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What does internationalism actually mean?

From Algiers to the Bandung Conferences, what became of the Third World movement?

Yohann Koshy returns to the golden age of solidarity between Global South states.

Anyone interested in the meaning of internationalism in the second half of the 20th century would have been wise to visit Algiers. When Algeria won independence from the French in 1962 – after an unspeakably brutal eight-year war of decolonization – it embraced wholeheartedly those who had supported the struggle from abroad. The new government instituted an ‘open-door policy of aid to the oppressed’, inviting ‘liberation and opposition movements and personalities from around the world’ to its capital city, as Elaine Mokhtefi writes in her memoir Algiers, Third World Capital.

Algiers became a foreign base for Black Panthers, Palestinian guerrillas, exiled politicians from Latin America and southern Europe, representatives from liberation movements in South Africa, Ethiopia and what is now Namibia, and even separatists fighting for an independent Québec. As Amílcar Cabral, the Bissau-Guinean revolutionary, put it: ‘Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca, Christians to the Vatican, and the national liberation movements to Algiers.’

The Third World

Mokhtefi worked as a go-between for the Black Panthers and the Algerian government. She became a confidante of Eldridge Cleaver, the charismatic Panther leader, translating from French into English for him and helping the Black Panthers establish their first and only overseas office. A child of the Great Depression, Mokhtefi left the United States to escape McCarthyism, and ended up in Algeria via France. ‘Being international was a way of remaining political, finding out what was happening abroad, taking advantage of what opportunities there were,’ she tells me on the telephone from New York, where she now lives.

This was a moment, in the wake of the Second World War, characterized by immense hope for the prospects of global co-operation. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in 1948, affirmed a profoundly important set of rights that by their nature were transnational; Garry Davis, a former B-14 bomber pilot, famously renounced his US citizenship and started issuing world citizen passports; the World Federalist Movement, which advocated a form of global government that was more democratic than the UN, could count on the support of Albert Einstein and, later, Martin Luther King; subjugated nations were supporting each other as they cast off the yoke of colonialism.

‘[Internationalism] was the spirit of the time,’ Mokhtefi tells me. And Algiers was just one star in a constellation that represented this spirit: the Third World. In Vijay Prashad’s formulation, the Third World was not a place, but a political project. Its history can be traced through a series of conferences, beginning with the Bandung Conference in 1955. Here, representatives of over half of the world’s population – including Indonesia’s Sukarno, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, China’s Zhou Enlai and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser – affirmed themselves as a common force.

The message was clear: the ‘darker nations’ were no longer playthings for the colonizers. There were vast ideological differences between the Bandung states, from anti-communist governments in the Philippines and Turkey, who were happy to sign accords with Western powers, to Mao’s China (then unrecognized by the US), but they shared an experience of being marginalized by colonialism and shunted by imperialism: a world system that ensured it was the rich countries that called the shots.

The Bandung Conference, and the Non-Aligned Movement meetings that followed it, showed that internationalism was a necessary strategy in the post-colonial era: nations pooled resources to raise their voice on the world stage. The economy was the terrain where this unity counted most. To try to prise open the rich world’s grip on credit and technology, and its domination of newly created institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Third World formed the United Nations Committee on Trade and Development and G77 (a grouping of 77 developing nations) in 1964.

By the 1970s, the calls for a ‘New International Economic Order’ were getting louder. (The first issue of New Internationalist, published in 1973, took up this mantle, arguing that ‘[changes] in the policies of the rich world are… essential if the war on world poverty is ever to be won’.) Mexican President Luis Echeverria crystallized three demands: 1) the right of every nation to control its natural resources; 2) the subjection of foreign corporations to domestic regulation; 3) the transfer of technology from rich to poor countries. Western Europe, the US and Japan were not keen on the demands, which smacked of protectionism. That the US government gave huge subsidies to its own agricultural producers had no bearing, of course.

From their point of view, by the time of the North-South Summit in 1981, when profane talk of subordinating the IMF to United Nations control was in the air, something had to be done. US President Ronald Reagan made it clear that there was to be no ‘gigantic international bureaucracy… in charge’ of the world economy. Eventually, neoliberalism – as expressed through the ‘structural adjustment programmes’ that compelled poor states to slash public spending and open up to foreign capital in return for IMF loans – put paid to the dreams of a New International Economic Order.

Internationalism flows through the grooves cut across the planet by colonialism and globalization.

In Algeria things had already fallen apart. ‘There were periods when I watched Algeria become extremely nationalistic,’ Mokhtefi recalls. Like other Third World movements that seized power suddenly with inexperienced leaders, the Algerian state took on an authoritarian character. A radical social agenda, which included workers’ democracy, was thwarted by poor governance. The head of the army, Houari Boumedienne, led a military coup in 1965. As for the Black Panthers, for all their vital work in the US, such as setting up free breakfast programmes in impoverished black neighbourhoods, the Algiers office was hobbled by internal politics.

Cleaver’s misogyny and machismo dominated proceedings. One day he confessed to Mokhtefi that he had just murdered a comrade for sleeping with his wife. A few sagas involving hijacked aeroplanes commandeered by black radicals put their Algerian hosts’ patience to the test. By the 1990s, the Panthers were a spent force. And the South had awoken from the dream of Third World internationalism.

Today’s world

Internationalism has always been a protean concept. Some take it as a synonym for globalization; for others it means co-operation through multilateral institutions; and, after the Cold War, it simply meant, in the words of Perry Anderson, the ability of the United States to ‘extend its military power to Eurasia’ (to the former Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan etc). For the Left, internationalism is rooted in a revolutionary, working-class and anti-imperialist tradition.

The irony of this type of internationalism is that it has often been most effective when working hand in hand with nationalism. The internationalists of the 19th century, like Giuseppe Garibaldi (see timeline), fought for national republics to dislodge the aristocracy. The Second International, a congress of global socialist parties that lasted from 1889 to 1916, was made up of nationally bounded parties that contested national elections.

The Bandung states deployed what might be called anti-nationalist nationalisms, since they saw national sovereignty as a form of self-protection but understood the importance of co-operating with other states from the Global South.

There are embers of this type of emancipatory nation-building today. In Rojava in northern Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the military wing of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, have inspired volunteers from across the world to fight and die for their democratic, feminist, socialist polity, against Turkish and ISIS aggression. It is the closest contemporary analogue to the internationalism of the brigadistas who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

But such examples are rare. And nationalism, even when allied with a progressive internationalism, so often spirals towards reactionary politics. The Second International collapsed because most of its member parties embraced the patriotic fervour of the First World War. The 1978-89 wars in southeast Asia, which started when Vietnam invaded and occupied Cambodia, showed that a blind adherence to national interest could even corrupt those who professed South-to-South solidarity.

With this legacy behind us, what form could internationalism take today? One answer might lie with an initiative proposed in 2018, the Progressive International. Launched by former Greek finance minister and economics professor Yanis Varoufakis, with the support of US Senator Bernie Sanders, the Progressive International calls on the Left to counter the ‘Nationalist International’ that is being constructed by ‘Viktor Orbán in the North [and] Jair Bolsonaro in the South, Rodrigo Duterte in the East [and] Donald Trump in the West’. 

These new nationalisms, sensitive to the precariousness produced by the post-2008 global economy, gain electoral traction by appealing to ‘geographic origin and citizenship’, affirming – against the dislocating forces of globalization – that their people are citizens of somewhere. It is an easy and effective strategy. The Progressive International’s founders note that there are internationalist activists and politicians on the Left, but bemoan their lack of interest in the ‘vast infrastructure of international institutions [like the World Bank and UN] that have tremendous power to transform the world’.

‘The goals of the Progressive International are to reopen imaginative, creative and global thinking on how to reshape the world order,’ David Adler, a writer and researcher who is laying the groundwork with Varoufakis, tells me over Skype. The project is valuable, not least because one of its aims is to flesh out a Green New Deal at an international level. Climate change may indeed be the new common enemy, like colonialism before it, which galvanizes a new internationalism.

But, with a focus on institutions like the IMF and World Bank, it may find that its sights are set on the wrong place. This century, the centre of gravity is shifting from Washington to Beijing. And China has little interest in reforming US-dominated multilateral institutions. It has already created its own: in 2010, Chinese state-controlled banks lent more to the Global South than the World Bank did.

The nations that once defined themselves as the Third World, smarting from their experience in the neoliberal era, see Beijing as a more reliable development partner, even if this engenders new forms of neo-colonial dependency, such as in 2017, when China took ownership of a seaport it built for Sri Lanka, which was unable to pay its debts. The lack of a tangible enemy – the amorphous threat of financialized capitalism is harder to pin down, in rhetoric and experience, than a colonial master – will also complicate any new internationalist organization.

Still, attempts at forming new internationalist organizations will perform a vital function if they remind Europe’s ‘internationalists’ to stay true to their ideals. Whether it is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise or tendencies within the party of German democratic socialists Die Linke, an internationalist perspective has been lacking when it comes to one of its most important test grounds today: migration. 

For instance, Mélenchon’s leftism stops at the borders. Rather than welcome migrants, he claims they are ‘stealing the bread’ of French workers; in a more empathetic mood, he condemns the conditions that force them to move, stating ‘people do not leave for pleasure’.

Corbyn’s party fares better, but has shied away from defending the free movement of people as a potential feature of a post-Brexit Labour government. (The Labour Party’s commitment to shut down Yarl’s Wood, an infamous women’s migrant detention centre, is commendable.) Conversely, the most vocal Remainers, who voted to stay in the EU, often have a rose-tinted view of what free movement as EU policy entails: European migrants can only stay in host countries for longer than three months if they have a job or can prove they ‘won’t become a burden on the social services of the host Member State during their stay’. Much worse is Fortress Europe’s atrocious record toward non-EU citizens, which includes returning migrants to dangerous and degrading conditions in Libya, to name just one human rights violation. 

In this morass, it has been individuals, small groups and municipalities displaying moral leadership: the French farmer Cédric Herrou, arrested for assisting migrants in their passage through the Alps; Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo who has ordered local offices to ignore new anti-migrant measures from central government; the regular solidarity drives from the UK to the so-called ‘Jungle’ in Calais, where migrants languish under a newly built one-kilometre-long concrete wall; or the Italian activists and German NGO Seawatch who repurposed a ship to patrol the Mediterranean to rescue migrants in distress.

The ethical imperative to put migrants at the centre of today’s internationalism is clear. But there is strategic value too. ‘Domestically, we see time and time again that migrants – so exposed to precarious labour and minimum-wage violations – are the most important agents for political change,’ Adler tells me. Migrants are at the forefront of campaigns – over housing, work, the right to a life worth living – and their participation improves the lot for every­one.

‘Historically, how did the Left [in Britain] get built?’ asks political analyst Richard Seymour. ‘The Chartist movement was built in part by migrants, by Irish workers… [and] it was black South African migrants who helped build a big part of the Left in terms of the struggle against apartheid.’ Internationalist politics today does not always require crossing borders, in the style of Garibaldi or Third World revolutionary adventurers, when the border crosses us.

The next world

The Elephant & Castle shopping centre hovers above a busy London thoroughfare like a spaceship – a dilapidated spaceship covered in flaking blue paint. When opened in 1965 it was one of the first American-style malls in Europe. Today it has fallen into disrepair – the escalators break down and the wallpaper peels – but it has emerged as a centre of working-class cosmopolitanism, the focal point of London’s 113,000-strong Latin American community.

The shopping centre is unlike the rest of the contemporary capital with its banal commercial spaces lacquered in unrepentant glass. There are 130 independent traders and a welcoming, unpretentious air. A fast-food joint, with an elderly clientele, has wipe-clean seats and tables fixed to the ground; a small shop offers consumer credit with posters in Polish; locals sit around on chairs, talking on the phone and to each other; stalls conduct remittances so people can make an ‘envío de dinero’ (money transfer) – each a tributary of the $22 billion that flows to migrants’ home economies from Europe every year.

In Tekk Room, an IT and logistics shop, a man is sending a package to Addis Ababa. He has difficulty recalling the addressee’s name. He says his mind is elsewhere. The shop’s owner, Emad, helps tease the answer from him. Once this is done, he gives the customer a tracking number. ‘Type this and it will tell you where it is,’ he says. Then, by way of illustration, he sketches a possible trajectory. ‘From Dover to Paris, from Paris to Egypt, from Egypt to Sudan…’ He and the customer laugh at the idea of the trans-continental journey awaiting this cardboard box.

Emad, an Egyptian with a gregarious demeanour, is the chair of the Elephant & Castle Independent Traders’ Association – a group that he created after finding out that the shopping centre was slated for demolition and that he, and his 129 colleagues, were to be turfed out. Over a tea in a Latin-owned café, he tells me his story: how the shopping centre was taken over by a new property developer, Delancey, which, alongside committing to demolishing the building, had priced independent tenants out of the redeveloped centre that will replace it by setting exorbitant – ‘market value’ – rates. Emad’s association is fighting – and slowly winning – a better relocation package.

‘The biggest lesson I’ve learned is never stand back without fighting back,’ he declares. Emad has forged bonds with other local groups, including student campaigners, the advocacy charity Latin Elephant and social-housing campaigners. As we speak, he switches into Spanish, a language he has recently learned, to joke with passers-by: ‘I can now not only converse in Spanish, but also invoke my own sense of humour with my Egyptian culture. It feels like one family.’

Internationalism is a politics that flows through the grooves cut across the planet by colonialism and globalization. Bruce Robbins, in The Beneficiary, argues that the ethical foundation of internationalism was partly built from ‘commodity recognition’: when consumers in the metropole recognized the trail of suffering and exploitation behind what they bought, from tea grown in China to the sugar that sweetened it. Women, since it was mainly women who bought food, ‘took the lead in the sugar boycotts that accompanied the abolitionist campaigns of the 1790s, aimed at slave-grown sugar’.

A 21st-century internationalism depends on a similar revelation. This particular campaign, playing out in a corner of a crumbling Empire’s capital, to save a shopping centre condenses a host of global forces: London’s Latin American population, whose numbers have swelled over the past decade following the Eurozone debt crisis that forced migration to northern Europe from Spain; the property developer, Delancey, which is registered in Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands using a system of tax avoidance engineered by British officials in the Empire’s heyday; and the commodified land under the shopping centre, which has become so valuable to investors since the global financial crisis, which led to a decade of speculation in property rather than productive investment.

A few days before I spoke to Emad, activists documented on Twitter that some graffiti on the shopping centre’s façade had been scrubbed out. A mix of English, Spanish, and an old anti-fascist slogan popularized in the Spanish Civil War, it read: ‘Los Property Developers No Pasarán!’ (‘Property developers will not pass!’) The internationalist tradition lives on in these words. For all the glorious images of grand conferences and globe-trotting revolutionaries that characterize the last century, the viability of internationalism today begins with local, grounded struggles for housing, better conditions and community power – struggles which need to be oriented towards a horizon from which, eventually, borders and nation-states recede from view.

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