Proletarian internationalism

"International socialism" redirects here. For the magazine of the same name, see International Socialism (magazine).

Proletarian internationalism, sometimes referred to as international socialism, is a socialist form of internationalism, based on the view that capitalism is a global system, and therefore the working class must act as a global class if it is to defeat it in class conflict. Workers thus should struggle in solidarity with their fellow workers in other countries on the basis of a common class interest, to avoid continued subjugation via divide and rule.

Proletarian internationalism is closely linked to goals of world revolution, to be achieved through successive or simultaneous communist revolutions in all nations. Marxist theory argues that world revolution would lead to world communism, and later still, stateless communism.[1][2] Workers of all countries, unite! thus became a Marxist cry.

Marxists regard proletarian internationalism the antonym of bourgeois nationalism but the term has been subjected to different interpretations by various currents of Marxist thoughts.

Marx and Engels

Proletarian internationalism is summed up in the slogan coined by Marx and Engels, Workers of all countries, unite!, the last line of The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848. However, Marx and Engels' approach to the national question was also shaped by tactical considerations in their pursuit of a long-term revolutionary strategy. In 1848, the proletariat was a small minority in all but a handful of countries. Political and economic conditions needed to ripen in order to advance the possibility of proletarian revolution.

Thus, for example, Marx and Engels supported the emergence of an independent and democratic Poland, which at the time was divided between Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Rosa Luxemburg's biographer Peter Nettl writes, "In general, Marx and Engels' conception of the national-geographical rearrangement of Europe was based on four criteria: the development of progress, the creation of large-scale economic units, the weighting of approval and disapproval in accordance with revolutionary possibilities, and their specific enmity to Russia."[3] Russia was seen as the heartland of European reaction at the time.

First International

The trade unionists who formed the International Workingmen's Association (IWA), sometimes called the First International, recognised that the working class was an international class which had to link its struggle on an international scale. By joining together across national borders, the workers would gain greater bargaining power and political influence.

Founded in 1864, the IWA was the first mass movement with a specifically international focus. At its peak, the IWA had 5 million members, according to police reports from the various countries in which it had a significant presence.[4] Repression in Europe and internal divisions between the anarchist and Marxist currents led eventually to its dissolution in 1876. Shortly thereafter, the Marxist and revolutionary socialist tendencies continued the internationalist strategy of the IWA through the successor organisation of the Second International, though without the inclusion of the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movements.

Second International

Proletarian internationalism was perhaps best expressed in the resolution sponsored by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg at the Seventh Congress of the Second International at Stuttgart in 1907. This asserted that:

"Wars between capitalist states are, as a rule, the outcome of their competition on the world market, for each state seeks not only to secure its existing markets, but also to conquer new ones. In this, the subjugation of foreign peoples and countries plays a prominent role. These wars result furthermore from the incessant race for armaments by militarism, one of the chief instruments of bourgeois class rule and of the economic and political subjugation of the working class.

"Wars are favored by the national prejudices which are systematically cultivated among civilized peoples in the interest of the ruling classes for the purpose of distracting the proletarian masses from their own class tasks as well as from their duties of international solidarity.

"Wars, therefore, are part of the very nature of capitalism; they will cease only when the capitalist system is abolished or when the enormous sacrifices in men and money required by the advance in military technique and the indignation called forth by armaments, drive the peoples to abolish this system."

The resolution concluded that:

"If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.

"In case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule."[5]

In fact, Luxemburg and Lenin had very different interpretations of the national question. Lenin and the Bolsheviks opposed imperialism and chauvinism by advocating a policy of national self-determination, including the right of oppressed nations to secede from Russia. They believed this would help to create the conditions for unity between the workers in both oppressing and oppressed nations. Specifically, Lenin claimed “The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression and it is this content that we unconditionally support."[6] By contrast, Luxemburg broke with the mainstream Polish Socialist Party (PPS) in 1893 on the national question.

Luxemburg argued in that the nature of Russia had changed since Marx’s day. Russia was now fast developing as a major capitalist nation, while the Polish bourgeoisie now had its interests linked to Russian capitalism. This had opened the possibility of a class alliance between the Polish and Russian working class.

In the event the leading party of the Second International, the SPD, voted overwhelmingly in support of Germany's entry into the First World War by approving war credits on 4 August 1914. Many other member parties of the Second International followed suit by supporting national governments and the Second International was dissolved in 1916. Proletarian internationalists characterized the combination of social democracy and nationalism as social chauvinism.

First World War

The hopes of internationalists such as Lenin, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were dashed by the initial enthusiasm for war. Lenin tried to re-establish socialist unity against the war at the Zimmerwald conference but the majority of delegates took a pacifist rather than a revolutionary position.

In prison, Luxemburg deepened her analysis with the Junius Pamphlet of 1915. In this document she specifically rejects the notion of oppressor and oppressed states: "Imperialism is not the creation of one or any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognisable only in all its relations, and from which no nation can hold aloof at will." [7]

Proletarian internationalists now argued that the alliances of the First World War had proved that socialism and nationalism were incompatible in the imperialist era, that the concept of national self-determination had become outdated, and in particular, that nationalism would prove to be an obstacle to proletarian unity. Anarcho-syndicalism was a further working class political current that characterised the war as imperialist on all sides, finding organisational expression in the Industrial Workers of the World.

The internationalist perspective influenced the revolutionary wave towards the end of the First World War, notably with Russia's withdrawal from the conflict following the Bolshevik revolution and the revolt in Germany beginning in the naval ports of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven that brought the war to an end in November 1918. However, once this revolutionary wave had receded in the early 1920s, proletarian internationalism was no longer mainstream in working class politics.

Third International: Leninism versus Left Communism

Following the First World War the international socialist movement was irreconcilably split into two hostile factions: on the one side, the social democrats, who broadly supported their national governments during the conflict; and on the other side Leninists and their allies who formed the new Communist Parties that were organised into the Third International, which was established in March 1919. However, during the Russian Civil War Lenin and Trotsky more firmly embraced the concept of national self-determination for tactical reasons. In the Third International the national question became a major bone of contention between mainstream Leninists and "left communists". However the latter soon became an isolated minority, either falling into line or leaving the International.

By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939 only a few prominent communists such as the Italian Marxist Amadeo Bordiga and the Dutch council communist Anton Pannekoek remained opponents of Russia's use of the tactics of national self-determination. But in 1943, following the collapse of the Mussolini regime in Italy, Bordigists regrouped and founded the Internationalist Communist Party (PCInt). The first edition of the party organ, Prometeo (Prometheus) proclaimed: "Workers! Against the slogan of a national war which arms Italian workers against English and German proletarians, oppose the slogan of the communist revolution, which unites the workers of the world against their common enemy — capitalism."[8] The PCInt took the view that Luxemburg, not Lenin, had been right on the national question.

Socialist internationalism

Socialist internationalism allegedly regulated relationship between socialist countries.[9] In reality Soviet Union controlled smaller countries using the Warsaw Pact and Comecon, invading Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Sino-Soviet split in 1950s and 1960s produced two groups of socialist countries.

Proletarian internationalism today

Some political groupings such as the International Communist Party, the International Communist Current and the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (which includes the PCInt) follow the Luxemburgist and Bordigist interpretations of proletarian internationalism, as do some libertarian communists.

Leftist opposition to proletarian internationalism

In contrast, some socialists have pointed out that social realities such as local loyalties and cultural barriers militate against proletarian internationalism. For example, George Orwell believed that "in all countries the poor are more national than the rich."[10] To this, Marxists might counter that while the rich may have historically had the awareness and education to recognize cross-national interest of class, the poor of those same nations likely have not had this advantage, making them more susceptible to what Marxists would describe as the false ideology of patriotism. Marxists assert that patriotism and nationalism serve precisely to obscure opposing class interests that would otherwise pose a threat to the ruling class order.

Marxists would also point out that in times of intense revolutionary struggle (the most evident being the revolutionary periods of 1848-9, 1917–1923 and 1968) internationalism within the proletariat can overtake petty nationalisms as intense class struggles break out in multiple nations at the same time and the workers of those nations discover that they have more in common with other workers than with their own bourgeoisie.

On the question of imperialism and national determination, proponents of third worldism argue that workers in "oppressor" nations (such as the USA or Israel) must first support national liberation movements in "oppressed" nations (such as Afghanistan or Palestine) before there can be any basis for proletarian internationalism. For example, Tony Cliff, a leading figure of the British Socialist Workers Party, denied the possibility of solidarity between Palestinians and Israelis in the current Middle East situation, writing "Israel is not a colony suppressed by imperialism, but a settler’s citadel, a launching pad of imperialism. It is a tragedy that some of the very people who had been persecuted and massacred in such bestial fashion should themselves be driven into a chauvinistic, militaristic fervour, and become the blind tool of imperialism in subjugating the Arab masses."[11]

Trotskyists argue that there must be a permanent revolution in third world countries, in which a bourgeoisie revolution will inevitably lead to a worker's revolution with an international scope. This can be seen in the Bolshevik Revolution before the movement was stopped by Stalin, a proponent of Socialism in One Country. Because of this threat, the bourgeoisie in third world countries will willingly subjugate themselves to national and capitalist interests in order to prevent a proletarian uprising.

Internationalists would respond that capitalism has proved itself incapable of resolving the competing claims of different nationalisms, and that the working class (of all countries) is oppressed by capitalism, not by other workers. Moreover, the global nature of capitalism and international finance make "national liberation" an impossibility.[12] For internationalists, all national liberation movements, whatever their "progressive" gloss, are therefore obstacles to the communist goal of world revolution.

See also


  1. N.I. Bukharin, Marx's Teaching and its Historical Importance, Chapter 4: The Theory of Proletarian Dictatorship and Scientific Communism in Nikolai Bukharin and Others, Marxism and Modern Thought (George Routledge & Sons Ltd., 1935), page 1-90.
  2. Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State & the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution (1918), Chapter V: The Economic Basis of the Withering Away of the State, Collected Works, Volume 25, p. 381-492
  3. J.P Nettl, "Rosa Luxemburg", Oxford University Press 1969. Nettl is quoting Hans-Ulrich Wehler's study, "Sozialdemokratie and Nationalstaat" (Würzburg, 1962)
  4. Payne, Robert. "Marx: A Biography". Simon and Schuster. New York, 1968. p372
  5. International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart, August 18–24, 1907 Vorwärts Publishers, Berlin, 1907, pp. 64-66.
  6. Lenin, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.
  7. Rosa Luxemburg, "The Junius Pamphlet" 1915.
  8. Prometeo, 1 November 1943.
  9. "п²п╟я┐я┤п╫я▀п╧ п╨п╬п╪п╪я┐п╫п╦п╥п╪". Retrieved 2015-11-28.
  10. George Orwell, Collected Essays, "The Lion and the Unicorn".
  11. "(Britain) - Front Page". Socialist Worker. Retrieved 2015-11-28.
  12. "Nation or Class? | International Communist Current". 2006-01-27. Retrieved 2015-11-28.

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