Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 2


The Making of an African Communist

Robert Edgar
The Making of an African Communist: Edwin Thabo Mofutsanyana and the Communist Party of South Africa 1927–1939
University of South Africa, Pretoria 2005, pp. 58

WHAT happens when an historian writes about the Communist Party in the years from 1927 to 1939, with the period of 1932–34 focused centrally on the Soviet Union, and includes not a single proper reference to the G-word, or – this being mainly a biography of a General Secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa – the K-word, where G stands for Gulag and K stands for Kolyma?

During the years 1927–39, South Africa was – as it remained for several decades more – the biggest producer of gold in the world for disbursement to the international financial system as the material of the money reserve. This was the role for which a unified, modern state had been established by Britain in the South African War of 1899–1902, when rapid and intensive development of deep-level mining followed the discovery of gold in the hard quartzitic rock beneath the Witwatersrand in 1886.

The crucial element in Britain’s state-making in South Africa was the construction of a despotic state which denied freedom of movement and freedom of contract to the vast mass of gold-mining labourers who were tribal Africans. True, the gold-mining capitalists of the Rand had forced a pass law upon the reluctant Boer republics in the years immediately before the war. But the Boer republics – based on Afrikaner farmers who wanted unfettered access to African labour for themselves, largely outside of market conditions – were both unable and unwilling to enforce it. Thus the war, prosecuted by the High Commissioner Alfred (later Lord) Milner in South Africa and the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, in London. It was above all a war for gold. Its outcome was that parliamentary Britain created the tyranny of apartheid South Africa, with Britain’s pass laws the lynch-pin to the whole structure, holding the huge majority of South African workers in servitude.

In this sense, J.A. Hobson was right to see South Africa of the early twentieth century as an exemplar to the system as a whole. The construction of a modern state which abrogated the conditions of civil society for the vast mass of the population, in particular the labourers in the gold mines, anticipated by three decades the abrogation of civil society in Germany and then almost the whole of Europe itself.

By the beginning of the World War in 1939, however – the terminal period in Robert Edgar’s The Making of an African Communist: Edwin Thabo Mofutsanyana and the Communist Party of South Africa 1927–1939 – the disbursement of gold to the world financial system had been joined by another protagonist, which became second only to South Africa in the quantity of its gold production yet ahead of South Africa in its enslavement of its poor souls, the gold-mining labourers.

This was the Soviet Union, where working to death – not merely to exhaustion, but working to death – was the rule, in ‘frozen Auschwitzes of the North’, as the poet Galanskov (who died in the camps) described the land of Kolyma, at the opposite pole of the globe to South Africa: the ‘pole of cold and cruelty’ of the whole of Stalin’s system, in the words of Solzhenitsyn, who also laboured in the Gulag. At Kolyma, to the misfortune of several millions of unfortunate human beings, the gold lay not – as in South Africa – in steep, diagonally sloping hard quartzitic reefs, where only vast sums of capital and the most modern technology could accompany simple labour in its extraction, but lay close to the surface, where the most primitive pick and hammer and dynamite could extract it with human sweat and blood … from the frozen Arctic. And there they perished.

The purges … the purges shovelled in vast hecatombs of fresh bodies to dig the stuff out of the frozen ground for the benefit of the Soviet central bank, as rapidly as each previous tranche got finished off. Thus capital acquired the hard core of the central banks and the schmuck of ladies’ jewellery in the Depression, the War and afterwards. These celestial golden twins: South Africa and the land of the Soviets, united in their enslavement of the producers of gold. It was estimated, wrote Robert Conquest, that every kilogram of gold from Kolyma cost one human life …

Robert Edgar’s slim volume is focused on the life of a leading African member of the old Communist Party of South Africa, Edwin Thabo Mofutsanyana (1899–1995), with particular focus on his Moscow years, 1932–34. Contemporary South Africa in the year of 2006 – the year after the publication of Edgar’s book – is now run by individuals of whom many spent most of their adult lives as members of the South African Communist Party, successor-party to the CPSA, and lifelong admirers of the Soviet system. President Thabo Mbeki was for many years a member of the Politburo of the SACP in exile: his father Govan Mbeki was already a member of the CPSA towards the end of the period in question, and loyal to its Stalinist heritage to his dying day. He named his son after Mofutsanyana.

Edgar’s book drives home the point with its photographs: a very elderly Mofutsanyana and Joe Slovo at a meeting of SACP headquarters in Johannesburg in 1992, Mofutsanyana with Joe Slovo with his arm around him on the same occasion, Mofutsanyana with Chris Hani – Secretary General of the SACP prior to his murder by a white racist the following year, and the most active commander in the suppression of the pro-democracy mutiny in the ANC army in exile in 1984, after which dissidents were sent to labour in the principal Gulag of the ANC and the SACP in Africa, Quatro.

One may appreciate that a country run by people of the above pedigree does not breathe free, despite their having come to office in a society with a functioning market, press, judiciary and … academe, the domain of Professor Edgar.

The problem for Edgar, now professor of African Studies (so rich a subject!) at Howard University in Washington, DC, is that Kolyma … is a world too far away for him. It doesn’t exist, it never existed. It disappears from history as if it had been airbrushed out in Comrade Stalin’s photo album, though he does once mention discretely ‘concentration camps in the eastern Soviet Union’ in referring to the deaths in the Gulag of three leaders of the CPSA, two shot.

His difficulty is that any discussion of the interrelation between the CPSA/SACP with the big boss in Moscow could not be adequate if it did not explore the manner in which the Communist Party in South Africa misrepresented the land of Kolyma to the workers of South Africa as a paradise for labour. A systemic misrepresentation of the nature of the USSR and its relation to the gold-slaves of the Rand is a staple of left-leaning and right-leaning studies in South Africa. With very, very few exceptions, the left obscured the nature of the USSR, while the right obscured the nature of South Africa. The inter-relation, the symmetry even, was suppressed by both.

It is at this point that the dishonesty of Professor Edgar’s book becomes explicit, despite its valuable archival material. For one thing, in addition to the G- and K-words, the book suppresses also the H-word, where H stands for Hirson. There is no reference at all in the book to the pioneering historical studies of the South African left carried out by my late colleague, Dr Baruch Hirson, who paid for his graduation as an historian with nine years in Pretoria Local Prison, where he was also an alumnus of the University of South Africa (Unisa), the publisher of Edgar’s book and a correspondence institution that was the only provider of university studies to political prisoners permitted by the regime (and very thankful we were for it, though also often frustrated by it).

For instance, Hirson’s article on the ‘Black Republic’ slogan of 1928 (within the time-remit of Edgar’s book) appearing in issues three and four of the banned journal that he and I edited in exile in London, Searchlight South Africa (July 1989, February 1990), focused centrally on the turmoil caused to the CPSA by the changed orientation forced on it by Stalin and Bukharin at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern. As an historian, like the physicist he had been in his previous professional life, prior to his arrest and imprisonment, Hirson was scrupulous about accuracy and sources. Interpretation was one thing, faithfulness to historical fact was another. As a result, while rich in dissident interpretation and analysis, Hirson was read with care and respect even by his adversaries. His archives were open to any serious student. I remember the grey eminence of SACP in London, Brian Bunting, British correspondent for the TASS news agency, whose father had both helped found the CPSA and been expelled from it because of his disagreement with the Stalin/Bukharin line, coming to Baruch’s house in London – the house of the most eminent South African Trotskyist! – to read Baruch’s archival material concerning his late father.

Edgar is no such historian, despite the value of his biographical interviews with Mofutsanyana. There is no reference to Hirson’s article. Just as with the late apartheid regime, Edgar’s South African readers are kept in ignorance of Hirson’s contribution on the subject of the CPSA.

As for Mofutsanyana, he was briefly General Secretary of the CPSA when the purges in the USSR were at their most manic, and had been a student in Moscow for two and a half years, between 1932 and 1934: when gold production in Kolyma got shoved into overdrive. The ‘most troubling issue’ he had to cope with in the USSR, according to Edgar, was the death in Moscow in January 1934 of his colleague and friend, Albert Nzula, the first African General Secretary of the CPSA. Nzula was an alcoholic, and this proved fatal.

Here Edgar cannot, however, avoid touching on the central political issue of the Soviet Union. He writes that ‘Mofutsanyana did confirm that Nzula’s drinking contributed to his problems with Soviet officials. When he was on drinking binges, Nzula would vent his criticisms of the Soviet Union and his opinion that Stalin was not a good leader.’ Having received a ‘first-hand view of the Soviet Union’, Nzula had revised his previous criticism while in South Africa of the idea that ‘in the Soviet Union it was Stalin, not workers, who owned all the cars …’ In the USSR in the 1930s, that opinion was not conducive to a long life.

Edgar dismisses the idea, as did the elderly Mofutsanyana, that Nzula’s criticism of Stalin had led to his death, even though Mofutsanyana recalled that ‘Nzula’s heresies drew the attention of Comintern officials’.

Edgar does not mention my own article The Death of Albert Nzula and the Silence of George Padmore which appeared in the first issue of Searchlight South Africa (September 1988), and which drew explicitly in part on Edgar’s interviews with Mofutsanyana appearing in the International Journal of African Historical Studies (Volume 16, no. 4, 1983).

In particular, he neglects to address every one of the issues raised in a passage I quoted from a published account by the South African Trotskyist, Charlie Van Gelderen, who wrote:

According to C.L.R. James, Nzula was forcibly removed from a meeting in full view of the participants by two men working for the Soviet security services and never seen again. This agrees with what this reviewer [Van Gelderen, then in London] was told personally by [the former Soviet official, George] Padmore in 1935. Padmore also told me that just before his expulsion [from the American Communist Party] he was summoned to Moscow. While making preparations to go, he received a cable from Nzula, smuggled out through Latvia, which read: ‘George for God’s sake don’t come.’

A young black South African, Beyers, who was in Moscow at the same time attending the Marx–Engels–Lenin Institute, shared these suspicions … Beyers told this writer that when fortified with vodka, which was pretty often, Nzula did not hide his hatred of Stalinism. His views must have been known to the GPU.

The historian who suppresses proper discussion of this kind of evidence does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Without citing these references at all, Edgar dismisses an unspecified ‘charge by Trotskyite writer C.L.R. James that Nzula died at the hands of the Comintern’, and makes only a single reference to Padmore in another context (pp. 22–23, neither name appearing in the index). This does not do an historian’s work.

The editors of the two-volume South Africa and the Communist International: A Documentary History (A. Davidson, et al. [eds.], Frank Cass, London 2003), a major study based on previously classified records after the downfall of the Soviet Union, concluded that Nzula had in fact died an alcoholic’s death in the January snow in Moscow. The fears of black activists then in Moscow – Jomo Kenyatta (on whom C.L.R. James’ view was based), George Padmore and the South African, Beyers – needed specific and explicit attention from Edgar, though, not least Padmore’s report to Van Gelderen of Nzula’s warning telegram, an act that may well have saved Padmore’s life. The perception of these black activists in Moscow, above all of Nzula, that a tyranny prevailed in the Soviet Union was at least as important as Mofutsanyana’s dismissal of this view. It was a perception that Edgar fails to address. The tragic figure of Nzula, torn between alcoholism and an acute personal honesty, continues to fail to find the appreciation that is his due.

So this first volume in a series called ‘Hidden Histories’, edited by Raymond Suttner of the SACP and the ANC, is written in such a way that they must continue to remain hidden. And even at Howard U, in the US of A, in the shadow of the White House, the Stalin School of Obfuscation continues, a corpse with its fingernails still growing.

Suggested further reading:

  • Baruch Hirson, A History of the Left in South Africa, IB Taurus, London 2005.
  • R.W. Johnson, South Africa: The First Man, The Last Nation, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 2004.
  • Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales, Penguin, London 1994.
  • Robert Conquest, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps, Oxford University Press, 1979.

Paul Trewhela

Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011