Class, Identity and Socialist Strategy

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A review of Asad Haider’s “Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump” (Verso, 2018). This article takes up the debate between “insurgent universality,” economistic “class politics,” and the fight for proletarian hegemony.

Asad Haider is a founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine and a graduate student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In “Mistaken Identity” he criticizes the “politics of identity” and the influence they have had on the fragmentation of social movements. The author draws on his own experience as an activist in the United States.

“Mistaken Identity” develops the thesis that “identity politics” have served to neutralize anti-racist movements in recent decades. In Haider’s words:

I define the politics of identity as the neutralization of movements against racial oppression. It is the ideology that emerged to appropriate this emancipatory legacy to serve the advancement of political and economic elites.

In a later article [2] Haider explains that the “neutralization thesis” allows him to establish a line of demarcation between previous social movements and neoliberal multicultural discourse.

Haider argues that in order to address racism in today’s society, one must avoid the methodological starting point established by “identity politics.” These politics see oppression as something that happens on an individual level. Consequently, according to this view, the arrival of a Black person in a position of power necessarily means progress, regardless of the policies that person defends. It thus becomes common sense on the left that the most important thing is for everyone to “check their privilege,” as if oppression could be reversed by an exercise of individual self-awareness.

In contrast, as a general definition, Haider explains that “race is not an idea or an identity: it is produced by material relations of domination and subordination,” and he affirms that it is a “material relation which is inextricable from the economic, but not reducible to it.”

“Mistaken Identity” traces the struggles of Black people in the United States going back to the 19th century. The book analyzes the 1930s of the Great Depression and the emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Haider aims to highlight the moments of greatest social confrontation, when the movements took on elements of anti-capitalism and class struggle. These moments have been erased from official history, which seeks to transform the long history of Black struggle in the United States into a “civic” movement for legal equality.

As Haider points out, since the 1960s and 1970s an elite of Black people in positions of power has emerged. This elite uses the nationalist logic of inter-class unity to hide its own class privileges. In this context, he points to the Black Panthers and other collectives as alternatives that connected the anti-racist struggle with the anti-capitalist struggle within the framework of the general political radicalization of the period. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how Haider analyzes the consolidation of an elite within the anti-racist movement. When the movement abandoned its most radical demands, the Democratic Party was able to co-opt it.

As a result, “the progressive languages of the new social movements, uprooted from their grassroots base, would be appropriated as a new ruling-class strategy.” The culmination of that process is the Black elite’s allegiance to Obama’s neoliberal policies.

Haider also takes up an argument from the American philosopher Wendy Brown about the role of the state in identity politics since the 1980s. The recognition by the state of “grievances” of particular groups defines these groups as victims. By demanding that the neoliberal state regulate or control damages, individuals assume their identity as victims and not as subjects of their own emancipation. In line with Brown, Haider points out that “identity politics” were based on a “renaturalization” of capitalism in which capitalist social relations were no longer questioned.

Finally, Haider offers a perspective on the relationship between the universal and the particular. He points out that the only way to fight for a perspective of “universal” emancipation is to fight so that no particular group remains oppressed.

At this point, he takes up something Marx addresses out in “The Jewish Question”: In that work, Marx questions the false universalism of the bourgeois state and the “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” revealing that it was nothing more than a declaration of the rights of the “egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community.”

In the same vein, Haider refers to the famous response that the Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture gave to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799:

It is not a circumstantial freedom conceded to ourselves alone that we want. It is the absolute adoption of the principle that any man born red, black or white cannot be the property of his like.

From this Haider concludes that it is necessary to take up the legacy of an “insurgent universality.”

A Return to “National” Class Politics?

In an article published in Jacobin [3], Melissa Naschek argues that “‘Mistaken Identity’ claims to overcome the limits of identity politics but leads us down the same dead end.” Naschek asserts that Haider’s solutions are inadequate, since one must first define whether “identity politics is the friend or foe of socialist politics.” Her own answer leaves no room for ambiguity:

While “Mistaken Identity” is able to demonstrate how the ideology and rhetoric of “identity” has been used as a weapon against the working class, it falls short of making a plausible case that it could ever be a boon to socialist politics.

Naschek challenges Haider’s idea of “insurgent universality” as an abstract anti-capitalism that in reality fails to overcome the concept of a “patchwork mass movement”:

Instead of class-based action, Haider suggests that activists can nurture their “own” issues and become one mass movement through osmosis. In contrast, working-class coalitions are built by workers who join together on the basis of their shared exploitation, not separate interests that agree in the abstract to “anticapitalism.”

According to Naschek, Haider maintains the “liberal culturalist logic with his assertion that black self-determination and socialism are mutually dependent.”

Against an identity-based particularism that supposedly fragments the working class, Naschek proposes a class-based universalism and “a strategy capable of amassing a powerful enough force in society not just to articulate demands but to enact them.”

And what would that strategy be? For Naschek it is a program based on economic demands and modest reformist measures: “Affordable medical care, a livable planet, quality education, and respect and security in the workplace.” A program that, from her point of view, is embodied by Bernie Sanders:

Today, with the popularity of Bernie Sanders and a resurgence in trade union activity, circumstances are finally re-emerging for a political program capable of fostering mass working-class solidarity. Instead, Haider would have us turn to the model that has failed the working class for years: Rhetorically accepting identity-based particularism at the implicit expense of class-based universalism.

In an article published by Left Voice, Warren Montag and Joseph Serrano correctly argue against what they call American “anti-anti-racism on the left.” An example of this line of thinking can be found in  Naschek’s arguments, which assert that some economic reforms—within the framework of the system—would make racism disappear (along with all other forms of oppression). Such a position sees “the self-organization of the specially oppressed as divisive and an obstacle to achieving these reforms.”

Montag and Serrano further argue against the idea that racism is just an “epiphenomenon” of the economic base, which will automatically disappear when inequality is eradicated through some social reforms. For them,

Racism is not epiphenomenal, a set of illusions or ideas that will simply evaporate when economic conditions change. On the contrary, it exists as a complex of practical and institutional, state and non-state, forms of subjection, coercion and violence. Neither police bullets, nor ICE detention centers, nor the extra-legal and customary forms of violent white supremacism, can be made to disappear simply by winning wage increases and higher levels of unionization. Not even socialist transformation can by itself end racism, which persists in habits and customs that will only change through a prolonged struggle. [4]

The authors question the economistic reductionism of positions such as Naschek’s. They point out that this supposed defense of “class-based universalism” is, in reality, nothing more than economism—an opportunistic adaptation to the white working class and its prejudices. They conclude that the struggle is not between “universalism” and “particularism,” but rather between two “antagonistic universalisms.” The first is a false universalism that claims that particular demands must be subordinated to a few partial economic measures; the other is a universalism that “understands the profound links, both strategic and structural, between capitalist exploitation and racial oppression.”

Accordingly, they give the example of the Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit in the late 1960s. After the great repression of the Detroit riots in 1967, Black workers began to organize in the city’s auto plants. They faced racism from employers and hostility from union bureaucracy. They carried out strikes in several factories such as Chrysler and Ford:

Their rank and file organizing and wildcat strikes, beginning in May 1968, not only did not alienate white workers, but drew a significant number into the struggle and played a major role in initiating a militant multi-racial rank and file movement across a number of key industries. [5]

Class, Diversity and Hegemony

One thing is certain: The question of class is indeed reappearing on debates in the left. It is not exclusive to the American left, but rather is developing internationally, after several decades in which the idea of the disappearance of the working class was adopted uncritically by a large number of left-wing intellectuals. There was a time when just talking about the existence of the working class was considered something “old” or “prehistoric.” Now the debates about class have become unavoidable, and this is an interesting symptom of the times we live in.

Paradoxically, however, the debate began as a reaction to two conservative phenomena, the Brexit vote in England and the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House. Since then, different currents of the reformist left have tried to explain why certain sectors of the working class and the impoverished middle classes voted for Trump (or for the extreme right of Le Pen in France). Their conclusion is that in order to win back the right’s electoral base, they must adopt a program of a “welfare chauvinism.” In other words, economic measures of social distribution, in a national framework, with the motto “our workers first.” They believe that issues such as the fight against racism, imperialist oppression or the oppression of women can be “divisive.” This is based on the purely electoral calculation that dealing with questions of racism or gender would prevent the reformist left from broadening its electoral base.

But this sectional and nationalist approach to the class question is not entirely new. It has been a defining feature of the politics of the bureaucracies of the workers’ movement at different historical moments, in opposition to the method and strategy of revolutionary Marxism.

Against any sectional definition of “class interests,” Marx first pointed out that the racism of English workers toward Irish workers generated a split in the working class. This division, which was fostered by the bourgeoisie, held “the true secret of maintaining its power”:

The English bourgeoisie has not only exploited the Irish misery to keep down the working class in England by forced immigration of poor Irishmen, it has also divided the proletariat into two hostile camps. The revolutionary ardor of the Celtic worker does not go well with the solid but slow nature of the Anglo-Saxon worker. On the contrary, in all the big industrial centres in England, there is a profound antagonism between the Irish and English proletarians. The average English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers wages and the standard of life. He feels national and religious antipathies for him.

He regards him practically in the same way the poor whites in the southern states of North America regard the black slaves. This antagonism between the proletarians in England is artificially nourished and kept alive by the bourgeoisie. It knows that this split is the true secret of maintaining its power. [6]

This tendency deepened significantly in the imperialist epoch, when the generalized pillaging of the colonies made it possible for a “labor aristocracy” to form in the central countries. This became the material basis for the emergence of strong bureaucracies in the trade unions, and also for economistic, revisionist and reformist tendencies in the workers parties. Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and the revolutionary Marxists fought against them at different times. The culmination of this nationalist conception of the working class was manifested in the catastrophe of 1914, when the Second International voted in favor of war credits, abandoning the interests of the international working class to embrace the nationalism of the imperialist nations.

The Third International, in contrast, was founded after the Russian Revolution with a call to struggle for workers’ power, for the emancipation of women and the self-determination of all oppressed peoples, including Black people in the United States. In a report on the situation in the U.S. for the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920, John Reed asserted:

The Communists must not stand aloof from the Negro [sic] movement which demands their social and political equality and at the moment, at a time of the rapid growth of racial consciousness, is spreading rapidly among Negroes. The Communists must use this movement to expose the lie of bourgeois equality and emphasize the necessity of the social revolution which will not only liberate all workers from servitude but is also the only way to free the enslaved Negro people. [7]

In the same vein, Leon Trotsky emphasized the importance of incorporating the specific demands of the Black movement into the revolutionary program and giving full support to the struggle for self-determination. [8] Many other examples could be cited, but this review is only intended to show how far reductionist or sectional positions—which disregard the importance of fighting against racist or gender oppression as part of class politics—are from the revolutionary Marxist tradition.

In the face of the postmodern and neoliberal drift of “identity politics” and its instrumentalization by the ruling classes, a reformist policy does not represent any real alternative. The reformist defense of the supposedly “universal” interests of a national working class is really just an excuse to support a candidate in the primaries of the Democratic Party. This party has historically only defended one type of “universalism,” that of large capitalist corporations and the imperialist interests of the United States.

Donald Trump is carrying out more and more attacks on the rights of working-class immigrants, and has made pacts with the president of Mexico to send the military to the border. In this context, any discourse about “class politics” is reactionary if it does not take into account that the U.S. working class is composed of immigrants and women.

In opposition to this caricature of “class politics,” we should not propose a return to identity politics, nor an abstract anti-capitalism without a clear strategy, in the sense of a “movement of movements.” It is important to note that the mere combination of movements is insufficient as a strategy to defeat capitalism. A political strategy that recovers the notion of hegemony is necessary. This means recognizing the importance of the centrality of the working class in the fight against all forms of oppression— whether it be gender, race or sexuality—within the framework of an anti-capitalist and revolutionary struggle for a better society.

Notes

[1] Asad Haider, “Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump,” Verso, 2018.

[2] Asad Haider, “Zombie Manifesto,” Verso Blog, September 1, 2018.

[3] Melissa Naschek, “The Identity Mistake,” Jacobin, August 28, 2018.

[4] Warren Montag and Joseph Serrano, “Socialism, Universalism and Anti-Anti-Racism,” Left Voice, May 7, 2019.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Karl Marx, “Confidential Communication on Bakunin,” March 28 1870.

[7] “Minutes of the Second Congress of the Communist International, Fourth Session, July 25”

[8] Leon Trotsky, “On Black Nationalism, Documents on the Negro Struggle.”

First published in Spanish on June 16 on IzquierdaDiario.es / Contrapunto.

Translation by Anita Semi

About author

Josefina L. Martínez

Josefina L. Martínez

Josefina is a historian from Madrid and an editor of our sister site in the Spanish State, IzquierdaDiario.es.