From Revolutionary History, Vol.1 No.2, Summer 1988. Used by permission.
Frank Glass, revolutionary activist, writer and scholar, died in Los Angeles on 21 March 1988, just before his 87th birthday. Better known to international audiences as Li Fu-Jen, or Frank Graves, or John Liang, he worked in three continents, and in each one was a central revolutionary figure. He was a foundation member of the Communist Party of South Africa; a Left Oppositionist when he went to China, and the editor of the premier Trotskyist paper, the Militant in the USA. A revolutionary throughout his life, he lived three full lives; as pioneer and militant in South Africa, as publicist and organiser in China; and as writer and teacher in America. This article deals with the first part of his life.
Frank Glass, a founder of the Communist Party in South Africa is barely remembered there, having been ignored, if not expunged, from the histories of the working class movement. Yet during his stay in South Africa (having arrived as a young lad in l911) he played a leading role in the foundation and organisation of the Communist Party and then in the first black trade union in the country, the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa, or ICU. One of the first revolutionaries in South Africa to join the ranks of the Left Opposition, he left for China in 1930, where he helped establish the Communist League of China (Trotskyist).
Finding details of Frank Glass’s activities is not easy. He preferred not to talk about himself, claiming that his own personal doings were not relevant for an understanding of the workers’ struggle. There is little written about Glass in South African labour histories, and the accounts by Stalinists dismiss him, or indeed twist facts in order to present him in the worst possible light. Yet, Glass was the youngest delegate at the conference in l921 at which it was decided to launch the CPSA, and he was on the Central Executive before he left the party. But even the factors that led to his resignation are fudged, and this conceals a little-known episode in the history of the Communist movement.
Like many early pioneers, and not a few who followed, Glass had to make difficult decisions on the nature of the working class in South Africa, and following from this, he had to decide on where best a revolutionary could work in South Africa. In the process he made mistakes, and he erred with most early Socialists on several issues. But they pale into insignificance when balanced against his achievements, and in presenting this appraisal I think he would have preferred to have the record as it was, and not sanitised to make him a superman. Frank Glass was a revolutionary, and worked through the problems he faced, making the necessary corrections, as he proceeded.
Glass was a member of the Industrial Socialist League (InSL) in Cape Town, a group which published the Bolshevik, and the first to adopt the name Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). The InSL called for the class struggle, the complete overthrow of capitalism, and the dictatorship of the proletariat, a soviet system, affiliation to the Communist International, and mass action by the workers as a means of seizing power. The InSL had established close links with the Johannesburg-based International Socialist League (ISL), led by David Ivon Jones, S.P. Bunting and W.H. Andrews, but were opposed to participation in electoral politics. In this they found allies in Johannesburg, with whom to launch their CPSA. The party (like the ISL) was non-racist, and called for the organisation of all workers in one unified movement.
After a period of negotiations several groups agreed to accept the 21 Points of the Communist International, and joined together to form the united Communist Party of South Africa. The one point that proved to be contentious was the provision that the party participate in political (i.e., electoral) activity, and Frank Glass and four others, opposed to this clause, broke away to form the Communist Propaganda Group in April 1921. This was still a hangover from the strong Syndicalist tendency of the pre-war days, and was not at that time based on opposition to participation in all-white government institutions. That decision to boycott such bodies only emerged in South Africa during the early 1940s, and was accepted then only by groups that had some connection with the Trotskyist movement.
In May 1921 190 Israelites (the name chosen by a chiliastic black church group), were massacred by troops at Bulhoek, near Queenstown in the eastern Cape. It was an unpardonable action perpetrated by the Smuts government, and when four members of the united CPSA protested, they were arrested and charged. Members of the Propaganda Group showed their solidarity by participating in joint meetings, and dissolving their group. Union followed, and when the small groups merged to form the official Communist Party of South Africa in August 1921, Frank was one of the four Cape delegates at the conference.
Frank Glass soon emerged as a leading member of the CPSA, and was secretary of the Cape Town branch in 1922. That was the year of the miners’ strike on the Witwatersrand, which erupted into revolt, and only ended when Smuts used aeroplanes to bomb the main mining areas. Caught in the dilemma of supporting workers who were in conflict with the mineowners, and the anti-black action of a sizeable part of the white working class, he sided with the majority (near-unanimous) view of the party which claimed that the miners were striking in defence of living standards and not for the colour bar. This was a move to the right and Glass erred with the party.
The rightward swing in the CPSA was extended in 1923 when the CPSA, in conformity with Comintern policy, accepted the need for the United Front tactic, and applied for affiliation to the South African Labour Party (SALP). Although rejected, the CPSA supported the SALP, then in alliance with the Nationalist Party in the 1924 general election, and again discussed affiliation at its conference that year. Frank was now a full time organiser in the CPSA, and its business administrator, and he voted to renew the application to affiliate. This time the resolution was narrowly defeated and a number of leading members resigned from the party.
There appear to be three factors that led to the decision to join the SALP. The first arose from Lenin’s advice to the British Communists that they should find a place in their Labour Party in order to win the organised working class away from the Social Democrats. The small Communist groups in Australia and South Africa (and possibly elsewhere) debated the issue to see whether this tactic could be applied in their own countries. Secondly, the isolation of these small groups, and in South Africa this was particularly the case after the disastrous conclusion of the (white) mineworker’s strike, left the small Socialist group even more isolated than before. The third factor that influenced some Communists arose from the letter written by Ivon Jones to W.H. Andrews, the former dying in a sanatorium in Yalta, suggesting that the CPSA be dissolved, and that the party reduce its function to publishing a journal and protecting the interests of the black workers. Glass, in one of his last reminiscences (just a few weeks before his death) remarked on the fact that Andrews used to read Jones’ letters to him.
In February 1925 Glass resigned from the Central Executive, and then the party, declaring that the CPSA had become a sect, and was regarded with some justification as being anti-white. He threw himself into the white trade union movement (he was already treasurer of the SA Association of Employees’ Organisations) and became secretary of the Tailors Union. He also joined the SALP, which was now in the Pact government, in alliance with the Nationalist Party.
His stay in the SALP was short-lived. At the party conference in March 1925 he opposed the proposed Emergency Powers Bill, tabled by Creswell the party leader and Minister of Labour, repudiated the proposed legislation, and moved the resolution against it. Once again Glass was in a minority, and it is doubtful whether he could have stayed much longer. We have no information on his next step, but he must have rethought his position, and moved from a position of leadership in the white trade unions to a precarious position in the major African trade union movement – the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa.
The industrialisation of South Africa had barely begun in the early 1920s when the ICU was launched. After participating in a dock strike the new union spread out to become a broad general workers union under Clements Kadalie, with an enrolment that was said to have reached 150,000. Members were recruited mainly in the African townships, and also in the countryside. Many of its organisers joined the CPSA and officials of the party (including some of the leading whites) spoke at its meetings. At the end of 1926 the Communists were arbitrarily expelled, and although the reasons are still unclear, it seems that this was partly because the ICU leadership feared an impending criticism of financial irregularities, and partly because white liberals exerted pressure on the leaders to remove all Communists from office. There were also accusations that the ICU leaders were resorting to a crude racism in their attacks on the white Communists. The ICU leaders’ claim was that Communists were overbearing and were prying into the internal affairs of the organisation.
It consequently came as a surprise when Glass (later the liberal’s bête noire) was asked to audit the union’s accounts, and prepare a financial statement, as required by the Department of Labour. Kadalie also wanted Glass appointed as financial secretary of the ICU, but there was opposition to a white occupying the post, and he was only appointed in a temporary capacity until an English adviser (himself obviously white) arrived. It has also been suggested that Glass was not appointed because of liberal pressure. History is not made of ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’, but had he secured this post the history of black workers’ organisation might have been very different. On 28 March, Frank Glass, together with W.H. Andrews (who had not left the CPSA but maintained only nominal membership, and worked almost exclusively in the white trade union movement) spoke on an ICU platform in Johannesburg. The gathering had been called to protest against a new Native Administration Act, that provided the legislation for the government to cripple all black organisation. The newspaper report placed the audience at some 2000 Africans, and a small group of whites, Indians, and Chinese. Frank’s address was interpreted by the police as being potentially illegal, and the issue was raised in the South African parliament. We only have the newspaper report (in the Rand Daily Mail, 28 March 1927) of what he said, but it is enough to show why his words were so bitterly denounced in parliament:
If you will do what the Russian workers have done and what the Chinese workers are doing now you – all the workers of this country, black and white – will be able to secure freedom. We don’t know at the moment how far the government is going in its attempt to restrict the freedom of the native workers; but this we do know, that all capitalist governments in their dealings with the workers act precisely alike. Therefore we have got to be prepared, not merely with demonstrations, but also – if it proves to be necessary – with far more drastic action.
It also seems most likely that the remarkable introduction to the ICU Economic and Political Program for 1928 was written by Glass. Nobody else could have phrased the sentiments so cogently:
Opponents of the ICU have frequently asserted that the organisation is not a trade union in the sense that the term is generally understood in South Africa, but that it is a kind of pseudo-political body ... The new constitution... definitely establishes the ICU as a trade union, albeit one of native workers ... at the same time it must be clearly understood that we have no intention of copying the stupid and futile ‘nonpolitical’ attitude of our white contemporaries. As Karl Marx said, every economic question is, in the last analysis, a political question also, and we must recognise that in neglecting to concern ourselves with current politics, in leaving the political machine to the unchallenged control of our class enemies, we are rendering a disservice to those tens of thousands of our members who are groaning under oppressive laws ... At the present stage of our development it is inevitable that our activities should be almost of an agitational character, for we are not recognised as citizens in our own country, being almost entirely disenfranchised and debarred from exercising a say in state affairs closely affecting our lives and welfare.
There is no further information about Frank Glass in secondary sources. In 1928 he married Fanny Klennerman, a veteran member of the CPSA who had organised waitresses and other women workers in the 1920s. Together they started the Vanguard bookshop that was to become the most important source for Marxist and Trotskyist books in the Transvaal, and a focus for people searching for books or pamphlets on Fascism, on Russia, Spain, and China, and on the coming war. Precisely when Glass first moved to the ranks of the Left Opposition is unknown – but he was one of the first Marxists to support Trotsky in South Africa, and the first to write a letter of support to the American oppositionist paper, the Militant, of 29 March 1930. He provided a brief overview of the racism that divided the country, and the working class, for those who knew little about South Africa. White workers would not work with blacks in certain jobs, and debarred them from their trade unions. The high wages of whites, he said, were possible because of the low wages paid to black workers, and he added, the blacks had started organising their own trade unions. His major criticism of the CPSA was its use of the ‘Black Republic’ slogan, coined by the Comintern in its ‘Third Period’, when it directed every Communist party to prepare for the revolutionary overturn of their governments. Amongst the points Glass made against the slogan was that:
Racial animosity on the part of the native [black] members towards the European members has grown and is developing to an almost incredible degree, the native members logically interpreting the slogan as implying superiority for themselves over the hated oppressor (white Communists are included here).
He also maintained that there had been a ‘wholesale desertion of the white proletarian members who would not subscribe to the abandonment of the Marxian slogan “Workers of all lands, unite!”’.
He did not seem to have had much success in building a group in South Africa, and it was two years later (on 4 June 1932) that a letter from ‘four Africans’ in the Transvaal appeared in the Militant. There were also small groups in Cape Town, one of which included one of Glass’s close friends, Manuel Lopes (who later moved to the right). Details of that period are not readily available: none to indicate what happened to Glass’s connections with the ICU, or within the CPSA. Fanny Glass, who had remained in the CPSA, was expelled with other dissidents (including Andrews and Bunting) in 1931. Fanny worked with members of the Left Opposition, but men like Bunting and Andrews did not make the crucial break with Stalinism, and the latter returned during the war as chairman of the CPSA.
The history of the left groups in the Transvaal during the 1930s is only now being rediscovered. Later generations of Trotskyists in Johannesburg knew of Glass because of his one time association with Fanny Klennerman, but all we knew was that he had gone to China, had been involved there in the work of the Trotskyist groups, and (we suspected, correctly) wrote under the name of Li Fu-Jen. We read his articles in the journals that came through to Johannesburg.
It is only now, after Glass’s death, that details have become generally known about his remarkable career. Glass went to China soon after writing his letter to the Militant, and there he met with the American journalist Harold Isaacs. Together they saw the brutal executions of suspected Communists by the Kuomintang more than three years after the blood bath in Shanghai in 1927, and the extermination of most of the Chinese Communist Party. And when Isaacs wrote his classic Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution Glass read the manuscript and suggested changes and additions to the text. This work became the main source of information for several decades on the nature of Comintern policies that led to the defeat of the Chinese revolution.
Glass worked briefly for the Soviet Tass news agency in China, but quit ‘... because of the meaningless content of Tass news’. He then worked as a correspondent for the Anglo-Asiatic Telegraphic Agency. For the remainder of the ’30s Glass worked for several newspapers, edited the China Weekly Review, was a political commentator on radio, and was a member of the Provisional Central Committee, of the Communist League of China (Trotskyists) in the mid 1930s. He wrote the section on China for the programme of the Fourth International.
Glass had now entered the select group that worked with Trotsky, visiting him in 1937, edited some of his English articles, and returned to China, where he was able to find some refuge in the Shanghai French Concession. However, he was compelled to maintain a low profile, fearing betrayal, and persecution from the Stalinists, the French Concession police, and Kuomintang agents. He fled Shanghai a few days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941) and the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. After a circuitous and dangerous route he returned to New York, and established a home with Grace Simons.
A serious appraisal of Frank Glass’s writings will be the most appropriate memorial for a man who devoted so much of his life to the overthrow of capitalism in three continents.
There the account must rest for now. He was a living legend. We must not allow that legend to die.
The more easily accessible sources in which Glass is mentioned in the South African context are: Sheridan Johns, The Birth of the Communist Party of South Africa, International Journal of African Historical Studies, IX, 2, 1976; P.L. Wickens, The Industrial and Commercial Workers Union, OUP, Cape Town 1978; and H.J. and R.E. Simons, Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850-1950, Penguin, 1969 (republished by International Defence and Aid Fund, London).
Frank Glass, veteran of the communist movement on three continents, died in Los Angeles on 21 March, three days before his 87th birthday.
Glass moved to China in 1930, earning his living as a journalist in Shanghai (where he once met Richard Sorge, the German journalist and heroic Soviet spy later executed by the Japanese government). While in China Glass recruited Harold Isaacs to Trotskyism. Isaacs, also a journalist, later wrote, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.
These years in China were the most important of Glass’ political career. In 1934, after a trip to New York where he met with the American Trotskyists, Glass was able to make contact with the Chinese Left Opposition. He was elected to their Provisional Central Committee in 1935. Wang Fan-hsi, who worked with Glass at this time, noted in his book Chinese Revolutionary that this Committee ‘... occupied an important position in the history of the Chinese Trotskyist movement. It was the most enduring and productive of all the bodies we established, reviving and expanding the organisation, both in Shanghai and nationally.’
Glass served for a number of years as the secretary and treasurer of the Chinese organisation. Under the name Li Fu-jen Glass corresponded periodically with the International Secretariat in Europe and with Martin Abern in New York. Glass also performed important courier work for the section and the leading committee of the Shanghai organisation often met in Glass’ apartment. Glass played a crucial role in the publication of the section’s monthly newspaper, Struggle (Tou-cheng), which was financed by Glass donating one half of his journalist’s salary. The regular publication of this voice of Chinese Trotskyism was a remarkable accomplishment given the fierce repression and debilitating underground conditions in which the section was forced to function.
In l937 Glass again visited the US and made a national speaking tour. In August he visited Trotsky in Mexico to discuss the current political situation in China (the transcript of his discussion with Trotsky is printed as A Discussion on China in Pathfinder Press’ Leon Trotsky on China. In New York Glass began writing articles on China for New International, and he was a fraternal delegate to the founding convention of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Chicago in 1938. Glass returned to China in 1938 to continue his organisational and literary work but the impending Pacific War soon made it impossible for him to function politically in Asia. He left China a few weeks before Pearl Harbour and spent most of the Second World War years in New York where, still using the pen name Li Fu-jen, he contributed articles on China, Japan and the Far East to the Fourth International.
After the war Glass moved to Los Angeles and spent a number of years as a leading member of the LA Branch and SWP national committee. The 1960s, however, found him succumbing along with other leading members of the SWP, to the political disease of Pabloist impressionism. Under the name of John Liang he co-wrote a number of internal discussion documents with Arne Swabeck, abandoning the Trotskyist perspective of political revolution against the Stalinist regime in Peking. Ironically, some of the best arguments against Swabeck/Liang’s liquidationism can be found in the powerful Li Fu-jen articles written for the Trotskyist press in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Swabeck was expelled from the SWP in 1967 but Glass was not, and indeed Glass never formally quit the Socialist Workers Party, now led by the cynical anti-Trotskyist Jack Barnes clique.
In the last year of his life Frank Glass granted two sets of interviews with a representative of the Prometheus Research Library. On 14 April 1987, Comrade Glass told us: ‘I have been a revolutionary since I was 18 and have no regrets. I wouldn’t change a thing. All one can do is put your oar in the water and stroke as hard as you can for life’s most important task – social revolution.’ Frank Glass will be remembered as part of the founding generation of Trotskyist cadres, and especially for his courageous work as one of the leaders of the early Chinese Trotskyist movement.
Prometheus Research Library New York
Last updated on 16.8.2003