What a patriotic discourse can mean to the US Left: a Reply to Phil Butland
In the spirit of debate that has always enlivened the socialist tradition, I appreciated and enjoyed my colleague Phil Butland’s article Can there be a Progressive Patriotism. Phil makes some excellent points and challenges me to think about my convictions, taking a deeper look at why I believe the things I believe and what they mean as part of the broader debates underway in both the United States and the international socialist movement.
My thesis on proletarian patriotism, and what I write below, is in response to the unique political conditions in the Untied States, and should be read as uniquely applicable to that country. I do not pretend to understand the unique conditions of each other country, nor do I attempt to prescribe a uniform solution to each of them. To do so would be an expression of arrogance unbecoming a socialist. It is the responsibility of comrades and activists in each country to determine for themselves how their socialist future should look. A patriotic approach to the construction of socialism in the United States is, however, a necessary element. Necessary because it elevates and recognizes, legitimizes, and celebrates the heroic history of the worker’s struggle throughout our history up to today, and because without it, fascists will weaponize it against us.
Patriotism and Nationalism
Some argue that citizens of the United States should be ashamed of their country for the evils they committed. While it is necessary to acknowledge all of history, the good and the bad included, a rejection of the country as a whole as a source of shame is a disempowering attitude that runs contrary to the empowering potential of the socialist ideal. The fundamental project of socialists is to build a system that raises up all of humanity to meet its fullest potential. The country is both the space in which we can undertake this project and the object of that renovation. The country is the common home for its inhabitants and to reject it is as self-defeating as it is useless to the ultimate goal of the construction of a socialist society in the US.
The contention that the US left should not attempt to reclaim patriotism creates a dangerous vacuum in the political discourse. The wholesale abandoning of the concept leaves it to the province of the likes of the reactionary mob that stormed the US Capitol. This in turn presents an uncomfortable dichotomy to the mass of centrist, apolitical individuals who make up the electorate. By opposing patriotism, the left effectively fulfills the right’s discourse that the we are against our country, against concepts of morality that, regardless of their origin and the fact that they organically exist in other cultures and countries, these masses claim as their own. Thus, those who will, for one reason or another, not take the time for a deep-dive into progressive theory will be easily swayed by the reactionary right’s fear-based tactics. They will buy into the myth that the left will erase the values they believe in. Abandoning patriotism in the US context, is not a transcendent example of an enlightened morality, but a recruiting tool for the far-right.
Patriotism is a concept that exists without external value attached to it. Sociologically, this is similar to ideas like “love” and “contemplation,” concepts which exist for what they are and can be both negative and positive depending on the context. Compare unrequited love with a passionate, mutually fulfilling love to see how a word with strong cultural connotations can create very different realities. Patriotism, in this sense, can be cultivated by progressive and reactionary forces alike for competing purposes, but it exists independent of who uses it. Undeniably, it has been used for aggressive, racist, and militaristic purposes throughout the past, but since it is simply a tool, it itself cannot be said to be responsible for those acts. Nationalism, on the other hand, is the belief that one’s ethnic group (nation) is superior to others, and this is an attitude that has no place in a leftist oriented political outlook. The confusion of patriotism and nationalism is excusable, as the terms are often used interchangeably by critics and proponents alike, but this cannot disguise the danger of this misuse because it serves both to excuse monstrosities and delegitimize expressions of common experiences.
The vainglorious princeling coveting his neighbor’s territory, and the capitalist eying new, unexploited markets may use patriotism to cloak their intentions in the colorful bunting that will be receptive to the working people who will bleed for those aims, but this itself is not patriotism. Similarly, the criminals who ransacked the US Capitol may have felt motivated by a sense of love for their country, but that does not make them anything other than terrorists. These examples, and there are many others of the misuse of patriotism by fascist, reactionary, and capitalist goals, possess a common theme: the working people do not have ownership over the political destiny of their country. In this respect, I agree with Phil that patriotism as it exists today is not entirely ours. If the working class does not own the patriotic discourse, what exactly is the patriotism that is a useful element of building the socialist project?
The socialist project, while ideologically internationalist, can and must be built at home. This is due to practical considerations above anything else. The levers of power necessary to affect the transition to socialism exist at national and intra-state levels. Therefore, it is important to think about the transformation as a national renovation, a remodeling of an existing space for an improved purpose.
The country in this sense is far from the demonic entity that commits acts of imperialism and genocide, but it is a shell for the individuals who commit those acts. Working people were not in control of the state apparatus when it was used for oppressive and repressive acts. It is not the country that has committed these acts, it is the individual policies of politicians and cliques that have hitherto dominate the state apparatus.
A workers' government will implement and advance the policies of a progressive, ideologically forward-looking proletariat, and as such, the country will take on these attributes while shedding the old, undesirable ones. The country is transformative; it is what those in control of it decide to make of it, and therefore in the hands of the working people, we are empowered to remake it for forward-looking, egalitarian purposes.
What does a progressive, socialist patriotism look like? Love of the socialist country and love for socialist movements everywhere. Proletarian patriotic culture will honor the sacrifices and struggles of all who came before us, and will celebrate those engaged in the building of socialism in the present age. The patriotic discourse becomes a mechanism for elevating the working class, whose identity is merged with the country to provide ever-increasing linkages of belonging.
Thus, the problem of incentive is addressed. An added sense of responsibility for the upkeep of our common home will encourage us to do better, to work harder, and to stay honest with each other. As it is likely that forces hostile to the socialist transformation will seek to reverse the gains of the working class, the unity instilled by a proletarian patriotism will encourage the cohesion necessary for the defense of our historic project.
To reject a patriotic approach to the implementation of socialism in the United States would be suicidal for our movement. Patriotism is not a solution in and of itself, this is equivalent to saying painter’s tape is the solution for painting a room. It is but one element that goes into the diverse and varied toolkit of the builders of socialism. The process of building a workers’ party capable of winning electoral majorities requires a practical, realistic approach that considers existing, widely held ideals in the broad mass of the people.
With a significant majority of US respondents identifying as very or somewhat patriotic, in our specific context, socialism needs to take this into account. The attitude that socialism is an alien force is already so ingrained in the national imagination that to couple it with a rejection of the ideal of the country would render us an extremist minority, playing into the hands of those who seek to delegitimize and defeat us.
Ultimately, the building of socialism in the United States will depend on the joining of those forces who are convinced of the merit of the project, and those who simply want the best for their country, regardless of whether it is socialism or not. We must remember that not everyone will read our doctrine, not everyone will become committed cadres, and not everyone will accept the viability of a socialist project on its own merits. Patriotism, however, is still alive and well in the United States, and if we couple our socialist project with a desire to do better for our country, to improve our mutual home, it will have a much greater chance of success.
Phil and I may never agree on the role of patriotism in a worker’s movement, but one thing we can agree on is the undue emotion we invest in the future of our local sports clubs. Even in these small, silly settings, we find the common bonds that link us together, give us comfort, and help us find the optimism to carry on. It is in that spirit that I advocate for a proletarian patriotism in the building of socialism in the United States.
Those bonds that hold us together are, for better or worse, forged in our common identity as proletarians and as members of the social and cultural unit that is the United States, and from them the US socialist movement can derive strength and unity.