Ethan Young

Internationalism in the 21st Century

Internationalism in the 21st Century
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A supporter of the National League for Democracy gives a three-finger salute at an anti-coup protest in Yangon, Myanmar on February 8, 2021. By သူထွန်း  via Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0.

By Ethan Young

What is internationalism today? Since my high school years at the end of the 1960s, I’ve seen proletarian internationalism as an actual force in the world, the historic response to imperialism and racism. Fred Hampton, martyred leader of the Black Panthers in Chicago, made it a major theme. Today, the structure and consequences of imperialism have shifted, and so have the ownership and production relations that shape the international proletariat. We need to see where these shifts could take the cause of solidarity with exploited humanity.

From the internationalist perspective, war is always a primary danger. U.S. imperialists continue to spread bloodshed and exploitation, but there have been crucial changes that need more analysis and discussion. Much of the Left and the peace movement are chewing over old bones in trying to meet this challenge. Some want to replay the Cold War by obsessing about U.S. control behind every contradiction everywhere. But since neoliberalism began to run aground after the 2008 crash, the role of the U.S. in world imperialism has itself shifted. From Mexico to South Korea, Yankee leverage is not as strongly assured, despite the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

We should also realize that the power of U.S. intelligence has been greatly reduced, due to its own weaknesses. Once upon a time, the CIA could make and break governments, from Italy to Indonesia. Their mission was to maintain U.S. hegemony against the spread of Communism, their fixation.  They virtually installed the Shah of Iran, but “intelligence” was clearly lacking when he was swept out of power right under their noses.

Militarism and anti-militarism

Starting with the mass rejection of the Vietnam War, peace has been understood by the Left as non- or anti-intervention. In this century we find ourselves more in the position of the socialist movement circa World War I—anti-militarism. This was expressed at the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference, antiwar socialists taking stock of the role of capitalist militarism in “the Great War”:

Exploited, disfranchised, scorned, they called you brothers and comrades at the outbreak of the war when you were to be led to the slaughter, to death. And now that militarism has crippled you, mutilated you, degraded and annihilated you, the rulers demand that you surrender your interests, your aims, your ideals – in a word, servile subordination to civil peace. They rob you of the possibility of expressing your views, your feelings, your pains; they prohibit you from raising your demands and defending them. The press gagged, political rights and liberties trod upon – this is the way the  military dictatorship rules today with an iron hand.

Sound familiar?

Militarism can be broadly defined as glorification of war-making. Anti-militarism includes resistance to military service, military spending, militarization of police, the use of armed forces as world and domestic super-police, and the cultural impact of encouraging violence and toxic masculinity. Throughout history, militarism was founded on racist myths about “the other,” which continue to fuel hostility towards Muslims, Arabs and Asians generally.

The U.S. has been the world center of militarism, as well as of imperialism, since World War II. We have a cult of the military. But the lessons of the Vietnam War are far from forgotten, under the surface. Wars do not just happen; the military is the engorged tick on the body politic. This is widely understood by victims of war. While political opposition to the Pentagon, its schemes, and its unfathomable expenditures, is still latent, it is potentially potent.

Military rule is the most brutal and antidemocratic force today—as shown by the coups in numerous countries, some backed by Washington, some not. This is an international issue linking the demands for peace and democracy.

It is no accident that two revolutionary situations emerging right now, in Sudan and Myanmar, are the scenes of recent military takeovers. In both countries the military rulers are nearly universally despised, and broad fronts of popular forces are forming armed revolutionary units. Neither of these juntas were promoted by the US. That should not keep us from learning as much as we can about these inspiring battles for democracy.

The Left is struggling to distinguish between 20th-century fascism and the current trends of “right-wing populism,” “corruption” (a target of Biden’s recent Summit on Democracy), “authoritarianism” and “surveillance state.” The fight against forms of quasi-fascism is distinct, but also connected to the war threat, through opposition to militarism. From the 1920s through World War II, the united front against war and fascism framed the strategy for anti-capitalists of various stripes.

Democracy and the global left

The domestic issues raised internationally are real, from privacy to clean government, from human rights to exposing demagogic, conspiracist culture. They can’t be written off as less important for being reformist. People are responding to these all over, in many different ways—even apart from the ever-present terrors of climate destruction and pandemics. Since 2016, we see a growing acceptance of socialism as an alternative to a rotten system. But the mass movements emerging around the world are about reform more than revolution, and even in cases of violent ferment, the goal is still democracy as the movements would define it.

There is an uptick in the number of elected Left governments, and it’s a great thing. But parties no longer set the full agenda or run the action. That goes for any party in or out of power, even the most formidable. To try to reverse that situation would be nuts. Parties have useful roles to play, but when their agendas dominate absolutely, by any means necessary as is the case in China, democracy suffers, organization suffers, and ultimately solidarity becomes its opposite.

Our goal should remain proletarian internationalism, but based on recognizing the actual form of today’s global Left. After the old Cold War, at the waning of neoliberalism, the world Left is emerging in the 21st century in the form of mass democratic political action, inside or outside the state. It is not ‘the party’ or a camp of states. It will not become an unquestioning ‘amen corner’ for the states targeted by Washington and company. Nor will it write off efforts by states to ‘de-link’ from imperialism, such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

The emerging Left’s objective is not just survival, or somehow having the last word. It advocates “all power to the people,” consciously organized and won in the course of taking on the crisis—locally, nationally, regionally and globally. Solidarity on that level is the internationalism the world needs.

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  • Carl A Davidson
    Carl A Davidson January 15, 2022 at 11:42 am

    This is a good accounting of the left’s responsibility in practicing solidarity and opposing war. So thanks, Ethan. I would have added one point, the ongoing importance for the left, and progressive forces more widely, to make good use of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, now embedded in the UN charter as well. Most countries and peace movements make good use of them in holding ‘great powers’ at bay a bit. The one country where the government has the greatest difficulty upholding them is our own, which is a message to us all on why they matter for the left and democratic forces far beyond its reach as well. I doubt we’ll see a government with an anti-imperialist foreign policy here, although it’s a worthy goal. But we can make use of the UN Charter, and the Five Principles within it, as a point of pressure to curb future wars and other forms of hegemonism.

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