The childhood shows the man,as morning shows the day. (John Milton)
Although he lived most of his life in Britain, Ted Grant was South African by birth, and never quite lost his native accent. He did not talk a lot about his past life and his family, but sometimes one learned snippets of information about his formative years. Although numerous relevant records could be accessed, it was unfortunate that no family historian had specifically focused on Ted’s siblings or his parents, though there were a number descended from his uncles, aunts and cousins.
None of these descendants appear to have coupled Isaac Blank to his adopted name of Ted Grant. Their family trees simply state Isaac was born in Johannesburg and subsequently disappeared from the records. Probably out of ignorance, they misguidedly wrote off Isaac Blank as someone of little consequence. How wrong they were!
Until now, Ted Grant was always thought to have had no family to speak of, but Lauren Naama Goldberg’s researches into her own ancestry include the Johannesburg Blanks and provides a staggering list of family names and supporting data.1
Regrettably, Lauren’s sources are presented with few birth years, so it has been difficult to structure all the information she has accumulated into a format showing the relatives in any order of seniority. Ted’s father Max, possibly the most senior of his own siblings, is at the top of the list.
Max Blank came originally from Lithuania. The records show that he was born in Tauragė, an industrial city and the capital of Tauragė County (not to be confused with the Ukrainian city of Taganrog, where Chekhov was born). It is also known by its German nameTauroggen. It is situated on the Jūra River, close to the border with the Kaliningrad Oblast, and not far from the Baltic Sea coast.
When Max Blank was born, Lithuania was part of tsarist Russia, which Lenin described as the prison house of nations. And no national group was so oppressed as the Jews. Lithuania was part of what was known as the Pale of Settlement—that part of the Russian Empire in which Jews were allowed permanent residency, and beyond which it was generally prohibited, except for a limited number of categories. Lithuania was therefore historically home to a large and influential Jewish community.
The Lithuanian Jewish community was almost entirely wiped out by the Nazi Holocaust. The family tree in fact shows that one of Ted’s aunts died in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis, together with her husband Hirsch Herman Srago and their five children, Israel, Sonya, Moshe Lev, Rasha Raya and Yachel Samuel (all first cousins of Ted). Other more distant relatives, such as Abraham Reubon Goldin, a second cousin of Ted’s, also died in the Holocaust. But in the period under consideration, those horrors were the music of a nightmarish future.
It was natural that the most vigorous and progressive elements in the Jewish community should join the revolutionary struggle against tsarist oppression. By the end of the 19th century, there was a strong Jewish workers’ movement in Lithuania, organized by the Bund, the General Jewish Labour Bund in Russia and Poland, which was founded in Vilnius, the capital, on October 7, 1897. The Bund’s objective was to unite all Jewish workers in the Russian Empire into a united socialist party.
Needless to say, not everybody was so convinced of the prospects of socialist revolution in tsarist Russia. Other, no less energetic but less politically inclined people, who felt the need to escape the constant oppression and discrimination, found another way out: that of emigration. The end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century saw a massive wave of Jewish emigration from the Russian Empire.
Among those fleeing persecution in search of a better life was Max Blank. His birth date is not known, but it would have been around 1869. We do know that his father was called Israel Blank and his mother Rosalia Shereshevsky. He left Lithuania sometime towards the end of the 19th century, and we find him in Paris in 1900-01, but he may have arrived earlier.
Wedding photograph of Max Blank and Adelle Margolis, Ted’s parents
Max’s wife, Adelle Margolis, was born in France on Christmas Day 1885. I imagine that, like her daughter, Rachael (Rae), she always kept up an elegant appearance. The family lived in Le Marais, which is in the centre of Paris, to the west of Place de la Bastille; it was and still is the hub of the Jewish community in the French capital. The family were involved in the fur trade. Max and Adelle met in Paris through Ted’s grandmother and married in 1901. She was much younger than her husband. Although she spoke English fluently, she retained her strong French accent throughout her life.
At the time of their marriage, Adelle was only 16 years of age, and Max 32. One guesses that he must have had considerable charm and swept this young girl off her feet. What her parents thought of this man from a far-off land with dubious career prospects and a strong Russian accent, is not known. There is a photograph of Adelle together with Max taken about 1901 in Paris, which was given to us by Rae. It is a wedding photograph, and they have the appearance of a prosperous Jewish middle class couple. He is smartly dressed in a suit, with a flower in his buttonhole.
Why did they decide to leave Paris? Maybe Max was already looking for more promising outlets for a man of enterprise. But there may have been other reasons too. Having left Lithuania, to escape the stifling anti-Semitic atmosphere that existed there, Max first moved to Paris, where he lived in the Jewish quarter. This was at the time of the Dreyfus affair. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young French Jewish army officer had been sentenced in 1894 to life imprisonment after being falsely accused of passing French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. In spite of later evidence that proved his innocence, there was a cover up on the part of high-ranking French officers. The celebrated open letter by Émile Zola which appeared in a Paris newspaper in January 1898 under the title “J’accuse”, caused a public outcry and a mass campaign in favour of Dreyfus. This eventually led to Dreyfus being declared innocent in 1906.
The Dreyfus case provoked a serious crisis that shook the French establishment to its very foundations, but revealed a widespread anti-Semitism in France and this may have been one of the reasons why Max was very soon to leave for South Africa, together with his wife, mother-in-law and newly born child Rose (born in January 1902). Their second child, Israel, was born on South African soil in 1903. The choice of South Africa was probably driven by some connection with people they knew who had emigrated there and Max saw it as a land of promise. He must have been a very energetic and enterprising man—a bit too enterprising, as things turned out.
There had been Jewish people in South Africa from the 16th century, when the first Dutch settlers started to build Cape Town. By the end of the 19th century, their numbers had grown. In the Boer War, when the Afrikaners fought the British, there were Jewish fighters on both sides, although it seems most fought on the side of the British.
In fact, Lithuanians dominate the Jewish community in South Africa to an extent seen in no other country, even present-day Lithuania. Ted’s family tree reveals that other, more distant relatives also ended up emigrating to South Africa. Among South Africans of Lithuanian-Jewish descent were figures like the late communist Joe Slovo and veteran anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman (also from Germiston). The presence of Joe Slovo in this list is no accident. This Lithuanian Jewish community on the Rand had links with Russian revolutionary movements going back to the 1880s, and the South African Communist Party had a strong base there. This fact played a decisive role in Ted’s early political development.
Ted’s father does not appear to have had any overtly political affiliations. Like many educated Jews at that time, he probably held vaguely liberal views. But he had come to South Africa to secure the future of his family, not to overthrow the existing order. He got on with his work and he managed very well. He was engaged in the mineral business. That was a very lucrative trade in South Africa and the family was comfortably well off. They had two sons, Israel (Isy) named after his grandfather and Isaac, ten years younger than his brother, and three daughters, Rose (the eldest, born in January 1902), Rachael (born in 1912) and Zena, the youngest.
Isaac Blank, the future Ted Grant, was born on the 9th of July, 1913, in a large house in Spilsbury Street, Germiston, just outside Johannesburg. The town had been established in the early days of the gold rush when two prospectors, John Jack and August Simmer, struck gold on the farm of Elandsfontein. Both men made fortunes and the town sprung up next to the mine in the early days of the gold rush. Germiston today is South Africa’s sixth largest city, with 70 percent of the western world’s gold passing through its gold refinery. It also boasts South Africa’s biggest railway junction and the busiest civil airport, Rand Airport.
Johannesburg itself had grown out of the newly discovered neighbouring goldfields in the 1880s, which attracted enterprising people from many countries like a magnet. In 1921, the world’s largest gold refinery, known as the Rand Refinery, was established in Germiston. After that, Germiston experienced phenomenal growth and development. The growth of industry and mining turned it into a boom town. Naturally, all this wealth was based on the exploitation of the black working class that lived and worked in appalling conditions. But for the whites it was an opportunity to rise, and with a bit of luck, get rich.
Isaac Blank was born into a reasonably well off family. He seems to have lived a fairly happy childhood, free from the want and grinding poverty that was the lot of the black children who surrounded him. Unusually for someone born and bred in that country, Ted was allergic to the sun. But he assured me that it was not always the case. He told me: “When I was young I used to go to the river and stay there all day, swimming and lying around in the sun and would come home as black as charcoal.” But he said the sun later caused a skin irritation. Therefore, he always kept out of the sun and urged us all to follow his example, though without much success.
These scant memories, these faint glimmerings from a long gone past, do not speak of an unhappy childhood. They speak of sun and laughter. The present was carefree and the future looked bright. But there were dark clouds on the horizon and the family later fell on hard times.
Max had a problem: he was too fond of gambling, and as time went on, this became an obsession. In my experience, compulsive gamblers are very often charming people, with a carefree and completely irresponsible outlook on life. When I think of Max Blank I see Mr. Micawber, the colourful character in Dickens’ novel David Copperfield, who gave the famous advice: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
Micawber was always “confidently expecting that something will turn up”, though nothing ever did. This character, as is well known, was a portrait of Charles Dickens’ father, who ended up in the Marshalsea prison for debtors in Bermondsey. Similarly, Max Blank’s obsession with gambling ended in ruin. Max, who still retained a soft Russian accent, took to heavy gambling on the horses every Saturday, while little money went to Adelle for the upkeep of the children. “His mineral’s factory went bust, as he was far too busy with the horses”, stated Rae years later. He had soon spent all the money they had and was deep in debt. The result, as old Micawber predicted, was misery.
Tolstoy’s book Anna Karenina begins with the words:“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That was true of the Blank household. It is easy to imagine the consequences of Max’s gambling. There would have been endless rows about money, tears, pleadings, promises to reform that were immediately broken, and in the end, an inevitable divorce. After a long and apparently happy marriage, this must have been a painful experience for all concerned.
Relations between Max and Adelle, and Max and his children became strained to breaking point. Rae recalled the time when she, Rose and her father were riding to his farm in a horse-drawn carriage. She noticed that the reigns had chafed the horse and it was bleeding. She demanded her father stop the carriage, and chastised him for his cruelty. After her protests, he eventually brought the carriage to a halt, and Rae, who was utterly distraught, ran into a near-by field, sobbing. She never had anything to do with her father after that episode.
It is perhaps significant that the only memory Rae had of her father was of a man who was cruel to a horse. It is often said that daughters are more attached to their fathers whereas sons are closer to their mothers, yet she had no memories of warm affection, embraces or kisses, only of senseless brutality. However, there is absolutely nothing else to suggest that Max Blank was a cruel man. How can we explain this apparent paradox? The memory is highly selective and can play tricks. It is also a very effective filter. With the passing of the years, some memories fade, while others become more vivid. This process of selection is not accidental.
The father of Stalin was written out of history by his official biographers. The fading of that particular memory was certainly no accident. There is ample evidence from people who knew the family to indicate that the drunken shoemaker had a vicious streak and subjected his son to savage beatings. But nobody, including Rae, ever suggested that Max was cruel to his wife or children, except in one thing: that by his irresponsible behaviour he wrecked the marriage and the family. For an adolescent girl, that would have been unforgivable and deeply hurtful.
Zena and Rae, Ted’s sisters
Who knows what really happened on the day that remained so vividly in her memory all her life? The marriage was disintegrating, and probably also the character of her father. When an irresponsible person is forced to come face to face with reality, everything falls to pieces. On that day evidently Max was either taking out his anger and frustration on a poor animal, or else simply too absorbed in his own problems to worry about anything. Rae’s sense of shock was not only a reaction to the suffering of the horse. In effect, she was saying to her father: “How could you be so cruel to me, to my mother, to all of us?”
Her estranged feelings towards him even went as far as refusing to attend his funeral, but she was persuaded to go reluctantly by her mother-in-law. In a similar way, Rose also took a dislike to him. It was a troubled relationship that overshadowed the whole family.
At this point the colourful but ruinous Max Blank disappears from the narrative. I have no idea what became of him. To what extent did his father influence Isaac’s character? Ted was certainly not a racing addict, but he was very fond of a little “flutter” on the horses, and a frequent visitor to the betting shop. In any case, Ted rarely spoke about him. But he talked affectionately about his mother: “She was a very gentle woman who was very lenient on me—a bit too lenient,” Ted recalled wistfully.
Eventually, Adelle remarried and had another daughter, Anita (known to the family as Nita). When they grew up, Nita left South Africa for a new life in California, while Rae moved to Paris and got married. Only Isy, Rose and Zena remained in Johannesburg. It was Isy who took over the family store with the help of Rose, who died of a heart attack in 1968. Poor Adelle had a tragic end, as we shall see.
We do not know what effect this family crisis had on young Isaac, but it is perhaps significant that he stayed with his father for a six-month period after the divorce, after which he went to live permanently with his mother. This suggests there may have been a tussle over the custody of the children. At any rate, such events can leave deep scars on young minds. Rae was certainly bitterly critical of her father. It may be that this family turmoil had the effect of making the young Isaac think more critically about life in general. But this is only a hypothesis.
The family now found itself in straitened circumstances. But Ted’s mother must have been a very strong and determined woman. In order to earn a living, she had established and ran a small general-store-come-grocery shop in Johannesburg, where the children also helped out from time to time. In the meantime, Ted was sent off to boarding school and his sisters to the convent to continue their education.
Ted was a bright pupil, as were the girls, and he had a sharp and inquisitive mind. Ted told me that he had rejected religion at a very young age. He related a conversation he had with a teacher at school who was explaining the first Book of Genesis, quoting the famous opening verse of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth.” Isaac asked him: “And who created God?” His interlocutor was at a loss for an answer. This persuaded the youngster that perhaps the Bible did not have the answer at all. He began to look elsewhere for explanations. This search after the truth took him straight to Marxism.
In his youth Ted could speak Afrikaans, the language of the Afrikaaners, which was originally a dialect of Dutch. He had unfortunately forgotten how to speak it, but sometimes when we had meetings in Holland and Belgium he could understand the odd word or phrase of Dutch. But other things he did remember. He could sing the Italian Red Flag, Bandiera Rossa, in Zulu. Often at socials he would also sing in Xhosa Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika (Lord Bless Africa), the beautiful and haunting song of the African Liberation Movement, parts of which have now been integrated into the National Anthem of South Africa:
Nkosi Sikeleli Africa
Malup hakanyiswu phando lwayo
Yiswa imithanda zo yethu
All this shows that South Africa was always present in the depths of his mind. When he visited me in Spain for the first congress of the newly established Spanish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International in 1976, he said the peaches reminded him of his childhood and he looked quite wistful. He told me more than once that he would have liked to go back, just once before he died. But he never did.
This is the sum total of all I managed to glean from Ted about his childhood in South Africa. When he ceased to be Isaac Blank and became Ted Grant, he turned into a thoroughbred Englishman. And yet deep down I believe he retained a special affection for the land where he was born. How much of South Africa remained in his consciousness it is hard to say. But that a small piece of it remained lodged in his heart to the end, I am quite sure.
The early years
As a young boy in South Africa, Ted became a Marxist. I asked him how he became interested in Marxism. He told me that he was first aroused to political life by the treatment of the black servants: “You have no idea how badly the black workers were treated,” he said. “They were called ‘kaffirs’.” He described how the poor blacks lived in shacks without basic amenities and lived mainly on corn on the cob, or as they say in South Africa, mealies (which he pronounced millies).
An interesting insight into Ted’s thinking on this subject was a conversation I once had with him about the Boer War. I pointed out to him that Trotsky had supported the Boers against the British. To this he replied simply: “That is because he did not know how they treated the blacks. It was really a kind of slavery,” he continued. “In reality the blacks were enslaved to the whites collectively. You cannot imagine anything worse than that. The whites would even address an old black man as ‘Boy’.” (He pronounced this word imitating a strong Afrikaans accent which he invested with a kind of menacing snarl).
The memory of these first stirrings of political awareness stayed with Ted for the rest of his life. He had a deeply ingrained sense of injustice and a burning hatred of all kinds of discrimination and oppression. He felt a powerful identity with oppressed people of all kinds. This was an important part of his psychological make-up. For some Marxists, the fight against oppression is only an abstract idea, but for Ted Grant it was deeply felt with every fibre of his being. It was this that made him embrace the revolutionary cause, heart and soul. But to determine what concrete form these first, vague, embryonic feelings of revolt would take required a catalyst.
This took human form in another remarkable man, Ralph Lee. Ted’s acquaintance with Ralph Lee was the result of a fortunate accident. Lee had been a veteran member of the South African Communist Party (CPSA), which he is said to have joined at the time of the 1922 Rand Revolt. But by the time Ted joined the movement, the Communist International was in a ferment of change. These were the years when the Stalinist bureaucracy was consolidating its hold on power in the USSR.
A group of militants in the South African Communist Party opposed Stalinism and moved towards Trotskyism (Bolshevism-Leninism). Lee had come into contact with the movement by chance, when he picked up material from the American Trotskyists, the Communist League of America, led by James Cannon, in a bookshop in Johannesburg, including Trotsky’s Critique of the Draft Programme of the Comintern.
Together with Murray Gow Purdy, Lee formed a small Trotskyist group that attempted to do work in and around the CPSA in Johannesburg and the Rand. Their main contacts were with the sizeable Lithuanian Jewish community in which the CPSA had deep roots. This was the community from which Lee himself came; his name is an Anglicisation of what was originally Raphael Levy. A Jewish Workers’ Club set up under Stalinist influence in 1931 was a major base of Communist activity.
In the early 1930s, Ted’s family decided to move from Germiston to Klerk Street in Johannesburg, near the family grocery store. The large house was owned by Ted’s uncle George, who had made money from mining, and who also shared the house with them. Being short of money after the breakup of her marriage, Ted’s mother was obliged to take in lodgers. In one of those strange coincidences in which history is so rich, one of those lodgers happened to be a friend of the family, Ralph Lee. They all stayed in this large house, including uncle George and Ted’s grandmother, who never managed to learn English, and spoke only her native French. The three lodgers slept in separate rooms in the courtyard adjacent to the main building.
As a good Communist, Ralph was always on the lookout for potential contacts, and engaged in discussions with the two boys living next door. The neighbours were of Scottish descent, Ted remembered. But while Ralph had a certain influence over them, he failed to recruit them to the cause. Through regular discussions, he managed to win over Ted’s younger sister Zena to Marxism, but he failed with Rae. “The house was always full of people”, remembers Rae. “There were all of us, with our friends, then Ralph and Ted with their acquaintances, and the lodgers. Frequently, we all sat around a huge dining table, and were fed by my mother. French stew seemed to be the favourite dish, I recall.”
The new lodger also took a keen interest in young Isaac (as he was still called then), and played an enormous role in Ted’s early political development. The young lad was curious about politics and they discussed political questions and literature endlessly. At the age of 14, Isaac’s eyes were opened to a whole new world of ideas through the writings of Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Maxim Gorky, Jack London, and later, Marx, Engels and Lenin. Ted told me he had started to read Capital when he was 14. This marked the beginning of a lifelong passion for Marxist theory. By the time he was 15, Isaac was a confirmed Marxist. Under Lee’s influence he joined the CPSA.
After Ted finished boarding school at age 15, he left school and got a job in a shipping company chasing up invoices, which gave him plenty of time to read. “My early vivid recollections of Ted”, remarked Rae, “was him dashing about on his bike.” She believed this must have been a large part of his job.
Still only in his early twenties, Ralph Lee was also closely associated with another young Trotskyist, Murray Gow Purdy, who in turn had been a pupil of the very first South African Trotskyist, Frank Glass—a founding member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA). Glass and his wife, Fanny Klennerman, had established a left-wing bookshop in Von Brandis Street, in downtown Johannesburg, called Vanguard Booksellers, and it was here that they picked up their first copy of the American Militant. Frank Glass was eventually expelled from the CPSA. Ted later paid tribute to the important role played by James Cannon and the American Trotskyists in spreading Trotsky’s ideas during this period, despite the serious disagreements he later had with Cannon.
Ralph Lee knew Glass from his days in the CPSA and used to send Isaac to buy copies of The Militant, the newspaper of the American Trotskyists, from Vanguard Booksellers. Soon, the young enthusiast was buying his own copy from the shop. Many years later, in an interview, Glass recalled a young schoolboy, presumably Ted, religiously coming to his shop to buy copies of the Trotskyist paper. Like many others, Glass left South Africa for greater opportunities elsewhere. He ended up in China in 1930 where he played a pivotal role among the Chinese Trotskyists, and later in the United States.
Eventually, Ralph’s political activities began to worry Ted’s mother, who was concerned that these revolutionary views would get her children into deep trouble. Lee, being out of work, also failed to pay the rent, and ended up owing Ted’s mother a great deal of money. This added to her growing resentment against him. Eventually, Ralph moved out of the lodgings and befriended a young left-wing girl called Millie Kahn. Before she died, Rob Sewell interviewed her, and I quote below from his unpublished notes of this interview.
Millie Kahn (bottom left) on one of her trips
Like so many of the Jewish community in Johannesburg who had escaped from the pogroms in Eastern Europe, Millie came from a political family. Her mother was a close friend of Fanny Klennerman, who had been expelled from the CP for Trotskyist sympathies. Fanny succeeded in winning Millie over in support of the Russian Revolution and Trotsky. While Millie ended up becoming a Trotskyist, her sister Hilda joined the Stalinist CPSA. They never spoke to each other after that.
A dedicated revolutionary, Millie brought her considerable organisational abilities and skills to bear in these interventions. It was these abilities that were later put to enormous use in the building of the Trotskyist movement in Britain. She provided the consistent organisational drive in the leadership that was to last until the breakup of the Revolutionary Communist Party in mid 1949.
Millie came across Ralph Lee, who was several years older, in the Marxist discussion groups that he had organised in Johannesburg. After that their personal relationship blossomed. “He swept me off my feet”, said Millie 70 years later. She remembered Ralph as a very tall, thin, handsome man. This can be seen from the few existing pictures of him. He was certainly a colourful and charismatic figure. While in the Communist Party, he had been involved in cat-burglaries and other such revolutionary adventures on behalf of the movement. Millie brought in an income to keep them both by working for her mother’s millinery business, while Ralph concentrated full-time on the revolutionary struggle.
“He was an avid reader. He used to sleep all day and read all night. He never worked”, remarked Millie with a chuckle. “He never wanted to.” They moved around a lot, forced from one place to another, but then settled—at least for a while—in a place, more of a shack, next to the Laundry Workers’ Union headquarters in Johannesburg. (Rob Sewell, Interview with Millie Kahn, January 19, 2002, unpublished, Ted Grant Archive).
Millie was a very adventurous and independent-minded woman, and in her youth, despite being warned by her parents, took boat trips alone, “hopping” from one place to another along the Cape coast. There is a photo of Millie in 1929 on such a trip. Millie and Ralph’s revolutionary friendship soon resulted in them living together and then getting married. Ted acted as best man at the marriage ceremony, so this must have been sometime in 1933, a year before he left for England.
Ted came to the decision to leave home for political reasons, and moved in with Ralph some time in 1932. He did this without informing the family. He simply left one morning. The family had no idea where he had gone. Even many years later, his sister Rae was under the impression he had gone straight to England, but in fact he had stayed in Johannesburg for two years before going to London in the autumn of 1934. As you could expect, his mother was utterly distraught when Isaac left home. But he thought this was for the best. His mind was made up. He would dedicate his life to the revolutionary movement.
The black working class
Very early on Ted saw the enormous revolutionary potential of the black proletariat. This stayed with him for the rest of his life. I remember in the 1980s with what tremendous enthusiasm he greeted the heroic movement of the black South African workers organised in the COSATU trade unions fighting against the monstrous Apartheid regime. However, Ted had a very realistic view of the black workers and the working class in general. He never had the kind of superstitious awe that was characteristic of middle class white intellectuals, who often begin with an abstract and idealised view of the workers, only to desert the movement and return to their own class as soon as they get tired of it. How often have we seen this phenomenon—and not only in South Africa!
Ted did not approach the working class in an idealistic or sentimental way. He described how on weekends they would go to places called shabeens and drink the potent liquor known as skokeean, and often end in drunken brawls. Ted recalled that it was a common tactic used in fights in the shabeens for someone to shout out “No kicking!” while lashing out with his boots. He used this as a graphic and amusing analogy to those on the Left who, while acting in a very aggressive way to their political opponents, are very thin-skinned whenever anybody criticises them.
He saw the black workers not as poor oppressed people who needed a helping hand from the white middle class, but as comrades in a common struggle. He was a true internationalist, completely devoid of any hint of patronising condescension. His indignation was directed against the system that generated exploitation and oppression in all its forms. He stood, not for petty reforms of an inherently unjust system, but for its revolutionary overthrow. To that end, he sought to help the black workers to get organized, starting with the most basic unit of proletarian organization: the trade union.
Apart from Isaac, Ralph Lee’s group consisted of Purdy, Millie Kahn, Raymond Lake, John Saperstein, Max Basch, Ted’s sister Zena Blank, and not much more. It was just a handful of people, but they had big ideas. In April 1934, they constituted themselves as the Bolshevik-Leninist League of South Africa. They drew up a policy statement and sent an open letter criticising the Stalinist line of the CPSA. In other words, they threw down the gauntlet to the leadership. This led to their immediate expulsion.
To conduct revolutionary work under such conditions must have taken some guts. They had to face not only the opposition of the state but also the hooligan tactics of the Stalinists, who did not hesitate to use violence against the “Trotsky-fascists”, breaking up meetings, beating people up and so on. The League attempted to establish contact with the International Communist League. They worked mainly in the Johannesburg area, although they also established contacts in other urban centres. They established links with another newly founded Trotskyist group in Cape Town. Both groups were to shortly fuse into one single Trotskyist organisation, called the Workers’ Party of South Africa.
The committee of the African Laundry Workers’ Union, with Murray Gow Purdy (middle)
In June 1934, Purdy had become Organising Secretary of a revived African Laundry Workers’ Union. In an attempt to build a base amongst the black working class, the group turned its whole attention to this work. This was the first practical initiative aimed at recovering the field of black trade union work, which the Stalinists had first wrecked and then abandoned.
The work in Johannesburg was not confined to the organising of trade unions. There were branch meetings, classes, open air public meetings, and so on. Under the most difficult conditions, and in complete isolation, they managed to pull together an initial nucleus. The small but determined group attempted to organize the black workers and played an important role in the garment workers’ strike.
With the turn to this trade union work, Ralph and Millie had moved into a shack next to the union headquarters, and began to raise funds for the union. “We lived next to the union offices”, Millie recalled. “Sure, it was damned uncomfortable, but what did we care? They used to hold the union meetings in our back yard. We tried to raise money in various ways. I remember we collected bottles, cut off the tops, and then painted them. Ralph was pretty good at art. But otherwise it was a dud financially.” (Rob Sewell, Interview with Millie Kahn)
Within a matter of months, and after a successful recruiting drive, a strike took place towards the end of August, which resulted in the union winning recognition at a number of firms. Millie recalls bravely marching with the black strikers through the centre of Johannesburg. “I was on my own as the other comrades were away, I believe, and I got quite a lot of abuse and taunts from people shouting from the buildings. But we remained defiant.” (Ibid.)
Ian Hunter described the circumstances of the strike:
The new union soon faced a severe test, a test, moreover, precipitated at a time when Lee was away visiting contacts in Durban. Negotiations to establish union recognition, overtime and weekly pay ran into an impasse. On 28 August a confrontation took place at the Reliance, one of the largest laundries. The employers presented an ultimatum, accept their terms, or leave. The 90 black union members walked out. The next day they returned with Purdy, which resulted in the union giving its own ultimatum to all three of the largest plants, the Reliance, the New York and the International. The expiry date passed, and on 6 September a further 90 members at the other two establishments left work. A strike procession the next day led to Purdy’s arrest on a charge of inciting disorder, a ploy frequently employed by the authorities against political and industrial challenges. Millie Kahn [Millie Lee], as she then was, has described how she walked with the black laundry workers through a gauntlet of abuse from white women. The corrugated iron dwelling which was home to Lee and Kahn became the strike headquarters.
Tactical problems abounded. Any strike action by natives faced the threat of action by the authorities on any number of pretexts. Purdy attempted to minimise the opportunities for intervention by making great play of “peaceful tactics”, and refraining from the use of pickets. He was criticised by the Communists on both accounts for not being sufficiently aggressive. Even the one processional rally which was held had nevertheless led to confrontation with the authorities. On the other hand, the Communist Party was to some degree more conciliatory than might have been expected. Despite criticising Purdy’s leadership, the CP publicly offered support and assistance. The IKAKA Labour Defence even contributed to Purdy’s bail. Nevertheless, the Stalinists were kept at arms’ length, their motives being rightly questioned, and the only organisational help sought was from the Trades and Labour Council (the South African TUC), which involved fewer strings.
On 6 September the Johannesburg Star reported an apparent breakthrough, with all three main plants conceding union recognition, and two offering in addition the 2/6d pay rise necessary to translate monthly pay to a four weekly cycle. Would that things had been so simple! In reality the concession of union recognition was only tacit and not formal. Formal recognition was still demanded, yet barely 50 per cent of the New York and International workers were supporting the Reliance. Worse still, no help was forthcoming from the Rand Steam plant, and Leonardo’s were bought off. Meanwhile, replacements were beginning to be found even for the skilled ironers. Seventy-three of the Reliance strikers now found themselves arrested for criminal breach of contract. Prosecutions were started at the other plants as well. The focus of attention now shifted to what had suddenly become a test case for master and servant legislation.
One of the strikers, Oscar Maboa, who had been at the centre of the altercation which had led to the initial walkout, was taken as a test case on 20 September. He was acquitted, but only on the grounds that certain of the manager’s comments could have been construed as dismissal. Acquitted of the charge of illegal strike, the 73 thus found themselves sacked. This was a pyrrhic victory with a vengeance. Almost all of the strikers at all three firms had already had their jobs taken by replacements. The Stalinist organ Umsebenzi was not slow to lay this all at Purdy’s feet. (Ian Hunter, Raff Lee and the Pioneer Trotskyists of Johannesburg, Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no. 4)
In spite of the outcome and repression, this strike nevertheless represented a historic struggle and a landmark in the history of the black South African working class. If nothing else, the struggle of the Laundry Workers’ Union left behind an important tradition of militancy and organisation.
Workers’ Party of South Africa
The group had some success in setting up new branches, particularly in Alexandra Township (a black township on the northern tip of Johannesburg), but in general, the objective conditions for revolutionary work in South Africa were extremely difficult. The recruiting of members was a painfully slow and laborious business. The difficulties gave rise to frustrations that were reflected in internal problems in the group. The outlook was far from promising.
The members of the group were beginning to reevaluate their work and perspectives, drawing far-reaching conclusions. With world war looming, they decided that their energies would be better employed in Europe. Not long after the laundry workers’ strike, two of the younger members of the group, Max Basch and Isaac Blank, decided to make the break. Given the Commonwealth connections that provided easy access and no language barrier, Britain was the obvious place to go. Britain was also one of the key countries of world imperialism and had a correspondingly strong working class, where energetic young comrades could sink deep roots.
Ralph and Millie in Johannesburg, 1936
They left Johannesburg for Cape Town, where they stayed with the Cape Trotskyists whilst waiting for a convenient ship to Europe. It was here that the man who became known as Ted Grant made his first-ever public speech, a report of the events of the laundry strike, at an open air street meeting organized by the Cape Town Lenin Club outside the Castle Street Post Office. “I didn’t speak too well”, recalled Ted much later, with a laugh. It was his last political act on South African soil and the beginning of a new stage in his life. Soon afterwards he and his comrade Max Basch would set sail for Europe, leaving South Africa behind forever.
Those who remained behind faced enormous problems. The difficulties are alluded to in the correspondence of the time. “The caretaker in the tenement where Mil and I live”, wrote Ralph Lee to Paul Koston, an American Trotskyist who helped head the organisation in Cape Town, “has objected to the ‘Kaffirs’ who visit our room. We have been déclassé for a long time with our neighbours, the usual riff-raff of billiard room rats, odd jobs gentlemen, canvassers, taxi drivers and trollops that inhabit ‘buildings’. So now we pack up and move again.” (Lee to Koston, 12 April 1935).
To add to the difficulties there were conflicts inside the organization. Purdy was an adventurer and somewhat unstable. He clashed repeatedly with Lee. On 12 April, 1935, Lee wrote to Koston, then the secretary of the WPSA: “Our personal relations are now strained to the utmost. The way he glowers openly at me during branch meetings is ludicrous, and we can hardly exchange a civil word, let alone discuss any questions.”
These debilitating internal conflicts added to the difficulties of a small isolated group. On 17 May, Lee wrote again to Koston:
I feel quite despondent at this moment about the immediate prospects of the International and the Workers’ Party of South Africa (…). Our immediate pressing task is to discover links with the masses of workers.
Finally, on 9 June, 1935, Lee wrote to Koston in despairing terms: “party affairs are in a hell of a mess here.”
Eventually, Purdy was expelled and the group reorganised on a healthier basis. Purdy later went to India, where he advocated a line that placed heavy emphasis on the question of caste, rather than class, as the main issue—a line that Ted completely rejected. In the end, Ralph and Millie, together with a small group of comrades, decided to follow the others to London.