What can we learn from a revolution in Russia a century ago? It seems a world removed from our lives in 2005. But 1905 was about a new working class coming of age.
A multiracial working class, with women at the forefront, was brought together in great cities like St Petersburg and Moscow, and mining and textile towns.
The experience of revolution forged that great mass into a class with a common awareness of its place in society and its ability to change it.
Rosa Luxemburg was a leader of the German socialist movement but had been born in Poland, the majority of which was incorporated into the Russian Empire.
She returned to Warsaw, which was caught up in the 1905 revolution. What she experienced led her to write a short book, The Mass Strike, which demands reading today.
Until 1905 socialists had, inevitably, looked to the most important model of revolution— France in 1789. But that was a revolution which brought the capitalist class to political power.
Before a blow was struck the capitalists had established their economic and ideological hold over the aristocracy. Power was slipping away from the old order, and matters could proceed quite quickly to street fighting and insurrection.
Unlike the young bourgeoisie, or capitalists, the working class does not assemble vast economic power—beyond our ability to withhold our labour. The ideas which dominate our lives are those of capitalist “common sense”.
What Luxemburg drew from 1905 was that through the process of the mass strike the working class ceased to be a class simply existing. It discovered its ability to act collectively for change:
“Today, at a time that the working class must educate, organise and lead itself, in the course of the revolutionary struggle, when the revolution itself is directed not only against the established state power but also against capitalist exploitation, mass strikes appear as the natural method to mobilise the broadest proletarian layers into action, to revolutionise and organise them.
“Simultaneously it is a method by means of which to undermine and overthrow the established state power as well as to curb capitalist exploitation...
“In order that the working class may participate en masse in any direct political action it must first organise itself, which above all means that 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.
“Therefore the mass strike is the first natural, spontaneous form of every great revolutionary proletarian action.”
The mass strike in Russia began with economic issues, moved into a political challenge to the Tsar, and then drew in new layers who voiced their own demands. It dug deeper and deeper into society, argued Luxemburg:
“This first general direct action...for the first time awoke feeling and class consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock...
“Here was the eight-hour day fought for, there piecework resisted, here were brutal foremen ‘driven off’ in a sack on a handcart, at another place infamous systems of fines were fought against, everywhere better wages were striven for, and here and there the abolition of home work.”
The focus of struggle shifted from political to economic demands and back again, drawing in more and more people and creating a common, revolutionary identity.
Strike committees began to combine to run whole towns and cities. Nor was this restricted to workers. In Russia it inspired peasant rebellions and won support among middle class intellectuals who yearned for freedom from Tsarist oppression.
Luxemburg herself believed that in Germany a similar process could simply sweep away the crusty trade union officials and Labour politicians who dominated the socialist movement.
Yet experience shows that this does not happen automatically. The outcome depends on the existence of powerful rank and file movements which can challenge officialdom, and networks of revolutionaries who can defeat talk of compromise in favour of revolution.
Today we see a vast new working class brought together in great conurbations across the world.
In Italy there have been generalised strikes when workers without permanent contracts, pensioners, students and the unemployed join protesting trade unionists. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru mass strikes have combined with rebellions by peasants and indigenous peoples.
In Britain there is a new working class which is vibrant in its opposition to war but has still to come together in a common fight.
New Labour treats us as victims or as anti-social “scum”. We desperately need to assert our common dignity against the plethora of line managers and other bullies who police our lives.
Luxemburg wrote The Mass Strike to reaffirm the central message of Marx that the liberation of the working class is the act of the class itself.
Revolutionary consciousness is created above all by the actions of this class in its fight for freedom. It is through fighting the system that workers’ ideas change as they reach up to
storm the heavens.
Don’t just read about 1905 as a history lesson. Read The Mass Strike and prepare. The conditions for such a class rebellion lie all around us.
A new Bookmarks edition of The Mass Strike by Rosa Luxemburg (£4) will
be out next week.
Phone 020 7538 0828 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com