Tony Cliff

Rosa Luxemburg

Mass strikes and revolution

In May 1891 a mass strike of some 125,000 Belgian workers demanded changes in the electoral system. In April 1893 another strike, embracing about a quarter of a million workers, broke out for a similar demand. The outcome was universal, but unequal, franchise, the votes of the rich and “cultured” counting for two or three times those of workers and peasants. The workers, dissatisfied, carried out another mass strike nine years later, demanding a complete revision of the Constitution. These mass political strikes made a great impression on Rosa Luxemburg. Two articles devoted to the subject – The Belgian Experiment [22], and Yet a Third Time on the Belgian Experiment [23] – point out the revolutionary nature of the mass political strike as the specific working-class weapon of struggle. For Rosa Luxemburg the mass strikes, political and economic, constitute a central factor in the revolutionary struggle for workers’ power.

Rosa Luxemburg’s enthusiasm for this method and incisive understanding of it reach a new height with the Russian Revolution of 1905:

In former bourgeois revolutions where, on the one hand, the political education and leadership of the revolutionary masses was undertaken by the bourgeois parties, and, on the other hand, the revolutionary task was limited to the overthrow of the government, the short battle on the barricades was the appropriate form of revolutionary struggle. 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 more industry becomes the prevalent form of the economy, the more prominent the role of the working class, and the more developed the conflict between labour and capital, the more powerful and decisive become the mass strikes. The earlier main form of bourgeois revolutions, the battle on the barricades, the open encounter with the armed State power, is a peripheral aspect of the revolution today, only one moment in the whole process of the mass struggle of the proletariat. [24]

Budapest, 1956!

Contrary to all reformists who see a Chinese wall between partial struggles for economic reform and the political struggle for revolution, Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that in a revolutionary period the economic struggle grows into a political one, and vice versa:

The movement does not go only in one direction, from an economic to a political struggle, but also in the opposite direction. Every important political mass action, after reaching its peak, results in a series of economic mass strikes. And this rule applies not only to the individual mass strike, but to the revolution as a whole. With the spread, clarification and intensification of the political struggle not only does the economic struggle not recede, but on the contrary it spreads and at the same time becomes more organised and intensified. There exists a reciprocal influence between the two struggles. Every fresh attack and victory of the political struggle has a powerful impact on the economic struggle, in that at the same time as it widens the scope for the workers to improve their conditions and strengthens their impulse to do so, it enhances their fighting spirit. After every soaring wave of political action, there remains a fertile sediment from which sprout a thousand economic struggles. And the reverse also applies. The workers’ constant economic struggle against capital sustains them at every pause in the political battle. The economic struggle constitutes, so to speak, the permanent reservoir of working class strength from which political struggles always imbibe new strength. The untiring economic fight of the proletariat leads every moment to sharp isolated conflicts here and there from which explode unforeseen political struggles on an immense scale.

In a word, the economic struggle is the factor that advances the movement from one political focal point to another. The political struggle periodically fertilises the ground for the economic struggle. Cause and effect interchange every second. Thus we find that the two elements, the economic and political, do not incline to separate themselves from one another during the period of the mass strikes in Russia, not to speak of negating one another, as pedantic schemes would suggest. [25]

The logical and necessary climax of the mass strike is the “open uprising which can only be realised as the culmination of a series of partial uprisings which prepare the ground, and therefore are liable to end for a time in what looks like partial ‘defeats’, each of which may seem to be ‘premature’.” [26]

And what a rise in class consciousness results from the mass strikes:

The most precious thing, because it is the most enduring, in the sharp ebb and flow of the revolutionary wave, is the proletariat’s spiritual growth. The advance by leaps and bounds of the intellectual stature of the proletariat affords an inviolable guarantee of its further progress in the inevitable economic and political struggles ahead. [27]

And what idealism workers rise to! They put aside thoughts of whether they have the wherewithal to support themselves and their families during the struggle. They do not ask whether all the preliminary technical preparations have been made:

Once a really serious period of mass strikes opens up, all such “costing operations” are something like an attempt to measure the ocean with a bucket. And it is an ocean, a sea of terrible troubles and privations for the proletariat – that is the invariable cost of every revolution. The solution which a revolutionary period brings with it for this apparently insoluble problem of providing material support for the strikers, is to generate such a tremendous volume of idealism among the masses that they appear to become almost immune to the most terrible privations. [28]

It was this glimpse of the magnificent revolutionary initiative and self-sacrifice that the workers rise to during a revolution that justified Rosa’s faith.




22. Die Neue Zeit, 26 April 1902.

23. Die Neue Zeit, 14 May 1902.

24. R. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte, vol.I, pp.227-228.

25. R. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte, vol.I, pp.201-202.

26. R. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte, vol.I, p.274.

27. R. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte, vol.I, p.187.

28. R. Luxemburg, Gesammelte, vol.III, p.457.


Last updated on 20.4.2003