The transformation of South Africa's communists

12 February 1997

Raising the Red Flag: The International Socialist League and the Communist Party of South Africa 1914-1932
By Sheridan Johns
Mayibuye Books, Bellville, South Africa
1995, 309pp.

Review by Norm Dixon

Mayibuye Books specialise in publishing works relating to South Africa's liberation struggle, most by participants in the movement. Under apartheid many valuable works were suppressed. Now free to publish anything, it may seem strange that Mayibuye would decide to publish a book that began as an unpublished thesis by an obscure US academic 30 years ago. Strange or not, it is a decision to be welcomed.

Sheridan Johns, now a professor of political science at Duke University in South Carolina, has produced what is perhaps the best history of the early years of the South African communist movement written by a non-participant. Together with Class and Colour in South Africa: 1850-1950, by Jack and Ray Simons, and Time Longer than Rope, by Eddie Roux, Raising the Red Flag provides a comprehensive overview of the transformation of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) from a small sect of militant white workers to a large communist party organically linked to the black working class and central to developments in South African politics.

In 1910, the fledgling white labour and socialist groups united to form the South African Labour Party, (similar to the Australian variant). The party was split between right and left factions who could only agree on getting SALP candidates elected to parliament.

The right-wing leadership saw its role as protecting the privileges of white skilled workers. In 1913, SALP MPs raised no opposition to laws which confined the African majority's land rights to just 13% of the country.

A small section of the SALP leadership began to question the party's white-chauvinism and reformism, arguing that because the working-class was overwhelmingly black, a true working class party had to admit and organise them.

The impossible alliance between the reformist, white supremacist right and the radicalising left finally dissolved over the SALP's decision to support participation in World War One. Ten prominent members, almost all of the SALP's executive committee, broke away in 1915 and formed the 400-strong International Socialist League (ISL).

The ISL was the first South African party to openly oppose racial oppression, and allow blacks to join, but remained convinced that only the victory of the socialist revolution, led by the militant, white working class, would put an end to the inferior status of blacks. The ISL mainly emphasised work amongst white trade unionists, dismissing the struggle against racial oppression as a diversion from the class struggle.

In 1921, the ISL and several other socialist groups combined to form the CPSA and affiliated to the Communist International (CI). Less than a year later, its misguided belief in the revolutionary potential of the white working class was tested during the "Rand Revolt". Unable to reduce further the miserable pay of African miners, mine-owners moved to cut costs by transferring semi-skilled jobs to Africans at much lower pay-rates than whites.

The CPSA declared that the strike was "essentially -- a fight against the rule of the capitalist class" and unsuccessfully campaigned to convince white miners that it was a class, not a racial struggle. Armed strike commandos, organised to defend workers from the police and troops, also attacked black miners, killing 30.

The communists wrongly chose to defend the white miners' monopoly of skilled work rather than campaign for an increase of blacks' wages to the level of whites'. The strike lasted three months. The government declared martial law and eventually crushed the revolt with bomber aircraft, artillery and tanks.

In 1924, the SALP and the National Party formed a coalition and were swept to power by angry white workers. They legislated to institutionalise the colour bars that the 1922 strike had defended, thus beginning the long partnership between the white working class -- South Africa's labour aristocracy -- and the ruling class.

The CPSA was forced to reassess its political positions, most significantly under the leadership of Sidney Bunting, elected as chairperson in 1924. The party began to organise African workers, then flooding into industry from rural areas. Night schools were established to teach new members politics, literacy and arithmetic. Some of the CP's most able and important African leaders joined during this period -- Moses Kotane, JB Marks, Edwin Mofutsanyana, Johannes Nkosi and Gana Makabeni. By 1929, the party had 3000 black members (up from just 200 two year before) and at the party conference two-thirds of the delegates were black.

The CPSA took a less sectarian position towards the ANC, working closely with the radical ANC president-general Josiah Gumede after 1927. At a conference in Brussels, Gumede said openly of the CPSA "I am happy to say there are communists in South Africa. I myself am not one, but it is my experience that the Communist Party is the only party that stands behind us and from which we can expect something."

The most controversial debate in South African communism's history is thoroughly canvassed by Johns. In 1927, the executive of the CI endorsed the "Draft Resolution on the South African Question" (the Black Republic Thesis). The document argued that the CPSA should campaign for "an independent native South African republic as a stage towards a workers' and peasants' republic with full, equal rights for all races".

The resolution also stated that: "the party should pay particular attention to the embryonic organisations among the natives, such as the African National Congress. The party, while retaining its full independence, should participate in these organisations. Our aim should be to transform the ANC into a fighting nationalist revolutionary organisation against the white bourgeoisie and the British imperialists."

The draft resolution was opposed by the majority of the CPSA leadership, having yet to shed their overestimation of the revolutionary potential of the white workers and underestimation of the significance of democratic, anti-racist demands.

The CI imposed the "Black Republic Thesis" on the party in 1928, forcing the leadership to complete the party's re-orientation to the mass struggles of the oppressed majority. The CPSA reluctantly accepted the decision, while the Bunting leadership modified it to be more in keeping with actual situation in South Africa. Thirty delegates at the 1929 conference, of whom 20 were Black, adopted a program that clearly stated that the Black Republic would be a workers' and peasants' republic.

The CPSA stated that the first stage -- the democratic stage -- of the revolution, while uniting all classes and strata within the racially oppressed majority, would be led by the workers and peasants and not some imaginary African bourgeoisie. While the initial tasks of the revolution would be democratic, the conditions for moving to the next stage -- socialism -- would be created as the new state power brought the interests of the black working class to the fore.

This promising evolution of the CPSA was cut short. No sooner had the party begun to implement the new line, than Moscow issued sectarian and ultra left directives against it.

In 1930, the CPSA formed the League of African Rights, the first successful combination of communists and black militants in the liberation movement to campaign for civil rights and against pass laws. It looked set to replace the then virtually defunct ANC. Demonstrations were held. Large numbers of Africans attended and joined the party. The CI ordered the immediate dissolution of the league, claiming the party had allowed bourgeois nationalist politics to dominate, despite the fact that communists were the overwhelming majority of its executive. The CI ruled against working with or within the main civil rights organisations. The ANC was reformist and bourgeois, it said. Democratic demands were again jettisoned in favour of crude "class" demands.

A CI-sponsored faction launched an attack on the Bunting leadership, accusing it of being right-wing and white-chauvinist. The party was devastated by a series of purges. The destruction of the revolutionary Bunting leadership, especially its acute understanding of the relationship between the struggle against racial oppression and the struggle against capitalism, has impaired the party's theory ever since.

By 1932, the party was a mere shell. By 1933, membership had plummeted to 200. Black members deserted in droves. This was the lowest point in the party's history and where Johns' account ends. Not until the 1940s did the CPSA regain its standing within the black population after the importance of raising democratic, anti-racist demands was again recognised by the party.