Strike, Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature length film, which he made right before Battleship Potemkin in 1925, holds up so well that I have a hard time thinking of another film about the labor struggle that surpasses it. Set in 1903 in an unnamed city in pre-revolutionary Russia, Strike dramatizes a strike, then a mass uprising, then a brutal crackdown. It spells out the collusion between big government and big business so clearly that the whole film feels almost like some kind of Ur-Narrative that lurks underneath the surface of capitalism.
“The strength of the working class is organization,” we read at the end of the opening credits, a quote by Lenin. “Without organization of the masses, the proletarian is nothing. Organized it is everything. Being organized means unity of action, unity of practical activity.”
Strike is not set in the Russia of serfs and masters, orthodox churches or grand inquistors. It’s not the Russia of Tolstoy, Gorky, or even Dostoevsky. This is a westernized, 20th-century Russia. We could just as easily be in London or Chicago. Inside the factory, the workers organize for the strike they know is inevitable. The factory owners know it too. A government minister looks over photos of spies and provocateurs he’s placed inside the plant. After one of the spies steals a micrometer worth 25 rubles, three weeks pay, one worker, Yakov Strongem, is falsely accused of the theft, and then fired. He hangs himself inside the factory, and the strike is on.
At first it all goes well. The workers at the factory are indeed organized. They have a unity of action and practical activity. The men take over the plant, and conduct what would later be known as a sit down strike. The factory owners, by contrast, are frustrated. Orders pour in they can’t fill. Their scowling faces and debauched luxury testify to their guilt as a class. The proletarian quarter of the unnamed city, by contrast, has become a little utopia. In addition to unity of action and practical activity, the workers now have free time. Children play. Families go on picnics. Husbands get to know their wives.
But if the quotation that opens up the film is by Vladimir Lenin, then the film has a Leninist message. It’s not enough to strike. The workers must take political power, or, like the anarchist communards in Paris in 1870, get crushed when the ruling class and the government recover from the initial shock and organize a counter attack. A set of demands, an 8 hour day, higher wages, limitations of child labor, is not enough. The bosses close the company stores. Children go hungry. People began to sell their property at pawn shops. Married couples squabble.
Then the government and the police make their move.
Here in the United States, we tend to be naïve about police use of agents provocateurs. Even 40 years after the cointelpro papers were stolen from FBI headquarters in Media, Pennsylvania, I still had a difficult time convincing myself that Jim Dwyer’s story in the New York Times was true, that during the Republican National Convention in 2004, NYPD provocateurs really did start a bonfire near the front of the main demonstration against George W. Bush to justify locking up 2000 people without charges. It’s so commonly known that the police sent homeless people, drug addicts and rapists into Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011, that if you say “take it to Zuccotti” to a veteran of Occupy Wall Street, he immediately gets the joke.
Eisenstein has no illusions. That agents provocateurs are part of the crackdown is something he just takes for granted. Everything unfolds like a TV show you’ve seen 100 times before. Police spies photograph the leaders of the uprising. They’re rounded up, jailed, and tortured. The police then go into the underclass, what Marx would have called the lumpen proletariat, and recruit a team of homeless derelicts as arsonists, who burn down a liquor store and blame it on the strikers. The strikers are onto the plan but it doesn’t matter. They call the fire department, but the firemen, instead of putting out the fire, turn their hoses on the workers and prevent them from clearing the streets.
What’s remarkable about Strike is not that Eisenstein stages a crackdown, but how he stages the crackdown. It’s 1925, only a few years after Mussolini and his black shirts marched on Rome, but Eisenstein knows exactly what’s coming. Indeed, Strike could have just as easily been called The Birth of Fascism in a Russian Factory Town. Eisenstein may have come to adulthood after the Russian Revolution, but he understands Czarist repression in his bones.
After the cops, after the fire department, we get the army. The government in the service of the capitalists does more than just shoot a few strikers and let the rest flee in panic then come back to work the next day. They stage a full scale, almost genocidal campaign against the workers commune that had been founded during the uprising. The final scene, where soldiers shoot down hundreds of strikers while the camera cuts back to a montage of cows being chopped up in a slaughterhouse has been extensively discussed as a good example of the directors “montage” technique.
But it was the last frame, a still, that made me blood run cold. It looks like the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, not one, not ten, not dozens, but hundreds of bodies, a little holocaust in what once had been a center of rebellion. The film actually ends with a sense of optimism. Eisenstein sees the murdered strikers as heroes who gave their blood to make the Russian Revolution possible. But not even he could see what was coming in the 1930s and 1940s.