The mass strike in the First World War

Issue: 145

Chris Fuller

In Kiev a strike began in the railway workshops…the immediate cause was miserable conditions of labour and wage demands were presented… During the night two delegates of the railwaymen were arrested. The strikers immediately demanded their release…they decided not to allow trains to leave the town. At the station all the strikers with their wives and families sat down on the railway track—a sea of human beings. They were threatened with rifle salvoes. The workers bared their breasts and cried, “Shoot!” A salvo was fired into the defenceless seated crowd, and 30 to 40 corpses, amongst them those of women and children, remained on the ground. On this becoming known the whole town of Kiev went on strike on the same day.

Luxemburg: The Mass Strike, The Political Party and the Trade Unions, 1986.

The enthusiasm with which Rosa Luxemburg wrote about the mass strikes that hit Russia in 1896-7 and 1902 to 1905 leaps from the pages of her booklet, The Mass Strike.1 The book was written in 1906 as part of Luxemburg’s battle against the reformism of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD),2 the centre of her political life until her assassination in 1919. It has been argued that the analysis put forward by Luxemburg applies equally to the factory occupations in Italy in 1920 and the 1984-5 miners’ strike in Britain.3 However, I will apply it here to an analysis of the mass strikes during the First World War, which are a critical rejoinder to those who argue that “the peoples of Europe leapt eagerly into war”.4 This article will firstly summarise the main arguments in The Mass Strike and secondly examine the balance of class forces in Germany, Austria, France and Italy before the war. These countries have been chosen since they fall evenly on both allied “sides” in the war, and had different patterns of capitalist development at the time of the war and varying working class responses. It will then review the changes to these forces during the war and the nature of the strikes that developed as a result.

Finally the strengths and weaknesses of Luxemburg’s analysis and prescription for action will be examined. It will be argued that she was correct to say that the events in Russia could also occur in Germany and that the dynamics of the mass strike she identified resonated through the war period. However, it will also be held that her analysis of the trade union bureaucracy was not complete, that she failed to distinguish sufficiently between trade union and revolutionary consciousness and therefore drew organisational conclusions too late.

Luxemburg’s Mass Strike

The variety of mass strikes described by Luxemburg is such that she argues that it is not possible to talk of the mass strike. She explains that “political and economic strikes…general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting—all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another—it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena”.5 She emphasises how the separation between political and economic demands, which became a feature of social democratic and trade union practice before the war, is broken down by the mass strike: “The economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle. Cause and effect here continually change places”.6

The mass strike is therefore a dynamic movement both in terms of the demands raised but also in its ability to increase massively in scale. Luxemburg argues that the mass strike is part of a bigger picture, that “in reality the mass strike does not produce the revolution, but the revolution produces the mass strike”.7 This is vital since her political rivals at the time often viewed the use of strikes merely as a way to gain reforms within the system and only to be called within tightly controlled parameters, if at all.

Luxemburg sees the mass strike as arising out of a revolutionary period, the causes of which she goes on to analyse. The first are the economic needs of workers—better pay, an eight-hour day, payment for compulsory holidays—and other workplace struggles such as over the behaviour of brutal foremen. Secondly, the repressive response of the employers and government intensifies and politicises the economic struggle. Luxemburg wrote of the effect of Russian absolutism, “a state in which every form and expression of the labour movement is forbidden, in which the simplest strike is a political crime; it must logically follow that every economic struggle will become a political one”.8

Thirdly, Luxemburg looks at the relationship between organised and unorganised workers. She writes that, “when conditions in Germany have reached the critical stage for such a period, the sections which are today totally unorganised and backward will, in the struggle, prove themselves the most radical, the most impetuous element, and not one to be dragged along”.9 This is not to counterpose the organised to the unorganised, merely to argue that mass strikes cannot be carried through by organised workers alone.

Lastly, Luxemburg emphasises the spontaneous nature and power of mass strikes to such an extent that she has been criticised for seriously underestimating the ability of trade union leaders to hold back or sabotage strike movements. Tony Cliff argues that, “The Mass Strike… underestimates the damaging effect that the conservative trade union bureaucracy may have on the struggle”.10 Luxemburg does state that: “Of course, even during the revolution mass strikes do not exactly fall from heaven”,11 while Peter Nettl argues that her stress on spontaneity was one taken up in the context of her arguments against working class leaders who decried the role of the masses.12 This is too generous: Luxemburg argues that trade union leaders’ attempt to resist the movement “will simply be swept aside”,13 and that “once the ball is set rolling then social democracy…can never again bring it to a standstill”.14

The economic circumstances and composition of the working class, the tactics used by the ruling class to secure their position and the role played by labour and trade union organisations are all described by Luxemburg in The Mass Strike and they were all to play their part in the tumultuous years of the war. During these years economic strikes rapidly became politicised while newly industrialised women and young people spurred resistance among workers with established traditions of unionisation. The conservatism of union and reformist leaders acted as a block to strikes but their isolation from workers also created the conditions for explosions of unofficial strikes.

The pre-war balance of class forces


At the beginning of the 20th century France was “a capitalist regime in which, behind a façade of parliamentary democracy and progressive rhetoric, a narrow, bourgeois elite remained dominant”.15 French industry expanded in the later years of the 19th century. In Paris the small-scale artisan was largely supplanted by heavy industry and white collar work. While this growth was not on a par with its European rivals (in 1901 France had only 15 cities with a population of more than 100,000, Britain had 50 and Germany 42),16 industrial production was expanding rapidly, doubling between 1890 and 1914.

By 1914 the workers’ movement had institutionalised into a reformist split between economics and politics, the former seen as the preserve of trade unions and the latter as that of the French Socialist Party, the SFIO. In 1899 the socialist Alexandre Millerand shocked the labour movement by entering Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau’s government.

Unions formed a federation, the CGT, in 1895 which had 1 million members by 1914. There was a huge upsurge in strikes between 1900 and 1914 with 9 million strike days in 1906 alone.17 Some 25 percent of disputes involved job control issues. This upsurge was reflected in the CGT at its Amiens conference of 1906 where it declared, in a resolution proposed by the syndicalist Victor Griffuelhes, for the general strike, against militarism, opposition to involvement with party politics and for the abolition of the wages system.18 Subsequently there were some significant defeats for dockers in 1907 (where a cavalry charge left one striker dead and 26 wounded) and at the huge Renault plant in 1913 where a strike ended with 436 craftsmen being sacked.19 Roger Magraw concludes that the most significant feature of these years was the overlap between rearguard craft resistance and the assertiveness of newly proletarianised sections including dockers and women—whom the unions moved to recruit after initial reluctance.20

On the eve of war important defeats laid the ground for a shift to the right by the unions. In 1914 the French rail and textile workers’ unions opted for a moderate line of slow recruitment of members. Others were drawn to parliamentary reformism with half of trade union officials running for elected office, 40 percent of them being elected as socialists.21 However, the pre-war battles had also created a tradition of more radical syndicalist organisation in the workplaces.


In 1914 Germany was made up of 25 states (some still with kings), each with a different form of suffrage, and held together by the dominant Prussian state. Pierre Broué argues this form was adopted because the bourgeoisie were “threatened by the proletarian movement” and “preferred security behind the ramparts of the monarchical state to a popular democratic venture”.22 German industrialisation came late and took the form of huge companies in sectors such as engineering. By 1912 there were 18 million workers, 55.9 percent of whom were employed in industry.23 In 1910 Berlin had 37 factories with 1,000 or more workers each.24

The workers’ movement was dominated by the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Banned between 1878 and 1891, it had 1.1 million members in 1914. Despite occasional revolutionary rhetoric it became reformist in practice. Duncan Hallas wrote: “This impressive apparatus had become an end in itself… Confrontation with the forces of the state, or even the employers, was avoided wherever possible”.25 The SPD had also come to an accommodation with its trade union wing, which numbered 2.6 million members in 1914, to the effect that each would respect the other’s field of operation.

With rising wages, falling working hours and a workers’ movement that gave the opportunity to develop a career within the system (there were 2,867 full-time officials in “Central Unions” in 1914)26 it would appear that there was little room for a genuine revolutionary movement to develop. However, there were other currents such as the 1905 wildcat strikes by miners in the Ruhr, the unofficial strikes in 1910 that merged with demands for suffrage reform and a series of other disputes in engineering and building trades. This led to the emergence of a number of well-rooted working class activists who were to go on to play a central role in the mass strikes of the war years.27


The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a “prison house of nations” and one in which the growth of industry did not match that of Germany. Vienna’s working class numbered 1 million, 48,000 of whom were concentrated in 21 firms with over 1,000 employees.28 The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) was founded in 1888 and operated on much the same lines as its German counterpart; in 1913 it won 82 deputies and 1 million votes.29

The party’s approach to working class self-activity is well illustrated by its fight for the vote. In 1905 Austrian workers marched on parliament, inspired by the revolution in Russia. In response the SPÖ called a general strike and on 28 November work stopped in all industrial towns with 200,000 marching in Vienna including Czechs, Slovenes, Croats and Ruthenes (East Slavs). But strikes were not a central priority for the SPÖ. Its leader, Victor Adler, said: “I have always been against a discussion of mass strikes and still am. But I do think it necessary, once one has come to the conclusion that a mass strike is the suitable weapon…to prepare for it”.30 The growth of a working class concentrated in large factories alongside a fractured and increasingly weak empire with strong absolutist roots made for an explosive mix at the start of the First World War.


Formally united in 1860, the Italian state initially followed a path of repression. It put down a rural revolt in Sicily in 1891-3, suppressed the new Italian Socialist Party (PSI) and banned trade unions.31 The dominant bourgeois figure of the pre-war years, Giovanni Giolitti, formed political alliances with the left and right, granting universal suffrage in 1911 in exchange for support from the PSI for the invasion of Libya.

Italian industrialisation was heavily concentrated in the Turin, Milan and Genoa triangle with Turin’s population more than doubling in the second half of the 19th century to reach 430,000.32 Fiat was established in the city in 1899, recruiting heavily from undeveloped Sardinia and the south so that workers in the new factory regarded themselves as peasants in overalls rather than a craft elite. However, the rate of Italian industrialisation was still fitful and in the 14 years before the war 6.3 million people left the country.33

The PSI had been formed in 1892 and initially contained reformist and revolutionary elements. In 1908 the former gained control of the party but the right wing over-extended itself after supporting the Libyan venture. The revolutionary left, including Benito Mussolini, (the future fascist dictator), were able to take control of the party. By 1914 the party had 58,000 members, 2,412 located in Turin.34 The development of unions in Italy took similar twists and turns. Many workers joined strike committees which became know as “internal commissions”; these were heavily influenced by revolutionary syndicalists who came from a long tradition of anarchist organisation in the country. In 1904 a massacre of striking miners in Sardinia led to a five-day general strike across the country. However, the strike was uncoordinated and the PSI and trade union leaders delayed calling wider action which led to a drift back to work followed by repression. Subsequently two rival trade union groupings were formed. The conservative CGL was founded in 1906 and reached an agreement with the PSI to the effect that trade unions would only concern themselves with economic matters. By 1911 the CGL had a membership of 384,000.35 The syndicalists formed their own federation, the USI, and in 1913 claimed 100,000 members.

The seminal event of the pre-war period occurred during the “Red Week” of June 1914. A recession had led to attacks on workers’ conditions. In the port of Ancona socialists and anarchists called an anti-militarist, anti-capitalist protest, only to be fired on by the police, killing three demonstrators. The PSI called a general strike and for ten days Ancona was held by a rebel army while in Emilia and the Marches government authority collapsed. The strike spread but there was no central leadership and 10,000 troops were sent to Ancona to suppress it. The nail in the coffin for the revolt came when the CGL, fearing the insurrectionary developments, called for the strike to end, joining the parliamentary group of the PSI who had opposed the strike from the start.36 Before the war the Italian working class had exhibited both its potential for mass political strikes and its vulnerability to reformist union and political leaders.

All four countries had therefore seen the growth of heavily concentrated working classes and the formation of reformist parties backed by conservative union leaders. However, strikes of varying intensity had also led to the creation of networks of more militant working class leaders.

The state, repression and the war at home

The mobilisation for war was so total it demanded the fusion of state and capital in all the belligerent countries and the extension of military discipline from the trenches to the workplaces. As James Hinton argues: “The context of blood and iron is at the same time necessarily the context of intensified social discipline, of domestic repression”.37 This section will examine the factors that laid the ground for the mass strikes of 1914-18, namely the remaking of the working class, the response of the reformists and repression by the state.

The working class remade

The scale of the war effort led to a wholesale reshaping of the working class across Europe. The mobilisation of workers to the front had a huge impact, with 80 percent of adult males conscripted in France and Germany, 75 percent in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and 5.75 million males mobilised in Italy.38 They were replaced by vast numbers of women and young people. By 1917 women made up 70 percent of the Italian munitions workforce, 37 percent in France in 1918 and 55 percent in Germany.39 Austria increased its supply of workers by reintroducing night work for women and juveniles. These changes had an effect on levels of militancy. Women bore the brunt of food shortages and their newly industrialised status led to street protests being taken to the factories and escalating into strikes. They often became unionised but without the restraints of tradition. One commentator on disputes in the Seine area of France noted that women had “the energy of beginners”.40 Police surveillance of French metal workers’ union meetings revealed that the crowds were one third female.41 Women were not threatened with conscription like men although they were acutely aware of the conditions in the trenches thanks to letters from the front. However, the mobilisation itself did not weaken working class strongholds. Engineering and munitions workers could not be called up wholesale for obvious reasons. When some militants were punished by being sent to the front it further politicised the disputes.

The assault on living standards and conditions of work was immense. In Germany 750,000 people starved as a result of the British naval blockade42 and women workers’ pay fell from 128 marks a month to 30 between 1913 and 1918.43 Real wages in France fell by 20 percent in the four years of war.44 By 1918 Italian prices had gone up 400 percent45 while wages climbed by just half that amount.46 Austria witnessed a famine during the winter of 1916/17 and by 1918 wages had declined by 63 percent.47 All countries saw working days extended to at least 11 hours with rest days, including Sundays, lost to the employers. Fiat workers in Turin worked a 75-hour week and Berlin turners over 70. Industrial accidents soared—26 workers were killed in one incident alone when a ceiling collapsed at Renault in Paris48 and bullying managers stalked the newly recruited women workers.

New sections of the working class were therefore drawn into industry adding dynamism to the campaigns of the more established engineering workers in particular. This, combined with an employers’ offensive at work and on living standards, fed working class resistance.

The socialist parties and trade union response

The rapid collapse of the social democratic parties into support for their respective ruling classes in conditions of war has been well documented elsewhere.49 Attention here will focus on how this shift affected their approach to working class struggle.

In France both the Socialist Party and the CGT supported the “Sacred Union”, a cross-class alliance to mobilise for war. Albert Thomas, a socialist deputy, became minister for munitions and engaged the union leaders in a network of contacts with the employers to draw them into collaboration.50 The CGT declared a truce and during 1917-18 became more or less constantly involved in negotiating settlements during a wave of strikes. This outright submission was replicated by a large wing of the anarcho-syndicalist movement. Griffuelhes, the mover of the 1906 Amiens resolution, initially argued that the CGT should act as a partner with the government during the war to prevent the union federation’s dissolution. A small group of syndicalists around La Voix Ouvrière did stand out against the tide of patriotism.51

In Germany the unions announced a prohibition on strikes on 2 August 1914. In 1916 the SPD voted for the “Law of National Service” which abolished workers’ choice of employer and made work compulsory for males aged 17 to 60.52 As the war progressed and strikes developed the unions pursued a tactic of settling economic demands to avoid the raising of broader political ones. This pattern was repeated in Austria where the SPÖ and trade unions declared an industrial truce to allow the pursuit of a “just defensive war”.

In Italy the situation was more complex. In Turin the socialists were active against the war and their paper, The Cry of the People, condemned collaboration with the warmongers. Yet Mussolini, at the start of the war a member of the PSI, supported the war, along with some revolutionary syndicalists. He was kicked out of the party only for the PSI to declare that “for the time being class struggle is forbidden on account of the war”.53


The limited forms of democracy existing before the war came under immediate attack. The French parliament did not meet between 5 August 1914 and 22 December 1914 and real parliamentary control was only re-established once France had begun to win the war: “The prefects are finished and the deputies don’t matter” wrote one commentator.54 News reports of industrial relations were heavily censored and a third of munitions workers, including most of the young skilled workplace activists, were placed under military discipline.55

In Germany executive power was handed over to 25 district commanders solely responsible to the emperor. They subjected activists to threats of arrest and short prison terms if they spoke out against the war,56 while, in the event of strikes, factories could be put under direct military control. Austria-Hungary saw large areas put under military control and a “War Supervisory Office” established with wide powers to override civilian authorities. Parliament itself was suspended at the start of the war and did not meet again until May 1917.57 In Italy in 1915 all firms deemed essential to the war effort were subject to quasi-military discipline while strikes were banned. Much of northern Italy was declared a war zone and this designation was extended as far as Reggio Calabria in the south and Sicily following a strike wave in 1917.58

Consequently all four countries adopted forms of coercion comparable to those used by the Russian autocracy which were key to making simple economic demands political as workers had to confront the state in order to take action.

The momentum of mass strikes

France, a struggle thwarted

During the course of 1916 France saw a major strike wave notable for the involvement of women workers. Most of the strikes were spontaneous reactions to grievances with little coordination. Female munitions workers at de Dion in Puteaux struck for 11 days in the summer of that year. The socialist armaments minister, Albert Thomas, did a deal with employers to cut wages to allow for the additional costs (such as nursery provision) of employing women workers. This sparked a strike at Wilcoq-Regnault over the downward manipulation of bonuses. By late 1916 and the first quarter of 1917 women were the majority of strikers fighting back against price rises, overwork and bullying foremen.59 While these strikes may appear to be purely economic, they occurred in the context of the French socialists’ co-option into the government during the war and also laid the ground for the events of 1917.

In the spring of 1917 women seamstresses struck for 11 days winning a half day off on Saturdays. This strike became known to troops taking part in the huge mutiny at Chemin des Dames, with one machine gunner writing home, “We are doing like the Midinettes”, referring to the women textile workers.60 May Day rallies cheered the Russian Revolution. Some 10,000 building workers went on a one-day strike and in August there was a general strike of shoe workers, also about Saturday working. The Parisian textile workers had shown the way. Syndicalist activists in the Loire had long been arguing for a general strike and against the appeasement by the CGT. However, in November their plans were pre-empted when the government decided to send an anti-war union activist, Clovis Andrieu, to the front. The workers’ response was rapid and up to 200,000 took strike action spreading from the steel works in Unieux to Le Creusot and Lyon. After ten days the strikers secured a government announcement that Andrieu was only on leave.61

The last year of the war saw the promise of the strike movement thwarted by its political problems. In the spring increasing numbers of troops were being sent to the front and demonstrations took place outside the railway stations with chants of “Stop the war!” However, inflation subsided and the frequency of strikes dropped. The CGT managed to limit a planned strike in May mainly to 30,000 workers at St Etienne.62 However, pressure had been building in the giant Renault works. A system of works committees had been introduced by Thomas to incorporate and defuse discontent but this meant that some revolutionaries such as Bagot were able to take leading positions. On 11 May Renault delegates voted for an immediate strike both for pay and for the government to announce its war aims, a demand popular among those opposed to an offensive war. Within two days the strike spread to the Peugeot and Citroën plants to include a total of 200,000 workers. Strike rallies at Billancourt ended with cries of “Down with war!”63 This unleashed the fury of the metal workers’ union with one full-time official condemning the strike for putting the country at risk in the context of a new German offensive. On 16 May the union leaders gave an unconditional surrender to the new armaments minister; Renault dismissed the strike leaders and 146 workers were sent to the front.

France showed the fusion of the economic with the political, the mingling of the organised with the newly industrialised and also the role of conscious activity, here by syndicalists, in planning and leading strikes. However, France also showed the negative effect of the trade union bureaucracy with the still strong French state capable both of buying off discontent and of outright repression.

Austria: the mass strike confronted by social democracy

Over the winter of 1916/17 Austria was hit by a triple crisis. In November 1916 the death of Emperor Franz Joseph led to a crisis in the monarchy and famine hit many parts of the country. In January 1917 the Vienna basin and Upper Styria were hit by strikes and in May (after the news of the February Russian Revolution had arrived), 42,000 metal workers in Vienna struck. Social democrat leaders moved quickly to secure a return to work but wholesale concessions had to be made. Shop stewards were entrusted with control and distribution of foodstuffs, rents were controlled, censorship was moderated and public meetings were allowed.

After the October Russian Revolution the favourite slogan among Viennese workers became “Speak Russian”,64 while Social Democrats held peace rallies marked by stormy debates. On 14 January the bread and flour ration was cut. Workers at Daimler in Wiener Neustadt launched a political strike for peace—four days later 113,000 workers were out in Vienna, 125,000 in Lower Austria and 750,000 in Austria-Hungary. The action spread to armaments, metal workers, rail and print trades, shop workers and seamstresses from the “grand” fashion houses. In the course of three weeks up to 4 February 1918 some 1 million workers walked out, coinciding with a mutiny of soldiers in Judenburg.65 The explicitly political nature of the strike is emphasised by Julius Braunthal: “All who struck in the factories…had the common desire to end the war at once. All were indignant at the demands of…the imperialists upon the Russian Revolution at Brest Litovsk”.66

However, the social democrats worked to take control of the newly formed workers’ councils and designed four demands that the government could concede. By this method on 24 January they ended the strike but only after a fierce reaction to the deal. Further strikes broke out in May and June 1918 after the bread ration was cut again. Working class women responded by looting bread vans inspiring 48,000 armaments and metal workers to strike on 19 June. However, the social democrats called the workers’ council together and once more secured concessions to end the strikes.

One day after the war started the Vienna social democrat paper, ArbeiterZeitung, defended its support for the war by speaking of the “holy cause of the German people”.67 Its own holy cause was to secure the state and that is exactly what it delivered, by taking the leadership of strikes and hollowing out their political element. However, this was only done after the demands for bread evolved into calls for peace while textile and munitions workers walked out together.

Italy: Turin explosion and isolation

The first years of the war saw demonstrations in the countryside against conscription and the lack of food. These movements often joined up with strikes in towns and were encouraged by soldiers’ letters home from the front. Again the prominent role of women in these movements is notable. Women were only 21.9 percent of the workforce by 1918 but were 64.2 percent of strikers in 1917 and 45.6 percent of strikers in 1918.68 In May 1917 Milan had exploded in protest against food shortages but the strikes were ignored by the PSI and CGL, who were too busy putting together a post-war reform programme.69

On 5 August in Turin a crowd of 40,000 had greeted Menshevik and Social Revolutionary speakers from Russia with cries of “Viva Lenin!” However, it was to be the bread supply that sparked the mass strike in the city. Women were already queuing for bread for long periods of time as well as working 12-hour shifts in the factories. When, on 21 August, 80 bakeries put up signs saying “Out of Bread”, women and children marched to the city hall, angry that the bakers still had flour for expensive sweet rolls for the rich.70 The women’s protest led to 2,000 railway workers striking, saying they would not work without food. The next day the strike wave was joined by the metal workers, Fiat, the Projectile Arsenal and vehicle manufacturer Diatto-Frejus. On the evening of 22 August barricades went up in working class areas and handmade bombs were thrown at the police and army sent in to quell the protests.

By now the dynamic of economic and political demands had been set in train. One Diatto-Frejus striker described the scenes:

We stopped work and gathered outside the factory gate shouting…”We want bread.” The boss…was very worried and addressed the workers with words of milk and honey…”I’ll telephone military authorities straightaway and order you a lorryful of bread.” The workers fell silent for a while and then all together, they cried, “We couldn’t give a damn about the bread! We want peace! Down with the profiteers! Down with the war!”71

The PSI and CGL called on the workers to give up “further useless violence”. On 24 August crowds marched to the centre of Turin to be met by machine guns and tanks deployed by the authorities. In the course of the next four days 1,500 workers were arrested and 50 shot dead. Turin was isolated and then crushed by the military while the leaders of the PSI and CGL stood aside. Lenin called the events part of the “development of world revolution”.72 Once again a major city had seen a mass strike of insurrectionary proportions in which the economic became political. However, Turin was a city isolated without a revolutionary organisation vital to break the hostility of the unions, the PSI and the centralised power of the state.

Germany: the mass strike at the heart of Europe

The immediate response to the war in Germany was a lull in strike action. In 1915 there were just 141 strikes involving 13,000 participants.73 The following year the number of strikes increased by 70 percent with the number of strikers up tenfold.74 Early in 1916 there had been food riots mainly by women and young people. The Berlin police reported that, “the number of housewives who are openly expressing their discontent is growing all the time”.75 On May Day the revolutionary left organised anti-war protests in Dresden, Jena, Hanau and Berlin, where 10,000 demonstrated. The latter led to the arrest of anti-war revolutionary Karl Liebknecht, who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. This precipitated an overtly political strike for his release by 55,000 engineers, called by Berlin shop stewards.

May Day in Brunswick was marked by a strike and protest against the docking of young people’s wages. The demonstrators looted shops and in the following days the strike spread to include many young women workers who clashed with the military. Eventually the trade unions supported the strike leading to the military commander resigning and the docking of wages being rescinded. In August there were three days of food riots in Hamburg during which protesters sang the Internationale and shouted for peace. Later in the year Dusseldorf munitions workers went on strike and secured a 50 percent pay rise.

Another hard winter in 1916/17 and the fall of the Tsar in Russia intensified the rising mood. In April in Leipzig demonstrations by women for bread were joined by 500 workers and there were strikes in Hamburg, Magdeburg, Bremen and Nuremberg. This spurred the Berlin shop stewards to call for strike action at a meeting of the metal workers’ union on 15 April. Before the meeting the SPD leaders had connived with the military authorities to arrest Richard Müller, one of the best known leaders of the shop stewards. His release became one of the strikers’ demands. On 16 April some 300 firms in Berlin were out involving up to 300,000 strikers with demonstrations raising many political slogans. On the same day a mass strike started in Leipzig where, at a 10,000-strong meeting, six political demands were put, including universal suffrage and peace without annexations. In Berlin the right wing social democrats managed to secure the release of Müller but argued against taking up the Leipzig demands. On this basis and after much argument all but 50,000 of the strikers returned to work with the rest following after factories were put under military command. With the Berlin strike broken Leipzig followed suit.

The respite for the ruling class was short-lived. In January 1918 news of the peace talks between the new Bolshevik government and Germany at Brest-Litovsk and of the strikes in Austria-Hungary spread. The Berlin stewards responded by calling a strike that was joined by some 400,000 workers throughout the capital. The strike leaders adopted seven demands ranging from better food to the right of nations to self-determination, inspired directly by the Bolshevik peace demands. An Action Committee was established but it was the far left, in the shape of Rosa Luxemburg’s Sparticists, who called for the inclusion of the social democrats arguing that this would expose and isolate the reformists. The social democrats seized upon the invitation to demand equal representation between strikers and political parties. By the end of the first day of the strike 500,000 were out but the military moved to ban factory meetings and the election of strike committees. Two days later there were clashes with tram-worker scabs and the confidence of the reformists grew. The SPD leader, Friedrich Ebert, called for a further military crackdown and martial law was threatened by 4 February unless the strike ended.

At this point the shortcomings of the shop stewards in Berlin were exposed. Ralf Hoffroge argues that the stewards started as “small groups of dissenting unionists…evolved into a large mass strike movement that later transformed itself into a movement of workers’ councils”. However, he also goes on to explain that they “followed a radical pragmatism: they intended to mobilise and radicalise the masses but never called for action that might lack the support of the majority”.76 While this shows how they were trying to emerge from the confines of trade unionism it demonstrates they had not actually broken with it.

In Berlin in January 1918 the stewards were faced with a revolutionary situation and, as Leo Jogiches pointed out, “they did not know what to do with all this revolutionary energy”.77 The question, how to go beyond the strike and challenge the state, was posed but not answered. With the threat of a military crackdown the Berlin stewards were also isolated from the strikers and from other parts of the country. As a result, after a week on strike, they called for a return to work on 3 February 1918. The SPD had been central to sabotaging the strike by calling for negotiations, only supporting economic demands and defending the military authorities’ ban on factory meetings and strike committees. The Independent Social Democrat Party (USPD) also played a major role in undermining the strike. Formed early in 1917, the USPD’s main aim was to bring about an end to the war. Supported by Luxemburg’s adversaries, Kautsky and Bernstein, the USPD reflected all the old divisions in the SPD. In the January 1918 strike it refused to put out a party leaflet calling for support for the walkout, and its members negotiated above the head of the strikers with the government and called for the trade union leaders to mediate with the government.

The tragedy was that the January 1918 strike had spread elsewhere. Dockers in Kiel and Hamburg struck. The workers at the Blohm & Voss ship works “were above all indignant about the system of ‘horrendous fines’ levied by the firm…inedible food, the rotten swedes served in the canteen. One speaker exclaimed that they were not fighting for ten grams of butter, but for ‘all who hate the war’”.78 On 28 January 35 mines in the Rhine-Ruhr area were out and several thousand arms workers in Cologne struck for two days. In Nuremburg strikers went from “factory to factory shouting ‘Peace’ to persuade the remaining workers to join. A vast demonstration took place in which tens of thousands, many youngsters and many soldiers in uniform, took part. They carried posters with the slogans ‘Bread’, ‘Peace’, and ‘Liebknecht must be freed’”.79

Germany in 1918 clearly showed the dynamics of Luxemburg’s mass strike and the interaction between women, young workers and well organised groups such as the Berlin shop stewards. It also illustrates how reformist parties can stop the revolutionary momentum. The events were to foreshadow those of October and November 1918, which are beyond the scope of this article. They also pose sharply another question: Were Luxemburg’s prescriptions for successful mass strikes correct?

The mass strike: problems and solutions

The mass strikes of the First World War displayed all the characteristics earlier described by Luxemburg. City and trade-wide strikes; national strikes; street fighting; demonstrations; the raising of economic demands and political demands, and of both. Her analysis of organised and unorganised groups chimes with the radical combination of newly industrialised women and young workers in textiles and munitions with previously organised groups of engineers. They are a superb counter to the “it was all jingoism” school of history. The movements also illustrate some of the problems. Strikes were often crushed because they were isolated. They won the occasional support of the reformist parties and trade union leaders only for that support to be used in separating political demands from the economic, the securing of minor concessions, a return to work and ultimate defeat. More often reformist parties (including splits from such parties like the USPD in Germany) and union leaders actively sabotaged strike movements using their still considerable national machines to do so. At their worst the social democratic parties and union leaders conspired with the state to repress the mass strikes.

On the other hand movements led by militant stewards were able to start a strike but when confronted with the force of the state they were unable to answer the question, “How to beat the state?” Partly this was because networks of union members, although radical, had trade, geographical and political limitations that did not match punch for punch the centralised machinery available to the state or reformist parties. While the ruling class still had options available to them, be it outright repression or the making of concessions and usually a mixture of the two, this in and of itself was not decisive. Spontaneity alone was simply not enough to overcome these considerable obstacles.

Luxemburg was aware of these problems. She spent a considerable amount of time in the last chapter of the The Mass Strike berating the separation of economic and political demands and the organisational expression of this in the German SPD and trade unions. She was also aware of the need for revolutionary leadership, writing that “any mass action once unleashed must move forward and if the leading party lacks determination at the crucial moment then inevitably…the whole action will collapse”.80 Further she criticised the union officials for “bureaucratism and a certain narrowness of outlook”.81 In her article “What Next?” she explains this conservatism in terms of the risk strike action poses to the existence of trade union organisation and its financial position.82 Her solution was “the rejoining of trade unions to social democracy”. She explains this is not from above, “amongst the heads of the leading directing organisations…but below, amongst the organised proletarian masses”.83

This was Luxemburg’s answer to the reformism of the social democracy that she fought so hard against. But it is inadequate. Her explanation of the role of trade union officials does not go far enough; their conservatism is not explained merely by their desire to defend their organisation and salaries. As she rightly points out, if trade union leaders led a vigorous fightback their organisation and power would increase. Yet they do not do this. Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein go further: “The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation…the bureaucracy balances between the two social classes in capitalist society—the employers and the workers. The trade union officials are neither employers nor workers”.84 Thus they will be a much more determined block to the development of the mass strike than Luxemburg envisaged.

In addition, her argument for a rank and file fusion of social democrats and trade unionists is problematic in two senses. Firstly, in the German context, it would have meant merging trade unionists with an explicitly reformist organisation, the SPD, from which Luxemburg refused to split until April 1917. Secondly, she equates membership of Social Democratic (as opposed to Catholic) trade unions in Germany with a social democrat (ie revolutionary) consciousness. The average worker, she writes, “feels even in the trade union, social democratically organised”.85 This is hugely to underestimate the range of political opinions, often referred to as uneven consciousness, among trade unionists even where unions are organised according to different political blocs. This uneven consciousness in and of itself requires that revolutionary workers have a distinct organisation. During the First World War some groups, such as the Berlin stewards and the French syndicalists, moved towards such an organisation by forming workplace networks to further the struggle. However, these networks were not enough to meet the practical task of breaking highly centralised states.

Luxemburg’s analysis of the trade union bureaucracy, along with her excessive optimism about the power of spontaneous action to overcome reformist blocks, accounts in part for her reluctance to form a distinct revolutionary party much earlier than she did. She remained resolutely attached to the SPD right up to April 1917 when her Spartacus League attached itself to the Independent Social Democrat Party (USPD), a mainly parliamentary party that acted to undermine the critically important January 1918 strike in Berlin. Some would argue that Luxemburg was opposed to organisation. This is not the case. She was after all a member of the SPD, a vast organisation built over decades. But it was the wrong organisation; she belatedly recognised this, writing: “All the honour and capacity for action which Social Democracy in the West was lacking was represented in the Bolsheviks”.86 However, it is the case that Luxemburg undertook the task of building a distinct revolutionary party similar to the Russian Bolsheviks far too late, only forming the Communist Party in December 1918. This was both an unnecessary and fatal delay. Networks of factory militants began to appear from at least 1910 and grew in the mass strikes of the war years described here. They could have been forged into a distinct revolutionary party able to challenge both the reformists and the German state when the revolutionary movement developed in 1918.

The presence of organised revolutionaries can make a huge difference to the outcome of strikes even in pre-revolutionary times. Critically though, the strikes described here were part of a revolutionary wave. As Cliff argues, “After being triggered off by a spontaneous uprising, revolutions move forward in a different manner…the October Revolution was not a spontaneous act but was organised in practically all its important particulars, including the date, by the Bolsheviks”.87 The presence of such a party in 1917 meant that the mass strikes in Russia could be forged into a successful seizure of power. Luxemburg’s celebration of the character of mass strikes is a vital riposte to parliamentary politics and bureaucratic trade unionism. However, the missed opportunities and failings of the strikes in the First World War are a harsh reminder of the need to go beyond spontaneity, trade unionism, syndicalism, left reformism and loose networks. They are a clarion call to use every opportunity to build the rooted, experienced revolutionary party to secure the only fitting conclusion Luxemburg’s Mass Strike deserves: a workers’ state.


1: Thanks to Alex Callinicos, Steve Cox, Donny Gluckstein, Frank Ormston, Steve Roskams, John Rose and, above all, Hazel for their comments on this article in draft.

2: The term “social democratic” had an entirely different meaning in Luxemburg’s time. Then it was regarded as revolutionary socialism (although in practice most social democratic parties were reformist) as opposed to the explicit parliamentary and reformist nature of today’s social democrats.

3: Luxemburg, 1986, p10.

4: Taylor, 1972, p22.

5: Luxemburg, 1986, p46.

6: Luxemburg, 1986, p51.

7: Luxemburg, 1986, p53.

8: Luxemburg, 1986, p57.

9: Luxemburg, 1986, p69.

10: Cliff, in the introduction to Luxemburg, 1986, p9.

11: Luxemburg, 1986, p53.

12: Nettl, 1966, p333-334.

13: Luxemburg, 1986 p80.

14: Luxemburg, 1986, p77.

15: Magraw, 1987, p285.

16: Magraw, 1987, p226.

17: Magraw, 1987, p303.

18: Vandervort, 1996, pp138-139.

19: Magraw, 1987, p305.

20: Magraw, 1987, p304.

21: Friedman, 1997, p163.

22: Broué, 2006, p3.

23: Mosler, 2013, pp35-36.

24: Gluckstein, 1985, p90-91.

25: Sherry, 2014, p47.

26: Blackledge, 2014, p94.

27: Geary, 1981, p124.

28: Hautmann, 1993, pp87-88.

29: Quoted in Sherry, 2014, p46.

30: Barea, 1992, p343.

31: Horowitz, 1963, p34.

32: Gluckstein, 1985, p162.

33: Horowitz, 1963, p5.

34: Gluckstein, 1985, p167.

35: Behan, 2003, p15.

36: Behan, 2003, p16; Williams, 1975, p52.

37: Hinton, 1973, p23.

38: Sherry, 2014, p64; Gluckstein, 1985, p50.

39: Gluckstein, 1985, p52; Sherry, 2014, p71.

40: Dubesset, Thébaud and Vincent, 1992, p206.

41: Dubesset, Thébaud and Vincent, 1992, p202.

42: Sherry, 2014, p102.

43: Mosler, 2013, p45.

44: Fridenson, 1988, p239.

45: Gluckstein, 1985, p50.

46: Williams, 1975, p56.

47: Hautmann, 1993, p89.

48: Magraw, 1993, p130.

49: See Blackledge, 2014, and Gluckstein 2014.

50: Horne, 1993, p265.

51: Amdur, 1986, p61.

52: Mosler, 2013, p46.

53: Gluckstein, 1985, p168.

54: Ferro, 1989, p147.

55: Horne, 1993, p243.

56: Carsten, 1982, p80.

57: Joll, 1990, p191.

58: Trudell, 2013, p63.

59: Dubesset, Thébaud and Vincent, 1992, p203.

60: Smith, 1994, p189.

61: Amdur, 1986, pp78-79.

62: Amdur, 1986, p92.

63: Hatry, 1992, p231.

64: Hautmann, 1993, p93.

65: Braunthal, 1945, p207.

66: Braunthal, 1945, p208.

67: Zurbrugg, 2014, p6.

68: Trudell, 2013, p76.

69: Williams, 1975, p61.

70: Bridenthal, Koonz and Stuard, 1987, p440.

71: Gluckstein, 1985, p170.

72: Williams, 1975, p64.

73: Carsten, 1982, p42.

74: Carsten, 1982, p89.

75: Mosler, 2013, p47.

76: Hoffrogge, 2011, p85.

77: Broué, 2006, p107.

78: Carsten, 1982, p137.

79: Carsten, 1982, p140.

80: Nettl, 1966, p514.

81: Luxemburg, 1986, p87.

82: Luxemburg, 1972, p156.

83: Luxemburg, 1986, p91.

84: Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p27.

85: Luxemburg, 1986, p84.

86: Frölich, 1972, p243.

87: Cliff, 1980, p38.


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