From the book: Johnny Gomas Voice of the working class: A political Biography by Doreen Musson

The South African struggle received little attention from the Comintern (the Communist International) in the early years. From its inception in March 1919, the Congress of the Third International paid scant attention to the national and colonial struggle (under which the South African question became subsumed). Indeed, the manifesto of the Congress stated quite clearly that the liberation of the colonial world was a necessary by-product of proletarian revolution in the West. However, as the great wave of revolutionary upheavals which shook Europe after the October Revolution ended in defeat, the great expectations of the Third International were swept away. As the revolution in Europe ebbed away, so the colonial peoples gained in importance in the counsels of the Comintern. Indeed one of the greatest achievements and contributions of the Comintern of the early 1920s was the publicity given by it to the historical importance of national movements of liberation in the colonial and semi-colonial countries.

At the Second Congress of the Comintern in July 1920, a special commission was appointed to study the national and colonial question and to prepare appropriate guidelines for future Comintern policy. The commission based its investigations and recom–mendations extensively on a draft thesis presented by Lenin at the Congress. Lenin argued that Comintern support for the liberation of colonies would accelerate the victory of the proletariat over world capitalism, an eventuality upon which the liberation of the colonies depended. What was needed was an alliance between the proletariat of the advanced countries and the "toiling masses" of the colonies to affect the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and landowners. Lenin further replaced the formulation 'bourgeois democratic' with 'revolutionary nationalist , thus acknowledging the revolutionary element in a nationalist struggle. Communists should make themselves the leaders of the working masses and practise collaboration with the nationalist bourgeoisie for limited objectives, at the same time striving to drive the national revolution in a socialist direction. The question was, how should a communist party go about creating a mass organisation which would carry out national liberation and then proceed to a socialist revolution? In his thesis Lenin avoided any definite strategic commitment, but rather indicated the possibility of two distinct alternatives. In the case of revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, the party would aim at the formation of Soviets. In such a case the Soviets would lead a given colonial country through the national into the socialist revolution, skipping the capitalist phase. In the event of the West's failure to undergo the transition to socialism, the communist party if the colonial country would aim only at national liberation, supporting to the most radical elements within the nationalist bourgeoisie and fighting against imperialism. The new independent state, detached saw from the capitalist West, would constitute a basis for the development of the socialist revolution.

Lenin's "Guiding Principles on the National and Colonial Question at the Second Congress were clearly directed against any attempt to put a communist label on revolutionary movements of (national) liberation which were not really communistic. The alliance with the national revolutionary movement had to be temporary. Communists were not to amalgamate with these nationalist parties, but should under all circumstances unconditionally maintain the independence of the proletarian movement, What guidelines did the CPSA receive from the international body?

Until 1924 the CPSA was a white party, a situation which arose from its basic belief in the revolutionary potential of the workers and the backward character of black workers. In his 1921 report to the Comintern on Communism in South Africa, Ivon Jones wrote inter alia:

Owing to their heavy social disabilities and political backwardness, the natives are not able to supply any active militants to the Communist Movement. The immediate needs of white trade unionism in which a number of our members are actively engaged tend to throw the more difficult task of native emancipation into the background. The white workers movement moves only spasmodically, and is neglected. It requires a special department with native linguists and newspapers. All of which requires large funds which are not available.

It was among white trade unionists and intellectuals in South Africa that the political changes in the workers' movement in Europe, from which most of the CPSA leadership hailed, found a reflection. The Party carried with it the paternalism of the old European social democracy on the colonial question. Addressing the Communist international meeting in 1919 the same Ivon Jones who was the leader of the ISL revealed much of the paternalism inherent in the attitude of the CPSA at the time, when he stated: "The native is captivated by a piece of machinery and will seek out its inmost pulsations and tend it as a god ... On every possible pretext they will work in unison, raising and lowering the pick, with rhythmic flourishes thrown in, to the time of their Zulu chants. Ever and anon the time changes in an endless variety from the ancestral repertoire in perfect harmony and rhythm, an impromptu chorus of the wild, charming, even the dullest. No gaffer can speed up such a gang. And when the same gang tries to sing a simple Christian hymn it makes a most discordant mess of it. Such is arrested development!

The manifesto which was adopted at the founding congress of the CPSA (July 30,1921) had no consideration for the national question. Instead the main objectives of the Party were seen to be socialist missionary work by white activists among black workers. The Party saw no contradiction between its gloomy analysis of the class-consciousness of the blacks and its objective of winning them over for socialism, as quickly as possible. The change in Party theory, policy and attitude came from the Comintern which was at this time (around 1924) engaged in a debate on the 'Negro' question in the United States. The debate on South Africa was to a very large extent inspired and stimulated by analogies with the 'Negro question'.

However, even before the crucial Sixth Congress of the Comintern (in mid-1928) where specific directives were spelled out for South Africa, black members of the Party such as Gomas and La Guma, as well as the young Communist League, was beginning to question the conventional wisdom of the Party leadership with regard to white workers. In June 1927, La Guma left to attend the Conference of the League Against Imperialism in Brussels, as a CPSA delegate. Another delegate was Gumede from the ANC, in whose place Gomas was then acting as president of the ANC (Western Cape). In Brussels the two had the opportunity of meeting with nationalist leaders from colonial countries and discussing the South African question with them. Among these were Madame Sun Yat Sen from China and Pandit Nehru from India. The conference adopted the resolution of the South African delegation on the right of self-determination through the complete overthrow of imperialism. However, many crucial questions were not addressed: self-determination for whom? Were blacks a separate nation from whites? La Guma thought they had found the answer in Moscow where they went to attend the Anniversary Celebrations of the 1917 Revolution, and where they had discussions with Bukharin and other Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) leaders. The solution was seen to be "an independent South African Republic as a stage towards a workers' and peasants' republic with full rights for all races". Bukharin also emphasised, inter alia, that the white workers in South Africa were soaked with imperialist ideology and were not of any primary importance.

On his return from Europe towards the end of 1927, La Guma first had discussions with Gomas and the Cape Party members before following Gumede to Johannesburg where they reported to the Central Committee on their overseas discussions. The gist of the report centred on the question of the role of nationalism in the class struggle. The resolution (or slogan as it came to be known) that was discussed at the Johannesburg meeting had apparently been drafted by La Guma in conjunction with Bukharin and other ECCI leaders. It advocated "an independent native South Atria' Republic as a stage towards a workers' and peasants' republic, with full equal rights for all races, black, coloured and white". Tin resolution was rejected by the majority present, including Gomas who actually voted against his close associate and comrade, La Guma. A delegation, consisting of Sydney and Rebecca Bunting and Edward Roux, was sent to the Sixth Congress to fight for the repeal of the resolution by the Comintern. All of them were white an all of them were opposed to the Comintern resolution. Tit immediately put them at a psychological and tactical disadvantage.

Delegates at the Congress treated them at best with suspicion, at, worst with cold hostility a fact confirmed by all commentators out' Sixth Congress. Delegates at the Congress replied by insisting that the CPSA propose and work for the creation of an "independent. Native South African Republic with full and equal rights for all races as a stage towards a workers' and peasants' republic". This was' be accompanied by the slogan "Return the land to the Natives".

A counter-proposal by Bunting and Roux of "an independent workers' and peasants' republic with equal rights for all toilers irrespective of colour, as a basis for a Native government was rejected by the delegates. Roux and Bunting's main cones' was the antagonism and rejection the Black Republic slogan might wake in the white workers. Their concern was especially deride after a slip of the tongue on the part of Bunting when he referred to South Africa as "White South Africa". Rebecca Bunting even denied that the "Natives" had prior rights to the land over the "aboriginal Hottentots and Bushmen". Manuilsky of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) sarcastically replied'. "Comrade Bunting has raised a serious question, one not to be sneezed at. What is to become of the Whites? My answer to that would be that if White Party members do not raise and energetically fight for independent Native Republic, then, who knows? They may well be driven into the sea!" This reply was important in that it mirrored the acute prejudice of the Russian delegation (which dominated the Comintern) towards the South Africans. Of course the fact that were white played no small part in this hostile attitude. Even between sessions the South Africans were ignored and cold-shouldered.

Despite the confusion which it sowed in the Party, the slogan was at least the first serious attempt to come to grips with the question of colour, which the Party until then had regarded aberrations of the mind. Roux was one of the first in the leadership to make the adjustment. In a letter written in 1928, to general-secretary of the Party, Roux totally revised his earlier position on the Black Republic question. He urged the Party to put its theoretical house in order" and to accept the fact that the black workers were the main revolutionary element in South Africa, and he argued that national independence in South Africa could only mean a native republic hence his total support for the slogan.

Next was Gomas. His initial response to the slogan was one of amazement. How could a communist, schooled in the tradition of the ISL, believing in the class struggle as analysed by Marx, having sacrificed months of his life in prison for fighting against segregation, now turn his back on that glorious past and identify himself with a separate black state? Was his theory inadequate?

In South Africa the controversy over the Black Republic slogan centred around the nature of the revolution and the relationship between national and class struggles. The Party did not (or could not) answer questions such as what was a nation and who constituted a nation in South Africa. This inability seemed to arise in part from the Party's concern with the unification of white and black workers, or "all sections of the working class". Everything else was weighed against this. Even during the Black Republic period this goal was the overriding concern for many in the leadership.

Gomas was acutely conscious of the racialist overtones inherent in the slogan. But it also seems to have been statements by Roux and Bunting before their conversion that the slogan would arouse opposition from white workers, that caused his anger. This was made worse by the fact that it was Roux and Bunting, rather than Gomas, who went to Moscow to put the Party's case - something which Gomas resented until the end of his life. According to Cornelia Gomas, her husband had few regrets in his life, but one was definitely the fact that he had never been sent to Russia, the land of "freedom only" and of "the mighty Volga". The thought of not having been to this "great workers' state" could move an old Gomas to tears. Thus we see personal resentment and political motives so mixed up that it is virtually impossible to disentangle them. As Gomas himself said: "My political life was so fundamental - part of my life."

Nevertheless, he was to become one of the most vociferous exponents of the slogan. It was not just some Machiavellian streak in him that led him to support it. We see in him features which are such strong inducements for revolutionaries: unquestioning identi–fication with the Party (machinery); a determination to forge solidarity in the Party and a readiness to sacrifice everything for the revolution. These qualities were to make him "perfect" in the later Bolshevised Party.

But to ascribe his change towards the slogan as merely an obsession to conform to Party discipline, as some have done, is to exempt us from the tiresome obligation to investigate the "multiplicity of causes", especially in the light of his future political positions and roles. It is not an overstatement to claim that THE major political transformation in Gomas occurred at this point and prefigured his later involvement in especially the Pan Africanist Congress.

In the process of identification with the slogan, events beyond his control pressed him to become more and more convinced of its correctness and a nascent nationalism within him was becoming manifest. The period after 1924 was characterised by racist legislation all of which discriminated explicitly against blacks. The Hertzog Bills, introduced for the first time in parliament in 1926 hung like the sword of Damocles over the heads of blacks until 1936 when they became law. 1929 proved to be the most difficult year to the Party. The 'white front' Pact Government was returned to power after a Black Peril Campaign; Bunting and Wolton, who were Part) candidates in the Transkei and Cape Flats, respectively, lost heavily Ndobe and Tonjeni left the Party and La Guma was suspended and later expelled. The year also saw a sea of anti-black demonstrations by whites that wanted to "smash the nigger". It seemed like an ideal time to try to unite all black opposition groups in an attempt to crush the oppressive system. The Party's acceptance of the Black Republic slogan in December 1929 and the ANC's new 'labor line' had drawn the two political bodies closer together, ft partnership was facilitated by Gumede's visit to the Soviet Union, the "new Jerusalem" - two years before.

For Gomas, the 1930 ANC conference would be of decision importance and some caucusing was apparently going on in Cape Town in order to ensure Gumede would be re-elected and the Republic slogan become more popular. His busy political life him little time to spend at home, and the times that he was home, were taken up with political meetings. His marriage to Ruby was on the rocks. It was only a few months after his wedding, when he was sentenced to three months in prison after having been found guilty contravening the 'Hostility Clause' of the Native Administration Act. 1927. On his release in September 1928 much Party work needed to be done. The Party was in serious difficulties and no time could be wasted as far as Gomas was concerned. But first he had to settle personal matter. Ruby reacted to her husband's strenuous life style with infidelity, especially during the lonely months while he was serving his sentence. In line with his astute, practical thing Gomas returned one night from a meeting, much earlier the anticipated by Ruby, armed with a friend as a witness. He waste granted a divorce on the grounds of adultery six months after the wedding. Such "unsympathetic" behaviour on the part of gob elicited much criticism from relatives, including Elizabeth Strong-willed as Elizabeth was, she could never sway her son to the path he had set for himself. Having "lost" her son to the struggle for liberation, Elizabeth began to concentrate on her own happiness and in the middle of 1929 she became Mrs. Watson.

Freed from marital obligations, Gomas left to spend the Easter weekend of 1930 in Bloemfontein, at the ANC conference, where he formed part of the radical element that supported Gumede's election, against the candidacy of Pixley Seme. Seme was one of the principal founders of the ANC. He always feared that the ANC's image of conservative respectability would be tarnished by cooperation with the CPSA. The conference was chaotic, with'' radicals being "bullied, ignored and punished by the Speaker, Reverend Mahabane" and some fully accredited delegates excluded from voting. The end of the conference saw a victorious Pixley Seme, while Gumede made a fighting speech in defence of the Soviet Union, the Party and the Black Republic. But Seme's was a pyrrhic victory. Strangled by a conservative and sectarian leadership the ANC went into hibernation until after the war. Seme was soon to become the object of harsh criticism, both from his adversaries as well as from his supporters who in 1932 accused him of "culpable inertia".

Following the expulsion of James La Guma from the Party for not toeing the line, Gomas became the new advocate of the Black Republic slogan. His Party was the only organisation of the oppressed which tried to stay alive and relevant in the politically taxing conditions of economic depression.

In August 1929 the Party as a front for Party activities launched the League for African Rights (LAR). Its first activity was a petition which demanded "national rights", including the retention of the Cape African vote and its extension to the other provinces; universal free education; freedom of speech and the abolition of the pass laws. Its slogan was Mayibuye iAfrika (Come back Africa). The Party was itself numerically black (1 600 out of a total membership of 1750). The Party newspaper, renamed Umsebenzi, moved to Cape Town and was published regularly, after a lapse caused by loss of white financial backing.

Shortly after the launch of the LAR, there was the Wall Street Crash (in October) which began a depression in the capitalist world. According to Comintern periodisation, formulated in 1919, the 1919-1923 period was to be one of capitalist collapse under attacks a from the world revolution; 1924-1927 was to be the epoch of the bourgeois pacifism and capitalist stabilisation. The so-called as third period line, announced by Bukharin in 1928, was said to mark the onset of a general crisis of capitalism in which internecine an capitalist wars, attacks on the Soviet Union and a sharpening of class conflict were to be expected. The Sixth Congress had declared that an alliance between the Soviet Union and the revolutionary proletariat of the imperialist countries created the possibility for the colonial and semi-colonial countries of skipping the capitalist stage. However, in a Ten Page Memorandum in 1930 the ECCI accused the CPSA of being rightist and opportunist and it was instructed to disband the "reformist" LAR. The Party was neither consulted nor given a choice, despite (or because of) a speech by Stalin made before the American Commission which has some relevance for South Africa and the Party.

It would be wrong to ignore the specific peculiarities of American capitalism. The Communist Party in its work must take them into NC's account. But it would be still more wrong to base the activities of the Communist Party on these specific features, since the foundation of the Communist Party, including the American Communist Party, on which it must base itself, must be the general features of capitalism, which are the same for all countries and not its specific feature any given country.

It was clear that Stalin's speech did not leave any room fort specific, neither did the third period line of the Comintern. Thus the process of bolshevisation of foreign communist parties initiated in the 21 conditions of 1920 of the Comintern and reaching its logical conclusion with the consolidation of Stalin's dictatorship was now imposed on the CPSA. According to Zinoviev, Bolshevisation of the Comintern parties meant utilizing the experience of the Bolshevik Party in the three Russian revolutions and applying that experience to the concrete situation of a given country. "Structurally Bolshevisation meant the adoption of the Russian party structure membership cells in the workplace or place of domicile instead of the organisational structure inherited from socialism of party sections based on electoral districts and linguistic federations." Thus, the Party in South Africa had to form shop, street and factory cells in preparation for the illegal phase.

The doctrine of "class against class" and "social fascism" logically called for the abandonment of all reformist and non-communist bodies and alliances, yet the Party was instructed in the Ten Page Memorandum to carry through the revolution in two stages: first the establishment of a bourgeois democracy; eventually socialism. The stress on the bourgeois-democratic nature of the struggle led the Party to look to the black petty bourgeoisie as the leaders of the struggle and even to make overtures to the "democratic" sectors of the white ruling class. From the point of view of the ECCI Memorandum, this should have been the correct strategy. But the Party was forced by the Comintern to expel so-called reformist leaders. La Guma was one of the first to go. His expulsion notice, signed by his old associate and comrade, John Gomas, alleged that he had "failed to control revolutionary work in the Red Trade Unions and that he questioned the Party's capacity to provide independent leadership in the trade union movement.

Again it was Roux and Bunting who openly rejected the new line. In a letter to the ECCI Roux defended the existence of the LAR and be' listed the dangers inherent in the new line. Later Roux was; to trace back the source of the new line to the politics in the Russian Politbureau and not in the ECCI. "Indeed, most commentaries attribute the Comintern swing to domestic events in the Soviet Union, specifically Stalin's manoeuvers against the Trotskyist Opposition and the policy of agricultural collectivism instituted at the time.

It was in line with the process of Bolshevisation that the leadership changes were effected in the Party. In November 1930 Douglas Wolton returned to South Africa as a "Comintern representative". His directives were that an unidentified small and select party of trained revolutionaries was to work through a larger mass organisation:' (the Workers' Shield was formed for this purpose), and party branches' Will were to be re-organised as functional groups engaged in systems see continuous activity based on factories, mines, labour compounds and in townships. In short, the Party had to prepare to work illegally for the revolution which was thought to be imminent due to the 'deepening economic crisis'; Wolton was nicknamed the "deepening economic crisis" because of the frequency with which he used the term. But the purges of all "rightist elements" within the Party, together with the voluntary falling away of members, left the new centralised Party with hardly any members to carry out the strategy. In December 1931 Gomas reported that Party membership in Cape Town had dwindled to 20 and in Durban there was only one member left after the Dingaan's Day shooting in which Johannes Nkosi was killed.

Having installed himself as head of the new central committee, Wolton, in line with the policy of "purification", made sure to leave out Bunting. Gomas, who supported this policy, now, by some "cunning of reason", came to the defence of his old critic and pledged his full support and that of the Cape Town branch, for the re-instatement of Bunting. By 1933 the Party had reached its nadir and in August the Woltons left for England without informing the Politbureau, leaving behind a host of embittered persons. Gomas and Josiah Ngedlane were brought from Cape Town to join Bach, Joffe, Kotane and Roux (these latter two were re-instated) on the Polrtbureau in Johannesburg. Ngedlane was an active CPSA member who was responsible for launching a branch of the Party in Ndabeni, a location for Africans in Cape Town. He was later dropped from the Party Politbureau because of his rejection of the new Party line after 1935. Another member of the Politbureau in 1934 was Bach who was one of the 'hardliners' in the Party i.e. those who followed the instructions from the Comintern unquestioningly. He is well known for having interpreted the Black Republic slogan as a "federation of independent native republics". Kotane was "a close friend" of Gomas's whom Gomas claimed to have recruited for the Party. Together with Gomas he initially rejected the new line of the Party after 1935, but after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1936 he became a staunch supporter of the line. He later became secretary-general of the South African Communist Party (as the Party was renamed after 1961).

For a short while after 1935 the unity in the Politbureau of the Party was maintained. This success was partially ascribed to the tenacious efforts and diplomacy of Gomas who went to live in Johannesburg from 1933 until the middle of 1935. It was during this time that he met Mabel Hutton, who lived in Johannesburg, and whom he married early in 1936. Kotane, who was considering leaving the Party, did not do so: "I did not reckon with John Gomas and Ray Alexander. They stopped the rot and I eventually found myself again in the centre of things in the Party." The "rot" Kotane was referring to probably stopped with the departure of the Woltons. With the Party purged and pruned, the Black Republic slogan seemed to have disappeared "into the realms of “Umsebenzidoctrinal theory".

Gomas was one of the few old stalwarts who tried to keep it alive. Much of his energy had to be directed against Trotskyism which had appeared in South Africa by the mid-thirties. The third period line was totally rejected by the Trotsky Opposition, who did not accept the hypothesis of the end of capitalist stabilisation.

By 1934 The Lenin Club was formed in Cape Town. This club was the source of all Trotskyist tendencies. It eventually split into to major groupings, one which propagated an above-ground Workers Party of South Africa (WPSA) and another which advocated national movement struggling for a bourgeois democratic system or the basis of a transitional programme (the Fourth International – Fl) Many of these "Trotskyists" were former Party members who had left or who were expelled over the Black Republic slogan and they became the objects of devastating attacks by Gomas. In an article in Umsebenzi, entitled "Our Trotskyists", Gomas set the tone of his attack by calling Trotskyism a "poisonous swamp". He the" defended his Party's policy on the Black Republic, with an important twist though: "We demand complete equality for blacks. Because o the preponderating majority of blacks we put forward as a guiding slogan in the present stage, the demand for a black majority government- a Native Republic". The reason, he claimed, why a Trotskyist such as Glass objected to the slogan was that he was "saturated with the imperialism of the white man, cannot humble himself to be associated with a policy that demands, not only tat the Native should be equal to the white man, but that the Native majority should rule this land now known as 'White South Africa Persons such as Glass and Lopes were "belittling the role the Native workers and peasants were to play in the struggle against capitalism and for freeing the country from British Imperialism (because they).-supported the theory that the white workers were to play the mod important revolutionary role".

Describing Gomas's attack on him as "slanderous" Lopes seta to defend his brand of Trotskyism "in the terms of Marxian politic theory ... as opposed to Gomas's mentality ... that can think only terms of black and white". Unfortunately for Lopes he limited rebuttal to a defence of his own political career except re-emphasising the correctness of the Party position before \ Black Republic slogan, namely that of striving for unity of all work irrespective of colour. He then put forward his demand to "revolutionary class movement" as opposed to the Black Republic slogan. It was at about this time that the WPSA received a reply) Trotsky (in exile in Mexico) on Draft Theses sent to him, in w they basically questioned the correctness of the ECCI analysis o struggle in South Africa which had led to the Black Republic slogan and to which they counterposed the political slogan of a South African October". Although Trotsky admitted that he was unfamiliar with local conditions in South Africa, his reply raised at least very important questions. Firstly, he saw the social and national struggle as one; secondly, he put the black working class unreservedly in the centre of the stage, as the vanguard of the struggle; and thirdly, he urged that the question of racism must be tackled openly and soberly by the organisations of the people. Trotsky stressed heavily the fact of social and national oppression exercised by the whites. This gives the starting point, the explosive social force for the revolution in South Africa. "A victorious revolution is unthinkable without the awakening of the Native masses; in its turn it will give them what they are so lacking today, confidence in their strength, a heightened personal consciousness, a cultural growth. Under these conditions the South African Republic will emerge first of all as a "Black" republic; this does not exclude of course, either full equality for whites or brotherly relations between the two races [!] (which depends mainly upon the conduct of the whites), but it is entirely obvious that the predominant majority of the population, liberated from slavish dependence, will put a certain imprint on the State. In so far as a victorious revolution will radically change not only the relation between the classes but will also assure to blacks that place in the State which corresponds to their numbers, in so far will the SOCIAL revolution in South Africa also have a NATIONAL character. We have not the slightest reason to close our eyes to this side of the question or to diminish its significance".

It is doubtful that Glass, Lopes or Gomas had access to this reply by Trotsky. If he did, the new prophet of the Black Republic would, for one, have been better armed against his ideological adversaries. In fairness to Gomas, however, it must be stated that he kept his options open, as his subsequent actions in the crucial decade after 1935 demonstrated.