In Defense of U.S. Proletarian Patriotism: A comradely response to Danny Haiphong’s “Marxist” Polemic on Patriotic Socialism. By: Kayla PopuchetRead Now
As children raised in the United States of America, we were expected every morning to recite the pledge of allegiance to our country. In grade school, we were taught that our first president, George Washington, had teeth made of wood; that Thanksgiving found its origins in Natives and pilgrims coming together to feast and celebrate one another; that our country is the best and freest country on the planet. God. Bless. America.
Naturally, as we transcend the fabrications of bourgeois propaganda, we develop a critical analysis of the history of our country and everything we were taught. We come to the logical conclusion that our country is not the best, it is not free, and its sins are far too deep and vast that even God Himself could not forgive. And with that, we grow a visceral, instinctive reaction to the idea of U.S. patriotism, or rather bourgeois nationalism in the guise of patriotism. Bourgeois nationalism as an institution in the U.S. is seen through loyalty to the U.S. government, first and foremost; it is loyalty to the troops, loyalty to the police but it is never loyalty to your neighbors or coworkers. This by definition is not patriotism, this is nationalism. This has nothing to do with the people of the United States but everything to do with the United States government.
Many on the anti-patriotic left raise their qualms with the growing discussions of patriotism in the communist movement, citing red herrings such as bourgeois nationalism, imperialism and the history of colonialism to encapsulate why the United States is uniquely incapable of reconciliation - why socialist principles used in imperial and settler colonial countries of the 20th century are incapable of practice in the United States. This critique is reminiscent of Jay Lovestone’s argument regarding capitalism in the U.S. to which led to the phrase coined by Stalin ‘American Exceptionalism’. Often these days, we use this term to describe the imperialist class and their double standards of law and democracy, but lest we forget this term found its birth against a faction in the Communist Party USA who thought the United States was too exceptional of a case for basic communist principles to be applied to. I fear the anti-patriotic left mirrors this error.
In his short piece “On American Patriotism: A Marxist Polemic” (1), journalist Danny Haiphong condenses the multitude of criticisms of U.S. patriotism many on the left have into a well-thought out and digestible piece. While I respect the author and can even see where his logic follows and intent lies, I must highlight how fundamentally his analysis, and that of the anti-patriotic left, is deeply flawed.
To open with the heart and soul of his piece, Haiphong uses a photo of a mural in Iran which depicts the U.S. flag with bombs falling down, titled “Down with the USA”. Iran’s leaders have continuously made it clear that popular chants such as “Death to America” apply solely to the U.S. government and not the working masses. Regardless, this is a poor tactic when applied within the United States, where the masses largely have not yet detached from the iconography of the bourgeois flag. There is this theme in the U.S. anti-imperialist movement, one that takes the tactics and sentiments of imperialized countries and makes it their own. The reality is, the Ayatollah and other imperialized nations’ main objective is defending themselves from the imperialism our government unleashes, but our main objective as anti-imperialists in the heart of the empire is to attack the beast. While the proletariat internationally carries the same interests and goals, we cannot have the same tactics for how we fight imperialism as our conditions are different. We can fully appreciate the Iranian and third world resistance, but let us not cosplay as though we are living their conditions, let us not forget that our routes to the same destination are different paths molded by our varying conditions.
When entering a formal debate, at its inception the affirmative must set the definitions of the topic. It is for the negative to accept or provide a counter definition, but we cannot continue a debate if we cannot settle the most basic definition of what we are debating. Haiphong writes “Similarly, the concept of patriotism holds a definitive meaning in the context of the United States which is not fundamentally transformed by placing “socialist” or “proletarian” in front of it”, and goes on to claim that those who defend patriotic socialism are attempting to revise basic definitions. But the fact of the matter is, we know for certainty the ruling class lies to further their own agenda, and what Haiphong and the ruling class call patriotism is none other than nationalism.
Haiphong even admits he equates the ruling class’s nationalism to patriotism as he writes “American patriotism is by definition bourgeois nationalism from the vantage point of U.S. capitalist development and its particular form of national oppression.” In fact, patriotism and nationalism do have different meanings, the former (2) places its loyalty to the people of the country and the latter (3) emphasizes loyalty to the state. Therefore, by definition, U.S. proletarian patriotism is at direct odds with bourgeois nationalism. How can we even suggest that bourgeois nationalism, a nationalism that takes our taxpayer money to fund the pentagon (4); to destabilize (5) the nations of other works; to sacrifice our youth to for-profit (6) wars; a nationalism that deprives the U.S. people of housing security (7); that intentionally under-educates (8) its people; that leaves its roads to crumble demonstrating pure disdain for its own working class, to call all this patriotism? The ruling class are not patriots and we would be remiss to award them with the soul of the U.S. nation, this belongs to the working class only.
And now that we have established terms, perhaps one can argue that due to deep propaganda, patriotism as a term is beyond salvation. Well, because conservatives say that socialism is all about critical race theory, vaccinations, and ANTIFA, does that necessarily mean we stop correcting the masses of what socialism is and abandon socialism as a term? Do we abandon using communism because reactionaries and the ruling class paint the image of citizens in prison uniforms working in grey factories, desperate for “western freedom”? Of course we don’t abandon these terms, we correct and defend them!
Certainly we must address the claims of American (U.S.) exceptionalism. As aforementioned, the origins of this term derives from a faction within the Communist Party USA, led by Jay Lovestone, who turned his back on the principles of Leninism as he thought the material conditions of the U.S. were exceptional to that of other countries, that U.S. workers wouldn’t seek revolution (9). When we speak of U.S. proletarian patriotism, we're met with similar arguments: “the U.S. is a settler colonial state” or “U.S. imperialism has seen heights never before in history making it unique from other empires before it”. It is a 21st Century explanation for why the U.S. is too exceptional for basic communist principles. These are the 21st Century American Exceptionalists. But let’s examine this further.
Yes, it is true that part of the U.S. history is slavery, genocide, and apartheid, this is undeniable. Yet it is also true that the history of the United States cannot be reduced to its sins just as it cannot be reduced to its glories. As Marx writes “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”(10) Put simply, the United States, as every country, is not a product of genocide and slavery, nor is it a product of freedom and liberty, it is a product of class antagonisms and struggle, in this regard it is not exceptional.
But the history of the Americas and its development is distinct from others. The history of almost all the nation states in the Americas is one that has traversed a similar colonial stage of development. But with the exception of the U.S. and Canada, patriotism is applauded in the Americas for the idea of celebrating the underdog, once again the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Can we see a contrast between the Chilean nationalist who looks down on his Bolivian and Peruvian neighbors and lynches Venezuelan migrants to the Chilean Patriot who fights against the old state in bed with European and North American imperialists; the patriot who defends the revolutionary aspects of his country’s history; who works for plurinationality in his new constitution; who rejects the Chilean nationalist. Perhaps we can see a difference between the Dominican nationalist who rounds up his buddies for pogroms against Haitian migrants; who promotes the execution of leftists to the Dominican patriot who honors his country’s revolutionary history; who stands against the national bourgeoisie of his country; who fights for a better Dominican Republic.
The history of colonialism and slavery does not stain patriotism in Latin America, it doesn’t stain it for those who are ignorant of Latin American history; who romanticize the bourgeois governments and pretend they too don’t engage in anti-Blackness and Native genocide. Not even 40 years ago were their genocides and sterilizations of Native people in Peru (11) and Guatemala (12), and in Bolivia (13) just in 2019 after the neoliberal coup. Of course the United States is the most deadly empire known to history, however Marxist-Leninist principles prevail nonetheless
But how is patriotism part of Marxist-Leninist principles? Does proletarian patriotism parallel Marxism-Leninism? Despite Haiphong referring to proletarian patriotism as an ideology, patriotism is merely a tool, not an ideology in and of itself. Was the political ideology in the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, Vietnam, the GDR socialist patriotism or was it Marxism-Leninism? Did they not use patriotism as a tool to define the soul of their nation and invigorate the masses to a revolutionary project? Much like the ruling class in the West uses nationalism to define the nation and push them to reactionary projects.
So how does patriotism work as a tool of Marxism-Leninism? In Soviet historian Otto Wilhelm Kuusinen’s Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism, he writes “Bourgeois propaganda tries to represent the capitalist class as the bearer of patriotic feelings”, a point to which Haiphong falls trap to. He goes on to write “by overthrowing the rule of the exploding classes the working class creates the conditions for the full as possible manifestation of its patriotism for it itself is the true bear of patriotism in our time”, (14) the very point that subscribers of proletarian patriotism make. Too many anti-imperialists seem to only view the world in teams of oppressor vs. oppressed, the oppressor and all her people are ridden with sin while the oppressed can do no wrong, this is not a dialectical understanding. We must not support patriotism in third world nations solely because of their positions in the global economy, but rather celebrate their achievements and struggle for the liberation of their class. Likewise, the patriotism in the first world nations does not manifest as national chauvinism and loyalty to our oppressors, but understands that their position of power is a hindrance to our lives.
Therefore, when Haiphong writes “both Ho Chi Minh and Vladimir Lenin, however, were very clear in distinguishing between bourgeois nationalism and revolutionary nationalism rooted in the struggle for self-determination of oppressed nations,” this doesn’t ring so clear in the texts of both of these revolutionaries. Haiphong even goes so far as to suggest that Ho Chi Minh only spoke fondly of U.S. working class history to win sympathy, a baseless supposition formulated to support his conclusion rather than generated through scientific inquiry. In fact much of the evidence Haiphong uses does little to denounce patriotism in oppressor nations than it does to emphasize that the workers of the oppressor nation must be staunch against the imperialism of their government. We agree! Imperialism is in the interests of the ruling class, interests which are contradictory to those of the working class, including the proletariats of imperialist countries.
The anti-patriotic left ignores that Russia, like the United States, at the time of its socialist revolution was a colonial empire itself, the country for which the term ‘prison house of nations’ (15) was coined for! Yet Lenin himself wrote, about the prison house of nations that was Tsarist Russia “Is a sense of national pride alien to us, Great-Russian class-conscious proletarians? Certainly not! We love our language and our country, and we are doing our very utmost to raise her toiling masses to the level of a democratic and socialist consciousness. To us it is most painful to see and feel the outrages, the oppression and the humiliation our fair country suffers at the hands of the tsar’s butchers, the nobles and the capitalists” (16). While the Tsar sent his peasants to imperial conquests in Asia and Europe, plundering the lives of workers and peasants domestically, Lenin nonetheless makes a clear distinction that the chauvinism of the Great-Russian perpetuated by the Tsar is at odds with the national pride of the socialist Great-Russians.
But despite that proletarian patriotism saw success in every socialist revolution to date, there are those who argue not only is the U.S. an exception but that it has already been tested and failed, citing Browderism. Browderism refers to the mid to post-WWII period of the Communist Party USA, led by Earl Browder, which sought class collaborationism under the banner of Americanism to fight against the global fascist movement (17). That is to say the tactic of the CPUSA under Browder sought to unite the classes in the United States under a broad front, in fact contrasting from William Z. Foster’s leadership which put class struggle against the bourgeoisie at the forefront. Browderism was liquidationism, taking the CPUSA out of its position as the vanguard party, an entirely different practice than proletarian patriotism. Where one calls for turning away from Marxism-Leninism, the other calls to bring Marxism-Leninism to the workers. Proletarian patriots do not call for collaboration with the bourgeoisie, quite the opposite, and to conflate patriotism among communists to Browderism is a willful manipulation.
But lastly, and most egregiously, the greatest claim that Haiphong’s piece commits is its attempt to equate proletarian patriotism with the vile, chauvinist principles found in Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Haiphong writes “In other words, if we simply remember and apply the greatness of the “American” working class, then the United States can be made great again.” This is completely unfair and wholly not the message of proletarian patriotism. In remembering the strength, victories, and legacy of the U.S. working class, we remember that this was in action against the U.S. government, that the history of the U.S., as with all countries, is one of class struggle. The U.S. state in its entire existence has been dominated by the oppressor class, therefore the state has always been in direct opposition to the masses.
However, the anti-patriotic left incessantly implicates the crimes of the U.S. ruling class onto the hundreds of millions of working people in this country. But not only that, in return also takes from the workers their progressive history. It is because Haiphong concedes and accepts the ruling class’s portrayal of patriotism, one specifically used to mislead U.S. workers, that he is rendered unable to see how socialist patriots see their patriotism as one in line with the working class struggle and vehemently opposed to imperialist crimes.
The U.S. faces an identity crisis, one that either the left or the right will define in the coming years. Both the Synthetic Left and the far-right agree that the face of the U.S. is a white supremacist, reactionary and anti-Marxist nation, when it is the state, the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The soul and future of the United States does not belong to the ruling class. Their sins, their crimes, their interests have always been and continue to be in direct contradiction with the working class, the masses, in the United States. A proletarian patriot who defends the very state that is hostile to his class, that would readily kill him for his ideas, who supports the tools of the state that carry out the agenda of the ruling class to oppress his class, cannot call themself a socialist or a patriot.
To be a patriot does not need to be realized through caricatures, but simply a devotion to your people and building a progressive future for them. We have seen the socialist government of Venezuela has reclaimed Simon Bolivar as a historical and integral figure of their history for fighting for their liberation from the Spanish crown, despite being of the bourgeoisie and aiming to build capitalism in South America. Likewise the Cubans have reclaimed Jose Marti who fought for their betterment, despite not being a communist. In the United States, we are rich with our own progressive proletarian history to be used to redefine and claim the soul of the nation we strive to be, a socialist and truly free nation. It is the working class of all nations that will bring about socialism and the defeat of the imperialists, this inherently includes the U.S. working class and all her peoples.
* Clarification note from the author (December 07, 2021):
I must clarify, there is no intention to subvert the role or erase the impact of colonialism as the basis to modern class society. Of course not, all the previous modes of production became the basis upon which enters the new mode of production. As Marx writes how capitalism will bring about socialism, colonialism brought out the emergence of capitalism. We still see these effects in our modern society in the Americas, not just the U.S. Even as late as the 60s, Peru was still considered a semi-feudal society, today Natives continue to fight for their land which had been sold off to international corporations, where in the U.S. battles such as those of Standing Rock and Mauna Kea continue to be had; where Black Americans, though a marginal percentage of the population, are over represented in the prison population, we understand these as holdovers of colonialism upheld by the class war of the bourgeoisie against the working and poor.
However, the primary contradiction existing in the United States today, in 2021, is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, both of which are multinational and multi-ethnic. Is this to say that colonialism is no longer seen in today's society? No. Is this to say that colonialism had no effect on U.S. history? Also no. We must view the history of the United States dialectically. It is not solely out of genocide of Natives that makes the U.S. the country it is today, but also Native resistance to colonization. Slavery is not the only factor of U.S. history, but the abolitionist movement as well; it is a product of where capitalist exploitation met the vigorous labor movement of the 1930s. The constant contradictions, which is the class struggle, have made the United States what it is today. Not just the legacy of the oppressor nor just the legacy of the oppressed, but their constant battles, that is what the United States and all countries are a product of. Class antagonisms.
If we ever hope to successfully beat the growing far-right from winning the masses of this country, we need to meet them where they are at, not five steps ahead. But we will not leave them where we found them. This is not about a flag, symbols, this is about the workers of this country. We can use patriotism as a tool to show the workers their true enemy is not of another nationality, but of another class who betrays their own nationality. It is irrelevant to pose as the most radical online if you don't seek to find strategies to win, and I hope we all want to win.