By VAN GOSSE and BILL FLETCHER, Jr., with PHYLLIS BENNIS
For well over a century, a shared commitment to internationalism has defined what it means to be Left. Even when we do not use that particular word, rooted in the “proletarian internationalism” of the Marxist tradition, an internationalist sensibility has animated a range of anti-colonial, anti-racist, feminist, anti-militarist, and working-class struggles. “An injury to one is an injury to all,” as the Industrial Workers of the World put it one hundred years ago; solidarity across borders, ethnicities, languages, and continents; a rejection of the claims of patriotic chauvinism and self-interest in favor of human and universal interests.
In the second decade of the 21st century, however, our practice of internationalism is confused and stuck in old habits and discourses left over from the era of Third World liberation, beginning early in the twentieth century, and the Cold War of 1945-1991. Both of those historical periods are now long gone: the European empires that created the Third World through centuries of exploitation and social engineering are dismantled, while the ideological and political-military struggle between state socialism and U.S.-led capitalism ended with the implosion of the former, and a whimper not a bang. It is high time that the Left rethink what it means to practice internationalism in this new world of collapsing states, extraordinary concentrations of wealth, and technologies that make the U.S.–the one world power, however much in decline—able to track or kill people, anytime and anywhere in the world.
Let’s begin with some outdated shibboleths:
- That all forms of anti-imperialism are by their nature progressive.
The existence of Al-Qaeda and ISIS alone undermine this premise, but there are many more instances of reactionary but anti-colonial militarism (think the Ba’ath, Algeria’s FLN in recent decades, the Zionist militias in Palestine), rightwing fundamentalism (the Al-Bashir regime in Sudan), or quasi-fascism (the Croat and Ukrainian exile groups, the Kosovar Liberation Army). ISIS and Al-Qaeda are not “quasi” at all; they advocate a version of clerical fascism which the Left needs to take seriously. Most of the above began as disciplined conspiracies which claimed the mantle of defeating colonial domination, but none have shown any interest in transformative revolutionary change driven by working people seeking their own liberation.
- That the self-determination of any self-declared “nation” is an automatic right and an automatic good.
After the implosion of multinational Yugoslavia into seven small states and even more “micro-nationalisms” within them, and the deathtrap warlordism percolating across the former Soviet Union, we should finally be wary of how many nations or peoples might insist on their right to form a sovereign nation. Some forms of self-determination are historically progressive, and some are not; federation or federalism, in multiethnic or multiconfessional states, is often a better solution than partition. The division of the Indian subcontinent in 1947-48 was a disaster for all involved, a betrayal of Gandhi’s vision, the implications of which play out today in confrontations between two nuclear-armed states, each of which carries out brutal counter-insurgencies in the name of the nation. The Left needs to break the umbilical cord between “nation” and “state,” and understand the latter as it has existed for most of human history: a juridical form that allows for governance, not an ultimate good. Being “a people” does not and should not necessarily require a state, in other words. In no way should this stance be interpreted as ignoring national or racial oppression. We need to distinguish the progressive response to these oppressions in the form of national self-determination from formal demands for a separate state, frequently accompanied by ahistoric justifications that can lead to further forms of national, ethnic, or racial subordination.
- That all “people’s” or mass protest movements against an established state are equally authentic and deserving of support.
Not all forms of grassroots activism or mass actions against the state are progressive. Right-wing movements can and frequently do adopt tactics, symbols, and messages of the Left, but this should not seduce us into supporting them. Throughout modern history, rightwing movements have organized large-scale popular responses (in some cases involving millions of people), ranging from the Vendee uprising during the French Revolution, to the Nazis in Germany. The extent to which this kind of reactionary paramilitarism characterizes the Maidan movement in Ukraine, or the militarily-hijacked (or directed) mobilization against the Morsi government in Egypt, are open questions.
- That conscientious anti-militarism requires absolute pacifism, as if all forms of military coercion and state power are by their nature odious and repressive.
In tandem with the “anarcho-liberalism” now pervading Left social movements in the advanced capitalist counties has come a de facto pacifism, really an avoidance of the issue of power—who has it, and how it should be exercised. Unless we believe the Left’s only appropriate role is as a permanent opposition to whatever state power exists (the historic stance of Quakers, Mennonites, and other honorable pacifist sects), we have to acknowledge that the essence of any state is two-fold: it represents the balance of class power in a given society, and it enjoys a legally-backed monopoly on the use of violence. Any government has an obligation to use that coercive force, the state’s military and police powers, to defend the populace against crime. There is also an obligation to defend the nation against external attack, which is a different form of crime. Finally, there may be an obligation to act in defense of some universal rights. In each of these cases, defining the legitimacy of who gets to act, and the appropriate means by which to defend the rights of personal and societal security, requires careful scrutiny. When does a state (a governing body) forfeit its right to repress crime, or defend the nation? How should we on the Left uphold those obligations without condoning repression? How do we draw clear lines between policing and repression? Put another way, Hobbes’ dystopian image of the breakdown of the state, of disorder and the war of all-against-all, is just as relevant now as it was four hundred years ago, and the first obligation of whatever states will exist should be to provide order and prevent that war.
A new internationalism therefore urgently needs agreement on what constitutes the “just” and “unjust” uses of force and violence. It assumes that there are conditions under which even states which the Left does not support may carry out actions which we, the Left, do support. France was an imperial power, and Algeria was at the center of its empire. But when the Nazis defeated and occupied France, the Algerians had an interest in resisting the occupation and supporting the French resistance. More recently, if the United States had joined with the United Nations in stopping the Rwandan genocide (instead of actively preventing UN engagement), even though the U.S. is certainly imperialist, we in the Left should have supported that action.
- That the “rule of law” is a fiction that obscures dominance and thus is a tool of dominance.
The reactionary version of postmodernism has suggested that all laws, rules, customs, and institutions are equally fabricated, and their “discourses” are just the stories we make up, all equally self-serving. Embracing the Foucauldian notion that power exists everywhere has served to distract us from how power is actually exerted, daily and often, through juridical structures backed up by police, or often, by police acting as a law unto themselves. So it really matters what those laws are, how they are enforced and by whom, including whether the police and other “armed bodies” are subordinate to the law. Here are two examples from U.S. history of how laws can be properly enforced:
- briefly, after the Civil War, biracial state militias made possible a precarious racial equality in the South, and the signposts of that revolution’s end were the massacres of black militia units by white paramilitaries in 1874-75, with zero consequences for the perpetrators;
- for longer than anyone can remember, a husband’s right to physically beat his wife was a given not only in Anglo-American legal practice, but in how police departments approached “domestic disputes,” until the later 1970s, when systematic feminist protest forced police forces to treat wife abuse as a serious crime;
- That “intervention,” defined as military incursions into, or direct political pressure upon, the territory of a sovereign state, is always and everywhere a moral wrong.
Now, here are some fundamental truths that have been forgotten and should be re-affirmed:
- In the era of “humanitarian interventionism” and the celebration of “liberal imperialism” by intellectuals like Niall Ferguson and Michael Ignatieff, it needs to be reaffirmed by the Left that there is no such thing as a progressive imperialism. The invasion, occupation, or domination of a subject people by another nation or governing force will always lead to violence and injustice, whatever the claims to a “civilizing mission” used to justify those acts.
- If the laws themselves are neutral, and do not discriminate between states (anymore than within a state they discriminate between individuals), then the rule of law is an absolute good, and should obtain in all instances, because by its very nature it protects the weaker party, those who have no interest in violating it. The law itself, however, is never an absolute and never absolutely neutral. Individual laws are subject to different interpretations and produce different impacts at different times, so what may be a positive good at one point in history, may eventually become a limit on freedom, and require changing, or re-interpretation.
An example of the law acting neutrally to protect the rights of all was the 1998 indictment of Augusto Pinochet, then receiving medical treatment in London, by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, under established precedents of extraterritorial human rights law. Although the British government ultimately failed to honor its extradition treaty with Spain, using the ex-dictator’s poor health as an excuse, Garzon initiated a powerful new direction in international law. A full application of this legal standard would constitute a major brake on individual governments’ and political leaders’ ability to wage aggressive war and carry out abuses against their own citizens. This expansion–despite its slow pace–of the reach of international accountability is important even as the struggle to end impunity for the most powerful continues. That is, even if Henry Kissinger is not yet in the dock, the “Pinochet Precedent” remains an enormous gain for international law.
- The correlative is that a “war crime” really is a crime, regardless of who carries it out, why, where, or against whom, and in all instances should be prosecuted as such—to protect all those, whether individuals or states, that are the victims of such crimes.
The Nuremberg Trials were a lesson that those guilty of war crimes and genocide can be punished, but they were greatly vitiated by the sense that they were “victors’ justice,” and would never be extended universally. Imagine the Nuremberg and Garzon precedents applied to George W. Bush and Tony Blair for the second Iraq War, or Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Bashar Assad, and a much larger number of leaders guilty of war crimes since then. Here the words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, Chief Counsel for the U.S. at Nuremberg, are highly relevant: “if certain acts and violations are crimes, they are crimes whether the U.S. does them or whether Germany does them. We are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others that we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”
- Another correlative is that there is such a thing as a law of war, the foundational premise of which is that making aggressive war is the first crime between states, and should be the first to be punished.
Defining the only “just war” as strictly defensive, not subject to unilateral claims of preventive or preemptive necessity, would go a long way towards making the world a safer and more just place. In that regard, the events of February 2003, when the U.S. was unable to pressure the UN Security Council to approve its attack on Iraq, and a broad coalition of Germany, France, Brazil, Russia, China and many other nations stymied the one superpower’s imperial mandate, may have been a turning point in history.
- Finally, all forms of terrorism—meaning violence wittingly inflicted on unarmed civilians, whether to attract attention and notoriety, for national or ethnic revenge, or for any other political goal–are equally immoral and unacceptable, and should never be actively or implicitly condoned by the Left. We cannot allow ourselves to be seduced into making any distinction here between state and non-state terrorism or state and non-state terrorists. Just as individuals or groups claiming the mantle of Al-Qaeda or ISIS have not the slightest right to murder those they denominate “enemies,” no state, whether Russia in Chechnya, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the United States in Vietnam and Iraq, France in Algeria, Israel in Gaza, or Syria against Syrians, has any right to bomb and shell civilians in pursuit of military objectives. Murder, mass or small-scale, is still murder. Only the killing of soldiers (as in armed combatants) is permitted under law, and has any ethical justification, and all belligerents in wartime have an absolute obligation to minimize violence that affects civilians.
This final proviso has special application today, as various governments have extended practices of long-distance killing during wartime (via bombing, shelling, and the use of snipers) into practices of assassination (via electronically-guided missile strikes and drones) that conflate actual combatants with those who are political leaders and activists but not combatants. In this context, it is imperative to re-state the laws of war to clarify that political assassination outside of actual combat is not a tool of war, but a special form of murder, whomever carries it out. Legitimating the murder of one’s political opponents on the basis of realpolitik is an extremely dangerous and destabilizing move, with enormous potential for blowback. It erodes respect for human rights, for the law, and for the rights of civil society, all of which should matter greatly to a 21st century left.
Separating Governments and Movements: A New Strategy for Internationalist Action
Unlike in the past, when Left solidarity was often extended to revolutionary governments, or by treating revolutionary movements as de facto governments, in the 21st century, the Left should clearly distinguish between activism intended to convince or pressure governments to uphold international law and progressive norms, and direct solidarity with social movements that are non-governmental, part of a larger national or international civil society. Minus the political choices required by the Cold War and anti-colonial struggles, there are no governments today deserving of uncritical support or solidarity.
Nothing will more powerfully move the world in a more humane direction, creating spaces for Left mobilization and, finally, the taking and holding of state power, than fighting for a new set of international norms, backed up by law, moral consensus, political and economic pressure (formal censure, sanctions, boycotts) and even, on occasion, force. These norms are quite simple and are based in international law:
- That aggressive war is a crime
- That states are sovereign
- That unilateral intervention by imperialist powers is always unacceptable
- That coups d’etats and military governments are illegitimate
- That unelected international institutions accountable only to the Great Powers that dominate them are, by their nature, imperial in essence if not in form
First, no state or groups of states can claim an a priori right to intervene in the affairs of other states. Sovereignty is not a privilege of the strong. Unilateral interventions, whether military threats, covert destabilization, or economic sabotage, are violations of the peace, however attractive they may seem when facing a repressive or putatively “rogue” state. In response to humanitarian crises, civil conflicts, internal oppression, or regional aggression, the Left can, but not necessarily should, support multilateral action by responsible international or regional bodies under clearly-defined norms, as a form of keeping the peace. Specifically, arms embargoes should be demanded, applied and enforced in all internal conflicts, on the principle of “do no harm.” Beyond those preferences, there are no absolutes: whether or not unilateral interventions by states with no imperialist intentions may be acceptable in some historical situation is an unresolved question for the authors of this paper.
There is one major exception to this principle of non-intervention between states, and the insistence on embargoing arms in cases of internal conflict: when a legitimate, recognized government is threatened by military revolt or internal destabilization, it has the right to seek outside military assistance. Both Republican Spain in 1936 and Socialist Chile in 1973 are examples of when such aid should have been available. Simply because a legitimate government, in response to internal subversion or a military coup, requests military aid does not mean, however, that other governments are obligated to provide it, nor that the Left should necessarily support such assistance. The 2014 crisis in Ukraine provides an instance of such a situation: concerted street protests attempted to topple an elected president, Viktor Yanukovych. Although his government had a right to seek assistance in defending itself, it would have been mistaken for Leftists to support such aid, which would have only worsened an already dire situation.
Second, aggressive, “preventive,” or even “pre-emptive” war is the first war crime, and can never be justified. We on the Left need to remind ourselves how profoundly destructive war is for all parties; there is no such thing as a “good war.” It can only be justified on defensive grounds, to avert something worse, as in colonial occupation and destruction of one’s society. One example of how important it can be to maintain this principle is the fundamental divide between different schools of Cold Warriors in the U.S. from the 1950s to the 1980s: the dominant group of centrist Cold War liberals proposed “containment” of the Soviet Union through nuclear deterrence, treaty systems, and active subversion, including violating the principle of non-intervention and initiating wars in dozens of countries, but they did not advocate a “first strike” to eliminate the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China once and for all; the second group, based in the right wings of both parties, advocated direct military confrontation with the main enemy and “roll back,” including the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield. The first instance of this divide came in President Truman’s firing General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War because the latter proposed to attack China; it continued into the 1970s with Ronald Reagan’s charges of “appeasement” against President Carter, and aggressive language posing the threat of “first strikes” as nuclear blackmail. Fortunately for the world, as president, Reagan was reined in by his pragmatic advisors. The collapse of such a consensus for containment can be seen in the second Bush presidency, which violated the most basic international norms. Paradoxically, Bush and Cheney’s aggressive war in Iraq so damaged American credibility that it has severely limited the U.S.’s future ability to wage aggressive war, as President Obama has noted on more than one occasion, although he has also asserted an extralegal “right to act unilaterally” simply because the U.S. has unrivalled military power, in explicit violation of both the UN Charter and numerous international conventions.
A third premise of the new internationalism is: no recognition should be given to governments that come to power through military coups. It is not always possible to draw a clear line between military coups and popular uprisings; sometimes they converge, and take a progressive direction. But the military, no matter how well-intentioned, can never take the place of a genuine popular mobilization. Even progressive military governments can never be more than temporary placeholders; recognition and aid should only be granted when they have handed over power to civilians and supported democratic transitions. The history of the twentieth century is full of examples of “Left Bonapartism,” military regimes whom parties of the Left supported, only to find themselves used, manipulated, and often severely repressed when their services were no longer needed.
Towards Progressive Movements
In the absence of progressive movements or parties or other organizations in leadership of national struggles, the “prime directive” for international solidarity must be to maintain the principle of non-intervention. Iraq in recent years provides clear examples of this logic. While there are individual campaigns or organizations in Iraq that have every right to ask for direct solidarity from Leftists in the Global North, the movement against colonial occupation and domination in that country has not been led by the Left, and includes major forces that are clearly on the Right. In Iraq, getting the U.S. out was the necessary precondition for any resolution of that country’s crisis, but Leftists in the Global North cannot presume to intervene in what that resolution might be.
We therefore need a policy of the Left towards many of today’s movements that is qualitatively different than how we engage with governments, a new concept and guidelines for solidarity between peoples that do not presume the existence of a revolutionary vanguard with whom we agreed on the basis of its social program, even if we did not agree with its every action. for those of us who worked in solidarity with the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, the ANC, the Salvadoran FMLN, and many other disciplined, self-sacrificing parties and fronts in the late twentieth century, it is difficult to imagine effective transnational action without such organizations. But that era has passed, and the liberation struggles of the 21st century are messy and often corrupted by multiple forms of pressure and influence. Rather than a single front or party, they are characterized by ideologically pluralist groups, sometimes directly opposed to each other. Although there are inspiring instances of left parties or fronts seeking and even gaining state power, such as Syriza in Greece, or Podemos in Spain, in most cases, autonomous grassroots movements are now the most authentic expressions of liberation, even if they do not aspire to govern, nor are hegemonic in their national context. Indeed, in various struggles, the forces that we might support are not the hegemonic bloc, existing alongside other forces. They may represent minority or sectoral interests within a complex, contradictory, or even reactionary national, sectarian, or regional context; in Syria, for instance, the Left should support the democratic opposition to Assad, armed or otherwise, recognizing that democratic forces are clearly in the minority.
A strategy is therefore needed for bringing solidarity to the progressive social movements on their own terms, by providing what they need without preconditions or theoretical criteria.
This strategy requires a clear break with the compromised legacy of revolutionary practice and international solidarity in the last century. Dictatorships, whether of the proletariat or by any other group, and policies of deliberate repression of human, social, and civil rights, should never be supported by the Left either in word or deed, or by silence. We need to affirm the primacy of universal values and human rights for all people, in all countries, at all times. These values are fully elaborated in the United Nations’ Declaration of Universal Human Rights of 1948, and go far beyond those rights of free movement, free speech, and physical security for the individual citizen which have become the touchstones of human rights since the 1970s. In the UN Declaration, “the inherent dignity and…equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” includes not only “freedom of speech and belief,” but equally “freedom from fear and want.” Its Articles 22 through 28 outline a comprehensive set of “economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for” each person’s “dignity and the free development of his [or her] personality,” including, to quote that document:
- the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment;
- the right to equal pay for equal work;
- the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring…an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection;
- the right to form and to join trade unions;
- the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay;
- the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of him or herself and his or her family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his or her control;
- the right to education, with higher education equally accessible to all on the basis of merit;
- the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
If enforced and implemented with the same rigor that the quasi-governmental human rights movement has brought to the defense of individual political freedoms, these universal human rights would truly augur a new world order.
A radical conception of truly universal human rights means that 21st century international solidarity activists must pay special attention to movements, organizations, and initiatives that are directly challenging racism and patriarchy. This may mean supporting, to whatever extent possible, efforts that progressive and Left forces are undertaking against domestic reactionaries, e.g., right-wing populists, even where there is also a question of external or imperial intervention. We cannot remain silent, in the name of “anti-imperialism,” when racism, male supremacy, or homophobia are in operation, whether originating from the Right or from those who claim to be on the Left.
How to put all of the above into operation? Here our legacy of internationalist solidarity in prior eras provides valuable lessons. The Left can provide a clear alternative to the current glut of NGO-based social entrepreneurialism in the Global North, not because NGOs are inherently useless, or dangerous agents of neoliberalism, but because their professionalized and careerist ethos, relying on large grants from private foundations set up by wealthy philanthropists, blocks any accountability to grassroots social bases, whether in North or South. In the U.S. and Europe, we know from long experience that volunteer-based campaigns driven by clear political goals rather than philanthropic motives are the only way to meet the long-term needs of progressive social movements in other countries, as those movements define their needs; money, as in a diversified fundraising apparatus, and a competent, professional staff are crucial, but they are means, not ends. A new internationalism will therefore put the politics of revolutionary social transformation by any and all necessary means back in the driver’s seat. This paradigm shifts forwards in ideological terms, leaving behind the absolute and exclusive authority granted in the last century to Leninist vanguards, parties, and fronts. But it also draws upon the Left’s rich history of effective internationalist campaigns, from the anti-fascism of the 1930s to the anti-apartheid movement of the post-1945 period, and the transnational networks of solidarity with the Vietnamese and Cuban peoples’ struggles for self-determination.
For those of us based in the U.S., we need a strategy based in the lessons of the recent past. With regard to challenging U.S. foreign policy, our efforts should continue to include legislative/electoral initiatives, including the construction of grassroots advocacy campaigns to challenge elected representatives over their policies. We cannot be restricted to periodic national demonstration nor to electronic activism. We do need “street-heat” activism to accompany legislative/electoral efforts, but those mobilizations must be closer to grassroots people than many progressive coalitions have been. The model of point-and-click activism, whether looking at a screen or showing up for a rally because of receiving an electronic alert, is not sufficient to build any kind of movement, and “movement” is what we need.
Challenging U.S. foreign policy is not sufficient, however: concrete forms of active solidarity with Left movements are also indispensable. The World Social Forum has brought together many movements for progress to learn from one another and interact. We in the U.S. must do more, however, than attending periodic gatherings. Support for progressive social movements and initiatives can include, but is not limited to:
- Educational initiatives introducing people in the U.S. to the reality of progressive struggles through speaker tours, videos, and publications of all kinds;
- Technical assistance, including sending volunteers with specific expertise to work with movements in the Global South.
- Campaigns of material aid, including money and goods of all kinds.
- Human rights networks to secure the physical safety and ability to organize for our comrades in the Global South, via social media and traditional activism (letter-writing, picketing consulates), as well as solidarity delegations and personal accompaniment in struggle;
- Lobbying in international and transnational institutions like the United Nations.
Yet in this work there is always the question of who is the ‘we’ who will conduct these campaigns. Doing any of the above necessitates the reconstruction of a viable Left that is internationalist at its core, especially when for many U.S. liberals politics stops at the water’s edge. As steps in the direction of the rebuilding of such a Left, various forms of organization may need to be employed. The construction of transnational progressive networks focused on a particular sector or issue should be encouraged. Such networks have already surfaced within various movements, e.g. labor. Through such efforts the practice of internationalism, from its inception, is not charitable but solidaristic, as in movements coming together based on shared objectives and values. Such networks will need to be politically broad and explicitly anti-sectarian, recognizing that they are not political parties but are coalitions or alliances representing a range of ideological and political positions within the context of an accepted set of points of unity.
There is no excuse for waiting. We know what is to be done; internationalism is not a future goal, or utopian dream, it is an active practice. We must begin where we are, and make a new road by walking it.