Siegfried Nacht: The Social General Strike (1905)

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 (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, 1905: 280). 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 hostile critic of anarchism. A complete copy of the Baginski translation is now available from Corvus editions at http://www.corvusdistribution.org. Below I have reproduced Part 1.

SIEGFRIED NACHT

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.

Advertisements

Anarchy & Organization: The Debate at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress

I have now created a separate page which includes the previously posted speeches by Amédée Dunois, Errico Malatesta, Emma Goldman and Max Baginsky from the debate on anarchy and organization at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. Despite his membership in the revolutionary syndicalist CGT in France, whose slogan was “syndicalism is sufficient unto itself,” Dunois advocated the creation of a dual, explicitly anarchist organization, similar to those Spanish anarchists who later created the FAI in Spain to work alongside and within the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. While Malatesta disagreed with the claim that syndicalism is sufficient unto itself and argued against the creation of specifically anarchist trade unions (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Selection 60), he was also in favour of separate anarchist organizations through which anarchists could coordinate their activities. However, he was opposed to the Platformists and other like-minded anarchists who sought to create a single anarchist organization which required adherence to its policies and programs because this would inevitably lead to disagreements and schisms (Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 115). Neither Emma Goldman nor Max Baginski was opposed to syndicalist or anarchist organization, but both were careful to emphasize the need for individual autonomy, as was Malatesta. More recently, anarchists as diverse as latter-day Platformists, with their doctrine of especifismo, student anarchists during the May-June 1968 events in France (Anarchism, Volume Two, Selection 51), eco-anarchists such as Murray Bookchin in the 1960s and 70s (Volume Two, Selection 62), Colin Ward (Volume Two, Selection 63), the Open Road anarchist newsjournal in the  1970s and 80s, anarcha-feminists (Volume Two, Selections 78 & 79) and anarchists involved in global justice and indigenous movements against neo-liberalism have moved toward a position which emphasizes the self-organization of the people instead of the creation of separate anarchist organizations, raising questions regarding the utility of or need for the latter.

Emma Goldman & Max Baginski: Individuality, Autonomy & Organization (1907)

EmmaGoldmanAt the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, Emma Goldman (1869-1940) and Max Baginski (1864-1943) spoke on the relationship between individualism, autonomy and organization, supporting a conception of anarchist organization which respects individual autonomy. Goldman and Baginski had traveled from the United States to attend the Congress. As Baginski makes clear, their argument that individuality and autonomy can and must be respected in anarchist organizations in no way signified opposition to such organizations, such as those favoured by the anarcho-syndicalists, whose views were represented by Amadée Dunois in his previously posted speech at the Congress. Emma Goldman’s positive assessment of anarcho-syndicalism, “Syndicalism: Its Theory and Practice,” is reproduced as Selection 59 in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

The translation is by Nestor McNab and is taken from Studies for a Libertarian Alternative: The International Anarchist Congress, Amsterdam, 1907, published by the Anarchist Communist Federation in Italy (Federazione dei Comunisti Anarchici – FdCA); paperback edition available from AK Press.

EMMA GOLDMAN: I, too, am in favour of organization in principle. However, I fear that sooner or later this will fall into exclusivism.

Dunois has spoken against the excesses of individualism. But these excesses have nothing to do with true individualism, as the excesses of communism have nothing to do with real communism… I, too, will accept anarchist organization on just one condition: that it be based on the absolute respect for all individual initiatives and not obstruct their development or evolution.

The essential principle of anarchy is individual autonomy. The International will not be anarchist unless it wholly respects this principle.

Max Baginski: An error that is too often made is believing that individualism rejects organization. The two terms are, on the contrary, inseparable. Individualism more specifically means working for inner mental liberation of the individual, while organization means association between conscious individuals with a goal to reach or an economic need to satisfy. We must not however forget that a revolutionary organization requires particularly energetic and conscious individuals.

The accusation that anarchy is destructive rather than constructive and that accordingly anarchy is opposed to organization is one of the many falsehoods spread by our adversaries. They confuse today’s institutions with organization and thus cannot understand how one can fight the former and favour the latter. The truth is, though, that the two are not identical.

The State is generally considered to be the highest form of organization. But is it really a true organization? Is it not rather an arbitrary institution cunningly imposed on the masses?

Industry, too, is considered an organization; yet nothing is further from the truth. Industry is piracy of the poor at the hands of the rich.

We are asked to believe that the army is an organization, but careful analysis will show that it is nothing less than a cruel instrument of blind force.

Public education: are not the universities and other scholastic institutions perhaps models of organization, which offer people fine opportunities to educate themselves? Far from it: schools, more than any other institution, are nothing more than barracks, where the human mind is trained and manipulated in order to be subjected to the various social and mental phantoms, and thus rendered capable of continuing this system of exploitation and oppression of ours.

Instead, organization as we understand it is something different. It is based on freedom. It is a natural, spontaneous grouping of energies to guarantee beneficial results to humanity.

It is the harmony of organic development that produces the variety of colours and forms, the combination that we so admire in a flower. In the same way, the organized activity of free human beings imbued with the spirit of solidarity will result in the perfection of social harmony, which we call anarchy. Indeed, only anarchy makes the non-authoritarian organization of common interests possible, since it abolishes the antagonism that exists between individuals and classes.

In the current situation, the antagonism of economic and social interests produces an unceasing war between social units and represents an insurmountable obstacle on the road to collective well-being.

There exists an erroneous conviction that organization does not encourage individual freedom and that, on the contrary, it causes a decay of individual personality. The reality is, however, that the true function of organization lies in personal development and growth.

Just as the cells of an animal, through reciprocal co-operation, express latent powers in the formation of the complete organism, so the individual reaches the highest level of his development through co-operation with other individuals.

An organization, in the true sense of the word, cannot be the product of a union of pure nothingness. It must be made up of self-conscious and intelligent persons. In fact, the sum of the possibilities and activities of an organization is represented by the expression of the single energies.

It follows logically that the greater the number of strong, self-conscious individuals in an organization, the lesser the danger of stagnation and the more intense its vital element.

Anarchism supports the possibility of organization without discipline, fear or punishment, without the pressure of poverty: a new social organism that will end the terrible struggle for the means of subsistence, the vicious struggle that damages man’s best qualities and continually widens the social abyss. In short, anarchism struggles for a form of social organization that will ensure well-being for all.

The embryo of this organization can be found in the type of syndicalism that has freed itself from centralization, bureaucracy and discipline, that encourages autonomous, direct action by its members.

Malatesta on Anarchism, Individualism and Organization (1907)

Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) was one of the founders of the international anarchist movement. He was a member of the Italian Federation of the First International, which sided with Bakunin in his dispute with Karl Marx (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), Chapter 6). The Italian Federation was one of the first of the anti-authoritarian sections of the International to adopt an anarchist communist position. The Italian Federation supported the creation of revolutionary trade unions and called for open insurrrection against the State and the expropriation of the capitalists through the direct action of the people. Malatesta spent much of his time in exile, notably in Argentina, the US and England, where he helped turn the European anarchist movement that arose from the First International into a truly international movement. Malatesta was always in favour of organization, for reasons which he sets forth below in his speech on anarchism and organization at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. He refers in his speech to the recent release from a Spanish prison of the libertarian pedagogue, Francisco Ferrer (Anarchism, Volume One, Selection 65). Unfortunately for Ferrer, neither the international anarchist movement nor his bourgeois supporters were able to save him from execution by the Spanish State in 1909. His support for the anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists in Spain, his powerful advocacy of libertarian education, and his attacks on a reactionary Catholic Church, earned him the lasting enmity of the rich and powerful.

Anarchism, Individualism and Organization

I have listened attentively to everything that has been said before me on the problem of organization and I have the distinct impression that what separates us is the different meaning we give words. Let us not squabble over words. But as far as the basic problem is concerned, I am convinced that we are in total agreement.

All anarchists, whatever tendency they belong to, are individualists in some way or other. But the opposite is not true; not by any means. The individualists are thus divided into two distinct categories: one which claims the right to full development for all human individuality, their own and that of others; the other which only thinks about its own individuality and has absolutely no hesitation in sacrificing the individuality of others. The Tsar of all the Russias belongs to the latter category of individualists. We belong to the former.

Ibsen writes that the most powerful man in the world is the one who is most alone! Absolutely absurd! Doctor Stockmann himself, whom Ibsen has pronounce this maxim, was not even isolated in the full sense of the word; he lived in a constituted society, not on Robinson Crusoe’s island. Man “alone” cannot carry out even the smallest useful, productive task; and if someone needs a master above him it is exactly the man who lives in isolation. That which frees the individual, that which allows him to develop all his faculties, is not solitude, but association.

In order to be able to carry out work that is really useful, co-operation is indispensable, today more than ever. Without doubt, the association must allow its individual members full autonomy and the federation must respect this same autonomy for its groups. We are careful not to believe that the lack of organization is a guarantee of freedom. Everything goes to show that it is not.

An example: there are certain French newspapers whose pages are closed to all those whose ideas, style or simply person have the misfortune to be unwelcome in the eyes of the editors. The result is: the editors are invested with a personal power which limits the freedom of opinion and expression of comrades. The situation would be different if these newspapers belonged to all, instead of being the personal property of this or that individual: then all opinions could be freely debated.

There is much talk of authority, of authoritarianism. But we should be clear what we are speaking of here. We protest with all our heart against the authority embodied in the State, whose only purpose is to maintain the economic slavery within society, and we will never cease to rebel against it. But there does exist a simply moral authority that arises out of experience, intelligence and talent, and despite being anarchists there is no one among us who does not respect this authority.

It is wrong to present the “organizers”, the federalists, as authoritarians; but it is equally quite wrong to imagine the “anti-organizers”, the individualists, as having deliberately condemned themselves to isolation.

For me, I repeat, the dispute between individualists and organizers is a simple dispute over words, which does not hold up to careful examination of the facts. In the practical reality, what do we see? That the individualists are at times “organizers” for the reason that the latter too often limit themselves to preaching organization without practicing it. On the other hand, one can come across much more effective authoritarianism in those groups who noisily proclaim the “absolute freedom of the individual”, than in those that are commonly considered authoritarian because they have a bureau and take decisions.

In other words, everyone organizes themselves — organizers and anti-organizers. Only those who do little or nothing can live in isolation, contemplating. This is the truth; why not recognize it.

If proof be needed of what I say: in Italy all the comrades who are currently active in the struggle refer to my name, both the “individualists” and the “organizers”, and I believe that they are all right, as whatever their reciprocal differences may be, they all practice collective action nonetheless.

Enough of these verbal disputes; let us stick to action! Words divide and actions unite. It is time for all of us to work together in order to exert an effective influence on social events. It pains me to think that in order to free one of our own people from the clutches of the hangman it was necessary for us to turn to other parties instead of our own. Ferrer would not then owe his freedom to masons and bourgeois free thinkers if the anarchists, gathered together in a powerful and feared International, had been able to conduct themselves the worldwide protest against the criminal infamy of the Spanish government.

Let us ensure that the Anarchist International finally becomes a reality. To enable us to appeal quickly to all our comrades, to struggle against the reaction and to act, when the time is right, with revolutionary initiative, there must be an International!