The idea of the revolutionary social general strike occupies a central place in anarcho-syndicalist theory. It marks the breach between those socialists who seek to capture the state - by revolutionary or democratic means - and those who see the need for the state to be shattered before libertarian communism can be achieved.
For anarcho-syndicalists it is the declaration of the independence of the labour movement, an independence that can only be brought about by the efforts of the working class itself.
The idea of the general strike as a way of fundamentally changing society is much older than syndicalism. Britain was the first industrialised nation so it was here that the first working class developed and the development of Trades Unionism in Britain predated both anarchism and Marxism. In 1799 and 1825 Combination Acts were passed by the British state to try to prevent the growth of working class organisations. The first trades union with an explicit aim to overthrow capitalism was created in Britain in 1834. The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) was a revolutionary union with aims of creating a co-operative commonwealth by workers taking control of the means of production and distribution. These aims are clearly analogous with the later ideology of twentieth century syndicalists. At its height, it claimed 500,000 members, drawn from a number of trades, including miners, tailors, bakers, and gasworkers.
The GNCTU also developed the earliest incarnation of the Social General Strike, the “Grand National Holiday”, first suggested in England by William Benbow in 1832. The idea was that on a set day all the workers would cease work. This would bring the capitalist system to a halt and enable the working class to gain control.
Benbow argued that a month long General Strike would lead to an armed uprising and a change in the political system. He used the term “holiday” (holy day) because it would be a period “most sacred, for it is to be consecrated to promote the happiness and liberty”. Benbow argued that during this one month holiday the working class would have the opportunity “to legislate for all mankind; the constitution drawn up...that would place every human being on the same footing. Equal rights, equal enjoyments, equal toil, equal respect, equal share of production.”
He convinced the Chartist National Convention to call for a Grand National Holiday on 12th August, 1839 and then toured the country in an attempt to persuade workers to join the strike. When he and George Harney were arrested and charged with making seditious speeches, the General Strike was called off.
In 1842 a general strike did take place and at its peak it involved half a million workers. Factories, mills and coal mines were hit in an area which stretched from Dundee, through the Lancashire and Staffordshire heartlands of the dispute to South Wales and Cornwall. Although later histories refer disparagingly to the events of that summer as the “plug plot riots”, in reality something far more sophisticated was happening. It was the most immense industrial action in Britain - and probably anywhere - in the nineteenth century and the first ever general strike.
Benbow's idea was eventually by-passed in Britain as the trades unions drifted to reformism – a reformism that eventually led to the formation of the Labour Party. But the idea of the general strike was taken up by anarchists. It was an anarchist carpenter called Tortelier who introduced the idea into the French labour movement and it was adopted by the anarcho-syndicalists in the CGT.
It was anarcho-syndicalists who developed the idea into a more elaborate theory. Firstly it was recognised that the state would not sit idly back and surrender peacefully. If the workers were not starved into submission the state would intervene and use armed force to break the strike. Secondly the idea that the general strike could be planned to start on a chosen day was seen to be inadequate as the state would take preventive action.
Anarcho-syndicalists see the social general strike coming after a period in which there will have been a series of strikes and general unrest. During this period tension would mount and strikes grow in intensity and bitterness. The state would respond with greater coercion and the workers would reply by stepping up their demands and resistance. A revolutionary situation would develop and the conflict would be narrowed down to one between the state and the working class. It is then that workers would take the offensive, the separate strikes would turn into a social general strike, workplaces would be seized and transport and communications centres captured for the workers’ use. The community would organise the distribution of essential supplies and militias would be formed to defend the revolution.
This means that the working class would take the offensive and not simply wait for capitalism and the state to collapse. This is why anarcho-syndicalists see the necessity of organising in the revolutionary union. Although the social general strike would be largely a spontaneous act “like a dam bursting forth”, the workers must be prepared for it. In other words it may be impossible to organise the strike but it is necessary to organise for it. The revolutionary union would be the organisation that the workers use to fight the state through strikes and when the moment comes it would provide the framework of organisation in which the new society would de-velop. This is essential to prevent a power vacuum in which authoritarian elites can take control.
Bitter experience shows that the state will respond to major strikes with forceful (armed if necessary) intervention. How could a general strike avoid an open battle between the workers and the state? Capitalism will not passively surrender. The working class would be met by a declaration of war. They would need the experience of self-organisation to meet this. The need for spontaneity does not contradict the need for organisation. Co-ordination would be essential to ensure the universal and simultaneous suspension of work when the moment comes and also to administer the needs of society. Only anarcho-syndicalism can provide this.
Why did the British General Strike of 1926 fail?
Not because the workers failed to strike. The number of blacklegs was insignificant. The attempt of the middle class to scab on the strikers was a poor effort and was rapidly breaking down the machines used. About one per cent of normal train services were running, but only nine days of that caused chaos on the railways for months afterwards. The breakdown was greater than that caused by the air raids on London in 1940-41 and took much longer to repair. The University students and other middle class scabs could not replace the transport workers and certainly did not intend to replace the miners.
Nor did the strike fail because of a fall in the morale of the workers. The Aggregate of strikers was much greater on the last day of the strike than on the first and the fighting spirit was much tougher.
The strike failed only because it was called off by the trade union leaders and the workers had not learned to distrust those leaders sufficiently. Worse still, the most important divisions of strikers were organised in trade unions and they were used to obeying instructions from the officials of those unions. The strike was betrayed by the leadership.
from The Social General Strike by Tom Brown