What a strike is

Peter Kropotkin

“Ce que c’est qu’une gréve”, La Révolte : Organe Communiste-Anarchiste, 7 September 1889[1]

We seek vainly in our recent memories for a single strike which has had the same importance as that which has broken out in the London docks and is still on going.

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

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

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

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

All that was needed was for Tillet, a very young man and of poor health, to devote himself for two years working on the outline of an organisation within the workers of the docks – while the socialists doubted he could ever succeed in his task – so that the thousand groups of workers associated with the loading of ships ceased their toil with a moving solidarity.

They knew well that, for them, a strike is starvation; but they did not hesitate.

Hunger with all its horrors! It is terrible to see these gaunt-eyed men, already exhausted by lack of food, barely dragging their feet after a twenty kilometre march to Hyde Park and back, collapsing, fainting at the doors of greasy-spoons where the crowd thronged to receive food vouchers and bowls of soup.


An immense organisation, spontaneous, was born from the midst of these tough workers, which even socialists often referred to as a herd.

Every day hundreds of letters must be answered. Sums of 10 to 30,000 francs in aid – in great part pennies coming from collections – are counted, recorded, distributed. Restaurants are improvised, supplied with provisions, etc. And, except Tillet, Burns, Mann and Champion – already experienced – all the staff consists of workers from the docks who simply came to offer their help. All this immense organisation is absolutely spontaneous.

It is the picture of a people organising itself during the Revolution, all the better for having fewer leaders.

It is useless to add that if this mass of 150,000 strikers did not feel that the bourgeoisie is united and strong at the moment, it would march as one man against the rich of the West-End. The conversations of groups in the street say it only all too well.


But the strike has another even greater impact.

It has shown the organisational strength 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 brought a shiver down the back of the bourgeois to what extent a great city is at the mercy of two or three hundred thousand workers.

All the commerce of England has already been disrupted by this strike. The Port of London, this centre of universal commerce, is deserted. Ships arriving from the four corners of the globe flee it like a plague city and head to the other ports of England. Cargoes – mountains – of fresh meat, fruits, provisions of all sorts, arriving every day, rot on board ships guarded by troops. Wheat does not come in to fill the shops empty every day. And if the coal merchants had not hastened to grant everything that the coal loaders demanded, London would have found itself without fuel for its thousands of factories and its million homes lit every day. It would have remained in darkness if the gasmen had left work, as they had proposed, even though they had emerged victorious from a strike that had taken place last month. London would have lacked all means of communication if Burns had not told the tram drivers to stay at their work.

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

It was the general strike, the stopping of the whole life of this commercial centre of the world, imposed by the strike of three or four categories of labour that lay out the buffet.

There are articles in the newspapers that smell of 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 act like Tillet, but with firmer and more revolutionary ideas – the day when they will work amongst 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, than all the writers, journalists, and orators of the socialist party.

We have often spoken of 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 sufficient to block the supply channels of the factories: thereby we have the bourgeoisie.

End Notes

[1] Included in the pamphlet La Grande Grève des Docks (Paris: Bibliothèque des Temps nouveaux, 1897) along with an article by strike leader John Burns. (Translator)