Open Letter

WAR AGAINST WAR: An Open Class Struggle Against Nationalism and Militarism

"The international proletariat suffers, not from a dearth of postulates, programs, and slogans, but from a lack of deeds, of effective resistance, of the power to attack imperialism at the decisive moment, just in times of war. It has been unable to put its old slogan, war against war, into actual practice. Here is the Gordian knot of the proletarian movement and of its future."
The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis in German Social Democracy, by Rosa Luxemburg [The Crisis in German Social Democracy was written between February and April 1915 when Luxemburg was in prison for opposing World War I. She published it under the pseudonym 'Junius', evoking a name used to sign political lead articles in the German press in the 1760s. The pseudonym may also derive from Lucius Junius Brutus, a legendary figure who was said to have led the uprising that established the Roman Republic. Luxemburg had the work smuggled out of prison and it was first published in 1916 as a pamphlet in Zurich, Switzerland.]

Scott Tucker


"War against war"-- this slogan of militant socialism is now over a century old, and yet suddenly up to date. When Rosa Luxemburg was sent to prison for opposing World War I, she still carried on her correspondence with her comrades. And she continued urging workers and soldiers to abandon the parties of war and empire.

Her messages-- often written in poor light and in bad health, sometimes written with her own urine on scraps of paper-- were smuggled out from prison. Using the pseudonym of Junius, her fierce indictment of the German Social Democratic Party placed her firmly within the advanced left wing of the anti-war movement. Her comrade, Karl Liebknecht, had likewise been one of the few resounding voices in the German parliament opposing appropriations and troop mobilization for war.

Serving another term in prison, Luxemburg was finally freed during a working class rebellion, and gathered her comrades for the foundation of the German Communist Party on the eve of 1919.

Precisely because we are witnessing a reversion to barbarism, the lessons of the past are certainly dated-- but not outdated. One reason for the publication of Open Letter Online is to shed "more light" -- in the words of Hannah Arendt-- "on the crucial period of European socialism from the last decades of the nineteenth century to the fateful day in January 1919 when Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the two leaders of the Spartakusbund, the precursor of the German Communist Party, were murdered in Berlin-- under the eyes and probably with the connivance of the Socialist regime then in power. The murderers were members of the ultra-nationalist and officially illegal Freikorps, a paramilitary organization from which Hitler's storm troopers were soon to recruit their most promising killers."

However much Luxemburg used phrases such as "the dictatorship of the proletariat," what set her apart from much of the revolutionary left was precisely her radical republican defense of public freedom-- freedom of speech and of the press, freedom from dictatorship of any kind. Indeed, one of the last essays written before her death was a condemnation of the death penalty-- and of German "socialists" who kept capital punishment the law of the land. A Polish Jew, a woman, a revolutionary-- Rosa Luxemburg rarely responded to prejudice and slander, but from early youth she did stride boldly into the left wing of Social Democracy. In one old photograph of a meeting of the Second International, she was the lone woman among men. This, too, she took in stride.

Arendt's book Men in Dark Times contains essays on just two women-- and both had, at different times, used male pseudonyms as writers. Arendt's essay on Luxemburg (from which I am quoting so freely) also contains this anecdote:

"In 1907, she and her friend Clara Zetkin (later the 'grand old woman' of German Communism) had gone for a walk, lost count of time, and arrived late for an appointment with August Bebel, who had feared they were lost. Rosa then proposed their epitaph: 'Here lie the last two men of German Social Democracy.'" In a later letter from prison Luxemburg would write: "To be a Mensch-- that's the main thing!" Anyone can see that word is loaded. What did she mean? To have a human heart, to think freely, to fight fiercely-- that's what Rosa meant.

But she also finally admitted that no formula could resurrect "the stinking corpse" (likewise her words) of the German Social Democratic Party. Partisan collaborators in upper management are likely to become partisan collaborators in wars. This much she knew early and clearly. She educated, agitated, organized. She saw the storm on the horizon and warned her comrades. But when the "socialists" in the German parliament voted for war-- the dissent of her comrade Karl Liebknecht made news round the world -- she broke down in tears. And then she got back to work.

Luxemburg expressed solidarity with the Russian Revolution, but she was freely critical of the Bolshevik dictatorship. In that context, Luxemburg penned one of her most famous lines:

"Die Freiheit ist immer die Freiheit des Andersdenkenden" -- or "Freedom is always freedom for those who think differently."

Arendt makes a strong case for the (small r) republican politics of Rosa Luxemburg:

She did not intend to spend her life in a sect, no matter how large; her commitment to revolution was primarily a moral matter, and this meant that she remained passionately engaged in public life and civil affairs, in the destinies of the world. Her involvement with European politics outside the immediate interests of the working class, and hence completely beyond the horizon of all Marxists, appears most convincingly in her repeated insistence on a 'republican program' for the German and Russian parties... It is indeed the republican question rather than the national one which separated her most decisively from all others. Here she was completely alone, as she was alone, though less obviously so, in her stress on the absolute necessity of not only individual but public freedom under all circumstances.

Granting this much, Luxemburg also fought all her life against both nationalism and militarism. Lenin thought that world wars might give revolutionaries certain strategic openings and advantages. On this point Luxemburg was blazingly clear: the choice might well be socialism or barbarism-- but she regarded the first world war as a reversion to barbarism.

"For she refused categorically," as Arendt wrote, "from beginning to end, to see in the war anything but the most terrible disaster, no matter what its eventual outcome; the price in human lives, especially in proletarian lives, was too high in any event. Moreover, it would have gone against her grain to look upon revolution as the profiteer of war and massacre-- something which didn't bother Lenin in the least."

What is to be done? Anyone looking for marching orders can get them easily from a dozen sectarian groups and programs. Open Letter is not above publishing certain sectarian documents. Why not gain insights wherever they may be found and without prejudice as to the source? Among the current Leninist sectarians, the Spartacists show the best literary style-- not a small matter, to the degree vague sentences reveal vague thinking. (The Spartacists pay tribute, of course, to Luxemburg's Spartakusbund-- in one issue of Women and Revolution they even lauded Luxemburg while bothering to give a failing grade to the future editor of Open Letter. To this day, he sometimes pages through their publications with pleasure.)

Marching orders? Or the usual thunderous condemnations of terrorism? By all means, let's condemn terrorism. Once again. But in any economic blockade and in any war we must also dare to ask which side, which army, which state is killing the most civilians. The United States and Israel wield numerous and effective weapons of mass destruction. The resident in the White House proclaims that these weapons are simply strong medicine, and that the "rogue states" will one day be grateful patients in recovery. If the people of the occupied countries storm Western embassies and the offices of the United Nations swearing their hatred and resistance, then they have plainly not gotten the right dose of persuasion. The prescriptions can be revised right up to the minute by press secretaries and Secretaries of State.

Here and now our slogans and guidelines must often be negative-- sharply and squarely negative. For example:

Not one cent and not one vote for the parties of war and empire!

Do "progressives" demand more progressive slogans? Before we progress that far, let's review some elementary history. Every "liberal" and every "progressive" who made peace with the Clintons and with the Democratic Leadership Council is welcome to the Democratic Party. That is where they belong unless they have the spine and spirit to break away from the parties of corporate rule and of war.

Anyone who thinks fascism begins and ends with Nazi death camps has never begun thinking clearly about the real history of corporate rule. A survey of corporate rule might begin with Bismarck and Mussolini-- but would properly continue onward to the Bushes and the Clintons. Unrestricted corporatism is one good definition of fascism, both in time of war and in the "peace" of class collaboration. Of course, no short definition of that kind can be complete.

The Democratic Party did not simply fail to be an opposition party. No, it went much further in close collaboration with the subversion of the republic-- and with the domination of public life by corporations. Professional politicians in both corporate parties are professional criminals. Such people do not deserve to stroll and orate in Congress; they deserve to have their bank accounts frozen and to serve a term in jail.

Does anyone still pretend that we can win a shooting match with the state? Idiots! Make no mistake: this ruling class is as serious about counterinsurgency within national borders as it is about waging wars of empire round the world. Jail we can take for granted in the ordinary course of confronting state power. But civil disobedience will weigh in the class struggle only when such actions ripen and rise toward coordinated strikes against corporate theft and war.

In the electoral arena, no party whatsoever is worth damn without the power of workers and neighbors organized into local councils and communes. These are the healthy local cells of a democratic body politic. By free contracts and federal organization, we, the people, may yet defeat the corporate state.

Rosa Luxemburg gets the last words:

"The organization of revolutionary action can and must be learnt in revolution itself, as one can only learn swimming in the water."

Peace and solidarity.

[Postscript: Yes, Open Letter will not always be monolingual. Well worth learning a language other than English.]


Friedrich Engels once said, "Capitalist society faces a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism." What does a "reversion to barbarism" mean at the present stage of European civilization? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without a conception of their terrible import. At this moment one glance about us will show what a reversion to barbarism in capitalist society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the destruction of culture, sporadically during a modern war, and forever, if the period of world wars that has just begun is allowed to take its damnable course to the last ultimate consequence. Thus we stand today, as Friedrich Engels prophesied more than a generation ago, before the awful proposition: 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.


In your melancholy view, I have been complaining that you people are not marching up to the cannon's mouth. 'Not marching' is a good one! You people do not march; you do not even walk; you creep. It is not simply a difference of degree, but rather of kind. On the whole, you people are a different zoological species than I, and your grousing, peevish, cowardly and half-hearted nature has never been as alien, as hateful to me, as it is now. You think that audacity would surely please you, but because of it one can be thrown into the cooler and one is then 'of little use!' Oh, you miserable little mercenaries! You would be ready enough to put a little bit of 'heroism' up for sale-- but only 'for cash,' even if only for three mouldy copper pennies. After all, one must immediately see its 'use' on the sales counter.

For you people, the simple words of honest and upright men have not been spoken: 'Here I stand, I can't do otherwise-- God help me!' Luckily, world history, up until this point, has not been made by people like yourselves. Otherwise, we wouldn't have had a Reformation, and we would probably still be living under the ancien regime.


"The leadership has failed. Even so, the leadership can and must be recreated from the masses and out of the masses. The masses are the decisive element, they are the rock on which the final victory of the revolution will be built. The masses were on the heights; they have developed this 'defeat' into one of the historical defeats which are the pride and strength of international socialism. And that is why the future victory will bloom from this 'defeat'.

'Order reigns in Berlin%
21' You st
upid henchmen! Your 'order' is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will already 'raise itself with a rattle' and announce with fanfare, to your terror: I was, I am, I will be!"