The SACP and the Case of S.P. Bunting

S. P. Bunting was a founding member of the Communist Party of South Africa, as the SACP was then called. He became its chairman in 1924. He edited the Party paper, The International. He was one of those responsible in the 1920s for turning the party away from a concentration on white workers to becoming SA’s first non-racial party with a black majority of members and leaders.

But, along with leading African militants – T.W. Thibedi, Gana Makabeni, etc. – he was expelled from the Party in 1931 in a Stalinist purge.

After 58 years of silence, the SACP’s Political Bureau last year admitted that Bunting and his comrades were “unjustly expelled”. “The reasons given for his expulsion were flimsy to the point of being ridiculous,” they concede. His expulsion was “an act of betrayal from which he never recovered”. In fact, he died, a broken man, in 1936.

The Political Bureau says Bunting was expelled for “appealing for leniency when defending political prisoners in court, and … speaking from the same platform as members of the ANC and ICU”. But this totally covers up the hysterical witch-hunt which was launched against Bunting and his comrades by the Party at that time – and covers up the underlying political basis of his expulsion.

“Since the expulsion of Bunting and his few supporters…for their white chauvinist, reformist, right opportunist policies and anti-Party activities”, raved Umsebenzi (CPSA newspaper), (22/10/1932), “they have gone over completely into the camp of the class enemies of the people’s revolution. From the role of hidden agents of British and Africander Imperialism within the ranks of the revolutionary movement, they have come out more openly as the direct representatives of Imperialist exploitation and subjection… Together with Hertzog, Pirow and Smuts [i.e. the political leaders of white racism] they are attacking the working masses and its proletarian vanguard.”

In a second article in the same issue, Bunting is described as “prominent son of Sir Perceval Bunting, an aristocratic British peer and a firm fighter for British imperialist domination”. S.P. Bunting himself was “a rich lawyer and an absentee landlord now exploiting Natives on a wattle farm in Natal”. His fellow-expellees were the “local tools and understudies of Lord Bunting”.

A third article, by J.B.Marks (later to become Chairman of the SACP) – notes that Bunting was allied with Thibedi, who Bunting had formerly himself expelled from the Party. “Now the dog has turned to his vomit”, wrote Marks.

Bunting and his supporters were promptly labelled as “Trotskyists” by the CPSA Stalinists. “These renegades from Communism” – wrote the same issue of Umsebenzi – “have now joined hands with the International enemy of the world Proletarian revolution, Mr Trotsky”.

“Trotsky and his cult” – it continued – “the champions of ‘permanent revolution’ contend that it is impossible to build Socialism in a single country, such as ‘in a backward country like Russia’. And as the mighty achievements of victorious Socialist Construction in the USSR – the land of complete National freedom and Social emancipation [!] – stand triumphantly before the world refuting this assertion, as the working class and peasants in the Soviet Union under the leadership of the CPSU march forward from victory to victory, constantly improving their material and cultural position and are successfully building the new classless society, Socialism – Trotsky and his fellow renegades launch ever more vicious attacks against the Soviet Union and clamour for world imperialism to speed up its military preparations to attack the USSR – the Fatherland of the working class and all toilers.”(!!) (Our emphasis)

Bunting has now been “reprieved” by the SACP. But, as is shown by Dialego, they have not ceased their slanders against Trotsky.

Moreover, in rehabilitating Bunting, the SACP wants to claim that by “speaking from the same platform as members of the ANC and ICU”, he had “the courage and foresight to initiate what would in time become the settled policy of the entire mass democratic movement”.

By this they imply that Bunting supported the “two-stage”, Popular Frontist, programme now advocated by the SACP. This is typical Stalinism. A person is “rehabilitated” to prove – that he had the policies that the Party pursues now. It is far from the real truth.

The Political Bureau statement only hints at the real reason for Bunting’s expulsion when it says that he “had some doubts about certain aspects of the ‘Black Republic’ policy adopted at the 6th Congress of the Comintern in 1928”.

The “Black Republic” policy of 1928 is celebrated in SACP history as marking the abandonment of “white chauvinist” errors which had marred their early years, and for the first time recognising the Principle of majority rule in South Africa. This may be the truth. But the strategy put forward in it for achieving majority rule was fatally flawed by the policies of the Stalinist Comintern.

In parallel with the “stageist” policies which led to the defeat of the Chinese revolution, the “Black Republic” was put forward by the Comintern as… a “stage” towards a workers and peasants government… itself only a “stage” towards the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Comintern had abandoned the lessons of the permanent revolution.

Bunting, though not a trained Marxist, spoke from his experience among the African working class in opposition to the Comintern resolution. In a first speech at the 1928 Congress he said:

I should like in all modesty to point out that the Communist International gives insufficient attention to [the proletarian character] of the colonial masses…. the draft programme of the Communist International… says that there are two main revolutionary forces: the ‘proletariat’ in the countries at home, and the ‘masses’ in the colonies. I beg to protest against this bald distinction…

The fighting strength after all of the colonial masses, for any objective, consists very largely in their working class, particularly in a country like ours where a native movement, proletarian or nationalist for that matter, has no chance for the present of being an armed movement, it must depend on its industrial weapons, on strikes and on political struggles and on little more for the present. It is in the field of industrial strikes that the greatest militancy is shown…

In South Africa… our large ‘peasantry’ is continuously drawn upon to supply workers for the mines and other large industries or for the farms. These workers are peasantry part of the time and workers part of the time so that the working class is really very widespread, and it is also by far the strongest section of the native population when it comes to action…

…big enterprises of all kinds show that ours is not just a medieval, feudal, peasant country. The power of labour, therefore, is of very great importance… this ‘uncivilised’ labour as it is called in our country, may play as important a part in the attack on capitalism as the highly civilised labour, of e.g. the United States.

Of course the native labour movement in South Africa is only an infant movement; but it is a good, healthy, lusty infant, very responsive to our propaganda and is growing fast…. In spite of the special disabilities placed upon them as a subject race, nevertheless, I say these are as real proletarians as any in the world, they are as nakedly exploited, down to the bone; the relationship of master and servant, employer and employed, exploiter and exploited, is as clear and classical as it could be.

The first native strike in Johannesburg was a strike of ‘sanitary bucket boys’, i.e. engaged in the most degraded kaffirs’ work. In a native school which we are earning on in Johannesburg, we use the Communist Manifesto as a text book, reading it with workers …in the factories, mines, workshops, stores, etc. We read the well-known characterisations of capitalism and the proletariat in the Communist Maniftsto, and the pupils always agree, after arguing and studying about what they have read, how completely and correctly every single characterisation applies to themselves. ‘We recognise’, they say, ‘how we have become workers, how we have been driven off the land, onto the industrial markets, how we are deprived of family life, of property, of culture, etc.’ exactly as in the history of the European countries. And they have the advantage over the European workers, that they are not sophisticated with petty bourgeois or imperialist ideas (except religion, and even that is not native to them); which all helps in the work of making them revolutionary…

There is no reference in the draft programme, or in Comrade Bukharin’s speech to the colonial proletariat, as such, to the class power of these colonial workers: as a class they are relegated to inactivity.

In a later speech at the Congress – admitting that “we Party members in South Africa…are only amateurs when it comes to theorizing” – he pointed out how the ‘Black Republic’ resolution conflicted with Lenin’s program for emancipation of the masses in the colonial countries: “In an earlier debate… I ventured the opinion, in effect, that it might not be universally true that the chief function of a colonial people was to engage in a national struggle (predominantly agrarian in character) against foreign imperialism and for independence; and that in South Africa, at any rate, the class struggle of the proletariat (chiefly native) appeared more capable of achieving the task…

It is often said that the colonial theses of the 2nd Congress of the Comintern is authority to the contrary, but I do not find anything to that effect in the theses.

He was referring to Lenin’s theses approved by the Comintern in 1920, and he quoted from them: “The policy of the Communist International on national and colonial questions must be chiefly to bring about a union of the proletarian and working masses of all nations and countries for a joint revolutionary struggle leading to the overthrow of capitalism, without which national equality and oppression cannot be abolished.” (Our emphasis)

He pointed out how, with class policies for national liberation, the CPSA was gaining a big echo among black workers: “Our work among the native masses, so far mainly as a working class movement… is limited only by our ability to cope with it. We have 1,750 members, of whom 1,600 are natives, as against 200 a year ago…We are also combating and slowly overcoming white labour chauvinism, which we find yields when confronted with organised masses of native fellow workers face to face. We have also put through joint strikes of white and black which were victorious…

Native workers and some peasants are pouring into the Party in preference to joining the purely native bodies, whether national or industrial, which have let them down and fallen into the hands of the bourgeoisie. They fully appreciate the ‘vulgar Marxist’ slogan of ‘Workers of the World Unite’, of joint action by black and white labour against the common enemy; and at the same time they see that the Communist Party sincerely and unreservedly espouse their national cause as an oppressed race.

To a comrade in the Party, Bunting wrote after the Congress,

the language about ‘stages’ represents ideological rather than chronological sequence (though I think it was dictated by the analogy of a bourgeois democratic revolution in China, but of course I didn’t say that) as really no black republic in SA could be achieved without overthrowing capitalist rule. And I think the ‘stage’ part of the formula is verbiage. (Our emphasis)

Though Bunting – through loyalty to the Soviet Union – supported the expulsion of Trotsky from the Russian Party, he was an instinctive supporter of ideas of permanent revolution.

But in the SACP’s “rehabilitation” of Bunting, all this is concealed. Instead we are given the impression that he was a forerunner of the SACP’s present theory of “stages” in the SA revolution and alliance with the bourgeoisie!

Despite his disagreements, Bunting loyally turned to applying the Comintern’s ‘Black Republic’ resolution. But, in the meantime, the Comintern swung from its Menshevik policies in China to the ultra-leftism of 1929-1933. For implementing policies with which he disagreed, Bunting was expelled from the Communist Party, as the SACP PB now concedes: “during the great ‘purge’ carried out by international communists of alleged ‘right-wing deviationists’ ” – and, as we have seen, denounced as an agent of imperialism, a collaborator with the arch counter-revolutionary Trotsky, etc!

The Political Bureau today claims that “a misguided clique of Party members who had gained control of the Central Committee” were responsible for Bunting’s expulsion – but it fails to name who these were. This is because to do so would be a further embarrassment.

Among those responsible for expelling him were Lazar Bach and P. and M. Richter, whom the 1989 Congress of the SACP was compelled to “posthumously reinstate” as Party members.

The Richters were executed by Stalin’s regime in 1938. Lazar Bach died in a Soviet labour camp in the same period – of so-called ‘natural causes’.

Also out of loyalty to the Soviet Union, these party members carried out the purge of Bunting and other “right-wing deviationists”. But then, when the Comintern veered back after 1935 to policies of collaboration with the bourgeoisie, they were called to Moscow, imprisoned and murdered!

For more than fifty years, the SACP uttered not a word in criticism of these crimes, any more than it did regarding the expulsion of Bunting and his comrades.

Now it “posthumously reinstates” Bach and the Richters only “In the light of information received from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the effect that [these three] had been expelled from the Communist Party and convicted on the basis of false evidence extracted from them by the Soviet security authorities” (African Communist, 4th Quarter 1989).

Even now, the SACP “rehabilitates” these comrades only on the authorisation of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union! Even now, there is not a word to explain how such crimes were committed in a supposedly “socialist” country – any more than why the Comintern should have been capable of travelling through such bizarre zig-zags.

Dialego’s article on “What is Trotskyism?” provoked controversy even among loyal readers of the African Communist. The editors reported (3rd Quarter 1989) they had “received a number of contributions from readers examining, at some length, the role of Trotsky before, during, and after the Russian Revolution”. But they “decided not to publish the contributions we have received”!

Their excuse was that “undertaking a general reappraisal of Trotsky and Trotskyism is not the task of our journal. We have the special responsibility for developing Marxist-Leninist thought in an African and South African context”.

This is the typical national narrow-mindedness of Stalinism. Behind it lies the fear of the SACP leadership in raising questions about the international role and essential nature of the Russian bureaucracy. For the same reason, they provide no real explanation for why their former comrades were persecuted and murdered.

These “rehabilitations” are merely futile attempts to revive the waning credibility of the SACP. But this Party remains tied to the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. It has nothing in common with Marxism.