The origins of ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ and its contemporary significance: From the 'Communist Manifesto' to the present day

By Seiya Morita

July 21, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — We are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. In East Asian countries (except for Japan), the situations are fairly well under control, but in the United States and Latin American and African countries, the situations have not converged at all, and in fact are becoming more and more serious. In early July 2020, the world's number of infected people topped 12 million and the death toll surpassed half a million. This momentum is not yet waning.

We already know this state of affairs has been prepared by the past 40 years of neoliberalism and austerity policies in these countries. In U.S., as well as in Western countries, medical and social welfare services are being cut, and health care is being left to market forces. Hospitals were shut and the number of hospital beds, especially ICU beds, were steadily cut. Since even in peacetime, as if in an emergency, social resources and margins were reduced to a barely acceptable level, when a real emergency emerges, we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot deal with it.[1]

Just before the coronavirus broke, the "Fridays for Future" movement was gaining momentum globally, and 2019 was the great year of the worldwide movement against global warming. The activist upsurge showed how catastrophic global warming had become. Moreover, the global inequality problem is only getting worse, and in the corona pandemic, the trend of expanding inequality remains. Governments spending huge amounts of money are helping billionaires more than the poor in their countries. Pumping public money into the stock market has led to a rapid recovery in stock prices, and the asset holdings of multinational corporate shareholders and internet entrepreneurs are growing by trillions of dollars, contrasting with the fact that tens of millions of people have lost their jobs.

These facts represent modern barbarism. Already a hundred years ago, German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg urgently raised a historical dilemma of ‘socialism or barbarism’ in prison in the midst of the First World War. Thus, rather than being at all outdated, her slogan has taken on an even more serious meaning today. This piece discusses its theoretical origins and validity for our day.

1. The origin of ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ by Rosa Luxemburg

The theoretical origin of Luxemburg's famous slogan ‘socialism or barbarism’ has already been discussed by many people. Among them, a Canadian Trotskyist theorist and ecosocialist, Ian Angus, has published an essay on this theme on a website in October 2014 that attracted a great deal of attention.[2] Angus’ essay discusses what he thinks is the origin of the slogan by Luxemburg. The portion of her writing in which the slogan appears, which is the focus of Angus’ discussion, is taken from an article written by Luxemburg while in prison in 1915, ‘The Crisis of German Social Democracy’.

Friedrich Engels once said that capitalist society would face a dilemma, either an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism. What does a ‘reversion to barbarism’ mean at the present highly developed stage of European civilization? We have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without anticipating their horribleness. At this moment one glance will show us what a reversion to barbarism in our bourgeois society means. This world war means a reversion to barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the destruction of culture…. Thus we stand today, as Friedrich Engels prophesied more than a generation ago, or forty years ago, before the awful choice: 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, and its crossroads.[3]

Luxemburg clearly states in 1915 that about 40 years earlier, Engels had predicted a choice between the advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism. That 40 years before 1915 means the mid-1870s. However, the ‘40 years’ that Luxemburg referred to is not an exact figure, so we can think about it in the range of between 30 years and 40 years. In that case, we can suppose that between the late 1870s and 1880s Engels penned the dilemma that Luxemburg notes. However, many researchers have looked into Engels' books and writings of that period and have not yet found such a sentence.

In fact, I once tried to find a similar sentence in Engels' works some years ago, when I translated some chapters of Norman Geras’ brilliant book, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg[4] in Trotsky Studies. In this book, Geras wrote that you could find such a phrase in Engels' Anti-Dühring (since it was serialized in Vorwärts between 1876 and 1878, it fits perfectly with Luxemburg's chronological setting of 40 years ago) ,[5] so I re-read Anti-Dühring thoroughly, and in my notes quoted the sentence that seemed to be closest to it. It is the following sentence.

Its own productive forces have grown beyond its control, and, as if necessitated by a law of nature, are driving the whole of bourgeois society towards ruin, or revolution.[6]

Here, Engels suggests that the development of productive forces would inevitably bring bourgeois society to face the dilemma of ‘ruin or revolution’. So, it is probable that Luxemburg had this sentence in mind. Nevertheless, the sentence is still some distance away from the expression ‘socialism or barbarism’, and it has no connection with the world war that Luxemburg particularly focused on in her prison article.

In his piece, Angus introduces several theories about the origin of this slogan. First is that it comes from Anti-Dühring, as Geras suggests above. Second is that it comes from the Communist Manifesto. The third hypothesis is that it was an originality of Luxemburg, which Michael Löwy advocates. I will discuss the Communist Manifesto in more detail later, but in any case, Angus argued none of these theories was fully convincing, although his attempt at persuading readers of this opinion was perhaps not very precise, as I will touch on later.

Thus Angus, having dismissed all of these theories as untenable, takes as the true origin Karl Kautsky's famous book on the Erfurt Program of the German Social Democratic Party, published in 1892, and points out that there is an almost identical text in it.

The Erfurt Program was a new party program adopted by the Erfurt Party Congress in 1891 in replacement of the Lassallean Gotha Program that was once severely criticized by Karl Marx. Since its drafter was Kautsky, the party leadership asked him to write a detailed commentary on its contents. So Kautsky published his book on the Erfurt Program the year after the Erfurt Congress.[7]

His commentary on the program started with an explanation of the development of the capitalist economy, and proceeded through the prospects for future society, the progress of the class struggle, to the tactics and strategy of the Social Democratic Party. It was a reasonably systematic commentary that has reached the status of an upgraded version of the Communist Manifesto for the rank and file of the German Social Democratic Party. So it became foundational to Marxist literature in the Second International era, and was widely accepted by Marxists and went through many editions.[8] However, it has been largely ignored since then by current Marxists in both the West and Japan.

In this book, Angus discovered that there is the following passage:

If indeed the socialist commonwealth were an impossibility, then mankind would be cut off from all further economic development. In that event modern society would decay, as did the Roman empire nearly two thousand years ago, and finally relapse into barbarism. As things stand today capitalist civilization cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.[9]

As can be seen, both sentences clearly indicate the dilemma: moving forward to socialism or falling back into barbarism. Moreover, both also suggest the ruins of ancient Rome as an historical example of descent into barbarism. Clearly, in this sentence the same ideas as Luxemburg's resonate, and the expression is also very similar to hers. The origin problem of Luxemburg’s slogan seemed to be resolved, and in fact Angus thought it so, and his colleagues (such as Michael Löwyand Lars Lih) did too.[10]

2. Problems with Angus’ arguments

Unfortunately, however, there are several important problems with Angus’ arguments. Foremost, Luxemburg herself clearly wrote that the slogan of ‘socialism or barbarism’ came from Engels’ work and she said it was from 40 years ago. Neither match Kautsky's 1892 work.

Of course, Angus is aware that Luxemburg mentions Engels' name, so he tries to explain the discrepancy. First of all, because Luxemburg was in prison, he argues, she was unable to check the correct source of the slogan. Secondly, he says, Kautsky's book was so popular at the time and so deeply imprinted in her consciousness that she forgot the slogan’s connection to Kautsky’s book. In other words, his hypothesis is that it was just her misunderstanding or her misremembering.

However, none of these arguments are very convincing. Regarding the first one, Luxemburg mentioned this slogan even after she got out of prison. At that time, unlike while in prison, she said that it came from the Communist Manifesto, and still didn't name Kautsky.[11] But Angus does not mention this fact. I will revisit the significance of her referring to the Communist Manifesto being brought up later.

Regarding his second argument, if Kautsky's book was really so widespread, there is no way Luxemburg could have forgotten it. Therefore, Angus’ hypothesis that it had become so widely read that she has forgotten its existence is not too convincing. Moreover, Luxemburg's slogan of ‘socialism or barbarism’ in prison was, above all, raised in relation to the World War, and Kautsky's formulation in his book on the Erfurt Program doesn’t contain this important point.

There is no doubt that Luxemburg was well aware of this work of Kautsky's, and there is also no doubt that she didn’t forget there was a phrase in it referring to ‘an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism’. In fact, this is implicitly suggested in Luxemburg's text itself that I quoted earlier, although she didn't name Kautsky. When Luxemburg said in it ‘we have read and repeated these words thoughtlessly without anticipating their horribleness’, who did she have in mind? The best example of thoughtless repeating of this dilemma without anticipating its seriousness, is obviously Kautsky, or other leaders of German Social Democracy. In other words, although Luxemburg was not oblivious to Kautsky’s book, but clearly had his book in mind, nevertheless, she named Engels not Kautsky as the originator.

So, what was the reason for this? There are two possible hypotheses. The first is that because the objects of Luxemburg's criticism in prison were none other than Kautsky and other leaders of the German Social Democratic Party, she couldn't refer to Kautsky in any positive context. In other words, the absence of Kautsky’s name was not her ‘misremembering’ as Angus says, but intentional omission. The second is that, to be sure, Kautsky wrote about the dilemma of ‘socialism or barbarism’ in his book on the Erfurt Program, but indeed his argument was not actually Kautsky’s original idea, but was suggested or influenced by Engels, and because Luxemburg knew this fact, there was no need for her to refer to Kautsky's name.

Of these new hypotheses, we can immediately refute the first, because Luxemburg herself, in the same article, the "Crisis in the German Social Democracy", quotes Kautsky positively in some places.[12] And even the Bolsheviks, who were most vehement in their criticism of Kautsky, were not reluctant to refer to the revolutionary Kautsky before 1914 compared with the reactionary Kautsky after 1914. A prime example is Lenin's Left-Wing Communism. At the outset, Lenin quotes Kautsky's 1902 article ‘The Slavs and Revolution’ at length in a positive way.[13]

What remains is the second hypothesis, and I would argue strongly for it. In fact, what Angus has proven is only that in Kautsky's 1892 work we can find a phrase like ‘an advance to socialism or a reversion to barbarism’. He has not shown that this is the ‘origin’ of the thesis.[14] On the other hand, the passage in Engels’ Anti-Dühring, which was written more than 15 years before Kautsky’s book on the Erfurt Program, clearly includes the phrase of ‘ruin or revolution’, so it would be obviously imprudent to exclude it as one of the origins of the slogan. We cannot deny the possibility that Luxemburg had the phrase in mind in her prison article. But this argument alone is still not enough to explain the reason that Luxemburg referred to Engels as the origin of ‘socialism or barbarism’ in her prison article.

3. ‘Universal barbarization’ in Engels on the Prospect of European war

Luxemburg's slogan was above all raised in relation to the World War. This differs significantly from the passage in Kautsky's book on the Erfurt Program, as already mentioned. And the same is true of the passage in Engels' Anti-Dühring. We must therefore look for another origin.

In fact, Engels has been talking about the possibility of a European war since the end of the 1870s, and he repeatedly predicted that if Europe would not move forward to socialism, then there would be a European war or a world war, and he warned against the extreme barbarism that would be caused by it. For example, a 1879 letter to one of his disciples, August Bebel, contains the following passage.

Apart from this, world history proceeds on its course untroubled by these philistine advocates of prudence and moderation. In Russia things will surely come to a head within a few months. Either absolutism will be overthrown and then, immediately after the overthrow of that great storehouse of reaction, a new wind will blow across Europe. Or else there will be a European war, and the present German party, too, will be submerged in the inevitable struggle of each individual people for its national existence. A war such as that would, for us, be the greatest of misfortunes; it might set the movement back by twenty years. But the new party that must surely emerge from it at last would, in all European countries, be freed of a host of hesitations and pettinesses such as presently hamper the movement everywhere.[15]

Here, he says, with the overthrow of absolutism in Russia, a "new wind" would blow across Europe (i.e., a huge movement toward an advance to socialism), or else a European war would break out and bury the party in Germany, but he believed a new and more determined party would emerge from it. This is a statement of amazing prescience! Indeed, 35 years after its prediction, the European social democratic parties collapsed in the First World War and after that new and more determined socialist parties, i.e. communist parties, grew up across Europe because of the Russian Revolution.

And eight years later, in December 1887, in his introduction to Borkheim's In Memory of the German Blood-and-Thunder Patriots, Engels spoke in an even more urgent tone about the possibility of the ‘universal barbarization (universal lapse into barbarism)’ of the whole of Europe through the coming world war.

And, finally, the only war left for Prussia-Germany to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover, of an extent and violence hitherto unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other's throats and in the process they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts. The depredations of the Thirty Years' War compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal barbarization (hervorgerufene Verwilderung), both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery; irretrievable dislocation of our artificial system of trade, industry and credit, ending in universal bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their conventional political wisdom to the point where crowns will roll into the gutters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will emerge as victor from the battle. Only one consequence is absolutely certain: universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.[16]

The term ‘Barbarei’ (barbarism) itself is not used in the original German text, but the term ‘Verwilderung’ (barbarization) is used in connection with a possible future world war. This passage is a remarkably accurate prediction of the situation caused by the First World War about 30 years (if not 40 years) later. In fact, more than 10 million soldiers and civilians died in the war, and this represented three to four years of devastation of a magnitude exceeding that of the Thirty Years' War. In the process, many crowns (Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, etc.) fell, and the entirety of Europe literally lapsed into a state of massive barbarism. And most socialist parties and trade unions degenerated into imperialist patriotism. But then European revolutionary socialist forces revived in a radical way because of the Russian Revolution. The apocalyptic prospect caused by the world war, which Engels predicted here, is the very same situation of the barbarism that Luxemburg described while in prison. There is no doubt that it is (at least, it is also) Engels’ prediction of the European or the world war that Luxemburg had in mind when she wrote the slogan ‘socialism or barbarism’ in prison.

This amazingly accurate and apocalyptic prediction of Engels’ had certainly made a very strong impression not only on Luxemburg, but also on Kautsky. The definitive evidence for this can be found in his preface to the third edition of Kautsky's famous book, The Road to Power, published in 1920 after the First World War.

Already in 1887, Engels has described a spectacle situation of the coming war and its outcomes in his introduction to Borkheim'sGerman Blood-and-Thunder Patriots. In it he particularly referred to the ‘universal barbarization, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery’.[17]

Thus Kautsky focuses on the phrase ‘universal barbarization’ in Engels’ introduction to Borkheim’s book and quotes it. It is certain that in 1892, five years after Engels wrote it, when Kautsky raised the dilemma of the ‘advance to socialism or reversion to barbarism’, he had this phrase in mind. Kautsky, however, wrote of it in a more general way, disconnecting it from the serious and horrible context of the coming world war.

In any case, we can easily imagine that Luxemburg knew of this inheritance relationship between Engels and Kautsky, so while in prison she dared to name Engels, not Kautsky. In other words, because she understood the thread from Engels’ statement of ‘ruin or revolution’ in Anti-Dühring 40 years ago, to his argument of the ‘universal barbarization’ relating to imminence of the coming world war 30 years ago, she took Engels as the originator of the slogan ‘socialism or barbarism’.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Kautsky's formulation in his book on the Erfurt Program was completely insignificant. It is clearly his achievement to have given Engels’ arguments a more concise expression. Nevertheless, although Kautsky referred to this slogan in peacetime in his textbook-like literature, he forgot it to support the German war effort in the First World War, i.e. at the very moment when this slogan became the most serious and actual one in history. Different from him, Luxemburg raised this revolutionary dilemma as the most decisive issue and the most practical task in the midst of the First World War, and no sooner had she got out of prison than she literally risked her life to resolve this historical dilemma in the very direction of socialism. Their contrary behavior in practice overwhelms any similarity in expression.[18]

4. ‘Back into Barbarism’ in the Communist Manifesto

But this does not mean that the origin problem is entirely solved. This is because after Luxemburg got out of jail, as I already mentioned, she referred to this slogan again, and this time she said it came from the Communist Manifesto. She says in her speech on the party program of the Spartacus Bund (later the German Communist Party) that

In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity. The words of the Communist Manifesto flare like a fiery menetekel above the crumbling bastions of capitalist society: Socialism or downfall into barbarism! (Sozialismus oder Untergang in der Barbarei!)[19]

The phrase conveys Luxemburg's burning passion and sense of urgency. But there is a question. What part of the Communist Manifesto did she have in mind? Luxemburg herself does not specify, so we have to speculate. Angus takes up an interpretation of Peter Hudis and Kevin Anderson who edited the collection of Rosa Luxemburg's papers and letters. They annotate this sentence with an endnote that suggests it came from a certain part of the Communist Manifesto. But is the part they refer to really relevant? Hudis and Anderson refer to a sentence at the beginning of the first section of the Communist Manifesto: ‘a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.’[20]

But the sentiment of this sentence is far from that of the phrase ‘socialism or barbarism’. And in the Communist Manifesto, there is a passage that Luxemburg seemed to be more likely to have had in mind in her speech on the party program.

In these crises a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises there breaks out a social epidemic (gesellschaftliche Epidemie) that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity: the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism (in einen Zustand momentaner Barbarei zuruckversetzt); it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed.[21]

In other words, unless capitalist society advances to socialism, the Communist Manifesto suggests, society repeatedly will fall into crises and a ‘social epidemic’ of over-production, and will be put back into a state of a ‘barbarism’. This is precisely the dilemma (or choice) of ‘socialism or downfall into barbarism’.

Incidentally, also with regard to Engels's Anti-Dühring, Angus doesn’t refer to the above-quoted passage that Luxemburg seemed to have in mind, but to the following somewhat off point.

These few exceptions are isolated cases of conquest, in which the more barbarian conquerors exterminated or drove out the population of a country and laid waste or allowed to go to ruin productive forces which they did not know how to use.[22]

To be sure, there is the word ‘barbarian’ in this passage, but there is no relationship with capitalism indicated, also there is no mention at all of the dilemma of ‘socialism or barbarism’. It is unlikely that Luxemburg had that phrase in mind.

5. ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ as the fundamental idea of Marx and Engels

Now, if there is an argument of ‘back into barbarism’ in the Communist Manifesto, then, a problem arises: in the end, which is the origin of the slogan ‘socialism or barbarism’? Is it the Communist Manifesto or Engels from 30-40 years ago? But this is actually the wrong way to set up the problem. There doesn't have to be a single origin. There can be multiple origins.

That capitalism is a system, which inevitably creates ‘barbarism’ out of it, and unless it moves to socialism, the barbarism (the specifics of which vary greatly from period to period) will be repeated over and over again, and get bigger and more serious, is a fundamental idea held by Marx and Engels from the beginning, at least since they became communists.[23] If capitalism can eradicate such barbarism by mere reform, why should we aim for socialism or communism? Therefore, the inevitable choice between socialism and barbarism is their fundamental ideology. It was repeated and expressed by the two authors in different variations in each historical situation, sometimes in more acute form, sometimes in a more general form, but it has never gone away from their works.

For example, looking at Engels' earliest document as a communist, The Condition of the Working-Class in England, you find several places where capitalism itself produces barbarism in the modern factories. For example, the following passages.

Liverpool, with all its commerce, wealth, and grandeur yet treats its workers with the same barbarity. A full fifth of the population, more than 45,000 human beings, live in narrow, dark, damp, badly-ventilated cellar dwellings, of which there are 7,862 in the city.[24]

Other manufacturers were yet more barbarous, requiring many hands to work thirty to forty hours at a stretch, several times a week, letting them get a couple of hours sleep only, because the night-shift was not complete, but calculated to replace a part of the operatives only. The reports of the Commission touching this barbarism (Barbarei) surpass everything that is known to me in this line.[25]

Such an argument also appears in several works of Marx that are contemporaneous with the Communist Manifesto. The first, quoted below, is a passage from ‘Wage Labor and Capital’ (1849) and the second from a draft called ‘Wages’ (1847).

But capital does not live only on labour. A lord, at once aristocratic and barbarous, it drags with it into the grave the corpses of its slaves, whole hecatombs of workers who perish in the crises.[26]

The treadmill again within civilisation. Barbarism reappears, but created in the lap of civilisation itself and belonging to it; hence leprous barbarism, barbarism as leprosy of civilisation. Workhouses, the Bastilles of the workers. Separation of man and wife.[27]

In the second quote, Marx says that the barbarism of the past will revive under capitalism, and that is not an accident, but the ‘leprosy’ (an incurable disease at the time) of capitalism. In the bourgeois view of civilization and barbarism, historically the Middle Ages are ‘barbarous’, but the modern age is ‘civilized’, and geographically the West is ‘civilized’ but Asia and Africa are considered ‘barbarous’. Thus historically and geographically ‘barbarism’ has been completely externalized and otherised. But it is bourgeois civilization, Marx says, that will inevitably revive the ‘barbarism’ of the past and makes it worse, and so barbarism is an inevitable product of civilization. This is a dialectic of civilization and barbarism.

Therefore, it is not necessary for us to find a single direct origin. Marx and Engels, from a young age, had described this fundamental idea in different ways in different situations. The passage in the Communist Manifesto, the phrase of Engels’ Anti-Dühring, and Engels' prospects of the world war were variations of it. And, of course, so did their disciples who included Kautsky and Luxemburg. Therefore, Luxemburg named Engels as an originator of ‘socialism or barbarism’ while in prison, and she referred to the Communist Manifesto after leaving prison.

6. ‘Physiology of Barbarism’ in Trotsky's criticism of fascism

Thus the ‘origin problem’ is theoretically resolved, but the problem raised by the slogan itself in terms of the historical dilemma it highlights is not yet resolved. The history of the revolutionary choice of ‘socialism or barbarism’ didn't end with Luxemburg’s formulation in prison. One practical answer to it was given by the Russian Revolution of 1917, which, more than anything, Russian people accomplished in order to bring themselves out of the barbarism of World War I. This historical fact was an empirical proof of the correctness of the slogan ‘socialism or barbarism’! In that sense, the Russian Revolution reflected Luxemburg's slogan, and so it should be discussed as a theoretical and practical extension of it.

However, in Germany, where the revolutionary slogan ‘socialism or barbarism’ was formulated, although a revolution broke out in November 1918, it did not develop into a socialist revolution, as it was frustrated by the betrayal of the Social Democrats. In the process, as we all know, Luxemburg, along with her comrade-in-arms Karl Liebknecht, was slaughtered by German soldiers (the massacre was ordered by the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party). They haphazardly threw the bodies of these great revolutionary fighters into the river.

But the story is not over yet. The setbacks of the German Revolution eventually created two totalitarian ‘barbarous’ systems in Germany and in Russia, systems that were politically similar to each other, but economically and socially opposed to each other, as Nazism and Stalinism. The causes of the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian workers' state were multiple, but one of the biggest factors was undoubtedly the isolation of the Russian workers' state because of the setback of the German Revolution. The Russian revolutionaries had tied their fates above all to the German socialist revolution. After it ended in its final defeat in 1923, a reactionary utopia of ‘socialism in one country’ gradually became dominant within the Soviet Union. Also, the factors that led to the rise and success of fascism in Germany were numerous, but it is clear that it arose from the extreme decay and imperialist barbarization of German capitalism that managed to survive due to the betrayal of German Social Democracy and the defeat of the German Revolution. After that, German Nazism and Russian Stalinism brought a half of the globe into extreme barbarism.

It goes without saying that Trotsky, whose work I have been involved with for nearly 30 years as a member of the Trotsky Institute in Japan, fought against the two ‘barbarisms’ without compromise. Trotsky's criticism of Stalinism is well known, so I will not go into it here, but I will discuss the ‘physiology of barbarism’ in his criticism of Nazism.

In his famous article ‘What is National Socialism?’ published in 1933, Trotsky describes the nature of fascism above all as follows:

What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the physiology of National Socialism.[28]

What a vivid description of fascism! This is truly the dialectic of the old barbarism and the new barbarism. Capitalism creates its own barbarism, but it does not create it out of nothing. It absorbs in its body the myriad of elements of old barbarism inherited from the past, and then, inside its stomach the gastric juices of capitalism dissolves it into sludge. But German imperialism, already declining and corrupting, cannot digest the sludge, and it overflowed from its throat in a rotten and undigested form. This is, Trotsky said, National Socialism, or German fascism. The same phenomenon of barbarism is seen today in various places.

This fascism eventually led to the Second World War, and the war created a huge barbarism far greater than that of World War I. This barbarism included the Holocaust, the Nanking Massacre, the Kachin Forest incident, the indiscriminate bombing of major cities, and the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Every past experiment of barbarism has been surpassed, and every world record of genocide has been substantially rewritten. ‘What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery!’ But before he saw the full-scale consequences of World War II, Trotsky was killed with an ice ax through his brain by a spy sent by Stalin. What would he have said if he had witnessed all the barbarism of the Second World War?

7. The Crisis of Neoliberal Capitalism and Modern Barbarism

What the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed is serious modern barbarism. Despite the existence of enormous productive forces and literally astronomical amounts of financial assets, not just Italy, Spain and the UK, which are supposed to be the developed countries, but also the US, which is the richest country in the world, because of the lack of ICU beds and ventilators, has been forced to take them away from old people who are unlikely to survive to give to younger patients. Not just youth but also money wins. One patient in New York City, on the verge of death, said, ‘who's going to pay for it (for the ventilator)?’. The nurse at the time testified that she would never forget these last words of the patient.[29]. This kind of thing happens every day in hospitals in the world's richest country. This is the very essence of modern barbarism.

Forty years of neoliberalism has clapped out the public welfare and safety nets of our societies, shrinking them incessantly. The Global North has become more and more affluent, but most of that affluence has been concentrated in a handful of large multinational corporations, platform companies, and financial asset owners. The general populace of the Third World and the ordinary workers of the First World (especially in Japan) have remained poor, and as public welfare has decreased, in fact, they have become even poorer. In the former Second World, the so-called ‘socialist bloc’, apart from China's huge successes, most countries that have become backward capitalist countries, their economies have collapsed, crimes has skyrocketed, and hundreds of thousands of young women have left for Western countries as sex slaves or similar. Drug trafficking and human trafficking have become rampant, and far-right dictators have come to power one by one.

In the midst of this corona pandemic, a white police officer kneed a Black man in the neck and choked him to death in Minneapolis, US, and a nationwide revolt broke out. It spread from the US to many parts of Europe. The racial discrimination, which remains unresolved, and in fact has become worse during the 40 years of neoliberalism, is also one of the barbarities of our time. And more than 80,000 women in today’s world are killed by men every year. In the 21st century, we are nowhere near the level of having achieved both basic racial equality and women's dignity.

On top of that, global warming didn’t slow down despite a temporary economic contraction caused by the corona pandemic, but it is getting more serious (this year it's going to be the hottest summer!). Before the pandemic, Australia had experienced huge bushfires from September 2019. After it caused the deaths of more than a billion wild animals, it was finally extinguished by heavy rains in February.

Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who also demonstrated his incompetence in the fight against Covid-19, is ardently promoting the deforestation and development of the Amazon rainforest, which has repeatedly led to massive fire. Heavy rains, typhoons, and floods-disaster after disaster every year-with adjectives like ‘biggest ever’ or ‘first in decades’ are happening in Japan and around the world. Even when the pandemic finally comes to an end, the harsh reality of global warming, an even greater calamity, will wait for us. Capitalism is increasingly incompatible with civilization and human survival.

In this sense, the historical dilemma of ‘socialism or barbarism’ is today more serious and acute than ever before in history.

Seiya Morita lectures at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo, Japan.


[1] For the tragedy of the Covid-19 virus, see Struggles In Italy, ‘Why is coronavirus killing so many people in Italy?’, 31 March 2020,; Mike Davis, ‘C'est La Lutte Finale’, 30 April 2020,

[2] Ian Angus, ‘The origin of Rosa Luxemburg’s slogan “socialism or barbarism”’, 21 October 2014,

[3] Rosa Luxemburg, ‘The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy,’ Peter Hudis & Kevin Anderson eds, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Monthly Review Press, 2004, p. 321. The English-translated text in this source has been slightly amended by the author with reference to the German original. Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie’, Rosa Luxemburg Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 4, Dietz Verlag, 1974, S. 62; The English version omits the German sentence ‘forty years ago’.

[4] Norman Geras, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, Verso, 1976.

[5] Trotsky Studies, No. 63, 2013, p. 62.

[6] Friedrich Engels, ‘Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science,’ Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 25, Lawrence & Wishart e-Book, 2010, p. 153; Michael Löwy cites another passage: ’both the productive forces created by the modern capitalist mode of production and the system of distribution of goods established by it have come into crying contradiction with that mode of production itself, and in fact to such a degree that, if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place.’ (Engels, ‘Anti-Dühring,’ Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 25, p. 146). See, Michael Löwy, The spark ignites in the action - the philosophy of praxis in the thought of Rosa Luxemburg, 20 May 2011, International Viewpoint

[7] Karl Kautsky, Das Erfurter Programm in seinem grundsätzlichen Teil erläutert, Dietz, 1892;

[8] Several editions of the Japanese translation of the book were already published in Japan before the Second World War, and after the war, a new translation was published in 1955.

[9] Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program)


[11] Rosa Luxemburg, What does the Spartacus League Want?, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 350;

[12] See, Luxemburg, ‘Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie’, Rosa Luxemburg Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 4, S. 142-143;

[13] Lenin, 'Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder', Lenin Collected Works, Vol. 31, Progressive Publishers, Digital Reprints, 2012, pp. 22-23. Lars Lih goes out of his way to make a long list of Lenin’s citations from Kautsky after 1914. Lars Lih, Kautsky Post-1914 Data Base Updated, 2011update,

[14] Moreover, the credit for being the first to point out this fact should not actually go to Angus. As mentioned in the comments to this paper on the website, another commentator pointed out this fact in 2009. See, Paul Hampton, ‘Who will win green socialism: workers, or a vague alliance?,’ 9 September 2009, Workers Liberty: Reason in Revolt

[15] Engels to August Bebel (in Leipzig), London, 16 December 1879, Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 45, pp. 431-432.

[16] Friedrich Engels, Introduction to Sigismund Borkheim's In Memory of the German Blood-and-Thunder PatriotsMarx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 21, p. 451. The phrase: the ‘universal barbarization’ is expressed as the ‘universal lapse into barbarism’ in MECW.

[17] Karl Kautsky, Der Weg zur Macht, Dritten Auflage, Berlin, 1920, S. 11.

[18] Trotsky published a pamphlet War and the International in German after going into exile in Switzerland just a few months after the outbreak of World War I, and in it he also raised a practical choice of a ‘permanent war or revolution (Krieg in Permanennz oder Revolution)’ (Leo Trotsky, Der Krieg und Die Internationale, Futurs Verlag, 1914, S. 86). Far more important than similarity of expression, this remarkable coincidence between Luxemburg and Trotsky and their striking contrast with Kautsky is what separates the Third International from the Second International.

[19] Rosa Luxemburg, ‘What does the Spartacus League Want?,’ The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 350. The English-translated text in this source has been slightly amended by the author with reference to the German original: Rosa Luxemburg, Was will der Spartakusbund?,

[20] The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 426; Marx & Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 482.

[21] Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party,’ Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 6, pp. 489-490. The English-translated text in this source has been slightly amended by the author with reference to the German original.

[22] Engels, ‘Anti-Dühring,’ Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 25, p. 170;

[23] Marx and Engels were pupils of Charles Fourier in this regard as well. Fourier expressed the idea that civilization is nothing more than a more refined and hypocritical form of barbarism, and Marx Engels cites this idea in their early work, The Holy Family. See, Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, ‘The Holy Family’, Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 196;

[24] Friedrich Engels, ‘The Condition of the Working-Class in England’, Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 340.

[25] Engels, ‘The Condition of the Working-Class in England’, Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 4, p. 444.

[26] Karl Marx, ‘Wage Labour and Capital’, Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 9, p. 228.

[27] Karl Marx, ‘Wages’, Marx & Engels Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 434.

[28] Leon Trotsky, What is National Socialism, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany, Pathfinder Press, 1971, p. 405. Incidentally, it is Trotsky who widely disseminated the unfamiliar term ‘racism’ at the time, which today everyone writes and talks about. He repeatedly used this term to define the nature of German fascism in this article. See, ibid, pp. 403-404.

[29] Alaa Elassar, A nurse revealed the tragic last words of his coronavirus patient: ‘Who’s going to pay for it?’ CNN, April 11, 2020,