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 difficult to express what ‘pride in a small country’ really means, and I keep returning to 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.

I love this little moment in the film and this is any excuse to show off the scene. See how Jähn describes Germany as ‘a very small country’ when seen from space. It’s a modest vision, with no aspirations to anything beyond a community of kindness and acceptance, there’s no hatred there.

Meanwhile the pride of empire is founded on the exploitation of colonised nations and peoples. These mighty notions are a cruel and bitter thing to celebrate.

Portugal is not a small country

In a socialist country the welfare of the people is what matters, and progressive patriotism means making social advances without reliance on imperial power. I would be 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 benefits received by Luxembourgish citizens, all funded through… extracting wealth 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 a strange kind of social democracy, where the financial corporations dominate society, and the people continue to enjoy relatively generous social provisions.

The difference with the former socialist countries is that their welfare systems were built through honest work. They never had to 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. What they achieved was the product of their own efforts alone.

Compared to that, the social democratic movements in the imperialist countries have had an easy job. All they needed to do in Luxembourg was to redirect some small revenue from overseas 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. Aside from the fact they took place in England, what is it about these things which is specifically English?