Preface 2006: Edo Fimmen & “Labour’s Alternative” (Dan Gallin)

Eduard Carl (Edo) Fimmen was born in Amsterdam on June 18, 1881 and died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on December 14, 1942. Born and raised an orthodox Protestant, “he was representative of a political trend among the lower middle-classes that sought to combine religious and social emancipation while sharing the concerns of the labour movement.” (1) He joined a white-collar workers’ union in 1903, became its secretary in 1907 and the editor of its journal Onze Strijd (Our Struggle) in 1909.

Since 1907 he had also been active in the newly formed Confederation of Trade Unions (NVV) and was its first secretary between 1915 and 1919. “On the left-wing of the NVV, Fimmen was the first Dutchman to champion the use of strikes in the white-collar sector. He was also responsible for the organisation of the first white-collar strikes in 1910 in Rotterdam and in 1912 in Groningen. At the time of his progressive integration into the socialist-reformist wing of the trade union movement, Fimmen began to progressively distance himself from Protestantism. In 1909 he finally joined the Dutch Social-Democratic Labour Party (SDAP)” (1), rapidly evolving to the left of the party.

During the first world war, the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) had established a liaison office in Amsterdam to maintain international trade union contacts despite the deep political splits created by the war. This office was placed under the joint responsibility of Fimmen and Jan Oudegeest. At the end of the war, both organisations moved their headquarters to Amsterdam. In 1919, Fimmen, jointly with Oudegeest, was first post-war secretary of the IFTU and provisional secretary of the ITF.

The radical social and political change of the time formed a favourable context for Fimmen’s attempt, as a representative of left-wing socialism, to promote activist and militant policies as well as left-wing political change in the international trade union movement. “Indeed, Fimmen’s impulsiveness, activism and radical orientation stood in clear contrast to the unspectacular and unpolitical pre-war existence of powerless international organisations, generally able merely to gather statistical data, exchange information and experiences and, at best, proffer strike aid.” (1)

“One of Fimmen’s primary aims as general secretary of the ITF and the IFTU was to overcome the pre-war consensus of ‘exclusively moral protest’ or paper demands by the internationals, and instead to develop a transnational trade union practice. Under the influence of a Marxist left-wing concept of internationalism and experiences of national trade union development, Fimmen was guided by a vision of centralisation and internationalisation of trade union structures and programmes. Against the background of economic internationalisation, he assumed that, in the longer term, with national trade union interests subordinated to common international ones, and with national fights integrated into an international programme of action, national organisations would abdicate authority and power in favour of the internationals.” (1)

Under the leadership of Fimmen, and primarily with the support of the ITF, the IFTU co-ordinated national trade union activities (primarily in Belgium, Britain and Germany) in an international embargo against the allied supply of weapons to Poland in its war against Soviet Russia. It was maintained until the initiation of Polish-Russian peace talks and severely disrupted the supply of weapons and ammunition to the Polish army. Also in 1920, Fimmen had organised, again with the support of the ITF, another international boycott against the Horthy dictatorship in Hungary and the suppression of the Hungarian labour and trade union movement. Austrian and Czech transport workers in particular had boycotted transportation to Hungary for seven weeks in that particular action. In 1923, Fimmen tried, unsuccessfully, to organise an international protest strike against the occupation of the Ruhr and, faced with the lack of any substantial support, “attacked the European trade union elite in an article entitled ‘Black January’ for their inactivity and predominantly national outlook.” (1)

The break between Fimmen and the IFTU came in 1923, partly as a result of the failure of the solidarity action on the occupation of the Ruhr, partly because Fimmen, against a majority of IFTU affiliates, advocated closer co-operation with the Soviet trade unions, which he hoped to bring into the IFTU, thereby re-establishing the de facto unity of the international trade union movement. In the event, the only instance where a Soviet trade union joined, not the IFTU but an ITS, was that of the Soviet food workers’ union affiliating to the IUF (from 1923 to 1929).

“Since 1923, Fimmen … had been a supporter of a united front policy, and of co-operation at least on specific important questions of common interest, such as anti-fascism. Like the European left in general, he had welcomed the October revolution in Russia as the ‘first step towards international revolution’ and defended the social experiment of the Soviet Union, albeit with increasing distance and criticism. He became a close friend of Willi Münzenberg and a member of various communist front organisations such as the International Workers’ Aid or the League Against Imperialism and Colonialism. Only after the experience of the Stalinist purges in Moscow and during the Spanish civil war did he finally break completely with the communist movement at the end of the 1930s.” (1)

Although forced to step down as IFTU general secretary, Fimmen retained the position of general secretary of the ITF, where a left-wing majority supported him. Although also in the ITF his views were controversial and met on different occasions with strong opposition from mainstream social-democratic member unions, he retained his position until his death in 1942.

Fimmen’s political involvement caused him twice to almost lose this position. The first time in 1926, because of his support of a left-wing publishing project in Belgium and his contribution to periodicals such as the British Unity and the Dutch Eenheid (Unity) which advocated unity between social-democratic and communist unions and published pro-communist articles as well as attacks on the social-democratic trade union leadership. The second time was when, after participating in the publication of the left-wing socialist weekly De Socialist in the Netherlands in 1928, he accepted the chairmanship of the newly-founded Independent Socialist Party (Onafhankelijke Socialistische Partij, OSP) a left-wing split from the SDAP. (The OSP, a member party of the London Bureau, eventually merged with Sneevliet’s Revolutionary Socialist Party to form the Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party RSAP, which briefly affiliated to the Fourth International). Under the pressure of the governing bodies of the ITF, he agreed to step down as OSP chairman and to abstain from active politics.

The conflict with the IFTU majority in 1923 left Fimmen with a lasting mistrust of the capacity of an international based on national trade union centers to lead international labour struggles. He perceived the primarily national focus of national trade union centers as fundamental obstacle to effective international trade union action. Henceforth, he considered the International Trade Secretariats (ITS) (or international trade union federations in specific branches or industries, such as the ITF), as the real bearers of an international trade union perspective and as the only organisations capable of effective international trade union action. Fimmen therefore advocated an organisational reform of the international trade union movement. Realising that his own best-case scenario (replacing the IFTU by a new international composed of the ITS) was politically impractical, he advocated a new IFTU based on both territorial units (the national centers) and international industrial federations (the ITS). These ideas are set out in his book “Labour’s Alternative: the United States of Europe or Europe Limited”, published in 1924:

“Therewith the ITS, which will have to conduct these international struggles, will acquire increasing importance as compared with the national centres. In the period when capitalism was expanding in the direction of national organisation, the conduct of industrial struggle passed from the control of local trade unions to that of national trade unions. So now, in the struggle which has begun with the world war and its sequel, the leadership must pass from the national organisations to the International Trade Secretariats. Just as, during the former period, the importance of the concentration of local organisations (the trades councils) became small as compared with the importance of the national trade unions, so today the influence of the national centres as concentrations of the trade unions of a particular country will grow less than the influence of the ITSs and the task of the national centres will tend to become restricted to administrative (though national) duties similar to those administrative duties which are today performed by the trades councils”. (2)

Under Fimmen’s leadership, the ITF became the only ITS in the inter-war period to significantly extend its membership beyond Europe and to try to build regional organisations in other continents to deal with the issues of colonialism and underdevelopment. In 1928 the ITF decided to establish independent regional organisations which were to form the basis of a global, decentralised International. In the early 1930s Fimmen visited North Africa, China and Japan (he was refused entry into India and the Dutch East Indies by the colonial authorities) in order to recruit affiliates and establish an ITF secretariat for the Far East.

During the same period Fimmen continued to actively and practically support anti-fascist resistance movements throughout Europe through the ITF. This included anti-fascist protest campaigns in Italy, the construction of an extensive illegal resistance network of transport (mainly railway) unions in Nazi Germany (after having failed to move the IFTU and the German trade unions to actively opposing the Nazi takeover in 1933), support for the socialist resistance against Dollfuss in Austria after 1934, assistance to the republican forces in the Spanish civil war.

In November 1938, after the ITF congress in Luxemburg, Fimmen collapsed with a stroke from which he never fully recovered. During a short convalescence in 1939, Fimmen organised the move of the ITF from Amsterdam to London:

“The ITF is taking part in the war, not to back England and France, but to oppose Hitler and his open and secret allies.”

At the end of 1941, he reluctantly and under pressure from his closest companions agreed to go to Mexico to convalesce. There he died in December 1942.

In a letter written shortly before his death, he wrote:

“When … I look back over my work of the last twenty-five years, I find that I have made many and great mistakes. But these mistakes, that load me with a heavy part of the responsibility for the defeat of European trade unions, do not consist in that I gave the wrong lead. They consist in the fact that I gave the right lead too feebly. The fact that I was very often alone with my opinion made me hesitate… It is true that I have called things by their names and divulged to the workers the shortcomings of their organisations. But where I dealt criticism, I should have dealt blows and where I spoke, I should have shouted”.

Dan Gallin (2006)

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