Intellectual Internationalism: A Brief History

Ian’s post on “the roots of the conservative international” is excellent  and there is little I would disagree with. In my Guardian article, I didn’t mean to suggest that Nafta was the only (or even the primary) cause of the creation of the conservative international; and I agree that the real emotional gestalt of the international conservative movement comes from foreign policy (from the end of the Cold War to the War on Terror) which gives the movement unity from a sense of a common enemy.

 In fact, if we step back a little and think about the history of internationalism we can see even deeper roots. Consider some of the earlier examples of intellectual/political movements that have been transnational. From the late 19th century to the mid 1950s or so you had the various incarnations of the communist international (eventually snuffed out by Stalinism and the rise of nationalism within communist parties). 


During this period, the capitalist countries were not united; they often fought inter-imperial wars amongst themselves (the World Wars being the most famous example). It was the emergence of a strong communist enemy after World War II that created the first capitalist international: the alliance of liberals (in America and Canada) and Social Democrats (in Europe) who built NATO, the UN, and the WTO. Left-of-Centre but anti-communist, this group united for the first time in history the world’s capitalist nations in a binding alliance. The intellectual wing of this left-liberal international was to be found in magazines like Encounter, Partisan Review, and Commentary as well as organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom (many of these organizations of course received CIA funding, but they also represented a genuine intellectual alliance). In terms of their techniques, members of the left-liberal international often imitated their communist enemy: they were forever busy with organizing front groups, writing up petitions, organizing symposiums and funding small magazines. 

The left-liberal international fell apart in 1968, destroyed by the Vietnam War and the contradictions of using illiberal means to defend liberal democracy. Some of the Cold War liberals and social democrats became neo-conservatives and created the next wave of intellectual internationalism: the conservative international. Instead of receiving money from the CIA, the turned to the private sector, getting large grants from foundations and corporations (particularly defense contractors) to set up think tanks and new magazines (as well as fund old magazines like National Review and Commentary). Again, many of the techniques used by this international have roots that go back to Cold War liberalism and before that to the communist international.  

 Six years ago in the New Left Review, Perry Anderson had some interesting thoughts on the history of internationalism which provides a larger geo-political context for this story. 


2 thoughts on “Intellectual Internationalism: A Brief History

  1. Jeet: thanks for taking us a further step back to the International before the International. If pressed, I would have said the first burst of internationalist ideological alignment was that connected with the Counter Reformation’s Jesuits — or perhaps it was the anti-oligarchical political network of the Athenian empire of the 5th century BCE. In any case, the twentieth century has no monopoly on internationalism!

  2. There was also an international anti-Comintern organization in the 1920s and 1930s, based out of Switzerland, if my memory serves. Alas, my notes on it are 5,000 miles away from me, so I can’t even offer you the exact name off-hand. Anyway, it never got much traction nor did it attract a large following, but I thought you might want it as a footnote to your conservative international.

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