Race, Internationalism and Labor: Reflections upon the 150th Anniversary of the First International

by Bill Fletcher, Jr.

If the emancipation of the working classes requires their fraternal concurrence, how are they to fulfill that great mission with a foreign policy in pursuit of criminal designs, playing upon national prejudices, and squandering in piratical wars the people’s blood and treasure? … [The working class has the duty]…to master themselves the mysteries of international politics; to watch the diplomatic acts of their respective governments; to counteract them, if necessary, by all means in their power; when unable to prevent, to combine in simultaneous denunciations, and to vindicate the simple laws or morals and justice, which ought to govern the relations of private individuals, as the rules paramount to the intercourse of nations.
The fight for such a foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes.
Proletarians of all countries, unite!1

As strong and as relevant as are Marx’s words from 1864, there has been a tendency in much of the Left to assume that Marx and Engels, and perhaps the First International more generally, were the architects of working class internationalism. Though neither Marx nor Engels laid such a claim, if one’s starting point for examining class struggle and internationalism is 19th-century Europe, one can easily get that impression. This essay attempts to look at the question of internationalism through a somewhat different lens, specifically one that centers on matters of “race” and the “national question.”2


…when the proletariat was rebellious and self-active, it was described [by propagandists of the elite classes during the construction of Atlantic capitalism – BF] as a monster, a many-headed hydra. Its heads included food rioters (according to Shakespeare); heretics (Thomas Edwards); army agitators (Thomas Fairfax); antinomians and independent women (Cotton Mather); maroons (Governor Mauricius); motley urban mobs (Peter Oliver); general strikers (J. Cunningham); rural barbarians of the commons (Thomas Malthus); aquatic laborers (Patrick Colquhoun); free thinkers (William Reid); and striking textile workers (Andrew Ure). Nameless commentators added peasant rebels, Levellers, pirates, and slave insurrectionists to the long list. Fearful of the energy, mobility, and growth of social forces beyond their control, the writers, heresy hunters, generals, ministers, officials, population theorists, policemen, merchants, manufacturers, and planters offered up their curses, which called down Herculean destruction upon the hydra’s heads: the debellation of the Irish, the extermination of the pirates, the annihilation of the outcasts of the nations of the Earth.3

Though it has become something of a cliché within the Left to note that capitalism, from its inception, has been global, the point itself remains quite profound. Contrary to mainstream economic history and also, unfortunately, to certain currents within the Left, capitalism began as a global enterprise. Though rising at a faster rate in England – along with the building of the nation-state – capitalism emerged in numerous settings, including city-states. From its origins the capitalist enterprise did not restrict itself to any single location. Although it fought to secure domestic markets, it never accepted territorial limits.

The trade in Africans slaves, politely known as a component of the “Triangular Trade,” was, along with the pillage of the lands of the Native Americans/First Nations in the Western Hemisphere, critical to the growth and expansion of capitalism. As Marx and Engels famously noted:

The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.4

Yet the period of the construction of Atlantic capitalism (to borrow from Linebaugh and Rediker) is regularly disconnected from discussions of proletarian resistance and the notion of internationalism. While slave insurrections, revolts of indentured servants, and movements such as the Levellers and Luddites are mentioned in mainstream history, such phenomena are regularly viewed in isolation. Worse yet, they are too often viewed not as resistance by the oppressed to their oppression, but instead as resistance to forward progress by decaying classes and, in some cases, allegedly decaying civilizations.

Nevertheless, in order to grasp the notion of proletarian internationalism, it is important to begin at the beginning and appreciate the extent and depth of the resistance to barbaric capitalism as it came out of the starting blocks, so to speak. And it is here that much of the First International missed the mark, leaving something of a legacy that has affected both the Left and the broader labor movement. For in the thinking of the First International, the notion of working-class internationalism was largely envisioned as a European and North American affair rather than a truly global enterprise. And while there were those, such as Marx and Engels, who recognized the debt that Europe owed the rest of the world for the pillage that “developed” both Europe and North America, this also did not translate into the sort of internationalism that was necessary in the 19th century, and certainly on through today.


Haunting working-class internationalism in the global North – and especially in the USA – have been the twin specters of race and empire, the two integrally linked. In proceeding forward one must understand that “internationalism” does not refer exclusively to cross-border interactions, but refers as well to a practice that transcends the national identity of a given working class.5 In that sense, internationalism can refer to an approach that may be advanced within a multi-ethnic or multi-national state. Thus, in examining the question of working-class internationalism in the USA, we are confronting not only the matter of foreign policy – as referenced in Marx’s quote at the beginning of this essay – but also the practice of working-class politics within the USA given its multi-national/multi-ethnic character and, indeed, its character as an empire.

Let us consider in this context an issue that plagued the European working-class movement of the 19th century: the Irish Question. There are many things noteworthy about the Irish Question, but one in particular is that it was not only a matter of “foreign policy,” narrowly defined. In a peculiar manner it was about race and the national question, at least with regard to the British working class. Though Marx did not use those precise terms, this perspective is implicit in the arguments that he raised. Marx recognized in the Irish Question a key to understanding the inability of the British working class to attain genuine class consciousness. Not only did he see the upper echelons of the British working class as blinded by national chauvinism; he viewed the entire British working class as affected by a national privilege that directly corresponded to the racial and national oppression of the Irish people.

Yet what is striking, in reviewing the history, is that while Marx raised both the Irish Question and the matter of chattel slavery as central issues around which the working class needed to struggle, this did not translate into a more general approach by the First International and its affiliates to the broader matters of race and national oppression. One could argue that the First International displayed a ‘blind spot’ (to borrow from Theodore Allen) when it came to national questions outside of Europe itself.

In order to better understand the implications of this challenge for today, we must briefly digress to a discussion of both race and national oppression. In a most peculiar way, it starts in Ireland.

The significance of the Irish Question was not only its impact on the British working class but also the extent to which, as Allen shows, the British subjugation of Ireland served as a model or prototype for the construction of “race” in North America and much of the rest of the world.6 In a manner recalling the Spanish Reconquista,7 the defeat of the Irish people and their colonization by the English resulted not in the absorption of the Irish ruling class by the English ruling class, but instead the all-round suppression of the Irish people, including language, culture, politics and land control. Although this suppression came to be seen through the prism of religion, the conflict was not driven by religion but instead by the colonial ambitions of the British. The subjugation involved the introduction of a settler population from outside of Ireland and the ‘creation’ by the English of a ‘race’ of allegedly inferior, indigenous people. The English were very conscious in doing this and saw it as their destiny. This translated, over time, into a differential in treatment and existence between the British working class and anything Irish. Marx understood that insofar as the British working class was complicit in the oppression of the Irish, they would never achieve their own class emancipation.

Thus, race was not about prejudice or bad ideas in an abstract sense. Rather, as Allen continuously pointed out, it was and is about social control and oppression. It was/is a system cleverly devised in order to create the most fundamental of forms of class collaboration whereby, in the case of Ireland, the settler population along with the British working class swore allegiance, literally and figuratively, to a system that was oppressing the Irish people. In so doing, they ensured, to borrow an old African American aphorism, that they, too, would not be able to leave the sewer.

“Race” exists on the foundation of oppression and privilege, i.e., the oppression of the subjugated group and a differential in treatment between the oppressed and the oppressor population – racial and/or national privilege, including but not limited to the working class of that oppressor state. As such, race collides directly with the possibility of working-class internationalism, a fact that the power bloc of capitalists understood from the very beginning.8

Race, further, overlaps with matters relative to imperial consciousness. This became obvious when many working-class organizations – parties and unions – in Europe and North America refused to speak out against empire and colonialism. The examples are innumerable. In the popular mind it is a matter of “patriotism” within the global North that excuses away silence in the face of colonialism or, now, neocolonialism. Trade unions in the global North, for much too long, accepted the prerogative of empire. They took the reality of empire as an unchanging context for their activities. While some unions based in the “metropoles” might assist workers in the colonies in their immediate economic struggles, this was not seen by these unions as necessarily inconsistent with the existence of empire.

In the US context there are countless examples of this problem, beginning, of course, with the attitude of most of white organized labor towards the African American during the period of slavery and immediately after; the attitude toward westward expansion and the aggression against Native Americans and Mexicans; and various foreign ventures, beginning in the late 19th century.9 The challenge at each point revolved around patriotism (defined in racial and/or nation-state terms) and narrow self-interest.

The contradiction between race and internationalism, if not resolved in favor of working-class internationalism, can only result in various forms of class collaboration, either with a set of capitalists, or with the imperial state. The subordination of internationalism to so-called national interests and (racial or nation-state) patriotism has resulted in the trade union movement forfeiting its right and ability to become a labor movement in the broad sense in which that notion should be interpreted. The outcome has been not solidarity, but rather practices ranging from charity to active cooperation with the imperial state in undermining progressive social movements abroad (e.g., the role of the AFL-CIO in the Chilean coup in 1973).

There are important exceptions in the USA that are worthy of mention. While there is a long history to Left-initiated solidarity projects within the trade union movement, in the late 1980s there was an open break by leaders of several key unions with the policy of the AFL-CIO toward Central America and South Africa. In both cases the AFL-CIO leadership cooperated with the US government in subverting efforts at sovereignty and national liberation. The United Auto Workers, among others, broke with this and, in 1987, came out against the AFL-CIO’s approach and against the policies of the Reagan Administration.

Yet these were exceptions, and the official leadership of most of the trade union movement has for the most part been reluctant to offer significant challenges to US foreign policy. Needless to say, this reflects a deeply racial conception as to whose interests are key, whose experiences are relevant, and how one defines interests in the first place.


A striking feature of early resistance to Atlantic capitalism was the lack of coordination among the various acts of solidarity. While there were organizations, conspiracies, insurrections, etc., there was no systematic contact between them.

The other feature of that early resistance was that it sought to define the nature and character of “the people.” In many respects this is the task of internationalism in any era, and most especially today. How does one define who is on which side of the line between the oppressed and the oppressor? The Occupy Movement, for example, spoke domestically about what it termed the 99%, suggesting that the overwhelming majority of the people were being stepped on by a small, elite rich segment. While the percentage is probably more like 80-90%, the issue is not so much one of sociological precision as it is one of enabling the oppressed to self-identify in positive terms.

A story from the 1741 New York slave conspiracy has come to be a critical image in my mind. The conspirators included Africans and Irish. When they were caught and interrogated, they were asked the objective of the uprising. The Africans were alleged to have said “…to kill the white people.” That was not a particular surprise. But when the Irish were asked the same question, they also reportedly said “…to kill the white people.”

What is remarkable is not just that the Irish failed to consider themselves “white” (and were not considered “white” by the larger society); it is that “white” was understood as the characteristic or character of the oppressor group. The rebels saw themselves as not white; the “people,” in other words, were not white. And, further, “white” was less a color than a description of the way in which the oppressor self-conceptualized.

The nature of the early resistance to Atlantic capitalism, along with the self-conceptualization of the developing proletariat, raises questions regarding another aspect of internationalism. Indeed, it raises a potential critique of the internationalism of the First International. Specifically, how should one define proletarian internationalism or working-class internationalism? Furthermore, does working-class internationalism mean the internationalism of workers in relation to one another, or does it mean something far broader? It is critical that we approach this question not as sociologists nor even as trade unionists, but as ‘insurgents,’ as radicals of the Left.

The First International described itself as the International Workingmen’s Association. Leaving aside the important matter of the gendered description, the First and Second Internationals saw their responsibilities as being largely toward workers, most especially workers in manufacturing and transportation. In the First International there were unions, leagues, parties and other groupings. In the case of the Second International, it was a situation of political parties that self-identified as “social democratic” and, at least at the time, claimed some level of allegiance to the teachings of Marx and Engels.

Neither the First nor the Second Internationals seemed to appreciate the need for a practice of internationalism that exceeded the solidarity of explicitly working-class struggles (and for that matter, certain sectors of the working class). While there were certain exceptions, e.g., the support for Ireland, this did not extend into the colonial and semi-colonial world.

It is on this matter that the contributions of Lenin became very important in the early 20th century. Lenin recognized that internationalism had to be more than the unity of trade unions or social democratic parties across geographic boundaries. It had to be working-class parties (and other organizations) taking on a special role as tribunes of the people – a term that he made famous. Though Lenin designed an international organization – the Third (Communist) International – that was ideologically more exclusive than its two predecessors, he contended that internationalism should have a different direction and a different point of emphasis: workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!

The slogan “workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!” [WOPWU] is actually more in keeping with the nature of the struggles that accompanied the emergence of Atlantic capitalism than was the internationalism of the First and certainly the Second Internationals. It is also dramatically different from the various forms of “trade union internationalism” that arose in the early 20th century and that have continued through to this day. While quite revolutionary, it is nevertheless a slogan that should express even the scope of the reform work undertaken by today’s working class.

The notion of “workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite,” if viewed narrowly, is simply about alliances of forces in struggle. Yet it has deeper implications for the mission of working-class organizations and parties. Rather than conceptualizing internationalism in terms of relationships among existing organizations, WOPWU suggests that internationalism is principally about addressing capitalist/imperialist oppression, irrespective of whether it is suffered by workers, trade unions, etc., or by unrelated organizations and movements among other subaltern strata. It is also arguing that the “oppressed peoples” (in Lenin’s time, most especially the colonized and semi-colonized peoples) have a special role in the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. To recognize both of these conclusions means going face to face with race and imperial consciousness in the attitudes and practices of workers in the global North – particularly workers in the USA.

In the late 20th century, the US trade union movement began to consider more seriously the question of global solidarity. In so doing, it was up against several challenges: 1) breaking with Cold War trade unionism (and collaboration with imperial adventures), 2) various forms of isolationism or agnosticism with regard to the rest of the world, which exist within much of the membership and leadership of organized labor, and 3) pragmatic solidarity.10 The suppression of the Left within the US union movement has meant that internationalism, as a current, has largely been absent, though there have been examples of specific internationalist actions or approaches. Pragmatic solidarity has emerged in such a way that it seems to pass for internationalism in many quarters. Yet it misses what is contained in the notion of WOPWU, that is, a search for a broader array of allies and the need for working-class organizations – including but not limited to political parties – to address broader levels of oppression.

A final point about pragmatic solidarity. As Gapasin and I explored in Solidarity Divided, the relatively new interest in global trade union solidarity within the US movement can be not only very transactional, but also very self-centered. In the early 2000s when UNITE, the union that emerged from the textile and garment sectors, worked to form a global coalition of textile and garment unions, their objective, it turned out, was less about building genuine multilateral solidarity than about building a reserve of international support for its own domestic agenda. Such approaches, needless to say, cause other labor movements to look at overtures from the US trade union movement with a jaundiced eye.


If proletarian or working-class internationalism is to move beyond the stage of what is sarcastically referenced as “resolutionary socialism,”11 then it must be reconceptualized. Internationalism must be more than a ritual or slogan (or set of slogans); it must be an actual theory and practice. It must also have vehicles through which to manifest itself; otherwise it becomes nothing more than rhetoric and sentiment.

For much of the Left, both inside and outside the labor movement, internationalism is primarily a ‘spirit.’ It is something to raise at conferences and conventions, and periodically something around which a degree of organizing is to take place. At certain moments, as in the 1980s, leftists in the labor movement (and in some other social movements) did an exceptionally good job initiating solidarity efforts around South Africa and Central America, even helping shift the leaderships of some of the US unions. But this was not the rule. We need to think about a consistent internationalism.

Internationalism, within labor, must be manifested through the combination of a narrative and a strategic practice. The narrative needs to flow from three points highlighted in this essay: 1) capitalism, as a global system, has from its inception been the target of resistance from a global proletariat; 2) race has created the most effective means to ensure capitalist/working class collaboration in what we now term the global North, through the complicity of workers with the imperial projects; 3) internationalism today implies including the broad oppressed strata in struggles for social, political, economic and environmental justice, and not viewing such alliances through a transactional set of lenses.

In the absence of such a framework, internationalism will continue to oscillate between episodic actions and efforts at moralistic persuasion. An internationalist framework needs to work its way into left-initiated educational projects, materials, etc. It must be part of the larger account of class struggle and efforts at justice in the USA. It must, in other words, be an essential part of the counter-narrative that the Left offers in response to right-wing populism, to explain the crisis of capitalism and the misery that has been befalling the working classes in the global North over the last 30+ years.

The practice of internationalism – linked with the narrative – can be manifested through a variety of concrete struggles.12 None of these struggles should come as any surprise. Yet they can each be embraced as coherent parts of an internationalist project.

Anti-racism is a good starting place. If anti-racism is understood as qualitatively different from so-called diversity programs, it can be integral to internationalist practice. Anti-racism has both a domestic and a global content. Anti-racism, in the US context, means winning white workers to an internationalism that appreciates the significance of racial and national privilege and the devastating impact of racist and national oppression. Anti-racism serves as a foundation for internationalism in the USA because it challenges the ideological conception of the preeminence of one culture over another, of one national-cultural experience (and history) over another. Anti-racism, in fact, represents an effort on the part of the populations of oppressor nations to regain their humanity.

A case in point can be found in how we understand holocausts. The holocaust carried out by the Nazis against Jews is held up in the global North as being, in effect, the only holocaust worth mentioning. It is held up as exceptional. In point of fact it was far from exceptional on virtually every scale. The difference, as Aimé Césaire pointed out, was that the holocaust against the Jews was carried out by one European population against another. Much of what the Nazis embarked upon had been practiced over centuries in the global South by the European colonial powers. Yet the holocausts witnessed in the global South are rarely given the same or similar attention as those carried out against the Jews.13

An additional case in point, of direct relevance to the USA, is that of the Philippines. The US occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century was conducted via what can only be described as a genocidal race war. Somewhere in the range of 1,000,000 – 2,000,000 Filipinos lost their lives as the US took control over the islands, defeated the legitimate government, and carried out massacres. Yet these facts have largely been expunged from official US history. This trauma lives with the people of the archipelago to this day. The USA has never apologized for this aggression.

This is not just a matter of history. Though the US granted independence to the Philippines in 1946, it carried out a neocolonial tutelage over the nation-state from that point onward. The US has remained deeply embedded in Philippine politics and continues to support massive repression and government intransigence in the face of a multi-decades long civil war with the Communist-led National Democratic Front. Despite the integral relationship of the USA to the Philippines, there is little discussion in the mainstream media; the US trade union movement knows almost nothing about the situation there (or if and where it does, it tends to cooperate with neocolonial trade unionists in the Philippines); and, while human rights abuses by the government and its paramilitary allies take place at an astounding rate, they are not on the ‘radar screen’ for the US public and for much of the US progressive and Left social forces.14 Anti-racism, in this context, means not only expressing solidarity with the popular democratic forces in the Philippines; it also involves breaking the silence surrounding events in that country and discussing with the US public the role that the US plays there. In a nutshell, it means that the atrocities faced by the people of the Philippines must become relevant to the US public.

Immigration is another front-line in the construction of a new internationalism in the USA. Addressing immigration from the standpoint of internationalism begins with distinguishing the waves of immigration to the US. Until 1965, immigration was very much weighted against migrants of color. But migration of people from the global South was not new. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, migrants arrived in the mainland USA from Puerto Rico, the English and Dutch Caribbean, and the Philippines, in addition to the relatively continuous Mexican migration that dates from the end of US War against Mexico (1848). These migrants were never provided the opportunities that migrants from Europe were granted.

Addressing immigration/migration today means addressing the relationship of the global North to the global South, making this a cutting-edge front in advancing internationalism. This involves addressing the social, political, economic and environmental causes of migration, which in turn means confronting the question of empire. It is here that many advocates for immigrant rights stumble. Rather than tackle the question of US foreign policy and empire, they tend to rely on moralistic pleas to government or comparisons with the Black Freedom Movement (and the demand for civil and human rights). Though there are clear analogies with other freedom movements in the US and there is a need for fight for complete civil and human rights, the battle around migration raises global issues and is driven by very different factors.

The fight for the migrant, therefore, is a fight around US foreign policy specifically, and about the relationship of global capitalism to the countries and peoples of the global South generally.

The fight to support national self-determination has always been a defining battle in identifying internationalism. This was a point that Marx and Engels recognized, but the scope of the fight has greatly expanded.

Many European labor and left-wing movements stumbled on the question of national self-determination when the colonial world was struggling for independence. This has been just as true in the USA. Organized labor in the mainland USA, for example, while periodically devoting resources to organizing workers in Puerto Rico, has shied away from addressing, or even acknowledging, the Puerto Rican struggle for national sovereignty. Organized labor in the USA was not at the forefront in supporting independence for the Philippines. In almost every case, taking an anti-colonial stand has been viewed as opening up labor and the Left to charges of being unpatriotic. And fear of being called unpatriotic has been something that most union leaders have been unwilling to challenge.

National self-determination, ipso facto, stands against imperial prerogative. And introducing it into mass struggles represents a concrete internationalist practice, particularly if one shies away from lecturing and one-dimensional rhetoric. Take, for instance, free trade. Much of organized labor in the USA, and many progressives, have tended to oppose free trade agreements on the basis of the destruction that they have brought to US workers. The famous imagery created in H. Ross Perot’s description of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as the “giant sucking sound” epitomizes the problem. While there was certainly truth to Perot’s reference to the destruction resulting from NAFTA, what was completely ignored was the impact of NAFTA on Canada and, more decisively, on Mexico. The havoc in the agricultural sector and public sector, and the implications for migration into the cities of Mexico and later to the USA, has largely been discounted, except among some sectors of the Left. Yet it is possible to oppose NAFTA from a national self-determination perspective without ignoring the plight of US workers.

Opposition to wars of aggression, of course, is central to genuine internationalist practice and needs little elaboration. Support for demands for reparations, however, is an aspect that receives far too little attention. Mainstream political and social movements largely reject reparations demands by victims of US imperialism. Here the race factor more often than not raises its ugly head. Take, for instance, Vietnam.

In the aftermath of the US war of aggression against Vietnam, reparations were supposed to be paid to the Vietnamese. The US reneged. In particular, it has failed to take responsibility for the genocidal impact of the dispersal of Agent Orange over Indochina as a whole and Vietnam in particular. There are few groups that address this matter.15 This is a concrete situation where the demand for reparations is clear and should be unequivocal.

The demand for reparations within the context of the USA – as an imperial state – remains a central feature of genuine internationalism, but is all but abandoned by most domestic social movements (except those that have a direct interest in the fight against racist and national oppression). The difficulty in seeking support for reparations – whether to internal or to foreign victims – is that it requires popular discussions of history. The prevailing approach to history in the USA is to avoid it. In addition, the mainstream US approach denies the need for and permissibility of apologies. Without apologies for atrocities and other crimes, it is inconceivable that discussions of reparations can take place. This is why the Left must make history very much present.


So, what conclusions can we derive?

First, for much of the Left, internationalism is more about rhetoric and positioning than about trying to unite masses around an alternative practice. In order to build an alternative practice, one must begin with an alternative framework rather than moralistic principles. Uniting education with actual struggles is, as with any other change in consciousness, essential in order to introduce a new ‘common sense.’

Second, internationalism, in the context of the global North, is integrally connected with race. Though Marx and Engels recognized this relationship to a great degree, much of the Left, and certainly the mainstream labor movement, fails to see it. Internationalism within the mainstream labor movement is seen in terms of solidarity between unions rather than solidarity against racial and national privilege, and against racist and national oppression.

Third, internationalism is not a transactional relationship but should be best understood within the context of the slogan “workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!” Genuine internationalism, including and especially at the popular level, must be a matter of addressing all forms of oppression. To put it another way, it represents an understanding of interconnections.

None of this can coalesce into an alternative movement in the absence of organization. Building internationalism is more than an episode. In that regard it is worth returning to the 1860s. To the credit of many members of the First International, British workers were organized to oppose British government support for the Confederate States of America. From 1862-63, the British government gave serious consideration to intervening in the US Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. Along with France they both wanted to weaken the USA and to join hands instead with a partner in free trade and Atlantic economic liberalism. But British workers adamantly opposed such support for the Confederacy, and took steps to boycott shipping to the CSA. These actions represented the peak of classical working-class internationalism and helped restrain the British from formally intervening.16

Yet, at the same time, British workers took a very different stand toward the Irish Question. Paradoxically, while opposing the British government’s pro-Confederate leanings, British workers situated themselves differently vis-à-vis that government’s colonial relationship to Ireland and the racial/national oppression of the Irish.17 At best, British workers were silent, but silence was not the only characteristic. Active support for the British colonial relationship vis-à-vis Ireland and the Irish was the main feature of the British working class’s approach.

Internationalism in one arena – the US Civil War – did not carry over into another area – Ireland and the Irish. In the USA we have had a similar experience. The internationalism that began to emerge in the context of opposition to US aggression in Indochina, did not necessarily translate into challenges to the US empire in other realms. There are myriad examples of this, such as the relative silence in the USA in the face of the CIA-backed coup in Chile (1973); a very slow response to US aggression in Central America during the 1980s (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, in particular); and the invisibility of US/apartheid South African aggression against Angola.

Internationalism must be constantly reinforced and, absent organization, this is simply not going to happen. Organization, whether within or outside the mainstream labor movement, is necessary in order to wage battles for global justice. Organization makes the difference in terms of building and reinforcing the need for a new ‘common sense’ with regard to US foreign policy and taking on the empire. It is on this point that further exploration is necessary.


1. Karl Marx, “Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association,” www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1864/10/27.htm, p. 7.

2. “Race,” as we will explain, is a social-political construct. The “national question” refers to the matter of oppressed nations and nationalities. In some cases this has overlapped with matters of “race.”

3. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 329.

4. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: W.W. Norton, 1972), 336.

5. “National” does not necessarily refer to “nation-state”; it can refer to an ethnological identification, particularly in the context of multi-national or multi-ethnic states.

6. Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, Vol. 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control (New York: Verso, 2012).

7. The Reconquista was the process of ‘cleansing’ the Iberian peninsula of Moors and Jews. It culminated in the defeat of the Moors in Granada in 1492 and the transformation of Iberia generally, and Spain in particular, into a “white” Catholic kingdom.

8. As explained in excellent fashion by Linebaugh and Rediker in The Many-Headed Hydra.

9. It is worth noting that Samuel Gompers, founding president of the American Federation of Labor, initially opposed the Spanish-American War. Once war was declared, however, Gompers, along with many other union leaders, supported the aggression. In subsequent years Gompers proved himself to be an apologist for both racism and imperial expansion.

10. Fernando Gapasin and I discuss the notion of “pragmatic solidarity.” in Solidarity Divided (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2008). The idea is that while there has been renewed interest in the global stage, one current of opinion advocates what could almost be described as transactional relationships with other union movements. Solidarity is then limited to working with unions in the same industrial sector or with those that share a common employer. While such solidarity is important, it should not be considered the end-all and be-all.

11. A reference to the way many leftists think of change as being about the resolutions passed by mass organizations rather than about the results that emerge through struggle.

12. The emphasis on the linkage reflects the view that experience alone is not the best teacher. Individuals draw various conclusions from actual experiences. Experience in the absence of a progressive, if not radical, theoretical framework can frequently lead to dead-ends. Every Left activist has lived the situation where a grassroots fighter who grasps the essence of a particular struggle may, upon the conclusion of that struggle, retreat into inaction or, worse, may develop very backward views on a whole set of questions. Individuals have their own sets of frameworks through which they analyze reality. Such frameworks may not be consistent, but they can frequently serve as a comforting lens.

13. This in no way downplays the holocaust against the Jews. Rather, in exceptionalizing that holocaust, we leave people open to attributing it to a genetic insanity within the German population, rather than understanding it as emerging out of a drive inherent in capitalism since the beginning.

14. See, for example, the report from the Filipino human rights group Karapatan [Alliance for the Advancement of Human Rights], 2012 Karapatan Year End Report on the Human Rights Situation in the Philippines.

15. There are groups that have taken up this issue. The “Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign,” with which I have the honor of being affiliated, has worked to keep this issue before the people of the USA. See: http://www.vn-agentorange.org/.

16. The British government was also restrained by the possible response of Russia. Having been defeated by the British, French and Ottomans in the Crimean War, the Russians were in a vengeful mood and suggested a possible intervention on the side of North if the British and French chose to intervene in favor of the Confederacy.

17. The oppression of the Irish, as noted earlier, was both racial and national. The “racial” oppression, as Theodore Allen demonstrated, was obviously not about skin color, but rather manifested itself in the total suppression of the Irish. When Irish workers migrated to Britain in search of work, they found themselves in a second-class status and subject to demonization and systematic discrimination. Quite ironically, after the mid-19th century, when Irish were utilized as settlers within the British Empire, they found themselves frequently playing a role as supporters of the empire.

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