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The world is in a revolutionary moment – how can the global left be a serious player?

We need not one but two internationales – a ‘movement of movements’ and a World Party.

Sahan Savas Karatasli
1 November 2019
Protester at Halloween march in Hong Kong
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SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

This article is part of ourEconomy's 'Decolonising the economy' series.

We are living in an extraordinary moment of world history. This is a period of intense, frequent and widespread social revolts, rebellions and revolutions, taking place in synchrony with crises of political systems and economic regimes around the world.

In many ways, the unusual moment we are experiencing today resembles the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when interlinked political-economic crises and social revolts and revolutions completely transformed our world. Many of the democratic rights and liberties that we see as essential today – including universal voting rights, the 8-hour working day, rights to divorce, unionize or national self-determination – have their roots in the social revolts and revolutions of the early twentieth century.

Recent studies on social movements and revolutions highlight very interesting similarities between these two periods. Mark Beissinger at Princeton University, for instance, found that the number of revolutionary situations between 2010-2014 are almost equal to the 1915-1919 period. At the Arrighi Center for Global Studies at Johns Hopkins University, my colleagues and I also found that the frequency and geographical spread of social protests around the world since 2010 is exceptionally high, making the current moment comparable to the period of world revolutions of 1905 and 1917-1919.

It is important to note that this post-2010 wave of social unrest has not ended. It continues in front of our eyes, as illustrated by the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile, Egypt, Catalonia, France etc. Although today we do not talk about the rise of social movements from below as much as we talk about the rise of the Global Right and the authoritarian turn, the rapid rise of conservative and reactionary forces also demonstrates that we are living in an extraordinary era in terms of social unrest from below. It shows that in the face of rising social, economic and political instability in the early 21st century, the ruling classes in many countries are not able to rule in the old way. As they lose their consent-building capacity, ruling elites in both the Global North and the Global South seek ways to bypass parliamentary democracies, to liquidate existing democratic institutions, and to oppress any form of opposition through brute force.

One of the foremost revolutionaries of the early 20th century once said “revolutionary situations” occur when it becomes “impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change” and when “the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual”. This is a very accurate description of our times.

A balance sheet of twenty-first century revolts

While the conditions for structural change to transform the social world are as fertile as in the previous century, revolutionary situations of the early 21st century have not produced any significant revolutionary outcomes. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy-type anti-austerity movements in North America and Europe, to rising labor unrest and pro-democracy movements in the Global South, none of the movements in this decade has managed to make a revolutionary transformation.

For one thing, with the exception of Kurds in Rojava — who were experimenting with a new form of radical, feminist, ecological and pluralist democracy until they were brutally suppressed by Turkey and its proxies — none of these movements managed to take power or to produce new forms of polities. Most of the masses who occupied squares and parks from Tahrir to Zuccotti to Gezi were not actually interested in taking state power. Accordingly, when mass protests were strong enough to make a change in state leadership, most of the time they ended up replacing old authoritarian leaders with new ones; or pushed the existing ruling elites to a more authoritarian line.

In the economic domain, the escalation of anti-austerity and anti-neoliberal globalization movements did not even slow down the pace of commodification of land, labor or money, in contrast to the 1929 crisis, which had been a major turning point and the beginning of the proliferation of social democratic reforms, Keynesian economics and welfare regimes in Europe and North America.

In the environmental sphere, there is a rapid upsurge in movements directed against the environmental crisis to save our planet and ecosystem but these movements have been facing extremely difficult times in enforcing any structural change or sustainable reforms. While most of these movements help increase “awareness” of various problems that we are facing, they do not achieve their goals.

A crisis of internationalism?

From this point of view, we have been experiencing a major historical failure. The reason for this failure must be sought not in the objective conditions for revolutions but mostly in the inability of the Global Left to constitute itself as a political actor and to intervene in the existing situation despite the favorable geo-economic and political climate. Unfortunately, most representatives of the Global Left are extremely skeptical about the possibility of creating a new world order through world revolutions as was the case in previous centuries.

Setting aside prospects about revolutions, even the utopianism of the 19th century socialists (e.g. those of Owenites, Saint-Simonians, Fourierists) has vanished from the political imagination of the Global Left. It seems that efforts aiming at re-establishing the mid-20th century welfare states — which had provided some security to parts of the working class population in Global North at the expense of exclusion of billions of people in the Global South — has replaced both the utopian and revolutionary visions. That is why today it is much easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism and the existing world political order.

It is true that we are on the eve of a systemic chaos, but this must not only be seen as a problem but also an opportunity. Almost all similar periods of systemic chaos in world history have paved the conditions of a new world order, for better or worse. Whether or not we will be living in a more democratic, peaceful and emancipatory world depends on how the ongoing struggles will unfold in the following years. In order to be a player in this transformatory power struggle and to produce a more democratic and emancipatory future out of this chaos, the Global Left needs to overcome its own crisis and to become a major international actor in this struggle. For this reason, the recent resurgence of interest in discussions of “new internationalism” must be welcomed and seriously discussed in the context of the early twenty-first century.

A proposal for two Internationales

That said, I believe that much of the existing discussions are ill-equipped to successfully guide the Global Left in this critical era because they conflate distinct forms of internationalism — with different purposes and organizational needs— that evolved during the century of internationalism that spanned from the birth of the Communist League in 1847 to the dissolution of the Communist International in 1943. To make a decisive mark in the twenty-first century, the Global Left needs to distinguish between two distinct forms of internationalism and to establish two distinct forms of Internationales.

1) A horizontal, heterogeneous and fluid “movement of movements”

First, we need to forge solidarity and increase coordination between the exploited, the oppressed and the excluded sections of all countries as well as between movements and organizations that struggle against various forms of injustice, oppression and insecurity at local, national and global levels. More precisely, we need to bring together an extremely wide spectrum of forces that include class-based movements and organizations (e.g. working-class and peasant movements); unions; production and consumption cooperatives; movements for national liberation; various ethnic, racial and indigenous groups that struggle for recognition, inclusion and equal treatment; movements by feminists, oppressed genders and sexualities that struggle against a patriarchal world order; environmentalists, human and animal rights activists, to give some examples.

Because this is an extremely wide spectrum of groups and movements on a world scale, it is not possible to coordinate the spontaneous energies of masses from below on such a large scale without recognizing the diversity of these groups, their grievances and demands. Consequently, any global level political organization that aims to solidify the interconnections and links between these groups and movements and mobilize their energies must be ideologically heterogeneous and organizationally horizontal.

This global “movement of movements” must be able to attract and accommodate any group or movement whose practice does not contradict with the aim of increasing the solidarity between the oppressed, the exploited and the excluded. This is critical because the experience of the 21st century struggles clearly demonstrates that the spark of the new wave of revolutions can come out of any kind of movement. The complexity of problems we have simultaneously been facing today is also producing a wide spectrum of possibilities and potentials for resistance, organization and transformation.

The term “international” must not misdirect our attention only to the “global” forms of organization. While the emergence of transnational movements which have to operate in multiple countries, and global movements (such as some environmentalist movements) which have to operate globally is an advantage, a global movement of movements cannot simply rely on such transnational, international and global networks. The activities of this horizontal Internationale (like its counterpart that we will discuss below) must especially be strong at the local and community level. Different forms of organizations, movements, struggles and parties must be put in solidarity and coordination with each other in local communities regardless of their ideological or sectoral differences. Unless we achieve such solidarity and coordination at the local level, we cannot sustain any form of internationalism at the global level.

2) A vertical, homogeneous and structured World Party

In addition to this horizontally organized, heterogeneous and fluid global movement of movements, however, the Global Left also needs a vertically organized, homogeneous and structured Internationale, which would act as a world political party. This Internationale must be composed of activists who embrace the totality of grievances put forward by movement of movements, should not have distinct interests of their own, but agree on the existence of structural limitations of these mass movements to achieve their ultimate goals.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels hinted at such structural limitations of working class movements in the section which compared the proletarians to communists. They wrote that the communists do not have any separate interests apart from those of the proletarians or any sectarian principles of their own. However, they differ from all working class organizations in two respects:

“1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”

It is often forgotten that the term ‘communists’ in this text refers to the Communist League which was established in 1847 as a world communist party (put differently, as an Internationale), which was already organized in Belgium, Switzerland, France and Sweden, and was trying to organize in Germany, America, Norway, and Holland. Hence what Marx and Engels were explaining was that the Communist League as a vertically organized, homogeneous Internationale should aim to point out, bring to the front, and represent the global, general and long-term interests of the revolution against the local, particularistic and short-term interests of other working class organizations and movements.

As Marx and Engels point out in the case of working class organizations, all mass movements that would be a part of the global “movement of movements” will naturally have local, particularistic and short-term interests. This is necessarily so because all mass movements experience the injustice, oppression and insecurity that surrounds our world from a particular angle. Since this heterogeneity and short-term, particularistic, local focus is natural, to mobilize the spontaneous energy of mass movements from below for a world revolution, we will need a global political organization which would voluntarily defend the totality of grievances and demands by articulating how these different forms of class, race and gender-based struggles are indeed organically interlinked. This is where we need such a homogeneous and vertically organized Internationale.

Like the global “movement of movements”, this vertical Internationale must be very well organized at the local and national level and should have a strong representation from the Global South. To be successful, this vertical Internationale must not compete with the global “movement of movements” or try to subordinate it, but must try to expand the movement of movements’ size and impact by forging the solidarity and coordination between them.

It must point out and bring to front how all of these very different types of struggles that take place in different parts of the world are indeed interconnected with each other, how they need each other for emancipation, and how each of these movements need a world-scale political revolution to achieve their goals. It must not strive to come to power itself but to bring the oppressed, the exploited and the excluded masses, and the movement of movements to power without subordinating them.

It must be ready to intervene into the revolutionary situations to produce revolutionary outcomes and must take all necessary precautions and steps to defend the general and long-term interests of the revolution, including its defense against reaction by states, capital and (neo)fascist reactionism. And finally when a revolution occurs in a particular region, it should turn its energies to spread and to globalize the revolution rather than to compete with capitalist countries in economic or military spheres. It must not try to expand the domain of revolution through military means but through social revolutions from below.

Towards a new internationalism?

The idea of two Internationales is not an abstract proposal. On the contrary, it builds on the strong historical legacy of the Global Left. We must understand that in its quest for internationalism, the Global Left has alternated between different organizational forms.

The Communist League (1847-1852), for which the famous Communist Manifesto was written, was an experiment in a vertically organized, homogeneous and structured world-party. The International Workingmen’s Association (1864-1876), widely known as the “First Internationale”, however, was an experiment that opted for a more heterogeneous and slightly horizontal form, bringing together trade unions, communists, oppressed nationalities, liberal nationalists, socialists, and anarchists; and gave these groups an exceptional degree of autonomy.

Bolsheviks followed the footsteps of the Communist League and further developed the homogeneous and vertical form by establishing the Communist Internationale. At the other extreme of the spectrum, the Global Social Forums of the late twentieth century were experiments aiming to further develop the horizontal, heterogeneous and fluid form. This alternation between forms is not coincidental but evidence that the Global Left simultaneously and desperately needs both of these forms, but for quite different reasons.

Many people might wonder if we can really build a new form of internationalism that would suit the conditions of the 21st century by building upon and further developing historical models. My answer is yes! I find it intriguing that many Blanquists and other revolutionaries who created the Paris Commune in 1871 — a truly novel form of state which has always inspired anarchists, socialists and communists alike — were not trying to produce a new state but to reestablish the old communes of the French Revolution. If we can follow in the footsteps of these historical examples and supersede them by overcoming their weaknesses, we will not be repeating what has already been tried (and failed) but we will be producing a completely new form of internationalism for this century.

Inevitably, more people in the Global Left who feel the necessity of a new Internationale will agree with the first half of the proposal (establishment of a horizontal, fluid, movement of movements at the local, national and global levels) than the second half (establishment of a vertically organized world party), since the former is an inclusive and heterogeneous formation but the latter requires a political agreement on the principles of the movement as well as the immense power and structural limitations of horizontal and spontaneous mass movements.

Fortunately, the realization of this proposal does not require agreement on both ends. Those who agree on the formation of a horizontal, heterogeneous, fluid, global movement of movements should turn their energies to forging the solidarity and coordination with various mass movements, struggles and organizations at the local, national and global levels. Those who also agree with the second half of the proposal must come together for the formation of a new vertically organized, homogeneous, and structured global political organization which would participate within the global movement of movements as an equal and struggle from within to point out, bring to front and represent the global and long-term interest of the world revolution.

If we succeed in these two ends, the revolts and revolutionary situations we have been observing at the world level will not remain as failures or flashes in the pan, but they will completely transform and thus save the world as we know it.

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