The General Strike Thesis
Over a century before Du Bois’s proposal, a Black abolitionist ultraradical named Wedderburn laid out the idea and plan of the general strike in his 1817 periodical Axe Laid to the Root. His formulation converges with antiwork paradigms, reorients and radicalizes Benjamin’s dialectic of law-preserving and law-making violence, and opens new avenues for thinking about mass withdrawal.
The general strike is a form of collective resistance that disrupts and reorients work, temporality, the idea of the proletariat, and even the concept of revolution. Yet it remains difficult to locate its first articulation. In this book, I trace the concept’s first articulation back to the struggle against Atlantic racial slavery in the early nineteenth century.
It is in this context of antiracination and abolition that the notion of the general strike was born, not in the contingent category of the (waged) worker or European anarchism, but in the anti-work rhetoric of Black radicalism. It was in this moment that Wedderburn’s Axe became a call to foment a general strike jubilee for slave resistance and revolt, to engender a revolutionary motion toward freedom across the Caribbean and Britain, and to inaugurate a new era of liberated community.
This history of the general strike reframes many of the key theoretical debates that surround this radical tactic, from issues of the labor movement’s racial character and the place of women in it, to the question of how we might understand the role of the unions in the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. More importantly, it demonstrates that the general strike’s most important ancestor did not come from the industrial militancy of Seattle lumber workers or the women-led Oakland general strikes in 1919 and 1946.
Du Bois’s Thesis
Du Bois’s recasting of the general strike thesis was, in its own way, an abolitionist gesture. It arose in the context of Black ultraradicalism, an anti-racist praxis that sought to decolonize the world by attacking the racial capitalist regimes of work and property. The general strike thus became a tool for an abolitionist strategy aimed at the police and prisons, placing their roots in racial capitalism in the clearest of terms.
Du Bois developed his own analysis and elaboration of the general strike idea in his 1889 essay, The Civil War and Reconstruction. In it, he argued that enslaved people had to become conscious of their class status and of the fact that they were a unitary mass. This consciousness would require a unity of thought and action.
He urged workers to unite around a common cause and to engage in universal preparations for a general strike, a movement that would be characterized by its own unique, energized style. In this, he built upon the general strike thesis of his mentor and boss T. Thomas Fortune, but Du Bois’s own text was infused with an additional force that set it apart from the Marxist class-based interpretations that dominated the discipline at the time. The power of this additional force is the subject of this essay.
In the context of Marxist theory, revisionist means someone who departs from traditionally held beliefs. It can also refer to a position within the labor movement that modifies Marxist assertions without rejecting them. Some socialists who take this stance are called revisionists by those more dogmatic about their interpretation of the past, and they may be accused of being traitors to the cause.
Considering this other genealogy of the general strike, forged at the intersection of Black resistance and rebellion in the Caribbean, insurrectionary London ultraradicalism, and the early workers’ movement, reorients our thinking toward its equiprimordial intimacy with abolition. This naming of an abolitionist generality does not dislodge class struggle; rather, it points in new directions of intensification and generalization, toward a downfall that is as global as it is local.
Most importantly, this genealogy of the general strike shows that the canonical account that credits Benbow’s Grand National Holiday and the early British workers’ movement with first articulating the concept misrepresents its generation, development, history, and capacity. In recovering Wedderburn’s importance, this essay explores theoretical questions arising out of the general strike around work and temporality, the idea of the proletariat, and abolition. It thus lays the foundation for a more rigorous and productive dialogue on these issues.