Prague 1968: The last, Late Short Spring of the World Federation of Trade Unions (Peter Waterman, 2000)

A spectre is haunting the world of international labour, the spectre of the World Federation of Trade Unions…

In Liverpool, 1989, a veteran dockworker leader argued with me the necessity of uniting the social-reformist International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (expanding expontentially) with the communist World Federation of Trade Unions (declining dramatically). In the dilapidated downtown factory area of Durban, South Africa, in 1994, a huge WFTU symbol dominated a tiny union office. And South African union leaders argued the anti-imperialist tradition and anti-capitalist merits of the WFTU. In deindustrialised Lima, on the other side of the Andes, and at the very frontier of capitalist globalisation, a national trade union centre proudly claims its WFTU affiliation. In the late-1990s an American researcher writes one of the first-ever academic articles on the WFTU, based on an interview with its General Secretary – as if this were a body of any influence on any worker.

I am more than perplexed at the longevity of an organisation that was little more than a spectre when I worked for it 30 years ago in the mid-1960s. In 1989 – because of 1989 – the WFTU was reduced to a ghost of its former spectre. 30 years early, long before cyberspace, the WFTU had already invented the virtual organisation. Its continued existence proves conclusively that there is life after death. It also suggests that – unlike the new social movement networks – the old social movement organisations can have an afterlife of at least 50 years.

For two to three years, from 1966-9, I was a well-paid but lowly functionary within the Solidarity and Education Department of the WFTU. I had a background in the British and international Communist movement (working for the International Union of Students, also in Prague, in the mid-1950s); had qualifications from Ruskin College and Oxford University; had specialised on labour history; worked in journalism; spoke French; and was recommended by the London representative of the WFTU. While, at this time, the British Communist Party was concentrating its attentions on the trade union movement it was simultaneously reducing its ambitions from the global to the national. It said neither yea nor nay to the appointment. My job was labour education in and for Africa. I was, however, considered not entirely politically reliable (I had a big mouth and `revisionist’ opinions), so had to submit myself to a three-month trial period before I was taken on and could be joined by my wife and two little children.

The WFTU occupied some three floors of a massive former hotel, on a square named after Marie Curie, on the banks of the Vltava, directly opposite the steep bank on which there had once stood the world’s largest statue of Stalin. By the time I arrived in Prague, Stalin had been de-materialised by tiny explosions that had deposited a layer dust on the international union organisation over which he, dead or alive, always loomed.

I had expected, on arrival, to find an efficient international Communist bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, yes, efficient, no. I asked the African Department for access to their library and documentation on Africa. They offered me the three books written by Jack Woddis, then Secretary of the International Department of the British Communist Party, a one-time WFTU employee. There was no documentation, only correspondence, to which I was denied access. I asked my department head, a veteran Czech union and party bureaucrat, Chleboun, whether I could purchase a dozen books from the West. Yes. Could I also purchase a complete set of the country labour profiles produced by the US Department of State (?) on Africa, Asia and Latin America? Was I crazy? Well, could I request them free, in exchange for the union educational materials produced in French for West Africa? Was I even crazier? He was, however, a Czech, and finally agreed I could request these indirectly via an address in the UK. For the following period, the basic WFTU information on Africa was, therefore, provided, free of charge, by the US Department of State.

During my period at the WFTU I only prepared one or two sets of English-language teaching texts, ran or contributed to three or four residential courses, twiddled my thumbs at four or five WFTU conferences. I was excluded from all policy discussions. The departmental documents relating to WFTU solidarity funds were concealed from me. My charming, but burned-out, co-educator, another Czech Communist, spent much of his – our – time in the office telling me horror stories about African union shenanigans, the WFTU’s contributions to such, the history and culture of Czechoslovakia, his persecution at the height of Stalinism in the early-1950s. When he had to prepare a course for North Africa, he would do late and urgent work with scissors and paste, reconstructing previous ones. With the foreign currency saved from his modest per diems he bought, from the Tuzex dollar shops in Prague, not electronic equipment but crates of Czech beer, if these were not available for crowns. After I left the Communist world (and the world of Communism) in 1969, it was my colleague who handed denounced selected fellow reformists to the re-stalinised regime, stating `it’s better that I do this than some stalinist’.

When I had worked for the IUS in the mid-1950s, we young staff from Western Europe and the `colonial and semi-colonial countries’ had still believed in our Communist mission. The Secretariat used to meet in public, with the participation (non-voting) of even such technical staff as myself – effectively Chief Sub-Editor of its monthly magazine. General Secretary, Jiri Pelikan, another Czech Communist, was known to be an independently-minded man. People were on first-name terms. Many of us lived together in a rundown but adequate pension. We cooked and partied together, these parties often including the somewhat older staff from the Communist world – most of whom lived in apartments provided (like their salaries) through their embassies. The WFTU was simply a creaking and soulless bureaucracy, the bosses of which did not even know our names and barely greeted us in the corridors. Louis Saillant, longtime French General Secretary, actually resided in France and visited now and then, arriving in his black Mercedes and then disappearing into the Secretariat offices (or to watch an international rugby match). The French representative at WFTU was a boastful, empty-headed, one-time resistance hero, who had been dumped in Prague to prevent him doing further damage to the French affiliate, the CGT. In his attitude to Francophone Africa he was also a French chauvinist, if not an open racist. The South African in the African Department was a historical figure from the South African union movement, but in Prague a landed fish, who talked too little, drank too much, spoke no Czech, lived only for his occasional trips to meet his ANC comrades in East Africa.

The main activity of the WFTU was the organising of conferences, which would end with a ringing, if repetitive, declaration, and the decision to organise a follow-up conference. The publications of the WFTU – one of which, for my 30-year-old sins of omission and commission, I still receive – were always late, always dull, always full of conference decisions, organisational declarations and ritualistic formulae. The only articles I recall that seemed to relate to real-life unions or actual workers, came from a Communist correspondent in the USA.

Then came the Prague Spring of 1968, preceded by some months of rumours and then publicised changes within the leadership of the Czech Party and State. Czechs within our building suddenly turned back from tired bureaucratic zombies into energetic and purposeful human beings. They organised themselves. Many became involved in wider movements or committees. One appeared, reminiscing about prewar Communism, on television. Within the WFTU, the Western Communists mostly sympathised or identified with the reform movement, seeing a Communist regime once again re-establishing a dialogue with its citizens. Others (particularly from what was now beginning to be called the Third World) opposed, on the grounds that the movement was anti-Soviet and playing into the hands of the West and Imperialism.

Around March 1968 I was sent to Nigeria, to run a national trade union course for the Communist union centre there, the Nigerian Trade Union Congress. The NTUC had submitted a financial estimate for the event. My boss was impressed. I checked it and found obviously inflated items. My boss recognised my findings but was extremely uneasy about my suggestion that I question these with the NTUC. I argued they would respect the WFTU more if it took finances seriously. I received US$1,000, in cash, which I insisted I would change, for security, into travellers cheques in Zurich. The leaders of the NTUC were a little bit pissed-off that the handover would take place via a bank. But they listened seriously when I argued with them that the WFTU would respect them more if they reported back that they had underspent on the seminar (they didn’t). I put all my energy into this event – fondly remembered by participants for many years after. I also got a lot out of it since I used the opportunity to do interviews and collect documents and newspapers.

On August 20th the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact army invaded Prague. They had evidently failed to first discuss this with the international trade union movement. Circumventing the areas of shooting and counter-demonstration in the centre of Prague, I was the first staff member to enter the office that morning. Half an hour later I was joined by my Czech boss, Chleboun, green of hue and frozen of expression. We exchanged sentiments of shock and revulsion. I returned to our suburban flat, to talk with our Communist neighbours who for months had been telling us that the Russians would never let the Czechs get away with it. All around our estate we had friends from the West who had come to see `Socialism with a Human Face’. Czech workers, who were taking an active and creative part in the now underground movement, stayed away from the WFTU building in impressively large numbers. Its existence had never entered their consciousness, anymore than Czech workers had entered that of the WFTU. I had my own personal meeting with a woman who had taken part in the secret conference of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, which had taken place, under worker protection, in a major Prague steelworks. But our meeting took place in Curie Square, on a park bench, outside the WFTU office and opposite the place where Stalin wasn’t living any more.

A week or so later there was held a Secretariat meeting of the WFTU. And, here, the international trade-union worm finally, briefly, turned on the State Communist bureaucracy that had spawned it. The WFTU Secretariat voted, with one opposed (Russian), a condemnation of the Soviet invasion. I never spoke with any of those involved in this resurrection of socialist and democratic tradition, which I found infinitely more amazing than that of Jesus Christ. The vote was in part due to the hope for a revived Communist world and movement raised by the Prague Spring. It must, in part, have been due to memories and experiences of Nazi or imperial invasion and domination. In part it had to do with a particular composition of the Secretariat (the two East Europeans were from Romania and Czechoslovakia). In part it must have been due to their being isolated from their parties/unions at home and to having the opportunity and necessity of taking a personal decision based on ethical conviction and human fellow-feeling.

For the next six months nothing much happened at the WFTU. So I took my Nigerian materials and turned them into a 50-page report on the Nigerian Trade Union Congress. This was definitely the longest piece of WFTU research on African unionism since the Woddis books. The African Department took receipt of it. Full stop. Fresh, individual and independent research – Communist-oriented or not – was irrelevant to its feeble efforts, currently slowed to a condition of suspended inanimation. So I used my report, instead, to earn myself a place in a master’s course at the Centre of West African Studies in Birmingham one year later.

In December 1968 there was held a Council Meeting of the WFTU. This was in East Berlin, a concrete dystopia. Somewhere in a closed meeting room there was sealed the Communist equivalent of a gentlemen’s agreement. This was, if I correctly recall, between the Italian delegation on the one hand and the Russian one on the other. The Italians either had, or wanted to, table a resolution endorsing the Secretariat position. The Russians said, if you do not table your resolution, we will not demand a reversal of the position. The Italians were relieved that didn’t have to confront the Russians in public. A Maoist Japanese delegation was not part of this deal. Their representative made a lengthy and forceful condemnation of the invasion (Japanese is a good language for this kind of thing). As we switched through the languages on our instantaneous translation gear and gestured feebly towards the cabins, it dawned on us that the East Germans had simply turned off the relevant switch. This, it later turned out, was one of the less-technologically sophisticated contributions of that regime to international solidarity and democracy.

In 1994 I visited Prague, as a tourist, for the first time in some 25 years. Where the WFTU had stood there was a large hole in the ground – now adequately matching the empty space where Stalin wasn’t. I couldn’t find my former boss or colleague in the Prague phone book. I didn’t look for the new, reduced, WFTU office – mistakenly thinking it had shifted to Sofia, from where its 1950s-style bulletin is mailed (cheap postage?). But the research of my colleague Andy Herod reveals that WFTU is still in Prague and is trying to reinvent itself as a set of regionally-autonomous internationals, largely in the Third World. I assume that such money as it receives still comes from the ex-Soviet unions in the ex-Soviet Union. The successor organisation to the VTsSPS (All Union Central Council of Trade Unions) seems to be keeping the WFTU going as some kind of imaginary bargaining chip in a spectral game of international trade union diplomacy – for which an opposing team no longer exists. As for its reappearance as a Third World and Thirdworldist international, this seems possible but unlikely. The winner in the international union coldwar has been the ICFTU. But the triumph of a neo-liberal globalised, informatised and networked capitalism suggests rather the need for a globalised, informatised and networked labour movement internationally. And the identity of the ICFTU was always heavily dependent on this Evil Empire – or, at least, evil office building.

One should not too hastily condemn the Italian Communist trade unions. Thanks to their despicably shabby behaviour, the WFTU remains the one international Communist front organisation that ever publicly condemned the Soviet Union. The only problem is that the few who know this have forgotten it. And others do not know it. Except for me. And you. And any worker or unionist in the world who you tell it to, who still, for dark romantic reasons – more related to religious faith or ethnic identity than to labour, democracy and socialism – still thinks that the WFTU was or is much more than a massive symbol concealing an ineffective office.

Peter Waterman, Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, has two books coming out this year: Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms, Mansell, London; and (co-edited with Ronaldo Munck), and Alternatives for Trade Unionism in the Era of Globalisation, Macmillan, London.