The General Strike and Socialism: An International Inquiry

Emilé Pouget

Le Mouvement socialiste : revue bi-mensuelle internationale, June and July 1904

Opinions and Documents

Editorial secretary of La Voix du Peuple

It seems to me that I can contribute no better to the inquiry opened by Le Mouvement socialiste on the idea of the general strike than by seeking its genesis and quickly sketching its historical progress.

The realisation that this idea has not emerged as recently as it is too often thought will help break down, or at least attenuate, many prejudices against it. All the more so since to this realisation Is added another whose value is undeniable: namely that the idea of a general strike arises, logically and inevitably, when the working class abandons the political illusion to concentrate its efforts to organisation, struggle and revolt on the economic terrain.

I. The genesis of the general strike – The idea of a general strike has no ideological prestige. It comes from the people and cannot claim a “lofty” origin. Neither sociologists nor philosophers have deigned to speculate on its account, analyse it formulas, to determine its theory.

This “common” origin explains – in part – the discredit which the idea of a general strike enjoys in certain circles where people pride themselves on a sort of intellectualism: it is distained there and it is considered to be a confused and insubstantial expression, emerging from the masses in a state of agitation... and, by that very fact, doomed to imminent disappearance.

No big name having made himself the champion of the general strike, it is refused all respect. If this disdainful attitude towards the general strike was peculiar of the bourgeoisie, there would be no reason to care about it. Unfortunately, its detractors are legion in the socialist elite.

This bias is inexplicable. It seems that one should give all one’s attention to the tactics that are being worked out in the depths of the popular masses; it seems that there can be no better education, no more useful school of revolution than this study of life. Indeed, when the people do not let themselves be diverted from their path by the “spiritual directors”[1], it is rare that their common sense does not suggest the best direction to them.

On the political plane, so many appetites and so many ambitions are tangled up that this clear-sightedness, atrophied by intrigues and conflicts [of interest] of all kinds, cannot manifest itself.

It is entirely different on the economic plane. There, the employee and the employer find themselves connected by opposition; their interests are opposed and no manoeuvre can obscure their antagonism. Besides, on the side of the workers, the conflicts become less significant as there are only problems to be gathered and not stipends.

Therefore, on the economic terrain, less favourable than any other for the development of diverting tendencies, the germination of the tactics and aspirations of the working masses takes place without it having to fear too much the interference of the ambitious and the theoreticians, some dogmatising under the pressure of appetites, others in the name of abstract formulas.

The logical method of the struggle which, in the economic milieu, is indicated first of all is the strike, that is to say the refusal to work, the refusal, at least momentarily, to enrich the boss under too draconian conditions. Then, as a consequence, as a corollary of the growth of the workers’ organisation, the idea of generalising the work stoppage movement was born and took shape.

II. The general strike in the International – The International Workers’ Association was, at the end of the Second Empire, the expression of the economic demands of the working class. Also, very quickly it was led, under the logical pressure of the social struggle, to consider the possibility of a general strike. From its first congresses – from 1866 – the question of partial strikes arose and the usefulness of their generalisation was examined.

At the Brussels Congress, in 1868, it was declared “that the strike is not a means of completely freeing the workers, but that it is often a necessity in the present situation”; then, the possibility of a universal strike was considered, and it was laid down as a principle that “the social body cannot live if production is stopped for a certain time; that it would therefore suffice for the producers to cease producing to render impossible the activities of personal and despotic governments.”

Shortly afterwards, in Mach 1869, the newspaper l’Internationale, which was published in Brussels, said:

When strikes spread, they gradually connect, they are very close to turning into a general strike; and with the ideas of emancipation that now prevail in the proletariat, a general strike can only lead to a great cataclysm which would renew society.[2]

Thus, within the International, the phenomenon noted above appeared: the economic grouping of the workers favoured the blossoming of the idea of a general strike, to which was attributed its precise and definitive goal: capitalist expropriation. But the events of 1870 and 1871, and the weakening of the International, would divert the working class from this objective and give a more political orientation to the social movement.

Nevertheless, in 1873, the Congress of the Belgian Section which was held in Antwerp, notified the Federations to “prepare everything for the universal strike, renouncing partial strikes, except in the case of self-defence.”

A few weeks later, in September 1873, at the suggestion of Belgium which had asked for it to be put on the agenda, the question of the general strike was discussed at the General Congress of the International held in Geneva. Amongst the delegates to the Congress were citizens Andréa Costa and Paul Brousse.

The general strike was discussed in secret session[3] and the conceptions and objections that emerged at the time hardly differ from those that are current today. Some considered the general strike to be the equivalent of social revolution and to have as its corollary capitalist expropriation; others, on the contrary – and amongst these were the Americans – regarded it merely as a movement of agitation for reform.

The report sent by the Federal Council of North America stated:

…If workers affiliated to the Association were to fix a certain day for the general strike, not only to obtain a reduction in hours and [against] a reduction in wages, but to find a means of living in cooperative workshops, in groups and in colonies, we could not help but… give them moral and material assistance.

The opinion expressed above is that of the general strike with a reformist goal, and it was by a movement of this category that the workers of the United States decided in 1886 to conquer the eight-hour day.

As for the Geneva Congress, in order not to give rise to an increase in repression, it was with the resolution below – which in no way reflects the ideas discussed at the secret session – that it closed the debate on the general strike:

The Congress, considering that, in the present state of the organisation of the International, the question of the general strike cannot be given a complete answer, recommends to the workers, as a matter of urgency, the international organisation of trade unions, as well as active socialist propaganda.

The recommendation formulated in this resolution, aiming at the formation of international trade groupings, is the clear indication of the internationalists’ thought: they understood that the general strike would remain an abstraction without revolutionary value, as long as the working class had not created a strong economic organisation.

This recommendation can be taken as the testamentary thought of the International; henceforth, the great Association, already split in two after the Hague Congress in 1872, would decline to make way, after two more congresses, for other ways of grouping.

Social-democratic theories were, for a time, to acquire predominance; the economic orientation was to be abandoned in favour of parliamentary agitation and, inevitably, the idea of the general strike was to be forgotten.

So it often is with new ideas: a generation develops them, then, under the pressure of bourgeois persecutions, other discouraging causes, they fade from human memories and are not transmitted to the younger generation; the latter, in ignorance of the work accomplished, is obliged to begin again the development of the forgotten ideas from the beginning.

This is what happened with the general strike.

III Revival of the idea of the general strike – it reappeared in the United States – and this when in that country a powerful federation of trade unions had been formed. It appeared, with the spirit noted by the Federal Council of the International for North America at the Geneva Congress in 1873: the general strike was considered only under its reformist aspect – a means of action to win a partial improvement.

The platform for this first general strike movement was the conquest of the eight-hour day. It is needless to observe that it was not by recourse to legislative intervention, but simply by vigorous direct action against the bosses, by a mass uprising of workers on a date fixed in advance, that the Americans tried to wrest (and partially wrested) from the exploiters this reduction in working hours.

The initiative for this movement was taken by the Federation of Organised Trades and Labor Unions which, at its Congress in November 1885[4], chose May Day 1886 for general action: it was agreed to stop work on this date until obtaining the reduction of the working day to eight-hours.

Thus it appears that the internationalists in Geneva were far-sighted when they advocated union organisation as the necessary soil for the flowering of the idea of a general strike.

The gigantic American agitation for the Eight Hours was really the consequence of a strong economic organisation and it was supported only by the groups putting economic concerns to the fore. Indeed, it was reluctantly, and with a forced hand, that the Knights of Labor participated in the agitation. On the contrary, the young anarchist party, which had its centre of activity in Chicago, threw itself into the fray with ardour, while the socialist party, imbued with European theories, allowed the agitation to take place almost without participating in it.

IV The general strike in France – From the United States, the idea of a general strike – fertilised by the blood of the anarchists hanged in Chicago, following the May Day demonstrations of 1886 – was imported into France.

Here, it was as in the United States: the idea of a general strike, considered “unscientific”, left the theoreticians, socialists and anarchists alike, cold and seduced only the workers and the militants who took their inspiration more from social facts than from books.

Comrade [Joseph] Torelier[5], one of the early militants of the carpenters’ union, a fiery and crude speaker, was one of the first in Paris to propagate the idea of a general strike, in its complete revolutionary conception. As a delegate to the International Workers’ Congress held in London in November 1888, he developed – without much response – the new idea.

At the end of the same year, in Bordeaux, a national trade union Congress was held, and the general strike was advocated and adopted. This congress was organised by the Fédération [nationale] des syndicats which, a few years later, would pose as an opponent of the general strike and gradually disappear after the split at the Nantes Congress in 1894.

This Federation was imbued with the mindset of the “French Workers’ Party”; also, the general-strike resolution adopted at this Congress was often recalled by the socialists who did not belong to this fraction. Here it is:


That the monopolisation of the tools and capital in the hands of the employers gives the bosses a power that diminishes by the same amount that which the partial strike puts in the hands of the workers;

That capital is nothing if it is not set in motion;

That then, by refusing to work, the workers would at once annihilate the power of their masters;


That the partial strike can only be a means of agitation and organisation;

Congress declares:

That only the general strike, that is to say the complete cessation of all work, or the Revolution, can lead the workers towards their emancipation.

It should be noted that at this Congress – where nevertheless the thought of the “French Workers’ Party” dominated the debates – a motion was passed, “inviting the trade unions constituted, or in the process of being constituted, not to become subservient to any political party, whatever it may be, the only way to reach the unanimity of the trade”.

So, while this Congress declared itself in favour of the fundamentally economic means of action which is the general strike, it warned the workers against the dangers of political subjugation.

Can we not infer from these two characteristic votes that if the socialists of the “French Workers’ Party” had not moved away from the orientation indicated by this Congress, they would have been good workers for strong trade union organisation? Purely economic organisation, which took six years to emerge above the internal struggles between groups with divergent tendencies, and which was not an accomplished fact until the split at Nantes in 1894, had prepared the birth of the Confédération Générale du Travail at Limoges in 1895.

It was not so! The propagandists of the “French Workers’ Party” quickly rejected the idea of a general strike. However, before coming to condemn it categorically, they stopped at an intermediate theory, the general strike by industry.

In May 1890, at Jolimont in Belgium, an International Congress of Miners was held where, at the suggestion of citizen Keir Hardie, “the principle of the general strike” was adopted “to ensure the triumph of the eight-hour day…” The next Congress decided the date of this general movement in all the coal mines of Europe was to be fixed for 1891.

A few months later, in October 1890, at the Congress of the “French Workers’ Party” held in Lille, the following resolution was adopted:

Considering that the general strike strictly speaking, that is to say the concerted and simultaneous refusal of work by all workers… supposes and demands in order to succeed a socialist mindset and workers’ organisation which the proletariat has not arrived at… ; that the only strike which, under these conditions, is not illusory or premature is that of the miners of all countries… the Congress decides:… to support the international strike of miners, should it be passed.

How did the “Workers’ Party” which, at the Congress of Bordeaux, had declared itself in favour of the revolutionary general strike and, at the Congress of Lille for the general strike by trades, came to make itself a systematic opponent of this revolutionary means of action?

Let us simply observe that the theory of the “French Workers’ Party”, placing the conquest of power at the forefront, could only with difficulty accommodate itself to the idea of a general strike, which placed economic action at the forefront.

Besides this cause, there is another which seems to have influenced it: the pacifist conception of the general strike which, under the simple-minded term the folded arms strike was for a moment very fashionable, would not have pleased it.

This theory was in particular propagated by militants of the P.O.S.R.[6]; they considered the general strike as having to be limited to a suspension of all work, of all transport of objects or foodstuffs of primary necessity. A quick outcome: starvation of the capitalists, it is true; but also, and by extension, starvation of the workers. It is true that, to counter this last inconvenience, certain militants advocated the creation of “reserve” stores to deal with supplying the people in the event of a general strike.

It is on these conceptions – confused because they are embryonic – and that no one is endorses today, that the current critics of the idea of a general strike base themselves to proclaim themselves opponents. They would be better advised to look for other arguments, because, by basing their criticisms on outdated nonsense, they show a regrettable lack of research, as much as of the scientific spirit.

IV The general strike at trade union congresses – Very quickly, the idea of a general strike progressed and spread, mainly with trade union organisations.

In 1892, the Congress of Bourses du travail[7] which was held in Tours and that of the unions which was held in Marseilles adopted the principle of the general strike. In Marseilles, citizen Briand was the champion of the new idea. The following year, at the trade union Congress held in Paris, the general strike was again discussed and enthusiastically approved.

Despite this, its conception lacked precision: it seduced the militants, by its power, attractive and radiant, which made it a marvellous leaven of agitation; they loved its solidarity generating power.

But the definition that was given was still confused. Many saw in the general strike only an effective means of effecting minor improvements; fewer were those who expected from it what it is the expression of – that is to say, the social revolution.

This vagueness and this impression of the general strike formulas can also be explained by a lack of sufficient propaganda. This was seen at the trade union Congress which was held in Paris in 1893. It was the day after the closing of the Bourse du travail; the excitement and the fighting spirit were so great that the discussion suffered as a result.

The great majority of the delegates declared themselves in favour of the general strike, considered as a substitute for the expression “Social Revolution”. But despite this, its supporters did not give the impression of an impressive unity of views. A proposal was made – and which was rejected – to declare a general strike immediately.

The commission which was mandated to present a report on the question expressed itself as follows:

The declaration of a general strike is serious; to succeed, it is not needed that everyone accepts the idea. A majority is sufficient. Sometimes even a trade or two, like that of the miners or railroad employees, if there is traction for the movement.

Fifteen days of stoppage in these trades, or even amongst the miners alone, and all the steam stops…

It can be observed that after success, the movement can be restarted for another section. There is a flaw in this objection: who knows where a general strike might end?

We are told that there is nothing easier to do: all we have to do is sit idle for a week and our exploiters will be forced to starve to death – but we are not told how we will manage to eat ourselves.

We will therefore have to take over bakeries and butchers, and ensure the lives of all those who produce.

If we do not do this, the general strike is not possible: if we go that far, why not go further?

… Let us know where we want to go and, when we do, if we start, let us go all the way. The general strike of trades is the Social Revolution. Are you ready for it?

… Two special cases can lead to the general strike of trades. The first is for the complete emancipation of the workers by abolishing wage-labour. The second is to prevent a fratricidal war between peoples. In the latter case, it can only be international…

To endorse its report, a commission of nine members was appointed. It received the mandate to study and propagate the idea of a general strike. It took the title the Committee for the ORGANISATION of the general strike, without seeing the inconsistency of such a name: it is logical that we “prepare” the general strike and very pretentious to claim to “organise” it.

This Commission, with modifications indicated by experience, continued since then, under the more appropriate title of the Propaganda Committee for the General Strike.

This pretentious qualifier – “Committee for the ORGANISATION” – served the opponents of the general strike. They had an easy argument to prove the naivety of such a title: they objected, with good reason, that we can hope to “make” the general strike, but not “organise” it in advance.

This was, moreover, one of the theses upheld at the Congress of Trade Unions in Nantes, in 1894, by the dissidents of the “French Workers’ Party” who withdrew from the Congress “in order”, they said, “to put an end once and for all to this utopia, this mischief-maker of the general strike.”

The question of the general strike dominated this whole Congress; depending on whether it was going to be rejected or accepted, the orientation of the Trade Unions would be dominated by parliamentary concerns or dominated by economic concerns. The discussion lasted three whole days and, with the consent of the Congress it ended up being limited to being between Raymond Lavigne, against the general strike, and A. Briand, for.

The latter showed that workers being forced into “street action” had become impossible thanks to improvements introduced in military weaponry; so that all that remains for them is to reduce the force of the government by generalising the centres of the revolution – an outcome which the general strike alone seems capable of producing.

The vote was taken and 65 votes were in favour of the general strike and 37 against.

It is necessary to observe that the discussion focused on the general strike, considered as an equivalent to the Social Revolution. In addition to this observation, it is also useful to note that this vote, which definitely steered the trade union organisations onto the economic path, was issued at the height of the anarchist  repression of 1894. This is the best proof of the importance of this current.

Since then, not one trade union congress has ended without a vote confirming the principle of the general strike. In 1897, at the Congress of Toulouse, a motion was adopted stipulating that “the general strike is synonymous with revolution.”

At the Paris Congress in 1900, a wide debate began on the question and a few quotations will suffice to indicate its extent and scope:

If you want the general strike, said one delegate, you must have thought beyond your immediate and current action, you must have agreed what will be the role of your trade in society on the day of victory? It is necessary that, for example, the bakers know, in their respective region, the needs of consumption, the means of production, etc.

Another delegate spoke as follows:

When we declare the general strike, we will have to have the courage to take to the streets. The general strike will not be the strike of worker cowardice... it will be strike of all energies, the conquest of the means of production…

Another explained:

If we conduct a general strike, it is to seize the means of production, to dispossess the current possessors who, certainly, will not leave readily; it is necessary that this general strike take on a revolutionary character, which moreover events will themselves dictate…

And he rightly added:

Between the conception of a general strike thus understood to a general strike of a trade, there is an abyss.

The quotations above, clear and typical, which it would be easy to extend and multiply, are the expression of the opinion prevailing at the Congress.

If there could previously still have been a slight doubt about the conception that the workers’ organisations have of the general strike, it was no longer possible: these quotations have shed full light [on it] – they have eliminated any possibility of ambiguity, indicating with sharp precision that the general strike must be revolutionary and expropriatory.

The Congresses that followed (Lyon, 1901, and Montpellier, 1902) only confirmed the viewpoint expressed at the Paris Congress.

VI. The Committee for the general strike[8] – It would be going beyond the scope of this study to analyse the propagandist work of the Committee for the general strike, as well as to want to indicate its successive changes. Currently, it is made up of a number of delegates to the Confederal Committee. Its practical mission is to enter into relations with the sub-committees for the general strike existing in many towns and which are made up of one delegate per union adhering to the principle of the general strike. Its propaganda is expressed in meetings, in manifestoes inspired by events, in pamphlets, etc.

Amongst the publications of the Committee there is one -- Grève générale réformiste et Grève générale révolutionnaire [Reformist general strike and Revolutionary general strike] – from which I borrow a few extracts, the precision of which will save me theoretical repetitions:

In the present circumstances, it is said, if one confines oneself to limiting hypotheses to the possibilities achievable in the present environment, the revolutionary general strike appears as the one and only effective means for the working class to emancipate itself entirely from the capitalist and governmental yoke.

The general strike, even restricted to the conquest of minor improvements, has, for the workers – because it is an economic weapon – far more fruitful favourable results than the efforts made through parliamentary channels to force the public powers to an intervention favourable to the exploited.

The general strike – whether revolutionary or purely reformist in character – is the result of the effort of conscious minorities who, by their example, set the masses in motion and carry them along.

The main passages of this pamphlet are set out below, the scope of which will not escape anyone.

I end this too long exposition of the general strike – in the hope that the documents which I wanted to accompany it will awaken the reflection of militants that other concerns have hitherto diverted from its examination.

Isn’t the time right? Everywhere there is evidence of an electoral weakening of political socialism: there have been legislative defeats in Belgium and, in France, municipalities have returned to the bourgeois.

Certainly, social ideas are definitely progressing – the revolutionary idea is also progressing. A secondary cause must therefore explain this apparent decline.

Doesn’t this cause lie in the very mechanism of universal suffrage which leads to the neglect of the educational task and the workers’ education, in order to limit oneself too much to rallying a majority?

Should it not be concluded that universal suffrage does not have the dynamic value that some have attributed to it and that nothing definitive can be build upon the shifting sand of the electoral masses?

On these points, we can differ in appreciation… But there is one on which everyone can agree:

It is to recognise that, on the economic terrain, the good seed always germinates; there, on this stable basis, no disappointment is to be feared – all progress acquired is definitive. Consequently, given that the Revolution in gestation must be social, it is (without political preoccupations of any kind) in economic milieus – and by accepting the means of action which are appropriate to them – that the work of liberation must be prepared.

End Notes

[1] The “Director of the Conscience” (or spiritual director) is a title often given in the Roman Church to the priest acting as confessor, with power of absolution. (Translator)

[2] “Nouvelles de l'extérieur”, L’Internationale, 27 March 1869. This article was republished by Bakunin in “Organisation et grève Générale”, L’Égalité, 2 April 1869 – see Michael Bakunin, “Organisation and General Strike”, Black Flag Anarchist Review Vol. 2 No. 2 (Summer 2022). (Translator)

[3] The minutes of this important meeting exist and it is to be hoped that they will be published. [These minutes were later published by James Guillaume in L’Internationale, documents et souvenirs Tome 3 (Paris: P.-V. Stock, 1909) – Black Flag]

[4] The motion was originally passed at its October 1884 Convention. (Translator)

[5] Joseph Jean-Marie Tortelier (1854-1925) was a carpenter, militant anarchist, revolutionary syndicalist and supporter of the general strike. A popular speaker at public meetings, he left no writings, pamphlets or correspondence and alongside Fernand Pelloutier and Émile Pouget was a libertarian activist and builder of the trade union movement. Like Louise Michel and Pouget, he was imprisoned following the 9 March 1883 demonstration of the unemployed in Paris and in August 1888 he spoke at a navvies strike alongside Louise Michel and Charles Malato, proclaiming that “it is only through the universal strike that the worker will create a new society, in which we will find no more tyrants”. (Translator)

[6] The Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party (Parti ouvrier socialiste révolutionnaire, POSR) was a French socialist political party founded by Jean Allemane (1843-1935) in 1890 as a split from the Federation of the Socialist Workers of France (FTSF). It dissolved to help form, with the FTSF, the French Socialist Party in 1901. (Black Flag)

[7] The Bourse du Travail (French for “labour exchanges”) were initially created by the Republican government of Gambetta to gain the support of working-class voters. Originally intended to help workers find work (hence their name), the Bourses du Travail were placed under the control of newly legalised trade unions (in 1884) and were transformed by these into a meeting place for all local trade unions as well as a cultural centre for workers’ education and mutual. Revolutionary syndicalists like Fernand Pelloutier saw them as a means of building class solidarity between trade unions as well as seeing them as a key organisation during and after the revolution to co-ordinate production and consumption in the absence of both the state and capitalists. The nearest British equivalent are trades councils. With the formation of the CGT in 1895, a trade union branch was meant to affiliate to both its industrial federation and its local Bourse du Travail. (Translator)

[8] There is no section V in the original text. (Translator)