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Political Education and Globalization - Dan Gallin (2004)

IFWEA Seminar: Global Network: Political Education & Globalization,
Eastbourne, October 9, 2004

by Dan Gallin, GLI

The labour movement is today in a crisis that has complex and interacting reasons, both objective and subjective. This crisis manifests itself in different ways at different levels, both in national and international organizations. The aspect I want to address today is the crisis of identity and orientation, and what it means to us in terms of workers' education.

This crisis of orientation, arising from a lack of clear objectives and of a long-term vision, is now widely perceived, even in organizations that have a culture of denial and complacency.

In the key document for its forthcoming congress, "Globalizing Solidarity", the ICFTU is unusually self-critical. For example, the document states that "… a number of affiliates have expressed the view that the ICFTU needs, in some way, to be "trade unionized", to be converted into the type of international trade union centre that workers in the globalised economy are said to need. This type of thinking has not generally been accompanied by very clear proposals about how such a conversion could be undertaken, nor about its specific content. Nevertheless, it does reflect a concern that our international is not properly linked to trade union action at national level, and provides a diplomatic service when what is needed is services for organizing, for bargaining and to deliver effective solidarity."

Elsewhere, there is a full page listing often-heard criticisms of the ICFTU, among which: "that the ICFTU has not been able to adapt to historic change. Born in a specific context of geo-political confrontation, and as a participant in a struggle now ended it has lost its initial rationale and been unable to fashion a new one which it is capable of implementing."

The document stops short of a discussion of the long-term historical vision of the ICFTU and of the international labour movement in general, perhaps because no one has yet clearly challenged the underlying ideology of the ICFTU. Such a challenge is not easy to mount precisely because the ideology is underlying and assumed rather than explicit, but what sticks out is the tacit acceptance of the existing social and economic system as a given, which of course needs to be improved upon but not fundamentally challenged and replaced by a better one.

Nevertheless, this critical examination of many of the assumptions on which the ICFTU has operated is without precedent. Although no comparable self-examination exists, to my knowledge, in other international trade union organizations, such as the ETUC or the GUFs, critical discussion does exist among their member organizations. Among the GUFs, so far as I am aware, only the IUF is prepared to engage internally in a serious discussion of current labour movement issues, but in a number of national centers discussions on the future of the labour movement are in progress, often in ways limited by national circumstances but reflecting a general unease with past and present practices and future prospects.

For those of us who have been critical over the years of the practices and the policies of the trade union movement, in particular the international movement, the usual thrust of our criticism has had a limited objective: that of strengthening the trade union movement as it is, in the hope that its internal dynamics and the necessity to respond to increasingly aggressive attacks from employers and anti-union governments would produce positive changes within it, almost by an automatic process.

In that sense, the criticism of the ICFTU of its critics is to the point (no clear proposals on exactly how to go about transforming the labour movement).

Typically, our themes have been:

* the democratization of the movement, more involvement of the membership and better membership control of the structures;

* as an objective in its own right, but also as part of the democratization process, the feminization of the movement: better access to the structures for the women within it, taking on board the women's agenda;

* organizing as a priority (this also often in connection with the women's issues, f. ex. in the informal economy);

* "internationalizing the movement", i.e. how to support the GUFs and how to supplement their action through international networking (f.ex. international study circles);

* fighting for basic workers' rights and union rights.

Some of us have raised the banner of "social movement unionism", meaning in general a politically aware and capable form of trade unionism, linking up with other social movements in a broad front of resistance to neo-liberalism, to the roll-back of social welfare and the achievements of the post-war trade union movement (mostly in Europe and North America), in alliance with other social movements and pro-labour NGOs.

Very few, if any, have raised the question: to what end? Why do we want a stronger, more effective, more militant, more political trade union movement?

One obvious answer is: to prevent the workers getting more beaten down by their exploiters by means we are all too familiar with, ranging from dismissal and blacklisting to murder.

That's the obvious objective: to strengthen the movement to enable workers to protect themselves against the worst forms of abuse they are exposed to. Of course, it needs to be done. But is it enough? If we were winning this fight it might be, but we are losing.

Even the most militant of us have been waging defensive battles. And, across the board, we have been losing ground, despite some local victories. These should not be underestimated, because they show what solidarity can do, even against very powerful enemies, but, in and by themselves, they do not change the general picture. The reason is that global transnational capitalism can run circles around us notwithstanding local and limited victories, and will continue to do so until we can mount a serious challenge to the system itself.

Are we ready to challenge the system? and do we have an alternative?

I was struck by a conclusion of the Global Network African Regional Seminar (Cape Town, September 8), which noted:

"We don't speak of socialism but of social transformation or social change. Is this because of an acceptance of capitalism or is it because of the need to re-theorise our struggles and experiences and cater for the differences and new forms that have emerged and are emerging?"

It is true that we have been avoiding the "s" word and I think it is indeed because we need to "re-theorise our struggles and experiences." We cannot challenge the system successfully until we have an alternative. Historically, this alternative has been socialism. But socialism is also undergoing a crisis, and that is a crisis of the meaning of socialism.

Take the case of Eastern Europe, and what used to be the USSR. These were self-described "socialist countries". In fact, the Stalinist regime that was imposed on these countries was the very opposite of socialism by any historical definition, including – and especially – that of Karl Marx. But today, it is very difficult to promote socialism as an ideology for the labour movement in any of the former so-called "socialist countries" because it is identified with one of the worst repressive regimes in history, and the memory of the movement that preceded it, and that was destroyed by it, with its identity and values, is erased.

Take the case of Latin America. Socialism, closely linked to anti-US imperialism, is very popular. But that includes acceptance and support of Cuba as a "socialist country", even though it is nothing more than the Caribbean form of Stalinism, which most Latin American trade unionists would never dream of imposing on their own countries.

Take the case of West-European social-democracy, the historical ally of most of the European trade union movement. Socialism, as an objective, has disappeared from the program of practically all social-democratic parties, and where social-democratic parties are in government, they are, for the most part, driving through neo-liberal programs undistinguishable, but for details, from their conservative opponents. In most of Western Europe, the trade union movement has had to oppose the policies of neo-liberal social-democracy.

Take the case of North America, where a surprising number of the leading cadres of the trade union movement are socialists, but the prevailing ideology of the movement is conservative syndicalism, even in Canada, where a social-democratic party exists, but is not supported by a majority of the unions.

How do we deal with this? Clearly, we need to re-define socialism so it again becomes recognizable as the politics which are naturally ours, those of the historical labour movement, East and West, North and South – globally.

But how, with such divergent experiences and situations, do we reconstruct an international movement with a shared identity and shared values – not the lowest common denominator, that's what we've got today, and it isn't working. Beyond the lowest common denominator, we need an alternative explanation of the world, alternative goals for society and a program on how to get there.

Recovering the meaning of socialism in a form that is profoundly democratic and at the same time firmly anchored in the labour movement, actually its original form, is not as enormously difficult an undertaking as it may seem, although it does take some work. Much of the work is semantic. It means getting rid of the dross of vulgar Marxism, eliminating automatic language with its lazy shortcuts, which prevent thought rather than expressing it, and deconstructing neo-liberal terminology, which has perverted concepts such as "freedom", that are central to our own world view, as well as many others, that have become the common coin of current political discourse. We need to recover our language and learn to express ideas which are simple in themselves, in simple and clear language.

To recover the meaning of socialism we need to go back to the roots. Our point of departure has to be that we intend to change the world, and since the present world order is perceived as unacceptable by a majority of the world's population, we have support. So we have to go through the issues, and develop solutions.

The minimum goals should be those that are essential to human welfare: food, shelter, clothing, but also justice, equality, freedom, access to culture and education, the rule of law. On that basis, on the basis of human needs, we can challenge the present system (capitalism in its present form, however we care to define it.)

Then come the issues which are central to the power relationships: industrial democracy, workers' control of production. There is vast material of historical experience that needs to be rediscovered and related to the present realities.

When we talk about power relationships, the main point, again going back to the roots, is to remember that socialism in our meaning of the term is a democratic movement that has to be built – or re-built – from below. Whatever system, under whatever name, including "socialism", that is imposed from above, is something else, and something we need to fight in every way we can. This is why the industrial democracy issues are so important: because, in the context of industrial relations, they place the power issue where it belongs, with the membership.

Finally, there is the global political issue. The power of global transnational capital is expressed in political terms: through a variety of formal and informal international institutions and through the leading governments, mainly the US government and the EU. It is clear that the labour movement is in no position at this time to challenge this power at that level, even if it wanted to, which is by no means clear. Contrary to what some like to believe, it is not even in a position to negotiate at this level with any prospect of success. To challenge the system at that level, we will need to build far more strength, far more determination and far more clarity, from below. It will take years. How soon we can do it, depends on our own hard work and on many factors that are beyond our control. Developments which we cannot foresee can push us forward or set us back. All we can do for now, is to provide a sense of direction and to make sure that whatever we do, wherever we can, goes in the same direction.

We are not alone. In different parts of the world unions are also grappling with these same problems, and in the margins of the labour movement, socialist scholars, economists, sociologists, historians, various think-tanks, are working on the problem under discussion here, or on parts of it.

One important contribution the IFWEA could be, for starters, to make an inventory of this activity and seek to connect the various strands of socialist thought and activity as part of the process of rebuilding the movement.

Meanwhile, for us, as educators, the most important question remains: how do we connect these issues with the membership?

We need to formulate the discussion in terms that makes sense to the membership in terms of their everyday experience, without underestimating their capacity to understand the broader issues. The question is, in other words: how do we deliver socialist education to the membership?

This can only be an incremental long-term process, precisely because it cannot be done without the active involvement of the membership itself. I don't see a committee meeting for a few months and emerging with a full-blown socialist theory and action program for our time, then putting it before the membership as an accomplished fact and expecting it to salute. We have been there before, and we know this doesn't work.

This would be a re-play of the authoritarian method and it can only lead, in the best of cases, to a schizophrenic situation where socialism is perceived as a long term abstract goal without relevance to everyday realities and disconnected from practical movement activity. In the worst case, it will lead to the rejection of the whole idea. This was the weak point of classical social-democracy, later reproduced by the communist movement and its derivations. We don't want to reproduce these mistakes.

Political education, like any other aspect of workers' and trade union education, has to be done through and with the membership, through a broad discussion, step by step. Only through such a process can the movement recover an ideological and political base that is long lasting and solidly grounded.

Where do we start? Here are some starting points:

(1) deconstruct economic neo-liberalism (or neo-conservatism in political terms), its causes and its consequences. Deconstruct the vocabulary and the ideology, the concept of the "free market". Perhaps we need seminars on semantics.

(2) start preparing study materials for a discussion on the concept of socialism, what it is and what it is not. To borrow from G.D.H. Cole, "what Marx really meant".

(3) take the minimum goals – what is needed for human welfare – and spell out the implications. Every discussion on minimum goals, taken to the limit, leads to an attack on neo-liberalism.

(4) start a discussion on industrial democracy and workers' control.

Between these two points (3 and 4), we will be getting to an outline of a program of radical democracy that is the first step to challenge neo-liberalism.

(5) write and teach labour history: history is about identity and values, and therefore about the future. There is no future without a past.

There are no doubt other approaches that I cannot think of now, that could also be considered.

Some co-ordination of such an effort is needed. The IFWEA could have a committee on political education – not, as I said before, to re-invent socialism, but to gather information on the work already in progress in workers' education institutions, in unions, in academic circles, in social movement NGOs, to take on board the variety of political experiences that exist and to work out a program of studies that could be broadly applicable in all parts of the world, so that comparable outcomes are achieved at all stages of a global discussion and so that a political consensus can eventually emerge.

We can, and should, involve others in this work: concerned trade unionists, scholars, historians, social activists, the women's movement, foundations, think tanks. Is the IFWEA too small a boat to carry this load? At this time, perhaps, but we don't have to do everything at once. Someone has to make a start, someone has to take the first step on this journey. And, to paraphrase Rabbi Hillel (the Elder): if not here, where? if not now, when? if not us, who?