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General Strike: How the Working Class Takes Control

Since the Women’s March brought millions into the streets the Saturday after inauguration, there has been a rising clamor on social media for a ‘general strike’ against the Trump administration.

Jack Rusk

February 9, 2017
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Since the Women’s March brought millions into the streets the Saturday after inauguration, there has been a rising clamor on social media for a ‘general strike’ against the Trump administration. The call to stop work was picked up by the U.K. Guardian, Washington Post and now by Cosmopolitan magazine. And the discussion took off so quickly, it gave us multiple proposals for when the strike should happen: February 17 (to counter President’s day), March 8 (International Women’s Day), May 1 (the international workers’ holiday and anniversary of the huge immigrant-led protests of 2006). And the proposals emphasize different kinds of demands, from general resistance to Trump, to defending the rights of women, Black Lives Matter, and immigrants through mutual action to enforce those rights.

But numerous leftists also came forward to announce concerns about the feasibility of a general strike, especially if labor unions are not involved in organizing it. Among the first was Alex Gourevitch, writing in Jacobin, who gives an informative history of militant strikes in the U.S. that faced repression by the state and (sometimes) won. The implication of this and similar pieces is that a general strike call is irresponsible for this spring because organized labor is simply not in a position to carry out the work stoppage and protect striking workers:

If you’re going to ask people not just to risk losing their jobs but potentially face the armed apparatus of the state, there had better be preparation, leadership, and some evident readiness for mass labor actions… It would be reasonable for workers to dismiss the call for a general strike. It looks like they are being asked to be actors in someone else’s drama, by people who just cottoned on to the fact that things are shitty out there.

Gourevitch has the elements of a good argument there, but this kind of naysaying about general strikes misses the point. Of course the workers in the U.S., after decades of setbacks, can’t carry off the kinds of strikes that are difficult even with high levels of organization. But it is very important to recognize that strikes called for Black lives, women’s safety and immigrant rights are not appeals from outside the workers’ movement, they are bottom line calls for solidarity that labor must take seriously if it is going to defend the working class and mobilize against anti-union and anti-strike laws.

What is remarkable, and should be lauded by everyone on the left, is that the mass movement in this country has settled on a tactic that is not just rooted in the working class, but involves the whole class as a class — the general strike. Not to enthusiastically support and amplify this demand is for the left to fall behind the mass movement and the consciousness of the most active workers.

What socialists can advocate, which Gourevitch does not, is just how powerful the strike weapon can be, and how to get from the big protests we can expect on February 17 and March 8 to an actual shutdown of U.S. capitalism, starting with a true holiday from all work on May Day. To see that, we have to look outside the U.S. and have an international view of the workers’ movement that is lacking in the Jacobin article. Because the kind of action that we are now talking about — a massive political protest launching into a strike wave — is exactly how the worker’s movement usually revives itself, most recently in the protests to bring down the dictatorship in Egypt.

What’s General about a General Strike?

The strongest version of the general strike idea comes out of anarcho-syndicalism, and says that ultimately, when the workers are well enough organized, they will simply be able to stop working so that the capitalists can no longer maintain their grip on power, at which point capitalism will be over. Obviously this hasn’t happened yet. The more applicable version of the general strike concept is a strike that continues until its political demands are achieved — for example, no work until a dictator has fallen. The capitalist state will often fulfill some of the strike’s demands because every day that the workers are striking, they get a better sense of their power and ability to organize in the future. But the capitalists can hold on to control of the state. To paraphrase the Marxist aphorism, a general strike poses the question of which class will hold state power, but does not resolve it.

The US had a major unified strike across the country in 1877, and a true general strike in Seattle in 1919. Some highly informative historical overviews of the general strike in socialist thought and in practice give specifics on this golden age of worker action. Gourevitch notes that,

For instance, the general strike in San Francisco of 1934, which developed out of a longshoremen’s strike, led to running battles with the police, National Guardsmen setting up machine gun nests and tanks for strike suppression, and a number of deaths.

And mobilizations of that intensity, including the general strikes of Minneapolis and Toledo also in 1934, laid the foundation for the strike wave of 1936 to win unionization of the US industrial workforce, over the resistance of the owners, police and the law itself. This is what organization can accomplish.

The more recent general strikes in France, Greece, and much of southern Europe also have had the kind of union organization we are lacking in the U.S. at present. But most of these strikes were specifically called for one or two days, and in those cases the capitalists can easily wait it out, counting on the workers to return in the end even if there are no concessions. When we talk about organizing general strikes, it needs to be in terms of unions that would carry them out effectively, not union bureaucrats who might have a strike for a day and then cut a political deal to restore order.

Think of it as a Mass Strike

Clearly what is being proposed is not either of these kinds of strikes — the discussion of general strikes is not yet about the kind of organized action familiar to revolutionary socialists. What is really being contemplated is actually closer to Rosa Luxemburg’s Mass Strike, coming out of massive political protest and mobilization, but turning into a strike of labor against capitalists. Luxemburg took some criticism for saying these strikes would be spontaneous, since they outstrip what organizations have been able to put together:

All the above great and partial mass strikes and general strikes were not demonstration strikes but fighting strikes, and as such they originated, for the most part, spontaneously, in every case from specific local accidental causes, without plan or design, and grew with elemental power into great movements, and then they did not begin an “orderly retreat,” but turned now into economic struggles, now into street fighting, and now collapsed of themselves.

Mass strikes often are not ‘called’ by anyone, let alone small circles of leftists. But as it has happened this year, the discussion of these political strikes came up with (certain) dates attached. This is not a question of socialists agitating for a general strike or calling on workers they’ve never met to take an action no one understands. Women’s march organizers, Black Lives Matter, and the bourgeois media are leading the call based on political demands, placing the challenge on socialists to argue for a unified working class action to build the power needed to achieve those demands.

In spite of many vast differences between the US now and Russia in 1905, a basic similarity is that workers’ organization has been blocked by laws that restrict effective means of unionizing or striking and by the isolation of those workers who try to organize. As in Russia or in the U.S. in the 1930s, it takes large numbers of workers becoming radicalized politically to actually overcome the barriers to organization, and that is exactly what we should be fighting for now.

Mass strikes put workers face to face with the limitations the state places on protests, but in such numbers that they can actually overcome the barriers. And by showing that the whole working class can act collectively on a problem, and use its power to force the hand of the state, mass strikes deliver huge advances in confidence, while confronting capitalists with a strong threat under which they will recognize unions and make economic concessions. This is why mass strikes so often result in strike waves.

When the capitalist state itself is weak, mass strikes further illustrate exactly what the working class can do about taking power. The strikes in Russia in 1905 led up to a general strike in the capital, St. Petersburg, that established a council (or soviet) to coordinate all the striking workers and factories. Since the workers were governing themselves through the soviet, it created a threat that the state would be rendered obsolete. The Tsar had to make the concession of a constitution limiting his power, before eventually using armed force to put down the revolution of 1905.

March 8 will be the 100th anniversary of the great International Women’s Day in 1917 when women in St. Petersburg initiated protests and strikes that brought down the Tsar and established a government by the workers later that year. Whatever protest transpires this March 8, marking the Russian Revolution as an occasion to strike has to be a good thing for the working class.

A Mass Rehearsal for Taking Control

Comparing the strikes that will happen in the next few months to the high points of history can either be used to dismiss what is going on, or to take the best of today’s impulse to act against the Trump regime — through the power of the working class. Of course the proposed general strikes won’t stop work entirely, and of course workers who could be fired are likely aware of the danger and won’t take undue risks. And of course, if workers strike en masse without the help of the unions, as they should, they will lack the organizational advantages of coordination.

Much of the working class has never participated in a strike, and many young people have never even seen one first hand. Critics are correct that the strikes of this spring will not be good direct models for the strikes at particular workplaces that will follow. But masses of people in motion will learn far more about strikes than they could from a careful discussion of what is and is not properly organized.

All that means is we should be fighting for a more comprehensive and more effective action. Union bureaucrats have deserved a challenge for a long time, but the fact that non-union members are talking about strikes is an excellent opportunity to contest their leadership. Even the participation of a few strategic unions, like the longshore workers or the transit workers of major cities could shut down huge parts of the economy. A bigger mobilization by unorganized workers will give workers in strategic sectors more cover from state repression. Already, the climate of protest and resistance against Trump has created confidence for local strikes.

A strike against the president on February 17, a day without women on March 8 and a day without immigrants on May 1 would make very important points. A better point still would be a day without any workers contributing to capitalism, in solidarity with each other — and the idea of a general strike points in that direction. If workers come out in solidarity with one another through each of these mobilizations, we have a chance at getting to a real national work stoppage. May Day sounds like a good target.

What should be emphasized about general strikes is that mass politicization and organization reinforce each other and are interdependent. Organization will be served not by relying on the existing union leadership, but by an upheaval in labor unions leading to the overthrow of bureaucrats. Or else, as has happened before, we might need wildcat strikes or new unions, both leading to a strike wave. The process sounds ambitious because it is, but in 2011 Egyptian workers made significant gains in controlling their unions within the two weeks after January 25.

Now is a time to capture the enthusiasm and wisdom of the general strike calls and, if possible, show the value of revolutionary socialism in bringing these strikes to victories on at least some of their demands. There is certainly a wide gap between what is being entertained and what it will take to accomplish it, but revolutionaries ought to be aware how rapidly those gaps can be crossed with the right tools and insights.

In Egypt, demonstrations in the millions gave the unions cover for a true nationwide general strike commencing on about February 8. This strike wave, combined with the protests, disruption of the police and a threat of insubordination in the army, overthrew the president just three days afterwards. Not to say we can or will do all of this, but just raising the issue of the general strike opens the door to revolutionary politics.

The past month is leaving the strategies and organizations of the left by the wayside, and offering new mobilizing potential for more promising times. A general strike is a far better way to think about our movement than the other proposals thus far. Talking about the general strike is the right conversation to be having when we’re working on building working class organization and a strategy to fight capitalism.

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