General Strike

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Workers marching through the streets of St. Petersburg during the 1905 General Strike. The central banner reads "Proletarians of All Countries Unite."

When the entire workforce of a city lays down its tools and refuses to resume work until certain demands are met, it is called a General Strike. The idea first came from the nineteenth-century anarchists, who did not constitute a workforce but were people of anti-statist convictions.

Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919), the Polish revolutionary thinker murdered by German reactionary troops, rewrote the concept of the General Strike and claimed it for the workforce (proletariat) after witnessing the great General Strikes in the Russian Empire that began in 1896 and ended in the tremendous General Strike of 1905. Georges Sorel (1847-1922), a French thinker who moved from the political Left to the political Right, also conceived of the General Strike as a way to energize the workforce.

The African-American historian and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) described the exodus of the slaves immediately after Emancipation as a General Strike, because slavery had not allowed the “Black Proletariat” (plantation workforce for the cotton industry) to form itself as a regular workforce. In the same era, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), the Indian national liberationist, rewrote the General Strike once again and claimed it for the colonized, regardless of class, thus shifting it from a working-class movement to a mixture of civil disobedience and boycott politics. He called it “Non-Cooperation.”

Today the global workforce stands deeply divided as globalization operates through a system of finance—trading in uneven currencies—that has little to do with that workforce. This division is why it is once again time to reclaim the General Strike. It is already being reclaimed by those disenfranchised by a system whose benefits flow constantly upward: toward bailouts for banks and away from healthcare, education and all the places that need them most. Labor now has a chance to join hands in this redefinition of the General Strike as a collectivity of disenfranchised citizens: the 99%.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) defined those who had no access to the welfare structure of the state, and those who played no role in the state, as the subaltern: the poorest of the poor. Today this story too is being rewritten. What we are witnessing is the subalternation of the middle class—the largest sector of the 99%. The General Strike, as Du Bois and Gandhi once envisioned it, is becoming a powerful symbol that exceeds the neatly matched worker/master conflict of old. And to this point, there are several features of a General Strike to keep in mind.

  1. A General Strike is undertaken by those who suffer actual day-to-day injustice, not by morally outraged ideologues.
  2. A General Strike is by definition non-violent, though the repressive apparatus of the state has used great violence against the strikers.
  3. A General Strike generally consists of demands focused on reforming or rewriting laws, i.e., the length of the working day for Russian workers, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments (in substance if not in discourse) for the former slaves, a decolonized legal structure in the era of Gandhi, etc.

If one recognizes the connection between the General Strike and the Law, one realizes this is not legal reformism but a call for social and economic justice. Banning bank bailouts, instituting legal oversight of fiscal policy, taxing the rich, de-corporatizatizing education, lifting fossil fuel and agriculture subsidies, and on and on. The intense commitment to legal change and its implementation is a bid for justice. And remember: unlike a political party, the movers of a General Strike need not co-operate until they see things actually change. Already the pressure is working: witness the 5% victory over debit card charges in November.

Before the general strike in Oakland on November 2, 2011, the nation's last general strike was in Oakland in 1946. Above, police protect the port in San Pablo, California. Photo: The Oakland Tribune Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

General Strikes are always in a sense against “Wall Street,” more broadly described as capitalism. But, because revolutions have also been against bad regimes represented by single dictators or kings, our idea of “revolution” is confused with armed struggle, violence, and regime change. In Russia, the Czars. In China, a decadent feudalism and Euro-colonialism. In Latin America, the latifundia system in France, the Bourbon monarchy. In America, the Hanover monarchy and later the slaveholding system. Today in the Arab world, Zayn al-Abidin Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

By contrast, in the Occupy movement, the spirit of the General Strike has come into its own and joined forces with the American tradition of civil disobedience: citizens against an unregulated capitalist state, not against an individual and a regime. Therefore, in the short term, we must change the laws that currently make the state accountable to business and banks, not to people. And in the long term, establish and nurture an education that keeps the will to justice alive.

Originally published in Tidal magazine. [PDF]

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