From The Marxist Archives -The Revolutionary History Journal-Raff Lee and the Pioneer Trotskyists of Johannesburg
Markin comment (9/18/2010):
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.
Raff Lee and the Pioneer Trotskyists of Johannesburg
A Footnote to the History of British Trotskyism
The entrance of the South African Trotskyists into the movement in Britain, upon which they had a profound effect, is discussed in Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson, Against the Stream , London, 1986, pp169-70, 243, and their War and the International, London, 1986, pp2-4. Charlie van Gelderen describes his appearance at the conference of the Youth International of the Fourth International in 1938 as a representative of the Communist League of South Africa in Theresa Conway, ‘I Was There: An Eyewitness Report’, Socialist Outlook , no 9, October 1988.
A HANDFUL of South African Trotskyists made their way to Britain from Johannesburg between 1934 and 1937. But though they were a mere handful, they were to make a powerful impact on the movement in Britain. Most prominent of all were ‘Raff Lee, Ted Grant and Raff’s wife Millie. All glory, it has been said, goes to those who dare to begin. These were comrades who began in the most difficult of circumstances, combating the prejudices and violent hostility of the privileged white labour aristocracy, as well as the Stalinist Communist Party apparatus. That individuals who had the determination and resourcefulness to begin in such circumstances, and, like Frank Glass, their original mentor, the commitment to travel halfway round the world to further the cause, should also have possessed the character and ability to make a powerful impact is perhaps not so surprising. The beginning of their story deserves to be told for that reason also, but it is also a story rich in lessons for the revolutionary movement today.
Prior to 1928 Comintern policy had never been satisfactorily resolved in relation to the peculiar problems of South Africa. In 1924 backing for the efforts of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) to organise black workers and youth had been able to be read into that part of the Profintern trade union policy resolution which states ‘when trade union bureaucrats.., categorically refuse to admit black workers into the unions, the adherents of the Profintern must proceed to form negro unions, whilst making the cornerstone of their programme the struggle to unify unions in the same branch of production’. Effectively, however, the CPSA was left to its own devices. Serious Comintern debate on the racial question focused mainly on the USA, and, unfortunately, the South African dimension was regarded as an ‘unwelcome interloper’.
The immediate circumstances in which Trotskyism found an echo in Johannesburg stemmed directly from the first direct intervention of the Comintern, now under Stalinist control, into CPSA affairs in 1929. Until that time the CPSA, under its founder Sidney Percival Bunting, had pursued a straightforward line of fostering class consciousness and solidarity - not that this was an easy course in the racial climate of South Africa. Bunting’s pre-CPSA International Socialist League had attempted an IWW-inspired Industrial Workers of Africa in 1917, and subsequently the ISL and the CPSA had tried to intervene in the politicised black Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) founded by Klements Kadalie in 1914. Kadalie’s relatively privileged position, however, made him prey to illusions of courting liberal respectability, and in 1926, in pursuance of this, he expelled the Communists from the ICU. Undaunted, Bunting and his associates, including the pioneer black Socialist TW Thibedi, set about trying to form their own unions. The ICU declined as an urban phenomenon, although it remained a vehicle for rural discontent. The problem of leaders like Kadalie was to be a recurring one as the Trotskyists were to find out later.
Organising black workers had many special problems, not least amongst which was that there were very few industries in which blacks had any power independent of privileged white workers. Only in the mines and in certain urban secondary industries was there any real potential for black workers to act effectively in isolation. The mines, however, posed yet further peculiar problems with much of the workforce being composed of migrant workers kept in closely guarded compounds. The breakthrough for the Communists came in 1927. Bennie Weinbren, a white Communist laundry worker, and Thibedi succeeded in establishing a Native Laundry Workers Union. This was followed in rapid succession by native workers ‘unions for the bakery, clothing, mattress making and furniture industries, all in the Johannesburg area. 1928 saw an extension of activities to metal, cold store, dairy, transport and rope workers, and the erection of an umbrella Non-European Trade Union Federation. The whole edifice headed by Weinbren and Thibedi claimed to embrace nearly 10,000 workers by the end of 1929. Actual CPSA membership rose in parallel from 200 to 1750, with 1600 of these being black.
The Stalinist intervention came as a shattering blow in 1929. Stalin by 1928 had been increasingly seeking allies amongst oppressed and colonial bourgeois nationalist movements. The most notorious instance was the debacle in China. The logical application of this orientation to South Africa was worked out by Bukharin and the black South African Stalinist La Guma. It was the struggle for ‘a democratic independent native republic as a stage towards the final overthrow of capitalism’. As far as the South African party was concerned, this was a ‘total reversal of any line previously laid down’. Dissent was out of the question, and the CPSA was ordered to redirect all of its work towards an ‘independent native republic’. A newly formed united front, the League of African Rights, was closed down in December 1929 on direct orders from Moscow, and a small team of Stalinist functionaries began a purge of the party. Thibedi was one of the first to go, and within the following 24 months so too went CB Tyler, WH Andrews, Solly Sachs and Bennie Weinbren, all key trade union organisers. Finally there was SP Bunting himself, the man described as ‘the great leader in the eyes of the African rank and file’. He was expelled in September 1931. The effect of all of this on the CPSA was utterly devastating:
‘It successfully smashed or antagonised the new African trade unions… it made any sort of cooperation between the party and other bodies, whether black or white, impossible; and it drove away almost all the Africans who had been attracted to the party under Bunting’s leadership.
Less than 150 members were left in the CPSA, yet it was to remain an incubus of crushing weight. Thus Stalin’s suicidal two stage theory of revolution and his ultra-left Third Period, both so fiercely criticised in the Chinese and German contexts, found their expressions in South Africa too.
The next recorded contact with Trotskyism in South Africa came in April 1932. This was from the expelled veteran black trade union leader Thibedi. Thibedi was still confused about the cause of his predicament, but the central reason for his disaffection with the CPSA was clear. He wrote:
‘Today there is no longer any single trade union under the control of the party. Almost all the branches are now dead are purposely left to die by the Stalin bureaucrats.’
Yet at the same time he revealed that he thought that Stalin himself could not be aware of what was really happening, and he made common cause with the similarly naive Bunting in applying for readmission to the party! Neither Bunting nor Thibedi ever developed or accepted any full critique of Stalinism. Bunting remained hostile to the idea of an organisational break from the Comintern, despite the treatment he received. Thibedi did propose an oppositional Communist League, but it proved abortive. The one issue of his proposed paper, Maraphanga, exemplified his failure to become ‘an ideological Trotskyist’, it ‘did not appear to have any definite political line... [other than] various native grievances’. Thibedi had no further contact with the Trotskyist movement other than a fleeting and similarly unsuccessful encounter with Raff Lee’s Workers International League in 1945 (see below).
The fact that Thibedi had come as close as he had to Trotskyism in 1932 seems to have been due to the influence of Glass ‘protege Purdy and his new associate Raff Lee. Purdy and Lee indicated that they had been in contact with Thibedi’s initiative of 1932 when they wrote to The Militant wanting it as a basis for education. As Thibedi had revealed, they had managed only to maintain a night-class in the interim. At the time of the 1932 initiative, Thibedi still had control of the remnants of the original Native Laundry Workers Union, but this too had collapsed, and the emergence of the first truly Trotskyist group in Johannesburg in 1934 went hand in hand with the rebuilding of this union.
By the time that permanent contact was re-established between Johannesburg and the Left Opposition, a formally constituted Trotskyist group had also emerged in Cape Town. In 1930 founding CPSA members Manuel and Francis Lopes had been attacked for ‘Trotskyism’, alongside their Johannesburg friend Frank Glass, by the Communist Party organ Umsebenzi . Joe Pick, another founder party member, was expelled in September 1931 for ‘fractional activities against the leadership’ and ‘Trotskyism’. No formal groups existed at these early stages, however, but The Militant was clearly as accessible in the Cape as it was in Johannesburg. In 1932 Charlie Van Gelderen and his brother encountered The Militant being sold by individual Left Oppositionists at a meeting of an eclectic International Socialist club. They had already encountered the three key figures, Pick and the Lopes brothers, holding a street meeting on the Japanese invasion of Manchuria earlier the same year. The Van Gelderens joined these three, MN (’Dick’) Averbach and a handful of others in forming a Marxist Education League, ‘the first authentic Trotskyist organisation in Cape Town’. The Lopes brothers soon began an opportunistic drift that was eventually to take them all the way to the Nationalist Party, much to the glee of the Stalinist hacks. Pick and the younger activists, now including Max Gordon and the American seaman Paul Koston, carried on. The little group worked as a fraction in the ILP and in a Communist Party-dominated Jewish organisation, the Gezerd, until it was expelled. In common with Left Oppositionists in many other countries they then formed a public Lenin Club, both as a home for expellees and as a forum to reorient outwards towards a new International. This international reorientation followed from the debacle in Germany at the beginning of the year. The Cape Lenin Club was launched on 29 July 1933. This was the group with which the Johannesburg organisation sought contact early in 1934.
The Johannesburg group, which formally constituted itself as the Johannesburg Bolshevik-Leninist League in April 1934, was centred on two key figures. These were Murray Gow Purdy, who had been brought into political activity by Glass, and Raff Lee, a former member of the CPSA. Lee was reputed to have joined the CPSA at the time of the 1922 Rand Revolt, and like many others he had first found The Militant in the Vanguard bookshop belonging to Glass. Developments at Johannesburg from 1931 to 1934 are very hazy. There is little firm information except for that of Thibedi’s abortive venture of 1932. During this period, however, Lee and Purdy had gradually consolidated around themselves a small activist group drawn from individuals first brought together as readers of The Militant. Lee was expelled from the CPSA, but even the exact date and circumstances of the expulsion remain uncertain. He was reputedly made persona non grata by Bunting after a clash over an involvement in a cat burgling escapade which was later elaborated in some yarns into ‘expropriating the bourgeoisie one by one’! The involvement of Bunting would have to place the date in or before 1931, but had he still been in the CPSA in 1927, the expulsion must almost certainly have occurred after his encounter with Trotskyism.
The earliest fields of work for the Lee-Purdy group were in and around the CPSA in Johannesburg and the Rand Lithuanian Jewish community in which the CPSA had deep roots. This Lithuanian Jewish community on the Rand had had links with Russian revolutionary movements dating back to struggles within the old Czarist Empire in the 1880s. This was the community from which Lee himself came. Lee’s own name is an Anglicisation of what was originally Raphael Levy. A Jewish Workers Club set up under Stalinist influence in 1931 was a major base of Communist activity. As described by Roux:
‘The members of the club were mostly young men and women, mostly from Poland or Lithuania, earnest adherents of the Communist International, but having as yet only a very limited knowledge of the movement in South Africa and of the events that had led up to Bunting’s expulsion. They were told by Bach that Bunting was a traitor and that was enough for them.’
These were the forces with which the Stalinists had broken up Bunting’s meetings after his expulsion.
Despite the obvious difficulties of working under the eye of such Stalinist domination, Lee had succeeded in winning recruits. One was Raymond Lake, who, like Lee himself, had joined the CPSA after the Rand revolt of 1922. Another, J Saperstein, had had a similar entry into politics, having actually been imprisoned for gun running during the Rand Revolt. Max Basch, one of those who later came to England, was a younger Communist. Others were won straight to Trotskyism: Millie Kahn, who later became Lee’s wife, and Zena Blank, Lake’s girlfriend. Finally a very young Ted Grant was first drawn into politics by Lee during these years, too:
‘At the age of 11, he was introduced to the writings of Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Maxim Gorky, Jack London, and others by Ralph Lee, a member of the Communist Party and a friend of the family. Within a short time, the reading material graduated onto the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, so that by the time he was 15, Ted Grant was a confirmed Marxist.’
Tongue in cheek, Lee later wrote that ‘a titbit for my biographers in the future ‘would be a picture of him ‘daydreaming his nights away in the library!’, but this was far from an armchair grouping.
Lee, Purdy and their assemblage constituted themselves into the Bolshevik-Leninist League of Johannesburg in April 1934. A statement of policy and orientation was drawn up by Purdy. Basch, Saperstein and the remaining few supporters still inside the CPSA sent an open statement of criticism to the CPSA leadership, deliberately precipitating their expulsion. The statement focused on the factional struggles which had surrounded Lazar Bach’s purges. Outlining an analysis of Stalinism, they pointed out that:
‘It is not the individuals who are responsible, but the system, in this case the party system or regime, which makes possible the breeding of such individuals who are only its crystallised expression... the causes of the impotence of the CP are not due to the Bachs and [South African] Joffes, but have their roots in the rottenness that lies at the heart of the Comintern - the Stalinist bureaucracy.
They were summarily expelled the next day. The new League claimed 12 members, including five natives, and made the immediate effort already noted to establish contact with both the International Communist League itself and with the Cape Town Lenin Club.
In June 1934, shortly after the constitution of the Johannesburg Bolshevik-Leninist League, Purdy became Organising Secretary of the revived and revitalised African Laundry Workers Union. Perhaps as few as just three or four unions had survived the break from the CPSA in the period after 1929. A breakthrough into the trade union field was essential if the Bolshevik-Leninist League were to become a real force, especially since it was the betrayal of trade union activity by the Communist Party which was both the single most important spur and the greatest opening for oppositional activity in Johannesburg. Success meant first breaking the stranglehold which the Stalinists were trying to re-establish over the union rumps. An intervention into the bakers’ union failed, but then activity around the laundries met with spectacular success. The large laundries on the Rand employed between them nearly 1000 workers. During June 1934 a series of factory gate meetings recruited nearly 300 to the union. A crucial asset was the link retained with Z Mngabe, the factory organiser, and other black activists who had been involved in Thibedi’s abortive venture of 1932, and for whom Lee and Purdy had been running political and educational classes in the interim.
The new union soon faced a severe test, a test, moreover, precipitated at a time when Lee was away visiting contacts in Durban. Negotiations to establish union recognition, overtime and weekly pay ran into an impasse. On 28 August a confrontation took place at the Reliance, one of the largest laundries. The employers presented an ultimatum, accept their terms, or leave. The 90 black union members walked out. The next day they returned with Purdy, which resulted in the union giving its own ultimatum to all three of the largest plants, the Reliance, the New York and the International. The expiry date passed, and on 6 September a further 90 members at the other two establishments left work. A strike procession the next day led to Purdy’s arrest on a charge of inciting disorder, a ploy frequently employed by the authorities against political and industrial challenges. Millie Kahn, as she then was, has described how she walked with the black laundry workers through a gauntlet of abuse from white women. The corrugated iron dwelling which was home to Lee and Kahn became the strike headquarters.
Tactical problems abounded. Any strike action by natives faced the threat of action by the authorities on any number of pretexts. Purdy attempted to minimise the opportunities for intervention by making great play of ‘peaceful tactics’, and refraining from the use of pickets. He was criticised by the Communists on both accounts for not being sufficiently aggressive. Even the one processional rally which was held had nevertheless led to confrontation with the authorities. On the other hand, the Communist Party was to some degree more conciliatory than might have been expected. Despite criticising Purdy’s leadership, the CP publicly offered support and assistance. The IKAKA Labour Defence even contributed to Purdy’s bail. ‘Nevertheless, the Stalinists were kept at arms’ length, their motives being rightly questioned, and the only organisational help sought was from the Trades and Labour Council (the South African TUC), which involved fewer strings.
On 6 September the Johannesburg Star reported an apparent breakthrough, with all three main plants conceding union recognition, and two offering in addition the 2/6d pay rise necessary to translate monthly pay to a four weekly cycle. Would that things had been so simple! In reality the concession of union recognition was only tacit and not formal. Formal recognition was still demanded, yet barely 50 per cent of the New York and International workers were supporting the Reliance. Worse still, no help was forthcoming from the Rand Steam plant, and Leonardo’s were bought off. Meanwhile, replacements were beginning to be found even for the skilled ironers. Seventy-three of the Reliance strikers now found themselves arrested for criminal breach of contract. Prosecutions were started at the other plants as well. The focus of attention now shifted to what had suddenly become a test case for master and servant legislation.
One of the strikers, Oscar Maboa, who had been at the centre of the altercation which had led to the initial walkout, was taken as a test case on 20 September. He was acquitted, but only on the grounds that certain of the manager’s comments could have been construed as dismissal. Acquitted of the charge of illegal strike, the 73 thus found themselves sacked. This was a pyrrhic victory with a vengeance. Almost all of the strikers at all three firms had already had their jobs taken by replacements. The Stalinist organ Umsebenzi was not slow to lay this all at Purdy’s feet.
Not long after the laundry workers’ strike, two of the younger members of the group left Johannesburg to begin making their way to the centre of the world action in Europe. These were Max Basch and Ted Grant. The Cape Town and Johannesburg groups had by then been in contact with each other for some time, and Grant and Basch were able to stop with the Cape Town Trotskyists whilst waiting for a suitable ship. Grant took the opportunity to deliver his first public speech, an account of the events of the laundry strike, to one of the Lenin Club’s open air street meetings outside the Castle Street Post Office, and chaired on this occasion by Charlie Van Gelderen.
A brief mention of the strike appeared in an article by Lee that was printed in both The Spark and the New International in 1935. The strike may not have been particularly successful, but nevertheless here was reaffirmation of the process of proletarianisation and of the potential for revolutionary intervention. Once again the public pronouncements disguised a far more complex reassessment.
The controversies polarised around and finally caused a split between the two leading theoreticians in Cape Town, MN Averbach and Judel Burlak. The ripples impacted on Johannesburg. They were compounded by the need to draw the lessons of the laundry strike, and they split Purdy and Lee too. Nowhere was the forging of the cadres of a new International from those thrown together in reaction to Stalinism easy, and South Africa was to be no exception.
For May Day 1934 the Lenin Club in Cape Town issued a public manifesto highlighting the call for a new revolutionary party and a new International. The intention to follow the call for the creation of a new revolutionary movement was one thing, but actually working out how to put it into practice, especially in the peculiar conditions of South Africa, was quite another. In its first year the Lenin Club had still been a rather loose grouping. In August 1934 four leading comrades, Pick, Averbach, Burlak and C Van Gelderen, were assigned to thrash out the necessary theses on the key questions of the trade unions, war perspectives and the native issue. Burlak, a remarkable Jewish theoretician reputedly once a member of an Estonian or Latvian soviet in the early days of the Russian Revolution, forced the issue on the question of constituting a Bolshevik-type party.
For Burlak the necessity and viability of such a party had a simple base. The bulk of the native black population had been reduced by legislative and fiscal measures to a subjugated peasantry forming a vast reserve army of labour. The rural native population could thus be drawn directly behind the social revolution through the unique promise of the social revolution to solve simultaneously both the land ownership problem and also the national question. It was a classic application of the theory of Permanent Revolution. The revolutionary urban black proletariat, Burlak postulated, would also find support from amongst the white workers. The white working class would be driven to recognise common cause with the revolutionary black workers as its privileged position was undermined by the effects of recession and de-skilling, an inexorable development, notwithstanding a degree of interest in the ruling class in maintaining divisions between black and white workers.
From an initial position of being in a minority of one on the four man commission, Burlak soon won an overwhelming majority of the Cape membership as a whole, and the backing of the Johannesburg Trotskyists as well.
Profoundly different perspectives and a correspondingly different view of party organisation informed the view of the Averbach minority. The crux of the issue was the assessment of the Malanite Afrikaner Nationalists. In preparing the War Theses, three of the theses commission, Averbach, Pick and Van Gelderen, rejected the view of the Malanite Afrikaners as the ‘old oppressor’, and had presented them as ‘still a progressive force capable of putting up a real struggle against imperialism and war’. The suggestion was that Malan’s Afrikaner nationalists, already leaning on anti-imperialist left rhetoric, would become the leadership of an anti-imperialist movement, and that by adapting to the Malanite neutrality sentiment, rather than opposing war outright, the real left would find an opening to ‘large sections of black and white toilers’. Averbach’s minority, however, having misappraised the situation as regards the Nationalists, then went on to revise the perspectives relating to the native and class questions, questioning both the analysis of rural peasant class forces and the coalescence of black and white class interests, to give increased emphasis to the national struggle in t sphere as well, and they finally came down against a Bolshevik-type party model as well.
An unkind eye might have perceived a difference between a hard clear perspective, questionable perhaps only in its timescale, and a predilection for a relatively easy opportunist drift. Burlak and his majority grouping treated the two main points of difference raised by Averbach with an undisguised contempt that reinforced their determination to accept a split if necessary. The idea of any possible coalescence with the Malanite Afrikaner opposition was dismissed as ‘ridiculous foolishness ‘by the Burlak majority, who correctly perceived that Malan’s real class interests and ‘dangerous demagogy ‘necessitated exposure and outright opposition. The Malanites were certainly not forces to be ‘exploited’, to ‘make use of ‘or to ‘utilise’. Similarly, the rosy picture of the political regime used to bolster the proposal to retain a simple ‘open’ party was scathingly dismissed as equally opportunistic and taking no account at all of the actual conditions already prevailing for the black and coloured sections of the population.
The Johannesburg group were not directly involved in the perspectives dispute in the Cape. The trade union question, which most clearly did impinge on the immediate programme in Johannesburg, was in any case not an issue. Both factions in the Cape agreed, at least in principle, on the necessity for developing black trade union organisations. Lee, however, did actively back Burlak in his drive for a precipitate resolution of the debate, and in this context it was the Johannesburg group that provided the solution to the problem of the name of the putative new party. The problem was to find a better alternative than the title Communist League originally adopted in the Cape following international precedent. Communist League, however, could not be rendered into native languages in any way that did not confuse it with the Communist Party. Lee argued that a clear differentiation from the discredited Communists was needed, and proposed adopting the name Workers Party in line with the recent American decision. This was, then, the name taken by the new party when it constituted itself by decisions taken at the Cape on 17 January 1935, and at Johannesburg on 7 February.
Both Lee and Burlak proved resistant to the International Secretariat’s pleas for restraint. The International Secretariat had its own difficulties in arbitrating on the complexities of the problems raised. There was no easy Third International precedent to which reference could be made. On account both of this and of concern not to split unnecessarily the small base of Trotskyism in South Africa, the Secretariat counselled against precipitous haste in the formation of the new party. How far this advice would have been heeded it is difficult to say, but the deliberations of the International Secretariat were in any case weeks behind events in South Africa.
When the International Secretariat did finally respond in detail at the end of March 1935, further problems were raised. The reply was drawn up by Ruth Fischer, under the name ‘Dubois’, in terms which were close to those of the Averbach minority in some ways, but in others even closer to the ‘Black Republicanism ‘of the Communist Party! ‘Only a fool would criticise so boldly and so slashingly in a field in which he [sic] is consciously quite ignorant’, responded Lee, concluding that the only thing that this reply proved was that even ‘our IS is evidently not composed of supermen.’ This was the first but by no means the last occasion on which Lee was to display such self-assurance and independence of mind in the face of the ‘authority’ of the International Secretariat. Lee was not to know then that the International Secretariat itself had been seriously divided on how to respond, that Trotsky himself was yet to reply in terms far more favourable to the Workers Party perspectives, or that the International Secretariat would, though in vain, eventually advise Averbach’s minority to reunite with the main group. The minority, by the time this decision was finally taken, had constituted its own organisation with the very same old title, which the majority had just rejected, of the Communist League of South Africa. Antagonism between the two groups was intense and was to contribute to the souring of relations within the Johannesburg group when the lessons of the laundry strike were being considered.
The defeat which the laundry union had suffered could not be ignored. At the time of the strike in September 1934 the union had had a peak membership of 309, but by February 1935 only eight were still paying subscriptions. Future prospects demanded that mistakes had to be recognised and learnt from, and there was pressure from the African workers for the rejection of Wage Board conciliation to be reconsidered. Lee drew up a self-criticism of the original handling of the strike, with proposals for revising future tactics.
Central to Lee’s critique was implicit recognition that some of the tactics used in 1934 had as yet been insufficiently emancipated from the Communist Party’s Third Period ultra-leftism. Insufficient attention had been given to creating real fractions within the rank and file, as opposed to leading from the controlling positions. Refusal to compromise with a partial victory when that had still been possible, and dogmatic opposition to a Wage Board application, had also been blunders. The Johannesburg Trotskyists had to learn from these mistakes, but Lee now also recognised that the Africans might have to go through practical learning experiences of their own, and the Trotskyists would have to go with them to draw out the lessons of theory from real practice. On this basis Lee proposed that a new start be made by calling a general meeting of the laundry workers to discuss the question of a wage determination. The objections to machineries of class conciliation would be repeated, but if the majority still wished to apply for a ruling ‘our duty would be to carry out their wishes, while continuing our criticism’. Lee was supported in this proposal by the as yet inexperienced Max Gordon, who had only just arrived from the Cape.
Reflections on the limitations and responsibilities of leadership clearly weighed heavily on Lee at this time. It seems no accident that only weeks later he was found penning the most detailed criticisms of a draft article for the WPSA’s theoretical journal The Spark, criticisms all aimed at attaining precision on the question of the relationship between the party and the class. A sentence reading ‘We must strive for… the raising of the wage of all the unskilled...’ needed, he wrote, to be ‘replaced with “The Workers Party” must lead the struggle of the urban workers... for the raising of their wage, for’, he continued, ‘it is by the struggle of the workers and not only of their party that wages can be raised’. By making this and other similar changes, he argued, ‘we emphasise the importance of the class (led by its party)... this is better than speaking of the party (supported by the class)’.
Purdy was not persuaded by Lee’s protestations that there was nothing personal in his criticisms of how the strike had been handled. At the same time Purdy was probing for explanations of events in the Cape, and was questioning Burlak’s hostility to the ‘French Turn’. Lee noted that Purdy was ‘well supplied with Communist League documents’, and Paul Koston from the Cape voiced suspicion, later confirmed, that the source was the Van Gelderens. Possibly the Communist League’s link with Purdy had its origins in the original Glass-Lopes partnership. Whatever the root cause, the road was set to a confrontation which would break up the original Johannesburg groups.
In the meantime, on the surface, activities continued on an increasingly broad scale. Max Gordon suggested establishing an open discussion forum on the lines of the Cape Town Lenin Club, Molefe, one of the Africans, organised a Workers Committee in Alexandra Township, and some of the group were also intervening against the Stalinists in the Anti-Fascist League. Max Gordon was also being introduced into the Laundry Workers Union by Purdy in preparation for his taking on the Secretary’s position to free the latter for other work. Gordon took over from Purdy in May 1935; accounts which state that Lee was at some point Secretary of the union as well as of the Johannesburg Workers Party branch seem to be confused. Despite the dynamic build up of activities, however, the stormclouds continued to gather.
The Laundry Union was still not out of its troubles. Pooe, the Treasurer, ‘one of the most promising militants’ and original champion of the Wage Board application, was discovered to have embezzled funds. At the same time Gordon, as the new Secretary, was accused of being extremely tardy in processing the application to the Wage Board which had now been agreed. Things went from bad to worse when the party’s previous opposition to going to the Wage Board was remembered, and the Africans’ anger came down on Lee when he tried to defend Gordon. Lee, however, alienated Gordon, too, by complaining privately that ‘the Wage Board [manoeuvre had] been rendered almost futile thanks to [his] exasperating negligence’. Gordon was eventually to rebuild the union successfully over the next 18 months (he too was learning lessons), but in later recriminations Lee’s enemies were to all but reverse the roles which he and Gordon had played in initiating the reconstruction in the troubled months of early 1935. By the time the reconstruction was fully underway, the events surrounding the confrontation which had been building up with Purdy had irredeemably soured relations between Lee and Gordon too.
It was the launching of a Lenin Club for Johannesburg in May 1935 which brought matters to a head. The club, as intended, immediately drew in a diverse selection of elements, ‘interested in the work of the Fourth International’ but ‘not strictly Trotskyist’; one of those so attracted was Fanny Klenerman, Frank Glass’ former wife and an independent anti-Stalinist. Unfortunately, the parallel with the Cape Lenin Club was beginning to be far closer than had been intended. The small Workers Party group could not necessarily be assured of controlling its own creation. The inaugural meeting saw the beginnings of the clashes which were finally to tear the original groupings apart. Klenerman set herself against Lee from the start, apparently unaware of the behind the scenes role of the Workers Party in launching the club. ‘First she got the title ‘International Workers Club’ adopted by a substantial majority in place of the ‘Lenin Club’. Then she successfully opposed the intention to have the club dedicated to the tradition of ‘Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky’, and so by a margin of only one vote reference to Lenin and Trotsky was excluded. In the confusion the Workers Party group itself had failed to act as a solid block. The central issue, as earlier at the Cape, was the choice between a loose anti-Stalinist confederation or the road towards a new revolutionary party; in Johannesburg, too, that issue now had to be faced.
Purdy, Chairman of the group up to that time, was the first to go. He was expelled on 22 June 1935. When it came, the expulsion was the final result of a drawn out and intensifying conflict. His acceptance of the WPSA had not been unconditional, and there were problems over the acceptance of group discipline which predated even that. Purdy was the only member with qualms over the foundation perspectives, sharing in fact some of the Averbach-Fischer criticism of the Native Question theses, but, unlike the Cape minority, he had initially pursued a line of unity. The differences over the Native Question theses were not resolved, there were the problems that had arisen over the handling of the Laundry Workers Union, and the finality of the Cape split. The pretext for his expulsion, eagerly seized upon by Lee, Saperstein and the Cape leadership, was when he unilaterally issued an open call for reunification of the two Cape groups in his capacity as branch Chairman on 7 June. The sentiment may have been laudable, but the action underlined an inability to grasp longer term organisational necessities; precipitous action, not organised struggle, was Purdy’s forté. After further clashes with Lee at the IWC, which will be seen below, Purdy left South Africa, at first headed for Abyssinia, but finally he got to India, where he became an almost legendary figure on the putschist fringe of the Trotskyist movement.
Even this, however, was still not the end of the troubles. Saperstein, violent, anarchistic, an ‘ex-hobo, sailor and stowaway’, according to Lee, certainly confrontational, tough and self-reliant, a 1922 strike gunrunner; was developing an agenda of his own. Saperstein’s main preoccupation was with the anti-Fascist movement, and indeed later he was to succeed in getting to Spain during the Civil War there. The anti-Semitic Fascist Greyshirts were a real force in South Africa in 1934-35. The Communist Party set up an Anti-Fascist League early in 1934. The Cape was the initial focus, but in March 1935 Umsebenzi, the Communist Party organ, announced that the ‘Anti-Fascist Storm Centre Shifts to Johannesburg’. The Trotskyists intervened to press for genuine united front anti-Fascist policies. However, even relatively muted critics such as Klenerman were already suffering a certain degree of ostracism, and it was not surprising when in April 1935 the BLL and Lenin Club were expelled from the League. Saperstein was increasingly involved with the Anarchist advocates of direct action in the militant Workers Defence League. With these new allies he argued unrealistically for the establishment of a breakaway rival AFL which would have excluded the Communists. At the International Workers Club inaugural meeting he voted with the Anarchists against the dedication to Trotsky. The cracks in the old BLL were widening.
In the meantime, at the Cape the rival Workers Party and Communist League groupings had severed their very last ties. For a short while they had continued to cohabit in the Lenin Club. But now the Workers Party had broken away to establish its own Spartacist Club. Raymond Lake and Zena Blank, who had sympathised with Purdy’s hopes for reunification, were more than a little unhappy at this new turn of events, and their dissatisfaction was not hidden. Lee, despairing of the lackadaisical and ‘anti-party attitude’ of the malcontents, was determined to disband the branch in order to start afresh. He did not suffer fools gladly, and could be implacable and unforgiving in his treatment of any he came to see as hindrances to the movement. To his opponents this was vindictive sectarianism.
Events now moved at breakneck speed. On 17 August Lee got the branch to dissolve itself by three votes to two. Only three days later on the 20th a new branch was provisionally established. Blank, Lake and Saperstein were excluded, and three new members brought in. Max Gordon become an unintentional casualty of the events. He was invited to the new branch, but initially decided to keep his distance, unhappy as he was with Lee’s handling of the troubles. Even then, however, the affair still had not ended. The feuding factions still met at the ill-fated International Workers Club. There were arguments and Purdy turned to blows after one meeting, and Lee called for his expulsion from this body too. Blocked by Klenerman, Saperstein and Purdy’s own supporters, Lee and the members of the new party branch withdrew from the IWC. Purdy headed off for Abyssinia on 5 September, but events had run their course.
The Cape leadership applauded the ‘clean sweep’, whilst Lee optimistically proclaimed that ‘in shedding the dross that has accumulated around “Trotskyism” we are testing our sinews for the real fight. Nothing is even lost...’ Was this the necessary process of sifting and selection dictated by the demands of the tasks ahead, or, as the malcontents would have it, had it been no more than a destructive drive by ‘Kostan [sic], Lee and Burlak for monolithic unity’, which had now left ‘far more Trotskyists outside the Workers Party than in it’? Only events would tell. Before September was out Lake, his girlfriend Blank, and Max Gordon had all tendered their resignations. Gordon linked up with Klenerman to begin his career as a well-known, important, but essentially non-party-political trade union organiser. The former two simply began to drift, their cosy dreams of an easy and painless reinjection of ‘the true revolutionary spirit back [in] to the workers movement of South Africa’ shattered. They may, like Klenerman and Gordon, have had some contact with a later Left Wing Socialist Club which existed for a while around the fringes of the Socialist Party. Lee forged ahead with his own drive towards the black working class.
By a remarkable historical accident, one account survives that is illustrative of Lee’s attempts to reach black workers at this time. This is in the autobiography of the black trade union activist Naboth Mokgatle. Mokgatle never joined the Trotskyists, though he retained a healthy distance from the Communist Party for many years, but he never forgot his earlier encounter with Lee, and he recalled it when he wrote his memoirs 30 years later in the 1960s! The particular visits to Pretoria recalled by Mokgatle proved fruitless. In part this was because of the damage already done by the ‘heavy boots’ of Stalinism. Not every initiative worked or could work. The new branch was still essentially white in composition. Key new figures in this were the mining engineers Heaton Lee and Dick Frieslich, and at least Max and perhaps Leon of the Sapire brothers, both lawyers. The great problem was still how to reach and organise the black workers.
Trotsky and Ruth Fischer in their commentaries on the Workers Party theses had criticised what they had seen as an unduly curt dismissal of black nationalism in reaction to the CPSA’s ‘Black Republic’ stance. That this criticism had not been fully warranted was made clear in the Workers Party’s response, but the practical efforts made to try to reach black workers remained the most effective rebuttal of this criticism. There were, however, grave problems. Minutes reveal great frustration at the ‘exasperating slowness’ of attempts to get a response from the ‘Dostoyevskian gloom’ of Alexandra. Frieslich and Heaton Lee made efforts to make contact with African mine workers, but were rebuffed by the disciplinary and security system through which the mine companies kept these migrant workers in such conditions of ignorance and isolation that they were far more difficult to organise than blacks in urban secondary industries.
Nevertheless, a new opening was thrust upon the group late in 1935, at last taking it into direct contact with black nationalist politics, it is often forgotten today that some black Africans were enfranchised in Cape Colony in the early decades of this century. Late in 1935, however, pressure from the Afrikaner parties led to moves to curtail even this very limited enfranchisement, and simultaneously to place yet further restrictions on native landownership and purchase. An All-African Convention was pulled together to take up the challenge of these threats, drawing on all shades of opinion and organisation within the Black, Indian and Coloured communities. The Workers Party intervened in the AAC with the theoretical organ The Spark , offering constructive criticism, and both the Cape Town and the Johannesburg groups sent delegates to its debates. But the intervention also revealed problems within the Workers Party’s own praxis, which had so far remained hidden, and led at one point to an open debate in the pages of The Spark between Lee and the Cape leaders on the issues at stake.
The record in practice of the Cape Town leadership of the Workers Party was beginning to shape up rather differently to what might have been expected from a rounded reading of their theoretical theses. Trotsky, as already noted, had criticised what he had seen as a misplaced hostility to black nationalism, but this deficiency, if it had ever actually occurred, was more than compensated for in practice. Indeed, there were those who would eventually break from the party, accusing it of becoming obsessed with black nationalist politics to the exclusion of all else! The key to this problematic transformation lay in the degree and nature of the emphasis placed on the land question.
In Burlak’s original discussion documents a correct approach to the land question had been posed as ‘the axis, the alpha and omega of the revolution’, and as in Russia it was posed as the only way of drawing the still rural oppressed majority behind the revolution. He had said, however, that there was no question that the leading role in the revolution had to be taken by the working class, and that therefore ‘the first task... must be to bring class consciousness to every member of the working class’. It was the working class, he had said, that had to bring revolutionary leadership to the ‘downtrodden’ and ‘backward’ rural poor; ‘a revolution to be successful’, he had said, ‘must be led by the working class. Never in history has the peasantry by itself succeeded in a revolution.’ The intervention of the Cape leadership in the All-African Convention, however, took the form of attempting to ‘sell’ the land programme to the existing black leadership.
The emphasis became one of finding a base amongst the black petit-bourgeois intellectuals and rural leaders. No comparable attempts were made by the Cape leadership to attend to the task of organising black workers. If there were moments in the earlier discussions that seemed to betray an involuntary identification of the ‘working class’ with the white workers, this was now compounded by the Cape leaders’ substitution of themselves for the revolutionary working class in their approach to the AAC. There was apparently more substance to Lee’s nitpicking critique of some of Burlak’s formulations than had at first met the eye. The presentation of the land question as the ‘alpha and omega’ was being pursued to the neglect of the development of the most revolutionary, black, section of the working class itself. The Cape intellectuals, in their isolation, were falling foul of the danger Bunting had once warned against of regarding the oppressed blacks as mere ‘native masses’. They were eventually to dismiss the masses with an incredibly patronising attitude as ‘too oppressed and ignorant of their oppression to accept a revolutionary doctrine’.
The practice of Lee’s Johannesburg branch, the second pole of the Workers Party, was continuing to develop along rather different lines. This was not difficult since ‘as a distance of 1000 miles separates us, each branch is practically self-contained, and there is no national leadership in the sense of a single committee controlling both’. Lee had implicitly questioned Burlak’s placing of the land question above all other issues when he had asked for the deletion of the words ‘the agrarian revolution is the fundamental task that must be tackled first’ from one of the early Spark articles, and their replacement by the formulation: ‘In winning the support of the rural native workers in... overthrowing capitalism and breaking... imperialist domination, our main slogans must be...’ Now to complement the theoretically orientated Spark, but also in contrast to it, Lee tried to launch an agitational paper. Though the paper, Umlilo Mollo (The Flame), only appeared for three issues in the latter half of 1936, it enables us to glimpse the approach taken by Johannesburg delegate CBI Dladla to the Transvaal section of the All-African Convention.
Dladla was the most important new black recruit to the Johannesburg party. He won over from the CPSA early in 1936 through the criticism of the Communists’ neglect of class issues under its ‘Black Republic’ orientation. Diadla argued at the AAC for the creation of a revolutionary opposition within the movement, in preference to trying to influence the existing compromised and place-seeking AAC leadership. If the founders of the Workers Party had earlier had doubts about the ‘French Turn’, in practice Lee and Dladla were implementing it here. Lee wrote:
‘The experience of past movements (the ANC and the ICU) has demonstrated that a revolutionary platform propagated by a determined band of agitators finds enthusiastic support among the miners. [But] both the ANC and the ICU... degenerated into reformism... Hence the necessity for the formation of a revolutionary wing in the All-African Convention.’
Intervention was conceived as valuable only as a route to the masses. Other actions evidenced during 1936 show Dladla and Lee deeply involved in agitation aimed at drawing together disparate locations and vigilance committees and associations which existed amongst the black workers on the Witwatersrand. Everything about the Johannesburg organisation was permeated with a recognition of the central importance of the black working class; the contrast with the Cape Town groups could not have been more marked.
Lee’s contributions to the main Workers Party organ, The Spark, were few, despite the fact that he acted as General Secretary for the Workers Party as a whole for a period in 1936-37. Nevertheless, such as they were, they did provide virtually the only direct commentaries on development in the black trade unions, and they incorporated some glimpses of further intriguing differences of emphases in perspectives as well. Particularly notable were asides on the segregation issue. The principle editorial line of The Spark was simply that segregation was an integral part of the strategy of imperialist capitalism. Lee suggested something a little more sophisticated. The Afrikaner landowners and farmers and segregationist white labour had clear interests in perpetuating segregation, but there was a dialectical contradiction in the position of industrial capitalism. Segregation, though politically advantageous at one stage, would increasingly come into conflict with both the consequences and needs of economic development. Here was an echo of Bunting’s contention that economic development would eventually enhance the bargaining power of black workers to the advantage of working class unity, with or without the effects of recession. Even in South Africa capitalism would create its own gravediggers.
The intervention of the Cape Workers Party leadership into the All-African Convention achieved little of substance in the short term, but it was to leave a problematic legacy in the Unity and Pan-Africanist movements today. In Johannesburg the main focus remained firmly on the question of organising black workers. The viable nucleus of the Laundry Workers Union handed on to Max Gordon grew and survived another difficult strike in 1936, but strained relations between Gordon and Lee severely limited the Workers Party’s influence here. To try to reach new groups of workers, immense perseverance and concentration of effort went into Spartacus Club classes for black workers held weekly, and at times even daily, by Lee, Dladla and their associates in Johannesburg, Alexandra, Orlando and Benoni. The approaches to mineworkers failed, as already related, but eventually a substantial base was established amongst workers at the Scaw Works, one of Johannesburg’s largest metal works. An African Metal Trades Union was launched on this basis in January 1937. This was to be the final act of Lee and Johannesburg’s first Trotskyists.
The Lee group was under immense pressure. Lee was too well known to the Stalinists now as ‘Johannesburg’s chief protagonist and defender of Leon Trotsky’. A premature dispute was precipitated by the dismissal of one of the Africans in mid-February. The workers could not be held back from confrontation; even the Stalinists did not deny this. ‘Comrade RL advised us several times that the best ccccccccccway is to organise more workers, as many as possible from other metal works, we found that to be a hard task that will take years, while we were suffering on account of low wages.’ Lee had to lead the strike or lose face. ‘In leading the first strike of 1937’, he declared, ‘the “counter-revolutionary” Trotskyites are flinging the lie in the faces of the wretched Stalinists.’
The black workers at the Steel Coilings and Aluminium Works gave 48 hours notice and then struck, demanding a 25 per cent wage increase, two weeks paid holiday per year, and other improved employment conditions. The strike began on 23 February, and was to last for 10 days. During these 10 days Lee and Max Sapire unsuccessfully attempted to gain assistance from the white engineers, the Labour Department and the Trades and Labour Council; at every turn they faced indifference or Stalinist obstruction. The arrest of 16 of the strikers began the next familiar phase. The strike was broken, although only one of those arrested was actually convicted in the end.
The fine of £2.10/- was paid by Lee and Sapire. In total, Lee, Sapire and the Workers Party expended nearly £150 in support of the strikers and the union in the course of the dispute, whilst the union itself had had barely £20 in its funds at the outset. Lee had ‘worked tirelessly... performing a score of tasks, approaching other organisations, collecting funds and even selling his few possessions to do so’. The Africans also paid testimony to the support they had received from ‘coms Heaton, Frieslich, Kahn, etc’. Even at the end Lee had difficulty in persuading some of the workers to go back to preserve the union base, ‘whilst others he helped get employment elsewhere.
Defeat, however, was defeat. Only outright victory could have saved Lee. Now the Stalinists moved in for the kill. There was an onslaught on Trotskyism. The most lurid highlights of the Moscow Trials were being trumpeted from every platform; and the Stalinist South African Worker howled:
‘The line pursued by Lee is the usual adventurist stuntist line pursued by Trotskyites all over the world where they put their snouts into the labour movement... Their tactics must be exposed to all workers in South Africa... They must be driven out of every section of the labour movement, as they are the enemies of the workers.’
The threats were not empty. The Trotskyists were manhandled out of the meetings when they challenged the Trials.
The great hope had been, whether through the AAC or union work, to reach the miners. ‘The native miners ‘union, given revolutionary leadership, is the battering ram that will smash down British imperialism in South Africa’, Lee had written, but the practical difficulties of reaching these workers ‘in our present isolation [made the task] almost too audacious even to dream of’. He added that they were ‘almost out of reach of our propaganda not only through... language, political inexperience and backwardness but also through physical difficulties’, as they were ‘virtually imprisoned in the “compounds” under police guard’.
There was, however, little alternative. Lee had had to conclude a year before the metal strike that:
‘Amongst [native] intellectuals few.., have the necessary grasp of the language to be reached by our written propaganda, and these few are subjected to an ideological bombardment from the churches, the Chamber of Mines, the bourgeois negrophiles and the African nationalists, not to mention the privileges which imperialism is enabled…to dole out to submissive leaders.’
Here was the ‘Catch 22’ situation that Paul Koston at the Cape was also to recognise:
‘The intellectual does not feel the full force of oppression, he eats, and he hopes and he believes in the rulers... The fact that we have successfully predicted the disastrous outcome of Stalinist policies is not enough: this only affects a few individuals. To win the confidence of the workers it is necessary to lead them successfully in their everyday life.’
This is precisely what the Lee group had tried to do. But it was now clear that the dead hand of Stalinism blocked access to this task from within the limited base of white revolutionaries. The faith that the key to the future for South Africa lay with the black working class remained undiminished, but there was no way out of the impasse created by Stalinism in South Africa within the very short timescale created by the plunge to war in Europe. In June 1937, three months after the end of the strike, Lee, Kahn, Heaton Lee and Frieslich left Johannesburg to join the struggle in England.
Lee himself returned to South Africa late in 1940. None of the handful of grouplets that he had left behind had done anything in the meantime. Even The Spark had ceased publication. Only Gordon had any achievement to his credit, for between 1937 and 1940 he had succeeded in developing the small opening for legal black trade unionism available through the Trades Boards to nurture several black trade union bases with some lasting effects. He had only succeeded with his unions, however, by eschewing overt politics and working with the problematical Institute for Race Relations, and Stalinist and reformist organisers. Even so, he had been interned in May 1940 before being released in 1941, but he was then hounded out of the Johannesburg area.
Lee embarked on the last phase of his political life. An abortive start with the Fourth International Organisation of South Africa (as the remnants of the Communist League had become) in late 1942 or early 1943 was followed by Lee’s organising a new Workers International League in 1944. A few of the old activists fleetingly reappeared, but mainly it was a new generation seeking experience and support that they were conspicuously failing to get from Cape Town. One of these new activists, 22 year old Baruch Hirson, a recent convert from left-Zionism, became the WIL Secretary. Lee, Hirson recalls, ‘provided ideas on organisation, and from him we learnt much in the way of working with trade unionists, and also how to use a printing machine, set out paper, etc’.
The WIL launched into a new phase of trade union and community struggles such that, in 1945-46, it became one of the three main organising forces behind the greatest upsurge of black trade union militancy since the 1920s. Both this and the WIL’s involvement in the Alexandra township bus boycotts of 1944 and 1945 are now fully chronicled elsewhere. Towards the end of 1945 and in the first half of 1946, however, the rising tide of strikes was ferociously suppressed, and the smashing of a mineworkers’ dispute in August 1946 finally broke the momentum of the movement.
An exhausted Lee fell out of activity, and an extraordinary decision by the new group to abandon trade union work in 1946 brought the WIL to an end. The fateful decision came just before the final act of the postwar industrial upsurge: the mineworkers’ abortive revolt. This was the end not only of the WIL but of an entire historical period in the South African struggle, just as certainly as the demise of the Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain and the immanent degeneration of the Fourth International were similarly the closing of historical epochs.
The postwar world was shaping up to be a very different world. A new generation of radical black intelligentsia was arising, animated by the threat of rigid ideological apartheid. Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, leaders of the new ANC Youth, had made some of their first major interventions in the miners’ strike, whilst the contrasting lack of interest by the old ANC led them to transform that organisation. But their concern was from a nationalist perspective, their group ‘was not noted for its encouragement of the working class movement, nor did its members conceive of the African worker as central to the struggle in South Africa’. At its 1949 Conference the ANC adopted ‘the creed of African nationalism as a basis for national liberation’. ‘This nationalism has its roots in the Congress Youth League which was formed in 1944... Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo... were foundation members.’
Revitalised ANC nationalism, not Socialism, was to be to the fore in the postwar world. Here was the final legacy of the rise of Stalinism. Having alienated the first generation of black worker activists, and blocked any outlet for genuine Marxism, Stalinism had left the field open to forces very different from those of revolutionary Socialism. It was to be nearly 45 years before new developments were to create the possibility of seriously challenging the stranglehold of Stalinism on the revolutionary left. Raff Lee had given everything to this phase of the movement which had now ended, and when he took his own life he died with it. There was to be no continuity in Trotskyist organisation, only the problematic legacy in the Non-European Unity Movement. It was all but forgotten that the Johannesburg pioneers had even existed. Yet where others had talked, and would talk, Lee’s group had challenged Stalinism in deeds too. For Marxism the black working class was still a virgin field. Freed from the suffocating weight of Stalinism, South African workers yet have need to reclaim these experiences and lessons in order to re-embark on the struggle for Socialism.