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Strategic implications of the reductionism debates

Interview with Asad Haider – part 2


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 tries to situate why these arguments and debates are arising now, and what precisely, the strategic implications might be. The third part will 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.

Aaron Amaral: I would like to raise an open-ended question about why this debate is raising its head now in the way that it is?

Asad Haider: I think that Left social movements, let’s say running from Occupy to the Bernie campaign, and more broadly considering the growth of DSA, have dealt with certain barriers to mass expansion. And some of these are barriers clearly related to class positions. It’s not totally clear what class categories, or what sociological distinctions within class categories, best describe the specific lines that we’re observing. But certainly it’s true that a lot of Left movements are constituted largely by professionals, college students and so on. So this has been one barrier to the mass expansion. But I think there’s an extent to which this is also overdetermined by race. That is, there’s some sense in which the overwhelmingly white appearance of the Left and Left organizations can become a barrier to increased involvement by working-class people of color. Socialists in the U.S. have dealt with this problem for a long time, and I don’t think it’s simply gone away.

At the social movement level, this division was brought to the forefront by the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. And it’s coming up again as this movement is accelerating and socialist organizations have to find the most constructive way of participating in and relating to the movement.

At the same time I think there’s another angle which we maybe don’t discuss enough, which is the fact that social movements have had a considerable degree of success in changing attitudes in the American public about race. I think that this is something that we have to really recognize. Many people point to the fact that various corporations are taking up the slogan of Black Lives Matter, or Yelp is trying to point you to Black-owned businesses, Jeff Bezos is donating money to Black Lives Matter, and so on. Some people try to say that this indicates that antiracist politics are uniquely susceptible to being co-opted. I think what this actually illustrates is that social movements have had considerable success in changing public attitudes about race and racism. And so that’s a progressive development and introduces some new questions to think through.

BLM mural on the streets of Washington D.C.

And so, on the one hand, there is the kind of explanation which immediately sees in any kind of actual social change a kind of co-optation—that’s the functionalist analysis I was talking about earlier, which says anything that you see happening in society is a function of the reproduction of the stability of the society.

In some ways this is a powerful view because it allows you to understand the way that so much of what happens in society which might appear to be random or accidental is actually structurally determined. On the other hand, it’s a very limiting view because then you don’t understand the way that contradiction pervades all social phenomena, the way that there are conflicts and antagonisms that are always represented in some way. And that’s what we see now. It can be difficult to theorize that.

Aaron Amaral: It would seem to rule out the possibility of a breakthrough, a rupture or whatever. If you think it’s always just the reassertion of stability or co-optation, then what’s the theory of how things change?

Asad Haider: Yeah. It’s also a position which always makes you seem superior to whoever you’re arguing with. You just say, “Oh, well, in the end you’re just deluded,” or, “You just hold those views because that’s your social function as a PMC [Professional Managerial Class – Eds.],” or whatever. But that’s not an especially constructive mode of doing politics in my view.

Aaron Amaral: Do you see this debate [around questions of class reductionism or economic reductionism] as a tempest in a teapot, so to speak, in the context of a small part of the emerging U.S. Left which, for historic reasons, is grappling with this question for reasons you’ve just discussed. Or does it represent a greater danger to the Left, either strategically in relationship to the movements, or analytically in terms of the kind of materialist analysis you are advocating?

Asad Haider: It’s a little bit of both in the sense that, on the one hand, I think that fairly academic or sectarian disputes are being granted an excess importance in contrast to what would really be the most important tasks, which are to just engage in the mundane everyday processes of organizing in which a lot of this may become irrelevant.

On the other hand, I think it does matter in the sense that, as we try to work out different strategies, different positions, different approaches within the Left, as we try to figure out what kind of analysis best informs political action, the most important thing is to guard against dogmas and be able to have an open-ended kind of discussion in which we sharpen and refine our analysis.

And I think that, unfortunately, this debate has largely ended up in a polarization between two dogmas. You know, each side has their own way of representing the opposite side. So the pejorative designations would be neoliberal identity politics versus class reductionism. Of course, most people don’t accept either designation, but that’s the way they’re described by their adversaries.

Neither really presents a good theory of what the other is and why they take the positions they do. And neither really presents an original or useful analysis or program themselves. So I think there’s this dogmatic polarization. Theory is important for the Left, and in order to have better theory, we need to have a greater proliferation of perspectives and a greater freedom in elaborating different approaches, which won’t happen if it’s polarized between caricatural extremes.

Aaron Amaral: Do you think that polarization is true both at the level of the academic debate and also at the level of the debate within the Left—that those two poles exist in both kinds of worlds?

Asad Haider: I have the impression that they do exist in both worlds. I mean, I don’t know what their respective powers are. What do you think?

Aaron Amaral: Look for example at the challenge of moving DSA into the movement, organizationally into the rebellion. I think it gives quite a potentially useful, a very real-world strategic weight to these debates and discussions.

Asad Haider: You’re totally right. I mean, there is the question of how to understand the rebellions in relation to the other recent historical events, how to understand the way that socialist organizations should participate in and relate to the rebellions. These are really concrete questions.

We have to try to understand things in their specificity and move towards the concrete. When you just have a kind of abstract discussion, or a discussion that takes place entirely over social media, about race and class, neoliberal identity politics versus class reductionism, and so on, it can get more polarized than when you engage in actual political practice.

On the other hand, it’s also true that these problems come up in political practice. You know, there’s no doubt that organizational efforts can collapse because of various disputes over identity or class, different strategic approaches end up being suppressed or attacked. I’ve certainly experienced such things in actual political practice. These problems come up and it’s not very easy to figure out how to move past the polarization in a constructive way. I think that’s something that people are still figuring out.

Aaron Amaral: Part of what I think motivates this interview, is to reassert the ways in which any kind of socialist politics worth its salt has to both strategically and theoretically/analytically have at its center a kind of anti-racist – especially in the context of the United States – an anti-racist, politics. And that following CLR James, or following any number of people, these are integral and coterminous, in really important ways.

I read in your book your account of organizing in Santa Cruz and the challenge around Occupy and a strike that took place, and real fissures within the movement, and a kind of race baiting of some of the activists.

There’s a related, but different, dynamic among some within DSA, where there is such an intent to “follow Black leadership” but there’s no excavation of what that means. And there’s an abdication of any responsibility to organize or to to step forward and do the work ourselves, so to speak.

Asad Haider: Yeah. I think you’re right about the contradictory way this plays out. I think just in terms of positions that the Left should take, it’s axiomatic that insofar as you’re committed to an emancipatory politics, you oppose racism on its own terms. It doesn’t have to be related to capitalism for you to be against it. If you have an emancipatory politics, if you believe in the basic equality of human beings, you oppose all of these forms of domination, and so that shouldn’t make things complicated. That should be quite easy to grasp. And then of course, you know, when you get to the level of social analysis, there really is a relationship in American society between race and class, and the way that these categories have taken shape and evolved throughout history, that you’re going to have to deal with.

For example, In many circumstances, because of the way neighborhoods are laid out in the city, engaging in class politics will also mean dealing with racial divisions, because they’re part of the physical organization of space. Residential segregation in the U.S. has been considerably reduced, but in many cities it’s still quite persistent. What will it take for people to organize beyond their own neighborhoods? Part of the challenges are definitely due to differences in class backgrounds, but if you have a group of entirely white canvassers, that is also probably going to limit their effectiveness in various contexts. Being aware of these things, and incorporating them into your thinking and practice, just makes strategic and practical sense.

So, I guess there are two levels at which I’m responding to this. One is just the fact that the Left should axiomatically oppose racism. There’s no sense in which that should be seen as a threat to class politics, it’s actually just a component of emancipatory politics. And that then, dealing with the problems of race as they come up in organizing is something that requires analysis and thought.

And sometimes it’s going to be dealing with the problems of political leadership. One of the basic problems of the institutional weakness of the Left, the kind of organizational void that we operate in, is that there’s just not a lot of political leadership at all in this society. You don’t have a lot of political organizations that come up and actually advance a program for structural change in any movement that pops up spontaneously. So, you know, you may have various people who are positioning themselves as leaders, and make identitarian claims for their legitimacy, but they may not have any particular politics that represents even the people they claim to speak for. And so there has to be a discussion of the political content of leadership.

Lillian Cicerchia: I would like to maybe backtrack to the context in which Adolph Reed is arguing, as it seems to me that there might be a couple of different debates happening, a couple of different tracks. So, I’m an academic, I do philosophy, which is a profoundly idealistic discipline. And I find myself in a world in which making basic materialist arguments about the nature of reality receives a mind boggling amount of hostility. So I’m sympathetic to Reed’s reactions to being socialized as an intellectual in that environment.

And like he said in an interview with Bhaskar Sunkara, at some point he was just like, I’m just going to put my foot down and I’m just going to go hard at liberal anti-racist politics. And if you’re somebody who’s been in this environment and you come out a Marxist at all, you’re probably going to be familiar with thinking that there are all these radical ideas being discussed in the academic context, and then the process of learning that actually everyone around you is either super liberal or totally reactionary. And this is very disappointing. I see Reed’s response as [being] partly to that kind of experience, which is itself the product of the Left being a part of the Academy and being so wrapped up in it for so long. After the collapse of the last generation of social movements, people entered into higher education and class stopped being a civilized topic, and so on. This is all very understandable.

At the same time, there is irony here. Reed criticizes others for reacting mostly to academic debates that he himself is responding to. In real time, this debate about reductionism is rooted in a serious problem of the separation of the Left and the university environment from working people, and it affects both sides. So I’m wondering what you think about that, because it seems to me that other people who are arguing with Reed are seeing these debates from a different vantage point. They’re seeing more ideological openings, a deepening of the radicalization, not so much a reflection of the university environment

Asad Haider: I think you make a very good point, which is that the critique of the excessively academic character of the Left, the critique of the liberalism of the professional-managerial strata, these criticisms are usually made by academics, they’re usually made by other members of the professional-managerial strata. These accusations are really internal to this same social world, so I think that it’s not enough to engage in denunciation or in this kind of reductive theory.

In a very specific sense, the class “reductionism” here is not that we’re reducing all social phenomena to class, but rather that we’re reducing ideological phenomena to pure expressions of the class positions of the people who are articulating them. But the reality is that ideologies are produced. They’re not just a reflex of where you’re located in society. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need the universities and the media and all the rest of it. The fact is, entire apparatuses exist for producing ideology. Some of us produce ideology for a living, and that’s the people who are engaged in these debates.

And so there’s no automatic reflex which generates people’s ideological positions. They’re constructed in very complicated processes. And yet at the same time, they’re contradictory. They represent real contradictions and antagonisms that are contested and struggled over.

There is no way that people’s minds can be totally controlled, so ideology has to deal with the full complexity of people’s thoughts, experiences, and so on. It has to rearrange them and reconfigure them and try to make them work for people. And so that means that there will be contradictory elements.

There will be, to use Gramsci’s turn of phrase, Stone Age elements, and then there are elements of a future philosophy of a united humanity. You see both of these things. And so it’s a very great logical problem when we say that somebody has bad ideas, or that somebody’s neoliberal ideas, or whatever, are just the result of the fact that they belong to the professional-managerial strata. This can’t explain why it is, for example, that other members of the strata are engaging in denunciations of the whole “PMC.”

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And it doesn’t explain what processes are required for developing popular consciousness towards socialism. Because, once again, if we assume that ideology and ideas are just a reflex of class position, we end up with a romantic conception of working-class authenticity, in which workers will kind of spontaneously arrive at class consciousness, if the barriers are just removed. But that’s a very limited theory, because it doesn’t account for how you actually have to have organizational processes, pedagogical processes, collective study and thinking and debate, which leads to people going beyond the dominant ideology and embracing a revolutionary perspective.

Of course, there’s another classical theory of the formation of class consciousness, which is that it has to be brought from the outside to workers by certain members of the professional-managerial strata. That theory has its own problems, and if that’s what people are advocating today it would be better for them to be honest about it.

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at editors@tempestmag.org.

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.

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