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  • Published in Marx 101

Marx 101 is a series of meetings to introduce the Marxist classics to activists in the twenty first century. Alastair Stephens continues the series with a look at Luxemburg's investigation of the mass strike

Marx and Engels realized that revolution was not only necessary to overthrow the old ruling classes, but was also needed to create the new order. Women and men would change themselves in the process of changing the world:

"…revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew."
The German Ideology, 1845

But how does a workers’ revolution happen? This was less clear. That’s hardly surprising given the shortage of examples. These were not entirely lacking, for Marx and Engels lived in an age of revolutions, but they were revolutions of the rising capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, against old aristocracies: one possessing, exploiting class against another.

Marx and Engels set about their task of analyzing and understanding capitalism, which was then still a revolutionary new system that had started its transformation of the world. They continued to maintain the necessity of workers’ revolution.

The problem

Those wanting to bring about social revolution were faced with a paradox. They had to reconcile two contradictory assertions. In The German Ideology (1845) Marx and Engels postulated that:

"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas"

This had not prevented the French Revolution, or any other bourgeois revolution, from breaking out. The rising bourgeoisie had never doubted its superiority over the aristocracy. They never doubted their ability or right to rule. If the French aristocracy had the church, the bourgeoisie had Voltaire and Rousseau. No contest.


"The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves."
Rules of the First International

How can the working class emancipate itself, and create the rule of the immense majority, when the ruling classes enjoy a monopoly on the main leavers of power, economic, political and ideological?

The system could not endure for long if it was not for the working class accepting so many ruling class ideas, such as that ordinary people are not fit or able to run society (“better leave it to those who at the top”, like the numerous Old Etonians in the current cabinet).

Another key idea that our rulers teach is the separation of politics and economics. Central to this is the notion that the economy is governed by forces that are in some way natural. The market is governed by 'laws' such as that of 'supply and demand' which are like gravity: you defy them at your peril, apparently.

This is reflected even in resistance to the system. Trade unions and reformist parties, like the Labour party, both express an aspiration to improve the condition of the working class, but also accept most of the ideas of the system. Trade unions insist that they should not use their industrial power, i.e. strikes, to interfere in politics. The Labour party insists that it should remain 'neutral' in strikes, refusing in practice to back those in struggle.

Of course this is a completely false division. The state is intimately involved in the present economic structure of society. Bosses rely on the state to enforce their power both inside and outside the workplace.

It is the persistence of these ideas in workers’ heads that is “the muck of ages” Marx and Engels said needs to be cleared away.

For some Social Democrats (as Marxists then called themselves until the First World War) and in particular in the German Social Democratic Party, the SPD, the struggle became about slowly working to convince people that socialism would be a superior system. They were known at the time as 'Opportunists' or 'Revisionists' (because they wanted to 'revise' Marxism into a non-revolutionary philosophy).

Ultimately they betrayed the aims of Social Democracy, but kept the brand, hence the very different meanings of the term then and now. It dawned on the radicals in the SPD that revisionism was experiencing continuing growth in the party. They wanted action to match the party’s fine sounding words. The idea of the 'mass political strike' seemed to fit the bill.

In 1904 the Hamburg district of the SPD commissioned Rosa Luxemburg to write a pamphlet on the mass strike.

The First Russian Revolution

Russia 1905 barricades

Fortunately, she was interrupted when a real revolution broke out in Russia in January 1905.

It was the first revolution of the modern era, the first to take place in an (at least partially) industrial society. It was also the first in which strike action by workers was not only present, but was the driving force of the revolutionary process.

It was the description of this revolutionary process, and the lessons it had for the movement in Germany, which now became the subject of Luxemburg’s pamphlet The Mass Strike, Party and Trade Unions.

The spark for revolution was the massacre of demonstrators in Russia’s then capital, St Petersburg. In protest a general strike immediately paralyzed the city, then in the following weeks swept outwards across the country, as fast as the news could carry, in wave after wave of massive strikes.

The strikes would continue, making demands for both economic improvement and political change, for months. They reached their peak in October when a general strike forced the Tsar to promise political reform.

In December 1905 Luxemburg herself went to Russian-occupied Poland and became a direct participant in the Revolution. But she was no revolutionary tourist. As well as being a leader of the SPD, she was also a veteran leader of the Polish movement. In 1889 she had fled her native Poland, for exile first in Switzerland and then Germany, where she would spend most of the rest of her life.

The Solution

For Rosa Luxemburg the experience of the revolution - an actual, real revolution driven by the mass struggles of a living, breathing industrial working class - solved the problem of how to push Social Democracy forward, how to banish the viper of reformism that nestled at its bosom.

But it also filled in some of the missing figures in the revolutionary equation written out by Marx and Engels a few decades previously. It solved the conundrum of how to make a working class revolution in a society dominated by ruling class ideas, for the working class to cleanse itself of the “muck of ages”.

She was the first to really understand the role of the mass strike in working class struggle. Rather than being a mere technical means of achieving an objective, whether that be the 'overthrow' of capitalism (as the anarchists thought) or the achievement of some political reform (as many mainstream Social Democrats thought), she understood that:

"It is the living pulse-beat of the revolution and at the same time its most powerful driving wheel. In a word, the mass strike, as shown to us in the Russian Revolution, is not a crafty method discovered by subtle reasoning for the purpose of making the proletarian struggle more effective, but the method of motion of the proletarian mass, the phenomenal form of the proletarian struggle in the revolution."
Chapter 4: The Interaction of the Political and the Economic Struggle

The revolution was not just the altering of the structures of political power. It was the pulling away the props of the old society, its ideological power over the minds of the oppressed.

Chapter Three, The Development of the Mass Strike Movement in Russia, is the real heart of the pamphlet. In it Luxemburg describes the process of revolution through the year 1905, the centrality of mass strikes, and how they had their genesis in the struggles of the decade before. It is by far the best place to start for any new reader.

The mass strike not only drives the revolution, but transforms the working class:

"In the earlier bourgeois revolution where, on the one hand, the political training and the leadership of the revolutionary masses were undertaken by the bourgeois parties, and where, on the other hand, it was merely a question of overthrowing the old government, the brief battle at the barricades was the appropriate form of the revolutionary struggle. Today the working class must educate itself, marshal its forces, and direct itself in the course of the revolutionary struggle…"
Chapter 7: The Role of the Mass Strike in the Revolution

The bourgeoisie were ready to take power before their revolution. The working class must prepare itself to do so during revolution through the mass strike:

"the proletariat requires a high degree of political education, of class-consciousness and organisation. All these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution."
Chapter 3: Development of the Mass Strike Movement in Russia

Before a revolution only a minority of workers will be convinced of the need to transform society through revolution, and even then they will not necessarily have faith in themselves to do it. Mass strike action not only paralyzes the state and disorganizes the forces of repression, it moulds millions of workers into a unit, a fighting force.

Once the movement has started it quickly gathers momentum. Workers previously seen as being marginal - the unskilled, day labourers, workers in small towns and out of the way places, women workers, minorities - all are swept up in the movement. As it goes from factory to factory, town to town, millions are mobilized, each encouraged and emboldened by the power of the class as whole. The tyranny of the workplace is challenged.

The workers’ movement, breaking free from the constraints of normal, everyday life, pushes forward on all fronts.

"… the movement on the whole does not proceed from the economic to the political struggle, nor even the reverse. Every great political mass action, after it has attained its political highest point, breaks up into a mass of economic strikes. And that applies not only to each of the great mass strikes, but also to the revolution as a whole. With the spreading, clarifying and involution of the political struggle, the economic struggle not only does not recede, but extends, organises and becomes involved in equal measure. Between the two there is the most complete reciprocal action."
Chapter 4: The Interaction of the Political and the Economic Struggle

But for the workers they are not separate sets of demands - one to be made one day, another the next. They both become a seamless part of the fabric of revolution. The unity of politics and economics is restored.

So each victory encourages further endeavour, each improvement demands more. But the greatest improvements, the greatest victories, are won in workers’ heads, the transformation of their understanding of their place in the world as an individual in a class, and a class in society. This is something that even defeats cannot easily reverse:

"The most precious, lasting, thing in the rapid ebb and flow of the wave is its mental sediment: the intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat, which proceeds by fits and starts, and which offers an inviolable guarantee of their further irresistible progress in the economic as in the political struggle."
Chapter 3: Development of the Mass Strike Movement in Russia

It is through struggle that the working class will become fit to rule, will complete its training and become ready to wield power.

An omission: The Soviet

The mass strike is not merely one of the greatest evocations of mass workers struggle in general. It is also a brilliant account of the revolution of 1905. But it is not without a few, at least with the benefit of hindsight, strange omissions, confusions and mistakes.

One of these is in connection with the organisation that is thrown up by workers in the struggle: the lack of any mention of soviets, with the exception of this single reference:

"The general council of workers delegates decided to achieve the eight-hour day in a revolutionary manner"
Chapter 3: Development of the Mass Strike Movement in Russia

Luxemburg refers here to the Council of Workers’ Deputies, known to history as the St Petersburg Soviet, and which was a product of the great general strike of October. Formed to coordinate action across the capital city it was made up of delegates elected by workers, and subject to recall, from amongst their number in their factories and workplaces. It was a very direct and immediate form of democracy.

Workers in other cities across Russia emulated the Soviet, but it was a short-lived experiment. In December they were repressed in a wave of mass arrests, including the arrest of the St Petersburg Soviet’s young chairman. His name was Leon Trotsky.

It was the Soviet that emerged from the fusion of the political and economic struggles. In October 1905 it fought for political reform, in November it fought for the eight-hour day. Seeing no division between the two it united and led the working class in one struggle, the class struggle.

The Russian working class did not easily forget the lesson and in 1917 - with the fall of the Tsar in February - they immediately revived the Soviet on a far broader scale, and in the process created the basis of a new type of state: a workers state. It was this new Soviet state that Lenin was also to theorize in his book The State and Revolution and which would come to fruition in the October Revolution.

The Soviet was to provide the last couple of figures in the revolutionary equation. It provided the form of the new state, but it also gave the last thing the working class needed to get ready to govern (through its own self-created institution).

A weakness

Luxemburg’s absolute faith in the ability of the working class through their struggle to demolish every barrier, to surmount any obstacle, was also - as history would show - the great weakness of the pamphlet. She believed that once in full flow the masses

"…would not stop to inquire whether the trade-union leaders had given their consent to the movement or not. Whether they stand aside or endeavour to resist the movement, the result of their attitude will only be that the trade-union leaders, like the party leaders in the analogous case, will simply be swept aside by the rush of events, and the economic and the political struggles of the masses will be fought out without them…"
Chapter 8: The Need for United Action of Trade unions and Social Democracy

Luxemburg simply underestimated the grip of the trade union bureaucracy and the old Social Democratic leaders over the working class. Reformism, the ideas of moderate reform within the system, proved to have a powerful influence on the working class in the West. It was one that was in part derived from the lived experience of capitalism.

The spontaneous struggle of the masses, elemental and self organising, may be sufficient to paralyze the state, at least temporarily, but not to sweep away the influence of institutions which had been built for decades within the working class.

The solution to this would also be found in the Russian Revolution, in the revolutionary party. But that is the story of a different pamphlet.

Tagged under: Trade Union Strike
Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.


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