20th century, Humanities

“At the beginning there was the deed.” Rosa Luxemburg and the Theory of Mass Strike

By Hannah Kuchler

Rosa Luxemburg


Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg lived her life by this motto, organising, protesting and campaigning for revolution. Not content with founding and leading the Polish Social Democratic party she moved to Germany to be at the industrial heartland of Europe. Fiercely opposed to German militarism, she campaigned for a general strike to stop the coming First World War. It was this theory of the Mass Strike that was to become one of the most influential Marxist theories of the twentieth century.

Imprisoned for her work against the war effort, she continued her campaign by smuggling revolutionary writing out and planning for the Berlin revolution of 1919. She was eventually brutally killed during the revolution by freikorps acting under the orders of the Social Democrats.

Luxemburg fought both on the streets and with her pen. She not only developed some of Marx’s most important economic theories, but she also used her writing to compel others to act, constantly contributing to socialist papers which she saw as essential tools in the revolutionary struggle. Described as the best brain after Marx by her contemporary revolutionary Franz Mehring, she still warned against what she called “absurd mental gymnastics”, preferring to use simple language to get her message across.

Nowhere is Luxemburg’s commitment to action combined with theory more evident than in her perhaps most famous and influential theory of the Mass Strike. In her book, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, she sets out her theory that mass or general strikes, based on spontaneous working class action, should be the distinguishing feature of a socialist revolution.

To rely so heavily on worker’s power, rather than party bureaucracy, later drew criticism from Stalinist quarters. In fact, Stalin himself denounced her as a Trotskyite and criticised her reliance on spontaneity.

However the theory was actually based on observing the Russian mass strikes preceding the 1905 revolution, where unorganised workers rebelled against the Tsarist regime for a combination of political and economic grievances. She describes the changing nature of revolution in the twentieth century in The Mass Strike:
“The more industry becomes the prevalent form of the economy, the more prominent the role of the working class, and the more developed the conflict between labour and capital, the more powerful and decisive become the mass strikes.”
The battle for the barricades was no longer the decisive moment it was in bourgeois revolutions, but only one moment in the struggle for socialist revolution.

Luxemburg studied the first mass strikes, which she described as “the experiment”, in Belgium in 1891 when 125,000 people went on strike to demand changes in the electoral system. Even though they lost, the workers felt empowered by the strike, and so went on strike again only two years later, this time with 250,000 people. They won, but with the concession that the upper classes and the educated would get more votes than the peasants. Inspired by their victory, but frustrated by the concessions, workers struck again nine years later, to demand a complete revision of the Constitution.

Previously mass strikes had been an anarchist idea, dismissed by Marxists because they did not understand the need for an organised worker’s party. Engels believed that capitalists would never let the working class become sufficiently organised or have enough money to sustain a mass strike. If the working class was organised enough for a mass strike, he believed they were organised enough for a revolution, so did not believe it was a necessary stage.

However Luxemburg showed that the mass strike is important to develop something vital to the revolution: workers’ class-consciousness. Luxemburg valued this above all. “The most precious thing,” she wrote, “because it is the most enduring, in the sharp ebb-and-flow of the revolutionary wave, is the proletariat’s spiritual growth.” The strike could help workers recognize their position as the exploited class in society, and the need to overthrow the ruling class of capitalists. Once they had learnt this consciousness, it could be used again, to radicalise more workers, and so Luxemburg believed each mass strike repeats, or builds upon, the entire history of mass strikes.

She wrote of the importance of the mass strike in connecting economic and political struggle: “The economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilization of the soil for the economic struggle… And their unity is precisely the mass strike.”

Although the strike may start spontaneously, one factory striking for better conditions, another complaining about longer hours, soon workers from across different industries, both skilled and unskilled, and from rival regions across the country become involved. They unite because of their condition as workers, and recognise that the most important division is between them and their employers. Luxemburg believed the strike started spontaneously because a worker’s life is a constant battle with the employer, which overflows particularly in periods of heightened economic turmoil.

Luxemburg was particularly impressed at how workers were able to overcome great hardship, surviving on next to nothing, which she believed showed their commitment to fight these battles. From spontaneous action stemming from anger at a perceived injustice, the workers developed a true idealism.

Luxemburg herself was certainly an idealist and, while in her lifetime her passionate campaign for a general strike did not lead to revolution, strikes throughout the twentieth century have shown their power to threaten the status quo.

At the end of the Second World War, Parisians went on strike, refusing to support the Vichy regime with their labour. In 1968 what began as a series of student political protests, against the existing orders and the Vietnam War, quickly inspired workers to fight against their economic problems by downing their tools and taking to the streets. Closer to home, the only time when the British nuclear bunkers were operational was during the miner’s strike. Thatcher felt her government was sufficiently threatened by the unity and solidarity of the workers that it might need to head underground as if under attack.

Luxemburg and her theory of the mass strike will live on every time impassioned workers take to the streets. As Clara Zetkin, fellow revolutionary and friend said, “In Rosa Luxemburg the socialist idea was a dominating and powerful passion of both heart and brain, a truly creative passion which burned ceaselessly … She was the sharp sword, the living flame of Revolution.”

The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg: Ideas in action, Paul Frolich
Rosa Luxemburg, Tony Cliff

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