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1984 and 1992 - Revolutionaries and the general strike

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In 1984, in the midst of the greatest strike in Britain since 1926, the SWP refused to raise the call for a general strike. Eight years on the call suddenly appeared in the pages of Socialist Worker. This article, from October 1992, examines why.

The wave of anger that greeted the announcement of the pit closure programme led the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to demand the TUC call a general strike.

Through petitions, lobbies, placards and resolutions the SWP, the largest organisation on the British left, have placed themselves to the fore in agitating for the general strike. Workers Power welcomes this development and we hope that joint work between our organisations can bring the practical realisation of a slogan we both agree on a step closer.

To achieve this, however, the serious weaknesses in the SWP’s application of the call for a general strike need to be recognised. In the first place, the SWP have offered little in the way of a strategy to actually get a general strike. Their call doesn’t go beyond a demand upon the TUC. In itself this is correct. But it is not enough.

In a major article in the SWP’s theoretical journal, International Socialism, Tony Cliff explains that the last time the TUC called a general strike, in 1972 to free the striking dockers in Pentonville prison, it was against the background of intensive militancy and widespread rank and file action. The TUC’s call was a deliberate attempt to contain and head off this militancy.

Today we do not have such an outbreak of militant action. The mood of anger is undeniably great. But unless it is matched by action the 250,000 signatories of the SWP’s petition calling for a general strike will count for nothing. Indeed, one of our own supporters found that virtually everyone in his workplace would sign the petition. But when he put a motion calling for a strike in support of the Miners on 21 October, he couldn’t get a seconder.

This shows the danger of the SWP’s belief that the current mood of generalised hostility to the Tories will be sufficient pressure to push the TUC into action. It also shows that work has to be done to build action and organisation in the workplaces that can prevent the TUC bureaucratically strangling a general strike wave.

Yet the SWP are not seriously addressing this problem. They are not consistently building for the sort of action that can get a general strike. In a resolution put by the SWP-controlled NALGO Broad Left, for example, the only demand they raise, in addition to the call on the TUC for a general strike, is for support to be given to demonstrations and protests by other sections of workers under attack. There is no mention of the need to build strikes. No perspective for linking the various NALGO strikes across the country to other sections in struggle is contained in the resolution.

In the special edition of Socialist Worker, the same failure to map out a strategy of building strike action now amongst the rank and file is evident. Workers are told:

"Demonstrate on Wednesday. Get everyone you know to show their support for the miners. Join the protests called by the TUC next Sunday. But on top of that insist the union leaders take up the call for a general strike."

You can insist all you like, but unless your insistence assumes the threatening form of strike action the union leaders will remain deaf to your petitions and resolutions.

By keeping their call for the general strike as a demand on the TUC not linked to building rank and file action between workers who are actually under attack in the here and now, the SWP are guilty of indulging in abstract propaganda. They are calling for a general strike they will not get, in order to appear as the militant wing of the mass movement that has erupted. That way they hope to grow. But they are not taking the actual fight to get a general strike forward, nor are they preparing the rank and file to defeat the TUC traitors.

Worse, the SWP are against organising the sort of rank and file bodies that are necessary to fight for a general strike and run such a strike. If the rank and file are to use the current situation to get a general strike they need to unite their struggles. The best way of doing this is through councils of action: councils that bring together workers in struggle and enable them to coordinate their action. Such councils will be vital to running every aspect of a general strike if we get one. The whole history of the British General Strike in 1926 shows this clearly.

Through such councils of action we will be able to organise the working class to run society through the experience of running a general strike--organising the distribution of supplies, administering communications, etc. Alongside such councils we will build the military power of the working class through workers' defence corps to defend pickets, resist police attack etc. The general strike requires such organisations.

Yet everywhere the SWP opposes the setting up of such bodies. When Workers Power proposed such organisations, in a health workers' rank and file conference and in the Leicester labour trades council, for example, the SWP voted against us. This is not only wrong, it is in flat contradiction to what the SWP said back in January 1985.

Then, in an article in Socialist Worker Review an SWP leader, Chris Harman explained:

"And once the point is reached where the slogan of the general strike is correct, you have to be ready to supplement it with other slogans that begin to cope with the question of power--demands about how the strike is organised (strike committees, workers' councils), with how the strike defends itself (flying pickets, mass pickets, workers' defence guards) and with how it takes the offensive against the state (organising within the army and the police)."

Not only are the SWP not raising these demands that Harman claims are essential, they are voting against us when we raise them. This reinforces our view that for the SWP the general strike call is really just a piece of propaganda designed to make themselves sound militant.

After all, the SWP have a poor record of fighting for the general strike at previous points in the British class struggle in the past. In 1972 they refused to call for a general strike around the Pentonville dockers until after the TUC itself called for one. Worse still, in 1984/85, when the miners' strike posed both the need and possibility for a general strike, the SWP vigorously opposed the fight to get one.

Their argument then was that the slogan "does not fit at the moment because of the way the Labour Party leadership and the TUC general council have sabotaged the movement in solidarity with the miners". (Harman, in Socialist Worker Review, quoted above). Yet today, despite the fact that there is no miners' strike, no solidarity action, and a TUC and Labour Party leadership vigorously committed to sabotage, the SWP say a general strike does fit!

In reality, in both cases, the slogan “fitted” because the issues at stake superseded sectional struggles and posed general questions. In both cases the objective situation posed the need for a general strike. The Tories in 1984 knew they had to break the miners so as to be able to carry out a series of attacks on other sections of workers, prove that their anti-union laws could stick and "break trade union power" in Britain.

The general strike was as necessary then as it is now. But fighting for the general strike meant fighting to break the sectionalism that prevented solidarity being delivered to the miners.

It meant fighting to win support for the struggle despite the divisions in the miners' own ranks that led to the creation of the scab UDM. It meant fighting to forge real links between the miners and the dockers, who struck twice and who were twice betrayed by the leaders of the TGWU.

In the face of all of these difficulties the SWP capitulated. The “mood” wasn’t there, they said. It was easier to “support” the miners through collections and raffles than to win action from other workers in solidarity with them. So the SWP took the soft option and in the crucial months of the strike counterposed collecting money and food to fighting for a general strike.

Today, the SWP believe that despite the absence of actual action, the “mood” is there for a general strike. As Socialist Worker puts it:

"No one can remember a wave of anger like the present one. No one can remember a time when a general strike was not just necessary to defeat a government, but when the mood of vast numbers of people was so in favour of one."

The SWP often remind people that "the party is the memory of the class". Clearly the SWP is not that party, for it has a very short memory.

Thousands of miners can remember when a general strike was necessary. Thousands of miners can remember the mood in every striking pit village and amongst thousands of dockers in favour of a general strike in July 1984. True the mood of sympathy wasn’t as widespread. But the necessity for the strike was there and there was an immediate focus for realising it because two key sections of workers were actually out on strike.

The SWP forget this because they are not a serious revolutionary party. They are revolutionary in word only. They tailor their politics to fit what they perceive to be the “mood” of the masses. If the mood is angry, let’s call a general strike so that we are the left wing expression of that mood. If the mood is more sombre then let’s forget what is necessary and argue against the general strike.

This is not revolutionary politics. It is crude “tailism”. To determine their slogans the SWP leaders lick their forefingers and hold them up to the wind. They do not make a revolutionary assessment of what the working class needs. And this is not just an academic argument. If the SWP, the biggest left organisation in Britain, had thrown its weight behind the general strike agitation, instead of throwing its weight against it, perhaps the slogan would have taken off. Perhaps the miners' strike would have sparked a general strike and the defeat could have been avoided.