From LABOR-L@YORKU.CA Sun Dec 3 04:53:00 2000
Interpreting ICFTU action on union rights in Venezuela: left behind?
By Peter Waterman, 2 December 2000
I am somewhat alarmed by two recent items concerning this matter, one from Charles Brown on this list, the other from Patrick Bond, on the Left list, Debate, in South Africa.
The one from Charles merely reported the ICFTU protest against the plebiscite intended to dissolve the traditional union structures in Venezuela. But he mailed this under the title 'AFL-CIA'. When I asked what he meant by this, he replied, 'pre-emptive anticipation'.
The one from Patrick was entitled 'Labour Aristocracy v. Venezuela', and stated:
'Given how corrupt the Venezuelan unions are, and how progressive the alliance of Chavez worker/peasant/radical middle-class has been, I wonder if Cde Vavi (a top ICFTU guy) is in league with the swine, Bill Jordan.'
It was not clear to me whether this was Patrick's headline and story, or forwarded from someone else. (Comrade Vavi, incidentally, is the elected leader of the South African COSATU, and Bill Jordan, the General Secretary of the ICFTU).
My alarm lies in the reproduction of both a political framework (an Evil Them v. a Virtuous Us) and pejorative style (labour aristocrats, swine, guilt by association) that was counter-productive even during the lifetime of state-socialism in the East and authoritarian populism in the South. (Consider, only international Left identification with Kwame Nkrumah, who got rid first of the rightwing, then the leftwing union tendencies, leaving the GTUC in the hands of his long-forgotten puppet, John Tetegah). When a military coup took place against Nkrumah there was no popular protest.
The regime of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela itself reproduces many characteristics of past military/authoritarian populist regimes in Latin America. When the Velasco regime came into power in Peru, 1968, with a major programme of radical reforms, this was shortly followed by an attack on the militant miners' union and, I seem to recall, arrests and/or exile. A major part of the Left, in Peru and abroad, identified with this regime (although Eric Hobsbawm at least qualified it by calling it 'Peru's Peculiar Revolution'). A counter-coup placed a rightwing military junta in power. There was no popular protest.
ICFTU protest against the anti-union policy of Hugo Chavez is consistent with a long-standing defence of traditional trade union rights, as well as forceful criticism of the USA for its lack of such. In the case of Venezuela, the ICFTU policy has been not only supported but further specified by its regional organisations for the Americas, the ORIT. The ORIT is the most radical regional organisation of the ICFTU, having been deeply involved, over the last few years, in various cross-movement, cross-border alliances against the various US-initiated 'free trade' initiatives in the Americas. The AFL-CIO is, of course, the most-powerful member of the ORIT.
The replacement of an existent union leadership (however corrupt and incorporated, by state action (whether popularly-backed or not) is, obviously, not the best way to overcome corruption or improve democracy - either in the union or in the country. Whether this is in Latin America or the USA.
Today, fortunately, unlike Ghana in the 1960s, we do not have to depend on a Master's Voice in the interpretation of events in 'far-away countries of which we know very little'. Those who wrote, and are now reading, these messages on the web can always go the sources - which is what I did when I read them. At least to one source, the website of the ICFTU: www.icftu.org. They will there discover that the ORIT expresses sympathy with the 'Bolivaran Revolution' of Chavez, whilst condemning his anti-union action. There must be other sites which provide rather more sophisticated analyses of the process in Venzuela than are offered by the two contributions mentioned.
One would be the widely-read and much-respected Left quarterly, 'Nueva Sociedad' (based in Venezuela, partly funded by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation). Unfortunately, its website, www.nuevasoc.org.ve is in Spanish, tho it might give article summaries in English. In issue No. 169, September-October, 2000, is an article by Rolando Diaz on 'Trade Unions and the New Political Scene in Venezuela', in which he says (my translation):
'But...this government, is not so much an enemy of the traditional trade unions, as of any union movement. According to the president, the perfect equation for governance is 'a caudillo, the army and the people' [a 'caudillo' is the kind of personalist leader represented by Franco and Peron], without intermediaries and his action is consistent with this. This authoritarian and paternalist conceptualisation attacks the very centre of trade union action, is the enemy of collective bargaining and of union liberty.'
Using such figures of speech as 'swine' to characterise the unanimously re-elected leader of an international union organisation (the membership of which has now soared from 124 to 140 something million) calls to my mind the Stalinist strategy of dehumanising opponents in order to avoid dialogue - or even debate. The whole international trade union movement is presently in an unprecedented condition of crisis, re-orientation and change. It has proven itself prepared to dialogue with its Left critics. But part of the Left evidently still prefers excoriation to debate.
As for 'labour aristocracy', this is another pejorative epithet, dragged out of its closet by Marxists whenever a labour leadership fails to act as their own theory predicts or requires. It does not explain, it explains away - since better-off workers and well-paid union leaders can be radical and the poorer ones conservative - or subject to authoritarian manipulation. The notion (not a concept, since it is untheorised, is applied to different phenomena and unrelated to Marxist class theory) is also dangerous, since it can be and has been used by both leftwing and rightwing authoritarians to attack the unionised working class.
Critique of the limitations of ICFTU policy on union rights, really has to be more specific if it is to appeal to unionists, at whatever level of union organisation, in whatever part of the world. This is because many of the 1) appreciate such support as they may have received from the ICFTU in the past, and 2) because the present ICFTU investment (moral, material, financial) in achieving a 'social clause' within the World Trade Organisation is causing puzzlement or disagreement, and 3) because they may notice discrepancy between the ICFTUs energetic intervention in the case of Venezuela and its much more diplomatic and cautious position in respect of China!
As for loose, indeed speculative, implications of CIA conspirary, they descredit the documented ones, and are counter-productive to such serious campaigning as is being currently carried out to get the AFL-CIO to come clean on its past collaboration with the US state in the overthrow of Allende in 1973.
The only kind of Left such analyses suggest to me is that which needs to be Left behind.
From LABOR-L@YORKU.CA Sun Dec 3 12:53:05 2000
Is there some conflation here between the ICFTU and the AFLCIO? If you have any evidence of rightwing slush funds being channelled to the former (or even the latter), can you please provide these? I have been looking for such for decades. I do know that the AFLCIO is still receiving funding for its international operations from one such source. If you can provide details on who and how much, I would be grateful.
Also if you can specify the services the ICFTU provides to Western capitalism in general and US capital in particular? And why, in this case, the national unions of South Korea, South Africa and Brazil accept this.
The notion that the ICFTU, or the AFLCIO, is simply and no more than a tool to further the interests of US capital suggests a mechanical and deterministic view of the world rather than a dialectical and historical one. Neither of these organisations was such, even at the height of the cold war, when they were either used by or self-subordinated to the hegemonic Western liberal worldview in general and to (intelligence) agencies of particular states in particular.
What is at question here is not 'honesty' but seriousness. Rhetorical denunciation is easy, gives a feeling of self-satisfaction, and has absolutely no effect either on the object smeared or on those that let themselves be led, willy-nilly, by such organisations or leaders.
A number of scholars/activists have been involved for decades in the criticism of the AFLCIO, a lesser number the ICFTU, without descending to animal metaphors. Neither are these used by Kim Scipes and left/democratic union activists in California, even when demanding the AFLCIO come clean on the period in which it was most closely tied to the CIA.
As for the ignorance of most union members of their national union's affiliation to the ICFTU, I have been making the same point recently. Union bureaucracies, however, only exist to the extent that members are ignorant or passive. I am primarily interested in them becoming informed and active. I really don't see how using invective against leaders is going to increase knowledge, consciousness and effective internationalist activity amongst workers.