Patriotism is a dangerous myth

April 25, 2014
The first Anzac Day march held in Brisbane outside the General Post Office in Queen Street on 25 April 1916. Photo: National Arc

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Samuel Johnson’s aphorism is well known. But what does patriotism actually mean? Is it simply a matter of liking the sunshine, the gum trees, the beaches and a certain lifestyle? Is it about being overcome with emotion when we see the Australian flag or the Anzac Day dawn service?


The movers and shakers and heavy hitters in our society — politicians, business moguls, journalists in the corporate media, and so on — are all patriotic. But we should be very cynical about this.

When our rulers talk of “our country” or the “national interest” what they really mean is defending the current social arrangements, that is, capitalism. Under this system a tiny minority — the corporate rich — own the economic infrastructure on which we all depend. The rich become ever wealthier and the conditions of existence of the vast majority of the population become ever more precarious.

Patriotism is supposed to mean love of country. But how can one love one’s country without caring for the welfare of the mass of ordinary people who live in it? That means opposing the rich and powerful who care only for themselves and whose operating principle is corporate profits first and last, not people’s needs.

A real love of country should also mean valuing the traditions of struggle and resistance that have helped make real advances for the groups oppressed and exploited by capitalism.

This means supporting the ongoing struggles of the original inhabitants of this country against dispossession, racism and exclusion.

It means supporting struggles to defend the rights and conditions of working people and to defend the basic rights of women. It means struggling against militarism and aggressive wars and for the rights of refugees.


When yet another Australian soldier came home from Afghanistan in a coffin, both prime minister and opposition leader would often attend the funeral, looking solemn and keeping to the well-worn script about “getting the job done”.

But their policies are directly responsible for the deaths of our service personnel — let alone the much heavier toll on the Afghan people. They sent our troops to help Washington take over someone else’s country, with entirely predictable results: death, destruction, trauma, refugees, oppression, corruption — and all on a very large scale.

If support for imperialist wars abroad is a measure of our patriotism perhaps we should simply say, “No thanks, count me out. I’m not a patriot.”


Anzac Day is a really big affair these days and is systematically promoted by Canberra.

It’s true that alongside death, trauma and misery at Gallipoli there was also heroism and comradeship. Obviously, this applies on the Turkish side as well.

But the political reality behind the Anzac myth is completely rotten. Australian forces were sent to the other side of the world to help the British and French imperialists attack the tottering Ottoman empire and grab some choice territory for themselves.

The Arabs colonised by the Ottomans were promised freedom, but when the war was over the British had Palestine, Jordan and Iraq and the French got Syria and Lebanon.

Right-wing politicians promised the soldiers a “land fit for heroes” when the war was over. Naturally, capitalism was incapable of delivering any such thing and within little more than a decade Australia was gripped by the massive misery of the Great Depression.


Melbourne’s vaunted Shrine of Remembrance was completed in 1934. Much of it was built by the labour of the unemployed on “susso” (as work for the dole was called in the Depression era). Many of the susso workers were ex-soldiers.

Its opening was a patriotic “bread and circuses” extravaganza designed to distract the masses from their misery, shore up confidence in the system, and undercut the efforts of the Communist Party and other radicals fighting to organise the jobless. The opening ceremony included a procession led by the Duke of Gloucester flanked by Victoria Cross winners.

The view from the Shrine is impressive but the project itself is a true monument to imperialist war. Every conflict Australian forces have taken part in, going back to the British colonial war in the Sudan in the 1880s, is marked by a plaque or inscription.

When you consider it objectively, it is quite horrible. The victims of imperialist war should be remembered — all of them, not just those on Australia’s side — but that is not what the Shrine is about.


Our rulers need the cloak of patriotism to obscure the fact that, in a social sense, “Australia” is not really one country but two.

There is the Australia of the capitalists and their hangers-on; and then there is the Australia of the people — the workers and the poor, the downtrodden and oppressed. There is no real “national” interest, that is, something that really unites us all. They are rich at our expense; our quality of life is under attack from them.

There is the interest of the rich who actually own Australia — Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer, James Packer and the rest. No wonder they are patriotic. For them patriotism means defending their loot.

Then there is the interest of the rest of us — for urgent action on global warming and climate change, for a decent health and education system, for proper public transport and for decent jobs for all who need them.

This country is fundamentally divided into two antagonistic parts. Anything that covers up this fact helps those who are exploiting the rest of us to get away with it.


When the working people and the oppressed finally own this country — when we have a real system of people’s power, when the main elements of the economy are under social ownership and control, when we have signed a treaty with the Aboriginal people and taken decisive measures to “close the gap” — then we can be proud of our country and patriotism won’t be a cruel deception.

When our leaders and their media mouthpieces are jumping up and down and exhorting us to be patriotic, we should leave the whole thing alone.

We need to get on with the task of fighting for a society that puts human need before corporate profits. The “patriotism” of our rulers is a dangerous distraction.

[Dave Holmes’ talks and articles are collected at Arguing for Socialism.]

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