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Mass strikes—why do they matter?

This article is over 1 years, 9 months old
Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of mass strikes creates a pathway to revolution. Sam Ord asks what workers building the fightback today can learn from this
Issue 2812
A rally for the RMT union rail strikes

Strikes, like the RMT union rail strike, show the power workers have according to Rosa Luxemburg (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Ordinary people welcomed and took part in supporting the 40,000 rail strikers who walked out of work for three days last month. For socialists, workers’ action and the withdrawal of their labour is a crucial way to fight back. Not only does it hit the bosses’ ­profits, it also raises questions of broader political change in society.

Revolutionary ­Polish-German socialist Rosa Luxemburg argued that mass strikes were the fusion of both economic and political demands. She used this to explain how struggle was the vehicle to radically ­transform society. Luxemburg developed her ideas in her 1906 pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Political Party and Trade Unions. She did this to tackle debate in the German Social Democrat Party over the nature of revolution.

It contained importation lessons from the 1905 revolution in Russia, which sparked large strikes in Germany and saw workers’ action increase confidence to raise political demands. Luxemburg explained how capitalism brought state and economic power much closer together. The capitalist class dominates the working class politically using the state, and economically through exploitation.

So workers’ economic struggle—for instance fighting for higher wages—can develop into a political struggle about who runs society. “The ­economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another,” she wrote. “The political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of soil for the economic struggle.”

During economic fights workers learn about the power of organisation. Here they can gain a wider political consciousness. Economic demands can become political at both higher and lower levels of struggle, whether it’s hundreds of thousands or just a handful of workers striking. This is why revolutionaries argue for longer, bigger strikes. 

Luxemburg added that it works both ways—political struggle can also lead to economic demands. “Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle,” she said. “Extending at the same time its external possibilities and intensifying the inner urge of the workers to better their position and their desire to struggle. 

“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 with the capitalists keeps their fighting energy alive in every political interval.”

The ruling class are scared by this prospect. That’s why they say economic issues facing society, such as rising inflation, have no political cause and are merely a phenomenon. Even trade union leaders say that their power to call workers to down tools shouldn’t be used for political reasons. And Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is opposed to supporting strikes.

Luxemburg analysed this “two pillar” approach when German coal miners went on strike in the Ruhr in 1889. The strike spread across industries—ignoring trade union leaders’ direction—to those who weren’t in a trade union. The workers demanded improved conditions, then soon added that the government upheld workers’ rights. But union leaders were desperate to regain control of the workers. And the main workers’ party—the SPD—branded the strike as purely economic, so not their concern. 

Luxemburg’s analysis was rooted in 1905 Russia, when worker’s economic and political demands sparked a revolution. Under the ruling Russian monarchy life was brutal with peasants and workers alike suffered terrible living and working conditions. Tsar Nicholas II ran a repressive, undemocratic and racist rule. So in January 1905 an unarmed march for civil rights headed to the Winter Palace in the capital Petrograd to present a petition for improved working conditions.

The Imperial Guard shot down protesters in what was known as Bloody Sunday. In protest workers withdrew their labour in a general strike across the city. This bred a period of other strikes, mutinies and uprisings across Russia, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics. The striking workers demanded economic and political change.

Workers confronted the Tsar’s state and fought for their right to protest. Other workers were then inspired to battle to improve their own wages and working conditions. In October a general strike forced the hand of the Tsar when he promised political reform. Luxemburg said class  consciousness awoke “as if by an electric shock”. “The ­proletarian mass 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.” 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”.

She described general strikes as “the living pulse-beat of the revolution and at the same time its most powerful driving wheel”. They are a driving force towards revolution, ­transforming ideas among workers and giving them ­confidence for more fights. That’s why struggle, Luxemburg argued, is the best educator for the masses.

She wrote, “Absolutism in Russia must be overthrown by the proletariat. But in order to be able to overthrow it, the proletariat requires a high degree of political education, of class-consciousness and organisation.” To achieve that can only be done “by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution”.

But mass strikes will reach limits under capitalism. That’s why they have to be taken ­further, to a revolution that can smash the state and make the economic and political demands a reality. The prospect of revolution and general strikes can seem unrealistic for a majority of workers fighting small-scale battles in one workplace. Yet even the smallest strikes build confidence and ideas among workers to win. 

Oppressive ideas such as racism and sexism can fall apart on picket lines, and workers are able to envision a different version of society with them at the helm. But Luxemburg underestimated the lengths the trade union bureaucracy would go to break a mass strike. She wrote that mass political and economic struggles wouldn’t pause to “ask the union leaders whether they had given their blessing”.

She added, “If they stood aside from the movement or opposed it, the result of such behaviour would be only this—the union or party leaders would be swept away.” Leader of the RMT union Mick Lynch has boiled the rail strikes down to demanding no compulsory redundancies. Although their fight is not on the scale of a general strike, workers view their action as a confrontation with high prices and low wages.

Strikes on a mass scale can paralyse the state, but they are not always enough to sweep away the influence of unions and reformist parties. This can be seen in the general strike in Britain in 1926 that was sold out by the union officials, scared of losing control of the workers. This also led Luxemburg to also underestimate the need for a revolutionary party.

The revolutionary party is a force that is able to break the bureaucrats’ control and guide the self-activity of workers. But Luxemburg made clear that workers are central to achieving their own emancipation. She stressed that liberation would not be simply handed by rulers or through a series of reforms. Workers themselves must fight for it.

In the fight for ­self-emancipation, strikes are the working class’s most potent weapon. They are able to combine economic damage to the ruling class with political demands on a mass scale, which can escalate to win a much better society. As Luxemburg explained, “Socialism will not and cannot be created by decrees, nor can it be established by any government, however socialistic.

“Socialism must be created by the masses, must be made by every worker. Where the chains of ­capitalism are forged, there must they be broken.” Working class people today in Britain endure rising inflation, low wages and poor working conditions. Luxemburg’s work is a reminder to all workers the power to change those conditions, as well as the society that causes them, lies within the working class collectively.

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