES’
DURBAN 1973, A NATIONAL BREAKTHROUGH, IN THE CONTEXT OF A GLOBALLY DEVELOPING SOCIALISM? BUT WHAT IF THE REALITY WAS ACTUALLY AN EMERGENT 50-YEAR INTERNATIONAL CAPITALIST ‘COUNTERREVOLTION’ OF 1973-2022?
By David Cooper, emeritus professor, Sociology, UCT
This paper argues that those activists who provided support to the emerging Durban and wider workers strike movement in 1973 and its following years – including being immersed in developing a union movement leading to Fosatu and then Cosatu by mid1980s – had in their minds a ‘picture’ of the global capitalist context. I argue too that such a ‘vision’ of the INTERNATIONAL political-economic framework always shapes what activists at any moment in time believe is ‘possible in a future society’ – including their ideas about a ‘new future South Africa’. Moreover during 1973-85 (a useful cutoff point, the formation of Cosatu), I suggest these ‘visions of the future’ must, implicitly and explicitly, have shaped INTERNAL national progressive debates and assumptions about issues like ‘the role of unions in relation to a workers party’ or ‘the crucial role of shopsteward organisation’ or ‘the nature of multiclass alliances’?
The paper maintains there was an essentially ‘optimistic vision’ of a globally developing socialism held at the time of the 1973 strikes: my friends and I and other activists after Durban 1973, were optimistically aware of international decolonization struggles of the 1950s-60s, of the Cuban revolution of 1959 and the 1968 Paris ‘moment’ of worker-student struggles; Chinese socialism seemed to be consolidating with its late 1960s ‘Cultural Revolution’, socialist Chile under Allende after 1970 seemed a powerful trajectory in Latin America, a socialist-communist ‘ruling alliance’ in 1973 seemed a real possibility for governmental power in France and Italy, while the USA was being driven out of Vietnam at the same time etc. etc.
However, I doubt any of us grasped the importance of the General Suharto military coup of 1965 in Indonesia (country with 3rd largest population internationally) with about 1 million communists and allies murdered and its Communist Party crushed; the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile seemed a Third World exception, so later did CIA arming of mujahideen Islamic Taliban in Afghanistan against the communist party-led Afghan government in the 1980s. More fundamentally for global capitalism: who of us envisaged a post1980 Thatcher-Regan neoliberal financial massive international transformation (or its forerunner the World Economic Forum in embryonic shape by 1971 under Klaus Schwab, initially as the ‘European Management Forum’); or even more importantly, who anticipated the post1970 ‘3rd Capitalist Industrial Revolution’ of new scientific productive forces (ICT, biotechnology, recently artificial intelligence) which in part led to the demise of techno-economically less-competitive Soviet Union after 1989? This has all resulted, the paper argues, in essentially what should be understood as a post1973 international 50-year capitalist ‘counterrevolution’: culminating as we now see, with a massively hegemonic NATO capitalist-military power bloc in 2022 not only encompassing North American and West European countries as in 1973, but also the rest of Eastern Europe up to Ukraine and (previously unthinkable) about to draw Sweden and Finland also into the NATO fold in 2023.
The paper concludes with a hypothetical discussion: if South African socialist trade union activists during 1973-85 had envisaged the unfolding of such a ’50-year global capitalist counterrevolution’, how might this have changed their controversies over strategies for ‘a workers party’, ‘a focus on workplace organisation’, ‘one-vs-two stage revolution’ etc.?
David Cooper short Bio
David Cooper was lecturer in Sociology, University of Cape Town, from 1981 until his retirement in 2013 and currently serves as an editor for the South African Review of Sociology journal. He qualified as an electrical engineer at UCT in 1970 and completed his PhD in sociology in 1981 on ‘the contemporary working class in Botswana’. In 1982 he initiated the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) within the sociology department UCT which during the 1980s provided research and booklets and workshops for progressive trade unions and community organisations. During the 1990s he was affiliated to Harold Wolpe’s EPU (Education Policy Unit) of University of the Western Cape doing research and education into higher education issues. After 2000 he focused on research into issues of ‘engaged scholarship’ and the ‘university in development’.