Why is it necessary for the left to examine the concept of patriotism?
Because millions of Americans believe in it, cutting across all class and color lines. It will not become possible to defeat George W. Bush in the 2004 election unless the left deepens its understanding of patriotism and love of country.
Every time Bush speaks, he uses the terrorist events of 9/11/01 to invoke patriotic fervor. No matter how large the peace demonstrations, unless we speak to the rest of America on its terms, all the shouting in the world will fall on deaf ears.
Patriotism or love of country has had different meanings for different groups and social classes at different times in our history, ever since the American Revolution of 1776. The idea of a new nation of freedom and liberty held out different promises for Crispus Attucks, Samuel Adams or Thomas Jefferson. To Attucks it was the eventual freeing of slaves. To Sam Adams it meant freedom from British taxation on his brewery. Jefferson had to compromise his feelings on ending slavery and instead place into the Declaration of Independence the concept of “pursuit of happiness.”
Ask most Americans today about their definitions of patriotism and they will typically connect it with the concept of “liberty and justice for all.” But the term “all” has evolved in its meaning as our history unfolded.
At the time of the American Revolution, African Americans, Native Americans, women were not part of the concept of “all.” The definition had to be broadened through the bitter struggles of the masses so excluded. It is amazing that some on the left scorn these democratic advances, which were gained through considerable sacrifices.
During the Civil War, ideas of liberty and patriotism had to be fought out on the battlefield. At stake was which concept of a nation of liberty would survive: one with chattel slavery, or one with free wage laborers.
As budding American imperialism began to roll westward across our continent, resistance rose amongst the people to its brutality and exploitation. Not everyone benefited from this westward expansion. Some saw the contradiction between human aspirations and the drive for profits. The early struggles of the Abolitionists, the struggles to keep new states free of slavery, the struggles against the Mexican-American war and later the formation of groups like the U.S. Anti-Imperialist Society of 1904 are but some examples of movements that fought conquest and oppression in the name of love of country or patriotism.
With the growth of modern industrialism also came efforts at union organizing. Workers considered themselves part of the American promise of “liberty and justice for all.” Photos of the mass labor demonstrations of the 1930s always show workers flying the U.S. flag.
It was the working class of New York City and the United States that came to the aid of the victims of 9/11 in the Twin Towers disaster, only to be betrayed by the Bush administration’s anti-labor and anti-people cutbacks and giveaways to the rich.
In these times of the Bush administration’s imperialist aggression around the world, with the massive bombings and murders of innocent civilians, the U.S. working class continues to believe in the promise of the Pledge of Allegiance, “with liberty and justice for all.”
If the left wants to unseat George W. Bush from his office, it can only be done by being extremely sensitive to these deep feelings of patriotism, and not allowing the far right to drape themselves in the American flag. Over the last 100 years, the left has developed a deeper understanding of and sensitivity to racism and sexism and the fight for unity and equality. We also need to understand and be sensitive to the love of country that masses of U.S. workers have despite the outrages committed by the ruling class against them. Understanding this attitude of our working class will help to promote the unity needed to defeat Bush.
Emil Shaw is chair of the New Mexico Communist Party. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.