The poverty of radical writing on race, community, and representation in the U.S. scene is devastating, especially as the attacks on civil rights being directed at the poor and minorities in particular. Exactly this poverty acts to hide itself from view, since there are so few voices calling out the domination of both (and I say “both” because the discussion is largely between revanchist re-segregationists and spineless liberals who seem to fundamentally accept the terms of the debate, sharing as they do the same fundamental agreement on the neoliberal order and its commands) sides. This poverty makes writers like Adolph Reed Jr. all the more valuable. His Class Notes is a devastating rejoinder both to the faux-radical Black intellectuals (bell hooks, Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, et al) and to what is left of the “white Left” that seems hell bent on tail-ending them and succumbing to an essentializing non-politics of “whiteness”, eviscerated of its particular connection to a radical working class politics that fell off in the early 1970’s, and made into a mechanism by which to eliminate rather than stimulate a critique of racialization. When Reed takes up communitarian notions of race, community, and representation, much of the book reads like it was written last year, not mostly 15 years ago. And yet Reed remains committed to an activism which trumps his critical reason at crucial moments, short-circuiting a really adequate critique and leading to a banal commitment to a social democratic politics that is as dead as the liberalism whose Left it formed.
A few essays in the book convey both its strengths and weaknesses alike and so without spending time going through each piece, I will just take up a couple of the essays, keeping in mind that the entire book is a valuable read and each essay hammers at his key points from a slightly different angle. This repetition with slight variations is not only acceptable, but it feels absolutely necessary in order to chip away the crust of shit that covers us in the present moment.
I think I can summarize the thrust of this book by saying that there is no such thing as a unitary “Black Community”, except in the racist minds of whites who want to make the task of dealing with Black people simple by imagining a simplistic monolith and in the opportunistic minds of Black elites who want to make their careers by proclaiming their role as “representatives of the race” and interpreters of the “natives” to those whites. Along the way, Reed pulls apart the inner differences of this Black elite, since it is not composed of a singular group any more than Black people form a homogenous Community. There is a struggle over who gets to be the “authentic representatives”, even as all the contestants agree that there is a monolithic Community and they are its gatekeepers.
The result is that whether we are discussing Jesse Jackson and Minister Farrakhan, or Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, or Al Sharpton and Barack Obama, or the Mega-Churches and Michael Steel, the fundamental assumptions about who they represent to whom and what the problems are do not appreciably change. They all agree that they represent a Black community to white America, that they are its authentic representatives largely by reason of their being, that is, an essentialized Blackness, and the problem is the moral regeneration of this Black Community. The racial construction of America does not so much disappear, as it becomes the lesser part of a morality play with a politics not dissimilar to those of Booker T. Washington, looking down upon a benighted and nihilistic (Cornel West’s favorite descriptor) Black Community that is desperately in need of spirituality, uplift, and education whether through the churches or the jails.
On the other side, there is the white-guilt panderers of the White Left (Reed documents his own struggle to avoid this term in one of the essays and I use it only in light of this essay and his worries, which remain valid) from Race Traitor to Tim Wise, who also agree that an “authentic” leadership of the Black Community can only come from “Authentic Black Leaders”, who whites need to support, but whom they cannot criticize in any meaningful way because they, unlike these “Authentic Black Leaders”, they don’t know what it is like to be Black in America. Hence the pandering to opportunists like Jesse Jackson, proto-fasicsts like the Nation of Islam, and neo-liberal preachers in radical haircuts like West, Dyson, et al and a constant hum of denunciation of all whites as “privileged”, and the Black Community as an ethical weathervane of progressive sentiment.
Not only does this whole outlook on both sides share similarly rotten communitarian sentiments, but it is profoundly ethically and intellectually destructive and debilitating. On the one hand, it projects an anti-democratic, authoritarian model of politics onto Black people by assuming that “they” are defined first and always foremost by race (hence the need of some Black women to call themselves “womanists” to avoid being associated with feminism as always-already “white”), and even within that definition, by the broadest cultural concerns that emphasize homogeneity and not concerns over poverty, housing, jobs, etc. that would point to sharpened class divisions within, thus exposing the lack of a monolithic Black Community.
Reed goes further than this, however, and points out that reducing anyone to a single “essence” like their race obscures that no person is reducible to a single identity or even to a collection of identities (p. xvii). The whole multiculturalist move to talk about a person as a collection of identities is not less essentializing, it is just piling on the same error (p. xviii). His point here is very reminiscent of Richard Gunn’s criticism of essentializing notions of class in his essay Notes on Class.
This points up a limitation of Reed’s however. In the Introduction he specifically treats class as “functional location in the system of social reproduction” (p. xxvii), but as Gunn argues, class is not a location. It is a relation, a field in which we find ourselves. The capital-labor relation is the class relation. Class isn’t a “location” one can point to and that becomes evident every time someone tries to define who is and who is not working class. However, this is a theory that goes hand-in-hand with the viewpoint of an activist, who needs to be able to locate the object of her activism.
This reflects a fundamental weakness in Reed’s work. From the beginning he believes that theory needs to be subordinated to practice (p. x). Theory that does not find its reflection in a program, a list of demands, and a kind of organizing activity is at best disconnected and at worst an apologia for the present state of affairs. Instead, Reed wants us to adopt his kind of theorizing, the kind that leads to slow, pain-staking organizing to build a constituency which can challenge control over the state and economy by the capitalist class, through existing institutions.
The impact of this in his work becomes evident however, as one reads on. I most likely know some of the people he refers to as solid activists doing good work, especially the ones who left the sectarian Left, and yet my view of them was not quite the same. Mostly they were people who found a home as the Left of the Democratic Party or within the union apparatuses as low to mid-level functionaries. Their main activities were to focus on daily items and “achievable” near-term goals with some vague notion that this would contribute to long-term radical class organizations that could be an effective political counterweight. Some of them were in Teamsters for a Democratic Union, others were in New Directions in the United Auto Workers, and many of both participated in the formation of the Labor Party, a stillborn effort. Some others were in the now-defunct ACORN or the unions in Chicago close to them like the SEIU. Some came out of the Trotskyist and Maoist sects of the 1960’s and 70’s. Almost all of them were utterly hostile to anything or anyone to their left and extremely limited in their ability to stake out an independent position to the union and Democratic Party functionaries to their right. This isn’t to say that all of them were bad people. They were mostly good people with a deep distrust of the sectarian Left no matter who you were, and often for good reasons. But they were as opposed to a criticism of the union by non-union members as they had been of their group by non-members rght up until they quit. And they had no vision of the limitations of the unions, which they blithely assumed were the legitimate economic organs of the proletariat against capital, rather than the mediating bodies between labor and the law in capitalist society.
The organizations I have mentioned are dead. The programmatic basis of their activity is largely gone. Some of the unions continue on, largely among service workers without the concentrated power that say auto workers had 70 years ago. There is nothing in Reed’s approach that allows us to take stock of the transformation of the capital-labor relation in its actuality, in the valorization process which includes the labor process, as well as the circulation and consumption of commodities. Rather, there is a static “location” and in that location are all people who can be defined as “workers” or as member of the set = “working class”. And the problem that animates the weakest part of the book is how to convince activists to follow Reed’s logic instead of being bewitched by the ideas of the post-modern faux-radical intellectuals.
In this, the book is amazingly like Russell Jacoby’s work (with which Reed is familiar as he notes in his essay on Black Public Intellectuals), in that the failure of the present rests on the adoption of bad ideas. They both certainly have some ideas of their own why these bad ideas are adopted, in Reed’s case mostly ascribed to the petty bourgeois nature of these free-floating intellectuals, which begs the question why Reed, clearly not a steelworker in his day job, was immune. The answer has to circuitously come back to having a better practice and ideas grounded in that practice. Which then begs the question of the failure of those ideas to catch hold if they are so valid. So then the answer is that the activists scrapped them out of a mental disposition towards defeatism and a despair over earlier defeats which is a product of their petty bourgeois class position. And round and round we go.
What is truly stunning in this is on the one hand Reed’s perspicacity in nailing who Obama was back in 1997, and on the other his incapacity to see that the Labor Party was a stillbirth and that groups like DSA are nothing so much as Swedish Welfare State-porn liberals. Ultimately, his theoretical failure amounts to a fundamental misunderstanding of the state and the relationship of the unions to the state. Neither of them are outside or above or independent of the capital-labor relation, but are themselves moments of it, expressions of that contradiction, forms of it whose contradictions give the relation room to move. The state not only isn't our "friend", but it only "is" insofar as it is a mode of existence of our domination. For someone so utterly concerned with the critique of "community" and "identity" as forms of representation, Marx's critique of the state as "the illusory form of community", as the epitome of representation, is lost on him. Reed has no problem with the the validity of representation by the state or the unions, without ever making it clear why these are more valid, and so political activity for Reed is activity oriented towards the state and the legal mediation of labor known as the unions.
This helps to explain, at least in part, the self-contradictory demand for theory that is only valid if it can define and guide political practice and be validated by that political practice. If that is the criterion, by his own admission all his view can project is a trade union reformism that is, like unionism as a whole, in decline and suffering from less and less relevance. That his argument amounts to a criticism of the failure of activists due to a bad theory and to intellectuals for a bad practice justified by a bad theory idealism of the purest water does not seem to occur to him..
What is missing from this collection is the kind of analysis that might reflect on what is going on in capitalist society that might lead to the adoption of the kind of ideas he (rightly) disparages with such wit and incisiveness. Like Jacoby, aside from some vague discussion of defeats and changes in class location, it is a battle of ideas (good vs. bad) that eschews a more rigorous analysis of the changing aspects of the class relation and of capitalist society. Oddly enough, one might even note that the only consciousness he evinces any non-instrumental concern for (that is, consciousness’s that are not merely the object of patient education and programmatic wining-over) is exactly that of the faux-radical academics he excoriates.
That said, I can’t think of anyone else I would rather read on race, community, and representation in the U.S. Only Paul Gilroy, among Anglo-American contemporaries, strikes me as having the same kind of seriousness and intelligence on these matters.