Baruch Hirson (1921-1999)

BARUCH Hirson died in London on Sunday, 3 October 1999, aged 77. He was born on 10 December 1921 in Doomfontein, near Johannesburg in the Transvaal. He died from the eventual cumulative effects of a long-term degenerative paralysis of the bone structure, a condition against which he had struggled for many years. Exacerbated health problems had been only one of the legacies of nine years of imprisonment following the South African treason and sabotage trials of 1964. Baruch Hirson was a unique and powerful personality, one of the most original and independent activist commentators on South African affairs in the last 50 or 60 years. Despite real and increasing problems with mobility, he continued to write and talk on problems of South African politics almost to the end.

Hirson was born into the Jewish community on the Rand. Like most of this community, his own forbears had origins in Latvia and Lithuania. The move to South Africa had been an escape from the pogroms, persecution and discrimination suffered by Jews in the old Romanov empire. In one sense it was a new start, new names were adopted and pasts buried, but ideas and ideals lived on. The legacies and traditions, hopes and aspirations of Zionism and European Marxist Social Democracy were the political fare of this community. But the Hirson household was not particularly political, it was frugal lower-middle-class, and his parents saw his education as the key to a better future.

Baruch had great mathematical ability and insight. This allowed him to rise through the education system, and later, as lecturer and teacher, to gain and sustain employment at Witwatersrand University that, given his political views, would have been barred him had he been an historian or a social scientist.

Whatever the general class or cultural background of an individual, there are always specific factors and experiences that lead that particular individual rather than another to embark upon a course of political activism. Similarly, there are always casual factors, perhaps highly contingent and accidental, that influence the precise course, depth and significance of that political activism. In Baruch Hirson’s case, the critical early experiences were almost all within the radical Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair. Why he entered this group was rather fortuitous; there were other groupings around, and for many of their members the significance of the groups was as much personal and social as political. Nevertheless, in Hashomer Hatzair there was the possibility of encountering some of the most eclectic and radical thinking to be found anywhere in the Rand Jewish community. It was here that Hirson found the experiences and arguments that led him away from Zionism, which was in part escapist and emigratory, and towards Socialism, which demanded commitment and action on the spot, in South Africa. At the same time his encounter with Fenner Brockway’s book on the Spanish Civil War, Workers’ Front, inoculated him against Stalinism from the outset. It made him, in his own words ‘an anti-Stalinist for life’.

It was the threat and fear of anti-Semitism from the pro-Fascist Greyshirts and Great Trek centenary nationalists in the late 1930s that forced Hirson to engage with politics. Hashomer Hatzair, the radical Zionist youth movement, provided an entry to debates ‘on Socialism and on the problems confronting the left’. Hirson became a convinced Marxist, certain that social and political oppression was rooted in economic conditions and relationships. This was a conviction that remained with him for the rest of his life. The next decisive step was taken in 1943-44, when encounters with a Trotskyist group provided his first contact with black trade union activists, and gave him a new direction now fully independent of Zionism.

The perspective adopted by Hirson was that his ‘work had to be almost entirely amongst the black working class..., that trade unions had to be formed and supported..., that struggles against segregation and for better housing, better education, better transport... had to be supported’. This essentially simple perspective was to underpin all of his future activity. Obviously, it led to confrontations with the authorities, and he was never free from their attentions from 1944 onwards. But it was also his doggedly independent adherence to these principles that led him to criticise penetratingly any and all other black and left activists and thinkers whenever he considered their analyses and tactics were lacking in effectiveness. Stalinist elements within the African National Congress were a particular target of his wrath when he considered them to be subordinating actual and immediate imperatives to extraneous Moscow-directed, factional or sectional interests.

Hirson’s political life can effectively be divided into three phases, phases largely defined for him by the conditions in which he was working at the time. The first was the period in which he and his colleagues worked as putative mass action Socialist organisers, struggling against the odds and on the fringes of legality, in the late 1940s and 1950s. The second was in the early 1960s, with the sabotage campaign phase, a sort of ‘Easter 1916’ of the South African struggle, and with it the years of imprisonment that followed. The third was the years of exile, during which he became one of the most important and respected theorists and critics on South African affairs on the revolutionary Socialist left.

The high point of the earliest of these three phases of activity was when Hirson acted as the full-time political organiser for an ephemeral Trotskyist group, the Workers International League, during 1944-46. Hirson had contact with the key Trotskyist figures at that time, MN Averbach, Hosea Jaffe, Yudel Burlak and Raff Lee, but there was never any single organisation that could truly be called a ‘party’. Even the more successful groups never transcended its reliance on just one or two key individuals, or the relative isolation of either Cape Town or Johannesburg, and none was able to survive for more than just a few years. Hirson himself became one of these key individuals, and the WIL took up the struggle to develop black trade unions. The WIL’s Progressive Trade Union Group was one of the more successful ventures of that type up until then. But even such a key individual cannot function without back-up, and, when the majority of the WIL voted to abandon trade union work in 1946 and to fall back on discussion group propagandising, Hirson was hamstrung.

Thereafter, the Nationalist Party’s ascendancy, the Suppression of Communism Act and the onset of fully institutionalised apartheid increasingly circumscribed the possibilities for activity on the left. In practice, only the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department alliance and the Non-European Unity Movement offered significant possibilities for non-Stalinist Marxists. Both a strength and a weakness of these organisations was their domination by teachers, a group further restricted in their possible activities by government regulations. After a period within the NEUM, Hirson entered the white wing of the Congress Alliance in the late 1950s. From within this he helped organise a new Socialist League of Africa, just before the Sharpeville Massacre. The grip of apartheid continued to tighten, and neither the ANC nor any other group seemed to him to have achieved anything significant in 10 years. He analysed all this in his critique, Ten Years of the Stay at Home, written late in 1960, and published in Britain in International Socialism in 1961.

The bleak context of the early 1960s saw both Hirson’s group and younger elements within the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, turn to the use of sabotage actions. At the time, this seemed necessary in order to maintain a level of initiative and to deny the apartheid regime the façade of legitimacy that passive quiescence might have allowed. Hirson’s National Committee for Liberation/African Resistance Movement was actually more technically accomplished than Umkhonto we Sizwe, and escaped liquidation for slightly longer. He never, however, gave up his self-critic­ism of whether this break from mass organisational work had either been justified, or could have been rendered unnecessary if both he and the wider left had been able to seize and utilise opportunities to challenge apartheid more effectively in the years before. The ARM was broken in 1964, and Hirson and other leading activists were arrested and tried. His sentence, one of the longer ones, was nine years. Hirson was imprisoned, moving between the Johannesburg Fort, Pretoria Local and Pretoria Central jails, during 1964-73.

On his release in 1973, Hirson was faced with both a banning order and house arrest. He and his family took themselves into exile in Britain. He was able to gain employment at Bradford and Middlesex Universities. In many ways, however, this third and final phase of his political life was also the most fruitful. The first great product of these years was Year of Fire, Year of Ash, the seminal critique of the 1976 Soweto uprising and of the Black Consciousness movement. This was published in 1979. There followed a stream of further products of critical analysis, and increasingly of historical studies. It was history, not for academic purposes, but to open up the true record of the left in South Africa as an essential prelude to the learning of essential lessons for the future. As he wrote himself in the last but one issue of his journal Searchlight South Africa, ‘in Moscow there was a systematic use of falsehood... in terms of South African history... lies... are apparently permissible to boost the record of that party. If in the process others are maligned or written out of history texts, that does not concern such scribes... [this] should have no place in the annals of the Socialist movement. Now it must be said: it is time to set the record straight.’

The difficulty of this undertaking should not be underestimated. The ANC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s was intellectually dominated by the Communist Party and its fellow-travelling liberal-left allies. There were precious few willing — and even fewer really able — to assist with this task. Fellow exiles Hillel Ticktin of Critique and, even more importantly, Paul Trewhela, who helped produce Searchlight South Africa, were amongst his closest collaborators. The key historical works Yours for the Union (1989), Strike Across the Empire (1993), The Delegate for Africa (1994) and Revolutions in My Life (1995) are all delightfully infused with transparent revelation of the fragility of the evidence and the difficulties of the research. These revelations are as much part of the story of the South African left as the final results. Very much more essential and equally seminal historical material also appeared as articles in Searchlight South Africa during 1988-95. This article makes no attempt to duplicate any of the details to be found in these books and articles. The reader is advised to access them directly.

The Searchlight journal has been described by his colleague and collaborator Paul Trewhela as ‘Hirson’s crowning achievement’. Even the historical articles were only part of what made this journal so important. It was also the first to expose the ANC’s abuses and the detention camps in exile run by SWAPO, and to reveal details of a mutiny which had taken place in Umkhonto we Sizwe training camps in Angola in 1984. From exile and through this journal, to quote Tom Lodge: ‘Baruch Hirson was to influence many more politically motivated South Africans than he did in the days when he lived in Johannesburg.’

In 1991, Hirson was finally able to pay a return visit to South Africa itself. He was able to speak at eight universities, but not at Wits, where he had originally worked. He used these opportunities to hammer home his unwelcome message: there ‘could be no democracy in South Africa’ if ‘the use of Stalinist methods in the ANC’ were not exposed and finished. Hirson has been variously described as ‘recalcitrant, stubborn, rebellious’, and as evoking ‘affection and exasperation simultaneously’. Anyone who could endure all that he had experienced had to be a man apart. He welcomed the achievement of liberal democracy in 1994. The gains in civil liberties were real, but his main concern was not to allow any illusions about the fact that the economic plight of the majority of the black pop­ulation was the great problem still to be faced.

Ian Hunter