23. Jan 2024.

Internationalism Today: An Interview with Paweł Wargan

What does a progressive foreign policy look like today? How should we understand imperialism? What is at stake in reclaiming an internationalist political horizon for the left? What forms of organization are best adapted for a new international? Given the many contemporary global challenges—such as climate change, far-right extremism, pandemics, and the increasing threat of nuclear war—it is urgent to develop a strategic, organizational, and theoretical perspective for the international left. Paweł Wargan discusses these and other questions in the interview that follows. Researcher, activist, and coordinator of the secretariat of the Progressive International, Wargan is well suited to highlight the prospects for a new internationalism today. The interview is conducted by Daniel Benson, assistant professor of French and Global Studies at St. Francis College and the editor of Domination and Emancipation: Remaking Critique (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2021).

Connected World

Daniel Benson: I’d like to begin with a discussion of your overall political perspective and development. What are some of the main events or intellectual influences that have impacted your current writing and activism?

Paweł Wargan: I worked in public policy when the last great wave of climate activism emerged. Every Friday, I would make my way through crowds of protesting schoolkids to get to work. Occasionally, some would block the roads. What struck me was that the ideas expressed in these spaces carried a clarity, a creativity, and an urgency that I never saw at work—where ideas were staid, unambitious, never coming close to addressing the urgency of the moment. So, I took to the streets.

You learn through struggle. You build confidence through struggle. You begin to articulate the reasons for your struggle and develop a feel for the possibilities it opens. The great challenge, I learned over time, is that it’s not enough to have good ideas. In large parts of our movements, demands for “system change” resolve into a politics of advocacy that focuses on appealing to existing institutions rather than building new ones. The very form of these protests—they are often held outside government buildings—speaks to that relationship of supplication. We entreat our ruling classes to deliver something that is not in their power to deliver. And we become despondent when we fail. This reflects a poverty of imagination, which has been carefully cultivated by the ideological machinery of capitalism.

Not long after, I had what you might call a eureka moment. I was working on a long report that envisioned what a green transition might look like in Europe. One day, I was editing a section submitted by an Italian architect. In it, he argued that to build sustainable cities Europe needed to shift to prefabricated, high-rise apartment blocks surrounded by parks and public amenities. I was living in Moscow at the time, on the fourteenth floor of a prefabricated high-rise apartment block surrounded by parks and public amenities. I looked out the kitchen window and wondered: What was this society that, many decades ago, began to build the future we are only now envisioning? That led me to study processes of socialist construction.

Fidel Castro once said that when he first read The Communist Manifesto, he began to find explanations for phenomena that are typically explained in terms of individual human failings—moral failings. He began to understand, he said, the historical processes and social processes that produce both great wealth and terrible immiseration. You don’t need a map or microscope to see class divisions, he said. I think about that often. What Castro meant—and what you learn from reading revolutionaries like Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, V. I. Lenin, Walter Rodney, and others—is that there are observable processes of contradiction and class antagonism that shape the world. The job of the left is not to hover above these processes and preach progressive ideas. This is the domain of idealism, of liberalism. You can’t build the future with ideas. You can’t repair the environment with ideas. You can’t feed the hungry with ideas. Our job is to build power through struggle, at every step seeking to institutionalize that power, building structures that can realize the aspirations of the people. That is what the great processes of socialist construction—past and present—teach us.

Benson: I agree that building institutions on the left is vital. I think there is an increasing consciousness among left-leaning thinkers, activists, and scholars of the need to focus on organizational issues, on strategy, on building power, and not merely on symbolic gestures or purely theoretical problems. But recent history has shown the difficulty of creating lasting institutional change: from the anti-World Trade Organization protests of 1999 in Seattle to the Iraq War protests of 2003 to the Occupy movements of 2011. Moreover, even when leftist parties can organize and achieve political power at the national level (for instance, Syriza in 2015), they have proven incapable of challenging dominant global institutions. Or, turning to the Global South, progressive projects have struggled to freely develop (Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, among others) in large part due to U.S. imperialism.

I’d like to turn, then, to the question of internationalism and how it relates to building power on the left. I feel that many individuals, students, and even progressive activists see international politics as distant from their everyday life or local struggles. This is very different from, say, the long 1960s, where resistance to the Vietnam War, decolonization, and socialist construction were seen as interrelated and part of the same struggle. Could you explain, first, why internationalism is important to building progressive, leftist institutions? And, second, why you propose the Third International, or Communist International, as an important resource to rebuild internationalism in the contemporary moment?

Wargan: There is a story I have heard repeatedly—the cast changes, the setting changes, but the story stays roughly the same. Moved by the exploits of Che Guevara, an enthusiastic U.S. socialist travels to Nicaragua. He visits the encampments of the Sandinista movement, which is waging armed struggle against the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship. “I want to join your struggle,” they say. “What can I do to help you?” The response is blunt: “Go home and make a revolution in the United States.”

The answer tells us two important things about internationalism.

First, the struggle of the Sandinista movement does not occur in isolation. It takes place against the backdrop of overwhelming U.S. imperial violence, which is the international extension of its oppressive, racist, and colonial politics at home. In the 1980s, Nicaragua was subjected to an economic and military blockade. Its harbors were mined. The Contras—a fascist force that massacred hundreds of thousands of people across Latin America—were covertly armed and trained to destroy the aspirations of the people. There was a very real need to sever the threads that bound Nicaragua’s brutal immiseration with the prosperity of the U.S. ruling classes—and that necessitated building a revolution in the United States.

Second, the construction of a revolutionary process is in itself an internationalist act. What can you do for the people of Haiti, or the people of Cuba, or the people of Western Sahara, or the people of Palestine, or the people of Venezuela as an individual, without first building power? Can you send them a tanker of oil? Can you send them a container of medical supplies? Can you help them build modern industrial capacities—or support their green transition? The degree of our collective power at home, and the political orientation of our movements, dictates the shape of our commitments abroad.

In 1918, Lenin wrote a piece railing against those who sided with their governments in the First World War. In privileging the “defense” of their countries over the overthrow of those responsible for the war, he wrote, these forces substituted internationalism with a petty nationalism—backing a predatory capitalist and imperialist leadership against the imperative of peace and social revolution. In the end, Lenin said, the position of the Bolsheviks was vindicated. The October Revolution generated the ideas, strategies, and theories that came to power a global revolutionary movement. Like messengers from the future, the Russian people pierced through the terrors of capitalism, and revealed a path forward.

Turning that path into a highway was, to a great degree, the mission of the Third International. Through it, Lenin said, the nascent USSR would lend a “helping hand” to peoples seeking emancipation from colonialism. That mission was born from a thesis that echoes in our story from Nicaragua. The thesis is that European capitalism draws its strength not from its industrial prowess, but from the systematic looting of its colonies. That same process both feeds and clothes the European working class, suppressing their revolutionary aspirations, and generates the material power that sustains their exploitation. The police forces, prisons, weapons, and tactics tested and honed in the colonies are always, after all, readily turned against workers back home. The primary duty of internationalism, then, is to strike at capitalism’s foundations: colonialism and imperialism.

These ideas carry great weight in our time. Whenever we—ensconced in the comforts of the imperial world—advance ideas for the reform of the capitalist system, we are effectively saying: “We don’t care that over two billion people go to bed hungry. We don’t care that hundreds of millions already live in a wrecked climate. We don’t care for the people who suffocate under the weight of our sanctions. Their plight doesn’t concern us.” The theories of the Third International teach us that the power of our ruling classes is the mirror image of the immiseration of the great planetary majority. Now, as countries and peoples begin to assert themselves against U.S. hegemony and its drive towards nuclear and environmental exterminism, our task is to build power with the grain of that historical process—not against it. Now, more than at any point in human history, is the time to build a revolutionary struggle grounded in clear anti-imperialist politics.

Entire interview is available at: https://mronline.org/2023/12/12/internationalism-today-an-interview-with-pawel-wargan/

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