Lessons of the Seattle General Strike of 1919
What is a General Strike?
Lately, with the growth of the Occupy movement, there’s been a lot of talk about the general strike as a weapon of the class struggle. The Occupy Oakland port shutdown on Nov. 2 was referred to as a one-day general strike. Now there is talk in various Occupy sites around the United States about calling a general strike for May Day 2012.
We are all for the re-introduction of the general strike as a tactic in the working-class arsenal but must pose the question—what is a general strike and how is a mass general strike organized? The general strike, as a tactic, is common enough in other parts of the world. For instance, there have been one-day general strikes in Greece, Spain, and Portugal (among others), and the massive one-day general strike in India of some 100 million workers.
In U.S. labor history there are examples of general strikes—the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Seattle in 1919, or the San Francisco longshore strike in 1934. Tom Kerry discussed the Seattle General Strike of 1919 as part of a series of lectures he delivered in 1976 on U.S. labor history. Kerry was a long-time socialist, trade unionist, and leader of the Socialist Workers Party.
Kerry pointed out that “a general strike is social dynamite with a burning fuse. The question immediately arises: Where does the power of decision reside in matters concerning the life of the city? Who is to police the city? The cops are not viewed as ‘friends’ of the strike; to the contrary, their role is that of chief strikebreakers for the boss class. The union strike committee must establish its own police force. How is the city to be fed? What institutions are to be permitted to remain open?
And who is to supervise those permitted to operate? It is impossible to detail here all of the problems that are immediately posed.” Ultimately, the general strike poses the question of which class holds power; it is a political as well as an economic strike. Kerry says: “Alongside the regularly established governmental power and its apparatus, there comes into existence the general strike committee with its apparatus, to establish a form of dual power. The dynamic of the dual power is that more and more the strike council is compelled to take over the functions of the state. A situation of dual power cannot, by its very nature, exist for long. It must be resolved by the hegemony of one or the other of the great contending classes. One or the other must prevail.”
In past years, unfortunately, we have heard the general strike tactic reduced to a formula that is repeated by left sectarians almost by rote: “A general strike to free Mumia,” or “a general strike to end the war(s).” While it’s true that a general strike could accomplish these tasks, you can’t just suck a major action by the working class out of your thumb. A general strike is a serious matter for revolutionaries, as are all other methods of working-class mobilization. These include strikes, occupations of workplaces and public spaces, and mass marches. The general strike must be approached seriously and be prepared through patient, systematic work in the working class and its institutions.
This article originally appeared in the Socialist Action newspaper in April of 2012.