The Fire First Time

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Chanie Rosenberg rediscovers a revolutionary classic.

Rosa Luxemburg was an original and creative Marxist thinker and this little book - with a new introduction by Martin Smith - is refreshing testimony to these qualities. It was written in 1906, soon after the Russian Revolution of 1905, which embraced Poland, that part of the Russian Empire from which Rosa originally came, and into which she again smuggled herself (after living in Germany since 1898) in order to participate in the revolution.

As capitalism made great strides forward at the end of the 19th century, the growing working class forged its own method of fighting against its deprivations and for its rights - the mass strike. This erupted in Belgium in 1891, 1893 and 1902, winning universal suffrage. Rosa Luxemburg was enthusiastic about this revolutionary weapon, which also broke out in Russia repeatedly from 1896 onwards.

Luxemburg begins by proclaiming the radical change effected by the 1905 Russian Revolution in the ideology surrounding the mass strike. The hitherto existing attitude implied that the workers needed a perfect organisation and a full war chest to call a general strike, which would be 'carried through... in perfect order... The whole material balance of the mass strike is exactly determined in advance' by the directing committees. This would be the procedure to inaugurate the social revolution.

Luxemburg ridicules this approach. It was the daily political struggle of the working class that led the mass strikes to the most varied forms of action: 'All the factors of the mass strike, as well as its character, are not only different in the different towns and districts of the country, but its general character has changed in the course of the revolution.'

From this living history Luxemburg gives a detailed account of the mass strike movement, starting with a general strike in St Petersburg in 1896 (which was begun without a trace of organisation or of strike funds), through another general strike involving street battles in 1902, when Social Democratic (i.e. revolutionary) public speakers appeared for the first time. The whole of South Russia was aflame again in 1903. A further general strike in Odessa in 1904 was led by a police chief, attempting by 'police unionism' to divert the revolutionary stream, but instead being forced to the front of a revolutionary movement. This was also the case for the January 1905 demonstration, which, after the tsar massacred over 1,000 demonstrators, inaugurated the first Russian Revolution.

Throughout the historical account Luxemburg shows the variety of causes for revolt, its demands - the eight hour day, wages, pensions, payment for punctuation for printers - and the different industries and sections of workers participating, involving varying methods of struggle and outcomes.

A major consequence of the living struggles, which she discusses at length, is the unity of economics and politics in the mass strikes: 'The movement does not only go in one direction, from an economic to a political struggle, but also in the opposite direction. Every important political mass action, after reaching its peak, results in a series of economic mass strikes. And this rule applies not only to the individual mass strike, but to the revolution as a whole...

'There exists a reciprocal influence between the two struggles. Every fresh attack and victory of the political struggle has a powerful impact on the economic struggle, in that at the same time as it widens the scope for the workers to improve their conditions and strengthens their impulse to do so, it enhances their fighting spirit. After every soaring wave of political action, there remains a fertile sediment from which sprout a thousand economic struggles. And the reverse also applies. The workers' constant economic struggle against capital sustains them at every pause in the political battle. The economic struggle constitutes, so to speak, the permanent reservoir of working class strength from which political struggle always imbibes new strength.

'In a word, the economic struggle is the factor that advances the movement from one political focal point to another. The political struggle periodically fertilises the ground for the economic struggle. Cause and effect interchange every second. Thus we find that the two elements, the economic and political, do not incline to separate themselves from one another during the period of the mass strikes in Russia, not to speak of negating one another as pedantic schemes would suggest.'

In this brilliant little book Rosa Luxemburg deals with the role of the mass strike in forging the working class into a fighting unit, in bringing about their spiritual growth, and in changing them so that they become able to change society.

The Mass Strike
Rosa Luxemburg
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