Studies in Socialism/The General Strike and Revolution

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When we speak of the general strike, we must begin by defining the words very clearly. We are not concerned, of course, with the general strike of a single trade. For instance, when the miners of all France decide by the vote of a majority that the time has come for them all to strike to obtain an eight-hour day, a higher pension for old employés, and a minimum wage, it is a very important strike, and may be called a general miners' strike. But that is not what is meant by the words “general strike” in the parlance of those who see in it the decisive means of emancipation. They are not thinking of the limited movement of one trade, no matter how vast its extent. On the other hand, it would be puerile to say that there could not be a general strike unless all wage-earners, in all departments of production, quit work simultaneously. The working class is too much dispersed for such unanimity to be possible or even conceivable.

But the words "general strike" have another meaning, very precise, and at the same time very comprehensive. They mean that the most important trades, those that dominate the whole productive system, shall stop work at the same time. If, for instance, the railroad employés, the miners, dockers, and longshoremen, the employés in the weaving and spinning industries, and the building-trade employés in the great cities, were to quit work simultaneously, we might say that there was a general strike. Because to bring about a general strike it is not necessary that the whole number of trades should be in line; it is not even necessary that in the trades that are on strike every single workman should go out. It is sufficient if those trades where the power of capital is most concentrated and the power of labour best organised, and that are therefore the key-stone of the economic system, decide on a suspension of work, and it is enough if they are backed up by such a large number of workmen that the work of those trades is stopped.

It cannot be objected that a general strike, if this meaning be given to the phrase, is either chimerical or useless. In proportion to the growth of the labour movement, the possibility of this kind of concerted action is increased. And such action can exercise an enormous influence on the ruling class. It is no longer a single trade, no matter how important, that refuses to work, but a whole union of trades. The movement is no longer, then, a trade movement; it has become a class movement. And could such a movement be barren of important results, organised and carried through as it would be by the essentially productive class, that class for which no substitute can be found because none exists?


But there must be no misunderstanding on this point. It must not be imagined that there is a magic virtue in the phrase "general strike," and that the strike itself is absolutely and unconditionally efficacious. A general strike is practical or chimerical, useful or disastrous, according to the conditions under which it takes place, the method it employs, and the end it proposes.

There are, according to my opinion, three indispensable conditions for the utility of a general strike. 1st. The working class must be deeply and truly convinced of the importance of the object for which it is declared. 2d. A large section of public opinion must be prepared to recognise the legitimacy of that object. 3d. The general strike must not seem like a disguise for violence, but simply the exercise of the legal right to strike, more systematic in method and vaster in scope than usual, it is true, and with a more clearly marked class character.

First, it is essential that the body of organised labour should attach very great importance to the object for which the strike is declared. Neither the decisions of trade-union congresses, nor the orders of workmen's committees would be strong enough to drag the workers into a struggle always formidable, but especially so under these conditions. To brave privation and misery, even with the object of escaping from the situation in which one is sunk, requires great energy. Such energy cannot be roused in an entire class without the influence of really passionate feeling. And this in its turn is not aroused in men's souls to the degree when it becomes a working and fighting force, except by an interest both very close and very overwhelming, by a very important aim that can be immediately realised.

For instance, it is easy to understand how the best organised, the most self-conscious trades, educated by a definite and widespread propaganda on the subject, may come to be passionately interested in the eight-hour day, in pensions for old age and accidents, and effective insurance against non-employment. One can imagine that, if the authorities refused to face these questions or opposed the workmen's solution, enough energy and fervour might be accumulated to bring about the declaration of a great and persevering strike. The working class is willing to fight for definite and great ends, for positive, extended, and immediately practicable reforms. Under conditions such as these, but under no others, the signal given by the labour organisations will be obeyed.

But even if the proletariat is really roused and passionately in earnest, that is not enough. It is not enough for it to follow its own inner impulse if it has not also received a mandate from without. It must have demonstrated to a notable fraction of public opinion that its claims are legitimate and immediately realisable. Every general strike will necessarily bring about disorders in economic relations; it will upset many traditions and go counter to many interests. The opinion of the mass of the nation (and even of that very considerable portion of the wage-earning class who will not have taken part in the movement) will therefore be very emphatically ranged against those on whom rests the responsibility for a prolongation of the conflict. But this opinion will not fix the responsibility on the capitalist class and will not condemn it with any force, unless the justice of the strikers' claims and the possibility of satisfying them immediately have been clearly demonstrated by an ardent and serious propaganda. It will then express itself against the selfishness of the great owners, the routine or the selfishness of public authorities, and the general strike will result in a notable success. On the contrary, if the neutral masses have not been prepared beforehand and partly won over, they will decide against the strikers. And as no force, even a revolutionary one, can hold out against the public opinion of the whole of the nation, the working class will suffer a widespread defeat.

Finally, I say that if the general strike is conceived and comes before the public, not in the form of a wider and more perfectly organised exercise of the legal right to strike, but as the forerunner of a movement of revolutionary violence, it will at once set up a reactionary movement of fear which the more intelligent fraction of the proletariat will not be able to resist.


There is, however, another conception attached to the general strike by some of the theorisers on the subject. They think that the general strike of the most important trades would be enough to bring on the Social Revolution, that is, the fall of the whole capitalist system, and the establishment of democratic and proletarian Communism. The economic life of the country would be suspended, railroads would be deserted, the coal necessary for industry would remain buried underground; steamers could not even get in to the docks, where no workmen would unload the merchandise. Everywhere there would be a stoppage in circulation and in production. Naturally great discomfort would result. The workers, in stopping exchange and production, would be starving themselves, and would therefore be forced to adopt violent methods in order to live. They would seize food and other provisions wherever they could lay hands on them. The privileged classes, threatened alike in their persons and possessions, would be shocked and frightened by the inevitable anger of the proletariat, whose time-honoured suffering would be intensified by the crisis of misery and hunger. Hence would come inevitable conflicts between the working class and the panic-stricken guardians of the capitalist system. At the end of a few days, then, the general strike would become purely revolutionary in character. And as the capitalist power would be scattered by the very necessity of keeping watch over such a varied and widespread movement, as the army of repression would be scattered and submerged in the flood, the proletariat would be able to overcome the obstacle against which it had heretofore only beat itself in vain, and, master of the social system at last, would install labour as sovereign.

That is the idea. I do not say that it is as clear as that in the minds of all theorisers on the subject of the general strike. I do not say that all who acclaim it attach the whole of this meaning to it. But I do say that for those who see in it the decisive means of liberation, it has that meaning or none.

Well, given this revolutionary meaning, I think the ideal is a false one. First, a tactical movement is especially dangerous when it cannot fail a single time without involving an immense disaster for the whole working class.

The partisans of the general strike, taking the words in this sense, are obliged—understand this clearly—to succeed the first time. If a general strike fails, after having had recourse to revolutionary violence, it will have left the capitalist system intact and armed it with implacable fury. The fear of the ruling classes, and even of a great part of the masses, will express itself in a long succession of reactionary years. And the proletariat will be disarmed, bound, and crushed, for an indefinite period.

But is there, under these conditions, a chance of success? I think not. In the first place the working class would not rouse itself to action in defence of a general formula, such as the advent of Communism would be. The idea of Social Revolution in the abstract would not be enough to animate them. The Socialistic idea, the Communist idea, is strong to guide and co-ordinate successive efforts on the part of the proletariat. It is toward the accomplishment of that end, towards its gradual realisation, that the proletariat is directing its organised effort. But if a great movement is to be started, it is essential that the idea of Social Revolution should be embodied in specific claims.

To bring the working class to the point of leaving the factories and of beginning a battle to the death with all the powers of the present social system, a battle full of uncertainty and peril, it is not enough to cry "Communism!" because the proletarians will immediately say, "Which Communism?" and "What form will it assume to-morrow if we win?"

Great movements are never set on foot for the attainment of remote and vaguely understood ends. They need something solid to work for: they demand a clearly defined, specific issue.

The most practical representatives of the theory of the general strike are perfectly aware of this. They propose to rouse the working class to action in the first place by certain definite claims. And they hope that this movement, when it has become revolutionary in character, as it is certain to do, will expand naturally into a complete Communism.

But precisely here lies the essential viciousness of this policy. It is a trick to entrap the working classes. It proposes to drag them in by an irresistible mechanical action, far deeper than the original programme would have given them any reason to suspect. By the attraction of certain concrete, definite, immediate reforms they are to be led to decide on the great operation of a universal strike, and it is supposed that once they have become involved in the network of the machine they will be conveyed almost automatically to the Communist Revolution.

Now I maintain that in a democracy this is contrary to the whole spirit of the Revolution. I say that there can only be a Revolution where there is self-consciousness, and that those who construct an elaborate mechanical contrivance to convey the proletariat to the Revolution, almost without its being aware of what is happening, and fancy that they can lead it to the point desired by a sort of surprise, are going in a direction quite opposite to the real revolutionary tendency.

If the working class is not fully and definitely warned at the outset that it is going on strike for the whole Communist Revolution; if, when it leaves the mines, the railroads, the factories, the yards, it does not know that it is not to re-enter them until it has accomplished the whole Social Revolution; if it is not prepared and resolved to the very centre of its being, and from the very beginning, it will be upset during the progress of the movement by the tardy revelation of a programme that was not submitted to its decision before the initial action was taken. And no artifice, no conjurer's trick, will be able to substitute the hidden aim suddenly discovered for the aim that had been avowed at the outset.

To delude oneself into imagining that a social revolution can result from a misunderstanding, and that the proletariat can be led on beyond its depth is, if I may be permitted to use the word, pure childishness. The transformation of all social relations cannot be the result of a manœuvre.

And if on the other hand the working class is prepared beforehand, if it is told in so many words that it is leaving its work not to go back until it has abolished capitalism, it will be warned by instinct and reflection alike that a society as complicated as ours is not revolutionised by a popular rising of a few days' duration, but by an immense continuous effort of organisation and transformation. From that moment it will shrink back from an enterprise so vague and chimerical as one would shrink from an abyss.


There is still another trick in the tactics proposed by the upholders of a revolutionary general strike. Some of them say: "Perhaps it would not be very easy to draw the proletariat into a deliberately violent movement. It has lost the habit of that sort of thing during the last thirty years, and might not throw itself in instantly, at a signal from the militant organisations. The strike, on the other hand, is a perfectly familiar practice of the working class, and the field of action of strikes is becoming more and more extended. It would therefore be an easy matter to get the working class to take part in a general strike. In the beginning, this would be only a simple extension of its ordinary habits of warfare. Besides,—and this is an important point,—it would be a perfectly legal movement. The law permits strikes; it does not and cannot assign any limit to their action. Consequently the proletariat, in declaring a general strike, would know that it was within its legal rights, and would go into the movement in the strength of that knowledge. Many workmen who would have been shocked at the premeditated use of force and at deliberate revolutionary action, would not hesitate to show their irritation with social injustice by a movement which would be a menace, but would not put them outside the bounds of law in the very beginning and before their blood was up.

"Moreover, the preventative repressive measures of capitalism, if one may use the expression, are made impossible by the legal form that the movement would adopt at the beginning. But little by little, this general strike, this strike of a whole class, will necessarily become a great social battle, a revolutionary combat. The spirit of the working people will be roused and their just anger inflamed by suffering, misery, and the inevitable conflicts that will bring capital and labour to grapple all along the line. Even that part of the proletariat that, before the strike was on, would have shrunk from a systematic use of force, will be gradually wrought up to the proper revolutionary heat by the fire of events, by the battle itself and the sufferings it entails. Then we can count on an explosion of the old order."

If we look at the essential points of the theory and the hope of a certain number of those who see in the general strike an instrument of revolution, we shall see that the above is a true representation of their attitude. In their minds the general strike is a method of revolutionary training applied to a proletariat too much of whose power would remain inert without the brutal excitement of events.

They do not any longer say to the wage-earner, "Take up your gun." But they think that the general strike, perfectly legal in its beginnings, will very quickly be led to arming itself with its gun or any other violent weapon that comes to hand. As a matter of fact, then, they count on the revolutionary force of events to supplement or complete the insufficient revolutionary force of men.

I have a perfect right to say that this is a revolutionary trick. And like every machine that has not been tested by repeated experiments before it is put to a decisive use, this one is bound to disillusionise in many ways those confiding men who expect the greatest results from it. To work up by artificial means a revolutionary excitement which the ordinary action of suffering, misery, and injustice has not been strong enough to produce, is a very hazardous enterprise.

It has been said that revolutions are not decreed. It may be said with still greater truth that they cannot be manufactured; and that no machinery of conflict, no matter how vast or how ingenious, can replace the revolutionary preparation of events and men's minds. It will not do first to postulate the general strike and then expect the Revolution to succeed as an inevitable consequence. It is perfectly possible that the proletariat, needing as they do the pretext and even the illusion of legality to lure them into the movement in the beginning, will shrink from the use of force when the pretext is unmasked and the illusion vanished. The die cast into the air may possibly fall on the side of violence; it may also fall on the side of inertia. Now, the dice-box cannot be held in the hand for long, or the game begun again an indefinite number of times. At all events it is possible that there will be a great deal of haziness, confusion, and contradiction in this movement, the leaders of which will have counted more on the unconscious and obscure force of events than on the resolute force of individual consciousness. At one point, the conflict may, as expected, result in a revolutionary movement; at another it will keep its legal form and be extinguished in inaction. The revolutionary movement, lacking that basis and solid foundation which the deliberate free-will of men alone can give, will be delivered into the power of local events, and the machinery of revolution will not take hold everywhere in the same way. Hence will come discord, discouragement, and defeat. It is perfectly true historically that events which were at first limited in scope and harmless in appearance have resulted in vast and unforeseen conclusions. But it is utterly impossible to rely on this growth, and there is no known process, not even the general strike, which can inevitably produce the Revolution as an outcome of a movement whose beginnings were legal.


Moreover,—and this is an especial illusion of many militant Socialists,—it has not been proved at all that the general strike, even if it does take on a revolutionary character, will force the capitalist system to capitulate. Bourgeois society will set up a resistance proportional to the magnitude of the interests at stake. In other words, to a revolutionary general strike that will require of it the sacrifice of its very existence, it will oppose a resistance up to the limit of its powers.

Now, neither a stoppage of production and transportation, nor even extended violence to property and persons, is enough to bring about the overthrow of a society. No matter how powerful one supposes the effects of a general revolutionary strike to be, they can hardly exceed those of great wars and great invasions. Great wars, too, put a stop to or very much upset production, suspend or hinder traffic, and throw all economic life into a confusion which one might suppose fatal. Notwithstanding all this, societies resist these almost deadly crises, these apparently insuperable evils, with the most extraordinary vitality.

I am not speaking of the Hundred Years' War in France, or the Thirty Years' War in Germany. Then society kept its form in spite of unheard-of trials,—brigandage, sieges, famines, burnings, perpetual fighting and ravaging of whole tracts of country. But in more modern societies, in bourgeois society itself, what prodigious upheavals! Since the last half of 1793 the society that was the creation of the Revolution has suffered and has even inflicted on itself in its own defence injuries that doubtless no general strike can equal. A considerable proportion of the most useful part of the population, one million five hundred thousand men out of a population of twenty-five millions, are torn from the fields and workshops and thrown to the frontiers. Civil war is raging at the same time as foreign war. The Vendée, Brittany, the South, Lyons, are up and in flames. One half of France is in arms against the other half. A dry and very hot summer has brought a poor harvest. Wheat does not circulate easily, each district wishing to keep for itself as much grain as possible. Although Paris is not invested it is subjected to a real state of siege: the people have to stand in line at the door of the bakeshops, regular rations are established; bread is rare. The depreciation of paper money throws all transactions into confusion. But in spite of all these difficulties France keeps enough vital force, revolutionary society has enough spring left, first to defend itself and later to take up offensive tactics again. One can take a city by famine and by force; but a whole society is not captured by these means. It has to deliver itself.

In 1870-71 one third of France is occupied by the enemy; Paris is besieged; civil war follows upon foreign; a formidable indemnity is imposed on the nation, but notwithstanding all this the deep springs of life are not touched, and the moment peace is declared they gush forth again in marvellous abundance.


And even supposing that a general revolutionary strike does succeed in closing all ports, in immobilising all locomotives, in destroying railroads, even in occupying as sovereign certain regions that are especially given over to the labouring class, and in menacing and reducing the food-supply of certain great cities and of the capital; in spite of all this, necessity, so ingenious in the face of difficulties, will bring innumerable new resources to light. Consumption and the social life of the community will if necessary be enormously reduced, and human nature will accommodate itself to tragic privations, just as at the end of a siege it accommodates itself to a régime the bare idea of which, a few months before, would have made the bravest man tremble. And if bourgeois society and private property will not give way, if the great majority of citizens is opposed to the new social order that the general strike wishes to install by a coup de surprise, then bourgeois society and private property will find a way to live, to defend themselves, and gradually to rally the forces of conservatism and reaction, even in the confusion and disorder of economic life.

Some imagine, it is true, that the general strike, breaking out at many points simultaneously, would oblige the capitalist and proprietary government to spread its armed force over such a large area that it would be practically absorbed by the Revolution. This conception is extremely ingenuous. The bourgeois government would devote itself first of all to the protection of the public authorities, the assemblies, in which, by the will of the majority itself, legal power would reside. If they could not do everything at once, they would abandon if necessary the railroads and the regions where the Revolution was best organised to the strikers; they would give their attention to the concentration of their forces and, backed by the enormous prestige that the will of the legal representatives of the nation would give, they would not hesitate to strike some heavy blow, and would then re-occupy the regions abandoned in the first instance and re-establish communications, just as they are re-established in a few days in a country that an enemy has recently evacuated after tearing up the railroads and destroying the bridges. Even if Paris were for a moment lost to the authorities, as it was in 1871,—and, considering the different social elements of which Paris is composed, this cannot be taken for granted,—it would be enough for them to have a meeting-place and to wait in safety, as the King of France waited at Bourges, and M. Thiers at Versailles, the entry of the conservative forces. And they would enter of their own accord without delay. No one should forget that, with the shooting clubs and gymnasiums that are so much under reactionary influence, the habits of outdoor sports so fashionable in the upper and middle classes, and the military training of the proprietary classes, these proprietors, the capitalists both great and small, and the angry shopkeepers would be capable even of a very vigorous use of force.

And what would the Revolution be doing all this time? In those regions where it would have seemed victorious at first, it would only be able to eat its heart out on the spot, and exhaust itself in useless violence. The liberal revolutions of 1830 and 1848 had a very definite end in view—to overthrow the existing government and to replace it. The revolutionary blows of Blanqui were always calculated to strike at the head and heart. He did not waste his strength; on the contrary, he concentrated it to attack one or two vital parts of the political system of government.

The revolutionary method of the general strike is the exact opposite. Precisely because it gives an economic turn to the combat in the beginning, it does not supply the working-class forces with a single central aim on which they can unite. They will stay on the spot, at the mouth of the deserted pit, on the threshold of the abandoned factory. Or if the proletarians take possession of the mine and the factory, it will be a perfectly fictitious ownership. They will be embracing a corpse, for the mines and factories will be no better than dead bodies while economic circulation is suspended and production is stopped. So long as a class does not own and govern the whole social machine, it can seize a few factories and yards if it wants to, but it really possesses nothing. To hold in one's hands a few pebbles of a deserted road is not to be master of transportation.

Destruction will be the only resource open to the working class, astonished as it will be at its powerlessness in the midst of an apparent victory. But what good would acts of destruction accomplish except to give a savage character to the rising of the proletariat? Observe that the tactics of a general strike have for their object and do indeed result in the decomposition, the infinite subdivision of economic life. To stop the locomotives, tie up the steamers, and deprive industry of coal, is to substitute the scattered life of innumerable local groups for the unified and general life of the nation. Now this cutting-up and subdivision of life is exactly counter to the Revolution.

The bourgeois Revolution was accomplished by groups that drew closer and closer together with Paris as a central bond. Every great revolution presupposes an exaltation of life, and this exaltation is only possible when there is that consciousness of unity produced by the ardent intercommunication of strength and enthusiasm. And the proletariat will accomplish its revolution by the organisation, both in the political and economic world, of strong class representation and class action, which will penetrate and bind together all phases of their life. Division is a return to feudalism. The stoppage of transportation proposed by the supporters of the general strike would force society to revert to the conditions of an inferior civilisation.

We should see isolated groups gathered passively about the oligarchical owners and dependent on them for their supply of the accumulated means of subsistence. The rich would be temporary kings, social chiefs, and feudal lords in many country districts and small towns. And little by little, all these small sovereignties and tiny oligarchies would co-ordinate their strength to surround and crush the motionless and shame-faced Revolution, that, thinking to deprive the Government of all means of communication, would have succeeded only in isolating and breaking up its own forces.


It is, then, perfectly chimerical to hope that the revolutionary tactics of a general strike would enable even a bold, self-conscious, and active proletarian minority to quicken the march of events by force. No trick, no machinery of surprise, can free Socialism from the necessity of winning over the majority of the nation by propaganda and legal methods.

Does this mean that the idea of a general strike is useless, that it is a negligible quantity in the vast social movement? Not for a moment. In the first place, I have already shown under what conditions and in what form it could hasten social evolution and the advancement of the cause of labour. In the second place, that such an idea could have appealed to any class as a possible means of liberation ought to be a terrible and decisive warning to society. What! the working class is the main supporter of the whole social order; it is the creator, the producer. If it stops, then everything stops. And one might speak of it in the magnificent phrase that Mirabeau, the first prophet of the general strike, used of the Third Estate, still united then as workmen and bourgeois. "Take care," he cried to the privileged classes, "do not irritate this people, that produces everything, and that, to make itself formidable, has only to become motionless."

The owning and governing class has as yet learned to surrender too small a part of real power to this proletariat, the possessor of such formidable negative force, which at any moment it may be tempted to use. The owners have given, or rather they have allowed the working class to retain, so small a measure of confidence in the efficacy of legal evolution, that this class is fascinated more and more by the idea of refusing to work at all. Labour dreaming of refusing its service, the heart meditating stopping; that is the profound internal crisis to which we have been brought by the selfishness and blindness of the privileged classes, the absence of any definite plan of action on our part. Toward this abyss of a revolutionary general strike the proletariat is feeling itself more and more drawn, at the risk not only of ruining itself should it fall over, but of dragging down with it for years to come either the wealth or the security of the national life.

The general strike, quite powerless as a revolutionary method, is none the less in its very idea a revolutionary index of the highest importance. It is a prodigious warning to the privileged classes, rather than a means of liberation for the exploited classes. It is a dull menace in the very heart of capitalist society that, even if it comes to nothing in the end but an impotent outburst, is witness to an organic disorder that can only be healed by a great transformation.

Finally, if the governing class were mad enough to lay hands on the poor liberties that have been won, the wretchedly insufficient means of action of the proletariat, if they threatened or attacked universal suffrage, if by the persecution of employers and the police they made the right to unite in trades-unions and the right to strike empty forms, then a violent general strike would be certainly the form that a labour revolt would take, it would be their final and desperate recourse, more as a means of injuring the enemy than of saving themselves.

But the working class would be the dupe of a fatal illusion and a sort of unhealthy obsession if it mistook what can be only the tactics of despair for a method of revolution. Apart from those convulsive upheavals that escape all forecast and are sometimes the final supreme resource of history brought to bay, there is only one sovereign method for Socialism—the conquest of a legal majority.