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The left and the general strike

A debate has opened up in the labour movement since the vote at the Brighton TUC to consider the ‘practicalities of a general strike’. The debate has inevitably exposed differences on the left. Andy Yorke intervenes

Not everyone on the left supports a general strike, much less campaigns for it.

The Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), for example, rejects the slogan as “catchpenny phrasemongering”, and pins its hopes instead on “a Labour Party committed to expropriating the banks, taxing the rich, restoring public services, and establishing workers’ control”. They worry that if “a general strike did bring down the government, then Labour might well not then win the ensuing election”.

This is pure parliamentary cretinism, as Lenin called it, thinking that the most revolutionary tactic short of an armed insurrection should be adopted, or not adopted, on the basis of whether it helps or hinders the election of a Labour government.

Any general strike that had actually brought down a Tory government would in the very process radically transform the labour movement, including its political consciousness and forms of organisation. It would pose the need for a genuine workers’ government that could really carry out the AWL’s suggested policies and more besides – by relying on the very organisations, i.e. councils of action, that the workers’ movement would have to create to win a general strike.

At the same time the AWL’s alternative – according to which the Labour Party could be won to such policies while the unions restrict their resistance to the sort of tactics we have seen over the last two years – is a complete fantasy. So too is the idea that it is possible in today’s conditions to capture the post-Blair Labour Party for socialism.

The Weekly Worker also rejects the slogan as “out of place”, arguing that what we really need is a new party, an alternative to Labour. Though apparently proposing the opposite solution to the AWL’s, it involves exactly the same method; it diverts attention from an immediate tactical necessity, which is certainly difficult to realise, towards a strategic problem (the revolutionary party) that is even further off. In the here and now it advises caution – wait until we have the right party or the right leadership.

Socialist Resistance and Counterfire, in partial contrast, actually do welcome the left union leaders’ 20 October speeches, and the TUC’s decision to “examine the practicalities” of a general strike. But they do not campaign for one, because they too believe the working class is “not ready”.

They similarly pose a task that is totally off from that of defeating the governments’ onslaught, in their case arguing that a general strike isn’t possible without first rebuilding the unions from below, recruiting more members, building branches and organising around immediate issues like pay.

This fails to recognise, however, that on the one hand these vital tasks can all be helped by a political campaign for a general strike that energises and organises the most militant activists, but on the other hand they will be massively set back if the Tories succeed with their attacks.

The Socialist Party
However, the two biggest left organisations in Britain have taken up the slogan. To their credit, the Socialist Party (SP) has argued through the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) for a 24-hour general strike, lobbying the TUC for two years running. It is their artificial insistence on a time limit that is wrong; two years of 24-hour and 48-hour general strikes in Greece have failed to stop massive austerity.

The SP has been forced to address the question of whether a one-day general strike is sufficient, and whether an all-out indefinite one would be needed. Here the SP becomes timid and evasive, pointing to the size of the stakes this raises.

Knowing well enough Trotsky’s argument that an indefinite general strike poses the question of “who is the master in the house”, and that it is “a war manoeuvre designed to compel the enemy to submit”, while a one-day general strike is really only a large demonstration, the SP hold onto the latter like a safety rail to avoid falling into the dangers of the former. “An all-out general strike is one of the most serious actions the working class can take, posing as it does sharply the question of power in society. Either the working class takes power and establishes a new socialist society or the capitalists can inflict a crushing defeat… Therefore, before engaging in such a decisive battle it is necessary to go through a preparatory stage, maybe a number of limited strikes of one day or even longer, as in Greece. It is vital to understand the rhythm of the workers’ movement at each stage.” (The Socialist, editorial 31 October)

The SP does take into account that in Britain, a general strike is illegal under the anti-union laws, and unlawful under common law too. Undoubtedly the employers and the government would let off a barrage of injunctions the moment individual unions or the TUC tried to call one.

But for the union leaders, the anti-union laws are the biggest obstacle to any strike action, whatever its scope or duration. This is an obstacle that cannot be got around by the manoeuvres the SP suggests, but only confronted head-on and smashed by mobilising from below under the slogan, “They can’t arrest us all”.

But the SP takes fright at this prospect and looks for a way out:

“It is possible to go a long way towards a general strike even within the straitjacket of the anti-union laws. If the TUC was to the name the day, all unions with live disputes could coordinate their ballots in order to be able to strike on the same day. Each individual union would be striking over their own issues – whether pensions, pay, privatisation, job losses, all of these or other issues – at the same time collectively it would be a general strike against austerity. This would create a powerful core to a general strike, and there is no question that, once called, other workers would want to take part.” (The Socialist, 24 October)

This in reality is just a repeat of the legal, coordinated sectional ballots of the N30 public sector pensions strike. It is a general strike in name only, and would be sabotaged by the weakest leaders ducking out as a result of threats and bribes from the government, just as they did in December 2011.

The Socialist Workers Party
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) makes many of the same mistakes as the SP, and is unwilling to build the rank and file movement that would make an all-out indefinite general strike possible.

The SWP has zigzagged on the general strike slogan, tailing the movement with calls for it up to the 30 November strike last year, then dropping it, but reviving it since the Brighton TUC. While it has not explicitly limited its call to 24 hours, its model motion for the 17 November Unite the Resistance conference “calls on the TUC to name the day for a general strike against austerity as soon as practically possible” – effectively calling for a 24-hour co-ordinated strike as advocated by the Socialist Party.

In the union branches around N30 and at this year’s PCS Annual Delegate Conference, the SWP opposed motions to “strike with or without other unions” and to “escalate up to all out action”, and there is no sign they are advocating such action now.

In raising the general strike slogan, the SWP fails to explain how it is that we can actually get one. They are currently saying, rightly, that we need to raise the confidence of workers by fighting every single cut, and combine this will the call for a general strike.

However, simply increasing the pressure on the union leaders to support a general strike is not enough. We have to place demands on both the right wing and the left wing union leaders, and organise independently of them.

Unlike the SP, the SWP has always formally rejected the idea of “Broad Leftism”, in favour of the rhetoric of building rank and file organisations. But in unions where it has people in leading positions, it has covertly always pursued a policy little different to the SP’s. Since Unite the Resistance was set up last year, however, this policy has become more explicit. As the SWP’s industrial organiser Martin Smith put it:

“The campaigning organisation Unite the Resistance…is neither a rank and file group, nor a broad left type formation, looking to capture the top of a union. Instead it seeks to bring together rank and file workers with those union leaders who want to resist. It hopes that by doing this it can give rank and file workers more confidence to fight, and bolster the fighting spirit of the union leaders. But if we are not to repeat the awful sell out of the pensions battle last year we have to set about rebuilding our unions from the base up.” (Socialist Worker, 15 September)

Uniting together “rank and file workers with those union leaders who want to resist”, and making this into a strategy, ignores the fact that at the first critical juncture the right wingers will betray… and the left wingers will stand silent and perplexed, as they did after the betrayal of N30.

But if this occurs in the run-up to, or during a general strike, it will be an even bigger disaster. The need to maintain our political independence of the union leaders, and to make merciless criticisms of their every hesitation, is the absolute duty of revolutionaries – and the only way we can insert a backbone into the TUC lefts. This was the main lesson of 1926 and we forget it today at our peril.

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