Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 2/3


Life Revolutions & The Delegate for Africa

Baruch Hirson
Revolutions in My Life
Witwatersrand University Press, Witwatersrand 1995, pp. 365

Baruch Hirson and Gwyn Williams
The Delegate For Africa: David Ivon Jones 1883–1924
Core Publications, London 1995, pp. 280, £8.50

SOUTH AFRICA has posed unique problems for the revolutionary Socialist left. Neglected at times because of more pressing problems elsewhere, it has been at other times the focus of intense solidarity work and campaigning led by the dominant forces of radical liberalism and Stalinism. Neither scenario gave much scope for the development of real depth in the understanding of the nature of South Africa, the old Apartheid regime, or the prospects for a genuine Socialist democracy.

In South Africa itself the forces of non-Stalinist Marxism and Socialism were and have never been anything more than minimal. The initial prestige, resources and collaborationist politics of Stalinism enabled it to become deeply entrenched in the black liberation movement for an entire historical period. This factor, and the segregationist stance of so much of the white ‘labour’ movement, left little room for non-Stalinist Marxism.

Baruch Hirson is one of the very few to have been part of that non-Stalinist left, active in one capacity or another since the early 1940s. This position enables him to give us a wealth of unique insights into the history and development of South Africa in this century, and glimpses of viewpoints, problems and perspectives which have remained largely absent from the public domain. The cover notes on Revolutions in My Life include the comment that Hirson has ‘strong opinions on everything from people to politics, making entertaining if controversial reading’. This is a true but also a trivialising statement: he is not being controversial for its own sake. The challenge of Hirson’s arguments and perspectives is seminal. No attempt to tackle the history and problems of South Africa can now be valid if it does not take into account the issues raised by these two books. One can agree or disagree with Hirson’s arguments, but they cannot be ignored.

The Delegate for Africa deals with the precursors and earliest years of the Third International, and Revolutions in My Life deals with the 1940s through to the 1960s, yet there are essential links between them. The central characters in both books are almost all white. Given the nature of South Africa, South African politics and concerns about South Africa, this needs to be said. Not only are they white, but in several cases immigrants. This is not a problem of selectivity on Hirson’s part. It is a material fact in the history of the South African Socialist and Marxist movements which has been of profound historical significance. White immigrants into South Africa arrived not just as colonial masters and adventurers, but also as a workforce. White labour arrived from the late 1880s not just as a sizeable workforce, but also as a workforce which brought with it elements of European labour organisational and Socialist traditions. Initially, the main elements of this labour force came from the British Isles, and slightly later a significant East European element also appeared. Although of lesser status, South Africa thus featured alongside North America, Australia and New Zealand for some of those seeking new beginnings.

The story of the ‘delegate for Africa’ to the first congress of the Third International thus begins not in Africa, but in Wales. The biography of David Ivon Jones is in two distinct parts. The first, written by Gwyn Williams, focuses primarily on his early life in Wales; the second, written by Hirson, follows him through South Africa to Moscow. The story of Jones’ evolution from a background in radical Welsh non-conformism is of immense value in its own right. It is a timely reminder that the radical proletarian and Socialist traditions of industrial South Wales were not the only ones to feed into the labour movement as it existed at the turn of the century. There is also food for thought in the fact that two of the most influential earliest proponents of interracial labour solidarity in South Africa, Ivon Jones and S.P. Bunting, both came from backgrounds steeped in theological radicalism, whereas more narrowly materialist labour activists were more easily drawn into dangerously ambiguous positions, as exemplified by the Rand General Strike of 1922.

Jones is revealed as one amongst many to arrive in South Africa almost by accident. Emigrating for the sake of his health, his originally intended destination was New Zealand (later on, others from Baltic Russia actually thought they were heading for the USA!). Initially settling into Rand society in the turbulent years of 1912–14, Jones was still little more than a radical deist liberal, but his keen intellect was spurred to question the situation in which he found himself. White labour was under tremendous pressure, with lower wage rates and worse conditions of work than elsewhere, squeezed by the ‘Randlord’ employers’ attempts to undercut rates and conditions by using unskilled black labour held under conditions of virtual slavery. White labour was hitting out almost blindly in all directions, leading to a series of violent clashes with the authorities, whilst engaging against employers one minute, and against the contrived ‘black threat’ the next. The desperate depths of the struggle led Jones first to the conclusion that it was the very treatment of white workers as human beings that was at stake: ‘They were not engaged in a revolt merely to raise the standards of wages, but to raise the standard of manhood.’ This led him straight to the tiny handful who were already declaring that they needed to ‘fight for human rights, whether for the coloured or white people’. But both whites and Indians, including Ghandi, were not averse to playing with the authorities for sectional advantage.

We are not dealing here with a mass or sizeable movement of any sort, merely the personal evolution of a tiny handful of individuals. But by 1915 a small group, including Jones and Bunting, had reached the point of breaking with established labour. Their new grouping, the anti-war International Socialist Organisation of South Africa, was to be the germ from which future South African Marxism and Communism would spring. Strongly influenced by De Leon as well as Marx, the International Socialist League (as it became) began a sustained effort to combat segregationism: ‘The employing class, which exploits all labour without prejudice ... strives to perpetuate that colour prejudice in the ranks of the workers themselves ... It is for the white workers to stretch out the hand of industrial unity to the native workers.’

I have emphasised this prehistory of South African revolutionary Socialism which the Jones biography now reveals in unique detail, as it is so essential for the understanding of any of the subsequent developments. A reading of The Delegate for Africa should be required reading for anyone who would now presume to comment on any aspect of the subsequent labour, liberation or revolutionary movements. Hirson’s seminal treatment of the 1922 Rand General Strike, the ‘Red Revolt on the Rand’, where the fledgling Communist Party of South Africa struggled to encompass a movement to defend white labour against further degradation, and produced the slogan ‘Workers of the World Unite and Fight for a White South Africa’, produces many disturbing questions about the origins of apartheid thinking. The line between combating a descent to the conditions of black labour and wishing to be rid of black labour itself was not easy to hold. And for white workers this was a desperate and defensive struggle for survival from which almost any lifeline was likely to be grasped.

Nor was this the only problem. By 1922 Jones himself was in Russia, from where work for the Third International and then health problems were to lead him never to return. Here again the detailing of Jones’ central rôle at the heart of events, coupled with Hirson’s excellent placing and contextualisation of the debates, sheds unique and essential light on the difficulties of the Third International in establishing a position and giving a lead on the racial question. Race and colonial questions were important to the Third International, but not, it must be said, the most important items on its immediate agenda. The failure satisfactorily to resolve the contradictions between the stances on anti-colonialism, Garveyist middle class black nationalism, and labour solidarity are all very revealing of future problems in the strategies of the Communist Party. The compounding of these problems through the use of commissions with overlapping and contradictory remits played its part here. Ultimately, the CPSA was left to work out its own salvation, as official resolutions focused on the racial question in the USA and of colonisation in general, and the special insights of Jones and Bunting regarding the peculiar aspects of the South African situation failed to gain official endorsement (further light is also shed on this in Searchlight South Africa, no. 3, July 1989, where transcripts of the Bunting-Bukharin debate of 1928 are reproduced). But ultimately, of course, local autonomy was not the case either. The death of Jones in 1924, and the expulsion of Bunting in 1931 in the first stages of the Stalinisation of the CPSA, were to remove even this avenue to salvation. And as detailed elsewhere (see Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no. 4), South African Trotskyists in the 1930s were never able satisfactorily to resolve these problems, or to break out of their situation of isolation.

Baruch Hirson’s autobiography effectively begins at the very end of this dark chapter, and at the threshold of an even darker chapter, that of institutionalised Apartheid. Hirson’s entry into Marxist politics in the 1940s came through his involvement in the last actions of the openly Trotskyist groups dating from the pre-war period. Like many of the earlier members of these groups, however, Hirson’s political apprenticeship began in the Rand Jewish community in which he grew up. This community was of Baltic Russian origin, with large numbers originally from Latvia and Lithuania in particular. Many families had arrived as exiles from Tsarist Russia, and had living and personal links with European revolutionary groups. Links also existed with Zionist and other Jewish groups, and with Palestine itself. Hirson’s own personal and family history outlined here provides a marvellous placing of this community and the multi-faceted milieux within it in South Africa. His own introduction to Marxism came through the Zionist youth organisation Hashomer Hatzair, one of the few Socialist milieux where Stalinism, although present, was not completely dominant.

The detailing of Hirson’s involvement and activities with the Trotskyist groups of 1943–46 has to be read to be appreciated, as has his detailing of the earlier period. The shattering effects of the closing down of trade union activity by the Trotskyist Workers International League and the coming into being of institutionalised Apartheid hardly need emphasising. And the difficulties of finding academic and teaching work as a known dissident, maintaining personal integrity, and finding a meaningful rôle in a situation of almost total political isolation, all provide enlightening testimony: ‘It was possible to mix with hundreds of students, see many lecturers and still feel intensely lonely.’ Yet it was only because he was a physicist that work could be found at all, as one colleague pointed out: ‘“If you did have a degree in the humanities you would never have been appointed to the staff at Wits.” Physics was “safe” for a radical, but no history or sociology department would have appointed me.’

The relevance, effectiveness and validity of the Non-European Unity Movement initiative taken by some of the black and coloured former Trotskyists during this period is still hotly debatable, but at least given the treatment here this, too, can now be on a more informed basis (see Hirson’s further treatment of the NEUM in Searchlight South Africa, no. 12, June 1995). But even more controversial is the eventual assumption of the tactics of sabotage by the anti-Apartheid activists, including Hirson himself. The 1960 Sharpeville Massacre is central here. Despite the ANC and PNC developments, the emergence of SACTU, and the anti-Pass Law protests, the feeling is clearly reflected that fruitful action against Apartheid seemed as far away as ever. In fact, if anything, with the National Party’s political and security offensive, which had been underway since 1957–58, the situation looked bleaker than ever. The revelation of the depths of the impasse as felt on the inside by opponents of the regime are powerfully chronicled here. Simultaneously, it seemed necessary to go even further ‘underground’ in order to survive, and yet it was necessary to produce public acts of defiance to deny the regime the legitimacy of acquiescence through silence. Shades of the psychology behind 1916 in Ireland, one wonders? Symbolic action was necessary to maintain the self-respect of a movement and a people. This seemed more necessary than ever in the aftermath of Sharpeville and the Treason Trials.

Hirson was arrested and tried for his rôle in the sabotage campaign in 1964. He was imprisoned for nine years, and came into exile in England after his release in 1973. Even in his accounts of the time of his imprisonment, however, the divisions maintained by Stalinism within the anti-Apartheid movement continue to be revealed. Did the anti-Stalinist Marxists of the Socialist League who had played such a central rôle in the creation of the anti-Apartheid sabotage groups achieve what they could and should have done? Opinions will vary, but no one can gainsay the value of such an account from the inside. The value of both of the books reviewed here for comprehending what has happened inside South African Socialism and Marxism, warts and all, is immense. But there is also much to be learnt by inference regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the new regime, and what it is necessary still to do.

Ian Hunter

Updated by ETOL: 29.9.2011