What Does Left Internationalism Mean in the 21st Century?

Israel’s genocide in Gaza has put international concerns front and center for the US left today. Jacobin spoke with three leading internationalist organizers about how leftists should think about international solidarity in the 21st century.

Students of City College of New York camp on the campus and take part in Gaza protest against Israeli attacks in New York, United States on April 25, 2024. (Fatih Aktas / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Interview by
Chris Maisano

The new US socialist movement that sprang from the 2016 presidential campaign was, in a certain sense, an “America First” left. Not because it was nationalistic, xenophobic, or isolationist but because it focused largely on domestic political questions: Medicare for All, student debt cancellation, and police racism and violence, among others.

October 7 changed this overnight. Since last fall, the overwhelming focus of the US left has been on protesting the US government’s deep complicity in Israel’s murderous retaliation against Palestinians. One of the biggest stories in American politics today is the wave of protest and repression that has swept university campuses and that seems poised to affect the outcome of this fall’s presidential election. Commencement day has already arrived for many students, but one thing seems clear — summer vacation will not end the movement in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

The Palestine solidarity movement raises a set of larger questions that the new left has yet to address. What is the meaning of internationalism today? What should socialist internationalism look like in an increasingly multipolar era? Would a multipolar world be more peaceful and progressive or just the latest version of great-power geopolitics? Jacobin contributing editor Chris Maisano recently spoke with three leading practitioners of internationalism on the US left — Phyllis Bennis, Bill Fletcher Jr, and Van Gosse — about their experiences in this field and their views of what it means to be an internationalist in the twenty-first century.

Chris Maisano

What was your path to internationalist politics?

Phyllis Bennis

For me, it was a matter of timing. I graduated high school in the big year of the anti–Vietnam War movement, which was 1968. If you went to college or were around universities, it was hard not to get pulled into antiwar stuff.

The draft played a huge role in that because people were directly affected. But it wasn’t only that; it was also a moment of what we would now call intersectionality. This was the height of the black student uprisings where I was in school in California. There was also a Latino student mobilization, and the student-rights issues were all over the place. The cops were on campus every other week, and the responses were dramatic.

I spent my childhood and youth as a hardcore Zionist — I suppose that’s a perverse kind of internationalism in a way. But I left all that stuff behind and went off to work on Vietnam.

Several years later, after studying imperialism and colonialism — because that’s what you did if you were a young lefty in those days — I realized this Israel stuff I always assumed was correct no longer sounded right. I went to my father’s library and read Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and found his letters to Cecil Rhodes where Herzl asked Rhodes for his support because, as he put it, their projects were “both something colonial.” That was that, and I started looking at Palestinian rights.

Van Gosse

It was definitely the Vietnam antiwar movement for me. My parents were academics in a typical college town, and it came up as the thing that was happening there. When I was ten, in 1968, my older brother explained to me that what the Vietnamese were doing was like what the Americans had done in 1776. They were fighting for their freedom as a country, and they were on the right side, and it suddenly made total sense.

I got involved in antiwar politics as a boy — I went to the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam with my mother. I was in New York City at that point, and if you were in New York City in the late 1960s or early ’70s the antiwar movement was all around you. There was a lot of electoral work too, like the George McGovern campaign in 1972.

In 1982, I got involved in El Salvador solidarity and stayed in that for thirteen years. That was really the formative thing for me, but everything was shaped by Vietnam.

Bill Fletcher Jr

I’ve been interested in international issues since I was very young, like nine or ten years old. I was very influenced by anti-communist propaganda in connection with the Vietnam War. Then in 1965, the United States invaded the Dominican Republic (DR). I had an uncle who had been a member of the Communist Party; after the Dominican Republic invasion, he came over to my great-grandmother’s house, where I was for some reason, and he was furious about it in a way you rarely see when something is not happening to someone personally. This shook me and shook my backward views.

That incident in connection with the DR left an impression on me that worked its way around in my head. A couple of years later, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and that was the defining moment in terms of who I was to become and what I wanted to do. Malcolm’s internationalism was very influential on me, and subsequently I became very close to the Black Panther Party. I became very involved in Vietnam work and issues around Africa.

Chris Maisano

The post-9/11 antiwar movement was very formative for me. I was in college when 9/11 happened, and I very quickly threw myself into antiwar organizing with my friends on campus. The three of you were involved in founding United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), which organized a number of very big antiwar demonstrations that I went to and remember quite well. What was your motivation for starting the group, and what in your estimation did it accomplish?

Phyllis Bennis

During the Vietnam antiwar movement, there was a broad movement that was basically saying, “Get the troops out, the US should not be there, the US should stop intervening,” and so on. Then there was a smaller core within that movement who said the Vietnamese are right. The chant was, “One side’s right, one side’s wrong, we’re on the side of the Vietcong.” It clearly identified with the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese. That was never a major component of the antiwar movement in terms of its numbers, but it was central to building the movement.

During the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, there was a similar situation. I was in the middle of one of the big antiwar coalitions, the precursor to UFPJ ten years later. We thought there was nothing progressive about the Iraqi government, which had actually been supported by the United States for many years — but others did, which was why there were two coalitions at the time.

American soldiers in Afghanistan, 2006. (John Moore / Getty Images)

The same split happened again ten years later. We thought US troops should get out of the Middle East, but we also recognized there were huge human rights issues in countries like Iraq. In the case of the Vietnamese, unlike Iraq, [the National Liberation Front and North Vietnam] were fighting for a kind of progressive social program. They didn’t do it well all the time, but it was a set of principles we believed in too. That was true in the Central American wars and in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. But it was not the case in the first Gulf War or the Iraq War or the Afghanistan war.

The day after 9/11, some of us met at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and started talking about how a disastrous war was inevitably coming and how it was going to shape the next political period. We thought that what was needed after the attacks was justice, not vengeance. So we initiated a statement called “Justice, Not Vengeance” and worked with Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover to get other high-profile people to sign it.

Our sense was that the American people were not being given any other options for how to respond to such a horrific crime. They were not being told that there were options other than war. The government and the media told the American people, either we go to war or we let the perpetrators get away with it. This was the context in which the three of us and a bunch of other people came together to form UFPJ.

Bill Fletcher Jr

I was on vacation in the summer of 2002. One day it really hit me that George W. Bush was going to take us to war — that it wasn’t just rhetoric. So I got on the phone with Van and I said, what the hell? What are we going to do?

Van went to work on this, and we both started thinking about people to bring together. Some efforts had already been started; Medea Benjamin had put together a website that was called United for Peace. Then, on October 25, 2002, we founded UFPJ. It was the broadest of the antiwar coalitions. It was very anti-sectarian, which distinguished it from ANSWER [Act Now to Stop War and End Racism]. We did some remarkable work, and the work that led to the February 15, 2003, global march against the war was amazing.

An Iraq War protest in San Francisco, California, on March 19, 2008. (Alex Robinson / Flickr)

The work was so good that we missed some important things that we should have been thinking about, like how difficult it is to stop a ruling class from pulling the trigger unless there are real fractures and divisions within that ruling class. We also didn’t have much in the way of a strategy for what to do after the war started.

Van Gosse

I was organizing director of Peace Action for five years, from 1995 to 2000. We did some good work, but there was a kind of political abstentionism going on in the peace movement after the Cold War, in the sense that none of the national peace organizations was prepared to call for full-on national mobilization. There was lobbying, “dear colleague” letters, and what have you.

ANSWER walked into that vacuum. That was extremely problematic because it meant when you wanted to protest the bombing of Kosovo, you went to a demonstration where there were people with big photos of Slobodan Milošević. I don’t want to be marching with Milošević photos. By the spring of 2002, it was clear that the United States wanted to go to war in Iraq. I remember thinking, are we really only going to have a narrow, sectarian coalition? A coalition in name only, really; there was no national organization in it.

We didn’t have a strategy. We were just desperately trying to stop the war. I remember Phyllis saying to us at a meeting that we had a chance to stop it, and I think we did. What nobody seems to remember is that around 60 percent of the House Democratic caucus voted against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, and almost a majority of the Democratic caucus in the Senate did. The potential was there; there was nothing like lockstep support for war in Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Phyllis Bennis

The origins of that February 15, 2003, protest were not with UFPJ — it came out of the global justice movement in Europe, particularly the European Social Forum meeting in Italy that happened in November 2002. There were two or three thousand people crammed into the meeting place.

They were not mainly antiwar people; it was basically people from the anti–corporate globalization movement, which was on a roll at that point. That movement pivoted to focus on stopping this war. That was an incredible moment. UFPJ was pulled into that as the clear US counterpart to the Europeans and the Asian contingents that were part of it. There was less participation in planning from Africa and Latin America, but it was quite international when it took place.

What I regret the most, in some ways, is we didn’t recognize sooner that it was not a failure. Mobilizing fifteen million people in eight hundred cities around the world on one day was going to have an impact in the future, and we couldn’t anticipate exactly what that would look like at the time. But we know now that it’s one of the big reasons why Bush did not go to war against Iran in 2007. It’s one of the things that gave rise to the leadership of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. Protests almost never win the exact demand they’re fighting for now, but they set the stage for future mobilization, and we didn’t recognize that enough.

Chris Maisano

Bill and Van, some years ago you wrote an essay called “A New Internationalism.” In that essay, you argued:

In the second decade of the 21st century, however, our practice of internationalism is confused and stuck in old habits and discourses left over from the era of Third World liberation, beginning early in the twentieth century, and the Cold War of 1945–1991.

What did you mean by that, and do you still think this is the case?

Bill Fletcher Jr

A rift has developed within the global left and progressive movements around international issues and authoritarianism. In 2002 or 2003, there was massive repression in Zimbabwe under then president Robert Mugabe. All kinds of dissidents were being jailed. Trade unionists, including people that I knew personally, were jailed and tortured.

I had become the president of TransAfrica Forum (2002) and was in the leadership of the Black Radical Congress (BRC) around this time. The BRC’s coordinating committee discussed the Zimbabwe repression. An organization called Africa Action put out a sign-on letter protesting the repression in Zimbabwe; the letter came to us in the BRC, and the coordinating committee unanimously said, let’s sign onto this on behalf of the BRC.

Lordy, did all hell break loose. It became clear there was a whole section of the organization that was defiantly pro-Mugabe, which took the position that Mugabe was right to carry out this repression against alleged counterrevolutionaries, completely ignoring the neoliberal economic policies his government was carrying out. The coordinating committee had made a mistake in assessing what was going on within the organization.

But separate from that was the difference that was emerging about what constitutes internationalism, and how you deal with contradictions within countries that claim to be anti-imperialist, or at a minimum, anti–United States. It was a shock to the system for me, and at that point I realized the Left was in a whole new ball game — that we were going to have to rethink how we approach the global situation.

Phyllis Bennis

We had a similar debate at IPS about Zimbabwe, but we didn’t have a project at that point dealing with African policy so it wasn’t as sharp. But we’re seeing it now around Nicaragua and around Venezuela, and it’s no easier.

I have my own criticisms of what governments that I once supported when they were liberation movements are doing now, and I am not so happy about them now. But I’m not there. It’s not my place to be organizing against what the Vietnamese, for example, have done over the years in terms of labor rights or environmental concerns. But we certainly don’t defend it, and we do call it out. I still think our main work is challenging what our government is doing — but as internationalists we do recognize other governments’ human rights or other violations as well, and at times join with social movements in other countries to fight back against those violations.

It goes to the question of what we say about what our government is doing. One thing that’s hovering over this is our differences around Ukraine, which are less about what happened or what’s happening there than what the US government does about it. That is, I think, a more useful area of contention and debate within the Left, because people can have all kinds of different views about history and about who’s on what side.

Van Gosse

There is still this reflexive mode of thinking you should be on the side of whoever the United States is opposed to. It’s crude thinking, and I felt it long before the Ukraine crisis. I remember talking to you, Bill, in 2002 or 2003 about the Taliban and Afghanistan, and you said the Taliban is a form of clerical fascism, and I thought that’s getting right at it.

There’s an idea dating from the twentieth century that anti-imperialism is necessarily on the Left or progressive, and that’s inaccurate historically. Plenty of anti-imperialism has come from the Right — from traditional power holders, warlords, religious leaders who have been displaced by the modern imperialists and are going to fight back.

This requires a certain kind of analysis of what is actually going on. It doesn’t mean you take the side of the imperialists. But that inability to name what the Taliban actually was was striking. Many of these people, whether the Taliban or Saddam Hussein or others, had been supported by the United States at one point or another.

Bill Fletcher Jr

The idea that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” discredits us as a left. I remember sitting in a living room in 1973 or ’74 with a representative from the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in Angola who gave an incredible Marxist analysis of the struggle there and of what he claimed UNITA stood for, and his criticism of many other movements within the continent in terms of what they were doing.

Most of us were very familiar with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the MPLA, which was seen by us as problematically pro-Soviet. When UNITA emerged, many of us thought it was great. But then we found out that the story behind UNITA was a lot more complicated, including a mixture of legitimate revolutionaries with Portuguese agents and with tribalist forces in Angola. In fact, the guy that I met was later executed by Jonas Savimbi.

When it came to the Khmer Rouge, at the time many of us [thought] that the situation couldn’t have been that bad. Many of us refused to acknowledge what was going on. What that all taught me was the need for humility, and the need to investigate. I’ve seen countless people visiting the United States from alleged national liberation or left groups, and they say all the right things. But it’s not clear who they are, and you can easily jump to conclusions. We need to be prepared to do a concrete analysis and be willing to admit when we just don’t know.

Going back to when the repression went down in Zimbabwe, I remember having a discussion with this younger African American guy about it, and he was giving me the whole routine about Mugabe’s alleged anti-imperialism. I said, but they’re torturing people; I know people that are being tortured. What do you have to say about that? And this guy had no way of responding to it. That told me a lot about some of the deep weaknesses within the Left.

Phyllis Bennis

I had different kinds of experiences that led me to some of the same concerns around Vietnam. I was in Vietnam at the end of 1978, and it was just a couple of years after the war ended. Vietnam was still devastated.

The process of integration between north and south was just beginning, and Cambodia was still pretty much in a civil war. It wasn’t at the same level it had been, but the war was still going on. We began hearing strange rumors that the Vietnamese were thinking of going over the border and taking out the Khmer Rouge. I was there with an official delegation, and the Vietnamese officials who were with us assured us, no, that’s not going to happen.

We accepted that and went home, but shortly after we got back, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. We were like, whoa, let’s rethink all this.

Vietnam War protesters march at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on October 21, 1967. (Frank Wolfe / Lyndon B. Johnson Library)

It led to a sense that we need to be a little more careful. We had been hearing all this stuff about how terrible the Khmer Rouge were, and having the Vietnamese do what they did made those claims easier in some ways to accept because we still respected them so much. This kind of proved the claims about the Khmer Rouge to us, and it came at a time when it was hard to imagine how it could have been OK for the Vietnamese — who had always fought against China, Japan, France, and the United States for the notion of national sovereignty being primary — to overthrow another country’s government.

The other place where these concerns come up is on the question of armed struggle. We know that a nation under military occupation has the right to use military force to oppose that occupation. It does not have the right to use that force against civilians. We all know how to spout that idea about armed struggle in principle, but it doesn’t tell us when it’s the right thing to do.

The Palestinians are the last population in the traditional situation of being occupied by the top rank of US imperialist allies. There’s no question that a military occupation means they have the right to use military force, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do strategically. It’s a different era now. We’re no longer in an era where armed force is taken for granted as part of a global struggle against colonialism. There isn’t an armed global struggle against colonialism underway around the world.

If we look at the difference between the First and Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprisings that began in 1987 and then again in 2000, what stands out was the mass character of the First — overwhelmingly nonviolent — Intifada. The Second Intifada was an armed uprising that did include a lot of military targets, but it had plenty of civilian targets too. The biggest impact it had on Palestinians, in my view, is that it eliminated the mass character of the First Intifada, because when people with guns come out, everybody else goes home because it’s not safe. The children, the elders, the women who all played such a key role in the First Intifada had no role in the second one.

Bill Fletcher Jr

Many of us in the boomer generation used to think that a legitimate revolutionary movement equaled armed struggle, and armed struggle equaled a legitimate revolutionary movement.  When you look at a lot of the splits that happened in the Left in the 1960s, they were precisely over the question of armed struggle raised to the level of principle, not over whether it was tactically the right thing to do in the given conditions. Is this what we really need to do, or are we saying that this is what one does if one’s a “real” revolutionary? Many people did not move past that framework.

There is a growing strategic question being posed globally around what one does under very adverse circumstances, when there don’t appear to be nonviolent options. That’s why I think we have to be cautious about certain things that we say. In Myanmar, do the people have any option other than armed struggle? Probably not. In Kashmir, what should happen there? I don’t know. How do you build an anti-occupation struggle when you have this semi-fascist government in New Delhi?

Van Gosse

The twentieth-century left had a great deal of trouble acknowledging the dangers of militarism. There’s a quotation from Che Guevara that nobody ever cites where he says that every other road must be explored before you turn to armed struggle. He said that — but we know how he set the completely opposite example with disastrous consequences. Foquismo didn’t work, as far as I can see, anywhere, and it got a lot of people slaughtered.

Even the most justified armed struggle is still going to leave some deep wounds; there’s nothing positive about militarism. Violence will be inflicted on the innocent no matter what, and that’s a political and moral-ethical issue that people should take seriously. [On that point,] I think Dr Martin Luther King Jr was a great revolutionary with great strategic sense.

A lot of my thinking about this has been shaped by interest in and engagement with, from boyhood, the liberation struggle in Northern Ireland. There are people there who have a hundred or more years of history of unbroken anti-colonial struggle in their families. Seeing that, and the very negative consequences that have resulted from it, has taught me a lot about the costs of militarism. The Left has not really moved beyond the era of national liberation struggles, or ever really analyzed them and asked, what are the lessons to be learned?

Chris Maisano

Van, I think your point about militarization is a good one. Many of the national liberation movements of the mid-twentieth century won power on the strength of armed struggle, and as you’re saying, that has an effect on what comes next.

The means you use to achieve a political goal do a lot to shape the ends. In retrospect, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the governments that resulted from victorious national liberation struggles took that militaristic quality with them into government, whether you’re talking about Zimbabwe or Nicaragua or wherever.

Bill Fletcher Jr

I don’t think the problems that many of these governments had when they emerged from armed struggle were principally because they engaged in armed struggle. There have been a series of problems about the question of democracy and democracy in transitional circumstances, particularly when you are moving from a former colonial regime or neocolonial regime into something else. How does democracy fit into this process? What does it look like beyond voting? Vanguardism and lack of humility can lead to a whole series of problems.

For example, Amílcar Cabral and a cohort of quite brilliant theorists and strategists led the struggle against the Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau. If you look at some of the writings from the war, you feel fairly certain that Guinea-Bissau is going to come out of this struggle and become a model for Africa. That is exactly what didn’t happen. Cabral was murdered. There were contradictions that very few people wanted to talk about between the Cape Verdeans and the Bissau-Guineans. There was certainly a military element, but the military was largely kept under control by the party, at least during the liberation struggle. But there were underlying problems and fissures that the movement didn’t tackle.

The other thing I would add is that if you think the leading force of a revolutionary change is omniscient, then you immediately run into problems about the contradictions between the regime or state that’s put into place and the people they govern. In Grenada, the revolution that unfolded there from 1979 to 1983 had important and dynamic leadership in the New Jewel Movement. But it also had people represented by Bernard Coard, who followed a very Soviet model that saw the party as all-knowing.

They could not figure out how to build on democracy and recognize what the actual mandate of the revolution was. In Grenada, the mandate was anti-imperialist and anti-corruption. It was not a mandate for socialism. Coard ignored that and decided to plow ahead, irrespective of popular sentiment. So the mass organizations associated with the movement started running into problems and drying up. This was not mainly a problem of militarism — it was much deeper.

Van Gosse

Bill, in talking about what a movement’s mandate is, you’ve invoked a more fundamental issue in many ways, which is the legacy of Leninism. Leninism was the overwhelming political practice of people engaged in revolution. Even if they weren’t socialists or Marxists, they were still Leninists. Vanguardism is what Bill called it.

Phyllis Bennis

I think it does make sense to identify militarism as a challenge though — while certainly agreeing with both of you that it isn’t the only problem. The role of armed struggle within a broader movement strategy is a hard one.

The Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University, New York, on April 23, 2024. (Selcuk Acar / Anadolu via Getty Images)

I think the ANC [African National Congress] during the struggle period in South Africa did better than most at situating armed actions within a strategy with several different pillars, the most important had to do with mass mobilization. Armed action was relatively much less central than that. I’m not sure whether or how it was connected, but I don’t think it’s an accident that the ANC also had a strong strategy for mobilizing and building international solidarity. In fact, I think the openness of the South Africans working on building the case against Israeli genocide at the International Court of Justice to working with and taking seriously civil society is likely a reflection of that earlier strategic approach.

In addition to militarism, self-determination can be incredibly problematic when it’s taken as an absolute principle by anyone who claims it, because it’s ultimately about nationalism. Internationalism can get left behind.

I remember when Yugoslavia was breaking up, I wrote a piece about the transformation of nationalism from an almost-always progressive force — which, in retrospect, it wasn’t either — that existed largely in the Global South, in the formerly colonized countries, and was linked to socialism, anti-imperialism, and all the progressive ideas we supported. But suddenly all these new European nationalisms sprung up, micronationalisms if you will, that seemed to have no end.

Yugoslavia divided, violently, into seven small states. Within those states, there are “nationalist” movements. How do we define the right of self-determination in a way that makes it part of a struggle that makes people’s lives better, and lifts up the most oppressed?

Chris Maisano

I think what all of this points to is the question of what internationalism means today. This seems very unclear and very unsettled.

Bill Fletcher Jr

Something you hear very often on the Left — and it comes up all the time around Ukraine — is that our main job as leftists in the United States should be to fight our own imperialists. That is often used as a way of saying either that we should have nothing to say about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or that we should do nothing to support the Ukrainian resistance even if we oppose the invasion.

There is an old slogan, “Workers and oppressed people of the world unite.” It is not “workers, oppressed people, and progressive governments unite.” It says workers and oppressed people of the world, unite. If that is your North Star, our attitude toward specific governments is secondary to the question of the people, the masses in various countries. Regardless of who is waving what flag, when there is oppression, when there is exploitation, our internationalism should put us on the side of the oppressed — as opposed to an internationalism that is mainly about geopolitical relationships between states.

You hear a lot of people today saying that we need a multipolar world. With all due respect, that is wrong. We need a nonpolar world. We’ve seen multipolar worlds. September 1939 was a multipolar world; August 1914 was a multipolar world. In fact, when you look through the history of humanity, most of the time there’s a multipolar world.

Between 1945 and 1991, we had two superpowers, and that was fundamentally different, and then in the post-1991 period with US hegemony. The idea that having multiple poles creates better circumstances for peace and for freedom struggles and justice struggles is simply wrong. History does not back that up.

Chris Maisano

One of the most multipolar moments in European history, at least, was the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe. It was about great power cooperation to protect the status quo against democratic revolution.

Van Gosse

“Multipolar” is a polite way of saying a return to great power politics. Look at what that’s already produced — there’s nothing admirable about it.

Phyllis Bennis

Polarities in this sense are certainly a huge problem. And it doesn’t do any good to, for instance, expand the BRICS movement to incorporate wealthy and repressive Arab Gulf states into its ranks. It’s kind of like the perpetual effort for United Nations reform that always seems to come back to adding more wealthy and powerful countries to the five permanent members of the Security Council: Should they have a veto like the Perm Five, or maybe only a temporary veto? Why do we need to expand the number of privileged powers, rather than trying to democratize power? That’s a much harder challenge, I’m afraid.