A sceptical patriotism for the left

George Owers 19 October 2009

To many, the idea of left-wing or progressive patriotism is an oxymoron. One immediately thinks of the “my country right or wrong” bone-headed jingoism represented by flag-waving idiots at the Tory Party conference or ‘The Last Night of the Proms’.

Worse still are the word’s apparently indelible associations with racist, chauvinistic nationalism in the form of the far-right, which has hijacked symbols of national pride like the flag so successfully since the Second World War. However, the monopoly of patriotism by the right is not something that leftists can afford to ignore.

One of the most persistent and damaging criticisms of progressives is that they are unpatriotic, unfeeling, and cold. The accusation of the eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke that radicals, in their frigid internationalism, have “benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual” has stuck. The political passions of patriotism seem to be either harnessed by the right or, usually unsuccessfully, neutralised by the left.

This will not do. We on the left must revive an older vision of what it truly means to love one’s country, a notion that separates patriotism from the narrower and damaging concept of nationalism, and that focuses on what is truly important in our approach to our national community. In short, we must go back to Enlightenment notions of the true meaning of patriotism, notions that reconcile a heartfelt love of country with ‘internationalist’ ideas of humanity’s common good.

An excellent source of such an Enlightenment idea of patriotism is a now little-remembered political thinker of the late eighteenth-century called Richard Price. Price was a dissenting minister who supported the radical causes of his age, such as the fight for freedom of the American colonies, and what seemed to him (at least at first) as the historical struggle for the rights of mankind and for humanity’s dignity and liberty represented by the French Revolution.

In 1789, Price preached an acute sermon entitled ‘A Discourse on the Love of our Country’, in which he explores what constitutes a true, enduring and magnanimous version of patriotism. His ideas are as relevant today as they were in those heady days, even if the early promise of 1789 dissipated into a factious and quarrelsome nationalistic fervour.

Price critiques what we might call nationalistic or ‘vulgar’ patriotism, which is constituted of a number of doctrines. Firstly, the idea that patriotism implies believing in the objective superiority of one’s own country.

Secondly, vulgar patriotism implies a “spirit of rivalship and ambition” that drives countries to expand and enslave others, “forming men into combinations and against their common rights and liberties”. In other words, loving one’s own country does not imply waging a war against the rights of humankind in general, since what we share in terms of a common humanity is more important than what divides us.

Thirdly, Price attacks the tendency of vulgar patriotism to imply that any critique of a country’s status quo is unpatriotic, and that the loyalty of the patriot is to the country as it actually is, not a vision of what the country morally should and could be. “All our attachments”, he argues, “should be accompanied…with right opinions”. One should endeavour to create a country that one can be rightfully proud of, not glorify whatever welter of prejudice and injustice already happens to exist.

 The implication of this critique is an alternative idea of patriotism, what we might call ‘sceptical’ or ‘progressive’ patriotism – a patriotism that is not afraid to critique the existing social, political and economic structures of its country in the hope that one’s love of country can be most eloquently embodied in improving it – a patriotism that does not subordinate the interests of humanity in general to  a narrow and factious belligerence – a patriotism that implies fondness and a genuine passion for what is best for one’s country without lapsing into a blind collective self-worship.

It is possible to criticise this idea of patriotism as being toothless in its acceptance of the logic that what is most important is not what divides us as human beings but what unites us – in other words, one may argue that it is a watered down internationalism dressed up as ‘patriotism’.

Once again, however, I revert to the arguments of Richard Price, who anticipated this objection back in 1789.

“We are so constituted”, he pointed out, “that our affections are more drawn to some among mankind than to others, in proportion to their degrees of nearness to us, and our power of being useful to them”.

In other words, although our interests should be subordinate to the interests of humanity in general, there is little that we can really do for such a broad and distant concept.

Instead, we must harness the natural human instinct to favour the near-at-hand, what we are used to, what we are fond of out of familiarity, whilst not allowing this instinct to degenerate into a damaging chauvinism.

A good way of thinking about this vision of patriotism is the attitude we take to our families in the context of wider society. We prefer and are fond of our families, because we are used to them, and in practice we need an emotional succour and intimacy that implies exclusivity.

However, few of us would seriously maintain that our families are objectively superior to all others – the most intelligent, attractive, worthwhile collection of people in the entire country.

Furthermore, loving our families does not preclude us from seeking harmonious relations with people from further afield. We can love our families and have important friends and acquaintances from outside it without being inconsistent. Loving our own families does not imply that we must hate everyone else’s.

Perhaps most importantly, the love that we have for our family members does not preclude us from making honest criticisms of them, because we want the best for them.

If our family has problems, then the truly loving thing is not to recklessly ignore them and pretend that everything is fine, but to address honestly the problems. We love our families, but this does not imply a chauvinistic hatred of everyone else, nor does it imply a general benevolence that is too vague to be meaningful.

Progressives must, therefore, love their country like they love their family – both wholeheartedly and sceptically, whilst being both constructively critical and selfless.

We must harness the human passion to be attached to the near and familiar while keeping in mind humanity’s commonality and never failing to challenge a monolithic interpretation of what really represents the country’s best interests.

The Left as a broad movement must be able to say about itself what Harold Wilson said about the Labour Party in the 1960s – “We are not a flag-waving party. But we are a deeply patriotic party, because we truly represent the British people”.

George Owers