Theory: The general strike today

THE WORLDWIDE CAPITALIST ideological offensive of the 1990s, in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, meant that for most of that decade the workers’ movement was on the defensive.

The European capitalists’ neo-liberal offensive has provoked a determined response from the working class, including the re-emergence of the weapon of the general strike – with everything that means for the question, who governs society? With the consciousness that exists at this stage, however, that question cannot be answered in the same way as in the past, argues PETER TAAFFE.

The general strike today

In the early 1990s there was significant workers’ resistance to the neo-liberal agenda of the capitalists, particularly the attacks on the public sector: the uprising of the miners in 1992 in Britain; the Belgian public-sector strikes; and the anti-Juppé public-sector strike in 1995, which laid the basis for the downfall of France’s then right-wing government. Similarly, in 1994, the four-hour strike of the Italian workers led to the collapse of the first Berlusconi government. Action of this character, however, subsided somewhat in the latter part of the decade. Not the least of the reasons for this was the shackles imposed on the workers’ movement by right-wing trade union leaders and their political counterparts – Blair in Britain, Jospin in France, Schröder in Germany – the leaders of the ex-workers’ parties of Europe.

Despite the earlier portents, therefore, the neo-liberal agenda – privatisation, ‘flexibility’, downsizing, etc – was relentlessly pursued by the bosses during the 1990s boom. Stubborn resistance prevented the capitalists in a number of European countries from carrying out their programme to the letter. Now, however, under the impact of a serious economic recession, the need to restore flagging profits and the ferocious competition they face from the US, Japan, China etc, the nibbling away at the workers’ conditions in the 1990s has given way to a much more serious offensive by the European capitalists. This in turn has provoked fury in the ranks of the working class. From the poorest countries in Europe – Greece and Portugal – to the twin props of ‘old Europe’ – Germany and France – as well as the ‘intermediate’ countries of Spain and Italy, the reaction is to protest, take to the streets and strike. How to stop the neo-liberal juggernaut? The conclusion which many have drawn is that only the most decisive action can derail the danger. This poses before the working class the issue of strikes, and the general strike in particular, which is now firmly back on the agenda of the workers’ movement.

In a number of countries, workers under the whip of capitalist reaction have already shown their preparedness to fight, including resorting to general strikes. Greece, which had experienced many general strikes in the previous decade (20 in all!), in September 2001 witnessed the biggest working-class mobilisation of the last decade as the right-wing Simitis government attacked the already meagre pension rights of the Greek workers. So immense was this movement that it forced a panicky retreat by the government, with the prime minister publicly declaring the measures ‘completely withdrawn’. This did not stop the same government from quickly coming back again with further savage assaults on workers’ rights and conditions: greater freedom for the bosses to sack workers, the imposition of temporary employment, and the abolition of the eight-hour day and five-day week through the annualisation of working hours. The response was a second general strike by the Greek workers within a two-month period.

In April 2002, Italy experienced its first united general strike in 20 years, in response to the so-called ‘reform’ of Article 18 of the labour laws (which prevents the arbitrary sacking of any worker employed in a factory of 15 or more employees). This was followed in October with another one-day general strike affecting 120 cities across the country. Italy had also experienced one of the biggest demonstrations in history on 23 March 2002, with three million gathering in Rome.

Not to be outdone, Spain was convulsed by a mass strike in June 2002 against similar measures to those proposed by Berlusconi, introduced by his arrogant counterpart Aznar and his right-wing Popular Party (PP) government. Two million workers took to the streets, with the main unions claiming that ten million were on strike – 84% of the workforce in a country where only two million are organised in trade unions. Spain has also been the scene of massive anti-capitalist and anti-war demonstrations in the last two years, as have most of the countries of Western Europe. In 2002, Portugal also experienced a massive ‘day of action’, of one-day general strike proportions, against the savage austerity programme of the new right-wing Portuguese government.

France recently faced a convulsive movement of one-day strike actions, embracing primarily the public sector but also involving significant sections of the private-sector workforce. This movement undoubtedly evinces a tendency to develop into much broader actions, possibly of a general strike character, against the right-wing Raffarin government’s neo-liberal attacks (see article on p10). Even in Germany, where Schröder initially faced opposition from the ranks of the tame Social Democratic Party (SPD) but much more from the base of the trade unions, the attempt to follow Blair down the neo-liberal path has posed the issue of a one-day general strike amongst sections of the German working class.

Posing the question of power

THE ABOVE EXAMPLES clearly demonstrate the preparedness of working people to reply, and quite decisively, to the call of their organisations to defend past gains and rights. However, in all the examples cited, including in the most recent events in France, there is clearly a perplexity, uncertainty and even a lack of confidence in how to proceed further once initial action has been taken. The lack of confidence of workers, despite their immense potential strength, which is glimpsed in these actions, is clear. This does not relate just to their industrial power and how this can be effectively marshalled to defeat the capitalists but applies equally, if not more so, to what is the political alternative.

In this sense, the broad consciousness of workers in Europe is strikingly different at this stage to previous periods of struggle. This is true even in France between the situation in 1995 and the current struggle. There is clear support on the demonstrations for ‘the general strike’ but its duration and the aim of such a strike is not at all clear. Many trade unionists are demanding that such a strike be longer than a day, some even that it should be unlimited, but this is not yet linked to the issue of a working class political alternative, either in the form of a new democratic socialist society or even to a governmental alternative: ‘a general strike until the plan is withdrawn’ not ‘a general strike to bring down the government’.

This situation has been partly shaped by the propaganda barrage against the traditional ideas of the labour movement – which are not countered by the right-wing leadership – of struggle and solidarity. In turn, this is linked to the ideological offensive, in the wake of the collapse of Stalinism, against any whiff of ‘socialism’. (It was not ‘socialism’ which proved its ineffectiveness, as alleged by bourgeois ideologists, but its caricature, Stalinism. The idea of the planning of society, a democratic socialist plan of production, in place of the chaos of capitalism, retains its validity. This has been clearly defended, however, only by the small forces of Marxism, such as the CWI and others.) The rightward shift of the trade union tops and the leadership of the ex-workers’ organisations has also tended to sap the confidence of working-class people.

Nevertheless, such is the threat now posed to them and their families that working-class people have no alternative but to struggle. In the process they will look for decisive action through the general strike. For Marxists, a general strike is not a panacea, appropriate for all occasions. Moreover, a one-day preparatory ‘general’ strike is obviously fundamentally different to an all-out general strike. The latter demand is not posed in Europe at this stage but, given the polarisation of the classes, it could come into its own in the future, and much more rapidly than can be imagined at this moment.

Part of the preparation for such a situation is an analysis and discussion of the character of the general strike, and particular general strikes in differing situations. The situation today is different than in the 1970s or 1980s and even, to some extent, to the early 1990s. Then there was a political pole of attraction in the existence of mass ‘bourgeois workers parties’ and communist parties. They no longer exist apart, perhaps, from Rifondazione Comunista in Italy (RC – the Party of Communist Refoundation) which is a ‘new’ formation. The trade unions, moreover, at least in numbers, their presence in the factories, etc, have been weakened in many countries of Western Europe. All of this means a careful reassessment of what demands can be put forward at each stage to take the workers’ movement forward. Leon Trotsky cautioned against ultra-left gestures on this issue: "A general strike, particularly in the old capitalist countries, requires a painstaking Marxist accounting of all the concrete circumstances". (In the Middle of the Road)

Marxists have always understood that an unlimited general strike poses the question of power. So do the serious representatives of the capitalists. In the early 1980s the general strike was ‘in the air’ in Britain because of the provocative attacks of Thatcher on the trade unions. However, The Times did not hesitate to point out to the union leaders that "a general strike is essentially a revolutionary gesture, and the leaders of the trade unions today, are for the most part, as far from being revolutionary as any group in Britain". (13 January 1980)

It was merely restating what a previous British prime minister, David Lloyd George, had declared to the trade union leaders in 1919: "If you carry out your threat and strike you will defeat us, but if you do so have you weighed up the consequences? A strike will be in defiance of the government of this country, and by its very success, will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, they must be ready to take on the functions of the state or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen, have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?" The reaction of right-wing miners’ leader Robert Smillie was: "From that moment on we were beaten and we knew we were".

In other words the trade union leaders of the time were not prepared to mobilise the working class to take power. This is even more true for the present union leaders – not yet even as radical as their counterparts in the 1980s, never mind those immediately after the first world war. For the working class also the issue of power is not posed at this stage. General strike action, particularly if it is extended and assumes an all-out character, involving a majority of the working class or its most powerful sections, objectively poses the question of power, even today, but not yet clearly in the consciousness of the working class. And this, the understanding of the working class, is a vital factor in determining what demands to put forward at each stage. The broad consciousness of working people is shaped by the combination of events, experience, and the role of mass organisations and their leadership in assisting the working class to draw clear conclusions from this.

Strikes and the anti-war movement

HOW LITTLE THIS is understood by non-Marxists is illustrated by the comments of George Monbiot in The Guardian who, in the run-up to the recent war in Iraq, did not display a ‘painstaking’ attitude on this issue. The Socialist Party put forward the idea of industrial action at one stage – not a general strike – in the run-up to the war. But given that the left trade union leaders in particular did not prepare for this such action did not seriously take off. Searching for a way, other than through demonstrations and propaganda, to stop the Bush-Blair juntas’ drive to war, Monbiot also discussed what action should be taken and concluded: "Many activists are now talking about… seeking to provoke wider strike action – even a general strike". He does not see this as a demand appropriate for all occasions: "This is, of course, difficult and dangerous. Some general strikes have been effective… others have been counterproductive, in some cases disastrous… If we call for a strike and almost everyone goes to work, Blair will see this as a sign that he can do as he pleases". But at least "this is the scale on which we should be thinking". He then goes on to argue, however, that "if we cannot mobilise the workforce" then never mind, "there are still plenty of means of concentrating politicians’ minds". He suggests that this would involve "the blocking of roads, disrupting speeches and blockading the most important buildings". (7 January)

It is light-minded to put the issue of the general strike alongside such minimal measures. To improvise on the issue of a general strike, and particularly on the serious issue of war, is completely wrong. Such action can only be prepared over a period and effectively called when the situation demands it and from those who have earned the necessary authority in the eyes of working class people in the whole preceding period. Obviously George Monbiot, despite his good intentions, does not possess this. Nor has he absorbed the historical experience of the European working class on this issue. Even the great Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, a ‘mountain eagle’, overestimated the independent importance of the general strike when it was not linked to the working class taking power and establishing its own state.

Also the social democratic parties like those in France and Germany under Jean Jaurès and August Bebel promised that they would resort to a general strike in the event of war, summed up in the decisions of the famous Basle congress of the Second International in 1912. But as Trotsky commented subsequently, this call "assumed… the nature of theatrical thunder". The social democratic parties posed the issue in a lifeless, formal and merely verbal manner. They had not seriously prepared for such action. A protest strike prior to a war, so long as it is called by authoritative workers’ leaders, is entirely possible, as was partially the case in some countries in Western Europe during the recent Iraq war, but a general strike once a war has started is an entirely different issue. When the fundamental interests of the ruling class are at stake, only a general strike linked to the overthrow of capitalism can succeed in these circumstances. This in turn can only be prepared by the whole preceding period of the workers’ movement.

Such conditions did not obtain, either in the run-up to or during the Iraq war itself. Once mobilisation for war is under way this is the most difficult circumstance – when patriotic moods are engendered – to pose the issue of general strike action. The general strike is an important weapon of struggle but as Trotsky pointed out, "It is not universal. There are conditions in which a general strike may weaken the workers more than the immediate enemy. The strike must be an important element in the calculation of strategy and not a panacea in which is submerged all other strategies". He also underlined that the general strike is a weapon against an entrenched state power that had at its disposal railroads, telegraph, police and army, etc: "By paralysing the government apparatus a general strike either ‘scared’ a government or created the postulates of a revolutionary solution of the question of power".

It can be a means, for instance, of workers under a dictatorship fusing themselves together, beginning with sectional strikes to a general strike and acquiring the strength to overthrow a regime. But in other circumstances this weapon is inappropriate. For instance, at the time of Kornilov’s march against Petrograd in 1917, neither the Bolsheviks nor the soviets – workers’ councils – thought of declaring a general strike. On the contrary, the railway workers continued to work so they could transport the opponents of Kornilov and derail his forces. The workers in the factories continued to work except for those who left to fight Kornilov’s forces. At the time of the October revolution in 1917, there was again no talk of a general strike. The Bolsheviks enjoyed mass support and under these conditions to call for a general strike meant to weaken themselves and not the capitalist enemy. On the railways, in the factories and offices, the workers assisted the uprising to overthrow capitalism and establish a democratic workers’ state.

These observations of Trotsky, of a general character it is true but nevertheless very useful, do not yet apply to the situation faced in Britain or in Europe by the workers’ movement. The character of the partial ‘general strike’ action which is taking place is similar in some regards to the situation which developed in the decades prior to the first world war, which was also commented on by Trotsky. There are instances, he argues, where "the government takes fright at the general strike and at the very outset, without carrying matters to an open clash, makes concessions".

Such was the situation in the Belgian general strike of 1893 and on a much bigger scale in Russia in October 1905. Under the pressure of the strike the tsarist regime in 1905 made ‘constitutional concessions’. In Belgium the strike was called by the Belgian Labour Party with 300,000 workers participating, including left-wing Catholic groups. There were a number of clashes between demonstrators, police and troops. However, the strike was called off when the government granted male suffrage at 25. (The voting age had been raised to 30 in 1885. The strike victory cleared the way for the Labour Party’s parliamentary victories, winning 27 seats in 1894.)

Today’s situation can be compared, although not dogmatically or simplistically, to the situation which obtained in Belgium then. In 1995 in France, the Juppé government ‘took fright’, withdrew the attacks on the working class and paid for this with its electoral defeat and the coming to power of the Jospin government in 1997. The same Juppé recently warned Raffarin that ‘the street’ would not accept his attacks, implying that France’s right-wing government would have to retreat in the face of a mass offensive. Such a possibility is not ruled out. However, there have been significant changes effected in the situation today compared to the 1990s. The French ruling class has concluded that the deterioration of their position compels them to follow the US and Britain down the road of greater neo-liberal policies.

What political alternative?

THE WORKERS’ ACTIONS have undoubtedly shaken the ruling class, led to a small concession but have not yet prevented them from pursuing their agenda to the end. Raffarin gives the impression that, unlike 1995, he is prepared to ride out the present wave. This points to the movement developing in one of two ways: in the direction of more decisive action with a one-day general strike, or even longer; or of it receding in the short term, to emerge more determined in the near future. The trade union leaders, in dragging their feet on proposing more determined action, are leaning in the direction of the second option.

In Italy, the Berlusconi government also gave the impression that it had ridden out the massive opposition to it in the form of strikes and demonstrations (although it has recently suffered a setback in regional elections). One reason why it was able to do this is because the leaders of the big trade union federations keep assuring the ruling class that they have no intention of trying to unseat the ‘democratically elected’ ‘cavalier’ – read clown – Berlusconi. This is not the mood of the Italian working class who wish not only to use their power to defend the rights enshrined in Article 18, but extend it even more to those in workplaces with less than 15 workers, and force elections in which Berlusconi could be defeated.

The Raffarin government, while making largely paper, niggardly ‘concessions’ to the teachers, for instance, is still determined to press forward. Similarly, with much wringing of hands, Schröder in Germany, with the backing of the ‘opposition’ Christian Democrats, and urged on by the bourgeois, is intending to carry through his attack on pensions, etc. In Austria, one million workers from 18,000 workplaces, a third of the entire Austrian workforce, took industrial action on 3 June – the country’s biggest strike since world war two. Even the police and gendarmerie joined in the protests. If anything, the right-wing trade union leaders in the ÖGB (Austrian trade union federation) were more frightened of this massive response to their call for action, which was at least a partial 24-hour general strike, than the right-wing ÖVP-FPÖ government of chancellor Schussel. They called a press conference to declare that all action had been postponed against the attack on pensions, never mind the call for a general strike which has been energetically prosecuted by the Socialist Left Party, affiliated to the CWI, with a great response from workers at the base. The SLP has called for a national conference of shop stewards, trade union activists, school students and the unemployed to build the struggle against the government. Such is the innate conservatism of the trade union leaders that the call for a general strike must be linked to ‘committees of action’ or conferences of shop stewards to control and run the strike.

Even an effective one-day general strike, never mind an all-out one, is feared by this present generation of right-wing union leaders. In countries which have a tradition of one-day strikes, they can sanction them as a means of allowing the working class to let off steam. In France, however, it is burned into the consciousness of the right-wing union leaders that a one-day general strike in 1968 led to an all-out general strike and the occupation of the factories. Hence their caution in calling for a complete stoppage on one day. In other countries, such as Austria, Germany and Britain, which do not have the same recent experience, the calling of a one-day general strike can be of immense importance in preparing the working class to carry through decisive action to defeat the capitalists.

All of this poses in the minds of working people what action can defeat the employer-government offensives against them. In some cases where effective one-day strike action has been called, something more is posed. For instance, in Spain following the magnificent movement of last year, the CWI posed the issue of further strike action against the Aznar government, this time extended to 48 hours which, if it had been organised, could have prepared the ground for an all-out general strike. In France, on the other hand, the wave of strikes and mass demonstrations has not forced Raffarin to retreat. There, the question of more decisive action can be raised, of first a complete one-day strike, including the public and private sector, but then perhaps of more extended general strike action. It cannot of course be ruled out that, given the tradition of initiatives from below of the French workers, that a 1968 or ‘proto-1968’ movement could flare up – more than a one-day strike but not yet a complete general strike along the lines of May-June 1968. However, it is more likely that, in the short term, the working class in France, particularly its more developed layers, will be taking stock and working out what is the best way forward.

Because of the lack of an alternative, the absence of a broad elemental socialist consciousness, the question of an all-out general strike linked to the working class coming to power would not be clearly posed even amongst the French workers, or elsewhere at this stage. The mood is one of using their power, in effect flexing their muscles, to extract concessions from the government, to force it back, to stop its offensive. Therefore, what is raised are slogans of a determined character but which at this stage stop short of an all-out general strike for power. A one-day strike is the best means, initially, of preparing the working class, fusing it together for the battles to come. Unfortunately, given the character of the right-wing trade union leaders, with the CFDT in particular acting as a brake, that job is not being undertaken by them. It is the task of the left, particularly the Marxist left in France, to pose the issue clearly to the working class, of more decisive action of this character.

A similar situation could arise in other countries of Western Europe. But general strike action, even if it is limited to one day, implicitly poses the question of who governs society. In effect, two powers confront each other: the ruling class with its powers ‘suspended’, albeit for one day; and the immense potential power of the working class. Moreover, it inevitably poses the question of a political alternative. In movements similar to this in the past, Marxists could raise the question of a bourgeois workers’ party – the Labour Party in Britain, for instance – or a combination of bourgeois workers’ parties – the Communist Party and Socialist Party in France – coming to power on a socialist programme. We understood this as an inevitable stage of the reawakening of the working class, a staging post out of which would come a powerful movement and a mass party capable of changing society in a socialist direction. Unfortunately, the bourgeoisification of the workers’ parties of Western Europe in the 1990s, which has now been carried through to a conclusion on a European scale (with the new left workers’ formations like the RC in Italy and the smaller Scottish Socialist Party emerging) means that there is no real mass alternative of a political character in the situation today.

Indeed, the programme of neo-liberal policies has been carried through more effectively by governments controlled by ex-social democrats than through open bourgeois governments. Jospin’s government carried through more privatisation than the Juppé government. Similarly in Germany, Schröder is the better means of dragooning the working class into going down the road of neo-liberalism than the Christian Democrats at this stage. It is inconceivable, therefore, for socialists or Marxists to pose the question of this being a political/electoral alternative to workers presently engaged in struggle. It would be like proposing that your jailer be given an extra bunch of keys with which to shackle you.

Therefore, while proposing clearly worked-out, combative measures, summed up in clear slogans such as the 24-hour or one-day general strike, it is necessary to pose in the minds of workers a political alternative based on their power and their forces. This suggests the adoption of slogans such as ‘for a workers’ government’, on a clearly defined socialist programme involving expropriating the ‘commanding heights’ of capitalism and creating a democratic socialist society. This is an ‘algebraic formula’ which events and future developments will give a concrete form to. But inevitably it poses in turn the question of what parties could fight for or constitute a workers’ government. This inevitably, therefore, is linked to the issue of a new mass party of the working class, as a stage towards the realisation of such a government. The fact that consciousness has been thrown back, that a clear mass political alternative is not raised in the minds of the working class, does not free Marxists or socialists from posing a political alternative which can be realised in the struggle in the future.

Europe has entered a different phase. It is one of economic stagnation, in which a small ‘growth’ – growth-recession – would not in any way seriously improve workers’ living standards but have the opposite effect. It implies that for significant sections of the working class, the conditions they enjoyed in the past the capitalists now intend to snatch away from them. They will fight, they will look for the most decisive means to defeat the employers and their governments. This inevitably puts the general strike on the agenda. The working class of Europe has accumulated a vast experience on this issue in the past. This must be drawn on, analysed and applied skilfully to the new conditions which are beginning to mature in Europe. A new explosive period of mass strikes, struggles, mighty demonstrations and the politicisation of the working class of Europe will be posed in the period opening up. In the process it will be the clarity of Marxist ideas, of a clear strategy, tactics and the timely and flexible application of clear slogans that will find an echo amongst working people throughout the continent.

Peter Taaffe

From the July/August edition of Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party, CWI in England and Wales

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June 2003