The general strike sounds like a foreign concept to Americans, familiar only to those who have had vacations paralyzed by some European labor action. A general strike is a mass form of protest that is supposed to shut down all but essential services in a city, region, or even nation, to make a point. The U.S. has actually had its share of them, at least in the first half of the last century: in New Orleans (1907); Seattle (1919); San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo (all in 1934).
Those were labor strikes. But not all general strikes have been strictly about labor. Horace B. Davis notes that general strikes may be inspired by often-overlapping economic, political, revolutionary, ethnic, and anti-colonial, causes. Gandhi, for instance, used the Gujarti term hartal for mass civil disobedience against the British Empire during the struggle for Indian independence. In these hartals, all places of work—schools, stores, courts—were shut down. In the Middle East, the shuttering of the “bazaars as a protest against tyranny,” in Davis’s words, is still a basic tactic, seen throughout the Arab Spring.
In 1941, the residents of Amsterdam brought their city to a halt to protest the deportation of Jews. Cyprus saw an anti-colonial strike in 1950. The East German rebellion of 1953 and the Hungarian rebellion of 1956 can be considered forms of general strikes. The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa used the tactic in 1957 and 1961. These are many other examples, some successful, others not.
William Benbow (1787-1864) is generally credited with coming up with the idea of the general strike. He called it the “Grand National Holiday and Congress of Productive Classes” in a pamphlet of that title in 1832. Benbow was an extraordinary character in the thick of radical activity in Great Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. A preacher, polemicist, pornographer, and publisher, he was jailed several times and fled Britain at least once. At one of his trials he spoke for ten hours in his own defense. According to Iorwerth Prothero, one of the last mentions of Benbow was in 1846, “when he said that if there were war over Oregon, he would prefer to fight for the United States. He was consistent to the last.”
In Benbow’s pamphlet, he declared that the poor and hard-working peoples were robbed by “jugglers of society, the pick-pockets, the plunderers, the pitiless Burkers—in fine they are all Bishops!” (“Burkers” is a reference to Edinburgh’s notorious body-snatchers Burke and Hare). To counter this robbery, the toilers of Britain should take a month-long holiday and elect a national convention or congress to reform society. It was certainly radical in the sense that he expected the holiday crowd to horde supplies for the first week, and then liberate the necessaries for the next three weeks from the rich.
Prothero thinks that Benbow’s grand national holiday was only a symbolic precursor to later trade-union and socialist ides of the general strike. Trade-unionism, after all, arose in the second half of the nineteenth century and may well have culminated in the British General Strike of 1926, long after Benbow’s utopian “holiday.” As Prothero notes, “The idea of a general strike, like all ideas, was subject to change.” And, as history has shown, the paralyzing mass action of the general strike has been used for many ends since it was dreamed up by William Benbow.