Internationalism against Imperialism

In Russia in 1917, imperialism was a tangible force in everyday life. To be conscripted into the military and sent away, to have one’s grain requisitioned for the front, to find one’s work intensified for the demands of and discipline of war manufacture – these were the experiences of the Great War for those in the popular classes, and it was the political acumen of the Bolsheviks to articulate these experiences to the problem of imperialism. Indeed, the key political positions adopted by Lenin and the rest of the party throughout 1917 were based, to varying degrees, on their view of the imperialist character of the war and their consequent immovable opposition to it. It was for this reason that the Soviets, and not the Provisional Government and its participants, could continue to hold legitimacy in a situation of dual power. This accounted for the Bolshevik emphasis on organizing soldiers, which proved decisive time and time again in the July Days, during the Kornilov Affair, and finally in October. And it was no coincidence that already in 1914 Lenin smelled crisis, no doubt understanding the link between the 1905 Russian Revolution and the Russo-Japanese War that preceded it.

Elsewhere in Europe, of course, the first World War had already revealed the limitations of a certain, literal, kind of inter-nationalism.1 Whereas communist revolution was understood by Marx and Engels to be a world phenomenon, and the proletariat a universal class, the proletariat was itself also carved up by nation, mirroring the histories that had produced national capitalist classes in Western Europe and situating their political strategies at the level of the nation state. The First and Second Internationals were ways of coordinating these various national proletarian parties, but the tension between a world political project and the self-consciously national character of its supposed subject would persist. This led, as José Aricó writes, to:

an ever deeper breach in the socialist movement between a formal internationalism and de facto everyday nationalism. Thus, the “universality” of the proletariat was always translated into seeing, whether consciously or not, particular “national” centres wherever the working masses’ revolutionary energies were most concentrated as the home of the class’s universal attributes: first in England, then in France, after that in Germany and finally in Russia.2

Marx himself would increasingly question this way of thinking the relation between the national and the universal, which carried the remnants of a Hegelian philosophy of history, by drawing in particular on analyses of Ireland’s colonial relationship to England and the implications of this relationship for class struggle in both places.3 Nevertheless, by 1914 the predominance of an uncritical practical nationalism in the Second International led to the extensive rationalizing of social-democratic support for imperialist violence, according to which individual capitalist states, owing to their supposed historical importance, were to be defended in the name of historically progressive class struggle: support for the war in Germany could be thought as a struggle against the reactionary force of Tsarism, France’s opposition to Germany as a “Defense of the Republic!” against the backward step of German feudalism, etc. 

If Russia would eventually be thought as the individual case demonstrating the universal possibility of proletarian revolution, this was by no means so before or during 1917. Ironically, the fact that even Russian revolutionaries understood their country to be “backward” may have prevented them from the mistake of myopically seeing their potential revolutionary victory as the fulfillment of an epochal world-historical necessity that would by itself emancipate all humanity. On the contrary, a non-investment in nationality was the basis for Lenin’s ability to develop a strategic conception of imperialism in which the proletariat had no reason to take sides among competing powers. Lenin theorized imperialism as a conflict stemming from the concentration and centralization of capital in which states had become so beholden to their national monopoly capitalists that they would wage war directly as part of the struggle for new markets, resources, and sites for capital export. Thus, the Great War presented an opportunity: intracapitalist conflict would create the kinds of crises that would allow proletarian parties to turn “imperialist war into civil war.” In other words, imperialism had to be understood by its effects on the terrain of various national class struggles and the intensification of those struggles in all nations; the working classes would do better to cheer on the defeat of their own ruling classes than to support a war that could only be for capital, with workers and peasants as grist for the bloody mill. Indeed, even after the success of the February Revolution, and to the indispensable political benefit of the Bolsheviks, Lenin would hold this line, arguing that, “The slightest concession to revolutionary defencism is a betrayal of socialism, a complete renunciation of internationalism, no matter by what fine phrases and ‘practical’ considerations it may be justified.”4

It was during the Great War, then, that two tendencies of internationalism, as distinct responses to the imperialist character of capitalism, would clarify themselves within the workers’ movement: first, the inter-nationalism whose nationalist underpinnings had paradoxically created complicity with the imperialist war, and second, what Michael Hardt and Toni Negri call an “antinationalist” internationalism, according to which

internationalism was the will of an active mass subject that recognized that the nation-states were key agents of capitalist exploitation and that the multitude was continually drafted to fight their senseless wars – in short, that the nation-state was a political form whose contradictions could not be subsumed and sublimated but only destroyed. International solidarity was really a project for the destruction of the nation-state and the construction of a new global community.5

In this latter view, an internationalism opposed to imperialism should go beyond mirroring its form as a chain of nations; such was the view of Lenin, situated precisely at the latter’s weak link, where the contradictory phenomena of class struggle, political crisis, and international strife would condense into one of the 20th century’s first proletarian revolutionary ruptures. By recognizing imperialism as a phenomenon distinct but inseparable from capitalism tout court, the Bolsheviks could take into account its real effects on the relation of class forces in the conjuncture, and develop an anti-war political position that few others were willing to take. 

The malleable relationship between these two conceptions of internationalism and the question of imperialism would come into play repeatedly throughout the rest of the century. But curiously, the effect of this intervening time that has given us our present has been to render the concepts of imperialism and internationalism opaque. This is not to say that imperialism itself is absent for the workers of the world; those facing drone strikes or military occupation daily, those crushed under the weight of their governments’ sovereign debts or foreign sanctions, the soldiers continually drawn into its wars, and those who risk life to cross or be detained at borders, among many others, all certainly live the existence of imperialism. But to actually re-conceptualize the specificity of this existence, and to furthermore pose a strategic and internationalist response, would mean to think together about what is at work in all of these experiences. If imperialism today is irreducible to any single phenomenon (even a massive phenomenon on the scale of a World War), then this is because it appears at once both ubiquitous and dispersed. How then to account today for the history that has amplified imperialism while making it all the more difficult to define?

The post-Cold War period has certainly produced a number of attempts to analytically discern and center new modes of political and economic subjection, even among the fragmentation of older configurations of sovereignty and social power. A cluster of historical studies, some more ambitious than others, have indicated that imperialism is alive and well, even if these studies differ in trying to clarify its precise character, causes, and effects.6 For our present purposes, we can parse a few stumbling blocks for understanding both the place of imperialism in an account of the present, and the prospects for any kind of anti-imperialist perspective in communist practice. 

First, as signaled above, is the continuing relevance of the nation-state under “postcolonial capitalism” or “capitalist globalization,” albeit recomposed in multifarious ways.7 The uneven geographies, layered temporalities, and multiple labor regimes which mark contemporary capitalist accumulation and monetization today certainly have transformed the international order; but the role and scope of many a state has been reinscribed and synchronized to fit the tempo and requirements of capitalist production and reproduction. The transition from anti-colonial or indigenous movements to state-building processes and, amidst global counter-revolution, world market integration in much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America has demonstrated the difficulties of previous constellations of anti-imperialism and their reliance on the nation-form.8 Of course, many of these movements provided essential insights into the politics of anti-imperialism, and most contained elements which sought national liberation only as a conjunctural stepping stone to international communist revolution. Yet as many postcolonial or developing states have been incorporated – not without significant conflicts, crises, and violence – into the economic agreements and political formations of the capitalist bloc, radical imaginaries of South-South cooperation have dimmed.9 Of course, such incorporation is more variegated than the “flat world” of Friedmanite delusion. The array of U.S. targeting technologies – sanctions against Iran and Zimbabwe, embargo on Cuba, terror lists for groups in the Philippines, Turkey, Lebanon, and Palestine, as well as outright aggression – invites us to examine how the specificities of forms of capitalist rule can be tracked through the fractured history of modern imperialism and colonialism. 

The challenge of reactivating an effective proletarian internationalism is made even more urgent by the aggressive rise of right-wing nationalisms, which have taken a range of organizational and ideological guises. The clarified ideological form of this rightward shift is an emboldened “possessive nationalism” in the North, which revolves around restrictive immigration and trade policies, as responses to the perceived erosion of territorial logics of sovereignty, and the hybridization of the ethno-national community.10 Any prolonged combat against these nativist impulses – especially as they seep into social-democratic or left-liberal parties in Europe and the United States – will need to reinforce the link between migration and imperialism, the former in many ways constituting the reflux of the latter. Here we might center the rich legacy and actuality of migrant struggles for communist politics, and how questions of mobility, control, and dispossession are now at the core of imperialist dynamics. The political and social, informal and formal spaces of migration remain an open field for investigation. As Etienne Balibar noted over 40 years ago, “the concrete knowledge of the causes and effects of immigration is a two-way guiding thread towards an understanding of imperialism,” a methodological linkage which “renders internationalism, more than ever, the very condition of struggles for workers’ liberation.”11 This raises the practical necessity of reconsidering the tactical repertoire and strategic horizons of anti-imperialism. The nearly two-decades-long “War on Terror” – a euphemism for a war on human welfare in the Middle East and a war against Muslims at home – has proven to be a difficult nub for anti-war and anti-militarist activism in “the belly of the beast,” particularly as U.S. violence, amidst ever-shallower domestic hegemony, takes forms other than that of U.S. boots on the ground. The fading – or destruction – of the anti-war movement after 2005, following massive demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq which featured considerable grassroots mobilization, is a critical episode to reflect upon. The ubiquity of manned and unmanned aerial bombardment, the diffuse and often cloaked nature of counterinsurgency operations, the multiplication of U.S. proxies, and dense financial ties have rendered the military conflicts of U.S. empire, perhaps the most visible manifestation of imperialism, an asymmetrical yet constant presence. Any sustained fight against it must be coordinated around several fronts. Recent experiences of mass protest show that a powerful anti-war movement, if it is to reappear, would do so in an altered shape and in close relation to other insurgent forces in society, an extension of their discursive and strategic reach. The high level of organized resistance to militarized border security and repressive immigration policies, the environmentalist/anti-extractivist campaigns around Standing Rock and elsewhere, and the nascent coalitions and activist milieus that have been fortified through the International Women’s Strike initiatives (resonant with calls from Latin America for a new feminist international) indicate a real potential to build a “popular anti-imperialism” from grounded social struggles, connecting the sites of contestation across neo-colonial and imperial frontiers. One can see how this changes the aims and targets of alter-globalization movements, exemplified in the militancy of summit-hopping demos that directly confront leading economic and financial bodies, or in the parallel institution-building and transnational networking of civil society organizations involved in the World Social Forums.12 A more adequate approach to questions of coordination and solidarity across borders would have to probe how political organization is tied to material practices of translation, and recognize that even localized concerns often involve the commonalities and divisions of the global labor force.13 The mutations of class struggle, where the wage-earning proletariat has given way to more diverse social alliances and associations of what Göran Therborn calls the “plebeian strata” or “popular classes,” has provided glimpses of what anti-imperialist mobilization could look like: new strategies of threading upsurges of disruption, combination, and antagonism as they extend over an unstable terrain.14

Today, it is necessary to re-situate the concept and question of imperialism. We agree with Lenin when we recognize that no revolution, even a national one, is possible without grasping the effects of imperialism on any local articulation of the working class. And we further agree that, of course, no national revolution would be sufficient for the goal of communism. In short, we see imperialism as both an obstacle to and enemy of internationalism and we in turn view internationalism as a position to be composed in working class struggle itself. Thus, at the risk of simplifying our approach, we propose that to examine imperialism today is to bring it into the realm of class composition. This can involve no disavowal of the complicated history of Marxism and popular struggle with regard to imperialism, nor a simple repetition of any one of its moments. In our sixth issue of Viewpoint, we instead seek out the possibility of an encounter, bringing together historical accounts, artefacts of struggle, and theoretical interventions past and present. Thus we neither “endorse” all of the positions represented here nor reject those that might be absent from this issue, which is a situated engagement with the problem of opposing imperialism from within American empire; we are proud to offer these contributions as material for the long-term work of thinking and struggling against imperialism in the 21st century.

We will not overstate the systematicity of this approach; proceeding in this way entails a roll of the dice. It may involve taking up a history and putting it down again, only to have its importance suddenly strike us when we’ve moved onto a seemingly unrelated study, or when we later discuss a pressing issue at a political meeting. The categories we present here could be presented otherwise, and the various themes and topics that have entered into the current issue are certainly not enough to fill the lacuna of the concept of imperialism demanded by our present. Under- or unrepresented are migration and the struggles that surround it; ecological imperialism and climate debt; the role of China and other states of growing economic weight and political significance; configurations of “super-exploitation,” unequal exchange, and neoliberal labor arbitrage; the changing nature of war – conventional, nuclear, and otherwise; U.S. and E.U. sanctions as a tool of warcraft and statecraft; the role of primary extraction and other environmental threats; the ongoing presence and effects of settler colonialism; and certainly much more. As always, we hope this issue of Viewpoint is only the beginning. If these works can be a foundation for more theoretical and political work, we will be pleased. And if others are compelled to fill in what we and our contributors have had to put aside, even these lacks will have had a purpose.


1 For a nuanced consideration of the limits of nationalism for envisioning revolutionary processes, see Huey P. Newton, “Letter to the Liberation Front of South Vietnam,” in To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 178-81.
2 José Aricó, Marx and Latin America, trans. David Broder (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014).
3 Kolja Lindner, “Marx’s Eurocentrism: Postcolonial studies and Marx scholarship,” Radical Philosophy 161 (May–June 2010).
4 V.I. Lenin, The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution, 1917.
5 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 49.
6 David Harvey, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Robert Brenner, and, most recently, John Milios and Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos come to mind here; also see John Smith’s recent work, the ongoing contributions from Utsa and Prabhat Pantnaik, interventions by Samir Amin, and other efforts clustered around Monthly Review. One can also consult the essays by Salar Mohandesi and Jerome Roos in this issue.
7 See Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of U.S. Empire (London: Verso, 2013). On the ambiguities of postcolonialism and the conceptual problematic of postcolonial studies, and the ongoing relevance of the “national question” for Marxist theory today, see Gavin Walker’s article in this issue, as well as his prior essay, “Primitive Accumulation and the Formation of Difference: On Marx and Schmitt,” Rethinking Marxism 23, no. 3 (2011): 384-404.
8 See Etienne Balibar, “The Nation Form: History and Ideology,” trans. Chris Turner, in Immanuel Wallerstein and Etienne Balibar, Race, Nation, Class (London: Verso, 1991).
9 See Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (New York: Verso, 2012).
10 See Brenna Bhandar’s article in the present issue.
11 See Etienne Balibar, “Lénine, les communistes, l’immigration,” in Cinq études sur matérialisme historique (Paris: Maspéro, 1974), 195–201. A translation of this text will be forthcoming in Viewpoint.
12 Donatella Della Porta, Globalization from Below: Transnational Activists and Protest Networks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Rodrigo Nunes, “The Global Movement: Seattle, Ten Years On,” in The Movement of Movements, Part 2: Rethinking Our Dance, ed. Jai Sen (Oakland: PM Press, 2017), 231-240; Research Unit for Political Economy, Mumbai, “The Economics and Politics of the World Social Forum,” Aspects of India’s Economy 35 (September 2003).
13 See Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013); V.I. Lenin, “Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution: Report to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, November 13, 1922,” in Collected Works, Vol. 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 418-432; on historical spaces where this political translation has taken place, see Christina Heatherton, “University of Radicalism: Ricardo Flores Magòn and Leavenworth Penitentiary,” American Quarterly 66, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 557-581. See also the current work that the Los Angeles Tenants Union is carrying out around language justice: Jack Ross, “Simultaneous Interpretation Drives the LA Tenants’ Movement,” Knock LA, May 19, 2022.
14 Göran Therborn, “Class in the 21st Century,” New Left Review II, no. 78 (November–December 2012): 5–29. See also Michael Denning, Representing Global Labor,” Social Text 25, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 125–45; Sandro Mezzadra and Verónica Gago, “In the Wake of the Plebeian Revolt: Social Movements, ‘Progressive’ Governments, and the Politics of Autonomy in Latin America,” Anthropological Theory 17, no. 4 (2017): 474–496.

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