By Sally Campbell
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Why read The Junius Pamphlet

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Issue 388

Right up until July 1914 anti-war activity was rife across Europe, led by the socialist parties of the Second International. In the face of growing nationalism Rosa Luxemburg and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) organised mass rallies and the SPD headquarters put out statements confirming their stance against war: “The class conscious proletariat of Germany, in the name of humanity and civilisation, raises a flaming protest against this criminal activity of the warmongers.”

But at the start of August war was declared and the International crumbled. While the Bolsheviks in Russia and some small organisations in eastern and southern Europe held firm, the SPD deputies in the German parliament, the Reichstag, voted for the war credits to fund the Kaiser’s armies on 4 August.

The SPD’s actions had a terrible impact on socialists everywhere – it was the biggest, strongest party of the International, the inheritor of Marx and Engels. It had betrayed everything it had claimed to stand for, and without it the International meant nothing.

Luxemburg was shattered. But she immediately organised a meeting in Berlin with a handful of revolutionaries including Franz Mehring and Julius Karski, and with support from Clara Zetkin in Stuttgart. They agreed to take up the struggle against war and against their own party. A few months later Karl Liebknecht, an SPD deputy in the Reichstag, voted against war credits and joined them. This was the beginning of the group that was to become the Spartacus League. It was imperative that the revolutionary socialists challenged the pro-war arguments both of their rulers and of their own former comrades.

Luxemburg was imprisoned for her anti-war activities in February 1915. She was to remain incarcerated with only brief spells of freedom for almost the whole of the war.

She wrote a pamphlet called The Crisis of Social Democracy and smuggled it out in April 1915. It was published in January 1916 and distributed illegally under the pseudonym Junius and is commonly known as the Junius pamphlet.

It remains one of the most powerful indictments of the horror of war, and the system that produces it: “Shamed, dishonoured, wading in blood and dripping with filth, thus capitalist society stands. Not as we usually see it, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, of ethics – but as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity – so it appears in all its hideous nakedness.”

Luxemburg kills the claim that this was a war for German liberation from Russia, showing that it was an imperialist war on the part of Germany and the other major powers.

It is also a fierce attack on the SPD for its betrayal of the working class: “Nowhere has the organisation of the proletariat been yoked so completely to the service of imperialism… Nowhere is the press so hobbled, public opinion so stifled, the economic and political class struggle of the working class so totally surrendered as in Germany.”

For Luxemburg this was not a moment to be quiet – it was a crossroads for humanity: “Either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture, and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or, the victory of socialism, that is, the conscious struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism, against its methods, against war. This is the dilemma of world history, its inevitable choice, whose scales are trembling in the balance, awaiting the decision of the proletariat.”

By the end of 1915 bodies were piling up and hopes of a quick victory were fading. In December, 20 SPD deputies finally joined Liebknecht in voting against further war credits. Luxemburg was released in February 1916 to be met by a thousand women supporters who brought her gifts and shook her hand. She immediately got to work alongside Liebknecht, organising and agitating. As Junius puts it, “Dividends are rising, and the proletarians are falling. And with every one there sinks into the grave a fighter of the future, a soldier of the revolution.”

At the May Day demonstration in Berlin on 1 May 1916 Liebknecht made a fiery speech, ending with the words, “Down with the war! Down with the government!” He was immediately arrested and taken to prison to await trial. On his arrest thousands protested; at the start of his trial mass demonstrations took place in Berlin; when he was sentenced to two and a half years hard labour 55,000 munitions workers went on strike. The workers of Germany were beginning to awaken, and bring to life the final call of Junius:

“This madness will not stop, and this bloody nightmare of hell will not cease until the workers of Germany, of France, of Russia and of England will wake up out of their drunken sleep, will clasp each other’s hands in brotherhood and will drown the bestial chorus of war agitators and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the mighty cry of labour, ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!'”

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