What does internationalism really mean?

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What does internationalism really mean?


Yohann Koshy looks back at the golden age of solidarity between Global South states and asks: what should a new internationalism look like?

If you are interested in the meaning of internationalism in the second half of the 20th century, look at Algiers. Algeria won independence from the French in 1962 after a terrible eight-year war. Then it welcomed those who supported the war from abroad. The new government started an ‘open-door policy of aid to the oppressed’. Elaine Mokhtefi writes in Algiers, Third World Capital that it invited ‘liberation and opposition movements and people from around the world’ to its capital city. Algiers became a centre for Black Panthers, Palestinian guerrillas, exiled politicians from Latin America and southern Europe, liberation movements in South Africa, Ethiopia, and what is now Namibia, and even those fighting for an independent Québec. Amílcar Cabral was a Bissau-Guinean revolutionary. He said: ‘Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca, Christians to the Vatican, and the national liberation movements to Algiers.’

The Third World

Mokhtefi worked to help communication between the Black Panthers and the Algerian government. She was a friend of Eldridge Cleaver, the Panther leader, and translated from French into English for him. She helped the Black Panthers start their first and only overseas office. Mokhtefi grew up in the Great Depression in the United States. She left the United States to escape McCarthyism, and came to Algeria via France. She spoke to me on the telephone from New York, where she now lives. She said, ‘Being international was a way of being political, finding out what was happening abroad, taking advantage of opportunities.’

The time after the Second World War was full of hope for global co-operation. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed in 1948. The human rights were transnational. Garry Davis was a former B-14 bomber pilot. He gave up his US citizenship and started giving out world citizen passports. Albert Einstein and, later, Martin Luther King supported the World Federalist Movement. It wanted a global government that was more democratic than the UN. Nations who were escaping colonialism supported each other.

‘Internationalism was the spirit of the time,’ Mokhtefi tells me. And Algiers was just one part of the new spirit which represented the Third World. Vijay Prashad says the Third World was not a place, but a political idea. Its history comes from conferences, beginning with the Bandung Conference in 1955. Here, representatives of over half of the world’s population, including Indonesia’s Sukarno, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, China’s Zhou Enlai and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser joined together.

The message was clear: the ‘darker nations’ were no longer toys for the colonizers. There were big differences in ideas between the Bandung states. There were anti-communist governments in the Philippines and Turkey, who were happy to sign agreements with Western countries. There was Mao’s China, then not recognized by the US. But they were victims of colonialism and imperialism: a world system where the rich countries were in control.

The Bandung Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement meetings showed that internationalism was necessary after colonialism. Nations shared resources to find their voice in the world. The economy was most important to escape the rich world’s control of credit and technology, and the new institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Third World formed United Nations Committee on Trade and Development, and G77 (a group of 77 developing nations) in 1964. By the 1970s, the calls for a ‘New International Economic Order’ were louder. The first issue of New Internationalist, published in 1973, wrote that ‘changes in the policies of the rich world are… essential to win the world poverty war’. Mexican President Luis Echeverria had three demands: 1) the right of every nation to control its natural resources; 2) the control of foreign companies by the home country’s rules; 3) the transfer of technology from rich to poor countries. Western Europe, the US and Japan were not happy with these demands.

By the time of the North-South Summit in 1981, when there was talk of United Nations control of the IMF, they knew there was a need for action. US President Ronald Reagan made it clear that there was to be no ‘big international bureaucracy… in charge’ of the world economy. In the end neoliberalism ended the dreams of a New International Economic Order.

In Algeria things were bad. ‘There were times when I watched Algeria become very nationalistic,’ Mokhtefi says. Like other Third World movements that took power suddenly with leaders with little experience, the Algerian state became authoritarian. Poor governance made it impossible for important social change and a workers’ democracy. The head of the army, Houari Boumedienne, led a military coup in 1965. The Black Panthers did important work in the US, for example, free breakfast programmes in poor black neighbourhoods. But internal politics made things difficult for the Algiers office of the Black Panthers.

Cleaver’s hatred of women and machismo controlled the situation. One day he told Mokhtefi that he murdered a comrade for sleeping with his wife. A few stories about black radicals stealing aeroplanes tested the Algerians’ patience. By the 1990s, the Panthers were finished. And the South woke from the dream of Third World internationalism.

Today’s world

Internationalism has always had different forms. Some think it means globalization. Others think it means co-operation. And, after the Cold War, it simply meant the United States’ military power in Eurasia, the former Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, etc. For the Left, internationalism is part of a revolutionary, working-class, and anti-imperialist idea.

It is strange but this type of internationalism is often best when it works together with nationalism. The internationalists of the 19th century, like Giuseppe Garibaldi, fought for national republics against the aristocracy. The Second International was a group of global socialist parties that lasted from 1889 to 1916. It was a group of national parties that fought national elections.

The Bandung states used what we can call anti-nationalist nationalisms. They saw national sovereignty as a form of self-protection and understood the importance of co-operating with other states from the Global South.

There are examples of this type of nation-building today. In Rojava in northern Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units have inspired volunteers from across the world to fight and die for their democratic, feminist, socialist politics, against the Turkish and ISIS. It is the closest we have come to the internationalism of the people who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

But these examples are rare. And nationalism, even a progressive internationalism, so often moves towards reactionary politics. The Second International failed because most of its member parties welcomed the patriotism of the First World War. The 1978-89 wars in southeast Asia started when Vietnam invaded and occupied Cambodia. They showed that a blind national interest could corrupt those who supported South-to-South solidarity.

So, what form could internationalism take today? One possible answer is a project from 2018, the Progressive International. Former Greek finance minister and economics professor Yanis Varoufakis started the Progressive International, with the support of US Senator Bernie Sanders. The Progressive International asks the Left to oppose the ‘Nationalist International’ formed by ‘Viktor Orbán in the North and Jair Bolsonaro in the South, Rodrigo Duterte in the East, and Donald Trump in the West’.

These new nationalisms are thoughtful about the situation after the 2008 global economy. They win support by appealing to ‘geographic origin and citizenship’, saying that their people are citizens of somewhere. It is an easy and effective plan. The Progressive International’s founders note that there are internationalist activists and politicians on the Left, but regret that they have very little interest in the ‘big international institutions like the World Bank and UN that have so much power to change the world’.

David Adler is a writer and researcher who is working with Varoufakis. He tells me ‘The goals of the Progressive International are to open thinking on how to reshape the world order.’ The project is valuable partly because one of its aims is an international Green New Deal. Climate change is our new enemy, like colonialism before it, which can start a new internationalism.

But the Progressive International is perhaps making a mistake when it focuses on institutions like the IMF and World Bank. This century, the centre is moving from Washington to Beijing. And China has little interest in reforming US multilateral institutions. It already has its own. In 2010, Chinese state-controlled banks lent more to the Global South than the World Bank did. The nations that once called themselves the Third World see Beijing as a more reliable development partner. It may of course start new forms of colonialism, for example, when in 2017 China took a seaport it built for Sri Lanka, which could not pay its debts.

It is important when forming new internationalist organizations to remind Europe’s ‘internationalists’ about their ideals. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Insoumise in France, and the German democratic socialists Die Linke, have not been internationalist about migration.

For example, Mélenchon’s left movement stops at the borders. He does not welcome migrants. He says they are ‘stealing the bread’ of French workers but when he is more positive, he speaks against the conditions that force them to move, saying ‘people do not leave for pleasure’.

Corbyn’s party does better, but it has not defended the free movement of people as part of a Labour government after Brexit. But Remainers, who voted to stay in the EU, often have a too positive idea of what free movement is in the EU. In fact, European migrants can only stay in host countries for longer than three months if they have a job, or they can prove they ‘won’t become a problem for the social services’. Europe is worse when it comes to non-EU citizens, for example, it returns migrants to the dangerous situation in Libya.

Moral leadership has come from individuals, small groups, and towns. For example, the French farmer Cédric Herrou, arrested for helping migrants through the Alps, Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo ordered local offices not to follow anti-migrant policies from the government, the help from the UK to the so-called ‘Jungle’ in Calais, and the Italian activists and German NGO Seawatch took a ship to the Mediterranean to rescue migrants.

It is clear that we need to put migrants at the centre of today’s internationalism. And, Adler tells me, ‘Domestically, migrants suffer terrible labour conditions but so often they bring political change.’ Migrants are at the head of campaigns – over housing, work, and the right to a good life. And their actions improve life for every¬one.

Richard Seymour is a political analyst and he asks, ‘Historically, how was the Left in Britain built?’ ‘The Chartist movement was built in part by migrants, by Irish workers… and black South African migrants helped build a big part of the Left in the fight against apartheid.’ Internationalist politics today does not always mean crossing borders in the style of Garibaldi or Third World revolutionary adventurers. Sometimes the border crosses us.

The next world

The Elephant & Castle shopping centre is on a busy London street. When opened in 1965 it was one of the first American-style malls in Europe. Today it has problems – the escalators break down and the wallpaper comes off – but it is now a centre of working-class cosmopolitanism, the centre for London’s 113,000 Latin Americans.

The shopping centre is not like the rest of London. There are 130 independent traders and a simple, welcoming atmosphere. A fast-food joint, with elderly customers, has wipe-clean seats and tables fixed to the ground. A small shop offers consumer credit with posters in Polish. Local people sit around on chairs, talking on the phone and to each other. Stalls help people make money transfers. Each transfer is a part of the $22 billion that goes to migrants’ countries from Europe every year. In Tekk Room, an IT and logistics shop, a man is sending a package to Addis Ababa. He can’t remember the addressee’s name. The shop’s owner, Emad, helps him and then he gives the customer a tracking number. ‘Type this and it will tell you where it is,’ he says. Then, he gives an example, ‘From Dover to Paris, from Paris to Egypt, from Egypt to Sudan…’ He and the customer laugh at the idea of this package crossing continents.

Emad is a friendly Egyptian and the chair of the Elephant & Castle Independent Traders’ Association. He started the group after finding out about the planned demolition of the shopping centre. He tells me his story. A new property developer, Delancey, took over the shopping centre. Delaney wanted to demolish the building and asked for high rates so that independent tenants would have to move out. Emad’s association is fighting for and slowly winning better conditions for them to move.

‘The biggest lesson I learned is always fight,’ he says. Emad joined other local groups, including student campaigners, the advocacy charity Latin Elephant, and social-housing campaigners.

Internationalism is a politics that comes from colonialism and globalization. Bruce Robbins, in The Beneficiary, says that internationalism was partly built when customers understood the suffering behind what they bought, from tea grown in China to the sugar to make it sweet. Mostly women bought food and they took the lead in the sugar boycotts in the 1790s against sugar grown by slaves.

A 21st-century internationalism depends on a similar understanding. The campaign to save a shopping centre in a corner of London brings together many forces: London’s Latin American population, whose numbers have grown over the past ten years after the Eurozone debt crisis that forced migration to northern Europe from Spain; the property developer, Delancey, which is registered in Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands and uses tax avoidance techniques from British officials in the old British Empire; and the land under the shopping centre, which has become so valuable since the global financial crisis.

A few days before I spoke to Emad, activists on Twitter said that someone had cleaned graffiti from the front of the shopping centre. It was in English and Spanish, and it was an old anti-fascist slogan from the Spanish Civil War. It said: ‘Los Property Developers No Pasarán!’ (‘Property developers will not pass!’) Internationalism lives in these words. Internationalism today begins with local fights for housing, better conditions, and community power.



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)