Monday, February 21, 2005

Rosa Luxemburg - The Mass Strike

Rosa Luxemburg is one of my heroines. Her revolutionary zeal, her lifelong confidence that "another world is possible", her powerful writing and her commitment to revolutionary politics can only serve to inspire radicals today.

However what is often forgotten about Luxemburg is that she was more than an orator and propagandist, she was also a Marxist theorist who tried to build on the writings and works of those that had gone before and made some very important new contributions to the canon of revolutionary writings.

It is in this context, as well as the centenary of the 1905 Russian Revolution that her little book The Mass Strike has been reissued by Bookmarks. The text is available online, though why bother hurting your eyes like that when it only costs four quid.

The book takes the amazing events of the Russian Revolution of 1905 as a case study. Millions of men and women, living under an almost feudal dictatorship and facing massive repression went on strike, protested and demonstrated for an improvement to their conditions. In particular the 8 hour day, instead of the 12 or 13 hours normally worked in the sweatshops and factories of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw.

But Luxemburg doesn't simply report on the events - even though she smuggled herself into Poland (then part of the Russian Empire) to take part. The mass strike in the way it was playing out in Russia was a new feature of revolution. Previously such strikes had been seen by the leaders of the international socialist movement as a defensive mechanism, but now the strikes took on an offensive stance, rapidly winning gains and rights never before seen by ordinary people in backward Russia.

Luxemburg is at her best when describing how the strikes radicalised people and gave confidence to other people, how in a few weeks of action, the strikers had gained more for themselves than German unions had in decades of peaceful activity.

But perhaps the most important part of this book is Luxemburg's understanding of how the economic demands of the strikers lead to political demands, and how the reverse is also true. The very nature of Russia's economy, the lack of political representation and the repression unleashed by the Tsar meant that workers couldn't strike about hours of work, without finding yourself in confrontation with the realities of Tsarist society.

Luxemburg generalises this further - that any economic mass strike will inevitably lead to political generalisations and vice versa. The two sides of the struggle feeding each other. You can see this in microcosm in today's debates about pensions in the British Trade Unions. Any time you hear a trade unionist talk about the lack of money for pensions, they inevitably point out that the government has money for war.

It's worth adding at this point that this book isn't the easiest book to read - unless you know a bit about the events of 1905 and some of the debates taking place in the international socialist movement at the beginning of the last century. But even if you don't there is much to be gleaned from reading this - even if you only come away wanting to know more about Rosa Luxemburg and her struggles against war and for socialism.

Luxemburg's book has stood the test of time - there have been mass strikes aplenty in the last few years around the world, there will be more in the future. The republication of her book will help arm a new generation with the lessons of the past.

Related Reviews

Campbell - A Rebel's Guide to Rosa Luxemburg
Luxemburg - Reform or Revolution
Trotsky - 1905

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