The “ Lee Affair” is among the more unattractive aspects of the history of the Trotskyist movement in Britain. The affair is described in some detail by Richardson & Bornstein in their work on the history of Trotskyism in Britain. In brief, Ralph (“Raff”) Lee, together with other Trotskyists previously active in South Africa, travelled to London and established contact with Trotskyists there. After a little time, rumours were circulated to the effect that Lee had been guilty of misappropriating strike funds. The leadership of the Militant Group does not appear to have acted decisively on these rumours and they were allowed to play a part in factional differences that eventually damaged the group. When the matter was, belatedly, brought into the open, Lee’s former comrades in South Africa rallied to his defence. The letters below were sent from the South African section to London. They were made available to Revolutionary History by Baruch Hirson in connection with his work on Vol.4 No.4, Spring 1993, Colour & Class: The Origins of South African Trotskyism, where more information on Lee’s work in South Africa can be found.
A few minor typographical errors have been amended here but no attempt has been made to ̶ correct” the individual style of the writers.
Two letters from the South African Trotskyists on the “ Lee Affair”
1. Sapira (for the WPSA) to Militant Group
W.P.S.A. Johannesburg Section
I have been deputed by the W.P.S.A. (Johannesburg Section) as secretary of this organisation to communicate with you in connection with the recent events which took place in your group, in which a former member of our party, comrade RL figured prominently. As the W.P. is a section affiliated to the IS of the IV International, we have no doubt that this letter will receive due consideration by you.
The facts of the trouble first came to our knowledge via hearsay rumours and garbled partially concealed reports, and only recently did we become acquainted with the more important details. Should we make any factual misstatements as to things said and done in your group, we will readily accept your correction. But as to factual events which took place here our remarks will be confined within the realm of absolute authenticity and scrupulous exactness.
The background of the trouble appears to be a certain communication received by a member of your EC, CVG, from his brother in Capetown, HVG, in which the latter stated that someone in Johannesburg charged com RL with stealing trade union funds and absconding while the strike was in progress. Although comrade RL was at a later date absolved of these crimes, among the worst a revolutionary can commit, nevertheless these accusations laid the basis for subsequent action on the part of your group, which action is to be utterly condemned. In mitigation we can only surmise that your action was due to ignorance of the political character of the various South African groups and organisations, particularly those of Johannesburg. We have discovered that your group made contact with one, F. Klenerman here in Johannesburg, and asked her for a statement as to com. RL’s past political record. We are astonished at such a step. Since com. RL was a member of our party and the founder of the African Metal Trades Union, which facts if you did not know you could have ascertained from the IS, why were we not approached as to his former record, since unquestionably we are in the best position to provide an accurate account of his past activity?
It is impossible for us to conceal our disgust at this action on your part. You approach F.Klenerman who refused to collect money for the strikers of the trade union during the strike last year, who is not a Trotskyist, and who, while claiming adherence to the IV International in words violates some of its fundamental principles in deeds, as to the past record of a comrade who has always openly declared himself to be a Trotskyist, and who in all his activity has endeavoured rigidly to conform to Marxist-Leninist principle and practice!
We will proceed to substantiate our statements, firstly as regards F. Klenerman. When the International Workers Club was formed here in Johannesburg a proposal was mooted that the constitution should include a clause stating that the club based itself on the revolutionary principles of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. An amendment was moved that the name Trotsky be omitted. This was supported by F. Klenerman but strongly opposed by com. RL and others. The amendment was carried and the germ of the split was born there and then. In addition F. Klenerman for a considerable period occupied an official position in the League Against Fascism and War, a typical Stalinist anti-fascist organisation, forerunner of the Comintern’s Peoples Front policy. And this is the type of political upstart to whom you wrote for information regarding revolutionaries?
For an understanding of com. RL’s political behaviour, it is only necessary to recount the strike of our trade union in February and March last year. I will refer to other activity but the strike is our primary concern. The African Metal Trades Union came into being on 15th January 1937. I am not quoting from memory – I drafted a detailed report of the strike immediately after its conclusion to which I am concerning. A number of native steel workers from the Skaw works requested the W.P. to form a union, and the party instructed com.RL to attend to the task. The union was formed com. RL was appointed secretary by the members and in an inaugural address he stressed the importance of getting all the steel workers on the Rand to join the Union. He also outlined generally the nature of trade union activity, the demands which would be made to the factory owners, and how these demands would be forced from them should peaceful negotiations fail. Within two weeks 150 African workers from the Scaw works joined the union.
That the workers were in an angry and impetuous mood was clear. On the 12th Feb com. RL was instructed by the union to place demands for higher wages, one and a quarter pay for overtime, recognition of the trade union and others before their bosses. This he immediately did but the employers refused to concede a single demand, and retaliated by dismissing a number of workers a few days later. Thoroughly aroused the workers called a general meeting on the 21st February to discuss strike measures. Com.RL addressed the meeting at great length stressing the inadvisability of a strike at this juncture for many reasons, as for example the strike would be isolated and would get no support from other steel works, all the members of the trade union belonging to the Scaw works. The workers however disregarded his exhortations and voted unanimously by a secret ballot for a strike. This placed the strike upon the order of the day. How far from the truth was the disgusting accusation by the Stalinist epigones to the effect that com. RL and the Trotskyists generally engineered the strike knowing full well that it would be defeated, in pursuance of the usual Trotskyist course in sabotaging workers struggle! We were gainst the strike but once the workers voted for it our task was to join them openly and to strive energetically to force the hands of the employers.
On the morning of February 23rd the workers came out led by com. RL, they marched to strike headquarters, and elected a strike committee. The committee instructed him to approach other working class organisations for help, and to ask the Amalgamated Engineering Union to call out the European workers in sympathy with the African workers. The following day we received the unpleasant news that the strikers had been replaced by scabs and that the European workers were training these scabs. We demanded of the AEU that they instruct their members to cease this, but they did nothing, thereby dealing us a severe blow. There was still however a chance of the bosses giving in as they were suffering severe financial losses.
Funds were very low. The union had £12 in hand and from sympathisers we collected about £13. Yet in wages, rent and for food and defence of arrested comrades, the W.P. paid out to the strikers nearly £150! Most of this came from the wages and salaries of our handful of members. We state categorically that the accusation of stealing trade union funds made against com. RL is a deliberate fabrication. I was the union treasurer at the time and have a compete record of all income and expenditure of the strike and could have supplied you with same had you written to the trade union when you first heard of this slander.
Within a week it began to dawn on the strikers that this strike had no hope of success. The employers retaliated by calling in the aid of the police and 16 strikers were arrested, but 14 were released. The WP engaged a competent advocate to defend the other two and paid the fine of the one found guilty. Some ten days after the strike commenced the committee officially announced its defeat. About half the strikers were taken back at Scaw works, and the WP, principally com. RL, helped the majority of the others to obtain employment. By the end of March the strike was almost forgotten by all except the participants. Yet it was well known that com. RL only left Johannesburg three months later in June! We hope that this disposes of the other slanderous charges levelled against him.
Com. RL worked tirelessly during the strike, performing a score of tasks, approaching other organisations, collecting funds and even selling his few possessions to do so. These facts are easily ascertainable every member of the trade union having been acquainted with them.
As to other past activity of his, he has for many years revealed himself to be a marxist of extraordinary theoretical ability – his antagonists grudgingly concede this – and he proved in the strike that his ability was not confined to the realm of theory.
He helped to organise the Bantu Laundry Workers Union, which came out on strike in 1934, The strike was defeated and he has been blamed for the defeat. those who resort to falsification should however possess better memories. When the strike broke out he was in Durban, some 500 miles away from here, although he returned when he heard the news. The strike was led by one, M. Purdy, who was at that time Secretary of the Laundry Workers Union. The fact that Purdy was arrested during the strike and charged with inciting public violence, is ample evidence for this point.
When the Johannesburg section of the Workers Party owing to internal differences disbanded in 1935, while the others folded their arms, com. RL and HK set about immediately forming the organisation anew. Slowly it grew and with its growth its activity increased until in January 12937 it undertook the organisation of the African Hotel Trades Union. The strike had a deleterious effect on the party, reducing our numbers and straining our financial resources to the limit.
Comrade RL had many enemies in this country – as have all genuine revolutionaries in all countries. It is only to be expected. And that these enemies should seize every opportunity to besmirch the past record of a revolutionary by lies, deceit and falsifications innumerable should also occasion no surprise. The disastrous blunder committed by your organisation by allowing itself to be tricked and sidetracked by falsehood and intrigue is utterly indefensible.
The negligent manner in which this whole matter has been handled by responsible members of your group is thoroughly unbecoming a revolutionary organisation and we trust that you will give this communication the widest publicity in an endeavour to clear com. RL’s name of the slanders cast upon him. We also hope that you yourself will regard this communication in a very serious and sober light and will thereby avoid repetition of such catastrophic errors in the future.
For the Fourth International
H. Sapira. Secretary
2. Molefe and other strikers to Militant Group
I am writing to you about the things which is said about com RL, which is absolutely lies. Towards the beginning of January last year, we workers of the Steel Coilings and Aluminium Works Ltd. formed our African Metal Trade Union which so far appointed com RL to be our secretary. Now as our fellow workers were so hasty we were bound to come out on strike. Com RL advised us several times that the best way is to organise more workers as many as possible from other metal works, we found that will be a hard task that will take years, while we were suffering on account of low wages.
So – the committee instructed our secretary, com RL to write our letter of demands to the Manager of the Scaw works.
1. Increase of 25% in wages
All were rejected.
We all signed for strike and on the 23rd February 1937 we gave “one hour” notice to the bosses, and we left the premises patiently at 8.15am. We marched through the town to the hall, and counting the group found that about four workers missing. We put our pickets we found that three left in the premises and one is arrested Comrade RL tried with means to trace which police station our member in, but all in vain, until he was released on NO bail after a week before the magistrate.
Through the strike I was with com RL to see the Trade Labour Council, who took no steps to our requests.
I – with four others go to Scaw works to fetch our parcels others were given and I was handcuffed and driven to the police station. Com RL and Sapire came to bail me out. The sergeant refused. The following morning I was released, as there was no charge laid on me. Two days later arrested six of our strikers but also acquitted in the same way. Afterwards arrested one man said to be pulling out workers on the day of the strike, com RL and com Sapire took him out also £10 bail. Now two of them appeared in court, one was found guilty £2.10.0 fine, which was paid by com RL and com Sapire “One not guilty” .
During the strike we has enough food cooked by our cooks in the AMT union hall. Each one got an sufficient pay every saturday.
We have collected in January and February of about £16 before the strike starts. The money that did not carry us even a week. All friends both white and black … tried to give us money for food, more especially white comrades collected … of money for strikers including our treasurer comrade Sapire, and coms Hosson, Frieslich, Kahn etc. … Before the end of March the strike continued most of our workers returned back to Scaw works and others got other jobs in different places here in town. During the strike com RL and comrade Sapire worked their duties satisfactorily. Our secretary RL shall never be forgotten in our minds. Even today members our wished him back. Com RL left for England in June when the strike was three months over. Now comrades only lies you have been told there.
Here is some of the comrades who were on strike last and who are quite astonished that comrade RL is in trouble over there. They sign their names that you should not accept such lies there is no such thing here com RL left us in peace. They wished him back again.
1. Mr Cecil.
Updated by ETOL: 28 November 2009