new organs of power: beyond calls for a general strike

David Broder gave this talk at the March 12 London Communist Forum, discussing calls for a general strike.  Mike Macnair’s talk at the same event can be found here.

But is it that simple?

Different sectors are all facing cuts and, of course, it makes sense to want to link up action against them so as to increase their impact – all public sector workers in a sense have the same employer. The government ultimately has some responsibility for keeping the privatised sector running too – railworkers, for example.

Mike mentioned the example of Britain in 1972, when the demand for a general strike had a certain traction because there were already large strikes taking place. Their main potential weakness was their isolation, and going on strike together with other sectors would make them more powerful. But I think actually in Britain today we don’t have mass resistance to cuts. There are not strikes going on in individual public services. So really the demand that the TUC call a general strike represents the wishing of a movement into existence. In the face of the cuts most people are still totally passive, so when, say, the Socialist Workers Party demands the TUC call a general strike, they are calling on the trade union bureaucracy to create a struggle which does not as yet really exist.

But actually because the level of resistance to the cuts is so weak they do not actually persist: the call is purely atrophic and distant. It is meant to expose the trade union leaders for being charlatans and failing to organise the fightback. But in fact wherever the SWP are actually represented in the leadership of a union they have not actually advanced this call for a general strike.

In a very similar way the anarchist left is very keen to ‘expose’ the trade unions for doing nothing and to advocate more militant tactics against the cuts. Yet in reality we are all constrained by the problem: the leaders of the movement are not doing enough to further a struggle which does not actually exist.

If the TUC did call a general strike, if they did fight more militantly, what would the position actually be? Well, if a general strike were organised as a coalition of different sections of the working class purely as a defensive and reactive response to the cuts, that in no way implies a positive political agenda beyond merely trying to put pressure on the coalition – to crack it apart, so that Labour gets back into office. The SWP does not actually say, ‘Labour to power’. They say, ‘Break the coalition’ – which clearly means ‘Labour to power.’

As for the groups who might say, ‘Labour to power with socialist policies’, even if a strike movement caused the coalition to fall apart, that would not necessarily be able to affect or control what Labour did after getting into office.

In the past, massive strike movements have removed leaders from office or forced a change of government, but that has often tended to pacify the movement by removing the immediate object that it is opposed to. This is not just a matter of strikes per se, but of any movement which is defined by what it is against, not what it is for.

Mike mentioned the example of Portugal, but there it was the army which removed the fascist leader, Marcelo Caetano. That opened up space for strike movements which were ultimately pacified because they had no agenda for reorganising society. It is in the very nature of a strike that you are just withdrawing your labour, but that is not in itself creating new social relations. Indeed, lots of strikes which we might think of as massive and participatory and so on actually were not.

Take May 68 in France, which is the best organised, largest, most continuous general strike in history, involving nine million workers for three weeks. The fact is that the general strike removes from individual workers the choice of whether to go into work or not. For instance, there are no trains, no post, there are cuts in electricity, and so on. The whole country just stops moving, so you do not even need to go to your workplace to picket it. Actually in May 68 lots of workers just sat at home waiting for the return to normal. Or for some sort of political solution to be played out above their heads. It is not as if there were general assemblies of workers debating the way forward. Almost in the nature of a general strike is the conferring of power from the mass of people to the leadership of the strike – as opposed, as an example, to a rolling series of wildcat strikes.

Italy 1944

Let us take a curious example, perhaps. In Italy in the middle of World War II, there were massive attacks on working class living standards. But even under the fascist regime, there began to appear spontaneous expressions of anger against the authorities. The government grants some concessions, but the protests start to spread, as people take confidence: they think, ‘We can go out on strike too’. Which, of course, is what is completely missing from the dynamic in Britain today – the sense that striking can win anything. People’s cynicism about their ability to change things is a real problem – and in a sense rather apt and hard to argue against without getting into dishonest or naive triumphalism: you know: ‘March 26 is going to be the start of the revolution.’

But in the Italian case the movement spreads when people see other workers are winning, similar to Tunisia or Egypt today. The fear the regime is able to project is punctured – and people start moving. There is a rolling series of strikes, and the Communist Party, in the process of being re-formed after its banning, is increasingly able to direct it. In March 1944 all the strikes are suspended, with the intention of bringing everyone out together within a short time. To which the regime responds with a generalised lockout.

But the disruption in itself does not damage the bourgeoisie’s political rule. It just means all the workers sit at home and have a week off. It does not empower them. Indeed, whereas the earlier movement takes the form of people themselves daring to defy the regime, once they become more coordinated, the strikes just become the tool of the party wishing to further its overall political objectives. It is a means of exacting pressure on the regime, but it is very mechanical: it can be switched on and off.

And that is a big part of the problem with the idea of the TUC calling a general strike. It is similar to the way the more militant unions like PCS or the RMT use industrial action. They call a one-day strike or whatever in order to exert pressure to aid negotiations with management. But that does not pass power from the leadership of the union to the striking workers.

In his book Mike talks a lot about the question of workers’ councils. The point here is that, while it is true that a workers’ council in an individual city cannot rule effectively in isolation from others, the example of the Russian Revolution does not demonstrate that that is an insuperable problem. Workers’ councils could theoretically create representative bodies which do coordinate. For example, those in different cities could elect representatives to some body which oversees the whole country, Europe, the world …

The problem with the transfer of power in Russia in 1918-19 after the creation of Sovnarkom, the council of people’s ministers, is that the government is not a representative body based on the workers’ councils: it is something the Bolshevik Party has created outside those bodies. There is not any sort of democratic process or accountability of the government to the soviets. These are entirely separate bodies.

But workers’ councils are important. Firstly, because they go above and beyond the sectional divides within the working class, according to industry and trade union and so on. Secondly, they are able to represent inclusively – a workers’ council is not necessarily just composed of delegates from particular workplaces. There could be a more general participatory democratic body.

Bolivia 2000

For example, in Bolivia in 2000, in El Alto, a city near La Paz, there is a body called literally the residents association – but actually it is a local council representing almost the entire population in that city, which is very poor. It involves employed people, those who sell in the street, unemployed and retired people. It is like an organ of counter-power – something that could rule instead of the bourgeois state. Indeed in October 2003 they kept the army out for weeks and ran the place themselves. This did not spread to other cities, nor did it last, but in this example we can see the workers’ council as something beyond representatives of different trade unions or workplaces.

But the limitation of general strikes is not just something peculiar to them – it is a problem of revolutionary politics more broadly. The problem is, do we just oppose and resist the people who happen to be in government at the moment and exact pressure on them or attempt to remove them from office? Or do we have a strategy for replacing capitalism with a different system entirely?

As I say, withdrawing your labour does not as such create new social relations. I would say that workers’ self-management is a necessary, if insufficient, precondition for revolution. If it is not just a question of replacing the Tory government with a Labour government, replacing old managers with new managers. If the workers themselves do not create some sort of new organs of power, then the people who ride on the back of the mass movement – like the transitional regime in Egypt – will decide what the new society is like and how it is ordered. Even if the mass of working class people are used as foot soldiers or as an instrument to help remove this or that leader.

I think what Mike says about the question of governance is correct – if there is a strike which creates social breakdown, then people will ask the question, ‘Who’s going to put it right?’ Jack Conrad has advocated that in May 1968 the Communist Party should have advanced a programme for a Sixth Republic, a more generous or fuller democracy. But the problem is, if there is not some direct, participatory, grassroots democracy, then all there can ever be is different stages of the bourgeois state. More democratic, more social …

If you believe that revolution is possible, then that can only come about through a struggle to create new social relations. That is what is rich and valuable in the experience of soviets – they were organs of struggle. They were created in 1905 in order to lead the struggle against the bourgeoisie, but were also at the same time potential new bodies to govern society as a whole. Workers’ councils, because they can represent the whole of the working population and be both means of struggle and organs of government, are totally different from a trade union, which is inherently limited to setting the terms of capitalist exploitation.

Although in a sense I agree with Mike, it is really true that a general strike cannot be revolutionary – and in fact there has been no revolution in history based on a general strike, except in the fantasies of Pouget’s How we shall bring about revolution and William Morris’s News from nowhere. A general strike does not lead to the creation of new organs of power, which are a necessary precondition for revolution.

To conclude, appeals for the TUC to call a general strike are just wishful thinking in the absence of any real movement. Combined with the traditional Trotskyist ‘Bring the leaders to account’ and ‘The TUC are selling us out’. But the real question in Britain is, why is there such passivity, why is there such cynicism? What is really lacking is the belief in the possibility of a political alternative. And without that a general strike is impossible.