By Greg Godels

March 16, 2023


During the early years of the First World War, revolutionary Marxists — those who opposed the war in its entirety — were bitterly disappointed in the leaders of the socialist parties and the workers’ organizations who chose to take the side of their governments in prosecuting the great war. They used their isolation and alienation from these parties to examine some of the burning questions opened by the ongoing slaughter of millions.

Vladimir Lenin, in exile in Bern and Zurich, Switzerland used this time to write extensively on the relation between late capitalism, monopoly capitalism– an era given the name “imperialism” — and war. His thinking on national self-determination, revisionism, and opportunism were also taking shape in his writings.

At the same time, another revolutionary Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, was jailed for her opposition to the war. She used her time, like Lenin, to develop fresh ideas on the trajectory of the socialist project– its missteps and prospects. From this effort came The Crisis in the German Social-Democracy (The Junius Pamphlet), a pseudonymous [Junius] contribution smuggled from her jail cell and published in 1916.

Lenin read The Junius Pamphlet. He made the egregious error of assuming that the author was a man, an error all too common in the time. However, he is uncharacteristically fulsome with his praise: “Written in a very lively style, Junius’ pamphlet has undoubtedly played and will play an important role in the struggle against the ex-Social-Democratic Party of Germany, which has deserted to the side of the bourgeoisie and the Junkers, and we heartily greet the author.”

Lenin added: “On the whole, Junius’ pamphlet is a splendid Marxian work, and in all probability its defects are, to a certain extent, accidental.” Lenin, typically, was a critical reader who let nothing pass without exposing defects.

In the case of Luxemburg’s pamphlet, Lenin objects to her lack of dialectical rigor. In the heat of her condemnation of the betrayal of the working class by the socialist leadership, she too-often generalizes features of this specific imperialist war at this specific time and place as though they were universal truths. For example, Luxemburg’s universal claim that “In the epoch (era) of this unbridled imperialism, there can be no more national wars” violates Lenin’s oft-repeated practical understanding of dialectics: “But it would be a mistake to exaggerate this truth; to depart from the Marxian rule to be concrete; to apply the appraisal of the present war to all wars that are possible under imperialism; to lose sight of the national movements against imperialism.”

He elaborates:

The fallacy of this argument is obvious. Of course, the fundamental proposition of Marxian dialectics is that all boundaries in nature and society are conventional and mobile, that there is not a single phenomenon which cannot under certain conditions be transformed into its opposite. A national war can be transformed into an imperialist war, and vice versa. For example, the wars of the Great French Revolution started as national wars and were such. They were revolutionary wars because they were waged in defence of the Great Revolution against a coalition of counter-revolutionary monarchies. But after Napoleon had created the French Empire by subjugating a number of large, virile, long established national states of Europe, the French national wars became imperialist wars, which in their turn engendered wars for national liberation against Napoleon’s imperialism.

Not sharing Lenin’s dialectical rigor, Luxemburg’s claim becomes a denial of the possibility of wars of national liberation.

Lenin seldom missed an opportunity to explain dialectics as a concrete analysis of a concrete situation — an insistence on avoiding broad generalities that failed to respect changing circumstances and changing relations of social forces. His dialectical method separated his views from some of his comrades on the national question, strategy, and tactics.

But “[t]he chief defect in Junius’ pamphlet… is its silence regarding the connection between social-chauvinism (the author uses neither this nor the less precise term social-patriotism) and opportunism.”

Left social-chauvinism– the unquestioned support for the “fatherland,” the homeland, my country, right or wrong, and its policies by leftists– does not spring from nothing. As Lenin argued often, but most straightforwardly in Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International (January, 1916):

The relatively “peaceful” character of the period between 1871 and 1914 served to foster opportunism first as a mood, then as a trend, until finally it formed a group or stratum among the labour bureaucracy and petty-bourgeois fellow-travellers. These elements were able to gain control of the labour movement only by paying lip-service to revolutionary aims and revolutionary tactics. They were able to win the confidence of the masses only by their protestations that all this “peaceful” work served to prepare the proletarian revolution. This contradiction was a boil which just had to burst, and burst it has.

Where Luxemburg leaves the betrayal of the socialist antiwar policy dangling, as though it fell from the sky or happened through incompetence, Lenin insists that it was a process, an ideological deterioration based upon “the alliance of a small section of privileged workers with ‘their’ national bourgeoisie against the working-class masses; the alliance between the lackeys of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie against the class the latter is exploiting.” His condemnation of this development is emphatic:

Social-chauvinism is opportunism in its finished form. It is quite ripe for an open, frequently vulgar, alliance with the bourgeoisie and the general staffs. It is this alliance that gives it great power and a monopoly of the legal press and of deceiving the masses. It is absurd to go on regarding opportunism as an inner-party phenomenon… Unity with the social-chauvinists means unity with one’s “own” national bourgeoisie, which exploits other nations; it means splitting the international proletariat. This does not mean that an immediate break with the opportunists is possible everywhere… It means only… that history, which has led us from “peaceful” capitalism to imperialist capitalism, has paved the way for this break.

We can summarize Lenin’s objections to The Junius Pamphlet — reluctant though they be — with the following points:

1. Luxemburg fails to fully explain the link between the ideological drift of the left in the decades before the First World War which led to the ensuing corrupted politics and the capitulation of the left to war fever.

2. Luxemburg does not acknowledge that there can be justifiable “national” wars (wars of national liberation) in the era of imperialism.

But where Lenin’s writing on imperialism is an argument– a polished, profound argument, Luxemburg’s pamphlet is a rich, vivid essay, exposing the direct, unbroken line from capitalism to imperialism to war and its barbaric consequences.

Is there a more eloquent description of imperialist war?

Business thrives in the ruins. Cities become piles of ruins; villages become cemeteries; countries deserts; populations are beggared; churches, horse stalls… Every government sees every other as dooming its own people and worthy of universal contempt… Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth– there stands bourgeois society… the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity.

And what does imperialist war in the twentieth century bring?

Frederick Engels once said: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism” … A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses towards its inevitable consequences.

Today, we face the choice exactly as Frederick Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration — a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism… The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves… to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales.

I can’t imagine a more apt description of life in the era of imperialism: unthinkable global wars, countless, interminable regional and local wars, economic instability, vast inequalities, cultural vulgarity, and crude individualism– a wounded, bleeding civilization. Luxemburg exhibits an uncanny foresight: “[an Anglo-French victory in World War I] would lead to a new feverish armaments race among all the states– with defeated Germany obviously in the forefront. An unalloyed militarism and reaction would dominate all Europe with a new world war as its ultimate goal.”

How right she was. Two decades later, Germany was rearming at a furious pace, with war in Spain — a precursor to the coming European war — raging, Italy invading Ethiopia, and Japanese expansion fully moving ahead. Luxemburg fully grasped the intimate relationship of imperialism and war.

And she unequivocally and explicitly identified that relationship:

All demands for complete or partial “disarmament,” for the dismantling of secret diplomacy, for the partition of all multinational great states into small national ones, and so forth are part and parcel utopian as long as capitalist class domination holds the reins. [Capitalism] cannot, under its current imperialist course, dispense with present-day militarism, secret diplomacy, or the centralized multinational state.

Of course, anyone familiar with the works of Lenin and Luxemburg recognizes that revolutionaries should, nonetheless, encourage the masses to press for these reforms as essential for their deeper appreciation of the need for socialism and the final settlement with capitalism.

The thinking of Lenin and of Luxemburg congeal completely and satisfactorily in one long passage that should be read by every activist and applied to our struggles today:

The events that bore the present war did not begin in July 1914 but reach back for decades. Thread by thread they have been woven together on the loom of an inexorable natural development until the firm net of imperialist world politics has encircled five continents. It is a huge historical complex of events; whose roots reach deep down into the Plutonic deeps of economic creation…

Imperialism is not the creation of any one or of any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognizable only in its relations, and from which no nation can hold aloof at will.
 From this point of view only is it possible to understand correctly the question of “national defense!” in the present war.

The national phase, to be sure, has been preserved, but its real content, its function, has been perverted into its very opposite. Today the nation is but a cloak that covers imperialistic desires, a battle cry for imperialist rivalries, the last ideological measure with which the masses can be persuaded to play the role of cannon fodder in imperialistic war. [my emphasis]

In this passage, Luxemburg could as well be offering a popular paraphrase, a distilled summary of Lenin’s thesis in his essential work, Imperialism. Like Lenin, she characterizes imperialism as a stage and not a constellation of great powers, a stage that no capitalist state can avoid or from which it can withdraw. Imperialism is a nexus of relations — a system — associated with capitalism in its most rapacious and unstable form, a form that systematically generates war, ever more devastating war.

It is for these reasons that “In a discussion of the general causes of the war, and its significance, the question of the ‘guilty party’ is completely beside the issue.” The roots of imperialist war– to be found in the capitalist predatory mechanism of competition — make the ‘guilty party’ strictly contingent. As Luxemburg recounts, there were at least five distinct occasions in which World War I could have easily begun. What does it matter which occasion sparked the war?

What does the thinking of Luxemburg and Lenin, shaped in the midst of imperialism’s first great, global war, have to offer us today, over a century later?

Ideas born from Luxemburg’s imprisonment and Lenin’s exile surely deserve more than scholarly interest. Both stood firmly, and with demonstrated integrity, against policies that served up working people to a fate of death and destruction. If working people were to sacrifice, let it be for liberation from the tyranny of capital. Or, for Lenin, let it be to drive out the rule of a colonial oppressor.

Both were appalled that the left of the time abandoned its partisanship for working people, its working-class internationalism, to endorse– even participate in– imperialist war, war to advance interests of national bourgeoisies.

Neither bothered to distinguish between the antagonists in imperialist war. It did not matter to Luxemburg that Czarist Russia fought for “the political interests of the nation” and “not for the economic expansion of capital.” Russia participated in the imperialist system and did not deserve the support of workers.

Nor did it matter to Luxemburg that many in Germany believed that “German guns” would liberate Russia from Czardom. Instead, she reminds us, “never in the history of the world has an oppressed class received political rights as a reward for service rendered to the ruling classes.”

Imperialist war is not one in which workers weigh the issues (as expressed by their respective bourgeoisies), pick a side, and go off to die.

The last three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union — similar to the forty years prior to World War I mentioned by Lenin above — have been witness to the rise of left opportunism — the abandonment of the socialist project and the elevation of a muddled, meta-class, identity-driven liberalism.

Like its twentieth century antecedent, twenty-first century opportunism has spawned its own version of “social-chauvinism” — let’s call it “imperial exceptionalism.”

These are the practitioners of so-called “American exceptionalism” or its European equivalent. They are “leftists” who have dutifully endorsed and apologized for US and NATO intervention and aggression in the former Yugoslavia, Libya, Syria, and, most recently, Ukraine. With differing degrees of understanding, they have supported the so-called Orange Revolution, the 2014 coup, and resistance to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all in the supposed interest of human rights. This group defends imperialism as humanitarian intervention.

These modern-day “social-chauvinists” have long abandoned the idea of class and are, thus, totally invested in forcing bourgeois values on the rest of the world. They find no contradiction in forcefully imposing Western-style “democracy” on others, while denying those same people their right of self-determination. They justify imperialist intervention as the duty of the guardians of civilization. Their arrogance knows no bounds.

As Lenin maintains, a “break” must eventually come with these class traitors.

Still others resolutely resist US and European meddling and aggression, but cling to the model that imperialism is strictly US imperialism and every other country is either a loyal satrapy, a client, or a neo-colony of US imperialism. This idea has more in common with the imperialism of ancient Rome than with the imperialism understood by Lenin and Luxemburg. Such a perspective poses the US as the system’s architect, ruler, and enforcer, with Europe, and other advanced capitalist states loyal enablers, legitimized and protected by US economic and military might. All other countries either tolerate, comply, or resist this arrangement.

This is an “empire” theory of imperialism that sees the structure of imperialism held together– not with monopoly capital, spheres of influence, and class interests– but with the brute power of the US. It is a state version of the great-man theory of history.

On this view, imperialism is not a system evolved from nineteenth-century capitalism to protect and capture markets, put accumulated capital to work, and exploit every nook and cranny in the world; it is not a system of rivalries; it is, instead, a hierarchical system with the benefits flowing up to a monolith and subjugation flowing down to those countries that are dominated to one degree or another. It simply exists. And from this myopic perspective, imperialism, as we have known it, will end when US imperialism is throttled.

While this may be a snapshot of how things look at a quick and superficial glance, there are two elements that separate it from a Marxist deeper dive.

On the one hand, it leaves out the basic contradiction between capital and labor. The countries within the imperialist system– participating by virtue of their capitalist economic system– are all class societies. Their position in the imperial hierarchy does not change the class alignment of capital and labor. Improving their relative position or dissolving the hierarchy does not necessarily or fundamentally change that relationship. From the perspective of Lenin and Luxemburg’s theory, changing the hierarchical position is not worth the life-and-death sacrifices of the working class (with the exception of colonial subjection, in Lenin’s view, where struggle may change a country’s status and end class super-exploitation).

Secondly, and as a corollary to the first element, it is capitalism that is at the root of the modern imperialist system. Hierarchies have existed throughout history and at every level — from the family to the nation-state to the global economy. In every hierarchy, there are fundamental social relations that dictate, that determine the hierarchy. In Roman times, Rome was at the top of the hierarchy, but it was not necessary that Rome was at the top of the hierarchy; under those same social conditions, other states could have and did strive to be in that position.

In feudal times, hierarchies were structured by a different, unique set of social conditions. Similarly, the lords enjoying the most dominant positions were challenged by others. Hierarchies are contested; they must be maintained; but they remain unless the conditions– the social relations– allowing and maintaining the hierarchy are eliminated.

In Lenin and Luxemburg’s time, Great Britain stood at the top of the imperialist hierarchy, yet World War I proved that the existing pyramid of global dominance was neither stable, nor capable of being reformed. Its instability results in war, as it did when other great powers challenged Great Britain. As Luxemburg stated, the war could have begun on many occasions from different sparks and different challenges. It was the competition of capital that drove great-power rivalries; it will be the elimination of capitalism that will ultimately end imperialism and stifle the lust for war.

Karl Kautsky — a leading social democratic theorist in Lenin and Luxemburg’s era — gave life to the idea that the imperialist hierarchy could be replaced with a balance of great powers, an equilibrium that would maintain a peaceful, stable imperialism without violent conflict. In our time, proponents of globalization anticipated the same capitalist harmony in inter-state relations. These ideas infect today’s left through the concept of multipolarity, the notion that eliminating the US’s overwhelming dominance of the imperialist playing field will somehow result in a fair, civil, and polite era of capitalist harmony, with established rules and collegial sportsmanship. This is the same pipedream that petty-bourgeois reformers have that eliminating the giant monopolies or cartels will establish a kind and gentle capitalism composed of earnest small-scale entrepreneurs. Both notions ignore conflicting class interests and sanitize capitalism. Capitalist countries, like capitalist corporations, are in brutal competition with each other. On the scale of countries that leads not to harmony and prosperity, but to war.

Of course, the left in the US and Europe should spare no effort in attempting to stop US and NATO military spending, interference, intervention, and war-making; but the left should have no illusion that– should that goal be achieved — it exhausts the anti-imperialist project. That will come only when we eliminate capitalism. Whether it is unipolar or multipolar monopoly capitalism, it is still imperialism.