A New Internationalism is Possible: Notes from the first International Social Forum

A participants overview and thoughts of Labours International Social Forum at SOAS in London on the 13th and 14th July 2019.

The weekend of July 13th and 14th saw the coming together of the first ‘International Social Forum’, the brainchild of Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and his team. Inspired by the World Social Forum (which since 2001 has been at the forefront of the ‘alter-globalisation’ movement with paticularly strong contributions from the global south) this weekend-long event brought together dozens of compelling speakers from Britain, Europe, and around the world under the slogan that ‘Another Internationalism is Possible’. I attended as one of many ‘delegates’, whose role was to take on board the ideas presented by speakers in various topical ‘plenary’ sessions and then break off into workshops to come up with policy ideas to be passed over to the Shadow Chancellor’s office. The goal of this bottom-up policymaking procedure was as simple as it was ambitious: re-invigorate the idea of left internationalism in an age of rising nationalism.

Standout attendees included former Greek finance minister and Diem25 chief Yanis Varoufakis, Indian economist Jayati Ghosh, and the first female President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, a former revolutionary who gave a harrowing, illuminating hour-long speech about the brutality with which Bolsonaro’s regime and other right-wing elements in Brazil are destroying that country’s democracy. Of all these challenges, the biggest is to get the international socialist movement to act internationally again.

Given the political and intellectual ambitions of the Forum, it is obviously not possible to sum up everything the Labour movement may have gained from the weekend’s conversation and the discussion which will come out of it. But I can say this: not for the first time in the history of the British left, but in the most far-reaching and systematic way since Labours increased role, the Forum put internationalism on the agenda at Labour’s highest level. John McDonnell and his team deserve a lot of credit for putting this event together at a time when the issue of where one’s loyalties, especially as a socialist, should ultimately lie - to the nation-state or to something higher - could hardly be more controversial, in the UK and around the world.

The impossibility of any project like the ‘Corbyn project’ functioning on a purely national basis was one of the Forum’s underlying themes. As John McDonnell said at the outset, there can be ‘no socialism in one country’.

Throughout the weekend’s panels and workshops, one theme stuck out. With the global forces of the extreme right rapidly learning how to effectively organise across borders, internationalism is no longer just a matter of principle. For this reason and many others, we are in a race against time to build the structures of solidarity that can underpin the case for international socialism as a real solution to monumental global crises.

Coordinating a planetary response to the climate emergency, ending extreme inequality, and combating populism and militarism will require the (re)generation of institutions - especially democratic states - and their capacities to apply measures that support just economies, green transitions, and social solidarity. This means investing in green industrial strategy, restored social programs, secure access to education and healthcare, and the rest of the standard socialist shopping list. All this will require resources. And today, states can only obtain these resources if they act beyond themselves as states. The impossibility of any project like the ‘Corbyn project’ functioning on a purely national basis was one of the Forum’s underlying themes. As John McDonnell said at the outset, there can be ‘no socialism in one country’.

The state in the post-war eracould make the rich pay their share with relative ease. Business was insufficiently ‘extraterritorial’ to be in a position to make threats. But as John McDonnel remarked in his opening speech to the first plenary, in the age of truly multinational capitalism in terms of firms focuses and competive pressure, only multinational political structures can ensure adequate funding for the socialist project of expanding public services, education, green technology investment. In effect, there can be no limit to the geographical reach of 21st-century socialist states. Furthermore, with the 2017 International Labour Organization report showing wages in decline across the world, only the old-fashioned tactics of international workers’ solidarity, expressed through global trade union struggle which works best when supported by workers’ governments, can reverse the decay of living standards.

Governments, political parties and social movements therefore need to overcome parochialism and work together. While the tension between ‘reform or revolution’ at the level of international institutions was of course not resolved during the Forum, where notions of working within existing frameworks often co-mingled with more explicit calls to create entire parallel architectures of international economic and political coordination, each of the visions presented had a common starting-point. Nations are the foundation of all international frameworks. Socialists and progressives must attain power within nations and use that power to form a united front capable of exercising the power necessary to change institutions or to create new ones. In Britain and across the Global North, we have a responsibility to contribute to this effort all the resources we can muster as highly-developed, industrialised, militarised states. For too long we have allowed the countries of the Global South (such as Brazil, where the original World Social Forums were first convened) to carry a disproportionate burden of the work involved in raising awareness of international imbalances of power and the possibility of creating a new global order. The Forum hopefully marks the beginning of a new chapter in the history of left internationalism. While the left has often sought power on a national level, it now needs to do so as a moment of a broader process in which power that spans borders and transcends national political frameworks is the higher aim.

But laying the foundations for a new internationalism is easier said than done. The word itself means different things to different people. We need a shared vocabulary of struggle in order to make the case for socialist internationalism compellingly. If there was one lesson to take away from the Forum, it was this: the left, especially the British left, needs to grapple with the legacies of past ‘internationalisms’ in order for any kind of new, genuinely left internationalism to emerge.

Consciousness of internationalism’s imperial legacy must underwrite the whole of socialist internationalism and its specific political visions, whether the issue at stake in any given discussion is climate crisis, combating the rise of far-right narratives around migration and refugees, or enforcing fair international tax laws.

The old, twisted forms of internationalism of course have names: imperialism and colonialism, neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism. Furthermore, they have institutions. The first phase of imperialism found expression, naturally, in the global European empires. In the second phase, the pillars of the liberal post-war, American-led ‘global order’, such as the World Bank, World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund perform the imperialist functions.

Unfortunately but unavoidably, it is these architectures of violence old and new that many have in mind when they hear the world ‘internationalism’. In both cases, the preponderant power and privilege of extractive, destructive capitalism exercised from the Global North over the persistently, often deliberately under-developed Global South is what is fundamentally at stake. What Walter Rodney wrote a half-century ago of Africa remains true across much of the world:

Under colonialism, the ownership was complete and backed by military domination. Today, in many African countries the foreign ownership is still present, although the armies and flags of foreign powers have been removed.

Consciousness of internationalism’s imperial legacy must underwrite the whole of socialist internationalism and its specific political visions, whether the issue at stake in any given discussion is climate crisis, combating the rise of far-right narratives around migration and refugees, or enforcing fair international tax laws.

Climate activists in particular would have (initially) shifted uncomfortably in their seats as speaker Asad Rehman set the tone for the weekend on climate change. It is not just that the climate crisis a result of a process of industrialisation that has always favoured the rich nations at the expense of the colonised. If as climate activists we are not to simply reproduce colonialism in a ‘green’ form, we need to recognise the imperialist dynamics of extraction and exploitation inherent in the most popular visions of ecological action such as the Green New Deal, and plan accordingly. We can approach global resource distribution rationally and ensure a fair transition to green economies in the Global North as well as the South, but only if we start from the right place.

One thing attendees and speakers all seemed to agree on is that a serious push to educate people, especially in the UK, about the legacy of imperialist capitalism is necessary. But such a history will necessarily be one-sided, agency-denying, and even paternalistic if it represents the colonised world (and their allies in the colonial countries) as silent witnesses to barbarism

Most of all, emphasis was laid on the historical continuity between present and past forms of imperialism. It was primarily this lens by which delegates and speakers analysed the current international order and debated its future. As long as widespread ‘pride’ in the history of the Empire prevails among the British public, stridently anti-imperialist positions will be ones the left must insist on taking, as combatively as necessary. Indeed, it is more important now than ever to tell the truth about imperialism (old and new), as the Brexit discourse has raised a collection of twisted, xenophobic, historically illiterate ideas about the Britain’s role in the world to the surface of public discourse, under which they of course have long been allowed to fester.

Labour’s own history in this regard provides the opportunity to have wide-ranging discussions about the role of the left in propping up imperialism. As Maya Goodfellow said in her address to the plenary on the movement of people, it was a Labour government - Wilson’s - that proposed and signed into law the most racist piece of immigration law ever passed in the UK, the 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which restricted immigration from the very countries exploited for centuries by the British Empire. Clearly, to get beyond the national(ist) outlook on left politics, we will need to get beyond our own histories - and we can only do this by squarely facing up to them.

That being said: the history of empire is charged with so many images of violence and cruelty that these can crowd out images associated with the alternative histories of genuine peoples’ internationalism: images of unity, resistance, and shared humanity across time and space. The Forum, without engaging in left-wing self-congratulation, could perhaps have done more to educate people about this progressive, socialist, anti-imperialist, workers’ internationalism. Only one minor, off-hand, coded reference to The Internationale, for instance, was made by Varoufakis in his closing remarks. Of the specific successes and failures, the positive and negative practical lessons, provided by the historic socialist ‘Internationals’, we heard nothing. If the history of empire is relevant to a discussion of the left’s future, so is empire’s counter-history. Just as there is continuity between the colonialism of the British Crown and that of the World Bank, there is an unmistakable historical continuity linking the First, Second and (for better or worse) Third Internationals with whatever new forms of international solidarity the left today may hope to realise. Drawing this connection matters for strategic reasons, but it is also an important part of doing justice to the memory of those who have suffered most in imperialism’s history, and who continue to suffer.

One thing attendees and speakers all seemed to agree on is that a serious push to educate people, especially in the UK, about the legacy of imperialist capitalism is necessary. But such a history will necessarily be one-sided, agency-denying, and even paternalistic if it represents the colonised world (and their allies in the colonial countries) as silent witnesses to barbarism. Anger, not guilt, is the proper response to hearing the story of empire told. Anger prompts action while guilt prompts resentment and despondency. But righteous anger can only be nourished by historical and contemporary example. The narrative of imperialism cannot be truthfully related without a full illustration of the resistance it faced. This resistance often, though not always, was centred on the movements which made up the historic Internationals, a trend which perhaps began with the instrumental abolitionist role played by anti-slavery British proletarians in suffocating Confederate cotton exports during the American Civil War but which ran right through every progressive, socialist anti-imperialist movement in the decolonising countries, from Vietnam to South Africa and beyond.

We need to get used to giving a full account of the contributions (both good and bad) of the international workers’ movement to the politics of empire. Awareness of this legacy must not merely be academic, but must ‘live’ in our self-conception as a 21st-century movement alongside all the other intellectual commitments that make socialism what it is. Any political educational work that emerges from the Forum must begin by enumerating all the crimes of empire and capitalism and how these continue to shape our world: but it cannot end there.

This question - the question not of whether to act internationally, but how to make internationalism a living principle within a genuinely mass movement, and what part consciousness of historic injustice as well as historic progress plays in shaping that movement - is a profound one. A point made during her speech to the first plenary by Naledi Chirwa, a member of South Africa’s communist Economic Freedom Fighters party and one of the youngest representatives in the South African Parliament, contained an important clue as to what this might look like. She and her party insist on building the capacity for ‘ordinary’ citizens - not just career political officials - to actively shape politics and provide a bedrock for the political gains made inside and outside the legislature to rest on. In the Labour Party, a related discourse is taking place around the need for radical democracy and comprehensive movement-building. According to Chirwa, in South Africa the EFF has discovered that such tactics can make the difference between success and failure. Where the machinery of government might otherwise have ground down a radical political idea or policy until all its socially transformative edge was blunted, an engaged population, acting as a mass movement, can ensure that the political trickery involved in delaying or deflecting genuinely socialist politics does not go unchallenged.

This is a lesson many in Labour are trying to learn on a general level, but it also has implications when we consider the task of political education. Political education is, at its heart, a capacity-building exercise in the sense described above; it is no coincidence that Chirwa’s speech also laid great emphasis on educational themes. Education is what gives people the ‘resources’ they need to participate in political spaces and contribute to the discursive process from which ideas, projects, plans and policies emerge. If we want to build an internationalist movement, we need internationalist political education, because without it there is no movement nor is there any internationalism.

For my part, I raised the question of political education in every workshop I took part in, The discussions which emerged on this basis were extremely enlightening and I am indebted to those who I was grouped with. There is widespread agreement that the Labour Party needs to do more to underwrite the hard, often invisible work of its political educators. Without laying the groundwork in historical and conceptual understanding, without establishing common language and common points of reference, it will be impossible to make a convincing case for socialist internationalism outside the group and spaces where the tools to talk about internationalism are already widespread (such as at events like the Forum). My small contribution to the weekend was to assert the absolute necessity of creating more robust, institutional frameworks for political education in the Labour Party as a starting point for any movement-building process that aims to make international solidarity a practical and not simply a moral fact. McDonnell’s office recognises the necessity of political education, but one can hope that this past weekend’s discussions will prompt them to find ways of giving even broader support to this essential task. We need to go beyond the confines of our own movement if we want to see its true potential emerge. Political education is how we will build a bridge between the party and the rest of the world.

Hard as it is, if we begin to expand and institutionalise political education work now, it will pay dividends sooner than one might think. As McDonnell said in his closing address, by laying the foundations for a new internationalism, we are setting out on a road that may lead to some of the most profound historical transformations of our century. And the passionate energy in the air at 2019’s International Social Forum, the range of knowledge and experience on display from speakers and delegates alike, and the sense of deeply held, truly shared commitment to a better world - a united world - proved to me that the road is not as long as it may appear.