What Will It Take to Abolish Racism?
Reformists Embrace Class Reductionism
“Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.”
Catalyst and Jacobin have embraced one side of a historical conflict among socialists. They promote class reductionism: that equality can best be advanced by focusing on demands that lift the whole working class . They resolutely reject an emphasis on demands that target specially oppressed sectors of the population. They argue that racial, gender etc. equality can best be won as a byproduct of general social uplift. This contrasts sharply with the revolutionary socialist position best articulated by Lenin . The Leninist tradition calls for supporting special demands to raise the position of the most oppressed as well as universal demands. Today, targeted demands would include Affirmative Action, Reparations, Black Lives Matter etc.
These magazines have been consistent. However the most recent issue of Catalyst takes this to new extremes. Issue #5/3 has 5 major articles. Two of these campaign for class reductionism directly, while two others touch on it. “ The Class Path to Racial Liberation”( CPtRL) is the most blatant. “What the 1619 Project Got Wrong” also develops this argument.
I will take up their critique of the 1619 project in a review of that excellent and important new book. Here the focus will be on criticizing the reasoning of “ The Class Path to Racial Liberation”
The authors of this article start with questionable assumptions: 1) Material aspects of oppression are the most or only important ones. “ It is rational for egalitarians to concentrate on ending racial inequalities in economic life” ( pg.56) and 2) U.S. demographics do not allow majority movements in support of specific demands that would uplift the specially oppressed :
“ In societies in which racially oppressed groups are a minority of the population, race based coalitions are fatally constrained by demography. ..Class based politics are the only viable route to racial liberation. …Race based politics…will find it impossible to build…coalitions because in the U.S. they have nothing to offer to a majority…”
There is a grain of truth to the first assumption. Of course levels of poverty, wages, and unemployment are central to the life experience of Black people and other POC. It is also true that material conditions influence all other aspects of oppression. More money means better access to health care, decent housing, education, social respect, less stress etc. However, racism and other forms of oppression impact people of all classes. Obviously , a Black CEO experiences oppression differently than a Black homeless person or wage worker, but both feel oppression. This means that aspects of oppression are relatively independent of class position even though oppression flows from the structure of capitalism. Oppression is not just about economics, in spite of what the authors imply.
Just as importantly , oppression cascades downward. When Barak Obama is attacked by the Birther movement, or Hillary Clinton is subject to sexism the whole political climate is degraded. Working class members of oppressed groups suffer the most from this shift in political atmosphere. This degradation of politics further divides workers and makes it harder to struggle in a unified way against the capitalists.
This is why Lenin in What Is To Be Done was very clear that socialists in particular and workers in general need to oppose oppression no matter what class it is aimed at and just as importantly no matter what the subject of it is :
“ Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless. workers…respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected…”
“ the ….ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of people it affects …”
Lenin was a Marxist revolutionary. He championed the interests of the working class. He built a movement aimed at the abolition of economic classes. He did not defend the interests of the capitalists, a class he wanted to eliminate. However, he understood that the interests of the working class required defense of the oppressed sections of upper classes against oppression. If oppression increased against anyone it would hit workers the worst.
This also meant opposing all forms and types of oppression whether they were specifically economic or not.
(See Phil Gasper’s great defense of the Leninist position on fighting special oppression : https://newpol.org/racism-and-capitalism/)
Obviously, Lenin and Marxist revolutionaries since his time also support universal class-wide demands. Marxists have always supported higher wages and better working conditions, social programs that raise workers in general etc. Marxists understand that exploitation of the working class is the source of capitalist wealth. Marxists are certainly not “race-reductionists”.( that those who want equality should focus only or overwhelmingly on demands that directly impact racial disparities). Race reductionism is a straw man that applies to very few people on the Left. Marxists support both universal demands and demands that specifically target raising the position of oppressed groups, both economic and social demands.
CPtRL is wrong in separating economic issues from other issues of oppression. It especially ignores the deep psychological and social impacts of oppression.
Since CPtRL argues that economics is virtually the only issue of importance, it says that raising the whole working class will have the most impact on raising the position of BIPOC people. It says that race specific remedies would primarily benefit middle and upper class BIPOC people. This position forgets how important it is to undermine racism at all levels, and hence undermine racism within the working class. If workers can be exploited and oppressed by rulers of all races and genders, the class contradiction comes to the fore. To the extent that the rulers are only white men , oppression appears to be racial or gender based rather than class based. Integration of the ruling class can facilitate working class consciousness.
The CPtRL strategy is abstract and unrealistic. It calls for raising the position of the whole class without examining the obstacles to this. It takes a magic wand approach to politics. It argues that IF there were universal programs that raised the working class in general, poor BIPOC people would benefit the most. This is true. It is also true that a vigorous program of reparations for slavery would raise the relative position of poor Black people significantly. Reparations would benefit the poor more than the rich in relative terms. ( i.e a person who’s net worth is $1000 and receives $100,000 gains much more relatively that a person whose net worth is a million dollars who gets the same amount).
A key question is “ How do we win substantial universal programs that benefit the whole working class?” Racism is a significant barrier. One of the prime reasons that the U.S. safety net is so impoverished compared to Europe is the legacy of slavery and the continued racism that flows from that. Too often white people oppose social programs that would benefit them because they don’t want to help the “undeserving” poor. They have bought the argument that welfare etc. mostly benefits “ lazy” Black women, even though most beneficiaries are actually white !
To win universal programs, we need to challenge these racist attitudes. We need to explain why raising the position of oppressed people also helps the whole working class, including white workers. Instead, the CPtRL strategy accepts racist attitudes. It says we need to sneak in advances for the oppressed by just stressing programs that benefit all.
It is profoundly and unrealistically pessimistic. “ Race based politics…will find it impossible to build…coalitions because in the U.S. they have nothing to offer to a majority…” . The truth is that race based remedies have much to offer the majority! Working class unity is necessary for winning demands from the ruling class. This unity is advanced by for example white workers supporting the demands of Black workers. “ An injury to one is an injury to all” is as true today as it ever was. The authors don’t recognize the fundamental truth that Marx discussed over 150 years ago: All workers are hurt by continued special oppression. “ A people that oppresses another cannot itself be free”. The “privileges” that white workers obtain from racism pale into insignificance compared to the benefits they would gain from Black-white unity in overthrowing the system. This means that in spite of what the authors say , we would not need to build a coalition purely based on abstract morality to win race-based demands. Instead we need to build a movement based on actual economic interests.
Working class unity in support of universal demands AND the demands of the specially oppressed is necessary. It is also very possible. The authors CPtRL ignore the many examples of cross-race unity in U.S. history. As the Civil Rights Movement gained steam, it gathered more and more support among white people. The largest sustained movement in U.S. history took place in the Spring and Summer of 202o demanding justice for George Floyd. It was led by Black women but included people of all races. It had majority support for a long period of time — -including the 55% of people who applauded when the Minneapolis police station burned! Black Lives Matter, a movement not around economics but around police brutality and racism , has received large , often majority public support since 2014. Many white workers and poor people see racism as immoral and are willing to fight against it. Morality is based on class interests. Many workers understand their class interests either consciously or unconsciously.
The point is that working class unity around special demands for the oppressed IS possible. Ruling class propaganda and the realities of institutional racism undercut this possibility. It is not automatic. This makes it more imperative that socialists take up the fight for working class unity including demands targeted at the racially oppressed in earnest. Instead CPtRL abstains from this fight.
CPtRL’s strategy fits very well with the reformism of Catalyst . Instead of trying to develop a strategy that can overthrow the capitalist system, it seeks programs that just modify it. It talks of liberation but really just aims at reducing the racial and class gap within capitalism. Its strategy sounds rational but is in fact unrealistic. In contrast , Marxist revolutionaries fight for working class unity on the highest level because they understand that this unity can be the basis of overthrowing capitalism.
This debate is crucial for the Left ! If socialists follow the class-reductionist strategy put forward by Catalyst, we will never facilitate the working class unity needed to challenge and finally overthrow capitalism. Whether socialists build a movement that can overthrow capitalism or not will determine the future of the human race. Rosa Luxemburg noted over 100 years ago that humanity faces a choice “socialism or barbarism”. Today, this could be amended to “socialism or extinction.”