Literature against Stalinism: South Africa's left opposition, 1930-1960

Presented by David Johnson

Date: 
Monday, 23 April, 2018 - 15:00

At the beginning of the 1930s, the ANC, the ICU and CPSA were in disarray, and a small group of activist-intellectuals looked to new sources of inspiration in their struggles to liberate South Africa’s oppressed masses. William Thibedi (1880-1960), an expelled member of the CPSA and experienced trade unionist, wrote to Leon Trotsky in August 1932 to ask for help in the search for an alternative socialist vision of freedom. He asked Trotsky for ‘more literature of the left opposition because the Stalinist bureaucrats has for some years been hiding such literature to be known by the African Negro workers’. Thibedi was joined by other South African activist-intellectuals who sought guidance from Trotsky directly and from his writings more broadly in an effort both to develop political strategies for their struggles against the state and capital, and in order to avoid the pitfalls of the ANC’s ineffectual petitioning, the ICU’s chaotic populism, and the CPSA’s Stalinism. The reception, circulation and mutation of Trotsky’s thought in South Africa from the 1930s to 1950s is the focus of this paper. Selecting extracts from the writings of South African activist-intellectuals influenced by Trotsky, I focus on two central themes: (1) the critique of liberal freedoms; and (2) the conception of literature as a mode of critique and an expression of utopian possibilities. (The full chapter includes a summary history of Trotskyism in South Africa, as well as extended discussion of two further aspects: the critique of anti-colonial nationalism; and the elevation of land as pivotal to resistance politics. I have also cut the Conclusion. I welcome opportunities to discuss further any of these aspects).

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