Strike!: A Review - Root & Branch

Jeremy Brecher's Strike!, reviewed by Steven Sapolsky in Root & Branch No. 4, 1973

Submitted by Steven. on January 20, 2011

There is a growing awareness among the left that we are approaching a fateful turning point in our history. The apocalyptic expectations of the 60s have dissolved away, leaving remarkably little profound disillusionment. Instead, there are many radicals throughout the country quietly taking stock of their personal needs to earn a living and plan their adult lives, while continuing to search for ways to help build a viable movement. Of course, there is no guarantee that the left will not dissipate as more and more people try to find a place for themselves in the everyday, workaday world. The next few years, however, offer tremendous possibilities because for the first time in more than a generation, the working people of this country are in a mood that the left, living and working in their midst, can resonate with and thrive upon. Things are very fluid, and it is wrong to assume that large groups of workers have anything like a "post-scarcity consciousness." But just for that reason, the left can play a decisive role in helping people define and articulate their dissatisfaction. Rapid and fundamental shifts in popular attitudes have happened many times in the past. To facilitate one in the next few years, radicals are going to have to find ways to encourage the self-education of the working class, thus creating an atmosphere in which people can specify their problems, propose solutions, and focus their actions. One of the basic tasks is to provide agitational and educational literature. Fortunately, this is getting underway, and one example is the recent publication of Jeremy Brecher's Strike!

The book is about mass strikes in American history. A brief introduction sets the theme -- working people have a long history of marshalling their strength and asserting their power in a society that condemns them to be powerless. The bulk of the book is given over to a well-paced narrative of the strikes of 1877, 1886, the early 1890s, 1919, the 1930s and early 40s, and 1946. After a clear explanation of the meaning of these events, there is a fine summary of current on-the-shop-floor struggles which suggests that we have not seen the last of the mass strikes. The book ends with a short account of how mass strikes generated the germs of a new society in Russia in 1917, Italy in 1920, and Spain in 1936. It comes as no surprise after reading the book and absorbing its message, that people can create a society in which all share responsibility for the well-being of all when they exercise their self-organized power without limitation.

Brecher belongs to the school of writers who believe that the fewest and simplest words say it best, and that makes for excellent popular writing. Despite its length and scope, Strike! is a very accessible book, and for this reason alone, it will be a valuable educational tool. But the style is not its only virtue. Strike! is a very important book because it is not the usual kind of radical popular history. It is not a cheering account of heroic episodes or a hymn for "progressive" trends. It is most unlike Boyer and Morals' Labor's Untold Story, for example, whose basic virtue is that it warms the heart while documenting some of the harsh realities of American life. Strike! is very different because, along with the economy of style, there is an economy of purpose. Jeremy Brecher makes it explicit from the beginning that he didn't write a catch-all history of mass strikes. He focused specifically on the way workers organized and spread the strikes. The book, therefore, is an exploration of the wondrous process by which people, released from the isolation and subservience of daily life, learn to cooperate with one another, while challenging the forces that rule them. The analysis is set up as an induction from the historical episodes, and the power of the book's style is such that the inductive machinery grinds very smoothly. The conclusions emerge out of the immense detail effortlessly, and the reader is left with a powerful impression of the general dynamics of mass self-activity. This is an impressive achievement and it is in marked contrast to the standard popular histories. They rarely convey any of the inner workings of history and usually leave the reader in a dazed state of mind, basking in the afterglow of magnificent struggles.

Strike! is about mass strikes because they are the events that most perfectly reveal the extent of mass self-activity. But underlying this focus is a grand theme that runs through the entire book -- the only thorough antidote to powerlessness is the self-initiative of a self-reliant people. To my mind, the greatest merit of Strike! is that it makes this ideological statement with convincing concreteness. It demonstrates its truth in the past and suggests its possibility in the present. Schooling, the means of communication, the manipulations of leaders all conspire together to convince working people that they are not capable of running their own lives. They are not brainwashed by all this fuss, but their self-confidence is blunted, while their cynicism and passivity is fostered. Strike! does as well as any piece of literature can to counter this situation.

So far, I've considered Strike! as propaganda suitable for our times. But it is also an ambitious work of history, something few popular histories are. Jeremy Brecher has strong opinions on the touchy problems of spontaneity, organization, and leadership, and he doesn't hesitate to interpret history accordingly. But his politics are up-front and he applies them consistently, with ample regard for the facts. Consequently, Strike! offers a well-argued interpretation of the significance of mass strikes, and it deserves to be considered as a valuable contribution to labor history. I want to move on to a discussion of it in these terms. I agree with much of the book, but I think that it suffers from the utilization of preconceived categories that do not do justice to the complexities of history. For the sake of debate, I will emphasize their limitations. I am not sure what I would use in their place, however, and I will not offer any definite opinions on the questions raised.

Once, during the long feud with the followers of Lasalle, Marx challenged their willingness to deal with Bismarck in a striking passage: "The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing." The thought has been echoed since in the writings of people like Paul Mattick, and Strike!, in many ways, is a favorable commentary upon it. The book is structured by many such either/or's -- either the working class is powerful or powerless, self-active or passive, engaged in mass strikes or integrated into the system, self-organized spontaneously or unorganized by leaders, self-conscious or laboring under false consciousness. Usually, radicals employ more familiar opposites like reform or revolution and defensive or offensive action, and I'm sure that many are going to be grated by the uncompromising dialectic of Strike!. In my opinion, both kinds of dialectic have their place in the analytic tool box. In Europe at the present time, for example, the working class is certainly neither revolutionary nor nothing, but here, because of the decline of class traditions since the 1920s, how much more than nothing is it? But once this is said we haven't said much, and the problem, to my mind, with any dialectic is that it is a very crude instrument of analysis. By this I mean two things. 1) The working class is described by a range of possible conditions that barely captures the richness and variety of its presence throughout modern history. 2) The dialectic has a way of mystifying the dynamics of the transition that the working class often makes from one condition to another. The net result of an overdependence on the dialectic is a heavy-handed manipulation of its categories at the expense of a sensitive study of reality, and ultimately, a stifling of the historical imagination.

To a certain extent, Strike! suffers from this sort of distortion. First of all, each strike seems to be like every other strike, and labor history is reduced to a story of endless risings over more or less the same issues. Since there are over 200 pages of detail, much of it sounding repetitive, the book borders on being monotonous at places, and then it is saved only by its vigorous sense of purpose. Labor history, however, does not consist of so many episodes of the class struggle, all more or less alike. Over time, given particular industries and localities, the issues at stake in particular strikes have changed, and the significance of those strikes for the labor movement cannot be evaluated except in that context. It is true that Jeremy Brecher attempts to provide some of this changing background, especially from the 1930s on, but he does it only as an aside. There is very little investigation of the goals and aspirations of the strikers, and instead, they seem to be robots, propelled into action with unfailing regularity by the relentless course of history. Each strike, instead of erupting out of particular environments and structured by particular intentions, emerges courtesy of the Spirit of the Proletariat, kind enough to reveal itself as it makes its way through the world. To the extent that the book doesn't explore what the strikers are up to, it can't evaluate the effectiveness of their actions. And since it is not anchored in the specific density of events, it cannot suggest what might have happened. Floating in the company of Hegelian Spirits, Strike! sometimes approaches the fantastic, as when it implies that the American working class frequently came to the brink of revolution, only to be betrayed by its leadership. In 1894, for example, Brecher writes that "we are presented with the spectacle of Eugene Victor Debs, perhaps the greatest example of a courageous, radical, and uncorruptable trade union official in American history, trying to end the strike in order to prevent it from becoming an insurrection" (p. 95). Was revolution in the air, was it conceivable at all, and if so, was it feasible, or was the strike exhausted and decisively defeated by the Federal troops? Strike! rarely gets into this kind of question, and to the extent that it doesn't, it fails to fulfill its ambition to weigh the capacity of common people to shape their destiny. With the dialectic in command, it can only hint at some of the possibilities.

Jeremy Brecher limited himself to the history of mass strikes because, he argues, they are the most important means that workers have in exerting their power. If mass strikes are demythologized and carefully located in the proper context, this turns out to be false. Often, mass strikes are simply the most dramatic means of protest. Great Episodes of Struggle can shadow out more significant expressions of class power, and the whole range must be considered before evaluating the significance of any one of them. Take the riots of 1877. At the time, many working class communities rose up in anger because the political and job control that they had exercised previously was being undermined. Mass action had been used before to keep the boss in line when he threatened to eliminate their long-standing power. It had been a demonstration of strength before, based on the organized power of the community, but when the latter was dissolved by the depression of 1873, mass action alone was just a futile gesture of protest. To stretch a phrase, the working class in 1877 (in some places) was revolutionary and nothing.

Jeremy Brecher takes some inspiration from Rosa Luxemburg's writings on mass strikes, and when she turned her attention to them after the 1905 revolution in Russia, they were, indeed, major expressions of workers' power throughout the industrial world. But by then, they were determined and frequently well-organized struggles, not desperate risings, and they were fostered and justified by elaborate theories of direct political action. Hand in hand with these struggles, however, was a struggle for political power, which Brecher ignores altogether. And just as important was the bitter struggle by skilled workers to retain control over their work-time. That was waged daily and often with no fireworks, and yet it was a struggle over the most significant form of power the working class possessed, short of outright revolution.

These brief comments don't begin to suggest what a history of working class power would be like, but it is clear, I hope, that it is not possible to restrict the story to the Great Events. The continuous development of the web of working class life must be mapped before any conclusions can be drawn. In a sense, Jeremy Brecher cannot be faulted for not doing this; there is little good labor history that he could have based his book upon. He seems to realize the problem, because the chapters on recent times, for which there are better sources, do justice to the relation of mass strikes to daily life, and they are the best parts of the book.

My second qualm about the dialectic concerns the way it mystifies the ability of the working class to shift gears. In Strike!, the process in question is the rapid development of events during mass strikes. Armed with the dialectic, Jeremy Brecher zeroes in on the general dynamic of mass self-activity. But why do mass strikes follow such a variety of courses? Why do some fizzle (1877), why are others determined struggles (1886, 1894, 1919), and why are still others so easily co-opted and channeled (1930s and 1940s). Basically, it is a function of the degree to which the working class has arrived at self-awareness and acquired self-confidence, both before and during each strike. By limiting his attention to the events of the strike, Brecher seems to be saying that workers can develop a mature sense of self-initiative during any episode of spontaneous action, providing they are not repressed too soon. But surely, the degree to which workers are organized and tempered by experience before they swing into action is just as important a determinant of how far they go once in motion. Spontaneity, when not sustained by prior organization and not disciplined by experience, is a very fragile thing. It requires preparation and direction to flourish in all its power. Strike! destroys the case of those who harp on the need for organization and program to get a rise out of the masses, but it doesn't prove its own case for trusting exclusively in the fruits of spontaneity.

A crucial factor in the ability of the working class to organize itself during mass strikes (or any time) is the quality of leadership. In Strike!, the only thing leaders do is inhibit the rank-and-file's capacity for self-action. Jeremy Brecher is perfectly correct in emphasizing their role in containing the strikes. But often, they have little trouble doing so because the rank-and-file depends on them for inspiration and services like communication. This kind of dependence is not necessarily repressive, however, as long as leaders do their best to transfer their responsibilities downwards. In fact, the working class has never cultivated its self-initiative without the example and leadership of militants. Usually, they have been trade union officials or members of radical organizations, and their experience and contacts made in organizational affairs have been instrumental in enabling them to educate, advise, inspire, and lead those around them. Strike! fudges their role in mass strikes by insisting that their contribution derives "not as a result of their organizational connections" (p. 257). But mass strikes spread and maintain their coherence through the network of militants which exists thanks to their organizational ties. And it is not true that radical organizations "have done little to clarify the possible revolutionary significance of mass actions or to develop their more radical potentialities" (p. 257). The C.P. is simply not the standard to generalize from. On the opposite extreme from the C.P. is the example of Albert Parsons and the Chicago anarchists, and in between there have been many local SLP, SP, IWW, and other groups that did as much as possible to clarify what was at stake. I agree with much of what Jeremy Brecher has to say about the repressive role of trade unions and the pettiness of radical groups. But they are the organizations that militants must work through, and consequently, their contribution is far more ambiguous than he makes it out to be.

There is not much to say in summary. The dialectic is not much help in dissecting the involved interaction of spontaneity, organization, and leadership, let alone in making sense of the overall pattern of labor history. We must remove the either/or from its traditional central place and face up the both/and and the neither/nor. Perhaps then we may arrive at a more refined sense of what it takes for the working class to become self-reliant and powerful.

From Root & Branch No. 4 (1973), pp. 39-44