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Ian H. Birchall

The Labour Movement in Europe

(November 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.83, November 1976, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Labour Movement in Europe
Walter Kendall
Allen Lane, £5.00

The Communist Parties of Western Europe
Neil McInnes
Oxford, £5.00.

Walter Kendall has produced a useful reference work. It has chapters on the history and structure of the labour movement in the EEC countries (minus Ireland, Denmark and Luxemburg) as well as a study of the European car industry. If you want to know how to get on the Executive of a Dutch trade union, how collective bargaining works in Italy, or how many days were lost in strikes in Belgium in 1897, then turn to Kendall’s book.

But if you want to understand the class struggle in Western Europe, turn somewhere else. For Kendall’s picture, erudite and well-documented as it is, is unbelievably distorted. For Kendall the official structures are everything, working-class activity nothing. For instance, the massive struggles that took place in Italy in 1969, characterised by great imaginativeness and originality in tactics and organisational forms, get this comment from Kendall:

‘To understand the behaviour of sections of the Italian labour force, the contradictory phenomena of upward deference in unions and labour force coupled with near-anarchist outbreaks of strikes, demonstrations and even violence, one must take account of the rural origin of much of the modern working class.’

In other words, they’re only peasants and they haven’t read the Rule Book yet. Not that ‘upward deference’ was much in evidence on the streets of Turin in 1969.

Likewise, when Kendall turns to Britain, he dismisses as ‘Utopian’ the idea of a national shop stewards’ movement with the comment:

‘the stewards already exercise great power within the unions and could exercise more if they really so desired.’

Kendall’s fixation with official structures makes him quite blind to those sections of the class who are excluded from them. Europe’s nine million migrant workers – not only the most viciously exploited but also the leaders of some of the most courageous struggles – get less than half a dozen paragraphs in Kendall’s book. And even here they are seen, not as part of the labour movement, but as an external obstacle. Thus, in speaking of low unionisation levels in France, he says:

‘The existence of up to two million foreign workers, some notoriously difficult to organise, is certainly a mitigating circumstance of which one ought to take account.’

Or again,

‘One ought also to draw attention to the extent to which German unions have ensured that an unprecedented influx of voluntary migrant labour into the German economy has neither undermined union wages and conditions, nor resulted in uniformly deplorable conditions for the migrants themselves.’

It must be of great consolation for a Turkish Gastarbeiter to know that, deplorable as his conditions are, they are not uniformly so.

Women get an equally raw deal. Thus on page 14 Kendall tells us that ‘universal suffrage’ was achieved in Belgium in 1893; though on page 217 he himself tells us that women didn’t get the vote till 1948. Or, speaking of working hours in Britain, he remarks:

‘Among women, who at the margin would appear to value leisure time more highly than money, average working hours, at 38, are a great deal lower than for men.’

The ignorance of the real pressures on women workers is incredible. But then, they don’t go to the branch meetings, so they’re not really part of the labour movement at all.

But it’s not just immigrants and women that are external to Kendall’s labour movement – it’s politics too. Anything that lies outside the social-democratic spectrum is alien to the working class. The enormous impact of the Russian Revolution on the European working class is reduced to Russian manipulation and Russian finance.

This leads him into a bit of gentle rewriting of history. Thus in speaking of the events that led to the exclusion of the French Communist Party from the government, he writes:

‘In April 1947 an unofficial strike closed the nationalised Renault motor-plant at Boulogne-Billancourt in Paris, hitherto regarded as a fortress of PCF support in the labour movement.’

Now that strike was in fact led by Trotskyist militants of the Union-Communiste, who were able to take the lead because of their consistent anti-Stalinist politics. This is not to overestimate the influence of a tiny group who soon lost control of events. But conscious revolutionary militants are part of the working class, and from time to time they have an influence on events. Kendall sees the structures, but he is blind to the forces that will sweep them aside.

Kendall writes as one who has thirty years’ experience in the labour movement; McInnes writes as Associate Editor of Barron’s (New York). Yet in many ways McInnes is more class conscious (for his class) than Kendall McInnes begins with the crisis, and in particular one symptom of it.

‘It was in 1974 that it first seemed that before 1980 there could well be communist ministers in office in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus, Finland, Norway, and Iceland.’

What should the class-conscious bourgeois do? McInnes makes it clear that the myths of the Cold War will no longer serve. The Communist Parties are not part of some terrible conspiracy, their militants are not undeviating zombies. They are political parties like any other and therefore corruptible. They can be lived with.

As McInnes points out:

‘There is no tactical line that can be adopted, however calculatingly, year after year through successive election campaigns that does not in the end compromise a political party, involve it in connections it cannot easily break, and commit it to particular policies and alliances in the event of winning power.’

One of his most interesting points is on the question of front organisations. The error, shared by Stalinists and McCarthyites alike, was that front organisations were a means of manipulating the masses in the interests of Communist policy. The reality was that the front organisations acquired a dynamic of their own and ultimately distorted party policy, or caused splits in the leadership.

Equally interesting is McInnes’ summing-up of the prospects for the new social democratic Communist Parties.

‘The “advanced democracy” imagined by western communists is an illusion inconsistent not only with Marxist theory but with common sense ... That situation would not be a transition to anything but counter-revolution, as events in Chile in 1973 demonstrated.’

The fact that McInnes would certainly be on the side of the Pinochets serves only to make the testimony more convincing.

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Last updated: 21.2.2008