Socialism, Fatherland and Defensive Wars
(from Avanti!, January 6th, 1915)
This article grew out of the discussion raised by the preceding one (Socialism and “National Defense”) and by a postscript in Avanti! replying to an article by the reformist Zibordi, who was also against intervention but concerned about the anti-defencist position that corresponded to what Lenin powerfully termed “defeatism”. The postscript in Avanti!, while denying defencism, seemed to want to confine itself to the correct contingent observation that the Italian case would not be defensive but aggressive. The following article develops the thesis that any concession made to the principle of defense of the Fatherland is tantamount to the destruction of socialist internationalism. With many references to the actual historical situation of the war and of that moment in Europe and Italy, the article shows to what grave dangers defencism would expose the proletarian party. The analysis given in it anticipates the practical and future situation of Caporetto in 1917.
Delighted that the editorial postscript to Zibordi’s second article on “Difesa Nazionale” (1) broadly matches the ideas for which I argued in the previous article that appeared in the December 21st issue of Avanti!, I ask for a little more space to put forward some objections to the last part of that postscript. The discussion of national defense today is of an exclusively scholastic nature, since the war that looms on the horizon is a war "of aggression", that is, of the initiative of the State by which we are governed, and it’s today only necessary to tighten ranks among all socialists who to such a war are and will be resolutely opposed – such is the opinion expressed by Avanti!.
Well, I believe that the discussion in this regard is, on the contrary, anything but scholastic, and I was writing that modest article of mine precisely in view of the anti‑war action that we will all have to carry out tomorrow, too much undermined today even in our own ranks by the pernicious infiltration of a thousand equivocal bourgeois ideologies.
Let me clarify the scope of today’s discussion of "national defense", which should, it’s true, have been had before the war, but which can best be made today by keeping in mind certain aspects of the beginning and unfolding of the European conflict.
Is it certain today that tomorrow’s war will be a war "of aggression"? Here’s the point. I argued precisely, in the article cited above, that the sharp distinction between the two species of war is gratuitous and purely imaginary and cannot serve as a platform for proletarian anti‑militarism. I tried to show how bourgeois governments can always claim that they didn’t want war, having a monopoly on all those elements of politico-diplomatic judgment that are normally removed from popular control. I argued above all that even in a State that willingly initiates war, the conditions of "national defense" constituted by the threat of foreign invasion and loss of national independence can be realized for the proletariat. Comrade Zibordi sees in this an application of logic "removed" from reality.
I will thus explain myself in more practical terms. When tomorrow the Italian State has decided on war, the government will first of all present us with a thousand dangers threatening Italy. It will not be difficult to show, before the masses, the characteristics of the war in order to make it seem like a defensive war, as has been done everywhere.
A telegram will suffice (perhaps false as the one in 1870) from the Kaiser to the King of Italy. There’ll be a thousand other proofs for the necessity of war. And do you think that all the interventionist arguments aren’t ultimately based in this ideological and sentimental plane of national defense? The "danger" of a German victory is the keystone of warmongering mythology. Just as the "danger" of economic and political suffocation won the German socialists over to the national cause. And shall we, internationalists, have to distinguish between the defense of Italy and that of Belgium and France, which the Italian army would indirectly accomplish? All this will be the petty currency of the sneaky propaganda that will make the Italian war a just and necessary war. Have you already forgotten how the Tripoli adventure began?
But leaving all that aside – and here’s the important point – having the war been declared, call it a war of aggression against Austria and Germany, the Austrian armies will prepare themselves for action on their part.
The Anglo-French fleets in the Mediterranean will in all likelihood evacuate the Adriatic to leave a free field for the revenge of Italian honor – and to see with gladness the two rival fleets mutually rid themselves of many large units – the Austro-Bavarian army corps will press on the northeastern frontier, and in short the Adriatic and Venetian coast will be under a serious enemy threat. And then it will not be ruled out, o comrade Zibordi, the case of an invasion through the proletarian cobweb of the Reggio Emilia province, although secured by the Po line. Or at least it’d be somewhat likely, if all Italian socialism were, as in your province, numerically powerful, and like you indignant against the war of aggression and attempting its sabotage. Here is the extent of the responsibility that awaits our Party. Will it be so different, should the declaration come from across the border?
By resting our propaganda on a distinction devoid of socialist content, nothing will be gained by our action tomorrow, we only have to lose from doing that. Will those – even among our comrades – who enthusiastically support us today but still make an exception for the "defensive war" hold up to the harsh test of the realities of war? When it comes – with a campaign that will tend from a minimum of political opposition to more decisive forms of action – to undoubtedly take away chances of success from the State engaged in war, while the enemy with greater or lesser military success will press the frontiers?
There’s a widespread, but little socialist, aversion to the war of aggression, while adhering to the war of defense. Now, if we wish to remain within the lines of revolutionary socialism, we must base our action and battle, even when the opportunity appears to us to broaden its basis to more proselytes, on purely and exclusively socialist directives. I seem to hear objections to this "abstract", "theoretical" – and even "algebraic" – statement, but there is for it a recent, painful argument that I consider decisive.
We have already been victims of an error of perspective, and we’re bitterly suffering for it. When it seemed that the war, the "only possible war", was the one on the side of Germany and Austria, the Socialist Party, confident that it had widespread support also within other parties and in the non‑proletarian classes as well, made much use in its propaganda of arguments that could have been shared by the democrats and by more than a few conservatives, and promised, counting on militias that weren’t entirely ours, a popular insurrection.
Now that the possibility of the other war has come up, we suffered – what’s the point in hiding it now? – a rude blow. Democracy and the middle bourgeoisie became warmongers. The Socialist Party remained politically isolated. What an advantage, if only it had been like this (or is that a slandered theory?) from the beginning! We would have closed the door through which innumerable allies entered at that first moment, but from which they later left taking with them, after furiously turning against us, more than just a few of our own.
That is why, because of obvious similarities, it’s today necessary to clarify the reasons for our aversion to war. Our propaganda must be such as to make us safe from the pitfalls of bourgeois corruption and lies, and not to indulge in what appears today to be favorable opportunities of the situation, but may actually turn into pitfalls later. Against all wars, not in order to express, as the easy‑going people of crackpot philosophy say, a dogmatic Absolute, but in order to prepare ourselves to repel from all sides the assaults of the anti‑socialists, so that we can make the proletariat immune from all the misrepresentations and falsifications of bourgeois warfare to which one would like to lead it tame.