Wisconsin: Why a general strike hasn't happened yet...

Wisconsin: Why a general strike hasn't happened yet...

An attempt to identify some factors that have prevented a general strike from breaking out in Wisconsin.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, a general strike is probably not going to happen in Wisconsin. Maybe it never was, but what is commonly identified as the high point is past and a major demobilization has happened. This high point was when the bill was jammed through and people forced themselves in the capitol. This was also the point when the crowd calls for a general strike were the loudest. In my opinion, if walkouts, occupations or strikes were to have happened in this atmosphere, it could have snowballed, at least in the public sector.

I’ve been really busy and involved in a lot of stuff or secondarily involved through conversation in other stuff, so it’s been hard to take a step back and see where we’re at, but it’s something I’m trying to do. Also, being around mostly only people that are for a general strike probably doesn’t give me the full picture. That said, I think there’s some general observations on why a general strike has not happened.

1)Inexperience and fear - One of the most common responses to taking job actions is “But we can’t strike, it’s illegal” or “I’ll get fired”. The law, rather than looked at as a set of rules that are enforced in proportion to the amount of people willing to abide by them, is looked at as if it is some invisible force field, enforced by the gods, which makes it physically impossible for one to do something contrary to it. This is of course related to us not having ever been in a situation like this. Years and years of relative labor peace in combination with atomization on the job and in wider society has encouraged these attitudes.

At this weekend’s Labor Notes Troublemaker’s School, printouts of what I believe was the South Central Federation of Labor’s general strike info packet was freely distributed at the IWW table. The first and only section that ran out of copies were those on legal rights, and it wasn’t even close. I think that says a lot about where we are/were. At a leftist Labor event, which is going to have a pretty high number of active militants, the number one worry is on legal issues, not on how to actually carry one out, how other places have done it or what a general strike actually is, which by the way, are all issues that have needed greater clarity.

2)Looking for strong leaders/Seeing a general strike as something outside one’s self - The following is a part of a piece on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee occupation:

Yet within much of the assembled body of students, a general strike was not understood as something that everyone would have to create together, a festival of disruption, but rather as something that would just happen; a disheartening attitude that reduces the likelihood of a meaningful and widespread stoppage.

I think, that among many of those who had been considering the possibility of a general strike, this was a common sentiment. It was almost viewed as something outside one’s own agency. Or something to be started by someone else or called by some official higher up.

3)Lack of clarity on the relationship to formal union structures - Should we attempt to put pressure on union officials/bodies to pass resolutions or act in a certain way? Or should we bypass these structures and build our own networks of pro-strike militants within the public sector unions? It seems I’ve seen or heard more of the former and less of the latter. I’ve never had a union job nor public sector job, so I’m not one who could really say which would have been or will be more effective, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot and a question we have to debate amongst ourselves and come to some sort of outlook on.

4)The Recall and Electoral Politics - While I’m sure there’s many, even on the radical left, that may disagree with me on this, I’m absolutely against the recall as a tactic. I know I’ve heard what some may see as a compromise of both the recall effort and wider agitation around striking being used, but I don’t think it works like that. Electoral politics does not act in a way that is complimentary to working class self-activity and self-organization. It is a co-opting force that clears the discourse for its path to supremacy. For every dollar donated to a Democratic politician, that is one less for a strike fund or bail money. For every hour spent traveling to different districts to gather signatures for a recall petition, that is one less hour one could have spent agitating in their workplace and community for something bigger and better.

Not only that, but the recall has a good chance of not even producing results. There is a real possibility that the same number of current Democrats and Republicans could be recalled, leading to absolutely no change in the political party composition of the state senate. Also, as of now, to my knowledge, there is no proposed Democratic candidate that has said that they will run if a Republican gets recalled, much less has said if they would kill the bill on collective bargaining. Also, notice, I haven’t mentioned the non-collective bargaining aspects of Walker’s agenda.....

5)’Massification’ of Opposition - It's been a much commented aspect of this movement that many other groups or sectors of workers have not had their issues heard or have lacked their involvement. Walker’s agenda includes devastating cuts that would disproportionately affect people of color, women & single parents, those on state healthcare, the poor & unemployed, and students.

Yet, as far as involvement in the protests go, some of these groups, although their material interests are much more threatened than public sector workers, have not been involved really at all or their specific issues are being ignored or not brought up.

I think there’s a lot of reasons for this: earlier defeats in these communities, lack of organized left presence, the impression of the protests as a ‘white people’ thing or ‘public sector worker’ thing, the movements cozy relationship (in both rhetoric and attitude) to the police, etc, but it’s a problem. If those with the most to lose see no interest in struggle, it leaves the potential for action on the shoulders of those with the least to lose.

Anyway, despite these shortcomings, there’s been a lot of amazing activity and agitation done by both individuals and groups (formal and informal). Most of us, young and old, have to make stuff up as we go, as there really isn’t much to base how we do things on. This is an unfamiliar situation. The fact that a general strike was even in the national dialogue would have been unthinkable even 3-4 months ago. Also an important thing to remember, is that we working class militants are a small minority, and a lot of our efforts have been spent on just basic infrastructure and propagandizing, both extremely important activities to be engaged in and major contributors to the fact this situation even occurred.

Even if a general strike does not happen, what has occurred in Wisconsin could be the start of an upsurge in worker resistance. People are talking and they are thinking. They are considering things that haven't been considered in a lifetime. We should recognize and appreciate this. And think about what we can do to intensify and encourage future activity.

Posted By

Juan Conatz
Apr 4 2011 05:34


Attached files


gram negative
Apr 4 2011 06:25

thanks for writing this up

Juan Conatz
Apr 4 2011 07:15

No problem. Finally had a little time and this stuff has been going through my head for about a week now. Feels better to commit it to digital ink...

I didn't think it fit in this, but this whole situation has influenced my politics significantly. Particularly on the question of the potential of the mainstream unions and their apparatus (they're more disorganized than I would have ever thought and what organization is there exists to kill off self-activity for the most part).

Also, I'm really, really skeptical about the point and purpose of political organizations. I think I was headed in that direction anyway, but being in Madison has kinda solidified it. They have been pretty much irrelevant in all their forms whether socialist or anarchist. You even see it in the street and who people are more inclined to listen to. I think a lot of people have paid attention to the IWW because, however small we are, we are still a union, which I think to people, means we do shit. The political organizations seem to be more ignored, and I think the sentiment is because they are ideologues who have no attachment to real life struggles.

In any case, my experience here has made the Brighton SolFed's conception of the political-economic organization much more appealing. I am no longer convinced that there should be a separation of the two spheres, and from what I've seen, generally, there are little benefits.

Apr 4 2011 08:56

Thanks for writing this up, very interesting.

I will post some more general thoughts later when I have some more time, but in terms of your statement around the two approaches of building for a general strike:
- the standard Trotskyist/left bureaucratic way, of attempting to get motions passed or left officials elected via official union channels for
- the anarchist/libcom way of attempting to build organisation and militancy at the base.

You state that you are not sure which will have been more effective. Well I am a union member in a public sector job. In my union, Unison, a bunch of left branches send resolutions to national conference calling for a one-day general strike (some were only calling for a one-day strike of the whole union). These were all blocked from the agenda on the basis that they would put the union "in legal jeopardy".

Effective action is against the law. To win we have to go beyond it, and if we base our activity around doing things through official channels, we basically give people faith in these official channels which all lead to a dead-end.

Juan Conatz
Apr 4 2011 09:03

I agree with you actually. I guess I should say that I originally started writing this for an internal list before deciding to put it on the blog instead. That part was not changed to reflect this and represents me trying to be respectful to those who might disagree, while trying to provoke a discussion on why they do....

Chilli Sauce
Apr 4 2011 17:11

Yeah, Juan, this is great (and not only because the more N. American Wobs we have embracing the SolFed model, the better wink ). Thanks for writing it up.

Perhaps a submission for the IW?

Juan Conatz
Apr 5 2011 04:49

Comment from Facebook I thought was worth crossposting

I think the author is correct to point out that the question of legality is very high on people's lists. But he fails to explain why that might be, and instead claims that it is merely a failure to recognize that law is "a set of rules tha...t are enforced in proportion to the amount of people willing to abide by them" (by the way, a questionable proposition in itself...for instance, marijuana laws are enforced to the devastation of working class communities despite the fact that the law is broken by large numbers of people every day).

The legal question of conducting a general strike is not whether the state will be carting people off to jail by the thousands . . . it's the virtual certainty that employers (including public employers) will be able to sue unions with whom they have contracts and get judges to issue injunctions against the strikes, accompanied by hefty fines on the unions themselves for non-compliance. In the 2005 NYC transit union strike, the union was fined 2.5 million dollars for violating New York's Taylor Act, which makes it unlawful for public employees to strike. Every state has some equivalent to the Taylor Act that serves the same function. Private sector employers would be able to bring legal actions based on violations of no-strike provisions in contracts, and could sue for injunctive relief relative to the damages that they would claim they would suffer.

That is not to say that a general strike shouldn't happen...that unions shouldn't decide to take the risks involved and that workers shouldn't decide to participate on their own. But I would predict that before we see a national general strike on the scope that we had hoped/imagined as the Wisconsin situation emerged, we will first see some more militant union locals and groups of workers wildcatting . . . in effect testing the system, developing cogent legal responses, and seeing how far employers and the legal system itself can be pushed by massive strike action.

Apr 5 2011 06:29

Hi comrades,

Thank you for writing your perspective on Wisconsin. I was also able to go there and although I am not a Wob I spent the majority of my time with the IWW. I was there when the Dems came back and there was a tractorcade around the Capitol-maybe we saw each other?

There are a few different issues that you bring up: leadership and working class self-activity. These are the two missing pieces of Wisconsin. On the one hand the "leadership" is running people back to work when strikes, direct actions, walk-outs, occupations etc are whats necessary to defeat this bill and start to go on the offensive in this aptly termed Class War.

The Dems want a Recall and Walker is the "bad cop" that helps make their relection possible and seals the deal for the concessions the Dems and labor bureaucracy is eager to give. But why would we be against a Recall on principle? Recalling is a great gain workers made to be able to kick out "leaders" and in any case I think we need more than economic power but political power. If we had a slate that for example took over the seats the Democrats had while they were gone and then had a Recall campaign to get rid of the Republicans this would be an extremely radical step. They could run on a No Cuts, No Concessions, Tax the Rich, Workers Power platform. This is a way of promoting workers leadership politically. At the same time we could be participating in our unions adn workers organizations to have a double effect. Strikes in teh streets and political take overs. I think we will need to have this kind of approach when fighting for workers power.

The rank and file have not has as much experience in breaking with the leadership and for decades faced defeats. The leftists there could take on smaller winnable victories that unite the workign class. For example, the Immigrant Workers Union (UTI) which has socialists in it could unite with the IWW and call for an end to on the spot ID checks which cause many people to get deported. In Los Angeles (my city) we have Special order 40 which has kept the police from being able to report people to La Migra. You could call for an adoption of that. You could also attack Walker for his anti-immigrant stance and forcing undocumented students to pay out of state tuition costs from the bill.

I would argue that its not true that there were no Black people at the protests. There were definately a few and I met some. Mikwalee is a large Black city in Wisconsin which a high incarceration and poverty rate not to mention other things. The unions must orient towards the private sector and stop supporting concessions! These concesssions alienate people who receive social services and see that the union doesnt have their back. If the union does not call for (for example) job training programs and call out the "Cops for Labor" for a racist history of brutality then we are lost. Black youth were present and walked out. I have a 1:30 video here that I took.


Also, the workers who have played the most militant role are workers from majority women's unions and professions yet I do not see this reflected in the membership of the IWW for example. That orientation has to be made. I spoke with members about this and they seemed open to criticism and making efforts.

Participating in elections that this was the group that pushed throughthe South Central Fed resolution in education on a General Strike if the Bill passed. Goodwork on that! Lets get May 1st organized!! Another huge General Strike like the immigrants did in 06!

Juan Conatz
Apr 5 2011 07:42

If you are who I think you are, not only did we see each other, but we talked numerous times, are Facebook friends and exchanged phone numbers!

But why would we be against a Recall on principle? Recalling is a great gain workers made to be able to kick out "leaders" and in any case I think we need more than economic power but political power. If we had a slate that for example took over the seats the Democrats had while they were gone and then had a Recall campaign to get rid of the Republicans this would be an extremely radical step. They could run on a No Cuts, No Concessions, Tax the Rich, Workers Power platform. This is a way of promoting workers leadership politically. At the same time we could be participating in our unions adn workers organizations to have a double effect. Strikes in teh streets and political take overs. I think we will need to have this kind of approach when fighting for workers power.

If the electoral system was something that worked in a way that promoted horizontalism and worker's self-activity I would probably at least consider the recall. But that's not how electoral politics works and it really isn't having that effect here. I don't think capitalism can be voted away. I don't think so-called worker's parties are any different than the Republicans and Democrats who are pushing these vicious cuts. The problem isn't the leadership, the problem is that capitalism is a system that has limitations and allows only for certain things. A Green, socialist or leftist state senate is still faced with the need to push these cuts. Some of the largest assaults on the working class are coming from self-proclaimed socialist parties in Europe. In any case, there are far more eloquent pieces written by much better writers than I out there against using the ballot box.

The rank and file have not has as much experience in breaking with the leadership and for decades faced defeats. The leftists there could take on smaller winnable victories that unite the workign class. For example, the Immigrant Workers Union (UTI) which has socialists in it could unite with the IWW and call for an end to on the spot ID checks which cause many people to get deported.

I don't disagree with this. I think you're right. We need to be taking on smaller organizing campaigns, and this is starting to happen as all the stuff around the bills has been redirected towards funding campaigns, gathering recall petitions and waiting for candidates to come forward.

As far as UTI is concerned, I don't know much about them other than they are somehow related to the International Marxist Tendency or at least one of the most active members is. Haven't had a chance to talk to him as much as others. I don't even know what they do in Madison or how big they are.

I would argue that its not true that there were no Black people at the protests. There were definately a few and I met some.

Just to be clear, I wasn't trying to say they weren't there. If you got this impression, that certainly wasn't my intention. I was just pointing out that in proportion to the ferocity of the attacks on them, they weren't. And certainly the issues that hit em the hardest were not being addressed in any large, meaningful way. I mean, I'm staying a little ways from the capitol, and I can go to the gas station, stop at Burger King, get some cigarettes from the liquor store and see more blacks and latino/as than at some of the days of the protests. There's a lot of reasons for this.. but im just sayin

Also, the workers who have played the most militant role are workers from majority women's unions and professions yet I do not see this reflected in the membership of the IWW for example.

For sure. The Nurses United are basically the only union I know of who has called for a refusal of all cuts and concessions. AFSCME 171 members were heavily involved in the SCFL general strike resolution, but I'm not sure if they are majority female or not. Of course, whether they are or not, the IWW's demographics don't reflect that, but really I'm not sure that matters as much as some of these bigger unions/movement as a whole at this point.

Apr 5 2011 16:22

The locals here in Madison with the university employees are mostly (maybe 60%) women. AFSCME locals 171 and 2412 formed a combined rank-and-file committee called the "education committee". They held joint membership meetings during the height of the protests. Since then these efforts have been dissolved.

I've lived and worked in Madison here for a many years and was even a member of Local 171 for a short period of time in the blue collar trades section back in the nineties. My whole family is in these unions.

Caving to the concessions from the start and then inundating people with electioneering and rhetoric about the "middle class" is a surefire way to alienate any minority, or working poor white person. I know it has always alienated me.

I got the impression from talking to people at the protests that a strike was largely an unknown quantity for people who would be more comfortable with sticking to the usual familiar politics of elections and union activism. Something familiar that doesn't work seems preferable to many, as opposed to something that may or may not work that is wholly unfamiliar and outside of their experience. These people I spoke with learned back in the seventies and eighties that all strikes will always fail. There were bitter defeats in those days for workers, the Hortonville teachers strike, the Racine teachers strike, the Schneider Trucking Company strike the Madison Newspaper strike, and the Stoughton Trailer strike all were defeated. I hope that this lesson in defeat is one lesson the working class kids today never learn.

Apr 5 2011 17:50

Just in response to the point about running for election to change something, as Juan points out: this is completely counter-productive.

In Wisconsin you happen to have a right wing governor, however elsewhere across the world anti-worker austerity packages are being put in place by governments left and right, Conservative and socialist (and communist in Cuba's case) - especially here in Europe

Juan Conatz
Apr 5 2011 18:00

This has also been posted on the Maoist-flavored Kasama Project site http://kasamaproject.org/2011/04/04/wisconsin-why-a-general-strike-hasnt-happened-yet/

Apr 5 2011 19:28


Something familiar that doesn't work seems preferable to many, as opposed to something that may or may not work that is wholly unfamiliar and outside of their experience.

This is the basis of all revolutionary perspectives, all attempts to break with the past, and should be writ large over all the threads on libcom, and on all the walls of all the cities, towns and villages. Very succinct. Familiarity breeds contempt. Unfamiliarity breeds progress.

Just to add though, "Will alone is not enough to confront the enemy and to remove fear . One must consider the examples, the reasons, that can convince one to go forward, that one will gain pride as a winner, whereas in retreat one can only expect shame and regret..." (Descartes) (from memory, probably not exact).

Apr 5 2011 20:17

When you ask why a general strike hasn't happened yet does that imply that you think one is still likely to happen? Was it ever likely to happen?


Juan Conatz
Apr 5 2011 20:35

Was it ever going to happen? I don't think I can answer that question really. This is a situation I have nothing to compare it to or measure it against. Here are some of the reasons people saw it was a possibility.

1)A local labor federation passed an endorsement about the idea of a general strike, formed an education committee that got together a packet about a general strike and distributed it to its affiliate unions. Also asked others to pass the same resolution.

2)'Factions' for a strike emerged in at least a couple of the public sector unions.

3)People outside the radical left groups were chanting for it, carrying signs advocating for it

4)On the street level, it was in the dialogue of the protests

Might it still happen? Again, it's hard for me to answer that. Despite some of the optimism of a couple comrades, I don't think so.

Apr 5 2011 22:57
Marx wrote:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,1852)

The situation in Wisconsin has come full circle, with the tragedy begun by Republican "Fighting Bob" La Follette being realized with the farce of Republican Scott Walker.

La Follette was part of the Progressive Movement whose political career as Wisconsin's liberal U.S. Senator paralleled the history of the Industrial Workers of the World. The IWW was founded in Chicago in 1905; Bob La Follette was elected Senator the next year, serving until his death in 1925. Not that Bob hadn't been part of many of the good fights, having been a District Attorney, serving three terms in the House of Representatives, and a term as the Governor of Wisconsin; in those positions he distinguished himself by standing up for Native and African American rights, opposition to World War I, and fighting the monopolies and trusts that were gaining increasing control over government.

But it was the Progressive Movement that tried to channel class-against-class battles, that had marked class relations in the U.S. since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, into assimilationist ideas of "Americanism" through democratizing the political processes. These mostly Republican Progressives introduced reforms like the Initiative, Referendum and Recall; they pushed for direct primaries and women's suffrage (while often denying blacks access to the voting booth for "corruption"; women's suffrage was finally realized with the 19th Amendment in 1920). They launched clean city campaigns to break the machine politics of ethnic patronage practiced by the Democratic Party, demanding "efficiency" in politics (presaging Reagan and Thatcher's open attacks on corrupt governments -- that they themselves led). In demanding universal education, they were the first to push for standardized testing and compulsory education for all children.

Progressive ideas were embodied in the assimilationist attempts to Americanize immigrants through social work and English-language classes. Jane Addams' Hull House in Chicago was the archetypal example of this elitist, middle class ideology to clean up slums and raise standards of living.

Progressives also pushed for prohibition, successfully passing the 18th Amendment in 1919 which banned alcohol until it was repealed in 1933. Anti-Trust laws reigned in the monopolies, but Progressives saw the revolutionary threat of groups like the IWW and encouraged acceptance of Sam Gompers racist craft unions of the AFL instead.

So in summary, the Progressive Movement that began in Wisconsin was an attempt to pacify class struggle and recuperate it into reformist deadends which only strengthen the power of the ruling class. The whole Progressive agenda was making capitalism appear fair and reasonable by integrating the working class into bourgeois institutions and it was the beginning of the contemporary myth of the U.S. being a classless society. Governor Scott Walker is just the latest installment of this farce, pushing fascistic attacks on a working class that, in failing to conceive itself as such, lacks the class consciousness to fight back -- having been weened on the Progressive mythology.

Hence the union piecards all bleating on and on about Walker destroying "middle class jobs." What they're really talking about is their 6-figure middle class jobs, the description of which is to obey labor law (by preventing strikes and dampening militancy), wave American flags, and channel dues payers' money to the Democratic Party. In the 2008 election cycle, unions donated $400,000,000 to the election industry -- the SEIU gave $85,000,000 to the Obama campaign alone -- with most going to Democratic class enemies, with some going to Republican class enemies. Remember that novelist Gore Vidal said: "In the U.S. we have one party, with two right wings." I'd add to that: one is pro-business, the other is anti-labor. As Juan Conatz point out above, think of how all that money could be used in strike funds and for bail (so as not to have to buy bail bonds; the total bail amount could be put up).

But working class participation in the election industry in the U.S. -- and in most places, for that matter -- is simply jockeying for influence with our class enemies. It's just made worst in the U.S. because it's simply a racket like any other, with it's winner-take-all rules and with the undemocratic Electoral College in presidential races. Questions challenging American exceptionalism (or promoting it, like Mike Davis' Prisoners of the American Dream) always beg the question: "why is there no socialism in America?" To me, the best answer I've ever read is from Alan Dawley, who in his book Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn, puts it this way:

Dawley wrote:
My own preference [to answer the question] was for the idea that the free gift of the ballot to white men had dampened their ardor for radical political change...

"The ballot box was the coffin of class consciousness"

Further histories from below bear this out, how enfranchisement in the political system can't be disentangled with the legacy of white supremacy and class collaboration amongst the white working class.

Anyway, why would we want to compete with our class enemies to run a bourgeois state? Didn't Marx and Engels themselves write:

Communist Manifesto wrote:
The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

Even Milton Friedman, riffing on Adam Smith, comes on board for this:

Friedman wrote:
As Friedman puts it, the state is "essential both as a forum for determining the 'rules of the game' and as an umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided upon" and enforcement is necessary "on the part of those few who would otherwise not play the game." That is to say, "the organization of economic activity through voluntary exchange presumes that we have provided, through government, for the maintenance of law and order to prevent coercion of one individual by another, the enforcement of contracts voluntarily entered into, the definition of the meaning of property rights, the interpretation and enforcement of such rights, and the provision of a monetary framework." The state has to "promote competition" and do for the market what the market "cannot do for itself" (excerpted from Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, 1962)

But the Leninist left has more in common with Friedman -- and with Engels at the end of his life, when he wrote (in the Preface to the 1886 English edition of Volume I of Capital): "social revolution might be effected entirely by... legal means," meaning that, breaking with the ideas of Marx, he came to believe that socialism can be achieved through "parliamentary struggle." This faith in the neutrality of the state can be summed up in one word: reformism.

He wasn't the first to come out of the 19th century European workers' movement to believe in the reformability of capital. Ferdinand Lassalle had come to the same conclusions much earlier. Lassalle's erroneous "iron law of wages" held that the amount paid to a worker was equal to what was necessary for her/his "subsistence" and would never be any higher. Lassalle rejected that strikes were of any importance, instead positing that the ballot box was the only instrument for lifting the "yoke of capital" from labor, since it alone would enable workers to establish producers' cooperatives with state aid, enabling them to raise out of wage slavery into socialism. Reformist schemes like this pushed an enraged Marx to denounce their liberalism in his brilliant "Critique of the Gotha Program," detailing how Lassalle's descendants were betraying the revolutionary aspirations of the working class.

Even the Constitution of the Workingmen's Party of the United States, one of the key participants of which was Marx's close comrade Friedrich Sorge, made clear the class struggle position in this document:

WPUS wrote:


Considering, That in this country the ballot box has long ago ceased to record the popular will, and only serves to falsify the same in the hands of professional politicians


Considering, That the corruption and mis-application of the ballot box was well as the silly reform movement flourish most in the years of presidential elections, at such time greatly endangering the organization of workingmen;

For these reasons the Union Congress meeting at Philadelphia this 22nd day of July 1876, Resolved,

The sections of this party as well as all workingmen in general are earnestly invite to abstain from all political movement from the present and to turn their back on the ballot box.

The Workingmen will therewith save themselves bitter disappointments, and their time and efforts will be directed far better towards the organization of the workingmen, which organization is frequently destroyed and always injured by a hasty political movement.

Let us bide our time! It will come!

[the use of sexist language, while dated, is unacceptable]

Lassalle's influence was very formative to the ideology of the Bolsheviks, which the left around the world accepts uncritically.

Here's what Loren Goldner said in an interview South Korean left communist comrades from Korean Socialist Workers Newspaper Group (SaNoShin):

Goldner wrote:
... I think it's very important that Lassalle was viewed as a precursor. At the 1924 congress of the Comintern, according to Max Eastman, there were three big pictures behind the speaker's stand -- Marx, Engels and Lassalle. I think it shows how Lassalle was viewed that late as a revolutionary who had contributed to the development of the working class movement. In fact it was Lassalle, not Lenin, who was the first person to argue that the revolutionary party should be a special military party of professional revolutionaries. And because Lassalle was eliminated from the revolutionary pantheon, starting in the mid 1920s, his great influence on the Russian movement is not widely appreciated. After the 1924 congress, it was at that time when they discovered the documents that showed that Lassalle had been meeting secretly with Bismarck. Again I'm not sure about the dates there but it was after 1924 that Lassalle was forgotten. He went into the unmentionable file. But the important thing is that Lassalle played a very important role in the development of the Russian revolutionary tradition before the introduction of Marxism, and certainly before the appearance of Bolshevism. I don't think there is time to talk about every aspect of it now, but I think the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia had a very unusual evolution relative to the western European capitalist countries. Are you familiar with Nechaev?

SaNoShin: Yes.

LG: Nechaev in the 1870s wrote his "Revolutionary Catechism", and it said the revolutionary has no friends, the revolutionary has no romantic attachments, the revolutionary lives for only one thing which is the destruction of the existing world, and I'm sure I'm forgetting other things. And as you may know the Russian writer Dostoevskii wrote a very powerful novel called "The Devils" (or "The Possessed") which portrays this mentality of the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia before Marxism, and before Bolshevism in which clandestine groups of revolutionary intellectuals are sitting around and saying, "Well of course we will have to kill millions of people to build the perfect world." So the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia repudiated Nechaev and Nechaev's specific activities. On the other hand, the mentality I think, pervaded the revolutionary milieu there.

SaNoShin: In Korea we had similar influence.

LG: Really? Like the NL faction?

So Victor Serge again, reports that in 1920, 1921, in the first congresses of the Comintern, when communist delegates came from other parts of the world, there was no one who compared to the Russian revolutionary intelligentsia in terms of experience and attitude. And I think we can all agree that Nechaev's "Revolutionary Catechism" has nothing to do with a Marxist view of the revolutionary individual. I think that in the creation of Bolshevism, was this influence of a very unique evolution of Russian revolutionary intelligentsia, the influence of Lassalle, not Marx and that even when the Russian revolutionary tradition was talking an exclusively Marxist language, this other element was always present. When Lenin wrote "What is to be done?", he argued that real class consciousness..., that the working class struggle, the spontaneous struggle of the working class could never go beyond trade union consciousness and that revolutionary consciousness was embodied in this special stratum of revolutionaries. It's like what I was saying earlier, that the Bolshevik party embodies the revolution, they were the revolution and people who criticized them were counter-revolutionaries. There was this dualism in Lenin's view between the reformist, trade unionist practice of the working class and the revolutionary perspective of the party and that without that special body of professionals, the working class would never go beyond trade union reformist practice. Then came 1905 and the creation of soviets and workers' councils and it was clear that, because the soviets and workers' councils were not created by Bolsheviks, that the whole view was wrong! I think it's really important and I presume you agree that the soviets and the workers' councils were not a discovery of any theoretician. They were the discovery of the practical activity of the working class. So when Lenin published "What is to be done?", Rosa Luxemburg was not the only critic of what he said.

And if we want to critique the limitations of a general strike in Wisconsin, would couldn't do better than a careful reading of Rosa Luxemburg's The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, that was published in 1906 as a detailed account of the wave of economic and political strikes that, beginning in 1896 in Russia and Poland, culminated in the St. Petersburg Soviet in 1905.

Richard Myers
Apr 6 2011 10:34

I'm a former factory worker (33 years), and currently a labor historian. In my view, absent some calamity significantly worse than Wisconsin, a general strike isn't at all likely until workers' consciousness and awareness are changed. I'm not downplaying Wisconsin, it is bad. However, working people outside these areas aren't adequately shocked by what is happening to pay close attention, and even if they were, there isn't yet any sort of narrative tying together what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, Maine (with the mural), and other rollbacks of organized labor's gains.

If orthodox organized labor (which has control over considerable resources) is failing to successfully convey such a narrative, how might we expect radical labor -- which has significant energy, but very limited resources -- to do so?

Then there's also the issue that most workers don't see organized labor's gains as (potentially) their own gains. That's a serious problem, but at least a partial solution would come from solving the more basic problems that confront us.

We need to:

1) organize and grow.

2) crystallize for workers the essential difference between radical labor and orthodox labor.

What is that essential difference? In my view it is this:


We offer a framework (like orthodox unions) within which workers may fight for better wages, hours, and conditions. But we also offer the promise of a permanent solution to the problem of periodic or relentless attacks on working people and their right to organize.

Workers who are disenchanted with politicians, orthodox labor, or just the status quo in general, don't really see any alternative, and that's partly because they don't know the history of working people. That's true for a lot of reasons, including actions like what is happening in Maine, where a right wing politician has single-handedly removed a labor mural from public view. This should be a teaching moment -- not only could we use the action to teach about labor history, we could use it to demonstrate to working people one of the many ways their history is kept from them. In that sense, Maine should be considered as significant as Wisconsin.

A lot of theory is nice, but most working people don't really want theory, in my opinion. They want choices that they don't currently have, or don't currently know about.

We need to organize to give low wage/disenfranchised/itinerant workers, and those without the vote, some hope. There are tens of millions of these folks out there.

Then if we get people's attention on the simple choice of:

a) fighting forever, or

b) possibly succeeding and putting an end to constant struggles over working people's rights,

then we can teach them the other stuff along the way.

So, what could make our first job (organizing and growing) easier? Having some successes. The early successes that the IWW had (from approximately 1908 to 1912) were very important to working peoples' awareness of who/what we are, and we need something like that again.

How should that work? We should all do our best to support the organizing that we are doing, even as we watch for new opportunities.

That said, what difference do i see between the early history of the IWW, and the current possibilities? The early IWW was pervasively and falsely vilified by the mainstream media of the era, so when repression came, there was no help for it. Now (with the Internet) we have at least a possibility of crafting our own message, and having it get to the workers who want to know.

Apr 6 2011 16:24

I don't think that "the impression of the protests as a ‘white people’ thing or ‘public sector worker’ thing" is just an impression. You're right, austerity has been attacking working class people, not just the unions. It's been going on for years.

But tell me this, do you really think that the working class population of Wisconsin is going to risk their livelihoods so what they see as the most privileged group in their class: skilled, public sector, union workers can continue maintaining that privilege? The unions specifically made this a union struggle, they were willing to bend over backwards on everything else except their own right to exist as "collective bargaining" mediators. I'm from Michigan, and there was just a protest against the republican governor here in my home town because of a similar anti-union bill. 400 people came, and almost all of them were union workers or students/faculty. People don't come out to these things in mass, putting their livelihoods on the line, unless they perceive that they are being directly hurt. The fact that the unions have initiated and maintained control of almost the entire Wisconsin uprising is why people aren't being active. Not that their awareness or consciousness needs to be raised.

If this is going to change, we need to focus our energies on developing tactics that we find liberating to ourselves and that will inspire and enable other folks to act on their own behalf. A "general strike" that only union people would participate in is not that kind of tactic.

Juan Conatz
Apr 7 2011 04:11

From the Wisconsin Reddit page of this article

User A: forgot the point where the movement would lose the fringe support gained by the dirty politics. Innocent people will be hurt by a strike. Single moms will need to find places for their children. strikers will look like the bullies the opposition wants to paint them as. A strike would play right into Walker's hand

User B: Except that historically part of the process in striking is the workers finding ways to help support each other and their community outside of the previous labor dynamic?

User A: I'm not saying its not possible to pull it off, but the way the media works now (partisan as hell) the striking teachers or whoever is going to have to go waaayyyy out of their way to institute temporary programs to help out community members like baby sitting, day care and other services for children. Something that could be very difficult...

User B: I don't see it as going out of their way though. But of course I support a more radical approach to unionism than is typically supported. I find myself thinking more and more that the left in America should turn its eyes toward the Old Left of Spain in terms of working towards a complete social overturning of existing labor systems.

Awesome Dude
Apr 7 2011 17:21
Richard Myers wrote:
I'm a former factory worker (33 years), and currently a labor historian. In my view, absent some calamity significantly worse than Wisconsin, a general strike isn't at all likely until workers' consciousness and awareness are changed. I'm not downplaying Wisconsin, it is bad. However, working people outside these areas aren't adequately shocked by what is happening to pay close attention, and even if they were, there isn't yet any sort of narrative tying together what is happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, Maine (with the mural), and other rollbacks of organized labor's gains.

IMO If an effective general strike is to be imposed by workers it has to be proceeded by a wildcat strike movement. The role of the wildcat strike movement is to raise collective working class consciousness and awareness in workers of the powers at their disposal and the weaknesses of the enemy (hiding behind its' physical and spiritual instrument: the police and the law). The wildcat strike movement also has the advantage of being able to circumvent attempts by union bureaucratic attempts to bring it within its' control and thus back to the negotiating table with the capitalist class and its' state. Recent general strikes in Greece and Spain IMO largely failed because they were organised by union bureaucracy with in a bourgeois legal framework thus forcing workers to negotiate in a position of extreme weakness.

Nihilo Zero
Apr 9 2011 04:35

I agree with many of the sentiments in this piece, and particularly with the last line. But before the last line there was a lot unfounded negativity and defeatism. I mean what... there isn't going to be a general strike now? Aw shucks. How do you know?

Just as the protests raising the spectre of a general strike appeared suddenly and dramatically... so they could reappear in short order if the government keeps trying to push people too far. And do you doubt that it might?! Just wait til the news comes out that the Democrats or the union leadership has been working with the Governor all along. What do you think the prospects would be for a general strike then? But it wouldn't necessarily have to be that or anything directly related.

People have gotten a taste of the power they can exercise in mass protests -- and they very well may take it to the level in the not-so-distant future (for any number of conceivable and legitimate reasons). People in Wisconsin are still charged up -- they may not still be protesting in the streets, but the full fury of their passion could be unleashed when you or I least expect it. And I'm sure we both look forward to and encourage the possibility of that happening.

Don't lose faith and don't promote the idea for the bosses and the government that the General Strike has been defeated before it began. That has yet to be proven -- it's still likely to occur at some point in the future for one reason or another. And it's still quite likely to occur for the very same reasons that inspired the previous protests. Nothing has truly been resolved yet.

Nihilo Zero

Juan Conatz
Apr 10 2011 02:45

Thought I would crosspost this from ABC...since it addresses a little about what I've been thinkin in terms of our own limitations (something the article just briefly touches upon)

While I don't agree with the scathing and insulting rhetoric, during the whole time I've been here, I've thought about this part of Mouvement Communiste's piece on the movement against austerity in France.

"The general weakness of the movement leads to a political alternative: presidential elections of 2012. And this allows the socialist party to recover its innocence.

On the other hand, the stupid and frantic call for a “General Strike”, without taking into account any balance of power, from the SUD to the CNT via the NPA is another proof of the lack of understanding of what workers autonomy could be."

Lets be real. The ones calling for a general strike are also the ones with the weakest amount of workplace power. We pushed that message as far as we could. A significant minority accepted it as a concept and mimicked us, also calling for it. Some strike factions were started in the unions, they all failed. Some pushed for resolutions to pass, only 1 did. All the pro-general strike groups who actually did stuff (as opposed to most of the Trotskyist parties who were just weekend warriors) though, were extremely vague on actual steps. The most critical, in my opinion, is how to operate within the public sector unions. Would the leadership go along, if enough pressure was applied or should efforts go towards going outside that structure, building links across the unions, bypassing official bodies and taking up wildcat actions?

We were as successful as a propaganda group with limited on-the-ground power can be. Now we need to ask ourselves what we did right and what we did wrong. Could a general strike have even happened? If so, what would it have looked like? What concrete steps, if any, were we pushing to make it happen? Were they enough? Why or why not?

We have to learn from this. We are inexperienced. We have nothing to compare this to, so what we get from the struggle in Wisconsin will determine how we act in similar situations that are and will inevitably pop up in the near future.