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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.1 (2002) 106-108

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Book Review

Imagining Internationalism in British and American Labor, 1939-49

Victor Silverman, Imagining Internationalism in British and American Labor, 1939-49. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. 298 pp. $59.95 cl. $24.95 ppr.

The 1940s tantalize American historians. We tend to view those years through a Cold War lens, finding the seeds of the later conflict even at the height of the grand alliance against Nazi Germany. But we can also view that period as a more fluid time that offered the possibility of building on the wartime comity to create a viable international community. Domestically as well, the years during and immediately after World War II can be seen as a similar moment of opportunity when it might have been possible to extend the New Deal in the United States and transform the class system in Great Britain. That moment, of course, passed quickly. By 1950 the Cold War in the international arena and anti-Communism on the domestic scene were thoroughly entrenched.

Victor Silverman takes these might-have-beens seriously. His vehicle for exploring the road not taken is the international labor movement during the brief period when it sought to realize a utopian vision of cross-national working-class cooperation in the construction of a new world order. As a strategy for challenging the inevitability of the Cold War, Silverman's approach has much to recommend it. The very notion of working-class internationalism places the social and economic program of organized [End Page 106] labor within a broader global context that reveals the connections between internal politics and foreign affairs.

Nevertheless, the task of conceptualizing working-class internationalism and then explaining how it developed and declined is rather complicated. It is easy to track the institutional developments. From Karl Marx on, most working-class movements had an internationalist component, albeit one splintered by national rivalries and by the struggle between Communists and anti-Communists during the early twentieth century. The wartime collaboration between the Soviet Union and the Allies resuscitated labor's internationalism and led to the establishment of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in 1945. The organization lasted only three years before it was pulled apart by its British and American partners' decisions to support their governments' Cold War maneuvers.

Silverman spends little time on the internal politics of the WFTU. He is much more interested in how the WFTU's main Western members, the British Trades Union Council (TUC) and the American Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), handled international issues and how the workers in those countries perceived the world. Initially, both the TUC and the CIO overlooked their Soviet partner's ties to the state. They hoped to build on the wartime alliance to create a strong international labor movement that would "alter the elite basis of international politics" (p. 185) and bolster their own positions at home. They failed. By the end of 1948 the international phase of American and British labor was over; patriotism had trumped internationalism. But the story is more complicated. Although the British and American labor movements traveled in the same anti-Communist direction, Silverman's emphasis on the differences between union leaders and ordinary workers reveals that the two movements followed very different trajectories.

Ironically, even though it was the American government that forced the Cold War grid onto international labor, the CIO's leaders were more devoted to internationalism than their British associates were. Even as Walter Reuther, James B. Carey, and other CIO officials were battling Communists within their own unions, they still dreamed of collaborating with Communist labor leaders overseas. Such a vision, however, elicited little support outside the organization's higher echelons. The more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) took a stridently anti-Communist position and refused to join the WFTU, while few rank-and-file members cared about the CIO's internationalism, which presupposed an interest in world politics and a class consciousness that most American workers simply did not have. As a...