Our socialism is international

May 8, 2018

Opposition to nationalism and support for struggles for freedom are bedrock principles.

ONE OF the most positive political developments in years has been the emergence of a new generation of socialists in the U.S.

Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination didn't shy away from the s-word, and he became the most popular political leader in the country. According to a Gallup poll, a majority of people between 18 and 29 say that they have favorable views of socialism.

Most exciting of all is that socialist organizations--like the International Socialist Organization, which publishes Socialist Worker, the Democratic Socialists of America and others--are thriving and growing.

This is a breath of fresh air. But we know from the experiences of the past that the political character of this radicalization isn't a given. There are different ideas and traditions of socialism, and which of them comes to represent the politics of socialism to a new generation will depend on political discussion and debate--and on the testing of our ideas in struggle.

The renewed popularity of socialism is no doubt shaped by the astronomical wealth inequality of U.S. society--that was the central theme of the Sanders campaign. Struggles like Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock and #MeToo have also made opposition to oppression a part of the worldview of a new generation of radicals.

Marching against the bombing of Afghanistan in San Francisco in 2001
Marching against the bombing of Afghanistan in San Francisco in 2001 (Josh On | SW)

We want to make case in this article that internationalism and opposition to imperialism must likewise be at the center of the fight for socialism.

The questions of war and empire are forced on the left today by Donald Trump's reactionary and militaristic presidency, as he seems to invite conflict and violence with every new tweet. But internationalism was central to the socialist tradition long before Trump--back to when Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote: "Workers of all countries, unite!"


THE CASE for an internationalist socialism starts from the fact that capitalism--the dog-eat-dog competitive system that breeds poverty and oppression and violence--is divided into national states whose ruling classes compete for dominance. The outcome of this global rat race is that the world is divided into an order where some states are more powerful, and others are less powerful and subjugated.

One of the most effective ideological tools of the ruling class is to encourage the belief that all of us living within an arbitrarily drawn national boundary--and, indeed, many national borders originated as nothing more than lines drawn on a map--have common interests against people living within a different arbitrarily drawn national boundary.

The conflict comes in different forms. There's the economic: Donald Trump insists that Americans are getting a raw deal because the people of China, rulers and workers alike, are taking unfair advantage.

We're taught that nations are united by a common culture, a common language, common national traits--though none of that holds up when you stop to think about it.

The most devastating conflicts of all are military--when rival governments declare war, and working people pay the price. As the American socialist Eugene Debs famously said: "The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose--especially their lives."

Internationalism starts from the opposing principle to capitalism: that the working people of every country--countries at war, countries that are economic rivals, countries whose populations differ in any number of ways--have interests in common with each other, not with their rulers.


THIS IDEA was so important to Marx and Engels that they considered it one of the main features that distinguished socialists from all other radical parties. "In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries," they wrote in the Communist Manifesto, socialists "point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality."

Marx and Engels were participants in the revolutionary wave that swept across Europe in 1848, disregarding every border--and they later banded together with other revolutionaries to form the International Workingman's Association, also known as the First International.

Other socialists following in the Marxist tradition are known, perhaps above all else, for their commitment to internationalism.

During the First World War, when all the political parties of Europe--including the socialist parties of the time--supported "their" governments in going to war, revolutionaries such as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky in Russia and Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin in Germany resisted the war in the name of internationalism.

They were joined by socialists in the U.S. In January 1916, Helen Keller, speaking as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World at Carnegie Hall in New York City, called on workers to "strike against all ordinances and laws and institutions that continue the slaughter of peace and the butcheries of war. Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought."

In the 1960s, the civil rights activists who became revolutionaries declared their commitment to an international struggle.

In her autobiography, Black Power revolutionary Assata Shakur described coming to an awareness of the Vietnamese and Puerto Rican struggles for freedom: "Once you understand something about the history of a people, their heroes, their hardships and their sacrifices, it's easier to struggle with them, to support their struggle."


IF THERE was any doubt that imperial arrogance, nationalism and racism are central to the way that the U.S. ruling class rules, Donald Trump has settled the matter.

But it's easy to oppose Trump as a warmonger. What the left needs to reckon with is that both the Republican and Democratic Parties are committed to the project of maintaining U.S. dominance over the world order of nations--as are other ruling institutions, such as the corporate media and top universities.

Individuals among this elite--members of Congress, the editorial boards of major news outlets, think-tank fellows--may disagree on the tactics and strategies of what the U.S. does abroad.

But one matter isn't in question: the assumption that the U.S. should be "number one," that it is "the world's greatest democracy," and that it therefore has the right to shape the affairs of people around the world--whether through invasions and air strikes, or diplomacy and negotiation, or humanitarian aid (with strings attached).

What does it mean to be a socialist internationalist in the U.S. today?

It means resisting the pull of nationalism that pervades political and social life, even among those who see themselves as liberal and even radical.

It means recognizing that the U.S. became a nation through an attack on, displacement of and colonization of existing nations that were here first--and the primary source of wealth in the infancy of the "world's greatest democracy" was one of history's most horrific crimes: slavery.

It means recognizing and opposing U.S. subjugation of outright colonies, such as Puerto Rico, and formally independent nations that it dominates in America's "backyard."

It means opposing all the means by which the U.S. empire shapes the political affairs and societies of other countries--whether military operations, the presence of hundreds of military bases and thousands of troops the world over, and trade deals and economic agreements. It means standing with Palestine, which is oppressed by U.S.-backed Israeli apartheid.

And, crucially, it means recognizing that people in all of these places have always challenged the power of the U.S. empire, whether wielded directly or in alliance with other tyrannies around the world--and that internationalists always stand with the resisters.


FIFTY YEARS ago, at the high point of the last great social radicalization in 1968, there was a common sense among revolutionaries around the world that the struggle for socialism was international.

There were radical struggles all over the globe--in France, in Vietnam, in Mexico, in Czechoslovakia, in the U.S. and countless other places--and they influenced, inspired and were in solidarity with each other. To be a socialist in the U.S. meant to oppose the power of the American empire and support revolutionary struggles for justice around the world.

Things are different in 2018. To start with, Bernie Sanders--the best-known socialist in the U.S., thanks to his unapologetic left-wing message against corporate greed and the corruption of the political system--is no opponent of the U.S. empire.

From the aftermath of Trump's victory through to this year, Sanders has maintained that "I and other progressives are prepared to work with him" when it comes to economic nationalist policies that punish China for supposedly unfair trade practices and that scapegoat "foreign competition" for the deteriorating living standards in the U.S.

In reality, the U.S. has no business lecturing any country about unfair trade after rigging the world system in its favor since the end of the Second World War. And blaming "foreign competition" for the plight of U.S. workers leaves Corporate America--which is demonstrably more responsible for layoffs and low wages--off the hook.

Meanwhile, Sanders may denounce Trump's saber-rattling and xenophobia, but he, like any number of liberal political figures, accepts the imperialist mindset that the U.S. must dominate the world, along with its alliances with tyrannies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. In his home state of Vermont, Sanders is notorious among left activists for having unconditionally backed the basing of the U.S. military's boondoggle F-35 bomber at Burlington's airport.

The left shouldn't have any tolerance for such backward views on foreign policy--if for no other reason than that nationalism is the cutting edge of the Trumpian assault on democracy and freedom, and there can be no compromise with that.

Trump has built a right-wing base by deflecting justified bitterness among working-class people away from exploitative corporations and the politicians who work for them, and toward immigrants and "enemies" abroad. This is the justification for a new round of militarizing the border and an aggressive imperialist posture.

Socialists can't concede an inch to the American elite and their nationalism, in whatever form it comes. Any investment that working class people make in the U.S. state, its borders and its flag must be paid for by accepting common ground with the rulers who are primarily responsible for their misery.


THERE IS another tragic departure from internationalism on the U.S. left today.

Among those who continue to make opposition to U.S. imperialism a principle, there are currents and whole organizations that use their "opposition" as an excuse to align themselves with tyranny and rival empires.

The prime example here is Syria. A whole section of the U.S. left is supporting the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad and its international backers in Russia and Iran, on the grounds that they are formally, if not practically, opposed to the U.S.--even when this means accepting mass murder and repression that they would revile coming from the U.S. or its allies.

Socialism has no meaning if, in the name of anti-imperialism, it tolerates dictatorship and a genocidal civil war to crush a pro-democracy uprising.

Our vision is of a struggle of the working class and oppressed peoples themselves to remake the world. That struggle from below exists in every corner of the world, and it is crucial for the left to be in solidarity with each struggle for freedom.

As socialists in the U.S., the world's most powerful empire, our main enemy is "at home." But any ruling force in the world that enforces oppression and exploitation is also our enemy--and those struggling for freedom are our comrades.

Our internationalism is consistent: We oppose the imposition of U.S. imperial power and support those genuinely fighting against it, not only for the sake of those struggles of the oppressed, but because of the importance of building a united working-class movement here--one that champions all struggles against oppression and for freedom.

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