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Sunday, December 12, 2010


It was not my intention to endorse identity politics as opposed to politics with an economic orientation. I was responding to what I considered an important point made by Amato in a comment. It is this: To forge an effective political movement, it is necessary to achieve what in the old days was called solidarity. An objective coincidence of interests is rarely enough, nor is an agreement on abstract ideological principles. If people are to work effectively together, and to expend the energy [and even take the risks] required for successful action, they must develop a sense of shared commitment, a set of bonds that tie them to one another when things get difficult -- or merely boring -- as they always do in any political movement. This sense of comradeship is more difficult to achieve among people who come from different ethnic, religious, national, regional, or economic circumstances and backgrounds. I am not saying it is impossible to overcome these obstacles, just more difficult. When people come from the same neighborhood, or work in the same workplace, or worship at the same church, or celebrate the same ethnic holidays, or speak the same language, they find it easier to develop and sustain these ties of comradeship. The entire history of activist politics on the left testifies to this simple truth.

Therefore, when we find that there are large social, educational, religious, or other gulfs between groups of people who otherwise might find it possible to work together, it is worth thinking about this problem, and not ignoring it.

Let us recall that one reason for the absence of a major socialist party in the United States [the only major industrial nation inn the world without one] is the fact that after the end of the Civil War, white workers turned their backs on black workers, whom they saw as competitors for their jobs, and struck deals with their employers to maintain labor peace in return for the employers not hiring black workers [who were just as skilled] Let us also recall the antagonism between Protestant and Catholic workers that made union organizing more difficult in the early decades of the twentieth century.

There is, or ought to be, a natural coalition of working class African-Americans, working class Latinos, White manufacturing and service sector workers, young people, and highly educated people of all races and ethnicities, as well as the growing ranks of former middle class workers being oppressed economically by joblessness, home foreclosures, and the systematic driving down of average wages -- a formidable collection, if it could be forged into an effective movement. It would not be a revolutionary movement -- at least not yet -- but it would move the center of American politics significantly to the left. For a brief moment, Obama was successful in assembling such a coalition. The right has responded by playing identity politics in a successful effort to dismantle this coalition. Ignoring the elements of identity in this dynamic is, I believe, a mistake.

That is what I was suggesting. Now, let us cool the rhetoric and discuss this calmly and seriously. I am really getting very tired of having each of my posts treated as evidence that I am the enemy. Give me a break!


Chris said...

i'm asking merely out of curiosity; as I've never read anything on it; were Marx, Engels, and let's say early branches of Marxism racist? Or did they truly follow their philosophy to the degree that they saw all humans as equal? And equally oppressed and exploited.

I've read a number of reports that early Socialist movements in the US, like Eugene Debs, were in fact racist, and it took perhaps a decade for them to overcome their racism.

Even today, as racism mitigates for blacks, it certainly is propagating against Latin Americans who "steal our jobs."

I'm just wondering how often the left, the side that's supposed to be the all-colors-are-equal-and-human side, actually is...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It is a complicated question. Marx and Engels were not notably broad-minded about such matters, but I do not now recall anything specific that they said [as, for example, Kant did -- he was an out and out racist, as was Hegel.]

In the United States, the labor movement had a mixed record -- the record of the Communist Party was much better, but sometimes for merely strategic reasons. My grandfather attended a meeting of the Socialist Party in Chicago as a delegate, at which the Party voted to exclude Chinese woerkers from the United States. I am very plesed to be able to report that my grandfather and several others spoke up in support of the Chinese workers, but it was a minority position.

Chris said...

Yeah, that's what always bugged me the most about Kant. The only people allowed into his moral kingdom of ends were fellow adult white men. Everyone else wasn't worth consideration.

English Jerk said...

As I recall, Engels said some rather odious things about Slavs (the best thing that ever happened to them was occupation by Germanic peoples, etc.). And Bakunin was an anti-Semite of course. But some of these bigotries were so common in the nineteenth century that, although individuals are certainly morally culpable for being bigots, the fact of bigotry is less interesting and tells us less about how they think than it might in other circumstances.

English Jerk said...


I think that's a needlessly uncharitable reading of Kant. Since he thinks something like a metaphysics of morals is possible, he's committed to the view that the universality of the moral law can't be empirical (and hence can't be determined by merely anthropological considerations).

English Jerk said...

On the identity issue:

Are identity and solidarity the same thing?

It seems to me that they aren't. For example, solidarity has to do with (among other things) recognizing a common interest (a notion that's even inscribed in the US's shamefully weak labor laws). But sharing a common interest with someone is not a permanent fact about the kind of person I am ("exploited worker" is not an identity category). And if that common interest involves exploitation, then the aim is to eliminate it; whereas identities either can't be eliminated or shouldn't be.

So I think it's no accident that identity politics is so successfully co-opted by the right; it already presupposes a rejection (in at least some ways) of the kind of Enlightenment universalism that is, I think, necessary to any left-wing politics. Of course, Dr. Wolff is absolutely right that identity is one of the facts on the ground that need to be dealt with in the context of organizing (or, for that matter, in the context of teaching). The best way to deal with it, though, might be to liberate people from it.

Cobb said...

I found it particularly odious to bear witness to the attacks on Sarah Palin by the sorts of liberal elites Wolff has been discussing. Nothing so clearly exemplified to me the extent to which the Left racial agenda has sabotaged the prospects for an anti-racist coalition. So much lip service had been given to the dream of working class solidarity across racial lines, but when those white working class people started forming grass roots political agitation in their Tea Parties in the same form as African Americans in their political struggles, the liberal elite could not wait to portray the entire movement as unforgivably racist. It is now practically an axiom of faith among liberals and leftists that everything Sarah Palin represents is bad for America. And this is not a matter economics or policy, but a cultural phenomenon. The culture of Sarah Palin is evil, the people of Sarah Palin are evil. They are white, working class, Christian = wrong, wrong, wrong.

The very idea of black Americans forming common cause with the Tea Parties is judged to be inconceivable. I don't think that word means what you think it means.

Chris said...

Correct English Jerk. Kant does believe in grounding morals in the universality of reason. The problem though is that HE explicitly doesn't find women and blacks to be reasonable creatures. Or the mentally handicapped and children. While we may agree about the latter two, the former two we disagree with. In the end, that makes Kant's kingdom of ends, for Kant, is a lonely place. Because even if those four other groups commit moral action, it isn't out of their rational sense of duty.

Now I presumably agree with you, it's worth looking into his ethic, without his racist and sexist baggage. Kantian ethic can be divorced from Kant. As Marxism has been divorced from Marx, and Christianity from Christ. It just always bothered me that the man who embodied the enlightenment, established a kingdom of ends that was so excluded and lonely.

Cobb said...

The US has never done anything like impose affirmative action requirements on labor unions. So you will find that the way that the institutional racism the left always enjoys talking about is manifest most pervasively in craft and trade unions.

It ought to be obvious that when you look at what has become of cities like Detroit, the need for the trades to operate in the inner cities is desperate. But when has the Left ever seriously considered working through trade unions to employ black Americans in their own communities?

Are trade unions even good at helping maintain a middle class, or are their constraints in membership the only active force in keeping wages high?

Chris said...

I'm a leftist Cobb, and I do think Sarah Palin would be a disaster as a politician with actual power. My reasons though are entirely devoid of race, and whatever you presume leftist think of her. I just outright don't like her reverence of God-and-Military (I'm attaching those words for a reason), and God-And-Country. From what I have heard in her speeches she truly believes in the old sentiment "ONE nation under God." This is antithetical to the Thomas Paine creed I've always followed: "The world is my country, and goodness my religion."

Not to mention I just strongly disagree with her policies, and stances on war.

Chris said...

Staughton Lynd, labor organizer, and labor lawyer, has done exactly what you ask: "But when has the Left ever seriously considered working through trade unions to employ black Americans in their own communities? "

He has actually spent his entire (i believe) 80 years of life doing just that. If you're interested, he discusses it at length in:

Cobb said...

Chris, I wonder if it might be possible to teach Kant without regard to his racial identity or opinions such that if you taught it to 'racial minorities' they would not be inclined to read into his categorical ethics anything that doesn't serve them.

In other words why is there always a temptation to racialize? If I read the finest book on Kant written in 1942, what would I not know about Kant, 'as a black man', that you would now have me know? I say this just having read Durant's account of the man - even to the point of my understanding how he kept his socks in place - without any mention of the racism you now place at his feet.

Cobb said...

Chris, fine then on Palin. But then what of the Tea Parties? Do you think it is fair to portray their aims as racist as Christopher Hitchens now insinuates?

Chris said...

I think it's possible, and that's how I read almost all philosophy. I just happen to also like to learn biographical information on philosophers. In the process of doing so, I learned those grim details of Kant. Like I said though they are what bug me about Kant, not Kantian philosophy.

I'll answer the other question in a moment.

Chris said...

Cobb, I wrote a detailed reply to you about the tea party, but now it seems to of vanished entirely. Let me know if you saw it, before I take the time to re-post it.

(I also wrote a reply to your libertarian post in another thread, which also vanished....)

Cobb said...

Nice. What emerges is a picture of Chris, the kind of leftist with whom I might agree with for the purposes of catalyzing some respect for the original and true American Revolution. It is this understanding, by the way, which reanimates my respect for Hitchens.

It may be that what contemporary political philosophy lacks primarily is the sort of organizational framework that will survive what might be the collapse of the idea of nationality and the Westphalian state itself.

David Brooks has a good op-ed today about why it is some fraction of the Left has decided that it hates Obama after he recognized that he can no longer steamroll his agenda. He says it's the 'cluster liberals' vs the 'network liberals'. Obama is returning to his roots as a 'network liberal' according to this theory.

So I have come to accept some fairly socialist principles according to what I expect to evolve in human society without falling into Marx's determinist mistake. To put it briefly, socialism is for your friends. So now we have to determine, with Facebook-like efficiency, exactly who are friends are and what we can expect from the global capitalist market to fund our small socialist collectives. I am saying, to clarify my previous example, that Apple and Google are *internally socialist* and *externally capitalist*.

I simply don't think that socialism scales. Socialism cannot evolve beyond the capacity of humans to rationalize and plan everything, and the world is simply too complex. We need that thing which capitalism allows, which is boom and bust, experimental calibration of prices, risk management and profit motive to govern what is unknowable before we can assign anything like human identity from central authorities. And we need socialist identity to be contingent, the same way we approach love and friendship. It cannot be the entire business of the state as we now know it, because the prices for entry and exit are too steep.

Amato said...

I have to chime in about your original comment Chris. Not that it should have us write him off, but Marx seems to have surely been a racist. I recently read "Karl Marx: A life" by Francias Wheen, and he quoted a numbers of letters Marx wrote that did not seem to regard black people too highly. In particular, he wrote one letter to Engels complaining about Jenny Laura's (his daughter) husband saying: "Lafargue [her husband] has the blemish customarily found in the negro tribe--no sense of shame, by which I mean shame about making a fool of oneself." Yep I’m pretty sure he was racist. Also, I don't know if it was thought by Marx, but plenty of pre-WWII scholars justified calling Africa, and Africans, inferior because it was associated with the first stage of scientific socialism--primitive communism.

Murfmensch said...

Marx's letters to US readers were very progressive in terms of race. Marx-reading Germans in Saint Louis often stated that "White labor can never be free as long as black labor is branded." Not bad.

Missouri would have likely been a Confederate stronghold if a German-speaking militia (many of them Marxist) had not occupied an armory early in the Civil War.

Marx also covered the civil war and the debate around it in Great Britain. This journalistic work makes him look quite good.

As for solidarity, I find that if people work together and not try to talk through their differences too much, they build solidarity as members of an organization.

I was an ACORN organizer in Arkansas and members would occasionally gently mock my bookishness but it was no barrier. People organize around organizations. Fellow church members often keep politics out of the church and cultural organizations often stick to language and history lectures. Identity and solidarity are not inherited but develop.

Chris said...

I take it than that you did get to see my tea party post?

You can equate me with the American revolution if you want, but I wouldn't; if there was a Chris revolution it would look nothing like america in 1790

GTChristie said...

This is an old blogpost I ran into accidentally today. It's a "leftist manifesto" inaugurating a new website to promote the values stated.

I contribute this to the present conversation partly to blow some fresh air through the place, more than to grind any specific axe. I have always identified myself as "conservative" but since today I am not represented well by any political ideology "right" or "left," I've been out exploring a question raised here a month or two ago about the roots of our political assumptions -- and I have begun to feel like a man without a country.

As always, enjoy!

Murfmensch said...

BTW-- I agree with your concerns about rhetoric. This is a common problem with blogs.

Repeat offenders simply have to be blocked or all on-line fora degenerate.

Anonymous said...

Chris said:

Kantian ethic can be divorced from Kant. As Marxism has been divorced from Marx, and Christianity from Christ.

An almost word for word recital from Eric Hoffer's book "True Believer". "Marx was not a Marxist and Marx was not a Marxist." or something like that. Hoffer was an interesting guy, didn't seem to interested in trade unionism from what I've read although he must have been part of the movement to have worked as a longshoreman. But his time was a long time ago. Although I'm not sure how Hoffer fits into philospy I've certainly become enamored with much of what is in that one book. Just an off topic observation but vaguely touching on the subject here. As in Hoffer's "The Ordeal of Change" which is coming whether we like it or not.

Anonymous said...

I meant to say Hoffer said something like "Marx was not a Marxist and Christ was not a Christian". Equating both groups as fanatical and I suppose a way to insult Marxists. He said something just about like that. I even forget the whole context but Chris's' astute observation brought the quote partially back. Wrong because I just tried to Google it but something just about like that.

I think Hoffer was trying to equate fanatical Christians with fanatical Marxists which I suppose would have been popular with anti-communists of the era considering when the book was written - during the beginnings of the Cold War and the black listings in America.

Although I'd remark that the Spanish and Catalonians seemed to do fine with Democratic Anarchism for a while, at least until the Totalitarian Communists and the Fascist Franco broke up what would have been a nice experiment in government, at least according to what I've read from Orwell - had it been allowed to continue to see how it worked out in the long run.

Not trying to make a statement here but just observing the similarity with what Chris said with something I know Hoffer said, although my copy of Hoffer's book is tucked away somewhere and I can't find it right now and I doubt if I could find the quote without digging anyway.