Michael Brooks was that rarest thing: a warm and brilliant communicator who combined sweeping intellectual curiosity with deep moral conviction. I was only able to speak with Michael a few times, but I was immediately struck by how real his interest in other people was. Michael never did that thing where one gets a few stock questions about your life out of the way before moving on to talking about oneself. To talk with him was an experience of two people really getting to know one another, and he made you feel valued by the sincerity of his interest in your opinions and concerns.
This is why, in the three years since Michael passed away, his loss has never been more keenly felt. Cut down as he was rising to the height of his powers, Michael had just released his book Against the Web, responding to the “Intellectual Dark Web,” which ended with a few of his thoughts about “cosmopolitan socialism” and what it might mean to his intellectual and spiritual heroes. For Michael, authors like Cornel West and Amartya Sen and politicians like his beloved Lula da Silva embodied a kind of cosmopolitan spirit, wherein nothing human was foreign to them — and no person who needed help was too far away for them to listen.
All this made it intimidating when I was pitched on writing a book on cosmopolitan socialism to build on what Michael had set out to do. On the one hand, it seemed like a reasonable fit; I’d already written a book on international law and cosmopolitanism and had always wanted to come back to the topic. On the other hand, it was hard to imagine a more humbling request. I wasn’t Michael, and I felt it deeply wrong that he’d been denied the time needed to write his own book on the subject.
Eventually, with more than a little encouragement from my friend Ben Burgis and Michael’s family, I came to feel doing the best job I could was the most respectful tribute I could pay to Mike’s legacy. The end result was A How To Guide To Cosmopolitan Socialism, an attempt to explain some of the history and philosophical rationale underlying the ideals that Michael espoused.
The Cosmopolitan Tradition
The Greek word Kosmos can be translated as “world” or “universe” and of course “cosmos.” Polites translates to “citizen” and is in turn related to polis, which refers to the literal center of the city or the political community as a whole. Simply put, a cosmopolitan is someone whose community is the world or the entire universe.
The philosophical tradition of cosmopolitanism is usually thought to have begun in the Western world with Diogenes the Cynic, who famously declared himself a citizen of the world when he wasn’t telling Alexander the Great to slag off. Later, the Stoics also played a crucial role in establishing a new cosmopolitan attitude in the sweeping Roman Empire. The Stoics stressed that though we all may prioritize the families and communities of our birth, our common humanity requires us to broaden the spheres of our concern ever wider. Stoics like Seneca also put forward early arguments for the moral equality of all human beings, noting how emperor and slave alike come into the world naked and vulnerable, and leave it by returning to dust.
But the ideal of cosmopolitanism has roots outside the West as well. Legend has it that after a particularly great battle, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (304–232 BCE), ruling in what is now India, expressed horror at the suffering carried out in his name. Converting to Buddhism, Ashoka declared he would fight no more aggressive wars and committed himself to interfaith dialogue and establishing a community of harmony and tolerance.
Without a doubt the most important philosopher of cosmopolitanism was Immanuel Kant. Kant is most famous for his epoch-making work on epistemology and consciousness, The Critique of Pure Reason, along with his pioneering contributions to deontological moral theory in the Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals and other works. But Kant was also actively concerned with the course of world history and was deeply disturbed by the never-ending wars and brutalities initiated by authoritarian governments. In essays like “Perpetual Peace” and “Idea for a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” Kant called for an end to wars and the peaceful transition of all states to a republican system of government, and developed an early version of refugee rights based on an entitlement to hospitality for those fleeing danger — ideas that he thought were necessary to realize universal human freedom.
Despite these merits, Kant’s work was flawed. He defended racial stereotypes and at times flirted with excluding non-Europeans from his universalism. Criticisms of Kant have come from other corners too: in the Philosophy of Right, for instance, G. W. F. Hegel rejected cosmopolitanism, in part because he felt its abstract universalism could never substantiate strong ethical commitments to others so far away. The nation-state would have to serve as the political locus of interpersonal loyalties.
Karl Marx in turn launched a profound critique of Hegel’s philosophy of the state as a stepping stone to his own ideas. For Marx, Hegel was right to see history as a process of expanding human freedom, through the working out of social tension or conflicts. But the Hegelian reverence for the state showcased the limits of philosophical idealism, which saw history as driven by the development of ideas rather than by material forces and interests. Hegel claimed also that any tensions that emerged in the state must be managed by thought, through the pacifying influence of statist religion and philosophy.
Marx argued that, in fact, social tensions reflected real conflicts in the material relations of society, and religion and philosophy could at best give expression to those conflicts without resolving them. One potential conflict he observed lay in the tension between bourgeois nationalism’s necessary role in providing an ideological basis for the emerging state and the imperatives of the emerging capitalist order, which demanded that capitalists supersede the barriers of the nation state while disrupting local ways of life. In ideal times, the two could coexist harmoniously, as they did in the mid-twentieth-century era of strong national welfare states. But in other contexts they could come into conflict, as we’ve seen recently with nationalist, right-wing backlash against globalization and “free trade” in the United States, the UK, and across Europe.
The problems of capitalism, Marx thought, could only be overcome by the transition to a higher form of society (socialism and then communism). And he believed the vehicle that would accomplish this was the international working class, which was subject to the domination of capital everywhere and needed to fight against it globally. This was the hope embodied in slogans like “Workers of the World Unite!” But importantly, for Marx, socialism wouldn’t entail the replacement of one form of group domination by another. Instead, class hierarchies would be eliminated, with the free development of each becoming a condition for the free development of all, and human flourishing becoming an end in itself for the first time.
In no small part because of Marx’s influence, socialists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have often acknowledged the cosmopolitan sweep of their ambitions — after all, workers are exploited the world over. But this cosmopolitan orientation ran into severe challenges, ranging from the support of many socialist parties for nationalist militarism in World War I to the authoritarian degeneration of socialism in the Soviet Union and other purportedly socialist states.
Some of these challenges were due to the tremendous barriers to successful international organization, not least those imposed by reactionary forces. But some of it emerged from the more general fact that, in the absence of a worldwide revolution, the most admirable forms of social democratic and socialist organization were those constructed at the level of the nation-state. The Nordic forms of social democracy in the West and the many socialist anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements in the Global South are emblematic in different ways. Efforts were made by organizations like the Socialist International to organize social democratic states and parties into a more global movement. But none of these ever achieved the influence of capitalist financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, in no small part due to the lack of a powerful imperial backer like the United States.
Michael Brooks’s Legacy
Despite this, the goal of a truly cosmopolitan socialism is a worthy one, as Michael Brooks well understood. In Against the Web, he acknowledged that many on the Left might be skeptical for a variety of reasons. Some might look at existing antagonisms of interest between the ruling and exploited classes and imagine that achieving a harmonious, equal society is impossible. Others might argue that there are profound divisions between people of different cultures, genders, sexual orientations, and races, differences that might be so profound as to doom efforts to unite people around a universalistic socialist project.
Michael was sensitive to these worries and acknowledged that socialists could not dismiss fights against nonclass forms of oppression as less morally important than the global struggle against capitalism. With Nancy Fraser and other socialist feminists, he understood that there was no disconnecting the struggle against capitalist domination by capital from fights for gender and racial inequality.
But Michael also believed we could achieve unity out of these differences, in part by celebrating human variety. He loved to point out that human beings of all kinds have constantly been in dialogue with and learning from one another, and that many of the differences we draw between ourselves and others look less significant when you step back and survey our shared histories of human life. Ruminating on the “ancient Western tradition,” Michael reminded us that it “was in fact highly geographically and intellectually diverse” and included African and pan-Asian sources that are misleadingly remembered as “Greek” or “Roman.” He thought that people should strive to emulate the curiosity and rigor of the Christian revolutionary intellectual Cornel West, who explores the “echoes between Anton Chekhov and the blues with no interest in drawing artificial lines between cultures.” Finding insight and even joy in these forms of unity from diversity is fundamental to the ethos of cosmopolitan socialism at its best.
I follow my late comrade Michael in thinking we need to embrace this spirit and ethos by recovering the humanist universalism of Brooks, West, Amartya Sen, and others. Taking seriously the cosmopolitan mantra that nothing human is foreign to us means pushing it to the conclusion that struggles against domination in one part of the world mean as much as struggles in another.