The Universalism Debate

Debates around the interaction or contradiction between what we may call ‘class struggle politics’ and ‘identity politics’ (though both those terms are a bit shit) are now a permanent part of today’s radicalism. In the febrile conditions of social media, these debates are often punishing and exhausting dumpster fires. The core contention made by ‘class struggle types’ against identity politics is that the latter fragments the working class, and by denying the structural divisions that cut across identities, ties subaltern people to fractions of the social elite. Against this, supporters of identity politics argue that the supposedly universal claims based around class function to continue practices of oppression by reinforcing social hierarchies and denying the specific experiences and struggles of the oppressed; and what is claimed as being universal in universalism is, in fact, a narrow white and male mode of being.  

The stakes that animate this conflict are serious. After the 2008 financial crisis, the inequity and exploitation of the capitalism system has been starkly revealed – yet there has been no real corresponding rise in collective class organisation, and the working class remains largely divided and weak. Equally - despite formal commitments to anti-racism, gender equality, and opposition to discrimination on the basis of identities from the state, media and capital - we see on an everyday basis how people’s lives are immiserated through racism, sexism, homophobia and so on, in the form of both structural and popular bigotries. All this in a world gripped by violence and ecological meltdown.

However, the articles collected in this dossier are different. This isn’t another front in the class vs identity trench war. Rather it is a debate within the class struggle position about the nature of class struggle, universalism and the best way to address oppression and inequality. This debate is centred on a responses to Asad Haider’s book Mistaken Identity. Haider is an editor at Viewpoint – one of the most crucial communist journals in English today. Arising out of the Occupy movement (though I suspect it has deeper roots in the 2009 wave of struggles within Californian universities) and drawing on a diverse Marxian inheritance, Viewpoint is ‘neither a socialist news source nor an academic journal. It is a militant research collective’. It intentionally takes a partisan and revolutionary perspective, drawing on historical experience but dedicated to understanding what is novel about capitalism, class composition and struggles today.  

Mistaken Identity grew out of articles originally published on Viewpoint and Medium, and is the livre de chevet of many comrades today. It’s a scorching critique of identity politics and an argument for revolutionary universalism – but it doesn’t deny either the reality of oppression or the necessity of struggle against it. Rather Haider argues that identity politics is in fact the neutralisation of struggles against oppression, which transforms them into questions of the recognition of individuals by the state and is now used as a tool by elements of the establishment to fight off a rising socialist challenge. Universalism is not some pre-existing given – rather it is an insurgent creation produced by collective uprisings and struggles. These struggle include the struggles against oppression. Thus the fight against a particular manifestation of discrimination can lead to the construction of a politics that speaks to an antagonist kernel at the heart of society. To make this argument, with a particular focus on racism in the United States, Haider draws on a Black radical tradition – the Combahee River Collective, Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka and Stuart Hall amongst others (as well as others such as Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Noel Ignatiev and Karl Marx).

For Haider, the struggle against racism is key to overcoming capitalism – but we can only hope to abolish racism by abolishing capitalism. In a world where the prospect of the latter is denied then identity functions as a consolation - a way of dealing with a disappointing present. The alternative rests on the ‘program, strategy, and tactics’. This is because racism is not a question of identity, of who we are (who are we?) but of social relations and thus can only be overcome by struggles that attempt to transform these social relations. But by the same token it is impossible to confront capitalism without specifically organising against oppression – as it has been the establishment of hierarchies of identity which have allowed, and continue to allow, the operation of the capitalist mode of production.

This brings us to the crux of the debate. The opening shot is Melissa Naschek’s review in Jacobin entitled The Identity Mistake. Naschek’s review is both hostile and simple. Her core claim is that universal politics arises from universal claims – political demands that will appeal to the interests of the entire working class. To challenge capitalism you need to build a ‘cohesive bloc in society fighting to gain control of crucial resources in the hands of its enemies. Historically, the only political movements that have successfully created such a force are ones that emphasized shared economic demands based on one’s location in the capitalist class structure.’ She claims Haider undermines his own universalism by still trying to address specific identity-based claims. This, she says, simply splits up and divides the struggles.

Haider’s response Zombie Manifesto advances the argument made in Mistaken Identity. He continues to defend the radical impulse of the struggles against racism in the 60s and 70s, reinforces the idea that identity politics today is both philosophically untenable and works to neutralise struggles, and emphasises how universalism is always a question of struggle. There is nothing, he says, in Naschek’s policy suggestions that a priori makes them universal demands. Indeed, without explicit challenging the racial hierarchy of the US, and the world order, there is a chance that such demands work to reinforce who is exclude and included, and would fail to actually confront capitalism. Rather, ‘any struggle can become universal if it challenges the whole structure of domination and brings about a collective subject with the possibility of self-governance. What counts is how this struggle is conducted, who it resonates with, and what organizational processes it initiates or augments.’

Naschek’s review seems to have sparked a parallel exchange within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Here are two examples:

Jeremy Gong and Eric Blanc’s Race, Class and Socialist Strategy argues for the necessity of fighting for the very demands Naschek supports, uses a very similar logic to Naschek, but then insists that there is a need to oppose oppression as well. They argue that demands for health care, education, housing, etc. would do much to alleviate the impacts of racism in the US, as Black people are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Whilst reinforcing the centrality of class and the workplace, they argue that it is necessary to add onto this struggles against oppression and in doing so argue against a form of ‘race-reductionist’ identity politics: ‘It’s necessary to criticize — and provide a compelling class-based alternative to — the “race reductionism” promoted by liberals, NGOs, academia, and even some radicals. In order to do this effectively, however, we must always make clear in both theory and practice that socialists do not counterpose class struggle to the fight against social oppression. Instead, we understand these struggles as being deeply connected.’

R.L. Stephens responds to this in The Mistaken Universalism by trying to highlight how this is a debate about political line: the ‘axiom or truth which underpins a political program/strategy/faction’. Stephens’ opposition is to both Naschek’s split between race and class and Gong and Blanc’s attempt to argue for the need to struggle against both. He argues that the split itself is false. The apparent split between race and class is actually a split between the economic and political components of class struggle – as such a split doesn’t actually exist. Rather they are different aspects of the same class struggle. Stephens’ argument is similar to Haider’s in that it argues that racism and capitalism must be understood and resisted together. If there is a difference, Haider emphasises - more than Stephens - the importance of struggle as the site that produces emancipatory universalism and the force that can realise it.

There is an interesting dynamic of history and future in this debate. Nascheck calls Haider’s book ‘a manifesto of the Zombie New Left’ but her own work is based on the approach of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin – thus making an implied split between a good 60s and a bad 60s. Haider’s work is engaged in reactivating the struggles of the past to understand the present but also insists on the need to think our current conditions anew. Interestingly, one of the major influences on Haider is Noel Ignatiev. Ignatiev was a member of the Sojourner Truth Organisation which did pioneering work on the critique of whiteness. The Democratic Socialists of America, the organisation that majority of the authors presented here are members of, grew out of the New American Movement. Ignatiev and his comrade David Ranney engaged in a very similar debate to the one presented here with the New American Movement in the 1970s! You can find Ranney’s White Supremacy: Implications for a Political Program and Ignatiev’s Expanded Remarks online.

Universalism is not some pre-existing given – rather it is an insurgent creation produced by collective uprisings and struggles. These struggle include the struggles against oppression. Thus the fight against a particular manifestation of discrimination can lead to the construction of a politics that speaks to an antagonist kernel at the heart of society.

Why read this in Australia? It is an error to simply try to import US debates and concepts and, in trying to use them to understand Australian society, force them until they break. The trajectory of Australian capitalism, the nature of Laborism and the dynamics of racism and oppression make Australia a very different society from the US. Even though wage growth is stagnating, Australia remains largely buffeted from the winds of crisis. Yes, there are fights and struggles – but it’s been at least ten years since any of these have exploded into a genuine social movement. However, due to the universal truth that umbrellas cost more in the rain, it is still worth thinking about these questions. How do we understand the relationship of race (or gender, sexuality and other identities) and the struggles against and over them to the operation of capitalism and the struggle against it? If we have imported the worst part of the US debates over these questions, can we also start looking at some of the better responses too? And what would a politics look like in Australia that would confront racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotries as part of constituting a movement that can overcome capitalism?

Melissa Naschek’s The Identity Mistake

‘An anticapitalist politics capable of fighting against such forces must appeal to the whole working class to build a mass movement. Masses of people become interested in politics when organizations offer a real possibility to change their lives for the better. The only way to forge a movement capable of achieving that is by fighting for shared working-class political and economic interests. This remains the only plausible path to harnessing the only power offered to workers in society: their position as an exploited majority.’

Asad Haider’s Zombie Manifesto

‘There has been for some time an anxiety about the relation between race and the economic. We must be capable of recognizing that race is a material relation which is inextricable from the economic, but not reducible to it. Grasping this complexity requires us to study specific instances of race, rather than resorting to general theories that erase differences between them. Instead, to follow Stuart Hall, we have to understand how these instances are articulated together with other social relations to form a historically specific social structure. We may find that racial categories develop on a different timeline from the mode of production. There may be racial forms in pre-capitalist societies, but our theoretical task is to understand how these forms were connected in a structure to the social relations of that historical period. If they persist across the transition to another mode of production, we must then understand how the social structure is reorganized in such a way as to generate different connections and causal relations.’

Jeremy Gong and Eric Blanc’s Race, Class and Socialist Strategy

‘By helping to rebuild a strong working-class movement that’s capable of winning transformative universalist reforms like Medicare for All and effectively combating social oppression head-on, socialists can help to further the process of class formation that is essential to overturning capitalism and winning a society of true equality, freedom, and social justice. In the words of Kautsky: “this social transformation means the liberation, not only of the proletariat, but of the whole human race.”’

R.L. Stephens’ The Mistaken Universalism

‘To avoid the failures of the past, many people today analyze class as one among many types of exploitation and oppression. This approach is a hallmark of intersectionality, for example. Many responded to the proverbial race and class dichotomy of Naschek’s Jacobin article with a resounding call to do both. Yet, similar to Cleaver’s discussion of the limitations of the neo-Marxists, even those who wish to do both and center these other struggles in their analysis and work nonetheless accept the underlying reductive political line that separates the struggles in the first place. Even Gong & Blanc’s response to Naschek is an attempt to articulate a do both position, yet from the very first sentence it continues to reproduce the reductive framework. We reinforce the reduction of class by accepting its terms; instead, we must reject them. There is no both because there is no separation.’

Image: The Cellist, by Max Weber, via Wikimedia Commons