Kropotkin: What a strike is

Okay, first off still incredibly busy so not able to do much libertarian-wise. The good news is that a new Black Flag collective is off the ground and we are getting an issue together for the next London Anarchist bookfair in October. Which will mean I won’t be able to get to many meetings due to stall duty. Still, a small price to pay for ensuring the movement has a printed voice (even if it will be, initially, bi-yearly).

I’ve also just read The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader – every anarchist should read it. I’ve been waiting for this since I became an anarchist and read Anarchy and then Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas. It was worth the wait and, even better, AK Press is producing his collected works! Malatesta is my favourite dead anarchist so I feel that Xmas has come early. Needless to say, the book confirms the Italian in his number one spot! I plan to do a review for Black Flag (once I finish an article on the UK economy which I’m finding hard to get a grip on due to lack of time!).

I’ve posted a reply article on Proudhon on property/possession recently, but this was written months ago. I will return to this when I finish my critique of Blackledge (just one to go, if I find the time!). Suffice to say, I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial for the “early” Proudhon (1840 to 1850) – the big question is how much did his opinions change – and when – after the defeat of the 1848 revolution or it is a case of changing terminology. At the present stage, I will say that I’m not sure – but I would rewrite some of the introduction to the Proudhon anthology to take into account the ambiguity I know feel.

As noted, I’m busy and in lieu of a genuine blog (which I’ve not done for a while, sorry!) I’m present a new translation of one of Kropotkin’s pieces. It was written during the great dockers’ strike of 1889. Here is Direct Struggle Against Capital’s glossary entry for that strike:

“The Great Dockers Strike of 1889 was a product of the dangerous and precarious nature of port work, combined with low pay, poor working conditions and widespread social deprivation. In the summer, the dockers union became involved in a dispute over pay and conditions on the London docks, striking for four hours continuous work at a time and a minimum rate of sixpence an hour. After the initial walkout, the strike spread to the neighbouring docks and soon half of East London was out. The strike has ended in complete victory for the workers. This strike was a turning-point in the history of trade unionism, being a key part of the New Unionism which organised all workers rather than just, as previously, skilled workers.”

Kropotkin’s article is of note for two things: firstly, how Kropotkin uses the strike as an example of how social revolution could start and, secondly, to repeat his calls for anarchists to take part in the labour movement. Malatesta, as shown in The Method of Freedom, did exactly the same thing. Yet more evidence that the notion anarchists turned to syndicalism after 1892 and the failure of “Propaganda by the Deed” is untenable – but regular readers will know that already (for example, this talk or this review-article). Needless to say, it follows on from the 1881 articles on Workers’ Organisation {part 1 and part 2) and other works from that earlier period which repeat the syndicalist ideas defended in the First International by Bakunin and others. Equally needless, but essential given Leninist inventions, he continued to advocate this syndicalist position to his death in 1921.

And talking of Direct Struggle Against Capital, it has had its first review on Amazon. Five stars under the title Kropotkin Redux:

“It could hardly be more urgent for Anarchists to renew their understanding of the world of capital and of class struggle than it is now in the second decade of the 21st century. Marxism - at least that reading of Marx that dominated "real existing socialism" and its major heresy - is now of marginal interest except to a bevy of academic economists and philosophers looking for a paperback pop intellectual best seller. Libertarian socialist ideas form the only credible alternative to the cynicism of contemporary capitalist thought and for that this anthology is timely.

“Kropotkin emerges in this own writing here as an incisive and profound thinker whose distinctive voice explains with refreshing clarity the neccessity for unremitting class war against capital - the peaceful prince who might be mistaken for Tolstoy fades to a shade under the light of Kropotkins own words.

“As with his Proudhon volume, McKay does us a service just as an editor but to this his introduction (again, as he did with Proudhon) adds its own immense value. McKay lays bear the real trajectory of Kropotkin's thought from the source correcting the layers of misunderstanding and misrepresentation by careful reference to Kropotkin's own words.

“In this volume we now have a vade mecum for one of classical anarchism's seminal thinkers and activists and the opportunity to grasp his thought in its unity and its historical development which has until now been difficult for the non-specialist historian.

“As well as the practical value of this volume of Kropotkin's own writing to anarchism as a movement, McKay's introduction also rises to the best scholarly standards - neither pedantic and pedestrian nor slip-shod and impressionistic, he primes the reader to reevaluate Kropotkin, long the victim of distortion by both establishment academia and the various Marxist epigones.

“For readers who - like me - have not the benefit of a long education in anarchist ideas this volume gives access to the key writings of one of the great anarchists.”

Here is the Kropotkin article – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. It is an important article on an important event. It is also a subject Kropotkin considered important, writing a pamphlet entitled La Grande Grève des Docks with one of its leaders, John Burns. Now that would be an interesting work to make available to English-speaking anarchists. Hopefully I will be posting two more new Kropotkin translations of articles in the coming weeks/months.

Until I blog again, be seeing you…

What a strike is

Peter Kropotkin

‘Ce que c’est qu’une gréve’, La Révolte, 7th September 1889

Translation by NC

We search our recent memories in vain for a single strike that was as important as the one that broke out in the docks of London and is still on going.

There have been more numerous strikes, there have been more violent ones. But none had the same meaning for the revolutionary socialist idea.

Firstly, the socialist movement was born within better-paid trades and has grouped the elite workers, the latter have always looked down on the rough trades. Men from the Fourth-Estate like to talk about “the unconscious masses, incapable of organising themselves, demoralised by poverty”.

We know that we have maintained the opposite view. And now these dock workers, who can neither go to socialist meetings nor read our literature, but who feel oppression and hate it more sincerely than well-read workers, come to confirm the core idea of those who know the people and respect it.

The most complete solidarity rules amongst the dock workers. And, for them, striking is far harder than for mechanics or carpenters.

All that was needed was that Tillet, a very young man and of weak health, devoted himself for two years to work on the beginnings of an organisation within the dock workers – while socialists doubted he could ever succeed in his task – so that all thousand branches of the workers related to the loading of ships cease work with a moving solidarity.

They knew well that for them, strike means hunger; but they didn’t hesitate.

It’s hunger with all its horrors. It’s terrible to see haggard men, already exhausted by lack of food, dragging their feet after a twenty kilometre walk, to Hyde Park and back, collapsing, fainting at the doors of cheap restaurants where the crowd was pushing to receive provision coupons and bowls of soup.

***

An immense organisation, spontaneous, was born from the centre of these rough workers, often referred to as the herd even by socialists.

Hundreds of leaflets are distributed every day. Sums of 10 to 30,000 Francs in aid – in great part pennies coming from collections – are counted, written down, distributed. Restaurants are improvised, filled with food, etc. And, except Tillet, Burns, Mann and Champion – already experienced – everything is done by dock workers who quite simply came to offer their help. Quite a vast organisation, absolutely spontaneous.

It’s the picture of a people organising itself during the Revolution, all the better for having less leaders.

It is useless to add that if this mass of 150,000 striking men didn’t feel that currently the Bourgeoisie is united and strong, it would walk as a single man against the West-End wealthy. Conversations of groups on the street state it only too well.

***

But the strike has also a greater impact.

It has confirmed the strength of organisation of a mass of 150,000 men coming from every corner of England, not knowing each other, too poor to be militant socialists. But it has also demonstrated, in a way that produces a shiver down the back of the bourgeois, the extent a great city is at the mercy of two or three hundred thousand workers.

All the trade of England has already been disrupted by this strike. London Bridge, this universal trade centre, is mute. Ships coming from the four corners of the globe, go away from it as if it were a poisoned city and go towards other English ports. Cargoes – mountains – of fresh meat, fruits, food of all sorts, coming each day, rot on board ships guarded by troops. Wheat doesn’t come in to fill the shops empty each day. And if coal merchants hadn’t hastened to grant everything that the coal loaders were asking, London would stay without fuel for its million daily lit homes. It would stay in the dark if the gasmen had left work, as they had suggested, even though they had emerged victorious in a strike that took place last month. London would stay without any means of communication if Burns hadn’t commanded the tram drivers to stay at their work.

The strike spread like an oil leak. A hundred factories of all sorts, some very large, others small, no longer getting the flour, lime, kaolin, oilseeds, etc., etc. that are delivered to them on a daily basis, have extinguished their fires, throwing onto the streets every day new contingents of strikers.

It was the general strike, the stopping of all life in this universal commercial centre, imposed by the strike of three or four branches of work that hold the key to the buffet.

There are articles in the newspapers sensing terror. Never have the bourgeois felt how much they are the subjects of the workers. Never have the workers felt how much they are the masters of society. We had written it, we had said it. But the deed has more impact than the printed word! The deed has proved this strength of the workers.

Yes, they are the masters. And the day when those anarchists who exhaust themselves in empty discussions will do like Tillet, but with firmer and more revolutionary ideas – the day when they will work within the workers to prepare the stopping of work in the trades that supply all the others, they will have done more to prepare the social, economic Revolution, that all the writers, journalists, and orators of the socialist party.

We have often spoken about the general strike. We now see that in order to achieve it, it is not necessary that all workers cease work on the same day. It is necessary to block the supply channels to the Bourgeoisie and to its factories.

  


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