This paper will examine how socialists sought to approach the "national question" – specifically, racial oppression – in South Africa in the early twentieth century. South Africa provides a useful case study to examine how socialists in this period approached questions of broad social oppression. One reason for this is that the country's capitalist industrialisation process was deeply intertwined with processes of colonial domination. A second is that most significant currents of revolutionary socialist thought have been represented in South Africa at one point or another, which also suggests the use of the country as a case study in the examination of differing socialist approaches to the national question. This paper proceeds from a recognition that revolutionary socialist tendencies, whether Marxist or anarchist in approach, have, whilst basing themselves on the notion of class struggle, consistently sought to engage with broader forms of social and economic oppression, often codified as a series of "questions". Foremost among these was the "national question": following the 1848 revolutions, in which both socialist and national liberation movements came to the fore in European politics, the "national question" became "as much a concern for revolutionaries in Europe as ' social emancipation ' an issue that no major revolutionary figure in Europe could ignore." This concern remained central as socialist ideas spread into other regions of the world in subsequent years. Hence, the debate on the "national question" within the broad socialist movement must be understood as centring less on whether or not to resolve this "question" – although evidently some positions could have this effect in practice - and more on the issue of how best to do so. Consequently, this paper rejects the fashionable critique that revolutionary socialism and class analysis are "class-reductionist".
Focussing on the period 1910-1928, this paper provides a new analysis of socialist positions on the "national question" in South Africa in the early twentieth century. This period is significant for several reasons. It was only in the early twentieth century that an organised revolutionary socialist movement emerged in South Africa, and it was in this period that the key positions that continue to define left positions on the national question were formulated. Furthermore, it is possible to discern three distinct socialist approaches in South Africa to the "national question" in this period: those of revolutionary syndicalism, "Stalinism" and "Trotskyism".
This paper makes several core arguments. Firstly, the case is made that the differences between Stalinist and Trotskyist approaches to the resolution of the national question have been greatly exaggerated, and obscure the more fundamental difference between these two approaches and that of revolutionary syndicalism. The difference between Stalinist and Trotskyist positions, on the one hand, and revolutionary syndicalist positions on the other, has also been obscured by conventional interpretations of South African socialist history, which remain dominated by the teleological analyses developed by Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), founded in 1921 (replaced by the South African Communist Party, or SACP, in 1953) aligned intellectuals. At the centre of these conventional interpretations is the notion that pre-CPSA socialists at best ignored the national question, and at worst accommodated to white racism, and that it was only with the rise of the CPSA that this issue began to be adequately addressed.
The paper argues,further, that this view of the pre-CPSA left is inaccurate ' is indeed, often a caricature and falsification of the historical record' insofar as the pre-1921 left did, indeed, have a comprehensive, consistent, radical, and distinct, position on the national question that has, essentially, been written out of history. This alternative socialist strategy, and pre-CPSA movement, was dominated by a revolutionary syndicalist perspective, and rooted, ultimately, in the classical anarchism of Mikhail Bakunin. The pre-CPSA revolutionary left, represented by organisations such as the South Africa section of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the International Socialist League (ISL), the Industrial Socialist League (IndSL), and the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA), argued for a fusion of the struggle against national oppression and the struggle against capitalism and the capitalist State through a revolutionary, non-racial, "One Big Union" that would overcome the racial divisions within the working class, forcibly remove racial laws, and also seize, and place under working class control, the means of production. This line of argument situates the South African revolutionary syndicalists of the 1910s squarely in line with the general anti-racist orientation of the international revolutionary syndicalist movement.
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