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The Socialist Debate over the Mass Strike

The great debate that shaped socialist practice in the 1890s and the early twentieth century centered on the question of the role of the “mass” or “general” strike in struggles against capitalist hegemony.

Shelton Stromquist12 April 2023

The Socialist Debate over the Mass Strike

The great debate that shaped socialist practice in the 1890s and the early twentieth century, second only to “revisionism,” centered on the question of the role of the “mass” or “general” strike in struggles against capitalist hegemony. Although not centrally engaged in this debate, Eduard Bernstein nonetheless recognized that intense moments of political change “have also their advantages—they clear away in a day the dust and the rubbish that else would take generations to remove.”

With strike activity rising worldwide in the 1880s and 1890s, the political dimensions of those strikes also rose. Three points are critical. First, when forced to intervene in defense of capital, the state immediately lent to such struggles a political dimension. Even when workers’ goals may have been strictly “economic,” the entry of the state through court injunctions and the deployment of the police or the military forced workers to consider their status as citizens as well as strikers. For many, it became clear that the defense of their rights as workers required their mobilization as citizens. As Eugene Debs recalled, during the Pullman strike, the workers in the strike’s early days clearly had the upper hand, but “at this juncture there was delivered, from wholly unexpected quarters, a swift succession of blows that blinded me for an instant and then opened wide my eyes—and with the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed.” In circumstances where workers faced franchise restrictions, their capacity to defend themselves as citizen-workers came up against significant barriers and fueled more sustained, concerted working-class efforts to achieve the full franchise and enhance their power as citizens.

Second, as strikes became more massive and solidarities crossed traditional lines of craft and industry, the possibilities for class-wide action through general strikes in a locality or across an industry enlivened the collective imagination of workers. Mass strikes also made capital and politicians increasingly nervous about the potential power of such mobilization in pursuit of more expansive political goals.

Third, some issues—notably the eight-hour day—around which workers made little headway through conventional strikes seemed to invite broader action to pressure the state for legislative action. Mass strikes for shorter hours in the United States (the Philadelphia ten-hour strike in 1835, or post–Civil War strikes in Chicago and Boston) had achieved, at best, limited and temporary success legislatively. The general strike for the eight-hour day in 1886 was cut short by the repression surrounding the Haymarket incident but had ignited new levels of working-class mobilization around the world that seemed to grow with each succeeding year. With the formation of the Second Socialist International, May 1 became a symbolic moment with clear political implications for class-wide action. 

But many social democrats, including Friedrich Engels himself, decried the premature calling out of workers in general strikes on behalf of political objectives. Engels at one point in 1891 referred to the “Belgian idiocy” and wrote to Friedrich Sorge that, “I almost wish that the Walloon coal workers, who have provoked the general strike nonsense this time, will put it into practice in Belgium to try to win universal suffrage. They will be mercilessly cut up, and the nonsense will be buried.” Others, including Eduard Bernstein, continued to argue for the strategic value of political mass strikes when circumstances properly aligned. Such a strategy seemed to be confirmed in the Belgian workers’ struggle for the universal franchise in 1893, when Parliament capitulated in the face of a massive general strike to pass legislation incrementally broadening the franchise. The limits of that victory would be cause for renewed mobilization (and renewed debate among social democrats) around a new Belgian general strike in 1901–2 for full enfranchisement.

The debate over the appropriateness of the “political mass strike” created strange bedfellows. Engels, uneasy over the vulnerability of the SPD in Germany, took an especially vehement line against what he saw as utopian or anarchist adventurism associated with the general strike. He went so far as to try to dissuade Kautsky from publishing the essay by Bernstein on the general strike, which Kautsky had commissioned for Die Neue Zeit in 1894.

Bernstein’s analysis in that essay, which Kautsky chose to publish, foreshadowed his pragmatic revisionist disposition that placed emphasis on a careful analysis of the specific historical circumstances in which the political general strike might be successfully deployed. Unlike Engels, he saw the recent Belgian crisis as a successful case in point. Indeed, the political crisis that unfolded from the precipitant of the Belgian general strike brought into play liberal reformers who helped engineer a parliamentary expansion of the franchise. Bernstein then used that case to offer a more general analysis of how political mass strikes could, if properly timed and strategically led, effect significant changes. But he rejected out of hand the romantic call to the barricades of the past. Instead, he stressed the contingent circumstances that might warrant its use and the necessity for “great discretion, cool calculation” if the two-edged sword of the political mass strike were to succeed. 

There arise moments where the ruling classes and powers that be miscalculate, where in some nations a succession of industrial crises, political mismanagement, deep discontent prevail, in the course of which confusion, disunity and inclination towards concessions reign. These are situations where the political strike can work.

He also emphasized the need for a self-conscious, disciplined, organized working class capable of influencing unorganized workers. “In the choice of the right moment everything follows.” As in the Belgian case, the circumstances of a working class denied the franchise or hemmed in by a partial franchise could be especially propitious. Just as he had assessed the formation of an independent labor party in Britain for the potential it held to advance the interests of workers, so Bernstein also took stock of the lessons of a strike wave in the previous decade that had produced a new political environment for workers and further opportunities to pursue the promise of social revolution and an expansion of workers’ democratic claims. In doing so he separated himself from his mentor, Friedrich Engels, who late in life wrote a new introduction to Marx’s Civil War in France, in which he again stressed caution in the pursuit of political objectives through mass collective action. 

Rosa Luxemburg, based on her reading of the events surrounding the 1905 Russian revolution, argued in her famous treatise on the “mass strike” that it was not the ignition point for a revolution but rather part of the ongoing struggle for “political rights.” 

The mass strike in Russia has been realized not as a means of political struggle of the working class, and especially of parliamentarism, not as a means of jumping suddenly into the social revolution by means of a theatrical coup, but as a means, firstly of creating for the proletariat the conditions of the daily political struggle and especially of parliamentarism. 

Such a struggle must be “conducted for those political rights and conditions whose necessity and importance in the struggle for the emancipation of the working class Marx and Engels first pointed out.”52 While Luxemburg argued furiously against the revisionist currents in social democracy and against the proponents of municipal socialism, she, like they, saw in the political consequences of mass strike activity opportunities to advance a new revolutionary politics. 

Mass Strikes and the Invention of a New Politics 

The wave of mass strikes in the late 1880s and early 1890s generated in their wake newly energized working-class political mobilization and new confidence that, despite the historic barriers to participation in politics, workers might realign governance at all levels. Because such strikes had a specifically local dynamic, the class polarization they produced translated most directly into municipal politics. The capacity of social democratic parties to capture such local class anger and give it political voice varied enormously between and within countries. But, for many working-class activists, the city loomed as the most immediate, accessible, and potentially relevant political arena. The deteriorating circumstances of daily life in cities produced a tinderbox of issues around which a new locally relevant politics could crystallize—the need for clean water and food, pure milk, basic sanitation, cheap urban transit, dust control, adequate housing, and decent wages for the growing army of municipal workers.

This new local politics destabilized the political environment in ways that opened space for wider-ranging political experimentation. The birth of a vibrant working-class politics and aggressive challenges to elite rule at local, state, and national levels owed their existence in significant measure to local strike leaders and political activists, who envisioned a new set of opportunities to transform their world. That those aspirations were disappointed in some cases by aspiring parliamentary leaders who elbowed their way to the forefront of the new movements is not surprising, but neither does it diminish the hopes bred by the circumstances local activists confronted in their daily lives. 

At the same time, many leading social democrats shrank from the prospect of general strikes that might prematurely produce crises that could crush fledgling workers’ movements. In some measure, such caution stood at odds with the firestorm of political enthusiasm that strikes unleashed among local activists. Mingling strains of utopian insurrectionism and locally focused class anger with a measure of city-centered pragmatic politics, workers and their radical political allies moved into the new political space that the municipality offered and began building alternative political movements from below. 

In this ongoing and intensely polarizing debate, revolutionary syndicalists and “evolutionary” socialists alike failed to take adequate account of the unfolding political practice on the ground, frequently the byproduct of strikes, that channeled this new political energy and gave it tangible meaning. Revolutionary it may not have been, but nor was it captive to the parliamentary leaders who came to dominate most of the world’s socialist and labor parties. These efforts to craft a new politics of every day and every place that embodied the local solidarities bred in strikes represented a new opening for politicized workers to pursue their collective interests.

 This is an edited excerpt of Claiming the City.

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Claiming the City
Winner of the International Labor History Association (ILHA) 2023 Book of the Year Award for labor historyFor more than a century, municipal socialism has fired the imaginations of workers fighting...