From LABOR-L@YORKU.CA Tue Feb 27 18:07:03 2001
Comment on Peter Waterman, A spectre is haunting labour internationalism, The spectre of communism
By Haines Brown email@example.com 27 February 2001
[Publisher: The original contribution has here been revised and slighly enlarged.]
Peter Waterman kindly passed along a copy of his "A Spectre is Haunting Labour Internationalism, The Spectre of the Ghost of Communism." It is a well-written, effective, informative, and ultimately a very sad piece.
I understand Peter's personal frustration, for surely we all have experienced at some time a disappointment that affects the entire diection of our lives. We may dream of a better future and dedicate ourselves to that end, only to be betrayed either by the sordid limitations of circumstance or by personal inadequacy.
However, in the labor movement one advantage of being in the trenches rather than in a position of leadership is that the struggle is an end in itself and self-fulfilling. In contrast, a leader must strive for some goal that lies off in the future and that he may never attain or may even have only imagined to be possible. I would like to reflect a little on this in respect to the WFTU and to Peter Waterman himself.
For must of us, joining in struggle is itself a victory that asserts our human worth as social beings. That is, our power and our dignity are not preconditions of struggle, but arise out of it. Without owning means of production, a worker's power emerges only from solidarity with others and therefore from his asserting himself as a social being.
Because we struggle as social beings we bring to it the developed social capacities and needs that serve to transform the present into an historical process that implies a range of possible futures that manifest this working-class social existence. The future is not the realization of a plan once held in thought, but manifests the capacities and needs of the working-class historical actor. Therefor the specific outcome that will result from our struggle is a secondary matter that we need not worry about as long as we are true to ourselves in the present. In struggle, the worker is not just being, but becoming.
In contrast, the burden of leadership is a heavy one. A leader faces a quite different situation, for he holds aloft for others the image of a future goal that might raise the spirits and offer a rallying point. His function in an important way must contradict a disagreeable present rather than assert it; he necessarily experiences a disjuncture between the present and an imagined future. This has significant consequences both for the historical actor and the outcome of that action.
It often, perhaps necessarily, spells eventual disappointment. Validation of action in the present must await some future outcome that tends to be more elusive than anticipated, and not only must the gratification needed to keep hope alive be delayed, but the longer it takes to achieve a goal, the less likely the outcome will resemble what one had originally in mind. So leadership is both necessary to the struggle, and yet at the same time, by extracting an ideal goal, contradicts it. I suppose this applies as well to leading organizations like the WFTU as it does to individuals.
I see no reason to doubt Peter's estimation of the WFTU, even if I had the knowlege to do so. Rather than question his history, I'd like instead to ask what his conclusions imply for action in the present; where do we go from here? More specifically, whatever the WFTU's shortcomings may have been in practice, there are two questions that are of greater importance if they are to inform our present activity a) were the ideals or principles of the WFTU off the mark; b) if not, is there any inherent reason they cannot be realized?
More generally, a retrodictive sociological analysis of why people once acted as they did should not be allowed to discourage construcive action today, for unlike the past, the future is always open. The past is unequivocally determined; the future is only probabilistically determined by present circumstances.
That is, whether the WFTU remain a useful model or not is perhaps less answsered through an appeal to history than to what is presently is and the needs today that it might address? Peter's critique of the WFTU might imply he thinks it has potential only if profoundly transformed, but then what is to be done? Or what is the alternative?
Peter notes that That most workers are not even aware of the WFTU. This is not surprising if they do not fall within the scope of its action. It is not a union, after all, but an association that works at the international level to formalize the goals of the movement at that level. How broad and intrusive must the action of the WFTU be? Contrary to an old anti-communist argument, the working class is quite capable of acquiring a sense of direction for itself, even at the international level, for its direction is not the invention of sophisticated theorists, but is implied by class struggle in present circumstances.
Given this, the WFTU need only institutionalize that vision, not create it. If this is its function, a continual generation of statements may be exactly what it is supposed to do, and little more. Surely the WFTU is not the center of working-class struggle nor a substitute for it. The word "vanguard", sometimes applied to leading institutions, is unfortunately ambivalent in this respect.
Given this, then I suppose we should not be too upset if the WFTU sometimes appears stale or rigid, for that probably arises from its function to articulate the movement in formal terms. If the WFTU does occasionally become insensitive to changing circumstances or to the actual development and aspirations of the working class, that does not seriously compromise its purpose, for it is something that can be corrected through simple reform measures and pressure from below.
I can't agree with those who would represent the relation of an elite or a person in leadership to the rank and file as a contradictory one. They often suggest that personal shortcomings are the reason for an entrenched leadership, and so we need to "revolutionize" leadership institutions or dislodge the leaders from their positions of bureaucratic power. However, if the relationship of leader and those being led is not really contradictory, the aim should rather be to inform the leadership and bring necessary pressure upon it to help it carry out its function. Without doing so here, I would argue that a representation of hierarchy (understood as a set of quantitative empirical distinctions) in terms of an irreconsilable contradiction is due to a very shallow (empiricist) conception of contradictions; in Marxian terms, real oppositions and empirical differences do not represent a contradiction.
Another issue. It is possible that the WFTU depends on a circumstance that is fast disappearing. It might be argued that the WFTU is wedded to working-class movements as defined by the circumstance of the bourgeois nation state, but the globalization of capital and the privatization of the public sphere are now rapidly dissolving that nation state. If so, then indeed perhaps an institutional precondition for the WFTU may be disappearing, in which case the question is, how otherwise can labor organize itself at the supra-national (rather than the "international") level? If the era of bourgeois revolution is nearly over, if the bourgeois state is loosing its usefulness for capital's self-expansion, how can the WFTU expect to go on?
On the other hand, it can be argued that now more than ever do we need a supra-national organization of labor's international capacities and needs. Given that the strength of the movement depends on its being international, such an institution remains of vital importance. Can the WFTU be transformed so that it can address these new circumstances? That, of course, raises the issue of the relation of a leading institution and the workers or unions it in need of it. I would like to suggest that authentic leadership in the case of the modern working class must emerge from its class struggle, rather than be imposed as a fundamentally separate institution.
Any emergent process, such as class struggle, is a result of circumstances constraining a dissipative process. This is called a thermodynamic engine, and it applies whenever there is an emergent (negentropic) processes that moves toward a less probable state (is creative, produces novelties, order or concentration). In the case of the working class, the dissipation of nature in production, as constrained by forces of production (social and material), give rise to new value and to working-class development. This suggests that whatever institution articulates the international needs of the working class must be constrained by the conditions of production. We usually identify the union as the institution what manifests this emergence of the working class and the social being of the worker. If so, then it seems a working-class international organization must arise from unions.
However, this is problematic. It represents a double contradiction. A double contradiction (my own term) is when an emergent process arises thanks to a dissipation of what emerges from another (base) contradiction. It explains systems that alternate between evolution and revolution. In theoretical biology it has been called a K-2 system, and in the study of history it can serve to model the relation of a class contradiction to the contradictory relation of mankind and nature in production. Now let's use this tool to consider an international leadership of the working class.
If a leading institution emerges to articulate the international struggle of the working class, and if it gains its support from local unions, then we seem to have a double contradiction. There is one one hand the emergence of unions locally, and on the other the emergence of the international struggle that depends on them. The problem is that in such a double contradiction, the properties that emerge at the top level have no functional relation to the circumstances from which the base contradiction arose. This means that the international organization will necessarily be unresponsive to local working class needs, and it therefore can't really be a leading institution and can only provide services. The other side of this coin is that the international expression of working-class struggle must be part of the same institution as the union locals; the topmost level must remain in contact with local issues.
The only way to reconcile leadership at the international level and sensitivity to local circumstance is through democratic centralism - to make the organization of the working class a single integral process. Indeed, unions are already based on the principle of democratic centralism, however difficult it is for them to realize in practice. I won't explore this further here except to note that it suggests a global union, or more likely, a global union hierarchy, that is held accountable to the rank and file through direct participation at each level by those at a level below.
Absolute accountability from top to bottom and an equality of status and advantage are old ideals in the labor movement. That achieving them has usually proven difficult should not lead us to abandon them, for as a process, the measure of a union is that it moves in the direction of democratic centralism, not that it perfectly embodies the principle at the beginning. Also, even if the goal is a challenging one, it offers the only path for the development of the modern working class, the only escape from dull mediocrity, from sociopathology, and from the the biological reductionism so well anticipated by Marx's analysis of capital. So the international labor movement should represent an educational exercise in preparation for a new world, not a master plan devised by a group of theorists in advance. With this in mind, let me now return to Peter Waterman's comments on the WFTU, for the WFTU could perhaps serve either as a midwife to such a global union or be a service institution for it.
> At this time, the British Communist Party was concentrating
The contradiction of opportunism vs. revolutionary commitment that seems implied here is problematic. For an opportunist, a revolutionary will seem an adventurist; for an adventurist, a revolutionary will seem opportunist. I fear the working-class movement has allowed itself to be empaled here on the horns of a bourgeois dilemna when it accepts uncritically a contradiction between opportunism and adventurism. A Marxian notion of class struggle transcends this dichotomy, for all struggle is a process that is both constrained by the past (and so will appear opportunistic), and simultaneously creates new possiblities for the future, which makes it seem adventurous.
If the struggle stalls because objective circumstances are intractable or because of subjective discouragement (acedie), the movement naturally bifurcates into opportunists on one hand and adventurers on the other (a kind of Heisenberg indeterminancy ;-). When the movement stalls, an international organization such as the WFTU might keep some struggle going, but only briefly, for otherwise it ends up substituting for that struggle. In a union, if the leadership is too good, there is a danger that the rank and file will just begin to follow it. I don't know that there is any happy solution to this problem, but it seems to me that in any case, it depends on struggle, and so there must be continual struggle at some level, however modest. In other words, whatever happens at the international level, it has to be in touch with unions. If I understand the WFTU, it more or less did that.
Put simply, the WFTU might have served to articulate what internationalist aspirations or needs arose from the labor movement, in anticipation of an eventual global union. I'm not sure, but it seems that Peter hints this is what the WFTU is now up to.
> I had expected, on arrival, to find an efficient international > Communist bureaucracy. Bureaucratic, yes; efficient, no.
But "efficiency" implies a goal, and so we must ask what goal Peter think the WFTU should have pursued. If he has in mind the WFTU's being the focus energies needed to change the world, the WFTU was a failure; but was that its purpose? If it were a proper revolutionary organization instead of the service organization, one might wonder why it failed to adapt to a changing world and its demands. Did the leaders know in their hearts that their aspirations were out of touch with real possiblities; ought they have reexamined their objectives to put them on a more scientific foundation? Was, instead, the world at the time so out of joint that revolution was simply impossible and would have to be put off for a while?
A revolutionary organization that must address such questions is clearly troubled. More than that, if, in spite of self-examination and the best intentions of its leadership, things nevertheless remain stagnant, then there seems no answer, and by default it must appear that that revolutionary change is a chimera. If so, what alternative is there but simply to distance oneself from the struggle, with all the moral anguish that step entails. But perhaps this only arises if one is not thinking in terms of union struggle, but instead expects the WFTU to carry on working-class struggle. If, instead, the WFTU only served as a support agency for class struggle, rather than substitute for it, it hardly bears the primary responsibility for the lack of working class development. You continue to provide a useful service, and that is its own reward. Does this account for the WFTU's remarkable longevity?
> He was, however, a Czech, not a Soviet, and finally agreed I > could request these indirectly via an address in the UK.
What accounts for Soviet inflexibility? If not specified in historical terms, the anti-communist position wins by default: communism, and by extension working-class aspirations (since communism embodies the only revolutonary aspiration specific to the modern working class) must be intrinsically flawed. If this is not intended, why the anti-Soviet barb? If, because of world circumtances around the time of World War II, the Soviet Union had little choice but to pull the international movement along in its train, it would naturally suffer distortions. That does not make it primarily reponsible for them, however, for its only alternative would not to have struggled at all, and that surely was not an option.
Putting this more broadly, I think that a Marxist view of history is historicist: we try to explain things primarily as the result of objective forces and sociologically rather than as the interplay of personalities. While personal shortcomings or national character are surely important, we represent them as secondary. The reason is that these are not the engine of history, but merely constraints on the process of class struggle. In the boureois conception of things, the engine of history is inherited cumulative potentials that Great Men come to possess. In a working-class view, it is the dissipation of nature through labor that is the basic engine of history, and the class contradictions that arise from the conditions of that economic production. Soviet stagnation has two quite different interpretations that are a function of one's class position.
> I was excluded from all policy discussions. The departmental
A rather extraordinary admission. He was not trusted for some reason. Because he failed to gain the confidence of WFTU leadership, he eventually felt justified to work against it. Why did he assume he should be admitted to the inner circle? What, other than personal pique, could justify his betrayal of an organization just because it hestitated to place its full confidence in him? Did the WFTU know that Peter was untrustworthy even before he proved himself such by his actions? Was he frustrated by encumbrances standing in the way of his personal career? I can't believe that is the case. He had, after all, a really a nice job. It was inside work; his hands remained clean; he didn't have to do grunt labor; and he says he was well paid! Most people would be envious.
If the WFTU was not hostile to his personal interests, Peter must show that the WFTU was contrary to the interests of the working class, for only then would it deserve his betrayal and his public censure. I don't think just inefficiency or inflexibility makes it fundamentally hostile to the interests of the working class unless the WFTU is presumed to stand in the place of class struggle or its hegemony blocks some alternative institution that would serve the working class better. I don't see that Peter hints at any such alternative, but I do suspect he tended to see the WFTU as the locus of struggle.
> 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.
Peter is not just a frustrated ex-WFTU employee, but ends up actively anti-communist, which seems quite a leap. Just as Marxism is the only ideology specific to the modern working class, communism is the only political form fully compatible with that ideology. Both, of course, must change in response to new circumstances and to the development of the working class, but to reject either in principle is to sever any relation with working class struggle. Doing so may also be premature, for the imperialism that gave new life to capitalism over a century ago seems just now to reaching its climax in globalization. Many feel this is the case. If so, the moment for renewed struggle is right now, for globalization clearly faces a very real dead end. For the forseeable future, the globe represents a confined space that is hostile to any process that depends for its existence on material self-expansion.
Most ex-communists honor their past commitment, even while no longer being willing or able to promote class struggle. Some, however, for reasons that seem to be profoundly personal, feel they must dedicate themselves to tear down working class ideology or any aspirations for a working-class state. In such cases, one wonders about the soundness of an apostate's original commitment to the working class.
> The South African in the African Department was a historical
This paragraph says everything: two worlds confront one another at the Lagos airport. In which world do we belong, the youthful student staff person, revisionist, probably romantic, who chaffed under communist discipline, or the old veteran of working-class struggles? Today, progressives who find it difficult to conform nevertheless often manage to remain loosely affiliated with the communist movement, support its struggles, and refuse to betray it, not out of some uncritical loyalty to an institution, but because, however imperfect, it refects the only means for the development of humanity under modern conditions.
> 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.
Very interesting, and I thank Peter for the insight. In the western nations that benefitted from imperialism, progressives chaffed against discipline and wanted to do their own thing; in the third world, labor knew it was at war and accepted the discipline of revolutionary struggle as the means to achieve victory. Does it then all come down to the contest between the developed imperial world with its coopted labor leadershop and the impoverished "Third World?" That would be a sad reductionism.
On the surface, revolution might seem to imply a contradiction between an ordered discipline and a revolutionary elan, but that is hardly inevitable if revolution is seen as an emergent process. Any emergent process arises from a constraint upon dissipation (a thermodynamic engine). The genius of the violinist presumes years of arduous training; the discipline that training represents does not contradict creativity, but is its condition. So, this reductionism to forces for order and for revolution does not seem inevitable.
> 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.
Peter refers here to his trip to Nigeria. Does he imply that it wasn't until 1968 (after more than three decades of involvement) that he met real workers? I wonder about his personal background that could so insulate him from the working class. Or does he only recognize them as real workers because he figures workers in the west had sold out? Not a very encouraging attitude if one hopes for labor internationalism.
Empirical distinctions within the global working class are not crippling, for in a Marxian perspective, a class is a shared relation of production, not shared empirical traits. If we are struggling to build the dyke that will save our town from the advancing waters, does the fact that the co-worker on one hand is relatively well off and on the other is a poor welfare mother make any difference at all?
> On August 20th the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact army invaded Prague.
Of course, in retrospect, we witness, not a new spring for the working class in Eastern Europe, but the beginning of its winter. Hardly something to celebrate.
> The African Department took receipt of it. Full stop. Fresh,
Well, congratulations. Really. We all identity with a product of our handiwork, and we are naturally upset to see it unappreciated or left unused. In frustration, we naturally take our creation where it might be more useful and appreciated. In this case, it lays the foundation of a petit bourgeois career. While I admire the intelligence and drive needed to succeed at this career, I am at the same time saddened, for it is a loss to the working class.
Although the useful experience was won thanks to labor, that advantage is used to undercut the revolutionary aspirations of the working class by suggesting that limitations specific to time and place are actually universal. We learn from our mistakes, but only if our mistakes and limitations are placed in service to our aspirations. Without a commitment to class struggle, the inevitable limitations and failures we experience become the marks of death.
> the WFTU is still in Prague and is trying to reinvent itself
This "funding reductionism" (who pays the piper calls the tune) makes me uncomfortable. Is not such an approach valid only in specific situations? Is it not only in capitalist society that everything has its price and up for sale? The generalization certainly is not appropriate to other historical eras, and it does not entirely permeate even capitalist society. In the family, for example, it has limited relevance, and one would think that in light of contradictory class relations it would have even less relevance to the labor movement. So the application of this reductionism to the WFTU requires justification. Oherwise, the source of funding is irrelevant.
> As for the reappearance of the WFTU as a Third World and
A set of important points very necessary to consider, but I'm not entirely convinced by Peter's conclusions. For one thing, to what extent does his reference to a renewed international imply traits that applied only to the earlier internationals? In particular, what is the relation to the union movement implied by this reference to them? For reasons already meantioned, I feel this is the fundamental issue, not whether an institution called the WFTU does or does not survive.
Peter alludes to some bad history in the relation of US "internationals" and the union movement in less developed regions. But is there not change taking place? The support given by the AFL-CIO to US imperial ambitions is now widely recognized and viewed critically, even within the AFL-CIO. If we really consider the world as a whole, I don't see that the AFL-CIO really has much influence. For example, Peter is interested in Nigeria. There's been a lot in the news recently about the oil workers and teachers union there, and now the NLC general strike over fuel price deregulation. Are they really pawns of Western unions? I doubt it. There's much about Adams Oshiomhole's activities as the head of the NLC. Is he the agent of the CIA? I doubt that as well.
There's no way that the Third World movement can be expected to correct shortcomings in the movement located in developed capitalist states. I can not address this here beyond pointing out that I assume everyone agrees there's but one working class, and its success depends on global solidarity. The Marxian notion of class is not fundamentally troubled by empirical distinctions within a class, for it defines class as a process, as the group of people who share a common causal relation with what accounts for the process of their development: a shared relation of production. From a working-class position, one must surely take empirical distinctions into account, but they hardly define the movement.
Also, we would need to complare the depth of contradiction in the Third World and in the First World before we can decide which sector is more reliable in revolutionary terms. It may be that contradictions are deeper in advanced capitalist societies, while the the working class in less developed regions only experiences greater absolute misery. I'm not suggesting this is the case, but only that we need to keep in mind Marx's point that it is the depth of the class contradiction that is the engine of revolution, not relative emiseration. It is the gap between our capacities and our needs, not merely the size of our needs, that counts.
Peter points out that the ICFTU commands a larger base of support, but just what does that signify? We don't have to browbeat Bill Jordan to conclude that its structure and function hardly suit it for purposes beyond what it is already doing, and we can't expect an institution detached from from the point of production to be revolutionary. This is not a game, after all, where the person left holding the most marbles is the victor. It is, rather, a process.
I also don't think we should embrace too quickly Peter's other casual remarks. The ecological and women's movements have indeed been globalized and networked, but I doubt they aspire to revolution. If they actually represent pressure groups to promote reform within the capitalist system, the globalization of that capital naturally gives rise to global reform movements. What relevance that may have to working-class struggle remains to be seen, but I suspect all these movement harbor in their breast a latent split. Also, if my reading of international news is correct, the problems faced by women and the damage to the environement are rapidly increasing. Given this, one wonders whether these international movements are really winning, or are they loosing in terms of their aggregate victories, not just their support network. The quantitative growth of a movement is not always an indication of its value or ultimate success.
And as for the effective use of digital communications, that is simply a necessary manifestation of a global network. As labor's global action develops, the means of digital communication will naturally develop as will seem necessary. There are already ample signs of that, such as the ICFTU Online and Labour News Network newsletters as well as the LabourStart web page that every day links workers to struggles taking place the world over.
But digital communication will not itself give rise to global solidarity, for it is detached from production. For example, a classic objection to World Systems Theory in historiography is that by fixates on interrelationships (picking up from Ollman's indeterminant interactionism) rather than on what is thereby connected; it fails to escape a zero-sum game. History, including class struggle, is not a zero-sum game, but a process of creative emergence, and therefore connections must arise from the needs of the struggle. They surely can't create that struggle.
> the world you tell it to. Do so, because there are, as I have
Are revolutionary aspirations to be dismissed as religious fantasies, as the ruling class for obvious reasons has always insisted? Any critique of the status quo tends to hold up values or ideals that are not of this world, but contradict it. If one is a bourgeois empiricist, these ideals are necessarily detached from the real world and thus perhaps are superstitions akin to religion.
But today we see struggle instead as a process in which real circumstances determine only the probability distribution of its possible outcomes, and so our aspirations are simultaneously of this world and escape it. Adaptation and transcendence are merely aspects of one process. That is, if we are really engaged in class struggle, the struggle to assert our dignity as human beings necessarily contradicts the capitalist world in which we find ourselves, and because we as universal social beings engage a global system of capital, our struggle deepens our understanding without standing in the way of our revolutionizing our circumstances. In principle we do not need the help of books or of preachers, for books and preachers are already embedded in the system against we struggle. In terms of general systems theory, systems can certainly act as if headed toward a goal without there actually being one.
The issue is not whether the WFTU was disappointing, but why. Is the problem that the WFTU's goals were really impossible, or that it simply failed miserably in achieving them? If wrong in its goals, what is the alternative to support international working-class solidarity? While a bourgeois critique of the WFTU that satisfies the canons of historiography might to some extent be useful and interesting, it is necessarily detached from the world of labor, where solidarity and struggle are interdependent ends in themselves, manifestations of our human dignity as social beings. From a working-class perspective, the goal of a socialist and ultimately communist society is not a distant utopia and perhaps unattainable dream, but is implied by the class struggle of a universal working class against global capitalism.
The modern working class contains within itself the seeds of its own destiny, and this offers a litmus test for any possible international leadership.