[CHAPTER]: Lucien van der Walt, 2014, “Revolutionary Syndicalism, Communism and the National Question in South African Socialism, 1886-1928”

brill2Lucien van der Walt, 2014, “Revolutionary Syndicalism, Communism and the National Question in South African Socialism, 1886-1928”,  in Steven J. Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt (eds.), (foreword by Benedict Anderson), 2014, Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1870-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution, Brill Academic Publishers, Leiden, Studies in Global Social History , pp. 33-94.


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This chapter examines the manner in which anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists confronted the national question in South Africa, particularly during the 1910s, the period of unquestioned syndicalist hegemony on the revolutionary left. The national question centred on two main elements: the deep racial and national divisions in the country, and the national oppression of the African, Coloured and Indian majority.

I argue that local anarchists and syndicalists maintained a principled opposition to racial discrimination and oppression, and a principled commitment to the creation of a multiracial anti-capitalist, anti-statist movement. These positions constituted the irreducible core of the libertarians’ approach to the national question— however, the most successful strategic/ tactical application of this approach was the activist-integrationist approach: this moved from analysis and principle to consistent and targeted efforts to mobilise African, Coloured, and Indian workers around both class and  national issues.  It enabled the construction, by 1921, of a genuinely multiracial revolutionary syndicalist movement, organised in a network of newspapers, unions and political groups, firmly committed to uniting the local working class to struggle simultaneously against the specific national oppression of the African, Coloured and Indian majority, and the capitalist exploitation and state domination of the whole working class, African, Coloured, Indian and white. The vehicle of this combined struggle was generally envisaged as a revolutionary interracial One Big Union on the model of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW) — this was to be the proletarian forge in which a common society embracing all, regardless of colour, would be created. The aim of the working class revolution was not to constitute an independent national  state. It was to overcome national and class inequality through the working class battle to constitute a self-managed libertarian socialist “Industrial Republic,” which would also form “an integral part of the International Industrial Republic”.

This vision has been obscured by the misrepresentations of the pre-Communist Party of South Africa left practiced by the influential “Communist school” of labour and left history. It is also fundamentally at odds with the two-stage strategy identified with the Communist Party from 1928 onwards, which envisages the establishment of an independent, democratic and capitalist republic as a stage towards a socialist order.  This Communist Party strategy assumes the necessity and desirability of delinking anti-colonial and class struggles, and tends to conflate national liberation with  nationalism.  By contrast, the One Big Union against national oppression, capitalism and the state, would fuse national liberation and social revolution, both in immediate struggle and as a final project, thus simultaneously addressing the national and social questions. It poses a solution to the national question that is anti-nationalist, since it rejects key precepts of nationalism: formation of a nation-state (for anti-statism), cross-class alliances within the nation (for class struggle), and national exclusivity (for popular class internationalism).

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