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The fight for a general strike today

Dave Stockton looks in depth at the call for a general strike in Britain today

For all the verbal smokescreen of “caring Conservatism” and “fairness”, the attacks by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition are directly parallel to those of Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. David Cameron and George Osborne are setting out to complete the Iron Lady’s attacks on the post-1945 historic gains made by the working class.

Whereas her strategy concentrated on destroying the nationalised industries – British Leyland, British Steel, the mines, and the strongholds of trade unionism in the private sector: the docks, the print, etc. – her successors focus on destroying our post-1945 social gains – the free-at-the-point-of-delivery health service, the remains of free universal education and the welfare system.

Since the public services are now the fortress of trade unionism this would lead to a second historic defeat for the labour movement. It must not happen. Indeed this government, like Thatcher’s in her first years of power, can be defeated – if and only if we concentrate all our forces on smashing the first wave of attacks. If we do this, we can go over to an offensive that can bring the government down and call the very existence of capitalism into question.

We need to get it clear: business-as-usual trade unionism and parliamentary speeches will be totally inadequate to halt Cameron and Nick Clegg. Obviously all Labour MPs worthy of the name should use parliament to expose the savagery of the cuts. Obviously a serious fightback by any section under attack – the firefighters, the rail workers, the civil servants, the teachers and the lecturers – would be a huge step forward, as the youth from schools, colleges and universities have just shown us. But if these struggles remain isolated from one another – or receive only verbal solidarity – then the coalition will take us on one by one and defeat us, just as Thatcher did three decades ago.

This is all the more true, given the vicious anti-union laws which can and will be directed against any section bold enough to go all out and any other section brave enough to take solidarity action. The BA dispute earlier in the year shows that the judges are gagging to use the law to invalidate ballots and grant no-strike injunctions. We can expect huge fines on unions, imprisonment of militants or union officials who defy them. There would probably be the introduction of a ban on strikes in “essential services”, hitting firefighters or rail workers.

We need to be clear that this is a political attack from the government with parliament, the courts, the police and, if need be, the army mobilised against us. It is aimed not only at robbing us of our social, health and education services and sacking a million or more workers in he process, but also at smashing the public service trade unions as bulwarks against any further attacks.

Against this coordinated offensive we need to mobilise our full and united strength as a class. This means bringing together the resistance of all the sectors under attack, demonstrating together and linking up with youth and pensioners in direct action – mass pickets, road blockades, occupation of facilities faced with closure. But as the mighty antiwar movement showed in 2003, protest – even in the millions, winning the battle of public opinion – can mean nothing unless it is backed up with the kind of action our rulers cannot ignore. It means days and weeks of strike action – building into an all out and indefinite general strike to win the unconditional and total withdrawal of every cut in services, wages, pensions or jobs.

The campaign for a general strike should not be counterposed to immediate actions in defence of every service facing cuts, every workforce facing job losses. Even the smallest local skirmish can inspire and link up with others. A wave of individual struggles will help pave the way to an all out and indefinite general strike. If we bring forward and coordinate the strikes in defence of services, if we occupy schools, libraries, hospitals and fire stations faced with closure, if we besiege councils making cuts as the youth besieged parliament, then the confidence and the desire for all out battle will grow and grow.

We need to launch a campaign of agitation and propaganda for a general strike to stop the cuts – to reverse the austerity measures already imposed. Only a political mass strike wave that defies the class-biased justice of the courts and the fraudulent democracy of the parliamentary majority can defeat the Tory-Lib Dem proposals in their entirety.

We need to call on the leaderships of the individual unions – starting with the “lefts” – to take such action: we need to call on the TUC to announce a general strike on 26 March – and even before that if the courts move against a union for taking industrial action. But given the experience of betrayal in 1926 and, indeed, the TUC’s failure to call all out action in support of the miners in 1984-85, it would be madness to rely on the TUC General Council to do so or to leave control of a general strike in their hands.

Mass action

They will stubbornly oppose a general strike until the pressure from below becomes too great to resist – until it is clear that mass strike action is breaking out despite their wishes. Then they will rush to limit it to strict legality, control it from above, and keep it as passive and “peaceful” as possible. Keeping within the bounds of “legality” means recognising the right of capitalist judges to ban not just a general strike but also any strike that is effective.

This is what the TUC did during the British general strike of 1926. It was only declared because the Tories provoked the unions into calling it by locking out 900,000 miners. When the High Court declared that a general strike was not a trades dispute and therefore not covered by the legal “immunity from prosecution”, which in Britain does duty for what in many countries is the right to strike, the General Council called it off and let the miners fight alone for eight months.

An essential part of preparing for a general strike is to warn about the existing union leaderships: both the right wing traitors and the left wingers, who hand over the initiative to the right at the decisive moment. When they fight, as long as they fight, we can fight alongside them and indeed call on them to go further. When they pull back or sabotage the struggle, we must be well prepared to go forward without them.

To do this we must build the rank and file organisations, based on the workplace, strike committees and mass meetings, and linked up by shop stewards’ committees and local councils of action that can, in the event of betrayal, replace the bureaucratic leaders with militant class fighters and revolutionaries.

In short we need a general strike, initiated and controlled from below by all those already fighting.

This means that the local anticuts alliances, springing up across the country, must develop into action committees – able to coordinate strikes and occupations, not just pickets or demonstrations. They must grow into real and powerful councils of action, drawing in delegates from every council estate and workplace, all sections of the class: the unemployed, pensioners, youth, black and Asian comrades, the disabled, etc.

Only such bodies can be guaranteed to be able to launch a mass strike wave, a general strike. Only such bodies can be trusted to give leadership to such a strike – to form a national strike committee that will not give in, that will not sell us short. Instead of the bureaucratic structures of trade unions, where officials are rarely elected or use the privileges of their office to secure their tenure even when they misrepresent or sell out their members, councils of action should rely on the simple method of directly elected and recallable delegates.

Given the behaviour of the police in London on 24 November and 9 December, it is plain that the movement needs to create defence squads, rooted in the workplaces, school and colleges, large enough, well-trained and equipped to defend our demonstrations, picket lines, occupations, against attack by the police riot (provoking) squads.

Who rules society?

The great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky always insisted that a general strike posed the question of power.

“The fundamental importance of the general strike, independent of the partial successes which it may and then again may not provide, lies in the fact that it poses the question of power in a revolutionary manner. By shutting down the factories, transport, generally all the means of communication, power stations, etc. the proletariat by this very act paralyses not only production but also the government. The state power remains suspended in mid-air. It must either subjugate the proletariat by famine and force and constrain it, to set the apparatus of the bourgeois state once again in motion, or retreat before the proletariat.

Whatever may be the slogans and the motive for which the general strike is initiated, if it includes the genuine masses, and if these masses are quite resolved to struggle, the general strike inevitably poses before all the classes in the nation the question: Who will be the master of the house? The leaders of the proletariat must understand this internal logic of the general strike, unless they are not leaders but dilettantes and adventurers. Politically this implies that from now on the leaders will continue to pose before the proletariat the task of the revolutionary conquest of power. If not, they must not venture to speak of the general strike.” Trotsky On France Monad Press, New York 1980 p 61

Of course mass direct action will open up a major political crisis in Britain too. We should not be afraid to say that our aim is to bring down the coalition government. As the militancy of the students showed when their extra-parliamentary opposition slashed its majority in the House of Commons, this is not a strong or unbeatable government. Millions know it never received an electoral mandate either for its savage cuts or for that matter its very existence. The Lib Dems stand as a perjured party before their own electorate. The Tories did not dare confess they had designs on turning the welfare state into a Poor Law, based on the means test. As opposition mounts and becomes more and more militant, popular hatred of the government will become overwhelming.

If the level of struggle rises to the scale of a mass strike wave or general strike and the government begins to realise its own imminent collapse, as happened in 1972 and 1974, it will probably “threaten” the movement with a general election to show who rules. Should that happen, we need to be ready to fight for our own solution: a workers government – one based on councils of action and a mass workers’ militia, not on parliament and the police.

It must be a government that will not only stop all the cuts, restoring our services to the highest levels, providing jobs for all in socially valuable work, ending the war, repealing the anti-union and anti-immigrant laws, but it should go on to nationalise the banks with no compensation and – for a start – expropriate the 71 billionaires and the 1,000 multi-millionaires whose wealth far exceeds the public debt.

Rapid change

Many will say this is a fantasy – a long way from reality. Yet what seems real and possible changes very rapidly in times like ours. Three years ago capitalism seemed unshakeable – no more boom and bust. Then came the biggest bust in half a century.

Just a month ago a youth uprising and furious demonstrators besieging parliament seemed a fantasy. Now police chiefs express the view that this is “only the beginning” and fear mass upheavals as the cuts are launched. When the unions start to act, a general strike will cease to seem a fantasy, and in the conditions of a mass strike wave working class power will cease to be one too.

But the task of revolutionaries is not simply to make predictions – to see the potential hidden in the events of today – but to fight for every concrete step in that direction. Trotsky once more explained clearly what the preparation for a general strike and a revolutionary uprising means.

“A concentrated campaign in the working class press pounding steadily on the same key; real socialist speeches from the tribune of parliament, not by tame deputies but by leaders of the people; the utilisation of every electoral campaign for revolutionary purposes; repeated meetings to which the masses come not merely to hear the speakers but to get the slogans and directives of the hour; the creation and strengthening of the workers’ militia; well organised demonstrations driving the reactionary bands from the streets; protest strikes; an open campaign for the unification and enlargement of the trade union ranks under the banner of resolute class struggle; stubborn, carefully calculated activity to win the army over to the cause of the people; broader strikes; more powerful demonstrations; the general strike of toilers of town and country; a general offensive against the Bonapartist government for the workers’ and peasants’ power.”
(Trotsky, On France, Monad Press, New York 1980 p. 61)

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