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On Class Reductionism and the American Left


As the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has grown rapidly, there’s been a growing bifurcation between leadership and the rank-and-file. The leadership, which very much includes the writers and editors of Jacobin, are class reductionists who want to subsume race behind class as the category of analysis that really matters. On the other hand, you have the legions of people who joined DSA who know from their own experience that racism is a very real thing and that fighting is the first order of business for any leftist organization. For DSA leadership, that’s identity politics liberalism. So when DSA invited Adolph Reed, who is Black but also a class reductionist who most recently united with old guard white historians to attack the 1619 Project, to give a DSA-sponsored talk, the people whose lives are defined by racism everyday went rightfully ballistic.

In late May, Professor Reed, now 73 and a professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, was invited to speak to the Democratic Socialists of America’s New York City chapter. The match seemed a natural. Possessed of a barbed wit, the man who campaigned for Senator Bernie Sanders and skewered President Barack Obama as a man of “vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics” would address the D.S.A.’s largest chapter, the crucible that gave rise to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a new generation of leftist activism.

His chosen topic was unsparing: He planned to argue that the left’s intense focus on the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on Black people undermined multiracial organizing, which he sees as key to health and economic justice.

Notices went up. Anger built. How could we invite a man to speak, members asked, who downplays racism in a time of plague and protest? To let him talk, the organization’s Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus stated, was “reactionary, class reductionist and at best, tone deaf.”

“We cannot be afraid to discuss race and racism because it could get mishandled by racists,” the caucus stated. “That’s cowardly and cedes power to the racial capitalists.”

Amid murmurs that opponents might crash his Zoom talk, Professor Reed and D.S.A. leaders agreed to cancel it, a striking moment as perhaps the nation’s most powerful Socialist organization rejected a Black Marxist professor’s talk because of his views on race.

I talked about this on Twitter some. And I got multiple responses that what is really happening is that “DSA is being taking over by Professional Managerial Class liberalism and this is terrible.” I mean, c’mon….

The problem with Adolph Reed and Bhaskar Sunkara is that they are just wrong about the role of class and race in American society.

A contrary view is offered by Professor Reed and some prominent scholars and activists, many of whom are Black. They see the current emphasis in the culture on race-based politics as a dead-end. They include Dr. West; the historians Barbara Fields of Columbia University and Toure Reed — Adolph’s son — of Illinois State; and Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin, a Socialist magazine.

They readily accept the brute reality of America’s racial history and of racism’s toll. They argue, however, that the problems now bedeviling America — such as wealth inequality, police brutality and mass incarceration — affect Black and brown Americans, but also large numbers of working class and poor white Americans.

The most powerful progressive movements, they say, take root in the fight for universal programs. That was true of the laws that empowered labor organizing and established mass jobs programs during the New Deal, and it’s true of the current struggles for free public college tuition, a higher minimum wage, reworked police forces and single-payer health care.

Except of course that this isn’t what happened in the New Deal. The Social Security Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, among other bills, explicitly excluded categories of labor that Black people did in the South so that white supremacy would not be threatened. Even big programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority were so concerned about offending southern white sensibilities that they actually enacted new forms of segregation in jobs that were not segregated before, particularly manual labor work.

Yes, free college tuition would be great, but it wouldn’t help everyone because whites are far more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. There’s no guarantee that any social program enacted today would help people equally by racial category. And the thing is that DSA members know this. The people protesting police brutality know this. The people experiencing police brutality know this. They know that in order to fight for justice in America, you have to put race at the forefront of your analysis and your activism. Class-first reductionism doesn’t make sense to them because it doesn’t back up the experience that they themselves have seen and felt in their lives. It’s only in the Marxist theory out there that create a class-only analysis for the alternative universe America these people want.

Now, I sometimes get people angry with me on Twitter, and occasionally here too, for pushing race as the primary feature of American life instead of class. People say things such as, “How can a labor historian erase class?” I’m not erasing class. But just because I am a labor historian does not mean I wear blinders that means I only see things through a class lens and dismiss all other issues. That’s totally bonkers, though I’ve known many a Marxist scholar who does this and that includes Adolph Reed. The fact of the matter is that America was founded on slavery and genocide. These are the fundamental facts. Capitalism is a giant force in American life–it both builds upon and creates new forms of racism but if you get rid of capitalism entirely, the racism is still going to be there. People such as Reed and the Jacobin crew are not only doing a disservice to the left by pushing this line but they are also undermining their own political project as the people they have recruited reject a vision of America that rightfully makes little sense to them.

But hey, “PMC liberals amirite?”

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