People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 17

April  24, 2011




Valuable Addition to Literature on Working Class Movement

                                                                                                           M K Pandhe


Sukomal Sen, International Working Class Movement, Kolkata: National Book Agency, 511 pages, price: Rs 700.


THOSE who have read Sukomal Sen’s book titled Working Class of India:  History of Emergence and Movement 1830-2000, will definitely like to read this book, which is the result of a painstaking effort to depict the origin and development of the world trade union movement. The book was released on the eve of the 16th congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) which was held in Athens recently, from April 6 to 10, 2011.


In his prologue to the book, George Mavrikos, general secretary of the WFTU, has aptly stated, “The following pages attempt to present the key points of this course in a simple, direct and meaningful way.  You will get acquainted with the trade unions in many countries around the world.  The aim of this book is to stimulate and equip the new shift of the working class to become more effective in their struggle.” Naturally, this book will be read with great interest by trade unionists not only in India but all over the world.




The author commences his analytical study with tracing the origin of the modern working class. The Industrial Revolution, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century in England, created the basis for the birth of a capitalist society. The use of machinery in large scale production required persons who were completely detached from agriculture and who had no other source of livelihood except their labour power which they had to perforce sell to the newly rising capitalist class engaged in textile, coal, iron and railroad industries.


As Sen points out, the harrowing conditions of the workers in these industrial undertakings made the workers think that the machine was their main enemy and the resistance to the exploitation commenced with destruction of the machine itself. By 1752, trade unions had started emerging slowly but anti-combination laws were also being enacted to suppress the growing trade union movement. The author points out how the Chartist movement in the mid-nineteenth century was a pioneering attempt to form a broad national combination of the working class.


Having traced the growth of reformist and utopian ideas in the working class movement, Sen deals with the contribution made by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels --- in giving the working class movement a scientific ideology in the Communist Manifesto and later in formation of the International Workingmen’s Association, popularly known as the First International (1864-1876).


Noting the growth of trade union movement in the early part of the twentieth century, the author highlights the reformist ideas developed by the class collaborationist leadership and the way Lenin had had to fight with great determination these reformist and other erroneous ideas within the working class movement.


With the successful Socialist Revolution in Russia, the working class movement got a new perspective. Sen elaborately deals with the role played by the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) between the two World Wars. He also explains the role played by the Second International in serving the capitalist class and the way its leadership surrendered before the fascist powers through the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).


The nine day general strike of the 50 lakh workers of England in May 1926 has been succinctly explained by Sen who also shows how the leadership of the Labour Party and Trade Union Congress betrayed the workers who were fighting for their legitimate rights. The author quotes Stalin’s remarks about this strike; he stated, “For, as history has shown, a general strike which is not turned into a political struggle must inevitably fall.” He further explained how the reformist trade union leadership failed to protect the interest of the working class during the Great Depression of world capitalism (1929-1933).


Further, Sukomal Sen lucidly narrates the growth of trade union and political movements in the former colonial countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America between the two world wars. The trade union movements and the national liberation movements were advancing in these countries in close cooperation with one another. The author also traces effectively the growth and development of socialist ideology in the working class movement. Developments in India naturally receive a special emphasis from the author.


Also, Sen deals with the trade union movement during the Second World War. In the beginning, the fascist forces won victories in Western Europe and Allied forces had to withdraw from there. But the situation changed when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. On the other side, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the US then entered the war. The British Trade Union Congress, in September 1941, agreed to constitute an Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee, though the AFL-CIO of the USA opposed the move.


However, it was the Red Army’s glorious fight that routed fascism and liberated the East European countries where People’s Democratic governments were formed. It changed the world scenario considerably, and acted in favour of unity in the trade union movement.




A conference held in London on February 6, 1945, could not take any decision in this regard and it was decided to hold another conference in Paris. The author explains how the WFTU came into existence at the Paris conference on October 8, 1945, with Sir Walter Citrine (England) as the president and Louis Saillant (France) as the general secretary. Its headquarters were established at Paris. This was the broadest ever unity built in the world trade union movement.


However, this unity proved short-lived. The author describes how the Marshall Plan proposed by US imperialists was attempting to control the European economy and how, in a meeting at London on March 9, 1948, the western countries decided to accept the Marshall Plan. The WFTU was split in February 1949 and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) was formed in a meeting at London at the end of 1949.


During the period of the Cold War, the ICFTU supported the aggressive policies of US imperialism while the WFTU advocated the policy of anti-imperialism, lasting peace and social progress. The book provides at length a review of the first fifteen congresses of the WFTU as well as disruptive activities of the ICFTU.


The book explains how the revolution in China in 1949, the liberation struggle of the people of Vietnam against US imperialism and the victory of Korean revolution helped in strengthening the world revolutionary movement. The success of the Cuban revolution further strengthened the working class movement at the global level. The WFTU was strengthened due to sustained struggles carried by the revolutionary working class movement in all corners of the world.


After the demise of Stalin, Sukomal Sen notes, the Soviet Union began to gradually give up the policies of anti-imperialism and class struggle. This had had its impact on the policies of the WFTU as well. The book remarks, “But unfortunately, in the post-Stalin era, gradual erosion of the ideology of sharp class struggle between the working class and the capitalists and their states was evident and state to state relation got priority over class struggle. During the last years of post-Stalin era the phenomenon became very acute.” As its examples, Sen points out how in case of India the WFTU refused to express solidarity with the heroic railway strike in 1974 and how it adopted a lukewarm attitude on the issue of Bhopal gas tragedy.


The author then notes how the dismantling of the socialist system in the USSR and East European countries considerably weakened the WFTU. During the so-called Cultural Revolution, Chinese trade unions deserted the WFTU. Later, Italian and French trade unions too walked out of the WFTU. The later was in this phase passing through an extremely critical situation and its activities considerably declined.




The author further explains how the 15th congress of the WFTU, held at Havana in December 2005, restored the organisation’s anti-imperialist character and it accepted the principle of class struggle as the fundamental approach of the WFTU. Now the WFTU’s headquarters shifted from Prague to Athens and the organisation took concrete steps for a revival of its activities. The Trade Union International (TUI) became active and the presidential council meetings began to be held regularly.


The book notes how the WFTU now began to play a leading role in the struggle against imperialist globalisation. Despite resource constraints, the WFTU is today marching ahead with confidence and determination.


The ICFTU and WCL had merged to form the International Trade Union Confederation but there is no change in the policy of the organisation.


In the end, Sukomal Sen underlines the need for a socialist perspective for the working class movement. He clearly notes that the capitalist system is doomed to fail due to a severe economic global crisis. Through the World Bank-IMF dictates, world capitalism has launched severe offensives against the living standards of the working class. But Sen expresses his confidence that working class of the world would rise to the occasion and play a leading role as the grave diggers of the capitalist system.


It is thus that he emphasises the need for concerted struggle against class collaborationist policies of a section of trade union leadership while trying to build the unity of the working class. It is only by playing a leading role and mobilising all the toiling masses in each country that the working class would be able to march ahead towards a basic social transformation, to put an end to the exploitation of man by man and of nation by nation.


The author has collected voluminous material about the historical developments in the world trade union movement. The importance of the book for the trade union cadre all over the world in understanding their historic role in the present period cannot be exaggerated.


In sum, International Working Class Movement is a welcome addition to the literature on the world trade union movement.