• Although communist parties still exist in the world today, their social base has changed, the conditions of the working classes have also changed
• It will be a great contribution if the Communist Party of Kenya can take up the singular responsibility to organise the Kenyan working class as a class in and of itself
After weeks of speculation regarding the registration of the Communist Party of Kenya (CPOK), the bearers of the hammer and sickle symbol finally breathed sighs of relief as the courts gave the party a clean bill of health.
The CPOK now faces the challenge of changing Kenyan society in the interest of the masses, particularly peasants and workers represented in the hammers and sickle symbol.
It is important to remember that the first communist party, born in the midst of the 19th Century, was focussed mainly on liberating the working class from being exploited by capital at the workplace (hence the "hammer") and being oppressed by the capitalist, the political instrument of the bourgeoisie.
Whether in England or in France, in Germany or in Switzerland, this was the predicament of the workers. A strong working class movement already existed in these countries that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel, the brains behind the party, called to action to "unite and overthrow this oppressive and exploitative rule by the bourgeoisie."
When Marx and Engels wrote The Manifesto for the Communist Party in 1848 and called upon "workers of the world to unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains", the conditions under which the working class lived everywhere in Europe was very bad.
Long working hours, dreadful living conditions, very poor wages and no say in politics at all. Seeing their children and grandchildren likely to live the same kind of life if they did nothing to change their predicament, the appeal by Marx and Engels resonated well with the workers. The spectre of communism very easily started to engulf the more industrialised nations of Europe.
Although communist parties still exist in the world today, their social base has changed, the conditions of the working classes have also changed. A new creature has emerged called the "managerial" worker, straddling between the working class and the bourgeoisie, and quite often confusing the political equation for the communist parties.
That is why, in trying to "get the vote and capture state power in modern bourgeois democracies", communist parties the world over have quite often formed alliances with social democrats or "toned down" their revolutionary message. In the early seventies George Marche' s French Communist Party formed a "common front" with the Social Democrats but ended up regretting getting into state power "without having the broom to sweep the house". The socialists, Marche realised, merely used the common program the two parties had developed as their joint manifesto simply to get into power and run the economy without prioritising the interests of the working class.
The Communist Party of South Africa, intertwined with the ANC in the struggle for liberation against apartheid, had a different experience from their French counterpart. First the relationship between the communists and the ANC was more organic: it grew symbiotically with the advancement of the struggle, the communists always ready to provide international linkages and the military wherewithal to deal with the raw power of apartheid. Second, the communists and the nationalists in the ANC, especially at the leadership level, were of very similar intellectual hew.
The Social Democratic Party of Kenya, which I led for a brief period of time in the late 1990s, is reborn as a communist party at a time when it may be a few decades ahead of its time. It is important to recognise this reality so as not to make the work of the party an academic exercise.
First, the "natural" social base of the party — the working class — is sizeable but small and weak in our country. It has been fragmented into trade unions and see their struggle, naturally, in terms of "ugali na nyama" issues. Its leadership is largely entrepreneurial and not political as such, whether one is talking of "production based" unions (sugar workers, plantation and agricultural workers, etc) or "service-based" unions (domestic and hotel workers, doctors and nurses).
Second, intellectual workers have made real progress in the past in terms of analysing and exposing class contradictions in society and linking this to the struggle for the Second Liberation, which has brought us where we are today where one can even get a ruling in court to register a communist party. It is true we have made tremendous progress since the seventies in terms of democratisation, civil liberties and the emergence of a nascent bourgeois democratic state hoisted over disappointing underdevelopment.
Third, I have often agreed with my friend, Thandika Mkandawire, that the agenda before the progressive intelligentsia in Africa today is to mobilise all democratic social forces to struggle —intellectually and politically — to develop national democratic and developmental states.
Such mobilisation will, of course, bring together social forces of diverse ideological and material persuasions. But it cannot, by its very nature, emerge, survive and sustain itself if it is infiltrated or "hegemonised" by sectarian or tribal tendencies. The Inkatha movement, for example, could not have added anything positive to the liberation struggle in South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
It will, therefore, be a great contribution to this agenda if the Communist Party of Kenya can take up the singular responsibility to organise the Kenyan working class to contribute to this agenda as a class in and of itself — away from the entrepreneurial confusion by its leadership in the various unions. We are much more likely to succeed in making progress in building a national democratic and developmental state with a working class led by a progressive communist party than a bunch of opportunistic and sectarian populists.