The recent fights sparked by the economic crisis have inspired some sections of the left to make calls for a general strike. It is a slogan the left has used before. But not everyone uses the call in the same way.
For some, a general strike (mass industrial action for a limited or an indefinite period) is the immediate cure-all for a particular problem or for the problems of society in general. For others, the slogan is used to help build some elan around their own organisation and to differentiate themselves from other revolutionaries and in the labour movement. Marxists should have a different approach.
Marxists believe that re-making the world requires mass action — including actions such as mass strikes — by the working class. In history general strikes have had a decisive, positive impact on revolutionary situations. At other times, the failure of general strikes has thrown our class into a period of disunity and disorder. So a “general strike” doesn’t necessarily fix everything!
Writing in 1935, Leon Trotsky identified four general “types” of situation in which a general strike may occur.
The first, where the a weak government “takes fright” at the general strike or threat of one and immediately grants some concession to the strikers. Trotsky points to the Belgian general strike of 1893 and the general strike during the revolutionary events of 1905 in St Petersburg, Russia.
Second, where a general strike is organised to “frighten” the government, rather than as a tactic in a campaign with specific goals. Such a general strike is a sign of “utter impotence” on the part of the workers’ leaders. Such a general strike is easily dealt with by the government without the granting of concessions. If the government is not already frightened, then a general strike will not make it frightened but rather, make it more determined not to back down!
Third, a general strike where the official leaders is quickly ready to make concessions and agreements with the government to end the action, imposing their weight “from above’, without reference to or consultation with the wider movement. Such a situation can lead to the granting of concessions by the state, but not always. The British general strike of 1926 is an example of this scenario.
Fourthly, a general strike that “leads directly to the barricades” (Engels’ term). Trotsky writes that a “strike of this sort can only lead to complete victory or defeat”. Here, he is writing of general strikes that pose the immediate question of “who rules society?” Such general strikes are carried out in the context of other forms of revolutionary struggle and can carry over into other forms of co-ordinated mass strike action.
In The Mass Strike Rosa Luxemburg analysed debates on this issue between labour movement and socialist currents. Her starting point was the role played by general strikes in the revolutionary movements of Russia in 1905.
Luxemburg makes the important point that mass strikes are the culmination of a historical and material process: such strikes cannot simply be plucked out of thin air.
The general strike — no matter the circumstances within which it originates — always poses new and acute political questions. A general strike isn’t just a tactic to back up the parliamentary political process, as some Second International socialists contended, but has a political life and dynamic of its own.
A specific call for a general strike does make concrete political sense sometimes, and Rosa Luxemburg herself argued for the German socialist movement to prepare for such a call in 1910. There have been at least two such points in Britain in the past forty years: in 1972 when a series of mass, unofficial solidarity strikes and factory occupations challenged a Tory government which was trying to do what Thatcher eventually did in 1979-80; and in 1984-85 during the miners’ strike.
In July 1972 the TUC called a one-day general strike… and quickly called it off when the government backed down a bit. In 1984-85, the call came from sections of the movement (including, in coded terms, miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, and in uncoded terms, left Labour MPs close to him). It went unanswered. At both times, the realistic potential for general strike action existed in conditions that would have brought about decisive political change.
Such conditions do not exist now. To demand that the working class bridge the gap between historically low levels of militancy to general strike action at the drop of a hat is unrealistic. The call for a general strike becomes not serious agitation but catchpenny phrasemongering to fulfill the narrow needs and expectations of the group making the call.
However, conditions can change very quickly and the immediate responses of our class to the cuts onslaught may quickly turn things around. In such a situation the organised left will need to keep its head.
• Further reading: Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, Leon Trotsky, The nature of the general strike: critical observations, New International, October 1947