A Valuable Study of Socialists’ Role in Early South African Freedom Struggle



“Discordant Comrades: Identities and Loyalties on the South African Left.” by Allison Drew (Ashgate, London, £45).


It is a pity that this book is only available as an expensive hardback, because it is a valuable contribution towards an understanding of the role played by socialists in the struggle against racial oppression in South Africa.

Like Allison Drew’s previous opus, “South Africa’s Radical Tradition,” it shows diligent research-not only into South African sources. She has also taken full advantage of the material made available by access to the archives of the Comintern..

Apart from Eddie Roux’s “Time Longer than Rope” and one or two academic studies, most previous attempts to document the history of South African socialism, e.g., “Class and Colour in South Africa,” by Jack and Ray Simons and Baruch Hirson’s “South African Trotskyism” (Revolutionary History) have been colored by the authors’ political outlook.

While Drew’s sympathies are obviously with the left, this is as near as we will get to an objective survey of the origins and growth of socialist movements in South Africa. Like all Drew’s writings it is easily readable.

While this book deals with the quarrels and fissures that color the radical left in South Africa from the 1930s to the 1940s and after, it is also descriptive of the socialist movement in most of the countries of the world, with its history of sectarian and ideological splits, reminiscent of the argument in the mediaeval church about the number of angels who could dance on the point of a needle.

Of course, such disputations have a long history in the revolutionary movement. It goes back to the 1840s, to the League of the Just, the Communist Correspondence Committee and other fledgling organizations with which Marx and Engels were actively concerned and the International Workingmen’s Association (The First International).

While, as Drew recognizes, even before the First World War, British socialists were critical of their continental comrades, whom they accused of turning Marx’s writing into liturgy, it was only through the Comintern, and especially after the advent of Stalinism in the mid-1920s, “that the interpretation of Marxism became ritualized in an elaborate hierarchical style, reminiscent of Catholicism.”

Lenin’s split from the Social Democrats and the subsequent successes of the Bolsheviks served as a little understood model for many of his would-be disciples. In South Africa, the ideological hair-splitting of the early socialist movement was further complicated by disputes about the attitude toward non-white workers who were entering into the developing capitalist economy at the turn of the century.

The “color” question was to run like a red thread throughout the history of the radical movement in South Africa.

Before the Russian Revolution of October (November) 1917, differences among socialists in South Africa principally concerned the issue of racism. This was especially true of the rapidly industrialized Rand after the discovery of gold, where the views of the early socialists, mainly immigrants from Britain, were more concerned with trade-union organization and protection of the privileges of white workers than with the national liberation struggle of non-white Africans.

Drew points out, however, that in the Western Cape, with its more liberal traditions, “socialists canvassed across the color line.”

It was really only after the foundation of the Communist Party of South Africa (SACP) in July 1921, that Marx’s dictum, “labor with a white skin can not be free while labor with a black skin is in chains,” became entrenched in the South African socialist lexicon.

The General Strike on the Rand in 1922 created some difficulties for the young Communist Party. The strike was almost exclusively a white workers’ strike, in opposition to the mine owners’ threat of replacement by lower-paid workers, with the fear that this must eventually lead to the upgrading of Black miners. (In a mockery of proletarian internationalism, strike leaders raised the slogan, “Workers of the world, fight and unite for a white South Africa.”)

Yet the SACP gave the strike its full support. The leadership of the strikers, the Council of Action, was housed in the Communist Party’s office.

Two of the principal leaders of the SACP, William H. Andrews and Sidney Percival Bunting, did make some effort to push the strikers to cross the color line. They were supported in this by the Comintern, not yet dominated by Stalin.

From Moscow, SACP leader David Ivon Jones wrote: “The conditions for a Communist Party based on white militants have disappeared, and the Comintern will henceforth have to take over the direct responsibility for the native masses.”

After the death of Lenin in 1924, the Comintern leadership in Moscow, first under Zinoviev, with his policy of “Bolshevization,” and later under Stalin, began to intervene more actively in the affairs of national Communist Parties.

In South Africa, the SACP found itself in a theoretical tussle with Moscow. While by then the membership was overwhelmingly Black, there was still a great attachment to the conception that it was the skilled workers in industry who would constitute the proletarian vanguard. And by far, the majority of them were white.

National liberation and democratic rights were seen as reformist issues, secondary to the class struggle. Participation in organizations like the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union [a mass-based Black industrial union, which also attempted to organize Black people around political concerns like opposition to the pass laws] and the ANC were seen as merely a tactic.

Moscow’s imposition of its Native Republic thesis in 1928 met with hostility from important leaders of the SACP, principally from Bunting and Manuel Lopes, two of the party’s founding members.

[While this thesis formally corrected the SACP’s weakness on the Black national liberation struggle, it also served as an expression of Stalin’s reformist “two-stage” theory of revolution for the neo-colonial world. The immediate struggle should be for a bourgeois-democratic “Native Republic,” said the Stalinists, while the proletarian socialist revolution should be postponed until an undefined stage when conditions would be ripe for it. – The editors]

Contemporaneous with this was the Stalinist bureaucracy’s intensification of the struggle against Trotsky and the Left Opposition in the Russian Communist Party, and later Stalin’s battle against his erstwhile ally, Bukharin, now dubbed the Right Opposition.

This theoretical battle had to be exported by the Stalinists to the national sections of the Comintern. The leaderships of the sections could only prove their loyalty to Moscow by giving their unswerving support to Stalin; witch-hunting oppositionists and expelling them.

Drew gives us a faithful record of these events, which were eventually to lead to the formation of the first Trotskyist group in South Africa, the Marxist Educational League and, in 1932, the Lenin Club.

Douglas and Mollie Wolton, 100 percent Stalinists, were now the leaders of the SACP. To prove their loyalty, on Nov. 7, 1932, they organized a physical attack on a meeting arranged by the Marxist Educational League to commemorate the Russian Revolution. Proud of their success, the District Party Committee for the Western Cape boasted to Moscow, “On the basis of our instructions, [we] mobilized a large number of Party & non-Party workers and decisively smashed the gathering … sending all leaders to hospital. And that is that.” Stalinism had come to Cape Town.

Of course, the expulsion of the “Left” and “Right” did not put an end to the discord, and the newly emergent minuscule Trotskyists were also, soon, to be embroiled in splits and fissures.

One dispute dividing the Trotskyist groups in South Africa in the mid-1930s had to do with the tactic carried out in France and the United States, where small Trotskyist groups had made a tactical entry into the Socialist parties, which were many times larger. In opposition to this course, some South African Trotskyists argued for the principle of an independent Leninist party.

Trotsky’s blast against the Balham Group in England, who refused to enter the Independent Labour Party (ILP) on the same grounds, could also apply here: “Not only are you not a party, you are not even a propaganda group.


Charlie Van Gelderen was a participant in the Trotskyist movement of the 1930s in South Africa. 

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