Socialism and “National Defense”
(from Avanti!, December 21st, 1914)
Among the many beautiful and pre‑packaged dogmatic formulas... which they would tighten around our necks like yokes, those who, for a long and a short time, fortunately for them and for society, have been living outside our convent, there’s hardly a better one than that of “national defense”.
The yoke is accepted without question by more than a few of our people: it’s decided and consecrated that those socialists who, as men and as a party, completely solidarize with the national bourgeoisie in the defense of the soil of the fatherland when it is threatened by an invader, do well to do so.
Here, to the consolation of many, is an exception solidly wedged now in our… horrifying neutrality at any cost. Well, allow us to discuss the matter a little further by going beyond its schematic and superficial appearance, essaying it with doubtful and critical analysis, which for once we’ll be the ones to employ, against the Truth that has already had the official chrism of the anti‑socialist sanhedrin.
Not unlike the religious person who hears blasphemy, the bourgeois, the nationalists, the warmongering democrats, feel the hairs on their heads stand up when they see the sanctity of even a “defense war” revoked in doubt. Since the very common opinion has been credited, in the good old priestly way, with quoting some Latin saying, or with some simplistically stoned example – vim vi repellere licet – if I’m attacked by an evildoer, I resort to violence to defend myself. This way of clinching it once and for all – unworthy of those thinking heads who have discovered and diagnosed our collective deficiency and foolishness – neglects the evaluation of all the coefficients that must be kept in mind if one really wants to avoid the mental habits of the most crass dogmatism.
As a matter of fact, a few months ago, the former editor of Avanti! (1), after making the issue we’re dealing with the touchstone for distinguishing socialists from anarchists (?!), presented it from the proletarian point of view in more or less the following way: although the workers are those who, owning nothing, would have nothing to lose, they are in fact the greatest victims of a foreign invasion, since they cannot flee before the enemy army as those who have financial means can. The workers thus remain most exposed to reprisals, atrocities, and enemy repression, and this fact cannot be disregarded by the socialist party, which has in such a case the duty to participate with all its strength in the war against the invader, renouncing its prejudicial political opposition against the bourgeois State.
From a more general point of view, it could be said that the proletariat has an interest in the preservation of the nation’s territorial integrity, lest its class subjection be worsened with foreign oppression. Faced with a danger that threatens the stage of political freedom and economic prosperity already achieved, the workers should make common cause with the bourgeoisie, opening a parenthesis in the class struggle until the security of the borders is guaranteed…
It’s true that the threat of invasion generates a coincidence of interests among all the social classes of a State, and that the triumph of the enemy in such a case constitutes material and political damage to the proletariat; but such a threat, because of the militarism widespread in all countries and its continuous and universal increase, permanently burdens all proletarians in peacetime, and is realized immediately after the breaking of diplomatic relations between two or more bourgeois governments to the detriment of the working classes of all countries entering the war.
At such a critical and feverish moment, the Socialist Party should investigate whether or not the extremes of national defense are realized, in order to decide whether its attitude should be one of complete concord with the other parties and the government or one of explicit aversion – which may be expressed in very different ways: from a platonic vow to the launching of proletarian insurrection. Such an investigation is first of all made impossible by the fact that in modern States foreign policy constitutes the strict monopoly of the ruling spheres and all diplomatic action is kept secret, subtracting it even from parliamentary control. How, then, to ascertain which of the belligerent bourgeoisies bears responsibility for the war, when all governments declare that they were the ones dragged into it by force while working to secure peace; and at the moment when it’s urgent to decide on their own action?
But this isn’t the main point of the question. Even when it has been clearly ascertained which State provoked the war, no substantial difference has thereby been established between the conditions of the different countries from the point of view of the risks and danger of invasion to which the frontier regions are exposed. While the mobilizations of the opposing armies take place with only a few hours’ difference, while it’s unknown which States will make common cause with the aggressor or the aggressed, all the nations concerned find themselves exposed to the danger of invasion, they run the risk of future political oppression, all fatherlands are in danger, and for all the conditions of national defense are ultimately realized. When France and Piedmont declared war on Austria in 1859, the province of Novara was immediately invaded by the Austrian army. In 1870, the French State, which set out to crush Prussia, soon found itself in the condition of the most catastrophic defense. It’s evident that in all wars between neighboring States, the lesser or greater danger faced by the various countries is not because of the origin of the war, but because of the greater or lesser military efficiency or the fortune of the fight; and this is especially so because all armies have at all times ready the mobilization projects and the strategic defensive and offensive plans to be followed against any potential enemy.
It’s only in colonial wars that those who care to bring certain legal distinctions into the realm of the use of violence can establish with certainty, in fact and in law, the existence and origin of oppression. But, oddly enough, it’s precisely colonial wars that find the adherence of democratic advocates of national law; for that they pull another pretext from yet another box in their highly evolved cerebrums: that of the spread of democratic civilization!
Returning to our subject, let us note that, at the beginning of the war, having established the responsibility of one of the States, in the face of “History” or “Law” – which always remains for us Marxists an empty and useless abstraction, applying this diversity of bourgeois faults to a different duty of the socialist proletarians according to whether they belong to the attacked State or to the aggressor, all that has been done is to make the proletariat and the socialist party of the State that wanted the war bear the consequences of the nefarious policy of its own ruling classes, obliging them to carry out the action against the war while the proletarians of the other State are authorized to march in the ranks of the State army, under the orders of a socialist minister of war, to defend the fatherland, going beyond if necessary, in generous momentum, its threatened frontiers...
These are the consequences towards which the absurd concept of the socialist legitimacy of a defensive war has logically led us. Turning from theory to practice, this restriction of the anti‑militarist activity of the proletariat has led to the collapse of the proletarian International in the face of the European war. Let us say, incidentally, that in speaking of action of the Socialist Party against the war, we are content to refer to the minimal desire for the maintenance of class political opposition against the State even in time of war, further action depending on the contingent possibilities of the moment.
The ideal method is that of the simultaneity of anti‑militarist action; but it’s precisely this simultaneity that has been broken by the pernicious and specious exception of “national defense” invoked, rightly or wrongly, always playing games and falling into a misunderstanding, by the pro‑war socialist parties. On the other hand, it’s absurd to suppose that the political or revolutionary opposition that the different socialist parties make by reason of their own strength or preparedness does not result in a shift in the belligerents’ chances of military success. And since the probability of victory of a State, whether attacked or aggressor, will depend on its military power and the greater or lesser development of socialist tendencies among the proletariat, it is certain that the Socialist Party, by exerting vigorous action against the bourgeoisie of its nation, regardless of the latter’s political-diplomatic responsibilities, increases the probability of military defeat, enemy invasion, and future political oppression.
The Socialist Party thus finds itself in all cases at a crossroads: either to sacrifice on the altar of the fatherland its own physiognomy and to a great extent its own future, or to weaken, by unscrupulously following its independent action, the nation to which it belongs.
Faced with this responsibility, the seriousness of which does not depend at all on the famous concept of defense or aggression, socialism should never hesitate, lest it disown its whole self.
But, according to the aforementioned Mussolinian theory, from a currently unsuspected epoch, and according to other very just considerations, this betrayal of the Socialist Party in the face of the enemy results in bloody proletarian sacrifice. This is the equivocal way of posing the question that misleads many Socialists.
First of all, we don’t know how the bellicose situation created by the bourgeoisie can fail to resolve itself into bloody proletarian sacrifice, and we don’t believe that tears will be made less bitter to the mothers of slain soldiers by the thought that they have fallen invading other people’s land. Every socialist action results in proletarian suffering. Ours is a program of negation that tends not to make the current institutions just and useful, but to shatter their continual harrowing contradictions under the shock of the revolutionary tide. The proletariat will redeem the blood of its children at the price of its own blood; and socialism can find no other way to overcome the filth and infamy of the capitalist world. Won’t the entire contemporary history of trade union demands, which is carried out by the method of the strike in which workers condemn themselves to hunger and misery in order to wrest a relative betterment of their livelihood, seem absurd to men of the future? These contradictions go back to the cornerstones of the regime we fight, and necessarily reflect on our entire struggle, which will remain in history as a heroic but sad martyrdom, in which conflicts moved against the interest of the ruling class always result in the slaughter of the oppressed, strikers, cops, proletarians made soldiers under one or another bourgeois flag.
The dilemma and crossroads before which the Socialist Party finds itself is analogous to the Shakespearean “to be or not to be”.
Under no circumstances, without denying itself, can socialism resign itself to national concord. This is shared and extolled by all other parties whenever the fatherland is in danger, even if through the fault or will of the State government. But such unity cannot and must not be shared by us when even the cause of the horrible phenomenon of war was in the will of enemy governments, perhaps with the deluded complicity of their peoples.
And quite different is the sacrifice that other parties make from that which would be required of ours. The others have national unity and social peace as the goal of their hypocritical ideologies, which mask the unconcealed tendencies of the ruling minority to preserve their privilege to oppress. We, on the other hand, are the party of open civil discord, of self‑declared class struggle, and to take Socialism outside this camp, under pretexts borrowed from the opposing world, is to kill socialism.
We believe that those who run after the meeting point between Socialism and national problems will be reduced to finding that the only way to understand the historical mission of nationalities constituted into State bodies is nationalism, for which it’s one nation and always the same that is constantly right; and it’s right to the extent that its armed strength is great and the internal class discord is small.
In any case, it can surely be concluded that the least happy, least Marxist, least socialist solution of the problem of the relations between socialism and nationality is that which is vulgarly expressed in the catch phrase of “national defense”.
(1) Reference to Benito Mussolini before he was kicked out of the party for his wavering views on the war.