The Case for a Left Patriotism

There is often discussion amongst various self-described leftist circles on the ill-effects of Western liberal humanitarian intervention, a reckoning with the malaise of colonialism infected upon various countries around the world. While all of these discussions are meaningful and necessary to form material analyses, the fact that many of such discussions venture into outright anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism, and straight up anti-Nation State anarchism poses a serious intellectual and electoral challenge for the left. 

How can a populist left that wants to win elections and supposedly help the working class do so if it hates the very country it wants to govern, especially when such bourgeois opinions are at direct odds with what workers feel? Such efforts to sideline patriotism also pay an absolute disservice to numerous successful Social Democratic, Socialist and Marxist movements that sought to counter the far-right or secure national liberation and self rule. If a populist left wants to win, and win big, it must redefine and embrace inclusive patriotism or wither away in the margins of history textbooks to come.

Electoral reasons

The populist left as a project of the 2010s and early 2020s has mostly failed, and rather miserably. The losses of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, in fact, have much in common. 

100% of people in low-income groups in the US, for example, are “very” or “quite” proud of their country.

For one, Bernie’s campaign (at least in 2020) was spearheaded by the Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that outright supports “open borders.” It hasn’t managed to connect well with workers, especially in Rust Belt areas and the states where Bernie did well in 2016. The states of Minnesota and Oklahoma, for example, voted for Biden in 2020 when they were key Bernie states in 2016. Bernie received 86.1% of the vote in his home state of Vermont in 2016; in 2020 his vote share dropped to just above 50%.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Corbyn’s campaign was led by Momentum—an organization similar to the DSA—and its most vocal supporters were the likes of Owen Jones and Ash Sarkar, whose woke moralisms and virtue signalling by declaring Brexit a “culture war” (when it was very clearly a vote along class lines) and calling for a second referendum, helped collapse the “red wall” and the relegated Labour to a party of the middle-class.

It is clear, hence, that for many working-class voters, a cultural revolution is irrelevant if not an outright turn-off. The “cultural revolution” offered by many of Bernie’s surrogates and staff did more to hurt rather than help his popular economic radicalism. The same can be said of Corbyn, whose radical social positions were so distanced from actual workers that no policy position (including offering free nationalized broadband) could retain the working class vote.

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, ran a rather simple platform of “getting Brexit done” and funding the crumbling public services caused by a decade of austerity unleashed by his own party. He promised, and later delivered, a robust public spending program that nationalized some sections of the rail, increased wages, and called for better hospital facilities in the North. By sticking to patriotism and mild cultural conservatism, and adopting centre-left Keynesian economics, Boris was able to outflank Corbyn from all sides and secure a thumping majority. Even with Starmer’s election and COVID, the Conservatives still retain a decent approval rating and their polling has begun to climb after initially tanking.

But this wasn’t in any way surprising. 

100% of people in low-income groups in the US, for example, are “very” or “quite” proud of their country. If the populist left claims to want to represent these people in an electoral democracy, it has to embrace what workers want: economic radicalism and inclusive patriotism. 

The left must redefine patriotism as that which supports economic solidarity; one that helps bring up strong families; one that provides equal opportunities to all its citizens; one that embraces the nation-state and Americana/Brittania for all.

This hypothesis is actually confirmed when we look at Denmark. PM Mette Frederiksen of the Social Democrats won her 2019 election by retaining her left-wing economic positions, but she also went “right” on policies such as immigration. However,  her “going right” was actually returning to the past roots of what Social Democrats actually stood for. 

“For me, it is becoming increasingly clear that the price of unregulated globalization, mass immigration and the free movement of labour is paid for by the lower classes,” she said. She is not wrong. 

In fact, this further helps us understand why workers voted for Brexit (and later the Tories) after Corbyn was forced to abandon his support for his own cause to appease the middle-class centrists and woke progressives that now constitute what remains of UK Labour. In contrast, by embracing the nation state and offering economic solidarity, the nation of Denmark embraced Frederiksen as PM. This also effectively curtailed the rise of the far right.

But today, many in left circles associate the word “patriotism” with “literal Fascism”, while wrongly confusing “internationalism” with “globalization.” In fact, embracing patriotism and supporting internationalism over globalization is very much in line with the philosophical beliefs of the electoral populist left. 

Philosophical and historical reasons

David Goodhart, in his book, “The Road to Somewhere,” explains the difference between the working-class (whom he calls “Somewheres) and the bourgeoisie (whom he calls “Anywheres”). 

Goodhart says that workers, the “Somewheres,” value their community and sense of place. They tend to be less educated than their bourgeois counterparts, comprise ⅔ of the UK’s population, and live within 20 miles of where they were when they were 14. They value the sense of being rooted, familiarity, and security. Their sense of being comes from their sense of place & community. Hence, with globalization eroding the Rust Belt in the US and the North in the UK, these workers tend to cling on to the last sense of what they call home and yearn for better times where they had secure jobs and a dignified life. This is instrumental in helping us understand their patriotism and how it intersects with their economically socialist beliefs.

The poor want good governance; the rich want anarchism.

In contrast, the bourgeois are “Anywheres” and have no sense of place. In a globalized world, they tend to know no boundaries and believe in ideas such as “freedom of movement.”

In the UK and much of the developed West, they tend to represent only ⅓ of the population but dominate their country’s politics and society. They are highly educated and mobile. They value openness & autonomy and therefore see borders as inherently disagreeable. They tend to be individualistic but also progressive.

The poor want good governance; the rich want anarchism. 

So who does the populist left wish to represent? Workers who lost it all thanks to globalization and hence cling on to their community and nation, or the bourgeoisie who share no class interests or moral affection to any serious populist left platform?

The answer should clearly be the former; however the left today is openly in arms with the latter. Christopher Lasch predicted as much in 1979’s The Culture of Narcissism. In it he argued that the left would attack the very institutions hurt most by capitalism and, in effect, manufacture consent for the system they claim to oppose. “Many radicals still direct their indignation against the authoritarian family, repressive sexual morality, literary censorship, the work ethic, and other foundations of bourgeois order, that have been weakened or destroyed by advanced capitalism itself.”

Has the nation state, which many leftists consider bourgeois, not also been destroyed by “advanced capitalism”? Have communities, which serve as centers of socialization and mutual assistance, not been gutted by globalization?

Now, this isn’t a call to return to a time when, for example, being gay was considered a mental illness. Far from it. It is rather a call to defend and strengthen the institutions being ravaged by neoliberal capitalism, and use those fortifications to launch an offensive against it.

One of the most powerful institutions is the nation state itself, and the sense of patriotism and belonging it provides. But many leftists decry patriotism and support for the nation state as “Nazism.” You know, the regime that privatized German industry, abolished trade unions, and threw Socialists and Communists in concentration camps? This logic is quite literally the same as Dinesh D’Souza’s: horrendously inaccurate and infantly stupid.

Historically, support for the nation state and patriotism has been the guiding light of many leftist revolutions. Fidel Castro’s Cuban liberation movement was a nationalist movement as much as it was Marxist. India’s independence movement was a civic nationalist movement led by socialists like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhagat Singh amongst others. Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Mujibur Rehman of Bangladesh, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam. The list goes on.

To embrace the nation state and a sense of place is not necessarily a “right-wing” belief; it has only become one because the left has abandoned it. If the electoral populist left wishes to rehabilitate the welfare state, it must support both welfare and the nation state. Goodhart himself argued that high immigration can undermine national solidarity and be a threat to social-democratic ideals about a welfare-state. You can either have open borders or a welfare state. You cannot have both.

What is to be done?

Much of today’s populist left builds a case for the CATO Institute more than they do for strengthening trade unions and the labor movement. They distrust the working class and reject their agency. They treat workers like children and force them into signing up for math tuition lessons when the “child” clearly wants to pursue piano.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. If the populist left wishes to represent the interests of working-class voters it must listen to what they want, and what they want is a revival of the welfare state. They value their place of being and the pride associated with it.

The answer for electoral success lies in front of us. When the left, in the case of Denmark, learnt from its history it won big; when the left, in the case of Bernie and especially Corbyn, ditched the very nation it sought to govern it lost electoral and ideological sway. 

To move past neoliberal capitalism and the ills it has wrecked on the working class, the populist left must learn from its past to pave a new future. Josip Broz Tito famously proclaimed the motto of Yugoslavia to be “bratstvo i jedinstvo.” Brotherhood and unity. This was the way Tito created a winning coalition of partisans to defeat the Nazis. It is time for the populist left to foster national brotherhood and class unity to defeat the monstrosity that is neoliberal capitalism. Mutual solidarity, support of one another, aiming to improve the lives of those left behind, and fostering a national togetherness have all been part of historical Left agendas. Leftists must revive the nation state, and only then can it use it effectively to enact its popular policies.