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Race & class / Adolph Reed & reductionism

An interview with Asad Haider – part 3

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 attempted to explicate the debate, while cutting through some of the polemical heat. The second part of the interview tried to situate why these arguments and debates are arising now, and what precisely, the strategic implications might be. The third part will now take a step back and look 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.

Lillian Cicerchia: Returning to what a materialist analysis of race and class is, I’m just wondering to what extent you think class formation and racial categories are both products of social relations of production. How should one think about the concrete historical processes in which race and class formations take place? I heard you used the word, “relative autonomy”, and that has a certain theoretical background. What’s a helpful way of thinking about these concepts for people who are newly engaging in this debate, or not sure where they stand?

Asad Haider: Let’s start with what I take a materialist method to mean. I don’t think that the materialist method means that you just assert the primacy of matter. That’s certainly part of it, but it can lead to what Lenin called metaphysical materialism, which just makes reference to things, objects, the physical world, in a mechanistic fashion. This was the position of 18th century French philosophers, not Marx.

It is also not the assertion that everything can be traced back to the economic as some kind of foundation of human existence, which is a position you also find in bourgeois political economy. That doesn’t really give you a distinctive theory.

A portrait of Karl Marx.

Materialism is supposed to be a scientific way of understanding social phenomena in which phenomena are not understood in terms of ideas or consciousness, but we still have to specify what this means, and how our own processes of cognition can grasp real phenomena without reducing them to our thoughts. When we engage in a process of analysis, we’re always starting from abstractions — it would be a mistake to think that we’re starting from concrete things. We’re starting from abstractions and then have to move towards concrete reality.

Marx pointed out that what the bourgeois political economists thought was concrete, like the population, was actually an abstraction. It abstracted from the division of populations into classes, for example. If you start from the population and proceed to simpler and more abstract terms you don’t grasp the social whole. You have to go the other way and work on abstractions so you can identify all the determinations and relations that produce an abstraction like the population. This is an issue with all general categories. If you talk about production in general, that’s very different from when Marx talks about specific modes of production. Or take the example of labor, which raises very rich interpretive issues.

Marx provided an abstracted understanding of how capital was transformed from commodities into money and back again.

Labor is an abstraction—labor was the central abstraction of classical political economy. So saying that you understand capitalist society fundamentally in terms of labor isn’t especially a Marxist position, it was also the position of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. There’s something different which makes Marx’s method distinctive. His argument is a very complex one, because he’s pointing out that it’s actually quite peculiar that different kinds of human activity, which have different ends, are all gathered into the same category of labor. He shows that this is visible in capitalist societies because labor really is rendered abstract and commensurable through the exchange of its products. In capitalist societies labor really is abstract, this isn’t just a mental abstraction. But we still face the problem of mental abstraction when we try to understand how this historically specific category of capitalist society can be used to characterize human activity in societies which precede capitalism. How was it possible for people to even use the category of labor, or pose the question of the commensurability of different kinds of human activity, when the real relation of abstract labor wasn’t yet an ordering principle of society? The temptation would be to say that the category is self-generated by the historical process itself, but Marx’s position I think is more complex: for him the concept is not self-generated but has to be actively produced by the materialist method.

The specific kind of analysis that Marx presents is the one that takes the abstraction of labor and adds back all of the historical determinations that have constituted that abstraction, that have put it in our minds, which means the historical conditions of the separation from the means of subsistence and the emergence of the system in which different forms of human activity are rendered equivalent through commodity exchange. And through this greater complexity we arrive closer to the concrete reality.

This is very different from the idea that we just unmask an essence hidden inside things, which would be taking the concrete reality and moving away from it back towards the abstract. That’s a kind of idealism, even though many people who associate materialism with the foundational character of economic life or economic activity essentially end up in that kind of idealism, because they want to say that there’s a kind of abstract model of capitalist society. From this perspective, we move from the concrete to the abstract by isolating specific relations and characteristics, generating an abstract model, and then applying that model to try to determine the extent to which societies correspond to the model.

You can see the difference between these approaches in an interesting back and forth between Ellen Meiksins Wood and Adolph Reed from years ago, in which Wood says look, when you make a model of capitalism, there’s no reason why it has to have anything like race. The model doesn’t need race so we can conceive of capitalist society without race. Reed’s response was very compelling. He pointed out, you can only say this because you’ve generated an abstract model of capitalism in which you’ve already excluded all of the phenomena that could be characterized as race. And now you’re taking that ideal model and bringing it back to the actual history, the actual reality, and now saying that race doesn’t fit into it, but it’s only because you wrote race out of it from the beginning.

So, more on what I think materialism is. The problem with thinking in terms of models is that we risk going further and further away from concrete reality, the material reality that we want to somehow be able to grasp with our concepts.

And so for this reason, it’s very risky to engage in making general theories. Of course, Marx produces a concept of the capitalist mode of production. The capitalist mode of production is a concept which grasps specific aspects of social formations, but social formations are complex. They have complex structures with many other determinants, political, legal, ideological determinants, and the capitalist mode of production abstracts from those in order to grasp this aspect. But that doesn’t mean that these other aspects can just be explained with a general theory, as though you can just extrapolate from categories that are internal to the theory of the capitalist mode of production to say this necessarily leads to this kind of political form, or this necessarily leads to these legal forms. We know that in the actual concrete history of capitalist societies, there are many different political, legal, and ideological forms that can be articulated together with the capitalist mode of production.

I think with race it’s especially dangerous to come up with a general theory, because this can quickly lead you back into racial ideology, the ideology which says that human beings are divisible into groups that can be biologically defined as races, which then have particular cultural and civilizational traits and so on. When we make a general theory of race, as something which can be applied to all of these different historical situations across history, in different geographical sites, we are constantly running the risk of falling over into the racist theories themselves. I think what we need to do instead is have a theory of the specific processes by which particular forms of race are generated, the specific processes by which racial categories emerge. And they’re not always the same.

Now in American history, I think it’s been very clearly established that specific racial categories emerge from forced labor and the particular productive process which was plantation slavery. Racial categories emerged from racial slavery, and slavery was a labor regime that was at the core of a particular economic process. And so it’s impossible to separate these specific processes of racialization from the economic processes that were tied up with slavery. Now this doesn’t mean a general claim that race is always related to class, or that you always have to understand race and class in relation to each other, or something like that. That’s a general metaphysical claim. And I don’t think it’s a part of what materialism does. Conversely, to say that we can conceive of capitalism without race, that class must always explain every phenomenon, so we don’t need racial categories, that’s equally metaphysical. That’s also not a materialist explanation.

A materialist analysis is the one that looks at the specificity of this process of the formation of racism, the formation of the working class of the United States, and it is one unitary process. So with concepts, by producing concepts, we can grasp different aspects of it, but we can’t turn those concepts into a kind of ideal model and determine at that level of abstraction the relation between race and class. No, they exist as part of one complex social process and we can make analytical distinctions, but that’s a part of the process of analysis.

Aaron Amaral: But can’t you say that, while yes, there is a specific history in the United States of racial formation, one that is coterminous with the development of capitalism in the United States, you could make similar arguments about South Africa or Brazil. And can’t you more generally say, looking at all these places that in the development of capitalist relations of production what we consistently find, despite all their specificities and differences, is this sort of attempt to create racialized subjectivities?

That this is something that is common to the process more generally, So I don’t think necessarily you have to sort of come into it categorically. One might agree with [Robert] Brenner and Wood in terms of how capitalism initially developed and then look at the kind of specific, subsequent developments of capitalism in different locations and see the common, but also complex ways, in which a kind of racial construction arises in all these locations. But I don’t think you need to have in the first instance, the categories, nor do you have to dismiss the sort of historical specificity that I think you’re quite importantly focused on.

Asad Haider: My colleague Nancy Fraser has a kind of a theory along the lines of what you’re suggesting, which aims to show why it is that race keeps being generated in capitalist societies, and we’ve had a lot of debate about the different methodological approaches to answering this question. As I’ve explained, my methodological perspective rules out the possibility of constructing models. But I think this is a very constructive debate.

You raise another important point, because in the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels set out the perspective that capitalism gets rid of all of the old hierarchies, sweeps them away, all that is solid melts into air and so on, that capitalism is this great universalizing equalizing force.

Graffiti in downtown London.

And some people have stuck with that. They maintain that’s still the case. Others say that this was an error of Marxism because, actually, capitalism arose in societies that were already differentiated, already had internal hierarchies, and that it then incorporated and in fact in many ways exacerbated these hierarchies, which became internal to capitalism’s functioning.

I think once again, since I rule out a theory based on the model, that both things can be true. That is, it’s certainly the case that many of the previous forms of organic hierarchy of feudal societies, of pre-capitalist societies in general, have melted away. We know that’s the case. We know the directly political role of the church in determining your social position has been swept away. Of course, Marx and others famously observed that Americans are really religious, but obviously this role of the church is not comparable to what it was in pre-capitalist societies. Many of those organic hierarchies and differentiations were indeed swept away by capitalism.

On the other hand, others were maintained and incorporated into the way that capitalism produced a dispossessed class, and in certain cases racial differences, gender differences, and so on are, were part of the mechanism by which people were rendered dependent on the market, that they were compelled to commodify their labor power. So I think both of these things can be true. And rather than drawing a general conclusion, we have to be able to recognize that capitalism is dynamic enough to do both of these things. And that’s why it’s survived this long.

That’s why capitalism can withstand social movements that challenge these other kinds of hierarchies. Even if these hierarchies and differentiations were incorporated into the operation of capitalism, when they were challenged by resistance, capitalism modified its operations.And, you know, that’s happened throughout the history of capitalism. So, I think we have to conceive of it in terms of its concrete specificity and in terms of its dynamic character, which accounts for its unfortunate persistence.

Lillian Cicerchia: I would like to ask you about the relationship between theory and practice for socialists in this context of the organizational void of the American Left, as it pertains to race and class specifically.

One of the things I’ve noticed about the multiple debates about race and class on the American Left is growing awareness and discomfort with the fact that theoretical debates have been dominated by academics for a long time. I continue to notice that a lot of the debates seem to assume that if we just get the theory right, then somehow the practice would follow. Like if we just ordered ourselves correctly in the world of understanding these categories – and not just the categories of race and class, but also “Is race an ideology?” “Is it a discourse?” “At what level is the economic determinative in the last instance” – that if you just got this right, that we would be ready to go.

Yet it is possible to be either a “race reductionist” or “class reductionist” and end up being basically electorally driven at the end of the day. Or one can be either and be a “movementist” who doesn’t emphasize engagement in the labor movement or in the electoral sphere at all. The strategic and theoretical debates are related, although not exactly the same, but the theoretical side can receive more emphasis when there is a lack of political experience with strategic thinking. In other words, the left coming out of the academy and gaining a wider audience might be a rather painful growing process that forces us to be reflective about organizational weaknesses in a way that is not reducible to theory. For instance, it seems to me that electoralism and movementism, which are two tendencies on the socialist Left that I see today, emerge out of the particular organizational problems that we’re having right now , particularly the weakness of labor. We have to think about how that organizational problem shapes our thinking about race and class as much as anyone’s theory does.

Asad Haider: Some say that Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder is better translated as “growing pains.” And so I think you were describing the growing pains of different movements as they emerge. And that’s a very deeply felt reality for anyone who has participated in the early stages of any movement or the building of an organization.

And, of course, it’s in this text in which Lenin also talks about the relationship between revolutionary theory and revolutionary practice. That is, that you need a correct revolutionary theory for a correct revolutionary practice. But at the same time, that theory only assumes a correct form in connection with the practical activity of a mass movement.

And we lack that epistemological condition for the correctness of theory. We don’t have the connection to mass movements in which theory can be shaped. And so it’s complicated to understand what theory can do, how it should be conducted.

I think there’s another problem here, which is about popularization. Theory is difficult and theory often makes things more complicated than we thought they were before. And that doesn’t lend itself to popularization because it’s hard to take something that you’ve just made more complicated through theoretical analysis into something that’s easier to understand for an uninitiated public. Of course you have to do it, but it poses enormous challenges.And unfortunately, often people don’t meet the challenge and through popularization, they end up suppressing complexities and unresolved questions. And that’s a real problem in my view.

The other aspect of this is the complicated relationship between, in classical terms, science and ideology, or let’s say between theory and the rhetoric or representation of a social movement. Theory may give you totally ambiguous conclusions about what the prospects are, where we’re headed, what we need to accomplish. Whereas in the actual, everyday existence of the movement, you want to say history is on our side. You know, we’re going to win. We want to say, “the people united, will never be defeated,” but they’re usually defeated. This is a great problem, and I’m not sure how best to resolve it. To refer to another text of Lenin’s, The State and Revolution, you know, he’s been engaged in this research, this theoretical research on the nature of the state for months, but then the book is left unfinished and he says in the postscript, well, I was interrupted by events. The interruption is the Russian Revolution.

You know, it’s good to be interrupted in this way. It’s better. And so this is also something that happens, that we may be doing theoretical work in relative isolation, without seeming to connect to anything practical. But then we have interruptions in which suddenly the theoretical questions are on the streets and reconfigured in ways that we couldn’t have anticipated before. And part of what we do then is trace out the consequences for our thinking of what has happened. And so part of being a Marxist in theory is being open to these interruptions because that’s the peculiarity of Marxist theory. It’s a theory of the historical process, which it [the theory] is also a part of.

In this sense, Marxism is trying to produce a kind of knowledge while also presenting a theory of how knowledge is situated in particular social relations. There’s already this reflexive character of Marxism, but then there’s the next character, which is its interventionist character: in trying to understand the historical process, it is also trying to change the process. And that’s what makes it so damn complicated.

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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.