R. Page Arnot

A Second Writing on the Wall

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 3, September, 1922, No. 3
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Red Revolt: The Rand Strike
January-March, 1922.
By S.P. Bunting.
Communist Party of South Africa.
1s. 6d.

Before the war a remarkable thing happened in the British Empire. That curious political unit, with its variegated list of constitutions and forms of government, was characterised throughout, we were told, by certain uniform principles of administration. These principles were difficult to define in such a way as to mark them off clearly from the principles upon which the French or German empires were conducted: but it was always understood that the British principles were quite distinctive. For instance, it was usual to say that the British Empire was distinguished from all others by the Rule of Law, by the strict adherence of each and every authority to the traditional charters of the English race, by the jealous safeguarding of the liberty of the subject. The old Freedom of the Germanic mark, the independence that was born in the Hercynian forest, was preserved on the banks of the Limpopo, amongst the Antipodes, and generally wherever the Union Jack was flown. But above all it was in the dominions overseas that the ideals of Liberty, Democracy, and even-handed Justice were understood to have their greatest practical realisation. In this earthly paradise there happened before the war, as I have said, a remarkable thing.

On the banks of the Limpopo, in February, 1914, Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, and many other venerable parchments were suddenly torn across. There had been a general strike. It was quelled by the arbitrary arrest of the strike leaders (Habeas Corpus torn) and, without trial of any kind (Magna Carta torn), by their expulsion from the Union of South Africa. The sailing of the steamship Umgeni with the deportees on board could not be countermanded by any fiat of the Colonial Office, which courteously lamented its inability in the matter in answer to the expostulations of the Labour members. The class struggle had reached an acute stage, and forthwith the class governing in South Africa jettisoned the whole bourgeois cargo of ideals. The effect was profound and immediate. Everywhere throughout the British Empire, on both sides of the class struggle, the eyes of the young men were opened.

In the face of this event in South Africa the astonished cackle about the Bolsheviks and their view that the governing class, when put to it, would behave similarly in every country is ridiculous. The lesson that the safety of the governing class over-rode all other considerations (of law, liberty, justice, &c.) could be learned, and was learned, long before the Bolsheviks were ever heard of. How comes it, nevertheless, that the lesson was not universally learned? Was it possible that the union leaders and the chief Socialists in this country drew no conclusions whatever from this startling reversal of ordered British progress? In some cases, perhaps, this was so. But in many cases the conclusion drawn must have been that the South African affair was something isolated, something exceptional and unrelated in any way to the general trend of historical development, something (like the war afterwards) that would never happen again.

Not only did it happen again: but it happened under the regime of General Jan Smuts, for whom the Liberals had built a tabernacle, by whose wisdom and reputation for just-dealing the British Cabinet were guided in the last days of the war and the crucial moments of the peace. It was at his eminently Liberal suggestion, we were told, that the idea of an Irish Free State was born. Yet exactly the same thing has taken place under the soulful Smuts as occurred under the brutal Botha. To some this will be the second writing on the wall: but to others it will simply be another “exceptional occurrence.” Even to some Labour people it will seem impossible that a nice, kind man like General Smuts could be responsible for anything detrimental to the working class: and rather than believe evil of him they will credulously swallow the Reuter lie which told of documents proving a Bolshevik plot—which documents have never been discovered. Smuts will retain his tabernacle.

Meantime the details of the second demonstration of capitalist dictatorship in South Africa can be read in this useful little booklet by S. P. Bunting.