HAROLD WOLPE (1926-1996)
by Professor Henry Bernstein
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Harold Wolpe died in Cape Town on 19 January 1996, five days
after his seventieth birthday and just over a year after the
death of his intimate friend and lifelong comrade Joe Slovo,
one of the most important figures of South African communism.
Harold was an outstanding political
intellectual and human being who contributed much to the cause
of national democracy in South Africa in diverse ways: as
a political thinker and activist, lawyer, social theorist
during nearly 30 years of exile, researcher and strategist
in the area of education and its reform before and after his
return home in 1990.
Harold graduated with a BA in
Social Studies in 1949 and an LLB in 1952 from the University
of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, where he was
President of the Student Representative Council and a leading
activist in the National Union of South African Students.
In his splendid autobiography,
Nelson Mandela recalls the intellectual and political ferment
of Wits at that time, including the influence on him of the
intense discussions with Harold and other young communists
who were to share 'the ups and downs of the liberation struggle'
(Long Walk to Freedom, Randburg: Macdonald Purnell, 1994:
The historical moment was one
marked by the accelerated social change of the war-time and
post-war years, and mass resistance to white minority rule.
The landmark (white) election
of 1948 brought into office the Afrikaner National Party and
its programme of apartheid. The Suppression of Communism Act
(1950) outlawed the Communist Party (CPSA), whose Central
Executive Committee decided by a majority vote to disband
Harold Wolpe was an important
member of the illegal South African Communist Party (SACP)
established in 1953, and of the Congress of Democrats, an
affiliate of the Congress Alliance led by the new militant
ANC of Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo.
In the turbulent political years of the 1950s Harold's legal
work constantly involved him in the defence of political detainees,
alongside his clandestine activity.
The ANC was banned in the state
of emergency declared by the apartheid regime following the
Sharpeville massacre in 1960; Harold was among many political
activists arrested and detained for part of that year.
In 1963 the ANC suffered a devastating
setback when its underground headquarters on a farm at Rivonia
were raided by the police.
Harold was again arrested in
the wake of the Rivonia raid but subsequently escaped from
prison with several other comrades, and went to Britain where
he was joined by his partner AnnMarie Wolpe and their three
young children. These events are grippingly narrated in Anne
Marie's book, The Long Way Home (London: Virago, 1995).
Settling in Britain was difficult
for the Wolpe family, as for many other exiles. Harold now
switched career from the practice of law to the academy as
a sociologist and social theorist.
He was a Nuffield Foundation
Sociological Scholar at the London School of Economics in
1964-65, and after periods at the University of Bradford and
North London Polytechnic (now the University of North London)
joined the Sociology Department of the University of Essex
where he worked until his eventual return to South Africa
In the posthumously published
Unfinished Autobiography (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1996)
Joe Slovo notes that in the period of exile Harold 'made a
stimulating contribution to the development of the theory
of our revolution; a contribution which helped inspire some
of my own forays into theoretical writing' (p32).
In their tribute to Harold Wolpe,
the editors of the South African journal Transformation observed
that 'although his roots were in the communist movement he
assimilated the new wave of Western Marxism and decisively
broke with the SACP analysis which still privileged race in
the analysis of South African capitalism. His significance
[was] in the importance of introducing a new set of conceptual
prisms through which to view the concrete problems of the
The announcement of the seminal
contribution Harold was to make came in his article on 'Capitalism
and Cheap Labour Power in South Africa: From Segregation to
Apartheid' in Economy and Society, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1972.
This reformulated the problematic
of class and class struggle, and its connections with the
different historical moments of codification and practice
of white supremacy, in the framework of shifting conditions
of capital accumulation and the articulation of modes of production.
This was simply the most path
breaking theoretical statement in South African Marxism in
the apartheid period.
In the year of its publication,
mass struggle in South Africa was revived by the (re)emergence
of black worker militancy and the subsequent formation of
independent black trade unionism that was to prove the most
decisive social force in the eventual demise of apartheid.
Harold's (re)insertion of class analysis at the core of national
democratic revolution could not have been more timely.
His later work on education registered
the impact and aftermath of the student-led Soweto uprising
of 1976, another definitive moment of the struggle against
His understanding of both class
and popular struggle was also carried forward in subsequent
work on the state, to help define the contemporary conjuncture
and its contradictions rigorously, to grasp the strategic
and tactical openings they presented to the mass democratic
There was a series of important
contributions including a critique of the 'internal colonialism'
thesis of the SACP; an early recognition and ongoing analysis
of class formation within the black population, and especially
of the black petty bourgeoisie, and its implication for political
strategy; a revisiting and synthesis of years of intense intellectual
labour in his book, Race, Class and the Apartheid State (London:
James Currey, 1988).
Harold's work on education occupied
much of the last ten years of his life. A key member of the
ANC's London Education Committee and its National Education
Council, he was involved in intense debates about, and visits
to, the ANC's Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Morogoro,
Tanzania, where many of the student militants who fled South
Africa after Soweto resumed their schooling.
At the University of Essex he
established a project on Research in Education in South Africa,
and edited two books of papers on educational reform after
Ronald Segal (in The Guardian,
22 January 1996) suggested that this project was 'the single
serious and sustained exercise in the development of policy
for a post-apartheid South Africa undertaken during the many
years of the ANC's legal existence only in exile'.
On his return to South Africa
Harold became the Director of the Education Policy Unit (EPU)
at the University of the Western Cape and chair of the forum
which coordinates the work of five such EPUs at the national
For reasons that are unclear,
but which no doubt relate to the political tensions, frustrations
and rivalries of the transition period from 1990 to 1994 and
to Harold's characteristically independent, critical and rigorous
stance, he was not appointed to the National Commission on
None the less he was a leading
intellectual beacon in its deliberations, and suffered his
fatal heart attack hours after completing the marathon task
of writing the synthesis of the Commission's work.
While always preoccupied with
the conditions and progress of the struggle in South Africa,
Harold was part of, and made his own contribution to, the
wider international terrain of Marxist scholarship and debate.
He was a founding editor of Economy
and Society, and edited a collection of some of its notable
articles to which he also contributed an extensive and original
introductory essay - The Articulation of Modes of Production
(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980).
He was at the centre of those
intellectual currents that initiated a remarkable generation
of new journals in Britain in the 1970s, including Economy
and Society, Capital and Class, Critique of Anthropology,
Radical Philosophy and The Journal of Peasant Studies which
he admired and enjoyed.
His wide intellectual interests
and committed scholarship were also communicated through,
and stimulated by, his visits to the University of Dares Salaam,
Eduardo Mondlane University, Maputo, the University of California
at Berkeley and elsewhere, where many were able to benefit
from contact with his distinctive combination of challenging
analytical rigour, generosity of spirit, and warmth and interest,
not least towards younger intellectual workers.
In recent years Harold regretted
that the unremitting pressures of his work on educational
policy and reform restricted the wide compass of his earlier
reading, reflection and writing.
An indication of his concerns,
and of how much he still had to offer, is given by an article
published shortly before his death in Transformation No.27
(1995). Titled 'The Uneven Transition from Apartheid in South
Africa', it assesses the White Paper on Reconstruction and
Development of the new democratic government as 'a programme
for welfare capitalism', shows the dangers of instrumentalist
conceptions of the state to the political tasks of implementing
fundamental reform in South Africa, and reminds its readers
that 'from the standpoint of the ANC and it allies, what is
at stake is the completion of the national democratic revolution'.
Sadly, that process will lack
further input from the sharp analytical instrument of his
Those fortunate enough to have
known his friendship, and the many more who have access to
him through his writings, will long continue to benefit from
Harold Wolpe's contribution and example.