Mistaking Identity Politics: A Conversation with Asad Haider (Part I)

Asad Haider speaking in Seattle, May 2018. via YouTube.

This is the first of a two-part interview adapted from Asad Haider's appearance on The Dig: Discussing the Politics of American Class Warfare

Daniel Denvir: In her primary campaign, Hillary Clinton touted intersectionality and privilege, specifically to attack a social democratic challenge from her left, from Bernie Sanders. I want to set the table for this broader discussion we're going to be having about your book and about identity politics, by asking you what did that primary tell us about the state and function of what we've come to know as identity politics today?

Asad Haider: First of all, I think that the 2016 primaries were actually a pretty pivotal moment in producing a conception of politics around race and class, which are conjoined in the subtitle of my book: race and class, not race or class, or something else along those lines. [The primaries were] a turning point in turning those into an opposition, and a lot of that had to do with precisely the appropriation you describe by the Hillary Clinton camp of the languages of civil rights, identity politics, intersectionality, privilege and all the rest, which were conjoined in her campaign to the continuation of a neoliberal and militarist legacy, that she had participated in, in the Obama administration, and had essentially been inherited from a long line of US presidents from Ronald Reagan.

Something else that I want to address upfront before we get any deeper, you're a Marxist and this book is an argument against what we know as identity politics from the left, but you were by no means arguing that racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression don't matter. Quite to the contrary, you open the book by talking about your own personal experience as someone who was constantly asked where are you from when you were growing up, because "from the middle of Pennsylvania," where you did grow up, apparently was not the correct answer.

It was this form of subtle racism that we've since come to call microaggressions, but that all turned into something way different and scarier after the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Your identity had become a matter of Homeland Security.

I became politicized through my experience of racism and my growing awareness throughout my youth of the fact that major political tendency had existed in the United States which had attacked racism and saw itself as part of a global movement against all forms of oppression, and that was the black freedom struggle. That's why that became so important to me and why it's a guiding influence on my book.

That is precisely the way that I discovered Marxism and that's why I came to consider myself a Marxist: first and foremost, through my reading about the Black Panther Party. And it continues to fundamentally shape what I consider Marxism to be. I think that there are many critics of my book, who haven't read it, who see different taglines about it or read one sentence about it, and then sort of slot me into a particular category that I'm a class-first Marxist. I don't know what that means, if it's intended to be some kind of modifier of Marxist or just a redundancy or something.

Or a Marxist that hasn't read Marx, apparently, to my eyes.

There's a lot of that and there's a reason for that, which is that this creature does exist: the person who claims to be a Marxist and thinks that this means that everything should be understood in ultimately economic terms, or that class struggle is the only kind of social struggle that matters.

That's certainly not an accurate description of Marx himself, because Marx himself, as a young participant in politics and in his earliest writings, we could call him a radical Democrat. He was interested in looking at the persistence of forms of domination that were left over from the old regime and had not been overthrown by the new democratic revolutions.

He was interested in finding how would it be possible to oppose this kind of oppression by religious authorities, by the aristocracy, by old existing state structures. And he discovered the proletariat as the agent that could potentially enter into an antagonism with those old structures and overcome them. That was a discovery that he made on the basis of opposing all these different forms of domination.

That's what led him not only into contact with the labor movement but also to a careful study of political economy, the kind of discourse in his period about how classes had come to arise in this particular way, what that had to do with the process of economic development that was transforming society. In Marx's own personal development, there was no starting point which said that class is the most important thing. It was a discovery which was based on a political program against domination.

Later on Marx develops in his thinking and his observing global politics, both as a kind of political philosopher and as a journalist. When he studies the question of English colonialism in Ireland, he comes to the realization — and he writes about this in a letter — that there could be no effective class struggle in England until there had been national independence for the Irish. Because the fact of the colonial hierarchy, which held English workers above Irish workers, prevented any possibility of class struggle from taking place. So the anti-colonial struggle then took precedence. It was primary.

He applied a similar critique to xenophobia, anti-Irish immigrant sentiment within England, saying that fomenting such sentiment was, I believe he phrased it, the secret to the ruling class's ability to maintain order, or something like that.

Exactly. And he compared English workers to the poor whites of the United States, that's something he says in that letter. Somebody who actually studies Marx's own political and theoretical work will understand this. Unfortunately, we get Marxism packaged into these Eurocentric slogans today and that really does a disservice not only to Marx's own work, but also to all of the movements in what we now call the Global South, but was once called the colonial world, and after that called the Third World. All of these movements against colonialism took up, adapted, and used Marxism as a theoretical tool in their struggle against Western domination.

The fact is also that adaptation of Marxism by people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is why Marxism is such a significant political force, a central political force in history. If you write that out of its history, you are really missing out on what it means.

I think one key way that the argument often gets confused on is that it gets reduced or disfigured into this question of whether class matters more than race. Or whether class oppression is like more immoral than racial oppression or whatever.

One thing that we can't do is decide in the abstract which of any social relations is more determinant in any particular social phenomenon. You can't say: when it comes to slavery, was race more important or was class more important or economics more important?

It's a nonsense question because you had an actual historical phenomenon, which was constituted by many different kinds of relations. We generate abstractions for the purposes of analysis. We can speak about the racial aspect of it, so that we can understand that aspect better. We can speak about the economic aspect to understand that aspect better.

We can also look at a history in which it's not just like all of these things are piled up or just stacked together alongside each other, but they're articulated in various ways. Some have primacy in particular moments, some come in a particular kind of sequence, but we can't decide in the abstract and just say: race, class, which one is more important?

You quote a great and classic Barbara Fields line. She wrote: "as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy, rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco." Which I think really kind of clarifies the historical question. It's not in any way diminishing the horror of racism to note that it was constituted in the United States to legitimate a form of just absolutely brutal and near total economic subjugation and exploitation.

In her book Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman argues this, in some ways, makes [slavery] even more horrifying. That while in the Holocaust, extermination was directly the goal, in slavery, this kind of brutality was the result of the profit motive. It came out of the profit motive, and in some ways, that makes it seem even more horrifying that it wasn't even the primary intention. I don't want to get into a contest about which was worse, which would be obscene, but the point is that by pointing to the economic motive, you are not in any way minimizing the violence and the obscenity of these historical episodes. And one of the important things of that Barbara Fields line shows us is that white supremacy is contingent. White supremacy is not something that is in the genes of white people. We cannot allow that kind of racialist thinking to invade the way that we think about this history.

One thing we touched on a bit is that often the liberal argument that socialists don't care about race or gender is a straw man — in the case of Hillary Clinton, for — but as you've mentioned earlier and you write in the book, there is a current of what can only fairly be called class-first politics on the left. You argue that it plays into identitarians' hands.

The socialist left has a mixed history on the question, with points high and low. Things did improve, at least initially, with the rise of the Communist Party, where black cadre made the fight against racism central. Explain where the left sometimes falls short today and some of the historical antecedents.

First of all, the history of the labor and socialist movement in the United States is the history also of immigration and immigration from Europe, which is voluntary. But then also the forced immigration, the forced migration of African laborers.

That means that socialism always has a complicated relationship with the process, a long process of what Theodore Allen called the invention of the white race. When immigrants arrive in the United States, they have to make a choice, which is whether they will join up with the labor movement, with IWW, with the Socialist Party, etc., or will they opt to enjoy the privileges that are extended to people who join the club of whiteness and allow them to have some advantage over people who are formerly enslaved?

Now the Socialist Party and other organizations of that kind were not necessarily racist. We could certainly imagine that there were racist members and so on, but they often opposed segregation. They were often in favor of equal rights for black people. But what they didn't understand, in most cases, was that you couldn't have equality and you couldn't have the advancement of the interests of the working class as a whole unless you put anti-racist demands and programs at the center of your political work.

That's what people in the Communist Party started doing, particular figures like the African Blood Brotherhood, which was absorbed into the Communist Party at a certain point. It was founded in 1919, and in a few years was absorbed into the Party. A figure who I talk about a lot, who has a biography with one of the best titles I know of: Black Bolshevik. His name was Harry Haywood.

What he talked about was looking around, he was trying to recruit his friends and black people he knew to the Communist Party because he had an understanding of how racism was produced through the history of American capitalism. And he understood the necessity of having an anti-capitalist program to overcome racism. But it was hard to convince black people of that because they saw an organization that appeared to be primarily white. And they were more drawn to organizations like those of Marcus Garvey, which put demands for self-determination front-and-center.

That's why Haywood went to Moscow and wrote the famous 1928 Comintern Resolution, which said that there's a black nation in the American South, which has the right to take up the demand of self-determination. Lots of people quibble about this, whether it's really correct to say there was a nation in the Black Belt South. This is not the important thing. The important thing is that this was a strategic move to say there is a nationalist demand which is mobilizing a lot of people and Garveyism was a mass movement, and that Communists have to engage with that desire. They have to be able to say that the demand for self-determination can be taken up by a multiracial movement, by a movement which is anti-capitalist. We do not need to yield that to movements which are fundamentally based on an essentialist concept of race and which are opposed to solidarity with other nationalities and other groups.

Coming up to the present, where do actually existing class-first leftists fall short and what is the analysis that's put forward?

First of all, they suppress this history — one of the most precious aspects of the history of Marxism and what made Marxism a global phenomenon in the 20th century. They suppress this history partly because they have Eurocentric blinders, partly because of a really inadequate analysis of what went wrong with actually existing socialism in the 20th century that is popular in the United States.

They misrepresent Marxism to a public which otherwise might potentially be receptive to it. Many activists today look at Marxism as something which says that anti-racist demands are frivolous or should be subordinated to class demands. And class-based demands will realize anything that an anti-racist demand would do. Like an anti-racist demand is only just a sort of muddled way of expressing what is actually a class demand.

When they do that, when socialists talk like that, they turn off so many people who might otherwise be receptive to the idea of an anti-capitalist and anti-racist movement and they introduce the fuel for this kind of division.

It's sort of a destructive closed circuit, because it seems to me that for some so-called class-first leftists, the root of the analysis is anger at the identitarian argument, such that their counter argument becomes simply its inverse.

That's right and actually that's happened on both sides. The way that people who are now advocating identity politics often operate is based on pure negation of what they perceive to be the class-first position. Everybody loses in the situation.

Which is precisely how Hillary Clinton comes into this argument that if we break up the banks tomorrow, would that end racism, would that end sexism, would that end homophobia? Somehow the two become mutually opposed options, mutually exclusive options.

Breaking up the banks is an anti-racist demand. You look at the way that the subprime lending played out on race and gender lines, for example. There's a lot of social science empirical literature on this. Black women especially were targeted by subprime lenders.

Why is it not possible to say this now?

One reason it's become so impossible in so many different contexts is because of this really confusing and confused history that has produced the term "identity politics" as we've come to know it. I had Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on [the show] to talk about her book on the Combahee River Collective. I didn't know before reading her book that the term identity politics was coined by socialist black lesbian radicals, who meant something quite different and even diametrically opposed to the term's colloquial usage today.

For those who haven't listened to the Keeanga interview yet, I recommend that you do, but what happened to the term?

I also recommend picking up the book that Keeanga edited, which contains the Combahee River Collective's 1977 statement in which they introduced the term and also some really illuminating interviews with the founding members and authors of that collective statement.

Basically, what they mean when they say identity politics is that the existing social movements that we've participated in have all relied on an assumed kind of identity. And so in the Black liberation movement, it was assumed that black people are men, and in the feminist movement, it was assumed that women are white. And then in the labor and socialist movements, there was an assumption that workers are white men.

And in sort of this lesbian separatist moment on the feminist left, there was a kind of presumption that women aren't connected and embedded within networks that include men.

That is another thing that they opposed. They were trying to point out that when the identity of black women was brought into politics and when they asserted their autonomy and they asserted their right to organize autonomously, that disrupted these fixed and reductive identities that existed in these movements that they had been working in before.

It was on that basis that then it became possible to enter into coalitions, which didn't just marginalize them. It was possible to enter into coalitions with other movements of various kinds and still retain their autonomy and be able to exercise leadership and control over their own lives and their own political activities.

That's what they meant by identity politics. They meant also that because of the way that the different relations of oppression — along racial, sexual, and economic lines — have been intermingled in society and in American history, that black women were situated exactly at that intersection. By responding to the various forms of oppression that they experienced, they could restructure the whole of society. That would be the trajectory of the revolution that came out of working for the interests of black women.

Because if black women were freed, everyone would have to be freed.

You've just quoted that pivotal line in the collective statement. That's exactly where their politics were moving towards. This is a politics of coalition. It's a politics of general emancipation, and they use this term "identity politics" to try to point to that. They're really the first people to use it in this sense. If you search for it in the published record before that, it occurs extremely rarely and only in a very casual sense.

But here's the thing: that definition of identity politics does not seem to be what people mean today when they use the word. That's a real puzzle. What happened in between? In my book, I don't really trace that history. What happened in the 80s and 90s specifically, how that term was transmitted. And maybe one day in the future I will explain what I think about that. 

It's not in the book because what I wanted to show in the book is that this term that people may find attractive today has an actual revolutionary history, a revolutionary origin point. And that the contemporary usage goes against so much of what those people, what those activists and militants who had formulated the term wanted to achieve.

Now we have a situation in which it seems like everybody who uses the term identity politics means something different by it, and often they mean different things by it in just one same conversation. One person may have three different definitions of it operating at the same time. And so there's no way that we can come up with a kind of fixed definition.

My move was to say, look, it has this revolutionary history and now it has this completely reactionary usage, so we have to understand the instability of the term and we have to try to figure out how to articulate a different kind of politics from the one that's dominant now.

You don't do a genealogy of how the term went so far off the rails, but you do talk quite a bit about why this formulation of identity politics so appealing today. You write, when there is no other practical organizational effort to combat racism, any questioning of the framework of identity seems like an attempt to deny the validity of the anti-racist struggle. In fact, it goes even deeper than this. Questioning racial ideology itself seems to be a denial of the agency of the oppressed.

Elsewhere you argue, in a related fashion, that neoliberalism's greatest achievement is convincing us that there is no alternative. As a result, people drift away from a project of universal emancipation. In this flat, hopeless reality, some choose the consolations of fundamentalism but others choose the consollations of identity.

My book does not set up an opposition between race and class, as we've already discussed. But what it does set up is an opposition between mass movements and elite politics. That is the central contradiction and antagonism in my book and that's how I read the history that takes us from the 1960s and 70s to the present.

What I see is that the Combahee River Collective is making this proposal at a point at which mass movements are starting to seriously decline and the right is starting to seriously ascend. This is the period of neoliberal restructuring in Europe in the United States and it's a period of new right-wing ruling class strategy, which Stuart Hall called authoritarian populism.

It's at this moment that the term emerges and then enters into a totally new political context from the one that the people who proposed the term had been working within when they were part of those mass movements. Within mass movements, when a language of race or any other kind of relation that is subsumed under the category of identity is put forward, it's part of a general program for structural social transformation. And it is constantly subjected to the sort of practical criticism of mass movements. When leaders in a mass movement put ideas forward or they make proposals of concepts or slogans, etc., they are subject to the criticism of thousands of people who are listening to them and who have actually done the work to get them there.

That's a very particular kind of context. When these mass organizations encounter their own internal obstacles, when they're oppressed by the state, when they start to fragment just because the conditions of people's lives are falling apart, at that point, this kind of language of race becomes disembedded from the mass movements that made that language revolutionary. And it gets taken up by leaders who are no longer subjected to the supervision of the grassroots, but are now able to enter in to the existing power structure of the society.

That's the history in which this kind of drastic change and reversal of a term like identity politics can happen.

This reminds me a lot of the whole Rachel Dolezal question, which I discussed a little bit with the Fields sisters and indeed, you wrote the clearest and best sentences on Dolezal that I've ever encountered. 

One point to bridge between what I was previously talking about and your question now, is that when these kinds of politics around race — and I keep sort of hedging here, because I don't really accept that we can have a category which is just identity as such, that subsumes both race and gender and maybe class into it. I think these are all different kinds of social relations and identity is not an adequate way of describing them in their specificity.

When people talk in identitarian terms, you always get a laundry list of the different things. And that doesn't mean that you're being intersectional. Kimberlé Crenshaw in one of her foundational articles on the question said, intersectionality is not about proposing a new theory of identity. She says it very explicitly.

When these different kinds of political categories lose their anchoring in social movements, the reason they become so useful for elites is that they reduce politics to the redress of an injury. When you can claim to have been injured in some way on the basis of your identity, you can then make an appeal to the state for protection. It's the status of victimhood and the promise of protection that gets attached to the category of identity.

That's the basic way that liberal politics works. I rely on the insights of Judith Butler and Wendy Brown for this. It means that not only do people get more and more reduced to whatever identity category has constituted them as political, because they were injured on the basis of having that identity, it also takes away their agency as political actors. Because they become victims who need to be protected by the state.

When you become political only through experiencing an injury and then receiving protection on that basis from the state, then you have to construct an identity for yourself that makes you injured. Rachel Dolezal was in some ways the most farcical and extreme example of doing that, precisely because passing is such an important term in American history. There have been very interesting histories written about exactly how many people passed. I'm talking about black people passing as white. There was a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen called Passing — one of many novels about that phenomenon.

The fact that Rachel Dolezal did it in the reverse is just completely bewildering. I think the thing is that the contemporary language of identity made it very hard for people to explain why they had such a strong affective reaction to Rachel Dolezal. There was this utter disgust with her, but a lot of difficulty explaining precisely why. Because at the same time, we talk about the fungibility of identity and things like that, on what basis are we saying that this was wrong? I think one could make an argument, but the problem is that our existing political language doesn't make that possible.

I think it was specifically the failure of identitarian language there, that left identitarian liberals with only outrage as a response to conservatives who tried to use the Dolezal episode to basically attack trans people and say, oh, well, this is a problem, then why can people be trans? Obviously that's outrageous that they're exploiting this internet controversy to attack trans people. But I think because of the identitarian framework, people were ill-equipped to respond to the right, the homophobic right on that.

It should not be so hard for us to respond to the extreme right and that's a peculiar phenomenon today. We should be able to engage in outright and brutal condemnations of the extreme right. But instead, I think one of the aspects of the identity discourse is that you really need the extreme right to come in and say awful things, so that you can take up a position of disgust. Or then you can compare whoever your current opponent on the left may be to the right, and insist that disgust be extended to them. We should be clear about our lines of antagonism and we should have collective struggles against the extreme right, that I don't see happening right now.

We were just discussing the individualist notion of injury embedded within identitarian frameworks, and I think the corollary to that is there's an individualist notion in terms of perpetrators of racism as well. Rather than structural issues, even though people talk about structural racism, it often comes down to like bad ideas in people's heads, which to me, transposes this racism that's rooted in political economy, contingently, into the brains or even genes of people with bad ideas.

Often ironically, its more affluent liberals, transposing racism, blaming for racism, poor white people rather than a political economic system that systematically segregates and exploits black people. A constant thing I talk about on the show is that blaming of kind of the stereotypical redneck is itself racist because it's about cleansing the white elites' whiteness of this white trash, of the bad whites.

Affluent whites are extremely racist. There are particular bubbles in the northeast and the west coast that contain upper-middle class and sometimes lower, wealthy elite white people who are part of like a kind of progressive culture. This was sort of summed up in the very interesting response to the book What's the Matter with Kansas? — "What's the matter with Connecticut?"

Rich people are extremely right-wing and racist and the actually weird phenomenon is that there are some wealthy states where rich people lean towards liberalism, like Connecticut and others. But in most of the country, that's not the case. In most of the country, the lower your income, even among white people, the more likely you are to vote for the Democrats.

There are a lot of complete misconceptions about the politics of different demographics in the United States that underlie those kinds of prejudices about "white trash."

Just look at Westchester County's long-running, absolutely tenacious fight against housing integration, which would require placing low income and thus disproportionately people of color in their communities. This is a cause for war, for Westchester County, New York.

You saw this also in terms of the way that Trump voters are talked about. There's just this assumption that every white person in the Midwest and the South voted for Trump. It's not true. We have a huge portion of the population first of all in the States that does not vote from the start. There are plenty of white people, the majority of white people in this country did not vote for Trump. That's just what the numbers mean.

The way that this group is discussed, it's like they are so morally responsible for something bad that happened, that all we can do is morally condemn them. Anyone who suggests, like Bernie Sanders or whoever, that we should go out and speak to them and speak to their actual existing concerns is apologizing for and rationalizing their racism.

Which is a classic conservative argument when it comes to other issues, when we on the anti-imperialist left say, hey, maybe the US history of imperialism in the Middle East might have something to do with why two planes got flown in to the Twin Towers and into the Pentagon. The standard conservative response is that you're excusing terrorism.

But of course, saying this thing about Trump voters is going to get you a lot of likes and RTs and it's going to be very popular when you say it on MSNBC, but the thing is when you actually follow through on that to think about what are the political consequences and what's the actual political program that follows, it exposes a very serious error in thinking. Which is, unless you plan to physically eradicate that part of the population, which not only would that be like a morally bad —

Or deprive them of their franchise, somehow.

They're outside the pale, those are like fascist behaviors. So unless you're proposing those, if you're actually interested in opposing racism, if you're interested in fighting against Trump, if you're interested in seeing real social change, that means you do have to change those people's minds and you have to change the way that they live and practice and the way that they relate to each other and to people who they think may not be like them.

That means advancing a message, which is not just pandering to their economic interests, but is also educating them on the role that racism has played in this country and the need for them to take up the struggle against white chauvinism and racism as their own struggle as well. And the need for them to form solidarities with people of color and accept the leadership of people of color in movements that are about defending immigrants, in movements that are fighting against police violence and in movements that are about unionizing workplaces that don't have that kind of protection.

All of these things have to be done and the people in the Midwest, in the South, they have to be reached with that message. There's no other way and you get a lot of people. 

Political education is exactly what you need to be doing if you want to have social change. You can go on YouTube and look at an amazing exchange Fred Hampton has about political education. It was a fundamental term for the Black Panthers, they thought that the breakfast for children program was first and foremost a political education program. Political education is fundamental.

Read Part II.