IN BOLIVIA in October 2003 hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants surround the governmental palace in La Paz. They demanded the resignation of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado, the country’s hated millionaire president. Within days, he was forced to resign and flee to Miami in disgrace.
The movement, the culmination of weeks of major strikes and street battles, was an example of what Marxists call a mass strike.
The mass strike is not an episode confined to “exotic” faraway places, or a dusty item from history. In Europe during the last five years it is the countries that have NOT had mass strikes which are the exception, not those that have.
How significant are such strikes? Under what conditions do they arise? And how—if at all—do they drive forward the struggle to replace capitalism with a socialist society?
These debates are not new. Similar arguments raged in the 19th century.
These debates were transformed in January 1905 by a series of astonishing events in Russia. A walkout at the Putilov engineering works in St Petersburg, triggered by the sacking of four militant workers, rapidly expanded into a mass strike across the city.
The action drew in some 150,000 workers from a wide range of factories and workshops.
Strikers demanded an eight-hour day, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, land for peasants, and the separation of church and state. St Petersburg had seen large strikes in the past, but nothing as wide ranging or politically radical as this.
Within days, some 200,000 strikers marched on the Tsar’s Winter Palace. The Tsar’s troops responded by firing on the crowd, followed by horsemen charging them with sabres. At least 1,000 were killed and up to 20,000 wounded.
That massacre sparked Russia’s 1905 revolution, which in turn inspired and crystallised the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish-born revolutionary active at that time in Germany’s huge working class socialist movement.
In 1906 Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet entitled The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions. To this day it remains the classic Marxist analysis of the role mass strikes play in the struggle for socialism.
Much of Luxemburg’s pamphlet is taken up with detailed analysis of the complex sequence of events of 1905. But from it she draws three theoretical conclusions that burst through the previous sterile debates over what to make of the mass strike as a tactic and a weapon.
First, Luxemburg argued that previous analyses of the mass strike had tended to separate economic and political struggles.
Economic struggles are actions about pay or jobs or conditions in an individual factory or industry.
Political strikes can be about political rights or pension policy across the nation, or to force the resignation of a hated minister.
Luxemburg argued that economic and political struggles were intimately connected. “Between the two there is the most complete reciprocal action,” she wrote in The Mass Strike.
“After every foaming wave of political action, a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth. And conversely the workers’ condition of ceaseless economic struggle keeps their fighting energy alive at every political interval.
“It forms the permanent fresh reservoir of the strength of the proletarian classes, from which the political fight ever renews its strength.
“The economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another. The political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle.
“The economic and political factors merely form the two interlacing sides of the proletarian class struggle in Russia. And their unity is precisely the mass strike.”
Luxemburg’s point was that mass strikes often began with one or more sections of workers taking action, perhaps over a political question. But then hundreds of thousands of workers would gain confidence and raise their own demands, often different to those of the first group.
Groups which had never done anything might raise the most basic trade union questions—or leap to the very highest level and demand fundamental political change. In 1905 some groups demanded pay rises, other shorter hours. Others called for the removal of the Tsar.
Second, Luxemburg argued that the mass strike, with its back and forth interaction between political and economic struggles, begins to dissolve the conservative ideology that holds workers back from challenging the system.
Traditional boundaries between different industries are broken down: “In order that the working class may participate en masse in any direct political action, it must first organise itself, which above all means it must obliterate the boundaries between factories and workshops, mines and foundries.
“It must overcome the split between workshops which the daily yoke of capitalism condemns it to.”
Moreover, the mass strike challenges ideologies such as racism and sexism, which separate workers and encourage them to blame each other for their problems. The experience of common struggle raises workers’ political aspirations and builds up confidence in their collective strength:
“And what idealism workers rise to! They put aside thoughts of whether they have the wherewithal to support themselves and their families during their struggle.
“They do not ask whether all preliminary technical preparations have been made. Once a really serious period of mass strikes opens up, all such ‘costing operations’ are something like an attempt to measure the ocean with a bucket.”
Of course, Luxemburg realised that, in ordinary times, workers who go on strike do worry very much about whether they can pay the rent or the mortgage, whether they will lose their jobs, whether they will have enough money for their children and a thousand other fears.
The power of the mass strike is that workers are enriched with new confidence. They know they face tough times but, as part of bigger army, are nevertheless ready to undergo hardship.
This leads to Luxemburg’s third insight—the mass strike enables workers to transform themselves through struggle, redrawing their ambitions and shaping them into a class fit to rule.
We see this pattern in other historical examples of mass strikes. For instance, the Gdansk shipyard occupation in Poland in the 1980s was marked by massively popular cultural events.
Writers’ guilds put on nightly lectures, with around 10,000 workers attending poetry and book readings. Thousands went to jazz gigs, or talks by the renowned film director Krzysztof Kieslowski.
The mass strike thus becomes a pointer to what a democratic society would look like. A report from the town of Dreux during the French strikes of 1995 testifies to this spirit:
“The rail workers pushed forward a new open form of struggle against the Juppe plan by making their general assemblies wide open to all other sections in the struggle, to the press and democratic organisations. The movement allowed the strikers—public and private sector—to come together. This was no longer a movement of ‘everyone for themselves’, but one of ‘all together’.”
The mass strike is the bridge from today’s struggles to the battle for a different society. It shows workers’ power, gives them a glimpse of the future and creates new forms of organisation.
We can also see glimpses of the mass strike in individual strikes today. The Italian car giant Fiat was badly hit by a national strike involving 300,000 workers in spring of this year, which at one point closed down production at all but one of its factories.
The strike was sparked by workers in Melfi, in the far south of Italy. Fiat had opened a factory there ten years previously precisely because of the lack of a militant workers’ tradition in the area.
Yet once the strike began the daily workers’ assemblies were a foretaste of a deeply democratic society.
In 1905 the mass strike led to the creation of soviets—workers’ councils that began to discuss and organise every aspect of life. They offered a new form of power to set against the present way things are run.
The mass strike may begin with demands for reforms, but it points towards revolution.
The Mass Strike by Rosa Luxemburg is currently out of print, although it can be found in the collection Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (£18 + £2 postage from Bookmarks—020 7637 1848 or Bookmarks Online.
The Mass Strike can be read on the internet at http://tinyurl.com/4keq8