Patriotism is a phenomenon we have all encountered. For many, loving what one considers one’s homeland seems natural. In many countries, citizens are socialised into patriotism from an early age, as various rituals connected to it are carried out even in schools. Often, the socialisation of subjects into patriotism continues throughout their lives. Since the Eurosceptics, racists, and xenophobic nationalists of our days usually deny all allegations of bigotry and isolationism, and claim to be nothing more than concerned patriots, in the minds of many Socialists and Democrats, patriotism is necessarily related to ideas of racial superiority, nativist politics, and to Donald Trump’s rhetoric or Vladimir Putin’s aggressive foreign policy. Others think of Stalinist ideas theories of so-called Socialist patriotism, and remember the way it was created to serve Communist totalitarianism. Consequently, those who continue to call themselves patriots are often ridiculed – in a way more than slightly resembling a form of classism very unsuitable to Socialists and Democrats – by the Left. Often, the message seems to be that patriotism has – or should have – no place in Social Democracy.
Despite its very real potential for danger, patriotism remains a powerful force in Europe. National anthems, flags, and coats of arms are cherished by many across the continent, and often, being a citizen of one’s homeland and a member of one’s nation are among the cornerstones of one’s identity. The best efforts of many Federalists, Left-wing theorists, and others notwithstanding, and despite the dreams of Immanuel Kant, the common European project has not managed to create a supranational identity capable of replacing the patriotic sentiment of the masses, and global projects have been even less successful in creating a worldwide feeling of belonging. Indeed: the European Union and many other international projects, while admirable, useful, and necessary, have largely failed to provide the people with the psychic satisfaction offered by the feeling of national belonging and citizenship.
Since the commonly shared sense of patriotism shows no signs of disappearing in the immediate future, the Left must provide the people with a form of patriotism that can be combined with the ideals and demands of Social Democracy, such as international solidarity, European cooperation, resisting oppression and working for equality, and defending the rights of the most vulnerable members of society. Working within the framework of patriotism must not and cannot mean neglecting our values – Social Democracy cannot become soft populism. A democratic state must be prepared to welcome immigrants into its social life, and for this reason, modern patriotism has to emphasise values, traditions, laws, and cooperation, rather than ethnicity. Obviously, inclusive patriotism cannot mean a morally unimaginative project of creating a melting pot where various identities are dissolved and refashioned into something new, but rather, it must be a realisable dream of building a shared existence, where working together in order to reach common goals is appreciated, and newcomers must be welcomed into its everyday life and customs. This cosmopolitan patriotism would create an environment where subjects can retain their cultural, religious, and other identities while meeting each other on an equal footing and recognising the importance of shared values and a common mentality. In short, inclusive patriots are citizens living according to the demands of civic virtue. They are prepared to cooperate with each other in order to make their homeland a better place for everyone, and they are happy to sing their respective national anthems and to wave their respective flags, but they do not feel any superiority because of these actions – for them, these symbols serve to indicate a desire to work for a more democratic and fair homeland.
Developing a form of inclusive, cosmopolitan patriotism can even help the Left in defending and explaining the importance of Social Democracy at a time when this movement faces huge challenges. Without connecting the ideals of Social Democracy to the shared experiences of a group of people living in what they consider their homeland and demonstrating the bonds between the success of those ideals and the welfare of their homeland, there will always remain the risk that the ideals might be too abstract to be adequately understood or embraced by the masses. Besides, in ignoring the common patriotic sentiment, many Social Democrats are allowing nationalists, racists, Eurosceptics, and pseudo-Fascists to define what patriotism means. This, on the other hand, allows xenophobic populists to claim beloved national symbols for themselves, and to co-opt the very concept of patriotism for their own purposes. This, however, should be seen as unacceptable by any Social Democrat. Consider Finland: its democracy, welfare state, and political stability were not created by a bunch of xenophobes, but by patriotic Social Democrats deeply committed to the project of making Finland a better place to live. They are the ones who considered Finland to be a member of the European family of countries, and of the Western World, and they set Finland on the path to becoming what it is today: a democracy remarkable free from corruption, a member of the European Union, and one of the safest countries of the World. These men and women were deeply committed to the Finnish cause, but also resolutely opposed to racism, bigotry, and all forms of totalitarianism, intolerance, and hate. Similar stories could be told about other countries as well, as it is not only in Finland where the previous generations of Socialists and Democrats have left us a legacy of freedom worth defending. Now, we must build the foundations of modern inclusive patriotism on the hill formed by their ideas and actions.
As young Socialists and Democrats, we must be the new generation which, to quote Pope Francis, ‘can cherish its own traditions without being self-centred or small-minded’. It is our duty as the new torchbearers of the Left to try to come up with solutions instead of merely discussing the World’s problems, and this applies to patriotism as well as to any other issue. We must have the courage to recognise that patriotism is not necessarily in conflict with Social Democratic values, but at the same time, we must resist the temptation to give in to the vulgar populism of extreme nationalists. We must prove that an inclusive form of patriotism that recognises the dignity of every subject living in the body politic and the importance of international cooperation and solidarity can and should be reconciled with and supported by the Social Democratic movement.
About the author: Erik Immonen is a student of World Politics at the University of Helsinki and a proud graduate of the second edition of the School of Democracy.