International Endowment for Democracy ���or��￁

What Role Does Patriotism Play in Capitalist Democracy: Particularly Ours / Particularly Now?

By Bertell Ollman


In the Crimean War, an English officer misinterpreted an order and directed a cavalry charge against a heavily fortified Russian position that led to the slaughter of the entire company of six hundred men. Rather than fault the officer or question the sense of the soldiers who wantonly committed suicide, the poet Tennyson famously wrote:

"Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred".

The message is clear: in war, patriotism consists in following orders without considering whether they are right or wrong, or even if they make any sense. "Love of country" becomes unquestioning obedience to the country's government. George Bernard Shaw once compared this attitude to "my mother, drunk or sober', which the philosopher, John Sommerville, rightly amended to "my mother's lawyer, drunk or sober", since the existing government is not the country but only an agent currently acting in its name. Taken together, Tennyson, Shaw and Sommerville offer a neat summary of what patriotism is and the more critical doubts it raises. But the mystery of patriotism��what drives it, where it comes from and how it works��continue to elude us. To unravel this mystery��which seems to become more clouded with each new patriotic outburst��is the aim of our essay.


Why was the biggest Governmental assault on the American Bill of Rights in the last 200 years packaged as the "Patriot Act", and why is the favorite rebuke directed against those who criticize the Government��in almost any area��that they/we are unpatriotic? Do I need to tell you that this "patriotism" is particularly dangerous to the Left, because it both isolates and confuses us��where are the good Marxist or otherwise radical studies of patriotism, especially today when we most need them? Outbursts of patriotism, such as occurred after 9/11, also put us on a collision course with the very people we want most to influence, since workers are often the most enthusiastic patriots. It also leads to the easy dismissal of our criticisms and can even threaten our jobs, friendships and personal security. All this, of course, is of long standing. Some have even suggested that patriotism among workers in the U.S. and other capitalist countries was the main psychological barrier to socialist revolution in the 20th century. If this is an exaggeration, it is not a very big one. Obviously, we need to understand patriotism much better than we do.

Patriotism is usually spoken of as "love of country". What we need to know is

  1. What is the sense of "country" used here?
  2. Whence this love, and why is it so intense and, also, so pleasurable?
  3. Why do symbols, and especially the flag, play such a crucial role in evoking patriotic feelings, beliefs and actions?
  4. What gives the Government, and especially the President, their privileged role as interpreter of the meaning of these symbols?
  5. What is the relation between patriotism and capitalism, particularly modern democratic capitalism?
  6. Why is American patriotism, especially today, more intense, more virulent and more effective than the patriotism found in other countries?
  7. How should we understand the difference between what Lenin called the "nationalism of the oppressed" and the "nationalism of the oppressors"?
I hope that my brief responses to these questions will help provoke the major Marxist study of patriotism that is so badly needed. Throughout, I adopt the American practice of using "nationalism" to refer to THEIR patriotism and the more positive and upbeat term "patriotism" to speak about OUR nationalism. My approach will be to examine what the Marxist theories of the state and of alienation have to teach us about the nature of patriotism. There are, of course, at least two other Marxist inspired approaches that one could take to this subject. One passes through the study of the nation, its history and culture, and the peculiar identity it provides to those who live (or lived) in it. The other treats patriotism as ideology and examines where it distorts reality and how such distortions serve the interests of the ruling class. While both of these approaches cast important light on our subject��and will not be ignored in what follows��it is Marx's theories of the state and of alienation that offer the best chance of answering the specific questions that I have laid out above.


The main focus of Marx's theory of the state is on the relation between the ruling economic class and the political means it uses, directly or indirectly, to rule. For grasping patriotism, however, it is another, less known and much lesser used aspect of this theory that merits our attention. This is Marx's view of the state as an illusory community. Marx believes that we all belong to two overlapping and intersecting communities: the first one is the social community, which derives from the initial division of labor that assigns people different tasks and makes a certain amount of cooperation necessary if everyone's basic needs are to be satisfied. Most people have a general, if vague, understanding of their interdependence in this community, and a general��if, again, vague��appreciation for what others contribute to their well being. There is also an emotional side to this experience, which is the feeling of deep satisfaction and inner security that accompanies most forms of cooperation and being part of a community that treats helping others and being helped by them as matters of course.

Marx calls the second community to which we all belong the "illusory community". It contains the same people and involves the same interdependence��this is why it is a community. But here one class holds economic and political power and uses it to present its distinctive class interests as the general interests (or, as we now say, the "national interests") or what is good for everyone. This is why it is an "illusory" community, a society that seems to belong to everyone and to be concerned with all who contribute to it, but really belongs to its ruling class and is only concerned with them and those whose help they rely on to rule. Here, the real interdependence, which continues to exist, gets shaped into various social, economic and political rules and institutions that privilege the special interests of this class. In order for these rules to be followed and the institutions that embody them to work efficiently, however, the ruling class needs to construct an ideology that hides and/or defends its special privileges, making use��to the extent that it can��of the very sentiments of solidarity and mutual concern that its own organization of society has dismissed as irrelevant. Throughout class history, but especially under capitalism, patriotism��whether under this or some other label��has always stood at the center of this ideology.

There is a strong resemblance��as some in this audience will have already noted��between this notion of "illusory community" and Benedict Anderson's notion of "imagined community" and also Ernest Gellner's notion of an "invented" one in their books on nationalism. The similarity exists, because any idea that is imagined or invented is also likely to be illusory, but Marx's notion of "illusory community" extends much further by including the alienated activities that produce (and continue to reproduce) it as well as its contradictory relation to the social community as essential parts of what it is. For all their many virtues, these are areas that neither Anderson nor Gellner has chosen to explore.

How best, then, to characterize patriotism as ideology? And how can the ruling class evoke beliefs and emotions associated with the social community from a populace whose daily lives are ordered by the illusory community? How can they do so without revealing their own narrow class interests? And how can the populace give vent to beliefs and feelings rooted in social connectedness without threatening the oppressive structures that have squelched it?

While patriotism is an amalgam of beliefs and emotions, it is the latter that deserves to be treated first, and not only because it is the site of most of the mysteries associated with this subject. That is still another reason why it is wrong to emphasize what people imagine (Anderson) or invent (Gellner) in explaining nationalism/patriotism. Most patriotic ideas, after all, are largely rationalizations for feelings, and many patriots seem willing to act on these feelings in the absence of any serious attempt to make sense of them. The Americanism Commander of the Wisconsin American Legion (yes, there is such an office), for example, once assured me that even though he didn't know what the "American way of life" was, I should have no doubt about his willingness to die for it. What is the key emotion that triggers such patriotic reactions? Not "love", as ordinarily understood, and not pride, or anger, or fear, or hatred, though all of these are present to different degrees and in various combinations, depending on the individual and the occasion or provocation. But underpinning all these feelings, providing the emotional fuel as it were for the entire process, is the drive for social connectedness, for community, the need to belong to a group in which one counts and for which one counts (or thinks one does), and the pleasure we get when this need is satisfied.

Patriotism feels good, something most radicals��including this one��have had a difficult time coming to terms with. What kind of things feel good? Well, generally things that serve a basic need that is not being met. Think of how good we feel when our pressing needs for food or sex are satisfied. I believe something very similar applies to patriotism, but the need in this case is not for patriotism as such but for something else that in present circumstances is best satisfied��if only partially and in a distorted manner��by patriotism. At issue are the genuine human needs for fellowship and recognition that comes from our membership in the human species as well as a historically conditioned social need for solidarity that arises out of our experience of cooperation in the social community.

In a life where people are constantly in competition with one another, however, where sharing and showing mutual concern are usually penalized and even ridiculed��in short, in the illusory community��there are few occasions to express feelings of fellowship. Hence, almost any opportunity for collective display is greedily taken up��as in praying together in church, or cheering together at sporting events, or singing and swaying together at concerts, or marching together in parades. Obviously, there is a great hunger for community here, one that people's current lives as workers, students, consumers and citizens��even with the addition of religion, mass spectator sports, music, dance, and parades��does not and cannot satisfy. But patriotism can, and, in its peculiar way, does. For patriotism offers people the opportunity to vent their deepest communal emotions in all venues, twenty-four hours a day, in a socially acceptable, indeed, socially praiseworthy way. For the emotionally hungry, this is heady fare. It is experienced as very pleasurable and returning to the table again and again for more is hard to resist.

The human drive for recognition plays a similar role. It is not simply a matter of wanting others to know that we exist, but of respecting who we are and what we do. When that happens, we feel pride, but when it doesn't we feel empty and even humiliated. But given the lives most people lead in our society, how often do they feel pride? How often do they feel humiliated? Patriotism helps satisfy this drive for recognition by substituting the country to which we belong for the individual, and the pride evoked by the country's achievements (real or imagined) for the absence of pride in our own. To prolong the pleasure they get from such recognition most people are ready to make all sorts of personal sacrifices. When President Kennedy famously said to his fellow Americans, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country", he was tapping into this sentiment. As a mode of being that privileges feeling over thinking, patriotism also allows people to lose themselves in the moment, to "surrender" to their emotions, and stop thinking altogether. Again, in lives full of problems that have no easy solutions, where most thinking about one's situation creates a pinching anxiety and worse, any opportunity��especially a socially valued one��to forget our worries brings welcome relief.

There is, of course, also a tragic dimension to patriotism, for it is not only about people's willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the "country" but about making a connection to those who have already made the "ultimate sacrifice". The community that patriotic people strive to realize then stretches back to include our fallen soldiers, and an attempt is made to identify with their cause and the commitment they are supposed to have brought to it. Soldiers in time of war offer us an exaggerated form of patriotism, but it is also the ideal form put forward for everyone to emulate in times of peace. Military funerals, memorials and cemeteries all testify to the importance our culture gives to establishing these bonds and to building a popular reflex upon the military model. But can patriotic ceremonies create a sense of community with the dead? It can probably do as much and as little in this regard as religion (with which funerary patriotism is usually mixed) or any other mystical medium used for this purpose. Apparently that is enough, however, to satisfy many people, especially families who have lost a son or daughter to war and former soldiers who have lost friends, and who need to be reassured that the patriotic response of their loved ones was justified and that they didn't die in vain. So it is that patriotism can, on occasion, evoke tears as well as pleasure, but, in the absence of any alternative, that too can be satisfying if it provides some relief for the mourner's pain.

From the point of view of the emotions involved, then, patriotism would appear to be like a simmering volcano with periodic eruptions, some of which are powerful enough to destroy everything in its path. However, none of this occurs, or can occur, without the help of symbols, like the flag, the anthem, the pledge of allegiance, various monuments, and so on. They arouse patriotism, they promote it, they channel it, they give it a language, traditions, ceremonies. But most important of all, they set out its immediate object��what it is that we are supposed to "love" and for which we must be ready to sacrifice��and it is never anything the people addressed can actually recognize. All of our real life experiences are missing. And the reason for this should be obvious.

No soldier is going to run toward machine gun fire on behalf of the flesh and blood people who live across town from him. Too many are of the wrong color, go to the wrong church, or speak with the wrong accent. He also doesn't like a great deal about his "way of life" whether at home, in school or at work. None of this is worth killing or dying for, so all the details that allow us to recall the personal experiences that usually serve as the basis for our actions have to be erased. What is left is a kind of lowest common denominator��what all Americans have in common, whatever that is��that tells us nothing about everything, nothing specific anyway, a hollow shell, a ghostly abstraction that we honor with the name "country". This is the country at which all our patriotic symbols point. Voided of all specifics regarding who is doing what to whom and why, the country, so understood, retains all its secrets, and the illusory community remains as mystified and, therefore, as secure as ever. On the other hand, the very vagueness of the notion of "country" allows people to conflate it with the social community, and to react to the patriotic symbols put forward by the former as if they were true expressions of the latter. Protected by a bad case of mistaken identity, patriotic symbols can now be the bridge over which the positive emotions generated by the social community pass over into actually existing class society.

If my interpretation of patriotism gives so much weight to patriotic symbols, it is because I consider them much more than symbols (representations, signs, or indications). They are also "products", products of alienated political activity. To pursue this point, we must turn to Marx's theory of alienation. For the flag, the anthem, and the various monuments would not succeed so well in their symbolic work if they did not also embody some of the powers that people have lost through their alienated political activity.


The English poet, Wordsworth, offers one of the best brief summaries of Marx's theory of alienation when he writes, "Things are in the saddle and they ride mankind". Marx was chiefly concerned to demonstrate how this worked in the economic sphere of our lives where, under conditions of capitalism, the workers' sale of their labor power leave them without any control over its use and final product. Then, in a series of metamorphoses, or transformations, which arise out of the buying and selling that occur in the market-place, these products take on forms��value, commodity, capital, money, profit, interest, rent and wage-labor��that hide their origins in alienated productive activity and assume a mysterious power over the lives of their own creators. This is most evident in the case of money, the exchange form of commodities, or general means by which value circulates among those who have a legal claim to some part of it. On one occasion, Marx calls money, "the alienated ability of mankind". It is what workers once were but no longer are, what they have lost��essentially mastery over the world that they have made��in the very process of transferring this power to the various value forms of their product and eventually to money. Now money "talks", money decides, money disposes��all of which is (mis)taken as coming from the nature of money as such��and it is people, from whom this power came, who are forced to submit.

The German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, from whom Marx borrowed the basic structure for his theory of alienation, said something very similar about religion. Here, the believer's religious activities, such as praying, going to church, and the like, are seen to create a unique religious product, god, as an other-worldly projection of some of the human qualities��mainly reason, creative power and love��that are used and given up in the very activities designed to serve him. As with the value product of alienated productive activity, god��as the immediate and most general product of alienated religious activity��undergoes a series of metamorphoses which transfer some part of his "divine" qualities to the objects (crosses, etc.), places (churches, etc.) and people (saints, etc.) associated with him. They are then thought to contain the same powers lost in creating god, and religious people react to them accordingly.

In both the economic and religious realms, the products of alienated activities are used to mystify and manipulate their own producers because they are under the control of a group of people��capitalists in the economy, priests, ministers and rabbis in religion��who have interests that are not only different than but opposed to the interests of the "producers". They use their control over the various forms of value in one case and of god-objects in the other to determine what are the acceptable ways of dealing with them (using money to "buy" what one needs, "praying" with a Bible in church when that proves insufficient, and so on). But directing the manner in which these alienated products can be used also helps shape the alienated activities that are responsible for producing them. It is in this way that today's results become tomorrow's preconditions, and the social position and privileges of those who control both are preserved.

The same pattern of relations that we see above can be found in our political life, where people��now in their capacity as citizens��engage in a variety of alienated political activities, such as voting, engaging in political campaigns, making and obeying laws, pledging allegiance, singing the national anthem and saluting the flag. These activities are alienated, because��like alienated economic and religious activities��they take place in conditions and for ends that are completely controlled by others who have different and opposed interests. And as in the economy and in religion, alienated political activity gives rise to a general product that contains, suitably altered, most of the abilities that citizens have lost in creating it. In the political sphere, the alienated product to which citizens have transferred most of their political power is the state. What has been transferred here is the distinctively human power to organize our life together as mutually dependent and cooperating members of society (with all the thinking and feeling that goes into that). In more political language, legislating, administering and adjudicating solutions to the problems that come up in our daily lives��something we as human beings are capable of doing for ourselves��all become functions of the state.

Then, as occurs with value in the economy and with god in religion, these human powers or abilities get metamorphosed into a variety of concrete forms��institutions, constitutions, laws, traditions and symbols (like the flag). And, as in the economic and religious spheres, these forms are used to mystify and manipulate the very people whose alienated activity has given rise to them, because they are under the control of a small group, a political elite in this case, who have interests opposed to theirs. The most important of these interests is the reproduction of the conditions��largely whatever underlies alienated activities in all the spheres mentioned ��that gives them their control. In sum, money, the cross and the flag are "brothers" under the skin, all products of alienated activities in different spheres of life, all powers that mystify and dominate our existence, all " the saddle... [that] ride mankind".

The main political power embodied in patriotic symbols is, as we saw, the power of connecting with others in the community. But if we have the ability��both as human beings and as cooperating members of the social community��to relate directly to other people in ways evoked by who each one is and what he or she does, one of the most striking effects of our alienation within the illusory community is that we generally relate to others through the mediation of our products. In keeping with the workers' relation to the objects they have produced and which they need in order to live that passes through money, in keeping too with the religious believer's relation to their own potential for creativity, reason and love that passes through god and the various forms in which his spirit is thought to reside, people in their character as social beings relate to each other as "citizens" only through their shared relation to the state and its collection of patriotic symbols. People's communal ties to each other pass through these symbols, whose presumed meaning��rather than any democratic consultation��dictates to each individual what he must do to fulfill his patriotic duty.

The role that symbols play as the chief mediator between patriotic people and the community makes it appear, over time, that the symbols themselves have the power to dominate whatever it is that they bring together. Marx refers to the natural (really supernatural) power that people attribute to such things as money, crosses and the flag as "fetishism". In every case, something that was meant to mediate��facilitate our connection to, interpret or make available to us��some part of the world that we deem necessary for our existence has taken on the appearance of a prime mover, and people surrender to what they take to be its will. Rather than a symbol that points to the country, the flag has come to substitute for the country. A recent letter writer to the New York Times admitted as much when he declared his undying love for "the country and the flag for which it stands". For it is the visible and touchable flag that most patriots really love, that stimulates their sense of community, triggers their historical memories, evokes their loyalty and inspires them to make sacrifices, and not the vague and imprecise notion of country. Again, when the New York Post announced in a front page headline on Iraq, "They Died for the Flag", the claim was probably and all too sadly true.

If the flag as a patriotic symbol reveals something about the country that is so vague and general that people can understand it as the social rather than the illusory community, in its role as fetish the flag blocks our view of the country altogether. Rather than denying or even distorting any of the uncomfortable truths about the illusory community that might interfere with our patriotism, the flag as fetish renders them irrelevant. There is no need, no felt need, to look at them. The fetish seems to offer all the explanation one needs to answer any of the questions raised about our society; thinking stops there. In this way, exploitation, inequality, alienation, racism and especially class rule escape even cursory examination. And if they are irrelevant, then any attempt to criticize or to correct even the most blatant lies about the country can be ignored, not rejected (which suggests that some attention has been paid to these remarks) but ignored.

In reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, for example, what patriot has ever paused to consider its obviously false description of our country as "one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all"? This oath begins, you will recall, with a pledge of allegiance to the flag; the country comes afterwards. But since the mental and emotional space put aside for the country has already been taken up by the flag, there is hardly anything that could be said about the country that would get our patriot's attention. Few things have frustrated and mystified radical critics more than this indifference (not disagreement, but indifference) to even the most damning facts about the country for which patriots are so willing to sacrifice. The explanation lies in the fetishistic character of the flag and other patriotic symbols, and the central role that such fetishism plays in our society.


Our account of patriotic symbols as fetishes lacks one major component. While the flag in the eyes of patriots operates as an independent force that tells us what to do, we know this cannot be so. For symbols are mute; they cannot talk. They need to be interpreted. Someone has to say what they mean and what they require of us. There is always a Wizard of Oz calling signals from behind a drawn curtain. And this "someone" has to be believed without question if patriots are to take what is, in effect, read into the flag for truths that are read out of it. The same thing holds for the fetishized products in other spheres, such as religion, where priests, ministers and rabbis explain how god wants us to use the various god��objects into which some of his qualities have been transferred. Things, it turns out, are not really "in the saddle"��some people are. Helped by the appearance that "things" are in the saddle, it is they who are "riding mankind".

As regards patriotic symbols, it is the Government and��in the U.S.��especially the President who serve as the voice of the fetish, announcing with priest��like certainty on any given occasion what it is that the flag wants us to do. The President is in the best position to be the voice of the flag because he is the legitimate head of state, where the state itself��which has adopted the flag as its symbol��is viewed as the legitimate organ of the social community. Given these assumptions, it is difficult to contest the President's right to speak for the flag. As we know, however, in class societies the state does not serve everyone equally. Instead, its main efforts are directed to helping the class that rules over the economy reproduce the conditions of its existence as the ruling class. In capitalism, that means essentially helping the capitalist class accumulate capital, realize the value of their products, repress opposition to their exploitative rule, and legitimize all the forms in which this goes on (including the various forms of the capitalist state). At any given moment, it is the state's success in legitimating capitalism that offers the best measure of its success as a state. But to do this job well, the state has to appear legitimate in the eyes of most of its citizens, which requires above all else that its consistent bias on behalf of the capitalist ruling class be hidden from view. The flag and other patriotic symbols are crucial to the success of this effort.

In the United States, the main forces that legitimate our capitalist state are the Constitution, the Supreme Court, and democratic elections (with the emphasis on "democratic"). Together they determine the rules of our political game and how it should be played. Accepted as right in principle, what they "say" goes, no matter what one may have thought before they were consulted. Their authority rests, in the last analysis, on the widespread belief that they are beyond politics and concerned only with the good of society as a whole, that they operate, in short, as forms of the social community and not the illusory one. Standing on these foundations, the state and its current office holders have little difficulty getting people to obey their dictates. The threat of force, of what will happen to you if you break the law, of course, always lurks in the background, but the greater power that comes with legitimacy usually renders force unnecessary.

The Government's stake in retaining its legitimacy, therefore, could not be greater. But with the evidence of pro-capitalist bias in the Constitution, the Supreme Court and elections so widespread and easy to find, the Government is in constant danger of losing the legitimacy it needs to function effectively. To forestall such a catastrophe, the Government has become very adept in using our patriotic symbols as fetishes. In delivering all his public speeches standing before a wall of American flags, for example, Bush is not only voicing what this patriotic symbol would have us do but using it to legitimate his own right to speak on its behalf. In the process, the deep nature of the Constitution, Supreme Court and democratic elections as forms of the illusory community is occluded from view, and the Government's role as chief defender of capitalist interests is carefully preserved. A successful appeal to patriotism, of course, requires that the Government possess some legitimacy at the start��otherwise too many people will see through the ploy. A Government with declining legitimacy, therefore, cannot wait too long to act. Usually, a successful appeal to patriotism also depends on some condition or event in the real world that can be pointed to as the objective cause of the appeal. It offers the best chance of triggering the biggest patriotic response and obtaining the leeway the Government needs to carry out its full agenda, all of it suitably packaged as "in the national interest".

In this regard, it is important to note that just before the outburst of patriotism that followed the events of 9/11, the American state suffered its greatest loss of legitimacy in the entire history of the Republic. I am not only thinking of the losing candidate being installed as President but of the highly publicized vote fraud in Florida and the straight political vote in the Supreme Court that sought to white wash it. In the 2,000 election, neither democratic elections (based, supposedly, on the principle of majority rule) nor the Supreme Court (based, supposedly, on the principle of the rule of law) could play its customary role in legitimating the incoming Administration. When we add to this the hundreds of millions of dollars of corporate money used to buy the election and Bush's non-existent qualifications for the job, the new Government probably had less legitimacy, and with it less ability to promote its agenda, than any of its predecessors. Perhaps no Government in our entire history needed an attack on our country so it could play the patriotic card as badly as this one. It came, and, as far as Bush's legitimacy is concerned, just in the nick of time.


In summary, the chief characteristics of patriotism which emerge from this account are the following: rather than a "love of country", patriotism is the special attachment one feels for what is left of the country and its people once all that distinguishes them (and allows us to notice differences) has been abstracted out. It is the devotion shown to the symbols that stand for this version of the country, and a behavior that treats them as embodying some of the very qualities they are said to represent. If people use symbols, fetishes use people. The doubling up of patriotic symbols as fetishes occurs as the result of alienated political activity that transfers some of people's ability to organize their life together in society to a range of political products, including patriotic symbols, over which they have lost all control. Those who control these products��and this holds for every social sphere��are now in a position to use them to reproduce the same alienated activities that have brought them these benefits. Throughout, emotions play a much larger role than reason or thinking generally, and the strongest emotion evoked by patriotism is the pleasure of belonging to a cooperative social community where everyone is concerned with the fate of others. Unfortunately, the social community only exists in the shadow of an illusory community dominated by the ruling economic class and its state, where none of this applies. Unaware of this, patriots accept the Government of the illusory community and especially its leader as privileged interpreters of the meaning of patriotic symbols, and give them the legitimacy they need to substitute ruling class interests for the communal interest in all matters of importance.


If this is the nature of patriotism, what it always and everywhere is��at its deepest level��and how it actually works, we are now in a position to answer three of the most frequently asked questions about it:

  1. What is the relation between capitalism, particularly democratic capitalism, and patriotism?
  2. Why is there more patriotism in the U.S. than in other capitalist countries?
  3. How does my analysis affect the difference Lenin found between the "nationalism of the oppressed" and the "nationalism of the oppressors"?

Why does patriotism become so much more important with the rise of capitalism? The connection of patriotism with capitalism is indirect through the rise of a centralized state that the rising capitalist class requires to best serve its interests. In replacing older and especially feudal forms of political rule, the new state also overturned the main bases of their legitimation (the divine right of kings, tradition and longevity). New forms of legitimation had to be found and /or constructed. Shared ethnic, religious, racial or cultural characteristics were used wherever they existed. To this was added in whatever combination these qualities allowed a national identity that came from simply living in the territory under the control of a particular state. The purpose of this new identity was twofold: to help people distinguish themselves from those who lived across the national borders, especially when ethnic, religious and racial identities overlapped, and to hide��or trivialize where that wasn't possible��the prevailing class divisions and conflicts that bedeviled each society. If the first purpose received more overt attention, it was the second, largely implicit aim that has always been more important. For in the mix between the two, it is only when class feelings became subordinate to patriotic ones that the interests of the ruling economic class could take on the appearance of the national interest and become a key part of everyone's national identity.

But it is also patriotism that allows democracy to serve as the main legitimating mechanism in the capitalist period. As indicated above, capitalists require much more help on the part of the state than did the ruling classes of earlier times. Beside repression and legitimation, staples of state activity in all class societies, the capitalist state must also help its ruling economic class to accumulate capital and realize value (sell the finished products). Not to do so is to risk the very future of the system. The striking class bias displayed, particularly in these last two functions (in the laws, judicial interpretations, and administrative decisions that flesh them out), is too dangerous to the interests that have come out on top to leave unattended. So, in coordination with the rest of the consciousness industry, the state does its best to disguise it, to trivialize it and eventually��and most effective of all��to treat it as something freely chosen by the majority of people in a democratic election. After all, how can one dispute what appears to be the popular will?

Furthermore, the distinctive manner in which the capitalist class extracts the surplus from those who produce all the wealth in our society��to wit, through a "free" exchange of labor�� power for a wage��puts certain limits on the use of direct force in obtaining their ends. The philosopher, Stanley Moore, has noted that "when exploitation takes the form of exchange, dictatorship takes the form of democracy". Workers simply have to believe that they are free politically in order for them to believe that they are free economically to accept (or reject) a wage in exchange for their labor��power. With all the economic pressures operating on them, this is only partly true at best, but in the presence of political democracy this is enough for them to view their work conditions and relations as legitimate and to produce as much and as efficiently as they do. Thus, whatever democracy's many positive virtues, and despite all the popular struggles that have helped to bring it to life, the main role of democracy in the capitalist era is to legitimate existing social relations and the state's part in reproducing them.

But if democracy really represents the popular will, how can the capitalists be sure that, from their point of view, the people will always act "responsibly"? If our "Founding Fathers" feared the leveling potential in democracy, their successors soon discovered there was nothing to worry about as long as elections could be bought, education and information effectively monopolized, and various one-sided rules put in place so that no anti-capitalist party had a chance to win. The state's very efforts to ensure the results, however, only provide further evidence for the partisanship it is trying to hide. Under these circumstances, many on the Left continue to wonder how capitalist parties (in which I include the Social Democrats) that offer voters so much less than they want can keep on winning all the elections. The answer, I believe, lies far less in their programs than in the flag and other patriotic symbols with which these programs come wrapped. Most workers vote against their class interests because they "love" their "country". Conditioned by their early socialization and urged on by the capitalist media, it is felt as a patriotic duty (and pleasure, alienating though it be). It is in this way that patriotism allows democracy to do what capitalism requires of it. To sum up: in capitalism, no patriotism, no democracy; no democracy, no (or not enough) legitimation for capitalist exploitation and for the state to serve the capitalist class as openly as it does; no capitalist exploitation and no state bias on behalf of the capitalists, no capitalism.

If so much is true throughout the capitalist world, why is patriotism a bigger problem in the U.S. than elsewhere? The current Government's non-stop appeals to patriotism are due, as we saw, to the fact that some of the traditional means by which the American state secured its legitimacy��such as the Supreme Court and elections��have lost some of their democratic luster, at least temporarily. When we add to this the sharp right turn taken by Bush in both foreign and domestic affairs, the state's legitimation deficit and corresponding need for a new burst of patriotism to fill it may have reached historic heights.

But Americans have been more patriotic and more respectful of the flag than the citizens of other capitalist countries long before 9/11. This, too, calls for an explanation. Here, I would place greatest weight on the fact that the U.S. unlike most of its competitors could never rely on a dominant ethnic, religious, or racial identity to provide the needed national cohesiveness, though it often tried to do so (our "white nation", our "Judeo-Christian nation", etc.). This left people's shared identity as citizens all alone as a workable basis for uniting them behind the Government, and led to the Government's outsized dependence on strictly political forms of legitimation. The American Civil War brought on the first great crisis in national consciousness when the defeated southerners and the newly freed blacks had great difficulty thinking of themselves as citizens. Taken together with the huge increase in immigration that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly from eastern and southern Europe (areas in which many people had begun to think of themselves in class terms and as socialists), it became evident that the state needed to get more directly involved in instilling the sense of national identity on which so much of its own legitimacy depended. It was in this period between the Civil War and World War I that most of our patriotic symbols, rites and traditions were born and made staples in our system of education.

In more recent times, and especially after World War II, American patriotism has received a boost from two other features that set this country apart from the rest of the world. The first is America's standing as the richest and most powerful nation in history, which makes it seem like the country/nation/state/Government deserves all the praise we can offer and also gives its citizens the right (and the duty) to be proud of it and of ourselves as parts of it. This is not very different from what a football fan feels whenever the home team rises to the top of the standings. It is worth recalling too, in this connection, the unique importance that mass spectator sports have in American life. And, as we saw earlier, in politics, as in football, the less self-worth an individual feels and the less respect with which he/she is treated by others, the greater is the satisfaction he/she gets from the exalted worth of and the respect directed to some larger group to which he/she belongs.

The second feature that has come to distinguish our polity more and more is the belief that our country, no matter what party is in power, has always been in the forefront of the struggle for democracy, human rights and freedom everywhere. According to the prevailing ideology, these are America's main exports to the rest of the world. Believing this, most Americans��unlike the inhabitants of other capitalist lands��have had little difficulty reconciling their patriotism with their conscience. If America's role in the war against Hitler and in the Cold War offers some support for these beliefs, the bloody record of U.S. imperialism from the theft of Indian lands forward, and particularly today, presents plenty of evidence to the contrary. Some of this even filters through to the media and system of education only to get written off by most patriots as "liberal propaganda" or, if true, as minor, temporary, the result of a leader's personal failings, or a necessary step toward some greater human good. Do American patriots really believe, then, that what our leaders call the national interests coincide with what is best for the rest of the world? Leaving our rulers aside, I think most really do and that this belief provides a major rationale for their patriotic behavior. It also allows some patriots to use their universalistic religious beliefs to undergird their narrow national aspirations. The result is a unique mixture of naivete and self-righteousness that true believers misconstrue as idealism and the world knows as "American patriotism".

As for the unusually large role that patriotic symbols and especially the flag play in American patriotism, the fact that these symbols, as we saw, are also fetishes suggests what is involved. Who says "fetishism" says "alienation", and the enormous progress of American capitalism with its accompanying spread of commodification has extended the separation between each individual and his/her activity, product and others to a degree realized nowhere else�� and produced the most alienated people in the world. Despite their affluence (in part because of it), the painful isolation, constant competition, mutual indifference, and multiple disempowerment from which most Americans suffer has given rise to an intense longing for community that nothing in their daily lives can satisfy. There should be no surprise then that the products of their alienated political activity, such as the flag, that deliver even a pale reflection of the community they have lost, should exercise so much power over them. While the absence of ethnic, religious and racial forms of legitimation forces the state to play the patriotic card over and again, it is the depths of alienation to which most Americans have sunk that has put the flag on the face of this card.

The next question is��how does my analysis affect the difference Lenin and others have stressed between the nationalism of the oppressed and that of the oppressors? Clearly, some forms of oppression have a national character. It is equally clear that one cannot oppose oppression without admitting the right of its victims to rise against it. And, in so far as nationalism helps some oppressed groups organize themselves more effectively, it has to be recognized as a positive feature by all who support their struggle. Moreover, in the stage of imperialism, with more and more oppression taking the form of capitalist exploitation, nationalist resistance can also be viewed as part of the world-wide movement against capital. For all these reasons, the nationalism of the oppressed cannot be equated with the nationalism of those, like Americans, who help their own ruling class extend its oppression to other lands.

Having said that, it doesn't follow that the analysis made of nationalism/patriotism above only applies to politically regressive forms of this ideology. The origins of nationalism always lie in alienation; fetishism, the hunger for community and recognition, authoritarian manipulation by political leaders, a largely imagined collective history, sharp opposition to a designated enemy, and intolerance for dissent always accompany it. Further, most nationalist movements of oppressed peoples have also had middle class leadership and populist rather than socialist programs, and have often turned on their socialist and communist allies, sometime brutally, once in power. If the justice of their cause argues for socialists giving support to nationalist movements of oppressed populations, their forbidding track record once in power together with the alienated character of all nationalist ideology argues for a more critical stance. In practice, it is probably best to adopt a case-by-case approach, taking into account the seriousness of the abuses, the balance of forces on the spot, the larger international context, opportunities for improvement if not radical transformation that any political struggle brings, but also the full range of distortions and outright dangers that accompany all such developments. In short, if Lenin was correct in distinguishing the nationalism of the oppressed from that of the oppressors, and signaling the importance of supporting the former, Rosa Luxemburg��who opposed Lenin on this��was also right in drawing our attention to the dangers in such a policy and insisting on maintaining the Marxist critique of nationalism in all circumstances.


To sum up: American patriotism/nationalism does not have to remain a mystery. Its origins lie in the contradictory relation between a social community, that is based on the cooperation required by the existing division of labor, and a co��existing illusory community, that is dominated by the interests of the ruling economic class. The "country" that patriots/nationalists say they love is essentially the social community, and the "love" they feel for it is akin to a yearning for the solidarity and mutual concern that characterizes the social community but has no place in the illusory one. Using patriotic/nationalist symbols, and particularly the flag, the Government of the illusory community is able to redirect these sentiments into support for its political agenda. Crucial to the success of this effort is the dual character of these symbols as both symbols and fetishes, where the alienated human powers used in the creation of these entities are viewed as the latter's own natural qualities to which the very people from whom they came must now respond. The Government's privileged position as the "voice" of the fetish (the official interpreter of what it means and/or calls for on any occasion) derives from its perceived legitimacy as the sovereign organ of the social community, but when��as now in the U.S.��this legitimacy has waned, patriotic/nationalist fetishes are forced to do the double work of justifying the Government's exclusive control over them as well as the specific uses to which this control is put. Is this too great a burden for these fetishes to bear?

The answer to this question depends as much on what we do as on the logic of the events unfolding before us. Based on my analysis of this "mystery", there are a number of tactics that we on the Left can use more often and more systematically than we now do. Because it is difficult (if not counter-productive) to attack patriotism/nationalism and the sentiments associated with it directly, the path on which I would have us travel is largely indirect. At the bull's-eye of our target there is the state and the class character of its chief institutions, agents, aims, rulings, and effects. After identifying the core emotions found in patriotism/nationalism, we must show how they find expression in the fetishes controlled by a Government of the ruling class. We need to question the legitimacy of this Government, and especially the President, as the rightful interpreters of the meaning of these fetishes. There is also a lot we can do to trivialize, ridicule, disparage and replace many of the interdependent elements found in patriotism/nationalism in all sorts of venues and particularly the schools.

In case it needs saying, I am under no illusion that the Left is in a position to take full advantage of these tactics, nor that this is all we must do in countering the threat of growing patriotism/nationalism, or even that this is our most important task right now. Still, given the importance of this ideology to capitalist class rule in general and to Washington's current version of this rule in particular, anything we can do to weaken its hold on people will repay our efforts a thousand-fold. To work.

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