How Should Socialists Approach Nationality? Part One

Amal Samaha

Part One
“Left” National Chauvinism

I have been inspired to write the following series by Christian Noakes’ short article “On the Problem of Red US Patriotism” which recently appeared in Peace, Land, and Bread. [1] I wanted to commend him for tackling this problem, but also to go further, and ask how socialists should approach nationalism in the 21st century? Out of what contradictions within the socialist movement has “red” US patriotism arisen? Will similar movements emerge across the world? Have they already done so? While many discussions of “red” patriotism have thus far centered on figures in the United States, I have seen similar ideas to “Red” patriotism expressed in Aotearoa, [2] and the phenomenon is worth investigating across borders. We share a settler-colonial context, and a marginal socialist movement split into sects, and so I am interested to see whether any of the ideas expressed here find resonance with US comrades. I am also interested in starting a dialogue on questions of nationalism within Peace, Land, and Bread, and strongly encourage replies to address the faults in this series. There is a problem inherent in viewing “red” patriotism as a phenomenon unique to the United States in recent years. [3] Nationalism has always been a uniquely international phenomenon, particularly sensitive to changes in the global economy. Surges in nationalist sentiment are rarely contained to one country—often they occur in great waves of national uprisings, and while each individual movement is responding to internal problems within their respective borders, the timing and overall character of the broader nationalist shift usually says something about changes in the world-economy, or in other words, the general form which imperialist relations take with each successive era. [4]

“Red” patriotism is quite clearly, even self-consciously, [5] a reaction to a global rise in indigenous and anticolonial nationalisms, especially within the settler-colonies. It is a reaction to movements for the return of land, for reparations, and for counter-sovereignty.

Crucially, “Red” patriotism is not the only reaction to this: it is just one part of a broader push from within progressive movements to distance leftism from forms of struggle which proponents see as distractions from core economic concerns. [6] In this worldview, indigeneity is another “false consciousness” [7] promoted by shady cultural elites as a sideshow for the workers within the settler-colonial nation, who would otherwise be united in organising to combat their true class enemies. Interestingly, a very similar argument is made by many antinationalists concerning both nationalism in the west, and various revolutionary nationalisms around the world. Nationalism to them is the king of “false consciousness,” a deep-seated irrational tribalism that distracts workers from their world-historic task of organising along international class lines, forming a global proletarian consciousness to fight for their shared economic concerns. Sub-state or counter-sovereign nationalisms are particularly insidious, as they serve to further divide an already hopelessly atomised global class. [8] In practice, “Red” patriotism is just one of many political forces opposed to indigenous and anticolonial nationalisms in the developed countries. What then might be gained by looking at these forces as one category? Perhaps by looking at both left-nationalism and left-antinationalism in the west, we can find a common point of origin for opposition to indigenous and anticolonial sub-state nationalisms.

“Left-Wing” Nationalism in the West

There are two broad kinds of national chauvinism on the left in most developed countries: those who say that all forms of nationalism can be expressed in a useful, progressive manner regardless of world-economic context, and those who say that all forms of nationalism are ultimately reactionary, regardless of world-economic context. From these two broad kinds, there are further subtypes worth discussing in-detail. We will start by looking at the first broad kind of national chauvinism.

In many countries it is common enough to find left-liberals who believe in a “left-wing patriotism.” Left-liberals and social-democrats will often respond to accusations by the right of being unpatriotic by saying: “of course we are patriotic, we believe in the betterment of our nation, but through welfare policies and other progressive means.” In saying this, the left-liberal hopes to prevent further accusations that they are subverting this or that aspect of state power or national identity. In this they usually fail, and are accused anyway, but the exchange is nonetheless revealing: many progressives have a genuine belief in “left-wing patriotism.”

Patriotism is—make no mistake—just nationalism by a different name, designed to appeal to a more educated, liberal strata.

To many, “patriotism” connotes a kind of progressive, non-interventionist, civic nationalism, [10] whereas “nationalism” carries with it images of ethnonationalism—of blood feuds, genocide, and balkanisation. While patriotism has different cultural connotations to English-speakers, it is identical in function to nationalism, and nationalism scholars do not meaningfully differentiate between the two.

Even if this patriotism is simply a kind of nationalism, this is not enough to denounce it: after all there are many genuinely progressive nationalisms in this world. But “progressive” patriotism in the west generally fails to investigate three fundamental assumptions:

  1. By saying that the progressive patriot seeks to “better” their country through progressive means, they fail to investigate whether the development of one area is possible without the relative immiseration of another. Since the 1950s, Marxist theorists of imperialism and economic geographers have demonstrated that mutually-beneficial development between rich and poor countries is largely an illusion, and that development is often a zero-sum game. [11] The primary mechanism by which developed nations have “bettered” themselves is through exploitation, and even progressive policies within rich countries can serve to deepen this divide if they are not matched by redistributive policies.[12]

  2. By referring to the betterment of their nation, progressive patriots treat the nation as a reified whole without investigating the role of classes, social strata, and political forces within. In other words, by talking of “national” betterment, they sidestep any discussion of internal class conflict or redistribution. A truly progressive project would instead benefit some classes, social strata, and political forces at the relative expense of others