Racism and the workers

Andrew Kenny says the proletariat are perhaps more honest about their prejudices than the bourgeoisie

"Workers of the World Unite and Fight for a White South Africa!" Such was the stirring cry of communists during the most violent uprising ever against the South African state. This was the 1922 strike at the Rand goldmines. White workers were striking against the attempt by the mine owners to end the colour bar that prevented black workers from getting skilled jobs on the mines. Capitalists and workers had opposing interests.

The capitalists wanted to get rid of racial discrimination because it was bad for profits; allowing blacks to do skilled jobs would lower their labour costs and increase their labour pool. The white workers wanted racial discrimination because it kept their wages high at the expense of black workers. The strike foreshadowed the class interests during apartheid. Many of the ideas of those white communists were incorporated into the National Party and implemented when it came to power in 1948.

In 1970, 48 years after the 1922 strike, while I was finishing my physics degree at the University of Cape Town, I canvassed for the anti-apartheid Progressive Party in the general election (whites only). UCT was then referred to as "Moscow on the Hill" because of its Marxist leanings. The Marxists told us that the working class was the only true revolutionary class.

But on the election stump we found the exact opposite. In well-off, bourgeois areas, when we knocked on their doors, we were treated in a friendly way and often the householders were sympathetic to our anti-apartheid pleadings. In poor, working class areas, we were treated with hostility. I was frequently sworn at and once or twice I thought I was in danger of physical attack. The only white opposition to apartheid came from the bourgeoisie. The working classes supported it completely.

This was deeply unsurprising. Everyone it South Africa knew it to be true even if the Marxists became embarrassed when you brought it up. The vote for the National Party was always strongest among the white proletariat, even stronger than in the Platteland. The only constituency that ever elected a fully anti-apartheid MP (Helen Suzman) was Houghton, a wealthy, middle class suburb of Johannesburg.

I did my compulsory military training in the South African Navy in 1966 and there on my ship, where men from all backgrounds were thrown together in the main seamen's mess, I found the same thing: the sons of professors and doctors might not support apartheid; the sons of boilermakers and bricklayers certainly would.

I went to England in 1972 and spent two months working as a road-sweeper in London. During this time Idi Amin kicked all the Asians out of Uganda, and thousands of them tried to get into Britain. To my surprise, the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, much to his honour, let them in. There was an angry uproar from the country.

If I had expected the racial feelings of white workers in England to be different from white workers in South Africa, I was immediately disabused. My fellow road-sweepers, to a man, howled with fury against the Asian incomers. Several suggested that the ships bringing them should be sunk at sea. From their lips I heard, sometimes word for word, the same sentiments against dark skinned people that I had heard from white workers in South Africa.

During the years of apartheid, which was supported overwhelmingly by the white working classes of South Africa, British politicians loudly denounced it, while knowing that in similar circumstances, the white working classes of Britain would also support it overwhelmingly.

When Enoch Powell, the brilliant, maverick Tory politician, began making his speeches in the 1960s against black immigration into Britain, he became the most popular politician in Britain. Labour Party leaders were horrified to find that their working class supporters loved him. The Labour Government then pushed through immigration laws to limit blacks coming into the country, including the notorious 1968 Commonwealth Immigration act, which an author described as being "enacted in three days in a Parliamentary atmosphere reminiscent of emergency measures passed under the shadow of war".

Racism, class and ideology make a complicated mixture. One of my favourite authors is Jack London, author of the wonderful "White Fang". London was a champion of the workers. His book, "The People of the Abyss", written in 1902, describes the terrible plight, almost unbelievable to modern readers, of the poor in London at the time of the Boer War. He also wrote "The Iron Heel", a prophecy about tyranny under capitalism and rescue by socialism. Marxists lauded him as a progressive author. Trotsky was full of praise. But London was a rabid racist.

There was consternation among white racists in the USA when Jack Johnson, a black American, became heavyweight boxing champion of the world in 1908. Johnson was superbly talented and outclassed all white opposition. He refused to play the part of the humble negro and jeered at the white world that tried to bring him down. Jack London was horrified.

He thought it an affront to the white race. When in desperation the white racists brought Jim Jeffries, a great former champion, out of retirement to take on Johnson, London was at the ringside leading prayers for Jeffries to beat the arrogant nigger. (Johnson won with ease in a humiliating contest.)

It is absurd to think that the people who constitute the working class are inherently more racist than those who constitute the middle class. Circumstances forge attitudes, and the circumstances of the workers are different from those of the bourgeoisie. The workers are also more honest than the bourgeoisie. Ask a white UCT academic and a white artisan whether they would send their children to a school where most of the teachers and pupils were black. The artisan would say "no!" whereas as the academic would say that he had no objections - while making absolutely sure that his children went to Westerford or SACS. It is even more absurd to blame the horrors of communist regimes on the working class.

Of all the fantasies of Marxism, none is more fantastic than the claim that communism is rule by the working class. Beginning with Lenin's bourgeois coup in October 1917, every single communist government has represented rule by a middle class elite over the working class. Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Castro, Guevara and Kim Jong-Il - none of them had ever worked in a factory in his life. They were all soft-handed, bourgeois types.

Hitler, leader of the German National Socialist Workers' Party, was similar, if of lower origin: he was forever praising the dignity of manual labour and one of his first acts as German Chancellor was to make May Day a national holiday, but in his own career he had avoided any manual work and, like the communists, he smashed the independent trade unions as soon as came to power.

There is no instance in history where working class people have chosen to move from a capitalist country to a communist one. There are many examples of the reverse: North and South Korea, West and East Germany, Cuba and Florida, China and Hong Kong, and so on. The only people who chose to move into communist countries, and they are few, are privileged upper middle class types, of which the English spies, Burgess, McLean and Philby, are examples.

The 1922 uprising was a strange, bloody and sad episode in South African history. It was important. The story is wonderfully told by Jeremy Krikler in his book, "The Rand Revolt". The workers mounted an armed insurrection against the state. The Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, a ruthless man, crushed them with main force, including machine guns, artillery and aeroplanes. Many white workers were executed. Some, martyrs to the cause of white privilege, mounted the gallows singing The Red Flag.

In 1922, Smuts took the side of the capitalists against the white workers. In 1948, he was overthrown in an election by the National Party, which took the side of the white workers against the capitalists. The NP codified the existing unofficial racial discrimination into the official laws of apartheid and introduced legal Job Reservation, exactly what the white communists were asking for in 1922.



1. Info' on the 1922 uprising from "The Rand Revolt: The 1922 Insurrection and Racial Killings in South Africa" by Jeremy Krikler, pub Jonathan Ball.

2. I did my 9 months CF training in 1966. I spent 7.5 months of it on the SAS Natal. I didn't realise how lucky I was. I'd now spend a fortune to spend one week on the Natal.

3. I was a road sweeper in Surbiton, next to Kingston-on Thames, where an aunt and uncle lived. It was a satisfying job.

4. Heath, in my view, was the worst British PM of the 20th Century. But this one honourable act, letting these desperate Asians into the UK, forever softened my feelings to him.

5. Idi Amin, after kicking all the Asians out of Uganda, then proceeded to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Africans belonging to different tribes from his. He became a great African hero and was made President of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1975.

6. Account of the 1968 UK Commonwealth Immigration Act from "Immigration Law" by J M Evans. Pub Sweet & Maxwell.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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