Out of the Grip of Fascism and Imperialism: The Defense of Swiss Neutrality in the History of the Swiss Workers’ Movement

By Luca Frei

This article was originally published in Italian, May 10, 2023. “Fuori dalla morsa del fascismo e dell’imperialismo: la difesa della neutralità svizzera nella storia del movimento operaio svizzero” (sinistra.ch).

The Communist Party strongly defends Swiss neutrality as a synonym for sovereignty in the face of the concrete danger of being absorbed into the European Union and NATO. The concept is seen as a synonym for progress and peace. The unpatriotic bourgeoisie, currently led by Federal Councilor Ignazio Cassis and its allies (including a portion of social democracy), is gradually destroying our neutrality day by day. In the context of the escalating conflict between Atlantic-driven imperialism and emerging multipolarity, the issue of Swiss neutrality is of utmost importance.

Respect and recognition of neutrality: an absolute priority

Not everyone on the left (or hardly anyone) realizes the importance of this political battle. Some argue that it is senseless to fight for neutrality since it never truly existed. It is undeniable, as communists and Marxists well know, that the Swiss government, as an expression of bourgeois power with specific interests, has always had its sympathies, especially during the last century. Swiss neutrality has sometimes been violated or interpreted in a highly questionable manner. For example, during the Cold War, the Swiss government sympathized with the Western bloc. However, this does not mean that we have never been neutral, and above all, it does not justify abandoning neutrality definitively. Instead, we must fight to ensure that it is genuinely respected and applied.

Furthermore, what matters most is that Swiss neutrality has always been internationally recognized, allowing our country to act as a mediator in many conflict cases and genuinely promote peace. Think, for example, of Switzerland’s role as an intermediary between the United States and Iran, among others. Switzerland has previously taken on the role of mediator even for Russia, whose ambassador to the UN recently stated in an interview that our country has abandoned its historic neutrality. Such declarations were not made publicly by the Eastern Bloc with such emphasis during the Cold War. In the 1980s, for instance, the Swiss government decided to close the Soviet news agency Novosti and expel its director from Swiss territory. During the meeting between Swiss authorities and the Soviet ambassador to inform them of this decision, the ambassador expressed appreciation for Swiss neutrality and considered the act contrary to neutrality. He urged Swiss authorities to maintain their neutral status. However, there were no retaliatory acts from the Soviet side, and in the following years, Switzerland continued to be considered neutral. Therefore, while our neutrality has been mistreated in the past, it is essential to emphasize that it was always in the interests of a high unpatriotic bourgeoisie that supported the Atlantic camp during the Cold War. Communists were always at the forefront of condemning such tendencies. Today, however, the situation is much more serious, and we are facing a real paradigm shift that can lead only to negative consequences if serious mobilization does not occur.

Is Neutrality Right-Wing? History Teaches Otherwise

Even more paradoxical is the current attitude of the left, which is highly critical of Swiss neutrality and, in fact, believes that defending it is a right-wing cause, associated solely with the Swiss People’s Party (UDC). Neutrality has actually always been defended by a significant portion of the left, excluding the Trotskyist movements, which opposed it as early as the 1970s. The Swiss Labour Party (the former name of the Communist Party until 2007) both at the national and cantonal levels, was at the forefront of this struggle, but it was not alone. Two examples that should be mentioned, which are relatively less known, highlight the left’s historical support for neutrality.

Firstly, it is essential to mention the Movement against Atomic Weapons (MCAA), partly led by social democrats (although the Social Democratic Party, PSS, had internal debates on nuclear weapons). In the 1950s and 1960s, the MCAA mobilized against the Swiss government’s project to equip the country with nuclear weapons. The MCAA criticized this project, arguing that it would lead to an alignment with NATO and, therefore, be incompatible with Swiss neutrality. This movement consistently spoke of threats to the country’s independence and neutrality. The resemblance to what the Communist Party is saying today is undeniable.

A second, more local example is that of the Autonomous Socialists (PSA). In the 1979 national elections campaign, the Autonomous Socialists emphasized the defense of the policy of neutrality and even the right to defend Switzerland’s independence and freedom. In other words, these were demands that would short-circuit much of the left today and directly earn the label “red-brown,” a term often used to refer to the Ticino Communists. It is also important not to forget the case of the Ticino antifascist volunteers who, in 1936, left Switzerland for Spain to defend the Republic and fight against Franco’s regime with the motto “Free and Swiss!” This motto indicated that the principle of neutrality was understood as a synonym for national sovereignty, protecting the political independence of our country from pressures that, at that time, came from neighboring countries fallen into the clutches of fascism. Neutrality, in this sense, was seen as the will to ensure the political independence of Switzerland.

Swiss Communists Always at the Forefront in Defense of Neutrality

Let’s return to the Swiss Labor Party (SLP), which has consistently defended the concept of Swiss neutrality throughout its history, except for, to be completely honest, in the immediate post-World War II period when, for the SLP, neutrality equated to self-exclusion from the newly formed international community and was therefore considered to be abandoned to integrate Switzerland into the new geopolitical context. However, the SPL quickly changed this stance, realizing the international developments and again defending neutrality as a guarantee of Switzerland not aligning with the Western bloc and, consequently, as a tool to safeguard national sovereignty and peace.

After World War I, Switzerland decided to favor a so-called differentiated neutrality to align itself with the League of Nations. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, however, the application of neutrality changed its form again. Faced with the more than ambiguous attitude of the Swiss government, particularly Federal Councilor Giuseppe Motta, the then Communist Party accused the Federal Council of jeopardizing the country’s independence. In 1936, the 6th Congress of the Swiss Communist Party declared that the foreign policy of the Swiss government was endangering the maintenance of real neutrality and, consequently, national independence. Similar to the case of the Ticino antifascists leaving for Spain, many of whom were Communists, the Swiss Communist Party believed that neutrality needed to be genuinely applied to guarantee Switzerland’s independence.

After World War II, except for the very brief period mentioned earlier, the SLP considered the defense of Swiss neutrality a political priority. This led to debates with other parties within the International Communist Movement and, at the national level, internal debates that resulted from the opposition of a minority against neutrality. This internal debate concluded with the exit of this small group from the SLP, mostly ending up on the fringes of Swiss politics. Confronting the pro-Western attitude of the Swiss government, the SLP always emphasized the need to maintain neutrality and, in the 1950s and 1960s, warned about the dangers and serious consequences of openly leaning towards NATO. In 1950, the SLP Directorate adopted a resolution opposing all attempts to lead Switzerland away from its neutrality, emphasizing that strict adherence to neutrality served the cause of peace and the country’s independence. The resolution also urged the Federal Council to refrain from any direct or indirect participation in bloc politics. Shortly thereafter, the Romand communist André Muret stated that the defense of neutrality was necessary to consider the concrete conditions of one’s own country, which, although it ideologically supported the Western bloc, had not officially taken a position in the Cold War, unlike other capitalist countries.

In 1964, the SLP National Congress approved a resolution emphasizing the strict preservation of neutrality, inseparable from an active policy of peace. The theses of the SLP in 1971 even stated that Switzerland should not deviate from strict adherence to state neutrality, preventing any alignment with or subordination to bloc politics. In the name of maintaining neutrality, the party rejected joining the European Economic Community as an economic and political bloc. In the preparatory documents for the SLP’s 10th National Congress in 1974, it was affirmed that the concept of neutrality increasingly and necessarily unfolded into the concept of the universality of diplomatic, economic, political, commercial, and cultural relations. Neutrality also meant not being part of any economic, political, or military bloc. In the same document, the party again emphasized the importance of safeguarding state neutrality. On the occasion of the 1986 13th cantonal congress of the Ticino Party of Labor, a political resolution was approved reaffirming the party’s commitment to demanding strict state neutrality for Switzerland on economic, political, and military levels, seen as a prerequisite for a credible active policy in favor of international détente and security. In summary: the defense of strict neutrality allows Switzerland to play a role as a mediator for maintaining peace, just as the Communist Party argues today.

Defending Neutrality Without Hesitation or Contradictions

There are many more examples, but risking excessive repetition should be avoided. The political documents of the Swiss Party of Labor and its cantonal section demonstrate that the Communists have always been at the forefront of defending neutrality. This defense of neutrality has consistently been a central element in the analyses and political struggles of the Communist and Workers’ Movement in Ticino and Switzerland. This is evident not only within the context of the SLP but also through examples such as the Movement against Atomic Weapons, the Ticino antifascists, and even the Autonomous Socialists (PSA). Consistent with its past and political tradition, the Communist Party continues this struggle today, unlike those who have decided to abandon this critically important battle, perhaps not realizing (or maybe they do) that the abolition of neutrality today would mean an adherence to the European Union and even NATO, with all the negative social consequences such adhesions would entail.

However, inconsistency is not limited to the left. During the Cold War, it was often politicians from the Swiss People’s Party (UDC) who jeopardized our neutrality, as seen in the case of the nuclear bomb project supported by the UDC Federal Councilor Markus Feldmann. Even the current attitude of the UDC is particularly contradictory, as evidenced by the purchase of new military aircraft, which constitutes a clear submission of our army to NATO and, therefore, a violation of Swiss neutrality.

The only party consistently defending neutrality is, therefore, the Communist Party, which has always been the party of neutrality, as well as of labor and public service.

Luca Frei: Born in 1998, Luca Frei was elected coordinator of the Swiss Communist Youth in March 2020. After completing high school, he began university studies in history and is actively involved in the Independent Union of Students and Apprentices (SISA).