What qualifies one as a U.S. patriot?
Victor Grossman defected from the U.S. to the German Democratic Republic to escape McCarthyite persecution. Looking back on experiences in his home country and his adopted one, Grossman reflects on what it means to be a patriot. | Grossman photo via Neues Deutschland

BERLIN—No, I did not explode firecrackers for July 4th (nor on New Year’s Eve either, when private rockets fill Berlin skies). Here, too, I am safely distant from the AR-15-armed mass shooters who terrorized cities across the U.S. this holiday weekend. Yet, despite all doubts, despite fearful weaponry, at home or abroad, I consider myself an American patriot. Many might see me as one of the least likely to even want that description.

A left-wing radical as a young man, I deserted the U.S. Army (one jump ahead of the McCarran-McCarthy bloodhounds) and have spent much of my life in East Berlin, often writing polemics against U.S. policies. Can I still call myself patriotic? In fact, is that even a good thing to be?

Like some lizard species, my eyes can see things from two angles at the same time. Even when it comes to countries (whether my adopted home, Germany, or my home country, the United States), I cannot overcome this habit of double vision.

For example, I have no love for the America of tobacco companies, which hired hordes of lobbyists to bribe members of Congress and enable them to spread smoking to more women, people of color, youngsters, and all the world, despite knowing that it is extremely unhealthy. The State Department even supported them abroad, where handsome Marlboro cowboys even had a political effect.

Nor do I love the America of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s, which have knowingly poisoned millions, especially youngsters, in the United States and around the world.

No feelings for Amazon or Walmart

Victor Grossman is a proud American, but he has no love for the America of Walmart, Amazon, McDonald’s, Phillip Morris, or the other corporate giants that dominate his homeland. | AP

Nor do I feel close to Amazon and Walmart, whose low prices and swift delivery might have reached the hearts and wallets of millions but also drove their workers to brutal work rates while repulsing every whiff of protective unions—and wrecking countless retailers and healthier city centers in towns and cities all over my country.

And while I recognize their sometimes amazing skill, artistry, even genius, winning huge audiences in America and around the world, I cannot see Hollywood or studios like Disney’s as objects of my pride.

Downright alarming for me, in fact, are the amazing advances of Silicon Valley giants like Facebook, Apple, and now, looming ever larger, AI, in controlling our social lives, or lack of them, burrowing into our thinking processes and achieving unheard-of dominance in the everyday lives of billions.

And I feel real hatred toward the companies behind the NRA, buying politicians by the dozen so as to sell warfare guns by the millions, frightening parents all over the country, but also shoppers, movie-goers, and deliverers of goods like nowhere else in the world—all the while also filling the armories of gangs plotting to “defend our America” from any aspect of democratic rule.

Worst of all are those billionaire monsters, with five in the lead—Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, and General Dynamics—whose entire mission is to encourage preparations for military confrontation, even now opposing every move towards peace, encouraging the provocation and continuation of any and every conflict, up to and including an atomic one!

These companies, these billionaires—and the Congress, Supreme Court, all the courtrooms and state houses they control—proudly display their red-white-blue lapel pins even while wheeler-dealing and merging with dominant siblings elsewhere. How then can I join in their patriotic flag-waving?

The other America

No, it is another USA which I love. It is the one courageously co-founded by 4,000 ragged farmers and war veterans who fought back in Shays’ Rebellion in 1786. It includes Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown, who took up arms against the slave-owners; Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, the Grimké sisters, and William Lloyd Garrison, who used words as weapons; Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, who raised their voices in Washington.

Nor can I forget Tecumseh, Osceola, Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, and Geronimo, all great figures who shaped our history.

And then, with the development of industry, came the fightback of working people. We know only the leaders’ names; few today know even them.

The ironmonger William Sylvis founded the first one, the National Labor Union. The Knights of Labor opened up to women and Black workers. The railroad strikers of 1877, who were met by a “diet of lead” as “Communards and Communists.”

There was the May Day march of thousands for the 8-hour day in Chicago in 1886, the “naval battle” of the Homestead steel strikers against boatloads of scabs and Pinkerton goons. And so many dramatic personalities, like the fighting coal miners’  Mother Jones, or the one-eyed “Wobbly” Big Bill Haywood with his closed fist as a symbol of unity of all nationalities. There was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who with Haywood helped 25,000 miserably poor women textile workers in Lawrence win their fight for ”bread and roses.” Also, great Socialists like Eugene V. Debs or John Reed (who later became a Communist). There were men I had the privilege to see and hear with my own eyes and ears—Dr. W.E.B. DuBois; the incomparable singer, actor, and fighter for freedom and peace, Paul Robeson; and folk legend Pete Seeger. They all represent the USA I’m proud of—my America!

Victor Grossman’s America is the one that gave the world people like singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson, seen here performing at a rally against McCarthyism in New York’s Union Square in May 1954. Seated behind him is Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a leader of the Communist Party USA

Nor should we forget the martyrs, like those imprisoned and hung in Chicago after the Haymarket trial, or the great songster Joe Hill, killed by a firing squad in 1915; the part-Indian union organizer Frank Little, lynched in Butte in 1917; Ella May Wiggins, murdered in a textile strike 1927 in Gastonia, N.C.; the ten peaceful steel strike paraders killed by cops on Memorial Day 1937 in Chicago.

Nor can we forget the murdered Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, all fatally hated by the FBI. I would also include both Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, electrocuted in 1953 in Sing-Sing for atomic espionage, whose motivation was to alter a dangerously one-sided imbalance in weaponry and thus save the world from destruction—a belief that internationalist responsibility and genuine patriotism need never contradict each other.

These people and so many others unknown by name are my reason for loving my America—whose history, language, and culture are closest to my heart, though without a trace of condescension towards my fellow people with similar struggles in other countries around the world.

My life, for so many years away from home, leads me to unhappy comparisons but also hopes for my country. It is heartbreaking to read of the thousands—primarily Black women with children—who are evicted in one year in one U.S. city alone.

I can feel my tears arising when I see videos of long, long lines of Americans, often in cars, waiting to receive food charity. Or the lines on foot, circling whole city blocks, to get needed medical or dental care they cannot afford.

I read of young people graduating college burdened with tens of thousands of dollars of debt they can never pay back, growing with mounting interest rates. Or of working people, forced by stagnant wage scales to borrow at months’ end from payday lenders charging obscene interest rates and condemning them to constant worry, tears, and fear of eviction.

I think of children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, rarely if ever seeing green landscapes, hearing songbirds, wondering at star-studded heavens—and forced into hopeless lives of petty crime, police violence, prison labor camps—or sudden death.

I saw samples of this in my early years, in East Boston, Black sections of Roxbury, in Buffalo. Much more recently, I was shocked by the misery of homelessness I saw in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and my own hometown. It seemed to be almost accepted by many as a normal way of things.

But my life had taught me that it is so unnecessary; it is not normal. I lived for nearly 40 years in a small country, the German Democratic Republic, where such conditions were unknown.

A new form of society

Though war-wrecked, lacking almost any natural resources, and discriminated against by all the Western world, the GDR (or East Germany, as much of the world knew it) created a new form of society. It was a place where rent cost, at most, 5% or 10% of income, where evictions were forbidden, where all education from a nursery to a doctorate was not just free but, for apprentices and students, was aided by cost-of-living assistance, making part-time work unnecessary and student debt unknown.

It was a place where an affordable monthly tax meant that all medical and dental care, all physical rehab treatment, all prescription drugs, eyeglasses, and hearing aids, were completely covered without paying a penny extra. Women received six months’ paid leave after having a baby (and if desired another half-year, unpaid but with a job guarantee).

Food pantries for the needy were fully unknown, even for the worst-off group, which usually consisted of war widows who had never learned a trade and did unskilled work. They were guaranteed a low-price roof over their heads and, almost free, one big hot meal a day.

Abortions, after 1972, were free of charge and free of censure. Even ex-convicts were guaranteed a home and a job.

When I reflect on such comparisons, I must wonder whether my super-modern homeland is, in some ways, still in a Stone Age. All the advantages my family and I—and everyone else—enjoyed in the GDR should be normal parts of daily life in the United States, the world’s wealthiest country.

But halt, many will say! Those achievements of the GDR which you praise were accompanied by repression, limitations on freedom of speech, a regulated media, farcical no-choice elections, and fear of an ubiquitously snooping Stasi secret police! A giant concrete wall prevented citizens from traveling or departing the country, even shooting some who tried. Why did so many want to leave such a Utopia? And why did they ultimately not fight to save it from extinction?

The complicated answer involves the history of Germany, pressures from the East and especially from the West, the many family connections with a West Germany pampered almost since 1945 with Marshall Plan millions and more so as to act as a magnet for easterners, with a commodity assortment, home construction financing and travel opportunities almost unequaled in the world, and transmitted with a proficiency in propaganda methods learned both from Goebbels and from newer techniques from Edward Bernays and “Madison Avenue.” It was all set against an apparatus of aging men, devoted anti-fascists and socialists most of them, but so hardened by their fight against the Nazis—and by the Stalin era—that they rarely found successful rapport with a population only just emerged from fascism, then inundated by flashy U.S. super-culture in all the arts, even in language.

Victor Grossman with another American patriot, Pete Seeger, in Berlin, GDR, 1986. | Courtesy of Victor Grossman

But I have an additional theory regarding all such comparisons.

The heads of every form of government—whether capitalist, socialist, democratic, fascist, open, or repressive—have one basic motivation: to stay in power, either individually for a king or dictator, or for a party structure, or for a social system. They must be watchful and wary about any cracks or crumbling.

In the USA, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Sweden, and the Netherlands, where two-thirds or more of the population are relatively satisfied, with a home, a car or two, modern appliances and electronics, vacation travel, a ruling government can afford to permit many freedoms.

Let the radicals spout phrases at Hyde Park, Union Square, or wherever. Let them publish leaflets and newspapers which at most a few thousand will see or read. Perhaps let them form little leftist parties which often fail to outdo the 0.1 % level. Such liberties, sometimes won by courageous battles in the past, like the “Free Speech” fights of the IWW “Wobblies” in the Northwest, may have become traditions; long may they endure!

But, just to make sure, have some built-in safeguards. One is an election system which discourages poor people from voting. “What’s the use? They are all crooked. They make promises and break them.”

Then too, poorer people read or watch less news, may not be fluent in the main language, may have well-planned difficulties in getting registered and voting. Many who do vote are caught in the “lesser evil” pattern. “He’s not much good, or no good, but the other one is really fearful!”

Media plays a major part

The media plays a major part, distracting readers, listeners, and viewers with enthusiasm for “our team” in sports, or with curiosity about the latest royal wedding or film star scandal—or with details on every crime, accident, or catastrophe. All very human, but all distracting, very skillfully, away from genuine problems or their solutions.

But what if new crises cause dissatisfaction, if prices soar, jobs get scarcer, and evictions multiply? One of the commonest antidotes is to encourage, for the most part surreptitiously, divisive animosities: southerners against northerners, working people in fly-over states against elitists in coastal Ivy Leagues (currently labeled “woke”), Protestants v. Catholics, Irish v. Jews—all have played a part.

And always, ever since the USA was born (and earlier), against that ”Black threat” against “our” (white) women, our (white) jobs and pay scales, our (white) status as superiors, even if we are at the bottom of (white) society. Add on the variants: against the Indigenous, against other incoming immigrants, especially poor ones like (at first) the Irish, the Jews, Italians, Mexicans, and Central Americans, Chinese, Japanese, but always against Black people.

If these methods do not suffice, if conditions worsen and rebelliousness increases, one device almost always works: nationalism. It functions on antipathy towards other countries and fears of being attacked, either militarily or surreptitiously, just as in the McCarran-McCarthy years (when I was a victim)—and now perhaps again.

But if nothing else works, then tougher methods. Firing people, jailing them, then batons, pepper spray, water cannon, bullets—as seen in recent years in many countries of all political colors, from Minsk to Portland, Bogotá to Santiago, Barcelona to Stuttgart. And today France.

East German youth in the late 1970s. | Wikimedia Commons

Yes, if the need is felt, they all do it. But here we find an interesting difference. It is far easier to achieve non-rebellious satisfaction if there is plenty of food, clothing, and other necessities at prices a majority can afford, while still making plenty of profits.

And this is more achievable if the economy can import cheap bananas from countries where peasants carry heavy loads of still-green fruit at sub-existence wages. Or where children help their parents pick cocoa, coffee, or tea for pennies instead of going to school; where African villagers walk miles to dig cobalt or coltan, almost with their bare hands; where young women sew and spin fashionable apparel for hunger wages in shaky, fire-prone buildings from Bangladesh to Cambodia, Vietnam, south China (though no longer at such impossible wages and conditions in the latter).

But also “at home,” where Mexican and Central American laborers harvest luscious California fruits, berries, nuts, and vegetables but live in hovels, fearful of deportation, while kids as young as 14 clean butchering machinery for long hours and African-American men and especially women rotate from hot Amazon warehouses to the remaining assembly lines in the rust belt.

What does this mean? Some differences are based on national traditions and history—the open West in North America, immigrants who were often the most daring and independent in their countries, a French Revolution—as opposed to century-long repression and histories marred by terrible invasions in Russia and much of East Europe.

Nevertheless, in the GDR I saw that a major factor of government insecurity, hence pressures to preserve itself and its non-profit system, was because the GDR did not—could not—provide its population with products of the toil of miserably-paid pickers, harvesters, and palm oil toters or coltan diggers in southern continents, nor were there sources of underpaid slum-based workers at home, forced to take any job with no questions asked, including lower wages for women and child labor.

The GDR got no cheap bananas from exploited Guatemalans, or tulips and roses from Kenya. Yes, it did get towels and tea from China but no easily affordable H&M shirts or GAP dresses while their makers got pennies and supermarket cashiers got low wages—and the men at the top got millions.

Meant the contrary

In the GDR, this did not result in worse living or working conditions, indeed, in many ways it meant the contrary, but it did mean a much narrower assortment of consumer goods. Since the main staples were kept at almost absurdly low prices, most people had money to spend, which meant that high quality, modern, and fashionable goods were far rarer, disappeared quickly in the shops—or were absent completely.

This situation, worsened by the constant advertisement of more and better items “on the other side” was a major cause of discontent, which led to repressive measures aimed at preserving a far more humane, truly modern social system, but one which was largely taken for granted by those who grew up with it.

This was a vicious circle which meant that the GDR was already threatened in its existence from pre-natal days, hated above all by the powerful corporations it had thrown out. In the end, it was defeated, broken, almost totally erased, industriously, socially, culturally, and, if possible, historically.

What about “my” USA? Though never threatened from without since 1812 or in its unified government control since 1865, its leading lights resorted again and again to the KKK violence of the Reconstruction and post-World War I and II eras, to the mass arrests of anti-war Socialists and Wobblies in 1917-1918, the arrests, prison terms, thousands of lost jobs and broken lives from 1950 to 1960 (and 1,100 pages of FBI files about me), there were long periods when opposition was possible and some periodicals were never banned.

But it seems clear to me: The freedoms which, though attacked, only rarely disappeared fully in the Western democracies, maybe in part products of past struggles and present fight-back but also, in great measure, are based on the poverty of millions in the southern hemisphere and in domestic slums. Whenever those millions rebel—if they rebel—the freedoms are reduced, limited, or eliminated. And by whom?

Major decisions today are increasingly determined by an ever smaller, tighter group of multimillionaires and billionaires in every sector of the economy. Their seemingly unstoppable expansion has resulted in three giant menaces to all of us. One, of course, is the threat of climate change, of poisoned oceans, air, and soil, due to policies still pursued by the fossil fuel companies, who knew full well of the growing, irretrievable damage they were causing but spent million denying it, just like the equally pernicious, greedy chemical, herbicide, insecticide, and genetic seed giants.

The second main threat, overtaking the first one, is created and pursued by the armament makers who need and want ever more warfare, most dangerously now in Ukraine, a conflict, pursued mercilessly by Putin but purposefully prepared and provoked by the rulers of NATO who, hand in hand with the Lockheeds and Raytheons, call themselves crusaders for American-style democracy against “authoritarianism” but who—for me—are America’s greatest enemies—and mine.

Children at a kindergarten in the GDR, 1976

The third Behemoth or Goliath, already actively multiplying in one country after the other, once again in Germany, also in the USA, is moving to safeguard the power of the other two menaces. I mean the menace of fascism. It is mostly in the wings as yet but conniving to move full stage as soon as it finds it necessary—as in Germany in 1933 or Chile in 1973.

And all three are based fundamentally on the power of the top 1%, rooted in the profit system, which is forced by its very nature to continue growing and expanding. They must be stopped, by vigorous Davids, but who, unlike the Biblical David, achieve strength only by their numbers and their militant organization.

They can win small victories here and there, much to be welcomed. But these Goliaths cannot be halted by small defeats. And certainly not by compromises. If we turn again to the Bible we find the fearful Horses of the Apocalypse—sometimes interpreted as meaning pestilence, war, famine, and death—all too relevant in today’s world. The only real means of defeating these menaces—and in the final analysis saving America, and not only America, means halting them, breaking their power, and totally removing their profit-based greed, selfishness, and disregard for the misery they cause.

This ever-tighter group of billionaires must be shorn of its wealth and its power, which are much the same thing. No more private yachts, jets, multiple mansions, or skyscrapers in central New York or central Berlin. No more tourist flights into space. A halt to a system which is poisoning, heating, or flooding the world, of ragged, toiling children, women, and men, must be sought and, most immediately, an end to the brutal conflicts before it is too late, now worst of all in Ukraine but already threatening to metastasize.

The world needs millions to join in this fight, this fightback. In the USA, there have been models enough of genuine patriots. There is a need for American patriots who are the same time “world patriots.” As a teenager, I joined in Woody Guthrie’s wartime victory song, “When the Yanks go marching in!” He meant Berlin. How the world has changed since then—and even turned me upside down geographically. But I’ll still join in with his chorus lines:

“Boys, I want to be in that number when we set this whole world free!”

And—as a patriot in Woody’s sense, I plan to stay in that number as long as I am able!

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Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.