Publication Social Movements / Organizing - International / Transnational - Europe - America - Africa - Asia - Alternatives to Society - Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (en) “We're Right Back Where the International Workingmen’s Association Started”

Boris Kanzleiter on global authoritarianism, left-wing countermovements, and a new internationalism

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Boris Kanzleiter,

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March 2019

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Boris Kanzleiter
Boris Kanzleiter, Director of the Centre for International Dialogue and Cooperation

Boris Kanzleiter studied history in Berlin and Mexico City. He completed his doctorate on the 1968 student revolts in Yugoslavia. His internationalist activities have included active involvement in the Zapatista solidarity movement and the anti-war movement in former Yugoslavia. From 2009 to 2016 he was Director of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Southeast Europe Regional Office in Belgrade. Since 2016 he has directed the Stiftung's international work from his office in Berlin.

Tom Strohschneider spoke with him for the most recent issue of maldekstra.

IWM: International Workingmen's Association
Also known as the First International.
Roughly 2,000 participants from 13 European countries and the US founded the IWM on 28 September 1864 in St. Martin's Hall, London. Its leading body was the General Council, of which Karl Marx was a prominent member.

maldekstra: Possibly one of the most important slogans for the whole left-wing internationalist movement comes from the 1848 Communist Manifesto. Here, I’m referring to the famous rallying cry at the end of the book: “Workers of the world, unite!” Let’s take a look at this from today’s perspective: just how united are we now?

Boris Kanzleiter: I’m afraid that we haven’t made much progress when it comes to uniting the workers of the world. There are manifold structural cleavages that are being further exacerbated by the competition between locations to attract businesses and investment prevailing on the capitalist global market and by nationalist discourses. I think this whole concept of “being in competition with one another” is more pronounced today than at any other moment in history.

Instead, a right-wing authoritarian “International” is on the rise. Is this another facet of left internationalism’s flaws?

Right now global authoritarianism is rife, driven by right-wing political forces. These organizations all pursue different projects depending on the specific context in their respective countries. Yet, together, they have still managed to shift the global balance of power to their advantage and are gradually gaining more and more hegemony. This is a dangerous development. 

But, at the same time, it is also a contradiction: The right promotes nationalistic demands, thus narrowing horizons and fostering inward-looking politics, it erects barriers in the way people think and act, excludes people, operates in a way that undermines international practices and conventions, etc.  Yet, despite all this, the right is gaining increasing clout on the international stage and emerging as a global threat. 

We must not overlook the fact that the authoritarian right pursues its nationalistic goals with the help of ideological props that can be used in any context and are intertwined with one another. The frequently aggressive antifeminism, for instance, an ideology that people like Donald Trump use to launch a targeted attack on the achievements of the women’s movement. And the very same approach is taken by right-wing political actors in Brazil or within the AfD here in Germany. In the process they refer to and draw on one another's activities. A similar phenomenon can be observed in the field of climate change. Here, different right-wing forces from around the world reinforce one another by calling into question the scientificity of the findings of international climate research. In the interests of certain capital factions, they then use this to launch their attack on the demands of a climate policy that is driven by socio-ecological imperatives. And this, in turn, is combined with nationalist discourses. 

The success of left internationalism was always dependent on organizational networking. Is the authoritarian right now moving in the same direction? 

There have been attempts, for instance by former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon in his tour around Europe, to forge a right-wing front. On the international political stage there is also evidence of right-wing governments attempting to collaborate, at least when the focus is on opposing forces they have identified as “the enemy”. And here there is a new development: due to the growing number of right-wing governments, the right now has more weight in international institutions. We only have to look at how certain central European countries, led by Hungary and Poland, operate within the EU: although they pursue a nationalistic agenda, they do this collectively.

The Left, in contrast, appears weak at this level.

This is a major problem with several facets. For example, the fact that we are currently observing a renationalization of policies, even among left-wing forces—a paradoxical development at a time when we are increasingly facing global challenges. It’s hardly surprising then that the Left’s capacity for action on the international stage remains limited. Or the fact that organizational cooperation isn’t particularly effective, something that’s illustrated by the fate of the Party of the European Left (EL), for instance. The EL got off to a promising start in 2004, but has not yet managed to develop a common narrative or very much political clout since then. 

Do they perhaps lack a platform? Virtually all left-wing political actors call for internationalism.

The issue isn’t whether internationalism is being discussed here, it’s which internationalism. And therein lies another problem: when it comes to internationalism, all too often left-wing political actors remain stuck in past discourses. And statehood still took centre stage in all these “old” perspectives: for a long time, internationalism meant referring to real socialist states. Much of what was negotiated under “internationalism” was part of the rivalry between political and economic systems. Even the movements that experienced international solidarity were generally based on the concept of statehood, with the objective of coming to power in a particular country. Here, between the October Revolution and 1989, their policy was guided by a specific reference point—the Soviet Union. Particularly in the Tricont countries, there were powerful freedom movements looking to Moscow and to a certain extent also to Beijing in their search for an ally.  Circumstances changed dramatically for left-wing movements the world over in 1989, however. 

Do we need a “new internationalism”?

This is certainly a long-running debate and one which has been conducted on many levels: by intellectuals in the global South, such as the recently deceased Samir Amin, in the context of Bernie Sanders in the US, and not least by all of us at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. There are no ready-made blueprints to show us what form a new internationalism might take. But it is still a necessary debate, part of which is to come to a consensus about the “old internationalism”, about its successes but, of equal importance, also about its contradictions and failures. Today, socialist statehood no longer occupies centre stage. 

So what does?

Today we are essentially back where the IWA started in 1864: we have regressed to the creation of alliances, and networks of individual left-wing actors and movements and associations all have to re-established. Now it’s no longer about “helping your brothers and sisters”, but instead about a new transnational politics from below. 

But the Left still has the tendency to follow the rise of emerging markets with a certain longing as these countries represent another “good” point of reference. Or, they tend to support governments primarily because the US is against them.

It’s true that this tendency does exist, for instance with respect to Nicaragua, and also, to a certain extent, when it comes to the assessment of the Russian government. However, the tendency is diminishing. If we look at the example of Venezuela, today even those who just a few years ago had uncritically supported the Chavez government no longer place the blame for the crisis solely at the door of others. The truth is that there are strong economic and political interests that would like to steer Venezuela in another direction. At the same time, there are a lot of domestic factors responsible for the crisis of the Chavez government, ranging from the economic development model to the severe lack of democracy. In fact, many of Venezuela’s local activists see things this way too. The firm rejection of the perpetual US intervention against Venezuela does not mean that we should take an uncritical view of Maduro.

"International Week of Solidarity with Viet-Nam"
"International Week Of Solidarity with Viet-Nam" Poster by René Mederos, 1970, Tricontinental Magazine Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Asia Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL)

So the new internationalism also includes a new desire for critical reflection?

Of course. We will not simply be able to leave the history of internationalist debates and practices behind us. This history belongs to us, with all its good and indeed less favourable elements. We will only do it justice if we learn from it.

To what extent is internationalism about feelings, about projection?

Internationalism has a great deal to with feelings. Part of the basis for internationalism and solidarity is empathy. It’s about the ability to see oneself reflected in others. It’s about seeing the suffering and the struggle of others as something we want to show solidarity with. This is not just a rational approach. It has more to do with what Marx calls the “categorical imperative”, what he describes as “overthrowing all relations in which the individual is a degraded, enslaved, abandoned, despised being”. There is another aspect of identification that is related to our own personal weakness and the need to compensate for this by projecting all expectations onto other movements in other places around the world. This is something we can understand but it has also always led to problems. A third point is the class-political aspect which is the basis of the practice of internationalism. Common interests are a rational component of common struggles. This is why we advocate for specific global social rights, such as those which, to some degree, already exist in the form of the ILO’s core labour standards.

Through empathy, human beings are placed at the heart of an internationalist self-image. So who, according to the class-political view, should we place centre stage today? It will certainly no longer be the “workers of the world” referred to in the Communist Manifesto

Here we need to distinguish between various different levels. Although there are considerable variations within the production process in terms of social milieus and positions, it would still be legitimate to continue referring to an abstract interest of the world proletariat—in the capitalist context this encompasses all those who are forced to sell their labour or are constrained in other types of economic relations of dependency. Something that also has to be brought into the discussion here is a specific universal right: the right to be a human being, in other words, to be able to access the opportunities that the current level of social development offers. Right now, the vast majority are still excluded from such possibilities. At the same time, we also know that the members of this global proletariat are constantly being played off against one another. And, on top of that, a plethora of objectively different interests is thrown into the mix, emanating, among other things, from the different stages of development of the world's economies. These circumstances make it very difficult to develop common political projects. 

And this is where the empathy factor comes into play again.

Exactly. These two elements have to be combined: empathy and the class-political dimension. And here we should really go into more detail about the movements and collaborations where this combination already functions effectively. 

Please, go ahead!

In the last few years, feminist struggles have become globally networked. And movements advocating for climate justice aren’t in any way restricted to national arenas either. Here, too, new networks have emerged. We have seen school students from around the world organizing strikes against governments’ ignorance when it comes to climate policy. The transition from an old to a new form of internationalism is a longer process. One phase was the emergence of an anti-globalization movement in the 1990s. International anti-summit protests are also part of the same process, as are global social forums. Although the severe economic crisis that began in 2007 triggered a shift towards renationalization, there were also new attempts at international cooperation and new momentum. This started with Occupy Wall Street followed by the Europe-wide endeavours to oppose the prevailing austerity course which continue to this day. There is also international cooperation in the manufacturing and trade sectors. Let’s take, for example, the Amazon strikes staged in various countries or the ongoing efforts of trade unions to advocate for the introduction of minimum standards across national borders. 

But particularly when it comes to the trade unions, you get the impression that they don’t always take internationalism very far.

The regulation of labour is still essentially negotiated at the nation-state level. Accordingly, trade unions also concentrate on this level. International umbrella organizations do exist, but real power is not in the hands of these organizations. The Left, however, should use the available opportunities to push the trade union movement to focus more strongly on transnational solidarity. In the sense of organizing along global supply chains, for instance. Along these lines, successful transnational strikes were held at Ryanair against the company’s corporate policy of playing staff off against one another.

We are operating in a “space of the political” that is constantly lagging behind the “space of capital”. Economic globalization is real but at the international level there are very few political levers to push through social interests, or those that exist are relatively weak. 

But this should not be an argument against changing global conditions and the balance of power. The left have no alternative if they want to live in a different world. 

The creation of a different world presupposes that we can triumph over what has been dubbed the “externalization society” or “imperial way of life” where progress in the Global North is made at the expense of the rest of the world.

This is why socio-ecological transformation is so key. And, as far as the “imperial way of life” is concerned: is it really prosperity that has been created in the Global North by exploiting the environment and resources of other world regions? It is imperative that we address this question. It’s about alternative social models that measure quality of life based on factors other than the consumption that is controlled by transnational corporations. It’s about securing a good life for everyone. Everywhere. 

This interview, conducted by Tom Strohschneider, originally appeared in the Centre for International Dialogue and Cooperation's quartlery newsletter, maldekstra. Translation by Carla Welch.