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Alex Callinicos

Pickets and ballots

(May 1984)

From Socialist Review, No. 65, May 1984, p. 15.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The class war makes strange bedfellows. Alex Callinicos looks at some of the people who have been caught out by the miners’ strike.

A sharp rise in the level of class struggle puts socialist ideas to the test. The present miners’ strike is a good example. Six months ago it was easy enough to waffle on about the evils of Thatcherism. It didn’t mean anything in practice. But now every political current within the working class movement can be judged on the basis of what they are doing to help the miners win. Nothing has more effectively exposed Neil Kinnock than his public vacillations over the strike and private support for a ballot.

The miners’ strike has put self-proclaimed revolutionaries to the test as well as the Labour leadership. Its effect on many of the entrists within the Labour Party has been to encourage them to liquidate themselves even further into the Labour left. In the case of Socialist Action some spurious rationale for this liquidationism is provided by the claim that a ‘class struggle left wing’ represented by Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn and the left Labour councils is now taking the offensive against the Tories.

Party and sect

The strike also poses problems for revolutionaries organising outside the Labour Party. One way of illustrating this problem is to draw on the distinction, first drawn by the Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov at the turn of the century, between propaganda and agitation. Propaganda, Plekhanov said, is many ideas to few people, agitation is few ideas to many people.

The contrast, then, is between presenting the totality of revolutionary socialist politics and organising around some concrete partial demands (higher wages, no sackings, etc.) which can draw workers into struggle. The test of a revolutionary organisation lies in its ability to connect propaganda and agitation, for it is only through workers’ involvement in struggle, provoked by some specific grievance, that they become open to revolutionary socialism.

This distinction permits us to draw the dividing line between a party and a sect. A party engages in both propaganda and agitation, because its orientation is on workers in struggle, while a sect restricts itself to propaganda, preaching only to the converted.

This said, it is still true that the precise balance between propaganda and agitation varies according to the objective situation. Thus, in the past few years, the Socialist Workers Party has concentrated primarily on propaganda (weekly political discussion meetings etc.). This has not been out of choice but because the downturn in class struggle has meant that there have been comparatively few strikes to which to relate. The situation has now shifted somewhat, with the slightly more militant mood among sections of workers shown by the GCHQ strike, and of course, by the battle in the coalfields. The question is now, without abandoning the strong emphasis on politics of the past few years, to lay a greater stress on agitation.

It’s important to understand that agitation is not the same as activity. It is quite possible to be extremely active, without raising socialist politics at all. For example, one can work very hard raising money for the miners, taking strikers round to different workplaces and so on, without having the necessary political arguments about the need for rank and file control of the strike, a high level of picketing, stopping coal entering the steel plants, and so on. Mindless activism and abstract propaganda go hand in hand.

A good illustration of this general truth is the Revolutionary Communist Party. This organisation has in the past been fairly contemptuous of trade union struggles, on the grounds that until the mass of workers have broken from their reactionary and reformist beliefs strikes are of little meaning. So they have preferred instead to work around issues like Ireland and racism. This approach is a classic example of propagandism. It is only when workers are drawn into struggle around the economic issues directly relevant to their lives that they will begin to break the hold of bourgeois ideology on their consciousness.

At any rate, it has penetrated even to the RCP that the miners’ strike is important. The April issue of their paper, The Next Step, reports their activities around the strike under the headline: The RCP hits the pits. Elsewhere in the same issue an editorial denounces reformism of the Labour Party: ‘The prevailing strategy of Labourism avoids the question of power and dissipates energy in a vain battle to reform the system.’

It comes as some surprise, then, to discover that these ultra-revolutionaries actually agree with Neil Kinnock (and Ian MacGregor and Margaret Thatcher) in calling for a national strike ballot. Yet there it is in black and white in the RCP’s ‘strike special’, The miners’ next step. RCP leader Mike Freeman writes:

‘The Revolutionary Communist Party is in favour of a national ballot because it can become the focus for stepping up the strike action. Campaigning for support for an all-out stoppage can go hand-in-hand with extending picketing and sympathetic action. A campaign around the national ballot is the only way to ensure rank and file control over the dispute.’

As the last sentence indicates, the RCP have grasped the central problem of the strike – the mismanagement of the broad left leadership of the national union and of the militant areas (Yorkshire, Scotland, South Wales and Kent). But to imagine that a ballot will solve the problem is ludicrous.

This is not to make opposition to strike ballots a matter of principle – for socialists, as for the employers, a ballot is a weapon in the class struggle, to be used where appropriate and not otherwise. Is it appropriate now? The answer is, most obviously, no. A ballot would not, as Freeman suggests, ‘heal the divisions’ between Nottinghamshire and the militant areas. On the contrary, given the low involvement of even striking miners in picketing, given the large-scale scabbing which has now gone on for nearly two months, given the press campaign which undoubtedly would be mounted for a No vote, the result might well be a defeat for the militants and an even more divided union.

The key to achieving ‘rank and file control of the dispute’ lies in encouraging organisation and initiatives from below, independently of left as well as right officials. Waverers and scabs will be won over only through the example of decisive action which draws far larger numbers of miners in picketing, and ends such scandals as the agreements which are keeping the big steel plants operating.

The RCP’s support for a ballot is a logical consequence of their propagandist politics. Problems are not judged in the light of the concrete needs of the struggle, but through abstract theorising. The result is that the RCP, who have always made a great deal of their supposedly highly ‘orthodox’ Marxism, end up taking an essentially liberal stance towards the most important strike of the decade.

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