In reviewing Juan Moreno’s book “Trade Unions Without Frontiers” (Federation News, Autumn 2002), Tom Sibley has taken advantage of the opportunity to rewrite post-war international trade union history and to revisit the political polemics of the past.
He prefaces his remarks by saying that “the history of trade union internationalism is blessed neither with great achievement nor with an extensive bibliography”. Actually, the situation is less bleak than he suggests (1). Aside from history as such, there is also a sizeable body of literature on past and current perspectives of the international labour movement, worldwide and in Europe. These have many historical references and are valuable for background, context and crosschecking. (2)
So Moreno’s book is just the latest of several. The history of the international labour movement, and in particular the post-war period, the establishment of the WFTU and its split, the emergence of the ICFTU, is well documented. Everything that happened is known and there is no mystery about any of it.
It is therefore easy to recognise some legends surrounding the split in the WFTU and the emergence of the ICFTU. One of the most tenacious is that “the greatest single achievement of the international trade union movement, the formation of the World Federation of Trade Unions … was destroyed by the exigencies of US foreign policy during the early years of the Cold War.” In fact, the WFTU was an artificial construct based on the exigencies of the wartime alliance between the Allied Powers and the USSR. None of the issues that had caused the earlier split, in 1921, between the International Federation of Trade Unions (socialist) and the Red International of Labour Unions (communist), had been resolved. These had nothing to do with the Cold War. They had very much to do with questions like whether “bourgeois democracy” was preferable to no democracy at all, whether unions should be accountable to their members or to a State, and whether this State represented some form of socialism or a new class exercising total control over society, including the working class, by means of terror (as Karl Kautsky held already in 1929).
The beginning of the Cold War meant that the political clamp of the war time antifascist alliance, that briefly held together organisations with fundamentally opposed views, political cultures and practices, had come off, and a split which had existed for the past thirty years was no longer papered over.
It should be remembered that the split started with the refusal of the ITSs to bow to the demands of the communist leadership of the WFTU that they become trade departments under the authority of the general secretary of the WFTU.
Of course the CIA and its allies in the labour movement, such as Lovestone and Brown, did their best to line up the labour movement on the US side of the Cold War. That is a different story. The role of the CIA has often been overestimated both by its supporters and its enemies, and it is significant to note that when its hold on parts of the labour movement was finally broken, communist trade unionists had nothing to do with it. In any event, with or without the CIA, the WFTU was destined to fail.
Moreno, who does not have a Stalinist axe to grind, recognizes that the WFTU split because the socialist and communist unions were locked in a struggle over the control of the organisation. Sibley writes that Moreno does not provide a single example of “Soviet sectarianism”. One wonders whether the suppression of any form of independent trade unionism in the countries under Soviet occupation and the imprisonment, deportation and murder of hundreds of socialist, social-democrats, dissident communists and other independent trade union leaders and activists, would qualify as “sectarianism”.
Another legend, and that is a relatively new one, is that “the Soviets put the need to maintain unity within the WFTU before everything else up to and including the divisive issue of deciding attitudes to the Marshall Plan.”
Of course the Soviet government would have preferred to avoid the emergence of an international trade union alternative to the WFTU. The true function of the WFTU became apparent after the split, when it became one of a number of Soviet-controlled international organisations, which constituted the political bodyguards of Soviet foreign policy in civil society (unions, but also youth, students, women, the peace movement, lawyers, academics and scientists, etc.). Had it been anything else, the Yugoslav and Chinese organisations would not have left, and had it been a legitimate trade union body it would not have collapsed together with the USSR.
Sibley suggests that the acceptance of communist or former communist trade union centres in Europe by the ETUC has to do with a “rethink not least of basic ideological positions”. That is certainly the case when it comes to the trade union centres involved. On the part of the socialist majority in the ETUC (and its Catholic minority), and also of the ICFTU in the case of COSATU, the acceptance comes from the fact that the Communist unions are no longer perceived as a threat to the political integrity of the organisation. That is due to the ideological rethink that has taken place in these organisations following the collapse of the USSR and therefore the disappearance of a sponsor and co-ordinator of a hostile international operation.
The FNPR is Russia is not “the heir of the Russian section of the AUCCTUC” in any political sense, any more than CMKOS in the Czech Republic is the heir of the ROH, or KNSB in Bulgaria the heir of the former State organisation.
Sibley argues for inclusiveness and unity and he says that the acid test will be China. This writer has some experience with inclusiveness and unity. The IUF, of which he was general secretary, welcomed the CGIL, the CC.OO. of Spain (which did affiliate), and invited the French CGT and Portuguese CGTP unions to affiliate (which did not). The IUF position was that any free trade unions were welcome, regardless of their political orientation. We defined free trade unions as unions accountable to their members only; if the members freely decided to give themselves a Communist leadership, that was their decision, and we did not regard these unions as any less free for having made that decision, however strongly we might disagree with their politics.
China is a very different case. Sibley argues for “discarding the blood and urine test inspired by the Cold War apologists for ideological purity”. His sarcasm is misplaced. This is not a question of ideological purity. If it were, one wonders whether the enthusiastic embrace of capitalism by the Chinese Communist Party, which controls the trade unions, should not call for some “blood and urine” tests concerning the ability of these so-called unions to defend workers’ interests. The real problem is the same old problem we had with the Soviet “trade unions”: they are not unions at all, but organisations of the State for labour administration and, when needed by the State, for labour repression. (The local sections of the ACFTU are required to report any attempts to create independent unions to the Public Security Bureau). These are hardly “shortcomings as genuine workers’ representatives”: it means we are dealing with an entirely different kind of organisation, representing different class interests, which has nothing in common with trade unions but the name.
There is no evidence whatsoever that “pragmatism through constructive but critical engagement” on the part of Western trade unionists contributed in any way to the transformation of the former State labour organisations of the Soviet bloc into genuine trade union organisations. That process was driven by workers’ revolts of the same kind than that which is currently building up in China (3).
An effective defence of workers’ rights all over the world precludes double standards, in retrospect no less than in future, in China no less than elsewhere.
(1) In English, there is: Lewis Lorwin’s great classic “The International Labour Movement” (1953), which covers the post-war period, Denis MacShane’s “International Labour and the Origins of the Cold War” (1992), and the most recent monumental work edited by Marcel van der Linden, “The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions” (2000), with contributions from Anthony Carew, Michel Dreyfus, Geert Van Goethem, Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick and Marcel van der Linden. These are socialist and social-democratic authors. On the communist side, there is William Z. Foster’s “Outline History of the World Trade Union Movement” (1956).
(2) To mention only the most relevant to this discussion: Charles Levinson, “International Trade Unionism” (1972), Walter Kendall, “The Labour Movement in Europe” (1975), Kim Moody, “Workers in a Lean World” (1997), Ronaldo Munck, “Globalization and Labour” (2002) and the anthology: “Global Unions?”, edited by Jeffrey Harrod and Robert O’Brien (2002). In addition, a book like “The International Transport Workers’ Federation 1914-1945 – The Edo Fimmen Era” (1997), an anthology edited by Bob Reinalda and available from the ITF, offers valuable insights into the political struggles in the labour movement of the inter-war years.
(3) For further information: the website of China Labour Bulletin, edited in Hong Kong by Han Dongfang, leader of the former Workers’ Autonomous Federation of Beijing in 1989 (www.china-labour.org.hk). See also the IUF site (www.iuf.org) June 19, 2002: “Confusion at the ILO? China’s Government Elected to Governing Body as…Workers Delegate”, and the site of the ICFTU/ITS/HKCTU/HKTUC Hong Kong Liaison Office (www.ihlo.org).