[CHAPTER] van der Walt, 2017, “‘All Workers regardless of Craft, Race or Colour’: The First Wave of IWW Activity and Influence in South Africa”

Lucien van der Walt, 2017, “‘All Workers regardless of Craft, Race or Colour’: The First Wave of IWW Activity and Influence in South Africa”, in Peter Cole, David Struthers and Kenyon Zimmer (eds.), Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW, Pluto Press, London/ University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 271-287.

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Outline:  The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had a notable impact in South Africa, where, by the end of 1910, IWW-style revolutionary syndicalism was an important influence on the left, and had a significant union base. This first wave of IWW-influenced activity, which faded away around 1913, has been largely overshadowed by a second, much larger, upsurge of revolutionary syndicalism starting in 1915. It is worth revisting, however, because it helped lay the foundations for later left activism by promoting industrial unionism and revolutionary syndicalist ideas, pioneering a class-based anti-racist left perspective on South Africa’s social and national questions, and forging a layer of militants who would play important roles in subsequent years. It is also worth revisiting in order to recall, and reflect upon, its limitations. While syndicalist (and Communist) organizing from 1915 onward was notable for building a substantial base among black African, Coloured, and Indian workers, the first wave of IWW organizing and influence was not. Instead, it was marked by an inability to break out of a largely immigrant, white, and English-speaking working-class milieu. The reasons for the contrasting situations—which lie largely at the level of politics—are also important to understand.

 

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