General strike: what does it mean?

Submitted by martin on 18 September, 2012 - 4:47

On 11 September the TUC congress voted for "consideration of the practicalities of a general strike". To be sure, it only said "consider". From "consider" to "do" is a big step. And the unstated hint was that this would be a one-day general strike, a form of protest which in some countries is almost routine.

For all those reasons, the TUC decision has stirred little ferment as yet in workplaces or in union branches. It's important, though. It's a recognition that the working class faces a generalised, across-the-board attack from the government and the bosses, and that we need a generalised, across-the-board response.

The first conclusion we should draw from this discussion of general industrial action is, paradoxically, the need for general working-class political action.

The government can organise a multi-faceted attack - privatisation, marketisation, cuts, services, jobs, benefits, pay... - because it is the government. If the TUC organised a general strike, and a open-ended one (not one day) what would it aim to achieve?

Bring down the government? But to replace it with what? The Labour Party leaders are committed to continuing the Tories' public sector pay freeze and not reversing their cuts. A general strike is a big thing. It turns society upside down. Everything stops except what the strikers organise to continue. The bosses no longer rule. Workers decide, instead. To arouse that vast mobilisation, then come down again to a dilute version of what we mobilised against, would make no sense.

If, on the other hand, we had a Labour Party committed to expropriating the banks, taxing the rich, restoring public services, and establishing workers' control, then we would probably bring down the government without the detour of a general strike.

If a general strike did bring down the government, then Labour might well not then win the ensuing election. General strikes are not parliamentary electioneering devices.

In France, in 1968, nine million workers joined the greatest general strike in history to that point. The right-wing government managed to end it by granting big wage rises and offering a new election. In that election, the right won a big majority.

Vast numbers of strikers were bitterly disappointed. Vast numbers of other voters who hadn't struck - even nine million wasn't a majority of the adult population - were susceptible to appeals to vote for the "Party of Order".

A similar thing happened in 1975 in Australia, after the mass strikes (not quite a general strike, but proportionately bigger than the 1936 general strike in France) which followed the sacking by the Governor-General of the Labor government. The Liberals (Tories) won a landslide in the ensuing election, after the strikes subsided.

If the labour movement disorders capitalist society by mass strikes, then we must be prepared to go through with it to the end, not to stop halfway.

A general strike which set a specific aim - say, the reversal of the cuts and marketisation in the Health Service - would actually be more radical than a strike "to bring down the government". It could win its aim. If it did, that would vindicate the action in workers' (and others') eyes, and prepare the way for more. If workers felt confident, after winning the initial demand, to advance further demands, there would be no obstacle like having to return to work for a general election.

A general strike for a specific aim presumes a degree of political coherence in the labour movement: a rallying round that aim, and a determination to do what it takes to win that aim.

Either way, as Karl Marx put it, when the "mass [of workers] becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself... the interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle". An across-the-board working-class response to an across-the-board attack requires political action.

The TUC congress voted for public ownership of the banks. At the same time the TUC continues to organise for its 20 October demonstration on a platform which demands only that Britain follow "the way" in economic policy which the USA under Obama "shows".

Insiders report that the practical political aim the trade union leaders have set for themselves in the Labour Party for the next few years amounts only to getting a "Warwick 3", that is, a follow-up to the Warwick talks of July 2004 and July 2008 in which union leaders, in behind-closed-doors sessions with Labour leaders, cajoled them into putting some union demands into Labour manifestos (though in many cases not, as the experience of 2005-10 Labour government would show, into practice).

Organising an across-the-board working-class response demands, as a first step, wide and democratic discussion in the trade union movement and local Labour Parties about policies; as a second step, commitment by at least a core group of unions to fight publicly and militantly to commit Labour to those policies; as a third step, commitment to support the democratic changes in the Labour Party necessary to enable the unions and local Labour Parties to get real control over Labour policies.

A general strike cannot be a substitute for politics.

But we can and should start discussion about general strikes without first waiting for the elusive day when the working class will be fully clarified and unified about politics.

The general strike was first widely popularised, as the means to social revolution, by anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin. Marxists such as Frederick Engels responded (1873): "It was universally admitted that [the general strike] required a well-formed organisation of the working class and plentiful funds. And there's the rub. On the one hand the governments, especially if encouraged by political abstention, will never allow the organisation or the funds of the workers to reach such a level; on the other hand, political events and oppressive acts by the ruling classes will lead to the liberation of the workers long before the proletariat is able to set up such an ideal organisation and this colossal reserve fund. But if it had them, there would be no need to use the roundabout way of a general strike to achieve its goal".

From 1901, some political socialists, for example Gustave Hervé, who had his own widely-read weekly in France, advocated the general strike specifically as the way for the working class to stop the imperialist war which was then threatening. Activists such as Lenin and Luxemburg criticised this as unrealistic, phrasemongering, bluster. When the war came in 1914, Hervé himself became an extreme chauvinist (later a fascist), and all the other advocates of the "general strike to stop war" also collapsed in various ways.

Rosa Luxemburg, in 1906, argued against socialists being trapped by the polemics against Hervé or Bakunin into dogmatic nay-saying about general strikes. The 1905 mass strikes in Russia had shown that mass or general strikes could emerge as an intertwined development with political radicalisation, partial mobilisations, and expanded organisation. "To make the mass strike generally, as a form of proletarian action, the object of methodological agitation, and to go house-to-house canvassing with this 'idea' in order to gradually win the working-class to it... would be as idle and profitless...". General strikes could not substitute for political action, or expanded organisation. But they could develop with them, as an immensely fruitful part of the same process.

In 1973 the then right-wing president of the miners' union, Joe Gormley, added his name to the points of reference for socialist debate on the general strike. At his union conference in summer 1973 he called for a general strike. His purpose was to persuade miners not to go it alone in a clash with government policy. Only a general strike could beat the Tories, he said, and therefore the miners should not try.

Ted Knight, leader of Lambeth's then left-wing Labour council, used the same technique in 1979-81 to justify rate rises and eventual cuts. The councils couldn’t stand up to the Tory government, he said. Only the big battalions of the labour movement could do that. He called for a general strike in January 1981. And if the unions failed to deliver a general strike at the stated time... the council would have to raise the rates, and then make cuts (as it did).

A weaker version of the same argument has been used recently by Mark Serwotka, leader of the PCS trade union. PCS by itself cannot defeat the government, he says, implying that it cannot do so even partially and even on limited issues of PCS members' pay, pension, and jobs. Only a concerted union mobilisation can do that. And if other big unions don't move when PCS wants? PCS waits.

Activists should respond to the TUC vote by pushing forward three ideas in the labour movement. First, the need for working-class politics. Second, the pitfalls of making hopes of future general strikes an excuse for evading battles now. Third, that socialists work effectively towards a general strike not by some specialised promotion of it as a ploy, but by the general activity of increasing working-class awareness, confidence, and organisation.

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