C.L.R. James October 1935

I.L.P. Abyssinian Policy

Source: Controversy; Internal Discussion Organ of the I.L.P., (October, 1935);
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The I.L.P. has declared against a policy of sanctions. The Labour Party and the Trade Union Congress are for sanctions, even if it means war. Loudly and clearly the social-democratic leaders have sounded the trumpet. The Trade Unions in France are for sanctions, but not to the extent of war. There for the time being they stop. The parties of the Third International in Moscow and out of it are for sanctions. In Britain it is difficult to say where they are, except that they are for sanctions. To the average worker there seems a bewildering (and disheartening) confusion in these diverse reactions of the parties to the first great war crisis that faces the international working class movement. Yet it is here that the materialistic method, particularly as developed by Lenin, proves its worth. The confusion is only superficial. Behind it can be clearly discerned the rails laid down in advance, along which classes and different sections of classes were fore-ordained to travel, to be driven from them, if at all, only by the accumulating pressure of great historical events, and the chaos ends in revolution...

The political analysis of our era has been familiar for thirty years, at the very least since the Stuttgart Conference of 1907. Monopoly Capitalism, or, as it more familiarly known, Imperialism, demands a continuous expansion which the world, exploited already to the limit, can no longer satisfy. Imperialist war is the inevitable result. The proletariat must resist such wars, and never slacken in its efforts to end Imperialism, for only with the end of Imperialism can there be any possibility of permanent peace. It may seem superfluous to re-state these elementary principles in a journal like Controversy. But one has to re-state them when implicitly, and even explicitly, they are challenged on every side. The war of 1914-1918, the peace that followed, the history of succeeding years, prove these main principles without a shadow of doubt. But these events showed also certain class relations and methods of action which had not been clear before 1914. It is the great merit of Lenin that he not only saw them early but crystallised them into simple and basic formulae, showed in the Russian Revolution how these formulae could be made into principles of action, and formed the Third International to be the guiding organisation of those sections of the proletariat which were to be leaders in the overthrow of Imperialism. For the failure of the Second International to make even a gesture in 1914 was seen by Lenin to be not a historical accident or an outcome of the weakness of individual personalities, but the inevitable reaction of a certain section of the organised workers, worker in name, but in social content and therefore in political outlook essentially bourgeois, ready always in a moment of crisis such as war or proletarian revolution to side with its own bourgeoisie.

In every country of modern Europe the great masses of the workers are disorganised. Among those who are organised we have as a rule the most prosperous sections of the working class; and centering around the trade union organisations, the Party press and the official labour parties, holding all the organs of power, publicity and finance; are not only the bureaucrats themselves, but a substantial mass of workers whose standard of life and security are intimately bound up with the continuance of the bourgeois regime, that is to say, with Imperialism. Lenin saw this was and to a large extent always would be so. Hence the formation of the Third International of revolutionary workers – an international existing for the overthrow of Imperialism by civil war between the proletariat of every country and its own bourgeoisie, an international whose strategy and tactics of political action we know, but whose ideology it is worth-while re-calling today.

“The necessary distance was kept up in the party by a vigilant irreconcilability, whose inspirer was Lenin. Lenin never tired of working with his lancet – cutting off those bonds which a petty-bourgeois environment creates between the party and official social opinion ... Thus the Bolshevik Party created not only a political but a moral medium of its own independent of bourgeois social opinion and implacably opposed to it.”

(Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, III, p. 166.)

When after the war France and Britain grabbed Germany’s colonies and then formed the League of Nations, Lenin kept the International sharply away from any truck with it. “Thieves’ kitchen” he dubbed Geneva and warned the masses against any illusions about peace being established through the League. He and the International knew the League for what it was, a cloak for the machinations of Imperialism which needed some protection against the wide-spread horror of war and the distrust of Imperialism engendered by the war. A short view of the Third International, particularly of its recent history, will show us how inevitably the various parties in the world today have reacted to the Abyssinian crisis and indeed had no other road open to them.

After 1922 the International received defeat after defeat, ending in the rout of the German workers in February 1933. Yet, up to October 1933, even after Germany had left the League, the rulers of Russia who control the International, were still speaking of Geneva in Leninist terms (See I.P.C., Oct. 20th 1933, p. 1005). At the Soviet Congress of December 1933, however, we find Litvinov telling the Russian workers that there has been a great change in the League as an instrument of peace. The reason for this criminal nonsense was the fact that the negotiations for the Franco-Russian alliance were under way, and France was determined to bring Russia into the League. That Russia had to make an alliance with a bourgeois state and enter the bourgeois League was unfortunate. That is not the point here and now. We have to accept such historical facts, and while we have to be clear about causes, Russia at least is there and likely to remain there. Russia’s being in the League would entail Litvinov’s having to make certain statements with certain mental reservations. What is unpardonable and has had such catastrophic effects is the fact that Litvinov and the Soviet rulers not only made these statements at Geneva, but have consistently switched the whole policy of the international proletariat round to support of the League of Nations idea. It was not only that Stalin signed the communiqué with Laval and thus saddled the French proletariat with the doctrine of National Defence. Three weeks before the communiqué was issued he sent the Secretary of the Young Communist International, Chemodanov, to France who told the French Youth: “If war occurs against the U.S.S.R. and you make your revolution you will be traitors.” In other words, in a war against Germany if the Soviet Union is on the side of France you must fight side by side with your own bourgeoisie. In L’Humanité of May 24th there was reproduced a speech by Thorez of the French C.P.: “And now I answer a question that has been put to me: ‘In case of such a war launched by Hitler against the U.S.S.R., would you apply your slogan Transform the Imperialist War into the Civil War?’ Well, no! Because in such a war it is not an imperialist war that is involved, a war between two imperialist gangs, it is a war against the Soviet Union.”

As if France would be fighting against Germany for any other purpose than the same old imperialist purpose of the redivision of markets and important centres of production. The old parallel of Lenin making pacts with the Imperialists is brought in to justify the policy that the C.I. lays down for the workers in France. The analogy is so obviously false and empty that it only proves the emptiness of the C.I. case. Lenin was prepared to make a pact with the Imperialists, utilising the divisions between them. But weak as the Soviet Union was then, far weaker than it is today, Lenin did not at the same time cease to urge all workers to implacable struggle with the bourgeoisie. It is not what Lenin said to the bourgeoisie that matters. It is what he said to the workers.

All this may seem a far cry from sanctions and Abyssinia. It is not, but indispensable to a true understanding of the various policies. We have not only to oppose them, but to know where they spring from and, most important for the British workers, where they are leading to.

When Italian Imperialism, threatened by internal difficulties, came to terms with France over Austria and launched the attack on Abyssinia, British Imperialism encouraged it. Up to June Eden was still bargaining with Mussolini as to how much Britain could get out of it. (See New Statesman and Nation pamphlet on Abyssinia, page 14). But Mussolini proved intractable. And when British Imperialism realised how dangerous the situation was for British interests in East Africa, it turned to the League. But first it made one last effort. In the Paris talks in August it offered Mussolini the whole of the economic exploitation of Abyssinia, if only he would allow an international police force instead of an Italian army in Abyssinia. That they would not have. When Mussolini refused the British turned nasty. They manipulated the proposals of the Committee of Five which put Abyssinia into their hands, and still hiding behind the League, showed Mussolini that they were not going to let him get away with it. At the present time of writing France is the determining factor. France will not come in unless she gets a promise from Britain about Hitler and Austria, and Britain hesitates. She wants to watch and see how the conflict goes. But the British army is mobilised, the Fleet in position, the naval reserves called in. British Imperialism is ready. It does not want war. Who wants war? But it will manoeuvre, and if Mussolini insists, and sanctions do not stop him, then the British Government will fight as anybody in their place would.

Now let us see how the various parties react.

British Imperialism knows that its own interests are the ones at stake. In the last resort it will have to fight for them, and immediately the Labour leaders line up. They always have, and they always will, except when the masses are at boiling point, when they will oppose only to sell them out as Russia between March and October 1917 and in England in 1926. It does not matter what they passed at Brighton in 1933 or at Southport in 1934. In 1914 they were pledged to resist. But they must line up or take the revolutionary road. That road they will not take. And so nervous are they about the strong anti-war feeling in the country that they shout war even before the Government does so, most probably after having a hint or two from the Foreign Office. Baldwin thanks them in his Bournemouth speech for passing the resolution on sanctions. That disposes of the fallacy that Labour is urging the Government. As if Baldwin would mobilise the army and call in the naval reserves and send the fleet to the Mediterranean under pressure from workers. The hypocrisy of people who say this passes all reasonable expectation, as if workers could ever urge Imperialists into sanctions, if even sanctions mean war. These leaders are insuring themselves in advance. If war does come through sanctions, then they, having supported sanctions, will be taken into the Cabinet. As in 1931 some will be formal heads, and once more a “united Nation” goes into the slaughter.

The I.L.P., owing to the general turn of the party away from social-opportunism to revolution, has cut itself away from this fatal policy and, while supporting Abyssinia as Lenin supported Afghanistan against Britain, will not allow itself to be caught in the Imperialist trap, as many sincere workers have been, or rush gladly in as their leaders are doing.

Let us now look at France. There, French interests are not directly threatened. There is more room for diversity. Laval on the right wants to keep out. Herriot, the Radical, however is afraid of Fascism in France and would like to take this opportunity and drive out Laval. But though he will do more than Laval, he does not want actually to fight. It is easy therefore to understand the French Labour leaders. As usual they line up directly behind the bourgeoisie and, in cases of confusion, that section nearest to them. Sanctions by all means, they say, but no war. If, however, war does come, and war under Herriot, they will come in, we need have no fear. On the extreme Left in France is the group of Bolshevik-Leninists, the Trotskyists, whose position is similar to that of the I.L.P. They will fight this collaboration with the bourgeoisie to the end and try to turn Imperialist war into Civil war. Where are the Communists and the Third International? They also follow that line. Soviet Russia is at the League fighting for sanctions and hoping that by being firm in this alliance, when the time comes, she will get support against Germany from France, Czechoslovakia and possibly Britain. Germany is not in the League, but the Franco-Soviet alliance is an alliance against Germany. Hence, long months ago, the Soviet Union had the C.P. in France lined up with the Trade Unions, and of course they are shouting sanctions as loudly as the rest, and if France is led into war the C.P. will support and, if necessary, take part, as Andrew Rothstein informed an I.L.P. meeting some time ago. He spoke of a probable war between France and Russia, on the one hand, and Germany on the other. But the French bourgeoisie are not fools. The C.P. is tied up with large sections of them in the Popular Front, and if there is going to be any sort of war they are going to see that the C.P. is firmly enmeshed in it. There should be no surprise therefore that the C.P. in Britain and most of their fractions in other parties are for sanctions. Sometimes they say sanctions mean war, at other times it may mean war; they talk about fascism, about “forcing” the National Government and “exposing” it at the same time as you demand, etc. To any true Marxist all that means just nothing. Soviet Russia is hoping to keep in with Britain and France at the League for fear of Germany, and the word has gone forth to the parties: follow us and support sanctions and all the League trickery. That is the beginning and end of the policy of the C.P.

There is no earthly use in trying to follow the rationalisation by which these various parties seek to prove that “sanctions” is the correct policy for the working class. All the blather about Fascism to be fought by Democracy etc, etc., as if in a war there is anything to choose between Fascist Imperialism and Democratic Imperialism. It is not surprising nor bewildering, though somewhat nauseating at times. They are merely following out the laws of the political groups to which they belong and have to find some reasons. They have a hard job. We propose one query of many to any revolutionary socialist. It is this: If you are for sanctions, you are closing the Suez Canal. That can be done only by warships. You therefore must tell the sailors of the Fleet that you as a revolutionary are in support of this action. But Mussolini may attack. From start to finish he has never been bluffing, and it is madness to think that he will climb down now. The moment he attacks, war begins. How is the sanctionist now to make propaganda to the Fleet and tell the sailors to turn Imperialist war into Civil war? No true Marxist can play these games with the proletariat. There are too many ties already between the bourgeoisie and the masses for revolutionaries in the grave crisis of a war to go adding to them.

So much for the present. The danger for the I.L.P. is in the future. Certain elements are against the “sanctions” policy now. They talk about turning Imperialist war into Civil war. But there are indications that they are not true Leninists. If an Imperialist War between Germany and Russia should break out and by any chance Britain is drawn in on the same side as the Soviet Union, then those who are against sanctions now and against any sort of collaboration with their own bourgeoisie will begin to shout for supporting its own Government “while exposing it.” That way lies disaster. The true revolutionaries in the I.L.P, must be on guard; whatever the circumstances, the enemy is our own bourgeoisie, and in war time more than any other time, whatever the war; for every war in which an imperialist bourgeoisie takes part is an Imperialist war. The circumstances of modern war are such that any prolonged struggle will bring the masses into the streets. They will want leadership. The I.L.P. must be ready. And it will be all the stronger if it remains always and through every temptation, in peace time as in war, the implacable enemy of its own bourgeoisie.