Socialism Is Patriotism

Atlanta DSA Editor in Chief on 2021-07-03

Black Lives Matter protests in downtown Atlanta on June 1, 2020. Photo credit: Aja Arnold from Mainline Zine

By Brandon Mishawn

The Atlanta DSA Medium is a collection of individual member op-eds, educational blogs, and other thoughts from the Left. Opinions expressed on our Medium are those of the author(s) only.

All men are created equal… Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These words tower over our country as central to the social contract that America represents — on no day more-so than July 4th, Independence Day, a day where no matter where you may be, you’ll hear the “cannons of freedom” made family-friendly and spectacular. At the same time, no day more-so than Independence Day makes clear the hypocrisies that work in unison to create the modern conception of America and its history. From any objective perspective, it’s obvious that America has failed to live up to those ideals so eloquently written and so ubiquitous in the teaching of our historical and lived experiences — history and experiences that began with a complete lack of such inalienable rights for bondaged and beaten Black people, genocided native populations, women or even white men of few means. No, not even in its own time did the Declaration function as an ideal that was lived and sought after by those in power or those inclined to seek power. Even though we are still far from living in that realized ideal, we are closer in very real ways, as a nation, as a community, and as a collective intellect. For that we can thank the abolitionists, the strikers, the unionizers, the suffragettes, the activists, the socialists:

The socialists who provoke and promote a more humane way of living.

The socialists who advocate for an investment in humanity.

The socialists who work to liberate us from artificial scarcity and exploitation.

The socialists who have drug this nation closer to living in that ideal of “all men are created equal” and entitled “to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

And for this, every socialist should own Independence Day as equally theirs, because it is the work of socialists to bring this country closer to the proposed and never realized ideals of that very Declaration of Independence: Socialism is patriotism.

For validation, take the words of a former United States president: “Dr. King’s activism was rooted in the true patriotism that cherishes America’s ideals and strives to narrow the gap between those ideals and reality.” Ronald Reagan, January 21, 1986. So, how is it that a man who so openly and vigorously opposed King in his life and the push for MLK day becoming a national holiday found the sentiment to speak so glowingly on the man post-mortem? The truth is that it’s easier for those in power to embrace and recast figures than to demonize them, especially when those figures are on the right side of history and humanity. Reagan didn’t embrace King as he was. The King that Reagan was embracing was the same King that we all got in our elementary school educations: a kind of impotent character who had a dream of peace and non-violence, and who did his work in a nice, respectable, suit. This MLK and his memory is held up directly and indirectly as a reaffirmation of the nation; how it can respond to what is right and responds to the power of a great people. Grimly, his death and memorialization have been weaponized as a way of keeping the struggles of the past in the past, but that is a disservice to the man as he lived and the movement that he was part of. It is up to us, and it is our patriotic duty to illuminate actual histories.

Reagan’s words highlight exactly how MLK has been weaponized as a “restricting force”. Moreover, his words are the slanderous burial of the more revolutionary aspects of MLK. Despite Reagan’s best efforts, a bit of truth was able to slip out: MLK’s work was indeed patriotic. MLK’s intentions were to the betterment of the country, and all that coming from a suspected Communist who did not shy away from the label of Democratic Socialist, from a man who we look back on now as an example to be followed, who happened to be one of the most hated people in America in his own time, a person who’s final act was part of a multi-racial working class movement after shifting from “a struggle for decency” to a struggle for “genuine equality”. Ours is a better country for his work beyond the dream. It is our job as patriotic socialists to own that legacy and continue that work because we live and work and dream within MLK’s lived and intentional legacy.

King’s and the work of his many comrades was indeed patriotic: dragging the nation kicking and screaming toward a greater humanity and forcing a confrontation between the realities and the ideals of the nation. Like many of our lived issues, we can seek Martin Luther King Jr. as a counsel from our past whose voice still rings out on the inhumanities and inequities of then and now. So, when King was willing to stand up for basic human dignity, stating, “Of all the inequalities that exist, the injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman,” we should feel empowered to fight for universal healthcare with a shameless confidence. When we read the brave critique of the military violence in King’s words, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world: My own Government,” we should listen and fearlessly continue the action in those words — including the localization of that sentiment: the call to defund police and refund (or finally fund) communities. Importantly, we must get beyond the dream and relearn the lessons that were buried from our nation’s great patriot, such as: “The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for,” because it will take a mass movement to get to where we need to go.

There are few figures more neatly interwoven into the proposed ideal of the American promise than Helen Keller: made blind and deaf not long after her birth, and yet that did not hold her back. It’s a story we all encountered at some point in our primary education, and one of those reaffirming “American” stories of how if you just work hard enough and are persistent enough, then you too can make it. In fact, you have no excuse but to make it — Helen did, and she was blind and deaf: A real “pull yourself up by your boot-strap” kind of story. And it is true, Keller did have to overcome extreme disadvantages to eventually learn to talk, gaining social status along the way, becoming an advocate for women and the disabled and eventually becoming a fiery voice in support of socialism. Yes, in fact, Keller’s reputation for perseverance and capability took an immediate nose-dive when she finally did reveal her politics: “Some years ago I met a gentleman who was introduced to me as Mr. McKelway, editor of the Brooklyn Eagle. It was after a meeting that we had in New York on behalf of the blind. At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him. Surely it is his turn to blush. It may be that deafness and blindness incline one toward socialism.”

Hellen Keller, though far from perfect, is a perfect picture of the tendency to commodify persons to the benefit of those people and structures in power. That this picture of strength and perseverance also happened to be an advocate for socialism is inconvenient, so it goes unmentioned. But that does not undo her lived history. That does not undo that she is indeed a picture of perseverance, hard work and overcoming the odds. It just so happens that this picture of American perseverance happened to be a socialist, but it’s a perfect match. The work of being socialist in America is long, thankless and often dangerous work. Work that requires perseverance. Work that requires the optimism of those willing to see a better world.

What good is a nation without its workers?

Without it’s labor power?

The people who do the jobs that keep food on your table, consumer goods arriving at your door, and get you where you want to go?

The heroes.

The essential.

In this last year, we’ve highlighted exactly who those people are and the fact that those people have continued to be forced onto the front lines of an economic war on a global pandemic has highlighted how far we’ve strayed from the kind of labor power that we once had to establish an 8 hour work day and federally guaranteed lunch breaks, to end the exploitation of child labor, to fight back the often violent monopoly of company towns, to fight against strike breakers and bought-out police to uphold their right to peacefully assemble and petition for redress. That you even have time to commune with your family and friends this Independence Day almost certainly has one socialist movement or another to be thankful to. The fact that you are not waiting for your 10 year old child to return from the local factory in the town of Walmart, Georgia while you start your 15th hour of work for the 5th day in a row very likely has socialism or the efforts of socialists from the past to thank. In that way, BBQ, family and socialism all allow us to celebrate Independence Day in the ways that we’ve learned to do so — and are all patriotic.

The patriotic nature of socialism hinges on the realized ideal of our nation, as opposed to the cynical realities of our proposed values. And that is brought to bear when we consider freedom as we live it and freedom as it could be. When you hear the word “freedom” in American society and politics, it is almost always going to be in the service of “negative freedoms”:

No government can stop me from doing this;

No authority can stop me from doing that;

No regulation can stop my business from doing this or that.

But, as socialists, we seek a freedom that goes beyond negative freedoms: A more mature freedom as liberation.

A freedom where you are unencumbered from a medical system that prioritizes profit over care.

A world where your neighbors and yourselves find a new relation to capital and one another that deprioritizes the profits of multinational corporations and individual billionaires who are eager to deunionize, gigify, outsource and automate.

A society that finds a higher priority in caring for each and every one of us, the least of these, our environment and allowing for the unlocking of human potential.

A world where the essential are paid as such.

A community where the common is respected as essential, and the commons is allowed to once again flourish.

A world where we realize that we are all connected within a “world-house” and what affects one directly will affect all’s environment, safety from harm, security from exploitation, etc. indirectly.

That is a freedom worth fighting for: A freedom from artificial want and dehumanizing precarity, flanked by the threat of violence of an inadequate safety net on one side and a for-profit carceral system on the other.

A freedom to realize our full potentials as opposed to our current freedom to have fabulous wealth or soul-crushing poverty.

If we are to follow the best instincts of the best words of our country’s founders, then it would seem that path is set in stride with socialism. Just as our constitution was meant to be a living document (though it has failed to live up to that idea), so too must our society, economy, relationships to one another, the world, and the consequences of our past and present actions evolve. When our current relation to capital results in the most unequal wealth disparity in human history, as it has today, then it has become invalid and must be challenged, abolished and reimagined. When we preserve a medical system that costs more money to keep as-is while delivering worse outcomes, then that system of healthcare is just another example of how inadequate the profit motive is to responding to basic human rights — and it is invalidated and must be challenged, abolished and reimagined. When we see that capitalism has so few and uninspiring answers to the questions of climate change, the coming wave of unemployment through automation, and more, then it becomes our duty to challenge, abolish and create something new out of the ashes of capitalism. When hard-won voting rights are artificially restricted under dubious pretexts, then it is our duty to fight back and advocate for more democracy, as much democracy as possible.

Not for ideology, but for the sake of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Ours is a dreamer’s work, ours is revolutionary work and ours is patriotic work that has been passed down to us through our histories in the spirit of all people created equal and all life is precious. Ours is an activism rooted in the true patriotism that cherishes America’s ideals better than America could herself, and strives to narrow the gap between those ideals and reality in the truest sense of the sentiment and the action.

A Green New Deal is patriotic.

Universal Healthcare is patriotic.

A housing and jobs guarantee is patriotic.

Socialism is patriotic.