Mass Struggles


This method of applying ritualistic prescriptions for every struggle irrespective of the facts or the consciousness of those involved amounts to nothing more than revolutionary posturing and only serves to alienate workers. Your comments about the dispute in the Packard plant in Dublin, accusing us of failing to advocate an occupation, only show how removed you were from the reality of that battle.

The background to the eventual defeat and closure of Packard was the defeat of an important strike in the plant in 1987. Following this defeat there was criticism of the poor role played by the convenor. A Socialist Party member was able to challenge for and win this position. In 1994, when the crisis and threat of closure emerged, the mood in the factory was mixed. Only about one-third of the workforce were prepared to take militant action.

This mood was reflected on the shop stewards committee where there were divisions not just on how, but whether to fight. Our position was to advocate a struggle that would have included an occupation of the plant. We argued that the company’s intention was to shut the plant and that an immediate occupation was necessary to save the jobs. But it was extremely difficult to build the mood for this. The fact that Packard was a subsidiary of General Motors and that its production was for GM’s internal market, was a consideration which could not be just dismissed. If nothing else, it added to the sense of helplessness felt by the workforce and made it harder to gain an echo for action which most workers felt could not succeed. Under these conditions there was no choice but to make some concessions in negotiations in order to gain more time to prepare the workforce for battle.

We presume from your comments that the “revolutionary” SWP would have acted differently. You would have insisted on an occupation, simply dismissing the arguments about globalisation. You would have launched into a battle with General Motors with a workforce divided and ill prepared and with many on the shop stewards committee either reluctant or outright opposed. Such an adventure would have guaranteed defeat and freed the hands of the company to close the plant on whatever terms they wanted.

In the end, we were unable to build a mood for struggle. Our comrade, in his position as convenor, argued on the shop stewards’ committee against the final package. When the final vote of the shop stewards voted against action, but for acceptance of this package, he resigned from his position as convenor. The shop stewards’ stance was unfortunately upheld by the membership who still lacked confidence to fight. Victory is never guaranteed in any struggle. The Packard workers were ultimately defeated – but had they listened to the infantile ultra-left advice of the SWP the defeat would have come earlier and would have been more complex.

The Non-Payment Campaign

That tactical considerations are a closed book to your organisation is clear from your approach to other struggles. Here are just two examples. During the 1980s, Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, organised and led the battle to defeat Thatcher’s poll tax in Britain. We initiated the mass non-payment campaign which ultimately involved 14 million people and which not only shipwrecked the poll tax, but was a key factor in forcing Thatcher to resign.

Your sister party, the British SWP, argued against the non-payment tactic saying it would not succeed. Of the tactic which was to lead the biggest civil disobedience campaign in British history, the SWP had this to say: “The experience in Scotland has shown non-payment is a vulnerable form of resistance leaving it to the resolve of individuals to stand up against the law. With council officers being given draconian power to collect the tax, non-payment will be impossible anyway…” (Socialist Worker, 17 December 1988). You advocated instead that union members in local government should refuse to collect the tax and that this would be the sole form of resistance.

In line with this, SWP members in Scotland not only opposed non-payment; they paid the tax themselves when it was first introduced. So when the real struggle began they found themselves on the wrong side of the non-payment battle line. By contrast, we supported the idea of non-collection, but only in conjunction with mass non-payment. Non-collection on its own would not have succeeded and would most likely have led to victimisation and sackings. Our argument that mass non-payment was the key was confirmed by what happened. Had the movement followed the “advice” of the SWP, the poll tax would probably still be in place today.

The SWP intervention in the current campaign to oppose the imposition of fees on students in Britain has been another catalogue of errors. We have launched the idea of a non-payment pledge to try to popularise and build support for future mass non-payment of fees. The SWP initially opposed the non-payment tactic.

Instead, your members tried to organise protests in the colleges but with no clear programme and absolutely no strategy to build any effective campaign. Last autumn, you organised a demonstration and occupation in Queen’s University, Belfast. We applaud the initiative, especially given the inertia of the Students’ Union. But the way you conducted the campaign was ill thought out to the point that it could have damaged rather than helped the fight against fees.

There was no serious attempt to test the mood of the mass of students, let alone prepare and build support for the idea of occupation. The result was that those involved were left quite isolated to face the retribution of the university authorities. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the victimisation of one student who was suspended for a term.

At the beginning of the occupation you demanded a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor and said that students should stay put until he agreed to this – only to find out that he was in China at the time! Instead of putting the onus on student action to defeat fees your demand was that the college should refuse to collect them! This caricature of your position in the poll tax fight is completely contrary to the method of Marxism. Marxists generally try to broaden struggles, advocating tactics that will increase mass involvement. Your central demand on the fees was effectively that the authorities should solve the problem for us!

Over a period, the idea of non-payment gained support among the best activists in the anti-fees campaign in Queen¹s. Faced with this your members did a partial somersault – as you did with the poll tax. They went along with non-payment, but instead of a serious mass campaign they argued for a non-payment stunt whereby a few students should refuse to pay for a period – and then would pay.

Again, this is a characteristic of the SWP: to reduce everything to the politics of publicity stunts. It is the mark of an organisation that skirts around, and ultimately away from, serious struggle. There is a place for stunts – to build awareness – but as part of a real campaign, not as a substitute for one.

We now understand that you have gone further. Having lost the argument, you have decided to pull out of the United for Free Education Campaign which you established. Worse, you have attempted to wreck this campaign which you now view as a rival to your presence on the campus. SWP meetings in Queen’s have been deliberately organised to clash with UFE meetings. Sectarianism of this character only repels the best people, while at the same time it confirms your inability to work in any campaign that you do not control.

All of this is well known among activists on the left. These methods discredit the SWP and reinforce its already pronounced sectarian reputation. Worse still, we can all be made to pay a price as workers who become aware of these things inevitably become suspicious that this is the way all socialists behave. On many occasions we have had to emphasise that we are not the SWP – and do not act the way your party acts – before we have been able to get a sympathetic ear among workers who have been exposed to your methods.

We need to discuss all these questions before we can take seriously your appeals for left unity in future elections. We also want to examine and discuss your approach to electoral work. Your party has recently done a U-turn on this question. In the past, you decried us as “electoralist” because we stood in elections. Bourgeois parliaments were a “dung hill” which would corrupt all those who entered them. So ran your old line of argument.

Now, you support the idea of standing for parliament and, presumably, would take your seats if elected. A key factor in your turn on elections was the huge vote for Joe Higgins in the Dublin West by-election in 1996 and our subsequent victory in winning a Dáil seat in that constituency. The 1996 vote caught you completely by surprise and led to a hasty abandonment of your past position. Your Political Committee responded by presenting a document on electoral work to your 1996 conference. This stood your past arguments on their head and argued for a “highly tactical approach to running a small number of candidates in the near future.”

As with your sudden shift on taking trade union positions, you adopted a new policy but largely on the basis of an old analysis. Everyone who runs for trade union positions is a budding bureaucrat – except the SWP. Likewise, everyone who runs for parliament, including Joe Higgins, will descend into the swamp of bourgeois politics – except the SWP!

Our result in Dublin West and the role of Joe Higgins in the Dáil have answered your arguments and have shown the difference between a revolutionary organisation capable of building a real base among the working class and a sectarian propaganda group which refuses to involve itself in struggle to the degree that is necessary to sink real roots.

In order to deflect from this and avoid the questions which it will inevitably raise in the minds of the best of your members, you resort, mantra-like, to the charge of “electoralism.” Your 1996 document, under a heading “Electoralism versus revolutionary politics,” sets out the “defects” of “electoralism.” “Despite sometimes verbal nods in the direction of revolutionary socialism, there is a tendency to spread illusions in what parliament can achieve. Here, the Higgins campaign was a case in point. The election was called the ‘best chance’ to beat the water charges. After promising for months that a strategy of disrupting the courts would be adopted after ‘all legal avenues failed’ mass action was deemed to have a secondary role to getting someone elected to the Dáil.”

You also say that with “electoralism” “sometimes there is talk of the possibility of combining extra parliamentary and parliamentary agitation. But, in reality preparing for elections takes precedent over everything else.”

How does your overhaste to accuse us of abandoning the mass struggle for a parliamentary road stand against the reality of what actually happened? The fact of the by-election coming at a critical point in the water charges campaign was an opportunity not to be missed. Within the campaign there were a group of anarchists who used similar arguments to the above and opposed us standing. These arguments were dismissed with the contempt they deserved by the campaign activists. The vote in Dublin West was a major blow to the establishment and greatly assisted the non-payment campaign.

Only a group which was not involved in the struggle could argue as you do. The activists did not counterpose the mass agitation to the election opportunity. They saw them, as we did, as complimentary. The election was a brilliant example of the combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary methods.

The extra-parliamentary struggle – combined with other mass campaigning work we had carried out in Dublin West over a period of years ‹ was the preparation for the election. In turn, the election strengthened the extra-parliamentary campaign in the form of non-payment, resistance in the courts, action to physically resist cut-offs. Your warning of our imminent abandonment of struggle to embrace “electoralism,” issued from the distant sidelines of the anti-water charges campaign, has been answered by events.

Undeterred, you have continued to monotonously repeat the charge ever since. In your 1997 Conference document you go even further. “The newly named Socialist Party, formerly Militant Labour, have virtually reduced to (?) their whole perspective to getting Joe Higgins elected to the Dáil. It is a disastrous approach that will rebound on them as the pull of electoralism removed the last pretences to revolutionary socialism.”

Your recent letter to us, although in the name of an electoral pact, continues with the same method – innuendo and unsubstantiated accusation. Our approach, you say, “can lead to a danger of focusing workers struggles on the need to win support in parliament rather than to relying on their own strength to establish victory. In the long term your ambiguity on the question of parliament can prove disastrous.”

What ambiguity? The charge is made entirely without substantiation. No class has ever given up its position of power and its ownership of wealth without a struggle. The capitalists would not accept decisive change which challenged their rule through parliament. They would resort to extra-parliamentary means. In such a situation the present state would not be neutral. Its tops are tied by a thousand strings to the capitalists. In order for the working class to defend existing gains and to continue along the road to the socialist transformation which they most likely would have attempted to pursue through parliament, they would find it necessary to use other means.

In a revolutionary situation the working class will develop its own alternative organs of power. For a period these can co-exist with the old state and parliamentary institutions. Such a period of dual power is an either/or situation: either the working class will take power fully or the ruling class will continue to rule, most likely by military, not parliamentary means.

The Russian Revolution

This is the kernel, but it is far from all that needs to be said on the complex process of revolution and counter-revolution. To proclaim what is necessary is not the same as to lead the working class through this process to that point. Those who are unable to understand how combativity and consciousness develop, and how to adjust their programme and tactics accordingly, will play no leadership role. Your comments on the subject display a total ignorance of these matters.

Take your statement that “In a revolutionary situation every reactionary element will rally around the cry to defend the ‘institutions of parliamentary democracy.'” (11 January letter). This displays a simplified and idealistic view of revolution which befits an organisation that tends to divide all struggles into us – the SWP leading the working class – and them – everyone else! It misses out on the complex dialectic of revolution and counter-revolution.

In 1917 in Russia, the choice was not between the soviets on one side and the Provisional Government or a future Constituent Assembly on the other. The real choice was between the Soviets and a military regime. In August 1917, the Bolsheviks blocked with the Mensheviks and other parties to resist the attempted coup by General Kornilov and in so doing found themselves, in one sense, on the side of the Provisional Government of Kerensky in defence of the limited freedoms which had been won – in a sense “in defence of the institutions of bourgeois democracy.”

This united front was for a specific purpose: the Bolsheviks maintained their own organisation, their own programme and stayed out of the government. It did not mean they supported Kerensky. Rather, as Lenin put it, this action was “uncovering his weakness” by showing who was really prepared to go to the end to resist reaction. Their advice to the working class was to “use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov. Afterward we will settle with Kerensky.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. 2 [Sphere Books, 1967], p. 227). Their action forced the hand of other parties and prevented betrayal.

In a revolutionary situation when the masses are aroused it is no longer possible for the ruling class to rule as before. Even the limited democratic rights allowed under capitalism in more stable times became an unaffordable luxury in that they give the working class freedom to organise. Rather than rally in defence of democracy and parliament the ruling class is much more likely to move to curtail these institutions. Typically, in Spain in 1936 and again in Chile in 1973, they resorted to military methods. Under such conditions your crude formulations about parliament simply would not do.

Yes, in the last analysis it is a question of taking power into the hands of workers’ councils or soviets. But even in a revolutionary situation this demand has to be skilfully posed. For a period, it will be necessary to prepare for power, combining propaganda and action to build support and to demonstrate to the working class that only by taking powerdirectly will they find a way forward. Only when conditions are fully matured will it be possible to pose the question of power more bluntly in an either/or fashion before the masses.

This was the experience of the Bolsheviks in 1917. After the February revolution and the toppling of the Tsar there was a period of dual power. The powerful soviets which had sprung up during the revolution presented the outline of what could be a future workers’ state. Lenin’s position was to advocate that the working class complete the revolution and that all power be transferred to the soviets. His first task when he returned to Russia in April was to convince the Bolsheviks, especially the internal party leadership who had been wavering and were considering closer links with the Mensheviks. During the period following Lenin¹s return the Bolsheviks, although a minority in the soviets, put forward the slogan “all power to the soviets” and agitated in the factories and among the soldiers and sailors for this idea.

However, the conditions for a successful workers revolution had not yet matured among the peoples across the vast expanse of the old Tsarist empire. Among the broad mass of the working class, and especially among the peasantry, there were illusions in the Provisional Government and in the promise of a Constituent Assembly. The key agitational demands of the Bolsheviks had to take account of this: for example the call placed on the Provisional Government for the sacking of the capitalist ministers, in other words for a government of the workers’ parties. While the Bolsheviks, at this time, might have been able to take power in Petrograd and some other cities there was the danger that this revolution would be isolated and defeated. When, in July, sections of the working class and of the Petrograd garrison moved prematurely against the Provisional Government the Bolsheviks urged caution. They put themselves at the head of this movement, but in order to restrain it and allow it to retreat in good order.

The repression which came in the aftermath of the July Days was directed, among others, by Mensheviks who were both in the government and in the leadership of the Petrograd Soviet. Following this the slogan: “all power to the soviets” lost much of its immediate meaning. The key was to withstand the reaction and to build support in preparation for the next wave of the revolution.

Only in the latter stages of the revolution, when experience of the failure of the Kerensky government to deliver on any of its promises changed the consciousness, and when this was reflected in the growth of the Bolsheviks within the Soviets, did Lenin advance the slogan “all power to the soviets” as the immediate task.

If the issues of power to the soviets or workers’ councils has to be dealt with carefully and sensitively in a situation of dual power how much more so in a non-revolutionary situation in which there are not even elements of dual power. In such a period it is simply ridiculous to put forward as a slogan the smashing of parliament and its replacement with something which cannot be seen even in outline, not even by the most far-sighted sections of the working class.