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  • ‘Structural reform’ – the concept continues
  • John S Saul (bio)

Following Andre Gorz (1973)1 and Boris Kagarlitsky (1990), I first used the concept of ‘structural reform’ in two linked articles of the early 1990s in which I sought to divine a possible path for the on-going liberation of South Africa, one that might not so easily have culminated in the recolonised and discomfiting social reality – premised on deep and widening class inequality and a political sidelining of the popular classes – that now confronts us in this country (Saul 1991,1992; both are in Saul 1993). I see no reason to question the continuing utility of this concept or to abandon it. Indeed, I recently concluded an essay entitled ‘Is socialism still an alternative’ for the Canadian-based periodical Studies in Political Economy by reiterating (as did that article’s section III, entitled ‘Democratizing the struggle: revolution by “structural reform” and popular empowerment’) that the concept is still central to understanding much socialist endeavour, past and present, both in South Africa and in many other parts of the world (Saul 2009, 2011).

To underscore the on-going utility of this concept to my own work as well as both to remind the present participants in our Durban workshop of the essence of this concept I will first evoke, in section 1, several paragraphs both from my original paper and from my recent Canadian-published text and then turn briefly to reflect on (a) the fate of the concept in its applicability to South African realities when I first employed it and (b) on its possible continuing resonance for any on-going ‘next liberation struggle’ that remains feasible in present-day South Africa.

The concept

I summarized the use of this concept and its continuing utility in my original Transformation 20 paper (1992) as follows:

[D]oes the simple juxtaposition of revolution vs ‘mere reformism’ really represent the full range of possibilities, in South Africa or [End Page 13] anywhere else? [True,] in some South African circles debate about possible futures for the country is indeed being cast in terms of just such false dichotomies. When this happens a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ occurs that merely locked ‘revolutionaries’ and ‘reformists’ ever more tightly (and more self-righteously) into their own respective corners. But as will also be apparent there are other South African militants whose practice starts from different premises and whose activities give real content to the promise of a long-term socio-economic transformation of South Africa.

Such militants seek, at least implicitly, to avoid the twin dangers of, on the one hand, a romantic (and inevitably all too rhetorical) ultra-revolutionary approach and, on the other, collapse into mere reformism that will do little to alter the balance of inherited class power and conservative/technocratic decision making. Much has been accomplished in this respect, as we will see [in the original paper]. Indeed, in many ways South Africans – notably those within the trade union movement – are in the vanguard of global efforts to forge a theory and practice relevant to the struggle for socialist renewal in the post-Cold War era. [The original article] seeks to make some contribution to these efforts of further elaborating the notion [concept] of ‘structural reform’...[For] such a conceptualization can help make greater sense of many of the most noteworthy ‘socialist’ struggles that are actually taking place in contemporary South Africa. And in doing so it may also contribute to developing a vocabulary, a language, in terms of which those waging such struggles can become ever more self-conscious about the logic of their activities and ever more assured about pressing them forward. Words have meaning. Words are weapons.

(Saul 1992: 2–3)

I also identified, in that same Transformation article, the ‘great strength’ of Kagarlitsky’s own use of the concept as lying in its binding of ‘revolution and reform together as... potentially two mutually reinforcing preoccupations and processes’ – while noting as well (as testified to by both Gorz and Kagarlitsky) the many challenges that must confront any such undertaking. And I further noted ‘the crucial requirement that a mass movement has to succeed in building the capacity to sustain itself...


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