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Internationalism after Empire

United Kingdom
Social Change
Britain's Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn joins other demonstrators at an anti-Trump protest in central London, Britain, 13 July 2018.
REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Richard Seymour will be speaking alongside Karma Nabulsi, Charlotte Riley and Kehinde Andrews at a New Internationalist panel, ‘An Internationalist Labour Party?’, on Saturday 22 September 2018 at The World Transformed in Liverpool, UK. Get tickets for the four-day politics, arts and music festival here.

What would it mean for the British Labour Party to be an internationalist party today? That is, in an age of imperial decline?

The Atlantic alliance between Washington and London has never been weaker. The UK’s military budget has been cut for eight years. By 2020, the British Army is set to be its smallest since the Napoleonic wars. Scottish independence and Brexit mean even Britain’s future as a multinational state is in question.

Will this historical juncture allow Labour to shed the ugly history of imperial nationalism and forge a new internationalism? It depends on what you mean by internationalism. Throughout the history of the European Left, many self-proclaimed internationalists and radical reformers were cheerleaders of violence abroad: the Saint-Simonians defended the French Empire; Engels embraced the French conquest of Algeria and the American war on Mexico; Charles Dickens called for Hindus to be wiped out after the 1857 Indian Uprising; and the Fabians in the Labour Party supported despotic rule over the Empire since it was ‘no longer a Commonwealth of white men and baptized Christians’.

These attitudes filtered into mainstream Labourism. Labour’s 1919 policy platform, drafted with heavy Fabian input, supported colonialism in light of ‘the moral claims upon us of the non-adult races’. Labour’s first colonial secretary, J. H. Thomas, would tolerate ‘no mucking about with the British Empire’ and sent the RAF to bomb Iraq. Labour’s instincts were always pro-colonial, as when Herbert Morrison relished that Zionists ‘proved to be first class colonizers, to have the real good, old empire qualities’. As anticolonial struggles took off after the Second World War, Fabians worried about leaving the colonized to their ‘primitive’ devices, arguing that only socialists could show how ‘the primitive and colonial peoples can be integrated within the organized life of mankind’.

That tendency was always contested, from W.T. Stead’s Stop the War Committee, launched during the Boer War, to the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM). These movements, led by the Left, pursued internationalism from below not 20,000 feet above. But their ideas did not characterize Labour in government. What did, as empire was defeated, was the Atlantic alliance, increasingly justified in the language of ‘liberal internationalism’.

US President Woodrow Wilson, who founded this doctrine, was a Klan-sympathizing white-supremacist who opposed self-government for the colonized. His slogan of national self-determination, purloined from the Bolsheviks, meant white self-determination. But overt racism was killed off as a principle of foreign policy during the Cold War by the movements for black liberation from Alabama to Algiers. What emerged afterwards was anti-communist realpolitik and the paternalistic doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’.

Labour in office had always been pro-nukes and pro-empire but anti-imperialist and anti-racist forces were briefly unleashed in the decades after the Second World War. Their comprehensive defeat in the neoliberal era allowed Labour to resurface more fanatically Atlanticist than before. For Tony Blair, as he outlined in Chicago in 1999, internationalism meant a world order of markets, rights and laws policed by military action. Many of his supporters bought it wholesale. Britain in Iraq was, one liberal journalist simpered, the ‘armed wing of Amnesty International’.

So much for that. Post-Brexit and post-Iraq, the winds have scattered these coordinates. Labour is led, for the first time, by a socialist activist. There is a chance to rethink internationalism. Corbyn’s tradition is not that of liberal imperialism nor social-democratic chauvinism. His is that of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, the AAM, the Stop the War Coalition and the Palestine Solidarity Committee. His internationalism is that of peace between peoples, under international law, overseen by the United Nations.


Jeremy Corbyn speaking about ‘the twilight existence of migrant life’ at a New Internationalist event in 2008.

Is this the way forward? Not straightforwardly. International law, owing in part to its colonial origin, is often state-centric and hostile to non-state movements. The UN, created at the behest of the US government, has a largely awful record in regard to imperialism. There are other traditions to learn from: the proletarian internationalism of the Left, including three Internationals and the International Brigades; the anticolonial internationalism of the Bandung Conference; and the Black internationalism of the Cold War era.

But there is an even bigger dilemma here, which affects the whole British Left. The movements that inspired modern Corbynism hail from an era when it mattered what the British Left did. It mattered because Britain was an empire-state. Because Britain was murdering people in Malaya, Kenya and Northern Ireland. Because British capital and arms supported apartheid in South Africa, just as British weapons and diplomacy support apartheid in Palestine. From that awful power arose the possibility of a strategic counter power.

What happens if the future of global conflict is more like Syria than Iraq? That is, if the most shattering social struggles take place without the British state playing the major role? What if Britain is not that important anymore? Relative decline is a staggered process, and there are forces pushing for a new Cold War to delay its onset. But what will internationalism look like if it can’t shadow imperialism? This is a question that will only be answered in experience. But we have to be able to pose the question.

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