Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (2016)

PART 2: STRIKE

CHAPTER 5

The General Strike

This ideology of collective action, with its static opposition of riot and strike, would in turn be elided with a corresponding opposition at a higher conceptual stratum, that of anarchism and socialism. It may appear from within the conventions of the present that specific tactics and accompanying repertoires arise from, and are thus proper to, particular political and analytical positions.1 Historically, the ideological opposition of tactics has helped produce the political opposition, and this would in turn consolidate further the antithesis of forms of action.

In the present day the strike, and with it the broader category of organized labor actions and large-scale organization as such, is understood as the political-economic tactic associated with the complex field of socialism and communism as political horizons, conjoining with historical materialist thought. The riot, and with it the collection of “insurrectionary” tactics before and beyond traditional labor organization, is understood in opposition to this. It is a spontaneous attack on daily life, but also the rejection of a purportedly deterministic, authoritarian, and implicitly if not explicitly statist political program. One of this book’s basic questions concerns whether this set of indexed oppositions, a formula with real historical reason, still makes sense.

The split in the First International surely needs no rehearsal here, and a full unfolding of the divergence between anarchists on the one hand and on the other socialists and communists is beyond the scope of this study.2 It is worth recalling the extent to which these positions were at first far more continuous than they now appear; in parallel with that of riot and strike, their polarization is a historical procedure. At the time of the First International, the rhetoric of the emancipation of labor as a fundamental project was shared, along with the centrality of the proletariat and the presupposition of class war as basis for revolution. Debates of the era are illustrative. One might consider the dispute between collectivist anarchism and anarchist communism in the 1870s. The former fraction wished to do away with all market exchange and wages, while in the vision of the latter, “an exchange economy still operates within a network of worker-owned, self-managed ‘collectivities’ that hold legal ownership of the instruments and resources of production.” Wage labor and its status took on decisive importance. Kristin Ross writes, “Additionally—and this was the point of greatest fracture between the two groups—collectivist anarchism retained the wage system by making the distinction of food and other goods dependent on the labor contribution each individual made.”3

Such positions and debates regarding the contents of a revolutionary society make clear that the rigid antithesis of the political positions descending from the split would be fashioned over time. The mapping of tactics onto political and analytical positions does not simply happen along the way, but rather is part of this fashioning. Nowhere is the process staged more explicitly than in the case of the general strike. The debates concerning the general strike present difficulties not least for various distinctions drawn (and not drawn) between “proletarian” and “political” general strikes, between the “general” and the “mass” strike. Fortunately for us, parsing these distinctions is less what is at stake than is one particular moment within the debates and the possibilities it puts on offer for considering the relation of tactics to political positions.

The victory within the International of the socialist position regarding models of political struggle had already been ratified in advance of the 1872 scission. Resolution No. 9 from the previous year affirmed, “this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end—the abolition of classes.” The commitment to a parliamentary process implies both a certain kind of organization and at least some observance of a legalistic standard. The parliamentary strategy will come and go, but the organizational logic of the party, which accompanies it, will achieve greater constancy. As an expression of its organizational basis, supposedly orderly in its execution, and entering into confrontation with capital rather than the state, the narrow strike cannot help but adhere to such a political horizon, even as any given strike will likely have more local ambitions.

Against this, the seeming disorder of anarchist modes of struggle becomes an object of antipathy. Spontaneity is the keyword encoding this antipathy. It is an ambiguous term, politically. Often it indicates an action arising “naturally,” a momentary response. In this sense a spontaneous act is slave to stimulus. However, according to another definition, “in the eighteenth century, when Kant described the transcendental unity of apperception—the fact that I am aware of myself as having my own experiences—he called this a spontaneous act. Kant meant the opposite of something natural. A spontaneous act is one that is freely undertaken.”4 Thus the term preserves both the sense of autonomic upwelling (recalling the spasmodic view of the riot) and that of the willed act, freely chosen, which nonetheless lacks the patient development of counterorganization moving in parallel with capital’s developments.

The term takes on an even more vexed complexity with the Soviet revolution. Lenin will famously wield it to deplore disorganized masses. The Russian word, stikhiinost, signifies both spontaneity and the chaos of nature: that which has the least degree of organization. Alexander Bogdanov, a Russian polymath philosopher, will specify that this disorder of nature is a resistance to that organization which is human labor, and that the two stand in opposition: “Consequently, the world is a battlefield of collective labor, in which human activity struggles with the spontaneous resistance of nature.”5

It is the unstated collapse of these senses—chaotic, natural, contra human labor—that enables the term to take on its most pejorative dimensions. From a Leninist orthodoxy, spontaneism becomes not simply lack of organization in some sense, but also antagonism to labor, and thus implicitly to the proletariat. Moreover, a disagreement with organizational strategies can be transcoded as unreason, contrary not just to labor but also to the human as such.

In an earlier moment of this debate staged in light of the Paris Commune, Marx at first argues gravely against such an approach, against impatient revolutionizing. Amid the crushing French defeats of 1870, he cautions, “The French workmen … must not allow themselves to be swayed by the national souvenirs of 1792 …” Instead, they must “build up the future. Let them calmly and resolutely improve the opportunities of republican liberty, for the work of their own class organization.”6 As is well known, he will later change his position and render an entirely remarkable verdict on the Commune.

Engels and Sorel

Marx’s initial doubts return in Engels’s assessment of the general strike hazarded by the Bakuninists in 1873, with Spain on the brink of civil war. Engels’s conclusions surely haunt Hobsbawm’s later vacillation, his identification of general strike with riot—two avatars of excessive spontaneity and inadequate organization, the identity of too much and too little. “The general strike, in the Bakuninists’ program, is the lever which will be used for introducing the social revolution,” he writes, dialing up the coruscating scorn. He continues:

One fine morning all the workers in every industry in a country, or perhaps in every country, will cease work, and thereby compel the ruling class either to submit in about four weeks, or to launch an attack on the workers so that the latter will have the right to defend themselves, and may use the opportunity to overthrow the old society.

Reaching back to 1842 and its limitations, its failures of coordination and preparation, he then comes to “the crux of the question”:

On the one hand, the governments, especially if they are encouraged by the workers’ abstention from political action, will never allow the funds of the workers to become large enough, and on the other hand, political events and the encroachments of the ruling class will bring about the liberation of the workers long before the proletariat gets the length of forming this ideal organization and this colossal reserve fund. But if they had these, they would not need to make use of the roundabout way of the general strike in order to attain their object.7

The anarchists, in this telling, lack both reason and resource. Having not developed their labor associations adequately, the workers will have accrued neither adequate organizational capacity nor sufficient finances to stage what they believe to be a battle for total emancipation. Rosa Luxemburg finds in this what will become the commonsense of social democracy, derived from its other, the “anarchist theory of the general strike—that is, the theory of the general strike as a means of inaugurating the social revolution, in contradistinction to the daily political struggle of the working class.” Any defense of the anarchist general strike “exhausts itself in the following simple dilemma: either the proletariat as a whole are not yet in possession of the powerful organization and financial resources required, in which case they cannot carry through the general strike, or they are sufficiently well organized, in which case they do not need the general strike.”8

Georges Sorel will offer a remarkable defense nonetheless. Before passing to this, we might note in Engels an interesting assumption about the development of a strike fund, the heavy artillery in the arsenal of the proletariat. The limit to its expansion is the state, which “will never allow the funds of the workers to become large enough.” This is the world seen from the perspective of accumulation, wherein a growing social surplus is assumed, and the contest to appropriate the greatest share possible of that surplus is the plausible and necessary preamble to enlarged struggle. Engels’s conception of the grounds for struggle is productivist, not only in the abstract sense of assuming the centrality of productive labor to revolutionary struggle, but also in its presupposition of a concrete and ongoing increase in social wealth arising from productive capital; it dovetails with Rule’s remark about the successful strike’s dependence on “expanding output.” This is the unmarked historical particularity from which Engels universalizes his criticism.

Sorel will be Engels’s opposite number more than thirty years on. His defense of the general strike is no less ardent than Engels’s denunciation of it, while sharing that denunciation’s universalizing tendency. For Sorel, the power of the general strike is not its capacity to bring capital into instant submission, but its provision to the proletarian of a total orientation, a political totalization.

He distinguishes between a “proletarian” and “political” general strike. The latter is understood as a mechanism called by political actors in control of centralized unions with the goal of transferring power from one government to another already prepared and organized. This is the “ideal organization” that Engels finds impossible. Sorel’s gesture is not to insist contra Engels on the possibility of this organization. Instead he rejects it for preserving political domination, for its projection onto the general strike this “political” character in which the horizon is the seizure of state power and centralized state control. The proletarian general strike, conversely, is the precondition for emancipatory class war.

Here Sorel sets the proletarian general strike against the limited or narrow strike, suggesting that the latter offers partial satisfactions and gains that serve to dim revolutionary fervor. Further, it reveals but does not resolve the differing interests between common workers and the labor aristocracy of “foremen, clerks, engineers, etc.,” as well as the seemingly opposed interests of the peasantry and industrial proletariat. Marx’s sense of capital as a totality and his abstraction of social existence into two antagonistic classes cannot be grasped from this perspective, nor can it be built up piecemeal.

The general strike unifies the experience of quotidian miseries and the fragmentary glimpses of something beyond them, allowing the individual worker an intuition of the world toward which revolution strives, obtained “as a whole, perceived instantaneously.”9 This Bergsonian “total knowledge” at the same time overcomes the practical problem of class disunity. Sorel imagines resolving the so-called composition problem in this way: “But all oppositions become extraordinarily clear when conflicts are supposed to be enlarged to the size of the general strike … society is plainly divided into two camps, and only into two, on a field of battle.”10

Spontaneous action, therefore, is corollary to spontaneous knowledge in Kant’s sense. This provides the only possible passage to actualized class consciousness and revolutionary possibility that is not trapped in advance by reified organizational structures: “the general strike must be taken as a whole and undivided, and the passage from capitalism to Socialism conceived as a catastrophe, the development of which baffles description.”11 Though Sorel was a heretic socialist and syndicalist, it is this counter-position to state and party organization that becomes the familiar anarchist position on the general strike.

The Inversion of Rosa Luxemburg

Luxemburg’s reconstruction of this question in “The Mass Strike” stands as one of the great political pamphlets on record, as much for its method as for its conclusion. It is not without its ambiguities. Here she seems to distinguish general and mass strike as phenomena of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively, there to treat them as the same: “anarchism, with which the idea of the mass strike is indissolubly associated.” She concedes that Engels’s criticism of this strike “is at first glance so simple and so irrefutable that, for a quarter of a century, it has rendered excellent service to the modern labor movement against the anarchist phantom and as a means of carrying out the idea of political struggle to the largest circle of workers.”12

Her rhetoric here is supple and leading, potentially misleading. It suggests that any refutation of Engels’s verdict must thus take the side of the “anarchist phantom.” This has proved a durable misreading of Luxemburg, whose position is often adduced to a Sorelian spontaneity. “Rosa Luxemburg laid great emphasis on the spontaneity of the masses,” begins one summary of received wisdom; it cites representative remarks to the effect that Luxemburg had “a fanatical but utopian, almost anarchist, faith in the masses.”13 Sorel himself reports that the “new school which calls itself Marxist, Syndicalist, and revolutionary”—he means Luxemburg, perhaps Anton Pannekoek—“declared in favor of the general strike as soon as it became clearly conscious of the true sense of its own doctrine.”14

But for Luxemburg it is not doctrinal consciousness that has changed. It is material circumstances. One cannot blame Engels for his reasoning in 1873; it is those who remain trapped in that position against new historical developments who are worthy of scorn. Pannekoek will make a similar argument shortly thereafter. In the face of Kautsky’s polemic against the mass strike, which Kautsky feared would harm the Social Democratic Party and its trade unions, Pannekoek holds that “various forms of action … are not polar opposites, but part of a gradually differentiated range,” forms taking their shifting salience from the development of economic forces.15

Luxemburg writes her pamphlet in train of a series of expanding mass strikes, first in Belgium and Sweden, then the Netherlands, Russia and Italy; then the insurrectionary wave of strikes that constitute the incomplete Russian Revolution of 1905. She confronts the strike thus not as error but eventuality:

If, therefore, the Russian Revolution teaches us anything, it teaches above all that the mass strike is not artificially “made,” not “decided” at random, not “propagated,” but that it is a historical phenomenon which, at a given moment, results from social conditions with historical inevitability. It is not, therefore, by abstract speculations on the possibility or impossibility, the utility or the injuriousness of the mass strike, but only by an examination of those factors and social conditions out of which the mass strike grows in the present phase of the class struggle—in other words, it is not by subjective criticism of the mass strike from the standpoint of what is desirable, but only by objective investigation of the sources of the mass strike from the standpoint of what is historically inevitable, that the problem can be grasped or even discussed.16

Her investigation reveals a profoundly complex situation in Russia. She describes the lead-up to the January mass strike in St. Petersburg:

Here was the eight-hour day fought for, there piece-work was resisted, here were brutal foremen “driven off” in a sack on a handcar, at another place infamous systems of fines were fought against, everywhere better wages were striven for and here and there the abolition of homework.17

In this circumstance of manifold grievances, no political coordination from above is possible. However, the internal spread of the strike within the proletariat becomes possible. What renders a consistency to these various Russian particulars is the transition from a quasi-feudal absolutism toward an industrializing capital. While urban labor and the peasantry may find themselves in quite different positions, both positions float within this singular transformation, and the relay between loosely political and economic struggles is open, challenging the separation that Anthony Giddens calls a fundamental basis of the capitalist state.18 Thus a shift in balance, from the front of absolutism to that of economic struggles that follow the January strike, becomes possible. This for Luxemburg opens onto a revolutionary prospect:

But at the same time, the period of the economic struggles of the spring and summer of 1905 made it possible for the urban proletariat, by means of active social democratic agitation and direction, to assimilate later all the lessons of the January prologue and to grasp clearly all the further tasks of the revolution.19

Spontaneity, then, can unfold into coordination in given conditions, those of transition. This is the revolutionary sequence Luxemburg sees before her, and the mass strike is the form this sequence takes. This does not, for her, validate the anarchist position. Her conclusion, offered at the outset, is in fact brutal in this regard. The revolutionary character and success of the mass strike “not merely does not afford a vindication of anarchism, but actually means the historical liquidation of anarchism.”20 Because of political-economic developments, the mass strike has, as it were, changed sides; in an objective movement, it has entered the repertoire of communist struggle.

One might now read Luxemburg as a blow struck for socialism and Marxism against anarchist imaginings. In moments, the pamphlet takes on such triumphalist tonalities, not to its credit. One might read it as a recommendation of how to proceed, of the importance of the mass strike weapon; no doubt this is central.

It may be most significant to the present, however, to read the tract for its dialectical clarity. When material conditions change, when the political-economic structure changes, the political import and practical possibilities of a tactic of collective action might change as well. The frozen association of strike and accompanying forms of political organization with what we will now move to calling communist theory should be abandoned. Just so the frozen association of supposedly spontaneous collective action with anarchism. The thinkers who hold to these identifications, for all their intellectual cunning or principled rejection of theoretical trends, can only be our Kautskys, or for that matter Bömelburgs, trapped in the amber of “what is desirable.” We must be open to “a fundamental revision of the old standpoint of Marxism,” one based in the transformations of social reality.21 One does not declare that a communist does this or an anarchist does that. One goes to “the standpoint of what is historically inevitable”—from that standpoint alone “the problem can be grasped or even discussed.”