In an editorial The Star of January 26 1994 says the South African Communist Party has a “history as a conspiratorial party, characterised by secrecy and deception…”
Charging the SACP with “conspiratorial” modes of operation, “secrecy” and “deception” may be accurate, but isolated from the context in which the SACP was forced to operate for 40 years, these charges do not amount to the truth.
In the Roman Empire before the conversion of Constantine, the early Christian church was compelled to conduct its affairs as a conspiracy. Its congregants employed deception to avoid detection, used codes to communicate with each other and held their services, literally underground, in the catacombs beneath the city. These were not methods the Christians had voluntarily chosen. Being discovered might have meant being thrown to the lions or being set alight.
The imperial order faced Christians with a simple choice — operate in the open and permit us to crush you, or operate underground and you might survive. Not even the sternest critic of Christianity would fault them for having chosen to go underground. And to suggest that their conduct betrayed a sinister purpose would be absurd.
Red-baiting, in South African politics, as in the rest of the world, is a favourite device the privileged, the powerful and propertied classes use to evade searching interrogation of the oppressive systems over which they preside. During the course of this century virtually everyone who has raised a voice against injustice has been painted with the same brush –“Red”.
Incumbent power wielders, unable to refute charges of injustice and oppression levelled against them, have invariably called into question the motives of the social critic. The label “communist” has been convenient to silence such critics, scare off potential supporters and to direct attention away from the ills they have identified. It is no accident that in South Africa before, but especially after 1950, the National Party stigmatised anyone who challenged racial oppression and its apartheid policies as a “communist”.
The South African press — which as recently as 1993 despite all the evidence to the contrary still insisted that Helen Joseph was a Marxist merely because the South African security police had labelled her as such — has all too often lent itself to these vile purposes.
Setting aside the genuine criticism that has been levelled against regimes established by communist parties in Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia, the actual uses of anti-communism this century have not been to protect individual rights, let alone the civil liberties citizens enjoy under liberal democracies.
In Europe, Latin America, Asia and in Africa anti-communism has without exception been the standard around which the defenders of the unjust existing order rallied. It made little difference whether such political arrangements were colonialism, racism, feudalism, a rapacious capitalism or a military dictatorship.
In the United States throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s J Edgar Hoover, the fanatically anti-communist director of the FBI, insisted on regarding the Civil Rights movement as communist inspired and persecuted its leader, Dr Martin Luther King until the wry hour of his death.
The gravest threat to the civil liberties of the average US citizen was not the weak communist party, but the witch-hunters led by Senator Joe McCarthy and his kindred spirits in the US Congress. The brutal compact between Asiatic feudalism and a modem capitalism, often sustained by military dictators, has been the other beneficiary of anti-communism.
The Vietnam War, which saw the hill military might of the richest and most powerful nation on earth unleashed against a small under-developed country, had no other rationale. In a moment of refreshing candour, former President Dwight D Eisenhower in his memoirs, A Mandate for Change, admits that US intervention was inspired by the knowledge that the communist Ho Chi Minh, would win fire 1956 elections. To prevent such an outcome, more bombs were dropped in Vietnam than were used during World War II.
A whole generation of Americans still live with the trauma of that war. No one has ever suggested that the US-sponsored alternatives to Ho, Diem, “Big Minh, Marshall Ky and Thieu, were bearers of liberal virtues and modernity. They were representatives of a wealthy, collaborationist Catholic elite who had supported the French colonial regime in the past.
No doubt the high crimes, sometimes plumbing the depths of depravity, committed by communist party-led regimes have assisted in mobilising public sentiment against the cause they claim to espouse. The record of these governments has given every stripe of conservative and reactionary the perfect alibi.
State criminal is today held up as the inevitable outcome of radical change not only by misguided, though sincere liberal opponents of Stanilism but also by the likes of Pik Botha. Those of us on the left who regard the liberties associated with constitutional democracy as part of our political patrimony have been the severest critics of the communist-led governments for that reason.
Before the NP declared it illegal in 1950, the communist party in this country ran its affairs in the full glare of publicity It contested and won seats in the Johannesburg and Cape Town city councils and in parliament. Communists held office in trade unions, in professional bodies as well as in a number of political organisations, including the ANC.
The communist party controlled a number of publications and its journalists were linked to one weekly newspaper, and a monthly, Fighting Talk. There was nothing secret or conspiratorial about it.
The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 faced South African communists with a choice between allowing their party and the cause it represented to be quietly strangled or operate secretly and purchase the chance of survival.
Let us remember that after 1950 mere membership of the SACP entailed a five-year prison sentence. Advocacy of Marxism-Leninism could incur criminal sanctions. Add to that the array of persecutory devices fire state possessed — banning orders, deportation, banishment, house arrest, detention without trial, torture.
Factor in also the informal assistance the state often received from employers who sacked or refused employment to people whom the security police said were communists. Can one blame communists for acting in a conspiratorial manner when their livelihoods, and sometimes their wry lives were at stake?
The profoundly uncharitable recent remarks about the SACP are not the consequence of ignorance of these facts. Those making them know them as well I do. An anti-communist animus makes them able to judge communists fairly even when they are blameless.
Whatever the motives of those who echo the Red-baiters might be, there can be no doubt that they bring grist to the mills of the guidelines of the old order, who would much rather debate who is or is not a “communist” than address the glaring injustices that are the real issue.
Pallo Jordan is the head of the ANC’s department of information and publicity