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General strike, theory and practice

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Bill Hunter May 1980 (Archives)

In 1935, Trotsky criticised the centrist Independent Labour Party which, he said was marking time between pacifism and the proletarian revolution, and for advancing the propaganda slogan of ‘a general strike to stop war’. Trotsky described the slogan as ‘irresponsible radical phraseology’. 

However, he used the opportunity to discuss more widely the question of the general strike, which “has a long and rich history in theory as well as practice”. His starting point was Engels, who wrote in 1893, “…but the political strike must either prove victorious immediately by the threat alone (as in Belgium, where the army was very shaky), or it must end in a colossal fiasco, or finally lead to the barricades”. Trotsky added: “Engels did not point out another “category” of general strike, examples of which have been provided in Britain, France and some other countries: we refer here to cases in which the leadership of the strike previously, i.e., without a struggle, arrives at an agreement with the class enemy as to the course and outcome of the strike.”(1)

Marxism

Rosa Luxemburg, discussing the lessons of the 1905 revolution in Russia, attacked the degeneration of the German Social Democratic Party and attacked the “whole abstract unhistorical view of the mass strike and all the conditions of the proletarian struggle generally” Both the German trade union leaders who passed a resolution at their Congress solemnly prohibiting the general strike, and the opportunists who advocated a strike on an ‘appointed day’ against reactionary legislation, in reality, stood on an anarchist programme, she declared. She wrote in The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions that “both tendencies proceed on the common, purely anarchist assumption that the mass strike is a purely technical means of struggle which can be “decided” at pleasure and strictly according to conscience, or “forbidden” —a kind of pocket knife which can be kept in the pocket clasped “ready for any emergency” and, according to decision can be unclasped and used.”

Luxemburg asserted: “In reality the mass strike does not produce the revolution, but the revolution produces the mass strike.” In attacking those who saw the peaceful parliamentary road as the essence of development, she began with world relations. She assailed the opportunists and reformists who treated the mass struggles in Russia as purely Russian phenomena. She was at one with Trotsky’s later writings on the significance of the Russian Revolution in world capitalist development.

“The present revolution realises in the particular affairs of absolute Russia the general result of international capitalist development and appears not so much as the latest successor of the old bourgeois revolution as the forerunner of the new series of proletarian revolutions of the West The most backward country of all, just because it has been so unpardonably late with its bourgeois revolution, shows ways and methods of further class struggle to the proletariat of Germany and the most advanced capitalist countries.”(2)

In other words, the general strike cannot be used merely as a defensive weapon; the working class cannot conceive of itself as a reserve, ready to make a big protest in defence of a reform. Thus wrote Rosa Luxemburg many years before Eric Heffer (left Labour MP 1964 until 1991) and the Stalinists. 

Before and after WWI

Before the first world war, the question of the general strike came up again in Britain. Among the working class, disillusionment with the collusion of the leaders of the new Labour Party with the Liberals, and disillusionment with trade union leaders who opposed workers’ struggles, led to a rapid growth of syndicalism. In the writings of James Connolly and Tom Mann, it was the industrial union, the One Big Union of the working class, that would express the power of the workers at the point of production and by simultaneous action, take over society. It would also provide the framework for the future workers’ republic.

Thus, up to the time of the First World War, the general strike had come up as a once-for-all final solution in face of which opposition forces, including the state, somehow collapsed; it had also come up as a reserve weapon to defend reforms. We should add that in respect of the Chartist ‘Holy Month’, it must not be forgotten that this was the idea of a newly born working class making its experience of capitalist society and of its own class nature. It was before scientific socialist consciousness could be brought to it; it could not but have unclear conceptions of its own struggles. The later ideas of the Bakunists, which sprang from the consciousness of petty proprietors, were utterly reactionary. The best of the syndicalists in Britain took up the experience of the Russian Revolution and fought to help form the Communist Party.

Through all this, we see a continuity of struggle. The insistence on the consistent day-to-day work of building a proletarian party and on the nature of the state by Marx and Engels against Bakunin; the insistence on beginning with world relationships and the general strike as a revolutionary action by Rosa Luxemburg. After the Russian Revolution and in the accelerated decay of capitalism, with an enormous development of militarism and the repressive state organs, it was no longer possible to take the least bit seriously the concept of mass ‘folded arms’ leading to the collapse of capitalism. 

In 1920 the threat of a general strike stopped the British government from intervening in the Russo-Polish war. This neither contradicts Trotsky’s remarks on the general strike as a threat nor his remarks on the ILP slogan of a general strike against war.

A British expeditionary force was still in north Russia when afraid at the advance of the Red Army in Poland, the British government issued further threats against the workers’ state. A powerful ‘Hands off Russia’ movement had grown among the working class, spurred forward when London dockers refused to load the Jolly George’ with munitions for Poland in May. The TUC in July voted for a general strike to end the war in the Soviet Union. But what gave content to its words was the reaction in the country when the government issued bellicose statements, prepared to move the Baltic fleet at the end of July and sent troops in to break a strike against the war by German workers in East Prussia.

Several hundred local Councils of Action were formed. A meeting of the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC, the NEC of the Labour Party and the parliamentary Labour Party warned the government that the whole industrial power of the organised workers would be used to defeat this war. A National Council of Action formed by the executives of trade unions and organisations affiliated with the Labour Party was called to arrange a general strike. Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, declared war had never been intended soon after British troops were withdrawn from Russia.

The army was unreliable. It was not yet two years since the slaughter of World War I ended. Demobilisation, the slowness of which was a source of great discontent, had not been completed. There was worldwide sympathy for the Russian Revolution; it had greatly inspired sections of the British working class. There was also opposition to the war in Ireland. In this context, the Government retreated before the movement to a general strike.

Leadership in the general strike

By 1926 the ruling class was prepared to face a wholesale confrontation with the working class. Indeed, they provoked it. In 1925 they postponed a struggle by granting a subsidy to maintain miners’ wages and then they planned for the confrontation during the following year. The TUC led by left-wingers’ made no preparations. The General Council was pushed reluctantly into support of the miners when they were locked out for refusing lower pay and longer hours. Mortally frightened by the movement that was unleashed, they betrayed it at the first opportunity. With their members in shattering defeat, they rushed into abject class collaboration once it was over.

The big question of the 1926 General Strike is the question of leadership. The Communist International had begun to degenerate at that time. The Communist Party went into an alliance with the left trade union leader in an unprincipled way. The independence of the Communist Party was subordinated to this alliance. The party put forward the slogan of ‘All power to the General Council’. With the obvious coming betrayal of the leaders the slogan only served to sow illusions. The Communist Party called for “power to the General Council” and failed to make an independent fight for leadership.

The dangers in the Communist Party policy became ever clearer after the betrayal of the General Strike when the miners were left for seven months to struggle on their own. Trotsky called for a campaign to reopen the general strike, which meant an all-out struggle against the leadership. He said it would be a great illusion to believe that an isolated strike of miners could achieve what the General Strike failed to achieve. To convert the economic strike into a political strike meant war against the General Council.

The Communist Party followed the ‘left’ leadership of the miners’ union in fighting the miners’ strike as an isolated battle. Labour and trade union leaders sabotaged proposals for a levy in support of the miners and an embargo on coal. With the agreement of the miners’ leaders, including the ‘left’ A.J. Cook as a member of the Anglo- Russian Committee, a conference of trade union executives in June, where the General Council could have been brought to a reckoning, was postponed. The ‘June Pact’ was arrived at, by which there was to be no criticism from either side — the General Council or the miners — until the miners’ lockout was ended. The General Council promptly broke its pledge, to the delight of the mine owners. Cook refrained from attacking the General Council. The TUC in that year did not discuss the General Strike. Cook supported this.

The overriding question posed by the 1926 General Strike is not only the recognition that the general strike must be a struggle for power. Today, many will pay verbal adherence to that. Important as that is, more important is the question of independent revolutionary leadership — the role of the revolutionary party. History showed that only through a revolutionary Marxist party could the working class take power. However, in Britain in 1926, it was Zinoviev’s conception that the British revolution could pass through the ‘broad gate’ of trade unions without the Communist Party, and the opportunist preservation of the Anglo-Russian trade union committee as a bulwark for Soviet defence, which led to the false position of the Communist Party. This led the CP to dissolve its independence into a left opposition in the trade unions.

Trotsky emphasised the importance of the British trade unions. But their possibilities were determined by the Communist Party. He had written in Lessons of October:

It is true that the British trade unions may become a mighty lever of the proletarian revolution; they may, for instance, even replace workers’ soviets under certain conditions and for a certain time. They can, however, fill such a role not apart from a Communist Party and certainly not against the party, but only on the condition that communist influence becomes the decisive influence in the trade unions.

When the General Strike was betrayed, Trotsky and the Left Opposition demanded that the Russian unions break with the General Council, with whom they sat on the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee. To maintain the Anglo-Russian Committee, they said, would only shield those who had betrayed using the prestige of the Russian Revolution. Stalin rejected the demand. In July, at a meeting of the Anglo-Russian Committee, the General Council forced the Russian unions to withdraw a statement criticising the sell-out of the General Strike and refused to allow them to discuss how to aid the miners still locked out.

The whole point of departure for the erroneous line, wrote Trotsky, was “the straining to supplant the growth of influence of the CP by skilled diplomacy in relation to leaders of the trade unions”(3). This meant that: ‘The struggle to win the masses organised in trade unions through the CP was replaced by the hope for the swiftest possible utilisation of the ready made apparatus of the trade unions for the purpose of the revolution.’(4)

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