Martin Legassick: Revolutionary Socialist (1940-2016)

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The distinguished socialist scholar and activist Professor Martin Legassick passed away on 1 March 2016, after a protracted and brave fight against cancer. Despite ill-health and excruciating pain, he completed his final book project at the beginning of this year.
A Tribute by Peter Alexander

I first met Martin on the lawns outside of the School of Oriental Studies in about 1976, we were trying to recruit him to the International Socialist Tendency, however we failed I am not sure why, someone had got there first.

Ted Grant of the Militant Tendency, perhaps persuaded him that they had a better version of Trotskyism, but that did not prevent us from maintaining a lifelong relationship, one which fluctuated in terms of frequency, a relationship that was based primarily on an understanding of the agency from which one could transform society, the working class. He was very clear about that, he was also at the time a member of the ANC, but he was not one who thought that the ANC was going to be about socialism.

For Martin socialism was about the act of the working class, it was not about capturing the state and making use of that state in the interest of the majority. That was the theme that runs through his political life and runs through many of the arguments that he presented in the many academic papers & articles.

In Martins paper on “The Frontier Tradition in South African Historiography”, his argument was not a simple one, white meets black, racial divisions, rather the frontier was a zone of interaction between different kinds of people. It made sense to me because I was working a bit later on the history of the 1940s where one could see instances of black and white workers coming together. It wasn’t always the case, a zone of interaction isn’t a nice cuddy place, where everyone was friendly with each other, it is a place of friction and conflict and Martin was very clear about that as well.

But it is a place where people could come together and in his own account, his book in particular, he is looking at that in particular from the perspective of ordinary black people, so at times now when one hears about de-colonization, I am thinking, that’s not really like that, people were writing African history a long time ago, they may have been white, but they were writing African history from the point of African people and Martin Legassick was one of those at the forefront of that concern.

I am sure now people can write much better history, they can write better history because Martin before them. He wrote good history and he wrote good history in part because he had a purpose in writing that history. His purpose was to try to understand the way it is possible to look back on the past to provide tools to understand the present in order to transform the present and create a better future.

For him that not only meant focusing on the working class. There were two other things that were important to Martin, one was that if you were going to transform society you need organisation, it was all nice to talk about the working class, but the working class has to be organized and it has to involve Marxist politics. This to overcome the unevenness, the differences, the variations, to link together people in different communities, link together communities with the working class, link together people in South Africa with other countries around the world. Martin was for organisation.

On one of the latest occasions I met him was in Rustenberg, he was there to support workers who were on strike, the longest strike in mining history, he was there in my view to encourage his comrades in developing revolutionary organistion amongst mine workers in Rustenberg platinum belt.

Martin understood about building revolutionary organistion, most recently doing that through the Democratic Left Front. However it was not just about building his own organistion in some kind of sectarian way, to put himself, his ideas, his own organisation in front of those of the working class. That is what made Martin special for me.

He was a firm fighter for the working class, for revolutionary change in society, socialism, but he understood not only the needs of revolutionary organisation, but doing that as part of a working class movement, developing a struggle for socialism from below, for the working class, for organisation and against sectarianism.

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