The disappearing slogan
Whatever happened to 'All out, stay out'? Peter Manson investigates
After the tremendous November 30 day of strikes, the whole left is united in calling for an escalation and broadening of the action in order to fend off the Tory-Liberal Democrat austerity assault. But what about a political strategy - one that can arm our class with the means not just to resist, but to go onto the offensive?
As we shall see, such strategies are a little thin on the ground. In fact, for the Socialist Workers Party, the plan seems to be a combination of bigger, better and longer strikes, which will spontaneously gather political momentum, and ‘Join the SWP’. Right up to November 30 itself, the SWP had been answering the question, ‘How can we win?’, by suggesting gradual escalation and, simultaneously, an immediate, indefinite general strike - the latter in the form of the anarchistic ‘All out, stay out’ slogan.
Thus, in last week’s regular Socialist Worker - published a day early for sale to strikers and demonstrators - industrial organiser Martin Smith wrote: “The Socialist Workers Party says that the action must escalate. We want to see further one-day mass strikes of millions in January. Private sector workers and other public sector workers not yet out should be demanding to join the next wave of action. Our call will be for a general strike of all workers. But one-day strikes will not be enough - that’s why we raise the slogan, ‘All out, stay out’” (November 30).
The slogan had been given increasing prominence over recent weeks, yet, mysteriously, it seems to have disappeared immediately after November 30. So in the eight-page Socialist Worker special published on December 1, the ‘What we think’ column concludes: “We can and must escalate the action and keep up the momentum of resistance.” Full stop.
You might have thought that SWP comrades would have been raising the slogan at every opportunity during the action itself, and that this would have been reflected in the Socialist Worker reports the next day. But not a bit of it. The paper’s correspondents had interviewed many strikers, trade unionists and demonstrators, including SWP members, but they all seem to have muffed their lines.
So we have quotes like: “One day is not going to win it - we need effective action again and again”; “I feel optimistic - this is just the start”; “We need to call on the TUC to call more action”; “If the government doesn’t give in, we should have another strike”; “Next I’d like to see them call a general strike across the public and private sectors together”; and, finally, an exception that proves the rule - an anonymous striker says: “The next time we come out, it has to be all out indefinite.” Even here the slogan has been disguised.
What about the final couple of interviews with senior SWP comrades Karen Reissmann and Mark Campbell? They are presented under the headline, ‘After the November 30 strikes - how do we beat the Tories’ assault?’ So surely here at least ‘All out, stay out’ will be plugged? After all, it was comrade Reissmann who concluded the November 19 Unite the Resistance ‘convention’ with the memorable line: “All out, stay out on November 30. Then there’ll be more strikes when we’re all out, stay out”!
On this occasion her language was rather less inventive. She said: “We have to escalate and pull more unions in …. We also need to name the date for the next united strike day …” And she left it at that. As for Mark Campbell, a member of the University and College Union executive, he declared: “We will be arguing to come out again in January in our millions. We’ll then extend that into February and we’ll keep coming out until the government backs down.”
Perhaps in the rush to edit up the reports for the eight-pager in such a short time this ‘key’ slogan was overlooked? Well, in that case it has also been overlooked in the latest Socialist Worker (reassuringly post-dated for next weekend in customary SWP fashion). Sean Vernell writes: “There was a clear consensus among strikers that a one-day strike would not be enough to win. It is important to push a strategy for all-out action. But the key issue facing us now is how to escalate as soon as possible” (Socialist Worker December 10). Escalate to what extent, comrade?
This is the same Sean Vernell who has been telling everyone at meetings and rallies for weeks how ‘All out, stay out’ has become increasingly accepted in his union, the UCU. Everybody must have suddenly gone off the idea of an immediate, indefinite general strike then.
Like comrade Vernell, Helen Davies, an SWP member of the Unison NEC, seemed to be building up to the inevitable rallying call, but then petered out at the end: “People feel that if the government doesn’t back down, they’re up not just for striking again, but for going further ... The question is over what form the strikes will take. I think everyone will be disappointed if it’s not serious, united action …” (December 10). Once again, we are left to work out for ourselves what that “serious, united action” should look like.
So what has happened? Has the central committee suddenly realised that ‘All out, stay out’ was just not on? Has it now accepted that it amounted to a cynical, sectarian recruiting stunt by posing as the most militant, the most revolutionary left group, rather than a serious attempt to arm the whole movement? If so, the internal Party Notes can surely be relied on to inform members about any line change. Can’t it?
Afraid not. The slogan has just been dropped without explanation: “The argument now will be about ‘Where next’. We want escalation, another day of all-out together as soon as we can (if possible even bigger), and we also support rolling, sectional and sectoral action that raises the level of resistance and builds the bigger days rather than being a substitute for them. We want the union leaders to name a day in January now for another strike by millions. And we don’t want deals sector by sector” (Party Notes December 5).
All this is highly commendable - as far as it goes. Yes, it is essential to escalate the resistance, at the same time building the momentum in a way that draws as many sections of our class as possible into the action. But why has the CC not explained the dropping of ‘All out, stay out’? Does the leadership seriously think that its members are so stupid they will not notice? Or is it a case of the CC itself being divided and, in true bureaucratic-centralist style, trying to conceal its disagreements from those it is supposed to be accountable to?
But why do I say “as far as it goes”? Because, self-evidently, the capitalist assault is not limited to Britain. It is part of an international ruling class offensive and it ought to be met with an internationally coordinated working class response - at the very least on a European level. The post-strike Socialist Worker seemed to be arguing towards such a conclusion when in the ‘What we think’ column it stated: “And this isn’t confined to Britain. All over Europe and the rest of the world, workers face the same attacks and are taking up the fight …”
And so? If you were hoping to read a call for escalation and coordination across Europe, forget it. The internationalist build-up was merely driving towards the inevitable sectarian conclusion: “Join us - there’s a whole world to win” (December 1).
The SWP clearly believes it is an excellent thing that workers all over the world are “taking up the fight”. So what has it got against making that fight effective? If the international bourgeoisie can try to agree on common action, so can we. Why let them divide us instead of demonstrating that we are capable of resisting unitedly? The next step should be a common day of action across Europe.
Of course, the SWP is not alone in viewing the fightback, at least when it comes to practice, in narrow, British terms. The post-strike issue of The Socialist led with the November 30 speech given by John McInally, vice-president of the PCS union and member of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Like the SWP’s ‘What we think’ column quoted above, his demands for escalation are well and good as far as they go, but he concludes by calling for “national coordinated industrial action” (my emphasis, December 1-7).
To be fair, comrade McInally was meaning to pose “national” in opposition to ‘regional’ or ‘sectional’, I am sure. But it is a telling omission that neither he nor SPEW is thinking beyond these shores.
Similarly the Morning Star wants to see a stepping up. But with a particular aim in mind: “Further, even more widespread action must be planned for the near future to defeat the government’s vicious plans and force its resignation” (November 30). This is rather more vague than the SWP or SPEW when it comes to the next action, but it is clearer on what the aim should be: the end of the government and, presumably, its replacement by one headed by Ed Miliband.
The following day, it spelled out the corollary of this aim: “We are being confronted by the full might of finance capital in all its gory splendour, out to reverse the tide of history in its own favour. It’s an offensive which must be seen for what it is. A coherent and planned initiative by the capitalist class. And it’s going to take a coherent and planned resistance to defeat it - with a united and broad alternative programme to Tory ‘austerity’. And that sounds like an accurate description of the People’s Charter to us” (Morning Star December 1).
Leaving aside the fact that, once again, the fightback is viewed in purely national terms (what else would you expect from the Star and its Communist Party of Britain?), it has to be said that the Keynesian, reformist ‘alternative’ of the People’s Charter is so obviously inadequate in the face of capital’s global crisis that it is just ludicrous to even put it forward. The system cannot be made to work, comrades.
And that brings me to another unfortunate, though hardly unexpected, omission from the left’s strategic thinking: the crying need for a single Marxist party to replace all the sects. That Marxist party, it goes without saying, must be armed not with pathetic national-socialist reformism, but with an internationalist, communist programme.