Primarily my interest was piqued by the left parties and following them the media, categorising the strike as a "General Strike". Essentially because historically the term General Strike has a special significance and cannot be bandied about in the way it is these days mostly as an English translation of the "Bharat Bandh", calls for which are given quite frequently on various pretexts.
A general strike is one in which the vast majority of workers across most industries and government administration including the crucial ones of mining, power, heavy industries, transport and banking, refuse to work for an extended period of time in an industrialised economy, thus bringing production and services to a halt, in pursuance of their demands. For a strike to be so all pervasive and long, the demands have to be ones that fundamentally change the way the economy is to be run and cannot be just about higher wages and better working conditions alone because these cannot be ensured on a long term basis without fundamentally changing the relationship between the employees and employers and the role of the State as an arbiter between the two. There have been various views regarding the utility of General Strikes but since in the present case it is Marxist parties that have categorised the recent action as a general strike we will go by the Marxist views. The hard core Marxists who see little possibility of workers' emancipation in a capitalist economy, tend to see trade unionism in general and strikes in particular as a means to advance the cause of revolution to overthrow the capitalist order through a seizure of power. Marxists seek to use trade unionism and strikes to make workers politically aware and unite them in a bid to capture political power to usher in a class less society. Crucial to such seizure of power is rebellion by the army and the police which are the repressive organs of the State that keep the system of exploitation going. Thus, when a general strike reaches a peak, then the rank and file of the army and police too join the striking workers.
Obviously, what happened on September 2nd, impressive though it was in its spread and mobilisation, though not at all close to the participation of 150 million workers claimed by the left parties, was definitely not a general strike. In history there have only been two occasions when general strikes have been called with the intention of seizing political power and have gone on to do so. The first was the Paris Commune of 1871 which overthrew the Government of Adolphe Thiers and the second was the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia that overthrew the rule of Tsar Nicholas. In both cases the ruling State had been weakened by external aggression and the army and police had been politicised.
The situation today in India is a far cry from those two occasions. Not only is the Indian state and the capitalist class that controls it far stronger vis a vis the working class but the organised industrial, government and service sector workers are a labour aristocracy getting comparatively high wages that constitute a miniscule minority of the total number of workers in the country most of whom are in the rural areas. A large proportion of the toiling masses, both in urban and rural areas are in fact not workers in the strict sense of the term but extremely low earning self employed individuals in the artisanal, service, petty trade and agricultural sectors who lose their earnings if they strike work and will find it difficult to survive if they participate in a prolonged general strike. However, the most important difference is that there is no anti-statist politicisation of the armed and security forces whatsoever and the State uses them with impunity to crush any challenge to its hegemony. The left parties have themselves used the police to crush protests by the unorganised sector workers when in power in various states.
The serious problem with this farcical characterisation of a one day strike of a fraction of the working class of the country around a few economic issues and without any greater political ambition than the immediate goal of winning elections in a bourgeois democratic system, as a successful general strike, is that this closes the door to a practical programme for a more widespread mobilisation to usher in a socio-economically equitable and environmentally sustainable order. For instance the laudable demand for a minimum wage of Rs 15000 per month for unskilled workers is unlikely to be acceded to by the Government when in reality the average wage being earned currently by workers is around Rs 5000 per month. The Government itself does not pay the current legal minimum wage of Rs 7500 or so to many of its casual workers. If the Government tries to force this wage on the employers then there will be flight of capital from the country. So this demand can be met only if there is a prolonged strike that includes the huge number of agricultural workers, many of whom are migrant workers with little bargaining power and which includes a demand for the cooperativisation of all enterprises whether in the industrial or agricultural sectors based on environmentally sustainable technology and the management firmly in the hands of workers. Since managing cooperative enterprises with socio-economic equity and environmental sustainability as goals, whether in the agricultural, industrial or service sectors, in a global economy dominated by profit seeking corporations is not an easy proposition, this demand will seem a joke to the workers themselves unless there is prior sensitisation and mobilisation around this issue.
What is necessary first is a clear formulation of an alternative socio-economically equitable and environmentally sustainable system that can seem viable to the workers in all sectors and so enthuse them to fight for it. The workers who fought in the early twentieth century to bring about revolutions believed in the Marxist prognosis of a new socio-economic order controlled by them. However, Marxism, the way it has played out in the large countries of Russia and China, has failed to provide a viable alternative on a large scale even though Cuba to a certain extent has set up a fairly egalitarian and environmentally sustainable system especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 when it was left to fend for itself. Lenin, Stalin and Mao, in fact, turned their back on Marxism pretty soon and implemented distorted centralised systems that were oppressive rather than emancipatory towards workers. So there is no viable alternative model to present to the workers currently. The left parties or for that matter groups on the environmental fringe, like ours, do not have any such well worked out alternative to offer at the moment and nor are they trying to make workers aware of the need for formulating one through collective thought and action. The left parties in India have largely clung to the path of winning elections within the liberal democratic constitution or waging armed struggles in fringe areas. We, of the new social movements, have also populated the fringe without being able to increase our mass bases and in fact are desperately trying to retain whatever mass support we have. There are many prolonged strikes and sit ins going on now in various parts of the country by both leftist trade unions and new social movements but they are not coalescing into real general strikes precisely because neither the leftist parties nor the new social movements have a convincing alternative to offer to the masses. So these numerous small strikes and also the recent nationwide strike will at the most put a tentative brake on the juggernaut of centralised profit seeking industrial development but will not be able to stop it.