Saturday, April 29, 2017

Marxism, Socialism and Identity Politics

We reprint this article from Seattle Weekly and it is another excellent critique about Identity politics from the writers around Jacobin and Viewpoint Magazine 

Myself and others have commented on this blog on the damaging aspects of identity politics and the language that it uses that arises out of left academia and the left petite bourgeois.  We reprinted a similar piece by Nivedita Majumdar here  and we recommend it to our readers. I shared one of my experiences in a short video yesterday.  I also touched on it in a number of blog posts as have other authors on the blog. Here is one: Trumka, Trump and the White Worker

In my experiences on the job, on picket lines, workplace battles, renters' rights and other campaigns against racism sexism and all sorts of oppression, it is through class struggle, the resistance to capitalism that racism, sexism, and other form of identity oppression can be overcome as opposed to asking whites to "check their privilege at the door". I agree with the interviewee when he challenges this. As we join together in the class struggle, we build a stronger bond, we socialize and with this we build trust and it is in this atmosphere that these discussions about racism sexism, the special oppression of others takes place. In this way it can be a fruitful exercise and lead to the building of a genuine united movement of workers against the capitalist offensive.

Richard Mellor

Illustration by Robyn Jordan

A Marxist Critiques Identity Politics

A Q&A with Asad Haider, founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine, on an ideology fracturing the left.

In the days following September 11, Asad Haider’s identity was of great concern. A first-generation Pakistani-American, he recalls being harassed and detained at the airport due to his ethnicity. Today, his identity is also of considerable interest to opponents of his political writing as the founding editor of Marxist “militant research collective” Viewpoint Magazine. Except now, many of his critics online accuse him of being white—out of touch with the world of identity politics.

“It completely erases my own experiences of racism and it distorts the views I’ve formed to understand those experiences,” he says during a lengthy conversation with Seattle Weekly. Haider has emerged alongside fellow Viewpoint editor Salar Mohandesi; R.L. Stephens II of Orchestrated Pulse; Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara; University of Pennsylvania Prof. Adolph Reed Jr.; and Princeton Prof. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor as one of many Marxists of color vocally critiquing the conventions and effectiveness of contemporary liberal identity politics. He will be speaking in Seattle on a number of topics at the month-long radical leftist event series Red May. We chatted about why Haider believes identity politics is a “dead end,” in advance of his Seattle appearance. Since we’re talking about identity politics, for clarity, I am European-American.

Could you begin by explaining how you define “identity politics?” It’s such a nebulous term to begin with—but I think for a lot of people, it’s shorthand for anti-racism or the ongoing fight for basic civil rights.

I think you have to draw a clear distinction between movements in the past that targeted a structure defined by racial oppression—the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement are the most obvious examples, but they stretch all the way back to the roots of American capitalism, really—from a much more recent development in which politics is not about a social structure, but the recognition of an individual or a particular group’s identity. And talking about politics in terms of the pair of “race and gender,” as if they were both different forms of the same substance, is a newer phenomenon. I would argue it arises from what is essentially the neutralization of truly revolutionary movements against an entire social structure defined by racism and capitalism.

One thing that happened was that a governmental system which was once defined by the exclusion of people of color on the basis of legal forms of white supremacy, now suddenly was altered by the successes of the Civil Rights movement. It became possible to have a ruling class that incorporated people of color. In that context, taking away the structural challenge that was posed by the Civil Rights movement and Black Power movement, suppressing that in favor of a kind of politics that is entirely about the recognition of individuals abstracted from their class positions, that became a very convenient position for members of the ruling class to take.

You and Salar wrote in one of your post-election pieces that “We will have to rethink an anti-racist strategy that has served mostly to diversify the professional-managerial class.” But isn’t it important to have diverse representation in positions of power?

These problems of representation are extremely important, and are one of the major victories of revolutionary movements against racism. This shouldn’t be dismissed. If anyone wants to build a real left movement, you can’t proceed by dismissing issues of representation. But it doesn’t mean that the left should be more willing to adopt the language of identity politics—that is also a mistake. What’s needed is a different kind of language which takes the issues of race and racism very seriously, and understands the role they’ve played historically both in revolutionary movements and in the maintenance of the capitalist system in the United States.

In Salar’s Viewpoint piece “Identity Crisis,” he noted that the idea of “identity politics” was first created by the black feminist lesbian Combahee River Collective in 1974. What role did “identity politics” initially play when it was created?

This was a moment in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s when there were a number of organizations in the United States which really thought there was a revolution around the corner. So in that context, in which socialist politics had a concrete, practical, organizational expression, where those anti-capitalist positions were part of the central discourse of the left, in that context, the idea that particular identities had to be recognized for their differences and the differences of their demands was a very progressive step. It showed that if you center an anti-capitalist politics entirely on some kind of imaginary figure of the white male worker, you leave out an enormous portion of the working class, and you leave out a good bit of what emancipation really means.

So I think the Combahee River Collective kind of proposed something experimental, saying that the most radical politics comes out of your individual identity—as a challenge to colorblind, genderblind socialist politics. This was really important. I think, however, it wasn’t quite adequate, because what we’ve seen as time has gone on is that people’s identity can be the source of very reactionary politics. That’s the new problem we have to deal with.

It is interesting how Richard Spencer adopted the language of identity politics in the name of white nationalism, calling himself an “identitarian” and saying he wants the U.S. to be a “safe space for people of European descent.”

And that’s part of why I think that despite the fact that its origins are a really productive, constructive attempt to deepen socialist politics, the category of identity is one that’s ultimately a dead end. It can’t be the starting point for an emancipatory politics.

When do you think identity politics became an impediment to emancipatory politics, then?

It’s a very complex question because you can identify precursors to identity politics—for example, in cultural nationalism, which is something that was opposed by the Black Panther Party and by the Communist Party as early as the ’20s in its earlier iterations. That was an ideology which said the African identity would be the source of black liberation, and the Black Panthers said that that’s really not adequate—that in order to attack white supremacy in the United States, you would have to attack capitalism. In fact, if an entire politics was built around African identity, that would mean covering up the very real class contradictions that were present both in the black community and on a global scale. So that kind of problem has existed for a long time.

But this new language of identity politics, I think it’s something we can really see come about in the ’80s, with this wave of revolutionary movements that came out of the New Left and also came out of various ethnic community groups, which started from various kinds of nationalist ideologies and later moved towards a revolutionary anti-capitalism. There are many examples—you have the Young Lords, various Chinatown groups in New York and San Francisco and so on. These groups began with nationalist demands and developed into anti-capitalist organizations. But they were riding a movement that came out of the ’60s, and they were sort of definitively defeated not only by the restructuring of capitalism in response to the crises of the 1970s that led to neoliberalism, but also by the political strategy of the right and Ronald Reagan. I think that is a moment that completely scrambled everybody’s political language. You could say in a way that identity politics is the Reaganite version of cultural nationalism.

You also have been critical of identity politcs’ role in the 2016 election, especially with Hillary Clinton. Could you speak to what you saw as the contradictions or failures of this ideology in that context?

It’s clear that both political parties confronted various challenges from within that broke with the dominant paradigm of American politics from the ’80s. In the Republican party, this challenge was successful. In the Democratic party, the party elite tried to suppress the challenge represented by Bernie Sanders by any means possible, and part of this was adapting to the language of identity politics, by suggesting that anything that went outside of the scope that American liberalism allows, anything that went in a remotely socialist direction, even the most modest policies, was completely impermissible.

And this was in the context of a weird situation, where you just had a movement erupt in the United States around racial oppression—the Black Lives Matter movement—which had altered the political terrain. There’s no sense in which the BLM movement should be seen as identity politics. It is a movement of a great portion of the poorest people in the United States resisting the violence of the capitalist state. That’s entirely consistent with any kind of movement for structural change. But the movement had many contradictions.

One of them came about in the somewhat indiscriminate attack on various politicians, including Bernie Sanders, which was taken up very quickly by the Democratic elite as a way to totally discredit him by saying that he ignored race—that any kind of politics that breaks from the Hillary Clinton brand is necessarily racist and sexist. So then you get this bizarre phenomenon where Hillary Clinton is tweeting about intersectionality, and it’s very easy to get a lot of fans on social media and at universities by using that word. That was kind of an amazing moment which showed just how non-threatening this discourse is to the American ruling class.

One of the prevailing dialogues right now emergent from identity politics is that of “white privilege.” Do you think that concept is useful for understanding social structures?

I’ve written a little about the history of the term. It comes out of some groups that split off from the Communist Party in the ’50s, and really came to prominence in the’ 60s. Its primary architects were Theodore Allen and Noel Ignatiev, and they called it “white skin privilege.” The idea of white skin privilege was that white workers had been bribed. The American ruling class, especially the Southern planter class dating all the way back to the 17th century, had bribed white workers with greater social status and privileges so they would not unite with black workers—from enslaved workers in the 17th century to super-exploited black wage workers in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s—and pose a challenge to the ruling class.

The idea was that white skin privilege was actually harmful to white people, because despite the fact that they were granted some advantages over black people, they ended up even more entrenched in their condition of exploitation precisely by accepting these advantages. As a result, they did not build a movement across racial boundaries to fight their common oppression. The fact that the idea of white privilege is used today to show why we can’t possibly unify—that’s a reversal of the core idea.

That’s quite an amazing phenomenon, that it’s turned into essentially its opposite. Now in an organizing meeting, any discussion that takes place between a white person and a person of color will be tense and guarded, because at any time the white person may be accused of white privilege, and thus denounced for bringing irreconcilable political interests into the group. That is a very different kind of politics, and not one that tends to result in open strategic discussions, building trust between activists, or effectively broadening towards a mass movement. But socialists have to understand that this also cuts in the other direction! If accusations of white privilege are made, it’s usually a sign that something is missing in that organizing.

The left has to provide a superior answer to the questions that people of color have and their very real grievances. Speaking as a person of color, I know that they are real. But a better answer has to be provided. Read the entire interview at  Seattle Weekly


Jeffrey B. Perry said...

Theodore W. Allen did not maintain that “the white workers had been bribed” and he consistently argued against that position.

Fifty years ago he explained that such a statement “confuses the white-skin privilege in general, which is the prerogative of every white person living in the United States, with the special form of that privilege, the payment (direct or indirect) to the ‘aristocracy’ of labor above what would be necessary according to the laws of normal competition, and which enables those few workers to escape in all but a formal sense from the proletarian to the petit-bourgeois life.” He added, “The white-skin privileges of the masses of the white workers do not permit them nor their children to escape into the ranks of the propertied classes. In the South, where the white-skin privilege has always been most emphasized and formal, the white workers have fared worse than white
workers in the rest of the country.”

Allen was clear that while the system of “white skin privileges” was not in the interest of the mass of laboring class European-Americans. He was also clear that the system of “white skin privileges” was in the interest of ruling-class “whites.”

Allen consistently called for efforts to “dismantle the ‘white race’” and he urged European-American workers to challenge white supremacy, to struggle in ongoing efforts to repudiate the system of white privileges, to break from “the incubus of white identity,” and to “resign from the white race,” which he understood to be a “ruling class social control formation” and a principal form of “class collaboration.”

Theodore W. Allen offered a “class struggle approach” to “The Invention of the White Race” and to “The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America” (the title and subtitle of Volume 2 of his “classic work”).

I encourage people to read Theodore W. Allen. Here is a link to writings, audios, and videos by and about him –

Here is a link to “The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights From Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight Against White Supremacy,” which offers the fullest treatment of the development of his thought. --

Jeffrey B. Perry

Asad Haider said...

Dear Jeff Perry,

I have very much appreciated the work you have done on Theodore Allen and Hubert Harrison. I hope you can understand that by citing Allen, I am also trying to bring greater attention to his important work. I don't quite see why this particular terminological quibble advances that project – the word "bribe" is used here in a casual sense (this was a spoken conversation), to indicate that white-skin privilege is imposed from above as a form of social control, rather than being a decision of white workers to oppress black workers. The passage you cite from "Can White Workers/Radicals Be Radicalized" does not seem to me to be about the word "bribe" in particular, but about the theory which says that "the privileges of [white] workers are paid for by the super-profits wrung out of the super-exploited black, yellow and brown labor of colonial peoples." I reject that theory, which is the basis of my comments in this interview. I suggest you read the interview in its entirety, which is devoted to showing, as you put it, that white-skin privilege "is not in the interest of the mass of laboring class European-Americans." I hope we can set this terminological quibble aside and move forward with the collective project.

Asad Haider