Sunday, 3 July 2011

Marxism 2011: Britain’s Trot Talent

Is the Pope a Catholic? Do bears shit in the woods? Are the SWP calling for a General Strike?

Some questions we instinctively know the answer to and Marxism 2011 – the SWP’s annual political conference – was saturated with the familiar calls for a General Strike. Instead of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, it’s The Marxist Who Cried General Strike. And both exclamations – repeated ad infinitum without foundation – quickly lose any relevance or significance.

But this time it’s different and last Thursday – on the same day as mass strikes in the public sector – Mark Campbell – a UCU union rep and SWP member – told Marxism’s opening rally that “the call for a General Strike is no longer an abstract slogan”.

Campbell’s proclamation was met with rapturous applause and a spontaneous rendition of One Solution Revolution – but it does give a fascinating insight into SWP tactics. Were they aware that all their previous calls for a General Strike were abstract demands?

A General Strike cannot come through decree, it must evolve through the inclusion of more and more workers and the involvement of more and more struggles. If workers are going to embark on a long and bitter industrial dispute, they need to be assured in their fight and possess a heightened consciousness – they can’t simply be following orders or abstract slogans.

There are a number of concrete reasons why calling for a General Strike is a tactical error. Firstly, there is the legal issue which – because unions cannot strike in sympathy or for political reasons – means a General Strike is illegal. Secondly – and closely linked to this – is the problem with public perception. Pervasive mainstream media hostility to trade unionism has created an insidious opposition to the prospect of strike action which can only be countered incrementally from the bottom-up. Different conflicts, issues and disputes in different trade unions have to be addressed simultaneously with action being co-ordinated locally and nationally on the same days. This, in effect, would represent a General Strike but the SWP’s radical rhetoric fuels the fire of a reactionary media and serves to alienate many workers who would otherwise sympathise with the struggle.

The Marxism festival illustrates that the SWP suffers from a number of intellectual inconsistencies and, one assumes, it comes from the problematic concept of democratic centralism. On the one hand, the SWP criticise the Soviet Union and Cuba for being top-down but, on the other, the central committee issue General Strike diktats to the British labour movement. On the one hand, they criticise the post-war Labour government for bourgeois collaboration and dismiss the welfare state and state control as distractions from building revolutionary socialism but, on the other hand, they claim to lead the fight against public sector cuts and privatisation. As Maxine Bowler said at a seminar on the USSR: “capitalism will use all sorts of strategies to make sure it maintains itself”. So why defend social democracy which curbs revolutionary zeal? Surely, from an SWP perspective, the best way to achieve proletarian revolution is from the most cut-throat and ruthless capitalism?

The true beauty and fascination of Marxism, however, lies not in the inconsistencies of SWP dogmatism but in the wealth of eminently reasonable and inspiring non-SWP speakers it attracts – whether it’s Jeremy Corbyn championing the progressive governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, Richard Wilkinson with his empirical dissection of inequality or Tariq Ali denouncing the obsequious acquiescence of Ed Miliband to Tory monetarism. It’s about the myriad of left-wing eccentrics it attracts – whether it’s the International Bolshevik Tendency heralding North Korea or the Workers Revolutionary Party starting a near-brawl. If the SWP can attract thousands of activists to a festival on revolutionary socialism, just think how many more can be attracted to a broad and inclusive movement against government cuts. Now if only the Labour Party would play ball...


Lee SWP said...

Congratulations on one of the most staggeringly lazy articles I've ever come across.

You really need to make a few things clear before proceeding onto what are even in your own terms vague generalisations about the SWP.

First, go and look for proof about the number of times in recent years that an SWP speaker or publication has specifically called for an immediate General Strike? There are thousands of easily-accessible only sources available to do that. Hmm, not very many is it?

Second, run the same exercise for ooh I dunno, the Socialist Party, or a number of other test far-left groups. Got a higher result than the first one? Perhaps you're conflating the entire far left with the SWP?

You claim we have 'inconsistencies' in our 'dogmatic' ideas whilst confessing that the article is based 'questions we instinctively know the answer to', and that 'one assumes' the SWPs inconsistencies are based on the 'problematic' concept of democratic centralism - not exactly a rigorous analysis here is it?

I suppose if you want to merely confirm the prejudices of your readers then instinct and assumption are sufficient; if - as the 'wealth' of non-SWP speakers you are mystified to find attending Marxism 2011 wish to do - you instead wish to make a more genuine contribution the debate about the very real problems facing the working class and left today, you might want to try thinking a little harder than you have here.

Theres a serious point in here. The SWP is not in a position to dictate anything to the British labour movement. What we do try to do is to always generalise the most militant possible call to action based on both what would solve the objective problem facing the class, but also crucially a call which we know from our rootedness inside working class organisations is likely to find a significant echo among the more militant sections of the class. This is not the same as dictating anything, it's about trying to ensure the most advanced sections of workers can give a lead to the rest in a situation where people's perspectives are skewed by the media, labour party, conservative TU leaders etc.

Loving your headline-writing work though - bravo.

Anonymous said...

No offence but your central point is wrong, the swp isnt the type of trot organisation that calls for a general strike all the time (thats the spartist phone box cults that are an embaraassment to us all). In fact this hasn't happened since the miners struggle. Obviously now after the biggest attack on living standards since the 1930s, the general strikes in other countries putting that type of action back on the table and considerable signs of an upturn in trade union activity a decision has been made to raise it as a slogan to try to win people to - time will tell if this is the correct approach.

SWP members are well aware you cannot call a general strike by decree but if it is to happen we need to organise from below and slowly try to build support for it. That is what swp members will do in their workplaces and union branches, it may not get much support straight off but it opens the debate.

Secondly there is no contradiction between fighting for revolution and fighting to defend the gains of the past, indeed it is only when workers struggle together that the posibilities for political transformation become clear. The SWP and Jeremy Corbyn (for instance) will disagree on a lot of things but both wish to see a leftwards move including strugles from below that is why its important to work together and build the biggest left we can.

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