It is not too much to say that the Russian Revolution made South African Marxism possible. There were Marxists in South Africa before the Russian Revolution, and Marxist organizations. But there was nothing that could have been recognized as specifically South African Marxism. By the time of the revolution, there was a Marxist organization with a national presence, called the International Socialist League (ISL). It had structures in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. It had emerged from a split from the South African Labour Party (SALP) in 1915, motivated by the SALP’s support of Britain in World War I.
Can you remember this photo: ‘Lenin Lived, Lenin is Alive, Lenin Will Live’
This was partly because of the way a working-class, dependent on wage-labour, had been created in South Africa, and partly because of the ethnic and linguistic diversity of a settler-colonial society. Early socialist organisations after 1900 were mainly white (and male).
>> white << – or something else – specific?
They reflected the dominance of white wage-labour then. These organisations drew on different national backgrounds, including Britain, Australia and the United States. They conducted their business in different languages, including Yiddish, German and Italian. There was no common set of problems and assumptions that bound them together, although the question of mobilising black workers – the most oppressed section of the workforce – became increasingly prominent for all of them.
The emergence of South African Marxism
We can see the emergence of a distinctive South African Marxism in the period from the formation of the Communist Party in South Africa (CPSA) in 1921 to the Black Republic thesis adopted at the sixth congress of the Communist International in 1928. The Marxism of the ISL (and CPSA until about 1928) was displaced by the ideas and practice of the CPSA and South African Marxism more generally. I will outline three elements of that displacement.
First, the ISL (and the CPSA until 1928) prided itself on its diversity of outlook. It saw Marxism as a “living growth”, developing through open discussion, in the light of fresh experience. Against this, the Comintern imposed the idea of “iron discipline” as the hallmark of the party member and the essential link between party and class through the twenty-one conditions drafted by Lenin for joining the Comintern. The conditions were aimed at creating a clean break from the reformist Second International. It called for expulsion of numerous, but badly defined, categories of party members: reformists and centrists, those who did not agitate within the military; “untrustworthy half reformists” and “unreliable elements” and for regular “clearance” of members “in order systematically to disembarrass the party from the petty bourgeois elements that may penetrate it.” It also called for expelling those who disagreed with these expulsions.
Second, the ISL prided itself on its “harmony of spirit”, its “devotion to the cause of International Socialism and the whole empire of ideas which that implies” and had “the most interesting diversity of outlook and opinion” within its ranks. There is no sign that it sought to establish a single theoretical framework to which all members would subscribe. Instead, each would learn and teach as they could, and engage with others. Increasingly, after 1917, ISL/CPSA politics were animated by the achievement of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But the terms of this orientation were to change dramatically.
The CPSA newspaper, The International – still writing in the ISL tradition – described Lenin on his death as “the greatest of Marxian philosophers . . . the outstanding intellectual who, all the more because he was such, penetrated and assimilated and lived in the feelings and ideas of the masses and them only.” Lenin was a model for Marxists to learn from, rather than an infallible source.
In place of this somewhat open-ended conception of Marxist internationalism, the SACP instilled an idea of Marxism as a complete and final doctrine, requiring only correct application in its local context; put differently, an idea of Marxism in which theory is separated from practice, and theoretical credentials decide practical questions.
Third, the ISL/CPSA was committed to internationalism. This did not exclude mobilising black workers in South Africa. That mobilisation was its main focus, along with political education through night schools, and the majority of CPSA members were black. Its aim in all this was to heighten class consciousness.
But this was to be replaced after 1928 by a focus on the strategy of seeking alliances with African nationalism. This strategy was motivated partly by Stalin’s wish to build support in British dominions, including South Africa, as a potential counter to a possible British invasion of the Soviet Union. Its meaning changed as Comintern policy shifted, along with Stalin’s calculation of the diplomatic needs of the Soviet Union, mainly in relation to Europe.
Frequently, this led to CPSA strategies aimed at appealing to conservative sections of the African middle class. Thus, Moses Kotane argued in his Cradock letter of 1934 that the party should recognize that “Africa is culturally or economically backward” and “the majority of the African population are more national conscious than class conscious.”
The CPSA’s Stalinism was not the only current of Marxism in South Africa by then. Its main rival, Trotskyism, was also a product of the Russian Revolution. It relied on a rival (far more intelligent) account of Lenin’s thought and practice as the key source of political insight. Trotsky’s famous letter on the draft theses of the Workers Party of South Africa rejects the CPSA slogan of a Black Republic.
But he has no choice but to contest the CPSA programme in its own terms. He argues that “the historical weapon of national liberation can only be the Class Struggle.” He rejects the Comintern’s transformation of the “national liberation of colonial people into an empty democratic abstraction elevated above the reality of class relations.” But he has to find better ways of answering the same questions, and ensure that he is not outflanked on any issue by his rivals, even accepting the “complete and unconditional right of the blacks to independence” in a separate state.
For the past decade or more, we have seen a new movement emerging in working class struggles against the conditions perpetuated by the ANC government. But this new movement has depended, implicitly or explicitly, on political perspectives taken from the struggle against racial domination before 1994, protesting against broken promises, but not developing new perspectives.
The new movement has different component parts, and its composition is much contested. At its core is a wave of community protest against poor living conditions, failed social services and infrastructure, increased fees and tariffs, unemployment and the like. All of these are attributed to neoliberal policies, corruption and a ruling class focused on self-enrichment. These protests have grown over time from sporadic beginnings, and gained momentum since 2004, with an estimated 2 million people involved in such protests each year, thousands of arrests, vast damage to property and some deaths.
These struggles often have a local focus, which may prevent them from developing larger perspectives. The result is that, instead of speaking for itself, the country-wide upheaval is described variously by analysts and officials as service delivery protest, illegal demonstration, land occupation or wildcat strike.
Since the Marikana massacre of 2012, the rift between the black working class and poor and the ruling elite has been evident for all to see. In response to that widening rift, new organisational initiatives have emerged—most prominently, the Economic Freedom Fighters and NUMSA initiatives such as the United Front and the new trade union federation SAFTU; and in some ways also #FeesMustFall.
In that spirit, I offer some thoughts on that process of forming perspectives for a renewed Marxism in South Africa, which can inform the struggles that lie ahead.
First, it is necessary to recognize the reality of the present. Is it enough still to condemn neoliberal capitalism, as if capitalism has a way back to social democracy? The reality is that capitalism, especially as the effects of climate change become more severe, is entering a phase of exterminism—in the term Peter Frase has borrowed and repurposed from E.P. Thompson. If that is so, then it has implications for all of the analyses, demands and strategies of the working-class movement.
Second, developing a perspective means seeing the present as part of a long historical process. The longer the period, the broader the perspective. We cannot go back only to the Russian Revolution, for example; we need to see it as a sequel to the Paris Commune of 1871, which Lenin celebrated after 1917. The language of decoloniality has reminded us that we need to extend our perspectives further back than that, to the world-historical turning point of 1492, when the process of Western global domination took off. The threat of climate change may require a perspective that extends even further back, to a time when human societies cohabited with nature rather than seeking to dominate it completely.
Third, all of this requires of Marxists a certain modesty about our own perspectives, and patience about historical outcomes. It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest this, when the challenges are so urgent. Marxists are sometimes accused of arrogance by feminists, ecologists and others, and there is some truth to the accusation. We can uphold revolutionary perspectives without claiming to have all the answers. We stand in a tradition which goes back 150 years or more and extends around the world. Individually and collectively, we can contribute modestly to developing it, making it accessible and making its aspirations a reality.
The disasters of Stalinism are a reminder of the damage done by forcing the pace of history. Reformists have the illusion that they can force the pace of history by working within the framework of capitalism, with the hope that a kinder, gentler form of exploitation will result. But we cannot know what the eventual results of our actions will be. Better to do the work well, to do what we can, and hope that others will build further on those foundations. They will do it in the way that seems right to them.
What Does It Mean to be a South African Marxist, 100 Years after the Russian Revolution?
Romanian communism – Nicolae Ceausescu
Red Revolution – EFF – ANC – DA and others
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How many African countries were colonized by Britain? The British South Africa Company, established in 1889 under the control of Cecil John Rhodes, used excessive force and coercion to colonize and rule Nyasaland (present-day Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (present-day Zambia), and Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe); the company reigned over these colonies until 1923.
Great Britain got southern and northeastern Africa from Berlin. From 1880-1900 Britain gained control over or occupied what are now known as Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Gambia, Sierra Leone, northwestern Somalia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Nigeria, Ghana, and Malawi.
Egypt, which was a protectorate until 1922, Sudan, which was a condominium between Britain and Egypt, Somaliland, Namibia, Lesotho, ESwatini, Uganda, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, The Gambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Ghana, Sierra Leone.
The Vula Connection is one of apartheid’s untold stories, and at its centre is an unusual hero, Tim Jenkin. Quiet, and bookish, he turns against his own government and the privileged lifestyle it guarantees him, signing up with the black liberation movement that is banned in apartheid South Africa. Jenkin is caught and dispatched to a high security prison. But against all odds, his patience and meticulous attention to detail get him and two prisoners through 10 locked doors…to freedom. This, however, is much more than an escape story. It’s about a man who plays a pivotal role in taking on the Apartheid regime in the most unexpected way. After his audacious break-out, Jenkin disappears into the backrooms of the ANC’s exiled military. Working from a non-descript London flat, he sets about designing a secret communications system which enables a small group of highly skilled operatives to dodge the Republic’s spies and penetrate South Africa’s borders. Then under the nose of prison guards, he succeeds in getting messages passed to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. These secret communications help to set up the former liberation party to claim victory in South Africa’s near miraculous political transition. But as the dream of peace becomes a reality, Operation Vula is bust and the fall-out represents one of the final skirmishes in the fight for power in this troubled land. Please note: This video is only available to viewers on the African continent and adjacent islands.
From 1982 Fifth Estate host Bob McKeown presents a profile of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC). McKeown interviews Winnie Mandela and Oliver Tambo the then ANC president in exile. Former South African Prime Minister Pieter Botha speaks about his belief in a Soviet conspiracy to overthrow the South African government.
Daar was op die stadium van Malan reeds aparte gebiede, nes daar vandag steeds aparte gebiede bestaan – CPA’s sowel as Trustgebiede is almal, elkeen in aparte kommunale gebiede ingedeel.
Die vraag is hoekom, word daar vir almal vertel apartheid is afgebreek, terwyl dit nie so is nie, daar was eenvoudig nuwe wetgewing geskryf wat die oues vervang het. Met 8840 tradisionele bruin en swart etniese leiers – op hul eie, word uit belastings vergoed. Beide Trustgebiede sowel as CPA grondeise, het almal ‘n bordjie om die nek, dis net vir Zoeloe, Khoisan, Pedi of Xhosa. Dit gaan oor die massas se steun vir die nuwe ideologie, liberalistiese kommunisme en vir “die sogenaamde apartheid” w.at kwansuis aan skerwe lê – “oop grense” – een “magtige reënboognasie”.
the Observer and the liberation of South Africa from apartheid
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