THE Ethiopian War has divided France into two camps, just as did the Dreyfus Affair in the nineties and just as a more recent crisis did in February 1934. Now, as then, the two positions have been taken up less with regard for material facts than predetermined principles. This is quite natural. In matters of principle the same men have opposed the same men since the world began.


The separation of Frenchmen into two camps, now once again evidenced, is essentially the opposition of the old hierarchical concept of society against the idea of justice, or, more precisely, against the idea of human equality (which incidentally is misinterpreted in order to facilitate the task of destroying it).

The issue has been stated clearly enough by Baron Aloisi. "All discussion," the Italian representative said at a recent session of the League, "will be futile so long as it is based on the abstract principle which puts Ethiopia on the same footing as those civilized nations which make up the League. No member of this League would wish to see itself placed on the same level as a nation of slave owners." Here is the start of the misunderstanding between Geneva's partisans and adversaries. The latter pretend to believe that we who favor the League wish to place Italy and Ethiopia on the same plane in all respects and from all points of view. They accuse us of "a crude universalism" ("un grossier universalisme" is the term used in the so-called "Manifesto of the Sixty-Four Intellectuals"), of confusing the "superior" with the "inferior," the "civilized" with the "barbarian."

These who say this shut their eyes to the fact that only in one respect, only from one perfectly well-defined point of view, do we place nations on the same plane. We assert that every nation has the right not to be despoiled by a stronger nation. This right we believe belongs equally to all peoples; we think that here there is no superior and no inferior. From this point of view, we do not feel in the least insulted if a backward nation is placed in the same class as ourselves. No more do I as an individual feel humiliated by the fact that a poor and ignorant man has just as much right as I have not to be injured by the actions of some arbitrary authority. The attitude, which has existed since the days of the Stoics and early Christians, makes men respect their fellow men and demand that, however humble these be, they have the right, because they are men, not to be treated like animals.

The partisans of Italy do not accept this thesis. Their dogma, although they do not express it so clearly because clarity is something they must avoid, is as follows: "We do not admit that there is an equality of nations in so far as concerns the right to injure and the necessity of receiving injury. For we believe that culture, art, intellectual accomplishments and civilization confer upon the nations which possess them the right to exploit those which do not, just as we recognize the right of superior animals to devour the lower species."

The adherents of this doctrine are the same as those who in domestic matters refuse to admit that all citizens have the right to be respected as individuals. They contend that public order, which they associate with the authority of the upper classes, and which they in addition confuse with culture, is lost as soon as the little man is accorded the same right to live as the great one. This doctrine, we, as civilized men and as Frenchmen, reject.

The thesis that civilization confers the right to do violence to others was never advocated by a Voltaire or a Michelet or a Lamartine or a Renan or a Fustel de Coulanges, not even by the strict moralists of Louis XIV's time such as Bossuet or Bourdalone. Indeed, it was vigorously combated by Fustel de Coulanges in his letter to Mommsen reprinted in Questions Contemporaines -- an interesting fact, because the man-eaters of the Action Française call themselves his disciples. The doctrine is of German invention. The strangeness of its adoption by French super-patriots is augmented when we recall that in 1870 the Germans annexed Alsace-Lorraine in its name. The Germans contended that they were in the right because Frenchmen were an inferior race whereas they were of the élite. It is, moreover, the thesis of "Mein Kampf," and by applying it Nazi Germany plans some day to exterminate the Latin world.[i]


The votaries of civilization incarnate in force should further consider whether even if it were true that civilization confers the right of doing violence, the thesis can be accepted as applicable in the present instance.

The Italy of Mussolini is not civilization. Civilization is represented by the Italy of other days, the little Italian republics of the Renaissance. The Italy of today is one immense camp, completely and exclusively military, tight shut against the penetration of all refinement, of all ideas of liberty, knowing only the upraised fist and the cult of the leader. I would compare this Fascist Italy, if I looked for a comparison in history, to the ancient Empire of the Mongols. This Italy is the antithesis of civilization. It is impudent of it to try to associate itself with the Italy of Petrarch and Leonardo da Vinci.

The word "civilization" is given some equivocal meanings.

There is the artistic civilization. Italy -- the Italy of other days -- created it. There is also the moral and political civilization. This is the civilization which teaches peoples to develop institutions, to observe laws, to require of their governments that they respect the dignity and liberty of the individual -- in short, shows them how to be citizens of an organized state. This civilization was not Italy's gift to humanity. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon world. Important as is the first of these civilizations, the second is even more important. The Frenchmen who are suffering from pathological Anglophobia seem to have forgotten this fact. The truth is, of course, that they are the selfsame Frenchmen who have a horror of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and who live in hopes of a day when Frenchmen shall once again be, not citizens, but subjects of a king who disposes of their destinies without bothering to consult them.


One of Mussolini's grand virtues in the eyes of the Frenchmen whom I am describing is his power to plunge his people into war on his own and unique responsibility. He does not trouble to ask their advice or consult their pseudo-representatives. They are dumb beasts; it is not for them to decide whether they will or will not be slaughtered. All our French anti-parliamentarians, especially the Royalists, are violently pro-Mussolini. They are super-patriots. But it does not matter to them that the plans of this autocrat may have immediate or remote consequences which are dangerous for their own country. France can perish, it seems, provided democracy collapses first.

These enemies of sanctions against a Mussolini rampant on behalf of what he calls civilization use a second argument. You say you are pacifists, they cry out to us, yet you demand sanctions which entail the risk of war. This argument is about as valid as if one said to a policeman: "You are the guardian of the peace -- of the peace! -- yet you assume to correct this wrongdoer. Don't you see that he may strike back, thereby forcing you to subdue him at the cost of breaking the peace?" The idea of the maintenance of order, whether between states or within a state, is clearly compatible with the possibility that there may be "broken heads." Incidentally, when the maintenance of order meant the massacre of workers in June 1848, or the repression of the Commune in March 1871, our adversaries found it very easy to choose that heads of others should be broken. But when it means, as during the riots in February 1934, that their own heads will be broken, then they become indignant.

It hardly seems necessary to point out that if sanctions today entail the risk of war it is because they were not applied as was intended against the aggressor. If at his first act of violence Mussolini had seen mobilized against him, instantly and automatically, the French army, the British navy, the strength of Russia -- or even the threat of the imminent use of these and the other instruments on which the League ought to have been able to rely -- he would have capitulated in twelve hours. We should not have had to weep the death of a single Frenchman.

But real and deep and overwhelming opposition to an aggressor is exactly what some of the Frenchmen whom I am criticizing do not wish. It would mean the discouragement of all future aggressors and the suppression of the possibility of war. Let me explain why one section of France -- we might almost identify it with the French bourgeoisie -- does not want this.


The French bourgeoisie are by no means fond of war in the concrete. They have no special aptitude for heroism, they do not wish to have their sons killed or their taxes increased fivefold. But they do like there to be a possibility of war. More exactly, they desire that the people as a whole believe in such a possibility, and they will resist everyone who tries to dissipate the idea of its existence. They want the spectre of war -- a war, some war -- always to hover over the nation.

The reason is not far to seek. The menace of war arouses and maintains in a nation a kind of permanent military spirit. It creates a predisposition on the part of the populace to consent to a hierarchical arrangement of society, to accept a leader, to recognize a superior. In short, it creates those class tendencies which the bourgeoisie consider to be in their own interest. If it is vital that the people have an object of fear, and if they no longer fear God, then they must fear the possibility of war. Beyond that nicely-fixed point the bourgeoisie do not intend to go; they desire at all costs to avoid war itself, for war now makes far too many demands not only on the lower classes but on the well-to-do also. But up to the point where war itself threatens, the bourgeoisie like to go and do go.

Illustrating how the bellicose spirit of the bourgeois classes is essentially a means for them to maintain authority is the fact that it appears at exactly those moments of history when their authority seems to be menaced. During the Restoration and the July Monarchy the bourgeoisie abhorred war; they would not even talk of it. Chateaubriand had infinite difficulty in getting them to accept the war with Spain in 1823. During all the Second Empire they strenuously opposed the laws increasing the army. Their opposition provoked the indignant remark of Napoleon III: "We are shackled to this unheroic conservative party which detests the Revolution and wishes peace at any price." But beginning in 1875 the ideas of the bourgeoisie changed. They began to attack French statesmen for not preparing for "revenge." What had happened? The German Empire had of course grown tremendously. But the real reason was that the classes interested in maintaining the hierarchical concept of society felt that the way to do so was to exalt the army. So they constantly held up the spectre of war, for war is an army's raison d'être.

Through these changes in attitude the bourgeois classes remained faithful to their own interests. In the nineteenth century nationalism was a manifestation of the will of peoples for emancipation. The exceptions were France and England, where unity had been achieved much earlier. The revolutions in nineteenth century Europe were national revolutions. They were insurrections by the masses against their masters, with the purpose of forming nations and achieving greatness. It was natural that the classes which had drawn from the revolution movement of 1789 all that they desired should fight nationalism. In 1860 the French bourgeoisie was hostile to the idea of Italian unity, not only because it meant danger for France, but because it represented the desire of a people for liberation. Pope Pius IX having refused to recognize the Kingdom of Italy, the creation of the Italian Revolution, General Lamoricière, commander of the Papal troops, announced: "Wherever the Revolution shows the tip of its ear or its nose, it must be stamped on like a mad dog." On the other hand, in the twentieth century the desire of the lower classes to emancipate themselves found expression, among certain peoples at least, by a weakening of the idea of nationalism and a tendency towards internationalism. Consequently nationalism is now being praised by the well-to-do. In both cases these latter defend themselves, as is their law, against the idea of the enfranchisement of the masses. Only the means has changed; the end is the same. "This is the time for obedience," they say, "not the time for social reforms."

The idea of peace meets still another enemy bred up by the love of "order," namely a certain kind of Catholicism. The thunders of de Maistre to the effect that war is a blessing of God and hence that the quest for peace is sacrilegious would never have been heard from Bossuet or Fénelon. The development of this attitude coincided with the advent of democracy, that is to say with the pretension of people to be happy, a pretension which de Maistre clearly saw would lead to insubordination. His view is closely related to that of the bourgeois statesman Thiers in the Second Empire. Defending the Falloux law in 1851, Thiers declared that the clergy should be given control over education because they propagate "the wise philosophy which teaches that man's life on this earth is one of suffering." The view of de Maistre is also closely related to that of Pope Pius X, who in 1910 chided the Christian Democrats for having forgotten that the purpose of the Church is to exalt those who fulfil their duty on this earth "with humility and with Christian patience."[ii] Misery, said Napoleon, is the school of the good soldier. Apparently it is the school of the good Christian as well.

Let us recall the words of Saint-Just: "Happiness is a new idea." The belief in the possibility of peace is one form of this new idea; and people who wish to keep the masses in servitude intend that these shall not adopt it. They hope for a day when the League of Nations will be no more and the masses everywhere will settle back into acceptance of the eternal verity that theirs is a life of servitude. Perhaps the real enemies of peace are neither the military nor the munitions manufacturers, but the masters of everyday life -- and their wives -- who expect to be served.


I should like to underline a few other arguments of the French friends of Fascist Italy. Some are particularly interesting because they exactly repeat those which we heard during the Dreyfus Affair.

"We are not going to war," the anti-sanctionists tell us, "for the sake of slave merchants." Forty years ago they said: "We are not going to set France aflame for the sake of a little Jewish Captain." In both instances the same bad faith is shown by the refusal to recognize that what is in question is not merely the fate of these particular slave merchants or of this particular Jewish Captain but of the abstract cause which they represent.

Again, these people say: "We don't see why people are bothering to try to stop Italy from doing what many others have done earlier." Forty years ago they said: "Don't get excited about the Dreyfus Affair; there have been many judicial errors which have never been rectified." The philosophy is the same: because there has been injustice in the past, injustice can continue.

Some of them say, like M. de Kerillis in the Echo de Paris: "We are nationalists, that is to say, we try to understand things as they affect France." In 1898, Barrès remarked apropos of the Dreyfus Affair that all questions should be settled in their relation to France. The moral is the same: we do not accept a universal ethic or an eternal justice as valid at all times and for all men. Which is exactly what the Germans said in 1914 when they violated the neutrality of Belgium.

Sentiment is also invoked by the anti-sanctionists. It beclouds any issue and hence never fails to be called into play by those who are trying to evade the dictates of justice. "We French," they exclaim, "will never go back on our former allies, our brave comrades of the fighting line." In the Dreyfus Affair the argument was: "We will not tolerate any attacks on our generals, on these brave men with hearts of gold, on the fathers of the regiment. . ."

These sentimental arguments sometimes take a curious form. Thus one of our former cabinet ministers, M. de Chappedelaine, sighed that in humiliating Italy we were paining the Italian immigrants settled in France. Has anyone noted that France orders her negotiations with Germany so as not to sadden the émigrés of the Hitler régime? The National Union of War Veterans goes even further: "The wartime generation will never admit that they should take up arms against those who, British or Italian, have fought beside them on the soil of France!" That is to say, we are attached forever to our old allies whatever they do. If some day the Italians should invade Savoy, or the British threaten Calais, patriots cannot admit that they ought to defend France against them, for once they fought by their side.

Again, Frenchmen who above all want not to upset their daily life, and so become partisans of peace at any price, have raised again the famous cry of Gambetta and the fathers of the Republic: "Clericalism is the enemy!" In this case the clericals are those who are capable of becoming so imbued with an idea that rather than see it perish they will even consent to go to war.

From this point of view I am willing to be a clerical. But so is Maurras a clerical, and so are the other votaries of the policy I have been attacking, for they too are perfectly willing to risk war for an idea. Only their idea is a different one. These pseudo-pacifists would gladly accept a general crusade against communism for the glory of their social ideal. What they condemn today is by no means the idea of war; it is war against Mussolini which they cannot bear to think of. And why do they condemn it? Because Mussolini is the symbol of authority. What they consider to be the interests of their society demand that at no price must authority be humiliated, no matter what crime it commits. Forty years ago, in the same interests and for the same reason, the high military command was not to be challenged, whatever the cost. Again the anti-Dreyfusards are at their post, with exactly the ideas. They are imposed on them by their social philosophy, and always will be.


"We will never risk a European war, for whatever cause, because it would be the end of civilization." This argument against participating in a program to enforce peace merits particular attention because often it is formulated by men who are very well meaning. I reply that if it is true that civilization can perish by war, it also is true that it can perish by peace, if that peace is maintained at the price of granting immunity to those who resort to violence. Such immunity from punishment would give an immense impetus to fascist ideas, that is to say, to the ideas which are in themselves and by their own definition the negation of civilization. Civilization would perish in this way even more certainly than by war. For in war civilization would at least have the chance of defending itself, perhaps successfully.

I invite people whose minds are not closed to contemplate the following truth, however upsetting it may be: The idea of peace and the idea of civilization, though generally considered to be the same thing, do not necessarily go together. We must first determine what sort of peace is at stake.


I have been describing that part of French opinion which is favorable to Mussolini and hostile to action against him as an aggressor. I need not say that there is another France. It is the France of the Revolution of 1789, the France of Voltaire, Diderot, Renan, the France which rose up against the feudal classes at the time of the Estates General, at the time of Boulangism, at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. This France has always emerged triumphant because at bottom it has the nation on its side. The foreigner often forgets that the French nation is not Paris of the salons and the Academicians. This France, the France of the Revolution, will win again. Indeed, its first success has already been won -- the overthrow of the Laval Cabinet.

This is not to say that the rule of justice amongst peoples is at once going to prevail, replacing as if by the wave of a magic wand the rule of arbitrary and reckless authority. Governments, even those with the best intentions, will retain for a long time to come the direction given to them by the exaltation of sacred egoism. But the blows of the pickax are striking home. We can state with new confidence that the Declaration of the Rights of Man will some day succeed the declaration of the rights of nations. In this work of human liberation the France of Voltaire will take part. It will have the encouragement of all sincere and thoughtful people throughout the world, and particularly (as I have found out in recent weeks) by the opinion of the nation to which belong most of the readers that I have been addressing in these pages.

[i] In a recent lecture tour in Belgium I encountered many Jews, especially in banking circles, who were fervent partisans of Italy and enemies of sanctions. They were convinced that they could disarm anti-Semitism, and particularly Nazi anti-Semitism, by associating themselves with the superior race and admitting the right of that race to do violence and gain domination. I tried to make them understand that Hitler considers it will be he, not they, who will decide whether Jews have the right of identifying themselves with a superior race, and that he will probably decide the question differently than they. My exhortation was of little avail.

[ii] Condemnation of Sillon by Pius X, August 25, 1910.

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  • JULIEN BENDA, French philosopher and essayist; author of "Discours à la Nation Européenne," "La Trahison des Clercs," and other works
  • More By Julien Benda