The Siren Song of Anti-Class Politics

Identity formation is a contingent feature of economic and political development, not the reverse.

In a recent essay in Cosmonaut, Donald Parkinson argues against both liberal intersectionality and what he characterizes as the “economism” of thinkers on the contemporary Marxist left, most notably Adolph Reed, Jr. Dr. Reed can speak for himself, and indeed has done so on numerous occasions in the past when confronted with similar allegations of “economic reductionism,” the default liberal smear against socialist politics. Parkinson’s piece, however, gestures towards a broader critique of an ideological tendency that includes Class Unity, and so we would like to take this opportunity to clarify our position on these matters, and to warn of the dangers of triangulation between Marxist and liberal conceptions of class politics.

After addressing some of the shortcomings of the specific variety of identitarianism known as intersectionality, Parkinson issues a fair reproduction of one of Reed’s arguments: that antiracism as a political strategy tends to “shore up the legitimacy of specific black elite strata” while doing little in the interests of the mass of black Americans in whose interests this politics claims to function. He proceeds to cite one of the arguments against pursuing reparations as a political program: that it’s difficult to imagine how a sufficient coalition would be assembled to to achieve even a modest level of reparations, let alone one that would, say, completely eliminate interracial disparities in wealth. So far, so good.

As Parkinson develops his argument, however, he allows a slightly altered version of the specific critique of reparations raised by Reed to slip in and replace the argument against identitarian politics more broadly: “One in-vogue reaction to the rise of identity politics is a sort of social-democratic economism that aims to focus on building the broadest political coalition possible around basic economic issues while avoiding any political issues that might be seen as divisive.” It is at this point that we seek to clarify the nature of our analysis. The problem with identity politics isn’t simply that it can be divisive, it’s that it’s anti-solidaristic – it attacks the very basis of a socialist political project, which is to forge working class political unity. Parkinson may claim that “it is often hard to differentiate between the politics of civil rights and identity politics as separate categories,” and equal rights may well be divisive in societies riven by various forms of prejudice, but the process of fighting for universal civil rights helps to elevate class consciousness. Fighting for particularistic demands such as reparations, or treating universal demands like an end to police brutality as though they were instead particularistic demands, on the other hand, degrades class solidarity.

We disagree with Parkinson when he writes: “[f]or example, black people organizing as black people against racialized police violence is completely rational. We do ourselves no favors by telling them to put down their struggles”. Rather, we do ourselves no favors by refusing to make explicit what all Marxists should believe: that police violence is a class issue. Marx observed as early as 1867 that:

“The labouring population… produces, along with the accumulation of capital produced by it, the means by which it itself is made relatively superfluous, is turned into a relative surplus population; and it does this to an always increasing extent…

But if a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus population becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalistic accumulation, nay, a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, that belongs to capital quite as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost.”[1]

In the United States, this reserve army–suitably conditioned for employment in the lower levels of the economy–is concentrated in specific city neighborhoods, suburbs, and small towns; places where services by governments, businesses, and NGOs are evacuated. The state inserts police into the breach, assigning them high-intensity tactics to subdue a restive population. As a result, America leads the world in death at the hands of the police, with the highest rates tending to be found in states with high wealth inequality, and nearly all of the victims representatives of the working or sub-working classes. To reframe this as telling “them” (black people) to put down “their struggles” is an opportunistic attempt to accommodate Marxist analysis to liberal or communalist forms of political thought. It is in the interests of socialists to illustrate to the entire working class how unequal treatment of any section of the working class hurts the entire working class: this allows us to appeal not only to workers’ morality but to their self-interest as well. Identity politics attempts to cut off this avenue of reaching workers and to double down on liberal moralism. It also renders the struggle easier to co-opt. Notice how quickly certain well placed actors, with the backing of the media and powerful liberal organizations are able to turn the revolt of working people into opportunities for powerful positions of employment, lucrative speaking gigs book deals, and other even more blatantly cynical plays for personal gain. Today the protests against police killings of 2014-2015 live on in the degraded form of lecture series, media careers, and leadership development groups, all while the working class people who actually participated in those protests continue to suffer in obscurity–or worse.

Recall that an argument against identitarian politics is that it tends to favor the interests of those in whatever identity category most advantageously placed within the existing political-economic order. This is not immediately obvious because of the slippage between the concept of an identity, an ascriptively defined category, and a group, collectivity, or subject. A category composed of a loosely assembled collection of diverse social actors, such as an ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender does not automatically possess the cohesive character required to be thought of as having a specific set of demands or needs. In the absence of a political body holding a democratic mandate from the members of the identity category in question, demands from specific individuals and factions within it take on a decidedly undemocratic character. Since well placed individuals or organizations within the category have the most access to the resources necessary to make their demands heard, they have a warping effect on what are considered the demands of the category at large. Due to the fact that Americans are steeped in an ideology that flattens the class character of people within these identities, this dynamic obscures the fact that, absent organization and democracy, the masses cannot speak for themselves, and the matters acceptable and of the most importance to the elite appear as the positions of the whole. Ultimately, the challenge to the left is to produce democratic organizations that can allow the masses to articulate their own agenda.

Parkinson also charges the nascent left with “economism,” invoking Lenin’s position against certain elements within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. This is an interesting choice of historical parallel: if the workers’ movement in America today were as strong as it was in Russia in 1902, perhaps the analogy would make more sense. Today we confront a capitalist class and attending state that are far more powerful and hegemonic than those of the early 20th century. If we imagine ourselves to be in a situation in which a strictly economistic program is on offer against a more integrated political one, as Lenin did, we place ourselves beyond the horizon of current conditions.

Parkinson asserts that

“[w]hat the economists get wrong is that they see class not as a means of uniting humanity into a common project for humanity, but rather as a category that (like identity groups) must bargain for the best possible position in the existing framework of our society.”

This a criticism of certain liberals, not of socialists who articulate social-democratic demands as part of their immediate program. In Class Unity our goal is to help build a mass socialist party in the United States that can serve to empower the working class in its struggle to overcome capitalism. The immediate demands that we make for decommodification of basic goods and services are not an expression of a desire to return to the fordist conditions of the postwar era, but the preliminary steps towards building a mass politics that can move beyond the current neoliberal dispensation. Despite the fact that he acknowledges the importance of these demands, writing that “[f]ights for expanding welfare services, higher wages, and better working conditions are an essential basis for class struggle,” Parkinson immediately backs away from the obvious conclusion that Reed et al are not advocating for “right-wing social democracy”, and strikes an accommodationist pose that frames identitarian demands as more radical than those that improve the condition of workers regardless of category:

“To avoid any kind of divisive political issues by focusing solely on basic economic demands, one easily falls into the logic of social chauvinism, where the movement avoids taking any kind of position controversial to the capitalist order in the name of maintaining as large of a constituency as possible. In the face of political issues such as imperialism, racism, and gender oppression, this strategy results in the movement acquiescing to the path of least resistance due to fear of entering into contradiction with the masses.”

This is exactly backwards; focusing on basic economic demands means focusing on precisely those issues that are most threatening to the capitalist order. It is precisely through the endorsement of the class-wide messages of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn—whom Parkinson has in the past disparaged as “nationalist reformists,” with their call to massively expand unionization and to strengthen worker control of corporations—that working people have articulated their renewed interest in socialist politics, not the vague and platitudinous “antiracism” and “antisexism” of decades of liberal identitarians. One wonders where exactly Parkinson sees evidence of “social chauvinism” on the contemporary Marxist left – he does not say. Here Parkinson betrays his lack of faith in the American working class. Instead of a working class that hungers for reduced wealth inequality, Medicare for All, and increased levels of unionization, Parkinson looks out and sees a dangerous mob awaiting an opportunity to enact its chauvinism. This is an overly pessimistic assessment. American socialists today are lucky—we do not live in a country populated by workers who are by default unamenable to our demands. Socialists in other times and places have accomplished more under less favorable conditions. We need to boldly step forward, not cower in fear of the perceived reactionary instincts of the broad working class.

Instead of embracing attempts to channel the social-democratic instincts of the masses towards socialism specifically, Parkinson asserts (via Lenin) that as socialists “the… ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.” Leaving aside the fact that elected socialists as secretaries of unions are a necessary precondition for a socialist transformation, Marxists need to maintain a critical posture and not automatically accept the analysis of liberals and reactionaries with respect to what constitutes the causes and “manifestations of tyranny and oppression”. Instead of Lenin’s formulation, a quote from Luxemburg allows for a more sober assessment of the situation:

“[O]ne can, in a purely abstract way, figure out various “class interests” for the proletariat, which, however, would have to remain as mere clichés in the socialist program. This is especially so, as, the more that other social elements attach themselves to the workers’ movement, the stronger is the tendency to suggest various sincere but unrealistic demands of these foreign elements as class interests of the proletariat. The other social elements referred to here include those members of society who have been deprived of political shelter by the failure of the bourgeois parties; in this category are the bourgeois and petit bourgeois intelligentsia. If the socialist parties had no objective criterion by which to establish just what fits the class interests of the proletariat, but were only directed by what certain people might think would be good or useful for the workers, then socialist programs would be a motley collection of subjective, and often completely utopian, desires.”[2]

Or this from James Connolly:

“In the first place, I have long been of opinion that the Socialist movement elsewhere was to a great extent hampered by the presence in its ranks of faddists and cranks, who were in the movement, not for the cause of Socialism, but because they thought they saw in it a means of ventilating their theories on such questions as sex, religion, vaccination, vegetarianism, etc., and I believed that such ideas had or ought to have no place in our programme or in our party. I held that, if under the Socialist Republic individuals desired to have a Freethinker’s propagandist, a Jewish Rabbi, a mesmerist, a Catholic priest, a Salvation captain, a professional clown, or a Protestant divine, they would be perfectly free to maintain them for any of these purposes provided that society was reimbursed for the loss of their labour. In other words, that Socialism was compatible with the greatest intellectual freedom, or even freakishness. And that, therefore, we were as a body concerned only with the question of political and economic freedom for our class. We could not claim to have a mission to emancipate the human mind from all errors, for the simple reason that we were not and are not the repositories of all truth.”[3]

Or Debs:

“The danger I see ahead is that the Socialist party at this stage, and under existing conditions, is apt to attract elements which it cannot assimilate, and that it may be either weighted down, or torn asunder with internal strife, or that it may become permeated and corrupted with the spirit of bourgeois reform to an extent that will practically destroy its virility and efficiency as a revolutionary organization.

To my mind the working class character and the revolutionary integrity of the Socialist party are of first importance. All the votes of the people would do us no good if our party ceased to be a revolutionary party, or only incidentally so, while yielding more and more to the pressure to modify the principles and program of the party for the sake of swelling the vote and hastening the day of its expected triumph.”[4]

The dead weight of Luxemburg’s “other social elements” remains with us to this day. The constituency for identity politics lies in the professional-managerial stratum and its déclassé millennial aspirants, not in the working class, as we have seen from Sanders’s success with working class women and minorities in contrast to the professional-managerial class’s preference for the more stridently identitarian Warren, “reflective of a class position tied programmatically to the articulation of a metric of social justice compatible with neoliberalism”[5]. We should not hold ourselves hostage to an alien class politics for fear of offending liberal activists; we should not waste our time dreaming up elaborate, purportedly Marxist justifications for their political sentiments. Any insistence that we do is the moralistic equivalent of blackmail, and generally tails the argument made against Sanders and the left by Clinton and a coterie of right wing liberals (“will breaking up the big banks end racism?”). To accede to this blackmail is precisely the sort of popular frontism that one would expect principled Marxists to disdain.

Instead, it is the task of Marxists to reject the moral hostage-taking of liberal thinkers and activists and to articulate a more rigorous analysis and program. This is not a “[k]nee-jerk dismissal of all politics based on identity without understanding the very real conditions that lead to these politics,” but the opposite. It is a refusal to opportunistically succumb to the line that Democrats attempt to offer us. The goal of Marxists should be to encourage the working class to understand that sectional and identitarian disparities spring from specific, material factors within our political-economic landscape, and that the only way to do away with these disparities is to unite as a class to overthrow the underlying system that causes them.

Parkinson comments that we “must… understand that identity politics are not a conspiracy of the ruling class aiming to defang class consciousness, but an ideology that arises from the real experiences of oppression in a heartless world.” While we agree that identitarianism is not a grand conspiracy by the ruling class, we also understand that certain forms are far more acceptable to the ruling class than the demand for socialism[6]. It is clear that Parkinson agrees with us on this point; the first third of his essay discusses the ways in which intersectionality fails to offer an adequate left analysis. However, we have to make a more serious attempt to address the issues with it and other identitarian theories than Parkinson does in the rest of the essay. Parkinson says that we “shouldn’t ignore the struggles of oppressed groups,” but fails to articulate a vision of what this would actually entail. We submit that this requires the development of a popular political and historical analysis that does away with the just so stories that have proliferated within American culture and academia regarding inequality and its supposed social causes. This historical analysis would regard identity formation as a contingent feature of economic and political development, not the reverse. We cannot stop at vagueries such as acknowledgements that “in the United States… the legacy of racism is very much intact.” Instead, we must interrogate the factors that contribute to current disparities in the goods and harms of society that appear across identity lines.

Therefore, our politics is not one that is “colorblind,” or ignores any particular form of malignant social hierarchy. Rather, ours is an analysis that seeks to examine critically the dominant narratives that are handed down to us to explain these disparities. We recognize that these efforts are likely to earn condemnation from sections of the liberal intelligentsia that are wedded to those narratives. However, the risks associated with not developing a more nuanced and rigorous analysis are great enough that they make the tailing of these tendencies unacceptable: our goal is not, after all, the goodwill of the educated élites, but to build a political movement of the working class.

We have all witnessed time and again how efforts to cohere such a movement are undermined by the forms of liberal politics we have outlined above. We have also witnessed how overwhelming the temptation can be for American self-proclaimed Marxists to back away from class politics, or to dilute it with a dash of intersectionality here and there, ostensibly to better appeal to marginalized members of the working class. In reality, however, the effective target of identitarian appeals is rarely the working class, which is already broadly enthusiastic about the fundamentals of a socialist political project. The primary obstacles to winning the working class over to socialism are not a lack of identity politics; it’s the simple reality that workers are atomized, overworked, and hard to reach and mobilize politically, and that existing American socialist parties are dysfunctional and have little to offer working people. The true constituency for the sort of Marxism with identitarian characteristics advocated by Parkinson, Asad Haider, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and the Bread & Roses caucus is precisely the same liberal-leaning professional managerial class that controls the progressive movement and furnishes the lion’s share of the recruits to actually existing American socialism. This narrow segment of the population is wildly out of step[7] with the broader society and is the only segment that could conceivably respond more positively to particularist as opposed to universalist appeals. It is also the segment of the population that controls the pathways to advancement for a disproportionate number of ambitious young people in media, academia, the nonprofit complex, the labor bureaucracy, and elsewhere. Contrast the class composition of left and liberal activist groups with that of, for example, Bernie Sanders donors, who are most commonly employed by Amazon, Walmart and Starbucks. Let us recognize the demand that we cut Marxism with liberal identitarianism for what it is: the self-serving reflex of aspirants to the professional-managerial class as they attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable demands of knowledge-industry careerism and working class politics.

[1] “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.” Link. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

[2] “The National Question – Marxists Internet Archive.” 1 Dec. 2008, Link. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

[3] “James Connolly – Marxists Internet Archive.” 7 Aug. 2003, Link. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

[4] “Danger Ahead—1911 – Marxists Internet Archive.” Link. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

[5] “Adolph Reed – University of Pennsylvania – School of Arts and ….” Link. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

[6] “Antiracism: a neoliberal alternative to a left – Springer Link.” 22 May. 2018, Link. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

[7] “Hidden Tribes – Squarespace.” Link. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.