Proletarian Internationalism: Definition & Principle

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What does it truly mean to be part of a global struggle? In this lesson, we are going to check out the concept of proletarian internationalism and find out.

Proletarian Internationalism

According to Karl Marx, the workers would rise up in rebellion and overturn capitalism, creating first a socialist and then communist state. That's Marxism 101. But where would this happen? In a word: Everywhere!

One salient feature of Marxism as it was actually enacted in the 20th century is what we call proletarian internationalism. Basically, this is the idea that all communist revolutions have to be understood as part of global campaign against capitalism, imperialism, and the bourgeoisie. There is no Russian communist revolution or Cuban communist revolution or Chinese communist revolution. These are just moments in a single, global communist revolution. They may be spread out across history, but communism is the end of history anyway, right?

Communism, Nationalism, and Internationalism

Let's break these ideas down a little further. When Karl Marx was writing his theories in the 19th century, he saw capitalism as a global institution. Capitalism tied nations together through global economic networks. Specifically, it tied imperial nations together and helped them build networks that oppressed the colonized and the workers. Since capitalism was an international institution, the revolt against it had to be global in scale as well.

From the beginning, this established two very different views for the future of the world. Many capitalist nations saw the future as one defined by nationalism, or intense pride in the nation-state. The struggle of each nation was not to partake in some global movement, but just to continue preserving and strengthening their own country.

This propaganda poster for the world proletariat visually represents the call for global unity promoted by the Communist Party.

Communist revolutions presented a very different outlook. To Vladimir Lenin and many others, capitalism was essentially tied to nationalism, as well as imperialism. After World War I and building up towards World War II, communists also saw these ideas as fundamentally connected to fascism. Since nationalism and capitalism were so connected and so essential to both imperialism and fascism, Lenin quickly came to assert that communism and nationalism could never coexist. Even the most decent and civil forms of nationalism, he explained, corrupted the communist struggle.

This meant that communism had to be international in all senses. The goal was to overthrow global capitalism and to unite all the workers of the world through class struggle. In essence, communism would replace their national identities. Only their identification as members of the international revolutionary proletariat really mattered. In Lenin's vision, communism would ultimately lead to a world of stateless societies, where there were no nations at all. Everything would become international in scope, even the goals of each rebellion. To Lenin, people should never start a communist revolution just to bring communism to their local community. They should start a revolution to bring communism to their community, as well as to inspire a revolution in the community next to them. Every struggle had to be understood in terms of the global revolution.

Vladimir Lenin helped define the concept of proletarian internationalism.

Implications for the 20th Century

This is all very interesting in theory, but what did it actually look like in practice? To understand this, we can look to the year 1946. Right after WWII ended, President Truman asked George Kennan, an American diplomat positioned in the USSR, to explain Soviet communism. Kennan's response included, among other things, the assertion that communism was inherently aggressive and expansionist.

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