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Internationalism - a world to win

“Capitalism is an international system, so the struggle for socialism must be international, uniting workers of all countries. Socialists oppose imperialism—the division of the globe based on the subjugation of weaker nations by stronger ones—and support the self-determination of oppressed nations.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”

Capitalism is the first truly international system; no corner of the world can escape from the reach of the world market. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe,” Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto when capitalism was still in its infancy. “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.... In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.”

Workers of the world, unite

Since capitalism was an international system, the working-class struggle to overcome capitalism must also be international. “Workers of the world, unite” was therefore the Manifesto’s rallying cry.

The capitalists of the world were always ready to unite when it came to defending their privileges. As Marx noted in an 1847 speech:

“A certain kind of brotherhood does, of course, exist among the bourgeois classes of all nations. It is the brotherhood of the oppressors against the oppressed, of the exploiters against the exploited. Just as, despite the competition and conflicts existing between the members of the bourgeoisie, the bourgeois class of one country is united by brotherly ties against the proletariat of that country, so the bourgeois of all countries, despite their mutual conflicts and competition on the world market, are united by brotherly ties against the proletariat of all countries.”

To this bosses’ unity, the workers must counterpose their own unity. The task of a successful socialist revolution is, in the words of Engels, to “abolish competition and replace it with association.” But the abolition of competition is not complete if it takes place within the borders of only one nation.

Capitalism is an international system. As such, it can only be abolished as a system when it is rooted out internationally. There is therefore no purely national solution to capitalism. Socialism cannot be achieved on a purely national basis because the world economy will always assert itself over a single national economy. It was for this reason that Leon Trotsky, for example, argued against Joseph Stalin’s distortion of Marxism embodied in the phrase “socialism in one country.”

Yet because the world is divided by nation states, there are different rhythms of struggle and different traditions and histories between the working classes of different nations. There will never be a world revolution that happens at a single moment all over the world. Revolutions happen first as national phenomena.

As Marx wrote, “Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.”

Yet the international character of capitalism, and increasingly of capitalist crisis, guarantees that revolutions in one country can act as a stimulus for revolutionary movements in other countries. Thus, the Russian Revolution in 1917 heralded the beginning of a wave of revolutionary upheavals throughout the world.

National oppression

The existence of a world market has not obliterated nations or national divisions. Marx was overstating things when he wrote in the Manifesto, “National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.”

Capitalism actually has seen two contradictory trends. The one mentioned above by Marx was certainly real; but there was another trend toward the formation and consolidation of national states. The contradiction between these two tendencies expressed itself in the increasing competition between capitalist powers over control of the world market and the subjugation of weaker nations.

The first few decades after Marx’s death in 1883 witnessed growing concentration and centralization of capital in the hands of powerful monopolies, and the development of tensions between the advanced capitalist states competing for control of the world market. Growing competition for markets, resources, and strategic territory produced growing armed clashes, and European states (and later the U.S. and Japan) scrambled to seize as colonies throughout the world.

Today, the size and level of integration of the world economy goes far beyond what existed in Marx’s day. The level of world trade, international financial transactions and foreign investment have all risen dramatically. Moreover, the production process is so international today that a machine assembled in one country will have its parts produced in several different countries. “Auto production processes have become so transnationalized,” writes economist William Robinson, “that the final product can no longer be considered ‘national’ in any meaningful way.”

The interdependence is so deep-rooted that no nation is capable of economic life cut off from the rest of the world without suffering severe dislocation. Robinson takes these developments to mean that the nation-state is rapidly fading in importance. But the growing integration of the world into a single market takes place in a context in which the world remains divided between nation-states.

So long as there is no single “world” state that corresponds to the creation of a world market, so will capitalists depend upon a particular national state to maintain the conditions for “smooth” capitalist exploitation. The state is the “executive committee” for managing the “common affairs” of the bourgeoisie, not only its internal affairs (holding down the class struggle), but also “externally” (promoting the economic interests of its “own” capitalist class).

In the decades after World War II, the division of the world into directly-held colonial possessions of the great powers came to an end, in part due to a wave of anti-colonial struggles. But though imperialism changed its form, it did not disappear. The rivalry between states over who will become (or remain) the dominant power—imperialism—continued to be an essential feature of the world system. A handful of powerful states today dominate the world economically, and one, the U.S., is by far the most powerful, maintaining an unprecedented level of military spending in order to keep it that way.

We earlier quoted Marx saying that the bosses, despite national differences, will unite when it comes to suppressing the working class. But the working class is also rife with divisions that are deliberately fostered by the capitalists. They foster national divisions to encourage workers to value national identity above the identity of class interests that should unite them with their fellow workers. Socialists must always challenge all forms of national chauvinism that pit workers against each other.

But we do not equate all nationalisms. A distinction must be made between the nationalism of the oppressor and the nationalism of the oppressed. Because the world is divided between oppressed and oppressor nations, between dominant nations that use financial, diplomatic and military means to control other nations and peoples, class unity can only be built by recognizing the basic right of oppressed nations to self-determination.

No nation that oppresses another can itself be free. In the U.S., for example, there can be no solidarity between Puerto Rican and U.S. workers unless U.S. workers recognize the right of Puerto Rico to independence. There can be no solidarity between the peoples of the Middle East and workers in the United States unless we recognize the right of Iraqis, Afghans and Palestinians to self-determination.

The imperialist division of the world means that we as socialists cannot equate all wars, or condemn all wars. As Lenin wrote during the First World War,

“Marxism makes that analysis and says: if the “substance” of a war is, for example, the overthrow of alien oppression...then such a war is progressive as far as the oppressed state or nation is concerned. If, however, the ‘substance’ of a war is redivision of colonies, division of booty, plunder of foreign lands (and such is the war of 1914-16), then all talk of defending the fatherland is “sheer deception of the people.””

Some people, horrified by the devastation of modern war, become pacifists—principled opponents of all violence. But renouncing all violence in resisting a society founded on, and maintained by, systematic violence, means capitulation to that society. We do not equate the violence of the oppressor with the violence of the oppressed resisting that oppression. There is no moral equivalency between the slave who breaks their chains and the master who froges them.