Rosa Luxemburg

Theory & Practice

Part 4

In light of the conclusions which follow from Comrade Kautsky’s newest theory, it now becomes clear -how very false, from the ground up, this theory is. To derive the mass strike action of the Russian proletariat, unparalleled in the history of modern class struggle, from Russia’s social backwardness – in other words, to explain the outstanding importance and leading role of the urban industrial proletariat in the Russian Revolution as Russian “backwardness” – is to stand things right on their heads.

It was not economic retardation, but precisely the high development of capitalism, modern industry, and commerce in Russia which made that grandiose mass strike action possible, and which caused it. It was just because the urban industrial proletariat was already so numerous, concentrated in the great centers, and so strongly moved by class consciousness, just because the genuine modern capitalist contradiction had progressed so far, that the struggle for political freedom could be decisively led by this proletariat alone. But because of this it could be no purely constitutional struggle after the liberal formula, but a genuine modern class struggle in all its breadth and depth, fighting for the economic as well as the political interests of the workers – against capital as well as Tsarism, for the eight-hour day as well as a democratic constitution. And only because capitalist industry and the modern means of commerce bound to it had become a condition of existence for the state’s economic life, could the mass strikes of the proletariat in Russia realize such a staggering, decisive effect: that the revolution celebrated its victories with them, and with them went down in defeat and grew silent.

At this moment I can think of no more exact formulation of the factors in question here, than that which I gave in my pamphlet on the mass strike in 1906:

We have seen that the mass strike in Russia represents not the synthetic product of a deliberate Social Democratic tactic, but a natural historic figure on the ground of the present revolution. What are the forces in Russia now which have brought forth this new manifestation of revolution?

The immediate task of the Russian Revolution is putting an end to absolutism and establishing a modern bourgeois-parliamentary constitutional state. Formally, this is exactly the same task faced by the March Revolution in Germany and by the Great Revolution in France at the end of the eighteenth century. But the circumstances, the historic milieu in which these formally analogous revolutions took place, are fundamentally different from those of today’s Russia. The difference in circumstances is the entire cycle of capitalist development which has run between those bourgeois revolutions in the West and the present bourgeois revolution in the East. That is, this development has not seized the Western European lands alone, but absolutist Russia as well. Large scale industry with all its consequences – the modern class division, the glaring social contrasts, modern metropolitan life and the modern proletariat – has become the leading form of production in Russia (i.e., the decisive one for its social development).

But from this has resulted a strange, contradictory historical situation: that a revolution whose formal objectives are bourgeois will be carried out under the leadership of a modern, class-conscious proletariat, and in an international milieu which stands under the sign of bourgeois democracy’s downfall. Now the bourgeoisie is not the leading revolutionary element it was in the earlier revolutions of the West, when the proletarian mass, dissolved in the petty bourgeoisie, served as its military levies. All is reversed: the class-conscious proletariat is the leading, driving element; the big bourgeois strata are in part directly counter-revolutionary, in part weakly liberal; only the rural petty bourgeoisie, along with the urban petty bourgeois intelligentsia, are decidedly oppositional, indeed revolutionary minded. But the Russian proletariat, so clearly destined for the leading role in the bourgeois revolution, is itself free from all illusions about bourgeois democracy – and therefore it enters the struggle with a strongly developed consciousness of its own specific class interests in the acutely sharpened opposition of capital and labor.

This contradictory state of affairs is expressed in the fact that in this formally bourgeois revolution, bourgeois society’s opposition to absolutism will be commanded by the proletariat’s opposition to bourgeois society; that the proletariat’s struggle will be simultaneously directed, with equal force, against absolutism and capitalist exploitation; that the program of revolutionary struggle is directed, with equal emphasis, toward political freedom and the eight-hour day, as well as a material existence for the proletariat worthy of humanity. This two-fold character of the Russian Revolution manifests itself in that inner unity and reciprocal action of economic and political struggle in which we have been instructed by the events in Russia, and which finds its natural expression in the mass strike ...

So the mass strike shows itself to be no specifically Russian product, arising from absolutism, but a universal form of proletarian class struggle resulting from the present stage of capitalist development and class relations. From this standpoint, the three bourgeois revolutions – the Great French Revolution, the German March Revolution, and the present Russian one – form an on-running chain of development in which the prosperity and the end of the capitalist century are reflected ...

The present revolution realizes, in the special circumstances of absolutist Russia, the universal results of international capitalist development: and in this it seems less a final descendant of the old bourgeois revolutions than a forerunner of a new series of proletarian revolutions in the West. Just because it has so inexcusably delayed its bourgeois revolution, the most backward land shows ways and methods of extended class struggle for the proletariat of Germany and the most advanced capitalist lands.

Earlier, Comrade Kautsky also viewed the Russian Revolution in the same historical perspective. In December 1906, in complete agreement with my interpretation, he wrote:

We may most speedily master the lessons of the Russian Revolution and the tasks which it sets us, if we regard it as neither a bourgeois revolution in the traditional sense nor a socialist one, but as a wholly unique process taking place on the border line between bourgeois and socialist society’ it demands dissolution of the one, prepares for the formation of the other, and in either case brings all of humanity under capitalist civilization a mighty step forward in its march of development. [Driving Forces and Perspectives of the Russian Revolution, Neue Zeit, XXV. 1. p.333]

If thus one grasps the real social and historical conditions which lie at the root of the Russian Revolution’s specific new form of struggle, the mass strike action – and another interpretation is not very well possible without phantasizing the actual course of this action out of thin air, as Comrade Kautsky now does with his “amorphous, primitive strikes” – then it is clear that mass strikes as the form of the proletariat’s revolutionary struggle come into consideration even more for Western Europe than in Russia, to the extent which capitalism (in Germany, for example) is much more highly developed.

In fact, all the conditions which Comrade Kautsky mobilizes against the political mass strike are just so many forces which must make the mass strike action in Germany even more inevitable, extensive, and powerful.

The opposing might of the cartels which Comrade Kautsky invokes, “searching” in vain “for its like,” the slavish obedience in which the enormous category of German state employees is sunken – these are the very things which make a peaceful, profitable union action ever more difficult for the bulk of the German proletariat. They feed ever mightier trials of strength and explosions in the economic sphere, whose elemental character and mass extension take on more and more political meaning the longer they continue.

It is just the political isolation of the proletariat in Germany to which Comrade Kautsky refers, just the fact that the united bourgeoisie down to the last petty bourgeois stands behind the government like a wall, that shapes every great political struggle against the government into a struggle against the bourgeoisie, against exploitation. And the same circumstances guarantee that every energetic revolutionary mass action in Germany will not take parliamentary forms of liberalism or the previous form of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie’s struggle, the brief barricade battle, but the classic proletarian form of the mass strike.

And finally: it is just because we in Germany have “a half century of socialist enlightenment and political freedom” behind us, that as soon as the situation has so ripened that the masses take to the field, the action of the proletariat set in motion by every political struggle will roll together all ancient reckonings against private and state exploitation, and unite the political with an economic mass struggle. For, as Comrade Kautsky wrote in 1907:

We have not the slightest ground to assume that the degree of exploitation of the German proletariat is less than that in Russia. On the contrary, we have seen that with the advance of capitalism the exploitation of the proletariat increases. If the German worker is in a somewhat better position than the Russian, the productivity of his labor is also much greater, and the needs in relation to the general national standard of living are much higher: so that the German worker finds the capitalist yoke perhaps even more galling than the Russian does. [The Social Revolution, 2nd ed., p.60.]

Comrade Kautsky, who paints in such splendid colors how the German worker is “totally preoccupied with organizations, meetings, and elections of all sorts,” has for the moment forgotten the quite enormous slave herds of Prusso-German state employees, railroad workers and postal workers, as well as the farm workers, who unfortunately enjoy very limited measure of that contented preoccupation with “organizations, meetings, and options of all sorts” as long as the right to organize is legally or practically denied them. He has forgotten that in the midst of royal Prussian freedom these enormous categories live politically as well as economically in genuine “Russian” conditions, and that therefore these very categories – not to mention the miners – will find it impossible, in the midst of a political convulsion, to maintain their slavish obedience or to refrain from presenting their special bill of reckoning in the form of giant mass strikes.

But let us look at “Western Europe.” In disputing all this, Comrade Kautsky has yet another opponent besides myself to deal with: reality. Specifically, what do we see here when we only direct our attention to the most important mass strikes of the last ten years?

The great Belgian mass strikes which won universal suffrage stand by themselves in the ’90s as a bold experiment. Nevertheless, what depth and multidimensionality!

In 1900 the mass strike by the miners in Pennsylvania which, according to the testimony of American comrades, did more to spread socialist ideas than ten years of agitation; also in 1900, mass strike by the miners in Austria; 1902, mass strike by the miners in France; 1902, general strike by all production workers in Barcelona in support of the struggling metal workers; 1902, demonstration mass strike in Sweden for universal, equal suffrage; 1902, mass strike in Belgium for universal, equal suffrage; 1902, mass strike by the farm workers in all east Galicia (over 200,000 taking part) in defense of the right to organize; 1903, in January and April, two mass strikes by the railroad workers in Holland; 1904, mass strike by the railroad workers in Hungary; 1904, demonstration mass strike in Italy protesting the massacres in Sardinia; in January 1905, mass strike by the miners in the Ruhr district; in October 1905, demonstration mass strike in and around Prague (by 100,000 workers) for universal, equal suffrage in Bohemian Landtag elections; in October 190 demonstration mass strike in Lemburg for universal equal suffrage in Galician Landtag elections; in November 1905, demonstration mass strike in all of Austria for universal, equal suffrage in Reichsrat elections; 1905, mass strike by the Italian farm workers; 1905, mass strike by the Italian railroad workers; 1906, demonstration mass strike in Trieste for universal, equal suffrage in Landtag elections which victoriously forced the reform through; 1906, mass strike by the foundry workers in Witkowiz (Moravia) in support of 400 shop stewards fired because of the May Day celebration – victoriously concluded; 1909, mass strike in Sweden in defense of the right to organize; 1909, mass strike by the postal workers in France; in October 1909, demonstration mass strike by all workers in Trient and Rovereto protesting the political persecution of Social Democracy; 1910, mass strike in Philadelphia in support of the streetcar workers’ struggle for the right to organize; and at this moment, preparations for a mass strike by the railroad workers in France.

This is the “impossibility” of “West European” mass strikes, especially demonstration mass strikes, which Comrade Kautsky has so beautifully demonstrated in black and white. Comrade Kautsky has theoretically proved the obvious impossibility of mixing political and economic strikes, the impossibility of impressive, general demonstration mass strike, the impossibility of mass strikes being a period of repeated hand-to-hand combat. He has forgotten that for the last ten years we have lived in a period of economic, political, fighting and demonstration strikes: a period which has extended, with striking unity, over almost all “West European lands” as well as the United States; over the capitalistically most backward like Spain, and the most advanced like North America; over lands with the weakest union movements like France, and those with strapping Social Democratic unions like Austria; over agrarian Galicia and highly industrialized Bohemia; over half-feudal states like the Hapsburg monarchy, republics like France, and absolutist states like Russia. And of course, in addition to the above-enumerated stands Russia’s grandiose mass strike action from 1902 to 1906, which has shown how the significance and extent of the mass strike initially grow together with the revolutionary situation and the political action of the proletariat.

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. [K. Kautsky, “The Lessons of the Miners’ Strikes,” Neue Zeit XXIII, [1], p.781.]

From this it almost seems as if Comrade Kautsky, through his newest theory of the impossibility of a period of political mass strikes in Germany, has demonstrated not so much a contradiction between Russia and Western Europe as a contradiction between Germany and the rest of the world – Western Europe and Russia thrown in together. Prussia must in fact be the exception among all capitalist lands, if what Comrade Kautsky has worked out on the impossibility of even short general demonstration mass strikes in Prussia is true. It would be “entirely unthinkable that in a demonstration strike against the government here, commuter railways, streetcars, and gas works come to a standstill,” that we in Germany experience a demonstration strike which “alters the entire landscape, and in so doing makes the deepest impression on the entire bourgeois world as well as the most indifferent strata of the proletariat.” But then what is “unthinkable” in Germany must be what has already proved itself possible in Galicia, in Bohemia, in Italy, in Trieste and Trento, in Spain, and in Sweden. In all these lands and cities, splendid demonstration strikes have taken place which completely altered “the landscape.” In Bohemia on November 20, 1905, an absolute, general work stoppage reigned which extended even to agriculture – a thing they have not yet experienced in Russia. In Italy in September 1904 the farm workers, streetcars, electric and gas works took a holiday, and even the daily press had to stop publication. “It has indeed become the most total general strike,” wrote the Neue Zeit, “that history knows of: for three whole days the city of Genoa was left without light and bread and meat; all economic life was paralysed.” [Oda Olberg, The Italian General Strike, Neue Zeit XXIII, 1, p.19.] In Sweden’s capital Stockholm, in 1902 as well as 1909, all means of communication and commerce – streetcars, cabs, wagons, municipal services – were shut down in the first week. In Barcelona in 1902, all economic life rested for many days.

And so in Prusso-Germany – with its “strongest contemporary government,” and its special “German conditions” which supposedly show proletarian methods of struggle, possible in all the rest of the world, to be all sorts of impossibilities – we have finally acquired an unexpected counterpart to those special “Bavarian” and “south German” conditions which Comrade Kautsky once so heartily derided with us. But in particular, these German “impossibilities” plume themselves on the fact that precisely in Germany we have the strongest party, the strongest unions, the best organization, the greatest discipline, the most enlightened proletariat, and the greatest influence of Marxism. By this method we would come, in fact, to the singular conclusion that the stronger Social Democracy is, the more powerless the proletariat. But I believe that to say mass strikes and demonstration strikes which were possible in various other lands are impossible today in Germany, is to fix a brand of incapacity on the German proletariat which it has as yet done nothing to deserve.

Next: Part 5

Last updated on: 11.12.2008