Socialist Classics: Rosa Luxemburg, ‘The Crisis of Social Democracy’

In Issue 62 (December 2015) Joe Conroy looked at a work that kept socialism alive amid the betrayals of the first world war.

In February 1915 Rosa Luxemburg was imprisoned in Berlin. She had been sentenced the year before for inciting soldiers to dis­obedience, but the sentence hadn’t been carried out. The authorities clearly believed that putting her off the scene now would be useful. From the outbreak of the world war, she had been among the most vocal of the few socialists in Germany who dissented from their party’s support for the war, and were now beginning to organise and make their voice heard.

While her imprisonment was a major blow to these efforts, official hopes that Luxemburg’s voice would be silenced went unfulfilled. She could still write behind bars, and worked on a scathing indictment of the war and the Social Democratic Party’s acquiescence in it. By April it was ready and smuggled out, but her comrades on the outside, harassed and with little resources, couldn’t get it printed. Only when she was released after a year was it finally published, in secret, but the demand necessitated numerous reprints. She signed it with the pseudonym Junius—used in eighteenth-century England by a defender of popular rights against the monarchy—and it has often been known since as the Junius Pamphlet.

Luxemburg begins by describing the atmosphere of the war, now the initial hysteria had settled down: “mass butchery has become a tiresome, monotonous everyday task”. War was now literally a case of business as usual:

The cannon fodder that was loaded and patriotically cheered on in August and September is rotting in Belgium, in the Vosges, in Masuria, on the killing fields from which crops of profit shoot up powerfully.… Business is flourishing upon the ruins.… Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth—thus stands capitalist society, as it is.… Dividends are rising, and proletarians are falling.

But even worse was the response from the sworn enemies of capitalism: “in the midst of this inferno a world-historic tragedy has occurred: the capitulation of international social democracy”. The parliamentary representatives of the Social Democratic Party of Germany had voted to give financial support to the war, and the party as a whole had hastened to give political support: “it forgot all its principles, its pledges, the decisions of international congresses just at the moment when they should have been applied”. It had called for all classes to rally around the national flag in wartime, “declared the class struggle to be extinct”, but the other side was cleverer:

Have private property, capitalist exploitation and class rule by any chance ceased to exist? Have the property owners perhaps declared in a flush of patriotism: in view of the war, we hereby hand over for its duration the means of production—land, factories, works—as common property, renounce the exclusive right to profit from commodities, abolish all political privileges and sacrifice them on the altar of the fatherland as long as it is in danger?… The abolition of the class struggle was, therefore, an entirely one-sided affair.

This capitulation, repeated by social democrats in the other warring countries, led thousands of workers to go to the front without protest, to kill and be killed. It was not just weakening the working class from an intellectual or political point of view, but literally decimating them, physically exterminating them:

It is our strength, our hope that is being mowed down there in swathes, day after day, like grass before the scythe.… The flower of our manhood and youthful strength, hundreds of thousands whose socialist training in England and France, in Belgium, Germany and Russia was the product of decades-long work of education and agitation, other hundreds of thousands who could have been won over to socialism tomorrow, are falling and decaying miserably on the battlefields. The fruit of the sacrifices and toil of generations over decades is destroyed in a few weeks, the elite troops of the international proletariat are cut down at the root of life.

The excuse that Germany was fighting a noble war for democracy against the evil Russian dictatorship is torn apart. That dictatorship was one of the most oppressive on earth, but the revolutionary move­ment in Russia was growing and preparing to challenge it—until the outbreak of war temporarily disorientated and suppressed it: “‘German rifles’ are crushing, not Tsarism, but its opponent.” German propaganda lamented the plight of Poles under the Russian empire, but Luxemburg—who was one of them—points out that others suffered under German rule, where “Polish children had the German ‘Our Father’ beaten into them with bloody welts on their bodies”. But what else would the warmongers do but excuse their actions as defensive?

When and where has there been a war, since so-called public opinion has played a role in government calculations, in which each and every belligerent party did not, with a heavy heart, draw the sword for the one single purpose of defending its fatherland and its own righteous cause from the shameless attack of the enemy? The legend is as much a part of warfare as powder and lead.

The war could only be understood in its global context. Luxemburg traces the development of German imperialism in particular, and its role in the international power play which formed the backdrop to the outbreak of 1914. Imperialism is “an innately international phenomenon, an indivisible whole that can only be understood in all its inter-relations”, she writes. Looked at in isolation, the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia was a clear imperialist aggression, but “Serbia itself is only a pawn in the great chess game of world politics”, and she praises the Serbian socialists who saw that it would inevitably be dragged into the overall imperialist war, “a competitive struggle of an already fully-developed capitalism for world supremacy”.

From this she draws a general conclusion on the position of nations: “in today’s imperialist milieu there can no longer be any wars of national defence generally”. It was true enough to say that the nationalism of the great powers was a fraud designed to perpetuate oppression, even when they were invoking support for smaller states under their wing. But what about the attempts then being made by Egyptians or Africans or Irish to win national independence? Far from cloaking imperialist desires, they were throwing damaging spokes into the wheels of imperial chariots. Even though opposing empires naturally attempted to profit from their rivals’ discomfort, the demand to break away from empires deserved the full support of socialists.

A strange twist on Luxemburg’s anti-nationalism comes when she claims that “The highest duty of the Social Democracy towards its fatherland demanded that it expose the real background of this imperialist war… That would have been truly national”. To a large extent, she is trying to throw back at the party leaders their own pretensions of standing up for the German people. Her claim is that ordinary Germans would suffer from the war rather than benefitting, but to couch that in a nationalist phraseology—particularly one as inextricably imperialist as German nationalism was in 1914—is confusing, at best.

(Unfortunately, Luxemburg’s true position here is grossly distorted for English speakers by a translation published in New York in 1918 and still doing the rounds in print and on line, although it is often poor and sometimes inaccurate. She wrote that as long as imperialism exists, “the right of national self-determination has nothing at all in common with its practice”, but this is translated as “there can be no ‘national self-determination’”. The same translation says that “Today the nation is but a cloak that covers imperialist desires, a battle cry for imperialistic rivalries, the last ideological measure with which the masses can be persuaded to play the role of cannon fodder in imperialistic wars.” However, the words “Today the nation” have been dropped into the middle of a sentence, changing its meaning radically. Luxemburg was writing here about “The national phrase”, which imperialism has “perverted into its opposite”.)

But would the triumph of one particular side in the war be a more favourable result for the working class? This was like making “a choice between two beatings”, says Luxemburg:

For the European proletariat as a whole, victory or defeat of either of the two warring camps would be equally disastrous from its class standpoint. For war itself as such, whatever its military outcome, means the greatest conceivable defeat for the European proletariat, and the quickest forcing of peace by the international struggle of the proletariat can bring the only possible victory for the proletarian cause.

This contrasts with the ‘revolutionary defeatist’ position of Lenin, especially, that defeat of your own side would be preferable. Any anti-war agitation tends to weaken the particular state in which it takes place: successful agitation in Germany, for instance, would restrict the capacities of the German military. Luxemburg’s own activities show clearly that she never allowed the consideration of undermining the German war effort to hold her back. But defeat for one side necessarily implies victory for the other, and she is here speaking from the standpoint of the international working class. She was right to raise the idea of a third possibility coming out on top, of workers’ revolt exhausting the resources of both sides and ending the war altogether—and the final outcome of the war was not too far at all from that.

The war was confronting humanity as a whole with an over­arching choice: “either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or the victory of socialism, i.e., the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method: war”. The important thing was to learn this lesson, so that something could yet be salvaged from the slaughter:

Socialism is lost only if the international proletariat is unable to judge the depth of the fall, doesn’t learn from it.… The working class must always fearlessly look truth in the face, even the bitterest self-accusation… we will win if we have not forgotten how to learn.

What should socialists have done in August 1914? Not proclaim a revolution, but hold their nerve and speak the truth: “not ridiculous prescriptions and recipes of a technical nature, but the political watchword, clarity on the political tasks and interests of the proletariat in the war”. It is quite possible that such a stand would have proved un­popular in the first months of war hysteria. “At first we would perhaps have achieved nothing but that the honour of the German proletariat would be saved”, but even that would be no small thing. It would have maintained the socialist movement “like a rock in the roaring sea”, eventually attracting those sickened of the carnage and looking for solutions. When hatred of war connects with desire for a new world, such solutions become practical:

The madness will only stop and the bloody nightmare of hell will only disappear when the workers in Germany and France, in England and Russia finally awake from their intoxication, reach out a fraternal hand to each other, and drown the bestial chorus of warmongers and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the powerful old battle-cry of labour: Proletarians of all countries, unite!