Today the advanced proletariat is everywhere with us. A proletarian army exists everywhere, although sometimes it is poorly organised and needs reorganising. If our comrades in all lands help us now to organise a united army, no shortcomings will prevent us from accomplishing our task. That task is the world proletarian revolution, the creation of a world Soviet republic. - Lenin, 1920
Whatever happened to the Internationale? For much of the twentieth century, it was a common understanding among socialists that class struggle would inevitably demand the creation of a sovereign global socialist state. Capitalists, too, were aware of this; even today, its memory persists in right-wing anxieties about a New World Order (NWO). But that rhetoric seems oddly out of step with socialism in the US, which, even in its most internationalist tendencies, usually limits itself to calls for cooperation among nations and mutual-aid-style cross-border solidarity among workers.
The problem of the nation-state has not gone away. Consider, for example, a Tuesday article by Josh Siegel, Biden's buy American goals conflict with emissions reductions targets:
There is an inherent tension in President Joe Biden 's climate plans between reducing emissions as fast as possible and building up U.S. manufacturing of clean energy technologies to create a strong domestic workforce.
Meeting an aggressive timetable of adding more clean energy to the grid would likely mean importing a large supply of solar panels and electric car batteries from abroad because it would take time for American manufacturers to scale up.
What is this “conflict” other than a conflict between international and national interests? If you are a socialist in the US, you can beg national industrialists to stop lobbying for state money that would be better spend abroad, and you can beg government officials to have better budget priorities — but you are going to have to keep fighting battles like this forever. And most of the time you’ll probably lose.
Now, consider an alternative: the decision about how to respond to climate change is made by workers all over the world, which means that the interests of the many will outweigh the interests of the few. And they have a powerful global state to carry out their plan, capable of distributing resources and launching manufacturing projects in a rationale, coordinated way. With an NWO, managing greenhouse gases becomes a simple administrative problem rather than an intractably complex collective-action problem among nations with all kinds of diverging interests.
The historical answer to my opening question is straightforward: Lenin’s focus shifted towards the immediate survival of the Soviet Union, Stalin pushed for the dissolution of the Comintern, and the China-Soviet split ended any prospects that remained for the kind of unified socialist front you’d need. Today — particularly in the United States, where even socialism-in-one-country often seems like a pipe dream — it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the nation-state.
Paradoxically, however, the evolution of global capitalism has made some of the basic impediments to global socialism a thing of the past. In pre-revolutionary Russia, for example, Lenin grappled with the basic problem of language barriers. But capitalism, he predicted, would make this problem a thing of the past:
We do not think that the great and mighty Russian language needs anyone having to study it by sheer compulsion. We are convinced that the development of capitalism in Russia, and the whole course of social life in general, are tending to bring all nations closer together. Hundreds of thousands of people are moving from one end of Russia to another; the different national populations are intermingling; exclusiveness and national conservatism must disappear. People whose conditions of life and work make it necessary for them to know the Russian language will learn it without being forced to do so.
Has not Lenin been vindicated? On one hand, globalization has plainly accelerated both the extinction of some languages and the spread of others throughout the world, in particular English; and on the other, capitalism has also propelled the development of machine translation technologies that have increasingly made language barriers a problem of the past.
You can see the same dynamic at work in telecommunications, transportation, logistics, computing, and so on. These are all among the means of production that workers can seize and wield for their own benefit; the problem here is not administrative or technological, it’s mostly just political.
Nevertheless, there seems little interest among US socialists in politicizing the nation-state. The closest we’ve come, as far as I can tell, was in 2020 when some supporters of Bernie Sanders asked a simple question: what will happen when he raises taxes and the rich start fleeing the country? Some socialists tried tackling this problem within a nationalist framework, relying on mechanisms like exit taxes to keep capital within the US’s borders. But others pretty quickly realized that the only surefire way to handle capital flight is socialism’s historical solution: you really need a global authority to expropriate the rich so that they have nowhere left to run.
Compare this to typical socialist rhetoric about militarism, for example. In Jacobin, a recent interview with Mike Prysner by Meagan Day ended with this exchange (edited for clarity):
MD: What do we need to do to build an effective domestic movement that can end the forever wars?
MP: …there is always going to be a new escalation. There is always going to be a new target of US imperial aggression, and we need to be ready to engage in the day-to-day work of international solidarity.
Both, of course, are engaging with the immediate problem of militarism under the rein of global capitalism, and in that context this answer is correct: war isn’t going away as long as it’s around, which means that you need domestic resistance in solidarity with the victims. But if we are talking broadly about ending the wars, the solution doesn’t rely on perpetual domestic vigilance and resistance; it’s the end of global capitalism through the institution of a global socialist state.1
It is probably a testament to capitalism’s endurance and stability that most socialists in the US do not even bother to speculate about what global socialism would actually mean. My personal intuition is that global capitalism is far from having run its course, and I don’t think it very likely that anyone alive today will be around for the emergence of an NWO regardless of how disciplined and ambitious and savvy activists are. I certainly do not think that activists are in any kind of position to seriously challenge the power of the nation-state today and remain convinced that any attempt would be immediately and ruthlessly crushed. I would advise against it.
Nevertheless, the disappearance of the NWO from socialist discourse has made our argument, in my view, much less persuasive and coherent. Capitalism provides people with immediate rationales for its existence, but it also presents them with visions of an end-of-history future where problems like poverty, war, and pollution have been mostly eradicated. Capitalists also, correctly, note that a lot of socialists do think that an NWO would be a good thing. When we don’t talk about this, we leave people wondering what our vision of the future is really like, and we give them the suspicion that we’re hiding dark truths that capitalists have been warning everyone about. Socialists shouldn’t play that game. Let’s talk about the NWO.
I am sure that both Day and Prysner are familiar with this argument, and I imagine that if the question were framed as I am framing it — “how do we end end war” — they would lay out different answers, though perhaps not the same as I have here.