A couple of years ago when July 4th rolled around, I began thinking about the contradiction between my celebration of the holiday and my leftist politics. Those who oppose racism, imperialism, genocide (e.g. the slaughter of the indigenous population of North America) and other forms of oppression perpetrated by the United States have many reasons to be critical of the holiday.(1) Despite the more manifest meaning of the holiday (the celebration of values like freedom, liberty and so forth), for many it has come to represent oppression, and there are ample reasons for that; like other social phenomena, it is contradictory. At the immediate, personal level, I was faced with the question: Should I opt out of my family’s holiday celebration, one of the few times during the year when we all get together to enjoy one another’s company? Ultimately I decided not to opt out, and here’s why.
The celebration of a holiday is a cultural practice, which can be analyzed as a performance (or rather collection of performances) which bear meaning. To say that a holiday has inherent meanings which cannot be changed is essentialist and ahistorical. A holiday, like any other cultural practice, can be submitted to a process of resignification. Todd Holden describes resignification as follows.
As its name implies, resignification is a semiotic process—meaning that it involves the creation of meaning from signs. However, resignification is a particular kind of semiosis: one where new sign elements (signifiers, signifieds, signs, significations) are lifted from their original contexts and inserted into other semiotic sequences, though not always (indeed seldom) in the position they occupied in their prior incarnation.
Two aspects are most salient about resignification: first, strung together in unrelenting sequence, such recycling amounts to a phenomenon of sociological import. Most especially, because, procedurally, resignification both reflects and assists cultural mutation. [Italics added by the present author.](2)
In other words, the concept of resignification – an extension of the concept of signification – has been developed to indicate that not only is meaning dependent upon the social context, but that meaning changes over time. The social radically conditions the ability of individual actors (or even groups of actors) to create meaning, but agency is also involved in the production of meaning. Critical intervention is always possible. Despite his emphasis on the determining power of social structure (particularly the economic base) Marx still said that “History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men [sic.], real, living, who do all this.”
In terms of holidays, the history of Christianity offers an instructive example of successful resignification. It is well known that as the influence of the Catholic Church spread across Europe, many indigenous traditions, including holidays, were transformed into Christian traditions (but at the same time the emerging “Christianity” was also modified by the absorption). An uneven, dialectical synthesis took place, in which Christianity was the dominant force. That the early Church was able to do this was an important factor in its ability to transform the European continent after its own image, in other words, to establish a hegemony which lasted over 2,000 years. Whatever we think about it today, Christianity was certainly a successful revolutionary force that changed the course of world history.
When I was thinking about the 4th of July a few years ago, I wrote
…it’s undeniable that this country has a lot going for it, things that are worth celebrating. War hawks often say, with a sense of deep satisfaction, that the freedoms and stability we enjoy were won through blood and sacrifice. They’re right, but not in the sense that they intend. They usually say such things to defend an imperialist foreign policy and the military industrial complex, things which I believe have done nothing but curtail freedom and stability around the world. But there are altogether different struggles and sacrifices that have given us something to be proud of.
…That we have anything close to a system with a human face, in other words democracy, is absolutely the result of popular struggle. Democracy doesn’t come from anywhere else.
I’m talking about the struggles to end slavery, racism, exploitation and sexism. I’m talking about struggles for peace and equality. I’m talking about the movement for LGBT rights. The list goes on.
…For all these reasons I’m celebrating the Forth of July this year. I’m celebrating the democratic rights that we have, and the people who fought to make them a reality. I am celebrating to embolden myself for the future, because the fight for democracy, really, is just beginning; what we have now is just a taste of what we can achieve if we put forth the collective effort. The Right doesn’t own this holiday any more than they own this country. In fact, let me say something that will infuriate right-wing patriots: It is Left-wing and progressive forces that have made the United States live up to its promises of freedom and democracy [to the limited extent that it has], and we’re the ones who should be celebrating; it’s our victory.
In other words, I was suggesting that we could celebrate the 4th of July in a radically different way. We could resignify it. I ask: Would the Catholic Church have been as successful in its efforts to conqueor Europe if it hadn’t transformed some existing cultural practices, instead of simply trying to wipe them out? Would the process have gone less smoothly if they had taken the latter course?
I honestly don’t think that it will do for the left to simply tell working people that their holiday is racist and imperialist. It is a deeply embedded cultural institution, in which people of various classes, nationalities, genders, sexualities, and more, have made powerful libidinal investments. In fact, most of the African Americans that I know here in southern Louisiana celebrate the holiday very enthusiastically, and wouldn’t be too impressed if I told them that they should give it up in the name of struggle. Communists and other progressives should realize that many of the traditions which have developed around the holiday are the expressions of oppressed and working people (contradictory though they are), and should not, therefore, be dismissed in a heavy-handed or patronizing way.
Let me juxtapose two hypothetical cultural activist interventions in regard to this holiday.
Imagine a leftist group on a street corner, protesting the 4th of July, chanting angrily and holding up provocative signs. Then, imagine a leftist group throwing a big 4th of July celebration in a major park, in which the workers’ movement, the civil rights movement, the American Indian movement, the LGBTQI movement, the immigrant’s rights movement, the women’s movement, etc. were celebrated. Imagine an event which popularized the history of struggle in this country, brought attention to those who have really worked to bring about the modicum of freedom and equality that we enjoy. What if we held up banners with the faces of great U.S. Americans like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Cesar Chavez?
I ask: Which of these interventions would be more alienating to working people raised in a culture of patriotism? Which of these is more patronizing? Conversely, which of these is more subversive? Which would help to win more people over to the side of radical social transformation, i.e., revolution?
(1) Check out Frederick Douglass’ Independence Day Speech at Rochester, 1841.
In addition to the works of Ferdinand de Saussare and Roland Barthes(semiotics), Judith Butler (performativity) and Mao Zedong (the mass line), I am also influenced in my thinking on this matter by Alain Badiou’s insistence that we remember that, in the process of revolutionary dialectics, it is not enough to negate an existing condition, but also to affirm or create something new. All too often this is a weak point on the left, whether reformist or revolutionary. See, for example, his lecture, Destruction, Negation and Subtraction, which you can watch on YouTube.