December saw a one-day mass strike and demonstrations in Ireland in support of seafarers’ wages. Irish workers produced the latest in a growing series of mass strikes across the world.
A casual search on the Socialist Worker website produced a list of at least 58 such mass strikes in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America since the start of 2000. On average, that’s one mass strike somewhere in the world every five and a half weeks.
If a single cause unites most of these mass strikes, it is opposition to some aspect of neo-liberalism. Fuel price hikes, privatisation, IMF policies, defence of pensions have been prominent issues. In Latin America, mass strikes have helped bring down several neo-liberal governments.
A hundred years ago, Rosa Luxemburg wrote the first serious Marxist treatment of mass strikes. In her booklet, The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Union, she explored the 1905 struggles in Russia. Mass strikes, she showed, were now central to workers’ revolutionary mobilisation.
The mass strikes in Russia broke down the separation between political and economic struggles. Not only did economic strikes rapidly pose political demands, but strikes over political demands set off waves of economic strikes. Both methods drew new layers into collective struggle for the first time.
Organisational creativity marked the Russian movement. Workers rushed to form and join new bodies, from unions to political clubs — and, of course, workers’ councils (known in Russia as soviets).
Activists formed new networks. New solidarities undermined old divisions — of skill, sex, ethnicity and the like.
“The most precious thing,” Luxemburg suggested, was the change in working people’s psychology and culture. The mass strikes engendered a new sense of empowerment, enabling millions, for the first time, to envisage a better world as their own collective creation.
For Luxemburg, the mass strike was the crucial bridge between the capitalist present and the socialist future. It was the means by which millions would mobilise to fight for a different world, and to make themselves capable of running it.
Luxemburg’s brilliant booklet not only dissected and celebrated mass strikes. It also held them up as a living alternative to the stale and conservative practices of trade union bureaucracies and social democratic parties like the Labour Party in Britain or the SPD in Germany.
While the unions limited workers’ activity to economic questions, the social democratic parties equally contained politics within the narrow confines of parliamentary elections. Both ignored millions of unorganised workers. Mass strikes could overcome these limits.
Luxemburg’s booklet is one of the great works of revolutionary socialism. It argues that mass strikes can lead to revolutionary change, in which workers win economic and political power.
This socialism from below is opposed to the reformist tradition of the trade union leaders and social democratic parties, who seek to hand out piecemeal reforms from above within the framework of capitalism.
But the booklet is not without its weaknesses. In celebrating the mass strike, she invested it with almost too much power against the union bureaucracies and the social democratic leaders.
Correctly, she argued that a popular upsurge has the potential to sweep aside all the conservatism of the trade union and party bureaucracies, but she concluded — quite wrongly — that such an upsurge cannot be contained.
“If once the ball is set rolling, social democracy, whether it wills it or not, can never again bring it to a standstill,” she wrote.
That underestimated the potential influence of reformist leaders. In Luxemburg’s own German movement, the point was proved, tragically, at the end of the First World War.
The war ended with an immense revolutionary wave, on an even bigger scale than Russia’s 1905 revolution that Luxemburg had celebrated. Soldiers’ and workers’ councils sprang into existence, there were widespread mutinies and mass strikes. If ever “the ball was rolling”, it was in Germany in 1918-9.
However, the social democratic leaders, who opposed the mass movement from below, were not swept away by it. They sprang to its head.
Friedrich Ebert, the Tony Blair of his time, explained that he “joined the strike leadership with the clear intention of bringing the strike to a speedy end to prevent damage to the country”. Still worse, he joined forces with right wing military officers to crush militant workers by brutal force.
In January 1919, those officers murdered Rosa Luxemburg. Through all the turmoil of the next four and a half years, the social democrats worked consistently to push back the revolutionary tide.
Clearly, simple reliance on the spontaneity of mass strike movements is insufficient. Every popular movement, however big, is always internally differentiated. While some German workers were drawing revolutionary conclusions, many more were enjoying collective action and joining unions for the very first time.
The union bureaucracy’s base was being challenged, but it was also growing. The movement was advancing, but at different speeds. This provided space for the social democrats to win influence — or for them to be challenged.
In short, there was still a political fight to be waged inside the whole workers’ movement, even during huge strike waves, which in turn requires the political organisation of the growing numbers won to the idea of revolutionary change.
There is also a different kind of mass strike to that described by Luxemburg's pamphlet. The mass strikes in Russia in 1905 were part of a revolution.
But it is also possible for union leaders themselves — even if under pressure from rank and file militancy — to summon a mass strike, carefully control its development, and end it at their pleasure.
Socialist Workers Party founder Tony Cliff coined a term for this — the “bureaucratic mass strike”.
Last month, the head of the Irish TUC stressed carefully how he was collaborating with the police to make sure the demonstration in Dublin went off without trouble.
Tens of thousands responded to the call to action, but it was made clear it was only for one day. Even the Irish prime minister approved.
The 1926 General Strike in Britain was more like this than anything Luxemburg described. The TUC kept control throughout, and called off the strike even when it was still growing, leaving the miners to fight alone and ultimately to face crushing defeat.
The railwaymen’s union leader, Jimmy Thomas, spoke in parliament the day after the strike was stopped. He said, “What I dreaded about this strike more than anything else was this—if by any chance it should have got out of the hands of those who would be able to exercise some control, every sane man knows what would have happened. I thank god it never did.”
Other mass strikes combine elements of the bureaucratic and the revolutionary forms. In May 1968, in France, the official unions called a one-day general strike in solidarity with the students.
But the next day, left wing militants led a factory occupation in Nantes, sparking a huge wave of workplace occupations and strikes. There followed the biggest mass strike in European history.
But even in the May events, the union and party bureaucracies managed to keep control. They kept workers and students apart, and in many workplace occupations Communist Party militants sent most of the workers home.
There was little democratic control, and little networking between occupied workplaces. Union leaders were able to lie to striking workers to end the wave of struggle.
By contrast, although the 1995 public sector strikes in France were smaller, there was more networking and coordination, organised through joint mass meetings between different groups of workers.
How mass strikes develop depends in good part on the degree to which rank and file activists are able to wrest control from union officials, and involve their own members in shaping the movement.
Some of the highest levels of development were seen in the Polish struggles of 1980 that launched the Solidarity union.
Regional inter-factory strike committees compelled the government to come to them for negotiations. The actual talks occurred, not behind closed doors, but in the direct presence of delegates from hundreds of occupied workplaces—and were broadcast on loudspeakers.
Where mass strikes get beyond token one-day events, workers often begin to take control of aspects of society. For example, in the US city of Seattle in 1919, trucks were only allowed to move food supplies with strike committee permits.
Extended mass strikes pose questions about organising food and other needed services. Rank and file initiatives can draw new forces into the struggle.
But even one-day token mass strikes offer valuable opportunities. The most token strike is still a break with routine. It requires mobilisation, propaganda and collective action.
For many workers, such strikes are their opportunity to take part in collective action. They offer new openings for socialist ideas, for extending militants’ networks.
There is no iron wall between different forms of mass strikes. Their actual development depends on how activists shape them, and struggle for rank and file initiatives.
Colin Barker has been active in Manchester’s working class movement for four decades. He is the author of a history of Solidarnosc entitled Festival of the Oppressed and the editor of the collection Revolutionary Rehearsals