The following article, including the introduction, was originally published in Socialist Voice No. 9 (Summer 1980).
The following document, slightly edited here for clarity, is a polemic written by the League for the Revolutionary Party in April 1979, to the British group Workers Power (WP). Its purpose was to criticize WP for its failure to press for a general strike during the strike wave that wracked the United Kingdom in the winter of 1978-9. It also objected to Workers Power’s unwillingness to counterpose the struggle for the revolutionary party against the reformist Labour Party, which then constituted the Queen’s government. WP has on several occasions informed us of its intent to reply, but it has not yet done so.
The WP group, like ours, had its origins in a split from the International Socialists (IS), a tendency that in the early 1970’s included fraternal organizations in both Britain and the U.S. (The British IS is now called the Socialist Workers Party.) The British IS, led by Tony Cliff, and the American group, descended from Max Shachtman, held somewhat different theoretical outlooks. The Shachtmanites maintained the anti-Marxist view that the USSR was a new class society, bureaucratic collectivism, that could expand the productive forces at a time when decaying capitalism could not. The British called Russia state capitalist, but produced a basically similar analysis (see The Struggle for the Revolutionary Party, “The ‘Russian Question’” in Socialist Voice No. 1, ). What held them together was their shared opportunist approach to politics – a practice of capitulating to reformism on the grounds of defending “rank and file-ism” (a method described in the document).
Workers Power had moved a long way from this background. We wrote this document because the WP organization, unlike other British groups, appeared to be developing to the left, although in an uncertain fashion. We hoped to engage WP in an open dialogue and convince them of the lessons we had learned in our own break from our common experience with centrism. Unfortunately we were not successful.
In the polemic we warned WP about the dangers of being unwilling to push a reformist party to the wall. In a letter accompanying the document we also warned them that their attempt to straddle the “Russian question” between the Cliffite state capitalist position that they formally held, and the Pabloite deformed-degenerated workers’ state line that they seemed to be moving toward, would lead to a disaster. It could only mean the abandonment in theory of the independent revolutionary party.
A few months ago WP announced its conversion to the Pabloite position, ostensibly as a result of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Although their new position does not seem to have been fully worked out in theory, it does arrive at a conclusion in relation to Stalinism in Afghanistan similar to its attitude towards Labourism in Britain: reformism and Stalinism are better than nothing, so the working class should limit or postpone its struggle against them. By thus conceding the battle to bourgeois forces, Workers Power has landed back in the swamp of centrism.
The question of the general strike that the document deals with still plays a central role in both Britain and the U.S. The significance of the British steel strike earlier this year, because of its length, bitterness and politically strategic character, cannot be overstated. A socialist general strike position, as opposed to the recent parody of such a tactic perpetrated by the British union bureaucrats, was called for. Workers Power (like some of the other left centrist groups in Britain) has raised the call for a general strike during the recent events. They felt it possible to do so now because the Labour Party is not in power, but they still were unable to point to a clear path away from Labourite reformism.
The LRP has consistently raised the call for a general strike in the U.S. During the recent transit strike in New York, ours was the only force on the left that raised the general strike as the way to win. Here too the bulk of the left politely followed the labor bureaucracy – either the official leaders of the transit union or the “out-bureaucrats” who demagogically appealed to rank and file-ism – in their quashing of the strike.
Despite such setbacks the lesson remains that the general strike can be a magnificent demonstration of working class unity. It is a weapon designed to help workers understand the strength of their class in practice. It enables them to translate the economic, defensive consciousness of the class into a political attack on state power. Hence, it is a crucial weapon in the fight for the working class to reconstruct its revolutionary party.
We find your position on the recent strikes to be ambivalent and contradictory exactly where it verges on the most critical questions. For example, your editorial in Workers Power No. 2. “United Action Can Fix Jim”, uses various terms to call for united working class action: a “class-wide response”, a “generalised working class onslaught”, “a general clash”, “a generalised offensive”, and “linking up and generalising.” It suggests “a move from isolated, individual struggles towards a generalised offensive” and points out that it is bankrupt to rely upon spontaneity to “generalise” the strike at Fords. It painstakingly suggests a variety of working class link-ups and actions which could lay the basis for councils of action “if the struggle reaches the level of a generalised offensive.”
In sum, this editorial, like your other articles on the subject. generalizes greatly on the necessity for generalization of the strike but always avoids advocating a general strike. It reminds us of a story about a British architect who built an edifice which included an enormous room designed without internal pillars to hold up the ceiling. Although he deemed them unnecessary, he was forced to bow to the pressure of the fearful and construct pillars. He got his private revenge, for, unknown to his timid critics, his pillars terminated a few inches below the ceiling, and the house stood. In politics, however, if one’s constructs fall short of the necessary conclusion, the whole structure will tumble like a house of cards.
You carefully avoid giving concrete content to your generalizing position: how far should the strikes spread? You do not, even as an aside, point out what is wrong with a general strike position, much less polemicize against it. And although our information is far from complete, we know that the bulk of the far left has not raised the demand; nevertheless, the Spartacists, with whom you do argue frequently in your press, do raise the general strike, even if in an incorrect way. To us, your omission is striking.
From hints in your articles, we could conjecture that the reason you haven’t taken up the question is that you hope that in time the struggle would have matured to the point where the general strike slogan would be meaningful to a wider audience. Whether or not our conjecture is true, we disagree with your position and the method underlying it. Moreover, your failure to take the final step in calling for generalization gives a feeling of ambiguity and lack of concreteness to your position that is not overcome by your advocacy of concrete organizational and programmatic steps.
Both your tendency and ours are aware of the fact that there is a huge gap between the objective conditions and the subjective consciousness of the class. One indication of this relative lack of advanced consciousness is the tiny size of the far left. Not only has the fundamental crisis of capitalism matured, but the objective bases for proletarian rule have also ripened. A chief factor in these objective considerations is the enormous size and potential power of the working class at the heart of centralized and concentrated production.
Unfortunately, the workers do not realize their real material interests, nor are they conscious that they have the strength to gain them in the only way possible, through the socialist revolution. The general strike is a major weapon in our arsenal designed to bridge the gap between the present level of consciousness and the advanced workers’ consciousness of the objective tasks. The general strike is not the revolution – but it does pose the question of state power in a very concrete way. Its achievement would be a major leap forward, overcoming the sense of weakness and sectoralism which pervades many sections of the class.
Our tendency spends a great amount of time propagandizing about the general strike. But given the present conjuncture in the United States, there are few times when we can agitate for it. While much of the far left in the U.S. has been steadily moving to the right, the various groups nevertheless have organizationally sectarian attitudes. The phenomenon of the “small mass party,” whereby many groups try to substitute for the larger class institutions by puffing themselves up like blowfish, is widespread here and known to you, too, of course: the SWP-GB and the WRP are excellent examples. We, in contrast, pursue a strategy of placing our demands on the independent class institutions, the trade unions, for united action. In the U.S. this frequently has taken the form of calls on the unions for general strikes.
Our overall propaganda position does not apply to any and all situations that arise in the U.S. It is no panacea; its importance derives from our general assessment of class relationships here as well as objective factors. In Britain, in the recent situation, we believe that the general strike slogan was in order. Trotsky points out in his German writings (pages 238-9) that the general strike is most useful in situations where the class is strong objectively but weak in leadership, and that a successful general strike is a major step in bridging that gap.
While this general assessment obviously applies to Britain today, this alone doesn’t prove that the slogan is appropriate. But even you, who do not raise the slogan, agree that the all-important task is to generalize the separate strikes. Presumably you are trying to address the advanced workers and provide them with a strategy designed to lead the mass of currently more backward workers. Any advanced workers (and many ordinary militants as well) would naturally ask: how general is “general”? Do you want the whole union, two or three unions, all unions, or what? Since you raise programmatic demands as goals to be won in action, and since these demands are in the interest of the whole class, why should not all unions (and also the unemployed and un-unionized) join in a general strike commensurate with the demands?
You call for “coordinated action across all the unions involved.” But why only the unions involved – why not all of them? You movingly point out the dangers of sectoralism. It is obvious that large non-striking sections of the working class were hostile to some of the strikes because they saw the strikes as competitive to their own interests. Your programmatic class-wide demands designed to overcome this sectoralism can only be achieved through mass action, not just sympathizing strikes by some, but a general strike.
We ask ourselves, why do the British comrades leave the question open-ended? Especially since we imagine that they really would like the strike movement to take the direction of the general strike.
Possible answer number one is that you believe the call is premature and the organization for it is lacking. Only a few unions were out on strike, and their strikes were over sectoral demands. Rank and file linkages were not yet in place, nor was there any significant discussion of common programmatic demands. Only after such first steps are accomplished would a new rank and file leadership emerge that would make it possible to call for a general strike.
We would reply that this is exactly the wrong way to approach the question. The workers, including the non-striking majority, are worried and angry over their pay, work conditions, the threat of redundancy, social decay, inflation, etc. A general strike is quite possible under these circumstances. A revolutionary vanguard should be propagandizing for it, attempting to win the advanced workers (including workers belonging to the pseudo-left) to such a Strategy. The only way to achieve it tomorrow is to argue for it now and get other advanced workers to join in. Those who recognize the need for it in the future but don’t say so now are leaving it to the backward workers to take the lead in putting it forward – hardly revolutionary leadership.
Perhaps you agree that it would have been correct to mention the general strike as our future goal, but you think that it would be irresponsible to imply that it could occur now, without the requisite organization and the widespread circulation of programmatic demands.
Organization already exists, however, namely the unions and the TUC. It is absolutely true that workers will not buy a general strike without seeing the vehicle to carry it through. But workers know that the TUC and its leaders have power; thus, workers follow them even though they are cynical about them. Those workers who have become so cynical as a result of past betrayals that they would not respond initially can be won as soon as they see the mass pressure gaining strength in the unions. Thus, the demand for a general strike must be placed on the TUC and the union leaderships by revolutionaries, alone at first, if necessary. The TUC leaders are capitulators, but the TUC has the power to bring out the bulk of the working class and shake society to its roots. Many of the leaders can be forced to lead by mass pressure; others can be displaced.
Workers Power, we believe, lets the TUC leaders off the hook. Yes, you condemn them, but the only real exposure in the eyes of the workers comes with practice. Revolutionaries must find ways to place demands on these leaders in such a way as to maximize mass demands upon them – this way the workers will more quickly come to understand the role of the betrayers and their own capacity to overthrow them.
WP has it backwards. You place the burden of generalizing the strikes not on the TUC but on the CP and SWP rank and file networks, which are hollow vessels. The CP, SWP, etc., should be criticized, of course, but for letting the official unions and bureaucrats off the hook. They should be attacked for not using their friends and cadres to fight for a general strike. Instead you call upon their weak workers groups to take on the whole burden of spreading the strikes themselves as well as adopting an advanced program.
We suggest an alternative two-level united front approach. 1) A major task is the united front of the working class. This is embodied in the demand on the TUC for a general strike against the capitalist attacks. We counterpose our political program to that of the leadership and other workers, but we march together in action with them nevertheless. 2) The united front is addressed initially to the “rank and file” front groups and the CP, SWP, IMG, etc. We propose a united front to demand that the TUC lead a general strike. Here too we want the sharpest debate over programmatic goals, but programmatic agreement, whether minimal or maximal, is not the basis for a united front. We never wish to imply that there is substantive political agreement on the great issues of the day between these groups and us (if that were true we belong in one party with them and not simply in a united front!). We hope to win over the base of these groups during the united struggle.
A general strike may occur based upon a variety of defensive demands. Whatever basis it begins with, the task of revolutionaries is to call for it in connection with our advanced, class-wide demands. (The program should be raised as that of the revolutionary workers, certainly not as a “take it or leave it” ultimatum.) If pressure for a general strike mounts and the TUC leaders fail to respond, several developments are possible. For example, the far left centrists or the genuine revolutionaries may be able to lead the general strike either as a mass wildcat or by displacing some of the union leaders officially. A new leadership will thereby come into being organizationally as a result of its having taken the lead politically. The “rank and file” organization will take real shape as a consequence of the movement for the general strike, not as its precondition. Organization follows politics.
We believe that your organization is still caught up in the rank and file-ist method of the IS (SWP), albeit on a far more leftist basis, and that this weakness is closely connected to your strategy in the strike wave. The SWP attempts to build its rank and file following upon a minimal program, a next-step approach. You correctly point out that this is inevitably sectoralist. Each group of militants is attracted on a parochial program which varies over time and even conflicts with that of the next group. (Thus, recently in the US, the IS’s black workers and white workers operating inside their Teamster front group split openly on a vote over a minimal democratic motion for black rights. One group’s minimum transcended the other’s maximum.)
In order to overcome such sectoralism, you wish to establish a more advanced and class-wide program as the basis for your rank and file notion. Your material on this subject reminds us strongly of our own attempts several years ago, both inside the IS and afterwards in the RSL. Opposed to the IS’s minimalism, we kept adding demands to make the “united front” program more and more socialistic and not simply militant. We went all the way to the top of the pillar and stuck there just short of the ceiling: we wouldn’t tell anybody that these demands meant the socialist revolution. It wasn’t that we wanted to be deceitful, but we still had a left version of the maneuverist politics we had learned in the IS: if we tell the workers that what they want requires socialism we will scare them off. Instead, feed them little crumbs along a trail (many steps or stages) and eventually they will arrive at the doorstep of socialism; then we can present them with the full picture.
We went far beyond the IS in that we asked for big leaps and not just small steps, but the method of stagism was essentially the same. We called it “transitional,” erroneously believing that that’s what Trotsky meant. In reality, we were posing a series of joint political blocs which, given the advanced character of our demands, meant a series of propaganda blocs, not common actions for concrete goals. For example, we would attempt to link up with militants in the auto industry who were for a sliding scale of wages and hours. We would argue out the details and come up with verbal political agreement – but always on the basis of their politics. They thought the goal was possible under capitalism, and even in a single union or locality. By not stating our fundamental belief that democracy and other reforms could only be achieved permanently under the dictatorship of the proletariat, we were capitulating to the militants’ non-socialist consciousness.
What we have now learned from such experiences is that we must not be open-ended with our politics in order to win the “rank and file”; we must “say what is.” The movement and its joint actions may be open-ended in that it is not pre-determined whether it will end up reforming capitalism to a small degree for an instant, or moving towards the workers’ state.
We believe that you, today, are back where our tendency was before we had completely shed the residue of Shachtman and Cliff. Allowing the more backward workers to determine our program through a false united front, or calling on the rank and file to lead, are only different variants of an appeal to backward consciousness. What is the program of a “rank and file”? Leaderships formulate programs which reflect, well or badly, the material interests of the working class. Rank and file groupings adhere knowingly or otherwise to many different programs. “Rank and file” alone means nothing except opposition to the persons presently in the leadership – it may not even mean opposition to their policies. Trotskyists are striving to forge a leadership, not a rank and file; that is the crisis of our epoch.
Cliffism and Shachtmanism always talked about the rank and file as a consequence of their position that democracy was the central question for the working class. As we have pointed out in our magazine, both Cliff and Shachtman, in rejecting Stalinism, also rejected the very fundamentals of the workers’ state. One aspect of this was to identify the end of the Russian workers’ state with the end of the Soviets. For them, the Soviets and workers’ democracy became the key distinction between a Stalinist state and a workers’ state. However, Soviets and workers’ democracy are necessary for a healthy workers’ state, but not sufficient. The key to the revolutionary character of Soviets is not their democratic form, i.e., that they contain the rank and file, but that they are led by Bolsheviks. Historically it has been proved that Soviets not led by Bolsheviks are not revolutionary and will not last long. It is the party, the embodiment of advanced consciousness, that is the determinant. In a healthy workers’ state, advanced consciousness will triumph in time over backward (pro-capitalist or petty-bourgeois) ideas through political struggle, aided by the economic changes in society. To put it another way, the ranks are constantly transformed into leadership.
The “democratic” or “rank and file” trappings of the Cliffites should fool nobody. In tailing backward consciousness they really tail the bureaucrats who have dammed up the workers’ consciousness at its present level. The pseudo-democratic method is similar to the plebiscitary method of Bonapartism. Even during his period of “Luxemburgism,” Cliff believed that a manipulating leadership was the key to socialism and that the masses were only the battering ram. Thus he would give the masses any program they liked. Cliffs party links up the minimum program and the militant struggles; it is based not on socialism but on maneuverism. It stands for manipulation by a benevolent Bonaparte accompanied by the acclamation of the rank and file.
Of necessity the IS leaves the program of the party vague. Nevertheless, Cliffs program has a content: a left version of the bureaucracy’s. The SWP tries to work the blowfish routine in order to look like a realistic alternative to the present labor bureaucrats. All it succeeds in doing, however, is provide a political cover for the bureaucracy. For, when given a choice of which to follow, workers will ride the back of a whale rather than a blowfish if both are heading in the same direction.
We do not maintain that you are still left Cliffites; our general assessment is that you are moving away from that. We see vestiges, however, which at critical points are in contradiction to what seems to be your basic direction. It is our own bitter experience that teaches us the necessity of making a complete break.
You call on the rank and file to do this and do that. As we have said, a rank and file is amorphous. Such calls can only add to the workers’ sense of weakness. How does a rank and file point out a direction? Only leaders do. Your method frustrates the ranks. But at other points you are aware of this and make your calls more specific. You call upon the rank and file groups to take certain steps, and you also show awareness that it isn’t the “rank and file” of these rank and file groups that steers them, but their leaders, the CP, the IMG, SWP and other assorted centrists. But just as they are tailing the left bureaucrats, you are placing yourselves in a position to tail the centrists.
Your attempt to find programmatic linkages with the centrists and the rank and file front groups they control – rather than to pose common actions for conjuncturally common goals – speaks to the point. It means that you run the danger of paving the way for the advanced workers to go to the larger groups rather than you. You may end up providing them with a left cover, just as they do for the bureaucracy.
After all, isn’t that what you attempted to do in the electoral arena with the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory? You tried to raise the radicalism of the Campaign’s demands; that is, you tried to form a more radical propaganda bloc than the ICL and the Chartists wanted. The fact that you held out for the more radical version and finally broke with the Campaign (albeit on not too clear grounds) is a sign of ambivalence rather than clear-cut capitulation.
Another example: in Workers Power you continually pose the leadership that is to be generated out of the strike movement in coy and unclear terms: “a new leadership based upon the rank and file,” or “a new leadership” that will be built to “achieve final victory ... (in) settling accounts with the real power that the bosses and bankers have to make the working class pay.” In your January issue you call for “a new militant leadership rooted in rank and file organization and responsible to it.” (Ironically, in the same issue you criticize the SWP and correctly state that “what is wanted is not a ‘new militant’ but a communist strategy for the trade unions.”) You frequently associate this new leadership with such demands as the sliding scale and other class-wide demands. We know of only one leadership that can actually settle accounts with the ruling class and actually carry out the transitional demands. It is the Bolshevik leadership, which can do so only through the creation of a workers’ state. So why suggest something else?
Once again, it is a question of putting forward radical demands only capable of fulfillment through a workers’ state and implying that they are possible to win through a less far-reaching struggle. You have limited your program not to that of the present-day bureaucracy but to that of the bureaucracy’s would-be successors, the centrists. It is they who characteristically use far-reaching, even transitional, demands in such a way as to pose the reform of capitalism.
We are aware that the centrists do not want to go as far now as the things you are saying; they undoubtedly consider your organization to be ultra-left and sectarian. But so long as the workers’ state and the socialist revolution are not the key to your propaganda, the centrists can go as far as you when they are pushed by the movement. You are propagandizing for what is, in fact, the centrists’ future position, just as they are today paving the way for the future leadership of the left bureaucrats who will be forced later on to “steal” their program.
Indeed, should some militant centrists come to leadership positions based upon the decapitated politics you are now raising, you will have to give them political support, not just critical support. They will be carrying out the line that you have been the best fighters for. And there have been such centrists in the past: the Martovites, for example.
Yours, in our opinion, is not a communist course. No militant leadership, “new” or otherwise, can answer the crisis. It takes a revolutionary leadership. And if we are truly Marxists and proletarian democrats we must tell the ranks the truth about this. Our relationship to the masses is that of being their advanced consciousness and seeking to win them to our understanding. We hold nothing back and only seek the best opportunities to explain our points of view. It is only in this sense that we maneuver – with the class, and not behind its back.
We know that in your magazine you have outlined a program for trade union work less vague than in your popular paper. But it, too, hesitates to go all the way. Thus it never goes beyond the workers’ government slogan (not the workers’ state), which you undoubtedly believe is to follow the method of the Transitional Program. In our future document (subsequently published as the article Myth and Reality of the Transitional Program in Socialist Voice No. 8 – ed.) we will go into this question more thoroughly. Suffice it to say for now that Trotsky was careful to explain that the Transitional Program was designed to replace the old minimal program, not to substitute for the socialist revolutionary program. The workers’ government slogan in particular was designed for a period when the mass working class parties were leading struggles – and therefore implicitly posing the question of workers’ power – but were politically tied to the bourgeoisie’s government (through the Popular Fronts, etc.). The slogan was a challenge to those parties: stop hiding behind the bourgeoisie, take seriously the aspirations of the masses and your own promises, and get the bourgeoisie out of the government. The workers’ state remained the program of the Fourth International, but the parties and more backward workers who did not favor revolution could still be urged to carry our their own professed programs to their limit: a workers’ government, even under capitalism. Such a government, of course, would be merely transitory, and its existence would pose the state question in the sharpest terms; it would therefore be “but a short episode on the road” to the actual workers’ revolution and workers’ state.
Trotsky was obviously not attempting to blur the distinction between a workers’ government under capitalism and the workers’ state itself; he was trying to find ways to overcome the blur caused by the mass non-revolutionary parties. Today the centrists put forward the workers’ government slogan in an entirely ambiguous way (Peru and Iran are cases in point), never calling for a workers’ state and rarely if ever citing the need for a revolution. We are of course talking about substantive, not terminological, distinctions. Someone who calls for a “workers’ government” but presents the content of smashing the entire bourgeois state apparatus is making a (still dangerous) terminological error, not a political capitulation. We wish there were even such people in Peru and Iran today.
In your case, while your use of the workers’ government slogan in this period is the farthest left we are aware of, your failure to go all the way in your magazine is amplified by the merely “militant” formulations in your paper. It indicates that your hesitation is not terminological but political. And that is the problem: you stress the program for the radical rank and file that you wish to build to such an extent that your own, revolutionary socialist, program does not appear.
In stressing the necessity for revolutionary leadership we are led to a further point. You state accurately that “a political lead is desperately needed,” for militancy is not enough. This echoes Trotsky’s point in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Decay” that the political road is the only solution since problems can no longer be solved on the industrial and trade union level. While this is a perfect reason for the general strike, it is also the basis for our contention that the revolutionary leadership for the unions must be posed as that of the revolutionary party.
This is doubly important in a country where reformist economism has such a history. Politics is the generalization of economics, and centralism is the distillation of politics. Cliff rejected Stalin’s authoritarianism only to reject as well Lenin’s centralism, only at first organizationally, but politically always. In avoiding the question of centralized political power, the IS adapted to the localistic, plant by plant, industry by industry consciousness of the workers. This consciousness reflected the acts of the labor bureaucracy which had succeeded in selling the line to the workers that concentration on their own economic benefits and local working conditions was all that was necessary. Again, in tailing “rank and file” consciousness the IS adapted to the strategy of the bureaucrats.
It is an interesting side point that the Cliffites and Shachtmanites split not over the relatively small differences between the Bureaucratic State Capitalism theory of one and the Bureaucratic Collectivism theory of the other, but over the Communist Parties. And it was not that one was Stalinophobic and the other not: they split not so much for their dissimilarities but for the different applications of what they held in common. Both tailed the shop steward militants in the labor movement. The Shachtmanites in the 1940’s tailed the secondary leaders of the United Automobile Workers, reformists aligned to the Reuther brothers who were in many ways (prior to the Cold War) more left than the CP unionists. The Cliffites tailed the CP stewards in Britain, where the CP was notorious for concentrating upon leftish economic activity rather than the political action that typified Stalinism elsewhere. (Of course, the economist outlook of the CP has deep causes, reflecting the strength of the Labour Party barrier and trade unionist power rooted in the imperialist-labor aristocratic inheritance.)
From the time of Attlee’s victory at the end of the Second World War to the present, the British workers have become gradually divorced from political action. The Labour Party, which once rode the crest of a movement, is now a shell, tied to the workers through the unions and its historical identification rather than through their active participation. Relative prosperity and the bourgeoisie’s ability to yield sops in the face of struggle were the chief reasons. In this context arose the IS-GB as a left reflection of the bureaucracy. It too concentrated on economic action and eschewed political action. But as centrists, the Cliffites cover their economist practice with promises of revolution in the future. Like the Russian “economists,” they leave the political tasks to others “at this stage.” The Russians left politics to the Cadets while sneering at them; the Cliffites leave it to the Labour reformists while they too sneer at these representatives of the bourgeoisie.
Thus the question is not whether to be political or not. Politics controls the questions of the shop floor, as you point out, no matter how the Cliffites perceive it. To “abandon” politics means in reality to yield to reformist politics. The question becomes what politics: reformism and Labour, or the revolutionary party? The revolutionary party must be advocated categorically and openly counterpoised to reformism. This of course does not mean surrendering the tactic of critical support to Labour in elections, although we think (as you know) that such a tactic is wrong in the present conjuncture.
This brings us to the second argument you might raise in defense of not calling for a general strike: a general strike could well bring down the Labour government. We expect that your immediate reaction to this proposition is that we are being unfair to you. After all, you have stated clearly “No holding back to preserve a wage-cutting government” and you repeat the point often. You stated in bold type in your February issue: “A Labour government is only of use to the working class in as far as it defends its interests. Those interests can now be served only by determined direct action ... . If Callaghan’s government falls from office as a result of mass working class action that would be a lesser evil than the triumph of Callaghan’s picket-busting policies.”
This theme runs through your coverage, but it too has a noticeable omission: you never indicate that the strike movement should want to bring down this strikebreaking government. You don’t consider that this would be a positive step.
In fact you guaranteed your vote beforehand. In October 1978 you wrote: “If the struggle against pay restraint forces an election, should we take the record of the Labour government as ample evidence that we should not vote for them? We do not think so. While we must fight Callaghan’s plans, taking no responsibility for the plight of his government, we will still be calling for a vote for Labour.”
You called for a vote for Labour not our of love for Callaghan but out of hostility to the Tories and class solidarity with the workers who look to Labour. But still, if Callaghan was to be brought down by strike action (and it did turn out that way), the only governmental alternative was the Tories. And so you assured strikebreaker Callaghan of your vote in advance, giving him a .veritable carte blanche.
Is it therefore unfair for us to suggest that you hesitated over the general strike because that would certainly have brought down the government, while it was only likely that the limited strike wave would do so? After all, if the workers were not really prepared to deal with a mass unified strike, how prepared are they to deal with Thatcher, who plans greater attacks than does Callaghan? Not only is the class unprepared but there is no serious alternative leadership; you well describe the cretin Tribunites as an absurd alternative.
Your ambivalence is registered here very clearly. You want to fight to the limit, but there are limits. In your editorial “Recall the TUC. Smash the Concordat” in your March issue you call for everything but a No vote to Labour over its latest atrocity. You approve of NUPE’s hostility to this deal. But what is your position on NUPE’s threatened electoral boycott of Labour? Will you reason with them to come back into the
Labourite fold? And nowhere do you raise the necessity of a revolutionary party to be counterposed to the Labour Party, even as a propaganda point.
We believe that a general strike would have had only beneficial consequences. One of the chief reactionary characteristics of the election has been to aid in shifting the locus of class confrontation from direct action to parliament where two agents of the bourgeoisie quarrel over how to discipline the workers. A general strike would have posed the fundamental question of state power, although by itself it does not answer the question. But an inevitable accompaniment of such a mass eruption would have been a real class solidarity, which, in turn, would have been an enormous spur to the growth of a revolutionary alternative. Unfortunately such an alternative could not grow as a result of the limited strike wave, nor as a result of the current bourgeois elections.
A general strike would have been a marvelous “election issue.” It would have posed the genuine class alternative to both Thatcher and Callaghan – workers’ power.
The sectoral strikes were valuable despite their limits. But one consequence was to turn off large numbers of workers who have now been led to see other workers as their enemy. This results from the Labour Party’s policy; the diminished number of workers intending to vote for Callaghan is proof. A vote for Labour is now a vote against class solidarity, not for it. The only alternative for the working class is a massive non-vote to Labour, conducted with a fighting line against any and all government and capitalist attacks. A general strike would have made such an electoral policy a powerful one. Even now, a call for a general strike makes such a line possible and necessary.
One more word on the matter of automatic support for Labour. Relatively permanent support of this type can only undercut the struggle for the revolutionary party. One becomes “realism” and the other only “hope.” Your logic is that the revolutionary party, which would inevitably mean a sizeable raid away from Labour, should only develop at a time when the Conservative Party is less of a threat.
Comrades, we think it is no accident that your recent editorial in issue No. 5 calls for “the workers movement” to fight Callaghan and the TUC and for several political demands. Who concretely is to organize this struggle? Your organization does not exist in your own paper. You find it necessary to call for the formation of a genuine Trotskyist Party in Iran. Entirely correct. How about posing one for Britain?
Then you could deal more precisely with what, for example, you called for in your article on Leyland in issue No. 1: Leyland workers “must fight for the nationalization, without compensation, of the entire motor and components industry under workers control.” Once you decide that it is necessary to “say what is” and that nationalization really under the control of the workers can occur only through a workers’ state, then you will have resolved the contradiction in your political approach.
We would add one further point. Several times in Workers Power you refer to the very real danger of the armed power of the state during the strikes. Trotsky pointed out the absolute necessity of raising the call for armed bodies of the working class as a necessary response even to clashes on the picket lines. How much more necessary and opportune it was during the big strike wave! For comrades steeped in the tradition of the Transitional Program, your omission of this call was glaring.
We note that the Spartacists also neglected this slogan, as is customary with them. Their omission was even more glaring than yours because they did raise the general strike. A general strike accelerates the open mass confrontation between the classes – a good thing, but one that automatically carries with it a greater danger of armed response by the state. The Spartacists were nothing but irresponsible to issue no warning or demand for workers’ defense guards to accompany their general strike slogan. Trotsky observed that the beauty of the Labor Party slogan in the U.S. in the late 1930’s was that it posed not a reformist interlude but a sharp class confrontation. He stated that not to accompany the slogan with the call for armed workers’ defense bodies would make us look like pacifists.
Nor did the Spartacists ever point to the political consequence of the general strike: that it would bring forward the issue of state power, not just governmental power. It is of course necessary to arm the workers politically as well as militarily.
In conclusion: the direction of the working class movement must become political, and it must be based upon objective necessity and objective possibility, not only subjective considerations. The major task of the British working class during the strike wave was not to win limited and sectoral gains, but to smash the social contract. That is what we believe had to be said. What is the best way to translate the sectoralist economic actions by an objectively powerful class into such a class-wide political act if not the general strike? That had to be said.
From this, the organizational and pedagogical tasks and tactics would follow. And the result would have been a major step forward toward solving the crisis of leadership, the necessity for reconstructing the revolutionary party.