Why we fight: Rosa Luxemburg on War

Luxemburg noted that this war only benefits the big business at the expense of the people.


In 2022, war around the world is still pervasive. Conflicts around the world have cost lakhs, possibly millions of lives so far. While the world focuses on the extremely dangerous conflict in Ukraine, there are still massive and bloody conflicts scattered throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Civil wars in Ethiopia and Yemen continue. Myanmar still contends with internal conflict. The Sahel region sees recurrent upsurge, and the Drug War in Colombia and Mexico have cost them thousands of lives in 2022 alone. These are to name just a few.

By comparison, the Global North has remained nearly war-free for decades, at least in terms of being a site of war, but their war apparatus continues to grow and looms a large shadow over the world. The old dreams of world peace look less realistic, even in countries that have not known the threat of war for generations.

In some ways, we see the trend moving away from peace. As the Ukraine conflict showed the world, the military alliances of the world are going to butt heads for years to come. In many ways, the situation resembles the period before World War I, when the war started because of a single assassination. The assassination triggered a cascade of events, leading the most powerful countries to commit to such high levels of senseless violence unheard of in human history.

Before World War I, the imperialist powers began to approach the almost inevitable war. The world was divided into sides. Small conflicts grew into bigger conflicts. Treaties intended to prevent fighting were being subverted. The great powers of Europe were waiting for a final excuse to fight a massive war.

Your “order” is built on sand: Remembering Rosa Luxemburg

In Germany, the Social Democratic Party came to power, after winning mass support. In theory, the SDP was a radical communist party, though it only supported moderate reforms when it got power. As a result, many Communists became disillusioned with the SDP and pursued revolutionary action directly with workers.

Against the interests of the German people, the SDP supported Germany’s entry into World War I. Many former members of the SDP called this a betrayal of their socialist principles. They felt that the state could have worked for the people. Instead, it imprisoned revolutionaries and brought the country into a massive war.

The Accumulation of Capital: A Contribution to an Economic Explanation of Imperialism was first published in 1913.

Rosa Luxemburg was one of the most important theorists of war. In her book, Accumulation of Capital, she noted that Capitalism could not exist by itself. She showed, using historical examples and advanced economic theory that an economy with only workers and owners would quickly collapse. Pure capitalist societies would always produce more than they would use, reducing prices and then profit to nothing. Capitalist economies, she said, need non-capitalist economies, both as markets and as a source of raw materials. As capitalist societies engage with non-capitalist economies, they transform them into capitalist societies. This creates a crisis where new areas must be sought out. To survive, capitalist economies must break down other countries, take them over, and engage in exchange with them.

War was an important tool in stabilizing capitalism. A Capitalist nation could use war to take resources from the working class, through taxation, and establish dominance in non-capitalist regions. This would provide resources to buy and the market to sell. This outlined her theory of imperialism.

war machine

But Luxemburg noted that there was another unique dimension to war. The military was a way to use tax money purely to fund big industries. Money goes directly from the people, through taxation, to big industry. The state military becomes a source of profit for the big businesses. Even in countries where defence is completely within the public domain, profit is co-opted by the large businesses in many ways, through the supply of machinery and equipment, public research and development, and development projects.

The destruction meted out by war could produce demand, and fuel a nation’s economy. Lives can be traded for profit. Luxemburg noted that this was the trend with European countries, and had to be fought as part of a peoples’ struggle. Luxemburg noted that this war only benefits the big business at the expense of the people, and along with other former SDP members, protested Germany’s involvement in the war. She co-founded the Spartacus League.

The Spartacus League was named after the historical slave from ancient Roman who launched a rebellion against his masters. The leaders organized workers in agitating against factory owners, and run factories democratically. Luxemburg’s activities landed her in jail in 1916 for over two years.

In protesting the war, the Spartacus League organized soldiers to form soldier councils, where units could be run democratically, instead of in a top-down fashion. Soldiers were encouraged to work with workers, where they would protect the workers and workers would economically support the soldiers. While in Prison for her anti-war activism, Rosa Luxemburg continued writing. Her work had to be smuggled out of prison and would be published as the Julius Pamphlet. She wrote under the pseudonym, Lucius Junius Brutus, a famous ancient Roman politician who overthrew the monarchy in Roman and established a Republic.

In the Junius Pamphlet, Luxemburg showed a more human cost to war. She described how many poor people, including those who contributed to the political and cultural life of the German working class were lost to war. She said that her opposition to the war was not based on a naive idea that violence is always wrong. Sometimes a country goes to war to protect itself, but when a country develops, it will invest in its military for the wrong reasons. At that time, war cuts the world in parts and benefits the rich at the expense of the poor.

In the twenty-first century, these observations are more relevant than ever. The web of war is cast over peaceful as well as war-torn countries. The military has deep connections with transport, surveillance, energy and other industries. Whenever an invasion happens, companies from across the world profit in reconstruction efforts, making money on lost lives.

The author is a mathematician and a political observer based in Bangalore, India. 


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April 2024


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