The International Socialist League: laying the foundations

The International Socialist League: laying the foundationsCompiled by Warren McGregor (TAAC, ZACF)

What was the ISL and what were its aims?

The International Socialist League (ISL) was a revolutionary syndicalist political organisation founded in Johannesburg in 1915. Many founders were militants who had broken from the South African Labour Party (SALP) over its support for the British Imperial war effort in World War I. They were opposed to capitalist war and imperialism.

The ISL aimed to organise “One Big Union” of the entire South African working class to fight for the overthrow of capitalism and the taking over of society by the working class, for the working class.

What did the ISL say about race?

Key to this project in the South African context was the breaking of the racial divisions within the working class. This required raising the specific demands of black workers for equality with white workers, in order to practically unite all workers and to enable them to work together toward “their common emancipation from wage slavery.”

The ISL consistently condemned racism, and insisted that “an internationalism which does not concede the fullest rights which the native working-class is capable of claiming will be a sham.”

What did the ISL actually do?

It disseminated this message through innumerable leaflets and public meetings. It even stood of candidates in state elections for propaganda, running on a platform of equal rights for white and black, and the abolition of capitalism and the state through the One Big Union. The ISL also had a weekly newspaper called The International. It was active in the main cities – except Cape Town.

ISL unions and organising

The ISL was also able to unionise workers of colour into syndicalist unions on the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) model. The first was the Indian Workers’ Industrial Union (IWIU), launched in Durban in March 1917. In Johannesburg in July 1917 a study group for black African workers was set up. At the end of September the same year this became the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA), the first black trade union in South Africa’s history. Later it spread to Cape Town.

In 1919 the ISL’s Kimberley branch established the Clothing Workers’ Industrial Union (CWIU) and the Horse Drivers’ Union. The CWIU also spread to other cities. These unions had hundreds of members. Many joined the ISL.

Cautious alliances

Last, ISL and IWA members worked with (and in) other opposition groups, including the South African Native National Congress (now the African National Congress, or ANC), against racist laws. But it never trusted the ANC or set up a formal alliance with it. It said the ANC leaders represented the interests of the black elite above all else.

ISL contributors: Abram, Anathi, Bongani, Eric, Jonathan, Leila, Lekhetho,
Lucky, Mzee, Pitso, Siya, Nonzukiso, Nobuhle, Warren