Chris Harman


Bureaucratic strikes

(April 1984)

From Socialist Review, No. 64, April 1984, p. 34.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde for the Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Geoff Brown (Letters, Socialist Review 63) objects to talk of the ‘bureaucratic general strike’ on the grounds that the bureaucracy will never call a general strike unless it is forced to by rank and file pressure from below.

He argues that the general strike involves generalisation, whereas the whole basis of the bureaucracy is ‘sectionalism’.

Such an argument rests upon elementary – and very dangerous – mistakes.

The trade union bureaucracy does not just rest on sectionalism. It organises workers so that it can use them as a lever to gain things (reforms for them, positions for itself) within the existing system. Its whole existence depends upon it being able to mediate between workers’ organisations and the ruling class.

It has no future if such organisations do not exist. And so it has to fight against the most elementary of all forms of sectionalism, that in which each worker sees himself or herself simply as an individual competing with other individuals on the labour market. The union bureaucracy needs workers to generalise sufficiently for them to be organised.

If Geoff Brown doubts this, he should read any trade union journal, even the most ‘moderate’, and listen to the conference speeches of any trade union leader.

Of course the union leaderships want to restrict the scope of this generalisation. They want organisations they can control, not organisations which fall under the control of the rank and file. And so at the same time as encouraging a very limited form of generalisation, they also play up all sorts of sectional divisions.

But they are not always free agents. In so far as the bureaucrats succeed in crippling the fighting strength of workers, they encourage the ruling class to believe it can manage without their services. Then the bureaucracy has to try to show workers’ organisations still exist – if only to prove to the employers they still need it as a policeman.

And so trade union bureaucrats do call general strikes and do encourage the level of generalisation among workers needed to get them going.

In 1920, for instance, when the Kapp putsch threatened to destroy the power of the union bureaucracy in Germany, the conservative bureaucrat Legien called for a general strike.

In 1936 in Spain, the bureaucrat Caballero went even further when faced with a fascist uprising – he called for the arming of the working class.

So far Len Murray has been able to avoid such extreme measures. But he did storm out of a meeting with Thatcher last month and call for a half-day of strike action over GCHQ. Socialists could not simply pretend that call had not come. We had to recognise Murray’s very dubious motives in calling it. We had to realise that if it turned from token action into real struggle, Murray would soon be doing his utmost to bring it to an end. We had to fight for rank and file activists to organise independently of Murray, although under the cloak of the official call. But we had to take it seriously.

If Geoff Brown’s argument were taken to its logical conclusion we would end up with a position some ultra-lefts did adopt in Germany in 1920. People who called themselves ‘left’ communists issued a leaflet in Hamburg saying ‘the general strike is general nonsense’.

The result was that strike action in Hamburg was very limited and very much under the control of Legien and his bureaucracy. By contrast, in places like the Ruhr or Chemnitz where revolutionaries had a more realistic approach, they succeeded in turning the strike into an armed uprising which went completely out of Legien’s hands.

We have to make sure that if the pressure of the Tories ever forces Murray to call a bureaucratic general strike, he too finds he cannot control the forces he has conjured up.

Last updated on 5 October 2019