The Radical Historian

Martin Legassick (1940-2016) was key to revisionist tradition among South African historians that made connections between apartheid and post-war capitalism.

Fees Must Fall demonstrators. Photo: Barry Christianson.

Until the 1970s, South African historiography – on elite, white English-speaking campuses – was dominated by liberal historians. These historians traced South Africa’s history of racism to the frontier settled by Dutch descendants, refusing any links to British imperialism, even as they had begun to integrate Africans into their histories. A group of mostly young, white and radical South African historians based in Britain broke this hold by the liberals on the academy and historical analysis.

Known as revisionists, these historians questioned the assumption that modern South African racism constituted a hangover from the frontier encounter of the Boers with Bantu-speaking peoples. They offered a materialist analysis. In their work, they linked the rise of segregation and formalized state racism to the “mineral revolution” of the late 19th century, the penetration of Southern Africa by British capital and imperialism and the accompanying growth of the migrant labor system. Post-1948 apartheid, they insisted, was an adaptation and refinement of previous patterns of racial segregation rooted in the migrant labor system. The revisionists made connections between apartheid and post-war capitalism, in the process offering an alternative to the liberal faith that economic development would erode racial domination.

One of the most important of these revisionist historians was Martin Legassick, a former Rhodes scholar who did his PhD at UCLA with the pre-eminent liberal South African scholar, Leonard Thompson. By the 1970s, he was back teaching in the UK (he couldn’t return to South Africa because of his anti-apartheid activity). At the end of February this year, Legassick passed away in Cape Town.

I first met Martin when I travelled to South Africa in 2000 to serve as a Fulbright scholar at the University of the Western Cape. At UWC, I was assigned to co-convene a post-graduate seminar on comparative US and South African history with Martin and Mohamed Adhikari, a historian of colonial and early 19th-century Cape Town. Sixteen years later, my understanding of South Africa’s past remains deeply imprinted with Martin’s approach, theoretical framework and political commitments – all quite inseparable as anyone who knew him will attest.

Martin had an ability to conjoin rigorous scholarship with full political engagement. In the time I was at UWC, Martin placed his forensic research skills at the service of dispossessed people in the Northern Cape who sought to reclaim land stolen from them by apartheid and colonialism. This, I thought, was exactly what left historians should do with their talents. But Martin’s talent and legacy is much more than after-hours political activism.

My lengthy discussions – and on occasion, disagreements – with Martin, both inside and outside the classroom, forced me to rethink many of my  assumptions about the now ruling ANC, the Communist Party (the SACP), and so-called “two-stage revolution” in South Africa (first nationalism, then socialism). Martin’s political interventions of the 1980s as an exiled activist constituted, in their own way, an important rethinking of the trajectory of the anti-apartheid movement. After our seminars, I often found myself in the library perusing back issues of the journal Martin and his comrades in the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC produced during that crucial era, Inqaba ya Basebenzi [Workers’ Fortress]. In those pages, I found the kernel of the analysis that later made Martin such an astute critic of the post-apartheid order: the need for the political autonomy of a working-class movement.

Those ideas, advanced with great force and clarity in the last decade of his life both in historical scholarship and political activism, made more sense than ever as the ANC consummated its embrace of neoliberalism and crony capitalism. Martin had recognized before many that as a national liberation movement the ANC had long privileged a rising bourgeoisie over the liberation of the Black working class. Moreover, as a dedicated Trotskyist, he had always rejected the Communist Party’s insistence on the subordination of revolutionary trade unions to its infallible leadership – a view shared by many on the anti-Stalinist left. Finally, during the 1980s, Martin and his comrades insisted that an organic workers’ movement inside South Africa – not the SACP from exile or a quixotic armed struggle – would serve as the battering ram against both apartheid and capitalism. His most recent writings on South African labor and socialist history have offered mountains of evidence upholding the possibility of this missed opportunity.

When I first met Martin, all of this translated into a very specific political position: the only hope for the South African working class was a break with the Alliance, and the creation of an independent workers’ movement that could fight for socialism. In 2000 the emergence of an independent trade union movement looked like a very remote possibility. Yet, at the close of Martin’s life that development now looks like a promising prospect. It is a damn shame that Martin will not be here to witness it, to help push it along and to explain it to the rest of us.

On a final note, in November 2000, I conducted an interview with Martin that was published in Radical History Review. The journal and its publishers, Duke University Press, have made review of the interview public at Africa is a Country’s request. It’s worth revisiting. You can access it here.

Further Reading