March 31, 2020

With Those Farthest Away in Our Now Small World

Alex Demirović

Aspects of a new internationalism—sharing experiences, jointly defining goals, and taking action together

Prof. Dr. Alex Demirović is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Critical Social Analysis and works primarily on questions of democracy and socialism.

People’s Climate March in Seattle, WA, 2015. CC BY 2.0, Flickr: John Duffy

Internationalism is a long-standing tradition. However, its concrete form and function have changed several times over the past 200 years. Its various manifestations, which aim to act as a catalyst for solidarity and emancipation, have repeatedly proven to be shackles limiting action. This calls us to critically review and update internationalism’s goals and concepts, and our internationalist practices, permanently. Yet we need not necessarily discard earlier practices. Many need simply undergo a critical analysis, others can serve as an example—but a need for new practices can also develop. Many difficulties thereby hinge not on the goodwill of internationalist actors, but are more basic in nature and result from changes to the capitalist mode of production and of the political environment.

Internationalism is a constitutive element of bourgeois society and within it, a form of struggle with the bourgeois state. The declaration of human rights during the French Revolution as a precursor to a national constitution, nonetheless evoked the perspective of the whole of humanity. United in cosmopolitanism, everyone was to be able to enjoy freedom, equality and solidarity. This was a very tangible experience, as many French revolutionaries saw themselves closely tied to the American Revolution and similar processes on the European continent, the British Isles and the colonies. An economic and political form beyond the feudal small state system was emerging. Had it been for the revolutionaries of the day, the nation would not have been a nation state, but would have united the Third Estate, i.e. all those who produced society’s wealth. The coming of a global state seemed possible. However, the (dis)order of restorative forces of Britain, Prussia, Russia and Austria, and eventually also France, forced the drawing of imperial frontiers that split not only Europe but the whole globe. Struggles for control and spheres of influence, and not humanity united, became the defining trait, creating the material basis for emancipatory and internationalist movements that exists to this day.

Consciously, the International Workingmen’s Association reacted to the observed “disregard of that bond of brotherhood”, and how since the end of the 18th century, the divided attempts to create regional and national workers’ movements in the struggle for emancipation had again and again led to defeat. The ruling classes proved capable of subduing liberation struggles, stoking nationalist prejudices and perpetuating slavery. It was these very actions that the International wanted to confront by uniting the working classes.

Emancipation could not be local or national; it was considered a social task. Truth, justice and morality as the fundaments of human behaviour “without regard to color, creed, or nationality” was the basic rule. Socialist and communist movements, together with their affiliated groups, reasoned that they had no fatherland. They were not tied to any particular state and followed no national aims. Dispersed workers’ associations within individual states were to group into national associations as the sheer number of members coming together would ensure the power, assertiveness and co-ordination with the International. Moreover, a critique and practice of change was to primarily be focused on the national level and tackle the dominant groups in each individual nation. This seemed logical, because otherwise the oppositional forces could easily become instrumentalised to serve the interests and political goals of the nationally dominant groups. The reality, however, was more complex than the declaration of the International had made it seem. The categories of nation, skin colour, religion—and, as the following decades would show, gender or sexual orientation—proved hard to root out; they were stubborn contradictions that often intersected with (and counteracted) social emancipation.

The key areas of focus for an internationalism, at least the manifestation that played a decisive role in the 20th century, almost certainly came about as a result of the Russian Revolution. Here, a socialist revolution had triumphed over the restorative forces of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, as well as against the Axis powers of Germany and Austria, and the western allies. The Russian Revolution was seen to be ushering in a World Revolution; international solidarity therefore was a joint policy in a struggle for shared goals. However, and only a few years later, internationalism was to become limited to solidarity with the Soviet Union in the form of material aid or the defense, through propaganda, of the concept of socialism in one country. Solidarity became a trap that led to tragic conflicts: left-wing parties subordinated themselves to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and its goals. People on the left, even when they did have criticisms, felt obliged to positively identify with and defend the model, while the bourgeois camp demanded that any criticism be based on breaking with socialist goals. Any critique of the CPSU’s policies, Stalin, or any fundamental criticism of concepts within Marxism or socialism were denounced as deviation, treason, apostasy, counter-revolutionary or even as fascist. Criticising the party or the Soviet Union, and leaving or becoming excluded from the party could result in people seeing their entire social fabric fall apart. In the USSR, the consequences could be imprisonment or death, a subject the left hardly dared to mention and that proved controversial and toxic when it came to solidarity with the left in other global regions. It also led to deep rifts between communists and social democrats, as well as a great number of further left-wing movements. Many, whose internationalist convictions drew them to fight on the side of the Republic against Franco in Spain, saw themselves opposed by Stalinist forces and in the fascist-ruled states, Stalinist organizations denounced left partisans. Solidarity could become a murderous trap. 

The Russian Revolution provided the impetus for national liberation movements. Their demand for colonised peoples’ right to self-determination, was, in many cases linked to socialist objectives. Following the Second World War, internationalism was largely limited to the provision of support from the imperialist core countries to such movements. This implied creating awareness for the goals of these movements, spreading information on the exploitative and racist social conditions that the peoples of the colonies were subjected to and providing the movements and/or their representatives with material aid. Often, these liberation struggles took the form of proxy wars between the Soviet Union and the capitalist core countries, who feared independence could lead to a spread of communism and therefore intervened either directly through military action or by supporting anti-communist policies. India, China, Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Eritrea—amply supported by diverse protest movements in the imperialist core countries, the struggle for liberation had more or less reached its conclusion by the mid-1970s. 

For the internationalist movement, however, new tasks arose. In 1973 the US backed a military coup in Chile led by Augusto Pinochet, who ousted the democratically elected government of the socialist Salvador Allende. Only few realised that the events unfolding in Chile heralded a new cycle of neoliberal economic policy that would soon dominate the global order for decades to come. There was also broad international support for the overthrow of the Shah of Iran as well as the military dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal, while in 1976 the military staged a successful coup in Argentina. Meanwhile, Brazil was governed by a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. The struggles of national liberation movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador against native compressor bourgeois oligarchies, who took action against their own people and national capital factions in the interests of foreign governments and corporations—and were highly corrupt, anti-democratic and repressive—received broad support from internationalist campaigns and solidarity movements, in particular during the 1980s. Many from these movements then fought as volunteers in these countries. These developments were asynchronous, as much in terms of the sequence of social struggles as well as in their socio-structural dynamics.

Internationalism was characterised by specific experiences and contradictions, some of which I would now like to highlight. (1) First of all, it is important to see the asymmetry of the relationship, because it is strange that people from a rich capitalist nation go to other countries with the aim of civilising, aiding, developing, supporting and interfering in the lives of other people. However, as the dominant powers did exactly this, it is obvious that the forces critical of the status quo also act to support the people who suffer exploitation by the core countries. This can easily lead to internationalist efforts appearing patronising. (2) These efforts were based on relationships of solidarity that were defined by the nation state form. Emancipatory actors can only rarely be jointly active on the long term and act as a single combined force; rather, they are blocked and connected by the imperialist and nation state apparatuses: on the one side, there are rich imperialist nation states, on the other, the movements that struggle to create an independent nation or to take power from the colonial masters and their local representatives in the existing state. States such as the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia—following their own specific agendas—could provide military or economic aid, create dependency and force loyalty. In western nations, the left—mostly without any ruling power—were only really able to support these liberation movements and their members politically and culturally, and far less materially. Given this constellation, practices of solidarity were contradictory. In some cases they were paternalistic, a fulfillment of duties: left-wing organizations and unions would send delegations to countries and conferences to show their faces; folkloric events or discussions were organized, a bit of money collected. Solidarity can be based on false, romanticising misconceptions of the population receiving support or on a desire for “revolutionary tourism”. Critical solidarity is neither wanted by those receiving this support, nor by parts of the solidarity movement, who do not want to hear criticisms of how minorities or dissident groups are treated, of human rights abuses, extractivism or misguided economic policy strategies, because they fear that this could weaken solidarity or hurt vested interests. (3) The willingness to provide support and be active follows a specific attention pattern, leading to important short-term mobilisations in the capitalist core countries that can contribute to the success of liberation movements. Corporations, the government apparatus, the secret services, the dominant public discourse are now blocked from continuing their open support of locally ruling elites and denying or denouncing efforts towards liberation and emancipation. Such solidarity, however, often quickly dries up or shifts to other regions and/or conflicts. For internationalist solidarity, it is difficult to establish and maintain continuous solidarity. (4) It is astonishing to see that those who do become active are interested mainly in the rise and struggle of a liberation movement, but not in what happens after the movement takes power. Apparently, there is a great readiness to support the objective of national self-determination. However, it is important to question the degree to which the aim of emancipation continues to be sought and is achieved. In Angola, with the takeover by the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a kleptocratic family seized power; Eritrea descended into a military dictatorship; South Africa saw corrupt elites grow out of the African National Congress (ANC); and in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas split in the face of its own government’s corruption and authoritarian practices to cling on to power. In Cuba, critical voices are muzzled or persecuted. China and Vietnam have successfully integrated into the capitalist division of labour. While these last two nations both claim to be communist, the mainstream media highlight their dictatorial traits only during the rare occurrence of a crisis, and the left only cautiously discusses the authoritarian characteristics of these regimes. A democratic constitution or human rights, i.e. freedom of movement, opinion and science, or the freedom of minorities, should thereby not be the only issues discussed. An important question would be the emancipation of workers from the fate of salaried employment. The persecution of many Vietnamese in the aftermath of the successful liberation struggle, and the policies of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, were a shock which caused many in the European left to break with socialism and/or communism. These developments did not result in solidarity movements looking more closely at whom they were supporting, which kind of social development a particular group stood for, which forces were active in society and, in particular, which policies a successful group followed and how to potentially continue exerting influence on this group. The principle of solidarity can turn into ignorance, silence or the distancing, disinterest and dissolution of solidarity. (5) Internationalism is very clearly focused on the self-determination of the state. The internal differences within a society, i.e. the protection of specific sub-groups within the population with their own cultural traditions, religion and language, were not an important element for internationalist solidarity: take, for example, the case of indigenous peoples in the Americas; of Tibetans or the Uighurs; people living in large refugee camps that have existed for decades; the violence experienced by women or sexual minorities; the struggles of local workers; and the fight against large-scale construction and development projects. Although much has undoubtedly changed for the better since the 1970s and 1980s.

Decolonisation after the early 1920s, and then again after the 1940s, created a historically unprecedented situation for the former imperial states. Capitalist society has gradually expanded its rule since 1500 and reproduced on an ever-greater scale by appropriating colonies, raw materials, food and slave labour. This also characterised the structures of power at its core. They were vast empires: expendable members of the population could be sent to the colonies and enormous wealth siphoned off, a part of which was then transferred to segments of the working classes. Now they had to transform into nation states that had to deal with numerous other nascent nation states, each having obtained formal independence and holding national sovereignty rights. The imperialist core shrank; these countries had to develop a new international division of labour, deal with the contradictions internally and would themselves become destinations for migrants. Relationships of dominance and exploitation, if they were not to implode, had to be reorganised following the 1970s and 1980s. The new states were driven into debt bondage, and their economic structure integrated into the international division of labour so that they could serve as providers of resources and cheap labour. Agribusiness, extractivism, a lack of control over patents and isolated industries therefore characterised these dependent nations. Profits were siphoned off by corrupt local elites and often used to finance the consumption of luxury goods and arms. When state socialism broke down and China began opening up in the 1970s, a solution to the crisis came into view: new markets developed. In particular, capital could be exported to produce close to the market, continue to use already written-off machinery, cut production costs (in particular by sidestepping social, legal and/or environmental standards) and use cheap labour. Neoliberal globalisation, spearheaded by the USA—the only remaining superpower—asserted that the global market was an inherent necessity. Globalised companies created globally interwoven chains of production and consumption. The nation states followed a policy of privatisation and deregulation. This considerably weakened the unions, also leading to consequences for internationalism. For left-wing parties, this development resulted in crisis because the political concepts they had relied on during the Fordist phase were no longer effective.

Globalization rests on a new international division of labour. Value chains are becoming separated and spread flexibly across all global regions, which remain divided into nation states. This also impacts concepts of internationalism, because the focus can no longer be a hierarchical and asymmetric relationship of internationalist solidarity between the Global North and the Global South, the core and the periphery, the rich and poor nations. Across all global regions, rich centres with extremely wealthy people, and poor peripheries with high rates of unemployment and poverty are developing. There are strong asynchronous social and spatial developments, but at the same time a kind of shared global perspective is growing; an understanding of problems that considers humanity as a whole and that necessitates joint action is developing. Objectives, actors, issues and internationalist practices are changing. This is visible in approaches developed following the UN conferences (Conference on the Human Environment, World Conference on Women, Climate Change Conferences) and civil society activities by politicians and entrepreneurs in semi-private organizations such as the Trilateral Commission or the World Economic Forum. The development is related to a new concept of government as non-formal governance that occurs in the shadow of the state. It is linked to a process of establishment and public support for nongovernmental organizations. These are active in nearly all spheres: union rights, the environment, climate and biodiversity, workers and consumers and the potential harm they face from products or production processes, human rights, arms, migration, medical care, water and food, agriculture, urban development and countryside destruction, corruption, megaprojects, and gender and sexuality. Even though NGOs are often financed by the North and tied to the state, their work still has repercussions for the capitalist core, countries that now must accept that standards, criticisms and change are also retroactively applicable to the centre.

In 1994 the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas provided a wake-up call for social movements against globalization and the orthodoxy of the Washington Consensus. With the election of Hugo Chavez (1999), Evo Morales (2005) and Rafael Correa (2007), attempts to establish a form of socialism adapted to the 21st century soon began and could, to a certain degree, count on the support provided by the election of Lula da Silva in Brazil (2002 and 2006), the Kirchners in Argentina (after 2003) and Mujica (2009) in Uruguay. These projects explicitly positioned themselves against the centuries-old colonial oppression and exploitation of their countries. The Zapatistas organised in a new form of community-based democracy, Venezuela experimented with councils, Bolivia adopted a new, plurinational constitution that took into account and strengthened the rights of indigenous communities, and, like the other governments, Correa pursued a policy directed against international institutions and corporations, and against US-dominated free trade policies, defended a Bolivarian shift in Latin America and fought against poverty. Even though these efforts were soon met with fierce resistance, Bolivia and Ecuador aimed to stop extractivism and conceived long-term policies to ensure that resources were used for internal development and the buen vivir of local populations. To a certain degree, these countries were themselves internationalist. The World Social Forum movement (the first event was held in Porto Alegre in 2001) was created and also provided the basis for South-South solidarity, providing activists with networking opportunities and a platform to organise joint action.

In the Global North, broad resistance and protests emerged against government decisions to follow a policy of neoliberal globalization (against the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999; the G8 meeting in Genoa in 2001; the EU summit in Gothenburg in 2001; and the G8 meeting in Heiligendamm in 2007). All of these protests united social movement organisations like Attac and left-wing, church and development organisations that strive for a different world order.

The developments that followed the 2007/2008 global economic crisis gave rise to social movements and provided an environment in which they could thrive in rapid successive waves since 2011, taking root in numerous countries and mobilising diverse sectors of society (Tahir Square, Puerta del Sol, Occupy Wall Street, Blockupy). And again, internationalism here is no longer an asymmetric relationship, but rather a (not always easy) process of sharing experiences, strategies and objectives and the planning of joint actions. For internationalist activists in the countries of the Global North, this to a high degree involves reflecting on their own circumstances and taking over a new form of responsibility. In the face of accelerated climate change, extinction of species and the destruction of livelihoods, in particular in regions of the Global South, the objective must be to reorganise lifestyles in the capitalist core towards sustainability, self-sufficiency, and peaceful modes of production and consumption. Only such a transformation would allow the societies of the periphery, or the Global South, to become emancipated from multiple imperial relations of dependency. This also creates a new shared responsibility because the result of this transformation cannot be the isolation and autarky of the capitalist core. Such a development would plunge many regions of the world into even more dire straits. What is required are free and self-determined forms of cooperation, the transfer of knowledge and joint co-ordinated production. The rich countries must therefore support poorer societies to transform their societies and to produce globally equal living conditions. This needs to happen with the necessary awareness to avoid violence and paternalism. The capitalist core must begin by eliminating the diktat of perpetual accumulation—attempts which are met with fierce resistance as a result of populist authoritarian policies that try to drive forward fossilism, military build-up, valorisation of raw materials and labour—and simultaneously contribute towards an endogenous development of the societies of the Global South. Jointly they must find out which relationships will make a shared life possible. Internationalism in this regard means solidarity with those who are the farthest away and who have now become very close—not only as refugees but because we directly share with them our work, food, air and water. We must jointly organise a process of transition in which the rich countries of the core, wherever they are, relinquish their wealth by refusing to exploit or sharing resources, by accepting a jointly decided appropriation of nature and division of labour and participating in concepts for transformation that lead to a reconciliation of humanity with nature. This would require, as Jacques Derrida stated two decades ago, an entirely new International.