Lessons of the 1950s

12. Blind alley of guerrillaism

After the May 1961 stay-at-home, Mandela wrote:

"Of all the observations made on the strike, none has brought so much heat and emotion as the stress and em­phasis we put on non-violence. Our most loyal supporters, whose courage and devotion has never been doubted, unanimously and strenuously disagreed with this ap­proach…"

Throughout the 1950s, in fact, on the question of force and violence there was a fundamental difference between the working-class supporters of Congress and the Congress leadership.

Viewing apartheid as an "irrationality" which the ruling class could be persuaded to drop in favour of democracy - not seeing the racist system as part and parcel of the structure of capitalism - Congress leaders believed that "reasonableness" and "moderation" could induce a similar "moderation" from the forces of the state.

"We can assure the world that it is our intention to keep on the non-violent plane," stated Lutuli in 1953. "We would earnestly request the powers that be to make it possible for us to keep our people in this mood."[72]

The PAC leadership, despite claims to greater radicalism, had in practice taken the same approach. "I have appealed to the African people to make sure that this campaign is conducted in a spirit of absolute non-violence," stated Sobukwe at the start of the March 1960 anti-pass campaign." I now wish to direct the same call to the police. If the intention of the police is to 'maintain law and order', I say, you can best do so by eschewing violence."

Black working people knew or sensed from generations of bitter experience that no reliance could be placed on such appeals. The only means of defence against police violence was effective counter-organisation and the collective mobilisation of counter-force as and when possible.

At the same time, however, mass "violence" alone - unorganised, sporadic, isolated in one area or another, an expression of frustration directed to no clear goal - could produce no lasting advance. It was just as likely to result in savage state reprisals, and even demoralisation and defeat, if it did not form part either of deliberate defensive tactics or a concerted revolutionary onslaught by the working class against the state when the ground for that had been prepared.

In the 1950s, as today, a correct approach to the preparation and use of physical force in the struggle was impossible without a correct political theory, perspective and strategy for revolution.

Already, at the beginning of the 1950s, workers were showing their readiness to fight back against the forces of the state. "Five times in the last six months," reported The Guardian (February 16, 1950), "bloody clashes between Africans and police have taken place on the Rand. Many Africans have lost their lives and many police have been injured in these clashes which have at times developed into running gunfights in which whole communities have been involved."

In the Defiance Campaign, in the struggle against forced removals, in the struggle of women against passes, in the struggles of women in Natal in 1959-60, in the resistance to Bantu Authorities which erupted in many of the reserves, working people confronted the forces of the state with the force of mass organisation - not shrinking from using whatever weapons they could lay hands on and use in the circumstances without courting unnecessary reprisals.

What they needed from the Congress leadership was a lead in building and strengthening mass organisation - particularly in the workplaces - and help in providing means for the defence of this organisation.

The complaints from activists referred to by Mandela in 1961 were precisely about the ways in which an abstract insistence on "non-violence" had inhibited the strengthening of working-class organisation in action.

It was argued, said Mandela, "that it is wrong and indefensible for a political organization to repudiate picketing, which is used the world over as a legitimate form of pressure to prevent scabbing."[73]

In 1961 the factory organisation built under the banner of Congress, weak as it was in comparison with workers' organisation today, was still relatively intact. The task, as Harry Gwala pointed out, was concentrated effort to strengthen this - on the basis of campaigns winning the broadest support from the working class because they were based on struggling for their daily needs.

Within these factory fortresses the ANC, though banned, could have been maintained underground, and built to re-emerge openly once the organisation of the working class was strong enough for this.

But that was not the course taken. Instead, in the hope of circumventing the difficulties of worker organisation in a climate of harsh repression, a new organisation was formed. Thus arose Umkhonto we Sizwe, as a separate "military wing" of the struggle.

It soon became clear that the real hopes of the leadership were pinned, no longer on political mass organisation, but on "MK". In fact, Congress expressly stated that political organisation should be turned to the service of military activity - military activity by an organisation ultimately responsible only to itself.

"Political agitation is the only way of creating the atmosphere in which military action can most effectively operate," stated an ANC NEC circular in April 1963. "The political front gives sustenance to the military operations."

What did the leadership hope would be gained by this turn?

The initial propaganda of MK still based itself on the conception that the "progressive" capitalists were on the point of ousting the NP government and taking to the path of concessions. The actions of MK would "assist" in this process.

This, too, was the position of the CP. While, in 1959, Michael Harmel had written that a democratic revolution in South Africa "need not involve violence"[74], he turned in 1961 (under the pen-name "A. Lerumo") to a different view.

Violence was now necessary because "before the racialist oppressors can be made to listen to reason, their ears must be opened by speaking to them in the only language they understand."[75]

Kotane also said at the time: "When a man takes no notice of what you say, sometimes you have to twist his arm to make him listen to you."[76]

Revolutionary act

Workers know full well that, when the boss refuses to listen, it is necessary to "twist his arm" - for example, by strike action. But the more organised and experienced workers are, the more clearly they appreciate also that the taking up of arms in South Africa is a revolutionary act. It must be used not to "twist the arm" of the enemy, but to break his arm, to overthrow his state power.

That is why, as a conscious strategy, the taking up of arms by the working class is appropriate not to the first stages of organisation and mobilisation, but to the stage when the class is moving towards a confrontation with its rulers in an armed insurrection.

How could it be imagined that a rash of sabotage actions could win concessions from the ruling class when it was still able to contain the far more powerful force of the mass movement?

In their own ranks, the MK and Communist Party leadership justified these tactics as the "first stage" of a supposedly accelerating struggle for power. As one ex-Congress activist (presently living in Natal) has recalled:

"There was much wild talking at that time. The idea was that there should be isolated sabotage acts in the beginning. These would move rapidly into greater and greater acts of sabotage until large centres would be involved in sabotage and then these would finally end up in the masses moving en masse to sabotage, general strike, and the taking over of the country."

This was the "plan" proposed in "Operation Mayibuye", a document captured by the police in the Rivonia arrests. Though not officially adopted at the time, the strategy in it is no different from anything which has subsequently been published by the ANC leadership to justify a strategy of guerrilla struggle.

There were, recalls the same ex-Congress activist, two reasons for the decision:

"One was the success of Castro in Cuba and the other was the Pondo uprising which made a number of SACP leaders feel that the time was now ripe for the violent overthrow of the Government. If Castro could do it in two years why couldn't they do it? It was a false analogy. As far as the Pondo rising was concerned, by the time they took the decision the Pondo's themselves had decided to take the question of violence no further and were looking forward to other methods of struggle."

It was, he continues, "a complete misunderstanding of the situation and a completely wrong analysis of the forces at work…It was a very very grave mistake which had terrible effects on the growth of the mass movement in South Africa. To my mind certain of the leaders were always dissatisfied with taking things over a long term. They were keen to get things settled as quickly as possible…It seemed such a novel, one may say, easy way to solve the problems…It was this simplistic attitude that was entirely wrong. There was a sense of complete euphoria about this…They did not take into account the strength of the state."

Some CP leaders bitterly opposed the new turn. Bram Fischer, on trial in March 1966, stated that Operation Mayibuye was "an entirely unrealistic brainchild of some youthful and adventurous imagination…If there was ever a plan which a Marxist could not approve in the then prevailing circumstances, this was such a one…if any part of it at all could be put into operation, it could achieve nothing but disaster."[77]

The advocates of guerrillaism believed that a revolutionary situation was coming into existence in South Africa in the early 1960s - or could be brought about by a guerrilla struggle. This, as Fischer and others recognised, was an entirely false perspective.

The realities of South Africa were (and are) completely different from such countries of the colonial world as pre-revolutionary Cuba, Vietnam, etc. There capitalism was rotting internally, and held up by a weakly-based state machine - even without the leadership of the working class, it was possible for a mass struggle of peasants, organised through a guerrilla army, to overthrow the regime, and even to end capitalism.[78]

South Africa, by comparison, was already highly industrialised - and this had enabled the capitalist class to construct a formidable state machine, based on the support of millions of privileged whites.

A revolutionary situation can only unfold in South Africa as this state machine becomes paralysed in its ability to defend the rule of the capitalist class. Writing in Africa South (October-December 1958), a pro-Congress liberal, Julius Lewin, had argued that revolution was clearly not "round the corner" in South Africa. He quoted an American historian's statement that "no government has ever fallen before revolutionists until it has lost control over its armed forces or lost the ability to use them effectively; and, conversely, no revolutionists have ever succeeded until they have got a predominance of effective armed force on their side."[79]

None of the Congress leaders who replied to this article addressed themselves to answering this critical question. Nor was it answered by the turn to sabotage or to guerrilla struggle.

Political issue

For at the root of this question was not a military but a political issue: how politically the ruling class could be paralysed - what social force could be exerted to tear open divisions in the ruling class and separate from it the middle layers of society on whose support it depends.

The key to the question of revolution in South Africa was, and remains, the potential power of the black working class. That is the only force which will be capable, once massively organised and roused consciously to the task, of dividing the whites, of arming itself for power, and leading all the oppressed people to the overthrow of apartheid and capitalism.

Today, it is the resurgence of a working-class movement mightier by far than in the 1950s that has begun to re-open the splits in the ruling class and among its supporters. Even under this pressure, however, South Africa is only at the start of what is likely to be a prolonged period of pre-revolutionary upheavals.

In the 1950s the pressure of the working class had also begun to intensify divisions in the ruling class and among its supporters. But this was far from the existence of a revolutionary situation. In fact, largely as a result of the policies of compromise with the liberal capitalists which the ANC leaders had pursued, the mass movement had become divided and confused. By the early 1960s the ruling class had taken advantage of these circumstances to inflict defeats on the working class and force the movement on the retreat.

As another argument for the "turn to armed struggle", Mandela argued that "unless responsible leadership was given to canalise and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war."[80]

Indeed, particularly among the unorganised youth, but even penetrating into the ranks of the organised, there was by the early 1960s an increasing mood of frustration. This mood took on its most desperate and hopeless form in the random terrorism of "Poqo".

But to respond to this mood by leading those gripped by it into the blind alley of sabotage and guerrillaism, was a disastrous step for the whole mass movement.

Far from widening the divisions in the ruling class (let alone bringing them to "reason") - far from splitting away their supporters - it unwittingly gave the ruling class a greater opportunity to reconsolidate itself and its support on the basis of vicious repression.

Mass arrests, indefinite detention without trial, the systematic use of torture - these the regime had not had the confidence to introduce through the whole of the 1950s. But now the mass movement was itself torn by crisis. After December 1961, the launching of the sabotage campaign gave the regime the pretext it was looking for.

The ruling class used viciously repressive legislation not only to break the sabotage campaign, but to smash the remaining forms of workers' organisation. The Sabotage Act of 1962 not only introduced 90-day detention, but defined strikes as acts of sabotage.

In 1965 the Commissioner of Prisons stated that there were 8,500 political prisoners in South African jails. Between 1960 and 1966, 160 SACTU officials were arrested, and many convicted on sabotage charges. Between 1963 and 1971 at least twenty prisoners died in the hands of the security police. Some leading worker militants were executed.

In the last conference it was able to hold, SACTU stated: "We are carrying on in the face of such difficulties that it is like trying to swim against a tidal wave."

By encouraging the cream of SACTU's worker militants to leave their organising work in the factories, join MK and leave South Africa, the "turn to armed struggle" contributed to a devastating rout of workers' organisation.

By these policies, and by the savagery of state repression, a generation of worker activists embodying the most advanced experience of the South African working class was (politically speaking) wiped out. The thread of the labour movement tradition was broken for a whole period, as dark reaction settled over South Africa.

Throughout the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s, the whole of the black working class, and with them all the oppressed, were virtually defenceless against the unchecked attacks of the bosses and the state.

The bosses could amass greater profits by stepping up exploitation in the factories. The state could step up its programme of forced removals and "Bantustanisation".

The increased repression of the state drove far beyond an attack on political activists. In 1948 in South Africa there were 37 executions: between 1960 and 1969 there were, on average, 95 a year. In 1961 the number of persons sentenced to prison was 289,000 - in 1968 it was 486,000.

Facing a more ruthlessly organised and armed state machine, the working class - with its leadership killed, in prison, banned, or in exile - had to find its own means to regroup and reorganise underground.

At a great cost, this is what the working class had begun to do by the early 1970s. The tremendous achievements of the last ten years confirm that it is the only force capable of leading a struggle against apartheid and capitalism.


The philosopher George Santayana wrote: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Just as the defeat of the movement of the 1950s was not inevitable, so the victory of our movement today will not be inevitable either. It will depend mainly on the ability of the active, advanced layer of the working class, now building organisation among the youth, in the communities, and above all in the democratic trade unions, to unite and guide the struggle by a means of a scientific understanding.

The 1950s was a period rich in lessons for today - lessons that can be found in every phase and facet of it: in the tremendous energy and force of the mass movement; in the heroism and self-sacrifice of the many thousands who rose to confront the bosses and the state; in the hard-fought advances of the movement as well as in its eventual crippling and defeat.

These lessons, we believe, have a common connecting thread. They reveal that the struggle for national liberation and democracy involves, if it is to triumph, a struggle to overthrow the capitalist system itself.

They reveal that every real step forward in this struggle depends on the mobilisation and organisation of the working class. They show that this class, and no other, has the potential force to drive the ruling class into retreat, to weaken and divide the ranks of its supporters, to unite all the black oppressed and draw to their side exploited sections of whites, and ultimately to overwhelm the state.

The central lesson of the 1950s is surely this: that our revolutionary movement, struggling for national liberation and democracy, must be firmly and deliberately built as a class-conscious movement of the working class for socialism.

Every significant defeat of the 1950s, every wrong step with serious consequences for the people, resulted from the failure of the leadership of the movement at that time to grasp this reality and use it as the basis for perspectives, strategy and tactics.

The unwillingness to mobilise and concentrate the full power of the mass movement in nationwide action; the failure to build systematically the working-class organisations necessary to sustain it and defend it against repression; the repeated confusion and demoralisation in the movement, and its eventual splitting between rival organisations and leaderships; the disarming of the working class by the futile turn to an "armed struggle" by guerrillas - all these had a common root.

They stemmed from the mistaken belief of a middleclass leadership - reinforced in this by the "Communist" Party - that democratic concessions could be won through the support of the liberal or "progressive" capitalists.

It was upon these hopes, and not upon the power of the working class, that the leadership in the final analysis relied.

Hence it sought again and again, in tireless futility, to accommodate the demands and aspirations of the working class within limits acceptable to the capitalists - and it ended up, in consequence, paralysing its own real forces, frustrating its own democratic aims, and going down to defeat with the workers.

Only if there had existed in the 1950s a strong, conscious Marxist tendency within the ranks of the Congress movement, based especially among the organised workers in the trade unions, could that tragic course of events have been averted. Such a tendency did not exist. Today, however, at least the first beginning has been made to try to fill that need.

The defeat of the movement was suffered at a tremendous cost to the working class. Yet that cost will not have been wasted if the working-class movement in the 1980s can draw to the full the lessons from it, and so prepare the way to victory.

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[71] No Easy Walk to Freedom, p. 105.

[72] The Road to Freedom is Via the Cross, p. 20.

[73] No Easy Walk to Freedom, p. 105.

[74] Africa South, January-March 1959.

[75] African Communist, April-May 1962.

[76] Moses Kotane, p. 273.

[77] United Nations Office of Public Information, Apartheid and the Treatment of Prisoners in South Africa: Statements and Affidavits, New York, 1967, p. 41. This part of Fischers's trial statement was omitted from the version published by the ANC: What I Did Was Right, by Bram Fischer, Mayibuye Publications, London (undated).

[78] Even in that case, however, the result could never be a transition to a genuinely socialist society, which requires the conscious democratic control and management of production and the state by the working class. The ending of capitalism after the victory of a guerrilla army - where that has been the result - has invariably led to a regime of bureaucratic dictatorship on Stalinist lines.

[79] From Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution. This was no original discovery of a bourgeois historian! - it was, in fact, a key element in the conclusions drawn by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky on revolution and the state.

[80] No Easy Walk to Freedom, p. 164.

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