Imperialism and Socialism in Italy

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To clarify the problems presented to socialism as a result of the present imperialist war, it is useful to cast a glance at the various European countries, so as to learn to distinguish between national modifications and details of the general picture, and the fundamental and essential. Distance lends clarity to the view. The less the resemblance between Italy and Russia, the more interesting it is, in certain respects, to compare imperialism and socialism in the two countries.

In the present note, we intend only to call attention to material on this problem, as provided by a bourgeois professor, Roberto Michels, in his book Italian Imperialism, and by a socialist, T. Barboni, in a book entitled Inter nationalism or Class Nationalism? (The Italian Proletariat and the European War),[1] both of which have been published since the outbreak of the war. The garrulous Michels, who is just as superficial as he is in his other writings, hardly touches upon the economic aspect of imperialism. His book, however, contains a collection of valuable material on the origin of Italian imperialism and on the transition that comprises the essence of the times and is so manifest in Italy, namely, the transition from a period of wars for national liberation to a period of imperialist and reactionary wars of plunder. Revolutionary-democratic Italy, i.e., revolutionary-bourgeois Italy, the Italy that cast off the yoke of Austria, the Italy of the times of Garibaldi, is changing before our very eyes into an Italy that is oppressing other peoples and plundering Turkey and Austria, an Italy of a crude, repulsively reactionary and rapacious bourgeoisie whose mouth waters at the prospect of a share in the loot. Like any respectable professor, Michels, of course, considers that his servility to the bourgeoisie is “scientific objectivism”; he calls this sharing of the loot “partitioning of that part of the world which still remains in the hands of debilitated peoples” (p. 179). Disdainfully rejecting as “Utopian” the viewpoint of socialists hostile towards colonial policies of any kind, Michels repeats the arguments of those who think that Italy, judging by the density of her population and the intensity of emigration from that country, “should have been the second colonial power”, second only to Britain. Michels repudiates by a reference to Britain the argument that forty per cent of the Italian people are illiterate, and that even today cholera riots, etc., take place there. Was not Britain, he asks, a country of unparalleled poverty, humiliation, famine among the working masses, and widespread drunkenness, misery, and squalor in the city slums, in the first half of the nineteenth century, when the British bourgeoisie were so successfully laying the foundations of their present colonial power?

It must be admitted that, from the bourgeois standpoint, this argument is unassailable. Colonial policies and imperialism are not unsound but curable disorders of capitalism (the way philistines think, together with Kautsky); they are an inevitable consequence of the very foundations of capitalism. Competition among individual enterprises inevitably leads either to their becoming ruined or ruining others; competition between individual countries confronts each of them with the alternative of falling behind, ever running the risk of becoming a second Belgium, or else ruining and conquering other countries, thus elbowing their way to a place among the “Great” Powers.

Italian imperialism has been called “poor people’s imperialism” (l’imperialismo della povera gente), because of the country’s poverty and the utter destitution of the masses of Italian emigrants. Arturo Labriola, the Italian chauvinist, who differs from his former opponent, G. Plekhanov, only in that he somewhat sooner revealed his social-chauvinism, which he reached via petty-bourgeois semi-anarchism, not petty-bourgeois opportunism, wrote in his booklet on the Tripolitanian war (1912):

“It is obvious that we are fighting, not only against the Turks ... but also against the intrigues, the intimidations, the money, and the armies of plutocratic Europe, which cannot tolerate that small nations should dare to make a single gesture or to say a single word that will compromise its iron hegemony” (p. 92). Corradini, leader of the Italian nationalists, declared at the same time: “Just as socialism was a method of freeing the proletariat from the bourgeoisie, nationalism will be for us Italians a method of freeing ourselves from the French, the Germans, the British, the North and South Americans, who are our bourgeoisie.

Any country which has more colonies, capital and armies than “we” have, deprives “us” of certain privileges, certain profits or super-profits. Just as among individual capitalists super-profits go to the one whose machinery is superior to the average or who owns certain monopolies, so among nations the one that is economically better off than the others gets super-profits. It is the business of the bourgeoisie to fight for privileges and advantages for its national capital, and to fool the nation or the common folk (with the aid of Labriola and Plekhanov) by passing off for a war of national liberation the imperialist struggle for the “right” to plunder others.

Prior to the Tripolitanian war, Italy did not plunder other nations, at least to no large extent. Is this not an intolerable slight to the national pride? The Italians are oppressed and humiliated as compared with other nations. Italian emigration was 100,000 annually in the seventies of the last century; it now stands at between 500,000 and 1,000,000. All these people are paupers, driven from their country by starvation in the literal sense of the word. All of them provide labour power for the worst paid branches of industry; this mass inhabit the most crowded, poverty stricken, and squalid sections of the American and European cities. From 1,000,000 in 1881, the number of Italians abroad rose to 5,500,000 in 1910, the vast majority of this mass living in the rich and “great” countries, for whom the Italians are the crudest, most unskilled, poor and defenceless labouring mass. Here are the main countries using cheap Italian labour: France—400,000 Italians in 1910 (240,000 in 1881); Switzerland—135,000 (41,000 in 1881); Austria—80,000 (40,000); Germany—180,000 (7,000); the United States of America—1,779,000 (170,000); Brazil—1,500,000 (82,000); Argentina—1,000,000 (254 000). “Glorious” France, which 125 years ago fought for freedom, and therefore calls its present war for her own and the British slave-holders’ “colonial rights” a war of liberation, houses hundreds of thousands of Italian workers in areas that are virtually ghettos. The petty-bourgeois canaille of this “great” nation do all they can to keep these people at a distance, and, insult and humiliate them in every possible way. The Italians are contemptuously dubbed “Macaroni” (the Great-Russian reader should recall how many contemptuous nicknames are current in our country for non-Russians whose birth does not entitle them to the noble dominant-nation privileges that serve the Purishkeviches as a means of oppressing both the Great-Russian and the other peoples of Russia). In 1896 France, that great nation, concluded a treaty with Italy, by which the latter undertook not to increase the number of Italian schools in Tunisia! Since then the Italian population of Tunisia has increased sixfold. There are 105,000 Italians in Tunisia, as against 35,000 Frenchmen, but there are only 1,167 holders of land among the former, with an aggregate of 83,000 hectares, whereas the latter include 2,395 landowners who have grabbed 700,000 hectares in that colony. How can one fail to agree with Labriola and other Italian “Plekhanovites” that Italy is “entitled” to possess its colony in Tripoli, oppress Slavs in Dalmatia, carve up Asia Minor, etc.?[2]

Just as Plekhanov supports the Russian war of “liberation” against the German striving to turn Russia into a colony, Bissolati, leader of the Reformist Party, has raised an outcry against the “invasion of Italy by foreign capital” (p. 97), namely, German capital in Lombardy, British in Sicily, French in Piacentino, Belgian in the street-car enterprises, etc., etc., etc.

The question has been squarely put and one must acknowledge that the European war has done humanity enormous good by actually confronting hundreds of millions of people of various nationalities with an alternative: either defend, with rifle or pen, directly or indirectly, in any form whatever, the dominant-nation and national privileges in general, as well as the prerogative or the claims of one’s “own” bourgeoisie, that is to say, be its adherent or lackey; or else utilise any struggle, particularly the clash of arms for dominant-nation privileges, so as to unmask and overthrow every government, in the first place one’s own, by means of the revolutionary action of an internationally united proletariat. There is no middle road; in other words, the attempt to take a middle stand means, in effect, covertly taking the side of the imperialist bourgeoisie.

Barboni’s booklet is, in substance, entirely devoted to covering up this latter act. Barboni poses as an internationalist exactly as our Mr. Potresov does; he argues that, from the internationalist point of view, it is necessary to ascertain the success of which side will be more useful or harmless to the proletariat, and, of course, he has decided this question against . . . Austria and Germany. In a perfectly Kautskyist spirit, Barboni proposes to the Italian Socialist Party solemnly to proclaim the solidarity of the workers of all countries—in the first place, of course, of the belligerent countries—to proclaim internationalist convictions, a programme of peace on the basis of disarmament and national independence of all nations, including the formation of a “league of all nations for a reciprocal guarantee of their integrity and independence” (p. 126). It is in the name of these principles that Barboni declares that militarism is a “parasitic” phenomenon in capitalism, something “not at all necessary”; that Germany and Austria are imbued with “militarist imperialism”; that their aggressive policies have been a “standing threat to European peace”; that Germany has “constantly rejected the proposals for a restriction of armaments advanced by Russia [sic!] and Britain”, etc., etc., and that the Socialist Party of Italy should declare itself in favour of Italy’s intervention on the side of the Triple Entente at the opportune moment.

What remains unknown is the principles that make the bourgeois imperialism of Britain preferable to that of Germany. Germany’s economic development in the twentieth century has been more rapid than that of the other European countries; in the partition of colonies, she was badly “wronged”. Britain, on the other hand, has developed far more slowly; she has grabbed a host of colonies, where, far from Europe, she often uses methods of oppression no less brutal than the Germans. With her great wealth, she hires millions of soldiers of various continental powers to plunder Austria, Turkey, etc. In essence, Barboni’s internationalism, like that of Kautsky, is nothing but a verbal defence of socialist principles, behind which hypocritical cover his own bourgeoisie, the Italian, is actually defended. One cannot fail to notice that Barboni, who has published his book in free Switzerland (where the censor deleted only half a line on p. 75, evidently criticising Austria), has not deemed it necessary, in its 143 pages, to mention the main principles of the Basle Manifesto, or conscientiously to analyse them. On the other hand, our Barboni quotes with deep sympathy two former Russian revolutionaries who are now being publicised by the entire Francophile bourgeoisie: the petty-bourgeois anarchist Kropotkin, and the Social-Democratic philistine Plekhanov (p. 103). No wonder! Plekhanov’s sophisms do not differ in substance from Barboni’s. In Italy, however, political freedom more easily tears the veil from such sophisms, revealing more clearly Barboni’s actual stand as an agent of the bourgeoisie in the workers’ camp.

Barboni regrets the “absence of a real and actual revolutionary spirit” within German Social-Democracy (exactly in Plekhanov’s way); he warmly greets Karl Liebknecht (just as he is greeted by the French social-chauvinists, who do not see the beam in their own eye), but he decidedly declares that “we cannot speak of the bankruptcy of the International” (p. 92), that the Germans “did not betray the spirit of the International” (p. 111), inasmuch as they were prompted by a “bona fide” conviction that they were defending the fatherland. In Kautsky’s sanctimonious vein, but with an admixture of Romance eloquence, Barboni declares that the International is prepared (after a victory over Germany) to “forgive the Germans as Christ forgave Peter a moment of distrust, to heal by oblivion the deep wounds inflicted by a militarist imperialism, and to extend a hand for an honourable and brotherly peace” (p. 113).

A moving scene: Barboni and Kautsky—probably with aid from our Kosovsky and Axelrod—forgiving each other!

While quite pleased with Kautsky and Guesde, with Plekhanov and Kropotkin, Barboni is displeased with his own Socialist Labour Party in Italy. He complains that in this party, which before the war was fortunate enough to rid itself of the reformists Bissolati and Co., an atmosphere has been created which “cannot be breathed” (p. 7) by those who, like Barboni, do not agree to the slogan of “absolute neutrality” (i.e., to a determined struggle against those who stand for Italy joining the war). Poor Barboni complains bitterly that in the Italian Socialist Labour Party men like him are labelled “intellectuals”, “individuals who have lost contact with the masses”, “people hailing from the bourgeoisie”, who have “strayed from the straight path of socialism and internationalism” (p. 7). “Our party,” says Barboni indignantly, “fanaticises more than it educates the multitude” (p. 4).

An old song! It is the Italian variation of the well-known theme of Russian liquidators and opportunists, decrying the “demagogy” of the wicked Bolsheviks who “incite” the masses against the dear socialists of Nasha Zarya, the Organising Committee, and Chkheidze’s Duma group! But what an invaluable admission this is by an Italian social-chauvinist: in the only country where, for several months, the platforms of the social-chauvinists and of the revolutionary internationalists could be freely discussed, the working masses, the class-conscious proletariat, have sided with the latter, whereas the petty-bourgeois intellectuals and opportunists have lined up with the former.

Neutrality is a narrow-minded egoism, a non-understanding of the international situation; it is baseness towards Belgium, and “absenteeism”, and “the absent are always wrong”, says Barboni, entirely in the spirit of Plekhanov and Axelrod. But since there are two legal parties in Italy, one reformist and the other a Social-Democratic labour party, and since in that country it is impossible to fool the public by covering up the nudity of the Potresovs, Cherevanins, Levitskys and Co. with the fig-leaf of Chkheidze’s Duma group or of the Organising Committee, Barboni frankly admits the following:

“From this point of view I see more revolutionism in the activities of the reformist socialists, who have been quick to realise the enormous importance that such a change in the political situation [in consequence of a victory over German militarism] will have for the future anti-capitalist struggle, and who, with perfect consistency, have espoused the cause of the Triple Entente, than there is in the tactics of the official revolutionary socialists who, like a tortoise, have hidden under a shell of absolute neutrality” (p. 81).

In connection with this valuable admission, it remains for us only to express the wish that some comrade familiar with the Italian movement should collect and systematically analyse the vast and most interesting material furnished by Italy’s two parties, as to which social strata and which elements, with whose aid, and with which arguments, have defended the revolutionary policy of the Italian proletariat on the one hand, and servility to the Italian imperialist bourgeoisie on the other. The more such material is gathered in various countries, the more clearly will the class-conscious workers see the truth as to the causes and significance of the Second International’s collapse.

In conclusion, we would like to note that, confronted by a workers’ party, Barboni attempts to use sophistry so as to play up to the workers’ revolutionary instincts. The internationalist socialists of Italy, who are opposed to a war which in fact is being waged for the imperialist interests of the Italian bourgeoisie, are depicted by him as adherents of a cowardly abstinence, a selfish desire to hide from the horrors of war. “A people educated in a fear of the horrors of war,” he says, “will probably also be afraid of the horrors of a revolution” (p. 83). Together with this disgusting attempt to assume the guise of a revolutionary, we find a crudely practical reference to the “clear” words of Minister Salandra, who said that “order will be maintained at any cost”, and that attempts to hold a general strike directed against mobilisation will only lead to “useless carnage”. “We could not prevent the Libyan [Tripolitanian] war; less so will we be able to prevent the war against Austria” (p. 82).

Like Kautsky, Cunow and all the other opportunists, Barboni, with the basest intention of fooling a definite section of the masses, deliberately ascribes to the revolutionaries the silly plan to “frustrate the war” “immediately” and to allow themselves to be shot down at a moment most opportune for the bourgeoisie. He thus attempts to evade the task clearly formulated at Stuttgart and Basle, namely, to utilise the revolutionary crisis for systematic revolutionary propaganda and preparations for revolutionary mass action. Barboni sees quite clearly that Europe is living through a revolutionary moment.

“There is one point on which I deem it necessary to insist, even at the risk of becoming irksome to the reader, because without a clear idea of that point one cannot correctly estimate the present political situation. The point is that the period we are living through is a catastrophic one, a period of action, when there is no longer any question of propounding ideas, formulating programmes, or defining a line of political behaviour for the future, but of applying a live and active force to achieve results within months, possibly within weeks. Under such conditions, it is no longer a question of philosophising over the future of the proletarian movement, but of consolidating the point of view of the proletariat, in face of the present situation” (pp. 87-88).

Another sophism under the guise of revolutionism! Forty-four years after the Paris Commune, after half a century of the mustering and preparation of mass forces, the revolutionary class of Europe must, at the present moment, when Europe is passing through a catastrophic period, think of how to quickly become the lackey of its national bourgeoisie, how to help it plunder, violate, ruin, and conquer other peoples, and how to refrain from launching, on a mass scale, direct revolutionary propaganda and preparation for revolutionary action.

  1. ↑ Roberto Michels, L’imperialismo italiano, Milano, 1914; T. Barboni, Internazionalismo o nazionalismo di classes? (Il proletariato d’Italia e la guerra europea). Edito dall’autore a Campione d’Intelvi (provincia di Como), 1915. —Lenin
  2. ↑ It is highly instructive to note the connection between Italy’s transformation into an imperialist country and the government’s agreeing to electoral reform. The latter increased the number of voters from 3,219,000 to 8,562,000, in other words, it introduced “almost” universal suffrage. Prior to the Tripolitanian war, Giolitti, who carried out the reform, was bitterly opposed to it. “The motivation of the change of line by the government” and the moderate parties, says Michels, “was essentially patriotic. Notwithstanding their long-standing theoretical aversion from a colonial policy, the industrial workers, and more so the lower strata, fought against the Turks with perfect discipline and obedience, contrary to all expectations. Such slavish behaviour towards the government’s policy merited a reward to induce the proletariat to persevere along this new road. The President of the Council of Ministers declared in Parliament that, by his patriotic behaviour on the battlefield of Libya, the Italian worker had proved to the country that he had reached the highest stage of political maturity. He who is capable of sacrificing his life for a noble cause is also capable of defending the interests of the country as a voter, and he therefore has a right that the state should consider him worthy of full political rights” (p. 177). The Italian Ministers are good talkers! Still better are the German “radical” Social-Democrats who are repeating the following servile argument: “We have done ‘our’ duty by helping you to loot foreign countries, but ‘you’ do not wish to give ‘us’ universal suffrage in Prussia. . . .” —Lenin