International Communist Party Against Capitalist Wars

The Bourgeoisie and the Principle of Nationality

(from Avanti!, January 24th, 1915)


This article from Avanti! titled The Bourgeoisie and the National Principle is important because it attests to the stance taken by the socialist left no longer against the socialists who have passed over to openly supporting the war, represented in Italy by the defector Mussolini and very few followers, but against a current constituting the right-wing of the party, soon to constitute its famous “center”, which, while pretending to take credit for being against the war, causes great confusion in the directives of socialist action.

Indeed, it’s a response to a meeting held in Milan by a group of socialists who were neither for intervention nor for “absolute neutrality”. The article in its context refutes the claim of this current that the famous “national principle” should be accepted as a “prerequisite” of socialism.

After a critique of this exquisitely revisionist method of the prerequisites, and a defense against the already then unfailing accusation of dogmatism, which we have borne, and always will bear, to our credit ever since, the article discusses the point of nationality, showing that in all States and governments of the ruling classes such a principle finds no respect whatsoever, since every war motive has obvious economic and imperialistic bases.

In Milan, on the evening of January 8, a group of comrades gathered, including some MPs and councilmen, who are neither for absolute neutrality nor for intervention.

Those excellent comrades of ours, after some authoritative barbs against those who try to summarize the whole analysis of the complex issues of this decisive hour with the cry “Down with war!” and even deny the fatherland and the duty of its defense, they went on to declare themselves “convinced that the national principle cannot be repudiated, but marks a stage toward internationalism”, and, laying a hand on their consciences, they realized “that they cannot accept a principle of absolute neutrality that takes on the characteristics of that outdated Herveism repudiated even by its top assertors”.

After that, without offending the determined interventionists, we’re far from shaken.

Accusing us of dogmatism has become fashionable now. We encounter at almost every turn someone who loves calling us priests. And a wide experience now indicates that that insult is hurled at us whenever the socialist movement follows a good direction, unhesitatingly stepping on the toes of those who would like to channel it towards other paths. But the taunt of calling one’s opponents dogmatists is all the less effective because one can automatically retort them. One can formulate an arbitrary axiom as much by saying, “proletarians have no fatherland”, as by proclaiming that: “socialism wants peace between States, on the basis of mutual respect for national integrity and autonomy, a necessary prerequisite of the internationalist principle and its full implementation” (from the agenda of the Reggio Emilia socialists as reported by G. Zibordi in the Jan. 1 issue of Avanti!). It’s a matter of seeing what arguments and fact‑based justifications the proponents of either thesis have. And things remain where they were before.

If many find the old saying of the Communists outdated and merely formal, no one will deny us the right to opine that the famous theory of national freedoms, the “necessary prerequisite” etc, put forward unfailingly, constitutes the stiffest of mental frameworks.

Socialism is indeed destroyed by the lust for prerequisites. The backbone of reformism is this theory of conditions. Socialism will be, but first it’s necessary that… and here we could list all the degenerative forms of proletarian action: participation in power, blocs, excessive cooperativism, excessive educationism, adherence to capitalist imperialism or romantic irredentism… all, of course, to prepare the necessary conditions for the development of the class struggle, which our grandchildren’s great-grandchildren will think about. And in the last analysis, the most philistine bourgeois can call himself a socialist, if you send him some suitable assumptions: for example (and these are very common objections) perfect popular education, or perhaps the moral transformation of human nature. It is evident that all these conditions take us into a field perfectly antithetical to that of socialist thought and action.

And do those comrades who – without irreverent innuendo – are suspended between neutrality and intervention believe that they have clinched it once and for all by saying that absolute neutrality has a Herveist character, and since Herveism has been repudiated by its… inventor, so can the opinion of extreme neutralists be condemned without question? These are dialectical means, far more than priestly ones!

First of all, no one – I think – of those comrades who are against even the so‑called defense war called himself Hervéist.

Hervé was, above everything, a popularizer and an extremely effective propagandist. His name remains attached to an anti‑militarist method of action, not a doctrine. Socialist anti‑militarism has much more of a basis than some patent from the Parisian professor! But in any case, is it serious to invoke as a decisive argument the shameful and not recent turnabout of this man?

Does one annihilate syndicalism, as a theory, by merely recalling the evolution of Sorel’s thought? Jesuits use Voltaire’s purported deathbed conversion as an argument for spiritualism. The shop of Italian nationalist Catholic neo‑idealism throws us at every moment the list of our renegades. And the saying then goes that it’s we who copy the frameworks and styles of the priests!

Socialism is the ultimate of modern heresies. It should therefore not fear to overthrow any deity from its altars. The sentimental assertion that one cannot deny the feeling of nationality, cannot and should not therefore keep us from bringing our criticism down on ideologies based on the concept of nationhood.

Nationalities are facts, in that there are undeniable differences in race, customs, historical and cultural traditions in different regions of the earth. However, the division of the inhabited world into national groupings is but an abstraction, and it’s impossible, even limited to small areas, to conceive of it in an uncontroversial way. There are too many geographical, ethnic, historical coefficients concurring in it, many times in open conflict with each other. Instead, there are in reality the divisions and frontiers of the various States, which are more or less national in character, and may result from the dismemberment of one or the agglomeration of many nationalities, perhaps inextricably intertwined.

The formulation of the notion that each nationality must constitute a State unto itself without foreign interference, while seeming acceptable in the ethical sense to anyone inspired by abstract concepts of justice and freedom, has a purely metaphysical value, if one disregards the possibility of its realization, put in relation to the historical development of relations between States and also – as it’s discussed – from the socialist point of view of the contradictions between the various social classes.

Examining the historical development of the concept of nationality, it can be concluded that its universal realization is a utopia from which we are moving further and further away; and therefore, the interposition of such a postulate on the carrying out of socialism and, even worse, on the setting up of the class action of the proletariat, would condemn socialism to non‑existence and the proletariat to impotence.

In modern history, the establishment of the national principle coincides with the democratic revolutions that introduced popular sovereignty with the Third Estate replacing feudal aristocracies. The new bourgeois economy needed a regime of relative political freedom, and tended to establish parliamentary States to pave the way for the domination of capitalism. To overthrow the ancien regime, the bourgeoisie had to gain the support of the broad masses and accepted the humanitarian ideologies that were the basis of the revolution. The concept of nationality was in this process more a means than an end; it worked better to involve the people than to redeem them.

Having attained State political forms, which were necessary for the capitalist economy, the new ruling class became completely disinterested in realizing those idealisms that constituted the program of its early heroic times.

The first major affirmation of the national principle is contained in the declaration of the rights of the English colonists in the United States at the time of the War of Independence. In that case it was not a true national war, since the Americans were English by origin and had destroyed the Native Indians, and it was precisely a dispute of an economic/commercial nature with the mother country that prompted the young and vigorous capitalism in the colonies to create its own independent State.

In old Europe the unitary wars and revolutions, from which the bourgeoisie drew the energies for its development, actually had national characters. But the States that originated from them, like the others already established, in their methods of government and in their subsequent policy showed and continue to show that the conception of the national rights of the peoples had not been a programme for them, but simply the mask of dynastic and class interests.

It would take too long, and superfluous, to examine in detail the whole framework of the modern States in their mutual rivalries and colonial enterprises, and it’s easy to conclude that the ruling bourgeoisies are guided in their foreign policy only by the famous national, indeed State, “sacred egoism”, which finds no limit other than in the potential or actual clash with other, better armed egoisms. The only law in such relations is force, and there is no ethics of States, just as there is no international law to settle disputes between the major States.

The bourgeoisie – apart from a few romantics or demagogues – has consequently abandoned the illusory democratic doctrine of freely coexisting nationalities, to turn to the tendencies and politics of the various nationalisms, culminating in imperialistic aspirations and dreams of hegemonies, aims that cannot be achieved except by violently crushing the similar tendencies of rival States.

Thus we see the Italian bourgeoisie reconciling the traditions of the wars of independence with the Libyan and Aegean brigandage, and the German bourgeoisie, which arose from the war of liberation against the Habsburg dynasty, now allying itself with it in the war against Serbia, and extolling the annihilation of Belgian independence as a just and logical thing.

It doesn’t take much to show that in contemporary history and in the tragic events of today it is the State that prevails over the Nation.

And we socialists see in the State body not the exponent of the collectivity of citizens, but the conservative institution of the privileges of the capitalist ruling minorities.

Is there any place, in the clash of these bourgeois and State egoisms, for the defense or affirmation of principles of a universal nature such as democracy or nationality? We deny it. A State that subordinates the fate of its economic expansion and the resources of its military action to such sentimentality or scruples would only set itself up for defeat and give way to other, more aggressive States.

On the other hand, an examination of the facts shows us evidence that those governments which, while fighting against enemies and perhaps going on to undermine in their allies the enemies of tomorrow, dress themselves as the heralds of certain idealisms, while at the same time crushing them with the greatest ease when it suits them. Antagonisms and rapprochements between great States are not determined by the historical or social characters of their populations or institutions, but change and reverse according to the increase or decrease of the military power of each.

A fleeting glance at recent wars highlights this truth. How much rhetoric was spent on the famous Quadruple Balkan Alliance against Turkey? The concord of peoples yearning for freedom skyrocketed then, and the real motives for war were not seen in the ambitions of the Balkan States and dynasties.

However, the second war came, when the victors wanted to divide the spoils among themselves, and thus collapsed this facade of the conventional scenario which had been made to triumph, exhuming the faded prophecies of Mazzini, the famous national principle, which was supposed to point the redeemed to the peaceful settlement of the dispute. Ten years or so ago, Europe stood under the threat of the long‑deprecated conflagration because of the irreducible Anglo-Russian rivalry for Asian hegemony… averted the outbreak of conflict, came the Russo-Japanese war, from which the Moscow colossus emerged weakened. England thus turned against another rival, and prepared on all sides and by a long hand the present collision, in which Japan participates allied with yesterday’s enemy... But tomorrow other rivalries and other dreams of political and mercantile hegemonies will be determined, in the continual shifting of the centers of attraction and repulsion of the dynamics of States. What influences do nationalities exert on the action and directives of bourgeois States? What entitles one to call the current war a “war of nations”?

At the historical moment we’re passing through, Germany and Austria, two States whose national structure is enormously different, behave similarly. The majority of the ruling classes in all the warring countries aspire to an imperialistic solution to the war, based on annexations and dismemberments of the vanquished countries. Who remains to guard the famous national principle? The Moscow State that massacres the Jews, oppresses the Finns, prepares the betrayal to the Poles? The English bourgeoisie that suppresses the Boer revolt, and plans to enlarge its colonial empire while war is bloodying the continent? Bourgeois France that by retaking Alsace-Lorraine vows to detach another slice of Germanic territory? The Allies who, distrustful of each other, sign in London the famous pact not to treat peace other than by mutual agreement?

The principle of national autonomy – which for some classic cases undoubtedly gives rise to problems of real relevance and causes malaise lingering in the class activity of the proletariat – cannot thus be implemented by the ruling bourgeoisie and by the constituted States.

Understood too universally, it lacks even theoretically indisputable solutions. Conducted in the field of its realization it imports border adjustments that no State will peacefully accept.

Thus, the achievement of national independencies could not take place without wars. But these, resolving themselves in the prevalence of the strongest, can only create new irredentisms more bitter than the previous ones, when they even reach the point of suppressing them.

And, given that none of the modern bourgeois States, which have the strength of armies and fleets in their hands, are willing and able to espouse the cause of the irredeemed nationalities, what should the attitude of the socialist proletariat in the face of such a problem be?

This is what we shall examine in a future article.