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Adolph Reed Jr. And The Essence Of Class Essentialism: In Which We Essentially Examine This With Class

The broad American Left is nearly rent with a debate of class essentialism that has led to some rather heated, tempestuous exchanges over the past month. Political scientist Drs. Adolph Reed, Jr. and literary critic Walter Benn Micheals feature as major thinkers in the debate, though other, younger thinkers, like Drs. Cedric Johnson and Touré Reed (Adolph’s son), also find themselves in the mix.

I feel obliged to comment because I have spent the better part of a decade exploring the nuances of this issue. To be clear, I do not desire to try challenging or repudiating any of these BIPOC thinkers mentioned herein, that would be a rather debased exercise. However, when it comes to so-called whites who invoke these BIPOC thinkers in service of their own political agendas which have long records of causing harm, there I feel it is necessary to intervene.

What I find so distressing about the existence of this contentious exchange is not grounded in a mere ideological grandstanding competition on social media and web publications. Instead, it is because people I hold myself accountable to in solidarity, people who every day are fighting trench warfare against not just the forces aligned with Donald Trump’s malicious administration but the wider structures of the neoliberal police state, actively strive in the everyday administration of their radical praxis to prevent these frameworks from hindering the effectiveness and success of their organizing and struggles. This class essentialist framework in conjunction with white supremacist social democratic praxis can be quite dangerous and has a demonstrable record to prove this.

First, what exactly is class?

These days, thanks in no small part to the ascendancy of a praxis indebted to the CIA prophet of nonviolence Gene Sharp, [1] class is understood within many Left activist circles as an identity, something held much in the same way that a nationality, gender/sexuality, or ability distinction creates an identity. This is fundamentally at odds with the Marxist and classical anarchist tradition, which designated class as a contradiction, derivative of a moment in space-time wherein the worker participates in a transaction, sale of their labor-power in the timespan of the working day, and how they related to the means of production they use in the sale of their labor-power. It is an action in constant motion, almost like a verb and not an adjective.

Class as a moving phenomena is presented by Marx within a dialectical relationship against its antithesis, communism, a system whereby exploitation is dissolved by worker ownership of the means of production. Marx describes this at the close of Chapter 1 of Das Kapital:

Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community. All the characteristics of Robinson [Crusoe]’s labour are here repeated, but with this difference, that they are social, instead of individual. Everything produced by him was exclusively the result of his own personal labour, and therefore simply an object of use for himself. The total product of our community is a social product. [2]

This gap between class as an identity as opposed to class as a mechanism of social control in motion can be described as a very accurate illustration of a process named reification by the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács. It occurs when a fluid phenomenon is transformed into an objectified reality. In some sense, it is what happens when English empiricism tries to comprehend dialectical phenomena. While dialectics seeks to observe and provide an explanation for constantly-moving realities in our world, ones capable of significant and fundamental transformations, empiricism seeks to define something with a static framework of categorization.

The ongoing class essentialism debate, also called reductionism, was defined by Tatiana Cozzarelli:

Class reductionism is the belief that class causes all oppression and, in turn, that economic changes are enough to resolve all forms of oppression. As Sherry Wolf explains, “There’s a caricature of the debate between Marxists and identitarians. Advocates of ID politics say “gender”; Marxists respond, “class.” ID politicos say “gender and race”; Marxists respond, “class, class.” Identitarians say “gender, race, sexuality, disability”; Marxists say, “class, class, class, class.””… The DSA’s most powerful wing, represented by Jacobin and the Bread and Roses caucus, developed a theory of “class-wide demands” — or what is sometimes even more appallingly called “race-blind demands” to justify its political orientation. Two Jacobin/Bread and Roses cadre, Eric Blanc and Jeremy Gong, argue that socialists should “emphasize class-wide demands, or policies that directly benefit all or most of the working class (in a given area or industry) at the expense of the capitalist class.” For this reason, they call for prioritizing these demands over those that specifically address the issues facing those most exploited by capitalism, while at the same time arguing that class-wide economic demands address systemic racism. [3]

Things came to a head when the AFROSOCialist and Socialists of Color Caucuses within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) cancelled a May 30, 2020 event featuring the elder Reed.

Underlying this debate is the refusal of several parties to engage with any Marxist Leninist history in a genuine manner. Even at its most apologetic, the Jacobin crowd is fundamentally anticommunist, consigning to the dustbin of history named “Stalinism” the entire Marxist Leninist tradition. From what I can tell, its most militant writers are Trotskyists (though they may not necessarily be active communing occultists of one denomination or another), a praxis that was never able of properly reckon with Lenin’s foundational break from the Orthodox Marxism of the Second International, the pre-World War I tradition that upheld as a permanent dogma the centrality of Western European workers to any possibility of world revolution. Even the Old Man’s greatest biographer, Isaac Deutscher, a contrarian Trotskyist in his day, grudgingly admitted this with veiled verbiage at the end of his Prophet trilogy. [4]

Trotsky’s gesture amounted to trying to throw the baby out with the bath water.

In justifiably criticizing the failures of Stalin’s leadership, he also repudiated the two important changes to revolutionary practices and tactics that Lenin had brought about.

First, as the past century has demonstrated multiple times, it is not impossible to have revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba, or Africa that take power whilst the North Atlantic remains the citadel of world capitalism. The Comintern focused energy on national liberation struggles in the Global South because they understood that could have the power to break the back of European imperialism. This was contrary Trotsky’s German-centric Permanent Revolution schema, a forecast which can quite literally define Euro-centrism.

Second, Communists recognized, belatedly, that the European proletariat not only was not as revolutionary as their forebears had claimed. In fact, Europeans were prone to cross-class collaboration consistently on the basis of racism and imperialism. As a mass base, the European proletariat has shown repeatedly without fail over the past century to be the bulwark of counterrevolution again and again, though there is no denying a minority was able to break with this hegemonic praxis. This observation underwrote the critical analytical intervention W.E.B. Du Bois made in his Black Reconstruction in America.

When I mention Marxism Leninism’s important legacy, this quite predictably (and justifiably) elicits an eye roll from all but the most extreme sectarians. While there is not denying that we are in the midst of a socialist upsurge unseen in a century, the spectacle of the Soviet Union still is a foreboding glimmer upon the horizon despite its implosion nearly three decades ago. The vast majority of apologias for Bernie Sanders and those holding subscription to his politics spend a significant amount of time disowning the Communist states in a manner that imitates Quaker shunning.

But when I reference the Marxist Leninist approach to the national question and national liberation, I don’t mean how Stalin treated Tartars in 1940, instead I want to reference contemporary occurrences. I refer to 21st century state socialism’s approach to the plight of Afro-Cubans or Chinese Uigurs or Dalits in Kerala, India (admittedly Dalits and caste-based discrimination derives from a religious designation as opposed to a strict national distinction but there is some relevance). Everyone involved with this debate is at least familiar with the analysis of the national question, even if they disagree. The refusal to openly engage with it in these continuous online debates demonstrates a strange phenomenon.

Why is it that these white Sandernistas can dedicate reams of copy to idealized visions of the Scandinavian welfare states and the New Deal (both of which may have never actually existed) while being unable to engage in a sustained, serious consideration of a successful socialist revolution 90 miles from Key West, one which has grappled with matters like capital flight and crushing austerity in the past three decades? In the event of a DSA-aligned slate being elected so to constitute a governing coalition, it is utterly predictable that the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) sector of the economy would immediately launch a protracted scorched-earth campaign to scuttle even the mildest attempts to return Keynesian policy to the national legislative agenda. The lessons of Cuba and Kerala would therein offer important wisdom for such developments.

Ultimately, one of the most telling passages was offered by Touré Reed in a recent column about the Amy Cooper video, writing “I am among a group of Left Black and Brown scholars who are sometimes erroneously cast as ‘class reductionists’ because we insist on following through on the full implications of the social constructiveness of race.” [5]

This demonstrates above all else what I can only deduce is a fundamental misunderstanding.

It is not that their ideas are “right” or “wrong,” instead their ideas constitute one hub in a multitude of opinions and viewpoints that create a beautiful, vibrant and important African American political discourse. That political discourse is an essential component of any viable radical politics in America. Putting it simply, the American Left has never in the past 150 years been able to reach any of its moments of success without an adequate, serious engagement with and integration of African American national liberation into its praxis. This engagement requires understanding the Marxian dialectic of accommodation versus liberation that W.E.B. Du Bois first elaborated upon with his polemic about Booker T. Washington in The Souls of Black Folk.

The various BIPOC scholars in this conversation all are valuable contributors to any successful American Left praxis. We need to respect Adolph Reed, Jr. even if we disagree with him rather than demonizing and insulting him because his work has tremendous value. I respectfully disagree with his claims sometimes, mostly because they are at odds with the praxis of radical BIPOC activists I stand in solidarity with, but simultaneously he forces me to interrogate my own suppositions in such a way that I feel I become a better organizer whenever I read him.

The problem with this situation is instead the following:

A-The essentialist/reductionist tendency clustered around Jacobin and the Bread and Roses Caucus has as its most prominent exponents middle class intellectuals who are undeniably beneficiaries of structural white supremacy [6] that are currently engaged in a very prominent, powerful multimedia campaign;

B-This essentialist/reductionist tendency does not engage with a meaningful, honest exhibition of the wider spectrum of Black political discourse around the class-race debate. I have yet to see the Jacobin symposium featuring submissions from thinkers like Drs. bell hooks, Tony Monteiro, Jared Ball, Angela Davis (who wrote one of the most essential volumes on this topic, Women, Race, and Class), Ajamau Baraka, or any other number of thinkers who have spent the past 150+ years contemplating and theorizing positions on this matter following the Civil War. Instead, they merely cherry-pick Black intellectuals that offer a set of opinions providing utility to the multimedia manifestation of their entryist agenda, one which refuses to engage with the national question in any fashion besides dismissal. It is a shallow, flat representation of Black politics wherein the sole qualification for engagement is little more than endorsing Bernie Sanders. As just an example, one would never deduce from consuming all the multimedia offerings on this political tendency that Adolph Reed, Jr. once bitterly and repeatedly raked several of his now-prominent Sanders-endorsing contemporaries/comrades across the coals in multiple polemics;

C-In this sense, regardless of how gracious Current Affairs Editor-in-Chief (and Tom Wolfe reincarnation) Nathan J. Robinson may come across in his interview with the elder Reed [7], this gesture still amounts to a tokenizing one. It might grant unto the interview subject a feeling of genuine and serious engagement and appreciation of their ideas. But it nevertheless is later published/deployed by these beneficiaries of structural white supremacy as part of a larger deflection exercise against comrades who say to them “Hey Bernie-Bro, you need to check yourself and do some serious introspection about the white supremacist tendencies within your organizations and your behaviors.”

That is the purest, most essential definition of tokenism, the practice of rendering a human relationship and engagement with that relationship into a dehumanized utility offering a shield from accusations of interpersonal racism and calls for deep structural changes within institutions. Social democrats in the Democratic Party are not only the creators of this gesture but one of the most frequent offenders.

I first noticed this tokenizing habit of the white Sandernista/DSA crowd in 2016. It became clear in a very subtle manner when Kevin Alexander Gray made an appearance on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman [8] and, rather gently, pushed back on the host’s invocation of Danny Glover’s presence within the 2016 Sanders cadre in South Carolina.

Repeatedly, regularly, and without fail, the white Sandernistas in the past five years now have invoked the personages of Glover, Nina Turner, Cornel West, the Reeds, and their other “Black friends” as if these names somehow absolve Sanders of the demonstrable, undeniable, and unforgivable failure of both his campaigns, the refusal to spend multiple years doing the hard, deep organizing within BIPOC hubs of civic and community organization, such as in churches and mosques, charities, mutual aid societies, and fraternal/sororal formations.

I personally experienced this over the past year with a groupuscule of Sandernistas who will remain unnamed. They expressed earnest desire to engage in an organizing campaign to oppose the privatization of Providence public schools with a union solidarity strategy. They also did not count among their membership anyone who was actually in the union, nor any students, nor any primary caretakers.

They were a group of activists unmoored to a single form of stake-holding within the school system.

As such, I encouraged them to first build alliances with the local grassroots centers of BIPOC organization that had been fighting the good fight for justice in public education for decades and second take on the task of politically educating white unionists about white supremacy, which has been the greatest hindrance to solidarity between the community and union for generations. (“Why do I want to show up for a rally to support a bunch of Italian ladies who hate my kids?,” queried one BIPOC parent in Providence when invited several years ago to a union-sponsored rally opposing charter school expansion.) These social democrats disparaged my suggestions, claiming that their essentialist, color blind framework was satisfactory, oblivious of how this played out during the 1968 New York City teachers union strike. Like clockwork, one of them invoked Adolph Reed, Jr. as an excuse. This is even more damning because, owing to the long history of structural racism inscribed into the social contract of Rhode Island, the majority of African Americans in the Ocean State live within five miles of each other, ghettoized by 75 years of red-lining, block busting, and other discriminatory housing policies, meaning a long march is not requisite to engage with BIPOC neighbors.

Gray expressed tremendous chagrin over this in his aforementioned DN interview:

The Friday before the [2015 South Carolina primary] election, CBS News led with a piece about the upcoming Saturday primary, where they showed Bernie Sanders in Minnesota surrounded by an all-white crowd and then Hillary Clinton in two locations in South Carolina surrounded by black people, surrounded by Jim Clyburn. And that’s been the story of Bernie Sanders’ campaign even here in South Carolina. It’s been a tour of colleges, a tour of black colleges, a tour of state colleges, but never any penetration into the black community, not even being able to go a block away from those colleges to actually go out into the community.

The embarrassment of this failure is amplified because Sanders’ organizing history. First he was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League during the era when Norman Thomas, Bayard Rustin, A. Phillip Randolph, and Michael Harrington were supporting the Civil Rights movement in the South, culminating with the March on Washington and the Freedom Budget. Then, as a member of Students for a Democratic Society in Chicago, he organized housing rights protests while working to fuse the YPSLs with SDS, which he did successfully. There is no excuse for his failure from 2016-2019 to organize and build within the centers of BIPOC political life because his entire career as an organizer (epitomized in these black and white photos of Sanders being arrested at protests in the 1960s) was devoted entirely to bridging those gaps (which makes the black-and-white photographic invocations by the Sandernistas that much more ironic).

Or, to borrow a quote from one learned Black political scientist [9]:

This complaint has absolutely nothing to do with leadership, or even representation, in Left institutions. It’s about Jim Crow standards on the Left: the suspension, when making judgments about Black people and politics, of critical scrutiny, along with the tough-minded, Enlightenment skepticism that is the foundation of the Left critique’s unique power. The key problem is that whites on the Left don’t want to confront complexity, tension, and ambivalence in Black politics. In general, they simply do not see political differences among Black people. They do not see that Blacks are linked to social, political, and economic institutions in a variety of different ways, and that those different links, and the networks that flow from them, shape interests and ideological perception no less, and no less subtly, than among whites.

That was written by Adolph Reed, Jr., by the way.

Lest anyone be deceived, these are not new complaints. Instead, the Sanders phenomenon from the start has included within its coordinates this class essentialist framework catalyzed by Keynesian productivism cross-pollinated with a mild application of neoliberal “public-private partnerships” and employment programs sponsored by private real estate interests, case and point the redevelopment of the Burlington waterfront in the 1980s. In 1986, Sanders’ contemporary-cum-critic from the Left Murray Bookchin, who himself was a veteran white activist of solidarity efforts with the Black Freedom Struggle, wrote in a stinging polemic:

Democratic practice is seen as secondary to a full belly, the earthy proletariat tends to be eulogized over the ‘effete’ intellectuals, and environmental, feminist, and communitarian issues are regarded as ‘petit-bourgeois’ frivolities by comparison with the material needs of ‘working people.’ Whether the two sides of this ‘balance sheet’ need be placed at odds with each other is a problem that neither Sanders nor many radicals of his kind have fully resolved. The tragedy is that Sanders did not live out his life between 1870 and 1940, and the paradox that faces him is: why does a constellation of ideas that seemed so rebellious fifty years ago appear to be so conservative today? This, let me note, is not only Sanders’ problem. It is one that confronts a very sizable part of the Left today. [10] [Emphasis added]

Whiteness as a construction of social control and the maintenance of hegemonic power is a system whose antecedents date back to the Crusades, according to the most recent research. [11] Its predecessors, the sinner and the heretic, were fused with phenotypical denotation when Christendom declared war upon the North African and Middle Eastern Muslims so to gain control of commercial routes with Jerusalem. The project of the Western war against the South and East was an instance of geo-political Othering whereby Roman Catholicism intentionally constituted “Christendom” by creating a new continent separate and unique from what had previously been Eurasia, naming it Europe. [12] The infamous mass-murders of Orthodox Christians by Crusaders in metropolises such as Constantinople demonstrated a moment when religious affiliation ceased to shield those construed as the medieval Untermenschen, Slavs, Turks, and Greeks, from racial Othering. Furthermore, Church-sponsored antisemitism from the Crusades era unto the Reconquista and the Inquisition provided additional ingredients to this vile concoction. True, these were not manifestations of modern scientific racism as formulated in the 18th-20th centuries within public policy. But those latter manifestations clearly derived intellectual and political legitimacy from Christendom’s genesis, as has been documented of late by Dr. Gerald Horne.

In a recent conversation, Dr. Johnny Eric Williams, a sociologist who likewise focuses tremendous scholarship on race and racism, told me “Adolph Reed makes a contribution. He has been doing what he’s doing for a long, long time. His father before him was doing it. For me, class is important. But it isn’t the foremost thing because racism, these other kinds of oppression, have their own independent forms of operation. They can operate independently of class. You can get rid of class and capitalism but the racism may still be there. They got rid of class in the Soviet Union but the racism was still there.” He went on to explain that race and class are interlocking and dependent upon one another for their mutual survival.

In the case of American capitalism, the foundations of the system are inscribed with the profits made from the twin genocides of the Indigenous and Africans in this hemisphere. Those genocidal regimes are maintained up until today, though they manifest in a variety of formulations and formations that are different than prior ones from the antebellum period. This is because the forces arrayed at the genesis of American capital are still in control of the means of production, sometimes quite literally in terms of familial descent. [13]

Essential to its genesis is the valorization of white feminine virtue as placed in opposition to BIPOC lives, particularly BIPOC masculinity stereotyped and demonized for propaganda purposes (cf. the Amy Cooper, Emmett Till, Scottsboro Boys, and approximately a billion-plus episodes over the past 525 years). As such, it is essential to engage with matters under the heading of feminism in order to properly interrogate and dismantle that pillar of the settler colonial warfare state.

In this sense, I for one do not claim that racialization is a trans-historical non-materialist formation with an ontology equivalent to a specter haunting Europe. But it is furthermore not a novel creation stemming solely from the European settler colonial period lacking any antecedents. The claim it emerges whole-cloth from an ideological system lacking any type of ancestry in earlier eras is idealism.

And so in its essence, the attempt to create a color blind socialist praxis in a settler colonial society like the United States is not actually devoid of any melanin. It instead is one that defaults to a hegemony of whiteness, a very old one at that. In early 2019, World Socialist Website (WSWS), the press outlet of the Trot cult lorded over by David North, made a similar set of essentialist arguments with a slightly nastier edge. Glen Ford responded with a juicy polemic that is quite fitting for these white Sandernistas as well:

A long-delayed grassroots movement finally emerged to confront the Mass Black Incarceration regime and its killer cops, under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter. The ruling class has attempted to co-opt this movement ever since, with varying degrees of success. But the WSWS critique of Black Lives Matter is bogus and ideologically driven, with numbers sprinkled in to give the illusion of social science. WSWS is opposed to independent Black political activity, including Black political self-defense against state oppression, which the WSWS brand of Trotskyists deems as narrow nationalist and objectively (or even consciously!) in league with the capitalist rulers. Which would be a great slander, if the WSWS were considered as serious Marxists. But, they are not. Although WSWS does some good work, they are also, unfortunately, crazy. [13]

Notes.

1-https://nonsite.org/feature/change-agent-gene-sharps-neoliberal-nonviolence-part-two

2-https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm

3-https://www.leftvoice.org/class-reductionism-is-real-and-its-coming-from-the-jacobin-wing-of-the-dsa

4-It must be emphasized again that to the end Trotsky’s strength and weakness alike were rooted in classical Marxism [read: Orthodox Marxism of the Second International -AS]. His defeats epitomized the basic predicament by which classical Marxism was beset as doctrine and movement—the discrepancy and the divorce between the Marxist vision of revolutionary development and the actual course of class struggle and revolution… The conflict between the Marxist norm and the reality of revolution came to permeate all the thinking and activity of the ruling party. Stalinism sought to overcome the conflict by perverting or discarding the norm. Trotskyism attempted to preserve the norm or to strike a temporary balance between norm and reality until revolution in the West resolved the conflict and restored harmony between theory and practice. The failures of revolution in the West were epitomized in Trotsky’s defeat. Deutscher, I. (2014). Postscript: Victory in Defeat. In The Prophet: The Life of Leon Trotsky. London: Verso Books.

5-https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/06/christian-cooper-amy-central-park-racism-Black-birder

6-Undeniably Gong is Asian American but that does not negate the extremely complicated relationship his nationality has had for decades with American white supremacy, a matter examined with critical analysis by Vijay Prashad’s monograph The Karma of Brown Folk (2001, University of Minnesota Press).

7-https://youtu.be/DirAIkDJ7H8

8-https://www.democracynow.org/2016/2/29/did_bernie_sanders_run_a_white

9-Reed, A. L. (2000). Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene. New York: New Press.

10-https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/bookchin-sanders

11-https://Blackagendareport.com/white-supremacy-goes-back-crusades

12-Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: Making of the Black Radical Tradition. University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

13-See my film AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, <tinyurl.com/hascbriggsweb>, which describes the way that the endowment of Brown University maintains the perpetuity of profits originally gained from the slave trading of the Brown family and their company Brown Brothers Incorporated.

14-https://blackagendareport.com/yes-white-people-are-also-killed-mass-black-incarceration-regime

 

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Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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