World War I

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Responses in South Africa to the outbreak of WWI: The Formation of the International Socialist League (ISL)

The out break of the First World War had profound consequences for the development of socialist labour politics in South Africa. Before the war, the Labour Party under Colonel Cresswell was the predominant party political voice of organised white labour in South Africa. By 1914 the party had succeeded in gaining the support of the majority of the English speaking working class. It was making inroads into the Afrikaans working class as well as the middle class. The 1913 Mineworkers strike, known as the ‘July Strike’ as well as the strike by railwaymen in January 1914 led to the growth of the Labour Party and it managed to win a straight majority in the Transvaal Provincial elections of March 1914.  It also captured seats from the government in by-elections, and it was expected to make great strides in the coming general election of 1915.  The outbreak of war in August 1914, however, caused a serious rift within the party, impeding its ‘spectacular growth’. The party became divided into those who called for support of the war and those who were anti-war.  At its annual conference in East London in January 1914, an antiwar majority won out. As the governments of Britain and Germany stepped up their war propaganda, increasing pressure to support the British war effort mounted. The leader of the party, Cresswell, was pro-war and was supported by party members including Wyberg,the editor of the party newspaper, The Worker The latter argued in a letter published in the The Worker:

‘When a trade union is engaged in a struggle,'' he wrote, "it is the right and duty of every man to use his own intelligence in deciding whether or not the terrible necessity for a strike has arisen. But once a strike has been declared it is the duty of every man, whether he up proves or not, to take his share in the work and the risks involved. If he does not he is rightly called a scab, even if he doesn't belong to the union at all.... In the same way the man who, when his country is at war, refuses to do his duty is a scab and deserves the contempt of all.’ (Roux: 1943: -)

At a special conference in Johannesburg held on 22 August 1914, Creswell’s position in support of the war won a majority. Those who opposed the war motion included W.H. Andrews, S.P. Bunting, Colin Wade and David Ivon Jones.  Members of this group joined the War on War League, formed in September 1914 by leftwing socialists opposed to the war. S. P Bunting was its treasurer. Eventually those who opposed the war motion resigned or were expelled from the Labour Party. At the same time members of The War on War League began to think in terms of an alternative to the Labour Party. On the 22 September, The Internationalist Socialist League (ISL) was formed with W. H Andrews as chairman,  J.A. Clark as vice-chairman,  G. Weinstock as treasurer, and David Ivon Jones as secretary.

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Last updated : 21-Apr-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 24-Feb-2014