Thinking About Race, Class, Gender, and Identity from a Revolutionary Perspective

Paul Street
Image by Clay Banks.

June 13, 2021

More than a Mind Game

One of the more nauseating things I’ve long heard from white guys of a certain stupid, faux-Marxist, fascism-appeasing, red-brown, and Trumpenleft bent[1] is that racism, nativism, and sexism are just “scams” used by the ruling class to divide the noble proletariat and divert its attention away from the working-class solidarity required to fight capitalism. To focus any serious energy on opposing these “scams,” this noxious Archie Bunker Marxism claims, is to fall into the trap of bourgeois identity politics.

We must of course reject the irrational bourgeois identitarianism that calls the elevation of a Black (or female and/or LatinX or Asian of Native American) imperialist to the White House or the executive suite of a corporation a grand victory over racism (or sexism) and that says a white male has nothing worth hearing to say about and against racism, sexism, nativism, xenophobia, and militarism simply because of his gender and race. No quarter can be given to such dangerous and crippling nonsense, which is frankly pervasive across much of the corporate-funded NGO network that passes for part of a Left today.

More Than a Scam

But the Trumpenleftish “scam” narrative no less idiotic from a revolutionary socialist perspective in at least four ways. First, racial, gender, ethnic and other non-class forms of oppression are much more than just Machiavellian mind games that can be magically overcome with invocations of proletarian solidarity. Institutional and cultural racism are deeply embedded in U.S. capitalist-imperialist society. Racial apartheid, disparity, and oppression poisons and cuts deeply across U.S. life at numerous, interrelated, and mutually reinforcing levels: residential segregation/settlement, real estate values, access to credit, access to employment, income/poverty, economic security, school funding, school quality, health, health care access, nutrition, access to green space, exposure to environmental toxins, voting rights, and interactions with the nation’s deeply racist criminal justice system/mass incarceration police state.

Come to my home city of Chicago. The lion’s share of the city and metropolitan area’s Black people are concentrated in the region’s poorest, most opportunity-bereft, disease-ridden, and disinvested neighborhoods – the cop-terrorized zip codes that are home and return destination for tens of thousands of criminally marked victims of racist mass incarceration. The segregated LatinX parts of town are also deeply disadvantaged in ways that keep their residents’ standard of living far beneath that of the city’s white lakefront neighborhoods and the expanding white upper and upper-middle class North and Northwest side – not to mention the vast white suburban periphery to which young white professionals flee when their children reach school age.

It’s the same in every U.S.-American city and town with sizeable Black and LatinX populations. Living standards and opportunities are even more depressed on the nation’s Native American reservations than they are in its Black ghettoes, LatinX barrios, and poor white and LatinX trailer camps.

Race isn’t just some mental trick or diversion. Housing markets distribute a lot more than just housing. It’s about a whole vast and deeply embedded structure of race-class apartheid and inequality that traces back to Black chattel slavery and the genocidal rape of North America by white so-called settlers – history that neofascist white Amerikaner state legislatures and governors (like Iowa’s just three days ago) are making it illegal to teach about in public schools, colleges, and universities,

The felony record and prison history that narrows yet further the already crippled life chances extended to one in three Black U.S. adult males is no mere scam. It is a tangible form of so-called New Jim Crow oppression, a lifelong branding loaded with disastrous outcomes for those who bear its mark.

The racist voter restriction laws that are mushrooming across white nationalist red state Amerika in the name of Donald Trump’s big fascist Stolen Election lie right now are worse than mere mental gaslighting.

A recent La Raza Database Project report finds that U.S. police have killed more than 32,000 people since 2000. Sixty percent of the victims have been nonwhite – this in a 60 percent white nation. The bullets, chokeholds, tasers, rough-rides, police chases, and jail cells that killed those tens of thousands of nonwhite victims of police violence were all too materially real – no more scam. The worst rate of killing is found in Indian Country, incidentally.

One wonders what La Raza’s death count would be if it included people killed both directly and indirectly (for example through dehydration in the Southwestern desert) by Border Patrol.

The racism and related authoritarian values that animate the hearts and minds of an untold but certainly giant mass of white cops, state troopers, prison guards, border patrol agents, security guards, military troops, parole officers, militia members, and lone-wolf shooters are not mere mind games and scams. They are lethal and all too material forces of history with an exceedingly high Black and brown body count.

Think nativism is just a scam, a mind game, a diversion, Machiavellian trickery? Go to the barrios and trailer camps of America where millions of Mexican and Central Americans live in dread of INS agents. Go to the southern border where the United States incarcerates masses of desperate people seeking escape from the Hellish poverty and violence that has long been imposed on their countries by Uncle Sam and its capitalist-imperialist order. Listen to Kama Le Pen Harris’s chilling message to the masses who are desperate to escape the miserable poverty, climate crisis, and violence that Washington has long helped create in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador: “Do not come. Do not come… If you come to our border, you will be turned back.”

Think sexism is just a scam? Tell it to the tens of millions of women who struggle with an earnings, respect, and promotion glass ceiling in the American workplace – this while they are still expected to perform a disproportionate share of household labor. Tell it to the hundreds of millions of women whose right to control their own bodies is under savage right-wing attack in numerous American states, as the absurdly right-wing Supreme Court seems ever more likely to take deadly aim at Roe v. Wade. Tell it to the untold millions of female victims of sexual harassment and rape.

No Solidarity Without Reality-Based Acknowledgement

Second, creating popular solidarity against class rule doesn’t mean avoiding other forms of oppression. The opposite is true. You cannot build the popular unity required to overthrow capitalism when you have decided that the particular set of injustices experienced by multiply oppressed Black, LatinX, immigrant, Asian, immigrant, female, gay, and trans people (under, yes, the profits regime) are just illusory diversions from your red meat question of class and empire.

Get real: the United States is 40% nonwhite and 51% female. You cannot build popular unity without acknowledging the experience and issues of the different racial, ethnic, gender, national, and sexual groups whose organizations and members you want to add to the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist banner.

Say what you want about the (yes) sorry old Communist Party of the United States of America (which clownishly proclaimed Barack Obama the “new Franklin Roosevelt” in 2008), but it did once have the common sense to militantly and sincerely oppose racism because it understood that working-class solidarity required confronting and defeating white chauvinism on the shop floor, in the union hall, and in the community – and that the Jim Crow South was a bastion of reaction against workers’ rights.

Racism and Sexism Cannot and Will Not Be Solved Under Capitalism

Third, not taking up the cudgel of anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-nativism from a revolutionary socialist perspective is to curiously and foolishly squander a hidden anti-capitalist opportunity. I’ve long heard certain white male gray eminences of Left thought proclaim that racial, gender, ethnic, and national contradictions and disparities can ultimately be overcome within the confines of capitalist class rule but the real and ultimate contradiction – class inequality and class rule – cannot. The implication is clear: focus everything on class if you want to be a revolutionary (well, typically a vaguely social democratish progressive who calls themselves a democratic socialist). It sounds like a smart badass Marxian thing to say, right?

Is it correct? Not so much. Yes, the bourgeois system is an imperial class dictatorship that needs to be overthrown and replaced with an environmentally sustainable eco-socialist dictatorship of the proletariat on the path to communist liberation. But on what grounds does anyone seriously think this dictatorship could begin to resolve the racial, gender, ethnic, and national contradictions it has both inherited and expanded? Make remotely proper reparations for two and a half centuries of Black chattel slavery, a century of Jim Crow, northern Black ghettoization, racist mass incarceration and felony marking, rampant racist police brutality? Overcome the brutal racial wealth, income, health, housing, educational, and other gaps that have resulted from this savagely unrepaired history? Set things right with Black America? With Indigenous America? With LatinX America? With female America?

Are you kidding? Caught up in its endless anarchic, expand-or-die game of national and global intra-capitalist competition, replete with constant, largely self-inflicted threats to its rate of profit, chaotic American late capitalism-imperialism doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of doing a significant portion of the work requited to overcome racial oppression in America. It lacks the resources, institutions, wherewithal, stability, coherence, morality, and vision to even begin to seriously address the nation’s racial problems. The capital order has no real or lasting solutions for race. And the same goes for the oppressions experienced by women, LatinX people, immigrants, gay people, transgendered people, and poor of all races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations, along with the subordinate status and exploitation of the wage-earning proletariat at home and abroad.

Without abandoning proper distancing from specifically bourgeois variants of identity politics, serious Leftists need not feel inhibited about mentioning racism, sexism, nativism, and homo- and trans-phobia as part of what they are against on the grounds that “capital can solve these problems.” No, it can’t, and it won’t – not in any substantive way beyond the superficial game of putting nonwhite, female, gay, trans, and immigrant faces in high places, as in the neoliberal imperialist Barack Obama becoming president, the neoliberal imperialist and nativist Kamala Harris being vice president, the gay neoliberal imperialist Pete Butiggieg being in the Cabinet, and Mary Barra heading General Motors.

There is No Decent Standpoint Epistemology

Fourth, and this applies to many who ritually invoke the holy name of the glorious proletariat, supposedly destined by the iron laws of history to rise up as the “grave-diggers of the bourgeoisie” (an understandable Victorian era “labor metaphysic” that C Wright Mills asked the old New Left to drop in 1960): it’s foolish to counter bourgeois identity politics with an equally subjectivist elevation of the experience and consciousness of proletarians – a most un-Marxian and frankly childish identitarianism in its own right. Privileging the experience and consciousness of wage earners (brilliantly ridiculed by Bertrand Russell) just because of who they are is no more justifiable and scientific than privileging the experience and consciousness of any specific racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, age, and/or or gender group(s) just because of who they are.

There are people who climb the mountain (to use the great Soviet historian E.H. Carr’s useful metaphor in his dead-on critique of the notion of multiple histories) of grasping historical-material reality – a mountain that leads to understanding the need for an anti-capitalist revolution, among other things – and there are people who don’t. The climb is about evidence-based and rational, scientific reasoning, combined with hard work, human decency, and moral courage. People from all sectors of society and identities are urgently needed to make the climb. Science is showing conclusively that capitalism is rapidly terminating livable ecology and materially cancelling a decent future. Being from or in the working-class elevates one in that climb no more than does being white, Black, LatinX, Asian, female, gay, straight, or transgendered, young or old, sick or healthy. Subjectivist standpoint epistemology of any kind is intellectually indefensible.


1. What I call the “Trumpenleft is largely composed of pissed-off leftish but often vaguely conspiratorial white guys who can string some sentences together and talk a bit of politics and who have a neat online formula: complain about PC and woke/cancel culture, claim a Lenin Prize for understanding that the Dems are a corporate and imperial party (who knew?), childishly take this (elementary) understanding to mean there are “no differences” between the two dominant U.S. political organizations, demonize and absurdly homogenize an ever more fragmented socioeconomic category called “the PMC,” say “neoliberalism” a lot more than capitalism, portray the right-wing base as aggrieved proletarian victims of “neoliberalism,” “own the libs,” call serious anti-racism and anti-sexism of any kind (even that of actual leftists) bourgeois identity politics, mock concern over neofascism, seek allies on the libertarian and “fash” right, and dismiss January 6th as not that big a deal. (And sometimes: cite me on how awful the neoliberal Democrats are but ignore me on how horrific the neofascist Republicans are.). Some of these Trumpenlefty sorts could be heard calling Leftists “sell-outs” for wanting to fire the fascist menace Donald Trump (with a vote “for” the only viable alternative – imagine that) from the U.S. presidency last year. One even stooped to the level of later writing “it’s a mistake — one that even some on the left are making — to view Biden’s election with a sigh of relief, a welcome breathing space” – this while portraying the January 6 Attack on the Capitol as little more than a mind game the Democrats were using to distract us from their own failures. I am a lifelong relentless radical critic of the capitalist and imperialist Democratic Party, but that is fascist bootlicking masquerading as Marxism on the part of someone who would not likely admit the truth: he wishes that the man Noam Chomsky rightly described as “the most dangerous criminal in human history” was still in the White House. Old New Left Archie Bunker Marxism is an ugly thing indeed.

Paul Street’s new book is The Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and Politics of Appeasement.

[Top: Image by Clay Banks.]