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The Meanings of Internationalism: A Collective Discussion on Pan-African, Early Soviet, Islamic Socialist, and Kurdish Internationalisms Across the 20th Century

Author: Dilar Dirik, Musab Younis, Maria Chehonadskih, Layli Uddin, Miri Davidson

Affiliation: University of Oxford, Queen Mary University of London, University of Warwick

Organization/Publisher: Millennium: Journal of International Studies

Date/Place: July 20, 2023/UK

Word count: 10838


Keywords: Internationalism, Anticolonialism, Empire, Communism, Marxism



Through a series of insights from four different scholars studying four non-Western political movements over the course of the 20th century, this article aims to situate the definition of internationalism in a more historical context. That is to say, this article tries to depart from the more abstract notion of internationalism, which could stand out of any historical context, and instead offer a more operative understanding of the concept through four different internationalisms. These four movements are anticolonial pan-African thought in the interwar period, Soviet socialist internationalism with a focus on Alexander Bogdanov, who allied with Lenin during the October Revolution before defecting, Islamic socialism through Maulana Bhashani, and the Kurdish liberation movement. In that vein, the article tries to pinpoint some common characteristics among these diverse movements and their broader contexts.

First, the article makes a further conceptual distinction between internationalism as a revolutionary concept, which reshapes both the national and international, from internationalism as enlightenment-era cosmopolitanism as put forth in Kant’s world peace theory, which proposes human reason as the foundation of all human civilization and therefore the key to world peace. Moreover, the article distinguishes between internationalism as a revolutionary concept and internationalism as a capitalist notion, where international relations are oriented towards the goal of accumulating capital.


In the case of pan-African thinkers in the inter-war period, the focus for Musab Younis was to reverse the project of European hegemony over Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America, or “the problem between the lighter and darker races of mankind.” While it is no wonder that all anticolonial thinkers across the ideological spectrum were critical of imperialism, uniquely pan-African thinkers viewed imperialism as a racial project, which was not of much interest to Marxist thought that heavily influenced anti-imperialist thought. Younis further remarks that, while this perception did not pick up much traction initially, it became more widespread as more scholars started to point out non-economic factors, again in divergence from classical Marxism and communist forces, while also acknowledging the economic factor. For instance, pan-African thinkers highlighted the question of why Australia and New Zealand were treated differently and operated under different economic models from those found in Ghana and Nigeria, even though both regions fell under the British Empire.

In other words, black thinkers tried to articulate the Marxist dismantling of imperialism with an African-centric mindset. Lamine Senghor, a prominent Senegalese anticolonial thinker figure who was involved in the French Communist Party, called for having a specifically black organization focused on the question of Africa. Senghor believed that Communist movements, despite advocating for universal values centered around the idea of supporting the proletariat, would never center Africa because they did not expect Africa to lead a global revolution. The pan-African movement in the interwar period, Younis further notes, was also disenchanted with the claims that the world was more progressive and freer in the wake of WWI. Indeed, almost all of Africa was increasingly exploited by imperialist forces at the time, so much so that an article in the Sierra Leone Weekly News called the League of Nations the “League of White Brotherhood.” In that sense, these ideas poured into an understanding of internationalism through Third Worldism, which “sees the structure of imperialism as creating a common interest amongst the racialized subjects of the European imperial order.” Accordingly, anticolonial pan-African thinkers were interested in connecting with movements and schools of Asia and Latin America.

Maria Chehonadskih focused on socialist projects and how they understood internationalism. More particularly, she focuses on the socialist legacy outside the sphere of the Bolshevik revolution. First, Chehonadskih challenges equating the Soviet space with Russia, with both having their own different and complex understanding of internationalism, and in this context, imperialism. Chehonadskih looks at Bogdanov, a Russian socialist figure who defected from the Bolsheviks and founded the Proletarian Cultural Enlightenment Organization, or “Proletkult”. As nationalism was on the rise across Europe in the interwar period, socialist movements in the continent started supporting their governments leading up to WWII. However, Bogdanov opposed the “nationalization” of the social movement. This juxtaposition exposes a tension between the universalism of the proletarian in conventional Marxism and the fact that laborers exist in national contexts. Instead, Bogdanov focused on the mental and psychic structures that pushed the nationalist agenda onto society, which made him one of the first to draw a line connecting knowledge and power in the mode of economic oppression. Such ideas were found more prominently in the writings of Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault, two well-known anticolonial thinkers. To Bogdanov, this issue reduces the laborer to a task executer dominated by the factory owners who are the decision-makers. More broadly, the state apparatus thinks for the rest, and patriotic feelings are the result of an imposed structure of authority and authoritarian thinking. As such, Bogdanov envisioned that Marxism would shift from internationalism to what he called comradeship in the factory, family, with a focus on education, science, and activism. Chehonadskih remarks, however, that those ideas led to an adversarial working-class purity and purging the middle class from the movement of Proletkult – “This is, nonetheless, a problem with any kind of universalist project, which always includes by excluding, and diverges as it enters the realm of actual practice.”

In addition, Chehonadskih notes that the Soviet Union was a project intended to free the world from capitalist modernity. While it had complex imperialist aspects, it was different from Western-style imperialism. For instance, the Soviet Union gave the population of its republics citizenship status, as opposed to the British Empire who created hierarchical types and forms of British nationality. Another notable difference was that the Soviets wanted to create a nationless state-form of working-class citizens (all citizens for instance received the same education), whereas the British Empire gave consideration to accents, ethnicities, and regional characteristics in its controlling and policing of its populace. In summary, the Soviets sought to erase local identities and replace them with Soviet citizenship. On a massive scale, this created a form of socialist imperialism.


Layli Uddin focuses on Maulana Bhashani, also known as Red Maulana, who offers a unique case of subaltern internationalism in 20th century Asia. A third world activist and a Sufi figure, Maulana Bhashani placed great emphasis on peasants and workers, and tried to harmonize between Islam and socialism. His understanding of internationalism can be understood through three phases: 1. His Muslim identity and Muslim internationalism and the understanding of Umma; 2. Anticolonial politics with the Khalifat Movement against the British rule; and 3. His most complex phase which saw a convergence of socialism and Islamism. Over the course of his activism, he contributed to the founding of both Pakistan in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971. In his understanding of internationalism, he focused on subaltern internationalism, meaning “an international political thought and practice grounded in the life worlds and everyday practices of groups such as peasants and industrial workers.” In the second half of his career, he travelled to China, and was deeply influenced by Maoism, as well as his meetings with other leftist forces. A notable aspect of the marriage of Islamism and socialism was his using of the concept of Bay’ah, the Islamic oath of pledging allegiance, to demand his followers take a pledge to abolish feudalism, capitalism, and imperialism, while also asserting their belief in God and Prophet Mohammad, all at once.

Dilar Dirik goes over the Kurdish Movement, highlighting a shift in the understanding of the Kurdish question and internationalism. First, the Kurdish nation was seen as an internal and external colony –with the Kurdish nation being split between Türkiye, Iran, Syria, and Iraq, and externally being splintered into different Cold War camps. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded along Marxist-Leninist terms and envisioned that liberating the Kurds would be a launching pad to liberate all proletariat in the region and beyond, and as a second step a federal union for the Middle East. However, by 1995, guided by the writings of Abdullah Öcalan, the movement shifted to “democracy without and against the state”, focusing instead on a bottom-up, confederal socialist non-state form of self-determination. Today, the movement focuses on women’s liberation, ecology, and radical democracy as the three pillars of the freedom paradigm introduced by Öcalan.


In the four movements, one can find two main common characteristics of this revolutionary understanding of internationalism. First, despite drawing upon classical Marxist concepts, these movements aimed to challenge, refine, and reshape these ideas. This involved delving into the roots of nationalistic fervor and colonial domination, aspects often overlooked by purely economistic frameworks. Additionally, they sought to revive the ethos of internationalism, recognizing that understanding nationalism and internationalism were inherently linked endeavors in a process of mutual constitution.


By: Hamza Ghadban, CIGA Research Intern



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