Today is the anniversary of the launch of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London. The ways in which City Group provided solidarity with those resisting apartheid in South Africa both drew on longer histories of British anti-apartheid campaigning and was quite distinct from the ways in which the British Left had previously campaigned about apartheid.
I have a chapter forthcoming in Evan Smith and Matthew Worley’s new book Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956, which is due out later in the year, published by Manchester University Press. It is, in some ways, a sequel to their earlier, excellent collection, Against the Grain: The British far left from 1956. You can get a sense of the new book’s contents here.
My chapter, ‘Anti-apartheid solidarity in the perspectives and practices of the British far left in the 1970s and ’80s’, examines the relationship of three different far Left tendencies to the anti-apartheid struggle. It contrasts the politics and practices of the Communist Party of Great Britain [CPGB], two currents in British Trotskyism (Militant and the IS/SWP tradition), as well as the smaller Revolutionary Communist Group, who were centrally involved in the formation and leadership of the Non-Stop Picket. These groups identified different agents of revolutionary change in South Africa; had different geopolitical understandings of South Africa’s place in the world; and their specific conceptualizations of internationalism shaped how they practised solidarity with those resisting apartheid.
The four organisations discussed in the chapter were chosen because, between them, they exemplify three of the main political approaches to anti-apartheid campaigning adopted by the (white) far Left in Britain. From the origins of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain in 1959, the Communist Party of Great Britain, in alliance with exiled members of the South African Communist Party, played a significant role in every level of the movement. Their support was crucial to ensuring that the AAM accepted the ANC’s authority as the ‘sole legitimate’ liberation movement representing the majority of the South African people. In following the ANC/SACP line, the AAM prioritized defeating apartheid before contesting capitalism. This was the opposite of the position taken by Trotskyist and anti-imperialist tendencies. As such, the AAM was ideologically opposed to the politics presented by different strands of the far Left in Britain (and their allies in South Africa). As both the struggle against apartheid inside South Africa and the international solidarity campaign intensified in the 1980s, these political disputes became particularly fierce and time-consuming within the anti-apartheid movement.
The CPGB mobilized its members to play an active role in the AAM, and to build support for it within the trade unions and the National Union of Students. They were active in campaigning for the release of Mandela and other political prisoners, worked to build consumer boycotts in their communities, and they raised funds to send as material aid to the ANC. This was important campaigning work, but it accepted the AAM’s twin role as a pressure group, which sought to influence British (and international) foreign policy on South Africa; and a source of political and material support for the ANC in its struggle for democracy and national self-determination.
In contrast, the other political tendencies discussed in this chapter, framed their solidarity in anti-capitalist terms. The Revolutionary Communist Group and their allies in City Group (and other local AAM groups) sought to build an anti-imperialist tendency within the AAM. They believed that the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa would significantly weaken British imperialism (at home and globally). To this end, they sought to mobilize ‘the most oppressed sections of the working class’ in Britain to participate in a mass anti-apartheid solidarity movement which was capable of taking direct action to break Britain’s political and economic links with South Africa. They believed that it was the duty of solidarity activists in Britain to support all those fighting against apartheid in South Africa. They supported the ANC, but they also offered solidarity to (and built close links with) Pan-Africanists, Black Consciousness organisations, and the ‘workerist’ tendencies within the independent trade union movement in South Africa.
A very different position was taken by Militant and the Socialist Workers Party. Both these Trotskyist organisations believed that the guerrilla tactics of the ANC and PAC were a ‘blind alley’ for the South African working class. These organisations challenged any notion that socialist revolution should be subordinated to achieving national self-determination and non-racial democracy in South Africa. To this end, they largely side-stepped any significant commitment of personnel to work within the AAM, and chose to build direct links with working class militants in South Africa. Militant, in particular, used their influence within the Labour Party Young Socialists and certain British trade unions to build solidarity with their allies in the Marxist Workers’ Tendency in South Africa. For them, the purpose of international solidarity was to support the growth of revolutionary socialist currents within the South African working class (a project which was, perhaps inevitably, tied to the party building efforts of their own tendency).
When the anti-apartheid solidarity practices of different British far Left groups are compared, as they are in my chapter, they offer a valuable insight into how those groups understood internationalism, practised solidarity, and who they understood as the agents of revolutionary change in the ‘Third World’ during the Cold War period. You’ll be able to read my full analysis later in the year.