Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 27, 2020

Chris Maisano’s class-reductionism apologetics

Filed under: class-reductionism,DSA,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

Chris Maisano

On June 23rd, Ross Douthat, one of the NY Times’s rightwing opinion writers, came out with a piece titled “The Second Defeat of Bernie Sanders” that saw him as being out-of-step with the BLM protests over George Floyd’s murder. Perhaps as a result of reading Adolph Reed Jr. or Cedric Johnson’s class-reductionist articles, Douthat smeared BLM as a corporate tool:

The fact that corporations are “outdistancing” even politicians, as Crenshaw puts it, in paying fealty to anti-racism is perhaps the tell. It’s not that corporate America is suddenly deeply committed to racial equality; even for woke capital, the capitalism comes first. Rather, it’s that anti-racism as a cultural curriculum, a rhetoric of re-education, is relatively easy to fold into the mechanisms of managerialism, under the tutelage of the human resources department. The idea that you need to retrain your employees so that they can work together without microaggressing isn’t Marxism, cultural or otherwise; it’s just a novel form of Fordism, with white-fragility gurus in place of efficiency experts.

This was not the first NY Times article that described Sanders as being superseded by these protests. On June 19th, an article titled “Bernie Sanders Predicted Revolution, Just Not This One” took on the question of class-reductionism frontally:

When Mr. Sanders spoke about racial equality, it was often in the context of economic equality, championing proposals and prescriptions that he believed would improve the lives of all working Americans. He said that policies like single-payer health care would address higher maternal and infant mortality rates in black communities. And he wanted to legalize marijuana and end cash bail, policies he said were aimed in particular at helping black Americans and other people of color.

This is essentially the analysis put forward not only by Sanders but by Reed. Instead of raising race-based demands like defunding the police (which Sanders opposes) or—god forbid—reparations, Sanders, Reed, Sunkara, the Bread and Roses caucus in DSA, and the “democratic socialist” movement in general stresses economic demands to create black-white unity. In fact, this has been the foundation-stone of socialist groups since the time of Debs. Except for a brief period when the CPUSA raised the idea of a Black Belt, the party also envisioned a movement based on economic demands. In the 1930s, this meant getting workers of all races into a CIO union even when FDR was stabbing black people in the back. So irked by charges that FDR was a racist, Reed defended his record in a New Republic article titled “The New Deal Wasn’t Intrinsically Racist”.  Oh, did I mention that the word “lynching” doesn’t appear in the article?

The NAACP had persuaded Democratic Senators Robert Wagner and Edward Costigan to sponsor an anti-lynching bill but it needed FDR’s support. When he met with the two Senators, he said, “Somebody’s been priming you. Was it my wife?” FDR was annoyed by these men interfering with his New Deal reforms. He reminded them that if he backed an anti-lynching bill, the Dixiecrats “will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.” It also must be said that FDR was every bit of a racist as Teddy Roosevelt, whose statue is finally being removed from the front of the Museum of Natural History. In the chapter on FDR in  Kenneth O’Reilly’s “Nixon’s Piano”, we get the goods on the “friend of the Negro”:

Roosevelt had few contacts with African Americans beyond the odd jobs done for an elderly widow while a student at Groton. The servants at the Hyde Park estate where he grew up were all English and Irish. When serving in the New York State Senate he scribbled a note in the margin of a speech to remind himself about a “story of a nigger.” Telling jokes about how some “darky” contracted venereal disease was a habit never outgrown. He used the word “nigger” casually in private conversation and correspondence, writing Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt of his trip to Jamaica and how “a drink of coconut water, procured by a naked nigger boy from the top of the tallest tree, did much to make us forget the dust.”

Despite it being obvious that Jacobin was fully behind Sanders’s class-based “socialism” that most black leaders regarded as woefully blinkered, Chris Maisano insisted that Jacobin/DSA was for combining  class and race demands. Like most left groups, the DSA is not into self-criticism. With 70,000 members, they are feeling their oats.

Maisano is astute enough to acknowledge the similarities between what Douthat wrote and what Reed and Cedric Johnson have written in dozens of articles. He even considered the possibility that Douthat was wooing the DSA in the same way that Tucker Carlson has wooed Max Blumenthal (or maybe the other way around in this case.)

Ideologically attuned conservatives like Douthat are surely aware of the seemingly endless conflict between, for lack of better terms, “class-oriented” and “intersectional” conceptions of radical politics. They want to drive a wedge into the new US left and perhaps even win over a segment of the class-oriented left by mimicking some of its vocabulary and concerns.

Maisano clears the air by making the record that when Douthat counterposes demands for “Medicare for All and taxing plutocrats” to demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” the protesters themselves are, by and large, not doing so. This might be true but you better bet your ass that Adolph Reed Jr. and Cedric Johnson are not into demands for “racial justice and defunding the police,” Is there anything clearer than their opposition to anti-racism? All you have to do is Google Reed and anti-racism and you come up with something like this:

Notwithstanding its performative evocations of the 1960s Black Power populist “militancy,” this antiracist politics is neither leftist in itself nor particularly compatible with a left politics as conventionally understood. At this political juncture, it is, like bourgeois feminism and other groupist tendencies, an oppositional epicycle within hegemonic neoliberalism, one might say a component of neoliberalism’s critical self-consciousness; it is thus in fact fundamentally anti-leftist. [emphasis added.]

Got it? All those mass actions, including one organized by five Louisville teens that produced a rally of 10,000 people, are “anti-leftist”. What a job that Jacobin has on its hands in trying to resolve the contradictions between what Reed writes and Maisano’s hollow attempt to put some distance between him and them. For Christ’s sake, his boss Bashkar Sunkara does an hour and twenty minute interview with Reed on June 10th and the George Floyd protests are not even mentioned.

To give the appearance that he is trying to deal with Reed and Johnson’s class-reductionism, he offers this:

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which to reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

I spent a few minutes trying to decipher these two sentences and wondered why Maisano wasn’t more straightforward and capable of writing this instead:

The threat of corporate “blackwashing,” as Cedric Johnson has called it, is very real. But this is not sufficient grounds on which he or Adolph Reed Jr. reject the protest movement as hopelessly liberal or incompatible with working-class politics.

The last time anybody wrote something critical of Reed on Jacobin was back in 2016 and that was when the authors Jonah Birch and Paul Heideman were still in the ISO and capable of independent thinking. Now, after having drunk the Sanders Kool-Aid, they’ve seen the light.

Toward the end of his apologetics, Maisano urges patience with these young activists who haven’t been exposed to the brilliance of NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber or neo-Kautskyite legend Eric Blanc:

More important, so long as American police are able to kill and abuse people with impunity, and so long as there are clear racial disparities in police violence — even after accounting for class — it is unrealistic to expect activists with no connection to a severely diminished labor movement to spontaneously link race and class the way socialists might want them to do.

Yeah, okay. Maybe if Jacobin/DSA cadre had been spending more time getting behind organized anti-racist activism, they’d have been in a better position to “educate” these raw youth. I only hope that they don’t recommend Adolph Reed Jr. to the young’uns. To paraphrase what Jeeves said to Bertie Wooster, they might say, “You would not enjoy Adolph Reed Jr. He is fundamentally unsound.

13 Comments »

  1. “it is unrealistic to expect activists with no connection to a severely diminished labor movement to spontaneously link race and class the way socialists might want them to do.”

    If these people had any real sense of how social movements form, develop and (can) expand, they’d realize that this movement IS, first of all, comprised of workers and people from working classes. Second, as Maisano seems to admit, the labor movement is barely breathing. Maybe the current social movement in the streets can actually help labor movement find some life again. Third, the demonstrations against systemic racism force capital to have to bring up the floor on the social contract it has been forcing on American society (thereby limiting capital’s scope for maneuvering).

    The fact that corporate leaders are forced to say things in support of Black Lives is a WIN for this movement. Sure, the corporates and their political leaders will always try to co-opt any movement and they always try to derail it. In this case, the Democratic Party is clearly trying to capitalize off of this movement. But, depending on how the movement evolves, any moves by capital and its political representatives can be countered and neutralized. And it is by countering and neutralizing those moves that the movement can develop further and spread a deeper understanding of the class lines in the society.

    The basic logic presented by DSA/Jacobin is a defeatist logic. When they all end up pushing a vote for Dems, they are actually professing that “There Is No Alternative”.

    Comment by Reza — June 27, 2020 @ 10:33 pm

  2. There is a distinction between systemic racism as a pattern of disparity, and systemic racism as an explicit legal mechanism generating disparity. Given that the latter was largely dismantled with the end of Jim Crow, it is clear that neoliberal class war is responsible for maintaining racial disparities in the current period. Contemporary movements that assert racial injustice as a central source of misery will opt for correctives that reduce the disparities, but maintain the underlying economic hierarchy; it’s the path of least resistance under neoliberalism. Reed and Walter Benn Michaels are 100% correct to point out that zero-disparity neoliberalism is today’s dominant vision of social justice, and also are correct when they point out that “anti-racism” is now an industry for the professional-managerial class to produce dubious theoretical tracts and administer a race-relations bureaucratic program. It is this PMC-dominated aspect that makes the trend antagonistic to working class politics, in that the main result will be obfuscation of history and social relations, and the increased disciplining of workers by managers.

    The analysis is fundamentally sound. And really, Reed’s main point is that we should replace abstractions like “race vs. class” with discussions of concrete historical developments and specific policy programs that can attain majoritarian support. The abstractions are useless, as is talk of unpassable legislation.

    Comment by FM — June 28, 2020 @ 5:39 am

  3. Contemporary movements that assert racial injustice as a central source of misery will opt for correctives that reduce the disparities, but maintain the underlying economic hierarchy

    Nobody says that killer-cops are a “central source of misery” but Reed has some set of balls to denounce people protesting in the streets against it as “anti-leftist”.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 28, 2020 @ 11:35 am

  4. “Reed and Walter Benn Michaels are 100% correct to point out that zero-disparity neoliberalism is today’s dominant vision of social justice, and also are correct when they point out that “anti-racism” is now an industry for the professional-managerial class to produce dubious theoretical tracts and administer a race-relations bureaucratic program.”

    This is only half true, in that, due to the dominant position of its ideological state apparatuses and all the organizational capabilities that come with being a sophisticated ruling class, the ruling class in the U.S. is in a much stronger position to shape and dictate the direction and outcomes of reforms. The same statement I quote above (from FM’s comment) can be applied to women’s rights, workers’ rights, environmental reforms, etc.

    Would Reed, who openly paints the current movement on the streets as ‘anti-leftist’, advocate the abolition of child labor laws, push for disenfranchisement of women, disenfranchisement of Black people and eradication of all environmental protection laws, etc. as a ‘leftist’ move? That’s the absurd end-point of his logic.

    The challenge has been unmet by the *socialists* to push the definitions and normative standards they seek to bring to fruition socially. Just because western (and particularly in this case, American) socialists have not been able to dictate or even slightly shape the direction of reforms instituted as a result of social movements does not take away the legitimacy of those movements: it is merely proof of the socialists’ impotence and incompetence. That’s all. It has nothing to do with the legitimacy of, or the legitimate need for, those social movements. It is the *socialists* who have failed due to their nit-picking professorial type of side-line commentary on successive movements that have come and gone, all the while focusing on the exact extent to which those movements do not fit with their maximalist ‘programs’ that, ironically, in a lot of cases (not all) end up supporting Democratic Party! (Not sure if Reed supports Dems, but clearly DSA/Jacobin have been advocating support for Dems via their support for Bernie, as if he’s some radical saint who can miraculously turn a capitalist party into its opposite!!).

    Comment by Reza — June 28, 2020 @ 2:59 pm

  5. A relevant excerpt from the excellent What’s Left podcast:

    Aimee Terese:

    I usually have a few different drums I’m beating at any given time. I’ve been beating the anarcho-liberalism drum for quite some time. I think for a lot of people it started to make a bit more sense this week as we see these complete wing-nut anarchists, and also the Hillary voters all using the same hymn book at once. A lot of people are having trouble making sense of that, and I think basically the constituency of the Democratic Party at this point is split between PMC and then a lot of desperately poor people of color. And so the anarchic discontent, regardless of the class content of the proponents on the ground, that’s always going to line up behind the PMC constituency of the Party because anarchism is inherently petty-bourgeois in the way it operates. So that’s why you’re seeing all these rich liberals enjoy the chaos, and ultimately—because the Democratic Party is in bed with Silicon Valley, finance, and the Feds—they can reinvest in all sorts of surveillance technology, an increasing mandate for the use of discretionary force by the state. At the same time, the rich suburbanites can have their egos stroked with this race-reductionist narrative, knowing that “it’s race not class,” that they’re the good ones, the woke ones, and the NGO-industrial complex will see another increase in jobs for activists, post-grads, organizers, politicians, failed sons, all of that. None of this organizing takes on Capital. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle that keeps most of the Democratic coalition occupied. As long as they can keep workers divided along nationalist ideological lines, then the repressive policing and violence and brutality is going to keep happening. But they’ve managed to set up this anarchic feedback loop where the more this happens the more this feeds its own circular dynamic.

    Oliver Bateman:

    The two worst things that we don’t want to happen will happen: the rich will continue to feel good because it’s not a class problem, in fact if they say the right words and donate to the right things, they’ll be fine. If policing methods can be made softer but no less harmful, not as visible, not going to create social media. You can see this among the policing of the protests right now. A lot of the forces are clearly being very careful; this is not like the 1968 Democratic Convention. Atlanta fired two or three officers today for misconduct during the protest, so they’re going to figure out ways to be just as repressive if not more, but with a heavily overlay of Human Resources, and that’s what people are thinking about right now. That’s where the minds are going.

    Comment by David Green — June 28, 2020 @ 3:24 pm

  6. David Green: Is there a link to this podcast?

    Comment by uh...clem — June 28, 2020 @ 3:59 pm

  7. Reza: “Would Reed, who openly paints the current movement on the streets as ‘anti-leftist’, advocate the abolition of child labor laws, push for disenfranchisement of women, disenfranchisement of Black people and eradication of all environmental protection laws, etc. as a ‘leftist’ move? That’s the absurd end-point of his logic.”

    Would be absurd indeed, but notice that the current movement is taking place several decades *after* the legal apparatus of discrimination was successfully dismantled. That is the key point. Once the legal structure of discrimination is gone, the search for an explicitly race-based mechanism to explain disparities will come up empty, and so substitutes will be invented by those allergic to class struggle. We get repetitive unevidenced reminders that the broad population is infected with racial privilege and an uncurable racism to such an extent that *this is the cause* of the ongoing disparities. The focus shifts from the concrete (laws, institutional analysis, history) to the nebulous, which is a disaster for an effective left politics. Focus shifts from redistribution to representation, and even comes with a revival of racial essentialism. It’s hard to see how socialists can take all this up without abandoning materialism. The push for universal programs remains the best way to improve the lives of the broad population and even to erode disparities.

    Comment by FM — June 28, 2020 @ 7:14 pm

  8. Once the legal structure of discrimination is gone, the search for an explicitly race-based mechanism to explain disparities will come up empty, and so substitutes will be invented by those allergic to class struggle.

    Again with the disparities smokescreen. Black Lives Matter is focused on the right of black people to be able to walk down the street without a cop stopping and frisking them. That applies to both 17-year-olds who dream about being a rap music star and a 27-year-old rap star who some racist cop never heard of but just wants to hassle. Black people are capable of participating in more than one struggle. They can fight for higher wages through the union movement, as weak as it is. They can also take part in BLM protests because they are sick of racist cops. In Lenin’s “What is to be Done”, he makes the point that it is not enough to fight for “economic” demands. The revolutionary party has to fight on all fronts. He wrote:

    “Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.”

    Championing every protest against tyranny. That means even if it doesn’t meet Reed’s economistic yardstick.

    That’s the least of it. The USA is erupting right now because George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Reed has nothing to say about this. This guy gives an hour and twenty minutes interview with Bhaskar Sunkara and the protests are not even discussed. Unbelievable.

    Oh, I should mention that he “explains” how BLM is on the wrong track because more whites get killed by cops than blacks. What a joke. George Floyd wasn’t robbing a bank. He was passing a $20 counterfeit bill, maybe without knowing that. And the fucking cops killed him. Should George Floyd have joined the Sanders campaign to fight for medicare for all? This is the same kind of movement that rose up after Emmett Till was murdered. Black people have a right to be protected from racist cops. Don’t you get it? Try reading “What is to be Done?” That will help.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 28, 2020 @ 7:41 pm

  9. “Once the legal structure of discrimination is gone, the search for an explicitly race-based mechanism to explain disparities will come up empty, and so substitutes will be invented by those allergic to class struggle.”

    The key clause: “so substitutes will be invented by those allergic to class struggle.”

    Again, sure, the ruling classes will twist and disfigure all manner of things. That’s what they do. My point was that, after the implementation of the reforms — in this case, after the legal system of racism was discarded — how did socialists intervene in the ongoing *class struggles* that STILL had racial differences within them? Your argument assumes that systemic racism just disappeared just because laws supporting it were scrapped. Not so!

    If we take the lessons of Marx and Lenin, they both advocated that socialists must intervene in ALL struggles going on. Capital does not just produce universal contradictions, it poses a myriad of localized, regionalized, cross-border, intra-border, gender-based, race-based, etc. particular contradictions to clear the path for its endless accumulation. It is a very sophisticated system. Just look at how easily a simple completely non-political health-related issue such as wearing masks has been turned into a partisan issue. So, of course things that are far more explicitly political are prone to being far more manipulated.

    When you speak of ‘universal programs’ without taking into account how specific parts of the working classes are oppressed *differently*, then you are talking about an abstract universalism that fails to address the issue at hand. It is somewhat (not totally) akin to what Marx would say about the liberal illusion of ‘equality before the law’. When all are equal before the law, those with more economic resources have more ‘equality’! [Marx was specifically talking about the ‘contract’ that a laborer and employer would sign in the ‘market place’, and how bourgeoisie pretended that in reaching that contract both sides were equal, when in reality the capitalist has infinitely more power in dictating the contract, and the worker has no other choice but to sign onto whatever contract is on offer.]

    Abstract ‘universalism’ actually fails to be universal, because the existential status of different parts of the working class necessitate attention being paid to those particularities. Why is it that black workers were far less likely to gain seniority in unions *by design* and by union leaders’ conscious actions (and unions are supposedly THE universal answer by the workers vis-a-vis the employers/capitalists)? I am all for universal values and solutions, but I also recognize that the universal can only truly be universal when it encompasses particulars. Unity of opposites, and all that.

    Comment by Reza — June 28, 2020 @ 7:56 pm

  10. The Floyd and Arberry murders–one by a “serving officer,” the other by a cabal of exes under the protection of their former colleagues–IMO represent an audacious effort on the part of the former legally explicit machinery of racism to re-assert the right to kill Black people at will. The fact that such a thing is not only possible “in this day and age” but practically inevitable illustrates how deeply ingrained systemic racism is, and how deeply invested in it the police as an institution are.

    Of course this racism derives its power in large part not from a failure to understand the human universal but from the need for a “natural” ideology to justify the lethal enforcement of the superior rights of the rich. The intersection of racism, masculinism, and classism is many times more powerful than racist or masculinist ideology alone–and far more palatable emotionally than any mere English-style assertion of the natural superiority of the ruling classes. In the US, the mere existence in any truly meaningful sense of a “ruling class” is something all liberals and neoliberals are bound to deny, or at least to depreciate and exclude from the so-called political “conversation.”

    We tend to overlook the fact that in declaring “all men” equal, the Floundering Bothers were already facing a potentially crisis-level contradiction between their social practice and their ideology, which was intended primarily to enforce the (property) rights of the mostly slave-holding colonial ruling class as vis a vis the originally far more powerful and wealthy British ruling class. This required all sorts of maneuvering–e.g. the creation of the original appointed Senate to represent the alleged rights of the land (i.e. landowners)–to ensure that what e.g. Washington identified as the evil of “party” could never take hold in the USA–in other words, ultimately, that no form of material democracy (or actual univeralism) would ever be possible or even thinkable here. Then enter “Jacksonian democracy” and finally the Ku Klux Klan,

    Social class is primary here not because it originated racism but because in the context of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, racism was incorporated into the ideology of political liberalism as the last and best really existing line of defense against social equality in general–something that to this day will be vociferously denied by many, which IMO proves my point. Every Clinton-loving Karen in America proves the point.

    I believe, with Louis, that racism and its allied and intersecting and multiplying evils must be foughtas such wherever they appear–and that when this fight happens socialists must unreservedly support it. I also believe that following these struggles through requires socialism. This project may well fail, leading as is often said, to barbarism, but without the struggle for socialism, ultimately antiracism, etc. will only lead–if successful at all–to new and equally deadly assertions of ruling-class power and permanency, even in denying that social class really exists or matters politically.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 29, 2020 @ 4:04 pm

  11. Cool story Farans. Except there were a bunch of anti-slavery people among the founding fathers. Ever heard of a guy called Thomas Paine? He literally “wrote the book” on the American Revolution.

    Comment by Tanaka Ueno — July 1, 2020 @ 11:50 am

  12. Consider the articles Proyect cites and compare what Mr. Proyect says Reed says, with what he claims are the targets of Reed’s criticism, with what Reed actually says and the objects of criticism in these articles. This does not come off well for Proyect. No, an article published in 2018 is not about protests in 2020. Complaining that Reed says nothing about the protests in an interview – yet somehow manages to oppose them at the same time – is also blatant self-contradiction. I do not recall seeing Reed indulge in such misrepresentation.

    Comment by Calgacus — July 3, 2020 @ 5:41 pm

  13. I don’t see your point. Reed has been opposed to BLM ever since it began. He is opposed to them now, in 2018 and all along. Do you seriously deny that?

    Comment by louisproyect — July 3, 2020 @ 5:55 pm


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