The Futures Past of Internationalism: A Conversation with Benita Parry

Demonstration at Battersea
Clive Bran­son, Demon­stra­tion at Bat­tersea, 1939

View­point: Why should we retain impe­ri­al­ism as a con­cept, when so many recent devel­op­ments – the con­tra­dic­to­ry results of nation­al lib­er­a­tion strug­gles, the fall of the Sovi­et bloc, the rise of new forms of sov­er­eign­ty, and the con­sol­i­da­tion of vast transna­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions, finan­cial insti­tu­tions, and reg­u­la­to­ry bod­ies, to name only a few – have chal­lenged what Marx­ists have his­tor­i­cal­ly meant by the term?

Beni­ta Par­ry: Although I think it is now accept­able to sub­sti­tute cap­i­tal­ism for impe­ri­al­ism, I cite Daniel Bensaïd’s defense of its con­tin­ued use:

Impe­ri­al­ism is the polit­i­cal form of the dom­i­na­tion that cor­re­sponds to the com­bined and unequal devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. This mod­ern impe­ri­al­ism has changed its appear­ance. It has not dis­ap­peared. In the course of recent cen­turies, it has under­gone three great stages: that of colo­nial con­quest and ter­ri­to­r­i­al occu­pa­tion … that of the dom­i­na­tion of finan­cial cap­i­tal or the “high­est stage of cap­i­tal­ism” ana­lyzed by Hil­fer­d­ing and Lenin … [and] after World War II, that of the dom­i­na­tion of the world shared between sev­er­al impe­ri­al­ist pow­ers, for­mal inde­pen­dence of for­mer colonies and dom­i­nat­ed devel­op­ment.1

Ben­saïd goes on to name the ways in which its hege­mo­ny is now exert­ed: by the con­trol of mar­kets, finan­cial and mon­e­tary dom­i­na­tion, sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal dom­i­na­tion, the con­trol of nat­ur­al resources, the exer­cise of cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny, and, “in the last instance, by the exer­cise of mil­i­tary suprema­cy (obvi­ous in the Balka­ns and two Gulf Wars).”2 Apro­pos this last strat­e­gy, The Mas­ter List, com­piled by William Blum in Feb­ru­ary 2013, lists 60 instances of the Unit­ed States over­throw­ing, or attempt­ing to over­throw, a for­eign gov­ern­ment since the Sec­ond World War; 40 of which, most­ly in the Third World, suc­cess­ful­ly effect­ed regime change.

In the con­tem­po­rary Marx­ist dis­cus­sion amongst polit­i­cal econ­o­mists on impe­ri­al­ism, there are dis­agree­ments as to the cor­rect read­ings of analy­ses made by Lenin, Kaut­sky, and Lux­em­burg. These revolve around ques­tions about whether impe­ri­al­ism marked the monop­oly stage of cap­i­tal­ism in which the “non-cap­i­tal­ist” realm was or is indis­pens­able in pro­vid­ing resources, invest­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties and mar­kets (and, for what it’s worth, I believe Lenin’s con­clu­sion was that impe­ri­al­ism is about the sys­tem­at­ic exploita­tion of poor economies by cap­i­tal of the impe­ri­al­ist core states); or if impe­ri­al­ism denotes inter­state rival­ry over secur­ing the abun­dant raw mate­ri­als of the colonies. How­ev­er there seems to be no doubt amongst the war­ring pro­tag­o­nists that mod­ern impe­ri­al­ism must be under­stood in the con­text of the his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion and the dri­ve to the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal, process­es result­ing in inequal­i­ty in pow­er, resources, and expec­ta­tions at home and abroad. Rosa Lux­em­burg had argued that “cap­i­tal needs the means of pro­duc­tion and the labor pow­er of the whole globe for untram­meled accu­mu­la­tion; it can­not man­age with­out the nat­ur­al resources and the labor pow­er of all ter­ri­to­ries.” For this it had been nec­es­sary for met­ro­pol­i­tan cap­i­tal­ism to destroy the nat­ur­al sub­sis­tence econ­o­my in the new­ly acquired colonies, trans­form­ing these into pri­vate prop­er­ty, and destroy­ing col­lec­tive prop­er­ty.

The impact of this pre­cip­i­tate and enforced alter­ation issued in prodi­gious instances of com­bined and uneven devel­op­ment. These were graph­i­cal­ly described by Leon Trot­sky as a con­tra­dic­to­ry “amal­gam of archa­ic with more con­tem­po­rary forms” – an urban pro­le­tari­at work­ing in tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced indus­tries exist­ing side by side with a rur­al pop­u­la­tion engaged in sub­sis­tence farm­ing; indus­tri­al plants built along­side “vil­lages of wood and straw,” and peas­ants “thrown into the fac­to­ry caul­dron snatched direct­ly from the plow.”3 Expand­ing on Trotsky’s the­o­ry by address­ing cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­na, Neil David­son notes how the notion of com­bined and uneven devel­op­ment takes account of the inter­nal effects of uneven devel­op­ment in the cre­ation of social for­ma­tions that are “a chang­ing amal­gam of pre-exist­ing ‘inter­nal’ struc­tures of social life with exter­nal socio-polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al influ­ences.”4

As I see it, the recent devel­op­ments which might pose a chal­lenge to how we under­stand cur­rent impe­ri­al­ism, are pre­cise­ly those that define its con­tem­po­rary exis­tence as a world order struc­tured by the sys­tem­at­ic exploita­tion of incip­i­ent­ly-cap­i­tal­ist economies by the core cap­i­tal­ist states. To take only one instance: the after­life of nation­al lib­er­a­tion and the estab­lish­ment of nom­i­nal­ly inde­pen­dent nation-states has over­whelm­ing­ly seen the imple­men­ta­tion of rad­i­cal pro­grams frus­trat­ed by the covert and overt inter­ces­sion of cap­i­tal­ist regimes, and a shift in class alle­giance of major play­ers who had held out the promise of social­ism and deliv­ered the puni­tive neolib­er­al poli­cies demand­ed by the major pow­ers. Indeed, as polit­i­cal econ­o­mists main­tain, the exchange of high­er tech­nol­o­gy, high­er val­ue-added com­modi­ties in the First World, for low-tech, low-val­ue prod­ucts on the inter­na­tion­al mar­ket, has installed a new inter­na­tion­al divi­sion of labor polar­iz­ing the gap between skilled and unskilled. Such new mech­a­nisms of wealth trans­fer from the poor to the rich coun­tries con­tra­dicts the “myth of eco­nom­ic con­ver­gence” or the increas­ing inter­na­tion­al inte­gra­tion of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty claimed by main­stream eco­nom­ics, and marks what dis­tin­guish­es cap­i­tal­ism in the neolib­er­al era. In a review of John Smith’s Impe­ri­al­ism in the 21st Cen­tury, Michael Roberts cites Smith’s asser­tion that the “super-exploita­tion” of wage work­ers in the “South” is the foun­da­tion of mod­ern impe­ri­al­ism in the 21st cen­tu­ry, evi­dent in the fact that 83% of the world’s man­u­fac­tur­ing work­force lives and works in the Glob­al South.5

VP: Your men­tion of the endur­ing his­to­ry of nation­al lib­er­a­tion strug­gles in the present brings us to an impor­tant point. How do we dif­fer­en­ti­ate between colo­nial­ism and impe­ri­al­ism, a com­mon con­fla­tion? Does this con­fla­tion have effects on how to under­stand con­tem­po­rary forms resis­tance to these phe­nom­e­na?

The pop­u­lar equa­tion of impe­ri­al­ism with colo­nial­ism was giv­en aca­d­e­m­ic cre­dence by post­colo­nial stud­ies, long dom­i­nat­ed by those adher­ing to a the­o­ry of knowl­edge cen­tered on seman­tic uncer­tain­ty. This licensed promi­nent crit­ics, using wild analy­ses of tex­tu­al relics and ambigu­ous sig­ni­fi­ca­tions, to pro­duce nar­ra­tives of colo­nial­ism from which the specter of cap­i­tal­ism had been exor­cised. By ignor­ing the cap­i­tal­ist pen­e­tra­tion of nascent or under-cap­i­tal­ized realms and the semi-periph­eries which were not occu­pied as colonies, they reduced the known his­to­ry of vio­lent con­quest, gun­boat diplo­ma­cy, coer­cions, dis­pos­ses­sion, and exploita­tion to the exer­cise of cog­ni­tive and affec­tive, i.e. cul­tur­al, dom­i­na­tion, and in place of con­flict installed an inter­sti­tial space of covert or sub­tle inter­ac­tion with­in which the col­o­nized exer­cised agency by way of irony and mis­pri­sion.

Just as colo­nial­ism is not inter­change­able with impe­ri­al­ism, so is anti-impe­ri­al­ism as cri­tique and prac­tice not syn­ony­mous with anti-colo­nial­ism. For one, mod­er­ate, bour­geois-led nation­al­ist inde­pen­dence move­ments aspired to inher­it the colo­nial state, and not to over­throw cap­i­tal­ism. For anoth­er, crit­ics dis­posed to con­flate the terms dis­re­gard the depre­da­tions and immis­er­a­tion inflict­ed on the work­ing class­es and the poor with­in the heart­lands of cap­i­tal­ism, as well as the long his­to­ry of work­ers’ strug­gles in the met­ro­pol­i­tan cen­ters. This last exclu­sion has been attrib­uted to this constituency’s indif­fer­ence towards and even com­plic­i­ty with colo­nial­ism. This is a jus­ti­fi­able claim that unjust­ly eras­es a long tra­di­tion of anti-impe­ri­al­ism and sup­port for the anti-colo­nial strug­gles from par­ties and orga­ni­za­tions based with­in the met­ro­pol­i­tan work­ing class­es, and rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the polit­i­cal­ly con­scious and the mil­i­tant in this bloc. The con­se­quence of such dele­tions is that an inter­na­tion­al­ist per­spec­tive on the fight against cap­i­tal­ism is lost.

This then rais­es the mat­ter of con­tem­po­rary resis­tance to cap­i­tal­ism, imme­di­ate­ly vis­i­ble in the anti-glob­al­iza­tion move­ments of the metrop­o­les protest­ing against envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, super-exploita­tion, third world debt, and the many oth­er egre­gious con­se­quences of the sys­tem. With­in the periph­eries, this is seen to be locat­ed in cam­paigns against the pri­va­ti­za­tion of util­i­ties (water, elec­tric­i­ty), facil­i­ties (med­ical, edu­ca­tion­al) imple­ment­ed by nom­i­nal­ly inde­pen­dent regimes wed­ded to neolib­er­al­ism. Even though most of these strug­gles quick­ly dis­persed, the ener­gies and aspi­ra­tions of par­tic­i­pants make it impolitic to ques­tion its loose and imper­ma­nent for­mat, or to be skep­ti­cal about the pos­si­bil­i­ty that its traces. Because of the oppro­bri­um prop­er­ly heaped by the broad and spe­cif­ic left on “the Par­ty” in its Stal­in­ist man­i­fes­ta­tions, it is prob­a­bly also ill-advised to urge a return to the con­cept of orga­nized com­bat cen­tered on the labor­ing class, urban and agrar­i­an – rather than the mul­ti­tude, the sub­al­tern, the out­cast, the des­ti­tute, the aca­d­e­m­ic the­o­reti­cian and so on – as agents of rev­o­lu­tion. Yet it is a ques­tion that must be addressed – this because of the work­ing class­es’ struc­tur­al capac­i­ty to chal­lenge a sys­tem whose ulti­mate source of wealth lies in what Tim­o­thy Bren­nan has called “the con­tin­ued pri­ma­cy of mate­r­i­al pro­duc­tion in the world’s econ­o­my … the con­tin­ued indus­tri­al and agri­cul­tur­al basis of wealth on a glob­al basis, the size and sig­nif­i­cance of the glob­al pro­duc­ers in its old­er man­u­al sense of fab­ri­cat­ing, plant­i­ng, har­vest­ing, trans­port­ing, and pro­cess­ing.”6 Those attend­ing to labor as foun­da­tion­al to cap­i­tal­ism are not unaware that the Marx­ist lega­cy encom­pass­es both those who ques­tion the ennobling val­ue of work, and those who cel­e­brate forms of labor that tran­scend alien­ation and enhance exis­tence – con­sid­er John Berger’s work in this vein. But this belongs to anoth­er dis­cus­sion.

VP: Regard­ing con­tem­po­rary resis­tance: are there any strate­gies or tac­tics of anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gle that are worth re-exam­in­ing today? The dis­cours­es of past move­ments often seem to appear to us as if from anoth­er plan­et, com­plete­ly divorced from present con­di­tions.

In my view, the rich­est lega­cy to explore are past forms of anti-impe­ri­al­ism when activists in the met­ro­pol­i­tan core and its periph­eries were unit­ed in devis­ing inter­na­tion­al pro­grams of action. Trot­sky, Lenin, MN Roy and many oth­ers long ago argued that while con­di­tions dif­fered, the strug­gles of the colo­nial mass­es sub­ju­gat­ed by the impe­ri­al­ist nations and their own rul­ing class­es, and those of the wage-earn­ers in capitalism’s cen­ters, need­ed to be joined togeth­er. This is defied in my own dis­ci­pli­nary loca­tion of post­colo­nial lit­er­ary stud­ies, where the recent dis­cus­sion on World Lit­er­a­ture has led to the demand for a puta­tive “South–South” sol­i­dar­i­ty crit­i­cism that would be, accord­ing to the South African schol­ar Isabel Hofmeyr, alert to local his­to­ries and the “lat­er­al net­works that fall with­in the Third World or Glob­al South.”7 While one might laud such a move for its appar­ent chal­lenge to Euro­cen­tric think­ing, this stance, because lack­ing any recog­ni­tion of the struc­tural­ly glob­al nature of cap­i­tal­ism, appears to me iso­la­tion­ist in dis­con­nect­ing the con­ti­nents in the South­ern hemi­sphere from the oppressed both in the metrop­o­les and the remain­ing semi-periph­eries.

Con­sid­er the para­dox inscribed in the 1966 Sol­i­dar­i­ty Con­fer­ence of the Peo­ples of Africa, Asia and Latin Amer­i­ca held in Cuba and known as the Tri­con­ti­nen­tal Con­fer­ence. While osten­si­bly a “Third World” alliance, its agen­da declared a com­mit­ment to inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty across all con­ti­nents, with the aim of advanc­ing the unfin­ished project and prac­tice of com­mu­nism. This stat­ed that the gath­er­ing artic­u­lat­ed “a min­i­mum pro­gramme … explic­it­ly attempt­ing to align anti-impe­ri­al­ism with a wider chal­lenge to cap­i­tal­ism,” and goes on to cite the words of Meh­di Ben Bar­ka, Moroc­can social­ist leader and ini­tia­tor of the Con­fer­ence, as blend­ing “the two great cur­rents of world rev­o­lu­tion”: that born in 1917 with the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, and that rep­re­sent­ing the anti-impe­ri­al­ist and nation­al lib­er­a­tion move­ment of the day. In rec­og­niz­ing a world larg­er than the des­ig­nat­ed three con­ti­nents, this reg­is­ters an inter­na­tion­al­ist stance – as does Che Guevara’s mes­sage to the Con­fer­ence: “We must bear in mind that impe­ri­al­ism is a world sys­tem, the last stage of cap­i­tal­ism – and it must be defeat­ed in a world con­fronta­tion.”8 Ear­li­er in the 1920s, José Car­los Mari­ategui, a self-edu­cat­ed intel­lec­tu­al and rad­i­cal activist from Peru, had writ­ten: “we are anti-impe­ri­al­ists because we are Marx­ists, because we are rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, because we oppose cap­i­tal­ism with social­ism … and because in our strug­gle against for­eign impe­ri­al­ism we are ful­fill­ing our duty of sol­i­dar­i­ty with the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mass­es of Europe.”9

Although the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mass­es of Europe were not always in sight, the con­fer­ence endorsed the duty of com­rade­ship with the legions of the oppressed and exploit­ed in the impe­r­i­al home­lands, whose pres­ence has always been and remains in full view. In the light of such affir­ma­tive state­ments of inter­na­tion­al­ism artic­u­lat­ed by promi­nent thinkers and activists from Asia, Africa, and Latin Amer­i­ca, this alliance of rad­i­cal nation­al lib­er­a­tion move­ments in the era of decol­o­niza­tion ges­tures to an inter­na­tion­al the­o­ret­i­cal project and trans­for­ma­tive prac­tice to “elim­i­nate the foun­da­tions of impe­ri­al­ism.”

VP: Do you have any par­tic­u­lar sequences or exam­ples in mind?

Michael Löwy, for one, insists on the dialec­ti­cal rela­tion­ship between rad­i­cal social move­ments in the core cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries and nation­al lib­er­a­tion strug­gles in the colonies, argu­ing that these were com­ple­men­tary in ignit­ing mil­i­tan­cy and gen­er­at­ing inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty: for exam­ple, the upris­ings in Indochi­na and the fer­ment in the Unit­ed States dur­ing the six­ties. This rela­tion­ship can be seen in the many seeds of rad­i­cal anti-colo­nial strug­gles sown in met­ro­pol­i­tan cities, where intel­lec­tu­als from the colonies inter­act­ed with local and émi­gré Marx­ists, social­ists, and anar­chists. The life of Mari­ategui, born in 1894, exem­pli­fies the mak­ing of an inter­na­tion­al­ist from the Glob­al South: when trav­el­ing in West­ern Europe, he met with Hen­ri Bar­busse, Romain Rol­land, and Max­im Gorky; while liv­ing in Italy, he came under the influ­ence of rev­o­lu­tion­ary syn­di­cal­ism, was in touch with Ital­ian social­ist lead­ers includ­ing Gram­sci, wit­nessed the Turin fac­to­ry occu­pa­tions of 1920, and in 1921 attend­ed the Livorno Con­gress of the Ital­ian Social­ist Par­ty, where a split led to the for­ma­tion of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty.

To Paris dur­ing the thir­ties, for­ties, and fifties of the 20th cen­tu­ry came the future the­o­reti­cian-activists from the Maghreb and the French colonies in cen­tral Africa; also Zhou Enlai from Chi­na, and from Latin Amer­i­ca, Mar­iátegui, and the poet Cesar Valle­jo. And from Indo-Chi­na came Ho Chi Minh who after low­ly employ­ment on a French Lin­er, lived in Paris from 1919-23, dur­ing which time he became friends with French social­ists, join­ing them in found­ing the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty in 1920. To Lon­don came dis­si­dents from the Indi­an sub­con­ti­nent and the African con­ti­nent; to Lis­bon came the future rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies from Guinea, the Cape Verde Islands, Mozam­bique, and Ango­la.

Por­tu­gal and its colonies offer anoth­er com­pelling instance of such core–periphery cama­raderie. Eduar­do Mond­lane and Marceli­no dos San­tos from Mozam­bique, the one an anthro­pol­o­gy stu­dent, lat­er a pro­fes­sor at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty in the Unit­ed States, the oth­er study­ing at the Indus­tri­al Insti­tute in Lis­bon; Amil­car Cabral of Guinea-Bis­sau and the Cape Verde Island, a stu­dent of agron­o­my and Agostin­ho Neto from Ango­la who attend­ed med­ical schools in Coim­bra and Lis­bon – all fur­thered their polit­i­cal ideas and strate­gies for strug­gle in stu­dent and pro­fes­sion­al groups that includ­ed left-wing Por­tuguese intel­lec­tu­als. It is tempt­ing to con­nect this tra­di­tion of con­ver­sa­tion between rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies from colony and metro­pole. with sub­se­quent demon­stra­tions of con­cord when the Por­tuguese anti-fas­cist move­ment of the 1970s, which includ­ed work­ing class orga­ni­za­tions, made com­mon cause with the insur­gents in the African colonies.

Indeed their mil­i­tan­cy inspired the Movi­men­to das Forças Armadas, a group of low­er-rank­ing left-lean­ing offi­cers, some con­nect­ed with the Por­tuguese Com­mu­nist Par­ty, to mutiny in April 1974; while the Guinea wing of the orga­ni­za­tion passed a res­o­lu­tion declar­ing that “the colonised peo­ples and the peo­ple of Por­tu­gal are allies. The strug­gle for nation­al lib­er­a­tion has con­tributed pow­er­ful­ly to the over­throw of fas­cism and, in large degree, has lain at the base of our Move­ment, whose offi­cers have under­stood the roots of the evils which afflict the soci­ety of Por­tu­gal.”10

One exemp­tion from either core–periphery or inter-region­al com­rade­ship is the so-called Mau Mau rebel­lion in Kenya (1952–1960). This appears to have been with­out either polit­i­cal or mate­r­i­al sup­port from out­side – it also stands out for the scale and inten­si­ty of pun­ish­ment inflict­ed on the rebels by the British whose resort to tor­ture and exe­cu­tion quan­ti­ta­tive­ly and qual­i­ta­tive­ly exceed­ed any­thing else­where in its vast empire – with the excep­tion of India at the time of the 1857 rebel­lion. Although the British-edu­cat­ed Jomo Keny­at­ta was jailed for par­tic­i­pat­ing in its actions, his­to­ri­ans have dis­put­ed the extent and sig­nif­i­cance of his role in the upris­ing, and instead con­cen­trate on the sin­gu­lar­i­ty of a move­ment com­posed of and led by peas­ants, many of them illit­er­ate. That the guer­ril­las referred to them­selves as the Land and Free­dom Army may res­onate with the vocab­u­lary of rad­i­cal groups in late 19th-cen­tu­ry Rus­sia and anti-fas­cist com­bat­ants the Span­ish Civ­il War, but must be regard­ed as local­ly invent­ed, and acclaimed for join­ing the ful­fil­ment of present mate­r­i­al needs – Land – with antic­i­pa­tion of a future with­out oppres­sion – Free­dom.

VP: What about forms of inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty com­ing out of oth­er tra­di­tions of rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics and analy­sis, or from artists and authors? The Span­ish Civ­il War has regained its actu­al­i­ty in the present moment, for starters.

It’s true, I have focused on the bonds forged between colo­nial insur­gents and met­ro­pol­i­tan Marx­ists. This has for some time been chal­lenged for exclud­ing the role of anar­cho-syn­di­cal­ism in anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gles. A recent col­lec­tion Anar­chism and Syn­di­cal­ism in the Colo­nial and Post­colo­nial World, 1870–1940: The Prax­is of Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion, Inter­na­tion­al­ism, and Social Rev­o­lu­tion cen­ters on those rev­o­lu­tion­ary anar­chists and syn­di­cal­ists who envis­aged the “com­plet­ed and real eman­ci­pa­tion of all work­ers, not only in some but in all nations, ‘devel­oped’ and ‘unde­vel­oped.’”11 In a pref­ace, Bene­dict Ander­son, long an expo­nent of this posi­tion, allows that the ide­ol­o­gy of anar­cho-syn­di­cal­ism could not match Marx’s “tow­er­ing the­o­ret­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions,” but holds that it reveals itself as more seri­ous­ly inter­na­tion­al­ist than its Marx­ist com­peti­tor.12

Draw­ing on empir­i­cal evi­dence, Ander­son traces how anar­cho-syn­di­cal­ist ideas were car­ried by “the huge waves of migra­tion out of Europe” dur­ing the 40 years before World War I: “Ital­ians, Spaniards, Por­tuguese, Poles, Jews and so on poured into the New World, round the Mediter­ranean, and into the empires being cre­at­ed by the Euro­peans in Asia and Africa.” Such cross­ing of state bor­ders enabled activists to par­tic­i­pate in polit­i­cal agi­ta­tion and orga­ni­za­tion on non-Euro­pean ter­rains: for exam­ple, Ital­ian work­ers recruit­ed for the gigan­tic con­struc­tion of the Suez Canal brought anar­chism to Egypt, attempt­ed to unite for­eign and local labor in trade union mil­i­tan­cy, led strikes, and par­tic­i­pat­ed in launch­ing a com­mu­nist par­ty. “Syn­di­cal­ism showed up in the oil-fields along the Caribbean coast and in the largest urban con­glom­er­a­tion,” this part­ly due to close ties with the syn­di­cal­ist Wob­blies – the Inter­na­tion­al Work­ers of the World – whose mem­ber­ship includ­ed a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of native Span­ish-speak­ers and well as bilin­gual Ang­los from the Amer­i­can bor­der states between Cal­i­for­nia and Texas. Well before any oth­er polit­i­cal group, Ander­son claims, the anar­cho-syn­di­cal­ists made deter­mined efforts to reach out to, and cre­ate sol­i­dar­i­ty, with the indige­nous pop­u­la­tions.

For Ander­son, the col­lec­tion uncov­ers “some­thing tru­ly amaz­ing – young Chi­nese, anar­chists and not, join­ing the Repub­lic of Spain’s strug­gle on the oth­er side of the world.” This war, rec­og­nized as the supreme enact­ment of an inter­na­tion­al fight against fas­cism, has been sub­ject to com­pet­ing eval­u­a­tions with­in the Left. Con­sid­er first Per­ry Anderson’s dys­pep­tic view of

the arrest­ing phe­nom­e­non, with­out equiv­a­lent before or since, of an inter­na­tion­al­ism equal­ly deep and deformed, at once reject­ing any loy­al­ty to its own coun­try and dis­play­ing a lim­it­less loy­al­ty to anoth­er state. Its epic was played out by the Inter­na­tion­al Brigades of the Span­ish Civ­il War, shad­owed by Com­intern emis­saries … recruit­ed from across all Europe and the Amer­i­c­as. With its mix­ture of hero­ism and cyn­i­cism, self­less sol­i­dar­i­ty and mur­der­ous ter­ror, this was an inter­na­tion­al­ism per­fect­ed and per­vert­ed as nev­er before.13

I don’t think there’s much to dis­agree with here. But mut­ed is the spir­it of times which attract­ed vol­un­teers orga­nized in Brigades from Europe, the British Isles, Ire­land, and the Unit­ed States – the Lin­coln Brigade includ­ed African- Amer­i­cans – as well as indi­vid­u­als who were not rep­re­sen­ta­tives of their coun­try of habi­ta­tion, many of them Jews, from Moroc­co, Alge­ria, Libya, Syr­ia, Iran, Iraq; from Chi­na; Japan, India, Mex­i­co, the Philip­pines, Cuba, Puer­to Rico, Chile, Argenti­na, Bolivia, and India (Mulk Raj Anand enlist­ed in the large­ly Com­intern-run Inter­na­tion­al Brigade).

The con­flict and the defeat of the anti-fas­cist forces inspired Picasso’s Guer­ni­ca and The Weep­ing Woman, Miro’s Reaper, as well as numer­ous paint­ings by renowned and for­got­ten British artists – suf­fi­cient to have prompt­ed a 2015 exhi­bi­tion British Artists and the Span­ish Civ­il War. It was wit­nessed in the icon­ic images of Ger­da Taro, David Sey­mour, and Robert Capa, as well as in many anony­mous pho­tographs; it pro­duced thou­sands of posters, many a styl­is­tic homage to the con­struc­tivists of the Sovi­et avant-garde art. The war was fic­tion­al­ized, most famous­ly in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, report­ed on by Martha Gell­horn and George Orwell, and cel­e­brat­ed in poet­ry and song where fideli­ty to a future com­mon­wealth dis­places attach­ment to an actu­al native land.

Also sub­dued in Anderson’s sum­ma­tion is the place this anti-fas­cist strug­gle con­tin­ues to hold in the rad­i­cal imag­i­na­tion: in Robert Motherwell’s series of paint­ings Ele­gies to the Span­ish Repub­lic, begun in 1940 and con­tin­ued for decades after; in exhi­bi­tions and muse­um col­lec­tions of pho­tos and posters; in anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tions of the found­ing of the Brigades, in the fic­tion of Rober­to Bolaño, Javier Cer­cas, Jose Sara­m­a­go, and Anto­nio Tabuc­chi; in com­mem­o­ra­tions of Lor­ca; in a film haunt­ed by the event, Pan’s Labyrinth; and in anoth­er where it is in the fore­ground: Ken Loach’s Land and Free­dom, which replays the Comintern’s treach­ery towards Trot­sky­ists in the Work­ers’ Par­ty of Marx­ist Unification/POUM and the anar­chist mili­tia, with­out tar­nish­ing images of the fight­ers’ polit­i­cal integri­ty, courage, and vision­ary hori­zons.

VP: By call­ing on these exam­ples, isn’t there a dan­ger of falling back into a nos­tal­gia for a bygone era of polit­i­cal activ­i­ty? Are there any prospects for inter­na­tion­al­ism in prac­tice today? How might con­tem­po­rary activists nav­i­gate this rela­tion­ship to past move­ments and uncov­er poten­tial resources?

It is easy to look back to exem­plary instances of inter­na­tion­al­ist strug­gles, as I have done. The ques­tion of such forms of resis­tance now requires more knowl­edge than I have of the actu­al and incip­i­ent oppo­si­tion­al forces amongst the many con­stituen­cies world­wide who remain sub­ject to capitalism’s oppres­sions and exploita­tion – for exam­ple, whether and where a pro­le­tari­at has been formed or is com­ing into being. All the same, the prospect of an inter­na­tion­al body encom­pass­ing local and region­al orga­ni­za­tions should be con­sid­ered, and this pre­sup­pos­es a will­ing­ness to exam­ine the egre­gious con­duct and con­se­quences of for­mer Com­mu­nist Par­ties and Inter­na­tion­als, and to address what future con­fig­u­ra­tions this might take on. But again, these forms can­not be pre­dict­ed or worked out in advanced. There have been a com­pa­ny of thinkers with­in the Marx­ist tra­di­tion who invoke the prospect of social for­ma­tions beyond the nation, inti­mat­ing that internationalism’s fruition will sig­nal its own dis­so­lu­tion in the emer­gence of class­less and state­less poli­ties, with­out any nation­al con­no­ta­tion, this con­di­tion being the ante-room to an open-end­ed future with dreams and desires beyond those real­ized by the new dis­pen­sa­tion.

Here again, Michael Löwy’s work has been par­tic­u­lar­ly gen­er­a­tive for think­ing about types of polit­i­cal nos­tal­gia, and for map­ping unex­pect­ed genealo­gies of rev­o­lu­tion­ary prac­tice. In his essay “Marx­ism and Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Roman­ti­cism,” for instance, he traces a recur­rent strand with­in Marx­ism of “look­ing back” at ear­li­er com­mu­nist soci­eties, begin­ning with Marx and Engels who pre­sent­ed “the prob­lem­at­ic of the union between the pre-cap­i­tal­ist past and the social­ist future medi­at­ed by the rejec­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist present,” and extend­ing to Rosa Luxemburg’s appre­ci­a­tion of the prim­i­tive com­mu­ni­ty and Mariategui’s affir­ma­tive ret­ro­spect on pre-Columbian Incan com­mu­nism.14

Löwy goes on to exam­ine Gyor­gy Lukács’s essay on Dos­toyevsky as “a par­tic­u­lar­ly bril­liant and pen­e­trat­ing analy­sis of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary dimen­sion of Roman­tic ant­i­cap­i­tal­ism,” cit­ing Lukács’s words about “a revolt against the moral and spir­i­tu­al defor­ma­tion of man that results from the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism” – such degra­da­tion is to be coun­tered by “the nos­tal­gia for … the Gold­en Age of the past that lights the road toward the future.”15 For Löwy, dis­il­lu­sioned by all hith­er­to attempts at social­ist states, it is imper­a­tive that we redis­cov­er “the roman­tic-rev­o­lu­tion­ary dimen­sion of Marx­ism,” and enrich “the social­ist per­spec­tive of the future with the lost her­itage of the pre-cap­i­tal­ist past, with the pre­cious trea­sure of com­mu­nal, eth­i­cal and social qual­i­ta­tive val­ues, sub­merged since the advent of cap­i­tal­ism in the ‘glacial waters of ego­ist cal­cu­la­tion.’”16

Löwy speaks in emo­tive lan­guage of the igno­minies and dis­con­tents of exis­tence under cap­i­tal­ism, and not of an onto­log­i­cal human con­di­tion – just as when Chekhov is report­ed as say­ing, “You live bad­ly, my friends. It is shame­ful to live like that,” he was allud­ing to a way of life soon to be over­turned by rev­o­lu­tion, and not to some invari­ant sit­u­a­tion afflict­ing all of human­i­ty at all times.

VP: This is an impor­tant strand of Marx­ism, since it artic­u­lat­ed the plur­al, non-simul­ta­ne­ous tem­po­ral­i­ties of his­to­ry, and sought to reac­ti­vate missed encoun­ters and path­ways not tak­en at cer­tain polit­i­cal junc­tures. Are there oth­er thinkers in this con­nec­tion, who might not be the first names that come to mind as ref­er­ence points for a renewed anti-impe­ri­al­ism?

I find Ernst Bloch and Wal­ter Ben­jamin to be crit­i­cal sources for think­ing about how the recov­ery of lost her­itages can serve to har­ness pre-cap­i­tal­ist social for­ma­tions and val­ues to the present project of anti-impe­ri­al­ist trans­for­ma­tion, one that – in Bloch’s lan­guage antic­i­pates – the future as the unclosed space for new devel­op­ment.

Of course, the quest for gold­en ages is beset with dan­gers, and Bloch him­self has exposed the fas­cist appro­pri­a­tion of anti-cap­i­tal­ist rhetoric and utopi­an imagery in the cause of reviv­ing long­stand­ing pop­u­lar forms of “mys­ti­cal” and “irra­tional” protests against the repres­sions of indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism.17 As a result, he insists that only an activist, refunc­tion­ing approach to the ideas which appear in the past can trans­form these into a liv­ing source for rev­o­lu­tion­ary action direct­ed towards the achieve­ment of an ame­lio­rat­ed future. Bloch pow­er­ful­ly frames Marx’s break­through was to wed utopi­an visions to a con­crete, sci­en­tif­ic analy­sis of the dynam­ics of cap­i­tal­ism and class strug­gle; and in unveil­ing how traces of the future are vis­i­ble in what was inher­it­ed from the unful­filled past, he fore­sees the redemp­tion of age-old suf­fer­ings, tragedies, fail­ures, and unre­al­ized hopes in a world with­out exploita­tion, dom­i­na­tion, or hier­ar­chy, a place where we had nev­er yet been and would feel at home. Although some­times read as escha­to­log­i­cal, Bloch’s vision of the future as end open­ing up end­less new pos­si­bil­i­ties, and is worth read­ing close­ly:

it is only since Marx that the past has not only been brought into the present and the lat­ter again into the con­tem­plat­ed past, but both have been brought to the hori­zon of the future … that is of an antic­i­pa­to­ry kind which by no means coin­cides with abstract Utopi­an dreami­ness, nor is direct­ed by the imma­tu­ri­ty of mere­ly abstract Utopi­an social­ism. The very pow­er and truth of Marx­ism con­sists in the fact that it has dri­ven the cloud in our dreams fur­ther for­ward, but has not extin­guished the pil­lar of fire in those dreams, rather strength­ened it with con­crete­ness.18

Ben­jamin shared with Bloch the belief that there must be an absolute nega­tion of the exist­ing social order, and that the class­less soci­ety at the dawn of his­to­ry is the mod­el of an authen­tic human com­mu­ni­ty still to come. But there is also the sense that the past was also a place of oppres­sion, sor­row, and unful­filled hopes, to be redeemed by the “aveng­ing class” … “heirs” of “enslaved fore­bears” who, not con­tent with being the sav­ior of future gen­er­a­tions, will car­ry out “the work of eman­ci­pa­tion in the name of gen­er­a­tions of down­trod­den to its con­clu­sion.”19


  1. Daniel Ben­saïd, “The­ses of Resis­tance,” Inter­na­tion­al View­point, no.362 (Decem­ber 2004). 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. Leon Trot­sky, His­to­ry of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion (Lon­don: Plu­to, 1977), 432. 

  4. Neil David­son, “Putting the Nation Back into ‘the Inter­na­tion­al,’” Cam­bridge Review of Inter­na­tion­al Affairs 22, no. 1 (2009): 9-28. 

  5. Michael Roberts, “Impe­ri­al­ism and super exploita­tion,” July 16, 2016. For Smith’s book, see John Smith, Impe­ri­al­ism in the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 2016). 

  6. Tim­o­thy Bren­nan, “Poets of Com­modi­ties,” talk deliv­ered 2016; to appear. 

  7. Isabel Hofmeyr, “The Com­pli­cat­ing Sea: Indi­an Ocean as Method,” Com­par­a­tive Stud­ies of South Asia, Africa and the Mid­dle East 32, no. 3 (2012): 584-90. 

  8. Che Gue­vara, “Mes­sage to the Tri­con­ti­nen­tal (1967),” in Guer­ril­la War­fare (Lin­coln: Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Press, 1985), 209. 

  9. José Car­los Mar­iátegui, “Anti-Impe­ri­al­ist View­point,” trans. Michael Pearl­man, pre­sen­ta­tion giv­en at the First Latin Amer­i­can Com­mu­nist Con­fer­ence, 1929. 

  10. Vóz da Guiné Bis­sau, August 10 1974, cit­ed in Basil David­son, “African His­to­ry With­out Africans,” Lon­don Review of Books 21, no. 4 (Feb­ru­ary 1999): 27-28. 

  11. Anar­chism and Syn­di­cal­ism in the Colo­nial and Post­colo­nial World, 1870–1940: The Prax­is of Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion, Inter­na­tion­al­ism, and Social Rev­o­lu­tion, ed. Steven Hirsch and Lucien van der Walt (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2010). 

  12. See in par­tic­u­lar Bene­dict Ander­son, Under Three Flags: Anar­chism and the Anti-colo­nial Imag­i­na­tion, (Lon­don: Ver­so, 2008). 

  13. Per­ry Ander­son, “Inter­na­tion­al­ism: A Bre­viary,” New Left Review II, no. 14 (March–April 2002): 5-25. 

  14. Michael Löwy, “Marx­ism and Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Roman­ti­cism,” in On Chang­ing the World: Essays in Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy from Karl Marx to Wal­ter Ben­jamin (Chica­go: Hay­mar­ket Books, 2013), 7. 

  15. Ibid., 11. 

  16. Ibid., 13. 

  17. See Ernst Bloch, “Non­syn­chro­nism and the Oblig­a­tion to Its Dialec­tics,” trans. Mark Rit­ter, New Ger­man Cri­tique, no. 11 (Spring 1977): 22-38. 

  18. Ernst Bloch, The Prin­ci­ple of Hope, 3 vols., trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, Paul Knight (Cam­bridge: MIT Press, 1986), 884. 

  19. Wal­ter Ben­jamin, “The­ses on the Phi­los­o­phy of His­to­ry,” in Illu­mi­na­tions, ed. Han­nah Arendt, trans. Har­ry Zohn (New York: Schock­en Books, 1968), 253-64. 

Author of the article

is Professor Emeritus in English and Comparative Literary Studies at University of Warwick and author of Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique.