At virtually every demonstration I have attended in the past 40 years or so there has always been a small group chanting, “TUC get off your knees, call a General Strike!” Since 1926 the TUC has shown an amazing reluctance to heed this call. Noticeably, most other demonstrators have not joined in with this call either.
What would a general strike mean, and why are we so reluctant to use this powerful weapon? Although the general strike is a thing of history, it is very much a thing of now. In France, in January, the trade unions called a general strike to oppose pension changes. Millions of trade unionists came out, and the government withdrew their plans, albeit only temporarily.
In India in November 2022 a general strike was called by a coalition of trade unions in opposition to the anti-worker agenda of the Modi government. In the event the two-day stoppage was sufficient to get substantive amendments to some legislation, but most of the legislation was simply shelved to reappear at a later date.
A call for a general strike should not be taken lightly. It is an action that demands workers give up their pay in pursuit of a political demand, rather than to strike simply over their own pay and conditions. In the UK striking for anything other than very narrow reasons is not legal, and secondary action was outlawed by section 224 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. You might note that the Labour Party had from 1997 until 2010 to repeal or amend this law and failed to do so. The RMT recently took a case to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that the law infringed Article 11 which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
Although the court agreed that the right to strike and to take secondary action was covered by Article 11, they ruled that governments could introduce legislation to restrict those rights if they had a good reason. A good reason seems to be that they really don’t like those restrictions. So much for the European Union as the upholder of human rights!
A general strike would, almost by definition, breach the law in the UK. It would pose the question of who rules and, without the support of the bureaucracies who run the unions, would undoubtedly fail. This means that the small group of revolutionaries calling for a general strike has a more general problem of their own to overcome.
It is not as if the general strike as a political weapon is a novel idea. The Chartist movement of the 1800s called for a general strike in support of universal suffrage. In 1873 anarchists called for a general strike to ‘starve out’ the bourgeoisie. Indeed, as early as 1902, a general strike was held in Belgium, in 1903 in Holland and in 1904 in Italy. And of course the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 were founded on general strikes of both factory workers and peasants who worked the land.
The fact is almost all radical leaders of the working class have recognised that their strength lies not in good arguments or in parliament but in the mass of the workers who have in their hands the means to bring capitalism to its knees. And, equally, those radical leaders have recognised that to make a general strike a success you need to have organisation on the ground to maintain the morale of strikers who, after the first couple of days, get restless for a resolution rather than a revolution.
Perhaps the most eloquent writer on the role of the general strike was German socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who in 1906 wrote a short pamphlet where she laid out in detail the role of what she termed the ‘mass strike’. It was not to be a precursor to revolution, rather she framed it as an essential part of the revolutionary process:“ The mass strike is not a cleverly constructed method for the purpose of heightening the effect of the proletarian struggle, but the way in which the proletarian masses move, the form taken on by the proletarian struggle in the actual revolution.”
Luxemburg knew that not every strike was revolutionary in character and, whilst many continue to this day to believe that a general strike is, in and of itself, revolutionary, Rosa believed otherwise. History has tended to support Rosa’s view. She understood that strikes were not something that could be implemented by a plan. Rather strikes erupt spontaneously.
Her biographer, Paul Frolich, in his book ‘Rosa Luxemburg’ (1939) notes:”She knew that demonstration-strikes and isolated mass strikes carried on for a definite political purpose are of great importance. But a demonstration-strike whose duration is limited from the outset is no more the broadly developed class struggle than a naval demonstration is naval warfare.” (p.135)
It may be worth noting here that the semantic difference between a mass strike and a general strike is worth understanding. When we talk of a mass strike, we mean a strike undertaken simultaneously by workers in various sectors of the economy. When we talk of a general strike, we mean a strike in which the entire working class is involved. Such a strike is unusual, which is not to imply that mass strikes are common. The last general strike in the UK was in 1926.
The General Strike began on May 3rd 1926 and lasted nine days. It was prompted by the owners of coal attempting to cut wages and increase the working day. This prompted miners’ leader AJ Cook to organise around the slogan ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day’. As with most political strikes this one was motivated by a Tory Government led by Stanley Baldwin, who saw their sole role as supporting capitalism. The government of 1926 was not interested in a compromise but decided that this was a chance to defeat the unions once and for all. Those of you old enough to remember the miners’ strike of 1984-85 will know that the Thatcher government had exactly the same attitude, seeing unions as an interference in the workings of the free market economy they promoted. It bothered them little, if at all, that their free market economy was responsible for driving ordinary workers into poverty and malnutrition despite working long hours. The astute reader will, of course, see parallels to today. But back to 1926.
After nine days the strike involving almost 2 million trade union members was called off without achieving anything. Prior to the start of the strike, the government arrested and imprisoned the most revolutionary leaders of the trade union movement, mostly members of the Communist Party. The Labour Party leader Ramsey MacDonald issued a statement in which he said, “I don’t like general strikes…but honestly, what can be done?” Whilst the government prepared for the strike, leaders of the TUC dallied, still believing they could negotiate a settlement and avoid the strike altogether. In this belief and lack of conviction they were joined by the Labour Party. Both the TUC and the Labour Party were shown to be toothless and lacking backbone, as they left the miners isolated and eventually defeated.
As Ralph Miliband notes in his excellent account of the Labour Party, ‘Parliamentary Socialism’: “The calling off of the General Strike without any guarantee of any kind, either for the miners, or against the victimisation of other workers, has often been denounced as a terrible act of betrayal. But the notion of betrayal, though accurate, should not be allowed to reduce the episode to the scale of a Victorian melodrama, with the Labour leaders as the gleeful villains, planning and perpetrating an evil deed. The Labour movement was betrayed, but not because the Labour leaders were villains, or cowards. It was betrayed because betrayal was the inherent and inescapable consequence of their whole philosophy of politics.” (p.144)
Miliband was absolutely right about the Labour and trade union leadership then, and it is still the case today. They do not exist, on the whole, for the benefit of their members and supporters but for their own interests. Those interests tend to be those of narrow self-interest and have nothing to do with changing the nature of a society which leaves millions of those they claim to represent in poverty, debt or intolerable living conditions. The General Strike of 1926 could not succeed because, on one side were people who wanted to crush the unions entirely, and, on the other, were leaders of those unions naive enough to believe that they could negotiate with the very people wielding the knife against them. A general strike now cannot succeed if it is left to the descendants of those who betrayed their own class in 1926. We saw in 1984-85 how supine those inheritors of the mantel of ‘leadership’ are.
For a general strike, indeed for any strike to succeed, it is not the TUC that needs to get off its knees, it is the workers themselves. The TUC and the Labour Party have been consistent in their approach to the working class. They can only have small, incremental gains. And only then if the ruling class believes they can afford it. The 1926 strike was successful in one respect; the self-organisation of workers. Despite provocation by the police and the army (who were drafted in), there was virtually no reported violence. This was because the workers had replaced the need for local authorities with their own councils, and it was never their intention to resort to violence. What it showed, as the Paris Commune did before it, was that working class people do not need to be policed, threatened and cajoled by an overbearing bureaucracy but are perfectly capable of organising themselves and their communities. It is this self-organisation that ultimately terrifies the Labour and Trade Union bureaucracies. Because if we do not need them to tell us what to do, what role do they play? The next general strike should not wait for the TUC to get off its knees (that is precisely why we are still waiting). The next general strike, if it is to win, must be built around the self-organisation of workers united in their desire to build a society fit for purpose.
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.