The Limits of Class

The Limits of Class

Marxist critiques of identity politics place an inordinate weight on the working class as agent of change—and elide its often contradictory history.

A reply to Shuja Haider.

Is the Fight for $15 really one for “racial justice”? (SEIU Local 99 / Flickr)

My essay “The Perils of Universalism,” published in the Winter issue of Dissent, was written in an effort to contribute to the development of a political strategy. Trumpism and other authoritarian populisms of the far right pose a political challenge unseen since the rise of totalitarianism in the 1930s. Given the centrality of attacks on the citizenship rights of racialized “others” in these authoritarian populisms, I argued that our political approach must be unequivocally anti-racist. Critiques of “identity politics,” which would displace anti-racist politics with appeals to abstractly universal, deracinated “workers” and “citizens” are counter-productive. There is no successful defense of democracy that ignores or downplays the preeminent role of racism.

In staking out this position, I knew I was treading upon contested political ground, the site of many polemical battles on the left. But the question of anti-racist politics is so central to the development of the democratic left’s current political strategy that I felt it must be taken on. A robust debate on these questions is necessary.

Unfortunately, Shuja Haider’s response to my essay does little to advance this debate. Questions of political strategy are pushed to the side as Haider renders criticisms of his political ideas as if they were attacks on his person. Rhetorical approaches of this sort are toxic to the debate at hand. If this exchange is to be of value for the left, it must be ultimately focused not on such diversions, but on how our differences play out in matters of political strategy at this critical historical moment.

What is at political contention? Haider takes strong exception to my argument that his critique of “identity politics” employs the same abstractly universalist logic as Mark Lilla’s critique. Lilla is a self-avowed liberal and Haider employs Marxist and Leninist critiques of liberalism, so the suggestion that he shared some common ground with Lilla was not a welcome one. At the risk of noting the obvious, let me stipulate that Lilla and Haider have irreconcilable differences on many political questions. Notwithstanding these differences, their critiques of “identity politics” share a common logic and common flaws. These flaws are evident in Haider’s response, where he takes issue with my call for the American left to engage in “the hard work of constructing real political agency out of conceptions of ‘citizen’ and ‘worker’ that are opposed to racism, sexism, and homophobia at their core.”

For Haider, any conception of citizenship is “entirely inadequate” for the defense of the rights of people of color. Citizenship is an oppressive instrument of the capitalist state, and that state has embedded racism in the very framework of American citizenship. Tellingly, Haider chooses to ignore my critique of Lilla’s conception of American citizenship in “The Perils of Universalism,” where I had focused on its elision of race. I wrote that the universalism of Lilla’s concept was

achieved by stripping it of its rich and contradictory history, deeply steeped in questions of race. . . . From its origins in seventeenth-century colonial law establishing the institution of slavery, the idea of race in the United States has been used to distinguish rights-bearing white citizens from disenfranchised black subjects.

Why does Haider disregard this analysis, which is so central to my argument? Because with it came the crucial point that the African-American freedom struggle was responsible for many of American history’s greatest advances in democratic citizenship, and this point is incompatible with the instrumentalist conception of the state and politics he adopts in his reply. This instrumentalist understanding of the state, most prominent in the Leninist tradition, is incapable of grasping citizenship as a site of struggle in which rights are contested, where they can be claimed as well as denied, advanced and expanded as well as diminished and contracted. As a consequence, Haider delivers to us a one-dimensional—one might even say an undialectical—account of citizenship, in which it is simply an expression of the will of the powerful and a vehicle for racism.

This is not only a problem of a radically deficient theory of the state and politics, unable to comprehend the specifically political dimensions of the authoritarian populisms of the far right which traffic in attacks on the citizenship rights of “racial others,” although it certainly is that. To view citizenship as an instrument of the capitalist state, one has to turn a blind eye to the many popular struggles that have been centered on securing and expanding the rights of citizenship. The history of the African-American freedom struggle—from the battle for emancipation to the fight against Jim Crow segregation to the current struggles around voting rights, police violence, and mass incarceration—has most often taken the form of demands for full and equal citizenship rights. The same can be said for the struggles of Latinos, Asian-Americans, indigenous peoples, women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants. Even the struggles of labor have often focused on equal citizenship rights for working people, beginning with winning the right to vote and the right to free, universal public education. Ignore these democratic political struggles as vehicles for the contestation of power, and one is only left with economic struggles, most of which take place at the point of production.

This instrumentalist paradigm thus places inordinate weight on class for its agency of social change. That weight is compounded when one insists upon a “socialist universalism,” as Haider does, for there is only one conceivable bearer of that universalism in the Marxist tradition, the working class. For Marx himself, the economic conditions that created the working class made it a “class with radical chains . . . which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it.” Consequently, the emancipation of the working class is the universal emancipation of all humanity. In this paradigm, the liberation of the working class will end racism and all other forms of “particular” oppression. In practice, this instrumentalism has meant that the struggles against racism and other “particular” forms of oppression are relegated to a marginal second-class status, with the class struggle taking precedence.

In this respect, it is instructive to see what Haider provides as an example of “a movement against racial inequality that stands for universal values” that he supports—the fight for a minimum wage of $15. Since African Americans are disproportionately represented among the working poor, he reasons, a fight to raise the wages and living standards of all working poor will disproportionately benefit African Americans, making it a struggle for “racial justice.” I agree that the fight for $15 should be supported—it is an important struggle that has the potential to elevate the living standards and increase the bargaining power of working people, especially workers in low-wage employment. Many workers of color will certainly have their lives improved if it is successful, as will their white counterparts at work. But if what we mean by a “racial justice struggle” is a fight that takes on issues of racism, in which people of color are affected because they are people of color—think of the issue of police violence in communities of color—the fight for $15 is clearly not a “racial justice” struggle. Presenting it as such follows a long and problematic practice on the American left of subsuming anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles within the class struggle, a tradition which harkens back to Marxian notions of the universal working class. In reality, these struggles are distinct, even when they overlap, and each should be supported in its own right. Solidarity and common cause among these different struggles can only be built on the basis of mutual recognition and reciprocal support, not on some notion of the ontological priority of class struggle over all other struggles, as orthodox Marxists would have it. It is particularly important to make these distinctions today, because the attacks on the citizenship rights of racialized others that defines Trumpism and other authoritarian populisms of the far right are attacks of a specifically racial nature.

To make class perform the work he wants it to do, Haider conceives of it as the inverse of his concept of citizenship, as if its formation in the universalizing crucible of economic production created it innocent of racism, sexism, and heterosexism, in a kind of Marxian immaculate conception. Racial and other oppression only come later, as a ruling class tactic using ideology to “divide and conquer” the universal class. Haider’s universal working class is the “subject that refuse(s) to recognize the borders, divisions, and hierarchies that are regulated by the logic of identity.” Consequently, he refuses the very term “white working class,” condemning it as a concept produced “by the punditocracy to assign blame to working-class people for the rightward shift in contemporary politics.” The slippage here, as “white working class” morphs seamlessly into “working-class people,” is telling. The unavoidable fact is that white workers and workers of color voted very differently in the 2016 election, with a majority of white workers supporting an overtly racist Trump and an overwhelming proportion of workers of color opposing him. If we can’t even talk about what happened because it might reflect poorly on the universal working class, how do we ever address what went wrong among white workers?

Just as Lilla’s universal concept of citizenship was achieved, as I argued, “by stripping it of its rich and contradictory history, steeped in questions of race,” Haider’s universal working class is also abstracted from history. If race has been central to the American economy from its very beginnings, starting with the institution of slavery—as Haider would surely acknowledge—then so too have classes in the American context had race written into their very constitution. Enslaved African Americans and free white workers in the Antebellum South were not part of a single universal working class with the same radical chains: class relationships riven by race were far more complex and contradictory then, and they remain so today. Witness the history of American labor organizing, which has had a complicated relationship with race. Its includes both A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the multiracial unionism of the Knights of Labor, on the one hand, and the viciously racist scapegoating of Chinese immigrants by the California Workingmen’s Party and segregated Jim Crow craft unions, on the other. Class is every bit as contested a ground on matters of race as citizenship is.

Haider concludes his rejoinder with this willful misreading of my argument: “there is something peculiar about a politics like that of Casey, who is willing to choose between universal class consciousness and universal citizenship, without considering universal emancipation in the process.” So long as class and citizenship are abstracted from their actual history and conceived as universal and deracinated phenomena, the totalizing claims made in their names will necessarily be in conflict, compelling a choice between the two. The point of my critique of Lilla and Haider was to refuse that choice by moving beyond such abstractly universal concepts, and not just because they are theoretically shallow and historically inaccurate: they stand in the way of developing a political strategy that meets the challenge of Trumpism and other authoritarian populisms of the far right. With deeper understandings of citizenship and class, and of the place of race in both, we can engage in, as I write in my essay, “the hard work of constructing real political agency out of conceptions of “citizen” and “worker” that are opposed to racism, sexism, and homophobia at their core.”


Leo Casey is executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank and policy advocacy arm of the American Federation of Teachers. He is on the editorial board of Dissent.

Read Leo Casey’s original essay, “The Perils of Universalism,” in our Winter issue.

Read Shuja Haider’s response.


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