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REBECCA LONG BAILEY’S call to “revive this progressive patriotism” (Guardian, December 29 2019) appeared to be greeted with horror by “Left Twitter.” While Long Bailey’s article did not expand further on what she meant by “progressive patriotism” or what policies would be guided by this slogan, it appeared to be the very word “patriotism” that was so shocking.
Social media was awash with a mixture of liberal disdain (mainly from those with EU flags in their Twitter handles – apparently, not all flag-waving is bad) and the typical ultra-leftist complaints about “socialism in one country.”
The truth is that patriotism can be compatible with socialism and internationalism — in fact, in the current age of nation states, it is necessary to achieving socialism. To utterly dismiss every form of patriotism is to dismiss the entire history of national liberation which struggled (and, in some cases, still struggles) to overthrow colonial rule by imperialist powers such as Britain.
Outright dismissal of patriotism also stems from a lack of class analysis which fails to discern the difference between the nationalism of the ruling class and the hidden history and aspirations of the working class.
Perhaps some of Long Bailey’s social media critics dismiss patriotism due to a commitment instead to “international socialism.” As much as the ideal of global socialism is desirable and an eventual necessity, we still live in an age when the nation state remains the only realistic vehicle for the first steps towards socialism: there is no other existing political community capable of delivering the transformation required to bring about socialism; there is no better means of defending socialism.
And, while some may look to international forums such as the UN to reform or defend certain rights, the fact is that the specific struggle for socialism and democracy only happens within the framework of the state – it remains the “only game in town.”
Perhaps there is also fear among the opponents of “progressive patriotism” about ceding ground to reactionary nationalism (particularly the ethno-nationalism of the far right). This is perhaps understandable as there has been a noticeable and troubling shift towards the hard right around the world. But again, this misses the difference between the “official” nationalism promoted by the ruling class and the potential for a socialist patriotism based on popular sovereignty and international solidarity.
Perhaps it’s because we are all most familiar with the official nationalisms of the ruling class. This is either the nationalism of right – the stories of great Britons, great battles and the “achievements” of Empire; or the softer, liberal – more business friendly – “Cool Britannia” style nationalism cultivated during the New Labour period.
Both of these nationalisms draw on nostalgia for a so-called Golden Age – whether it be a fantasy version of the 1950s (think Heartbeat) or a simulacrum of ’60s Carnaby Street (think Austin Powers). Both of these nationalisms tend to overlook the horrors of Empire — with the right-wing version celebrating Britain’s imperial past and the “Cool Britannia” version attempting to sanitise the symbols of Empire — a Spice Girl wearing a butcher’s apron miniskirt.
Nationalist sentiment relies on stories and symbols and, a progressive vision needs to rely on the peoples’ counter-narrative to the official story of Britain. This is the radical history of Britain. It is the story of the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Suffragettes, Red Clydeside, the Greenham Common camps and the miners’ strikes.
It is an inclusive national history, as the struggles of minority groups intertwine and become an important part of the story of radical Britain — the Bristol Bus Boycott; the Imperial Typewriters Strike; the Battle of Cable Street. It is also an internationalist history which includes a plethora of solidarity movements and a strong tradition of peace activism.
With a left-wing government in power, an alternative patriotism would need to build on this radical past in order to look to the future: what sort of society should we build? How should we strive towards a more peaceful and co-operative world?
Patriotism then becomes a commitment to a national project; a patriotism which is inclusive as it would not be dependent on ethnicity or the country of one’s birth, but on commitment to the collective goal. What else was the NHS but a collective national project involving people from around the world who were galvanised by a commitment to its founding principles?
If the left is to succeed then we need to start talking about concepts such as patriotism and nationalism without simply reaffirming inflexible dogma or resorting to hysteria. In a world where the nation state remains a reality and the only realistic path to socialism, the British left needs to articulate its own socialist patriotism in contrast to the chauvinism, conservativism and militarism which characterises the nationalism of the right.
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