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Pawns in Abyssinia

D 20 janvier 2017     H 05:30     A     C 0 messages

The article below, which first appeared in the Socialist Standard of August 1935, has just recently been added to the Marxists Internet Archive.

It is evident that the Italian Government is determined, at whatever the cost in men and money, to force big concessions from the independent State of Abyssinia, including, no doubt—if things go according to the Italian plans—the annexation of a large part of Abyssinian territory and the establishment of some form of close control over the remainder of the country. Why Mussolini’s Government is prepared to go to war can be explained on the usual grounds. Notwithstanding the Fascist promise of a new economic system, Italian industry is carried on for profit in competition with the rest of the capitalist world, and Italy’s lack of raw materials in her own territory or colonies places her capitalists at a disadvantage in the scramble for profit. Abyssinia is coveted because, among other attractions, it would provide a market for Italian goods and cheap supplies of raw cotton, which would free Italian capitalists from the need to import from America. The excuse is often used by the Great Powers when annexing the territories of native races that the backwardness of the latter is withholding from the civilised world much-needed sources of supply, without any advantage to the natives themselves. In the war to conquer Abyssinia that excuse cannot very well be used. Nobody can argue that the outside world is being hampered by scarcity of cotton. On the contrary, one of the outstanding features of the depression has been the vast over-production of cotton in many parts of the world, and the expensive official schemes for destroying and restricting cotton crops. In short, the motive which sends a gigantic military force into Abyssinia is not economic, in the sense of a genuine need of the human race, but is purely capitalistic, the lust for profit in a world divided into antagonistic capitalist-national groups. So, if Italy wins and further develops cotton-growing there, the next world economic crisis will very probably see the Italian Government restricting the production of that article, after sacrificing lives innumerable to make the development possible. Other attractions in Abyssinia are gold, rubber, copper, potash, and platinum.

Unrest in Italy

There are other reasons also. The early enthusiasm for Fascism began long ago to wear off, and there have recently been reports of strikes and demonstrations, including some against the threatened war. Poverty and unemployment for the workers are the order of the day under the Fascist flag, as under all others, and faced with discontent, Mussolini, like many a doomed dictator before him, is grasping at military glory as a means of regaining popular support. Naturally, he pretends otherwise, and claims that all but a tiny majority of the Italian population are behind him. Nevertheless, according to the Geneva correspondent of the Daily Telegraph (July 17th), he takes the precaution of imposing a much more drastic control of the frontier passes leading into Switzerland, with the two-fold object of preventing the escape of men who do not want to fight and of preventing the importation of anti-war and anti-Fascist propaganda leaflets and journals.

From a military point of view, while all the advantages of money and armaments are with the Italian forces, the deserts and mountainous country will be comparatively easy to defend, and the weather will be against the invaders. While opinion generally is that in time Abyssinia would be crushed, the task may prove so slow and costly that the Italian capitalists may well come to regard Mussolini as an expensive luxury. According to Mr. Vernon Bartlett (News-Chronicle, July 25th), "It is true—even though it be denied—that exactly a year ago important Army officers were alarmed to learn that Signor Mussolini contemplated an Abyssinian campaign .... They advised against it, a commission on the spot advised against it . . ."

The defeat of an Italian force by the Abyssinians at Adowa in 1896 led to the overthrow of the then Italian Premier, Crispi. Will history repeat itself ?

Something Rotten in the State of Abyssinia

Mussolini’s appeals to the Italian workers to sacrifice their lives in a quarrel which does not concern them are paralleled by those of Emperor Haile Selassie. Although the country has made only small advances towards capitalist industrialism, and that only in limited areas, it has its evils no less than those of the capitalist Powers. Chattel slavery still exists, and is only slowly giving place to wage-slavery. There is desperate poverty on the one hand, face to face with the wealth and power of the ruling class on the other. It is true, as the Emperor says, that "throughout their history they have seldom met with foreigners who did not desire to possess themselves of Abyssinian territory, and to destroy their independence," but independence means no more to the subject class in Abyssinia than it does elsewhere. Moreover, much of the tribal territory held by Abyssinia was grabbed by the Emperor’s predecessors, and is now held by force against the wishes of the local population. It is one of the ironies of the situation that just as Mussolini is afraid of discontented workers at his back, so the Emperor has to take extreme precautions that the arms he imports do not on the way fall into the hands of his own unwilling subjects, who would use them to revolt against him.

Haile Selassie’s command over the kind of phrases to delude his subjects into fighting their masters’ wars is hardly less than that of Mussolini himself : "He who dies for his country is a happy man"—" It is better to die free than live as slaves" (a little inappropriate perhaps in a country where there are many slaves)—"God will be your shield. United with God, our ramparts and our shields will face to-morrow’s invader with confidence. . . . Your sovereign will be in your midst and will not hesitate to shed his blood for Ethiopia. If no peaceful solution is found, Ethiopia will struggle to the last man for existence."

The religious note will be better understood when it is remembered that the Abyssinian priesthood are said to own as much as one-third of the total land, and are immensely influential.

The Attitude of the Powers

Many of the other Governments have direct or indirect interest in the situation. The Abyssinian Government has for many years tried to insure itself against occupation by one Power by giving contracts and concessions to companies belonging to several different countries. America, France, Japan, England, Belgium, Germany and Egypt are among the countries with trading or other important interests. Owing, however, to the complications of the European situation—in particular, the aim of keeping Austria apart from Germany, for which Italy’s aid is essential— England and France would no doubt not be much disturbed at the idea of an Italian conquest of part of Abyssinia, provided that their own interests were safeguarded, along with Egypt’s interest in Lake Tana, from which the Nile flows. However, not only has America indicated hostility to any Italian conquest, but the Japanese Government has taken the same line, and is allowing influential Japanese organisations to work up an agitation against Italy for the proposed "violation of international law and justice." The Japanese Government, which used the same methods in Manchuria and is now using them in China proper, is horrified that Italy should do this in Abyssinia.

A factor which may cause misgivings in many capitals is that any Abyssinian success may cause increased unrest throughout all the colonies in Africa.

It is worth remembering that Sir Samuel Hoare, British Foreign Secretary, has laid it down that Italy has a right to "expand," i.e., to conquer the territory of other nations (Hansard, July 11th, col. 517).
It is also worth remembering that, in order to buy Italy off, the British Government offered to give away some British territory in Somaliland, without asking the local inhabitants or the population at home.

What the final outcome of the complex clash of interests in Abyssinia will be, it is impossible to foretell.

A Crusade to Stop Slavery

One argument which generally plays a prominent part in the wars of annexation waged by the European States against the coloured races— that the war is a Christianising war—cannot be urged here, because the Abyssinian ruling class are Christians and have, indeed, themselves played the game of Christianising the Mohammedans. Mussolini has had to content himself with another noble-sounding slogan. He is going to rid Abyssinia of slavery, and impose by force the very doubtful advantages of Italian capitalist civilisation. The Pecksniffian leader writer of The Times (July 15th), while chiding Mussolini for his "obstinacy," tells us of some of the evils existing in the ancient empire of Abyssinia, or Ethiopia : "It is known . . . that conditions of squalor and extreme crudeness exist among the greater part of their quarrelsome tribes, some of whom still retain the belief that a man is no man until he has killed his enemy." The Abyssinians might retort that if there were no squalor already, conquest by any of the Powers would soon introduce it in large measure. Are not the notorious slums of the Italian towns squalid ? And has The Times never heard of Britain’s army of paupers, and the shocking conditions of the depressed areas ? As for the ferocity of the tribesmen, who is Mussolini to complain ? Has he not for years bellowed of the glorious uplifting qualities of war ?

The Labour-I.L.P. Attitude

With their incurable weakness for sentimental phrases, the I.L.P. and Labour Party have discovered here another "poor little Belgium" being attacked by a big Power, and want to take sides with the Abyssinian ruling class against the Italian. The I.L.P. New Leader (July 19th) wants the British workers to refuse to make or transport arms or munitions for Italy. Nothing is said of arms for Abyssinia, so, presumably, the I.L.P. has no objection to the making of war material for the ruling class of that country. The Labour Daily Herald is more explicit, and printed an article from their correspondent in Abyssinia (July 24th), containing the following : —

It seems as if all that remains for the Abyssinians to do now is to sharpen their spears, clean their rifles and hope that Europe will let them buy ammunition, so that it may be a fair fight (italics ours).
Could anything better illustrate the hopelessly non-Socialist attitude of the little gentlemen of the Daily Herald ? Here is a war about to take place between the exploiting class in two countries, one of which is more developed industrially than the other, and the organ of the Labour Party hopes that the slaughter of workers about a question which is not worth the life of a single one of them, shall be conducted on a "fair" basis, the only possible result of which would be that the killing would be prolonged !

The Socialist attitude is quite unlike that taken up by the Labour Party and I.L.P. We do not take sides in ruling class quarrels. A story told of the Viennese during the battle of Sadowa is more in line with what should be the working class attitude. At that battle, which occurred in 1866, the Prussians and the Austrians were fighting out the issue which of the two ruling class groups should dominate the German States and Central Europe. It is said of the Viennese that, while the battle was in progress they went on dancing, "as if it did not matter which side won." They were right, and it would tax the ingenuity of all the assembled historians and apologists for war to show any tangible loss suffered by the mass of the Austrian population through the defeat.

The progress of the world, and the abolition of war can only come through Socialism. The duty of the working class is to press forward on that road, and not to be diverted by I.L.P.-Labour Party propaganda for this or that section of the ruling class.

[’H’ - Edgar Hardcastle]