March 1, 2018, by Stephen Legg

Reading Group: Internationalism, Imperialism and the Formation of the Contemporary World

Internationalism, imperialism and the formation of the contemporary world: the pasts of the present

Edited by Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo, José Pedro Monteiro. 2018, Palgrave Macmillan

In early December 2017 we met to discuss the introduction and three chapters from this new edited volume, drawn from the first (‘Internationalism(s) in an Imperial World: the Interwar Years’) of three sections (Part II being titled ‘Imperialism(s) and International Institutions: the Aftermath of World War II’ and part III ‘Imperial Resiliencies in the Post-colonial World Order’). It appears in Palgrave Macmillan’s influential Transnational History Series, and provides a substantial contribution to the rapidly growing literature on the international. Although not framing itself in these terms, the book could also be fitted squarely into a longer postcolonial tradition in terms of two of its aims, boldly stated in the collection’s title: first, to track the widespread influence of imperialism, here on internationalism (emerging alongside and through as well as against it); and, second, to show how this imperially entwined history made out present.

The collection’s most explicit contribution, however, is to the current wave of scholarship which seeks to challenge some of the ingrained traditions within which internationalism has been studied; questioning the festishisation of movement and connections; considering how internationalism related to nationalism and imperialism; and thinking about how internationalism made borders even as it crossed them. We noted how, like many recent monographs and collections, non-white, non-Euro/American forms of internationalism (for instance Pan-Islamism or Pan-Africanism) were acknowledged but not studied. In part this may be down to the regionalisation of these internationalisms within academia (for instance, Pan-Africanism as a north American phenomenon, Pan-Islamism as a South Asian or Middle Eastern development), in part down to the dispersed archives in which the history of these movements lay, unlike the central repositories of League or International Labour Office (ILO) internationalism in Geneva.

The volume has dauntingly rigorous footnotes and will be an indispensable bibliographical tool. It includes many useful and largely compatible definitions of internationalism across its chapters, with many fascinating hybrids, variants and sub-species. Jerónimo, for instance, distinguishes between imperialist internationalism (the promotion of internationalism as a form of imperialism) and internationalist imperialism (internationalism reinforcing imperialism) in a lengthy, impressive chapter considering the impact of internationalism on colonialism and imperialism. Avoiding the increasingly laboured case study of the League of Nations mandates, Jerónimo studies instead the broader impact of international scrutiny, standards, templates and procedures on colonial and imperial governments. While the Wilsonian moment did not deliver self-determination to the colonies, it may have had a longer life in affecting imperial reform (through debates about sacred trusts, the colour line and colonial development). In so doing, empires managed to coopt internationalism through new justifications for and re-brandings of Empire (making the best of a good crisis, as Naomi Klein might have put it in Shock Doctrine). Jerónimo’s chapter fleshes out this argument with several well-chosen examples which highlight the splicing of international and imperial concerns, including a debate over “native labour”, which combined racialized colonial difference with emerging internationalist concerns with labouring body. While this toiling body could be compared to the slave body, it was also positioned as the economic driver of development, the salvation of the colony. Further responses to the internationalist “Spirit of Geneva” included reformed colonial administrative procedures, invigorated definitions of ‘good government’, enhanced data collection in colonies, and academic responses to the new flow of information about the colonies within the European academy. The conclusion persuasively argues that the international challenge to imperialism may largely have led to its rationalisation and reform.

Sandrine Kott’s discussion of the International Labour Office proposed an explicitly spatial methodology for revisiting internationalism beyond the binaries of traditional International Relations scholarship. To connect the local to the global Kott proposed the study of particular sites (rather than of particular actors or texts) of internationalism, exploring the internal diversity of the places in which internationalism was made real. What she found was a narrative beyond that of capitalist Vs communist internationalism (including the influence of Jesuit Catholic internationalism), of meditations on the symbiosis of living forces, unionised forces, and social forces within internationalism and, most forcefully, the dependence of the ILO on national expertise, money and information as it struggled to establish itself in the 1920s. Similar arguments were made by Daniel Laqua in his chapter regarding the League’s work for intellectual cooperation. While Jerónimo had reminded us that we might consider internationalism as a league of empires, Laqua reminds us that the chief institutional agent of internationalism was a League of Nations. Through the congresses of the League’s Intellectual Cooperation division, its staff, and its campaigns, the influence of nations and nationalism remained clear.

The question of the nation recurs throughout the chapters we discussed, and Laqua offers his own definitions of nationalism and internationalism, but not of “transnationalism”, a concept that recurs throughout the book. We discussed how we might distinguish inter- and trans-nationalism. Is the former an object and the latter a method? Is the former a relation between 2+ states while the latter concerns relations somehow beyond national boundaries? Is the latter what many actors aim at, but the former what they achieve? The inter-war and the inter-national reference a temporal and spatial betweenness (“The Latin preposition and adv., inter ‘between, among, amid, in between, in the midst”, from the Oxford English Dictionary [OED]) while trans- hints at transcendence (“across, through, over, to or on the other side of, beyond, outside of, from one place, person, thing, or state to another” OED). While Jerónimo and Monterio’s excellent collection helps us grapple the national-international-imperial nexus, it also hints at this broader debate on the transnational as hope, encounter, and, it often seems, loss.

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