Lenin: ‘Strikes teach the workers to unite’

Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin studied the importance of strikes and shared this knowledge with the working class. Following are excerpts from his early article, “On Strikes”:

Strikes, which arise out of the very nature of capitalist society, signify the beginning of the working-class struggle against that system of society. When the rich capitalists are confronted by individual, propertyless workers, this signifies the utter enslavement of the workers. But when those propertyless workers unite, the situation changes. There is no wealth that can be of benefit to the capitalists if they cannot find workers willing to apply their labor-power to the instruments and materials belonging to the capitalists and produce new wealth. … Strikes, therefore, always instill fear into the capitalists, because they begin to undermine their supremacy. 

“All wheels stand still, if your mighty arm wills it,” a German workers’ song says of the working class. And so it is in reality: the factories, the landlords’ land, the machines, the railways, etc., etc., are all like wheels in a giant machine — the machine that extracts various products, processes them, and delivers them to their destination. The whole of this machine is set in motion by the worker who tills the soil, extracts ores, makes commodities in the factories, builds houses, workshops, and railways. When the workers refuse to work, the entire machine threatens to stop. Every strike reminds the capitalists that it is the workers and not they who are the real masters — the workers who are more and more loudly proclaiming their rights. Every strike reminds the workers that their position is not hopeless, that they are not alone. …

Every strike means many privations for the working people, terrible privations that can be compared only to the calamities of war — hungry families, loss of wages, often arrests, banishment from the towns where they have their homes and their employment. Despite all these sufferings, the workers despise those who desert their fellow workers and make deals with the employers. Despite all these sufferings, brought on by strikes, the workers of neighboring factories gain renewed courage when they see that their comrades have engaged themselves in struggle. “People who endure so much to bend one single bourgeois will be able to break the power of the whole bourgeoisie,” said one great teacher of socialism, Engels, speaking of the strikes of the English workers. 

A strike teaches workers to understand what the strength of the employers and what the strength of the workers consists in; it teaches them not to think of their own employer alone and not of their own immediate workmates alone but of all the employers, the whole class of capitalists and the whole class of workers. When a factory owner who has amassed millions from the toil of several generations of workers refuses to grant a modest increase in wages or even tries to reduce wages to a still lower level and, if the workers offer resistance, throws thousands of hungry families out into the street, it becomes quite clear to the workers that the capitalist class as a whole is the enemy of the whole working class and that the workers can depend only on themselves and their united action. …

A strike, moreover, opens the eyes of the workers to the nature, not only of the capitalists, but of the government and the laws as well. … The government itself knows full well that strikes open the eyes of the workers and for this reason it has such a fear of strikes and does everything to stop them as quickly as possible. One German Minister of the Interior, one who was notorious for the persistent persecution of socialists and class-conscious workers, not without reason, stated before the people’s representatives: “Behind every strike lurks the hydra of revolution.” Every strike strengthens and develops in the workers the understanding that the government is their enemy and that the working class must prepare itself to struggle against the government for the people’s rights.

Strikes, therefore, teach the workers to unite; they show them that they can struggle against the capitalists only when they are united; strikes teach the workers to think of the struggle of the whole working class against the whole class of factory owners and against the arbitrary, police government. This is the reason that socialists call strikes “a school of war,” a school in which the workers learn to make war on their enemies for the liberation of the whole people, of all who labor, from the yoke of government officials and from the yoke of capital. …

Here we must point out that strikes are, as we said above, “a school of war” and not the war itself, that strikes are only one means of struggle, only one aspect of the working-class movement. From individual strikes the workers can and must go over, as indeed they are actually doing in all countries, to a struggle of the entire working class for the emancipation of all who labor. When all class-conscious workers become socialists, i.e., when they strive for this emancipation, when they unite throughout the whole country in order to spread socialism among the workers, in order to teach the workers all the means of struggle against their enemies, when they build up a socialist workers’ party that struggles for the emancipation of the people as a whole from government oppression and for the emancipation of all working people from the yoke of capital — only then will the working class become an integral part of that great movement of the workers of all countries that unites all workers and raises the red banner inscribed with the words: “Workers of all countries, unite!”