How can we win? Mass Strikes and the lessons of Quebec and Occupy


How can we win? Mass Strikes and the lessons of Quebec and Occupy

By Eric Lerner

The victory of the Quebec student movement in 2012, described in Lev Lafayette’s lead article in this issue of Mass Strike, is one of the very few clear-cut victories won in the past five year by a working class movement. In a period of crisis in which capitalisms’ only program is to drive down the living standard of working people everywhere and roll back any gains made over the last 100 years, any victory that we win is crucial. First, it shows that victory is possible—a basic idea that years of defeats have caused many workers and students to doubt. An attempt to dramatically increase tuition across the province was unequivocally defeated, with no concession by the students. Second, the Quebec victory shows how we can win.

What happened in Quebec is an example of the mass strike process, a process first studied over a century ago by German revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg. This issue of our magazine, which is named after this process, is devoted to understanding what mass strikes are and how they work—today and in the past.

Luxemburg, who participated in the abortive 1905 Russian revolution in Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, returned to Germany and analyzed the lessons of the revolution in a pamphlet "The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions". The pamphlet is as timely today as when it was written, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the future of the workers' movement. (Available on the web at

Luxemburg argued that in a period where ordinary methods of struggle are defeated, because capital is unwilling, or unable, to yield concessions to workers, is instead requiring concessions from workers, in a period where a revolutionary transformation of society is needed for workers to move forward, the mass strike becomes the most crucial method of workers' activity. By mass strike she was not referring to the one-day general strikes that had been discussed in the movement (and which were to become common in Europe and elsewhere many decades later) or other anarchist notions of a universal general strike to end capitalism. Rather a mass strike occurred when a single struggle in a given locale becomes generalized, often seemingly spontaneously, and spreads into a growing strike movement, joining hundreds of thousands of workers and students, often unorganized in any union, into strikes of entire industries, or general strikes of cities or regions. Such mass strikes characterized the years before the 1905 revolution in Russia, as well as the revolutionary year itself. They were to recur in the Russian Revolution of '17, the German revolution of '18, in the US in 1934, in France in 1937. Nor were they to be limited to the first half of the century. Mass strikes following Luxemburg's description shook France in 1968, where ten million workers occupied factories, Italy in 1969 and most recently in France again in 1995. The mass strike process is central to the situation facing the working class today.

Luxemburg showed that mass strikes were prepared by the educational work of socialist groups, who convinced workers of their common interests in a program that united political and economic demands.--in Russia this program included, the shortening of the work week, the need for freedom of organization, of press and assembly, the need for the overthrow of Czarism and a democratic republic and the need for organization of workers independent of employers. On the basis of this education, in repeated cases when workers in one industry or plant went on strike, they were able to appeal against police attacks to workers in neighboring plants, often going in procession to the other plants. Led generally by the small minority of Social Democratic (socialist) workers, these plants then joined the strike around broader demands than those affecting a single factory. Luxemburg emphasized that, rather than separating the economic and political demands, the minimum program and the maximum goal, the mass strikes tended to unify them, showing to workers that only by changing society in fundamental terms could the immediate demands of higher pay and shorter hours be won.

In pre-revolutionary Russia, where union was illegal and weak, most participants in such mass strikes were "unorganized". Luxemburg generalized to argue that the essence of the mass strike process was unifying the organized and unorganized sectors of the class, bringing layers far beyond the union into motion, and in the process forming much larger and stronger organizations. Indeed, out of the Russian mass strikes arose large trade unions, which then, in turn, conducted local strikes over economic demands, winning many of them. The strength of the mass strike and the fear of its spread forced concessions from the employers that individual union action could never obtain. It was the political threat of the mass strike, the threat of an ever growing unity of the working class that elicited concessions from capitalists in order to stop the process.

Not only did trade union organizations emerge from the mass strikes. During 1905, the strike gave rise to a new form of organization -- the Workers' Council, or Soviets. These consisted of delegates elected from each of the factories involved in the strike. These bodies (in some later strikes termed strike committees) institutionalized the unity of the working class, allowing the class in an entire city to collectively debate the issues of the day. Through the unifying experience of the mass strikes themselves and through the debates in the factories in the Soviets, the consciousness of hundreds of thousands of workers could be changed in a matter of days or weeks, as workers in a given factory began to see themselves as part of a single class with shared interests.

The Quebec student strike was an example of how critical this form of organization—the general assembly, strike committee or workers’ council-- is in the development of a successful mass strike movement. As Lafayette’s article shows, the students adopted an organization characterized by all-inclusiveness, democratic majority decisions, and most crucially, the election of delegates to higher bodes only for limited periods, generally a single meeting, and often with specific mandates. All-inclusiveness and majority rule guarantee that decisions truly reflect all those involved in the movement, while the election of delegates for extremely short terms, first instituted by the Paris Commune of 1870, ensure that no “leadership elite” separates itself off from the mass.

The contrast of this form of organization with that of the Occupy movement, described in Jay Arena’s article is striking. The elaborate rules and the anti-democratic 90%-agreement rules drove away the vast majority of the participants of the movement, handed power to a self-appointed and secretive leadership and prevented the movement from accomplishing concrete goals.

The Quebec student movement won the support of wide layers of the working class who were not students. However, the movement itself did not spread to workplaces. In the past, the most powerful mass strikes did spread to factories and offices. It was the unity of the entire working class, organized simultaneously in the workplace and in the community that gave this mass strikes such enormous power. In this issue, we summarize briefly two historical examples of such mass strike moments—the 1934 city-wide general strikes in the United States and the 1968 General Strike in France.

Finally, in all this mass movements, the issue of program—demands—is as crucial as that of origination. Only a movement that clearly states the interest of a wide section of the entire working class can hope to mobilize the support needed for a mass strike. As Arena writes, in the struggle within Occupy, a key demand was that of Jobs for All—a massive direct government employment program. We here republish some basic descriptions of that demand, which is still crucial in 2013 both in the US and around the world.
Clearly the discussion of what demands, what program, is crucial to unifying the working class, or what foundations can be laid for the outbreak of future mass strikes, is far from over. No broad mass movement for a set of demands of the working class now exists anywhere in the world. But we can build on the Quebec student victory to further that discussion and, when opportunities arise, to fight for the implementation of the organization and programs needed for future victories.