Bordiga Amadeo:

Socialism and the "Defense of the Nation"

( Avanti!, December 21, 1914 )

(«Proletarian»; Nr. 19; Autumn 2022)

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Among those nicely presented dogmatic formulations... that those who, fortunately for them and for society, for a long or short time are living outside our ranks, would like to fasten around our necks like a yoke, is that of the «defense of the nation».

This yoke has been accepted without question by many of our people: it is so firm and consecrated that do well these Socialists who as people and as party, are in complete solidarity with the national bourgeoisie in defending their motherland when it is threatened by an aggressor.

We have here, to the consolation of many, an exception which is now firmly planted in our ... boring neutrality at all costs. Well, let us examine this question a little more deeply, to go beyond the schematic and external aspect, to examine it by an analysis of doubt and criticism, which for this time we will use, against the Truth which has already received official consecration ... from the anti-socialist coalition.

Like a religious person who hears blasphemy, the bourgeoisie, the nationalists and the warmongering democrats bristle when they see that the sanctity of «defensive war» has been called into question. And this is because the widespread opinion has become justified, in the good old priestly way, with the quotation of a Latin proverb, or with a simplistically unhinged example - vim vi repellere licet - if I am attacked by a bully, I resort to violence to defend myself. This way of cutting the head of the snake, - unworthy of those thinking heads that have detected and identified our collective error and stupidity - completely fails to consider all the factors that must be taken into account if we really want to avoid the mental stereotypes of the crudest dogmatism.

The fact is that a few months ago, the former editor of «L’Avanti!» after making the question we are dealing with the criterion for distinguishing Socialists from Anarchists (?!), presented it from a proletarian point of view roughly in the following way: although the workers are the ones who own nothing and therefore have nothing to lose, it is they who are in fact the greatest victims of the foreign invasion, because they cannot flee from the enemy army as those who have the financial means can do. The workers are therefore more exposed to reprisals, cruelty and oppression by the enemy and the Socialist Party cannot ignore this fact. In such a case, it has the duty to engage with all its forces in the war against the invaders and to renounce its principled political opposition to the bourgeois state.

From a more general point of view, it could be said that the proletariat is interested in preserving the territorial integrity of the nation in order to avoid the oppression of foreign power being layered on top of its class subjugation. In the face of such a danger, which constitutes a threat to the degree of political freedom and economic prosperity already achieved, the workers are to unite with the bourgeoisie and establish a pause in the class struggle until the security of the frontiers is guaranteed…

It is true that the threat of invasion leads to a convergence of interests of all the social classes of a given state, and that in such a case the victory of the enemy represents a material and political damage to the proletariat; but such a threat, because of the widespread militarism in all countries and its constant and general expansion, permanently afflicts all proletarians in time of peace, and immediately after the severance of diplomatic relations between two or more bourgeois governments, it is fulfilled to the detriment of the working classes of all countries which enter into war.

At such a critical and heated moment, the Socialist party should have to examine whether or not exist the imperative need to defend the nation, so that it can decide whether its position should be one of complete agreement with the other parties and the government or of unequivocal opposition - which can be expressed in very different ways: from banal ballot action to the declaration of a workers’ uprising. Such an examination is hampered above all by the fact that in modern states foreign policy is a strict monopoly of the ruling spheres and all diplomatic activity is kept secret, even exempt from parliamentary control. How, then, can it be ascertained which of the warring bourgeoisies is responsible for the war, when all the governments declare that they have been drawn into it by force, while they were working to secure peace; and this, moreover, at a time when it is urgent to decide on one’ own course of action?

However, that is not the principal point of the matter. Even if the state that provoked the war is clearly identified, there is no significant difference between the situations in the different countries in terms of the risks and dangers of invasion to which border regions are exposed. While the mobilization of opposing armies takes place with a difference of only a few hours, while it is unknown which states will ally with the aggressor or the invaded, all of these nations involved find themselves at risk of invasion, facing the risk of future political oppression, all of these countries are at risk, and for all of them the conditions for national defense are ultimately fulfilled. When France and Piedmont declared war on Austria in 1859, the Austrian army immediately occupied the province of Novara. In 1870 the French state, whose object was to crush Prussia, soon found itself in conditions of the most disastrous defense. It is evident that in all wars between neighboring states the lesser or greater danger which threatens different countries is not due to the origin of the war, but to the greater or lesser efficiency of the troops or the quantity of arms; and this is especially true because all armies have always prepared their plans of mobilization and the strategic plans of defense and attack which they intend to follow against possible enemies.

Only in colonial wars can those who wish to follow legal standards regarding the use of violence, determine with certainty, both factually and legally, the existence and origin of domination. But strangely enough, it is the colonial wars that find support among the democratic defenders of the nationality right; because then they pull another excuse out of another compartment of their highly developed cerebellum: namely, the spread of democratic civilization!

Returning to our subject, we note that at the very beginning of the war, after having established the responsibility of one of the states, in the face of «History» or «Right» - which for us Marxists always remains an empty and useless abstraction - when applying this difference of responsibilities of the bourgeoisie to the different duties of the socialist proletarians according to whether they belong to the state invaded or to the attacking state, it has only been achieved that the proletariat and the Socialist party of the state that wanted war have been subjected to the consequences of the shameful policy of their own ruling classes, that they are forced to take anti-war action, while the proletarians of the other state are authorized, under the leadership of a Socialist minister of war, to march into the ranks state army to defend the fatherland and, if necessary, to cross its threatened frontiers in heroic fervor.…

These are the consequences to which the absurd concept of the socialist legitimacy of defensive war has logically led us. Moving from theory to practice, this limitation of the proletariat’s anti-militarist activity led to the failure of the proletarian International in the face of the European war. Let us add in passing that when we speak of the action of the Socialist party against the war, we limit ourselves to referring to the minimum effort to maintain class political opposition to the state even in times of war, with further action depending on the possibilities of the moment.

The ideal method is simultaneous anti-militarist activity; but this very simultaneity has been disturbed by the pernicious and specious reservation about «national defense», which is always, rightly or wrongly, playfully invoked and misled by those Socialist parties which are at the moment in favor of war. On the other hand, it is absurd to suppose that the political or revolutionary opposition which the various Socialist parties carry out on the basis of their own strength or training will not cause a change in the probability of military success of the belligerent countries. And since the probability of the victory of a particular state, whether invaded or attacking, will depend on its military strength and on the greater or lesser development of socialist tendencies in the ranks of the proletariat, it is certain that the socialist party vigorously intervening against the bourgeoisie of its own nation, regardless of its political-diplomatic responsibility, increases the chances of military defeat, hostile invasion and future political oppression.

In each case, therefore, the socialist party finds itself at a crossroads: either to sacrifice its own peculiarity and, to a large extent, its future on the altar of the motherland, or to weaken the nation to which it belongs by pursuing its specific activities without scruples.

In the face of this responsibility, the seriousness of which does not depend at all on the proverbial understanding of defense or attack, socialism should never hesitate not to deny itself completely.

But according to the aforementioned Mussolinian theory, formulated at an unsuspected moment, and according to other very fashionable considerations, such a betrayal of the socialist party in the face of the enemy should result in a bloody proletarian sacrifice. It is this infamous way of formulating the question that deceives many socialists.

Above all, we do not understand how a war situation created by the bourgeoisie could not result in a bloody sacrifice on the part of the proletariat, and we do not believe that the tears of the mothers of the slain soldiers would be less painful at the thought that they had fallen when invading a foreign country. Every socialist activity results in hardship for the proletariat. Our program is a program of negation, the aim of which is not to make the present institutions just and useful, but to break up their constant agonizing contradictions under the onslaught of the revolutionary surge. The proletariat will redeem the blood of its children at the cost of its own blood; and socialism can find no other way to overcome the filth and shamefulness of the capitalist world. Will not the whole present era of trade union demands, carried out by the method of the strike, in which the workers condemn themselves to hunger and misery in order to win a relative increase in prosperity, seem absurd to the people of the future? These contradictions lie at the crux of the regime against which we are fighting, and are necessarily reflected in our entire struggle, which will go down in history as a heroic but painful martyrdom, in which conflicts aimed against the interests of the ruling class always end in the massacre of the oppressed, strikers, cops, proletarians who have become soldiers under this or that bourgeois flag.

The dilemma and crossroads facing the socialist party is similar to Shakespeare’s «to be or not to be».

In no case, without denying itself, socialism must resign itself to national cohesion. This is common and praised by all other parties whenever the motherland is in danger, even by mistake or by the government of the state’s own volition. But such cohesion cannot and must not be our own, even if the reason for the horrible phenomenon of war is the perfidy of hostile governments, perhaps with the deceptive complicity of their populations.

The sacrifice made by other parties is quite different from the one required of us. The others aim at cohesion and social peace in their hypocritical ideologies that mask the hidden tendencies of the ruling minorities to preserve the privileges of oppression. We, on the other hand, are the party of open social conflict, of the declared struggle between the classes, and to take socialism away from this battlefield under phrases adopted from the other side is to bury it.

We hold that those who pretend to find a point of contact between socialism and national problems will be forced to conclude that the only conceivable historical mission which the nationalities constituted in state formations have is nationalism, for which a particular nation, and always the same one, is the one which is always right; and it is the more right the greater its armed strength and the lesser its internal class contradictions.

In any case, it can certainly be stated that the least happy, the least Marxist, the least socialist solution to the problem of the relationship between socialism and nationality is that which is vulgarly expressed by the slogan «defense of the nation».



International Communist Party


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