AWL was distributing leaflets calling for rank and file control in the unions’ battle against the Coalition government cuts, for the use of selective and rolling strikes and strike levies, and for a political fight for a workers’ government. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Socialist Party (SP) were distributing leaflets calling for a general strike.
It was a meeting in central London on 22 June, entitled “Unite the Resistance”, in effect an SWP rally but nominally non-partisan and giving platform slots to Rob Williams, for the SP’s National Shop Stewards’ Network, and Andrew Burgin, for Counterfire’s Coalition of Resistance.
A large-ish meeting was applauding calls for a general strike, and we were finicking about union democracy and political machinations? Why?
In essence, the SP’s and the SWP’s demand is not that the unions plan anything different. It is that a different, more revolutionary-sounding, name be attached to what the unions are already planning.
The big unions are already talking of another one-day strike, involving Unison, Unite, and GMB public sector members as well as teachers and civil service workers, in mid-October.
Talking is not organising. Now his union conference delegates have gone home, Unison leader Dave Prentis is already rowing backwards, and pretending to find “positive” things in union negotiations with the Government on its plans to trash public-sector pensions.
Activists have to fight hard even to hold the union leaders to what they have promised. However, there was not much about that from SP, SWP, etc. on 22 June.
The mood was summed up best by Mark Campbell, a UCU union rep at London Metropolitan University and an SWP member. The main public-sector unions will all be striking together in October, he said, and “we should call that what it is: a general strike!” Wild applause.
The SP had posters saying “24 hour public sector [small] General Strike [big] Now! [huge]”. Here, “now” cannot be read too literally to mean “today” or “this week”. To give the name “General Strike Now” to the plan recommended in the NSSN’s leaflet and the SP’s paper is, however, asking too much of literary licence.
The leaflet talks only of “reaching out to... unions such as Unison, Unite, the GMB and NASUWT to draw them into further coordinated action as soon as possible. This would pose the idea of, at least initially, a 24-hour public sector general strike of some four million workers”.
The SP/ NSSN hopes that the union leaders will do what they promise in October, and the SP/ NSSN’s contribution will be to give the action a different name: general strike.
This is not the sort of renaming that can be useful in politics, as when we convince a young person that their attitudes add up to being a feminist, or a socialist, although the person has thought of herself or himself as “not wanting to get involved in politics”. The renaming of the union leaders’ plans encourages not a sharper awareness, and steps forward like recognising kinship with the other feminists or socialists, but a more phrase-fuddled satisfaction with what is.
30 June, and the promised bigger one-day strike in October, are big enough and important enough as they really are, as protest demonstrations, not to need dressing up. But SWP opposes calling meetings on 30 June where strikers can discuss and demand sharper plans for their unions on the grounds that the unions “already have a plan”.
There is no point in pretending that teachers, civil service workers, local government staff, and NHS employees can hit capital hard, economically, by a one-day strike.
Those public-sector workers who can hit hard even by one-day action, Royal Mail and London Underground workers, are not on course for inclusion in October (they are not affected by the pension changes currently the focus for October). The leaflets and the speeches on 22 June had no talk of, for example, modifying October’s prospectus to bring them in.
Pumping up the October one-day action in that way would obviously have advantages, though on the whole I think that would be a wrong choice for socialists to focus on that option. The point here is that the SP and SWP, focused on the October action and its “renaming” into “general strike”, do not address what might be done to boost it into a more substantial “general strike”. Instead, they attribute almost magical powers to the existing October plans.
SWP/ Right to Work: “In the autumn all the unions, including the big three — Unite, Unison, and the GMB — need to strike together... If we all struck together — a general strike — it would stop the Con-Dems in their tracks”. RTW’s model motion for union branches demands nothing from the union leaders but support for demonstrations which RTW is planning at the Lib-Dem and Tory conferences in September and October.
In an interview published in the New Statesman on 23 June, PCS [civil service union] general secretary Mark Serwotka, who spoke on 22 June, proposed a perspective of working-class action building up “incrementally” for the next four years, over the whole life of the Government.
As with the renaming of October, we have here a good socialist idea garbled, or rather two good socialist ideas garbled so as to transform them from spurs to organising into demagogic self-consolation.
Often working-class action starts with a warning strike, or a strike in only one section, and then builds up or spreads out as workers gain confidence and a sense of solidarity. But to rename a possible October protest strike as the decisive “general strike”, and to dismiss the need for rank and file control to redefine action beyond protest strikes, does not help extension.
Again: today, the battles against the first big round of council cuts budgets, against higher university tuition fees, and against the first rush of job cuts in the civil service, have been lost. That does not mean that future battles will be lost.
In 1970-1, the Tory government of the time, driving a policy of Thatcherism-before-Thatcher, won a series of victories over a labour movement slow to adjust to the sudden shift of government policy away from over twenty years of softly-softly. Then in early 1972 a wave of militancy began which would rise as high as the 1920s.
Today the labour movement has lived through a long period of relative capitalist upswing (1992-2007) and a long period of growth in public-service employment. Maybe it will take time to readjust, and then readjust fast.
That is a fundamental idea for socialists after setbacks. To make that thought an excuse for not speaking honestly about the battles now is another matter.
Serwotka’s “incremental” perspective comes down to him saying: what I, and my [SP-controlled] union, are proposing now will lead to defeat on the immediate issues. But never mind. The workers won’t be daunted. Bit by bit they will push the unions generally into stronger action, and by 2015 to adequate action.
It is a hindrance, not a help, to serious working-class strategy to have the SP and SWP decorating Mark Serwotka’s “incremental” plan with claims that the October plan is “really” a general strike, likely to bring the Government down, or a step on an escalator smoothly leading to a full-scale general strike.
We (AWL) must not allow our opposition to making “general strike” an (empty) slogan now to trap us into a static or gradualist view of things. The class struggle can sometimes “skip stages”. The 1926 general strike in Britain came when union membership had been falling since 1920, to only 63% of the 1920 figure, and strike-days had been decreasing since 1921. In the run-up to the French general strike of June 1936, Leon Trotsky denounced the Stalinised Communist Party for constantly appealing for strikes on limited economic issues. He wrote: “The masses make hardly any response to appeals for strikes on a purely economic plane... 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”.
But the SP’s and SWP’s implausible calls on the TUC to launch a general strike are very different from Trotsky’s arguments in 1935. They are implausible even as a “measuring rod” to judge the TUC by, because the blunt truth is that if the TUC suddenly called on all workers to strike, then the “adventurist” about-turn would produce chaos and demoralisation rather than powerful action. Their dressing up of October as “the general strike” differs from Trotsky’s arguments in 1935 for general-strike agitation because it lacks honesty, thought-through-ness, and grounding in reality. Their agitation is a hindrance, not a help, to real advance towards a general strike.
In 1935 in France, Trotsky was demanding of the recently-formed United Front of the Communist Party and Socialist Party “a broad political offensive”. “The workers’ alliance of parties and trade unions must be formed... [It] will have no revolutionary value unless it is oriented toward the creation of:
“1. Committees of struggle representing the mass itself... 2. Workers’ militia...
“Committees... must become, during the course of the struggle, organisms directly elected by the masses... On this basis the proletarian power will be erected in opposition to the capitalist power, and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Commune will triumph”.
Trotsky knew that the Communist Party and Socialist Party leaders were frauds — but also that beneath them there was a bubbling mass of organised and revolutionary-minded workers who could (and would in June 1936) go over their heads. Honestly and clearly, he mapped a course by which the “going over the leaders’ heads” could win.
We do not have that bubbling mass, yet, but we too need honesty and clarity.
The agitation of the SP and SWP is unpolitical, except on the level of routine populist denunciations of Cameron and the ultra-rich.
The SP/ NSSN blusters: “Cameron, Clegg, Osborne... the people are coming! Get out now!” The SWP orates: “Let’s march together, let’s strike together. Let’s bring them down”.
Neither says anything about what should replace the Coalition. They know that Ed Miliband is useless. Instead of developing any agitation for the unions and the left to reshape the Labour Party, they effectively recommend workers to “forget” Ed Miliband’s uselessness temporarily, all the better to sound a militant note about bringing down the Government. (Later — “incrementally”, no doubt — they will turn back to routine anti-Labourism).
The Coalition’s measures can be deflected or limited here and there by local and sectoral action, and that is vital, but to reverse them fully we need a different government, and a means of exerting organised working-class pressure on it.
It is in part because the path to getting such a government and such means is currently so very obstacle-strewn and impassable-looking that “general strike” calls are unrealistic as yet. There is nothing for it but to set to shifting the obstacles.