As Concerns Neutrality - At Our Posts!
(From Avanti!, 16 August 1914)
In the first part of the History of the Left, we have already illustrated this article and the editorial note that Avanti! (then led by Mussolini) added to it.
There’s no need to point out yet the significance of the article and the commentary. The article, which came out very shortly after the outbreak of World War I, stands to show how the Left immediately took a position in Italy identical to Lenin’s on explaining the causes of war and condemning all “defencism”. The editorial note, tortuous and equivocal, pretends to support the article, but gives wide credence to the exact same theses which it’s directed against, with a distinction (classic for opportunists of all times) between logical and historical positions, which we will find at every turn in our way, and are an infallible symptom of an imminent crossing the Rubicon.
It may be said that the young Left had to immediately disavow Mussolini. It’s undeniable that there are even more distant historical precedents of this situation. The reaction certainly came belatedly; one of the many nefarious effects of the admiration for Great Men! We refer to the explanatory text in Part I: here we publish first the article, then the editorial note.
Since we Italian socialists found ourselves, at the outbreak of the European war, in a more or less transitory state of being mere spectators, the assessment of events that we can make today, even through the one-sided and tendentious news we have of them, is undoubtedly worth guiding us in today’s and tomorrow’s action against the war, even if the discussion of what has taken place in other States has at the present moment a tinge of academicism.
In the common aspiration to the tenet of Italian neutrality, there have been some dangerous currents making their way into our movement which threaten to compromise it. Many comrades express and spread in demonstrations and in the press a feeling of lively sympathy for the Triple Entente, not only justifying but outright exalting the attitude of the French socialists to the point of claiming that Italian socialists should rush to fight in defense of France. There’s a single step separating this point of view from the notion that Italian neutrality shouldn’t be broken to favor Austria and Germany, but it could be to support France. Such an attitude does not adhere to socialist principles in the realm of ideas, and in the practical realm all it does is play into the hands of the government and the Italian bourgeoisie, which is dying to intervene in the conflict. Let’s look at its motives.
It’s said that in the face of the deluge of events as grandiose as those we’re witnessing right now and which reverse all political and social values in some unforeseen way, we must throw away frameworks of thought and distance ourselves from “formulas” in order to be inspired by a criterion of “being realistic” when choosing a position. Thus, relegating the concepts of anti-militarism and socialist internationalism to the backroom of Platonic affirmations – since events would have them dumped, or at least pending – one must realize that at this historic hour those social gains of freedom and democracy that were believed to be eternally assured are at stake, and that the danger they face consists in the victory of Austro-German militarism, which would want to bring back the historical epoch of barbarian invasions, and which has brutally attacked the most liberal, civilized and peaceful nations.
We will return to socialism “after the cataclysm is over”; for the moment, the cause of civilization must be defended, opposing the Teutonic devastation of France and its allies.
Thinking this way, we are told, means courageously stepping out of “formulas”. Although those formulas were good in “peacetime”, as the basis for speeches at demonstrations and as seasoning for election performances, and nobody told the simpletons that the “formulas” were to be abandoned at the decisive moment. Back then, “frameworks of thought” were unshakable convictions, ideals to which one would sacrifice even one’s life, faithful reconstructions of social reality indicated by a faith that would never be disproved. Because of the truth, because of the sincerity, because of the honesty of socialism, those who thought it as an empty scheme, a useless collection of formulas, didn’t have to wait to throw it to the fire during the hard test of this sinister hour.
Without closing our eyes to what is happening in order to cultivate stubborn illusions in the abstract loneliness of conscience, we socialists can and must maintain that socialism has not been killed, and that, inspired by the directives so far followed, we must still directly and surely act in the present situation.
Those who think they are getting out of our old formulas are not aware of the fact that they are only falling back on formulas that aren’t ours at all, and accepting directives that they’ve always denounced as false. This is a phenomenon that happens at great historical junctures: parties retrogress and rely on outdated watchwords. In the Italian Revolution, it was the republican revolutionaries who made the monarchy. In 1871, it was the French Internationalists who saved the nation. It’s a sign of the immaturity of the parties of the future. Might it be that socialism is still immature and its forces will fall back to defending the principles, outdated ideals for us, of democracy and nationalities? Perhaps. In Italy today, however, one can still act as a socialist. Tomorrow, perhaps, everyone will go and choose another place according to his or her instincts. But now we still have a battle to fight; and it must not be compromised, it must not be tainted. The Socialist Party can – just maybe – prevent the slaughter from spreading to Italian workers, that many hundreds of thousands of human beings swell the number of killers and killed for interests that are not their own. We are therefore, by the heavens, on the solid ground of socialism, which does not yet give way under our feet.Those who think they are getting out of our old formulas are not aware of the fact that they are only falling back on formulas that aren’t ours at all, and accepting directives that they’ve always denounced as false. This is a phenomenon that happens at great historical junctures: parties retrogress and rely on outdated watchwords. In the Italian Revolution, it was the republican revolutionaries who made the monarchy. In 1871, it was the French Internationalists who saved the nation. It’s a sign of the immaturity of the parties of the future. Might it be that socialism is still immature and its forces will fall back to defending the principles, outdated ideals for us, of democracy and nationalities? Perhaps. In Italy today, however, one can still act as a socialist. Tomorrow, perhaps, everyone will go and choose another place according to his or her instincts. But now we still have a battle to fight; and it must not be compromised, it must not be tainted. The Socialist Party can – just maybe – prevent the slaughter from spreading to Italian workers, that many hundreds of thousands of human beings swell the number of killers and killed for interests that are not their own. We are therefore, by the heavens, on the solid ground of socialism, which does not yet give way under our feet.
Thus it’s a mistake to immediately rely on Francophile sentimentality, which isn’t the newest need of the hour, but is the old scholastic baggage of Italian democracy. Let us preserve our party program. If nationalism has repudiated itself to the point of winking at Austria, if the democrats emasculate themselves to the point of commanding the people to keep quiet and blindly follow the government, that’s no reason why we, having forgotten socialism, should rush to fill the gaps left by patriots and careerist democrats.
Thus we must and can stand on our ground, against all wars, in defense of the proletariat, which in those wars has everything to lose, nothing to gain, nothing to preserve.
* * *
Ever since man has had the gift of thinking before acting, in order to escape keeping commitments, the concrete consequences of abstract statements, the advocacy that lurks in every thinking being has always resorted to distinctions. Thus today it throws to us, quite unexpectedly, the distinction between war of offense and war of defense, between the invasion of another’s fatherland and the protection of national territory. And yesterday’s anti-patriots write a letter destroying ten volumes, a thousand speeches, a thousand articles, and march to the frontier. Is socialist politics, too, then, a cult of nice gestures instead of real sacrifices? France has been attacked, and is defending itself against the German danger. But have you read Congressman Haase’s statements to the Germanic Reichstag? Germany is defending itself against the Russian danger. All fatherlands are in danger, since they all hurl themselves against each other. This is what’s really happening: in every country the ruling class succeeds in fooling the proletariat into believing that it’s animated by peaceful sentiments and that it has been dragged into the war to defend the fatherland and its supreme interests, while in reality the bourgeoisie of all countries is equally responsible for the outbreak of the conflict, or more accurately, it’s the capitalist system itself which is responsible, which for its needs of economic expansion has engendered the system of large armaments and armed peace, which today collapses resolving itself into a frightening crisis.
The thesis that the war was prepared and wanted by Austro-German militarism is but insubstantial formalism and scholasticism. As it is also superficial to link the militaristic character of the two empires to traditions of the feudal era, outdated by modern history. Germany’s great armaments correspond to the development of its industry and the very modern needs of its trade. Putting itself at the forefront of the capitalist world by its excellent and very intensive production, and not having, like England and France, vast colonial empires, modern Germany, formed as a nation only long after its rivals, launched itself out of necessity into a military preparation that would assure it a good place in the world. Crushed a hundred years ago under the Napoleonic occupation, precisely because modern militarism, which had emerged from democratic France, was far stronger than the old armies put together by the German barons, bourgeois Germany rose again by freeing itself from the medieval leftovers of Austrian imperialism and launching itself into the modern paths of capitalist and – we would be inclined to say – democratic imperialism. In 1866 Germanic militarism was not painted in such gloomy hues by Italic patriotism, and those who spared Italy the consequences of the beatings taken at Lissa and Custoza were not called “followers of Attila”.
On the other hand, modern States tend toward militarism, not only to compete for commercial hegemony, but also for other reasons that reflect domestic politics and are in direct antithesis with the interests of the working class and its aspirations for socialism. Even the supremacy of one or the other of the national bourgeoisies is of little interest to the proletariat, which, depending on the needs of the labor market, passes and re-passes, at an ever-increasing pace, national frontiers.
Let us not, therefore, be accused of dogmatism if, in the face of the great drama that unfolds before us on the scenes of conventional foreign policy, we go back to internal and class conflicts and do not believe that Franz Joseph’s whim or Wilhelm II’s taste are the cause of the war.
Bourgeois Austria was moving, by leaps and bounds, toward collapse, due not only of the action of the proletariat, but also and perhaps even more due to the hatred between the races. Out of necessity for its State preservation, it attacked Serbia. It is foolish to think that a State will allow itself to be dissolved without engaging the great military forces it directly wields. With a war Austria could hope to cement its State structure, overcoming internal conflict in national exaltation. This sparked the fire in Europe. Given the existing system of alliances, Germany had to come to grips with the three surrounding giants; conflagration became inevitable. What does it matter to discuss and ascertain who threw the first stone? It’s true that the alliance system is blamed on Prince Bismarck; but we don’t believe much in the influence of living individuals in events; even less in the influence of the dead ones.
To “prove” that Germany is the aggressor, it’s said that the neutrality of Luxembourg and Belgium was violated, thus tearing up the canons of international law. Is this simple naivete or an ironic joke? What good is a right that no authority can guarantee, in the wild unleashing of human savagery in an unprecedented war?
And would the French General Staff have had any scruples about violating Swiss neutrality if it met its plans?
What a comedy the governments are playing here! After having prepared for war in every way, with large armaments, thus stirring up national hatred, insidiously undermining each other with diplomatic pitfalls, with espionage, with corruption, they now clothe themselves in candor and tell the proletariat to rush to arms because others have violated the “rights of the people”, attacking them treacherously!
* * *
Another famous argument that they like to resort to is that of democracy in danger. It is declared that the German victory would be a “return to barbarism” because modern civilization first radiated from France. Do we really need that many words to show that this thesis is hollow and specifically anti-socialist? Civilization in the sense of a progressive “irradiation” of ideas, concepts, trends, we don’t even admit such a thing. Let’s leave that to the early anti-clericalists. In historical development we see the alternation of classes, due to the succession of social forms that proceeds not gradually, but by successive crises. In the militaristic Saturnalia to which Europe has given itself, is it not one of these great crises? Whether “civilization” or “barbarism” emerges from it does not depend on the victory of one or the other, but on the consequences that the crisis will have on social class relations and the economy of the world. Besides, what does Germanic civilization really have to envy French civilization over? We need to really get our minds out of formulas borrowed from the most vulgar interpretation of facts! German industry, trade, and culture do not allow silly comparisons with the barbarian hordes. German militarism is not a remnant from another epoch, but a very modern phenomenon, as we have tried to demonstrate. If we are moving toward military barbarism, it is because the whole bourgeois – and democratic – civilization has prepared this solution for its intimate contradictions, a solution which appears to us today as a historical return…. And also, isn’t it France that’s allied with Czarist Russia?
But it’s necessary to break off and conclude. Conclusions can show that the theoretical principles of socialism do not take us out of reality, as Giovanni Zibordi well says in his magnificent article. There is a wind of war with Austria. The Italian bourgeoisie desires it, encourages it, would like to take up arms, which is to say, have the workers to take up arms, to side with the Triple Entente. This tendency broods in the shadows. It will erupt in the squares if the government wants to wage war against the Germans, and perhaps we will witness the scenes of September 1911, especially if we are disoriented by Francophile sentimentality.
Are we not playing Salandra’s game too much, shouting “long live France” to avert war against it?
The government might feel that its hands are free, invent a German provocation, wave the rag of the fatherland in danger, and drag us to war on the eastern borders.
Tomorrow, under the weight of the state of siege, we shall see spread over the world the other official lie that even in Italy there are no longer any parties in warmongering unanimity.
At our place then, for socialism!
EDITORIAL NOTE FROM REFORMISTS OF AVANTI!
In the strong and concise article we publish here, is validly defended what might be called the “framework of thought” of socialism in the face of war. We hardly need to say that except for certain statements we agree substantially with the comrade [writer] and refer back to what we wrote in controversy with Unità. We want to remain – to the last – faithful to our ideas as socialists and internationalists: the whirlwind may overwhelm our people, but it will not overwhelm our faith.
Unfortunately, the “framework of thought” of socialism is one thing and the “historical” position of socialism is another. The former is determined by pure logic whereby given certain doctrinal premises certain consequences follow in a dialectical relationship of cause to effect; the “historical” position of socialism is the result of the complex action of various factors and circumstances. Man is not or at least not exclusively a sentient being: sometimes reason is overwhelmed by feeling and logic cannot withstand the force of passion.
One cannot think, except on the ground of “pure logic”, of a socialism totally unrelated and refractory to the play of environmental influences. One would have to suppose it as a miraculous creation from scratch without roots in the past, without contact with the reality of the present…and with what likelihood of life in the future? None. A marvelous construction, but absurd. Even the absurd can be wonderful. We think of Stirner’s “The One”. Now, according to the inexorable pure “logic” of principles, the attitude of the French or German socialists would be incomprehensible and unjustifiable (didn’t Marx cry out: “Proletarians of the whole world, unite!”?) but if we do not shut ourselves up “in the abstract solitude of our conscience” as [the writer of the article] precisely says, our judgment will necessarily have to be different. We will have to “understand” before condemning.
That said, we reaffirm our purpose to remain to the last on the “logical” ground of socialism. That is why we remain indifferent to the bellicose motives modulated these days on the basis of irredentism or on coming to the rescue of a democracy that needs saving, borders that need to be corrected, more or less famous and more or less unstable “balances” to be maintained etc. We would have a few other points to make about certain statements in the article [quoted]. That it is “foolish” to speak of “Germanic barbarism” is very true. We have always distinguished the German race from the military organization of the German empire. The German race has made its contribution of immortal works to the heritage of the human spirit.
But it cannot be denied on the other hand that the framework of the German empire, a framework modeled on Prussia, is feudal and retrograde and in many manifestations of its militarism barbaric. The ill-treatment of soldiers proves this. Remember that in Prussia (and Prussia with its 42 million inhabitants is the empire’s pillar) the right to vote for the working class does not yet exist.
[The writer of the article] will want to admit that between the Junker regime and that of French democracy, the difference is not exactly entirely negligible. And that Germany is the “aggressor” in the war is beyond doubt.
The British "Blue Book" documents this in the most comprehensive manner. Certainly the war was fatal given the system of “armed peace” inaugurated by European capitalism; however, it must be acknowledged that we owe the anticipation of the hurricane to Germany.
A few other observations of a completely secondary nature remain on our pen. We do not want to crush the article, on whose fundamental statements, as we have said, we fully agree.
It is necessary more than ever to remain socialists first and foremost.