Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
THE foundation last autumn of the World Federation of Trade Unions -- into which, not without some dying convulsions, the old International Federation of Trade Unions has been quietly merged -- marked a stage, though not necessarily a final one, in the rivalry of the past 25 years between two different currents in the world labor movement. The cleavage was and is apparent, but is not easy to define, since many streams have gone to make up each broad current. It is not identical with the cleavage between the Second and Third Internationals; for although the older trade unions were associated with the Second International and suffered badly in prestige from its decline in the period between the two wars, many of the forces which went to build up the new World Federation would at no time have had any truck with the Comintern. It would be equally inappropriate to describe it as a clash between "reformist" and "revolutionary" trade unionism. The unions imbued with the new trends are on the whole more radical than the older unions. But no unions of any importance can now be said to pursue their aims by revolutionary methods; one and all, broadly speaking, are striving to harness the state to their purposes, not to destroy it.
One clue to the difference is perhaps the evolution from the older craft union to the modern industrial union -- the historical divergence which in the United States lies at the root of the divisions between A.F. of L. and C.I.O. Thus the A.F. of L. with its rooted predilection for the craft basis stands at one end of the scale; at the other end are the Soviet trade unions organized exclusively on the principle that all workers in the same concern, whatever their trade, belong to one union. The British trade unions are intermediate in this respect, but are passing over gradually from a preponderantly craft to a preponderantly industrial basis.
A more important clue may be found in the attitude of the trade unions to politics. Since the rise of the Labor Party to an influential position in Great Britain, the British trade unions have been active in the political field; and today the A.F. of L. -- opposed in this also to the C.I.O. -- upholds almost alone the tradition established by Samuel Gompers of abstention from any direct concern in politics. The Soviet trade unions have from the first been based on the assumption that economics cannot be divorced from politics or economic ends pursued without political action. Two-thirds of the program of the World Federation of Trade Unions is avowedly political.
The International Federation of Trade Unions (I.F.T.U.) came into being in 1903 under the name of International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centers. It was powerfully assisted by the Second International, although from the outset there was recognition that on the international as on the national scale trade union organization must be autonomous and distinct from political party groupings. In 1909 it was joined by the A.F. of L. This not only raised the membership of the Secretariat considerably, but also gave it an intercontinental scope. By 1913 the I.F.T.U. claimed a membership of almost 8,000,000 in 16 European countries and the United States, out of a total world trade union membership of upward of 16,000,000 in 30 countries.
The I.F.T.U. had undoubtedly at this time the chance of becoming an all-embracing Trade Union International. Though closely allied to the Second International, it contained representatives of "neutral" trade unions like the A.F. of L., while the French C.G.T. was at the time largely syndicalist in outlook. But the principle of admitting only one trade union center from each country weakened its inclusive character and led to many grievances. Under this rule, the Czech trade unions in Austria before 1914 were excluded, as were also the Industrial Workers of the World, and later the C.I.O., in the United States.
Before World War I the I.F.T.U. was mainly a contact-making and information center. But immediately after the war it entered upon a short period of many-sided activity. It was an important influence in the establishment of the I.L.O.; it organized a boycott of Hungarian goods during the White terror, gave aid to Vienna in 1919-20, and took action against the transport of munitions to Poland to be used against Soviet Russia. In 1919-20 it reached its peak membership with 22-23 million members.
Already by 1921, however, the reverberations of the split between social democracy and Communism, between the Second and Third Internationals, had reached the trade union movement; and this year witnessed the formation of a separate Red International of Trade Unions (Profintern), with Moscow as its headquarters. As an international organization it could never rival the I.F.T.U., and after holding one or two congresses it was allowed to fade out of the picture. But the real conflict in world labor between the wars arose on the issue of the admission of the powerful All-Russian (later All-Union) Central Council of Trade Unions to I.F.T.U.; and this was reflected in the struggle of Communist minorities in the national trade unions for leadership and the recognition of the Communist concepts of the function and tactics of trade unionism, both national and international. These issues raised certain questions of principle.
It is admitted on all hands that the character and status of the Soviet trade unions must differ -- in theory and, to some extent, in practice -- from those of trade unions in capitalist countries. In the words of a resolution passed by the Communist Party Congress of 1920:
Under the dictatorship of the proletariat the trade unions are transformed from organs of the struggle of the sellers of labor power against the ruling capitalist class into an apparatus of the ruling workers' class. The tasks of the trade unions lie mainly in the sphere of the organization of economic life and of education.
Does this mean, as the opponents of the admission of Russian trade unions to the I.F.T.U. repeatedly maintained, and the A.F. of L. continues to assert, that under the "dictatorship of the proletariat" or "Socialism" trade unions cease to be independent organizations?
Soviet trade unionists would answer this question by an emphatic negative. They would say that the Soviet trade unions remain autonomous; that they elect their own officers by democratic methods; that membership is voluntary; and that only a small minority of members are members of the Communist Party. They would add that at the crucial Party Congress of March 1921 Lenin resisted and defeated both the Trotskyists, who wanted to take over the unions lock, stock and barrel and organize the workers in "labor battalions," and the so-called "workers' opposition," which wanted to entrust the whole organization of the Soviet economy to the trade unions, thereby making them in fact the economic organs of the state. Absolute independence for the trade unions is no doubt a myth in the Soviet Union. But the principle of an independent organization was affirmed by the highest Party organ in 1921 and has been maintained ever since. Anyone who today challenged it would be dubbed a Trotskyist.
It would hardly be denied, of course, that the leadership of the Communist Party both in the trade unions and in the Soviet administration constitutes an organic link which is likely to forge public policy and trade union policy into a coherent unity. But such a link is no longer a unique characteristic of Soviet trade unions. Even in the capitalist world, the day is long past when labor leaders were treated as "untouchables" and trade unions as enemies of society. The Second World War made trade unions everywhere an integral part of the machinery of national defense, and thus completed a tie-up between unions and public authority which was already on the way. In Great Britain the Coalition Government of 1940 appointed as Minister of Labor a great union leader who had never even sat in Parliament -- a rare departure from constitutional practice. The present Minister of Labor is a former president of the T.U.C. Indeed it may fairly be said that, since 1940, the Ministry of Labor and trade union headquarters at Transport House have been different branches of a single department concerned to carry out a single policy. In the United States, the Administration constantly confers with trade union leaders; and more difficulties and embarrassments have probably been caused by dissensions between rival trade unions than by those between the unions and the Administration.
Much the same is true of the theoretical differences of function between trade unions under capitalism and under Socialism. Under capitalism trade unions are concerned to secure the enjoyment by the worker -- whether in the form of higher wages, shorter hours or improved material conditions -- of as large a proportion as possible of the product of his labor. Under Socialism the worker ex hypothesi receives the whole product of his labor, less appropriate deductions for amortization and for various social or public services. In these conditions trade unions which defend the worker's interest will no longer need to concern themselves in the distribution of the product; the interest of the worker is now to increase the size of the product. Hence the task of the trade unions under Socialism is to increase the productivity of labor. The All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions at its first session announced as its chief function "to organize production and to restore the shattered production forces of the country."
Such a doctrine seems no doubt anathema to the older trade unions of the western world, imbued with the demand of the workers for a larger share in the surplus profits of capitalism. But everywhere in Europe, and in many countries outside Europe, that demand today lacks all reality. The wheels of capitalism have run down. The surplus profits are no longer there. Today the workers' only hope of raising, or even perhaps maintaining, their standard of living lies not in getting a larger slice of the existing cake, but in increasing the size of the cake. Whatever the economic system, the real business of the trade unions almost everywhere today, whether they recognize it or not, is to increase production. Even the conservative British T.U.C. admitted in a recent report on postwar reconstruction that the trade union movement in Britain is concerned, among other things, "with increasing the size of the real national income."
It does not, therefore, seem to be arguable that Soviet trade unions are so different either in their relation to the state or in the nature of their functions as to rule out international coöperation between them and the trade unions of other countries. The divergencies are at any rate far less substantial today than they were 20 years ago. The history of the period between the two world wars shows that the obstacles were in fact of a different order.
Throughout the period between the two wars intermittent negotiations occurred between the I.F.T.U. on one side and Profintern, or the All-Union Congress of Trade Unions, on the other. Both professed an eager desire to achieve the international unity of the trade union movement; and the curious may read in Lozovsky's "Handbook of the Soviet Trade Unions" and John Price's "International Labour Movement" the laborious attempts of each side to place the blame for failure on the other. Generally speaking, the overtures came from the Soviet side. A Russian trade union delegation attended the Hague congress of the I.F.T.U. in 1922 and proposed setting up a joint committee of representatives of all workers' internationals so as to carry on the struggle against the danger of war and establish trade union unity. The I.F.T.U. rejected the proposal and saw no reason why the Russian trade unions should not join the I.F.T.U. unconditionally and submit to its regulations.
At this time the British trade unions, under pressure of the rank and file, were continually pressing for international solidarity with the Russian trade unions. They raised the issue at the Vienna congress of the I.F.T.U. in 1924 and, when it was once more shelved, they embarked on the curious and instructive episode of the Anglo-Russian Joint Advisory Council. This body was set up by a conference of British and Russian trade unions in 1925. Both parties recorded their desire to create "a united industrial international organization capable of efficiently representing the international interests of the workers;" and the Council at its first meeting pledged itself to work for "one all-inclusive world federation of trade unions." It was just 20 years before this wish was gratified -- and then less than completely.
The collapse of Anglo-Russian trade union amity came abruptly after the British general strike in 1926. The Soviet trade unions raised a levy on their members to provide funds to assist the striking British miners -- a step so successfully exploited in the propaganda of the employers as to be a serious embarrassment to patriotic British trade unionists; and after the failure of the general strike they sent a telegram fiercely attacking the pusillanimity of the British trade union leaders. This was bitterly resented as an unwarranted intrusion in British domestic affairs, and at once brought to light a fundamental divergence between the two points of view. The British regarded trade union movements as essentially national, even though they had friendly relations for the exchange of information and ideas with other national unions. The Russians regarded their trade unions, though national in form, as international in spirit and purpose and designed to support the interests of the workers of the world everywhere, as they understood them, with particular emphasis on the class struggle and the emancipation of the workers from the capitalist yoke. It is a matter of legitimate speculation how far this distinction is still valid 20 years later.
In proposing to the General Council of the British T.U.C. the resolution which dissolved the Anglo-Russian Joint Advisory Council, Sir Walter Citrine observed that whereas the British desire had always been to bring the Russian trade unions into the I.F.T.U., the Russian plan had been to make the Anglo-Russian Council the nucleus of a new trade union international. It was the same difference which had been apparent ever since 1921 about the terms in which unity could be effected; and it continued to stand in the way of unity right down to 1939. The "popular front" period of the middle 1930s led to new efforts to bring the rival unions together on the basis of resistance to Fascism and support for sanctions under the League of Nations. The entry of the Soviet Union into the League automatically carried with it Soviet membership of the I.L.O. An institution based on the notion of class collaboration and not of class struggle, and giving to capitalist governments and capitalist employers a two-to-one voting majority over proletarian workers, was difficult to reconcile with Marxist doctrine. Nevertheless the Soviet Union for three years made gestures of coöperation with the I.L.O., and in 1937 actually sent a full "tripartite" delegation to the annual conference.
Nor were all the approaches from one side. In 1937 Walter Schevenels, the secretary of the I.F.T.U., actually went on a pilgrimage to Moscow. But the amour propre of the rivals, if not the underlying difference of principles between them, made all these approaches barren; and after Munich contacts between the Soviet Union and the west were progressively diminished. Then came World War II, when Hitler's campaigns of 1940 swept the once proud I.F.T.U. from the continent of Europe and confined it to a few rooms in Transport House, London, where it became the embarrassed and unimpressive guest of the British T.U.C.
The renewed drive for unity which led to the creation of the W.F.T.U. came from the tremendous impact of the war. In all the countries of the United Nations the workers had ranged themselves solidly behind the national war effort. The trade unions came to occupy, especially in Great Britain, a pivotal place in the organization of production and the mobilization of labor. The feats of endurance shown, not only by the Soviet armies in the field, but by the workers in Soviet factories, some of them moved half way across a continent in face of the German invader, created a deep impression on the trade union movements of other countries, making the case for unity all the more imperative.
Within a few months of Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union the General Council of the British T.U.C. had moved for the creation of a joint Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee, though memories of the past inspired a cautious rider providing for non-intervention "on questions of internal policy and organization." The entry of the United States into the war at the end of the same year further widened the outlook, though the attitude of the A.F. of L., which still refused all contact with the Soviet trade unions, slowed down progress. According to one of Sidney Hillman's last speeches it was the C.I.O. which in 1942 first mooted the idea of a new World Federation of Trade Unions. But it was not till 1944 that the formal step was taken of establishing a preparatory committee of delegates of the British, Soviet and American trade unions. Two members of the C.I.O. represented the United States; two places were offered to the A.F. of L. and one to the Railway Brotherhoods, but these remained unfilled.
After a general conference in London in February, the World Federation of Trade Unions was formally constituted by a congress in Paris in October 1945. It claimed to represent a world trade union membership of 66,750,000, of which the Soviet unions accounted for 30,000,000. The danger that the whole organization would be dominated by the weight of numbers of the largest units was obviated by a graded scale of voting rights. Thus the Soviet unions have 208 votes for their 30,000,000 members; the British, with 7,000,000 members, have 120 votes; the C.I.O. with 6,000,000 members has 110 votes. In the Executive Committee of 22 members, of which Sir Walter Citrine was the first chairman, the Soviet unions and the C.I.O. have three delegates each, the British and French two each. Hitherto no serious clashes of opinion have occurred; differences have been resolved by compromise, and voting rights have been of little practical importance.
The differences between the young W.F.T.U. and the old and now defunct I.F.T.U. are symbolical of the conflict of the past 25 years between the two currents in world labor and of the victory of the more radical trend.
In the first place, the W.F.T.U. is far more comprehensive, not only in numbers but in scope, than the I.F.T.U. even at the height of its power. The vast total of trade union membership which it represents is perhaps less impressive than the fact that that membership is spread over 56 countries. Moving with the times, it includes trade unions not only in advanced industrial countries but among colonial and semi-colonial peoples freshly embarked on the process of industrialization. These new recruits have stimulated a new point of view and a new interest in colonial problems absent in the I.F.T.U. In the United States it is the claim of the C.I.O. to have brought together white and Negro workers and to have established for the first time that the common interest of the worker transcends the color bar.
Secondly, the shift from the craft to the industrial basis means that, unlike the I.F.T.U., the W.F.T.U. is concerned not so much with the interest of particular trades as in the social and economic progress of the working class as a whole. In this sense the W.F.T.U. has responded to the strengthened class consciousness of the workers, and stands nearer to Marxist conceptions than the I.F.T.U. did. It is also more likely to concern itself with general policies to raise the standards of living of workers, including measures to increase production; and it will tend to treat wage levels, hours of work and other conditions of labor as issues to be negotiated on a national scale with governments, rather than sectionally with employers. This at once gives a certain political slant to the W.F.T.U. It recognizes political action as a necessary part of trade union functions, though it leaves open the choice between different means of action.
The interest of the W.F.T.U. extends, however, from national to international politics. This emphasis was dictated by the circumstances in which the new organization came into being at the conclusion of the Second World War. Two of its main objects as announced in its constitution are "to carry on the struggle for the extermination of all Fascist forms of government and every manifestation of Fascism" and "to combat war and the causes of war and work for a stable and enduring peace." Thus it does not transgress the terms of its constitution when it favors withdrawal of recognition from Franco or demands self-determination for Indo-China, Indonesia and Puerto Rico. The tendency to make political pronouncements is encouraged by the fact that, with the Second International moribund and the Third International dead and buried, the W.F.T.U. remains the only international organization to voice specifically labor opinion.
It is nevertheless these political preoccupations of the W.F.T.U. which have made it suspect both among some of the more conservative unions and in non-union circles, especially in the United States. Not only is trade union intervention in politics disliked as such, but the W.F.T.U. is feared as a potential instrument of Soviet influence in world affairs -- a new attempt at Soviet "infiltration." Soviet voting power, though stronger in the W.F.T.U. than elsewhere, it not great enough to determine its attitude; but it is not to be denied that Soviet policies command wider sympathy in the W.F.T.U. than in other international organizations. The development of the W.F.T.U. as a political force might also tend to eclipse the importance of the I.L.O. as representing a more conservative outlook on labor questions.
These suspicions and these fears were increased by the vigorous way in which the Soviet and Ukrainian delegations at the first UN Assembly pressed the demand of the W.F.T.U. to participate in a consultative capacity in the Assembly, and in the Social and Economic Council with a right to vote. The demand of a non-governmental organ for voting rights in the Social and Economic Council was not easy to sustain. In the end, after a vote in which the Soviet Union, White Russia, Ukraine, France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, 'Iraq, Jugoslavia, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia constituted the minority, it was decided to admit three organizations to the proceedings of the Social and Economic Council in a consultative capacity -- the W.F.T.U., the International Coöperative Alliance and the A.F. of L. The claim of the A.F. of L. was not particularly cogent (though Article 71 of the United Nations Charter permits consultative arrangements with national as well as with international bodies). But it was supported by those who felt that a counterbalance was required to the supposed Russophil proclivities of the W.F.T.U.
The future course of the W.F.T.U. would be a hazardous subject for prophecy. Beyond doubt the change from I.F.T.U. to W.F.T.U. means a more radical orientation of the world labor movement -- a shift in the balance of power from the old craft union to the modern mass-production union; and this change, corresponding as it does both to technological developments and to the growth of political consciousness among the masses, is not likely to be reversed. The clock will not be set back. Whether, however, the W.F.T.U. will remain a united world organization, though with some important dissentient unions remaining outside it, or whether the rifts of the inter-war period will reappear in its structure, is anyone's guess. For the present it certainly exhibits a higher degree of unity and more of the spirit of international collaboration and mutual accommodation than any major inter-governmental organ of comparable scope. But the prospect depends at least as much on political developments outside the W.F.T.U. as on the trend of opinion within its own ranks.