M is for mass strike

A-Z of Socialism article by Mark Thomas, June 2008

"...for the first time [it] awoke feeling and class-consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock... the proletarian mass... quite suddenly and sharply came to realise how intolerable was that social and economic existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of capitalism. Thereupon there began a spontaneous general shaking of and tugging at these chains."

This is Rosa Luxemburg's description in The Mass Strike of the impact of the strike wave that swept the Russian Empire in January and February 1905.

More mass strikes followed in October and December, leaving the Tsar's autocratic regime battered if not yet overthrown. In all there were 23 million strike days in Russia during 1905, far outnumbering anything seen previously in Russia or the more advanced industrialised countries.

For the first time the strike weapon was the central driving force of a revolution. The experience of the Paris Commune in 1871 had been full of lessons for Karl Marx, not least that workers could not simply lay hold of the existing state machine, but had to smash it. But strikes were marginal, reflecting the predominance of small scale artisanal workshops in the city. Now the mass strike revealed itself, in Luxemburg's words, as "the method of motion of the proletarian mass, the phenomenal form of the proletarian struggle in the revolution".

The experience of revolution throughout the course of the 20th century vindicated this insight time and again. There were revolutionary mass strikes in Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918-23, Italy in 1920, Hungary in 1956, France in 1936 and again in 1968, Iran in 1978-79 and Poland in 1980.

Luxemburg was concerned above all to draw out the lessons of 1905 for the German working class, the most powerful of her day.

In "normal" periods, outside of revolution, a division between politics as the realm of parliamentary representation and economics as the sphere of trade union bargaining is deeply entrenched. In both, workers are often passive by-standers, only occasionally asked to participate in elections or in limited strike action to strengthen the hand of the union negotiators. The mass strike sweeps all this aside, as workers enter the struggle on their own behalf, and barriers between economics and politics are dissolved.

It is not just that militant economic struggles can lead to clashes with the state, its laws and police, but mass political strikes provide a huge stimulus to economic strikes, especially among sections of workers who previously had little or no tradition of militancy or even union organisation. The "ceaseless reciprocal action" between economic and political issues in mass strikes acts to constantly recruit new forces to the battle, as new groups of workers stir, and raise their own demands, perhaps for the first time.

This leads to a point Luxemburg makes in response to the arguments put forth by the trade union leaders of her day, and ours. "How can a mass strike be attempted without the overwhelming majority of workers being already unionised and with full trade union treasuries to ensure hardship doesn't drive workers back to work?" cried the leaders of Germany's well organised unions. Luxemburg responds that it is the mass strike itself that draws new groups of workers into union organisation, in a way the normal course of trade union affairs could never do.

In Russia a "feverish" work of unionisation set in after the first mass strikes of 1905. The strikes and factory occupations in 1936 in France saw the membership of the main trade union federation, the CGT, rise from 1 to 5 million. Luxemburg gives one condition for this: the strikes must be "fighting strikes" that really threaten to settle accounts with the exploiters. When they are top-down strikes, controlled in scope and duration, they will tend at best to be limited to those already encompassed by trade union organisation.

Mass strikes, Luxemburg observes, above all change workers themselves and on a scale and with a speed years of socialist propaganda alone could never achieve. In January 1905 workers petitioned the Tsar and called him "little Father"; by December a significant minority were determined to overthrow him. Through the mass strike workers cease to be the passive victims of capitalism and become an active revolutionary force.

The Mass Strike took fire above all at the powerful layer of trade union officials in Germany who reacted in horror to any hint that the "Russian" methods might be contemplated at home. In "backward" Russia, where workers lacked legal rights, such militant methods might be suitable, but they were wholly inappropriate, dangerous even, in "advanced" Germany. Luxemburg's book was a devastating attack on this complacent outlook.

But Luxemburg underestimated the danger the trade union bureaucracy - and its allies inside the Social Democratic Party - represented. She argued they would be "swept aside" if they resisted the mass strike once it was in motion. But the roots of reformism go much deeper than this suggests, and the capacity of the trade union bureaucracy to derail even the most powerful strike movement has been proved repeatedly.

But, finally, we should also note that more than once a strike begun as a bureaucratic manoeuvre, initiated and controlled from above, has turned into something much more militant. In May 1968 a one-day general strike called by reluctant trade union leaders in solidarity with students facing de Gaulle's riot police turned, in the following days, into an enormous wave of factory occupations that challenged an advanced Western capitalism.

Further reading:

The Patterns of Mass Strike by Tony Cliff is available online.


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