rosa luxemburg Rosa Luxemburg. Photo: Wikipedia

Rosa Luxemburg argued that the majority of people would be won to socialism through struggle, writes Paul Vernell in this introduction to The Mass Strike

Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet The Mass Strike, Political Party and the Trade Unions clearly builds on Marx’s belief that the emancipation of the working class is an act of self-liberation. No one can bring socialism to the people. Her pamphlet is a powerful celebration of socialism from below. Marx’s opposition to sectarianism is also central to Luxemburg’s conception of the unifying qualities of the mass strike.[1] It is original too as it identifies what she considered to be the strategic concept of the revolution: the mass strike.

If Marx in The Communist Manifesto had explained that the working class was a product of capitalist relations of production and had the potential power to become the gravedigger of capitalism, it was Luxemburg who realised that the overthrow of the state and the economic powers the state was protecting would need more than street battles and a fight on the barricades to get rid of them. Waves of strikes involving the mass of unionised and non-unionised workers would be necessary.

Her argument was that in the process of participation in strikes workers would shed all their ideological ties to the dominant ideas of society and develop a capacity to organise society themselves, in the interests of the vast majority. In short, she believed that although some workers could be won to socialist ideas by meetings and propaganda, the vast majority would be won to socialism in struggle. In short, the mass strike had an educational outcome.[2]

Fusing politics and economics

This was new and Luxemburg knew that it would be controversial. Her starting point was the wave of mass strikes that culminated in the great dress rehearsal for 1917, the 1905 revolution in Russia. Starting with an analysis of the numbers involved and the demands raised, she polemicises against those who believed there should be a separation between economic and political demands. This was the view of the majority of the leadership of German Social Democracy: the trade unions taking care of the everyday bread and butter issues whilst the SDP leaders, particularly in parliament, putting forward political demands for a shorter working day and more social reforms.

The mass strike, she argued, was important because it challenged both the economic and political power of the ruling class. So, for instance, there were huge mass strikes in the wake of the sacking of two men[3] in the mighty Putilov engineering factory in Petersburg. The workers turned to a police union, the Assembly of Russian Factory and Workshop workers, to get support. Worried that they might lose credibility if they refused, the union leadership called mass meetings across the city. This boosted confidence and new demands were added to the one of reinstatement of the dismissed men, including an increase in the daily wage and an eight-hour day. Economics and politics became fused.

The strikers turned to the Czar for support and a huge demonstration led by a police agent, Father Gapon, was called. In the agitation leading up to the demonstration, socialists had successfully argued at mass meetings across the city that more political demands should be incorporated into the petition of grievances to be presented to the Czar, including the end to the Russo-Japanese war.

The strikes began on 3 January 1905 and fed into a demonstration of over 200,000 on 9 January. Troops guarding the Winter Palace turned on the protesters and killed over a 1,000.

Luxemburg recognises that no one could have ordered this mass strike into existence but, importantly, identifies the effect of the struggle on the confidence, combativity and consciousness of workers. She explains that to overthrow absolutism workers need a high degree of political education, which no amount of ‘pamphlets and leaflets’ could achieve. Mass political consciousness can only be developed ‘in the fight and by the fight’ (p.34). This is one of the key themes of the text: that self-activity is the key to self-change.

She goes on to argue that the most important element of the mass strike is that it nurtures the ‘intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat’ (p.38). Workers’ ideas change in struggle and their position in relation to the boss is turned around. The managers’ so-called ‘right to manage’ is challenged on the shop floor. Petty fines or disciplinary measures are knocked back. Respect for those in power and forelock-tugging go out of the window. Power lies in the workplace, hence why the mass strike is of such strategic importance to Luxemburg.

Challenging state power

Embryonic to Luxemburg’s thought then, albeit in an undeveloped form, is the idea of dual power.[4] It is true that she doesn’t take up the issue of the organisation of that power in the form of the Soviets – workers’ councils – that began to vie with the Czarist state power at the height of the 1905 revolution. Nevertheless, in using the experience of the so-called ‘backward’ Russian workers’ movement to teach the so-called most ‘advanced’ workers’ movement in the world, the limitations of SPD strategy are being challenged. She is sketching a different kind of power, not only to those like Bernstein, who did not want to see a revolution but also to those like Kautsky, who were vague.

In many ways her idea of the mass strike, one in which the economic and the political are woven together, points forward to the Communist International’s idea of transitional demands: demands which are rooted in the present but which the struggle to achieve them leads to a confrontation with the whole capitalist order: ideological, political and economic.[5]

The mass strike is then the ‘method of motion’ of the class struggle and as such has the potential to undermine all the divisions created by capitalism and its supporters in the media. Divisions between country and city, skilled and unskilled, unionised and non-unionised workers are broken down by participation in the action. Old prejudices such as sexism, racism and elitism, are torn apart as those who have been formerly passive are propelled into action, realising that success in the prosecution of the struggle necessitates a new world view and a dumping of all the rubbish believed in the past.

This goes hand in hand, she argues, with astonishing levels of self-sacrifice, the likes of which most of us think impossible. Thoughts of mortgages, job security, where the next meal might come from, no longer have the debilitating effect of holding back the struggle and vast reserves of strength and determination are found to carry forward the battle as a new found power infuses workers with confidence that those in control can and must be beaten. Luxemburg writes that once workers enter into a period of mass strikes the ‘ocean’ of troubles and privations that would normally shackle the desire to fight, all such ‘costing operations’are forgotten.

The myth of spontaneity

She is, of course, clear that there is no such thing as the mass strike in the abstract. For her, the truth is always concrete. She sees what she calls ‘demonstrative strikes’, often time-limited actions called by the trade union leaders, as less important as they are controlled from above. Of course, even these strikes can overrun the control of those who call them. She argues that these centrally co-ordinated strikes often occur at the beginning of a mass movement when confidence is still uneven. Nevertheless, her contrasting of the mass strike with demonstrative strikes is a part of her critique of the false separation of economics and politics, upon which reformism is built. It is the dialogue that she is having. Her foil is the camp of ‘revisionists’ who want merely to fight for the minimum, partial demands of the SPD and not use the struggles to move onto realising the maximum programme.

In fact the whole concept of minimum and maximum demands, so favoured by the reformist parties of the Second International, is blown apart by the concept of the mass strike as it not only breaks down the separation between reform and revolution, economic and political demands, defensive and offensive tactics, but releases a dynamic which sees ‘cause and effect… continually change place’.

There are some that still see her as the messiah of the ‘spontaneous’ but in many ways this is to misunderstand the targets of her polemic. She has even been subject to sexist stereotypes. Others have argued that she understood spontaneity because she was a woman or she believed in a metaphysic of labour, a spiritual, irrational joy for unplanned action. The opposite is the case.

Luxemburg is arguing that mass strikes can’t be sucked out of a trade union or socialist leader’s thumb. The objective conditions are the soil in which the struggles are nourished. However, what she also recognises is that when an idea is taken up by millions of workers it can take on a material force and transform that objective reality: cause and effect are again turned on their heads. The Mass Strikeis therefore a profoundly dialectical text.

The mass strike and revolution

The final chapter on the need for united action makes explicit what has been a thread throughout: piecemeal reform to improve conditions will not lead to the building of a new society but merely a renegotiation of the terms of exploitation, which can be overturned once those in power have regrouped. Luxemburg therefore poses a completely different orientation to the Social Democratic and trade union leaderships of the time.[6] Taking the pamphlet out of its polemical context misses the point – one not lost on Trotsky, who clearly saw that her conception of the mass strike put her in opposition to the leadership of the SPD. She even makes the first steps in the pamphlet to sketch the economic roots of this reformism.

The Mass Strike recognises that the economic boom in Germany at the end of the 19th century allowed for the development of paid officials in the movement who could specialise in ‘professional activity’ and who thus had developed a lack of audacity, a ‘restricted horizon’ and a ‘narrowness of outlook’. This leads them to the ‘over-valuation of the organisation’ and fear of the ‘disorder’ created by mass strikes. Clearly, this is not a criticism of the need for socialist organisation but of bureaucracy. So, while some have criticised her undeveloped account of the development of the trade union and political bureaucracy, it is certain she understood the barriers that would be put in the way of those trying to orientate towards a mass strike movement by those who led both the trade unions and the SPD in Germany at this time.[7]

Of course, it is not a fully worked out account of why and how this process occurs. Greater clarity might have led to an earlier break from the SPD or at least the building of an organised tendency within the SPD that could have challenged the direction of the leadership. Certainly, when the SDP voted for war credits in 1914, she had few to turn to in order organise resistance to the capitulation. She had not built a cadre around her that could offer a political alternative.

When the German Revolution did kick off at the end of 1918, mass strikes played exactly the role Luxemburg had identified in Russia, galvanising wide layers of workers and disintegrating bourgeois power. At the beginning of December 1918, in an article entitled ‘Acheron has Begun to Flow’, Luxemburg analysed the effect of these mass strikes, which began as economic ones but then led to the exposure of the political bankruptcy of the establishment of the republic of November 1918. On 8 December, well-known bosses were arrested by the workers’ and soldiers’ council. The army began to collapse and a gulf opened up between the General Staff and the government on the one hand, and the mass of soldiers and sailors on the other.[8]

The revolution was turning upside down the second most powerful capitalist country in the world and the mass strike was at the heart of the process. Luxemburg had been vindicated. Sadly, a few weeks later she was murdered by those she had been criticising in her pamphlet.


[1] Marxism and the Party, Molyneux, J, Bookmarks, 1978, p. 116.

[2] A Revolutionary For Our Times: Rosa Luxemburg, Bronner, S. Pluto, 1981, p. 62.

[3] The Mass Strike, Luxembourg, R, Bookmarks, 1986, p31. Tony Cliff puts the number at four in Lenin: Building the Party,Bookmarks, 1986, p151.

[4] A point made in The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, Geras, N. Verso, 1976, p127.

[5] The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg,Geras, N. Verso, 1976, p127.

[6] Rosa Luxemburg, Cliff, T. Bookmarks, 1986, p. 26.

[7] Marxism and the Party, Molyneux, J, Bookmarks, 1978, p. 107.

[8] The German Revolution 1917-1923, Broue, P. Haymarket Books, 2006, p. 228. 

Paul Vernell

Paul Vernell is a long-standing socialist and NUT representative in a South Gloucestershire Multi-Academy Trust. He has written on trade unions, education and critical pedagogy. He blogs at In the City.

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