For a new internationalism

Anti-authoritarian forces have organised their own international units within the Territorial Defence Force of Ukraine. Image from Resistance Committee.

By DAPHNE LAWLESS. Written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Organisation. Subscribe to our magazine, or e-publication here.

I.                Once again, against campism

Fightback proudly positions itself as a socialist internationalist publication. Since 2015, we have set ourselves against what we call campism:

the metaphor that the world is divided into several military “camps”, with the largest being the Western camp led by the United States. Therefore, any government which disagrees with American foreign policy – no matter how oppressive to its own people, or however wedded to neoliberal market economics – can be supported. These governments are even called “anti-imperialist” – as if there were only one imperialism, that of the Western bloc.[1]

These politics have led a significant section of the activist Left – in Australasia and elsewhere – to endorse the Syrian state’s brutal crushing of the democracy movement; to support Chinese suppression of protests in Hong Kong and attempted genocide of Uighurs; and, most recently, to defend Russia’s incompetent but still deadly military intervention in Ukraine. Or, alternatively, to conduct a shamefaced “whatabout” defence of all those actions – even if they are bad, so the line goes, Western imperialism is always the central issue. Therefore, any uprising or struggle against a State which poses as hostile to the USA/”the West” must be assumed to be part of Western imperialism’s schemes, if not an outright CIA plot. Therefore, we must support “the other guys” – whatever their brutal track record or antipathy to basic human rights, let alone socialism.

Campism, we believe, is based on a fatal misconception about how the global order works. That misconception is that Western imperialism is the basis for global capitalism, rather than the other way around. Once you believe that, then it follows that weakening Western imperialism – towards some kind of capitalist “multipolarity”, with Moscow or Beijing getting the upper hand over Washington, London and Brussels – is the necessary precondition for pushing back against capitalism. Which means judging every single struggle by whether “the West” supports it – if so, we must be against it. As British-Lebanese journalist Joey Ayoub puts it: “The term anti-imperialism became a shorthand for people who actually mean multipolarity. They’re not against imperialism. They just want other powers to do that.”[2]

This sophisticated geopolitics often fails to convince, due to basic human empathy for the oppressed and suffering. The more degraded campists are then forced to resort to what experts in domestic violence call DARVO – Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.[3] This aims to counteract the impulse to solidarity by portraying the apparent victims of violence as in fact the bad guys. Hence, fighters for a Free Syria become “ISIS-like headchoppers”, who gassed their own children to make Russia look bad. Ukraine is not a country with an ugly Nazi subculture – like almost all capitalist nations – but an actual Nazi state which wants to exterminate all Russian-speakers (whose president, interestingly, is a Russian-speaking Jew).[4]

The disinformation required to maintain this bubble of “alternative facts” is readily supplied by Western activists and journalists (and the occasional rock star) who identify as Left-wing, but who – like their counterparts on the Trumpist or anti-vaxxer Right – happily use faked evidence, bad logic, the war propaganda of non-Western authoritarians, or outright smears to support their predetermined geopolitics of “West always to blame”. The campist Left have developed a media culture which resembles nothing less than the “information bubble” in which the Trumpist right or anti-vaxxers live. Journalism from outside the bubble is rejected as “MSM/state lies”, while non-Western state media and shadily-funded attack websites such as The Grayzone, Global Research or MintPress are taken as trustworthy sources.

The predominance of these beliefs – and the unwillingness to openly debate them – led Fightback to withdraw from the Organise Aotearoa project.[5] But contrary to what those not familiar with the activist-Left subculture might suppose, these beliefs are not restricted to those who self-identify as Marxist-Leninists, or even “tankies”. They are the common sense of many veterans of the progressive Left in this country, especially those grouped around The Daily Blog – for example, veteran activist John Minto or former Alliance MP Matt Robson – or this country’s major Left-wing podcast, 1 of 200.[6]

In contrast, Fightback believes that solidarity with all the oppressed and deprived is not only a moral duty, but the basic step in building a global movement to replace capitalism and imperialism. This requires us to see things from the point of view of those struggling for their lives and freedom, not from the viewpoint of which imperialist team might score points. In this sense, our job is not so much to oppose Russia, certainly not to back “the West”, and not even to support “Ukraine”; but to help Ukrainians resisting genocide – and indeed, to oppose their own government when it claws back their rights. We support the Ukrainian struggle despite the Zelenskyy government and the fascist fringe represented by the Azov regiment, just as we support Palestinian struggle despite the reactionary agenda and anti-Semitism of Hamas. Our solidarity lies always and everywhere with the people whose lives and dignity are under attack. Accordingly, Fightback has given material aid to leftist and anti-authoritarian militias resisting Russian aggression, rather than to Ukrainian state forces.

We do not accept the argument that it is “colonialism” or “white saviourism” for activists in the Western states to do anything but oppose “our own state”. On the contrary, we maintain that – despite its pretences at being “anti-colonial” – campism is itself actually a disguised form of Western chauvinism. How else can we describe refusing support to the oppressed fighting back against their oppressors, unless they can be seen to benefit the Western left in its struggle against “its own” ruling class? How else can we describe Ukrainian socialists who defend their right to receive arms (from whatever source) to defend their lives and homes being called “imperialists” or even “Nazis” by well-fed American socialists?[7] Quite apart from being morally repulsive, this tarnishes the reputation, not only of the Western left, but of the very concept of socialism itself, in the eyes of oppressed and exploited people worldwide. What are Ukrainians under fire supposed to think, when reactionaries like Boris Johnson come to their aid, while socialists like Jeremy Corbyn try to “both-sides” the conflict, and excuse Russia’s destruction and pillaging as something that NATO made them do?

We understand that one imperialist power will only help those oppressed by another if by doing so it furthers its own selfish interests. But we do not consider these inter-imperialist wranglings to be the central issue. We do not assume the right to tell any peoples in struggle what forms of help they are permitted to receive, if they want our own support; we might of course warn them that Western help always comes with strings attached, but amazingly enough, they usually already understand that. We reject the campist attempt to pretend that the kleptocrats in Moscow or the bureaucrats in Beijing are allies of the oppressed of the earth – just as we reject its liberal/neoconservative flipside, the belief that Washington bullets and Brussels banks will bring global freedom.

2. What kind of International?

Socialist “internationalism from below” aims to build direct solidarity between the struggles of the working classes and all the oppressed in all countries, on the understanding that replacing this global system requires global co-operation. Given this, the role of activists from the richer imperialist countries is to use their privilege to advocate for, work with and materially help those who are up at the “sharp end” of oppression and exploitation. Which leads to the more important question – what does this actually mean, in practice?

“Internationalism” is one of those buzzwords which virtually everyone on the activist Left will say they agree with. And going back to the International Workingmen’s Association of Marx and Engels (the “First International”), this has meant some kind of formal structure which binds together socialist and working-class organisations in various countries. Such organisation – if properly constituted – can have benefits on both practical and ideological levels. On the practical level, stronger organisations, or those in richer countries, can materially support organisations with greater needs, while the inevitable tendencies of bigger/richer organisations to centre themselves or their own viewpoints can be corrected from the periphery.

On the ideological level, meanwhile, the appeal of combining forces across the globe for research, debate and theory is obvious. An organisation which is small and isolated on its local political scene can get great sustenance not just from being able to call upon the literary and theoretical resources of larger co-thinkers overseas, but from practical friendship and moral support. And all this is much more important in the era of instantaneous global video communication. If Marx or Lenin could do it when the mail from France to Germany took two weeks, why can’t we do it now?

But all this assumes that the International is truly democratic and horizontal. It is far too easy – regardless of whether there is a formally constituted International structure or not – for the biggest or richest organisations, or even a majority of the global tendency – to dictate terms to weaker organisations which need support, thus replicating the structures of imperialism within the socialist movement itself. The classic example of this is the Third International, set up after the Russian Revolution, whose member Communist Parties were forcibly transformed into a network of puppet organisations promoting the USSR’s increasingly cynical foreign policy. Modern Western campists also use their greater wealth and resources to override voices from the periphery who don’t share their own “foreign policy” goals. The so-called “Progressive International”, set up by a coalition between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Greek socialist politician Yanis Varoufakis, has increasingly been guided by campist politics and apologies for both Russian and Chinese imperialism – leading to the loss of its Polish and other Eastern European affiliates.[8]

The last 100 years have given us all kinds of examples of the various ways in which International organisations can become counterproductive. The most familiar to many will be the “sect internationals”, characterised by agreement on an extremely dogmatic set of political beliefs and top-down discipline– either formally (through some kind of global bureaucracy) or informally (by the bigger groups with “clout” bullying and excluding unruly subordinates). Other Internationals, in contrast, go so far in the other direction of pluralism that, while the culture of discussion might be rich, collective action becomes impossible, and collective politics dissolve into a mushy “lowest common denominator”.

So what kind of international do we actually need? I would like to suggest the following principles:

    • It needs to be steered by the principles of global anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. There are no solutions within one country, or which require one nation-state imperialistically dominating others. The goal must be to work towards united global activity. But conversely, member organisations must be working to establish deep roots in their own social struggles and create their own theory based on practice; there is a danger in simply repeating what “the International” says without practical testing.

    • It needs to work on the basis of free federation for practical action. Organisations and members join the International freely and can leave freely. The goal of any centralised publication or “political bureau” is to synthesize the lessons of activity on a global basis, rather than to impose a dogmatic line or act as a “general staff”.

    • It needs to be characterised by international solidarity. Richer/stronger groups within the International must be prepared to help their sibling groups in need, without attempting to assert ideological or practical hegemony.

    • It needs to be able to conduct praxis (activism informed by theory) on a global scale. An International which is not much more than a discussion forum or an email list might be nice, but is not what we need. The International must be capable of operating a “feedback loop” between globally co-ordinating practical action, and elaborating theory based on the lessons of that action.

While the anti-imperialist struggle in Ukraine has produced outraged acts of chauvinism and callous power-worship on the Western left, it has also produced some practical demonstrations of what real internationalism is supposed to look like. The Ukrainian organisation Sotsialny Rukh (Social Movement) has emerged as a powerful voice of the Left under fire.[9] They have forged practical ties with socialists, particularly in Europe, who reject campism and offer practical solidarity – such as the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine, and Razem, the Polish group which left the “Progressive International” in protest at their campist politics.[10] The best thing about this practical solidarity is that it overrides questions of “political identity” or theoretical quibbles; Marxists and social democrats alike support the “anti-authoritarian” (anarchist) militias in combat in Ukraine as represented by Solidarity Collectives.

Moreover, even under fire, Ukrainian comrades are adding to our theoretical understanding of how neoliberalism works around the globe. Sotsialny Rukh activist Taras Bilous, for example, has contributed a cutting analysis of the motivations behind the Zelenskyy government’s moves to smash workers’ rights, which traces it to his political movement being backed by Ukraine’s “middle bourgeoisie” who see their interests opposed to the corruption of the traditionally pro-Russian oligarchs – “the millionaires against the billionaires”.[11] Such theoretical work is head-and-shoulders above the vulgar campist narrative which lumps the Zelenskyy government, the IMF and NATO into an indistinct “pro-imperialist camp”.

Still, this practical solidarity needs to be broadened into a political and theoretical vision that can unite the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist Left across the globe. At the very basic level, the understanding of the bankruptcy of campism that is evident in Ukraine solidarity must be generalised. We have to understand, for example, why even the anti-campist Western Left was more diffident about extending this solidarity to the struggle for a Free Syria; and conversely, why many Western liberals who fly the Ukrainian flag do not offer the same solidarity to the victims of oppression, military brutalization and dehumanization in Palestine. And past that, we need to be able to generalise to a global programme of action which can both inform and be informed by all social struggles.

We need an International. Trans rights, solidarity with the victims of oppression, housing struggle, climate change, war and fascism – not only are all the dangerous issues facing us global issues, but our enemies organise globally.[12] Fightback has been attempting to push towards this for a while. Yet our attempts at making international connections so far have either been rejected by prospective partners who were “just not that into us”; or culminated in pleasant email discussions which went nowhere practical. We implore the internationalist socialists and anti-capitalists in Ukraine, Europe, the United States and elsewhere to urgently come together – firstly, for practical solidarity for the struggles in Ukraine and other peoples under attack by Western as well as non-Western imperialism; and building out of that, to share experiences and build infrastructure that could create a new global unity. A global conference of socialist internationalists – online and in-person – might be a good first practical step.


[1] https://fightback.org.nz/2015/11/05/against-campism-what-makes-some-leftists-support-putin/

[2] https://twitter.com/joeyayoub/status/1576109854732603392

[3] https://dynamic.uoregon.edu/jjf/defineDARVO.html

[4]The most ironic feature of the campist Left is that many of them are dogged supporters of the Palestinian struggle – while using exactly the same rhetorical tropes to dehumanise Syrians, Ukrainians, Uighurs etc. in struggle, that Israel uses against Palestinians. For example, insipid appeals for “peace”, which would simply mean the aggressor dictating terms to their victims, are clearly scorned by campists when it refers to Palestine – who then turn around and say exactly the same thing about Ukraine.

[5] https://fightback.org.nz/2020/01/20/fightback-withdraws-from-organise-aotearoa/

[6]Co-founder of 1 of 200 Branko Marcetic is the author of a series of articles in Jacobin which argue for the West to abandon support for Ukraine (and Taiwan), which have led him into ridicule and contempt from Ukrainian (and Taiwanese) leftists. Co-founder Kyle Church has expressed solidarity with Marcetic’s line on social media.

[7] See thread starting at https://twitter.com/VlStarodubtsev/status/1577800105238863872

[8] https://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2022/03/01/progressive-international-splits-over-russian-imperialist-onslaught/

[9] https://rev.org.ua/sotsialnyi-rukh-who-we-are/

[10] https://commons.com.ua/en/yak-inozemni-livi-dopomagayut-ukrayini-u-vijni/

[11] See thread starting at https://twitter.com/ahatanhel/status/1569954564895375360

[12] See reporting on fascist internationalism: https://againstthecurrent.org/towards-the-brown-international-of-the-european-and-global-far-right/

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