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Coalition of Resistance runs away from the General Strike

By Jeremy Dewar

The Coalition of Resistance is the first of the four supposedly anticuts umbrella organisations to hold a national meeting since the TUC voted for “the consideration and practicalities of a general strike”. CoR’s National Council, led by Counterfire founding members, John Rees, Lindsey German and Chris Nineham, duly considered it and concluded it was “implausible” and impracticable.

Brendan Barbar, Francis O’Grady and co. could not have wished for a more compliant response to their unfortunate predicament at having the awkward question posed of what they should do to stop the cuts. But if the overwhelming majority of TUC delegates to its Congress raised the pressure on them for a general strike, the CoR NC seemed intent on releasing it.

The meeting, at Unite’s HQ in London, was held primarily to discuss preparations for the TUC demo on 20 October. Its main business was to amend and pass a resolution from the national officers group. Despite the officers having previously discussed and amended this document, it made no mention of the TUC Congress decision to consider a general strike.

NUT national executive member and prominent Socialist Teachers Alliance supporter Alex Kenny opened discussion with a report of autumn plans in the schools. A national work to rule starts on Wednesday but Kenny dismissed plans for a new strike as “probably not going to happen until next year”. No one challenged this and only an SWP member raised the problem of last summer’s national action being called off.

Then John Rees introduced the main motion. He too failed to take the opportunity to mention the general strike, limiting himself to saying “further and more radical forms of action” could be “on the agenda” if 20 October was a success. But a specific form of “more radical” action was “on the agenda” of this month’s TUC: a general strike. Despite later complaining that the general strike was an “abstract” question, he preferred the most abstract formulation imaginable.

Instead the resolution complacently proclaimed that, “the Coalition of Resistance slogan of ‘No Cuts’ is increasingly central to an effective fightback”. This was later amended to include another slogan, “Tax the Rich”. But how are these to be implemented? There are no parties, pledged to such policies that could form a government to push these policies through. That is why mass political strike action – otherwise known as a general strike – has to be our main slogan if the working class is to fight against all cuts.

Workers Power members put a simple amendment after this clause:

However, in the light of the TUC’s overwhelming endorsement of the decision to ‘consider a general strike’, our main slogan will be: ‘Yes to a General Strike’.”

This unleashed a torrent of objections.

Neil Faulkner said a general strike was “a million miles away”, instead seeing the 20 October as an opportunity to make abstract propaganda for socialism (in fact, Keynesianism). He ended with an analogy, adapted from Tony Cliff, that calling for a general strike now was like “drawing a picture of a raft, rather than getting stuck in and building one, when the ship is going down”.

James Meadway of Counterfire asserted that many people did not even know what a general strike was, so it was impossible to agitate for one. “A general strike doesn’t look plausible” for them. Chris Nineham, who comes from the same stable, hammered home the message even more bluntly:

It’s not our job as the left to differentiate ourselves from ordinary people.”

Former general secretary of the lecturers’ union Paul Macknee gave a more bureaucratic example to make the same point:

We lobbied the TUC for an autumn demo and succeeded. If we had asked for a general strike, we wouldn’t have connected.”

A further piece of his homespun wisdom was that this was like asking for a five-course meal when all that was in the cupboard was a tin of baked beans.

All these objections have a common thread: do not propose any ideas that are not already fully formed in people’s heads. But this is a circular argument, or a self-fulfilling prophesy; how can we change people’s minds – radicalise or politicise the millions – if we do not agitate, literally stir up their existing ideas?

Contrary to what Chris Nineham imagines, it is precisely the role of the left – and revolutionary Marxists above all – to challenge false and failed strategies (like the left union leaders’ exclusive concentration on public sector pensions) and propose more effective forms of action which can unite students and workers, employed and unemployed, private sector users and public sector providers of public services – the whole spectrum of the working people under attack.

To do this we do have to, on occasions like the present, “differentiate ourselves” – but in order to win over the majority to a strategy that can win. When a tactic is necessary we have to argue for it, no matter how far it may be from people’s minds. In fact it is not far from people’s minds – as the TUC vote showed. However, the CoR NC members are plainly trying all they can to put it out of their minds.

If socialists call for a general strike and we meet workers who do not know what that entails or how we can achieve one, then we should explain that, rather than fighting each cut separately, to be picked off or forced to accept poor compromises, we all fight together so that, “the unemployed, our children, the elderly and all those in our society who are vulnerable” (as the TUC resolution puts it) can win. That is why we need to build action committees to organise the general strike on the ground and prevent it from being sold short or called off.

After this came the disparagers, who clutched at every straw to undermine the very idea of independent workers’ action. Lindsey German claimed that in 1926 and 1972, when the TUC last called general strikes, it came after years of upturn in strike action, but currently we were at a low ebb. Unashamedly, she quoted the government’s crooked figures to “prove” that there were not 2 million on strike on 30 November.

Several Counterfire members pointed out that 93% of private sector workers were non-unionised, while Chris Bambery of the International Socialist Group based in Scotland, said shopfloor organisation was too low and mass demonstrations were a necessary step before a general strike. Alex Kenny even quoted the 93% vote in Unison to accept the pensions deal to “show” that workers did not want more action.

Firstly this is a wilfully distorted picture of the reality of our movement. The government’s ONS strike figures are based on managers’ feedback, which is often a pack of lies. The comrades fail to mention of rank and file initiatives, like the Sparks and Unite Grass Roots Left, which Workers Power supports but Counterfire have shown little interest in. The Unison local government ballot came after a similar ballot in the NHS returned a majority against the deal, only to be ignored by the leadership, and under conditions in which left wing branches were being witchhunted.

Secondly, to the extent that it is true, it does not make the case against agitating for a general strike. The idea that popularising the goal of a strike on a huge national demonstration would distract militants from organising in their own workplaces is bizarre. The idea that first we have to do the latter task – whilst all our social gains are demolished around us – before we can pose a united all-out fightback is tailism of the purest sort.

A general mobilisation is more powerful than a sectional one obviously, so the more we make it appear a real possibility (which it is, except for the question of leadership), the more workers will want to join in. And all great mass strikes or strike waves have led to huge increases in the numbers joining unions and new workplaces  being organised – tasks that in normal circumstances that would take years or decades.

It is simply not true at all that building workers’ organisation follows a schema, whereby its tasks are achieved in pre-defined, set stages, separate from each other, the little piecemeal ones first and the big ones later. The general strike – which by the way John Rees and Lindsey German, then in the SWP, did not argue for either in 1972 and 1984 – is not always the culmination of a period of growing wage militancy. In France in 1968 it came at the end of a period of falling wages, in response to a political event: the police repression of the students in the Latin Quarter.

In 2010 school and university students, though their had been little in way of piecemeal resistance, responded to parliament debating laws which increased tuition fees and abolished the EMA by mass demos and street fighting with the police.

Lindsey German quoted the low level of strike days as proof that talk of a general strike were an illusion. Trotsky addressed this false reasoning back in the 1930s when the CP in France argued a general strike was impossible because economic struggles were at a low ebb:

The masses understand or feel that, under the conditions of the crisis and of unemployment, partial economic conflicts require unheard of sacrifices which will never be justified in any case by the results obtained. The masses wait for and demand other and more efficacious methods.” Once Again Whither France

Today workers sense that it is the government they are up against and that this can not be done section by section, issue by issue. The question of the general strike arises because of the need of workers for generalised political strike action to achieve their goals.

For the centrists of Counterfire and “their” Coalition of Resistance, it will never be the right time. Why? Because the demand for a general strike threatens their cuddling up to their coterie of left reformist leaders. And because these leaders are an obstacle to getting a general strike, Counterfire takes on the task of rationalising this in “Marxist” terms. So it was no surprise that when it came to the vote only four delegates supported our amendment.

For sure Rees, German, Nineham and co. will be grateful for Fourth international supporter Fred Leplatt’s counter-amendment to “welcome” the TUC’s consideration of a general strike (while doing nothing about it), which they will feel got them “out of jail”. But the dozen or so speeches, ringing all the changes on the impossibility of a general strike, indicated that the TUC resolution was in fact not welcome at all but an embarrassment.

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