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Maurice Spector

Sanctions and the Coming War

(December 1935)

From New International, Vol.2 No.7, December 1935, pp.209-211.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“... In the last imperialist war, the Allies made use of the slogan, ‘Fight Against Prussian Militarism’ while the Central Empires used the slogan, ‘Fight Against Tsarism’; both sides used the respective slogans to mobilise the masses for war. In a future war between Italy and France or Yugo-Slavia, the same purpose will be served by the slogan, ‘Fight Against Reactionary Fascism’, for the bourgeoisie of the latter countries will take advantage of the anti-Fascist sentiments of the masses of the people to justify imperialist war.”
Resolution on War, Sixth Congress of the Communist International, Moscow, 1928.


THE ITALO-ETHIOPIAN war throws into sharp relief the basic issues of the Marxist struggle against imperialism and social-chauvinism. After the German catastrophe established Hitler, the Marxists declared that the cup of poison brewed by the Stalinist doctrine of national-Bolshevism was filled to the brim; the capitulation of the German Communist party was the death of the Comintern. Less “subjective” critics of Stalinism countered that our judgment was precipitate and premature. They required still further evidence of bankruptcy. For some people, apparently nothing short of a police confession, and sworn affidavits taken before a duly accredited commissioner, would suffice. The Marxists know no other tests than those applied by Lenin. The Second International collapsed when it turned disloyal to its anti-imperialist pledge of 1912; the German social democracy turned traitor when it joined with the general staff, the government and the bourgeoisie. One difference between the situation two decades ago and today is that even Lenin did not completely recognize how inevitably the opportunism of peace-time would develop into the chauvinism of the war. The Third International does not even wait for the actual outbreak of world war; it unmistakably flaunts its social-patriotism and class treason against the background of the Italo-Ethiopian struggle. The bitter antagonists of the past, the Second and Third Internationals, embrace on a common platform of mobilizing the masses in support of the League of Nations, “collective security” and governmental sanctions against the “aggressor”. A writer in the Old Guard New Leader registers his heart-felt satisfaction at “the isolation of the small extremist groups who take the Trotskyist position ...” i.e., those who oppose the League of Nations and sanctions as instruments of imperialist policy. One is strongly reminded of the days when those eminently “successful” statesmen of socialism, the Eberts and Scheidemanns, the Hendersons and Lavals, poured withering contempt on “the fellows without home and country”, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht.


There was no mobilization of the League of Nations and the Royal British Navy when imperialist Japan annexed Manchuria; no intervention in the spirit of Grotius, Immanuel Kant and Woodrow Wilson, when Paraguay and Bolivia, both members of the League, warred desperately in the Chaco. Nor was the sonorous Covenant invoked to prevent the earlier Greco-Turkish war that ended in the sack of Smyrna or when insurgent Polish militarists seized Vilna. The League calmly contemplated its navel as the French occupied the Ruhr, and the government of Alfonso suppressed Abd-El-Krim. The democratic Third Republic of Laval-Herriot and their similars mercilessly crushed the Syrians; parliamentary Britain coerced India, bombarded Alexandria, and dispatched the 1927 expedition to Shanghai. But not the faintest suggestion of sanctions ruffled Geneva. For all this happened within the precincts of the Thieves’ Kitchen.

But the Italian eruption is part of the new chapter in international relations, the prologue of a second world war. The status quo of Versailles has been undermined with accelerated speed by the development of the world economic crisis. The war of 1914-18 could not eliminate its own cause; only the European revolution could have clone that. The gigantic increase of the powers of production had exploded against the limitations of national sovereignty. But the Peace of Versailles proceeded to Balkanize Europe, at a time when the economic sceptre passed to America, the rise of the Soviet Union challenged capitalism, and Japanese imperialism contested Asia. In these circumstances European peace and stability could never be more than relatively brief interludes. Economic chaos, mass unemployment, middle class ruination, peasant impoverishment resumed their sway. Parliamentary democracy, the political expression of capitalist progress, could no longer confine the class antagonisms of capitalist decay. Fascism captivates the middle classes with promises to restore order, control capitalism, and develop national self-sufficiency. But capitalist planning fails as dismally as the World Economic Conference. “National self-sufficiency”, which results in progressively reduced standards of living, proves a necessary means of rearmament in the renewed struggle for the repartitioning of the world market. Armaments, on which expenditures are three or four times their magnitude of 1914, are the only industry that flourishes.

But to describe the ensuing struggle in terms of democracy versus Fascism is radically false. This much the Sixth Congress of the Comintern which, in 1928 was not yet completely “liberated” from Leninist tradition, still acknowledged.

“In the last imperialist war,” ran its war resolution, “the Allies made use of the slogan, ‘Fight Against Prussian Militarism’ while the Central Empires used the slogan, ‘Fight Against Tsarism’; both sides used the respective slogans to mobilize the masses for war. In a future war between Italy and France or Yugo-Slavia, the same purpose will be served by the slogan, ‘Fight Against Reactionary Fascism’, for the bourgeoisie in the latter countries will take advantage of the anti-Fascist sentiments of the masses of the people to justify imperialist war.”

The major emphasis of both the Second and Third Internationals today is a complete denial of this indubitably correct position. Those who completely failed to distinguish between Fascism and social democracy in the struggle against Hitler (Stalin’s theory that they were “twins”) and those who failed to organize militant working class resistance to Fascism (like Otto Bauer) now call on the capitalist “democratic” states like England and France to win their battles for them. Dimitroff of the Comintern and Adler of the LSI vie with each other mightily to save the “remnants of bourgeois democracy”.

The strategy of both Internationals is based on the support of the “peace-loving”, satiated, and hence defensive capitalist powers, against the lean and hungry Fascist aggressors. This point of view is frequently crystallized in the formula, “Fascism Means War.” The Stalinist writer, Strachey, explains the Fascist tendency to the “extreme of imperialism” and “extreme of bellicosity” as due (1) to the destruction of the home market by cutting of wages and raising of prices, and (2) the consequent drive on the foreign market on pain of complete collapse. The slightest reflection suggests that there is no essential difference between this Fascist policy and that of the National government in England or the Herriot-Laval government in France. Inasmuch as it refuses to accept the status quo, Fascism intensifies the inner conflicts of capitalism and sharpens the war danger. But what is of paramount consideration in the struggle against both Fascism and war is to realize that both spring from the existence of capitalism.

Imperialist war has its inception in the struggle of the monopolies for the market. The proletariat cannot afford to distinguish between “aggressor” and “non-aggressor” trusts, syndicates, cartels, consortiums, etc., and as little between the capitalist states which are the general executive committees of these predatory interests. To support the “system of collective security” is equivalent to supporting the balance of power of the pre-war epoch, or in other words, it is to call on the working class to bleed for the present distribution of the world markets, of colonies, mandates and spheres of influence. It is to enlist in defense of one or the other of two rival imperialist camps. The democratic forms of certain imperialist states like France or Great Britain can no more justify giving them support than it would justify the German workers supporting the Nazi regime. In any future conflict “constitutional” and “authoritarian” states will be found mixed up. Even now it is clear that without the complicity of England, it would have been impossible for Nazi Germany to rearm. Even now negotiations persist for a Franco-German rapprochement. Even now Schacht is reported to have disclosed to French and British bankers the Nazi desire for expansion in the Baltic and Soviet Ukraine.

Neither the argument of democracy, nor the argument of the “aggressor” are new. In 1912 the Basle manifesto already rejected these specious ideas, “declaring that the coming war could not be justified by even the slightest pretext of being in the interests of the people”, and pointing out that the war would be the product of capitalist imperialism, “of the policy of conquests pursued by both group’s of belligerents, both the Austro-German and Anglo-French-Russian group”. Which did not prevent the Socialist parties on both sides later discovering that ideals and not investment were the prime movers of “their” governments. The bourgeoisie is no longer capable of waging a “progressive” war, such as in the period of national state unification against aristocracy and feudalism. In the imperialist epoch, the bourgeoisie, confronted in all countries by the problems of the general crisis of capitalism, strives for a solution by the sharper exploitation of the proletariat and the subjection of the “backward races”. To summon the working class to support any policy leading to national unity or national defense under capitalism is to be an accessory of imperialism. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia is an example of undisguised imperialist aggression, but the Italian conflict with England is no meaningless struggle between “the principles of the Covenant and imperialist aggression”; it is a collision of rival imperialisms, with the more powerful in temporary command of the League machinery.


The Italian Fascist dictatorship has become steadily more involved in internal economic and social contradictions. Italian economy rests on a very narrow basis; Italy is an importer of coal, cotton, iron, raw wool and vegetable fibres. It is one of the principal grievances of the Italian bourgeoisie that the price they got at Versailles for betraying the Triple Alliance was practically an insult. Despite the utmost restrictions of imports, the adverse trade balance for the first half of this year was approximately 1.4 billion lire, the total for 1934. The budgetary deficit for 1933-34 was nearly seven billion lire. Treasury bonds can no longer be issued at a favorable rate of interest, and postal savings notes which formerly could be cashed at sight no longer find takers. Trade restrictions throughout the world make it difficult for Italy to export. Public works and reclamation no longer suffice to keep unemployment down, and the safety-valve of the United States labor market is not now available. The worsening economic situation has stirred up the latent reserves of class antagonism and Mussolini has realized that Fascism will be in danger unless it extends its markets. Or as the Fascist journalist Gayda put it:

“We must define the year 13 of the Fascist era as the year of the last stages of Fascist concentration and the beginning of the international struggle for affirmation of her right to life and power.”

The puffed-up verbiage of this statement cannot conceal the real meaning.

The Tripartite Treaty of 1906 between Great Britain, Italy and France, ostensibly guaranteeing Ethiopia’s territorial integrity, was a preliminary agreement to partition the country at the first favorable opportunity. What saved the last independent African state at the time was the balance of imperial interests. England was anxious to halt the German advance. Though defeated at Adowa in her direct attempt at conquest, Italy was accorded a sphere of influence practically covering the whole of Ethiopia. By the secret Treaty of London, on the strength of which Italy sided with the Allies, France and England agreed that should they themselves increase their African colonies at the expense of Germany, and that Italy would be accorded compensation. The war ended with England, France and Belgium adding one million square miles to their African holdings. All the Italian diplomats got was a good cry. In 1926 a series of colonial uprisings induced England to agree to support the Italian claim for a railway concession connecting Eritrea and Somaliland, running west of Addis Ababa, in return for recognition of England’s right to carry out works on a motor road from Lake Tana to the Sudan and works on a barrage on that lake. Getting wind of this, the unfortunate Ethiopian government protested to both signatories and in a rider to Great Britain pathetically added:

“We should never have suspected that the British government would come to an agreement with another government regarding our lake.”

The League of Nations blandly promised the Negus that it would take cognizance of his protest and the matter was smoothed over. Ras Tafari proceeded, however, to negotiate with the J.G. White Engineering Corporation of New York with a view to having the Lake Tana dam built by American interests, and invited the United States to re-open its legation in Addis Ababa.

But the agreement with Great Britain did not bring any practical results and Italy began pressing forward, against the resistance of the Negus, independently. Italy began plainly preparing for invasion, and the necessary “incident” at Walwal found 200,000 Italian troops mobilized for the autumn campaign. As at Fashoda at the end of the last century in her African rivalry with France, Britain’s attitude suddenly hardened. Italy’s expansion in Ethiopia would endanger British control of the head-waters of the Nile, of strategic importance for the Anglo-Egyptian Suden, and no less menace British control of the Red Sea, predominance in the Mediterranean and the whole chain of imperial communications. The development of the Italian air and naval forces, accompanied by Italian talk of “mare Nostrum”, pointed an obvious challenge. The Baldwin-Hoare government decided that this was the most opportune moment in years to take a stand against further attrition of the Empire. British control in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and India were at stake. Not for the first time, the British mobilized not only their fleets but the whole moral order and the world of ideals. What could be more edifying than the abrupt conversion to the Covenant of Winston Churchill. The lesson of the crisis, states the former Lord of the Admiralty, is that Britain must have secure and lasting control of the Mediterranean; the British fleet will enable the League of Nations to give Britain secure and lasting control of the Mediterranean. England becomes the League’s most devoted proponent of sanctions to “punish the guilty aggressor”.


The pro-sanctions policy of the Second and Third Internationals came as a veritable god-send to British imperialism. The War Office and Admiralty are able to execute their plans to increase enormously their armaments in an atmosphere of “national unity”. In 1933 the Labor party declared that it would “take no part in war and resist it with the whole force of the labor movement”. In 1935 the Labor party demands military sanctions. As for the Communist party – its leader, Pollitt, calls upon the British navy to close the Suez Canal! When recently the Edinburgh Trades Council passed a resolution supporting the League in all measures “short of war” (i.e., “military sanctions”) the communists supported an amendment to delete the qualification “short of war”. But if you want the government to close the Suez Canal you must also vote the naval appropriations for that purpose. If you want the government to apply military as well as economic sanctions, you must support the government’s armament program. You may feebly protest that it does not follow. The masses, subject to the tremendous pressure of bourgeois as well as social-patriotic propaganda, see it in that light. The chauvinism of the Labor party actually facilitates the National government’s return to power. The sorry spectacle of the Labor party in the present elections is a repetition of the fate of social-patriotism and class collaboration in every crucial election. Lloyd George won the post-war election on the slogan, “Hang the Kaiser.” The Labor party complained. But it had supported Lloyd George in the prosecution of the imperialist war. The Labor government was turned out when the Tories raised the fake Zinoviev letter issue. The Labor party complained; but it had been administering capitalism! The Tories turned the second Labor government out by conjuring up a grave financial crisis; but the Laborites themselves had been preparing wage cuts. In the present crisis, Garvin of the Observer, a leading Tory weekly, jeers at the Labor party,

“the incredible advocates of both disarmament and defiance, of both feebleness and challenge, of both weakness and war ... The main body of Labor opinion has surrendered to a sheer stampede of jingoism ... They have clamored for sanctions, blockade and war.”

The resolution of the Sixth Congress of the Comintern which we cited above contains this additional injunction:

“The first duty of the communists in the fight against the imperialist war is to tear down the screen by which the bourgeoisie conceals their preparations for war and the real state of affairs from the masses of workers ... This duty implies above all, a determined political and ideological struggle against pacifism.”

Official pacifism especially is singled out (League of Nations, Locarno, disarmament conferences, etc.). The Stalinists have completely forgotten this “directive” but it is the none less sound for that. Their support of sanctions is part and parcel of their participation with the social democrats in the treacherous front of “Official Pacifism”. “Sanctions” (which have nothing in common with the international workers’ boycott, a form of mass action) are the instrumentality of imperialist policy, of the powers that dominate the “League”. That is the League which Lenin described as a “Thieves’ Kitchen”, and the Soviet government characterized it in 1923 as

“a coalition of certain states endeavoring to usurp power over other states, and masking their attempts on the rights and independence of other nations by a false appearance of groundless legality in the form of mandates ... a pseudo-international body ... a mere mask to conceal from the masses the aggressive aims of the imperialistic policy of the great powers or their vassals.”

“The League of Nations,” declares the 1928 resolution of the Comintern, “was founded nine years ago as an imperialist alliance in defense of the robber peace of Versailles, and for the suppression of the revolutionary movement of the world ...”

Apparently England and France only became “satiated” in the last few years.

Identifying the policy of a Soviet state in circumstances of capitalist encirclement with the policy of a working class struggling for power, the Stalinists and social democrats plead that the workers must take advantage of the imperialist antagonisms. Of course, but the methods are quite different. The Soviet state is compelled to manoeuvre between the capitalist states, to conclude pacts and alliances. Even then the limits of the concessions and agreements are the basic principles of the proletarian dictatorship. Anything that concedes these is betrayal. The struggle for peace is a legitimate and necessary aspiration of the Soviet state, but the Soviet state would commit high treason to the principles on which it was founded if it used its authority and influence to force the workers of capitalist countries to conclude civil peace with the ruling classes. The crime of the Stalin regime against the cause of internationalism is that it has forced the vanguard of the French working class into an alliance with its ruling class, that it has forced its supporters throughout the world to become adherents and apologists of the League of Nations, the association of capitalist states. The way the working class in capitalist countries must take advantage of imperialist antagonisms, particularly if they take the form of war, is to direct their struggle and arms against the ruling class of their “own countries”. Civil war and not civil peace is the Leninist method of utilizing the imperialist antagonisms – the policy of revolutionary defeatism and not the policy of social-patriotism. Revolutionary defeatism in capitalist countries is the real defense of the Soviet Union too. The international working class and not paper treaties are its real allies.

The Italo-Ethiopian war has thrown a glaring light on the methods by which the new version of social-patriotism, no less rank than the old, seeks to rivet the workers to the imperialist war machine. Tomorrow Roosevelt or his successor may decide to stem the advance of Japanese imperialism by concluding some sort of agreement with the Soviet Union, and the social-patriots will muster all their arguments to save American democracy from the talons of the Mikado. Oh, certainly, Browder will probably plead that he is fighting not only for Lenin, but for Jefferson, Tom Paine, and Abraham Lincoln. But that will not help the overthrow of American capitalism. We accuse the Second and Third Internationals of enlisting their services to enhance the prestige of the robber League, and of the “democratic and satiated powers” whose power is based on the exploitation of the proletariat and oppression of millions of colonial subjects. We accuse these social-patriotic organizations of sabotaging the organization of a real workers’ boycott against Italy by directing their attention to a belief in the League sanctions; we accuse them of consolidating Fascism in Italy and Germany by permitting the Hitlers and Mussolinis to use the argument of encirclement and Versailles, and appeal for national unity to counter national unity elsewhere. We accuse them of hallowing the status quo, of a course of class collaboration, national unity, and civil peace that will re-enact the tragedy of August, 1914. No thinking worker today can any longer afford to temporize with the issues. The treachery of the Second and Third Internationals is too plain. The building of the Fourth International to organize the revolutionary-internationalist struggle against imperialism brooks no delay.

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