The Geneva Congress debate on the General Strike

1-6 September 1873

James Guillaume

L’Internationale, documents et souvenirs (Paris: Stock, 1909), 116-9, 120-1

The Congress then turned to the question of the general strike. In this session we heard Joukovsky, rapporteur of the Commission, then subsequently Manguette, Verrycken, Alerini, Guillaume, Costa, Brousse, Bert, Viñas, Ostyn, Spichiger and Hales. As a result of the decision the Congress had just taken, this discussion was not published in the minutes; but I can give a summary of it by means of the manuscript which has remained in my hands.

The Commission, said the rapporteur Joukovsky, thinks that the question of the general strike is subordinated to the more or less complete realisation of regional and international organisation of trades, and to the statistical work which the International must do in preparation for this strike. Furthermore, the general strike being nothing other than the social revolution – for it suffices to suspend work only for ten days for the present order to collapse entirely – the Commission believes that this question does not have to be decided upon by Congress, especially since the discussion would make our opponents aware of the means we intend to use for the social revolution.

Manguette and Verrycken explain that the Belgians understand the general strike as a means of bringing about a revolutionary movement. “If the Spaniards and Italians tell us that in their countries this is not the means that can be used to accomplish the revolution, this is not a reason for us to reject it in countries where workers are used to going on strike. What we want to examine is the possibility of making the movement international; we would like to see that when workers in a country rise in revolt, whether in the form of a general strike or under another form, the other peoples combine their efforts with those of the country in revolt.” Verrycken observes that if a general strike had been possible at the time of the Paris Commune, there is no doubt the triumph of reaction would have been prevented; during the last Spanish revolution, the general strike would have been an effective means of paralysing Prussia and preventing it from stemming Spain’s revolutionary movement.

Alerini cites, as an example of what can be achieved by a general strike, even if it is restricted to a single locality, what happened in Alcoy. In this town, the workers of certain trades were on strike; they were going to succumb and be forced to return to work without obtaining anything, when the Spanish Federal Commission (which was located in Alcoy) proposed a general strike by all the trades in the city, with the commitment that, in no trade, workers would return to work before all other trades had obtained satisfaction. This general strike led to an armed conflict, in which the workers overthrew the local authority; the principal bourgeois were arrested as hostages; and when General Velarde arrived at Alcoy with an army, he had to negotiate; the hostages offered to mediate; the governor of the province promised that no prosecution would be brought against the insurgents; the terms that the strikers demanded of their bosses were accepted, and a levy was imposed on the bourgeoise, with the proceeds of which the workers were compensated for the days lost during the strike. As a consequence, Alerini is a staunch supporter of the general strike as a revolutionary method.

James Guillaume notes that the idea of a revolutionary general strike is on the agenda; it is the logical outcome of the practice of partial strike; as these produce only temporary and incomplete results, it was recognised that the aim should be generalise the strike. The general strike, to triumph, will have to be international. But is it necessary that it breaks out everywhere at the same time, on a fixed day and upon a signal? No, we should not even raise this question, and let it be assumed that it can be so. The revolution must be contagious. In a country where a spontaneous movement is going to erupt, we should not wish to postpone the explosion on the pretext of waiting for other countries to be ready to follow it.

Costa says partial strikes were nothing other than wool pulled over the workers’ eyes. The general strike is an excellent revolutionary means. But the Congress does not have to pronounce on this matter; that would be to risk making the bourgeoise smirk.

Brousse thought that, if the general strike was a practical means in certain countries, elsewhere, in Italy and France for example, this means could not be used. Why, in France, where the general strike is impossible, should we not make the revolution in the form of a communalist movement?

Bert tables the following draft resolution:

Considering that the general strike is the strike of all categories of trades in all localities,

Each partial general strike will be organised in a such a way that only one category of trade is on strike in the different localities, and that the category on strike is supported in solidarity by all the others. The proceeds of the wage increase obtained in this first victory must help support a second category of trade which will in turn go on strike, and so on until complete victory.

Brousse argues that such a proposal would be to organise the defeat of the workers.

Costa suggests another motion, which is:

Considering that the general strike is an excellent practical means to bring about the social revolution, but that, according to the statements of the delegates, if there are federations where this means can be used for the triumph of the revolution, there are others where this means is in practice impossible,

The Congress declares that it confines itself to noting these various statements, and that it leaves it to each federation to organise itself in order to find the means which could lead it as soon and most surely to the emancipation of the workers.

Alerini objects that it would be imprudent to publicise a declaration framed in such terms, that is to say openly advocating for social revolution.

Costa points out that he is not asking for it to be published.

James Guillaume puts forward the following motion, in which he avoided using the expression social revolution:

Considering that partial strikes can only provide workers with momentary and illusory relief, since wages, by their very essence, will always be limited to the means of subsistence strictly necessary to prevent the worker from starving to death,

Congress, without believing in the possibility of completely renouncing partial strikes[1], recommend that the workers devote their efforts to completing the international organisation of trades, which will allow them one day to undertake a general strike, the only really effective strike to achieve the complete emancipation of labour.

Viñas is not in favour of strikes. What, according to him, kept the workers away from the revolutionary movement was the strike. Perhaps in Spain, if the workers had not been so absorbed in their numerous strikes, they would have been more successful at achieving their complete emancipation. It has been said that the general strike is a revolutionary means: Viñas denies it.[2] For this to happen, the workers who go on strike would have to be aware of the necessity of revolution. We must therefore work to make the exploited masses understand this necessity, and then they will make the revolution without needing the pretext of a strike.

Ostyn believes that the International is and must remain the great practical school of political and social economy, which many workers do not know. It is necessary to enlighten minds, this is the true way to achieve the emancipation of the workers.

Spichiger believes that partial strikes should not be condemned; he thinks we should seek to take advantage of even those movements which can only bring a moment of satisfaction. Without doubt we must try to make the workers understand that only the general strike can emancipate labour; but this will require long-term propaganda and, in the meantime, we must be careful not to oppose partial movements and to discourage workers who are not yet revolutionary from strikes.

Joukovsky says that the first question to be decided is whether Congress wants to pass a resolution on the general strike.

On his proposal, the chair (Verrycken) asked delegates to vote on the following question: “Does Congress want to adopt a resolution on the general strike?”

All the delegates answer yes, except Hales, who answers no, and Van den Abeele, who abstains because the Dutch Federation, in its Congress of August 10, voted that it would await the decisions of the General Congress on the general strike to discuss and adopt them if necessary.

The remainder of the discussion was deferred to the administrative session the following day.


In the eighth session, private, on Thursday morning, September 5, the discussion on the general strike was continued and came to an end.

The Commission, by means of Joukovsky, proposed a rather poorly worded declaration, the first part of which insisted on the need for regional and international organisation of trades; the second part said: “The general strike being nothing else than the social revolution, for it is enough to suspend all work for only ten days for the current order to completely collapse, for this reason, this matter is reserved.”

Manguette and Van den Abeele argued against this draft declaration, which Cyrille and Joukovsky defended. Hales, employing for the first time, to my knowledge, an expression that has since become well known in Germany (Generalstreik, Generalunsinn), spoke thusly: “The general strike is impractical, and it is nonsense. In order to have a general strike, it would first be necessary to organise everywhere for this purpose: and when the workers’ organisation is complete, the social revolution would be made.” After a rather confusing discussion, in which Alerini, Bert and Farga spoke again, the Commission, reconsidering, presented a draft motion which it had just composed and which it substituted for the statement initially proposed by it; Costa read it; the draft was as follows:

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.

Farga proposed adding a sentence recommending “active socialist and revolutionary propaganda.” Verrycken supported Farga’s amendment, on condition that the word “revolutionary” be removed, which, he said, “is often understood to mean fighting in the streets, and which would not be understood in Belgium.” Farga replied that he willingly consented to the deletion of the word “revolutionary.”

The new text of the Commission, supplemented by the Farga amendment, was then adopted unanimously, as follows (which was made known in the afternoon public session):

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 agenda then called for the continuation of the discussion on the revision of the general statues. It was ten o’clock in the morning. To continue this discussion under the conditions of openness it deemed necessary, the Congress, adjourning the administrative session, declared itself in public session.

End Notes

[1] As requested by a few Belgian delegates at the Verviers congress on the previous 14 April.

[2] Viñas was thinking of the workers in Barcelona who, in July 1873, had held a peaceful general strike instead of rising up.