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above: portrait of Karl Marx by John Jabez Edwin Mayal (public domain)

Society & Culture

The Post-Marxist Left’s Race Problem

A recurrent theme in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980) is how the prospect of a coalition between poor blacks and poor whites has often struck fear in the hearts of the wealthy classes in American history. Not surprisingly, Zinn longed for the emergence of an interracial coalition that, in his view, would bring about a more humane and just America for all. As a traditional Marxist, he equated injustice with class oppression and justice with socialism.

Such an interracial coalition had emerged for a short time in conjunction with the populist movement of the late 19th century. Today, we may be witnessing the emergence of another such alliance—ironically, perhaps, on the populist right—in part because the left has largely abandoned Marxist concerns with class struggle.

In a chapter on the prevalence of racism in pre-revolutionary America, Zinn writes:

Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order. In the early years of slavery, especially before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation.

Zinn adds that plutocratic interests had a stake in pitting these poor groups against each other by encouraging “the temptation of superior status for whites,” as well as enshrining “legal and social punishment of black and white collaboration.” Despite these measures, the primal fear of an alliance only intensified in the antebellum South. “It was the potential combination of poor whites and blacks that caused the most fear among the wealthy white planters,” he wrote.

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above: cover of Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States (2015 reissue edition, Harper Perennial Modern Classics)
 

Although the Civil War ended slavery, it did not end the oppression of blacks in the South, nor did Zinn believe it improved the lives of northern whites who “were not economically favored” any more than those of most Southern whites who “were poor farmers, not decisionmakers.” According to Zinn, the Civil War was a clash between “elites”—Northern industrialists versus Southern planters—not “of peoples.” He believed that various divide-and-conquer strategies in postbellum America have worked to distract poor blacks and whites from uniting against a common enemy that exploits both groups to this day.

The first edition of A People’s History appeared at a time when leftists often still desired the unification of all poor Americans against the class system. In the decades since, many prominent leftists have rejected this traditional vision of an interracial class-based alliance as the wrong kind of unity to build. Instead, they insist that the focus on class obscured the need to zero in on white supremacy as the real dragon to be slain. This shift from class to race has led to some curious results that should interest observers on the left and the right.

One of these results is the growing suspicion among leftists that Marxism is a species of white supremacy, precisely because it devotes more attention to class than to race. To be sure, Marx did privilege the importance of class oppression over racism, even going so far as to compare the hostility between exploited English and Irish workers in England with the hatred that poor whites and emancipated slaves felt towards each other in America. Although this analogy does not sound like an endorsement of white racial superiority, the Caribbean professor of philosophy Charles W. Mills, in his work From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism (2003), urges readers of Marx and Engels to read racial prejudice between the lines:

…[A]t best there was no perception on their part that the peculiar situation of people of color required any conceptual modifications of their theory. And if we are less charitable, we must ask whether their contemptuous attitude toward people of color does not raise the question whether they too, like the leading liberal theorists cited above, should not be indicted for racism…

Mills coined the term “White Marxism” in order to highlight what he took to be the racist blind spot of subordinating racial injustice to the “white” preoccupation with class. Nor is he the only leftist to equate a focus on class injustice with white racism. George Ciccariello-Maher, in his book Decolonizing Dialectics (2017) also attacks the Marxian version of “dialectics” for exhibiting Eurocentric tendencies that, at best, ignore colonial oppression of nonwhite races and, at worst, condone them.

Ciccariello-Maher is not exactly famous for sympathizing with the plight of the white working class. He is, however, infamous for tweeting “All I want for Christmas is white genocide” on Christmas Eve 2016. In a subsequent tweet, Ciccariello-Maher attributed the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas to both “Trumpism” and the entitled mentality of whites. “White people and men are told that they are entitled to everything,” he wrote. “This is what happens when they don’t get what they want.” These tweets and others led to his resignation as a professor of political science at Drexel University, which condemned his tweets. Ciccariello-Maher said he resigned because he no longer felt it was “safe” for him to work there, due to alleged death threats.

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above: cover of Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book White Fragility (Beacon Press)

The most famous example of the leftist shift from class to race in recent years is, of course, Robin DiAngelo’s bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018). This work has inspired politicians, celebrities, and other wealthy individuals to take up the cause of fighting “systemic racism” wherever it lurks, so long as it doesn’t affect their pocketbooks. Like Mills and Ciccariello-Maher, DiAngelo shows little interest in understanding or appreciating the impact of class-based injustices on white people. In a 2011 essay on white fragility that became the template for her book, she consigns the issue of class to this footnote:

Although white racial insulation is somewhat mediated by social class (with poor and working-class urban whites being generally less racially insulated than suburban or rural whites), the larger social environment insulates and protects whites as a group through institutions, cultural representations, media, school textbooks, movies, advertising, and dominant discourses.

Contained within this wordy example of academic prose is this message: Poor whites, despite their lesser degree of “insulation,” are complicit in maintaining an order that legitimizes white supremacy. Additionally, they benefit from this regime. (The fact that DiAngelo has become very wealthy as a result of her work on white fragility may explain why she is reluctant to treat social class inequalities as a serious subject.)

Is it any surprise, then, that some leftists were horrified when some nonwhite Americans joined with working class whites in voting for Donald Trump? The fact that the ex-president won a significant number of votes from black and Hispanic Americans in the 2020 election has set off alarm bells. Some pundits on the left reacted by warning of “multiracial whiteness.” This is the deplorable condition of embracing “white” ideas that tolerate the oppression of nonwhites. As Chronicles Editor Paul Gottfried explains in his article, “‘Multiracial Whiteness’ is the Latest Leftist Branding Iron” (American Greatness, Jan. 26, 2021), the solution to this false consciousness afflicting minority groups is clear: “[T]he disease of ‘whiteness’ has befallen nonwhites as well as biological whites, and we would do well to reeducate these bigoted nonwhites, particularly the ones who wore MAGA hats and voted for Trump.”

Needless to say, the kind of interracial unity Zinn hoped for is not the one that led minority voters to vote for the plutocrat Trump. Yet it is also unlikely that he would have welcomed the subordination of class to race that is so widespread on the left today; more plausibly, he would have regarded this strategy as an example of leftists acting as “useful idiots” in another divide-and-conquer strategy cooked up by capitalist elites.

From a right-wing perspective, the left’s division over race is all very good news. As long as the post-Marxist left ignores the reality of class discrimination, its parties will continue to bleed working class voters to the right.

Grant Havers

Grant Havers is an associate editor of VoegelinView and Philosophy Department Chair at Trinity Western University in Canada. 

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markrothschild
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Your thesis that the right can find allies in the American working class is incorrect. Also incorrect is the proposition that the left is an any sense “post-Marxist”. The American left did not abandon the dialectic of class struggle and embrace a dialectic of racial struggle/racial oppression. In fact, the American left did not reject Marxian class dialectics at all. Rather, the American proletariat withered away and melted into the middle class after the New Deal and WW2. The American proletariat was coopted by a combination of rapidly rising living standards and generous social welfare spending. After WW2 the amplitude of rising living standards and social welfare were made possible by the dual magic of currency depreciation and US hegemony over our erstwhile enemies and constant economic rivals in Europe and Japan. However, after Nixon's closing of the gold window all this exorbitant privilege and power began to unravel and here we are today. Party over! The drama of class struggle is alive and well in America, but now the dramatis personae have changed. Historical and dialectical materialism teaches that the class struggle must be based on objective classes identified by their characteristics of “production and reproduction”. This is the essence of Marxian analysis of any society or stage of history. What are the objective classes of “production and reproduction” today? There are only two. The productive middle class & the parasitic managerial class. The class struggle in America today is called the Culture War. It is the struggle of a 19th Century cultural ideal pitted in a zero-sum struggle against the managerial 21st Century cultural ideal. In your analysis you have mistaken the lower middle class for the working class. The left owns the working class which is firmly in the grip of the 21st Century managerial elite. The productive lower middle class however is a fertile field for the right to plow in, as Trump notably did so well.
 
 

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Charles
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There was indeed a problem with classical Marxism from the 1960s to the 1980s. Classical Marxists applied too literally a nineteenth century Western European paradigm to the United States, where the conditions were different, including the significant presence of Afro-descendants, whose forms of labor exploitation and political oppression differed from those of white industrial workers. ¶ In the late 1960s and early 1970s, black nationalists were the strongest voice in criticizing classical Marxism. They formulated an alternative perspective from the vantage point of the colonized peoples of the world, in which they defined a primary axis of domination between the colonizer and the colonized. It was a perspective that added insights that European-based Marxism had overlooked. ¶ By the 1980s, leftist academics understood the need for synthesis, generally expressed as the need for the integration of race, class, and gender. But we did not know how to formulate it. At the same time, the Left became increasingly powerless, as the nation turned to neoliberalism and a more aggressive imperialism. ¶ In the context of its containment, the Left turned to identity politics, an approach that benefits primarily the middle class of the historically excluded sectors. It abandons the white working and lower classes as well as the working and lower classes of the minority communities. And it perpetuates the failure of the Left to observe the Third World, which has been accomplishing integrated popular revolutions in practice. With the emergence of the woke ideology, the Left has turned its back on the popular revolution. ¶ Havers is right. The populist Right and traditional conservativism are in the strongest position today to forge an integrated popular movement that seeks political power through electoral means, with the intention of establishing a government for the people. ¶ Charles McKelvey, Professor Emeritus, Presbyterian College, Clinton, SC
 
 

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markrothschild
The dialectical contradiction at work in America today is not between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. If it were then you might be correct in your electoral calculation. Racial politics was created after the New Deal and was manufactured by the left as a "false consciousness" to mislead and distract from the actual Culture War that pits a beleaguered 19th C. middle class culture against the 21st C. managerial class.
BluishAnon
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Communism is terrible. Critical Race Theory is the most bigoted ideology I've ever seen. WAY outdoing NaziGermany.
 
 

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RMB
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Good analysis on the difference between Marxist orthodoxy and the current Leftist movement. There is an opportunity for the American Right to gain some new supporters. However, the bad news is that this movement combines the previously failed New Left with US political establishment and corporate leaders to form a very potent new New Left movement built around Cultural Marxism. They use the racist label as a cudgel for their opponents while joining the ruling class. It is still class warfare but the intellectuals cited in this article are being used as pawns. At least those are my thoughts. For more on the history of this mixing of New Left and Political Elite class check out the linked article. https://thecrosssectionrmb.blogspot.com/2021/03/how-should-we-then-live-chapter-11-our.html
 
 

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1100015426
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Steve Bannon explained Trumpism the best, in front of the Black Americans For a Better Future organization. YouTube it. The small entrepreneurs, and the workers who work in these small-to-middlin size businesses, saw the sense in what Mr. Bannon was saying: stop wasting money and lives on endless wars to revive capital formation, some of which can be used to rebuild our Nation and its dying cities, bring the supply chain back to America so that there are plenty of good-paying jobs again, make possible again, the access to capital for business (and therefore job) formation for ALL Americans, control immigration so that business can’t use cheap illegal labor...again plenty of good-paying jobs to be had. Some people only want to be responsible for their own labor, and are content with wages, and let the businessman worry with all that other stuff of running a business (this defines me). Also, the very best welfare program is a secure, good-paying job you can work at for 30, 40 years and retire from, in comfort and dignity. Nobody likes a Nanny State doling out housing, groceries, medical care, transportation, etc...like we are children in need of someone to oversee our “allowance” and that we spend it wisely, etc... race these days is a non-issue for regular folks. We are aware of wannabe Oligarchs who have deluded themselves into thinking they know best how to run the World. Some of us regular folks see this as the job of God and His Angels, NOT a job for megalomaniacs, who end up killing us, either directly, or embroiling us in THEIR wars for Global Empire.
 
 

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BluishAnon
Sorry buddy. I dont want to spend my Best years constantly working so I can retire at an old age and be miserable and/or in bad health. Maybe speak for yourself. No disrespect intended!!
mountainseagull
Also, the very best welfare program is a secure, good-paying job you can work at for 30, 40 years and retire from, in comfort and dignity....Govt Union jobs retire after 20. We should have all joined one.
1100015426
Mountain seagull, I have no confidence in "one size fits all" proposals., or cookie cutter solutions. I also take "as ye sow, so shall ye reap" and the similar concept of Karma, seriously, so man proposes, but God (through His Angels) disposes.
1100015426
Bluish, 75 million voted for Trumpism the 2nd time around, more than the1st time around, so I doubt that I'm speaking for myself. We are mortal, and sinners on top of that. Cast into The Arena of Life by those of the Immortal and Transcendant Order, sickness and death, and getting our daily bread by the sweat of our brow, is our universal lot in this temporary life. You are free to make of this temporary condition what you will, and you assuredly do not speak for me. Respectfully.
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