Which Way to the Barricades?

What was the mass strike and what would a successful one look like today?

1933 Dressmakers' Union strike demonstrators take a break in a diner. Kheel Center / Flickr

Rise, like lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many—they are few.

Shelly’s “Masque of Anarchy” has been a spectral presence for nearly two hundred years, summoned at climactic moments of civil warfare. Composed to memorialize the 1819 Peterloo massacre, the poem commemorates the sixty thousand people who gathered at the very dawn of the industrial revolution to demand a radical expansion of suffrage, especially to those laboring in England’s dark satanic mills. Dozens died, hundreds were wounded.

The poem wasn’t published for over a decade, until the Chartist movement took it up in 1832. Another ten years after that, it became the anthem of an almost nationwide general strike. Participants referred to the time leading up to that moment and the strikes that preceded it as “holy days.”

Since then “Ye are many—they are few” has inspired rebellion, resistance, and liberation again and again. The New York garment worker strikes of 1911, the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, May 1968 in Paris, and, most recently, the pro-democracy congregations during the Arab Spring and the Occupy uprisings of 2011 are all etched in our collective memory.

There are also largely unknown, but hardly less remarkable, general strikes: not just those that shut down Winnipeg and Seattle in 1919, London and the Midlands in 1926, and San Francisco in 1934, but also Amsterdam under the Nazis in February 1941 and again in April 1943, Turin and Milan on April 25, 1945 — which Italians now celebrate as the penultimate moment of their liberation — and the Algerian general strike of January 1957, which closed schools, shops, and factories in support of the independence movement. In 1972, Quebec saw a series of province-wide general strikes that linked a quest for national identity with a cross-class protest against austerity.

The general strike in Poland, which lasted just half a day on March 27, 1981, engaged more than twelve million workers and citizens. It announced to the world and to the thin strata of Communist functionaries still in power that Solidarity constituted a majoritarian and national movement. From that moment on the elite had but two choices: military repression, which it invoked later that year, or a regime-changing, world-historic capitulation, which finally came in 1989.

Shelly’s immortal lines were not heard during the recent calls for a Women’s Strike or General Strike against the Trump regime or even as planning proceeds for the upcoming May Day strikes, which a number of trade unions in New York, Illinois, and California have endorsed. But what is sometimes loosely called “the resistance” certainly gestures in that direction. It’s as if something in the air evokes the “unvanquishable number,” the “lions” shaking “chains to earth like dew.”

How else can we explain the sudden announcements of general strikes when nothing on the ground suggests that they might happen? Less than a decade ago, elements within Occupy Wall Street issued regular calls for mass action without any chance of realizing their plans. Novelist Francine Prose’s call for a general strike in January went viral before fading — another immaculate conception, subsequently aborted.

The idea that something radical and forceful must be done persists in the most unlikely places. In February, fifty Hollywood writers, producers, and creatives held a house meeting in Hancock Park, California, to plan their response to the Trump administration. A strike, general or otherwise, was high on the agenda.

After listening to two labor historians brief them on past insurgencies, the organizers announced that they had already hired a PR firm to write a press release and organize publicity for their movement. The firm’s suggested slogan — “Strike for Democracy” — isn’t bad, even if the aging leftists in attendance blanched at their method for coming up with it.

Three weeks later, Salud Carbajal, Santa Barbara’s newly elected House representative, held a district meeting — that new locus of resistance politics. The event was packed with constituents who cheered the spokeswoman from Planned Parenthood, expressed solidarity with advocates for immigrant rights, and heartily denounced GOP efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act.

But when he tried to answer “what is to be done,” Carbajal got an exceedingly cool reception. He told the energized crowd to write and e-mail Congress and then prepare for the off-year elections. A veteran of the 1960s, now retired after a distinguished career as a UCLA physician, objected, recalling the years when he and his comrades at Columbia “shut it down.” The crowd agreed.

From the sublime to the ridiculous. But then again, this desire to conjure up something forceful could still produce results — maybe not a general strike, which demands a high level of organization and preparation, but perhaps upsurges, rebellions, boycotts, demonstrations, protests, and job actions of the most varied and unexpected sort.

Surprisingly, these recent calls for strike come primarily from middle-class activists, usually without the faintest connection to the labor movement. They summon people to deploy a weapon linked, since Peterloo, to an oppressed working class in revolt while decrying what they understand as white working-class backlash. The very incongruous timing and social location of these calls makes them odd, awkward, and naive, but also socially and culturally imaginative.

After all, what remains of the organized labor movement has avoided strikes like the plague for a long time; unions are simply too weak to conduct them. As late as 1975, each year witnessed more than four hundred strikes, involving more than a thousand workers. Today, ten or fifteen work stoppages occur, mostly for defensive reasons — to preserve pensions, wages, or health insurance against an aggressive employer.

Strikes have cropped up among unorganized, low-wage workers, sometimes assisted by outside unions. The Fight for $15 movement has generated a good deal of social energy and achieved some legislative success on the state and local level. But as important and even heroic as such struggles are, these strikes-cum-referendum-campaigns hardly disturb the country’s economic machinery.

Critics have blamed an ossified trade union bureaucracy, a Democratic Party elite that has marginalized the interests of the working class, and a growing conservative hegemony openly hostile to workers, regardless of the pseudo-populist rhetoric its spokespeople sometimes trot out.

However we account for it, the strike as a theater of combat has faded. As a mythic ideal, however, it is flourishing.

This year’s calls for work stoppages have relinquished their once-organic connection to the work site and relegated the labor movement to the margins. Nevertheless, this new, often middle-class sensibility resurrects the strike in a kind of hyperactive afterlife. It has become the newly powerless’s dream state in the wake of an election from hell.

Unlike its working-class antecedents, today’s strike does not arise out of relationships formed on the factory floor, at the water cooler, or near the checkout counter. On the contrary, today’s would-be picketers have highly atomized working lives, pervaded by notions of self-fulfillment both on and off the job. Contemporary labor has dissolved solidarity’s connective tissue, damning the strike before it even begins.

For decades, the working class has been forcefully reminded how little it counts in the affairs of the nation. The political and cultural right has captured and channeled this disillusionment, not only in the North American Rust Belt but also in Britain, France, and other polities where social democracy once flourished.

Brexit and Trump’s electoral victory may have made a substantial proportion of the white working class feel momentarily powerful, but the rest of the working class — immigrants and people of color — as well as the cosmopolitan and once-solid middle class saw the election as illegitimate, profoundly disempowering, and an affront to their moral sensibilities.

They now face the kind of insecurity and exclusion that America’s alienated and unorganized blue-collar workers have long experienced. High school teachers, retired architects, and medical professionals all feel as disrespected and insecure as Walmart clerks and McDonalds grill cooks.

They earn a lot more money, but these energized middle-class workers — especially among that cohort labeled “millennial” — is nevertheless affronted by the profound inequities, self-seeking, and imperial arrogance of the new ruling elite. At least under Obama, they could recognize parts of themselves in the coalition. Now, to many, electoral democracy and the conventional institutions of political life appear hollowed out, corrupt, fake.

If power is no longer accessible through party politics, if the “system” rolls on unperturbed, glacially indifferent to the well-being not only of the working class but also of the vanishing middle classes, then reaching back to a more combative past seems imperative.

This is happening not out of the blue, but at a moment when mass action has become a flesh-and-blood reality once again. The 2006 “Day Without Immigrants” was a revelation; it resembled an actual strike and conjoined political, economic, and cultural identities and desires. In Greece and all though Central and Western Europe — not to mention Latin America and the Middle East — social conflict has escaped the boundaries of conventional politics or carved out new spaces on the electoral map, making way for insurgencies that didn’t originate in the voting booth. Reveries of recaptured power might be nurtured in this soil, where the strike implies more than a commercial impasse and becomes synonymous with taking a stand.

The Rise of the Strike

“Strike, Strike, Strike,” the closing chorus of Clifford Odets’ 1935 play Waiting for Lefty carries its chanters beyond the pedestrian realm in which hours and wages are negotiated. Likewise, today’s strike appeals have less to do with a specific organizational form than with creating a pathway to power.

In this, they recall a time when the strike was multivalent — a tactic to be sure, but also a manifestation of a fundamental social antagonism.

This hasn’t always been true. Radical social reformers of the late eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century eschewed strikes. They saw them as selfish, fixated on the parochial needs of one class.

The socialists of that era hunted bigger prey. They sought a complete overhaul of society that would reestablish — or, rather, establish for the first time — the harmony of all. Hence, the founders of utopian communities like New Lanark and Brook Farm or the Shakers of the Oneida commune tried to purge their experiments of all forms of social conflict.

Industrialization imposed a different reality. Strikes became commonplace, nowhere more so and nowhere more violently than in the United States. Marx and Engels considered the strike a form of class struggle, a kind of guerilla warfare that would steadily advance from the slogan “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” to “the abolition of the wages system.” Even when defeated, strikers “feel bound to proclaim that they shall not be made to bow to circumstances, but social conditions ought to yield to them as human beings.”

Radicals — socialists, anarchists, populists, even champions of the Cooperative Commonwealth like the Knights of Labor — welcomed strikes, encouraged them, led them, and theorized and mythologized about them. Why?

First, the strike sparked fierce resistance in employers, often abetted by the government’s coercive arm. Blood was spilled; protesters lost their lives. Whatever particular grievance precipitated the strike, it ultimately struggled against the new and profoundly disruptive system of wage labor.

This seemed inherently radical. Talk of “wage slavery” and other incendiary metaphors were common even in the most common strikes. The frequency with which governments — police, state and federal troops, courts, governors, even the president — intervened on behalf of the ownership class immediately raised the stakes; strikes took on a political meaning even when conservative unionists like Samuel Gompers or a youthful Eugene V. Debs eschewed radicalism.

Underlying indictments about “wage slavery” had spread so far that every local encounter became the potential site of a mass movement.

We tend to think of the trade union strike as a finite event between two parties arguing over limited, if sometimes intractable, issues. The rest of the world stands by and, for the most part, watches. But something quite different was happening during the formative stages of industrialization, as millions of people were being converted into the country’s founding proletariat.

All through the late nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth, events sometimes called “mass strikes” embraced multitudes. They enlisted not only those immediately involved in a particular strike, but a whole social universe that included other sympathetic workers, neighbors, families, shopkeepers and handicraftsmen, merchants, clergymen, newspaper editors, writers and artists, nearby farmers, and even local militiamen unwilling to fire on their friends and coworkers.

The Great Railroad Uprising of 1877, the Haymarket Massacre of 1886, the Homestead Strike of 1892, the Pullman Strike of 1894, the Uprising of the 20,000 in New York in 1911, the Lawrence and Paterson strikes in the following two years, the Great Steel Strike and Seattle General Strike of 1919, the San Francisco and Minneapolis general strikes of 1934, the sit-down strikes later that decade all stand as landmark moments in American history. As they unfolded, they laid bare the mass strike’s rhythm and social reach. These are only the most noted; in the years following the Civil War and into the new century, many localized mass strikes erupted in towns and small cities nationwide, eliciting what has been called “a strange enthusiasm.”

The mass strike came much closer to turning the world upside down than an ordinary strike. Transgressive by nature, these events were widespread and open ended. They shattered and then recombined dozens of more local attachments. They exploded at a thousand points, leaping across boundaries of skill, gender, nativity, ethnicity, and race, winning the support of even those whose economic interests did not depend on the outcome.

Often enough, the mass strike’s momentum sufficed to win concessions on wages, hours, and other working conditions — although they might be provisional, not inscribed in contracts, and subject to being violated or outright ignored when law and order returned.

The mass strike’s intense heat fused disparate elements into something ever more daring and generous. Indeed, its tactical repertoire — which relied on the boycott and the sympathy strike — embodied that vision. These weapons fit a worker-citizen movement whose social character and capacious programmatic embrace made it look like the kernel of a new commonwealth.

Boycotts and sympathy strikes expressed solidarity as an organized social emotion, as palpable reality, the spirit come to life. The form of the mass strike was its content, the medium the message.

Everything about them was unscripted. They had a rhythm all their own, syncopated and unpredictable as they spread from workplace to marketplace to slum. There was no central command, nor were they the result of some mysterious instance of spontaneous combustion. Each had dozens of choreographers, all directing local uprisings that remained elastic enough to cohere with one another while remaining distinct.

The program resisted easy codification. At one moment, it was about free speech, at another about a foreman’s chronic abuse, here about the presence of scabs and armed thugs, there about a wage cut.

Ranging effortlessly from a change in the piece rate to the nationalization of the country’s infrastructure, the mass strike defied the new order. Blunt yet profound, it defined the irreducible minimum of a just and humane civilization.

In so far as the mass strike had an ideology, it was ecumenical and apocalyptic. These early twentieth century syndicalist upheavals, from Brussels to Barcelona, St Petersburg to Seattle, constituted a freedom movement, bending the arc of social justice toward equality, solidarity, and emancipation.

During the Industrial Workers of the World–led Paterson strike in 1913, Emma Goldman sent a message to the workers, promising that “[w]hen all the textile workers, machinists, taxi cab drivers . . . join you in the general strike . . . which to all appearances is but a question of a few days,” that would be death knell of “the commercialism” which “has tried to crush human sympathy.”

During World War I, all the combatant countries experienced a flood of strikes, some industry-wide, some convulsing whole cities. In the United States, Helen Keller advocated a general “Strike Against the War.”

This supercharged atmosphere gave rise to speculative thinking about how the strike could inaugurate a new world.

Talk of general strikes, political strikes, and mass strikes ran through all the left literatures: syndicalism, anarchism, socialism, and communism all devised various formulations that described an impending revolutionary crisis in which the strike performed heroics beyond the modest work-a-day improvements we now associate with Western trade unionism.

Big Bill Haywood, a founder of the IWW, explained how the strike functioned in the syndicalist schema. His 1911 pamphlet The General Strike compared it to the Paris Commune of a generation earlier.

The strike, he wrote, “gives the vote to women, it re-enfranchises the black man, and places the ballot in the hands of every girl and boy employed in the shop.” Wobblies advocated a “peopled strike,” a form of passive resistance on the job, and outright sabotage: two strategies for moving toward industrial democracy.

While committed to electoral politics as the leader of the American Socialist Party, Eugene Debs made no bones about the fact that the Pullman strike made him a socialist: through “the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle, the class struggle was revealed” and the whole apparatus of the state implicated. His comrade AM Simmons agreed: “strikes, boycotts, lockouts, and injunctions” are “the birth pangs of a new society . . . and thereby rulership and slavery shall pass from the off the earth.”

Rosa Luxembourg became the mass strike’s seminal theorist, drawing heavily on the abortive 1905 Russian Revolution. She referred to the soviets — the Russian word for popular assemblies — as a “political mass strike” for freedom against absolutism. She wanted her experiences to serve as a corrective to the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which drew a sharp distinction between the political and economic struggle and insisted on a central command structure.

Luxembourg drew a sociological correlative: in periods of heightened social fracture, she argued, the unorganized elements of the working class proved to be the most radical-minded. The mass strike, she wrote, “on the whole does not proceed from the economic to the political struggle, or even the reverse.”

In a letter to Karl Kautsky, a theorist close to the SPD leadership, Luxembourg saluted the European workers’ “quiet heroism” for their solidarity with their Russian compatriots and for their efforts to form worker-elected factory committees to run things without the help of trade union or party hierarchs. The German trade union establishment, however, saw the general strike as “general nonsense.”

George Sorel went furthest in transforming the strike into a kind of permanent apocalypse. By the time Reflections on Violence was published in 1902, the general strike had become a well-established part of working-class life.

Sorel recognized the general strike’s transcendent character, which he thought leapt beyond the boundaries of the “More,” the incremental economic advances that chained the Left to bourgeois norms, a prisoner of envy and resentment. Mass strikes were simultaneously “the moral equivalent of earlier forms of proprietorship,” and the pathway to a heroic conception of life — an “epic state of mind.”

Sorel and others felt that the modern world’s disenchantment expressed a deep human need for social dreams. Emotion and the poetry of life produced wisdom, not the rationalism so celebrated by utilitarian society, a faith in reason that much of the oppositional left also held. What Sorel admired in Marx was his “catastrophic conception,” his refusal to block out in advance some socially engineered model of the future society.

Revolutionary syndicalism, of which there were various renditions, was often understood to dispense with parliamentary methods in favor of violence. Instead, revolutionary violence served purely tactical purposes. Sorel and others, like Haywood, saw the general strike as a vehicle of democratic takeover, one that would avoid empowering a new managerial class, even a socialist one.

There was a millenarian thinking undergirding these conceptions. Like the Christian apocalypse, the general strike — especially for Sorel — carried moral inspiration, nurtured devotion, and would curb meaner instincts; a living myth through which virtue could take root. It would serve as a last judgment on what capitalism had wrought. The struggle needed no fixed objective; it served as its own justification. And it had the additional appeal that it refused compromise, rejecting equivocation and delay.

Rebuilding the Barricades

The “strange enthusiasm” continued to light up the labor movement through the Great Depression. Leon Trotsky praised the mass sit-down strikes in the United States not merely as a shrewd stratagem that would make it harder for the police and National Guard to direct violence against the workers, but also as a movement that would “shake up the principle of bourgeois property.”

Indeed, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) again and again drew on the support networks in communities, among workers, and between merchants, neighbors, coreligionists, ethnic fraternal societies, and other organs of working-class life. The last truly general strike in the United States took place in Oakland, California in 1946. It began among low-paid women retail workers and, after 130,000 stopped work for two days, called for the unionization of the whole city.

From the 1930s onward, employers and the politicians who support them have ghettoized the strike, routinized and limited its political and social meaning and consequences. This was no easy task — the labor movement and its opponents have both tried to enlist the state as an ally and weapon in such combat.

The incident that touched off the Oakland General Strike, as was true in just about every other mass conflict from 1877 onward, involved employer efforts to enlist the police and militia to tilt the balance of power toward capital. Management enlisted the police — with the enthusiastic support of right-wing city fathers, strongly backed by William Knowland’s Oakland Tribune — as escorts for trucks and scab workers resupplying downtown department stores.

Luckily for the strikers, the resultant traffic jam stopped streetcars and buses, and their unionized drivers were soon outraged by the scab-herding police. All transport came to a stop, stores and factories closed, and jukeboxes were hauled onto the street to create a festive, communal air.

After shutting down the city for more than two days, the union movement turned its energies to politics. The resultant reforms did not quite represent a municipal revolution, but they did exemplify the close relationship of midcentury unionism and political power.

The same dynamic appeared on an even bigger scale in Detroit a year later when the United Automobile Workers (UAW), then the United States’ largest and most dynamic union, flooded Cadillac Square with more than a quarter million workers to protest the Taft-Hartley Act. Laborites called the new legislation a “slave labor law”; it curbed strike power and disqualified radicals from labor leadership.

Then as now, the demonstration’s leaders were divided over tactics. The Left wanted to shut down factories so that American unions could deploy, as one top officer put it, “the kind of political power which is most effective in Europe.” More cautious unionists, led by the ex-socialist UAW president Walter Reuther, agreed on a huge demonstration, but wanted one that began after workers clocked out for the day.

Capitalizing on these internal divisions, and on the early Cold War hostility to labor radicalism and political insurgency, the auto companies took their pound of flesh. They fired key militants and ended the tradition of working-class strike demonstrations in industrial cities for the rest of the twentieth century.

Plenty of big strikes have taken place since then, but, for both employers and workers, they have been self-contained, insular affairs, whose impact no longer resonated with the social movements and currents still roiling the American landscape. This represented a huge victory for conservatives and employers, who no longer feared that the labor movement would enlist the community or even decisive elements thereof, such as feminists, Latinos, or African Americans.

Indeed, the consignment of unions to an economic interest group all too frequently put these institutions into opposition with the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s that sought to expand the content and scope of American democracy.

By the time Ronald Reagan smashed the PATCO strike in 1981, the unions had become isolated and vulnerable. The flight of capital out of production into finance — and out of the country into the low-wage global South — helped neuter work stoppages and collective bargaining.

The labor movement shrank in size and potency, emboldening conservatives to further undermine union power, as the wave of so-called right-to-work laws enacted over the past few years in several Midwestern states attests. During the last decade, unions have called only 143 strikes, compared to 3,500 during a similar time frame forty years ago.

And yet we cannot divorce politics from the quest for economic and social democracy. Even as the strike and collective bargaining have become almost entirely devalued, the same issues that animated radicalism a century ago remain front and center: economic justice and liberation, social inequality, the meaning of citizenship, and the democratic character of our governing institutions.

In the 1960s, even as intellectuals like C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse began to turn away from the “labor metaphysic,” the strike in its classic, proletarian form still retained an imaginative grasp on leftists and reformers from Memphis to Paris. Martin Luther King’s very last campaign came in the form of a black municipal workers strike, the meaning of which transcended the stolid boundaries of midcentury collective bargaining and the outlaw struggle for union recognition in the public sector.

King wanted to create a transracial organization of the poor, using weapons honed not only in the civil rights movement but borrowed from radical labor’s arsenal as well. As he told the striking garbage men on the eve of his assassination, “You may have to escalate the struggle a bit . . . just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.”

Six weeks later in Paris, a fleeting alliance of students and workers seemed like the manifestation of every transformative dream to emerge from the sixties. The events of May–June 1968 shut down Paris and swept eleven million workers into its orbit.

George Sorel, relegated to infamy thanks to Mussolini’s fondness for the theorist’s mystifications when he was remembered at all, suddenly appeared on everyone’s reading list, but now with a hedonistic flavor. “Under the cobblestones, the beach!” chanted the Parisian students who saw utopia in distinctly Californian terms.

A year later, even the liberals who had enlisted in and assumed leadership roles in the American antiwar movement deployed a strike ethos to advance their agenda. The 1969 Moratoriums to End the War in Vietnam, among the largest demonstrations of that decade, had originally been planned as shut-it-down strikes, scheduled for a workday.

The sixties passed half a century ago; the Wobblies more than a century. But ideas of popular resistance, collective power, strike action, and “Ye are many – they are few” are enjoying a remarkable renaissance. The May Day strike is winning support not only from many unions but also from immigrant groups and others seeking to demonstrate the power of a resistant citizenry.

This action may have the wherewithal to translate the wishful thinking of the Occupy militants, of Francine Prose and Women’s Strike organizers, of Black Lives Matter allies, and of all the grassroots mobilizing against the Trump regime into a more robust reality. The proletariat remains a powerful force — even if its ranks and spirit have been severely depleted.

Indeed, these mobilizations may signal the awakening of a new proletariat, one less like the industrial workers of the twentieth century than the ancient Roman proletariat — the discarded and disempowered, cast-off by postindustrial society. Like the unorganized in Rosa Luxembourg’s imagination, they are ready for action, neither “backward” nor bourgeois. Working classes — both the well and poorly rewarded, both the remnants of the organized and the sea of unorganized — might yet launch a mass strike that can deliver a new and humane future.