Lessons of the 1950s

4. The role of the Communist Party in the ANC

In 1950 the Communist Party, faced with banning under the Suppression of Communism Act, dissolved itself as an open organisation - but was reconstituted underground in 1953. Those active workers who remained in the CP, or joined it underground in the 1950s, did so because they expected a lead from it in the struggle to transform society.

After 1950, states a CP historian: "Party members were to continue working in the national organisations, the trade unions and other bodies, and to help bring into being the Congress Alliance headed by the African National Congress."[16]

The assumption of a mass character by the "national organisations" was, as has been explained, a consequence of the opportunities missed by the CP itself to build a mass workers' party. Indeed, there had been a conscious abdication by the CP of its position in favour of the ANC. Thus: "There were periods, during the war years especially, when Africans flocked to the Party in preference to the ANC, only to find themselves ordered to join the Congress and make it a strong and independent body."[17]

Through the 1950s, CP leaders and members had an singly influential position within the Congress movement. But what did the CP leadership see as the role of the Party in Congress?

Its approach was typified by the Party's general secretary, Moses Kotane, whose official biographer quotes ANC leaders, among them O. R. Tambo, as follows:

"Lutuli…on difficult questions on which he wanted ad­vice bypassed his officials and secretaries and sent for Moses because he had discerned this loyalty in him…Even when Lutuli was confined to the Groutville area in Natal, he would send for Moses to explain or discuss some issue he was uncertain about…Lutuli had so much confidence in Kotane that he would not make up his mind on controversial problems until he had discussed them with Kotane. Lutuli used to say: 'Kotane is the leader of the workers. We must hear what the leader of the workers has to say about this.'"[18]

What position?

What position did Kotane, or other CP leaders, express on the policies pursued by Lutuli and the middle-class Congress leadership? His biographer is quite clear: "Whatever the Communists did was done through the channels of the Congress movement and in pursuit of policies laid down by the Congresses. Apart from one or two minor instances, nothing was done by the CP which was in conflict with Congress policy."[19]

This reflected the fact that in practice the policies of the CP leaders were no different. How, then, did the CP explain its distinct existence as a party?

"An independent Marxist-Leninist party was essential," asserts the official history of the SACP, "both to fulfil its long-term mission of winning a socialist South Africa based on workers' power, and also to ensure the success of the immediate fight for national liberation and democracy." (Fifty Fighting Years, page 97, our emphasis.)

But, surely, to achieve success, the "immediate struggle for democracy" required a conscious struggle for workers' power!


It is true that the attainment of socialism - meaning a society of abundance in which all inequalities, classes and the state itself can wither away - was a longer-term perspective. A democratic workers' state in South Africa could only lay the foundations for a socialist society to develop in association with advances of the workers' revolution internationally.

But to play with words in this typical manner of the CP - to separate the struggle for democracy from the struggle of the working class for power against its oppressors and exploiters - conceded the leadership of the democratic struggle to the middle class.

Kotane, O. R. Tambo is reported as saying, "could have used his position to underline attitudes which were specific to the Communist Party, to speak from a particular position and remind everybody about the ultimate objectives of the Communist Party. But he never did that. He debated from what seemed to be an exclusively ANC standpoint…"[20]

In this, Kotane only faithfully carried out the policy line of his party, and indeed of Stalinism internationally. Its effect was to conceal not only the need for workers' power, but even the very idea of a different, socialist form of society, from the mass of the workers searching for answers in the school of struggle.

Previous Chapter | Home | Next Chapter


[16] Brian Bunting, Moses Kotane, South African Revolutionary, London, 1975, p. 165.)

[17] Ibid., p. 175.

[18] Ibid., p. 230-1.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.