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Workers Vanguard No. 992

9 December 2011

South Africa

Early Years of the Communist Party

Part Two

We reprint below the second part of an article from Spartacist South Africa No. 7 (Winter 2011), incorporating minor factual and stylistic 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. Part One appeared in WV No. 991 (25 November). The article refers to the Voortrekkers, who were Afrikaner farmers (Boers) who left the British Cape Colony in the first half of the 19th century for the African interior.

The newly founded Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) had not completely broken from the Labour Party. Sidney Bunting and David Ivon Jones as well still saw the militant white miners as strategic to the South African revolution. The young party was immediately faced with an enormous and contradictory class battle on the Rand. The 1922 ten-week strike of white miners was a hard-fought battle in defence of the racist colour bar, the reservation of higher-paid job classifications for whites. Miners seized towns and carried out armed combat with the police and army. Four strikers were hanged, and three of them went to the gallows singing “The Red Flag.” Aerial artillery was used against striking workers. The Jan Smuts government ruthlessly crushed the strike.

The strike fundamentally had a reactionary purpose—to preserve the colour bar in mining. The ostensible reason for the strike was in defence of skilled miners who had been retrenched [laid off], but everyone knew this was part of the drive to replace these privileged white workers with superexploited black labour. Back in 1907 when Keir Hardie, a Scottish miners’ leader, visited South Africa, he was pelted when he raised the basic demand that white unions should be opened to the blacks on the basis of equal pay for equal work. White workers’ consciousness had not changed much from that time, but the mine owners were more determined now that falling gold prices required increasing the rate of exploitation by hiring black labour.

The strike had various leaderships, and one of them was headquartered in the offices of the Communist Party led by Bill Andrews, a longtime union leader and party founder. This included expelled union leaders who considered themselves Marxists. There was a Commando faction led by Afrikaner miners modelled on the Commando units of the Voortrekkers who terrorised and murdered blacks and Indians. At a march one could see a banner, “Workers of the World Fight and Unite for a White S.A.” (Class and Colour in South Africa, 1983).

It is interesting to note that Dr. Abdullah Abdurahman of the APO [African Political Organisation] and Clements Kadalie of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU), the two most prominent political leaders of the coloured and black masses at the time, both rightly condemned the racism of the strike, but coming from petty-bourgeois perspectives, they both directed their appeals to the racist Smuts government to increase their control and repression of the unions.

Eddie Roux wrote that Bunting, who had always been a regular soapboxer, never spoke publicly throughout the strike at the hundreds of meetings, and walked around muttering criticisms. The CPSA propaganda condemned attacks on black Africans. At the same time, Bunting and the CPSA didn’t directly attack the colour bar regulations, rationalising that the rules kept up overall wage levels and the fight should be for improving the wages of Africans.

In November 1922 the Fourth Congress of the Comintern issued a protest statement on the execution of the four strikers. They stated that the task was to “draw the native workers too into the struggle against South African Capitalism, and thereby ensure common and final victory” (reprinted in South African Communists Speak, 1981).

After the Rand Strike

In 1923 the Afrikaner Nationalist Party of Barry Hertzog and the Labour Party made an alliance to defeat the Smuts government, which became known as the “Pact.” The Labour Party promised to drop any mention of socialism, and the Nationalists promised to drop their call for secession and an independent Afrikaner republic. What they had in common was white supremacism. To get a flavour of this electoral alliance, in the midst of the campaign, the Labour Party was calling for the expulsion of Asians.

From Moscow, Jones advocated a united front with the Labour Party. In this way they would be part of the anti-Smuts alliance. He argued with Bunting at the time of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in November 1922 that this would be an application of the anti-imperialist united front as put forward in the “Theses on the Eastern Question.” Bunting brought back from the Congress the importance of fighting for “immediate demands” and for the “united front.” Bunting argued for Comintern discipline and for carrying out the decisions of the Comintern in South Africa, and argued against sectarianism. In keeping with such arguments, the CPSA voted to apply for affiliation to the Labour Party and to support its electoral alliance with the Nationalists.

There was some resistance to this line in the Western Cape where the party had more links with black and coloured labour, but they fell in line. This strategy of the CPSA had to repel black militants. After the victory of the Pact alliance at the polls, the CPSA quickly withdrew their support, and called for Labour Party delegates to oppose putting Frederic Creswell and Tommy Boydell, Labour Party leaders, in the new cabinet. The new government as promised passed yet more laws to reinforce the colour bar and further exclude blacks.

In the article “Permanent Revolution vs. the ‘Anti-Imperialist United Front’: The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 53, Summer 1997), we criticise the ambiguity of the slogan for the “anti-imperialist united front” put forward in 1922 by the Fourth Congress, as easily interpreted as a two-stage programme for revolution in the colonial countries and as a call to ally with bourgeois-nationalist forces. However, in the Spartacist article we also make the point that it was a sharp descent from these unclear formulations and opportunist appetites to the full-blown betrayal later of the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution under Stalin and Bukharin. The South African party vastly misread the white miners’ anger coming off the smashing of the Rand strike. Their continued support to the Labour Party demonstrated their continued ambivalence toward the black proletariat.

In 1924 the CPSA national conference debated entering the Labour Party once again. Arguments based on interpretation of Comintern tactics that applied to Europe—where there were mass social-democratic parties—were used to motivate entry. By this time, the Rand strike and the Pact government had had an impact on Bunting and the party, as both made clearer that both the English-speaking and Afrikaner workers were tightly in the grip of their racist and nationalist leadership. Bunting and Roux argued against entry and that the main task was to take their programme to the black masses. This time they won. Some older members in the right wing fell away, and this cleared the way for the party to turn its face to the black proletariat.

The new youth group, the Young Communist League (YCL) of the CPSA, most directly challenged the old status quo of the CPSA. In 1921 Eddie Roux, one of the first Afrikaners and native-born South Africans in the party, founded the youth group. As Eddie Roux came more under the influence of Bunting, he became an advocate for recruiting blacks to the party. Roux became a regular speaker for the Communist Party at ICU meetings. The ICU, which I will get back to later, was growing rapidly at this time. When Roux argued in early 1924 that they must recruit black youth and they must set up a Cape Town branch so they could recruit black and coloured youth, he found himself in a small minority. Roux appealed to the Young Communist International, and he was backed up, and the policy was implemented. The YCL passed a motion stating that the main task of the YCL of South Africa is the organisation of the native youth.

They recruited two blacks early on: Stanley Silwana and Thomas Mbeki. Trade unionist Johnny Gomas, who became a longtime leader of the CPSA, heard Roux speak at a YCL meeting in Cape Town in 1924 and joined the party. Bunting had found new bloc partners with the new youth. Also, the Cape Town branch was more determined to recruit coloureds and blacks where racism was slightly more modulated than in the raw Rand area.


There was tremendous political activity among the black workers in the mid to late 1920s. The ICU was the first mass popular semi-political union organisation of black and coloured workers. Its influence far overshadowed that of the Native Congress [predecessor of African National Congress (ANC)] in its time. The development of the ICU reflected the eagerness of black workers to organise in self-defence. It was organised by Clements Kadalie who came from Nyasaland, today’s Malawi. He organised the black Cape Town dock workers in 1919, and the ICU soon grew into the main political representative of blacks in South Africa—organising city and farm labourers all the way to Durban.

The ICU was racked with internal contradictions because it was a massive populist organisation. Kadalie endorsed the Afrikaner Nationalist leader General Barry Hertzog because he sent greetings and a donation to the ICU. Kadalie looked to British trade-union bureaucrats and liberals, and by the end of the 1920s the organisation was disintegrating. In December 1926 he expelled the Communist Party members in the organisation, partly to please his newly acquired British liberal patrons. CPers had entered the ICU to recruit out of it, and in 1923 Eddie Roux helped set up the Johannesburg ICU office. Young Communist League member Thomas Mbeki became the Transvaal secretary of the ICU. Among those expelled along with Mbeki in 1926 were Johnny Gomas and Jimmy La Guma, who had joined the CPSA while in the ICU and were the Cape Town ICU leadership. By the time they were expelled, the CPSA was so popular that several branches protested their expulsion.

Night School and the Unions

The Ferreirastown night school, set up in 1925, was run by T.W. Thibedi, the first black member of the International Socialist League (ISL) and later a CPSAer. It had its origins dating back to the days of the ISL. By 1928, it had over 100 students and taught literacy with the use of The ABC of Communism [1920 book by Bolsheviks Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky] along with other basic subjects. The school had been moved to a bigger building and was now run by a retired schoolteacher and militant atheist. In order to avoid arrest past nine o’clock, the teachers had to manufacture fake passes for all the students.

Much of the CPSA’s work required Bunting’s legal skills—he was for years the best-known lawyer in the country defending blacks against state repression. One story from this period of rapid black recruitment is interesting: Thibedi went to address a meeting of 1,000 in Potchefstroom. He was arrested, and the entire crowd attempted to follow him to the court. Thibedi was charged with inciting hostility between the races. Bunting defended him, and an unusually liberal judge acquitted him. The CPSA held an immediate rally to celebrate the victory. A group of whites attacked the celebrating crowd, including attacking the white Communists. In response to seeing that a Communist lawyer could get a black man out of jail, and then witnessing the same white Communists being attacked by other white men, most of the residents of the location decided en masse to join the Communist Party.

The CPSA paper was renamed the South African Worker and had more than half its articles in Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho. The paper also serialised an adapted version of The ABC of Communism, the book used in the Soviet Union to teach Marxism and literacy. In the late 1920s, the CPSA finally made breakthroughs in both organising black unions and joint struggles of white and black workers. They formed the Non-European Federation of Trade Unions in the Witwatersrand, and membership in the unions and the party grew rapidly. A whole new layer of black leadership was brought in, and the party was transforming itself into a majority black party of a couple of thousand. The South African party had some all-black branches. They had organised industrial unions with black leadership. The party had made a tremendous leap.

The Sixth Congress of the Comintern

One cannot evaluate this period without the knowledge that a fierce battle was going on in the Comintern that impacted this small and remote party struggling to apply a revolutionary programme. In economically backward Russia there was a political counterrevolution in 1923-24, which had its material basis in the destruction of industry and the death of many of the most politically advanced workers during the Civil War, combined with the defeat of revolutionary opportunities abroad, especially the 1923 German Revolution. A parasitic bureaucratic caste led by Stalin usurped political power from the proletariat. Stalin’s rationalisation for defeatism and abandonment of international revolution, “Socialism in One Country,” ultimately dictated the strategy for the South African revolution, and would require the working class to be politically subordinated to a so-called “anti-imperialist united front” with the national bourgeoisie of the colonial countries. Supporters of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, many of whom were arrested and ultimately murdered by Stalin’s police, fought against the degeneration of the revolution and for international proletarian revolution necessary to build socialism.

The ramifications of Stalin’s class-collaborationist policies were tragically illustrated in China. In this largely peasant country the working class was highly concentrated in a few key cities like Shanghai and by 1925, inspired by the Russian Revolution, it had begun to seek the road to power. But the Comintern leadership under Bukharin and Stalin was abandoning its revolutionary purpose. Over Trotsky’s objections, the Chinese Communist Party was subordinated to the nationalist party, the Guomindang. In 1927 the revolution was crushed. Out of this decisive historical test, Trotsky generalised the perspective of permanent revolution. This was codified in The Third International After Lenin (1929) and later in The Permanent Revolution (1930). In so doing, he both incorporated and transcended the evolved communist position on the colonial question as codified at the Communist International’s First and Second Congresses. [For more background, readers are referred to the 2008 ICL pamphlet The Development and Extension of Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution.]

The African National Congress (as the South African Native National Congress renamed itself in 1923) was the leadership of the only non-white petty-bourgeois nationalist movement in South Africa. It held disdain for workers. The ANC had consistently looked to British imperialism for their favours. They had no particular interest in the struggles of the black proletariat. J.T. Gumede in this period was the ANC leader most supportive of the Comintern. He travelled the country after visiting the USSR to popularise the idea of Communism. His report to ANC chiefs in 1928, which referred to the overthrow of the tsar in 1917, caused the tribal leaders to express alarm that they too would be killed if there was a Bolshevik Revolution in South Africa. The degenerating Comintern courted the ANC as part of its appeal to nationalist leaders.

In February 1927, the Comintern organised the “Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism” in Brussels. This conference was attended by Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian bourgeois-nationalist leader; Lemine Senghor, Senegalese Pan-Africanist; Messali Hadj, Algerian nationalist leader who ended up supporting [French imperialist ruler Charles] de Gaulle’s colonialist reform schemes in 1958 in the midst of the war of independence; and Mohammed Hatta who became an anti-communist Indonesian nationalist. The Congress read out greetings from the widow of Sun Yat-sen of the Guomindang of China just as the Shanghai proletariat and their Communist Party leadership were about to be slaughtered by her party. The Stalinised Comintern had made Chiang Kai-shek an honorary member of the Comintern, thus cementing the subordination of the Chinese CP to these butchers.

James La Guma attended the Congress as representative of the CPSA. Afterward La Guma travelled to Moscow and participated in discussions with Bukharin and other CI leaders. A resolution passed by the Executive Committee of the CI (ECCI) laid out the same two-stage revolution strategy for South Africa that led to annihilation of the working-class base of the Chinese CP.

The ECCI’s resolution for the South African party, with the central slogan of “an independent Native republic as a stage towards a workers’ and peasants’ government,” was referred to the section for discussion. This was, in fact, the application of the disastrous Stalinist Chinese strategy to South African soil: that only an anti-imperialist capitalist revolution led by the nationalist petty bourgeoisie was on the agenda. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not on the agenda and must wait.

Bunting and his wife Rebecca and Edward Roux attended the 1928 Sixth Congress of the Comintern as delegates representing the majority of the party which opposed the new slogan. The Buntings found that the whole atmosphere of the Comintern had changed between the Fourth Congress they attended and the Sixth—the Fourth Congress had a spirit of hope and comradeship. They came to the Sixth Congress excited that they could report that the party was now largely black African. Out of 1,750 members, 1,600 were black. However, they were bluntly greeted with “We are going to attack you,” and were cold-shouldered by what Roux called “a hard-bitten gang of bureaucrats.” Bunting, who had fought for more than ten years to transform the party into majority black, was dismissed as a “white chauvinist.” Roux says he ran into Trotskyist sympathisers at the Congress and heard cynical statements of delegates that Trotsky was right on China, but Trotsky was no longer a Communist.

Bukharin sycophants Jay Lovestone, a careerist in the U.S. party, and John Pepper, a Hungarian Communist who had been sent to the U.S., are mentioned as demonstratively ignoring Bunting’s speeches in the commission. Pepper was the major advocate of a farmer-labour party policy in the U.S. CP—basically a two-class workers and peasants party for America. James W. Ford, a leading black American delegate, ignored them.

Bunting spoke against the “native republic” slogan, arguing that black African peasants have been drawn into the working class where they are most militant, i.e., they are proletarianised. Industry in South Africa is far advanced for a colonial country, and so consequently is the working class. Bunting objected to the fact that the draft programme of the CI referred only to “colonial masses” and not the colonial proletariat. There are classes in the colonial world. We do not have to wait for capitalism to develop; it has been thrust upon us. He begged for more Comintern attention to South Africa, and less ignorance of the particular conditions in different colonies of the African continent. He said in his 20 August 1928 speech at the Congress: “the class struggle is practically coincident and simultaneous with the national struggle” (South Africa’s Radical Tradition, 1996). Roux also argued at the Congress that it is not the task for the party to artificially build a nationalist movement: “There is no need to go through the laborious and (from the point of view of the revolution) dangerous process of building up a native bourgeois-nationalist movement the leadership of which must be displaced before the proletarian revolution can be achieved” (South Africa’s Radical Tradition).

Bunting also argued that the slogan would alienate white workers, that either the neutrality or occasional support of white labour would be of great value as a shield against state repression for the revolutionary native movement. Such arguments undermined his valid arguments against two-stage revolution in South Africa. All the CP’s actions on the ground at home were toward Africanising the party. But Bunting did not have Lenin’s understanding that the struggle for national liberation using the methods of proletarian class struggle could be a powerful motor force for socialist revolution in South Africa. So he had nothing to counterpose to the Stalinist programme of politically chaining the black masses to the nationalist leadership.

It didn’t really matter what Bunting and Roux argued about the class forces or the status of the national movement in South Africa. Hammering out a programme for revolution was not the purpose of this Congress. In evaluating the debates with Bunting and Roux at the Sixth Congress, you have to keep in mind that really what is going on is the increasingly conservative Comintern clubbing any potential opposition to the nationally limited programme of “Socialism in One Country” and class peace with the world bourgeoisie. The Bukharinites (although Bukharin was deposed soon after this Congress) were not looking for a correct political programme for South Africa; they were looking for followers who would toe the line of the Comintern leadership. Thus the Comintern resolved that: “Our aim should be to transform the African National Congress into a fighting nationalist revolutionary organisation against the white bourgeoisie and the British imperialists, based upon the trade unions, peasant organisations, etc., developing systematically the leadership of the workers and the Communist Party in this organisation” (Resolution on “The South African Question” adopted by the ECCI following the Sixth Congress, reprinted in South African Communists Speak).

Roux refers to a document that was circulating among certain delegates at the Congress—the first and third parts of The Third International After Lenin. Trotsky made the point that the International had no programme; it had rationalisations for defeats and generalities to cover its zigzag policies. The Stalinists had replaced the struggle to win the working class organised in the unions to the Communist Party by the opportunist utilisation of the ready-made apparatus of the trade-union bureaucracy exemplified in England where the Soviet government maintained a bloc with the labour leadership just as they were selling out a general strike, or in the so-called “revolutionary national bourgeoisie” as in China—in both cases ending in defeat for the workers and oppressed. Trotsky was launching an international struggle to win the communists back to the programme that had made the Bolshevik Revolution.

Seven years later, Trotsky wrote a letter to the fledgling Left Oppositionists of the Workers’ Party of South Africa in response to their draft theses. He took issue with their argument that “the slogan of a ‘Black Republic’ is equally harmful for the revolutionary cause as is the slogan of a ‘South Africa for the whites’.” Based on the application of permanent revolution, Trotsky wrote that the character of the proletarian revolution in South Africa will be one of national liberation of the black masses as well:

“Three-quarters of the population of South Africa (almost six million of the almost eight million total) is composed of non-Europeans. A victorious revolution is unthinkable without the awakening of the native masses. In its turn, that will give them what they are so lacking today—confidence in their strength, a heightened personal consciousness, a cultural growth.

“Under these conditions the South African Republic will emerge first of all as a ‘black’ republic; this does not exclude, of course, either full equality for the whites or brotherly relations between the two races—depending mainly on the conduct of the whites. But it is entirely obvious that the predominant majority of the population, liberated from slavish dependence, will put a certain imprint on the state.

“Insofar as a victorious revolution will radically change the relation not only between the classes but also between the races and will assure to the blacks that place in the state that corresponds to their numbers, thus far will the social revolution in South Africa also have a national character.

“We have not the slightest reason to close our eyes to this side of the question or to diminish its significance. On the contrary, the proletarian party should in words and in deeds openly and boldly take the solution of the national (racial) problem in its hands.

“Nevertheless, the proletarian party can and must solve the national problem by its own methods.

“The historical weapon of national liberation can be only the class struggle.”

—Leon Trotsky, “On the South African Theses” (20 April 1935), Writings of Leon Trotsky (1934-35) (Pathfinder Press, 1971)

Bunting and Roux never found their way to Trotsky’s Left Opposition although other communists did join Trotsky’s Left Opposition and the Fourth International. Today we Trotskyists of Spartacist South Africa are the continuity of Lenin and Trotsky’s party. We fight for a black-centred workers government as part of a socialist federation of Southern Africa. This is directly counterposed to the illusion fostered by the South African Communist Party today that the “national democratic revolution” has achieved a “rainbow nation” based on the ANC’s celebrated doctrine of “non-racialism.” We call for workers to break with the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance—a class-collaborationist nationalist popular front that ties the working class to the capitalist rulers.

Just a few final notes. Jones, always sickly, spent his last days in Moscow providing the invaluable service of translating parts of the early works of Lenin into English, including popularising What Is To Be Done? He also continued to write on the black question, and Africa and world imperialism. He died in 1924. Bunting stayed in the CPSA. He carried on a difficult and courageous election campaign in Thembuland with Rebecca Bunting and their comrade Gana Makabeni as Xhosa interpreter. They attempted for the first time to bring the communist programme into the rural reserves whilst being watched by police and opposed by the Native chiefs living on government salaries. Bunting and others were purged in 1931 as the party came under the direct manipulation of Stalin’s fake “left turn,” and he died some years later, still a loyal Communist. Eddie Roux repudiated his communist politics, became an academic and did a service by writing Time Longer Than Rope and S.P. Bunting: A Political Biography.

The early South African Communist Party was a mix of comrades in motion, grappling with a rapidly changing reality, and racked with contradictions. There was an element in this party that was revolutionary internationalist, trying to apply Marxism to South Africa, and particularly to the question of ending black oppression. They were inspired and transformed by the Russian Revolution, but, in the end, their struggle to sort out a strategy and programme for black liberation and the dictatorship of the proletariat was cut short as the Comintern they looked to was strangled by Stalin and his heirs. It is the revolutionary Trotskyists of Spartacist South Africa who are carrying forward the necessary fight for the programme of proletarian revolution in Southern Africa.


Workers Vanguard No. 992

WV 992

9 December 2011


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South Africa

Early Years of the Communist Party

Part Two