Workers' Fight on general strike and the call for a Labour government, 1972-3

Submitted by martin on 28 August, 2009 - 1:34

Workers' Fight (forerunner of AWL) on calls for a general strike, and for "kick the Tories out", 1972-3... There was a mass strike movement in July 1972 against the jailing of five dockers under Tory anti-union laws. The TUC called a one-day general strike, though the Tories found a legal loophole to release the dockers b,efore it came to that. Agitation for a general strike had been widespread on the left since 1971, and continued through to 1974.

"To argue against the slogan of a general strike on the grounds of the inadequacy of political leadership in the British labour movement is to renounce the use of the general strike slogan as an agitational weapon in building an alternative leadership. It is a demand that the class waits until 'the leadership' prepares itself.

When the trade-union strength and militancy of the movement runs way ahead of the level of clear political consciousness... as undoubtedly it has done - it is not the job of revolutionaries to hold back the industrial threat until (somehow) the requisite political consciousness develops. Rather, it is jour job to sek to lead the working class forward in flexing its industrial strength so that political consciousness can be developed. The most favourable climate for the masses of the working class to understand the need for the socialist revolution, and for great numbers to achieve a scientific Marxist outlook, is the climate of mobilisation, action, struggle and confrontation.

The July situation allowed the posing of the general strike weapon not as an Armageddon, but as a weapon for a specific, immediately necessary end. However, what Trotsky wrote of sit-in strikes is all the more true of general strikes. The logic of the use of the weapon itself goes far beyond the possibly modest initial objectives. 'Independent of the demands of the strikes, the temporary seizure of the factories deals a blow to the idol, capitalist property. Every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is boss of the factory: the capitalist or workers?

A general strike paralyses the essential services of society: the question is at once raised of whether they are to be operated by scabs or taken under workers' control. Revolutionaries would argue for the defence, democratisation, and extension of the organs of workers' control, with the central demand of a workers' government - a government to be based on working-class organisations and to carry out working-class policies.

Against the revolutionary current, reformists would use various ploys, a crucial one being the 'ballot box trap'. Elections would be called and the workers advised that the issues were now open to democratic decisions, that they should concentrate their efforts on returning a Labour Government pledged to repeal the Act (or even to 'socialist policies').

In the situation of a general strike, with the question of direct working-class power being posed in a concrete way, with the normal channels of bourgeois parliamentary politics being bypassed by the logic of the movement, conventional abstractions about critical support for Labour would be inadequate. The point about the usual orientations on the part of revolutionaries (i.e. 'for a Labour Government') is that they provide an opportunity for relating to questions of the general administration of society (not just sectional demands) in an immediate, agitational, concrete fashion.

But in a situation of the growth of serious embryo organs of working-class power, the Labour Party ceases to be the only or even the main way of relating to these questions. Revolutionaries would argue firmly against any demobilisation of the strike movement for the sake of elections, and against the subordination of workers' council type organisations to the Labour Party machine..."

("The Left and the July Crisis", 1972)

While continuing agitation ourselves for "kick the Tories", and for demands on the Labour leadership, we criticised the portmanteau-slogan (used at one time or another in those years, and usually very heavily, by almost all the other left groups) "General Strike to kick the Tories out".

"To call for a general strike to kick out the Tories was to endorse in advance the 'ballot box trap' and facilitate a sell-out by the Labour Party leaders... The SLL has a peculiar conception of what a general strike is: 'The general strike must not be lifted until a General Election when a Labour government pledged to socialist policies can be elected' [SLL Daily Political Letter, 26 July 1972]. This is an amazing hotch-potch! A call for a general strike to get an election to put in a Labour Government limits the general strike in advance - closes, in advance, without a struggle, not by the arbitration of classes in conflict but by the preconceptions and the cold, flabby, a priori calculations in someone's head, the great chapter which such a mass working-class movement opens up: closes it in a reformist way"

("The Left and the July Crisis")

The radical possibilities which we saw in a general strike were possibilities. It was right to make propaganda for them, and agitate for a united general industrial offensive against the Government. This was a "revolutionary" syndicalist emphasis, distinct from the dominant de-facto syndicalism in the labour movement, a syndicalism which was without the hope of remaking society and would in 1974 collapse into support for the Labour Party in the February 1974 general election and afterwards.

It was correct to focus on and emphasise working-class direct action, and do what could be done by our propaganda and agitation to develop working-class awareness of what was possible and necessary. After a short, sharp internal dispute, we formally corrected our line to insist on including calls for a Labour government (and specific demands on that government) as well. We called that "walking on two legs".

"There is a relative, but not an absolute, contradiction between the general strike slogan and slogans relating to Parliament. The built-in dynamic of a general strike is to overflow and break through Parliamentary limits; in that situation of outflowing and breaking through, slogans for elections and for a Labour government are reactionary.

But to fear to raise slogans round Tories out/ Labour in now on the grounds of the possible reactionary effect of similar slogans in a possible development of a possible future general strike would be to stumble over the events of today by fixing our gaze on speculations about tomorrow...

We should take up the question of Tories out/ Labour in and utilise it as a weapon against reformism, by use of a rounded political programme and by directing specific demands against the Labour Party...

Through our concentration on the general strike slogan, a definite ultra-leftism has developed in the group, a definite fear of dealing with the question of the Labour Party, and of focusing on Parliament and government. This must be resolutely combatted... We must carry out a resolute turn towards involvement in the official labour movement".

(Workers' Fight Extended National Committee resolution, 19 August 1973)

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