Friday, 17 June 2011

Should the left be calling for a general strike?

I have previously been dismissive of calls for a general strike in response to the cuts. I've made passing references to the issue, but not outlined in detail why I think the call is currently misguided. 

It is clear the issue isn't going away - chunks of the radical left in this country appear preoccuppied with raising the general strike slogan. Let's carefully think through the issue. I'll explain why I think such calls are premature.

Start with this general principle. The validity of any tactic - and a tactic is what the general strike is - depends upon the political conditions. This encompasses a range of factors, including the mood and consciousness of the working class. It rests especially upon the strength of organisation and combativity on our side. At times a particular tactic may be viable and appropriate; at other times the same tactic may not be realistic or useful.

The general strike slogan is almost always inappropriate. It is only valid in exceptional circumstances. Since the mid-1970s there's only been one occasion when the saner elements of the radical left have raised the slogan: in response to pit closures in October 1992.

The political environment was such that a demonstration of 250,000 could be organised by the TUC at just days' notice. A strong case could be made for the left raising the call for a general strike - even though it was exceptionally unlikely the TUC general council would call one - because it chimed with the popular mood and was a logical next step to build on the national demonstration and the big local rallies happening across the country.

It should therefore be clear - if this is the only time the slogan has been raised, in any credible way, in the last 35 years - that it takes a remarkable situation for the general strike call to be legitimate. Socialists who raise the slogan are effectively saying we currently live in a time far more favourable to a general strike than we've had for a very long time.

The case for - and against

In favour of such a case are three factors:

1. The seriousness of what we face - a massive cuts and privatisation agenda affecting the whole working class - requires a massive response.

2. The fact we've already had half a million people on a national demonstration.

3. The strikes on 30 June indicate the potential for co-ordinated national strikes.

In response to these 3 points, however, we might note:

1. The scale of the attack sadly doesn't tell us anything about the strength and combativity of forces on our side. It's true that in the long term we need mass strikes, alongside mass demonstrations and a range of protest methods, to stop the cuts. But that doesn't mean the working class is equipped to fight a general strike now.

2. While 26 March was huge, united and a reassertion of union power, it tells
us more about the potential for mass protest than about the capacity for strike action. We've had over 20 years - from the anti-poll tax movement onwards - of resistance in the workplaces regrettably lagging far behind resistance on the streets.

3. Although 30 June is a very important step forward, it is a long way from a general strike. Those who think it's a plausible transition to go from 30 June to a general strike evidently have little grasp of what a general strike actually involves.

So, what is a general strike? It can be either one-day or indefinite. It can be a legal, bureaucratically-controlled strike or a massive grassroots rebellion which spreads, outside official structures, like wildfire. Most socialists appear to be referring - in current calls for a general strike - to a one-day, legal strike. It seems, also, that the TUC general council is expected to authorise it.

It's not clear if they hope for all workers to strike or merely all trade unionists. There's a big difference: the majority of workers are not in unions. Let's assume they mean all trade unionists and accept it is unlikely the non-unionised will participate.

What are the obstacles to a general strike?

The first problem is that there isn't currently a widespread mood for a general strike. Passing resolutions in union conferences is one thing, but winning the argument with millions of union members is quite another.

I detect little evidence that millions of working people are having conversations about the possibility of a general strike, its pros and cons, whether they personally support it. Raising a slogan which depends for its implementation on the actions of millions only makes sense when it resonates widely, not just among the established left and among some union activists.

A second problem is the weakness of the unions. Membership has fallen in recent years. Coverage by collective agreements has suffered a marked decline. Strike levels have in recent years hit historic lows. Only 1 in 6 of private sector workers are in a union, creating a huge difficulty in spreading mass strikes from the public sector to the private sector (which has the majority of workers, but only a minority of union members).

A third problem concerns the question 'what would the general strike actually be demanding?' The assumption appears to be that public sector pensions will be the issue. But why does anyone imagine private sector trade unionists will strike in defence of public sector pensions? Solidarity is essential in the union movement, but there are few grounds for thinking that private sector unions will be part of such action.

If 39% of PCS members who voted in the union's ballot opposed striking to defend their own pensions, it seems unlikely that trade unionists with nothing to gain personally will strike to defend other people's pensions. It is sometimes claimed that pensions is an issue where the government is recklessly taking on the whole working class, thus threatening united resistance, but that isn't entirely true. It isn't comparable to the poll tax (over 20 years ago) or the NHS (today) as a class-wide issue. The Tories will of course relentlessly seek to divide public and private sectors against each other.

Perhaps the general strike advocates imagine the issue will be cuts in general. But that leads on to a fourth problem: such strike action is unlikely under the anti-union laws. There is nothing to indicate union leaders are prepared to break those laws. Any legal strike action will have to be over clearly defined issues, which directly affect members of any given union, and be organised through the proper channels.

This point leads on to the fifth problem: the power, and conservatism, of the union bureaucracies. A general strike is dependent on the most conservative body in the union movement: the TUC general council. Why does anyone think it is plausible this body will call a general strike, without the kind of mass pressure from below we are nowhere near getting?

The sixth and final problem is political. Labour is bitterly hostile to strike action which falls a long way short of a general strike. There will be massive pressure on the unions from leading Labour politicians to dampen any resistance. Labourism remains a powerful force in the working class. The relationship between Labour and the union bureaucracy is tight.

The Labour left is very weak, as is the left outside Labour. While socialists must put strong independent political arguments, these problems will be relevant to what the unions do in the months ahead.

Why are some socialists raising the slogan?

All this can make things seem gloomy. Not at all: there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful about the course of anti-cuts resistance. It's just that a general strike isn't yet on the agenda.

Some on the left say a general strike must be realistic because five union conferences have now passed resolutions supporting one. This is rather naive. Resolution-mongering is as old as the trade union movement. It is easy for a union to pass such a motion - it doesn't require the union to do anything at all.

Thirty union conferences could call for a general strike - it counts for very little unless it reflects a wider debate inside thousands of workplaces throughout the country. I would have been more impressed by those union conferences passing motions calling for the TUC to organise a huge national demonstration in the autumn, as that is a serious and realistic next step which will, nevertheless, only happen as a result of pressure.

Why, then, are so many socialists calling for something implausible? Partly it is a symptom of our weakness - the slogan appeals precisely because there is relatively little strike action, 30 June notwithstanding. Trade unionists feel fairly helpless and the general strike slogan can fit that sense of their being huge challenges but a gaping chasm between them and the actual level of strike action. It is a magic bullet, a short cut.

Calling for a general strike is easy. It means you can evade the rather thornier tactical issues we do need to address in the here and now. That's one reason it is dangerous - it means abdicating responsibility for advocating and pursuing concrete tactics to take the struggle forward.

Chris Harman wrote in 1985:

'The slogan of the general strike fits a certain point in the workers’ struggle. But it is wrong to raise it as a panacea before that point is reached. That merely avoids confronting the real needs of the movement.'

Harman also noted that a general strike, in any credible sense of the term, raises political questions about confronting the state and even workers' power: 'if the slogan did fit (and it will do one day) then it would be necessary to raise alongside it slogans about rank and file control and about confrontation with the state'. It should be obvious we aren't presently in a situation where the general strike call is particularly credible, however desirable it might be.

It is also a way for socialist groups to distinguish themselves as more radical than the broader movement or the union leaderships. It is good rhetoric. But that inflated rhetoric masks deeper weaknesses and lack of influence on events. It is feelgood stuff, but has no positive influence on the direction of any real struggles or campaigns.

I've heard it claimed that calling for a general strike is an 'agitational slogan', i.e. it isn't supposed to be realistic but the point is to use it as a means of raising the level of strike activity. But the strike ballots in PCS, UCU, NUT and ATL were not won as a result of socialist groups agitating for a general strike. They were won on the basis of raising awareness about the seriousness and scale of the threat to pensions, linking that issue to a bigger political and economic picture, and outlining why a strike can be at least partially effective.

It's also sometimes claimed that if they can have general strikes in Greece, France and elsewhere then we can have one here. The general strikes in Europe have been inspiring, if almost entirely limited to one-day action which has only won partial victories at best. And in principle the point is correct. But general strikes elsewhere don't directly affect the likelihood of one happening here - nor should they distract us from the more modest, but still ambitious and important, tasks we have in Britain.

Next steps

What is needed, instead of largely abstract and ineffectual calls for a general strike, is what I outlined in my recent article '30 June: a day for the whole movement'. We need three things: further nationally co-ordinated strikes, the participation of a wider range of unions in strike action, and a mass campaign using a range of means (including a national demonstration in the autumn) to complement strikes.

These points are realistic, but nonetheless contested - and involve us moving well beyond where we are now. They are real, concrete issues for us to wrestle with now. They bring us into conflict with more conservative elements in the labour movement, and require conducting a dialogue with people around us (in the unions and beyond) about how to build a more effective movement.

The last point - building a broad mass movement opposing the cuts - is especially crucial at a time when strike action is still patchy. It involves millions of people outside the public sector unions and raises a political challenge to the Tory-led coalition's savage cuts and privatisation agenda.

Building such a movement is, among other things, a better way of creating the conditions where a general strike becomes a realistic proposition than passing resolutions at union conferences and putting ‘general strike now’ on placards.

I recommend reading Chris Harman's 'What do we mean by the general strike?' 


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