Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

New International, October 1947




Leon Trotsky

The Nature of the General Strike

Critical Observations by Leon Trotsky


From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 8, October 1947, pp. 246–249.
This is an extract from ILP and the Fourth International, originally
published in New International, Vol. 2 No. 7, December 1935.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We publish below an extract from an article written by Leon Trotsky on September 18, 1935, on the British Independent Labour Party and the Fourth International, under the title In the Middle of the Road. The section deals with the question of the general strike, the part It should play In the activities of a revolutionary party and in the fight for socialist power. The article by Trotsky was written a dozen years ago and deals with the conception of the general strike as developed specifically by the ILP. Nevertheless, it is not only of universal interest but makes timely reading now. In recent times, the slogan of the general strike has been employed in various sections of the Fourth International with a thoughtlessness and looseness of which no serious Marxist could be guilty. Some groups, notoriously incapable of discerning the clear difference between Marxian politics and revolutionary phrasemongering, have converted the slogan of the general strike Into a talisman for solving the problem of the present isolation of the Marxists from the masses and big political problems in general. Others, who have tirelessly immunized themselves against the teachings of Marxism, see in their belligerent advocacy of the general strike the mark that distinguishes them as the only authentic and authoritative revolutionists. Trotsky’s comments on the slogan of the general strike reiterate the view of Marxism and should therefore help to eliminate the juvenile absurdities that have recently acquired a new popularity in the movement. – Ed.

In the following critical lines, we intend to dwell primarily upon two questions: the attitude of the ILP toward the general strike in connection with the struggle against war, and the position of the ILP on the question of the International. In the latter as well as the former question there are to be found elements of a half-way attitude: on the question of the general strike this hesitancy assumes the guise of irresponsible radical phraseology; on the question of the International, hesitancy pulls up short of the radical decision. And yet Marxism, and Leninism as the direct continuation of its doctrine, is absolutely irreconcilable both with an inclination to radical phraseology, and with the dread of radical decisions.

The Various Categories of the General Strike

The question of the general strike has a long and rich history, in theory as well as practice. Yet the leaders of the ILP behave as if they were the first to run across the idea of general strike, as a method to stop war. In this is their greatest error. Improvisation is impermissible precisely on the question of the general strike. The world experience of the struggle during the last forty years has been fundamentally a confirmation of what Engels had to say about the general strike toward the close of the last century, primarily on the basis of the experience of the Chartists, and in part of the Belgians. Cautioning the Austrian Social Democrats against much too flighty an attitude toward the general strike, Engels wrote to Kautsky, on November 3, 1893, as follows:

“You yourself remark that the barricades have been antiquated (they may, however, prove useful again should the army turn one-third or two-fifths socialist and the question arises of providing it with the’ opportunity to turn its bayonets), but the political strike must either prove victorious immediately by the threat alone (as in Belgium, where the army was very shaky), or it must end in a colossal fiasco, or, finally lead directly to the barricades.”

These terse lines provide, incidentally, a remarkable exposition of Engels’ views on a number of questions. Innumerable controversies raged over Engels’ famous introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggle in France (1895), an introduction which was in its time modified and cut in Germany with a view to censorship. Philistines of every stripe have asserted hundreds and thousands of times during the last forty years that “Engels himself” had apparently rejected once and for all the ancient “romantic” methods of street fighting. But there is no need of referring to the past; one need only read the contemporary and inordinately ignorant and mawkish discourses of Paul Faure, Lebas and others on this subject, who are of the opinion that the very question of armed insurrection is “Blanquism.” Concurrently, if Engels rejected anything, it was first of all, putsches, i.e., untimely flurries of a small minority; and, secondly, antiquated methods, that is to say, forms and methods of street fighting which did not correspond to the new technological conditions. In the above quoted letter, Engels corrects Kautsky in passing, as if he were referring to something self-evident: barricades have become “antiquated” only in the sense that the bourgeois revolution has receded into the past, and the time for the socialist barricades has not come as yet. It is necessary for the army, one-third, or better still, two-fifths of it (these ratios, of course, are given only for the sake of illustration), to become imbued with sympathy for socialism; then the insurrection would not be a “putsch,” then the barricades would once again come into their own – not the barricades of the year 1848 to be sure, but the new “barricades,” serving, however, the self-same goal: to check the offensive of the army against the workers, give the soldiers the opportunity and the time to sense the power of the uprising, and by this to create the most advantageous conditions for the army’s passing over to the side of the insurrectionists. How far removed are these lines of Engels – not the youth, but the man 73 years of age! – from the asinine and reactionary attitude to the barricade, as a piece of “romanticism”! Kautsky has found the leisure to publish this remarkable letter just recently, in 1935! Without engaging in a direct polemic with Engels, whom he never understood fully, Kautsky tells us smugly, in a special note, that toward the end of 1893, he had himself published an article in which he “developed the advantages of the democratic-proletarian method of struggle in democratic countries as against the policy of violence.” These remarks about “advantages” (as if the proletariat has the freedom of choice!) have a particularly choice ring in our day, after the policies of the Weimar democracy, not without Kautsky’s cooperation, have fully revealed all their ... disadvantages. To leave no room for doubt as to his own attitude on Engels’ views, Kautsky goes on to add: “I defended then the self-same policy I defend today.” In order to defend “the self-same policy” Kautsky needed only to become a citizen of Czechoslovakia: outside of the passport, nothing has changed. But let us return to Engels. He differentiates, as we have seen, between three cases in relation to the political strike:

1. The government takes fright at the general strike, and at the very outset, without carrying matters to an open clash, takes to concessions. Engels points to the “shaky” condition of the army in Belgium as the basic condition for the success of the Belgian general strike (1893). A somewhat similar situation, but on a much more colossal scale, occurred in Russia, October, 1905. After the miserable outcome of the Russo-Japanese War, the Czarist army was, or, at any rate, seemed extremely unreliable. The Petersburg government, thrown into a mortal panic by the strike, made the first constitutional concessions (Manifesto, October 17, 1905).

It is all too evident, however, that without resorting to decisive battles, the ruling class will make only such concessions as will not touch the basis of its rule. That is precisely how matters stood in Belgium and Russia. Are such cases possible in the future? They are inevitable in the countries of the Orient. They are, generally speaking, less probable in the countries of the West, although, here too, they are quite possible as partial episodes of the unfolding revolution.

2. If the army is sufficiently reliable, and the government feels sure of itself; if a political strike is promulgated from above, and if, at the same time, it is calculated not for decisive battles, but to “frighten” the enemy, then it can easily turn out a mere adventure, and reveal its utter impotence. To this we ought to add that after the initial experiences of the general strike, the novelty of which reacted upon the imagination of the popular masses as well as governments, several decades have elapsed – discounting the half-forgotten Chartists – in the course of which the strategists of capital have accumulated an enormous experience. That is why a general strike, particularly in the old capitalist countries, requires a painstaking Marxist account of all the concrete circumstances.

3. Finally, there remains a general strike which, as Engels put it, “leads directly to the barricades.” A strike of this sort can result either in complete victory or defeat. But to shy away from battle, when the battle is forced by the objective situation, is to lead inevitably to the most fatal and demoralizing of all possible defeats. The outcome of a revolutionary, insurrectionary general strike depends, of course, upon the relationship of forces, covering a great number of factors; the class differentiation of society, the specific weight of the proletariat, the mood of the lower layers of the petty bourgeoisie, the social composition and the political mood of the army, etc. However, among the conditions for victory, far from the last place is occupied by the correct revolutionary leadership, a clear understanding of conditions and methods of the general strike and its transition to open revolutionary struggle.

Engels’ classification must not, of course, be taken dogmatically. In present-day France not partial concessions but power is indubitably in question: the revolutionary proletariat or fascism – which? The working class masses want to struggle. But the leadership applies the brakes, hoodwinks and demoralizes the workers. A general strike can flare up just as the movements flared in Toulon and Brest. Under these conditions, independently of its immediate results, a general strike will not of course be a “putsch” but a necessary stage in the mass struggle, the necessary means for casting off the treachery of the leadership and for creating within the working class itself the preliminary conditions for a victorious uprising. In this sense the policy of the French Bolshevik-Leninists is entirely correct, who have advanced the slogan of a general strike, and who explain the conditions for its victory. The French cousins of the SAP (Socialist Workers Party of Germany, a Brandlerite split-off from the CP) come out against this slogan; the Spartacists who are at the beginning of the struggle are already assuming the role of strikebreakers.

We should also add that Engels did not point out another “category” of general strike, exemplars of which have been provided in England, Belgium, France and some other countries: we refer here to cases in which the leadership of the strike previously, i.e., without a struggle, arrives at an agreement with the class enemy as to the course and outcome of the strike. The parliamentarians and the trade unionists perceive at a given moment the need to provide an outlet for the accumulated ire of the masses, or they are simply compelled to jump in step with a movement that has flared over their heads. In such cases they come scurrying through the back stairs to the government and obtain the permission to head the general strike, this with the obligation to conclude it as soon as possible without any damage being done to the state crockery. Sometimes, far from always, they manage to haggle beforehand some petty concessions, to serve them as figleaves. Thus did the General Council of British Trade Unions (TUC) in 1926. Thus did Jouhaux in 1934. Thus will they act in the future also. The exposure of these contemptible machinations behind the backs of the struggling proletariat enters as a necessary part into the preparation of a general strike.

The General Strike as a Means “to Stop War”

To which type does a general strike belong which is specially intended by the ILP in the event of mobilization, as a means to stop war at the very outset (Cf. What the ILP Stands For, a compendium of the basic party documents)? We want to say beforehand: it pertains to the most inconsidered and unfortunate of all types possible. This does not mean to say that the revolution can never coincide with mobilization or with the outbreak of war. If a wide-scale revolutionary movement is developing in a country, if at its head is a revolutionary party possessing the confidence of the masses and capable of going through to the end; if the government, losing ing its head, despite the revolutionary crisis, or just because of such a crisis, plunges headlong into a war adventure – then the mobilization can act as a mighty impetus for the masses, lead to a general strike of railway men, fraternization between the mobilized and the workers, seizure of important key centers, clashes between insurrectionists and the police and the reactionary sections of the army, the establishment of local workers’ and soldiers’ councils, and finally, to the complete overthrow of the government, and consequently, to stopping the war. Such a case is theoretically possible. If, in the words of Clausewitz, “war is a continuation of politics by other means,” then the struggle against war is also the continuation of the entire preceding policy of a revolutionary class and its party. Hence follows that a general strike can be put on the order of the day as a method of struggle against mobilization and war only in the event that the entire preceding developments in the country have placed revolution and armed insurrection on the order of the day. Taken, however, as a “special” method of struggle against mobilization, a general strike would be a sheer adventure. Excluding a possible but nevertheless an exceptional case of a government plunging into war in order to escape from a revolution that directly threatens it, it must remain, as a genera! rule, that precisely prior to, during and after mobilization the government feels itself strongest, and consequently, least inclined to allow itself to be scared by a general strike. The patriotic moods that accompany mobilization, together with the war terror, make hopeless the very execution of a general strike, as a rule. The most intrepid elements which, without taking the circumstances into account, plunge into the struggle, would be crushed. The defeat, and the partial annihilation of the vanguard, would make difficult for a long time revolutionary work in the atmosphere of dissatisfaction that war breeds. A strike called artificially must turn inevitably into a putsch, and into an obstacle in the path of the revolution.

In its theses accepted in April, 1935, the ILP writes as follows:

“The policy of the party aims at the use of a general strike to stop war and at social revolution should war occur.”

An astonishingly precise, but – sad to say – absolutely fictitious obligation! The general strike is not only separated here from the social revolution but also counterposed to it as a specific method to “stop war.” This is an ancient conception of the anarchists which life itself smashed long ago. A general strike without a victorious insurrection cannot “stop war.” If, under the conditions of mobilization, the insurrection is impossible, then so is a general strike impossible.

In an ensuing paragraph we read:

“The ILP will urge a general strike against the British government, if this country is in any way involved in an attack on the Soviet Union ...”

If it is possible to forestall any war by a general strike, then of course it is all the more necessary to stop war against the USSR. But here we enter into the realm of illusion: to inscribe in the theses a general strike as punishment for a given capital crime of the government is to commit the sin of revolutionary phrasemongering. If it were possible to call a general strike at will, then it would be best called today to prevent the British government from strangling India and from collaborating with Japan to strangle China. The leaders of the ILP will of course tell us that they have not the power to dp so. But nothing gives them the right to promise that they will apparently have the power to call a general strike on the day of mobilization. And if they be able, why confine it to a strike? As a matter of fact, the conduct of a party during mobilization will How from its preceding successes and from the situation in the country as a whole. But the aim of revolutionary policy should not be an isolated general strike, as a special means to “stop war,” but the proletarian revolution into which a general strike will enter as an inevitable or a very probable integral part.

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 24 June 2017