[Classics] What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat

13. Strike Strategy

In the sphere of the trade unions the Communist leadership has entirely confused the party. The common course of the “third period” was directed toward parallel trade unions. The presupposition was that the mass movement would surge over the old organisations and that the organs of the RGO (the Revolutionary Trade Union Opposition) would become the initiative committees of the economic struggle. A mere trifle was lacking for the realisation of this plan: the mass movement During floods in springtime, the waters carry away many a fence. Let us try removing the fence, decided Lozovsky, perhaps the floods of spring will then rise! The reformist trade unions have survived. The Communist Party succeeded in getting itself thrown out of the factories. Thereupon partial corrections began to be introduced into the trade-union policy. The Communist Party has refused to call upon the unorganised workers to join reformist unions. But it likewise has taken a stand against workers leaving the trade unions. While creating parallel organisations it has resurrected the slogans of a battle for influence within the reformist unions. The whole mechanism represents an ideal self-sabotage.

Die Rote Fahne complains that many Communists consider meaningless the participation in reformist unions. “Why should we revive the old pushcart?” they declare. And as a matter of fact, why? If one intends seriously to fight for the control of the old unions, one should appeal to the unorganised that they enter them; it is precisely the new strata that can supply the backing for the left wing. But in that case one cannot build parallel unions, i.e., create a competitive agency to enroll the workers.

The policy that is recommended from above for work within the reformist unions is on a par with the rest of the hopeless mess. Die Rote Fahne on January 28 laced into the Communist members of the Metal Workers’ Union of Düsseldorf because they issued the slogan ’War without mercy against the participation of trade-union leaders’ in the support of the Brüning government. Such “opportunistic” demands are disallowed because they presuppose (!) that the reformists are capable of refusing to support Brüning and his emergency decrees. Truly, this is like a bad joke! Die Rote Fahne deems it sufficient to call the leaders names but disallows their being subjected to a political test by the masses.

And all the while it is precisely within the trade unions that an exceptionally fruitful field is now open for action. While the Social Democratic Party still has the wherewithal to fool the workers by political hullabaloo, the trade unions are confronted by the impasse of capitalism as by a hopeless prison wall. The 200,000 to 300,000 workers who are now organised in independent RGO unions could serve as a priceless leaven within the reformist brotherhoods.

Towards the end of January there was held in Berlin a Communist conference of the factory committees from the entire country. Die Rote Fahne carried the report, The factory committees are welding the Red Workers Front (February 2, 1932). But you would seek in vain for information regarding the composition of the conference, the number of industries and workers represented. In contradistinction to Bolshevism, which painstakingly and openly marked every change in the correlation of forces within the working class, the German Stalinists, following in the footsteps of the Russian, play hide and seek. They are loath to admit that less than 4 percent of the factory committees are Communist, as against 84 percent which are Social Democratic! In this correlation is summed up the balance of the “third period.” Suppose one does call the isolation of Communists in industry the “Red United Front”; will this really help advance matters?

The prolonged crisis of capitalism induces within the proletariat the most virulent and dangerous line of demarcation: between the employed and the unemployed. Through the circumstance that the reformists control the industrial centres while the Communists control the unemployed, both sections of the proletariat are being paralysed. The employed are in a position to bide a while longer. The unemployed are more impatient. At present their impatience bears a revolutionary character. But should the Communist Party fall to find such forms and slogans for the struggle as would unite the employed and the unemployed and thereby open the perspective of a revolutionary solution, the impatience of the unemployed will inevitably react against the Communist Party.

In 1917, despite the correct policy of the Bolshevik Party and the rapid development of the revolution, the more badly off and the more impatient strata of the proletariat, even in Petrograd, began between September and October to look away from the Bolsheviks towards the syndicalists and anarchists. Had not the October insurrection broken out in time, the disintegration within the proletariat would have become acute and would have led to the decay of the revolution. In Germany there is no need for anarchists; their place can be taken by the National Socialists who have wedded anarchist demagogy to conscious reactionary aims.

The workers are by no means immunised once for all against the influence of fascism. The proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie interpenetrate, especially under the present conditions, when the reserve army of workers cannot but produce petty traders and hawkers, etc., while the bankrupt petty bourgeoisie effuses proletarians and lumpen-proletarians.

Salaried employees, the technical and administrative personnel, and certain strata of the functionaries composed in the past one of the most important supports of the Social Democracy. At present, these elements have gone or are going over to the National Socialists. They are capable of drawing in their wake, if they haven’t already begun to do so, a stratum of the labour aristocracy. In this direction, National Socialism is penetrating into the proletariat from above.

Considerably more dangerous, however, is its possible penetration from below, through the unemployed. No class can long exist without prospects and hopes. The unemployed do not represent a class, but they already compose a very compact and substantial layer, which is vainly striving to tear itself away from intolerable conditions. If it is true in general that only the proletarian revolution can save Germany from disintegration and decay, this is especially true as regards the millions of unemployed.

Alongside of the impotence of the Communist Party in the factories and in trade unions, the numerical growth of the party resolves nothing. Within a tottering nation shot through with crises and contradictions, an extreme left party can rind new supporters in the tens of thousands, especially if its entire apparatus is directed to the sole purpose of capturing members, by way of “competition.” Everything depends upon the interrelation between the party and the class. A single employed Communist who is elected to the factory committee or to the administration of a trade union has a greater significance than a thousand new members, picked up here and there, who enter the party today in order to leave it tomorrow.

But the individual influx of members into the party will not at all continue indefinitely. If the Communist Party continues any longer to delay the struggle until that moment when it shall have entirely pushed out the reformists, then it will learn for certain that after a given point the Social Democracy will cease losing its influence to the Communist Party, while the fascists will begin disintegrating the unemployed who are the chief support of the Communist Party. Failure to utilise its forces for the tasks that spring from the total situation never allows a political party to go scot-free.

In order to clear the road for the mass struggle, the Communist Party strives to stimulate isolated strikes. The successes in this sphere have not been great. As ever, the Stalinists devote themselves to self-criticism: “We are as yet incapable of organising” ... “We haven’t yet learned how to attract” ... “We haven’t as yet learned how to capture” ... And when they say “we,” it unfailingly means “you.” That theory of the March Days in 1921, of blessed memory, is being resurrected, which proposed to “electrify” the proletariat by means of the offensive activities of the minority. But the workers are in no need whatever of being “electrified.” What they want is to be given a clear perspective, and to be aided in creating the basis for a mass movement.

In its strike strategy the Communist Party is obviously motivated by isolated citations from Lenin as interpreted by Manuilsky or Lozovsky. As a matter of fact, there were periods when the Mensheviks fought against the “strike frenzy,” while the Bolsheviks, on the contrary, took their place at the head of every new strike, drawing into the movement ever-increasing masses. That corresponded to the period of the awakening of new working-class strata. Such was the tactic of the Bolsheviks in 1905; during the industrial upward trend in the years preceding the war; and during the first months of the February revolution.

But in the period directly preceding October, beginning with the July clash of 1917, the tactic of the Bolsheviks assumed another character: they held back strikes; they applied the brake to them, because every large strike had the tendency to turn into a decisive battle, while the political postulates for it had not as yet matured.

However, during those months the Bolsheviks continued to Place themselves at the head of all strikes which flared up, despite their warnings, chiefly in the more backward branches of industry (among textile workers, leather workers, etc.).

While under some conditions the Bolsheviks boldly stimulated strikes in the interests of the revolution, under other conditions, on the contrary, they restrained strikes in the interests of the revolution. In this sphere as well as in others, there is no ready-made formula. But in every given period, the strike tactics of the Bolsheviks always formed part of their general tactics, and to the advanced workers the connection between the part and the whole was always clear.

How do matters stand now in Germany? The employed workers do not resist wage cuts because they are in fear of the unemployed. Small wonder; in the face of several million unemployed, the ordinary trade-union strike, so organised, is obviously futile. It is doubly futile in the face of political antagonism between the employed and the unemployed. This does not exclude the possibility of individual strikes, especially in the more backward and less centralised branches of industry. But it is just the workers of the more important branches of industry who, in such a situation, are inclined to heed the voices of the reformist leaders. The attempts of the Communist Party to unleash a strike struggle without changing the general situation within the proletariat lead only to minor guerrilla operations, which, even if successful, remain without a sequel.

According to the testimony of Communist workers (cf., say, Der Rote Aufbau), there is a great deal being said in factories to the effect that the strikes in different industries have no meaning at present, and that only a general strike could lead the workers out of their troubles. “The general strike” here signifies the prospect of struggle. The workers are less apt to become inspired by isolated strikes because they have to deal directly with the state power; monopoly capital speaks to the workers in the language of Brüning’s emergency decrees. [7]

At the dawn of the workers’ movement, in order to draw the workers into a strike, the agitators often refrained from launching into revolutionary and socialist perspectives, in order not to scare the workers away. At present the situation bears just the opposite character. The leading strata of the German workers can decide to begin a defensive economic struggle only in the event that they are clear about the general perspectives of subsequent struggles. They do not feel that these perspectives obtain among the Communist leadership.

In relation to the tactic of the March Days of 1921 in Germany (to “electrify” the minority of the proletariat instead of capturing its majority), the writer spoke at the Third Congress as follows: “When the overwhelming majority of the working class takes no account of the movement does not sympathise with it or is doubtful of its success, at the same time when the minority rushes ahead and by mechanical means strives to drive the workers into strikes—then this impatient minority in the guise of the party can fall foul of the working class and break its own head.”

Does this mean that the strike struggle should be renounced? No, not renounced but sustained, by creating for it necessary political and organisational premises. One of these is the restoration of the unity of the trade unions. The reformist bureaucracy, of course, is averse to this. The split has hitherto assured its position in the best manner possible. But the immediate threat of fascism is changing the situation within the trade unions to the detriment of the bureaucracy. The gravitation to unity is growing. Should Leipart’s clique try under present conditions to prohibit the restoration of unity, this would immediately double or triple the Communist influence within the unions. Should the unification materialise, nothing could be better; a wide sphere of activity would be opened to the Communists. Not halfway measures are urgent, but a bold about-face!

Without a widespread campaign against the high cost of living, for a shorter work week, against wage cuts; without drawing the unemployed into this struggle hand in hand with the employed; without a successful application of the policy of the united front, the improvised small strikes will not lead the movement out onto the open road.

The left Social Democrats chat about the necessity of resorting to the general strike “in the event that the fascists come into power.” Very likely, Leipart himself flaunts such threats within the four walls of his study. On this account Die Rote Fahne makes reference to Luxemburgism. This is vilifying the great revolutionist. Even though Rosa Luxemburg overestimated the independent importance of the general strike in the question of power, she understood quite well that a general strike could not be declared arbitrarily, that it must be prepared for by the whole preceding course of the workers’ movement, by the policies of the party and the trade unions. On the lips of the left Social Democrats, however, the mass strike is more of a consoling myth superimposed over sorry reality.

For many years, the French Social Democrats had promised that they would resort to the general strike in the event of war. The Basle Congress of 1912 even promised to resort to a revolutionary uprising. But the threat of general strikes as well as of uprisings assumed in these instances the nature of theatrical thunder. What is here involved is not the counterposition of the strike to the uprising, but the lifeless, formal, and merely verbal attitude to the strike as well as to the uprising. The reformist armed with the abstraction of the revolution—such in general was the Bebel type of Social Democrat prior to the war. Next to him the postwar reformist brandishing the threat of a general strike is an outright caricature.

The Communist leadership, of course, bears to the general strike an attitude that is much more conscientious. But it lacks clarity on this question also. And clarity is urgent. The general strike is a very important weapon of struggle, but it is not universal. There are conditions under which a general strike may weaken the workers more than their immediate enemy. The strike must be an important element in the calculation of strategy and not a panacea in which is submerged all other strategy.

Generally speaking, the general strike is the weapon o struggle of the weaker against the stronger; or, to put it more precisely, of the one who at the beginning of the struggle feel himself weaker against him whom one considers to be the stronger; seeing that I myself cannot make use of an important weapon, I shall try to prevent my opponents using it; if I cannot shoot from cannons, I shall at least remove the gun locks. Such is the “idea” of the general strike.

The general strike was always the weapon of struggle against an entrenched state power that had at its disposal rail roads, telegraph, police and army, etc. By paralysing the governmental apparatus the general strike either “scared” the government, or created the postulates for a revolutionary solution of the question of power.

The general strike is the most effective method of fighting under the conditions where the masses are united only by revolutionary indignation but are lacking military organisations and staffs, and cannot beforehand either estimate the correlation of forces, or work out a plan of action. Thus, one may suppose that the anti-fascist revolution in Italy, after beginning from one or another sectional clash, will inevitably go through the stage of the general strike. Only in this way will the present disjointed proletariat of Italy once again feel itself as a united class and match the strength of the enemy’s resistance, whom it must overthrow.

One would have to fight in Germany against fascism by means of the general strike only in the event that fascism was already in power, and had firmly seized the state apparatus. But so long as the matter concerns the repelling of the fascist attempt to seize power, the slogan of the general strike turns out to be just so much space wasted.

At the time of Kornilov’s march against Petrograd neither the Bolsheviks, nor the soviets as a whole, even thought of declaring a general strike. On the railroads the fight was waged to have the workers and the railroad personnel transport the revolutionary troops and retard the Kornilov detachments. The factories stopped functioning only in proportion as the workers had to leave for the front. The industries that served the revolutionary front worked with redoubled energy.

At the time of the October insurrection there was likewise no talk of a general strike. The factories and regiments in their overwhelming majority were already, on the eve of the overturn, following the leadership of the Bolshevik Soviet. Under these conditions, to call the factories to a strike meant to weaken oneself and not the enemy. At the railroads, the workers strove to aid the uprising; the railway officials, under the guise of neutrality, aided the counter-revolution. A general strike of railroad workers would have lacked any significance: the question was decided by the preponderance of the workers over the officials.

Should the struggle flare up in Germany through sectional clashes initiated by fascist provocation, the call for a general strike would hardly meet the general situation. The general strike would first of all mean that city would be isolated from city, one section of the city from another, and even one factory from the next. It is more difficult to find and collect the unemployed. Under such conditions the fascists, who have no lack of staffs, can obtain a certain preponderance thanks to centralised leadership. True, their masses are so disjointed that even under these conditions the fascist attempt could be repelled. But that is already another side of the matter.

The question of railroad communications, for instance, must be taken up not from the point of view of “prestige,” which demands that everybody should strike, but from the point of view of military expediency: for whom and against whom would the ways of communication serve in the time of conflict?

It is necessary, therefore, to prepare not for a general strike but for the repulsion of fascists. This means that everywhere there should be created bases of operation, shock troops, reserves, local staffs and central authorities, smoothly working means of communication, and elementary plans of mobilisation.

That which was accomplished by the local organisations in a provincial corner, in Bruchsal and Klingenthal, where the Communists together with the SAP and the trade unions, although boycotted by the upper crust of the reformist bureaucracy, have created the organisation for defence—that, despite its modest scope, serves as a model for the whole country. O, supreme leaders!—would that one’s voice could carry from here and one could shout—O, sevenfold sages of strategy, learn from the workers of Bruchsal and Klingenthal! Imitate them! Widen the scope of their experience and elaborate upon their forms! Learn from the workers of Bruchsal and Klingenthal!

The German working class has at its command potent political, economic, and sport organisations. Therein lies the difference between “Brüning’s regime” and “Hitler’s regime.” This is not Brüning’s virtue; a weak bureaucracy is no virtue. But one must see what is. The chief, the fundamental and crowning fact is that the working class of Germany stands even today in the full panoply of its organisations. If it is weak, that is only because its organised force is incorrectly applied. But it is only necessary to spread throughout the country the experience of Bruchsal and Klingenthal and the entire outlook in Germany would be different. In relation to the fascists, the working class under these conditions would be able to apply much more effective and direct methods of struggle than the general strike. But if through a concatenation of circumstances, the need for resorting to the general strike should still arise (such a need could arise from definite interrelation between the fascists and governmental organs), then the system of the Committees of defence on the basis of the united front could put through the mass strike with success assured beforehand.

The struggle would not stop on this stage. For what is the Bruchsal or Klingenthal organisation of defence in its essence? One must be able to observe the great in the little; it is the local soviet of workers’ deputies. That is not what it calls itself, that is not how it feels, for the matter concerns a small provincial nook. Quantity here too determines quality. Transfer this experiment to Berlin and you will get the Berlin soviet of workers’ deputies!


[7] Roy has just been sentenced to many years’ imprisonment by MacDonald’s government. The papers of the Comintern do not feel themselves obligated even to protest against this: one may ally oneself intimately with Chiang Kai-shek, but one absolutely cannot defend the Indian Brandlerite Roy against the imperial butchers.

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