How Socialists Can Avoid Dividing and Conquering Themselves Over Race vs Class Embroilments

The past few years have seen the intensification of a political polarization process involving race versus class issues among socialists in the United States. While this process has come to feature a rhetoric of personal attack and a left-against-left language that hoists up an opposition like a piñata, the same imbroglio suggests ways to move beyond it.

This would entail embracing universal social democratic programs in ways that mitigate shame-slinging identity-group oriented politics on one side, and political pigeonholing practices on the other. And it concerns avoiding according the top-priority ideological position to an aspirational – ‘all-struggles against oppression’ uniting – intersectional socialism, wherein a second-class status is imputed to large-scale identity groups that are believed to hold the most societal privilege.

Simultaneously, it’s about coming to terms with a politics where socialists veer away from each other in practice, more than in their front-stage discourse, regarding which large-scale identity groups to give the highest priority to (e.g., the working-class or the racially oppressed). On the flipside, it’s about reconnecting through a majoritarian-oriented – ‘all large-scale identity groups’ freedom and equality struggle-sharing – focus on opposing the comparatively smaller-scale identity groupings of the 1%, and selfdescribed white supremacists and ultranationalists.

The challenges that brought these matters to a boil heated up in 2019 when the issue of endorsing Bernie Sanders was put to a vote at the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention. About one quarter of those who voted, voted against the endorsement (among other concerns, opponents admonished Sanders for his position on reparations). And they overheated in 2020. In May of that year the Steering Committee of the New York City DSA, along with the AfroSocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus of DSA and the Organizing Committee of Lower Manhattan DSA – publicly rebuked Adolph Reed, Jr., a prominent scholar and surrogate for Bernie Sanders (which led to what has been called a “successful de-platforming of [Reed,] a lifelong socialist”).

Exploring these developments offers a pathway to overcoming a current divide that may end up with two large unity blocs facing off in the largest socialist organization in the country.

As to the rebuke: Reed and Merlin Chowkwanyun were scheduled to give a video talk on racial disparity ideology and Covid-19, at the end of May 2020 (facilitated by members of the Lower Manhattan and Philadelphia chapters). Not long before the event, the AfroSocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus issued a public letter outlining the terms of engagement for a reconceived event.

Addressing themselves to Reed and the Caucus’s “DSA comrades [who believe] we shouldn’t focus on racism when it comes to the impact of COVID 19 on working class communities,” their letter  proclaimed:

We demand the event to be changed to a debate of Adolph Reed’s class reductionist analysis versus our intersectional socialist analysis.

Shortly before the event was to start, Reed cancelled his participation. After that, the Organizing Committee publiclyapologized “for the harm that this event caused.” Following the cancellation, an outpouring of pro and con reactionsappeared in left and DSA-supporting media. The imbroglio also garnered corporate media coverage.

Intersectional Socialism and Antiracism United?

A key to the politics of socialists who believe that antiracism is unduly slighted in relation to a “class-wide” focused axis of struggle – is a strategy that puts intersectional socialism on the ideological front stage of DSA. This also speaks of a strategy where some of its promulgaters pull antiracism out from that intersectional high-plateau where all oppressions stand as plural equals, in order to prioritize it – in practice – in relation to challenging the prioritization of universal social democratic programs, for instance.

An activist version of this approach was offered by Angela Davis in the opening part of her speech at the Women’s March on Washington. As per Davis:

This is a women’s march and this women’s march represents the promise of feminism as against the pernicious powers of state violence: an inclusive and intersectional feminism that calls upon all of us to join the resistance to racism, to Islamophobia, to anti-Semitism, to misogyny, to capitalist exploitation.

As to the question of how a de facto prioritized antiracist axis might seem to undermine, yet also fit into a plural-equality according intersectional socialist approach vis-à-vis DSA, it’s not unlike the way Davis foregrounds feminism as an identity-oriented, unity-evoking leading-edge/‘vanguard’ – that fights for joining all struggles against oppression (and as per Davis, against capitalist exploitation).

When it comes to the plural-equal standing that’s intimated in Davis’s intersectionality-championing quote, one of the more influential phrases that expresses this stance was formulated by Audre Lorde and integrated into various intersectional literatures. Lorde explains why there should be no “hierarchy of oppression” in the following way:

As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong.”

From my membership in all of these groups I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sexes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression. I have learned that sexism and heterosexism both arise from the same source as racism.

Who’s Polarizing Whom?

These class-first-impugning politics in DSA benefit from favorable political currents, including the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd – and the ubiquity and multi-racial embrace of antiracist culture and activism throughout the country.

What’s more, the groups that were involved in the move against Reed represent appreciable – including elective – influence in DSA.

This is also to suggest that it’s not hard to imagine what provoked the rebuke. In this respect, one can consider passages from Reed’s piece entitled “Disparity Ideology, Coronavirus, and the Danger of the Return of Racial Medicine”:

It cannot be stressed enough that race is not a natural category; it is a fiction, an entirely made-up idea with no grounding outside of abstract and arbitrary taxonomies—elaborate just-so stories—of human difference. Black people, therefore, cannot be disproportionately vulnerable as a generic category of racial taxonomy. As an aggregate statistical category, black people may appear especially vulnerable on average to Covid-19, for example, in relation to some other aggregate statistical categories to the extent that individuals classified or recognized as black are disproportionately poor and beset with risk factors associated with poverty. The heightened vulnerability would not be a function of being classified as black, per se.

…Especially if our concern is to combat healthcare inequalities, it is not at all clear that the “blacks have it worse” trope does us much good. …And politically, at a moment when the shared danger of pandemic screams of the need for broad solidarity, insistence on that trope could hardly be more tone-deaf.

Taking Reed’s point that “heightened vulnerability would not be a function[/e.g., consequence] of being classified as black”: While the racial category as he describes it cannot be persuasively posed as worsening vulnerabilities to Covid-19 – people using the category can contribute to worsening other peoples’ material conditions. People who for instance, classified people as black – in discriminatory housing covenants and restrictive-segregationist municipal zoning laws in the 20th century – contributed back then to the comparative lack of equality regarding healthcare for African Americans: those disparity-making neighborhood-by-neighborhood impacts continue to this day. That, in turn, can contribute to the heightened vulnerability of African Americans to Covid-19.

This chain of logic is generally in line with Reed’s strategy to focus on universal healthcare. However, if the focus is on effectively depolarizing socialists/DSA around these matters, in relation to successfully prioritizing the types of programs Reed champions, the question becomes, how do these passages crowd out a political middle ground?

This speaks of the political ground of also emphasizing a meaning of “being classified as black” based on a multiplicity of contexts in which the racial category is widely used, and at times, prejudicially thought of (as in enforcing housing covenants); this, instead of rather exclusively posing its meaning as a self-contained, e.g., statistics-oriented – non-prejudicial implicating – meaning-form/ideal-type (which offers a conceptual framework where it can be spring-loaded for dismissal-disbursing polemics, as if it were a hard-coated – mutually-excluding meaning). The pigeonholing dynamics of these passages are buttressed by the last two sentences, which connect a “tone-deaf” “blacks have it worse” politics, to those advocates of antiracism – who supposedly get it wrong regarding Reed’s (mutually-excluding) meaning of the black racial category.

The Caucus indeed identifies such polarizing dynamics (as they put it, “We agree race is a construct in so far [as] it has no genetic basis”). And they call out Reed’s practices, to wit: “Who is claiming that Black people are uniquely vulnerable to COVID 19 due to genetic or ‘natural category[?]’ This is a bad faith, strawman argument.”

If Reed therefore, doesn’t even give a nod to commonalities shared with some of the people he impugns – how would this win over people in the middle of this polarization to majoritarian-oriented social democratic programs, such that the polarization could become less consequential?

What is accomplished moreover, if those he impugns point to this commonality and pose Reed’s neglect of it as a polarizing act of bad faith (which implies that he’s not even trying to work with areas of agreement – when he should know they are there)?

Examining Antiracist and Intersectional Politics

An effective route towards depolarization could focus on Reed’s explanations of how intersectional and antiracist politics assert problematic exclusionary ideologies.

As per Reed, in regard to antiracist politics:

Even within supposedly insurgent circles, militant protest of presumed racial outrages is often focused as much on policing access to media recognition as on affecting policy or public attitudes. This narrative discards the notion of solidarity in favor of the demeaning construction that whites should perform only “allyship”—the equivalent of a vampire’s human familiar (exchanging John Brown for Bram Stoker’s Renfield as a model of interracial alliance)—with no rights to speak or opine because all such opportunities must be preserved for the voices of oppressed communities. Not simply an idiosyncratic political perversity, this phenomenon underscores the degree to which this politics is also a career path. The personalities associated with #BlackLivesMatter are not exceptional in this regard. No matter what its proponents and performers may believe, this putative insurgency is more a hustle within the neoliberal culture industry than a politics.

Suffice to say until later, and for purposes of considering depolarization strategies, Reed’s critique of the notion of the white ally speaks of a socialistically problematic, shame-coated – mutually-exclusionary – identity-oriented regimen.

To consider what Reed offers in the above passage, vis-à-vis de-escalation, calls for another step, namely, mining his commentary on intersectionality. Towards this end, he says:

[T]he irony of intersectionality is that it came into existence as a way to solve the problem that the big essentialized identities were too big and too capacious and they didn’t capture enough discrete experiences. But what they did, but what intersectionality does instead is, instead of dissolving the problem, or resolving the problem of essentialism by dissolving the essentializing categories it increases them, right. It’s like fission, right. So it increases. So, there are more. So there’s a special perspective of a black woman, there’s a special perspective of a gay black woman. It goes on and on and on.

When Advocates of Intersectionality Engage Essentialism Strategically

Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge describe forms of identity politics that in contrast to Reed’s pejorative portrayal of intersectionality’s essentializing identity-orientation – strategically engage essentialism and intersectionality. Here’s how they put it:

[I]dentities mobilized in political struggles of disenfranchised groups are not fundamentally fixed and unchanging but, rather, are strategically essentialist (Spivak 1996). Strategic essentialism is about the politics of performing different multiple identities from one context to the next. Drawing on the work of US-based postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak, strategic essentialism is best thought of as a political practice whereby an individual or group foregrounds one or more aspects of identity as significant in a given situation.

They expand upon the last point by asserting that:

Rejecting criticisms of intersectionality as essentialist creates space for subordinated groups to use identity politics for political goals. …Strategic essentialism animates both the power analysis required for coalition building, namely, having a platform of some sort around which individuals and groups can coalesce.

As to engaging depolarization strategies: If appreciable numbers of people in the middle of these embroilments see the advantages of using essentialism strategically, as per an activist-intersectional evocation of uniting all oppressed identities; and/or if a strategically essentialized intersectionality can serve as a unity-engaging handshake between discrete anti-oppression struggles and activists: All of these polities can increasingly share – a performed, social-constructionist-conscious – essentialism in activism.

This strategic-stance can undermine the effectiveness of Reed’s critique for aiding depolarization (wherein he doesn’t explore comparative advantages for antiracist intersectionality-advocating socialists vis-à-vis understanding how intersectionality is not just the way he insinuates it: as essentialist in a pejorative sense).

The Ironies of Avoiding Hierarchies of Oppression

On the other hand, Reed offers ways to strengthen his programmatic politics among socialists in relation to his critique of a “special perspective” expressing – intersectionality.

This concerns the ways that activist intersectional approaches can invite exhausting if not heavy-handed, plural-equality adjudicating administrative work (which pertains to socialist organizations that engage more than just struggles against oppression, but not necessarily organizations that focus exclusively on struggling against oppressions; the latter can be exclusively inspired – rather than exhausted/divided – by this approach).

The challenge here redounds to the question: How, in the name of intersectional socialism – sans any hierarchies of oppression – can the line be drawn as to what oppressed identities, anti-oppression struggles, and associated policies, can be denied plural-equal standing in a socialist organization?

If an answer is that it would be antagonistically divisive to draw that in-group/out-group line, the question then becomes: How can that plural-equality ensuring work – not become exhausting or heavy-handed/totalizing (on the administrative and policy-proposing levels for instance), even if just by ensuring that no struggle against oppression is prioritized over others (or that no new oppressed-claiming group/struggle is denied entry into the organizational fold)? As per this approach, one could imagine the exhausting challenge of fairly administering such a regimen, just in the one area of ensuring that the AfroSocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus, for instance, equally opposed all oppressions in everything they did and said.

How, in a given socialist organization moreover, would such a top-prioritized regimen not generate dueling unity-bloc politics? How would it not generate such outcomes that is, if the obverse side of such politics is the relative de-prioritization of widely socialistically-supported priorities. This speaks of the relative de-prioritization of universal programs (in relation to according parity to all struggles against oppression) that are believed to unfairly benefit the putatively morally-compromised, non-oppressed/privileged identity groupings?

Second-Class Identity Ascriptions and the Politics of Shame

In this respect, one challenge regarding organizational and political depolarization for socialists – concerns how prevailing intersectional approaches, intersectional socialism, and antiracism insinuate shame-coated mutually-exclusionary, yet also, mutually-inclusive, moral-certainty infused second-class statuses to people via select large-scale identity groups.

The notion of the white ally illustrates this point.

Allyship as such, is about conscribing people by identity in ways that they are preponderantly assumed, if notoccasionally encouraged to know their place, morally speaking White people as such, are conditionally included in the arena of antiracist struggle in ways that they should not call for breaking down a strategic-essentialist wall of being black or any other non-white categorical racial distinction (in this respect what Rachel Dolezal is said to have done vis-à-vis her racial identity, marks one of the taboo implicating/breaking limit-cases of what should not be transgressed in such milieus).

This implicates a strategic-essentialist advocacy-challenging irony, stage left: in taking up allyship, why perform the shame-addled subservient human-familiar of Renfield instead of the plurally equally-standing persona of John Brown (as per Reed’s critique)?

The concern for socialists that can be added to Reed’s strategic politics is: how, and with what identities, are second-class morally coated/coded status ascriptions – constituted through identity-oriented shame-slinging, shame-rebuffing, and shame-sharing practices?

As to what is meant by shame in these matters: compared to being called guilty, in relation to something one did, individuals who are politically or culturally/publicly shamed are imputed as being evil in body and soul, or something tantamount to that (e.g., in relation to something they said or did). As such, they are posed as deserving non-stop public flagellation.

One shame-slinging event that lit up the airwaves was Hillary Clinton’s insult about the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” – deplorables. In this instance, the shamerebuffing moment for the large-scale identity of ‘half of Trump’s supporters’ was forged when the activism of the Deplorables for Trump burst out around the country.

The Caucus’s letter engages a shame-insinuating politics when it takes ‘Reed and some DSA comrades’ to task for “perpetuat[ing] the myth that socialism is for white Bernie Bros and [that] it’s not for all of us.”

Such an ‘us versus them’ move speaks of how pejoratively cast – white male Bernie Bros, can be insinuated as doing, if not being something shameful. They are posed as such, as embodying the violation of all people’s freedom to be co-equal socialists (and ostensibly doing this on a basis of being privileged – without exception – from white supremacy and patriarchy).

A socialist polarization-clarifying addition to Reed’s work also concerns how these shame-insinuating practices – rebuff shame and inspire unity-making (for building an ostensibly – identity pride-rich, ally-packed, rainbow socialism of freedom-seekers).

Which is to also ask: How is it that activists involved in such matters – share identity-oriented shaming and a freedom-seeking bond? One answer is that embodying the category of the white ally ostensibly enables more people to share the insinuated shame of the ages in a given left-coalition (albeit at times, in a morally second-classed identity-oriented compartment). It enables them to share this shame emotionally/tacitly, by taking on some of the load – as understood throughout the active body of coalition members – by uniting to fight racism.

Identity Freedom Sharing: Giving Up a Little Oppressed-Identity Exclusiveness

A pathway towards socialist depolarization and majority-winning politics concerns transforming how shame and identity-oriented freedom and equality struggle-sharing distinctions are mutually exclusively/inclusively applied to large-scale identities. This move can be considered in the light of the following question:

How many people who claim to be oppressed in respect to their identity, want to end their oppression – only to be widely labeled as privileged beneficiaries of an identity-based supremacy, rather than free?

If people across all large-scale identities, who consider themselves oppressed by identity, wouldn’t want to move into that freedom-compromising identity-position. And evocatively speaking, if one group does not want to be the other, i.e., free, and privileged. How then, would it be an effective part of a national policy winning, socialist unity-exhorting strategy – to assign a morally-compromised state of privilege to all whites, for example (estimated at 66.7% of the 2020 electorate)? How would it be effective that is, no matter how apt it may seem?

These observations suggest resolution-oriented avenues for depolarizing unity-making in DSA/socialist organizations, while expanding support for universal programs.

In this regard: How would this de-escalation process be aided by appealing to advocates of intersectional socialism to draw back from and/or forgo directing or insinuating shame towards large-scale identities?

How can this be accomplished moreover, by mitigating identity-focused preferences, regarding – which large-scale identities should and should not – plurally-equally share freedom and equality seeking struggles? Additionally, how can this freedom-sharing be accomplished by prioritizing the proverbial John Brown ally-according stance, in such struggles, from the get-go?

As to moving further in these de-escalation politics: How can a more singular unity-building process in DSA be worked into a socialist application of intersectionality, such that the people who advocate for it (and/or, who occupy a middle ground), give the top-priority position to winning universal social democratic programs?

In part because the struggles for those programs embrace all large-scale identities as beneficiaries (which are more often than not, nationally circumscribed), the struggle for them could effectively empower empathetic freedom and equality struggle sharing – across all large-scale identity groups, and as a singular unified identity (as in the 99%).

A strategy of avoiding identity shame-slinging as such could also pivot away from policies and practices that ascribe an identity-oriented morally-compromised status to white people for instance (e.g., vis-à-vis cash reparations; which is not to say that arguments in favor of reparations are less morally compelling than arguments in favor of universal programs; rather, it’s about which programs more effectively mitigate identity-group shaming of individuals).

Such a strategy could also pivot away from intersectional-socialist promulgating policies and practices that insinuate a shameful morally-compromised status to the white male identity (e.g., as per the Privilege Walk or progressive stack).

These principled empathetic, generosity-extending moves, can be considered in relation to the following proposition:

Shaming people via a particular large-scale group (such as Republicans/deplorables), even if by innuendo or satire – as compared to politically impugning people via the smaller-scale 1%/ruling-class or self-described white-supremacists/ultranationalists – presents a comparatively less effective majoritarian politics for socialists.

Who’s the Opposition when Socialists Appeal to all Large-Scale Identities?

Continuing to ply large-scale identity group shame-insinuating rhetoric – if not ramping it up in relation to the ultranationalist aligned elites’ inveterate dog-whistle (e.g., race baiting) politics – will not likely enable socialists to muzzle the authoritarian roar of these elites (and the accompanying corporate media profit-expanding, democracy exploiting dynamics). Nor will it likely enable socialists to effectively undermine the neoliberal aligned elites’ authoritarian-imbricating (austerity-for-the-99% obsessed) power-hold on state and party (which empowers authoritarian politics, not the least because they truck in broken-promise laden, identity-group dividing/pandering politics, that are ubiquitously inclusive of the 1% and dead set against a 99%-versus-the-1% politics).

These politics also speak of the continuing importance of prioritizing DSA’s base-building labor strategies. What’s relevant here is how these strategies integrate struggles against identity-oriented oppression into the organization’s programmatic prioritizing of universal policies (reflected for instance, in DSA’s platform-prioritization of the GreenNew Deal).

Broadening the Black Lives Matter focus is also implicated in this freedom-sharing pivot. Such a scenario suggests – mutually-inclusively prioritizing the notion that ‘Poor Peoples’ Lives Matter.’ This move pairs well with foregrounding the ‘poor versus the 1%’ political dynamic. And it can pair well with an empathetic multiracial identity freedom and equality struggle-sharing dynamic that is eminently deducible from this large-scale versus small-scale identity mobilizing framework.

This shift could effectively put poverty and authoritarian-impugning state-violence curtailing reforms on the table in relation to transforming the country’s carceral and policing systems. This speaks of reforms that can be persuasively conveyed as benefitting all people – while enabling activists to triangulate an electoral-opposition that would be hard-pressed to justify why they’re not against ending poverty at one of its most institutionally-violent intersections.

Such integrative developments notwithstanding, a challenging matter for socialists remains, which identity groups to prioritize – wherein an organizationally persuasive activist intersectional and anti-oppression championing answer asserts that there can be no hierarchy of oppressions (and identity groups). Which is to say, a potential Sisyphean battle among socialists can be worked through if the issue of who to support by identity is moved not only towards who to oppose. Moving beyond the all but unresolvable matter of what identity in socialist organizational politics breaks a potential intersectional plural-equality according ethos (by openly prioritizing any singularly named identity) – can be effectively worked through by engaging these identity names and ostensibly distinct struggles in a common universal program prioritizing programmatic/policy-winning context.

Overall, prioritizing a freedom and equality struggle-sharing stance on behalf of all large-scale identities – by focusing on agreed upon universal social democratic programs, can effectively de-escalate the race-class polarizations among socialists while empowering the rhetorical foundation for openly championing working-class and racism fighting politics through an empathetic mutually-inclusive framework.