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Radical History Review 82 (2002) 111-130

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The Past and Present of Marxist Historiography in South Africa

Martin Legassick,
Interviewed by Alex Lichtenstein


Historian Martin Legassick was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1940. In 1947 he and his parents emigrated to South Africa. The following thirteen years were some of the most momentous in modern South African history, as they encompassed the initial consolidation of apartheid under Afrikaner nationalist/National party rule, the formation of the Congress Alliance led by the African National Congress (ANC), and the drafting of the Freedom Charter, the liberation movement's political blueprint for a nonracial society. In 1960, Legassick embarked for Balliol College, Oxford, as a Rhodes scholar. That same year marked a new phase of the struggle against apartheid inside South Africa. Following the Sharpeville massacre and increased state repression of the national liberation movement, the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) turned to sabotage and violence.

Unable to return to South Africa, Legassick took up the study of history as a Ph.D. student at the University of California in Los Angeles, where he wrote his dissertation under the direction of Leonard Thompson, coauthor of The Oxford History of South Africa, the key text of modern South African liberal historiography. 1 The Oxford History marked an important break from some of the liberal orthodoxy in its focus on the indigenous African as opposed to settler European antecedents of modern South Africa. Nevertheless, it adhered to the idea that the roots of twentieth century South African racism were to be found in the frontier experience of Dutch settlers (the Boers) who had trekked out of the Cape Colony in the eighteenth and [End Page 111] nineteenth centuries. Reluctant to link racial domination with British imperialism, capitalist development, and class relations, The Oxford History became an inviting target for an emerging cadre of radical South African historians in the late 1960s and 1970s. 2

Between 1970 and 1981 Legassick taught in the United Kingdom, where he became active in ANC and South African Congress of Trade Union (SACTU) circles centered around the large number of South Africans living in exile in Britain. During this period Legassick and a handful of other South African Marxist scholars living in exile developed a left "revisionist" approach to modern South African history. Brought together by seminars at the Universities of London, Oxford, and Sussex, scholars such as Shula Marks, Stanley Trapido, Anthony Atmore, Harold Wolpe, Legassick, and Frederick Johnstone (a Canadian studying at Oxford) collectively challenged the liberal historiographic tradition in which many of them had been trained. 3

The revisionists advanced several key propositions. First, they effectively demolished the assumption that modern South African racism constituted a hangover from the frontier encounter of the Boers with Bantu-speaking peoples. 4 Second, they linked the rise of segregation and formalized state racism to the "mineral revolution" of the late nineteenth century, the penetration of southern Africa by British capital and imperialism, and the accompanying growth of the migrant labor system. 5 Finally, revisionist scholars argued that apartheid as it emerged after 1948 was an adaptation and refinement of previous patterns of racial segregation made necessary by the economic collapse of the native reserves that had sustained the cheap labor system of migrancy during an earlier stage of South African capitalism. 6 Arguing for a basic compatibility of apartheid and postwar capitalism, the revisionists offered an alternative to the liberal faith that economic development would erode racial domination.

Legassick did not limit himself to a critique of South African liberalism. In 1979, he became a founding member of the Marxist Workers' Tendency of the ANC. This group of exiled trade unionists and intellectuals developed a Trotskyist polemic against the ANC's approach to black trade unionism and the SACP's strategy of a "two-stage" revolution, which sought national liberation prior to the transition to socialism. In response to this internal critique, the ANC suspended four of the initial members of the Marxist Workers' Tendency, including Legassick, Paula Ensor, David Hemson...


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pp. 111-130
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Archived 2004
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