Friday, April 1, 2011

How do we get a General Strike?

Below is a short article based on my meetings notes from an SWP Branch meeting in Manchester. I share them as part of the general debate about where next after the 26 March.

What is a general strike?
It might seem strange to start with this question but few of us alive today have seen a General Strike in Britain and for younger generations of people, there has been a national strike on a huge scale for a long time.

General Strikes are a crucial weapon in the arsenal of the working class and for a long time was seen as the ultimate weapon – though now, following on from the Russian experience, most revolutionaries agree that the insurrection is the crucial point of social revolution. General Strikes, however, often start revolutionary processes. They are so momentous because they involve millions of people co-ordinating the withdrawal of their labour – it starkly shows the contradictions of society, its underlying economic base and raises the questions of workers power, democracy and revolution. It literally can stop capitalism working.

Bureaucratic or mass general strike?
But like everything, it is more complicated than that. There are two types of general strike – the bureaucratic general strike and the mass strike. And I want to briefly discuss the difference - as its important for considering our future strategy.

An example of the bureaucratic model would be the 1926 general strike in Britain – where the TUC General Council called out different sections of workers as part of its grand plan of negotiations. During the strike it told workers to stay at home or go to the beach – under no circumstances should they picket out workplaces, etc. It did everything possible to reduce working class activity in the strike. It also came up with a complicated timetable that would see different sections coming out at different times.

This is in stark contrast to what Rosa Luxemburg describes as the situation in Russia and Poland in 1905. This wave of mass strikes that developed and spread over the whole Russian empire was essentially bottom-up. Russia had no TUC and so workers stayed in or came out based on their workplace democracy and, eventually, the democracy of the emerging soviets. Luxemburg describes how issues came together: how economic issues – like those over pay or welfare – quickly fed into political issues like the 8 hour day and the constituent assembly and vice-versa. To read Luxemburg – or Trotsky – is to get a sense of a strike movement that is breaking beyond the bounds of the ordinary, is brimming with confidence & active involvement. It’s a strike wave where workers have a sense of their class and class power.

Lessons from today
The second type of general strikes is obviously the one that revolutionaries would prefer. But in some ways, it also the one most difficult to get. So if we look at the world today, you can point to the strike wave in Egypt as an example of this process. The general strike there that finally brought down Mubarak was built not as a result of the 1st Feb Million person march, or the Jan 25th uprising – the seeds of it were laid in the strike wave that has moved across Egypt in the last five years – especially the general strike and uprising in Mahalla in 2008. The Mahalla strikes – put down by police and the army – hardened the core of the labour movement and created the networks capable of pulling off the general strike. This gave confidence to the street movement and meant that when the street protests erupted, there was enough rank and file confidence to answer the call to a general strike – the result being a political revolution and a deepening revolutionary process.

The French strikes against the pension law, however, were of the bureaucratic nature. A popular mass movement, rank and file organisation and, crucially, class confidence didn’t exist in the same way. So when revolutionaries pushed for national strikes in May 2010, they didn’t get them. Instead they had to go through a long process, throughout the summer, of building for a huge demonstration that then became a springboard for the 4 or 5 autumn general strikes. Because socialists and revolutionaries didn’t exist in big numbers and working class confidence wasn’t particularly high – revolutionaries had to operate within the unions to get the strike, using the doors opened by the bureaucracy (particularly the demo) to push for more and more action.
Many strike waves are a combination of the two processes above, as in Greece. In order for Greece to get to a general strike (in the teeth of opposition from the Pasok affiliated bureaucracy) teachers went out indefinitely, workers argued in their unions (sometimes occupying union HQs) and students took the streets. This created a pressure around the strikes until the bureaucracy was forced to act.

In the middle of the Greek strike wave, energy workers went out indefinitely to try restart the strike movement and push for an indefinite general strike. There were unsuccessful in getting an indefinite strike but they did manage to reawaken the movement. The fact that this move was a result of the direct and conscious intervention of organised revolutionary socialists tells us something about the importance of strategy and tactics.

The Balance of forces
So where are we at in Britain? And how do we get to an Egypt? It is important that in discussing how we can get to a general strike, we have a realistic assessment of the current situation and the balance of class forces.
Overall, there is a massive anger out there directed at the bankers, at the Tories and Liberals and against those who want to cut our public services. This is especially felt in the public sector, where jobs, wages and pensions are being directly hit but it is felt more widely too – we all rely on public services and we are being caught up in the political crisis of the state.

But we have, so far, only seen one national strike day against the Tories (the UCU strike of 24 March). Why is this? I think there are three key reasons:

1. Organisational weakness
Organisationally, the unions are weak. Stewards organisations are scant in most places and most branches consist of a handful of activists holding together the union organisation. This is a direct result of the defeats of the 1980s – this smashed our side organisationally and – more importantly – ripped the ideological certainties that that organisation was based on.

2. Lack of consciousness
The ideological defeats of the 1980s are just as important as the organisational. Those defeats swept away the basic idea of the ‘working class’ and, especially, the idea of working class power. The results of this ideological defeat can be seen all around us - young people are much less likely to join a trade union, many of this generation’s radicals are drawn to a liberal individualism than collective action. This manifested itself in anti-war movement: although overwhelmingly working class, the movement was a collection of individuals rather than collective workers. Some basic ideas survive but, in general, you almost have to start from scratch with people – no longer can you simply assume that people won’t cross picket lines for example.

3. Lack of Confidence
There is anger but that is not yet mixed with enough confidence in our ability to fight back. Most workplaces facing cuts exist on the knife-edge of anger that can fall either into despair or into action. The difference is often the relative confidence workers have – maybe they have a good rep, or they’ve won victories recently, or a good chunk of the workforce have been out on one of the big anti-cuts demos. All those things can add to the confidence needed to meet cuts with resistance rather than despair.

Now it is important that recognising our low starting base shouldn’t put us off working towards a general strike but we have to start from the real situation. So how do we correct the problems and get a general strike in Britain? There are a number of different tasks ahead:

Lots of the questions revolve round the question of leadership. With the exception of confidence, the most crucial reason why the argument for a general strike cuts with nearly everyone but you don’t see picket lines everywhere is the lack of leadership of the movement. This lack comes from both the revolutionary party – the SWP – and from the trade union bureaucracy: the SWP because it isn’t big enough to lead a general strike by itself, the bureaucracy because it is ever conservative and right-wing (in terms of the labour movement). The tasks facing us to over come this problem are simple:
(i) We need a bigger revolutionary party that can act as a vanguard leadership.
(ii) We need a rooted, conscious rank and file network bringing together the best militants in every industry, every union and every workplace.
(iii) We need to challenge union bureaucrats for positions – this makes elections like the UNISON NEC elections very important.
(iv) We need to bring rank and file pressure to bear on the union bureaucracies. That means doing the detail of getting general strike motions passed, getting action where we can, etc.

We have to seek to lead where we can, in the workplaces and within unions. We need to use this leadership to build rank and file organisation and independence as well as to pressure the bureaucracy into action. That means passing the general strike motions, agitating and popularising the idea and acting as the detonators of struggle wherever we find ourselves.

Getting action where you can is important – having a UCU strike, the Camden and Tower Hamlets strikes has massively increased the contradictions between those who talk about action and those who actually want it to happen. These strikes help to provide examples of struggle, create victories and create tension with workers and the bureaucracy. They add to the logic of struggle and we need many more such examples. This means getting organised within your workplaces, pushing struggle where you can. It also means raising solidarity – a concrete activity that helps the general level of class struggle but, crucially, starts to reconnect people with the arguments around class: if you’re not a lecturer collecting for their strike means winning the same arguments around solidarity, strategy and class consciousness as you do when agitating for a general strike.

Agitating in workplaces
We need to use the logic of 26 March (‘march together, strike together’) to agitate for a general strike. Its already won over whole sections of militants – we need to popularise it and get those people already won to the idea to win people themselves. It also means winning the argument in the union structures – passing the motions at branch meetings, at conferences and trades councils. This agitation will pressure the bureaucracies and win the masses to the strategy.

While we’re doing this we also need to be concrete – that means assessing the balance of forces in your union. What concrete demand can you add onto the call for a general strike? Should your union be balloting now over pension cuts, job losses, etc? Always be concrete.

So how is it going to develop?
Well, if we do the work laid out above then we’re helping to bring about the strike. But it’s not a guarantee. What it does mean at the moment is that revolutionaries make a difference in how we get the situation moving.

We have to seize Saturday and using to drive through the arguments, we have to push for action wherever possible, we have to create networks of people who can carry the argument and help organise for a general strike. Lastly, we have to have more revolutionaries.

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