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The quest for the mythical "class reductionist"
Sorry, but Bernie, Briahna, Bhaskar, and others don't dismiss racism—they just believe in universal solutions for a more equitable future.
Socialism, defined simply, is class politics. Where defenders of the current system see a mass of free agents in mutually beneficial employment contracts, the socialist left sees an ownership class dominating and exploiting an underclass of people whose circumstances give them no realistic choice except submission. Socialists have different ideas about what an alternative system might look like, but to be a socialist is to think this system has to change.
Though I’m not under the delusion that a majority of Americans are going to get behind “workers’ control” anytime soon, I am optimistic that class politics have been gaining momentum. Since Occupy Wall Street’s introduced the narrative of “the 99 percent against the 1 percent,” Senator Bernie Sanders came heartbreakingly close to snagging the Democratic nomination for president, and two members of the Democratic Socialists of America have been elected to Congress. A third just won her primary in a deep-blue district.
You’d think this revival of class consciousness would make any socialist want to celebrate. Oddly enough, though, some socialists have started to insinuate that their comrades emphasize class too much. Is there anything to this concern?
Class Reductionism and the Biden Question
Left-wing YouTuber Vaush V, who spends most of his time fighting with the alt-right, has led the charge in calling a number of his fellow leftists “class reductionists.” When I talked to him about this on his stream, he said his primary concern is that some leftists believe only economic issues matter, and would thus be willing to ignore the alt-right’s racism, homophobia, and other ugly attitudes. According to Vaush, this can lead them to support alleged right-wing populists such as Donald Trump. As evidence of this, he cited the reluctance of some leftists to support Biden.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that “lesser evil voting” is a hotly contested issue that the left has debated for years. Some people who no one would accuse of being “class reductionists” consider it unacceptable to vote for a centrist like Biden, including black nationalists, especially given his support for the 1996 Crime Bill and choice of ex-prosecutor Kamala Harris as his running mate. Analytical clarity isn’t going to be served by running the strategic voting issue together with the “class reductionism” issue.
Salon and Left Voice Sound the Alarm
Writing in Left Voice, Tatiana Cozzarelli warns that Class Reductionism is Real, and It's Coming from the Jacobin Wing of DSA. Directing his fire at the Philly DSA and recently canceled black socialist scholar Adolph Reed Jr, Asad Haider recently made a similar accusation in Salon.
But what does “class reductionism” even mean?
When analytic philosophers talk about “reductionism,” they mean theories according to which one phenomenon can be wholly explained in terms of another. To be a “reductive physicalist” about minds, for example, is to think that when we’ve completely and accurately described brain states (or perhaps patterns of behavior), we’ve said everything there is to say about mental states like thoughts and feelings.
Could this sort of philosophical “reductionism” be applied to class and race? It’s undoubtedly true that contemporary racial prejudices mostly owe their origins to economic factors. When you’re enslaving people or stealing their resources in colonial wars, it’s a lot easier to justify what you’re doing if you can concoct some sort of story about how they’re innately inferior to you. That said, being a “reductionist” about some subject in this abstract analytical sense isn’t the same as dismissing its importance.
The mid-century philosopher Gilbert Ryle, for example, famously derided the idea that minds have a separate existence from the existence of bodies, brains, and behavior patterns as a spooky belief in a “ghost in the machine.” Still, I’m pretty sure that when his twin sister Mary told him that she was angry with him, he didn’t tell her that feelings didn’t matter because emotions were reducible to physiology. Many philosophers of science believe that facts about chemistry are ultimately reducible to facts about physics. Still, it doesn’t follow from this position that science majors shouldn’t be required to take chemistry classes or that this is an unimportant subject. You could believe that racial disparities have entirely economic causes while still finding it morally and politically important to fight for racial equality.
That said, racism isn’t really “reducible” in this sense to its economic origins. Insofar as ongoing bigotries are fed by the tendency of societies throughout history to find ways to stigmatize ethnic, linguistic, “racial,” or religious groups who tend to be part of the impoverished underclass as a way of rationalizing the economic disparity, it’s reasonable to think that achieving economic equality would lead to a significant reduction in racial bias. But it would be naive to assume that racism would simply disappear in an economically egalitarian society.
Here’s the thing, though: Few on the left believe “only class matters.”
Vaush V’s list of supposed “class reductionists” includes Glenn Greenwald, Krystal Ball, and YouTubers Peter Coffin, and “Angie Speaks.” However, Glenn is a gay man who’s frequently written about LGBTQ rights and the unjust persecution of American Muslims. Krystal Ball often argues with her conservative co-host Saagar Enjeti about police repression of Black Lives Matter protests, accusing Saagar’s hero Tucker Carlson of “xenophobia” about immigration. Peter Coffin is a non-binary trans person who regularly discusses trans issues. Angie is a black woman who frequently refers to what she calls “the black freedom struggle.” Quite clearly, none of them are indifferent to the harms caused by these forms of bigotry.
Even the primary target of Haider’s critique, Adolph Reed, explicitly affirms “sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia” are “ideologies and attitudes that persist and cause harm.” Haider also criticizes Philly DSA for stating that demands including defunding the police are “insufficient” to achieve “racial and economic justice” without redistributive social spending, but you have to be pretty committed to reading things in the worst possible light to interpret “these demands are insufficient to solve the problem” as “these demands are wrong or unimportant.” The point of the Philly DSA statement was that, while racial bias by police officers is all too real, the primary reason that black people are much more likely than white people to be brutalized by police is that militarized policing is primarily a problem in poor neighborhoods and black people are much more likely than white people to be poor.
Haider also refers to “some people” on the online left who “proudly embrace the label,” but he doesn’t name any names. For whatever it’s worth, I’ve never seen anyone “embrace the label” in a non-ironic way. It’s hard not to be reminded of Jordan Peterson’s insistence that “postmodern neo-Marxists” are a significant problem among academia. When Slavoj Zizek asked him to name a few, Peterson drew a blank.
Is Bernie Sanders a Class Reductionist?
Cozzarelli is a bit more specific in her targets. Along with Reed, Cozzarelli names Bernie Sanders and his ex-press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, as well as Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara as class reductionists. Bernie and Bhaskar are both criticized for having failed to endorse the demand for reparations, and Reed for having failed to discuss the post-George Floyd unrest in a livestream with Bhaskar on Jacobin’s YouTube channel in June. (The slippage from the premise that they didn’t talk about the protests in that particular conversation to the implied conclusion that they’re either indifferent or hostile towards them is pretty typical of Cozzarelli’s reasoning throughout the essay.) Cozzarelli provides no evidence that any of these figures deny racism or suggests it isn’t a real problem - which is what it sounds like people are being accused of when accused of class reductionism. Instead, their primary sin seems to be noticing that the best way of lifting black and brown people out of poverty is by pushing the kind of universal demands that would benefit working-class people of all races.
But a cross-racial movement that doesn't frame the issue primarily in terms of “black lives” and “white allies” but as an issue of urgent concern to all impoverished Americans is a good thing. The fact is that black people are more likely than white people to lack health insurance and would thus disproportionately benefit from Medicare for All. Black people are more likely than white people to have to incur student loan debt to get through college and would therefore disproportionately benefit from tuition-free public higher education and universal student loan forgiveness.
Cozzarelli doesn’t exactly deny any of this, but she still seems to think that failure to support the specific strategy of race-based reparations is a problem. But...why? If I applied the same logic she uses to criticize people like Adolph Reed and Bernie Sanders; I’d call her a “race reductionist.” But here’s a more charitable interpretation:
The uneven distribution of poverty among different racial groups is a result of grave historical injustices. If we focus on building a united movement of working-class people of all races to overcome all poverty without targeting specific races, that might feel like we’re ignoring or downplaying the importance of that history.
But consider this analogy:
A serial killer has kidnapped ten people. The killer is an anti-Asian racist, so when possible, he likes to find Asian victims. Six of the ten victims are Asian. The other four are members of other races. Maybe one of the non-Asians was kidnapped because he stumbled on the killer kidnapping one of the others, and the other three were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
These ten people didn’t all end up in the killer’s basement in the same way and it would be callous and stupid to pretend they did. But right now they all need exactly the same thing--to work together to get out of the basement.
As Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels put it in a recent article in Common Dreams, it is “practically impossible to imagine a serious strategy for winning the kinds of reforms that would actually improve black and brown working people's conditions without winning them for all working people and without doing so through a struggle anchored to broad working-class solidarity.” Everyone needs to get out of the basement and everyone’s best chance of getting out is to work together.
If Vaush or Tatiana Cozzarelli or Asad Haider can find a real-life example of some prominent voice on the left who denies or downplays America’s hideous racial history, or who believes that racism and other forms of prejudice don’t “persist and cause harm,” or who doesn’t think that anti-discriminate efforts are necessary, I’ll join them in criticizing that person. But calling people like Reed and Michaels “class reductionists” is both unjust and unhelpful. It’s unfair because no one should be accused of indifference to efforts to counter bigotry without strong evidence. It’s unhelpful because relentlessly emphasizing that the fight for socialism serves the interests of poor and working people of all backgrounds is the best strategy for getting everyone out of the basement.