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Reading Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Junius Pamphlet’ in Times of War

While she was in prison in 1915, Rosa Luxemburg wrote an underground pamphlet titled The Crisis of German Social Democracy. As war rages in Europe, this text has many important insights for socialists.

Nathaniel Flakin

May 26, 2022
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Image: Financial Times

There is war in Europe. NATO countries have used Russia’s reactionary invasion of Ukraine to justify historic increases in military spending. As images of atrocities committed by Russian troops constantly appear in the news, militarism has suddenly become popular in Western countries. There have been heroic examples of anti-militarist resistance, such as strikes by Greek railway workers against U.S. arms shipments, but these are exceptional.

Under chauvinistic pressure, the socialist Left around the world is getting Ukraine wrong. Some socialists are not calling for a withdrawal of all Russian troops and thus effectively supporting Putin’s war. A much bigger sector of the Left has lined up behind NATO’s policy shipping weapons to the Ukrainian government. To find a truly internationalist orientation, it is useful to look back at World War I, and the Marxist debates from just over a century ago.

In 1915, Rosa Luxemburg was trapped in Berlin’s Women’s Prison. There, she wrote an underground pamphlet titled The Crisis of German Social Democracy. She used the pseudonym “Junius,” which is why it is still known as the Junius Pamphlet. The pamphlet is a key text for understanding the Left’s disorientation on the Ukraine question today.

The War

Less than a year into the Great War, Luxemburg described its ongoing horrors: “Mass slaughter has become the tiresome and monotonous business of the day.” The ruling classes of the different countries had claimed that the war would end in a matter of weeks, and certainly by Christmas. Instead, millions of young men were stuck in trenches, and scientists made miraculous discoveries of how to commit murder on an unprecedented scale, with poison gas, tanks, airplanes, and so on.

For decades, “revisionists” in the socialist movement, like Eduard Bernstein (today we call them “reformists”), had been arguing that capitalism was overcoming its tendencies toward crisis and war. The maelstrom was a tragic confirmation of Luxemburg’s response: a relatively “peaceful” period in capitalism’s development was only preparing greater crises in the near future. As she put it, “Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth — there stands bourgeois society.”

But for Luxemburg, the catastrophe did not just consist in the slaughter of an entire generation. The workers’ movement, which had set itself the task of preventing such a war, had been betrayed by its own leaders. The “catastrophe of world-historical proportions” was that “International Social Democracy has capitulated.” With extensive quotes from Germany’s social democratic press, Luxemburg showed that even in the weeks and days leading up to the first shots, all socialists had clearly rejected the approaching war. Europe’s parasitic ruling classes were hoping to increase their riches, but this adventure would in fact lead to the “Götterdämmerung of the bourgeois world.”

Once the fighting began, however, most socialist leaders betrayed all their principles and lined up behind their own “fatherlands,” ordering young workers of different states to kill each other. This, for Luxemburg, was the real tragedy: the working class had been both paralyzed by betrayal and defeated without a fight.

Today, as war rages in Ukraine, we are seeing a similar irruption of what Vladimir Lenin called “social patriotism”: socialists who remain true to internationalism in words but line up behind their own ruling class in deeds. The NATO countries are giving billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Ukraine’s right-wing government. Social patriots like Gilbert Achcar, the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, Anticapitalist Resistance of the UK, etc., claim that socialists should be demanding arms for the Ukrainian government! In other words, socialists should tell NATO to keep doing what it is doing. These socialists coat their demands in phrases about “anti-imperialism” and “self-determination,” and mention that they would like to see NATO dissolve some day, if not during the current war. Obviously, the German Social Democracy as a workers’ party with a million members is not the same as the small groups referred to here, but the political logic is the same.

“Protect Democracy!”

At this moment, NATO countries are spending historic sums to arm the Ukrainian government. The U.S. Congress, including “socialists” in the Democratic Party, just voted for $40 billion for additional weapons. Germany’s capitalists want an additional €100 billion for their army. We are told that this is necessary to “protect democracy,” not just in Ukraine but around the world. Without NATO, Russian tanks would advance from Kiev to Warsaw, Berlin, and Lisbon.

The reality, of course, is that the army of Russia’s corrupt regime can barely grab slivers from one of the poorest countries in Europe. NATO’s new militarism has nothing to do with defense — it’s about shoring up imperialist hegemony and preparing for greater confrontations with China. All these new weapons will be used for new imperialist adventures, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A similar discussion was going on in 1914. The German Empire claimed that it needed to defend itself against the Russian autocracy, which was indeed the most barbaric state in Europe. The German generals told the socialist leaders that the war was about defending the limited freedoms enjoyed by the working class in Germany. The czar, after all, allowed no socialist organizing of any kind. But these same German generals then abolished workers’ right to strike, to assemble, or even express their opinion — the “defense of democracy” was used to justify a state of siege. In her pamphlet, Luxemburg pointed out the absurdity of the claim that Russia was about to conquer Germany: “One might with as much justification assume that the Tsar desires to annex Europe or the moon.” Today, it is even more ridiculous that Putin could claim Poland, much less threaten people in the United States. The greatest threat to working people comes from the NATO armies that have unparalleled means to rain down death all over the planet.

“Self-Defense!”

When World War I began, every imperialist power declared, almost like small children: the other side started it! In truth, all powers had been spending ever greater sums on weapons for years — and for what else except a conflagration? German imperialism had been waiting for the right opportunity to start a war, hoping to weaken its competitors. In her pamphlet, Luxemburg traced the escalating geopolitical crises that led to the war, and said: “The world war has been hanging fire for eight years.” The question who “started it” was essentially irrelevant:

Historically, the sympathies and partisanship of the socialists have been on the side fighting for historical progress and against reaction. Which side in the present war represents progress and which reaction? Clearly, this question cannot be answered on the basis of the superficial labels of the warring states, such as “democracy” or “absolutism.” Rather, [the question should be judged] on the actual objective tendencies they represent in world politics.

Today’s war in Ukraine is not the result of Putin’s cabin fever under Covid isolation. For decades, U.S. imperialism has been expanding its zone of influence toward Russia’s borders. In Ukraine specifically, the U.S. embassy took control of the Maidan movement in 2014 and employed local Nazis as shock troops to install a regime to its liking. Now, of course, the White House claims it was “forced” into a confrontation with Russia’s reactionary government. In 1914, the German kaiser similarly declared that he had been forced into the war — a war that he had been preparing for years.

Luxemburg heard people saying that the other side were “barbarians.” She countered, “As though every people that marches out to do organized murder were not transformed instantly into a barbarian horde.” This is true: war is by definition barbaric. The atrocities committed by the Russian army in Ukraine are no different from NATO’s atrocities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc..

“Self-Determination!”

Socialists have always fought for the right of oppressed peoples to self-determination, as a basic democratic principle. Only the people of Ukraine should decide on the political regime in Ukraine — but similarly, only the people of the Donbas or the Crimean Peninsula should decide about the state they live under.

In World War I, all the warring powers claimed to be fighting for “self-determination.” British imperialism was, in its own version of events, only standing up for “plucky little Belgium.” German imperialism, in contrast was liberating Poles and — yes! — Ukrainians from czarist oppression.

In both cases, these were colonial empires that occupied other countries with extreme violence. Germany, for example, had colonized Cameroon, and in 1914, colonial authorities executed local leader Rudolf Duala Manga Bell for demanding better treatment. France and Britain were similarly trampling the rights of colonial peoples while claiming to fight for “self-determination” — while snatching colonies from their competitors.

Today, NATO expansion is supposed to represent the “will of the Ukrainian people.” Putin, meanwhile, claims that his invasion is only meant to defend the democratic rights of people in Ukraine’s East. In reality, both the NATO and the Russian state are defending their own geopolitical interests. NATO was never interested in the “self-determination” of the peoples of Iraq or Afghanistan.

In World War I, Serbia was attacked by an imperialist neighbor, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was one of the few states that was directly threatened with liquidation. Yet socialists in Serbia understood that the war was not a simple confrontation between two unequal neighbors. They saw that Serbia was part of a scramble for control of the world — and they refused to give support to “national defense.” Luxemburg was full of praise:

The Serbian socialists Laptchevic and Kaclerovic have not only enrolled their names in letters of gold in the annals of the international socialist movement, but have shown a clear historical conception of the real causes of the war. In voting against war credits they therefore have done their country the best possible service.

Today, the war in Ukraine is not about self-determination, but rather a proxy war between NATO and Russia. And why is Zelenskyy’s government supposed to be an expression of the Ukrainian people’s “self-determination”? This corrupt right-wing government was imposed by Ukraine’s oligarchs — just as Putin’s government was imposed by Russian oligarchs. Neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian people had a serious opportunity to decide their future while their economies were being snapped up by privatizers. As Luxemburg put it,

It is a veritable perversion of socialism to regard present-day capitalist society as the expression of this self-determination of nations. Where is there a nation in which the people have had the right to determine the form and conditions of their national, political and social existence?

Lenin

In his review of Luxemburg’s pamphlet, he noted that the author did not draw all the necessary conclusions from her critique of social patriotism. She explained how the working class, organized in a socialist movement, could use class struggle to end the war. But her writing showed no understanding of how the war was sharpening capitalism’s contradictions to the point where they would explode in revolution. Just three years after she wrote the pamphlet, a workers’ revolution freed Luxemburg from prison and destroyed the German Empire. It was only during the revolution that Luxemburg understood the need to break with the social chauvinists and transform the imperialist war into a civil war against imperialism.

While Luxemburg called for the working class to resist war, Lenin was clear about the need to wage “war on war.” He explained how socialists should have responded to the vote on war credits:

“You, the bourgeoisie, are fighting for plunder; we, the workers of all the belligerent countries, declare war upon you for socialism” — this is the sort of speech that should have been delivered in the Parliaments on August 4, 1914, by Socialists who had not betrayed the proletariat.

The working class, then as now, can organize protests and strikes to sabotage the war machine and thus prepare the collapse of the reactionary regimes that launched the war.

Lenin understood the fundamental problem facing anti-war socialists in Germany: they lacked a coherent revolutionary organization standing in opposition to reformism. It was only during the war that Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and their comrades began the difficult task of building up the Spartacist League. Lenin wrote, with astounding perception,

Junius’ pamphlet conjures up in our mind the picture of a lone man who has no comrades in an illegal organisation accustomed to thinking out revolutionary slogans to their conclusion and systematically educating the masses in their spirit.

Luxemburg only took up the task of founding a Communist Party when the revolution had begun — much too late to lead the revolution to victory. Yet we can agree with Lenin that Luxemburg, by fighting the social patriots, had taken the first necessary steps toward a revolutionary program. That is why the pamphlet, despite its weaknesses, remains relevant for us today.1There was a very important debate between Luxemburg and Lenin about whether socialists should support the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. Luxemburg incorrectly said that such self-determination was impossible under capitalism; Lenin correctly recognized that the struggle against all forms of national oppression was a component of the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. Luxemburg also specifically doubted whether a Ukrainian nation existed. But this debate goes beyond the scope of this article.

Wars will continue as long as capitalism and imperialism exist. So let us remember Luxemburg’s passionate internationalism:

The madness will cease and the bloody demons of hell will vanish only when workers in Germany and France, England and Russia finally awake from their stupor, extend to each other a brotherly hand, and drown out the bestial chorus of imperialist war-mongers and the shrill cry of capitalist hyenas with labor’s old and mighty battle cry: Proletarians of all lands, unite!

Notes

Notes
1 There was a very important debate between Luxemburg and Lenin about whether socialists should support the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. Luxemburg incorrectly said that such self-determination was impossible under capitalism; Lenin correctly recognized that the struggle against all forms of national oppression was a component of the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. Luxemburg also specifically doubted whether a Ukrainian nation existed. But this debate goes beyond the scope of this article.
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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.

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