What is a General Strike and What Can it Accomplish?
With the government shutdown dragging on, union officials have begun to talk about the possibility of a general strike. But what is a general strike and what can it accomplish?
We’ll explore these questions with a look at the history of the general strike, beginning with a recovery of its importance as an idea in the early nineteenth century Atlantic world.
A general strike is a mass strike that encompasses a wide range of occupations and shuts down the delivery of private and public services. Its success depends on a constant, creative, and courageous escalation of the tactics of struggle.
Wedderburn, the Jamaican-born Black abolitionist and communist ultraradical, laid out the idea of the general strike in his 1817 abolitionist periodical The Axe Laid to the Root. In doing so, he did not turn the analytical or political focus away from contingent categories of workers and historical particularities; instead, he drew on a concrete experience of absolute dispossession and deracination as a global strategy for rebellion.
Benbow’s rousing proclamation of the general strike demands “unity of thought and action.” The general strike will not be realized without organization and preparation (“universal preparation”) and is characterized by a necessary sociality (“Every man must… act”). Such an articulation of the general strike demonstrates that, rather than being reducible to wage labor or European anarchism, the concept was deeply shaped by Atlantic racial slavery.
A general strike is a work stoppage that overflows from single industries to shut down the production of private and public goods and services in an entire city. Its occurrence signals the emergence of a militant national working class.
Although some claim that English radical William Benbow originated the concept of a general strike in his 1832 text Grand National Holiday, this account misrepresents the origin, development, and capacity of this idea. In fact, Benbow adapted the revolutionary program of Robert Wedderburn, a Jamaican-born Black abolitionist and ultraradical communist.
Wedderburn’s theory of a general strike in Axe of the axe (HS 83) echoes Benbow’s call for mass passive labor withdrawal and organized revolution, and both texts reject petitioning as degrading to human nature. Moreover, both call for the shattering of reformist trade unionism, parliamentarism, and pacifism, and they rely on a broad base of support amongst all workers. This reveals the general strike as an important articulation of antiwork paradigms and a tool for a broader revolution.
As the government shutdown reaches its fourth week and hundreds of thousands of workers go without paychecks, the word “general strike” has begun to appear with increasing frequency on social media and in articles. But what exactly is a general strike and what can it accomplish?
The most important thing to remember about the concept of the general strike is that it is a revolutionary idea. It is not the kind of strike that is based on petitioning the ruling class for better wages or working conditions. Rather, the general strike is a way to bring all classes together into an economic battle that obliterates the strength of any one class over the other.
This is what made the 1946 Oakland general strike so significant—it ushered in an era of class warfare that hasn’t been seen since. Until the passage of the anti-union Taft–Hartley Act in 1947, unions could often organize general strikes in solidarity with one another.
In many instances, workers across the globe have resorted to general strikes in order to demand better wages, protect their jobs and secure basic rights. These strikes have taught working people that exploitation is not inevitable and have inspired them to imagine a world where they are in control.
The example of the Black Atlantic, with its refusals, subterfuge, ideas, desertions, and rituals of resistance, is crucial to understanding the origins of the general strike. It reframes Benbow’s genealogy, showing that the general strike is not derived from contingent categories of (waged) worker and European anarchism, but from the experience of enslaved Africans. Its fugitive traditions, which include modes of covert assembly and communication, aesthetic practices, and evasion in the face of unspeakable violence, gave rise to a broader tradition of rebellion that would resurface throughout the nineteenth century.