Simon Joyce’s piece “Why are there so few strikes?” in International Socialism 145 is very welcome. It asks an essential question, and Joyce clearly achieves his aim of opening a discussion.1
For revolutionary Marxists this is not an academic issue. We see the basic division in society as between capitalists and workers. The working class is not only defined by its relationship to the productive forces, but, compared to all previous classes, has a collective interest formed through this distinct relationship. Individual workers may attend protest marches and meetings, vote, sign petitions and so on. These are important arenas socialists dare not ignore. But it is at the point of production that the chains of capitalism are initially forged, and where the collective strength of workers is most potent. All this means that Simon’s excellent statistical data on the paucity of strike action in recent years, depressing though they are, cannot be wished away as irrelevant.
He convincingly suggests many elements have combined to produce low strike levels, including: “traumatic economic changes, increasingly tough new laws…and chastening defeats”.2 To these three key points he adds shifts in employment away from strike-prone sectors, low inflation and a growth in power of full-time bureaucrats. These arguments are far superior to recent accounts that, under the cloak of discovering a “precariat”, effectively recycle the embourgeoisement theories of the 1950s and 1960s. However, Simon goes further by suggesting that the factors he adduces contradict what he calls the theory “prominent in this journal…that the level of strikes is low because the confidence of the working class is low”.3 It is inaccurate to imply that those who point to a lack of workers’ confidence in the workplace conceive it as something independent of the effects of economic changes, changes in the law and defeats.
The genesis of the stress on confidence comes from these factors among others. Capitalism, with its imperialist wars, its “more for less” agenda, austerity, privatisation, welfare cuts and assault on virtually every aspect of life for ordinary people, has produced alienation and anger on a massive scale. This has shown itself in diverse ways, from the largest demonstration in British history in 2003 (against the Iraq war), the biggest strike day since the 1926 General Strike (in 2011) and a crisis of the political system (to the left in the Scottish referendum, to the right with UKIP).4 But efforts to transform such anger into workplace action have largely been ignored by the mass of workers.
The points Simon identifies are important precisely because they contribute to the very lack of confidence he seeks to belittle as an explanation. In other words, anti-union laws, the strength of the bureaucracy and suchlike are subordinate to the issue of the working class’s belief in its own capability. The movement’s history shows this.
Before 1889 trade unionism was confined to a skilled minority who could not easily be sacked. The mass of unskilled workers seemed unorganisable. Craft unions, led by a “junta”, were wedded to avoidance of strikes, with some arguing that this was their very purpose. However, isolated victories, from the match girls’ strike to the gas workers, created a feeling among the unorganised that something could be done after all. The result was a wave of stoppages organised outside of official control, and the formation of mass general unions—the forerunners of today’s Unite and GMB.
The ruling class learned the lessons and engineered strategic strike defeats (such as at Manningham mills in 1890-1). It used the Taff Vale judgement (which made strikers reimburse bosses for financial losses incurred) and tied the union leaderships into a web of conciliation and arbitration. Nevertheless, by 1910 the feeling that victory could be won had returned, and the Great Unrest was the result. Just as in 1889 it was a group outside the established bureaucracy—the syndicalists—who led the charge in defiance of not only the bosses, but police, troops and even gunboats.
During the First World War imperialist ideology, backed by the Defence of the Realm Act, and incorporation of union leaders into the wartime coalition, had seemingly nullified the earlier workers’ offensive. That lasted only until the shop stewards’ movement broke free and began organising action in defiance of laws and bureaucrats.
After the war, fired by the Russian Revolution and mass discontent, the strike wave accelerated. However, rising unemployment and betrayals by the union leaders (in Black Friday 1921 and the General Strike of 1926) destroyed hope and left the labour movement prey to Mondism—yet another version of strike restraint exercised by an alliance of bosses and union leaders. This, in turn, was swept away by disputes in new, unorganised sectors (buses, cars) led by the Communist Party. That powered the resurgent shop stewards’ movement whose demise in the 1970s and 1980s Simon alludes to.
This brief account confirms Rosa Luxemburg’s dictum that trade union struggle within capitalism is a “labour of Sisyphus”. That figure from Greek mythology was doomed to eternally roll a boulder up the hill only to see it roll down again. To make the bottom of the cycle the sole reference point is therefore an error. The situation changes when workers not only believe that striking can defeat the bosses, but are ready to fight in defiance of legal and bureaucratic obstacles. The current phenomenon of low strike levels may be the longest episode yet, but it is clearly not unique. And if the fundamental Marxist analysis of class relations still applies, it will not last forever. Of course, dates cannot be set, yet just as Gordon Brown predicted “no more boom and bust” just before the economic crash, so a prediction that contemporary class relations mean “no more strike waves” is equally unfounded.
Can such knowledge have a bearing on what we do now? Simon writes: “The most important service we can provide for the labour movement is not to highlight what might happen, but to develop an understanding of what is most likely to happen. That helps socialist activists and militant workers to orientate correctly upon the class struggle”.5 It is significant that all the workers’ offensives described above were spearheaded by socialists even when socialism was not most likely. In 1889 it was Social Democratic Federation members such as Eleanor Marx; in 1910, syndicalists; during the First World War the British Socialist Party and Socialist Labour Party; from the 1930s on the Communist Party; and latterly the Socialist Workers Party made a contribution. It was because each shared the perspective of mass class struggle that they assisted in its birth.
Simon does not argue there is no “possibility of rapid transformation”. Indeed he states that “if strikes became more readily available, stewards would take them up”.6 However, this is consigned to the category of “might” rather than “most likely”. So he ends by saying: “Until such time, socialists need to develop new strategies and tactics”.7
Some of his tactics are fine. If a strike is not in the offing then “the importance of the strike weapon could be taken up more widely by socialists as a campaigning and propaganda issue”.8 But some are more problematic. He is right to stress that stewards undertake individual casework.9 Not to do so would destroy credibility and lead to justified de-selection, but it is no substitute for collective action. He suggests we should focus on legal frameworks at a time when the industrial tribunal system is in terminal decline due to recent changes. Commentary on “employment law, legal changes, important case rulings”10 is all very well as long as the lesson is that “employment law is employers’ law”, and that as the chance of winning a tribunal approaches National Lottery proportions, the chance of paying substantial costs will become commonplace.11
Simon’s weakest argument is to suggest that one means of dampening militancy—the viability argument (“if the company doesn’t make a profit, it will go out of business”)—“is true”.12 When individual bosses have lost their yachts, mansions and share options, and are queuing at the food bank alongside their workforce, this argument might appear acceptable. Even then we would argue that the system as a whole can always afford workers’ economic demands, as proved by occupations such as the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation, for example.
Viability aside, the problem of the gap between what exists now and what may come in the future is very real. In the early 20th century Social Democratic parties in the Second International solved the conundrum by saying they would operate both a maximalist programme (revolution) and a minimalist programme (reform). Splitting the two proved fatal, as Germany would demonstrate. By 1918 the Social Democratic Party was riddled with reformism and it crushed the German Revolution.
Anger against the system will continue. We cannot tell when it will find expression in workplace struggles. That may be inspired by events abroad, by sparks of success at home, by economic or political changes. But in the meantime revolutionary Marxists who are worthy of the name must strive to convert what “might” be into the “most likely”.
This is an art that requires propaganda, agitation and organisation for collective action in whatever combination is most appropriate. We are not sectarians who propose a general strike every day, but neither do we suggest that there is ultimately any alternative to collective action if our class is finally to win. In a situation of conflict over pay, redundancy or anything else, if the boss makes an initial offer, we should urge rejection as more can be won. If the union suggests selective action, we should argue to broaden it. If officials suggest token strikes, we should argue for all-out strikes. Sometimes this will be popular with the majority, sometimes with only a minority. If battle is joined there will come a moment for tactical judgement over whether to continue the fight or not, but we must argue that workers have the power to win if they fight collectively and strive to make it a reality wherever possible.
1: Joyce, 2015.
2: Joyce, 2015, p140.
3: Joyce, 2015, p123.
4: See Callinicos, 2015.
5: Joyce, 2015, p127.
6: Joyce, 2015, p142.
7: Joyce, 2015, p142.
8: Joyce, 2015, p142.
9: Joyce, 2015, p139.
10: Joyce, 2015, p141.
11: The introduction of fees for taking out a tribunal case in April 2014 has produced a precipitous decline in claims, from 218,000 in 2010-11 to 106,000 in 2013-14. Go to www.gov.uk/government/statistics/tribunal-statistics-quarterly-april-to-june-2014
12: Joyce, 2015, p131.
Callinicos, Alex, 2015, “Britain and the Crisis of the Neoliberal State”, International Socialism 145 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/britain-and-the-crisis-of-the-neoliberal-state/
Joyce, Simon, 2015, “Why are there So Few Strikes?”, International Socialism 145 (winter), http://isj.org.uk/why-are-there-so-few-strikes/