The embrace of American patriotism, what some are calling “proletarian patriotism” within online circles, is yet another attempt to rebrand American nationalism. It is similar in character but different in form to the ongoing effort to rebrand the two-party system through the development of a “socialist” bloc within the Democratic Party’s corporate jaws. Ideology is rendered an abstraction in each case rather than a reflection of the material conditions of society. The Democratic Party is a capitalist-owned party and therefore cannot but serve the interests of the capitalist class. American patriotism is an outgrowth of the U.S.’s peculiar form of imperialism and therefore cannot be divorced from its reactionary nationalist and racist roots.
Analyzing ideology from its materialist origins is a major component of the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism and is relevant not just to patriotism but any concept. In answering socialists who decried the concept of “authority,” Friedrich Engels stated such activists “think that when they have changed the names of things they have changed the things themselves.” Engels goes on to explain that material conditions define how authority, or the imposition of one’s will upon others, is expressed in the real world. To give an example, the state under capitalism enforces the authority of the capitalist class vis-à-vis the state. Under socialism, Engels says, the state remains a mechanism of suppression but this time to enforce the authority of the working class over the capitalist.
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. Socialist patriots assert that their patriotism means love “for one’s own people” and specify that they celebrate the resistance of the workers as the primary expression of the ideology. Some who ascribe to this tendency do not deny that patriotism in the United States emerged from a bourgeois society whose origins rest in slavery, genocide, and white supremacy—all of which remain significant to the United States’ current stage of development. However, socialist patriots claim that the material basis of American patriotism in bourgeois nationalism is secondary to their schema of the ideology.
The brutally racist conditions that have been justified in the name of American patriotism cannot simply be pushed into the background
Such a claim is an affront to dialectical materialism. Racism and imperialism cannot be denounced on the one hand while their ideological expression, American patriotism, is embraced on the other. American patriotism has always been the property of the U.S. ruling class. How Ho Chi Minh, Vladimir Lenin, or any other revolutionary leveraged patriotic sentiment in the U.S. does not change its fundamental character. Ho Chi Minh spoke in admiration of the U.S.’s founding principles upon the declaration of an independent Vietnam in 1945 not because he was a firm supporter of American patriotism but because he understood that an opportunity has arisen to leverage the U.S.’s competition with France over colonial possessions during World War II for the benefit of the national liberation movement. The same goes for Lenin’s appeal to Great Russians to oppose the Tsar and Russia’s imperialist participation in the First World War.
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. Patriotism denoted a different meaning within the colonial and semi-feudal contexts of Vietnam and imperial Russia (what would become the USSR). Lenin’s impression on Ho Chi Minh led the Vietnamese revolutionary to declare that “only socialism and communism can liberate the oppressed nations and the working people throughout the world from slavery” (emphasis my own). Patriotism in Vietnam was an expression of revolutionary nationalism—the project of liberating the nation from the brutal oppression and exploitation of the European and Japanese colonial project. In pre-revolutionary Russia, national liberation and “patriotism” meant developing the requisite unity among several nationalities to overthrow the (still underdeveloped) capitalist state while respecting the right to self-determination for oppressed nationalities who suffered most under bourgeois rule.
It should come as no surprise, then, that both Ho Chi Minh and Lenin were devout internationalists whose works were applied with greatest effectiveness in non-white, colonized nations often referred to as the underdeveloped world. Inspiration from Lenin and Uncle Ho’s legacy also extended into the West where communists of all races have spent more than a century fighting for socialism in the citadels of the imperialist orbit. But Lenin provided specific guidance to revolutionaries around the National Question that remains relevant in the present moment. In his work on socialism and self-determination , Lenin explains that
The proletariat of the oppressor nations…cannot remain silent on the frontiers of a state founded upon national oppression; a question so ‘unpleasant’ for the imperialist bourgeoisie. The proletariat must struggle against the enforced retention of oppressed nations within the bounds of the given state, which means they must fight for self-determination. The proletariat must demand freedom of political separation for the colonies and nations oppressed by ‘their own’ nation. Otherwise, the internationalism of the proletariat would be nothing but empty words…
American patriotism is by definition bourgeois nationalism from the vantage point of U.S. capitalist development and its particular form of national oppression. The so-called “culture” of the United States is a byproduct of colonialism and empire. The American flag, for example, connotes freedom for the capitalist oppressor and the boundaries of settler colonialism and exploitation for oppressed nations. This includes Black people and Indigenous people, who by Lenin’s analysis of the National Question comprise of oppression nations within the United States. While anyone can subjectively redefine American patriotism for the presumed purpose of winning over “American” workers, the principal contradiction of American “nation-building” is empire, war, racism, and genocide. The brutally racist conditions that have been justified in the name of American patriotism cannot simply be pushed into the background so that a new, more comforting definition can come to the foreground. To do so is an act of revisionism.
Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge the material conditions which have given rise to the attempt to rebrand American patriotism for the purposes of class struggle. Donald Trump’s success with so-called working class white Americans and the Democratic Party’s role in the U.S.’s Race to the Bottom austerity regime has much to do with the rise of “America First” attitudes. The Democratic Party has neutralized the Left and steered numerous movements, including the movement for Black self-determination, into its massive political graveyard. A political vacuum has emerged from the decay of U.S. imperialism which is characterized by a wholesale bandying of ideas within a context of reaction. Without leadership, some leftists have become infatuated with a nostalgia for the past. This has led to distortions such as believing that working class victories achieved during the labor struggles of the early 20th century are a reflection of the true greatness of “America” and therefore form the basis of “real American patriotism.”
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. The problems with this formulation are numerous. First, the United States was never great (hardly controversial). Second, there is no singular “American” working class as the United States is a prison house of nations. Third, no material basis exists for drawing a direct association between movements against oppression with the oppressor nation that produces such movements prior to revolutionary victory. Any subsumption of the broad mass of workers under the banner of patriotism is a subjective decision driven by emotions that are rooted in loyalty to American exceptionalism.
The first duty of the revolutionary is to tell the truth. The truth is that class unity will not be achieved by “loving America”, a settler colony and an imperialist empire, but through the development of class solidarity around concrete issues that sharpen the contradiction between the oppressed and the bourgeoisie. Patriotism does not provide guidance for how to secure self-determination for oppressed nations, food for hungry people, living wages for the mass of workers, or address any other class question. In fact, American patriotism is the ideological entry point for all forms of U.S.-imposed oppression due to its usefulness to the ruling class project of disguising the imperatives of capital under the unifying banner of the "nation."
A new culture, a revolutionary culture, arises from struggle. The works of Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, and countless other revolutionary leaders of the anti-colonial and socialist movement make this point clearly. Cabral explains that
…the liberation struggle must bring diverse interests into harmony, resolve contradictions and define common objectives in the search for liberty and progress. The taking to heart of its objectives by large strata in the population, reflected in their determination in the face of difficulties and sacrifices, is a great political and moral victory. It is also a cultural achievement of decisive importance for the subsequent development and success of the liberation movement. The greater the differences between the culture of the dominated people and the culture of their oppressor, the more possible such a victory becomes.
Of course, the United States is not an oppressed nation like Guinea Bissau or Cape Verde but an empire in decline. What we can learn from Cabral, however, is that the backward ideas embraced by the masses can only be resolved in the practice of struggle. That said, the embrace of American patriotism has divorced the ideology from its objective historical context. Frank Chapman notes in his work Marxist-Leninist Perspectives on Black Liberation and Socialism that this error became increasingly significant following the demise of the First International, a phenomenon that gave rise to the rightist tendency to look upon Black people as merely members of the working class while subordinating racial oppression and Jim Crow fascist rule to problems of the working class as a whole.This pattern was corrected by the Third International under Lenin’s leadership when the influence of the historic struggle of Black people themselves as a nation within a nation made Black self-determination a key programmatic priority of the world socialist movement.
It appears that the so-called “American” Left is in another need of a course correction. American patriotism is not merely a bourgeois deviation but a distraction from the task at hand. Class unity among the workers is achieved only through concrete struggle around common interests. American patriotism has zero utility in this regard. White communists and communists within oppressor countries should focus on applying the National Question and Lenin’s work on self-determination to the current period. The Black Lives Matter movement and a renewed interest in the word “socialism” in the United States indicate that more white Americans on the left are willing to engage in united class struggle with respect to the National Question.
Still, ideological battles over the utility of American patriotism reveal how the primacy of Yankee ideology continues to place barriers in front of the class struggle in the United States. Black revolutionary and prison movement leader George Jackson often discussed the relevance of these barriers to the challenge of uniting prisoners of all races around the common goal of improving living conditions behind the walls of the prison. He left us with the following words to reflect upon, “I'm always telling the brothers some of those whites are willing to work with us against the pigs. All they got to do is stop talking honky.”