Some thoughts on patriotism, the national question and the Leninist tradition

BY:Joe Sims| August 25, 2014

(This piece, both slightly abridged and enlarged is based on an open letter to some CPUSA and YCL members on this subject.)

Recently, I stumbled across an article dealing with the U.S. July 4th celebrations “No room for patriotism in capitalism, imperialism” and was startled by its content.

What surprised me is not that it critiqued the limitations of the bourgeois democratic revolution of 1776; its upholding of slavery; the denial of the franchise to women: the genocide against indigenous nations. Nor was the tracing of the rise of U.S. imperialism, the wars of conquest and the ongoing expansion of U.S. military and economic domination abroad cause for alarm. This critique has always been and remains an obligation. The truth must be told.

Rather what took me aback was an extremely one sided and distorted treatment of these issues.

The author’s write: “Every year people in the United States come together to celebrate the Fourth of July, this country’s independence from British rule, this country’s white men-and to a lesser extent white women-independence from British rule, this country’s occupying white patriarchal settler-colonialist independence from British rule.”

But are the Fourth of July celebrations limited to 1776?

What of the class and democratic struggles that helped forge the emerging U. S. nation; the abolitionist and suffrage movements; the Civil War to defeat slavery; the general strike of the slaves that broke the back of the confederates; Radical Reconstruction; the anti-racist, and anti-sexist upsurges that gave hope to Frederick Douglass and laid the basis for winning the right to vote for African Americans and women?

In reading “No Room for Patriotism,” it’s as if Eugene Debs never went to jail to protest the First World War, the communists never risked life and limb to organize the mass productions industries while helping free the Scottsboro defendants and sending thousands to fight Franco in Spain. Did not our grandmothers and grandfathers fight the good fight in WW 2, keep the red flame alive in the heat of the Cold War while marching to desegregate swimming pools and restaurants and bathrooms before it became popular? Were we not on the front lines in demanding an end to the Vietnam War, the embargo of Cuba and freedom for Mandela?

And what about the hundreds of millions of other plain ordinary folk who comprise the vast majority of our class and people: Christian and Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist, citizen and immigrant, gay and straight, workers, professionals, black, white, brown, Asian and Native American – simple decent minded individuals who strived to “do the right thing” as they understood it by upholding democracy and fighting war and repression?

Do they count for nothing? Isn’t it this majority that has woven the multi-racial multi-ethnic fabric that binds the still emerging U.S. nation? And shouldn’t we take pride in its accomplishments and victories? Is there not a pride of class and people that we can take heart in, helping restore our faith, providing a sense of optimism and strength as we continue the revolutionary and democratic struggle to perfect this still imperfect union? Yes, there is a such a thing as working-class patriotism and it is our duty to uphold and defend it while distinguishing it from the false patriotism of the ruling class and particularly its extreme right. I am discussing here the substance of the matter of patriotism.

Do U.S. communists not love their country? And the answer here (and for the communist and working-class parties in each nation) is unequivocally yes. And it is on this basis of this love for family, neighborhood, co-workers, friends, comrades, and class that we fight. In fact, it is the basis for our working-class internationalism.

It was particularly disturbing for this writer to see “No room for patriotism’s” arguments clothed in what is called “Marxism-Leninism.” To me, this is a Marxism-Leninism that is not in our tradition.

For example, the idea quoted above that from this country’s birth “white men and to a lesser extent white women” benefit from U.S. colonialism, racism and imperialism is not the point of view of the Communist Party – nor has it ever been.

We have long held that racism and genocide was a disaster for all, including white people. We have contended further that the chief perpetrator is the ruling class – not “white men and to a lesser extent white women” in general. In addition, we have maintained that the struggle against these evils is in the self interest of all working people including white workers who have a particular responsibility in combating it.

No room for patriotism’s thesis in this regard is premised on the existence of oppressing and oppressed nations and an attempt to apply this concept to current conditions in the U.S. The article contends: “Now, the U.S. is distinct in its nation-statehood for its nature in being an oppressor nation with oppressed nations within it, such as African Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Mexicans/Chicana/os, Puerto Ricans, other people of Latin American descent (which really just means indigenous/native people of non-U.S. territory) and indigenous people to both the territory of the U.S. and also below its border.”

This leads the article to define the struggle of people of color in the U.S. as one of “national liberation.” “We hold up the fight for national liberation of every single oppressed nation within the U.S.” They continue, “Communists of color, which is of belonging to oppressed nations, shouldn’t be patriotic for the U.S.”

However, the CPUSA’s view for almost three-quarters of a century is that the United States is a still evolving multi-racial and multi-national country. Instead of “oppressed nations” which would require a common territory, language, culture and economy for each, people of color in the U.S. comprise racial and “national” (read ethnic) minorities who face special and unique forms of oppression based on skin color, culture, gender and language. In their overwhelming majority they compose along with white workers, a single working class, within the framework of a single monopoly capitalist economy. The existence of a racist social division of labor that single out people of color for lower wages, red lining, sub prime swindles, inferior schools, criminalization and substandard healthcare rather than negating the existence of a single working class, only intensifies the struggle for its unity without which it is impossible to conceive of victory against the bosses.

Lenin himself in his writings on imperialism and the national question pointed out time and again the overarching and overriding impact of the economy on these issues: its relentless wearing away of distinctions in language, culture and tradition in the course of the drive for maximum profits. Within this drive he argued that there were two tendencies: one toward separation, the other integration, insisting that the latter was primary.

Lenin argued that this very dynamic was itself centered on the suppression of equal rights and the emergence of a complex system of prejudices and inequalities requiring special measures to overcome them. This is what he meant when he wrote we “must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice.”

This is Marxism.

Rather than a struggle for “national liberation” within the U.S. the CPUSA has defined the fight of oppressed peoples of color as being for full and complete equality. It was on this basis that our party formulated an approach to class struggle and the national question borrowing, as Lenin borrowed from Marx the thesis, that “labor in the white skin cannot be free so long as labor in the black is branded.” In other words, both free and slave labor had a self-interest in the latter’s emancipation.

It was for this reason, that one of the greatest social scientists and freedom fighters of the 20th century, and perhaps the world’s foremost authority of the African American national question, W.E.B. Du Bois, rejected the black nation thesis and called for the unity of black and white workers in fighting monopoly capital. Du Bois wrote “One thing is certain: the economic survival of the Black in the South depends on close union with white workers, so as to present a united front against the tremendous growth of monopoly capital in the South today.”

He continued, “When we compare African Americans with other groups we are not comparing nations or even cultural groups, since African Americans do not form a nation and are not likely to, if their present increasingly successful fight for political integration succeeds. They will exercise political power but not as a unit, since that would contradict their fight against segregation. They do not even form a complete cultural unit, although by reason of suffering and discrimination, and by historic artistic gifts, such a culture may be deliberately cultivated and in the end will unify the Black with other groups rather than divide them. African American, Russian and Irish art can flourish in the same state side by side.”

It should be a cautionary tale to all that Du Bois, who in his long life had traversed nearly the entire gamut of politics from liberalism, to social democracy, to revolutionary democracy and Pan Africanism, to Marxism understood at long last the essence of the solution to the national question consists in the fight for full equality and the need for working-class unity based on the fight against racism to achieve it.

It should be noted that this creative application of Marxism to an understanding of the U.S. African American national question was not taken by Du Bois from the Communist Party. Rather, the CPUSA owes a debt to the great professor along with Paul Robeson and others for its formulation. Later on James E. Jackson, William L Patterson and Henry Winston developed it further noting that racism was capitalism’s Achilles heel, and the struggle against it central to the achievement of class unity.

A half century after Du Bois penned these words, with the huge growth of Latino, Asian and immigrant labor, this truth has only grown in importance. From the children at the U.S. Mexican border, to the low wage worker movement, to the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, working-class unity is key to moving the fight against racism and the advance of social change.

Our analysis of the struggle in this country is not one of oppressor against oppressed nations, of the first world against the third, of a white nation against oppressed nations of color. Such an analysis frankly smacks of nationalism and has nothing to do with the Marxism of Lenin.

Even the demographics shows this: by 2050 people of color will be in the majority. Will this majority cast off not only their right to citizenship but also to the untold wealth stolen from their labor not only by the racist wage differential but also sub-prime swindles and wage theft?

Clearly movement is not in this direction. Indeed, the die is being cast: the long-term trend is that nationalities and ethnicities are merging, coming together and forging one people. The struggle against racism, of respect for language and culture will only help this process. So too with the struggle for complete equality. It is this great working-class struggle and culture that we celebrate on the fourth of July, one that will only be realized with the coming of a bill of rights socialism in the USA.


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