The Internationalism of Capital and Class

Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism – Part 36

Whether we like it or not, the development of the capitalist mode of production has shaped the working class, its organisation and its movement.  It has done so in ways that, in a more or less immediate fashion, assists or retards the organisation of the working class.

In general, however, it is the argument of Marxism that the increasing socialisation of capitalism gives rise to a materially strengthened working class that needs to become conscious of its objective role, and of the potential alternative arising from it that reflect its objective interests.  In all these aspects the process is international, a global one that brings workers of the world together more and more and which must make conscious this mutual dependence through international organisation. 

So today we should be asking ourselves – would the increasing organisation of capitalism on an international basis, today called globalisation, not also be the grounds upon which the working class created should unite? Would workers unity across Europe be assisted or hindered by the increasing international organisation of European capital and its associated political development?  Would workers unity be easier or harder if faced with more and more similar economic, social and political conditions, including laws, institutions and common enemy?  In other words, for example, inside or outside the EU?  Does accepting the international development of capitalism not provide the basis to also organise workers internationally so that the EU similarly can be ultimately replaced by a workers’ alternative?

Far from ‘cosmopolitan’ workers, immigrant workers, young employees of tech firms, working class students who have travelled, part time ‘precariat’ workers etc. etc. being neglected, or worse, in the name of a ‘traditional working class’; these working class fragments are products of the constant reformation of the working class that has always been generated by capitalism and from which previous components of the working class movement have been built.

Only those who want to divide the working class will seek to pose this working class against a separate working class that is supposedly more authentic.  In some countries this ‘authentic’ class will be manual workers. In others those leftists professing such views will only have such workers as a historical reference, their movements in fact based on white collar state employees, for whom widespread state ownership is most congenial to their economistic view of socialism.

So, in digging up the commonplace notion – for a socialist – of internationalism it is not simply a question of ‘returning’ to Marx and Engels but of turning to face the development of contemporary capitalism through the understanding they gave of its laws of development.  This allows us to orient to the political choices, challenges and perspectives that face us.  It is necessary to quote Marx and Engels etc. in order to convey their general approach and remind those who consider themselves Marxists of what this was, while attempting to convince those who do not of its relevance. 

Marx and Engels explained in the fragments of their studies that have become known as ‘The German Ideology” that:

“ . .  this development of productive forces (which at the same time implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it privation, want is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which on the one side produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the “propertyless” mass (universal competition), making each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally puts world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones.”

“Without this, 1) communism could only exist as a local phenomenon; 2) the forces of intercourse themselves could not have developed as universal, hence unendurable powers: they would have remained home-bred “conditions” surrounded by superstition; and 3) each extension of intercourse would abolish local communism. Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples “all at once” and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with them.”

While we can question the precise meaning of the demand for “simultaneous” and “all at once” acts to establish communism, it is clear that it can only be the product of international struggle and international success, while it can only be posed given a high level of the productive forces that can only exist at a global level.

“Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital. This is just the way in which it unconsciously creates the material requirements of a higher mode of production. (Marx, Capital Vol. 3 Chapter 15).

‘The productive forces of social labour’ is the working class and the mass of fixed and circulating capital it works with.  These must be international so that they can reach the required level that makes a new society without the ‘old filth’ possible.  This therefore means that the relations of production also exist within an international framework, that capital and the working class are both international.  You cannot have international forces of production and purely national relations of production.  Globalisation is not therefore something from without but is a creation within capitalist development, including of its capitalist and working class.

This existence as an international class is not simply a question of workers having a political consciousness of their solidarity with the workers of other countries; consciousness of this as with anything else must reflect their material existence and not simply the apprehension of liberating ideas.  Marxists don’t believe that ideas in such a form can be generated simply out of people’s heads or from accepting the entreaties of others.  They must come out of their lived experience, or as is put in the paragraphs above – it must come from workers who are already ‘empirically universal beings’ and not merely ‘local’ ones.

Since such workers must exist within capitalism in order to overthrow it, its overthrow is not in the first place something to be taught to workers by socialists through ideas, propaganda or programme.  As we all know, the current system is oppressive and exploitative, but just as we need capitalist development before socialism can be a real possibility, so we need this capitalism to be international in scope and organisation before we can expect the working class equivalent.

This means, since the state reflects the dominant form of property relations, that the political organisation of international capitalism will also be oppressive.  However, to believe that we can have international production relations without capitalism seeking international political bodies is obviously wrong, which is why belief that we must destroy such institutions to go back to purely national ones is not only mistaken but reactionary.

The traditional reformist programme of most of the Left, adopted by many calling themselves Marxist, has no traction in these conditions.  Taxation of corporations for example, or of the wealthy, cannot be carried out on a purely national basis.  The current programme of Joe Biden and the OECD recognises what the Left does not – that this can only be carried out internationally.  Without this the resources required by the state to carry out the redistribution of income championed by this reformist perspective becomes impossible.

The idea that socialism is grounded on state ownership is equally adrift from the reality of international capitalism.  The role of multinationals and their operation in many countries with their global production and supply chains, makes seeking any sort of meaningful control at a national level impossible.  Seizing authority over one link does not give control of the whole chain.  At most it is simply destructive of this international division of labour: an ironically appropriate result of a programme that some may consider anti-capitalist but which is not thereby socialist.

The international development of the forces of production does not therefore give rise to merely historical theoretical questions but determines the potential for, and general perspective of, socialism.  Marx of 150 years ago has more to guide us than many of today’s left that claim his legacy.

Back to part 35

Forward to part 37

2 thoughts on “The Internationalism of Capital and Class

  1. Thank you for your most excellent site.

    I don’t understand this: “seeking international political bodies is obviously wrong, which is why belief that we must destroy such institutions to go back to purely national ones is not only mistaken but reactionary.”

    As far as I can see you are not an impossibilist like the SPGB, so I assume that not “seeking international political bodies” means what, trying to set up international street politics or syndicalist politics?


    • Hi Richard. The point I was making was that just as capitalism creates an international economy, through trade, investment, multinational companies etc. and that this represents both an advance for capitalism, for the productiveness of its economy, and therefore creation of a larger working class, so this must be expected to be reflected in capitalist political organisation also becoming internationally organised.

      It is a mistake to believe that one can occur without the other since the state is indispensable for the operation of the capitalist system and as it organises internationally it will seek international political and economic governance organisations to facilitate this. We can see this through the IMF, World Bank and regional organisations such as the EU etc.

      The international development of capitalism has encountered many difficulties and led to political conflicts and the continuing framework of national states causes friction between states and between these sates and the international bodies – over policies and competencies. They are therefore not fully developed and much international governance relies on national cooperation, such as that between national central banks. The disproportionate power wielded by the biggest capitalist powers inside these international bodies is clear but this is no more at the expense of the weaker ones than the direct relationships between these countries outside of these international organisations.

      This is the root cause of much of the lefts antipathy to these international organisations, which of course are capitalist but no more capitalist than the nation states and their economic organisations. The international bodies are required to make the world economy more stable, in so far as the state can bring such stability to capitalism. The answer from the left is not to retreat into a belief that the nation state can protect workers but to reject and idea that the capitalists state at any level could play such a role.

      The alternative then is not retreat into national division but development of an international working class movement. This could be done on many fronts, begining with the left’s own political organisations, should they choose to do so. For example – standing a joint slate in European election with a joint programme, and trying to create a European working class party. If you think that national separation is the way forward then this of course is unnecessary, so-called ‘solidarity’ between national organisations is the feeble substitute.

      The international organisation of production should be met by workers in the same multinational company (and its subordinated suppliers) seeking to work together to create international unions to protect their interests. Workers’ Cooperative organisations should also seek to organise internationally.

      We are some way away from this because much of the left cannot organise democratically in their national setting and this lack of democratic functioning, allied with their concomitant sectarianism, rules out much international organisation before it can get started.

      So, a major part of where we start is to defend the international advances that we have made including freedom of movement achieved through the EU and opposition to Scottish nationalism for example. Going beyond this would see struggling inside existing workers parties to adopt closer cooperation internationally e.g. Britain rejoining the EU, the British Labour party adopting a programme of reform and democratisation across the EU and a ‘levelling up’ of conditions across Europe (a much more powerful project than Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling-up’). This would also involve uniform opening up to the workers living adjacent to the EU and rejection of ‘fortress Europe’, which is much easier to implement and defend that purely national proposals to support refugees etc.

      I hope this clarifies things a bit.

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