I have been accused of many things, but only rarely of being a zombie. I am told, however, by a review at Jacobin, that my book Mistaken Identity is a “manifesto of the Zombie New Left.” The zombie, of course, is a figure of Haitian folklore, which represented the brutality of slavery: a life of forced labor without end. The American domestication of the zombie began in 1932 with the film White Zombie. But across their various transformations zombies have acquired a certain transgressive character. Paul Gilroy writes that “zombies are terrifying to the power and destabilising of the order that pronounced their death.”
Karl Marx warned in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Without a theoretically informed practice, we are all susceptible to this epidemic. Marx ascribed it to the bourgeois revolutions, which claimed to be creating something new, but instead conjured up “the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”
If I have looked to the history of the New Left — the left which, let us remember, was formed in opposition to Jim Crow and the Vietnam War — and am dismissed on this basis, it is worth considering what alternatives are on the table. I have no chronological partisanship regarding the history of the left, but I believe my understanding of the Old Left — which included the Communist Party USA’s organization of sharecroppers, struggles against lynching, and the Scottsboro defense campaign — differs significantly from those who now try to conjure up its slogans and costumes.
Today, many pressing theoretical questions have been raised by the rapid growth of the socialist movement, and they are caught up with our relation to the history of the social movements which have transformed our society. Different interpretations of this history generate different conceptions of what socialism is, and by extension what emancipation is. These interpretations also lead to different conceptions of the strategies which will be necessary for achieving social change in the present.
Such questions should lead to wide-ranging discussion and debate. Unfortunately, they too often end up becoming a means of point-scoring and organizational maneuvering. Nominally, Melissa Nascheck reviewed my book. But as many readers have lamented, it is hard to recognize my book in what she’s written. Her review demands a rather complex protocol of reading: claims about my book may in fact be claims about strategic questions embedded in organizational disputes. In a sense, there is nothing wrong with this, since those questions are of pressing importance, and in writing a political book, I did seek to explore them, though not exactly to answer them. There is something wrong, however, with misrepresenting not only a book but an entire history, as well as a deeply serious contemporary dispute over race which is not limited to socialist organizations but extends to the whole of American society.
My book is not a political platform, but a work of theory. The role of theory is not to comfort us, nor to provide us with the great book of answers. Theory unsettles; it strips away our certainties, and invites us to examine our world in a new light. This means theory does not always provide a clear and direct guide to action. It is nevertheless a necessity for meaningful action, as it provides a site for reflection and reinterpretation and gives us new terms and new concepts with which we can grasp our reality and attempt to intervene in it. Ultimately, as Marx put it in the Eighteenth Brumaire, the social revolution will take its poetry from the future; theory opens us to this possibility.
This is why those who come to my book looking for definitions and programs walk away disappointed. I do not consider it the role of theory to generate “correct” definitions. Political terminology, like the heavily contested phrase “identity politics,” does not simply describe objects that already exist, like creatures in the Garden of Eden waiting to be named. Political language is performative. It does something; it plays a role in political arguments and political practice. Consequently, I am mainly interested in taking the definitions that are assumed in existing discourses and practices as my starting points. I think that the project of generating an alternate definition in order to preserve the term in a manner suitable for our politics would be a form of semantic voluntarism. This attempt to will a meaning into being ultimately lapses into circular reasoning.
Of course, I begin my book by discussing the introduction of the term by the Combahee River Collective, who Naschek is bizarrely committed to belittling. The CRC presented a “revolutionary vision,” avowedly socialist, in their 1977 statement. They used the term “identity politics” to point to their specific situation as black women, experiencing a range of oppressions that characterize the existing society. Their experience in social movements had also shown them how black women were subordinated or rendered invisible by hegemonic identities: the assumption in many feminist organizations that all women could be represented as white, or the assumption in many black liberation organizations that all black people could be represented by men. The CRC statement uses “identity politics” to unsettle the existing hegemonic identities, not based on a general theory of identity, but on a concrete analysis of the concrete situation.
Naschek dismissively proclaims that the CRC was not a mass movement. Neither is the DSA. But Naschek, reading with pen in hand, ignores the documentation I provide of the actual political work of the CRC. Their political practice was based on building coalitions with other movements and organizations, while still maintaining their autonomy as black women. In the book, I cite CRC member Demita Frazier to this effect:
I never believed that Combahee, or other Black feminist groups I have participated in, should focus only on issues of concern for us as Black women, or that, as lesbian/bisexual women, we should only focus on lesbian issues. It’s really important to note that Combahee was instrumental in founding a local battered women’s shelter. We worked in coalition with community activists, women and men, lesbians and straight folks. We were very active in the reproductive rights movement, even though, at the time, most of us were lesbians. We found ourselves involved in coalition with the labor movement because we believed in the importance of supporting other groups even if the individuals in that group weren’t all feminist. We understood that coalition building was crucial to our own survival.
Naschek’s critique once again bears no correspondence to what she seeks to criticize.
The only definition I have provided of “identity politics” is a highly partisan one: it is the neutralization of movements against racial oppression. Here I am also trying to do something with my definition. There is a discourse on race today which understands the struggle against racism as something that is waged on the individual level, based on who a person is. As a result, a person of color running for political office is understood to inherently reflect an anti-racist political program, regardless of the policies that person supports or the effect they have on the political balance of forces. Tied closely to this is a style of politics which is based on personal denunciation, “checking your privilege,” and “staying in your lane.” This is the tendency, as the CRC statement puts it, to “mess people over in the name of politics.” Finally, this discourse has been marshaled in service of an attack on socialism. As socialism has gained popularity and more people are questioning the neoliberal common sense of the two parties, the political establishment has responded by portraying a socialist program as oppositional to the representational politics to which they hope to limit racial justice.
With the “neutralization” thesis, I am drawing a line of demarcation between this contemporary discourse and the history of movements against racial oppression. The two are often conflated, because they are both supposed to have something to do with “identity.” A concept as broad and abstract as this is bound to be open to varying interpretations. I depart from the CRC definition because I think the term’s usage has shifted so drastically in our mainstream discourse that it is not possible to shed all the detours and deviations in meaning and make a return to the origins. This in no way compromises the value of the CRC collective statement and the meaning it has for activists today. The CRC usage was embedded in a specific historical context, and we are working within our own contemporary context; across the historical process, language may shift and change even where there is a continuity of goals and perspectives. By opening the book with the CRC usage and then the contemporary Democratic Party usage, I mean to unsettle our presuppositions about the term, and then to propose a way of understanding the term to capture something that is happening in our current political conjuncture.
When I say that we must separate contemporary identity politics from the history of movements against racial oppression, this raises the question of how we interpret that history. I have pointed to the anticapitalist and revolutionary character of those movements in my book. But this not all I have done. I do not believe that it is specifically those aspects of the movements that make them universal. I have argued that the struggle against racism is not a particularistic struggle, confined to the interests of one “racial” group. I have argued that the struggle against racism is a universal struggle. This is because I do not accept a vulgar conception of universality which reduces it to some idea of human nature — that something is universal because it relates to the universal human need to eat. To use this definition as a basis for the primacy of the economic is, when examined more closely, ultimately absurd. We may all need to eat; but if someone is lynched or shot by a police officer, those needs cannot be met.
“Masses of people become interested in politics when organizations offer a real possibility to change their lives for the better,” says Naschek. It should be self-evident to any reasonable observer that lynching and police violence are matters of life and death. The struggle against them is — as socialists and communists throughout American history recognized, though sometimes only after internal struggle — a necessity for any organization which aims at human liberation. These are forms of oppression which may not be directly economic — though they have a relationship to the economic, which is not one of linear determination — but any organization that opposes domination and exploitation should oppose them, in word and deed. They are forms of violence which are often specifically wielded against members of the working class, who must be defended by organizations which claim to represent them. This means that such organizations should ensure that their membership is representative of the working class in all its particularities, and that those who are most marginalized are in positions of leadership.
On the other hand, movements against any form of domination and exploitation are not automatically universal. Economic demands are not inherently any more universal than other kinds of demands; even an expansive economic demand like universal healthcare in the United States, however valuable such a reform would be, does not even begin to address capitalist exploitation on a global scale. To argue for improvements in the living conditions of Americans alone is not universal. But 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. All struggles emerge from specific sites and have specific demands. But they generate universal principles: that nobody should be a slave; that nobody should be exploited; that nobody should be subjected to state violence. What these principles allude to is a collectivity of people who aim to govern their own lives.
Naschek is undecided about how to caricature my argument. At times she seems to portray me as a race-centered, uncritical devotee of Black Power. At other times, I am an ambivalent critic of any claim to racial unity, who needs to be taught to apply my skepticism consistently. Let’s be clear about one thing: I directly address in my book a critique made by many participants in Black Power movements. They criticized the way that movement elites, who had been elevated to positions of power by the mass movement, ended up asserting their own self-interests, based on their own particular class position. “After we marched and built their material base,” as Amiri Baraka put it, leaders turned against the constituencies that had put them in power. Militants of the movement tried to understand this phenomenon and respond to it. Ideologies of racial unity, which had previously functioned as a means of mobilization, could now be used as a means of demobilization, by obscuring the class differences within the black community.
But it is a serious error to represent Black Power and black nationalism solely in racial terms, as Naschek does when she describes these movements as “based on a liberal belief that economic inequality could be dealt with by segregating the working class into racially distinguished units.” Unfortunately, a chauvinist perspective on American history obscures the fact that a separation between the elite leadership and the mass constituency is by no means unique to Black Power and black nationalism. It is a problem in the whole history of social movements, perhaps especially in the socialist and labor movements. From the social democratic decision to support World War I to the current absorption of organized labor in the Democratic Party, the record is disheartening.
The example of social democracy in World War I shows not only that this division has been a general problem, but also that there are far more dangerous expressions of it. There is not only a nationalism of oppressed peoples; there is also a nationalism of the dominant, of oppressor nations, and this is why so many of those who broke from chauvinist social democracy supported movements for self-determination by oppressed nationalities. It is in this broader context that Lenin proposed, in his draft theses on the national and colonial questions for the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, that “all Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies.”
This problem is also a real one for the socialist movement today, and it reflects the fact that identity politics as I have defined it and contemporary social democracy share a common social foundation. There is a stratum of college students and young urban professionals who were promised a big piece of the pie and a place at the table. They instead encountered a crisis, both economic and political, which put this into question. Some people now cynically deploy their race and gender identities to increase their individual power, while hiding the fact that they don’t represent the majority of people who supposedly share their identity. But there are others who have come to blame capitalism and neoliberalism. They don’t expect to get jobs, much less careers; they feel helpless about the political drift to the right; and they see that capitalist class warfare has been consistent throughout this whole period, that it has destroyed their protection from employers and unemployment and has eaten away at their social fabric.
This social democratic side is disproportionately white, and its bureaucratic layer is highly susceptible to white chauvinism. This is because white people who are not sufficiently educated about the role of race in American history tend not to understand the importance of opposing racism for any anticapitalist organization. Naschek makes the remarkable claim that the “root causes of black inequality” were “deindustrialization, structural unemployment, and lack of strong protections at work,” seemingly overlooking the basic historical fact of slavery. Because of the persistent structures of de facto segregation, white leftists who do not investigate this history are cut off from people who still see a need for demands based on racial oppression — who in fact experience the necessity of these demands on a daily basis.
Naschek wishes to compare the Black Power movement — reduced here solely to a reference to Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael in a quotation of Adolph Reed — to the social democracy of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Very well. Randolph and Rustin were part of mass movements that demanded an end to racial inequality, which also entailed economic reforms that extended to the whole population. In this they were not alone — they expressed the views of a large proportion of the major figures of the civil rights movement. The point that economic reform for all is part of a program for racial equality is a valuable one worth repeating.
Nevertheless, there were clearly strategic differences. They existed even within civil rights organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with Martin Luther King advocating a continuation of direct action tactics after 1965, eventually within the Poor People’s Campaign. Rustin did not agree with King and broke publicly with him. Rustin’s 1964 Commentary article “From Protest to Politics” had already argued that the civil rights movement had to make a shift towards political power in order to address economic relations. But there was disagreement about his approach. According to historian David Garrow, “King believed that Rustin's strategizing discounted the real value of direct-action protests, and that Rustin's plans were more attuned to white supporters than to poor blacks in America's slums.” Indeed, Rustin’s interracial coalitions were to be made specifically with the establishment wing of organized labor and the Democratic Party. Naschek’s own source, Adolph Reed, described this with exemplary clarity in his 1999 scholarly study Stirrings in the Jug. Rustin’s underlying arguments, Reed points out, which came over a year before Ture’s first public introduction of the “Black Power” slogan, showed a “strategic ambivalence.” They “could have implied a strategic response like the variants of black power consciousness inflected toward radical political economy as easily as they did his argument for fastening black aspirations to the Democratic liberal-labor coalition.” Reed elaborates:
Rustin wrote at a crucial point – before the first major escalation of the Vietnam War and the Watts uprising – at a moment when it was not quite clear how far Lyndon Johnson's administration and its governing coalition could be pushed toward an agenda of racial equality and social democracy. As responsiveness to black interests stiffened, Rustin's persisting commitment to subordinating black strategy within the Democratic liberal-labor alliance embodied an increasingly conservative force in black politics.
Reed concludes that it was Rustin’s “relative conservatism in the late 1960s” that made Rustin attractive to “Clintonist intellectuals,” who would go on to invoke “From Protest to Politics” as “pointing to a road sadly not taken.”
This contradiction is precisely what Black Power responded to, by contesting the meaning of power. In place of winning electoral power within the existing society, Black Power urged a rejection of the white power structure in order to build black political power. Under this broad umbrella there were a range of perspectives, including socialist views which should be well known, at the very least among socialists. It is ridiculous to claim that these demands for black autonomy, in a nation which only a few years before had legal segregation, are inconsistent with economic demands. Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton’s book Black Power says:
When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city – Birmingham, Alabama – five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism.
This vivid indictment of the economic deprivation of a black community is framed in terms of institutional racism. This is an accurate interpretation. It is by no means inconsistent to add that it is also an effect of capitalism, as many organizations grounded in the turn to Black Power did. One such organization, whose very existence is unthinkable for white chauvinist social democracy, was Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers. In response to a comment by Ture dismissive of socialism, founding member John Watson replied: “Racism is a tool which the man uses to carry out his exploitation. And we are no more for integrated capitalism than segregated capitalism.”
What political strategy would have been most effective to struggle against these conditions is a bizarre question. We are not engaged in rewriting history, but learning as best we can. Whatever counterfactuals we are tempted to concoct, nothing changes the fact that the Democratic Party consistently abandons junior partners in its coalitions when obliged by those who form its economic base. Reforms relating to economic justice are jettisoned with scarcely a word. In the 1960s and 1970s, various Black Power organizations tested other strategies that also did not meet success. It is easy to proclaim that one now knows the correct strategy 50 years later. Unfortunately, the correct strategy is not simply waiting in the wings, ready to leap into the spotlight. It will take us a great deal of experimentation to determine an effective strategy, and while the experiments of the past are useful as a basis for study, they are not models we can pluck out of a book and apply — as Marx charged the bourgeois revolutions with doing. When the task is wide-ranging social change, strategies are not the intellectual property of individuals or particular tendencies. They are collectively generated and evaluated, and weave different working class actors together into a common project. Proletarian revolutions, said Marx, “constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew.”
Naschek goes on to claim that I endorse “identity politics’ call to particularism and emphasizing difference.” Let me close by addressing the question of identity itself, which is, even without the adjunct of “politics,” a highly contested term. Let’s try to deduce the meanings at work and how they may affect our discourse. Etymologically, identity refers to sameness. What sameness means is not so simple. If we take the basic statement of identity, a=a, we are forced to admit that this requires two different a’s. That is, this is an equation, which equates two different terms. Equality requires difference. To make a statement of sameness, we would say that both a’s belong to the same thing. Thus sameness is a question of belonging. We can extend this to social life by considering belonging to a community, a nation, and so on.
Our next question is what accounts for the identity of a person — how is it that a person moves from childhood to adulthood and is somehow held to be the same across all these changes? This is identity as a sense of self — the unity of our perception and our consciousness over time. Of course, this sense of self is not some solid foundation of knowledge. We can never have a total understanding of what has determined our selfhood. There is a multiplicity of causes beyond our ability to perceive: at a basic level, purely physical things that affect us without our conscious awareness, and at the most complex level, all the historical factors that have determined us as social beings. We can form a partial, incomplete awareness of this in our imaginations, but at this level, a full understanding of the history of our selves will remain elusive.
When one self interacts with another, identity becomes a matter of recognition. We want our selves to be recognized — we seek to be recognized for who we are. This may involve recognition for our particular forms of belonging. But it also involves misrecognition. Of course, misrecognition happens when we are not recognized for who we believe we are. However, misrecognition goes deeper — in the sense, perhaps, of a “mistaken identity” — because the totality of who we are is never available for another person’s recognition, and was never available to our own consciousness to begin with. Furthermore, we are ourselves the source of recognition for that other person, and are thus engaged in a perpetual process of reciprocal recognition and misrecognition.
Now, I believe there are two problems here.
First, I do not believe that identity is a useful basis for understanding race. If we start with the premise that the category of race can be explained by a particular sense of self, or a form of belonging, we are presuming what we are supposed to explain, and we are taking for granted the categories produced by racism. Race is not an idea or identity: it is produced by material relations of domination and subordination. To understand what race is we have to start with the social level. We need to directly theorize the material relations of power which constitute groups in a hierarchical relation. As Oliver Cromwell Cox put it: “We cannot defeat race prejudice by proving that it is wrong. The reason for this is that race prejudice is only a symptom of a materialistic social fact… The white man's ideas about his racial superiority are rooted deeply in the social system; and it can be corrected only by overthrowing the system itself.”
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.
My second point follows partly from the first. I do not think identity is a useful foundation for politics. When Naschek claims I argue “we must do both — working-class politics and identity politics,” she assumes a framework I have not advanced. Identity is the way we live and experience our relationship to the social relations that constitute us, so it will always be at play in politics — but I don’t think it can function as a foundation. That is because when identities are taken as foundations, they become more and more fixed, and reduce people to particular aspects of their belonging. As Kimberlé Crenshaw has written, “the problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite — that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences.” This had led her to introduce a new term, “intersectionality,” while cautioning that it should not be taken “as some new, totalizing theory of identity.” Echoing the very gesture that the CRC made with the concept of identity politics itself, Crenshaw pointed out that “the organized identity groups in which we find ourselves are in fact coalitions, or at least potential coalitions waiting to be formed.”
But this critique of identity is absolutely and emphatically not a proposal that race should be put second, or waved away as an illusion. It is in fact exactly the opposite: it is an insistence on recognizing the material reality of race as a social relation, and forming a more adequate theoretical understanding of it that can be useful for struggles against racism. And it allows us to conceive of a struggle against racism which does not revolve around winning recognition within the existing system, but instead seeks to overthrow the system itself.
The critique of identity is also not a threat to bringing our lived experiences and senses of self into the spaces of political practice. Once again, it is quite the opposite. The constitutive incompleteness of our identity is not such a bad thing. It means that by entering into relations with other people, and adding one intelligence to another, it is possible to generate a greater intelligence. This collective intelligence is the kind we need to launch a successful social movement today. It would be ideal for us to begin to discuss the ways we can relate to each other to build that intelligence.
“Today, with the popularity of Bernie Sanders and a resurgence in trade union activity, circumstances are finally re-emerging for a political program capable of fostering mass working-class solidarity,” says Naschek. Where there is a resurgence, it might be fair to look for zombies. But these articles of faith rely on an idealized fantasy of the 20th century, which always delivers us prepackaged solutions for our problems, neatly corresponding to our needs in the factional dispute of the moment. History has not been so accommodating. Such idealizations should be left behind. As Marx wrote, a revolutionary political practice “must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content.” That is when the future can begin to be written.