Transnational trade unionism: dream and reality.

Author:McIlroy, John
Position:The Red International of Labour Unions (RILU - Book review

Reiner Tosstorff

The Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), 1920-1937, Leiden: Brill, 2016; 918

pp.: ISBN 9789004236646, 274.00 [euro] (hbk); Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2018; 918

pp.: ISBN 9781608468164, $55.00 (pbk)

Global trade unionism has a rich and honourable lineage. It stretches back beyond Marx and the First International to the struggles against imperialism, fascism, and latterly neoliberalism, in the 20th and 21st centuries (Croucher & Cotton 2009; Kirk 2003). Its origins, purposes and history have been analysed in an outstanding, if sometimes neglected, body of work. The focus of investigation has been on the mainstream international federations animated by liberal and social-democratic ideas and actors (see, for example, Carew 2018; Carew et al. 2000; Van der Linden 2003, 2010; Van Goethem 2006). Radical and revolutionary variants have attracted less and arguably insufficient attention. To take what is, perhaps, the most striking example, the ever-expanding scholarship on the Comintern, stimulated by access to the Soviet archives, has not been matched by research into its companion organisation, the Profintern or Red International of Labour Unions (RILU).

Established in July 1921, preceded by an experimental prototype, the International Trade Union Council, RILU aspired to recruit, expand and coordinate the activities of unions led by Communists, anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists. Such unions would be linked to the Comintern's affiliated parties and organise the world's wage slaves to combat global capitalism and compete with national unions aligned with the reformist, Amsterdam-based International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). RILU's task was to spearhead a global struggle between an insurgent, post-war trade unionism which would play its part in defending 1917 and overthrowing capitalism in other countries; and the pro-imperialist 'yellow unions', dominated by class-collaborationist 'agents of the bourgeoisie' and committed to integrating the working class into a reconstructed world capitalist order, the League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation. Students of RILU have had to rely, hitherto, on fragmentary analysis scattered through E.H. Carr's multi-volume history of the Russian revolution (Carr 1952, 1953, 1963, 1978) and the occasional article (Swain 1987; Tosstorff 2003). Reference to it is slight in the histories of the national Communist parties and scrutiny is sketchy in studies of its affiliated groups and their leaders (see, for example, Barrett 1999; Martin 1969). The publication in English of Reiner Tosstorff's The Red International of Labour Unions (hereafter RILU) in a fluent translation by Ben Fowkes is an extremely welcome and long overdue examination of an organisation frequently treated as a footnote to the Comintern.

In its 16-year existence, RILU claimed to represent up to 17 million trade unionists out of an estimated 40 million worldwide. At its peak, it employed 300 staff in Moscow with bureaux in Berlin, Paris and, for a time, Shanghai, a thriving press and a generous budget dispensed from Moscow. In the inter-war years, trade unionism was under pressure around the capitalist globe and the state-backed Russian trade unions constituted RILU's core. Czechoslovakia and France were its strongholds in Europe, although its influence also extended to North and South America, Australia and China. Like its competitor, RILU confronted the intractable difficulties which have substantially restricted international trade union federations to acting as instruments for education; exchange of information; the application of diplomatic leverage on nation-states; the organisation of solidarity campaigns--more often focussed on financial support than industrial action; as well as preserving and nurturing the conviction that workers world-wide share a common interest in confronting capital. Like the IFTU, RILU was largely unsuccessful in transcending the national roots and horizons of industrial relations: intervening in collective bargaining, influencing industrial action and protecting workers against employers proved elusive. It was more--and then imperfectly--a meeting place, a consciousness-raiser, a think-tank and subsequently a bargaining chip in Soviet diplomacy, than a significant protagonist in industrial struggle. Like its rival, it proved incapable of escaping the imprint of the state.

In common with transnational trade union agencies before and after, RILU was handicapped by the heterogeneity, sectionalism, historical particularities and patriotic attachments of the organisations it sought to mobilise. It experienced the debilitating distance, in terms of generating effective action, between international organisation and national organisation and national organisation and the workplace. It encountered in extreme form the limited articulation between formal structures and mobilisation at the point of production which has dogged trade unionism. At a time when the balance of forces favoured capital, disarticulation was a major problem for unions on national terrain and a massive one beyond it. Moreover, RILU was less successful than the IFTU in developing intermediate sectoral organisation: the latter s International Trade Secretariats (ITSs) better reflected and represented the economic interests of specific groups of workers. RILU's identification with revolution intensified capital's hostile response to reformist trade unionism; its increasing subservience to the Soviet state engendered instability in policy, and attenuation of internal democracy. RILU's history may be roughly divided into four periods: revolutionary optimism and ecumenical aspiration before 1922; retreat into Russian preoccupations, emergent Stalinization and pursuit of a united front with the IFTU, 1923-1927; Stalinization, militant anti-capitalism and onslaught on the 'social fascist' IFTU, 1928-1934; and second phase Stalinization, popular front campaigns for unity and eventual liquidation by Stalin, 1935-1937.

RILU's fragility and demise by diktat should not obscure the promise of its youth. It was conceived in the certainty that Marxists were living through an epoch of war and revolution: 1917 was simply a...

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