One hundred years´ of Rosa Luxemburg´s ´Socialism or Barbarism´

This article is a translation of "100 jaar Rosa Luxemburgs ‘Socialisme of Barbarij'"

Exactly one century ago, in 1916, a brochure entitled The crisis of social democracy appeared, written in prison by Rosa Luxemburg, and under the pen name of ´Junius´. Its first chapter in different editions has received the title ´Socialism or barbarism´. 


With ´barbarism´ Rosa Luxemburg meant the First World War. The ´crisis´ referred to the responsibility for the mass slaughter then in progress for two years that she assigned to the German SPD.

´Raped, dishonoured, wading through blood, dripping with dirt—that is how bourgeois society presents itself, that is its reality´, thus Rosa characterises the war.

‘Not in the way it pretends to be, embellished and virtuous, as culture, philosophy and ethics, order, peace and state of law—but as a voracious wild animal, as a witches´ sabbath of anarchy, a vapour of pestilence for civilisation and humanity—thus it displays its true, naked existence. And in the midst of this witches´ sabbath a world historic catastrophe took place: the capitulation of international social democracy.´

Indeed on the 4th of August the SPD fraction in parliament decided to consent to the war budget in order to defend ´the fatherland´, although in terms of the number of its MP´s that was not even necessary.

All the campaigning of the previous years, the solemn agreements among the socialist parties in Europe to respond to the approaching war (which was recognised to be coming) with a general insurrection at its very outbreak , everything was forgotten in a single stroke.

In other belligerent countries too socialist majorities agreed to the declarations of war, but as Rosa explains at length, the authority of the SPD was without equivalent. This was the party of Marx and Engels, of Lassalle, Bebel and (Wilhelm) Liebknecht, and it now condemned the workers of Europe to being killed or maimed in the trenches. In fact the phrase ´socialism or barbarity´ comes from Engels when he wrote that bourgeois society faces a choice: either continuing development in a socialist direction, or a relapse into barbarism.

Imperialism shows us how to imagine this relapse, Rosa argues after having quoted this statement. ´This world war, that is the relapse into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the destruction of civilisation—sporadically for the duration of a modern war, and definitively if the period of world wars that has now commenced, will take its course without restraint, to its most extreme consequences.´

Today, one hundred years on, we can establish that these were prophetic words. Compared to the horrors of the Second World War, with its extermination camps and use of atomic weapons, even the heinous First pales in significance.

Chauvinism and barbarism
When the emancipation of the working classes became the order of the day towards the end of the 19th century, the ruling classes in Europe responded with chauvinist propaganda to set the masses against each other. In France, popular scientific reports were published that purported to demonstrate that German urine was more poisonous than French; Emperor Wilhelm II, enraged by the revolutionary turmoil that had shaken the throne of his distant cousin, Czar Nicolas in Russia, instructed his prime minister in a New Year´s telegram to begin work on neutralising the socialist leadership, followed by war to submerge the mass of the workers in a ´bath of steel´.

This correspondence, dug up from the archives by the historian, Fritz Fischer, has brought to light the continuity between First and Second World War also in terms of criminal intent (no wonder Fischer was furiously attacked when his Griff nach der Weltmacht appeared). And then, did the Americans do better when they dropped atomic bombs on civilian targets in Japan, continued the colonial wars waged by European powers in Vietnam and Indonesia, and installed one terror regime after another in Latin America ?

Finally the Russian Revolution, about which Rosa Luxemburg still speaks so hopefully in her brochure, within ten years also collapsed back into a barbaric negation of the ideals from which it had been born. In that respect too ´the period of world wars that has now commenced, will take its course to its most extreme consequences´.

The dilemma between socialism or barbarity is still topical today. If there is no attempt to try and achieve a real change of society in a socialist sense, or as Gramsci puts it, ´a society richer in collective values´, then barbarism is the alternative because capitalist relations can only be maintained by violence. In the Middle East and North Africa, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, everywhere the spectre of war, the ´witches´ sabbath of anarchy´ is on the march. The provocations on the Russian borders by NATO which risk triggering a nuclear war, are also an instance of ´the most extreme consequences´ of the period of world wars which according to Rosa Luxemburg started when the socialists gave their in fact unsolicited consent to the war.

European compliance with the American policy of confrontation with Russia and China too goes back to the fatal choice made in August 1914.

Therein resides the topicality of ´socialism or barbarity´.

Kees van der Pijl

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