Notes on Rosa Luxemburg's "The Mass Strike"

Submitted by martin on 14 May, 2010 - 8:45 Author: Martin Thomas

These notes on "The Mass Strike" are taken, with thanks, from Chris Cutrone. The interpolated "discussion points" (in bold) are our additions, for use in educationals.

Click here for text of "The Mass Strike"

First, on the 1905 Revolution, it needs to be emphasized that this was not only a prelude to and “rehearsal” for the 1917 Russian Revolution, but was itself a world-historic event that was galvanizing for the international Left and workers movement, as well as giving shape to 20th Century political trends more generally. For example, the 1905 Revolution gave an impetus to the Constitutional Revolution in Iran.

In the U.S., 1905 prompted the (temporary) unification of different strands of the socialist workers’ movement, in the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Q. What actually happened in Russia in 1905? What were the main turning points? See timeline here.

Q. What other political developments on the left, world-wide, were triggered by 1905?

One striking aspect of both Trotsky and Luxemburg on 1905 (in Trotsky’s Results and Prospects) is how little the new historical phenomenon of the soviets is registered. (Luxemburg mentions “strike committees.”) This is because, e.g., Trotsky, Luxemburg and Lenin, saw the soviets/workers councils as revolutionary phenomena rather than a form of workers’ government/proletarian dictatorship.

But the soviets form only one of a set of social-political factors and forms that were understood to operate in tandem for revolutionary socialist politics. Hence, the title of Luxemburg’s pamphlet, which identifies the other 3: unions, parties, and social-revolutionary actions (such as the “mass strike”).

On the matter of the relation of labor unions and political parties, this was becoming an acute issue in the German movement, for which Luxemburg hoped the Russian example would serve a salutary role.

Unfortunately, the opposite was the case: in the aftermath of 1905, there was a secret protocol between the German SPD and union leadership that guaranteed that the party would never give the political direction and leadership in relation to the unions that Luxemburg called for.

Luxemburg had two targets of critique in the German movement: the party leadership, and the union leadership.

Why Luxemburg has been mistaken for a worker-spontaneist is precisely due to this polemic. But, as J. P. Nettl pointed out, for Luxemburg the word “masses” meant “action” and “leadership” meant “inaction/inertia.” The actual role of leadership was being specified by Luxemburg, but in ways that might be misleading read out of context.

Q. In "The Mass Strike" Luxemburg freely acknowledges a role of political leadership to be played by a socialist party. How does she define that role? In what way is the definition inadequate?

One aspect of the question of leadership revealed in the 1905 Revolution was the reversal of the traditional apparent relation between “economic” and “political” struggles. Whereas it was assumed that socio-economic struggles led to greater political consciousness, Luxemburg observed that the struggle for political rights by workers could then become transformed and find further elaboration and traction in socio-economic struggles. The issue for Luxemburg is how to facilitate such development of initiative and consciousness in the working class.

Rather than finding in the “mass strike” some spontaneous form of organization arising organically from the struggle, Luxemburg is concerned with the dialectic of organization and spontaneity, political leadership and social empowerment that could challenge the Kautsky/Bebel (implicit, self-serving) conception of gradual education and social empowerment through the socio-economic struggle in tutelage to the party ideological/political leadership, which had constantly deferred the political struggle for social power to an ever more remote future.

So Luxemburg become concerned with the apparent reversals of such development and its “leaps” over such traditionally prognosed “stages” of struggle.

Q. But Luxemburg is not simply producing a new version of "Economism", is she? How is her approach different from "Economism"?

Rather than conceiving of the party as leadership and the unions as membership, for Luxemburg the question is what are the different components of working class leadership that factor into the relation of socio-economic and political struggles, such that they could synergistically contribute to each other.

Referring back to Trotsky’s Results and Prospects , I’d like to point out what Luxemburg’s concerns in The Mass Strike pamphlet might say to Trotsky’s observations that the different “pre-requisites of socialism” might not only develop at different paces, but actually might work against (or “retard”) each other. Such an observation would not be extrinsic to Luxemburg’s concerns at all as might appear, but is rather fundamental to them.

It should also be noted that Luxemburg wrote her pamphlet while spending time with Lenin and other Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, beginning a long period of close collaboration (including in the International) until 1912 (though Luxemburg and Lenin always remained on good terms even in the political struggle for reorganization and leadership of the Russian party, in which Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches’s SDKPiL participated, starting in 1912, when Lenin tried to assert total Bolshevik hegemony of the Russian party, of which the SDKPiL was a part), and resuming from 1914, up to her death in 1919.

Q. How divergent was Luxemburg's attitude from the Bolsheviks? On this, see Luxemburg's Blanquism and Social Democracy, written in 1906.

* * *

Some key excerpts from Luxemburg’s text:

“[T]here are quite definite limits set to initiative and conscious direction. During the revolution it is extremely difficult for any directing organ of the proletarian movement to foresee and to calculate which occasions and factors can lead to explosions and which cannot. Here also initiative and direction do not consist in issuing commands according to one’s inclinations, but in the most adroit adaptability to the given situation, and the closest possible contact with the mood of the masses. The element of spontaneity, as we have seen, plays a great part in all Russian mass strikes without exception, be it as a driving force or as a restraining influence. This does not occur in Russia, however, because social democracy is still young or weak, but because in every individual act of the struggle so very many important economic, political and social, general and local, material and psychical, factors react upon one another in such a way that no single act can be arranged and resolved as if it were a mathematical problem. The revolution, even when the proletariat, with the social democrats at their head, appear in the leading role, is not a manoeuvre of the proletariat in the open field, but a fight in the midst of the incessant crashing, displacing and crumbling of the social foundation. In short, in the mass strikes in Russia the element of spontaneity plays such a predominant part, not because the Russian proletariat are “uneducated,” but because revolutions do not allow anyone to play the schoolmaster with them.

“On the other hand, we see in Russia that the same revolution which rendered the social democrats’ command of the mass strike so difficult, and which struck the conductor’s baton from, or pressed into, their hand at all times in such a comical fashion — we see that it resolved of itself all those difficulties of the mass strike.”

“[T]he present [1905] Russian Revolution stands at a point of the historical path which is already over the summit, which is on the other side of the culminating point of capitalist society, at which the bourgeois revolutions cannot again be smothered by the antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, but, will, on the contrary, expand into a new lengthy period of violent social struggles, at which the balancing of the account with absolutism appears a trifle in comparison with the many new accounts which the revolution itself opens up. The present revolution realises in the particular affairs of absolutist Russia the general results of international capitalist development, and appears not so much as the last successor of the old bourgeois revolutions as the forerunner of the new series of proletarian revolutions of the West. The most backward country of all, just because it has been so unpardonably late with its bourgeois revolution, shows ways and methods of further class struggle to the proletariat of Germany and the most advanced capitalist countries.

“Accordingly it appears, when looked at in this way, to be entirely wrong to regard the Russian Revolution as a grandiose spectacle, as something specifically “Russian,” and at best to admire the heroism of the fighting men, that is, as outside onlookers of the struggle. It is much more important that the German workers should learn to look upon the Russian Revolution as their own affair, not merely as a matter of international solidarity with the Russian proletariat, but first and foremost, as a chapter of their own social and political history. . . .

“To fix beforehand the cause and the moment from and in which the mass strikes in Germany will break out is not in the power of social democracy, because it is not in its power to bring about historical situations by resolutions at party congresses. But what it can and must do is to make clear the political tendencies, when they once appear, and to formulate them as resolute and consistent tactics. Man cannot keep historical events in check while making recipes for them, but he can see in advance their apparent calculable consequences and arrange his mode of action accordingly.”

“There are not two different class struggles of the working class, an economic and a political one, but only one class struggle, which aims at one and the same time at the limitation of capitalist exploitation within bourgeois society, and at the abolition of exploitation together with bourgeois society itself.

“When these two sides of the class struggle are separated from one another for technical reasons in the parliamentary period, they do not form two parallel concurrent actions, but merely two phases, two stages of the struggle for emancipation of the working class. The trade-union struggle embraces the immediate interests, and the social democratic struggle the future interests, of the labour movement. The communists, says the Communist Manifesto, represent, as against various group interests of the proletariat as a whole, and in the various stages of development of the class struggle, they represent the interests of the whole movement, that is, the ultimate goal — the liberation of the proletariat. The trade unions represent only the group interests and only one stage of development of the labour movement. Social democracy represents the working class and the cause of its liberation as a whole. The relation of the trade unions to social democracy is therefore a part of the whole, and when, amongst the trade-union leaders, the theory of “equal authority” of trade-unions and social democracy finds so much favour, it rests upon a fundamental misconception of the essence of trade-unionism itself and of its role in the general struggle for freedom of the working class. . . .

“Not above, amongst the heads of the leading directing organisations and in their federative alliance, but below, amongst the organised proletarian masses, lies the guarantee of the real unity of the labour movement. In the consciousness of the million trade-unionists, the party and the trade unions are actually one, they represent in different forms the social democratic struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat. And the necessity automatically arises therefrom of removing any causes of friction which have arisen between the social democracy and a part of the trade unions, of adapting their mutual relation to the consciousness of the proletarian masses, that is, of re-joining the trade-unions to social democracy. The synthesis of the real development which led from the original incorporation of the trade-unions to their separation from social democracy will thereby be expressed, and the way will be peppered for the coming period of great proletarian mass struggles during the period of vigorous growth, of both trade-unions and social democracy and their reunion, in the interests of both, will become a necessity.

“It is not, of course, a question of the merging of the trade-union organisation in the party, but of the restoration of the unity of social democracy and the trade-unions which corresponds to the actual relation between the labour movement as a whole and its partial trade-union expression. Such a revolution will inevitably call forth a vigorous opposition from a part of the trade-union leadership. But it is high time for the working masses of social democracy to learn how to express their capacity for decision and action, and therewith to demonstrate their ripeness for that time of great struggles and great tasks in which they, the masses, will be the actual chorus and the directing bodies will merely act the “speaking parts,” that is, will only be the interpreters of the will of the masses.

“The trade-union movement is not that which is reflected in the quite understandable but irrational illusion of a minority of the trade-union leaders, but that which lives in the consciousness of the mass of proletarians who have been won for the class struggle. In this consciousness the trade-union movement is part of social democracy. “And what it is, that should it dare to appear.” ”