Tony Cliff

[to an Extract from
Mass Strike, Party & Trade Union]

(Summer 1965)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.21, Summer 1965, p.24.
Transcribed by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This is a chapter from one of Rosa Luxemburg’s most important works, written immediately after the Russian Revolution of 1905. For Rosa Luxemburg mass strikes, political and economic, constitute a central factor in the revolutionary struggle for workers’ power:

In former bourgeois revolutions where, on the one hand, the political education and leadership of the revolutionary masses was undertaken by the bourgeois parties, and on the other, the revolutionary task was limited to the overthrow of the government, the short battle on the barricades was the appropriate form of revolutionary struggle. Today, at a time when the working class must educate, organise and lead itself in the course of the struggle, when the revolution itself is directed not only against the established State power but also against capitalist exploitation, mass strikes appear as the natural method of mobilising the broadest proletarian layers, of revolutionising and organising them. Simultaneously it is a means to undermine and overthrow the established State power as well as to curb capitalist exploitation ... In order that the working class may participate en masse in any direct political action, it must first organise itself, which above all means that it must eliminate the boundaries between factories and workshops, mines and foundries, it must overcome the split between workshops to which the daily yoke of capitalism condemns it. Therefore the mass strike is the first spontaneous form of every great revolutionary proletarian action. The more industry becomes the prevalent form of the economy, the more prominent the role of the working class, and the more developed the conflict between labour and capital, the more powerful and decisive becomes the mass strike. The earlier main form of bourgeois revolutions, the battle on the barricades, the open encounter with the armed State power, is a peripheral aspect of the revolution today, only one moment in the whole process of the mass struggle of the proletariat.

Contrary to reformists who see a Chinese wall between partial struggles for economic reform and political struggle for revolution, Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that in a revolutionary period the economic struggle grows into a political one, and vice versa.

The logical and necessary climax of the mass strike is the “open uprising which can only be realised as the culmination of a series of partial uprisings, which prepare the ground and are therefore liable to end for a time in what look like partial ‘defeats’, each of which may seem to be ‘premature’.”

And what a rise in class consciousness results from the mass strike!

The most precious thing, because it is the most enduring in the sharp ebb and flow of the revolutionary wave, is the proletariat’s spiritual growth. The advance by leaps and bounds of the intellectual stature of the proletariat affords an inviolable guarantee of its further progress in the inevitable economic and political struggles ahead.

And what idealism workers rise to! They put aside thoughts of whether they have the 4rewithal to support themselves and their families during the struggle.

It was this glimpse of the magnificent revolutionary initiative and self-sacrifice of the workers during a revolution that justified Rosa’s faith. Consider Budapest 1956!

Rosa Luxemburg’s essay, however, is not only relevant to revolutionary situations proper. It is relevant also to periods of relatively stable capitalism. In the Britain of 1965 where big business, the State and the trade unions grow closer together – as currently clearly expressed in the imposition of the ‘Incomes Policy’ – it is only the rank-and-file of the workers in their local organisations, shop stewards’ committees and the like, who are not integrated hi the hierarchical structure. It is here that the main resistance to control from above, the main defence of workers’ independence, however sectional and inadequate, takes place. It is here that workers’ consciousness of the antagonism between capital and labour is forged. And it is expressed through the strike, which is the weapon par excellence of the proletarian class struggle.

Luxemburg’s essay can, therefore, be of value in freeing British socialists from many of the illusions spread in the political wing of the Labour movement – even amongst some who are at most lukewarm towards the ‘Incomes Policy’. The illusions consist in misplacing the centre of activity of the class, the forge of class consciousness. Luxemburg’s essay is an elaboration, above all on the basis of the Russian revolution of 1905, of the central Marxist theme that the liberation of the working class is an act of the class itself, and that the consciousness of the class is forged in the action of the class in its struggle for emancipation. In trying to change society, the workers change themselves so as to rise to their task.


Last updated on 19.10.2006