A favourite theme of those who trade in lampooning the left is to reduce our ideas to mindless sloganeering. These scribblers conjure some ridiculous caricature and then knock it down with ease.
The influence of these exercises is such that some people turn out on demonstrations with their own home-made placards, daubed with semi-ironic slogans like “down with this sort of thing” or “I’m really angry”. Unfortunately, these creative individuals are consistently swamped by equally ridiculous but apparently earnest placards and leaflets.
The SWP is now demanding the TUC call a general strike.
They think this call “fits the mood”. No-one in the SWP makes any serious argument that is feasible; suggests any practical moves towards achieving it; or even contests the obvious objection that if TUC general secretary Brendan Barber did suddenly have a rush of blood to the head, and made an off-the-cuff call for a general strike, then it current conditions it would flop in a way that would harm the movement rather than helping it.
For the SWP, if a slogan “fits the mood” and can get attention (thus allowing it to recruit more people to its ranks), that is enough.
There are times when the call for a general strike means calling for a big (and maybe, in cold estimate, unlikely) leap in struggle, but a leap which is based on real elements in the logic of already-existing class struggle, and which would take the movement forward.
Thus, the forerunners of the AWL fought for the labour movement to organise for a general strike in the early years of the Thatcher government, around 1980, when the unions were still relatively confident and strong. We called for a general strike to extend the 1984-5 miners’ strike into an across-the-board working-class mobilisation which could have defeated Thatcher and prevented the crushing of working-class organisation and rights that came in the four or five years after the miners’ defeat.
At that time, the “mood” the SWP was trying to tap into was one of defeatism. They told activists we were in a “downturn”, that any broad labour-movement ventures were doomed, and they should instead focus on “building the revolutionary party” in abstraction (and there was a market for that line).
In the opening months of the miners’ strike the SWP repeatedly said the dispute was brave but doomed, “an extreme example of the downturn.” Worse, for many months they dismissed working-class strike solidarity as “left-wing Oxfam.” Even when they eased off on that, they still dismissed general strike calls as “abstract.”
On the other hand, when last-ditch and ultimately too-weak-to-win demonstrations were called against the closure of most of the remaining pits in 1992, the SWP made call after call for a general strike.
After almost twenty years of silence on the issue, the SWP is now demanding that the TUC call a general strike against cuts. They were wrong not to make the call in 1984, they were wrong to do it in 1992 and they are wrong again now! The emptiness of the slogan is evidenced by the fact of how little the SWP has done to actually fight for the demand in the labour movement. They are not short of members who sit on various union NECs; none of them have made serious attempts to submit policy on the issue.
The background “theory” to the SWP’s call for a general strike also influences their other calls and would-be propaganda.
Take for example their call to “kettle” Parliament on the day of the tuition fees vote, and so to “bring the government down”. Regardless of whether or not it was at all feasible to kettle Parliament, and of whether the SWP ever seriously tried to do it, what happens after we bring the government down? The SWP’s leaflet didn’t provide any answers. Presumably the implied alternative is a Labour government. But does the SWP campaign politically through the labour movement to enforce any demand on Labour? No.
Every socialist would like there to be a general strike, and a growing number of workers — if not the overwhelming majority — would like this government to fall. Neither of these things will happen just by filling Millbank and Parliament Square with thousands of people. None of the obvious questions will be answered by sub-anarchistic silence on political questions.
A general strike can only be organised and should only seriously be proposed within the context of a sharp, developing and militant phase of industrial action.
To make a call for the TUC to stage a general strike at a time when even the most industrially militant unions call very limited strikes is to ignore all facts and say things for the sake of sounding militant. That is childish, idiotic and, if the SWP had any real, politically shaping influence in the movement, irresponsible.
Miseducating people with the idea that lively and angry demonstrations can bring down a government, at the same time as conspicuously avoiding the question of what might happen next, displays shallow political understanding. But perhaps the SWP “dumb down” their slogans because they have political contempt for their audience; all “the masses” deserve and need are contentless, militant-sounding slogans.