Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History: Volume 4, No. 4, South Africa: Work in Progress
Work in Progress
In Memoriam: Andreu Nin (1892-1937)
The following is a translation by Mike Jones of a report in the Spanish newspaper El Pais of 6 November 1992 by Enric Company, writing from Barcelona. A parallel account in French appears in Informations Ouvrières , 6-12 January 1993.
‘He is to be found neither in Salamanca nor in Berlin. At a point about 100 metres from Kilometre 17 on the highway from Alcalá de Henares to Perales de Tajuña lie the remains of Andreu Nin, the Catalan politician and intellectual, who was a member of the leadership of the Red International of Labour Unions and a close collaborator of Trotsky in Moscow. Later, in Barcelona during the Republic and the Civil War, he was the main leader of the Partit Obrer d’Unificacio Marxista (POUM), a left Communist organisation. Stalin never forgave Nin for his closeness to Trotsky, and ordered him to be pursued to the end: which in the event was his murder by five Communist agents in 1937.
‘Two journalists from TV3 [a Catalan TV station-Ed], Dolors Genovés and Llibert Fern, have spent six months working in the archives of the KGB and the Communist International in Moscow, as well as those in the Madrid Archivo Histórico Nacional. The documents that they have found prove, for the first time, the theory that Nin was murdered by the Soviet political police. Five men murdered him: Alexander Orlov and Juzik, both NKVD members, and three Spaniards only revealed by the initials L, AF, and IL. With them as spectators and melancholy accomplices were another NKVD agent, the Hungarian Ernö Gerö and his driver, the latter only known by the name Victor, which was probably an alias. A letter sent by Orlov personally to his bosses in Moscow on 24 July 1937 acknowledges that they were the perpetrators. Viewers of TV3 were able to see that letter, with the names of the three Spaniards blanked out. The viewers also saw a smiling functionary pull another letter out of the archives, in which Orlov explained how the accusation that Nin spied for Franco would be fabricated.
‘This false statement by a witness is in the Madrid Archivo Histórico Nacional, as it forms part of the trial that was to be held after the war. The accusation was made by Alberto Castillo, a Spanish police informer, who used the name Fernando Velasco, and it was made in the presence of the policeman Javier Jimenez, who was given the job of protecting him. In the programme Jimenez told the story in his own words.
‘The evidence was a text in code and a plan of the defences of the Casa de Camp in Madrid, which was signed in invisible ink with the letter N, which was supposed to mean Nin. On 16 July 1937 he was ordered to be imprisoned in Barcelona. He was taken to the prison at Alcalá de Henares, although his name was not entered in the register. He was interrogated, and, getting no confession, Orlov decided to kidnap him. In his letters, the Soviet agent calls it Operation Nikolai. A Spanish accomplice, whose identity is not revealed, opened the prison gate one July night. Nin was taken to the cellar of a chalet which no longer exists in Alcalá de Henares, the home of the head of the Republican Air Force, Ignacio Hidalgo de Cisneros and of his wife Constancia de la Mora Maura. There he was tortured in the hope of extracting a confession, but this proved impossible, and two or three days later he was murdered. That is Orlov’s story. And yesterday the Catalan viewers were able to see it.’
Some further details have come to us in a letter from Andy Durgan. He points out that much of the evidence in the documentary was not new, but the Moscow documents were, and they confirm the version by Jesus Hernandez in Yo fui un nunistro de Stalin. The kidnapping from the prison led to the ‘official’ version at the time that Nin had been ‘rescued’ by the Gestapo. Apparently, the PCE members, Ignacio Hidalgo de Cisneros and his wife, a former countess, were not aware that Nin was imprisoned and tortured in their house. According to Jimenez, ‘Juzik’ was a Brazilian, José Escoy, who was ‘in charge’ of the whole affair, and who had been specifically sent from Moscow for this purpose, but nothing else is known about him. Although of great interest, many questions were not answered—in particular who the Spaniards were, the KGB archive having protected them ‘so as not to cause any problems for their families’, and, furthermore, it is not clear how complicit the Spanish and Catalan Communist Party leaders were in the whole affair. There may, of course, be more information in existence that the journalists concerned, who were not experts in this field, may have missed. It is hoped that photocopies of the documents that they cite will be translated and published in one form or another, though whether there is any more information in Moscow remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Socialist authorities in the province of Madrid have given orders to look for Nin’s body, which, if found, will be returned to his birthplace, Vendrell.
Durgan adds that the Andreu Nin Centenary Conference was organised on 25-26 March by the Centre d’Estudis Histories Internacionals in Barcelona. Contributors invited included Victor Alba, Pierre Broué, Andy Durgan, Pere Gabriel, Josep Luis Martin i Ramos, Isidre Molas, Pelai Pages, Jaime Pastor, Wilebaldo Solano and Reiner Tosstorff. There were be papers on both Nin and Maurin, and a report will hopefully appear in a subsequent edition of Revolutionary History.
In Memoriam: Wolfgang Václav Salus (1909- 1953)
A LETTER to us dated 11 September 1992 from Professor Robert Conquest at the Hoover Institute drew our attention to a passage in Moskovski Novosti (2 August 1992) as follows:
‘A report from MGB minister Semyon Ignatiev in March 1953 (after the death of Stalin) to Malenkov, Beria, Molotov, Bulganin and Khrushchev that “the former secretary and bodyguard of Trotsky, Wolfgang Salus, was liquidated by an MGB agent of German nationality by a ‘preparation’ given to him on 13 February, which produces death within 12 to 13 days”, and that he died in hospital in Munich on 4 March without any suspicion arising among the doctors.’
There are some details about Salus in Pierre Broué’s biography of Trotsky, and in Robert Alexander’s work on international Trotskyism. Alexander is often inaccurate on matters about which we know something, but we have no other sources at present. Broué says:
‘The very first foreign militant voluntarily to join LDT in exile and to work for him was without doubt the young Czech Wolfgang V Salus, who was then the first of a string of followers from Prague and the Sudetenland. The son of a doctor, Hugo Salus, who was also one of the greatest poets of the country, the young Wolfgang, even though educated at a military school—Trotsky called him “Krieger” (the warrior)—had broken with his family when still very young. He was 14 when he joined the Young Communists in 1924, and 18 when he was a delegate at an international conference of the Organisation of Young Communists in Moscow.
‘This was, it seems, the first occasion when he made contact with the Russian Left Opposition, and met Trotsky for the first time though we do not have any firm evidence of this. He was in Vienna when Trotsky was expelled from the USSR, and was probably informed of the details by Raissa Adler. He then decided to go and help the exiles. Only the fact that the two men had met before explains why the young Czech, who had no letter of introduction, was welcomed without any problems.
‘His trip and his stay there triggered off a stream of young Communist militants to Turkey. Salus was there that summer when three of his comrades, the engineering worker Ferdinand Jerabeck, the bookbinder Frantisek Kohout, and the young intellectual Jiri Kopp came in their turn...
‘After the break-up of the Czechoslovak group of Rudy Pravo, he [Trotsky] supported Salus, the founder of Jiskra , a journal of the Left Opposition which sought to become the paper of oppositional groups in Brno, Pilsen and Bratislava.’ (P Broué, Trotsky , ppól4, 649)
‘Upon Trotsky’s exile in 1929, Salus volunteered to serve as Trotsky’s personal secretary and bodyguard at Prinki. His group edited for time a periodical Jiskra , named after the publication edited by Lenin early in the century.
‘It was probably the Salus group to which Trotsky was referring when he informed the Russian Left Opposition in 1930 that “the Czechoslovak group which came into existence several months ago is working with great energy; the first of its publications should be out very soon”.
‘It was not until February 1938 that the dispersed Trotskyist groups of Czechoslovakia were in fact brought together to form the Revolutionary Socialist Party. The factions represented at the conference were those... of Jiskra-Das Banner led by Salus and Kopp... It was reported at the Founding Conference of the Fourth International that Wolfgang Salus in Prague headed the official Czechoslovak section of the International.’ (R Alexander, International Trotskyism, pp234-5)
Studies on Trotsky
Two articles by Dr Ian Thatcher in Coexistence (nos 27 and 29) summarise the articles on Trotsky that appeared in the Soviet press in the 1980s up to the coup in August 1991. The evolution and growing divergences amongst Soviet historians over Trotsky’s place in Russian history are traced in a thorough and scholarly way, though he says little of the new archival material, much of which has only become available since the coup. In a footnote, he criticises Judith Shapiro’s article i class="sub"n Revolutionary History (Volume 2, no 2, Summer 1989), perhaps a little unfairly. Dr Thatcher hopes to bring out an annual Journal of Trotsky Studies, the first issue being due in June 1993. For more details, write to Dr Ian Thatcher, c/o University of Glasgow, Institute of Soviet and East European Studies, 29 Bute Gardens, Glasgow G12 8R5.
New Books in German
READERS WILL be delighted to learn that the proceedings of the conference on Trotsky at Wuppertal (reported in Revolutionary History , Volume 3, no 1, p35) have now been published in Germany under the title Leo Trotzi: Kritiker und Verteidiger der Sowjetgesellschaft, ISBN 3-929455-03-X, price DM39.80, pp356. It is edited by Theo Bergmann and Gert Schafer.
Three other works of interest to readers have also appeared from the same source. The first is Mario Kessler, Antisernitismus, Zionismus und Socialismus (ISBN 3-929455-00-5, DM24, pplS6), an extended treatment of a talk at the conference by an historian from the ex-GDR, who, along with most of the others, was sacked in the post-unification purge. The second is a study by Alexander Kan, Nikolai Bucharin und die skandinavische Arbeiterbewegung (ISBN 3-929455-01-3, DM 29.80, pp220), translated from the Swedish by Theo Bergmann, and the third is August Thalheimer, Programrnatische Fragen, a critique of the programme of the Sixth Comintern Congress (ISBN 3-929455-02-1, DM 18.80, ppll2), with a foreword by Theo Bergmann and an introduction by Jens Becker. All four books can be obtained from Decaton Verlag, Postfach 2161, 6500 Mainz, Fax 06131675989.
Robert J Alexander, International Trotskyism 1929-1985 A Documented Analysis of the Movement, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 1991, pp1125, $165.00
This massive tome is the result of an astonishing amount of labour. It begins with a clear and surprisingly objective historical introduction to Trotskyism, and then goes through its various international alignments and the histories of the movement in different countries. A picture emerges of a movement that assumes protean forms depending on its national settings, casting considerable doubts on its being a unitary international movement at all. An honest and in many ways a valuable attempt is made to summarise key political statements, and to sketch out a few of the main forms of activity of their supporters. That makes it a considerable advance upon Pierre Frank’s book The Fourth International, once parodied by Ken Coates as ‘resolutionary Socialism’, eliciting the comment that if Frank’s description was anything to go by, most of ‘the Long March of the Trotskyists’ had been spent on their backsides in some conference or other. So this reviewer can only repeat Joseph Hansen’s verdict on Alexander’s previous book, that ‘for a Social Democrat, he’s done a pretty good job’. But in the end, Trotskyism’s complex history can only be understood from inside, for only in this way can obvious mistakes be avoided (even if bias can create others). Examples of this appear when he talks about the criticism of the USFI by ‘the Morenoist tendency’ without being aware that the ‘Darioush Karim’ whose book he quotes at such length is Nahuel Moreno himself (ppl9-20), or about the ‘Icelandic section’ (p514), a longstanding joke in the movement.
That does not mean that some parts of the book are not of considerable value. As was to be expected, the section on the movement in the USA is one of the best. From it we learn officially for the first time on the authority of Emmanuel Geltman that despite the repeated disclaimers of Burnham and Shachtman, ‘the SWP leaders were aware’ of Bruno Rizzi’s ‘new class’ views on the Soviet Union (p795; cf Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no 2, Summer 1989, p37; Volume 4, no 3, Summer 1992, pp90-2). On the lighter side, the long piece on Lynn Marcus (pp944-52) makes up in entertainment value what it lacks in relevancy. The Vietnamese section is considerably more honest than anything produced by the ‘official’ Trotskyists, and the British and French entries are worthwhile attempts, given the complexity of the material involved. If the book is less successful than it deserves to be, this is probably because writing the history of international Trotskyism is beyond the powers of any single man.
For the sheer hard work of bringing together and making a synthesis of so much material has meant inevitable errors. Apart from incidental slips (such as Mussolini’s invasion of Albania in ‘1938’, or Bert Cochran’s expulsion from the SWP in ‘1963’) and the uneven quality of the name spelling, the author also had to depend on correspondents in each country to read through his chapters. Where there have been a number of them, such as in Britain or the USA, it has been possible to check their statements against each other and arrive at an approximation to reality. But where he has only one or two in a given country this is a dangerous method to use, given the faction-ridden world of the Trotskyist movement. Many of the obvious economies with the truth are due to his informants, and should not be laid to Alexander’s charge at all. In this category we might place Mandel’s statement that his group in Bolivia is at present ‘a force in the political life of the country’ (p23), John Archer’s opinion that in Britain the intervention of ‘the Club’ into the fight between the ‘Blue’ and ‘White’ unions was ‘a success’ (p473), and John Callaghan’s remark that ‘from its origin in the mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s no factions were expelled from the IMG’ (p490).
Quite the worst examples of all occur in the Irish chapter, where the narrative is largely dependent upon O’Connor Lysaght. First we are told that Bob Armstrong went to Ireland with the 1939 WIL delegation, and that Johnny Byrne stayed in Ireland after the delegation had recruited him (p568). Then follows a sanitised account of modern Irish Trotskyism which does not even mention that Peter Graham, one of the IMG’s major activists, was horribly murdered by one of the extreme terrorist factions at the time his group was supporting nationalist terrorism as a method of struggle, apart from the fact that an account that does not even mention Matty Merrigan and Liam Daltun hardly qualifies as a description of Trotskyism in Ireland at all.
Remarks such as ‘what remained of the Revolutionary Communist Group seems to have disappeared’ (p498) can probably be put down to wish fulfilment rather than any intent to mislead, but other errors must be ascribed to factional bias, or to the paucity of information. In this category belong such remarks as that the British Militant in the 1980s ‘had no international affiliation’ (p21), that Pablo thought that ‘entrism might be a matter of centuries-long duration’ (p28), that José Aguirre Gainsborg was killed in ‘an auto accident’ (p118), or that the Bolivian POR regarded Paz Estenssoro as ‘the Bolivian Kerensky’ (pl20) (would that they had!). Alexander’s informants did not tell him that Bracegirdle (p164) was probably operating in Ceylon for the Comintern to pull into line the LSSP’s leaders, whose orthodoxy was already under suspicion, that the minutes of the founding conference of the Fourth International have been tampered with to exclude the Austrian delegation, which opposed its formation along with the Poles and Craipeau (pp27l-2), that Haston and Goffe attended the 1946 Paris pre-conference (pp305-6), that Charlie Van Gelderen had never been in the WIL, nor had John Lawrence supported the RCP majority in 1945 (p470). Similarly, Ajit Roy could hardly have gone to Britain ‘to maintain liaison with the FI’ during the war (p518), since he was in the WIL for the whole of that time.
There is less excuse, however, for Alexander’s failure to make a closer inspection of the Greek movement, where at least five separate groups exist today (p509), or for the poor quality of his sections on Turkey (p739) and Japan (pp599-60l), especially when we remember that Larry Moyes’ account of the Japanese movement came out in California as long ago as 1971. He does not even appear to know that Trotskyist groups existed in Egypt in the 1940s and in Yugoslavia since the early 1970s. And I can only account for his extraordinary remark that Indalecio Prieto was the leader of the ‘centre’ of Spanish Socialism (p680) by the relatively far right position occupied by American Social Democracy itself in the political spectrum.
Some of these types of mistakes could easily have been avoided if Alexander had checked his material for internal consistency. Here I will restrict myself to two examples. On page 496 Alexander quotes Callaghan’s British Trotskyism (a very bad book) about the IMG having ‘no expulsions’, that its ‘political culture is genuinely democratic’, and then tells us only three pages later that this reviewer ‘broke away’ from it ‘over the issue of its abandonment of entrism in the Labour Party’ (p499). By what criteria of ‘democracy’ an opposition amounting to a third of the group, and a majority of its London membership, can be expelled from a Trotskyist organisation for suggesting its members join trades unions (!) and working class parties, where conference votes are fiddled when they don’t turn out the way they should, and purge trials are held in snowbound conditions, remains a mystery to me. A similar conflict of evidence involves the International Communist League, which is described on page 496 as having been ‘expelled’ from the International Socialists, an event that had already been covered 11 pages earlier with the polite euphemism of ‘each went its own way’. (p485).
Other infelicities probably stem from a lack of understanding of the thought world the writer is trying to interpret. Over and over again Trotskyism is discussed as if it were a religious, not a political, phenomenon, and different factions within it are measured against some supposed ‘orthodoxy’, often with ludicrous results. After five pages describing Healy’s antics in the 1970s and 1980s, Callaghan is quoted as saying that ‘the WRP really does defend orthodox Trotskyism’ (p480). The United Secretariat is defined as ‘orthodox’ (p21), yet less than a hundred pages later its Senegalese leader is quoted as rejecting ‘a certain scholastic understanding of Marxism or of a Trotskyism centred primarily on the proletariat’ (pp115-6). As an introduction to a period in which the USFI deliberately turned its back on the working class and advocated ‘Red Bases in the Universities’ and foquismo in Latin America, we are solemnly informed that ‘in the realm of ideas it tended to stick closer to the basic notions put forward by Trotsky than did most of its rivals’ (p755). The inability to apply class criteria to a supposedly Marxist movement becomes quite exasperating, at times seriously affecting the focus of the entries. Thus eight pages (pp53-60) cover the prewar period when Australian Trotskyism gained a vital following within the working class, and 18 pages the history of the middle class sectlets since the mid-1960s (pp62-79), an imbalance that also affects the British and other entries, but not to the same glaring extent.
This absence of Marxist philosophical methodology is also reflected in the sources and structure of the book. The heavy use of secondary material, the concentration upon official statements, and the scant attention to what the rank and file were actually doing, gives this history a top-heavy aspect, apart from the fact that Trotskyist internal documents have always been a lot more revealing about what was really going on than official literature. Added to that there is the arrangement of the book, which is most confusing, listing its subjects mechanically by alphabetic progression. Grandizo Munis ‘FOR’ appears before the Fourth International of which it was an offshoot, the OCRFI between Norway and Panama, and Posadas between Portugal and Puerto Rico. It would have been far better if all the general material dealing with the various ‘Fourth Internationals’ had been grouped in some sort of chronological order at the beginning, leaving the countries to follow in their alphabetical order. As it is, both text and index are very difficult to follow.
But the main reason that this book fails in its brave endeavour is surely that it is premature, attempting a task that is still impossible. The plain fact of the matter is that sufficient material does not yet exist of the quality required to write it. A few examples that have lately come to light are sufficient to establish this. Although the book bears the publisher’s imprint of 1991, it left the writer’s hand as long ago as 1986, and work that has been done since has already rendered large parts of it obsolete. Apart from the Irish chapter, the most unsatisfactory section of all is that on Greece (pp500-9), where the entire period of 1946 to 1967 is missed. It would have been so much better if Stinas’ memoirs and the multi-volume history of Loukas Karliaftis (whose name appears reversed on page 504) had been consulted (cf Revolutionary History, Volume 3, no 3, Spring 1991). At least Alexander would then have been spared such remarks as that Bartzotas’ boast that he had killed ‘600’ Trotskyists is ‘manifestly exaggerated’ (p506), for we know that the KKE regarded Archeio-marxists and any other dissidents as ‘Trotskyists’, making the figure a very plausible one indeed. A perusal of the newly published history of Swiss Trotskyism, David Vogelsanger’s Trotskismus in der Schweiz, a very serious work, would have similarly transformed his Swiss section out of all recognition. None of Lora’s full-length historical works on the Bolivian crisis of 1952 appear to have been consulted, the books of Craipeau and Roussell were not used in the French chapters, nor Leslie Goonewardene’s The History of the LSSP in Perspective in the Sri Lankan. Sam Bornstein’s and my Against the Stream is listed in the bibliography on page 1057, but has evidently not been used in the text, and Alexander appears not to know of the following War and the International at all. The work of this magazine has rendered outmoded several other sections, such as those on Albania (pp32-3), where he is evidently dependent on Rene Dazy’s book alone (cf Revolutionary History , Volume 3, no 1, Summer 1990, pp2l-6; Volume 3, no 4, Autumn 1991, pp37-9), and on Spain, where the oft-quoted Pravda declaration about the intention to murder Trotskyists and Anarchists (p700) would now seem to be apocryphal (Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no 1, Spring, 1989, p47). Worse still, Vereeken’s suspicion that ‘the new Spanish Trotskyist group during the Civil War had in all likelihood been heavily infiltrated by the GPU’, dismissed by Alexander on page 104 as having ‘little basis’, now seems all too true with the evidence at our disposal (Revolutionary History , Volume 4, nos 1-2).
So much that is inferior that is written on the history of Trotskyism obviously intends to be inferior, so it is a cause for real disappointment that a scholarly work that sets out in all honesty to attempt such a mammoth task should fail so disastrously. All we can do is to shrug our shoulders, recalling Cervantes’ remark that ‘heaven favours good intentions’, while reminding ourselves that the road to Hell is paved with them.
Baruch Hirson adds
When Professor RJ Alexander directed questions tome in May 1984 about the Trotskyist movement in South Africa, I answered reluctantly. Although I had written essays on aspects of the movement, spoken with former members, and read what was available, the information I had collected was unverifiable and sparse. Also, as I was to learn later, some of the information obtained from interviews was totally incorrect. Nonetheless, I replied, trying to present as accurate an account as was available.
At the outset I stated my reservations, indicating my disapproval of authors who wrote on South Africa with minimal knowledge of the country’s history or economy.
It need hardly he added that Alexander’s writing appears against a blank background. The history he presents has no indication of conditions in the country, no discussion of the events against which the groups were formed, no indication of the nature of the economy of the country or the nature of the working class. The essay could have been referring to anywhere or nowhere—much in the way in which histories of religious sects are written, with no reference to events in the country in which they took place.
It is necessary that this be stated if there is to be any appraisal of the chapter on South Africa, particularly as Alexander relies on the memory and/or tentative essays of four persons. Each had something to contribute—both by way of fact and of error—and none could speak with certainty as long as documents were unavailable. Professor Alexander was apparently content to quote from the replies he received, mixing the ingredients, and producing a story and some interpretations that bear only the vaguest of resemblances to what had happened in the Trotskyist groups in South Africa. In his account he gets the organisations, the affiliations of members and the arguments on issues wrong on many occasions. In this he was following one or other of his informants—but that is no excuse. The muddle is so profound that the casual reader can never be certain of what is correct and what is muddle.
Alexander’s major fault is, as he says, he had none of the basic documents. He even claims in his book that they cannot be found. Yet, strangely, he never asked me for them. Furthermore, he was so ignorant of what had occurred that he said that he knew very little about Max Gordon or of his activities. Indeed, his essay indicated that he knew little about events in Johannesburg throughout the 1930s. He quoted from a letter by Charlie van Gelderen, who got it completely wrong. But van Gelderen had left South Africa before Gordon went to Johannesburg and was not in the country, as Alexander claimed, in 1939. Unfortunately, van Gelderen was the source of many errors, and he gave generously of his time to those who questioned him, and some of his gaffs appear in this potted history.
The documents that Alexander had available were Trotsky’s letter in response to the Workers Party thesis, and Ruth Fischer’s criticism of the Native Question. He quotes from these, and was not aware that Fischer had misquoted the original thesis. That is, without checking, he compounded Fischer’s errors. In this Alexander quoted from Tony Southall, who was equally at fault in not having checked his sources, although he had in his possession copies of the thesis. A listing of the errors in this 10 page essay would serve little purpose. However, it must be said (pace Alexander) that the Cape Town groups did not differ on the trade union question, and the split was, according to Burlak, on the war question, and not on entryism. Also, Alexander obviously had no information on the dissolution of the Communist League and its disappearance into the Socialist Party. An essay that is written in ignorance of the facts and of basic documents, even those available at the time, and with obvious lacunae in the history, can have little value.
The reading of documents is not proof against false conclusions—but the historian must at least have these available before a coherent account can to be written. More than this, there must be some insight into the period in the country’s history, the members and their actions. In the absence of such evidence and insights, what is written can only misinform.
Ted Crawford adds
Alexander’s entry on New Zealand is often inaccurate, as he has been led astray by his informants, who clearly originate around the American Socialist Workers Party, and who, therefore, only provide information which relates to their own followers in the South Seas. Without exactly lying, others are, as far as possible, read out of the movement, and those who behave in this way think that their deceit, of the suppressio veri and suggestio falsi variety, will not be discovered. However, in this age of cheap air fares, fibre optics and fax machines, the pretensions of the various internationals are more easily exposed than they were 40 years ago, though the obverse of this salutary consequence of technological development is that pretentious ‘Internationals’ of two or three individuals on each continent can exchange long, windy and worthless disquisitions with great facility.
Most of the following material and some of the political judgements in this piece come either from Hector MacNeill, who can claim to be New Zealand’s longest serving Trotskyist, or from Bill Logan, whilst Rick Hill has also helped by checking much of the information in this section. The responsibility for interpreting and selecting their comments is, however, entirely mine. I met some of the leaders of the Socialist Action League in 1977, and Jesson and Owen Gager in 1982.
Alexander claims that Trotskyism started in New Zealand with student militancy during the 1960s. This is true only in the sense that two organisations claiming to he Trotskyist appeared at that time, but neither fell out of a clear blue sky, and there is a prehistory of the movement which goes back to the late 1930s. On some occasions before the Second World War, the New Zealand Maori, Charles White, addressed meetings organised by Australian Trotskyists at the Sydney Domain, but, as far as we know, he did not carry out any such political activity in New Zealand itself. It has been stated that the Canadian Trotskyist, Tom MacDonald, spent part of the war in New Zealand, but there is no record of any activity by him. Of course, there were a number of left wing critics of Stalinism who were denounced by the Communist Party of New Zealand as ‘Trotskyist’, though they themselves would not have accepted the label.
However, the most important name in Trotskyist oral tradition was Noel (WN) Pharazyn, a senior official of the Clerical Workers Union. His prolific writings in Tomorrow, a journal of the Popular Frontist intelligentsia, may show minor differences with the official Stalinist line in the direction of Trotskyism, his works certainly ceased to be published by the Stalinists after a difference with them in 1937 over the Moscow Trials, and he also owned a copy of Revolution Betrayed (see Barrowman, The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950, Wellington, 1991, and the comment by Denis Glover on the split on the Editorial Board of Tomorrow in The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature, p572). For much of the 1930s he worked with the trade union leader and writer Fintan Patrick Walsh, whose original name was Touhy. (He was nicknamed ‘Toughy’ for his behaviour. He was reputed to have thrown scabs overboard or even into a furnace. The story that he was in Butte, Montana, when the militant worker Frank Little was lynched is probably to confuse Walsh with K Baxter of the Federation of Labour who used to claim that he had been there.) Walsh resigned from the Communist Party over a personal issue in 1924, though he remained friendly with them until 1931, and he played a most positive part in the 1925 seamen’s strike (cf Baruch Hirson and Lorraine Vivian, Strike Across the Empire, 1992, London, pp44ff). As early as 28 July 1934 there is a letter replying to him from the (Trotskyist) Workers Party of Australia and a report in their paper, The Militant, November 1935, of a resolution carried at a New Zealand Seamen’s Union meeting which closely followed the Trotskyist line on the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Walsh was, among his other roles, both President of the Seamen’s Union from 1927 until his death in 1963, and President of the Wellington Clerical Workers Union in 1939. He wrote a letter to Trotsky on 3 January 1940 at the outbreak of war enclosing a resolution from a ‘stopwork meeting of New Zealand seamen’ which denounced Stalin’s aggression against Finland and took a Shachtmanite position (Trotsky archives at Harvard, T2 5827), whilst the text of the resolution can be found in the Wellington Evening Post, 7 December 1939. To this Trotsky replied with a cordial if guarded reply on 19 February 1940. (See Rick Hill on the ‘The Myth of FP Walsh as a Trotskyist’, Partisan , journal of the Marxist Labour Group, Spring 1971 [the only issue].) This is the only letter from Walsh that could be traced in the archives by Pierre Broué. Walsh was eclectic in his reading habits, and got material from a wide variety of sources, including the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
Though he played a very nasty role both in the 1940s, when, as part of the bureaucracy, he was responsible, with Pharazyn, for the expulsion of John A Lee from the Labour Party on 27 March 1940 (cf The John A Lee Diaries, Christchurch, 1981, p209, and Erik Olssen, John A Lee, University of Otago Press, 1977, p151), whilst his role in the waterfront dispute of 1951 was positively McCarthyite, it is possible that at an earlier period, or even then, he thought of himself as a Trotskyist. At a minimum, it would be necessary to examine the Walsh papers in the Turnbull Library in Wellington, and to go through the copies of the Australian Militant for references to New Zealand, as well as following up any leads that might arise from this, both to resolve this question and the broader one of Trotskyist influences in the country before the war. Max Riske, now aged 87, who was a leading member of the Friends of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, and who later worked with Walsh and Pharazyn (see his entry in the current New Zealand Who’s Who for details of his importance as an educationalist), was interviewed by Bill Logan in January 1993 to provide information for this review. He says that Walsh and Pharazyn were close friends, were best described as ‘radical liberals’, came out of the Wobbly tradition, read and informally discussed some of Trotsky’s writings, and agreed with many Trotskyist positions, but never constituted a Trotskyist organisation.
It must be remembered that the CPNZ was admitted to the Third International only in 1927, and they had little contact with Moscow until after 1928. New Zealand was very isolated, far more so then than today, and it may well be that in the 1930s some trade union bureaucrats played with some Trotskyist ideas for their own purposes. A connecting link between them and later times may be Conrad Bollinger, who, at a later period, in conversation admitted that he may have over-emphasised the Trotskyism of Walsh (cf Against the Wind, New Zealand Seamen’s Union , Wellington, 1968, p167), but who researched Walsh, and who defended the dissemination of Trotskyist views in a sometimes hostile atmosphere in the 1960s. It was Bollinger and his CPNZ friends who denounced Walsh in an anonymous, bitter little pamphlet, produced under illegal conditions, where it is stated that Walsh’s name was really Touhy, when the latter attacked the left in the great New Zealand waterfront lockout of 1951 (for some reason this event is called a strike by the right, but a lockout by the left). So bitter in tone was the Wellington pamphlet that the Auckland CPNZ branch refused to distribute it, saying it was far too personal. Yet in 1958, when Walsh came under attack from a group of Catholic reactionaries in the union led by Butler, he swung back to the left again, even if he did end his life owning an extremely large and very well-appointed farm. (He was always rumoured to have had large sums at his disposal from some mysterious source.) He was a most complex and fascinating character, and a biography is long overdue.
A more important date for the genesis of New Zealand Trotskyism was in 1955, when Hector MacNeill, at that time a teacher working in Wellington, returned from a visit to Britain and Eastern Europe, and broke with the CPNZ, believing that the ‘World Communist Movement’ was Stalinist and anti-Marxist. At about the same time, Owen Gager, who became a provisional member of the CPNZ whilst in his first year at Auckland University in 1956, was deeply affected by events in Hungary, immediately and rapidly read every book by or on Trotsky in the library, and left the Party. Gager, who was, and is, a most talented if sometimes eccentric individual, saw himself as a Trotskyist, and defended Trotskyist positions on a number of issues. From September 1964 he put out a journal called Dispute, which did not present itself as Trotskyist, but rather as a journal of the broad left, but, in its 19 issues, published a quantity of explicitly Trotskyist material, ranging from Tony Cliff’s positions (British SWP) to those of James Robertson (US Spartacist League), and polemicised against the economic-nationalist protectionism of the New Zealand left. Logan says that Gager was a brilliant, articulate, widely read man of broad interests and a prolific writer—something completely out of place in New Zealand. Despite a frail, bird-like appearance he was enormously energetic. But he was an organiser’s nightmare, and an extraordinarily difficult person with whom to work, and he had a way of leaving behind him distraught printers and a string of enemies as he moved through the New Zealand archipelago. To illustrate his wit and ability both to impress and antagonise, Jonathan Hunt, a leading member of the right wing Large Labour government, said in 1987 that Gager ‘was one of the most intelligent men I have ever met’ (cf ‘How Auckland's Intellectual Left of ‘Sixties Took Over the Country’ in the June 1987 issue of the upmarket glossy magazine Metro), whilst Gager, after introducing Hunt to Logan in 1967, said of Hunt afterwards: ‘He’ll make a good Labour politician—he has a mind of monumental complacency and microscopic imagination.’ Whether this got back to Hunt or not, in the nature of things, similar shrewd and wounding judgements on others often did. This whole period of fascinating intellectual debate, when Trotskyist ideas were influencing quite broad sections of New Zealand’s intelligentsia, some of whom later became the right wing Labour ideologues of the present day, but before any real Trotskyist organisations had crystallised out, was recalled in the October 1992 issue of Metro by Bruce Jesson, a prominent leader of the New Labour Party, who remembers Owen Gager calling for an end to the protected and regulated market in the 1960s in his magazine Dispute. By implication, Gager, whilst attacking the narrow insularity of the Labour Party, was a forerunner of Lange, and thus a partisan of international capitalism. Jesson, who considers himself a Marxist, was never a Trotskyist, but was influenced by Maoism, has consistently called for a republic and both an economic and cultural nationalist orientation, seeing New Zealand ‘independence’ as a rallying cry, and so has his own peculiar Popular Front political fish to fry. He is now a leading member of, and the brains behind, the New Labour Party in Auckland. But this entire epoch, which, when the roots of the present era come to be examined, needs a far deeper and more general account than the one sketched out here, was entirely missed by Alexander’s informants, if indeed they were ever aware of its existence and significance.
From 1956 Gager and MacNeill were both active in the New Zealand Labour Party, and first met in 1957 at the New Zealand University Summer Student Congress (a festival rather than a conference). For the remainder of the 1950s Gager continued to disseminate general Trotskyist ideas among a sizeable number of individuals, and influenced far more people than could MacNeill, whose contact with the student milieu was limited, though, in MacNeill’s view, Gager’s behaviour detracted from his often successful work, and sometimes more harm than good resulted. Gager travelled to Australia from time to time, and there met people from the Australian section of the Fourth International, including both those who supported Pablo and those who had split from him. Without telling MacNeill, Gager arranged for the ‘New Zealand Trotskyists’ (sic) to become part of the Australian ‘Section’ of the latter group. At this time, MacNeill was quite unclear as to the real issues involved in the split, and was unwilling to take sides on another individual’s unilateral initiative. In any case it was hardly practicable for two people living 1300 miles apart to make any contribution to the so-called ‘Section’, though in Quatrième Inteniationale, Volume 18, no 1, October-November 1960, p94, a New Zealand link-up with the Australian section is reported. Nothing else resulted from this, and, as far as MacNeill is aware, Gager and the Australian section forgot about their link with New Zealand as soon as it was announced.
Shortly after this, MacNeill broke off political relations with Gager, and the latter, coming later on under the influence of the American Spartacists in the mid-1960s, himself broke from the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, and, after coming back to New Zealand, participated in the Socialist Labour Movement (1966-67) centred on Christchurch, an entrist organisation which was influenced by Trotskyism, and which contained in addition to him Paul Piesse, Keith Locke and Nevil Gibson. After Gager declared his solidarity with the Spartacist League on 8 January 1967, he then created a New Zealand Spartacist Group comprised of people from the university. In 1970 it recruited Bill Logan, who was until 1968 Chairman of the University National Party (the New Zealand Tories), and later editor of Salient, the weekly student newspaper in Wellington. MacNeill states that Logan, though not formally an Spartacist League member, was with the Spartacist League politically from 1967 whilst still a member of the National Party, although this is denied by Logan. MacNeill is very critical of Gager for allowing this. Alexander correctly points out that the New Zealand Spartacists emigrated en masse to Australia in the 1970s—it was in fact January 1973—although Gager had left them or been pushed out previously—actually on 16 March 1972.
Meanwhile, by the late 1960s, MacNeill had built round him a small group of students from Victoria University, and was involved with them in anti-Vietnam war and anti-racist activity relating to sporting links with South Africa. They revived the University Socialist Club, in 1969 started to produce the Red Spark magazine (mentioned by Alexander), and had some influence. With the intensification of the Vietnam War and New Zealand’s participation in it, there was a considerable student youth mobilisation, and for the first time there was an opportunity to spread Trotskyist ideas widely.
In early 1969 MacNeill learnt through his international contacts that Barry Sheppard, a prominent member of the American SWP, proposed to visit Vietnam and Australia later that year. He accordingly invited Sheppard to stay with him at his home in Wellington, and, in June 1969, discussions took place there with MacNeill and other members of the Socialist Club over a period of 10 days. The inaugural meeting of the Socialist Action League took place in August 1969 (not 1959 as misprinted in Alexander’s book) and speakers from the USA visited New Zealand under the aegis of the SAL. The SAL’s newspaper, Socialist Action , had a readership of several hundred, and membership of the League grew quite rapidly.
However, in 1970 Keith Locke, a New Zealander who had been living in Canada since late 1967, and who had been active in the Canadian section of the Fourth International, returned to New Zealand, and fundamental differences swiftly arose in the SAL. In Canada Ross Dowson had the position that foreign capital in Canada had to be singled out as the main enemy, rather than local capital. The same line was proposed by Locke in New Zealand. MacNeill argued that this was the case for a Stalinist Popular Front of workers and ‘progressive’ local capitalists, and that New Zealand’s position in relation to Britain and the United States was similar to the relationship of Norway and Sweden to Britain before First World War as interpreted by Lenin. New Zealand was not like Brazil or the Philippines. The majority of the SAL followed the Dowson line and opted for chauvinism, whilst there were also important differences on the anti-war agitation, which, in MacNeill’s view, followed the American SWP far too closely. Logan’s distinct view of the flavour of this whole period from 1967 onwards can be found in the autobiographical ‘Never Exactly One of The Lads’ in Michael King (ed), One of the Boys? Changing Views of Masculinity in New Zealand, Auckland, 1988, although, alas, much of the politics in this account have been edited out.
In MacNeill’s opinion, though the SWP correctly formulated the United Front slogan ‘Bring the Troops Home’, it totally submerged its party position on colonialism and the war itself in its own papers, and its journal appeared unblemished by anything so extreme as Marxism. Thus many radicalised US students and workers regarded it as far too tame, and moved on to Maoist and sometimes Spartacist positions. MacNeill believed that the Spartacists, who called for ‘Victory to the National Liberation Front’, were equally mistaken, as they entirely ignored the United Front tactic, and preferred sectarian purity. Again, the majority of the SAL followed the SWP line with such fidelity that on one occasion in April 1972 at a Victoria University general meeting of the Student Association with perhaps 1,000 present, when a motion was proposed that a large donation from student funds be donated for medical aid to assist the Vietnamese victims of America military action, the SAL argued and voted against the motion with the ultra-Right, Tories, neo-Fascists and assorted warmongers (cf Salient , 11 April 1972). Nothing in the League’s publications had prepared them to deal with such a complex political question.
On a number of occasions MacNeill wrote to the USFI, pointing out the aid such behaviour gave to the Stalinists, but he never received a reply, or even an acknowledgment. In March 1971, together with about a fifth of the membership, MacNeill left the SAL and helped to create the Marxist Labour Group, which produced a number of publications, and which sought to link itself to the USFI as a sympathising organisation. Most of those who had left with him lapsed swiftly into inactivity, and by April 1973 there were very few of them, whilst the SAL continued to grow throughout the 1970s. At the 1972 World Congress MLG letters were ignored by the Secretariat, and when a supporter in Britain tried to find out where the World Congress was to be held so that he could attend and support the application for membership in person, he was always fobbed off and only learnt of the details after the congress was over. On another occasion a comrade living in the Netherlands rang Ernest Mandel’s home for 28 consecutive days before the great man deigned to answer him personally. No satisfactory explanation was ever forthcoming as to why the MLG was unworthy of sympathising status, and the SAL became the official section of the USFI. Thus in this very different and much narrower political milieu, the small MLG more or less disappeared by 1974, though MacNeill and Hill published Albanians Rubbish Mao’s Three Worlds Theory under its imprint as late as March 1978. It is important to note that the great political activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was almost exclusively focused on single issue campaigns, and that, despite the growth of the little Trotskyist groups mentioned above, Stalinism, in its various guises, was still the dominant ideological tendency on the left then, above all in the working class.
Alexander’s reference to the industrial activity of the SAL glosses over the fact that for its first eight years of existence all the young workers encountered were simply involved in student political issues on war, abortion and race, and not at all on class issues. Thus most of them were rapidly alienated and lost. In around 1977 or 1978 the SAL started to implant its students in industry, but, in a bizarre twist, when SAL members were nominated for any union office they always turned it down, and their inexplicable behaviour bewildered and sometimes angered the rank and file. Alexander quotes Russell Johnson, the SAL National Secretary, as saying that ‘the axis of our work has not been to build up a layer of SAL Meat Union officials’, but he does not note that whilst the quest for bureaucratic positions has harmed workers’ parties, so has dogmatic rank and fileism like this. A further comical aspect was that Socialist Action often used American trade union terms quite unknown to New Zealand workers, which suggested that its readers in the New York head office were thought to be more important than those in the New Zealand meat plants.
Whilst Alexander points to the work on Maori rights that the SAL has undertaken, the correctness of such an orientation depends on how it is implemented in practice, and it is obligatory for Marxists to distinguish themselves from national chauvinists. But nothing was ever said by the SAL to make it clear that the interests of Maori workers must take precedence over the Maori bourgeois nationalism which sought to cut off Maori workers from unity in action with workers of European descent. When the struggle for national rights was falsely counterposed to the rights of the working class as a whole, Socialist Action kept silent, and so left the field open to class enemies of both national categories of workers.
Finally, there is a passage in Alexander’s work which is very puzzling, and which suggests that he has misunderstood the material given to him by friends of the SAL in the USA. This states that ‘speakers were particularly critical of the popular enthusiasm raised over the Lange government’s refusal to allow nuclear powered warships to dock in New Zealand’. It has been the position of every left group in New Zealand, including the SAL, that such visits by American ships strengthened imperialism in the world and the region, and hence they all called for an end to them. When Lange’s ultra-right wing Labour government came to power, he astutely implemented this anti-nuclear policy whilst carrying through a vicious anti-working class economic strategy. So the left feared that, if Lange were attacked too strongly, they might lose their influence on his foreign and defence policy. Perhaps the material given to Alexander made this clear, but he has misread it.
The strengths of the SAL—and despite the tone of this review these did exist—were a serious attitude to organisation and its paper, and a most business-like attitude to administration, all characteristics of the American SWP, and it would be fair to say that it is the only organisation in New Zealand openly claiming to be Trotskyist which has had in the past a real national presence in the three main population centres. However, Socialist Action ceased publication in 1988, and the SAL changed its name to the Communist League. At the last report it was making efforts to persuade New Zealanders to go to Nicaragua and Cuba on ‘brigade’ type activities. It has never done anything on the issue of unemployment, though this is now an enormous problem in New Zealand. It won only 14 votes in a recent Wellington by-election, and is now three very small groups in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington. In the last city Logan claims that they are smaller than his PRG group. The decent and self-sacrificing members of the SAL deserved a better and less bankrupt political home. The only other tendency mentioned by Alexander is the Socialist Labour League that was influenced by the late Gerry Healy. All that needs to be said of the Healy group is that it came into existence after a visit to the country by Corin Redgrave. A paper was produced, but both it and the organisation, which numbered half a dozen at most, did not last long. Its polities and activity were similar to those of its British sponsors.
Other groups not mentioned to Alexander by his informants are more recent. In 1986 a national organisation called the Socialist Alliance was formed (now moribund), which was a bloc between the Communist Left group in Auckland around Dave Bedgood and the Christchurch-based Revolutionary Communist League around Geoff Pearce. The former had some relationship with the British Revolutionary Communist Party, whilst the latter was associated with Ernest Mandel’s USFI. A grouplet in Wellington around Logan, which had split from the Spartacists, but which kept many of their positions, also joined the Alliance and formed the Permanent Revolution Group within it. All were small. By 1993 the Revolutionary Communist League seems to have disappeared, whilst the PRG, after being expelled from the New Labour Party in April 1990, has grown slightly and has joined the International Bolshevik Tendency. The Communist Left has also grown, has changed its name to Workers Power, and is now linked internationally to the League for a Revolutionary Communist International.
At present, Hector MacNeill is in retirement in Northland, and, sadly, his state of health has forced him to withdraw from all activity, although he stood as the New Labour candidate in the far north in the last elections. Owen Gager lives in Melbourne, and, according to some reports, has evolved to some sort of pre-Leninist Trotskyist position. Logan is active in Wellington with the PRG. The author, whilst thanking Bill Logan, Hector MacNeill and Rick Hill again for their material, which is in the Socialist Platform archive, hopes that this extended review, together with the article by Alexander, provides at least the outline for a history of New Zealand Trotskyism, and would welcome any amendments or corrections.
To be continued. The above constitutes the first part of our review of this extensive work. The second part, covering the section on Latin America, will appear in the next issue of this journal.
Robert Fine with Dennis Davis, Beyond Apartheid: Labour and Liberation in South Africa, Pluto Press, 1990, pp338
Hillel Ticktin, The Politics of Race: Discrimination in South Africa, Pluto Press, 1991, pp 115
Bob Edgar (ed), An African American in South Africa: The Travel Notes of Ralph J Bunche (28 September 1937-1 January 1938), Ohio University Press, Witwatersrand University Press, 1992, pp398
During the past few years two books have appeared, both written by writers who are sympathetic to the ideas of Leon Trotsky, although differing in their political affiliation. Hillel Ticktin is editor of Critique, but does not belong to any political group. Robert Fine has been for several years an active member of Socialist Organiser.
The books are so different that this review will note the contrast in their approach and appraisal, and this review should be read as a supplement to the material on the history of South African Trotskyism. Ticktin’s work is couched in Marxist language, and he presents his analysis in terms of categories through which he claims to present a critique of the South African political economy. Whatever the merits of the book, this is a remarkably one-dimensional account, in which people appear as shadows, and events are selected to provide a backdrop for the chosen categories. Fine’s work is steeped in the history of people and their working class organisations. However, naming characters without trying to understand what motivated them renders this another one-dimensional work, albeit in a different dimension from that of Ticktin. Fine has looked at the history of the working class in South Africa, and he knows what people did. What he lacks is an understanding of the factors that drove them, and that leads him to judgements that might be formally correct, but show no empathy for persons who had to make snap decisions without the benefit of hindsight.
Starting first with Fine and Davis, I was struck by the approach found in the opening pages. This offered hope of fresh insights into the history of the struggles of the twentieth century. On page x they write:
‘In the history of the liberation movement, nothing could be more erroneous than the image of black people as an undifferentiated mass united by a single political consciousness in their opposition to apartheid. The history of class struggle has been one of debate and dissent, sharp breaks and abrupt turns, competing political organisations and traditions, ad hoc alliances and unpredicted outcomes.’ However, this promise is not sustained. The authors had obviously wandered through existing literature, choosing bits and pieces to provide a background history of trade unionism, mainly African, from 1930 to 1947. Some sections were familiar, having come from documents, supplied or mentioned, during a joint course which I presented with Bob Fine at Warwick University. The use of original data is admirable, but Fine and Davis have their own agenda, and I found myself in profound disagreement with them as I read on. It was when I came to their final conclusions that I saw most clearly why they were seeing matters so very differently from myself. They had started out with the proposition that the black working class was inchoate and backward, and that the industrialisation after the depression of 1929-31 had produced a large working class, but it was immature and unable to stand up against a ruthless ruling class. With much of this I concur. But their reading led to the conclusion that the trade union movement, built and formed by Max Gordon and Dan Koza, could not have survived once the ruling class decided to clamp down. That was what the Smuts government proposed, and their argument sounds superficially convincing. However, the authors’ treatment of the mineworkers’ strike of 1946, tailored to fit into their thesis, indicates that they had missed the point made by Dunbar Moodie, and somewhat differently by myself, as discussed in Yours For the Union .
The period that is being dealt with here is that of the Second World War. During these years several of the unions, and the Mine Workers Union in particular, were controlled by members of the Communist Party of South Africa. The original impulse for their entry into this union was made during their anti-war period, and the object was to embarrass the government severely. By the time the union was formed, Germany had invaded the USSR, and the position of the CPSA had altered. Henceforth, strikes were to be discouraged and stopped if possible. Officially, the party’s papers said that they understood the reasons for all the industrial action, but urged negotiations or even restraint. Wildcat strikes in the mines were deprecated, and everything was done to get the men back to work as quickly as possible. Eventually, the miners forced through a call for a strike, and the union officials, somewhat tamely, accepted a resolution that the men be called out within a week. Yet the union was completely unprepared. The Council of Non-European Trade Unions (which had previously pledged support) was not informed, and only heard of the decision from the newspapers. It was not even called upon to put into effect its promise of assistance. When the men came out in August 1946, it was not primarily because of allegiance to the union. In most cases the men, hearing of impending action, but not knowing who had called the strike, came out spontaneously. The union leader, JB Marks of the CPSA, carelessly got himself arrested, leading Communists were out of town, the sympathy strike never took place, and the miners were beaten back to work. Little of this is stated by the authors. Instead, Fine and Davis ask socratically whether the unions were not wise in avoiding strike action earlier, and in the same breath suggest that the strike ‘highlighted the inefficiency of the liberal model of industrial relations held by the union leadership in the face of the ruthlessness of the state and mineowners on one side, and the desperate rebelliousness of the mineworkers on the other’.
Obviously the union would encounter ruthless opposition; obviously it would be harassed and intimidated. But the union did little organising, and in its public posturing acted mainly as a body to restrain the workers. The strike might have failed, as Fine and Davis say it had to, but the workers never had a chance. They were driven to desperation, and they were provoked by members of the CPSA to take action after Churchill’s Fulton speech, which opened the way for Truman’s provocative acts in the Mediterranean, and 70,000 miners downed tools. This was less than 20 per cent of the workforce. These details, which provide a different perspective from that of the authors, are bypassed.
In the next chapter, the war that was barely mentioned in chapter one is discussed, but without any position being taken on the role of the left during the war. That is discussed in chapter three, and is used mainly to condemn the Trotskyists. And although they note the switch by the CPSA (in fact a double switch from pro- to anti- and back to pro-war), there is little reference back to the discussion in the first chapter. The reader cannot fault Fine and Davis for their position. That is their prerogative. But it already seems by the time page 30 is reached that this is not a text that might develop a useful Marxist discussion.
Skipping to the third chapter, some of the faults of the book become more marked. Fine and Davis believe that the Trotskyist position was based purely on attacks on the Stalinists. This is not the place to explain once again the struggle against a worldwide movement that was throttling the working class movement. Nor is it my purpose to exculpate the South African Trotskyists for their failure to advance further. However, two interconnecting factors have to be grasped when historians view what happened. Firstly, they must have an understanding, if not empathy, for the persons and the organisations under discussion, and that also means that they must have the facts. Some of us have discussed the events in the South African left for years, but we only published articles or chapters of books when there were documents. Even then we had problems, because only part of the story was revealed in the documents we retrieved. Fine had only part of what has since been found, but it is a travesty of historical writing to proceed on the smell of a rag and write with so little documentation about groups like the Trotskyists.
Chapter three provides one further potted history that, correct as it is in some respects, bowdlerises the story, and gives an account that fails to understand what occurred. Fine did not have access to the theses sent to Trotsky, and, quoting the Workers Voice, he and Davis even date Trotsky’s letter as prior to the thesis on the Native Question. Nor did they have the criticism of Ruth Fischer, or the letters that establish Gordon’s position in Johannesburg as working outside of the Workers Party. Of Gordon they claim that he did not have a programme, and so on. They blunder along until they come to the article on Palestine in The Spark, presumably one of the few copies they found. At last they are on solid ground, and they lambast the writer of that article, correctly, I think, but this tells us little about the group and its work in Cape Town.
The events in the Left Opposition in the 1930s are open to criticism, but this must be placed in some perspective. If, as the authors say, the working class was immature, the problem in Cape Town was the difficulty in forging an alliance between the Coloureds and the smaller African community. It was this that took Goolam Gool into the National Liberation League, but he resigned his official position when he believed that the struggle had been betrayed by leading members of the CPSA. What they did not know was that the Cape Town group had only three activists, only one of whom (Clare Goodlatte) was employed. They wrote and published a journal, they ran a Socialist club, were in financial straits, yet they sent money to a dozen appeals from oppositionists in Europe, and it seems, exhausted themselves over five years in trying to build a movement. The Cape Town Trotskyists made many mistakes, but no study of their actions can ignore the composition of the group. It is also difficult to excuse the early groups in Johannesburg. The fights and splits were execrable. Nonetheless, they did not ignore the white workers—as Fine maintains. They were marginalised by Sachs (an unreformed Stalinist) and those so loosely quoted by the authors. Their only sphere of activity was among the African workers, and it was there that Gordon made his mark. His efforts could have been afforded a less negative appraisal. In like fashion, the caustic comments on the work of the Workers International League could have been tempered, after further reflection, by some positive statements of its work. There were never more than half a dozen activists. They built up a considerable influence in the trade unions, and because of the fragility of the trade unions they were prepared to work with bureaucratic leaders; they cooperated with the teachers in their campaign for better conditions; they worked in community movements (negating Fine’s claim that their policy was syndicalist); they even tried to get a toehold in the white unions, but were rebuffed. They also carried on all the functions of a Socialist movement, holding public meetings, producing a newspaper, pamphlets and journals, and so on. Yes, they made serious errors, and their implosion was inexcusable. But was there nothing they did that pleases Fine and Davis from their elevated positions in the universities, 50 years on?
If that was all, the book would be rather lightweight. The authors do have serious arguments against the all-too-muddled thinking on the national liberation movement, and in a later section of the book, a damning indictment of those (including myself) who became involved in sabotage groups. Theoretically they are correct, but once again it must be said that they do not explore the factors that took so many into the movements that espoused, and practised, violence. That requires a volume in itself, and will be discussed elsewhere. Readers who are prepared to walk warily (and wearily) through the maze of errors generated by Fine and Davis, might wish to explore some of the problems of South Africa with them.
Hillel Ticktin was born in South Africa, studied at the University of Cape Town, and attended lectures by Jack Simons, the doyen of CPSA-SACP theoreticians and later tutor of Umkhonto We Sizwe commissars in Angola. Ticktin obviously believes that Simons represented a considerable advance on other Communists, but to describe Simons as belonging to the left of the CP, is only to call into question the meaning of the word ‘left’. On the campus, Ticktin worked in groups that were sympathetic to the teachings of Leon Trotsky. This made him a natural rebel when he obtained a scholarship given by the ANC for study in the USSR. He emerged from the course convinced that there was no Socialism in the USSR, and no adherence to Marxism. His experiences are partly reflected in his essays in the journal Critique and elsewhere, and in his book on the Soviet Union. His writings illuminated a subject that was otherwise opaque, and he was able to cut through many of the past debates on the nature of that society.
Whilst in the USSR he presented a thesis, researched in the years 1961-65, which provided a comparison of racialism in South Africa and the USA. The thesis was not accepted, he says, because he would not accept the line on the USA demanded of him by his supervisor. This book is an update of the section he wrote on South Africa in the rejected thesis.
This book follows a different path from most other writers on South Africa. Firstly, he makes no concession to the reader’s ability to follow his arguments. He uses language like a bludgeon, assumes that his readers can follow his logic, does not stop to define key concepts, and, when he refers to persons or movements, seems to believe that his readers should know to whom or what he is referring. He is not overconcerned by dull historical facts, the book contains no accounts of class struggles, except for the 1922 general strike, which he needs to buttress his arguments, he says nothing about trade unions or community struggles (which he ascribes, incorrectly, to Stalinist influences), has peculiar ideas of what happened historically, and has only a crude conception of what happened inside the Trotskyist groups. Instead, Ticktin sets his eyes on unravelling the categories through which South Africa should be understood. Only then, he argues, can the nature of the problem in South Africa be explained.
The introduction of new categories in Marxist analyses is a standard procedure, and fruitful if they allow for new, more incisive, interpretations. That is, categories used in a critique of a social structure are invaluable if they allow the investigation to produce new understanding, and uncover hitherto unsuspected connections or contradictions which provide an insight into unfolding events. Such categories should be consistent with the existent corpus of Marxist theory, and if they are new or relatively unknown they must be well defined. If, however, they do not lead to new insights, then, in line with Occam’s razor, they must fall away, because simpler concepts can do the same work more expeditiously. It is my belief that the insights that Ticktin offers in his book, new and perceptive as they are, could have been made without the introduction of his new categories. In fact, these only serve to obscure his analysis, and make his text even less readable.
Requiring a critique of political economy in South Africa, Ticktin introduces, or redefines, four categories. These are abstract labour, declining capitalism, class and surplus product. From these, Ticktin claims, a better understanding of South Africa can be developed, and the nature of racial discrimination can be explained. These categories cannot be discovered empirically (a virtual swearword in his lexicon) and he uses empirically discovered facts sparingly.
One of the hallmarks of critique, recognised by its readers, is that we live in an era of declining capitalism. This assertion can be found in Lenin’s writing on imperialism, and in a speech (and a later letter) by Trotsky in which he presented a graph indicating the period of growth followed by the period of decline of capitalism. Trotsky linked his curve to specific historical turning points. Readers of Critique will have been acquainted with Lenin and Trotsky’s ideas, and have had the opportunity of deciding on their veracity. By starkly asserting the notion of ‘decline of capitalism’ as a category, it is made unquestionable. This has now to be accepted as given, and Ticktin offers no further elaboration in this work. Despite its primacy in Ticktin’s argument, the new reader will find no argument to support this claim.
Thereafter, Ticktin’s thesis depends on his peculiar use of the category ‘abstract labour’. In the first volume of Capital Marx pointed to two components of labour, that which is termed ‘concrete labour’ because it makes use values, and ‘abstract labour’ which produces exchange value. Marx notes later in the volume that Ure, a champion of the new system of production and a rabid anti-trade unionist, envisaged a de-skilled working class in which workers could be used interchangeably anywhere in the factory. That is, the work process would allow for homogeneity, and no workers could halt production by going on strike. It was a fanciful picture, more useful for a Charlie Chaplin production than reality, even if the work process in some sectors of production was increasingly de-skilled.
Ticktin adopts the latter aspect of the work process to define abstract labour. He says of it that ‘specifically it refers to the social reduction of labour to a common form’ (level of labour time, intensity of labour, etc) (p5). For purposes of his critique he then states that in South Africa ‘abstract labour has necessarily to be fractured to maintain the system’, but this has ‘only delayed and hindered but cannot prevent the formation of a black working class’ (p6).
This is quite ingenious. Ticktin, by introducing the word ‘fractured’ has laid the way to introducing ‘racial discrimination’. At the same time, he foresees the future formation of a ‘black working class’—but why this has still to take place, and why it must be black, is not specifically discussed. This seems more like verbal sleight of hand than the basis for new insight. The nature of capitalist production everywhere, despite Ure, rests on the atomisation of the workforce. The class, says Ticktin, depends on the workers banding together as a collectivity—once again with little explanation. But a barrier to this coalescence is the atomisation that is intrinsic to the relations of production. The workers are divided along lines of gender, age and skill. In various countries there are further dividing lines, of religion, ethnicity and colour. These are all exploited in order to weaken the exploited class, and in many societies one or more of these sectors is (or are) coopted into the ruling group. To create a special ease for South Africa seems unnecessary.
The foundation for Ticktin’s thesis has been laid. By adding his concept of ‘surplus product’ he can move to the assertion that the white worker extracts surplus value from the black workers by exercising a limited degree of control over its extraction (p9). The thesis is almost complete. It is only necessary to add that:
‘Capital accumulation in South Africa has been regulated by racial discrimination, a term which has therefore to be understood as a special category of political economy and not just a particular politics of a particular group. It regulates profits, it assists the development of capital in particular directions, it forms the nature of that capital itself.., it contains and directs in particular ways the political economy...’ (p36)
This Ticktin expands, referring to the response to the general strike of 1922 as the ‘watershed’ when racism (which is ubiquitous) was transformed into racial discrimination, and became government policy in response to the strike. His claim is that:
‘A specific division of the surplus product which leads to particular forms of capital accumulation can lead in turn to specific legal and political forms to enforce that particular division. Such is the ease in South Africa... The political forms, in turn, are used to maintain the specific relation... [that is to defend] the particular form of extraction of the surplus product.’ (p49)
‘The division of the working class is not an empirical and arbitrary action. It is a considered action under conditions of capitalist decline.’ (p13)
This is a remarkable assertion. Racial discrimination became a fact in South Africa when it was put on the statute books. Was there indeed no racial discrimination in the housing of labour on the diamond fields, or in the body searches? No racial discrimination in the divisions created on the goldmines, or in the Chamber of Mines’ agitation for a pass law in the 1890s? No racial discrimination in housing, jobs, pay, health protection, pass restrictions and so on? Was it not rather necessary to put the date forward to fit the assertion that racial discrimination is a modern response utilising forms and doctrines of an earlier period... [which] can only be appreciated in a context where a declining capitalist class [my emphasis] accepted a policy to which they were opposed, rather than lose all’ (p9). The category is extended. In this short review only a few passages can be quoted:
‘Racial discrimination divides the workers, so preventing the formation of a class under conditions when industrialisation tends towards the formation of a relatively homogeneous mass of workers. It performs this act by paying the discriminated workers below the value of their labour power.’ (p3)
From this it follows that the difference between South Africa and other countries is that the majority is discriminated against, permitting the white workers to get much higher pay (cf p3).
There are other categories like ‘superexploitation’, but they are undefined in the text and are ancillary to the argument as a whole.
How this makes the analysis any more penetrating is not easily determined. Ticktin’s predictions are not any more acute than those of other Marxists who do not find it very valuable to introduce the categories he favours—and do not make it any easier to operate inside the political arena of South Africa. Even more important is the lifelessness of the writing. There is no discussion of the changing structure of the country, nor of the political struggles, nor of the political organisations. But then, as Ticktin stresses, this is not a history book. For that the reader should perhaps rejoice. When the author does use historical facts he is so often at fault that one becomes appalled at his slipshod carelessness. To draw up a calendar of errors would be tedious. But some should be noted.
Ticktin’s knowledge of the Trotskyist movement is rudimentary. He claims, on the basis of a conversation, that Trotsky’s letter was an answer to a letter from Burlak (p2). He also maintains that the move to organising blacks on a community basis was the fruit of the CPSA’s policies (which he abhors). There is no doubt, that in the violent move to the left in the early 1930s, the CPSA organised in the townships. In the late 1930s they repeated this in the Cape. But it was the Trotskyists who worked in community organisations after 1943, and never stopped working in such areas. There is no good reason to condemn either movement for so doing. Why, then, twist the facts?
He claims that peasants had no desire to immolate themselves in mines, and that draconian measures were required to secure them (p22), unaware that the first such workers in the diamond and gold mines were sent by the chiefs to earn the money to buy arms and ammunition, or came from Mozambique where large numbers welcomed work in the mines to escape the forced labour imposed by the Portuguese. Rhodes only introduced his oppressive measures to maintain the flow of workers from the Reserves to the mines.
Ticktin fails completely to differentiate between workers in the mines in the 1920s, who wanted a black labour force to do the drilling underground, and workers in transport and industry who wanted the black labourers forced out of town (p24). This is not an aristocracy of labour issue, nor of declining capitalism—but of alterations in the nature of the urban economy and the specific interests of white workers.
The short description of the 1922 strike in the book is highly contentious. It is not true that the CPSA took a leading role, although some of its members controlled the initial committee. There was no Johannesburg Soviet in 1922. This body (which was called a soviet but did not vaguely resemble one), was set up in 1919, and is discussed in Searchlight South Africa, no 1.
The list can be extended, taking in errors and dubious generalisations. Ticktin presents ‘facts’ that he wants to use in his thesis. In order to condemn the Stalinists, and they were to blame for many things, he decided that they were Browderites after the war. To buttress this he said that Earl Browder was the postwar leader of the CPUSA (p60). This is quite absurd. Browder was the party Secretary during the war, and called for the dissolution of the Communist Party after the Teheran conference in 1943. If Stalin could join with Roosevelt and Churchill in laying the foundations of a new world, he said, then the Communists could work with the American financiers. Many South African Communist leaders agreed with him. Then, in May 1945, after Jacques Duclos, Secretary of the French party, condemned Browder’s liquidationism, the latter was removed from his posts. The South Africans followed suit. This did not reverse the reformist role of many Communist leaders, but Browderism was officially dead.
There is a third book, rescued from the travel notes of Ralph Bunche in 1937, part of which has bearing on the history of the Trotskyists. Because of the later rejection of Bunche by the left (and this is mentioned in Bob Edgar’s epilogue), it is necessary to quote briefly from the introduction. In this Edgar indicates that Bunche was radicalised in the depression years, and moved towards Marxism, but was wary of the CPSA, and never became a party member. Addressing the problems of the blacks in the USA, he claimed that their problems were an outgrowth of class exploitation. That is, ‘racialism is a myth, albeit a dangerous one, for it is a specific stalking-horse for selfish group politics and camouflages economic exploitation’ (p7). He saw that black leaders would not change because their positions depended on appeals to race, and because they could not comprehend how blacks were sidelined by the broader economic and social conditions at work. Consequently, he rejected appeals for self-determination (as decreed by the Comintern) or for advancement through business enterprises. In his early writing, Bunche viewed colonisers in Africa as manipulating race as an instrument of domination and exploitation... Bunche’s notes on his journey through South Africa consist largely of accounts of his meetings with personalities from the trade unions, the Communist Party, and with leading liberals and leaders of the national movements. His visits to the townships provide us with vivid accounts of the lives of the urban blacks, of their traditions (both tribal and modern), and their living conditions. It is an account that provides a witness’ survey of poverty, squalor, and oppression. It is from such accounts that the historian can partly reconstruct life as it was—and one that should be compulsory reading for would-be authors.
This is not the place to offer a review of a volume of nearly 400 pages, but there is interest for those who want to read about another side of Trotskyist activities. Bunche attended the third conference of the All-African Convention in 1937 at which Tabata, Janub Gool and Goolam Gool were present. His account contradicts that presented by Tabata’s history of the AAC, and comes close to the criticisms printed in the WPSA’s journal, The Spark. Bunche’s diarised entries speak of wasted sessions spent in trivialities, of disorder, and the side-tracking of any serious suggestions made by the ‘radicals’. Many delegates left the gathering in despair, with the feeling that there was little purpose in the AAC surviving.
Bunche was even-handed. From the conference of the AAC he went on to the gathering of the ANC. His account of that body was, if anything, even more scathing than that of the AAC. Quite obviously, the petit-bourgeoisie was timorous and self-serving. The only time they came alive in either of the two conferences was when the question of blacks in business was discussed at the AAC. Even that was more a matter of anecdotal discussions of those Africans who had failed in their enterprises, and those stories led to uproarious laughter! It is salutary to note that these were the people with whom the members of the WPSA had to work.
Bunche met few Trotskyists—but there were few to meet. The Johannesburg group had collapsed in the wake of the departure of Lee and his friends, and Dladla, former Secretary of the Johannesburg branch, said to Bunche there were no revolutionaries in South Africa. When he met Gordon, it was to hear about trade union progress. As for Cape Town, the Communist League was just about to reform after their stay in the Socialist Party, and the WPSA did not often meet with people outside their ranks. Consequently, Bunche met them only at the conference of the AAC. The comments on the gathering of the AAC will have to be taken seriously by those who want to understand the politics of black nationalism in the 1930s.
Updated by ETOL: 5 February 2009