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Internationalism Today: An Interview with Paweł Wargan

What does a progressive foreign policy look like today? How should we understand imperialism? What is at stake in reclaiming an internationalist political horizon for the left? What forms of organization are best adapted for a new international? Given the many contemporary global challenges—such as climate change, far-right extremism, pandemics, and the increasing threat of nuclear war—it is urgent to develop a strategic, organizational, and theoretical perspective for the international left. Paweł Wargan discusses these and other questions in the interview that follows. Researcher, activist, and coordinator of the secretariat of the Progressive International, Wargan is well suited to highlight the prospects for a new internationalism today. The interview is conducted by Daniel Benson, assistant professor of French and Global Studies at St. Francis College and the editor of Domination and Emancipation: Remaking Critique (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2021).

Daniel Benson: I’d like to begin with a discussion of your overall political perspective and development. What are some of the main events or intellectual influences that have impacted your current writing and activism?

Paweł Wargan: I worked in public policy when the last great wave of climate activism emerged. Every Friday, I would make my way through crowds of protesting schoolkids to get to work. Occasionally, some would block the roads. What struck me was that the ideas expressed in these spaces carried a clarity, a creativity, and an urgency that I never saw at work—where ideas were staid, unambitious, never coming close to addressing the urgency of the moment. So, I took to the streets.

You learn through struggle. You build confidence through struggle. You begin to articulate the reasons for your struggle and develop a feel for the possibilities it opens. The great challenge, I learned over time, is that it’s not enough to have good ideas. In large parts of our movements, demands for “system change” resolve into a politics of advocacy that focuses on appealing to existing institutions rather than building new ones. The very form of these protests—they are often held outside government buildings—speaks to that relationship of supplication. We entreat our ruling classes to deliver something that is not in their power to deliver. And we become despondent when we fail. This reflects a poverty of imagination, which has been carefully cultivated by the ideological machinery of capitalism.

Not long after, I had what you might call a eureka moment. I was working on a long report that envisioned what a green transition might look like in Europe. One day, I was editing a section submitted by an Italian architect. In it, he argued that to build sustainable cities Europe needed to shift to prefabricated, high-rise apartment blocks surrounded by parks and public amenities. I was living in Moscow at the time, on the fourteenth floor of a prefabricated high-rise apartment block surrounded by parks and public amenities. I looked out the kitchen window and wondered: What was this society that, many decades ago, began to build the future we are only now envisioning? That led me to study processes of socialist construction.

Fidel Castro once said that when he first read The Communist Manifesto, he began to find explanations for phenomena that are typically explained in terms of individual human failings—moral failings. He began to understand, he said, the historical processes and social processes that produce both great wealth and terrible immiseration. You don’t need a map or microscope to see class divisions, he said. I think about that often. What Castro meant—and what you learn from reading revolutionaries like Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, V. I. Lenin, Walter Rodney, and others—is that there are observable processes of contradiction and class antagonism that shape the world. The job of the left is not to hover above these processes and preach progressive ideas. This is the domain of idealism, of liberalism. You can’t build the future with ideas. You can’t repair the environment with ideas. You can’t feed the hungry with ideas. Our job is to build power through struggle, at every step seeking to institutionalize that power, building structures that can realize the aspirations of the people. That is what the great processes of socialist construction—past and present—teach us.

Benson: I agree that building institutions on the left is vital. I think there is an increasing consciousness among left-leaning thinkers, activists, and scholars of the need to focus on organizational issues, on strategy, on building power, and not merely on symbolic gestures or purely theoretical problems. But recent history has shown the difficulty of creating lasting institutional change: from the anti-World Trade Organization protests of 1999 in Seattle to the Iraq War protests of 2003 to the Occupy movements of 2011. Moreover, even when leftist parties can organize and achieve political power at the national level (for instance, Syriza in 2015), they have proven incapable of challenging dominant global institutions. Or, turning to the Global South, progressive projects have struggled to freely develop (Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, among others) in large part due to U.S. imperialism.

I’d like to turn, then, to the question of internationalism and how it relates to building power on the left. I feel that many individuals, students, and even progressive activists see international politics as distant from their everyday life or local struggles. This is very different from, say, the long 1960s, where resistance to the Vietnam War, decolonization, and socialist construction were seen as interrelated and part of the same struggle. Could you explain, first, why internationalism is important to building progressive, leftist institutions? And, second, why you propose the Third International, or Communist International, as an important resource to rebuild internationalism in the contemporary moment?

Wargan: There is a story I have heard repeatedly—the cast changes, the setting changes, but the story stays roughly the same. Moved by the exploits of Che Guevara, an enthusiastic U.S. socialist travels to Nicaragua. He visits the encampments of the Sandinista movement, which is waging armed struggle against the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship. “I want to join your struggle,” they say. “What can I do to help you?” The response is blunt: “Go home and make a revolution in the United States.”

The answer tells us two important things about internationalism.

First, the struggle of the Sandinista movement does not occur in isolation. It takes place against the backdrop of overwhelming U.S. imperial violence, which is the international extension of its oppressive, racist, and colonial politics at home. In the 1980s, Nicaragua was subjected to an economic and military blockade. Its harbors were mined. The Contras—a fascist force that massacred hundreds of thousands of people across Latin America—were covertly armed and trained to destroy the aspirations of the people. There was a very real need to sever the threads that bound Nicaragua’s brutal immiseration with the prosperity of the U.S. ruling classes—and that necessitated building a revolution in the United States.

Second, the construction of a revolutionary process is in itself an internationalist act. What can you do for the people of Haiti, or the people of Cuba, or the people of Western Sahara, or the people of Palestine, or the people of Venezuela as an individual, without first building power? Can you send them a tanker of oil? Can you send them a container of medical supplies? Can you help them build modern industrial capacities—or support their green transition? The degree of our collective power at home, and the political orientation of our movements, dictates the shape of our commitments abroad.

In 1918, Lenin wrote a piece railing against those who sided with their governments in the First World War. In privileging the “defense” of their countries over the overthrow of those responsible for the war, he wrote, these forces substituted internationalism with a petty nationalism—backing a predatory capitalist and imperialist leadership against the imperative of peace and social revolution. In the end, Lenin said, the position of the Bolsheviks was vindicated. The October Revolution generated the ideas, strategies, and theories that came to power a global revolutionary movement. Like messengers from the future, the Russian people pierced through the terrors of capitalism, and revealed a path forward.

Turning that path into a highway was, to a great degree, the mission of the Third International. Through it, Lenin said, the nascent USSR would lend a “helping hand” to peoples seeking emancipation from colonialism. That mission was born from a thesis that echoes in our story from Nicaragua. The thesis is that European capitalism draws its strength not from its industrial prowess, but from the systematic looting of its colonies. That same process both feeds and clothes the European working class, suppressing their revolutionary aspirations, and generates the material power that sustains their exploitation. The police forces, prisons, weapons, and tactics tested and honed in the colonies are always, after all, readily turned against workers back home. The primary duty of internationalism, then, is to strike at capitalism’s foundations: colonialism and imperialism.

These ideas carry great weight in our time. Whenever we—ensconced in the comforts of the imperial world—advance ideas for the reform of the capitalist system, we are effectively saying: “We don’t care that over two billion people go to bed hungry. We don’t care that hundreds of millions already live in a wrecked climate. We don’t care for the people who suffocate under the weight of our sanctions. Their plight doesn’t concern us.” The theories of the Third International teach us that the power of our ruling classes is the mirror image of the immiseration of the great planetary majority. Now, as countries and peoples begin to assert themselves against U.S. hegemony and its drive towards nuclear and environmental exterminism, our task is to build power with the grain of that historical process—not against it. Now, more than at any point in human history, is the time to build a revolutionary struggle grounded in clear anti-imperialist politics.

Benson: Let’s turn to concrete organizational questions of how to build such a revolutionary movement. The late Marxist scholar and activist Samir Amin was an active participate in organizing across borders and bridging the divide between the Global North and Global South. Amin called for launching a “Fifth International” in 2006 or a “New International” just before his death in 2018. The latter call generated important discussion among scholars, theorists, and activists about how best to “do” politics in the context of neoliberal globalization. Much of the debate revolves around two issues: (1) the longstanding debate on the left of finding the right balance between a “horizontalist” perspective (democratic, pluralist, non-hierarchical, open to various ideological tendencies) and a “verticalist” one (strict criteria of membership, centralized decision-making); and (2) what is the right or appropriate level (local, national, international, global) at which to organize.

What are some of the organizational challenges and successes you’ve encountered in your own experience building left internationalism today?

Wargan: Organization is simply the way in which we store and instantiate our collective capacity to act—coming into contact with others, forming communities, building confidence, and making the strategic and programmatic decisions about the future that we want to build.

How helpful is the distinction between the “horizontal” and the “vertical”? In my mind, those who reflexively privilege the “horizontal” over the “vertical” cling to the view—cultivated to a great extent in the anti-communist project—that the outcomes we want can spontaneously materialize without us actively pursuing them. That when things become bad enough, the anger of the masses will translate into change. Instead, as movements have repeatedly learned, a commitment to extreme “horizontalism” operates as an obstacle to unity and provides fertile ground for the emergence of invisible hierarchies that immobilize and breed discontent. Equally, organizations that are sometimes derided as “vertical” made tremendous leaps in what we might now call inclusivity. For the first time in history, Lenin’s Comintern brought the demands of women, anticolonial movements, national liberation movements, Black liberation movements, and others under its banner—translating diversity into collective power grounded in a shared analysis of the political situation.

We need to build institutions prepared to address the profound challenges that confront humanity. What are these challenges? In his proposal for a new international, Amin described the U.S.-led imperialist system as totalitarian. I side with Domenico Losurdo in questioning the integrity of that concept, but in this case it is perhaps uniquely appropriate. Capitalism and imperialism sever our connection to the productive process, to nature, to other human beings, and to our own imaginations. We become trapped in a world of imposed ideas, imposed structures. The history we learn, the clothes we wear, the possibilities that we ascribe to the future—these are not ours. They form through the operation of capital accumulation at the global scale, a process that we sometimes euphemistically describe as “globalization,” but which is more accurately understood as imperialism. Extreme violence has been wielded—and continues to be wielded—to preserve this system. Its primary function, as Amin reminds us, is to preserve the “historical privilege” of the colonizers to pillage the resources and exploit the workers of the Global South. But the system is not inevitable.

Marx and Engels devoted their lives to showing that historical processes are not arbitrary. They have motor forces that can be studied and whose movements can be charted. The interaction of these forces generates tensions, or contradictions, that manifest in different ways at different times in our history. Revolutionary processes that ended the enslavement of human beings gave way to a new system of economic organization in which the primary contradiction was between workers and factory owners, or, elsewhere, peasants and landlords. History has shown that these contradictions can be overcome, but only through the collective efforts of the people. This cannot happen spontaneously, and it cannot happen if we cling to the false belief that the previous system can be redeemed or reformed—that a fairer slavery is possible, or that a fairer imperialism is possible. So, one of the primary tasks—and challenges—of the internationalist is to break through the structures of alienation that imprison our minds, our bodies, and our societies.

What does that mean in practice? It means creating the conditions by which peoples and movements from disparate parts of the world can learn from one another and become aware of one another’s fundamental interconnection—overcoming, for example, the idea that the struggle of the Amazon warehouse worker in the United States is separate from the struggle of the garment worker in Bangladesh. When we buy a pair of jeans on Amazon, we wear the labor of the textile weaver in Dhaka. And in that labor, we find the sources both of our collective power and of Amazon’s monopoly power. Our power exists in the socialization of production, in the fact that manufacturing is a collective process and a set of social relations that can be disrupted or captured by the organized working class. Amazon’s power is born of the surplus value generated by its capacity to exploit, dispossess, and plunder, both at home and abroad—a “historical privilege” currently protected by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the 800 U.S. military bases that circle the globe, a sanctions regime that suffocates states seeking to embark on paths of sovereign development, and other infrastructures of economic and military coercion.

But understanding is one part of the puzzle. Sloganeering, however radical, can only take us so far. How can we help build the trade unions in Bangladesh, who are resisting international capital and its agents in government? And how do we politicize the popular movements in the United States that hold the capacity to sever imperialism’s grip on the rest of the world, but largely eschew anti-imperialism as a political horizon? There is a dynamic interplay here between the local sites of organization and action, the transnational networks that seek to unite and coordinate that action in a programmatically coherent way, and the global horizon, where the framework of imperialist globalization reveals to us the threads by which our struggles are connected. The geographic scale of action must dynamically respond to the conditions it confronts. That is why, to me, an International must be a laboratory of political action—grounded in a comprehensive theory of the political and economic conjuncture, faithful to the historical tradition it builds upon, but not dogmatically wedded to this or that organizational template.

Benson: I’d like to ask you a question about language and terminology. Specifically, the difficultly in effectively framing and articulating a left internationalist laboratory you describe. Since the rise of neoliberal globalization, which kicked into high gear after the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the very vocabulary of internationalism itself has given way to terms like global justice, global citizenship, transnationalism, and cosmopolitanism. These terms are all palatable to a world in which nation-states have become subordinate to global finance. Such terms have seeped into progressive social movements, NGOs, institutions of higher education, and United Nations entities, at least in part to disengage and disassociate from, or simply reject, an entire history of internationalist struggle that you touched on earlier. What is at stake in reclaiming internationalism as a political horizon today?

Wargan: The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński—among my earliest political influences— compared history to a river. On the surface, he said, the water moves quickly. Beneath the surface, the flow is steadier. Similarly, events pass us by quickly, but in their multitude we can observe stable structures and patterns of thought, which change over long historical epochs. I start here because internationalism carries within it concrete traditions of thought and action that we derive from Marxism, which contain within them a view of the river’s slow undercurrent.

The most important of these is dialectical and historical materialism, an analytical method that teaches us to train our eye not on individual events, but on the movement of history. The dominant philosophy of our time compels us to see only the surface of the river, only the quick succession of events. But these events pass us by with astonishing speed. We struggle to discern patterns, we become overwhelmed. Unable to situate developments in the world within their proper context, we begin to suffer from amnesia. We forget our history. Our creativity is imprisoned because we lose the ability to relate our actions to reality. And our politics resolve into idealism: we believe that a just world can be imagined into being; that our system can be transformed by gradual reform; or that nothing can really be done. Rodney outlined three features of this bourgeois perspective. First, it purports to speak for all of humanity rather than a particular class—the logic that says, “we are all in this together.” Second, it is highly subjective, claiming universal truths while concealing its ideological commitments—just look at the entire field of economics! Third, it refuses to acknowledge contradictions.

Marxism repudiates these notions. It teaches us that historical movement is a product of contradictions between and within things. You cannot have poverty without wealth, a proletariat without a bourgeoisie. The position of these classes reflects their relationship with the material world, with the means of production. The ideas that each group subscribes to also relate to their material environment, to their class position. Idealism is the philosophy of the bourgeoisie, while communism is the philosophy of the workers and oppressed peoples. And central to the communist tradition is the idea that collective human effort can resolve contradictions in favor of the oppressed. In his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, Marx wrote that “philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” Marx was not just a thinker. He founded the International Workingmen’s Association, the First International, which emerged in part from textile workers’ opposition to British involvement in the U.S. Civil War. At the time, Lord Palmerston’s government was plotting to intervene on the side of the Confederacy. The workers of Britain saved Western Europe, Marx said in his inaugural speech to the First International, from plunging into “an infamous crusade for the propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic.” The conviction that we have the capacity to change the world—that it is our duty to change the world—is inseparable from the tradition of internationalism, which is a communist tradition.

 Today, with their imaginations stymied by old, unchanging ways of thought, many organizations do not set out to change the world, because they do not exist in the world. They do not exist among children who struggle to eat, or the workers who struggle to make ends meet, or the peasants dispossessed from their land. They are bourgeois in their makeup. So, they subscribe to categories of thought that hold little relevance for the hungry, the poor, or the dispossessed—and the institutions they build do not serve the interests of those for whom the world must change. The language they use is a product of their class commitment, and one that has been carefully cultivated: the substitution of movements for liberation with NGOified sloganeers is an instrument of demobilization. It shields the status quo by institutionalizing bourgeois ideology.

In a sense, then, everything is at stake in reclaiming internationalism as a political tradition—and I have a very optimistic view of our prospects. Liberalism has not, cannot, and will not find answers to the complex crises facing humanity. But, from the violent, ceaseless flow of events that confront us, internationalism helps us recover sight of history’s laws of motion, and of the peoples and movements that are its engines. It reveals to us the ways in which our struggles and experiences are connected across borders, and the class dynamics that shape them. Even if they have yet to take hold, the ideas of internationalism, of socialism, are alluring to many precisely because the prevailing ideology is not ours. But, where bourgeois thought fails us, socialism shines a light through capitalism’s darkness, reclaims the past from its amnesia, and recovers hope from its futurelessness. These are our traditions, and we have nothing to fear in proclaiming them.

 Benson: My last question is on how to formulate a progressive, anti-imperialist foreign policy. At the end of Marx’s inaugural address you mentioned, Marx affirms that the working classes recognize “the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics; to watch the diplomatic acts of their respective governments; to counteract them, if necessary, by all means in their power.” Today, a lot of mystery, or deliberate mystification, swirls around international politics, not least the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Among the anti-imperialist left, the debate tends to turn on how to understand imperialism. Should imperialism be seen in the singular, as predominately U.S.-led; or are there multiple, competing imperialisms, such that Russia, China, and the United States would all be equally imperialist powers? How does this debate impact the development of a coherent foreign policy for the internationalist left today?

Wargan: What is imperialism? In the intellectual tradition of the left, it refers to a situation in which capitalist economies mature, the rate of profit falls, and corporations begin to look abroad for resources to extract and labor to exploit. This is the same dynamic that sees small “Main Street” businesses grow into chains, then regional conglomerates, and then into national and ultimately international monopolies. The laws of capitalism demand that expansion. Companies that fail to grow are pushed out of business or bought up by others. Then, state power is wielded to turn sovereign nations into export markets, sources of cheap resources and labor, and outlets for investment for these corporations.

Today, the United States has a degree of power that is incomparable to any empire in human history. This is a product of a particular historical moment that I situate at the end of the Second World War. Having lost 27 million lives to defeat Nazism, the Soviet Union was in tatters. Europe was ruined. China, having faced an even longer war at the heel of a century of colonial subjugation, faced a desperate situation. But the United States emerged not only unscathed, it emerged economically and militarily strengthened, cloaked beneath the terrible aura of the atomic bomb, giving it something resembling omnipotence in the international arena.

How has it wielded that power? From the very beginning, it has wielded it to suffocate humanity’s aspirations for sovereignty and democracy. In the late 1940s, the people of Korea rose up against feudalism and the brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship of Syngman Rhee, which operated death camps for suspected communists. In response, the United States destroyed the north of Korea, killing roughly a quarter of its population and destroying 85 percent of its buildings. It threatened to use nuclear weapons on several occasions. This holocaust has largely been written out of history—and its victims are now the subject of vicious and routine derision by those who sought to erase them. If you ever wondered what the world might look like had fascism prevailed, look no further than the U.S. destruction of Korea.

Then came Iran in 1953, Vietnam in 1961, Guatemala in 1954, Congo in 1956, Vietnam in 1961, Brazil in 1964, Indonesia in 1965, Chile in 1973, Nicaragua in the 1980s—the list goes on and on. Wherever the United States arrived, its parasitic capitalist model of globalization followed like a cancer, suffocating states’ capacities to respond to the needs of their people. Tens of millions of lives have been claimed by direct or proxy violence instigated by the United States, and many more from the effects of being subordinated to the U.S.-led imperial system. Roughly five million people die each year because they do not have access to adequate healthcare—a problem that socialist projects have largely eliminated. But socialism is not allowed in the U.S. template for humanity.

We may ask a counterfactual, then: How might the world look if the United States had not picked up imperialism’s mantle after the Second World War? The defeat of Japanese imperialism and the German colonial project in Eastern Europe—and we must insist on its recognition as a colonial project—severely weakened the colonial powers. It set off a process that saw the British and French empires shrink dramatically. It inaugurated a new, modern consensus for humanity, with the adoption of the UN Charter and the pursuit of decolonization. It gave great prestige to the project of state socialism. The United States pushed against these currents—against the movement of history—and built a global system through which it exerts, at the barrel of a gun, near-total financial, cultural, and political power over the vast majority of humanity. No country in history has a comparable military footprint or proven capacity for destruction.

Attempts to downplay or relativize this violence are an insidious form of apologia. More often than not, accusations of, say, “Chinese imperialism” are rooted entirely in the hypothetical: “China is building infrastructure that could allow it to become a new imperial power.” In this case, the “twin imperialisms” thesis serves to put on equal footing an unsubstantiated conjecture with the actual violence of imperialism—it puts a moral claim on equal footing with an empirical fact. As the historian Vijay Prashad has remarked, we are afraid of Huawei’s 5G towers because we are told they could be used to spy on us, but we are unconcerned by the actual spying that is carried out by the U.S. government, which Edward Snowden and others have revealed. What is this but another red scare, scaffolded in our culture by the increasingly virulent Sinophobia manufactured by the United States and its allies? There are also more surreptitious forms of this on the left: attempts to “redefine” imperialism and cleave it from its analytical tradition to make it more suitable to the particular moral commitments of the day.

This phenomenon—the denial of imperialism—is infantilizing. It confuses left strategy, because it severs our ability to relate to the actual processes of history. It immobilizes, because in a world where everything is bad, nothing is possible. And it risks producing a moment in which, as U.S. violence against China escalates, forces on the western left will side with their own blood-soaked ruling classes rather than build power against them. Guarding against these impulses is among the most important tasks of the day. The moment has arrived for us to heed Lenin’s call to turn the imperialist war into a war on the bourgeoisie that suffocates us.

Note: A French version of this interview was published by the Association Nationale des Communistes on September 18, 2023.