Marxist knowledge gave the working class of the entire world a compass by which it can make sense of the welter of daily events and by which it can always plot the right course to take to the fixed and final goal. – Rosa Luxemberg
With the current events in Ukraine, I felt it necessary to look back on the rich history of antiwar communists. The first work that came to mind was the Junius Pamphlet, which I will be covering in depth here. Although she was writing of World War I, the stance she takes can be applied to the modern day. When it comes to imperialist wars, it is important to stand against both sides and remain true to the class struggle. Russia, Ukraine, NATO, and the U.S. all are undeserving of our support. Our support must be with the global proletariat in the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.
The Junius Pamphlet is an important piece of Marxist history. Crafted by Rosa Luxemburg from prison in 1915, it is a masterpiece of anti-imperialism and antiwar. Rosa was a leading voice in the German Social Democratic Party and one of the greatest Marxist scholars of all time. In the Junius Pamphlet, Rosa made the case that true socialists should oppose both sides in an imperialist war. Whereas the German Social Democrats chose nationalism over the international socialist struggle, Rosa broke with them because she was a true Marxist and understood that there can be no war but the revolutionary class war between bourgeoisie and proletariat.
But, more! In refuting the existence of the class struggle, the social democracy has denied the very basis of its own existence. What is the very breath of its body, if not the class struggle? What role could it expect to play in the war, once having sacrificed the class struggle, the fundamental principle of its existence? The social democracy has destroyed its mission, for the period of the war, as an active political party, as a representative of working-class politics. It has thrown aside the most important weapon it possessed, the power of criticism of the war from the peculiar point of view of the working class. Its only mission now is to play the role of the gendarme over the working class under a state of military rule.
On August 4, 1914, Germany went to war. They invaded Belgium and France in the west and opposed Russia in the east. The German Social Democratic Party (socialists) largely supported the war effort because they felt that Czarist Russia was a greater threat than the imperialists in their own government. In order to defeat Russia, they sided with Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany.
The Junius Pamphlet
Rosa Luxemburg spent much of the war in jail, it was here that she wrote this antiwar treatise under the pseudonym “Junius.” It was smuggled out of jail and distributed by her friends in the International Group which would later become The Spartacus League and eventually the German Communist Party.
On the whole, Junius’ pamphlet is a splendid Marxian work, and in all probability its defects are, to a certain extent, accidental. – V.I. Lenin
As the German Social Democratic Party voted in favor of war credits, Rosa vehemently opposed this break with Marxist tradition. As she described these events:
The memory of our party has played it a shabby trick. It forgot all its principles, its pledges, the decision of international congresses just at the moment when they should have found their application.
Of equal importance in the attitude of the social democracy was the official adoption of a program of civil peace, i.e., the cessation of the class struggle for the duration of the war. The declaration that was read by the social democratic group in the Reichstag on the fourth of August had been agreed upon in advance with representatives of the government and the capitalist parties. It was little more than a patriotic grandstand play, prepared behind the scenes and delivered for the benefit of the people at home and in other nations.
This was a complete betrayal of the working class. There should never be a cessation of the class struggle, especially not in support of an imperialist war that only favors capitalism. Rosa explained that the class struggle is ongoing, it cannot simply be set aside in favor of nationalism in the time of war.
The class struggle is known to be not a social democratic invention that can be arbitrarily set aside for a period of time whenever it may seem convenient to do so. The proletarian class struggle is older than the social democracy, is an elementary product of class society. It flamed up all over Europe when capitalism first came into power. The modern proletariat was not led by the social democracy into the class struggle. On the contrary the international social democratic movement was called into being by the class struggle to bring a conscious aim and unity into the various local and scattered fragments of the class struggle.
She further describes the betrayal of the German Social Democratic Party:
The social democratic press, with a few exceptions, proclaimed the principle of national unity as the highest duty of the German people. It warned the people not to withdraw their funds from the savings banks lest by so doing they unbalance the economic life of the nation, and hinder the savings banks in liberally buying war-loan bonds. It pleaded with proletarian women that they should spare their husbands at the front the tales of suffering that they and their children were being forced to undergo, to bear in silence the neglect of the government, to cheer the fighting warriors with happy stories of family life and favourable reports of prompt assistance through government agencies. They rejoiced that the educational work that had been conducted for so many years in and through the labour movement had become a conspicuous asset in conducting the war.
But how does this national unity in a capitalist war benefit the working class? The answer is simple, it does not. Rosa continues:
What then has changed in this respect when the war broke out? Have private property, capitalist exploitation and class rule ceased to exist? Or have the propertied classes in a spell of patriotic fervour declared: in view of the needs of the war we hereby turn over the means of production, the earth, the factories and the mills therein, into the possession of the people? Have they relinquished the right to make profits out of these possessions? Have they set aside all political privileges, will they sacrifice them upon the altar of the fatherland, now that it is in danger? It is, to say the least, a rather naive hypothesis, and sounds almost like a story from a kindergarten primer. And yet the declaration of our official leaders that the class struggle has been suspended permits no other interpretation. Of course nothing of the sort has occurred. Property rights, exploitation and class rule, even political oppression in all its Prussian thoroughness, have remained intact. The cannons in Belgium and in Eastern Prussia have not had the slightest influence upon the fundamental social and political structure of Germany.
Simply put, the class struggle remains in spite of the imperialist war. Imperialist war does not better the conditions of the working class. It does not advance the class struggle. The proletariat loses no matter who wins in the battle between imperial powers.
Rosa had a keen understanding of the horrors of capitalism. As she described the war:
This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war.
This cannot be over emphasized. Today we face the same dilemma and imperialism is winning. The working class holds all the power but have been divided by the machinations of the ruling class. Capitalism’s never ceasing hunger for profit has brought society close to collapse with endless wars and the existential threat of climate change. The billionaire class are joyriding their space penises while the jet stream has been destabilized throwing weather patterns into chaos.
When and where has there been a war since so-called public opinion has played a role in governmental calculations, in which each and every belligerent party did not, with a heavy heart, draw the sword from its sheath for the single and sole purpose of defending its fatherland and its own righteous cause from the shameful attacks of the enemy?
What then is the correct stance to take during this war? Rosa had an answer to this as well:
But there is one thing that the firemen in the burning house have forgotten: that in the mouth of a socialist, the phrase “defending one’s fatherland” cannot mean playing the role of cannon fodder under the command of an imperialistic bourgeoisie.
It is the working class that fight the wars for the bourgeoisie. This is unacceptable for socialists.
To the socialist, no nation is free whose national existence is based upon the enslavement of another people, for to him colonial peoples, too, are human beings, and, as such, parts of the national state. International socialism recognises the right of free independent nations, with equal rights. But socialism alone can create such nations, can bring self-determination of their peoples. This slogan of socialism is like all its others, not an apology for existing conditions, but a guidepost, a spur for the revolutionary, regenerative, active policy of the proletariat. So long as capitalist states exist, Le., so long as imperialistic world policies determine and regulate the inner and the outer life of a nation, there can be no “national self-determination” either in war or in peace.
The capitalist system is only freedom for the ruling class and class collaborators. Socialism is freedom for all!
In order to understand Rosa’s message, it is necessary to understand what imperialism is. This was a great question of the time. Marxists look at imperialism as a stage of capitalist development.
Imperialism is not the creation of any one or of any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognisable only in all its relations, and from which no nation can hold aloof at will. From this point of view only is it possible to understand correctly the question of “national defence!’ in the present war.
Imperialism and all its political brutality, the chain of incessant social catastrophes that it has let loose, is undoubtedly an historical necessity for the ruling classes of the contemporary capitalist world. Nothing would be more fatal for the proletariat than to delude itself into believing that it were possible after this war to rescue the idyllic and peaceful continuation of capitalism. However, the conclusion to be drawn by proletarian policy from the historical necessity of imperialism is that surrender to imperialism will mean living forever in its victorious shadow and eating from its leftovers.
These are powerful words.
The expansionist imperialism of capitalism, the expression of its highest stage of development and its last phase of existence, produces the [following] economic tendencies: it transforms the entire world into the capitalist mode of production; all outmoded, pre-capitalist forms of production and society are swept away; it converts all the world’s riches and means of production into capital, the working masses of all zones into wage slaves. In Africa and Asia, from the northernmost shores to the tip of South America and the South Seas, the remnant of ancient primitive communist associations, feudal systems of domination, patriarchal peasant economies, traditional forms of craftsmanship are annihilated, crushed by capital; whole peoples are destroyed and ancient cultures flattened. All are supplanted by profit mongering in its most modern form.
This echoes the predictions of Marx and Engels laid down in the Communist Manifesto. Capitalism is a global system and requires new markets. This requirement means the conquest of any society that has not adopted the capitalist system. Those who resist are destroyed in the name of profit. This continues to this day.
What is the answer to imperialist war? How can the proletariat still emerge victorious? Rosa answers these questions:
The voice of our party would have acted as a wet blanket upon the chauvinistic intoxication of the masses. It would have preserved the intelligent proletariat from delirium, would have it more difficult for imperialism to poison and to stupefy the minds of the people. The crusade against the social democracy would have awakened the masses in an incredibly short time.
Even though the party speaking out against war would not change the war, it would give the people a different narrative that opposed the nationalistic one. It was the fact that they did not speak up that so distressed Rosa. The revolutionary fervor of the masses was channeled into war fever and nationalism. This was a great set back for any hope of a socialist revolution in Germany.
Thus proletarian policy is locked in a dilemma when trying to decide on which side it ought to intervene, which side represents progress and democracy in this war. In these circumstances, and from the perspective of international politics as a whole, victory or defeat, in political as well as economic terms, comes down to a hopeless choice between two kinds of beatings for the European working classes. Therefore, it is nothing but fatal madness when the French socialists imagine that the military defeat of Germany will strike a blow at the head of militarism and imperialism and thereby pave the way for peaceful democracy in the world. Imperialism and its servant, militarism, will calculate their profits from every victory and every defeat in this war – except in one case: if the international proletariat intervenes in a revolutionary way and puts an end to such calculations.
This is the false question posed by imperialist war – which side should the working class back? And Rosa answers it beautifully – neither. No matter who wins, the working class loses. The only solution to this question comes through the united international proletariat launching a revolution against the capitalists.
It is war as such, no matter how it ends militarily, that signifies the greatest defeat for Europe’s proletariat. It is only the overcoming of war and the speediest possible enforcement of peace by the international militancy of the proletariat that can bring victory to the workers’ cause. And in reality this victory alone can simultaneously rescue Belgium as well as democracy in Europe.
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!
Rosa ends the Junius Pamphlet with the same appeal as the Communist Manifesto. The battle cry of communists every where. There can be no end to war until the class war has been won by the proletariat everywhere. Until the capitalist system has been abolished, its imperialist ambitions will be carried out throughout the world at great cost to the masses.
Lenin’s Criticisms of the Junius Pamphlet
It would not do to address the Junius Pamphlet without making note of Lenin’s response to it. Lenin, not knowing who had written the pamphlet, responded to Junius. In whole, Lenin praised the pamphlet as an excellent work, but being Lenin, he did have two criticisms.
The first of Junius’ erroneous postulates, the first is contained in the International group’s thesis No. 5: “In the epoch (era) of this unbridled imperialism, there can be no more national wars. National interests serve only as an instrument of deception, to deliver the masses of the toiling people into the service of their mortal enemy, imperialism….” This postulate is the end of thesis No. 5, the first part of which is devoted to the description of the present war as an imperialist war. The repudiation of national wars in general may either be an oversight or a fortuitous over-emphasis of the perfectly correct idea that the present war is an imperialist war and not a national war. But as the opposite may be true, as various Social-Democrats mistakenly repudiate all national wars because the present war is falsely represented to be a national war, we are obliged to deal with this mistake.
Essentially this is a semantical argument – as Lenin says, it is most likely an oversight. The important takeaway here is that Rosa’s analysis as applied to the situation at the time was absolutely correct.
In saying that class struggle is the best means of defence against invasion, Junius applied Marxian dialectics only halfway, taking one step on the right road and immediately deviating from it. Marxian dialectics call for a concrete analysis of each specific historical situation. That class struggle is the best means of defence against invasion is true both with regard to the bourgeoisie, which is overthrowing feudalism, and with regard to the proletariat, which is overthrowing the bourgeoisie. Precisely because it is true with regard to every form of class oppression, it is too general, and therefore, inadequate in the present specific case. Civil war against the bourgeoisie is also a form of class struggle, and only this form of class struggle would have saved Europe (the whole of Europe, not only one country) from the peril of invasion. The “Great German Republic” had it existed in 1914-16, would also have waged an imperialist war.
Lenin is correct that the class war should be that of proletariat versus bourgeoisie. Rosa was not specific in her framing here. When we say “No War but Class War” this is the class war we are referring to.
Junius came very close to the correct solution of the problem and to the correct slogan: civil war against the bourgeoisie for socialism; but, as if afraid to speak the whole truth, he turned back to the fantasy of a “national war” in 1914, 1915 and 1916. Even if we examine the question from the purely practical and not theoretical angle, Junius’ error remains no less clear. The whole of bourgeois society, all classes in Germany, including the peasantry, were in favour of war (in all probability the same was the case in Russia—at least a majority of the well-to-do and middle peasantry and a very considerable portion of the poor peasants were evidently under the spell of bourgeois imperialism). The bourgeoisie was armed to the teeth. Under such circumstances to “proclaim” the programme of a republic, a permanent parliament, election of officers by the people (the “armed nation”), etc., would have meant, in practice, “proclaiming” a revolution (with a wrong revolutionary programme!).
Here Lenin differs with Rosa on the revolutionary program. Only a socialist revolution would do. He concluded:
Needless to say, such reasoning is fallacious, 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. But this shortcoming—it would be a grave error to forget this-is not Junius’ personal failing, but the result of the weakness of all the German Lefts, who have become entangled in the vile net of Kautskyist hypocrisy, pedantry and “friendliness” towards the opportunists. Junius’ adherents have managed in spite of their isolation to begin the publication of illegal leaflets and to start the war against Kautskyism. They will succeed in going further along the right road.
After these two minor corrections, Lenin was impressed by the capability of “Junius” to lead an opposition to Kautsky and distribute the pamphlet. While he differed with Rosa occasionally, he largely agreed with her. The Junius Pamphlet remains an important piece of antiwar literature.
But in spite of her mistakes she was—and remains for us—an eagle. And not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works (the publication of which the German Communists are inordinately delaying, which can only be partly excused by the tremendous losses they are suffering in their severe struggle) will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of Communists all over the world. – Lenin, Notes of a Publicist
These lessons of history apply to the situation in the world today. The science of Marxism when applied correctly can answer many questions. The class struggle should never be forgotten. Only through this lens can we correctly view present day imperialist conflicts.
Originally published on Birrion Sondahl’s substack An Appeal to Reason.