The left has a problem with nationalism. Many on the right, and not a few on the left, at least in the US, believe that leftists are indifferent or hostile to expressions of national pride and other nationalist sentiments—which are seen as incompatible with progressivism. In times of war or national crisis, individual leftists can find themselves suspected of disloyalty and subjected to public inquisitions.
Nationalism can take both benign and malignant forms. George Orwell famously defined patriotism as a benign form of nationalism: “a devotion to a particular place and particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” By contrast, nationalism in its malignant form is aggressive toward other nations; it is the equivalent of imperialism. The left is either ambivalent or hostile to both forms.
Principled Objections to Nationalism
Some US critics, usually on the right, claim that the left is obliged by its ideological commitments to hate America, and that it is therefore inherently anti-American. They see the left’s preoccupation with collectivism, big government, and cradle-to-grave welfare payments as irreconcilable with America’s heritage as an individualistic and capitalist culture, and thus believe that the idea of a nationalist left is a contradiction in terms. And many thinkers—both on left and right—who argue that the left is suspicious of American nationalism either conflate malignant nationalism with benign patriotism or treat both as unethical knee-jerk prejudices with no rational basis.
But left-wing organisations and activists have often integrated nationalism into their political programmes, linked their policies to a vision of national best interests, and relied on nationalist sentiments to build popular support. Examples include the postcolonial liberation movements during the Cold War, the socialist patriotism exhibited by socialist and communist parties on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and the postwar history of the Swedish Social Democratic Party—which combined radical socialist politics with proud commitment to the Folkhemmet (the people’s home).
In the United States, too, progressive political movements have often appealed to national political traditions. Examples include the civic nationalism of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and John Brown, the democratic socialism of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Depression-era strategies of the American Communist Party’s Popular Front. American leftists have often presented themselves as acting within the revolutionary tradition of the country’s founders and fighting on behalf of the core nationalist values of liberty, justice, and equality for all Americans.
Nevertheless, there has always been a conflict between the left’s core principles and its desire to demonstrate that those principles are compatible with American political traditions. Nationalist attitudes are in tension both with a belief in international solidarity and with anti-imperialism, which are based on universalist values and seek to downplay national divisions. In many cases, American leftists have de-emphasised or discarded nationalist symbols and sentiments for fear of encouraging bigoted or reactionary sentiments. And this fear is not unreasonable, considering how often elites have used nationalist sentiment to focus public attention away from domestic problems and towards foreign enemies.
The philosopher Richard Rorty has argued that contemporary leftists have become estranged from their national heritage, due to the lingering influence of the New Left and its adherents’ alienation from mainstream American culture during the Cold War. While Rorty somewhat exaggerates the left’s pre-Cold-War commitment to reform from within America’s flawed political institutions, he correctly notes that the cultural conflict over the Vietnam War presaged a growing cultural disconnect between American leftists and the nation they sought to transform. All too often, the left finds itself swimming against the current during wartime. Examples include early Socialist opposition to World War I, the New Left’s activism during the Cold War and the anti-war movement in response to the post 9/11 war on terror.
Pragmatic Objections to Nationalism
Many leftists rightly reject the blind nationalism of my country, right or wrong, in favour of what they see as the more important goal of promoting international solidarity and anti-imperialism. This stance is partially motivated by a pragmatic desire to combat two particularly thorny problems: institutional capture and the belief in American exceptionalism.
The problem of institutional capture arises because people understandably tend to be less critical of institutions that are under their own control. It is currently particularly noticeable on university campuses. With the decline of organised labour as both a force for political change and a means of employment, many leftists went to work in universities or other nonprofits to pursue social change while earning a living. (Although this shift partly explains the recent emergence of the campus left, universities in the western world have been hotbeds of radical and subversive activity since at least the sixteenth century.)
Many tenured professors with a radical leftist political orientation are prime examples of the phenomenon of institutional capture. Although they produce subversive (though often obscure) texts and slogans criticising capitalism and the patriarchy, they either ignore or are unaware that what they primarily accomplish is the education of the next generation of elites, enabling the perpetuation of the hierarchical social structure they so vehemently criticise. They rarely direct their subversive writings against their employers, let alone against universities as institutions; this is left up to the adjunct professors, graduate- student workers, and other non-tenured staff whose subordinate positions protect them from institutional capture, thus enabling them to see through their employers’ self-serving propaganda. This same pattern applies in the pop culture industry, corporate human resources departments and many other institutions: they are said to have been taken over by subversive leftists, but the reverse seems to happen: once those leftists join an institution, they become increasingly unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them—even when their employers are clearly perpetuating injustice or producing work of questionable value.
Progressives are seen as controlling the most powerful institutions in American society. Given the phenomenon of institutional capture, why then would they take an anti-nationalist perspective? It turns out that radical leftists—those who believe that there is no ethical way to consume goods and services within a late-capitalist economic structure—are quite powerless in most social institutions, including government, the media, and the economy at large. While these institutions have surely shifted towards progressives and, in some cases, grown quite hostile to right-leaning individuals and opinions, they are largely dominated by upper-middle class professionals, who baulk at the sort of radical material changes for which the left tends to agitate. Some conservatives may disagree, but that is in large part because they—like many leftists—tend to see their opponents as a unified monolithic bloc, rather than a collection of separate organisations with conflicting interests. In any case, most leftists lack a significant material stake in American society due to their marginal political and social status, and this presumably leads them to be far more critical of American mores and institutions than they would be if they were more included.
The other practical problem American leftists face is the idea of American exceptionalism. Today, the phrase refers to the arrogant and prejudiced belief that America is a “shining city on a hill” destined to spread freedom and capitalism to people across the world (whether they want it or not). Its adherents often impose heavy-handed forms of intervention, either through outright military invasion and occupation (as in Iraq and Afghanistan) or through diplomatic coercion and economic sanctions (directed, for example, at Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran) as a means of spreading this gospel to other nations. These interventions have come with their share of crimes and abuses, causing the left to interpret most (if not all) US foreign policy as intrinsically imperialistic. American leftists have the unenviable task of criticising imperialism while remaining citizens of a nation that they see as imperialistic. This fosters considerable confusion and leads many observers to conclude that the left cares more about foreigners than about their fellow Americans.
Some argue that American imperialism is far more benevolent than its European predecessors or its current potential rivals. While true, this resembles the flimsy white man’s burden canard of old and ignores the fact that America has traditionally professed a dedication to the principles of national autonomy and popular sovereignty—principles that should rule out an aggressive and domineering foreign policy. Many American leftists, horrified by their country’s complicity in geopolitical scandals and by the public’s general indifference to those scandals, lash out against all things American. Nationalism and national pride become objects of scorn, as leftists take great pains to distance themselves from their country’s policies, at home and abroad.
This question of nationalism is far less salient in many other countries, especially those without a particularly notorious legacy of imperialism. In less geopolitically powerful countries, such as Ireland and India, which were historically subjected to European imperialism, the left finds it easier to include nationalist themes in their political campaigns. By contrast, the American left embraces a version of Lenin’s theory of revolutionary defeatism, which advocates fomenting domestic conflict and subterfuge against one’s own government to foster social revolution. Unfortunately, since many contemporary leftists lack Lenin’s rhetorical or strategic skills, this simply opens the door for their opponents to tar them with accusations of disloyalty and moral relativism.
Personal Objections to Nationalism
Leftist objections to nationalism are motivated not only by principle and pragmatics, but also by personal considerations. Judith Butler’s claim that the “personal is political” may have been an overstatement, but it was prescient as to left-wing activists. The ranks of leftist political organisations and activist groups are filled with disaffected and disillusioned individuals, many of whom are presumably motivated by their personal grievances against mainstream society. This is a characteristic of all marginalised subcultures, including right-leaning ones; alienated individuals are inherently attracted to ideological communities that offer a sense of identity and solidarity. But it is particularly characteristic of leftist organisations, perhaps because of the left’s preference for the countercultural.
This phenomenon may explain why leftist organisations are disproportionately staffed by individuals from traditionally marginalised communities; they may be drawn to those organisations as a personal response to a generalised sense of social oppression. This may be especially true with respect to activists of colour and members of the LGBT community, disaffected as many of them are by the contradiction between America’s professed ideals and its apparent unwillingness (or inability) to make good on them. Recall the scorn and disgust that Frederick Douglass conveys in his essay, “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” which sharply criticises the way in which America professes to be based on freedom, while dependent on slave labour. Similarly, Martin Luther King’s despair at the American intervention in Vietnam was presumably heightened by the contrast between what he saw as the American government’s sluggish approach to desegregation and its energetic participation in mass slaughter in Indochina.
However, despite their awareness of the contradiction between American ideals and American practices, Douglass and King rooted their activism squarely within the American political tradition, unlike more radical activists, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Malcolm X. Douglass and King considered abolitionist and civil rights policies to be logical extensions of the emancipatory rhetoric of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, neither man seems to have felt the kind of radical cynicism about the American experiment that more contemporary activists appear to feel.
Yet it is hard to blame current leftists for being so pessimistic. America has only recently committed itself to practical measures designed to fully compensate for its history of exterminating indigenous peoples and exploiting black people, and not without a tremendous backlash. Indeed, Douglass spent most of his life arguing in vain for peaceful abolition, only to see his reasoned arguments overshadowed by a civil war that tore the country in two. And King, despite his beatified image as an optimistic, even transcendental figure, had grown increasingly pessimistic about the prospect of peaceful reform, given the continued recalcitrance of many civil rights opponents and the frustration of many supporters—a frustration shared by today’s Black Lives Matter activists.
Perhaps the worst characteristic of mainstream culture is its reluctance to examine American history with a sense of humility, particularly given its obsession with the myth of American exceptionalism. Those Americans who have imposed impossibly high standards upon themselves as inhabitants of a shining city on a hill shouldn’t be surprised when some grow bitter and disillusioned and feel personally betrayed when they discover the disappointing reality. How can you love a country whose people can’t be honest about its failings?
Yet the reckless behaviour that disillusionment motivates does not advance the political causes that the left claims to value, such as reducing racial inequality, rebuilding the labour movement, and fighting climate change. The left’s cynical take on American nationalism is rooted in legitimate grievances, but awareness of those grievances has only caused us to grow more inward-looking and elitist. If the left is serious about achieving power and wielding it for social change, we must rethink our reflexive hostility to American culture, and participate in it, warts and all.