Hal Draper


The Case Against Sanctions and “Neutrality Legislation”

(January 1936)

From Socialist Appeal [Chicago], Vol. 2 No. 3 January–February 1936, pp. 3–4.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IT HAS been claimed that a common characteristic of both reformism and communism is a disbelief in the ability of the proletariat to achieve its own emancipation. The Communists try to replace the working class with themselves, the reformists try to substitute other class groups for it. Whether this little theory is true or not, the present position of the Communists and reformists on the war question is such as would be expected to flow from it.

For both are trying to fight war thru the same means: using the working class to put pressure on their imperialist governments, with the intention of making anti-war instruments of these governments; rather than using the working class to combat the imperialist policies of their governments.

Now, for the working class to try to influence the foreign policy of the government is perfectly legitimate in itself; and so is the policy of trying to utilize the contradictions between the imperialist powers in favor of the workers. These aims, which the Communists claim as their justification, are not our point of attack.

But it is one thing to influence the foreign policy of the government, and it is another thing to subordinate working-class action to that policy. It is one thing to utilize imperialist contradictions, and another thing to give up the revolutionary class struggle in order to do so. It is the latter course that communism-reformism is taking when they come out in favor of League of Nations sanctions against Italy.

* * *

The revolutionary workers, in their desire to end the war aid Ethiopia in its fight for national independence, and strike a blow at fascist Italy, have certain means at their disposal: boycott of Italian goods; refusal by the workers to handle shipments to Italy; direct aid to Ethiopia (financial, medical, etc.); mass protests. Like all other anti-war actions, these means will be effective in proportion to the strength and class-consciousness of organized labor. This is what constitutes independent working-class action against imperialism in the Halo-Ethiopian conflict.

The imposition of sanctions by the governments is urged as another road to these ends. The theory runs as follows: if all the nations present a united front against Italy’s aggression (even if they do so only because of their own imperialist aims), the result of their collective action will be to force Italy to give up the war. since she obviously is not ready to fight the whole world. Thus peace will have been restored, and Italy’s designs defeated. Thus English imperialism will have been played against Italian imperialism in order to strike a blow against world imperialism. Pleasant illusions, certainly!

We must recognize at the outset that if one’s aim is to achieve a temporary peace at any price, there is one very easy way to do so: give Ethiopia to Italy. No imperialist power is going to make war if its lusts are satisfied. But it is not difficult to see that this imperialist solution of the question solves nothing at all. It can only strengthen and encourage, not only Italian imperialism but all imperialisms, to undertake similar operations, and thus it leads all the more surely and swiftly to war. It is claimed that sanctions will restore peace without this drawback. Let us see whether this is true.

In the first place, there is undoubtedly a danger that sanctions. far from ending the present unpleasantness, will rather lead to war on a larger scale. This is almost certainly true if Italy refuses to give in to League of Nations pressure, for the following considerations:

  1. The League sanctions system provides for a gradation from economic and financial sanctions up to military sanctions, as one step after another fails to bring results. Military sanctions is a polite term for the making of war against Italy by the members of the League of Nations. Such a war will be fought under the slogan of “Punish the aggressor,” and probably even “Crush fascism,” but we do not here have to discuss why it will have as bad a stink as that other war which was fought to punish Germany’s aggression on Belgium and to save democracy. And it is natural that economic sanctions should lead to war; for economic sanctions means economic war, and all imperialist wars are nothing but the inevitable continuation (by other means) of economic wars.
  2. The initial form of economic sanctions is a government embargo on shipments to Italy, and a government ban on Italian imports. The Communists in addition advocate a step which they refuse to call military sanctions: i.e. the closing of the Suez Canal and a blockade of Italy. It is obvious that, if Italy refuses to knuckle under (and Mussolini says he won’t), this leads immediately into a naval conflict - war. For the Suez Canal can be closed only by navy big guns; it cannot be closed by turning a key in the locks, since it is not a lock canal. And if the C.P. has first advocated closing the canal, how can it fail to support the war to which this step leads? To do otherwise would be to tell the British government: “We told you to sock that fellow in the nose, but we didn’t tell you to get into a fight with him.”
  3. The Soviet Union’s delegate at Geneva, Potemkin, made a very interesting proposal to the League, undoubtedly with the best intentions in the world of helping the cause of peace. He proposed that the League apply sanctions not only to Italy, but also to the nations that refuse to apply sanctions to Italy (e.g. Austria, Hungary, Albania). He (did not say whether he recommended applying sanctions to the nations that refuse to apply sanctions to the nations that refuse to apply sanctions to Italy. Whatever its motives, such a step would be a most efficient way of speeding the process whereby the world is lining up into armed camps.

* * *

But here the C.P.-reformist camp will say: “Look here. you assume in all this that Italy will persist in the face of League sanctions. But sanctions will not lead to war for the simple reason that Italy must and will yield to collective action by the governments of the world.” Let us therefore consider case II - where Italy does give in. What would this mean concretely ?

Even before Italy started military operations, it is well known that the League (including England) was willing to offer her a deal whereby she would get effective control over Ethiopia. Mussolini insisted on making war - perhaps for internal reasons - although all correspondents reported that the proposed deal would leave Ethiopia nothing but the legal semblance of national independence. Several times since, with Laval as intermediary, feelers have been extended to Mussolini repeating such an offer. The New York Times for November 3, in its weekly news summary, reports in a most casual, parenthetical fashion: “Private negotiations among Britain, France and Italy, looking toward peace - and toward the inevitable partition of Ethiopia - were pressed with renewed vigor ...”

This then what “effective” sanctions mean: that Italy accepts what she rejected before - a deal whereby the loot is “fairly” divided, England’s interests are preserved, Italy gets its cut so that Mussolini can maintain his prestige at home, and Ethiopia is taken into the “protective custody” of the League of Nations in the same way as anti-fascists are taken into the protective custody of the Italian police. It means that a temporary peace is restored in the easy way mentioned above - by giving Ethiopia to the imperialists, but in a diplomatic (civilized) way, not a military (crude) way. And around such a deal the entire League of Nations will be united, from England to Italy (with the exception, we trust, of the Soviet Union) and then - it will be plain enough that the only source of aid to Ethiopia against Italy is independent working-class action.

But there will be this difference: at the present time, independent labor action operates while the imperialists themselves are at loggerheads, disunited, unable to put up a common front against working-class action. When sanctions are “successfully” applied - after an imperialist deal - independent labor action operates in the face of a reunited imperialist front, all arrayed in support of the subjection of Ethiopia. The sanctions will have smoothed over (temporarily of course) the contradiction between Italian and English imperialism. - What an ironic situation! The Communists justify sanctions as a means of utilizing imperialist contradictions, when as a matter of fact it is through independent working class action only that one does so.

Another point: after an imperialist deal is patched up among Britain, France and Italy, and the burden of defending Ethiopia is clearly shifted back to the workers alone, will these be in the same position to carry through this task as they are now? Clearly not; for as long as the government is applying sanctions there is no need for agitating for independent action. As long as there is a government embargo on shipments to Italy, the workers will see no point in getting themselves stirred up about their own action. In short, sanctions will lead the working class to rely on government action rather than on their own, they will dull the edge of the workers’ weapons, so that when the time comes when the governmental crutch is removed, they will not be f ready to walk alone. This only describes the usual effect of all kinds of class collaboration.

And so the significance of sanction? can be shortly summed up as follows: at worst, an imperialist war; at best, an imperialist peace.

The Communists have another argument left - an illuminating argument. Driven to admit that England and the League will consummate an imperialist deal as described, they will say: Yes but when such a deal is arranged, and the governments seek to withdraw the sanctions, the working class must insist that the government continue the sanctions, it must fight for “real sanctions.” But after the British government’s conflict with Italy is ironed out, it no longer has any reasons for applying sanctions against Italy; and if it yields to working-class pressure, as the C.P. envisages, its reasons become those of the workers, which are to defeat Italian imperialism and fight fascism. In other words, the C.P. is proposing that we seek through working-class pressure to make the imperialist government of Great Britain into an instrument to fight Italy consciously for the sake of defeating imperialism-fascism-capitalism, when none of its own interests are at stake! The logical next step is to propose to mass-pressure the government into abolishing capitalism at home! This is literally to the right of Bernsteinian revisionism but perfectly in line with Ercoli’s report at the 7th Congress of the Comintern which called for democratic workers’ control of... the general staff of the army! Workers’ control of the capitalist state!

(Section of article dealing with neutrality will be published in next issue).

The Case Against Sanctions and “Neutrality Legislation” [Part II]

From Socialist Appeal [Chicago], Vol. 2 No. 5, June 1936,pp. 6–7.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

MANY Socialists (and still more, pacifists) who oppose sanctions, are enthusiastic supporters of “stiffened neutrality legislation” by the U.S. Government – a ban on the shipment of raw materials, on loans and credits to either belligerent – i.e., a general embargo. Sanctions, they say, is a one-sided action, and therefore dangerous; a general embargo is impartially directed against all belligerents.

Now it is clear that the revolutionary workers cannot be neutral in the present conflict between Italy and Ethiopia; they wish to help Ethiopia to defeat Italy – thru their own independent class action. But although the revolutionary party and the working class are not neutral, it is their duty to insist that the government remain neutral – that is, keep out of war. We are not for party neutrality, not for working-class neutrality, but emphatically we are for government, neutrality.

It is precisely the absence of this distinction that is at the root of the present social-patriotic line of the Comintern: since in a war between the Soviet Union and its enemies, we (the workers) would be on the side of the Soviet Union, therefore we must support war by the U.S. if it is on the side of the Soviet Union. But such a correspondence between the action of the working class and the action of the government can be had only when the class character of these two forces is the same – i.e., when there is a proletarian government.

In his debate with Norman Thomas, Earl Browder said: “A situation can develop tomorrow when German and Japanese fascism will proceed to attack the Soviet Union ... Will the militant Socialists adopt a position of neutrality? Will they advocate the slogan ‘Keep America Out War?’ Impossible!”

We Socialists intend to do the “impossible”; in contrast to the C.P., we are for government neutrality, we must oppose any steps which would lead the U.S. into war. And if any legislative action could be proposed which would really help to keep the U.S. out of war, we should favor such “neutrality legislation.”

The next question, is: This general embargo on all belligerents which is being proposed under the name of “neutrality legislation” – does it really make for neutrality? Will it help keep us out of war?

Its proponents base themselves on the experience of America’ s road to the World War. If America had not sold goods and given loans and credits to the Allies, they argue, she would not have been forced to enter the war on the Allies side to make sure that her bills would be collected. A general embargo in 1914 would have kept us out of war.

This argument itself indicates its own first flaw. The same result could have been achieved in the World War, not by general embargo, but by a one-sided embargo against the Allies, for the simple reason that the Allied blockade prevented us from selling goods to Germany anyway. Although theoretically directed against both the Allies and Germany, its effects would have been that of sanctions against the Allies. If the executive committee of the American capitalist class (the government) had actually taken such action, it would have meant one thing: that the American capitalist class was tending to line up with Germany – no more.

General embargoes are impartial only in declared purpose, in theory; in practice the are as one-sides as sanctions. This is necessarily so; for although an embargo may be theoretically aimed in all directions with an even hand, the field in which it operates is always uneven, and there fore its net effects will be uneven and unequal. It is like a dynamite explosion: the explosive force is sent in all directions, but only the ground underneath gets dented. That is why it is a popular belief among blasters that dynamite strikes downward only.

Therefore, even if the argument from the World War were otherwise perfectly correct, here are the conclusions we should really draw from it:

  1. It is a question of one-sided action, with all that it implies, whether such one- sided action takes the form of a nominal general embargo or openly one-sided action.
  2. Such one-sided action can work for peace only if we know m advance toward which belligerent camp our own capitalist class is tending, in order to slap an embargo on that side. This assumes first, that there is such a definite drift, on the part of the capitalist class rather than a period of wavering before the actual decision and declaration of war; and second, that if this drift were definite, we would be able to know it for certain. For it must be borne in mind that if we guess wrong, or if the capitalist trend reverses itself, then our one-sided action will become a pro-war force, since it will be directed against our own ruling class’s enemies.
  3. Even if all the above assumptions were granted, we should realize that when we ask our imperialist government to take steps directly contrary to its own imperialist interests (the only case where, in the above argument, government action can be a force for peace), we are in reality asking the capitalist state to change its own character. The unorthodoxy of this viewpoint may be no deterrent to those who do not hold the Marxist theory of the state anyway; but it should be pointed out that another corollary of this viewpoint is that the phenomenon of war is not an inevitable outgrowth of capitalism, but is merely a malignant aberration which can be cured on the basis of the capitalist system if only there is enough “peace sentiment” abroad in the land to work for “neutrality legislation.”

And in addition to all this, there is the fact that any such argument from World War experience is completely out-of-date, and would have no relevance even if all the above were not true. When the World War began, the U.S. had only taken a few short steps on the road of the extensive economic imperialism which characterizes it today. The U.S. was not then the creditor of the world. Its finance capitalism was not then so intricately and thoroughly entangled with international imperialism. That. is why the U.S. in 1914 did not yet have so immediate a stake in the international situation as to be drawn in, then; but rather developed her stake only in the course of the war itself. But today, this is not true. Since the World War, the U.S. has become a leading imperialist power herself, and her stake in the next war has been, and is being, determined now, in the pre-war period of imperialist peace. In the very best case, to lay an embargo after war is declared would be to lock the stable after the horse is stolen; its only possible effect would then be to drag us deeper into the mire.

How does this general analysis of general embargos (“stiffened neutrality legislation” ) fit the present situation? The evidence shows that it fits completely.

  1. The Times for Oct. 31, 1935, on recent statements by Roosevelt and Hull: “While they maintained the technical forms of an even balance of neutrality by warning American business men to engage in no transactions with either belligerent, the fact remains that American trade with Ethiopia is and always has been virtually non-existent, and a cessation of trade would therefore fall almost exclusively on Italy.” In other words, the actual effect of a general embargo is precisely the same as that of sanctions. The only difference is in declared purpose, which has no more weight against actual effect in the field of international relations than it has on any other field.
  2. That this is so is shown by the fact that the loudest supporters of “stiffened neutrality legislation” regard it as America’ s way of imposing sanctions on Italy, of “cooperating with the League of Nations.” The first witness is the liberal Nation, which is pro-sanctionist: “To withhold aid from Il Duce (to impose sanctions – H.D.) would not require a fundamental change in American policy.... action should be taken to extend the definition of ‘implements of war’ until it includes all the items covered by the League’ s sanctions.” (Editorial, Oct. 16, 1936.)

Second, the Times editorial for Oct. 27: “Clearly, since Ethiopia, for various reasons, cannot purchase our raw materials and Italy can, we enable Italy to prosecute and prolong the war by our exporting them. Also we break down the effect of the League sanctions ... The situation calls for American cooperation with the League’ s peace effort by not breaking down the sanctions. The President can find authority in the phrase ‘implements of war’.” The Times ran several similar editorials.

Kellogg and Stimson, two former Secretaries of State, have likewise declared the identity of “stiffened neutrality legislation” with sanctions. The American Youth Congress, in its resolution, explains its support of such “neutrality legislation” by the fact that it constitutes a blow against Italy. I could mention many personal acquaintances who think of sanctions in terms of “stiffened neutrality legislation” and vice versa. It is no wonder that when the Nation ran a debate in its pages between R.G. Swing for sanctions against Dorothy Detzer for neutrality legislation, the latter ended up her “refutation” by declaring her agreement with Swing!

Certainly, American sanctionists would have been unpardonably stupid if they had not sought to attain their aim under the name of “stiffened neutrality legislation.” In this crusade they find at their side many opponents of the word “sanctions” – but what difference does that make? Assuredly, we should not belittle the anti-war spirit behind these people who favor sanctions or “neutrality legislation”; but this is not the first case where “peace sentiment” is swept along by the war-current while it is fondly imagining it is battling upstream.

  1. Not only do the proponents of a general embargo regard it as sanctionist but so would all the other parties concerned. Geneva would hail such action as a victory for the League sanctions system; Mussolini would gnash his teeth and be just as mad at us as if we had been honest and used the horrid word; the U.S. Government, if it took the step, would take it with the full realization that it was adopting sanctions. Nobody would be fooled – except the naive pacifists, who are always fooled.
  2. The theory behind “neutrality legislation” is that although the capitalist state may tend toward war, mass pressure by the people can force the government to take steps that make for peace. This theory runs up against a certain hard fact, which is also a basic characteristic of the capitalist state.

The steps actually taken which involve us in war are taken by the executive branch of the government; the people’ s pressure is exerted to secure the passage of laws – i.e., on the legislative branch, and need not affect the executive at all. The legislature is the cushion between the executive war-makers and the anti-war masses. This is an object lesson on how the separation of functions in the parliamentary system works out.

In the present situation, public “peace sentiment” secured the passage of the Nye “neutrality legislation.” And then the executive branch turned this very “peace instrument” into a pro-war force. The Times, No. 1:

“... events have proceeded far enough in the definition of United States policy to leave little substance for the neutrality resolution, because President Roosevelt has exercised his reserve powers to apply economic pressure on Italy as the aggressor. That is admitted to be the diplomatic significance of his several warnings to American business to refrain from transactions with the belligerents.

“While the President has observed the letter and form of the neutrality resolution” his “broad interpretation” has in effect contradicted it.

“That was admitted without reservation in official circles today.

“The consequence is that President Roosevelt is aligned by force of events with former Secretaries of State Henry L. Stimson and Frank B. Kellogg, who have urged action calculated to brand Italy as the aggressor and stop the war ...

“It (Congress) will now engage in that task (more neutrality legislation) with a lively appreciation of the broad powers the President has in the conduct of foreign affairs, apart from any statutory authority vested in him.”

Let us top off the total effect of “stiffened neutrality legislation” with this consideration:

We have said that the workers must seek to aid Ethiopia thru their independent action; and that one such means is direct aid (financial, medical, etc.) A general embargo, in addition to all the above, would prevent such aid from being given to Ethiopia; it would prevent (at least a part of) that working-class support which is our alternative to sanctions. Now surely, such aid by the workers’ own resources would not involve us in financial and imperialist entanglements with Ethiopia or England; yet it would be cut off.

We must repeat again and again: it is a snare and a delusion to look toward any governmental action to prevent war. Let us not confuse and disorientate the workers with such “ways out.” We must point only to independent working-class action – and in the final analysis, to revolutionary action.

Last updated on 8 May 2020