Rosa Luxemburg

Theory & Practice

Part 5

What actually remains of Comrade Kautsky’s mass strike theory, after he has pointed out all the “impossibilities”? The one, “final,” pure political mass strike, disengaged from economic strikes: which once only, but with absolute conclusiveness, smashes down like thunder out of the clear blue sky. Says Comrade Kautsky:

Here, in this conception, lies the deepest ground of the differences between my friends and me over the mass strike. They anticipate a period of mass strikes. Under the existing conditions in Germany, I can imagine a political mass strike only as a one-time event into which the entire proletariat of the Reich enters with its entire strength; as a struggle to the death; as a struggle which either overthrows our enemies, or smashes – or at least cripples – the totality of our organizations and our entire strength for years on end.

As for this image of the “final mass strike” which swims before Comrade Kautsky, one must first of all say that it is, at any rate, a totally, new creation: for it is not drawn from reality, but out of pure “imagination.” For not only does it fit no Russian pattern: not one mass strike of the many which have taken place in “Western Europe” or the United States approximately resembles the exemplar which Comrade Kautsky has invented for Germany. None of the mass strikes known till now was a “final” struggle “to the death”; none led to the total victory of the workers, but none “smashed the totality of organizations and the entire strength” of the proletariat “for years on end.” Success was mostly a partial and an indirect one. The miners’ giant strikes usually ended in a direct defeat: but as a further consequence, they realized important social reforms through their pressure – in Austria the nine-hour day, in France the eight-hour day. The most important consequence of the Belgian mass strike in 1893 was the conquest of universal, unequal suffrage. Last year’s Swedish mass strike, formally concluded with a compromise, actually warded off a general attack by the confederated business world on the Swedish unions. In Austria, demonstration strikes have mightily hastened electoral reform. The mass strikes of the farm workers, with their formal partial ineffectiveness, have greatly strengthened the organization among the farm workers of Italy and Galicia. All mass strikes, whether economic or political, demonstration or fighting strikes, have contained what Comrade Oda Olberg so compellingly described in her report of the Italian railroad workers’ strike in the Neue Zeit:

The achievements of the political mass strike are incalculable: its worth continuously grows with the degree of proletarian class consciousness. A political strike carried out with energy and solidarity is never lost, because it is what it aims at – a developing exercise of the proletariat’s power in which the fighters steel their strength and sense of responsibility, and) the ruling classes become conscious of their adversary’s might. [Neue Zeit XXIII, 2, p.385.]

But if until now every mass strike without exception, “West European” as well as Russian, in direct contradiction to Comrade Kautsky’s newest schema has brought on neither the total victory nor the destruction of the proletariat, but on the contrary an almost invariable strengthening of the workers’ organizations, class consciousness, and self-confidence, then on the other side the question arises: how can that great and “final,” that apocalyptic mass strike in which the stoutest oaks crack, the earth bursts asunder and the graves open actually come to pass in Germany, if the mass of the proletariat has not previously been prepared, schooled, and aroused by an entire lengthy period of mass strikes, of economic or political mass struggles?

According to Comrade Kautsky, “the entire proletariat of the Reich” will plunge into this “final” mass strike, and what is more “with its entire strength.” But how are the Prusso-German state employees, the railroad workers, postal workers, etc., who today are paralysed in “slavish obedience,” the farm workers who have no right to organize and no organization, the broad strata of workers still stuck in enemy organizations, in Christian, Hirsch-Dunckerist,[A] yellow unions – in short, the great mass of the German proletariat whom we have not yet reached with our union organization or Social Democratic agitation – how are they suddenly, with one leap, to be ready for a “final” mass strike “to the death” unless a preceding period of tempestuous mass struggles, demonstration strikes, partial mass strikes, giant economic struggles, etc., loosens them little by little from their paralysis, their slavish obedience, their fragmentation, and incorporates them among the followers of Social Democracy?

Even Comrade Kautsky had to see this. “Naturally,” he says, “I do not imagine this one-time event as an isolated act ’shot from a pistol.’ I too expect an era of embittered mass struggles and mass actions, but with the mass strike as the final weapon.” But what “mass struggles and mass actions” does Comrade Kautsky have in mind which will lead to that “final” mass strike, which do not themselves consist of the mass strike? Could it be street demonstrations? But one cannot simply hold street demonstrations for decades on end. And Comrade Kautsky certainly rules out general, impressive demonstration strikes for Germany: indeed, it is “entirely unthinkable that in a demonstration strike against the government here, commuter railways, streetcars, and gas works come to a standstill.” Likewise, economic mass strikes could not accomplish that preparation for the political mass strike: according to Comrade Kautsky they are to be kept at a strict distance from the political mass strike, to him they are not at all beneficial but even – almost harmful. Of what, finally, shall those “embittered” mass struggles and mass actions of the preparatory era consist? Perhaps of “embittered” Reichstag elections, or meetings with protest resolutions? But those enormous strata of the unorganized or oppositionally organized proletariat, upon whom the “final” mass strike depends, unfortunately stay away from our meetings. And so it is utterly impossible to conceive how we will actually win, arouse, and school the “entire proletariat of the Reich” for the final struggle “to the death.”

Whether Comrade Kautsky wishes it or not, his final mass strike, just in ruling out a period of the mass strike’s economic and political character, comes at us simply shot from a pistol.

But finally, one must ask: what kind of a “final” mass strike is this, that comes only once and in which the entire proletariat of the Reich will grapple to the death? Should we understand by this a periodic “final” mass strike which in every great political campaign – for example, for Prussian voting rights, to prevent the outbreak of war, etc. – will finally give the decision? But one cannot periodically struggle “to the death” again and again. Painted thus, a mass strike in which the “entire proletariat” grapples “with its entire strength” “to the death” can only be the struggle for total political power in the state: obviously the “final” struggle “to the death” can only be that in which the proletariat wrestles for its dictatorship and to finish off the bourgeois class-state. In this way, the political mass strike for Germany withdraws farther and farther. First, through the “strategy of attrition” it was expected the year after the Reichstag elections: now it vanishes from sight as the “final, “ the solitary mass strike and teases us, from beyond the blue horizon, with – the social revolution.

Let us now recall the stipulations which Comrade Kautsky, in his first article “What Now?” attaches to accomplishment of the political mass strike – strictest secrecy of preparations, decision-making by the supreme “war council” of the party, the greatest possible surprise of the enemy – and we unexpectedly receive a mental image which bears a strong resemblance to the “final Great Day” of the general strike after the anarchist formula. The idea of the mass strike is transformed from a historical process of the modern proletarian class struggles in their decades-long period of conclusion, into a free-for-all in which the “entire proletariat of the Reich,” with one jolt, suddenly brings down the bourgeois social order.

But what did Comrade Kautsky write in 1907 in his Social Revolution, 2nd edition, p.54?

That is nonsensical. A general strike in which all workers in a country cease their labors at a given signal presupposes a unaminity and organization of the workers which can hardly be reached in the present society – and if it were reached, would be so irresistible as to dispense with the general strike. But such a strike, with one jolt, would suddenly render not merely the existing society, but every existence impossible – that of the proletarians even sooner than that of the capitalists. It would thus infallibly break at the very moment it began to unfold its revolutionary effect.

As a means of political struggle, the strike could hardly (certainly not in the foreseeable future) assume the form of a strike by all workers in a country ... We face a period when the isolated, non-political strike will be as hopeless against the superior strength of the cartels as the isolated parliamentary action of the workers’ parties is against the force of the capitalist-controlled state power. It will become ever more urgent for each to supplement the other and draw new strength from their joint action.

Like the use of every new weapon, that of the political strike must first be learned.

And so the more Comrade Kautsky turned to broad theoretical generalizations to justify his position in the Prussian voting rights struggle, the more he lost sight of the general perspective of the development of the class struggle in Western Europe and in Germany – which in previous years he never tired of pointing out. Indeed, he himself had an uncomfortable sense of his present viewpoint’s incongruence with his earlier one, and was therefore good enough to completely reproduce his 1904 article series “Revolutionaries Everywhere” in the final, third part of his reply to me. The crass contradiction is not thereby done away with: it has only resulted in the chaotic, flickering character of that article’s last part, which so remarkably lessens one’s pleasure in reading it.

But not that article series alone is in shrill dissonance with what Comrade Kautsky now advances. In his Social Revolution, we read that we will enter a whole lengthy period of revolutionary struggles in which the political mass strike will “surely play a great role” (p.54). The entire pamphlet The Road to Power is devoted to the depiction of the same perspective. Yes, here we have already entered into the revolutionary period. Here Comrade Kautsky reviews the “political testament” of Friedrich Engels and declares the time of the “strategy of attrition,” which consists of legal exploitation of the given state groundwork, to be already past:

At the beginning of the ’90s, I acknowledged that a peaceful development of proletarian organizations and the proletarian class struggle on the given state groundwork would bring the proletariat farthest forward in the situation of that time. And so you cannot reproach me with a craving for the intoxication of rrrevolution and rrradicalism when my observation of the present situation leads me to the view that conditions have fundamentally changed since the beginning of the ’90s, that we have every reason to assume we have entered into a period of struggles for the state institutions and state power: struggles which under manifold changes of fortune could be drawn out for decades, whose forms and duration are unforeseeable at present, but which will most probably bring about a considerable increase in the proletariat’s power in the foreseeable future, if not indeed its total power in Western Europe.

And farther on:

But in this universal instability, the immediate tasks of the proletariat are clearly given. We have already developed them. There will be no further progress without altering the state groundwork on which we wage the struggle. To most energetically strive for democracy in the Reich, but also in the individual states – specifically in Prussia and Saxony – that is its first task in Germany; its first international task is the struggle against geopolitics and militarism.

As clearly visible as these problems are the means at our command for their solution. To those previously employed is now added the mass strike, which we had already theoretically accepted at the beginning of the ’90s, and whose applicability under favorable circumstances has since then been repeatedly demonstrated. [The Road to Power, pp.53, 101. My emphasis. R.L.]

In his Social Revolution, in The Road to Power, in the Neue Zeit Comrade Kautsky preached the “political strike” to the German unions as the “new tactic” which would be compelled more and more as the cartels condemned the pure union strike to more and more ineffectiveness. Indeed it was this concept which led him, in bygone years, to an embittered feud with the Correspondence Bulletin of the General Commission of Unions.

Now Comrade Kautsky would strictly sever economic strikes from political action. Now he declares that all strikes in Western Europe must unconditionally achieve “definite successes” or they have “failed their purpose”; and as the means of “organizing the proletariat, heightening its insight and sense of strength, and increasing the masses’ confidence in their organizations,” he counts only “successfully fought campaigns for higher wages.” After all, we need nothing so urgently now as “visible successes” to impress the masses. “But there are few successes which so visibly document our mounting strength to the masses as electoral victories, as the conquest of new mandates.” Thus, Reichstag elections and mandates – that is Moses and the prophets!

Now we hear that the German worker is only ready for “safe” demonstrations, that “a mere demonstration strike is not even the most impressive” form of political protest, that “a victorious Reichstag election makes a far greater impact”! And finally “a real mass demonstration” worth anything at all, “which is not required for immediate defense, but which simply protests an injustice already existing for over half a century”: such a demonstration strike “without a powerful motive” would hardly be possible in Germany. Comrade Kautsky has simply not noticed that with his argumentation he has, in passing, leaked out the finest theoretical ground for – the abolition of May Day.

Comrade Kautsky quite rightly reminds us that “even before the Russian Revolution” he gave an exact description of the working of a political mass strike in his article “Revolutionaries Everywhere.” But it seems to me that what matters is not merely to sketch revolutionary struggles and their external course in theoretical abstraction – that is, in Never-Never Land – and to project their general schema: it is equally a matter of giving, at the same time, those slogans in practice which will release the maximum of the proletariat’s revolutionary energy and drive the situation forward the farthest and fastest.

Granted, in his numerous articles and his pamphlets Comrade Kautsky has given us, with compelling clarity, a picture of the revolutionary struggles of the future. For example, in his 1904 description of the mass strike he already showed how “every mansion, every granary, every factory, every telegraph office, every stretch of railroad is militarily guarded”; how the soldiers are loosed upon the masses everywhere, and how in spite of this it never comes to a battle “for wherever they come the masses scatter, to reassemble wherever the soldiers have not yet arrived or have just left”; how first “gas and electric works shut down, streetcars stop running, finally even the mails and railroads seized by the strike fever; first the state workers strike, then the junior civil servants as well” in short, all is here with a three-dimensionality, life, and realism that are all the more remarkable, in that he deals with events coming at us out of the blue sky. But when from these aetherial heights, where theory calmly circles like an eagle, the question first plunged to the flat land of the Prussian voting rights campaign, then suddenly the brainless and planless Prussian government was transfigured into a rocher de bronze [rock of bronze – Tr.]; the German conditions depicted in The Road to Power as ready for social revolution (Hurrah! March on! March on!) turned into a frozen land where “it is absolutely unthinkable” that workers in state workshops and civil servants, be they junior or senior, take part in a demonstration; and the “revolutionary era which is arising” transformed itself into an industrious preparation for Reichstag elections, for “there are few successes which so visibly document our strength to the masses” as – Reichstag mandates.

Heaven-storming theory – and “attrition” in practice; most revolutionary perspectives in the clouds – and Reichstag mandates as sole perspective in reality. Comrade Kautsky declared his campaign against me with the urgent necessity of rescuing the idea of the mass strike from compromise. I fear it would have been better for the idea of the mass strike as well as Comrade Kautsky, if this rescue had been forborne.

Next: Part 6

[A] The German Christian (Catholic) and Hirsch-Duncker unions were anti-socialist – the latter were also opposed to strikes. In 1907, 14.9 percent of all German union members belonged to these unions; about another 4 percent belonged to various “independent” unions, some of which were openly controlled by the employers.

Last updated on: 3.12.2008