Adolph Reed Jr., author and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, once described there being “visceral and vitriolic anti-Marxism” espoused by a section “of defenders of antiracism as a politics.” In The Limits Of Anti-Racism, an essay published by Left Business Observer in 2009, Reed draws a revealing profile of this specific group, one which oftentimes sees the representation of marginalized communities as a remedy to racial inequality.
This anti-Marxism, Reed argues, “takes the form of snide dismissals than direct arguments.” He goes on to write that “the tenor of this anti-Marxism is reminiscent of those right-wing discourses, many of which masqueraded as liberal, in which only invoking the word “Marxism” was sufficient to dismiss an opposing argument or position.”
Reed gives the example of Tim Wise, arguably one of the most recognizable anti-racism activists in the United States, who once lauded Van Jones, author and frequent political commentator, on his departure from the leftist “pseudo-Maoist” STORM organization “in favor of a commitment to eco-friendly, sustainable capitalism.”
Reed’s arguments, written almost a decade ago, can easily be read as a takedown of an open letter recently published by a number of liberals who are known for appropriating leftist rhetoric while maintaining a soft approach towards the subject of, for example, class politics. In essence, this letter, which was reportedly drafted in part by journalist Sady Doyle, is the airing of grievances, not a definitive explanation of where on the left the authors stand.
The contents of We Are The Left never defines what exactly the authors are to the left of, which is necessary if they’re claiming to be the left. There’s not even a superficial attempt to establish a cohesive ideology. The most cursory look at the work of a number of those who helped create this project reveals that they’re, overall, about as left wing as Hillary Clinton, which is to say: arguably not at all.
So how do leftist activists and organizers define leftism? And how do they view We Are The Left? Shadowproof spoke to a number of leftists to find out.
Leslie Lee III, the writer behind the popular Twitter hashtag #BernieMadeMeWhite, which criticized the erasure of minority supporters of Sanders, tells Shadowproof that signatories and those behind We Are The Left “are focused on having more women and people of color in power because they think that will reform and rehabilitate the system. Leftists recognize we need to get a whole new system because the one we have is harmful and unsustainable.”
Lee explains that while leftists radically examine and work to undermine the status quo, those behind We Are The Left have worked to maintain it. This open letter was manufactured “by people who are more interested in diversifying the broken system we have, in superficial ways,” he says.
On the subject of identity politics, Lee explains that a majority of those invested in identity “understand on some level that only radical change will be enough to address their concerns. They know moderate conservative democrats and neoliberal reformers they see on TV aren’t enough. Leftists should see this opening and embrace the aspects of identity politics that aren’t shallow and corrosive.”
Sean F., a graduate student in history and union electrician who was involved in organizing Block The Boat LA, and who was arrested while protesting officer Darren Wilson’s non-indictment in 2014, sees We Are The Left as being more of “a rambling list of personal complaints” rather than an organizing statement. “There’s no actual substantive, material issues relating to the real world being addressed [in this letter].”
Sean tells Shadowproof that this absence of specificity displays a lack of purpose. He contends that “the politics of race and gender are important in acknowledging the unique struggles that different people go through under [for example] capitalist systems,” and that “when we acknowledge that capitalism inculcates society with long-standing prejudices about race, gender, sexuality etc., it makes a space for confronting these effects…inside Marxist framework.”
R.L. Stephens, who is the founding editor of Orchestrated Pulse and has collaborated with Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change in the fight for fair wages and working conditions, tells Shadowproof how “cultural affinity for Black identity” has instructed his politics, but clarifies that it doesn’t define his politics:
I do not possess a wounded attachment to the marginalization I experience as a result of racism, as We Are The Left would have me do. We Are The Left claims, “To overturn this hierarchy, it is essential that marginalized people speak to their own concerns, define the agenda, lead movements, and continually complicate the white, male picture of the world with their own perspectives.” They center marginalized identity, which is to traffic in essentialism, as if—to quote Kanye—“all you Blacks want all the same things.”
Stephens is a labor organizer who views material struggle as a necessity in the fight for lasting progress. “Material struggle changes people, shifts their ideologies, creates opportunity to embrace new cultural practices and institutions,” he says.
Stephens poignantly argues that while the authors of We Are The Left write that racism and the like are “varieties of capitalist oppression,” the rest of their analysis is at odds with this very contention. “Their intersectional worldview in effect treats class as merely another link in a colinear line of oppression, rather than the base from and through which all other forms of oppression flow.”
“My objection to the reductive fetishism of personal identity does not, however, mean I don’t care about race and gender and other hierarchies,” Stephens said. “So, my critiques of so-called identity politics in no way “directly attack marginalized people,” as We Are The Left accuses of any critic. Cultural hierarchies are part and parcel to the social reproduction of capitalism and can therefore only be overcome through class struggle.”
In Adolph Reed Jr.’s more recent work, Marxism, Race, and Neoliberalism, he identifies “all politics in capitalist society” as being “class, or at least a class-inflected, politics” and draws attention to the neoliberal project of pursuing equality within “the terms of capitalist class relations.” We Are The Left exemplifies this exact neoliberalism, and while its failure as an open letter is clear, its language has changed the direction of conversations we have—or don’t have—in regards to class, race, and leftism.