18481948.p98 5,774 words 28.2.98
FROM LABOUR INTERNATIONALISM (1848) TO GLOBAL SOLIDARITY (1998)
Reflections on the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto
[This item has been updated and abbreviated from Chapter 2 of my forthcoming Globalisation, Social
Movements and the New Internationalisms. Publication is expected July 1998. My many intellectual
debts are recorded there. This short version is meant primarily for internet distribution. It is also
intended as a contribution to the conferences taking place in 1998 on the anniversary of the Manifesto,
and - coincidentally? - on international solidarity in the face of globalisation.]
Introduction: the social theory and utopian ideology of internationalism
This is the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. It could also be considered the
150th anniversary of the doctrine and practice of labour and socialist internationalism. The 1840s-50s
were a moment of take-off for industrial and national capitalism: a great wave of bourgeois, liberal and
national revolutions was to take place in Europe in 1848; the industrial revolution was celebrated at the
Great Exhibition of London in 1851. Was it The Times that thundered against the projected Channel
Tunnel because it would allow foreign communists and internationalists to flood into Britain?
Our present period sees the take-off of a globalised and informatised capitalism. Globalisation
is demonstrated by the worldwide spread of capitalist economic, political, social and cultural relations,
as well as by the disappearance of any competing model. Informatisation is exemplified in the
worldwide production and use of computerised goods and services, the increasing replacement of the
organisation by the network as the central capitalist relational form.
Both periods witness waves of `internationalism’ - on behalf of both the dominant forces and
the oppositions to such. 150 years ago bourgeois and liberal cosmopolitanism - economic, political,
cultural - was on the rise. So was that of labour, radical and democratic opposition to capital, state and
empire (at that time, the old pre-capitalist ones). Today we see the global spread and domination of
doctrines of economic neoliberalism, of political and military interdependence, of liberal democracy as
sole political model, of cultural globalism. At the same time we see the rise of worldwide social
movements - not always democratic or pluralistic - seeking global solutions to the global problems that
globalisation has added to earlier capitalist ones.
How should we, in our situation, address the internationalism of Marx and Engels? Does the
internationalism of then have any message for an internationalism of now?
In considering this matter we have an immediate problem. The Communist Manifesto of 1848
does not actually have very much to say about it (this was, after all, to be the year of the bourgeois,
liberal and national revolution). But the German Ideology of 1845-6 has one crucial passage. Together
they provide us with the classical Marxist account of capitalist internationalisation, of labour and
socialist internationalism. It is, actually, my opinion that there was little, if any, major development in
Marxist theory of internationalism after these early statements. What we seem to rather get is up-dated
reproduction, pragmatic adjustment or successive attenuation.
The two documents are complementary in a number of ways. The first is philosophical, the
second political. The first deals with the global level, the second with that of the nation-state. The first
deals with communism primarily as historical transformation and social movement, the latter with it as
programme and organisation. The first could be seen as reflective and theoretical, the latter as
persuasive and utopian. Although I am here comparing and contrasting, this is not with the intention of
praising the `theoretical' statement over the `ideological' one or vice versa. Both combine rational-
analytical and utopian-prophetic elements - a combination surely essential to any emancipatory social
doctrine. Whilst Marx and Marxism have an ambiguous attitude towards utopianism (including a
denial of their own), contemporary libertarian socialist, feminist and ecological movements have
refamiliarised socialists with the necessity of an appeal to emotion, desire, and imagination in
challenging the myriad inhumanities, indignities and banalities to which we are accustomed.
I find these documents amazing and moving, dated in significant ways, yet nonetheless capable
of throwing light 150 years forward and therefore worthy of the critical attention of not simply
contemporary socialists but all democratically-minded people. Before consigning this doctrine to some
garbage bin of early-industrial history, or of totalitarian discourse, we should consider the possible
connection between Marxist labour and socialist internationalism and that of the new alternative social
movements of our present day. I will interrogate the texts both for their main themes and for their
contemporary resonances and lacunae. And I hope to do so with the kind of critical eye and creative
spirit they themselves so vividly display.
Communism as international social movement
The relevant passage from the German Ideology is brief enough to be cited in full:
This `alienation' (to use a term which will be comprehensible to the philosophers)
can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an
`intolerable’ power, i.e. a power against which men make a revolution, it must
necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity `propertyless', and produced,
at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both
of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree
of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces
(which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical,
instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without
it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and
all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore,
because with this universal development of productive forces is a universal
intercourse between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously
the phenomenon of the `propertyless' mass (universal competition), makes each
nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put world-
historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones. Without this, 1)
communism could only exist as a local event: 2) the forces of intercourse themselves
could not have developed as universal, hence intolerable powers: they would have
remained home-bred conditions surrounded by superstition; and 3) each extension
of intercourse would abolish local communism. Empirically, communism is only
possible as the act of the dominant peoples `all at once' and simultaneously, which
presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world inter-
course bound up with communism. Moreover, the mass of propertyless workers -
the utterly precarious position of labour-power on a mass scale cut off from capital
or from even a limited satisfaction and, therefore, no longer merely temporarily
deprived of work itself as a secure source of life - presupposes the world market
through competition. The proletariat can thus only exist world-historically, just as
communism, its activity, can only have a `world-historical' existence. World-
historical existence of individuals means, existence of individuals which is directly
linked up with world history.
Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to
which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement
which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result
from the premises now in existence. (Arthur 1970:56-7. Original emphasis).
I identify six main elements within this passage. I intend to rearrange them for purposes of analysis. I
think this can be done without violence to the argument.
The international nature of the conditions for overcoming alienation. The contradiction
between the propertylessness of the `great mass of humanity' and an `existing world of wealth and
culture' has been increasing since Marx' time. This has, however, been not only, and certainly not
simply, in the form of a contradiction between capital and labour. We are witness to processes of mass
proletarianisation (deprival of means of production) without creation of a majority proletariat, of
situations in which it is a privileged minority of the proletarianised that becomes - or remains - a
permanent proletariat. We see deepening contradictions between worlds of wealth and culture and
those denied this - today both between and within `creditor' and `debtor' states, North and South, West
and Rest. We are cognisant of a continuing or even increasing coincidence of propertylessness with
female or minority (ethnic, religious) status. So this truly international contradiction has been accom-
panied not with a growing homogenisation of the propertyless but a continuing heterogenisation and
one that is repeatedly restructured.
For Marx, the development of these international contradictions required such an increase in
productive power and wealth that their resolution would permit a surpassing of want, destitution and a
struggle for necessities. The computer-based technical revolution now advancing in and beyond the
industrialised capitalist world is capable of ensuring rising productivity and full employment with a
decrease in labour time (in the core countries, from an average 1,600 to 1,000 hours per year in the
next 15-20 years). Although this development opens up the potentiality for overcoming the `old filthy
business' we know, of course, that it is currently being used to further fragment (industrially/occupa-
tionally), segment (by nationality, gender, ethnicity, religion) and stratify the propertyless.
For Marx, it was the above process that would ensure two crucial conditions, the `empirical
existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local being' and the making of `each nation
dependent upon the revolutions of the others'. On the one hand, the absence of the earlier-mentioned
requirements (a homogeneous impoverished mass) explains why the latter conditions (world-historical
existence, interdependent national revolutions) have not yet come about. On the other hand, we can
empirically identify the growth of these two processes: increasing numbers of movements addressing or
seeking global community; the increasing interweaving of local social movements; the demonstration
effect - from the Philippines to Prague - of `people’s power’ movements.
The proletariat and communism as only existing internationally. That what we have long
witnessed are increasingly national proletariats and increasingly national communisms is accepted by
most Marxists. There is, however, the temptation to escape from this leaden empirical contingency to
the nebulous freedom of theory or wish-fulfilment: the proletariat and communism do not yet fully exist
because they have forgotten or never learned what Marx pronounced. Next time they will. Since
neither historical nor contemporary social analysis reveals much evidence for such an assertion, we are
left dependent on faith in an existing doctrine and ultimate authority - something Marxists do not
tolerate from non-Marxists.
I propose a radical solution. This is motivated by what is said at the end of the quotation about
`the real movement’. I suggest we have to take Marx' position on the proletariat as figurative rather
than literal. It is clear why he attached his aspiration for the end of human alienation to the proletariat -
the new, modern, mass, nationally-homeless class of the exploited and oppressed. I suggest we here
take `proletariat' as a metaphor for all the alienated, all those denied their past rights, their present
capacities, their future potential (this does not, of course, mean we should or could do this wherever
Marx refers to the proletariat). For the increasing internationalism of those alienated in many different
ways there is increasing evidence and argument. That the overcoming of alienation (`communism' in
Marx' language) is inconceivable nationally, is surely demonstrated by the collapse of `socialism' not
only in one country but also in one bloc. Increasing interdependence, moreover, seems to imply that
you cannot today build, or preserve, even a capitalist welfare state in just one country.
My radical revisionism, however, does not imply either writing off the proletariat as an auton-
omous contributor to internationalism, or abandoning appeals from outside or above (or below) that it
consider the necessities, or advantages, or even the pleasures, of a global identity. It means only
abandonment of any assumption that proletarian internationalism is structurally determined and/or
politically exemplary. On this understanding, the proletariat would also have to go to school, and not
so much with Marx (or me) as with the other alienated masses (Munck and Waterman forthcoming).
It would also have to opt for the untrodden but exhilarating world of internationalism rather than the
familiar, well-trodden but limiting parish of nation-statism. The proletariat may still have a world to
win, but it also has more than its chains to lose.
Communism as the real social movement. This formulation invites us to question its own
formulator and its social forms. Communism has long been for the world primarily a `state of affairs' -
an affair of Communist states and statist socialists. It has also always been largely an `ideal to which
reality [will] have to adjust itself', increasingly an ideal in the heads only of socialist intellectuals (idealist
socialist intellectuals?). If communism is meant in the first instance to be `the real movement which
abolishes the present state of things', then this requires us to address ourselves to such real movements
(movements in the sense both of societal transformation and mass feelings, ideas, organisation and
action). The real movements that are presently transforming the international order are the new
alternative social movements. These do not have to be understood as replacing, or in opposition to,
the labour movement. Amongst the real movements could also be counted the `social movement
unionism' or `new social unionism' that, explicitly or implicitly, to a greater or lesser extent, for a longer
or shorter period, surpasses the `economism' and `politicism', or the reformist or insurrectionary
workerism, of its predecessors or competitors.
The necessity for simultaneous revolution by the dominant nations. This assertion reveals
Marx' apocalypticism and eurocentrism. The latter was not so much surpassed as by-passed by Lenin's
notion of the weak link, and by Trotsky's of uneven and combined development. What they under-
stood, because Russia experienced it, is that the international spread of capitalist social relations is
multi-faceted and uneven in essence. But this does not imply, as it did in part for Lenin, and
increasingly for some of his followers, that we can shift revolutionary primacy from `advanced' to `bac-
kward' nations, or revolutionary agency from the anti-capitalist proletariat of the industrialised centre to
the anti-imperialist masses of the rural periphery. It rather requires us to abandon any idea of countries
or blocs or parties that are either industrial/cultural models or revolutionary vanguards.
Recognising the differential implications and experience of capitalist internationalisation
requires us to: 1) identify the similar structures, processes and experiences in different countries that
lend themselves to common internationalist action: 2) recognise that differential position and
experience within an increasingly capitalist world order implies different movement priorities,
discoveries, inventions and achievements; and 3) work out principles and forms of solidarity amongst
and between the different significant movements of particular countries or blocs (e.g. both peace
movement with peace movement and labour movement with women's movement).
Finally, we need to ask ourselves why Marx had an apocalyptical vision of emancipation. I
suggest that apocalypticism is a requirement of a mass emancipatory ideology or movement in a situ-
ation in which masses of people are capable of rebelling against existing conditions but not of
adequately conceiving or controlling a desired alternative. I further suggest that today masses of
people are potentially capable of doing the latter, which is why apocalyptical visions and strategies are
associated with early, undeveloped or (self-)isolated socialist movements (Sendero Luminoso in Peru,
the Communist Party of the Philippines, both inspired by Maoism). Visions of sudden and complete
transformation to a land of milk and honey, where `the people will rule' (as in the original African
National Congress Charter), are declining in the major progressive social movements of the Third
World, such as those of South Africa, Brazil, South Korea and Mexico. This does not, of course,
mean that apocalyptical visions are absent amongst large parts of the masses locally. But contemporary
mass political apocalypticism - Thank God! - appears increasingly confined to reactionary, militaristic
and obscurantist forces (religious fundamentalists, chauvinist nationalists, racists, global militarists).
The existence of the premises for communism. The reason why, almost 150 years later, these
premises have not yet translated themselves into empirical international reality, or even mass interna-
tionalist aspiration, has been sufficiently argued above.
What will happen in the absence of the necessary conditions. The value of this passage lies for
me not only in its prescience but also in reminding us that such is the outcome of a new theoretical
approach linked with new emancipatory struggles (compare contemporary feminist or ecological
theory). Marx says that if the conditions are not ripe, capitalism and the market will continue to appear
`home-bred conditions surrounded by superstition'. He also says that the further extension of the world
market will `abolish local communism'. What we have, of course, witnessed over the last century and a
half is working-class advances within capitalist states (by nationally self-defined workers, without or
against others), and of anti-capitalist revolutions being repeatedly penetrated, de-radicalised and
restricted by the dynamic growth of international capital. What we have so far witnessed internationally
have, in other words, been working-class movements within, or national revolutions against, capitalism.
Surpassing capitalism is, obviously, another matter.
Communism as international political movement
Now for the Communist Manifesto. Certainly the best remembered part of this is the closing
words, `Workers of all countries, unite! You have nothing but your chains to lose. You have a world to
win!'. What it further has to say about internationalism was, of course, to determine the international
appeal of the Manifesto as a whole. Unfortunately the relevant passages are scattered thinly
throughout the document and therefore difficult to present as briefly as the previous one (if this
encourages readers to read it for themselves in 1998, so much the better). Within the Manifesto I
identify three main elements, once again re-arranged for purposes of analysis and discussion.
1. Bourgeois internationalisation as progressive. Whilst it is evident that Marx and Engels by
no means identify themselves with the bourgeoisie, they clearly consider its international role as
progressive, as modernising, developing, homogenising and unifying the world. The violent `pain of
extinction' with which the bourgeoisie threatens `barbarian and semi-barbarian' nations is presented as
civilising. The bourgeoisie is even credited with undermining `national one-sidedness and narrow-
mindedness' (amongst exiled social revolutionaries?) and of creating a `world literature' (accessible to
multilingual cosmopolitan intellectuals?). It is hardly necessary, in the face of the last century and a
half, to criticise this picture. Nor is it necessary to argue the linkage between the attitudes here
expressed and those of European bourgeois evolutionism, modernism, cosmopolitanism or even
racism. What is necessary is to stress what is missing, since this helps us to understand why internatio-
nalisation has not led to internationalism; why industrialism is not merely disruptive but destructive;
why the core bourgeoisie is imperialist and the peripheral one chauvinist; why capitalist statism is
militaristic, why world capitalist civilisation reproduces division and individualisation.
Far from creating its own international and internationalist gravedigger in the industrial
proletariat, for example, capitalism appears to have divided the gravedigging process technically,
socially and geographically, assigning different parts of the task to the differentially proletarianised, of
different gender, ethnic or religious categories, under diverse political and labour regimes. In addition
to a `world literature’ (unknown in 1848 to even the reading middle-class public in England), it has
created a commercialised and industrialised transnational culture which attempts to homogenise
audiences as consumers, spread dehumanised bourgeois values, exploit or erode local popular cultures
containing elements of resistance or opposition and, finally, to obstruct any such communication
between these as would be necessary for the creation of any kind of global solidarity culture.
To add all the above is to qualify, not reverse, the evaluation. It is, for example, equally evident
that, as the Manifesto argues, the development of railways and other technical channels of communica-
tion were determinant in the rapid organisation of labour nationally and internationally. An interesting
question follows. If the railways thus allowed labour organisation, did they not, perhaps, also restrict its
shape? Railways are spatially-fixed, monopolistically or state-owned, hierarchically managed,
centripetal channels. Their international connections mechanically connect the separate nationally-
owned or controlled systems. Did not national and international labour movements unconsciously
reproduce the pattern, structure and management of such channels? Another question. Did not the fact
that this means of communication was a technical instrument for the transportation of unspecified
goods lead to 1) successive waves of socialist optimism and pessimism as successive means of
communication appeared open to, or filled with, capitalist or socialist messages? 2) a tendency to see
communication as instrumental to political goods already produced and ready for distribution? 3) a
failure to recognise communication as culture - as a human creative activity, with its own specificity,
and with its own weight, over and against political economy, in the struggle for international
Capitalist industrialisation and internationalisation is, in any case, a highly contradictory
phenomenon, simultaneously denying, provoking and even stimulating possibilities for self-organisation
and liberation. The effective use of computers in both individualistic sabotage of the computer society,
or in collective struggle against it, would be one example. The Liverpool dockworkers would never
have held out against British capitalist and state attack for two-and-a-half years, never have exposed
the shortcomings of `their’ national and international organisations, never have created a unique
internationalist waterfront network, without their own email and website (For this and other such sites
see: http://www.gn.apc.org/labournet). Another example would be the radical recycling of the white,
North American individualist Superman myth by the apparition in Mexico of Superbarrio, the protector
of urban squatters, who - tongue firmly in cheek - states that he draws his power only from the
collective. Superbarrio (significantly for our subject), operates amongst Latinos/as in both Mexico and
the US, declaring `We didn't make the border, we don't want the border' . More recently, faced with
the `pain of extinction’, Superbarrio’s `barbarian or semi-barbarian’ rural and tribal cousins in Chiapas
have brought together democratic Mexico - and democratic movements worldwide - by combining
`tradition’, `modernity’ and `postmodern’ computer communication - as if these
distinctions/oppositions were ideological obstructions to human emancipation (which, of course, they
2. The proletariat as a liberated, liberating and internationalist subject. The proletariat is
endowed by the Manifesto with positive and universalistic qualities. It is free of `every trace of national
character' and `bourgeois prejudices’. The workers `have no country', they `have nothing to lose but
their chains'. They have to complete the task begun by the bourgeoisie. By ending class antagonisms
within countries they will end them between countries. And they must end them first within nations,
become the leading class within the nation, become the nation. Although these phrases come from
different parts of the Manifesto, they nonetheless amount to a clear argument: since the proletariat is
free of bourgeois and nationalist prejudices, since it is free of any stake in existing society, it can
therefore put an end to conflicts between nations, this requiring that it first take over the nation-state
from the old ruling classes that are responsible for international conflicts.
In considering this view, it is necessary to make a number of points.
Firstly, the positive, progressive and promethean characteristics the working class is here
accorded have little or no correspondence with the early-19th century British proletariat as described
by Engels a few years earlier. In later political dealings with, and writings on, the British working class,
its leaders and organisations, Marx and Engels identified national and stratum privilege, narrow self-
interest, subordination to bourgeois ideas and institutions, and chauvinism. They, and their successors,
employed, for example, the untheorised concepts of the `lumpen proletariat’, the`semi-proletarianised
peasantry’ and the `labour aristocracy’, to explain away the failure of the proletariat to behave
according to the specifications of the Manifesto.
Secondly, the argument is class-reductionist in implying that state and nation are forms of
existence, or expressions, of classes, or of secondary import to classes, in determining social oppression
and liberation. It would seem superfluous today to have to argue for the continuing, often growing,
weight of state and nationality/ethnicity in determining relations between people and peoples. The
commonly tense and sometimes violent relations between and within even culturally close Communist
states - and the longstanding state discrimination against ethnic or religious minorities within them -
was evidently due to these forces. `Ethno-Communist' was an accurate and prescient characterisation
of one of these regimes. As the Communism has disappeared, ethnicity has appeared to be its main
Thirdly, the argument is evolutionist in suggesting that the proletariat has to complete a task
begun by the bourgeoisie rather than to criticise and transform all bourgeois relations and processes.
Fourthly, the argument is stageist in so far as it suggests that national struggle somehow
proceeds the international one, or that international conflicts cannot be ended without proletarian rule
nationally. This implies a priority of struggles, or an order of separate levels, at odds with the German
Ideology - and with a dialectical understanding of inter-penetrating and mutually-determining national
and international spheres.
Fifthly, the argument is, of course, sexist. At a time when a large part of factory labour was
carried out by women and children, the proletariat is assumed to consist of adult males - who
presumably neither beat, rape, nor more-subtly oppress, their family members. I am confident that, for
readers of this piece, 150 years after the Manifesto, I do not have to spell out the mutually reinforcing
relationship between patriarchy, nationalism, racism, the exploitation of nature, hierarchy, competitive
individualism and militarism.
Given, in sum, the complex nature of both the 19th and 20th-century proletariat, given the
complexity of social structures within which it existed and exists, the portrayal of the proletariat as a
liberated, liberating and vanguard internationalist subject is precisely an `ideal to which reality [will]
have to adjust itself'. Marx’s revolutionary internationalist proletariat was, evidently, a philosophical
requirement rather than a sociological discovery (thus providing a further justification for my radical
alternative to this single emancipatory subject above).
3. The communist role: The only thing that distinguishes communists from other working-
class parties is that within national struggles they press the common interests of the proletariat
internationally, and that at any stage they press the interests of the movement generally. The con-
clusion to the last section applies here with equal force. The aspiration represented by the Marx-Engels
assertion has evidently been disappointed by the nationalisation and statification of socialists and
socialism. Once again, however, we have to abandon dependence on a Second Coming, a Last Really
International. We cannot today see, even in such internationalist traditions as those of the Trotskyists,
Worker Autonomists or Anarcho-Syndicalists, the embryo of a body which is not only internationalist
but also possessed of the other characteristics required by the CM: that it be not opposed to other
working-class parties, that it be not separate from the proletariat, that it have no sectarian principles.
In their concept of the role of communists, Marx and Engels combined traditional religious
notions of salvation - an Elect, possessing the Word, leading the Chosen People, via an Apocalypse, to
a Promised Land - with the quintessentially bourgeois form of mass political organisation, the party
(even if, under early capitalism, their notion of `party’ was broader than an organisation)! The power -
or limitations - of this highly specific combination of forms (in relation to their ideal of a global
movement to end human alienation) is witnessed by the way socialist parties - or tendencies - have not
so much failed to embody or further the project but have actually negated it. The two utopias socialist
parties/tendencies can still offer us today are represented, I suppose, on the one hand by a Pan-
European `social market' society, and, on the other, the `society of great harmony' which the terroristic
Sendero Luminoso tried to `drive home’ into the minds of Peru's miserable but resilient masses. But
these were or are either national or bloc projects. The Sendero type was one so inhuman, and implied
such isolation from the world (even of local markets), that it has been abandoned by leaders or rejected
by followers almost everywhere. And the social-market society, whilst still exercising attraction for
those people in the East and the South not fascinated by California’s concrete utopia, is one that cannot
be reproduced internationally without despoiling the planet itself.
It is curious that the Manifesto, the more political and strategic of the two documents, should
seem more dated or less relevant than the earlier, more abstract and philosophical one. This once again
suggests that we have to liberate the project of internationalism from the politics of a 19th-century
world dominated by the market, industrialisation, worker-capitalist conflict, nation- and empire-
building, deification of the masculine and struggle for the control of the machinery of the state.
Conclusion: from an internationalism of the imagination to the imagination of an
We may end by considering the response, some years ago, of two British Marxist labour
historians to the decline and fall of classical internationalism. Both observed that the people’s flag was
deeply tattered, but they seem to have had rather different attitudes towards the tatters.
The first historian is Eric Hobsbawm, who remained a communist even as Communism was
being rejected by massive labour or democratic movements wherever it still had power or influence.
Although Hobsbawm evidently has many brilliant and suggestive insights into the nature of the
Manifesto (Marx and Engels 1998), he has no real explanation for the decline of internationalism,
except in terms of the rise of nationalism and the decline of internationalist parties (Hobsbawm
1988:14-15). This is a tautological position, and one that begs many questions about these parties and
their doctrines. He shows little or no awareness of the new internationalisms as a growing
phenomenon of the 1980s, and offers even less perspective for the future. What he had to say about
contemporary internationalism in 1988 was that it had been undermined by racism nationally and that it
was difficult for nationally-organised trade unions to fight internationally-organised multinationals (8).
This is again a question-begging statement, and one that shows no knowledge of what workers and
unions had recently been doing to confront transnational corporations internationally. For the future,
Hobsbawm could offer no perspective other than raising again the flag of internationalism `even today
when the storms of history threaten to tear it to tatters' (12). The sole example he could offer for a
reviving labour internationalism was the African National Congress in apartheid South Africa. The
passage from which the above quotation is taken runs more fully as follows:
The flag of internationalism in labour movements must be held high, even today
when the storms of history threaten to tear it to tatters. That is why movements like
the African National Congress in South Africa deserve our admiration as well as our
support: for against racist white rulers and racist or tribalist black rebels, it has won
the leadership of the oppressed African people on the basis of a platform of non-
racialism: of equality of African and Indian, coloured and white in a free South
Africa. In this internationalism there lies the only hope, small and faint through it is,
for the future. (16)
We will leave aside the question of how much the ANC, in post-apartheid South Africa,
deserves our internationalist admiration, or of what internationalist admiration it presently evinces for
others. What is significant is that Hobsbawm rested his small faint hope for the future of labour
internationalism on the ANC, which was, of course, a nationalist movement, aimed (like past
Communist ones) at the capture of state power. It is equally significant that Hobsbawm considered
neither the problematic internationalism of the (then) pro-Soviet ANC nor the rich and complex history
of international solidarity relations between workers and unions inside and outside South Africa at the
time he was writing! One therefore remains with historical storms, tattered flags and small faint hopes
in Third World state-nationalist movements...
Edward Thompson broke with Communism in 1957, became a founder of the New Left and a
leading figure in the democratic rights movement in the UK and the peace movement in Europe. He
was also involved in international debates around the new peace and democracy internationalisms.
Writing in 1978, in the hiatus between the democratic international waves of 1968 and 1989,
Thompson identified himself as a socialist internationalist, traced his personal itinerary, and felt obliged
to say the following:
The `banner' of socialist internationalism has become tattered indeed in the last
decades, and on every side. It has not been one to carry proudly aloft. At the most
one has carried a few sheets of paper, and often one has been reduced to muttering
to oneself. The commitment has been to an `International' of the imagination, which
has had only fleeting embodiment in real movements, detached unequivocally from
both Stalinism and from complicity with the reasons of capitalist power. To
maintain that commitment has been to be an `alien' not only within this country but
within great sections of the purported socialist and Marxist movement itself.
At the time Marx and Engels were writing, the concentrated, massified proletariat of mine, mill
and rail was just being born. Today it is being dwarfed by dispersed and differentiated labour in the
service sector - waged or unwaged. By the year 2,000 the largest single industry (industry?) will be
tourism. It is therefore time for us to say RIP to the Revolutionary Internationalist Proletarian of 1848.
He was, in large part, a figment of fevered socialist imagination, and today rather deserves critical
socialist analysis. In so far, however, as we share Thompson’s experience, in the new global social
movements and culture of 1998, it should be possible for us to address, with both scepticism and hope,
the internationalism of actually-existing wage-earners - and their semi- or unwaged sisters and brothers.
Including that of airline stewards, waiters and clerical staff in the tourism industry. They do, after all,
work in a globalised industry. They are often computer-literate. They may know two or more
languages. They are familiar with distant cultures.
It is, therefore, today both possible and necessary to move from an old international of the
imagination to the imagination of a new internationalism. In so far as this now addresses global rather
than inter-national problems, I propose we re-imagine it as a diverse, complex, still marginal yet already
significant radical-democratic movement for global solidarity.
Arthur, C.H. (ed). 1970. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The German Ideology. London: Lawrence
Hobsbawm, Eric. 1988. `Opening Address: Working-Class Internationalism', in Holthoon, Frits v. and
Marcel v.d. Linden (eds), Internationalism in the Labour Movement 1830-1940. Vol 1. Leiden:
Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick. 1998. The Communist Manifesto. (with an Introduction by Eric
Hobsbawm). London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Thompson, Edward. 1978. The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays. London: Merlin. 406 pp.
Waterman, Peter. Forthcoming. `The New Social Unionism: A New Union Model for a New World
Order', in Munck, Ronaldo and Peter Waterman (eds), Labour Worldwide in the Era of
Globalisation: Alternative Union Models in the New World Order. London: Macmillan.
Waterman, Peter. Forthcoming. Globalisation, Social Movements and the New Internationalisms.
London and Washington: Mansell/Cassell. c 320 pp.