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Two Partisans of Wrath
David Limond on philosophies which prefer war to peace.
In 1987 Martin Caedel issued a challenge. In his book Thinking About Peace and War (Oxford Univ. Press) he pointed out that the group of theories which he called ‘Militarism’ had “never been the subject of a major study.” By Militarism, he said, he meant those philosophies claiming that “frequent wars are unavoidable” which they take to be just as well because wars are “positive(ly) good and …. essential for human development …. war (being) caused not by moral or political mistakes but by man’s [sic] laudable drive to achieve his full potential.” (p.21)
What follows here is not an attempt at a ‘major study’ of these ideas and their proponents but a brief introduction, for those unfamiliar with their thinking, to the works of two such proponents – Benito Mussolini and Padraig Pearse. This is a fairly topical subject for an article as the ideas of the former are in vogue amongst many in Italy today and those of the latter have never quite gone away in certain nationalist circles. Further, in many of the world’s trouble spots we see increasing evidence of people from settled and comfortable societies being drawn to fight for countries and causes which are not their own by the seductive glamour and insidious attraction of war itself. As witness: the rag-tag mercenary ‘International Brigades’ formed to serve in the erstwhile Yugoslavian countries; most especially that associated with the neo-Fascist H.O.S. militia in Croatia. In many instances this may be the product of individual psycho-pathology but for some at least there is a definite philosophy at work. What could that philosophy be? Here I shall explore two related but distinct versions of it. Mussolini certainly needs no introduction but Pearse is likely to be a less familiar name to many; more of him anon. First it is important that we jettison Caedel’s term ‘Militarist’ and find out why I have replaced it with the rather more poetic ‘Partisans of Wrath’.
Caedel himself admits that he is uncomfortable with using a word which already has a known meaning and it is certainly true that in general we ought not to confuse ourselves or each other by assigning new meanings to words if we can avoid doing so. Militarist is already understood to refer to anyone who has a great interest in things military and a belief in military solutions to political problems. Following Caedel’s own groupings of attitudes towards peace and war it is probably more appropriate to say that militarists (in the customary meaning of the term) belong in the (armed) camp of those whom he calls the ‘Defencists’. They accept that war is a dirty business but are fully convinced that there is no alternative to it as a means of resolving certain sorts of dispute and think that, to paraphrase MacBeth, “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere best it were done well.” In other words, quite the conventional attitude amongst soldiers and politicians in the modern world.
On the contrary, fully-fledged Partisans of Wrath are those who believe there is some intrinsic merit in war itself. Unlike the Defencists/Militarists, therefore, they are happy to advocate not the winning of wars but simply their waging. Win, lose or draw, all that matters to the Partisan of Wrath is that there be war as often as possible. My alternative label for such thinking comes from a remark of Sartre’s in a preface which he contributed to a book on Maoism amongst the French. There he said “in time of war fools are always partisans of wrath.” Equipped with a new name for these advocates of what certainly seems to be a most perverse idea we may now proceed.
Over the years there have been a surprising number of Partisans of Wrath amongst the ranks of philosophers, politicians and soldiers, not to mention poets and artists. This particular hall of infamy or dishonourable tradition includes the philosophers Nietzsche, Hegel and Max Scheler; the revolutionaries Trotsky and Mao; those artists who called themselves the Futurists, along with the ‘Christian’ Russian poet and philosopher Soloveyev and the soldiers Bernhardi, De Gaulle and even Baden-Powell. However, I shall concentrate here on outlining the thinking of only Mussolini and Pearse. The others must wait for other days and other articles.
Caedel says of the Militarists/Partisans of Wrath that they aim for “the application to international relations of fascist assumptions, defined broadly” (p.20) and it is therefore a good idea to start with Mussolini. Fascism is one of those words, like parameters and logistics, which everyone knows and uses but few understand or use correctly. Though almost universally used as such, it is not synonymous with either Nazism or racism. In a little-quoted remark which might be adopted by moderate nationalists everywhere were it not that it came from Mussolini he said “National pride has no need of the delirium of race.” But although in theory Fascism does not cleave to any sort of racialist determinism or ethic of superiority (and in practice Fascist Italy was no more rapacious in its imperialist wars than the other European countries), it remains beset by characteristics which I shall simply take to be unattractive to the socially concerned philosopher. It is illiberal, anti-individualistic, authoritarian, misanthropic and misogynistic and it is certainly in love with the theory and practice of war. In The Doctrine of Fascism (Firenze, 1935) Mussolini tells us that “Fascism does not….. believe in the possibility or utility of perpetual peace” (p.26). Why so?
Earlier in the same work (which is the defining text in the Fascist canon) he explains Fascism as a philosophy which “wants man [sic] to be active and to engage in action with all his energies….(because) life….(is) a struggle in which it behoves a man to win for himself a really worthy place” (p.11). It therefore follows that “Inactivity is death” (p.17). But as the intervention of any one person in a war is unlikely to make any difference it is necessary that there be, in an appropriately martial metaphor, a “Fascist state (which) multiplies….(the individual’s) energies, just as in a regiment a soldier is not diminished but multiplied” (p.42). It was on these grounds that Mussolini campaigned for Italy’s entry into the First World War and himself went on to serve (without conspicuous distinction) in the Alpine theatre.
So what then are we to make of the argument here? At first sight it does not amount to much. It is clearly derived from Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Will to Power by which all sentient life (that is, all things which are both alive: self organising and intelligent: other organising) must continually reaffirm its unique nature by seeking and holding sway over objects and persons (beginning with one’s self). In other words: human beings must exercise power over the world, and each other for no reason other than the fact that they can and other sorts of animals and objects (such as rocks and trees) cannot. But for all he is influenced by Nietzsche that does not seem to be quite what Mussolini is saying.
For Nietzsche the Will to Power involved an individual struggle and could be manifest in any and all aspects of one’s daily life. For Mussolini however, there must be the collective effort of war. It is only in war waged by states that the weakness and frailty of the individual is overcome. Only there exists the possibility of the fullest sort of life – the most active life; the only form of life which is not a comatose living death. So much then for Mussolini on the subject of war. I shall discuss the demerits of his ideas in the conclusion, but next let us proceed to Padraig Pearse.
Nationalist; teacher; headmaster of a school (St. Enda’s) intended to reflect his own principles and values; Gaelic scholar and poet and ultra- Catholic, even today Pearse’s name is honoured in Ireland though the darker side of his nationalist philosophy is down-played quite considerably. With a handful of others Pearse led the Easter 1916 uprising in which Yeats’ (himself a Partisan of Wrath as a product of his mystical/occultist beliefs) “terrible beauty” was born. In fact it has been suggested that Pearse forced the hand of the illprepared and disorganised nationalists in the botched revolt because his beliefs made him so determined to seek personal martyrdom in war. Quite what were those beliefs?
Expressed most famously in his article ‘Peace and the Gael’ (originally published in 1915 and reprinted at an unknown date in The Complete Works of P.H. Pearse: Political Writings and Speeches) he was of the general view that “War is a terrible thing, but war is not an evil thing” (p.217 in Complete Works) and specifically that “When war comes to Ireland, she must welcome it as she would welcome the Angel of God.” This he argued on the seemingly rather flimsy grounds that “The old heart of the earth….(needs) to be warmed with the red wine of….battlefields.” For Pearse the nation was the expression of God’s will. It was the unit which God had ordained as the basis of human life. Thus, at those times and in those places where nations give fullest vent and expression to their existence – wars – there is the greatest homage done to God. That in itself constitutes grounds enough to wish and work for life on earth to be wracked by war.
As with Mussolini this looks like strange stuff indeed, but it bears investigation if only because it is almost certainly the case that Pearse continues to have devotees amongst the Provisional I.R.A., the philosophy of which is not the orthodox Marxism of the Official I.R.A. but an often confused mix of pan-Celtic nationalism, Catholicism and millennialist worship of the ‘Armed Struggle’ itself. However, the philosophy of P.I.R.A., fascinating and widely misunderstood as it undoubtedly is, must wait for yet another article.
So what is wrong with the arguments of these two Partisans of Wrath? They both appear to me to be trapped in contradictions of their own devising. Mussolini would have us believe that in the midst of death we are in life (to borrow a phrase) and the only truly valuable life must be one cut short by war, because a war in which there is no death is no war at all but a life lived outside of the context of war is barely worth living. Thus, those who are ‘most alive’ must sooner rather than later wind up dead and those who carry on living (presumably as a result of having taken the fewest risks in war) are those who least deserve to live. However, this cannot be helped because those who do deserve to live and who are most capable of expressing their love of life and living to the full (by waging war) are, or shortly will be, dead.
Equally, Pearse has it that the nation is the manifestation of God’s will and plan. (This is an idea which he puts repeatedly throughout his writings and which may follow Mazzini’s suggestion that the world has been divided up into ‘bite-sized pieces’ by God because it is impossible for anybody to love everybody else all at once.) But if it is only in war that nations can clearly announce their existence then how is the national system to endure? In international wars there must be victors and vanquished and, one by one, all nations must thus cease to exist. If international wars are not to be dishonest gladiatorial shows then there must be real intent at total annihilation of one’s opponent(s). Yet if/when that comes about what comes next? To repeat: with no nations there can be no wars, but wars which are not shams must lead to the destruction of other nations. Like the scorpion who crossed the river on the back of the frog mutual destruction is inevitable. When there is only one nation left then there cannot meaningfully be said to be any nations at all. How is God to be honoured then?
Of course it is true that Pearse is primarily an advocate of ‘wars of national liberation’ (such as that which the Easter 1916 rising triggered in Ireland and the two Boer wars) and in the short term these struggles can lead to a net increase in the number of independent nations, with a corresponding increase in the worshipful praise of God. But what of the future? A contemporary report filed by a police agent not long before the events of Easter 1916 makes it very clear that Pearse intended to make of himself a blood sacrifice for Erin’s sake, so we cannot expect that he would have fully worked out all his ideas but from the fact that he was willing, in ‘Peace and the Gael’, to welcome the grouse-moor slaughter of the Somme – a battle waged in the imperial war par excellence – we may be permitted to conclude that he was not entirely averse to the spirit of empire and conquest.
This being the case it follows that he must (at the risk of falling into contradiction and so being laughed out of philosophical court if he does not) accept the following. Once all the ‘legitimate’ wars of national liberation have been fought and there are as many free nations on Earth as there can be then – if the worship of God through international war is to continue unabated – there must be resort to the next best thing, international imperial war. This is not so much a case of his not seeing the wood for the trees as of cutting down the trees to save the wood.
In all then there is not much to be said for either of these arguments. It remains almost universally accepted that inter and intra-national peace is a primary good without which other things of value cannot be enjoyed. But it would be a naive person who did not recognise that the partisanship of wrath will continue to attract advocates and, more worryingly, practitioners. It is worth noting that interest in these ideas is fostered in children and teenagers by the lyrics of Death and Thrash Metal music and by those science fiction graphic novels (such as the Genetic Infantryman and Bad Company series of 2000 AD) in which war is fetishised. Fools are indeed always partisans of wrath.
© David Limond 1994
David Limond is at Glasgow University working on the history of education in Scotland.