Tony Cliff

Rosa Luxemburg

The fight against imperialism and war

During the two decades preceding the outbreak of the First World War support for imperialism grew steadily, within the Socialist International.

The Stuttgart Congress of the International in 1907 showed this clearly. The colonial question was placed on the agenda because at this time the jostling of imperialist powers in Africa and Asia was becoming fierce. The socialist parties did indeed speak out against the rapacity of their own governments, but as the discussion at the Stuttgart Congress showed, a consistent anti-colonialist position was far from the thoughts of many leaders of the International. The Congress appointed a Colonial Commission, the majority of which drafted a report stating that colonialism had some positive aspects. Its draft resolution stated, “[The Congress] does not reject on principle and for all time every colonial policy.” Socialists should condemn the excesses of colonialism, but should not renounce it altogether. Instead:

... they are to advocate reforms, to improve the lot of the natives ... and they are to educate them for independence by all possible means.

To this purpose the representatives of the socialist parties should propose to their governments to conclude an international treaty, to create a Colonial Law, which shall protect the rights of the natives and which would be guaranteed by all the signatory States.

This draft resolution was in fact defeated, but by a rather slim majority – 127 against 108. Thus practically half the Congress sided openly with imperialism.

When the First World War, which was essentially a fight between the imperialist powers for the division of the colonies, broke out in 1914, its support by the majority leaders of the Socialist International did not come out of the blue.

At the Stuttgart Congress Rosa Luxemburg came out clearly against imperialism, proposing a resolution which outlined the policy necessary to meet the threat of imperialist war:

In the event of a threat of war it is the duty of the workers and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved to do everything possible to prevent the outbreak of war by taking suitable measures, which can of course change or be intensified in accordance with the intensification of the class struggle and the general political situation.

In the event of war breaking out nevertheless, it is their duty 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.

This resolution made it clear that socialists should oppose imperialism and its war, and that the only way to put an end to both is through the overthrow of capitalism, of which both are the outgrowth.

This resolution was passed, but even so it was becoming more and more evident that, of those leaders who were not openly supporting colonialism, many did not conceive of the fight against imperialism in revolutionary terms.

These leaders, whose main spokesman was Kautsky, adopted the view that imperialism was not a necessary outgrowth of capitalism, but an abscess which the capitalist class as a whole would more and more wish to get rid of. Kautsky’s theory was that imperialism was a method of expansion supported by certain small but powerful capitalist groups (the banks and the armament kings), which was contrary to the needs of the capitalist class as a whole, as expenditure on armaments reduced available capital for investment in the country and abroad, and therefore affected the majority of the capitalist class which would progressively increase its opposition to the policy of armed imperialist expansion. Echoing the same ideas, Bernstein, as late as 1911, argued confidently that the desire for peace was becoming universal and that it was out of the question that war should break out. The armaments race, according to the Kautsky-led “Marxist Centre”, was an anomaly that could be overcome by general disarmament agreements, international arbitration courts, peace alliances, and the formation of the United States of Europe. In short, the “Marxist Centre” relied on the powers-that-be to bring peace on earth.

Rosa Luxemburg brilliantly tore to shreds this capitalist pacifism:

... the belief that capitalism is possible without expansion, is the theoretical formula for a certain definite tactical tendency. This conception tends to regard the phase of imperialism not as a historical necessity, not as the final bout between capitalism and socialism, but rather as the malicious invention of a group of interested parties. It tries to persuade the bourgeoisie that imperialism and militarism are deleterious even from the standpoint of bourgeois interests, in the hope that it will then be able to isolate the alleged handful of interested parties and so form a block between the proletariat and the majority of the bourgeoisie with a view to “curbing” imperialism, starving it out by “partial disarmament”, and “removing its sting”. Just as a bourgeois Liberalism in its period of decay appealed from the “ignorant” monarchs to the “enlightened” monarchs, now the “Marxist Centre” proposes to appeal from the “unreasonable” bourgeoisie to the “reasonable” bourgeoisie with a view to dissuading it from a policy of imperialism with all its catastrophic results to a policy of international disarmament treaties; from an armed struggle for world dominance to a peaceable federation of democratic national States. The general settling of accounts between the proletariat and capitalism, the solution of the great contradiction between them, resolves itself into an idyllic compromise for the “mitigation of imperialist contradictions between the capitalist States”. [29]

How apt these words are, not only for the bourgeois pacifism of Kautsky and Bernstein, but for all those who adhered to the League of Nations, the United Nations, “collective security”, or Summit talks!

Rosa Luxemburg showed that imperialism and imperialist war could not be overcome within the framework of capitalism, as they grow out of the vital interests of capitalist society.

The Guiding Principles of the Spartakus League drawn up by Rosa Luxemburg stated:

Imperialism, the last phase and highest development of the political rule of capitalism, is the deadly enemy of the workers of all countries ... The struggle against imperialism is at the same time the struggle of the proletariat for political power, the decisive conflict between Capitalism and Socialism. The final aim of Socialism can be achieved only if the international proletariat fights uncompromisingly against imperialism as a whole, and takes the slogan “war against war” as a practical guide to action, summoning up all its strength and all its capacity for self-sacrifice. [30]

Thus the central theme of Rosa Luxemburg’s anti-imperialist policy was that the fight against war is inseparable from the fight for socialism.

With great passion Rosa Luxemburg ends her most important anti-war pamphlet, The Crisis of Social Democracy (better known as the Junius Brochure, as she wrote under the pseudonym Junius):

Imperialist bestiality has been let loose to devastate the fields of Europe, and there is one incidental accompaniment for which the “cultured world” has neither the heart nor conscience – the mass slaughter of the European proletariat ... It is our hope, our flesh and blood, which is falling in swathes like corn under the sickle. The finest, the most intelligent, the best-trained forces of international Socialism, the bearers of the heroic traditions of the modern working-class movement, the advanced guard of the world proletariat, the workers of Great Britain, France, Germany and Russia, are being slaughtered in masses. That is a greater crime by far than the brutish sack of Louvain or the destruction of Rheims Cathedral. It is a deadly blow against the power which holds the whole future of humanity, the only power which can save the values of the past and carry them on into a newer and better human society. Capitalism has revealed its true features; it betrays to the world that it has lost its historical justification, that its continued existence can no longer be reconciled with the progress of mankind ...

Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles! Long live Democracy! Long live the Tsar and Slavdom! Ten thousand blankets, guaranteed in perfect condition! A hundred thousand kilos of bacon, coffee substitutes – immediate delivery! Dividends rise and proletarians fall. And with each one sinks a fighter for the future, a soldier of the Revolution, a liberator of humanity from the yoke of capitalism, and finds a nameless grave.

The madness will cease and the bloody product of hell come to an end only when the workers of Germany and France, of Great Britain and Russia, awaken from their frenzy, extend to each other the hand of friendship, and drown the bestial chorus of imperialist hyenas with the thunderous battle cry of the modern working-class movement: “Workers of the World Unite!” [31]

With visionary power Rosa Luxemburg states:

Bourgeois society faces a dilemma; either a transition to Socialism, or a return to barbarism ... we face the choice: either the victory of imperialism and the decline of all culture, as in ancient Rome – annihilation, devastation, degeneration, a yawning graveyard; or the victory of Socialism – the victory of the international working class consciously assaulting imperialism and its method: war. This is the dilemma of world history, either – or; the die will be cast by the class-conscious proletariat. [32]

And we who live in the shadow of the H-bomb ...



29. R. Luxemburg, Gesammelte, vol.III, p.481.

30. Dokumente und Materialien zur Geschichte der Deutschen Arbeiterbewegung (Berlin, 1957), vol.I, pp.280-281.

31. R. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte, vol.I, pp.391-394.

32. R. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte, vol.I, p.270.


Last updated on 20.4.2003