After the election last year there was a renewed interest in the idea of ‘progressive patriotism’. Matt Widdowson wrote a very good article about it (here’s the pdf).
It’s sometimes difficult to express what ‘pride in a small country’ really means, and when chatting about it with Matt I kept thinking about the ending of Goodbye Lenin. The setup is that the main character (Alex Kerner) tries to maintain an alternative history for his mother in which the German Democratic Republic was not annexed by the west. In this scene he tries to show the hope and the ‘impossible potential’ of reunification, the ideal of a more humanist socialism.
Basically, I just love this little moment in the film and this is my excuse to post it here. See how Jähn describes Germany as ‘a very small country’ when seen from space, and hold on to that image when you compare with the grand notions of (for example) the Portuguese empire.
For the imperialist, national pride is derived from the exploitation of colonised nations and peoples. For a socialist, national pride is derived from the welfare of the people. Progressive patriotism celebrates social advances without reliance on imperial power. We are happy to live in a small country.
I’ve still got an unfinished file in my drafts folder which I started after visiting Luxembourg in 2018. I was trying to understand the generous social provisions for Luxembourgish citizens, all funded through… extracting money from workers in other countries. The banks and the oil companies have their headquarters around the Bourbon Plateau, and the local residents get free public transport.
It’s an under-appreciated point that the welfare systems of the socialist countries were built through honest work. They didn’t deploy their armies in order to uphold the profits of their multinational corporations. They didn’t have global financial institutions on hand to enforce debts against their former colonies. In some ways the social democratic movements in the imperialist countries have had an easy job, all they needed was to redirect a small revenue from the multinationals into social programmes at home.
Blue Labour came around the first time after a Labour defeat, in a period of weightlessness when all the strategists and ‘political science’ professors were grasping for the next popular thing. Regardless of the theoretical justifications, it’s useful to trace where that movement actually went. I admired some figures of the left who once argued on very democratic grounds for an English parliament. It was surprising to find them converted into cynical anti-communists, with columns in Sp!ked Magazine. Some of them joined the Brexit Party, others signed up with of the new ‘Workers Party’. Chuka Umunna was a Blue Labour supporter before he joined the
Independent Group Change UK Liberal Democrats. Giles Fraser is a Tory now, along with many others. These figures tried to articulate a politics which was heavy on patriotic convictions, but their committment to socialism turned out very ambiguous.
Coming back to progressive patriotism, there’s another critique which points out that when we celebrate (English) radical traditions, are we not simply celebrating a class history? The Diggers, the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, they were in essence fighting class struggles, and well, where’s the patriotism there?