Let every faction bloom

John Patrick Diggins

  • For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism edited by Joshua Cohen
    Beacon, 154 pp, $15.00, August 1996, ISBN 0 8070 4313 3
  • For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism by Maurizio Viroli
    Oxford, 214 pp, £22.50, September 1995, ISBN 0 19 827952 3
  • Bonds of Affection: Americans Define Their Patriotism edited by John Bodnar
    Princeton, 352 pp, £45.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 691 04397 3
  • Buring the Flag: The Great 1989-90 American Flag Desecration Controversy by Robert Justin Goldstein
    Kent State, 453 pp, $39.00, July 1996, ISBN 0 87338 526 8

In the mid-seventies, when the New Left in America was beginning to sense its impotence after the part it had played in bringing to an end the war in Vietnam, I was asked to give a talk at the University of Florence on the subject of American radicalism. Italian students and academics, many of them Marxists and feminists, seemed to appreciate my account of a student phenomenon that was unable to reach beyond the campus. Then came a question from the audience. What did I think was the biggest mistake the New Left made? If young radicals wanted to reach the ‘masses’, I replied, they should connect means to ends and refrain from abusing the symbols of American patriotism. The American New Left was almost unique in turning against America’s own patriotic heroes and traditions. In Italy, I reminded the audience, Antonio Gramsci had been able to synthesise Marxian radicalism with Mazzinian nationalism. I came away from the conference pleased that my remarks were received more with respect than with rancour. Yet shortly afterwards, taking part in a conference on the Sixties, held in Philadelphia, I made the same reply in response to a similar question about the failure of the New Left. This time my remarks about patriotism were greeted with hisses and I was told that no one could love a country that had attempted genocide in Asia.

It could well be that the present cult of multiculturalism that has taken root in the American academy is a result of the anti-patriotic legacy of the Sixties generation. True, the ethnic composition of the US has been changing emphatically since then, with waves of immigrants from South America and South Asia. But multiculturalism has its advocates primarily in the universities, and noticeably less so among immigrants themselves. The number of feminists teaching in the various disciplines also does little to help the case for patriotism, for, not only has patriotism been associated with male chauvinism, it also seems to depend on local, geographical identities, whereas the cause of women generally looks to universal standards of equality and justice.

Among intellectuals, patriotism, not truth, is often a war’s first casualty. Before the First World War, the Greenwich Village rebels Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman and John Reed regarded themselves as nationalistic liberators willing to draw on the country’s intellectual traditions. Eastman defined himself as an ‘American lyrical socialist – a child of Walt Whitman reared by Karl Marx’. But with America’s entry into the war, the same thinkers saw an outbreak of ‘blind tribal instincts’ among intellectual leaders no less than among the masses. Eastman’s essay on ‘The Religion of Patriotism’, and Bourne’s on ‘The State’, both depicted the war as having laid bare the ‘herd impulse’ of ‘military patriotism’. More than culture or class conflict, war reached the people and compelled them to acts of self-sacrifice based on patriotic identification with country and government. ‘War is the health of the State,’ declared Bourne, disillusioned that the masses did not rise up in resistance.

In the Twenties, the French writer Julien Benda continued this critique of patriotism in The Betrayal of the Intellectuals. The ‘Treason of the Clerks’, as the French title had it, resulted when eminent cultural figures renounced universal, cosmopolitan ideals and sought instead to have their countrymen identify with their own race and nation. Curiously, Benda attributed the failure of intellectuals to identify with the transcendent concept of ‘humanism’ partly to the philosophy of pragmatism that had come from America. With the rise of pragmatic instrumentalism and relativism, it was tempting to exalt the particular over the universal and the practical over the spiritual. It did not help intellectual history when Mussolini described himself as a pragmatist who saw war as the test of manhood, and when Benda drew dubious comparisons between William James’s ‘will to believe’ and Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’.

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