The revolutionary general strike in an era of casualisation
In the present movement against government cuts, a lot of slogans (and from them leftist strategies) are invoking the idea of a general strike. As a tactic, there are a number of reasons this would not work. Chief amongst them being that a set-piece “one-day” strike is the limit of the left’s ambitions in this regard. However, also important is the extremely low level of worker organisation across the country and increasing casualisation of work.
For anarcho-syndicalists, this raises questions in relation to our own strategy. Not least, if even a one-day general strike would flop in the present conditions, how on earth would any revolutionary general strike succeed?
The short answer is that it wouldn’t. We are not, at present, in any position to kick-start a revolution and there is no point being less than honest about this. But this doesn’t mean that it will never work, or that in order to reach a point where it will we have to push towards a point where we have across-the-board unionisation and stable, permanent employment in all industry. At any rate, such would necessitate building the level of consciousness and class power required for revolution – and it would be a waste to utilise it purely to push for a more preferable balance of class power within social democracy.
Rather than wish away the conditions we face in the here and now, what we have to do is recognise them for what they are and adapt our tactics accordingly.
For example, as I’ve written previously, there needs to be an acknowledgement that the workplace strike is not the only effective method of utilising the economic power of our class. Too often, other forms of direct action are written off as merely “protest” whilst strikers are presented as the vanguard of the labour movemennt. Strikes are important, and those of us in strongly-organised workplaces are best placed to engage in them most effectively. But this doesn’t rule out occupations, economic blockades, lock-ins et al as effective tactics, or render them secondary to the strike.
With this in mind, it is possible to envision a general strike – or mass action to the same effect – being successful even with increasingly casualised labour. The question that remains is how exactly we reach the point that could be put into practice. But first, it is worth looking at the endgame. How does an anarcho-syndicalist general strike work, and what makes it revolutionary?
Why a revolutionary general strike
At the root of anarcho-syndicalist philosophy is the recognition that political and economic organisation cannot be addressed separately.
Where the Bolsheviks sought to seize state power through political action in order to use it in bringing down capitalism, we emphasise direct action by the workers themselves as the primary means of transforming society. Likewise, whereas apolitical syndicalism seeks the overthrow of the bosses but leaves the questions of politics to the individual worker, we argue that how society is organised has a direct bearing on how the economy is organised, and vice-versa.
In other words, ours is the syndicalist advocacy of association and direct action over representation coupled with a clear anarchist revolutionary perspective. As Emile Pouget put it in Direct Action, we “live in the present with all possible combativity, sacrificing neither the present to the future, nor the future to the present.”
So the revolutionary general strike: the same means with which we fight for concessions in the present being those by which we tear down capitalism for the future. Pouget and Emile Pataud, both members of the French CGT, wrote in How we shall bring about the revolution that “the stoppage of work, which on the previous day had been spontaneous, and was due to the accident of personal initiative and impulse, now became regularised and generalised in a methodical way, that showed the influence of the union decisions.”
Thus, the general strike would not be a strike in the traditional sense, i.e. the simple withdrawal of labour, but a takeover of the means of production by the working class. As opposed to the political revolution taking state power, and (allegedly) implementing workplace control from above, workers would directly expropriate workplaces and transfer production from capitalist to workers’ control.
The important point is that it is the same means by which we rebel every day, spontaneously and sporadically, which when generalised through the agitation and organisation of the “active minority” of the revolutionary unions becomes the means of our emancipation as a class. Thus, revolution is ongoing and organic as the “organisation for fighting” becomes “a social organism.” Though it certainly wasn’t perfect, and as with everything we should acknowledge the mistakes and draw lessons from them, the Spanish Revolution of 1936 demonstrates that this is not just an abstract concept but entirely possible to put into practice.
But if that is the case, the point now must be to adapt such a strategy to fit quite different economic conditions. Casualisation is the result of 30 years of fairly steady decline for the labour movement, following on from the defeats of the Thatcher era.
Up until that point, the balance of class power allowed us – even with the bureaucracies at the helm – to force and defend significant concessions. Since, we have at best been able to slow down the active roll back of those victories. Moreover, the retreat of trade unions into given industrial strongholds has allowed for broad disparities in conditions amongst the working class. Where they are still relatively strong, the unions have maintained a passable defence of working conditions – albeit occasionally at the expense of newer staff, creating two-tier workforces. Where they are non-existent, there has been a steady decline of working conditions and even of the permanency of employment, leading to the current phenomena of casualisation.
Proof of just how pernicious this trend is came with the brief rise of McDonald’s Workers Resistance. This rank-and-file union initiative aimed to organise workers within one of the great symbols of post-industrial capitalism and alienated labour. However, it was extremely short-lived and enjoyed almost no support from a trade union movement now reduced to preserving itself as best it can in existing territory. Much broader solidarity would be needed to break the beast.
An example of this that has arisen in the labour movement, and lasted longer than MWR at any rate, is the Starbucks Union. In the face of extreme union-busting tactics from their employer, Starbucks workers have been able to establish a rank-and-file led fighting union, the key difference being the solidarity it enjoyed from the broader Industrial Workers of the World union. A similar initiative has arisen within the Jimmy Johns fast food chain.
In terms of building in the present, it remains the case that militant workers ought to be pushing for such forms of self-organisation within our own workplaces. Likewise, the aim of our propaganda work should be to encourage others to act in such a way within their workplaces and communities, as well as to offer support and practical solidarity where it is needed. Since revolutionary action will inevitably be drawn from the same spirit that drives day-to-day struggle, it is vital that such organising work goes on. Other activities under this remit include showing solidarity with other workers’ picket lines, and acting in support of agency workers and others who are in no position to defend themselves through the formation of a union – as Solidarity Federation are currently doing against the Office Angels employment agency.
All of this is quite basic stuff – and I have covered a lot of it in more depth in my “What is anarcho-syndicalism” series. In essence, what we are talking about here is rebuilding that notion of collective action and class solidarity that for a lot of people has been absent from the landscape of the last thirty years. Certainly, the scale of the present attacks is reviving it – particularly amongst the youth – but this is no excuse for complacency.
Anarchists don’t seek to lead struggle any more than we seek to detach ourselves from it, but we certainly do argue for specific forms. Namely, direct action and self-organisation, and we will continue to put forward this perspective as the struggles escalate. As an active revolutionary minority, we will always seek to educate, agitate and organise in favour of a movement built from below and led directly by the rank-and-file of the working class.
If such a tendency grew in strength, particularly amongst the low paid and casual workers, there is every possibility that it would force concessions that would improve the conditions of the lower end of the workforce. However, even if the only aim was the social democratic myth of “nicer” capitalism, we should not kid ourselves that this will reverse casualisation. Indeed, it may accelerate the trend, with employers wanting rid of these troublesome militants who organise even in seemingly impossible conditions. Not to mention the significant reserve army of labour in the unemployed which is a tactical advantage for the bosses. Which is why the ultimate aim of such a movement of grassroots organising should not be a reformist but a revolutionary one.
Building the strike
Reaching the point where such a thing as a revolutionary general strike can take place will not, in any situation, be a simple matter. It took 80 years of agitation to build for the revolutionary moment that made history in Spain in 1936. Recreating such a feat the current era will similarly require a monumental amount of effort to come to pass.
But even if we knew it would take 150 years (or never come at all), this is not something we can wait on. As anarcho-syndicalists, the aim is always to encourage that spirit which we believe will carry us to revolution – that of self-organisation and direct action. We do so not with the anticipation of revolution just around the corner, or with the resignation that it will never come, but because such struggle is necessary. Either we fight, to advance our interests as a class, or we sit back and resign ourselves to a rolling back of everything our forebears have won in 150 years of stuggle. Perhaps even further.
If we reach a general strike situation, that building and organising never stops. A comrade of mine who travelled to Spain during a recent general strike told me of how the CNT acted in that situation. As well as having picket lines and marches on the day, as the strike began they were going from shop to shop, workplace to workplace, calling people out on strike.
Such actions would undoubtedly form part of a revolutionary strike. Not only calling people to withdraw their labour from the bosses, but encouraging the seizing of the means of production, advocating the structures of support and solidarity that would maintain workers’ self-management. Of course, this would have been done before hand as well, but this doesn’t mean that once a call out has been made you should simply assume that it will be honoured. If that were the case, there would be no need for organisation.
In particular relation to casualised workplaces, this is why the effort of building and organising is important in the present. But even when revolutionary ideas are the norm, we should never underestimate the power that bosses can have over workers where there is no protection through organisation. Indeed, if there are clashes they will likely be borne of fear more than anything else.
However, to end on a positive note, one thing I will note is that such casualisation now, though repellent in a number of ways and though it should be actively resisted, may actually make it easier for an anarcho-syndicalist revolutionary movement to emerge. The era of the closed shop pretty much entrenched the power of the union bureaucrat, formalised their role of policing the workforce, and made genuinely radical resistance difficult if not altogether impossible. Now, there is considerable space for the ideas of self-organisation and direct action to grow. Which is exactly what they are doing.
Ultimately, we should take nothing for granted. There is no single, set-in-stone formula for making things better. There are only ideas, which must adapt to the realities that they are meant to address if they are to remain relevant. But what we do know is that, however long the odds, revolutionary strike action in the name of a better world is not impossible. In fact, its something which we ought to strive for.