from Michael Löwy, Fatherland or Mother Earth?, IIRE/Pluto Press, 1998




What happened to socialist internationalism in the 20th century?


August 1914 brought a catastrophic breakdown of internationalism, when the great majority of the socialist labour movement (leadership as well as rank and file) was engulfed by the immense wave of nationalist (and chauvinist) hysteria, in the name of 'national defence'. However, this was not to be the end of internationalism, but the beginning of a new internationalist upsurge in the socialist movement, at first limited to small circles of revolutionaries or pacifists, and then, after October 1917, growing into an impressive mass movement: the Communist International. The existence of the Comintern, a world movement genuinely committed to proletarian internationalism (at least during its first years), is a powerful historical proof that the international solidarity of the exploited is not just a utopia, an abstract principle, but that in given circumstances it can have mass appeal among workers and other exploited social layers. In several key European and 'colonial' countries, the Third International soon rallied the majority of the organised labour movement, invalidating the conservative myth that the great masses of the working people cannot transcend nationalist ideology.


This is decisive evidence that internationalism—and revolutionary class consciousness in general—is an objective possibility, based on reality and its contradictions. Of course, its concrete implementation depends on historical circumstances and on a political battle of the revolutionary forces to win the people and liberate them from the blinkers of nationalism. In other words: Marxist internationalism—as well as the hope of revolution—is based not only on an objective analysis of world economy and world politics, but also on a historical wager: a wager on the rationality of the working people, on the capacity of the popular masses to understand, sooner or later, their objective historical interests.


However, this extraordinary upsurge of internationalist faith and action—without precedent in the past history of socialism—the incredible capital of internationalist energy and commitment represented by the Communist International was wasted by Stalinism. It channelled this energy in the service of bureaucratic nationalism, its state policy and its power strategy. Internationalism became the handmaid of Soviet diplomacy and the world communist movement an instrument to help build 'socialism in one country'. The most obvious example is the policy of the Comintern towards German Nazism, from 1928 until its dissolution in 1943: its strange turns and about-faces had little to do with the life-and-death interests of European workers and peoples, but were exclusively determined by changing Soviet diplomatic and military alliances.


Nevertheless, during the '30s Europe saw the most impressive example of internationalist practice: the International Brigades in Spain and the general mobilisation in solidarity with the anti-fascist struggle during the Spanish Civil War. Tens of thousands of volunteers—communists, socialists, anarchists, Trotskyists, independent Marxists, radicalised liberals and anti-fascists of various tendencies—from dozens of nationalities came from all over the world in order to help the Spanish people in its desperate war against fascism. Thanks to Hitler and Mussolini's help to Franco (and the so-called 'non-interventionist' policy of the Western democracies) this war was lost, but the fight of the International Brigades—many of whose volunteers fell on the battle-field—remains one of the highest manifestations of internationalism in our century.


After (and also during) the Second World War nationalism became the dominant ideology again—even among the 'really existing socialist countries', who engaged in a process of nationalist confrontation (USSR vs. China) or war (China vs. Vietnam). What remained as 'internationalism' in the world Communist movement after the dissolution of the Comintern was only blind fidelity to the Soviet Union and its leadership (now vanished). The only exceptions were small revolutionary tendencies, among them the Fourth International, who remained committed to the original internationalist aims of the Comintern, but their influence was limited. This decline in communist internationalism left an ideological void which very quickly was to be filled by nationalism. 


While the old internationalism identified with the Soviet Union is dead, there are new forms of internationalist solidarity which are emerging in our times. The '60s already produced a big and unexpected wave of internationalism among the younger generation, taking the form of anti-war movements, solidarity with Third World revolutions and the rejection of nationalist chauvinism. The French May '68 saw hundreds of young people chanting 'Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands'('We are all German Jews'): a slogan which expressed this spontaneous and massive internationalist feeling.


Today a new internationalist culture is in the making. In the Third World it results from the convergence hetween a new Marxist Left—which rejects the disastrous Stalinist tradition of blind allegiance to a 'socialist fatherland' (USSR, China, Albania, etc.)—and Christian socialists linked to liberation theology. The catholic—in the sense of international—character of religion has entered, thanks to liberation theology, into a relationship of elective affinity with Marxist internationalism. Whatever the limits of their international outlook, Sandinismo in Nicaragua and the Brazilian Workers Party have been examples of this.


Among the new generation, this new internationalist culture in process of constitution is the product of various components, which combine and fuse with each other in various proportions:


1. What remained from the older socialist tradition of proletarian and revolutionary internationalism—kept alive among left socialists, critical communists, anarchists and in such organisations as the Fourth International—and from the New Left culture of the '60s.


2. Ecology, whose struggle to protect Nature and 'Mother Earth' from destructive 'progress', industrial waste and ecological disaster knows no borders and relates to a common interest of all humankind.


3. Anti-racism, a spontaneous movement of solidarity with the (African, Arab, Asian or Turkish) immigrant population, rejecting the nationalist/racist logic of exclusion. One of the most important issues raised by this movement (particularly in France) is the separation between nationality and citizenship: all inhabitants living in a country should be considered citizens (with the right of vote) independently of their nationality.


4. Feminism, which subverts the traditional patriarchal culture of aggressive nationalism, 'male' military virtues and 'heroic' patriotic violence. If there is an elective affinity between patriarchy and the reactionary cult of the imperial 'fatherland', there is also a similar link between feminist politics and culture and the ecologist defence of 'Mother Earth'.[i]


5. Sympathy and solidarity with the struggles of Third World people to liberate themselves from imperialist oppression, native dictatorships, hunger and misery. Although less political than the anti-imperialist movements of the '60s, this current—today frequently composed of radicalised Christian activists—is genuinely committed to internationalist solidarity.


6. Other social movements—such as human rights organisations, movements of gays and lesbians, Christian socialist networks, etc.—who have been establishing strong internationalist links in recent years.


An objective factor contributing to the rise of internationalist tendencies in Europe is of course the development of the European Union, which renders many old nationalist quarrels (France vs. Germany) increasingly obsolete and creates favourable conditions for common European social struggles: for instance the trade-union fight for a 35-hour week. However, in the short range, the so-called 'objective economic constraints' of the international environment and in particular of the EU have been used as one of the main arguments of social-democratic governments in Europeto justify the lack of any radical social measures on the national level. The well-known socialist historian Daniel Singer answered this kind of self-legitimating discourse very accurately by pointing to the present dialectics between national and international change:


The fact that the medium sized nation-state is historically doomed in its present form does not mean that it does not provide for the time being the first  platform for social transformation. Indeed, it still provides the only possible initial terrain. To deny it is to oppose the very idea of radical change. The question must still first be put within national borders even if the answers are already international, European to begin with.... Similarly, only a western Europe forging a different type of society stands a chance of preventing our future from being American. The growing economic interdependence, the inevitability of a rapid expansion of the movement from a national to a European scale does not condemn individual countries, as it is being suggested, to permanent submission to the rule of capital. It simply condemns a socialist movement, however deep its national roots, to internationalism.[ii]


It is too soon to predict if these various ingredients will be able to combine harmoniously and if the new internationalist culture will unfold as a unified mass movement in Europe (or the world). But it may be that these are the modest beginnings of what will be the socialist internationalism of the 21st century.


[i] By the way: Mother Earth was the name of an internationalist journal founded in the US before World War I by the well-known anarchist leader Emma Goldmann.

[ii] Daniel Singer, 'Radical change and Europe's nation state', paper presented at the 1987 Cavtat Conference (Yugoslavia) on Socialism, Nations, International Cooperation, p. 10.