Harold Wolpe (1926-1996)

Harold Wolpe was Chair of the Department between 1983-1986.

Ken Plummer writes:

Harold was first a lecturer then a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Essex between 1972 and 1991. To the department’s perpetual chagrin, he was never to become a professor (a fate for many early distinguished members of the department). Harold was a major, very gentle influence in the department for twenty of its formative years.  He was an engaged intellectual, putting his theory into practice. Soft spoken and calm in demeanour, his ideas and politics were radical and transformative.

Yet Harold had a major ‘ world- story’ to tell before he arrived at Essex – and afterwards! For he was a leading member of the struggle against apartheid and a friend of both Joe Slovo and Nelson Mandella. Indeed, he is mentioned in Mandella’s book: Long Walk to Freedom. A lawyer by training, he played a prominent role in defending anti-apartheid figures in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He also helped plan anti-government actions by the communist party and the then banned African National Congress (ANC). He was arrested and put in prison in 1963 but escaped (disguised as a priest) and lived in exile in England for 30 years.  He moved back to South Africa with his wife Anne-Marie Wolpe in 1991 to direct the Education Policy Unit at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town. White rule ended three years later. He died of a sudden heart attack in 1996.

Harold’s seminal 1972 Economy and Society article on Capitalism and cheap labour-power introduced into South African Marxism a concept borrowed from French Marxist theorists — that of the notion of the articulation of modes of production. Harold would later edit a book on this theme, to which he contributed a definitive critical overview of the concept. His work is often seen as major theoretical harbinger of the radical political change that was needed in South Africa, and has been extremely influential.

His key articles were usually considered to be:

1972. “Capitalism and cheap labour-power in South Africa: From segregation to apartheid”, Economy & Society, Vol. 1, no. 4
1980. “Introduction”, H. Wolpe (ed.), The Articulation of Modes of Production. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 4.

An account of his political background can be found partially in his wife’s story Annmarie Wolpe The Long Way Home 1994  London: Virago

His ideas are discussed in two obituaries:

Harold Wolpe (1926-1966) Journal of Peasant Studies Vol 23  Issue 4  (feb 2008)

Dan O’Neara   “The Engaged Intellectual   and the Struggle for a Democratic South Africa”. http://www.wolpetrust.org.za/conferences/conf1997/conf1997_omeara_engaged.pdf

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