Rosa Luxemburg’s 'Junius pamphlet'

1 May 2022
Elliot Downes

In 1915, Rosa Luxemburg wrote The Crisis of Social Democracy while in jail for her anti-war activism. In it, she criticised the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) for betraying working-class internationalism with their support for the First World War. The pamphlet was smuggled out in April that year and published a year later. Distributed illegally under the pseudonym Junius, it’s commonly known as the Junius pamphlet.

The pamphlet remains one of the strongest indictments of war and the system that produces it. Luxemburg describes how the war ripped the mask from the face of capitalism:

“Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics—but as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity—so it appears in all its hideous nakedness.”

Junius was also an inquest into the death of social democracy. In the lead-up to the war, the SPD had campaigned against the growing imperialist tensions and declared its opposition to the impending war. Once it broke out, however, the party’s parliamentary representatives—with the exception of Karl Liebknecht—voted for credits to fund the German war effort. “Nowhere has the organisation of the working class been yoked so completely to the service of imperialism”, Luxemburg wrote.

In backing the war, the SPD took up the positions of the ruling class and became enthusiastic proponents of German nationalism. Luxemburg demolished the party’s argument that the war was defensive, fought for democracy and liberty. In reality, the ruling classes of Western Europe had lent economic and political support to Russian absolutism. Instead of supporting the German government, Luxemburg looked to the “revolutionary forces aris[ing] from the womb of the Russian people itself to fight against Russian absolutism”.

By declaring itself in favour of “social peace” during the war, the SPD called for an end to class struggle—on the part of workers. In response to the argument that the war had created a new situation that changed everything, Luxemburg rhetorically asked:

“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?”

Junius ends with the prophetic declaration:

“This madness will not stop, and this bloody nightmare of hell will not cease until the workers of Germany, of France, of Russia and of England will wake up out of their drunken sleep, will clasp each other’s hands in brotherhood and will drown the bestial chorus of war agitators and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the mighty cry of labour, ‘Workers of all countries, unite!’”

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