With even TV presenters talking about the possibilities of a general strike, things are definitely changing. HANNAH SELL looks at the historical experience of general strikes and the prospects for one of the most powerful weapons of the working class being on the agenda in Britain.
In Britain in 2017 just 33,000 workers took part in industrial action, the lowest level since records began in 1893. The numbers, at 39,000, were barely higher the following year. Against this background many on the left, including some who parted ways with the Socialist Party, turned away from the organised working class as the key force in the struggle to change society.
Now, in 2022, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch’s declaration that “the working class is back” is palpably true. The first national rail strike led to the Trade Union Congress (TUC) having a 700% increase in enquiries about how to join a trade union. Suddenly, the proud history of the working class in Britain is featured in the mainstream media for the first time in decades. The evening news has included references to the heroic revolutionary Chartist movement, to the 1926 general strike – the greatest show of strength to date by the British working class – and to 1972 when a general strike began to develop from below demanding the freeing of five London dock stewards jailed under the anti-union Industrial Relations Act.
Are we heading into events of a similar scale? Without doubt the workers’ movement is on an upward curve. Under the cover of the pandemic the government stopped collecting strike statistics, but it doesn’t require official confirmation to see that a major strike wave has begun.
As we go to press a one-day national shutdown organised by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) is about to begin. Called as a ‘National shutdown to defend the socio-economic interests of the working class’, Saftu held meetings of provincial shop stewards committees at the start of the month to prepare the action. Members of the Marxist Workers Party (CWI South Africa) distributed a leaflet at these assemblies, reprinted below, that analysed this important step and made proposals on the way forward.
The National Shutdown Saftu has called for 24 August represents potentially a very important step forward for the working class. It will be taking place under conditions that are significantly different from the previous largely unsuccessful Section 77 actions of October 2020 and February 2021.
What is even clearer now than then, is that the capitalist class worldwide has no solution to the crisis of their system, worsened by the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, other than to make the working class pay. Across the world, a new fighting mood has developed, with the working class on the march in their millions. In South Africa, communities are organising their own shut downs. The National Shut Down offers the opportunity to compress the energies of all these actions into a single movement of workers unity against the ANC government and the capitalist system.
The Italian coalition government of Mario Draghi has become the latest political victim of the cost-of-living crisis. The government’s collapse at the end of July triggered a fall on the stock exchange and a rise at one stage to up to 3.7% in the ‘yield’, the difference that Italy has to pay to service its debt compared to Germany: 2.5% is considered the ‘danger zone’. This has raised fears amongst the European capitalist classes that economic and political instability in Italy could trigger another sovereign debt and Euro crisis, ten years after the last one following the 2007-2008 global financial crash, which opened up social and political crises throughout Europe and potentially could have blown the Euro apart.
The trigger for the government’s collapse was the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) voting against an economic package that would have given some aid to those struggling with rising prices, arguing that the help was not enough. This was total political opportunism. In 2018, at the time of the last general election, M5S emerged as the biggest party with 33% of the vote. Now, according to the polls, it will struggle to get 12% in the elections scheduled for 25 September. A recent split in its parliamentary ranks, the latest of many, resulted in its former leader Luigi di Maio breaking away and taking 60 MPs with him. Now the party is desperately looking to try and channel anger and frustration at rocketing inflation to rebuild its social and electoral base. Given its record in the three coalition governments since 2018 this tactic is doomed to failure.
Summer 2022 saw the hottest temperatures since records began, in capitalism’s industrialisation period in the 1850s. No area of the planet was untouched by scorching heatwaves. Even the measures to secure water supplies and air conditioning which Europe’s major cities invested in and installed in the early 2000s, proved inadequate. One hundred French municipalities were left with drinking water shortages.
Millions of hectares of American and European forest burned. Those historically dry areas this season, from Iran into Baluchistan and into India, flooded. Rising temperatures are having a destabilising effect on the stability of nation states which will exacerbate conflict and crisis. The International Organisation of Migration points to the possibility that 30-60 million more people will live in areas that average 38-45C in the shade (too hot for the human body to function well) by 2100, unless fundamental action is taken.
How should socialists approach demands for national self-determination? Replying to the Communist Party of Britain, an influential presence behind the Morning Star newspaper, an article recently published by the Socialist Party Scotland takes up the defence of a Marxist approach to the national question, including issues raised by the demand for a second independence referendum in Scotland.
Young people and workers looking towards socialist and Marxist ideas sometimes ask us, what are the differences between Socialist Party Scotland and others on the left? This is an important question. Moreover, one that every person seeking out ideas to rid the world of the horrors of capitalism should be asking.
After all, how is it possible to judge what the most effective organisation to join actually is? Is that organisation capable of seriously taking on the task of building a viable working-class Marxist force to help lead a mass movement for socialist change? Only by studying the record, programme and role that organisation has played in leading struggles of the working class can an answer be found. Indeed the wrong political programme can, and indeed has, led to the defeat of many revolutionary opportunities in the past.
To assist in this clarification, Socialist Party Scotland, the Scottish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), has regularly written material that contrasts our position with that of others on the left, including the revolutionary left.
Mass movements striving to change society are inevitable under capitalism. But a revolutionary party is vital to ensuring their aspirations are realised. JUDY BEISHON continues our Introduction to Marxism series.
Many people regard themselves as anti-capitalist and are interested in socialist ideas, but at the same time can be wary of political parties. They have seen the attacks on living standards made by political parties in governments, by those claiming to be politically on the left, as well as the right. There is also the repellent mark left by the authoritarian parties that ran repressive Stalinist regimes, which claimed to stand for Marxism, communism and socialism but were an outrageous distortion of what those words really mean.
Mistrust towards political parties – and sometimes the very act of organising or having leadership bodies – can lead people towards the idea of spontaneous, unorganised action or loose networks.
There are times when spontaneous action can spur events along, but it also has great limitations. It provides no structure for democratic debate about what is to be done, how to develop it, and decisions over the roles individuals or teams will play. When people act together in a planned and united manner, with democratically agreed goals and roles, more can be achieved than with action in which every individual acts separately or in small groups.