Tibor Szamuely – editor of the Counter Attack Journal – offers this response to the Communist League of Richmond on their recent piece “Patriotic Socialism and Transphobia”


The Insufficiency of CLR’s Critique of “Patriotic Socialism”

A critical analysis of “patriotic socialism” which seeks to engage with those who might otherwise be misled by its superficial anti-liberal radicalism is certainly necessary. However for Marxists to carry out such an analysis successfully they must first of all have a firm grounding in their own methodology.

It is precisely the lack of such grounding which allows politically naive people searching for an alternative to be misled by the vacuous rhetoric and ill digested word salad which “patriotic socialist” micro celebrities peddle. Unfortunately CLR’s attempt at critique betrays a lack of grounding in Marxist methodology which although less tainted by social conservative impulses is just as deep as that of their “patriotic socialist” targets.

In the interest of clarifying an important discussion I will itemize the weaknesses in their argument below. Unfortunately this itemization may be somewhat tedious. But tedium is preferable to leaving confusion unchallenged. 

Lack of Clarity on Nationalism 

CLR begins its discussion of nationalism by observing that:

“Patriotism is easily captured and weaponized by the bourgeois…” 

This is a confused formulation which runs counter to the intention of their own argument. Patriotism is not a preexisting social phenomena which is somehow “captured” and weaponized” by the bourgeois. It is the ideology through which the bourgeois rises to power in the course of constituting the form of political rule most adequate to its reproduction as a class-the nation state.

To speak of the “capture” of patriotism by the bourgeois makes no more sense than to speak of a bourgeois capture of classical economics or liberal constitutionalism. If the situation were otherwise the arguments of “patriotic socialism” would have merit.

They further observe that:

“It is not contentious to say that American patriotism is nothing to be proud of. From the earliest days of colonialism, to the counterrevolution of 1776, and the imperialist purveyor of literal fascism during the Cold War (and today, see Ukraine). The United States of America has been a clear example of class collaboration at its finest.”

To claim that the American Revolution of 1776 was “nothing to be proud of” and in fact a “counterrevolution” is unfortunately highly contentious from a Marxist standpoint.

CLR would struggle to find even a hint of such a perspective in classical Marxist works which on the contrary were unanimous in recognizing it as one of the great bourgeois revolutions which created the preconditions for socialism1.

1.One typical example: “The history of modern, civilized America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains.”-Lenin: Letter to American Workers.

Their idiosyncratic view of the American revolution is almost certainly derived from the work of the historian Gerald Horne which, whatever its dubious merits, is a negation of the viewpoint shared by all the great Marxist thinkers and leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries.

It is also noteworthy that the Civil War and Reconstruction are absent from the above list. Does CLR think that we should be “proud” of the struggle to uproot chattel slavery and realize full bourgeois democracy waged under the Stars and Stripes with the participation of many early American communists? It remains unclear.

The likely reason for this lack of clarity is a failure to understand that the Marxist assessment of the value of bourgeois patriotism (there can be no other kind, something else which confuses CLR as we will see in a moment) is not static but historically determined.

Insofar as precapitalist relations of exploitation remained to be overthrown and American capitalism had not developed to the imperialist stage there was an objectively existing popular democratic aspect of American patriotism which could be assimilated to the emergent internationalism of the working class. With the further development of the production relations this aspect disappeared. In Marxist terms this process is the transition from the period of the bourgeois to the period of the proletarian revolution. 

Having completed their confused attempt at a historical review CLR proceeds to an attempt at drawing tactical lessons:

“Even if we ignore the historical material; when we understand the duty of an actual workers party is to raise the class consciousness of the masses, we understand that patriotism offers absolutely zero benefit from its deployment in the United States as we know it.

In times of war, this bourgeois chauvinism is quickly weaponized in the form of class collaboration. Specifically, the “war on terror” and its decades of bloodshed, coups, and xenophobia are a clear example of “patriotism” being deployed as a bourgeois tool of an imperialist hegemon.”

There are two problematic aspects to the line of argument above.

Firstly-as Marxists we don’t evaluate slogans on the basis of whether they offer “benefit”2.

2.“A most characteristic formulation of an unprincipled attitude, which reduces everything to “competition” between the slogans of different parties! And this was said after the speaker had pronounced himself “satisfied” with the theoretical explanations, which pointed out that we strove for lasting success in our agitation, undismayed by temporary failures, and that lasting success (as against the resounding clamour of our “competitors” . . . for a short time) was impossible unless the programme had a firm theoretical basis.”

Lenin: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (THE CRISIS IN OUR PARTY)

We evaluate them on the basis of whether they conform to objective reality. That is, we don’t appeal to American patriotism today because it fails to offer “benefits”, but rather because there is no economic basis in the US for a popular democratic struggle to complete the bourgeois national revolution.

Therefore a patriotic line is objectively incorrect from the standpoint of advancement towards the socialist revolution. Even if hypothetically a patriotic line were to offer short term success in mobilizing the working class, its non conformity with the objectively given tasks of the socialist revolution would ensure long term failure and defeat. 

Secondly-CLR’s citation of the use of patriotism to mobilize for imperialist war is not one which suits their purposes. Petty bourgeois nationalists (including “patriotic socialists”) would gladly agree that patriotism is used in this way.

For them it is a question of the “capture” and “weaponisation” of patriotism to serve the interests of an anti-national (or for the more chauvinistic among them an ethnically alien) elite. The overwhelming majority of the anti-war movement in the sequence of events cited by CLR premised its intervention upon variations of this line and insisted it was defending the “true” national interest against abuse. 

The Marxist argument against patriotism runs deeper and can be summarized as follows. After the completion of the national democratic revolution and the elimination of feudal forms of surplus extraction the only remaining purpose of the national community is the constitution of an imagined communality of interest between capitalist and worker.

The key point is not that appeals to patriotism can serve a reactionary role but that any appeal to patriotism can only serve a reactionary role. And that this is given objectively by the level of development of the economic base. 

After these meanderings CLR sums up its assessment of nationalism as follows: 

“…patriotism in the United States is bourgeois patriotism, nationalism in the United States is bourgeois nationalism; unless it is a national liberation struggle based in the nations of the oppressed in this imperialist metropol.” 

Here CLR gives up the game and reveals their total incomprehension of the ABCs of the Marxist approach to the national question. It is elementary for Marxists that all nationalism in whatever historical stage of capitalist development and regardless of whether it be that of an oppressed or oppressing nation is bourgeois. 

As Stalin observed when summarizing Bolshevik policy on the national question: 

“From what has been said it will be clear that the national struggle under the conditions of rising capitalism is a struggle of the bourgeois classes among themselves. Sometimes the bourgeoisie succeeds in drawing the proletariat into the national movement, and then the national struggle externally assumes a “nation-wide” character. But this is so only externally. In its essence it is always a bourgeois struggle, one that is to the advantage and profit mainly of the bourgeoisie.”3

3.Stalin: Marxism and the National Question. The fact that the above text was written by Stalin and to my knowledge continued to be distributed to be distributed throughout the period of his leadership is indicative of an important fact about “patriotic socialists” which many of the meme educated may not understand. “Patriotic socialists” are not misguided Marxists who attempt to use Marxist premises to defend Stalin’s revisionist track record as a leader of the communist movement. They are disaffected people who having no understanding of Marxist premises however distorted or vulgarized have been ensnared by national conservative or fascist elements who flirt with a “Soviet” aesthetic.

Ironically after fulminating against “patriotic socialism” CLR now gives this concept unqualified endorsement so long as it is applied to “…the nations of the oppressed in this imperialist metropol.”

In fact what CLR thinks about any non American nationalism remains obscure and we are left to conclude that they object not to “patriotic socialism” in general but simply its American incarnation. 

This is understandable because it is obvious that the Marxist reasons for repudiating patriotism remain a closed book to them. All that remains is the typical petty bourgeois moralist condemnation of “Amerikkka” for its supposedly unique litany of historical sins.

Lack of Clarity on Political Economy 

From its strangely self negating critique of left nationalism the CLR moves to a strangely classless “class analysis” of Trump voters:

“Rural districts also have lower median incomes on average and proved to be massively in favor of voting for Donald Trump despite the massive chasm in both wealth and access to private ownership between these voters and Trump himself. The income gap between rural and urban populations is especially pronounced, with a nationwide median income of $59,000 compared to a mere $46,000. These discrepancies between urban and rural apply to a wide variety of health metrics and the CDC portrays a particularly bleak picture, stating that rural citizens have a 50% higher likelihood of dying from unintentional injury, namely car accident and overdose.”

Here we are presented with a picture of the deprivation not of the working class but of “rural populations” who far from being differentiated by class are lumped together in a hypothetical shared misery via the citation of median income and unintentional injury differentials. Without a careful class analysis of the districts in question these figures indicate almost nothing.

There is no shared “rural experience” anymore then there is a shared “black experience”. What there are is antagonistic classes whose situations can’t be determined on the basis of the same superficial statistical obfuscations the bourgeois uses to slice and dice the working class into “demographics” and “communities” which then become the raw material of divisive culture war games.

At least CLR recognizes that the working class exists in rural areas. Though their logic is difficult to follow:

“In essence that group of working people settled primarily in urban centers in order to find work, who subsisted on selling their labor. With suburbanization, increased connectivity and communication, and the obvious expansion of capitalist oppression in all spheres of life we can now safely include most rural Americans in the fold of the proletariat as well.”

Let’s start by clearing through the dense thicket of irrelevancies produced by CLR to note that for Marxists the working class are those who are compelled to sell their labor power because their separation from the means of production produces surplus value. “Settling” in “urban centers, “increased connectivity” and the “expansion of capitalist oppression in all spheres of life” are all equally besides the point. 

“Patriotic socialists choose to take a facile understanding and define the proletariat merely as blue collar and factory workers because they most closely resemble the latter half of Engels definition, “the working class of the 19th century.”

I am unaware if patriotic socialists really premise their blue collar fetishism off a single misunderstood phrase in Engels Principles of Communism. This seems unlikely because fetishism of “real production” has deep roots in reactionary critiques of capitalism quite separate from any Marxist thesis, however misunderstood it may be.

Regardless, the misunderstanding here is painfully clear; “working class of the 19th century” is not the “latter half” of Engels definition. It is simply a statement that those who must sell their labor power are the working class of the 19th century. As opposed to prior centuries in which the direct producers for the most part were not wage laborers. 

The essential point CLR seeks to make here against the blue collar fetishism of “patriotic socialists” is correct. Unfortunately they muddy the waters by straying from a precise definition of the proletarian position in the process of production of surplus value towards more irrelevancies:

“The same can be said for anyone working in the service industry, where people like servers can expect to be paid far below the laughably low federal minimum wage, and rely on the further indignity of meritocracy of the tipping system to feed themselves and their families.

Smiling while they absorb the ire and insecurities of many powerless people within their own class taking every inch of power they are granted by a customer service interaction, intra-class antagonism. They live not just from the sale of their labor but the sale of their mental health while they labor.”

None of the empirical facts cited above, as important as they may be for understanding the needs of service industry workers, have anything to do with their status as proletarians. The confusion of the essential with the contingent is one of the most common mistakes of vulgar Marxism and in today’s anti-intellectual age is far from being a victimless crime.

It is our duty to our readers to specify every concept we articulate with the greatest possible precision even at the risk of repetition and seeming pedantry. Otherwise scientific analysis is lost in the swamp of petty bourgeois protest against injustice.

Reciting this confused laundry list and concluding it by observing that these “specific conditions do not define class” leads one to ask why are they introduced in a debate on the definition of class? We can hazard a guess that CLR can’t help leavening any approach to scientific analysis of class relations with a heavy dose of impressionistic emotional appeals against experiences of oppression.

Furthermore, it must be noted here that workers do not sell their labor, but their capacity for labor, their labor power. This is not a trivial distinction marking as it does the distinction between classical bourgeois political economy and Marx’s critique of capitalist production.4

Gender Trouble 

After their venture into class analysis, CLR returns to opportunistic “benefit hunting”:

“Again, it is not 1847 when most of Germany’s proletariat would have been cis-het, white men. This is simply not our reality in US cities in 2022. Alienating trans people will not stand among the tens of millions in this country who may be closer to socialist understanding than we even think. Our vanguard party will be comprised of workers.”

Should we take from this that indifference to the democratic rights of sexual minorities would have been acceptable in Germany in 1847 because “most of Germany’s proletariat” were “cis-het, white men”? This argument displays the same confusion as the one made above about the “zero benefits” of patriotism.

Marxists don’t defend the democratic rights of sexual minorities because anything else “will not stand…among…tens of millions”. We defend these rights because such defense is necessary to maintain minimum standards of bourgeois democratic rationality against patriarchal and clerical regression which can only further obstruct the advance towards socialism. Momentary public opinion is irrelevant. 

Later in this section CLR advances what appears to be its argument for the defense of the democratic rights of trans people. One would think this would entail observing that trans people are a sexual minority who face attack from patriarchal and clerical forces, an attack which demands a vigorous defense of their rights to healthcare, against workplace discrimination etc. Unfortunately one would be wrong:

 “woman” is a capacious category that includes an array of kinds of people with different experiences and interests; and, lastly, that when we choose to accept women as a larger category, feminist and socialist struggles are strengthened, while the choice of a more anemic definition weakens these struggles.”

Much like the category “working class” (or categories in general), the category “woman” must be precisely defined if it is to assist us and not hinder in mentally constituting the most objective possible reflection of reality.

In the materialist understanding of the historical process women are a category defined not simply by gendered behaviors but biological capacities. There are clear biological sex differences between men and women which have structured the historical process because they constitute the material basis for the reproduction of the human species. 

This biological sex difference forms the basis of patriarchy as a specific, historically determined mode of organization of reproduction. One in which women are formally subordinated to the male head of the household.

As all the classical Marxist thinkers agreed, the development of capitalist production qualitatively weakened this mode of organization of reproduction through its destruction of the household economy and increasing integration of women into waged labor. 

Much as CLR, despite its nominal Marxism, ignores the classical Marxist consensus on the American revolution in favor of the dubious innovations of Gerald Horne it dismisses the whole body of classical Marxist literature on the women question in favor of the equally dubious innovations of Alyson Escalante.

Unfortunately for CLR, Escalante does not even attempt to refute this body of literature. Her essay is an intervention in a tired debate between post modern subjectivists. One in which “trans exclusionary radical feminists” insist that biological women possess a unique experience of oppression which must be guarded against outsiders, while transfeminists insist with equal vehemence that their own experience of oppression entails them to a share in the unique experience of “authentic womanhood”. 

We are not Heideggerians, but Marxists. What is interesting to us is not a contest of subjective “experiences” and even less “authenticity”. Rather, we are concerned with objective positions in the process of production and reproduction.

Here it is clear that the social categories of man and woman have been historically constructed on the basis of differentiated biological capacities. This is obvious to anyone who is not working hard to ignore the facts. As a consequence, hinging the argument for the democratic rights of trans people on the basis of such a subjective fantasy is ill considered and irresponsible. 

Just as men and women are biologically grounded categories so too are those who seek to alter their position on the spectrum between the categories. If this were not the case trans healthcare would not be the existential issue that it is.

Furthermore, the fact that male and female are objective biological realities is not an argument against the right of emancipated individuals to express their cultural preferences as they see fit. To argue that this objective biological reality does not exist is to renounce Marxist materialism for the idealism of queer theory. 

The defense of trans rights must not be premised on an idealist denial of biological reality but a materially grounded recognition of the right of the emancipated individual produced by capitalism to transform themselves both culturally and biologically. We are not interested in litigating arguments about whether the experiences of women or transwomen are more or less “authentic”.

We are interested in defending the freedom of universal individuals to live as they please. And here we come to a strange omission which defines CLRs critique: Nowhere is it clarified why “patriotic socialists” would possess such an investment in resentment towards trans people. After all they are a tiny minority who, all the fantasies of national conservatives and radical feminists aside, can only with the greatest difficulty be painted as a credible threat to any strata of the population at large. 

The answer to this question clarifies both the relation of trans identity to bourgeois emancipation in general and why “patriotic socialists” are not simply misguided Marxists. “Patriotic socialists” hate trans people because they hate not capitalism but the emancipated, universal individual produced by capitalism. In this inclination they form only a recent and obscure iteration in the long line of reactionary anti-bourgeois thought.

As Marxists we hate capitalism for precisely the opposite reason: because its continued existence restricts the full development of these individuals. Understood in these terms the division over trans democratic rights is not incidental but expresses a division between the revolutionary proletariat which wants to transcend bourgeois emancipation and the reactionary petty bourgeois which cannot even bear bourgeois emancipation itself. 

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