We are delighted to share a recent interview with Tom Lodge where he discusses his book Red Road to Freedom: A History of the South African Communist Party 1921 – 2021, published on Friday! Red Road to Freedom is the definitive and gripping narrative history of the Communist Party of South Africa. The full interview can be found in the latest volume of the African Griot, subscribe today!
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about Red Road to Freedom! Can you please begin by providing an overview of your book?
Red Road is a history of the Communist Party in South Africa. It takes the story from the party’s origins in a cluster of radicals within the white labour movement in the 1900’s. Over a hundred years, from the fringes of the political system the Party gradually moved into the mainstream of South African politics. Today the South African Communist Party (SACP) is an ally of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), its leaders serving as cabinet ministers. Parts of this story are well known, though archival evidence continues to supply fresh insights. Until 1950 from its foundation in 1921, the Party functioned openly. It contested elections, it published a newspaper, it led trade unions and it conducted a quarrelsome internal life quite publicly. By the 1940s, its main following was increasingly among black South Africans. Doctrinal and practical considerations had helped to prompt the Party’s leadership to align itself with African nationalism, though Party leaders disagreed about the strategic implications of joining a struggle for national liberation. In particular, they argued over whether such a struggle could be simultaneously socialist.
My book explores less well-known territory when it starts tracking the Party’s development as a clandestine formation, first within South Africa from 1950 to 1965 when it’s networks were almost destroyed by police action and then through three decades of exile as a secret formation within the ANC’s African and European diaspora. By the late 1980s, the Party’s influence peaked despite the small size of its membership. In certain respects and among certain groups, Communists achieved a near hegemonic dominance and yet they remained organisationally weak. My closing chapter considers the Party’s evolution since the fall of Apartheid. It now has a mass membership and an elaborate bureaucracy but its political and broader ideological influence has receded. Paradoxically, proximity to power has distanced Communists from their earlier source of strength: immersion in the politics of the poor.
Is there anything about the Party’s politics that is uniquely South African?
Two key features of the Party’s history make it stand out in the international Communist family, the way that its social make-up has altered and its lengthy proximity to a nationalist movement. It’s following was initially drawn from white working-class communities in the gold mining centres, mostly from England. Through the 1920s to the 1950s, leadership was shared by Baltic Jewish immigrants who brought their own political ideas. From the 1960s onwards, the Party became mainly black South African, both with respect to its members and its officials. Secondly from 1928 onwards the Party would embrace the immediate goal of achieving a “black republic”. This would lead it into a sustained engagement with African nationalism. What makes the South African Communist experience unique is the degree to which it was able to shape and transform a nationalist movement. Conversely, Party leaders today suggest that their own organisation has been profoundly affected by its commitment to national liberation.
What role did they play in the liberation struggle of South Africa?
They contributed to this struggle in three major ways, in building networks, in shaping strategy and in fostering leadership.
Communists in the 1940s began mobilising community protests to support strike movements. Cooperation between labour leaders and community activists would persist through the next five decades, helping to enable national liberation in 1994. In fact, in the 1940s local trade unionists were often community leaders, as well as belonging to the Communist Party. It was no coincidence that where the ANC had the most entrenched+ presence in the 1950s was in the localities in which communists were best organised in the 194Os. In short, the “Decade of Defiance”, the ten years or so of mass action against Apartheid in the 1950’s, was incubated in Party networks.
There are many other ways in which the Party stamped its historic imprint. If the ANC’s armed struggle against apartheid minority rule was decisive, and it was certainly important in inspiring other kinds of political action during the 1980s, than communists supplied its strategic vision as well as providing most of the key members of its general staff and as well many field unit commanders.
Tom Lodge is Emeritus Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick. He is the author of several books on African history including Mandela: A Critical Biography (2006) and Sharpeville: An Apartheid Massacre and its Consequences (2011). He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy.
Find the full interview in volume 21 of the African Griot.
This title is an import from Jacana, who hold rights in Africa and India.