THE GENERAL STRIKE: Myth and Misconception.

It is perhaps not surprising in the present circumstances, that the idea of a General Strike is being discussed by many on the left. Indeed some such actions have already taken place in Greece and Spain. However, it is important to understand that a great deal of myth and misconception surrounds this form of struggle. The concept is often promoted initially as a top-down ‘call’ from either a small group of impatient activists or threatened trade union bureaucrats. In this form it represents an idealised projection in which it is only necessary to formulate a) who it is to involve, b) what preparations are necessary, c) who is to co-ordinate it, and d) what it is intended to achieve. When these have been decided by the ‘leaders’ then it is only necessary to ‘spread the word’ and fix the date.

It is this idealised form which Rosa Luxemburg argued against in her pamphlet ‘The Mass Strike..etc.’ She suggested that;

“If anyone were to undertake to make the mass strike generally as a form of proletarian action the object of methodical agitation,,… would be as idle and profitless and absurd an occupation as it would to seek to make the idea of the revolution…..the object of a special agitation.” (The Mass Strike etc.)

She was countering the idea that even a large political party such as the German Social Democratic Party, at the time with mass membership should attempt such a call. This is because after her study of large-scale strike actions, both successful and failed in Russia and elsewhere she concluded they cannot be called at will. She noted that where they were attempted – in this top-down form – they invariable failed to materialise and on the few occasions they did so partially – they did not achieve their objective and sometimes the opposite. This was the case whether the purpose of the General Strike was to get a government to change its mind, bring an unpopular one down or in support of a preferred one.

A general strike cannot be manufactured, called into being, or orchestrated by a small group, or a political vanguard or even powerful trade union movement. Such proposals are, as she put it ’the fantasy of revolutionary romanticism‘. Where they do occur such mass strikes, both successful and otherwise, arise out of large-scale changing moods of masses of people, (organised and not) who have exhausted all other forms of struggle and see no other way forward. The majority of examples of authentic mass strikes reveal that they commence as organic worker-led initiatives that under certain economic and social conditions, manage to spark support from other workers and escalate in a kind of chain reaction which becomes more and more organised.

Anyone seriously discussing the idea of a general strike should at least have read Rosa on this issue. Anyone who hasn’t read her pamphlet before discussing it should be viewed with caution if not downright suspicion. In terms of Europe, North America and the United Kingdom, the past experience of large-scale strike action on these continents should be considered and the lessons learned. With regards, the UK the general strike of 1926 should be an important object of study. The misuse of the tactic in 1926 divided and exhausted the workers, alienated potential supporters and strengthened reaction, setting back the workers struggle considerably. However, for the moment I suggest considering the following main outlines of how the much better prepared and planned strike events of 1918 to 1921 known as the ‘Triple Alliance’ managed to be thwarted and wrecked.

The Triple Alliance.

This was a formal alliance of unionised miners, dockworkers, railway and transport workers, which had its roots in 1913. The idea was that an attack upon the working wages and conditions of any one section of the members of these powerful unions, would result in all three sections withdrawing their labour – ‘immediate sympathetic action’ was the formulation used in the joint resolution. Given the early 20th century reliance on the magnitude of labour involved on docks, railways and road transport, such strike and widespread sympathetic action would paralyse energy sources, food imports, transport of food and essential materials to every part of the UK. However, the 1914 – 18 war intervened and the alliance was only resurrected toward the end of it – during a period of large-scale unrest.

i) UK unrest in 1917- 20.

In June 1917 a conference of 1,100 delegates in Leeds discussed the setting up of workers and soldiers councils for the UK. In 1918 the army service Corp demonstrated in London and almost the entire UK police force also went on strike. In 1919 a large-scale strike of Lancashire cotton workers took place and elsewhere the Coldstream guards, refused to embark for Russia. The same year every workshop on the Clydeside stopped work, troops were brought in, martial law was declared and machine gun posts were deployed in Glasgow. At Folkstone 10,000 soldiers mutinied and held the town for a week. On the Isle of Wight 4,000 soldiers clashed with police and the port of Calais was in the control of rioting British soldiers for a time as they refused to obey orders.

That was not all. The sailors of the cruiser ‘Glory’ revolted and this ship and four others had to be sent back to port when they steadfastly refused to fight. Sailors also refused to leave Edinburgh, Invagorden, Davenport and Portsmouth, whilst mutinies occurred in Murmansk and Baku. During this period, much of the British industrial working class was also assertively active which is indicated by the number of strike days lost. 1918 saw 5.8 million working days lost; 1919 witnessed 35 million days lost; 1920 26.5 million; 1921 85 million and 20 million in 1922. And during 1919 the leaders of the Miners and Rail worker’s unions pursued wage increases the workers confident that with the Triple Alliance behind them they would achieve their aims.

ii) A first attempt at mass strike.

In a manoeuvre intended to split the 400,000 rail workers the government and employers response came in the form of granting the claim for Locomotive Drivers and Firemen but announcing 20% wage cuts for all other grades. The union leaders were caught unprepared by this with no clear strike plan or available strike funds. Nevertheless the strike went ahead and chaos, hardship and failure was only avoided by the initiative of the Co-operative bank which printed special cheques and food vouchers for strikers. The government on the other hand was well prepared and set in motion emergency transport, posted troops at every railway station, set up armed citizen guards and published a special propaganda newspaper. The government seemed set to defeat the railway workers and starve them into submission.

But that was not the final act of the unfolding drama. Postmen blacked all work normally done by rail workers and the miners and transport workers lobbied their leaders to enact sympathy strikes. A conference of the Triple Alliance was called but instead of ‘immediate sympathetic action’ being the outcome, a committee was elected to negotiate with the government. In view of the massive amount of support among the working class and public, the government backed down and the cuts did not take place. 1919 closed with the Triple Alliance having only partially functioned and with the wages and conditions of the other two unions still to be decided.

iii) A second attempt at a mass strike.

In 1920 the Dockers succeeded in winning higher wages and reduced hours. In London the dock workers then discovered that a ship they were loading, called the Jolly George, was carrying munitions intended to be used against the new workers soviets in Russia. They went on strike and ‘councils of action’ were formed in many towns and cities. Meanwhile the British government was sending warships to the Baltic to oppose the new soviet government. In a further response an emergency conference was called on the 13th August attended by 1,004 delegates from trade unions and labour organisations. The conference called for ‘any and every form of labour withdrawal’ which ‘circumstances may require’. So again the government altered its tactics.

1920 also saw the miners conference press for higher wages and a reduction of coal prices for domestic users. The government refused. The NUM balloted their members who voted for strike by a 2/3 majority. They immediately activated the Triple Alliance Agreement. However, the leaders of the respective unions when they got together, could not agree who should control the action. In exchange for their support, the leaders of the Railway men and Transport workers wanted to determine what the miners should accept as a satisfactory settlement. The miners rejected this and the rail worker representative, JH Thomas then announced that the NUR would not support the miners. Shortly after, H. Gosling, Transport workers leader, announced the same.

The miners strike action commenced on October 16th 1920. A few days later, a special delegate conference of the NUR decided to back the miners with sympathy action. No doubt bearing in mind the popular unrest over the last few years, at this threat, the government once again backed down and conceded a temporary wage rise. The miners returned to work on November 3rd and their leaders continued to have meetings with the employers and government. The government announced that the previous wartime controls of mining would end from March 1921. Immediately the employers announced an ending of existing wage contracts and introduced re-employment conditions – which reduced wages by up to 50%.

The miners refused to accept the new terms and were locked out of the pits. The government on the same day declared a ‘state of emergency’. Troops were brought back from Ireland, all army leave cancelled, reservists were called up, parks in London and provincial cities were turned into military camps and a ‘civilian defence force‘ was organised. At this all the mine safety workers left their pits to join the locked out miners – putting more pressure on the employers to negotiate. On April 8th the Triple Alliance announced that its members would strike in sympathy if the mine workers demands were not met. Meanwhile other unions such as the Electricians, Post Workers and the Co-op movement offered ‘all support necessary’ to the miners.

iv) A third attempt at a mass strike.

The National Council of Labour and the TUC also declared support for the miners and the Distributive Workers Union submitted plans for the distribution of food during the coming mass strike. All was set for a decisive showdown. The then Prime Minister, Lloyd George invited the miners leaders to meet with the employers in his presence. Knowing the government and employers were of the same mind, the miners refused. That refusal was all it took for the NUR leader to order the withdrawal of the strike notices for rail workers. Again the Transport Workers leader did the same. The rank and file belief in a union top-down ‘organised’ Triple Alliance – Mass Strike – was now revealed as a myth – a misconception! April the 15th, instead of being a day of concerted working class action, became a day of betrayal, subsequently known as Black Friday. All the pieces were in place for a successful campaign, but the union leaderships were simply able to de-rail it at will.

The miners struggled on alone for two months of arrests and intimidation before they finally succumbed and returned to work on the employers terms. In the words of historian AJ Taylor; “To the rejoicing of the educated, prosperous classes, the miners worked once more on terms which seem…as remote and barbaric as serfdom.” (English History 1914 – 45.) Once the miners had been defeated wages were subsequently reduced for building workers, seamen, agricultural workers, dock workers and the following year engineering workers were locked out and suffered wage reductions. The later 1926 tragic misuse of a General Strike tactic – with even less support – also failed. This was followed by the deprivations of ’Hungry 30’s and the barbarity of the Second World War.

v) A few observations.

Even with all the turmoil, unrest and increased class consciousness of the period; even with the large numbers of workers willing to fight; even with many of the important organisational pieces in place, (alternative money, vouchers and cheques), alternative transport and distribution, a General or Mass Strike still proved elusive. Missing were the crucial ingredients outlined by Luxemburg; – workers self determination and activity, refusal to rely on leaderships, well developed rank and file communication networks outside of union officialdom, successful fraternisation with other non-unionised members of the population and too much unchecked over-confidence among some wishful thinking activists. The myth around the General Strike and the consequent misuse of the concept and practice needs to be fully understood before embarking upon such adventures.

Roy Ratcliffe. (February 2013.)

[See also ‘Sectarianism and calls for a General Strike‘; ‘Uprisings and Revolutions‘; and ‘Crisis: so what else can we do?’ all on this blog.]

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4 Responses to THE GENERAL STRIKE: Myth and Misconception.

  1. SteveH says:

    “The concept is often promoted initially as a top-down ‘call’ from either a small group of impatient activists or threatened trade union bureaucrats.”

    Or it is a call from the advanced sections of the working class, as Engels may have called it. Depends what slant you want to put on it. Workers control of enterprises is usually a ‘top-down’ call from a small group of activists!

    The problem with the rejection of mass strike action is that the Unions are basically doing bugger all to counter the Austerity cuts, across Britain public services are being decimated and countless numbers are losing their jobs, UNISON membership base is shrinking and the Union free private sector will pick up the scraps. In this environment what we need are good old fashioned militant unionists, not the current crop of suited yes men of the “don’t rock the boat” variety.

    Without an organised leadership, public sector workers are atomised, competing against each other, demoralised and losing their jobs and benefits!

    The conditions are right for a mass strike across the public sector, time to fight, not a time to lie down and die.

    I do accept that a strike among private sector workers is very unlikely as they are calling for the cuts!!! As are some public sector workers incidentally.

    But without some effective leadership the slide will continue apace. Without mass strikes as part of the strategy, the battle will be surely lost, if it isn’t already.

    So instead of rejecting the strike option this should be the moment we are banging the drums for it!

    • As you quote from the article Steve ‘the concept’ is often promoted as a call by impatient activists etc. As the article also says; were the ‘reality’ as distinct from the concept, emerges from the experience of the working class then its progress is more organic and certain. ‘Banging the drum’as you say may produce a lot of noise but little else of serious content. I hope you have followed the suggestions and at least studied Rosa and/or evaluated the success of one or two of the many attempts of General Strikes so you can help shed further light on this form of struggle.


  2. SteveH says:

    I am a big admirer of Rosa Luxemburg.

    I was also a union rep for about 15 years if that helps and am currently a member of UNISON!

    The main and obvious problem with the mass strike is that most people live pretty much hand to mouth and workers simply cannot stay out on strike for a long period of time. But if the unions are not militant they are nothing in my experience. I think the defeat of the unions is really a story of their bowing to the powers that be and becoming ‘practical’ as Marx would have called it. If ever there was a time for union militancy it is now.

  3. SteveH says:

    PS I am not sure what you were going on about with ‘concept’ and ‘reality’ stuff but if I can attempt to decipher, you are basically saying the workers are not revolutionary enough to meet the call to arms, take the workers as they are etc etc. But then we get the chicken and the egg, if we just take the workers as they are then we are stuffed, we have to try and change their outlook. We need to affect the material conditions, be active rather than passive. We need some leadership!

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