The 1905 Russian Revolution started when troops massacred over 1,000 peaceful demonstrators.
In response there was a wave of strikes and protests involving millions of people, including many that had traditionally been seen as less militant, such as women and unorganised workers.
Rosa Luxemburg originally thought that this would be a “bourgeois revolution” aimed at winning democracy, but with an important difference from earlier ones in Europe – this one would be led by the working class.
She said although “the final result may be no more than a wretched constitution... the revolution will be a pure proletarian one, unlike any before it.”
She went to Poland – then part of the Russian empire – to join the uprising and was arrested in March 1906. Although her prison was meant to be isolated, Luxemburg managed to get news from outside and wrote articles for a socialist newspaper.
She said that it made her laugh to smuggle articles out of prison one day and get the printed copy smuggled back in the next!
But she was already ill and conditions in prison made this worse. In June she was released on medical grounds.
Before travelling back to Germany for the Socialist Party (SPD) conference she wrote The Mass Strike to draw conclusions from the revolution that would be useful for the German movement. She argued against the right wing of her party.
Luxemburg argued that a socialist revolution needs action by workers as workers, not as a mob being led by somebody else.
In previous uprisings the main tactic had been fighting on barricades done by small numbers of activists.
But in a revolution led by workers their best weapon would be the mass strike, and the role of street fighting would be reduced.
Most of the SPD leadership didn’t agree with the idea of either fighting or mass strikes, and preferred to stick to attempting to win reforms through parliament.
They thought mass strikes should be at most a defensive tactic, to be called for when they decided the time was right.
Luxemburg attacked the people who would “like a board of directors, put the mass strike on the calendar on an appointed day”.
The strikes in Russia didn’t happen because the revolutionaries said so. She wrote, “The mass strike is not artificially made... It is an historic phenomenon which results from social conditions with historic inevitability.”
However she didn’t mean that socialists don’t need to do anything.
In Russia in the years before 1905 there were lots of strikes that started over economic issues and grew into wider political struggles and riots.
One of the factors that changed economic struggles over wages and such-like into political ones against the state was the involvement of organised socialists. The strikes gave the socialists new opportunities to organise and gain respect.
She explained how economic and political campaigns feed off each other during revolutionary periods. When Russia exploded in 1905 the strikes developed from political ones against repression into economic ones about local demands.
They “awoke feeling and class consciousness in millions as if by an electric shock” and encouraged them to demand more.
Although the bosses tried to take back the gains that were won, there was a lasting effect on workers’ confidence.
Luxemburg wrote that “the most precious thing in this rapid ebb and flow is the intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat.”
To the conservative wing in the SPD, revolutionary mass strikes in Germany seemed impossible.
They saw the events of Russia as a result of workers there being badly organised and poor, and irrelevant to Germany where there were over a million trade unionists.
Luxemburg answered that although unions were legal, large numbers of German workers were still unorganised and working in appalling conditions.
Just because the Russian activists didn’t have legal unions they weren’t backward – they had experience of strikes and political activity going back decades.
Finally, she believed that however obstructive trade union bureaucrats were, they would be overruled by the masses once they began to take action.
Unfortunately, she underestimated how much damage these leaders would do when the revolution came closer to home.
But importantly she understood how workers’ creativity and willingness to act could be an antidote to conservative leaders.