The English Strikes

Peter Kropotkin

“Les Grèves Anglaises”, La Révolte: Organe Communiste-Anarchiste, 21 February 1891

While the socialist parties are increasingly disintegrating, as the leaders give up hope of reaching Parliament and lose patience, the working world is wrought to its depths by the struggle against Capital.

No sooner had the Scottish railway strike ended than new impressive strikes broke amongst dockers in Cardiff and Liverpool, centres of ocean trade.

In Leeds, where there was a recent strike by the gas workers, a new strike is about to break out, and last Monday it was decided to leave the city in darkness again, if certain workers (the most active of the last strike) fired by the bosses are not immediately taken back.

Needless to say, in America too there is the same movement. The quiet times, which brought such fine profits to the shareholders, are gone forever. It is strikes constantly. So at this very moment it is announced that the workers who manufacture coke are going on strike by the tens of thousands. If it grows, it will shut down nearly the entire American mining industry.

One fact to note is that in all these strikes we no longer see the quiet submission of times past. Every strike threatens to turn into a revolt and lead to ransacking and plundering. Secret government agents (detectives) go into the area as soon as there is a work stoppage. They investigate, and after two days they report that minds are so excited that anything can be expected. Everywhere bosses and mayors are asking for troops. They guard the docks, the pits, the palaces of the rich.

The strikes persist

There is something else. We read in the newspapers: “The strikers have returned to work” and we believe that everything is over.

That is not so. The strike is simply suspended. In the past, when the workers returned to work it was over. That is not the case today.

The strike ends and not a week goes by without the strike starting again.

On such-and-such a ship, they saw a man who does not belong to the union. All the dockers leave the ship, and the ship which was due to leave the following day remains forty-eight hours in the dock waiting for loaders.

Here, a shipowner begs workers to toil two extra hours after their nine-hour day, so his ship can leave the next morning. He offers twelve francs for these two hours and they flatly refuse. He then hires a few temporary loaders. Immediately the ship is blacklisted; the sailors quit it and if the owner hires new ones, all his boats are boycotted, abandoned and remain for entire weeks without being able to put to sea.

At the moment there is no official strike in London or Glasgow. Make no mistake though, the ships of three or four companies are deserted. The boats no longer leave at the agreed times and such-and-such a line which boasted for twenty years about the regularity of its voyages can no longer guarantee the departure dates.

The slightest pretext is seized to abandon work. It is a habit. “Ah, you wanted war, well, you will have it”. Not the great war of armies in line, we are not strong enough to sustain that, but the war of a rebellious people who harass the bosses, who sting them every day, where they least expect it and cut off supplies to the exploiters whenever the slightest opportunity rises.

The method is preached from the podiums, skilfully developed at meetings. “Defeated, but not defeated, struggle at every opportunity, however small, ruin the exploiters. They must be ruined by all possible means!”

And if you cannot strike – remember ca’ canny!


This is a new term, coined very recently. It means: “Go easy! Don’t strain yourself, work little and badly!”

The method has always been practiced by English trade unions. Today it is becoming a battle cry. When a French or German worker enters an English factory and starts to work hard, his comrades warn him not to foolishly ruin himself – “Go easy”. That is the first lesson they teach him in the workshop. If he does not take it, they put him in the doghouse; if he perseveres, life is made hard for him.

Today, they are building the process into a system. Ca’ canny is preached in manifestos, explained as a principle.

The other day one of the staunch supporters of ca’ canny was dragged before a court in Liverpool, and there he developed his thesis: “When the English manufacturers were asked to supply very cheap cotton goods for India – what did they do? After being prudish for a moment, they ended up sending cotton goods that contained more filler than cotton. When we asked the manufacturers for cheap cloth – they concocted shoddy yarn, obtained by combing old clothes, saying ‘for the price of rags, you will have a cloth from rags.’ Well” – continued the accused – “we say to the workers: ‘bad pay – bad work!’” That is all there is to it.[1]

You can imagine the howls of the bourgeois press – “People without faith or law demoralise our workers! What will become of English industry? What will be left of our dividends?”

But the term took hold. They are passionate about preaching it and putting it into practice. “When a temporary docker, taken on to replace strikes, pushes a coal tub, it sometimes happens that the tub rolls into the river and the docker with it,” said one of the propagandists. “But you, skilled workers, don’t deserve to be called intelligent men if you don’t know how to push the tub into the river – without falling in yourselves. Put the coal into the water, stay on the dock and watch the face the boss makes!” And the speaker explained at length how you can hang full sacks from the chain of a crane so that they fall onto the deck; “but don’t be stupid enough to be under the sacks”, he showed how cranes are damaged, how to load coke ovens badly, how to be careless in all situations.[2]

All this is not grandiosely revolutionary. But it shows how much the working masses are at this moment wrought with brand new ideas. In the past, we would have been booed, manhandled, if we had dared to preach such a thing in England. Today it is vigorously applauded.

And then, propaganda as propaganda, we admit this propaganda undermines respect for property, the boss, the established order, better than the algebraic formulas of the doctrinaire socialists; “Ruining industry!” with this response they used to silence the staunchest socialists. Just think, ruin the sacred industry of the sacred fatherland!! Today, they care about this joke like last year’s snow. – “Go away, if this ruins you!” is the only answer that is given in the meetings with the mouthpieces of the nation’s industry. “Go away, “ say the workers, “we have no need for you!”

End Notes

[1] Émile Pouget includes a similar account in his article “Le Sabotage” (Almanach du Père Peinard, 1898) and in his later pamphlet of the same name. (Translator)

[2] A reference to Glasgow dockers’ strike of 1889 when the defeated workers were told before they returned to work the following by a union leader: “You are going to return to work today at the old rate. The employers have repeatedly said that they were delighted with the services of the farm workers who have replaced us over the past few weeks. We have seen them; we have seen that they don’t know to walk on a boat, that they have dropped half the stuff they carried; in short that two of them can’t do the work of one of us. However the employers have said that they are delighted with the services of these people; let us therefore do the same and practice ca’canny. Work like the farm workers worked. Only it happened that several times they fell into the water. It is useless for you to do the same.” (quoted by Geoff Brown, Sabotage: A Study in Industrial Conflict [Nottingham: Spokesman Books 1977], 5) A few days later, the workers got the pay rise they had failed to get by striking. (Translator)