Marx and Internationalism

By Foster, John Bellamy | Monthly Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Marx and Internationalism


Foster, John Bellamy, Monthly Review


It is not uncommon within social science today to acknowledge that Karl Marx was one of the first analysts of globalization. But what is usually forgotten, even by those who make this acknowledgment, is that Marx was also one of the first strategists of working-class internationalism, designed to respond to capitalist globalization. The two major elements governing such internationalism, in his analysis, were the critique of international exploitation and the development of a working-class movement that was both national and international in its organization. A scrutiny of Marx's views at the time of the First International offers useful insights into the struggle to forge a new internationalism in our own day.

The First Condition of Internationalism

It has often been assumed that Marx believed that capitalism's colonial penetration of the global periphery operated as a purely progressive force, which would result in economic and social development in these countries along lines already pioneered by the countries at the center of the capitalist world system. There is no doubt that he concluded that social formations in certain parts of the world had taken on stagnant forms that blocked further development--one of the main implications of his concept of the "Asiatic mode of production." [1] The external penetration of capitalism into such countries could therefore serve to break this stagnation and to provide the initial material prerequisites for a wider development. But, although this theme was repeatedly introduced in his early discussions of economic and social "backwardness," he did not thereby downplay the terrible history of capitalist exploitation of these societies or the necessity for social revolt by indigenous populations. Rather, Marx-with hi s usual dialectical imagination--not only condemned colonialism from the standpoint of those who suffered from it, but also drew on Hegel's "cunning of reason" to argue that such capitalist penetration was providing the bare material preconditions, which, when coupled with social revolution, opened the way to historical advance--an advance which might take more complex and variegated forms, he seemed to suggest, than in Europe.

In his later years, from the days of the formation of the First International and the writing of Capital in the 1860s up to the end of his life, Marx was far less convinced that the Hegelian cunning of reason was operative here in any meaningful sense- that objective forces unleashed by colonialism were actually providing the material premises for development in colonized nations. [2] Instead, he became increasingly concerned about the role of international exploitation in creating a permanent structural relation of dependency of poor nations on rich nations--and the effect of this on working-class internationalism. Ireland, he observed, was sending its surplus-derived largely from agricultural production--over to England, where it was used to expand industrial production. Moreover, by 1881 (in the third draft of his letter to Vera Zasulich), he had come to the conclusion with respect to India that "the suppression of communal land ownership was nothing but an act of English vandalism which drove the indigen ous population backward rather than forward." Although British imperial conquest in India had loosened the bonds of the old society, thus making rapid historical development possible, it also placed the Indian population in conditions of superexploitation. Thus, in a letter written in February 1881, Marx accounted for the situation in the greatest of Britain's colonial possessions as follows:

In India serious complications, if not a general outbreak, is in store for the British government. What the English take from them annually in the form of rent, dividends for railway useless to the Hindoos, pensions for military and civil servicemen, for Afghanistan and other wars, etc., etc.--what they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart from what they appropriate to themselves annually within India, speaking only of the value of the commodities the Indians have gratuitously and annually to send over to England, it amounts to more than the total sum of income of the 60 millions of agricultural and industrial labourers of India! …

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