The Night in Which All Cows Are White

Philadel­phia has a large pop­u­la­tion of black, dis­af­fected youth. It also has a black mayor. But when some of these young peo­ple began to spon­ta­neously protest the obscene level of urban seg­re­ga­tion and sys­tem­atic poverty of the city with “flash mobs,” it was Mayor Michael Nut­ter who launched the coun­ter-attack, impos­ing the dis­ci­pli­nary mea­sure of an ear­lier cur­few in wealthy white areas. Cur­fews, as George Cic­cariello-Maher points out, “have his­tor­i­cally served as a racist weapon for the con­tain­ment of Black bod­ies” – but Nut­ter him­self made the point by accom­pa­ny­ing this mea­sure with an ide­o­log­i­cal assault on black Philadel­phi­ans in gen­eral. In a speech at a church, he said:

Pull your pants up and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your under­wear or the crack of your butt… Comb your hair. And get some groom­ing skills… Run­ning round here with your hair all over the place. Learn some man­ners. Keep your butt in school… And why don’t you work on extend­ing your Eng­lish vocab­u­lary… beyond the few curse words that you know, some other grunts and grum­bles and other things that none of us can under­stand what you’re say­ing.

We want to jux­ta­pose this with a com­ple­men­tary story that took place in Europe, when the Nor­we­gian ter­ror­ist Anders Behring Breivik set out to attack “cul­tural Marx­ism.” In spite of the fact that he shot young white social­ists, Breivik con­ceived of this project as sys­tem­atic with the destruc­tion of “mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism.” The impor­tance of his project for cap­i­tal was appre­ci­ated by the bour­geois press, who made a con­sid­er­able effort to argue that this ter­ror­ism was only an extreme expres­sion of “legit­i­mate con­cerns about gen­uine prob­lems” result­ing from wide­spread Mus­lim immi­gra­tion.

What these strange events – a black elite per­pet­u­at­ing racist stereo­types to attack the poor, and a neo-fas­cist mur­der­ing white left­ists on the basis of racist ide­ol­ogy – seem to sug­gest is that racism, as a strat­egy of con­trol­ling and divid­ing the work­ing class, exists today in an abstract but still pow­er­ful form. By abstract, we only mean that racism can’t be reduced to indi­vid­ual acts of dis­crim­i­na­tion; it’s part of the dynamic logic of cap­i­tal­ism. There is, of course, a dra­matic empir­i­cal his­tory; Stephen Stein­berg has recently described how the right-wing back­lash against affir­ma­tive action, alongside the stigma­ti­za­tion of “the black fam­ily,” served as the foun­da­tion for the bipar­ti­san “coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion” that would dis­man­tle the wel­fare state for all races.

But what we’re inter­ested in here is the struc­tural role of racism. Through­out Europe the Right has clearly con­nected its projects of pri­va­tiz­ing soci­ety and destroy­ing the power of labor with the attack on immi­grants and the bru­tal dis­ci­plin­ing of the ban­lieue pop­u­la­tion. Éti­enne Bal­ibar has pointed to “the het­ero­gene­ity of the his­tor­i­cal forms of the rela­tion­ship between racism and the class strug­gle” in Europe, rang­ing “from the way in which anti-Semi­tism devel­oped into a bogus ‘anti-cap­i­tal­ism’ around the theme of ‘Jew­ish money’ to the way in which racial stigma and class hatred are com­bined today in the cat­e­gory of immi­gra­tion.” From this his­tory he con­cludes that “each of these con­fig­u­ra­tions is irre­ducible,” that it is ulti­mately “impos­si­ble to define any sim­ple rela­tion­ship of ‘expres­sion’ (or, equally, of sub­sti­tu­tion) between racism and class strug­gle.”

It’s hard to find evi­dence of Euro­pean left­ists who see the right-wing racist back­lash as a “legit­i­mate con­cern about gen­uine prob­lems” with the “mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ist” ide­ol­ogy of neolib­er­al­ism, and who go on to con­clude that mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is the main enemy. In fact, many of them have turned to Amer­i­can debates on “white­ness” and “bor­der cross­ing” to under­stand their own polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. But strangely enough, such the­o­ries are gain­ing atten­tion here.

The most vocal rep­re­sen­ta­tive of this ten­dency is a lit­er­ary critic named Wal­ter Benn Michaels, who wrote in a New Left Review arti­cle called “Against Diver­sity” that “Amer­i­can lib­er­als feel a lot bet­ter about a world in which the top 20 per cent are get­ting richer at the expense of every­one else, as long as that top 20 per cent includes a pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of women and African-Amer­i­cans.” Michaels’ argu­ment is that in spite of major legal and cul­tural mea­sures against racism and sex­ism, eco­nomic inequal­ity has only grown. This indict­ment of lib­eral apolo­gies for cap­i­tal­ism is pow­er­ful enough. But the argu­ment is taken much fur­ther: polit­i­cal strug­gles against racism and sex­ism are not only dis­trac­tions from the strug­gle against inequal­ity, they are jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for inequal­ity, the guilty con­science of neolib­er­al­ism. As he wrote in the Lon­don Review of Books, anti-racism and anti-sex­ism “have noth­ing to do with left-wing pol­i­tics, and… inso­far as they func­tion as a sub­sti­tute for it, can be a bad thing.”

To really under­stand what he means by this, we should step back to Michaels’ ear­lier work. He became well-known for a man­i­festo co-authored with Steven Knapp called “Against The­ory” – Michaels is appar­ently fond of such titles – in which he argued that the decon­struc­tivist inter­est in the “mate­ri­al­ity” of signs mis­tak­enly sep­a­rated the mean­ing of a text from the author’s inten­tion. “The­ory,” as a set of meth­ods that addressed how to inter­pret things in gen­eral, was a use­less project, Michaels argued, pre­cisely because the mean­ing of the text and the inten­tion of the author are the same. In other words, because there is no space, or slip­page, between the two, there should be no need for “the­ory.” His elab­o­ra­tion of this view claimed that the empha­sis on inter­pre­ta­tion rested on a con­cept of iden­tity: who the reader is mat­ters more than what the text says. What really counts, Michaels claimed, is ideas, the beliefs elab­o­rated by authors inde­pen­dent of their iden­ti­ties.

It’s a strange notion, since “who you are” clearly has a lot to do with the lan­guages you speak, and the ideas con­tained in a text you write are no more “real” than “who you are.” Surely, after all, ideas don’t have pri­macy on their own; unless you believe that ideas make the world, you’ll be inter­ested in study­ing the his­tor­i­cal process that these ideas are a part of, which involves who’s speak­ing, who’s lis­ten­ing, and how they’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing. Anto­nio Gram­sci put it this way: “The start­ing point of crit­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion is the con­scious­ness of what one really is, and of ‘know­ing thy­self’ as a pro­duct of the his­tor­i­cal process to date, which has deposited in you an infin­ity of traces with­out leav­ing an inven­tory.”

And in fact it was the argu­ment of Fredric Jameson that Michaels’ prac­tice as a lit­er­ary critic in a work like The Gold Stan­dard and the Logic of Nat­u­ral­ism, by absorbing itself in his­tor­i­cal detail, ended up redis­cov­er­ing these the­o­ret­i­cal ques­tions: study­ing the con­sti­tu­tion of iden­tity “on the model of pri­vate prop­erty,” ask­ing whether the logic of the mar­ket in Theodore Dreiser’s Sis­ter Car­rie could be con­sid­ered ide­ol­ogy or cri­tique, rein­ter­pret­ing the nat­u­ral­ist fan­tasy of “some Utopian space out­side the dynam­ics of the mar­ket” as an ide­o­log­i­cal sup­ple­ment to the mar­ket itself – reca­pit­u­lat­ing themes famil­iar from Lukács to Adorno, but with­out the self-crit­i­cal per­spec­tive often called “the­ory.” This con­spic­u­ous absence, Jameson con­cluded, is exactly what led Michaels to dis­pas­sion­ately ana­lyze mar­ket logic as the logic of Amer­i­can cul­ture, and ignore the Marx­ian cri­tique that begins with the “pri­macy of pro­duc­tion,” ulti­mately ori­ented by the polit­i­cal project called “social­ism.”

But since Michaels has extended this argu­ment to the more vis­i­ble and prac­ti­cal issues of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, many on the Left have signed on with this odd ide­ol­ogy. It’s the same argu­ment: polit­i­cal move­ments that are based on the demands of par­tic­u­lar groups are just locked into autho­rial iden­tity. What counts is the right idea – the idea of equal­ity – and not the par­tic­u­lar­ity of the actual sub­jects involved. Any iden­tity-based move­ment may change the color of those who suf­fer inequal­ity, but inequal­ity will remain. This doesn’t mean, Michaels argued in the LRB, that there should be a strug­gle against “clas­sism” that would offer “pos­i­tive affir­ma­tion for the work­ing classes.” Class is not an iden­tity; it’s the dif­fer­ence between a good life and pure depri­va­tion. For Michaels, turn­ing the poor into an iden­tity to be defended would be reac­tionary – you’d be cel­e­brat­ing lives that are defined by abjec­tion.

Con­sid­er­ing that fos­ter­ing “diver­sity” has become a replace­ment for the elim­i­na­tion of poverty and inequal­ity, espe­cially among aca­d­e­mics with large salaries, it’s no sur­prise that com­mit­ted left­ists are drawn to Michaels’ argu­ments. It’s cer­tainly impor­tant to resist this con­demnable ten­dency on the part of afflu­ent lib­er­als to aban­don the white work­ing class, and indeed the work­ing class in gen­eral, in favor of polit­i­cally cor­rect polic­ing of tele­vi­sion shows. How­ever, this is no excuse for a dis­tor­tion of real­ity, or for aban­don­ing the foun­da­tions of rad­i­cal pol­i­tics. Just like “mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism,” the dis­course of equal­ity can only emerge from a lib­eral view­point. Michaels cer­tainly has the right to a lib­eral view­point. But it’s hard to under­stand why Marx­ists would endorse it.

The unique thing about Marx­ist pol­i­tics is that it doesn’t aim for a more enlight­ened dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth, the Proud­ho­nian dream of a soci­ety man­aged by egal­i­tar­ian accoun­tants. Marx­ism breaks from the view that class is a mat­ter of priv­i­lege or rel­a­tive wealth. Class is the fun­da­men­tal social rela­tion of soci­ety inso­far as it rep­re­sents the divi­sion between peo­ple who own the means of pro­duc­tion and those who are forced to sell their abil­ity to work. The con­se­quence is that the cap­i­tal­ist class dom­i­nates and exploits the work­ing class. This is a totally dif­fer­ent phe­nom­e­non from dis­tri­b­u­tion, and the Marx­ist analy­sis takes it one admirable step fur­ther. The way to change this sys­tem is not for intel­lec­tu­als to decry its moral degra­da­tion and admin­is­tra­tors to reor­ga­nize it more equi­tably. Instead, it can only be changed when the exploited them­selves express their polit­i­cal power – when they abol­ish this whole rela­tion­ship of dom­i­na­tion and run soci­ety for them­selves.

An abstract pol­i­tics of equal­ity on behalf of the poor totally buries the agency of the work­ing class – it falls prey to the ide­ol­ogy of the bour­geois utopi­ans who, Marx wrote in The Poverty of Phi­los­o­phy, “see in poverty noth­ing but poverty, with­out see­ing in it the rev­o­lu­tion­ary, sub­ver­sive side, which will over­throw the old soci­ety.” Those who define the work­ing class by its depri­va­tion obscure the fact that peo­ple make their lives with what they have avail­able to them, often imag­i­na­tively refus­ing the lim­its imposed on them by cap­i­tal­ism. Most impor­tantly, they for­get that what the work­ing class does on a daily basis – work – is what the cap­i­tal­ist class requires to accu­mu­late profit and to build all of soci­ety. A purely neg­a­tive def­i­n­i­tion of the work­ing class leaves no space for it to strug­gle for its own eman­ci­pa­tion. And per­versely, it ends up cel­e­brat­ing the very cul­ture of the rich, the cul­ture of enti­tle­ment, that engages in “mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism.” This kind of “equal­ity” seems to rest on the premise that we will one day all become latte-sip­ping mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ists.

What this means is that call­ing for equal­ity on the basis of class is also a form of iden­tity pol­i­tics. Michaels illus­trates this the­o­ret­i­cal twist when he declares in an inter­view that he comes down on the “redis­tri­b­u­tion side” of Nancy Fraser’s the­ory of “redis­tri­b­u­tion and recog­ni­tion.” But Fraser’s argu­ment has been pre­cisely that redis­tri­b­u­tion and recog­ni­tion should be under­stood as two ele­ments of one larger frame­work of jus­tice, which is based on “par­ity of par­tic­i­pa­tion.” This con­cep­tion of jus­tice is actu­ally derived from Fraser’s rework­ing of iden­tity pol­i­tics into “sta­tus,” since sta­tus hier­ar­chies inter­fere with the capac­ity of indi­vid­u­als to par­tic­i­pate as “full part­ners in social inter­ac­tion.” Whether you’re crit­i­ciz­ing unequal dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth or dis­crim­i­na­tion on the basis of sex­ual pref­er­ence, the nor­ma­tive frame­work is some­where between a Sil­i­con Val­ley board meet­ing and the “safe space” of a con­scious­ness-rais­ing group. Ulti­mately, though Fraser rather incred­i­bly describes an ideal pol­i­tics based on a “com­bi­na­tion of social­ism and decon­struc­tion,” her social­ist utopia amounts to New Deal nos­tal­gia.

Indeed, the prob­lem is that terms like iden­tity, sta­tus, jus­tice, and equal­ity all belong to debates within the same lib­eral dis­course. What they don’t address is the fact that the rela­tion­ship between the cap­i­tal­ist class and the work­ing class isn’t fun­da­men­tally about “inequal­ity”; it’s about power. It was a pol­i­tics lim­ited to “equal right” and “fair dis­tri­b­u­tion” that Marx railed against in his Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme, con­trast­ing these ideas with the “real rela­tion” that deter­mi­nes dis­tri­b­u­tion.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that demands for equal­ity based on class iden­tity are irrel­e­vant. They are extremely impor­tant at the level of pro­pa­ganda, ethics, and pol­i­tics, because they mobi­lize a wide range of peo­ple, they alle­vi­ate real suf­fer­ing, and they empower work­ers. But they are reforms which don’t address the fun­da­men­tal struc­ture of cap­i­tal­ism. This, after all, is the cru­cial issue: the fun­da­men­tal struc­ture of cap­i­tal­ism. White pop­ulists are fond of argu­ing that cap­i­tal­ism has adapted to racial equal­ity. It doesn’t need racism, and now its dam­age is done purely at the level of class.

This is a pecu­liar argu­ment. It seems to imag­ine that cap­i­tal­ism is some kind of beau­ti­ful jewel hid­den in an uncut stone. If we just carve away all the extra­ne­ous and unnec­es­sary trap­pings, we will arrive at the essence of cap­i­tal­ism, a pure and unadul­ter­ated con­cept that has been wait­ing since the 17th cen­tury to be dis­cov­ered.

But cap­i­tal­ism isn’t an essence; it’s a social rela­tion that assumes his­tor­i­cally speci­fic forms. Race and class are not totally inde­pen­dent lay­ers of exploita­tion; they con­sti­tute dif­fer­ent aspects of a rec­i­p­ro­cally impli­cated rela­tion­ship. Since they are not just exter­nally related but actu­ally inter­pen­e­trate one another, it’s ridicu­lous to argue that com­bat­ing racism would have absolutely no effect on cap­i­tal­ism. These two strug­gles have always been related, but the irre­ducible speci­fici­ties of this rela­tion­ship have always var­ied from one con­junc­ture to the next.

The other side of the argu­ment that race and class are entirely unre­lated is the equally crude asser­tion that class now includes race within itself: any seri­ous prob­lem suf­fered by peo­ple of color in Amer­ica results from their class posi­tion, not their race. In this view, the com­pli­cated rela­tion­ship between race and class has been abruptly resolved by sub­sum­ing the for­mer into the lat­ter. Instead of closely exam­in­ing the ways in which the rela­tion­ship between these dis­tinct forms has changed over time, we get a world where all par­tic­u­lar­i­ties have been swal­lowed up by an overfed – though para­dox­i­cally under­nour­ished – con­cep­tion of class.

In this light, we have to recon­sider the mean­ing of the move­ments against racism. It’s inad­e­quate to argue that strug­gles against racism have now grown irrel­e­vant because they achieved a few vic­to­ries in the past. After all, cap­i­tal­ism itself has also adapted to a wide range of class-based demands: the eight-hour work­day, the abo­li­tion of child labor, safer work­ing con­di­tions. Does this mean these demands, and their con­tin­u­a­tion or rad­i­cal­iza­tion, are some­how epiphe­nom­e­nal and irrel­e­vant?

Instead of imag­in­ing these strug­gles as cut­ting a pro­gres­sive and irre­versible inci­sion through each layer of exploita­tion, we have to rec­og­nize that they addressed speci­fic ele­ments of capitalism’s con­crete his­tor­i­cal exis­tence. Strug­gles waged against cap­i­tal­ist dom­i­na­tion put forth trade-union demands and forced cap­i­tal to restruc­ture itself, to adapt to a mil­i­tant labor move­ment. Sim­i­larly, his­tor­i­cal strug­gles against racism were an attack on the his­tor­i­cally speci­fic form of cap­i­tal­ism, which emerged from a racial­ized slave state. In response, cap­i­tal restruc­tured the hier­ar­chies imposed on the work­ing class. Instead of uni­lin­ear pro­gress, we have to see these actions as part of the dynamic restruc­tur­ing of a his­tor­i­cal rela­tion­ship.

The same has always been true of gen­der. “The labour of women and chil­dren,” Marx wrote in Cap­i­tal, “was the first thing sought for by cap­i­tal­ists who used machin­ery.” The intro­duc­tion of machin­ery, which over­came the need for mus­cu­lar strength, allowed cap­i­tal­ists to put women and chil­dren to work while simul­ta­ne­ously atten­u­at­ing capital’s pre­vi­ous depen­dence on male labor. Cap­i­tal­ists could there­fore gen­er­ate more sur­plus-value and frac­ture the unity of the work­ing class at the same time. Cap­i­tal took advan­tage of the rel­a­tive inex­pe­ri­ence and gen­eral polit­i­cal dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion of these new work­ers by work­ing them harder and pay­ing them less, ulti­mately increas­ing the gen­eral level of com­pe­ti­tion within the work­ing class. With women now able to do their husband’s old jobs for less, cap­i­tal­ists were freed to come down harder on recal­ci­trant male work­ers. The men’s polit­i­cal resis­tance was under­mined while women – who now had to bal­ance the waged labor of the fac­tory with the unwaged labor of the house­hold – came to occupy, as the most exploited and least orga­nized sec­tor of the class, the most vul­ner­a­ble posi­tion.

Recent changes in Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism attest to the con­tin­u­ing sig­nif­i­cance of the mutu­ally involved rela­tion­ship between gen­der and class. Accord­ing to a recent study by the Pew Research Cen­ter, men – who were hit hard­est by the reces­sion – are actu­ally regain­ing jobs far more quickly than women. From June 2009 to May 2011 men gained 768,000 jobs while women lost 218,000. But the strik­ing fact is that men are out­pac­ing women because cap­i­tal is allow­ing them to take over the very voca­tions that have been tra­di­tion­ally gen­dered fem­i­nine: health care, edu­ca­tion, and ser­vices in gen­eral. This is noth­ing less than a destruc­tur­ing of the work­force. Women are forced to reen­ter the house­hold as unwaged domes­tic work­ers while hus­bands do their wives’ old jobs for lower wages. The strat­egy of decreas­ing real wages and increas­ing the cost of liv­ing attacks the pro­le­tariat as a whole, but focuses its ter­ror on unem­ployed moth­ers. This restruc­tur­ing of the sex­ual divi­sion of labor, now cou­pled with major cuts to ser­vices like social secu­rity, pre­cisely the ser­vices that unpaid domes­tic work­ers depend on most, serves to break the unity of female work­ers by forc­ing them to absorb the undue strain placed on the rest of the pro­le­tariat.

Such inter­sec­tions of class and social cat­e­gories mis­la­beled “iden­tity” are exactly what make it impos­si­ble to aban­don strug­gles against racism and sex­ism inso­far as they have a con­crete rela­tion to class strug­gle. Oth­er­wise we lapse into the assump­tion, as Robert McCh­es­ney said in another con­text, that the Amer­i­can work­ing class is entirely made up of “mid­dle-aged, over­weight white men.” The polit­i­cal con­se­quences of such a view are dis­as­trous; imag­ine a labor orga­nizer going up to North Philadel­phia and telling black work­ers that they should for­get about how the cop dis­re­spects them, because what mat­ters is the white work­ers on strike in Cen­ter City.

To avoid such embar­rass­ments, we’ll need to care­fully exam­ine pre­vail­ing ideas about class and iden­tity, and trace their his­tory. Seth Ack­er­man has writ­ten an inter­est­ing arti­cle dis­sect­ing the num­bers in opin­ion polls. He points out that “racial resent­ment” is mea­sured, for exam­ple, by agree­ment to state­ments like “It’s really a mat­ter of some peo­ple not try­ing hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as Whites.” The num­bers show that while 59% of white peo­ple agreed with this state­ment, 86% of them agreed with the non-racial­ized state­ment that “any per­son who is will­ing to work hard has a good chance of suc­ceed­ing,” a mea­sure of “indi­vid­u­al­ism.” Ack­er­man argues that the for­mer is merely a con­se­quence of the lat­ter – a “span­drel,” to use the con­cept made famous by Richard Lewon­tin and Stephen Jay Gould, an acci­den­tal result of a wider struc­ture that nev­er­the­less monop­o­lizes our atten­tion, due to its spec­tac­u­lar appear­ance. In other words, white peo­ple aren’t racist, they are just express­ing a much broader indi­vid­u­al­ist ide­ol­ogy.

We only want to sug­gest that both of these beliefs are span­drels, as indeed are most inco­her­ent expres­sions of polit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy. The indi­vid­u­al­ist dream of social mobil­ity is not nec­es­sar­ily com­pat­i­ble with a soci­ety that is based on the preser­va­tion of a sys­tem­at­i­cally exploited work­ing class. In cer­tain cases, it is ide­o­log­i­cally effec­tive in encour­ag­ing peo­ple who are exploited to work hard, as they dream of one day becom­ing mil­lion­aires. But this is a speci­fic expres­sion of indi­vid­u­al­ism, which belongs to a more gen­eral con­cep­tion Marx described in the Cri­tique of the Gotha Pro­gramme as “bour­geois right.” After all, it would be impos­si­ble for some­one to suc­ceed sim­ply as a func­tion of work­ing hard with­out the wider social value of reward­ing peo­ple in pro­por­tion to their hard work. An indi­vid­u­al­ist con­cep­tion of “right” like that cer­tainly enables the con­ser­v­a­tive Hor­a­tio Alger the­ory of soci­ety, but it also enables a trade-union demand for bet­ter pay for more work, and even, as Marx wrote, serves as a con­tin­gent basis for the social­ist reor­ga­ni­za­tion of the labor process.

So let’s return to these com­ple­men­tary span­drels. As we have noted, Ack­er­man points out that 59% of whites believe that black peo­ple could get ahead if they work harder, while 86% of whites believe that hard work is rewarded with suc­cess in gen­eral. With­out get­ting too deeply into the data, let’s accept Ackerman’s argu­ment that the for­mer is an exten­sion of the lat­ter – so 59% of whites believe it is impor­tant to spec­ify that this “indi­vid­u­al­ist” logic applies in spite of any his­tory of struc­tural racial inequal­ity. What Ack­er­man wants us to under­stand is that black peo­ple agreed with the gen­eral, non-racial­ized dec­la­ra­tion of indi­vid­u­al­ism even more strongly than white peo­ple.

The ques­tion is what this inter­sec­tion of views rep­re­sents. It would be an over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion to con­clude that black and white peo­ple sim­ply share an indi­vid­u­al­ist false con­scious­ness. It is pos­si­ble – and in fact highly likely – that the over­all ide­o­log­i­cal mean­ing of these state­ments is com­pletely dif­fer­ent, depend­ing on who is utter­ing them. When white peo­ple agree with a state­ment that racial­izes the indi­vid­u­al­ist sen­ti­ment – that is, a state­ment that intro­duces race as a vari­able and dis­misses its struc­tural impor­tance – this is sys­tem­atic with an entire his­tory of racial divi­sions and hier­ar­chies within the work­ing class, a model in which white suc­cess is pred­i­cated on black dis­ad­van­tage. When a black per­son makes such a state­ment, it has far greater prox­im­ity to a ten­dency in African-Amer­i­can pol­i­tics that extends from Mar­cus Gar­vey to the Nation of Islam. Though this ten­dency addressed poor blacks and told them to get jobs, stop drink­ing, and wear bowties, it did so as part of a black nation­al­ist pol­i­tics that sought to develop black polit­i­cal power, to fight the wider polit­i­cal and eco­nomic struc­tures that kept racism in place.

Just like any other ide­o­log­i­cal span­drel, this is a con­tra­dic­tory belief – it can just as eas­ily be assim­i­lated into the lin­eage that goes from Booker T. Wash­ing­ton to Bill Cosby, which tells poor black peo­ple to buck up and get to work, while dis­miss­ing the struc­tural exploita­tion that occurs at the nexus of race and class.

In the early 20th cen­tury, one of the major tasks under­taken by the Amer­i­can com­mu­nist move­ment was to take this “self-help” phi­los­o­phy of black nation­al­ism and make it part of rev­o­lu­tion­ary anti-cap­i­tal­ism – the prin­ci­ple, above all, was unity of the pro­le­tariat, which was impos­si­ble if black peo­ple remained in a state of hyper-exploita­tion, but­tressed by the extra-eco­nomic coer­cion that comes from seg­re­ga­tion of urban space, hier­ar­chiza­tion of the work­force, and polic­ing by repres­sive state appa­ra­tuses.

For exam­ple, William Z. Fos­ter described in 1926 the effect of racial divi­sions on the class strug­gle in gen­eral:

The pol­icy of the employ­ers is to develop the Negroes as a great reserve army of strike­break­ers. They refuse to give the Negroes employ­ment in many indus­tries and trades unless they come in as strike­break­ers. They force them to accept the low­est wages and the most ter­ri­ble work­ing con­di­tions. They leave no stone unturned to exploit the deep race antag­o­nism between whites and blacks in order to force the Negro to scab. And in many great strikes, such as for exam­ple the 1919 steel strike, where at least 50,000 Negroes were brought into the mills dur­ing the strike, they are only too suc­cess­ful.

This real­ity was rein­forced by the craft unions, whose white chau­vin­ism led them to block black work­ers from join­ing. The solu­tion, said Fos­ter, was for white and black work­ers to strug­gle together – but this could only be achieved if black work­ers were able to orga­nize on their own terms, with­out their inter­ests being sub­or­di­nated to those of white work­ers.

Pam­phlet of the Amer­i­can Negro Labor Con­gress, a CPUSA orga­ni­za­tion (1925)

Ulti­mately this led the com­mu­nist move­ment to incor­po­rate the demands made by black nation­al­ist move­ments, rep­re­sented by Mar­cus Gar­vey but also by black com­mu­nist groups like the African Black Broth­er­hood. This pol­icy, based on the Bol­she­vik endorse­ment of move­ments for national self-deter­mi­na­tion, was insti­tu­tion­al­ized in the 1928 and 1930 Com­intern Res­o­lu­tions on the “black national ques­tion,” but what is inter­est­ing above all is its prac­ti­cal effect. Com­mu­nist Party USA mem­bers risked their lives to engage in activism that included orga­niz­ing armed self-defense from lynch­ing in the South, anti-evic­tion cam­paigns in Harlem, and the Sharecropper’s Union that won a strike for bet­ter cot­ton prices.

The polit­i­cal impor­tance of this pol­icy was not lost on the rest of the com­mu­nist move­ment. Some Trot­sky­ists sug­gested reject­ing the nation­al­ist line in favor of “social, polit­i­cal and eco­nomic equal­ity for Negroes.” But Trot­sky him­self con­sid­ered this a “lib­eral demand,” and in fact a “con­ces­sion to the point of view of Amer­i­can chau­vin­ism.”

“I under­stand what ‘polit­i­cal equal­ity’ means,” Trot­sky said. “But what is the mean­ing of eco­nom­i­cal and social equal­ity within cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety?” Ulti­mately he con­cluded that “the Negro can be devel­oped to a class stand­point only when the white worker is edu­cated.” It was those white work­ers who fought for black self-deter­mi­na­tion, who defended black work­ers from the police, who Trot­sky looked to: “those are rev­o­lu­tion­ists, I have con­fi­dence in them.” This strug­gle against racism was the con­di­tion for a class strug­gle: “The Negroes will through their awak­en­ing, through their demand for auton­omy, and through the demo­c­ra­tic mobi­liza­tion of their forces, be pushed on toward the class basis.”

The impli­ca­tions of this his­tory must be seri­ously elab­o­rated. First of all, it would be impos­si­ble to speak today of a united labor move­ment if this early nation­al­ist turn had not laid the foun­da­tion for the Civil Rights Move­ment. But even fur­ther, the wider polit­i­cal logic must be con­tin­ued, since such prac­ti­cal activ­ity has impor­tant analo­gies today. Within the com­mu­nist prac­tice enabled by the black national ques­tion, the anti-lynch­ing move­ment was insep­a­ra­ble from the “eco­nomic” bat­tles against evic­tions and for unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. It’s dif­fi­cult not to notice that these links are still present – the past year saw the mur­der of Troy Davis by the prison-indus­trial com­plex, and the police bru­tal­ity against the occu­pa­tions move­ments recalls the sys­tem­atic attacks on black com­mu­ni­ties. The eco­nomic bat­tles of yes­ter­day per­sist alongside the clearly racial­ized issues of migrant labor, wel­fare, and “school reform.” There was and still is no way to orga­nize black work­ers for their self-eman­ci­pa­tion with­out frankly acknowl­edg­ing the racist artic­u­la­tions of class power, and it’s clearly the only way for move­ments against eco­nomic exploita­tion to incor­po­rate the sec­tors of the work­ing class that suf­fer the most from evic­tions and fore­clo­sures.

Obvi­ously, it would be illog­i­cal to sim­ply repeat unre­con­structed claims about nation­al­ism today. It is cru­cial to use a Marx­ist the­ory of self-deter­mi­na­tion to con­front “essen­tial­ist” nation­alisms. Black nation­al­ism is a way to defend the inter­ests of one sec­tor of the class, to unify it, ground its auton­omy, and strengthen its strug­gle. But it can also pro­duce inter­nal oppres­sion, arti­fi­cially homog­e­nize the group, and force the com­mu­nity as a whole to sub­or­di­nate itself to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of one of its seg­ments – say, black men. And these risks are clear from Gar­vey to Far­rakhan.

But from the point of view of the Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of the 1920s and 1930s, black nation­al­ism was a weapon that could be strate­gi­cally reap­pro­pri­ated. What is impor­tant is that this clas­si­cal left prac­tice wasn’t at the level of iden­tity. It con­fronted the his­tor­i­cal speci­ficity of cap­i­tal­ism, which is artic­u­lated at the level of the nation-state – and advanced a pol­i­tics based on the self-eman­ci­pa­tion of an agent, there­fore the unity of this agent, that social processes have reduced to a cer­tain func­tion. Our his­tor­i­cal pre­de­ces­sors rec­og­nized that the slo­gan of self-deter­mi­na­tion came far closer to the self-eman­ci­pa­tion of the pro­le­tariat than any lib­eral plat­i­tude about equal­ity.

Such a prac­tice demon­strates the only effec­tive means of com­bat­ing neolib­eral iden­tity pol­i­tics: a pol­i­tics based on the pri­macy of class strug­gle, which care­fully addresses the medi­a­tion of class by other ele­ments of the social for­ma­tion in order to con­struct the unity of the pro­le­tariat. It is this lesson, from the Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies whose legacy is worth reclaim­ing, that we should recall as we debate the com­plex rela­tion­ship between race and class. We can start by ask­ing a sim­ple ques­tion: why have the black youth who par­tic­i­pated in the Philadel­phia flash mobs been so con­spic­u­ously absent from the occu­pa­tion at City Hall? Projects like Occupy the Hood pose the next ques­tion: how can this divi­sion be over­come? The future of an anti-cap­i­tal­ist move­ment depends on the answer.

Asad Haider is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at UC-Santa Cruz. Salar Mohan­desi is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at UPenn. They are the edi­tors of View­point.

Authors of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint.

is an editor of Viewpoint and a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania.

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