Felipe Bascuñán responds to a debate on the Left about the relationship between oppression and class and why getting the answer right is essential to forging a united class struggle.
A year after the racist police murder of George Floyd triggered the largest mass uprising in U.S. history, socialists are still debating whether antiracism is compatible with class politics. Some on the Left believe that building a universal class politics is counterposed to a focus on the particularities of race, gender, ability, and other categories that may be imprecisely grouped together through the language of identity. Though this debate has taken many forms, its most recent iteration in DSA is being led by vociferous members of the Class Unity caucus who claim to be defending “Marxist class politics” from “liberal antipolitics.”
The core of my disagreement with the Class Unity caucus is fundamentally about what it would take to make the working class into a real political force. Class Unity argues that the main obstacle to, well, class unity is what they call “identity politics,” a term used so broadly that it seems to encompass virtually any kind of struggle against oppression that is not organized around “universal” economic demands like universal health care and rent control. For them, the presence of “identity politics” in DSA is the main barrier to rooting the organization in the working class and expanding beyond what they see as its primarily middle-class base.
While I do not contest that economic demands are important, it is precisely because various forms of oppression divide the working class against itself that popular movements against oppression constitute vital moments for unifying the working class into a political force with the power to challenge capital. Furthermore, understanding the way chauvinistic ideas pervade society is vital to being able to speak to the majority of the working class who experience sexism, racism, transphobia, ableism, and other bigotries in their everyday lives.
It’s Not About Identity Politics
“Identity politics” is a term that has meant a lot of things to a lot of people, but when CU uses it, they tend to collapse all its meanings into a particular kind of liberal identity politics. Not only are the Lori Lightfoots and Hillary Clintons of the world guilty of weaponizing identity to diffuse working class struggle, but even those Marxists who carve out some role for antiracist politics within a class struggle strategy are themselves representatives of a professional-managerial strata, and thus, “wildly out of touch” with the working class. In their most recent provocation, they accuse Chicago DSA of “uncritically adopting the movement’s predominant liberal-identitarian framework” following the George Floyd uprising, saying police and prison abolition “are popular among HR managers and “radical” academics but broadly unpopular among the working class (of any color). ”
While many commentators on “identity politics” draw a contrast between movements against specific forms of oppression versus the elite liberal co-optation of those movements, the central claim for CU is that both are essentially the same.
Liberal deployments of identity do indeed serve the ideological purpose of diverting radical energies into a ruling class hegemonic project without fundamentally challenging their power. As the civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s declined, a Black elite was integrated into the ruling class, and that representation was used to diffuse the movement’s more radical demands, leaving the material circumstances of the vast majority of working class Black people unchanged or even worse.
That being said, it would be deeply misleading to attribute the decline of those movements primarily to liberal co-optation. The social movements of the 60s and 70s declined for a lot of reasons, including their own internal disunity (often exacerbated by racism and sexism in movement organizations), strategic dead ends, the end of the post-war boom, state repression, and the reactionary backlash that engulfed society as a whole with the turn to neoliberalism. Co-optation was frequently the result, not the cause, of the decline of popular movements.
But the argument isn’t really about whether or not liberal politicians cynically deploy rhetoric initially produced by social movements to diffuse challenges to the power of capital. Of course they do. Capital has always integrated the rhetoric of popular movements into their self-justifications. Bourgeois politicians also appeal to the working class and labor in order to get votes or to justify their support for fossil fuel infrastructure projects. And the vast majority of the trade union bureaucracy is only too happy to oblige them, repeating the same nationalistic talking points and integrating most trade unions into the Democratic Party.
This line of critique has been most extensively developed by Asad Haider in his response to a similar argument from Adolph Reed. He points out,
Capital has long celebrated the “dignity of labor” and working-class identity, because it requires the working class for its processes of production and accumulation … Nevertheless, few critics of antiracism argue that because politicians and corporations make tokenizing celebrations of essential workers, the demands and struggles of essential workers are inherently compatible with capitalism.
In the rest of this piece, I want to zero in on what I see as the most troubling implication of this political tendency, which seems to be gaining steam in parts of DSA: do movements against oppression matter? And more than that, is any specific focus on oppression counterposed to winning economic demands?
Because that’s really what’s at stake here. Not whether or not liberal politicians and corporate CEOs use appeals to identity to co-opt popular movements, but whether popular movements against racism, sexism, transphobia and other forms of oppression that are not exclusively framed in economic terms are worth building into our socialist strategy at all.
Marxists Should Be Fighting Racism, Actually
Class Unity may sometimes grant that there exists something called “racism,” but there’s relatively little evidence from anything they’ve written that they understand what racism actually is.
Perhaps the most revealing example of their basic misunderstanding comes in an editorial called “Race, Class, and Police Violence.” In it, the editorial committee comes tantalizingly close to understanding how racism structures the lived reality of class before swerving away dramatically to argue that police violence should be tackled solely as a class issue.
The first part of the article establishes that racial disparities in police violence and economic inequality persist even when you account for socioeconomic status. And they pose the natural question: why? The answer they come up with:
Given that the injustices perpetrated by police occur almost entirely in poor communities, a reasonable explanation seems to be that police in American society function primarily to protect wealth and property from a surplus population that has been made redundant to capitalist exploitation, and whose labor is no longer needed for accumulation.
It is certainly the case that the police do protect wealth and property from a relative “surplus population.” And it is also the case that the police are the class enemy of the entire working class, and they defend property against all challenges from below of any race. But all that still begs the question: why is the surplus population so disproportionately non-white?
There follows a half-hearted attempt to account for racism.
This is not to deny that there is a racist element to policing–there is—but this racist element is explainable by political economy that leaves ‘white supremacy’ out.
The article goes on to talk about the racist ideology that emerged from the plantation economy and was further reified through Jim Crow. They grant that under Jim Crow, racism played a role in keeping poor Black and white workers divided and wages down. Immediately following this historical detour, they leap to the present day. “What is particularly interesting about our current moment is that overall wealth inequality as well as racial wealth disparities continue to broaden despite the fact that racial disparities in police brutality are actually decreasing.”
One is left with the distinct impression that racism today is something of an anachronism, an inscrutable mystery hanging on from another era. The article never again returns to try to explain the persistence of racism; the only conclusion is that the police are a tool of capital that protects private property. Perfectly true, but it still begs the question.
Let me be very clear: I am not arguing that race and class are totally autonomous tracks of oppression that need to be fought separately. Rather, the political economy of the United States does not make sense if you don’t take into account the structuring power of racism from the very beginning. And because of the deep imbrication of racism into the class structure of society, because of the way class is racialized, movements against racism necessarily have to confront the class structure of society.
But the opposite is also true. In order to confront the class nature of society, it’s not sufficient to limit ourselves to talking about economic demands. Rather, the fragmentation and disaggregation of the working class can only be overcome by confronting head on the forms of oppression that maintain that fragmentation. Racism is one of them (the only one that CU mentions at all), but it’s not the only one. Oppression based on differences in gender, ability, immigration status, age, and so on all work with and through economic and extra-economic means of coercion to fragment and divide the working class and to prevent it from seeing itself as a class with a common interest.
We sometimes use words like “white supremacy” or “patriarchy” to denote complexes of ideology, group differentiation, and exposure to violence which play historically specific roles in the reproduction of capitalist social relations and bourgeois hegemony. These words can be used by liberals to denote transhistorical forces with their own autonomous logics separate from capitalism. But there’s no reason they have to be used that way, and in fact they’re often used by Marxists as a way to describe complex social phenomena that are part and parcel of the reproduction of capitalism.
To illustrate this point, look at the ongoing material legacy of decisions made by real estate agents, banks, and politicians during the New Deal, which simultaneously promoted many of the kinds of economic reforms CU supports, while further entrenching the prevailing regime of racial apartheid. More than half a century after the end of legal segregation, cities in the U.S. are still shockingly segregated along the same redlines that were drawn by banks in the 1930s. Schools also remain segregated, and in a country that funds public education by local property taxes, the reproduction of disparate life outcomes along racialized class lines unfolds without needing overtly racist legislation. And that’s not to mention the racism baked into the housing market after the end of legal housing discrimination or the vast racial disparities in access to healthcare, treatment, and exposure in the context of COVID-19.
As for the police, until the 1960s, they explicitly enforced apartheid conditions as part of their jobs. After the 60s, they did much the same, only under the aegis of the War of Drugs. The turn to the War on Drugs as the main justification for racist policing also underwrote a massive expansion of the prison system, mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately targeted drugs associated with poor Black people, like crack, and the full militarization of the police such that they came to be known as an occupying army in working class Black neighborhoods. It’s true that police don’t need to be personally racist to maintain a racist order for capital, but the reality is the culture of policing in the United States reproduces white supremacist ideas among police on a system-wide scale. It’s been well established by now that police forces are teeming with overt fascists and white supremacists, many of whom belong to actual far-right organizations.
One implication in much of what Class Unity writes is developed more explicitly in the recent writing of their thought leader, Adolph Reed. The idea is that race is merely an appearance, a “halo” obscuring material realities underneath. It’s perfectly true that essentialist understandings of race as something biological and transhistorical are ideological mystifications, but it does not follow that, even in its capacity as ideology, race has no material impact or that it’s only an appearance hiding the truth of class. As Barbara Fields points out in her essay Slavery, Race, and Ideology, “An ideology must be constantly created and verified in social life; if it is not, it dies, even though it may seem to be safely embodied in a form that can be handed down.”
Racist ideology persists because it describes something real about social life. Even as it’s true that there are no biological or innate differences between supposed “racial groups,” racism is an absolutely real material force that reproduces disparate life circumstances and outcomes across all classes of society, but to a much higher degree within the working class. Race, then, comes to exist not as a biological category, but as a social category, one with as much reality as gender or private property.
Studying and combating the specific ways racism works to divide the working class should be especially important for those who want to forge class unity. To name one famous example, when Reagan launched his broadside against social services in the 1980s, his ideological prop was the figure of the “welfare queen.” The subsequent slashing of welfare had a disproportionate impact on the Black working class because of the existing disproportionate poverty, but it also increased poverty among the white working class at the same time. Far from making fighting racism as such irrelevant, this episode illustrates the way that racism peels off sections of the working class and incorporates them into a reactionary ruling class political project against their own class. Racism is then revealed to be an integral part of capitalist hegemony, which is to say, the process by which sections of the working class are won over to actively participate in the maintenance of capitalist class rule.
Class Unity tends to dismiss movements that use antiracism as a rallying point as nothing but liberal identity politics, representing nobody but professionals and academics and their cultural predilections. Ironically, actual movements against racism tend to have no trouble understanding the deep links between economics and racial disparity. After all, the single most important demand to come out of the 2020 summer uprising against racist police violence was the demand to defund police and fund working class Black and brown communities, which is quite literally an economic demand.
Talking about racism means, necessarily, talking about the economic and political forms through which racial differentiation and oppression is reproduced. There’s a reason that when Dr. King came to Chicago, he joined the housing movement. Far from distracting from or obscuring the economic dimension, organizing around racism clarifies the kinds of economic demands we need to be fighting around and, among other things, lays the groundwork for a more militant labor movement infused with the energy of social movements.
The Particular and the Universal
As far as I know, no piece of writing by anyone associated with Class Unity has ever explicitly mentioned trans people, but we can guess at what they might think about the rise of Trans Marxism. In the introduction to Transgender Marxism, editors Jules Gleeson and Elle O’Rourke take aim at what they call “middlebrow Marxists” who counterpose a singular focus on a class divide based on uneven control of the means of production to identity politics with its focus on particularities and differentiation.
They point out, correctly, that:
…from Marx’s earliest communist writings onwards, we see a sharp concern with questions of social particularity. From his writings on the American Civil War to the question of anti-Semitism, Marx refused to set aside the fate of minority groups from the structuring of society as a whole.
As early as “On The Jewish Question,” we can see Marx wrestling with the contradictions of the liberal state, which proclaims equality before the law while systematically reproducing group differentiation on the basis of birth, occupation, property, and so forth.
On the basis of Marx’s mature work in Capital, we can go even further to look at the way that competition between capitalists and between workers reproduces group differentiation within the working class.
In his book Persistent Inequalities, Marxist economist Howard Botwinick develops a theoretical and empirical foundation for understanding the reproduction of differentiation within the working class. The racialization and gendering of certain jobs not only makes it easier to justify more exploitative conditions and lower wages in those sectors, but puts a downward pressure on wages for the entire working class. The particular historical forms that this process takes varies across time and space, but the thing that remains constant is that, even as capitalism homogenizes sections of the working class, it simultaneously fragments the class and drives certain specially oppressed sectors into the lowest paying jobs and disproportionately represents them among the reserve army of labor (which is to say, the unemployed, or what CU called the “surplus population” above).
Indeed, Marx was very well aware of the fact that the ongoing forces of capitalist competition and accumulation would repeatedly tend to generate serious divisions within the working class. He also understood that capital would continually attempt to find other political and social devices to intensify these divisions among workers.
On the level of concrete class struggles, we could also talk about the mobilization of bigotry to thwart unionization campaigns or the long history of racism and sexism in the labor movement, both of which contributed to the flight of manufacturing industries from densely unionized Northern cities to rural areas, especially in the South, where pervasive racism has historically made unionization extremely difficult.
Far from being a distraction from “real” class politics, any Marxism worthy of the emancipatory spirit of Marx’s life work must begin from the real conditions of oppression that keep the working class disorganized and disempowered as a social force. After all, it was Marx who said,
Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the Black skin is branded.
As for liberal identity politics, it is certainly the case that a singular focus on race (or gender, or ability, etc.) as an isolated issue of disparity, with the goal of redress within a capitalist system, is a dead end for any socialist project, or indeed, for addressing the social relations which reproduce and require those forms of oppression and disparity. But that doesn’t mean disparities are irrelevant or that they should be ignored until socialism is achieved.
Like the struggle for reforms in general under capitalism, the fight to make life better for the working class and all oppressed people should be our bread and butter, the day in, day out content of our struggle. But in those fights, the point of a Marxist analysis and a socialist political project should be to show how these different experiences of oppression are each linked back to a capitalist system that dominates and exploits us all. The goal is to unify all struggles against specific forms of oppression into a political project that aims not just at ending this or that disparity, or even simply improving the situation of the working class as such, but at ending all oppression and domination for good.
Workers don’t struggle against an abstract social relation, they struggle against oppression. It’s the experience of discrimination, of unequal treatment, of violence, of low wages and despotic workplaces, of living hard lives in intolerable conditions that move people to struggle to change the circumstances in which they find themselves. This is the real, living class struggle.
A true universalist politics cannot run roughshod over the many divisions that structure the working class, or presume that there already exists an objective “class interest” that makes those divisions irrelevant. For it to mean anything at all, universal emancipation must mean emancipation for everyone from every kind of oppression.
The Left will never be able to achieve its goal of transforming the working class from an inert relation of production into a real political force if it does not take seriously the specific modalities through which class is lived. Practically, that means left groups cannot afford to ignore the interpersonal side of oppression, as the presence of transphobic, racist, sexist, and other chauvinistic attitudes on the Left makes it much harder to attract the majority of the working class who experience these attitudes everywhere else in society.
Class Unity has repeatedly demonstrated that they think taking any action at all to account for chauvinism on the Left is basically the same as liberal corporate diversity politics. They say as much in their deeply unpersuasive and mean-spirited attack on a proposal by Chicago DSA members to increase transparency and accountability in the organization. The overwhelming sense of the piece is that any attempt to make the organization more welcoming for people who experience various forms of oppression constitutes an “adventure in liberal antipolitics.”
The Class Unity strategy is a recipe for building a DSA that actively repels the sections of the working class that are the most oppressed under capitalism. Low-wage workers are disproportionately non-white, agricultural workers are disproportionately migrants, care workers are disproportionately not men. To talk about disparity and difference is to talk about the real working class in its concrete conditions of life.
Class Unity takes up some of the most politically unhelpful and reductive readings of Marx’s unfinished class theory to advocate a strategy that sidelines questions of difference within the working class in order to “unify” around purely economic issues. In the process, they abstract away from class as it’s actually lived, so much so that it’s hard to know exactly what working class they’re even talking about.
Felipe Bascuñán is an organizer with the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America.