Siegfried Nacht (1878-1956) was active in the international anarchist movement around the turn of the century. In 1905, under the name of Arnold Roller, he published his influential pamphlet, The Social General Strike. Max Baginski and a group of anarchists circulated it at the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World in Chicago in June 1905. Kôtoku Shûsui (1871-1911) obtained a copy when in contact with American anarchists in San Francisco and translated The Social General Strike into Japanese. Kôtoku then introduced Chinese anarchists to the pamphlet, and Zhang Ji (1882-1947) translated it into Chinese.
In October 1905, there was a massive general strike in Russia which made a deep impression on workers and revolutionaries around the world, giving renewed credence to anarchist ideas, for it was the anarchists who had been advocating the general strike as a revolutionary weapon since the time of the First International (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Selection 27). The Marxist social democrats, taking their cue from a 1873 Engels’ pamphlet against Bakunin, “The Bakuninists at Work,” had been dismissing the general strike as “general nonsense” for years, as Nacht notes in his pamphlet.
Kropotkin observed that “what exasperated the rulers most” about the general strike “was that the workers offered no opportunity for shooting at them and reestablishing ‘order’ by massacres. A new weapon, more terrible than street warfare, had thus been tested and proved to work admirably” (The Revolution in Russia).
Despite this practical vindication of anarchist ideas, Malatesta was careful to point out the limitations of the general strike during the debate on syndicalism at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. Instead of “limiting ourselves to looking forward to the general strike as a panacea for all ills,” Malatesta warned, anarchists needed to prepare for the insurrection or civil war that would inevitably follow. For it is not enough for the workers to halt production; to avoid being forced by their own hunger back to work, the workers need to provide for themselves by taking over the means of production (Volume One, Selection 60).
Nacht was one of the anarcho-syndicalist delegates at the Congress who spoke in favour of the general strike. He later emigrated to the United States, where he became a Communist fellow-traveller after the 1917 Russian Revolution, and later worked for the US department of Inter-American affairs. His brother Max Nacht, better known as Max Nomad (1881-1973), had also been an anarchist, then a follower of the early theorist of the “new class,” Jan Machajski, and then, surprisingly, a pro-Soviet socialist and later an unreliable historian and critic of anarchism. A complete copy of the Baginski translation was made available by Corvus editions and may now be found at: http://www.westyorkshiresolfed.org/resources/socialgeneralstrike-np.pdf. Below I have reproduced Part 1.
1. THE GENERAL STRIKE AS A WEAPON IN THE SOCIAL BATTLE
I. WHAT IS THE GENERAL STRIKE?
A new idea, a new weapon of the struggling proletariat, has pushed itself vehemently to the front and stands today on the bulletin of all discussions in the labour movement. This idea, which forces itself everywhere upon the international proletariat, is that of the “General Strike.” Until of late the general belief in the success of parliamentarianism has been unshaken among workingmen.
The events and the results of the political condition of recent years however, soon made it clear to the international proletariat that nothing could be gained in this way, and it was obliged to look around for a new fighting method. Even where parliamentarian socialism had developed most, and where with every additional election victory and quantitative increase—in Germany—its powerlessness was manifested, we hear, even in the reactionary camps of the social democratic party, voices calling for a new tactic.
The idea of the General Strike, which so far has largely been ridiculed and its propagators treated with slander and insult, has to be recognized now and is being discussed in all national and international labour congresses; and a member of the German social democratic party, Dr. Friedeberg, propagates this idea openly in the party.
The attitude of Social Democracy towards this idea, if it is not directly hostile, is in general however still very ambiguous; and all resolutions passed in its party congresses in regard to it, if they have not been directly hostile towards it, after long debates about the definition of the word, called only for a political “Mass-Strike” for the purpose of gaining certain single demands, but always refused to deal with the General Strike as a means and way to a social revolution.
The name “General Strike,” of course, admits of misunderstandings because it is applied to different general acts.
It is often used to designate the strike of all branches in one trade; for instance the General Strike of the miners, when helpers and hoisting engineers, etc., are all out. Then it is used as: General Strike of a city, i.e., “General Strike in Florence,” or a General Strike in a whole country or province for the purpose of gaining political rights, i.e., the right to vote, as in Belgium, or in Sweden.
The profoundest conception of the General Strike, however, the one pointing to a thorough change of the present system: a world social revolution; an entire new reorganization; a demolition of the entire old system of all governments—is the one existing among the proletarians of the Roman race (Spain and Italy). For them the General Strike is nothing less than an introduction to the social revolution. Therefore we call this General Strike, to distinguish it from General Strikes for higher wages, or for political privileges (political mass strikes), “The Social General Strike.” This conception of the General Strike will be dealt with in this treatise.
The General Strike idea has been opposed by the German workingman until now with the same idiotic phrases as the big-bellied bourgeois have used heretofore, by everlastingly re-chewing the tale of dividing all property, thus thinking to have made clear the nonsense of socialism, and at the same time proving only their own ignorance.
The “General Strike is general nonsense.” With this phrase the Social Democrats thought they could kill the General Strike idea.
When a discussion about the General Strike was permitted, the following ideas were always maintained: “The General Strike is a Utopia. It will never be possible to so thoroughly organize the proletariat that all workingmen will go on strike like one man; and if it were so well educated, and imbued with solidarity, and so well organized as to be able to declare a General Strike, then it would not need any General Strike; then it is the power in the country; then it may do anything it sees fit.”
Here we want to call attention to the fact that even with the best organization of the proletariat and the largest majority in the country and in Parliament, nothing can be done against the will of the Herrenhaus or Bundesrath , nothing against the will of the emperor, who has the whole army to support his will, while Parliament has nothing but paper scraps to defend itself against the bayonets of the soldiers.
The conduct and the result of the General Strike do not depend upon all workers laying down their tools. It would certainly be worthwhile to endeavour to educate all classes of workingmen so well that, on the day on which the General Strike began, the Proletariat of all countries would leave its factories and mines like one man, and through the expression of its united will throw off the chains of slavery. This ideal of propaganda will, however, in spite of its beauty always be a dream.
It was always the energetic and enthusiastic minority only that revolted against tyranny and oppression, thereby giving the initiative to the large, indolent masses who were dissatisfied and complained of their fate, but didn’t have the courage to revolt. It is quite a distance between a complaining dissatisfaction and open rebellion. In every revolution it was the force of the energetic minority that aroused the courage of the timid masses.
The same is observed in a strike. Although the labour unions as a rule represent only a minority of the workingmen, they always cause, organize, and lead the strikes of the unorganized masses. Often in this way a small minority goes on a strike, and during the strike the rest of the masses follow.
Often it happens that just through the strike the related industries and branches join in, spreading the strike over ever increasing territories and amongst ever growing masses of labourers.
The example of the strike is, in fact, suggestive and contagious to the masses.
It is therefore not of such great importance for the propagandists and followers of the general strike theory (as for instance the Spanish and French workers understand it) to get all the workers to lay down their tools at the same time, as it is to completely interrupt production in the whole country and stop communication and consumption for the ruling classes long enough to totally disorganize the capitalistic society, so that after the complete annihilation of the old system the working people can take possession through its labour unions of all the means of production, mines, houses, the land; in short: of all the economic factors.