To anyone who has viewed the Ethiopian crisis with the slightest degree of detachment, it must have appeared a phenomenon in paradox almost without parallel. In these weeks of acute international controversy, the entire world, without previous warning and with the utmost solemnity, has stood on its head. For no visible reason, nations have abandoned policies which they have pursued with complete consistency during long years. Political parties within countries have hastily thrown overboard principles upon which they have based their appeal for popular support during all of the post-war period. The Right has turned up on the Left and the Left has apparently gone Right.
Most bewildering of all have been the repercussions in Great Britain of Mussolini’s decision to establish another Roman Empire in a new quarter of Africa. In the face of this resolution the Tories, who had hitherto viewed Geneva with cold condescension, have rushed to the defense of the League of Nations with a passionate zeal which has taxed credulity and stimulated suspicion. Concomitantly, however, the die-hards, the Amerys and the Churchills, self-appointed guardians of the imperial faith, have protested against this procedure of the Baldwin Cabinet, explicable to the alien mind only in terms of imperial security.
Even more astonishing has been the performance of British Labor. Hitherto, from the very hour of the Armistice, the English Socialists have been standing immovable upon the principle of peace at any price. They have pronounced the World War the product of pre-war imperialism. In any new conflict, they have discovered the menace of a fresh disaster to their class and country even more complete than that of the last. Yet, at a moment when a Tory government dispatched the Home Fleet to the Mediterranean and the clash between Italian and British imperialism seemed inevitable, they have cast aside their own leaders, who protested against this provocative gesture, and applauded the action of those of the opposing party who were responsible for it.
Nor has similar paradox been lacking on the Continent. On the contrary, in France the Nationalists, who for half a generation have pleaded with Great Britain to implement the Covenant of the League of Nations with the guarantees of the British fleet, have been revealed hanging back aghast as the bulk of England’s sea forces have been concentrated in the Mediterranean to accomplish in fact what the French have demanded should be promised in principle. As for the Soviet Union, having for half a generation excoriated the antisocial nature of British imperialism, the Kremlin is now revealed not merely as the ally of that imperialism, but also as an ally seeking tirelessly to push a Tory government into still more uncompromising intransigence.
Under the stress and strain of recent events, too, the League of Nations, hitherto conceived to be the instrument of a war-weary world, expressly designed to prevent another conflict like the last, has been unmistakably transformed into a punitive agency concerned primarily not with preserving peace in Europe but with punishing aggression in Africa, even at the cost of another general war like that of 1914. Thus during long weeks in which, with a sincerity born of desperation, Rome has been warning the world that effective sanctions must mean war, Geneva with dogged persistence has been piling Pelion on Ossa in the effort to make sanctions effective.
How has this universal and previously unimaginable bouleversement come about? Above all, why have the British Laborites become lions, where yesterday they were sheep and forced upon the extreme Tories an attitude not a little sheepish? For what reason have the English workingmen, after having for a decade and a half preached peace and clamored for disarmament, suddenly snatched the initiative from the Tories and enlisted in a new war, superficially at least, destined to be fought for the old familiar imperial objectives?
For the American audience, which likes its story simply told, what was taking place was no more than a revival of that piece first played in 1914. Another ‘madman’ was loose in the world. A second ‘guilty’ people was on the prowl. For William II, now safely in Doorn, Mussolini was substituted; for imperial Germany, Fascist Italy; for ‘bleeding Belgium,’ helpless Ethiopia. Thus, with a new cast, the old drama was having a fresh production.
But satisfying in its simplicity as was this interpretation of the Ethiopian affair, it hardly stood the test of realistic examination. Instead of rising to this new battle cry of right and justice, thoughtful men and women the world over paused to consider the contrast between the attitude of the Tory cabinet in the face of Japanese imperialistic adventure in Manchuria and Italian in Ethiopia. Inescapably they were confronted by the question, Why Ethiopia and not Manchuria? Why Italy and not Japan?
Was it because the life line of British Empire runs through the Mediterranean and not through the China Sea? Was it because Manchuria was remote from Egypt and Ethiopia hard by? All the world recalled how one Tory government had sent the British fleet through the Dardanelles when Tsarist Russia approached Constantinople in the far-off days of the Treaty of San Stefano. Nor was it forgotten how still another Tory government had dispatched Kitchener up the White Nile in the less distant days of Fashoda.
Was Great Britain now making use of the League of Nations to achieve by indirection what it had accomplished by direct action in an earlier and less refined age? The threat implicit in the Italian purpose now was as patent as that which had formerly resided in both the Russian and the French designs. Nor was there anything novel in the spectacle of the British seizing upon a moral issue to disguise an imperial calculation. When they had, themselves, been engaged in empire building, they had described their enterprise as that of ‘taking up the white man’s burden.’ Now that their own task was accomplished, what more natural than that they should invoke the new spirit of Geneva to forbid a too faithful imitation of their ancient methods in an inconvenient region?
Completely satisfying as an explanation of Tory performance, this interpretation was less convincing as an elucidation of the course of Labor. That the Tories should rush to the defense of imperial interests, invoking moral precepts and at the same time mobilizing naval resources, was completely understandable in terms of their tradition. But ever since the Boer War those elements in Great Britain for which Labor now spoke politically had stood solidly against all war and cried out most vehemently against conflicts having their origin in imperialistic rivalries.
Now, however, when Lansbury, Ponsonby, and Cripps pointed out with utmost exactitude that Tory policy was driving the country to a war which visibly had its origin in the clash between British and Italian imperialism, Labor dropped these pilots, jettisoned the cargo of pacifism to which it had clung over so many stormy years and at such heavy costs, and the TradesUnion Congress voted, by a majority of twenty to one, to go forward to battle beside the Tories — in fact, to spare no effort to push their hereditary opponents ever more deeply into the fray.
What did all this mean? Had Labor gone imperialistic in the face of a plain threat to imperial security? Was the passion of the British workingman for peace only a delusion? Here again the simple explanation failed to carry conviction. There was, however, one other solution, which little by little began to claim attention. Was it not possible that this unexpected and unpredictable volte-face of Labor constituted the first clear evidence of the reaction of British Trade-Unionism to the fate which had overtaken its fellow workers in Italy, in Austria, in Germany, indeed wherever Fascism had triumphed? Had Mussolini by his Ethiopian enterprise provided Labor in England and the Left on the Continent, under British inspiration, with their first chance to strike back heavily and perhaps fatally?
It was true that at the outset Italian Fascism itself had produced few repercussions among the British workers. Between Italian and British TradeUnionists the ties were slight, the differences in race and temperament enormous. Accordingly the British masses had viewed the March on Rome as something primarily Latin, and the earlier outbursts of Il Duce as designed to satisfy the appetite of a theatreloving people for brag and bombast. But it was wholly different in the German case. Between British and German Trade-Unionists the bonds were very strong. The leaders in both countries had served together and worked together in international congresses, their associations were close, their personal intimacies real. And this friendship had explained why British Labor in the post-war years had constantly condemned French policies of coercion directed against Germany and, in its brief periods in office, had sought to replace France by Germany as Britain’s first friend on the Continent.
With the triumph of Hitler, however, British Labor saw the leaders of the German Social Democracy, the representatives of Trade-Unionism in the Reichstag, herded into concentration camps or driven over the frontiers into exile. It witnessed the swift and wholesale destruction of German TradeUnionism. It beheld the workers, having been politically disarmed and thus rendered helpless, deliberately turned over to the tender mercies of the leaders of heavy industry and big business, who had financed Hitler in the hope of crushing organized Labor and who were now collecting their rewards.
Hard on the heels of the German Revolution, British Labor also saw the arrival of the first Putsch in Vienna, patently engineered by Mussolini. It saw cannon turned upon the Austrian workers and, on the orders of Rome, the performance of a Socialist St. Bartholomew’s. Thus enlightened as to the spirit of Italian Fascism, British Labor identified it as the agency of the same interests as was German National Socialism.
In the service of these interests, Fascism in Italy had submerged the Italian workers in a flood of frenzied nationalism, only to deprive them of political rights and class protection. In Germany, Trade-Unionism had been murdered in its bed, in Austria it had been shot down in the streets.
Out of these three examples British Labor drew a single conclusion: Fascism, wherever found, was the enemy; invariably its triumph was followed by the reduction of the workers to a condition of helpless subjection, and, where it prevailed, their standard of living declined. If it continued to march from victory to victory, it might in the end dominate the whole world. Warned by the persecutions of Berlin and the shambles of Vienna, British Labor came suddenly to the realization that to survive it must fight. It saw itself confronted by a battle for its very life, and, instinctively, it turned away from its pacifist leaders and principles, satisfied that these no longer met contemporary needs.
By the coming of the present year, Labor, still subliminally and inarticulately, but not less completely, had renounced world peace for class warfare. In its heart there was a growing perception of the menace for it implicit in Fascism, and beside this was a rapidly developing determination to meet the peril by the only weapon which could be effective, and that was force. And then, in June, an accident suddenly shed light upon this complete transformation in the spirit and purpose of British Labor. This accident was the decision of the British League of Nations Union to hold a straw ballot to determine how the British public felt upon the question of continued membership in the League of Nations, and about the use of military sanctions, under the direction of the League, against an aggressor nation.
That peace plebiscite, as it was called, although it actually turned out to be more nearly a war plebiscite, had wholly unforeseen consequences. In the first place, not less than 11,000,000 electors, a number larger than the normal voting strength of any of the three British parties, participated. Of this huge total all but a minor fraction declared for the League, and an overwhelming majority for military sanctions if necessary. Here was an impressive, an incontrovertible demonstration that the mind of Labor had crystallized, for no one questioned that the bulk of these 11,000,000 votes came from its camp.
In League circles alike in the United States and in Great Britain, the results of this straw ballot were interpreted as a colossal endorsement of Geneva as the headquarters of world peace. In reality, however, no interpretation could have been more inexact, as the events of the following months were to demonstrate. In practice the two ideas of peace and military sanctions are mutually exclusive. To make war for peace is to make war none the less, and once the League had abandoned conciliation for coercion it was bound to be a weapon of war and not an instrument of peace.
Upon the Tory government, moreover, the returns from this peace plebiscite descended with the force of an avalanche. Baldwin, who had just taken over from MacDonald, had announced his purpose to go to the country in a general election before the close of the year. But since the normal voting strength of his party was below 9,000,000, it was patent that to return to power he must enlist the support of no inconsiderable fraction of the 11,000,000 electors who had plumped for Geneva, and must also pay heed to the will of the only less impressive majority which had declared for military sanctions in the face of actual aggression.
This plebiscite had, moreover, coincided with the clear disclosure of the nature and magnitude of Mussolini’s designs in Africa. Already, in fact, Labor and Liberal newspapers in England had engaged in a violent battle with Fascist journals. And while these British newspapers assailed Il Duce for his undisguised purpose to violate the pledges of the Covenant of the League of Nations, they simultaneously demanded that the Tory government abandon its policy of passive acquiescence and back Geneva in that battle which must be joined once Mussolini had passed from preparation to action.
So far Baldwin, who had known of Italian purposes since January, who, together with all the rest of the world, had for months watched the spectacle provided by the transport of men, matériel, and munitions from Italy to Eritrea, had given no sign. Not in June, not in July, in fact not until August was well advanced, did he actually move. But throughout the weeks following the straw ballot the pressure upon him arising from electoral considerations became ever more irresistible.
In mid-August, therefore, Baldwin acted, with lightning rapidity at last. Anthony Eden hurried to Rome and informed Mussolini that his war must not come off. This warning going unheeded, Sir Samuel Hoare traveled to Geneva and told the Assembly that Great Britain would march abreast of the League in any undertaking to prevent or punish Italian aggression. Hoare’s words also falling upon deaf ears in Rome, the Home Fleet was hurried to the Mediterranean, and naval bases from Gibraltar to Aden were stripped for action.
Suddenly the situation was back in the status of the crisis of the summer of 1914. An Anglo-Italian war had become probable if not yet certain. From Rome came defiance and not submission. Mussolini, the rainy season in Ethiopia being ended, launched his long-heralded offensive. And, when Geneva rushed to apply sanctions, Mussolini replied with the ominous warning that effective sanctions mean war. Faced by the impending conflict, the British Labor leaders protested that to travel farther along the present road must mean war. But their protests were unavailing, for Labor changes its leaders and not its purpose.
Meantime the situation of the Tory government is striking, and its ultimate purpose obscure. Apparently it originally intended to treat the Ethiopian affair as another Manchurian incident. Subsequently it explained its tardy intervention — fatally tardy from the point of view of arresting Italian operations — as taken in response to the mandate for action implicit in the result of the peace plebiscite. Conceivably it welcomed a convenient pretext for opposing an adventure which seemed harmless at first, but was assuming proportions which were not a little dismaying. Possibly the tone in which Rome met the challenge of Geneva, and the fashion in which reenforcements to Libya paralleled naval concentrations in Egypt, gave the Prime Minister pause.
But whether electoral necessities or imperial concerns dictated Baldwin’s course is not relevant to the discussion of the course of British Labor. A combination of circumstances, most of them certainly accidental, produced a situation in which the Tories and Labor, under different banners, were brought to serve the same cause, which was, in effect, anti-Fascist. J. A. Spender once wrote that there never has been any genuine peace sentiment in England, that, instead, opposing political parties only object to each other’s wars. For once, however, the government and the opposition were in agreement about a policy which seemed more and more likely to end in war.
That was Mussolini’s misfortune — his enormous and, so far as it is possible to judge, his incalculable hard luck. He reckoned on a divided England, he counted, doubtless, upon arousing the irritation of Tory imperialism, but he gambled not less heavily upon the restraining influence of Labor’s pacifism. In the deadlock which he foresaw, he identified his opportunity to proceed. But suddenly British Labor discharged its leaders, discarded its pacifism, and seized upon the results of the recent peace plebiscite as a means to dragoon a hitherto passive Tory government into action unprecedented in its violence.
Across the Channel, too, the disarray in the French Left shed an interesting light upon the situation of British Labor. In January, when Laval negotiated a general liquidation agreement with Mussolini, which established a common front between Italy and France against Germany, even the Socialists, despite their hatred of Fascism, had forborne from indulging in unrestrained criticism. The fact that the bargain had enabled a financially hard-pressed government to reënforce garrisons on the Rhine with divisions drawn from the Alps, instead of having to increase the army, was equally appealing. Security and escape from fresh taxes, these made assent to the Ethiopian adventure seem by comparison of slight importance.
But when the British Government suddenly spoke in Geneva, when British Labor visibly went berserk over the Ethiopian affair, then of a sudden the Right and Left in France divided. On the Right the nationalists defended Italy, on the Left the Socialists supported Great Britain; between the two extremes the Radical Socialists, the party in power, were torn violently asunder, one faction following Laval in protest over British policy, the other endorsing Herriot in support of it.
Instinctively the real Left in France sensed the issue not as a question of national security but of class interest. France, too, unlike England, had experienced a genuine threat of Fascist upheaval, a threat rising to alarming proportions in the Paris riots of February 1934. Since this menace still continues in the form of the Croix de Feu, the new conflict between Left and Right had a significance lacking in the case of British Labor.
On the Right, the press thundered that British policy was destroying the Stresa front, driving France into war with Italy and presenting Hitler with an incomparable opportunity to carry out his designs upon Austria and Memel. On the Left, the newspapers proclaimed that to break with England was to end the Entente Cordiale, to sacrifice Locarno and to leave France isolated in the face of a rapidly rearming Reich. But, while all these considerations had reality and weight, underneath the surface there was common perception at the Right and at the Left that the deeper issue was between Fascism and Socialism, and that as a consequence, before the present dispute had ended, there might be civil war in France.
Not less interesting was the Russian reaction to the Ethiopian crisis. For the Kremlin, Fascism had long replaced British and French capitalism as the immediate threat to the Soviet Union. Both Mussolini and Hitler had ridden to power on the crest of anti-Communist agitations. Each was the self-appointed executioner of his domestic Communism, and the German dictator also proclaimed his purpose to lay violent hands upon wide areas of Soviet territory. Now the prospect of a British attack upon Italian Fascism moved Moscow alike to enthusiasm and to action.
Accordingly Geneva was presently treated to the spectacle of Maxim Litvinov not merely seconding the punitive proposals of Anthony Eden, but also striving to speed up the process by which the noose of sanctions was to be drawn ever more tightly about the throat of the Italian dictator. On the other hand, every proposal of compromise made by Laval, always acutely aware that only concession could avert catastrophe, called forth protests from the Red Commissar which awakened prompt echoes in the Labor press of England. Hardly able to believe their eyes, not quite ready to trust their luck, the Soviet Union strove incessantly to push imperial England into collision with Fascist Italy, totally without concern for the possibility that both might emerge from such a smash completely crippled.
All over Europe, moreover, a thrill of hope was unmistakably awakening in Socialist and Communist quarters. For nearly a decade and a half Fascism had been on the march: Italy, Germany, and Austria had been conquered outright; in many other states the Fascist victory had been only less complete. In these three countries all the structure of social security and material well-being, the harvest of half a century of battle, had been destroyed. The rights of man had been abolished precisely as the standard of life of the workers had been lowered. Resistance to Fascism had everywhere been crushed with indescribable brutality. Overthrow of existing Fascist régimes by domestic upheaval had now become unthinkable.
But if Great Britain, even though her concern were for her imperial security, was now prepared to fight Fascist Italy, then the Socialist and Liberal Left of the Continent could at last detect a turn in the tide. Deliverance, however, could only come with war, with a war in which foreign defeat brought disaster to a dictatorial domestic régime impregnable to attack on the home front. What Labor in England had already realized, the Left on the Continent by degrees grasped, and, having grasped it, was also modifying its principles to accord with its contemporary problem.
The fact that the Left in Europe, Labor in England, and Socialism on the Continent had thus broken with the old idea of peace and, so far from seeking to employ the machinery of Geneva to promote conciliation, were now exploiting it in a fashion which could hardly fail to produce hostilities, passed utterly unperceived on this side of the Atlantic. In American eyes the League of Nations was, in the Ethiopian crisis, merely fulfilling its foreordained functions. Unlike Labor, the Liberals, and the Socialists in Europe, no fraction of the American people had as yet realized that peace and Fascism could not both exist at one time on this planet.
To travel from one side of the Atlantic to the other was — again as in 1914-1917, when Europe was at war and the United States still neutral — to go from one world to another. America was still living in the immediate post-war era, when peace seemed the true objective of all mankind. In the age of Hitler and Mussolini, it was still talking in the language of Woodrow Wilson and thinking in terms of perpetual peace. Europe, however, read the portents of later post-war history with exactness. It saw that between the Left — that is, between Labor, the Liberals, and the Socialists — on the one hand, and Fascism — whether Italian, German, or Austrian — on the other, there could never be anything but war.
Since Mussolini had blundered into a situation where the machinery of the League, under British impulsion, could be employed to shatter his prestige and to shake his régime, the European Left applauded the performance at Geneva. But it saw Geneva as a battleground and not as a seat of pacification. All of this, however, passed unnoticed in the United States, which was thinking of world peace and not of class warfare.
Mussolini, by contrast, was under no illusion. Incredibly late, he grasped the fact that he was caught between the British Tories and British Labor. From the latter he recognized that he could expect no quarter. To the former he proffered every form of assurance as to imperial security. And at the same time he worked upon the Right in France, striving alike to exploit class solidarity and to use the ever-present fear of Germany. It was his one hope, but, both in Great Britain and in France, the manœuvre was identified and answered from the Left, which was conscious of its advantage and resolved to retain it.
Nor, in England, could the Tories, prior to the general election now fixed for mid-November, draw back even if they chose. They had decided to make their support of the League of Nations the basis of their claim for a new mandate. And Labor, penetrating this strategy, resolved to exact full price for that victory by holding its opponents to an uncompromising adherence to League procedure, which was moving at headlong speed toward effective sanctions and consequent hostilities. Willy-nilly, therefore, the British Tories became the servants of the Labor opposition and the League the instrument not of conciliation but of conflict.
In the nature of things, too, Woodrow Wilson’s creation was peculiarly designed to serve the present ends of Labor. In the pre-war era, old-fashioned diplomacy could have resolved the Ethiopian affair, once it was certain that neither Great Britain nor Italy was determined upon war. On that assumption it would have held a few mud huts in East Africa, a few acres of desert or mountain land in Abyssinia, negligible when weighed against the costs of a European conflict. It would have been concerned with what was expedient and not with what was ethical. It would have proceeded as it had at the Congress of Berlin, where the differences of great powers were resolved at the expense of the smaller countries.
But the League machinery had all the rigidity of the procedure of a court of law. Once the Ethiopian affair had been submitted to its jurisdiction, the operation of that machinery became automatic. Of the fact of Italian aggression there could be no question. Of the determination of Il Duce to continue upon his illegal way, the news from the Abyssinian battlefields was sufficient proof. To reward a criminal nation, as Italy now was, by the possession of the cities and provinces of its victim was to compound felony and to make the League itself an accessory after the fact of the violation of its own law. Compromise must inescapably be made at the expense of justice, and to assent to such compromise the Tory government had deliberately to affront the 11,000,000 voters of the Peace plebiscite, who were bound to avenge betrayal of the League at the approaching general election.
If, judged by the ethical standards of Geneva, Italy was now a criminal nation, nevertheless, measured by the yardstick of political realism, she was still a great power. In the years since the March on Rome Mussolini had reorganized and rearmed the military forces of his country. He had provided it with a new and formidable navy. He had endowed it with an air force second to none. And now 44,000,000 Italians were wholly united and resolutely determined to follow the leader who, in their eyes, incarnated the greatness of the first Cæsar.
To yield to British coercion must be tantamount to a confession by Il Duce that, despite brave words, he was only a posturing pretender. For his country, submission ensured swift decline from the stature of a great power to the situation of a British satellite, condemned to spring to attention instantly whenever England played its own national anthem. Literally, Mussolini was ‘on the spot,’ his Fascist régime was standing with its back to the wall. For both, if Geneva continued to follow its contemporary course, the choice was to finish in a fight or a fiasco.
All the while, too, the machinery of Geneva was revolving at a speed which had become dizzy, turning out sanctions progressively more severe. To permit it to continue at its headlong pace must ensure a world-wide catastrophe. But to arrest it was certain to disclose the League of Nations to be as feeble in its punitive labors as it had been futile in its preventive enterprises. Under such circumstances Ethiopia would become another Manchuria and Geneva would be stripped of the last remnant of prestige.
In a word, the Fascist régime in Italy, the fate of the Tory government in Great Britain, the future of the League of Nations in the world, were all visibly at stake.
But to British Labor, disaster for all three was a matter of not the smallest concern. On the contrary, Italian Fascism was its class enemy, the Tory Party its political foe. As for the League of Nations, since Labor was now in spirit already at war, having renounced its old principles and discarded its pacifist leaders, Geneva was valuable not as a means of preventing war, but only as a weapon for waging it. For Labor, the League of Nations was no longer an instrument to preserve peace in Europe, but a bludgeon to smash Fascism in Italy. Accordingly it continued to demand that the machinery of Geneva be driven ever more relentlessly and remorselessly, until the might of the entire British Empire had been conscripted for the class war that British Socialism was now embarked upon.
Even were this Anglo-Italian conflict to be averted, moreover, the implications of the course of British Labor would remain unmodified. In power or in the opposition, it was now committed to the destruction of Fascism by war, since no other means could prove effective. And if Geneva prevented conflict at the cost of concessions to Mussolini, Labor was certain to turn its back upon the League of Nations for precisely the same reason it had already thrown overboard its own leaders, for whom war and not a further triumph for Fascism had seemed the greater evil.
On his Ethiopian pathway, Mussolini had not only roused the British Lion, resentful of an intrusion into his imperial domain, but had also awakened British Labor, fearful for its very existence. What the outcome of this double encounter may be can hardly be foreseen until the world has read and digested the returns of the impending general election in England.