Recently, a new ideological tendency has tried to gain inroads among the U.S. left. Calling themselves “Patriotic Socialists” and gathering mainly online around a handful of Twitch streamers and YouTubers, this small but irritating tendency has made themselves the frequent subject of leftist discourse. They are defined by an insistence that one must be an American patriot to be a communist, and argue that to be in any way critical of American patriotism is to be somehow “anti-proletarian.”
Despite their frequent streams and posts, this trend is not especially strong or influential, not in terms of actual organization of masses or attempts to penetrate the existing organized left. Indeed, the “Patsocs” are mainly known through social media where they are regularly mocked and ridiculed by rival leftists of diverse ideological commitments, and themselves mainly repeat the mantra that you need to be patriotic to reach “ordinary people”.
Of course we can say here that many people who are not organizationally or intellectually committed to Marxism or socialism as such, “ordinary people” so to speak, are already very critical of US patriotism. Conversely, even the less advanced sections of the masses are to be organized and indoctrinated by Marxists in order to change, develop, and advance. Our aim is to make them more revolutionary, and for reasons that don’t need repeating to almost everyone reading this, the retrograde politics of the US “Patriotic Socialists” are not the direction we need to go.
When even the arch-opportunist CPUSA can take a firm line against you for being chauvinistic and pro-state, clearly you are beyond the pale of the left.
Why discuss them then? Certainly not to engage them in debate: they are basically an in-group cult that repeats the same vague truisms ad nauseum and are developing a Trump-esque worldview where complex conspiracies allow the reactionary things they support and cheerlead to somehow serve a grand plan that will somehow bring “socialism” to the US. I personally advocate that they be blocked and ignored, unless you happen to have a real social connection to some unfortunate soul who is partially in their orbit.
I had initially not wanted to see them discussed further myself, but I did find some weakness in much of the responses by well-intentioned leftists to the “Patriotic Socialists”, principally focusing on the name as a problem, either in and of itself or due to its similarity to “National Socialists”. The basic issue I take with this critique is that, while it is true that socialism is its own goal over and above nationalism and patriotism which are often impediments to that goal, this focus on the name both buries the real problems for the application of the name in context, on the one hand, and the ways in which similar terminology, in other contexts, is significantly less problematic. I will deal with these separately and in brief.
Why Can’t the Stars and Stripes be Socialist?
The legacy of the US “Revolution” is, to put it mildly, controversial among leftists. There is a history, strongly appropriated by the “Patriotic Socialists” themselves, of progressives and revolutionaries around the world upholding the legacy of George Washington as a fighter against British imperialist tyranny, which I consider we should be suspicious of. But I wish to briefly put aside the question of 1776 itself for the very simple reason that even the most generous appraisal of this “revolution” does not connect well to the reality of the obstacles revolutionary socialism in the US faces today.
1) Patriotism for the US is Genocide Apologetics
Of course, as a settler colony at birth, there is a way in which this discussion cannot but touch on the fact that prior to 1776, the population of the colonies that would become the US were benefiting from an ongoing project whose basic logic trended towards genocide and it was more or less historically inevitable that this process accelerate after 1776. In a sense, we see this in Canada where, comparisons of who was worse aside, there is a general consensus among the left internationally that Canada is guilty of genocide against the Indigenous population there.
This is not just about a lack of apology or recognition: the symbolism of both flags, the legacy of both states, is that of the act of deporting, murdering, abusing, insulting, exploiting, in all ways oppressing the Indigenous population (to say nothing of the Afro-American people and other non-Indigenous groups that have been oppressed “at home”, or of the considerable legacy of genocide and oppression by US imperialism around the world). To say that we stand against the order of capital is to say we stand against its crimes; to say that we stand for a new socialist order means to defend the victims of class society.
The borders drawn on top of the oppressed peoples of this continent, the acts of cultural and physical genocide carried out against them time and again, all of these must be confronted because it should be the core of what we believe, and also as a means of achieving real unity of all poor and oppressed to overturn the order which impoverishes and oppresses them. This cannot be done for any Indigenous person by claiming the legacy of the United States, which immediately set about increasing the ferocity and rate of anti-Indigenous genocide after its independence from Britain, where patriotic heroes, with very few exceptions, are themselves genocidaires, where the state and its laws were all drawn up as a means of dispossessing the Indigenous.
It may well be the case that there are large sections of the unorganized masses out there who cannot face these facts in the first instance but in the final instance can become revolutionary socialists. But it is certainly the case that an organization which does not take a bare minimum of criticism of the ideology and state responsible for these crimes cannot educate them to make them such.
2) The Incoherence of Ignoring the State for “America”
I worry here that I am about to write the opposite of a “straw person” argument, a “steel person”, if you will. If I am honest, I do not think I have seen any US “Patriotic Socialists” approach the national question or US history with the requisite sophistication of argument to assume they understand the categories of “nation” and “state” and “country” as separate but intersecting, and therefore feel I am giving them too much credit with what I am about to write. None the less: what would it mean to try to separate out the idea of “country” from “state” in the case of the United States?
A nation, as we know, “is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture”. A nation is therefore a population, which has a geography, but not necessarily a State. A particularly nuanced “Patriotic Socialist” might claim that they oppose the US state, but stand for the country of “America” and appropriate “American symbols” for the “American people” who are fighting to liberate their country from the capitalist and imperialist state which occupies it as present.
In some sense, we should say that this idea seems unobjectionable on its surface. Ignore for a moment the correct view of the national question that the United States is a multinational state with several oppressed nations under one oppressor nation, which has already been raised above, and elsewhere, including by me, and including on this site. So, can we square that circle? Can we even hypothetically imagine a left-wing Yankee patriotism that encompasses the settlers of the US defending “America” (including the aforementioned oppressed peoples) from the US?
The answer is no: even if there were no national question or the national question were somehow incorporated into the ideology of a successful group espousing “American Patriotism”, we have a real problem of territory on our hands: if “America” is the territory where “Americans” (Yankee settlers) live, this makes Alaska arbitrarily part of America but British Columbia not. There does not seem to be any overlap between Alaskan independence and US “Patriotic Socialism”, and it’s difficult to imagine there ever will be. Conversely, given the cultural commonalities between English Canadians and Yankees, one wonders why Canada is even excluded in the first place. And of course this raises the question of why they do not simply embrace pan-Americanism, except for chauvinism, which as already acknowledged, is actually inextricably a part of the “Patriotic Socialist” worldview.
And at any rate, if this nebulous territory of “America” is what is being patriotically defended against capitalists and imperialists, surely the “Patriotic Socialists” should be staunch defenders of Hawai’ian sovereignty, or at least against Hawai’ian membership in their movement on geographic grounds? I could continue listing examples and hypotheticals, but the point is that while it’s absolutely true that these “Patriotic Socialists” ignore the national question’s full importance, the bigger issue here is that their patriotism makes no serious attempt to account for language, culture, history, or geography even of settlers: so long as they identify with the Stars and Stripes and US “America”, their worldview simply is and necessarily must be a patriotism of the state itself.
Should Socialists be Patriotic?
So having established that there are particular issues to a US or “American” patriotism, does that mean that my argument is that other forms of patriotism, which lack these qualities, or which specifically center the “homelands” of the oppressed, are “good”? No, in the final instance the idea of the country and the nation and borders are all limiting, and thus we cannot say that these are in a first instance in and of themselves simply “good”. Nonetheless, I would caution against the idea of reading into every articulation of “patriotism” and “nationalism” by any group the same level of covert reaction implicit in the US patriotism of the “Patriotic Socialists”.
The Palestinian socialist movement was born out of splits in what was known as the Arab Nationalist Movement. The various Palestinian socialist parties have all more or less spoken of a desire to liberate a Palestinian homeland in patriotic terms. Simply because this rhetoric will not deliver us the ultimate goal of a borderless world does not mean it is not in some sense progressive, just as the movements to liberate Vietnam from colonial rule (by France and the US) or for that matter, the 19th century nationalist movements of Ireland or Armenia. Almost nobody who stands against the oppression of these peoples would suggest that any reference to patriotism or national liberation diametrically opposed to socialist organizing, and in fact few would even suggest that overt nationalism of oppressed peoples cannot be left-wing, in a conjectural and limited way. The problem is not the words “patriotic” or “national”, even if they carry problems in them, the problem with the “Patriotic Socialists” is what social relations are actually referred to in context.
Conclusion: White Settler Nations and Homelands
I hope that this piece has somewhat brought into focus the sort of questions we should be asking about social dynamics to undermine and overcome the appeal of opportunist trends like the US “Patriotic Socialists”. One related question which I feel this brings up is the question of what sort of future revolutionary socialists specifically imagine or advocate for the dominant national groups of the US and Canada, generally known by such names as “Yankees” “English Canadians” “white Anglos” etc.
Since as revolutionary socialists, our primary concern is unity of the oppressed in struggle against the oppressor, we cannot accept any self-conception of white settler identity which defends its own privileges over the colonized and oppressed peoples, and therefore must teach the exploited classes among white settler society in particular the principle and value of achieving some sort of historic justice on behalf of the oppressed. This accordingly means, first and foremost, that the United States was built on top of the violated land rights (violated even according to the treaties forced upon Indigenous nationalities by colonial conquest and law) of other peoples.
Accordingly, the fight for revolution means a fight for an order where, instead of “white America” declaring almost all the land its own and allowing some meager territory for the Indigenous only to snatch it later when it becomes profitable, white settler society is forced to negotiate for a fair share of territory and must accept truly equal rights for the Indigenous peoples in particular who have been so ruthlessly conquered and subject to genocide. This means a bare minimum of sincere discussion with Indigenous revolutionaries as equals and partners in struggle from the beneficiaries of genocide against them. This is a price of admission which Black revolutionaries–whose hands are not thus sullied with Indigenous blood–have already accepted to pay through humble engagement in historical and strategic discussions with their Indigenous counterparts. Why can white socialists not be expected to do the same?
Mostly because this means that white settler society will have to reconceive of its national history and culture, its territory, in light of sharing a continent with historical victims of the harshest national oppression, including genocide. It not only means a rejection of “Stars and Stripes” US patriotism, it means conceiving of “Yankee” space for example in much more constrained terms, squeezing itself in between the spaces that must be carved out to allow for the surviving Indigenous peoples to reassert their historical rights on their own land.
It also, importantly, means that rather than relying on the state to write the history and cultural values of their own people, white settlers would be able to reconsider who they were and where they fit into history: perhaps they actually feel that a liberated post-capitalist future would not mean integrating themselves into socialist construction on Turtle Island, but a return to a homeland in Eurasia, as may be the case for some Irish-American revolutionaries.
Even on this continent: does their history and culture here actually reflect a particular region over and above any shared “settler” experience? It is often noted that Appalachian culture has more historical and cultural features in common with a nation as historically developing and potentially subjective social form than does US “patriotism”. This means understanding their homelands, smaller though they may be, and still in need of negotiation and compromise with the colonized nationalities, as something they could conceivably want to liberate while still holding revolutionary and universalizing values, rather than pseudo-radical reformist and particular values.
And it is to be noted, as alluded to above, that one of the downfalls of allowing the state to define identity against the history and lived culture of the masses, even of oppressor identities, lies in the arbitrariness of borders: certain settler peoples, such as the Acadians, live on both sides of the US/Canadian border. The English Canadian culture and identity resemble, in all their good and their bad, their southern cousins. The reckoning which white settler society in Canada has to do with their history likewise resembles that of the “Yankee” people in the United States.
If white settler leftists seek a cultural identity and history on this continent, but also desire liberation from the state and its oppression, they must write it in struggle. They must sacrifice their apartheid privileges over the colonized and racialized “other” and build new people out of themselves for a new world. But in learning to live with the “other”, they will also find a more complete version of themselves.
The old settler-colonial history must be replaced by a new history of immigrant strugglers, fighting alongside the Indigenous and colonized. The ludicrous fantasy history of slave-owning European freedom fighters driving their red-coated cousins off of on an empty continent so they could march off and do away with the “Indians” as cowboys for thousands of miles west, must be replaced by genuine historical-cultural conversations through and with other peoples. The ruler-straight colonial borders must be replaced by complex networks of solidarity of all peoples, the tunnels of an ant colony built beneath the rotten machine called the state and waiting to burst through it into the sunlight.
The nation, the country, and the state, are historically conditioned forms. In the final instance, we do not wish to live in a world with any of them. But for settler-colonial cultures in this geography, the first task to reaching such a world is to allow for the real possibility of a multiplicity of nations and countries and a state-like apparatus so democratic and federal as to allow the “other” to develop within their own national context, and only then will all peoples be able to march, as equals, towards that bright future of liberated humanity.