Rosa Luxemburg

Rebuilding the International


Written: 1915.
Source: Die Internationale, No.1, 1915.
Transcription/Markup: Dario Romeo and Brian Baggins.
Online Version: Rosa Luxemburg Internet Archive ( 2000.

On August 4th, 1914, German Social Democracy abdicated politically, and at the same time the Socialist International collapsed. All attempts at denying or concealing this fact, regardless of the motives on which they are based, tend objectively to perpetuate, and to justify, the disastrous self-deception of the socialist parties, the inner malady of the movement, that led to the collapse, and in the long run to make the Socialist International a fiction, a hypocrisy.

To collapse itself is without precedent in the history of all times. Socialism or Imperialism – this alternative summarizes completely the political orientation of the labour parties in the past decade. For in Germany it was formulated in innumerable program speeches, mass meetings, brochures and newspaper articles as the slogan of Social Democracy, as the party’s interpretation of the tendencies of the present historical epoch.

With the outbreak of the world war, word has become substance, the alternative has grown from a historical tendency into the political situation. Faced with this alternative, which it had been the first to recognize and bring to the masses’ consciousness, Social Democracy backed down without a struggle and conceded victory to imperialism. Never before in the history of class struggles, since there have been political parties, has there been a party that, in this way, after fifty years of uninterrupted growth, after achieving a first-rate position of power, after assembling millions around it, has so completely and ignominiously abdicated as a political force within twenty-four hours, as Social Democracy has done. Precisely because it was the best-organized and best-disciplined vanguard of the International, the present-day collapse of socialism can be demonstrated by Social Democracy’s example.

Kautsky, as the representative of the so-called ‘Marxist Centre’, or, in political term, as the theoretician of the swamp, has for years degraded theory into the obliging hand-maiden of the official practice of the party bureaucrats and thus made his own sincere contribution to the present collapse of the party. Already he has thought out an opportune new theory to justify and explain the collapse. According to this theory, Social Democracy is an instrument for peace but not a means of combatting war. Or, as Kautsky’s faithful pupils in the Austrian ‘struggle’, sighing profusely at the present aberration of German Social Democracy, decree: the only policy befitting socialism during the war is ‘silence’; only when the bells of peace peal out can socialism again begin to function.(1) This theory of a voluntary assumed eunuch role, which says that socialism’s virtue can be upheld only if, at the crucial moments, it is eliminated as a factor in world history, suffer from the basic mistake of all account of political impotence: it overlooks the most vital factor.

Faced with the alternative of coming out for or against the war, Social Democracy, from the moment it abandoned its opposition, has been forced by the iron compulsion of history to throw its full weight behind the war. The same Kautsky who in the memorable meeting of the parliamentary party of August 3rd pleaded for its consent to the war credits, the same ‘Austro-Marxists’ (as they call themselves) who now see as self-evident the Social-Democratic parliamentary party’s consent to the war credits – even they now occasionally shed a few tears at the nationalistic excesses of the Social-Democratic party organs and at their inadequate theoretical training, particularly in the razor-thin separation of the concept of ‘nationality’ and of other ‘concepts’ allegedly guilty of those aberrations. But events have their own logic, even when human beings do not. Once Social Democracy’s parliamentary representative had decided in favour of supporting the war, everything else followed automatically with the inevitability of historical destiny.

On August 4th, German Social Democracy, far from being ‘silent’, assumed an extremely important historical function: the shield-bearer of imperialism in the present war. Napoleon ones said that two factors decide the outcome of a battle: the ‘earthly’ factor, consisting of the terrain, quality of the weapons, weather, etc,, and the ‘divine’ factor, that is, the moral constitution of the army, its morale, its belief in its own cause. The ‘earthly’ factor was taken care of on the German side largely by the Krupp firm of Essen; the ‘divine’ factor can be charged above all to Social Democracy’s account. The services since August 4th that it has rendered and it is rendering daily to the German war leaders are immeasurable: the trade unions that on the outbreak of war shelved their battle for higher wages and invested with the aura of ‘socialism’ all the military authorities’ security measures aimed at preventing popular uprisings; the Social-Democratic women who withdrew all their time and effort from Social-Democratic agitation and, arm in arm with bourgeois patriots, used these to assist the needy warriors’ families; the Social-Democratic press which, with a few exceptions, uses its daily papers and weekly and monthly periodicals to propagate the war as a national cause and the cause of the proletariat; that press which, depending on the turns the war takes, depicts the Russian peril and the horror of the Tsarist government, or abandons a perfidious Albion to the people’s hatred, or rejoices at the uprisings and revolutions in foreign colonies; or which prophesies the re-strengthening of Turkey after this war, which promises freedom to the Poles, the Ruthenians and all peoples, which imparts martial bravery and heroism to the proletarian youth – in short, completely manipulates public opinion and the masses for the ideology of war; the Social-Democratic parliamentarians and party leaders, finally, who not only consent to funds for the waging of war, but who attempt to suppress energetically any disquieting stirrings of doubt and criticism in the masses, calling these ‘intrigues’, and who for their part support the government with personal services of a discreet nature, such as brochures, speeches and articles displaying the most genuine German-national patriotism – when in world history was there a war in which anything like this happened?

Where and when has the suspension of all constitutional rights been accepted so submissively as a matter of course? Where has such a hymn of praise to the most severe press censorship been sung from the rank of the opposition as it has in the individual newspapers of German Social Democracy? Never before has a war found such Pindars; never has a military dictatorship found such obedience; never has a political party so fervently sacrificed all that it stood for and possessed on the altar of a cause which it had sworn a thousand times before the world to fight to the last drop of blood. Judged against this metamorphosis, the National Liberals are real Roman Catos, rochers de bronze [bronze rocks]. Precisely the powerful organization and the much-praised discipline of German Social Democracy were confirmed when the body of four million allowed a handful of parliamentarism to turn it around and harness it to a wagon heading in the opposite direction to its aim in life. The fifty years of preparatory work by Social Democracy have materialized in the present war. And the trade unions and party leaders can claim that the impetus and victorious strength of this war on the German side are in large measure the fruits of the ‘training’ of the masses in the proletarian organizations. Marx and Engels, Lassalle and Liebknecht, Bebel and Singer trained the German proletariat so that Hindenburg might lead it. And the more advanced the training, the organization, the famous discipline, the consolidation of the trade unions and the workers’ press in Germany, in comparison with France, the more affective is the assistance rendered to war by German Social Democracy than that given by the France Social-Democratic Party. The France socialists, together with their ministers, seem to be the merest dabblers in the unfamiliar trade of nationalism and the waging of war, when one compares their deeds with the services being rendered to the patriotic imperialism by German Social Democracy and the German trade unions.


The official theory which misuses Marxism as it pleases for the current domestic requirements of the party officials in order to justify their day-to-day dealings, and whose organ is Die Neue Zeit, attempts to explain the minor discrepancy between the present function of the workers’ party and its words of yesterday by saying that international socialism was much concerned with the question of doing something against the outbreak of war, but not with doing something after it had broken out.(2) Like a girl who obliges all, this theory assures us that the most wonderful harmony prevail between the present practice of socialism and its past, that none of the socialist parties need reproach themselves with anything which would call into question their membership in the International. At the same time, however, this conveniently elastic theory also has an adequate explanation at hand for the contradiction between the present position of international Social Democracy and its past, a contradiction that strikes even the most short-sighted of people. The International is said to have aired only the question of the prevention of war. Then, however, ‘the war was upon us’, as the formula goes, and now it turns out that quite different standards of behaviour apply to the socialists after the war had begun than before it. The moment the war was upon us, the only question left for the proletariat of each country was: victory or defeat. Or, as another ‘Austro-Marxist’, F. Adler, explained more in terms of natural science and philosophy: the nation, like any organism, must above all ensure its survival. In good German this means: for the proletariat there is not one vital rule, as scientific socialism has hitherto proclaimed, but rather there are two such rules: one for peace and one for war. In peace-time the class struggle applies within each country, and international solidarity vis-à-vis other countries; in war-time it is class solidarity within and the struggle between the workers of the various countries without. The global historical appeal of the Communist Manifesto undergoes a fundamental revision and, as amended by Kautsky, now reads: proletarians of all countries, unite in peace-time and cut each other’s throats in war! Thus today: ‘Every shell a Russian in Hell – every engagement a dead Frenchman’ (jeder Schuss ein Russ – jeder Stoss ein Franzos), and tomorrow, after peace has been concluded: ‘We embrace the millions of the whole world.’ For the International is ‘essentially an instrument for peace’ but not an ‘effective implement in war’.(3)

This obliging theory does not merely open up charming perspectives for Social-Democratic practice by elevating the fickleness of the parliamentary party, coupled with the Jesuitism of the Centre Party, to virtually a fundamental dogma of the Socialist International. It also inaugurates a completely new ‘revision’ of historical materialism compared with which all Bernstein’s former attempts appear as innocent child’s play. The proletarian tactics prior to and after the outbreak of the war are supposed to be based on different, indeed opposite, guiding principles. This presupposes that the social conditions, the foundations of our tactics, are also basically different in war than in peace. According to historical materialism as founded by Marx, all hitherto written history is the history of class struggles. According to Kautsky’s revised materialism, the words, ‘except in time of war’, must be added. Accordingly, social development, since for millennia it has been periodically interspersed with wars, take its course according to the following scheme: a period of class struggle, then a pause in which there is a merger of the classes and a national struggle, then again a period of class struggles, again a pause and class merger, and so forth, in this charming pattern. Each time the foundations of social life in peace-time are turned upside down by the outbreak of war and those in periods of war are inverted the moment peace is concluded. This, as one can see, is no longer a theory of social development ‘in catastrophes’, against which Kautsky once had to defend himself, this is a theory of development – in somersaults. According to this theory, society moves in somewhat the same manner as an iceberg driven by spring waters, which, when in base has melted away all side in the tepid stream, after a certain time does a nose dive, whereupon this cute gam periodically repeats itself.

Now this revised historical materialism crudely affronts all the hitherto accepted facts of history. This freshly constructed antithesis between war and class struggle neither explains nor demonstrates that constant dialectical transition from war into class struggle and from class struggle into war, which reveals their essential inner unity. So it was in the wars within medieval cities, in the wars of the Reformation, in the Dutch war of liberation, in the wars of the great French Revolution, in the American War of Secession, in the uprising of the Paris Commune, in the great Russian Revolution of 1905. And this is not all; even in purely abstract-theoretical terms, Kautsky’s theory of historical development completely wipes out the Marxist theory, as a moment’s reflection would make clear. For if, as Marx assumes, both the class struggle and war do not fall from the sky, but originate in deeply rooted economic and social causes, then the two cannot disappear periodically unless their causes vanish into thin air. Now the proletarian class struggle is only a necessary consequence of the economic exploitation and of the political class rule of the bourgeoisie. But during the war, economic exploitation does not diminish in the least; on the contrary, its impetus is increased immensely by the speculative mania which flourishes in the exuberant atmosphere of war and industry, and by the pressure of the political dictatorship on the worker. Neither is the political class rule of the bourgeoisie diminished in war-time; on the contrary, it is raised to a stark class dictatorship by the suspension of constitutional rights. Since the economic and political sources of the class struggle in society inevitably increase tenfold in war-time, how then can the class struggle cease to exist? Conversely, in the present historical periods, wars originate in the competitive interests of groups of capitalists and in capitalism’s need to expand. Both motives, however, are operative not only while the canons are roaring, but also during peace-time, which means that they prepare and make inevitable further outbreaks of war. War is indeed – as Kautsky is wont to quote from Clausewitz – only ‘the continuations of politics by other means’. And the imperialist phase of the rule of capitalism has indeed made peace illusory by actually declaring the dictatorship of militarism – war – to be permanent.

For the exponents of the revised historical materialism, this results in the necessity of choosing between two alternatives. Either the class struggle is the paramount law of existence of the proletariat, and the party officials’ proclamation of class harmony in its place during war-time is an outrage against the proletariat’s vital interests; or the class struggle in both war and peace is an outrage against the ‘national interests’ and ‘the security of the fatherland’. Both in war-time and in peace-time, either the class struggle or class harmony is the fundamental factor of social life. In practice the alternative is even clearer: either Social Democracy must say pater peccavi to the patriotic bourgeoisie (as former young daredevils and present day old devotees in our ranks are already proclaiming contritely) and thus have to revise fundamentally all its tactics and principles, in peace-time as well as in war-time, in order to adapt to its present social-imperialist position; or the party will have to say pater peccavi to the international proletariat and adapt its behaviour during the war to its principles in peace-time. And what applies to the German labour movement of course also applies to the French.

Either the International will remain a refuse heap after the war, or its resurrection will begin on the basis of the class struggle from which alone it draws its vital forces. Not by re-telling the same old story will it be revived after the war, not by returning fresh, cheerful, marry and bold, as though noting had happened, not by playing the old melodies that captivated the world until August 4th. Only by means of an ‘excruciantingly thorough denunciation of our own indecision and weakness’, of our own moral fall since August 4th, can be rebuilding of the International begin. And the first step in this direction is to take action for the rapid termination of the war and for the preparation of a peace in accordance with the common interest of the international proletariat.


Until now, only two positions on the question of peace have been visible within the party. The first of these, advocated by a member of a Party Executive, Scheidemann, and by several other Reichstag deputies and party newspapers, echoes the government in its support of the slogan of ‘holding out’, and opposes the movement for peace as inopportune and dangerous to the military interests of the fatherland. The proponents of this trend advocate the continuation of the war and are thus objectively ensuring that the war is continued according to the wishes of the ruling classes '‘until a victory is won which accords with the sacrifices made’, until ‘a secure peace’ is guaranteed. In other words, the supporters of the policy of ‘holding out’ are ensuring that the actual development of the war approximates as closely as possible to the imperialist conquests which the Post, which Rohrbach, Dix and others prophets of Germany’s global dominance have openly declared to be the aim of the war. If all these wonderful dreams do not become reality, if the trees of youthful imperialism do not grow into the sky, it will not be through any fault of the Post people and their pacemakers in Social Democracy. It is apparently not the solemn ‘declarations’ in parliament ‘against any policy of conquest’ that are conclusive for the outcome of the war, but rather the affirmation of the policy of ‘holding out’. The war, whose continuation is advocated by Scheidemann and others, has its own logic. Its real sponsors are those capitalistic-agrarian elements that are in the saddle in Germany today, not the modest figures of the Social-Democratic parliamentarians and editors who merely hold the stirrup for them. Among those propagating this trend, the social-imperialist attitude of the party is most clearly manifest.

While in France, too, the party leaders – admittedly in a completely different military situation – cling to the slogan, ‘hold out until victory’, a movement for the speediest termination of the war is making itself gradually but increasingly felt in all countries. The greatest single characteristic of all these thoughts and desires for peace is the most cautious preparation of peace guarantees which are to be demanded before war is finished. Not only the universal demand for no annexations, but also a whole series of new demands are appearing: universal disarmament (or, more modestly, systematic limitation of the arms race), abolition of secret diplomacy, free trade for all nations in the colonies, and other such wonderful proposals. The admirable aspect of all these clauses calling for the future happiness of humanity and for the prevention of future wars is the irrepressible optimism with which, emerging intact from the terrible catastrophe of the present war, new resolutions are to be planted at the grave of the old aspirations. If the collapse of August 4th has proved anything, it is the lesson in world history that neither pious hopes nor cleverly devised utopian formulas addressed to the ruling class can provide effective guarantees of peace or build a wall against war.

The only real safeguard for peace depends on the resolution of the proletariat to remain faithful to its class politics and its international solidarity through all the storm of imperialism. There was no lack of demands and formulae on the part of the socialist parties in the crucial countries, above all in Germany; the deficiency was in their ability to back up these demands with a will and with deeds in the spirit of the class struggle and internationalism. If today, after all that we experienced, we viewed the action for peace as a process for of reasoning out the best formulae against war, this would be the greatest danger to international socialism. For this would mean that, despite its cruel lessons, it would have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.

Here again we find the prime example of this in Germany. In a recent issue of Die Neue Zeit, the Reichstag deputy, Hoch, laid down a peace programme which – as the party organ attested – he warmly supported. Nothing was missing from this programme: neither a list of enumerated demand which was supposed to prevent future was in the most painless and reliable manner, nor a very convincing statement that an impending peace was possible, necessary and desirable. There was only one thing missing: an explanation of how one should work for this peace with act, not with ‘desires’! For the author belongs to the compact majority in the parliamentary party that not only twice voted for war credits, but also in each occasion called its action a political, patriotic, socialist necessity. And excellently drilled in its new role, this group is prepared to grant further credits for the continuation of the war as a matter of course. To support a material means of continuing the war, and, in the same breath, to praise the desirability of an early peace with all its blessings, ‘to press the sword into the government’s fist with one hand and with the other to wave the soft palm branch over the International’ – this is a classical chapter in practical politics of the swamp as propagated theoretically in the same Neue Zeit. When the socialists of neutral countries, for example the Copenhagen Conference participants, seriously consider the preparation of demands and proposals for peace on paper as an action contributing to the speedy termination of the war, then this is a relatively harmless error. An understanding of this salient point in the present situation of the International and of the causes of its collapse can and must be common property of all socialist parties. The redeeming deed for the restoration of peace and of the International can only emanate from the socialist parties of the belligerent countries. The first step towards peace and towards the International is the rejection of social imperialism. And if the Social-Democratic parliamentarians continue to approve funds for the waging of the war, then their desires and declarations for peace and their solemn proclamation ‘against any policy of conquest’, are a hypocrisy and a delusion. This is particularly true of Kautsky’s International and its members who alternately embrace one another fraternally and cut each other’s throat, declare that they ‘have nothing with which to reproach themselves’. Here again events have their own logic. When they grant war credits, people like Hoch surrender the controlling reins and bring about the virtual opposite of peace, namely, a policy of ‘holding out’. When people like Scheidemann support the policy of ‘holding out’, they in fact hand over the reins to the Post people and thus accomplish the reverse of their solemn declarations against ‘any policy of conquest’, i.e. the unleashing of the imperialist instincts – until the country bleeds to death. Here again there is only one choice: either Bethmann-Hollweg – or Liebknecht. Either imperialism or socialism as Marx understood it.

Just as in Marx himself the roles of acute historical analyst and bold revolutionary, the man of ideas and the man of action were inseparably bond up, mutually supporting and complementing each other, so for the first time in the history of the modern labour movement the socialist teaching of Marxism united theoretical knowledge with revolutionary energy, the one illuminating and stimulating the other. Both are in equal measure part of the essence of Marxism; each, separated from the other, transforms Marxism into a sad caricature of itself. In the course of half a century, the German Social Democracy harvested the most abundant fruit from the theoretical knowledge of Marxism and, nurtured on its milk, grew into a powerful body. Put to the greatest historical test – a test which, moreover, it had foreseen theoretically with scientific certainty and foretold in all its important features – Social Democracy was found completely lacking in the second vital element of the labour movement: the energetic will, not merely be to understand history, but to change it as well. With all its exemplary theoretical knowledge and strength of organization, the party was caught in the vortex of the historical current, turned around in a trice like a rudderless hulk, and exposed to the winds of imperialism against which it was supposed to work its way forward to the saving islands of socialism. Even without the mistakes of others, the defeat of the whole International was sealed by this failure of its ‘vanguard’, its best trained and strongest élite.

It was an epoch-making collapse of the first order which enmeshes man and delays his liberation from capitalism. However if it comes down to it, Marxism itself is not completely without blame. And all attempts to adapt Marxism to the present decrepitude of socialist practice, to prostitute it to the level of the venal apologetics of social imperialism, are more dangerous than even all the open and glaring excesses of nationalistic errors in the ranks of the party; these attempts tend not only to conceal the real causes of the great failure of the International, but also to drain sources of its future rebuilding. If the International, like the peace, is to correspond to the interests of the proletarian cause, it must be born of the self-criticism of the proletariat, of its reflection upon its own power, the same power that broke like a reed in a storm, but that, grown to its true size, is historically qualified to uproot thousand-years-old oaks of social injustice and to move mountains. The road to this power – one that is not paved with resolutions – is at the same time the road to peace and to the rebuilding of the International.


(1) See the article by F. Adler in the January numbers of Kampf.

(2) See Kautsky’s article in the Die Neue Zeit of October 2nd of last year [1914].

(3) See Kautsky’s article in the Die Neue Zeit of October 27th of last year [1914].

Last updated on: 16.12.2008