Notes on the Mass Strike

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Notes on the Mass Strike


The wave of strikes in Poland during the summer of 1980 has rightly been described as a classic example of the mass strike phenomenon analyzed by Rosa Luxemburg in 1906. Such a clear correlation between the workers' movement of recent times in Poland and the events described by Luxemburg in her pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions[1] 75 years ago impels revolutionary socialists to make a thorough assessment of the relevance of Luxemburg's analysis to today's class struggle.

As a contribution to this ongoing assessment we shall try to sketch out, in the following article, to what extent Luxemburg's theory corresponds to the reality of the present battles of the working class.

The economic, social and political conditions of the mass strike

For Rosa Luxemburg, the mass strike was the result of a particular stage in the development of capitalism observable at the turn of the century. The mass strike " a historical phenomenon which, at a given moment, results from social conditions with historic inevitability." (pp 160-161) The mass strike is not an accidental thing, nor does it result from propa­ganda or preparation in advance -- it cannot be artificially created -- it is the product of a definite stage in the evolution of the contra­dictions of capitalism. Although Luxemburg often refers to particular mass strikes, the whole thrust of her pamphlet is to show that a mass strike cannot be viewed in isolation: it only makes sense as a product, of a new historical period.

This new period was invariable in all count­ries. In arguing against the idea that the mass strike was peculiar to Russian absolutism, Luxemburg states that its cause was to be found not just in the conditions of Russia but also in the circumstances of Western Europe and North America: that is, in "...large scale industry with all its consequences -- modern class divisions, sharp social contrasts." (p201) For her the 1905 Russian Revolution, of which the mass strike was such an important part, only realized ", the particular affairs of absolutist Russia the general results of international capitalist development." The Russian Revolution was, according to Luxemburg, the "the forerunner of the new series of proletarian revolutions of the west." (p203)

This ‘present stage' was in fact that of capitalism in its twilight years. The growth of inter-imperialist conflict and the threat of world war, the end of any gradual improvement in the workers' standard of living; in short, the increasing threat to the very existence of the proletariat within capitalism -- these were the new historical circumstances accompanying the advent of the mass strike.

Luxemburg saw clearly that the mass strike was a product of changing economic conditions of historic dimensions, conditions which we know today to be those of the end of capitalist ascendancy, conditions which prefigured those of capitalist decadence.

Powerful concentrations of workers now existed in the advanced capitalist countries, accustomed to collective struggle, whose conditions of life and work were comparable everywhere. The bourgeoisie, as a result of economic development, was becoming a more concentrated class and increasingly identified itself with the state apparatus Like the proletariat, the capitalists had learned to stand together against their class enemy.

Just as economic conditions were making it more difficult for the workers to win reforms at the point of production, so too the "ruin of bourgeois democracy" which Luxemburg mentions in her pamphlet, made it more and more difficult for the proletariat to consolidate any gains on the parliamentary level. Thus the political, as well as the economical, context of the mass strike was not merely Russian absolutism but also the increasing decay of bourgeois rule in every country. In every field -- economic, social and political -- capitalism had laid the basis for huge class confrontations on a world-wide scale.

The purpose of the mass strike

The mass strike did not express a new purpose of the proletarian struggle. It rather expressed the ‘old' purpose of this struggle in a manner appropriate to new historical conditions. The motive behind the fight of the working class will always be the same: the attempt to limit capi­talist exploitation within bourgeois society, and to abolish exploitation together with bour­geois society itself. In the ascendant period of capitalism the workers' struggle was, for histo­rical reasons, typically separated into an imme­diate defensive aspect, implying but postponing the offensive revolutionary aspect for the distant future.

But the mass strike, due to the objective causes mentioned already (leading to the impossibility of the class defending itself within the system) brought the two aspects of the proleta­rian fight together. Therefore, according to Luxemburg any small, apparently defensive strike could explode into generalized confrontations "in the sultry air of the period of revolution". For example:

"The conflict of the two Putilov workers who had been subjected to disciplinary punishment had changed within a week into the prologue of the most violent revolution of modern times." (p l70)

Conversely the revolutionary upsurge, given a momentary setback, could disperse into many isolated strikes which later on, would fertilize a renewed general assault on the system.

Just as the offensive, generalized struggles fused with defensive, localized fights, so too did the economic and political aspects of the workers' struggle interact together in the period of mass strikes. In the parliamentarian period (ie the heyday of capitalist ascendancy) the economic and political aspects of the stru­ggle were separated artificially, again for historically determined reasons. The political struggle was not "directed by the masses themselves in direct action, but in correspondence with the form of the bourgeois state, in a representative fashion by the presence of legislative delegates." But "as soon as the masses appear on the scene" all this changes because "in a revolutionary mass action the political and the economic struggle are one". (p 208) In these conditions the political fights of the workers become intimately linked with the economic struggle, particularly as the indirect political fight in parliament is no longer realistic.

In describing the content of the mass strike, Luxemburg warns, above all, against separating out its different aspects. This is because the hallmark of the mass strike period is the coming together of the different facets of the prole­tarian struggle: offensive/defensive, generalized/ localized, political/economic -- the whole move­ment heading towards revolution. The very nature of the conditions which the proletariat responds to in the mass strike creates an unbreakable inter-connection between these different parts of the working class struggle. To dissect them, to find for example "the purely political mass strike" would by this dissection "as with any other, not perceive the phenomenon in its living essence, but ... kill it altogether". (p 185)

The form of the struggle in the mass strike period

The objective of the trade union form of organization -- to win gains for the workers within the system -- becomes less and less feasible in the conditions giving rise to the mass strike. As Luxemburg said in her later polemic with Karl Kautsky[2], in this period the proletariat didn't go into struggle with the certain prospect that it would win real improvements. She shows statis­tically that a quarter of the contemporary strikes were totally unsuccessful. Rather, workers embarked on strikes because there was no other way to survive -- a situation which inevit­ably opened up the possibility of an offensive generalized struggle. Consequently, the gains of the fight were not so much a gradual economic improvement but the intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat in spite of defeats on the economic level. That's why Luxemburg says that the phase of open insurrection "cannot come in any other way than through the school of a series of preparatory outward ‘defects'". (p 181) In other words, real victory or defeat of the mass strike is not determined in any one of its episodes but in its culminating act -- the revo­lutionary upsurge itself. Thus it was not accidental that the economic and political achievements of the Russian workers obtained by storm in 1905 and before, were clawed back following the defeat of the revolution. The role of the trade unions, to win economic improvement within the capitalist system, was therefore being eclipsed.

There were further aspects of the undermining of the unions by the mass strike, which flowed from the latter's revolutionary implications.

* the mass strike could not be prepared in advance, it emerged without any master plan as the "method of motion of the proletarian mass". The trade unions, devoted to permanent organization, preoccupied with their bank balances and membership figures, could not even hope to be equal to the organization of the mass strikes the form of which evolved in and through the struggle itself.

* the trade unions split the workers and their interests up into all the different branches of industry while the mass strike "flowed together from individual points from different causes", and thus tended to eliminate all divisions within the proletariat.

* the trade unions only organized a minority of the working class while the mass strike drew together all layers of the class from the unionized to the non-unionized.

While the new character of the proletarian struggle was passing the unions by, the unions themselves were siding more and more with the capitalist order against the mass strike. The trade unions' opposition to the mass strike was expressed in two ways according to Luxemburg. One was the straightforward hostility of bureaucrats like Bomelberg, exemplified by the refusal of the trade union congress at Cologne to even discuss the mass strike. To do so, according to the bureaucrats, would be "playing with fire". The other form this opposition took was the apparent support of radical unionists and the French and Italian syndicalists. They were very much in favor of an ‘attempt' with the mass strike, as though this form of struggle could be embarked upon at the whim of the trade union apparatus. But both the opponents and the supporters of the mass strike in the trade unions shared the ahistorical view that the mass strike is not a phenomenon emerging from the very depths of the activity of the working class but merely a technical means of struggle to be decided upon or forbidden according to the taste of the trade unions. Inevitably, the representatives of the unions, at all levels, couldn't comprehend a movement whose impetus not only could not be controlled by them but which ultimately required new forms antagonistic to the unions.

The response to the mass strike of the radi­cal and rank-and-file wing of the unions or the syndicalists was undoubtedly an attempt to be equal to the needs of the class struggle, But it was the form and function of trade unionism itself (the will of its militants notwith­standing) which was being bypassed by the mass strike. Radical unionism expressed a proleta­rian response within the unions. But after the definitive betrayal by the trade unions of the working class in the First World War and the subsequent revolutionary wave, radical unionism was also recuperated and became a valuable weapon for emasculating the class struggle.

We aren't suggesting that this was Luxemburg's conception of the trade union question in her mass strike pamphlet. For her, the bankruptcy of the union approach could still be corrected and this was an understandable point of view at a time when the unions had yet to become the simple agents of capital that they are today. The final chapter of her pamphlet suggests that the subordination of the unions to the direction of the Social Democratic Party could check their reactionary tendencies. But these tendencies turned out to be irredeemable.

Luxemburg also sees the emergence of numerous trade unions during the mass strike in Russia as a natural and healthy result of the wave of stru­ggles. We on the other hand, while agreeing that workers' self-organization can only develop out of real struggles, see this understandable trend as the perpetuation of a tradition rapidly becoming out-dated.

Furthermore, Luxemburg sees the Petrograd Soviet of 1905 as a complementary organization to the unions. In fact history would prove that these two forms were antagonistic to each other. The workers' councils would express the epoch of mass strikes and revolutions. The trade unions were the organs of the era of defensive and localized workers' struggles.

It was no accident that the first workers' council emerged in the wake of the period of mass strikes in Russia. Created by and for the stru­ggle with elected and revocable delegates, these organs could not only regroup all workers in struggle but could centralize all aspects of the combat -- economic and political, offensive and defensive -- into a revolutionary wave. It was the workers' council, anticipating the structure and purpose of future strike committees and general assemblies, that most naturally conformed to the direction and goals of the mass strike movement in Russia.

Even though it was impossible for Luxemburg to draw out all the lessons for working class action in the new period opening up at the turn of the century, revolutionaries today are indebted to her for their comprehension of the organizational consequences of the mass strike. The most import­ant one is that the mass strike and the trade union are, in essence, antagonistic to each other, a consequence implied though not explicit in Luxemburg's pamphlet.

* * * *

We must now try to understand what applicabi­lity, or lack of it, Luxemburg's analysis has for the present day class struggle; to see to what degree the proletarian struggle during the decadence of capitalism confirms or contradicts the main lines of the mass strike as analyzed by her.

Objective conditions of the class struggle in decadence

The period since 1968 expresses the culmina­tion of the permanent crisis of capitalism: the impossibility of any further expansion of the system; the incredible acceleration of inter-imperialist antagonisms, the results of which threaten the end of all human civilization.

Everywhere the state, with a terrible expansion of its repressive arsenal, takes up the interests of the bourgeoisie. Facing it is a working class which, while declining in size in relation to the rest of society since the 1900s has been concentrated still further, and the fate of its existence in each country has been equalized to an unprecedented degree. On the political level the ‘ruin of bourgeois democ­racy' is so blatant that its real function as a smokescreen for the mass terror of the capita­list state can barely be hidden.

In what way do these objective conditions of the class struggle today correspond to the conditions of the mass strike described by Rosa Luxemburg? Their identity lies in the fact that the characteristics of today's period are the final bitter climax of the tendencies in capitalist development prevalent in the 1900s.

The mass strikes of the early years of this century were a response to the end of the era of capitalist ascendancy and the onset of the conditions of capitalist decadence. Considering that these conditions have become absolutely open and chronic today, one would think that the objective propulsion toward the mass strike is a thousand times greater and stronger at the present time than eighty-odd years ago,

The ‘general results of international capi­talist development' which for Luxemburg were the root cause of the emergence of the historic phenomenon of the mass strike, have been arrived at over and over again since the beginning of the century. Today they are more strikingly obvious than ever.

Of course the mass strikes that Luxemburg described didn't fall strictly into the period of capitalist decadence usually delineated by revolutionaries. But we know that while the date of 1914 is a vital landmark in the onset of capitalist senility and the political positions that flow from it, the outbreak of World War I was the confirmation of the economic impasse of the preceding decade or so. 1914 was the conclu­sive proof that the economic, social and politi­cal conditions of capitalist decadence had been well and truly laid.

In this sense the new historic conditions which gave rise to the mass strike in the first place are still with us today. If we were to argue against this we would have to show how the basic conditions facing the proletariat in capi­talism's infrastructure today are decisively different to what they were less than 80 years ago. But this would be difficult to do because the typical conditions of the world in 1905 -- great inter-imperialist contrasts and the frame­work of huge class confrontations -- are at this time more typical than ever! The first decade of the twentieth century was certainly not the apogee of capitalist ascendancy! Capitalism was already over the hill and rolling toward cycles of world war, reconstruction and crisis:

" ...the present Russian Revolution stands at a point of the historical path which is already over the summit, which is on the other side of the culminating point of capitalist society." (p 203) What incredible insight into the phases of ascent and decline of capitalism from this revolutionary in 1906!

The mass strike and the period of revolution

The mass strike then is a result, at root, of the circumstances of capitalism in decline. But for Luxemburg the material causes which were ultimately responsible for the mass strike are not entirely sufficient to explain why this type of fight emerged when it did. For her the mass strike is the product of the revolutionary period. The period of open decline of capitalism must coincide with the undefeated upward movement of the class, in order for the class to be in a position to use the crisis as a lever to advance its own class interests through the mass strike. Conversely, after decisive defeats, the condi­tions of decadence will tend to reinforce the proletariat's passivity rather than give rise to mass strikes. This helps to explain why the mass strike period petered out after the mid­-1920s, and only recently re-emerged, in the present epoch since 1968.

Is today's period, then, one leading to revo­lution like the years 1896-1905 in Russia? Undoubtedly yes. 1968 marked the end of the counter-revolution and opened up an epoch leading to revolutionary confrontations -- not just in one country -- but the whole world over. It might be argued that despite the fact that 1968 marked the end of the era of proletarian defeat we are not yet in a revolutionary period. This is quite true, if by ‘revolutionary period' we understand only the period of dual power and armed insurrec­tion, But Luxemburg meant ‘revolutionary period' in a much wider sense. For her the Russian Revol­ution didn't begin on its ‘official' date of 22 January 1905; she traces its origins right back to 1896, nine years before! -- the year of the powerful strikes in St Petersburg. The time of open insurrection in 1905 was for Luxemburg the culmination of a long period of revolution of the Russian working class.

In fact this is the only coherent way of interpreting the concept of the revolutionary period. If a revolution is the assumption of power by one class at the expense of the old ruling class, then the subterranean reversal of the old balance of class forces in favor of the revolutionary class is as vital a part of the revolutionary period as the moment of, open fighting, military clashes and so forth. This doesn't mean that both aspects of the revolutionary period are exactly the same - 1896=1905 -- but that they can't be arbitra­rily divided and the open insurrectionary phase separated and opposed to its prepara­tory phase.

It we were to do this we would be incapable of explaining why Luxemburg dates the beginning of the mass strike movement in Russia as 1896, or why she gives numerous examples of mass strikes in countries where no insurrection was taking place at the time. Furthermore Luxem­burg's famous statement that the mass strike was the ‘rallying idea' of a movement which might ‘last for decades' would be incomprehensible from the vision that only the period of insurrec­tion itself can give rise to mass strikes.

Of course, at the time of the overthrow of the old ruling class the mass strikes will reach their highest point of development -- but this doesn't at all contradict the fact that the period of mass strikes begins when the perspec­tive of revolution is first opened up. For us this means that the epoch of today' mass strikes begin in 1968.

The dynamic of today's struggle

It has already been stated that the basic content of the proletarian struggle remains the same but expresses itself differently according to the historical period. The tendency for the different aspects of this struggle to come toge­ther -- the attempt to limit exploitation and the attempt to abolish it altogether -- in the mass strikes described by Luxemburg, is once again with us today, propelled by the same material contingencies as 80 years ago. The characteristic nature of the struggle of the past twelve years (ie what distinguished the battle since 1968 from the fight of the previous 40 years) is that of the interaction of the defensive with the offensive, the oscillation from economic to political confrontations.

This is not necessarily a question of the conscious plan of the working class, but a result of the fact that the prospect of even preserving living standards becomes less and less possible today. It's just because of this that all strikes tend to become battles for survival:

"...strikes which grow not ‘ever more infre­quent' but ever more frequent; which mostly end without any ‘definite successes' a all -- but in spite or rather because of this are of greater significance as explosions of a deep inner contradiction which spills over into the realm of polities". It's the economic conditions of open crisis today which, as in the 1900s, bring forth the dynamic of the mass strike, and begin to concentrate the different aspects of the working class struggle.

But perhaps in describing the present phase as a period of mass strikes we're missing something. Aren't most of the struggles of the past twelve years, called, continued and ended by the trade unions? Doesn't this mean that today's struggles are trade unionist that is motivated by purely defensive and economic interests having no conn­ection with the phenomenon of the mass strike? Besides the fact that the most significant of the battles of the last 12 years have broken trade union containment, such a conclusion would fail to account for a basic truth of the class struggle in the decadence of capitalism: within every strike which appears to be controlled by the unions, there are two class forces at work. In all union-controlled struggles today, a fight now open, now concealed, is fought between the workers themselves and their so-called represen­tatives: the trade union officials of the bourgeoisie. Thus workers in decadent capitalism have the following double misfortune: not only their open adversaries like the employers and the right-wing parties are their enemies, but so are their alleged friends the trade unions and all their supporters.

Today workers are driven by the crisis and their self-confidence as an undefeated class to question the purely defensive economic and sec­tional limitations imposed on their struggle. The trade unions, however, have the job of maintaining order in production and ending strikes. These capitalist organizations continually attempt to derail the workers into the dead-end of trade unionism. The battle between the unions and the proletariat, sometimes overt but still more often covert, is fundamentally not a conse­quence of the conscious plans of the workers or the trade unions but a result of objective eco­nomic causes which, in the last analysis, force them to act against each other.

The motor force of the contemporary class struggle is therefore not to be found in the depth of illusions of workers in the trade unions at any given time, nor in the most radical actions of the unions to stretch with the stru­ggle at a certain moment, but in the dynamic of the conflicting class interests of the workers and the trade unions.

This internal mechanism of the period leading to revolutionary confrontations will, along with the increasing strength and clarity of communist intervention, reveal to workers the nature of the struggle they are already engaged in, while the attempt of the trade unions both to mystify the workers and to defend the ever more decrepit capitalist economy will lead workers to destroy in practice these organs of the bourgeoisie.

It would therefore be disastrous for would-be revolutionaries to judge the dynamic of the workers' struggle by its trade unionist appearance, as do all strands of bourgeois opinion.

The pre-condition for enlightening and clarifying the revolutionary possibilities in the workers' struggle is obviously recognizing that these possibilities actually exist.

It is not accidental that the Polish summer of 1980, the highest moment in the present period of mass strikes since 1968, has revealed starkly the contradiction between the real momentum of the workers' struggle and that of trade unionism. The Polish strike wave encompassed literally the mass of the working class in that country, rea­ching out to all industries and occupations. From dispersed points and from different initial causes the movement coalesced, through sympathy strikes and solidarity actions, into a general strike against the capitalist state. The workers were originally attempting to defend themselves against food shortages and price rises. Faced with an intransigent, brutal state and a bank­rupt national economy, the movement went onto the offensive, and developed political objectives.

The workers threw aside the trade unions and created their own organizations: general assemb­lies and strike committees to centralize their struggle, enlisting the enormous energy of the proletarian mass. Here was a peerless example of the mass strike!

The fact that the demand for free trade unions became dominant in the strikes' objectives; the fact that the MKS (inter-factory strike committ­ees) dissolved themselves to make way for the new union Solidarity, can't obscure the real dynamic of the millions of Polish workers who made the ruling class tremble in historic style.

The point of departure for revolutionary activity in 1981 is to recognize that the mass strike in Poland is the harbinger of future revolutionary confrontations, whilst identifying the immense illusions workers still have in trade unionism today. The events in Poland recently have dealt a cruel blow to the theory that the class struggle in our time is trade unionist, despite the misleading impressions of superficial appearances.

But if one theory is that the class struggle is by nature a trade unionist one, even at its highest moments, another is that these highest moments expressed in mass strikes are exceptional phenomena, quite distinct in character from less dramatic episodes of class combat. According to this supposition, most of the time the workers' struggle is simply defensive and economistic and thus falls organically under the aegis of the trade unions, while on the other, isolated occasions (like in Poland) the workers go onto the offensive, taking up political demands, thereby reflecting a different purpose than before.

Besides being incoherent -- implying that the proletarian struggle can be trade unionist (ie capitalist) or proletarian at different times -- this view falls into the trap of separating out the different aspects of the mass strike period -- defensive/offensive, economic/political -- and thus as Luxemburg said: undermining the living essence of the mass strike and killing it altogether. In the mass strike period, every defensive struggle, however modest, contains the germ or possibility of an offensive movement and offensive struggle is founded on the constant need of the class to defend itself. The inter­connection between the political struggle and the economic struggle is a similar one.

But the view that separates out these aspects interprets the mass strike in isolation -- as a strike with masses of people, occurring out of the blue, as the result basically of conjunctural circumstances: like the weakness of the trade unions in a given country, or the backwardness of this or that economy. This view sees the mass strike as only an offensive, political affair underplaying the fact that this aspect of the mass strike is nourished by defensive, localized and economic struggles. Above all, this stand­point fails to see that we are living in the period of mass strikes today, propelled not by local or temporary conditions but by the gen­eral plight of capitalist decadence to be found in every country.

Yet the fact that some of the most significant examples of mass strikes have taken place in the backward countries and the eastern bloc seems to lend credence to the idea of the exceptional nature of this type of struggle, just as the occurrence of the mass strike in Russia in the early 1900s seemed to justify the vision that they wouldn't be found breaking out on western soil.

But the answer Luxemburg gave to the idea of the Russian exclusivity of the mass strike is very relevant today too. She admitted that the existence of parliamentarism and trade unionism in the west could temporarily stifle the impuls­ion toward the mass strike, but not eliminate it altogether because it sprang from the basis of international capitalist development. If the mass strike in Germany and elsewhere in the west took on a ‘concealed and latent' character rather than a ‘practical and active' quality as it did in Russia, this could not hide the fact that the mass strike was an historic and inter­national phenomenon. This argument is applic­able today to the idea that the mass strike can't be found in the west. It's true of course that Russia in 1905 represented a huge qualit­ative leap in the development of the class struggle, just as Poland 1980 has today. The present evolution of class combativity points to greater and greater heights to be reached by the offensive generalized and politicized peaks of the struggle. But it's equally true that these peaks, like Poland, are intimately connected to the ‘concealed and latent' manifestations of the mass strike in the west, because it emerges from the same causes and confronts the same problems.

So, even if parliamentarism and the soph­isticated trade unions of the west can muffle the tendencies which break out in huge mass strikes in Poland, these tendencies haven't disappeared. On the contrary, the open mass strikes which have up till now been mainly contained in the west will accumulate even greater force when their restrictions are swept away. In the end it is the scale of the contr­adictions in capitalism which will determine how explosive future mass strikes will become: ".., the more highly developed the antagonism is between capital and labor, the more effective and decisive must mass strikes become." (p202)

What then is the perspective for the prog­ression of the mass strike phenomenon, in the east and the west? Rather than a sudden and complete break with economic, defensive and union-contained struggles, the qualitative leaps of consciousness, self-organization in the mass strike will advance in an upward spiral of workers' struggles. The concealed and latent phases of the fight, which will often follow open confrontations, as they have in Poland, will continue to fertilize future mass strike explosions. This undulating movement of advance and retreat, offense and defense, dispersion and generalization, will become more intense in relation to the growing impact of austerity and the threat of war. Finally, "... in the storm of the revolutionary period lost ground is recovered, unequal things are equalized and the whole pace of social progress changes at one stroke to the double-quick." (p 206)

However, if we have presented the objective possibility of the evolution of the mass strike, it musn't be forgotten that workers will have to become more and more conscious of the struggle in which they are engaged in order to bring it to a successful conclusion. This is particularly vital in regard to the trade unions which, over the past century, have adapted themselves to the mass strike the better to contain it. There isn't room to go into all the means of adaptation the unions can employ, we can only mention that they generally take the form of false substitutes for the real thing: sham generalization of struggles, radical tactics emptied of any affect, political demands which amount to supporting one clown in the parliamentary circus.

The victorious development of the mass strike will ultimately depend on the ability of the working class to defeat the fifth column of the trade unions as well as their open enemies, like the police, employers, right-wing politicians, etc.

But the main aim of this text isn't to elab­orate the obstacles of consciousness on the road to the successful culmination of the mass strike. Rather, it is to outline the objective possib­ilities of the mass strike in our era, on the scale of economic necessity and organization.

The form of the working class struggle today

The mass strike period tends to undermine the trade unions in the long term. The apparent form of the modern class struggle -- the trade unionist one, is just that -- appearance. Its real purpose doesn't correspond to the function of the unions but obeys objective causes which propel the class into the dynamic of the mass strike. What then is the genuine, most appropriate form of the mass strike in our period? The general assembly of workers in struggle and its committees of elected, revocable delegates.

Yet this form, which is animated by the same spirit as the soviets themselves, is the except­ion and not the rule in the organization of the majority of workers' struggles today. It's only at its highest moments that the struggle throws up mass assemblies and strike committees outside of union control. And even in these situations, as in Poland in 1980, the workers' organizations often succumb in the end to trade unionism. But we can't explain this predicament of today's struggles by asserting that sometimes they are trade unionist and at other times under the sway of proletarian self-organization. The only coher­ent interpretation of the facts is that it is extremely difficult for real workers' self-organization to emerge.

The bourgeoisie has the following advantages in this domain: all its organs of power -- economic, social, military, political and ideological -- are already permanently in place, tried and tested over decades. In particular, the trade unions have the advantage of the workers' misplaced confidence due to historical memory of their once proletarian nature. The unions also have an organizational structure permanently within the working class. The proletariat has only recently emerged from the deepest defeat in its history without any permanent organizations to protect it.

How difficult it is, therefore, for the prol­etariat to find the form most appropriate to its struggle: As soon as discontent as much as raises its head, the unions are there to ‘take charge' of it, with the connivance of all the represent­atives of the capitalist order.

Furthermore, workers don't go into struggle today in order to realize high ideals, to deliberately fight trade unions, but for very practical and immediate purposes -- to try and preserve their livelihoods. That's why in most cases today workers accept the trade union self-appointed ‘leadership'. No wonder it's vainly when the trade unions are non-existent or openly oppose strikes that the general assembly form emerges.

Only after confronting the sabotage of the unions again and again, in the context of a deepening world crisis and developing momentum of the mass strike will the independent general assembly form become typical rather than atypical as in the present stage in the class struggle. In Western Europe this will mean open confront­ation with the state.

Even then, workers will confront further problems; although their elemental conscious control of their struggles will already have given a hugh impetus on the road to revolution. The trade unions' permanent presence on a national level will continue to be an enormous threat to the class, whose temporary, assembly-controlled struggles may begin from localized and dispersed points and involve bitter fight­ing in order to centralize on even a regional level.

Because the mass strike is not a single event but a ‘rallying idea of a movement lasting years, perhaps decades' (that is, an evolving trend, a developing movement) its form, as a result, will not emerge immediately, perfectly, fully mature either. Its genuine form will take shape in response to the quickening pace of the mass strike period, punctuated by qualitative leaps in self-organization as well as partial retreats and recuperation, under constant fire from the trade unions, but aided by the clear inter­vention of revolutionaries. More than anything else, the historic law of motion of the class struggle today doesn't lie in its form but in the objective conditions which push it forward. The dynamic of the mass strike period:

"... does not lie in the mass strike itself nor in its technical details but in the political and social proportions of the forces of the revolution." (p182)

Does this mean that the form of the class struggle is unimportant today, that it doesn't matter really whether the workers remain within union containment or not? Not at all. If the driving force behind the actions of all classes is economic interest, these interests can only be realized by the necessary level of conscious­ness and organization. And the economic interest of the working class -- to abolish exploitation altogether -- requires a degree of self-organization and self-consciousness never achieved by any other class in history. Therefore, to bring its subjective awareness into harmony with its economic interests is the primordial task of the proletariat.

If the proletariat proved incapable of liber­ating itself at decisive moments from the organizational and ideological grip of the trade unions, then the class would never realize the promise of the mass strike -- the revolution -- but be crushed by the counter-offensive of the bourgeoisie.


This article has tried to show that the move­ment in Poland in the summer of 1980 was not an isolated example of the mass strike phenomenon but rather the highest expression of a general international tendency in the proletarian class struggle whose objective causes and essential dynamic were analyzed by Rosa Luxemburg 75 years ago.

To understand this is to realize that the message of revolutionaries today is not a utopian joke but conforms to a historical trend of universal proportions.


[1] All quotes come from Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, New York 1970

[2] Theory and Practice, News and Letters pamphlet, 1980.

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