When revolution broke out in Russia in 1905, Rosa Luxemburg, who was born in Russian-occupied Poland, decided to leave her home in Germany and go to the heart of the action.
This was not an easy journey: she traveled incognito, the only woman and only civilian on a military train (neither heated nor lit, and traveling at an agonizingly slow pace) transporting troops destined to crush the worker insurrection; not surprisingly, the image of the mythological Trojan horse, secretly carrying Greek soldiers in to Troy, was in her mind as she crossed the border.
Hundreds of thousands of workers in Russia had turned to coordinated resistance, and in the process were rapidly challenging all aspects of the social system. Luxemburg experienced firsthand the momentous events of what came to be known as the great “dress rehearsal” for the successful revolution of 1917, and it changed her life.
Luxemburg organized and agitated on the streets with her comrades in the Polish socialist party, which grew exponentially as ordinary men and women sought political and organizational clarity to help them win their battles.
When the revolution was defeated, she (like many others) faced a prison sentence and a period in exile, but on her return to Germany she drew out the lessons of this revolutionary moment for the international working class. She toured Germany, giving eyewitness accounts to workers hungry for news; she wrote articles for the socialist press; and she published The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions.
In this work, she describes the mass worker actions of 1905 and places them in the context of the previous decade. In 1896-97, general strikes over economic issues erupted and were seemingly defeated, but led to tangible reforms and increased unionization. Again in 1902, strike waves surged and were stemmed, and in the summer of 1903, a colossal general strike cohered from a myriad of small economic conflicts.
The outbreak of war and chauvinism in 1904 interrupted the workers’ struggle, which nonetheless came back at the end of the year with a general strike in Baku, and then with insurrection in January 1905.
The spark was the dismissal of two workers from a Putilov metal working plant for union activity; this led to a mass solidarity strike around political demands–crucially the right of assembly–that were at the heart of the famous march to the tsar’s palace, Bloody Sunday, and the ensuing revolutionary upheaval.
In Luxemburg’s words: “The entire spring of 1905 and into the middle of the summer there fermented throughout the whole of the immense empire an uninterrupted economic strike of almost the entire proletariat against capital.”
Analyzing these ebbs and flows, Luxemburg saw how “economic” issues, such as pay, work hours and conditions, can be the catalyst for “political” demands such as progressive legislation and democratic rights; on the other hand, as in 1905, general strikes around political demands can generate further localized actions around concrete economic issues.
These facts exposed the fundamental flaws in all the existing mainstream positions towards the mass strike. The capitalist state and its media routinely condemned the mass strike as the work of “outside agitators.” But workers in Russia took to the picket lines and streets on their own accord as the only way to defend and advance their own rights. They needed no external agent.
The conservative bureaucrats in the trade unions and the socialist party feared the mass strike, arguing that such militant action would bring down the full wrath of the state on a weak and ill-prepared labor movement, and jeopardize the achievements of years of patient organizing.
Yet in Russia, unorganized workforces were at the front of the mass movement, and their militancy won previously unthinkable reforms in the workplace and broader society, and generated new unions capable of fighting future battles. Far from jeopardizing the labour movement, the mass strike breathed new life in to it.
At the other end of the spectrum, anarchists and syndicalists saw the mass strike as something that would on its own create a socialist society, and therefore advocated industrial action as opposed to political agitation.
But events in Russia showed that “economics” and “politics” are inseparable, and that mass strikes are not something that can be produced on command any more than they can be prohibited; rather, they spontaneously emerge when workers collectively confront intolerable conditions. Once started, they then take on a life of their own akin to an act of nature.
The ultimate defeat of the revolutionary upsurge of 1905 also proved, though, that mass general strikes alone do not secure permanent social change.
Workers themselves are transformed in struggle, and their consciousness and aspirations rapidly outstrip the expectations of even the most ambitious revolutionaries of the previous period. The role of socialists is not to dictate the terms of workers’ particular strike action, but rather to provide the political leadership that can transform inevitable disparate struggles into the coordinated force necessary for revolution.
The Mass Strike also intervened in a debate over the relationship of trade unionism and socialism. Hitherto, Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) officially took precedence because its goal, the total liberation of workers through social transformation, was greater than that of trade unions–the partial amelioration of workers’ conditions under capitalism.
Luxemburg famously dubbed the work of unions “the labor of Sisyphus,” referring to the figure of Greek myth who was doomed to repeatedly roll a boulder uphill, only to see it crash back to the ground again and again.
The trade union bureaucracy, an entrenched establishment after decades of growth in union membership, sought “parity” with the party, which would effectively allow them to subordinate socialist principles to immediate contingencies. They also argued for a centralized, consolidated union structure, with a respectable face in government and a top-down method, able to dictate terms to locals and members.
Unauthorized worker actions and–heaven forbid!–mass strikes would jeopardize the carefully constructed system of compromise and collaboration with employers. Union bureaucrats know what’s best for workers.
It is striking how Luxemburg’s essay continues to address political realities in the U.S. over a century later, despite all the obvious dissimilarities of circumstances.
Certainly, the labour of Sisyphus continues as unions fight for gains–the eight-hour workday, workplace safety laws, the right to organize and strike–that are won in one time and place, only to be lost again in another. Trade union officials, from SEIU’s Andrew Stern to the UAW’s Ron Gettelfinger, advocate a top-down centralized bureaucratic model that can bypass rank-and-file activity and pursue concessions and secret agreements with management.
Meanwhile, workers, fed up of losing health care, pay and pensions–whether organized (LA teachers) or unorganized (undocumented immigrants)–turn to strike action and mass protests as our only real weapons against the bosses.
The lessons of The Mass Strike–that workers’ strength lies in rank-and-file activity, that even the most vulnerable and unorganized workers can revitalize the labor movement, and that mass strikes, economic and political, will continue to break out as long as capitalism reigns–have been repeatedly played out even in the last few months: in Egypt, economic strikes in the Mahalla textile factories transform into political protests against the regime; on the West Coast of the U.S., longshore workers shut down ports to protest the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan; in England, teachers and civil servants take to the streets to protest government-planned pay cuts; in France, transport workers strike against job cuts and pension reforms…and the list goes on.
And as capitalism threatens the very globe itself, the final lesson–that socialist politics and organization are essential for converting spontaneous mass strikes into coordinated revolutionary victory–could hardly be more evident.
This article was originally published in Socialist Worker in 2008.
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