Assessing Adolph Reed
Jim Creegan looks at the thinking of the American left’s foremost anti-identitarian
“Ground-breaking” and “momentous” were adjectives gushing forth from the liberal media to describe Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate. But neither Harris’s record as a tough law-and-order district attorney in California - where parents in poor black neighbourhoods were prosecuted for their children being truant from school - nor her determined resistance to the reversal of wrongful convictions broke any new ground. Neither her failure to investigate questionable police shootings, nor her refusal to prosecute the shady estate speculator, Trump’s treasury secretary-to-be Steve Mnuchin, for fraudulent foreclosures, were of any great moment.
In these respects, Harris is cut from the same cloth as Biden himself, who as a senator pioneered the present carceral state by promoting draconian criminal penalties, and did the bidding of the credit-card industry that dominates his home state of Delaware. The momentousness of Harris’s nomination in the eyes of her liberal boosters rather consists in the fact that - as the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother - she is the first woman of colour to occupy second place on a major presidential ticket.
This appraisal of Harris’s significance exemplifies much of what is wrong with identity politics in the eyes of the man who has emerged in recent decades as its leading leftwing critic, Adolph Reed Junior - a black professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He argues that emphasis on ‘diversity’ in the upper reaches of power conceals an acceptance of prevailing class hierarchies. To speak as liberals often do of racial and gender disparities alone, he argues, implies that their goals would be achieved if the composition of all hierarchical strata - from the prison to the boardroom - contained the same racial, gender and sexual-orientation ratios as those of society at large. Thus characterised, identitarian discourse, by occluding capitalist society’s most fundamental cleavage of class, itself contains an implicit class politics: those of self-appointed minority-group influence-brokers, who accept the class order - because either they occupy a comfortable place within it or aspire to do so.
It is arguments like these that have earned Reed - along with academic co-thinkers Touré Reed (his son) and Walter Benn Michaels - the epithet of “class reductionist” in some leftwing quarters. His opposition to reparations to black people for the crimes of slavery and Jim Crow reinforces the accusation in his detractors’ eyes. His politics have become so controversial that a scheduled talk to a New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) on the inadequacy of racial disparity measures regarding Covid-19 was called off in May after Reed refused to share a virtual platform with his ‘intersectionalist’ critics. This writer thinks their strictures are unwarranted. But Reed’s thinking can perhaps be better understood by examining its origins.
Against the drift
Reed’s two most prominent books - Stirrings in the jug and Class notes - are compilations of essays and articles written mainly in the late 80s and 90s - the most dismal period for radical politics in recent memory. Under the Reagan-Thatcher onslaught, and the discrediting of Marxism with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, there occurred a wholesale falling away from the revolutionary and even liberal-reformist politics of the previous decades, and from politics in general. At the same time, many rebels of the 60s were scrambling to make the accommodations - practical and intellectual - necessary to the respectable careers they were carving out.
As a young man, Reed entered politics through the black liberation movement, and went on to become an organiser in the US Socialist Workers Party and the anti-war movement of American troops. Although personally successful as a professor at three prestigious universities since entering academia in 1972, Reed has remained politically active, and is among the minority that did not join the rightward drift. His two volumes are essentially a series of polemics against the retreats and conceits of the long night of neoliberalism.
Reed concentrates his criticisms on the political regressions of the black struggle. Much of what he aims at, however, are the reflections in black attitudes of larger trends. One example is the substitution of cultural poses for political action:
The thrust of much of … ‘cultural politics’ … is to [redefine] people’s routine compensatory existential practices - the everyday undertakings that enact versions of autonomy and dignity within the context of oppression - as politically meaningful ‘resistance’, thus obliterating all distinction between active, public opposition and the sighs accompanying acquiescence. The effect is to avoid grappling with the troubling reality of demobilisation by simply christening it, Humpty Dumpty-like, as mobilisation.1
This ‘cultural turn’ amongst leftwing academics and others had many specifically black variants:
Participating in youth fads (from zoot suits in the 1940s to hip-hop today), maintaining fraternal organisations, vesting hope in prayer or root doctors, and even quilt making thus become indistinguishable from slave revolts, activism in Reconstruction governments, the Montgomery bus boycott, grassroots campaigns for voter registration and welfare rights agitation as politically meaningful forms of resistance.2
Reed considers the more recent black cultural turn to be one symptom of the decoupling of the cause of black emancipation from the working class. To examine how this came to pass is one major purpose of his writings.
The aim of the civil rights movement of the 50s and early 60s was full equality under the law; black people of all classes, being equally deprived of democratic rights, were more or less united in the struggle. With the victories of the movement marked by the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), however, the movement faced a choice of two possible paths.
The first was marked out by the Washington March for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Best remembered for Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the march was mainly organised by black social democrats A Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin; it was a racially integrated event, which, as its title indicates, linked the cause of civil rights to that of economic equality.
The second path - the one that more militant elements of the black struggle ultimately chose for reasons examined below - was that of separation from the ‘white movement’ and adopting a nationalist perspective. This is the turn that Reed and his co-thinkers lament.
The ‘black power’ slogan, under which the likes of Stokely Carmichael and H Rap Brown assumed leadership of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was amorphous. In the hyper-charged atmosphere of the 60s, it was widely assumed to indicate a revolutionary content of some kind. But, as that decade morphed into the somnolent 70s, the militant’s pose became more and more a camouflage for the social climber’s appetite. Appointing themselves spokespersons for an internally undifferentiated entity called the ‘black community’, newly arisen layers of professionals, elected officials and civil servants were inclined to measure the progress of their people by their own career success, and that of strivers like themselves. They, in turn, could only advance by making their agendas broadly compatible with ruling class interests. In the meantime the large segments of the black population still mired in a ghetto existence - now expected to participate through a kind of vicarious racial pride in the good fortunes of those who had escaped - were otherwise left to their own devices.
Accompanying this turn was the rise of a school of thought that attributed the plight of the ghetto to something called the ‘culture of poverty’: the absence of black fathers, families headed by single mothers with too many children, street crime, drug addiction and dependency on government welfare. These phenomena were viewed not mainly as responses to economic deprivation, but as ingrained habits that prevented poor blacks from making the efforts needed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and resisted amelioration through redistributive government programmes or job creation.
These notions originated in a 1965 report, The negro family: a call for action by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the future New York senator who was then assistant secretary of labour in the administration of Lyndon Johnson. It was actually a call for inaction: Moynihan famously advocated a policy of “benign neglect” in relation to black poverty. But elements of the ‘underclass pathology’ trope were, according to Reed, echoed in the writings of the prominent black sociologist, William Julius Wilson, and often found a friendly reception among black influence brokers. Although the proponents of this ideology did not harbour notions of black racial inferiority, Reed argues that their thinking often produced the same end result: the idea of static patterns of behaviour, impervious to political or social action.
Reed also claims that the few remaining currents of black radicalism - Afro-centrism and self-styled Marxism-Leninism - responded to the decline of 60s-type militancy by retreating into an ideological purism that serves more as a refuge from the problems of daily black existence than an action programme.
It is hardly astonishing that those who speak of unchanging black behaviours should ascribe a similar stasis to whites. The Reeds - Adolph and Touré (who, with his father, has now become a leading proponent of their jointly held views) - do not deny that centuries of racial oppression have had lasting effects, or that parts of the European-descended population remain committed to white supremacy in varying degrees - Adolph Reed grew up in New Orleans when segregation was in force.
The Reeds are unfairly accused of class reductionism, when what they emphatically reject is the assumptions of many black intellectuals - Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Michelle Alexander come to mind - that white racism is a supra-historical phenomenon. These thinkers argue that slavery, Jim Crow segregation, mass black incarceration and police brutality are all different instantiations of a single essence called white racism - the innate hatred of whites toward blacks - that remains constant throughout American history despite its many guises. The Reeds insist that the black question cannot be understood apart from history and political economy.
Take, for instance, the present concentration of approximately one fifth of the black population in deprived urban areas. In his The case for reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates tends to explain ghettoisation by the refusal of the government and banks to extend housing loans to black families, and the existence of restrictive covenants, forbidding the sale of suburban homes to blacks.3 The Reeds would probably counter that, harmful though these things were, black residential patterns cannot be explained by racial animus and deliberate discrimination alone.
One factor in ghettoisation was the mass emigration of blacks from the south. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European immigrants filled American industry’s growing need for workers. Yet, as that need diminished in the 1920s, concerns for maintaining the ‘ethnic integrity’ of the US began to take priority, and a strict quota system was enacted into law.
Yet there was one immigration stream that legislation could not shut off: that of southern blacks, who acted against poverty and lynch law in the only way left open to them - by moving to northern and mid-western cities. Between 1916 and 1970, nearly seven million relocated, in the biggest migration in the country’s history - larger than the influx from any European country. Many hoped to - and did - fill the industrial jobs vacated by white workers during the two world wars. But, having been deprived in the south of education and opportunities to acquire skills, black workers could only fill the lowest-paid, least skilled jobs, and there were many more migrants than openings at the factory bench. There thus came into existence a permanent black underclass, rendered even more precarious by automation and outsourcing.
Hence the US found itself with a population that the 20th century capitalist economy could not fully absorb. And it is by no means mysterious that the poverty of this population leads to street crime, substance abuse, family instability and a number of other symptoms inimical to middle class notions of respectability and striving - all of which tend to reinforce existing racial prejudice. Racialised poverty, moreover, presents endless opportunities for rightwing demagogues - one of whom now occupies the White House - to portray this marginalised demographic as composed of shiftless parasites, eating up the hard-earned tax dollars of solid citizens in the form of social-welfare subventions.
With the progressive abandonment of 1960s government anti-poverty programmes, culminating in a fully fledged neoliberal attack on an already inadequate welfare state, harsher police tactics and mass imprisonment were expanded to keep this ‘surplus population’ in line. Neoliberal capitalism, not eternal racial animus in contemporary form - not the “new Jim Crow” of Michelle Alexander4 - is responsible for increased reliance on repressive methods. It is these methods that inflame relations between the police and communities of colour, and make police forces attractive to many whites predisposed to racism in the first place. One result is the episodes of police brutality - now electronically recorded and disseminated - that have given rise to the biggest wave of demonstrations in American history.
The Reeds help us understand the fruitlessness of any counterposition of the abstract and vacuous categories of ‘race’ and ‘class’; that contemporary racial politics are the result of complex interactions between economic forces and a history of black oppression, itself rooted in economic exploitation. And, just as they refuse to see this history and politics as a morality play, in which the only actors are white racists and black victims, they also reject the moralistic demand for reparations.
This writer has no doubt that, under a regime of socialist planning, a major effort will be required to redress the historic deficit in income and opportunities that the African American population has incurred over the centuries. At the current moment, however, the reparations demand is being presented as the payment of a moral - and financial - debt owed by the white population as a whole to the descendants of slaves. It is of a piece with attempts to point an accusing finger at ordinary Caucasians for enjoying ‘white skin privilege’ because they do not share the adversities of the most oppressed.
White shaming may tweak the guilt feelings of liberals (for whom it is largely intended), but will fall on deaf ears among white workers, who consider their existence to be far from one of privilege. Many will answer - not without some justification - that they have never done anything to harm blacks, and are not collectively responsible for the sins of their forbears, who, in many cases, took no part in the oppression of black people either. Put in terms of practical politics, any project aimed at levelling down - the idea that one section of the population must give up part of what they have to put themselves on a more equal footing with those who have less - is a politics with no future, especially at a time when the entire working class is facing hardships on a scale unknown since the great depression.
What the Reeds propose as an alternative is a politics of levelling up, consisting of demands for improvements for the entire working class, such as those advanced by Bernie Sanders in his two presidential campaigns: Medicare for all; a hike in the minimum wage; free public university tuition. As Touré Reed writes in his book, Toward freedom,
The bottom line is that is that, because blacks have borne a disproportionate share of the damage inflicted on working people by deindustrialisation and the subsequent neoliberal economic consensus, African Americans would benefit disproportionately from Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 platforms despite the absence of the reparations ‘brand’.5
Most capitalist countries contain a lumpenised underclass. That the bottom social rungs of American society are disproportionately black is a result of the country’s sordid racial history. To deny that black people of all classes face special impediments by virtue of simply being black would indeed be colour-blind. Democratic demands, including those for affirmative action - special efforts to promote people of colour to higher education and better jobs - are intended to overcome specifically racial barriers, and are not opposed by Adolph or Touré Reed. Arguably, Adolph Reed bends the stick too far in his recent disparaging of attempts to measure racial disparities in the effects of Covid-19 and other blights; it is undeniable that blacks and minorities always get the worst of the sufferings of the working class. But greater black distress does not automatically point to the necessity of black-specific remedies.
The principal injustices now commonly treated under the head of racism - police brutality and mass incarceration - are not afflictions of the black middle class, but of the black poor, both working and chronically unemployed. That their condition can best be addressed by demands aimed at lifting the working poor and unemployed as a whole, without putting the accent on race, with all its divisive pitfalls, is not colour-blindness, but a corollary to the Marxist aim of uniting the working class.
In addition to evaluating the kinds of demands the Reeds argue for, one may enquire as to the process by which they envisage the demands as unfolding. The question posed over a century ago by Rosa Luxemburg - reform or revolution? - is considered largely irrelevant in a contemporary American left dominated by a militant social democratic reformism. For Jacobin and most of the DSA, the possibility of revolution is seen as either non-existent, or a distant bridge, to be crossed (or not) when the working class comes to it. This was not the political sensibility that held sway in the long-lost 1960s, when to avow being a reformist was to place oneself on the rightward side of the left political spectrum.
One decidedly reformist figure that the Reeds, father and son, refer to approvingly is the civil rights leader, Bayard Rustin. They commend him for perceiving the necessary linkages between black emancipation and economic equality. Rustin emphasised the need for expansive federal efforts to overcome black poverty. In conjunction with the trade unionist and civil-rights leader, A Philip Randolph, Rustin promulgated the 1965 Freedom Budget - a series of proposals for legislative action, including a big federal wage hike, and job and income guarantees.
The Reeds neglect to mention the political allies Rustin looked to for the budget’s passage. He viewed the Democratic Party of Lyndon Johnson and the AFL-CIO trade union federation, headed by the notoriously anti-communist George Meany, as his principal change agents. Making sure not to offend these perceived allies, Rustin not only refused to join King in denouncing the Vietnam war - which Johnson waged with Meany’s support - but actively red-baited anti-war protestors, and ultimately refused to participate in the Poor People’s March, led by King’s lieutenants after his assassination, whose demands were adopted from the Freedom Budget. Rustin was afraid of alienating the Democrats.
Rustin had earlier fallen in with Max Shachtman - the former disciple of Trotsky, who was then in swift rightward motion. By the 60s, Shachtman fully supported US imperialism in its global struggle with what he saw as the Soviet totalitarian menace. The alliance with Shachtman launched Rustin on a political trajectory from which he emerged a neoconservative. By the end of his career, he had become a fervent supporter of Israel, an advocate of American aid to South African forces battling anti-Portuguese guerrillas in Angola and Mozambique, and a proponent of escalation of the nuclear arms race.
More was involved than an evolution of Rustin’s views. He headed the A Philip Randolph Institute, the civil-rights arm of the AFL-CIO. Rustin was only too aware that taking any political position offensive to George Meany would result in the discontinuance of his pay cheques. It is understandable that the Reeds find the Freedom Budget commendable in and of itself. But it was half of a social democratic devil’s bargain: support by certain bourgeois parties for reform at home (which the Democrats eventually abandoned) in exchange for complicity in the global defence of private property that was the cold war. The Reeds’ favourable mentions of Rustin would be less irksome if they would include some acknowledgement of his larger reactionary arc.
In opposition to Rustin’s brand of reformism stood sections of the black movement that considered themselves in some sense revolutionary - the black nationalists the Reeds decry. A revolutionary working class politics is what Marxists strive for, then and now. But history does not always serve up political elements packaged together in an ideal way. During those years, key unionised segments of the US working class - still overwhelmingly white - were enjoying the unequalled prosperity of the post-war boom, and were indifferent or hostile to radical politics. The locus of revolutionary/emancipatory energy largely shifted to the anti-imperialist revolts then convulsing what was called the third world. More than domestic labour struggles, the Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions were the stuff of far-left consciousness.
In the context of the time, it is understandable why the more militant elements of the black struggle - Malcolm X, SNCC and, later, the Black Panthers - were inclined to take as their model third-world liberation movements and regimes, which at best professed nationalist-tinged versions of Marxism, as opposed to what was seen as a sclerotic labour movement. Most nationalist groups also rejected the liberal-pacifist commitment to non-violence under all circumstances, and asserted the right to black self-defence, placing themselves further beyond the pale of mainstream respectability than King. And, most importantly, they denounced the Vietnam war, in marked contrast to the right wing of the union bureaucracy, to which Rustin was captive. If the alternative to black nationalism was the kind of labour-oriented strategy Rustin represented, one could be forgiven for looking elsewhere for inspiration.
An activist during the 60s, Adolph Reed is no doubt aware of this history. But one wonders if his sneaking admiration for Rustin is not unrelated to a subsequent political involvement. In the 1990s, Reed was an important player in the attempt to found a union-based US labor party. The project represented the collaboration of union officials, disgruntled that the neoliberal administration of Bill Clinton no longer offered them a ‘seat at the table’, and leftwing activists inside and outside the unions, who hoped to nudge these officials into breaking with the Democrats. The Labor Party was stillborn at its founding in 1996, because union leaders, in the face of deindustrialisation and shrinking union density, lost any taste they may have had for political independence. The efforts of leftwingers involved in this project were completely honourable. One wonders, however, if they did not overestimate the potential of even the most left-inclined of labour bureaucrats.
Reed, however, is not being opposed by identitarians because of any soft spots for bureaucrats or rightwing social democrats, but for his insistence on a class-centred politics. Here it is important to appreciate the ruling class ideological disarray accompanying the economic and social crisis triggered by the pandemic. One bourgeois aim on the ideological front is to preclude the development of a class politics by means of mass diversion. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign represented the last gasp of neoliberal attempts to sell the masses the ‘magic of the market’ - now an impossible feat in the midst of a collapsing economy. The Republicans have thus resorted to the only strategy left to them - the mobilisation of white resentment against immigrants and blacks. They will continue along this course for the foreseeable future, with or without a less erratic and more capable leader than Donald Trump.
On the other hand, the Democratic Party, which counts among its voters more of the masses in need of diversion, has recently been haunted by the spectre of a class-based movement in the form of Bernie Sanders and successful insurgent campaigns for lesser offices. The party leadership, along with more astute corporate representatives, have latched onto identity politics as one response to this challenge. We have been treated in recent months to everything, from the spectacle of the Democratic Congressional leadership taking a knee clad in Kente cloth, to Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman of the leading investment house of Goldman Sachs, talking about the need to combat “structural racism”. Relegating the party’s left to a couple of brief token appearances at the Democratic National Convention, and saying next to nothing about measures needed to combat the economic devastation caused by Covid-19, the party went out of its way to foreground women and minority politicians willing to toe the centrist line.
In this climate, the need is greater than ever for a class politics like that promoted by Adolph Reed and his co-thinkers - this time free, it is to be hoped, from the fatal compromises of social democracy.
Jim Creegan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Reed Stirrings in the jug London 1999, p118 (emphasis in original).↩︎
M Alexander The new Jim Crow New York 2010.↩︎
T Reed Toward freedom London 2020, p120.↩︎