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The contradictions of internationalism from above

Travis S. argues that a more promising road forward for effective confrontation with the U.S. empire lies in disruptive power and coalition power, rather than in various strategies of internationalism from above.

In May 2022, Socialist Forum and Reform & Revolution both published issues about internationalism and anti-imperialism. The articles cover a wide range of views and are helpful in understanding the current state of internationalist debate on the U.S. left today. However, while thoughtful and passionate, the contradictions in the arguments presented by proponents of internationalism from above also stood out in three areas: underestimation of the strategic possibilities of confronting U.S. empire, mischaracterization of U.S. socialists’ relative power, and a fundamentally idealist worldview of top-down internationalism.

A more promising road forward for effective confrontation with the U.S. empire lies in disruptive collective power and coalition power. Targeting imperialism directly at key nodes of international capital can lead to both effective confrontation with empire and build greater mass movements through organizing alongside the transnational diasporic communities most deeply impacted by imperialism.

Top-down internationalists misunderstand the U.S. empire’s vulnerabilities and thus the possibilities for strategic campaigns in the imperial core. They emphasize that an international strategy for U.S. socialists should remain laser-focused on the U.S. government’s actions, at the expense of focusing on the crimes of other oppressive regimes, because we, as socialists in the imperial core, only have so many resources and those resources are best spent opposing U.S. imperialism. As Ron J argued, “What can socialists who live in the U.S. really do and accomplish? ….  Would any sort of U.S. action be helpful for the people of Syria no matter what we think about this conflict? …. [W]e have to act and organize, and just like how we tackle other issues we must also learn to prioritize.”

It’s true: We do have limited resources.  And it’s true, we must utilize our capacities strategically, as with all campaigns. But there are a number of practical, strategic pathways to target the U.S. empire—some better than others. Implicit in the top-down argument is that what we are capable of doing and accomplishing internationally is limited to how we can oppose—and thus influence—the U.S. government. But while opposing the U.S. government’s individual imperialist policies can be a good use of resources—as in working toward lifting the embargo on Cuba—influencing the policies of the most powerful empire in world history can be significantly less effective than strategically targeting the flow of the international capital that props up imperial control worldwide, including by targeting sub-imperial states. The difference is the contrast between relying on influencing existing powers-that-be over disruptive power that forces their hand to capitulate to mass movements. Instead of pursuing NGO-like interest group strategies of top-down reform, we can confront the empire directly instead of indirectly. We can target the critical nodes of international capital.

International capital and U.S. empire

There are a number of ways that practical campaigns targeting international capital flows can work, and each will be specific to local conditions. Money should be the focal point of internationalist efforts that connect to local struggles. The Wet’suwet’en Nation targeted the Coastal GasLink Pipeline in early January 2020 by blockading key railways across Canada: “nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of goods sat idle for several weeks in February, disrupting supply chains for weeks, slowly bleeding the Canadian economy. It was the only language the settler state understood: money.”

Further examples of successful anti-imperialist campaigns that targeted international capital include the efforts of People of Red Mountain and Kayapó Mekrãgnoti, the defeat of developers in Sunset Park, and the end of the deadly exchange in Durham. People of Red Mountain have targeted Lithium Nevada in its race for lithium to fuel electric cars at the expense of Indigenous people and tribal land by occupying Thacker Pass, where the mining companies seek to drill. These land defenders protect their sacred land through disruptive and coalition power while also directly hindering the flow of capital to fund the green capitalist projects of the Biden Administration, which will lead to increased U.S. imperialism where pockets of lithium exist, like at Salar de Ayuni in Bolivia.

As Promise Li pointed out, in Brazil, Kayapó Mekrãgnoti protesters are blockading Brazilian commodities’ shipping routes that “critically [interrupt] the interests of Brazilian agribusiness companies, Chinese funders, and US corporations,”’ while New York community members successfully fought off Industrial Park, a project of violence through gentrification of Sunset Park funded by U.S. municipal government and Chinese transnational capital.

And in Durham, North Carolina, Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) abolitionist organizers successfully cut off the deadly exchange of U.S. and Israeli police and made Durham the first city in the United States to ban the police from international exchanges with the enforcers of apartheid. The importance is not the tactics used to confront empire, but rather the focus of strategic action. In all of these instances, organizers targeted capital in material ways in physical locations that led to tangible results.

These targets of capital flows that make up the bedrock of the U.S. empire are examples of more effective international solidarity than the top-down approach offers. They are vital and powerful displays of internationalist work done in our communities in the United States. They are well within the limits of our capacity as chapters and locals and organizations.

Further, as in Sunset Park and in Durham, there are opportunities in these actions from below that hit the U.S. empire where it hurts, targeting not only U.S. capital, but the facilitators of U.S. capital worldwide, regardless of what side of the revolving door of inter-imperial conflict they may fall on. The Chinese party-state, as a neoliberal archetype of authoritarian capitalism, particularly since the rise of Deng Xiaoping and consolidation of power by the neoliberal wing of the Chinese Communist Party after the 1989 crushing of workers, is one such actor targeted at Sunset Park. In Durham, meanwhile, ending the deadly exchange targeted Israel,  the Zionist project that acts as the linchpin of U.S. imperialism in the region through its ongoing Nakba and apartheid regime over Palestinians. Just as capital is all-pervasive, so are these nodal points in our local areas that can facilitate international capital directly.

Coalitions with transnational communities

There is another benefit to targeting the U.S. empire by disrupting capital flows that sustain it: building mass movements alongside transnational communities. As I’ve written before, the top-down internationalist approach, which at best ignores the harm caused by other regimes and at worst greenlights genocide, burns bridges with transnational workers who suffer abominable conditions under U.S. empire, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Tibetan, and Cambodian communities. The peoples of all of these countries have suffered due to the long reach of U.S. empire through unequal treaties and outright invasions and bomb dropping, but reducing their lived experiences to the extent of direct U.S. intervention underestimates the power of U.S. empire’s nebulous modern form.

Ignoring the ways in which other states exact harm upon transnational communities in the interests of capital makes building connections with these communities considerably harder. Focusing exclusively on the U.S. government’s actions diminishes the lived experiences of immigrant workers whose transnational relationships with empire influence their politics and encourages a form of condescension toward workers with different experiences than the non-immigrant U.S. left.

Vincent Wong argued in Midnight Sun Magazine that “migrant communities do not have the privilege of thinking only about what happens in one place and centring their local enemies in every situation,” yet doing anything but practicing strategic myopia at the expense of solidarity is dismissed as a non-starter by the partisans of internationalism from above. Many transnational organizers are dismissed wholesale as “social imperialists” by more disingenuous critics purely for strategizing ways to target multiple agents of U.S. imperialism.

The implicit condescension of internationalism from above toward many transnational socialists is exactly why Yuliya Yurchenko, a Ukrainian socialist who exhaustively chronicled the impacts of empire on Ukraine in her book Ukraine and the Empire of Capital: From Marketisation to Armed Conflict, sarcastically derided what Sam Heft-Luthy referred to as the DSA “majority position” as “educating the infidels with their theory gospel.” Internationalism from above acts in parallel to Orientalism, implicitly posing “us” as different from “them.” That binary both rejects workers outside of the Western Hemisphere as part of our movement, since they fall into the category of “them,” and excludes comrades with transnational roots from the umbrella of “us.”

Some migrant organizers have referred to the top-down condescension as a “double trauma” imposed on transnational socialists. As Vincent Wong wrote, “leftist migrants who have suffered at the hands of regimes not aligned with the West often experience a double trauma of nationalist exclusion…. the direct cruelty of borders and the racism, nationalism, and xenophobia of the states that those borders delimit, but also the indirect cruelty of voices erased and agency denied, when those migrants’ fights against oppression and injustice at ‘home’ do not single-mindedly centre the perceived ‘main enemy.’” This double trauma is hardly useful for building a mass movement of the multiracial working class. It neither integrates nor brings into movement comrades with experience in international struggle or experience facing imperialist violence.

As a socialist organization in the imperial core, it is absolutely imperative that we organize with transnational communities to confront U.S. imperialism. Thus, it’s essential that we avoid the condescension that internationalism from above can evoke within many transnational communities.

Enabling global struggle

Internationalism from above also greatly underestimates our relative power as socialists in the United States. Mirah W. argues that by “lending our voices to what is already a chorus of criticism,” socialists may “manufacture consent, not just for actual war but also for other forms of intervention and hybrid war.” There is certainly the danger of manufactured consent that requires caution, but there are extremely important factors as to why the U.S. left solidarity with worker struggles around the world matters— our platforms. We, as socialists in the imperial core, write and organize in the context of core power. We are far from powerless, despite our relative lack of strength as a movement in the face of the U.S. state. We must take on a vital role in doing our best to leverage all of our capacities – from our platforms to events to translation projects – to support struggles against class rule and thus the empire abroad.

Socialist exchange is absolutely necessary for us as socialists in disparate areas to learn from one another in combating class rule. Ukrainians encountered Syrian left thinkers like Leila Al-Shami and Yassin al-Haj Saleh who spoke directly to experiences confronting Russian imperialism by reading those thinkers’ works in English. Learning from those socialists in other countries confronting the same imperial power was invaluable for their own political education and developing strategic campaigns for resisting Russian state violence. We, as internationalists, must pursue a program that supports translation projects, challenges linguistic imperialism by learning other languages, and building shared communications is essential to challenging border rule and engaging in global struggle.

By not acknowledging the importance of our potential role in supporting socialist exchange at a global level, internationalism from above neglects an important facet of the U.S. empire and its domination over global communications. Willfully hampering mutual learning by socialists across borders far from the imperial core is certainly not the intention of proponents of the top-down approach, but is a consequence nonetheless.

Materialism, not idealism

While the top-down internationalist position is most certainly well-intentioned, it is still steeped in a fundamentally idealistic worldview—not a materialist one. In the words of Yuliya Yurchenko, we need to “do what historical materialists are supposed to do and look at the material to develop [our] bloody theory.” Materialism emphasizes the need to learn theory from material conditions on the ground.

Instead of a materialist lens, internationalism from above tends to view states that present themselves as socialist through an idealist lens. They believe parties with socialist origins are “actually existing” socialist projects but do little to consult and grapple with material conditions that arise following the seizure of the state by left-wing forces. The triumph of left-wing ideas replaces a materialist understanding of contemporary history with a commitment to dusty and outdated theory based in another era’s context treated like scripture. Yesterday becomes the only lens through which to understand today.

One example of the ways in which top-down internationalists tend to remain married to past theoretical models is the renewed use of the term “social imperialist” to refer to many transnational socialists and proponents of internationalism from below, as if socialists interested in organizing against national bourgeoisies using state apparatuses against the masses in the twenty-first century all are equivalent to the Social Democratic Party of Germany from the First World War. Ironically, the same top-down internationalists who have recently found the term “social imperialist” are unlikely to cite the term’s more common usage—the Maoist description of the Soviet Union as a “social imperialist” power. That Maoist use of the term rejects the commonly held understanding of a unified anti-US camp that characterizes internationalism from above.

To be fair, the confrontation with genuine manifestations of social imperialism is absolutely necessary. In this, top-down internationalist comrades are correct in their assessment. Jamaal Bowman, who has supported funding for the Iron Dome and the Zionist project more broadly, can be accurately described as social imperialist. But equating all ideological tendencies that do not conform to the top-down perspective automatically as social democrats is an intentionally obtuse attack on other socialist tendencies within the movement. Anarchists, libertarian socialists, and revolutionary socialists share a commitment to anti-imperialism; they simply understand effective anti-imperialism differently. Top-down critics may argue that the impact of internationalism from below and voting for Iron Dome funding is identical, but that is false. In fact, bottom-up internationalists wrote the 2019 resolution for DSA to not endorse Joe Biden in the event of a Bernie Sanders loss and were among the first to call for Jamaal Bowman’s expulsion from DSA for his Iron Dome vote in 2021.

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad shaking hands in Moscow during a state visit in May 2018.
Putin and al-Assad greet each other at a state visit in May 2018. Photo by

Left national bourgeoisies

Ignoring material conditions that can inform internationalist campaigns allows for the talking points of states that utilize socialist slogans to become the only permitted analysis of those states. That prevents us from demystifying that terrain and hinders our efforts to develop an anti-imperialist program informed by material conditions.

Even those who claim to stand for a more “nuanced” position implicitly endorse the top-down perspective, as Sam Heft-Luthy did in Spring 2022 calling China one of the “current socialist parties holding state power.” There is no reason to believe that to be the case any longer, particularly in the context of U.S. imperialism and its channeling through capital flows that characterize much of the imperial apparatus today. Parties that capture state power are susceptible to power dynamics and can develop over time to be hostile to working-class interests. They are not immune to elite capture. They can be seized internally by opportunists or bourgeois factions hostile to workers, particularly in one-party states where the only room for pluralism exists inside the ostensibly workers’ party itself, if then. Reformers and revisionists don’t vanish; they work from inside the party.

By accepting state talking points as factual realities without paying attention to material conditions, socialists ignore that threat of elite capture and thus the potential for left-wing party structures to become facilitators of empire. Many workers’ parties fell prey to U.S. capital as they pursued austerity policies, the neoliberalization that facilitates U.S. capital flows. The so-called Third Way factions that consumed the labor parties of Western Europe and the neoliberal Abiy Ahmed who took over and then ushered in the end of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to exact genocide in Tigray are examples of how socialist parties can become facilitators of global capital and thus realize the dreams of U.S. empire.

Other regional socialist tendencies have historically developed more as nationalisms that seized the popular rhetoric of socialism rather than resembled socialism, like much of the Arab socialism common during the mid-twentieth century. The term “socialism” in these cases becomes a rhetorical strategy rather than commitment to a liberated future.

Since left-wing parties are not immune to elite capture, many will possess factions that are willing to transform the party brought to power by mass politics into national bourgeoisies whose “vocation is not to transform the nation but prosaically serve as a conveyor belt for capitalism,” as Frantz Fanon wrote. He added that “the national bourgeoisie, with no misgivings and with great pride, revels in the role of agent in its dealings with the Western bourgeoisie.” The iron rule that left-wing parties can be subject to elite capture will remain true as long as the power apparatus known as the state is permitted to exist.

In the current era, both right and left  national bourgeoisies facilitate international capital and thus empire. Both can and do serve as conveyor belts for capitalism, concentrating wealth in the hands of elites and facilitating the expansion of capital that serves U.S. interests, rather than the masses.

The Syrian-led Baath Party, the Chinese Communist Party, and the PAIS Alliance under Rafael Correa in Ecuador are cases in point of left national bourgeoisies precisely because they serve as conveyor belts for capitalism. The Syrian-led Baath Party, beginning with neoliberalization started by Hafez al-Assad and privatizing projects like “economic pluralism” and accelerating during the 2000 Damascus Spring under Bashar al-Assad, transformed itself into a facilitator of international capital. That means that, contrary to Ron J and Mirah W’s arguments on Syria, the Assad family does deserve our attention if we wish to fight U.S. imperialism (or, for that matter, if we care about Palestinian liberation).

The People’s Republic of China is another case in point. Although established as a socialist party, the Chinese Communist Party developed into an authoritarian capitalist party run by neoliberal leaders who, among other things, invest in Reaganomic trickle-down new supply-side economics and exploration of Neo-Confucian rubrics for maintaining rule and legitimacy in power. If we wish to “remain humble at all times and realize that we are the ones who should be learning from existing socialists and anti-imperialist revolutions around the world, to help aid our own process of change,” as Mirah W urges us, then we should consult with the socialist thinker whose thought undergirded the Chinese Revolution. Lu Xun wrote in “Confucius in Modern China” (1935) that “Confucius owes his exalted position in China to the wielders of power. He is the sage of the wielders of power or those who would be wielders of power; it has nothing to do with the mass of common people.”

Finally, the PAIS Alliance’s rise to power in Ecuador and betrayal of its organized Indigenous mass base to favor extractive interests matches the profile of a socialist party’s elite capture. As described by Andrea Sempértegui of the anti-extractive organizing collective Comunálisis, the Indigenous movement provided the mass base that enabled the rise of Correa’s left-wing government in Ecuador. Those organizers then faced the question of how to relate to Correa’s government when it sided with developers and supported extractive industry with ties to international capital.

Socialists in the imperial core faced our own question: how do we show international solidarity with the struggle in Ecuador? Internationalism from above essentially provided only one roadmap: express “critical support” for the Correa government, show no open solidarity with the Indigenous movement, and magically influence the U.S. government to keep its hands off Ecuador.

The only time that internationalism from above allows for critiquing left-wing leaders seems to be when left-wing governments themselves critique other countries’ violations of human rights, as when Chile’s newly minted leader Gabriel Boric decried the anti-worker Iranian and Nicaraguan governments at the United Nations. Ironically, shortly after socialists in the imperial core criticized Boric, the Iranian working class rose up against the regime, particularly in the oil and gas industry that propels the Iranian government’s engagement with international capital.

Practical steps to defeating empire

The failure to fully realize the potential for strategic campaigns targeting the U.S. empire, the misunderstanding of the power we possess as socialists in the imperial core, and the fundamentally idealistic worldview are all contradictions in the top-down internationalist viewpoint. The perspective may be represented by eloquent writers and dedicated organizers, and held by a majority of the current DSA International Committee, but the perspective doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Internationalism from above raises many important issues that deserve reconsideration if we seek to actually develop strategic campaigns that are anti-imperialist in nature. We have political disagreements, yes, but all too often passion becomes factionalism. I am not interested in factionalism. I am interested in what works, what creates movement, what equips us with strategy to build power.

Ultimately, building power by targeting the nodes of international capital that support the imperialist system is a strategic direction with revolutionary potential. But regardless of the specific strategy, internationalism should lead to actual organizing, not just bring us more statements read mostly within the online left milieu.

Internationalism from below is an effective way forward. We have the capacity to build strong anti-imperialist campaigns based on material conditions and driven by a strategic analysis and targeting of nodes of international capital. We can target U.S. imperialism in our backyards by finding the nodes of international capital in our local communities. We can practice anti-imperialism that both more effectively confronts the U.S. empire through disruptive power and builds coalition power alongside transnational communities to bring us closer to ending the empire itself. The road to the end of global class rule is paved with the cobblestones of grassroots, bottom-up campaigns of internationalism from below.

Featured Image Credit: Photo from U.S. National Archives; modified by Tempest.

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Travis S. View All

Travis S. is a community organizer who has been active in social and political movements in the United States, the People's Republic of China, and Taiwan. He is a member of Democratic Socialists of America and a harassment and grievance officer for his chapter.