Marx and the “International”

Against the Current, No. 197, November/December 2018

Vishwas Satgar

KARL MARX WAS was an intrepid traveller in the European context in the mid-19th century. Don’t imagine the bearded one moving around with a roller suitcase, tourist guides and staying at fancy hotels. Marx, the “red mole,” travelled around a tumultuous Europe out of political choice but also because of the strong-arm of ruling-class repression.

The frontiers of struggle and revolution were what kept Marx on the move. His “seditious” missives against aristocratic, religious and bourgeois classes and commitment to revolution earned him infamy amongst ruling classes in Europe. Marx was forced to leave various countries due to legal prohibitions issued by the Prussian Empire, the King of Belgium and the French authorities.

This article is not about Marx’s biographical adventures and escapades, which in themselves reveal a great deal about his commitment to internationalism. Rather, this contribution is about how Marx thought about and acted the “international.” How was the international part of Marx’s theory and practice?

It is also about how Marx’s ideas have travelled to South Africa through internationalism, and the contribution South African Marxism has made to anti-racism, including its support for building a powerful anti-apartheid movement.

The third theme in this article is on the current conjuncture and necessity for a renewed internationalism. Finally, this article concludes with possible directions and challenges for 21st century internationalism.

Marx and the “International”

For some international relations thinkers, Marx’s work does not have much to offer in terms of thinking and understanding the international.(1)

That is to say, because Marx’s political and ideological formation happened in a post-Napoleonic era in transition from the Holy Alliance to the concert of Europe, which secured a relative peace for “a hundred years” (1815-1914), the lived experience of Marx’s world supposedly occluded an understanding of international relations.

This is based on a superficial reading of Marx’s work and his praxis as a revolutionary. Anybody reading The Communist Manifesto and Capital would recognize the international character of capitalist expansion.

In the Manifesto it is the materiality of capitalism, the role of the bourgeoisie, class struggle and the historical agency of the working class that remakes the world. In Capital the self-expanding value of capital is crucial for its expansionary tendencies.

Moreover, the original form of accumulating capital through primitive accumulation entailed a historical role for mercantile capitalism, in terms of slavery, conquest and trade within international relations. Some theorists also read Marx as furnishing his own understanding of imperialism and the importance for class solidarity in the imperial centers of capitalism and with anti-colonial struggles.(2)

Now, Marx was thinking and writing in the context of a Eurocentric milieu of 19th century Europe. White supremacist thinking was also expressed in the Enlightenment, including Hegel’s conception of world history, ethnographic accounts of the colonial, and the vaunting of scientific racism linked to 19th century imperialism.

Of course we must be cautious in thinking with Marx, so we don’t get infected by some of this distasteful racist thinking. But let us not make the mistake of reducing Marx to a racist or a Eurocentric thinker, as Edward Said does in Orientalism.

Said is wrong. Marx was not a white supremacist. As several readings of Marx have pointed out there is a triple epistemological rupture with Eurocentricism in Marx’s thought.(3)

The first relates to Marx’s break with a linear conception of capitalist modernity and the idea that Western capitalism is the terminus of all non-Western societies. Informing this break is Marx’s appreciation of the deleterious impacts of colonialism and his own active opposition to slavery.(4)

Marx was a fervent abolitionist of slavery; he recognized how colonialism divided the working class, as in the case of Ireland; and regarding India he came to appreciate the complex relationship between the colonizer and colonized, particularly the agency of the oppressed.(5)

His second break with Eurocentricism relates to Marx’s appreciation that the Western transition from feudalism to capitalism could not be universalized. Initially, attempting to think Asia within this framework led to a realization, as more evidence became available, that Asia has its own distinct social structures, which would shape its transition from pre-capitalist relations.

The third epistemological rupture relates to the transition beyond capitalism. In this regard a lot has been written on Marx’s exchange with Vera Zasulich on the Russian Road to socialism and rural social relations, in which he recognizes the Russian commune (mir) as a potential part of the transition.(6)

This affirming of a multilinear approach to socialism, through various pathways based on national histories, cultures and social practices, becomes even more apparent when reading Marx through his own understanding of ecological relations and the limits of productivism.

Universal Working-Class Role

Marx’s connection to international relations also emerges in his discussion of the universal role of the working class as the subject of history and as central to the revolutionary transformation from capitalism.

Such a conception of the working class is present in the Communist Manifesto, and in the centrality he gives to the sale of labor power in his conception of the labor theory of value and his conception of exploitation in Capital.

At the same time, Marx lived out his commitment to the working-class and international struggle in various ways. These included his association with clandestine worker groups in France including the League of the Just (from 1843); his links with the Chartist movement in England (1845) and then again deepened through writings for the Chartist newspapers (1851-1862); his co-organizing the Communist Correspondence Committee in Brussels (1846) to unite socialists and politically engaged workers in various countries; his joining the League of the Just on their invitation (1847) and assisting them to organize and develop an open revolutionary program which resulted in them changing their name to the Communist League, embracing the slogan “Working Men of All Countries Unite” and adopting The Communist Manifesto (1848).

His education work amongst workers’ groups included delivering lectures on political economy (published as Wage Labour and Capital). His support of the German Revolution of 1848 through publishing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung provided a platform to call for a unified German state, rally support for workers and peasants’ struggles and support national liberation struggles in other countries.

Between 1851-62 Marx contributed journalistic articles to the New York Daily Tribune on various struggles, international affairs and political economy developments.

Finally Marx’s involvement in the creation of the International Working Men’s Association (1864), the First International, enabled him to foreground various international developments, influence the creation of the social democratic party in Germany, contest the destructive role of anarchists and foreground the importance of the Paris Commune.

The Encounter with South Africa

Marx the anti-racist found his way into the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa through various number of interlocutors in the late 19th  and early 20th centuries. This included the work of the socialist and anti-imperialist feminist Olive Schreiner, expatriate workers from Europe, the Communist Party of South Africa, Trotskyist groups, and revolutionary nationalists.

Marxism played a crucial role in developing the theoretical and analytical tools to understand the relationship between capitalism and racial oppression. Much later, women’s oppression was added to the roster of oppression and the vast corpus of South African Marxism.

Three influential theories, articulation of modes of production developed by Harold Wolpe, “colonialism of a special type” put forward by the South African Community Party, and “racial capitalism” developed by Trotskyists (e.g. Neville Alexander) all contributed to resistance in South Africa.

Each of these theories have a lineage that can be traced back to Marx. Wolpe’s articulation of modes of production and the Trotskyist versions of “racial capitalism” draw from and innovate on Marx’s historical materialism and conception of primitive accumulation as it relates to pre-capitalist relations in the transition to capitalism.

The SACP’s “colonialism of a special type” involved a structural class analysis of monopoly capitalism and a critique of a colonial social formation in which colonizer and colonized shared a common spatial reality. Again, these theoretical ideas connected back to Marx’s understanding of class, racial oppression and his critique of colonialism.

All the theories mentioned are not direct derivatives from Marx, but definitely elaborate aspects in his theory of capitalism, historical materialist framework and political writings.

Marx’s abolitionist stance against slavery, for instance, was very similar to anti-apartheid activism. More precisely it was similar to the anti-apartheid movement that developed in various parts of the world, cutting across Cold War fault-lines, to rally resistance in streets, outside embassies, for sanctions, providing aid to national liberation movements and including battle grounds as in Angola.

The anti-apartheid movement made a crucial contribution to isolating the pariah Afrikaner nationalist regime, and to the end of apartheid. As an internationalist movement, the anti-apartheid movement was an important precursor to the more recent anti-globalization movement-of-movements. Its experience, history and lessons for renewing a 21st century internationalism are crucial.

Neoliberal Crisis and Resistance

Today’s world has endured over three decades of neoliberalism, which has engendered a crisis-ridden global political economy. Financial liberalization, conjoined to the inherent instability of globalized finance, has destabilized a number of economies in the global south.

Around 2007-8 the global financial crisis finally reached the heartlands of capitalism. Instead of learning lessons from this general and systemic crisis, global ruling classes are still committed to financialized accumulation. Trump, like Obama, has not reined in finance. The crises of neoliberalism have not ended the neoliberal regime as a class project.

Instead the conjunctural crisis of neoliberalism, grounded in a systemic contradiction of worsening inequality, is now converging with other dangerous systemic contradictions like the climate crisis and the hollowing out of market democracies.

A new fascist menace is rising in the world. Religious fundamentalism, ethno-nationalism, racist border regimes, climate denialism and authoritarian approaches to globalized market economies are emerging. This ideological disposition is being expressed in various combinations, with different emphases, in Trump’s White House, Brazil, India, Turkey, Russia and several countries in Europe.

The global left has not been able to resist hegemonic neoliberalism effectively. Today, neoliberalism is becoming neo-fascist-like in response to its own crises and domestic conditions. Global capitalism is experiencing a conjunctural and a set of systemic crises, yet resistance is episodic, defensive and even being preemptively crushed.

This poses serious challenges for the renewal of 21st century internationalism. National struggles are weaker and vulnerable without international solidarity.

Where to for Internationalism?

The classical inheritance Marx has left us on the centrality of the international in left politics is something we should learn from critically, while being informed by contemporary conditions.

In the global cycles of resistance, against the neoliberal class project, the World Social Forum was a crucial space for convergence. WSF presented a critique of plutocratic class power — expressed through the elites’ World Economic Forum —  offering a self-reflexive space for the new global left, enabling solidarity-based sharing of anti-systemic perspectives, inciting a 21st century emancipatory imagination, and provided a platform for confrontations with the IMF-World Bank-WTO and other globalizing forces.

However, the World Social Forum did not become a strategic center for the global left, nor did it develop a programmatic approach to global resistance. Institutionalizing left power, in a democratic manner, has eluded the WSF. It just might be that the WSF has exhausted its historic role.

This question requires further debate and clarification amongst the global left. Samir Amin, the leading Marxist thinker from Africa, made it a central priority before his passing to call for a New International of Workers and Peoples.(7)

Feeling strongly that the WSF had “slowed down,” Amin centered his call on the crisis-ridden nature of contemporary capitalism including ecological destruction, its “soft totalitarianism” which can easily become a hard totalitarianism, and the failure of existing left forces in national spaces, particularly the global north, to resist contemporary imperialism.

His call for an inaugural meeting of a New International of Workers and Peoples was aimed at anti-capitalist activists, movements, parties, networks and unions from all continents. It envisaged a convergence that would build a democratic organization and critically learn the lessons of historical internationalism.

In short, based on his analysis of the “Autumn phase” of capitalism, Samir Amin believed in the necessity of the “Peoples Spring” informed by a socialist perspective. This is another possible way forward.

At the same time, various social forces on the ground are seeking to build transnational solidarities that can feed into a renewal of internationalism, from below, and through a new strategic politics.

A number of examples stand out on the global terrain of struggle: Campaigning for food sovereignty pathways, inaugurated by La Via Campesina, through various national and continental alliances. Climate jobs, energy sovereignty and just transition campaigning by unions and red-green alliances in various countries. Transnational campaigning platforms for dismantling the power of transnational corporations and for national and global regulation.

There are global union struggles: The International Transport Workers Federation, effectively organizing support for workers across national borders to take on the exploitative, low cost, Ryanair. Indigenous peoples’ resistance to carbon extraction, the destruction of eco-systems and more.

In this context, I firmly agree with Marx on the need for anti-capitalist internationalism but also with Samir Amin on the imperative of building a New International of Workers and Peoples in the 21st century, if we are to survive a rising eco-fascist and ecocidal global capitalism.

We rallied courageous human solidarity against apartheid and its imperial allies. We can do it again, from below and in a democratic manner, before it is too late.


  1. See Vendulka Kubalkova and Albert Cruickshank, 1989, Marxism and International Relations, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
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  2. Lucia Pradella, “Imperialism and Capitalist Development in Marx’s Capital,” Historical Materialism 21.2 (2013) 117–147.
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  3. In this regard see Gilbert Achcar (2013) Marxism, Orientalism, Cosmopolitanism Chicago: Haymarket Books, in which he deals with Marx’s epistemological evolution. Also see Kevin B. Anderson (2010) Marx At The Margins — On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies for an excellent analysis of what I call the making of Marx’s anti-racism.
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  4. See Robin Blackburn (2011), Marx and Lincoln — An Unfinished Revolution. London and New York: Verso Books. As this text confirms, Marx had a more radical position than Lincoln on the rights and freedoms of African Americans.
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  5. I agree with Pranav Jani in recognizing that Marx developed a deeper appreciation of India beyond his descriptive commentary on the role of the bourgeoisie. See Jani’s “Karl Marx, Eurocentrism, and the 1857 Revolt in British India” in Crystal Bartolovich and Neil Lazarus (2002) Marxism, Modernity and Postcolonial Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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  6. See Teodor Shanin (1983) Late Marx and the Russian Road — Marx and the Peripheries of Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.
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  7. Samir Amin wrote up his analysis and argument, titled “It is imperative to reconstruct the International of Workers and Peoples,” in 2017 and put out an email call on 24 June 2018, titled “Letter of Intent for an Inaugural Meeting of the International of Workers and Peoples.”
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November-December 2018, ATC 197