Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

War and the Workers

John West

War and the Workers

IV. Development of the Present War Crisis

The present Italian campaign, narrowly considered, is the external expression of the violence of the internal economic and political conflicts of contemporary Italy. It must be remembered that in the Versailles Treaty, Great Britain and France repudiated most of the secret promises of territory and colonies by which they had induced Italy to enter the war on the side of the Allies. It must also be remembered that Italy is exceptionally poor in many of the basic raw materials (e.g., oil, iron, coal, cotton). Such factors as these combined with the social and political character of the Fascist regime to precipitate economic crisis in Italy before most other nations, and to ensure that the world economic crisis would have more terribly damaging effects Italy than in perhaps any other nation.

No possible internal measures have been able to alleviate the Italian crisis. The lowering of the standard of living and real wages of the Italian masses to almost unbelievable depths has only exaggerated the conflicts, and further narrowed the possibilities of the internal market. The economic and social conflicts, in spite of the severest repressions, have shaken the political stability of the Fascist regime. Italian finance-capital must acquire sources of raw materials, new markets, and new fields for the investment of capital funds for which there is no employment at home. Mussolini must seek a re-unification of the Italian masses around the Fascist regime by directing their attention away from Italy and toward foreign conquest.

Thus both the basic economic and political factors require an “external solution” – require a war of aggression.

For a variety of reasons, the eyes of the rulers of Italy turned toward Ethiopia. Here was the last of the independent nations of Africa, not yet officially claimed by any of the imperialist powers. Control of Ethiopia would fit in nicely with other Italian colonies in Africa. Ethiopia possesses certain, if unknown, amounts of raw materials; and, more important, the exploitation of Ethiopia would open up vast outlets for Italian capital, and would create a new market.

Italy began preparations carefully. Italian Eritrea and Somaliland were strengthened. During 1934, “border incidents” were systematically cultivated, culminating in the famous Ualual incident, as a sequence to which, in December 1934, Ethiopia appealed to the League of Nations. From then on, Italy began large scale war preparations, and put a great army into the field in Africa. In these preparations, the League served Italy well, for Ethiopia, forced to rely on the League and consequently to avoid any charge of provocation, was thereby prevented from making any defensive military preparations.

But the Ethiopian campaign naturally could not remain a “purely Italian affair”. Italian control of Ethiopia directly threatened Great Britain’s control over Egypt, and exposed the British Empire’s line of communication through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. Furthermore, Great Britain, and to a lesser extent other powers (notably the United States) were also interested in sharing in the exploitation of Ethiopia. But much more than this is involved. The matter cannot end with Ethiopia. War in Ethiopia can be only the start of the new armed struggle to re-divide the world. Italy will have to go on to other campaigns. Germany only waits for the most advantageous moment to begin her struggle to regain her pre-war colonies, to strike out to the East in Europe, and to destroy French hegemony on the Continent. Japan has already begun her conquest of China, and her moves toward the Soviet Union in the Far East. Great Britain, who has the most to lose, sees her vast empire everywhere menaced by the hungry powers. Likewise, Great Britain fears the repercussions of colonial struggle in arousing the oppressed masses in her own colonies and dominions.

In this light, the heroic efforts of Great Britain to preserve peace and to uphold the sanctity of collective agreements and the League become intelligible. British finance-capital uses the slogans of peace and support of the League to defend her empire and to try to line up as much as possible of the rest of the world on her side before the world imperialist struggle begins. In this effort, her problem with France is particularly thorny. For France is not immediately concerned in the Ethiopian affair to any considerable degree. And France is not sure whether Britain’s side or Italy’s side at the present moment will prove in the long run more advantageous for France. But France must have protection on the Continent against possible German aggression. At present, in the light of the Franco-Soviet Pact and the defeat – for the time being – of the French interests wanting agreement with Hitler, such protection can come best through the League. France therefore faces the contradiction of wishing to sabotage the League (i.e., Great Britain) in the Ethiopian affair, while still allowing for future strong League action in the event of German aggression. To solve this, France attempts to secure a pledge from Great Britain for future action on the Continent, in return for supporting Britain in the League now. But Britain does not want to give an unequivocal pledge for the future which would involve a final break with Germany.

This – together with British use of the crisis to hold a new election with the assurance of a Conservative victory – is in brief the background of the daily ebb and flow of the Ethiopian affair. In its light, the actual fighting in Ethiopia sinks to minor importance. Four points need special emphasis:

(1) The Ethiopian campaign can in no sense be regarded as a local matter. It cannot be understood except as the prelude to the new imperialist world war. A temporary “solution”, satisfactory to Italy, Great Britain and France, may very probably be worked out; but this can only prove to be a short postponement. Italy’s aggression is the demonstration that the conflicts of world imperialism have gone beyond the stage of economic competition, “police” measures, trade wars, to the stage of armed struggle for the re-division of the world. Since the conflicts of imperialism, as we have seen, operate internationally, it follows that the approaching war will be international in scope, involving all great nations – and, indirectly at least, the entire world.

(2) The League of Nations, throughout the development of this crisis as in every other, has acted as the tool of the dominant member states. In no sense has it been an agency for peace. The League has been a convenient maneuvering ground for the diplomats. Above all, the League has been serving as the instrument of British imperialism. Support of the League in any manner is in the present crisis nothing else than support of British imperialism; or, in another sense, of the future plans of French imperialism.

(3) The approaching world war must necessarily involve the Soviet Union in a decisive manner, must indeed decide the fate of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state. The idea that the Soviet Union by some magic can remain aloof is in complete disregard of historical actuality. In the development of the present crisis, the traitorous government of the Soviet Union has throughout played the game of the League of Nations. This means necessarily that it has throughout played the game of British imperialism and the future requirements of French imperialism. Litvinov acted at Geneva as the stooge of Hoare and Laval.

(4) The United States is not involved directly and immediately in the Ethiopian crisis to the extent of Great Britain, France, and Italy. It is, of course, to some extent involved even immediately – as the tremendous increase in exports to Italy during the last year and the Rickett concession affair show. But the United States above all is involved in the world imperialist crisis. In the approaching world struggle, the United States will make its bid for domination in world imperialism. This in fact is the determining and decisive feature of the approaching struggle. Because of her geographical and economic situation, the US will not enter at once into the armed struggle. But, in the later stages, when the other powers are to some degree exhausted, she will necessarily launch out for world hegemony.

War and the Workers

Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 16.2.2005