The general strike is widespread stoppage of labor by workers in an attempt to bring the economic life of a given area to a more or less complete standstill in order to achieve certain desired objectives. The method may be used on a local, regional, national, or international level. Wilfred Harris Crook defined the general strike as “the strike of a major region.” When confined to a city it may be called a localized general strike, such as occurred in Seattle, Washington, and Winnipeg, Canada, in 1919 and Vienna in 1927. While a general strike is usually intended to be total, certain vital services may be allowed to operate, especially those necessary for health, such as provision of milk, water, and food; sewage disposal; and hospital services. Crook distinguishes three broad types of the general strike — political, economic, and revolutionary:
There is the political general strike, with the aim of exacting some definite political concession from the existing government, as the demand for universal suffrage in the Belgian General Strikes, or, more rarely, for the purpose of upholding the existing government against a would-be usurper, as the German strike against the Kapp-Putsch in 1920. The economic type is perhaps the most common form, at least at the beginning of the strike, and is exemplified by the Swedish strike of 1909. The revolutionary general strike, aiming at the definite overthrow of the existing government or industrial system, may be revolutionary in its purpose from the very start, or it may develop its revolutionary purpose as it proceeds. It is more likely to be found in countries where labor has not been long or extensively organized, or where the influential leaders of labor are largely syndicalist or anarchist in viewpoint, as Russia in 1905, Spain or Italy.
The general strike has been widely advocated in radical socialist, syndicalist and anarchist thought; it has been practiced by English, Russian and Scandinavian socialists, and French, Italian, Spanish and South American anarchists and syndicalists.
There are a large number of examples of general strikes, with considerable geographical and political variations. The Belgian general strikes of 1893, 1902 and 1913 supported demands for political reforms, including universal manhood suffrage. Early general strikes in Imperial Russia were held at Rostov-on-Don in 1902 and Odessa in 1903, and general strikes were widely used during the 1905 Russian Revolution. Perhaps the largest and most important of these was the Great October Strike of 1905, involving most of the cities of Imperial Russia that had any degree of industrial life. The situation in Moscow is illustrative:
Within a week, Moscow was virtually isolated, and most of her important public activities were at a standstill. All train connections were severed. All telegraphic connections along the lines emanating from the city were silent. Only the central General Telegraph Office remained in operation in the city to provide communication with the outside and the railroadmen were planning to close it.
The general strike was also used against the Kapp Putsch in Weimar Germany in 1920, as we saw in Chapter Two.
By the late afternoon of March 14, 1920, the greatest strike the world had ever seen was a reality. The economic life of the country came to a standstill … Kapp attempted to break the strike … [and] made picketing a capital offense. But his efforts proved totally ineffectual.
The general strike in Norway in 1921 was against wage reductions, and the Chinese general strike of 1925 was over economic and nationalist grievances. The British General Strike of May 3-12, 1926, was the outgrowth of unsatisfied claims of the coal miners, and developed into a major test of power between workers and the government, complicated by the capitulation by the trade union leaders.
In Amsterdam a general strike was held on Febrary 25 and 26, 1941, to protest maltreatment of the city’s Jews. The 1943 Dutch general strike, or wave of strikes, from April 29 to as late as May 8 in some places, involved a majority of industrial workers, who opposed the planned internment of Dutch army veterans in Germany. In Copenhagen, too, the general strike was applied during the Nazi occupation, from June 30 to about July 4, 1944, with the aim of forcing the Germans to withdraw the state of martial law and to remove the hated Danish fascist Schalburgkorps from the country. Negotiations led to German concessions, though not to the granting of the full demands.
General strikes played a very important role in many cities and towns during the East German Rising of June 1953. A general strike in Haiti in February 1957 ousted the temporary president, Pierre Louis.
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