The lack of a workers’ party
The industrialisation of South Africa brought into existence the massive black working class concentrated in the urban centres, and in so doing entirely changed the conditions in which the struggle – fought for many generations against colonial conquest, dispossession, exploitation and national oppression of the African people – could now be carried forward.
In action, the African working class had begun to show its emerging power, and so too its potential to lead a movement of all oppressed people for liberation.
Conditions existed not only for the building of industrial unions of the mass of workers. From the 1920s onward, a fertile ground existed at least to lay down the roots for a mass party of labour – a party which could, as it arose, have welded black workers together as a conscious political force; which could then attract the following of the rural people and win support of the urban middle-class blacks; and which also, by offering a real socialist alternative to the racist system of capitalism in South Africa, could eventually draw sizeable numbers of white workers and middle class away from the camp of the ruling class.
For such a mass party of the working class to have emerged in the course of struggle in South Africa in the pre-war period, would have required years of concentrated work – preparing and training a working-class cadre as its backbone and leadership – in the same way that Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia worked from the early 1900s to lay the foundations for the workers’ victory in 1917.
In South Africa, around the time of Union, a Labour Party had been formed on the basis of the organised white minority of the working class – especially the craft workers making up the labour aristocracy. Locked into the sectional interests of this privileged section, and dominated by racist leaders who sought collaboration with the capitalists, the Labour Party was never able to emancipate itself from this heritage.
From the left wing of the Labour Party, in 1921, emerged the Communist Party of South Africa, under the inspiration of the Russian Revolution. Filled with revolutionary enthusiasm and working-class determination to overthrow capitalism, the early Communists in South Africa needed to base their party unambiguously on the awakening African working-class movement, there to root the development of their still partly-formed Marxist ideas and build the proletarian movement on sound foundations.
Correctly identifying themselves as part of the international working-class movement, the CP in South Africa joined the Communist International, a mass organisation of workers’ parties, which had been formed against the background of the revolutionary wave sweeping Europe and many other parts of the world after the first world war, and which had as its core the victorious Russian Communist Party, then led by Lenin and Trotsky.
The fledgling CP in South Africa – to develop its leadership, ideas and method of work on sound lines, and to free itself of the early distortions in its perspective caused by its origins in the organisations of the white working class – vitally needed the guidance of an experienced and healthy revolutionary International.
The tragedy of the South African Communist Party (and in a real sense the tragedy for the working class so far this century) was that the Communist International degenerated in the 1920s and thereafter, as the revolutions in Europe, China and elsewhere suffered defeats, and as the bureaucratic dictatorship of Stalin arose out of the isolation and terrible conditions of backwardness of Soviet Russia.
The dependence of the inexperienced Communist Parties around the world upon direction from Moscow turned into slavish obedience to Stalin’s demands. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, ruthless purges were carried out to rid all these parties of all opposition to the bureaucracy and to impose absolute adherence, without democratic debate or criticism, to Moscow’s often-changing line.
The transformation of the parties of the Communist International, among them the South African Communist Party, into uncritical servants of the ruling bureaucracy in Moscow, ran parallel with a savage counter-revolution carried out in the Soviet Union itself (which destroyed all the revolutionary gains of October 1917, apart from the central one, the state-owned property system – on which the bureaucracy had come to rest).
Slaughter of Bolsheviks
This political counter-revolution involved the imprisonment in labour camps and eventual slaughter of tens of thousands of Bolsheviks loyal to the traditions of the Revolution and to the workers’ movement internationally. By the 1930s (when all surviving “Trotskyists” in the prison-camps, with their families down to the age of 12 years, were exterminated in Russia), a gulf of blood separated the regime of Stalin from the revolutionary government of Lenin and Trotsky. Only the label of “Marxism” and “Leninism”, not its substance, remained.
Internationally, bewildering zigzags in policy were imposed on Communist Parties according to the changing national self-interest of the Russian bureaucracy, as the Stalinists saw it. In the colonial world, the policy line swung from subordinating the workers to nationalist bourgeois and petty-bourgeois leaders; then to absurd ultra-left “putchism” when conditions did not allow the workers to take power; then back again to the right.
In Europe, the policy swung from uncritical cooperation with the leaders of reformist parties; then to the sectarian ultra-leftism of refusing joint struggle with other mass workers’ parties against fascism (labelling Socialist parties “social fascist”); then to outright cooperation with imperialist powers and hence opposition to any workers’ revolution in those countries.
In this latter phase (that of the so-called “Popular Fronts” from the mid-1930s onwards), instructions were given to the Communist Parties to collaborate with bourgeois parties on a limited democratic programme, and to keep the workers’ movement from advancing socialist demands. (The “theory” of separate so-called “stages” of revolution was vigorously propagated in this period for the purpose, and applied to every country. It has remained the gospel of Stalinism ever since.)
The Soviet bureaucracy had come, by this time, to the conclusion that a workers’ revolution in any developed, industrialised country would threaten its own hold on power and privilege – for the workers of the Soviet Union would be encouraged thereby to rise and take power once again into their own hands, and establish a workers’ democracy. The bureaucracy therefore set its face against any spread of workers’ revolution internationally.
Against this whole background, the South African CP underwent a tragic degeneration and, at times, virtual collapse. Unable to devise a policy linking the struggle for national liberation to the struggle against capitalism and for workers’ power – an idea which had become anathema to the bureaucracy in Moscow – the CP leaders in South Africa adapted themselves, on the one hand, to the nationalism of the African middle class, and, on the other hand, to the reformist promises of the liberal bourgeoisie.
In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s many militant African workers looked to “Communism”, and hence to the CP, to organise the working class and take the lead in the struggle against racialism, poverty and exploitation. However, as the party’s own historians admit, in the 1930s the CP degenerated into small inward-looking factions, fighting each other with sectarian denunciations and expulsions, in an atmosphere of suspicion and intrigue. The party leadership grew increasingly isolated from the movement of the working class.
Nevertheless, some CP members continued active work in the unions, and, with the rise of a movement of African workers during the second world war, the CP found itself with an influential position in the trade unions of the CNETU. Disastrously, the party leadership deliberately used its influence to hold the workers back from struggle.
The CP’s policy during the war followed the radical shifts in Moscow’s policy. First it supported the Stalin-Hitler Pact. Then, after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, CP policy switched to one of collaboration with Allied imperialism – in the name of assisting the war effort against Hitler.
Thus, the South African CP called on “all South Africans to combine their forces now and to strengthen the Government” – called, in other words, for black workers to support and strengthen the Smuts regime! 5
Such a policy was not pursued only in South Africa. In Britain, the CP broke strikes, in Newcastle and other areas. In India, for instance, the CP policy was to postpone the struggle for independence from Britain until after the war – a position that put it well to the right of the bourgeois-nationalist Congress Party.
By such means Stalin sought the friendship of Churchill and Roosevelt. But the Allied powers, far from waging a real fight against fascism, had helped Hitler’s rise to power and, through most of the war, held back their forces hoping that Germany and Russia would bleed each other to death. The major Allied war effort opened in the West only after the Germans had met defeat on the Russian front and when the Red Army was advancing into Europe.
The Allied powers waged the war as a predatory imperialist war, as Hitler did. Appeals to the working class in the Allied countries to support their capitalist governments could only push the German workers behind Hitler. The only effective basis on which to fight fascism and defend the Soviet Union was to mobilise and unite the working class in a conscious struggle to end oppression and capitalist exploitation everywhere.
What the CP policy meant in South Africa, in concrete terms, was that the party used its position within the unions to oppose and actually halt strike action. Strategically powerful sections of African workers – in the power industry, in iron and steel, and in the mines also – were held back from strike action during the war. Inevitably this led to division, confusion and demoralisation.
By the time mineworkers went on strike in 1946, they, and the whole black trade union movement were in a far weaker position. At the height of the war, in contrast, concerted industrial action on a wide scale – supported if necessary by the mobilisation of national political strikes – could have won big concessions and speeded the whole development of workers’ organisation.
The war period was one of ferment not only in the workplaces, but in the townships – with bus boycotts, squatters’ movements, and a struggle against the passes. A clear lead at this time by the CP could have evoked huge support and even laid the basis for a mass workers’ party.
But the opportunity was lost. Instead, the mineworkers (when they could no longer be held back) moved into action only in 1946, when the tide of mass struggle had begun to ebb. The strike lacked preparation, organisation, coordination and direction. It involved only a minority of mineworkers and was quickly defeated by ruthless police action. The CNETU, already losing membership, undertook to call a general strike in solidarity with the mineworkers, but failed to organise this and it never materialised.
The defeat of the 1946 strike further demoralised workers in the trade unions, and deepened the ebb of the movement there.
Thus, well before the 1950s, the lack of a mass party of the working class, with a clear revolutionary perspective and policy, was already exercising a paralysing influence on the development of the movement.