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A dying breed

Updated September 06, 2013

FOR all of the talk that the nation-state is withering away, we still live in a world in which ‘national interests’ are as important as any other factor in shaping the contours of our lives.

Borders remain impermeable for the majority of the world’s people, and it is over many of these borders that wars continue to be fought.

The nature of war, as the experts are fond of reminding us, has changed. Technology and the incredible firepower available to the world’s most powerful states allows for more (dehumanised) destruction than was possible even a few short decades ago.

But what has not changed is the ability of militarised states to mobilise the minds and hearts of millions to the cause of war.

War has of course been a mainstay of the social order since the very beginning of settled life. Yet history also testifies to the constant presence of those who have struggled to establish peace in the name of all of humanity.

This dialectic of war and peace has been amongst the most defining features of the modern era, notwithstanding the fact that modernity was supposed to herald the triumph of enlightened humanity.

Of course those who write history never refrain from acclaiming their own virtues, regardless of what the facts may say. It is thus that mainstream historiographers posit that, a century or so ago, the ‘civilised world’ reached a crossroads following the carnage of the First World War. European and American statesmen wisely agreed to create an ‘inter-national’ entity that would symbolise the imperative of peace, aptly named the League of Nations. Thus, the story goes, began an era of relative peace, the likes of which the world had never seen before.

Of course the Second World War broke out less than two decades later, shattering the myth that human reason had prevailed over bigotry and mass violence. It took the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the ‘civilised world’ to be reminded that it was supposed to be upholding the pacifist cause.

In 1945, the League was reinvigorated and renamed the United Nations. Through the 1970s, the UN was not the limp imperial rubber-stamp it has since become, in large part due to the upheavals caused by anti-colonial movements across Asia and Africa.

One after the other newly independent post-colonial states obtained membership of the UN, thereby ensuring that the institution shed its image of being little more than a vehicle of Western hegemony.

Having said this, what happened at the UN during those heady days was less a reflection of the nature of that organisation and more an indicator of global, regional and ideological dynamics in a world still coloured by what Marx once called ‘the spectre of communism’.

To be sure, the left projected an alternative ‘inter-nationalism’ to that which was championed by the UN. In 1917, when then US president Woodrow Wilson developed the blueprint for the League, a contemporary of his was putting forward a very different vision of a peaceful and harmonious world system.

The man was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the Russian Bolsheviks who had just taken power through the world’s first socialist revolution, a stunning development that reverberated across the ‘civilised world’.

Predictably, the newly created Soviet Union was not invited to be a member of the League. Recall that European colonies were not considered ‘nations’ then and were hence not considered for membership in the prestigious new ‘global’ body.

Lenin’s alternative — known variously as the Third International and Communist International (CI) — did not discriminate in any such way. In 1920, a historic ‘Congress of the Peoples of the East’ was convened in Baku (Azerbaijan) in which leaders of anti-colonial movements from around the world participated.

The Soviet Union offered its complete support to these movements and the Congress affirmed its commitment to a world free of imperialism in all its forms.

The two competing forms of inter-nationalism, one represented by the League and later UN, and the other by the CI, prevailed through the Cold War. As I have suggested, history is written by those who are proclaimed victors, and it is therefore not surprising that there is now little discussion or debate about Leninist internationalism.

This is nevertheless unfortunate, because the contemporary world would be a much better place if more committed anti-imperialists had a say in determining the course of its affairs.

As the so-called ‘international community’ waits for the US Congress to issue its approval to President Obama’s plan to drop bombs on Syria, it is hard not to lament the fact that genuine internationalists are a dying breed.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, dozens of wars have been sanctioned by the ‘international community’ (read: Washington). The impending strike on Syria will definitely not be the last. It is ironic that Vladimir Putin — formerly head of the Soviet intelligence machine, the KGB — is the only world leader presently decrying the American Empire. Putin bears no resemblance, physical or political, to the other Vladimir whose legacy continues to inform the history of both modern Russia and the world.

We do not have to agree on the Leninist legacy to recognise that the internationalism that Lenin championed forced imperialism into a measure of retreat. The CI was only one of the alternative poles to the UN, the much-respected Non-Aligned Movement of Nehru, Sukarno, Nkrumah and Nasser the other.

Since 1990 the tables have turned definitively and the post-colonial countries have been forced into retreat by an advancing and militarily impregnable superpower state. Some modernists amongst us still believe that the good and reasonable in humanity will magically come to the fore just because it should. The history of modern imperialism is testimony that we cannot afford to just rely on luck.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.