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Arne Swabeck

What Are Sanctions?

“Collective Effort for Peace”
or Imperialist Battle for Empire?

(9 November 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. 1 No. 46, 9 November 1935, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Fifty-two nations, including the Soviet Union, have voted to enforce sanctions, under the League of Nations covenant, against Fascist Italy. Liberals, pacifists and labor organizations, with but few exceptions throughout the world, support sanctions. A similar position is taken by the Second and the Third Internationals. In unison, both of these Internationals have become aggressive supporters of Sanctions ever since this ingenious device was invented by the capitalist statesmen at Geneva.

The fateful days of 1914 had for their rallying cry the “defense of the fatherland.” Is history now repeating itself Are not issues of similarly fateful consequences to the future of the whole of humanity joined-up in this rallying cry of 1935 – the cry of sanctions?

What will sanctions mean when actually enforced? Are they to be purely financial and economic or are they to be military? Is it true that the sanctions to be invoked by the League of Nations represent the collective efforts of these nations to punish an aggressor and to stop war, or do they mean the extension of the war in Ethiopia on a far more colossal scale. This is the first and most essential question that confronts the working class.

For an answer it is necessary to examine at least the most outstanding factors involved.

The Causes of War

It has been said – and correctly so – that war is the continuation of politics by military means. Imperialist wars arise from the constant struggle between the powers for increased rations in world economy. All imperialist powers today feel the consequences of the economic crisis. The vast expansion of their productive forces presses them onward inexorably and irresistibly in the struggle for new markets and new colonial fields where they can tap the sources of raw materials, invest surplus capital and extract new and greater profits. On every continent they are openly advancing for new conquests. Owing to the severe defeats which the workers have suffered under Fascist onslaughts, the imperialist gamblers feel free to engage in a continuation of the conflict for increased economic rations by military means.

It is, of course, not the particular aggressor attitude of one or the other of these powers that produces war. This merely expresses a readiness to strike out for new territories. Fascist Italy has embarked on its course of expansion at the expense of the last of the independent African states. But in a world already divided into colonies and spheres of influence such a course must inevitably become a struggle for redivision of markets, involving in the first instance those powers having the greatest possessions. And so, in this case, Fascist Italy came into direct conflict with the British Empire.

Britain and Italy

These two imperialist powers, Britain and Italy, are the major adversaries in the present war situation and in no case can the clash be considered a conflict of democracy versus dictatorship, as it is presented today. They are typical of a power pressing forward in the struggle for expansion and a power seeking to maintain its present possessions. On the one side is Fascist Italy, caught in its inability to stem the tide of its own internal economic and political contradictions, desperately seeking an outlet through the restoration of Caesar’s empire. On the other side is the existing British Empire on which the sun never sets.

Britain had centuries to consolidate her position. Tapping vast resources all over the world, deriving countless profits from the sweat and blood of millions of subjected peoples, she enjoyed a privileged imperialist position and could not tolerate any rivals. Her diplomats scored easy victories – with the British navy standing by. Now she is hard pressed throughout the world; the diplomatic victories have become questionable; elements of decay are apparent and expressed even in the reactionary attitude of the bureaucratic leaders of her official labor movement in support of sanctions, not merely out of pacifist motivations, but in solidarity with the continued oppression of the millions of colonial peoples by the imperialist masters. 7,287,937 square miles containing a population of 446,191,000 is the extent of these possessions, dominion and colonial, that touch every continent. What is popularly called the imperial life line, begins at Gibraltar and extends through the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean. All along this line the British navy must remain supreme if the imperial possessions are to be retained unchallenged.

Not Ethiopia – the British Empire

The British rulers are not concerned with the independence of Ethiopia. Only too often have they proceeded with fire and sword to crush the independence of other native peoples. No, their sole concern is the preservation of their own far flung colonial empire. That Ethiopia’s independence could be sacrificed easily enough was shown by the action of the League of Nations Council last summer. By a unanimous vote of all of its members, including the Soviet Union, a resolution was adopted to dismember Ethiopia on the basis of the robber treaty of 1906 between Italy, Britain and France. But Mussolini truculently rejected this offer inasmuch as he wanted possession of Ethiopia for Fascist Italy alone.

Indirectly this spells danger to the British Empire through the prospects of uprisings by the millions of peoples it now holds in subjection. But much more directly, this threatens to cut the imperial life line. Fascist Italy is building fortifications in Eritrea, on the coast of the Red Sea, and it is aiming for naval and aerial supremacy in the Mediterranean. This is the most immediate issue around which the war clouds are thickening today and the main motivating force behind the swift action of Britain for sanctions at Geneva.

The Many-Sided Danger of War

Obviously the League of Nations has not in the least, and could not in the least, serve to remove, or even to diminish, the causes of imperialist war. Organized as an instrument to ensure the spoils of the victors in the last war, and to maintain their hegemony, its numerous disarmament conferences served as a screen behind which all the capitalist powers, without exception, managed to perfect their armaments. New issues of conflict between these victors were, of course, inevitable. Japan some time ago embarked on its conquest of Manchuria, to extend its domination over China, and is now a constant threat to the borders of the Soviet Union. Fascist Germany is rearming feverishly in preparation for the time when its cruel regime can no longer bridge the gap of its internal contradictions; it will endeavor to find an outlet by means of new conquests. The imperialists of the United States have proclaimed neutrality while engaging in ever more extensive naval maneuvers in the Pacific with an eye to a future establishment of a base in China, in order to raise the question of possession of India at the next historical stage.

On the battlefields of Ethiopia war has become a reality. The guns of the highly mechanized Fascist armies are spitting fire in the campaign to ravage and subjugate the native population. The capitalist powers in the League of. Nations proclaim their peaceful intentions while all of them are arming to the teeth; some of them in order to use the first opportunity to spring to like conquests and others in order to defend their present possessions to the end. There may yet be an intermission before the general conflagration; but in any event the war that has already started in Ethiopia is only a prelude to the much greater catastrophe now in preparation under the rallying cry of sanctions.

“Good-Intentioned” Treachery

Only on this background can the question of sanctions be properly understood. And yet in this situation the Stalinist party, through the Daily Worker, informs us that; “The next step must be punishment of the guilty – sanctions.” It exhorts; “All opponents of war and Fascism should support this policy and demand that the League of Nations bar all trade with Italy and close the Suez Canal.”

In the thieves jargon of diplomacy, sanctions, in their ultimate implication, mean war. Mussolini said so. Stanley Baldwin repeats it, although much less boldly, and with many disguising hypocritical trimmings. Nevertheless the leaders of the British Labor Party demand sanctions. And Harry Polliitt, the leader of the British Stalinist party, in a recent address before a London district conference of the party, formulated his demands upon the British government as follows:

“But we also demand the closing of the Suez Canal, and the carrying out of the Covenant of the League of Nations, because we believe that all these measures can prevent Mussolini going to war, and we must utilize the present contradictions in the capitalist world, and force economic and military sanctions, if necessary.”

We may grant that Pollitt has other intentions than Stanley Baldwin, but the way to hell is paved with good intentions. Pollitt together with the leaders of the British Labor Party may criticize the National government; each in his own way, but this can only be incidental to the decisive issue of sanctions. And let it be noted, it is the League of Nations, and with it the British government, that are in this case called upon to close the Suez Canal and to enforce sanctions, “economic and military.” Consequently the government is to be supported on this decisive issue. Behind this rallying cry of sanctions the British worker is being led into united support of the Tory government – the real enemy of the workers. To this enemy is to be entrusted the guarantee of peace.

Democracy versus Dictatorship?

While at this time particularly the League of Nations should be exposed for what it is and the mask of hypocrisy torn oft from the face of the imperialists, old illusions in the League are being strengthened and a new confidence of the workers in the Tory government is being built up. A new national union is being created with the connivance of Labor Party and Stalinist leaders which, regardless of intentions, can lead only to war for the maintenance of the British imperial possessions.

Britain is today in the center of the war developments but it is not alone; nor is the position taken by the British Stalinists an exception. We are informed by the Daily Worker, for instance, that the C.P. of Czechoslovakia on October 7 cabled the League of Nations demanding “the immediate application of effective economic and military sanctions against Italy.” Here is a voice from another “democratic” country which the Comintern has declared as its policy to defend against Fascism. But it is not the voice of the revolutionary workers. Can anyone conceive of Czechoslovakia, or Britain, or the United States, or any other capitalist democratic country, really going to war to defend the democratic rights of the people against Fascism? Need there be any doubt that the war they will wage will be for imperialist issues? And we might add, is it not more likely that when the war actually breaks out that serious efforts will be made by the capitalist rulers of these countries to transform them into Fascist states?

For the Stalinist parties the support of sanctions is not an accident; nor can it be regarded as just another mistake. It is a part of a whole system of policies which, once such a course is embarked upon, could lead to no other results. This system of policies proceeds consistently from reliance on pacts and treaties between the Soviet Union and the capitalist powers, instead of reliance on the proletarian revolution, to support of the League of Nations and to support of the capitalist governments in carrying out sanctions. In turn sanctions becomes the deceptive device for the mobilization of the masses for imperialist war.

Shall It Be 1914 Again?

What we have before us in this question is imperialist sanctions, for imperialist ends, and not working class action to prevent war. The two are not complementary, as the new-baked defenders of the remnants of bourgeois democracy would have us believe. These two are opposite poles. It is therefore necessary to emphasize that not only are issues, as fateful in their consequences to the future of the whole of humanity, joined up in this question of sanctions as was the case of the rallying cry of the “defense of the fatherland”; but also to add, that another historic betrayal is in preparation, and this time on a far more colossal scale. In 1914, national unity within the imperialist powers and the plunging of millions into the bloody battlefield was preceded by the treason of social democracy. Today the demand for sanctions can lead only to restoration of national unity behind the capitalist governments to plunge the masses into another and far more terrible conflagration – a repetition of the betrayal of 1914 – this time, however, participated in by the social democrats and the Stalinists jointly.

Still it remains as true as ever that only working class action can prevent war. Liebknecht warned that the enemy is at home; and, in this respect nothing has changed since. Therefore the duty of the revolutionists is clear. It is the irreconcilable struggle to overthrow capitalism as the only way to do away with imperialist war.

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