From: peter waterman <p_waterman@HOTMAIL.COM>
A Spectre is Haunting Labour Internationalism, The Spectre of Communism
By Peter Waterman, 20 April 2000
A spectre still haunts the world of international trade unionism, the spectre of the World Federation of Trade Unions...
I am more than perplexed at the longevity of an organisation that was a ghost of its former self when I worked for it over 30 years ago in 1968. In any case, after 1989 - because of 1989 - the WFTU was reduced to a spectre of this ghost. Its continued existence proves that there is life after death. Or that international trade union organisations can exist quite separate from any knowledge of their existence amongst the mass of workers internationally, or of any evidence of relevance or effect. Or that - unlike the network - the organisation can have an afterlife of 40-50 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 the British labour movement's Ruskin College and from Oxford University, had specialised on labour history, worked in journalism, spoke French, and was recommended by the London representative of the WFTU. At this time, the British Communist Party was concentrating its attentions on the national trade union movement and simultaneously reducing itself from global ambition to local particular (I paraphrase David Harvey). 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 into which I occasionally placed my big foot), 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 former hotel, occupying one side of a square named after Marie Curie. This was on the banks of the River 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-constructed, though not - of course - by discourse analysis but by tiny night-time explosions that had deposited a rain of cement chips and a layer of 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. Bureaucratic, 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 Labour/USAID on Africa, Asia and Latin America? Was I soft in the head? Well, could I request them free, in exchange for the union educational materials we produced in French for West Africa? Was I totally out of my mind? He was, however, a Czech, not a Russian, and finally agreed I could request these indirectly via an address in the UK. For the following couple of years, the basic WFTU information on Africa was, therefore, provided, free of charge, by some labour section of the US State Department. Unlike the US popular science magazines in Solzhenitsyn's First Circle, however, these were not locked in a safe every night to prevent their loss to imperialist spies.
During my period at the WFTU I 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 think I was considered quite professional, productive and efficient, but there existed no standard by which such could be measured. I was excluded from all policy discussions. The departmental documents relating to WFTU solidarity funds were concealed from me. I was prepared, during the confusion following August 20, 1968, to resort to burglary, or at least borrowing, but all these documents were locked in a safe safely. My charming, but burned-out, co-educator colleague was Jarda. He was another Czech Communist, who spent much of his - our - time in the office telling me stories about African union politicking, the WFTU's contributions to such, the history and culture of Czechoslovakia, his modest but courageous role in the uprising at the end of World War Two, his quite arbitrary persecution at the height of Stalinism in the early-1950s. (It was Jarda, of course, who told me about the Stalinist rain that had followed the reign of Stalin). When he had to prepare a course for North Africa, he would do urgent, late and rapid work with scissors and paste, reconstructing previous texts. 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, sometimes unavailable for Czechoslovak crowns. Jarda threw himself body and soul into the Prague Spring. After I left the Communist world (and the world of Communism) in 1969, it was, however, Jarda who purged selected fellow reformists, stating to me later `it's better that I do this than some Stalinist'. Possibly.
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 as an independently-minded man (he, too, had been in the internal resistance during the war). 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) not by the ISS but through their embassies.
The WFTU was simply a creaking, faceless 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, loud-mouthed, empty-headed, one-time resistance fighter, who had been dumped in Prague to prevent him doing further damage to our 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 leader of the South African union movement, but in Prague a landed fish, who talked too little, knew no Czechs, spoke no Czech, and lived only for his rare trips to meet his ANC comrades in East Africa. He certainly thought me a `revisionist', if not worse. When I by chance met him, many years later, at Lagos Airport, I greeted him with enthusiasm, but he refused my outheld hand.
The main activity of the WFTU, throughout its existence was the organising of conferences, which would end with a ringing, if predictable, declaration, and the decision to organise a follow-up conference. Amongst its educational materials you could find texts on imperialism and on collective bargaining but nothing on how to organise a strike. (Indeed, the first and last time that the international Communist trade union movement did this was, I believe, around 1929). Its East German affiliate was more active, the course of its solidarity visits to Africa recorded in a chain of union resolutions on `the peaceful solution of the German question' (which African union officials once begged my friend Jarda to help undo).
The publications of the WFTU - one of which, for my 30-year-old sins of omission and commission, I still receive with the traditional irregularity - 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 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 from zombies back into human beings - even activists. They organised themselves. They became involved in wider movements or committees within society more generally. One appeared, reminiscing about prewar Communism, on television. Within the WFTU, the Western Communists either 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 the estimate and found obviously inflated items. Chleboun recognised the 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 not delighted that the handover would take place via a bank and were puzzled when I requested a receipt. 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 a lot of energy into this event - fondly remembered by participants for many years after. I met real workers and unionists there. I also got a lot out of this visit since I used the opportunity to do interviews and collect documents and newspapers. This trip partly determined the rest of my life. The rest was determined by what shortly followed.
On August 20th the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact army invaded Prague. They had evidently failed to first discuss this with `the revolutionary tendency within the international trade union movement'. Circumventing the areas of shooting and demonstrations, avoiding the roads blocked by Soviet tanks, 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. We exchanged sentiments of shock and revulsion. In the streets trucks carried young people, themselves bearing blood-soaked flags. 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. (The pessimists had evidently been the realists). All around our estate we had friends from the West who had come, too late, 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 myself had a meeting with an older Czech Communist friend who had taken part in the secret conference of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, which was held, under worker protection, in a major Prague engineering works. For reasons of security, 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, prostituted it, ignored it, but not quite spat it out. The WFTU Secretariat voted, with one opposed (no surprise, the Russian), a condemnation of the Soviet invasion. I never got to the bottom of this resurrection of socialist and democratic tradition, which I found rather more amazing than the rising from the dead of Jesus Christ (because, I suppose, I had never believed in Jesus Christ). The vote was certainly due to the hope for a revived Communist world and movement raised by the Prague Spring. It must have been influenced by 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). Then there was the circumstance of isolation from parties/unions at home, and the opportunity and necessity of taking a rapid personal decision. It seems to be quite difficult for institutions to remove all traces of the movements they once represented.
For the next six months nothing much happened at the WFTU - not that this implied much reduction in the customary sloth. So I took my Nigerian materials, wrote them up, typed stencils and turned them into a 50-page report on the Nigerian Trade Union Congress. This modest document 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-inspired or not - was irrelevant to its feeble efforts, currently in a condition of suspended inanimation. I used the paper, instead, to earn myself a place in a master's course at the Centre of West African Studies in Birmingham one year later. Which is how I was, five years after, able to meet again the graduates of the NTUC course and, still later, do Ph.D. research on Lagos port and dockworker unions.
In December 1968 there was held a Council Meeting of the WFTU. This was in East Berlin, the concrete Communist 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 had wanted to, table a resolution endorsing the Secretariat's 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 they did not have to confront the Russians in public. A Maoist Japanese union delegation was not consulted over this deal. Their representative made a lengthy and forceful condemnation of the invasion (Japanese is an excellent language for denuciation). As we switched through the languages on our instantaneous translation gear, and gestured feebly towards the cabins, it dawned on even the more witless amongst us that the East Germans had simply pulled the relevant plug. This, as the world now knows, 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 - eloquently matching the space where Stalin also wasn't. I couldn't find my former boss or colleague in the Prague phone book. Had Jarda finally retired to the forester's cottage he had long dreamed of? 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, yes, the 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) may be keeping the WFTU going as some kind of bargaining chip in a spectral game of international trade union roulette - which no one else wants to play with them. As for the reappearance of the WFTU as a Third World and Thirdworldist international, this seems possible, if the Western unions continue to manipulate the Third World ones in the old way. But such a second, or third, coming also seems unlikely. The winner in the international union cold war has been the ICFTU. And, in any case, the triumph of a neo-liberal, globalised, informatised and networked capitalism suggests rather the need for a globalised, informatised and networked labour movement internationally. This form matches the international ecological and women's movements but not the ICFTU, even less the WFTU. The former, in any case, is still undergoing something of an identity crisis due to the virtual disappearance of its very own Evil Empire.
Having above written somewhat unkindly about the 1950s-style bulletin of the WFTU, I was relieved, even reassured, at receiving Numbers 1 and 2, 1998, of Flashes from the Trade Unions. This consisted primarily of declarations from, proposals for and reports on...conferences. A report on the 11th International Trade Union Conference of Transport Workers (WFTU-linked) ran to around 160 cm, of which 10 cm (6 percent) dealt - though somewhat summarily given space restrictions - with transport workers. 76 cm (47 percent) dealt - in generous detail - with a declaration of political solidarity with the Arab world. Which social class or democratic part of this imagined community of differentiated and conflicting states was not specified. The Conference was greeted by the Prime Minister of Syria, who assured those assembled that its President expressed full support for the objectives of this organisation. Enough said…
But what about the turn of the century and WFTU's utopia. Or at least Utopías? On the cover, as background, is part of a painting by the brilliant Mexican Communist muralist, David Siqueiros - the man, appropriately, who made the first attempt (at least in Mexico) on the life of Leon Trotsky. Opening the magazine I was reassured to find that it retains the traditional 1950s layout and rhetorical/bureacratic/self-referential style:
The utopian element consists in the negation of dystopia rather than anything more positive - or specific. The only truly utopian aspect of Utopías seems to rest in the notion that the WFTU, child of the period of national industrial capitalism and of national industrial Communism, has anything distinct or meaningful to contribute to international labour struggle in the period of a globalised, networked, service capitalism.
Back to 1968.
One should not too hastily condemn the Italian Communist trade unions for their action in 1968. Thanks to their shabby, cowardly and totally despicable behaviour, the WFTU remains the one international Communist front organisation that ever publicly condemned the Soviet Union. The only problem is that some who know this are dead (really dead, not just politically so). Others have forgotten it. Others remember but don't care. And others don't know. Which may leave only…me? And now…you! And any worker or unionist in the world you tell it to. Do so, because there are, as I have suggested, some unions and workers, who for romantic or fundamentalist reasons - more related to religious faith or ethnic identity than to labour, democracy and socialism - still think that the WFTU was, or is, more than a massive symbol concealing an ineffective office.