As the Russian government’s criminal war in Ukraine continues, socialists in the US have forcefully condemned the invasion while focusing most of our energy on opposing the potentially catastrophic escalation in tensions between Russia and the United States. This in turn has resurrected a common accusation from the post-9/11 years — that in taking such a strong antiwar stance, the Left isn’t being true to our own values.
After all, the criticism goes, we’re supposed to be “internationalists.” But if we’re willing to “abandon” the Ukrainian people by criticizing the US government coming to their aid — or, in earlier versions of this accusation, if we oppose the military “liberation” of Iraqis or Afghans — aren’t we showing ourselves to be not internationalists but “isolationists”?
Absolutely not. Opposition to war and the militarism of our own government has always been at the heart of what leftists mean by “internationalism.”
Left-Wing Internationalism and the Three “Internationals”
The International Workingmen’s Association, later known as “the First International,” was founded in 1864 to bring together the world’s left-wing parties and trade unions. Primarily led by Karl Marx, it also included a significant faction around the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
While the two factions had fundamental disagreements, they agreed on issues of war and peace. Both took it for granted that workers in every country should oppose the wars declared by capitalist governments but fought by the working class. And both found inspiration in the 1871 Paris Commune, a brief revolutionary experiment that flowered at the end of the Franco-Prussian War when workers and disenchanted soldiers took over the municipal government in Paris and instituted radical policies like reopening abandoned factories under workers’ control.
The song most associated with left-wing internationalism, “The Internationale,” was written by a French Communard, Eugène Pottier. His anthem has been translated into every language and sung around the world by socialists, communists, and anarchists ever since. Here’s the direct English translation of some of the original French lyrics:
Let the armies go on strike / Guns in the air, and break ranks / If these cannibals insist / On making heroes of us / Soon they will know our bullets / Are for our own generals
Shortly after the Commune was crushed — the French and Prussian governments united to destroy this experiment in working-class power, massacring vast numbers of Communards in the process — the International Workingmen’s Association collapsed amid factional strife between Marxists and anarchists. About a decade and a half later, though, the mass socialist parties that were springing up around the world came together to form the Socialist International — the “Second International.” In the decades leading up to World War I, the congresses of the Second International repeatedly passed resolutions promising that if their respective governments tried to go to war with one another, the socialist parties in each country would instigate general strikes to stop their respective war machines from churning.
When war actually came, some member parties like the Socialist Party of America and the Bolsheviks in Russia stuck by their word. Many conscripted European soldiers also continued to wonder if they might have more in common with each other than with the officers on the front or the bosses at home.
The Christmas Truce of December 1914, in which some soldiers on both sides defied the higher-ups to celebrate the holiday together, was one early manifestation of this impulse. In 1917 and 1918, the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia (on the slogan “Land, Peace, Bread”) and the kaiser was brought down in Germany (when a mutiny in the Navy stopped an attempted last stand to stave off German defeat). In the United States, the most famous expression of this anti-militarist sentiment was the fiery 1918 speech that socialist leader Eugene V. Debs gave in Canton, Ohio. “The master class,” Debs proclaimed, “has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.”
Unfortunately, though, most of the social democratic parties in Europe got caught up in the patriotic fervor instead of staying true to their earlier commitments. In Germany, for example, socialist parliamentarians voted for war credits and enthused about a war of liberation that could witness the tsar’s prisons thrown open by soldiers marching under the German flag.
In the early days of the war, those who held fast to their principles and rejected the war met in neutral Switzerland for the 1915 Zimmerwald Conference. These were the socialist movement’s hard-core “internationalists.” The conference presaged the formation of the “Third International” — the Communist International, or Comintern — after the Russian Revolution.
In its own very different way, the Comintern would eventually fail in its mission of promoting global working-class solidarity against the bosses and generals in every country. When the Bolsheviks first took power, they assumed that either the revolution would spread to the West or it would be crushed in Russia. Neither happened, and eventually the Soviet Union emerged as an important global power in its own right — and the Comintern became an arm of its foreign policy.
But the core ideas of working-class internationalism animating all three Internationals continue to guide many on the Left.
Why Socialists Hate War
At its core, socialism is about empowering the working class — and not just the part of it that lives in the United States. Wars are one of the most extreme ways imaginable that ordinary people can be disempowered. Politicians declare the wars, their capitalist friends make a killing manufacturing the guns and bombs, and working-class people on both sides are literally killed.
Vladimir Putin and his oligarch friends, for example, are in no more physical danger than Dick Cheney and his friends at Halliburton were during the war in Iraq. It’s working-class Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians who are doing the dying now — and who will continue to die in even greater numbers if people like Hillary Clinton get their openly expressed wish and Ukraine becomes an Afghanistan-style quagmire for Putin.
In Debs’s Canton antiwar speech, he praised those few German socialists who had the courage to stand by their antiwar convictions and spoke of the “thousands of socialists” who “have languished in the jails of Germany because of their heroic warfare upon the despotic ruling class of that country.” He took it for granted that solidarity with them and opposition to the war that was being waged by his government against theirs went hand in hand — the same approach taken by Jacobin writers who express love and solidarity for the brave antiwar protestors in Russia while also opposing calls for deeper or more direct US involvement in the conflict.
Thoughtful people can disagree on some of the particulars. New York magazine’s Eric Levitz, for example, argues that sending some level of military aid to Ukraine isn’t an imperial intervention so much as a means of enabling Ukrainians to fight on their own behalf, and that without such military aid to the Ukrainian government, the Russian government has little incentive to get serious about peace negotiations.
Others, like my Jacobin colleagues Branko Marcetic and Daniel Bessner, have argued that the Joe Biden administration has consistently displayed a disinterest in pursuing a negotiated settlement instead of inflicting maximum military pain on Russia, and that there are far greater possible downsides to flooding the country with weapons than NATO-friendly progressives are willing to grant — ranging from making the war longer and bloodier to Osama bin Laden–style blowback resulting from US arms winding up in the hands of far-right forces like the Azov Battalion.
They also point out that if we’re serious about winding down the military-industrial complex and no longer having the United States in the business of keeping the world supplied with deadly weapons, we have to start opposing arms transfers in particular cases even when there may be real trade-offs — and that in any case, given the long history of unintended consequences from Western military interventions, the best things we can do for Ukrainians are to focus on humanitarian aid, promote peace negotiations, and admit refugees. What’s happening right now may be an arms dealer’s dream, but there are a great many ways it could be a nightmare for everyone else.
Other issues are vastly easier calls for anyone with an anti-militarist bone in their body. A “no-fly zone,” for example, would be the height of insanity. It wouldn’t lead to World War III. The American military entering a war zone with the announced intention of shooting down Russian planes would be World War III. The only remaining question would be whether it would stay conventional or confirm Albert Einstein’s prediction that, whatever weapons World War III is fought with, “World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
That scenario is thankfully quite unlikely — although heading off even a 1 percent chance of the end of human civilization should surely be at the top of any remotely sane list of priorities. Such a war would bring far more suffering to the segment of society that started it than any previous war, but all wars, conventional or nuclear, bring devastation to people at the bottom. Even in a global thermonuclear conflict, if there are any escapes to be had, either to mineshafts (à la Dr Strangelove) or spaceships (à la Don’t Look Up), they’ll only be available to the wealthiest and best connected. As with all previous wars, the rest of us would be fucked.
A Tradition Worth Defending
The lack of a mass socialist movement in the United States and similar societies has meant that what previous generations of leftists understood as “internationalism” often feels like a half-garbled memory. But before throwing around the term, we should remember its history — ranging from Eugène Pottier writing about armies going on strike and workers around the world singing that song in their own languages to Eugene V. Debs going to prison for declaring his solidarity with the German working class by opposing sending the US working class to kill them.
It’s a term that has always meant opposition to both foreign tyrannies and allegedly anti-tyrannical wars that never seem to play out like their cheerleaders predict. It’s what the Industrial Workers of the World were singing about in one of my favorite lyrics in the IWW songbook:
Well, I’ve been agitatin’ now for fifty years or more / for jobs or for equality and always against war
You want to talk about the tradition of socialist internationalism? That’s the tradition.
Accept no substitutes.