News | History - Party / Movement History - International / Transnational - Global Solidarity “It’s Worth Talking About What This Might Mean for Us Today”

Historian Stefan Berger discusses the history of internationalism and what it can teach us about the future of global solidarity. A conversation


Stefan Berger, a director of the Institute for Social Movements in Bochum. Photo: Private

The origins of internationalism are mostly associated with the early labour movement, that is, with the political baby steps of the 19th century. But how old is internationalism really?

Stefan Berger: There are also older forms of internationalism, such as the Christian internationalism of the Middle Ages, a scholarly internationalism that formed European-wide networks with the rise of Renaissance humanism and during the Age of Enlightenment. In the 19th century, the internationalism of the labour movement was preceded by a liberal nationalism, which was often seen as both inspiration and competition for the internationalism of the labour movement. And there were also forms of internationalism in the non-Western, non-European world.

Stefan Berger is a historian, and has held the Chair of Social History and Social Movements at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum since 2011. He is also director of the Institute for Social Movements at the same institution. He spoke here with Uwe Sonnenberg.

Did these trends have any common themes?

Attempts at organizing across national borders have always occurred when people with the same or similar values systems came together across national and ethnic divides. During the 19th century, Christian, liberal, socialist, and anarchist transnational organizations were trying to connect across imperial and national divisions. Yet these attempts remained largely Western-centric. “Global solidarity” only really became a thing in the 20th century.

When we talk about global solidarity today, people usually quickly bring up the first two Internationals. Is that fair enough?

Absolutely. Without question, the First and Second Internationals were remarkable attempts at organizing the labour movement transnationally. For the first time, they tried to take seriously Marx’s slogan: “Proletarians of the world, unite”. The significance of the First International as a forum for discussion is overshadowed by the disputes that quickly ensued between the different factions within the labour movement, which would ultimately also lead to the demise of the First International.

And the Second International?

The Second International was more successful and, for the first time, it also tried to organize joint campaigns, such as those for the eight-hour working day or the anti-war movement. The solidarity of workers across national borders was at the forefront of the activities of the Second International, though it became clear early on that the diversity of languages and the cultural differences of the representatives informed by their national and imperial contexts would become a significant obstacle in the way of establishing true understanding.

What were some of the expressions of these difficulties?

The national delegations joining the meetings of the International often kept to themselves and there was no real dialogue between representatives who did not speak each other’s languages. Nevertheless, the symbolism of the International was important and really struck a chord among many workers in the Western world. A strong example of this is the powerful anti-war demonstrations in the summer of 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, which then however became an indication that nationalism was stronger than internationalism in many countries, and also among many workers. For many, national solidarity had priority over international solidarity.

Karl Marx was an eloquent critic of narrowness of nationalist sentiment? What role did he and the growing influence of socialism over the labour movement play in the history of the early Internationals?

The Second International was officially a Marxist International, but it also included socialists who were not Marxists. This is particularly evident when you look at the admission of the British Labour Party in 1908, when Karl Kautsky found an ingenious formula for admitting the British workers’ party. Although not all members recognized the significance of class struggle, the party, according to Kautsky, officially promoted class struggle in Britain and could therefore also be admitted into the circle of socialist parties of the Second International. Socialism was by far the strongest ideological current within the Second International, although one would have to speak of “many socialisms”, because there was by no means a uniform agreement within the Second International over the meaning of socialism.

Why did the First and Second International fail?

If the First International failed because of ideological differences within its membership, the Second International collapsed over the outbreak of the First World War. The hopes of many socialists in Europe that the continent’s most powerful socialist political party—the German Social Democrats, which united around a third of all voters in the German Empire behind it—would resist the warmongers in the Empire, were disappointed, resulting in a permanent defensiveness against social democracy among many non-German socialists. No matter how much the leaders of the SPD in 1914 tried to use their stance on Tsarist Russia as a means to justify their support for the German imperial elites, their position was largely incomprehensible outside of Germany. Of course, in many European countries, there were socialists in favour of their respective countries going to war. Only the small Irish Socialist Party and the Bolsheviks remained steadfast in their stance against what they saw as an imperialist war.

You mentioned the Bolsheviks, what role did the Russian political left play in the history of internationalism?

It was not by chance that the communist internationalism of the interwar period—anti-imperialist, anti-racist, and in support of national self-determination in the colonial world—became a forerunner of real global solidarity. The Comintern position on these issues set the international agenda of communism during the interwar period, which was met with a lot of sympathy especially in the colonized world.

The role of the Comintern is viewed very critically from today’s perspective.

Of course, the internationalism of the Comintern was still Western-centric and, of course, Stalin also used the Comintern as a foreign policy organ for his own agenda. But compared to the socialist internationalism of the interwar period, the communist internationalism of the Third International was more consistently anti-imperialist and anti-racist. For example, the interventions of the Comintern within the South African Communist Party—against the leaders of this party—placed the emphasis on the fight against racism. From the 1930s onwards, the South African Communists became the most resolute fighters against the racist South African regime, which had been in power for so long. It was no coincidence that Nelson Mandela was a member of the Communist Party in the 1960s.

What remains of these experiences?

An internationalism of the future can learn from these attempts at global solidarity. Of course, this can only be done if the incredible crimes committed in the name of communism during the 20th century are also acknowledged and dealt with. But in today’s world, where nationalism, racism, and imperialism are on the rise, it would be productive for a left-wing internationalism to remember that at least parts of an internationalist left have been striving for transnational solidarity beyond nationalism, racism, and imperialism since the 19th century. It’s worth talking about what this might mean for us today.