General strike: neither ploy nor dream

There had been general strikes before 1905.

The so-called Plug Riots of July-August 1842 were in fact a spontaneously-spreading general strike over large parts of England against wage cuts and for the ten-hour working day. The Belgian workers launched three general strikes, in 1891, 1893, and 1902, to widen voting rights.

But the mass strike movement which erupted in Russia in 1905 after ten years of strikes and agitation by a fresh and growing industrial working class, and after the defeat of Tsarism in its war with Japan, was something else again. It was a new starting point for all discussions of mass strikes and general strikes, and the basis for Rosa Luxemburg’s classic pamphlet, The Mass Strike.

The 1905 movement started with strikes in January and February, at first in St Petersburg and then spreading.

Strikes rumbled through the summer, and then exploded into a general strike in October. On 13 October the strikers formed a representative coordinating committee in St Petersburg: the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers Deputies. It began to function as an alternative government. Leon Trotsky was a leading figure in it.

The general strike ended on 21 October, but agitation continued until 3 December, when the St. Petersburg Soviet was arrested en masse, and 10-15 December, when an armed workers’ rising in Moscow was defeated. Ferment continued into 1906; only in hindsight did it become clear that the arrest of the St Petersburg Soviet and the def11eat of the Moscow uprising had marked the ebb of the revolution.

Repression then escalated, under interior minister Pyotr Stolypin. Over 3000 people were arrested and put to death for political activity.

The workers’ movement was driven back underground; but only for the moment. It began to rise again in 1912, and then exploded onto the scene in February 1917, eventually conquering political power in October 1917 and ruling for several years until it was stifled and suppressed by a new bureaucratic ruling class under Stalinism.

The Russian workers’ movement of 1905 jolted workers’ movements internationally; in the USA, for example, it prompted the formation of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Rosa Luxemburg opened her pamphlet The Mass Strike by arguing that the Russian events had made previous debates between anarchists and Marxists over the general strike obsolete. Anarchists had argued for the general strike as the sovereign remedy for capitalism, and as the way for workers to bypass the travails of politics. One fine day, when the workers had become sufficiently rebellious, they would fold their arms; capitalism would collapse; and the new stateless and socialistic order would emerge of itself.

Luxemburg summarised the Marxist response: “either the proletariat as a whole are not yet in possession of the powerful organisation and financial resources required, in which case they cannot carry through the general strike; or they are already sufficiently well organised, in which case they do not need the general strike” (because they can move directly to take political power by political means).

But Russia was something new. In the first place: “The revolutionary struggle in Russia, in which mass strikes are the most important weapon, is, by the working people, and above all by the proletariat, conducted for those political rights and conditions whose necessity and importance in the struggle for the emancipation of the working-class Marx and Engels first pointed out, and in opposition to anarchism fought for with all their might in the International” — that is, for the right to freedom of organisation, free elections, and parliamentary-type democracy.

Secondly: “the Russian Revolution teaches... above all that the mass strike is not artificially ‘made’, not ‘decided’ at random, not ‘propagated’, but that it is a historical phenomenon which, at a given moment, results from social conditions with historical inevitability”. So “abstract speculations on the possibility or impossibility, the utility or the injuriousness of the mass strike” must be superseded by “objective investigation”.

The mass strike emerged from the logic of the class struggle, not as a cunning final blow, but rather as part of the warp and woof of the struggle. It was not exclusively political; nor was it a substitute for political action — it was part of a development which showed a constant interaction between political and economic struggles of the working class, both economic struggles leading into political and the converse, political struggles leading into economic.

“The sudden general rising of the proletariat in January under the powerful impetus of the St. Petersburg events was outwardly a political act of the revolutionary declaration of war on absolutism. But this first general direct action reacted inwardly all the more powerfully as it for the first time awoke class feeling and class-consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock”. It thus led to a rumbling, rambling spread of strikes on economic issues.

“The economic struggle was not really a decay, a dissipation of action, but merely a change of front, a sudden and natural alteration of the first a general engagement with absolutism, in a general reckoning with capital, which in keeping with its character assumed the form of individual, scattered wage struggles”.

This was not a step back. “Only complete thoughtlessness could expect that absolutism could be destroyed at one blow by a single ‘long-drawn’ general strike after the anarchist plan.

“Absolutism in Russia must be overthrown by the proletariat. But in order to be able to overthrow it, 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” — which must include its molecular form of economic battles.

“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”.

Cautious trade unionists saw the slow building-up of trade union organisation as the necessary preliminary to any large struggle. “The attitude of many trade union leaders to this question is generally summed up in the assertion: ‘We are not yet strong enough to risk such a hazardous trial of strength as a mass strike’.”

Luxemburg replied: “The rigid, mechanical-bureaucratic conception cannot conceive of the struggle save as the product of organisation at a certain stage of its strength. On the contrary, the living, dialectical explanation makes the organisation arise as a product of the struggle...”

In Russia “the apparently ‘chaotic’ strikes and the ‘disorganised” revolutionary action after the January general strike are becoming the starting point of a feverish work of organisation... From the whirlwind and the storm, out of the fire and glow of the mass strike and the street fighting rise again, like Venus from the foam, fresh, young, powerful, buoyant trade unions”.

In an explosive struggle, groups of workers whose position previously seemed hopeless stirred, and even came to the fore.

‘”Whole great categories of the proletariat have to be taken into account which, in the ‘normal’ course of things in Germany, cannot possibly take part in a peaceful economic struggle for the improvement of their condition and cannot possibly avail themselves of the right of combination”.

From these observations Luxemburg developed primarily, for her day, an argument against the trade union leaders of her day in Germany who, though members of the Social Democratic Party, argued that the trade unions must defend their autonomy and, in effect, have a veto on radical political agitation which might tip them into risky struggle.

The observations have relevance today too. They have relevance against those who would deprecate immediate battles and insist that the only way to beat the coalition government is a set-piece, all-unions-together battle in the future.

They have relevance against those who say that not much can be done in any industrial battle now, and we had best focus on unity to ensure that Labour wins a 2015 election.

Rosa Luxemburg’s observation that the mass strike is an organic part of high class struggle, not a tactic planned and controlled from above, has often been interpreted as a doctrine of working-class revolution developing as a spontaneous industrial explosion, with little contribution from a revolutionary political party.

There is matter for debate about Luxemburg’s understanding of what a revolutionary socialist party can and must do; but she was a party activist all her political life, and a founder of the German Communist Party. The Mass Strike was also a plea against the subordination of the socialist political party to elemental, organic trade unionism.

That the mass strike could erupt in Russia as it had done, and intertwine with socialist and democratic agitation, she saw not as a fact of nature but as a product of years of work by socialists. “The modern large capitalist development of Russia and the intellectual influence of social democracy [i.e., in the terminology of the day, the revolutionary Marxist party] exerted for a decade-and-a-half, which has encouraged and directed the economic struggle, have accomplished an important piece of cultural work..”

As Leon Trotsky explained: “Rosa herself never confined herself to the mere theory of spontaneity... [She] exerted herself to educate the revolutionary wing of the proletariat in advance and to bring it together organisationally as far as possible. In Poland [Luxemburg was Polish by origin, though mainly active in Germany] she built up a very rigid independent organization.

“The most that can be said is that in her historical-philosophical evaluation of the labour movement, the preparatory selection of the vanguard, in comparison with the mass actions that were to be expected, fell too short with Rosa; whereas Lenin — without consoling himself with the miracles of future actions — took the advanced workers and constantly and tirelessly welded them together into firm nuclei...”

In The Mass Strike Luxemburg explained: “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 [the revolutionary Marxist party], 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”.

She emphasised that when battle got under way, “the task of social democracy will then be to regulate its tactics, not by the most backward phases of development but by the most advanced”.

What are the lessons from Luxemburg’s discussion for today? To reject agitation for a general strike which makes it appear as a clever cure-all to escape the difficulties of current battles.

But equally, to watch out for the potential explosiveness of class struggle which can make immediate what previously seemed far-distant; not to let our thought be flattened by dispirited acceptance of the accomplished facts.