Rosa Luxemburg was a revolutionary socialist who made a key contribution to Marxism with her writings on mass strikes.
Luxemburg saw them as critical actions that fused economic and political demands and put workers’ struggle at the centre of transforming the world.
Her ideas were a response to real struggles, particularly those that swept the Russian empire in 1905. They were also part of a debate in the German workers’ movement on the nature of revolution and reform. This debate still resonates today.
The events of 1905 marked a turning point for the European workers’ movement. The Russian empire was a nasty dictatorship under Tsar Nicholas II. There was no democracy. People in subjugated nations, such as Poland, were forced to speak Russian. Conditions for workers in the rapidly developing industrial centres were harsh.
In January a civil rights demonstration led by a priest, Father Gapon, marched to the Tsar’s palace in the capital, St Petersburg.
Protesters’ demands included a parliament, universal suffrage, free education, freedom of the press and an eight-hour working day.
The Tsar’s troops opened fire on them and killed hundreds in what became known as “Bloody Sunday”.
This opened up a period of intense struggle across the Russian empire. Strikes broke out in major cities, and peasant risings in the countryside.
Within a fortnight of Bloody Sunday this Russian Revolution had spread from St Petersburg to Poland, the Ukraine and the Baltic States.
Luxemburg was then based in Germany. She followed events in the Russian Empire, including her native Poland, with great excitement.
Luxemburg described the impact of the St Petersburg rising in her influential pamphlet of 1906, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions:
“As if for the first time awoke class feeling and class consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock… The proletarian mass, counted by millions, quite suddenly and sharply came to realise how intolerable was that social and economic existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of capitalism.
“Thereupon there began a spontaneous general shaking of the tugging at these chains.”
This rising followed many smaller struggles. Tens of thousands of St Petersburg textile workers had struck in 1896 and 1897.
In 1902 oil workers in the Caucasus held a mass strike and in 1903 general strikes swept all the major cities of southern Russia. The end of a war with Japan in September 1905 intensified the strikes and struggles.
Luxemburg described how the mass strikes that characterised the Russian Revolution of 1905 contained within them the ghosts of all these earlier struggles:
“All the innumerable sufferings of the modern proletariat reminded them of the old bleeding wounds. Here was the eight-hour day fought for, there piece-work was resisted, here were brutal foremen driven off in a sack on a handcar, at another place infamous systems of fines were fought against, everywhere better wages were striven for and here and there the abolition of homework.”
Workers found themselves confronting the Tsar’s state—the police and army—and waging political struggles for their right to protest.
Their battles spurred other workers to fight to improve their own wages and working conditions. These struggles, in turn, gave confidence to the political strikes.
The revolution won some reforms in the autumn of 1905, when the Tsar conceded a duma (parliament) with limited suffrage.
In December the revolution reached its climax with a workers’ uprising in Moscow that lasted eight days. But the rising was isolated and the Tsar’s troops defeated it. The revolutionary wave receded.
Yet the experience transformed revolutionaries’ understanding of how a modern working class revolution could take place.
As Luxemburg wrote, “The mass strike is the first natural, impulsive form of every great revolutionary struggle of the proletariat”.
This was an important development of the Marxist tradition. Earlier revolutions, such as the French Revolution of 1789, had been fought over the question of state power—and wresting it from the aristocracy.
But capitalism brought state and economic power much closer together. The capitalist class dominates the working class politically, using the state, and economically, through exploitation.
Luxemburg described the mass strike arising from this new reality.
This insight is important because it had been common sense in the socialist movement to assume a separation between “two pillars” of struggle.
People saw a division between battles over things like wages, led by trade unions, and political struggles against the government, led by political parties.
The biggest and most organised socialist party in the world at the time was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Luxemburg was a member.
In rhetoric it was a Marxist party committed to revolution. In practice it focused on electoral work and bringing about gradual change through reforming the system. It left “economic struggle” to the trade unions.
The Russian Revolution had a big impact in Germany. In 1905, 507,964 workers struck—more than in any other single year from 1848 to 1917.
A strike by coal miners in the industrial Ruhr district spread like wildfire to other groups of unorganised workers. It bypassed union leaders’ attempts to keep it within strict limits.
Demands on bosses to improve conditions became demands on the government to safeguard workers’ rights. Political and economic elements were present in the same struggle.
But union leaders didn’t like the fact that the struggle had run beyond their control. And the SPD saw the strike as “economic” and so not in their remit.
Luxemburg wrote The Mass Strike to take on this “two pillars” approach.
The SPD leaders thought that workers began with a trade union consciousness and would join unions and fight over wages and conditions.
In the course of these fights they may learn about the power of organisation, workers’ power and socialist ideas. Then they can graduate to a political consciousness, join a socialist party, and fight to change the world.
Luxemburg poured scorn on this mechanical approach:
“But the movement on the whole does not only go in one direction, from the economic to the political struggle, but also in the opposite direction…
“Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle.”
So political and economic battles feed each other. They are two aspects of the same class struggle.
In this way the mass strike forges the working class into a fighting force. It brings about a profound shift in confidence and class consciousness:
“The most precious thing, because it is the most enduring, in the sharp ebb and flow of the revolutionary waves is the proletariat’s spiritual growth.
“The advance by leaps and bounds of the intellectual stature of the proletariat affords an inviolable guarantee of its further progress in the inevitable economic and political struggles ahead.”
Luxemburg theorised from the lived experience of Russian workers. She built on an idea Karl Marx had pointed to 50 years earlier—how in practice workers can make themselves “fit to rule” a new society.
All of this was lost on the leadership of the SPD. Their “revision” of Marxism meant they feared uncontrolled strikes could threaten their electoral strategy. After the defeat of the Russian Revolution Eduard David, a leading revisionist in the SPD, said, “The brief May flowering of the new revolutionism is happily over.
“The party will again devote itself with undivided heart to the positive exploitation and expansion of its parliamentary power.”
But for Luxemburg, 1905 made clear the need for revolutionary Marxism, and the potential for workers’ self-emancipation. Her understanding of the ebb and flow of workers’ struggle makes her one of the most important contributors to Marxism in the 20th century.