Democratic Socialism Must Be Internationalist

At the heart of socialism is the simple idea that everyone, no matter where they’re born, is worthy of a dignified life — and that the fate of workers everywhere is linked together. Turning our back on that idea by dropping our internationalism would be a grave mistake.

A socialism that isn’t internationalist is no socialism at all. (Penn State/Flickr)

When I was growing up in the 1990s, people’s attitudes toward socialism tended to range from quaint bemusement to direct hostility. Socialists were either peddling a nice-sounding but ultimately unrealistic doctrine or they were apologists for one of the twentieth century’s most murderous ideologies.

Socialism has since enjoyed a Phoenix-like rebirth in many countries — including in the United States, of all places — with a large and growing number of people under forty identifying with or expressing positive views about socialism. The ideology’s resurgent popularity has brought with it the ghost of doctrinal conflicts past, as even self-identified socialists struggle to define what they mean by the label and how it aligns with other movements across the political spectrum.

For some hard-liners, any socialism that doesn’t unapologetically defend the Soviet Union isn’t worth the name. For others, socialism is just another word for the Nordic states. Democratic socialists like myself support many of the political rights guaranteed in liberal democracies (freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc.), but feel they need to be complemented by economic rights, some form of social ownership, and workplace democracy.

John Judis’s The Socialist Awakening: What’s Different Now About the Left discusses these big transitions and situates them in their historical context. It’s a readable introduction, covering a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

But his conclusion that socialists today should abandon internationalism and commit themselves to a more patriotic and even nationalistic approach is terribly wrongheaded. While there’s good reasons to be contextual, not to mention mindful of symbols that matter to people on the ground, a socialism that isn’t internationalist is no socialism at all.

A Brief History of the (Socialist) Left

Socialism, like liberalism and conservatism, means a lot of things to a lot of people. It has been used to advocate everything from brutal despotism to worker control and the four-day workweek. Its roots can be traced back to traditions as varied as Stoicism (which insisted on universal human equality) and Christian humanism.

But socialism proper emerged in the aftermath of the French Revolution, which proclaimed a politics of liberty, equality, and solidarity. Early socialists like Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon were impressed by the energy and imagination unleashed by the Revolution and, like plenty of others, at once awed by capitalism’s productive potential and appalled by its inequalities. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, socialist movements labored to turn their ideas into reality, winning major political and social change.

With success came controversy and factionalism. Judis distinguishes between several varieties of socialism — utopian socialism, Christian or ethical socialism, orthodox Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, democratic socialism, and social democracy — which differed on issues as fundamental as whether capitalism should be abolished through revolutionary uprising or reformed through the participation of socialist and social-democratic political parties competing in the electoral sphere.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, most people in advanced capitalist countries considered these merely theoretical debates, since it seemed like the specter of socialism no longer haunted the globe. All that changed with the 2008 Recession, when a generation of young people, having never endured the heat of the Cold War, found themselves at the wrong end of a global crisis of capitalism. Socialism came back into the spotlight as an answer to their woes.

But with newfound popularity came many of the old doctrinal problems. Judis writes:

The young people who have taken a positive view of socialism don’t necessarily have a fully worked out theory of socialism or socialist politics. In the United States, they often identify socialism with Scandinavian countries, and with public control of healthcare, education, and energy. They condemn the growing inequality of wealth and power and want a society based on cooperation rather than on cutthroat competition and on sexual and racial equality. They don’t envisage the government owning Apple or Microsoft.

Judis’s taxonomy is true as far as it goes. While the average Jacobin writer has something more radical in mind, many young people who say they favor socialism don’t necessarily want to socialize the means of production.

Where Judis goes wrong is in recommending that socialists drop their internationalism.

Naysaying the Nation

Judis argues that contemporary socialists have made a big political mistake by embracing an “anti-patriotic” internationalism. He insists that young members of the Democratic Socialists of America and the British Labour Party see issues like open borders, “identity politics,” and resistance to economic nationalism as almost a matter of course.

Many of Judis’s arguments fall flat here. For instance, it isn’t clear why we should regard demands for racial justice as sucking up oxygen from structural economic reform rather than complementary struggles to secure dignity and well-being for all, regardless of race or gender. But rather than focusing on these issues, which aren’t addressed at much length in the book, I want to address Judis’s primary beef: the Left’s anti-nationalism.

From the beginning, his argument goes off the rails. According to Judis, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn initially rejected internationalism and focused their appeals on improving the lot of domestic workers. It is true that both Sanders and Corbyn lobbed plenty of criticisms at neoliberal internationalism and global capital. But framing their rhetoric as nationalistic glosses over Sanders and (especially) Corbyn’s lengthy histories of activism on global issues ranging from the Israel-Palestine conflict to the “war on terror” to the environment.

Sanders has long been a critic of neoliberal internationalism, fighting for the rights of migrant workers and advocating for more humane immigration policies. Before becoming Labour leader, Corbyn famously protested against apartheid, the Iraq War, and nearly every other atrocity of imperialism in the last few decades. Both Sanders and Corbyn recognized that we need to think globally if leftist reform is to be viable in the twenty-first century.

Judis argues that Corbyn missed a golden opportunity to outflank the divided Conservatives by demanding a firm Brexit from the neoliberal European Union and coupling it with an ambitious renewal of public ownership and high state spending. Corbyn was in part pushed to this position, he writes, because the party abandoned industrial working-class constituencies in the North for the hip new leftism of London urbanites. This triggered the electoral disaster of 2019, as those same working-class voters switched in droves to the Tories, which campaigned on “getting Brexit done.”

Turning to the United States, Judis argues the cosmopolitanism of young Democratic Socialists of America members turns off many Americans, who may want more state involvement in the economy and robust public services, but want the beneficiaries to be people like them. He argues that this is an inevitable problem that contemporary socialists have failed to recognize, since if they want Scandinavian-style redistribution and welfarism, it will inevitably require drawing firm national lines.

In the course of laying out his case for a progressive economic nationalism, Judis makes the occasional fair point. The perception that Corbyn’s position on Brexit was wishy-washy hurt him with traditional working-class constituencies. What is popular with the young activist left in the United States isn’t always the basis for a mass left-wing politics. If socialism is to be a movement and not just a doctrine, it must win millions of people to its cause rather than just speaking to those already on the Left.

But Judis is dead wrong to argue that socialists should limit their ambitions to reclaiming economic nationalism and patriotism.

The first reason is practical: there simply is no way to produce a viable socialism that speaks to our needs today within the narrow confines of the nation. Any effective socialism has to be cosmopolitan.

There are two clear examples: combatting neoliberalism and securing a livable planet. Starting in the 1940s, neoliberals responded to the success of social-democratic parties by building networks across borders and rethinking classical liberalism for the modern age. As Jessica Whyte highlights in her excellent book The Morals of the Market, figures like F. A. Hayek recognized that for capitalism to be safe in the long run, capitalist countries would need to think globally. And they succeeded. Neoliberal capitalism took over the world.

The response by progressives like Judis is to wax nostalgic for the pre-neoliberal era. But the postwar compromise was vulnerable to neoliberal globalization in no small part because mainstream social democrats accommodated themselves to the rules of the international economic and political order. They gave up reining in capital and hitched their wagon to the American imperial project, both economically and militarily. When the crisis of the 1970s came and the old Keynesian tricks no longer worked to restore profitability, social-democratic parties embraced neoliberalism — often just as heartily as their conservative counterparts.

The solution today isn’t to wall ourselves off from other countries, but to create cross-national institutions that can actively raise the standards of low-wage countries and support the democratic struggles of workers and movements in the Global South. Ultra-exploitative labor conditions will always be a magnet for capital, and if a single state takes steps to improve workers’ lot, firms can always threaten to leave for “friendlier” shores. This race to the bottom is precisely why a socialist politics must fight for working people everywhere — not, as the US-led global order has so often done, oppose or even violently stamp out left movements in the Global South.

Another practical issue is the impossibility of dealing with environmental decay at the national level. Certainly, there is a lot that big industrial states like the United States or China can do to improve the situation, and socialists should be doing what they can to pressure their governments to undertake bolder action. But there is no resolution for the environmental crisis that just involves piecemeal measures. The earth is a global commons, and climate doesn’t recognize borders. Likewise, climate refugees won’t be well served by a resurgent nationalism, even if it comes in ostensibly left-wing garb.

Shockingly, Judis never addresses this issue beyond offering snide jabs at UK activists for demanding a carbon-free Britain by 2030. Yet it is precisely the global scope of the environmental catastrophe, and capitalism’s culpability in bringing it about, that has inspired so many people to give socialism a second look.

The Moral Case for Cosmopolitan Socialism

In his great book Against the Web, the late Michael Brooks made a moral plea for what he called “cosmopolitan socialism.” He drew inspiration from figures like Amartya Sen and Cornel West, who “[explored] the echoes between Anton Chekhov and the blues with no interest in drawing artificial lines between cultures.” Brooks enjoined us to recognize the universal and humanistic impulse at the center of the socialist project: the dream of creating a world where the dignity of all is respected and opportunities are not denied to billions on the basis of class, race, gender, or sexual identity.

Socialism doesn’t draw arbitrary boundaries — national or otherwise — between who is worthy of moral respect and who is not. “A socialist,” Terry Eagleton once wrote, “is just someone who is unable to get over his or her astonishment that most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil.” So long as there are people in the world living lives of “wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil,” socialism has a mission.

This is not the cramped nationalist vision of Judis, who whitewashes, for example, the often odious foreign policy of mainstream social democrats in the supposed golden age — including enlisting themselves in America’s Cold War and at times opposing anti-colonial struggles (as with French socialist Guy Mollet’s prosecution of the war against Algerian independence). More recently, there was Labour leader Tony Blair’s disastrous decision to support the illegal Iraq War. Needless to say, combining nationalism and democratic socialism hasn’t worked particularly well.

This doesn’t mean we should be pushing a flag-burning ultraleftism. But it does mean building a socialist politics that recognizes the interests of workers in the Global North are linked to those of workers in the Global South — and that our commitment to humanity as a whole is unshakeable.

In this respect, the nation-state socialism Judis argues for cannot be the way of the future; indeed, it doesn’t even make for a very inspiring past.