by Richard Lyon
This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
There are almost as many interpretations of Marxism as there are people who call themselves Marxists. One practice that Marxists frequently engage in is to call people who have an interpretation different from theirs revisionists. The idea of a single true and orthodox path to the achievement of socialism is common for these Marxists. One recurring manifestation of this is the claim that there should be class unity or class reductionism. There is something that can be universally defined as the working class and people are either members of it or they are not.
In the world of binary political debate there is something that essentially sits in opposition to traditional Marxism. It has various imprecise names. Social liberalism is as descriptive a term as any. In the US it is rooted in the movements of the 1960s that brought such issues as race, gender, sexuality, and disabilities out into the light of public debate. These concerns have come to be lumped together under the term ‘identity politics’. More often than not this term is employed by people who view such concerns derisively.
Individuals form more than one identity. Social factors such as gender, age, race, etc. impact an individual’s personal identity. Cultural politics makes value judgements about various types of identity. In US culture white, middle class, able-bodied straight men tend to have the highest status and privilege. The further that a person’s circumstances move away from the top, the more disadvantaged they are likely to be. The term intersectionality has emerged in recent years to describe the way that combinations of social identities determine personal circumstances.
Liberal advocates of various anti-oppression movements are inclined to see forces of social oppression as the root cause of economic difficulties. It is rather obvious that factors of social oppression create an economic deficit for people lacking social privilege as compared with, say, individuals with gender and racial privilege in similar circumstances. However, this doesn’t go very far to explain the existence of white men who find themselves in economic difficulty. Education, which has long been the liberal panacea for upward mobility, is no longer benefiting recent generations the way that it did in the past. Recent changes in the neoliberal economy - the drastic increase in economic inequality and the hollowing out of the American middle class - are forcing a reexamination of various assumptions about the unquestionable virtues of a capitalist society.
Marxism has begun to recover from some of the intellectual embarrassments it suffered in the collapse of the USSR. Many of its proponents are attempting to apply an analysis that was developed for a 19th C industrial society to the complexities of a global neoliberal hegemony. Many of them think that the answer lies in rediscovering the glory of a unified proletariat that will not be diverted from its revolutionary calling by the hand wringing of the liberal bourgeoisie. Even in the 19th C the international proletariat was often fragmented by the forces of European nationalism. A socialist movement that attempts to view the upheavals of humanity solely through the lens of class analysis is forced to sweep a great many pressing realities under the rug.
We can see in both the US and in Europe the rise of right wing movements composed of angry white people that have more than a little bit in common with historical fascism. The use of various forms of social identity has long been a preferred tool of capitalist greed to pit workers against each other along racial, ethnic and national lines.
Social class is a complex concept. Many economists attempt to reduce it to a matter of annual income. Even in strict economic terms wealth and debt carry on not just from year to year but into the next generation. Class is an identity in the same way that race and nationalism are. People define themselves not just in terms of how much money they make but also in terms of the type of work that they do and the people that they do it with.
How Class Should Be Central, an article by Eric Blanc and Jeremy Gong, recently appeared in Jacobin magazine. It articulates a position of class reductionism as the core basis of socialist organizing. This is their rather simplistic definition of the working class: “The working class consists of everyone whose survival depends on wage labor, including people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and immigration statuses.” This definition is at once too broad and too narrow. It includes people such as high level software developers and professional athletes whose salaried income places them into the upper reaches of economic advantage. They enjoy considerable privilege in both economic and cultural terms. They have little in terms of common interests with fast food workers struggling to achieve a $15 hr minimum wage. The salary requirement excludes self employed people with marginal incomes who experience a lack of economic and cultural privilege.
A general notion of socialism has been experiencing a revival since the financial collapse of the great recession. It has been given visibility by the political campaigns of Bernie Sanders and several new faces in the congress. The most prominent new faces are all women of color. The Democratic Socialists of America has benefited considerably in its membership growth and public visibility from these developments. The organization describes itself as a big tent socialist organization. The recent convention in Atlanta brought together over 1000 delegates representing chapters from across the country. It seems reasonable to assume that those delegates were generally demographically representative of the national membership. It is a group that is overwhelmingly white. White men outnumber white women. Many of these men are young to middle-aged adults that were referred to as Bernie Bros during the 2016 presidential campaign. To DSA’s credit, much progress has been made in placing women in prominent national leadership positions. All of the people presiding over the convention were women as was a substantial majority of the people elected to the new National Political Committee.
There are many reasons why white people’s socialism is not going to accomplish much at changing the nature of a capitalist-dominated society. To begin with, the white working class is easily divided by the exploitation of racism, nationalism and sexism. Appeals to working class unity will not bring ardent Trump supporters into the fold of socialism. It is new leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Presley and Rashida Tlaib who will attract the participation of people from marginalized groups. We have to make room for them and that means letting go of privilege. The US is well on the way to becoming a minority majority society. That is already the case in several states and it will be the national reality during the next generation. Inclusiveness is not just an ethical duty - it is a political necessity.