Von Frigga Haug, Florian Wilde, Frank Heidenreich.
A: ’iḍrāb al-ǧamāhīr. – F: grève de masse. – G: Massenstreik. – R: massovaja stačka. – S: huelga de masas. – C: qúnzhòng bàgōng 群众罢工.
The M-debate at the beginning of the 20th century was centered around the relationship between the economic to the political, between party and trade unions, around the politics of the labor movement, and around the problematic of the M as a political means, as a weapon to prepare revolution or as a manifestation of the proletarian struggle in the revolution. A central historical point of reference is the role of the M in the Russian revolution of 1905 which Lenin analyzes in detail – including the historical process of the protest forms of ^the intelligentsia^^ and the workers. Rosa Luxemburg authors fundamental texts on the M, as well as numerous speeches and articles to M.s in Belgium, France, Holland, Italy, Austria, Sweden, Spain, and the USA, which demonstrate the international range and political presence of her agitation and her political orientation. In the following the focus is not on tracing the various factions within the social democracy (August Bebel, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Luxemburg, later Karl Kautsky), but on how Lenin and above all Luxemburgunderstood the M, and thus the method of their Marxist dialectical thinking. This makes the controversy relevant for the struggles and the relationship of tension – or perhaps separation -, of party, movement and trade unions. In the debates on crisis and transformation following 2008, the issues are becoming current again on a global scale.
1. For nearly two decades the debate around the M has characterized the infighting which was waged within German social-democracy (as the head of international socialism) during the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries. Accordingly, the struggles around the M are reflected in the development of social-democratic tactics and strategy, in particular the general strike. At the party congresses of 1893 (Cologne) and 1906 (Mannheim) guidelines are adhered to. Wilhelm Liebknechtissues a sweeping rejection of the general strike as a political means in 1893; and in 1906, the party and trade unions unite on >peace and unity<, and thus on rejecting the offensive political M and an repositioning of their respective roles which have become increasingly important due to their growth. Luxemburg intervenes critically in the debate, repeatedly.
In Belgium the General Council of the Workers‘ Party decides in 1902 to break off a M for achieving the universal right to vote which after fierce controversy is endorsed by the subsequent party congress. The reason for the break-off was that the liberals (capitalists) who had at first supported the fight for universal suffrage, did not support the new strike and joined the clerics instead, because it was not only a matter of gaining admission to the chamber as in the successful general strike of 1893, but equal suffrage seemed to open up the path to political domination by the proletariat. In this new constellation the socialists, betrayed by the liberals, agreed to abort the general strike. In 1902, Luxemburg expounds once again the scientific method of acceptance or refusal, which refers to the concrete study of the respective place, the time, and the national or international organic connection between political class struggle and concrete everyday union struggles. In doing so she opposes the anarchist wing especially, which claims that the general strike is indispensible for success, both as a means for reaching small-scale political goals and for great transformations (cf. GW 1/2, 235). Quoting extensively from her speeches, Kautsky recommends her position in this controversy as clear-sighted and orienting (Der politische Massenstreik, Berlin 1914, chapter 10).
In view of the controversy around the Belgian M for universal suffrage Luxemburg pleads for an exact analysis, because >any stereotyping and summary rejection or glorification of this weapon< would be >thoughtlessness< (GW 1/2, 234). On one hand, she argues primarily against the anarchistic conception of the preparation for the revolution by general strikes, and on the other against the abandonment of all utopia and the complete refusal of the general strike which remains important for socialist agitation because of its political effects >locally and occasionally< (236). The essential criteria for it are the historical and political embedding, the >intergrowth< (238) of party and trade union, the degree of the industrialization and centralization of a country.
Four years later, after the first Russian revolution of 1905, Luxemburg judges the debates over the M in international socialism as >antiquated< because they emanated from conceptions originating in the time before >the first historical experiment on a very large scale with this means of struggle< (1906/2006, 101) and therefore did not reach beyond Engels‘ mocking condemnation of the >anarchist theory […] of the general strike as a means of inaugurating the social revolution, in contradistinction to the daily political struggle of the working class< (102). Luxemburg proposes a revision of the social-democratic line of the working class movement on the basis of a concrete study of the Russian revolution, in which the M appeared precisely not as a triggering >theatrical coup<, but as >a means, firstly, of creating for the proletariat the conditions for the daily political struggle and especially for parliamentarianism< (104). Thus, >historical dialectics, the rock on which the whole teaching of Marxian Socialism rests, [has] brought it about that today Anarchism with which the idea of the mass strike is indubitably associated, has itself come to be opposed to the mass strike in practice, while, on the contrary, the mass strike which, as the opposite of the political activity of the proletariat was combated, appears today as the most powerful weapon to struggle for political rights< (105).
According to Luxemburg, the separation of the economic from the political leads to theoretical controversy over the succession of the struggles and their respective status, however this viewpoint is >abstract< and >unhistorical< (106), misses real life, or rather does not take note of it. What is economic and what is political changes in the doing, and thus the agents change, as well as the relationship of goal and means. From the beginning Luxemburg connects the debate with a practical research assignment: It is >not therefore by abstract speculations on the possibility or impossibility, the utility or the injuriousness of the M, but only by analyzing those factors and social conditions out of which the M grows in the present phase of the class struggle […] that the problem can be even grasped and discussed.< (108)
Luxemburg outlines a possible sequence of events: There is a cause, an event – someone is fired, there is an accident, a compulsory leave without wages for the coronation of the tsar; a strike follows – it can be economic at first, after a certain point swings over into the political (113 et sq.), because the suffering experienced by the class becomes ever more conscious. Consciousness and education, more knowledge make an economic into a political strike. Neither revolution nor M can be propagated, they are something that >signifies nothing but an external form of the class struggle, which can have sense and meaning only in connection with definite political situations< (108). The M >is not a crafty method discovered by subtle reasoning for the purpose of making the proletarian struggle more effective, but it is the mode of motion of the proletarian mass, the phenomenal form of the proletarian struggle in the revolution< (135).
2. Of course Luxemburg adopts assessments made by Lenin. He describes the beginning of the Russian revolution of 1905 as a kind of learning process of revolutionary intelligentsia and revolting workers. He notes how >the revolutionary intelligentsia […] turned Social-Democrat en masse< in the course of the strike movement at the end of the 1890s within a short period of time (Feb. 1905, CW 8, 140). The Social-Democratic party is founded in 1898. The demonstration movement beginning around 1900 is carried at first mostly by students, whom the workers hurry to assist. In the areas and cities affected by strikes, in which in 1903 >more than a hundred thousand workers< participate, >political mass meetings< are held repeatedly (ibid.). >There was a feeling of being on the eve of barricades […]. But the eve proved rather protracted, teaching us, as it were, that it takes powerful classes sometimes months and years to gather strength; putting, as it were, the skeptical intellectual adherents of Social-Democracy to the test.< (Ibid.) Nevertheless, he sees the beginning of the revolution as the outbreak of a volcano: >The proletarian movement at once rose to a higher plane< and >strikes and the demonstrations began to develop [ …] into an uprising. The participation of organized revolutionary Social-Democracy was incomparably more in evidence than during the previous stages of the movement; yet it was still weak […] in comparison with the overwhelming demand of the active proletarian mass for Social-Democratic leadership.< (141)
Under the title The Political Strike and the Street Fighting in Moscow (Oct. 1905) Lenin notes a shift of the determining forces: >The working class movement has left its imprint on the entire Russian revolution. Starting with sporadic strikes, it rapidly developed into M.s, on the one hand, and into street demonstrations, on the other. In the year 1905, the political strike has already become a fully developed form of the movement, developing […] into insurrection<, sometimes >has progressed within a few days from a mere strike to a tremendous revolutionary outbreak< (CW 9, 348). Lenin captures succinctly how the strike changes from a theoretically discussed possibility to a real movement which seizes people’s lives: >Street demonstrations by workers, inevitable […] turned into political demonstrations<; revolutionary songs are sung, and >long suppressed bitterness against the vile farce of the ^popular^^ elections to the State Duma came to the surface. The M developed into a mass mobilization of fighters for genuine liberty.< (Ibid.) Lenin refers to the international significance of the Russian experiences; thus the political M became the main question of the Jena party congress of German social-democracy (1905).
Since >armed uprising< is the >main form< of the struggle of the developing proletariat, Leninregards strikes to a certain extent as aids, whose timing is to be subordinated to that main form (CW 10, 152 et sq.; 11, 171). In two places he attempts a kind of systematic of the succession of historical strikes and their development. First there were >economic strikes of the workers (1896 to 1900)<, then >political demonstrations of the workers and students (1901 and 1902), peasant revolts (1902)<, then in 1903 for the first time >political M.s<, and in 1905 the general strike in all of Russia with barricades and >partial peasant revolts< (CW 11, 215). Lenin notes in 1913, as slogans for these political strikes >which must be vigorously disseminated, should be the fundamental revolutionary demands of the day: a democratic republic, an 8-hour day, confiscation of the landed estates< (CW 19, 422). In January 1917, looking back on 1905, he rethinks the transition to the Revolution: >hundreds of revolutionary Social-Democrats grew […] into thousands, the thousands became the leaders of from two to three million proletarians. The proletarian struggle produced widespread ferment, often revolutionary movements among the peasant masses, fifty to a hundred million strong; the peasant movement had its reverberations in the army and led to soldiers‘ revolts […]. In this manner a colossal country, with a population of 130,000,000 went into the revolution; in this way, dormant Russia was transformed into a Russia of a revolutionary proletariat and a revolutionary people.< (CW 23, 238)
It is necessary to understand this transition. Lenin considers the study of the strike statistics to be essential. The Russian revolution of 1905 >is the first […] great revolution in history […], in which the political M played an extraordinarily important part<, and >the sequence of its political forms cannot be understood, without a study of the strike statistics […] to disclose the basis of these events and this sequence of forms.< (239)
3. Luxemburg sharpens Lenin’s formulations differently, without contradicting them explicitly. Since the M is a form which the struggle takes, it is simply not a selectable means, cannot be planned and used intentionally, but is itself a product. It is not >one act<, but >the rallying idea of […] a whole period of the class struggle lasting for years, perhaps for decades< (1906/2006, 135). On the contrary, the political demonstration strike (for example the May celebration), running according to plan and intention, >plays quite a subordinate role< (136), which becomes impossible with the growth of political consciousness and the training of the proletariat< (137). In her Proposal for a Political Mass Strike at the Magdeburg party congress of 1910 she recalls the many demonstration strikes in the struggle for suffrage and evokes a stronger weapon, >the refusal to work, the political M < (GW 2, 459). The historical moment is neither foreseeable nor causable, the apparent standstill contains all moments: Wage conflict, the struggle for working hours, harassment and finally a factor which brings the barrel to overflowing. Thus >the conflict of the two reprimanded Putilov workers […] had changed within a week into the prologue of the most massive revolution of modern times.< (1906/2006, 119).
Luxemburg calls the general strike the trade union planned strike and speaks of M , when she refers to a spontaneous coalescence of many struggles and masses of workers, determined by >the ripening of the historical and economic conditions< (GW 2, 460). As does Lenin, she concludes from real history that between economic and political struggles there is >a complete reciprocal action<, it is only >two interlacing sides of the proletarian class struggle<, which she calls the >ceaseless economic struggle [state of war, Kriegszustand] with the capitalists< (1906/2006, 138 et sq.). >The economic struggle is the transmitter, from one political center to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilization of the soil for the economic struggle.< (Ibid.)
With expressions such as >coincidentally< and >elementary< Luxemburg can characterize the dynamic both as the result of political educational work and as unforeseeable; what is true of an event is that it is >the fruits of the agitation, extending over several years< (113), and so she can keep hold of the goal, the >thoroughgoing internal reversal of social class relations< (139), as perspective without decreeing exactly how from above. Here, in addition to the agreements, the differences to Lenin’s position become clear. As widely and indefinitely as Luxemburg opens the field of the possible, so certain are her condemnations of rash generalizations as they determine the debate around the M. The M is not a >kind of pocket-knife, which […] according to decision, can be unclasped and used< (1906/2006, 106), and to make the M the >object of methodical agitation< is just as >absurd an occupation< as >to seek to make the idea of the revolution or of the fight at the barricades the object of a special agitation< (108 et sq.).
Instead, Luxemburg proposes >to widen the intellectual horizon of the proletariat, to sharpen their class-consciousness, to deepen their way of thinking, and to steel their energy.< (109) Thus, through political education, analysis of the struggles, the workers are to be informed all together all the time, involved in discussions, brought to learning, so that they may act consciously. In her speech before metal workers in Hagen in 1910 – it concerns the threatening lockout of 400,000 workers – she calls the workers‘ movement >a cultural edifice [Kulturwerk]<, because >the enormous mass of the working people itself, from its own consciousness […] and also from its own understanding, forges the weapons for its own liberation< (GW 2, 465). As a result >the M does not produce the revolution, but the revolution produces the M<; whereby the revolution is also not thought of as a single act, but as a >period< (1906/2006, 141).
4. Luxemburg’s presentation of the Russian Revolution of 1905, written as a report, makes it clear that neither M nor revolution happen according to a plan from a center, but through the confluence of individual movements, which can even run in opposite directions, make strikes which begin economically into political ones and vice versa. Russian social-democracy, >which had taken part in the revolution but had not ^made^^ it<, must learn the laws according to which >history […] accomplished […] its gigantic work [that was] incalculable< (1906/2006, 121). Luxemburg speaks of the class feeling, which changes itself into class consciousness, and like Marx and later Bertolt Brecht she assumes that toppling the order is both a process of destruction as well as of reorganization. It is a question of a >complete undermining of the soil of society; the uppermost part be placed lowest, and the lowermost part highest, the apparent ^order^^ must be changed to a chaos, and the apparently ^Anarchistic^^ chaos must be changed into a new order< (123). The pathos, the diligence with which she brings the various moments together provides both information about her theory of the M, and at the same time how she conceives its realization in practical politics: >All the innumerable sufferings of the modern proletariat were reminiscent of the old, bleeding wounds. Here was the eight-hour day fought for, there piece-work was resisted, here were brutal foremen ^driven off^^ in a sack on a hand-car, at another place infamous systems of fines were fought against, everywhere better wages were striven for, and here and there the abolition of homework. Backward, degraded occupations in large towns, small provincial towns, which had hitherto dreamed in an idyllic sleep, the village with its legacy from feudalism -all these, suddenly awakened by the January lightening, bethought themselves of their rights and now sought feverishly to make up for their previous neglect.< (121)
In November 1918 Luxemburg describes the movement which has gotten underway in Germany: >The revolution […] is itself coming on to the stage of events. […] Hence the feverish efforts by their lackeys among the trade-union leaders at catching the approaching hurricane in the nets of their petty old bureaucratic-official methods thereby crippling and enchaining the mass<, yet they must in >the period of revolution […] fail miserably< (1918/1972, 272 et sq.). She reminds that >every bourgeois revolution in modern times has been accompanied by a turbulent strike movement< (ibid.), even if after a phase of imbalance a consolidation of bourgeois class rule ensued. During the November revolution of 1918, however, there was a >full-scale war between capital and labor< (273). She is tragically mistaken. The thought remains that a spark is required to trigger the general realization of the long experienced situation, and to awaken the hope for a perspective of liberation. What is needed – and this is her guideline – are: training, class consciousness and organization.
In all, Luxemburg places the M in the development process of the proletariat, whereby she includes in this also the state employees, the home workers and the agricultural workers, those who are unorganized (1906/2006, 148 et sqq. and 152), and gives to the debate around M at the same time the character of a useless spectacle – similar to how Brecht later presented this in the controversy of the philosophers over the existence or non-existence of the Yellow River, who are washed away when the river flows over its banks before they can decide the question (Turandot, 2003, 143 et sq.). Luxemburg examines the development of social-democracy and labor unions and notices that the rapid growth of the labor unions is also owing to their >recruiting strength <, which gives those organized in unions the feeling of belonging to a >labor party< and so they considered double membership to be unnecessary (172 et sq.), while the >unionized leaders< do not assume the unity of the union and the social-democratic movement, but become >union officials< and fall victim to >bureaucratism< (178). Thus, >the peculiar position has arisen that this same trade union movement which below, in the wide proletarian masses, is absolutely one with Social Democracy, parts abruptly from it above, in the superstructure of management, and sets itself up as an independent great power.< (179) She understands the necessary reunification as the transformation of the leadership into the >interpreter of the will of the masses< (180), which is a precondition for the M.
Luxemburg discusses how the great demonstrations for the reform of suffrage in Prussia definitely showed success (the admission of seven Social Democrats, among them Karl Liebknecht in 1908 to the House of Representatives), but that it was essential that this mass movement be led by the party to further actions and expanded. The >street demonstrations< will soon >no longer be enough for the psychological need, the combative frame of mind, of the masses, and if Social Democracy does not resolutely advance one step further, if it lets the right political moment […] slip by […], then it can scarcely succeed in sustaining the street demonstrations for any length of time. The action will then finally grow tired< (1910/1972, 151). As soon as a weapon became >a necessity for the democratic middle class<, the Social Democrats would need to select a sharper means: >this is the M< (152).
As clearly as the liberation forces in the historical process are defined, so little does Luxemburg’s analysis of the counter forces apply, whether they take the form of rewards for the working population, or, above all, are found in the strategies of the dominant class, developed by the mass media and by various institutions even to the point of force, which together work against the experienced yearning for liberation. After the social-democratic parliamentary group’s agreement to war credits in 1914, and the following transformation of enlightenment and information in the social-democratic media into instigation for the >defense of the fatherland<, she analyzes the errors and mistakes, above all in her own ranks, and comes to the conclusion that the bureaucratization must be fought. Her murder foils a further elaboration. It remains to be said that she believes in change by doing, and thus in the inclusion of the many into the organization of society, and like Marx and Gramsci, in the fact that self-change and changing the circumstances coincide in revolutionary action. In >the ebb and flow< of the results from the different strikes and the >acts of revenge on the part of the capitalists< remains as a >mental sediment: the intellectual, cultural growth of the proletariat, which proceeds by fits and starts< (1906/2006, 126) and the development of capitalism itself, as >the ^civilizing^^ of the barbaric forms of capitalist exploitation< (161).
Bibliography: B.Brecht, >Turandot or the Whitewasher’s Congress<, Collected Plays, vol. 8, transl. by T.Kuhn, London 2003; V.I.Lenin, Collected Works (CW), Moscow 1960-1977; R.Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke (GW), vol. 1-5, Berlin 1970-1975; ead.,>The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Union< (1906), Reform or Revolution and Other Writings, transl. from the German by P.Lavin, Mineola/NY 2006, 99-180; ead., >The Next Step< (1910), Selected Political Writings, ed. by R.Looker, transl. by W.D.Graf, 148-59; ead., >The Acheron in Motion< (1918), Selected Political Writings, ed. by R.Looker, transl. by W.D.Graf, London 1972, 271-4.
With the wave of revolutionary struggles which arose out of the Russian revolutions of 1917 and held the European continent in suspense until 1923, it came to a series of M.s which began more or less spontaneously and sought to bring about radical, revolutionary changes. Were these strikes a >phenomenal form of the proletarian struggle in the revolution< (1906/2006, 135), as Rosa Luxemburg diagnoses? What were the conditions for their failure?
1. Russia 1917: From M to revolution. – On the occasion of the International Women’s Day, which according to the Russian calendar fell on February 23, 1917, the socialist underground groups of the tsarist empire had called for protests but not for strikes. Nevertheless, in Petrograd female textile workers, enraged by the increasing scarcity of food, spontaneously went on strike which rapidly spread to other factories in the city. Already the next day it gripped large parts of the working class of Petrograd who marched in large protest columns into the city centre. The demand for bread was supplemented by demands such as >down with autocracy< and >down with the war<. Soon the strikers collided with government authority. After four days of M and mass demonstrations police and army units began to solidarize with the workers. The movement also seized other cities and forced the tsar to abdicate on March 3rd. A spontaneous strike movement which caught fire because of the supply situation turned into a political M within a few days, and toppled the tsarist autocracy – a development which was no less surprising for the socialist parties as for the rulers.
Similar to the revolution of 1905, again soviets (councils) developed from the M.s as organs of proletarian democracy, part of a dual rule with the councils on the one hand, and on the other the provisional government set up at first by bourgeois, then reformist-socialist forces. In the coming months, and above all starting from late summer of 1917, again a M-wave spread over the country, advanced by the Bolsheviks with the demands for >land, bread and peace<, as well as >all power to the soviets<. When at the end of August a counter-revolutionary putsch against the provisional government began, the workers answered with new strikes, until the putsch broke down after a few days. Further strike movements and occupations of factories and land, together with the massive desertion of soldiers, caused a fundamental shift in the relations of social forces in favor of the increasingly insurgent masses. Not by means of a spontaneous insurrection, but through an overthrow planned to the smallest detail, the Bolsheviks, on the 25th of October, translated the altered relations of forces into the state apparatus, and shifted power into the Congress of Soviets of Workers, Soldiers and Peasants. Empowered by the its mandate, the newly formed Council of People’s Commissars took over the work of government on the following day.
2. January strike in Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1918. – New hope emanated from the revolutionary events in Russia, and encouraged the workers of other countries to more resolute protests against the war. Under the impression of the Soviet peace initiative and the disappointing process of the peace negotiations in Brest Litowsk, between the 3rd and 25th of January 1918 more than 700,000 workers participated in strikes in Austria-Hungary which then gave the impetus for the largest M in Germany during the First World War (Opel 1957/1980, 71). Nearly one million people took part in the one week-long strike movement, which was directed against a continuation of the war and the ambitions of annexation directed against Soviet Russia. In Berlin alone on January 28, the first strike day, there were around 400,000 strikers (Luban 2008/2015, 21). Neither trade unions nor labor parties organized this M-movement, but the delegates from the shops (Abendroth1985/1997, 158). They were supported by skilled workers, union members and many women. The shop stewards [Obleute] of the German Metalworker’s Union [Metallarbeiter-Verband] (DMV) formed the strike committee from below and in opposition to the DMV executive committee, the >Workers‘ Council of Greater Berlin<. They were close to the war-opposing Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), but did not relinquish leadership of the strike. Representatives of the USPD and SPD were co-opted into the strike committee. They had only advisory voice and were to ensure the political strike in both parties. When the government denied direct negotiations with the shop stewards, and instead offered consultations with members of parliament (Reichstag) and of the General Commission of Trade Unions, the strike committee rejected such negotiations categorically and decided – also at this moment independent of union leadership and parties – the orderly resumption of work on February 4. >The M was the political form of action of the shop stewards< (Hoffrogge 2008/2015, 55), supplemented by the means of demonstrations on the basis of a lively assembly democracy.
3. November revolution. – The discontent among the workforce continued to ferment, and when a revolt of the sailors of the deep-sea fleet, which started from Kiel in late October 1918, they found support through spontaneous strike movements spreading over the entire realm while Berlin still remained calm. On the 4th of November a general strike of the shipyard and armaments workers in Kiel broke the power of the imperial government in Schleswig-Holstein. In Munich and Leipzig the revolution triumphed on the 7th and 8th of November in the course of workers‘ and soldiers‘ demonstrations and local general strikes. On the 9th of November, the general strike in Berlin began. Again, the shop stewards in the factories of the metal and electrical industries who had assembled weapons, were responsible for planning and organization. Above all they had succeeded in winning over the troops in the city through agitation in the barracks. The striking labor forces left the factories and drew into the city center. It was especially the events in Berlin that caused Arthur Rosenberg to see in the M.s of January the >dress rehearsal for the November revolution< (1955, 187).
Here it became evident that it is not possible, simply to decide on a general strike, but that in socially critical situations the initiative of resolute revolutionaries is required in order to decide on the time for action. For weeks there was argument about the date of the general strike, which was to set off the rebellion. First the 4th of November was decided on, then it was shifted to the 11th of November, the leadership of the shop stewards together with the Spartacus group finally put out a call on the evening of November 8 for the Berlin-wide general strike for the following day, and at the same time constituted itself as the >Provisional Workers‘ Council of Greater Berlin<. Accompanied by partly armed proletarian demonstration marches, which were also joined by ever more soldiers and policeman, this general strike actually forced the emperor to flee and led to the double proclamation of the republic as >German< (Philipp Scheidemann, SPD) and >free socialist< (Karl Liebknecht, USPD). Against the will of the SPD, the shop stewards, supported by their basis in the factories and the expectations of the strikers, pushed through a revolutionary government, which was composed only from the social-democratic parties (>workers‘ government<). The >revolution from above<, which was pursued by General Erich Ludendorff and other leading military figures since 1917, and in which the union leadership had put their hopes until the end, was not able to prevent the >revolution from below< (Opel 1957/1980, 75).
Although the transition to a socialist revolution also failed owing to the politics of the SPD, the struggle for political reforms nevertheless went along with that for social reforms and, subsequent to the November revolution, the eight-hour day, universal suffrage for women and men, free collective bargaining and works councils could be enacted. As prognosticated by Luxemburg, the M had proved itself as >a means, firstly, of creating for the proletariat the conditions of the daily political struggle and especially of Parliamentarism< (1906/2006, 104). However, the situation of the democratic republic remained precarious, and many hopes for large social reforms and socializations were disappointed.
4. Kapp Putsch 1920: General strike against the right. – Against the revolutionary movement and the left wing of the workers‘ movement, the SPD (above all Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske) had entered into a >pact with the old powers<, with the military and the monarchist state apparatus, and had taken part in striking down the council republics [Räterepubliken] in the first half of 1919. In March 1920 a part of the monarchist reaction, together with the high Prussian official, Wolfgang Kapp, and General Walther vonLüttwitz at the top, undertook a coup d’état against the young republic. The government was powerless against the putsch. The military apparatus, on which it had relied in the struggle against the left, failed to follow it in the fight against the right: >Reichswehr does not fire on Reichswehr< was the succinct answer of commander-in-chief General Hans vonSeeckt to the government’s request for support. First the putsch seemed to be successful militarily. However the civilian political answer of the workers was spontaneous and overwhelming; it culminated in the largest general strike of German history with approximately 12 million participants. Proclaimed first by the free trade unions (social-democratic worker and employee unions), the SPD and the USPD, it spread like wildfire from Berlin to further cities and soon paralyzed the entire country. The Christian trade unions, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the social-democratic civil service association followed later. The general strike did not aim at the bare re-establishment of the relations of power and government which had existed previously, but on a democratization of the state and the economy, and decisive socialization measures for the defense against all restorative tendencies.
In the strike a radicalizing dynamics culminating in armed rebellions developed. The workers attacked monarchist army units and formed the >Red Ruhr Army<, which temporarily controlled the entire Ruhr district. Similar to 1918/19 local councils developed. After a few days the putsch broke down under the impact of the general strike. The free trade unions continued the general strike even after Kapp’s resignation in order to implement measures against the radical right, and for the democratization of the administration and socialization measures. They, in particular Carl Legien(ADGB chairman/SPD) and Robert Dissmann (DMV chairman/USPD), demanded to form a government by all socialist parties, and offered the extra-parliamentary protection provided by the trade unions. This proposal failed (Opel 1957/1980, 117). After the government parties had made smaller concessions to the unions, they declared the end of the general strike on March 20th. The goal of a fundamental transformation of the Weimar Republic, and above all a democratization of the military and the civil service, was not achieved. Soon the government broke its promises, and at the beginning of April used the same Army of the Reich (Reichswehr) which had been predominantly in favor of the putsch, for the conquest of the Ruhr district, including the suppression of the local council power and the >Red Ruhr Army<.
The general strike against the Kapp Putsch illustrates the dynamics of a M-movement which ignited on a question of political survival and changed into a movement for profound structural reforms. Under the pressure of the spontaneous strikes at first, the unions‘ executive committees did something they had fought against for years, namely proclaiming a general strike. They claimed a political mandate – the rescue and the development of the democratic republic – and successfully placed themselves at the front of a political mass action. They failed because of the antagonisms within the USPD and between the SPD and the USPD. In March 1920 the M proved itself as >the most powerful weapon of the struggle for political rights< (Luxemburg, 1906/2006, 105) when these were threatened by the reaction. But the further potential of the largest general strike in German history for a social democratization of the Weimar Republic remained unused in the long run, an omission for which all workers had to pay in 1933.
5. The March action of the KPD in 1921: The M cannot be decreed. – In the revolutionary wave between 1917 and 1923 Luxemburg’s assumption of the M as a movement form of the proletarian revolution proved to be true in Russia and Germany, but also in the case of the Hungarian Soviet Republic accompanied by M.s in 1919, or the massive factory occupations of the Italian >red years< of 1920/21. Some of her assumptions were also confirmed as correct forecasts of negative consequences. Thus the KPD – having just become a mass party through its union with the left wing of the USPD – had to have the bitter experience with its March action in 1921 that a M also cannot be decreed even if it originates from a strengthened communist party. After it had taken a rather passive attitude with the M against the Kapp Putsch at first, because it rejected the defense of a republic governed by social democrats, they burned now to compensate for this omission with offensive actions.
While misjudging the relations of force in the empire, their attempt in March 1921 to generalize a local confrontation in central Germany into an insurgent national general strike failed pitifully, and led to arrests, mass withdrawals and a temporary isolation of the communists. The M is not a >purely technical means of struggle […], which can be […] ^decided^^ at pleasure […] or ^forbidden^^< (1906/2006, 106) – this sentence of Luxemburg’s applied to reformist union officials no less than to revolutionary party communists. A self-critical analysis of the events led the KPD and the Communist International to a strategic new orientation: the united front policy as basic form of revolutionary realpolitik in non-revolutionary times. Up until 1924 initiatives for the unity of action of the different labor organizations, as well as the systematic work in the reformist trade unions, were valued highly. On this basis the KPD succeeded in its consolidation as a mass party, which in 1923 could dare once again to reach for power.
6. German October 1923. – In the autumn of 1923 Luxemburg’s assumption of the M as a movement form of the proletarian revolution proved itself in reverse: without the M no revolution. The deep crisis, which had gripped Germany since the end of the world war, reached its last high point in 1923. The French occupation of Rhineland and a breathtaking hyperinflation shook the social order. The society entered into a condition of increasing decay, the social conflicts increased. Already in May Germany had experienced the largest farm laborer strikes of its history to date. At the beginning of June the mine workers of Upper Silesia struck. On the coast the sailors went on strike. At the beginning of July more than 100,000 Berlin metal workers quit work. In the large cities unrest owing to price increases spread, and demonstrations of the unemployed increased. Communists were involved in all these movements, and often played a prominent role in them. Even bourgeois politicians such as Gustav Stresemann saw: >We are dancing on a volcano, and we will face revolution, if we cannot reconcile the contradictions through a politics that is both decisive and intelligent.< (quoted from Wenzel 2003, 150)
The KPD profited from the situation. Their influence in the trade unions grew noticeably. The party seemed on the best way to winning the majority of the working class for itself (cf. Rosenberg 1955, 406 et sq.), and as the crisis in August 1923 escalated it seemed to many communists that the revolution was finally within reach. In August a local general strike in Berlin that was strongly influenced by the KPD, during which shop council meetings resolved radical demands that culminated in a >government of workers and peasants<, forced the government of imperial chancellor Wilhelm Cuno to resign.>Never in recent German history has there been a period, which would have been as favorable for a socialist revolution as the summer of 1923< (Rosenberg 1955, 405). However, the KPD backed down under the impression of the disastrous, rash and isolated attempted uprising in March 1921. Instead of advancing the dynamics and developing the revolution from real struggles (strikes), the KPD leadership preferred to put their hopes on a meticulously prepared rebellion, prepared with Soviet help, which was to take place in the autumn of 1923. Its centerpiece was to be a country-wide general strike which the communists, together with the left wing of the SPD and the trade unions, hoped to proclaim. In order not to endanger the preparations, the communists tended to caution with respect to further strike movements in the early autumn. However, the consolidation of the new imperial government under Stresemann, in which the SPD was involved, upset the plans of the communists.
That autumn coalitions of KPD and SPD, called ^worker government^^, took over the administration in Saxony and Thuringia. They were to function as a springboard for the rebellion. The imperial government sent troops, which according to the planning of the KPD was to provide the cause for a nationwide uprising to be started by the proclamation of a general strike at a cross-party shop council meeting in Chemnitz. Throughout the entire country the communists worked feverishly toward the call, as the memories of the activist Rosa Meyer-Leviné of a communist meeting in Frankfurt/Main on the crucial 21st of October illustrate: >The hall was packed, the excitement great. We were waiting for a signal proclaiming the general strike. […] While we waited feverishly for the ^signal^^, a conference of Workers‘ Councils was in session<, that found in the long run >only […] the courage to discover and admit their tragic impotence and to sound retreat.< (1977, 51 et sq.) The social-democratically organized majority of the works councils refused a call to the general strike, and in its absence the communist plans for an uprising fell apart. Only in Hamburg did it come to armed confrontations between communists and the police, in which the latter kept the upper hand. Without M the revolution in the autumn of 1923 was doomed to failure anyway. The failure of the >German October< to materialize became an event of world-historical importance: With it ended the hopes for an imminent expansion of the revolution towards the West, and the isolation of the Soviet Union became cemented, soon to be followed by the ascent of Stalinism with its theory of >socialism in one country<.
7. World economic crisis and Hitler’s appointment to power: Without M into the disaster. – No further M-movements developed during the prosperity which began in 1924, and the explosive rise of unemployment after the outbreak of the world economic crisis in 1929 weakened the workers‘ movement and worked against the spreading of strike movements. In addition, the subjective factor weighed heavily: The world economic crisis and the meteoric rise of the NSDAP following it met a KPD, which in the course of its Stalinization had turned away from united front politics. Instead of calling for united action, the blanket verbal abuse of the SPD as >social-fascistic< dominated; instead of working in the trade unions systematically, the KPD pursued a policy of splitting and building a structure of its own >revolutionary trade union opposition<. Although the membership and voters of the KPD rose, their hegemonial appeal decreased. With the growing enmity within the labor movement their ability to fight for concrete successes and to develop effective strategies in the fight against capitalism and fascism shrank. When Hitler was appointed imperial chancellor in 1933, he met no general strike comparable to the reaction of the workers‘ movement against the Kapp Putsch in 1920. The M was not used. In the years before this there had also been hardly any strikes and social struggles from which M-dynamics could have unfolded. The isolated KPD calls for general strikes after Hitler’s government take-over fizzled out.
The chapter of a democratic republic in Germany, opened by M, was closed with a drastic defeat of the left and the labor movement, also due to the inability of the labor movement to use the M to ward off the dumping of the costs of the crisis onto the workers and the petty bourgeoisie, thus presenting itself as a reliable alternative to fascism.
Bibliography: W.Abendroth, Einführung in die Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung. Von den Anfängen bis 1933 (1985), 3., revised ed., Heilbronn 1997; Ch.Boebel and L.Wentzel (eds.), Streiken gegen den Krieg. Die Bedeutung der Massenstreiks in der Metallindustrie vom Januar 1918 (2008), 2., revised ed., Hamburg 2015; R.Hoffrogge, >Hinter den Kulissen des Januarstreiks 1918. Richard Müller und die Revolutionären Obleute<, Boebel/Wentzel 2008/2015, 51-66; O.Luban, >Die Massenstreiks für Frieden und Demokratie im Ersten Weltkrieg<, Boebel/Wentzel 2008/2015, 11-26; R.Luxemburg,>The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Union< (1906), Reform or Revolution and Other Writings, transl. from the German by P.Lavin, Mineola/NY 2006, 99-180; R.Meyer-Leviné, Inside German Communism. Memoirs of Party Life in the Weimar Republic, ed. by D.Z.Mairowitz, London 1977; F.Opel, Der Deutsche Metallarbeiter-Verband während des Ersten Weltkrieges und der Revolution (1957), 4. ed., Köln 1980; A.Rosenberg, Entstehung und Geschichte der Weimarer Republik, ed. by K.Kersten, Frankfurt/M 1955; O.Wenzel, 1923. Die gescheiterte Deutsche Oktoberrevolution, Introduction by M.Wilke, Münster 2003.
Florian Wilde, Frank Heidenreich.
Originally published as Massenstreik in: Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus, vol. 9/I: Maschinerie bis Mitbestimmung, edited by Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Frigga Haug, Peter Jehle, Wolfgang Küttler, Argument-Verlag, Hamburg 2018, col. 95-113.