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New International, October 1935



Questions of the Italo-Ethiopian War

From New International, Vol.2 No.6, October 1935, pp.198-200.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


EVERY WAR confronts the revolutionary Marxists with the question of what attitude to take towards it. This distinguishes them in the very first place from the bourgeois or “socialist” pacifists who reject war “as such” and therefore face every war quite helplessly. It distinguishes them, further, from the pseudo-radical ideologists of reformism, who promise to reply to every war, after it has broken out, with revolution or a general strike, and thereby subserve social-chauvinism, as these promises hold back the proletariat from any real preparation for the war. Finally, the revolutionary Marxists are distinguished from those Marxists who set up the schematic contention that in our epoch there can be no other wars than imperialist wars and therefore the proletariat must come forward actively and in a revolutionary manner against every war.

Mussolini is preparing war against Ethiopia. Nobody can dispute that Italy will conduct an imperialist war: it is an attempt to annex a country, to convert it from an independent state into an Italian colony. Whatever the immediate causes may be that drive Mussolini to this war of conquest, that is to say, if it is the internal contradictions of Fascist Italy that have become intolerable and have imposed a military adventure as a distraction, or the mechanics of imperialism alone which are driving towards new conquests in Africa – what is involved is not some peculiarity of the Fascist régime but rather a feature common to all imperialisms: the world must be repartitioned, the imperialist power of third rank which Italy is, is seeking to force an advance in rank through new robberies, by utilizing the imperialist antagonisms of the powers of first and second order.

In such a war, the attitude of the revolutionists of Italy is quite unambiguously prescribed. Defeatism, that is, the work for the defeat of their own government and thereby the preparation for converting the imperialist war into the civil war – there lies the task of the Italian proletariat in the event of war. There is no doubt on that score, and the revolutionary proletariat will be in solidarity on it. As is seen, this task is in no way posed by the fact that a special kind of régime, the Fascist, exists in Italy. The task is posed because Italy pursues an imperialistic policy, and the Fascist régime is only one of the possible state forms of imperialism, which appears likewise in democratic-republican forms and which, in the event of war, must be combatted by revolutionary Marxists with just the same slogans and aims. This – for the purpose of underlining the fact that the superstructure, the state form of sovereign power, the dictatorship of capital in its imperialist phase, is entirely a derived phenomenon and that the basic position of the proletariat in the main questions does not depend upon this derived phenomenon, upon the state form of the capitalist dictatorship.

Already in this second point, there exists no unity with the conception of such “Marxists” who revise Marx and Lenin, in that, like the Stalinists, they invent “good” and “pacifist” imperialists, and “bad”, bellicose imperialists who must therefore be fought (whereas the others – which? – are “good” friends). This revision of Leninism is equivalent to a flat betrayal of Marxism, and the practical application of this Stalinist “principle” leads to ordinary social-chauvinism, however much it may be more or less garnished with sophistic phrases. But also with “Marxists” of the stripe of the SAP, nothing can be found in common on the question of war, inasmuch as this party, true to its natural history and origin, represents in the question of the attitude towards war two entirely different, mutually incompatible and moreover – both of them – false standpoints. One, set down in the incredibly confused and hollow declaration of this party on the war question, preaches an amorphous, worthless “peace conference” of the bourgeois-pacifist type, of which nobody can say what it is actually to be. It is a hodge-podge of social democratic phrases about disarmament and the general ruinousness of war, and agitational methods such as have been pursued by the Comintern through its auxiliary organizations – all the Alliances, Societies, Committees “against war and Fascism” – with the success which is so well known. The other current in the SAP is that of the “preventive war” of French imperialism against “Fascist Germany”. Thus, the same distinction is made here between “good” and bad imperialists that Stalinism makes. This position, despite all the phrases about the “revolution” being made inside the army, in the midst of the war – because, you see, the imperialists are “after all” not sincerely “good” – is only a shabby fig-leaf for ordinary social-chauvinism, for it represents distinctions between the “good” democratic imperialist states and the bad Fascist imperialists. Within the SAP, the theoretical representative of this anti-Marxian confusion is none other than Fritz Sternberg, although he himself has apparently published nothing about the war question itself. But his works on imperialism and above all his book Der Faschismus an der Macht, with their flat vulgarization of the theoretical errors of Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of accumulation, and their arrogant “refutations” of Lenin, delivered with aplomb and without a trace of conviction, and of Lenin’s profound theory of imperialism which has been astonishingly and thoroughly confirmed by the events of the last twenty years in all its details – these works of Sternberg, this lamentable eclecticism, form the “foundation” of the political resolutions and contradictions of the SAP, so far as it deals with politics in general, and especially with the politics of war.


Now, the Italo-Ethiopian war conflict has two sides. Seen from the Italian side, everything is extraordinarily simple, or everything seems to be extraordinarily simple.

But what the revolutionary proletariat must do is to see and to answer the question of this war, like every war, from the international standpoint. That means: if it is true that the Italian proletariat must strive towards the defeat, the overthrow of its government – a work in which a large part of the bourgeois anti-Fascists will concur with it – and if it is true that it must convert the imperialist war of Italy into a civil war for the overthrow of capitalism, in which only the Leninists will concur in principle with the Italian revolutionary vanguard – if all this is true, then what must be the attitude of the revolutionary proletariat towards Ethiopia?

Here we will find an agreement between the Leninists and quite a number of bourgeois and even imperialist politicians, yet for entirely different reasons and with quite different aims.

In the first place: has Ethiopia any prospect of carrying on this war without losing it immediately? Yes, these prospects exist. They exist, because, first, Italy’s strength, in consequence of the colossal contradictions of this Fascist “communality”, is a fiction; because the class contradictions within the army cannot, in all likelihood, hold up under any great burdens; because the whole country can be aroused in the shortest period of time by this onerous and risky war. The other reason is: likely though it is that the Ethiopian war can first be localized, there is little prospect of the imperialist big powers leaving Italy a free hand. English imperialism is not interested in letting Italian influence in Africa extend to the Red Sea and in conceding her power and further lust for expansion out of the Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Bab el Mandeb down to the headwaters of the Nile region; nor will the “selflessness” of the present-day French imperialist seconds of the Italian pirates go so far as to look on while Italy’s positions penetrate further into Central Africa.

These are just the international circumstances that make possible Ethiopia’s resistance. Precisely these circumstances will also engender an apparent similarity between bourgeois, even imperialist individuals and groups, perhaps even states, and the revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat, expressing itself in the slogan: Aid for the victory of Ethiopia.

It might be asked: what interest has the international proletariat in the victory of Ethiopia, a backward, feudal, barbaric state? And in fact, this is the question that is put by bourgeois “pacifists”, by imperialists who would themselves like to swallow Ethiopia, by allies of Italy. Hasn’t Ethiopia even failed to abolish the slave trade? ask righteous English Christians, in whose empire, as is well known, there is no trading in slaves and who have justice triumphing everywhere, in both India and Africa and everywhere else where hundreds of thousands of natives die of hunger or perish in plagues under the British flag or are dispatched into the beyond by good English bombers.

The interest that another imperialism may have in the defeat of Italy need not be examined here. There will be time for that when the war has actually broken out. But the interest that the revolutionary proletariat has in the victory of Ethiopia must be investigated right here and now.


We have put it pretty crassly: in the victory of Ethiopia. Yet that is only the positive formulation of the defeat of Italy. By that is actually already said, in abbreviated form, what is involved. But just because this abbreviation might lead to misunderstanding, to the idea that it is only a question of a general “anti-Fascist” wish, it is necessary to speak in greater detail on this point.

The position of neutrality of the international revolutionary proletariat we dismiss with a wave of the hand: if it is true that the revolutionary proletariat is for the defeat of Italy, when it is not neutral, then it is for the victory of Ethiopia. If it desires the victory of Ethiopia, then it must help to produce it. This means that it does not remain “neutral”, but that it actively intervenes for Ethiopia.

Why? Naturally, not because it likes the social structure of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is indeed a backward country. But just because of that, this topical war conflict offers a practical occasion not only for the practical struggle against imperialism but also for the struggle for the theoretical clarification of the war question in a field which does not simply signify the counterposing of two belligerent imperialist state groups.

In one of his especially brilliant works (Results of the Discussion of the Right of Self-Determination, October 1916), Lenin accurately examined the question of what distinctions exist – so far as is concerned the question of a “just” war – between the epoch in which Marx wrote and our epoch. He declared that

“... the interests of the emancipation of several great and very great peoples of Europe stand higher than the interests of the movement of emancipation of the small nations”

– this, for the purpose of showing why Marx and Engels, before the year 1848, were against the national movement of the Czechs and the Slavs, but in favor of the independence of Poland. This shows, Lenin emphasizes,

“... that Marx and Engels at that time clearly and definitely counterposed ‘entirely reactionary peoples’, who served as Russian advance posts in Europe, to the Germans, Poles and Hungarians. This is a fact and this was indubitably established at that time: in 1848 the revolutionary peoples fought for freedom, whose main enemy was Czarism; the Czechs and others, however, were in actuality reactionary peoples and advance posts of Czarism”.

This is necessary for the purpose of concrete analysis; the example is supposed to show and does show that it is not at all a question of an abstract or sentimental principle of national “freedom” or independence, but of inserting and subordinating the question of the emancipation of the “great” nations. But a fundamental change has taken place within imperialism:

“A system of a small number of imperialist ‘great powers’ (of which there are five or six) has now been formed, in which each one suppresses other nations, and this suppression serves to retard artificially the overthrow of capitalism and to support artificially the opportunism and social-chauvinism of the world-dominating imperialist nations.”


“results the concrete alteration in the application of these socialist principles: at that time it was applied primarily ‘against Czarism’ (and against the movements of the small nations exploited by it in an anti-democratic direction) and for the revolutionary peoples of the West, who belonged to the great nations. Now it is applied against the united, serried front of the imperialist powers, of the imperialist bourgeoisie and the social-imperialists, in order to utilize all the national movements against imperialism, and in favor of the socialist revolution. The purer is the fight of the proletariat against the common imperialist front, the clearer emerges the international principles: ‘a people that oppresses another cannot emancipate itself’.”

This lengthy quotation offers material for other observations which must, however, be omitted at this point; let us point only to the fact that herein lies the complete rejection of the shameless falsification of Marxism and Leninism which the Stalinists have introduced with their distinctions between two sorts of imperialists.


Now what connection is there between this observation of Lenin and the Ethiopian question?

As a matter of fact, the connection is clear. Ethiopia has up to now been a more or less independent country. The attempt to annex it encountered (a) a national Ethiopian defense movement which will express itself in a national war which is to that extent a “just” war, quite regardless as to whether the social form of Ethiopia is backward; and (b) the will of Italy to annexation accentuates the antagonisms within the “common imperialist front” of which Lenin speaks; for – this is known from his countless, fundamental works on imperialism and specific war problems – he does not of course employ this term in order to describe a sort of “super-imperialism” but, on the contrary, in order to say: the world is already so partitioned among the imperialist great powers that every non-imperialist nation faces the common front of the imperialist oppressors; but every attempt to divide the world differently among the imperialist robbers, sets the thieves of this “common front” of robbery against each other, therefore facilitates the task of the international proletariat – the socialist revolution – and by virtue of the rupture of the “common front” of the temporary status quo of the last piratical partition of the world among the imperialist robbers, it promotes the revolutionary struggle of the working class.

In a work which is closely connected with what was quoted above, his criticism of the Junius pamphlet of Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin says:

“As a continuation of the national emancipation policy of the colonies, national wars against imperialism will be inevitable. Such wars may lead to the imperialist war of the present imperialist ‘great powers’. But this case may also not occur, and that depends upon many circumstances.”

In the case of Ethiopia, it is a question of precisely such a situation, for it is not necessary for this country to be already annexed; it is to be annexed. That such national wars are possible, even inevitable, is not only posited by the theory of Leninism, but it is also shown in practise. But such

“... national wars against the imperialist states are not only possible and probable, they are inevitable and both progressive and revolutionary, even though, of course, their success requires either the unification of the efforts of a vast number of inhabitants of the oppressed countries, or else a specially favorable constellation of the international situation (e.g., the paralyzing of the intervention of the imperialist states as a consequence of their weakness, their wars, their antagonisms, etc.), or the simultaneous uprising of the proletariat in one of the great states against the bourgeoisie (this point, last in our enumeration, is first in desirability and beneficialness from the standpoint of the victory of the proletariat).”

This is precisely the situation in the Italo-Ethiopian conflict. It is not, in truth, a question of the Ethiopian slave trade nor of the social structure of this feudal monarchy. It is a question of a situation in which the antagonism of the imperialist great powers is strong, so that an intervention in this war may at first be obviated. The miserable attitude of the leaders of the Third International, if this name is still to be used for the society of Stalin’s employees, in this conflict, shows the mongrel’s fear of the Stalinist national reformists of the progressive and revolutionary war: just because this Ethiopian war breaks the front of the imperialists, that is, the front of the status quo of imperialist robbery, this band of lackeys, which prepared the Seventh Congress of the International founded by Lenin, goes ahead without saying a word about the questions which are agitating the world.

On the other side, the League of Nations reveals itself anew to be what it was from the beginning: a consortium of thieves, but a disunited one. The president of the Council of the League of Nations at the present time, bears the name of Litvinov. This ex-Bolshevik will have to solve the traitor’s task of stifling, by means of imperialist chicanery, the progressive, revolutionary war of Ethiopia which will not let itself be annexed (and which, by its resistance, offers the proletariat revolutionary, progressive possibilities; that and only that is why Ethiopia’s war is progressive and revolutionary), and of handing over the country to the imperialist robbers.


It can be said without exaggeration that a defeat of Italy and a revolution on the Apennine peninsula can have unforeseeable results. The whole European system of alliances and states would fall apart. The proletariat in Germany, Austria, Spain, on the Balkans, and not least of all in France, would receive an enormous impulsion; the face of Europe would be altered. That lies in the direct class interests of the international proletariat. But still more. A defeat of Italy in Africa, a victory of Ethiopia, might deliver the imperialist bandits a terrific blow in Africa. Should Ethiopia’s national war be crowned with success, why shouldn’t there be repercussions to this victory of the backward country in the form of uprisings in Egypt, in the large French and English colonies of Central and Eastern Africa, in South Africa? And might not victorious uprisings in Africa be implanted, repeated, and extended in Asia?

Were it only a question of dreams here, then these dreams themselves would be useful, educational, internationalistic. But far more real possibilities are involved than the philistine, the “socialist” philistine included, who always boasts of his Realpolitik, allows himself to imagine. The capitalism of our time is far shakier and far more thoroughly doomed to ruin than these “socialists” believe. Even an occasion like the Ethiopian conflict may throw the rotten edifice of imperialism into its death-throes.

That is why it is the elementary duty of the international proletariat to do everything to drive in this direction. This “everything” is, in the concrete case: a goal-conscious, hate-filled campaign against Italian imperialism; prevention of troop transports, and of arms and munitions supplies for Italy; reinforced agitation among the Italian troops; sabotage, if possible and necessary, of Italian war preparations, munitions production, food provisioning. And on the other side: support for arms supplies to Ethiopia (this goes for those who are against arms production and transportation “as such”); unambiguous, loud, fearless propaganda of the justness of this war from the Ethiopian standpoint; tireless denunciation of the League of Nations and its imperialist hypocrisy as well as of the imperialist governments who bargain with Italy; fearless denunciation of the treacherous role of the Second International, and also of the directors of the Third International, who objectively support the allegedly combatted Fascism (we say nothing of imperialism in general, for Stalinism no longer speaks of that at all); denunciation of Stalin’s foreign politicians who, for the sake of a dubious “friendship” with Fascist Italy, betray – in this case too, short-sightedly and opportunistically – the revolutionary perspectives and possibilities which rise out of the war of Italian imperialism for the international proletariat, in order thoughtlessly to counterpose the alleged interests of the USSR to the general interests of the international proletariat. And as a consequence, reinforcement of the propaganda for the need to create the Fourth International which applies the Leninist teaching – Marxism – in this concrete case of a war in Africa as in every other case, in the interests of the entire international proletariat.

Paris, September 1935

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