Letter to the Editors from the July 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
Your article on the General Strike weapon (May Socialist Standard) whilst informative and useful is quite faulty on a few key points. First, you grossly underestimate and demean the importance of workers’ class consciousness growing, which set the basis of the workers’ advances from mere legal/truncated trade/craft union actions. General strikes tend to move affected parts of the class and allies to more militant, anti-capitalist wider fightback and their own demands and build socialist clarity.
Second, you contradict, by your own emphasis on narrow parliamentary activities that many advances to General Strikes also incorporate political trends and tendencies, socialist work, and getting a favourable and influential hearing from masses of active/combined workers. The workers in combined actions, working, co-operating, in spreading support bring more workers to see in reality the latent power of their own class unleashed from capitalism’s legalist jails and electoral illusions, and raising the needed spirit of organizing as a wider, united class against waged slavery and capital’s wider hegemony over society . . .
Third, you try to separate, almost with a Chinese wall, almost the whole economic struggle from the political conflict with capitalist rule. In fact at whatever the level of struggle, class conflict needs to raise both fronts of battle to the fore, in the terrain of the workers’ lives for them to strengthen their educating and organizing as a class against the bosses rule economically and through the capitalist state machine monopoly of controls.
There is no guarantee of immediate advance to revolution and workers taking the power. But the training of industrial and bona fide socialistic political education and action raises the workers to be serious challengers to the rule of the bosses dominance, exploitation robbery, racism and wars.
In your snipes on the ‘Soviets’, (Books, April Socialist Standard), the workers’ councils advanced struggles, your prejudice against mass combined industrial political tactics leads you to distort the history of the workers’ councils risings. Your assertion that workers councils just arise 'spontaneously’ and in less developed countries is flat out wrong! The workers’ councils did not just step into history in 1905 and 1917 in Russia, but also in rebellion to the imperialist World War 1 in advanced industrial nations as Germany, Austria and Italy, etc and played a huge role in forcing the bourgeois rulers to halt the carnage of WW1 and both the workers, as large sections of the armed forces in councils rebelled against the continuing barbarism and after. That their efforts went furthest in Russia but could not advance to full socialism is hardly the western workers/farmers fault. Given the amount of repression, counter revolution, isolation, capitalist intervention and blockades and state capitalist controls resulted in the defeat of the huge revolutionary waves by the early 20s.
In Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, etc the workers’ councils had not the time to deepen political understanding assisted by their new Marxist revolutionary parties like the experienced Bolsheviks, as had happened in Russia. The Western European workers’ councils, soldiers/sailors and workers included strong influences of reformists, careerists and fakers in addition to harmful influences of nationalist reaction too. Thus these councils occupations, mass actions, general strikes and near civil war did not achieve the tactical and strategic clarity they had in Russia, at least for a few years. Also, as a result of illusions in bosses 'democracy' and slick parliamentary facades, followed by political division, repression, and isolation, their diffuse attempts to establish workers rule were defeated by the ruling exploiter classes.
Finally, is it not at least a tad of wooden and ossified thinking for you to say that the workers’ councils (albeit in different forms and experiences) cannot again emerge in countries like the UK or the USA, etc., especially in periods of capital’s crises/plunder that will probably be even deeper, bloodier, more global in scope?
Neil Chertcoff (by email from USA)
1. We don’t see how, in pointing to the limitation of the general strike as a working class weapon, we are demeaning anything. General strikes are sometimes necessary to defend workers’ wages, working conditions and the right to organise. As with all strikes, some you win, some you lose. The 1926 British General strike was a failure. It did lead to a move away from relying on industrial action towards political action but reformist political action via the Labour Party. The 1968 French General Strike was a success in terms of improving wages and conditions but, from your standpoint, was no doubt a failure as it did not lead to overthrow of capitalism. But that was never the aim and, if it had been, would not have succeeded given, despite the high degree of trade union consciousness, the lack of majority socialist consciousness amongst workers and the fact that the state machine was controlled by pro-capitalist elements. As we said, general strikes are ok as a weapon of the defensive class struggle under capitalism but not as a weapon to overthrow capitalism. The syndicalists are wrong about that.
2. You seem to think that we are opposed to workers organising in the workplace and in communities. We are sure this will happen alongside direct political organisation once the movement for socialism develops, but, as with the general strike, we don’t see these being able to overthrow capitalism in the absence of majority socialist consciousness and independently of political action using the electoral system to win control of state power (of which ‘parliamentary activities’ will be marginal and mainly propagandistic). Those councils you mention (apart from the factory councils in northern Italy which were part of an industrial dispute) came into being in autocratic dynastic empires which had collapsed under the impact of WW1. They were substitutes for local councils and, as you yourself point out, in Germany reflected the view of most workers that the aim should be political democracy not socialism. As to Russia, we don’t see what happened there as an example to be repeated – or likely to be – where an ‘experienced’ vanguard party rode to power on the basis of popular discontent over the war and shortages, using the ‘soviets’ as a cover and then, once in power, emasculating them.