the communist case for ‘internationalism from below’

A contribution to the debate at The Global Commune event of 22nd May, 2010, in Edinburgh, by Allan Armstrong

1. Three Left approaches to building a new world order 

The Republican Communist Network (RCN) has mainly applied an ‘internationalism from below’ approach as a way to unite communists, socialists and revolutionary democrats throughout these islands around an immediate programme (1). This stems from our political opposition to the UK state, which acts as a junior partner to US imperialism and as a ‘licensed’ enforcer for corporate capitalist interests in the North East Atlantic, aided and abetted by its own junior partner, the ’26 Counties’ Irish state. (Of course, there are many other reasons why we oppose this and other capitalist states) In this context, we have argued for an `internationalism form below’ approach to counter two other approaches offered by the Left – the Left unionism of the British Left, and the Left nationalism mainly found in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
The purpose of this contribution, however, is to show that `internationalism from below’ flows from a global and specifically communist understanding of the best way to advance the struggle for `another possible world’ – a viable alternative to capitalism. We could call this `world communism’ or `the global commune’ – a less politically loaded term, given that the majority of people in the world equate communism with bureaucratic one-party states, such as the old USSR and China.

In making the communist case for `internationalism from below’ on a global scale, we have to recognise that there are another two major approaches to the National Question found on the Left. Some look to a future world with a classless confederation of nations, regions or communities; whilst others look to a future classless, single, planned global order but, in the meantime, largely accept the territorial frameworks already bequeathed by capitalism (with exceptions permitted, by some, for countries where there is significant political repression). 

What is interesting, though, is that the division between these two approaches is not one between old-style Social Democrats/Communists on one side and Anarchists on the other. Social Democrats/Communists and Anarchists are themselves divided in giving their support to these approaches, each having advocates in both camps.

2. The confederalist approach 

In one camp can be found most official, and some dissident Communists, along with some Anarchists. They share an opposition to a future single planned world system. Instead, they advocate a world of nation-states, hopefully living in harmony. We could call their approach confederalist.

Supporters of this approach amongst the old official Communists, openly declared their support for `socialism in one country’. Their ultimate vision was still global, looking forward eventually to a worldwide confederation of independent socialist nation-states. Certain federations, providing a greater degree of political and economic unity, might be supported, but the historical experience of the federal USSR and Yugoslavia, shows that these came to be dominated by their largest constituent republic – Russia and Serbia respectively. However, some old official Communists might have still entertained the idea of an eventual world federation without dominant nation-states, where certain functions were performed by an overall federal state.

Some other socialists have adopted a nuanced version of the federal solution by advocating various regional socialist federations, e.g. the Trotskyist CWI. Despite coming from a tradition opposed to the old official Communism (which they style Stalinism), their future ideal world system remains somewhat nebulous, perhaps federal, perhaps after a long period, eventually unitary.

Hostility to a future integrated planned world order can also be found amongst some Anarchists. Works such as Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful have influenced their thinking. These Anarchists emphasise the need for small-scale local communities, with an economy based on local renewable resources, but with some economic exchange between otherwise autonomous communities. Unlike, the official and dissident communists though, there would be no intermediate democratic or socialist states, just the slow expansion of non-state communities or communes. There are no doubt also differences amongst such Anarchists adhering to such an approach, especially over the organisational methods to be used to bring about greater territorial cooperation. But whether local, regional, national or worldwide organisation is envisaged, Anarchists tend to see confederal relations as the best way to bring about greater cooperation.

3. The cosmopolitan approach

Another camp holds up its own ideal for a future world order, which would be united territorially and have global planning. This approach could be termed cosmopolitan. It can claim the support of the early Marx and Engels, especially in the lead-up to the 1847-9 International Revolutionary Wave. Michael Lowy has shown this in his chapter Cosmopolites in Fatherland or Mother Earth. It was only later, as will be shown, that Marx and Engels moved to a more `internationalism from below’ approach, and a possible multi-linear path towards the formation of a new world order. 

The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, shows Marx and Engels then believed that as capital brought more and more of the world under its sway, it eliminated the outdated classes associated with the past – the aristocracy, peasants and artisans – leaving only capital and labour, or the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, in contention. 

Furthermore, the Communist Manifesto also argued that capitalism was already doing away with the material basis for separate nations. “National differences and antagonisms are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity of the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto” (2). “The nationality of the worker is neither French, nor English, nor German, it is labour, free {wage} slavery, self-huckstering {selling oneself}. His government is neither French, nor English, nor German, it is capital. His native air is neither French, nor German, nor English, it is factory air” (3).

Marx and Engels did acknowledge the existence of `historic nations’, as opposed to what they termed `unhistoric peoples’. However, they thought that these too would soon give way in the new cosmopolitan world order being prepared by the capitalist advances the `historic nations’ were busy promoting. “After industry in England, politics in France, philosophy in Germany have been developed, they have been developed for the world, and their world-historic significance, as also that of these nations, has thereby come to an end” (4). Furthermore, whatever other differences the Anarchist, Proudhon had with Marx and Engels, they still shared a cosmopolitan approach to revolution.

Today, a cosmopolitan approach, partly based on Marx and Engels’ earlier writings, is to be found amongst Luxemburgists, some dissident Trotskyists, the SPGB, and the Autonomists – most obviously Negri and Hardt in their book, Empire. Cosmopolitan thinking, drawing on a number of sources, can also be found amongst some Anarchists. David Broder’s review, The Earth is not flat (5), of the Anarchist Federation’s Against Nationalism, highlights such thinking in this regard. 

Whatever differences still remain (and this isn’t to underestimate their importance), these Marxists and Anarchists share a belief that capitalism has already largely created a world of two classes, in which other classes either have no future, or have, at best, limited walk-on parts in the struggle for a better world. 

Of course, most cosmopolitans do acknowledge the existence of continued divisions, including amongst the working class – e.g. sexual, ethno-religious and national. However, they claim these come about largely through false consciousness, as a result of ideologies actively promoted on behalf of the capitalist class, e.g. by the state machine, male chauvinists and feminists, competing nationalists and religious leaders, or by socialists who fail to adhere to their cosmopolitan approach. 

Cosmopolitans tend to believe that such false consciousness and ideologies can be effectively countered by means of persistent propaganda and a shared involvement of workers in economic struggles. This will bring about a true class consciousness, which sees all struggles of the exploited and oppressed in terms of capital versus labour. Many such cosmopolitans will acknowledge that this ideological battle is a labour of Sisyphus, but say that communists and workers should not be deflected into struggles over `secondary’ oppressions, since the Revolution will bring these to an end.

4. Historical antecedents of confederalism and cosmopolitanism

It is worth going deeper into the roots of these approaches and see how another approach, `internationalism from below’, has attempted to break free from the limitations of those who advocate confederalism (which either ends up tailing nationalism, or contents itself with purely localist initiatives) and those who advocate cosmopolitanism (which downplays, or even opposes, current democratic struggles against oppression and tends to fall back on propagandism, when economic struggles fail to lead to the hoped for class consciousness).

If we look to those broadly upholding a more con/federalist approach, we can see their antecedents in the American revolutionary, Benjamin Franklin, who believed that the original states, constituting the USA, were just the first in a new federal republican world order, which would be brought about by Enlightened leaders. Revolutionary democratic Jacobins believed that their new French republic was the first building block in a new European federation of republican nation-states. The Italian revolutionary democrat, Mazzini, and his supporters in Young Europe, envisaged something similar, only with the `historic’ European nation-states taking joint responsibility for building a new worldwide republican federation. 

Mazzini also argued that his proposed republican federation would be based on “principles of national freedom and progress… in favour of the right of every people to self-government and the maintenance of their own nationality” (6). Mazzini, though, supported the idea of `historical nations’ or, as he called them `nations with a mission’, so there was still scope for argument as to who constituted a `people’. The Anarchist, Bakunin, however, clearly declared that, “I demand only one thing: that to each people, to each large or small tribe or race should be accorded the right to act according to its wishes” (7).

5. The beginnings of an `internationalism from below’ approach

In contrast, an early example of an `internationalism from below’ approach can be seen amongst the Fraternal Democrats, who were part of the Chartist Left. In 1847, the English Chartist, Julian Harney, protested against joint British, French and Spanish suppression of a revolt in Portugal. “A blow against freedom on the Tagus is a blow against all friends of freedom on the Thames” (8). Marx, a cosmopolitan at that time, would likely have seen the Portuguese people as historically redundant and destined to be absorbed into a larger `historic’ Spanish/Iberian nation. It was Harney and the London-based Society of Fraternal Democrats who endeavoured to take Mazzini’s `internationalism from below’ on a proletarian footing, “giving life to a new Young Europe” (9).

It took Marx and Engels a considerable time before they arrived at an `internationalism from below’ approach. After the defeat of the 1847-9 International Revolutionary Wave, Marx and Engels had to back-pedal from their previous belief in the immediate prospect of a cosmopolitan `revolution in permanence’. `Historic nations’ were now given a more extended lifetime to perform their `historic duty’ of preparing the capitalist grounding for a future communist world order. 

In the meantime, tactical support could also be given to those stateless `historical nations’ – Poland and Hungary – in the front line of the battle against that lynchpin of Reaction – Tsarist Russia and its Habsburg Austrian ally. Elsewhere, they argued that, whether in Ireland, Mexico, Algeria, India, China and Turkestan, the `historic nations’ of `England/Britain’, the USA, France, and even Russia when facing East, still had their `progressive’ role to perform in eliminating antiquated pre-capitalist societies, including bringing about the end of `historyless peoples’.

Events in India (the Indian Mutiny of 1857) and China (The Second Opium War of 1856-60) led to the first modifications in Marx and Engels’ earlier perspectives. They now switched their support to those fighting for political independence. New struggles in Poland and Ireland, reflected in the debates of the First International, pushed Marx and Engels towards a more definite `internationalism from below’ approach. 

6. The distinction between nations and nationalities; and chauvinist superiority disguised as cosmopolitanism

When the debate over Poland came up in the First International, Proudhon-influenced Anarchists accused Engels of, in effect, abandoning their previously shared cosmopolitan principles, when he argued for solidarity with the Polish struggle. He was criticised for giving his support to the `nationalities principle’. He replied in the following manner. “Poland, like most other European countries, is inhabited by people of different nationalities” (10). He identified four nationalities within the Polish nation – the Poles, Lithuanians, White Russians and Ukrainians. Poland was a nation not a nationality. Thus Engels made a distinction between nations, which were territorial and tended to incorporate several peoples or nationalities; and nationalities, which were, in effect, ethnic (sometimes ethno-religious) groups. Ethnic groups could often be found widely dispersed and living mixed amongst others, particularly in cities. Marx and Engels would have been unhappy to concede an exclusive territorial state to “each small tribe or race”, as envisaged by Bakunin. Their focus was upon nations.

This distinction between nations and nationalities was a clear step forward. Furthermore, Marx and Engels no longer limited their reason for supporting the Polish national democratic struggle to tactical considerations in relation to Tsarist Russia. This is why they didn’t oppose the Mazzini/Harney-type principle adopted by the First International. It declared for `the right of every people to dispose of itself’ (11) (an earlier version of the 1896 Second International congress policy of support for `the right of national self-determination’). As in Mazzini’s earlier case, there was still ambiguity and argument over who constituted a `people’ – although, clearly for Marx and Engels, it was nations not nationalities, which enjoyed this right. 

Indeed, Marx soon found himself up against Proudhon influenced Anarchists in the First International. When “the question of `nationality’ in general and the attitude we should take towards it”, was brought up, “… the representatives of Young France (non-workers) came out with the argument that all nationalities and even nations were `antiquated prejudices’… The English laughed very much when I began my speech by saying that our friend Lafargue… who had done away with nationalities, had spoken `French’ to us, i.e. a language which nine-tenths of the audience did not understand. I also suggested that by the negation of nationalities he appeared, quite unconsciously, to understand their absorption into the model French nation” (12).

As Marx and Engels moved away from the cosmopolitan camp, which they originally shared with Proudhon, they did not move over into the confederalist communist camp. Certainly, Marx and Engels did envisage a developing world of multi-nationality nation-states, not nationality or ethnic states. They also sometimes advocated confederal or federal state arrangements. However, these state forms were only meant to be a transitional democratic phase in the development from capitalism to the lower phase of communism. In the upper phase of communism, however, such transitional political forms of state would be transcended as existing nation-states, confederations and federations themselves disappeared as part of `the withering way of the state’. 

7. `Internationalism from below’ and secularism compared to cosmopolitanism and state-atheism, and to state-promoted multi-ethnicity and religious toleration.

A useful parallel for understanding Marx and Engels’ approach to the ending of nation-states and nationalism can be seen in their attitude to religions. They supported secular states. Within these, adherents of particular religions would enjoy the right to practice their religion, but no privileges were to be conceded to any religion by the state. 

As a consequence of arguing for secularism, Marx and Engels were opposed to two other methods of dealing with religion. They opposed campaigns for atheist states on one hand, and states with established or recognised religions on the other (whatever degree of religious `toleration’ these states might also permit). 

Official atheist states, such as the former USSR, Albania and China, have led to a growth of religious support amongst the oppressed and alienated, which has consequently acted as a focus for opposition. Furthermore, such states have sometimes adopted their own personality cults as a substitute for religious beliefs, e.g. around Stalin, Hoxha or Mao. 

Marx and Engels also opposed the formation of nationality (ethnic) states, the equivalent of earlier pre-capitalist states with established religions (although some capitalist states, including the UK in England still maintain a Church establishment). The reactionary racist nature of nationality-states can be seen in the old pre-1972 `Six Counties’, in former apartheid South Africa, and in current apartheid Israel, which have favoured Protestant Ulster-British, Whites and Jews respectively.

However many today, including some on the Left, look little further in their minimum programmes or policies than offering support for the nation-state equivalent of religiously `tolerant’ states – only with `toleration’ extended to a number of ethnic groups instead. This can be found in constitutionally recognised and ethnically shared administrations, e.g. the post-Good Friday Agreement `Six Counties’. Another variation of this `tolerant’ approach can be found in state promoted multi-ethnic measures, e.g. those developed in the UK after the Brixton Riots of 1981. These tend to lead to the creation of privileged and unaccountable, state-recognised `representatives’ of ethno-religious `communities’. Such approaches leave the state in position of broker, able to play one community off against the other, and when necessary, divide the working class and oppressed.

In contrast, communists should recognise the right of any members of a particular ethnic group to voluntarily pursue their own chosen cultural activities, whilst seeking to maximise the opportunities for wider mixing with others at work, school, college or in the community. We should oppose policies that lead to physical separation of ethnic groups, and instead support integration, voluntary assimilation and mixed relationships within nations. Such an approach could be called `multi-culturalism from below’. 

`Internationalism from below’ is the wider political manifestation of such an approach, helping to bring about greater unity between nations, without any one group having to subordinate itself to another – particularly to those from culturally dominant ethnic groups. 

8. Engels opposes an early British Left upholder of the `one-state/one-party’ principle

It was the growing struggle in Ireland, which pushed Marx and Engels further towards `internationalism from below’ as an organisational principle in the First International. Here Engels came up against, not Proudhonist Anarchists, but an early trade unionist adherent of a `British road to socialism’ – John Hales. When Engels argued for Irish independence and a distinct Irish section, Hales contended, “that the International had nothing to do with liberating Ireland” (13). He tried to bring the Irish sections of the International under the control of the London/British Federal Council. In reply Engels stated that: – 

“The position of Ireland with regard to England was not that of an equal, but that of Poland with regard to Russia… What would be said if the Council called upon Polish sections to acknowledge the supremacy of a Council sitting in Petersburg, or upon Prussian Polish, North Schleswig {Danish} and Alsatian sections to submit to a Federal Council in Berlin… that was not Internationalism, but simply preaching to them submission to the yoke… and attempting to justify and perpetuate the dominion of the conqueror under the cloak of Internationalism. It was sanctioning the belief, only too common amongst English {British} working men, that they were superior beings compared to the Irish, and as much an aristocracy as the mean whites of the Slave States considered themselves to be with regard to the Negroes.”

“In a case like the Irish, true Internationalism must necessarily be based upon a distinctly national organization: the Irish, as well as other oppressed nationalities, could enter the Association {the IWMA} only as equals with members of the conquering nation, and under protest at the conquest” (14).

There was a further reason for Marx and Engels wanting to maintain independent Irish organisations. “They were more advanced, being placed in more favourable circumstances, and the movement in Ireland could be propagated and organised only though their instrumentality” (15).

Hales countered that, “The formation of Irish branches in England could only keep alive that national antagonism which had unfortunately so long existed between the people of the two countries” (16). He was arguing from a position, which maintained that, as far as advanced socialists were concerned, workers of all nationalities had already achieved equality in their British organisations. Hales thought that English/British socialism was the model that the Irish should aspire to. Such an attitude is today deeply engrained amongst the British Left.

Engels, in contrast, appreciated the different position of Irish migrant workers and their descendants, who formed a significant part of the unskilled working class in Britain. Engels’ political stance was linked to attempts to maintain the unity of the politically advanced sections of the working class, and win the support of the unskilled, particularly Irish migrant workers. 

In other words, where minority nationalities suffered from oppression within a dominant nation, they too had the right to form their own independent organisations there. This has continuing relevance today, particularly for recent migrants, who still remain subject to various forms of discrimination within the imperialist countries. One current example stands out in relation to activities of the commune – the Latin American Workers’ Association.

9. `One-state/one-party’ – a cover for social chauvinism; separatist parties a cover for social patriotism 

Marx and Engels’ `internationalism from below’ organisational principles, of course, fly in the face of later Second International, Luxemburgist and Bolshevik orthodoxy – the `one-state/one-party’ principle. Kautsky (the Second International’s `Pope of Marxism’), Luxemburg and Lenin were assiduous collectors of Marx and Engels’ quotes since they wished above all else to appear ultra-orthodox in debates with other Marxists. Yet, they studiously ignored Marx and Engels’ writings and practice on this matter. 

Marx and Engels legacy of `internationalism from below’ as an organisational principle was to be lost in both the Second and Third Internationals. Instead these organisations’ support for the principle of `one-state/one-party’ led to real political degeneracy. In the hands of many Second Internationalists it became a thinly disguised cover for dominant nationality chauvinism and imperialism. Later, Stalinists, Maoists and some Trotskyists even ended up duplicating the fascist principle – `one state, one party, one leader’!

Supporters of the `one-state/one-party’ principle have pointed to the social patriotism, which undoubtedly did emerge whenever some parties, drawing their support from workers amongst the oppressed nationalities (e.g. the Polish Socialist Party), departed from this organisational principle. What supporters of the `one-state/one-party’ approach failed to appreciate is that much of the openly displayed social patriotism found in some of the parties rebelling against this principle was a response to the thinly disguised social chauvinism (and sometimes social imperialism) found in dominant nationality parties, e.g., the SPD, RSDLP and SDF. 

Thus the social chauvinism encapsulated in `one-state/one-party’ organisations and the social patriotism involved in separatist parties are not really opposites, but mutually reinforcing dead-end forms of organisation. What is needed is an International, or, until that is achieved, more limited federations based on the principle of `internationalism from below’. 

Supporters of `internationalism from below’ are just as opposed to separatism, and as just as keen to unite with others. However, we realise that the `one-state/one-party’ principle goes hand in hand with accepting subordination to social chauvinism. Indeed, as the majority of the British unionist Left has shown – from the Labour Party, old (and new) CPGB, the SWP, CWI to the AWL – their hard-wired sectarianism seem to mimic the anti-democratic, bureaucratic practices of the UK state. Therefore, coming together on the basis of `internationalism from below’ is a much better way of bringing about meaningful unity.

10. The contradictions of the Second International, Luxemburg and Lenin in their pursuit of the `one-state/one-party’ principle

The majority in both the Second and Third Internationals claimed that the `one-state/one-party’ principle was the best way to confront existing states by uniting the members of the various nations and nationalities forming the working class within a particular state. 

Those who adopted this principle in the Second International usually ended up as apologists for the actions of the leaders of the dominant nationality in, or as subservient agents of, the states they sought to reform – the collapse of the social imperialist Social Democratic leadership of the Second International, in the face of the First World War, being the most obvious example.

However, some who still fought strenuously against the Second International’s capitulation to imperialism, such as Luxemburg, also helped to undermine an `internationalism from below’, through their relentless pursuit of the `one-state/one-party’ principle. Luxemburg allied herself with the Right in the SPD to break the influence of the party’s `autonomous’ Polish section, thus aiding a thinly disguised German chauvinism. Lenin and the Bolsheviks also doggedly pursued a `one-state/one-party’ principle, claiming it created the centralised political instrument needed for the overthrow of existing states. 

In relation to the National Question, there was a political difference between Luxemburg and Lenin. Luxemburg, particularly after 1905-6 Revolution, vehemently opposed the Second International’s policy of `the right of nations to self-determination’, whilst Lenin insisted that Social Democrats (and later official Communists) should give this policy their support in party programmes. Before the 1905-6 Revolution, Lenin held to a more `Luxemburgist’ approach over this issue. 

However, the apparent difference between Luxemburg and Lenin, after 1905, hides an underlying shared assumption. Both agreed with Kautsky that capitalism was continually undermining the basis for the continued relevance of the National Question. The more `advanced’ the capitalism, the less relevant the issue of national self-determination. They fell back on the sort of arguments Marx had utilised in his cosmopolitan phase, especially in The Communist Manifesto. 

Thus, Lenin initially argued that the National Question no longer had any relevance in the advanced capitalist West, but only in Central and Eastern Europe (particularly Tsarist Russia and Hapsburg Austria-Hungary), and the Balkans and Asia, where feudal and other despotic relics had not yet been eliminated. Luxemburg disagreed with Lenin over the significance of the National Question in Central and Eastern Europe, but agreed with him about its irrelevance in the West and its importance in the Balkans and Asia. She supported the struggles of the Greeks (in Crete) and the Armenians against the Ottoman Empire. It was only in the First World War, that Bukharin and others in the Radical Left arrived at a neo-Luxemburgist position, which opposed the struggle for national self-determination everywhere. 

However, like Luxemburg, Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not want to see the territorial break-up of existing states, even in Central and Eastern Europe. They thought that that any wish by workers (and peasants) to exercise a right of national self-determination’ would no longer be necessary when outdated, anti-democratic dynastic rule was overthrown. So, in the meantime, workers (and others) should concentrate their efforts on fighting for all-state wide revolution. In practice this led to an abstentionist attitude towards participation in the actual national democratic struggles that did emerge. 

This could clearly be seen in Lenin’s pre-First World War attitude to the exercise of national self-determination in Poland, where there was a longstanding national movement. Lenin agreed with Luxemburg that Social Democrats in Poland should oppose such a course, whilst disagreeing with her opposition to the RSDLP in Russia adopting the right of Poland to national self-determination. Nevertheless, Lenin still hoped that such a right would never be exercised. If there were to be any future referendum, Poles should vote `No’ and Russians should vote `Yes’. Such `zero-sum internationalism’ provided no basis for socialists/communists taking the lead in the actual national democratic struggles, which developed against the Tsarist and Hapsburg Empires. The effect was to leave the leadership of national democratic struggles to others, either bourgeois nationalists or social patriots, with dire consequences. 

The majority of the Polish Left’s failure to champion the exercise of national self-determination left the issue in the hands of the social patriot, Pilsudski and the bourgeois nationalist, Damowski. Neither of these characters wanted to break external imperial control by Russia, Austria or Prussia-Germany through the mass action of workers and peasants. Instead they mainly looked for alternative imperial backers for Poland’s independence. Soon after state independence was achieved, with imperial backing, particularly from France, the infant Polish Communists mounted a challenge to the new state. However, having played little part in the previous national democratic struggle against imperial rule, they were soon isolated, repressed and marginalised. 

In contrast, the Finnish Social Democrats made a more serious attempt to exercise Finnish self-determination. They became involved in a revolutionary war in late 1917 to early 1918. They faced the utterly brutal White Counter-revolution of the Finnish Right and the invading German forces. This was much worse than anything experienced by the Polish Left at the time. Nevertheless, by the early 1920’s the Finnish Left was able to make a stronger recovery than the Polish Left. This was largely because of their recognised role in attempting to break away from the Russian imperialist state.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks failed to adopt an `internationalism from below’ approach, which actively championed the break-up of the Russian imperialist state. He preferred to hide behind a promise to uphold the right of self-determination, but only to be exercised after a successfully completed workers’ and peasant revolution. This led to lost opportunities in Finland in July 1917, and in Ukraine in December 1917. Perhaps, not surprisingly, no referenda on national self-determination were ever held, once the Bolsheviks had consolidated their control.

When the USSR was first constituted in 1922, there was no national designation in the state’s name, since the new government claimed that its initial few constituent soviet republics were merely the first building blocks in a future worldwide soviet federation. They also claimed that this new federation would eventually give way to a united, planned, world communist order, without nation-states, just as Marx and Engels had originally envisaged. 

However, Marx and Engels, as adherents of an `internationalism from below’ approach, would not have been surprised to see the unfolding of a very different outcome. The `one-state/one party’ soon gave way to the one-party State. The glue for this new USSR was provided, not by the soviets (or communes) under workers’ control. They had already been crushed in 1921. Nor was the infant USSR under the direction of the Third International. 

Instead, the `one-state/one-party’ CPSU, which controlled the USSR, increasingly acted as a threadbare cover for the specifically Russian nationalism, which lay not far beneath an official superficial `internationalism’. The Chinese Communist Party under Mao, arguing from the same organisational principle, developed an even stronger nationalist character. Thus, it can be seen that parties based on the `one-state/one-party’ principle readily became transmission belts for the dominant nationality chauvinism and imperialism. 

11. Marx and Engels abandon their unilinear model of progress 

So, what would an `internationalism from below’ approach look like in today’s conditions? The case for a single unified world system – a global commune – is much stronger today than in the days of Marx and Engels, or even of Luxemburg and Lenin. However, this need doesn’t stem from any belief that capitalism has already performed a necessary progressive service for humankind in developing the productive forces to their present level. There never was a fore-ordained, progressive, capitalist course of necessary world development. Peasants, artisans, workers have always fought for `other possible worlds’ and the development of capitalism was contested at every stage, by people seeking other outcomes – not only by those looking back to some `lost golden era’, but also by those who struggled for a universal republic or for social republics. 

Marx and Engels, themselves, departed from their earlier view of a necessary unilinear path of capitalist progress, when they first made a distinction between two paths of capitalist transition in Volume 3 of Capital “The transition from the feudal mode of production is twofold. The producer becomes the merchant and capitalist, in contrast to the natural agricultural economy and the guild bound handicrafts of the medieval urban industries. This is the really revolutionizing path. Or else, the merchant establishes direct sway over production. However much this serves historically as a stepping stone… it can not by itself contribute to the overthrow of the old mode of production, but rather tends to preserve and retain it as its precondition” (17). 

This new understanding paved the way for Marx and Engels’ later dropping of their earlier support for `free trade’. They had originally argued in support of `free trade’ because it helped to create a worldwide market, and promote the capitalist socio-economic relations they saw as the necessary grounding for a future communist society. However, they later appreciated that British-promoted `free trade’ tended to reduce all other states to primary producing economic dependencies of `the workshop of the world’ (in an analogous fashion to the effect of US promoted `free markets’ today). This insight also allowed them to see the regressive effects of externally imposed capitalism, i.e. imperialism, particularly in Ireland and India. 

Indeed, they went further, and thought that it might be possible for some countries, which hadn’t yet fully committed themselves to the capitalist path, e.g. Russia (until 1894 in Engels’ case), and then the wider East, to be able to build upon the communal forms of agricultural production still existing, in cooperation with a socialist West. In 1892, Engels even turned to Germany, now well and truly committed to the industrial capitalist path. He called for “reviving the mark, not in its old outdated form, but in a rejuvenated form; by rejuvenating communal land ownership under which the latter would not only provide the small-peasant commune with all the prerogatives of big farming and the use of agricultural machinery, but it would also give them the means to organise, along with agriculture, major industries using steam and water power, and to organise them without capitalists by the community itself” (18).

12. `Internationalism from below’ in today’s conditions

Today, we have witnessed growing resistance to capitalist imposed modernisation, particularly amongst the indigenous Native Americans. It was the revolt of the Zapatistas in 1994, against the new North American Free Trade Agreement, which heralded the beginnings of today’s wider anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements. As it becomes even clearer that continued capitalist expansion threatens us with wholesale environmental degradation and the undermining of the very conditions for human survival, communists should see the real significance of such resistance. Also included in our vision, should be the present-day `Maroons’, those drop-outs from wage slavery. 

This isn’t to argue for a return to some lost pre-capitalist utopia, in the manner of Zerzan and others. We live in a world largely moulded by capitalism, particularly under today’s conditions of corporate imperialism. As well as the already mentioned environmental degradation, we also suffer from intensified exploitation and oppression (with short-term contract work, increasingly meaningless and boring labour punctuated by periods of unemployment and short-time working, declining real wages, and a rapidly diminishing social wage), and from wholesale alienation bringing about escalating mental health problems and anti-social crimes.

Yet, despite the capitalist imposed conditions of current production, (including the relentless and ultimately self-destructive drive for profit) most people in the world would want to continue with and improve upon the existing infrastructure of water supply, housing, power provision, transport connections, the wide range of essential products and cultural activities, bequeathed by capitalism, which all now depend on continued international linkages for their provision. Certainly, in many cases there is scope for major reform of this provision, such as huge cutbacks in the arms industry, the provision of free public transport and downgrading of private transport, the lowering of dependence on fossil fuels, and the ending of the media and advertising industry’s promotion of a `shop till you drop’ philosophy with its monumentally wasteful production of superfluous commodities. 

However, workers, peasants and artisans have created all the existing wealth, not already provided by nature. We can either turn our backs on this legacy, and `retreat into the jungles’, or we can finally claim this wealth on behalf of the descendants of all these exploited people. And, just think of all the as yet unutilised opportunities provided by the new information technology. This would appear to be as a `natural’ a technology for a global commune, as steam power was for the national capitalism of the Industrial Revolution. 

Such a global society would also have room for those peoples who, quite understandably, have no wish to be brought under corporate capitalism control, such as the Zapatistas. The speed with which such resistance movements have adopted technologies such as the Internet demonstrates that they too would wish to be part of a new world order, only they would wish to enter it on their own terms, not those imposed by others. The same goes for many current `Maroons’ or drop-outs.

An `internationalism from below’ strategy is committed to the creation of a new unified and planned global commune. Dealing with the growing environmental degradation, and possible major catastrophes, demands nothing less. The only `alternative’ to global planning in such circumstances would appear to be a retreat to more local communities or regional federations with an accompanying neo-Malthusian population cull. This might lead to a world of less resource-demanding, smaller scale communities, but the resulting social disorientation would most likely produce `dog-eat-dog’ violent confrontations between the competing communities and mini-states. 

By 2050, the world will already have probably reached `Peak Population’, but of course, if we remain subject to the ceaseless expansion of capitalist production for profit, this would only add to the cumulative environmental degradation. It would still very likely lead the world to a catastrophic environmental tipping point. 

One positive outcome which could lead to reaching `Peak Population’ before then, would be a massive expansion of women’s rights, especially with more effective control over their bodies, and an ending to male supremacism, currently reinforced by misogynistic religious beliefs. Today’s women’s struggles for more effective control over their lives may presently only constitute a partial fightback against the impact of capitalist oppression, but should be wholeheartedly supported by communists seeking support for a new humanised global commune.

13. Resistance in the here and now

An `internationalism from below’ strategy recognises that the exploited and oppressed are mainly brought into struggle by the immediate conditions we confront. Communists fight for increased wages, not because we want to bolster our conditions as wage slaves, but because we want an improvement in our living standards, to undermine those in control of our labour who stultify of our full human potential. We fight for an increased social wage, not because we want a bureaucratic welfare state presiding over our lives, but because we need better housing, education, health and transport now, which meets our immediate needs, and which points the way to more extensive communally-controlled social provision in the future. We fight for access to improved artistic and cultural provision, not because we want to become passive consumers of `reality TV’, lose ourselves in the `virtual world’ of the Internet, or follow lads’ (and ladettes’) lifestyles, but because we want active involvement in artistic and cultural creation to help us to overcome existing alienation and boredom, and to allow us to imagine alternative futures, which enhance our social and individual self-determination. We fight for increased democratic rights, not because we want to reinforce parliamentarianism or `representative’ democracy, or to create new oppressive states, but because we want to undermine those capitalist politicians who would set us against each other, and deny us the ability to bring about greater unity from below to more effectively challenge their rule. 

We, in the RCN, fight for the democratic exercise of self-determination in Scotland, not because we think Scotland is `better’ or `lefter’, nor because we want to turn our backs on those in England, Wales and Ireland, but because we see this as an effective way to undermine the British state and its ruling class, the main buttress for US imperialism and corporate capital in the world today. Due to the fault lines in the UK state’s make-up – its bureaucratic unionism and its anti-democratic Crown Powers – the National Question has continued relevance here (as it does in Ireland and Wales). We seek to extend this struggle to and unite with our neighbours through the active promotion of `internationalism from below’.

Abstaining from democratic struggles and leaving the opposition to the nationalist SNP won’t help our class. Most of the SNP leadership would settle for Devolution-Max but, whether or not they achieve formal political independence, would still act as local loyal agents for corporate capital in Scotland. They want to woo global capital to Scotland by making the country a low-tax haven. However, ignoring or denying the importance of the National Question, just leaves its `solution’ once more in the hands of bourgeois nationalists and their social patriotic cheerleaders (Left nationalists).

Furthermore, historically there have been specific local democratic and socialist/communist manifestations in Scotland of the universal human struggle for another possible world – e.g. the radical wing of the Covenanters, the United Scotsmen, the Chartists, the Highland Land League, the Scottish Socialist Federation, and the legacy of John Maclean. We want to develop this further in alliance with those from other countries. They too have their own local manifestations of the universal struggle – the Levellers, the United Irishmen and London Corresponding Society, the Chartists (especially their most advanced contingent in Wales) the Irish Land League, and the infant Socialist movement (which also included Anarchists). `Internationalism from below’ is the best way to achieve this alliance.

There is a common thread, through all the initial and still partial forms of resistance to exploitation and oppression we find today. This is the need to create and support independent organisations of our class. Social Democratic/Labour and official Communist Parties (as well as their dissident emulators) have long passed over to the side of capital, and those few `last Mohicans’ still fighting within their ranks, want to rebuild something that, with the benefit of bitter experience and hindsight, was always flawed. Many trade unions, wedded to `social partnership’, have become little more than a free personnel management service for the employers. However, the building of independent trade union organisation – within, without, or through a combination of the two – still looks possible. The commune has become a focus of debates on how we organise in the workplace, and how we can best develop a strategy of worker’s control or management, in the here and now.

Communists have the role of uniting the independent organisations of our class around a clear vision of a future global commune, which can develop out of the conditions and the struggles of today. After recognising the futility of trying to build a world with many still isolated or competing units (confederalism) when our very existence depends on global solutions; and after experiencing the brutal rule of those imposing their `one-state/one party’ principle (cosmopolitans), it is time to return to the once marginalised, but now increasingly relevant `internationalism from below’ approach.


1. Allan Armstrong, contributions dated 26.2.10 and 16.4.10, on
2. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (TCM) in Penguin Classics, edited by Gareth Stedman Jones, p. 241 (Penguin Books, 2002, London)
3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 4, p. 280, cited in Michael Lowy, Marx and Engels Cosmopolites in Fatherland or Mother Earth? pp. 5-15 (Pluto Press, 1998, London)
4. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, CW4, quoted in Roman Szporluk, in Communism & Nationalism, Karl Marx versus Freidrich List, p. 32 (Oxford University Press, 1988, New York)op. 32.
5. David Broder,
6. Salvo Mastellone, Mazzini’s International League and the Politics of the London Democratic Manifestoes, 1838-50 (MIL) in Giuseppe Mazzini and the Globalisation of Democratic Nationalism, 1830-1920, edited by C. B. Bayly and Eugenio F. Biazini, p. 33 (The British Academy, Oxford University Press, 2008, Oxford)
7. Harold B. Davis, Nationalism and Socialism – Marxist and Labor Theories of Nationalism to 1917 (MTN), p.40 (Monthly Review Press, 1973, New York)
8. Ian Cummins, Marx and Engels on Nationalism, (MEN) p. 84 (Crook Helm, 1980, London)
9. Salvo Mastellone, MIL, op. cit., p. 98.
10. Frederick Engels in Marx and Engels, Collected Works Volume 20, 1864-68, p. 158.
11. Ian Cummins, MEN, op. cit., p. 94.
12. Karl Marx, letter to Frederick Engels, 20.6.1866, in CW 21, pp. 288-9.
13. Sean Daly, Ireland and the First International (IatFI) p. 142 (Tower Books of Cork, 1984, Cork)
14. Frederick Engels, Relations between the Irish Sections and the British Federal Council in Ireland and the Irish Question, p. 419 (Lawrence & Wishart, 1978, London)
15. ibid., p. 420.
16. ibid., p. 420.
17. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3, p. 334 (Lawrence & Wishart, 1972, London)
18. Frederick Engels, The Mark in The Peasant War in Germany, p. 181 (Progress Publishers, 1969, Moscow)

3 thoughts on “the communist case for ‘internationalism from below’

  1. However from below or from atop the movtivation of the matter-in-motion from all societies must of needs change in an organic revolutionary way. Simply put the world needs to Re-tool the entire industrial revolution to the re-newables such as wind, tidal, and solar power than transforms to electricity and is more power than society and use. No more blackouts.

    This non-pollution solution is given freely in natures kinder laws and provides work for all and forever more. This is because coal, gas, oil, and atomic energy is destroying the planets livability as a web of life. Fossil fuels is burning out the oxygen (36% gone to CO2 which we cannot live on), and atomic nuclear plant power is poisoning the air, land, water daily and is a real threat to the planets life.

    Workers of the world, unite!! End pollution wars, not endless wars for more and more pollution.


  2. No matter how often the slogan internationalism from below is used it does not alter the fact that marx did not advocate self determination of nations as a general principle. And no matter how many times the names marx and Engels are used as if they were identical political twins, the fact is there are important differences in their views on nationalism, philosophy and economics.

    Kevin B Anderson with formidable scholarship has recently documented Marx’s views on nationalism,including differnces with Engels, in Marx at the margins university of chicago press 2010. Andersons conclusion is, “At no time,however did marx make national self determination into an abstract principle,separate from the issue of whether a given movement had a liberatory content.” (p151) There was no supra historical principle of the right of every people to dispose of itself or self determination. This is what Anderson would describe as an abtract universal.

    This echoes the views of other scholars such as Peter Nettle who in his book on Rosa Luxemburg in 1969, oxford university press ,wrote that for marx “even during this resurgence of interest in polish self determination there is no attempt to broaden support for a reconstructed poland into any general doctrine of self determination” (P501) Anderson gives the example of the refusal of Marx to give support to the confedreracy’s right to self determination during the American civil war. The manchester Guardian and other liberal opinion did support the right of the confederacy to independence on the basis of sef determination.

    Rosa Luxemburg argued in 1909 in the national question that a general right of nations to self determination which was valid for all countries and all times was a metaphysical cliche. while it is accurate to state that Lenin and the Bolsheviks usually wanted to present their views as orthodox, normally citing Kautsky for many years as the source of authority, this is not accurate for Luxemburg. Indeed she she was not against the break up of all existing large states. Luxemburg disagreed with Marx not only on his support for Polish nationalism but on his views on the ottoman empire and Turkey. she mocked the views of marx on the national struggle in Turkey. The idea that the national struggle in Turkey was artificial created by Russian diplomats and agents was rather like saying the labour movement was created by outside agitators.

    And much of the Views of Marx and particulary Engels on nationalism and the reason for supporting some national movements deserve criticism. The fact that they divided nations into historic and “non historic nations” shows they did not operate with a general schema of self determination. Engels wrote off entire peoples as reactionary apart from Germans,magyars and Poles. slavs were counter revolutionary as a whole. The czechs were not an historic nation. And so on This was 1848/49. even in 1855 Engels was describing the south slavs as a whole as counter revolutionary. In the secret diplomatic History of the 18th century (1856/7) marx did not seem to apply the methods of historical materialism,look at the internal development of Russia,economics classes, but tended to see the Russian people as synonymous with the Russian government.

    Later Marx was to change and develop his views of Russia and other Non western societies and Andersons book is essentially about how Marx shifted his perspectives. But the early view is not about a world of two classes as the RCN argues, but a world,a European world where viable nation states were to be built on the basis of bourgeois democracy and industrial capitalism with these developments providing the soil for the growth of the working class as the grave digger of capitalism. But the RCN gloss over the lack of economic development and the embyonic growth of a workers movement which provide the background to support for some nationalist movements. The RCN Draw a direct analogy between the UK and the USA imperialism in the context of a developed capitalism and working class and Habsburg empire and the Romanov empire. So support for scotlands independence is compared with those independence movements which marx supported against the most reactionary of regimes in an undeveloped capitalist world.

    But following the revolutions of 1848 the plebian threat from below concentrated the bourgoise mind in Germany and Poland on making money and in any case bourgois revolutions were revolutions which cleared the way for capitalism rather than led by capitalists. The Junkers learned the lesson to stay in political power modernise from above. German unity took the form of a greater Prussia not a revolutionary democracy as envisaged by Marx. In terms of german nationalism Marx changed sides. Supported it and then was against it in the war against France. In other words he did not support nationalism as an absolute on its own terms. But if Germany had the right to self determination this nationalism became imperialism and the denial of the right to lesser peoples and in this there was competition and antagonism with Britan leading to war. A development largly missed by Marx with the exaggerated focus on Russia as a threat to European civilisation.

    i will leave it there. when I get time I will try to review Andersons Marx at the Margins. But as one of the academic Reviewers writes it is a book of tremendoes scope.


  3. kevin B Andersons, Marx at the Margins, charts with precision the Shift of marx from a unilinear to a multilinear perspective. But admidst the changes there remains what Anderson refers to as the views of marx’s generation. Now when we think of marx we think of his views which mark him out from his generation. alienation,commodity fetishism, the grundrisse and so on. Those he shared with his generation or the 48 ers have been less enduring.

    For instance His hatred of Russia seems to have seriously distorted his understanding of revolutionary tactics. Russia was all about dynastic struggle and greed for territory and empire. Even Lord palmerston who played the diplomatic game for Britains national interrest was simply a paid agent of Russia. some comments on Russia are even racist not just condesension. After the crimean war and the rise of a united germany, marx’s opinions on the reactionary power of Russia to intervene in europe became outdated
    Engels was more deeply influenced by his generation. As george lichthiem Noted some years ago in 1971, in Imperialism, Engels discussed national movements with”an indifference to all but strictly national and racial considerations” p91 His early views from 1848 were a focus on roman, celts and germanic races verses the slavs.

    But back to the View of marx in 1848/9. The struggle in europe was betweeen two powers: reactionary Russia and its allies and revolutionary democracy.But history unfolded in a different direction. Nationalism and to a more limited extent democacy was harnessed by the right. Hobsbawn writes in the age of capital,1975,as if capitalists had always been consistently revolutionary prior to 1848.”they aught to have been bourgeois revolutions but the bourgeoisie drew back from them.”

    In the nation state and proletariat luxemburg put the view now held by most cultured marxists that: We cannot assume that the material foundations of modern national movements is only the vaguely understood appetite of the industrial bourgeoisie for a native market for its commodities” In Poland the national idea or nationalism was the property of the nobility. The Polish Bourgeoisie were happy doing business with Russia in a partitioned Poland. the support for Polish nationalism (in effect for many years support polish landowners) was a life long passion for Marx as Anderson diplomatically puts it. But the prognosis of Marx in 1863 that without an idependent Poland there could be no independent Germany was rather wide of the mark and showed to much of an attachment to Polish nationalism.

    Perhaps the Anarchists had a point when they argued the first international should only become involved in social movements which directly benefitted the working class rather than tactics which mired the movement in nationalism which in the long run moved away from socialism.


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