Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page


John West

After Five Months of Sanctions

Its Effect upon the Italo-Ethiopian War,
theGreat Powers and the Workers

(28 March 1936)

From The New Militant, Vol. II No. 12, 28 March 1936, pp. 3 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

One of the crucial issues of the present war crisis has been the problem of so-called “sanctions.” Sanctions, moreover, are not merely a question for theoretical analysis. Sanctions are being tested also by experience: during nearly five months they have been in operation against an “aggressor.” In the light of the experience of these five months, therefore, I wish to test the analysis we have made of the problem of sanctions, and the position which we hold with respect to them.

The first point to make clear is that the sanctions which I am discussing – namely, the real sanctions which have really been in operation during these months – are in actuality certain economic, financial and commercial measures carried out by certain national states: Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and various of their satellites. This point may seem either so trivial or so obvious as to be hardly worth making. In fact, however, it is crucial. The reason why it must be understood is that these measures are usually referred to not as they really are but as “League of Nations sanctions.” From this it is concluded that they differ fundamentally from measures carried out by national states, that they are collective acts of collective body which aims to uphold world stability and world peace.

The truth is that the idea of “League sanctions” is a mere legal fiction. The League of Nations is not a sovereign political unit nor an economic unit. It has no citizens nor army nor navy nor industries nor trade nor finance (other than the unimportant Bank for International Settlements, which to some extent it controls). Consequently there are no sanctions which the League could put into effect, no matter how desirous it might be of doing so. Sanctions, as defined in the League Covenant, can be put into effect only by sovereign political states. The only reality they can even conceivably have is as acts of sovereign political states.

It is this basic fact which determines the attitude of the various tendencies within the working class toward sanctions. Revolutionary Marxists are opposed to sanctions, because they are on all occasions opposed to bourgeois national states; the strategy of Marxists aims always toward the overthrow of bourgeois states. The social-patriots, on the other hand, favor sanctions, because at bottom the social-patriots rest on bourgeois national states, and rely on collaboration with them. The social-patriots of the standard social variety, here as in every other crucial issue, function as the agents of the bourgeois bureaucracy within the working class. The new-style Stalinist social-patriots function within the working class as agents of the class enemy through an indirect route. These latter, committed to the building of socialism in one country, are consequently led to aid in maintenance of the status quo internationally – to enable socialism to be built “without interruption” – and thus must collaborate with and rely on the bourgeois states to whose immediate interest such maintenance is or seems to Stalin to be. In both cases, social-patriotism in general, and support of sanctions in particular, means nothing other than alliance with the class enemy.

Let us examine briefly what has happened in the case of sanctions, since their invocation in November:

Most of the nations belonging to the League have put into effect certain measures relating to their trade with Italy. These measures have included prohibitions on the export to Italy of a number of materials and products related to the carrying on of war (implements of war, horses, trucks, etc.); and also certain restrictions on granting loans and credits to Italy. The United States, also, though not a member of the League, has carried out certain sanctions: the prohibition of the export of certain implements of war, as provided in the Neutrality Act; and restrictions on loans and credit, through the Johnson Act.

It is to be remarked that all these nations, including the Soviet Union, have been very zealous in sticking to the letter of the law on sanctions. They have been careful not to step over the bounds of “collective action” by extending sanctions to anything not specifically agreed upon – to, for example, oil.

Italy, on her side, however, has gone a little further, and has expanded the reign of sanctions by instituting what she has called “counter-sanctions”: restriction of imports, prohibition of the sale of certain products from sanctionist nations, freezing of credits and other financial restrictions to prevent payment to these nations, etc.

What has been the effect of these measures?

First, it will require no argument to prove that their effect on the conduct of the Italian military campaign in Ethiopia has been zero. There is no indication that they have affected the campaign in the slightest. From a military point of view, Ethiopia has fared neither better nor worse than if sanctions had never been thought of. As means of stopping the war or of saving ravaged Ethiopia, sanctions have accomplished nothing.

Sanctions seem to have had some effect in adding to Italy’s economic and financial burdens internally, in cutting down supplies of certain goods and in raising prices. How great a percentage of such dislocation can be traced to sanctions, however, and how much to what would have occurred in any case under the given circumstances, without sanctions, it is difficult to estimate. Certain economic and financial difficulties have also followed with the sanctions-invoking countries. Indeed, it is probable that sanctions have been as burdensome to Great Britain and France as to Italy.

This, then, is the sum of the effects of sanctions as pretended instruments for stopping war and maintaining peace. This does not, however, complete the story of the effect of sanctions.

National Unity

The outstanding effect of the policy of sanctions has been: to aid in bringing to a new high point national unity within both the sanctions-invoking nations and Italy. The united support of sanctions by the dominant sections of the bourgeoisie together with the leadership of the dominant working class parties and organizations has meant in practice a coalition between the bourgeoisie and the working class. The crucial result of sanctions, thus, from the point of view of the working class, has been the weakening of the position of the working class, a shift in the relationship of forces in favor of the bourgeoisie, a setback to the revolutionary struggle.

In Italy, the policy of sanctions has played neatly into the hands of Mussolini. He has been able to direct the resentment of the masses away from the enemy at home,away from himself, the Fascist state and Italian finance-capital, to the “enemy abroad” – to the sanctionist nations and particularly to Great Britain. Thus the process of conscious class differentiation in Italy, which might well have gone on at a rapid rate during this period, has had substituted for it a merging into patriotic support of the nation – that is, support of the class enemy.

Of even more importance, in the long run, is the degree to which sanctions have aided in accomplishing national unity within France and Great Britain (the same process has of course occurred within the lesser nations). In Great Britain, support of sanctions by the Labour Party and the Communist Party identified these parties with the Conservative Party on the war question, which has been, of course, the decisive question. It was this which made possible the sweeping victory of Baldwin in the November General Elections – since, with the same policy on the crucial question, the Labour Party could not furnish effective opposition. It is this, moreover, which is enabling Baldwin to carry through his armament program with hardly a voice raised loudly, and none convincingly. against it.

The same developments have occurred in France. Laval, Sarraut, the Peoples Front, all united for the League and for sanctions – and, of course, with suitable “modifications.” And the effect has been to reunite France to a degree which would have seemed unimaginable a year ago. At that time, France was making rapidly ready, through a division into the two great class armies, for the struggle for power. The internal crisis in France has not of course been solved in favor of the bourgeoisie by the unification achieved with the help of the pro-sanctionst policy of the People’s Front. But the process of class differentiation has during these five months been setback heavily. The temporary weakening of the Croix de Feu and the Fascists generally, pointed to with such smug complacency by the Stalinists as proof of the great “victories” of the People’s Front, in actuality demonstrates just the opposite. The Fascists have retired a little precisely because the policy of the People’s Front has so weakened the position of the working class that it does not so imminently threaten the foundations of bourgeois rule. Consequently, in France, the attempt at a Fascist coup can be further postponed. Finance-capital does not call in the Fascists until it has to; if it can maintain itself securely with the add of the working class parties,so much the better and less troublesome.

Likewise, as in England, the pro-sanctions policy in France has made meaningless any opposition to the increased armament measures and speeded militarization. And it has played a great part in making the masses ready to defend, with full patriotic fervour, French finance-capital against Hitler. Humanité and Populaire outdo Flandin in their denunciation of the re-militarization of the Rhineland. And, quite naturally, they fail to notice that Flandin represents the class enemy at home – since their policy and Flandin’s are fundamentally identical.

Independent Action

Secondly, the pro-sanctions policy has sabotaged any effective independent working-class actions against the war. With their customary hypocrisy and cynicism, the Stalinist spokesmen inform us that they are for both governmental and working-class “sanctions”; and that the latter are more “basic.” The C.I. “criticized” at length the British Labour Party because it advocated only governmental sanctions and neglected working-class actions. But this is only rhetoric, only phrases to temper the social-patriotic wind. Governmental sanctions and independent working-class “sanctions” do not supplement each other, as the Stalinists pretend, but contradict each other. The reason is easy to understand. Supporting governmental sanctions is supporting the government; independent working-class actions are necessarily directed against the government (the representative of the opposing class) and its policies. You cannot simultaneously fight with and against the government. You can pretend to do so, in words, as the Stalinists do; but the logic of facts, not phrases, governs your actions. And, as the last five months proves, the logic of facts prevented those who stood for governmental sanctions from organizing any significant working-class actions. The contradiction is somewhat obscured in the Italy-Ethiopian conflict, where the working class is on the side of one of the contestants and against the other. It would be glaringly obvious in the more important case of a conflict between two or more imperialist nations (e.g., France and Germany), where correct working-class actions would have to be directed equally against all the contesting states, including the home government, but where any governmental sanctions would be directed against only one side.

To carry out working-class actions would have meant a consistent policy against the government, against the national state. Such a policy, though under the given conditions it too would doubtless have been unable to bring about peace and stop Italy’s campaign, on the other hand would have acted in a manner just the opposite of the pro-sanctions policy in its influence on the relationship of class forces: however unsuccessful it might have been “practically,” it would have promoted the class differentiation, strengthened the independent struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie, and hindered the building up of national unity. It would have provided the basis for agitation to dispel and not to consolidate illusions. In short, it would have been the foundation for revolutionary, and not for social-patriotic strategy.

Weapon of Peace?

“What went wrong with sanctions?” the confused but sincere believer in sanctions asks himself, after reviewing the results of the pro-sanctions policy. “Why didn’t they work better?”

If we begin reasoning from the belief that sanctions are a “weapon of peace,” a “means for enforcing peace,” then there is only one way to answer these questions. We must conclude that sanctions went wrong, that they didn’t work, because they weren’t strong enough, because the policy of sanctions was not sufficiently vigorously and extensively enforced. This is in fact the conclusion which the pro-sanctionists reach in trying to explain why sanctions have not worked in the Italian affair.

Let us suppose, for a moment, that this is correct, and let us imagine that sanctions had been enforced to the limit by the League nations. What would have followed from this? To be thoroughly “effective,” sanctions would have had to include embargoes on virtually every import to and export from Italy. But such embargoes would have had to apply to goods to and from non-sanctions applying nations in order to accomplish their purpose. Thus, they could have been enforced only by a military and naval blockade (what diplomats have been calling “military sanctions”). But a military and naval blockade is an act of war, and must necessarily have led to armed retaliation by Italy, since the life of Italy as a nation would have been at stake, as well as retaliation by the non-sanctionist nations, whose sovereignty would be threatened by the blockade.

We see, therefore, that a “fully effective” sanctions policy would – in this case as in any other – mean nothing else than war. The “peace policy” of sanctions turns out to be a war policy. The belief that sanctions are a means for enforcing peace thus puts us into a flat contradiction: peace can be genuinely enforced only by war. The reason for this is, of course, that the original belief – that any belief which leads to a contradiction – is false. Sanctions are not a means for enforcing peace.

The only case in which this contradiction could be avoided would be if the interests of all nations in the world except the so-called “aggressor” (here Italy) were in harmony. Then it might be possible to organize an unbroken front of embargoes against the “aggressor”; and the “aggressor,” alone against the entire world, might well have to accede to world pressure without a fight. But this is not and cannot be true of the capitalist world, in which the interests of various nations and groups of nations are continuously in conflict. This might be the case in a World Federation of Socialist Republics; and “sanctions” might indeed be a means for enforcing peace if by chance threatened by a member of such a Federation. That, however,is a question not for the present but for the future.

To believe that sanctions are a means for enforcing peace leads,then, to a contradiction. It makes it impossible for us to understand sanctions in their true role, to interpret what actually has happened during the past five months, to explain the realities of world politics. It leaves it inexplicable why sanctions of a sort were applied in the case of Italy, but not in the case of Bolivia-Paraguay or of Japan in Manchuria, in both of which at least as good “legal” grounds existed for applying them. It leaves unintelligible the anti-sanctionist position of Great Britain now in the Rhineland dispute. With respect to “peace,” Great Britain has had the same outlook during all four of these occurrences – and yet only in one did she advocate sanctions.

The Real Meaning

To explain the role of sanctions intelligibly, we must first understand what they are. And if we understand this, we know that they are not means for enforcing peace, but simply instruments of the policies of the national governments which invoked them, or consider invoking them. We judge and explain them, therefore, in the light of the whole policies of the given governments. For Great Britain and France, for example, they are part of the imperialist policies of two imperialist governments – that is, part of two war policies. For the Soviet Union, they are part of the world policy of Stalinism – of socialism in one country, preservation of the international status quo, and preparation for defense of the Soviet Union by alliance with capitalist states.

To understand sanctions in this manner – that is, as they are, not as pacifists and social-patriots dream of them – makes explicable what has actually happened, and the contacts that have arisen.

In the Chaco War, the policies of France and Great Britain did not require any flirtation with sanctions. Indeed, Great Britain preferred that the Chaco War should continue, since Royal-Dutch-Shell had an important stake in the victory of Paraguay. Sanctions were therefore never mentioned. Likewise in the case of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Here was a perfect legal instance for the application of sanctions. But France, and particularly Great Britain, saw nothing to be gained from the use of such a risky weapon. Their imperialist interests were not immediately and directly affected to a sufficient degree. They consequently decided that the best “means for enforcing peace” at that time was to do nothing openly, to carry on diplomatic negotiations and financial transactions behind the scenes, and to strengthen the fortifications at Hongkong and Singapore. They left it to the United States Secretary of State, Stimson, to express “world indignation against the aggressor” by his blundering and meaningless “non-recognition policy.”

But the Italian preparations for the conquest of Ethiopia placed both France and Great Britain in dilemmas. If Italy, acting alone, won undisputed sway over Ethiopia, she would threaten the British Empire lines of communication, the headwaters of the Nile and Egypt. On the other hand, if Ethiopia defeated the Italian legions or even resisted too strongly, there would be repercussions adverse to the British rulers among the native populations of the British colonies. Consequently, what Great Britain wanted in the Ethiopian matter was “neither peace nor war.” The needed a deal – a deal which would have given Italy what Italy could not do without, but would not involve too much fighting, and would leave Ethiopia not unrestrictedly under Italian rule, but in part at least under a more “international” control – that is, a control which would not put the British lines of communication and the Nile too easily at Italy’s mercy. Naturally, Great Britain was not concerned over the fate of the Ethiopians.

Great Britain, for the past year, has consistently aimed toward such an end. Through the League, an offer along these lines was made to Italy last summer – but this offer could not satisfy Mussolini’s internal requirements. He needed a war. A half-way and muddled sanctions policy was adopted after the fighting started, in order to keep the dispute within an international framework. Then the Hoare-Laval proposal revived the summer plan; its announcement was premature, but it paved the way. Now, reports indicate that the Rhineland crisis will be utilized to clean up sanctions, and fix the whole Ethiopian question up in a Franco-British-Italian compromise.

France’s dilemma was equally puzzling. She was quite willing for Mussolini to go ahead, since her own interests were not affected, and had told him so in the early part of 1935. But France also wished to keep the friendship of Great Britain and the League procedure, as useful instruments against the eventualities of Hitler’s policy. France was forced, therefore, to go along part way with Great Britain in the Ethiopian question. But her influence was exerted chiefly to aid the projected deal, and to keep the application of sanctions from getting too extensive or serious. Flandin now is jumping the gun, and in his March 20 speech to the Chamber has hailed the early cancelling of sanctions.

The Soviet Union pursued the only “consistent” sanctions policy. Frantically striving to maintain the status quo as long as possible, and to prepare for war with Hitler, it put its money on the League, and on friendship . with France and Great Britain. Thus, for public purposes, it spoke most loudly of all, for the League, and in favor of peace and international security; and meanwhile played in actuality the sanctions game as the compromise between France and Great Britain decided. During the past two months, the Stalinist press has conveniently allowed the question of sanctions to slip out of sight, in deference to France’s wishes, and in order to get through the ratification of the Franco-Soviet Pact. Litvinov is now in a position to allow the whole matter, with a suitable rhetorical flourish, to be dropped. After all, what are 11,000,000 savages compared to a military alliance with French imperialism? We cannot allow utopian ideals to stand in the way of realistic defense of the Workers’ Fatherland.

Meanwhile, as Selden, The Times London correspondent, remarked a few days ago, Ethiopia, in the face of the new complications, like Moses in the bullrushes. has been forgotten by all but God.

In this manner has the policy of sanctions served the cause of peace and the defense of the oppressed. Imperialism has made its sacrifices, but has not gone unrewarded. Great Britain would have preferred no trouble at all. However, since trouble could not be altogether avoided, Great Britain has been able to keep strings on Italy, and has laid the basis for a settlement within an international framework which will not be too threatening to imperial interests. Meanwhile British troops have cleared up awkward resulting situations in India and Egypt (Litvinov somehow forgot to suggest sanctions against Great Britain for its treatment of the Egyptian students and the border tribes in India). France, by throwing first oil and then political monkey wrenches into the sanctions machinery, has managed to keep friendly with Italy while at the same time not breaking with Great Britain. If she has been having certain difficulties in Syria, we must observe that she has the mission of preserving peace within her own dominions as well as in Ethiopia. Litvinov has kept in the good graces of his imperialist colleagues, built up sentiment against Germany, and secured the ratification of the Franco-Soviet Pact. If, in the affair, Soviet diplomacy has acted almost exclusively as the pawn first of British and then of French imperialism, we must remember that it is only Trotskyites and such-like counter-revolutionists who believe that the dictatorship should put its reliance on the international proletariat and the extension of the October revolution. The realists of the Kremlin know that the choice now is not between socialism and capitalism but between democratic imperialism and fascist imperialism – and that we had better take the former and like it, even if it leads next month to the latter.

Imperialism has found the policy of sanctions useful enough for one stage of its deepening game. And in that stage, the policy of sanctions has served imperialism sufficiently well. It is, after all, only the position of the international working class that the policy of sanctions has injured. And this would hardly be of central concern to the imperialists themselves or to their social-patriotic agents,who must more rapidly make ready to turn the workers over to the war machine.

But the stage in which sanctions have been useful is dropping behind. The re-militarization of the Rhineland calls for new answers to new problems. The naked bones of the entire League structure stand more rudely revealed by the gesture of the Nazi troops. France complains over England’s treachery in refusing sanctions now when she forced France into them against Italy. Litvinov indignantly protests the violation of the sanctity of treaties (alas, the morals of imperialism!). And Great Britain desperately maneuvers to maintain the precarious balance a little longer, before the clouds burst wide open.

Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 11 March 2018