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Workers Vanguard No. 991

25 November 2011

South Africa

Early Years of the Communist Party

Part One

We reprint below the first part of an article from Spartacist South Africa No. 7 (Winter 2011), incorporating minor factual corrections. It is an edited version of a class given by comrade Karen Cole at a meeting in 2000 of Spartacist/South Africa, section of the International Communist League.

Urgent tasks faced the Third International in its early, revolutionary years. Out of the devastation of World War I and the Second International’s betrayal of the world working class, the Bolshevik Party in Russia led the first and only working class revolution. Workers around the world solidarised with this victory, and the Bolsheviks looked immediately to extending their revolution internationally. Nothing less than world revolution was on the agenda. They looked outward to differentiate among disparate elements from all sorts of backgrounds—anarchists, syndicalists, liberals, social-democratic workers, intellectuals—who subjectively sided with the overthrow of capitalism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The task was to draw a line to exclude the reformists and centrist pretenders and regroup with the genuinely revolutionary workers.

They fought to build a new International for their own survival as well as mankind’s. They had to focus on the strategic battle fronts in the advanced industrial countries where revolution seemed most imminent—where the prerequisites seemed to be all there, particularly Germany. The lesson of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was that the leadership of a Bolshevik party like the one led by Lenin and Trotsky was the critical factor. That was the one prerequisite missing elsewhere, and it was decisive. This lesson was outlined most clearly in Trotsky’s The Lessons of October (1924).

The newly formed Third International also organised to extend the revolution to the East and South, to the countries of belated capitalist development. The Russian Revolution had vindicated Trotsky’s theory and programme of permanent revolution regarding the inseparable link between national liberation from the yoke of imperialism and proletarian revolution. Trotsky wrote in The Permanent Revolution (1929): “that the democratic tasks of the backward bourgeois nations lead directly, in our epoch, to the dictatorship of the proletariat and that the dictatorship of the proletariat puts socialist tasks on the order of the day.” This understanding, proved in the experience of the Russian Revolution, opened the possibility of successful revolutionary struggle under the leadership of a proletarian vanguard in the colonial and less advanced countries. Trotsky’s analysis and generalisation of permanent revolution, based on the experience of Russia and, in a negative sense, the 1925-27 aborted revolution in China, laid out the necessary programme to lead the colonial peoples to liberation.

So this is the political context in which we have to examine the first years of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA)—from its beginnings in World War I through the late 1920s.

I want to briefly start with the split within the South African Labour Party which eventually led up to the founding of the Communist Party of South Africa, and describe the historical period to get a sense of the leap that the founders of the early CPSA had to make if they were to be the leadership of a South African revolution. They started out expecting that the organised and militant white mineworkers would be the vanguard of the proletarian revolution—but it didn’t work out that way, reflecting the unique historical overlap between race and class in South Africa.

After the Anglo-Boer War [1899-1902], the policy of the British colonialists was to assist British immigrants in settling as a bulwark against Afrikaner nationalism. On the Rand [central gold mining region], political rights were restricted to whites. The English-speaking workers who brought specialised skills from Britain were kept as a supervisory layer in the mines, and their job classifications were protected by colour-bar laws. On the Rand with its centre in Johannesburg (and I am going to mainly talk about the Rand because this was the centre of class struggle), the gold mine commission legislated the racial exclusions with the full support of the whites-only union leadership. Black Africans were permanently disenfranchised migrant mineworkers, forced off their rural homes by hut and poll taxes and expelled by white farmers. They were confined and policed in fenced-in compounds, with no political or union rights. Blacks were considered expendable, replaceable and were offered no training. Their every movement was totally controlled and resistance was met with swift punishment and death. White workers consistently scabbed on any attempts by black workers to strike.

But the inexorable laws of capitalism which demand continual maximising of profits—particularly in the labour-intensive deep gold-mining industry—set the mine owners and white miners at odds. The Afrikaner as well as British miners engaged in many industrial struggles, and the British miners were closely linked to and influenced by the militant union movement of Britain. But the volatility of gold prices meant the mine owners needed cheaper labour, and had no need to protect the white workers. For a while, they imported indentured Asian labour but, in the long run, saw their future in superexploiting black peasant labour.

So during the 1910s and 1920s, you see the leadership of a white working class attempting to fight to preserve its privileges on the backs of the black masses. The 1920s was a time of changing economic relations. Over time the rural Afrikaners, who had been a factor in the mines, eventually moved into the state-protected apparatus. After outbursts of bloody state repression of rearguard white mineworker strikes, the ruling-class strategy developed into absorbing the white workers into the petty-bourgeoisie. Instead of the white workers being ground down into impoverishment, their relations to the means of production shifted into being the overseers, managers, supervisors and state bureaucrats. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie continued to deprive black people of the right to own land and levied taxes to compel more landless blacks to migrate into designated “locations” near metropolitan areas and become proletarianised. Brutally enforced pass systems were used to control this labour force.

The Impact of World War I

On the eve of World War I, in South Africa as in the rest of the world, there was tremendous ferment among sections of the workers and oppressed. At the same time, the war highlighted, in South Africa like in Europe, the bankruptcy of bourgeois nationalism and labour reformism. There were rebellions among various sectors of the South African population on the eve of the war.

In 1913 there were uprisings and strikes of Indian workers across [the province of] KwaZulu-Natal. They struck in the mines and cane fields, railways and shops. Mahatma Gandhi, who had been in South Africa since 1893, pleaded for passive resistance. Nevertheless, the cane workers clashed with police and workers were beaten and killed. Gandhi came to an agreement with the government during the Natal uprisings, and called the struggle of Indian workers off with little gains. On the Rand, in 1913 and 1914, the white gold miners led general strikes, and the government killed over 20 people to put the first strike down, and deported nine trade-union leaders to put the second down. In Jagersfontein diamond mine, Sotho [South African ethnic group] miners went on strike when a white overseer kicked a black miner to death, and eleven miners were killed in the subsequent struggle. In Cape Town, 600 coloured [mixed-race] stevedores struck for an 8-hour day and wage increases.

The existing misleaders of the workers and oppressed were busy lining up support for the first interimperialist war on the side of the British overlords of South Africa. During World War I Gandhi urged Indians in South Africa to join the British army. As described by Jack and Ray Simons in Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950 (International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, 1983), Gandhi earlier argued that passive resistance was “best for ‘illiterate natives.’ It taught them to break their own heads and not other people’s in order to redress grievances.”

After a brief moment of hesitation on the eve of the war, the South African Labour Party signed up for the war no less enthusiastically than the mine owners’ Unionist Party. Colonel Frederic Creswell, the leader of the Labour Party, enlisted and called for support to the war in a manifesto titled “See It Through.”

In the Western Cape, the African Political Organisation (APO, renamed the African People’s Organisation in 1919), the main political voice of the coloureds, had tremendous illusions that the British imperialists would influence their South African counterparts to drop the colour bar, and hoped that if coloureds supported the war effort, they would be rewarded for their loyalty.

Days before Britain declared war in 1914, Dr. Abdullah Abdurahman, president of the APO, proclaimed, “The present foundation of the Empire is rotten, and cannot last.” Weeks later he said, “The only question we have to ask ourselves is how we can best serve the Empire” (Class and Colour in South Africa).

In 1912 the South African Native National Congress [SANNC], predecessor of the African National Congress, was founded by lawyers, church-trained intellectuals and tribal chiefs. Their reaction to the outbreak of World War I was to cancel a meeting to discuss opposition to the 1913 Natives Land Act which dispossessed the majority of the black population, and instead to organise recruitment of blacks into the British army.

David Ivon Jones, secretary in the South African Labour Party and later a leader of the CPSA, adamantly opposed the interimperialist war. When the editor of the SANNC newspaper proposed a motion of condolence on the death of British Lord Kitchener at a public meeting in 1916, Jones opposed this, stating that Kitchener “was the agent of the class who exploit both native and white working class and encompass the death of millions of our fellow workers” (Baruch Hirson and Gwyn A. Williams, The Delegate for Africa: David Ivon Jones 1883-1924 [Core Publications, 1995]). Kitchener was the military architect of British imperialism across the African continent from Sudan to South Africa.

Internationalism and the Struggle for Black Liberation

David Ivon Jones and Sidney Percival Bunting, both immigrants from the British Isles who were central party leaders, were the outspoken antiwar leaders. In September 1914, Bunting and a small group of oppositionists to British imperialism in the South African Labour Party formed the “War on War League.” They were not pacifists but revolutionary defeatists. They called for socialist revolution to bring down all contenders in the imperialist carving up of the world. After leaving the Labour Party, they formed the International Socialist League (ISL). Bunting immediately made the link between working-class internationalism and solidarity with the non-whites of South Africa. Their solidarity with the struggles of coloureds, blacks and Indians in many ways had made them as anathema to the Labour Party as their antiwar positions.

They distributed works of Marx, Engels and Daniel De Leon, a leading American Marxist. Even before the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, their newspaper enthusiastically cited German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht and comrades in Russia as fellow opponents of the imperialist war. In September 1915, they put out propaganda on the need for a new International. They were ignorant of the struggles by Lenin within the Zimmerwald conference [held in Switzerland in September 1915] for an anti-imperialist opposition to the war. At their first conference in January 1916, they voted to affiliate with the Zimmerwaldian International Socialist Commission in Switzerland as a manifestation of the beginning of a new International.

Simultaneously, Bunting confronted the new group with the race question in South Africa. It was and continued to be the key test of whether they had broken from the white-supremacist programme of the Labour Party. Bunting proposed that the League “affirm that the emancipation of the working class requires the abolition of all forms of native indenture, compound and passport systems; and the lifting of the native worker to the political and industrial status of the white” (quoted in Allison Drew, Between Empire and Revolution: A Life of Sidney Bunting, 1873-1936 [Pickering & Chatto, 2007]). But at this meeting Bunting’s motion was amended by others in the group to include a reactionary call for preventing the increase of numbers of black wage workers, and this version passed.

Bunting and Jones, as leaders and editors of the ISL, continually carried on a fight to incorporate demands for blacks among their small membership. In their newspaper The International, Jones wrote:

“If the League deal resolutely in consonance with socialist principles with the native question, it will succeed in shaking South African capitalism to its foundations. Then, and not till then shall we be able to talk about the South African proletariat in International relations. Not till we free the Native can we hope to free the white.”

—“The Parting of the Ways,” 1 October 1915 (reprinted in South African Communists Speak, 1915-1980 [Inkululeko Publications, 1981])

Bunting and Jones were often alone. The ISL invited black men and leaders of the Native Congress to ISL meetings, which led them to get expelled from the Trades Hall [in Johannesburg] in late 1917. Bunting used the expulsion as an opportunity to denounce the racist Labourites. He hated and condemned all who called themselves socialists and claimed to support the 1917 Russian Revolution, but did not support black African struggle. In April 1919 he wrote in The International: “It is humiliating to have to keep on emphasising that the essence of the Labour movement is Solidarity, without which it cannot win. The outstanding characteristic of the capitalist system in South Africa being its Native labour, the outstanding movement of the country must clearly be the movement of its Native labourers” (quoted in Edward Roux, S.P. Bunting: A Political Biography [Mayibuye Books, 1993]).

Through the ISL conferences of this period and the early 1920s Bunting and Jones wrote articles and repeatedly introduced motions and theses calling for special attention to black workers in all sorts of ways: for classes to be instituted, for leaflets to be addressed to them, for incorporating demands for the right to vote, organise, end pass laws, etc. In late 1918 the ISL published a leaflet written by Jones titled “The Bolsheviks Are Coming” [see page 5], which was translated into Zulu and Sotho. He combined solidarity with the Bolshevik Revolution with the necessity to emancipate the black workers—he ended by saying that this is Bolshevism—that black and white workers combine in one organisation irrespective of craft, colour or creed. In Jones and Bunting’s break from social democracy to international working-class revolution, they applied their understanding of Marxism to the inseparable fight for black liberation and socialist revolution in South Africa.

The pages of The International, the ISL newspaper, were filled with solidarity with the Russian Revolution. Jones was prescient in March 1917 when he wrote about the February Russian Revolution that overthrew the tsar. He hailed the Russian workers as the vanguard of world revolution: “this is a bourgeois revolution, but arriving when the night of capitalism is far spent. It cannot be a mere repetition of previous revolutions” (“170 Million Recruits,” The International, 23 March 1917). They serialised the manifesto of the First Congress of the Communist International in 1919 and they sought to affiliate with the Third International born out of the workers revolution.

In 1919 Bunting wrote a scathing denunciation of the Johannesburg white municipal workers strike which the workers called the “Johannesburg soviet.” He called it ironically a “White ‘Soviet’,” and attacked it for its racist hypocritical indifference to black workers. In February 1920 some 70,000 black miners went on strike, and Bunting wrote appeals to white workers to support their struggle.

The Industrial Workers of Africa

One other effort of the ISL I want to mention before I get on to the formation of the CPSA is the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA), founded in October 1917 and modelled on the American syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World. The slogan of this all-in industrial organisation became “Sifuna Zonke” (“We want all”). They distributed their leaflets in Zulu and Sotho. As described by Jones in his March 1921 report to the Comintern, “Communism in South Africa”: “The native workers of the IWA quickly grasped the difference between their trade union and the Congress [SANNC] and waged a merciless war of invective at the joint meetings of their Union with the Congress against the black-coated respectables of the Congress” (reprinted in South African Communists Speak).

In this period they also planned to publish in Hindi and Tamil in Durban, and they organised coloured garment workers in Kimberley. One of these people in Kimberley was Johnny Gomas, who later became a Cape Town union organiser and leader of the Communist Party.

James P. Cannon, a founder of the American Communist Party and later Trotskyist leader, makes the point in The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962) that it took the intervention of the Comintern under Lenin to force the American communists to take up the black question. Cannon says that the best of the early American socialists, Eugene Debs, could only say that the Socialist Party was “the party of the whole working class, regardless of color.” It took the authority of the Russian Revolution to fight with the American communists against their “colour blindness” and to pay attention to the special oppression of blacks, just as the Bolsheviks had championed oppressed nationalities. Armed with the lessons of the Russian Revolution, the American communists took up black oppression as a special question of American capitalism, and they became the foremost champions of black liberation and recruited blacks to the party.

During the course of the rise of American capitalism, the origins of black oppression in chattel slavery led to blacks becoming a race-colour caste. This is very different from South Africa where black oppression originated in colonial subjugation and national oppression. However, the comparison I want to make is that the assimilation of the lessons of the Russian Revolution would have directly guided the early CPSA. Jones, Bunting and later Eddie Roux were inspired by the Russian Revolution. Although they were physically distant from the Comintern, they grasped the centrality of the fight against black oppression, and this manifested itself in their perseverance in making the Communist Party a mass black party. But they never developed a theoretical framework to this question as it applied to South Africa. And it became more and more impossible for them to develop a programme as the Comintern degenerated into more a tool of the nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy rather than an organising centre for world revolution, as it was under Lenin and Trotsky.

Founding of the CPSA

In January 1920, the ISL resolved to affiliate with the Third International and sent their rules and constitution to “convince you that our policy is on all fours with that of Communist parties of Europe and elsewhere” (quoted in South African Communists Speak). Apparently the application was read and applauded at the Second Congress of the Comintern.

In 1921 they pulled together various groupings from Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg and other places and formed the Communist Party. Their membership was almost all English-speaking immigrants. They debated adopting the “21 Conditions” of the Second Congress of the Comintern. Their agreement with the Comintern’s programmatic conditions for entry caused some of the syndicalists and others who refused to support the dictatorship of the proletariat to part ways.

Jones’s “Communism in South Africa” was presented on behalf of the ISL and used as the basic report on South Africa for the Third Congress of the Comintern in June 1921, which he attended. Jones initiated a motion to devote serious attention to the Negro question as a separate question of importance.

The report reflects his sensitivity to the horrendous conditions of blacks. He tries to inform the Comintern of the unique social and political groupings that make up the country. Jones denounces the Native Congress for its timid pro-government programme and its fear of the masses, and predicts that class-based organisations will dominate in South Africa. The “national and class interests of the natives cannot be distinguished the one from the other.” What comes out strongly is Jones’s desire to bring the question of black oppression to the forefront of the International. He appeals for reinforcements, and for the South African movement to come more into the purview of the Third International. He writes: “The white movement dominates our attention, because the native workers’ movement moves only spasmodically and is neglected. It requires a special department, with native linguists and newspapers. All of which require large funds, which are not available.” His final remarks are that “African natives are ripe for the message of the Communist International.”

The party remained divided as to whether their purpose should be to address white workers and about admitting black members. After Jones left South Africa in 1920 to spend his final days in the Soviet Union, Bunting continued almost alone to push the party toward the black masses.

In October 1922 Bunting wrote a document called “The ‘Colonial’ Labour Front” (reprinted in South Africa’s Radical Tradition: A Documentary History, Volume 1, edited by Allison Drew [Mayibuye Books, 1996]). It takes on the relation of national oppression to class based on the theses of the Second Congress of the Communist International. This document tries to explain how the bourgeoisie splits the workers of the imperialist countries from workers in the colonial countries, that racism has an economic basis. And he argues that the task of the communist parties is to bridge the divisions between white and black labour, between the workers of the imperialist and colonial countries. He says that national liberation struggles must not “postpone” labour action; particularly in places like South Africa there is no real national liberation movement or peasant movement to link up with. He quotes from the Supplementary Theses on the National Question of the Second Congress (1920): “we must in any case struggle against control by bourgeois democratic national movements over the mass action of poor and ignorant peasants and workers for their liberation from all sorts of exploitation.”



Workers Vanguard No. 991

WV 991

25 November 2011


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(Class-Struggle Defense Notes)


South Africa

Early Years of the Communist Party

Part One


“The Bolsheviks Are Coming”


Black Struggle, the Vietnamese Revolution and the Working Class

From 1960s New Left to Trotskyism

Recollections of a Participant

Part Two