Adolph Reed is an African-American political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a prestigious Ivy League school, and a ubiquitous presence on the Internet left as a public intellectual. Along with Cornel West and Michelle Alexander, he has figured as a prominent Black intellectual supporter of the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Reed’s ideological profile is very much based on class orthodoxy bordering on workerism. To what extent his Marxism retains some of his early Trotskyist training is open to question. Reed was a member of the Atlanta Young Socialist Alliance in the late 60s and smart enough to drop out long before he was transformed into a loyal cult member like me.
That class orthodoxy leads him to embrace positions that echo Walter Benn Michaels, a Marxist academic who argues that race-based political demands divide the working class. For Reed, reparations for slavery fall into this category as he maintained in a Progressive article: “reparations talk is rooted in a different kind of politics, a politics of elite-brokerage and entreaty to the ruling class and its official conscience, the philanthropic foundations, for racial side-payments.” Like Michaels, Reed has a bit of a conspiracy-minded approach to such matters as if officers at the Ford Foundation were burning the midnight oil trying to figure out how to prevent Black people from reading “The 18th Brumaire” and building workers councils.
This kind of rock-ribbed class orthodoxy seems an odd match to Reed’s partiality to Hillary Clinton candidacies, even if on a lesser evil basis drawn from the Gus Hall playbook. In an April 28, 2008 Progressive article that starts off with the ostensibly insurrectionary-minded title of “Obama No”–a shot across Carl Davidson’s bow so to speak–, we learn that it could have just as easily been titled “Hillary Yes”:
I’m hardly a Clinton fan. I’m on record in last November’s issue as saying that I’d rather sit out the election entirely than vote for either her or Obama. At this point, though, I’ve decided that she’s the lesser evil in the Democratic race, for the following reasons: 1) Obama’s empty claims to being a candidate of progressive change and to embodying a “movement” that exists only as a brand will dissolve into disillusionment in either a failed campaign against McCain or an Obama Presidency that continues the politics he’s practiced his entire career; 2) his horribly opportunistic approach to the issues bearing on inequality—in which he tosses behaviorist rhetoric to the right and little more than calls to celebrate his success to blacks—stands to pollute debate about racial injustice whether he wins or loses the Presidency; 3) he can’t beat McCain in November.
I hate to say it but this sounds much more like what you’d read in a NY Times Op-Ed or an MSNBC panel discussion. Maybe Reed should have stuck around the Trotskyist movement for another 3 or 4 years to get a clearer focus on the two-party system. It might have damaged him psychologically but that’s a small price to pay for being less damaged ideologically.
Now, eight years later, Reed makes another pitch for Hillary Clinton in a July 7th radio interview on Doug Henwood’s “Behind the News”:
DH: The movement that has catalyzed with the Sanders campaign, how can we keep it from dissipating as November approaches. “Trump is so horrible, you know, hold your nose and vote for Hillary. etc.” There’s a great possibility for induced amnesia to set in. How do we fight that?
AR: What one does in November lies in a different dimension from the movement building concerns. From a pragmatic point of view there really is nothing else to do except to vote for Hillary. But that only becomes a big to-do if you have an exaggerated sense of the significance of your own vote anyway.
DH: People get so obsessed with something that takes five minutes to do in early November. It’s really remarkable.
AR: Absolutely. On some level it only comes down to a matter of taste and existential choice. I could vote for Gore in 2000. I lived in Connecticut and it was easy not to vote for Gore in 2000 and to vote for Ralph. I’d argue that this is a different moment and especially with Republican control of Congress-even if they lose the Senate which is a long shot . . . we’re going to be in the same position on the Wednesday after the election than we were on the Monday before the election. The real challenge is to try to disconnect the organizing from it being driven by the election cycle.
What was it that Molotov said to reporters after signing a non-aggression pact with the Nazis? Oh, I remember: “fascism is a matter of taste”. As far as existential choices are concerned, I would say that celibacy is an existential choice. Or assisted suicide. Or masturbating with a vacuum cleaner. That sort of thing, if you gather my drift.
But when Adolph Reed says that voting for a Democrat is a matter of taste or existential choice, who the hell is he kidding? The Democratic Party is about as much a challenge to class politics as the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) were in Czarist Russia. Lenin wrote hundreds of thousands of words—maybe millions—arguing that the left would be violating its most basic principles by voting for the Cadets. Indeed, this was his main quarrel with the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democracy:
Briefly, the Cadets’ tactics may be formulated as follows: to ensure the support of the revolutionary people for the Cadet Party. By “support” they evidently mean such action by the revolutionary people as will, first, be entirely subordinated to the interests of the Cadet Party and carried out according to its instructions, etc.; and secondly, not be too resolute and aggressive, and above all, not be too drastic. The revolutionary people must not be independent, that is the first point; and it must not achieve final victory, it must not crush its enemy, that is point two. These are the tactics that, on the whole, will inevitably be pursued by the entire Cadet Party and by any Cadet Duma. And, of course, these tactics will be backed, defended and justified with the aid of the rich ideological stock-in-trade of “scientific” investigations, “philosophical” obscurities, political (or politicians’) banalities, “literary-critical” squealing (a la Berdayev), etc., etc.
The squealing Berdayev referred to immediately above, by the way, was Nicolai Berdayev, a Russian philosopher aligned with the Mensheviks and later on exiled from Russia in the infamous “philosopher’s ship” in 1922 that targeted men who were ideologically opposed to the revolution. In my view, this was one of the biggest mistakes of the Communists. When I was a freshman at Bard, Berdayev was very trendy, just like Kierkegaard. Their Christian Existentialism was just the sort of thing to appeal to 18 year olds suffering from Weltschmerz. Was this the kind of existential choice Adolph Reed had in mind? Perhaps so given the mood of disaffected Sanderistas.