I have started my archival research in South Africa and am currently ploughing through the extensive collection of Jack and Ray Simons’ papers. One thing that is very noticeable, but not particularly surprising, is that the issue of ‘race’ and the relationship between black and white workers is present in almost every Communist Party of South Africa document. Compared with the documents of the Communist Parties of Great Britain and Australia, the CPSA seemed to be very aware of how the effects of ‘race’ and colonialism affected the labour movement in South Africa. The CPA did discuss Aboriginal rights and campaigned against the discrimination of Chinese migrants, but these issues were often relegated to the back and were peripeheral to the CPA’s main economic and political concerns. The CPGB also discussed issues of ‘race’ and colonialism (usually the ‘colour bar’ in the colonies) but once again, these ideas were not central to the CPGB, unlike the CPSA.
However, while the CPSA was very aware of the issues of ‘race’ and colonialism within South Africa, I haven’t seen a lot about anti-colonialism beyond its borders (yet). We know that the CPSA was an underground force in Southern Rhodesia and other British colonies in Southern/Eastern Africa in the 1940s and 1950s, but activism beyond the Union of South Africa is under-documented in the papers that I am currently looking at. (Obviously, once the SACP goes into exile in the 1960s, there is much more emphasis on the Party’s internationalism, especially in Africa)
This lack of internationalist anti-colonialism may be explained by the changes in the international communist movement through the Popular Front period. A number of scholars have argued that during the Popular Front era, anti-colonial activism by Communist Parties in the West was subsumed by broad-based anti-fascist work (although conflated in much of the contemporary communist literature as ‘anti-imperialism’), which meant co-operating, to a certain degree, with the pro-imperialist (yet anti-fascist) sections of the bourgeoisie. Some scholars, such as Neil Redfern (who focusses on the CPGB), have asserted that this shift in focus from anti-colonialism to anti-fascism was driven by directives by the Communist International, which changed with shifts in course with Soviet foreign policy. To some extent, Redfern’s arguments are true, but I think his dismissal of the CPGB’s actions as ‘Browderist’ is a bit much.
The reason I raise this is that I found a document from 1939 in the Simons’ papers that takes an alternative stance on the Comintern directing the international communist movement away from anti-colonial work. In a substantial document prepared for the CPSA’s 1939 conference, the Party stated:
It is true that the Party has committed a number of serious mistakes of a right character, such as, inactivity of a number of Party members, neglect in developing the National Liberation struggle which also is an anti-fascist struggle under semi-colonial conditions. It is also true that the Party has failed to carry out anti-fascist propaganda amongst the native and coloured masses, which has been interpreted by some comrades that it is the policy of the C.I. to tone down the colonial struggle, because of the possibility of Britain fighting on the side of the Soviet Union in a war against fascist aggression. At no time was it the policy of the C.I. to tone down the colonial struggle, this can clearly be seen [in] the struggles of the colonial and semi-colonial peoples in China, India, Palestine and South American Republics. What the C.I. did say was that the C.P. of South Africa should stop splitting hairs on the Independent Native republic which is the strategic slogan of the Party and which is the late stage in the Liberation struggle of this country. But comrades will realise that we have not as yet succeeded in [e]ven building an effective anti-Imperialist movement amongst the Africans nor has the class struggle and national struggle reach the stage that would make this slogan a rallying cry for acting and capture political power. To blame the C.I. for our weaknesses is going a bit too far and clearly shows the ideological trend of some comrades.
(Willie Kalk, ‘Annexure 1: Minutes of a Meeting of the CPSA, held in Johannesburg, Dec. 29th 1938 to Jan. 1st, 1939’, pp. 3-4, O13.1, Jack and Ray Simons Papers, University of Cape Town Special Collections)
Hopefully this is a sign that the archives here in South Africa will have a lot of useful material for my project!