Rosa Luxemburg and opposition to WWI: 100 years since the Junius pamphlet

Paddy Gibson continues our series on resistance to the First World War by looking at Rosa Luxemburg’s famous anti-war pamphlet

April 2015 marks 100 years since the invasion of Turkey by British allied forces at Gallipoli.

But 1915 also saw the beginnings of serious resistance to the First World War by workers and soldiers. At the centre of this were revolutionary socialists like Rosa Luxemburg.

For most of 1915 Luxemburg was incarcerated. She had been arrested organising anti-war demonstrations aimed up disrupting recruitment. From February to April 1915 she worked from her prison cell on one of the most important anti-war pamphlets in history, The crisis of Social Democracy, known as the Junius pamphlet as it was published under the pseudonym Junius. It was smuggled out of prison and mass distributed in 1916, in the midst of the first serious anti-war strikes in Germany. These built into a revolutionary wave that swept Europe and eventually ended the war.

Luxemburg captured the nightmare atmosphere of early 1915, a period when the initial patriotic euphoria had evaporated, and hopes of a quick victory were abandoned in the face of trench warfare:

“Mass slaughter has become the tiresome and monotonous business of the day and the end is no closer… Business thrives in the ruins. Cities become piles of ruins; villages become cemeteries; countries become deserts…there are food riots in Venice, in Lisbon, Moscow, Singapore. There is plague in Russia, and misery and despair everywhere.”

Rosa Luxemburg was a key theorist within the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). It was one of the largest political parties in history, with control of Germany’s trade unions and one quarter of the votes in parliament. It was the leading organisation in the Second International, which claimed to stand in the tradition of Marx and Engels. But the First World War would expose that only the left-wing of the International, including activists like Luxemburg, remained true to Marxism.

The International was committed to a world socialist system replacing the existing capitalist nation states. It was a confederation of socialist parties, mainly from Europe and North America, representing millions of workers. At Stuttgart, Luxemburg represented both the Polish party of her home country and the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) where she was active.

Luxemburg had long predicted the war and had spent her adult life attempting to prepare the working classes of Europe.

In 1907, Luxemburg successfully moved a motion at the conference of the Socialist International held in Stuttgart: “In the event of war, it is the duty [of affiliated socialist parties] to take measures to bring it to an end as quickly as possible, and to utilise the economic and political crisis brought about by the war to arouse the masses of the people and accelerate the overthrow of capitalist class rule”.

Tragically, when war was declared in 1914, all the socialist parties of Europe, with the exception of Russia and Serbia, capitulated and embraced the war.

In Germany, SPD parliamentary deputies voted in favour of war credits and called for full co-operation with the war effort. Luxemburg describes how they betrayed the anti-imperialism of the International by arguing the war was, “a war of defence against foreign invasion, for the existence of the fatherland, for ‘Kultur’, a war for liberty against Russian despotism”.

Everything Luxemburg had believed in was in question, “the last forty-five year period in the development of the modern labour movement now stands in doubt”.

System of warfare

The main focus of the Junius pamphlet was an analysis of the real dynamics driving German actions in the war, cutting through the patriotic myths peddled by the SPD.

Far from the war being “defensive”, Luxemburg demonstrates how the German government sanctioned the Austrian invasion of Serbia, understanding fully it would mean world war, and deployed troops in Belgium even before the announcement of hostilities.

While the SPD called for national unity, Luxemburg exposed how major capitalist enterprises in rubber, oil, metals and leather were making record profits while ordinary people suffered from exploding prices, poverty wages and the slaughter at the front.

But Luxemburg also deepened the Marxist analysis of imperialism that had developed within the left wing of the International. The theory argued that major capitalist enterprises had grown so large that they required guaranteed access to raw materials and markets on a global scale, something that could only be secured by the military power of their respective nation states. The competition between firms that was characteristic of capitalism had been reproduced as a life and death struggle between imperialist states on the world stage.

The idea that the war, for any of the states involved, had anything to do with “self-defence” was an illusion. All the major capitalist powers wanted mastery of the world and would sacrifice millions of lives for it. Whereas some SPD leaders argued to push for a negotiated peace settlement, Luxemburg saw the need to overthrow the sick system addicted to war, “Capitalism cannot, under its current imperialist course, dispense with present-day militarism…make just one simple ‘demand’: abolition of the capitalist class state.”

In 1915, the SPD was using its authority within the unions to enforce repressive laws banning strike action. Luxemburg predicted that strikes would break out regardless. The needs of mechanised warfare brought masses of hungry workers together on a scale never seen in history. France alone was producing 200,000 shells a day in 1915.

The massive standing armies needed to fight the war were also volatile. Luxemburg quotes from the anxieties of leading German military theorist General Bernhardi who wrote, “when the spirit of revolt spreads out among the masses of the army, then the army becomes not only ineffectual against the enemy, it becomes a menace to itself and to its leaders”.

Outbreaks of struggle were inevitable, “the class struggle rises like an elemental force”. Whether or not they could unite and deepen both within each country and across the world would depend on clarity of analysis about the roots of the war in capitalism and the existence of revolutionary working class organisation.

The SPD and colonialism

While the Junius pamphlet was fierce in its denunciation of the SPD’s support for the war, it did little to explain their historic capitulation. Despite the internationalist rhetoric that SPD leaders continued to use in the lead up to 1914, support for imperialism had been growing within the party over the previous two decades.

This had its roots in the comfortable position that SPD union leaders and politicians had managed to carve out for themselves. A long period of economic growth had allowed improvements in living conditions for many German workers.

Most party leaders had long abandoned any idea of socialist revolution through workers seizing the means of production and dismantling the state. Socialism would come instead through winning a majority in parliament and introducing enlightened policy through the existing structures of government. Rather than workers fighting for collective control of production, trade union officials would take the reins from capitalist managers.

Racism against the so-called “backward” peoples in the colonised world was the key ideological justification for European imperialism. Sadly it was embraced by the reformist leadership of the SPD, who believed themselves to be guardians of “European civilisation”.

At the 1907 Stuttgart conference, where Luxemburg had moved the motion against the impending imperialist war, a majority of SPD delegates had supported a separate motion in favour of colonialism:

“Socialism strives to develop the productive forces of the entire globe and to lead all peoples to the highest form of civilisation. The congress therefore does not reject in principle every colonial policy.”

This motion was narrowly defeated, 128 votes to 108. Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin noted that it was only the blocking together of smaller countries, including some delegates from the colonised world, that ensured its defeat.

Luxemburg carried out a consistent struggle within the SPD in the pre-war years, in an attempt to get them to take colonialism seriously, but she was consistently stifled by the focus of the leadership on parliament and maintaining respectability.

In 1911, when Luxemburg called for mobilisations against German gunboats being sent to Morocco, parliamentary leaders such as Karl Kautsky argued this would be a distraction from upcoming national elections.

In the Junius pamphlet, Luxemburg vividly outlines how a racist blindness to suffering in the colonial world had allowed for the growth of the powers of destruction now culminating in the European war:

“For the first time, the ravening beasts set loose upon all quarters of the globe by capitalist Europe have broken into Europe itself…

“This same ‘civilised world’ looked on passively as the same imperialism ordained the cruel destruction of ten thousand Herero tribesmen and filled the sands of the Kalahari with the mad shrieks and death rattles of men dying of thirst; as forty thousand men on the Putumayo River [Columbia] were tortured to death within ten years by a band of European captains of industry; as in China where an age-old culture was put to the torch by European mercenaries; as in Tripoli where fire and sword bowed the Arabs beneath the yoke of capitalism, destroyed their culture and habitations….

“Only now has [the ‘civilized world’] recognised this, after the beast’s ripping talons have clawed…the bourgeois civilisation of Europe itself”.

The war continued to destroy millions of lives for another three years after Luxemburg wrote these words. But her analysis was crucial for re-orienting the workers movement in one of its darkest hours, and breathing life into the revolutionary struggles that would eventually end the war.


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