Tim Russo’s article “Socialism worldwide needs American patriotism” contains certain contradictions. He writes that the repudiation of American patriotism is built on the “complete erasure of American socialism’s leaders, thinkers, writers, artists, organizers, agitators, even freers of slaves”. Without the remembrance of this history of radicalism, he remarks, “you have no movement, no mass line, no cultural hegemonic change, no revolution, nothing.” While Russo shows admirable acquaintance with the historico-cultural specificities of USA’s socialist tradition, he fails to theorize these details from the politico-strategic logic of hegemony.
In my previous write-up which Russo critiques, I noted, “While traditions of patriotic socialism are present in imperialist countries, they don’t constitute a proper historical memory to function as the full-fledged scaffold for a mass movement.” Let me elaborate this statement. A nation is not a mere idea, it is a material force; it is a historical, cultural and political process which is consciously lived and shared by a group of people who identify with a particular community of interests. In metropolitan countries, nationalism was originally used by the proto-bourgeoisie of the early modern age as an ideological tool against monarchic-aristocratic rule.
The growth of market production and the proliferation of exchange values (as opposed to pre-capitalist use-values) came in direct contradiction with the political domination of purely landed property and the existence of the Absolutist state. As a result, the nascent bourgeoisie adopted the banner of nationalism to press forward for the creation of spatial units wherein political power could be centralized and dispersed according to the demands and exigencies of the emerging capitalist system. In other words, the internal mechanisms of the market economy came to structure and constitute the bases of national identity in the core countries of the world system.
Metropolitan national ideologies coalesced around reactionary values in four phases: a) imperial chauvinism arose in the mercantilist period in those states wherein internal colonialism facilitated the state formation essential to independent capital accumulation; b) racial chauvinism arose in the classical capitalist period, which witnessed the functional preponderance of overseas and settler colonialisms in the extension of metropolitan industry; c) social chauvinism arose in the imperialist era, when the convergence of monopoly capitalism and colonialism enabled the distribution of super-profits amongst leading sections of the Global North working class; and d) First Worldism arose in post-WWII period, in which the oppression of the Third World allowed for the maintenance of divergent living standards between the metropolitan and peripheral working classes.
USA - as the imperial heartland - oversaw the tight interlocking of nationalist-patriotic discourses with conservative forces. This fundamentally impacted counter-hegemonic politics. By the 1940s, the label of “communist” in mainstream language came to embody the entirety of anti-Americanism, becoming one of the most powerful weapons to impose a dimension of otherness upon citizens. The red scare against radical labor organizers became a more political version of anti-immigrant rhetoric, associating the idea of foreignness with the revolutionary traditions of socialist groups. These anti-communist narratives continue to heavily circumscribe the field of nationalism in USA.
Taking into account American patriotism’s historical status as a social force determining political relations, it becomes evident that there are certain limits to the construction of counter-narratives that stress the working class’s role in a nation’s history. The nation is not a homogeneous and cohesive formation which provides an even and consensual cultural field provides for hegemonic struggle. In “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”, Paul Gilroy explains:
“Nationhood is not an empty receptacle which can be simply and spontaneously filled with alternative concepts according to the dictates of political pragmatism. The ideological theme of national belonging may be malleable to some extent but its links with the discourses of classes and ‘races’ and the organizational realities of these groups are not arbitrary. They are confined by historical and political factors which limit the extent to which nationalism becomes socialist at the moment that its litany is repeated by socialists. The intention may be radical but the effects are unpredictable, particularly where culture is also conceived within discrete, separable, national units coterminous with the boundaries of the nation state.”
Thus, a proper analysis of nationalism needs to highlight the question of the institutional locations from which the ideology originates; the actual class practices, concrete social sites and systems of hierarchical-conflictual relations in which it is instantiated, of the agents who produce it; the material circuits through which it travels the totality of any historical bloc and the class fractions who substantiate it with the structures of power; hence the objective determinations of nationalism itself by the co-ordinates of its production, not considering the individual’s personal stance towards this matrix.
Consequently, it does not matter how leftist patriots conceive of American nationalism; what matters is the fact that the presence of national pride within the boundaries of the American empire is strongly tied to the hegemonic logic of racist imperialism. In a metropolitan country like the US, the arena of the nation is dominated by the bourgeoisie which - from the start - gives patriotism an imperialist, exclusionary and supra-class character. In the Global South countries, in contrast, the foundations of anti-colonial nationalism - internationalist solidarity with movements for national liberation and the incorporation of both workers and peasants - continue to ensure the persistence of elements of progressivism in the ideological battle for nationalism.
Insofar that nationalism mirrors the motion of the contradictions between imperialism and oppressed nations on a world scale - in the dominant imperialist nations, the reactionary character of nationalism determines the overall shape of the movement; in the subordinate nations the revolutionary character is principal, propelling the anti-imperialist struggle - the American Left needs to move beyond the national discourse. Since the ruling class has established nationalism as a jingoistic instrument, left-wing patriotism can have deleterious effects, degenerating into demands for a more lucrative social contract between monopoly capital and the labour aristocracy. Thus, what we need is a genuine politics of anti-imperialism which remains committed to the abolition of the US in its present-day form as an illegitimate state built on imperialism, racism and native genocide.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.
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