A Novel of the General Strike [Book Review]

In Anarchy 104 I wrote, “One of the most interesting things that an anarchist today with literary talent could undertake would be the development of an utopian novel that presents an anarchist society.” Although I have not yet found such a novel, I have found a novel of the turn of the century that should be almost as interesting.

Syndicalism and the Co-operative Commonwealth. How We Shall Bring About the Revolution by Emile Pataud and Emile Pouget [1] presents a history of the revolution as it might have taken place in France, mostly focused on Paris, at the turn of the century. It is so specific that it could have almost been used to carry out the revolution. In addition to this rather unusual, although not quite unique quality, [2] it seems to touch upon many of the basic problems of an anarchist revolution.

The first problem in any revolution, as Lenin so accurately noted, is the problem of the spark – something that will ignite the workers and start the revolution. In this case it was violent over-reaction by the police to a demonstration during a normal strike. Due to the murders by the police the strike spread until it became the General Strike.

But the development of the General Strike out of a normal strike was not simply the spontaneous result of the reaction to the spark. Much careful planning had been done to overcome the weaknesses of any strike – even a General Strike. Well before the strike, the workers had gained the necessary knowledge and done the essential planning that would make the strike successful. In particular, they noted the vulnerable points both in their organization and in the industrial system they hoped to take over. When the spark was struck, they were ready to take appropriate action. First, the most active workers helped to make the strike effective by encouraging their weaker brothers in key jobs to join the strike. Second, they made the strike effective by making it impossible for the essential services to work through sabotage. At the same time they kept the services operating in the working class districts. As the strike spread they encouraged or forced the few remaining workers and scabs to join the strike. It was noted that little force was necessary – they may be overly optimistic.

The government responded first by trying to run the essential services with the army. This failed due to the lack of numbers and sabotage. Second, the government tried to wait out the strike but this failed due to the solidarity of the workers – again perhaps the writers are overly optimistic. The government did not use massive violence against the strike for two reasons. First, the workers stayed home and did not gather in large groups. Second, the army was considered too untrustworthy to use due to years of propaganda work by the anti-militarists. This is probably a key point. Unless the military is rendered ineffective as a force against the strike, it is almost bound to fail. Probably the strike cannot succeed unless the military actively supports it or is at least neutral. In either case the military remains as a key centre of power during and after the revolution. At some point it must be dismantled, and it is unlikely to be happy with the idea. In this novel it is suggested that the disaffection of the common soldier is the key – it is undoubtedly essential, but it may not be enough.

The government is finally overthrown by the simple expedient of invading parliament. The authors note the problem of what to do about the parliamentary supporters of the workers who want to form a new government. The solution proposed of simply telling them that they are out of date and won’t be allowed to seems a bit naive. Since the people have a long-standing habit of following governments, it is not going to be so simple to change either that habit or the habit of forming governments.

The government is pictured as composed of bungling fools and the workers make no mistakes. It is dangerous both to underestimate your enemy and overestimate yourself.

A basic problem for the anarchist, or the syndicalist as pictured in this novel, is how is it possible to organize society along non-statist, non-governmental lines and furthermore insure both the acceptance of the new society and its success. Pataud and Pouget spend many pages describing specific changes in various parts of the social system, such as land reform, financial reform, reorganization of newspapers, the railroads, and the post office. But the ability to do all this assumes no significant internal or external opposition. They deal with the external threat by coming up with all sorts of new weapons and defeating the opposition – a bit too simple. They deal with the internal threat by (1) assuming the rapid conversion of most opponents, (2) holding a Trade Union Congress to organize the new society, and (3) arming the workers. The first point is a dangerous assumption. The second point assumes, as they specifically do, that there is no significant disagreement over what is to be done. The third point assumes that the workers support the revolution without major exception.

Although points one and three are highly debatable, point two is particularly troublesome. The assumption that most anarchists or syndicalists can agree without much debate on all the major changes in society seems ridiculous. Although this period of the revolution, the period of consolidation or the like, is rarely discussed by anarchists, it is the key period. It cannot simply be “played by ear” when it comes. Unless the opposition has been suddenly converted and the workers are armed and favour the revolution, there will be civil war which will again raise the problem of the role of the military. Even if civil war is avoided many people will decide to form governments and will be a great bother, if nothing else.

Pataud and Pouget produced a detailed plan for a general strike revolution in a particular setting. They produced an instructive handbook, but as I have pointed out, they tended to be overly optimistic. I think we must be self-consciously pessimistic in such situations. An anarchist society will not be produced by assuming that at every possible crisis the opposition will be stupid and we will be brilliant.

Lyman Tower Sargent


1 he edition I have was translated by Charlotte and Frederic Charles and published by The New International Publishing Company of Oxford in 1913. It has a foreword by Tom Mann, a preface by Kropotkin, and three drawings by Will Dyson. The original edition seems to have been Comment nous ferons la revolution. Paris: J. Tallandier, 1909.

2 A few novels recently published suggest some revolutionary tactics, but they are not anarchist. An example, about the Black revolution, is Sam Greenlee, The Spook Who Sat By The Door. London: Allison & Busby, 1969.

From: Anarchy magazine (second series), no.7 [1972?] .