Thunberg's Call for General Strikes: The Confusions of a Liberal Protest

The Youth Climate Protest have turned to the mass strike as a weapon of protest. Unconsciously, they have grafted one of the major elements in the struggle for working class revolution onto their "utopian-reformist" demands. In doing so they distort the real meaning of such a strike.

Submitted by Internationali… on July 17, 2019

On May 23rd Greta Thunberg and 46 other spokespeople for the Youth Climate Protest (YCP) issued a statement before their latest day of action. At the heart of the statement was an "invitation" which we quote in full to accurately reflect its content.

YCP's statement reads - "Starting on Friday 20 September we will kickstart a week of climate action with a worldwide strike for the climate. We're asking adults to step up alongside us. There are many different plans underway in different parts of the world for adults to join together and step up and out of your comfort zone for our climate. Let's all join together, with your neighbours, co-workers, friends, family and go out on to the streets to make your voices heard and make this a turning point in our history"

The mass strike historically has been a significant tool in the struggle of the working class. Generally, it appears as part of a sharply escalating period of combativity. In such circumstances the mass strike is a reflection of the class increasing its own consciousness and strengthening its own self-organisation. In short, the appearance of a mass strike is part of of the process of the class recognising its potential as a class "for itself".

Thunberg and her colleagues' call echoes the calls by groups like Earth Strike for a "General Strike to save the planet". It does not arise from rising class struggle. Neither does it fit neatly into the traditions of a General Strike called and controlled by the Trades Unions as a bargaining ploy. In that sense the YCP's call is "neither fish nor fowl".

A Communist Response to Thunberg's Strike Call

The imperialist world economy rests on the chaos and competition at the core of the capitalist mode of production. Without a doubt, its rapacious demands and profit-driven endless expansion has led to the destructive nature of wars and preventable disasters on an unprecedented scale. The move towards the destruction of species and the means of life is an entirely consistent product of capitalism in its most corrosive imperialist phase. The failure to recognise this crucial causality lies at the crux of the shortcomings in the approach of YCP and its local cheerleaders such as Extinction Rebellion (XR).

They start from demands that "our" governments and corporations respond to the need to avoid total destruction. Missing the point that they are actually appealing to agencies that exist to maintain the totality of anti-human power and control they see victories when the UK Parliament declares a "climate emergency". Such acts are in fact meaningless hot air that leaves the ruling class in full control of the levers of economic, political and social domination.

Starting from such a confused trajectory their mass following are encouraged to nurture their own illusions about the possibilities of a kinder capitalism. Groups such as XR produce blueprints for "People's Assemblies" to bolster the democratic facade. In a similar vein the YCP's May appeal even refers to ferment in previous revolutions that helped the capitalist class take power. They write, "During the French revolution mothers flooded the streets for their children".

It is a short step from such a non-class view for the YCP's protest agenda to unthinkingly flow into a call for workers to strike. For YCP and the liberal followers working class activity is to be turned on and off like a tap to pursue an illusory reformist strategy. For class-conscious workers, strike action has to be part of our collective experience, in the interests of our class against all the bosses' factions.

Should strikes take place in line with YCP's call there will inevitably arise an unplanned consequence. In many areas of the world both "democratic" and "authoritarian" political strikes are illegal. Such actions will therefore involve certain workers taking political strike action beyond the control of the Trade Union machines and defying ruling class law.

A strike is one of the fundamental expressions of the working class's essence as a collective class, forged by capitalism and endlessly transformed in response to shifts in the productive process. For more than a century those transformations have taken place on a global scale, in a "world economy". Without recognising the role of class relationships, YCP have arrived at the correct conclusion that ecological destruction can only be halted on a planet-wide scale. We need to point out that the ecological issue is not unique in that respect. All the creeping barbarism of famines, wars without end and mass forced migrations flow directly from the workings of imperialism.

Save the Climate – Overturn Capitalism

There is overwhelming evidence that the ecology of the planet is rapidly deteriorating. The power exercised by the ruling class over research and the dissemination of information (and misinformation!) makes it difficult to achieve an objective view of the myriad timescales that have been suggested as the remaining lifespan for organised society or, indeed, for humanity as a whole. Despite that lack of a definitively accurate forecast it is clear that ecological destruction has become a very real addition to the horsemen of the imperialist apocalypse.

YCP recognise that we are at "a turning point in our history". Moreover, they recognise that a worldwide movement is needed. The two points, in themselves, are entirely true if humanity is to be saved from a horrific future – a future which we continue to identify as barbarism.

YCP have turned to the mass strike as a weapon of protest. Unconsciously, they have grafted one of the major elements in the struggle for working class revolution onto their "utopian-reformist" demands. In doing so they distort the real meaning of such a strike. The mass strike, as Rosa Luxemburg stated, is the precursor to revolutionary action. But the YCP proposes no action other than “demanding that governments immediately provide a safe pathway to stay within 1.5C of global heating”. They criticise politicians for willingly handing “over their responsibility for our future to profiteers whose search for quick cash threatens our very existence”. These “profiteers” are the capitalists, and the politicians are their class representatives. Appealing to them to “take action” and abandon their innermost essence is like asking a tiger to become a vegetarian. The problem is the capitalist system itself and this call for a global mass strike has to be one that draws in the entire working class. It cannot be done though without preparation “by suddenly issuing the 'slogan' for a mass strike at random, at any odd moment, but first and foremost, by making clear to the widest layers of the proletariat, the inevitable advent of this revolutionary period, the inner social factors making for it and the political consequences of it.” (Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike). This is something a movement stemming from middle class academics is unlikely to understand and the worst consequence is that it is derailing the real fight for our environment and our existence.

This is why we appeal to those who respond to the YCP call to recognise that the path to such a future depends on a very specific "turning point" – the overturning of the capitalist order which in a few centuries has brought humanity to the brink of an absolute disaster. The worldwide working class is the only social force with the capacity and potential to create that better world – one based on common ownership, cooperation and planned sustainable production to meet need not deliver profit.

July 11 2019



5 years ago

In reply to by

Submitted by sherbu-kteer on July 17, 2019

I think it's important to add too, that the general strikes of the type mentioned in this article don't actually seem to be proposals for general strikes, just coordinated protest actions. None of these people are discussing how to set up pickets and where, for instance, or how to deal with scabs, or strike funds, or anything. The expectation seems to be for people to turn out for a strictly defined time period, maybe a day, wave some signs in the town square and then go back to work the next day like nothing had ever happened. This is a very odd kind of strike to say the least


5 years ago

In reply to by

Submitted by comradeEmma on July 18, 2019

I think the "school strikes" for the climate has to some extent muddled the left's perspective on strikes and the preparations that are actually needed for a real strike. A local high-school principle went out to media saying they were going to pull the "student wage" from students who went on strike so that they would learn what it actually means to go on strike...

There was even an attempt during the recent struggle against the laws against the right to strike in Sweden to use the "school strikes" under the banner of "students strike back". It did not work.

Mike Harman

5 years ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Mike Harman on July 22, 2019


I think it's important to add too, that the general strikes of the type mentioned in this article don't actually seem to be proposals for general strikes, just coordinated protest actions.

There were a couple of 'one day general strikes' in the US in 2017 in response to Trump's election. To a limited extent some workers did walk out (and faced retaliation for it), but you also had entire companies given the afternoon off (or sometimes just an extended lunch break) to attend a rally with senior management approval.

Part of this at least has to be due to actual strikes often being just one day too - this is often the case with TUC union strikes in the UK, not as sure in the US. Fight for 15 in the US has taken the form of outsourced 'organisers' (with their own bad pay and working conditions) setting up rallies/protests rather than any kind of workplace organising.

The actual school strikes have been quite interesting. There's been a range of responses from headteacher-authorised protests, to schools which threaten any student who walks out with lower grades or withdrawing support for them attending college or whatever, where you end up with a handful or even just one kid standing outside the school.

Even within the school-authorised protests you'll sometimes see hundreds of kids running off when it's time to go back to class so the kids understand what a strike is supposed to be better than a lot of the adults.