The Emancipation of All: Marxism in the Age of Identity Politics
“Identity politics” is a term typically marshaled to attack something the speaker dislikes, whether it a conservative deploring “special rights” accorded to minority groups or a progressive bemoaning anything that distracts from a focus on economic justice. Asad Haider's book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, excavates the origin of the term within the radical politics of the Combahee River Collective, showing how foregrounding a widely neglected group – Black women – was envisioned as a step toward realizing universal emancipation. In his discussion with political theorist Rafael Khachaturian, Haider argues that, by similarly embracing the ideal of the emancipation of all, Marxist traditions retain their political relevance even as they need to be continually rethought and reworked to address current crises, from the Great Recession to the presidency of Donald Trump.
RK: In 2016, after Donald Trump’s electoral victory, the popular narrative that emerged was that this was the revenge of the repressed white working class. The conventional wisdom at the time was that Trump used populist rhetoric to strategically appeal to latent, deep racial resentments and status anxieties, particularly among downwardly mobile whites in certain parts of the country. How well do you think this argument has fared with over three years of hindsight? Was the fact that this become a predominant narrative symptomatic of the politics and ideology of contemporary American liberalism?
AH: This repressed white working class was largely a fantasy of liberal intellectuals. There is no such cohesive group acting as a political bloc in US politics. The typical trends of elections are that higher-income voters tend to favor Republicans and right wing politicians. The explanation for the election of Donald Trump has to not be at the level of the consciousness or ideas of individual white people who are voting, but rather in terms of the overall structures of the American political system and the class composition of the United States. I think it's quite clear that there was a structural political crisis—a crisis of the political parties, which is continuing today. The fact was that the existing political system totally failed to represent the political needs and demands of the vast majority of the American population. And so I think that this chimerical white working class can easily function as an explanation for people who don't want to really confront this crisis of the political system.
RK: The Trump phenomenon tells us something about how we have thought about the relationship between race and class. As you have noted in your writing, these social relations have always been closely intertwined in the history of capitalism, but there has been much disagreement about the precise relation between them. You have occasionally pointed to Stuart Hall’s formulation that “race is the modality in which class is lived.” At the same time, Marxist accounts are often said to be guilty of economic reductivism, leading critics to often treat race and class as almost mutually exclusive, or in orthogonal terms. Why has the intersection of race and class in capitalist societies been such a controversial topic?
AH: First of all, understanding the relation between race and class is an extremely complicated historical and theoretical problem. In American history, there's no question that they are mutually constitutive categories. There is no way that you could possibly understand the development of American capitalism and the composition of the American working class without noting that a huge portion of the labor performed in the transition to capitalism was done by slaves. The emergence of racial categories is absolutely central to the process by which the categories of wage labor and the forms of exploitation that emerged in American history are actually shaped. This is a complicated analytical problem, and when you're trying to talk about any of these categories in isolation from each other, you're not going to adequately explain what happened.
But second, it is a political question, because there is also no doubt that, as W.E.B. DuBois noted in Black Reconstruction, there was a failure of the two great labor movements of American history to merge. These were the abolitionist movement and the movement of free wage laborers. The failure of these movements to merge and attack a common exploiter is part of the basis for the reproduction of race throughout American history. This is the political aspect of the problem, which is to understand how to overcome that division and make an antiracist politics integral to a class politics, and a class politics integral to an antiracist politics. This has been difficult to achieve largely because of the racism of the official labor movements. We can point to that, but we also have to point to the fact that, frequently, this racism was challenged and overcome in forms of solidarity that were expressed in political action.
Stuart Hall's comment that race and the modality in which class is lived is a very interesting statement, but hard to understand in isolation from the broader argument, which is his analysis of how the working class in the UK is really shaped by the categorization of workers according to migration. His analysis is that because the working class is racially structured, many workers will only come to a consciousness of their class position by first understanding their racial position. For Hall, this is not something that can just be seen as secondary to some kind of direct realization of the class consciousness. It’s actually the way that class consciousness happens, and you cannot have a class politics if you ignore that fact. That is the political argument.
RK: In Mistaken Identity you write that the phenomenon of whiteness can't actually be explained through an understanding of an individual's identity, but rather “the social structure and its constitutive relations within which individuals are composed.” How can we begin to think of whiteness as a social relation that helps reproduce race than on an individualized level? What do we gain by thinking of race in structural terms rather than as a matter of individual identity?
AH: If we think of whiteness just in terms of people believing that they're white, we're not going to be able to explain how it is that people who belong to so many different cultures, histories, languages, national origins and so on, were gathered together in the United States into the category of “white.” That's a complicated historical process, and one that's not automatic. The famous case study of this is Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, which tries to understand why it is that a group which was racialized in Europe and understood to be inferior then became incorporated into the club of the white race through the extension of certain privileges and advantages. It’s only by understanding these historical and political processes that have made it possible for people to belong to a category like whiteness that didn't already exist, that we can see why it matters as a category at all. It's only in the sense that it is part of a process of racial formation, of the way that people are inserted into different hierarchies, that we can even make sense of it. A lot of the contemporary discussion of white privilege is too much about the individual thoughts and behaviors of white people, which can't explain why those thoughts and behaviors have any political meaning.
RK: You've also emphasized that the radical origins of the term “identity politics” has been forgotten, in that it was originally a form of theoretical critique and revolutionary political practice. As you’ve pointed out, identity politics originated with the Black feminist lesbian organization, the Combahee River Collective, active during the 1970s. What did identity politics mean for the CRC in that original context? Furthermore, what allowed the original emancipatory connotations of this term to become detached and then rearticulated as a liberal form of politics ultimately compatible with capitalism?
AH: The Combahee River Collective statement comes out of a period in which a number of mass movements had achieved a great deal of political change, but had also come up against important limits. Some of those limits had to do with the hegemonic identities that were internal to those movements. What the CRC pointed out was that frequently, in Black nationalist movements, Black men were seen to be representative of the whole Black community, acting in the interests of Black women or all marginalized people. The labor movement frequently seemed to assume that workers are white men. The women's liberation movement presented the interests of white women as standing for women as a whole. So the proposal of a politics that came from Black women's identities was a way of challenging these hegemonic identities and trying to advance an emancipatory politics that went beyond those limits. That’s why this statement says, if Black women become free, then everyone will have to become free. The idea is still that there is the possibility of freedom for everyone, but that that is impossible when these hegemonic identities have marginalized black women.
I think that this context of mass movements and a very specific political critique of the existing strategies and aims of these mass movements is the only context in which you can understand the CRC statement. If the term identity politics becomes uprooted from that context, it becomes a free-floating signifier which now I think has no clear meaning. The meaning is constantly changing and being assigned in different ways, depending on the character of the conversation. My argument is not that the current use of identity politics is some kind of deviation from the true meaning or a betrayal of the origin or something like that. What I want to point out is that there is a real political antagonism here between the emancipatory project of the CRC and contemporary identity politics, which are about individual recognition and recognition from the state.
RK: What makes a Marxist perspective compelling today as a theory of politics and society? In addition, is it possible to speak of “Marxism” as a unified body of texts and practices, or has it rather been a series of contestations about meaning that have unfolded over the course of time?
AH: There are many levels to this question. I agree with you that, unfortunately, a lot of the discussion of Marxism today seems to assume that it's a set of already determined answers to whatever questions may come up in the course of political practice. Of course, that's not the case. Pretty much any question that you have, you can find a huge range of Marxist positions and very vicious debates back and forth between the different positions on them. It’s not possible to just say the Marxist position on this is X. These supposed solutions are taken out of very different historical situations and we can't just transpose a political position or approach that was appropriate in 1915 to the present.
The greatest representatives of the Marxist tradition did not seek to do this. Instead, they sought to build their theoretical approach from the ground up, in a way that was appropriate for the present while still drawing on this historical legacy. That’s what we have to do. If we want to think about Marxism today, the reason I would suggest that we need to maintain the perspective of Marxism is partly a political one, which is that Marxism presented a perspective of emancipation in the context of the emergence of capitalist society. That is a condition that we have still not overcome. The critique of capitalist society and the recognition that any emancipatory project needs to overcome capitalism is very much a living principle. However, it’s not just because of this perspective that Marxism is a central political fact for us. It's also that the emancipatory movements that have been fundamental in history, from the nineteenth century through the entire twentieth century, took up Marxism as their perspective and developed and adapted it for their particular situations. They showed that Marxism was not just a set of ideas or a theory, but an active organizing force for emancipatory projects. It was taken up in the revolutions which overthrew existing states and instituted new states that were supposed to engage in a transition to a socialist society. It was taken up in the national liberation struggles and in the struggle against imperialism, and it was taken up in the labor movements, which won major changes in the working conditions of people throughout the advanced capitalist world.
At the same time, I think we have to recognize that Marxism entered into a kind of crisis on all of these levels. The transitional societies did not arrive at socialism, failing to elaborate a different kind of life, and the fact that the Marxist political project was equated with taking over the state was a fundamental limit to the achievement of a different kind of society. The national liberation struggles against imperialism frequently ran up against the limit of new kinds of national sovereignty, which reproduced the structures of the nation state. The labor movement frequently ended up being incorporated into the operations of capitalism as a kind of junior partner. All of these things represent a crisis for Marxism that happens in the late twentieth century. I think it's impossible to pretend that Marxism could just be preserved unchanged without recognizing this crisis and confronting it. One of the important things we can do in studying the Marxist tradition is to try to find out how this crisis was understood, and how people tried to think past it and to reconceive of Marxism for the present.
RK: In that process of reconceiving of Marxism, it is important to retain the possibility of emancipation as a political project. Building on the work of Etienne Balibar and Massimiliano Tomba, among others, you advocate for a notion of insurgent universality as a necessary component of emancipatory politics. You write that this notion manifests itself in acts of insurgency that demand emancipation not only for those involved, but for all of the oppressed. What new light does this framework shed on emancipatory struggles, both historically and in the present?
AH: When we look at the history of emancipatory struggles, this is definitely the principle that we see advanced. The principle is not that a few people should be exempted from slavery, but that no one should be a slave. This is the principle of every slave revolt—that slavery must be abolished. In all of the great revolutions, I think we see the idea that the domination of everyone can be overcome. I think it's very important to remain faithful to this idea. When we try to conceive of universality, we have to take the lead of these actual historical events in which the possibility of overcoming everyone's domination was presented in a very material form, in the revolt of those who are excluded and the possibility of transforming society. I don't think that we can formulate universality at the level of abstraction by talking about universal rights or by talking about some kind of universal human nature that would yield a particular set of principles. I think it's only in those moments where the concrete existence of domination is challenged and people assert their agency to change society that we see this universality in action.
RK: Does insurgent universality imply the possibility and necessity of communism, or do you see them as operating on two different historical and theoretical registers?
AH: Insofar as it's useful to preserve the name communism today, it has to precisely be the absolutely egalitarian principle of the emancipation of all. In this sense, the politics of universal emancipation is a communist politics, in that it places this absolute egalitarianism as the first condition of freedom. I think in response to the reality of capitalist society, you have to make equality the first condition before you have freedom, because a freedom without equality means the freedom only of some. This equality is the principle which is actually negated in every capitalist society. Communism remains relevant insofar as it makes the absolute commitment to egalitarianism the condition of emancipation.
RK: Returning to contemporary struggles and the present conjuncture, Viewpoint was founded almost a decade ago with this goal of rethinking radical struggles and Marxists theory and practice. At the time, the world was still recovering from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. That moment also produced new collective struggles, in the form of anti-austerity movements in places like Greece, Spain and Portugal; in the Arab Spring; and in the United States, with Occupy Wall Street. The latter is often credited with helping create a new generation of activists. Viewpoint’s first issue was in fact titled Occupy Everything. Do you recall your thoughts about that moment at the time? Are there still traces of it in the present or has it been subsumed into something else?
AH: This is a very important part of what Viewpoint set out to do: to try to elaborate theory in the context of social movements and to recover aspects of the Marxist tradition that we thought dealt with concrete organizational questions and strategic questions that either were not thought through in the present or that had been submerged under a set of what I described before as pre-formulated answers. We wanted to look at the complexity of the Marxist tradition by reading it through the lens of the contemporary social movements and the questions that they raised. One thing I'll say about that moment, for which Occupy was fundamental, was that we wanted to understand the role of class, and more specifically, what understanding of class could really explain not only how different groups operated within the everyday life of our society, but also how the politics of a social movement like Occupy represented classes. This idea of the 1% or the 99% seemed to be a way of pointing to the question of class, but one which was empty, in the sense that there was the idea of the many and the few, but no explanation of how each group related to an underlying economic social structure or what the relation between them was. And so, we became interested in this method of class composition, which came out of Italian Marxism and specifically, Italian workerism of the 1960s and 1970s. This was a way of, first of all, trying to understand class in a more capacious way, not in the very one dimensional and reductive way that was becoming popular, but also to try to think about what the relation between class categories and political actors was. To me, this second question was very important.
I would say there are two aspects of the method that were important in thinking about class. First of all, undermining the idea of class as a pre-given, already-constituted category. Second, actually trying to pose the question of what the relationship between the social existence of a given class and its political action was. Now, I don't subscribe to this framework so much anymore. There were many interesting insights that yielded, but I think that now the most important question is to, first and foremost, try to formulate a conception of emancipatory politics, rather than trying to derive emancipatory politics from a social analysis of class, which I think is what many people tried to do. A lot of the analysis of race and class that one sees among certain Marxists who recognize the importance of antiracist movements is to try to find a way to unite them in their objective analysis, so as to guarantee their emancipatory character.
There is already an agreement among Marxists that class struggles are part of a project for universal emancipation. So if you can show how race is intrinsically a part of class, then you show that struggles against racism are also emancipatory. But I think this gets the logic backwards, because I think first we have to identify the possibility of an emancipatory politics, which is, as I said earlier, a politics which is for all rather than for some. And then you see that our struggle against racism doesn't need to be guaranteed by its relationship to class in an objective analysis to be understood as emancipatory. So, I think that these questions of social analysis only come after initially formulating a politics of emancipation.
RK: What do you see as the most pressing questions and demands for social struggles today, in 2020, as compared to 2011 or 2016? What has carried over from those years and what is novel to our own moment right now?
AH: I don't think the practice of making predictions is very useful. Some people think that this is what makes Marxism better than other ways of thinking. because you can make predictions about when the next economic crisis will happen and so on. Of course, if you actually look at the history of Marxism, you will recognize that this has no relation to actual history, because the predictions are constantly wrong. I would say that many completely reasonable predictions since 2011 about what the Occupy movement would lead to turned out to be wrong. Most predictions of various left to liberal intellectuals about who would win the 2016 election were wrong. I don't think that it's that useful to make predictions now.
For a brief period I thought that I had been unduly pessimistic about the situation, given the surprising but short-lived successes of the Bernie Sanders campaign. We have to think through both those successes and the eventual defeat. What was important about the mobilizations around Bernie was less, in my view, that they could have resulted in certain policy changes, even though those policy changes would certainly have made a huge difference in people's everyday lives.
I think the more important thing was that new masses of people were mobilizing around the idea that it's possible to totally change our existing system—that it's possible to put the whole political structure into question and conceive of a different kind of politics. That has to be affirmed and carried forward. It may sometimes mean taking a distance from the more pragmatic political considerations. It also means that while we have to be attentive to new achievements and openings, we can't become complacent about the real obstacles that are put in our path. There has to be the possibility of maintaining a lasting organizational expression of the challenge to the existing order that is independent from the state and independent from the electoral process. Because the worst disaster would be if we came out of this defeat with no alternative politics. The latter has to be constructed independently, and it's very important that people start to work on that now.
RK: We have seen major social and political upheavals over the last few months. First, the COVID-19 pandemic sent a shock wave through the world, creating a social and economic crisis that has exposed the fault lines in both state power and social reproduction. On top of that, the US is currently in the midst of an unprecedented popular mobilization against state repression, which is now sending ripple waves through other parts of the world. What have been most significant and unique things about this moment? What do these resistances and new forms of organization indicate about the future of emancipatory politics?
AH: The pandemic, first of all, completely validated the program for universal healthcare that had been at the center of the Bernie Sanders campaign. It showed the rationality and necessity of this program, which should have been in place long before the virus. The economic depression it provoked also demonstrated the fundamental validity of the program against inequality. Nevertheless, the way that the establishment, with Sanders’s support, coalesced around Joe Biden, showed the limits of trying to work within the state. The state set the terms and constraints, and what was proven to be a rational and necessary program had been ruled out politically.
The rise of the autonomous movements against state racism and state repression is extraordinarily significant in this sense, because in many respects these movements are more politically advanced than elements of the Sanders campaign. They have entered into direct confrontation with the state and also capital, responding not only to the systematic violence which targets Black people, but also the mass unemployment and impoverishment which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic crisis.
These movements are precisely the kind of new opening I was describing earlier. People with a long-term view of emancipatory politics must participate in these uprisings, support them and contribute to building a militant continuity that can last across the rhythms of history.
This conversation is an edited and transcribed version of a podcast recorded for the Andrea Mitchell Center at the University of Pennsylvania.