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Rosa Luxemburg

Theory & Practice

Part 2

And now to the mass strike. To explain his unexpected stand against the slogan of the mass strike in the latest Prussian voting rights campaign, Comrade Kautsky created a whole theory of two strategies: the “strategy of overthrow” and the “strategy of attrition.” Now Comrade Kautsky goes a step farther, and constructs ad hoc yet another whole new theory of the conditions for political mass strikes in Russia and in Germany.

He begins with general reflections on the deceptiveness of historical examples, and how plausibly one can, with insufficient caution, find appropriate justification in history for all strategies, methods, aims, institutions, and earthly things in general. These observations, of a harmless nature in their initial breadth and generality, soon show their less than harmless tendency and purpose in this formulation: that it is “especially dangerous to appeal to revolutionary examples.” These warnings, in spirit somewhat reminiscent of Comrade Frohme’s fatherly admonitions, are directed specifically against the Russian Revolution [of 1905]. Thereupon follows a theory intended to show and prove the total antithesis of Russia and Germany: Russia, where conditions for the mass strike exist and Germany, where they do not.

In Russia we have the weakest government in the world, in Germany the strongest; in Russia an unsuccessful war with a small Asian land, in Germany the “glory of almost a century of continuous victories over the strongest great powers in the world.” In Russia we have economic backwardness and a peasantry which, until 1905, believed in the Tsar like a god; in Germany we have the highest economic development, and with it the concentrated might of the cartels which suppresses the working masses through the most ruthless terrorism. In Russia we have the total absence of political freedom; in Germany we have political freedom which provides the workers various “safe” forms for their protest and struggle, and hence they “are totally preoccupied with organizations, meetings, the press, and elections of all sorts.” And the result of these contrasts is this: in Russia the strike was the only possible form of proletarian struggle, and therefore the strike was in itself a victory, even though it was planless and ineffectual – and further, because strikes were forbidden, every strike was in itself a political act. On the other hand, in Western Europe – here the German schema is extended to all of Western Europe – such “amorphous, primitive strikes” have long been outmoded: here one only strikes when a positive result can be expected.

The moral of all this is that the long revolutionary period of mass strikes, in which economic and political action, demonstration and fighting strikes continuously alternate and are transformed one into the other, is a specific product of Russian backwardness. In Western Europe, and especially in Germany, even a demonstration mass strike like he Russian ones would be extremely difficult, almost impossible, “not in spite, but because of the half-century old socialist movement.” As a means of struggle, the political mass strike could only employed here in a single, final battle “to the death” – and therefore only when the question, for the proletariat, was to conquer or die.

In passing only, I wish to point out that Comrade Kautsky’s depiction of the Russian situation is, in the most important points, an almost total reversal of the truth. For example, the Russian peasantry did not suddenly begin to rebel in 1905. From the so-called emancipation of the serfs in 1861, with a single pause between 1885 and 1895, peasant uprisings run like a red thread through the internal history of Russia: uprisings against the landowners as well as violent resistance to the organs of government. It is this which occasioned the Minister of Interior’s well-known circular letter of 1898 which placed the entire Russian peasantry under martial law. The new and exceptional in 1905 was simply that, for the first time, the peasant masses’ chronic rebellion took on political and revolutionary meaning as concomitant and totalization of the urban proletariat’s goal-conscious, revolutionary class action.

Even more turned around, if this is possible, is Comrade Kautsky’s conception of the question’s main point – the strike and mass strike actions of the Russian proletariat. The picture of chaotic, “amorphous, primitive strikes” by the Russian workers – who strike out of bewilderment, simply to strike, without goal or plan, without demands and “definite successes” – is a blooming fantasy. The Russian strikes of the revolutionary period effected a very respectable raise in wages, but above all they succeeded in almost universally shortening the working day to ten hours, and in many cases to nine. With the most tenacious struggle, they were able to uphold the eight-hour day for many weeks in St. Petersburg. They won the right to organize not only for the workers, but for the state’s postal and railroad employees as well: and until the counter-revolution gained the upper hand, they defended this right from all attacks. They broke the overlordship of the employers, and in many of the larger enterprises they created workers’ committees to regulate working conditions. They undertook the task of abolishing piecework, household work, night work, factory penalties, and of forcing strict observance of Sundays off.

These strikes, from which promising union organizations rapidly sprouted in almost all industries with vigorous life, and with solid leadership, treasuries, constitutions, and an imposing union press – these strikes, from which as bold a creation as the famous St. Petersburg Council of Workers’ Delegates was born for unified leadership of the entire movement in the giant empire – these Russian strikes and mass strikes were so far from being “amorphous and primitive” that in boldness, strength, class solidarity, tenacity, material gains, progressive aims and organizational results, they could safely be set alongside any “West European” union movement. Granted, since the revolution’s defeat most of the economic gains, together with the political ones, have little by little been lost. But this plainly does not alter the character which the strikes had as long as the revolution lasted.

Not “organized” and hence “planless,” these economic, partial, and local conflicts continuously, “spontaneously” grew into general political and revolutionary mass strikes – from which, in turn, further local actions sprouted up thanks to the revolutionary situation and the potential energy of the masses’ class solidarity. The course and immediate outcome of such a general political-revolutionary action was also not “organized” and elemental – as will always be the case in mass movements and stormy times. But if, like Comrade Kautsky, one wishes to measure the progressive character of strikes and “rational strike leadership” by their immediate successes, the great period of strikes in Russia achieved relatively greater economic and social-political successes in a few years of revolution than the German union movement has in the four decades of its existence. And all this is due to neither a special heroism, nor a special genius of the Russian proletariat: it is simply the measure of a revolutionary period’s quickstep, against the leisurely gait of peaceful development within the framework of bourgeois parliamentarianism.

As Comrade Kautsky said in his Social Revolution, 2nd edition, p.63:

There remains only one objection which can be, and hence all the more frequently will be raised to this “revolutionary romanticism”: that the situation in Russia proves nothing for us in Western Europe because our circumstances are fundamentally different.

Naturally, I am not unaware of the differences in circumstances: but they should not, on the other hand, be exaggerated. Our Comrade Luxemburg’s latest pamphlet clearly demonstrates that the Russian working class has not fallen as low and achieved as little as is generally accepted. Just as the English workers must break themselves of looking down on the German proletariat as a backward class, so we in Germany must give up viewing the Russians in the same way.

And further on:

As a political factor, the English workers today stand even lower than the workers of the economically most backward and politically least free of European states: Russia. It is their living revolutionary Reason that gives the Russians their great practical strength; and it was their renunciation of revolution and self-limitation to immediate interests, their so-called “political realism,” that made the English a zero in real politics.

But for the present, let us set aside the Russian situation and turn to Comrade Kautsky’s depiction of the Prusso-German situation. Strange to say, here too we learn of marvels. For example, it has been until now the prerogative of East Elbian Junkerdom to live by the ennobling conviction that Prussia possesses “the strongest contemporary government.” How Social Democracy, on the other hand, should in all seriousness come to acknowledge a government to be “the strongest” which “is nothing but a military despotism embellished with parliamentary forms, alloyed with a feudal admixture, obviously influenced by the bourgeoisie, shored up with a bureaucracy and watched over by the police” – I find that somewhat hard to grasp. That foolish picture of misery, the Bethmann-Hollweg “cabinet”: a government reactionary to the bone and therefore without a plan or political direction, with lackeys and bureaucrats instead of statesmen, with a whimsical zig-zag course; internally the football of a vulgar Junker clique and the insolent intrigues of a courtly rabble; in its foreign policy, the football of a personal authority accountable to none; only a few years ago the contemptible shoeshine boy of the “weakest government in the world,” Russian Tsarism; propped up by an army which to an enormous extent consists of Social Democrats, with the stupidest drill, the most infamous mistreatment of soldiers in the world – this is the “strongest contemporary government”! In any case, a unique contribution to the materialist conception of history, which until now has not deduced the “strength” of a government from its backwardness, hatred of culture, “slavish obedience,” and police spirit.

Besides, Comrade Kautsky has done yet more for this “strongest government”: he has even wooed her with the “glory of almost a century of continuous victories over the strongest great powers in the world.” In the veterans’ associations they have lived, until now, solely on the “glorious campaign” of 1870. To construe his “century” of Prussian glory, Comrade Kautsky has apparently added in the Battle of Jena – as well as the Hunn Campaign in China led by our Count Waldersee,[A] and Trotha’s victory over the Hottentot women and children in the Kalahari.[B]

But as it says in Comrade Kautsky’s beautiful article of December 1906, The State of the Reich, at the end of a long and detailed description:

Comparing the Reich’s shining outward state at its beginning with the present situation, one must confess that never has a more splendid inheritance of might and prestige been more rashly squandered ..., never in its history has the German Reich’s position in the world been weaker, and never has a German government more thoughtlessly and wilfully played with fire than at the present time. [Neue Zeit, XXV, 1, p.427]

Of course, at that time the main thing was to paint the shining electoral victory that awaited us in the 1907 elections[C] and the overwhelming catastrophes which, according to Comrade Kautsky, would inevitably follow it – with the same inevitability with which he now has them follow the next Reichstag election.

On the other hand, from his depiction of economic and political conditions in Germany and Western Europe, Comrade Kautsky constructs a strike policy which – measured against reality – is a downright astonishing fantasy. “The worker,” Comrade Kautsky assures us, “in Germany – and throughout Western Europe as a whole – takes up the strike as a means of struggle only when he has the prospect of attaining definite successes with it. If these successes fail to appear, the strike has failed its purpose. With this discovery, Comrade Kautsky has pronounced a harsh judgement on the practice of German and “West European” unions. For what do the strike statistics in Germany show us? Of the 19,766 strikes and lockouts we have had, in all, from 1890 to 1908, an entire quarter (25.2 percent) were wholly unsuccessful; almost another quarter (22.5 percent) were only partly successful; and less than half (49.5 percent) were totally successful. [Correspondence Bulletin of the General Commission of German Unions, 1909, Nr.7, Statistical Supplement.]

These statistics just as crassly contradict the theory of Comrade Kautsky that because of the effective development of the workers’ organizations as well as the cartels, “the struggles between these organizations likewise grow ever more centralized and concentrated” and on this account “ever more infrequent.” In the decade 1890 through 1899, we had a total of 3,722 strikes and lockouts in Germany; in the nine years 1900 through 1908, the time of greatest growth for both cartels and unions, we had 15,994. So little are strikes growing “ever more infrequent” that they have rather grown four times as numerous in the last decade. And while in the previous decade 425,14.2 workers took part in strikes, in the last nine years 1,709,415 did: once again four times as many, and thus on the average approximately the same number per strike.

According to the schema of Comrade Kautsky, one quarter to one half of all these union struggles in Germany have “failed their purpose.” But every union agitator knows very well that “definite successes” in the form of material gains absolutely are not and cannot be the sole purpose, the sole determining aspect in economic struggles. Instead, union organizations “in Western Europe” are forced step by step into a position which compels them to take up the struggle with limited prospects of “definite successes”: as specifically shown by the statistics of purely defensive strikes, of which a whole 32.5 percent turned out completely unsuccessful. That such “unsuccessful” strikes have, nevertheless, not “failed their purpose”; that on the contrary they are a direct condition of life for the defense of the workers’ standard of living, for sustaining the workers’ fighting spirit, for impeding future onslaughts by the employers: these are the elementary ground rules of German union practice.

And further, it is generally known that besides a “definite success” in material gains, and indeed without this success, strikes “in Western Europe” have perhaps their most important effect as beginning points of union organization: and it is specifically in backward places and hard-to-organize branches of labor that such “unsuccessful” and “ill-advised” strikes are most common, from which over and over arise the foundations of union organization. The history of the Vogtland textile workers’ struggles and sufferings, whose most famous chapter is the great Crimmitschau strike,[D] is but a single testimony to this. The “strategy” which Comrade Kautsky has now set forth is not merely incapable of directing a great political mass action, but even a normal union movement.

But the above-mentioned schema for “West European” strikes has yet another gaping hole – just at the point, in fact, where the economic struggle brings the question of the mass strike and thus our own proper theme, into consideration. That is, this schema entirely excludes the fact that it is just “in Western Europe” where ever longer more violent strikes without much “plan” break like an elemental storm over those regions where a great exploited mass of proletarians stands opposed to the concentrated ruling power of capital or the capitalistic state: strikes which grow not “ever more infrequent” but ever more frequent; which mostly end without any “definite successes” at all – but in spite, or rather just because of this are of greater significance as explosions of a deep inner contradiction which spills over into the realm of politics. These are the periodic giant strikes of the miners in Germany, in England, in France, in America; these are the spontaneous mass strikes of the farm workers, as they have occurred in Italy and in Galicia; and further, the mass strikes of the railroad workers which break out now in this state, now in that one.

As it says in Comrade Kautsky’s excellent article on The Lessons of the Miners’ Strike of 1905 in the Ruhr district:

In this way alone can substantial advances be realized for the miners. The strike against the mine owners has become hopeless: from now on the strike must step forward as political; its demands, its tactics must be calculated to set legislation in motion ...

And Comrade Kautsky continues:

This new union tactic of the political strike, of uniting union and political action, is in fact the only one which remains possible for the miners; and it is the only one certain to reanimate union as well as parliamentary action, and to give heightened aggressive strength to both.

It could appear, perhaps, that here under “political action” we are to understand parliamentary action and not political mass strikes. Comrade Kautsky destroys every doubt, declaring point-blank:

But the great decisive actions of the struggling proletariat will be fought out more and more through various sorts of political strikes. And here practice strides forward faster than theory. For while we discuss the political strike and search for its theoretical formulation and confirmation, one mighty political mass strike after another flames up through the spontaneous combustion of the masses – or rather every mass strike becomes a political action, every great political test of strength climaxes in a mass strike, whether among the miners, the proletariat of Russia, the Italian farm workers and rail road workers, etc. [Neue Zeit, XXIII, 1, pp.780, 781 – R.L.]

So wrote Comrade Kautsky on March 11, 1905.

Here we have “the spontaneous combustion of the masses” and the union leadership, economic struggle and political struggle, mass strikes and revolution, Russia and Western Europe in the most beautiful confusion, all rubrics of the schema fused together in the living interconnection of a great period of fierce social storms.

It seems that “theory” does not merely “stride forward” more slowly than practice: alas, from time to time it also goes tumbling backwards.

Next: Part 3

[A] In 1899 the anti-imperialist popular uprising of I Ho Ch’uan broke out in north China; it was bloodily suppressed by the allied armies of eight imperialist powers under supreme command of the German army’s chief of staff, Albert Graf von Waldersee. German participation became known as the “Hun Campaign” through a speech by Kaiser Wilhelm II to the departing troops of the China expedition, which Luxemburg recalled in her speech of May 27, 1913, The World Political Situation: “Then came the Hun Campaign in China, to which Wilhelm II sent the soldiers with the slogan: Quarter will not be given, prisoners will not be taken. The soldiers were to wreak havoc like the Hunns so that for a thousand years no Chinese would dare cast squinting, envious eyes on a German.” Gesammelte Werke, Vol.3, p.214.

[B] From 1904 to 1907 the Nama, a Khoikhoi people (“Hottentot” was the derogatory Afrikander name for all Khoikhoi) and the Hereros fought a guerrilla war against German colonial rule in Namibia, then known as German Southwest Africa. The uprising ended with the devastating defeat of these peoples, after which German colonial troops were employed against them with the utmost cruelty. Luxemburg analysed it in her speech of June 14, 1911, Our Struggle for Power. (See Chapter 2 of Raya Dunayevskaya’s work-in-progress Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, published in News & Letters, April 1980.)

[C] Reichstag elections of 1907 became known as the “Hottentot elections” because the Chancellor, von Bulow, campaigned on an imperialist platform intended to brand Social Democrats as traitors. Although Social Democracy raised its total vote count by almost 300,000, it lost 38 seats due to the apportionment of electoral districts and a second ballot alliance of the bourgeois parties.

[D] In August 1903, 8,000 textile workers in Crimmitschau struck for pay raises and a ten-hour day. In spite of state intervention and the decree of limited martial law in Crimmitschau, all attempts to break the strike were frustrated by the determination of the workers, which was strengthened by the solidarity of the German and international working class: but the intervention of reformist union leaders forced them to return to work without any gains in January 1904.

Last updated on: 3.12.2008