The General Strike: An Incomplete Bibliography for Ambivalent Occupiers

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 strike begins at the largest ship­yard in Seat­tle, 1919.


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.

Author of the article

works in the education sector in Philadelphia.

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