Review by Ian Hunter 1990

Baruch Hirson, Yours for the Union: Class and Community Struggles in South Africa 1930-1947, Zed, London 1990, pp.230, £9.95

Here is the book which will undoubtedly be the standard reference for its period for South African trade unions and their associated politics. The weaknesses of independent black and working class political organisations made the trade unions of pivotal importance during the whole of this time. Yet the trade unions themselves were often more glimpses of what might have been than anything else. The trade unions considered here were mostly short-lived, fissiparous, and individually all too frequently left hardly a trace. Despite all of this, however, this is a landmark book which is essential for any real understanding of the politics of South Africa then or subsequently.

The material is densely packed and immensely detailed, but justifiably so; perseverance will be rewarded. Nevertheless to the extent that this is not quite a full Making of the South African Working Class, some peripheral prior knowledge or reading would be useful. The period before 1930 is still sparsely covered and little known. A broad overview of the earliest phases of industrialisation would have been very helpful, as also would have been a review of the attempts of the early Communist Party and its forerunners to forge a unity in struggle between black and white workers. Decent alternative sources for either are few and hard to come by. Perhaps they need a volume in their own right, but in the meantime part of this essential supplement is available from Baruch Hirson himself in his articles in the journal Searchlight South Africa.

The 1928 Non-European Federation trade unions are dismissed in one sentence as “revolutionary unions ... in line with Profintern directives ... they paid little heed to the workers’ immediate needs” (p.40). But this hardly does justice to the attempts of the remarkable S.P. Bunting, the original and later shamefully treated CPSA leader, to circumvent the most damaging Moscow directives. Even despite this abrupt dismissal, however, it is still evident that the destruction of these unions by the CP purges of 1929-31 was a disaster. Genuine trade union militants of the highest calibre, Gana Makabeni to name but one, were permanently soured in their relations with white Socialists, and set off on courses of their own; many more were lost for ever. The scars and repercussions of this catastrophe far outweighed and outlived the tiny embryonic entities which had made up the Non-European Federation.

That the cudgels were taken up not just by those few black activists forceful and resourceful enough to go it alone, but also by the even tinier handful of South African Trotskyists should be of no surprise to the readers of this journal. Indeed it was the experience of the 1929-31 South African purges and their impact on the putative Non-European trade unions that was central to the creation of the Trotskyist nuclei in South Africa. One of these nuclei, a group in Johannesburg centred around ex-CPSA activists Ralph Lee and Murray Gow Purdy, made strenuous efforts to take up where the old Federation unions had left off. To struggle simultaneously against both the prevailing conditions in South Africa as a whole and the poison and suspicion engendered by the CPSA was, however, a superhuman task. This group, the only one of the small Trotskyist groups seriously to tackle the trade union question, effectively disintegrated as key members made their way to Britain in two waves in 1935 and 1937. Their story still remains to be told in full. There is some brief mention of them on page 41, but this misdates Lee’s departure to the earlier 1935 date. New material which could have given more flesh to these bones has come to light too late to have been included.

These are relatively small gripes blown up considerably, for what then follows in terms of the trade union developments of the later 1930s and 1940s is seminal. The later efforts of the lone Trotskyist Max Gordon, who inherited Lee’s Laundry Workers Union, can only command admiration. But the motives of the philanthropically funded Race Relations Institute in underwriting both his, and other non-confrontational trade union ventures will exercise minds. So too will all the ramifications of the gradually unfolded fact that the mine workers were amongst the last and least easily reached groups of workers to be unionised; secondary industry workers came first.

The rôle of the CPSA is one of the continual frustration of all that could have been. Individual members could play courageous and constructive rôles; but nothing any of these individuals could do could outweigh the original and continuing damage of the Stalinist subordination of the real interests of the workers to externally prescribed manoeuvrings. After the throttling of the earlier trade unions at birth, the courting of black nationalism was Stalinism’s next most enduring and problematical legacy. The destructive factionalism which this fostered in later township, anti-Pass Laws and trade union developments cannot help but be apparent from a study such as this.

Factionalism was probably inevitable, but the activities of the CPSA fostered it rather than combatted it. The resultant quagmire was never successfully coped with by the Trotskyists either; though their attempts to seek a correct relationship between black and white workers, black nationalism, and urban and rural struggle make fascinating and still relevant reading.

The finale of the book is with the great postwar struggles and revolts which culminated in the brutally suppressed and semi-insurrectionary 1946 miners’ strike. Again the Trotskyists were not absent. The Workers International League made highly significant efforts to promote both unity and a revolutionary perspective, and succeeded in establishing an important Progressive Trade Union Group. Baruch Hirson himself played an important rôle in these struggles alongside a now returned but rapidly fading Ralph Lee. Again, however, it is a glimpse of what might have been. The WIL had turned in on itself, suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of frustration and impotence, and had ceased to exist even before the last act in this saga, the 1946 miners’ strike, was played out.

The 1946 revolt was crushed and black trade unions subsequently banned. The “formation of trade unions and their conversion into a base for a working class movement” had only ever been seen as the “prime task” by Trotskyists, and not even by all of these. Other forces, including by no means least the CPSA, had seen to it that this task had not been realised. In 1946, as in 1930, a promising development had been snuffed out; the way was opened for the domination of very different forces in the 1950s. The 1946 strike had even seen some interventions by some of the more militant figures within the ANC, these were figures who lent support to the strike, but only “because it was part of the African’s struggle against white domination”; not because of any conception “of the African worker as central to the struggle” [my emphasis]. These figures were Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. The workers of South Africa are still paying the price of the failures of the 1930s and 1940s, and may have to pay still further for the still current policies of these same figures and their SACP associates; this is not just a purely academic study.