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Which Side Are You On?

The Democratic Socialists of America are openly debating internal tensions regarding identity and class, but there are important lessons the broader left needs to learn. If Trump is to be defeated, the learning needs to come fast.

Adolph L. Reed, Jr.

23 Dec. 2018 • Common Dreams

Miguel Salazar in a recent essay purporting to address the question “Do America’s Socialists Have a Race Problem?” (The New Republic, December 20, 2018), seconds a perspective on current debates within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) that answers his question in the affirmative.

DSA, as a result of the energies unleashed around the Bernie Sanders campaign and the 2016 election, has experienced such massive growth as to have become essentially a new organization. And the current controversy within the organization condenses a larger challenge facing the left in the United States as we confront the lessons of the victory of Trumpism and the need to struggle to contain and defeat it. The debate within DSA sharpens the tensions and contradictions around defining strategies for charting a way forward in that larger struggle. Those tensions resolve down to two basic alternatives: a strategy focused centrally on agitating for social-democratic programs—such as Medicare for All, free public higher education, public investment in physical and social infrastructure—intended to appeal broadly to working people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations and one that rejects that focus in favor of efforts to mobilize around issues purported to reflect the concerns of groups marginalized on the basis of race, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender or other categories of ascribed identity.

Within DSA, the debate is anchored, at least in principle, to the longer-term goal of social transformation along socialist lines. In that context, the first alternative is rooted in a longstanding, conventional approach based on mass movement-building. The second proceeds from a conviction that, because of the overwhelming power of white supremacy (and related systems of oppression) in the United States, the route to socialism must give priority to challenging those hierarchies. This view rests on a determinist account that construes racism—commitment to white, male, heteronormative supremacy—as the driving imperative in American political history and a corollary contention that that commitment has vitiated all progressive initiatives in the past and will continue to do so. Therefore, albeit incongruously in light of the determinism it posits, this approach insists that defeating that imperative is a necessary precursor to pursuit of any more general leftist agendas. Thus I and others argue that its guiding perspective is race-reductionist.

One means through which Salazar seeks to validate that second, identitarian alternative entails repeating a familiar line of attack on Melissa Naschek’s critical review in Jacobin of Asad Haider’s book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. And, because her review has become a flashpoint for attacks from identitarians in DSA and elsewhere, it is worth considering what she actually argues.

Naschek’s judgment, correct in my view, is that Haider’s book fails because of “the shakiness of his historical narrative” and its “shopworn account of the failure of the Civil Rights movement to provide an institutional pathway out of poverty, causing the emergence of black nationalist ideology in response.” In part because of this inadequate reading of history, she argues, Haider, in asserting that “black self-determination and socialism are mutually dependent,” embraces a “do both” approach to movement-building that enables “powerful enemies of the Left (and allies of capital) [to] worm their way into our coalition and play up identity to reshape working-class demands until they’re neutralized.”

Oddly, Salazar contends that I “helped Naschek craft her review.” That claim is false and, frankly, offensive. Melissa is a friend and comrade politically. When she was working on the review, she asked me, as a scholar who specializes in the study of postwar black American politics, to offer comments on her draft, which I did. I told her I thought the review was great, and that was about that. Salazar’s assertion may simply reflect his lack of understanding of how processes of careful intellectual production work; asking colleagues, particularly those with pertinent expertise, for comments on work in progress is a normal feature of intellectual practice. In context, however, the assertion seems suspiciously like a slur, possibly even sexist, carrying an implication that Naschek’s critique isn’t entirely her own, or perhaps an effort to attack her by association with someone who has a public track record of objection to current strains of race-reductionist politics, like that advocated by Haider and others, that seek to define opposition to struggles for universalist policies as consistent with a socialist politics.

Salazar also quotes me as having referred on a podcast to Haider’s arguments as smelling “like a truckload of rotten fish.” My point in the interview (around the 39-minute mark) was not about Haider’s book at all; I made that comment in reference to a much more general, persistent, and corrosive problem in political interpretation, of which Mistaken Identity is only a recent, and relatively trivial expression. Salazar’s misrepresentation may stem from faulty memory or a naïve flattening of what I said into what he takes to be the implication of what I said. It is in either case inaccurate and tendentious.

I am sharply critical of Haider’s book, as are other specialists in the study of black American political history, because it is dilettantish and profoundly wrong in its accounts of the dynamics and forces shaping black political development since the mid-1960s. Indeed, Haider gives away that dilettantism in his response to Naschek’s criticism of his assertion that the Combahee River Collective is an exemplary guide to contemporary political strategy. Naschek notes that “the collective was never connected to any mass political organization.” She goes on:

To say that they offer a model to building such a program implies that any group of academics meeting in a coffee shop has somehow altered the landscape of capitalism. Haider takes Combahee’s declarations of political import as self-evident rather than engaging in any critical history of the group’s accomplishments.

And further:

It is unfortunately a common practice among modern left public intellectuals to assert that the will to pursue political change is more important than a group’s ability to actually do so. Still it is bizarre that a book, which claims to expose the damage liberal identity politics has done to socialist politics, should prominently showcase one of the former’s favorite shibboleths.

Rather than engage seriously with this legitimate critical observation, Haider pirouettes to a cheap quip: “Naschek dismissively [sic] proclaims that the [Combahee River Collective] was not a mass movement. Neither is the DSA.” That, however, is a disingenuous and wrong-headed non-response. Whatever the Combahee River Collective may have been in its brief and generally unnoticed existence, it never demonstrated aspirations to building a mass political movement. That is, at least in its current incarnation, DSA’s central mission.

To be clear, I am not and never have been a member of DSA and am not a partisan in those internal debates. I do believe, though, that the race-reductionist perspective—even in its “both/and” variant—is, as Naschek and others argue, vulnerable to, if not actively aligned with the decidedly anti-Left Democratic tendencies associated with Clintonism. That is the key issue at stake in the debate over left political strategy, quite apart from positional struggle within DSA as an organization, and it is one that those, apparently including Salazar and Haider, who object to a strategy based on appealing to concerns shared broadly among working people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations attempt to finesse.

Naschek’s observation regarding contemporary left public intellectuals’ elevation of the will to pursue political change over the capacity to do so is especially important in this regard. Haider and others who tout the Combahee River Collective as a model for our time do so because its members were black lesbians who espoused a generic commitment to “liberation,” not because of their approach to or record of movement-building. In the race-reductionist, identitarian world, being displaces doing; what one supposedly is, that is, can mean more than what one does or advocates concretely. We saw enough of that during the 2018 mid-term elections when we were exhorted to celebrate candidacies of various nonwhite, female, gay or lesbian, and gender-nonconforming aspirants because of the identity categories they embodied rather than the programs they advanced. To be sure, some of them embraced left agendas; some decidedly did not, even though they may nonetheless have been better options than their Republican opponents.

Tensions around that identitarian approach erupted in what apparently has become a notorious conflict within DSA regarding endorsement of Cat Brooks, a black, female candidate in the 2018 Oakland, Califorinia mayor’s race. Salazar adduces that controversy in his brief against the organization’s socialist left majority, whom their identitarian opponents accused of racial insensitivity for denying Brooks the chapter’s endorsement. I don’t intend to assess that particular debate; I don’t have adequate local knowledge. I do know that those opposing endorsement were circumspect—see, for example, this dispatch on the East Bay DSA’s website about the recency of Brooks’s reversal of stance on the charter school issue, after several years of prominent association with the charter movement.

Salazar invokes a person he describes as “Oakland’s loudest anti-charter activist,” who backed her candidacy and who characterized his relationship with the candidate as “complicated,” to support a claim that, in effect, she and others hadn’t understood charterization’s destructive force because charters “were sold to residents as a way to give them agency over their own schools.” Charterization, his informant said, “was tied to the self empowerment theme that goes back to the Black Panthers.” But that justification seems uncomfortably akin to “I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing” or “I was young and needed the money.” Whether or not Brooks’s conversion is genuine, wouldn’t the earlier error—particularly considering the depth and duration of her commitment to it—justify skepticism with regard to how she might respond to other shiny new neoliberal interventions?

Recourse to the charge that those who opposed Brooks’s endorsement were driven by bad racial motives, rather than principled political concerns, underscores the dangers of race-reductionist politics. (Salazar is in general too willing to retail DSA identitarians’ charges of racial insensitivity. In concluding the essay he quotes a tweet from Shanti Singh, a San Francisco DSA identitarian, implying that Naschek and her Philadelphia chapter co-chair Scott Jenkins were insensitive to the need to counter “right-wing antisemitism” when they proposed not canceling a scheduled chapter meeting in order to attend a counter protest of a pathetic demonstration by two-dozen equally pathetic wannabe fascist Proud Boys. It’s unlikely, however, that Naschek, who is Jewish, would need sensitivity training about the evils of antisemitism.)

This politics is open to the worst forms of opportunism, and it promises to be a major front on which neoliberal Democrats will attack the left, directly and indirectly, and these lines of attack stand out in combining red-baiting and race-baiting into a new, ostensibly progressive form of invective. Hillary Clinton’s infamous 2016 campaign swipe at Sanders that his call for breaking up big banks wouldn’t end racism was only one harbinger of things to come. Indeed, we should recall that it was followed hard upon by even more blunt attacks from prominent members of the black political class.

When the campaign turned to South Carolina, with its large bloc of black Democratic voters, the state’s black Congressman James Clyburn joined Georgia Congressman and icon of the civil rights movement, John Lewis, and Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond in denouncing Sanders as “irresponsible” in calling for non-commodified public goods in education, healthcare and other areas. Lewis sneered: “It’s the wrong message to send any group. There’s not anything free in America. We all have to pay for something. Education is not free. Health care is not free. Food is not free. Water is not free. I think it’s very misleading to say to the American people we’re going to give you something free.” As I pointed out in the Baffler, “Richmond’s rebuke was especially telling in that he couched it in terms of his role as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and the group’s ‘responsibility to make sure that young people know that’ a social-democratic agenda is ‘too good to be true.’ ”

This points to precisely what is limited, and in the context of the current debate over ways forward for the broader left, dangerous about the simplistic race-reductionism that Salazar, Haider, and others advocate as a necessary accompaniment of, and in practical terms precursor, or even alternative to a pursuit of a socialist, or social-democratic political agenda. The juxtaposition they assert between “race” or identity and class is bogus. It presumes both the fiction that “(working) class” means “white” and that blacks or other nonwhites and the like are somehow outside the capitalist class dynamics that shape American life and, most important in this context, politics. As the ideological and programmatic commitments of Clyburn, Lewis, Richmond and others in the black political elite and chattering classes illustrate, that is hardly the case. Moreover, most black people, like other Americans, are concerned with finding or keeping decent jobs, housing, health care, education, etc.—the stuff of a social-democratic agenda. Hence Bernie Sanders’s approval ratings remain higher among black Americans than any other group.

Simply put, one either supports such an agenda, or one does not. For the first time in most of our lifetimes, we have an opportunity to make commitment to that sort of agenda the definitive fault-line in American politics for 2020 and beyond. There have been signs since before the 2016 election that both many Wall Street Democrats and nominally progressive identitarians would rather lose than embrace the social-democratic left. As we approached the 2018 mid-term elections and since, it has become ever clearer that a major struggle between now and 2020 will be over how we define the “progressive” electoral agenda, whether it should be weighted toward advancing candidates who are nonwhite, female, and gender-nonconforming or those who support such policy initiatives as Medicare For All. Of course, those goals are not necessarily in conflict. The question, though, is which should take priority when they are. We must be clear that they are not interchangeable.

That is also a critical point to keep in mind, as we have been and increasingly will be confronted with “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” liberals, who want, in the name of electability or bringing the party together, or whatever else, to water down Medicare For All or other components of a social-democratic agenda before we’ve ever had a serious effort to organize a popular base in support of them. It has been and will be all too easy for the occasion to elect “the first” black/Native American/woman/lesbian to substitute for the need to advance an agenda that can appeal broadly to working people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations. Our side’s failure to struggle for that sort of agenda is one reason Trump is in the White House. We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes that helped bring about that result.

The question of the moment is, in the spirit of Florence Reece and her brother and sister coalminers in the 1931 Harlan County War, Which Side Are You On?