Newsletter #40: Putting Internationalism at the Heart of Our Politics, with Olufemi O. Taiwo, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Robin D. G. Kelley

By Michal Schatz

“In order to be able to carry out this policy of worsening the conditions of life of the sailors and dockers, the employers, and their agents, the reactionary trade union leaders of America, England and France, are fostering race hatred among the white sailors and dockers against their coloured class brothers. … Only the united front of all seamen and dockers irrespective of colour, nationality or race, can improve the living conditions of the working class.” – Appeal to Negro Seamen and Dockers (1932)

The fight against imperialism framed and mobilized communist internationalism throughout the majority of the twentieth century. Until around the mid-1970s, the Marxist-Leninist theory of imperialism served as the dominant analytic mode for communists and other socialist revolutionaries across the world. In the 1970s and ’80s, however, imperialism began to fade as an explanation for the state of the world in the face of defeated anti-imperial struggles around the globe. In the early 2000s, radical scholars like David Harvey, Leo Panitch, Sam Gindin, Antonio Negri, and Michael Hardt embarked on a project to rethink imperialism for the twenty-first century.

Imperialism, of course, continues to be a dominant feature of the global order. But it is not, as so many twentieth-century Marxists theorized, an advanced stage of capitalist development. As Salar Mohandesi has pointed out in Viewpoint, imperialism and capitalism are not only distinct phenomena, but often operate in contradiction to one another.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February and rapid international military escalation seemed acute, I spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of Left internationalism today — how and why it differs from the internationalist projects of the previous century, and what socialists might be able to learn from twentieth-century communist internationalism. Dan’s sweeping conversation with Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Robin D. G. Kelley at this year’s Socialism Conference earlier this month brought me back to these questions, as they debated what constitutes internationalism and what it means to organize internationally.

I was struck by how much of Gilmore’s, Kelley’s, and Táíwò’s comments were about organizing within the US to support refugees, asylum seekers, undocumented peoples, and migrants to the US. These are no doubt invaluable and essential efforts, but they are by definition domestic in their focus and considerations.

Listen to this week’s episode here.

The US Left has built up an incredible network of organizations over the last decade, but our political imaginary is still so often restricted to national delineations. Internationalism, in the broadest sense, is a question of vision. For much of the twentieth century, internationalism was part of a communist vision that reached beyond national borders to build solidarity with working people in other countries. This form of internationalism was a crucial element of the Black liberation movement both within the US and beyond, as well as a key driver of the international solidarity movements in support of revolutionary anti-colonial struggles in the Global South.

The epigraph that opened this newsletter, for example, is taken from a 1932 appeal to internationalist, multiracial working-class coordination from an organization called the International of Seamen and Harbour Workers (ISH). The ISH serves as one example of militant, internationalist unionism whose tactics stretched beyond national borders to fight against imperialism. With the growing renewal of labor organizing in the US and developing climate justice movements internationally, the potential for internationalism on the US left today is boundless. We must build out from our domestic policies and priorities to develop an international vision of socialism.

Further Reading This week’s Dig guests have written numerous books and articles from which listeners can learn. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag is essential reading for anyone who wants to better understand mass incarceration and how the fight for abolition connects to other struggles. Check out Robin D. G. Kelley’s book Freedom Dreams if you want to learn more about radical African diaspora intellectuals and artists in the twentieth century. Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s book *Reconsidering Reparations, makes the case for reparations as part of building a new, more equal and just social order.

For listeners interested in imperialism, Viewpoint’s entire imperialism issue provides an incredible overview of the theoretical debates over imperialism, as well as several contemporary anti-imperialist pieces of writing. David Harvey’s book The New Imperialism played an important role in starting a new conversation about imperialism on the Left. Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch’s Socialist Register article “Global Capitalism and US Empire” urged a re-theorization of imperialism through the lens of state theory. And Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Empire. also played an important role in spurring new theories of imperialism.

You can listen The Dig’s previous episodes with Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò here, Ruth Wilson Gilmore here, and Robin D. G. Kelley here.