The Internationalist Disposition

A guest post, the second in our occasional series on left and progressive foreign policy, from Alex Colás. Alex is Reader in International Relations at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of many pieces on empire and imperialism, social movements, global governance, and piracy. Most recently he is author, with Jason Edwards, Jane Levi and Sami Zubaida, of Food, Politics, and Society: Social Theory and the Modern Food System (University of California Press) and, with Liam Campling, of ‘Capitalism and the Sea: Sovereignty, Territory and Appropriation in the Global Ocean’, in Environment and Planning D.


Any credible political movement, the late Peter Gowan used to say, needs to have a programme, a strategy and a tactical arsenal. Progressive or leftist internationalism, in all its diverse expressions, is no exception. But it is precisely this rich variety that advises against associating emancipatory internationalism to a fixed programme or a single strategy, and instead talking of a more general disposition: a standpoint on how the world is, and an outlook on how it might be transformed. For radical internationalists – ranging from Karl Marx to Frantz Fanon; Emma Goldman to Ho Chi Minh –  these include a rejection of transhistorical or naturalised claims to cultural or territorial identity; a focus on the universalising contradictions of modern capitalism; harnessing the democratic potential of the cosmopolitan admixture of peoples, languages, religions and customs, particularly though not exclusively in cities; an unwavering commitment to racial justice and minority rights; an insistence on the need to ‘think globally, and act locally’, and to always chase the avenues of solidarity opened up by the everyday, transnational experience of workers on the factory shop floor,  the ship’s lower decks, the contemporary call centre, the processing plant or fast-food restaurant kitchen.

An internationalist disposition is acquired through political education and mobilised collectively in very different contexts – often in unsatisfactory, weak or marginal ways. It is not an intrinsic quality of this or that class, ideological tendency, cultural community or political organisation; nor is the history of left internationalism everywhere bathed in glory. There are, however, some characteristics to the internationalist disposition, its present expressions and historical trajectory that make it an indispensable component of any democratic response to the global national-populist involution we are currently witnessing.

Reality Bites

Our world is still very much the product of the dual revolutions of the eighteenth-century which saw the advent of industrial capitalism and the consolidation of the national sovereign-territorial state. Internationalism today continues to adopt liberal, hegemonic and revolutionary forms first essayed during that period, and the aspirations to liberty, equality and solidarity still resonate (albeit plainly with different ideological, geographical and cultural inflections) among emancipatory struggles across the world. One of the distinguishing features of left internationalism is that it dreams with sober senses: its cosmopolitan projection is grounded in the practical routines of household, workplace, neighbourhood or community. It has been built on grassroots solidarity campaigns, secondary strike action, international volunteering, refugee support networks and mass boycotts coordinated by explicitly internationalist organisations. Liberal internationalism in contrast has mainly been the product of elite efforts at institutionalising multilateral cooperation; it has never had a broad social base (unless, at a push, one includes more recent and generally passive NGO membership). Hegemonic internationalism for its part has found expression in clearly hierarchical or paternalistic traditions of imperial patronage (like those which brought millions of colonial peoples into Europe’s world wars), or in transnational religious charity. Of course, there has been some overlap between these three forms of internationalism – hegemonic internationalism in particular has adopted both a revolutionary and liberal garb, and the defence of universal human rights for instance has sometimes bound the latter two. But the fact remains that the only genuinely democratic forms of internationalism have historically been of a leftist persuasion – feminist, anarchist, communist, socialist, anti-colonial.  

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