Martin Luther King as an international thinker?

Monday 17 January marked the official US holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. While watching Monday’s Democracy Now! program, featuring substantive excerpts from King’s speeches,  the clarity with which he connected the domestic fight for equality to international politics, in particular poverty and war, struck me. The international aspects of King’s thinking, I believe, are important for two reasons.

King’s Radicalism

First, it challenges the interpretation of King as an insufficiently radical leader offered by some critics, and the co-option of King’s legacy not only by “moderate” liberals but also by conservative political figures in the US. King has become a symbol in the public consciousness of a safe reformism and a favorite icon for the type of liberal who abhors radicalism above any other political sin. As Michael Eric Dyson says, “Thus King becomes a convenient icon shaped in our own distorted political images. He is fashioned to deflect our fears and fulfill our fantasies. King has been made into a metaphor of our hunger for heroes who cheer us up more than they challenge or change us.”

A personal anecdote to illustrate the point: a couple of years ago while handing over the editorship of Millennium to the incoming editorial team, one of the new editors commented on the large poster of Che Guevara that hangs on the Millennium office door. The Che poster, so far as I know, predates most of us currently associated with the journal, therefore I suggested it should stay. I then asked why Che should go. My colleague suggested that Che’s participation in revolutionary violence made him an inappropriate icon – in many academic disciplines this might be a rather devastating point, but International Relations is full of characters far more violent and less admirable than Comrade Che – see Paul’s post on Kissinger, for example.

When asked who might better grace the walls of the office my colleague suggested Martin King or Mohandas Gandhi (a political figure subject to a similar post-hoc liberal deification), with their key qualification as acceptable iconography being that they had not participated in political violence. While I have a great deal of sympathy for non-violence, my own introduction to both King and Gandhi came through the study of non-violence political strategy, the liberal (and I think my colleague would gladly accept that identification) embrace of King or Gandhi, paired with the repudiation of Che, is (unintentionally?) disingenuous.

It’s a disingenuous embrace because it insists that the first rule of acceptable political action is a renunciation of physical violence, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the violence institutionalized in the state through everyday police brutality and legalized/legitimized imperial warfare, as well as the structural violence inherent to global capitalism. This misses the radical content of non-violence as practiced by King and obscures the link that exists between non-violent agitation and armed resistance. The political commitments and motivations of King and Che are remarkably similar, even as their fundamental orientations (Marxism vs. Christianity) and tactics (non-violent direct action vs. guerrilla insurgency) diverged.

From Che:

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality. Perhaps it is one of the great dramas of the leader that he or she must combine a passionate spirit with a cold intelligence and make painful decisions without flinching. Our vanguard revolutionaries must idealize this love of the people, of the most sacred causes, and make it one and indivisible. They cannot descend, with small doses of daily affection, to the level where ordinary people put their love into practice…  In these circumstances one must have a great deal of humanity and a strong sense of justice and truth in order not to fall into extreme dogmatism and cold scholasticism, into isolation from the masses. We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.

From Socialism and Man in Cuba

We must bear in mind that imperialism is a world system, the last stage of capitalism — and it must be defeated in a world confrontation. The strategic end of this struggle should be the destruction of imperialism. Our share, the responsibility of the exploited and underdeveloped of the world is to eliminate the foundations of imperialism: our oppressed nations, from where they extract capitals, raw materials, technicians and cheap labor, and to which they export new capitals — instruments of domination — arms and all kinds of articles; thus submerging us in an absolute dependence.

From Message to the Tricontinental

King shared Che’s solidarity with the marginalized and exploited, a solidarity expressed as love; love as a political virtue. A key point of difference, however, with non-violent political action is that love is not abstracted and used to enable violence but rather used to connect oppressor and oppressed, but we should not take this commitment as a renunciation of radicalism. From King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech:

In 1957, a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years, we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression, which has now has justified the presence of U.S. military “advisers” in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy comeback to haunt us. Five years ago, he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation. It will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay a hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

I don’t want to suggest that there is nothing to differentiate Marxist revolutionaries from King’s radical Christianity – even though there are many resonances, explored by Cornel West in Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity – but that attending to King’s thinking on international politics emphasizes the radical transformation he was fighting for in the US. As Dyson suggests, “When King contended that all human life was tied together in a “single garment of destiny,” he was lauded by liberal whites and integration-minded blacks. When he insisted that racism, economic inequality, and militarism were the “triplets of social misery,” he was attacked for oversimplifying complex social issues. King paid dearly for his inevitable betrayal of Southern white interests, capitalist ideology, and black bourgeois beliefs.” The Democracy Now program provides large sections of the speech, see below.

A rough summary of the key tenants of King’s radicalism are: (1) a commitment to democratic direct action that disrupts everyday politics and rouses the public to take action; (2) a belief that government should be reformed to help the poor, marginalized and degraded (including universal basic income, affirmative action, reparations, extensive social services and protections, and the extension of asylum to refugees), importantly this was not framed as a call for a new government interventionism but as a correction to the interventionism that propped up capitalist interests and white privilege; (3) a fundamentally social democratic organization of the economy that put the welfare of people ahead of private profit and which redistributed not only income through taxation but also land and the “means of production”; (4) anti-imperial/anti-colonial solidarity with peoples of the word struggling against direct domination, economic dependency and subjugation to the will of imperial power; and finally (5) a global demand for justice that would relieve the poverty and oppression experienced by so many, which was motivated by a universalist Christian love for all regardless of nationality.

Finding New Roots for a Radical International Relations

The second insight that looking to King’s international though provides is that it connects him to a tradition of international thought that is revolutionary and anti-imperialist. Given that International Relations is a field constantly pulling in ideas and intellectual resources from outside the field, and was in fact founded by a number of figures who were interdisciplinary in orientation and politically active intellectuals, it is important to bring in currents of international thinking that are not Euro-centric, empire-friendly (if not outrightly imperial) in orientation, or deferential to capitalist hegemony. See Paul’s post on the imperial origins of International Relations for a fuller account of why we need alternative currents of thought.

An important strand of international thought, which was contemporary to the development of the academic study of international relations, is anti-colonial thinking, which links to the traditions of African-American political and social thought that King is a part of. While I’m hardly qualified to comment in-depth, figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and Frantz Fanon have begun to have an influence on the study of world politics, which seems an important and significant reorientation. I’ll point to Robbie Shilliam’s work for those interested in more and also hope that Meera might be inspired to give us a further post on these matters.

More specifically, King is part of a tradition of international thought that is religious, non-violent, based in an activism grounded in moral appeals for political/social transformation, and opposed to institutionalized racist doctrines, capitalist exploitation and the hierarchy and violence of the state system. While I am not an expert, I do think it worth considering the contribution that the radical African-American Christian tradition can make to the study and transformation of international politics. We can see contemporary currents of this tradition in Cornel West’s book on American imperialism, Democracy Matters. Also see his lecture:

Not only does this highlight marginalized tradition of American international thought, it also challenges the place usually reserved for religious thought in international politics. While religion has become a more common topic among those studying and debating international politics, this has been more a move to study the place of religion in international politics rather than to consider international politics from a religious point of view. While this marginalization is easy to explain as a consequence of the move to a “scientific” study of international politics, it is not the whole story, as religious inclined scholars occupy a significant place in the history of international political thought. What I want to suggest is that part of the exclusion of religious-based engagement with international politics generally, and the specific exclusion of more radical and activist strains of religious thought, is explained by the original terms in which Christian scholars approached the study of international politics. Two figures in particular substantiate this point: Martin Wight and Reinhold Niebuhr.

Both Wight and Niebuhr are founding fathers of the (Anglo-American) academic study of international politics, despite neither identifying as social scientists or pursuing careers as “IR scholars.” The importance of their influence is revealed by their shared emotional orientation to the subject, expressing key assumptions regarding the unavoidability of international conflict, the priority of the state and limits of progressive change at the international level. But these assumptions don’t emerge from the facts they found in some objective external world. Both men engaged in the progressive causes of their youth and embraced pacifism (in response to WWI for Niebuhr and WWII for Wight) in part because of their Christian convictions, yet they ended up chastened realists.

It seems the magnitude of the destruction they witnessed left them despairing of the possibility of radically reforming international politics. Instead they confirmed the instability and violence of international affairs and suggested the best human action might offer was a modest prudence that accepted the way of things. Where their faith lead them to recoil from the horrors of war, it also lead them to a Christian pessimism that saw limited hope for improving the lot of men and women in the mortal realm.

Politics it seems was best recognized as the realm of the possible, and revolutionary action doomed to degenerate to mere violence. This contrasts with the radical African-American tradition of Christian engagement that King embraced and so powerfully expressed, and if we are to take our bearing from intellectual sources, religious or secular, an orientation of engagement not only highlights the conservative tendencies of International Relations as a discipline, it also provides us with markedly different starting points.

So, what might King offer as an international thinker, and as a representative of a radical Christian tradition: a focus on the fundamental place of racism, class, and imperialism in international politics, as well as the moral need to confront these common problems. And where Wight and Niebuhr share King’s condemnation of violence, the radical Christian move is not to pacifism or the prudential use of violence, but to direct opposition and resistance through nonviolence. This also includes a direct challenge to the notion of the nation-state itself. While King doesn’t provide a “theory” for the study of international politics, looking to his international engagements does make us aware of how our orientations to the world affect how we study international politic. Further, I think adding to the chorus of thinkers opposed to the order preserving, imperialistic and statist tradition out of which International Relations emerges is valuable and highlights that contribution made by a Christian radicalism that does not pull back from the world but insists on political engagement, providing an important alternative to a Christian realism which confirms so much conventional statist wisdom.


11 thoughts on “Martin Luther King as an international thinker?

  1. The Gandhi example is also an instructive one. What those who now celebrate him often forget is that he was a practitioner and advocate not of non-violence, but of non-violent *resistance*. Moreover, a man who said:

    “I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence. Thus when my oldest son asked me what he should have done, had he been present when I was almost fatally assaulted in 1908, whether he should have run away and seen me killed or whether he should have used his physical force which he could and wanted to use, and defended me, I told him that it was his duty to defend me even by using violence. Hence it was that I took part in the Boer War, the so-called Zulu rebellion and the late War. Hence also do I advocate training in arms for those who believe in the method of violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour.”


  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Martin Luther King as an international thinker? « The Disorder Of Things --

  3. The fundamental difference between Che Guevara and MLK does not lie in their shared resistance against injustice. As a rebel, Che Guevara operated against blatantly authoritarian, unrepresentative, closed regimes, against whom such action is absolutely justified. Apart from that issue of fundamentally different contexts, the problem with Che – and the main reason why he should not be on the walls of the Millennium office – is his role in blatant human rights abuses in post-revolutionary Cuba. Neither Gandhi, nor MLK ended up violently employing the very state power Millennium is supposed to critique to suppress political opponents without due process. Guevara did, and i the process helped create a closed, authoritarian state. That is where he ultimately went wrong, Zizekian apologism notwithstanding.


    • While I would fully support the notion that Millennium, and the discipline of IR as a whole, would be better guided by an express commitment to a constant critique of state power and support of equal and democratic societies – kind of the underlying theme of the post – I suspect that would take most of those wanting to operate as “social scientists” in “IR” farther into the messy world of moral and political commitment than they’d be comfortable with.

      Regarding your point about context, I think most African-Americans would have a problem with your unwillingness to identify the pre-civil rights US as a “blatantly authoritarian, unrepresentative, closed regime.” In the South especially, which was supported through federal acquiescence, African-Americans were subjected to institutionalized racism, legal violence and brutality, extra-judicial social killings and everyday terrorism that included poverty, humiliation, rape, beatings and lynchings. The apartheid US was strikingly similar to colonized India and US-dominated Cuba – for me this makes King’s commitment to non-violence both courageous and complicated. It takes great courage to face down the power of the state and let the blows of its agents fall upon you, but it also raises the question of how much can be accomplished through tactics that, in the case of US civil-rights movement, keep you tied into the very social structures that brutalize and oppress.

      Which leads to your further point about Guevara’s “illegitimate” use of state power. For King, the form of resistance he adopted was, in my estimation, the best approach to the situation. African-Americans could not declare their independence from the US, could not seize control of the state nor push an abhorrent colonial/imperial regime out of their territory. King did not confront the question of what to do with the power of government, importantly neither did Gandhi – though he benefited from having the colonial power pull out.

      Che, and the Cuban revolutionaries more broadly, faced a different situation – having liberated a people they faced both a still the present minority of the ruling elite and a US regime intent on controlling political events in Cuba. If any violence used in that situation which doesn’t follow “due process” or respect “human rights” – as both of those terms are defined by liberal ideology which refuses legitimacy to the revolutionary regime as such – then the game is up, because by definition there is no legitimate resistance in that situation.

      I’m not suggesting that all is legitimate in the name of revolution, or some other ridiculous zealotry that is trumped up to beat leftists with, but that it’s too easy an out to say, Che killed people and Cuba became a really nasty state. Plenty of “open” and “democratic” societies have as much or more to answer for, and plenty of venerated statesmen were as ruthless or more so, and the easy parceling out of personal blame for some (Che) and apologies for others (Kissinger, for example) misses the violence inherent in the liberal state and the capitalist economy – violence that both King and Che opposed – and the impossibility of resistance on the terms set by the oppressor.

      The differences that make a difference between the two figures, for me, are what their opposed tactics tell us about resistance, the difficult questions they raise for anyone interested in finding better ways of conducting our social lives. All of that is lost is we simply denounce Che and deify King.


      • Just to double down on that. I think the minimal case against Che is pretty strong (in terms of the homophobia and *some* responsibility for patterns emerging in Cuba during the early years of communist government). There’s also an interesting moral case about certain behaviour in wartime, and what kind of legitimacy or not can be granted to that under the rubric of ‘revolutionary necessity’. Moroever, there’s a lot to be said against the idolisation of him that goes on in certain quarters. And, Millennium aside, adopting the position that we should be wary of all state power is entirely consistent with what Joe’s discussing.

        What simply won’t do is to say that Che exists in a different category of wrongness from, say, JFK or Tony Blair or any other putatively ‘liberal’ or ‘anti-authoritarian’ Western leader. At the very least some vague attempt at comparison would have to be made that showed him to be a special evil.


      • “While I would fully support the notion that Millennium, and the discipline of IR as a whole, would be better guided by an express commitment to a constant critique of state power and support of equal and democratic societies – kind of the underlying theme of the post – I suspect that would take most of those wanting to operate as “social scientists” in “IR” farther into the messy world of moral and political commitment than they’d be comfortable with.”

        Quite. Rather sad really isn’t it?


  4. Never did I imagine that putting up that poster of Che Guevara in the Millennium office – in the face of considerable opposition I might add – would contribute to such an elevated discussion so many years later. The reason I put it up – if I remember rightly – was because I’d spent some time grappling with his ‘foco’ theory of guerrilla warfare, during which he had earned my respect as someone who didn’t let the world stand in the way of his theory, even unto death. One thing both Guevara and MLK do share though, is that they have both become idols for some people they would have little respect for were they still alive. I also suspect that were they both still alive, there would be no MLK day, and the world would be mercifully free of many bad t-shirts.


  5. Reblogged this on Roderick's Journal and commented:
    “So, what might King offer as an international thinker, and as a representative of a radical Christian tradition: a focus on the fundamental place of racism, class, and imperialism in international politics, as well as the moral need to confront these common problems. And where Wight and Niebuhr share King’s condemnation of violence, the radical Christian move is not to pacifism or the prudential use of violence, but to direct opposition and resistance through nonviolence.”


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