March 8: Sorelian readings of a feminist general strike

The calls for an international feminist general strike found an echo in many countries, but again, as in 2018, nowhere more than in spain. At the height of the strike, supported by the “majority” labour unions, as well as the “minority” anarchist unions, 6 million women and men ceased to work, and in the evening, millions took to the streets to protest, to demonstrate, to demand; to mark their presence and declare that enough is enough: enough of sexist inequality and violence, of patriarchal discrimination and exploitation. (El Pais 08/03/2019)

The reasons for this level of participation, in this particular country, would merit a reflection beyond what we are capable of. What interests us, though, in addition, is the question of how should the event be interpreted, understood? Without pretending to exhaust the subject, it is worth stating, negatively, that the strike risks becoming just one more moment in a predictable “protest” calendar, an annual moment of self-affirmation, no more threatening than an annual May Day or Pride celebration.

Our conviction is that this is not what animates the protests in spain, that it has a great deal more to do with a recent history of social struggle, that it is sustained by a great deal of “grass roots”, everyday militancy, that creates a dense fabric of political rebelliousness, that it goes beyond simple demands for woman’s “rights”.

But talk of a general strike, of a feminist general strike, begs reflection, and we share below selections from an essay on George Sorel’s concept of a general strike, which by analogy and affinity helps to shed some critical light on the virtues and limits of the current practice of a feminist general strike.

If we may anticipate our reader’s conclusions, our conviction is that a truly radical or revolutionary feminist general strike is one which brings capitalist social production and reproduction to a halt, which unmasks representational politics for an illusion, which rejects negotiation with any established economic or political authority (because intrinsically patriarchal), which understands that modern forms of patriarchy cannot be defeated without destroying capitalism (and vice versa) and that this is to be accomplished through direct action and mutual aid, the very “school” for any future free and equal society.

Utopian? It is our conviction that those who believe that the present is sustainable are the utopians. And as was militantly defended at the Puerta del Sol occupation in May of 2011, the revolution will be feminist, or it will not be.

From George Sorel’s biography, by Larry Portis


… the general strike is ‘the myth within which all of socialism is contained; that is, it involves a complex of images capable of naturally evoking all the feelings which are raised in the struggle of the socialist movement against contemporary society’.

But what was, or is, the ‘general strike’? Was it a tactic, a strategy or merely an event that some waited for eagerly and some with misgivings? Would socialists lead a general strike or would they be pushed by it? These were the questions which called for a critical examination of socialist practice and it is not hard to understand why the parliamentary socialists wished to ignore them. Sorel attempted to clarify these counter-tendencies by setting out ‘three important facets’ of the ‘thesis’ of the general strike.

The first thing that must be kept in mind is that to endorse the idea of a general strike is to express an essentially proletarian rejection of parliamentary politics. It in fact asserts that ‘the era of political revolution’ has been passed, at least in terms of its being of any possible benefit to the proletariat. In fact, the general strike represents a conscious rejection of the premises of capitalist political life. It is a declaration of the proletariat’s refusal to take part in the hierarchical political system and the political ideology that allows capitalist management of social conflicts. To accept the general strike as the ultimate revolutionary weapon is to break with capitalist ‘civility’. It is to cease to be humble in the face of the declaration of the rights of man, the idea of impartial justice for all, political constitutions and parliaments. It is to recognise that these institutions exist in their present forms in order to maintain the power of a certain social class. But it does not mean that to accept the idea of the general strike is to reject actual human freedoms or conscious communal organisation. Sorel maintained that, at base, the general strike involved not only the rejection of bourgeois government, but also of all hierarchies which more or less approximated to the bourgeois political system. ‘Advocates of the general strike wish to eliminate all the aspects of bourgeois liberalism: demagoguery, the manipulation of public opinion, party alliances’. If the proletariat understood that its interests could best be advanced by itself, using the power it had – the central role it plays in the productive process – political machinations and compromises aid not possibly be considered necessary or even effectual in |the revolutionary process.

Thus Sorel’s second ‘facet’ of the general strike has to do with the fact that it is a concrete method of fighting capitalism, whereas parliamentary politics is a means of deliberating with and dealing with capitalism. This facet is virtually inseparable from the third, which asserts that the general strike is not an idea ‘born out of reflections on the philosophy of history; it is rather rooted in the actual practical experience of the proletariat. The revolutionary general strike will, in fact, represent the culmination of proletarian experiences as the working classes defend themselves on a day-to-day basis. It will represent a going-over to the offensive. Strikes by themselves will remain nothing but economic incidents if their revolutionary potentiality is not brought out by revolutionary workers. ‘Each strike’, Sorel maintained, ‘no matter how local it may be, is a skirmish in the great confrontation that is called the general strike.’ However, Sorel’s terminology must not be taken too literally here. He did not wish to say that striking workers will necessarily learn actual combat techniques. But they would gain an even clearer under-‘ standing of their social position within the productive system. ‘The practice of strikes’ most importantly encourages ‘a very clear conception of the class struggle.’

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