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May Day 2012: The Call for a General Strike

Scott Tucker
Contributor
Scott Tucker is a writer and a democratic socialist. His book of essays, "The Queer Question: Essays on Desire and Democracy," was published by South End Press in 1997. He met Larry Gross in 1975, and they…
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.

1. Start Small, Start Now

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.

4. Theory Is Memory With a Purpose

The Occupy movement has to evolve beyond encampments subject to mass police raids. But evolution in what forms and in which directions? The Occupy movement has begun branching out to occupy workplaces, foreclosed homes, student debt, industrial wastelands, corporate buildings and might well revisit financial centers of power. These are likewise some of the sites for a more general occupation in a general strike.

The practical goals of the Occupy movement, and indeed of any general strike, will be decided in the actual practice of occupying workplaces, homes and apartments, schools and libraries, public streets and parks, and the whole public sphere of free speech and assembly. In this sense, our class-conscious goals coincide with a deeply civil libertarian conception of public life, and public memory becomes our best source of political theory. Theory is memory with a purpose. If we have a long span of memory in surveying the past, we will have a clearer view of the landscape in surveying the possibilities of the future. Anyone who thinks a general strike happens in one lightning stroke, or that the Occupy movement is a complete break from the past, is a political romantic. In personal life, romance needs no defense. In political life, however, a romantic perspective leads to many cults of personality, abuses of authority and political mystification.

5. Apocalypse and Phony Pragmatism — Two Sides of Debased Bipartisan Currency

Isn’t any general talk of the evolution of the Occupy movement general nonsense, as indeed is the whole notion of a general strike? In 2012 we will be asked to vote by rote for (almost) any Democrat against (almost) any Republican, and the usual apocalyptic post-election scenarios will be used to push people into the usual battalions of voters. In this last view, Occupy was a splendid moment, but let it go. Move On!

Over the course of the past four decades and more, the two big corporate parties have been locked in a flaming downward spiral into the political abyss. Some Democrats like to romanticize Bill Clinton’s years in the White House as a golden age of public responsibility and financial sanity. They forget (or refuse to remember) that Clinton continued bipartisan policies of war, militarism and ecological recklessness. But Clinton also undermined civil liberties, tore down the last remnants of welfare protections for poor and single parents, and was committed to the deregulation of big banks and high finance. Obama beat the Clintons and other Democratic Leadership Council insiders at their own game of political triangulation, and so the candidate of hope and change now presides over bipartisan wars and over Congress, itself the front office of the ruling class. Greens, Socialists, Libertarians and a number of smaller parties should join together in a coalition with the single goal of radical electoral reform. In certain areas, Socialists and Greens should coordinate political campaigns while keeping their partisan autonomy. Those last two political objectives will not be of interest to outright anarchists, and to some members of the Occupy movement who are now taking a healthy break from rigged elections. We, the people, will have to invent a dual form of power that extends social democracy beyond election days, but is also firmly established in fair elections. In areas where the disenfranchisement of voters and of anti-corporate parties has been most blatant, voters might protest at their local polling places on Election Day with signs and leaflets explaining the need for fair elections, campaign finance reform, proportional representation and instant runoff voting.

Not one cent and not one vote for the parties of war and empire.

For peace, democracy and socialism.

Information and Resources:

Can Occupy pull off a general strike?
[Salon, Feb. 29, 2012, by Natasha Lennard]

Among the slogans resonating around the May Day calls is the pithy reminder that “strike is a verb, not a noun.” The call to general strike, then, is best understood at this point as a brash and ambitious call to action. Writing in the early 20th century, French theorist Georges Sorel argued that a real general strike could only function as a myth and that the myth was all important — the idea of something unattainable, mysterious and indescribable that can drive and inspire revolution. By Sorel’s lights, there can be no successful general strike on May 1, there has never been a successful general strike and never could be one — and that is why it’s all important to call for general strike to invigorate action.

There is a very good Wikipedia article on the general strike (with historical examples of general strikes — not “mythical” but actual), and with references to the Industrial Workers of the World, the general strikes in North American cities of 1919 and to Rosa Luxemburg.

The Online Books Page has a list of books in several languages on mass and general strikes.

Occupy May 1 General Strike/Los Angeles General Strike Committee

Occupy May Day — General Strike/Facebook
Rosa Luxemburg and the Libertarian Left
[Truthdig, Jan. 14, 2011]

From 1896 to 1898, Bernstein (who had been an exile in Switzerland and Britain under the anti-Socialist laws) wrote a series of articles for the party press titled “Problems of Socialism,” and in 1899 his book “Prerequisites of Socialism” was published. In English this book is better known as “Evolutionary Socialism.” From 1898 to 1900, Luxemburg responded to Bernstein in a series of articles collected under the title “Social Reform or Revolution.” In a speech she made to the SPD Stuttgart Congress on Oct. 4, 1898, she summarized the practical import of the theoretical battle:

“And then the well-known statement [by Bernstein] in the Neue Zeit [New Age]: ‘The final goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me; the movement is everything!’ … The conquest of political power remains the final goal and that final goal remains the soul of the struggle. The working class cannot take the decadent position of the philosophers: ‘The final goal is nothing to me, the movement is everything.’ No, on the contrary, without relating the movement to the final goal, the movement as an end in itself is nothing to me, the final goal is everything.”

No good cause is served by aggrandizing the reputation of Luxemburg, who stood both firm and fallible in life, or by the critical annihilation of Bernstein, an eminently decent man. Both Bernstein and Luxemburg paid attention to reality, and came to opposite conclusions about the relation between reforms and revolution. But Arendt was also surely correct in noting that one of Bernstein’s main convictions was “shamefully hidden in a footnote” of his book. In Bernstein’s own words, “I feel no hesitation in declaring that I consider the middle class — not excepting the German — in their bulk to be still fairly healthy, not only economically, but also morally.” Speaking of “the revolutionists from the East who led the attack on Bernstein — Plekhanov, Parvus, and Rosa Luxemburg,” Arendt wrote, “The guests from Eastern Europe were the only ones who not merely ‘believed’ in revolution as a theoretical necessity but wished to do something about it, precisely because they considered society as it was to be unbearable on moral grounds, on the grounds of justice.”

Though less famous, Luxemburg’s later criticism of the “orthodox” Marxism of Karl Kautsky, and of his “strategy of attrition,” was perhaps even more important. In this case, she was challenging a man who was regarded even by Russian revolutionaries as a venerable oracle of Marxist theory, and who had at first welcomed Luxemburg as a polemical ally against Bernstein. As Lenin and Trotsky later acknowledged, Luxemburg was the first to realize that Kautsky’s conception of Marxism was to a high degree in practical agreement with reformism, however much it was framed within a formally revolutionary theory. Already in 1906, Luxemburg defended and promoted the general strike. Kautsky argued against her views, yet they remained friends at this time. In the party press, their argument took on greater polemical heat. Kautsky also found Luxemburg’s calls for a German republic untimely. The general strike may be regarded as the more radical position, and the call for a republic as the more conservative: but that is a conventional view in retrospect. Fighting for a socialist republic by cumulative and class-conscious actions, including a general strike, is a thoroughly radical view, both then and now.

In an article of 1910, Luxemburg noted that Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program made specific mention of its omission of “a democratic republic,” and the only reason Marx urged caution in promoting a republic in Germany was (in Luxemburg’s words) “the advancing shadow of the oncoming Anti-Socialist Law.” Marx even pointed out the absurdity, in such circumstances, “of demanding things which only make sense in a democratic republic, from a state which is nothing but a military despotism embellished with parliamentary forms.” … But the Anti-Socialist Law had lapsed in 1890, so Luxemburg demanded that Kautsky and other SPD leaders proceed with less caution and more courage. Otherwise the forces of reaction would continue making parliamentary provocations in preparation for practical measures against the working class. The ruling class was certainly class conscious, and able to unify its theory and practice. Therefore Luxemburg urged the leaders of the SPD to raise the demand for a republic as “the watchword of class struggle,” in both theory and practice, in labor strikes, in street protests and in electoral campaigns.

Luxemburg also quoted Engels’ critique of the Erfurt Program of 1891: “The draft’s demands have one great flaw. What actually should have been said is not there. … First: If anything is certain, it is this: that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the great French Revolution has already shown.” In this respect, Luxemburg was hardly a “romantic” or a “Blanquist” conspirator, but a revolutionary republican in the tradition of Marx and Engels. She sharpened and focused the agitation for a republic by defending specific forms of working-class struggle, including councils of workers and the general strike.

May Day: A Festival of Solidarity

[Truthdig, May 4, 2011]

In Los Angeles, every class-conscious worker cannot help but be aware of the sharpening attacks on workers, designed to fracture the whole labor movement along lines of race, sex, wage scales and disparate benefits. When those fractures follow the lines drawn upon maps of the world, then the great beast of nationalism comes round once again to devour our hearts and minds. Nationalism is bloody idol worship, a cult of the state and the military demanding regular theft of treasure beyond our borders, and regular human sacrifice of soldiers and civilians.

We who live in the country’s southwestern region know well that the United States ships loads of weapons south of the border, and that Mexico ships loads of drugs north of the border. This is one consequence of the hemispheric hurricane that bore the innocent-sounding title of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. This regional economic calamity was bound to cross borders, and so it did. When we fight the corporate state, then we also create the beginning of working-class justice on both sides of the border.

We know our financial system is a den of thieves, and President Barack Obama has filled his Cabinet and inner circle with Wall Street insiders and recycled Clintonistas. When we are likewise willing to acknowledge that our whole political system is broken — or rather, is expertly designed to maintain a corporate ruling class in the style to which it has grown accustomed — then we will find the strength to fight for democracy. This must begin with wide reformation of our rigged electoral system, which was designed to lock out all challengers of “the two-party system.” We can have “the two-party system” in this country or we can have democracy, but we cannot have both.

A journalist should strive to find the truth and tell it plainly, without favor or prejudice. But a democratic socialist doing any honest work whatsoever — whether as a writer, a plumber, a nurse, a firefighter — must go further than refusing to tell lies, or telling the truth in small doses likely to go down sweetly. The truth must be told plainly even and especially against our own failures in labor unions and in the socialist movement.

Free councils of workers are the foundation of democratic socialism. Start small and start now. Make each May Day a festival of solidarity, and a general strike against war and empire.

War Against War: A Meditation on Bradley Manning’s Mind

[Truthdig, June 2, 2011]

A class-conscious struggle against the corporate state is also a struggle against war and empire. If this government makes the free election of real democrats and of socialists impossible, then we, the people, have the right and duty to elect ourselves as public citizens; and to begin creating a new republic founded upon peace, social wealth, ethical obligation, ecological sanity, and the solidarity of labor across all borders. Every workplace is potentially a free council of workers; every street and neighborhood is potentially a public space of freedom.

In Europe, many thousands of working people have already taken to the streets against the austerity programs imposed by parties of the earnest right and the bogus left. What we may call the political warm spring in Europe may yet become a hot summer. In Greece, workers and students waged a general strike, and in Spain they still occupy public squares — recently braving an assault by riot police swinging shields and truncheons against citizens who peacefully linked arms in a mass sit-down protest in Barcelona. We, too, have a history of urban general strikes in this country, and of class-conscious struggles against war and corporate rule. This government depends on our obedience, but our lives depend on open rebellion. Start small and start now.

Occupy Calls for a Global General Strike on May 1, International Workers’ Day

[Daily Kos, Jan. 30, 2012, by jpmassar ]

Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly last night voted unanimously, 200-0 (with hundreds still in jail from Saturday night), to join in support of a call for a General Strike originating with Occupy Los Angeles. It will take place on International Workers’ Day, May 1st, 2012.

OWS Calls for May Day Strike

[Truthdig, Feb. 19, 2012, by Alexander Kelly]

Occupy Wall Street has boldly called for a general strike of the 99 percent on May Day — May 1. “*No Work *No School *No Housework *No Shopping,” read the text approved by the OWS General Assembly. The action is scheduled to overlap with a day intended to call attention to the plight of immigrants.

Occupy Wall Street calls for May Day general strike

[Waging Nonviolence, Feb. 15, 2012, by Nathan Schneider]

The prospect of an Occupy general strike has been circulating for a while already. One of the several Facebook event pages devoted to it has more than 10,000 attendees. Occupy Los Angeles began calling for a May 1 general strike as early as last November, and Occupy Oakland joined at the end of January. Occupy Wall Street’s Direct Action group tried to take a strategic approach to the idea; though many of its members had little hesitation about calling for it, they took steps to ensure there was consultation, and therefore buy-in, among some of those whose participation would be vital. Since the beginning of the year, they’ve been holding twice-weekly meetings — with as many as 150 people crowded into a church or a union-office basement — which included labor organizers, immigrants’ rights groups, artists and anarchists.

Together, these stakeholders debated what a general strike could even mean in 2012, given the poor state of organized labor, and whether making such an ambitious call would turn into anything other than an embarrassment. “It has to happen on a huge enough scale that retaliation is unthinkable,” a person noted at one of the initial meetings on January 11. While one voice that night argued that “you use this tool to gain specific ends” — the tool of a general strike — another preferred to “not issue any demands, but rather take what is ours.” From these discussions, it was agreed that the more open-ended language of “a day without the 99 percent” should stand alongside that of “general strike.”

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