Markin comment (2010):
The International Communist League (ICL), the international organization of which Workers Vanguard is the flagship publications, in numerous articles and published conference reports has emphasized, correctly I believe, that in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union that the political consciousness of the international working class, although unevenly, has taken big steps backward in its consciousness. The shorthand way to speak of such a condition is that on a day to day basis the bulk of the workers do not connect their defensive struggles with the struggle for socialism.
Seemingly working class history for the past 150 years or so is a blank page although those in the least bit familiar with that history know that it is rich in examples, positive and negative, of working class struggle for our communist future. Although one could see that retrograde situation developing, in some cases graphically as on the American labor scene, well before that demise something snapped in the international labor movement in reaction to the incessant “communism is dead” triumphalism of the international capitalist class and its mouthpieces. Although that situation is slowly changing under the conditions of the current capitalist onslaught, especially in Europe, that sense of the decline of political consciousness is still pervasive.
That brings us to the class consciousness that underlies the article under review in this entry on the situation in South Africa. I mentioned above (as the ICL has in its articles as well) that the decline of political consciousness was not monolithic. South Africa, due to many factors in its national framework not the least the massive struggle against apartheid, may represent the classic contrary case. In the immediate post-Soviet period when everyone, their brothers, their sisters, and their great-aunts was disclaiming anything but hardened and eternal hostility to the word communism, communist organizations, or even lukewarm socialist formations in South Africa they were making an event, a public event, out of the legalization of the Communist Party.
Of course, we know, at least those of us who claim the Trotskyist tradition, that this was the just the legalization of another old time Stalinist, class- collaborationist, two-stage revolution operation but that party represented communism down at the base, communist revolution as the “comrades” understood it. Hey, these guys and gals, these street militants, were waving red flags night and day with the expectation that not only apartheid was over with the African National Congress(ANC) taking over the reins of government but that the meek (militant meek, that is, the others get nothing in this wicked old world) shall finally inherit the earth. It gives me no satisfaction, none whatsoever, nor should it to you that their illusions have been cruelly dashed overt the past sixteen years.
If South Africa represented (and in many ways still does, witness the recent wide-spread strikes AGAINST the ANC-SACP-COSATU government) something like the vanguard of political consciousness in the international labor movement it also represents the classic Stalinist (and not Stalinist alone) stagist theory of revolution in less advanced countries. In short, first the democratic revolution then, in the future, the socialist revolution. Sixteen years on and the “comrades” are still waiting. Thus we have a pretty good idea when that second stage kicks in-never.
And that is my second point. If the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 proved once and for all that the bourgeoisie of an emerging capitalist country is incapable, for a thousand reasons not the least its myriad intermingled links to the major imperialist powers, of leading (or maybe even tolerating) a democratic revolution then several decades later the emerging (or already existing) bourgeoisies in less advanced capitalist countries are even less likely to so. In South Africa Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution retains its validity. No, not just it validity, more than that it is merely the beginning of political wisdom for those crushed “comrades” down at the base still waiting for the second promised stage. Thus the order of the day is for the black-centered workers movement to break with the ANC as a matter of elementary political hygiene.
Sometimes one can overuse analogies (although that does not prevent anyone from doing so, or it hasn’t in the past, including by this writer) from one period to the next. Obviously there are major differences (not the least the question of political leadership of the working class) between the situation in Russia 1917 and South Africa today but I keep being drawn to the Menshevik’s notion in 1917 (and before and after, as well) that the bourgeoisie should lead the democratic revolution in Russia and the role of peasant and working class socialist organizations was to “support” or “push” them forward. That candidate in 1917 was the Cadet party (Constitutional Democrats); today in South Africa (at least for now) for the Mensheviks of today, the SACP and its hangers-on, it is the ANC. So what, as is pretty well described in the linked article above, we see in South Africa is what Russia might have looked like if the Menshevik “vision” had worked out. No, thank you, then and now. Learn the lessons outlined in Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Forward!
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Peter Paul Markin comment on this series:
This is an excellent documentary source for today’s leftist militants to “discover” the work of our forebears, particularly the bewildering myriad of tendencies which have historically flown under the flag of the great Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky and his Fourth International, whether one agrees with their programs or not. But also other laborite, semi-anarchist, ant-Stalinist and just plain garden-variety old school social democrat groupings and individual pro-socialist proponents.
Some, maybe most of the material presented here, cast as weak-kneed programs for struggle in many cases tend to be anti-Leninist as screened through the Stalinist monstrosities and/or support groups and individuals who have no intention of making a revolution. Or in the case of examining past revolutionary efforts either declare that no revolutionary possibilities existed (most notably Germany in 1923) or alibi, there is no other word for it, those who failed to make a revolution when it was possible.
The Spanish Civil War can serve as something of litmus test for this latter proposition, most infamously around attitudes toward the Party Of Marxist Unification's (POUM) role in not keeping step with revolutionary developments there, especially the Barcelona days in 1937 and by acting as political lawyers for every non-revolutionary impulse of those forebears. While we all honor the memory of the POUM militants, according to even Trotsky the most honest band of militants in Spain then, and decry the murder of their leader, Andreas Nin, by the bloody Stalinists they were rudderless in the storm of revolution. But those present political disagreements do not negate the value of researching the POUM’s (and others) work, work moreover done under the pressure of revolutionary times. Hopefully we will do better when our time comes.
Finally, I place some material in this space which may be of interest to the radical public that I do not necessarily agree with or support. Off hand, as I have mentioned before, I think it would be easier, infinitely easier, to fight for the socialist revolution straight up than some of the “remedies” provided by the commentators in these entries from the Revolutionary History journal in which they have post hoc attempted to rehabilitate some pretty hoary politics and politicians, most notably August Thalheimer and Paul Levy of the early post Liebknecht-Luxemburg German Communist Party. But part of that struggle for the socialist revolution is to sort out the “real” stuff from the fluff as we struggle for that more just world that animates our efforts. So read, learn, and try to figure out the
wheat from the chaff.
Baruch Hirson-The Trotskyist Groups in South Africa-A Retrospective ViewTHE HISTORY of the South African Trotskyists during the 1930s and into the next decade was never made available or discussed with new recruits. There were vague stories, but no hard facts. No former member of the groups wrote about his experiences, and there was a silence that was so extensive that some comrades names could not be mentioned. I learnt in the 1940s that there had been a one-time nun in the leadership of the Workers Party of South Africa. But no details were available, even though she had died (as I later found) in 1942. The leading member of the WPSA, if mentioned at all, was always referred to as ‘Mr B’. That was all. Even when we learnt in the 1970s that he was Mr Burlak we were never told his first name. The other main group, the Fourth International Organisation of South Africa (a pretentious name), was open, but we learnt little about its members or what they did. There was perhaps little to conceal about their activities, because they did so very little.
The history of the groups in Johannesburg was also unknown. Nobody in Johannesburg had kept any records, there were no letters or minutes, and the names of most of those who joined the Trotskyist groups were not recorded. There was nothing, until the documents of the liberal Institute of South Africa became available and Lynn Safferys files were opened. Only then did the story of Max Gordon become available. There were a few later discoveries, but like the tale of the three monkeys, nothing was seen, said, or heard.
Then, in a deserted house in Cape Town, once the residence of Clare Goodlatte, a box of documents was found in the early 1980s. There is still a mystery surrounding this discovery. They apparently came into the possession of a ‘stroller’ (a person who lived on the proceeds of materials taken from deserted or demolished properties) who sold them in two portions. I was able to get copies of both sections. After maintaining absolute secrecy over five decades, the documents disclosing the inner working of the major section were hawked and sold. The papers included draft articles for the journal The Spark, minutes of meetings, documents, letters, membership forms and minutes. These documents (totalling a thousand or more), once unravelled, provided an unique picture.
This collection was complemented by letters written by Clare Goodlatte (the Red Nun) to a former student, found in the South African Library and supplemented by a search in the Department of Education at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, where she had once sat as principal of the teachers training college.
I have found no documents of FIOSA. But when I visited the Library of Contemporary International Documents at Nanterre in 1991 to look at the papers of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, I found a card referring to the papers of FIOSA. These cannot be viewed until the late 1990s without the permission of the unknown depositor. This continues the politics of madness. Even public papers in Europe only have a 30 years rule, and that is absurd. I had no time to wait for permission, nor was I interested. If some historian wishes to investigate these documents at a later date, that gift to man- or woman-kind will be available to them. Except for the material in the WPSA collection, and a few documents in the Trotsky archives at Harvard, nothing else has been found.
The documents of the WIL were largely destroyed when its rooms were burnt by arsonists. The papers and printed publications I salvaged at the time were placed in the care of the University of the Witwatersrand, and these were photographed at a later date for the Hoover Institute. I copied other materials from the collection held by Nachum Such in Beer Sheba. Nobody, other than myself, has written about the activities or members of the WIL.
There was a time when South African adherents of the Left Opposition (Trotskyists) were said to have made a substantial impact on the politics of South Africa, and having provided leading cadres for the Trotskyist movements in China, India, the USA and Great Britain.
Internationally, in the first decade of the movement’s existence, Frank Glass (Li Fu-jen/Furen) moved to China and then the US, Murray Gow Purdy to India, Ted Grant, Max Basch (Sid Frost), Charlie van Gelderen, Ralph and Millie Lee, Heaton Lee, Ann Keen and others to Britain. There were also persons who joined, or were associated with, Trotskyist groups and received later acclaim for work in their own specialities. Among these were Peter Abrahams, the novelist, Frederick Bodmer, whose work in linguistics was widely acclaimed when his Loom of Language was published, Dorothea Krook, an acknowledged expert on the later writings of Henry James, and Joseph Sandier, currently President of the International Association of Psychoanalysis.
Less well known are those who joined the South African groups and built up a cadre. They published the most important Marxist journals in the country, distributed newspapers and published the Communist Manifesto in Afrikaans, participated in demonstrations against the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, joined in the struggles against the Greyshirts (the home grown Fascist movement), and were among the first to condemn the crimes of Stalin. From their ranks came members who, separately or collectively, helped to build the National Liberation League and then the bodies that made up the Non-European Unity Movement, a national liberation movement that attracted thousands of men and women in the Cape Province. Their leader, IB Tabata, is said to have exercised a powerful influence on Nelson Mandela and the men who were to become the leaders of the African National Congress.
In the Cape their members became the leaders of the (Coloured) Teachers League of South Africa and the Cape African Teachers Association; they dominated the intellectual left of Cape Town through the Lenin Club, the Spartacus Club and then the New Era Fellowship. They recruited to their ranks academics and to a lesser extent workers, and could even count a former nun as a leading member.
The history of the groups in the Transvaal was different. There, the earliest members of the Left Opposition were involved in trade union work. They were succeeded by Max Gordon, a Trotskyist who had moved from Cape Town, and had built the first major black trade union movement in the Transvaal. At a later stage, after Gordon had returned to the Cape, a new Trotskyist group, the Workers International League (WIL), entered into and had an influential position in the black unions. The WIL also won over men and women who played an important role in community struggles and (as in Cape Town) produced a number of newspapers and journals. The groups, in Cape Town and in Johannesburg, were always small, but they had an effect that was far greater than their number. Yet, despite the hope that they inspired with their message, the groups all disappeared, leaving no movement in the country. After a resurgent trade union movement was built, bringing thousands of workers onto the streets after 1973, a student revolt in 1976-77 that swept through South Africa and drew in entire local communities, and a further wave of revolts in 1984-86, there is no effective Trotskyist movement in the country, only a number of small groups, mostly affiliated with the many tendencies in Britain and Europe, but playing no prominent role in the events of the country.
Is there anything in the history of those groups from which lessons can be learnt so that a new vibrant movement can emerge? What was it that went wrong in South Africa to negate the work that seemed so promising before and during the Second World War?
The Early Beginnings
The Trotskyist groups in South Africa were born not in blood, but in confusion. They did not emerge in the wake of powerful working class or community struggles. They came into existence when the South African workers (or the small workforce that had recently come into existence) were confused and dispirited, clinging to their jobs during the massive depression that hit the country in 1929-31. They appeared when the international working class was still reeling from the victory of Nazism in Germany and massive defeats elsewhere, and when there was growing disillusionment in the Communist International and the local Communist Party. The groups that appeared locally drew their members from those Socialists expelled by the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) or its front organisations, or individuals who sought a Socialist solution to counter a race-ridden and exploitative society.
In Cape Town the small band of revolutionaries were drawn from the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party, Communist auxiliary groups like the Gezerd,2 cultural and literary groups, or from new arrivals from Eastern Europe. They had a number of common positions on foreign issues, including an uncompromising anti-Fascism, an unconditional support for the USSR in the war that was anticipated, and a condemnation of the Comintern and its policies. One of the most important factors helping to precipitate the formation of Trotskyist groups in South Africa was the imposition of the Black Republic slogan by the Comintern on the CPSA—the issue that led Frank Glass and then Manuel Lopes to write to the American Trotskyist paper, The Militant . Many were Trotskyists only in name. Like others in Europe and elsewhere, they knew little about the platform of the Left Opposition or about the situation in the Soviet Union, but all were appalled by news of events in the USSR. It was only after copies of The Militant were received in South Africa that some issues became clearer, but there was much that remained opaque for the new adherents to the International Left Opposition.
The effects of Stalinist methods upon those who formed the first Trotskyist groups have not received sufficient attention from historians. Firstly, it must be stressed that the turmoil inside local Communist parties affected the entire Socialist movement. Expulsions, vicious attacks (verbal and physical), or rapidly changing tactics to meet Moscow’s demands, made it difficult for any Socialist group to attract large audiences. But the rot went further, and inevitably affected the operation of opposition groups. Despite all the repugnance against the methods used inside the Communist parties, those who had come from the CPSA were affected by the crude reduction of Marxism to clichÃ©s, the excessive idolisation of leaders, the aping of the Comintern leaders in their use of invective, and the brutalisation of relations inside the party.
They brought with them from the CPSA, along with their disgust over Comintern policy, the infighting, bitterness and boorish mud slinging that had become the hallmark of Communist Party propaganda and meetings. Although determined to work along new lines, they had imbibed the very Stalinist features that they were committed to fight. Their world outlook had been formed inside the CPSA, and their theoretical framework had been shaped, to a large degree, by Comintern literature. As a result, the Trotskyists squabbled, they split, and they seemed at times, particularly in the Transvaal, to be little better than the Communists in their internal relations.
To their credit, they did break with the CPSA and the Comintern, but the consequences were all too obvious. They had to face, not only hostile right wing groups who were grouped into Fascist gangs, but also the bitter onslaught of members of the CPSA. They were beleaguered and isolated, and found it all too easy to retreat into self-righteous sectarianism. The defence of revolutionary positions was transformed into dogmatic assertions, and from there it was only one step to internal slanging matches, suspensions, expulsions and even fisticuffs. In this they were not unlike small groups everywhere who tried to retrieve what they could of Marxism from the callous counter-revolutionary activities of the Comintern apparatchiks.
The early Trotskyists also had to carve out a new programme and a new perspective for Socialism. They believed that they alone could be the defenders of the achievements of 1917, give a lead to the South African working class, and save Marxism from extinction. Their internationalist ideas were taken largely from the pages of the few journals that reached South Africa from the USA or Europe, and from the news briefings of the International Secretariat of the Left Opposition. Their programme of local demands was hammered out in group discussions with the little that they could salvage from the Communist Party -- although some of their formulations inevitably looked as if they were just the old ideas written anew.
The members of the new groups set out to fashion a position that would set them apart from the CPSA and become the basis for activity. They commenced by posing alternatives to the CPSA, particularly the position adopted by the Comintern in 1928, when world revolution was said to be imminent and every section had to adapt its programme to meet this eventuality. The CPSA was instructed to work for a Black Republic, and to adopt a trade union policy that involved control by the party, and used ‘revolutionary’ methods to raise the workers’s consciousness. Initially the Trotskyists opposed the Black Republic slogan, but reversed this (at least theoretically) after seeking Trotsky’s opinion. But on the trade union question they continued on the same lines as the Stalinists. In theory they wanted to gain control of the trade unions, or at least build a tight fraction in such organisations through which they could control activities. They also persisted in calling for direct action until Max Gordon, the most outstanding organiser in the Transvaal, resorted to the slow building of the black trade unions with minimum recourse to strike action and using state institutions to secure their demands.
The Cape Town Experience
Groups in South Africa that adhered to the International Left Opposition were always minuscule and poverty stricken. There were only branches in Cape Town and Johannesburg, with a handful of supporters in Durban and Port Elizabeth. This was not very different from the spread of the Communist Party: it reflected the sparseness of population and the siting of transport, colleges and industry. The different social structures of the provinces inevitably affected the perceptions and activities of the groups; they had to find their constituents from the local population and had to advance ideas that would get a response. In some regions this proved almost impossible. The white workers were caught in a web of racism that made most of them unapproachable, and in Natal the Indian workers and students, if active politically, were strongly attracted to Gandhi, Nehru and the Indian National Congress.
In the western Cape, the groups also had to find ways of winning the Coloured people, a people caught by segregatory legislation in the chasm that lay between the whites and the Africans. Consequently, the Cape Town Trotskyists, after painfully recruiting individuals, concentrated on work in discussion clubs, organising the teachers (Coloured and African), and one group appealed to peasant groups in the Transkei and Ciskei in the eastern Cape.
Joe Pick, a foundation member of the CPSA, was the first to write on behalf of a group to the International Secretariat for affiliation to the Left Opposition. Written in 1932, his letter was brief and provided no details. It seems that the group consisted mainly of Jews, most of whom had been in the CPSA or in organisations associated with that party. The next landmark was the launching of the Lenin Club on 29 July 1933. Its members were overwhelmingly Jewish. This changed in 1934 when some members of the ILP merged with the Lenin Club, and academies were invited to lecture. Thereafter the club seems to have become a centre of serious Socialist discussion attracting sizable audiences, offering celebratory meetings on May Day or the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and staging Socialist plays.
Seeking avenues of political activity, the club members found several social problems around which to agitate and organise. Firstly, there was large-scale unemployment in the wake of the depression, which affected Coloured and African workers most severely. This led to the formation of an organisation of the unemployed in which persons committed to the Left Opposition were active, including Dr Goolam Gool and Max Gordon—Gool being a future leader of the Non-European Unity Movement, Gordon of the trade unionists in the Transvaal. However, unemployed organisations are of limited duration. By the middle of 1935 this work had come to an end.
A small group of Lenin Club members, intent on launching a political party, started drafting a programme in August 1934. This led to a split that dominated Trotskyist politics until all the groups dissolved themselves. Those who formed the majority called themselves the Workers Party of South Africa (WPSA). The minority took the name Communist League of South Africa (CLSA), but seem to have been known only as the Lenin Club. Four topics became the subject matter of ‘theses’ the political economy of the country, the expected world war, the nature of Socialist organisation, and the need to work in trade unions. These were drawn up, circulated and sent to the International Secretariat. Other issues divided the members of the contending groups, but these did not appear in the draft programmes. Foremost among these was the so-called entryist tactic, about which there was extensive discussion.
The differences that emerged among these early Trotskyists were both principled and personal. This led to vituperative attacks on the honesty, sincerity and ability of individual members. Some of the personal criticisms might have been justified, but the attacks did nothing to clarify the basic theoretical differences between the groups. As a consequence some members crossed from one group to another, and some crossed again. Others left the factions in despair. With each group probably numbering a dozen at most (although the Communist League was to claim a larger number), these were a series of storms in thimbles which were irrelevant to the political struggles in the country.
There are no documents to show why those who formed the Workers Party placed the land question at the top of their demands. Perhaps it came from a reading of Lenin’s early work on Russia, or it might have been extracted from the Comintern’s focus on the land issue in the colonial countries in the early 1930s. It could also have been influenced by the severity of the depression in the rural areas (which had preceded the slump in the national economy), or by the writings on the land question in South Africa by the liberal historian, W MacMillan. Whatever the reason, local or international, or both, the draft that became the centre of all future discussion, as formulated by the majority group among the activists in the Lenin Club, was on the land question. Burlak, who drafted the document (entitled The Native Question ), produced government statistics to show that there was a heavy concentration of land ownership in the hands of a small number of white farmers. Alongside this, Africans could own land almost exclusively in the Reserves, which covered at that time about seven per cent of the country’s land surface. It was the repossession of this land, they claimed, that would be the rallying point (the axis, the alpha and the omega) of the coming South African revolution. Paradoxically, they rejected the Black Republic slogan, which might have been an obvious corollary to their programme.
Contrary to all that was subsequently claimed by the minority, no formal counter-thesis on the Native Question was presented at the drafting committee, and the paper or notes prepared by MN Averbach (the leader of the minority) was deemed a counter-resolution rather than a thesis in its own right. The original paper written by Averbach and documents sent to the International Secretariat at a later date have not been found. However, an article that appeared in February 1936 in the Workers Voice, the organ of the CLSA, on the land question is obtuse. The ‘mere cry for land’, it argued, ‘does not constitute an agrarian problem’. The Africans who were driven off the land suffered mainly from taxes. Their chief need was not for land, but relief from taxation. Averbach seems to have misunderstood the majority position. If the Africans got more land, he wrote, the peasants would still suffer from these pernicious taxes which were designed to drive them into the mines, industry and the farms. But the majority position, sensitive as it was to land hunger, was not designed to provide more land for the African in an unchanged country, but to find a lever through which to overthrow capitalism. The minority position was so unclear on this point that it obscured their main contention: namely, that it was the struggle of the African workers that would be the key to change in South Africa. This position could have been taken without any recourse to theory, and, when it came to theory, Averbach and the minority had little to offer.
On a contentious organisational issue, the majority called for a tightly structured revolutionary party with a clandestine sector (a point rejected by the minority, who said that it was necessary to exploit every avenue of activity while conditions for legal work held ). The consequences were obvious. The Communist League seemed to conduct its activities openly, and recruited with a minimum of enquiry into the background of its members. The Workers Party in Cape Town was highly, if not overly, selective, maintained a tight discipline, and was secretive in many of its inner party activities. There were rules as to what documents could be read at branch meetings, and what was to be read only by Executive members. It was a regime that led to derisive comment from members of the League There was a certain logic to the majority’s argument, not only because this was what Lenin had demanded for Russia, but also because the future of democracy (whatever that meant in South Africa) was by no means assured.
The land question has been dealt with first because of its later significance, but the first division was over the coming war. The theses of both sides opposed the expected war, but the minority believed that the white Afrikaners could be drawn towards the revolutionary movement because of their basic ‘anti-imperialist’ position. They therefore argued for a position of neutrality and collaboration with the Malanite (that is, Nationalist) opposition in parliament. Burlak’s analysis of the war, firstly in the thesis and then in The Spark, ascribed the war threat to finance capital and condemned both the west and Germany for their war-like stance. There could be no support for either side, and Socialists had to call for revolution to remove capitalism, the cause of the war fever and ultimately war itself, he said.
Then, in a letter of 12 June 1935 to the International Secretariat, the Workers Party lambasted the Communist League. Its war thesis, they said, was the most deadly of documents, and one which was ‘equal to suicide’ because it would antagonise the Coloured and African populations: ‘Under no circumstances can we support the most hated by the Bantu population, part of the white bourgeoisie, the Malanites.’ The policy, they said, was opportunism of the worst kind and they added: ‘It is regrettable that neither you nor LD [Trotsky] expressed an opinion about the war theses.’ There was no response to this complaint. Instead, several letters from the IS urged that the groups were too small and the differences not important enough to justify the split. This was dismissed by the WPSA: they wrote that there could be no union with people who differed so profoundly on basic issues. There was one further thesis, accepted by all, on the necessity for work inside the trade union movement. Unfortunately, the members of both the majority and minority did nothing in this regard in Cape Town. Although the Stalinists set up numerous new trade unions in Cape Town, the Trotskyists were more notable for their absence in this sphere.
Originally there were four so-called theses (two on the war) and one counter-thesis on the land question. All were sent to the IS and to Trotsky for comment. There were two responses to the main thesis on the Native Question: one from Ruth Fischer (pseudonym Dubois), and one from Trotsky. Frank Glass in Shanghai, and Ted Grant and Max Basch in Britain were asked by the IS to comment. There were no responses, although Basch wrote long letters to the WPSA in support of their stand against entryism (see below).
Ruth Fischer’s criticisms were crude and insensitive. The original thesis was misquoted, and attention was drawn to this in the translated version that was circulated. Fischer said that statistics were not a substitute for theory (and in this she was correct), and then said, in effect, that the thesis was useless because it did not take as its central issue the struggle against British imperialism. The slogan ‘Land for the Natives’ was wholly correct, but inadequate. Then, arguing that national liberation was a correct slogan for South Africa (because, as the majority claimed, there was no black bourgeoisie), she claimed that the white workers, whose support was essential, could only be won on the slogan ‘Down with British Imperialism’. That would mean: ‘Down with the privileges of the white race, forward the Natives, and also proclamation of the right of total separation from the British Empire.’ And so the document went on. It was a document of the time, and could as easily have come from the Comintern. Imperialism was the enemy, imperialism had to be destroyed, and any document that did not start with this proposition was false. But Fischer had, in fact, read too narrowly. The members of the WPSA were nothing if not orthodox Leninists. The fight against imperialism was the theme of their thesis in all their documents, and more particularly in the document on the war, the issue that first divided the factions. Furthermore, its stress, correctly, was on the role of finance capital in South Africa. It can be argued that the WPSA’s formulation, based on its definition of finance capital, was more accurate than that of Fischer. (Parenthetically, it must be added, the WPSA never again omitted to place the struggle against British imperialism at the head of their demands. Such was the authority of members of the Secretariat that they were not often opposed. Any resemblance to the way the Comintern functioned was not altogether accidental.)
However, at a later date the WPSA wrote: ‘At that time we appealed to you, we approached you to decide on the basis of the documents written by the two factions. This is where the comedy begins. You sent back a document written by Comrade Dubois which was the laughing stock not only of the Cape Town comrades, but of all comrades everywhere who had studied the colonial question, who knew anything at all of the problems of South Africa. We appealed to you at that time and we received from you... Dubois’s masterpiece of ignorance.’
Trotsky’s contribution is probably still contentious. Although he claimed that he could not really comment on conditions in South Africa because he lacked the necessary information, he nevertheless accepted the thesis on the land (claiming, however, that the agrarian revolution could only take place with the active participation of the advanced workers), and argued against the rejection of the Black Republic slogan. This latter was not a temporary aberration, but coincided with Trotsky’s other statements on the Comintern’s position on an independent Negro state in the middle belt of the USA. To reject the Black Republic out of hand, he said, arose from exaggerations in the polemic against the Comintern. The blacks would form the majority in a transformed South Africa, and the country would obviously constitute a Black Republic. He further said that under no condition could revolutionaries offer the smallest finger to white chauvinism.
Trotsky’s remarks were set inside an international perspective. He stated at the outset that it could be assumed that the revolution in Britain would precede that of South Africa. In that case, it was essential that there be no support for the bourgeoisie from the colonies and dominions. That made the struggle for the expulsion of British imperialism an indispensable part of the programme of the South African proletarian party. At the end of his letter, he spoke of a future in which Soviet Britain would exercise a powerful economic and cultural influence on South Africa through the medium of those whites who had shown their solidarity, through struggle, with the black workers. A Socialist South Africa, in turn, would exercise a profound influence on the whole black continent.
Trotsky’s remarks on the draft thesis, which were referred to repeatedly in the polemics inside the South African Trotskyist movement, were important in orientating the left towards the African people, but they also did a grave disservice to the Socialist movement. I discuss this in a paper presented in Aberdeen in August 1990, and do not wish to repeat the arguments here. The one point that must be stressed is that Trotsky’s major contention was doubly false. in terms of his own original work in Russia in 1904-06, he should have been aware of the impact of finance capital on a backward country. He knew from the literature on South Africa (or should have known) that investment in gold mining had played a crucial role in opening up the country to foreign capital, and he should have known (from Luxemburg and from Lenin, if not from primary sources) that this had given rise to a large concentrated workforce. Yet, in this too, he failed to provide direction. He spoke of the proletariat consisting of ‘backward black pariahs and a privileged caste of whites’, but failed to say that the black workers would one day provide the base for a powerful proletarian movement. He also knew that it was not possible to talk of ethnic groups as if they were homogeneous. As he had pointed out in his writings on China, there had to be a discussion of the class forces and the role that each class would play in any struggle for change. But his letter offered no hint of the need to develop such ideas for South Africa.
Despite their angry response to the tone of Fischer’s letter, there is no full length reply to the substance of her remarks from the WPSA. However, in a letter of 14 May 1935 to the International Secretariat, they said that their thesis criticised the Stalinist slogan of ‘Independent Native Republics as a step towards a Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic’. Their position, they stressed, pointing to the class nature of the struggle, dealt with the strategy of the revolution and not the tactics. in a further comment they said that the original differences had been on the war question. Only after the minority had faced opposition on their call for a future alliance with the Afrikaner Nationalists in a war, did they produce supplementary arguments to ‘iron out contradictions’ in their policy.
The majority launched the Workers Party of South Africa at the end of January 1935. They felt vindicated by Trotsky’s letter, and in their letter to him they said that his comments indicated that there was no disagreement in principle. They confessed to having written in exaggerated terms in opposing the Black Republic slogan because of their struggle against the pernicious national policies of Stalinism. Of course, the full liberation of South Africa would lead to a black republic. They repeated their rejection of the slogan of a ‘Native Republic as a step towards a Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic’. They were not pandering to white chauvinism, they said, or avoiding an open fight for full rights, but rejected the slogan which was based on the idea of a national revolution. in any future general strike and armed insurrection, the participation of the white workers was essential because they held crucial positions in heavy industry, electricity, water supply, communication and transport, and in all branches of the repressive apparatus. The active support of one part of the white proletariat and the neutralisation of the other was essential.
The letter then continued. They confirmed that the revolutionary party had to turn primarily towards the black workers. Their national self-consciousness had to be developed, but not by kindling and developing chauvinism. Both the national and agrarian questions could only find their solution through the social revolution. For good measure, they added that the central slogan was for ‘The overthrow of British Imperialism and Colonial Capitalism’, and for a Soviet South African Republic with the right of all races to self-determination, and guarantees for the rights of minorities. It was probably this set of ideas that took their members, first to the All-African Convention, the body called to oppose the Hertzog Native Bills, and then several years later to merge with a Coloured organisation, the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department, or Anti-CAD (also in the hands of members of the Workers Party), to establish the Non-European Unity Movement, the NEUM. That was to become the almost exclusive activity of members of the Workers Party from 1943 until at least 1958, although the WPSA seems to have gone out of existence finally in the early 1950s.
There is some confusion about which group constituted the majority or minority in the preliminary discussions for a programme and constitution. Firstly, the Lenin Club was an open body. Those involved in the dispute were a fraction of the club. Secondly, it seems that Burlak, the writer of the main programmatic papers, was in a minority of one on the drafting committee of four, but then won a majority to his position. The group that accepted the Burlak paper thereafter claimed to be the majority, and were called such by the IS.
But that is looking ahead. Both groups stayed inside the Lenin Club for at least six months, but the club no longer prospered. There were lectures, but no activity: no leafleting, no open air meetings. Differences on almost every issue were obvious, and a split could not be stopped. Finally, the WPSA members walked out and set up their own Spartacus Club in July 1935.
One other issue separated the majority and minority, the argument over the ‘French turn’. That is the policy of entryism that had been accepted by the French Trotskyists in order to widen their ranks.[22a] The WPSA argued that it was necessary to build a revolutionary party untainted by reformism. There were long letters from Basch, who opposed entryism, and the issue was also raised with the IS. Besides the fact that the latter agreed with the French group, they also said that they had no intimation from the theses that this was a matter of contention between the majority and minority.
The IS opposed the split, and appealed to the minority to join ranks with the WPSA. in so doing they also urged the majority to accept the Averbach group into their ranks. in response, and with reluctance, the WPSA said that they would accept the members of the minority on a personal basis, but not as a group, and they apparently meant to exclude some of the leading members. Purdy in Johannesburg also urged unity. He wrote for the Workers Voice, and his motives were questioned by Burlak et al. There was no unity, and the groups went their separate way.
In 1935, when the groups in Cape Town had barely settled down, there was a new factor that was to prove far reaching in its effects on the Trotskyist movement. The Prime Minister, General Hertzog, had been pressing since 1926 for legislation that would lead to a final demarcation of lands that Africans could occupy, and wanted the small number of African voters in the Cape Province removed from the common roll. This required a two-thirds majority in a joint sitting of both Houses of Parliament, and this became feasible when the National Party fused with Smuts’ South African Party in 1934. The twin threat of land restriction and removal of the vote became a political issue that impinged on all parties at the time. This threat could not be ignored, more particularly in the Cape where the Cape Native Voters Association and rural associations (among others) were agitated over these issues.
The presentation to parliament of the Four Native Bills (as Hertzog’s proposals were known) in 1935 came shortly before the invasion of Abyssinia by the Italian army, and the groundswell of agitation over the latter, with the CPSA in the foreground, provided an outlet for the fledgling groups. The invasion was met by a refusal by black dockers to load Italian ships, and then, when the war began and the Abyssinian troops gained initial successes, there was widespread enthusiasm for the war. The Trotskyists joined in the protests and undoubtedly attracted some people to themselves, but the agitation died away, and, when the Abyssinian troops were turned back, the issue turned sour and the demonstrations stopped. In the campaigning the WPSA rejected an overture from the Communist League to work together because the latter’s statements included an appeal to the League of Nations.
There was a third issue in South Africa that generated more heat in the Transvaal than elsewhere, but impinged on groups everywhere. The pro-German Greyshirts (composed of Afrikaner nationalists and reinforced by white unemployed), emerged in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power. An Anti-Fascist League, composed of the more militant white workers’ unions, Zionists and members of the Labour Party and the Communist Party, clashed with the Greyshirts in a series of battles. Some members of the WPSA in Johannesburg joined this front. Although the Cape Town group might not have approved of the front, the policy of the Johannesburg branch, which involved complete autonomy for themselves and any other participating group, was accepted.
There is no indication that the Cape Town groups had any plan for concrete activity. Their one intervention was to join the call to dockers to stop loading Italian ships, but there is little to indicate that they set out to organise workers or peasants. They were propaganda groups who held street corner meetings, used street theatre to attract audiences, and on a few occasions (illegally) entered one of the black locations to speak to residents. Members of the Communist League also confronted workers in some occupations, and urged them to form trade unions, but these were the result of individual initiatives rather than a thought out plan.
Their most important task was the producing of journals. The WPSA published The Spark, a mimeographed journal with radical and theoretical articles, including reprints of articles by Trotsky and members of the American Socialist Workers Party. It remains one of the most important Marxist journals to have emerged from South Africa. Yet, except for reports by their members who were members of the National Liberation League or were present at conferences of the All-African Convention, there were few indications of activities in Cape Town, in the trade unions or in any community body. The Communist League’s paper, Workers Voice, was agitational with little theory in its pages. It gave no indication of political activity, publication was erratic, and ceased, probably after the dissolution of the Lenin Club in September 1936.
In March or April 1937 the one-time dispute over the French turn became real. The members of the CLSA, even more isolated than before, joined with Stalinists and Coloured nationalists in the Cape Town based Socialist Party, and temporarily abandoned their organisation. The Socialist Party was a Cape Town centred group launched by Duncan Burnside, a parliamentarian and one-time member of the Labour Party, who resigned and formed the Socialist Party in April 1937. But the party collapsed when Burnside rejoined the SALP to contest the 1938 elections. When the members of the CLSA emerged from that dubious adventure, their numbers were said to have been little changed. But the Lenin Club had disappeared, the League had lost all initiative, and they had to start as from scratch. Initially, they regrouped as the Fourth International Club, met in a private house as a study circle, and sought unity with the WPSA. There were talks about talks, but the WPSA had no intention of agreeing. Several young Coloured intellectuals and a young student, Hosea Jaffe, joined the Club in 1939, and at some stage it was renamed as the Fourth International Organisation of South Africa (FIOSA). Sometime, probably in 1942, a mimeographed Workers Voice was published. It claimed to be Volume 1, and in so doing negated the journal of 1935-36. Its editor and main contributor was Jaffe, and he maintained this control wherever he went. There is no record of the group initiating any activity, although some of its members were involved in the protests of the Coloured people when the government threatened to remove their vote before the war. However, it is not clear whether these people acted as individuals or as members of their group.
The Transvaal Experience
Johannesburg was the only other centre in which the Trotskyists managed to form a group. At first, there were only Frank Glass and his wife Fanny Klenerman. Seeking activity, Glass went to Shanghai in 1931 where he played a more important role in the Fourth International than any emigrant from South Africa, but except for his letter to The Militant he does not belong to this account. Fanny Klenerman (who had once organised the trade union of women workers) took over the bookshop that Glass left behind, and, after a period of financial difficulty which affected the stock she had available, established a reputation as the finest bookseller in the country and a centre for Marxist books in Johannesburg. Without that shop, books by Trotsky and his co-workers, and other Socialist thinkers, would not have been available in that city. Her own role in the Trotskyist movement is unclear. She stood aloof from the WPSA, and besides providing support for Gordon when he organised African trade unions in the Transvaal, was effective mainly in being a known mine of information on events in the European Socialist movements.
The process in Johannesburg was very different to that of the Cape. From April to October 1932 letters were sent to the IS and the Communist League of America by WT Thibedi. He said he was writing on behalf of 22 Africans in the Transvaal who were or had been in the CPSA, and claimed to have several trade unions under his control. The Americans to whom this was written referred Thibedi to M Lopes in Cape Town. Nothing further happened, and without resources and with men who had little training, the group collapsed. His importance lay not only in his being black, but in his claim to have brought with him several of the trade unions initiated by the CPSA in their Red Trade Union organisation. Thibedi’s list included Alpheus Maliba, who was to become the most important peasant leader in the northern Transvaal during the early 1940s. However, several of the men, including Maliba, who were said to have agreed with Thibedi’s letters had second thoughts; they did not accept the need for a new party, and several stayed in the CPSA.
Trotsky wrote a most enthusiastic letter when he heard that black toilers wished to work with the Left Opposition. The continuity between this first letter by Trotsky on South Africa with his later response to the WPSA thesis is obvious. Trotsky sought contact with workers untainted with the world of capital and free of racism. Who better than an African who claimed to have brought with him fellow revolutionaries and the nucleus of black trade unions?
However, Thibedi was a shadowy man. Despite his long membership of the CPSA and his period as a union organiser, he had not criticised events in the CPSA or in the USSR, and had not contributed any ideas of note to the left wing movement. He is said to have produced one copy of a newspaper in African languages (no copy of which survives), but there is no record of activity in his new group, or of any trade union work. He disappeared after an extended correspondence with the 15, in large part devoted to his requests for financial assistance, something the IS was unable to satisfy. Thibedi left the political scene for over a decade, and only reappeared in 1945 when he was introduced to, and joined, the Workers International League. His approach was narrowly nationalist, and, after being accused of chauvinism, he was expelled. He then melted back into the anonymity from which he had temporarily emerged.
As in the south, the groups that came into being drew on those expelled from the CPSA. These included Ralph Lee (or Levy) but, in his case, he left after serving a jail sentence for cat burglary. Lee said retrospectively, in his own wry way, that he had been expropriating the bourgeoisie one by one! Actually, except for the colour of his skin, Lee was not exceptional. A large number of Coloureds and Africans in the CPSA had spent one or more spells in jail on charges of petty larceny. Other members of the CPSA who had joined Lee in these ventures escaped arrest, and stayed on as loyal members of the party. The group that did establish itself was the Bolshevik-Leninist League. Formed in April 1934, it affiliated with the WPSA just as the latter was about to announce its existence. Its members (and in particular Ralph and Millie Lee) established contacts outside Johannesburg, but never founded a stable group in other urban centres. Once again, there was the slow recruiting of members, but at the same time the group was involved in trade union work, concentrating on the unorganised African workers. After Thibedi, Purdy organised the laundry workers, with dubious results. Thereafter, the union was handed over to Max Gordon, who had left Cape Town in early 1935, and it was Gordon, more than anybody else, who made his mark as a trade union organiser. The activities in the trade unions are discussed in an accompanying article.
The work in Johannesburg was not confined to the organising of trade unions. There were the usual meetings, classes, establishment of branches (particularly in Alexandra Township, a black township on the northern tip of Johannesburg), open air meetings, and so on. Externally, at least, the group functioned as any small radical group might be expected to perform. But internally there was turmoil. Of the original group of nine or 10, there were seven expulsions or withdrawals in the first eight months. Thereafter, the rump was disbanded and the group reconstituted. The only members of the original group that remained were Lee and his wife. There were slanging matches, fisticuffs, accusations and counter-accusations, and a stream of complaints to Cape Town. But Cape Town would not, or could not, intervene. The group literally tore itself apart, and from this distance it is not possible to disentangle the rights and wrongs of what happened.
Gordon withdrew from the Johannesburg branch, and, condemned for his non-participation by the Cape Town committee, continued his trade union work independently of the WPSA. His activities went unrecorded in The Spark , and his successes were not mentioned in further correspondence. The one matter of which the Trotskyists could have been truly proud, and the one that the Stalinists found the greatest threat to their political hegemony, was written out of the Trotskyist annals. Several years later, a new generation of Trotskyists, who only heard stories of Gordon’s work, sought to emulate his activities in the black trade unions.
Developments in Cape Town
When the WPSA and CLSA were formed in January 1935, the International Secretariat maintained that the groups were too small to form a party, and called for further discussion on programmatic issues. But it was too late. The parties had formed themselves, and had declared their existence. Furthermore, the two groups were at daggers drawn, and could not agree on any issue. Letters from the Secretariat had antagonised the leading members of the WPSA, and they were not inclined to listen. Yet the situation was absurd. The WPSA had an initial membership of 11, only three of whom seemed to be active and able to contribute to its journal. By mid-year two of the 11 had resigned. The CLSA, starting with four members, seemed to have recruited another nine, but it is doubtful whether more than three or four were active. Also by mid-1935 there were two Clubs, giving a periphery of about 25 or 30 others, none of which engaged directly in political activity. The Johannesburg group was even smaller, more fractious and centred on one or two persons. Nor were they all committed to the majority’s theses. Purdy was closer to the minority, but he was expelled from the Johannesburg group (for assaulting Lee), and his thesis was never formally discussed inside the WPSA.
The Communist League and some of those expelled from the Johannesburg group adopted the IS’ line. They called for unification and for a looser structure. They also argued for more discussion on programme and on activities. To no avail: the leading members of the WPSA in Cape Town, and Lee in the north, were immovable. The leaders of the WPSA were accused of bureaucracy and of Stalinist methods, and they in turned replied with counter-attacks of ‘Menshevism’, of lack of principles, and so on.
Yet the time was not ripe for a centralised party, and it was absurd to believe that a finished programme had been formulated. On the contrary, it was a time for further discussion and study, and also for activity that would recruit new members and provide the experience which could lead to correction and amplification of earlier formulations. The Cape Town groups were mainly white and predominantly Jewish. Many were more familiar with Yiddish than with English, and their articles required rewriting. Initially there were few Africans or Coloureds, and recruiting was painfully slow. Aware of the problem, the Secretary of the WPSA explained in one letter that it was not possible to work legally with blacks. His reference, presumably, was to the few African townships where whites were not allowed entry without a visitor’s permit. There were no full-time organisers, and it seems that nobody in the WPSA or CLSA was involved in trade union work.
The first crucial engagement in political work, although little more than attendance at a conference, was to move WPSA politics at a later date into entirely new channels. This came from the presence of Tabata, Jaineb Gool (later Mrs Tabata) and Goolam Gool at the All-African Convention, convened in 1935, to organise a campaign against the Hertzog Native Bills. What happened at the conferences is still unclear. The official minutes of the conferences were written and published by the President, DDT Jabavu, a lecturer at the segregated college at Fort Hare, and he was highly selective in what he recorded.
The Spark carried reports of the proceedings each year (1935-37), and was sharply critical of the tactics (or antics) of the self-appointed leaders. They lambasted the President, and criticised his policies and his autocratic behaviour. There is an even more caustic description of events in 1937 in the recently published diary of Ralph Bunche, at that time a radical left winger, who toured South Africa. He described caucuses, which included members of the WPSA and Communist League, where more radical policies were demanded.
Yet the new organisation seemed to offer an ideal platform. The two issues at stake were land and the vote. The demand for more land and the ending of the reserve system were demands that fitted in with the WPSA’s thesis. The question of the vote coincided with Trotsky’s call to politicise the land question, and it also pointed in the direction of a Black Republic. Furthermore, the federal basis upon which the Convention had been summoned allowed left wing groups an autonomy within a potentially large organisation. However, it was an outlet which did not lead to the working class, and in which all reference to Socialism was silenced. The crucial intervention of the advanced workers in any solution of the land question, which had been stressed by Trotsky in his letter, was by-passed and never appeared in the contributions of Tabata et al at the AAC.
The first conference of the AAC in 1935 called for a rejection of the Hertzog Bills, and a delegation was nominated to interview the Prime Minister. It was following the meetings with Hertzog and other members of parliament that a ‘compromise’ was announced. Instead of abolishing the Cape African vote, those already enfranchised would be placed on a separate roll. An advisory Native Representative Council would be elected, as would whites who would represent Africans in parliament and the senate. No one would confess to having agreed to the ‘compromise’, and this was to be a source of friction in the years to come.
In the first years of its existence, the impact of the AAC on the WPSA was minimal. The AAC was confined to an annual gathering (later biannual) with no intervening activity, and little was required of those who gathered at conference. The fact that leading cadre of the WPSA would assume leadership of the movement, and in the process become Nationalist leaders with a Trotskyist faÃ§ade, was a caricature of Trotsky’s meaning in his reply to the theses.
The articles on the Native Bills and the AAC in The Spark led to the first rift between Johannesburg and Cape Town. There was an exchange between Lee and Burlak on the factors that led to the ‘compromise’, Lee insisting that it was a ruse to win African support for the coming war, whilst Burlak maintained that Hertzog had made the concession in order to win the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament. The nature of the disagreement between Lee and Burlak is only of academic interest now. Nor is it clear why so much heat was generated by the Johannesburg group over the issue. They refused to sell The Spark, distanced themselves from the journal, and started their own publication Umlilo Mollo (The Flame ). Then, at Lee’s insistence, the debate was published in The Spark. Lee’s arguments did not stand up, and no more was heard of the matter.
The distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg made joint work almost impossible, and the impecunious state of the groups meant that there was no money for train fares across 1000 miles. Consequently, there were no visits for consultations, no conferences, and no election of committees. Contact was maintained through the post, and many decisions were taken without full consultation. in Cape Town almost all the work was conducted by Burlak, Koston and Goodlatte. They handled the mail with groups in the US, the UK and Australia, translated documents from the IS, typed the monthly Spark, and maintained the work of the group in Cape Town as well as the Spartacus Club. It was an overwhelming load, but there were no full time party workers, and no indication that other members assisted in any substantial way.
At first the Editorial Board of The Spark was made up of the Cape Town trio and three from Johannesburg. This was to be Lee and two others. However, the constantly changing membership of the Johannesburg group left Lee as the only effective member. His contributions to the journal were spasmodic, and then, with the dispute over the Native Bills, the Johannesburg members withdrew from the Editorial Board, and for two months they did not distribute The Spark. Also, in April 1936 (prior to the dispute) when Koston resigned for personal reasons, Lee had been appointed National Secretary of the WPSA. It was an appointment that was more nominal than real. Little was altered by the Secretary being in Johannesburg, but the dispute placed the whole party in jeopardy.
African members seemed to leave as fast as they were recruited, and the training on offer was rudimentary. One new member who seemed to be different was CBI Dladla, a prominent member of the CPSA from Nigel, a mining town on the western edge of the Witwatersrand. His appearance as a Trotskyist was announced to the public in Umlilo . He was to became Secretary of the Johannesburg group.
In all this there was more than a touch of eccentricity in Lee’s activities. In one letter written by (an embittered) Gordon, Lee was accused of being inactive in the Laundry Workers Union, and of dissolute behaviour. Also, according to Heaton Lee, at one stage he was convinced that he knew where the Kruger millions were to be found. For weeks he had members of the group digging at selected spots for this treasure trove.
The withdrawal from The Spark was the politics of sectarianism, and it was followed in July 1937 by the decision of Ralph and Millie Lee, Heaton Lee and Dick Freislich to leave Johannesburg for Britain. There was no warning of the impending move, and the Johannesburg group was stripped of its leadership. The WPSA was left to find a new Secretary. It was reconstructed in Johannesburg with Max Sapire as secretary. The group, which was mainly white, had some involvement in trade union work, but its claims of success were exaggerated. That is, some of its members were rank and file trade unionists, and attempts to restart African trade unions were not successful. Then the group all but disappeared. At some stage other groups appeared. One was known as the Propaganda Group for a Fourth International, of which Gordon and Klenerman were members. Another was the Johannesburg Group of the Fourth International led by Saperstein (an original member of the WPSA who had clashed with Lee) and Leon Sapire. These groups left few documents, and little is known about them.
Then a new group (or a reconstituted group), the Socialist Workers League appeared in Johannesburg in December 1938 after a split in the Johannesburg Group for a Fourth International. It had a programme and a constitution that ran to several pages. The programme took the WPSA to task on two grounds, firstly, because it gave no attention to the white peasant or white worker, and, secondly, because the WPSA, in calling for support for the All-African Convention (without one word on ‘its treacherous role’ had: ‘Not one word of the class struggle of the oppressed masses. Just national struggle for liberation and ignoring the white workers.’
The SWL eschewed black national organisation or black chauvinism, whilst condemning the white chauvinism of superiority and segregation. They accepted parallel organisations until objective conditions made it possible for such bodies to draw closer. It seems that it was this group that produced three issues of Socialist Action in 1939. The paper was in English and Afrikaans, but besides being anti-Fascist (which indicated a former association with the Anti-Fascist League), it gave no support to Gordon, although it called for work in the black trade unions. Then in September, when war was declared, the group scuttled and ran. Its programme and constitution were surrendered, and its anti-war stand forgotten. Some of its members were to reappear temporarily in 1944 before finally leaving the scene. None made any (known) contribution to theory, and none lifted a finger in practical political work.
In late 1937, with failing health, Clare Goodlatte relinquished her role as Secretary of the WPSA, but continued with her work on the Editorial Board of The Spark . At the end of 1938 she withdrew from all activity, weakening the group considerably. There were now far too few members to sustain the journal or to entertain the idea of embarking on new activity. By mid-1938 the strains were showing. Writing to Basch in London, Koston wrote:
‘About us... not so good. Our Spark circulation increases slowly, now about 900 are printed monthly and 800 disposed of. We have more than 400 individuals on the mailing list. Recently we circulated about 400 questionnaires to Bantu readers... The result has been disappointing, only about 15 bothering to fill it up and send it back.., perhaps three or four sound very hopeful.
‘Basically our trouble [in Cape Town] is this. None of us is in a position to give more than our evenings to the work that had to be done. Of course this is hopeless. We have given a certain theoretical training to a number of Bantu members here, but as they are wholly without practical knowledge and not in a position to go out and organise and learn by their mistakes, nothing much is done. If we had one good European organiser we could support him and our Bantu comrades, and if we could organise one trade union victory everything would change here. There have been in the last 18 months, a wave of spontaneous strikes started by the Bantu at such widely separate places as Durban, Piquetberg, Johannesburg suburbs, etc. Every one of them has failed, not only because the bosses realise that they mustn’t let the Bantu win a strike, but also because the Bantu don’t know how to run a strike. One victorious strike would mean a lot. It would show the Bantu that there is away, some way, of bettering their lot, and they would be ready to listen to those who have shown them the way. After all, why should the Bantu or the workers anywhere for that matter listen to us and take us on our face value? The fact that we have successfully predicted the disastrous outcome of Stalinist policies is not enough: this effects only a few individuals, those who follow and study events...
‘The Spark is intended for the Bantu intellectual. From him its message should percolate down. But the Bantu intellectual, first of all is a very thin strata [sic] in the country, secondly very backward and ignorant (cannot in anyway be compared with Indian, Chinese, not to speak of European intellectual), feels so much better off (which he is) than the Bantu masses that he wants to lead the masses in his own way, which is naturally not a revolutionary way. The intellectual does not feel the full force of the oppression, he eats, and he hopes and believes in the rulers...’
In August 1939 the editors of The Spark announced that the government’s imposition of controls on publications spelt the end of open discussion in the country. In fact, the triumvirate were tired and probably dispirited. Goodlatte, after a long illness, resigned form all positions in 1939. She died in 1942. The Spark did not appear again, and the group published no leaflets or pamphlets. It seems to have continued through the first years of the war, making no new statement, but its members, Tabata, Jaineb and Goolam Gool, Ben Vies and others were the moving spirit behind the NEUM, the AAC and the Anti-CAD, and its main associated movements -- the two teachers’ organisations and the Transkei Organised Body. This was not entryism in the formal sense of the word, because the main bodies had either to be reconstructed or formed. But it was an inverted entryism in which populist movements were established so that Trotskyists could enter them, and even be their leaders. In the process they ceased being Trotskyists, although these movements were called Trotskyist by their opponents.
The war in Europe, starting in September 1939, was not unexpected. Both Stalinists and Trotskyists had warned that war would break out, but there was little agreement on where it would begin or what to do when it commenced. The Stalinists followed the USSR blindly, switching policy in line with changes in Europe, and, having been so involved in Popular Front, anti-war and anti-Fascist movements, vacillated when war was declared until ‘the line’ was made clear from Moscow. Until the invasion of Russia they were anti-war: then they switched immediately. The Trotskyists were anti-war but there was confusion on policy. Inside the WPSA there had been heated debate over where the war would begin. Burlak said that it would start as a war between Britain and Germany; others said that the opening shots would be against the USSR. All were agreed that they would oppose the war and, in line with Lenin’s position in 1915, called for the defeat of their own government. At the same time, they supported Trotsky’s call for the unconditional defence of the USSR.
There were no published statements from the WPSA after war was declared. The group withdrew from public sight, and, even if this was a move to covert activity, it was the underground action of the graveyard. There are stories that indicate that they continued to meet, but their self-imposed silence rendered them politically ineffectual. Even those connected with the AAC and, after 1943, with the NEUM, kept discretely silent on the war. They did not even refute the statement of the leaders of the AAC, together with the ANC, supporting the government in its war effort.
Through the first months of the war, the group that now called itself the FIOSA maintained its absurd policy: that it would be possible to form a front with elements in the National Party who were anti-war. At some point, this was discretely dropped and never alluded to again. Jaffe wrote a 66 page pamphlet entitled World War or World Socialism . The chapter on the war occupies 11 pages, and in it Jaffe defined Fascism as the universalisation to which ‘degenerate bourgeois society’ tended, and as ‘the completion of the merging of monopoly finance capital with the capitalist political state’. He also discerned ‘the emergence of Fascism out of the threat of revolution’. This was in fact little more than the Comintern’s definition. Then he added: the conflict was between two forces that were so much alike that he could see no end on a ‘purely military plane’ â€“‘only the Socialist revolution can finally end the war’
Proclaiming the need for ‘revolutionary defeatism’, Jaffe had advice for everyone. For the German workers, this was simple. They had to sabotage the war effort. For South Africa, the prescription was also obvious—in the face of a possible Japanese invasion the coloured people would be neutral in the battles between the government and the invader, and between the government and the pro-Axis Afrikaners. Once again, there was no reference to the previous stand of the Communist League. For workers in the Allied countries who feared Nazism, Jaffe recommended strikes, election fights against the war, mass meetings, demonstrations and ‘other ways of open struggle’. A far cry from ‘revolutionary defeatism’, and with no call for work on the armed forces, his call for such defeatism was obscure.
There are few signs of activity in the FIOSA group in Cape Town. They held meetings, they produced a paper, and they distributed leaflets. They also gave verbal support to the NEUM—and that seems to be all. At a later date Jaffe produced a paper with the title Militant Worker which purported to represent a set of trade unions—but there is no record of these unions and no indication that they were anything more than a front for Jaffe’s participation in trade union conferences.
All Trotskyist activity in Johannesburg ostensibly ceased after September 1939, although a group seems to have been formed at the University. Gordon had the distinction of being the only Trotskyist to be interned during the war, but the trade unions remained as a monument to his work. Then, in mid-1942 and again at the beginning of 1943, Jaffe moved to Johannesburg to start a group. He gathered together half a dozen members (including Fanny Klenerman and a few black trade unionists). This was a talking group, and besides assisting Jaffe in producing the paper, there was no other activity. In August 1943 the group was joined by half a dozen members of the left wing Zionist group, Hashomer Hatzair, and, in the absence of any other trained members, they soon assumed the leadership in Johannesburg.
There was a malaise in the movement which grew ever sharper in the next few years. Members of the WPSA, Tabata, the Gools, Ben Kies and others, no longer wearing the mantle of Trotskyism, took the initiative in the Cape in 1943 in calling together the almost defunct AAC, organising the Anti-CAD and launching the NEUM. Henceforth, the Trotskyists acted as leaders of a national liberation movement, based their work on the vague terms of a minimum programme of democratic demands, and eschewed all class politics. The members of the FIOSA followed in the shadow of their erstwhile opponents, and devoted most of their energy to promoting the cause of the NEUM, first as unwelcome guests, but later as part of the leadership. Yet, in effect, there was little to be done. The AAC, the Anti-CAD and the NEUM were all federal bodies, and all activity was left to the constituent parts to initiate. There were no national initiatives, no campaigns, and no directives—outside of the brandishing of the slogan of ‘non-collaboration’, the latter calling for boycotts of persons or institutions cooperating with government, provincial or local bodies. Torch , the newspaper of the NEUM, was vituperative in its attacks on all collaborators (the ‘quislings’ as they were called), attacked the white ruling class as ‘herrenvolk’ and declared its organisational superiority in having a programme that demanded the vote, and the policy of non-collaboration. Socialism, the role of the worker and internationalism, were verboten words.
The AAC leaders, and Tabata in particular, turned their attention to the rural population in the Reserves, but most particularly in the Ciskei and the Transkei, they mounted a campaign against the implementation of the rehabilitation scheme, a government policy of resettlement of homesteads, cattle culling, and an enforced system of crop rotation. The problem, said Tabata and his followers, was not overstocking, but of too little land. For this they won support. In this they were only continuing a position that can be traced back to at least 15 September 1938. in a letter of that date, from the WPSA to MS Njisane in the Transkei, the writer said that: ‘The problem of overstocking is the problem of overpopulation, and this in turn is the problem of insufficiency of land. This is the crux of the matter, and any “solution” that does not touch this fundamental problem—the land problem—is sheer hypocrisy and can solve nothing.’
The letter continued, citing the number of landless homesteads in the region, and the lack of money to improve stock. It was a long letter which then went on to say: ‘The Reserves are for the government nothing but a reservoir of cheap Native labour for the mines and for the farms, and the misery in the Reserves is fostered towards this end.’
The government would not give the African sufficient land to plough, and an additional burden was imposed through the poll tax to force Africans out of the Reserves to work. The letter concluded by stating that there could be no solution under capitalism. Socialism provided the only solution with its plans for ‘a scientific distribution and use of land’ in a system ‘which will be concerned with the needs of the people and not with making profits.’
However, the NEUM had done nothing beyond issuing rallying calls, it had no plans for action, and there was no more talk about Socialism. Forgotten were the concluding words of that letter of 1938 which said that the motto of the society they wanted was ‘from each according to his ability; to each according to his need’. When finally there was an armed peasant revolt in Pondoland in 1960, the AAC was split -with the central leadership refusing to be involved in a campaign that, they said, could not possibly succeed.
However, the issue is not what these erstwhile Trotskyists were doing—or not doing. By becoming the leaders of a national movement they behaved as nationalists. It can be argued that it was permissible to enter such a movement, participate in its activities, and even be elected to its committees, and equally, when required, to leave its ranks, criticise it and even condemn it for its false policies. However, when revolutionaries establish such movements and put themselves at the head, they are tied in spirit and ideology to such movements—and in that they mix the rhetoric of radicalism with the conservatism of nationalist policies.
Meanwhile, the FIOSA group in Johannesburg, unable to make progress before Jaffe’s return to the Cape, persuaded Lee, who had returned to Johannesburg, to join them. He grew impatient with a set of amateurs, tried to galvanise them into action, and he also planned some active position for himself. This alarmed Jaffe, who revived old accusations against Lee, although they had been shown to be false in Britain. in a manner reminiscent of the pre-war days (but unknown to the newcomers), Lee was expelled in 1944. The procedure was both reckless and corrupt, but perhaps it was fortunate. Lee, stung by this event, contacted many of the former Johannesburg Trotskyists, and, launching the Workers International League (WIL), initiated an ambitious programme of activity, and, most important of all, he found some of Gordon’s old trade union organisers. This provided the WIL with a means to work with and to influence the African trade union movement. Jaffe had returned to Cape Town, and for several months the Johannesburg group survived. But it could not last. The Workers Voice became increasingly remote, and when the paper arrived at the end of June 1944 with blazing headlines ‘Why The Second Front Will Not Be Opened’, the group said they could not sell the paper: the second front had been opened on the 6th. Jaffe’s response was that the prediction might have been wrong, but the analysis was correct. That opened a gap that finally led the Johannesburg group to make their peace with Lee and join the WIL.
Lee proved remarkable in providing the means of approaching the trade unions, and also of finding the means to print a newspaper at minimal cost. The group was alive and found the means to influence events. Their anti-war position, which was more a matter of rhetoric than of activity, nonetheless meant that they were prepared to encourage and engage in strike action, and although the Africans were not interested in the politics of the WIL, they responded to the militant trade unionism that the WIL encouraged.
The members of the WIL had few illusions about their work in the unions. They knew that they were not getting their political message across to the workers, were meeting only the needs of the trade union bureaucracy (militant as they sometimes were), and could not hope to gain immediate converts from these quarters. Yet, the impact of WIL activity resonated there and elsewhere. At the time of the Alexandra bus boycott in 1944, a section of the boycott committee, impressed by the activities of the WIL, joined the group and gave it a presence in that township. It also gave the WIL a fillip by bringing to its ranks Vincent and Lilian Swart, two talented intellectuals with a wide circle of contacts. But there were also casualties. The old-timers had mostly dropped out, and Lee, in a repetition of the behaviour that Gordon had noted in 1935, stopped coming.
The group grew to over 50. Its activities extended to assistance for the African teachers in their campaign for higher wages, intervention in townships where persons were in conflict with the administration, and the usual run of pamphleteering, calling meetings, and so on. The WIL’s influence in the trade unions extended to nearly half the existing organisations, and its members (or sympathisers like Koza) played a significant role in the unions and at the conferences of the Council of Non-European Trade Unions. It was soon after this event that the Swarts met with David Schrire of the old Spartacus Club. He apparently persuaded them that trade union organisation was a waste of time and that they would be better occupied in studying Marxism. They concurred, and basing themselves on the spurious argument that local industry was a wartime bubble, and that the black working class would be dismantled when the armed forces were demobilised, called for the abandonment of the WIL’s trade union work. Instead, they called for study and a retreat to community organisation. Factions were established, with Hirson leading a minority of eight, opposing the abandonment of trade union work. The Swart group, firmly established in the Alexandra group, won overwhelmingly, and apparently hoped for the resignation of the minority.
However, the minority stayed, protesting that they would accept group discipline and would be shown to have been correct. Shortly thereafter, members of the majority, including the leaders, announced their joint resignation by letter. They had not even bothered to call a meeting or inform their supporters, and left behind them a majority that was completely demoralised. Within two months, in April 1946, the WIL ceased to exist—just before the African mine workers’ strike, an abortive event which was poorly organised and was a miserable failure. This could have given the WIL a golden opportunity in the trade union movement if it had not self-destructed.
With the war at an end, the Trotskyists, who had believed that they would emerge locally, as well as internationally, with a mass following, lay shattered in the Transvaal, had a tiny group (FIOSA) in the Cape, and the leadership of a nationalist movement in the Cape. The latter still seemed to have promise as the nucleus of a liberation movement. That was the promise, although it did not mean that the Trotskyists would have prospered—even if its opponents (and some of its friends) all referred to the NEUM as a Trotskyist movement. That promise turned out to be empty, but that belongs to a different study. In 1947 or 1948 the FIOSA group decided to disband. Jaffe and some others joined the leadership of the NEUM, and made this the centre of their work. Averbach joined his family when they went to Israel. There he was apparently isolated and unable to find a place for himself in a land he found alien. The WPSA is said to have continued its underground activities in the early 1950s and then dissolved. By this stage (in 1950) the government had passed the Suppression of Communism Act (which defined Communists as those who followed the teachings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky), and the groups that were formed after this either existed as clubs, or worked covertly.
For the coming period little groups appeared in Cape Town and Johannesburg. in Cape Town some were offshoots of the FIOSA, and others were made of new recruits. Most had disappeared by the late 1950s. In Johannesburg there were several small and ephemeral groups, mostly existing as study groups. It is a tortuous story of regrouping year after year until at last there seemed to be some success. The Socialist League of Africa was formed, and some of its members worked inside the Congress alliance (that is, the groups allied to the ANC). After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and the state of emergency that followed, this group allied itself with several other groups to form the National Committee of Liberation, and embarked on a campaign of sabotage, preceding other similar groups. It was a false move, generated by a mood of desperation as the state machine clamped down on all political opposition. It ended when most of its members were arrested in 1964 and given long jail sentences.
For the papers of the WPSA, without which this could not have been written, Jaco Malan and Ciraj Rassool. For a complete copy of The Spark , Louis Sinclair. For papers of the WIL, Nachum Sneh. For documents, Bob and Renate Kamener, Myrtle and Monty Berman, Tony Southall, Jenny (Curtis) Schoon, Tom Lodge.
For accounts of events in the various Trotskyist groups, Shimon Joffe, D. Stuart Linney, Bernhard Herzberg, Selim Gool, Ann (Averbach) Bloch, Charlie van Gelderen, Paul Koston, Heaton Lee, Millie Lee Haston, Joe Urdang and Hosea Jaffe (but I was told that this last conversation was not to be quoted).
The institutions that provided documents or microfilms: Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London; the Prometheus Documentary Centre, New York; The Church of the Province Collection, University of the Witwatersrand; The South African Library, Cape Town the Bodleian Oxford, Harvard University Library, Cambridge Mass.