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Colin Barker

Cold War Pawns?

(Spring 1964)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.16, Spring 1964, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Political Role of Labor in Developing Countries
Bruce H. Millen
Brookings Institution, Washington DC, (distributed by Faber), 25s.

In spite of the fact that this is very much a cold war treatise, Millen’s study is surprisingly good. As an employee of the US Department of State, his concern is, of course, not with the real interests of the workers of the developing countries, but with making sure that the US follows policies that will not turn the workers to the Communists. However, he has brought together a good deal of information and made quite reasonable sense out of it. The main part of the book is descriptive, and on the whole well done, the least satisfactory section being that in which he attempts to deal with the internal dynamics of the unions – a question that does not seem to interest Mr Millen very much anyway, for his emphasis is primarily upon the purposes of the union leaders and the politicians. This, however, merely reflects Mr Millen’s ideological preoccupations. The peoples are a mass, and the question is, who will capture them? Most of the trade unions in the developing countries differ markedly from those in the US and in Western Europe. If anything they tend to be closer often to the Russian model than to the American, concerned with production rather than consumption, and under governmental control. The typical pattern is one in which, before independence, the trade unions are an important part of a mass movement demanding political independence; with political independence, however, comes the necessity for a redefinition of the union role. The union leaders are often involved in the processes of administration, and the union bargaining role is restricted heavily by economic and institutional factors.

Furthermore, the unions often retain their earlier ‘movement’ quality, and in spite of irregular dues-paying, fluctuating memberships, and the embryonic stage of development of the working class, they are important loci of political activity. Their leadership is generally middle-class, sometimes dishonest or opportunistic, and as a rule cut off from the conditions of life and aspirations of their members. Often the core of union organisation in these countries is formed by the white-collar workers (and, in some cases, the railway workers), whose literacy and more complete urbanisation makes them the natural leaders of a still half-developed proletariat. How long these men will continue to lead the union movements is a question that Mr Millen does not ask himself. There is insufficient discussion of the economic pressures that have moulded the pattern of government-union relations in the new states, and made ‘state socialism’ such a characteristic form. Mr Millen presents a quite convincing picture of the trade unions as forces on the side of modernisation and development, and as a counterweight to those forces seeking to organise power around traditional religious, tribal and other groups; they seem also to act as social service agencies in some cases, easing the transition from the rural to the urban environment. Since the present-day unions in these countries may well contain the seeds of future oppositional movements, their history and future development is clearly of great concern to socialists. What we really need now is a collection of detailed analyses of individual unions and countries (Epstein’s Politics in an Urban African Community is an example), to which this book can well serve as a fairly useful introduction. At least facts and prejudices are kept separate, a rare enough asset in a book of this kind.

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