Center Praxis Conference: "The Anti-Totalitarian Left: Between Past and Future",
Moscow, June 21-22, 2003
by Dan Gallin, Global Labour Institute
Dear Friends and Comrades,
In the first place, I would like to congratulate you for having organized this meeting and, more importantly, for all the work you have done in the last four or five years which has led up to this meeting. The creation of the Victor Serge Library, which has now become a foundation, the establishment of the Praxis Center, the publication of "Memoirs of a Revolutionist" in Russian, are remarkable achievements under very difficult material and political circumstances.
Your choice of Victor Serge as a reference is in itself a challenge. Victor Serge remains in history as a representative of the Left as it always should have been: a person of integrity, incorruptible and fearless, always clear about ultimate objectives, with a sure political instinct free of sectarianism, with a vast experience of the revolutionary movement of his time and with the gift of communicating all this in clear and simple language. These are the qualities we most need in our labour movement today, so the first challenge, if we take Victor Serge as a reference, is to ourselves.
The second challenge is, of course, to our opponents and, yes, not to put too fine a point on it, our enemies. We have many, and they are the same Victor Serge had to face in his time. They are inside the movement, the bureaucracies that stifle us, including residual Stalinism, but not only, and outside, the other and older class enemy, more powerful than ever today.
Victor Serge is part of our history and history, contrary to common belief, is not about the past, it is about the future. History is the sum-total of the struggles, controversies, sacrifices and the hard work involving thousands of people who shaped our movement, who created its identity and its values. Because it creates identity and values, history is about the future. Organizations and movements need roots to grow. They cannot understand what they are and where they are going unless they understand their own past and their own origins, because only then the ultimate purpose becomes clear.
This is why the theme of this meeting is very appropriate: we are indeed between the past and the future, which are linked – the present is a mere instant.
I have been asked to speak on the international workers' movement and the Left. You might say that this is one and the same thing, and in a general historical sense they are, of course, closely intertwined. We also need to look, however, at some attempts that have been made to separate labour in its organized form (the trade union movement) from the Left, and to understand their significance. The latest, and the most important one, has been taking place for the last ten years in the post-Stalinist societies, where the concept of the Left has been hi-jacked and compromised by Stalinism.
Broadly speaking, there are four periods in the history of the international labour movement: first, from its origins to World War I; second, the inter-war years; third, the period from the end of World War II to the collapse of Stalinism as a political system; and finally, the present period of globalizing capitalism.
The first period is that of the ascendancy of the labour movement, of the First and Second Internationals. That is where the foundations of the movement were laid. The defeat of the Paris Commune and the split between Anarchists and Marxists put an end to the First International but, a few years later, the Second International, appeared to pick up where the First left off. The socialist and trade union movements were closely linked and went from strength to strength. Socialist mass parties arose in Central and Western Europe, as well as strong anarcho-syndicalist unions in Southern Europe. The May Day campaign gave the movement international cohesion.
This phase of the movement comes to an abrupt end on August 1, 1914. Much has been written about the political collapse of movement before the tidal wave of nationalism on that day and I have no new explanation, much less a one-size-fits-all analysis. The usual explanation, combining subjective and sociological factors ("the treason of the reformist leadership"), does not explain everything. It does not explain, for example, why the revolutionary syndicalist leadership of the French CGT collapsed in the same way as the leadership of most orthodox Marxist social-democratic mass parties. Nor does it explain how it came about that great leaders and thinkers suddenly turned into cowards and collaborationists, why those who resisted can be counted on the fingers of two hands.
It is clear that the movement was just not strong enough, not ideologically, not politically, not culturally, not organizationally. Resolutions against war, solemnly adopted at socialist congresses, like the Basle congress of 1912, turned out to be irrelevant. We need to think more about why this was the case. Obviously, the strength of nationalism, and the ability of the ruling classes to manipulate it to their advantage, had been seriously underestimated. This also happened later, under other circumstances, and it is still happening today.
On our side, it was not so much a matter of overestimating our forces. Lenin and Trotsky, trying to get some sleep in Smolny, said to each other: if Western Europe doesn't come through, we are finished. They realized that even if they won the war in Russia, the revolution would not survive unless it spread to Western Europe. We all know this didn't happen. What did happen, was substituting voluntarism to real strength, and the weakness of the revolutionary option opened the way to Stalinism.
The following period, roughly from the Russian Revolution to the outbreak of the Second World War, was dominated by the bitter and increasingly irreconcilable split between the social-democratic and the Communist movements. Early attempts to re-establish the unity of the Left came to nothing. The suppression of the non-Bolshevik Left in Russia, followed by the suppression of organized tendencies within the Bolshevik party, the invasion and occupation of social-democratic Georgia, the Stalinization of the Communist Parties after 1926 and finally the extermination of any form of opposition in the 1930s made a reconciliation impossible. Anti-fascist and popular front "unity" policies promoted by the Communist parties proved to be tactical manoeuvres to be turned off or on according the requirements of the foreign policy of the USSR. Stalin's intervention in the Spanish Civil War demonstrated that the only unity the Communist parties would accept was where they were in total control.
The defeat in Spain and the suppression of the CNT for the next four decades also ended revolutionary syndicalism as a significant force in the international labour movement.
It is at this point that the big questions concerning the nature and the identity of the Left begin to be asked, and they all hinge around the nature of Stalinism as a social and political system. As early as 1929, Karl Kautsky challenged the socialist nature of the USSR by pointing out that the State was controlled by a ruling clique, which collectively owned the means of production through its ownership of the State. Writing of nationalization in that context, Kautsky observed that social-democrats and Communists only shared the word, not the content. Regarding final objectives, they had nothing in common.
In that, he understood the situation better than Trotsky who maintained to the end of is life that the USSR was, because of the State ownership of the means of production, some sort of socialist entity: a "degenerated workers' State".
In the 1940s, a number of Marxist theoreticians picked up where Kautsky left off. Most came from the Trotskyist tradition: Max Shachtman and Joe Carter in the US, CLR James, Tony Cliff in Britain, Cornelius Castoriadis in France; Milovan Djilas came of course out of Yugoslav Stalinism. The common denominator of all these analyses was this: the USSR (and States established on the same model) represented a new class society, based on the collective ownership of the means of production by a new ruling class through its control of the State; this ruling class maintained itself in power by military and police repression, exercising total control over all aspects of social life. In this system, the working class is doubly oppressed: as citizens through the police State, and as workers through State-controlled institutions of labour administration, called "trade unions" – here, too, one could say, we share the word, not the content.
These discussions took place in the midst of a historical catastrophe of huge proportions. Fascism had wiped out the labour movement in most of Europe: first in Italy and Portugal, then in Germany and Austria, then in Spain then, as the German armies occupied nearly all of the continent, everywhere except in Britain and a few remaining neutral or unoccupied countries. The Jewish Labour Bund was destroyed together with the population that supported it. Stalinism had contributed to the destruction of the independent Left in Europe, and had of course exterminated hundreds of thousands of socialists, anarchists and Communists in Russia itself, later in the occupied countries of Eastern and Central Europe.
Victor Serge describes this period very well, in his memoirs and in his novels: "The Case of Comrade Tulayev", "Midnight in the Century" and "The Long Dusk".
No one has so far established a reliable statistic of the losses of the Left in the three decades following the Russian Revolution, but we can safely say that about two political generations of activists and leaders disappeared in that period, more than that in Portugal and Spain where fascism lasted longer, more than that in Eastern Europe with 40 years of Stalinism, or on the territory of the former USSR, with 70 years of Stalinism.
This leads us to the fourth phase, the post-war period. The social-democratic labour movement emerged from the war superficially victorious, actually greatly weakened by its losses, and far more dependent on the State than it had been before the war. This was partly due to its war-time alliance with the Allied powers, partly to its objective weakness under conditions of economic reconstruction, partly because most of the leading post-war governments in the principal industrial countries were either social-democratic or at any rate socially-oriented and prepared to support the legislative agenda of the labour movement.
The Communist labour movement also emerged very strongly at first, as a dominant force in France and Italy, but also strong elsewhere in Europe, building on its prestige in the resistance movement (which it had joined only after 1941, when Nazi Germany attacked the USSR) and by the prestige of the USSR as the principal land-based power in Europe that had defeated Nazi Germany.
In Eastern Europe, where the trade union movement had never been strong in the first place (with the exception of Czechoslovakia), the surviving social-democratic, independent Left and dissident Communist cadres quickly disappeared in the jails and labour camps of the KGB. Trade unions were forcibly dissolved and replaced by State organizations for labour administration.
At this point, the Cold War became the new global political reality. Each of the two superpowers were deploying tremendous financial and political resources to control the labour movement in support of their bloc. The labour movement became polarized and the position of all those who were seeking to maintain an independent trade union movement based on an independent class interest became very difficult.
I think that this is where we temporarily lost the battle for the identity of the Left. The insights of those who had analysed the USSR in Marxist terms as a new class society, and who had recognized that Stalinism, anti-capitalist though it may have been, was certainly not socialist in any recognizable sense of the word, were the insights of a minority. It had some influence in the labour movement, perhaps more than is generally realized, but it could not dominate the political debate.
The political debate was dominated by conservatism and Stalinism. The Stalinist propaganda machine beat the same drum for four decades: the USSR and the bloc under its control were the "socialist countries" – actually "really existing socialism" (as opposed to the unreal and non existing variety some of us were trying to maintain as a serious political option). The Internationale, although it had ceased to be the national anthem of the USSR in the 1940s, was sung at Stalinist meetings, where red flags were also flying, and Stalinist "trade unions" were seeking a role on the international scene based on a terminological deception.
This view of the Communist movement as an acceptable variety of socialism rather than a fundamental break with the original purpose of the movement gained widespread popular acceptance after the war. This happened in several ways: (1) cultivating the myth of the October Revolution, and of the USSR as the incarnation of the values of this revolution; (2) hiding and obliterating the realities of working class life in the USSR and the occupied countries; dismissing factual reports as "enemy propaganda"; (3) corrupting Western opinion makers (writers, artists, journalists, politicians, trade unionists, etc.), including a number from the non-Communist Left, in many ways ranging from subtle to primitive; (4) intimidating opposition from the Left and within the Left.
A further difficulty for socialists trying to deal with this situation was the fact that many, probably most, of the members of Communist mass parties, typically in France and Italy, had joined in the sincere belief that they were joining a socialist movement, for much the same reasons as others, or even the same people under different circumstances, would have joined a social-democratic or independent socialist party. Most rank-and-file Communists in fact believed that they were joining a more radical and consistent socialist movement than social-democracy could offer.
It took several severe shocks to jolt such members into seeing through the tissue of deceptions and lies which had blinded them. With the experiences of the pre-war generation (the Moscow Trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact) largely obliterated by World War II, it would take experiences such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, or the repression of the Czechoslovak reform movement in 1968, to make normal Communist Party members understand the nature of their movement and leave.
The misappropriation of the terminology and the symbols of socialism was actively supported by the conservative propaganda from the Right, which had every interest in identifying socialism with Stalinism in order to discredit the socialist idea with the Stalinist reality.
Meanwhile, the democratic Left in the labour movement had itself largely abandoned the ideological battle by the 1970s and 1980s. In the first place, the social-democratic parties had been diluting their identity over the years, playing down their socialist origins and purposes in favour of "social market capitalism". Partly as a result of the same process, the Socialist International had become mainly an informal club of European social-democratic leaders rather than an ideological reference point and an organizing tool. Towards the USSR and its bloc the policy was to strengthen co-existence and, as government policy with various variants of "Ostpolitik" increasingly dictated party policy, this meant accommodation rather than confrontation.
In the trade union movement, the most confrontational elements, such as the AFL-CIO, were campaigning on a basic human rights platform, not a broader ideological platform. So far as ideology was concerned, the AFL-CIO had bought into an American version of the "social market economy" and was not explicitly seeking to defend any form of alternative Left.
The European social-democratic unions had also stopped asserting their political and ideological identity. Several factors explain this: first, the dilution of social-democratic ideology at the political level, as already mentioned; second, the desire to accommodate the Catholic unions, in a perspective of eventual unity at European and international level; thirdly, the same confusion as in politics between the policy of States (where the objective was peaceful coexistence) and the international policy of the trade union movement, which is to defend a class interest. Consequently, by the 1980s, very few social-democratic unions were campaigning against Stalinism, and certainly not on the basis of representing a better Left, or a genuine Left. At international level, the IUF was one of the few organizations which tried to maintain this line.
Finally, the stability of the Stalinist system was greatly overrated. The general assumption was that co-existence was to be a long term relationship, with eventual convergence over decades. No one expected the system to collapse when it did, nor as suddenly. Even those of us who believed that it had to collapse eventually did not expect this to happen in the time scale it did, so events caught the labour movement unprepared at every level: ideologically, politically, organizationally.
For all these reasons, the democratic trade union movement was unable to offer a political alternative to workers in the former USSR and in Central and Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR collapsed. At the very time its historical enemy had left the scene in disgrace, social-democracy was unable to provide an alternative. Mainly because of its ideological and political weakness in the West, the economic and social order that emerged in the East after Stalinism was not any form of social-democracy but bandit capitalism with a primitive ideology of social Darwinism.
The response of the emerging trade union movement in the successor States of the USSR and in Eastern Europe was understandably confused. In both East and West the collapse of Stalinism was widely perceived as a defeat of socialism and the ideology of large parts of the new trade union movement in the East became conservative syndicalism or anti-socialism in various forms, or else residual Stalinism in some of the old structures. The continuity with the pre-war and pre-Stalinist labour movement is broken and there are no visible attempts to recover legitimacy and inspiration from this earlier period. The main exception is the Czech Republic, where historical social-democracy has re-established itself as the dominant party of the Left and the trade union movement largely identifies with it.
As we are entering the 21st century, the situation has changed again. The main feature of the present period is the emergence of the new social movements, single issue movements and protest movements against globalizing capitalism dominated by transnational corporations. They are capable of forming powerful coalitions: the World Social Forum is one of their platforms. Some originate in authoritarian traditions, most are anti-authoritarian as well as anti-capitalist.
These movements are filling a void left by the labour movement as it retreated from its broader social concerns and responsibilities and they now represent a new challenge to the international labour movement: is it going to join the coalition of those calling for an "alternative globalization", basically on an anti-capitalist platform, or is it going to remain suspended in what is essentially a lobbying activity with the international financial institutions, the EU and other inter-governmental institutions?
The period we have entered is full of paradoxes. The international labour movement (essentially the ICFTU, the GUFs and the ETUC) has never been as united in its history as it is today; at the same time, it has never been as directionless and devoid of wider social perspectives. It has never been as representative in the institutions as it is today, yet about 90% of the world's workers are not organized. Globalizing transnational capitalism is triumphant and bestrides the world scene with imperial arrogance; at the same time, it has called forth the most powerful anti-capitalist movement since historical socialism left the scene as an organized international movement. Stalinism is dead, but a Stalinist party, which has embraced capitalism, controls about one third of the population of the globe.
The labour movement, at national and especially at international level, will be unable to resolve these contradictions, each of which is a challenge, unless it reinvents its political dimension, a new Labour Left.
The general question of the World Order is put to us in very urgent and pressing terms. We are facing an onslaught on our movement, world wide, of a kind that we have not experienced since the 1930s. We are facing this onslaught at every level: in the industrial democracies, social welfare and social protection are being dismantled, democratic rights and union rights are being eroded; the rest of the world is caught in a poverty trap, often maintained by repression, from which there seems no escape. This obviously calls for a global political response. The Global Justice Movement, which emerged from Porto Alegre, declares: "another world is possible". We agree. We believe another world, and a better world, is possible. How do we bring it about? Let us not be under any illusions: we are facing very powerful and very ruthless interests. Challenging them means war, and we better realize we are in a war. We cannot win this war unless we create the broadest possible popular alliances, and this means politics: a political platform of a Labour Left.
The vast majority of the world working class today is not organized. Why is this? Partly because the working class has changed, partly because over a large part of the world trade unionism is repressed. One of the major changes in the world working class is the growing informalization of work and the growth of the informal economy, which is outside of the scope of traditional union organizing. Organizing in the informal economy again requires political skills and the creation of alliances, in this instance principally with women's organizations. Such political skills, much less a political vision, are not currently much in evidence.
Fighting repression of trade unions is a human rights issue, and this too calls for political alliances, at the very least with the human rights movements. Alliances are based on reciprocity, and this means that the trade union movement must be prepared to defend a broad range of human rights issues, most of which should be normal trade union concerns anyway.
China is a huge issue all by itself, at the same time a human rights and a political issue. One would imagine that formulating and implementing a policy for the international labour movement on the largest most repressive State in the world would be a relatively simple matter. In fact, it is on this issue that the difficulty of reaching a political consensus has been most glaring and it is probably on the China issue that the political decomposition of social-democracy in the labour movement has taken its most shocking forms.
Depressingly, the lessons of dealing with the so-called "trade unions" of the former USSR have not been assimilated. There is no evidence whatsoever that "constructive engagement" on the part of Western trade unionists, over decades, contributed in any way to the transformation of the former State labour organisations of the Soviet bloc into genuine trade union organisations. That process was driven by workers' revolts of the same kind than that which is currently building up in China. Yet, the same arguments are now advanced to justify "constructive engagement" with the Chinese State-controlled labour organizations which, in some surprising instances, amounts to servile collaboration. Ultimately, the issue will be decided by the Chinese workers. Given the situation, our ambitions are modest: to be as supportive as we can of the democratic labour opposition, and to minimize the damage caused by the collaborationists, where we can.
The process of developing a new Labour Left in the international trade union movement is complicated and difficult. It amounts to the reinvention of social-democracy, in part against the social-democratic parties themselves, or at least parts of them. It will have to integrate the experiences and the insights of the independent Left, essentially derived from historical Trotskyism and revolutionary syndicalism. It will have to take on board the sensitivities and concerns of the new social movements, of what has become the Global Justice Movement, where labour should be an actor, not a spectator. Actually, much of this is already happening: I am not describing a program for the future, but a process already under way, complicated and difficult as it may be.
Let us go back to history. There cannot be an a-historical Left. We need historians more than ever. As I said in the beginning, history is about identity and values. The reference points of a new Labour Left are the experiences of the old Labour Left, its aspirations and ambitions, its victories and its defeats, and its amazing resilience, after all, against all odds. We are counting on labour historians, not to develop a new ideology, that is the task of this and future generations, but to tell us how all of these things came about. We need to understand out past to shape our future.