Revolutionary Papers

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Presented by

David Johnson
25 April 2022

The Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU) and its charismatic leader, Clements Kadalie, dominated the Southern African political landscape of the 1920s. At its peak in 1927, the ICU had 100-1500,000, eclipsing by some distance the African National Congress (ANC) and the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). The ICU’s message of international […]

The Workers’ Herald

‘Overthrow the capitalist system of Government and usher in a co-operative Commonwealth one’: the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU), the Workers’ Herald, and dreams of revolution, 1923-1929.

Abstract: The Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU) and its charismatic leader Clements Kadalie dominated the Southern African political landscape of the 1920s. In 1927, the Messenger periodical in New York heralded the ICU as ‘the largest economic organisation of black men in the world’, and a decade later, C. L. R. James likened Kadalie to Toussaint L’Ouverture, proclaiming, ‘It will be difficult to overestimate what Kadalie achieved between 1919 and 1926 . . . . The real parallel to this movement is the mass rising in San Domingo’. Fundamental to the ICU’s success was its widely read magazine, the Workers’ Herald (1923-29). Although the Workers’ Herald reflected the ICU’s many competing political traditions, the revolutionary message expressed in the report on the 1925 annual conference was a constant: ‘We must prevent the exploitation of our people on the mines and on the farms, and obtain increased wages for them. We shall not rest there. We will open the gates of the Houses of Legislation, now under the control of the white oligarchy, and from this step we shall claim equality of purpose with the white workers of the world to overthrow the capitalist system of Government and usher in a co-operative Commonwealth one’. In addition to tracing the revolutionary discourse of the Workers’ Herald, the paper addresses several further questions. First, the relationship between the Workers Herald and its competitors within the public and counter-public spheres is investigated. Both the white and the black South African press reported negatively on the ICU, though the impact of the black press’s hostile coverage was moderated both by the low literacy levels of its potential readership, and by the fact that the Workers’ Herald attracted many more readers. The literacy rate among black South Africans was 9, 9% in 1921 and by 1931 had risen only to 12, 5%. With circulation figures of 27,000 at its peak in May 1927, the Workers’ Herald was by far the most popular newspaper (2,300 for Imvo Zabantsundu; 3,000 for Ilanga lase Natal; 4,000 for the ANC’s mouthpiece Abantu Batho; and 3,000-6,000 for the Chamber of Mines-backed Umteteli wa Bantu). Secondly, the (critical and utopian) cartoons in the Workers’ Herald are considered. Drawn by James Christie Scott, the cartoons communicated the ICU message to semi-literate and illiterate union members. Thirdly, the relationship of the Workers’ Herald to transnational trade union, anti-colonial and anti-racist publications is discussed. By contrast to the hostile Southern African political landscape, the ICU and the Workers’ Herald received a generous reception in the North Atlantic counter-public sphere, with positive reports on the ICU appearing in Garveyite, socialist and communist publications in the United States, Britain, Australia and the Soviet Union, and articles by Kadalie published in A. Philip Randolph’s The Messenger and R. Palme Dutt’s The Labour Monthly. Finally, the ICU’s message of international socialism communicated via the Workers’ Herald is contrasted to the nationalist ideology expressed by the African National Congress (ANC), both in the 1920s and the 2020s.

David Johnson

David Johnson is Professor of Literature in the Department of English at The Open University.