Peter Cole & Lucien van der Walt, 2011, “Crossing the Color Lines, Crossing the Continents: Comparing the Racial Politics of the IWW in South Africa and the United States, 1905-1925”

Peter Cole & Lucien van der Walt, 2011, “Crossing the Color Lines, Crossing the Continents: Comparing the Racial Politics of the IWW in South Africa and the United States, 1905-1925,” Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, January 2011, 69-96

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ABSTRACT: In two of the planet’s most highly racialized countries, South Africa and the United States, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”), were remarkable. A key revolutionary syndicalist current operating globally, aspiring to unite the world’s working class into a revolutionary One Big Union against capitalism, the state and economic and social inequality, the Wobblies operated in contexts characterized by white supremacy and deeply divided working classes. Yet they not only condemned racism and segregation in theory, but actively engaged in the challenging work of organizing workers of color including black Africans, African Americans, Asians, Coloureds and Latinos, against both economic exploitation and national/ racial oppression.

Although the literature on race, ethnicity, and labour in both countries is voluminous, remarkably little has been written regarding the IWW on race matters. Yet the Wobbly tradition’s impressive commitment and achievements largely unappreciated; the myth that left anti-racism started with Marxist communism in the 1920s remains pervasive. This article develops a comparative analysis of these two IWW experiences, bridging the North/South and industrialized/developing country divides in the (labor) historiography, and deepening our understanding of IWW politics and of labor, race and the left in countries with heterogeneous working classes. Given the centrality of sailors and dockers in the Wobbly movement, particular attention is paid to Philadelphia (US) and Cape Town (SA).

In short, this article seeks to correct omissions in the literature of both countries’ labor and left movements by exploring how and why the IWW did what so few other unions were willing or able to do-organize across the color line, reject working class and official racism, with both remarkable achievements (if some limitations) in its emancipatory project. In doing so, this paper recovers a history of revolutionary unionism and politics amongst workers of colour, and of their organisations, like the General Workers Union, IWW, Industrial Workers of Africa, Industrial Social League, and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa. The broad anarchist tradition,including syndicalism, thus played an important role in struggles for national liberation and racial equality.

Key words: anarchism, Bakunin, Black struggles, Cape Town, communism, colonialism, dockers, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), global labour, labor unions, Kropotkin, longshore workers, Philadelphia, race relations, sailors, strikes, South Africa, syndicalism, transnational labour, United States

South Africa, and South African anarchism, through West African eyes [1997]

South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle and unions (both strengths and limitations), and South African anarchism and syndicalism, were mentioned several times in Sam Mbah and IE. Igariwey’s 1997 classic text, African Anarchism: the history of a movement (See Sharp, Tucson, USA). The authors, Nigerian militants, highlighted the South African movement as one of the oldest and most important in Africa (not much was known of the time, at least amongst English-speakers, of the very important currents that had existed in North Africa, or impacts elsewhere in the continent). The 1990s South African movement, in turn, was deeply impressed by the then-1,000 member anarcho-syndicalist Awareness League in Nigeria, of which Mbah and Igariwey were leading lights; the League joined an anarcho-syndicalist international, the International Workers Association, in 1996, a body claiming direct descent from the 1922 “Berlin” international set up after anarchists and syndicalists broke ties with the Communist International / Comintern. Mbah, sadly, passed away from heart problems in late 2014.

From African Anarchism:

Chapter 1: What Is Anarchism?

“Anarchism as a social philosophy, theory of social organization, and social movement is remote to Africa — indeed, almost unknown. It is underdeveloped in Africa as a systematic body of thought, and largely unknown as a revolutionary movement. Be that as it may, anarchism as a way of life is not at all new to Africa, as we shall see. The continent’s earliest contact with European anarchist thought probably did not take place before the second half of the 20th century, with the single exception of South Africa. It is, therefore, to Western thinkers that we must turn for an elucidation of anarchism.

Anarchism derives not so much from abstract reflections of intellectuals or philosophers as from the objective conditions in which workers and producers find themselves. Though one can find traces of it earlier, anarchism as a revolutionary philosophy arose as part of the worldwide socialist movement in the 19th century….”

Chapter 3: Anarchistic Precedents in Africa

“As for outright anarchist movements, there have existed and still exist anarchist groups in South Africa — notably the Anarchist Revolutionary Movement in Johannesburg, and the Durban-based Angry Brigade [this was apparently one of the incarnations of the Durban anarchist movement that later ended up in the Workers Solidarity Federation and in Zabalaza Books — SAAHSA]. South Africa’s pioneer anarcho-syndicalist organization, however — known as the Industrial Workers of Africa — Continue reading

The South African Wobblies: The Origins of Industrial Unions in South Africa – John Philips, 1978

The South African Wobblies: The Origins of Industrial Unions in South Africa, John Philips

The South African Wobblies: The Origins of Industrial Unions in South Africa by John Philips

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John Philip’s pioneering, hard-to-get study of syndicalism in South Africa, stressing the influence of the IWW. Despite some important factual errors and some gaps, this was for many years the most reliable text on the subject. It made use of American primary sources (such as the IWW’s Industrial Worker), and of South African secondary texts (like the Simons’ Class and Colour in South Africa). The PDF is the original version. The marked up version includes some insertions noting errors.

SOURCE: Ufahuma, volume 8, number 3 (1978) Continue reading

Syndicalists in South Africa, 1908-17 – Baruch Hirson, November 1993

Syndicalists in South Africa, 1908-17 by Baruch Hirson

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The following 1993 text by the late Baruch Hirson, South African Trotskyist, provides some insight into the South African syndicalists of the early twentieth century. A reader can quibble over the focus on Archie  Crawford and Mary Fitzgerald (whose ideas were always rather mixed), as well as regret the closing in 1917 (many of the most important developments took place in the late 1910s). But credit must be given where credit is due: Hirson played an unmatched role, over many years, in recovering the history of South African left traditions ignored or caricatured in the South African Communist Party and academic accounts. Although his interest was in the Communist Party and the Trostkyists that emerged subsequently, his work also touched on the anarchist and syndicalist tradition, as this interesting paper shows. Continue reading

Latest News From South Africa – Tom Mann, September 1914

British syndicalist Tom Mann (1856-1941) was a major influence on South African syndicalism. His South African tour in 1910 galvanised local militants, helping inspire the emergence that year of the local IWW and Socialist Labour Party. He returned to South Africa in 1914, to assist the unions after the repression of the planned 1914 general strike, and returned again in the wake of the 1922 Rand Revolt. He was a lifelong friend of W.H. “Bill” Andrews (1870-1950), a British-born emigrant to South Africa who played a key role in the syndicalist International Socialist League and later (like Mann), moved from syndicalism to Marxist Communism.

Here is a 1914 article by Mann on “Latest News from South Africa.”

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Digging into IWW History: South Africa – John Philips, Industrial Worker, October 1976, p. 8

Digging into IWW History: South Africa, John Philips, Industrial Worker, October 1976

Digging into IWW History: South Africa, John Philips, Industrial Worker, October 1976

Original as JPG  |  Original as PDF  |  SAASHA PDF

This pioneering article sheds light on the early impact of the IWW in South Africa, and on early black strikes and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU). While not altogether accurate (for example, the ICU claimed to have white members, and David Ivon Jones was not part of 1920s night school where workers wrote “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains, and a world to win !”, and the IWW influence continued well after 1920), it is a commendable account. Continue reading

I.W.W.’s in South Africa – New York Times, July 19, 1918

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I.W.W.'s in South Africa - New York Times, 1918

Article published in the New York Times on July 19, 1918

Organization Established Among the Natives at Durban.

IWW logoJOHANNESBURG, Union of South Africa, July 18. – At the preliminary hearing of S.P. Bunting, former Provincial Councillor; S, Hanscomb, and a man named Tinker, who were arrested on July 7 for complicity with the threatened uprising of the natives in South Africa, held here today, it was testified that Bunting presided at various meetings at which the natives were urged to organize against the capitalists.

It was also stated that a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World had been established among the natives at Durban.

The New York Times, July 19, 1918

“A History of the IWW in South Africa” – Lucien van der Walt, 2001

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This article was published by Lucien van der Walt in Direct Action (Australia, Summer 2001) as “Many Races, One Union! The IWW, revolutionary syndicalism and working class struggle in South Africa, 1910-21.” It was reprinted in Bread and Roses (Britain, Autumn 2001) as “A History of the IWW in South Africa.”

Note: An incomplete version has also appeared on the internet under the title “1816-1939: Syndicalism in South Africa,” described as “a short history of radical trade unionism, class struggle and race in Southern Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries.”  The dates are wrong (there was no syndicalism anywhere in 1816, and while the IWW-influenced ICU would last in Zimbabwe into the 1950s, there was no syndicalism in South Africa in 1939) and several paragraphs are missing, in that version.

For PDF of scanned Direct Action version: click here

For PDF of scanned Bread and Roses version: click here

Lucien van der Walt, Autumn 2001, “A History of the IWW in South Africa,” Bread and Roses

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the ideas, goals and organisational practices for which it stood, had an important influence on the early labour movement and radical press in South Africa. It also had an impact on neighbouring Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Furthermore, at least five unions were founded on the IWW model in this period. Four of these unions pioneered the organisation of workers of colour, most notably the Industrial Workers of Africa, the first union for African workers in South African history Continue reading

“‘Sifuna Zonke!’: Revolutionary Syndicalism, the IWA and the fight against racial capitalism, 1915-1921” – Lucien van der Walt / BMC, undated

“Sifuna Zonke!” by the Bikisha Media Collective

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Revolutionary syndicalism – the strategy of bringing about a stateless socialist society through a revolutionary general strike in which organised labour, through its trade unions, seizes and places under self-management the means of production – played a central, but today, largely forgotten, role in the early twentieth-century South African labour movement.

Before the 1920s, it was revolutionary syndicalism, which is rooted in the classical anarchism of Mikhail Bakunin, rather than the dry Marxism of the Second International, which dominated the thought and actions of the radical left in South Africa. And so it was, ultimately, classical anarchism that pioneered labour organising and anti-racist work amongst workers of colour in South Africa: the nationally oppressed Coloured, Indian and African proletariat. Continue reading

“The IWW, Revolutionary Syndicalism and Working Class Struggle in SA, 1910 – 1920” – Lucien van der Walt / BMC, undated

The IWW, Revolutionary Syndicalism and Working Class Struggle in SA, 1910 – 1920 by the Bikisha Media Collective

Click here for PDF

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the ideas, goals and organisational practices for which it stood, had an important influence on the early labour movement and radical press in South Africa. It also had an impact on neighbouring Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Furthermore, at least five unions were founded on the IWW model in this period. Four of these unions pioneered the organisation of workers of colour, most notably the Industrial Workers of Africa, the first union for African workers in South African history.

“Industrial Unionism in South Africa” – IWW, Johannesburg, 1910

The “Industrial Workers’ Union” is an organisation recently formed in South Africa. It is a new link in the international chain that is forming the Industrial Workers of the World. From the “Voice of Labour”, published at Johannesburg, we take the following, signed by “T. Glynn, General Secretary S.A. Industrial Workers’ Union”. It shows that they are getting on the right track down in the Southern Hemisphere.

A speaker at the Market Square last Sunday week, defined what he conceived to be the difference between the socialism of the industrial unionist and other socialists. His explanation was good enough so far as it went, but as it does not altogether cover my views on the matter I should like to give them here.

Industrial unionism is, in my opinion, only another name for constructive socialism. I believe that if every wage earner tomorrow, from the high salaried official to the lowest paid wage slave was converted to a belief in socialist economics the wage labour system would still continue, if the workers were not systematically organised inside of the industries so that order and method would prevail in mode of production and distribution. Continue reading