#ISS14: The Slow Death of the Socialist International

Speaker: Dan Gallin, GLI Geneva.

Date: Wednesday 9th July, 2014.


Suggested Reading




“The Slow death of the Socialist International”

by Dan Gallin

The Socialist International is the organization of the world’s socialist, social-democratic and labour parties, by a loose definition. Its headquarters are in London (Maritime House, Clapham).

It is the successor organization of the historical Internationals of the labour movement, the First (International Working Men’s Association) (1864-1879), the Second (Labour International) (1889-1916), which split three ways during World War I and reconstituted itself as the Labour and Socialist International (LSI) in 1923 The LSI did not survive World War II and the present Socialist International was founded in 1951 in Frankfurt as its successor.

At the last count, it had 162 member parties in 100 countries, and it is now in a deep crisis which reflects the crisis of most of its members, certainly its most influential ones.

Why is any of this important?

Because socialism has been the ideological foundation of most of the world’s trade union movement, not necessarily always in the same acceptance of the term, and today we are faced with a crisis of socialism, which is principally a crisis of the meaning of socialism.

Social-Democratic and Labour parties have been our historical allies but this relationship is being seriously strained. In many countries in Europe and elsewhere these parties are no longer supporting a labour agenda, on the contrary, they are endorsing conservative politics which we oppose because they run counter to workers’ interests.

Trade unions are essentially political organizations in the sense that everything we do is political, it has political implications and consequences, and for this reason the trade union movement needs a political framework with a strategy and clear objectives, if you wish a lodestar. We have now lost our traditional lodestar and we cannot advance blindly. That is why we have to understand why this is happening and what our political options are.

This is not the first time in history that the partnership between social-democracy and the trade union movement has been strained and the tensions that have arisen have always revolved around relationships and attitudes towards capitalism and the State, but with changing patterns.

The First and Second Internationals were composite organizations, including into their membership any workers’ organizations, parties, unions, co-ops, educational associations and others. That changed in 1901, when a meeting of national trade union centers decided unions needed a separate International of their own.

An international secretariat was established in 1903, which became, ten years later, the International Federation of Trade Unions. In addition to the social-democratic unions on the European continent, it was joined by the French syndicalist CGT, the British TUC and the American Federation of Labor, which had not been part of the Second International.

Earlier, in fact starting with the founding congress of the Second International in 1889, unions in specific branches of industry (tobacco, mining, transport, etc.) had already created their own Internationals, the forerunners of today’s Global Union Federations.

The more or less informal but generally accepted division of labour at the time was that the International of the socialist parties was responsible for ideology and for the political strategy to achieve socialism. The Internationals of trade unions, while sharing this general objective, would be primarily responsible for the defence of workers’ immediate interests.

This put the trade unions squarely in the reformist camp, to the “right” of the political International. The unions were not supposed to change society, their role was to be defensive. (By the way, that was not the view of the revolutionary syndicalist unions, strong in Southern Europe, in the Americas and initially in Japan, who believed that it was precisely the task of the unions to overthrow capitalism by means of the general strike – but that is another chapter of our story).

Meanwhile, however, serious differences had developed in the political International about strategies to achieve its main objective: to bring about a socialist society.

To keep it simple: the concept that socialism had to be achieved through revolution, that is by organizing the working class to take over State power, forcibly if need be, was opposed by those who believed this could be done by securing parliamentary majorities and others yet who believed that a socialist society would be the outcome of the natural evolution of the capitalist system.

Very few social-democratic trade unions subscribed to the revolutionary option and generally supported the reformist tendencies.

The First World War changed the picture drastically. Instead of opposing the war, as they had solemnly committed themselves to do only two years before, the leading parties of the Second International supported their governments and the International collapsed in 1916.

It was reconstituted, with difficulty, in 1920, but in the meantime the radical Left had brought about a revolution in Russia. The Bolsheviks, who rapidly emerged as the leading party – renamed as Communist Party – had established within four or five years a one-party State and driven the social-democrats and others into exile or underground.

In Germany, a revolution by the social-democratic Left was suppressed by a social-democratic government and its leading theoretician, Rosa Luxemburg, with others, was murdered by a right-wing militia acting under a mandate of that government.

The reconstituted Labour and Socialist International had to face not only the challenge on its Left, but a far more dangerous challenge on its Right: the rise of fascism. Portugal and Italy were lost in the 1920s, Germany, Austria and finally Spain in the 1930s.

In that situation, the trade union movement emerged as a much stronger base of resistance. During the first world war, the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) had established a liaison office in Amsterdam to maintain international trade union contacts despite the deep political splits created by the war. At its first post-war congress, the ICFTU elected Edo Fimmen, one of the co-secretaries of the liaison office who was also acting general secretary of the ITF, as general secretary.

Fimmen, a Dutch revolutionary socialist, left the IFTU in 1923 but remained general secretary of the ITF which he led until his death in 1942. Under his leadership the ITF and its allies, notably the IUF and its general secretary Jean Schifferstein, became the main trade union force of anti-fascist resistance, including anti-fascist protests in Italy, the construction of an extensive illegal resistance network of transport (mainly railway) unions in Nazi Germany, support for the socialist resistance against the clerical-fascist dictatorship in Austria after 1934 and assistance to the republican forces in the Spanish civil war.

A that time, the ITF and much of the international trade union movement was clearly to the “Left” of the political International. At the outbreak of the war immediately following the Stalin-Hitler pact in 1939, Fimmen organized the move of the ITF from Amsterdam to London: “The ITF is taking part in the war” he declared, “not to back England and France, but to oppose Hitler and his open and secret allies.”

In 1940, the Second International closed down

After the war, the parties which had been members of the LSI founded the Socialist International as its successor. Its founding congress was held in Frankfurt in 1951. The political context was again totally different. It was the Cold War. In Western Europe and Japan, liberal capitalism had been consolidated with the sponsorship and support of the United States, the new hegemonic power of the West. The Soviet Union emerged as its rival hegemonic power, having occupied Eastern and much of Central Europe.

A brief attempt to create an all-inclusive global trade union movement, reflecting the war-time alliance of the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, ended in a new split. The IFTU had dissolved in 1945 to clear the way for the creation of the World Federation of Trade Unions, an artificial top-down construct which proved unable to overcome the unresolved differences between the Soviet block organizations and the former IFTU members. In 1949 the latter, supported by the international industrial federations, created the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), leaving the WFTU as an organization of the Soviet block and its allies.

In that context, the objective of seeking a progressive alternative to capitalism had dropped off the agenda of both the Socialist International and the international trade union movement, even theoretically.

Both had settled for the role of junior partners in the administration of the post-war social compromise in the industrialized world, basically the welfare State in an expanding capitalist economy.

The flagship of European social-democracy, the German SPD, at its congress of Bad Godesberg in 1959, abandoned the remnants of its Marxist ideology and declared itself to be a “people’s party”, no longer a class-based workers’ party. Other parties followed.

Nevertheless, relations between most of the trade union movement and the social-democratic labour parties remained close, implicitly or explicitly. Under conditions of expanding capitalism, ensuring relative prosperity for most of the population, this was not difficult. The hard part came later, in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, the Socialist International, unlike its predecessors, had developed into an institution without serious organizing functions, more like a club for the leaders of its, mostly European, members.

The major social-democratic parties had their own international agendas, dictated by national priorities, and were not prepared to concede to the International either the authority or the means it would have needed to create an international consensus or to develop an organizing strategy.

The parties which would have needed a strong International, the weak, persecuted, exile parties, had no power in the organization.

Under the presidency of Wily Brandt (1976-1992) the SI tried to become less euro-centric and to open up to the world. Its membership increased rapidly. Unfortunately, many of these new members had a very distant relationship to socialism in any recognizable form: they included, for example, the governing parties of Mexico and India, deeply corrupt and authoritarian, and worse: the government parties of Tunisia and Egypt, instruments of personal or military dictatorships.

Within the last decade, the SI leadership has been facing mounting criticism mainly from its core membership, the European social-democratic parties.

The current SI president is Giorgios Papandreu, the leader of the Greek PASOK, a social-democratic party which has been collapsing as a result of its participation in the present government which is enforcing the “austerity” policies dictated by the Troika. The general secretary is Luis Ayala, a Chilean from the Radical Party, a small social-democratic party which had been part of the Popular Unity coalition of Allende, first elected in 1989 and re-elected since.

They are criticized for undemocratic procedures, lack of financial transparency, the incapacity of meeting present-day challenges, like the economic crisis, its causes and consequences and, finally, tolerating the presence of dictatorship parties.

Matters came to a head at the 24th SI congress in Cape Town in August-September 2012, where the “reformers” – essentially the European social-democrats – ran a candidate for general secretary against Luis Ayala. Their candidate was Mona Sahlin, former president of the Swedish Social-Democratic Workers’ Party and a former minister in Sweden. She lost, with 36 votes against 46 to Ayala.

At that point the “reformers” decided to create a parallel organization, officially launched in May 2013, at the 150th anniversary celebration of the SPD in Leipzig as the “Progressive Alliance”. Sixty-nine parties, out of the 162 which are members of the SI, have joined the new international body.

This is not a split, not yet: the member parties of the PA have remained members of the SI, but they have drastically cut their contributions. The SPD, which contributed GBP 100,000 per year, now pays GBP 5,000, the French SP cut its contribution by half, down to GBP 45,000, the Swiss party now pays GBP 1,000 instead of GBP 10,000 previously, and so forth.

The PA member parties accounted for 85% of the dues income of the SI, which is now facing a financial crisis in addition to its political crisis.

What is striking about the PA is how similar it actually is to the SI. The public indignation of Sigmar Gabriel, president of the SPD, in March 2011, about the presence of dictatorship parties in the SI, triggered by the Arab Spring, raises the obvious question of why it took him, and others, twenty years to become aware of this.

All these parties – including Egypt and Tunisia – were accepted into membership by the SI governing bodies in 1980s and only expelled in 2011, three days after the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and after the bloody repression of the popular uprising in Egypt by the Mubarak regime.

Other dictators, whose presence is now considered scandalous (Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, José Eduardo dos Santos “president for life” of Angola, or Laurent Gbagbo, former president of Ivory Coast, now before the International Court of Justice to answer for crimes against humanity) were all accepted in the SI by the same parties which are now in the PA.

Furthermore, no lesson has been learned: the South African ANC, riddled with corruption up to its presidency, and one year after the Marikana massacre, was invited to the Leipzig event.

The other striking feature is of course the disappearance of the socialist reference. The key words are now “progressive” and “democratic”, with “socialist” and “social-democratic” very much in the background.

One purpose of jettisoning the socialist terminology might be to open the way for the American Democratic Party to join. At one of the early meetings of the “reformers”, in Rome in December 2012, Peter Shumlin, governor of Vermont and president of the Association of Democratic Governors, was invited.

The PA has issued a mission statement which is a shallow collection of generalities and common places which could be signed by any “progressive” or “democrat” with modest ambitions. There is no analysis of the world situation, no mention of any means by which the “progressives” might achieve their objectives, no mention of power relations that condition political and social action. The PA clearly has no enemies, it only has friends, including the employers.

One of its meetings, in October last year in Stockholm, with the support and participation of the Swedish LO, launched the idea of a “Global New Deal Between Capital and Labour”. There was a report, but neither the report nor the discussions have been made public. There is reason to fear the worst: a relaunch of “social partnership”, this time with the backing of an international organization of “progressive” parties offering its co-operation from a position of weakness, in other words, bringing to the table an official act of surrender of any recognizable socialist principles or objectives.

In summary, what seems to have happened is that a coalition of SI member parties, taking advantage of the mistakes of a dysfunctional secretariat – and ignoring their co-responsibility in these mistakes – took the opportunity provided by the Cape Town congress to take a further step in the “de-socialdemocratization” of social-democracy and its transformation in what can best be described as social-technocracy.

The PA is in effect a bureaucratic operation which is not related in any way to any real social movement. It is a “de-social-democratized” SI, even more removed from really existing class struggles, even while it tries to involve the more accommodating parts of the international trade union movement, in this case the ETUC.

Where does this leave us?

This time there cannot be any doubt: we are on our own. In most countries, the historical alliance of the labour movement with international social-democracy has ceased to exist.

This does not mean that socialism is dead, far from it. However, what it does mean is that the trade union Left has to reinvent socialism for itself, and on its own terms. As I said earlier, all we do is political. Because workers have no other place to go, we need to define the politics which are naturally ours, based on the common class interest.

In reconstructing socialism as a culture, as a method of struggle and as vision for global society, we will need to look for political allies.

This is not a simple undertaking.

Because the situation is different in each country, such allies will not necessarily be the same everywhere. Some will come from social-democratic and labour parties that have not entirely given up and where historical social-democracy, including pockets of the Left, survives. Others will come from those who have lived through sectarian experiences and have rejected them, but who have retained the energy for struggle and who have not forgotten the original purpose of the exercise. Others yet will come with some of the long forgotten heritage of revolutionary syndicalism, suddenly relevant again.

From many experiences, converging towards a common purpose, we are creating an invisible International, growing within the shell of the old, as the IWW used to say, and we will create our own path by walking together, re-creating the “really existing socialism” in our hearts and in our minds, the only place where it ever really existed.

Thank you for your attention.

Suggested Reading

Dan Gallin

Hal Draper. 1966. “The Two Souls of Socialism