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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 14, No. 37, 22 September 2015

In this Issue:

Red Alert

This day in history: Celebrating the Centenary of the International Socialist League

By Umsebenzi Online Editorial Team

On 30th July 1921 the first Communist Party on the African continent was founded, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). The party had to invert its name to the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1953 when it was reconstituted to organise underground, this after it was banned by the apartheid regime in 1950 under the Suppression of Communism Act. Today the SACP has surpassed quarter one million members and is both the oldest and largest Communist Party in Africa and the second oldest and largest political formation in South Africa after the African National Congress (ANC); the ANC was founded as the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912. Two months ago, at the end of July the SACP marked 94 years of its founding. The Party held a rally on 2 August at Motherwell in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipality in the Eastern Cape Province to celebrate the anniversary.

However, the founding of the Party had a rich history dating back, at least, to 1914. This day in history we are celebrating the Centenary of the International Socialist League, the main predecessor of the Communist Party which was formed as a union bringing together the International Socialist League, Social Democratic Federation of Cape Town, Communist Party of Cape Town, Jewish Socialist Society of Cape Town, Jewish Socialist Society (Poalei Zion) of Johannesburg, Marxian Club of Durban, and other Socialist bodies and individuals.

The formation of the Communist Party of South Africa was not just a national development. It was an international development at the same time with its history going far beyond the borders of South Africa. The Party was to affiliate to the (world) Communist International which accepted one affiliate only from one country. This was one of the main reasons why the above-mentioned organisations had to come together and unite in one, the Communist Party of South Africa.

The International Socialist League was founded in 1915.

The origins of socialism in South Africa can be traced to white working-class immigrants coming from Europe, Australia and America mainly to work in the gold mines around Johannesburg.

However, they also brought ideas of white superiority which were reinforced by the Afrikaners with whom they came into contact. These ideas were further reinforced by racist labour relations practices and policy positions of the mining bosses – the mining industry was the backbone of the South African economy, and the mine owners wielded enormous influence on the South African state. There were many racist legislative prices that were the direct brainchild of the mining bosses.

The Union of South Africa, which carried out those policies, was formed in 1910. In that same year, the South African Labour Party was formed ready to fight the first general election in the newly formed country; it won 6 out of 121 seats.

Although the South African Labour Party most definitely had a racist attitude towards anyone who was not white, it joined the International Socialist Bureau (Second International) in 1913 based on their anti-war Basel Manifesto of 1912. This document stated:

If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved supported by the co-ordinating activity of the "International Socialist Bureau to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.

"In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule."

Early in 1914, the SA Labour Party acquired a young Welshman named David Ivon Jones as General Secretary. Jones had a different attitude to most whites. When the ANC was formed in 1912, Jones wrote a letter to the The Star welcoming the new organisation; as far as is known, the only white person in South Africa at that time to do so!

When Britain entered the First World War on 4th August 1914, David Ivon Jones and Bill Andrews, the SA Labour Party Chairman opposed South Africans following imperial Britain into the war – but the Parliamentary Caucus of the SA Labour Party led by Colonel F.H.P. Cresswell thought otherwise.

In Europe also, most of the socialist parties which had supported the Basel Manifesto decided to support the bourgeoisie of their own particular nation and agreed to the mutual slaughter of millions of young, mainly working-class men.

Those groups that opposed this inter-imperialist war mostly became the centres for the formation of Communist Parties after the war was over.

By the middle of September 1914, Jones and Andrews joined by Colin Wade and S.P. Bunting (who after the formation of the Communist Party in 1921 was to play a major role in recruiting Africans into the Party) formed the War on War League.

It was on this day, 22nd September 1915, one month after they were decisively defeated at an SA Labour Party conference, that the supporters of the War on War League voted at a special conference to sever all ties with the SA Labour Party and form the International Socialist League.

But the split from the SA Labour Party came to mean far more than merely an anti-war stand. In an article for the new International Socialist League weekly paper, the International called Parting of the Ways (1st October 1915), David Ivon Jones said:

"An Internationalism which does not concede the fullest rights which the Native working class is capable of claiming will be a sham. One of the justifications for our withdrawal from the Labour Party is that it gives us untrammelled freedom to deal, regardless of political fortunes, with the great and fascinating problem of the Native."

This was truly a turning-point in the revolutionary history of South Africa. Further, though not avowedly Marxist at its formation, by the end of November 1915, the International Socialist League was advertising pamphlets by Marx, Engels, and the American Marxist, De Leon, along with its other literature.

In 1917, the Great October Socialist Revolution turned the course of world history and was immediately greeted by the International Socialist League. This event became one of the central motivating factors behind the formation of the Communist Party of South Africa in 1921, at which the International Socialist League was negated by dissolving into the Party according to the principle of Communist International country affiliate formerly touched.

In 1918, T.W. Thibedi, the only African member of the International Socialist League organised the first African trade union, the Industrial Workers of Africa which was to lead the Johannesburg "bucket-workers" strike of 1918. (Bucket-workers collected "night-soil" in the days before flush toilets.) All one hundred fifty-two workers were arrested and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment under the Masters and Servants Act (one of the many laws which gave whites control over African workers); in serving the sentences the Africans were forced to continue to perform their duties as bucket carriers. During the course of the strike, five members of the International Socialist League including S.P. Bunting were arrested as were members of the ANC, then the SANNC.

In 1919, two years after the Communist International was formed throughout the world organisations like the International Socialist League began to form themselves into Communist Parties. The formation of the Communist Party in 1921 was a component part of this international movement.

On 11th July the SACP emerged from its 3rd Special National Congress with a declaration, a clarion call, to unite the working class, our communities, and our movement! This historical mission of the Party is as relevant as the unity from which it was founded in 1921 by among others the International Communist League that negated their own separate existence in favour of unity!

Workers of South Africa, unite!

You have nothing to lose, but the chains of exploitation and class domination by a few, the bourgeoisie and their collaborators in those who are advocating for separatism, disunity and therefore in the ultimate analysis the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie!

Umsebenzi Online is the online voice of the South African Working Class