A form of workers’ struggle characteristic of decadent capitalism. It solves the problems of the organization and massive self-affirmation of workers by spreading spontaneously across a territory, incorporating all workers without taking into account trade, nationality, sex or any other division imposed by the organization of production or the state.
With the development of imperialism, in the last decade of rising capitalism, the class struggle intensified and began to take on new forms throughout the world. The first major “mass strike” broke out in 1905 in Russia.
From one end of the country to the other, a great wave of strikes swept across the body of the nation. According to one estimate, the strike spread to 122 cities and towns, several mines on the Donetsk and ten railway companies. The proletarian masses were stirred to their foundations. The movement dragged out a million souls. Without having a determined plan, even often without making any demands, being interrupted and starting again, guided only by the instinct of solidarity, the strike reigned in the country for about two months. […]
After January 9, the revolution will know no rest. It is no longer limited to underground work hidden from view, to unceasingly awaken new strata; it has come to openly, in a hurry, the call of its companies, its battalions, its regiments and its army corps. The main force of this immense troop is the proletariat; that is why the revolution proceeds to call on its soldiers by means of strikes […].
One after the other, the professions, the factories, the cities, all walk out of work. The railwaymen are the initiators of the movement, the railways serve as a vector for this epidemic. Economic demands are formulated, satisfied almost immediately, in whole or in part. But neither the beginning of the strike nor its end depends exclusively on the demands made or the satisfaction obtained. The strike begins, not because the economic struggle has reached certain demands, but, on the contrary, by making a selection of demands that are formulated because there is a need for a strike. There is a need to see for oneself, for the proletariat elsewhere and finally for the whole people, the forces that have been accumulated, the solidarity of the class, its combative zeal; it is necessary to make a general review of the revolution. The strikers themselves, and those who support them, and those who sympathize with them, and those who fear them, and those who hate them, all understand or feel confused that this curious strike that runs locally from one place to another, recovers its momentum, and passes like a whirlwind; all understand or, feel that it does not work by itself, that it is limited to fulfilling the will of the revolution which sends it. Over the field of operations of the strike, that is, over the whole extension of the country, a threatening, sinister force is suspended, charged with an insolent recklessness.
Leon Trotsky. 1905: Results and Prospects, 1906
When Rosa Luxemburg brought the discussion on the “mass strike” model to Germany, at a time when class tension was high, the party would reluctantly accept its “use”, subject only to an eventual ban on the workers’ right to vote. The trade unions then rejected any discussion of it. Rosa Luxemburg stubbornly tried to clarify, first of all, that the mass strike is not the general strike cannot be “called for”, it is universal, but it can be reduced to a tool.
The first thing that the Russian experience leads us to revise is the general conception of the issue. Today, after everything has been said and done, we find that the position of the most fervent defenders of “rehearsing the mass strike” in Germany, such as Bernstein, Eisner, etc., and that of the most fierce opponents of this idea, such as Bomelburg in the trade union field, in practice turns out to be the same, that is to say the anarchist conception.
For the anarchist way of thinking is direct speculation on the “great Kladderadatsch”, on social revolution simply as an external and inessential characteristic. The essence of anarchism is the abstract, ahistorical conception of the mass strike and of the conditions under which the proletarian struggle is generally waged.
This whimsical way of reasoning resulted in the conception sixty years ago of the mass strike as the shortest, safest and easiest path to a better social future. The same way of reasoning recently gave rise to the idea that the trade union struggle was the only true “direct action of the masses”, and also the only true revolutionary struggle. This, as we know, is the last position of the French and Italian “syndicalists” [revolutionary syndicalism that will later mutate into the anarcho-syndicalism of the CNT]. The fatal thing for anarchism was always that the methods of struggle improvised in the air are like invitations to a house whose owner is absent, that is, they are purely utopian. Moreover, these speculations, which at one time were generally revolutionary, in the absence of the despicable and vile reality, are in fact transformed by it into instruments of reaction.
Those who today set a day in the calendar for the mass strike in Germany, as if it were a commitment written down in the agenda of an executive; those who, like the participants of the trade union congress in Cologne, seek to eliminate by means of a “propaganda” ban the problem of the mass strike from the face of the earth, are guided by these same abstract and ahistorical methods of observation. Both tendencies are based on the purely anarchist assumption that the mass strike is a purely technical means of struggle, that it can be “decided” at will and in a strictly conscious way, or that it can be “banned,” a kind of knife that is kept closed in one’s pocket “ready for any emergency,” and can be opened and used whenever one decides to do so. (…)
Therefore, if the Russian Revolution teaches us anything, it is, above all, that the mass strike is not artificially “manufactured”, that it is not “decided” at random, that it does not “spread”; it is a historical phenomenon that, at a given moment, emerges from social conditions as an inevitable historical necessity. Therefore, the problem cannot be understood or discussed on the basis of abstract speculations about the possibility or the impossibility, about the usefulness or the harm of mass strikes. The social factors and conditions that give rise to mass strikes in the present stage of the class struggle must be examined. In other words, it is not a matter of subjective criticism of the mass strike from the perspective of what would be desirable, but of objective investigation of the causes of the mass strike from the perspective of what is historically inevitable.
Rosa Luxemburg. Mass strike party and trade unions, 1906
But there are elements that we should not forget either about the rejection that the mass strike provokes in the social democratic leadership: the 1905 strike has overcome the union bureaucracy and its fantasy of organizing the proletariat as a pyramidal army. The Russian proletariat has not created trade union centers, it has created a new type of body: the workers council, the soviet. And this body has overcome and placed the unions under its natural command without popes or bureaucrats. The worst nightmare for the union leadership at a time when unions are beginning to integrate into state capitalism.
As the October strike unfolded, the soviet naturally became the center that attracted the general attention of politicians. Its importance literally grew from hour to hour. The industrial proletariat had been the first to close ranks around it. The union of trade unions which had joined the strike from October 14 had almost immediately to recognize the protectorate of the soviet. Numerous strike committees-the committees of engineers, lawyers, government officials-regulated their actions by the decisions of the soviet. By subordinating the independent organizations, the soviet unified the revolution around itself.
Leon Trotsky. 1905: Results and Prospects, 1906
Mass Strike in the 20th and 21th Century
The mass strike is not a temporarily or geographically confined phenomenon. Immediately after the Russian revolution of 1905, we will see how the famous 1909 Saltpeter Strike appears in South America, as it returns to Russia in February 1917 and blends in with the worldwide revolutionary wave until 1937, from Spain to China. It will break out in Italy, Germany, Greece and Vietnam as the basis for the proletariat’s attempts to transform war into revolution. And in 1952 in Germany, it will put the new Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe against the wall for the first time. From 1962 (the Asturian mining strike) the mass strike once again took over the world, from Paris to Córdoba and Rosario, from South Africa to Vitoria and from there to the Donbass via Poland, without respect for any oceans or “iron curtains”. In the second half of the eighties, the long wave of open struggle will then be exhausted. However, the revival of the class struggle will again bring the spectre of mass strikes to Iran (2017-19), Morocco (2018) and Mexico (2019).