Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Time for a General Strike?

The opening few minutes of the video below contains interesting comments on the call, coming from some on the far left, for a general strike. Alex Callinicos, leading Socialist Workers Party member, has re-iterated this call in a Comment is Free article. He is responding in this paragraph to Unite leader Len McCluskey's call for co-ordinated strike action:

'McCluskey highlights a special meeting of the TUC general council in the new year "to discuss co-ordinated industrial action and to analyse the possibilities and opportunities for a broad strike movement". That sounds good, but a lot more than discussion and analysis is needed, particularly since McCluskey disparages "general strike now" rhetoric from the "usual quarters". What other logic does "co-ordinated industrial action" imply except that of a general strike? And can the coalition be defeated unless the concentrated power of the entire organised working class is brought into play?'

This is odd. Callinicos has a background in the same political tradition as me, and knows fine well (like I do) that a general strike is qualitatively different from co-ordinated strike action. He also knows a general strike is at present very remote from the current popular mood and level of combativity in the union movement.

A general strike would require the entire trade union movement to participate. Furthermore, it would have to pull in millions of non-unionised workers plus students, unemployed people and so on. It would unite public and private sectors, unionised and non-unionised. It would pose a massive political challenge to the government and the state. It would involve setting up community and street-level groups to ensure provision of essential services. And so on.

Anyway, John Rees articulates the arguments here, so I'll leave my own comments at that. This talk was the introduction to a Counterfire public meeting on 11 December. Also see James Meadway's 'What next for the student revolt?' for ideas about the relationship between current student protests and the trade unions.



  1. Alex

    I am always happy to hear the ideas put forward by John and Counterfire but I think John's contribution is rather hyperbolic here.

    Firstly a general strike has recently been called in spain:

    Does this really make Spain one step away from dual power and concretely raise the question of arming the workers?

    Plainly no and neither would the TUC calling a similar strike.

    Secondly the left union leaders themselves are calling for cooridnated action between unions and students, so of course socialists should be and are 'concretely' supporting this.

    But surely the role of socialist organisation is also to call for 'the next step forward' as John puts it. How can simply matching the pace of Len Mcklusky therefore be the correct position in a developing situation (welcome as his position is)?

    I accept that counterposing an abstract call for a general strike (or even a specific call for a certain day) directly against a concrete and achievabble co-ordinated day action between sector unions and students would be crazy. But this is not being proposed.

    That Len Mucklusky can point to a sizable vote to the left of him in the Unite leadership elections and also to rumblings for a general strike from sections of the left is surely amunition for him to push a firmer line with the centre left. Presumably this is the reason for his mentioning the 'general strike' issue in his guardian artlicle. Would it have been better if there was no call for a general strike for him to counterpose?

    How is Counterfire simply matching the position of other left union leaders like Mark Sewotka and Bob Crow aiding in this process?

    The final point is the acid test of whether the 'general strike' call has any resonance with anybody. Clearly some union branches have been prepared to support it. That said the mood amogst workers (e.g. in the public sector) still apears flat in many areas. However in my experience this is not an absence of anger but a feeling that a small/medium demo or a small strike will not stop the onslaught so why engage. Larger militant actions like sector wide strikes, large protests and yes the idea of a general strike, have a greater reasonance. It would be a mistake for activists to see the mix of usual suspects and service users at anti cuts demos and draw the conclusion that this is where the general strike call should necesarily be reasonating. PMost people don't go from inaction to small demo to big demo left paper to small strike to big strike. Have a look at the recent general strikes in europe.

    Sorry for all the questions, I appreciate that it is an anoying way of writing.


  2. The difficulty is that a general strike call is currently not so much 'one step ahead' as several steps ahead. It therefore becomes an evasion of the critical and urgent questions around what we do next. By the way, James Meadway's Counterfire article (which I link to) is in my view very strong on that subject.

    In terms of keeping ahead of McCluskey and other union leaders, it shouldn't be a matter of socialists having to espouse more radical rhetoric. Rather it's about fighting to turn words into action. A general strike call doesn't help with that.

    Maybe 'one step short of dual power' is over-egging it, but the point remains that a general strike is more than just several unions agreeing to have a strike on the same day. That's been true in France, Spain and Greece - and is the same here.

    In the current period, I suggest, we ought to be doing 3 things above all:
    1. Building a massive demo on 26 March, and using the run up to strengthen local campaigning too, e.g. around the week of action beginning 14 Feb.
    2. Fight for co-ordinated strike action to become a reality.
    3. Support the students and strengthen student-worker co-operation in concrete ways.