From Petrograd to Cairo: revolution and mass strikes

Chris Bambery from Socialist Worker UK takes a look at German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg’s classic The Mass Strike in the wake of Egypt’s revolution

The strike wave detonated by Egypt’s revolution echoes many previous high points of workers’ struggle over the last century.
The development of the strike movement has seen workers raise both “economic” demands for wage rises as well as “political” demands like price controls on food or the dismissal of Mubarak-era managers and government ministers.
Workers have moved to the centre of the ongoing revolutionary process as the call from independent unions that, “if this revolution does not lead to the fair distribution of wealth it is not worth anything,” becomes louder.
The first time a mass strike movement took centre stage in the process of revolution was during the first, ultimately defeated, Russian revolution in 1905. That uprising became “the great dress rehearsal” for the revolution that was to be carried to victory in 1917.
A multiracial working class, with women at the forefront, was brought together in great cities like St Petersburg and Moscow, and mining and textile towns.
The experience of revolution forged that great mass into a class with a common awareness of its place in society and its ability to change it.
Rosa Luxemburg was a leader of the German socialist movement but had been born in Poland, the majority of which was incorporated into the Russian Empire.
She returned to Warsaw, which was caught up in the 1905 revolution. What she experienced led her to write a short book, The Mass Strike, which still demands reading today.
For the first time in 1905 the strike weapon was the central driving force of a revolution. The experience of the Paris Commune in 1871 had been full of lessons for Karl Marx, not least that workers could not simply lay hold of the existing state machine, but had to smash it.
But strikes were marginal, reflecting the predominance of small-scale artisanal workshops in the city. Now the mass strike revealed itself, in Luxemburg’s words, as “the method of motion of the proletarian mass, the phenomenal form of the proletarian struggle in the revolution”.
The experience of revolution throughout the course of the 20th century vindicated this insight time and again. There were revolutionary mass strikes in Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918-23, Italy in 1920, Hungary in 1956, France in 1936 and again in 1968, Iran in 1978-79 and Poland in 1980.
But until 1905 socialists had, inevitably, looked to the most important previous model of revolution— France in 1789. But that was a revolution which brought the capitalist class to political power.
Before a blow was struck the capitalists had established their economic and ideological hold over the aristocracy. Power was slipping away from the old order, and matters could proceed quite quickly to street fighting and insurrection.
Unlike the young bourgeoisie, or capitalists, the working class does not assemble vast economic power—beyond our ability to withhold our labour. The ideas which dominate our lives are those of capitalist “common sense”.
What Luxemburg drew from 1905 was that through the process of the mass strike the working class ceased to be a class simply existing. It discovered its ability to act collectively for change:
“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 mass strike in Russia began with economic issues, moved into a political challenge to the Tsar, and then drew in new layers who voiced their own demands. It dug deeper and deeper into society, argued Luxemburg: “This first general direct action…for the first time awoke feeling and class consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock…
“Here was the eight-hour day fought for, there piecework resisted, here were brutal foremen ‘driven off’ in a sack on a handcart, at another place infamous systems of fines were fought against, everywhere better wages were striven for, and here and there the abolition of home work.”
The focus of struggle shifted from political to economic demands and back again, drawing in more and more people and creating a common, revolutionary identity.
Strike committees began to combine to run whole towns and cities. Nor was this restricted to workers. In Russia it inspired peasant rebellions and won support among middle class intellectuals who yearned for freedom from Tsarist oppression.
Luxemburg herself believed that in Germany a similar process could simply sweep away the crusty trade union officials and Labor politicians who dominated the socialist movement.
Yet experience shows that this does not happen automatically. The outcome depends on the existence of powerful rank-and-file movements which can challenge officialdom, and networks of revolutionaries who can defeat talk of compromise in favour of revolution.
Today, Egyptian workers are beginning to co-ordinate their spontaneous strike movement by coming together across individual workplaces to forge independent trade unions, long illegal under Mubarak’s dictatorship.
Their mass strike movement will need to continue if it is to win back control of the wealth amassed by Mubarak-era corruption and put an end to Egypt’s widespread poverty.


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