A Brief Critique of "Part-Time Internationalism"

The horrors currently being unleashed by imperialism – whether that's in Ukraine, Palestine, or any of the hundred or so other military conflicts that are taking place around the globe(1) – should serve as a wake-up call to the international working class. As it stands, we are on the path to generalised war. The seriousness of the situation calls for the unity of genuine internationalists. This however raises the question of what we really understand by internationalism.

In previous articles, we have criticised those responses of the capitalist left to the war in Ukraine which have "either been outright support for one or the other of the imperialist fronts (NATO or Russia), or a fake pacifism which hides the same positions."(2) We argued that such positions only serve to divert the working class from the struggle for socialism, a world without war. What we haven't addressed in as much detail are those in the Trotskyist, Stalinist, and Maoist milieu who have attempted to put forward an ostensibly internationalist position. That includes the likes of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT)(3), the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP)(4), the Communist Party of Greece (KKE)(5) or the Progressive Labor Party (PLP)(6), which have all invoked the slogans of "revolutionary defeatism" or "no war but the class war".

Not All As It Seems

These groups have come to the recognition that what's happening in Ukraine is an inter-imperialist war, and as such no capitalist side is to be supported – the only alternative is the working class struggle for socialism. So far so good. This is the yardstick for any revolutionaries for whom the Zimmerwald Left and the October Revolution still remain a reference point today. Trotskyist, Stalinist, and Maoist groups, despite being – we would argue – products of the counter-revolution, continue to claim adherence to that legacy.

The picture gets murky however, when we look at the response of the same groups to other conflicts of the past and present. In Palestine, the KKE sees the aim of the struggle to be only the "throwing off of the foreign Israeli occupation and the formation of the Palestinian state", and even criticises those who consider what's happening there to be an imperialist conflict which furthers the drive to generalised war.(7) The SWP, meanwhile, has expressed outright support for Hamas, which is not "conditional on their adoption of a socialist position", because anything less is, allegedly, "a collapse into pro-imperialism."(8) Both are blatant cases of what we might call "part-time internationalism"(9): picking and choosing which conflicts are imperialist, and in which ones it is permissible to take sides of capitalist forces.

The IMT appears a bit more consistent, at least when it comes to the Middle East. The IMT criticises the KKE for its "support for a two-state solution, its lack of a socialist programme for Palestine" and instead recognises that the "the struggle of the Palestinian masses can only succeed as a revolutionary struggle to overthrow all the reactionary capitalist regimes in the region".(10) But the IMT is guilty of similar confusions. When it came to Venezuela, the IMT praised Chávez as a "true internationalist" and a "threat to US capitalism".(11) Of course, Chávez's Venezuela was a significant military and economic ally of Russia and developed strong ties with Iran. This is the same Russia which today the IMT decries as an imperialist power, and the same Iranian regime which the IMT considers "totalitarian". Was Chávez a "true internationalist" when he cosied up to his "brothers" Putin and Ahmadinejad, or was the IMT just too excited about Chávez quoting Alan Woods on national TV to notice what else he was up to?

The PLP is another curious example. As they explain, the failure of national liberation struggles to end capitalism has made them reconsider some of their previous positions:

Anti-colonial struggles throughout the 20th century focused on national liberation from settler colonialism and imperialism. This strategy failed to end capitalism and exploitation. PLP has watched and participated in many of these struggles only to see the reversal of whatever gains were made in these battles.(12)

A rare admission. Yet it doesn't translate into a break with their Stalinist and Maoist past. The PLP may currently see no anti-imperialist axis among the capitalist states, but it still considers the USSR (until the 1950s) and China (until the 1970s) to have constituted such (because they were, according to the PLP, "socialist" states). Which brings us to the heart of the matter – the question of internationalism cannot be considered in isolation. Our understanding of socialism is inseparably linked to it. For those who see socialism to be synonymous with communism, a world-wide free association, without money, borders, classes, or states – it should be clear that both the USSR (a state capitalist regime born from the failure of a revolutionary wave to spread) and China (where no working class revolution took place in the first place) came to constitute imperialist rivals to the existing powers.

Legacy of the Counter-Revolution

These examples are not exhaustive but they serve to demonstrate the twists and turns of the capitalist left. All these groups, whether Trotskyist, Stalinist, or Maoist, accept a given set of tactical expedients inherited from the degenerating Third International. Whether they arrive at "part-time internationalism" through entryism into social democratic parties, participation in or support of leftist governments, belief in the "socialist" nature of the USSR or China, advocacy of united or popular fronts, or indeed simply support for national liberation, their answer to the following question is always a, more or less critical, yes:

In the imperialist epoch, can certain capitalist forces, whether of the "oppressed" or the "oppressing" nation, constitute an anti-imperialist axis?

To us, the answer is a categorical no. Lenin, whose writings and their interpretation have shaped the understanding of the question, thought wars of national liberation were still possible within the imperialist epoch (though he also understood they could be transformed into imperialist wars). The Third International would back national liberation struggles in places like Turkey and China to tragic ends. Today, we can see that every conflict between capitalist forces (state or non-state) is embroiled in the imperialist framework, a system which has advanced far beyond what it was in Lenin's day.

Whether the ostensibly internationalist positions of the above-mentioned groups are a temporary political expedient (to be discarded when circumstances change), or a genuine new orientation, these organisation of the capitalist left have long ago crossed the Rubicon. They have not learned the lessons of the past, and continue to repeat formulas which time and time again will eventually lead them, and any workers they manage to recruit, into a capitalist blind-alley.

In light of the accelerating drive to war, and with the understanding that the military clashes we are seeing now are not isolated phenomena, the Internationalist Communist Tendency (ICT) has helped to revive the "No War but the Class War" initiative, bringing together genuine internationalists from different tendencies.(13) The five points below serve as a starting point for joint activity:

  • Against capitalism, imperialism and all nationalisms. No support for any national capitals, “lesser evils”, or states in formation.
  • For a society where states, wage-labour, private property, money and production for profit are replaced by a world of freely associated producers.
  • Against the economic and political attacks that the current war, and the ones to come, will unleash on the working class.
  • For the self-organised struggle of the working class, for the formation of independent strike committees, mass assemblies and workers’ councils.
  • Against oppression and exploitation, for the unity of the working class and the coming together of genuine internationalists.

It's a long and difficult task, but a consistent and clear internationalist message, rather than "part-time internationalism", has to be carried into the class struggles already breaking out, and those yet to come.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
22 January 2024


Image: pennstatenews (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), flickr.com

(1) geneva-academy.ch

(2) leftcom.org

(3) socialistrevolution.org

(4) socialistworker.co.uk

(5) inter.kke.gr

(6) plp.org

(7) inter.kke.gr

(8) socialistworker.co.uk

(9) We borrow the term from our comrades in Italy, who used it in their critique of the statements on Palestine coming from within the SI Cobas base union. leftcom.org

(10) marxist.com

(11) marxist.com

(12) plp.org

(13) leftcom.org

Wednesday, January 24, 2024