September 21, 2014
May Day 2012: The Call for a General Strike
Posted on Mar 15, 2012
By Scott Tucker
In the winter of 2011, discussion about calling a general strike had already begun within Occupy Los Angeles. At the end of January 2012, in the wake of police raids against Occupy encampments (and with many friends and comrades then still in jail), Occupy Los Angeles issued a call for a May Day general strike, which was quickly endorsed by Occupy Oakland.
Even those who are already active and well informed may find some of the links and articles at the end of this piece useful. I do not pretend to give a full historical overview of mass strikes and general strikes, nor even to cover all the ongoing debates inside and outside the Occupy movement on what a general strike might mean. Where I have quoted from my previous articles in Truthdig, I have quoted only those passages that may illuminate the history and possibilities of general strikes. And in quoting from some socialists of the past, I have left intact a few references to ideas I do not share, in particular “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
If we argue that a class-conscious movement will become fully civil libertarian only when workers find a way to leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom, in what way would such “dialectical” reasoning prevent us from establishing an outright dictatorship? When civil liberties are sacrificed “temporarily,” these temporary measures have often led to the actual sacrifice of human lives in prison camps and mass graves.
All the links and articles appended below are in chronological order of publication, with the exception of the article by Natasha Lennard published in Salon on Feb. 29, which is listed first. I admire Lennard’s article, though I wish she had not ended by invoking Georges Sorel’s theory that a general strike “could only function as a myth and that the myth was all important.” Of course, Lennard was not giving any simple and direct endorsement of Sorel, but neither did she call his work into serious question.
Sorel is a problematic figure and thinker, precisely in his tendency to mythologize. Sorel’s theories on revolutionary violence (too complex to be summarized here) have a reactionary undercurrent. In my view, any invitation to political mythology has also gone half the distance toward cults of personality and toward a cult of violence. Nonviolent methods of confronting state power are the most democratic and the least damaging to the very goals of any radical social movement. Sorel’s appeal to the “myth” of the general strike will not help us to place the actual histories of general strikes on a firm foundation. We will do better to acknowledge human hope (the irreducibly utopian dimension of our lives), and then study past general strikes and recent mass protests with sober attention to history.
Square, Site wide
Even with heroic efforts, do we really have the time, resources and influence in strategic ports, cities and workplaces to build momentum for a general strike on May Day 2012? Here is another way of asking that question: Do we have any realistic hope of making local strikes and focal workplace struggles a truly general strike, crossing state lines and maybe even national borders?
The first rule is to begin. We can be certain that a general strike has no chance at all of spreading across a county line, much less a state line or national border, if we do not start small and start now. If you have six friends you trust and a place to meet, that’s a beginning. Spread the word. There are many kinds of mass strikes covering the general terrain of one kind of workplace, or of many city neighborhoods, or even of entire nations. In this sense, the call for a general strike is not “mythological,” but empirical. Democracy is irreducibly experimental. We do not expect each May Day in Los Angeles, for example, to double the previous year’s number of participants. In social movements as in nature, there are high and low tides.
2. Nonviolence and Worldly Ethics
Given the severe and coordinated national police sweeps and crackdowns on Occupy encampments earlier this year, is the call for a general strike irresponsible? Can we guarantee there will be no escalation in repression, jail terms and violence? Isn’t a general strike just too damn dangerous for all concerned?
In public life we face our own fears, as well as the objective dangers. Anyone who is agitating for direct destruction of property or “armed struggle” should probably go find other like-minded companions. Forming a “hard core” of militants also tends to form hardened dogmas and cults of personality. This undermines root-and-branch democracy. The rest of us are not necessarily swearing an oath of religious pacifism (a matter of personal faith), but we are committed to the more pragmatic forms of nonviolence. Isn’t democracy also dangerous? At least as dangerous as any call for a general strike? We are creatures on earth and inheritors of human history, so we have no ultimate guarantees of safety. No one gets out alive, no one gets out pure. A worldly ethic of solidarity is not a new world religion.
3. Class Consciousness and Civil Liberties
Though some strong alliances were formed between labor unions and the Occupy movement, are we realistic to expect sufficient labor solidarity for a general strike? Especially in the United States, where both of the big corporate parties have treated labor unions (at best) as arms of management and otherwise (at worst) as obstacles to state power? Didn’t militant workers create the vital energy and organization for previous general strikes in North America? Less than 12 percent of U.S. workers now belong to labor unions, so shouldn’t the “pragmatic” unions stick to a defensive program against corporate assaults?
The Occupy movement began splendidly as a class-conscious and civil libertarian movement. Deliberately, the Occupy movement guarded its political independence from all the usual career politicians of the capitalist parties, but also from all the usual sectarian groups on the left. I am a (small d) democratic socialist, so I do believe there can be open conversations between socialists and the much greater number of people whose class consciousness may not have evolved much further than thinking in the stark mathematical formula of the 99 percent against the 1 percent. “We are the 99 percent” was a brilliant slogan for the beginning of a movement. In the long run, that slogan will lose some luster as we try to explain how the ruling class can hire sectors of the middle classes (including managers) and of the working classes (including the most brutal police) to enforce corporate rule. A strong labor movement was once a great source of public education on all matters related to class-conscious struggles in the workplace, though union leaders sometimes slipped into the pockets of politicians as spare change. A labor union movement that always organizes on the defensive will be waging more and more losing battles, unless workers demand more direct workplace ownership and democracy.
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