Source: Public Domain

“If the workers took a notion they could stop all speeding trains;
every ship upon the ocean they can tie with mighty chains.”

Joe Hill, 1910

In February 1919, when over 100,000 Seattle workers downed their tools, these lyrics came to life. This general strike paralyzed Seattle for six days. The workers elected a strike committee that took over all essential services, organized production, and set up a workers’ defense force. In doing so, the Seattle workers showed that they were capable of running society independently, without the bosses. The tumultuous epoch that we are now entering in the US demands that we study our class’s revolutionary traditions, draw the necessary lessons, and prepare for the momentous events that lay ahead.

War and revolution

World War I was an explosion of contradictions that had built up in the decades before 1914. The major imperialist powers had already carved up the world market, but as new imperial powers like Germany emerged, and others like Britain and France declined, a redivision of the world was on the order of the day. This new epoch was inaugurated by the trenches, mustard gas, and millions of corpses. But the US—still a rising power and wary of becoming embroiled in European affairs—preferred, at first, to bankroll the war from afar rather than get its hands dirty through direct intervention. It then swooped in at the end to claim victory at the expense of France and England.

Source: USMC Archives, Flickr

To this end, one-fifth of the US GDP was geared towards military production. This shift towards supplying the Allied war effort meant that industry was subordinated to the state, leading inevitably to vicious suppression of the workers’ rights. Because large corporations dominated US capitalism, the government could agree with the big capitalists to “plan” the war economy. In collaboration with the bosses, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) heads and other unions were rabidly pro-war. They took no persuasion to play a strikebreaking role to further the interests of the war industry. As Samuel Gompers, the president of the AFL said in 1918:

In America, the labor movement stands behind the government and behind President Wilson. We stand behind him not because he is president, but because he is right and because he is a spokesman for freedom and democracy for all the world’s nations.

This class collaboration between the AFL and the bosses was formalized through the National War Labor Board, created in April 1918, responsible for smooth, undisturbed industrial production. Gompers was even appointed to the Council of National Defense. These leaders identified more with the bosses than with the workers they were supposed to represent.

Simultaneously, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical industrial union led by socialists and anarchists, was a growing force within the labor movement. The IWW called for general strikes to stop the war and workers’ control of industry and the abolition of wage-labor. The tension between the AFL and IWW was extremely bitter. Gompers urged AFL workers to cross IWW picket lines, while the IWW argued tirelessly against the social chauvinism of the AFL leadership. When the war broke out in 1914, IWW leader Big Bill Haywood quipped: “This war is a businessman’s war, and we don’t see why we should go out and get shot to save the lovely state of affairs that we now enjoy.”

Meanwhile, in March 1917, a month before the US entered the war, a political and social earthquake shook the world: the Russian (“February”) Revolution. The horrendous destruction of human life and hardships exacerbated by the war led to a mass uprising in Petrograd, and the incensed working class eventually forced the abdication of the tsar. Workers’ councils (“soviets”) sprung up in hundreds of cities and factories across the country. The troops organized soviets of soldiers and elected their representatives.

However, an unelected Provisional government of liberals and reformists blocked the soviets from really being able to run society. This changed in November when the Russian working class, with the Bolshevik Party at its head, seized power from the bosses and began to run society democratically through the soviets. This was the first time—barring the short-lived experience of the Paris Commune of 1871—that the working class took power and began to run society without the capitalists.

Source: Public Domain

The Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik Party were a massive influence in the world labor movement. These events showed in practice that the working class could overthrow capitalism and administer society on its own. Inspired by the Russians, the revolutionary ferment in all Allied nations expressed itself through a massive strengthening of the trade unions. North America was no exception to this wave of revolutionary sentiment and saw a great upswing in labor organization, militancy, and radicalism in the US, Canada, and Mexico. For example, between 1915 and 1918, union membership increased by 400% in the US, and by 1917 the AFL swelled to an incredible 2.4 million members! Perhaps even more significantly, concepts such as soviet democracy and workers’ control of industry became very popular within the rank-and-file of the AFL and the Canadian Federation of Labour in Canada. Revolutionary ideas were on the rise.

In November 1918, the war and the rule of the Kaisers came to an end with a mass uprising of workers and sailors in Germany. Workers around the world began demanding that wages rise in correspondence to the increased industrial output. At the same time, political strikes broke out against imperialist interventions in Russia to crush the revolution. One such strike took place in the Pacific Northwest, organized by the Longshoremen Union who refused to load weapons bound for the White Armies of tsarist restoration. The US government was aiding the Russian counterrevolution and even sent troops against the Bolsheviks. For nearly five years, the class struggle had been suppressed by an unholy alliance of labor leaders like Gompers, the bosses, and the state. But the pressure was reaching a critical point and was bound to explode sooner rather than later. This eruption of struggle occurred in 1919.

The Seattle general strike

Seattle was seething with class tension by 1919. Bitter class struggle tore apart Washington State in the years building up to the historic general strike. Examples include the Everett shingle workers’ strike of 1916, which was drowned in blood by the state, and a Seattle telephone operators’ strike in 1917.

Seattle was a prosperous city for shipping, shipbuilding, lumber, and other industries. Yet for the working class, it was known for its low wages and high cost of living. Little wonder that socialists often led local unions, and that the IWW’s paper Industrial Worker was based in Seattle. The economist John Commons said in 1914 that he “found more bitter feelings between employers and employees [in Seattle] than in any other US city.”

As the war wound down, and wages continued to drop while the cost of living soared, it would only take a spark to ignite the powder keg of class anger and frustration. On January 21, 1919, this spark came when 35,000 Seattle shipyard workers downed tools for better wages. The bosses and the federal government refused to negotiate and accidentally informed the union that they would close down the yards if wages were increased. This enraged the strikers, who then called for a general strike to be organized by the Seattle Central Labor Council. The Council met and voted to call the strike for February 6.

On February 6, 110 AFL-affiliated unions and the IWW answered the call for a city-wide general strike—the first in American labor history. In total, some 100,000 workers went on strike out of the total city population of around 300,000! Although the strike was solid in its first days, there was much uncertainty among the leaders as to how to proceed. As strike leader Ben Neuman later wrote: “We did something in this strike which has never been done before…”

Source: Public Domain

Immediately, a Strike Committee was elected, which consisted of roughly 300 mostly rank-and-file workers. From this, a smaller Executive Committee was formed, responsible for coordinating the paralyzed city’s running. These committees effectively controlled the city and organized “milk stations,” food distribution, city sanitation, hospital supply distribution, etc. Over 30,000 free meals were prepared and distributed every day, and these days were known as the only time nobody went hungry in Seattle. Only workers who had special permission from the Strike Committee were allowed to work—everyone else was compelled through collective class discipline to withhold their labor.

Seattle’s Mayor, Ole Hanson, threatened the workers with violence if they wouldn’t go back to work. His ultimatums fell flat, and the strike continued. He did, however, hire about 2,500 “special deputies”—mostly students from the University of Washington. At his disposal were nearly a thousand sailors, scores of federal soldiers, and an inflated police force. In opposition to this formidable force stood an unarmed Labor War Veteran’s Guard, organized by radicalized veterans in uniform.

Surprisingly, there was no violence during the strike—the state was far too isolated and outnumbered to crush the working class by force. The workers’ self-defense committees were more than adequate for keeping order within the city, and arrests fell by a whopping 50%. This prompted a visiting Major General, John Morrison, to say that he never saw “a city so quiet and orderly.”

Seattle was bustling with activity within the unions and public spaces. Heated discussions about the strike, socialism, Bolshevism, and workers’ control of industry took place in the streets and union halls. The IWW handed out revolutionary literature with fiery passages like the following:

The Russians have shown you the way out. What are you going to do about it? You are doomed to wage slavery till you die unless you wake up, realize that you and the boss have nothing in common, that the employing class must be overthrown…

The Strike Committee was abuzz with discussion and debate, but the leadership was unsure where the struggle would lead. This was summed up by one of the leaders who famously wrote before the strike: “We are undertaking the most tremendous move ever made by labor in this country, a move which will lead—NO ONE KNOWS WHERE.” The leadership unleashed a tempest of raw class anger, but had no idea what to do with it.

Seattle’s Mayor hired 2,500 “special deputies”. Source: Public Domain

All this—the revolutionary ideas, the street demonstrations, the fiery streetside speeches—horrified the ruling class. In response, the bourgeois press from across the country poured scorn on the workers. The strike was called a “revolution” and a “Bolshevist insurrection,” with sensationalist headlines like the following from the Seattle Star: “Under which flag—the red, white, and blue or the red?” All of this helped sway public opinion, and the workers were increasingly isolated.

The AFL leadership, with Gompers at its head, was shocked and terrified by the general strike. In line with the state and the bosses, they brought their full weight against the strike. Hundreds of right-wing AFL officials were sent to bring the strike to a halt. Within a matter of days, by February 10, Gompers succeeded in forcing the Strike Committee to vote to end the strike.

After six days of heroic struggle, the general strike ended on February 11 without a single demand won. Only after the outright betrayal of the AFL leadership did the state feel sufficiently confident to attack the workers’ organizations and leaders in Seattle. Once the danger of the mobilized working class was gone, Hanson arrested 39 IWW leaders, raided the Socialist Party’s headquarters, and set the dogs on “the reds.”

A revolutionary legacy

1919 was a year of world revolution. After the Seattle general strike, a general strike broke out in Winnipeg for six weeks in May and June. Again in September, the US saw a militant nationwide steel workers’ strike involving over 365,000 workers. The Seattle general strike was just one important link in the chain of international workers’ rebellion that thrashed throughout the globe.

The strike was a marvelous showcase of workers’ solidarity and collective power, which terrified their own leaders and the bosses. However, despite the extraordinary efforts of the workers, the strike was defeated. To draw lessons from the past, we must appraise events soberly and analyze the factors that led to the strike’s defeat.

The fault was clearly not on the shoulders of the rank-and-file AFL workers. No greater selflessness and solidarity could have been asked from them! The responsibility landed squarely on the AFL leadership, who recoiled in fear of the general strike. People like Samuel Gompers made their entire career at the labor movement’s expense, cozying up to the capitalists in exchange for small concessions. These individuals were afraid that a militant break with the capitalists would endanger their positions at the tops of the unions—not to mention their large salaries—and they preferred to break the strike to prove themselves respectable in the eyes of the ruling class.

However, this alone is not sufficient to explain the outcome. Conservative leadership will always be a factor in the labor movement, and Marxists must take this into account when analyzing past defeats. Furthermore, it is crucial to understand that a general strike is not merely a “big strike.” When most workers within a city strike together, elect a central strike committee, determine what should be produced and distributed, and take over essential services, there is a qualitative leap in the strike’s character. A general strike directly poses the question: who runs society: the bosses, or the workers? In this sense, the general strike is a revolutionary action with profound implications. The seriousness of this was not lost on the ruling class when Ole Hanson said:

The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact … True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn’t need violence. The general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of Revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of a community … That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt—no matter how achieved.

Hanson clearly exaggerated the conscious desire for revolution among the strike leadership. Still, his claim that a general strike “is of itself the weapon of revolution” is not far off the mark. Indeed, the ultimate tragedy was that the workers’ leaders in Seattle were much less clear about the nature of the strike than the class enemy.

While the general strike has revolutionary ramifications, insofar as it raises the question of who should run society, it cannot solve the question of power by itself. The general strike can stop production, momentarily paralyzing the capitalists and placing the working class temporarily in power. Yet society cannot stay in perpetual suspension. The working class must consolidate this power by dismantling the bourgeois state and replacing it with a workers’ government. The general strike is a vital tool during a revolution, but only as part of a broader strategy to win political and economic power.

Source: Public Domain

That the Seattle general strike never reached such proportions was not due to the lack of revolutionary sentiment or the balance of class forces. The state’s forces were impotent in the face of over 100,000 enraged workers. Rather, the real reason was that there was no revolutionary Marxist leadership in place, which would have been capable of guiding such a seizure of power. Despite the panic that reigned among the bourgeois, there were no Bolsheviks in the ranks of the strike leadership, as the Strike Committee itself admitted:

Probably hardly any of the so-called “leaders,” accused by the press of trying to start Bolshevism in America, believed that the revolution was at hand. Such belief as there was occurred in isolated cases in the rank and file.

Many local union leaders knew that they wanted to overthrow capitalism, or at the very least, impose workers’ control of industry, but none knew how to achieve this. Without a defined program and the class-struggle tactics necessary to win the workers to such a program, they were defenseless against the pressures of the AFL bureaucracy and lacked a clear perspective on how to escalate the struggle.

Other organizations were unfortunately not in a position to play this role either. The IWW was far too small to lead a revolution, and it did not have a precise analysis of the bourgeois state, as it was influenced by anarchist ideas. The Communist Party was only founded three months after the strike, and it was dominated by ultraleft ideas at its birth.

Even if there had been a Marxist leadership in Seattle, the working class cannot take power in one city alone. To consolidate power and form a workers’ government would have required the working class to take power in cities across North America. Isolated in Seattle, if there had been Marxist leadership, the working class could have won some concessions from the ruling class, as Minneapolis’s workers later did in 1934. However, in Seattle, not even this was achieved due to the lack of an alternative leadership fighting for clear demands and cut across the influence of the AFL’s conservative tops.

A tool is suited for a specific use, and the general strike is a tool that requires great care in its application in the labor movement. Not every situation calls for every tool. But in today’s context, a general strike would prove to be a powerful boost to the workers’ struggle against capitalism, especially if linked to the current mass movement against police brutality. A genuine general strike in the US today would have worldwide ramifications and give the workers a sense of their immense power. However, even a general strike, without a revolutionary organization capable of leading a political seizure of power, wouldn’t be sufficient to deal capitalism a coup de grâce.

The experience of the Seattle general strike is among the marvelous traditions of the American working class, and a new generation of class fighters will rediscover them in the coming period. However, we must learn from past mistakes. In the absence of a disciplined Marxist leadership, the Seattle workers’ heroic movement was ultimately incapable of eliminating capitalism in 1919. This is why building such a party is our urgent task today—so that when revolution again erupts on these shores, we can help lead it to victory.