U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Definition of Internationalism

Another one of my “struggling to explain what I mean in my research, so I’m going to talk it through in a post” kind of post. 

I’m working on moving from an instinctual definition of internationalism to a more concrete one, in general and for the women I study. I’m writing a conference paper for the 2011 Association for the Study of African American Life and History about Juliette Derricotte’s internationalism on her 1928-1929 trip around the world. I’m also writing a chapter about Derricotte’s internationalism throughout her lifetime for a book about black women’s internationalism, which will be my first book. The kernel of it comes from an extended chapter in my dissertation, but is much enhanced by letters from Derricotte to her family that just became available at the Ole Miss Special Collections.

First of all, I use “internationalism” as an umbrella term to denote any of a number of different ways for people to relate to the world outside of their country, including communism, capitalism, globalization, Pan-Africanism/African Diaspora, world-government of some sort, pacifism, cosmpolitanism/world citizenship, tourism.  Usually, internationalism has a positive connotation of cooperation, which rejects militarist ways of relating to other nations. Does universalism fit within it? It seems like the YWCA meant a kind of universal sisterhood–we are all the same underneath our cultural differences and so we should all get along. What about the kind of universalism that says we should all be Christians or all be Western or all be developed or all be x? It seems like imperialism and internationalism could meet in that kind of universalism? Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote an interesting book about Cosmopolitanism in an effort to argue that it is not an imperialist philosophy, but rather a moral way to deal with a planet of strangers. 

I checked out a book called “Internationalism in the Labour Movement, 1840-1930” yesterday. Eric Hobsbawm wrote the opening address for the two volume work. He defines internationalism as “not the absence of concern with the nation, a-nationalism or cosmopolitanism, but the overcoming of the limits of the nation.”

I noticed one way of defining internationalism was as the opposite of nationalism. 

I checked out another book about imperialism and internationalism in the discipline of International Relations. It is primarily a historiography of IR, but it argues that during the interwar period the two conflicting terms were at the center of IR. So in this case, internationalism is not the opposite of nationalism, but of imperialism.

One of the topics I am currently trying to understand is “beauty” because Juliette Derricotte reacts first and foremost to beauty during her world wide trip in 1928-29. Is there particular and universal within beauty–a sunset or the Taj Mahal are things every human would find beautiful (if not as moving as Derricotte does)? But Derricotte’s specific attraction to the beauty of brown bodies in colorful clothing might be particular to her as a person of color? One of the things I’m struggling to explain is that Derricotte’s response to beauty is very similar to my own, and so I don’t find it unusual, which makes it hard for me to discuss (as opposed to say, James Agee saying that tenant farmers’ shacks are beautiful).

I guess I’m struggling to figure out what beauty means. For instance it’s very clear to me what Derricotte’s long description of the wealth, luxury, and display of the Indian rajah she stays with means–she’s attracted to the beauty and power that a monarch of color can display; she takes pride in it as a person of color in a way that she does not take pride in the wealth of the King of England. But is there meaning in her long descriptions of natural and man-made beauty, like sunsets, rice-fields, temples? It says something about her personality, it says something along the lines of “brown people are beautiful” (which is not unimportant, for sure), but perhaps it is also her way of finding meaning wherever she goes–if there is beauty here, then I can commune with the people?  Rather than looking for the differences, she seeks out the commonalities? Rather than concentrating on her discomfort, the bugs, the strange food, the long hours of travel, she concentrates on the gorgeous scenery?

What she takes away from India, in particular, is the juxtaposition of beauty and poverty, more so than politics and religion, though she comments on both. She remarks on the political situation–Gandhi had just called for India to be granted the same status as Canada by 1930–but she is not immediately anti-imperialist. She is also a devout Christian who understands personally the hypocrisy of Christians (particularly white Christians in the US, but also English Christians in India). She responds to the Ganges–“idol” worship, sewage, funeral pyres, sick people bathing in the holy waters, old people waiting to die on the shore and thus escape reincarnation–by feeling grateful she is a Christian, for she has been saved from. But her awareness of Christian hypocrisy keeps her from wishing that those she saw would convert. Her world tour was sponsored by the YWCA and she stayed primarily with YWCA missionaries, but the lectures she gave over and over again at YWs and colleges were about the American racial situation, not about Christianity or conversion. I call her a Christian Internationalist.

I think I also need to ask myself why “internationalism” is the way I’m choosing to frame a book about black women traveling around the world. It is partly because it is a big enough concept to include the four very different ways of relating to the world that I trace. It is also because “internationalism” was a solution alive in the ether post-WWI.

I leave you with a quote from the YW’s organ, The Woman’s Press, from 1926, which Derricotte made a note of,

“There was a sincere effort to have as many foreign students present as possible in the hope that in our discussions they would force/press us back to fundamental issues in international relations and not allow us to drift into useless discussions as to whether or not we are better internationalists if we wear the Chinese clothes while in China, or other questions just as unessential.”

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren,
    thanks for the post. I must admit that the figure you write about is new to me, but your discussion of her understanding of Christianity and her reflections on aspects of Indian culture remind me (in some ways) of the experiences of people like Benjamin Mays, Martin Luther King Jr., etc. (obviously in a different context) when they were traveling abroad (especially their encounters with Hinduism). Some of this is treated in an essay by Dennis Dickerson, “African American Intellectuals and the Theological Foundations of the Civil Rights Movement, 1930-1955,” Church History, June 2005. Also, Barbara Savage treats Mays more extensively in her book, “Your Spirit Walks Besides Me.” These texts are about religious leaders and some of the material is not directly related to your topic (though I’m fascinated by your discussion of Derricote’s appreciation of beauty), but the theme of internationalism is important as these individuals were intentionally seeking to build bonds with a broader Christian community that was not shackled with theological prejudices of their American counterparts. In the process, they became open to incorporating (selectively) aspects of Hinduism in particular and had to respond to critics of Christianity (because of its record on race in America).

  2. because WEB Du Bois doesn’t get enough attention (that’s a joke), i’ll put in a plug for Dark Princess.

    I’ve always thought of ‘internationalism,’ as distinct from cosmopolitanism or something, as linked to 19th century socialism. The ‘International,’ after all, first second and third, kind of reserves the word for them, doesn’t it? but this is only a sense–and maybe ‘internationalism’ had very distinct connotations, especially in the interwar period?

    mark mazower’s book about the interwar origins of the UN might be useful to look at.

  3. A couple things that may be helpful:

    1. Perry Anderson’s short article in NLR: “Internationalism: A Breviary.” It’s skewed toward a Marxist sense of internationalism, but useful nonetheless.

    2. The chapter “New Worldly Negro” in Michelle Stephens’ *Black Empire* is very good, if you haven’t read it already. There’s also the forum on BH Edwards and Black internationalism in *Small Axe*.

    Looking forward to hearing more about your work!

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