Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has called for a general strike on May Day. This is an opportune moment for a small history lesson.
A general strike is a old tactic of revolutionary socialists that calls for a complete stoppage of all work and commerce. The intention is quite simple: to shut down a society and damage if not break the bonds of community enterprise. The general strike is notoriously difficult to pull off because it does rely on the participation of so many people – including many people who will harm their own self interest. Organizers will try to coax the strike to be as expansive as possible and, usually, for it to continue as long as possible.
The idea of a general strike was orchestrated by Siegfried Nacht a German anarchist, writing under an anglicized name of Arnold Roller. Nacht published a pamphlet “The Social General Strike” in 1905 for the first ever convention of the International Workers of the World. From Chicago, site of that meeting, the pamphlet spread and proved influential in places like Russia and China.
Anarchists, socialists, and communists still debate the efficacy of a general strike, but all seem to agree on the goal, namely a world social revolution resulting in the reorganization of society and the demolition of the economic system. “Change,” is the password of a general strike.
There are three general strikes of note in American history. The first occurred in 1919 Seattle. Inspired by revolutionary “success” in Russia, thousands of striking longshoremen were joined by union members through the city, effectively shutting down Seattle for four days. No water, no electricity, no services. When asked to allow utilities to reach a hospital, union representatives tersely replied, “no exemptions.” A second strike followed in 1934 San Francisco. Although much smaller, it did bear much resemblance to the Seattle strike.
The 1946 Oakland strike may have been the largest, with some estimations of as many as 150,000 people refusing to work. With strong Communist party backing and more than a little violence, the 1946 effort is perhaps the most consequential of the general strikes as it inspired many smaller efforts in cities scattered throughout the nation.
May Day has a dual history with, it is said, a “green root” in pagan tradition, and a “red root” in socialist movements. The red root blossomed in America as early as 1886 as organized labor adopted May 1 as a day to celebrate the proletariat with a universal work stoppage – a “holiday.” That first May Day demonstration lead, in Chicago, to extraordinary violence with left-wing laborers hurling sticks of dynamite at police, killing seven.
Such a “success” was the Haymarket Massacre of the Chicago May Day that the International Workers Congress codified the idea of May first direct action in 1899. The International Socialist Conference of 1904 passed a resolution calling May Day as an occasion for “energetic” demonstrations “for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace. The most effective way of demonstrating on May First is by stoppage of work.”
Today we no longer hear the rousing chorus from Aaron Copland’s “Into the Streets May First” and his call to “shake the downtown towers, crash the midtown air, come with a storm of banners,” but the radical left has not forgotten.
OWS itself has done a wonderful job dispelling any myth that the Occupiers are non-violent or that they represent “99%” or any number close to a majority of Americans. An attempt at a May Day general strike should finish off the persistent fairy tale that OWS is anything but a radical, left-wing socialist cult. After all, as it says on their website – just below the symbol of a raised, clenched fist – “the only solution is world revolution.”