What's wrong with the call for
a general strike?

by Pete Brown

(CV #36, Sept. 2005).


. A number of activists in Detroit MWM are fascinated by the idea of a general strike. One of them even ran for Congress last fall on a platform of support for a general strike! The main thing motivating this call by some activists seems to be a positive, optimistic outlook toward the class struggle."Wouldn't it be great," some activists say, "if we all went out on strike at once? Everything would be shut down, and the powers that be would have to grant any and all of our demands." Thus activists express their sense of the potential power of labor and their frustration with today's situation, when this potential is bottled up.

. Problem is, this call for a general strike is being given today without consideration of the conditions needed for it. More generally, the call is being given as an alternative to looking seriously at the problem of how to work in times of a low level of activity in the workers' movement. Instead of seeing that militant work means confronting the conditions of the present time and considering what has to be done to lay the basis for renewed struggle and an independent movement, some activists instead spend their time dreaming about how great a general strike would be. The question of how to work in backward times needs to be taken seriously, not glossed over with nostalgic dreams. It's all very well to recall large struggles of the past such as the San Francisco general strike, and studying such events may help suggest lines of activity for the present. But one cannot simply impose a high level of strike activity onto the present day. Instead we need to concentrate on dealing with the problems of today, of what's holding back the movement, and of what forms are possible to develop. Instead of seeing how the treachery of the trade union bureaucrats is holding back the workers' movement and considering how workers can overcome this, there's a tendency to simply slough over this problem and think of the general strike as the solution. Thus the dream of a general strike covers over an avoidance of taking the actual steps needed today to encourage whatever sparks of struggle are actually occurring.

. Some activists look to the example of European general strikes as an inspiration. In recent years there have been general strikes in France, Italy and other nations. They have been used as a political tactic to oppose the cutting of pensions and social security benefits, among other things. These are certainly helpful mobilizations, much better than anything the conservative AFL-CIO can imagine. At the same time their significance should not be exaggerated. These are not revolutionary strikes. They're under the control of the labor bureaucrats and sometimes last only a few hours. In Europe, just as in the U. S. , the strength of any such action depends on the initiative of the rank and file and their ability to break out of the bureaucrats' restrictions.

. Some activists look to the general strike itself as a way to break free of the bureaucrats."Once the workers are in motion," they say, "anything is possible." There's some truth to this. Anytime the workers are involved in struggle at any level, they are open to agitation and to new organizational ideas, which is why the bureaucrats are so reluctant to mobilize them for anything. This smothering of struggle by the bureaucrats shows the need to fight against the influence of the bureaucrats now, today, on every issue and in every form of struggle, if there ever are to be big and powerful struggles and general strikes. Instead of waiting for the general strike to come down from heaven and resolve all our problems, it's necessary today to prepare workers to break through the bureaucrats' restrictions, before we're in the midst of a general strike. If the workers at one small workplace take a stand on one issue -- say, for a ten-minute extension of their lunch break -- and refuse to budge on it, and steadfastly fight for it (say, by refusing en masse to go back to work during those ten minutes) despite and against the advice of their union leaders, that will do much more to build the fighting spirit and organization of the workers than any appeals to the labor bureaucrats to call a general strike.

. This example brings up the point that a general strike of whatever type is not necessarily a higher form of struggle than some individual strike. In assessing various struggles, one has to examine how much of the working class is involved, how large they are, but also how far they show independence from the reformist and bureaucrat forces, how far they encourage the further organization of the working class, etc. These days, it's possible that the mere coordination of several unions in a strike might -- in the enthusiasm of the struggle -- be termed a 'general strike', even though not all the workers of a region went out on strike. The bringing of different unions together would be something favorable, but the common strike of several small unions might not necessarily be more significant than gigantic strikes of single unions and industries.

"Calling all bureaucrats!"

. The AFL-CIO leaders are not prone to calling general strikes or doing anything militant because they are chained to class collaborationism. They are tied to and servile to the bourgeois institutions and political parties. For example in the Detroit city workers' struggle of today the bureaucrats are mostly refusing to mobilize the workers. They have rejected the mayor's demand for concessions, but they aren't doing anything to enforce that rejection even after their contracts have expired (July 1, 2005). So it's unlikely that the bureaucrats will be calling any kind of strike, much less a general strike. But just in case they did, the workers would still have to guard against their treachery, token measures, etc. In the Detroit newspaper strike of the mid-90s, the union bureaucrats called a strike but then wrecked it by calling off mass picketing in favor of their "corporate campaign" strategy.

. Before making a call for a general strike, one should judge whether the conditions exist for a general strike. One might consider such issues as whether there is an upsurge of the workers' movement, have there been preliminary strikes, etc. But the activists calling for a general strike aren't arguing that such conditions exist or even calling for such consideration. Instead they're calling for a general strike as a way to avoid considering concrete conditions.

. Worse still, various forces are now giving the call for a general strikein a way that puts everything in the hands of the union bureaucrats. Not that the bureaucrats are known for their enthusiasm for general strikes; but this is a way of trying to revive interest in and support for the bureaucrats. A good example of this is WWP leader David Sole, who distributed an open letter to "leaders and members" of Detroit unions at the MWM conference of May 14-15. The letter raised the prospect of a Detroit general strike, but this was to be accomplished having "the union leaders from presidents to stewards .  .  . begin meeting to map out strategy and tactics." At a time when most Detroit union presidents are taking concessions rather than engage in a struggle, Sole paints a picture of them leading the workers into major struggles and a general strike. (1)

. That WWP likes to raise the possibility of a general strike is in line with its Trotskyist background. It is part of the Trotskyist view that certain forms of struggle are automatically an advance. For the Trotskyists any "general strike" is always better than other strikes regardless of size, militancy, its degree of break with reformism and the union bureaucrats, etc. Instead of a conscious struggle against opportunism in the workers' movement the Trotskyists promote spontaneous upsurges as the solution to problems. The Trotskyists see the general strike as something for all occasions and as a cover for creating hopes in the bureaucrats.

An "apple pie" history

. Trotskyists like the WWP's Sole use militant phrases about a general strike to suck up to the bureaucrats. This can be seen in Sole's pamphlet about general strikes written in the aftermath of the Detroit newspaper strike of the mid-1990s. Sole's booklet is entitled General Strike! An American Tradition, and as Sole says in his introduction, the pamphlet argues that "the general strike is as American as apple pie." Like the revisionist Earl Browder, who tried to make communism "acceptable" by promoting that "communism is 20th-century Americanism" (and who ended up liquidating the Communist Party to promote Americanism), Sole tries to make the general strike acceptable in the eyes of the bureaucrats by proving that it's an American tradition, and not also something that is fought tooth-and-nail by the American bourgeoisie and its legions of strikebreakers and police.

. During the Detroit newspaper strike, after the union bureaucrats had called off serious mass picketing at the Sterling Heights printing plant, thus tearing the heart out of the strike, WWP gave a call for these same bureaucrats to organize a general strike. They didn't see that any effective action required the workers defying the reformist union bureaucrats, but saw the union bureaucrats as the natural leaders of the workers. In a leaflet "exploring the tactic of a general strike", David Sole mapped out a detailed plan for how the "Metro Detroit AFL-CIO leadership" should discuss a general strike, carry out mass propaganda among the workers for it, and organize it. (2) In his pamphlet Sole argues against labor bureaucrats who opposed his resolution, which became a plan for a one-day general strike, on the plea that it was illegal and would violate labor contracts. Sole's purpose was not just to show that general strikes have occurred in American history, something which might inspire those who didn't know it. Instead, he aimed to prove that general strikes were regarded by the bourgeoisie and the reformist union leaders as legal and legitimate. His pamphlet even includes as an appendix two legal briefs. (3)

. Sole's pamphlet gives a historical sketch of various general strikes that have occurred in the U.S. since 1835. His facts are gleaned from Philip Foner's History of the Labor Movement in the U.S. and other books and include some interesting examples of labor history. Unfortunately the facts don't bear out Sole's contention that general strikes have been a perfectly legal method of struggle. On the contrary. The history of general strikes is in large part a history of government repression, of government leaders having labor leaders arrested, of the army or national guard being called out to break picket lines, shoot down strikers, etc. When the bourgeois government sees a threat to its control over the working class, it bans strikes, pickets, demonstrations, etc. and uses deadly force against workers' organizations that violate these bans regardless of any "right of free speech" or "freedom to assemble." The main lesson, then, of the history given by Sole is not that general strikes are perfectly legal, but that any serious general strike -- a general strike that actually threatens the bourgeois establishment and threatens to win major demands -- must be prepared to deal with murderous repression. To seriously carry through a general strike means to be prepared to fight the forces of the state -- police, national guard, army -- sent to repress it.

. Incidentally, this is also one reason why a general strike -- even a solid, nationwide general strike -- does not necessarily translate into a revolution. Workers' strike action may bring the economy to its knees, but if the workers are not organized politically, and even militarily, the capitalists can starve them into submission while sending troops against their picket lines. The organized power of the capitalists extends beyond ownership of the means of production into the political, military and other spheres, and the workers must be prepared to counter that if they are to succeed in carrying out a revolution.

. Amazingly, Sole draws the opposite conclusion from his history, that general strikes have been accepted by the bourgeoisie as legal. Similarly, while occasionally admitting the treachery of some union leaders, he ignores the sharp struggles between radicalism and reformism in the unions and their leadership, and creates the impression that most all the union officials stood up in militant struggle. Then he bemoans that in the decades after World War II "the U. S. working class became depoliticized and lost touch with its militant and socialist roots." But he still doesn't admit that a reformist union bureaucracy exists. It's not that Sole is against a militant workers' movement -- oh no, he's all for it, simply provided that it's perfectly legal and led by AFL-CIO labor bureaucrats. This was the path taken by Sole and WWP in the Detroit newspaper strike when they urged the local AFL-CIO leadership to organize a general strike. While we and a number of other left activists agitated for militant pickets in defiance of the labor bureaucrats, who were knuckling under to court injunctions, WWP placed its hopes in these same labor bureaucrats. Similarly today Sole appeals for the labor bureaucrats to do something militant, maybe even call a general strike, while opposing the development of rank-and-file anger at the do-nothing labor bureaucrats.

. Sole's call for the labor movement to revive its militant and socialist roots is a fne idea. But this can't be done by trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the workers and convincing them that the hardened bureaucrats riding herd over them are militant socialists. Nor can the bureaucrats who have been solidified in power for generations as anti-communist bulwarks of the bourgeoisie be won over to militant socialism by some labor lawyer's glib assurances about the legality of general strikes. To revive a militant pro-socialist labor movement will require the rank and file taking matters into their own hands. <>


(1) "Open Letter to the Leaders and Members of Detroit City Unions" from the Executive Board of UAW Local 2234-SCATA, which is the local where David Sole is president. See especially points 1 and 4. Point 5 calls for support for the "National Conference to Reclaim Our Cities", which WWP is organizing as a coalition of activists with Democratic Party politicians. Thus WWP envisions major struggles, and even a general strike, in alliance with reformist labor bureaucrats and establishment politicians. (Return to text)

(2) See David Sole's article "How can the workers win? Exploring the tactic of a general strike," Workers World, Sept. 21, 1995. This is reprinted in the collection of articles Showdown in Motown: the Detroit Newspaper Strike, July 1995-June 1997. Articles from the pages of Workers' World weekly newspaper. (Text)

(3) David Sole, General Strike! An American Tradition, July 22, 1998. The Introduction describes his motivation for writing the pamphlet. Page 24 has the resolution, which proposes a "one-day" general work stoppage. (Text) <>

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October 15, 2005.
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