International working class solidarity in an age of crises, wars and disasters

The following was my opening speech to the LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference – Tbilisi, Georgia – 28 April 2023.

Friends, brothers and sisters, comrades.

First of all, I’d like to thank Irakli and the GTUC for hosting this event and partnering with us. I also want to thank the university for allowing us to use this wonderful space.

The German social democratic thinker and writer Karl Kautsky — who was a great friend of the Georgian people, and who visited here during the time of the First Republic — warned in a 1909 book that we were entering upon an age of Kriesen, Kriege, Katastrophen – crises, wars, disasters.

He could have been describing our time, more than a century later.

We meet today at a time when a major war has been unleashed upon Europe, a war in which tens of thousands of lives have needlessly been lost, including many innocent civilians.

We meet during a climate emergency the likes of which the world has never seen before. We no longer speak about stopping or reversing global warming. Instead we are now focussed on mitigation — and specifically, saving lives. Meanwhile fossil fuel companies are reporting record profits, which is obscene.

We meet as more and more democratic nations face the threat of authoritarianism. Though Trump and Bolsonaro are no longer in power, others are, including Orban, Modi, Lukashenko, Netanyahu, Putin and the theocratic dictatorship in Iran. Governments in many countries are attempting to trample upon democratic rights — including workers’ rights.

The cost of living crisis, the COVID pandemic, the rise of irrational and anti-scientific thinking, the persistence of poverty around the world — all this fits perfectly into Karl Kautsky’s description of a world of crises, wars and disasters.

This weekend, here in Tbilisi, we are going to talk about these things. Among ourselves, as trade unionists and as workers. We are going to speak honestly and not pretend that all is well, that we have everything under control, that there is nothing to fix and nothing to change.

We are going to look at the world with eyes open. We are going to admit to our strengths and our weaknesses. We will talk about our victories and also about our defeats. We will be honest about where we stand as a movement.

And we will honestly discuss where we need to go from here.

The central message of this conference is an old one. Back in 1909, Karl Kautsky would have recognised it. It’s the message of international working-class solidarity.

Look around you and you will see trade unionists from dozens of countries. One might ask what a trade union leader from Myanmar has in common with one in Belarus. This weekend, we will find out.

Let us not pretend that we agree on everything when we do not. Let us accept and even embrace our differences. Let us discuss without fear the things that matter — but let us do it in a spirit of mutual respect, friendship and comradeship.

When the first International was founded in London in 1864, the first truly global workers’ organisation, there was a banner on the stage. It read ‘all men are brothers’. Today, we would certainly update the wording. All men and all women are brothers and sisters. The meaning remains the same.

Knowing that, acknowledging that, living our lives as if that were true — as if we were really all one family — that kind of solidarity is an enormously powerful tool.

The labour movement invented the idea of solidarity. It is the key to reviving our movement, making our unions stronger, defending our democracies, and dealing with the wars, crises and disasters that all of us living on this planet face.

I wish you all a successful and productive conference.

Long live international working class solidarity!