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The Forward March of Labour Recommenced?

Reflections on an Emancipatory Labour Internationalism and Emancipatory International Labour Studies

Peter Waterman

[P]roletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals — until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! [Here is Rhodes, jump here!][1]

(Marx 1852)

Introduction: if things are so good, why are they so bad?

We find ourselves at the beginning of a dramatic revival of left international labour studies (ILS). I have recently written my latest survey of such, this one covering nine items, the period since about 2001 - and running to customarily excessive length (Waterman 2003a). I could have and possibly should have dealt with another half-dozen contributions. Although I managed, during this exercise, to snatch a little enthusiasm from the jaws of criticism, the exercise was a sobering one. Whilst I do not wish to exaggerate the extent to which a new kind of labour internationalism is developing, it does seem to me that it is well ahead of those on the left trying to make sense of it.

Or perhaps what I am here really saying is that an emancipatory international labour studies (EILS) needs to be informed by what Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2003a) calls two necessary new sociologies, the ‘sociology of absence’ and the 'sociology of emergence’.

Now, of course, it is the privilege of the reviewer to dump on others, from a great height, this height preserving him (or her) self from similar treatment. Or even from revealing an explicit 'subject-position’. So I do feel an obligation to set out, more positively, my present state of mind on labour internationalism and international labour studies. And then to move, in Gramsci’s terms, from pessimism of the intellect to optimism of the will.

As close readers of that rather special inter/national labour studies journal, Antipode, may be aware, I have been moving away from Prague, Geneva, Washington and Brussels – where we find the p(a)laces of traditional institutionalised union internationalism (TIUI). Where I have been moving to has been toward those movable feasts, those inchoate events and processes, the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement (GJ&SM) and the World Social Forum (WSF). These are phenomena that are increasingly mobile socio-geographically, on both the horizontal and vertical axes. And these - admitedly slippery - phenomena also exist, to a significant and rising extent, in that infinitely placeless place, cyberspace. The new places, and their patterns of articulation, along with their own historical burden of institutionality, should make the Movement in general, the Forum in particular, of special interest to radical-democratic social-geographers. Especially when one recognises that their cyberspaces are not free of political-economic and socio-geographical determinants. But, of course, there is no inevitability here.

Last year I had the chastening experience, at a university in the Deep South of the UK, of presenting the WSF to an assembly of mostly-young, mostly-Marxist, international political economists. They seemed more pre-occupied with the ‘structure-agency’ problem than seemed healthy for young Marxists. Their almost universal scorn for the Forum was only matched by their ignorance of this, and by their insistence, despite evidence and argument to the contrary, that the Forum was a ‘conference’. They were equally sure than nothing so ethereal or indeterminate as this new ‘movement of movements’, could weigh in against those heavy dancers of international relations: State, Capital, Class and Empire. Plus something which existed more, evidently, in their philosophy than in either earth or heaven: a Revolutionary and (presumably, or at least eventually) Internationalist Proletariat. I had tried, twice, to state that, yes, the WSF could be considered, in part, a ‘conference’ - or at least a series of seminars - but that it was also several other things. To no avail. Their Marxism, apparently, did not permit them to believe that something could be two things simultaneously; or an eminently and openly disputable terrain. Far less could they have imagined that it might be an internally contradictory phenomenon (Marx), requiring for its full comprehension a theory coming, like Marx’s in the 19th century, out of the movement itself (Santos 2003a).

Such National-Industrial Marxists would certainly consider that my socio-geographical and conceptual journey also means an abandonment of Historical Materialism (it’s a journal), and of actually non-existing socialism; that it means entering the misty, even virtual, regions of postmodernism, of global-civil-society-babble, of cyber-internationalism. Be this as it may (and I will return to the matter), my journey has not meant an abandonment of the traditional institutionalised union internationalisms (TIUIs). Indeed, these are both increasingly present within the new agoras and evidently influenced by such (International Transportworkers Federation 2002, Nilsson 2003, Waterman 2003b). My movement has been, rather, a recognition that if labour internationalism is to be reinvented for the 21st century, well, these are the moving places and social spaces it has to increasingly inhabit:

Hic Rhodos, hic salta!

In so far as this is clearly an injunction as well as a recognition, it has radical implications for international labour studies – an academic area currently mushrooming, but still fixated on the bricks-and-mortar sites and practices.

In reflecting on such matters, I want to consider, in turn, the necessity of

1. Emancipating labour internationalism

The secular trinity of 19th-century socialism was Labour-Internationalism-Emancipation.

As early-industrial capitalism developed into a national-industrial-colonial capitalism (NICC), the internationalism of labour became literally inter-national, and simultaneously lost its emancipatory aspiration and capacity (or vice versa).

Now, the dramatic – and labour-devastating – development of a globalised-networked-informatised capitalism (GNC) is raising the necessity and possibility of a new kind of labour internationalism, capable not only of defence against neo-liberal globalisation but also of an emancipatory challenge to capitalism as such.

This implies self-liberation from the traditional (understanding of the) working-class, the trade-union form and socialist ideology. (I am taking the liberty of assuming here that The Party is over).

Such an emancipation can be assisted by a recognition of the work and workers produced by a GNC. This work is increasingly outside industry, home-based, distributed worldwide, fractured, temporary, part-time, individualised.

The workers are increasingly what is – laughingly? - called ‘a-typical’. Decreasingly are they industrial, male, life-time, nine-to-five, or unionised. In India, with a labour force of 390 million, this is 93 percent ‘a-typical’, and four percent unionised. The three or four percent are divided up into a myriad of unions and national confederations, including the mutually competing – and shrinking ones – of national-industrial-anticolonial Communism. The international relations of even the left unions are heavily marked by identification with dead ideologies, actually-non-existing socialist states, and by notions of ‘non-interference in the internal affairs of other unions’ (such as those of China!). Which means that they claim national sovereignty over the 93 percent they cannot hope to organise, and try to control their external relations. But the a-typical workers are increasingly involved in a-typical international solidarity networks. (Harris-White and Gooptu 2000, Waterman 2003b)

Politically, the emancipation of labour internationalism requires an intimate articulation of labour with the GJ&SM (a.k.a. 'anti-globalisation', 'anti-corporate' and 'anti-capitalist'), and serious address to processes, discontents, social actors, movements and alternatives previously considered marginal or irrelevant. (Actually, it will require all these things for minimal defence, never mind effective assertion). In order to liberate itself from its NIC past, an emancipatory labour internationalism will also need to re-discover utopia.

‘Utopia’ means both ‘good place’ and ‘nowhere’ – which should make it particularly intriguing to radical social geographers. Utopia is simultaneously place and process, making it also attractive to those who believe, like the feminists of the 1970s, more in pre-figurative politics, less that there will pie in the sky when we die. (Panitch and Leys 1999).

2. Emancipating labour studies

So much (or little) for an emancipatory labour internationalism. An emancipatory inter/national labour studies (EILS) requires reflection on certain elements related to this scenario. I will limit myself to one reflection on process, another on space, a third on method.

A. Process

Although part of the new wave of ILS allows for and/or shows evidence of a dialogue with union leaders or labour activists, I do not think we can say that left ILS is in general furthering systematic dialogue between all the relevant parties. By this I mean that it does not systematically reveal, express or feed into such. What it may do is further dialogue with one such party and, by so doing, ignore, marginalise or dismiss the others.

Perhaps what I am saying here is that whilst we may be witnessing a revival of left international labour studies, we need to see the birth of an emancipatory one.

In so far as ‘emancipation’ applies as much to process as to outcome, then an ELI would require systematic dialogue between academics, union leaders, union members, pro-labour NGOs and such other significant worker and citizen identities as may have been mentioned above. This means that dialogue must be an essential - I dare say fundamental - part of an ELI.

There are obstacles to this on both – on all – sides of such a ‘multilogue’, including  the territorial claims of union officers, working-class anti-intellectualism, popular suspicion or scepticism of visting firemen, or women, and pressures on young academics to doff their caps to the latest discourse, or theorist. But in so far as this piece is addressed in the first place to fellow academics, it will do no harm to emphasise not so much academic elitism (cheap shot!) but the manner in which this elitism coincides or combines with Marxist theory and vanguardist practice (Graeber 2003).

B. Space

Graeber’s is a thoughtful appreciation of the anarchist intellectual and political tradition and its presence within the GJ&SM. It was presented at an academic seminar but published on a website of the Indy Media Centre – itself a major, de-centred but international/ist, multi-media website of the new global movement. Which is where I found it and where one might expect it to be most discussed.

Now, it is clear that any website, and English-language text, even in human-friendly academic language, and of reasonable length, is going to be inaccessible (as we are ritually reminded by left cyberphobes and cybernoughts) to indigenous women bidi-makers in rural Andhra Pradesh. But

Highly significant for such a multilogue are those spaces that are simultaneously places. The World Social Forum, no longer a single event but a type of such – from the local level to the global – is marked by the primacy of ‘proposition’ over ‘opposition’. This means by a focus on alternatives to neo-liberal corporate-dominated globalisation, an openness to civil-social actors, and a dialogical intention (Sen et. al. Forthcoming).

Although, up to now, the Forum form has been dominated by The Panel (a ‘ten-to-many’ form of communication?), the possibility for a multiplicity of even such panels has made Social Forums places increasingly attractive to labour-oriented ‘transnational advocacy networks’, to the TIUIs themselves, and to those pro-labour individuals or groupuscules falling (more often jumping around and waving banners) outside these institutions.

Place of speech, space, voice, direction and style of dialogue matter. Whilst there is nothing in the Forum form to prevent, for example, academic labour specialists from lecturing to an audience, or competitively boring the pants off each other, the possibility for wider impact and political influence encourages them to express themselves in formats accessible and attractive to activists. It is, for example, with and from the Forum that new ideas are developing concerning popular knowledge-production and the simultaneous and common self-education of activists, leaders and – presumably - academics (Santos 2003b).

Whilst labour, and socialist intellectuals, have certainly had a hand in the repeated Calls of Social Movements emanating from such Forums (The Call 2002), this has so far been largely a place at which the various international(ist) labour parties (in the non-party sense) speak to each other rather than with each other. But one can imagine a time in which those academics interested in an ELS would consider their presence at a global or regional Social Forum as more worthwhile – for both input and output - than even an academic or union event in which the other party is a full participant.

C. Method

Here I am thinking of the fixation on institutions in international labour studies (a fixation I have enthusiastically shared for the last 50 years). Or, rather, I am thinking of the necessity for ‘indiscipline’, of cross-disciplinarity, multi-disciplinarity or extra-disciplinarity.

I have been confronted, on a number of occasions, even around the new movement, with remarks to the effect that Naomi Klein (2001), and her many admirable ilk, are ‘just journalists’ Let us disregard the hypothetical motive here of envy. Let us impute to such opinions nothing graver than bourgeois, elitist, academic arrogance.

I think that any work concerning labour internationalism, including testimonies, novels, videos, banners, grafiti and music, should be evaluated according to,

Stating this is not a vulgar anti-academic populism. Because I have equal admiration for emancipatory academic work around globalisation with which I have to struggle.

Bringing this wandering chicken home to roost, I want to refer to ethnography. This discipline has its own problems in dealing with international solidarity (Edelman 2001). But I have been, in my reviews of the literature, much concerned with the absence of people (in Spanish, more evocatively, lo popular). And, in so far as ethnography is supposed to concern itself with these, I am particularly sympathetic to such work, at least when put together in a cocktail with globalisation. And then stirred rather than shaken.

Here I would draw attention to the work of Michael Burawoy and his students (Burawoy et. al. 2000, cf Lee 1998). Reflecting on a common Ph.D. research project he himself co-ordinated, Burawoy calls for ‘grounding globalisation’ (337-50). This is not a work that even touches on international unionism or labour internationalism. What it nonetheless reveals is the way in which working people, some of them waged or formerly so, today experience globalisation, survive it and sometimes challenge it. And how, in one case, isolated rural women, in the Brazil North-East, were able to locally re-cycle, for their own ends, the work of North American academic feminists and regional or national NGOs.

Here we have to take leave of Marx’s 19th century proletariat. Though those requiring Marxist licence for so doing may take recourse to another passage from the man. This is where he says that Communism – a 19th century word for emancipation – is neither a theory in the minds of intellectuals, nor a present or future state of affairs, but ‘the real social movement which abolishes the present state of things’ (cited Waterman 2001:31).

Back to Burawoy, who toward the end of his book says the following:

Global Imperialism called forth wars of movement, violent anticolonial struggles, inter-national wars, but in the Global Postmodern wars of movement are doomed to defeat. Just as national hegemony cannot be overthrown by revolution, so Western global hegemonies cannot be overthrown through violence. Instead we turn to wars of position in which different groups with multiple identities have to be woven together around universalistic principles such as human rights or environmental justice. It is a war of position because it builds up a mosaic from multiple locations. Its trenches lie in the burgeoning transnational society of ethnic diasporas, deterritorialised nations, nongovernment organisations, professional associations, the global civil society that becomes denser by the day. It is not so much a matter of creating movements outside the hegemonic order but rather on its terrain, radicalising the meaning of democracy, appropriating the market, democratising sovereignty and expanding human rights. (349)

This was written before ‘nine-eleven’, and the return to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘savage wars of peace’ by the oiliest part of the US elite (and its foreign pro-consuls). But it is an important reminder to the international left that this neo-imperialist policy operates within an epoch of globalisation. And that, therefore, other such hegemonic policies – a global neo-Keynesianism for example – cannot be discounted (Griffin Forthcoming). A left that reverts to the rhetoric and strategies of traditional socialisms will fail to effectively recognise and surpass the appeal of such a neo-Keynesianism - just as it did the first time round.

However, the major significance of Burawoy’s conclusion lies for me not so much in what it says as where it comes from and what it implies for labour internationalism. It comes out of studies of working people, of many kinds, in radically different locales, all profoundly re-shaped by neo-liberal globalisation. Its implication for labour internationalism is: this is the new terrain, discourse and orientation.

Hic Rhodus, hic salta!

Burawoy is evidently aware of labouring people, but he does not hint at union internationalism or even labour struggles, except in so far as he mentions ‘appropriating the market’ and ‘professional associations’. This is an area in which a new labour internationalism, like the classical one, could and should be pro-active. An emancipatory labour internationalism, in other words, must today be constructed on a terrain which may privilege labour as activity, but does not prioritise it as identity or movement. It is this broader terrain that simultaneously provides labour internationalism with an opportunity for re-commencing its forward march.

Conclusion: science, critique, vision and recipe for revolution

‘Marxism’, says my old friend from the 1960s, Bertell Ollman (2003:82), ‘is an unusual, perhaps unique, combination of...science, critique, vision and recipe for revolution...with each of these qualities contributing to and feeding off the others. 

I try to apply this to international labour studies, past, present, utopian speculative, and I fail.

His is a statement of such universalistic claim that it encompasses all time, all space, all critique, all vision, every aspiration for human emancipation. This is a Marxism returning to the Jewish messianic tradition from which it – but only in part -descends. As a Liberation Marxist (one who tries to liberate Marxism from the Marxists, from Marxism and from Marx) let me confine myself to The Revolution. This was, of course, part of the secular trilogy of 19th century socialism, which I above generalise as 'emanicipation’.

I would like to suggest that the contemporary task of revolutionaries is to make the revolution unnecessary and, by this token, the counter-revolution impossible. I prefer the spirit of the radical-democratic British social workers of the 1970s or 80s, who declared themselves to be ‘in and against the state’.

Marxist-inspired revolutions have had miserable results, particularly in overcoming proletarianisation, particularly for internationalism. The remaining ‘revolutionary regimes’ are shackled by a paralysing fear of external invasion, of internal counter-revolution, of ‘the revolution betrayed’ by its own agents (such betrayal increasingly appearing as inseparable from the notion of revolution: there’s always one about to be betrayed by someone).

So surpassal of The Revolution appears as no bad thing. Particularly if this abandonment is extended also to The Evolution – currently represented in the UK by the Twin Tonys. The Evolution has suffered more from erosion than explosion or implosion. But, like its own twin, The Revolution, it has clearly failed to de-proletarianise, to emancipate or empower those whose desires and hopes it so long ‘represented’. It has failed, signally, to warn or prepare them for, a GNC. It is failing to defend them, except by waving vaguely in the direction of Welfare Capitalism Past – or at least the myth of such.

Locked in a dance of death that gripped the international labour movement for 100 years or more, we can leave Insurrectionism and Reformism to bury each other.

Perhaps, today, those of us involved with ELI and EILSs are are at last ready to say, like the therapist to whom Philip Roth’s (1970) Portnoy has been revealing his sorely-divided soul and sexuality for several hundred pages,

'Now ve may perhaps to begin?'.


Burawoy, Michael et. al. 2000. Global Ethnography: Forces, Connections, and Imaginations in a Postmodern World. Berkeley: University of California Press. 392pp.

Dietrich, Gabriele and Nailini Nayak. 2001. 'Exploring Possibilities of Counter-Hegemonic Globalisation of Fishworkers' Movement in India and its Global Interactions'. Contribution to the Project on Reinventing Social Emancipation, Center of Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal. http://www.ces.fe.uc.pt/emancipa/research/en/ft/fishworkers.html

Edelman, Marc. 2002. ‘Toward An Anthropology Of Some New Internationalisms: Small Farmers In Global Resistance Movements’, in Focaal: European Journal of Anthropology. No. 40.

Graeber, David. 2003. ‘The Twilight of Vanguardism’ http://www.indybay.org/news/2003/06/1615559.php.

Griffin, Keith. Forthcoming. ‘Economic Globalisation and Institutions of Global Governance’, Development and Change. Vol. 34, No. 5, pp. 789-907.

Harriss-White and Gooptu 2000. ‘Mapping India’s World of  Unorganised Labour’, in  Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds), ‘Working Classes: Global Realities’, Socialist Register 2001. Merlin: London and Monthly Review: New York. Pp. 80-118.

International Transportworkers Federation. 2002. ‘Globalising Solidarity: The Popular Movement to Reform the Globalisation Process . Draft Resolution No. 5, ITF Congress, Vancouver’. http://www.itf.org.uk/congress/2002/pdf/motion_5.pdf

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Klein, Naomi. 2001. No Logo. London: Flamingo.

Lee, Ching Kwan. 1998. Gender and the South China Miracle. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Marx, Karl. 1852. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm)

Nilsson, Jesper. 2003. ‘Interview with Julius Roe: Beyond Nut and Bolt Workplace Issues’, Metal World, No. 2, pp. 18-21)

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Santos, Boaventura. 2003b.   ‘The Popular University of Social Movements to Educate Activists and Leaders of Social Movements, as Well as Social Scientists/Scholars Concerned with the Study of Social Change’. January. http://www.ces.fe.uc.pt/universidadepopular/indexen.php.

The Call. ‘The “Call of Social Movements” of the Second World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 31 January-5 February, 2002’. Antipode, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 625-32.

Waterman, Peter. 2001. Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms. London: Continuum. 302 pp.

Waterman, Peter. 2003a. International Labour Studies 2000+: The International Labour Movement Between Geneva, Brussels, Seattle/Porto Alegre and Utopia’.


Waterman, Peter. 2003b. ‘Adventures of Emancipatory Labour Strategy as the New Global Movement Challenges International Unionism’ http://www.labournet.de/diskussion/gewerkschaft/smu/smuadvent.html

[1]Also translated as ‘Here is the rose, dance here!’ There is a long, complex and puzzling story about the use of this Latin phrase by Hegel and Marx. No doubt they were kidding around. The origin is, apparently an Aesopian fable in which a boastful man is talking about the enormous leap he once took in Rhodes. Never mind all this. Context is all. Marx talks about the capacity for  reinventing emancipatory strategy, the impossibility of returning to the past, a new situation, necessary conditions.  Nike would say, ‘Just do it!’. I prefer Marx - and Aesop.

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