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International Socialism, Summer 1965


Rosa Luxemburg

Mass Strike, Party and Trade Union

Chapter IV


From International Socialism, No.21, Summer 1965, pp.24-28.
Introduced by Tony Cliff and translated by Barry Gorden.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the above we have tried to sketch the history of the mass strikes in Russia in a few brief strokes. Even a fleeting glance at this history shows us a picture of the mass strike which at no point resembles that which is generally painted during discussions in Germany. In place of the rigid and hollow schema of an arid planned political action to be performed with care and foresight, we see a piece of life, made up of flesh and blood and impossible to excise from the great body of the revolution, simply because it is linked by a thousand arteries to every part and portion of it.

The mass strike that the Russian Revolution shows us is a phenomenon so protean as to reflect in itself all the phases of political and economic struggle, all the stages and focal points of the revolution. Its applicability, its effectiveness, its points of origin, change constantly. It opens up new, wide perspectives just when the revolution seems to have its back to the wall; and it fails just when you think you can count on it with surety. Now it floods like a tidal wave over the whole empire, now it recedes into a huge web of narrow streams; now it springs up from underground like a fresh spring, now it trickles away into the earth. Political and economic strikes and partial strikes, demonstration strikes and battle strikes, general strikes in individual industries and general strikes in individual cities, peaceful wage struggles and street battles, barricade struggles – all this runs through, alongside and into the main streams; one floods over into the other; it is an eternally mobile, changing sea of phenomena. And the law of motion of these phenomena becomes clear: it does not lie in the mass strike itself, in its technical peculiarities, but in the political and social relationship of forces in the revolution. The mass strike is merely the form of the revolutionary struggle, and every shift in relationships between the struggling forces, in party development and in class distinction, in the position of the counter-revolution, influence the strike action at once in a thousand invisible and scarcely controllable ways. Along with this, the strike action itself hardly pauses a moment. It merely changes its forms, its extent, its effect. It is the living pulse beat of the revolution and also its most powerful drive wheel. In a word: the mass strike that the Russian Revolution shows us is not an ingenious means, cleverly devised for the purpose of increasing the effectiveness of the proletarian struggle, but the means of locomotion of the proletarian masses, the manifestation of the proletarian struggle in the period of revolution. From this can be abstracted certain general points of view for judging the problem of the mass strike.

1 – It is totally invalid to think of the mass strike as an act, as a single action. Mass strike is rather a designation, an all-purpose word for a period of the class struggle that lasts for years, perhaps even decades. From countless of the most diverse mass strikes that have been unrolling in Russia for the last four years, the schema of the mass strike as a short single action, purely political, called forth by plan and shut off by intent, fits only one variation, and that a subordinate one: the pure demonstration strike. In the whole course of the five-year period we see in Russia merely a few demonstration strikes, that, note, limit themselves usually to an individual city. So it is with the yearly general strike in Warsaw and Lodz on May Day – in Russia proper the First of May is as yet not celebrated by work stoppage to a significant extent; the mass strike in Warsaw on 11 September, 1905, to mourn the executed Martin Kasprzak; in November 1905 in Petersburg as a protest rally against the declaration of martial law in Poland and Livland; on 22 June 1906 in Warsaw, Lodz, Chenstochov, and the Dom-brova coal basin and partially, too, in some Russian cities, in annual celebration of the memorial day of the Petersburg blood bath; further, in July 1906, a general strike in Tiflis as a sympathy rally for the soldiers condemned by court martial because of the military mutiny; finally, on the same occasion in September during the deliberations of the court martial in Reval. All the other mass and general strikes, both the large and the partial, were not demonstration strikes but battle strikes. As such they arose mostly spontaneously, without plan or intent, each time out of specifically local, fortuitous occasions and then burgeoned out with elementary force into a great movement, from which they did not beat an ‘orderly retreat’ but transformed themselves: now into economic struggles, now into street fighting, now falling apart by themselves.

In this general picture, the purely political demonstration strikes play a wholly subordinate role – little isolated specks on a vast plain. Taken in order of time, the strikes demonstrate the following points: the demonstration strikes, which, since – in distinction to the battle strikes – they evince the greatest measure of party discipline, conscious leadership and political consciousness, should therefore appear as the highest and ripest form of the mass strike, play in truth their greatest role in the beginnings of the movement. Thus, for example, the absolute work stoppage in Warsaw was, being the first case in which a resolution of the Social Democrats was so marvellously executed, an event of great significance for the proletarian movement in Poland. Equally, the sympathy strike in November of the same year in Petersburg made a great impression as the first test of a consciously planned mass action in Russia. The ‘test mass strike’ of the Hamburg comrades on 17 January 1906 will play just such an outstanding role in the history of future German mass strikes as the first fresh attempt with this so-controversial weapon, and a highly successful attempt at that, speaking convincingly for the courage and fighting morale of the Hamburg workers. And just as surely, the period of mass strikes in Germany, once it has seriously begun, will lead of itself to a really general work stoppage on the First of May. May Day may well, by its very nature, be honoured with the first great demonstration under the sign of the mass struggle. In this sense, the ‘lame plug’, as the May Day celebration was dubbed at the Cologne Trade Union .Congress, still has a great future and an important role in the proletarian class struggle in Germany. Only with the development of serious revolutionary struggles does the significance of such demonstrations speedily decline. It is precisely the type and weakness of motive that make it objectively possible to bring about demonstration strikes according to a preconceived plan on the word of the parties. The growth in political consciousness and schooling of the proletariat make this sort of mass strike impossible; today the proletariat in Russia – precisely the most capable vanguard of the masses – has no interest in demonstration strikes. The workers are not just playing about: they need to think about real struggle with all its consequences. If in the first great mass strike of January 1905 the demonstration element played a great role – still not, to be sure, in intention, but rather spontaneously, instinctively – the attempt of the central committee of the Russian Social Democrat Party to call out a mass strike in August as a demonstration for the dissolved Duma collapsed, among other reasons, because of the decided distaste of the schooled proletariat for feeble half actions and mere demonstrations.

2 – However, when we focus our attention not on the subordinate variations of a demonstration strike, but instead on the battle strike, as it presents itself to us as the actual carrier of the proletarian purpose, we are further struck by the fact that it is impossible to separate economic and political motives from one another. Here too reality diverges from theory. The pedantic conception, according to which the pure political mass strike is logically derived from the trade-union general strike, and at the same time clearly distinguished from it, has been thoroughly refuted by the experience of the Russian Revolution. This expresses itself not just historically: in other words from the first great wage struggle of the Petersburg textile workers in 1896-7 up to the last great mass strike in December 1905, the mass strikes imperceptibly evolve from economic into political strikes so that it is almost impossible to draw a boundary between the two types. But also, every single one of the great mass strikes repeats, so to speak, the general history of the Russian mass strike in miniature and begins with purely economic or in any case partial trade-union conflict, and then runs the whole gamut up to the political rally. The great burst of mass strike activity in the south of Russia in 1902 and 1903 arose, as we saw, in Baku from a conflict resulting from the victimisation of the unemployed, in Rostov from differences over wages in railway workshops, in Tiflis from a struggle of retail clerks for the reduction of working hours, in Odessa from a wage struggle in a single small factory. The January mass strike of 1905 developed out of internal conflicts in the Putilov works, the October strike from the struggle of the railway workers over the pension fund and, finally, the December strike from the struggle of the post and telegraph employees for the right to organise. The progress of the movement as a whole does not express itself in the elimination of the preliminary economic stage, but in the rapidity with which the ladder up to the political rally is climbed and in the extremity of the point to which the mass strike impels itself.

However, the movement as a whole does not just run in the one direction, from economic to political struggle, but the other way too. Every one of the great political mass actions, once it has reached its climax, inverts itself into a whole barrage of economic strikes. And this does not merely apply to each individual great mass strike, but to the revolution as a whole. The economic struggle does not retreat before the political struggle as it spreads out, clarifies and expands itself; no, it spreads out, organises and grows in time to the same rhythm. The two interact dialectically upon one another. Every new start, every new victory of political struggle transforms itself into a mighty impulse for the economic struggle in that the external range of possibilities for struggle is increased simultaneously with the raising of the inner drive of the workers, their will to fight. When the foaming tide of political action recedes, it leaves a fertile silt out of which immediately sprout the thousand stalks of economic struggle, and vice versa. The incessant state of economic war between workers and capital keeps their fighting energy awake in all the political pauses; it forms, so to speak, the permanent fund of proletarian class power from which the political struggle draws its strength ever anew. Simultaneously, the persistent economic boring from within leads at every moment, now here, now there, to sharp individual conflicts, out of which undesigned political conflicts explode on a grand scale.

In a word: the economic struggle is the line of continuity from one political nexus to the next; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle. Cause and effect change position here at every moment – and thus the economic and the political focal points of the period of the mass strike, far from clearly separating or even excluding one another, as the pedantic demand, are rather the two sides of the proletarian class struggle in Russia. And their unity is the mass strike. When irresolute theory offers an artificial logical cross-section of the mass strike to arrive at the ‘pure political mass strike’, this dissection, like any other, fails to perceive a phenomenon in its living essence, but merely serves to kill it off.

3 – Finally, the events in Russia show us that the mass strike is inseparable from the revolution. The history of the Russian mass strike is the history of the Russian revolution. Now, truly, when representatives of our German opportunism hear of ‘revolution’, then they think immediately of bloodshed, street battles, of powder and lead, and the logical conclusion is: the mass strike leads inevitably to revolution, ergo we must not do it. Indeed, we see in Russia that practically every mass strike amounts in the last analysis to an encounter with the armed protectors of the Tsarist order – the so-called political strikes just as much as the larger economic struggles. But the revolution is something else and something more than bloodshed. In distinction to the police outlook which focuses its attention on the revolution exclusively from the standpoint of street fighting and riots, that is from the standpoint of ‘disorder’, the scientific socialist outlook envisions in the revolution above all a deep-going inner transformation of the social relationships of the classes. And from this standpoint there exists another connection between the mass strike and revolution in Russia as well as that confirmed by the trivial observation that the mass strike usually ends in bloodshed.

We have seen above the inner mechanism of the Russian mass strike, that rests upon the incessant interaction of the political and economic struggle. But this interaction is conditioned by the revolutionary period. For only in the stormy weather of the revolutionary period is every partial little conflict between labour and capital capable of evolving into a general explosion. In Germany the largest and most brutal clashes between workers and employers occur all the time without the struggle transcending the barriers of the individual branch, city or even factory affected. Victimisation of organised labour as in Petersburg, unemployment as in Baku, wage conflicts as in Odessa, struggles for the right to organise as in Moscow, are on the order of the day in Germany. Not a single one of these cases moves into a collective class action. And should they evolve into individual mass strikes, which undoubtedly have a political character, they do not even then incite a general burst of activity. The general strike of the Dutch railwaymen, which despite the warmest sympathies, bled itself dry in the middle of the total immobilisation of the domestic proletariat, offers decisive proof of this.

And vice versa: only in the period of revolution, when the social foundations and walls of class society have been loosened and are involved in steady displacement, is any political class action of the proletariat capable of tearing hitherto unaffected strata of the working class out of their immobilisation within a few hours, which, naturally enough, expresses itself immediately in a powerful economic struggle. The worker suddenly shaken into awareness by the electric shock of a political action grasps in the next moment at that which lies nearest to hand: a defence against his condition of economic slavery, the thunderous gesture of a political struggle allows him suddenly to feel the heaviness and pressure of his economic claims with inconceivable intensity. And while in Germany, the Leftist political struggles – for example, the election struggle or the parliamentary struggle over customs duties – scarcely exercises a perceptible influence on the wage struggles going on simultaneously in Germany, every political action of the proletariat in Russia expresses itself immediately in broadening and deepening the level of the economic struggle.

Thus the revolution creates first the social conditions which make possible this direct conversion of the economic struggle into a political one and of the political struggle into an economic one; this conversion finds its expression in the mass strike. And if vulgar theory sees the connection between mass strike and revolution only in the bloody street encounter with which the mass strike concludes, a somewhat deeper perspective on events in Russia demonstrates the reverse connection: in reality, the mass strike does not produce the revolution; it is the revolution that produces the mass strike.

4 – A resumé of the above also illuminates the question of conscious direction and initiative in the mass strike. If the mass strike does not denote a single act but rather a whole period of the class struggle, and if this period is identical with a period of revolution, then it is clear that the mass strike cannot be called forth out of a clear blue sky, even when the decision to do so originates in the most solemn demand of the strongest social-democrat party. As long as social democracy does not have the power to stage and cancel revolutions according to its own judgement, then even the greatest enthusiasm and impatience of the social democrat troops does not suffice to call into life a genuine period of mass strikes as a living and powerful popular movement. On the basis of the authority of a party leadership and the party discipline of the social-democrat workers, it is indeed possible to produce a short,once-only demonstration, like the Swedish mass strike or the recent Austrian one, or again the Hamburg mass strike of 17 June. These demonstrations differ from a genuine period of revolutionary mass strikes in the same way that the well-known naval demonstrations in foreign harbours during periods of tense diplomatic relations differ from war on the high seas. A mass strike consisting purely of discipline and enthusiasm will at best function as a symptom of the fighting morale of the workers, after which conditions fall back into an everyday calm. Now, to be sure, even during the revolution mass strikes do not simply fall from the sky. They must be made by the workers in this or that way. The resolve and the resolution of the working class plays its role here, too. And, to be sure, the initiative as well as the future direction devolves naturally upon the organised and most enlightened social-democrat core of the proletariat. But this initiative and direction have free play only in relationship to single events, individual strikes, once the revolutionary period is already present, and at that mostly within the boundaries of an individual city. Thus, as we have seen, social democracy has several times successfully given out the call for mass strikes (eg, in Baku, Warsaw, Lodz, Petersburg, etc.) But this is much less successful when one applies it to the general movement of the whole proletariat. Further, definite barriers are set to initiative and conscious direction thereby. Precisely during the revolution, it is extremely hard for any directing organ of the proletarian movement to predict and to calculate which impulse and which focal points can lead to explosions and which cannot. Here, too, initiative and direction does not consist in commands given out of a clear blue sky but rather in the closest possible adaptation to the situation and the closest possible contact with what the masses are saying and thinking. The element of spontaneity, as we have seen, plays a large role in all Russian mass strikes without exception, whether this be a driving or an inhibiting element. This is not because of the youth or weakness of the Russian Social Democrat Party, but rather because of the many incalculable economic, political and social, general and local, material and psychic focal points which work together in every action of the struggle so that no single action can be pinpointed as the key, as in a problem in mathematics. The revolution is not an open-field manouevre of the proletariat, even if the proletariat with social democracy at its head plays the leading role, but it is a struggle in the middle of incessant movement, the creaking, crumbling and displacement of all social foundations. In short the element of spontaneity plays such a supreme role in the mass strikes in Russia, not because the Russian proletariat is ‘unschooled’, but rather because revolutions are not subject to schoolmastering.

On the other hand, we see in Russia that this same revolution, which makes it so difficult for social democracy to assert its authority over the mass strike and which is liable at any moment to strike the baton out of its hand or press it in again, solves for itself in return all those difficulties of the mass strike which are handled in the theoretical schema as the main worries of the ‘leadership’: the question of ‘supplies’, ‘cost-covering’, ‘victims’. Of course, it does not solve them in at all the way in which these things are regulated, pencil in hand, at a calm and confidential conference of the directing upper echelons of the labour movement. All of these questions are ‘regulated’ by the revolution bringing such enormous popular masses on to the stage that any calculation and regulation of the costs of their movement drawn up in advance, like the costs of a civil trial, appears as a completely hopeless task. Certainly, the leadership organisations in Russia do seek to support the direct victims of the struggle as well as they can. Thus, for example, the valiant victims of the giant lockout in Petersburg as a result of the 8-hour campaign were supported for weeks. However, in the enormous balance-sheet of the revolution, all of these measures are but a drop in the ocean. At the moment that a really serious mass strike period begins, all such ‘cost-calculations’ transform themselves into the task of draining the ocean with a drinking glass. It is indeed an ocean of terrible deprivation and suffering that every revolution purchases for the proletarian mass. But a revolutionary period solves this seemingly insuperable difficulty by releasing at once such a mighty sum of mass idealism that the mass becomes insensitive to the most intensive suffering. With the psychology of a trade unionist who does not commit himself to a work-stoppage on May Day unless an exactly determined benefit is assured him in advance in the event of his victimisation, neither mass strike nor revolution can be made. But in the storm of the revolutionary period, it is precisely the proletarian who metamorphoses from a prudent, benefit-hungry family man into a ‘revolutionary romantic’ for whom even life, his most precious possessions, not to speak of natural well-being, bear little value in comparison to the ideals for which he is fighting.

When, however, the direction of the mass strikes – in the sense of authority over their staging, of calculation and covering their costs – is a matter for the revolutionary period itself, direction in a wholly different sense devolves upon social democracy and its organisations. Instead of wracking its brains with the technical side, with the mechanism of the mass strike, social democracy is called upon to take over the political direction, even in the middle of the revolutionary period. To formulate the slogans, to give direction to the struggle, to furnish the tactic of the political struggle so that in every phase and moment the whole potentiality of proletarian power as well as that already released and activated will be combined and focused in the battle posture of the party, so that the tactic of social democracy will never, in its sharpness and decisiveness, never fall beneath the level of the actual relationship of forces – that is the most important task of ‘direction’ in the period of the mass strikes. And this direction changes more or less by itself into technical direction. A consistent, decisive, forward-striving tactic of social democracy calls forth in the mass a feeling of security, self-confidence and belligerence; a wavering, feeble, tactic which basically underrates the proletariat has a laming and confusing effect on the mass. In the first case, mass strikes break out ‘by themselves’ and always ‘punctually’; in the second, direct appeals by the leadership of mass strikes can occasionally remain unheeded. And the Russian revolution offers valuable examples of both.

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