8. Beyond the Border

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Reimagining Community

To avert a descent into barbarism, the labor movement must develop an effective and innovative internationalist praxis uniting workers across borders.

Workers of the World

Illustrations by
Zoran Svilar

“All we want is collective bargaining rights. We are not taking a stance on the elections.” I was somewhat surprised. It was 2012. I was sitting across the table from a leader of a new federation of independent trade unions in Egypt. The words seemed out of place. They echoed what I had heard from US labor officialdom as the right wing gutted the legal framework of public sector unions in 2011.

I had been part of an effort to organize a general strike amidst a protest movement of over 100,000 workers in Wisconsin. We had been inspired by the role of workers in a contemporaneous revolution in Egypt. As government snipers gunned down over 800 protesters in the streets, workers had broken the back of the Mubarak dictatorship by organizing a general strike and in some cases occupying their workplaces. Our effort failed, while theirs had succeeded. Western-style collective bargaining seemed like an anticlimax for Egypt’s revolutionary labor movement.

I wondered where this idea that “collective bargaining rights” were the proper end destination for the movement had come from. It turns out that I was not the first visitor to Egypt’s new class of labor leaders. Soon after the revolution, representatives of the US Solidarity Center (the State Department-funded international arm of the AFL-CIO) as well as representatives of Europe’s trade unions and social democratic parties came bearing gifts. With advice and funding from US- and EU-aligned trade union bodies, the emergent bureaucratic leadership of Egypt’s newly-formed trade unions sought to emulate Western-style business unionism. If they had anything to say about it, the revolution was already in Egypt’s past.

My visit coincided with a runoff election for the new government between the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s second-in-command. The labor movement and left in Egypt failed to field a viable candidate. The Muslim Brotherhood won, the old boss was replaced by a new boss. There would be neither meaningful collective bargaining rights nor workers’ councils. The movements that had toppled Mubarak faced a wave of arrests and assassinations. Revolution gave way to reaction.

Of course, you do not need to look to Egypt to see the failure of internationalism in the labor movement. All across the world, workers see workers from other countries as enemies rather than allies. Workers support and carry out deportations, support and fight in wars that kill the working class and poor of other nations, and elect quasi- or neo-fascist politicians to office. From the perspective of worker solidarity, it is a disaster.

It cannot stay this way. The labor movement must develop an effective internationalist praxis if we are to avert a descent into barbarism.

Imagined Communities

While the need for at least some form of global organization has become accepted in the labor movement mainstream, many labor activists would be surprised to discover that the idea of internationalism can be traced to the urtext of labor radicalism: the Communist Manifesto.

When most people read the Manifesto today, they are surprised to find that the bourgeoisie, not the working class, seems to be the star of the show. Reflecting on the world of 1848, Marx and Engels write that it is the bourgeoisie that has “put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” and the bourgeoisie that “has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” Similarly, it is the bourgeoisie that “has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals,” the bourgeoisie that “has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together,” the bourgeoisie that “has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.”  The bourgeoisie colonized the world. Where it was unable to colonize, it forced all those who opposed it to emulate it. The bourgeoisie remade the world in its own image.

But the Communist Manifesto is not an ode to the power of bourgeoisie. For Marx, capitalism was not the end of history, but rather a new beginning. Capitalism carried with it the seeds of its own Aufhebung. The basic concept is captured by the lines of Solidarity Forever, the pop version of the Marxist metanarrative. As the song goes, the working class stands “outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made,” but “we can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn that the union makes us strong.”

The bourgeoisie had created a new historical subject — the international working class. But this subject was riddled with contradictions, and known not even to itself. It would be the task of the communists to awaken this sleeping giant. As the vernacular Marxism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) put it, the “army of production” must be organized not just to win day-to-day class struggles against the capitalists, but to take control of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and inaugurate the cooperative commonwealth.

It was a global vision, not for idealist reasons, but because global capitalism created the material basis for global communism, and called forth global revolt to topple its rule. For Marx, it was the destiny of the proletariat to conquer the world in the footsteps of capital.

It has not worked out that way, so far. The onward march of history seems to have taken a detour through an extra century or so of capitalism. The structures built by the bourgeoisie have proven far more formidable obstacles than the teleology of the Manifesto implied.   Looming large amongst obstacles to proletarian internationalism is the capitalist state. In Marx’s analysis, the bourgeoisie developed the “modern representative state” as its “executive committee,” guiding big-picture strategic planning and meting out repression to shore up its rule.

But the state created by the bourgeoisie was not only a repressive apparatus and tool for coordination. The growth of the administrative structures of the capitalist state was accompanied by what Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community” of the nation. Through literature, school systems, religious institutions — all of what Althusser dubbed the Ideological State Apparatus — the bourgeoisie cultivated a sense of shared cultural identity around competing blocs of capitalists in Western Europe. “Germany,” “France,” “Great Britain,” “Italy” and other signifiers congealed as imagined communities shared by inhabitants across class lines. The working class was supposed to submit to exploitation, to kill and die for its mythic identity with the bourgeoisie’s nation.

Against the nationalist imagined communities of the bourgeoisie, communists proposed a broader, internationalist imagined community. Rather than line up behind the bourgeoisie who exploited them in their own language, the workers of each nation should unite across made-up international boundaries to overthrow their oppressors. It did not go as hoped.

Failed Internationals

The path of the left in the past 150 years is littered with the ruins of Internationals, attempts to unite the workers of the world for communist revolution. Members of the First International played an important role in launching the Paris Commune in 1871, what Marx described as the “first dictatorship of the proletariat.” But after two months of radical government of the city of Paris, the forces of the French bourgeoisie retook the city and drowned the Commune in blood. The international labor movement was unable to effectively intervene.

A year later, the First International famously split between followers of Marx and followers of Bakunin over the question of state power. Bakunin became representative of a tendency favoring more immediate insurrection, while Marx’s followers were more open to engaging in electoral activity as the franchise was slowly extended by the bourgeoisie. Both of the rival Internationals collapsed within a few years, but the underlying divergence in strategic orientation became a lasting feature of left ideological debates.

Revolutionary syndicalism emerged as a tendency focused on organizing workers at the point of production for direct action battles with capitalists building up to a millenarian general strike. From the late 1800s to early 1900s, revolutionary syndicalists built unions of hundreds of thousands of workers into organizations that waged daily class struggle while maintaining a revolutionary horizon.

The most well-known exemplars of revolutionary syndicalism are the Spanish CNT and the IWW. As Peter Cole writes in Wobblies of the World, the IWW “was founded as a self-consciously global union … the organization enrolled members and established branches in literally dozens of countries, and its organizers and sympathizers traveled to many more to work, agitate, educate, and organize.” It was perhaps the purest expression of the Communist Manifesto’s spirit of world-wide worker solidarity.

Another wing of the movement saw taking state power through building mass socialist labor parties as the road to revolution — or at least to reform that would curtail the worst abuses of capitalism. Socialists preferring electoralism to direct action cohered around the “Second International” in 1889. Its affiliates notched impressive success at the ballot box in the first decades of the twentieth century. But the outcome of this success leaves one wondering if socialists had taken over the state, or if the state had taken over the socialists.

The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) provides the starkest example. The SPD was the largest political party in Germany on the eve of World War I, marshaling over four million votes. But in 1914 the party broke with the internationalist line of the Second International and voted for war. The Second International soon collapsed as party after party lined up behind the national bourgeoisie of its host state in support of the war effort. When the chips were down, electoral socialism was too invested in its footholds in the capitalist state to wage all-out resistance to a world war that would slaughter millions of workers.

Some socialists did oppose World War I, but faced repression that rapidly overwhelmed their ability to organize resistance. The revolutionary elements within the Second International convened the Zimmerwald Conference, launching a new coordinating body to oppose the war and fight for revolution. Lenin and the Bolsheviks played a central role in uniting the left — and in ending Russian participation in the war by organizing a revolution that overthrew the Czar and established a Soviet Socialist Republic in Russia.

With the breakthrough of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, the revolutionary elements in the socialist movement formed a Third International that decided at its second Congress to “struggle by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the state.” A new phase in the international socialist movement had begun.

Two Internationalisms

The Third International became a global hub for the Communist Parties of the world with the priority of expanding the communist victory in Russia. But the question of the way forward for the socialist movement was far from settled. Another International was formed in Berlin in 1922, grouping together revolutionary unions that opposed seizing control of the state in the revolutionary process, instead orienting toward creating of forms of direct democracy and linking workers in a worldwide labor federation.

The Spanish Revolution put the new Internationals and their members to the test. International volunteers from across the world streamed into Spain to join the workers’ and peasants’ militias fighting Franco’s fascism. Under the stress of the war, tensions flared between factions aligned with the now Stalin-controlled Third International and its orientation toward state socialism, and the anarchist-oriented partisans of the CNT and many international volunteers. The eurocentrism of the left blinded partisans to the possibility of an alliance with anti-colonial rebellions against the fascists in North Africa. The revolution was defeated, a harbinger of what was to come for the revolutionary left across Europe on the eve of World War II.

At the beginning of the 1930s, Communist Parties aligned with the Soviet Union painted Western liberalism and fascism with the same brush, denouncing New Dealers and social democrats as “social fascists.” The order of the day was to fight for immediate communist revolution worldwide. But for Stalin, the communist ideal of worldwide worker solidarity was rapidly outweighed by geopolitical considerations.

The Soviet Union was weakened by the Great Purge, Stalin’s bid to cement his personal dictatorship by ordering the incarceration or murder of hundreds of thousands of people. With the capitalist West remaining hostile and the world inching closer to war, in 1939 Stalin sought a security guarantee for his weakened state by entering into the Molotov-Ribbertrop pact with Hitler, pledging mutual non-aggression for ten years, and secretly agreeing to divide Eastern Europe with the Nazis.

The Soviet Union continued a brisk export business to Germany, even while Nazi forces invaded the surrounding states, rounded up and murdered trade unionists, communists, Jews, people identifying as LGBTQ, people with disabilities, and other others. Ironically, even while Stalin cut deals with Hitler, Communist Parties across the world were under orders to forswear compromise with liberals and social democrats.

In 1941, Nazi Germany broke the terms of the pact and invaded the Soviet Union. With the Soviet Union under attack, Stalinists made an abrupt about-face, seeking alliance between the liberal capitalist West against Nazi Germany. As a sign of goodwill toward the West, Stalin dissolved the Third International in 1943. The Soviet Union shifted from an orientation to world revolution to a policy of socialism in one country. Stalin-aligned Communists in the Allied nations were supposed to acquiesce to capitalist discipline and defer plans for revolution until after fascism was defeated.

Virtually the entire leadership of the US labor movement supported a no-strike agreement during WWII in exchange for a no-lockout agreement from the employers, with arbitration of disputes by a tripartite War Labor Board. There were price controls for companies, and wage controls for workers. It was the most developed system ever attempted in the United States to unite labor and capital under the tutelage of the state.

It did not work. After a brief dip in 1941, strikes skyrocketed. According to Martin Glaberman’s Wartime Strikes:

Despite the opposition of the top union leadership and, often enough, local union leaders; despite the pressure of government through uniformed officers present in the plants; despite the pressure of draft boards to get rid of militants; despite the loss of militants, including stewards and committeemen, through company dismissals; despite the fantastic pressure of the daily papers which bitterly and viciously attacked striking workers; wildcats continued to increase in number as the war went on.

By 1944, there were 4,956 strikes per year, more than in 1937, a previous high point in class struggle. Because the unions had agreed to no-strike pledges as a condition of their participation in the War Labor Board, all strikes were wildcats. Most were about local concerns like safety, unfair firings and abusive supervisors, but some challenged the system of wage and price controls, noting that wages were not keeping pace with inflation.

The highest priority for Stalinists was supporting the US war effort to defeat the Nazis. This meant opposing the workers’ movement at its origins — resistance to exploitation at the point of production. Stalinists went so far as to cast strikers even in non-critical industries during the war as “scabs,” pledging virtually unconditional loyalty to Roosevelt. The internationalism of Stalinism became a form of gun-in-hand nationalism, divorced from the internationalism of worker solidarity expressed by the Communist Manifesto. Left currents that opposed World War II as an imperialist war were brutally repressed.

In the end, it was the workers and peasants of the Red Army who dealt fascism its death blow. The defeat of the Nazi regime was paid for with the lives of over 20 million soldiers and civilians of the Soviet Union, far more casualties than any other state. No one on the left today would argue that there was any alternative to waging armed struggle to eradicate fascism. But it remains true that the US bourgeoisie used the war to expand its own global hegemony, and as a result, the challenge of building worldwide workers’ solidarity became even more complex.

Capitalist Internationalism

As the Cold War dawned, the transmutation of internationalism into a type of nationalism for various Communist states became a permanent fixture of left discourse. Alignment with one Communist state or another became a litmus test for many factional splits on the left. The project of building class consciousness for world revolution became secondary to building support for specific socialist states.

The fronts of the Cold War extended into the labor movement. In the pre-war years in the United States, a fragile alliance between the heads of the union bureaucracies and communist organizers had led to victory after victory for workers and an enormous spike in the level of unionization. As hostilities resumed between the Soviet Union and the capitalist world, the labor bureaucracy came under pressure to distance itself from the revolutionary aspirations of the organizers who had built the upsurge of the 1930s.

In 1947, the US government passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which contained a raft of provisions limiting union power. Perhaps most damaging was a requirement for union leaders to sign affidavits that they were not affiliated with the Communist Party. Unions that did not comply with Taft-Hartley would be barred from using most provisions of US labor law. This provided a reason, or perhaps a pretense, for labor liberals to purge radicals from staff and officer positions. By the end of the 1940s, radicals stood outcast and starving amidst the unions they had built. The CIO re-merged with the AFL in 1955, cementing the hegemony of liberalism in US labor’s leadership.

Unions that accepted the parameters of US capitalism were given a seat at the table. The organizing model of US unions cohered as “business unionism.” It meant a narrow focus on collective bargaining for a contract at individual enterprises, accepting management prerogative over the production process, and forswearing visions of radical social transformation. Union mobilizations focused mostly on narrow, bread-and-butter demands, occasionally garnished with endorsement of liberal causes.

Acquiescence to US imperialism was part of the deal. Even before World War II, the AFL had not affiliated with the International Confederation of Trade Unions — the largest global association of unions — because of its endorsement of socialism. After WWII, it split from the re-founded ICTU because it included affiliates from the Soviet Bloc. As a result, Communist-aligned unions formed the World Confederation of Trade Unions, and US-aligned unions formed the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the name itself a polemic against state socialism. Even this was not sufficiently anti-communist for the AFL-CIO, which quit the ICFTU from 1969-1982 because many affiliates wanted to maintain relations with unions across the iron curtain.

US capital tasked the AFL-CIO with exporting its brand of business unionism, and the AFL-CIO obliged. In 1944, the AFL created the Free Trade Union Committee to support “free unions founded on collective bargaining in an open marketplace, and opposition to state-run unions on the Soviet model” in other countries. Where no business unions existed, US labor helped create them. In 1948, the FTUC created an entirely new union in France called Force Ouvrière to compete with Communist-affiliated unions.

Beginning that year, the CIA began funneling funds to the FTUC. Its successor organizations, the American Institute for Free Labor Development, and today the Solidarity Center are all funded almost entirely by grants from the US government. They provide support to unions that follow the pro-capitalist business unionism model in order to undermine communist influence in the global labor movement. The investments seem to have paid off. The AIFLD played a major role in supporting the Solidarnosc movement in Poland, and steering it toward liberal or even neoliberal goals.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US government has sought to replicate the Solidarnosc movement in China and other states that resist US hegemony by providing grants and training to activists. In one particularly notable example, in 2002, the Solidarity Center received funds from the National Endowment for Democracy to assist the anti-Chávez Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV). A year later, the CTV played a major role in an attempted coup against Chávez’s socialist government.

With the aid of US labor’s institutions, the bourgeois project of world domination was successful. The Soviet Union is no more; remaining “socialist” states have accommodated themselves to the global capitalist system. But ironically, the world resembles the conditions outlined by Marx in the Communist Manifesto now more than ever. Supply chains bind the workers of the world across the borders of nation-states. Misery forces resistance in many forms — from strikes and occupations to migration across the imaginary lines the bourgeoisie has drawn on the globe.

Although some cling to the imagined communities of the bourgeoisie, even turning toward the blood-and-soil ideology of fascism that claims natural bonds between ethnic groups and particular parts of the Earth’s surface, the mythology of nation-states seems more obsolete than ever before. Now is the time for the re-emergence of an effective internationalist praxis. We do not have to invent one — it is already being invented by the working class in struggle.

The Next International

Fragments of a future internationalism are all around us. The most crucial ingredient is the slowly-dawning realization in the working class and even in labor’s institutions of the need to fight.

Conditions are worsening in the capitalist core. Ironically, US labor’s active role in destroying militant unionism in the Third World has incentivized outsourcing, undermining the very foundation of US unions and accelerating the immiseration of US workers. With the demise of any systemic alternative to capitalism, US elites have no reason to need to strike a deal with labor, and have opened up a one-sided class war against workers. As this becomes unavoidably apparent, workers and unions are fighting back.

The conditions that allowed business unionism to thrive no longer exist, forcing a perestroika moment in US labor. There is an openness to different models in US labor. Cold War paranoia over challenging control of the means of production has faded. Unions and workers are experimenting with cooperative development and takeovers. Ideas once radical within the labor movement are entering the mainstream.

The class war now takes on an inherently global scope. As capital seeks to whipsaw one working class against another with threats of outsourcing, the One Big Union envisioned by the IWW capable of enforcing one set of global standards is not a pie-in-the-sky dream, it is the only logical strategic response. For the first time, international solidarity can become concrete in workplace-based struggle. Workers in the capitalist core and periphery are exploited by the same boss. Instead of abstract calls to support this or that socialist state, labor organizers now can — in fact must — build solidarity down the supply chains of multinational corporations.

The decline of US hegemony has opened up new geopolitical opportunities. It is possible to begin forging a new development pathway out of capitalism one rebel region at a time. From Venezuela’s communes to the revolutionary cantons of Rojava, economic experiments are underway to break with the capitalist world system. As regional antagonism become unfrozen in the thaw of US hegemony, armed conflicts similar to the Syrian civil war are sure to engulf these experiments. Fascist and pro-capitalist forces will support their side. As the labor left, we need to support our side too — as the hundreds of internationalist volunteers who have aided the People’s Defense Forces in Rojava have bravely modeled.

The greatest possibility — and necessity — for building a new imagined community of the global working class is not in a far-off land. The task of building international solidarity has become urgently local. Through poverty and war, capitalism is forcing a historically unprecedented number of people to leave their homes and seek refuge in the relatively calm areas of Europe and North America. Right-wing politicians attempt to trade on this refugee crisis by turning immigrants into scapegoats for the accelerating decline of the working-class standard of living in the capitalist core. The struggle for rights for refugees and migrants cuts to the core of the question facing the global working class.

Do we live in a world of scarcity, where one group must fight another group for rights to limited resources, where what we have is based on what we can take from other imagined “nations”? Or are we one interdependent human community that can we easily create abundance for all the Earth’s people through cooperation? Our answer must be to reimagine labor’s imagined community to include all workers. Our task is to unite the workers of the world. We have nothing to lose but our chains. We have a world to win.

Erik Forman

Erik Forman has spent over a decade as a rank-and-file organizer in the fastfood and education sectors. He works as a labor educator in New York City.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/magazine/workers-of-the-world/

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