By Lucien Van Der Walt
The historiography of the socialist movement in South Africa remains dominated by the interpretations developed by Communist Partywriters, and this is particularly true of the left before Communism. This article defines the key arguments of Communist writers regarding the left in the 1910s, and develops a critique and reassessment, stressing the centrality of revolutionary syndicalism and anti-racism in the early socialist movement on the basis of a detailed examination of primary materials. It shows how the early left was less the scions of Marx than the heirs of Bakunin, and argues for the reinsertion of the history of the early South African socialist movement into the broader history of anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism.
Can we talk of the Cause of the Workers in which the cries of the most despairing and the claims of the most enslaved are spurned and disregarded? … The new movement will break the bounds of Craft and race and sex. It will be founded on the rock of the meanest proletarian who toils for a master. It will be as wide as humanity. It will recognise no bounds of craft, no exclusions of colour. (The International,‘The Wrath to Come’, 3 December 1915)
Despite providing the foundation upon which the Communist Party of SouthAfrica (CPSA) was erected in June 1921, despite its substantial press and activism, despite its role in pioneering socialist activism and African trade unionism in southern Africa, despite, even, the substantial attention it attracted at the time from police, press and Parliament alike, the early revolutionary socialist movement in South Africa has attracted little scholarly attention.