Charting Ideology: Patriotism

Date: 26 June 2022

Author: Michael C.

Tags: N. America, Philosophy

This article, Charting Ideology: Patriotism, is the first in a series of articles by Michael C. aimed at outlining and exploring the ideological trends within Marxism throughout history and today. From the Paris Commune to the New Left; UFOs to Socialism in One Step. The history of Marxism is steeped in important lessons that will be key to understand as the struggle for liberation enters a new age. By critically looking back, we can better move ahead.


Patriotism is a topic of recurring interest to many in the Communist movement in the west today. Three diverging positions have emerged in these ongoing debates: 

In order to discuss patriotism, it is necessary to begin with an understanding of what exactly the term means. This is the first hurdle, as it becomes clear that linguistic confusion plays a very strong role in the discussion itself.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, patriotism is defined as “love for or devotion to one's country,” and is synonymous with nationalism. Related terms include chauvinism and jingoism. In this sense, the first position is made clear, as chauvinism is clearly antithetical to Communist principles. However, the English language is incredibly fluid, and words as they appear in the dictionary are often quite different from words as they are understood in common usage in different places and times. For example, the word tankie - commonly understood as a derogatory term for Marxist-Leninists - does not appear in the same dictionary, but the word bumfuzzled does. So what common usage of the term “patriotism” do others point to?

Without a dictionary to reference, it becomes harder to point to a specific and concise alternative meaning. For proponents of the second position, the most commonly invoked interpretation is that patriotism is, in fact, not synonymous with nationalism - that proletarian patriotism refers to one’s dedication to the people, while bourgeois nationalism is dedication to the (bourgeois) state. That to be patriotic is to support the people, not the country, or, worded otherwise as supporting what the country might become - presumably following a Communist revolution.

While lamentable as an exercise in mere pedantry, it is necessary to have begun with this assessment of linguistic differences, as already it is made clear that in some sense or another, there appears to be some degree of validity to all sides.


The first position, or thesis, is that patriotism is a reactionary impulse which must be combated in all forms. Referencing the dictionary definition of the term patriotism, this position asserts that to be “patriotic” is to necessarily be a chauvinist. That by adhering to any sense of patriotism for the United States is tantamount to standing against the liberatory struggle of oppressed peoples and nations. Supporters of this position highlight that the United States itself was built atop the genocide and slavery of millions; that any love for such a project, the fruit of such barbarism, is necessarily love for that barbarism, or at least a willingness to casually gloss over the suffering of those millions, and must be combatted by all means. This is a straightforward position: that the United States, as an entity, is essentially the product of exploitation and terror, and therefore the object of revolutionary struggle is necessarily to see such an entity scattered into the wind and pushed into the sea.


The counterpoint, or antithesis, to the first position, relies more on the vernacular understanding of the term patriotism rather than the formal one. Proponents of this position assert that leading figures in Marxist-Leninist history, such as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, spoke on patriotism in positive terms; that it does not denote allegiance to bourgeois institutions, but rather to the people. Common motifs utilized by supporters of this position rely heavily on references to one Earl Browder, former Chairman of the Communist Party USA, who was expelled from the Party in 1946. Such motifs largely center around Browder’s vision of post-war unity between the United States and the Soviet Union, which he believed would be marked by prosperity and mutuality. This of course never came, precisely because of the imperialist and anti-communist ambitions of the United States, and the man from Kansas is viewed with little credibility in most contemporary Communist circles. Some believe that Browder’s dream may finally come true with the rise of the People’s Republic of China, and its public emphasis on peace and mutual cooperation. That now, more than half a century later, a patriotic socialism in the United States will lead the way to the construction of, again to reference Browder, 21st Century Americanism


The final counterpoint, or synthesis, to the earlier positions, utilizes more nuance and historical context. It is the position upheld by the majority of the leading Marxist-Leninist Parties in the world today, and, in typical dialectical fashion, may best be described as “both, and neither.” It is true that the dictionary definition of the term patriotism aligns it very closely with nationalism, and chauvinism. Supporters of this position maintain that we as Communists most wholeheartedly reject and fight against such things. However, at the same time it is also true that every single leading figure in the history of Marxism-Leninism, not just Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, but also Kim, Ho, and Phomvihane, as well as many more, spoke of patriotism. This is the contradiction apparent in the two competing positions, however, by thoroughly analyzing the works of those figures, as well as the movement of history, it is clear that a firm distinction has been drawn between bourgeois patriotism and love of our fellow workers. Mao specifically wrote on this distinction, which saw Chinese revolutionaries locked in a struggle to the death against compradors and fascists - Japanese and German “patriots.” That [t]he specific content of patriotism is determined by historical conditions. Indeed, throughout history it appears that all great revolutionaries have spoken and written on this “patriotic question.” Not from the perspective of bourgeois nationalism and chauvinism, but national liberation and freedom from the yoke of imperialism and exploitation. This motif is often described as “socialist patriotism,” going back to Lenin, and rests on internationalist solidarity and love of the working and oppressed peoples around the world. It rests on an implicit rejection of imperialism and exploitation, rather than a glossing-over of it.

The competing analyses for and against patriotism, more realistically, stand as deviations - to the left and right respectively - of this analysis. The ultra-leftist “anti-patriotism” on the one hand maintains that the only path forward amounts to what essentially would be a cleansing by fire. The revisionist “patriotism” on the other hand maintains that since Mao and others used these terms, even if in specific contexts, that they must be good, and that the only path forward amounts to what is essentially right-wing tailism. This latter position, this right-deviation, has taken on a pronounced form, as it appears extremely accessible to the right-orientation of many.

Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher of Ephesus, said that no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man. So too, the United States will never return to some oft-imagined “golden age” of milk and honey. As a matter of fact, such an age never truly existed, and the struggles fought on these shores and others since the human species first crawled out of the mists of pre-history show us that such a returning never truly occurs. The Browderite dream of a friendship between empire and imperialized has never existed, nor will it in any sustainable capacity. Even in moments of great regression, such as now, when reaction is in full swing and everything under heaven is in utter chaos, the dialectical progression of history is still unfolding, still developing, still struggling, and still progressing — the situation is excellent. The invocation of patriotism is only relevant to the struggle today insofar as it relates to the struggle of the peoples trapped in this prisonhouse of nations; insofar as we understand that loyalty to the imperialist machine is precisely the program of our enemies, and that loyalty to the oppressed and downtrodden is precisely our own. Even in the throes of reaction, the United States is not, and never will, “return”; it is not the same river, and we are not the same people

The struggle today is the struggle for precisely what political establishment will hold the reins of power in the future. A continued turn towards reaction will give us nothing more than the continued growth of fascism, even if that reaction is cloaked as “radical,” or somehow “Marxist.” A turn towards the progressive, the revolutionary, is the only way to bring about true liberation and freedom. In the final analysis, it is not the word itself which matters. It is the material endpoint of the positions espoused by those dancing around different interpretations of the same vocabulary. A right-opportunist and revisionist one will inevitably give way to the forces of fascism, precisely as happened in 1934; a left-adventurist one will inevitably give way to the forces of brutal idealism, precisely as happened in 1983.

The Marxist-Leninist, dialectical materialist position, as always, is to reject both.

Outside the imperial core, the term patriotism, as Mao discussed, is characterized by a vastly different set of historical conditions. So-called Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian, (North) Korean, Cuban, etc., patriots are not “patriotic” for bourgeois and regressive political entities and institutions, but for the decolonization and liberation of their respective homelands. Different rivers, to borrow from the above analogy. In all of these ideations of “patriotism” in the imperialized nations, the uniting factor is a rejection of and struggle against imperialism and exploitation. Historically, such imperialism and exploitation came at the hands of the west — the United States, United Kingdom, and other European powers. Any “patriotism” in the west that does not account for this historical condition inherently or tacitly supports or approves of it, and will inevitably find itself in the same place as Browder’s forlorn vision of “20th century Americanism.” 

First as tragedy, then as farce.