Notes on the war question – Paul Mattick

International Council Correspondence, Vol. II (1935-1936), No 2 (Januari 1936)


The problem of war, which has long been the object of so much discussion, has become a concrete question of the day thru the proceedings in Ethiopia. The enormous significance of this war lies in the fact that it illuminates as with a flash of lightning the general imperialistic rivalries and points to the inevitability of a new world slaughter. No thinking person seriously believes today that the war for the redistribution of the shares of profit can long be deferred any more, and the various nations are consciously making ready for this conflict. What the bourgeoisie and the various capitalist groups of interests have to say or conceal as to the war situation, we learn from their press; what they are doing in order that the war shall find them prepared is indicated by their arming manoeuvres and their “diplomacy”.

The only thing that interests us here is the position to be taken on the war question by the revolutionary workers. First, in case the african war remains localized or is brought to an end thru imperialistic understandings before the world war breaks out; and secondly, what their position shall be in case the african adventure should presently develop into a new world war. The criterion for the position taken by us are the real, international class interests of the proletariat. We have no desire either to defend the feudalistic regime in Abyssinia nor to justify fascist Italy nor to identify ourselves with the imperialistic interests of England; nor to confine ourselves, for lack of anything else to say, to the problems of the class struggle in the United States; nor thru the “maintenance of world peace” to preserve state-capitalist Russia from convulsion; nor to take up with the alliance policy of France against Germany (or the other way ‘round). Our standpoint poses only the one question: what must, can and will the working class do?

The war – whether the on in Africa or the coming world war – has no other immediate significance for the workers than that a part of them will be killed off in the most revolting manner and that as a class, insofar as they are not slaughtered, they will be immeasurably impoverished. War, bringing death and misery to the workers, cannot from the working-class standpoint be bade welcome. But the preponderant working masses have today no class standpoint of their own; they are under the way of the bourgeois ideology and follow the movements of their masters, willingly or unwillingly ready to suffer and die for them.

Our standpoint is not that of the working masses, but of a small part of their more or less class-conscious elements. We don’t, however, damn the working class because of the circumstance that it is again making ready on an international scale to go under in millions for Capital. We realize that the ideas of a time are always those of the ruling class, and we know the objective as well as the subjective grounds which for the moment repress the revolutionary nature of the proletariat and which cause it to continue waging war for Capital, just as it also works for Capital.

The causes of the revolutionary unripeness of the proletariat shall not concern us at this place; we make these statements merely in order to draw the conclusion that the international working class will not in the near future thru revolutionary overturns put an end to capitalism and its wars. In this case there remains to the proletariat nothing other than to go along with capitalist policy; it has to decide for this or that capitalist group of interests and to fight for it.

What the proletariat would have to do in its own interests – that is, prevent the war – is possible only thru the revolutionary setting aside of capitalism. Still, the improbability of a revolution prior to the coming war makes the war certain already; and if the proletariat takes part in the war, it will do so not with a special ideology, but that of its bourgeoisie. In such circumstances, the great mass of the workers will no doubt, just like the bourgeoisie, line up against revolutionists, and for these latter there will be for a time no other working possibility than such as exists under the present-day german fascism: the training and most careful selection of the revolutionists themselves, cautious increase of their numbers, and the endeavor to bring them alive thru the “dead time” (from the revolutionary standpoint), until the war has exhausted itself and has created the subjective ripeness for revolution. For if capitalist production has a revolutionizing character, so also has its destructive phase. If, in the course of its development, Capital shapes the greatest productive force, the proletariat, which is compelled to shatter the capitalist relations in order to consummate itself, – so in war it shapes, under the present conditions, a situation which, seen from any point of view, can only issue in the proletarian revolution.

While the last war had led almost to the door of the world revolution, this door will no doubt be opened by the new world war. For just as Capital is incapable of controlling production, which turns against it, so it is equally incapable of keeping destruction in forms and paths which offer the possibility of any desired diversion into “normal” situations. The magnitude and virulence of the coming war preclude its mastering by way of Capital. As in crisis, so also in war, Capitalism swims helpless in a sea of troubles; which is merely an other confirmation of the fact that it is historically surpassed.

From the revolutionary point of view, war accelerates the advent of a truly revolutionary situation, and all forces will have to be properly directed to this factor. In unrevolutionary times, one need not, because of some silly idealistic fancies or other, lavish himself to no purpose, but will adjust his tactic and his will to the final struggle, which will be found in the wake of the war.

Capital pursues no social goals; there is today no “social will”, but only particular strivings and groups of interests. Capital develops thru the sharpening of the conflicts of interests. If the number of these conflicts diminishes thru concentration, they become correspondingly harsher and more disintegrating. The more the conditions for a systematic social direction of economy from the technical and organizational standpoint are evolved, the more this possibility is precluded by reason of the persisting economic relations of present-day society. If economy cannot be planfully organized even within the framework of a single nation, nor any peacefully regulated distribution of the shares of profit introduced, such a thing is still more thoroughly precluded on the international field. Necessary reorganizations, forced by reason of the sharpening contradiction between increasing productive forces and the persisting profit order (so as not to abolish the latter) can be brought about only by way of violence. If capital’s concentration process and the crisis are means to the “extra-human” reorganization of profit economy – a reorganization determined by commodity fetishism – war likewise has no other significance. A capitalist war is not, however, always the same capitalist war. If the capitalist problem is one of creating additional surplus value, then a war which increases the profitability of capital may mean a way out of the capitalist difficulties and furnish the impulse for an accelerated advance. The war would here be a means of hastening the accumulation and would be followed not by revolutionary uprising but possibily by a general upswing. The fact that war always enriches only a few and impoverishes the masses under all circumstances is not the particular feature of war but the general tendency of the capitalist development. War itself does not create but destroys profit. It may, however, lead to the opening of new sources of profit which not only make up for the temporary loss but convert it into gain. War in this case is an accelerator for an otherwise slower movement. If war can accelerate accumulation, still on a higher stage of accumulation it is necessarily compelled to slow this accumulation down or, when it has come to a standstill, make its revival still more difficult. If the accelerated accumulation leads to over-accumulation and thereby to its arrest, it leads also to a situation in which the war must become a hindrance to further accumulation; a situation in which the war, instead of revealing new sources of profit, can continue to be conducted only for the sake of reorganizing the distribution of the profit internationally won and internationally determined. It is then a question not of increasing the profit and hence of overcoming the crisis, but of the altered distribution of the profit, in which connection the expenses of this process of distribution, the war costs, have to be set down as a pure loss by which the difficulties of capital are made more difficult.

The concentration of capital is, from the capitalist standpoint, progressive only in case there is a simultaneous growth of capital. Concentration without growth is only accelerated increase of the capitalist contradictions and difficulties. The character of the present crisis, as we have pointed it out (Council Correspondence, Vol 1, #2)[1] is not such as to permit of seeing in the coming world war a means of overcoming crisis.

The war can only deepen the crisis to a point at which the proletarian revolution must be released. But even though the war cannot be regarded as a means of overcoming the crisis, still there is capitalistically no possibility of preventing the war. If the profits can no longer be increased to conform to the further needs of accumulation, there remains to capital no other activity than the sharpened competitive struggle for the diminished or stagnating profit mass. The longer the crisis lasts, the more closely the war approaches. Though war most probably means the beginning of the capitalist end, still at the same time it is the only way out for capital, which can live only so long as it destroys. The paradoxical nature of this situation rests on the capitalist contradiction between exchange value and use value, on the fact that capital has to exercise production and destruction at the same time in order to exist at all. This is illustrated also in the increasing wealth of society with simultaneously decreasing profits, in the starving of human beings in the midst of superfluous products, etc.

We have said that if the proletariat cannot conduct an independent policy and if it fails to do so, then it can only come forth as an appendage of the bourgeoisie, with the interests of which it is compelled to conform. The african conflict presents an example of this fact. The mass of the italian workers still stands on the side of Mussolini, as the mass of the german workers still stands behind Hitler (indifference amounts to supporting the bourgeoisie) and the mass of the english workers identifies itself with the interests of its bourgeoisie. Even the policy of the “official labor movement” is a mere reflection of capitalist necessities. The Second International has identified itself with the imperialist measures and plans of England against Italy. The policy of “sanctions”, the support of the League of Nations, even the transport strike which has remained no more than a phrase, or the petition for the closing of the Suez Canal – whatever was recommended against the war promoters on the part of the labor movement were recommendations in the interest of english imperialism. And if the Second International came out for english imperialism, so in turn english imperialism has come out for the labor movement in its struggle against “Fascism”, which it has attacked as an “inciter of wars”. We live in a funny world. Both the Second International as well as english imperialism, naturally want to maintain peace, which maintains the privileges of english imperialism, but the programs selected to this end are practically declarations of war. The Second International is for the english “peace” and hence for the english war.

The french reformists were more cautious in their demands for sanctions; the interests of the English are not identical with those of France. France’s support of the english policy is an involuntary one. The policy of the Second International with regard to the war situation is a repetition of its position during the previous war: it is driving the masses to the shambles in the interest of the bourgeoisie.

The position of the Third International, identical with Russia’s attitude on the war, is outwardly a silly cry for peace. On the african situation, it scarcely ventures to take a position. Radek writes in the “Rundschau” (#57): “Thruout the world the working people are following this war, and wish for the abyssinian masses not only that they will not come under any colonial yoke, but also that in this great historical test they will rend asunder the chains of feudalism and of slavery at home”. But even this pious wish of the Third International in the interest of abyssinian independence came rather late, since Russia, like France, has no desire to offend Italy if such can in any way be avoided. It was not until her french ally, considering that the time for the world war has not yet come, made half-way concessions to England that Russia also found herself in a position where it became advisable to emit a few weak-kneed protests against Italy’s aggressions, without, however, for that reason imposing any restrictions on the furnishing of Italy with raw materials necessary for war purposes.

If, in the opinion of the Third International, the workers should merely “follow” the war and in their hearts wish the Abyssinians luck, this is proof for the Trotskysts that Stalin has once more betrayed Leninism, for Lenin was of course for the unconditional support of all national movements and suppressed peoples. So then the “uncorrupted Leninists” write in “The New International” (Oct. 1935), without realizing how ridiculous they make themselves: “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, when it must help to produce it. This means that it does not remain “neutral”, but that it actively intervenes for Ethiopia”. According to this conception, the most consistent revolutionists would be those who should join Haile Selassie’s army and fight for him. Since, however, the trip to Africa costs money, one must after all confine himself to a few phrases which hurt nobody. Here are the concrete demands of the 200-percent Leninists: “Prevention of troop transports and of arms and munitions supplies for Italy; support for arm supplies to Ethiopia unambiguous, loud, fearless propaganda for the justness of the war from the ethiopian standpoint”, etc. It never occurs to these people that the whole question of the “neutrality” of the proletariat, so hotly rejected, is no question at all. Either the proletariat fights with its bourgeoisie the war of the bourgeoisie, or else it makes revolution. These are the only two possibilities, and the possibility of a “neutral” attitude, on the part of the proletariat does not exist. And so these people are merely tilting at their own fancies. Like parrots, they repeat leninist phrases which were revealed as humbug even during the last war. In the present-day imperialistic milieu there are no longer any national wars of liberation. Not much was lacking during the last war and Ethiopia would have gone in as a matter of self-interest. She was quite ready to take part in the imperialistic affray in order to profit by it. The feudal condition of the country does not preclude becoming involved in imperialistic policy. Only the lack of inner unity prevented at that time the participation of Ethiopia in the imperialistic world war, as it today makes a struggle for “national liberation” or “independence” a silly phrase. Ethiopia is by no means a unified formation which takes up arms for its national independence, but a country disrupted by struggles of groups and interests; certain parts of which are ready to make common cause with Italy, while other parts prefer to continue exploiting their slaves by the grace of England. Within Ethiopia there are “suppressed nations” which line up against Haile Selassie just as Selassie does against Italy. So why not go still farther and carry the right of self-determination to Ethiopia itself, sabotage the ethiopian army and arm the suppressed tribes? Regardless of how zealously one may come out for the independence of Ethiopia, this “leninist principle” would always remain identical with support of the imperialist interests of England. It is about time that this silliest point of Leninism be thrown overboard, and one learns to realize that in the international field there are only two alternatives left today: either imperialist policy or- working-class policy.

The abyssinian conflict has so far remained localized because the fronts for the coming world war are not yet drawn clearly enough. We see no use in considering here the question of when and with what combinations of powers the next war will occur and which of these combinations will have the best prospects. There is no imperialist country which has like-directed and unequivocal imperialistic interests; if only with the development of capital export, new oppositions of interests have taken form both on the international and the national plans, oppositions by which country and world are divided into groups, some of which gain by peace and others of which profit from war. German fascism is actually being directed also against Capital, that is, against capitalist circles which are unable to identify themselves completely with the interests of the german imperialists. German as well as italian fascism have anticipated what had to wait until after the outbreak of the last war to be created; the coordinating war economy which passed for dictatorial subordination of all separate capitalist interests under the strongest imperialist interests, and which Lenin celebrated as state capitalist and the presupposition for socialism. Fascism is thus not merely an expression of the monopolistic concentration of economic policy, of the complete subordination of the workers under the profit needs of capital, but also a war measure for the new imperialistic conflicts. The objective unripeness of the war situation was illustrated in the japanese policy with regard to China, a policy which met with no real opposition among the other interested powers. The re-arming of Germany, the tearing up the Versailles treaty, showed once more that a new world war requires first a reorientation of the various imperialisms. The isolation of the war in Africa merely points to the fact that this regrouping of imperialist interests is not yet completed. The war in Africa has so far given a new impetus only to diplomacy, the process of clarification, and only in this sense if it tied up with the coming world war.

The restraint on the part of England is to be understood only as preparation for war, just as the “neutrality” of Germany is identical with her re-arming and the vacillation of France is to be explained by the military unreadiness of Germany. A great number of surprises are still possible before the world war breaks out. It cannot be forseen as yet what groups of powers will stand opposed to other groups. The one thing that is clear is that rivalries of great magnitude, such as the one between England and the United States, will help in determining those of the other countries, and that the smaller rivalries can work themselves out only within the framework of the large ones. If japanese imperialism functions almost exclusively on the basis of the english-american opposition, so the european alliance policy is likewise adjusted to that opposition. In whatever particular manner the powers may line up (we shall come back to this point in a special article), the process of formation may last a few years longer, but it may also be decided all of a sudden. The war is possible tomorrow, but it way equally well be delayed a few years longer. Looked at from the class standpoint, the proletariat must answer the war with the revolution. No other answer is possible. Just as it can only save itself thru the overthrow of capital, so it must endeavor even today to assure its own life and must fight against capital for its material interests. Sharpening of the class struggle in peace and in war is ever the correct watchword. So far as concerns the present war in Africa, it presents no special problem. The proletariat can only come out for itself, by which it comes out for humanity. It cannot come out for the “independence of Ethiopia”. The backward peoples fight, when they fight, for the development of their national capitalism, because nothing else is possible. It cannot be the task of the proletariat to fight for new as against old capitalist nations; it has to overthrow world capitalism. The proletariat has no word for Ethiopia, since Ethiopia still has no proletariat. But the proletariat has a word for Italy and for all other capitalist countries: the overthrow of world capitalist, and therewith the end of imperialism. With the end of world capitalism there is taken away at the same time the possibility of capitalizing the backward countries. However complicated the colonial question may appear within the framework of capitalism, the position of the proletariat has to be limited to the simplest formula: safeguarding of the class interests of the proletariat, and nothing else.

[1] Mattick está indicando o artigo “A Crise Permanente”, traduzido e publicado no Crítica Desapiedada. Cf.: [Nota do CD]