The meaning of the mass strike

Submitted by Matthew on 14 December, 2011 - 12:33

By Ed Maltby

Discussion is growing in the British labour movement about shifting the public sector pensions battle from a string of “demonstration strikes”, with long gaps in between, to a more active and self-controlling battle. Elsewhere in Europe, working-class resistance is already developing beyond the stage of occasional set-piece one-day strikes.

A debate from 1910 is relevant.

It took place within the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), between Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Kautsky. The SPD was the largest of the European socialist parties of the time, with 720,000 members, cadres active throughout the workers’ movement, a leading position in the main trade unions, dozens of cultural organisations, many newspapers, and 43 seats in the Reichstag [all-German parliament].

The dispute was billed as over “the mass strike”. In fact more fundamental issues were at stake in the argument between Luxemburg, who later become one of the pioneers of the revolutionary Communist movement, and Kautsky, a former radical drifting into time-serving and evasion. They were arguing about the role of the revolutionary party and how workers’ struggle today relates to revolution in the future.

The debate was translated into English for the first time in Workers’ Action, a forerunner of Solidarity, in 1979, and is now being collated with translations from other relevant texts of the same time for publication in book form.

The debate on the mass strike had been opened when the 1905 Russian Revolution erupted, with mass strikes that shook the state, and gave a picture of how a workers’ revolution might come about.

Previously, ideas within the workers’ movement of how a revolution would work had been confused. It was more or less admitted that the old street-tumult model of revolutions like the French of 1789-93 was outdated.

Now it was thought that the workers’ movement would gradually build up its organisation, and meanwhile capitalism would move toward a severe and final capitalist crisis, in which the workers’ movement would be strong enough to “ride through” the catastrophe and emerge as the leading force in the reconstruction of society. Some place in this scenario was played by the growing representation of workers’ parties in bourgeois parliaments; for some socialists, increasingly, that parliamentary action became the whole of strategy.

Anarchists imagined a general strike which would smoothly overturn society. Marxists responded that the perfect organisation required to sustain and continue that general strike was impossible under capitalism; and anyway, if it could be reached, the perfect organisation would make the detour of a general strike unnecessary.

Some Marxists, the followers of Daniel De Leon, imagined the working class “taking and holding” industry in a sort of mass occupation wave backed up by a parliamentary majority.

In all these visions of the revolution, how the scenario related to the here and now was unclear. They were millenarian visions of the future. They didn’t explain clearly how political action today could lead towards a revolution. There was no “road map”..

The scenarios could be used either to provide “left” cover for bureaucratic routinism and inaction, or they could lead to well-intentioned blundering.

Some fresh debate had started after the mass strike movement in Russia in 1905, on which Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet.

It restarted in 1910. The biggest issue in German politics then was voting reform. The political battles over voting reform were the biggest and most dramatic in Prussia, the most powerful of the German states. Prussia had no secret ballot, and a three-class voting system which ranked people by wealth. Each vote from the first, richest, class was worth 17.5 votes from the poorest class.

The powerful land-owning aristocracy (“Junkers”) wanted to block democratic reform, but liberal sections of the capitalist class wanted to see limited change. German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg promised reforms. This raised the hopes of many liberals, but also of the disenfranchised workers of Prussia (and Germany), and spurred on Social-Democratic agitation for democracy.

When the reforms were unveiled in February 1910, and proved to be badly watered-down, the Social Democrats responded with mass meetings and demonstrations for voting rights across all of Germany from February to April. On 13 February there were demonstrations in every city in Prussia, and street battles with the police. By 6 March there were 150,000 demonstrators in Berlin’s Tiergarten.

Many SPD cadres realised that a movement of this magnitude had to go somewhere: forwards to a higher pitch, or fall back. At the same time as the “Suffrage Storm” was unfolding, serious industrial unrest was sweeping German, with more days lost across Germany to strikes and lockouts than any other year since 1905, especially in the coalfields.

“What next?”

In an article in the Dortmunder Arbeiterzeitung on 14 March 1910, Rosa Luxemburg argued that the movement had created a “frame of mind” and a “situation on the battlefield” which “leads past the demonstrations… and makes further steps and stronger methods unavoidably necessary”.

Her proposal was twofold — for a demonstration strike, and for general discussion of mass strike tactics by party activists in the wider movement.

Luxemburg also argued that the party should tie in industrial struggles with the suffrage battle. “A healthy, viable movement, such as the present Prussian campaign, must… draw its sustenance from all the accumulated inflammatory social material. On the other hand, the success of the narrower cause of the miners can only be furthered if they enter into a broader political cause, thereby imbuing their opponents — the coal magnates and the government — with greater fear.”

Kautsky responded to this 1910 article, in the first place, by arguing that the whole discussion should not be taking place: “the whole discussion would be… as if one wanted a council of war to discuss whether to give battle to the enemy within his hearing”.

Kautsky had published a pamphlet in 1909 entitled The Road to Power. He declared the world was entering a period of heightened class antagonisms. The working class was becoming more organised. It was increasingly likely that there would be a political crisis that would lead to the collapse of the bourgeois order.

The way that a revolution might play out was impossible to predict, so in the meantime socialists should steadily build up their organisations and avoid “provocations”.

In other words, for Kautsky, the only link between present-day struggles and the coming revolutionary crisis was the growth of the SPD as an organisation. No sharp offensives, twists, turns, or drastic manoeuvres figured in his vision — at least, not until some obscure point in the future.

Luxemburg’s initiative in 1910 alarmed him.

In her 1906 pamphlet The Mass Strike Luxemburg had described in detail how the mass strike movement in Russia in 1905 — not a single set-piece stoppage, but a tumultuous succession of battles, both partial and all-out — linked the everyday struggles of workers with revolution.

The strikes, combined with socialist agitation, raised the political temperature in Russia until government could no longer rule: “By many small channels of partial economic struggles and little ‘accidental’ occurrences it flowed rapidly to a raging sea, and changed the entire south of the czarist empire for some weeks into a bizarre revolutionary workers’ republic”.

For Luxemburg, the mass strike movement denoted not just the events of 1905, but a years-long accumulation of struggles stretching back to the 1890s, starting with quite minimal struggles, which broke out like a “straw fire”, here and there, each inspiring another, and which combined with the political conditions to create a general atmosphere of confrontation between classes at the highest level.

The start of the strike could have been: “…accidental, even unimportant, its outbreak elementary; but in the success of the movement the fruits of agitation extending over several years, of the social democracy were seen and in the course of the general strike the social democratic agitators stood at the head of the movement, directed it, and used it to stir up revolutionary agitation. Further, the strike was outwardly a mere economic struggle for wages, but the attitude of the government and the agitation of the social democracy made it a political phenomenon of the first rank”.

She was describing something very different from a one-day demonstration strike. In modern terms we might look at the strike wave in Egypt that ran from 2008 to 2011, or the years-long labour unrest in Iran; or at the struggles in Poland in 1980-1 that created Solidarnosc.

In British history, New Unionism or the Great Unrest, waves of struggle to organise workers in non-union industries in the 1880s and in the years up to 1914, were nearer to what Luxemburg thought of as “mass strike movements” than even the General Strike of 1926, let alone the pensions strike of 30 November 2011.

The mass strike movement is not something that can be called from above or made to order on a given day, but is the result of the coming-together of certain social factors and the fruit of a long and unspectacular work of agitation and organisation by socialists and activists.

Activist debate — not secret plans

Luxemburg argued that Kautsky had a wooden, bureaucratic idea of how a mass strike comes about:

“Kautsky… attaches to accomplishment of the political mass strike — strictest secrecy of preparations, decision-making by the supreme ‘war council’ of the party, the greatest possible surprise of the enemy — [an] image which bears a strong resemblance to the ‘final Great Day’ of the general strike after the anarchist formula”.

The mass strike is not something which can be decreed by party chiefs. A mass strike is a characteristic of a certain level of class struggle and confrontation. But at the same time socialists have a role in taking it to a higher level:

“Mass strikes … cannot be ‘made’ by an order from the ‘supreme command’, they must arise from the masses and their advancing action. But politically, in the sense of an energetic tactic, a powerful offensive, to so lead this action forward that the masses are ever more conscious of their tasks — that the party can do, and that is also its duty. Social Democracy cannot artificially create a revolutionary mass movement; but, circumstances permitting, it can certainly cripple the finest mass action through its wavering, feeble tactics.”

Kautsky wrote as if the argument were over whether or not the Party leaders should call a mass strike movement. At first he said that even discussion of the mass strike was out of place.

In a later article he mocked Luxemburg for being satisfied simply because the mass strike had been discussed within the party. “She triumphantly assures us that she has completely achieved what she wanted, because the mass strike is — talked about”.

Luxemburg saw rank and file militants as the key agents in the development of the mass strike. For her, the role of the party in a mass strike was less to issue “calls”, and more to provide a “leavening”, a layer of catalytic activists throughout the labour movement — to skilfully link each local battle into the overall programme of the struggle for suffrage, the republic, and workers’ rule; to make tactical judgments at the local level, and to discuss and make propaganda for the mass strike so that “the workers are not taken unawares and… the masses themselves should be prepared for all political eventualities and decide on action for themselves.”

If you think of party activists as agitators, educators and organisers who need to have a keen understanding, then public discussion of the mass strike within the labour movement is crucially important. It is through public debate that the workers’ movement clarifies its ideas and chooses slogans; and it is through debate that activists get a feel for how to apply a programme or steer a struggle.

Luxemburg’s and Kautsky’s different attitudes towards debate show two very different ideas of how a mass strike comes about — but also two very different ideas of the role of a revolutionary party and its relationship with the working class.

A “very big dispute”?

Kautsky warns: “the political mass strike as a means of exercising compulsion is undertaken in order to compel the holders of political power… to do something... It is carried out with all possible forces until such time as it either achieves its goal or the masses collapse in a state of exhaustion”.

In Kautsky’s view, a mass strike is like a scaled-up version of a single dispute — scaled up to the level of a general class confrontation. So, either the strike wins outright and the balance of power swings far in the favour of the working class, even to the point of revolutionary overthrow — or if the primary “demands” of the mass strike are not conceded, the action collapses and the whole working class suffers the fate of a local union branch which has lost a strike — massive demoralisation and the breaking of its organisations. Hence, best not even discuss mass-strike tactics until you are confident that the action will win tidily.

The mass strike as Luxemburg described it is not just a very large dispute. It is a period of heightened struggle in which many scores are settled, political and economic, from the local to the national level. Its success and failure are judged by different criteria.

“None of the mass strikes known till now was a ‘final’ struggle ‘to the death’… Success was mostly a partial and an indirect one. The miners’ giant strikes usually ended in a direct defeat: but as a further consequence, they realised important social reforms through their pressure — in Austria the nine-hour day, in France the eight-hour day.

“The most important consequence of the Belgian mass strike in 1893 was the conquest of universal, unequal suffrage. Last year’s Swedish mass strike, formally concluded with a compromise, actually warded off a general attack by the confederated business world on the Swedish unions. In Austria, demonstration strikes have mightily hastened electoral reform. The mass strikes of the farm workers, with their formal partial ineffectiveness, have greatly strengthened the organisation among the farm workers of Italy and Galicia.”

For Kautsky, the suffrage battle was a separate, specific campaign around one goal. But for Luxemburg, it was “a partial manifestation of our general socialist class struggle”.

Luxemburg was concerned to find ways of binding the different fronts of the class struggle together — to work agitation for political rights into the party’s work in economic struggles, and to raise slogans which broadened out the fight over suffrage so as to express more general class interests and placed a dividing line between the working-class suffrage movement and liberal capitalist strands of thought which might join in with agitation for voting reform.

Luxemburg wanted the workers’ movement to develop an independent class politics, which would aspire to more than just voting reform:

“By pushing forward the republican character of Social Democracy we win, above all, one more opportunity to illustrate in a palpable, popular fashion our principled opposition as a class party of the proletariat to the united camp of all bourgeois parties. For the frightening downfall of bourgeois liberalism in Germany is revealed most drastically in its Byzantine genuflection to the monarchy, in which liberal burgerdom runs only a nose behind conservative Junkerdom…

“The semi-absolute monarchy with its personal authority has formed for a quarter century, and with every year more so, the stronghold of militarism, the driving force of battleship diplomacy, the leading spirit of geopolitical adventure, just as it has been the shield of Junkerdom in Prussia and the bulwark of the ascendancy of Prussia’s political backwardness in the entire Reich.”

Whereas Kautsky wanted to keep Social-Democratic agitation focussing first on one reform, then another, first on one election campaign, then another, in a very measured, controlled way, Luxemburg grasped the idea of the class struggle as unfolding on all fronts simultaneously. She saw the programme of the working class not as a linear series of steps but as a ramifying network of demands which interact with each other, the struggles for which support each other and which, seen as a whole, represent a totally different programme for organising society.

This is the same vision of an interlocking set of demands which Trotsky and others would later call a “transitional programme”.

Luxemburg saw the work of party activists in making the mass strike as about broadening out and linking up the battles of the working class, underlining their class character, and working their different demands into a single vision of a different social order. In that sense she anticipates many of the debates about programme that happened in the later communist movement.

It is difficult to draw direct “lessons” from the 1910 polemic between Kautsky and Luxemburg on the question of the mass strike and paste them onto the 2011 pensions dispute. But the debates over the mass strike are very important to helping us understand politics.

The way that Luxemburg describes the Russian strikes of 1905 in her Mass Strike pamphlet can help us get an idea of the processes at work in modern mass strikes, like the Egyptian strike movement.

Luxemburg’s insistences that the class struggles of the present moment are connected to the revolutionary struggles of the future, that economic and political struggles flow into each other, that an overall vision of a working-class reconstruction of society is necessary, one that draws together the different economic and political demands of the labour movement into an overall independent class programme — these are a vivid illustration of the ideas of transitional programme and transitional demands, and expose the problems with reformist or mechanical ideas of how to fight for reforms.

Luxemburg’s arguments against Kautsky’s mechanical understanding of the role of the party are an antidote to some of the bureaucratic thinking on the far left and in trade unions today. A union or a party is not an army that executes the will of the leadership one fine day, but a collective of activists which is democratic, which interacts with the broad labour movement openly and through debate, and whose activists and cadres must closely relate to the broader movement, learn from it and have policies to propose to it.

Workers’ Liberty activists try to apply these lessons in the way that we relate to the British labour movement today. We don’t issue abstract calls for this or that labour movement body to call a general strike. Rather, our activists look at the next step that the labour movement needs to take in order to advance itself.

We call for rank-and-file networks to be set up, unions to be democratised, and to turn the work of building for a one-day strike into a work of renovating the grassroots bodies of the labour movement. We agitate to bind the fight to win on local, secondary issues together with the national disputes.

We don’t see ourselves as an army of tin-soldier activists executing orders from our Central Committee, but as a democratic collective that debates as it acts, and proposes initiatives and ideas to the broader labour movement, and following the logic of the class struggle rather than imposing the logic of a slogan cooked up behind closed doors.

Rather than hopping from one single-issue campaign to another, looking for what may “catch the wind”, we propose an interlocking set of demands, that link up the political and the economic, and the low-level struggles of today with the bigger struggles of tomorrow. Taken as a whole they form a vision of a different society, reconstructed along working-class lines: our Workers’ Plan for the Crisis.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.