Strikes and shallow slogans

“Strikes can smash the Tories”. “November 30 [2011]: our day to smash the Tories”. “Mass strikes can kick out Con-Dems”. “Force Cameron out!”

The text under such headlines in Socialist Worker and The Socialist varies, and sometimes does not really fit the headlines, but the headline message is common and frequent.

You can see why SWP and SP think the message will be catchy. Strikes against cuts? Good. More of them? Better. Bring down the Tory/Lib-Dem government? Excellent. Combine the two ideas in a snappy phrase? Has to be even better.

Increased mobilisation and agitation could destabilise the government. Deeper economic crisis could destabilise it. Since the crash of 2008, governments have fallen in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece.

But let’s tease the issues through. Making the government fall is not necessarily a step forward. In Portugal and Spain, for example, the toppled administrations were replaced by regimes akin to Tories; in Greece and Italy, party administrations have been replaced by “technocrat” administrations designed to be less vulnerable to popular resistance to the cuts they push through.

In Britain the fall of the government would probably mean it being replaced by Labour. That would be a step forward. The new government, though under Ed Miliband pro-capitalist, would be more easily pushed by working-class pressure, and that working-class pressure, against a Labour government, could more directly shake up and transform the labour movement.

But it would not be adequate, even for winning the immediate battle on pension cuts. Balls and Miliband have refused to promise to reverse the coalition government’s measures, and will not budge from that refusal without intense and organised political mobilisation within the labour movement. Slogans which present toppling the government as the supreme prize to be won by increased strikes are thus a snare.

The SWP and SP headlines suggest to the casual reader that a good turnout on 30 November could force Cameron from office. In the small print SWP and SP recognise that more is needed.

Earlier this year SW suggested a general strike. “If the pressure gets intense enough, it can lead to the kind of united action that really does have the power to bring down the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition — a general strike” (22 March).

The suggestion has now faded to an exercise in “imagining”. “Imagine the impact if millions more said they would come out — and then decided to stay out...” (1 October). But the thought still seems to be that “smashing the Tories” is not what 30 November can achieve, but what a future general strike could win. The SP suggests something similar, though by way of saying: “we must prepare for a two-day strike as the next stage of the escalating action”.

In other words, the headlines mean: “We want more strikes. And if the strikes become really big, as big as we want, then they can win the supreme prize: topple the government”.

They mean that if strikes rise to a high pitch, capable of winning large concessions, then socialists will have presented the ruling class in advance with a convenient let-out. “You’ve made your point. Calm down, and we’ll call a general election”.

Having presented forcing a general election as the ultimate prize, the socialists will have weakened themselves in the battle that will follow, when we will have to argue against the Labour leaders’ inevitable story that the crisis means that they can’t change much, or quickly, from the Tories’ plans. Specific, “hard” demands for the strike, like “fair pensions for all”, are sharper in that situation than the apparently-radical “bring down the government”.

It is also far from certain that Labour would win the general election. When the great May-June 1968 general strike in France was finally stifled, in part with the promise of a quick general election, De Gaulle’s right wing won that 23/30 June election with an increased majority. Millions of strikers disappointed by the failure of the general strike to change society then voted for “the party of order”.

Even if Cameron lost the election, the replacement might well not be Labour but a Labour/ Lib-Dem coalition. Ed Miliband signals that he is angling for that.

To take the working class forward politically, the negative call for “kicking out the Con-Dems” or “smashing the Tories” has to be linked to a clear positive call for a Labour government, not a new coalition, and for the unions and the working class to organise for sharp demands on the Labour leaders. The call must be linked to politics, not just more strikes.

Neither the SWP nor the SP makes that link. The SP refuses to vote Labour or to fight for unions to reshape Labour. (Its article under the headline “Force Cameron Out!” ends by quarter-suggesting that it envisages an SP government replacing him. The last of the article’s concluding list of demands is: “Support the Socialist newspaper and join the Socialist Party”).

The SWP is not so dogmatic. But as of now it says nothing about Labour except to make the obvious points about Ed Miliband’s poor politics. As used by both SWP and SP, the “smash the Tories” or “kick out the Con-Dems” slogans are further examples of flim-flam “agitationalism” — socialists trying to catch the wind by shouting popular “anti” slogans without spelling out clear positive alternatives.

And to present flim-flam “agitationalist” aims as the best thing that the best development of strikes could achieve is harmful for the development of purposeful, clear-headed working-class action to win definite advances, and of serious political action.