"Red diaper" babies

(a term used in the USA to describe the children of parents who were members of the Communist Party, or were sympathetic to its aims)

Though the SACP denied the validity of solidarity derived from ethnic inheritances and sentiments, shared historical experiences, dense social network structures, and intergenerational bonds planted seeds that, for some, later blossomed into stalwart opposition of the repressive apartheid regime.

 

In this section we will meet some “red diaper babies” whose immersion into the liberation struggle in South Africa appeared to be an almost natural consequence of their parents’ own conspicuous involvement therein. These children were socialised into a system of values and beliefs.

 

A large number of SACP members can trace their political values through the influence of their parents or grandparents. In families where political leanings or values were woven into the way the family operated and communicated, the connection between the parents’ political convictions, and the motivations of their children, was unmistakable.

Barry Feinberg, for instance, was a member of the SACP in exile…having won acclaim for using art to galvanise international opposition to the Apartheid government. Feinberg traced his political values through the influence of his uncles - Julius and Louis Baker - and their father, his grandfather:

“My grandfather left ... Lithuania in the 1890s as a result of the pogroms against the Jews, but also because he was an active Bundist, that is a Jewish socialist, and went to England and met my grandmother who worked in the sweatshops there and she had a history of trying to organize the other women in the sweatshops in some kind of loose association in order to defend themselves against the bosses and exploitation. So when they arrived at South Africa ... both of them had come out of Europe ... imbued with ... ideas which were against racialism, ideas which were broadly supportive of socialism.”

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Taffy Adler also credits growing up in a highly politicised socialist family in Johannesburg for imbuing him both with a strong sense of cultural Jewishness in the Eastern European tradition, and with an intense political awareness.

Close-up of a photograph of Barry Feinberg, (from the book, Time to Tell: An Activist’s Story)

Close-up of a photograph of Taffie Adler, by Gisèle Wulfsohn.

“My father could move from making fish and chips in a sweaty shop in Jeppe, to expounding on Marxist ideology, to taking me to symphony concerts…”

His father (who himself imbibed his political identity from his brother, who was a member of the illegal communist party, and involved in underground activity in Tsarist Russia) ran a house of intense political debates, and Adler admits that many of his personal philosophies stem from that. The political environment of their home had a social commitment and sensitivity, equality, humanism, and anti-racism. Taffy’s older brother, who was a university student, used to take him along to class, where the younger Adler met radical political students from different race groups. His uncle, Michael Harmel (a prominent SACP member) took him into the townships.

“I was getting exposure to a very different kind of South Africa…and all that stemmed from a family influence which was intensely political.”

Though Adler asserts that, within the operations of the SACP,

“There was no observable common view that arose from being Jewish. We were acting essentially as committed South Africans, and not as Jews…”

…he nevertheless agreed that, to a large extent, his internationalist and humanist philosophies were connected to a deep Jewish ethnic identity, and to the way this identity was manifested and transmitted in his family.

Another important figure in the SACP ranks, Sarah Carneson (née Rubin) was born in Johannesburg in 1916, to a family of Jewish immigrants. Her parents, Zelic and Anna Rubin, were not only sympathetic to the liberation movement, but were founding members of the CPSA. Sarah joined the Youth Communist League at 15, and became an official Party member at the tender age of 18. She went on to marry SACP secretary and Treason Trialist Fred Carneson in 1943, and over the next few decades, they became stalwarts of South Africa’s freedom struggle in their own respective ways.

Photograph of Fred and Sarah Carneson. (from the book, Red in the Rainbow: the life and times of Fred and Sarah Carneson)

From left: Albie Sachs, Denis Goldberg and Ruth First. Click on the the faces to read more about them.

The Communist ideology claimed that class solidarity transcended ethnic loyalties and racial lines — and indeed, these Communist parents, and their “red diaper babies” resisted the apartheid regime in their capacity as individuals, not as Jews. But their shared heritage as Jews in Eastern Europe — and the associated values, motivations, and experiences — undoubtedly equipped them with a valuable set of tools that facilitated political mobilisation and engagement, and a commitment to radical activism in pursuit of a non-racial democracy in South Africa.

Ethnic Radicals, Kaplan Centre, UCT