White Marxism: A Critique of Jacobin Magazine

by Uday Jain

This critique comes from a place of solidarity. As this is a critical moment to reassess the history and present of international socialism and imagine a new path forward – many new paths forward – it is absolutely crucial to get the basics of this reassessment right. Jacobin have done a remarkable job in bringing together a large Internet public from around the world, but especially in the US and Europe, and have offered many strong interventions against the ideology of neoliberal centrism on a variety of issues. They have successfully built up a small, but growing, and quite active socialist public sphere consisting of many who would previously have been apolitical, and for that their efforts must be commended. They also routinely publish a variety of perspectives from within today’s international, disparate, and ideologically heterogeneous “Left”; and so maintain this public sphere through a spirited and necessary debate. And yet, as Jacobin have developed a certain overall line on contemporary politics, and inasmuch as they publicise this line through self-consciously provocative interventions in social media on various issues; sharp, comradely, even polemical critique on this line from a fellow Leftist must surely be welcome. The Jacobin community can only be strengthened when it can face, answer, and grow from serious critiques about its faults and missteps. The ability to listen to good-faith critiques and learn from one’s mistakes is central to any successful political movement – and it is a political movement that Jacobin aims to inspire.

It is in this spirit I propose the following thesis. As long as the emergent Jacobin-centred public sphere refuses to seriously engage with what they have derisively termed “identity” politics, it will alienate the most vital sections of a twenty-first century Marxist coalition and repeat the mistakes made by white socialist movements in the Western core throughout the twentieth century. As I will discuss in the conclusion, both Corbynism in the UK, and the Jacobin-centred public sphere more broadly, have much to gain from a serious engagement with what the latter have derisively termed “identitarian Leftism”. Foregrounding the histories, victories, and struggles of indigenous, Black, queer, feminist, disabilities, and migrant movements and how they have successfully theorized and contested patriarchal, racial, capitalist, and imperialist hierarchies only deepens a socialist analysis and ensures that the failures of exclusionary, one-dimensional forms of organising are not repeated.

I use the term Jacobin-centred public sphere advisedly. The magazine’s wide range of published work includes a range of positions on race, gender, and class that can’t easily be categorized as being simply for or against identity politics as such. Yet, a sense remains – one that is substantiated by the tone and the content of strong polemical interventions by Vivek Chibber, Walter Benn Michaels, Nivedita Majumdar, and Adolph Reed - that one story that Jacobin is always ready to tell is the story of the apparent betrayal of class politics by an American “Identitarian Left”.

The Fable of the Non-identitarian and identitarian Left

The story goes something like this. There was once a non-identitarian left, a Left in America that emphasized nothing but class, that picked only the right battles and won them. This Left had its heyday in the unionist movements from the 1920s to the 1940s and brought about many of the victories of FDR’s New Deal. It had all the strengths of a trade-unionist organization. It was working-class, firm, strong, and decisive. Then starting in the 1960s, with the cultural revolution and the emergence of a theoretically prolix post-modernism, a demonic identity politics emerged fully-formed – ready to be appropriated by the bourgeoisie and destroy this powerful class-first Left once and for all. These New Leftists got so obsessed with philosophical and literary speculation about cultural oppression that they lost track of the real issues. So keyed into ‘intersectionality’ were these identitarians that vigourous contestation against the boss fell by the wayside. In fact, Michaels suggests, this obsession with identity was a way for these ‘Leftists’ to mask their own complicity with the bourgeois ruling class in its legitimation of a diversified capitalism. These New Leftists retreated to the academy, conjuring up ever more intricate and complex critiques of capitalism without ever offering a clear picture of how to fight it. Chibber adds that the misfortune of “social theory classes” in the last twenty-five years has been to make Leftists too obsessed with “margins”, misunderstanding the centrality of the working-class as a revolutionary subject. And so these Jacobin contributors – often promoted and foregrounded in the Jacobin public sphere - registered their profound intellectual and political disagreement with the post-1960s academic and political Left.

Intersectional thought, cultural politics, identity politics, all of these tendencies fragmented a united Left by focusing on the fragments and the margins. They created a Left too theory-minded to understand the bloody realities of capturing power. These elitist “identitarian” academics and activists, born of the 1960s cultural revolutions, are held responsible for misunderstanding the basics of a Marxist class war and running the “Left” into a cul-de-sac that they deserve to stay in if they keep insisting on their current modes of thought and action. The role of Jacobin or at least these rather polemical interventions in the Jacobin pages is to bring class back, to make the “Left” Left again, to make the “Left” great again; and get us going on the march to working-class victory.

White Marxism?

The elisions and confusions entailed in this anti-identitarian story go a long way in explaining why in many radical circles Jacobin is now seen, fairly or unfairly, as a white socialist magazine. A magazine intent on erasing all the historic gains made by feminists, Black, and indigenous radical movements in favour of a reductionist, white-centric politics that harks back to a supposed golden age of the 1940s [1]. First of all, words have meaning. When such senior academics and activists as Michaels, Reed, Chibber, and Majumdar go out of their way to single out “intersectionality”, frames of analysis that focuses on the “margins”, and questions of “identity” as responsible for the comprehensive abatement of class politics in the American left, they can’t but be aware that they are not so subtly pinning the responsibility for this failure on Black feminists. After all, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s famous article, on how Black women’s experiences of male violence are conditioned by specific intersections of racism and sexism in American society, an analysis then missed in antiracist and feminist debates, was titled “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”.

Intersectionality as a political and intellectual project was developed by Black women scholars and activists to address the simple fact that as Black women, they are materially exploited, excluded, and subject to violence, due to distinct hierarchical structures that are largely ignored by a white, patriarchal, and racial capitalist society. In fighting and naming this oppression, they necessarily had to complicate easy unities of a given working-class identity, or even a unified Black experience to lay out precisely how patriarchal violence and racial capitalism affected Black women distinctly from how it affected white men, how it exploited Black working-class women differently from how it exploited white working-class men. If one reads anything in the Black feminist canon, such as books and articles by Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill Collins, or Kimberlé Crenshaw, and this is not mentioning the hundreds of thousands of other scholars and activists who continue this work, one can scarcely get a sense that they are uninterested in class or have backgrounded capitalism and class politics for a simplistic “identitarianism”. One wonders if those who propound this anti-Identitarian line have actually read a word of Black feminist literature at all.

Idealist Fables

Second, this anti-Identitarian fable is a profoundly idealist, and as such is an anti-Marxist, analysis of the history of the last sixty years. It presumes that the battle between labour and capital was won entirely by capital in the academies of the Western core. In this story, somehow simultaneously, Stuart Hall, Selma James, Silvia Federici, Robin D. G. Kelley, Judith Butler, and scores of other leading Leftists around the world nefariously invented post-modernism to fit the ideological requirements of neoliberalism and thus convinced their many students to stop fighting capital and instead take up fighting endless social media wars about culture and popular representations of identity. The contempt one must have for feminists’ essential work on describing the mutual imbrication of patriarchy and capitalism – of the central role of gender in capitalist society’s division of labour and its extraction of surplus value by rendering childcare and housework unpaid – to make this case is startling. On the one hand, the story completely misses the foundational new insights and frameworks that so many Marxists in so many different spaces and countries developed in understanding the racial, gendered, and imperial dimensions of modern capitalism. Dimensions that actively hinder worker-solidarity and worker-leadership and that must be understood to sustain any successful revolutionary politics.

On the other hand, it deeply misunderstands the history of the post-1960s class struggle. Neoliberalism didn’t win because post-modernism hypnotized the Western core’s middle classes into somnolence. Neoliberalism won because the ruling classes fought and fought with the might of the state. Neoliberalism also won because the social-democratic parties that the middle-classes of the Western core continued to vote for essentially gave up on their working-class constituencies. Social-democratic parties that were supported by unions representing a labour aristocracy more interested in maintaining a nationalist class compromise with large firms than challenging the racial, gendered, and imperialist relations of expropriation which sustained Western economic growth. In the US, the Democratic party went on to break unions, retrenched the welfare state, perpetuated a racial backlash to Black power in the 1960s in the form of brutal mass incarceration, and undertook permanent war in the political-economic peripheries to shore up imperial value-chains. The very scholars and organizers who most astutely theorized, identified and enacted important acts of rebellion to halt the advance of heterosexist patriarchal imperialist capitalism – as bell hooks puts it - come under fire from Jacobin radicals for missing class altogether.

The Freedom to make inconvenient Arguments?

Now, those in the Jacobin public sphere who hold these views have responded to these critiques in two ways. One, they say that all the people named above are people of colour, and so to critique these academics as perpetuating a “white socialism” is to erase their identity and thus perpetuate a new form of erasure of POC views that are apparently “inconvenient” for most radicals. This is a bad-faith critique, because if the Jacobin public-sphere is against the confusions of identity politics altogether, then why put forward the identities of these scholars as relevant to the discussion at all? Presumably, this is to get at the arbitrariness and meaningless of one’s identity positions in trying to explain one’s political positions, and that a clean line cannot be drawn from the former to the latter. That to describe a person of colour’s political analysis as “white” is to deny them the freedom to make inconvenient arguments. But if race, gender, and empire are central dimensions of contemporary capitalist exploitation, and we have seen above a series of writers who seem interested in minimizing these dimensions for a nationalist class-first analysis; the consequences of such an analysis are that by being blind to how class itself is racialized and gendered, it would fail to question the very hierarchies people of colour and feminists are trying to fight.

Second, some in the Jacobin public sphere respond by lumping together feminists on the radical left and radical people of colour who make these substantial critiques with centrists and contemporary neoliberals who have weaponised a superficial politics of representation as a single, all-powerful group: the Identitarian left. Once again, any knowledge of the history of the Black, feminist, and LGBTQ movements in the US will yield the simple fact that they have been and continue to be heavily contested between liberal reformist and radical Marxist currents - among many others - and that no generalization can be made about these large mobilizations as inherently neo-liberal. These puzzling arguments merely heighten the sense that such anti-identitarian critiques are woefully under-theorised and are perhaps made to incite controversy and anger more than thought and action.

The fact of the matter is that Jacobin’s politics are already intersectional to some degree. That they consistently foreground the work of leading scholars and activists from all of the “identitarian” movements suggests that they implicitly presuppose the radical victories that identity politics has won for the radical Left: the inclusion of women, people of colour, indigenous people, lesbian, gay, trans and queer people, and a principled international solidarity with anti-imperialist struggles around the world at the heart of radical politics. There seems to be no need to prosecute this clumsy culture-war against such a poorly defined identitarianism per se, especially one that pointedly appears to erase the significant contributions that Black feminists have made in theorizing and organizing large communities against neoliberalism; most recently in leading the Movement for Black Lives and bringing forward prison abolition as a central struggle in the fight against racial capitalism. Words have meaning, and they have consequences. Continuing to deplore “the margins” as a frame of analysis and insisting on an imagined working-class unity will only continue to antagonize those on the Left who have long been organizing against patriarchal imperialist racial capitalism and will continue to do so, with or without certain Jacobin contributors’ seal of approval on the effectiveness of their politics.

Practical Consequences

What are some other practical consequences of this line of analysis? One, it is perniciously false on its own terms and refuses to engage seriously with radical queer, feminist, Black, and internationalist political movements that have continued to contest patriarchal racial capitalism in the last forty years: from forcing American civil society, the state, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries to address the treatment of HIV/AIDS, to materially denting the ability of Israel to carry out business and promote apologia for its apartheid regime around the world, to building coalitions with prisoners that bring together violently policed working-class Black and Latino communities in deindustrialized cities (as Ruth Wilson Gilmore documents in “Golden Gulag”). Indeed, the recent legislative victory of forcing Republican senators to vote against their own healthcare bill was secured to a large extent by the courage and steadfast mobilization of disability rights campaigners in the past year. Through personal testimonies and consistently disruptive direct action, they have made it clear that Trump’s healthcare bill is going to kill them; that their illnesses incur medical costs which they are not able to pay, that the rise in insurance premiums will be fatal. The lens of disability and race forcing us to confront the fact that capitalist healthcare is eugenics. If one tries to explain these victories as either identitarian reformism on the one hand, or inadequate grasps at class struggle on the other; one misses the significantly novel ways in which they have helped form radical communities that make a working-class rather than presume one.

Finally, in failing to be internationalist, this kind of class-first analysis – one which relies on a notion of an accepted common sense which any socialist politics should effectively mobilize (a notion usefully criticized in this piece in New Socialist) fails to challenge pervasive white-supremacist and bourgeois ideas about who it is that constitutes a worker, and who a foreign parasite, who it is that can govern themselves and who needs to be policed, or deported. The temptation to mobilize what appears so obviously “working-class angst” without interrogating how it is racialized and gendered or whether the targets are capitalists and not migrant workers is something UK Labour has consistently struggled with before and during the era of Blairism. In recent comments, Jeremy Corbyn offered a plainly false argument that it was the “wholesale importation” of Central European workers which destroyed labour conditions in the construction industry. As Maya Goodfellow argues here, migration doesn’t bring down wages, union-busting does. Further, Corbyn’s comments, like much discussion around Brexit, made no mention of non-EU nationals: Asian and African migrants living in the UK. Support for Leave and more broadly, support for “controls on immigration” is to a measurable degree driven by racial animus towards non-European migrants. A socialist Labour movement must respond by challenging these sentiments on the level of ideology and putting forth a clear legislative agenda for abolishing Theresa May’s (and Tony Blair’s) brutal Home Office and its ICE-like incarceration and deportation regime.

Engaging meaningfully with disabilities-rights, queer, feminist, Black, indigenous, and migrant struggles ensures that these lazy concessions to a racist, capitalist common sense don’t happen. Further, as Corbyn has exemplarily demonstrated in his parliamentary career, in a way that Jacobin has often been equivocal, to say the least, foregrounding the history and present of American and European empire in invading and impoverishing Caribbean, Latin American, Asian, and African nations is absolutely essential to ensure that socialism in the core that does not rest content as a socialism for the core. Going forward, Corbynism, and the American socialists inspired by Jacobin, will only grow from a pluralist commitment to these multiple fronts. Corbynism can be a vital force in dismantling the imperialist ideological and economic structures sustaining British political economy and culture: for instance, by instituting reparations to the many countries in the Third World for the country’s crimes.

Photo: Lip Kee Yap

  1. There is perhaps a less theorised, more rhetorical or imagistic counterpart to this emerging on the UK left in various invocations of 1945, whose meaning is contested between Bevinite and more generous, but still restrictive, Bevanite nostalgias. ↩︎

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