This very short obituary hardly does justice to Baruch. For a longer and more considered view see the piece by his friend and collaborator, Paul Trewhela, in the Independent, 5.10.99. Ian Hunter
Baruch Hirson died in London at 6 a.m. on Sunday, October 3rd aged 77. He was born on 10 December 1921 at Doornfontein near Johannesburg in the Transvaal. He died from the eventual cumulative effects of a long term degenerative paralysis of the bone structure against which he had struggled for many years. His health had undoubtedly been affected by 9 years imprisonment following the 1964 South African treason and sabotage trials. Baruch Hirson was a unique and powerful personality, one of the most original and independent activist commentators on South African affairs in the last 50-60 years. Despite real and increasing problems with mobility he continued to write and talk on problems of South African politics almost to the end.
Hirson was born into the Jewish community on the Rand. Like most of this community, his own forbears had origins in Latvia and Lithuania. The move to South Africa had been an escape from the pogroms, persecution and discrimination suffered by Jews in the old Romanov empire. In one sense it was a new start, new names were adopted and pasts buried, but ideas and ideals lived on. The legacies and traditions, hopes and aspiration of European Marxist social democracy and Zionism were the political fare of this community. But the Hirson household was not a political one, it was frugal lower middle class and saw education as the key to a better future.
Baruch had great mathematical ability and insight. This allowed him to rise through the education system, and later, as lecturer and teacher, to gain and sustain employment that, give his political views, would have been barred him had he been a historian or social scientist. It was the threat and fear of anti-Semitism from the profascist Greyshirts and Great Trek centenary, nationalists in the late 30s that forced Hirson to engage with politics. Hashomer Hatzair, the radical Zionist youth movement provided entry to debates "on socialism and on the problems confronting the left". Here was an introduction to the controversies surrounding Stalin and Trotsky. Fenner Brockway’s book on Spain, Workers Front, made him in his own words “ an anti-Stalinist for life”. In 1943-4 contact with a Trotskyist group provided his first contact with black trade union activists, and gave him a new direction independent of Zionism.
The perspective developed by Hirson was that his “work had to be almost entirely amongst the black working class … that trade unions had to be formed and supported …, that struggles against segregation and for better housing, better education, better transport … had to be supported”. This essentially simple perspective was to underpin all of his future activity. Obviously it led to confrontations with the authorities and he was never free from their attentions from 1944 onwards. But it was also doggedly independent adherence to these principles that led him to penetratingly criticise any and all other black and left activists and thinkers whenever he considered their analyses and tactics lacking in effectiveness. Stalinist elements within the ANC. were a particular target of his wrath when he considered them to be subordinating actual real and immediate imperatives to extraneous Moscow directed, factional or sectional interests.
From 1944-1946 Hirson was the full-time political organiser for the Workers International League, a Trotskyist grouping which promoted the development of black trade unions through the Progressive Trade Union Group. This was one very practical phase of activity. Thereafter the Nationalist Party ascending, the Suppression of Communism Act and the onset of fully institutionalised Apartheid changed the conditions and possibilities for progressive activity on the left dramatically.
After a period within the Non-European Unity Movement Hirson entered the white wing of the Congress Alliance in the late 1950s. From within this he helped organise a new Socialist League of Africa just before the Sharpeville Massacre. The grip of Apartheid continued to tighten and the African National Congress seemed to him to have achieved almost nothing in 10 years. He analysed all of this in his critique 10 Years of the Stay at Home in 1961. (International Socialism, Summer & Autumn 1961)
The bleak context of the early 1960s saw both younger elements within the ANC, ‘Umkhonto we Sizwe’, and Hirson’s group turn to the use of sabotage actions. At the time this seemed necessary to maintain a level of initiative and to deny the Apartheid regime the facade of legitimacy that passive quiescence might have allowed. Hirson’s National Committee for Liberation/African Resistance Movement was actually more technically accomplished than Umkhonto we Sizwe and escaped liquidation for slightly longer. He never, however, ceased self criticism of whether this break from mass organisational work could have been rendered unnecessary if both he and the wider left had been able to seize and use opportunities to challenge Apartheid more effectively in the years before. The ARM was broken in 1964 and Hirson and other leading activists arrested and tried. His sentence, one of the longer ones, was 9 years.
Hirson was imprisoned, moving between Johannesburg Fort, Pretoria Local and Pretoria Central jails, from 1964-1973. On his release he faced a banning order and house arrest so he and his family came into exile in England. From exile he continued to write on developments in South Africa. Year of Fire, Year of Ash, a seminal critique of the 1976 Soweto uprising and of the Black Consciousness movement, was published in 1979. From 1988-1993, in collaboration with other exiles and sympathisers he was the moving force behind the privately published journal Searchlight South Africa which exposed some of the machinations of the South African Communist Party within the exiled ANC resistance movement in Angola. At the same time he was able to research and write effectively on the buried history of the pre and non-Stalinist left in South Africa. Whether it was agreed with or not, everything he wrote was challenging and unable to be ignored. Professor Tom Lodge wrote truly when he said that "from exile Baruch Hirson was to influence many more politically motivated South Africans than he did in the days when he lived in Johannesburg". Many of his questions as to how far the majority of the poor black population would really benefit from the achievement of majority rule alone have still to be answered.