The Identity Mistake

Mistaken Identity claims to overcome the limits of identity politics but leads us down the same dead end.

A. Philip Randolph (seated, center) and other leaders of the 1963 March on Washington. US National Archives

For many American leftists, the 2016 presidential election brought questions about the political significance of identity front and center. But these debates predate Twitter fights between @maobaby69 and @marxistbutwoke. As the political fortunes of socialists have fallen over the last four decades, leftists have argued about what role, if any, the abandonment or embrace of identity has played in its years of defeat.

Simply put, the question is whether identity politics is the friend or foe of socialist politics. In Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, Asad Haider, a graduate student at the University of California-Santa Cruz and an editor at Viewpoint, takes up the question. He argues that socialists can and should recognize the deficiencies of liberal identitarianism without rejecting a more radical approach to identity politics.

But while Mistaken Identity is able to demonstrate how the ideology and rhetoric of “identity” has been used as a weapon against the working class, it falls short of making a plausible case that it could ever be a boon to socialist politics.

The Legacy of Multi-Class Racial Unity

Mistaken Identity defines identity politics as the “neutralization of movements against racial oppression. It is the ideology that emerged to appropriate this emancipatory legacy in service of the advancement of political and economic elites.” Such a definition highlights the contradictions that plague much of Haider’s book — a willingness to acknowledge the historic failures of identity politics combined with a continued assertion of their essential place in left politics.

Using historical analyses of groups such as the Communist Party and the Weather Underground, as well as anecdotal experience from his own student activism, Haider describes how posturing around identity has subsumed radical demands under a fog of rhetorical policing and petty power plays. Along the way, he charts a historical path of the Left’s political neutralization through the “decomposition and disorganization of the working [class]” supposedly wrought by racial division.

Despite these acknowledgments, Haider calls for leftists to speak to the particular oppressions of groups in capitalism and use these aggregate grievances to forge a patchwork mass movement — he calls this approach an “insurgent universality.” But Haider’s political conclusions, however well-intentioned, fail to impress.

Much of the problem stems from the shakiness of his historical narrative. Mistaken Identity recycles a shopworn account of the failure of the Civil Rights Movement to provide an institutional pathway out of poverty, causing the emergence of black nationalist ideology in response.

Haider’s account of Black Power is not uncritical. He takes the movement to task for paving the way for black elites who abandoned racial uplift and implemented neoliberal economic policy. It’s not just mayors such as Kenneth Gibson, who helped decimate Newark’s public school system, who get Haider’s scorn, but even activist leaders like Jesse Jackson, whose “efforts ended up lending a rainbow aura of legitimacy to the right wing of the Democratic party.”

Haider acknowledges that ultimately, Black Power failed to redistribute power away from the ruling class, and he rightly blames this defeat on the movement’s ideological commitment to racial unity, which attempted to create consensus among people with fundamentally divergent political interests. He notes how “the lingering ideologies of racial unity left over from the Black Power movement rationalized the top-down control of the black elite, which worked to obscure class differences as it secured its own entry into the mainstream.”

But here is where Haider fails: if class differences helped to neutralize the radical potential of black power, he should address not just who betrayed the black left, but how they did it. Understanding postwar liberalism, and its contradictions, is key here.

The Johnson Administration, despite responding to mass movement pressure and helping to dismantle Jim Crow, offered an insufficient solution to economic inequality. When trying to solve the remaining issue of black economic disparity, the administration chose to create a series of “anti-poverty” programs.

Their reasoning was embodied in the 1965 Moynihan Report, which argued that black poverty was culturally distinct from white poverty and therefore required special “community”-targeted programs. These policies were a genuine attempt by liberals to solve the “problem” of race and poverty in America.

However, the root causes of black inequality — deindustrialization, structural unemployment, and lack of strong protections at work — were left completely unaddressed. Instead, these policies isolated the most aggrieved victims of capitalism from the rest of the working class while simultaneously failing to address the sources of their immiseration.

The inadequacy of the liberal approach did not go unnoticed. The Black Power movement called for more radical solutions demanding a revolutionary politics of racial unity. But no matter how militant the rhetoric, it was still based on a liberal belief that economic inequality could be dealt with by segregating the working class into racially distinguished units.

And Haider, for his part, embraces this same liberal culturalist logic with his assertion that black self-determination and socialism are mutually dependent. Despite his own criticisms of cross-class political alliances, he invites the exact same contradiction into his own analysis.

Cooptation’s Warning Bells

Mistaken Identity also explains the failure of Black Power as a series of strategic decisions which cumulatively resulted in the new black political elite controlling the destiny of the Black Power movement. Haider insists that, while the Black Power movement must be criticized in retrospect, “nationalism did, at one time, appear as a potentially revolutionary ideology.”

Such a portrayal conforms to the prescribed romanticizing of Black Power at the expense of historically accurate observation. The ideas behind Black Power were in fact challenged by its contemporaries.

While Haider acknowledges Civil Rights figures such as A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, who argued that “protection from discrimination” had to be matched with “universalistic social welfare policies,” he downplays their significant differences with their “more radical” counterparts.

His lack of attention to Randolph’s stated political goals and indeed the broader political divisions among the Civil Rights movement leads him to gloss over an important divide. Randolph insisted that the way forward was through an interracial working-class coalition. Indeed, he sought to shed the liberal elements of the emerging black political elite — the representatives of the NAACP and the Urban League among them — and replace them with a still-predominantly white constituency: the organized workers of the AFL-CIO. In this vein, he drafted the Freedom Budget for All Americans, committing to a program pursuing full-employment, affordable housing, and health care for all.

Civil rights leaders like Randolph took seriously the problems of identity-based oppression and disparities between racial groups in the working class. Therefore they took seriously the question of power and how to amass a strong enough force to win their demands.

The distinction between Randolph’s multiracial class politics and Black Power is subtle but important. As Adolph Reed explains, “while [Stokley] Carmichael officially endorsed Randolph’s and Rustin’s 1966 ‘Freedom Budget’ and other prominent Black Powerites supported its goals in principle, they rejected the strategy necessary for organizing to advance it.” Mistaken Identity does the same in confusing Black Power’s radical aesthetic for revolutionary potential.

Even ideologically committed Black Power supporters had no way to implement policies for the benefit of the black working class. With a labor movement in retreat, socialists in the movement had the militant-sounding rhetoric of “people power,” but lacked a powerful working-class constituency to force through economic policies against the interest of capital.

Thus a crucial piece missing from Haider’s analysis is the importance of a strategy capable of amassing a powerful enough force in society not just to articulate demands but to enact them.

The Coalition Toward a Mass Movement

To his credit, Haider does not accept the Left’s current position of marginality. He asserts that the only effective form of anticapitalist politics is a mass politics — one capable of engaging millions of people to take back power from the ruling class. But his political strategy can’t lead to the outcome that he wants.

Mistaken Identity bookends its analysis with heavy praise of the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist lesbian political group active in the 1970s. There are a few things curious about Haider’s emphatic embrace of the Combahee.

The first is that the collective was never connected to any mass political organization. To say that they offer a model for building such a program implies that any group of academics meeting in a coffee shop has somehow altered the landscape of capitalism. Haider takes Combahee’s declarations of political import as self-evident rather than engaging in any critical history of the group’s accomplishments.

It is unfortunately a common practice among modern left public intellectuals to assert that the will to pursue political change is more important than a group’s ability to actually do so. Still, it is bizarre that a book, which claims to expose the damage liberal identity politics has done to socialist politics, should so prominently showcase one of the former’s favorite shibboleths.

Haider explains the politics of the collective by quoting the most oft-repeated lines in their founding statement: “this focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”

In explicitly adopting these ideas from the Combahee, Haider endorses identity politics’ call to particularism and emphasizing difference. These have consistently proven to be foes of leftist politics.

Mistaken Identity’s attempt to argue that interest group plurality can lead to mass anticapitalist politics suffers from both a theoretical and historical problem. Anticapitalist politics is not merely a numbers game in which a group can race against the ruling class to collect the requisite number of signatories. Socialist politics, rather than being a summation made up of movements of movements, requires a cohesive bloc in society fighting to gain control of crucial resources in the hands of its enemies. Historically, the only political movements that have successfully created such a force are ones that emphasized shared economic demands based on one’s location in the capitalist class structure.

Haider expressly denounces a class-centric approach to politics, claiming that “a meaningful common interest between [members of the working class] does not somehow exist by default.” Class centrality, as advocated by political actors like Randolph, is challenged by Haider, who equates it to another form of identity politics. He claims that calls to organize on the basis of class rather than race

mistakes the casual description of a shared truism for a claim about identity. We all have numerous interests that are related to our identities but also to where we work and where we live. To say that these different spheres of life interact and intersect is a banal truism which explains neither how our society is structured and reproduces nor how we might formulate a strategy to change this structure.

It is ironic that a book insisting on the political futility of shared class interests also points to the success of the 1984 British miners’ strike in bringing people of different ascriptive identities together. As the movie Pride, which covers the solidarity group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, beautifully demonstrates, it is only because different political groups recognized the demand of those workers for a job to support themselves as part of the shared fight of all members of the working class for a decent living that they joined together in action.

Instead of class-based action, Haider suggests that activists can nurture their “own” issues and become one mass movement through osmosis. In contrast, working-class coalitions are built by joining together workers on the basis of their shared exploitation, not forged by separate interests agreeing in the abstract to “anticapitalism.”

Capitalism can easily coexist with the latter type of politics. For example, Haider himself notes that black community action programs such as the Harlem Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS) — founded by the black power leftist Amiri Baraka — were directly funded “by the antipoverty and anti-riot initiative Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited,” which created “an uneasy relationship between black self-organization and the white power structure.”

Haider asserts that BARTS was “a parallel formation” and bemoans the “incorporation of [black power’s] parallel institutions into a more multi-colored mainstream.” While praising the concept of alternatives to traditional political institutions (left and otherwise), Haider is content to leave a hazy question mark about how to build these alternatives, or how an institution directly funded by the state can ever be considered a “parallel” organization. It seems a stretch to say that an institution funded by the state ever really existed outside of it. The reader is thus left without any insights to suggest how relations between the state and the non-profit community relief projects it funds are productive in building the political capacity for those without control of material resources in capitalism.

The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as BARTS that cropped up in the wake of the mid-century “anti-poverty” campaigns have continued to proliferate, with some claiming to continue Black Power’s legacy. These institutions often serve as the radical left’s own “Third Way,” which not coincidentally ends up looking much like liberalism’s Third Way. While tantalizing as opportunities to establish institutions under neoliberal capitalism, in fact they have done much to impede the growth of socialist politics.

Ultimately, his refusal to assert any common objective interests of workers leads Haider to incorrect conclusions about “organizations” like the Combahee: “But this logic of the gradient cannot possibly explain the emergence of fundamentally opposed and antagonistic political positions: the revolutionary grassroots politics of the CRC versus the ruling-class politics of the Democratic party elite.”

He never stops to ask himself if these two political lines might be compatible, as the liberal nonprofit world’s embrace of Combahee-style politics attests to.


We Can’t “Do Both”

Today, with the popularity of Bernie Sanders and a resurgence in trade union activity, circumstances are finally re-emerging for a political program capable of fostering mass working-class solidarity. Instead, Haider would have us turn to the model that has failed the working class for years: rhetorically accepting identity-based particularism at the implicit expense of class-based universalism.

Of course, Haider does not overtly suggest that this is an either/or. Instead, he insists that we must do both — working-class politics and identity politics.

But “doing both” is easier said than done. Identity politics and class politics understand capitalist power structures in distinct ways and therefore lead to distinct political strategies. More importantly, however, “doing both” misreads the balance of power in America today: institutionally on the Left, we have nothing but a fraction of the already miniscule labor movement to back our platform and our analysis.

But liberalism has a major political party, the media, academia, and the entire world of nonprofits, which today controls about as much wealth as the Church did before the French Revolution. And it’s in the “do both” strategy that these powerful enemies of the Left (and allies of capital) worm their way into our coalition and play up identity to reshape working-class demands until they’re neutralized.

Haider fails to recognize the profound asymmetry between the power of institutions of the working-class and the advocates of universal class-based reforms, and those of the liberal establishment and their own embrace of identity-based particularism. Concretely, this asymmetry does not lead to the best of identity politics and the best of universal demands in some sort of synthesis. Instead, the lopsided advocacy for particularist demands serves only to further marginalize the universalist demands.

An anticapitalist politics capable of fighting against such forces must appeal to the whole working class to build a mass movement. Masses of people become interested in politics when organizations offer a real possibility to change their lives for the better. The only way to forge a movement capable of achieving that is by fighting for shared working-class political and economic interests. This remains the only plausible path to harnessing the only power offered to workers in society: their position as an exploited majority.

The good news is that the needs for affordable medical care, a livable planet, quality education, and respect and security in the workplace satisfy such a mandate. It is two of Mistaken Identity’s supposed interlocutors, Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields, who note that downplaying class demands “is a devastating, intolerable mistake. It leads people to say that race is fundamental — not economics, not class — and if you bring class in then you’re trying to deny the reality of human existence and identity. That is the big mystification achieved by racecraft.”

While Haider rightly identifies the ineptitude of identity politics, he does not craft a political strategy that could serve as the basis for a socialist politics. Ultimately, Mistaken Identity is a manifesto of the Zombie New Left, claiming to overcome identity politics but leading us down the same dead end.