Stop treating the working class like sheep

General strikes are a tactic, not a strategy. Michael Copestake attends a local meeting of the SWP

On Thursday March 31 the Socialist Workers Party held a public meeting in the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield, to lay out its perspectives for the direction of the workers’ movement in the aftermath of the massive TUC-organised protest against cuts in London on March 26. Around 50 people attended, about half of whom were evidently members of the SWP. But there were other familiar faces from the left, and a fair smattering of students and young people.

The meeting was chaired by SWP member Max Brophy, who recently received an impressive 1,600 votes in the University of Sheffield student officer elections. The speakers were preceded by a striking and competently edited video of clips from the TUC march, mixed with a speech by left Labour MP John McDonnell. Dotted around the room were posters bearing the now familiar SWP demand, ‘TUC: call a general strike!’ Perhaps somewhat ironic, given the disastrous CPGB slogan of the 1926 General Strike: ‘All power to the TUC general council!’

On the panel were two members of the SWP: Jim Board, also branch secretary of Doncaster Unison, and Maxine Bowler, who will be running in council elections under the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition banner as an anti-cuts candidate. Comrade Board began by contrasting the success of the TUC march in terms of its size and wide-ranging composition with the historical treachery of the TUC in its role as a mediator between labour and capital. The TUC was forced to hold the demo, he said, by the pressure building up at the grassroots, yet the idea of coordinated or even general strike action was taking root amongst the working class as a whole. What is more, the time to strike is sooner rather than later, before the cuts really hit and the movement risks losing momentum and becoming demoralised.

Both speakers called for socialist politics and the creation of a new society. The vision set out was one “for ordinary people” - with “wealth distribution”, the end of the profit motive and of super-rich bosses and elites. This vision was linked to the demand for a general strike - the SWP seems to believe that winning the masses to take defensive action will raise class-consciousness to such a degree that this vision of the political alternative will be embraced by hundreds of thousands. Spontaneity solves all problems. But what happens next is anyone’s guess and was left completely unmentioned.

Comrade Bowler illustrated the fruits of a strategy of constant agitation with the example of newly radicalised students, who in their confrontation with the forces of the state had come to understand that it was not their friend. No communist would deny that both workers and students learn with incredible speed in the process of the class struggle, and that in revolutionary situations the class can achieve near miracles. But there is the small matter of the subjective factor - the influence and leadership of a party. Then there is the international aspect: to survive, an alternative political and economic order would have to spread beyond the boundaries of a single country - it would almost certainly need to embrace the European Union as a whole.

The apotheosis of spontaneity avoids the patient, difficult task of building the new society within the old, relying instead on the objective workings of capitalism - the increased socialisation of labour, negation of private property in the corporate form and so on - to achieve these mass, subjective tasks. The building up of class strength prior to confrontations is limited to ‘build our own sect’-type activity, combined with trade union struggle. Or, as Lenin called it, ‘economism’. True, neither comrade claimed that the SWP was the revolutionary party: it was, however, the party that “united revolutionaries”. Both made confident and impassioned speeches about the horrors of capitalism and the potential existing already within capitalism for a better society.

Contributions from the floor were largely from SWP members, who testified to the effectiveness and potential of their organisation: it had enabled them to be better activists, who successfully moved resolutions in their union branches for a general strike, organised strikes in their workplaces, and so on. One comrade argued that the absolute success or failure of the general strike was neither here nor there; what was important was that it would push people into action and radicalise them, which would leave a class memory for the next round of the struggle.

Two CPGB members spoke in the discussion. Laurie Smith made the point that the withdrawal of labour in itself provides no positive alternative to capitalism, yet in a general strike situation the question of political power is posed. Comrade Smith pointed out that in current circumstances the political consequence of a crisis of the coalition would be a Labour government likewise committed to cuts, and not the new society that SWP comrades had been talking about. Comrade Lee Rock gave his opinion that there is “no chance, even in a month of Sundays” that the TUC will call a general strike, irking several SWPers in the room. He said that quite in spite of any radicalisation that occurred on the TUC march and the like, the majority of those people will still have a reformist perspective on politics and vote to return a Labour government, not have a revolution. As he moved on to the question of the organised left and its current disunity, the mention of the SWP by name appeared to prompt the chair to bring his contribution to a swift end. Members of the SWP were allowed to speak for considerably longer about the virtues of ‘the party’.

Responses from the panel speakers helped illuminate the degree of political confusion in the SWP, which results from the fact that they have begun with a tactic, the general strike, linked it to the ‘new society’ in a nebulous fashion, and everything else they say is based around a defence of that tactic. This rapidly fell apart - comrade Board acknowledged that a general strike may well result in a Labour government, but stressed that it would be a “different Labour government”: ie, a left government “held hostage” by the radicalised masses and unable to implement a cuts programme. Of course, it is just as easy to make a case that a left-talking Labour government - in cahoots with the union bureaucracy - would use such a mandate to get away with implementing slightly less devastating cuts at a slower pace. This, in fact, seems a more likely scenario.

Concretely then, the SWP perspective appears to boil down to the election of a left Labour government, even though comrade Board had said earlier that workers would “never trust Labour again”. Now that the party is out of power, and in the absence of any alternative to its left, workers are once more looking to Labour. But pursuing a strategy of strikism, while operating under the belief that a Labour government would necessarily be under enough pressure from the working class to make a difference, enables the SWP to avoid the key question - the necessity for Marxist unity.

Maxine Bowler struck a different note in her response, emphasising that we had to win the battle of ideas and achieve a hegemonic position in society. Part of this battle involved her standing to be a Tusc councillor so that she could propagandise for socialist politics and a socialist society. She also bigged up the Right to Work campaign, and, of course, encouraged non-members in the audience to join the SWP.

Implied throughout the meeting was the orthodox SWP belief that the working class is strongest when it withdraws its labour. The problem here is, firstly, that the flip side of the withdrawal of labour is a management lockout, when the boot can be on the other foot. The second and far more important point is that it is a bogus perspective, because the working class is at its most powerful when it asserts its class character positively, by organising in its own interests, and pursuing a programme that can lead it to a position of political and economic dominance. This does not involve treating workers like sheep, but the creation of mass organisations of the working class and forms of workers’ own socially owned, democratically controlled property. It presupposes a high degree of political unity and education and it means the working class forming itself into a political party - a Communist Party. Such a movement would require an open, critical culture to accompany its radical Marxist politics, if bureaucratic degeneration were to be prevented, and give a real role to the mass of workers under capitalism.

The unity of the existing revolutionary left on this basis would be a first step, but, sadly, such a perspective is not in evidence from the SWP. Even its own role, should SWP strategy come to fruition, is unclear. Perhaps this information is restricted to ‘members only’. Or perhaps its perspective for the anti-cuts movement really does end with more spontaneity, and ‘there is always next time’.

Meanwhile, if you want a political programme, the SWP, wearing its Tusc (or Respect, Left List ...) hat, can always give you national reformism. Pick your poison. However, despite Tusc’s shortcomings, the coalition represents a not insignificant part of the organised left, and we will, of course, give comrade Bowler critical support. CPGB comrades offered to help out with her election campaign. We hope sectarianism will not trump unity in action - repeatedly invoked at the meeting - around such a basic task.