Luxemburg was born in Russian-controlled Poland in 1871 to a Jewish family, and early in her life became a socialist, activist, and theorist, earning a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich. Her most politically active years were spent mostly in Germany.
Against the reformist direction of the German Social Democratic Party (of which she was a member), Luxemburg argued that although reformist activity could be a means of class struggle, revolution would be needed to overthrow capitalism.
Against the repressive conciliation of businesses by trade union leaders, she advocated for the mass strike as the spontaneous action of workers.
Against Lenin’s democratic centralism she insisted on the need for real democracy as essential to socialism.
So when the German Social Democrats in parliament voted to fund the the war in 1914, she saw it as a betrayal of the international solidarity of the working classes.
This led to her break from the social democrats and co-found the German Communist Party.
It also led to her writing “The Crisis of Social Democracy” better known as the Junius pamphlet, after the pseudonym with which she signed it. It’s the classic source of the phrasing of socialism or barbarism.
The pamphlet opens with a description of the shift from patriotic anticipation of war to the grim reality of it.
The scene has changed fundamentally. . . . Mass slaughter has become the tiresome and monotonous business of the day and the end is no closer. . . . Gone is the euphoria. Gone the patriotic noise in the streets. . . . In the prosaic atmosphere of pale day there sounds a different chorus – the hoarse cries of the vulture and the hyenas of the battlefield....
Business thrives in the ruins. Cities become piles of ruins; villages become cemeteries; countries, deserts; populations are beggared; churches, horse stalls. International law, treaties and alliances, the most sacred words and the highest authority have been torn in shreds. ... Every diplomat is a cunning rascal to his colleagues in the other party. Every government sees every other as dooming its own people and worthy only of universal contempt. There are food riots in Venice, in Lisbon, Moscow, Singapore. There is plague in Russia, and misery and despair everywhere.
Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast . . . a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form....
One thing is certain. The world war is a turning point. It is foolish and mad to imagine that we need only survive the war, like a rabbit waiting out the storm under a bush, in order to fall happily back into the old routine once it is over.
The world war has altered the conditions of our struggle and, most of all, it has changed us. Not that the basic law of capitalist development, the life-and-death war between capital and labor, will experience any amelioration. But now, in the midst of the war, the masks are falling and the old familiar visages smirk at us. The tempo of development has received a mighty jolt from the eruption of the volcano of imperialism. The violence of the conflicts in the bosom of society, the enormousness of the tasks that tower up before the socialist proletariat – these make everything that has transpired in the history of the workers’ movement seem a pleasant idyll....
Friedrich Engels once said: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” What does “regression into barbarism” mean to our lofty European civilization? . . . This world war 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 toward its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it. . . : 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, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war. This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves . . . to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales. In this war imperialism has won. Its bloody sword of genocide has brutally tilted the scale toward the abyss of misery. The only compensation for all the misery and all the shame would be if we learn from the war how the proletariat can seize mastery of its own destiny and escape the role of the lackey to the ruling classes.
The slogan “socialism or barbarism” thus points toward both the barbarism of the destruction created by world war, and also toward the evils embedded in the ordinary workings of bourgeois capitalism itself.
And “For [Luxemburg,] economic expansion and the resulting devastation of the environment was ... an inherent feature of [capitalism]. In The Accumulation of Capitalshe explained that by definition, capital needed to conquer, absorb and destroy non-capitalist economies and territories to survive.”
Ian Angus of Climate and Capitalism observes that their slogan is “Ecosocialism or Barbarism: there is no third way,” with the explanation that "ecosocialism is not a new theory or brand of socialism — it is socialism with Marx’s important insights on ecology restored, socialism committed to the fight against ecological destruction."
More than ten years ago, the vice-president of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) was already arguing that climate change would lead to “barbarization” unless governments acted quickly to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Without that, he suggested, Climate change will lead to a "fortress world" in which the rich lock themselves away in gated communities and the poor must fend for themselves in shattered environments.
It may be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but we do still have a choice to imagine and work to create the more difficult possibility.
Alluding to Marx, Luxemburg reminds us that people “do not make history according to their own free will. But they make history nonetheless”
So let us make a history that will persist.
For the Old Mole, this has been Frann Michel.