Rosa Luxemburg — A New Waterloo Of Socialism

In this unsigned article from April 1917, Rosa Luxemburg explains the current status of the ongoing World War and the direct objectives of the international proletariat through the stormy rhetoric of self-criticism.

This article, printed in The Spartacus Letters, №4 (April 1917) is not signed, but according to the German edition of “Rosa Luxemburg — Collected Works,” Volume 4, Berlin 1974, p. 237–241, Rosa Luxemburg is the author. She has been likewise identified in Spartakusbriefe, Berlin 1958, p. 295–299.

The current unleashing of unbridled war is a new stage in the world-historic drama that we have been experiencing for almost three years. As little as one had to think of the German peace offer seriously, as easily as one could see through it as a crude bluff like the splendid creation of an “independent Poland” and the intensified submarine warfare prepared to strike — the moment of the exchange of notes between the belligerents in December/January marks a psychological phenomenon of high symptomatic importance for the raging imperialism: The fact that the German government has been honest about the tireless victories for two and a half years, which on the whole did not advance the War by an inch, together with the growing difficulties of food and ammunition production, as well as the supply of fresh cannon fodder, can be taken for granted; that the situation of the Entente powers must arouse in them the fiercest desire to end the War as soon as possible could only be doubted by a blind man. Nevertheless, the attempt at understanding that flashed up not only failed, but also turned into an unrestrained aggravation of the War through the natural logic of things, into the maddening unleashing of imperialist antagonisms!

Where does this originate? The vulgar politicians of government socialism, Scheidemann and Co., naturally repeat the official explanation of the “Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung” [North German General Newspaper — ed.] with the loyalty of submissive lackeys: The maliciousness of the Entente governments and — they add on their own, as “socialists” — the failure of the French and English socialists is to take the blame for the prolongation and intensification of the War. The “opposition” around the “working group” takes it a step further and pushes the blame in part on the vague formulation of the German peace offer, and in part on the Scheidemanns themselves, who by their consequent agreement to war credits had encouraged and empowered the German government to the present, tightened submarine warfare. However, the fate of the latest “understanding” efforts shows again that in reality, the conception of history, according to which the outbreak of war or its conclusion depends on the good or bad will of the capitalist governments, isn’t worth a penny. On the contrary: underneath the outbreak as underneath the finesses of the present World War lie deep social and historical causes, against which the ruling diplomats on all sides without distinction play the role of the pushed, however much they may persuade themselves and others that they are the ones pushing.

The World War, which itself is a product, a volcanic eruption of the imperialist antagonisms and problems that have matured in the lap of capitalist society, has for its part intensified these antagonisms and problems enormously in dialectical reciprocity. The three years of war have — due to the failure of the international proletariat — made imperialism and militarism in all warring states the absolute masters of the situation, the center and axis of all social life, the only decisive factor for which everything — the economy, legislation, constitution, finance, the public, religious beliefs, science, psychology — has been made completely subservient to it. After war and imperialism have thus become the vital knot, the be-all end-all of the nations, the outcome of the War, i.e. the imperialist issues of redistributing the world and the question of military supremacy, has become a question of “to be, or not to be” for the present governments and bourgeois classes. They know well that for them — from the imperialist point of view — everything is at stake. And that is why an “understanding,” i.e. a solution of unsolvable tasks and bridging of unbridgeable contradictions, a termination of the War before the last trial of strength is a petit-bourgeois utopia that could only be conceived as a comfortable, cowardly evasion by an impotent conception of history and an equally impotent policy. The great lesson from the outcome of the German peace offer and from the existing unrestricted expansion and deepening of the death throes — a lesson which to be heeded and made clear to the masses as is the damned duty and obligation of the socialist parties — is as follows:

The capitalist states are no longer capable of stopping the unleashed imperialist witches’ sabbath [1] by their own will. Rather, imperialism, having been unleashed on humanity must, with fatal logic of its own, with every day of the war only produce more severe contradictions, ever more desperate struggles. By itself, bourgeois society can only produce even wilder anarchy, ruin and bestiality.

Only one power would be capable and was called by history to prevent the frenzied slide of society into the abyss of anarchy and savagery: the international socialist proletariat. There is no other way out of the War than the revolutionary uprising of the international proletariat to the struggle for power — except for the total exhaustion of society, i.e. economical, cultural, moral collapse and agony after an indefinite duration of the War.

In this sense, the latest moment in the psychology of war, the momentary hesitation of the belligerents and the feeble attempt to evade the imperialist ride of death was a new world-historic trial for the proletariat — a repetition of the 4th of August under intensified and complicating circumstances. The socialist proletariat has once again failed completely; [2] it has quietly left the imperialist bourgeoisie to momentarily consider peace at its own discretion, to then, under the coercion of historical fatality, dive even more frantically, headfirst into war. Today’s intensified war, which has practically been extended onto the New World, for a second time, via the international working class as a factor of power in history, goes back to business as usual. It is the second Waterloo of socialism that we are experiencing today.

Zola’s novel “The Beast Within” [La Bête humaine — ed.] closes with the harrowing image of a train — from which the machinist and the stoker have fallen in a deadly grip on each other — which now races driverless and unrestrained into the night; to the horror of the people trapped inside, it skips all stations and storms evermore wildly towards the eventual catastrophe, somewhere, in the unknown. Such is the image currently presented by capitalist society, after the appointed machinist and stoke — the international proletariat — fell on the 4th of August.

For the workers themselves to admit this with complete, unrelenting sincerity and clarity is the first step and the first prerequisite for a future political resurrection. In reality, such a failure of a social class in its historical task is something wholly unprecedented.

Revolutionary France was certainly already three-quarters of a graveyard and a depiction of barbarism due to the long rule of medieval feudalism, and yet the bourgeoisie rallied to shatter the shameful yoke of the middle ages and, through revolutionary vigor, aroused fresh life from the ruins. As is well known, the Vormärz German Empire [3] had already progressed well enough in the state of a decaying cadaver and full of suffocating fumes of rot when the German bourgeoisie, still at the very last hour, pulled something resembling revolutionary vigor out of its decrepit sheath, to at least attempt renovating the shackled conditions.

We are experiencing the latest example these days. Even the Russian bourgeoisie, this last offspring of the capitalist society, afflicted with all the ailments of late delivery, weakened by all the fruits from the Tree of historical knowledge, terrified by all the experiences of its older siblings and still feeling the horrors of its own Russian revolution in its limbs — even this bourgeoisie pulls itself together at this moment, under the most difficult circumstances, gaining vigor to carry out the last remnants of the revolutionary tasks which history has set for the bourgeoisie.

Only the international and above all the German proletariat has failed in its specific tasks across the board so far, giving out completely, persistently, unteachable and unperturbed by all kicks, lashes and scorpions [4] of history.

It is not necessary to say this in order to succumb to a sterile pessimism, but, conversely, in order to appreciate the full magnitude of the resolute revolutionary will that is required to catch up with all missed deadlines. Such an egregious world-historic bankruptcy cannot be compensated for with half measures, weakly attempts and modest virtues. The ruthless declaration of this bankruptcy is also necessary in order to spell out the simple question for those elements of the “opposition” who only yearn for the return to the warm stable of the party conditions before the war:

How far must have that which existed as socialist party and socialist International in the last decades deviated from the real character and occupation of these organizations in order to allow for such a failure of their educational work and their leadership which was entrusted to the proletariat?! The Russian bourgeoisie, for the time being, resolutely seized the reigns of the revolutionary movement, but what drove it to do so was only the tumultuous mass uprising of the people. Isn’t it somewhat noticeable that the Russian working people under the hundred-year-old yoke of oriental despotism have not learned to starve so patiently and to duck under the dictatorship of the sabre as the German proletariat seems to have learned in the 50-year-long school of Social-Democracy? Only those who have the courage and honesty to confess the full magnitude of the current defeat of socialism will muster enough strength to reshape the socialist party and the International from head to toe, as their real historical tasks require.


[1] The Witches’ Sabbath is a phrase that became popular in the 20th century to denote a gathering of those considered to practice witchcraft and other rites.

[2] The Russian Revolution broke out less than 6 months later, therefore Luxemburg’s hopes were partially vindicated.

[3] Footnote: The historical period between the French Revolution of 1830 and the German revolutions of 1848–49, also known as the March Revolution. Vormärz translated to “pre-March.”

[4] The Biblical punishment threatened by Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12,11 and 12,14, meaning either leashing with spiked whips, or being stung by actual scorpions as an excessive form of punishment.



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The Acheron In Motion is run by a passionate Communist from a post-Soviet state, publishing about revolutionary history and the fundamental theses of Marxism.