Urban Activists and Rural Movements: Communists in South Africa and Algeria, 1920s-1930s

Allison Drew. African Studies. Volume 66, Issue 2/3. August-December 2007.

This article investigates the efforts of communists in the settler societies of South Africa and Algeria to engage with rural populations in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It seeks to understand how popular movements concerned with access to land respond to ideas or ideologies introduced by urban-based activists. It also contributes to broader debates about the relationship between the Communist International (Comintern) and its national sections, asking whether this relationship can be adequately captured by the dichotomy of domination or autonomy that has characterised much thinking. It forms part of an ongoing discussion about the Comintern’s controversial New Line of class against class and suggests that generalisations about the New Line—and by implication any Comintern policy—must take into account the variations introduced by its different timing and impact in distinctive local contexts (McDermott and Agnew: 81-119; Worley).

Any discussion of rural mobilisations for land access must begin by investigating the patterns of proletarianisation that shaped the experiences of rural people and framed their political responses. The impact of those political responses only becomes clear when seen as part of a broader political landscape, in which the relationships of existing political organisations open up or limit the space for new movements. Set against this political landscape, an understanding of communist activities entails both a consideration of the relations between the Comintern and its national sections—the geopolitics of the international communist network—and of the local conditions in which communists worked. While Comintern policy provides a constant factor in both cases, this article investigates four variables that may illuminate the divergent experiences of activists in South Africa and Algeria: the timing of the New Line’s introduction in each country, the timing of rural movements in both cases, the timing of communist intervention in particular rural areas and the relationship of the local communist parties to existing national or cultural movements.

South Africa and Algeria display striking similarities in the modes of colonial conquest and their political economies. Although European colonisation in South Africa began two centuries earlier than in Algeria, both countries were subjected to protracted military conquest throughout the nineteenth century. The indigenous people were suppressed, their social systems undermined and their cultures denigrated. The pre-colonial peasantries were subjected to a long process of proletarianisation, resulting in the development of an agricultural proletariat, a migrant labour force and an urban working class that was rigidly divided along national or ethnic lines. Both countries were characterised by a rigid division—social, economic and political—between the European settlers and the indigenous majorities. Black South Africans and Muslim Algerians were subjected to extreme social, economic and political inequalities vis-à-vis their white and European counterparts (Ross: 21-53ff; Ageron: 5-27, 65-7; Drew: 169-75).

Although most indigenous people in both countries eked out an existence on the land, urban-based political organisations of the 1920s and 1930s paid little attention to developments in rural areas. The tiny communist parties in South Africa and Algeria offer cases in point. Their urban orientation and minute numbers precluded serious organisational work amongst both rural black South Africans and rural Algerians. Nonetheless, pushed by the Comintern’s intervention, it was precisely the communist parties in both cases that took the initiative in making forays into rural areas to interact with peasants and other rural dwellers.

The Politics of Land in South Africa and Algeria

Despite their common experiences as settler colonies, the political systems and patterns of proletarianisation of Algeria and South Africa differed in significant respects. South Africa became a politically autonomous British dominion in 1910, but this followed several centuries of European settlement and military conquest. The first European settlement in this part of Africa was established at the Cape in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company. The British took control of the Cape Colony in 1806, leading by the 1830s to an exodus of Dutch settlers—Afrikaners—north and east. Both British and Afrikaners sought to extend their control over the region and over the next several decades fought a series of wars against the indigenous African societies.

Rivalry between the British and Afrikaners was spurred by the mineral discoveries of the late nineteenth century. Diamonds were discovered in 1867, and a seemingly endless gold supply at Langlaagte in the Transvaal in 1886. This precipitated the rapid development of the gold mining industry and intensified competition to control the region, culminating in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, a prolonged and bloody struggle in which Britain finally defeated the Afrikaner republics in the interior of the country. The last war of resistance to the British, by the Zulu state, was not quashed until the first decade of the twentieth century (Callinicos: 8-9).

The year 1910 saw the launch of the Union of South Africa. The union entrenched political rights for whites to the exclusion of black rights. But Afrikaners and English-speaking whites remained sharply divided along ethnic lines, despite their rights and privileges over blacks. Three years later the 1913 Native Land Act attempted to standardise state policy towards the territories that the European colonisers had designated as areas reserved for Africans. The Land Act laid the parameters for future African existence in the reserves, and a growing African population was squeezed into approximately thirteen per cent of the land. In the Transkeian Territories, the Glen Grey Act of 1894, with its ‘one man, one lot’ principle, far from promoting a homogenous peasantry, accelerated class differentiation and proletarianisation as land became fragmented into economically unviable holdings. Although a minority of cultivators in the late nineteenth century had turned to commercial production and developed into a prosperous peasantry, by the early twentieth century poverty was driving Africans from the reserves into migrant labour both on mines on the Witwatersrand and on white-owned farms (MacMillan: 120-132; Roux; Jordaan: 12-13, 22; Bundy; Lewis; Ntsebeza: 59, 64-9).

Over the following decades the South African government strove to bolster white dominance and to fragment the population along sectional lines. The small minority of black men that enjoyed a qualified franchise—a legacy of the British colonial era—was systematically whittled away. African men were subjected to pass laws, and the right of Africans to live in towns was progressively eroded and subjected to severe restrictions.

These racist laws did not go unchallenged. The year 1902 saw the launch of the African Political Organisation (APO). Its political identity was ambiguous. Calling for a qualified franchise for all men, regardless of colour, it nonetheless styled itself as ‘an organisation of the coloured people only’ with responsibility for ‘the rights and duties of the coloured people … as distinguished from the native races’ (Lewis: 57). The year 1912 saw the formation of the first specifically African political organisation that transcended tribal identity—the South African Native National Congress, precursor to the African National Congress (ANC).

A decade of turbulent labour and peasant struggles followed. Between 1920 and 1922 these were brutally smashed by the state, with Jan Smuts of the South African Party at its helm. In 1924 Smuts was defeated, and a Pact government comprising the Labour and National parties came to power. Significantly, despite the increasing strictures placed on political activity aimed at the extension of democratic rights, black South Africans were free to join the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) that was launched in July 1921 (Drew).

In contrast to South Africa’s political autonomy, in 1834 the French wrested control of Algeria from the Ottoman empire, which had dominated it from the sixteenth century, and legally constituted it as part of France. The fall of Algiers in 1830 had been heralded with the looting of Algerian properties; the transfer of land to the hands of French settlers soon followed. Over the next four decades the French army marched across the Algerian landscape, using a brutal scorched earth policy to terrorise and subjugate the rural population. This conquest was a prelude to surveying the land and transferring it into what became known, under French rule, as la domaine publique—the public domain, controlled by the state. Much of this would be transferred, in due course, to the growing number of colons or settlers in what John Ruedy has called ‘the most intensive colonization effort’ in French history (Ruedy: vii; Bennoune: 13-14).

The law was used to expropriate Algerian land in the name of l’utilité publique. Over the two decades between 1873 and 1892, the state incorporated 309,891 hectares of land into the public domain. Once in the public domain, land could be placed under military authority or onto the market, which became the primary means of land redistribution from the Algerians to the French. Reforestation, implemented by the Service des Eaux et Forêts (Forest Service), and one of the rationales for expropriation, was especially stressful for Algerians. The loss of their land inevitably forced many of them from the lowlands to the hillsides. The Forest Service planted shrubs on Algerian-owned land, beginning at the top of the mountain and encroaching bit by bit on their property. Those with animals were prohibited from grazing them on this vegetation, and infractions were subject to fines and confiscation of animals (Bennoune: 15-16; Ruedy: 83, 95; Radiquet: 576).

In Algeria, proletarianisation continued as an ongoing, piecemeal process well into the twentieth century. By comparison with South Africa’s migrant labour system, in which Africans typically migrated from the rural reserves to the mines, Algerian migrant workers often left their own country to take up work in French industry. Alongside a small movement to Algerian towns, migration to France began in the early twentieth century in response to French industrialisation, increasing during the First World War, as French men left for the war. French government statistics suggest about 69,000 Algerians in France in 1926 and 80,000 in 1928. However, the numbers may be higher: between 1914 and 1928 there were 471,390 departures compared to 365,024 returns, suggesting that about 100,000 Algerians were living in France around 1928 (Ageron: 527-30). Algerian workers who went to France not atypically remained, joined trade unions and sometimes had contact with the French Communist Party [Parti Communiste Français or PCF]. Hence, Algeria, with a significant part of its proletariat in France, was characterised by a displaced proletariat (Ageron: 526; Drew: 173-4). The different geographic patterns of migrant labour in both countries had important ramifications for popular mobilisations.

French policy aimed to unite all European settlers under the rubric of French citizenship. In 1865 North African Jews obtained the right to apply for French naturalisation on an individual basis; the Crémieux decree of October 1870 gave French citizenship and equal rights to all North African Jews in Algeria. Muslims, by contrast, were subjected to a set of regulations known as the code de l’indigénat [native code], while government policy also divided the Arab and Berber Muslim populations through differential education and socialisation (Ageron: 24; Julien: 2-105, 464-7). The code imposed extremely harsh punishments on Algerians for infractions that were not illegal in France but were unlawful in Algeria when committed by Algerians. These infractions included travelling without a permit, failure to pay special ‘Native’ taxes, defaming the French Republic and speaking disrespectfully to or about a French official. The code de l’indigénat also meant that, in contrast to the case of black South Africans, Algerians were not able to join the Communist Party. Reflecting Algeria’s legal status as part of France, the Communist Party in Algeria remained a region of the French Communist Party until 1936 (Ruedy: 88; Zagoria: 45).

Efforts to reform the Algerian political system to allow greater Muslim representation date from the early twentieth century. They were repeatedly met with resistance by European settlers. The reform movement gained momentum in 1907-8 through the efforts of the Jeunes Algériens [Young Algerians]. While calling for respect for Arab and Muslim culture, the Young Algerians also idealised French culture and, before the First World War, aspired to assimilation with France. This reform movement died down during the war; after the war reform efforts continued to meet with settler resistance. The Jonnart Law of 4 February 1919 conceded to settler concerns by dropping the idea of common representation for Europeans and Algerians. But it expanded the Muslim electorate to about 425,000, giving about forty-three per cent of the adult male Algerian population the right to vote in separate electoral colleges for those classified as non-French. The maximum proportion of representation for Algerians was set at one-fourth in general councils and one-third in municipal councils. The Jonnart reforms reinforced settler resistance to further reforms, while intensifying Algerian political activity and anti-French sentiment (Ageron: 227-53; Ruedy: 110-12, 91-2; Thomas: 246-9).

In each country, the timing and development of rural movements reflected local patterns of expropriation and labour migration. In South Africa the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) was founded in 1919 as an organisation of black dockworkers in Cape Town. As black sharecroppers and labour-tenants lost their access to land in the aftermath of the Land Act, the ICU began to address their concerns. By the mid-1920s the ICU had spread across the country and was organising Africans seeking to retain their access to land. Hit by state repression and wracked by factionalism, inexperience and corruption, the ICU was unable to stop African proletarianisation. Nor were rural protests confined to anti-proletarianisation struggles. In the Western Cape, the ANC’s organisation of rural farm workers became a groundswell, only halted at the start of the 1930s by brutal repression (Bradford; Hofmeyr). The Transkeian Territories had been proletarianised through the workings of the 1894 Glen Grey Act. Linked to the ‘one man, one lot’ principle was a model for separate local government for Africans known as the District Council system. In the Xhalanga region landholders resisted the establishment of a District Council for over two decades, using various forms of passive resistance, including delegations and deputations to the colonial authorities. Their failure was marked by the establishment of the Xhalanga District Council in 1924 (Ntsebeza: 69-92). Generally, the reserves were not the scene of militant struggles in the 1920s or early 1930s, although ICU activists agitated in the Transkei in the late 1920s.

In Algeria, by contrast, the situation was very different. The ongoing piecemeal expropriation efforts provoked enormous anger and led to localised anti-expropriation struggles across the country in the first several decades of the twentieth century. However, these were not part of any overarching political movement. The Young Algerians had been too elitist in their own backgrounds and aspirations to inspire a following amongst Algeria’s poor and working class, whether urban or rural. The first Algerian political movement with a working-class base, the Etoile Nord-africaine [North African Star], was founded by North African immigrants in Paris in 1926, a reflection of the country’s displaced proletariat. There was no such comparable political organisation within Algeria (Ruedy: 136-8; Stora: 74-7).

The Comintern, Anti-Imperialism and Agrarian Struggles

Despite the rural discontent in both countries, the orientation of local communists was towards urban workers. This reflected the development of socialist thought within a European context that, from the mid-nineteenth century, had privileged the urban proletariat as the leading force in social change, a view reinforced by the Bolsheviks’ interpretation of the 1917 Russian Revolution. However, as the 1920s progressed, pressure to organise the rural populations of colonised and non-industrial countries came from the increasingly Russian-dominated Comintern, which theorised the relationship of peasant and anti-imperial struggles on the basis of Asian experiences—notably China and India—not African. As the prospects of revolution in Europe waned, the Comintern maintained that peasant-based anti-colonial and national liberation struggles could help to weaken imperialism until such time as the contradictions of capitalism led to its collapse. The French Communist Party was criticised for neglecting its colonial work, and communists in South Africa and Algeria for neglecting the peasantry.

At the Comintern’s Sixth Congress in 1928 Nikolai Bukharin argued that post-war Europe had gone through a first stage of revolutionary upheaval and a second stage of capitalist stabilisation that had been characterised by the communist strategy of united fronts. With fascism seemingly secure in Italy and the left in retreat elsewhere in Europe, the capitalist crisis had reached its third period. The contradictions of the capitalist system were rapidly leading to its collapse, it was argued. In such conditions the working class would develop revolutionary proletarian class consciousness. With worldwide revolution imminent, social-democratic and reformist policies were seen as counter-revolutionary attempts to divert the working class from the struggle against capitalism. Hence, the Comintern’s repudiation of united fronts from above and its introduction of the New Line of independent leadership and of ‘class against class’ (McDermott and Agnew: 42-54, 68-71, 81-90; Drew: 95, 112).

The imposition of the New Line across the Comintern’s national sections took place unevenly. South African communists experienced their first case of concerted Comintern intervention in 1927, when the Comintern introduced the Native Republic thesis. This argued for ‘an independent native South African republic as a stage towards a workers’ and peasants’ republic with full safeguard and equal rights for all national minorities’ (Resolution on South Africa, n.d. [c.1927], Roux Papers, A; Roux: 112; Legassick; Kanet; Grossman: 144-61; Hirson; Nyawuza; Drew: 94-111). The CPSA, which had been virtually all white in composition at its founding in 1921, had reoriented itself towards black workers in 1924. This was largely through the efforts of Sidney Bunting, an English-born solicitor, who came to South Africa in 1900, slowly became radicalised and eventually helped found the CPSA. In the mid-1920s the CPSA began working closely with the ICU, and by 1928 the Party claimed about 1,600 African members out of 1,750. Not surprisingly, when the Native Republic thesis was introduced, many communists, and notably Bunting, objected to what they felt was its prioritisation of the peasantry over the urban proletariat; some also feared that it would alienate white workers, whose support they believed to be necessary. Nonetheless, after much resistance, the CPSA adopted the thesis in January 1929. But the New Line itself, with its emphasis on repudiating social democratic links and its purges of those deemed to be nonconformist, was not felt in South Africa until 1930 and hit with full force only in 1931 (Drew: 76-9, 112-36).

In the Algerian case, the New Line’s impact on local communists was notably earlier, a consequence of their incorporation into the French Communist Party and that party’s significance for Moscow (Hopkins). Communists in Algeria had been hit by a wave of repression in the mid-1920s due to their opposition to the Rif War in Morocco; a number faced prison sentences of two years or deportation to the south. In 1927-28 their tiny numbers were decimated by purges resulting from the Comintern’s policy of Bolshevisation. As the New Line was introduced membership plunged further, from 280 in 1929 to 130 in 1932. The purges, which led to the virtual collapse of local communist activity, took place against the repressive backdrop of the 1930 French celebrations of one hundred years of colonisation (Sivan: 36-7, 52-5; Drew: 197-8, 202).

The French Communist Party itself faced repeated condemnations from the Comintern for its alleged inadequacies on a number of fronts, and undoubtedly the long-simmering tensions in Paris between the North African Star and the PCF reflected the New Line (Hopkins: 117-18; Ruedy: 138; Stora: 77). The Comintern’s Executive Committee (ECCI) criticised the PCF’s lack of colonial work in December 1929, and several years later, in September 1932, the ECCI’s twelfth plenum reinforced the idea of a colonial agrarian revolution. André Ferrat, the head of the PCF’s colonial section in Paris sent a representative to Algeria to impress upon local communists the need to organise peasants and rural workers (Schweitzer: 118-19; Sivan: 70, 74-6). This was made very clear at the PCF’s regional conference in Algeria on 22-23 October 1932, when ‘Arabization’ of the party became the key slogan. Arabization meant an orientation towards Algerian workers, peasants, artisans and small traders with the aim of establishing close contact with the national movement (Lutte Sociale October, December 1932).

The CPSA’s Efforts at Rural Mobilisation

For South African communists like Sidney Bunting, the government’s escalating attempts to curtail black rights justified the adoption of the Native Republic thesis. But by the time the CPSA adopted the thesis, it was marginalised from the ICU and from many ANC leaders. The ICU, which was beginning to fragment, had expelled communists from its National Council in December 1926. Although the ANC’s president-general, Josiah Gumede, had close ties with the CPSA, his views were not representative. At the ANC’s second annual convention of Chiefs, held in Bloemfontein in April 1928, mention of the CPSA caused such an uproar that the meeting had to be recessed. When it was reconvened, the ICU leaders insisted the ANC renounce its relationship with the CPSA, to which the Chiefs unanimously agreed (Drew: 98).

General elections were scheduled for June 1929, and the ‘black peril’ was high on the agenda of white political parties. The CPSA decided to use the opportunity to promote the idea of a Native Republic. Africans and coloureds in the Cape still had a qualified franchise, although only whites could represent them. This franchise was a legacy of the representative government that Britain had granted to the Cape Colony in 1853, when all male British subjects over the age of twenty-one who owned property in the form of land or buildings of a certain value or who received a certain annual income were given the right to vote, irrespective of colour (Roux: 53; Davenport and Saunders: 308-12; Ntsebeza: 143). The CPSA decided to contest seats in the two constituencies where blacks constituted close to half the electorate. One was the urban area of Cape Flats outside Cape Town; the other was Thembuland, a region in the Transkeian Territories where the dispersed rural towns and homesteads and the rough roads made campaigning slow and arduous and where there was no prior history of communist activity (Bunting:104; Roux: 217; Johns: 235, 237; Ntsebeza: 51). Thembuland had a population of about one million Africans and 20,000 whites. That year 3,487 people were registered to vote, up from 3,259 two years earlier. Of these, over half, or 1,711, were Africans, 1,629 were whites and 147 were ‘mixed and other Coloured races’ (Government Gazette 1929:678, 667).

Sidney Bunting, perhaps hoping to demonstrate his loyalty after his initial opposition to the thesis, was to contest the Thembuland election against AOB Payn, the South African Party candidate, and GK Hemming, a South African Party member who had been holding the seat, but who was now running as an independent with the support of Professor DDT Jabavu. Bunting canvassed the region for a period of six months accompanied by his wife, the communist Rebecca Bunting, and their comrade Gana Makabeni, who acted as interpreter (Drew: 166-87).

There was already a precedent for English-language campaigning in the Transkei, assisted by translators. In addition to the liberal Cape politicians who periodically campaigned for the African and coloured vote, in 1921 the Gold Coast educator James Aggrey had visited South Africa on behalf of the American philanthropic Phelps-Stokes Commission, addressing enthusiastic crowds in the Transkei on the need for patience and hard work. Several years later the Natal-born Wellington Buthelezi, influenced by Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), restyled himself as the English-speaking African-American Dr Butler Hansford Wellington, claiming to represent both the UNIA and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He toured the Transkei in 1926 and 1927, preaching liberation brought by African-American emancipators in airplanes, punctuating his speeches with hymns, prayers and biblical passages. He was finally banished from the Transkei in March 1927 but not before drawing a large band of followers (Edgar: 32-40, 47; Hill and Pirio:238-42). Thus, while Bunting’s presence as a white campaigner was unusual, neither his use of English, nor his frequent censorious references to Dr Wellington’s hoped-for air-borne liberators were unfamiliar to his audiences. Nor, indeed, were his frequent biblical references. Bunting had been raised in a staunchly nonconformist family and while he was scathing about missionary influence, his own political discourse was steeped in that tradition.

From the moment the three communists entered the territories they were tailed by police. The harsh repression and racism they encountered reflected a region that had been deeply marked by colonial penetration and by long resistance. Colonial influence brought other changes as well, especially in the domains of religion and education. Christian missionary influence in the Cape Province was long established; by the twentieth century, Methodism was the most influential Christian denomination in the region and had permeated many families (Gish: 10-11; Mbeki: 12; Mandela: 4, 15). Aside from state-assisted education, African education fell under the domain of missionary societies, and the impact of these was particularly strong in the Cape Province. Of the twenty-six leading African secondary education institutions, the Cape Province had fourteen. The Cape was also the home of the South African Native College, founded in 1916 at the military post of Fort Hare in Alice (Ntsebeza: 131, 133-4; Sampson: 21).

Rather than target African voters, who were essentially freehold land owners, Bunting focused on Africans’ inadequate access to land and their lack of political rights, urging voters and non-voters alike, men and women, to show up at the polls on election day and protest their lack of democratic rights. His speeches pointed to the unequal patterns of landholding between black and white, which resulted in African poverty in the rural areas.

On 12 March the trio were charged with violating the Native Administration Act—that is, acting and speaking ‘with intent to promote feelings of hostility between Natives and Europeans’. The three were convicted, but a notice of appeal was filed on 18 March and bail was granted at £50 each. They continued their campaign, returning to Mthatha on 10 April. But the trio were again arrested on 13 April, and once more released on bail.

Whatever harassment the trio experienced, they were vindicated in June by their election results. Ominously, the National Party won the general elections outright, signalling the end of the National-Labour Pact; General Hertzog remained as Prime Minister, but Oswald Pirow replaced Tielman Roos as Minister of Justice. Bunting, however, fared better than expected. Of the 2,302 votes counted in the three-way Thembuland contest, Bunting received 289 or about 12.5 per cent of the total, and was able to keep his deposit; his counterpart in the Cape Flats received three per cent (Roux: 138-40).

Bunting won his court case. Since the intention to promote racial hostility was central to the charge of contravening the Native Administration Act, Bunting based his defence on the denial of such intent. Communism, he told the court, emphasises class divisions and thus ‘cuts away the ground of mere racialism’. The trial transcripts indicated that most of the African witnesses were receptive to Bunting’s condemnation of inequality. The Eastern Districts Court set aside the previous conviction and allowed Bunting’s appeal; the solicitor-general, EW Baxter, decided not to prosecute the case. The Court noted that there was ‘little doubt that great mischief will be done to the Natives in the Territories by the circulation of communistic speeches and pamphlets’, but argued that the Act

was not meant to apply to persons in good faith advocating the doctrines of the political party, to which they happen to belong, unless the doctrine, or the words used in advocating them or the circumstances under which they were uttered and published must necessarily have the effect of promoting hostility between Natives and Europeans.

The Chief Magistrate of Mthatha was concerned that the decision would leave agitators free to propagate their doctrines. The Communist Party was a tiny organisation in 1929, even though its membership had been growing. But against the backdrop of militant ANC activity in the Western Cape and the ICU’s recent protests in Durban, with which communists were said to be involved, state officials were fearful. ‘There is no doubt Communism is spreading amongst the natives in these Territories and immediate steps should be taken to deal with Mr. Bunting,’ the Chief Magistrate argued. In light of proposed legislation from the new Minister of Justice, regarding the expulsion of ‘undesirables’ from particular areas of the country, the Chief Magistrate recommended that action be taken against Bunting ‘on lines similar to those taken against “Dr. Wellington” … who is by no means as dangerous as Mr. Bunting’.

The matter reached the House of Assembly on 8 August, introduced by General Smuts, who hoped that the government would tighten the law to prevent a repeat of such an outcome. Prime Minister Hertzog replied that the Minister of Native Affairs was already aware of the need to take further legislative action, although ‘not directly through an Act’. The new Minister of Justice warned that Communism was ‘at present merely a nuisance’, but that ‘there is a possibility, even a probability, that within a short time it will become an absolute danger.’ Amendment of the Native Administration Act ‘raises a legal difficulty which is almost insuperable’, he continued. The difficulty was, he stated, that ‘whilst on the one hand you want to suppress what is unlawful, on the other hand you do not want to introduce legislation which will unduly curtail the liberty of the subject’ (Hansard 1929:575-8). The law would continue to be paramount, even though its parameters were ever more constricted.

In July 1929, following his electoral campaign, Bunting had formed a League of African Rights (LAR). ANC president Josiah Gumede, who had close ties with the CPSA, became the league’s head, and Gana Makabeni, its rural organiser. The LAR called for the retention of the Cape African vote; the extension of the parliamentary franchise to blacks on the same basis as whites; universal free education for black children on the same basis as white children; and the abolition of the pass laws throughout the Union. More broadly, it aimed to protect African interests on all matters, to demand all rights to which Africans were entitled, and to train its members to hold meetings, demonstrate and send deputations to the government. It immediately launched a petition drive in support of the above demands for presentation to the government. The idea behind the petition was that in canvassing for signatures organisers would be explaining the league’s demands, a form of political education.

Makabeni based himself at Maxaka’s location in Libode, western Phondoland. He spent several months there late in 1929, travelling by horseback and even foot in some cases; the work was hard and slow-going. Bunting, in the meantime, continued promoting the league in the Transvaal, but the new LAR was seen as a threat to established organisations like the ANC and ICU. The increasingly repressive political climate intensified the CPSA’s marginalisation from those organisations.

This resistance was not the only problem faced by the LAR. In late October 1929, the CPSA received a cable from the Comintern ordering the league’s disbanding on the grounds of possible fusion with reformist organisations. This reflected the Comintern’s New Line: communists were to repudiate alliances with reformist and social democratic organisations. The CPSA, however, continued to promote the LAR, and the league’s conference duly took place on 15 December 1929 (Drew: 108-10; Roux: 141-2).

The Minister of Justice was proposing two anti-African bills—the Native Contract Bill and a revised Urban Areas Act, and the CPSA organised an All-in Conference in Johannesburg on 26 January to discuss the bills. Although some delegates hoped that the LAR could lead a strike campaign against the proposed laws, Bunting was more cautious. Despite acknowledging the ‘rising tide of interest in oppressor bills’ and an ‘increased degree of cooperation among native organisations in protesting against them’, it was unlikely, he speculated, that this cooperation would come together under the LAR banner anytime in the near future. The LAR was being squeezed between the Comintern and the resistance of the other African political organisations. In April 1930 the ANC turned to the right. Gumede was replaced as president-general by Pixley ka Izaka Seme and a conservative slate of officials (Bradford:272-8; Simons and Simons: 427-9; Drew: 81, 98-9). Gumede’s ousting, together with the ambiguous attitudes of the various ICU fractions, signalled that the political space for the LAR was shrinking. By all indications, the league withered.

As the Comintern’s New Line made itself felt, communist parties around the world expelled those members who were seen as recalcitrant in promoting the new policy. Almost invariably, this included the founding members of those communist parties, as a new cohort of leaders took over. In South Africa this phenomenon took place several years later than in many other countries. In 1931-32 the CPSA was wracked by a series of purges similar to those that other sections of the Comintern had experienced several years earlier. Many of the CPSA’s leading activists, including Sidney Bunting and Gana Makabeni, were expelled. The Party was already damaged by its isolation from the ANC and ICU. With its ranks depleted and its remaining members consumed with bitter sectarian disputes, the foundation for rural organisation that had been laid in Thembuland and Phondoland could not be continued.

Communists and Rural Mobilisation in Algeria

The late 1920s saw the Algerian region’s ranks depleted both due to state repression—communists were hounded by the authorities and imprisoned or deported to the south—and to purges resulting from the Comintern’s New Line (Combat Social 1927; Sivan: 36-51). A report dated October 1931 described the Party as so fragmented that the author could only point to a ‘petit parti bonois, oranais et petit parti algerios‘ [little party in Bone, in Oran and in Algiers]. There were not even links between Algiers and Blida, even though they were only fifty kilometres apart.

But by late 1932, when the French Communist Party increased the pressure on communists in Algeria to turn their attention to the countryside, the local Party was recovering from the expulsions that had depleted its membership a few years earlier. Although the local Communist Party was trying to increase the number of Algerian members, it was still disproportionately European in composition—indeed, far more so than its South African counterpart. This, along with its tiny numbers and urban orientation, seemingly precluded serious organisational work amongst rural Algerians. Yet for a brief period in the early 1930s, pressured by the Comintern and in turn by the French Communist Party headquarters in Paris, they turned their attention to rural struggles taking place around Blida, which lies south-west of Algiers and south of the fertile Mitidja plain at the foot of Atlas Mountains in northern Algeria.

The region around Blida saw many localised anti-expropriation protests. Founded by Andalusians in the mid-sixteenth century, Blida was conquered by the French in 1838. By 1851 about 36,000 rural families, comprising ten per cent of the total Algerian population, had been pushed out of the Mitidja. French colonisers built small towns on the Mitidja that reminded them of southern France, but divided into a European section reminiscent of small-town France and an Arab quarter with whitewashed houses squeezed together in a jumbled maze. Blida was refashioned in similar style. By the 1930s it was a good-sized town: the 1936 census listed 209,427 inhabitants, of whom 41,507 were European and 167,920 Algerian. The arrondisement of Blida consisted of 260,974 hectares of land, with a population density of 80.24 inhabitants per square kilometre (Bennoune:16; Macey: 212-13; Annuaire Statistique de l’Algérie 1939-1949:chapter 2, 22).

Blida was a commune de plein exercise—a civil territory in which there was deemed to be a significant European population and in which French law was applicable (Ruedy: 73). Local politics was very much a microcosm of the colony’s class relations. The mayor of Blida, Gaston Ricci, was from an extremely wealthy family that owned entire mountains around Blida. His brothers, Maurice and Henry Ricci, prosperous businessmen, were successful flour millers and manufacturers of pasta that carried the family name. The town had European artisan and trade union traditions.

France celebrated the centennial of its conquest of Algeria in 1930—as the international depression was hitting the country with full force. The centennial celebrations were accompanied by the repression of any political movement seen as remotely anti-colonial. In turn, this led to an upsurge in Algerian nationalist aspirations in the early 1930s. The Islamic Reform movement, which could be traced back to the first decade of the twentieth century, began growing more rapidly in the 1920s, under the leadership of Cheikh Abdelhamid Ben Badis. The movement was cultural and religious in discourse, but it used political concepts, such as umma [nation], cha’ab [people], watan [homeland], and quawmiyya [nationality]. It sought to unify Muslim Algerians across religious sects and ethnic lines, criticising the traditional marabouts and Islamic brotherhoods as upholders of the rural aristocracy (Ruedy: 134-5; Stora: 74; Julien: 102-3; Thomas: 250-51, 258). The reformist oulemas—Muslim scholars specialised in Islamic law and theology—expressed the hopes of many petits fellahs [small rural cultivators] for egalitarian land reform (Launay: 378; Stora: 75). In the absence of any Algerian-based working-class political movement—aside from the minute and predominantly European Communist Party—the culturally-oriented Islamic Reform movement was able to occupy much of the political landscape.

The launch of the Association of Oulemas of Algeria in Algiers in 1931 was a crucial indicator of the growth of the Islamic Reform movement. The following year, in March 1932, an organisation known as El Hadaia [guidance] was formed in Blida. El Hadaia focused on three main areas: religious work, social activity, and cultural work aimed at the revival of Arab theatre, letters and history. Its religious work was led by Cheik Taïeb el-Okbi, a reformist oulema who worked closely with Ben Badis. Born in Biskra, el-Okbi had spent twenty-five years in Hedjaz, the region in which Mecca is located, before returning to Algiers. An excellent orator much respected for his long stay in Mecca, he was a committed follower of the Wahabite movement founded by Mohamed Abd-el-Wahab (Planche: 190-91; Sellam, Younessi and Planche). Chiefly petty bourgeois and bourgeois in composition, according to local communist reports, by early April El Hadaia had about 160 members, and by June was claiming about 460. It clearly had a popular resonance.

The PCF had a decade-long, if feeble, presence at Blida. Its largely European membership had been sharply divided over the question of national liberation. Most preferred the approach of trying to organise European and Algerian workers into trade unions. However, through a turnover in membership following the New Line purges, the Party began to revive and the attitude of communists in Blida began to change. In no small part this was due to the growth of the Young Communist League and the recruitment of Algerians into its Blida section. By July 1932 the Young Communist cell at Blida had six members, all of them Algerians; in the Department of Alger as a whole, there were fifty-five Young Communists, twenty-six of whom were Algerian.

The influence of the Young Communists in Blida could be seen in practice by 1932. Two Young Communists were members of El Hadaia, one each in the social and cultural sections. The latter was giving weekly lectures to audiences of about fifty on Arab history, hoping that this might be a means of promoting anti-imperialist ideas. Thus, in contrast to the CPSA’s difficulties in working with other organisations during the period of its rural campaigns, Algerian communists in Blida were able to work with a growing cultural movement.

But even in rural towns like Blida, the orientation of communists was towards urban workers. However, pressure to follow the new Arabization policy, along with the arrival of French Communist Party representative Paul Radiquet from Paris in late 1932, led to changes. Blida, with a reasonable communist cell not too far from Algiers, provided a convenient location for communist work in support of peasant protests against expropriation. When Paul Radiquet arrived in Blida on 22 November, about 600 to 800 peasants were faced with expropriation orders on the grounds that the land was needed for reforestation, ostensibly to prevent flooding during the rainy season. The land in question had quarries that were being exploited by two local entrepreneurs; in Ghellaï where the peasants made charcoal, the government wished to rent part of the land and sell some of it to the colons. The mayor himself was an interested party in the affair: his land bordered one of the targeted areas, and expropriation would enable him to extend his property. The region was in a state of ferment; in nearby Menerville, peasants were refusing to pay taxes.

By the time Radiquet arrived in Blida, the local communist cell was already involved in the resistance. It had circulated a petition opposing the expropriations, and several communists had tried to meet with local peasants, only to be greeted, initially, with suspicion. Some of them had lost money to other individuals who had approached them offering help. But the attitude of the peasants softened after they spoke to one of the municipal councillors, Boukémiet Hamed, in whom they evidently had much confidence. He advised them to listen to the communists.

Radiquet and a Young Communist named Rafa Naceur Ben Ali travelled around the region by bus, contacting peasants threatened with expropriation. The peasants appointed delegates to represent them and agreed to link the present predicament of those facing expropriation with an earlier expropriation in 1925 for which no adequate compensation had been made; to ask Algerians in town to support those facing expropriation; to make use of the local councillors in whom they had confidence to order to build a united front; and to prepare an Arabic-language flyer.

The plan worked. The flyer called upon the peasants to meet in their localities and form anti-expropriation committees. Each locality was to designate representatives, and they were to organise an open-air demonstration. The communists succeeded in setting up a meeting with about sixty peasants, with discussions in Arabic and French. A defence committee consisting of eight peasants was elected.

In Paris the PCF publicised the struggles against expropriation in the National Assembly and in its press. Lucien Monjauvis, the communist deputy from La Seine who had raised the issue of expropriations with the Minister of the Interior, was sent to Algeria by the PCF as a gesture of solidarity. On 22 December Monjauvis addressed a public meeting against expropriations in Blida attended by a large crowd of French and Algerians. He was arrested immediately, but released later that evening after a large demonstration. Ben Aïch, the PCF’s regional secretary was arrested in Algiers (L’Humanité 22 December 1932). Over the next several months, communists continued to organise peasants in nearby villages. With their support, the peasants at Blida had succeeded in stopping the expropriations; this provided excellent publicity for their cause. Unlike the communists, the peasants often seemed unmoved by the threat of arrest.

There were several reasons why the communists were able to evoke a resonance with peasants in and around Blida. Firstly, the demands put forward by the communists coincided with those of the peasants. Secondly, the tactics proposed by the communists, such as boycotting the taking up of compensation dovetailed with the approaches used by the peasants. Thirdly, the type of organisation proposed by the communists made sense in terms of peasants’ own system of self-government, based on the dzemâa or village council (Bennoune: 1). The communists found that collective resistance to expropriations already existed in many areas. By impeding the efforts of Forest Service representatives to gain access to land around Blida and Rovigo, for example, local peasants had hampered the expropriation efforts. Finally, the communists were able to use the success at Blida to gain the support of peasants from other localities.

But in addition to the PCF’s direct work with the peasants, members of the Young Communist League presumably became known in Blida through their work in El Hadaia. As Henri Alleg (191, 193) has noted, French Communism was characterised by an anti-clericalism that was prevalent across the European left. This anti-clerical stance was presumably more acute in colonised areas where colonial authorities and settlers derided the indigenous religion as ‘primitive’. European communists in Algeria were typically imbued with such attitudes and saw the efforts of Islamic Reformists in this light. The Comintern’s New Line arguably reinforced such anti-clerical views. But these were not necessarily reflective of Algerian communists—who were Muslim, even if some were secularised. The success of the Blida YCL in recruiting even small numbers of Algerians in the early 1930s enabled it to make links with El Hadaia.

The combined efforts of the local Islamic Reform movement and the communists were successful enough to worry the French administration. On 16 February 1933 the secretary-general of the prefecture of Alger, Fernand-Jules Michel decreed that surveillance of the Islamic Reform movement and of Koranic schools be stepped up. Islamic Reform oulemas, including the popular Cheik el-Okbi, were banned from speaking at government-controlled mosques, and the Algiers Cultural Association was dissolved (Julien: 104-5; Thomas: 250-51). Along with the Islamic Reform movement, the Michel circular went on, agitation by communists Paul Radiquet and Rafa Naceur Ben Ali against the Forest Service necessitated active surveillance.

The attempts to prevent Islamic Reform leaders from speaking at the principal mosque in Algiers, along with the closure of Koranic schools and the bannings of newspapers, sparked significant protest in Algiers, and especially in the Casbah (Planche: 188). There was ‘a certain effervescence’ amongst ‘a small section’ of Muslims on 24 February and 3 March, the British consul-general noted in his quarterly report on 31 March. Demonstrations of el-Okbi’s supporters ‘were dispersed by the police supported by a small number of troops. A well known local communist seized the opportunity to incite the demonstrators to resist the police.’ But the police swiftly clamped down on the demonstration. By early May, claimed the British consul-general, the agitation was by all indications ‘quelled’.

The regional PCF may have been willing to work tactically with the Islamic Reformists to the extent that its tiny numbers allowed. But it was not willing to work with the North African Star, numbers of whose members were returning to Algeria due to growing unemployment in France. That same May a group calling itself the Parti National Révolutionnaire was founded in the Casbah. Its members included tramway workers, skilled workers and artisans. One of the new group’s founders, Sidi Ahmed Belarbi or Boualem, as he was known, was secretary of the regional PCF and had studied in Moscow. The group signalled the Comintern’s interest in building an Algerian national movement that was independent of the North African Star and sympathetic to communist ideas, but it proved to be short-lived (Planche: 187-9; Sivan: 58).

Back in the Mitidja communists continued the anti-expropriation campaigns. The French communist leader Maurice Thorez arrived in Algiers on 10 May 1933 as the Paris delegate to the Party’s regional congress scheduled for 21 May. Peasants in the Mitidja were still keen to have contact with the PCF. Hearing of Thorez’s visit, they asked that he come and speak to them. Despite police intimidation, large crowds arrived in Blida to hear Thorez. The authorities denied him a hall, so he spoke in the open air, translated into Arabic. Later he and a comrade were taken around the villages by mule (Durand: 116-17).

Communist efforts to organise peasants appears to have declined after this. But with the Algerian qualified franchise in mind, the PCF decided to contest local elections set for August 1933. Despite massive intimidation on election day—what one communist described as a ‘civil war’ and ‘state of siege’ around the polling stations—the electoral response indicated that the PCF still had some support in this area. In the first round of voting the communist candidate, Taieb Abdelouahad, obtained 120 votes out of 3,577 or 3.4 per cent, dispersed around the local towns as follows: Blida, 2.8 per cent; Birtouta, 1.6 per cent; Boufarik, 14.4 per cent; Bouinan, 0.9 per cent; Mouzaiaville, 4.4 per cent; La Chiffa, 0.6 per cent.

The first round of voting led to a run-off. That the PCF was able to maintain its candidate in the running and in the second round obtain 118 votes out of 3,745 or 3.2 per cent showed their intensified efforts: Blida, 2 per cent; Birtouta, 0 votes; Boufarik, 4.8 per cent; Bouinan, 0.3 per cent; Cheble, 0.8 per cent; Mouzaiaville, 0.2 per cent; La Chiffa, 0.1 per cent; Souma, 0.9 per cent.

Thereafter, however, communists in Algeria lost interest in rural organising and focused their gaze on the urban areas. By the early 1930s, poverty in the rural areas was contributing to a rapid increase in the movement of rural Algerians to towns (Ruedy: 120). This demographic shift led to an increase in urban-based political activity, an increase fuelled by the political repression signalled by the Michel circular. The agitation that the British consul-general presumed had been quelled in fact formed the backdrop for a wave of urban protest centred in the Algiers Casbah. This upsurge of urban-based activity continued over the next few years, transforming the face of Algerian politics (Planche: 180-90; Thomas: 256).


Local communists had limited control over the conditions in which they worked. They were constrained on the one side by the policies and pressures imposed by the Comintern, and on the other by local difficulties: their own limited numbers, repression and the risk of imprisonment and the arduous conditions in rural areas that made organisational work extremely difficult. Comintern policy—both the New Line and the pressure to address rural areas—provided a constant factor for communists in South Africa and Algeria in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Four factors help to explain the different experiences and outcomes of communist intervention in rural areas in the two cases. These include firstly, the timing of the New Line’s introduction in each country; secondly, the timing of rural movements in both cases; thirdly, the timing of communist intervention in rural areas; and finally, the ability of local communists to make alliances with national or cultural movements. But these factors need to be understood against the political landscape of each country.

In the South African case, communist electoral activity—propaganda for a Native Republic—preceded the organisational work of launching the League of African Rights, and communist activity in rural areas preceded the impact of the New Line. Sidney Bunting canvassed in an area where there were no ongoing rural movements or struggles. The interest he raised was indicated firstly by the large crowds he attracted, secondly by the testimony of the African witnesses who expressed sympathy with the issues of land access and equality that he raised, and thirdly by the electoral turnout. Bunting was not catering to African voters but to the African population more generally, nor was he offering the possibility of immediate tangible improvements. Thus the votes he received were arguably protest votes, representing quite a substantial proportion in electoral terms.

If peasant response to Gana Makabeni’s rural canvassing was slow and hesitant, in the urban areas the LAR was seen as a rival by the established organisations. The mounting repression in South Africa had already contributed to the CPSA’s isolation from the ICU and ANC. When the New Line made its impact in South Africa, its influence was two-fold. Firstly, communists were pressured to disband the LAR that they had been organising in both rural and urban areas. While they did not do so immediately, by all indications they eventually let it whither under the combined pressure of the Comintern and of the established national organisations. Secondly, the purges of Party activists that were a consequence of the New Line decimated the Party, leaving it without personnel to canvass in rural areas. The timing of the New Line’s impact was thus critical in determining the human resources available to undertake organisational work.

In the Algerian case, the New Line’s impact was felt well before local communists began their work in rural areas. By the time local communists started their rural work, the local Party had overcome the worst impact of New Line purges and was making some progress in rebuilding its membership. Thus, its ability to work in rural areas was not curtailed by Comintern intervention. Moreover, in contrast to the political quiescence that South African communists encountered, communists in Algeria were able to connect in a constructive manner with ongoing political protests. Two factors explain the decline of communist activity in the Mitidja region. Firstly, political repression around Blida intimidated local communists from continuing their work in the area. Secondly, the intensification of political struggle in Algiers—itself arguably an indirect consequence of the conjuncture of movements in the nearby Mitidja region—shifted the focus of the tiny Communist Party back to the urban areas.

Communists working in and around Blida benefited from their reasonable working relationship with the local Islamic Reform movement. This was possible because the Young Communist League, in particular, had been able to recruit some Algerian members. The positive response that local communists received from their organising work was indicated by the willingness of the initially sceptical peasants to meet with them and by the movement of peasants into towns to attend rallies held by the communists. No doubt the willingness of the communist activists to work with local peasant structures, their success in facilitating contact between peasants of different villages and in forestalling expropriation in at least one case were critical factors in their ability to garner support from local peasants. In turn, that the communist candidate was able to win even a small percentage of votes six months later despite the intense intimidation to which Algerian voters were subjected indicates some residual sympathy.

These case studies indicate that the impact of Comintern policies was mediated both by the timing of the Comintern’s interventions and by the diverse conditions that local activists encountered. Thus, claims that a uniform Comintern discourse and policy resulted in a uniform practice and outcome across the various countries in which communist parties operated cannot be sustained. In the cases of South Africa and Algeria local communists interpreted Comintern policies to make sense in the diverse conditions they encountered, and their activities were constrained by those conditions. In both cases rural people were receptive to the message of urban communist agitators insofar as it reflected their own concerns for more land or for an end to expropriation. The issues of land access that struck a chord with rural people were incorporated by communists into a broader democratic agenda with anti-colonial and anti-imperialist dimensions.

However, the political landscape shaped by the different patterns of proletarianisation differed significantly. In late 1920s South Africa the CPSA found itself in an increasingly competitive relationship with the ANC and the ICU. In Algeria, by contrast, the absence of a working-class political movement inside the country meant that the political landscape of the early 1930s was framed largely in terms of cultural politics. The local PCF did not at that moment face the political rivalries that confronted the CPSA. It was perhaps in the brief period when communists temporarily linked with national or cultural movements giving voice to similar concerns that the potential for politicising rural struggles was highest. But that potential was limited precisely because it was transient.