Marking the centenary of her assassination, Richard Allday looks at Rosa Luxemburg's The Mass Strike and the lessons it holds for revolutionary socialists today
Isaac Newton once remarked that if he saw further than most, it was because he was standing on the shoulders of giants. Not an original metaphor, but a striking one, and useful as a reminder that we none of us exist in glorious isolation, but achieve what we can by building on the progress made by those that have gone before. Rosa Luxemburg, whose murder we remember today, was assassinated precisely to try to deny the German working class the benefit of her far-sighted analysis.
She had pissed off the Tommy Robinsons of her day with her outspoken opposition to the German war effort during the First World War, and had been doing the same to the Jack Straws and Tony Blairs of the German equivalent to the Labour Party. They were also viciously opposed to her belief in the potential of ordinary working class people to transform the profit-driven world that had created the global conflict. When German workers (and their families and communities) – inspired by the Russian revolution of 1917 - rose in rebellion against the war profiteers and their murderous system, it was to the likes of Rosa Luxemburg, and her comrade Karl Liebknecht, that they turned for advice and inspiration.
I first came across (was steered towards) her work as a young activist in the 70s, and The Mass Strike (along with her wonderful ‘Reform or Revolution’) have provided me with that same inspiration and confidence that was necessary for any socialist to survive the bleak years of Thatcher - only to come out of that to find Bliar and company singing the same words to a slightly different tune.
At only 90 pages, it seeks to analyse the explosion that was the Russian revolution of 1905, and in particular, the role played by the mass strike – the first time that this expression of workers’ resistance had been deployed on such a scale. But Luxemburg is not interested in playing the historical detached observer; with extraordinary prescience she sees the mass strike as symptomatic of, and integral to, any genuine socialist transformation of society. She generalises from the specific instances, to show how, not only is the mass strike the way in which mass participation in revolution is generated, but that it is an essential part of that process.
Written amidst the settling dust of the 1905 revolution, at a time when no-one knew the eventual outcome of that upheaval, her predictions and analysis have stood the test of time – and not only regarding the form of struggle our class is impelled to take. She provides withering criticism of the tendency in the workers' movement of the twin deceivers of syndicalism and reformism. She points out that by artificially separating the ‘political’ from the ‘economic’ opposition to capitalism, these superficially contradictory tendencies collude in blunting the weapons in our arsenal.
She points out the inherent danger of the dead weight of bureaucracy in the labour movement, and pinpoints both the cause (the acceptance of the present social order as in some ineffable sense the ‘real’ world) and the effect (a tendency to “shrink from great risks and presumed dangers to the stability of the trade unions”).
Her insistence the whole way through this book (and indeed central to her whole political life) that socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class, that we do it for ourselves or it does not happen, is a beacon of hope that shines as brightly a hundred years on as it did the day she wrote it.
But equally important in her analysis is that a social revolution demands the participation of the working class as a whole – not just the trade unions, or the politicos, or this or that section, but the entire class. The rise of Solidarnosc, and its struggle with the Stalinist dictatorship in Poland in the 80s provided concrete proof, from her country of birth, of her remarkable grasp of the ‘algebra of revolution’; the events of a few years earlier, in the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, and more recently the Arab Spring, validate her thesis that the mass strike is an essential part of our arsenal.
Unfortunately, she realised, too late, that theoretical clarity, opposing the policies of reformism and political appeasement in the labour movement is not enough; to be effective, this theoretical opposition has to take organisational, concrete form. Trying to develop this organisational alternative in the midst of social revolution runs too great a risk of being too little too late, as was demonstrated so heartbreakingly in Germany at the time of her murder, but has since been demonstrated in precisely the examples I cite above, as well as numerous others.
I make this point not to belittle Luxemburg’s invaluable contribution to the workers’ movement, but in fact to do the opposite; she was a human being, who saw further than most because she stood on the shoulders of giants. We have the opportunity to stand on her shoulders and can therefore, thanks to her, see further. She had the excuse of history not demonstrating the need to build an organisational alternative to reformism; her legacy to us leaves us with no similar excuse. That’s why I am a member of Counterfire.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.