Following up on Luxemburg and ‘Socialism or Barbarism’

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My explanation of the origin of an important revolutionary slogan has been widely accepted.

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Rosa Luxemburg

My article, The origin of Rosa Luxemburg’s slogan ‘socialism or barbarism’, was published online by John Riddell on October 21, and in Climate & Capitalism the following day. Dozens of other sites have linked to it, and several, including MRzine and Links, have reposted it.  The UK magazine Socialist Review recommended it in its “Best of the Web” column. It has been discussed on blogs and Facebook, and it has been translated into Korean and Spanish.

In just one month, it has become one of my most widely read articles.

I really didn’t expect such a response to my proposed solution to “a small puzzle in socialist history.” I underestimated the number of people who have wondered where Red Rosa actually found the sentence she attributed to Friedrich Engels.

I expected that my solution to the puzzle would be controversial, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to be proven wrong. But although some readers expressed surprise or even dismay, no one has challenged my argument that Luxemburg’s attribution was wrong, that the originator of socialism or barbarism was not Engels but Karl Kautsky, in his 1892 commentary on the Erfurt Program.

My explanation received strong support from two authoritative scholars:

  • Michael Löwy, the noted Marxist scholar whose quite different explanation I challenged in my article, wrote a gracious note: “Many thanks for sending me the link to Ian Angus essay. I think he is right, of course. I was wrong, and so was also … Rosa Luxemburg.”
  • Lars Lih, the historian who whose research and publications on the relationship between Kautsky and Lenin have been widely acclaimed, wrote: “I think your post makes in a striking way the point all of us are making: socialist history is distorted by our ignorance and contempt of Kautsky … Thanks for making the discovery and writing it up in clear and compelling fashion!”

I also thought I might learn that someone else had made the connection first: as I noted in my article, though most are difficult to find in print, Kautsky’s principal works are available online, and I don’t imagine I’m the only person to read them!

Indeed, thanks to readers’ diligence, I now know of three earlier articles that noted a parallel between Kautsky’s words in 1892 and Luxemburg’s in 1915 — but none of them made my point, that Luxemburg must have had that specific sentence in mind when she wrote the Junius Pamphlet.

Reader Frans-Arne Stylegar made the important point that, “Kautsky’s text probably summarised thoughts and mental images that were common in the 2nd as well as the 1st International.” Indeed, the idea that society must move forward or regress appeared as early as 1848, in The Communist Manifesto, but there is now little doubt that Karl Kautsky was the first to explicitly express that idea as socialism or barbarism. Rosa Luxemburg was simply wrong to attribute it to Engels: I think the explanation I offered for her error makes sense, but we’ll never know for sure.

Although I didn’t intend it, my solution to this small puzzle in Luxemburg’s antiwar pamphlet turns out to be part of a broader effort to re-evaluate Kautsky’s contributions to Marxist theory and the socialist movement. Most socialists know that Lenin condemned Kautsky after 1914 as a renegade: few realize that Lenin continued to recommend his earlier works as authoritative presentations of revolutionary Marxist politics. In fact, Kautsky’s 1892 commentary on the Erfurt program, in which he first posed the choice between socialism and barbarism, was widely used as a basic textbook of Marxism in Russia in the 1920s.

Discovering what is still relevant and valuable in the works of neglected Marxists like Kautsky is an important part of building the movement we need in the twenty-first century. I’m pleased to have made a small contribution to that process.