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Spartacist South Africa No. 7

Winter 2011

The Communist Party of South Africa from World War I to the Sixth Congress

The following is an edited version of a class given by comrade Karen Cole at a Spartacist South Africa meeting in 2000.

Urgent tasks faced the Third International in its early, revolutionary years. Out of the devastation of World War I and the Second International’s betrayal of the world working class, the Bolshevik Party in Russia led the first and only working class revolution. Workers around the world solidarised with this victory, and the Bolsheviks looked immediately to extending their revolution internationally. Nothing less than world revolution was on the agenda. They looked outward to differentiate among disparate elements from all sorts of backgrounds—anarchists, syndicalists, liberals, social-democratic workers, intellectuals—who subjectively sided with the overthrow of capitalism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The task was to draw a line to exclude the reformists and centrist pretenders and regroup with the genuinely revolutionary workers.

They fought to build a new International for their own survival as well as mankind’s. They had to focus on the strategic battle fronts in the advanced industrial countries where revolution seemed most imminent—where the prerequisites seemed to be all there, particularly Germany. The lesson of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution was that the leadership of a Bolshevik party like the one led by Lenin and Trotsky was the critical factor. That was the one prerequisite missing elsewhere, and it was decisive. This lesson was outlined most clearly in Trotsky’s The Lessons of October (1924).

The newly formed Third International also organised to extend the revolution to the East and South, to the countries of belated capitalist development. The Russian Revolution had vindicated Trotsky’s theory and programme of permanent revolution regarding the inseparable link between national liberation from the yoke of imperialism and proletarian revolution. Trotsky wrote in The Permanent Revolution (1929): “that the democratic tasks of the backward bourgeois nations lead directly, in our epoch, to the dictatorship of the proletariat and that the dictatorship of the proletariat puts socialist tasks on the order of the day.”  This understanding, proved in the experience of the Russian Revolution, opened the possibility of successful revolutionary struggle under the leadership of a proletarian vanguard in the colonial and less advanced countries. Trotsky’s analysis and generalisation of permanent revolution, based on the experience of Russia and, in a negative sense, the 1925-27 aborted revolution in China, laid out the necessary programme to lead the colonial peoples to liberation.

So this is the political context in which we have to examine the first years of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA)—from its beginnings in World War I through the late 1920s.

I want to briefly start with the split within the South African Labour Party which eventually led up to the founding of the Communist Party of South Africa, and describe the historical period to get a sense of the leap that the founders of the early CPSA had to make if they were to be the leadership of a South African revolution. They started out expecting that the organised and militant white mineworkers would be the vanguard of the proletarian revolution—but it didn’t work out that way, reflecting the unique historical overlap between race and class in South Africa.

After the Anglo-Boer war, the policy of the British colonialists was to assist British immigrants in settling as a bulwark against Afrikaner nationalism. On the Rand, political rights were restricted to whites. The English-speaking workers who brought specialised skills from Britain were kept as a supervisory layer in the mines, and their job classifications were protected by colour-bar laws. On the Rand with its centre in Johannesburg (and I am going to mainly talk about the Rand because this was the centre of class struggle), the gold mine commission legislated the racial exclusions with the full support of the whites-only union leadership. Black Africans were permanently disenfranchised migrant mineworkers, forced off their rural homes by hut and poll taxes and expelled by white farmers. They were confined and policed in fenced-in compounds, with no political or union rights. Blacks were considered expendable, replaceable and were offered no training. Their every movement was totally controlled and resistance was met with swift punishment and death. White workers consistently scabbed on any attempts by black workers to strike.

But the inexorable laws of capitalism which demand continual maximising of profits—particularly in the labour-intensive deep gold-mining industry—set the mine owners and white miners at odds. The Afrikaner as well as British miners engaged in many industrial struggles, and the British miners were closely linked to and influenced by the militant union movement of Britain. But the volatility of gold prices meant the mine owners needed cheaper labour, and had no need to protect the white workers. For a while, they imported indentured Asian labour but, in the long run, saw their future in super-exploiting black peasant labour.

So during the 1910s and 1920s, you see the leadership of a white working class attempting to fight to preserve its privileges on the backs of the black masses. The 1920s was a time of changing economic relations. Over time the rural Afrikaners, who had been a factor in the mines, eventually moved into the state-protected apparatus. After outbursts of bloody state repression of rearguard white mineworker strikes, the ruling class strategy developed into absorbing the white workers into the petty-bourgeoisie. Instead of the white workers being ground down into impoverishment, their relations to the means of production shifted into the overseers, managers, supervisors and state bureaucrats. Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie continued to deprive black people of the right to own land and levied taxes to compel more landless blacks to migrate into designated “locations” near metropolitan areas and become proletarianised. Brutally enforced pass systems were used to control this labour force.

The Impact of World War I

On the eve of World War I, as in the rest of the world, there was tremendous ferment among sections of the workers and oppressed. At the same time, the war highlighted, in South Africa like in Europe, the bankruptcy of bourgeois nationalism and labour reformism. There were rebellions among various sectors of the South African population on the eve of the war.

In 1913 there were uprisings and strikes of Indian workers across KwaZulu-Natal. They struck in the mines and cane fields, railways and shops. Mahatma Gandhi, who had been in South Africa since 1893, pleaded for passive resistance. Nevertheless, the cane workers clashed with police and workers were beaten and killed. Gandhi came to an agreement with the Jan Smuts government during the Natal uprisings, and called the struggle of Indian workers off with little gains. On the Rand, in 1913 and 1914, the white gold miners led general strikes, and the government killed over 20 people to put the first strike down, and deported nine trade union leaders to put the second down. In Jagersfontein diamond mine, Sotho miners went on strike when a white overseer kicked a black miner to death, and eleven miners were killed in the subsequent struggle. In Cape Town, 600 coloured stevedores struck for an 8-hour day and wage increases.

The existing misleaders of the workers and oppressed were busy lining up support for the first inter-imperialist war on the side of the British overlords of South Africa. During World War I Gandhi urged Indians in South Africa to join the British army. As described by Jack and Ray Simons in Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950 (International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, 1983), Gandhi earlier argued that passive resistance was “best for ‘illiterate natives.’ It taught them to break their own heads and not other people’s in order to redress grievances.”

After a brief moment of hesitation on the eve of the war, the South African Labour Party signed up for the war no less enthusiastically than the mine owners’ Unionist Party. Colonel Frederic Creswell, the leader of the Labour Party, enlisted and called for support to the war in a manifesto titled “See It Through”.

In the Western Cape, the African Political Organisation (APO, renamed the African People’s Organisation in 1919), the main political voice of the coloureds, had tremendous illusions that the British imperialists would influence their South African counterparts to drop the colour bar, and hoped that if coloureds supported the war effort, they would be rewarded for their loyalty.

Days before Britain declared war in 1914, Dr. Abdullah Abdurahman, president of the APO, proclaimed, “The present foundation of the Empire is rotten, and cannot last.” Weeks later he said, “The only question we have to ask ourselves is how we can best serve the Empire” (Class and Colour in South Africa).

In 1912 the South African Native National Congress, predecessor of the African National Congress, was founded by lawyers, church-trained intellectuals and tribal chiefs. Their reaction to the outbreak of World War I was to cancel a meeting to discuss opposition to the 1913 Natives Land Act which dispossessed the majority of the black population, and instead to organise recruitment of blacks into the British army.

David Ivon Jones, secretary in the South African Labour Party and later a leader of the CPSA, adamantly opposed the inter-imperialist war.  When the editor of the ANC newspaper proposed a motion of condolence on the death of British Lord Kitchener at a public meeting in 1916, Jones opposed this, stating that Kitchener “was the agent of the class who exploit both native and white working class and encompass the death of millions of our fellow workers” (Baruch Hirson and Gwyn A. Williams, The Delegate for Africa: David Ivon Jones 1883-1924 [Core Publications, 1995]). Kitchener was the military architect of British imperialism across the African continent from Sudan to South Africa.

Internationalism and the Struggle for Black Liberation

David Ivon Jones and Sidney Percival Bunting, both immigrants from the British Isles who were central party leaders, were the outspoken anti-war leaders. In September 1914, Bunting and a small group of oppositionists to British imperialism in the South African Labour Party formed the “War on War League”. They were not pacifists but revolutionary defeatists. They called for socialist revolution to bring down all contenders in the imperialist carving up of the world. After leaving the Labour Party, they formed the International Socialist League (ISL). Bunting immediately made the link between working class internationalism and solidarity with the non-whites of South Africa. Their solidarity with the struggles of coloureds, blacks and Indians in many ways had made them as anathema to the Labour Party as their anti-war positions.

They distributed works of Marx, Engels and Daniel De Leon, a leading American Marxist. Even before the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, their newspaper enthusiastically cited German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht and comrades in Russia as fellow opponents of the imperialist war. In September 1915, they put out propaganda on the need for a new International. They were ignorant of the struggles by Lenin within the Zimmerwald conference for an anti-imperialist opposition to the war. At their first conference in January 1916, they voted to affiliate with the Zimmerwaldian International Socialist Commission in Switzerland as a manifestation of the beginning of a new International.

Simultaneously, Bunting confronted the new group with the race question in South Africa. It was and continued to be the key test of whether they had broken from the white supremacist programme of the Labour Party. Bunting proposed that the League “affirm that the emancipation of the working class requires the abolition of all forms of native indenture, compound and passport systems; and the lifting of the native worker to the political and industrial status of the white” (quoted in Allison Drew, Between Empire and Revolution: A Life of Sidney Bunting, 1873-1936 [Pickering & Chatto, 2007]).  But at this meeting Bunting’s motion was amended by others in the group to include a reactionary call for preventing the increase of numbers of black wage workers, and this version passed.

Bunting and Jones, as leaders and editors of the ISL, continually carried on a fight to incorporate demands for blacks among their small membership. In their newspaper The International, Jones wrote:

“If the League deal resolutely in consonance with socialist principles with the native question, it will succeed in shaking South African capitalism to its foundations. Then, and not till then shall we be able to talk about the South African proletariat in International relations. Not till we free the Native can we hope to free the white.”

—“The Parting of the Ways”, 1 October 1915 (reprinted in South African Communists Speak, 1915-1980 [Inkululeko Publications, 1981])

Bunting and Jones were often alone. The ISL invited black men and leaders of the Native Congress to ISL meetings, which led them to get expelled from the Labour Party Trades Hall in late 1917. Bunting used the expulsion as an opportunity to denounce the racist Labourites. He hated and condemned all who called themselves socialists and claimed to support the 1917 Russian Revolution, but did not support black African struggle. In April 1919 he wrote in The International: “It is humiliating to have to keep on emphasising that the essence of the Labour movement is Solidarity, without which it cannot win. The outstanding characteristic of the capitalist system in South Africa being its Native labour, the outstanding movement of the country must clearly be the movement of its Native labourers” (quoted in Edward Roux, S.P. Bunting: A Political Biography [Mayibuye Books, 1993]).

Through the ISL conferences of this period and the early 1920s Bunting and Jones wrote articles and repeatedly introduced motions and theses calling for special attention to black workers in all sorts of ways: for classes to be instituted, for leaflets to be addressed to them, for incorporating demands for the right to vote, organise, end pass laws, etc. In early 1919 the ISL published a leaflet written by Jones titled “The Bolsheviks are Coming”, which was translated into Zulu and Sotho. He combined solidarity with the Bolshevik Revolution with the necessity to emancipate the black workers—he ended by saying that this is Bolshevism—that black and white workers combine in one organisation irrespective of craft, colour or creed. In Jones and Bunting’s break from social democracy to international working class revolution, they applied their understanding of Marxism to the inseparable fight for black liberation and socialist revolution in South Africa.

The pages of The International, the ISL newspaper, were filled with solidarity with the Russian Revolution. Jones was prescient in March 1917 when he wrote about the February Russian Revolution that overthrew the Tsar. He hailed the Russian workers as the vanguard of world revolution: “this is a bourgeois revolution, but arriving when the night of capitalism is far spent. It cannot be a mere repetition of previous revolutions” (“170 Million Recruits”, The International, 23 March 1917). They serialised the manifesto of the First Congress of the Communist International in 1919 and they sought to affiliate with the Third International born out of the workers revolution.  

In 1919 Bunting wrote a scathing denunciation of the Johannesburg white municipal workers strike which the workers called the “Johannesburg soviet”. He called it ironically a “White ‘Soviet’”, and attacked it for its racist hypocritical indifference to black workers. In February 1920 some 70 000 black miners went on strike, and Bunting wrote appeals to white workers to support their struggle.

The Industrial Workers of Africa

One other effort of the ISL I want to mention before I get on to the formation of the CPSA is the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA), founded in October 1917 and modelled on the American syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The slogan of this all-in industrial organisation became “Sifuna Zonke” (“We want all”). They distributed their leaflets in Zulu and Sotho. As described by Jones in his March 1921 report to the Comintern, “Communism in South Africa”: “The native workers of the IWA quickly grasped the difference between their trade union and the Congress [ANC] and waged a merciless war of invective at the joint meetings of their Union with the Congress against the black-coated respectables of the Congress” (reprinted in South African Communists Speak).

In this period they also planned to publish in Hindi and Tamil in Durban, and they organised coloured garment workers in Kimberley. One of these people in Kimberley was Johnny Gomas, who later became a Cape Town union organiser and leader of the Communist Party.

James P. Cannon, a founder of the American Communist Party and later Trotskyist leader, makes the point in The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962) that it took the intervention of the Comintern under Lenin to force the American communists to take up the black question. Cannon says that the best of the early American socialists, Eugene Debs, could only say that the Socialist Party was “the party of the whole working class, regardless of color”. It took the authority of the Russian Revolution to fight with the American communists against their “colour blindness” and to pay attention to the special oppression of blacks, just as the Bolsheviks had championed oppressed nationalities. Armed with the lessons of the Russian Revolution, the American communists took up black oppression as a special question of American capitalism, and they became the foremost champions of black liberation, and recruited blacks to the party.

During the course of the rise of American capitalism, the origins of black oppression in chattel slavery led to blacks becoming a race-colour caste. This is very different from South Africa where black oppression originated in colonial subjugation and national oppression. However, the comparison I want to make is that the assimilation of the lessons of the Russian Revolution would have directly guided the early CPSA. Jones, Bunting and later Eddie Roux were inspired by the Russian Revolution. Although they were physically distant from the Comintern, they grasped the centrality of the fight against black oppression, and this manifested itself in their perseverance in making the Communist Party a mass black party. But they never developed a theoretical framework to this question as it applied to South Africa. And it became more and more impossible for them to develop a programme as the Comintern degenerated into more a tool of the nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy rather than an organising centre for world revolution, as it was under Lenin and Trotsky.

Founding of the CPSA

In January 1920, the ISL resolved to affiliate with the Third International and sent their rules and constitution to “convince you that our policy is on all fours with that of Communist parties of Europe and elsewhere” (quoted in South African Communists Speak).  Apparently the application was read and applauded at the Second Congress of the Comintern.

In 1921 they pulled together various groupings from Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg and other places and formed the Communist Party. Their membership was almost all English-speaking immigrants. They debated adopting the “21 Conditions” of the Second Congress of the Comintern. Their agreement with the Comintern’s programmatic conditions for entry caused some of the syndicalists and others who refused to support the dictatorship of the proletariat to part ways.

Jones’s “Communism in South Africa” was presented on behalf of the ISL and used as the basic report on South Africa for the Third Congress of the Comintern in June 1921, which he attended. Jones initiated a motion to devote serious attention to the Negro question as a separate question of importance.

The report reflects his sensitivity to the horrendous conditions of blacks. He tries to inform the Comintern of the unique social and political groupings that make up the country. Jones denounces the Native Congress for its timid pro-government programme and its fear of the masses, and predicts that class-based organisations will dominate in South Africa. The “national and class interests of the natives cannot be distinguished the one from the other”.  What comes out strongly is Jones’s desire to bring the question of black oppression to the forefront of the International. He appeals for reinforcements, and for the South African movement to come more into the purview of the Third International. He writes: “The white movement dominates our attention, because the native workers’ movement moves only spasmodically and is neglected. It requires a special department, with native linguists and newspapers. All of which require large funds, which are not available.”  His final remarks are that “African natives are ripe for the message of the Communist International”.

The party remained divided as to whether their purpose should be to address white workers and about admitting black members. After Jones left South Africa in 1920 to spend his final days in the Soviet Union, Bunting continued almost alone to push the party toward the black masses.

In October 1922 Bunting wrote a document called “The ‘Colonial’ Labour Front” (reprinted in South Africa’s Radical Tradition: A Documentary History, Volume 1, edited by Allison Drew [Mayibuye Books, 1996]). It takes on the relation of national oppression to class based on the theses of the Second Congress of the Communist International. This document tries to explain how the bourgeoisie splits the workers of the imperialist countries from workers in the colonial countries, that racism has an economic basis. And he argues that the task of the communist parties is to bridge the divisions between white and black labour, between the workers of the imperialist and colonial countries. He says that national liberation struggles must not “postpone” labour action. Particularly in places like South Africa there is no real national liberation movement or peasant movement to link up with. He quotes from the Supplementary Theses on the National Question of the Second Congress (1920): “we must in any case struggle against control by bourgeois democratic national movements over the mass action of poor and ignorant peasants and workers for their liberation from all sorts of exploitation.”

The 1922 Rand Revolt

The newly founded CPSA had not completely broken from the Labour Party. Bunting and Jones as well still saw the militant white miners as strategic to the South African revolution. The young party was immediately faced with an enormous and contradictory class battle on the Rand mines. The 1922 ten-week strike of white miners was a hard-fought battle in defence of the racist colour bar, the reservation of higher-paid job classifications for whites. Miners seized towns and carried out armed combat with the police and army. Four strikers were hanged, and three of them went to the gallows singing “The Red Flag”. Aerial artillery was used against striking workers. The Jan Smuts government ruthlessly crushed the strike.

The strike fundamentally had a reactionary purpose—to preserve the colour bar in mining. The ostensible reason for the strike was in defence of skilled miners who had been retrenched, but everyone knew this was part of the drive to replace these privileged white workers with super-exploited black labour. Back in 1907 when Keir Hardie, a Scottish miners’ leader, visited South Africa, he was pelted when he raised the basic demand that white unions should be opened to the blacks on the basis of equal pay for equal work. White workers’ consciousness had not changed much from that time, but the mine owners were more determined now that falling gold prices required increasing the rate of exploitation by hiring black labour.

The strike had various leaderships, and one of them was headquartered in the offices of the Communist Party led by Bill Andrews, a long-time union leader and party founder. This included expelled union leaders who considered themselves Marxists. There was a Commando faction led by Afrikaner miners modelled on the Commando units of the Voortrekkers who terrorised and murdered blacks and Indians. At a march one could see a banner, “Workers of the World Fight and Unite for a White S.A.” (Class and Colour in South Africa).

It is interesting to note that Abdurahman of the APO and Clements Kadalie of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU), the two most prominent political leaders of the coloured and black masses at the time, both rightly condemned the racism of the strike, but coming from petty-bourgeois perspectives, they both directed their appeals to the racist Smuts government to increase their control and repression of the unions.

Eddie Roux wrote that Bunting, who had always been a regular soap boxer, never spoke publicly throughout the strike at the hundreds of meetings, and walked around muttering criticisms. The CPSA propaganda condemned attacks on black Africans. At the same time, Bunting and the CPSA didn’t directly attack the colour bar regulations, rationalising that the rules kept up overall wage levels and the fight should be for improving the wages of Africans.

In January 1923 the Fourth Congress of the Comintern sent a protest statement on the execution of the four strikers. They stated that the task was to “draw the native workers too into the struggle against South African Capitalism, and thereby ensure common and final victory” (reprinted in South African Communists Speak).

After the Rand Strike

In 1923 the Afrikaner Nationalist Party of Barry Hertzog and the Labour Party made an alliance to defeat the Smuts government which became known as the “Pact”. The Labour Party promised to drop any mention of socialism, and the Nationalists promised to drop their call for secession and an independent Afrikaner republic. What they had in common was white supremacism. To get a flavour of this electoral alliance, in the midst of the campaign, the Labour Party was calling for the expulsion of Asians.

From Moscow, Jones advocated a united front with the Labour Party. In this way they would be part of the anti-Smuts alliance. He argued with Bunting at the time of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in November 1922 that this would be an application of the anti-imperialist united front as put forward in the “Theses on the Eastern Question”. Bunting brought back from the Congress the importance of fighting for “immediate demands” and for the “united front”. Bunting argued for Comintern discipline and for carrying out the decisions of the Comintern in South Africa, and argued against sectarianism. In keeping with such arguments, the CPSA voted to apply for affiliation to the Labour Party and to support its electoral alliance with the Nationalists.

There was some resistance to this line in the Western Cape where the party had more links with black and coloured labour, but they fell in line. This strategy of the CPSA had to repel black militants. After the victory of the Pact alliance at the polls, the CPSA quickly withdrew their support, and called for Labour Party delegates to oppose putting Creswell and Tommy Boydell, Labour Party leaders, in the new cabinet. The new government as promised passed yet more laws to reinforce the colour bar and further exclude blacks.

In the article “Permanent Revolution vs the ‘Anti-Imperialist United Front’: The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism” (Spartacist [English edition] No. 53, Summer 1997), we criticise the ambiguity of the slogan for the “anti-imperialist united front” put forward in 1922 by the Fourth Congress, as easily interpreted as a two-stage programme for revolution in the colonial countries and as a call to ally with bourgeois nationalist forces. However, in the Spartacist article we also make the point that it was a sharp descent from these unclear formulations and opportunist appetites to the full-blown betrayal later of the 1925-27 Chinese revolution under Stalin and Bukharin. The South African party vastly misread the white miners’ anger coming off the smashing of the Rand strike. Their continued support to the Labour Party demonstrated their continued ambivalence toward the black proletariat.

In 1924 the CPSA national conference debated entering the Labour Party once again. Arguments based on interpretation of Comintern tactics that applied to Europe—where there were mass social-democratic parties—were used to motivate entry. By this time, the Rand strike and the Pact government had had an impact on Bunting and the party, as both made clearer that both the English-speaking and Afrikaner workers were tightly in the grip of their racist and nationalist leadership. Bunting and Roux argued against entry and that the main task was to take their programme to the black masses. This time they won. Some older members in the right wing fell away, and this cleared the way for the party to turn its face to the black proletariat.

The new youth group, the Young Communist League of the CPSA (YCL), most directly challenged the old status quo of the CPSA. In 1921 Eddie Roux, one of the first Afrikaners and native-born South Africans in the party, founded the youth group. As Eddie Roux came more under the influence of Bunting, he became an advocate for recruiting blacks to the party. Roux became a regular speaker for the Communist Party at ICU meetings. The ICU, which I will get back to later, was growing rapidly at this time. When Roux argued in early 1924 that they must recruit black youth and they must set up a Cape Town branch so they could recruit black and coloured youth, he found himself in a small minority. Roux appealed to the Young Communist International, and he was backed up, and the policy was implemented. The YCL passed a motion stating that the main task of the YCL of South Africa is the organisation of the native youth.

They recruited two blacks early on: Stanley Silwana and Thomas Mbeki. Trade unionist Johnny Gomas, who became a long-time leader of the CPSA, heard Roux speak at a YCL meeting in Cape Town in 1924 and joined the party. Bunting had found new bloc partners with the new youth. Also, the Cape Town branch was more determined to recruit coloureds and blacks where racism was slightly more modulated than in the raw Rand area.


There was tremendous political activity among the black workers in the mid to late 1920s. The ICU was the first mass popular semi-political union organisation of black and coloured workers. Its influence far overshadowed that of the Native Congress in its time. The development of the ICU reflected the eagerness of black workers to organise in self-defence. It was organised by Clements Kadalie who came from Nyasaland, today’s Malawi. He organised the black Cape Town dockworkers in 1919, and the ICU soon grew into the main political representation of blacks in South Africa—organising city and farm labourers all the way to Durban.

The ICU was wracked with internal contradictions because it was a massive populist organisation. Kadalie endorsed the Afrikaner Nationalist leader General Barry Hertzog because he sent greetings and a donation to the ICU. Kadalie looked to British trade union bureaucrats and liberals, and by the end of the 1920s the organisation was disintegrating. In December 1926 he expelled the Communist Party members in the organisation, partly to please his newly acquired British liberal patrons. CPers had entered the ICU to recruit out of it, and in 1923 Eddie Roux helped set up the Johannesburg ICU office. Young Communist League member Thomas Mbeki became the Transvaal secretary of the ICU. Among those expelled along with Mbeki in 1926 were Johnny Gomas and Jimmy La Guma, who had joined the CPSA while in the ICU and were the Cape Town ICU leadership. By the time they were expelled, the CPSA was so popular that several branches protested their expulsion.

Night School and the Unions

The Ferreirastown night school, set up in 1925, was run by T.W. Thibedi, the first black member of the ISL and later a CPSAer. It had its origins dating back to the days of the ISL. By 1928, it had over 100 students and taught literacy with the use of the ABC of Communism along with other basic subjects. The school had been moved to a bigger building and was now run by a retired school teacher and militant atheist. In order to avoid arrest past nine o’clock, the teachers had to manufacture fake passes for all the students.

Much of the CPSA’s work required Bunting’s legal skills—he was for years the best-known lawyer in the country defending blacks against state repression. One story from this period of rapid black recruitment is interesting: Thibedi went to address a meeting of 1 000 in Potchefstroom. He was arrested, and the entire crowd attempted to follow him to the court. Thibedi was charged with inciting hostility between the races. Bunting defended him, and an unusually liberal judge acquitted him. The CPSA held an immediate rally to celebrate the victory. A group of whites attacked the celebrating crowd, including attacking the white communists. In response to seeing that a Communist lawyer could get a black man out of jail, and then witnessing the same white communists being attacked by other white men, most of the residents of the location decided en masse to join the Communist Party.

The CPSA paper was renamed the South African Worker and had more than half its articles in Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho. The paper also serialised an adapted version of the ABC of Communism, the book used in the Soviet Union to teach Marxism and literacy.In the late 1920s, the CPSA finally made breakthroughs in both organising black unions and joint struggles of white and black workers. They formed the Non-European Federation of Trade Unions in the Witwatersrand, and membership in the unions and the party grew rapidly. A whole new layer of black leadership was brought in, and the party was transforming itself into a majority black party of a couple of thousand. The South African party had some all-black branches. They had organised industrial unions with black leadership. The party had made a tremendous leap.

The Sixth Congress of the Comintern

One cannot evaluate this period without the knowledge that a fierce battle was going on in the Comintern that impacted this small and remote party struggling to apply a revolutionary programme. In economically backward Russia there was a political counterrevolution in 1923-24, which had its material basis in the destruction of industry and the death of many of the most politically advanced workers during the Civil War, combined with the defeat of revolutionary opportunities abroad, especially the 1923 German Revolution. A parasitic bureaucratic caste led by Stalin usurped political power from the proletariat. Stalin’s rationalisation for defeatism and abandonment of international revolution, “Socialism in One Country”, ultimately dictated the strategy for the South African revolution, and that it would require the working class to be politically subordinated to a so-called “anti-imperialist united front” with the national bourgeoisie of the colonial countries. Supporters of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, many of whom were arrested and ultimately murdered by Stalin’s police, fought against the degeneration of the revolution and for international proletarian revolution necessary to build socialism.   

The ramifications of Stalin’s class-collaborationist policies were tragically illustrated in China. In this largely peasant country the working class was highly concentrated in a few key cities like Shanghai and by 1925, inspired by the Russian Revolution, it had begun to seek the road to power. But the Comintern leadership under Bukharin and Stalin was abandoning its revolutionary purpose. Over Trotsky’s objections, the Chinese Communist Party was subordinated to the nationalist party, the Guomindang. In 1927 the revolution was crushed. Out of this decisive historical test, Trotsky generalised the perspective of permanent revolution. This was codified in The Third International After Lenin (1929) and later in The Permanent Revolution. In so doing, he both incorporated and transcended the evolved communist position on the colonial question as codified at the Communist International’s First and Second Congresses. [For more background, readers are referred to the ICL pamphlet The Development and Extension of Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution.]

The African National Congress (as the South African Native National Congress renamed itself in 1923) was the leadership of the only non-white petty-bourgeois nationalist movement in South Africa. It held disdain for workers. The ANC had consistently looked to British imperialism for their favours. They had no particular interest in the struggles of the black proletariat. J.T. Gumede in this period was the ANC leader most supportive of the Comintern. He travelled the country after visiting the USSR to popularise the idea of communism. His report to ANC chiefs in 1928, which referred to the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917, caused the tribal leaders to express alarm that they too would be killed if there was a Bolshevik Revolution in South Africa. The degenerating Comintern courted the ANC as part of its appeal to nationalist leaders.

In February 1927, the Comintern organised the “Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism” in Brussels. This conference was attended by Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian bourgeois nationalist leader; Lemine Senghor, Senegalese Pan-Africanist; Messali Hadj, Algerian nationalist leader who ended up supporting [French imperialist ruler Charles] de Gaulle’s colonialist reform schemes in 1958 in the midst of the war of independence; and Mohammed Hatta who became an anti-communist Indonesian nationalist. The Congress read out greetings from the widow of Sun Yat-sen of the Guomindang of China just as the Shanghai proletariat and their Communist Party leadership were about to be slaughtered by her party. The Stalinised Comintern had made Chiang Kai-shek an honorary member of the Comintern, thus cementing the subordination of the Chinese CP to these butchers.

James La Guma attended the Congress as representative of the CPSA. Afterward La Guma travelled to Moscow and participated in discussions with Bukharin and other CI leaders. A resolution passed by the Executive Committee of the CI (ECCI) laid out the same two-stage revolution strategy for South Africa that led to annihilation of the working-class base of the Chinese CP.

The ECCI’s resolution for the South African party, with the central slogan of “an independent Native republic as a stage towards a workers’ and peasants’ government”, was referred to the section for discussion. This was, in fact, the application of the disastrous Stalinist Chinese strategy to South African soil: that only an anti-imperialist capitalist revolution led by the nationalist petty bourgeoisie was on the agenda. The dictatorship of the proletariat is not on the agenda and must wait.

Bunting and his wife Rebecca and Edward Roux attended the 1928 Sixth Congress of the Comintern as delegates representing the majority of the party which opposed the new slogan. The Buntings found that the whole atmosphere of the Comintern had changed between the Fourth Congress they attended and the Sixth—the Fourth Congress had a spirit of hope and comradeship. They came to the Sixth Congress excited that they could report that the party was now largely black African. Out of 1 750 members, 1 600 were black.  However, they were bluntly greeted with “We are going to attack you”, and were cold-shouldered by what Roux called “a hard-bitten gang of bureaucrats”. Bunting, who had fought for more than ten years to transform the party into majority black, was dismissed as a “white chauvinist”. Roux says he ran into Trotskyist sympathisers at the Congress and heard cynical statements of delegates that Trotsky was right on China, but Trotsky was no longer a Communist.

Bukharin sycophants Jay Lovestone, a careerist in the US party, and John Pepper, a Hungarian communist who had been sent to the US, are mentioned as demonstratively ignoring Bunting’s speeches in the commission. Pepper was the major advocate of a farmer-labour party policy in the US CP—basically a two-class workers and peasants party for America. James W. Ford, a leading black American delegate, ignored them.

Bunting spoke against the “native republic” slogan, arguing that black African peasants have been drawn into the working class where they are most militant, i.e., they are proletarianised. Industry in South Africa is far advanced for a colonial country, and so consequently is the working class. Bunting objected to the fact that the draft programme of the CI referred only to “colonial masses” and not the colonial proletariat. There are classes in the colonial world. We do not have to wait for capitalism to develop; it has been thrust upon us. He begged for more Comintern attention to South Africa, and less ignorance of the particular conditions in different colonies of the African continent. He said in his 20 August 1928 speech at the Congress: “the class struggle is practically coincident and simultaneous with the national struggle” (South Africa’s Radical Tradition). Roux also argued at the Congress that it is not the task for the party to artificially build a nationalist movement: “There is no need to go through the laborious and (from the point of view of the revolution) dangerous process of building up a native bourgeois nationalist movement the leadership of which must be displaced before the proletarian revolution can be achieved” (South Africa’s Radical Tradition).

Bunting also argued that the slogan would alienate white workers, that either the neutrality or occasional support of white labour would be of great value as a shield against state repression for the revolutionary native movement. Such arguments undermined his valid arguments against two-stage revolution in South Africa. All the CP’s actions on the ground at home were toward Africanising the party. But Bunting did not have Lenin’s understanding that the struggle for national liberation using the methods of proletarian class struggle could be a powerful motor force for socialist revolution in South Africa. So he had nothing to counterpose to the Stalinist programme of politically chaining the black masses to the nationalist leadership.

It didn’t really matter what Bunting and Roux argued about the class forces or the status of the national movement in South Africa. Hammering out a programme for revolution was not the purpose of this Congress. In evaluating the debates with Bunting and Roux at the Sixth Congress, you have to keep in mind that really what is going on is the increasingly conservative Comintern clubbing any potential opposition to the nationally limited programme of “Socialism in One Country” and class peace with the world bourgeoisie. The Bukharinites (although Bukharin was deposed soon after this Congress) were not looking for a correct political programme for the South Africa; they were looking for followers who would toe the line of the Comintern leadership. Thus the Comintern resolved that: “Our aim should be to transform the African National Congress into a fighting nationalist revolutionary organisation against the white bourgeoisie and the British imperialists, based upon the trade unions, peasant organisations, etc., developing systematically the leadership of the workers and the Communist Party in this organisation” (Resolution on “The South African Question” adopted by the ECCI following the Sixth Congress, reprinted in South African Communists Speak).

Roux refers to a document that was circulating among certain delegates at the Congress—the first and third parts of The Third International After Lenin. Trotsky made the point that the International had no programme; it had rationalisations for defeats and generalities to cover its zigzag policies. The Stalinists had replaced the struggle to win the working class organised in the unions to the communist party by the opportunist utilisation of the ready-made apparatus of the trade union bureaucracy exemplified in England where the Soviet government maintained a bloc with the labour leadership just as they were selling out a general strike, or in the so-called “revolutionary national bourgeoisie” as in China—in both cases ending in defeat for the workers and oppressed. Trotsky was launching an international struggle to win the communists back to the programme that had made the Bolshevik Revolution.

Seven years later, Trotsky wrote a letter to the fledgling Left Oppositionists of the Workers’ Party of South Africa in response to their draft theses. He took issue with their argument that “the slogan of a ‘Black Republic’ is equally harmful for the revolutionary cause as is the slogan of a ‘South Africa for the whites’.” Based on the application of permanent revolution, Trotsky wrote that the character of the proletarian revolution in South Africa will be one of national liberation of the black masses as well:

“Three-quarters of the population of South Africa (almost six million of the almost eight million total) is composed of non-Europeans. A victorious revolution is unthinkable without the awakening of the native masses. In its turn, that will give them what they are so lacking today—confidence in their strength, a heightened personal consciousness, a cultural growth.

“Under these conditions the South African Republic will emerge first of all as a ‘black’ republic; this does not exclude, of course, either full equality for the whites or brotherly relations between the two races—depending mainly on the conduct of the whites. But it is entirely obvious that the predominant majority of the population, liberated from slavish dependence, will put a certain imprint on the state.

 “Insofar as a victorious revolution will radically change the relation not only between the classes but also between the races and will assure to the blacks that place in the state that corresponds to their numbers, thus far will the social revolution in South Africa also have a national character.

“We have not the slightest reason to close our eyes to this side of the question or to diminish its significance. On the contrary, the proletarian party should in words and in deeds openly and boldly take the solution of the national (racial) problem in its hands.

"“Nevertheless, the proletarian party can and must solve the national problem by its own methods.

"“The historical weapon of national liberation can be only the class struggle.”

—Leon Trotsky, “On the South African Theses” (20 April 1935), Writings of Leon Trotsky (1934-35) (Pathfinder Press, 1971)

Bunting and Roux never found their way to Trotsky’s Left Opposition although other communists did join Trotsky’s Left Opposition and the Fourth International. Today we Trotskyists of Spartacist South Africa are the continuity of Lenin and Trotsky’s party. We fight for a black-centred workers government as part of a socialist federation of Southern Africa. This is directly counterposed to the illusion fostered by the South African Communist Party today that the “national democratic revolution” has achieved a “rainbow nation” based on the ANC’s celebrated doctrine of “non-racialism”. We call for workers to break with the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance—a class-collaborationist nationalist popular front that ties the working class to the capitalist rulers.

Just a few final notes. Jones, always sickly, spent his last days in Moscow providing the invaluable service of translating parts of the early works of Lenin into English, including popularising What Is To Be Done. He also continued to write on the black question, and Africa and world imperialism. He died in 1924. Bunting stayed in the CPSA. He carried on a difficult and courageous election campaign in Thembuland with Rebecca Bunting and their comrade Gana Makabeni as Xhosa interpreter. They attempted for the first time to bring the communist programme into the rural reserves whilst being watched by police and opposed by the Native chiefs living on government salaries. Bunting and others were purged in 1931 as the party came under the direct manipulation of Stalin’s fake “left turn”, and he died some years later, still a loyal communist. Eddie Roux repudiated his communist politics, became an academic and did a service by writing Time Longer Than Rope and S.P. Bunting: A Political Biography.

The early South African Communist Party was a mix of comrades in motion, grappling with a rapidly changing reality, and wracked with contradictions. There was an element in this party that was revolutionary internationalist, trying to apply Marxism to South Africa, and particularly to the question of ending black oppression. They were inspired and transformed by the Russian Revolution, but, in the end, their struggle to sort out a strategy and programme for black liberation and the dictatorship of the proletariat was cut short as the Comintern they looked to was strangled by Stalin and his heirs. It is the revolutionary Trotskyists of Spartacist South Africa who are carrying forward the necessary fight for the programme of proletarian revolution in Southern Africa.



Spartacist South Africa No. 7


Winter 2011


No Illusions in Bourgeois Reforms!

For a Class-Struggle Fight Against Labour Broker Parasites!

Forge a Leninist-Trotskyist Vanguard Party!


Letter of Application to Join Spartacist South Africa


Neo-Apartheid Capitalism and Rising Police Terror

Cops Kill SAMWU Shop Steward on the Picket Line


US Reactionaries Stir Up Anti-Gay Terror

Uganda: Gay Rights Activist Brutally Murdered


Anti-Immigrant Attacks Mount as Mass Deportations Loom

Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants! No Deportations!


The Communist Party of South Africa from World War I to the Sixth Congress


Miliband's Labour: No Alternative to Cameron-Clegg

Britain: For a Class-Struggle Fight Against Fees and Cuts!

Defend Student Protesters!


Zimbabwe: Hands Off Leftists, Trade Unionists!


Defend Libya Against Imperialist Attack!

Statement of the International Executive Committee of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist)