Anarchist origins of the 'general strike' slogan

We set up this debate in response to widespread calls from the Trotskyist left for the TUC to call a general strike against the cuts. This is Mike Macnair's opening

Mikhail Bakunin: launch a general strike and then abolish the state

My presentation is based on material I have written on the general strike in my book Revolutionary strategy.

There are three levels of the question. The first level is the history of this strategy. The second is the explanatory framework which examines why, in history, the strategy has been shown not to work. The third, which I did not discuss in the book, is the merits, or otherwise, of the tactical use of general strikes and whether such a slogan is tactically appropriate at present.

Strike strategy

The strategy of the insurrectionary general strike defended by the majority in the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire was within the LCR in 2006. It was linked to the idea of May 1968 as the ‘dress rehearsal of the European revolution’, and to the Mandelite line of aiming for dual power, which meant aiming for the creation of workers’ councils, or soviets, in the context of a general strike or generalised strike movement. The Mandelites argued that it was only through the formation of workers’ councils in the context of a general strike or strike movement that it was possible for the working class to acquire sufficient class-consciousness to break with the reformists and take power for itself. To this was added: it is only through experience of workers’ councils that it is possible for the working class to see that there is a non-Stalinist alternative to capitalism.

Actually this general strike strategy is not original to the Mandelites. In substance it is Bakunin’s line as of the 1870s. According to him, building workers’ organisations under capitalism is inevitably going to lead to their control by the bourgeoisie. They become instruments of capitalist rule. Hence the working class can only act politically against the bourgeoisie through an insurrectionary general strike, leading to the immediate abolition of the state.

Bakunin’s line was reinterpreted by the anarcho-syndicalists to permit partial strike struggles, and this shift allowed big post-Bakuninist trade union confederations to be built: the CNT in Spain in particular, but also the Italian trade union movement, to a considerable extent the Belgian trade union movement, and the French CGT before World War I.

Arising out of this mass syndicalist movement came theorisation; particularly Georges Sorel argued that violence - direct action (action directe) - was the key to working class independent class-consciousness. For Sorel, direct action was the difference between what he called the decomposition of Marxism, the allegedly scientistic, deterministic Marxism of Karl Kautsky and others in the German SPD, and a really revolutionary policy.

Very similar arguments were put forward in Italy by Arturo Labriola within the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), and by Benito Mussolini - later a fascist, but in the pre-war period a leader of the ‘direct action’ left of the PSI. In Germany, Robert Michels’ book Political parties was written as a syndicalist critique of the SPD. Michels himself became a fascist in the inter-war period, and his book has become a standard textbook of US political science courses, an instrument to make students believe that all politics is about manipulations by small elites.

Closer to the ideas of ‘classical Marxism’, but influenced by the syndicalists, were those of Rosa Luxemburg, in particular in The mass strike, the political party and the trade unions; Anton Pannekoek; Karl Korsch; the young György Lukács in the 1920s; and the young Gramsci. It was from these sources that the ‘new left’ which emerged after Hungary 1956, and hence the 1960s-70s far left, took general-strikism.

This idea of the strategy of the general strike was common coin of the far left in the early 1970s. It became much less plausible after the Portuguese revolution of 1974-76. The reason was because the Portuguese revolution did involve mass strikes, the formation of workers’ council-type organisations, and so on. And yet Portuguese politics was polarised around the question of government. What sort of government to support?

The far left was by and large sucked in behind the ‘official’ Communist Party and its popular frontist bloc with a section of the officers grouping, the Armed Forces Movement. There was another section of the Trotskyists - the American Socialist Workers Party and Pierre Lambert’s international tendency based in Paris - who got sucked in behind a different popular frontist bloc: that between the Portuguese Socialist Party and the ‘Socialist International’, which in its post-World War II form is merely an agency of the US state department.

So in the Portuguese revolution there were masses on the streets, mass strike movements, self-organisation, workers’ control initiatives, proto-workers’ councils - but still at the end of the day politics was polarised by the question of government, and therefore by the pre-existing mass parties of the working class: the Communist and Socialist Parties. And the Trotskyist groups and Maoist groups of one sort or another found themselves inevitably in the tail of one or more of the contending forces capable of forming a government.

From Alexander Rabinowitch’s book Bolsheviks come to power it becomes clear that the same was true in Russia in 1917. It is traditional for the left to think of the political tendencies in the Russian Revolution as just the big parties and their fractions: there are the Mensheviks (Defencists and Internationalists), the SRs (Right and Left) and the Bolsheviks. But in fact there was a thriving anarchist movement in Russia. And there was a range of left communist groups. If you look at the groups which Rabinowitch lists in the voting in the Congress of Soviets, in whose name the Bolsheviks took power, what you actually see is a coalition led by the Bolsheviks, along with the Left SRs and a whole range of little groups, including the anarchists. Because the anarchists and the various small communist groups at the end of the day were not able to challenge for power, they were necessarily drawn in behind the Bolsheviks.

Come the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s, there were no soviets, because neither the Socialist Party nor the ‘official’ Communist Party, nor the superficially anarcho-syndicalist CNT union confederation wanted to create them. And the small groups to their left were not capable of creating soviets against them. But these small groups - and most strikingly the POUM - were drawn in behind the people’s front of the Communist Party, the Socialist Party and the liberals. Equally strikingly, the mass ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ CNT was also sucked in behind the people’s front. The question of government turns out to be the decisive question. Why should that be, as a matter of theory?

The problem

Suppose a very powerful mass left or trade union movement calls everybody out on strike. All the power is cut, no petrol is supplied, the transportation systems are shut down, nobody is working in the big supermarkets, the hospitals, etc. The reality is that a one-day general strike of that sort would be tolerable. A prolonged general strike, in which everybody goes home and that is the end of the story, would be intolerable to the society. Very rapidly people would start running out of food, parts of towns would burn, and so on. The social division of labour is just too integrated for the sort of all-out general strike in which everybody stops work and stays out.

Immediately, therefore, the question is posed not just of going out on strike, but of the working class deciding what production should continue and what production should stop; who is actually to strike and who is to carry on working. Hence, the working class has to take over the factories that need to be kept running.

But the working class then has to have means of taking decisions. Moreover, it has to take over both the physical assets of capital and its planning information. That is, the working class has to actually expropriate the capitalists in order to conduct the general strike.

Now, the class might expropriate the capitalists, while promising to hand everything back afterwards. But the capitalists are not going to believe that. So a sustained, all-out general strike immediately poses the question of political power. It is an insurrection, whether you call it an insurrection or not: an attempt to overthrow the state and capitalist property rights and seize power.

Now, the second level: actually a lot of these problems are not just characteristic of an-all out general strike, but also of a massive strike wave. Luxemburg’s The mass strike is mostly a description of Russia in 1905. Political crisis lets loose the mass movement. You do not have a general strike once and for all - a single general strike - but some local general strikes, some industry-wide strikes, strikes for economic demands here, protest strikes for political demands there, and so on. The picture has been corroborated by very many subsequent revolutionary crises.

Such a mass, rolling strike wave poses the question of decision-making methods - of political power - as much as an all-out general strike. It is just a little bit slower to get to that point. It is still produces disruption of fuel supplies and so on. The working class still has to decide who is going to be exempted from the strike in order to keep the hospitals running, and so on. As in Russia in 1905, soviets/workers’ councils may emerge as means of taking those decisions. However, local workers’ councils may be fine for taking those decisions within the framework of a single town, but suppose we have a Birmingham workers’ council: it still does not solve the question of how the food is going to get into Birmingham. And that is the crunch which the Bolsheviks came to in winter 1917-18: how will the cities be fed?

The forming of local workers’ councils, even at the most elaborated and developed level, does not solve the problem of how the cities are going to be fed, because we do not grow food in cities except at a trivial level. The food has to come in from the countryside. In Britain, of course, much of the food has to come in from abroad.

So the problem is that even a mass strike wave poses the question of government: it poses the question of decision-making on a national scale and, indeed, on an international scale. The idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat in Britain alone is a stupid illusion: millions would starve and the survivors would hand power back to the international bourgeoisie within months. Dictatorship of the proletariat on a European scale is perfectly feasible. Dictatorship of the proletariat in Britain as the opening stage of a continent-wide revolutionary war: that is a remotely feasible option (not at all a sensible one, but still remotely feasible). But dictatorship of the proletariat in one advanced capitalist country that is dependent on imports for food is an absolute illusion.

General strike tactics

Now we get to the third level. What about one-day, two-day, three-day general strikes as a tactic, as a protest form? The answer is in principle that this is a perfectly acceptable tactic of mobilising people to organise some action. It is, in reality, just a bigger form of demonstration. A more risky form of demonstration, because if you call for a one-day general strike and a small minority come out, many of them are going to get victimised. It is only when, say, a million people come out that too many will be involved for mass victimisation.

So you always have to make a judgment about this tactic. Is the relationship of forces right? Is the dynamic such that calling a one-day general strike, a two-day general strike, whatever it may be, is actually going to lead to a forward movement of the working class - or is it going to lead to an immediate defeat? That is equally true of an all-out insurrectionary general strike. It is also equally true of a strike wave, but, of course, we cannot call for a strike wave. Strike waves are things which happen whether the organised left wants them to or not.

So in each of these cases there is a concrete decision in relation to whether the left should call for a general strike. General strikes can in certain circumstances be an appropriate tactic, and the call can be, too. The Socialist Labour League in the early 1970s sold a great many papers with front-page headlines such as ‘General strike to kick out the Tory government’, because the strike wave and large-scale class confrontations - especially those of the miners and dockers - meant that the issue was actually on the agenda of the broad masses.

But the unspoken part of the slogan was ‘... and return a Labour government’. More exactly, ‘... and return a Labour government committed to socialist policies’, or some variant. Or the International Marxist Group’s variant at the time, ‘... and bring in a workers’ government based on the trade unions’. This, of course, omitted the fact that the Labour Party is the party of the trade union bureaucracy: ‘a workers’ government based on the trade unions’ in reality would mean ... a rightwing Labour administration.

A general strike can lead to a massive defeat, as in 1926. A general strike, or a big strike wave, can create massive disruption - and, as in fact happened in May 68, an election is called, which the right wing win. Or compare the recent Irish election. Everybody blamed the Fianna Fáil bourgeois government. So what did they do? They voted in Fine Gael, the traditional bourgeois party of the right. And the Irish Labour Party has entered into coalition with Fine Gael ... to implement more of the same austerity policies.

The demand for the TUC to call a general strike has underlying it a fetishisation of the general strike, and a fetishisation of strike action, as the only way in which it is possible to resist the attacks of the bourgeoisie and in which class-consciousness can progress. The result of that fetishisation is to fail to address the problem of political authority, which a general strike, or even a mass strike wave, poses.