The General Strike: An Incomplete Bibliography for Ambivalent Occupiers

The strike begins at the largest shipyard in Seattle, 1919.
The strike begins at the largest shipyard in Seattle, 1919.

With the attempted November 2, 2011 general strike looming, Ben Webster points out some lessons from past struggles to consider.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 7, 2012

Occupy Oakland’s call for a day-long general strike on November 2 has revived interest in the tactic, calls for which were also heard over the winter in Madison, Wisconsin. Yet the general strike is practically unknown today in the United States, functioning more as a rhetorical index of militancy than a serious proposal for unified action. In solidarity with this movement’s profound rupture in political language, we’ve selected a few important moments in the history of the concept to illustrate its potential directions.

A highly influential critique of the general strike is found in Rosa Luxemburg’s “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions” of 1906. Reflecting on the 1905 Russian Revolution, Luxemburg criticized the syndicalist conception of the general strike as a “pocketknife” that can merely be opened at any moment to achieve the revolution. Instead, she championed the “mass strike,” an unpredictably expanding movement of interconnected economic and political struggles circulating across society, exemplified by the events in Russia:

The general strikes of January and February broke out as unified revolutionary actions to begin with under the direction of the social democrats; but this action soon fell into an unending series of local, partial, economic strikes in separate districts, towns, departments and factories. Throughout the whole of the spring of 1905 and into the middle of the summer there fermented throughout the whole of the immense empire an uninterrupted economic strike of almost the entire proletariat against capital – a struggle which caught, on the one hand, all the petty bourgeois and liberal professions, commercial employees, technicians, actors and members of artistic professions – and on the other hand, penetrated to the domestic servants, the minor police officials and even to the stratum of the lumpenproletariat, and simultaneously surged from the towns to the country districts and even knocked at the iron gates of the military barracks.

This is a gigantic, many-coloured picture of a general arrangement of labour and capital which reflects all the complexity of social organisation and of the political consciousness of every section and of every district; and the whole long scale runs from the regular trade-union struggle of a picked and tested troop of the proletariat drawn from large-scale industry, to the formless protest of a handful of rural proletarians, and to the first slight stirrings of an agitated military garrison, from the well-educated and elegant revolt in cuffs and white collars in the counting house of a bank to the shy-bold murmurings of a clumsy meeting of dissatisfied policemen in a smoke-grimed dark and dirty guardroom.

Unlike the open-ended and deep-rooted Russian mass strike, Luxemburg wrote, a strike that is “born of pure discipline and enthusiasm will, at best, merely play the role of an episode, of a symptom of the fighting mood of working class upon which, however, the conditions of a peaceful period are reflected.”

But widespread strike action was not just a Russian phenomenon – the Russian Revolution of 1905 coincided with one of the most militant strike waves in American history. Perhaps the most significant general strike in American history occurred in Seattle in February 1919. All the city’s major unions, and crucially those in public utilities and transit, joined in a work stoppage with 35,000 striking ship-yard workers, effectively handing social control for a brief period to a General Strike Committee. A history produced by participants emphasized the novelty of this unified metropolitan work stoppage:

A general strike was seen, almost at once, to differ profoundly from any of the particular strikes with which the workers of Seattle were familiar. It was not enough, as some of the hasty enthusiasts declared, to “just walk out.” The strikers were at once brought face to face with the way in which the whole community, including their own families, is inextricably tied together. If life was not to be made unbearable for the strikers themselves, problems of management, or selection and exemption, had to take the place of the much simpler problem of keeping everyone out of work.

The Seattle general strike reflected not only the advance of working-class organization in many sectors of production and social reproduction at the time, but also the ability of workers in these different sectors to coordinate on the shared terrain of the city.

The workerist historian Sergio Bologna reflected on the context of the American strikes in his essay “Class Composition and the Theory of the Party at the Origins of the Workers’ Council Movement”:

The specific characteristic of this first cycle is not easy to fix in precise chronological terms, but it stands out clearly: it is the mass strike arising out of a situation of endemic struggle and leading to violent and insurrectional actions. This is best exemplified in the US. Starting in 1901, a series of violent mass strikes shakes the whole US industrial structure. With its centre, its class pole, located with the Rocky Mountain miners, these struggles spread primarily among steel, textile and transportation workers, but, above all, construction workers. In 1905, at the peak of the struggle, while the Soviets were coming into being in Russia, in the USA the International Workers of the World (IWW) was formed; the most radical proletarian organisation ever in the USA, the only revolutionary class organisation before the rise of the Afro-American movement. Today there is much to be said and learned from the IWW. Although many of its militants were anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists who had migrated to the US from Eastern and Western Europe, the IWW cannot merely be written off as the American equivalent of French anarcho-syndicalism.

What was there in the IWW that is so extraordinarily modern? Although it was based on an old class nucleus, the Western Federation of Miners, the merit of the IWW was that it attempted to organise the American proletariat in terms of its intrinsic characteristics. It was primarily an immigrant proletariat, and therefore a mixture of ethnic groups which could only be organised in a certain way. Secondly, it was a mobile proletariat, a fact which very much militated against identification with any particular job or skill, and which also militated against workers developing ties to individual factories (even if only to take them over). The IWW made the notion of the social factory a concrete reality, and it built on the extraordinary level of communication and coordination possible within the struggles of a mobile workforce. The IWW succeeded in creating an absolutely original type of agitator: not the mole digging for decades within the single factory or proletarian neighbourhood, but the type of agitator who swims within the stream of proletarian struggles, who moves from one end to the other of the enormous American continent and who rides the seismic wave of the struggle, overcoming national boundaries and sailing the oceans before organising conventions to found sister organisations.

Bologna’s insight was that the mass strikes called by the IWW were effective because they resonated so closely with the specific composition of the American proletariat in the first decade of the twentieth century. For us in the present, this means that we have to investigate how class composition has changed as we recall older forms of struggle. If we do call for a mass strike, then we have to consider how this kind of struggle can relate to the composition of the proletariat of our time.

What does it mean to call a general strike at a time of widespread precarious labor, when so many workers are forced to labor part-time, when the points of production have been so deliberately separated from one another, when there seems to be such a low level of workplace organization, and when the unions have lost their grip on so many layers of the working class because of their strong collusion with the capitalist legal system? What new tactics need to be imagined?

We have to think through these questions in order to make forms of struggle – whether the classical general strike or the mass strike – appropriate and effective in our own time. But there’s no way to predict what form the strike will take on Wednesday, and these questions will ultimately be answered in practice. Check back for a report from our West Coast correspondent, and further analysis as events continue.

Ben Webster works part-time in the education sector in Philadelphia.

Originally posted: November 1, 2011 at Viewpoint Magazine