Tag Archives: TUC

Some thoughts on effective unionism (I)

Why going on strike is as effective as it ever was

by Edd Mustill

This article takes up some of the post-March 26th discussions on this blog. It is the first of a series of posts about trade unionism, what it is and what it should be. This post is written by way of an introduction.

The idea that “these days” people are less powerful as workers than they are as consumers, service users, students, citizens, or actors in “civil society” (whatever that is) is, I think, common among people who are generally left-wing.

This is reflected in the idea that unions are just a constituent part of a broad anti-cuts or anti-government alliance, and that industrial activism is just another form of protest or “resistance.”

I think there are a number of assumptions underlying this attitude:

The unions are intrinsically weak because they haven’t done anything for a long time

I’m not going to go into economics here. Workers’ Liberty have recently attempted to briefly deal with this attitude here.

I’ll just add that, historically speaking, there have been long stretches when the unions have been relatively dormant in Britain. The 1860s-1880s, 1940s-1950s, 1990s-now, and so on.

The TUC is the same thing as “the unions”

Because the March 26th demo was called by the TUC, articles that appeared since then (my own included) have sometimes used “TUC” as shorthand for the trade union movement. This isn’t the case. In fact, far from the TUC being more than the sum of its parts, at the moment, arguably, the opposite is true.

The nature and historical role of the TUC is a topic for another post, but what I will say here is that it is an umbrella (or shell!) organisation. Local trades councils are not like branches of the TUC. Member unions conduct their own affairs and have their own policies.

Incidentally, the slogan “TUC call a general strike” is not helpful in this regard because it assumes the TUC is something more than it is. Whether the General Council could even “call” a general strike is debatable. Certainly it’d be breaking some laws. Should we be making a central plank of our strategy the idea that the most moderate sections of the movement should break the law en masse, when even the most militant have so far not shown much appetite to do so? But as we know, the general strike debate is a whole kettle of fish by itself.

So, when people say things like the TUC is too slow, too moderate, and so on, they are right. But just saying that risks glossing over the fact that there are ongoing battles within the TUC’s member unions over tactics and strategy. Even at leadership level, there is a notable gap between those pushing openly for united industrial action, like Mark Serwotka of the PCS, and those who can’t even pronounce the words “industrial action,” like Dave Prentis of Unison.

People don’t work in large workplaces that make class consciousness come naturally

There’s a bit of a myth that, when Britain had a big industrial workforce, everyone worked in huge factories employing thousands of people, where a strike could easily paralyse production to a colossal degree.

Most industrial workers worked in small workshops rather than huge complexes. Today, we have our own huge workplaces everywhere. Town halls each employ hundreds of people. How many thousands of staff are on the books at every big hospital and university? What about airports? And big call centres on “industrial estates”?

The problem is that workers in all these places are divided by profession and grade, which means that, more often than not, they are divided into different unions. Lecturers will be in the UCU, other staff could be in Unison, Unite, or the GMB.

But even where workers are in the same union, the law enforces division. Perhaps the current British Airways dispute could have been won at a much earlier stage through extending the strike to other sections of the workforce, like Heathrow baggage handlers who have something of a tradition of sympathy action. This would probably have been illegal, but it could have been successful.

So there are big workplaces where class solidarity could be fostered, but organisation within them is often uneven and fragmented. More on these problems in the next post in this series.

Service workers are more easily replaceable than industrial workers, so it’s much harder for them to strike effectively

There is another myth here, albeit one that has more truth to it. There were and are, of course, many skilled workers in heavy industry. But such industries have always relied on semi-skilled workers and labourers just as much in order to function. Organising people like this has usually been the source of the most radical forms of unionism.

The most famous of the general unions which changed the face of unionism a century ago was the Dockers’ Union. Their success was based on organising workers who actually faced some of the same conditions that most young workers face now. Irregular hours, not knowing what shifts you’re going to work until the day you have to work them, little or nothing in the way of pensions or sick pay, sacking at a moments’ notice… all these are familiar to people working in the service industry today.

Any workers we think of as having had stable work patterns, strong organisations, good pay and benefits, began as precarious, super-exploited workers. The miners are the most obvious example.

So it’s not impossible to organise service workers, it’s just difficult. But the fact that they are untouched by the rather sterilising experience of bureaucratic unionism can open up opportunities for radical unionists. Again, more on these problems will come in a future post.

Strikes are just another form of protest

For many years, the vast majority of strikes have been 24-hour, perhaps 48-hour affairs. Strikes of this nature are essentially protests. They will have a minimal economic impact even if they are solid, because bosses can plan around them, get people to work overtime in the weeks before and after, and so on.

One of the first strikes I ever raised money for was a strike of bus drivers in South Yorkshire. The strike was all-out, and won after about three weeks. Public support by no means fell away during that time.

It was effective because the company in question, First, ran the vast majority of the bus routes in the area, so they stood to lose a lot of profit and alternative transport was more or less non-existent.

Too often strikes are just seen as a way of keeping a dispute rumbling until the inevitable defeat, or compromise in favour of the bosses. What needs to be rediscovered and rebuilt is a culture of actually striking to win.

Everything gets made in other countries, all we do is buy it

Well, we do still “make things,” goods and services, commodities, in Britain. But it helps anyway to think of production lines as international.

Say, for example, there is a textile workers’ strike in Bangladesh. The clothes being made are bound for high street stores in dozens of countries, including here. Perhaps, for whatever reasons, the strike does not succeed in totally shutting down production. While the employers can get some goods out to sell anywhere in the world, the strike is undermined.

Workers in the retail industry in Britain find themselves at the end of chains of production that could have passed through several countries. Any broken link in this chain can potentially stop it completely, including at the point of sale.

A strike in the shops selling the clothes would be a thousand times more effective than an appeal for a consumer boycott, if only because a relatively small number of people need to be up for it. A picket line can keep a shop closed day after day in a way that a UK Uncut-style bail-in can do for an afternoon.

So that’s just a sketch of some of the reasons why I think we should be seriously engaging in discussions about how to mount effective industrial action.

The main problem is not that striking doesn’t work. The main problem is that strikes rarely seem to be conducted as a fight to win. Everything I’ve touched on here will be elaborated in future articles, so if you’re interested, keep checking the site in between all the hilarious comedy gold we’ve been churning out recently.

11 Comments

Filed under Industrial Relations, Political Strategy

Break these walls down: Some thoughts on the way forward

by Liam McNulty

Taking up from where Edd left off in his discussion of the relationship between UK Uncut, trade unionism and the shoppers of Oxford Street, it seems clear that if the government is to be defeated the gaps between different sectors of the anti-cuts movement and between the movement and the hitherto passive members of the public need to be bridged.

It has been a cliché since the late 1970s to speak of the forward march of labour halted but one does not have to look too far to see mass action by trade unions gaining results, significant despite their limitations.  Action by unions and students temporarily halted the First Employment Contract in France and though the French trade union movement has a more militant tradition, let it not be forgotten that union density across the channel is much lower than in the United Kingdom (Table 3).  It is possible that the French trade unions punch above their weight, drawing in wider layers of society.  More on this below.

Nevertheless, the patterns of labour organisation have changed, perhaps irreversibly, since the late 70s and the onset of deindustrialisation.  These ONS statistics are slightly out of date but they are a testament to several fundamental changes.  Firstly, union density is higher for women than for men (undermining the lazy media image of Teamster-style union ‘thugs’).  Secondly, this suggests a bias towards the public rather than the private sector, a trend corroborated by the relatively high incidents of union density in Northern Ireland (39.7%) and the north-east of England (38.9%).  Thirdly, ‘more than a third of employees aged 35 and over were union members, compared with a quarter of those aged between 25 and 34.’

This raises problems for the trade union movement but it also gives some reasons to be hopeful.  Both good and bad is the strength of public sector trade unionism.  The cuts in places such as Northern Ireland are primarily aimed at public sector jobs, which threatens ruin for hundreds of thousands.  On the other hand, when whole families are included it brings in potentially millions of people who will be sympathetic to militant action to protect what is amongst the last bastions of trade union strength and a source of employment for whole areas of the United Kingdom.  More worryingly, however, is the prospect, as in Ireland, of the ruling class playing the public versus private card in order to divide the workforce.  The narrative of ‘gold-plated public sector pensions’ serves to cover the complete failure of the private sector to deliver a basic standard of living by stirring up resentment at the public sector’s modest pension entitlements.  This must be challenged.

The main source of weakness for the trade union movement, however, is its failure to sufficiently organise in the private sector and amongst young workers.  The private sector brings with it problems such as casualised employment, agency contracts, and outsourcing.  These problems are most pronounced for young workers, a contingent under-represented in trade unions.  One reason for this is clearly the break in tradition caused by the disruption to traditional patterns of employment in reasons once dominant by single industries, such as steel in Sheffield or shipbuilding in Belfast.  Moreover, privatisation and outsourcing has done a lot to fragment the workforce and mitigates against collective class consciousness.  At a rally during the UCU strike, one comrade related a story from Thursday morning’s picket line, unfavourably contrasting the picket-crossing private couriers in the near empty vans with the CWU member in the full Royal Mail van who remained loyal to basic ideals of solidarity.

What activist group such as UK Uncut have done is to involve lots of young people in forms of militant protest for the first time; young people who may be students or unemployed, perhaps working in sectors of the economy that are largely unorganised or who have not for various reasons felt attracted to trade unionism.  The UK Uncut maxim that ‘if the economy disrupts us, we must disrupt the economy’ has a lot of truth to it. Nevertheless, it may be unfashionable to say so but disrupting shoppers on a Saturday afternoon is not going to challenge capitalism any more than peasant riots against the gabelle salt tax threatened French absolutism.  If the RMT shut down the tube network, however, the impact on Topshop turnover will be felt; if workers occupy a factory and seize the means of production then they strike a much more high-impact blow.

This is not to say, of course, that disrupting the sphere of commodity circulation and raising consciousness of corporate greed is pointless.  Not at all.  Indeed, both a strike and smashing symbolic targets involve people combating the reifying logic of capitalism by stepping outside the roles predetermined for them by the dominant economic system, whether as consumers or workers.  Both are acts of conscious subjects engaged in political activity.  However, we must realistically assess where the locus of economic power rests.  A thousand broken windows will still not equal the disruption if the country’s workforce bring the economy to a halt. I say this not because I’m a dull Marxist for whom fun is forbidden, or because I have a metaphysical predisposition towards the idea that the working class is the most powerful agent of change.  Rather, it is because the organised workers’ movement still, despite its diminution and limitations, represents the largest cohesive collective agent in society.  Of this there can be no doubt.

Alas, haven’t I spent the first part of this article bemoaning the lack of private sector union organisation and the under-representation of young workers in the trade union movement? Yes, and this is where I think a common praxis between the trade union movement and other sections of the anti-cuts movement is important.  It is a truism that successful trade union struggles build confidence and membership- just look at the RMT.  It is also the case, however, that anti-union laws and lower trade union density have made spectacular victories in this country less common.  On the part of the unions, more has to be done to engage with young workers and organise marginalised sectors of the workforce, especially in the service sector (bars, shops etc).  The General Unions of the late nineteenth century came to prominence off the back of illegal and militant struggles yet the very general unions such as the GMB today recoil from anything like the tactics which brought them into being in the first place.

There needs to be a convergence between those young people who are attracted to disrupting Oxford Street and the union members who remained on the march.  This requires direct activists joining trade unions, suggesting militant tactics at branch level and pushing from below at rank-and-file level.  We must break down the dichotomy between dull, legalistic trade unionism on the one hand and direct action on the other.  As Edd writes below, sabotage, machine-breaking and others forms of disruptive activity are not alien to the trade union movement, they are integral to its history.  There have already been incidents such as when CWU members blockaded the streets of London and some reps threatened occupations of sorting offices facing closure.  We have also recently seen factory occupations at Vestas and Ford-Visteon.

The anti-cuts movement needs to become like an octopus, with one body and many limbs linking together activists, community groups and organised workers in common struggle.  This requires militant trade unionists to be less like the dour-faced CGT stewards separating Parisian workers from the students of ’68 and more like the radical CNT members whose strikes in Barcelona involved whole communities through food protests, student pickets and confrontations with state power; it also requires groups such as UK Uncut to engage more with trade unions and concentrate less on secretive stunts.  The movement in the UK is on a scale not seen for years and it would be idiotic to squander the creativity and ingenuity of new forms of protest.  Rather, we must harness our collective forces and wage struggle against the government on every conceivable level.

6 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Political Strategy

Rallies and Riots: Hyde Park to Piccadilly

by Edd Mustill

I’m going to add my personal account of Saturday’s protest to the many that are already out there, and hopefully draw some political conclusions from it. As always, discussion is welcomed and encouraged.

Marching and Uncutting

On Saturday I spent most of the day, more by accident than design, leaving areas just before things kicked off in a big way. This happened at Fortnum and Mason’s, Piccadilly Circus, and Trafalgar Square.

The march itself was, I reckon, at least half a million strong. Why the TUC still seem to be playing down the numbers is baffling, and perhaps a worrying indication of their (lack of) future plans. I spent the early part of it finding, losing, and finding again people I knew in places. I was still on the Embankment by the time the rally in Hyde Park was under way.

Ed Miliband’s Hyde Park speech pulled out the usual cliché about the “peaceful” movements of the past, including the suffragettes, who burned churches and whose window-breaking antics make today’s students look like Autoglass. There was not only nothing in his speech about class (we expect this from Labour by now), but nothing even about what Labour’s “alternative” is. No hint of policy, except to say that “some cuts” are necessary.

The trade unions were out in force in their contingents, and it really was a sight to see. Uniformed firemen, the huge banners of the RMT, doctors in their uniforms. Encouragingly, many in the trade union contingents were younger than I expected. The left was organised and engaged with the marchers.

There are moments, on huge demonstrations, where you can see and feel the ocean of people surrounding you, the jokes being cracked, the songs being sung, the drums beating. You lose a friend in the crowd, swap an anecdote with a stranger, and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Then you walk past Parliament and Downing Street, and you remember that just marching never makes any difference.

When I saw the UK Uncut flag appear out of the window of Fortnum’s, I had to ask someone I was with what the shop actually sold. Perhaps this shows how unlikely it is that “normal” people will ever shop in those places or, for that matter, be able to stay at the Ritz. But some people were dismayed by the choice or target, and some people by the use of direct action (both from UKUncut and from the black bloc) altogether. “Look at that,” one Unison member said to another as we went past the Ritz. “That’s terrible.”

I spoke to some who were very much in favour of direct action, but wondered why more “political” targets hadn’t been chosen. UKUncut’s targets are softer and easier, and revolve around the central political demand of “pay your taxes,” which is hardly radical. The politics of the group is unavoidably amorphous, but seems to be based around the sub-Keynesian assumption that getting tax-dodging companies to pay up can solve the current capitalist crisis.

The obvious potential contradiction here is that you’re demanding that the state, currently steered by a Tory government, acts against these companies. We don’t have any tax-collecting powers.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the UK Uncut actions have been very good, but the disciplined Marxist in me is saying, sooner or later you need a strategy for confronting the state.

A narrative quickly developed, pushed by both the police and the TUC, that there were two separate protests, and the direct action had nothing to do with the main march. But by the time we passed the Ritz it had been done in. Also, this had the immediate effect of confusing UKUncut and the black bloc protesters on the day itself. The BBC News ticker on Saturday night read “Police clash with protesters from UKUncut in Trafalgar Square.” This atmosphere possibly contributed to many knee-jerk condemnations of the direct actions from the left, like this from Andy Newman and this absolute garbage by Anthony Painter on LabourList.

Those complaining that the later action took media coverage away from the main march are just wrong. There was a lot of coverage of the march, then something else happened, which got covered too. That’s how the news works. I’m pretty sure that, with everything going on in the Middle East, the networks would have moved on pretty rapidly anyway.

To paraphrase Matthew Perry’s character in Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60, I’m sure the media would be happy to cover the TUC if only anyone from the TUC would say or do something.

Rioting

It didn’t really dawn on me until later on Sunday that I had spent my Saturday evening wandering through a riot. I came to the conclusion that riots are weird. Does this have any political implications?

Having left Hyde Park we decided to check out Oxford Street, but there was nothing going on. Several shops were shut and guarded by riot police. People were shopping away. Normal life continued around a huge demonstration that could have been a life-changing experience for those on it. Later, as I went home on the tube, there were no excited conversations, or even indignant rants against violence. There was no-one heading home with their home-made placard. So obviously we have a lot of work still to do.

On Regent Street a group of people were dancing in the middle of the road, holding up four riot vans. Shoppers came out of H&M to take photos, then wandered away. After a while the vans turned round and left. I have no idea if this logistically helped any protesters in other parts of London. Soon after the vans left another one pulled up, a short-shield riot squad formed up and charged up the street. So the police tactics were confused. That’s when the fundamental characteristic of a riot hits home; it’s weird not just because you don’t know what’s going on, but because no-one else does either.

The police appear clueless, just responding to the latest event. The black bloc appears to have fragmented and is running around choosing targets somehow. Two people sit down in Piccadilly Circus and begin to paint a picture of protesters on the Eros statue, before noticing that a building appears to be on fire, and a line of riot police have silently appeared in front of Boots, as if from nowhere. On Haymarket, a man is tackled to the ground by seven police officers and an attempt to de-arrest him leads several dozen anarchists to congregate outside a hotel where Ho Chi Minh used to work. As we turn round, a squad of TSG rush out of a van straight through us. We don’t hang around.

Is any of the chaos useful? It’s difficult to know straight away. It is probably no more or less useful in itself than a TUC rally in Hyde Park. We have been treated to the usual cliches about how all the anarchists must be middle class, but the black bloc didn’t seem any more or less middle class than, say, the teachers’ unions’ contingents. And the crowd in Trafalgar Square certainly wasn’t.

We need to recognise how complex people’s political positions can be. Could it be possible that there are people who think that smashing up the Ritz is an important political statement, and also think that trade unions are organisations crucial to the fight against the government? Could be. Could people exist who want to march, go to a rally, and do some direct action? Let’s hope so, for the sake of the movement.

Opposing or denouncing direct action in order to seem more “serious” or “responsible” is meaningless. Does anyone on the far-left who calls for a general strike seriously think that it would or could pass off without some picket-line scuffles or property damage? Does no-one in the trade union movement remember that there was a time when industrial sabotage was a feature of many big strikes?

Strikes are a form of economic warfare, or sabotage, and they cost people money. Of course, it’s “better” when this sabotage is organised, directed, and sustained democratically by unions. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that any other form should be dismissed as useless. Why not argue that strikes are counterproductive because they might “alienate” people from the cause?

Doing the rounds on the Facebook walls of a lot of lefties is the following quotation from Martin Luther King Jr: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Catchy. But in its full context, it is clear King is criticising riots as a childish exercise. Could we take more from Malcolm X’s discussion of “extremism”?:

“When one is moderate in the pursuit of justice for human beings then he is a sinner… Patrick Henry said ‘liberty or death’, that’s extreme. Very extreme.”

Like it or not, the West End riot was a series of political acts. To pretend otherwise is to accept the police narrative that it was just criminal elements in it for themselves. If that was true, why wouldn’t they do it on a weekend when 4,500 cops weren’t on duty in central London?

Closing the gap

There’s obviously a huge political problem confronting the anti-cuts movement. Only a tiny minority of those opposed to the cuts are at this stage comfortable with taking direct action, just as only a minority are in favour of taking militant industrial action. There are also differences over what forms of direct action to take.

The crucial question now is this: how do we get more people more militant while still being able to engage with the people who carried on shopping around Oxford Street?

We know from the student occupations that militant action can (and if it is to be successful, must) be part of a political debate. The Fortnum and Mason action did not “detract” from any debate; if anything, it at the very least highlighted the tax-dodging behaviour of the business. It concretely highlighted the sort of “alternative” that the TUC figures were nodding towards in their Hyde Park speeches. That is, a limited one. The anarchists and the organised far-left have, of course, nominally got a much more holistic alternative in mind: revolution.

On Saturday we saw, broadly speaking; moderate activity with reformist goals (from the TUC), moderate activity with revolutionary goals (from the far left), militant activity with reformist goals (from UKUncut), and militant activity with revolutionary goals (from the black bloc).

Individuals in the anarcho-syndicalist Solidarity Federation have published this letter urging UKUncut activists not to fall for the false divide between “good” and “bad” protesters. They rightly point out that “repression is not provoked by violent actions, but by effective actions.”

It seems that, unless the unions and/or the far left are willing to organise more militant actions, they will remain the “stunts” of a few. The direct activists should be union organisers in their workplaces, working to democratise their unions.

The various left groups who are now turning their attention to the possibility of bringing about a general strike should talk about not only the quantity of strike action, but also its form. Will the picket lines do what picket lines are meant to do? Will there be work-ins? Will there be wildcat action? Does enough rank-and-file strength exist in any union to pull this off? If not, how can we change that?

Because unions are big and on the front line, their adoption of militant tactics would involve far more people than UKUncut or anarchist groups can currently mobilise for such ends. But in the meantime there’s no point decrying direct action as the work of a minority – after all, nearly everything is. Even a general strike would be. For its part, The TUC should, if possible, be giving legal support to those who get in trouble on its protests, not disowning them.

Whether or not Saturday was a success cannot be known yet. It depends on how many people go back home determined to carry on fighting, rather than seeing the march as an end. The TUC appears to have no strategy. The left’s strategy is largely to rely on the TUC to call a general strike. Meanwhile, direct activists risk being isolated from the rest of the movement.

In future articles I’ll try to express some more ideas about what I think should be done next. In short, we need to be in a position where direct action and trade unionism are not seen as mutually exclusive. We need, somehow, to redevelop militant unionism.

21 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy

Not just marching

This is a guest post by The Bastard-Octopus

Hundreds of thousands of conversations will have been had this weekend, and countless more will be happening today as people return to work, about the tactics of several thousand anti-austerity protesters in London on Saturday.

“Extremists” have once again been accused of “hijacking” a march to express their own viewpoints. Strangely, hijacking does not mean leading the march to an altogether different location, but deciding oneself to break a few handful of banks’ and luxury shops’ windows, away from the bulk of the march.

Some allegedly sympathetic commentators have bemoaned the police for arresting UKUncut demonstrators who peacefully occupied Fortnum & Mason’s, when instead they should have targetted the “career troublemakers” who destroyed property earlier in the day.

All of these accounts bear roughly the same narrative: half a million people assembled in London to pacifically navigate from Embankment to Hyde Park; their day of genuine and even cute placard-waving was ruined by a hardcore with their “own agenda” – occupying some buildings, breaking others, and throwing paint on a couple statues. Many of these activists have received heavy criticism for wearing black clothes and masks – making up the “black bloc.”

This is an intervention in defence of direct action.

I am prepared to admit that on Saturday I did mask up, and I happily encourage all friends to do so, whether we have the intention of breaking the law or not. Wearing a mask is first and foremost a means of protection, and not a symbol of aggression.

Walking around the demonstration, a number of people stopped to offer abuse to myself or some other fellow activist for having made the decision to wear a mask. We were told variously by supposed comrades to “grow up”, not to be so “cowardly”, or just generally shouted at by people who have presumably not attended a demonstration for over a decade.

Masks are a demo-must for any activist who does not appreciate being photographed by the police for merely being in attendance on a march, protest, or action. We don’t wear our masks for fun, but because we staunchly believe that it is both appropriate and a responsibility for us to resist the existing situation, and that in leaving our identities open to theft by the state we make not only ourselves but the movement vulnerable.

People never complain about dissident voices being raised under pseudonyms and monikers on the internet – why is it that protecting our identities in the open air should be so different? Certainly there is an instinctive reaction of mistrust to the sight of someone able to register you, but not vice versa. But this reaction is coloured so fundamentally by relationships of power: I’ve yet to hear a single protester heckle a police officer for having a visor cover her/his face.

To have any understanding of what it means to be an anti-capitalist is therefore also to recognise that those who smashed panes of glass and turned over a few bins on Saturday were not doing it for the craic, just as they did not dress up for the simple sake of it.

Let us reappraise the situation here: are we not in the midst of an economic turmoil unseen since the early twentieth century? Are we not seeing the vast bulk of public services closed down or sold off in an effort to recoup the money spent on bailing out the financial sector in 2008-9?

What in comparison to these attacks, which will leave millions without income, is a broken Santander window? What in comparison to these attacks, which will even leave thousands dead, is the occupation of a luxury grocer’s?

And if the situation will not be moved by the relatively small-scale destruction of property that we saw this weekend (especially in relation to the 1990 anti-poll-tax demonstration), what good will a passive march do? All signs point to the necessity of greater participation in and new forms of direct action, new ways of disobeying those who would gladly destroy so much.

The dichotomy between “protester” and “anarchist” or “troublemaker” is entirely false. Anarchism is a school of thought which leads virtually all adherents into active and regular protest. Protest in itself is an intention to “make trouble” for the authorities. It is not intended to be easily digested by those with power: it is supposed to be a spanner in the works to make the gears of oppression harder to grind. A protest which can be greeted with warm words by any Minister (or, dare I say, even leader of the Opposition) is no protest at all.

As for the specifics: Property destruction is one form of protest which hundreds, if not thousands, chose to partake in one way or another this weekend. Just the same, occupations are a tactic by which we can make ourselves heard. Such tactics are called direct action because we act directly, immediately, personally. We do not wait for others to do something for us – the urgent situation demands urgent resolutions.

There is hence a variety of reasons why a good number of protesters chose to mask up on Saturday. First, a commitment to act directly against the movement to fling the vast majority of people in the UK into such brutalising situations; to cause as much disruption as possible in order to bring the process to a halt. Second, a commitment to stand in solidarity with those who intend to disobey so openly – protecting their identities by fostering mass-anonymity. And third, something which most marchers unfortunately seemed not to understand, a commitment to protect one’s own identity, whether breaking the law in the end or not. I hope to see even more people taking responsibility for their own lives, and taking precautions to protect their own identities by wearing a mask at the next anti-cuts demonstration.

So-called “anti-cuts” activists or advocates must get away from bashing the tactics of direct action and start to question how it is that those with the power can get away with so much. Then and only then can they come to the table and offer us suggestions of ways forward – suggestions which are currently missing from every criticism of Saturday that I have heard so far.

The “direct activists” (for want of a better term) among us should move on to discuss how the police managed to have such a successful day on Saturday: meting out so many more injuries to protesters than were sustained, arresting so many protesters (and even legal observers) without much hassle, and kettling thousands once more, without any sincere media coverage – let alone scrutiny – whatsoever.

3 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Political Strategy

Anarchist protest hijacked by TUC

by Edd Mustill

Anarchist protesters expressed disappointment last night after their protest in central London was hijacked by elements from the TUC.

Protesters advocating militant direct action against businesses accused of tax-dodging were dismayed when TUC stewards in pink bibs broke away and directed crowds into Hyde Park.

A huge anti-cuts march set off from Victoria Embankment at around midday, and marchers attacked the Ritz and Fortnam and Mason’s, but by mid-afternoon most protesters had been diverted from action and were standing around on some grass doing nothing. This course of action was widely denounced as counterproductive by organisers.

Jezza, an anarchist from East London, said: “I find it disgusting that every time we hold a protest we have to put up with these idiots coming along. You never see the Ed Milibands or Brendan Barbers during the bread-and-butter work of community organising but as soon as there’s a big march they all come out of the woodwork, just wanting to further their own political agendas.”

Sarah Smith, a public sector worker who came to the protest by coach from Newcastle, told us: “I was all in favour of kicking off, but when we got here I found out we’d have to listen to some boring speeches in a park.”

Commander Bob Broadhurst, the officer in charge of the policing operation, said: “We like dealing with the anarchists because at least we get some exercise. But when the TUC appear, some of our officers find it difficult to stay awake, alert, and on their feet for a whole shift.”

By the evening the remnants of the TUC elements had left Hyde Park, allowing the protest to resume as planned.

28 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs

Anarchism and Marxism: A discussion

by Anne Archist

The following is a very rough transcript of a discussion. I’ve tried to reproduce it as accurately as possible but some sections may be missing and I may have made mistakes at some point along the way. I gave the Anarchism section of the talk, while the Marxism section was given by Daniel Morley. I apologise in particular if I have misrepresented Daniel’s comments in any way. The debate that followed from the floor veered all over the place and plenty of it was off-topic. I haven’t included my contributions to that debate because I couldn’t write and speak at the same time.

Anarchism

The first thing I want to say is that I will be “taking sides”, and specifically I’m going to nail my colours to the mast and say that I’m not interested in any form of Anarchism that is friendly to capitalism. I’m not just fixing definitions to suit myself here; ‘anarchist’ is a label applied to many theories, but this doesn’t show that they share a common theoretical basis. I could argue at length about how so-called “anarcho”-capitalism and social anarchism have nothing in common but this is the Marxist Discussion Group, not the Adam Smith Institute, so I’ll leave it at that and hope that people are satisfied.

I want to start out by giving a brief history of anarchist thought, and though I won’t have time to go into everything, I’m going to focus on a few historically contentious discussions in ways that will hopefully undermine some of the myths spread about anarchists. My view is that anarchists and Marxists have more in common than is generally recognised, and I hope this discussion can help to break down some of the stereotypes and barriers between our traditions.

Much as Marxism was preceded by utopian, idealist and religious socialism of various forms, anarchism’s roots stretch back to Greek and Eastern philosophy. It’s generally considered to have become recognisable in its modern form in the writings of William Godwin, though he apparently drifted away from communism – later editions of ‘Political Justice’ were heavily edited. The first person to self-describe as an anarchist is Proudhon, and the key historical anarchist theorists from today’s point of view are probably Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman and Rocker.

Anarchism became an important organised political movement as a faction of the International Working Men’s Association, also known as the First International, founded in 1866. They preferred terms like “federalist” to describe their politics, and were led by Bakunin, though Kropotkin did join the International for a short period. Debates between this trend and the Marxists reached a head at the Hague Congress of 1872, and leading anarchists including Bakunin were expelled.

I want to clear up a few myths about anarchist theory. Despite its predecessors, modern anarchism rests on the same philosophical basis as Marxism – materialism. Bakunin said this in the clearest possible terms: “Undoubtedly the idealists are wrong and the materialists are right.” As for economic analysis, it is often suggested that anarchists have none, or more precisely that they have none of their own. Firstly, I’m not entirely sure why Marxists would consider it a criticism to point out that anarchists agree with the Marxist economic analysis.

Secondly, the idea that they have none at all is quickly disproven by the fact that Bakunin translated Marx’s magnum opus, ‘Capital’, into Russian (to the surprise of Marx, who overestimated the Russian working class’ backwardness); an abridged translation was published in Italian by an anarchist as well. Do we just have to admit we pinched Marx’s ideas, then? Well, no – Marx was heavily influence by Proudhon early in his career, whose book ‘What Is Property?’ was apparently the text that convinced Marx private property must be abolished. Anarchism and Marxism’s contributions to materialist analysis and anti-capitalist economics are intertwined. They form historically and conceptually inseparable parts of a whole – remove Proudhon’s ideas from Marx and you’re left with an economics not far off Adam Smith.

Don’t take it from me, though: “This work became possible only owing to the work of Proudhon himself”, say Marx and Engels in ‘The Holy Family’. They continue later: “Proudhon makes a critical investigation – the first resolute, ruthless, and at the same time scientific investigation – of the basis of political economy, private property. This is the great scientific advance he made, an advance which revolutionizes political economy and for the first time makes a real science of political economy possible.”

Proudhon’s economic theory was limited, but this is understandable given his historical circumstances; he was not a communist, preferring market-based forms of socialism that he believed could usurp capitalism through the development of co-operative industry funded through mutual free credit. This was called mutualism. The idea was – roughly speaking, since I’ve not really read any Proudhon first-hand – that workers could set up banks, creating money to fund the establishment of cooperatives and other workers’ organisations that would compete with the state and capitalist enterprises. A kind of economic dual-power would come about and then capitalism would be surpassed as the collectives would perform better on the market (due to the fact that they were under the control of the people who knew best how to run them, they re-invested money back into the business rather than cream it off in profits, they sold at a lower price, etc).

Later anarchists – those in the First International, for instance – largely sided with Marx’s economic analysis as he moved away from its Proudhonist origins. Bakunin argued that the working class should use a “revolutionary general strike” as the death blow to capitalism, seize the means of production, owning and controlling them collectively. It’s worth spending some time on this question under the current circumstances. In fact, the anarchists were advocating the general strike – and trying to turn it into reality – at a time when Engels was decrying it as unnecessary at best. At worst it was impossible, and most likely it would not result in revolution even if it could be carried out since it targeted individual bourgeois in their roles as employers, rather than the instrument of their class organised as such – the state.

Bakunin’s “federalist” inclinations led him to hold that the question of remuneration for labour was a matter to be decided by individual communities. The question of ownership was settled, but the question of distribution was a subject for experimentation; communities might choose markets with local currency, some form of labour-note based rationing, etc. This theory is generally referred to as anarcho-collectivism, or just collectivism, though distinctions are rarely drawn accurately or consistently from here on in and the term has also been applied to other socialist theories.

Some anarchists consider Bakunin’s ideas as a transitional state that will give way to full communism while others consider it an end in itself (since freedom of migration would allow people to choose which distributive system to live under, etc). Rocker suggests that the economic objectives of mutualism, collectivism, communism, and so on should be considered merely educated guesses at the best way of ensuring a free society, and says that people will likely experiment with different distributive methods.

As I said, the distinctions get less clear from this point, but Kropotkin says: “For the day on which old institutions will fall under the proletarian axe, voices will cry out: “Bread, shelter, ease for all!” And those voices will be listened to… we shall build in the name of Communism and Anarchy.” His point is that basic necessities should immediately be distributed along communist principles and be available to all without any distributive barrier. The key difference, then, is that they are willing to take sides in the debate about distribution – unsurprisingly, these people are called anarchist (or anarcho-) communists.

Kropotkin’s later thought also hinted towards aspects of syndicalism (which is not a specifically anarchist theory but anarcho-syndicalism, the anarchist version, is most common these days). He edited the passage I quoted earlier, to replace the slogan “in demolishing we shall build” with “in building we shall demolish”. This reflected what he felt were lessons learnt from the course of struggle – that simply overturning the status quo without any idea of what should follow it would leave the door open to a restoral of bourgeois order (or perhaps worse).

The syndicalist idea, like mutualism, is a strategy rather than a distributive principle.  It says that some form of industrial union organising can be used in place of a political party in the traditional sense in order to bring about revolution. Syndicalists generally conceive of their task as building organisation in industry either through federating and coordinating pre-existing unions, setting up independent revolutionary unions, or otherwise strengthening the working class’ level of economically-based organisation.

This would then allow them to wage class war using primarily economic weapons such as the strike, and to eventually use general strikes and the seizure of the means of production by force if necessary to effect collectivisation. It’s a common misconception that anarchists, syndicalists, and particularly anarcho-syndicalists, reject political struggle per se, and think that revolution will somehow come about through the economistic development of trade union consciousness.

Rocker, who is often credited as the major anarcho-syndicalist theorist, said: “If Anarcho-Syndicalism nevertheless rejects the participation in the present national parliaments, it is not because they have no sympathy with political struggles in general, but because its adherents are of the opinion that this form of activity is the very weakest and most helpless form of the political struggle for the workers…  Their method is that of direct action in both the economic and political struggle of the time. By direct action they mean every method of the immediate struggle by the workers against economic and political oppression. ”

Rocker goes on to talk about just a few methods of direct action, but makes it clear there are more. The tactic that best represents the relation between economics and politics is probably the social strike; this a strike undertaken with the interests of the whole community in mind, which may include demands such as the lowering of food prices or rent, the provision of services and welfare through employers’ acknowledgement of a “social responsibility”, etc. Similarly, the general strike was used as a weapon by the Chartists in their campaign for enfranchisement – this would presumably be a form of ‘social general strike’.

So that’s a potted history of anarchist theory – there’s a lot more I could go into but I obviously don’t have the time. I hope it’s dispelled a few myths about anarchism: that anarchists don’t have any economic analysis or that they merely piggy-back on Marxism’s in a way that demonstrates a lack of theoretical completeness; that anarchists are idealists, don’t recognise the importance of class struggle, or don’t base themselves in the working class; that anarchists have commonly advocated unrealistic spontaneity or that their strategic and tactical understanding can be reduced to wishful thinking; that anarchists are opposed to organisation; and so forth.

It’s a common misconception on the part of anarchists that Marxists all want to take state power, in their own name and for their own nefarious ends, introducing something akin to the USSR. This is, of course, totally false – take, for instance, the International Communist Group, who say “the revolutionary dictatorship of our class will abolish the state”. On the other hand, it’s a common misconception on the part of Marxists that anarchists all want to live an individualistic utopian existence of utter freedom. This is just as false – Bakunin talks about “the republic as a commune, the republic as a federation, a Socialist and a genuine people’s republic” as “the system of Anarchism.”

So how do I think we should conceptualise the relationship between Marxism and anarchism? Well, I think that there is probably a wider gap between the extremes of those calling themselves Marxists than there is between the average materialist anarchist and the average Trotskyist. We need to pay attention to what people actually think, concretely and specifically, rather than what language they use to describe their ideas. I’d suggest that the types of anarchism I’ve discussed are probably best understood as contributions to the Marxist tradition – historically, philosophically, economically, etc. Obviously though, I’d also go so far as to say that at certain historical periods anarchists have been ahead of more orthodox or mainstream Marxists and that this contribution has been a vital factor in driving Marxism forward.

Marxism

Marxism and anarchism obviously have a lot in common – they’re both theories that are against all forms of oppression and inequality, and they both aim to create a stateless and classless society in the long run. I think that the Marxist understanding of class society and the state are key to understanding the world around us. They are a theoretical focus that provides us with a guide to action; we can learn things about how to deal with them from the way we analyse and critique them. The first question we should ask is: “what are the origins and effects of oppression?” The history of human society has more or less been a list of oppression in varying different forms. Even today we are still surrounded by inequality – why is this, and why is it allowed to go on when it could be addressed so easily? So many people live below the poverty line while a relatively small number of people own vast fortunes that could easily provide for these people’s needs. Why isn’t this done?

The first antagonism was between man and nature. Human beings are poorly adapted to their environment – we can’t fly, we don’t have poisonous stings, etc. On the other hand, we are dependent on nature for our survival, since it ultimately provides our food, shelter, clothing, and so on. This is the first law of society – that we have to struggle against nature to fulfil our needs. We are materially conditioned by nature, not born free; the idea of people being totally “free” in a state of nature is a myth, because they can never be free from the demands of survival. This leads to a struggle to improve the forces of production in order to improve the conditions of existence.

How did the first state arise? Initially there was no need for a state, no state apparatus. Society was, however, divided into different groups such as tribes; these groups competed against each other in order to control resources, using trade, violence, intimidation, and so on. The struggle was both over nature’s bounty and over the subjugation of others’ labour power in the form of slavery. Often people ask about the nature of the link between this slavery and the establishment of state machinery – did classes come first and necessitate the creation of a state, or did the state come first and facilitate the subjugation of minorities into a different class? This isn’t really important. What matters is that when you strip power of its economic basis it becomes devoid of meaning, it becomes literally incomprehensible. What is the meaning of power free from exploitation of labour, control of resources, etc? Oppressing others for the sake of it is meaningless.

It follows from this that the state is not just an arbitrary evil that we can do away with once we realise its nature. It performs a certain social function – serving class interests – and it preserves the prevailing form of class rule. Marxists think that the proletarian state works in the same way – it defends the revolution by suppressing other classes. Even some anarchists would agree with this in a sense. So why did the state maintain itself historically in situations like in the USSR? What was the economic basis for this?

The USSR couldn’t produce sufficiently. The state can only be done away with once work is no longer a burden, which is brought about by the shortening of the work day due to increased employment and productivity. This allows people to take part in running their own affairs and therefore does away with the need for such centralisation and specialisation of administering society. The division of labour between mental and manual can’t just be wished away, it’s based on class inequality. Kropotkin feared that intellectuals and technicians would form a new ruling class – the division of labour provided the basis for a further class divide. Marxists, on the other hand, would identify this as a symptom of class society instead; it can be done away with as class divides are done away with.

Workers’ control failed in Russia because of the objective conditions, not because of the divide between mental and manual labour creating a new class. The workers weren’t capable of organising production properly and began to collectively exploit each other by charging high prices to other factories for their products. So is federalism or localism an answer, as a way of reducing the complexity of organising production (since each collective would only need to deal with local affairs, etc)? No, in fact the opposite. Russian workers couldn’t handle production because Russia was small and isolated – they needed to rely on a world division of labour.

[Something I didn’t really catch about medieval communes]

Potential exists to raise the standard of living internationally because of capitalism’s development of the productive forces and the process of globalisation. Today we are living in an epoch of revolution – there have been waves of unrest across the Middle East, inspired perhaps by the UK and Greece and so on. We are looking at an emerging world fightback.

Discussion.

T: You spoke about anarchism and Marxism being loose categorisations in terms of theory – I was wondering whether you could talk about the differences in praxis?

D: I think the role of party leadership is to popularise, preserve and develop theory and ideas. This is Marx did. Between the crisis periods he didn’t slog away inside pre-existing parties, he concentrated on developing theory that workers could draw on when they began to organise as a class. The chief problem of any revolutionary party is that there isn’t a revolution most of the time.

D2: The relationship of activists/revolutionaries to the working class is crucial. The other day I saw UKUncut walking through Boots, making a load of noise and so on… They alienated the workers there – I heard the workers complaining about them – and they didn’t really achieve anything. I would say to them that I agree with their aims, but I think they’d achieve a lot more if they went about it by speaking to the workers, making sure that they understand the situation, and encouraging and helping them to organise, because ultimately they’re the ones with the power in this situation. I think there’s a real divide between this – I think it’s called propaganda of the deed – kind of tactic, and the ideas of unionisation, organisation, etc.

L: I think it goes to show how loosely people use the terms these days that UKUncut could be called anarchists, I mean, they’re just not. The term propaganda of the deed comes from the sort of individual terrorism that some anarchists carried out at the end of the 19th century, but even at that time there were other anarchists who were in the International and organising in unions and so on. It’s an outdated idea – nobody really believes in it as a strategy any more – and it doesn’t reflect the greater part of the history of anarchism. It’s not something that has really been endorsed anarchists in the 20th century onwards.

D: This kind of individualism in tactics is based on objective factors like low levels of class struggle; it’s not something that inevitably stems from any theory, and it’s a pitfall that’s common to many theories, so you have groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany or the Brigate Rosse in Italy who were ostensibly Marxist groups that followed the same kind of individualistic, conspiratorial terrorist tactics rather than class struggle.  People respond to the objective circumstances they find themselves in and it’s often tempting to think that there is some kind of short-cut to revolution or class-consciousness when you’re in a lull period.

D2: You’re right about the term ‘anarchism’ losing its hard edge. I think maybe a more accurate term to describe these groups would be ‘autonomist’? I just worry that there’s a kind of logical escalation from these sort of publicity stunt tactics to terrorism and violence; they might think “oh well we did this and it didn’t work, so maybe we should try something more extreme, something that’s going to have a more direct effect or get more attention”.

T: I think the problem with trying to forego a party is that it puts the onus on the individual to do everything themselves – if you’re not in an organisation you have to try to educate yourself and so on. And maybe there’s an extent to which people who aren’t in parties treat the whole movement as a party of sorts, so instead of developing ideas and bouncing them off members of the same group, they throw them out to the movement as a whole, and so on…

X: What do people think about the election of Ed Miliband with the unions’ support? Does this provide some kind of possibility for change – I mean, he’s not been very militant so far but maybe knowing that he’s relying on the unions’ backing will motivate him to action.

H: If Ed Miliband was going to do anything, I think he would have done it by now, to be honest. I mean, he’s pretty shit.

X: I was just wondering whether maybe the economic situation made him more timid than he might otherwise be, it’s a difficult situation to be in as a leader.

H: Well, if anything the economic situation gives him more leeway, it should allow him to be more confident because everyone’s so pissed off with the tories.

D2: We have to understand the election of Ed Miliband is part of a dialectical process. He represents a move away from Blairism; the Blairites were literally weeping when it was announced that he had won the election, because they know that it represented a change of direction to some extent. If we keep applying pressure to them then we can force people in positions of leadership to step up to the plate.

D: We shouldn’t be too interested in the personality traits of this or that leader. As Marxists we base ourselves in the working class and the movement, not the figurehead that represents it in Parliament. The election of Ed does demonstrate the strength of the grassroots movement in Labour though – the unions could effectively control Labour if they wanted to, but they’re not exercising that power in a militant way and they won’t do unless their members push them to. Sadly there was no real left candidate in the election – that would have been John McDonnell, but the bureaucracy prevented him from standing – so we’ve got to put demands on the leaders to push them in that direction. Ed should have supported the student demos and he should not just march with us on the 26th but should be at the head of the march, leading it.

M: We shouldn’t underestimate the influence a mass movement can have on the leadership. Look at Chavez, he started off as (D: a follower of Tony Blair)… Yeah, but the movement pushed him to the left.

Y: As Marxists, why are we even talking about change through democratic means? Why are we even discussing the Labour Party, they’re not Marxist, they’re not Socialist and they won’t deliver Socialism. That’s not how it works, we believe in revolution, right?

A: We’re not talking about Labour getting into power to represent us, we’re talking about using Labour to build a mass movement. They are a mass organisation that we can intervene in as part of building the movement for that revolution.

Y: But why Labour? Surely there are better mass organisations?

T: There’s obviously lots of debate over the issue of Labour between Marxists, but ultimately parliament isn’t negligible. The Italian Communist Party for instance came out of the reformist Italian Socialist Party… There is potential to build something better out of it.

A: What better basis is there? I don’t see one. I mean, you can start to ask why should we still be based in the working class – some people influenced by Marxism did this, like Foucault and the Frankfurt School – but if you think the working class are the revolutionary agent then you need to base yourself in its mass organisations.

Y: But I think our key aim is to dispel false consciousness. The most important thing we can do is to make people aware of the extent of exploitation and oppression. They don’t realise how exploited they are, and they don’t realise the limitations of the Labour Party and so on. I worry that this sort of thing just reinforces these illusions.

L: Well, on the point of the Italian Communist Party and so on – building revolutionary parties out of reformist ones – they weren’t built in a party like Labour, and neither were the KPD. They aimed to pull people out of the reformist parties to build a mass movement outside them; that’s not what most socialists do with Labour. They try to fight through it and turn it into something it’s not.

D2: The only other mass party that has been to the left of Labour is the Communist Party, and their membership has fallen massively. Labour is the natural party of the working class. It’s just ultra-leftist and sectarian to try to set up a new party outside of the existing mass party of the class.

L: But wasn’t that exactly what the Third International did? And what about Die Linke in Germany? They’ve been successful following this tactic. I think there is a danger of perpetuating illusions in Labour by remaining in there long-term.

T: We shouldn’t concentrate on the snail’s-pace progress in Labour. We should look to students’ unions and trade unions. It’s dangerous to refuse to work through parliament, because people do actually have a lot of illusions in the real world. They look to parliament, they want to be represented in there. We have to work with people as they are but try to get them out of Labour in the long term.

D: Marx, interestingly, said that the working class could come to power through parliament in Britain. It’s not about putting pressure on the leaders to do this or do that; it’s about building a labour movement. There is no other organisation that can play the same role. How do you build a new mass party? It won’t be us here in this room that do it – it will be the working class. We should participate in the struggle through Labour to gain the ear of the working class. I disagree with the person that spoke before about our task being to dispel false consciousness; the working class don’t suffer from false consciousness, they know that politicians don’t do anything to help them, they know their job is shit and their boss is better off than them for no good reason. They just think that the existing structures serve them better compared to any other option they can see right now. There isn’t real mass participation in Labour, but this is just reflective of the low ebb of class struggle in general. There’s also no real participation in the unions for instance.

5 Comments

Filed under History, Marxism, Philosophy, Political Strategy, Uncategorized

Should we be calling for a general strike?

by Edd Mustill

At the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) conference a few weeks ago, one of the most interesting debates was around whether or not we should, at this point, call for a general strike in Britain as part of a strategy for defeating cuts. It was the first time in a long time that I changed my mind numerous times during the course of a political discussion. I ended up abstaining (cop-out, I know).

The idea of a general strike is being pushed strongly by Workers’ Power and the Socialist Workers’ Party, and less so by the Socialist Party. The cuts are a general attack on the working class that require a general response, which, so the argument goes, logically leads us to conclude that a call for a general strike is necessarily the correct call to be making.

There have been one or two general strikes in British history; the 1926 strike is indisputable, some say the Chartist “Sacred Month” in 1842 constituted a general strike as well. On other occasions, general strikes have been threatened or nearly materialised, such as in 1919 or 1972.

To drop a dead Russian into my article… Trotsky said that “a general strike, particularly in the old capitalist countries, requires a painstaking Marxist account of all the concrete circumstances.” What is needed to make the slogan of a general strike any less empty than raising the slogan “revolution now”?

A few months ago Charlie Kimber (now National Secretary of the SWP) argued in Socialist Worker that the demand for a general strike is made possible because the rhetoric of trade union leaders shifts leftwards. We can start talking about it when they do, or at least when they talk about the fact that they’re not talking about it. Apparently the need for a general strike is implicitly raised by the union leaders themselves. Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party (SP) puts across a similar argument, saying that the TUC’s pledge for co-ordinated strike action has “unconsciously raised” within the working class the idea of a general strike.

According to these arguments, the ability of the workers’ movement to actually carry out a successful general strike is not a major factor. For some in the SWP the fact that people are, apparently, really angry, is enough proof that a general strike would be pulled off if one were called.

But what sort of general strike are people usually talking about? Most calls for a general strike focus on a 24-hour stoppage, such as has frequently occurred in Greece recently. Hannah Sell has pointed out that numerous 24-hour general strikes in countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy have failed to defeat austerity policies.

1926 - the right model?

The idea of such “warning strikes” is to increase the confidence of the working class. According to the SP, they are to form part of a programme where everything acts as a springboard to something else. So a chain of action develops which looks something like: local protests > a national march > a one-day public sector strike > a one-day general strike > an indefinite revolutionary general strike(?)

The first round of industrial action here, a public sector general strike, could effectively happen legally by different unions balloting separately and co-ordinating their strikes to take place on the same day.

There is a problem though. A one-day “general strike” is not really a general strike. Would this sort of “general strike” pose the question of power in the way that all classical general strikes supposedly do? No. No-one will seriously question where power lies in society just because the TUC, for example, tells them not to go into work on May 1st, especially if they know they will be back in work on May 2nd.

Socialist Worker on September 28th defined a general strike as “when all workers walk out on the same day,” but actually it is much more than that. Real general strikes are called as open ended actions, but cannot last indefinitely (people need to eat). So they raise the question of how to organise society in a different way, without the bosses. This began to happen, for example, in France in 1968. For a revolutionary general strike to be successful, the workers’ movement needs to be capable of rising to these challenges.

We are in a situation where even the more militant unions are finding it very difficult to win clear-cut victories. Witness the RMT in the London Underground dispute over job losses, and the FBU’s long-term battle over changes to shift patterns, for example.

What would a clear-cut victory for a One Day General Strike be? The government abandons its cuts programme? The government collapses? Or we have a successful staging post from which to launch the next, Two Day, General Strike…?

Spain 2010 - set piece?

For unions to be in a position to win serious disputes, we need seriously organised rank-and-file networks that can direct these disputes. Raising a general strike in the manner popular on the British left can lead to the faintly ridiculous spectacle of someone like NUS president Aaron Porter signing a petition in favour of a general strike, on the same demonstration that he is chased off by a militant section of his own union’s membership.

Set-piece strikes will not roll back the government’s programme or force their resignation. Jeremy Drinkall of Workers’ Power (WP) argues: “The events in Tunisia show how to bring down a government – just the threat of a general strike sent dictator Ben Ali fleeing the country. That’s why the Con Dems are so keen to avoid one.”

Perhaps in Tunisia the threat of a general strike toppled Ben Ali, but in Egypt the reality of what was effectively a general strike last week failed to bring down Mubarak.

In the last few days, the Egyptian working class has muscled its way even into the Western media explicitly, because strike action appears to be spreading. We could reasonably suggest that a sort of mass strike process has been going on in Egypt since the Mahalla textile strike in 2006.

A century ago Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet, The Mass Strike, attempting to analyse the strike wave in Russia leading up to the 1905 revolution, and the prospects for something similar occurring elsewhere. In it she makes a distinction (at least in English translations) between the general strike as an event and the mass strike as a process. A general strike refers to an all-grades strike in a particular industry, or a general stoppage in a geographical area like a town or city.

The mass strike can last months or years, it can contain within it victories and defeats. It can explode in one industry even as it dies down in another. Within it, political and economic questions are inseparable:

“It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now it is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing set of phenomena.”

Sounds remarkably like Egypt to me. So, simplifying things a lot, we can see the effectiveness of the mass strike in Egypt as against the impotence of the set-piece “general strike” in Greece.

I’m not necessarily saying take the general strike off the table altogether. At NCAFC conference, WP comrades made the very reasonable point that if we as revolutionaries don’t raise it, it won’t get raised. But we always have a responsibility to explain properly what our slogans mean. What sort of thing do we want to see? A series of show-piece strikes, or the situation that Luxemburg describes above?

Let’s take a small scale example. The BA cabin crew dispute has taken the form of a series of set-piece strikes, which are now fighting only for the restoration of working conditions that were taken away as a result of the first strikes. It has lasted well over a year, with large gaps between action, rather than escalation. An alternative proposal would be, for example, to broaden the strike out across the industry, where there is a tradition of unofficial action among some baggage handlers (see the Gate Gourmet dispute of 2005). We need to build rank-and-file networks, and popularise militant forms of industrial action like this. These are the sorts of actions that can create the conditions in which a real general strike could be successful.

It is worth mentioning that any action in Britain even remotely like what has happened in Egypt – political strikes, wildcat strikes, work-ins – would be illegal because of our anti-union laws, so were it to take place it would take on a political character because it would bring the working class directly up against bourgeois law. Egypt shows that fighting political and economic battles cannot be separated. A lazy call for a legalistic general strike risks artificially separating them, not to mention making the TUC General Council and union leaderships into something they are not (i.e. radical).

I’m still willing to be convinced that there are ways in which the general strike slogan could be raised right now that make sense. But I think we should prioritise rank-and-file organisation, and the broadening out of disputes at the grassroots through militant action, before we hold our breath for the TUC to deliver the goods.

7 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy

On the eve of the Spending Review

by Edd Mustill

Tomorrow we will find out just how much the government intends to cut over the next four years. No doubt the details will be left to each department to work out; public sector workers will have to live in uncertain fear for a while longer.

We have written before on this blog about how these cuts are about much more than saving money in the short term. They are part of a project for the transformation of society. If carried to their conclusion, they will make the welfare state seem to history like an aberration that last for a few decades.

Ideological cuts

The ideological nature of the cuts is clear. Some, like axing the UK Film Council, simply make no economic sense. Other sectors are being boxed into a corner through cuts. This is happening in Higher Education. The combination of the Browne report’s recommendation for unlimited fees, and the threat of unfathomable cuts to government funding for teaching, has strengthened the minority current in academia that believes a move to an “American model” is now the only way to sustain universities at all.

The transformative, ideological nature of the cuts means that the Keynesian arguments against them are severely limited. Keynesians of various hues argue that increased spending is actually the better way to close the deficit, that cuts will cause unemployment and decrease the government’s tax base, making things financially worse. If the experience of Ireland is anything to go by, they are right. Ireland is facing a double dip recession and a brain drain, after introducing austerity measures earlier than the rest of Europe.

But the government can’t be argued away from its cuts policy on the grounds that it makes no economic sense, because it is not primarily about economics. George Monbiot is right to say that, for neo-liberals, this is an opportunity more than a crisis. There is a window of opportunity for the welfare state to be buried and for the private and “voluntary” sectors to vastly expand.

In any case, members of the ruling class are shielded from their own programme; why worry that the state education system is breaking down when you can afford to send your children to private schools? Why worry about underfunding in the NHS when you can go private? Why worry that the social housing budget is cut in half when you live in Millionaire Mansions?

Nevertheless, within the ruling class there are those who are voicing opposition to harsh austerity packages. Some are undergoing a rapid and suspicious conversion to Keynesian economics, while others are perhaps just worried about the potential political firestorm that these cuts will create.

Within the government itself, tensions have become more apparent within the Liberal Democrat party. The government is still solid at the moment, but it is becoming clear that it is a government that can be forced to make concessions. If it suffers even a couple of short-term climb-downs, the idea that There Is No Alternative will start to break apart. A defeat on any issue will, from the government’s point of view, set a dangerous precedent. This is why, for example, the stakes in student politics are suddenly a lot higher, because fees are a potential wedge issue that could damage the government.

Unions’ response

The Trades Union Congress also saw a bit of a division this year between those, led by Brendan Barber and Dave Prentis, supporting an entirely legalistic strategy and others, like Bob Crow, who warned of civil disobedience. The TUC’s time scale for anti-cuts campaigning is almost unbelievably slow, with a demonstration planned for March next year, by which time many public sector workers may already be staring at redundancy notices.

It remains to be seen how far tactical differences within the trade union movement on how to fight cuts indicate different views on the role of trade unionism generally. Do the more left-wing union leaders want the same old stuff – 24 hour strikes, marches and rallies – but more of it?

Current laws regarding industrial action are so restrictive that, in order to be effective at all, strikers have to be prepared to break them. This will apply to any new ones that might be passed by the coalition government. This can and has worked recently. The Lindsey Oil Refinery strike last year saw not only a victory, but the spectacle of trade union general secretaries pledging money to fund what had begun as an illegal action, and being forced to “officialise” it. This dispute was not only a wildcat strike (illegal), but also provoked sympathy action (also illegal). Workers also used a form of secondary picketing to spread the word to other sites (probably illegal).

There will be opportunities for more militant types of trade unionism to develop. Labour MP John McDonnell is trying to popularise the right to strike with his private members’ bill, and is absolutely right to do so even though the bill will obviously fail. The idea that withdrawing your labour is a right needs to be deeply embedded in the face of a ruling class offensive. A willingness to break unjust laws has characterised successful mass movements from womens’ suffrage to the anti-Poll Tax campaigns. It is something which, for example, sections of the current environmentalist movement take up with enthusiasm.

The Left and the unions

This is a period that, more than any for a long time, requires the Left to develop serious and consistent strategies towards trade unions and industrial struggle. This is something that the National Shop Stewards’ Network is probably best placed to do, rather than setting itself up as another “general” anti-cuts coalition.

Cuts will fall differently in different areas. Their harshness and time scale will vary. They will generally effect workplaces where two, three, or more unions will have members. The importance of union reps’ networks in sustaining and expanding action will grow. They can draw on the traditions of past shop stewards’ movements – not being anti-official for the hell of it, but being in a position to provide leadership as and when the officials won’t. The Lindsey strike was run by a committee of stewards from both unions involved. Recent strikes like the postal dispute have shown that the absence of a rank-and-file movement leaves the direction of the strike in the hands of the leadership, which can stall it or end it entirely.

It is possible that the spending review will not be as bad as some of the leaks that have emerged have suggested. Even so, it will still propose absolutely unprecedented cuts. The general anger will soon find its way into every public sector workplace as the details of the cuts are worked out in the coming weeks and months.

The Left needs to work with trade unionists to provide advice that goes beyond “Follow the French/Greek workers!” and “General Strike Now!” The constraints of the law and the weakness of shop stewards’ organisation are the two biggest obstacles the union movement needs to overcome in order to fight effectively. Building rank-and-file union organisations is a matter of urgency.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy

TUC gets it wrong… Then right… Then wrong…

by Anne Archist

Having been reduced to sitting in front of the TV in order to better ambush the DHL van I’m waiting for (which, judging by past experience, is driven by Godot), I’ve been watching the coverage on BBC News of the TUC conference. It’s good to see the trade union movement stepping up the response to the cuts somewhat. Of course, it’s worth tempering that optimism with a nod to Patrick’s recent contributions about the kind of rhetoric and so-called strategies they’re peddling; on the other hand, the unions are in a much better position than far-left tendencies to turn platitudes into concrete results at least insofar as moderating the extent of cuts and influencing the private sector’s response.

One interesting thing about this analysis is the extent to which the BBC are pushing their editorial narrative in the face of the facts. The correspondent at conference must have brought up the threat of a general strike, poll tax-style “riots” or a “winter of discontent” at least half a dozen times, and seems intent on insisting that this represents a “return to the trade union militancy of the 70s”.

So far as the actual evidence goes, the composite motion the BBC have focused on seems to be rather tame overall – “it doesn’t mean the TUC calls a general strike”, according to Bob Crow. Derek Simpson also rejected the possibility of a general strike. All the union leaders that have been interviewed have disagreed that this is a return to union militancy or the language of the 70s. Nevertheless, the BBC haven’t “changed the script” (metaphorically or literally).

One dissenting speech was allowed regarding the near-unanimous vote on the composite motion, coming from the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) delegate whose name I didn’t catch. He argued that “the tone” of the motion and of conference altogether was wrong; specifically, that the TUC was focused on convincing the people “in this room” rather than the wider public support necessary. His argument was essentially a concession to the “we’re all in this together” pisstake of the government, in that he seemed to argue that the unions need to engage more constructively with employers and that trying to place the burden squarely on the rich would be unpopular and unrealistic, etc.

The delegate was right in one sense – the tone does seem to be wrong. Granted, not actually being present at conference means my opinion is based on partial evidence, but the TUC has been sending very mixed messages to the public via the media. The motion that was so strongly passed “reject[s] all cuts”, but on the other hand we heard wavering like Derek Simpson’s suggestion that “we acknowledge the cuts have to be made … it’s the timescale” as opposed to Mark Serwotka’s position that there shouldn’t be “a single penny cut”. As well as continuing to maintain moderation, legality, etc, the TUC’s leading bureaucrats seem to be unable to stay “on message” and are already rolling over to the “inevitability” of cuts. This is evidenced also in some anti-cuts campaigns.

Labour’s paltry showing also deserves mention. Harriet Harman seemed keen to reassure conference that Labour would defend the political levy – in other words, they will defend our right to give them money. How philanthropic of them. When it was put to her by the studio anchor that “there’s nothing that’s going to put the recovery at risk more than co-ordinated strike action”, Harman gave a pathetic weasel answer which more or less agreed.

Some on the left have argued that, in the words of a speaker at a local trades council meeting recently, “everything is dialectical” (well, it is and it isn’t…) and that therefore the defeat of the coalition would drive labour significantly to the left. She wasn’t clear on whether she meant the event of their defeat or the process by which their defeat was achieved, but I’d be sceptical about either. Harman is putting forward the oh-so-left position that maybe we could half the deficit over 4 years (implicitly still by – smaller – cuts); now, undoubtedly this would be a preferable short-term situation, but surely a long-term systemic deficit is a real problem, wherever you lie on the political spectrum (at least so long as we have to deal with a market system)?

Harman’s proposals would merely put off an even more extreme backlash against workers, claimants, public tenants and service-users; the only way of avoiding it altogether is by putting the screws on the rich for once and investing in infrastructure and public services.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy