Why does a mass strike matter?

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Kevin Best looks at why socialists argue for mass strikes

Revolutionaries are arguing hard and organising to put coordinated strikes - and a general strike - at the heart of resistance to the cuts. Strikes represent the working class's most potent weapon, utilising its unique social position as the producers of wealth in society, the source of bosses' profits.

Rosa Luxemburg's pamphlet "The Mass Strike, the Political Party and Trade Unions" provides a crucial insight into the role strikes can play, not only in defending workers' existing conditions, but in preparing the working class for the revolutionary transformation of society and the realisation of socialism. Luxemburg shows that mass strikes can bridge the gap between today and revolution.

Luxemburg based her work on experience and practice. In particular she focused on the wave of strikes that surged through the Russian Empire following the massacre of a peaceful protest in January 1905. Millions of men and women came out on strike in the following two months, followed by a further explosion of struggle in November and December that year.

Luxemburg wrote of the spontaneous fury of these mass strikes, emerging from the hardship of life under the Tsar's dictatorship. These strikes "awoke feeling and class-consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock... The proletarian mass...quite suddenly and sharply came to realise how intolerable was that social and economic existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of capitalism. Thereupon there began a spontaneous general shaking of and tugging at these chains."

She also saw how backward ideas that had seemed permanently fixed were suddenly swept aside. Racism and sexism were broken down as people struggled together. Jewish workers who had been subjected to pogroms were defended. Divisions between towns, or sectional differences around what type of job you did were no longer important. Workers rose to new heights of heroism, refusing to be held hostage by fears of financial hardship, imprisonment or worse. The struggle threw up new forms of democracy that surpassed anything else that has been achieved to this day. In St Petersburg a soviet - a workers' council - was founded, drawing delegates from across the city. Led by the Jewish revolutionary Leon Trotsky, it coordinated strikes, driving the revolution forward.

Most of the time people think of politics and economics as being separate. Parliament deals with politics, while trade unions thrash out economic disputes - wages, conditions, unfair dismissals and so on. Luxemburg understood that trade unions tended to limit themselves to economic struggles - but she realised that mass strikes could overcome this. Strikes that were able to achieve political demands could inspire a further explosion of economic struggles. New workers - including those who were previously unorganised and un-unionised - get drawn into the struggle, bringing new demands. This surge of strike activity can raise the political tide as the economic and political become entwined and reinforce each other.

Though she was commenting on events in Russia, Luxemburg was responding to debates in Germany, and within the huge Social Democratic Party (SPD) of which she was a member. She highlights the spontaneity of mass strikes, and the way that they can smash through the conservatism of trade union bureaucracy and a reformist leadership of a party like the SPD.

But she underestimated the power that an entrenched bureaucracy can exercise. Later in the 20th century there were to be many mass strikes in which bureaucrats maintained tight control, limiting their scope and impact. At the same time, strikes that start under bureaucratic influence can quickly spin out of control. Breaking through this bureaucratic crust requires not only spontaneity, but a revolutionary party able to spur the self-activity of workers.

Overall, Luxemburg's ideas have since been vindicated with 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. In recent months mass strikes in Tunisia and Egypt precipitated the fall of dictators.

The mass strike carries the ideas of socialism deep into the working class. As Luxemburg explained, "Socialism must be created by the masses, must be made by every worker. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there must they be broken!"