International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 15 No. 2 (June 1988)

The Working Class and Internationalism

May Day Speech by David North

This speech by David North, the National Secretary of the Workers League, was given at the Workers League May Day meeting in Detroit, May 1, 1988.

In celebrating May Day, we are reaffirming the international unity and brotherhood of the working class. This is not a utopian fantasy. Internationalism has a profound historic and scientific content. This concept arose as a product of the collective labor of the two greatest geniuses of modern history, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, who, more than 140 years ago, were the first to perceive and then expound the vast revolutionary significance of the development of what was then the new capitalist mode of production.

They grasped that the revolution in industry and technology was creating a world economy, based on an ever-expanding network of trade relations which were giving rise to a system of unbreakable interdependence between all continents and nations. No part of the world, they explained, could henceforth develop in isolation. The previous unevenness which had characterized the historic process—in which entire civilizations had passed unknown to each other through their independent cycles of rise, decline and fall—was now being transcended by a universal process of combined historical development. As Marx and Engels explained, the epoch of capitalism had brought into being the world market and therefore had created the conditions for a truly world history.

The rulers of this ever-expanding world economy were the capitalists of different countries—the owners of the factories and the banks, the means of production. But the capitalist system, in the very process of conquering the globe, created as the most important part of the forces of production in all countries a new social class, the proletariat. In all countries where the capitalist system rooted itself, it transformed a section of the population into laborers who were stripped of all property except their meager individual belongings, and whose existence depended upon the selling of their ability to work. Regardless of the local traditions which had previously prevailed in any particular country, in all parts of the world the mechanism of exploitation was the same. The capitalists derived their profits by extracting from the worker more value than they returned to the worker in the form of wages. The massive wealth of the capitalist class was built out of the brutal exploitation of the laborers of all countries. The toil of coal miners in Belgium and America, of steel workers in England, of coffee plantation workers in Brazil, of tea pluckers in Ceylon—out of the labor of all workers, regardless of their nationality and skin color, were forged the golden profits of the capitalist class.

Marx and Engels were not the only ones to take note of the desperate poverty and misery of the masses of workers exploited by capitalism. But they were the only ones to see in the proletariat not merely an exploited mass but a world-historical and revolutionary social force. As a class without property, it was, declared Marx and Engels, the objective destiny of the working class to liberate the productive forces of humanity from the stranglehold of private property and to create the communist society of the future. As they wrote in 1847: “All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interests of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.”

The Communist Manifesto was a brilliant and profound anticipation of the future course of historical development. Its vision of the future was all the more astonishing if one considers that when Marx and Engels first issued in 1847 their historic summons—“Workers of the world, unite!”—only the rudiments existed of an integrated world economy. And, indeed, the proletariat was just beginning to emerge as an identifiable social force in only a few of the most advanced capitalist countries of the day: England, France, Germany and, perhaps, the United States. But within 17 years, the rapid expansion of capitalist industry had produced a dramatic growth in the size of the working class and demonstrated the validity of Marx’s theoretical anticipation of the international proletariat.

By the 1860s, it had become possible for Marx and Engels to take practical measures to unify the expanding international activity of the working class. That was the significance of the creation in 1864 of the International Workingmen’s Association—the First International.

In explaining the historic mission of the First International, Marx wrote (in the Provisional Rules of the Association):

That the economic emancipation of the working classes is therefore the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means;

That all efforts aiming at that great end have hitherto failed from want of solidarity between the manifold divisions of labor in each country, and from the absence of a fraternal bond of union between the working classes of different countries;

That the emancipation of labor is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries in which modern society exists, and depending for its solution on the concurrence, practical and theoretical, of the most advanced countries....

Two years later, in his instructions for the delegates, written in August 1866, Marx explained, in a section entitled “International Combination of Efforts, by the Agency of the Association, in the Struggle between Labor and Capital,” that “This question embraces the whole activity of the International Association which aims at combining and generalizing the till now disconnected efforts for emancipation by the working classes in different countries.

“To counteract the intrigues of the capitalists always ready, in cases of strikes and lockouts, to misuse the foreign workman as a tool against the native workman, is one of the particular functions which our society has hitherto performed with success. It is now the great purpose of the Association to make the workmen of different countries not only feel but act as brethren and comrades in the army of emancipation.”

The early period of the international working-class movement was brought to a close by the revolutionary struggles of the Parisian proletariat, which created the first form of working-class power, the Paris Commune of 1871. The next decade, the 1880s, saw a vast upsurge in the workers’ movement on a world scale—the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat assumed bloody forms in country after country, especially in the United States. The demand for the eight-hour day marked the first concerted and organized attempt by workers in different countries to coordinate their efforts in a collective struggle against unrestrained capitalist exploitation. Throughout Europe, powerful working-class parties were formed and as the conscious expression of this international development of the workers’ movement the Second International was established in 1889.

The ruling classes responded to the challenge of the proletariat not only with repression, it also sought to counteract the internationalist convictions of the proletariat by doing everything in its power to spread the poison of national chauvinism, striving to undermine the unity of the working class by inciting every conceivable form of national hatreds, including and above all, racism.

This corresponded to the needs of the capitalist system, which had by the turn of the twentieth century entered into its imperialist stage—a stage characterized by parasitism and ever-deepening economic and social crisis. Chauvinism and racism served the purpose of undermining the international unity of the working class and conditioning it for bloody wars which imperialism was preparing.

In 1914, the leaders of the Second International succumbed to the poison of imperialist nationalism and joined sides with the ruling classes of Europe when they launched the first world war. Enraged by this betrayal of international socialism and the world proletariat, Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party in Russia, denounced the leaders of the Second International as traitors, declared that the Second International was dead, and issued the call for the building of a Third International to prepare the world socialist revolution.

When Lenin issued this call to arms, he was living in almost complete isolation. For all intents and purposes, it seemed that the perspective of international working class solidarity had been ground to dust by the outbreak of World War I. And yet, the isolation was suddenly broken by the eruption of revolutionary struggle in Russia in February 1917. Lenin quickly departed from Switzerland where he had been living in exile and returned to Russia in April 1917 to assume direct leadership of the Bolshevik Party. He proclaimed that the Russian Revolution marked the beginning of the world socialist revolution and that the immediate task confronting the Russian working class was the seizure of state power and the overthrow of capitalism. One month later, Trotsky, who had been living in New York, also made his way back to Russia, where he joined forces with Lenin. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks led the working class in the overthrow of the bourgeois Provisional Government.

As far as the Bolsheviks were concerned, the Russian Revolution was only the start of the world socialist revolution. Lenin and Trotsky knew that the survival of the Soviet regime ultimately depended upon the development of revolutionary struggles in the main centers of world imperialism. Indeed, shortly after the Bolsheviks came to power, Lenin addressed a letter to American workers in which he wrote:

“We are now, as it were, in a besieged fortress, waiting for the other detachments of the world socialist revolution to come to our relief. These detachments exist, and they are more numerous than ours, they are maturing, growing, gaining more strength the longer the brutalities of imperialism continue. The workers are breaking away from their social-traitors—the Gompers, Hendersons, Renaudels, Scheidemanns and Renners. Slowly but surely the workers are adopting communist, Bolshevik tactics and are marching towards the proletarian revolution, which alone is capable of saving dying culture and dying mankind.

“In short, we are invincible, because the world proletarian revolution is invincible.” That is what Lenin wrote in 1918.

These were not hollow words: even before the Bolsheviks had taken power, in the midst of the struggle against the Provisional Government, they had begun to take steps to construct a new revolutionary international party, in opposition to the traitors of the Second International. The Third International was convened in March 1919. Its immediate practical task was the training of the international vanguard of the proletariat in the strategy and tactics of world socialist revolution.

But the same nationalist pressures which had produced the growth of opportunism inside the parties of the Second International began to make themselves felt in the Bolshevik Party. A series of defeats of the working class in Germany, which intensified the isolation of Soviet Russia, led to the development of a tendency, led by Stalin, which turned away from the strategy of world socialist revolution. Instead, this tendency proposed in 1924, in violation of all that Marx, Engels and Lenin had written and taught, that socialism could be built in a single country—that the development of socialism in Russia did not require the revolutionary victory of the proletariat in the United States, Europe and the rest of the world.

It was Trotsky and the Left Opposition he led which opposed this repudiation of internationalism, insisting that the construction of socialism in the Soviet Union could be realized only through the victory of the international proletariat over world imperialism.

The nationalist policies of Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy which he represented led to catastrophic defeats of the international working class, which resulted in fascism and the outbreak of World War II. The perspective of world socialist revolution was kept alive only through the struggle of Trotsky, who succeeded in founding the Fourth International in 1938 as the World Party of Socialist Revolution.

Capitalism survived only as a result of the betrayals of the agents of world capitalism in the workers’ movement. Indeed, the rejection of the strategy of world socialist revolution led inexorably to the policy of international class collaboration, which the Stalinists have called “peaceful coexistence,” “detente,” and which now is the essential basis of Gorbachev’s perestroika.

It is essential to review this history of internationalism on this May Day. There is at the present time no more crucial issue confronting the working class in the United States and every other country. All over the world, there are only two roads open to the working class: on the one hand, that of nationalism, which subordinates the labor movement of each country to the reactionary policies of its ruling class and which leads ultimately to fascism, war and the horrors of a nuclear conflagration; on the other hand, that of international socialist revolution, which is the road that shall renew the productive and spiritual forces of mankind and create a world culture of unprecedented beauty.

In 1847, it required the towering genius of a Marx and an Engels to perceive in the analysis of its embryonic forms the world-historical implications of the development of capitalism as an international system. But today, it requires no more than an intelligent acquaintance with the basic facts of economic life. The fact that we live in an era of a global economy, in which the existence of multinational corporations has integrated every inhabitable square mile of the planet into a unified process of production, is virtually taken for granted. Moreover, vast advances in technologies, based on the invention of the integrated circuit and the resulting explosive development of the computer, have transformed the process of production.

But despite the advances in technology, which opens up the possibility of scientifically organizing all aspects of production on a world scale and of rationally utilizing the resources of the planet in the common interests of mankind, capitalism has proved itself incapable of providing the masses of the world’s population with anything approaching a decent standard of living. Never has there been such levels of poverty and degradation.

Here in the United States, ever-larger sections of the working class are being driven into destitution. On the eve of the twenty-first century, capitalism has still not discovered how to guarantee three square meals a day for the working class, nor has it learned how to place a roof over the head of every working class family. In a country where there are millions of desk-top computers, there are also millions of human beings who can’t read. Public education has degenerated into a tragic mockery of the youth, who go to schools which have more in common with police holding cells than with centers of learning—schools whose principals, to the applause of the reactionary capitalist press, try to imitate Adolf Hitler by roaming the corridors with baseball bats.

All the forms of social misery which exist in this country and throughout the world demonstrate the utter bankruptcy of capitalism. As long as science, technology, all the productive forces of mankind, are subordinated to the profit motive, the greedy strivings of individual capitalists to enrich themselves at the expense of humanity as a whole, civilization will continue on its present downward spiral.

At the same time, there is no solution to the crisis as long as the resources of the world economy remain divided through the existence of hostile nation-states, which serve essentially as the base of operations for competing groups of capitalists. The trade conflicts which arise out of the desperate competition for markets represent a tragic squandering of the world’s resources and lead ultimately to military conflicts. When youth are sent to patrol the Persian Gulf or to other parts of the globe, they are not fighting and dying to save democracy, but to defend the profits of Exxon, General Motors, and AT&T. Indeed, all the problems confronting modern society have their roots in these two historically-outmoded legacies of man’s past development: first, private ownership of the productive forces, and second, the division of the world into nation-states.

But as soon as we identify the essential problem, we are able to recognize the solution. The dead weight of private property and the nation-state system can be ended because there does exist a social force which has neither property nor, for that matter, a country. That social force is the modern-day proletariat, the international working class.

Internationalism is the true banner of the working class. The decisive task which confronts the workers of the United States, of Europe, of Latin America, of Africa and Asia is the worldwide consolidation of its forces. The direct enemy of the proletariat in every country is international capital. The working class confronts multinational corporations which operate on every continent and consciously exploit the national divisions which separate the proletariat. Even at the level of a strike, it becomes a matter of urgency for the working class to develop new means of international collaboration. This can be achieved only on the basis of Marxism. Only a movement which is not anchored in any way to the national interest can work out those forms of international working class solidarity that are essential for the modern-day labor movement. The program of the political Neanderthals of the trade union bureaucracy is nationalism; its most direct expression is protectionism. We counterpose to the Neanderthal nationalist-protectionist policy of the bureaucracy the internationalism of the revolutionary working class.

What is the significance of our party and of our election campaign? We are a part of the International Committee of the Fourth International. We continue the great struggle of Leon Trotsky, of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, for proletarian internationalism. The Workers League, with its comrades of the International Committee, brings to the working class the perspective of world socialist revolution. And in fighting for this perspective we are in intransigent opposition to all the lackeys of big business in the labor movement. Our program is not for the reform of capitalism, but for its overthrow. We strive to unify the American working class in a common revolutionary struggle with its class brothers in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, and especially with our doubly oppressed brothers and sisters in Latin America. And we are especially proud that at this meeting we have been able to have with us a comrade who is involved in a crucial part of that struggle, in Ecuador.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who speaks for the horde of middle-class Stalinist bureaucrats in the Soviet Union who would like nothing more than to turn themselves into capitalists, recently said that the era of an international socialist party is over. He was trying to reassure his imperialist masters that his glasnost and perestroika do not imply any revival of the revolutionary internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky. That pronouncement was of course hailed in all the capitalist press.

But Mr. Gorbachev is mistaken. The days of proletarian internationalism are by no means over. In fact, the era of the World Party of Socialist Revolution has only now really begun. All the forces of the working class, regardless of nationality, language or skin color, must now be unified and mobilized in the decisive international struggle against world capitalism. And that is why we call on all of you to join this party and participate consciously in that struggle.

The twentieth century has been the century of bloody world conflict between the international forces of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. In the decisive years that are left to the twentieth century, we shall strive to fulfill the international mission of the working class by overthrowing the capitalist system. In this way we will leave to our children and the twenty-first century the more harmonious task of reconstructing human society on the basis of socialism.