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Race and class / Reed and reductionism

An interview with Asad Haider

It is not often that the New York Times wastes ink covering debates internal to the U.S. Left. It is a combined function of the growing relevance of our new socialist Left, the strategic significance of the debates about race, class and the anti-racist fight in the afterglow of the George Floyd rebellion, and the New York Times own questionable investment in those fights. That it was Adolph Reed, who was the object of this journalistic interest should not be surprising. In recent years Professor Reed has moved from providing a well-grounded Marxist critique of an essentially liberal race politics prevalent in the academy, to a suspicion of anti-racist politics as a whole, as inherently corrupted by neo-liberalism, and in the service of elites hostile to a socialist project. Less than a month into our existence, both as a matter of principle and as a matter of strategy, these are positions which the Tempest Collective rejects.

Nonetheless, the impact of Reed’s celebrity and thinking on the new socialist Left, and the broader constellation of arguments which ensue in our engagement with those ideas, are crucial for our Left. The debates cannot be ignored. It is for this reason that we present a three-part interview with Asad Haider, conducted by Aaron Amaral and Lillian Cicerchia.

Among other important contributions, Haider’s 2018 book, “Mistaken Identity; Race and Class in the Age of Trump”, also addressed the conditions giving rise to a liberal identity politics both in and out of the academy. Yet Haider comes to very different conclusion than Reed. In his book, in other more more recent writings, and in this interview—and while taking care to credit what Reed is and is not saying—Haider is consistent in rejecting some of Reed’s most damaging claims. In doing us all the service of unpacking and contextualizing the arguments, Haider defends the analytic value of the categories of race and racism, while also defending the strategic (and ethical) value of an explicitly anti-racist politics.

The first part of this interview attempts to explicate the debate, while cutting through some of the polemical heat. The second part of the interview tries to situate why these arguments and debates are arising now, and what precisely, the strategic implications might be. The third part takes a step back and looks at the challenges of theorizing race and class, and what Haider believes is the required materialist method.

Despite what may be some of the challenges in thinking through (and presenting) all of these questions, Tempest hopes that this discussion, and more specifically Haider’s insights, generate further discussion and debate.

Part 1

Aaron Amaral: Asad, thank you very much for participating. The reason we thought to ask you for this interview is the debates around Adolph Reed and economic reductionism that keep coming up in the current moment, specifically in the DSA context, both before and after the Black Lives rebellion. Having read your book, there’s a way in which you, like Reed, are addressing some of the same problems, in terms of the development of a particular type of liberal identity politics, but come to very different conclusions.

Adolph Reed specifically has written that “class reductive Leftism is a figment of the political imagination roused by those who have made their peace with neoliberalism.”

How do you respond to that idea, which see the anti-racist politics of the academy as always a site of cooptation. How do you respond to that kind of framing?

Asad Haider: This is a phenomenon which is quite real among academics and liberals, which is that anytime you speak in class terms, anytime you propose a politics against economic inequality, you’re accused of being a class reductionist. And this accusation was thrown against the Bernie Sanders campaign both times. It’s constantly thrown against every contemporary manifestation of socialism.

The funny thing about this debate is that it represents a total absorption in that social world. For all the aspirations to a politics which is really representative of the working class outside of the academy, beyond the professional-managerial elite and establishment liberals, everything ends up being a response to them. In some discussions I’ve found that the political outlook has become highly reactive and based in trying to negate and present a theory of this opposition, which belongs once again to the same social world. So on the one hand, arguing that class reductionism is a figment of the liberal imagination responds to very real problems, in the way that this epithet is used to shut down class politics. It’s used to shut down challenges to economic inequality, regardless of what the people who are being labeled this way actually think about race and racism, regardless of how they may conceive of the connections between a program against economic inequality and a program against racism.

And so there are very good reasons to refute that idea and to say, first of all, reforms against economic inequality would be disproportionately beneficial to people of color, to women, to trans people, and so on, who are disproportionately represented in the working class. So there’s no sense in which advancing a politics against economic inequality would somehow be against the interests of people who are subjected to special forms of discrimination.

Second, it’s also true that socialists and labor movements throughout history, despite important exceptions, have generally been at the forefront of movements for racial equality, gender equality, and so on, because they were fighting for a more just society in a very broad egalitarian sense. And because they recognized that discrimination within the working class weakened its power and that solidarity strengthened its power, increased its power. So at this level, this refutation is very convincing in my view, and correct.

But sometimes you go from there to a second step, which is the argument that antiracism itself is a neoliberal politics based on the class interests of the professional-managerial strata. I’m not convinced that these strata constitute a class, so I’m going to use the word “strata.”

So here, I think we’re entering into some problems. There’s the methodological problem that this is a functionalist perspective, in which everything that happens is a function of the reproduction of the existing social structure, which means you can’t conceive of any contradiction or contingency in the historical process. You also end up with the teleological fallacy that whatever the result is of a particular phenomenon, for example the adoption of antiracism by corporations and politicians, this defines the meaning and essence of the phenomenon from the outset. We end up understanding society as if it was a person who has goals and consciously acts to achieve them, rather than an impersonal set of social relations which operate behind our backs and have effects unrelated to our conscious intentions. The functionalist and teleological logic is idealist, not materialist, and I insist that materialism is better capable of grasping historical contradiction and contingency than bourgeois and idealist theories.

At another level, this critique of antiracism can end up in a kind of methodological sectarianism which says that when you explain phenomena with the category of racism, you’ll end up disconnecting them from the economic underpinnings of race, and therefore present a kind of abstract and metaphysical explanation. If you take this approach to the extreme, I think you run the risk of mirroring the position that’s taken by the people who make the accusation of class reductionism. The reality is that the category of racism can be better explained with a materialist analysis, and it’s not really possible to talk theoretically about racism in a way that is free-floating and metaphysical and disconnected from class.

The position which argues that antiracism is necessarily a neoliberal politics, once again, is a symptom of absorption into the academic social world. Ordinary people think racism is bad. You don’t need to go to a university to find people who think racism is bad. In the most banal sense, being an antiracist is a position of ordinary human decency that many people will embrace. But if we argue that antiracism refers not to this ordinary position but to a specific politics that’s internal to neoliberalism, I think we end up kind of mired in this academic social world, instead of building on ordinary impulses people have outside the academy that are perfectly reasonable.

So I think that it’s quite reasonable when people use the category of racism to explain things, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re relying on metaphysical explanations. Coming up with a materialist analysis of racism is very complex, so people may not be prepared to articulate that all at once, but they may still be working towards it in order to grasp real analytical problems. For example, when you look at the issue of police violence, if you argue that it’s metaphysical to use racism as an explanation, it becomes very difficult to explain major aspects of police violence. Because it’s true, first of all, that economic inequality and class explain a great deal of police violence — that is, poor people are more likely to be killed by police, and a huge proportion of poor white people are killed by police. Nevertheless, it’s also true that Black people in general are twice as likely to be killed by police as whites.

Asad Haider speaking in Seattle, 2018

Now, part of that is explained by the fact that Black people are disproportionately represented among the poor. But that only explains part of the disparity, so there still has to be an explanation of how it is that there is a structural pattern that, beyond class background, Black people are still killed more frequently by police.

You have to be able to explain that. If you’re a materialist, if you want to have a convincing and effective explanation of society, you have to be able to explain this structural pattern. And if it means that class isn’t a direct and immediate explanation of a particular phenomenon, you have to be able to account for other causal factors without allowing those to undermine the causality of class. So acknowledging that there is a relative autonomy of the racial factor doesn’t mean that you’re abandoning an underlying analysis of capitalist society in terms of class. You can’t feel threatened by that. That’s one aspect of it.

The next aspect is that if you say, okay, Black people are disproportionately represented among the poor, so class still explains why more Black people are killed by police because Black people are more likely to be poor than whites, you still have a lot of explanatory work to do. Because you now have to explain why it is that Black people are overrepresented among the poor.

And that means, once again, understanding how race is a causal factor, which doesn’t undermine class as a causal factor, but actually shows the specific social forms in which class happens, in which class is effective, in which the economic factor is effective. This doesn’t undermine the materialist analysis but actually shows the causal power of the economic.

It’s a necessity for materialist analysis to be able to explain that without turning it into just an accident or the result of people’s bad ideas or whatever. There’s no doubt, of course, that many liberals use the term “racism” in a way that reduces it to individual prejudice and cuts us off from materialist analysis. But I think it can also be an element of a materialist analysis which wants to understand the relation between the material determinants of racial disparity and everyday attitudes and behaviors. We could perhaps more precisely call this relation racial ideology.

Lillian Cicerchia: I think that there is a tension in thinking about race and class together on the Left. There’s a way in which the general institutional weakness of the Left exacerbates some of these debates and also creates lack of clarity about what the positions are.

Social movements are changing political consciousness such that corporations feel like they have to respond with support, and the response by the Left to this changing ideological terrain is polarized. There is a part of the socialist Left that focuses on the Left’s institutional weaknesses and responds to those weaknesses by saying that the politics of this movement or of antiracism generally are liberal, and then juxtaposes historical examples to argue for a different perspective on what the Left should be doing. For example, Bayard Rustin’s Freedom Budget or the legacy of A. Phillip Randolph. There is another part of the socialist Left that is not worried about liberal politics dominating the movement.

This is a long question, but I would like to know what you think is worrisome about the institutional weakness of the Left and the kind of ease with which a kind of liberal politics emerges in the mainstream as a result. On the other hand, what do you think about telling people to look to the past for better role models and the labor movement to address these weaknesses?

So, I’m just wondering what you think about where the Left is at and how that could create the frame, the lens, with which people on either side start answering these questions.

Asad Haider: I think, first of all, the institutional weakness of the Left is the basic framing problem that we have to start with. Frequently people think about contemporary social phenomena in terms of “neoliberalism,” which is a reflex that I’m critical of because it often doesn’t present a clear understanding of what neoliberalism is, and what distinguishes it from any other manifestation of capitalism. Often it means that you can impressionistically say that whatever seems to be related to markets, whatever is related to competition, or to conceiving of yourself in entrepreneurial terms, all of that can be traced back to neoliberalism. So saying identity politics is neoliberal is a very loose way of interpreting things. I think that talking about the institutional weakness of the Left, the kind of organizational void that the Left has operated in, which is very much a part of the historical process of neoliberalism, is a more specific and precise framework.

And I think that a lot of this is a kind of knee-jerk functionalist response, which says that any kind of social change is really internal to the system. That’s part of this kind of sad response to the institutional weakness of the Left, which only wants to reinforce that weakness. It wants to stay in that position to reinforce its own resentment.

And I think that this position is very similar, in the end, to the kind of neoliberal identity politics that it criticizes. I think they’re both cut from the same cloth. They both belong to this collapse into the organizational void of the Left, a celebration of the sadness and weakness of this position. And so I think this is something that we really have to go beyond.

You bring up the question of historical examples. So let me just say, first of all, that looking back to historical examples — whether they’re, you know, the Freedom Budget or the New Deal — is also really tied up with one of the problems with thinking about everything in terms of neoliberalism. Because it means that there’s a kind of failure to reckon with the fact that the New Deal, the postwar welfare state, and so on, were based on labor accepting the underlying property relations of capital. That fact established a series of contradictions, which facilitated neoliberal restructuring, when that period of capitalism entered into crisis. So that’s one point.

Another point is that history doesn’t allow us to pull out welfare-state policies from their specific context — like let’s pull out the New Deal and say that this represents an already formulated solution, all we have to do is implement it now. Because all of those things are part of longer political processes.

So if you look at the fact that you had all of these reforms over the course of the New Deal that were beneficial to the working class, you have to situate that in a much longer process of the formation of industrial unionism, massive strike action, what some would characterize as the peak of class struggle in U.S. history in the mid-1930s. And you cannot understand these policy changes, these modifications to the capitalist system, removed from that process of political contestation.

This is the tricky thing about history. We can invoke historical examples, which may, as in the cases of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, provide very compelling arguments for the necessity of a class politics, of an economic program for overcoming racism, or for overcoming the problems faced by Black people in the United States. But this doesn’t mean that their proposals could simply be implemented today, because we have to ask what actual concrete processes would make their implementation possible.

Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph at the March on Washington in 1963

And so then the historical references actually cause more ambiguity. They raise more questions rather than solving questions. This isn’t a bad thing, because it’s actually quite necessary to think through these problems. But to do that we have to seriously confront the difficulty of these questions today, rather than viewing them as pre-packaged solutions.

Aaron Amaral: I see that constantly in the sort of confusion around causality and Bernie Sanders, where Bernie Sanders is held up as a kind of transhistorical strategic imperative. “Since we did it right in 2016 and 2020, and if only the people in 2000 had done what we did, or in 1972 had done what we did, we wouldn’t be here now.” And this just misses an obvious point, but it’s an argument which you encounter a lot, and which erases the historical context of some of this stuff.

Lillian Cicerchia: It seems clear to me that developing a class politics in a certain area might require confronting racial oppression strategically. Robin Kelley, on a recent Jacobin podcast, was talking very concretely about the ways in which Marxists in the Communist Party who went to organize the South in Alabama, the ways in which they had to confront their own provincial understandings of what class struggle was, which wasn’t actually to them an abandonment of the idea of class struggle. It just became obvious that a campaign against evictions or lynching, and various kinds of white terrorism in the South, was part of the obvious conditions of any future class struggle. And it just makes me think that theory is rather complicated. I certainly think it is important, but sometimes theories overcomplicate the political terrain. If racism is a part of class formation in this context, you can have all kinds of theoretical debates about how that happened and to what extent you can bake racism into the meta-theory of what capitalism is, but at the end of the day, the American working class is a racialized class.

Practically speaking, liberal anti-racist politics are a real problem, but the opportunity is also that you are always going to have a layer of people within struggles against racism that are led to question the basic structure of the society due to the concrete reality of how class formation occurred here. And that’s  quite significant and it’s obviously a part of class struggle, and to me that’s the part that is not so complicated.

Asad Haider: I think you put this very eloquently. I’m not convinced by the argument that if you point to racial disparities in policing or whatever, that means that your politics will just be about overcoming that disparity rather than overcoming the broader inequalities of the whole society. It’s certainly true that for many liberals, and even many people on the Left, social justice means that the percentage of different identity groups in the 1% should be representative of their overall proportion of the population, and that’s the whole program.

But I don’t see how this is a necessary outcome of pointing out a racial disparity, because it’s possible that many people will see a racial disparity and think that this shows how our society is unjust, and move from there to recognize all of the other ways in which our society is unjust and want to change them all. And I think that this is actually the more intuitive progression, because once you have recognized an injustice, it’s logical to then extend your opposition to all other forms of injustice. That I think is simple. I think it’s quite simple to say that you are against every form of injustice, insofar as you’re committed to justice.

And it’s simple to look back at history and say that there are all kinds of different movements which responded to all kinds of different situations of injustice. They may not really in the end be that closely related to our situation. But despite this difference, they have a lasting relevance for how we understand justice today.

The struggles against racism of the previous century responded to entirely different social conditions. But there’s no reason why the political content of those movements isn’t relevant to us in the present, any more than we would say that the workers’ struggles in the early stages of capitalism in England are not relevant to the class struggle today. Those struggles were in an entirely different historical period, responding to different circumstances. In a certain concrete sense, they have disappeared. Those specific elements don’t exist anymore, but their meaning, the emancipatory idea that they represent, won’t cease to be relevant. And in the same way, the struggles against racism, even if they responded to historically specific conditions of legal segregation which no longer define our current social order, will never cease to be relevant for anyone who’s committed to an emancipatory politics.

Black women’s march for liberation

So I agree. All of that is simple. After that, I think everything ceases to be simple, because once you’ve determined your commitment to an emancipatory politics, your question is, what is the practical form it will take? And that, first of all, we can’t determine purely at the level of theory. And second, we have to construct it on the basis of the existing conditions, which are not the conditions we choose. And so I think at that point, once we have made this kind of axiomatic recognition that emancipatory politics is against every form of injustice, we get into a very complicated question of how to follow through on that recognition. And yet I agree with you that so much of the existing dispute is about matters which for anyone committed to emancipation should be very simple.

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Aaron Amaral and Lillian Cicerchia View All

Aaron Amaral is a member of the Tempest Collective and the Democratic Socialists of America. He is on the editorial board of New Politics.

Lillian Cicerchia is in a post-doctoral program at the Institute of Philosophy at the Free University of Berlin, and currently is working on a book, tentatively titled, "Plea for Solidarity: A Critique of Capitalist Domination.”

Asad Haider is the author of Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2018) and an editor of Viewpoint Magazine.