The Strange Workings of Identity and Adolph Reed Jr.’s Thought
The Oats for Breakfast podcast recently featured an interview with the American political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. A longstanding member of the American left, Reed has produced a large amount of writing – both scholarly and popular – while also partaking in numerous organizing efforts since at least the 1970s. In recent years, Reed has come to be known for his contributions to the debate about the politics of identity. Reed’s criticisms of “left identitarianism,” as he calls it, have become a significant source of controversy among leftists. It was not surprising, then, that the publication of Reed’s interview by the Socialist Project resulted in some contentious online debates between his detractors and those who sympathize with his outlook.
According to many of his detractors, Reed is a “class-reductionist.” In fact, Reed’s detractors tend to take the position that the socialist left in general is – and more-or-less always has been – insufficiently attuned to the concerns of those who have marginalized identities. In emphasizing the need to build a “movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority” socialists are said to have ignored those who do not find themselves fitting comfortably into the majority – such groups as ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities, as well as women.
Reed’s outlook is thus seen as further emboldening the identity-blind approach that socialists have apparently always adopted. I personally find characterizations of Reed as a class-reductionist to be quite confusing. Any good faith reading of his work, it seems to me, should lead one to a very different conclusion. Far from trying to bolster an economistic, class-reductionist understanding of the world, Reed has gone out of his way to do the opposite. Below, I will go into why I think this is.
But first I want to address the claim that socialists in general have neglected identity-based concerns. It is, of course, easy enough to point to numerous instances where socialists have engaged in behaviour and adopted positions that are misogynistic, racist, and so on. But then, it would be just as easy to find such instances among those who champion the politics of identity. In fact, champions of identity politics would be the first to tell us the following: in a world that conditions us to be misogynistic and racist, it is impossible for individuals to completely overcome such vices.
The real question, then, is how we create a world in which individuals are not conditioned to reproduce oppressive behaviours and attitudes. It would hardly be possible to attempt a comprehensive answer to this question in the limited space available here. But part of the answer surely has to do with trying to understand what “identity” is. As it turns out, this is not at all a straightforward matter. While the socialist tradition has not been able to uncover all of the workings of identity (it is not clear that anyone has!), socialists have made some contributions toward this effort.
One of the cornerstones of the socialist approach to identity is the insistence that identities are not naturally occurring but are, rather, the products of history. It will be worthwhile to consider this insight in some detail while also looking at a few historical examples that demonstrate the puzzling ways in which identity works. The controversy surrounding Reed’s work offers an opportunity to try to clarify our understanding of identity – the main purpose of the present essay is to contribute to this end. Moreover, as I will try to show in the latter part of this essay, having a sense of the nuances of identity should be of help in appreciating Reed’s work.
Socialists have tried to understand identity not least because they have had to navigate its workings in their own lives. Consider, for instance, the relationship the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer had with his Jewish identity:
It was usual for leaders of the Austrian Social Democratic Party to abjure their native religion and become konfessionslos. But this Otto Bauer never did. He remained on the record of the Vienna Jewish Community and paid its taxes. When challenged by a non-Jewish friend to explain his continued confessional status, he replied that leaving the Jewish community was one thing he just could not do, adding: “You cannot understand that, since no one ever muttered ‘dirty Jew’ behind your back.”1
But identity has posed itself for socialists not simply as a matter of personal concern. They have also had to try to comprehend its political manifestations. Efforts by socialists to come to terms with the politics of identity go at least as far back as the early-twentieth century when a furious debate took place about the merits of “the right of self-determination of peoples.”
The debate is often recalled by referencing the opposing positions taken by Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. (Luxemburg famously maintained that the right of self-determination “doesn’t represent anything specifically connected with socialism nor with the politics of the working class.”2 Lenin, by contrast, took the view that the right of self-determination was “beyond doubt.”3) But the debate contained a great deal aside from Luxemburg and Lenin’s diverging opinions on whether socialists should believe in the right of self-determination of peoples.
To begin with, there was much to be said about what it was that made a human collectivity into “a people” or “a nation.” Socialists tended to take the view that “peoples” and “nations” were not naturally-arisen, trans-historic entities. Nations were modern. Bauer referred to them as “communities of fate.”
Pointing to the modernity of nations was not meant to dismiss or downplay the powerful hold that national identity could at times have on the human imagination. “After all,” Bauer noted, “we are all affected by national ideology, by national romanticism; few of us would be able even to say the word ‘German’ without it resonating with a peculiar emotional overtone.” Yet, Bauer insisted that nothing good was to be gotten out of supposing that there was an unchanging “spirit of the people” or in trying to connect “the nation of our era with its ancestors of two or three thousand years ago.”4
Bauer was perfectly right in this insistence, not least because the ancestors of any given cultural community (however homogenously constituted the community may appear) tend to be a mixed, indeterminate lot. The indeterminate nature of a group’s ancestors is compounded by the fact that people’s self-understanding about who they are can often shift and change. Indeed, far from being in any way rigid, identity has historically been quite flexible. Innumerable examples could be referenced to demonstrate this point. Let us, for the moment, consider the following case:
“Is your village Greek… or Bulgarian?” the British journalist H.N. Brailsford asked a wealthy peasant in the Monastir market. “Well,” he replied, “It is Bulgarian now but four years ago it was Greek.”5
This interaction took place in the Balkans during the early part of the twentieth century. At that time Greek and Bulgarian nationalists were seeking to win the allegiance of some of the same populations, letting loose great deals of violence in the process:
Between 1904 and 1908 the Greek bands… went about their patriotic work in the hills. Forced to declare themselves for one side or the other, reluctant peasants were encouraged by beatings as well as money… “Hostile” houses and some entire villages were burned – by both sides.6
Violence and coercion have been common means by which people’s self-perception of who they are has come to be rigidified. But even seemingly-rigid identities can find themselves being reshaped given changing circumstances (including new phases of violence and coercion). The recent history of the Balkans is a case in point. Over the course of the past century, the region has gone through numerous rounds of state-formation. (Kosovo, the newest Balkan state, declared independence only eleven years ago and the Republic of Northern Macedonia went through a name change just this year.) The national identities attached to constantly-changing Balkan states have likewise had to be reconfigured.
The issue is not that people have “original” identities which they have been forced to forget as a result of nationalist violence or state coercion. We do not have a place in our being – some essential core – where our “true” identities reside. In fact, it is perfectly possible for human beings to get by without having much concern about what their cultural or ethnic identities might be. Martin van Bruinessen, an anthropologist who did fieldwork in Kurdistan during the 1970s, did not always get the kind of response he was looking for when he asked people how they identified themselves:
… I frequently got answers such as “I am a Kurd as well as a Persian and a Turk.” When I insisted and asked what they originally were, some answered “my father also speaks all three languages.”7
Even phenotypic differences, including differences in skin colour, do not map onto identities as straightforwardly as we might presume. People as light-skinned as Syrians classify themselves as Arabs, as do many dark-skinned Sudanese.
In the present political context in North America, people often find themselves becoming politicized as a result of learning about marginalized groups and identities. In the interest of overturning such oppressions, it can perhaps seem attractive to portray marginalized identities as being naturally-arisen and therefore deserving of respect. But surely the more progressive outlook is to maintain that people’s identities deserve to be respected even though they are not naturally-arisen.
Such an outlook is, moreover, far more respectful of the truth. For even those identities that are tied to biological traits are not naturally-arisen and fixed. It is likely the case, for instance, that homosexuality has some basis in an individual’s biological make-up. Yet gay identity, if it exists at all, differs greatly from one society to another.
So, what does all of this have to do with Adolph Reed Jr.? Part of the reason leftists can have a difficult time appreciating Reed’s work is, I think, because too many of us are attached to an impoverished, essentialist understanding of what identity is. Thus, instead of taking the time to consider Reed’s criticisms of essentialist approaches, we find it far easier to dismiss him as a “class reductionist.”
But Reed is no class reductionist. On the contrary, he insists that we not regard capitalism as simply a system of class relations that exists at the point of production. As he put it in the above-mentioned podcast interview, capitalism is the “cultural totality” that we inhabit. In his writing, Reed offers a powerful approach to understanding how social stratification based on who people are – what he refers to as “ascriptive differences” – helps to stabilize capitalism’s social reproduction. In other words, far from seeing hierarchies based in ascriptive differences – including race and gender – as incidental or unimportant, Reed understands them to be a crucial part of the functioning of our cultural totality.8
If Reed really is not a class reductionist then why, his detractors might ask, does he insist that we set aside the particular needs and interests of black people and other racialized communities? For my part, I am not so sure that this is what Reed insists on. It seems to me that, to begin with, Reed would want to challenge the assumptions that are built into claims about “the particular needs and interests of black people and other racialized communities.” Reed would warn against what the sociologist Rogers Brubaker has referred to as “groupism”: “the tendency to treat ethnic groups, nations, and races as substantial entities to which interests and agency can be attributed.”9
To maintain that ethnic groups, nations, and races are not “substantial entities” is not the same as saying that ethnic groups, nations, and races do not exist or that their existence is unimportant. The point, rather, is this: while it may seem easy enough to ascribe coherent sets of needs, values, interests, and even agency to such abstract categories as “black people” and “other racialized communities,” in the real world things are not organized so straightforwardly.
Reed would point out that those who seek to straightforwardly ascribe particular interests to “black people” and “other racialized communities” often happen to be elites – members of what he calls the “professional and managerial strata.” The scholarly literature on race, ethnicity, and nationalism is replete with discussions about elites having a tendency to instrumentalize “community interests” to pursue their own narrow goals. I am therefore not at all sure why Reed’s position on this issue is any cause for controversy.
In concluding, I want to highlight an intervention by Reed that was unsurprisingly controversial. In 2015, in the wake of the media frenzy around Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition and the subsequent news about Rachel Dolezal’s claims about being black, Reed penned an opinion piece that turned quite a number of heads. The piece continues to be passed around on social media among Reed’s detractors as evidence that Reed is, in particular, a transphobe and, more generally, a crank. But the argument Reed makes in the piece, while it challenges convention and has seemingly-uncomfortable implications, is actually quite compelling.
Reed’s argument can be summarized as follows. If we hold the view – as we should – that individuals have the right to decide which gender they chose to identify as, then it should follow that individuals also have the right to decide which “racial” group they choose to identify with. That is, unless we want to maintain that “race” is a natural, biological fact. As socialists, we hope to overturn “race” as a system of social classification and we hope for the co-mingling and continued development of human cultures. It hardly makes sense for us, therefore, to be policing the boundaries of “racial” and cultural groups.
I should point out that quite independently of anything Reed has written, the Jenner/Dolezal comparison has sparked a great deal of debate among trans writers and activists, with some making the same argument as Reed. The black trans activist Kai Green, for instance, has written that “If you accept Caitlyn [Jenner], then you have to accept Rachel [Dolezal].”
“It is important that in this moment we wrestle with these questions,” Green writes, “We cannot just end the conversation because it makes us uncomfortable or angry.”10 The same sentiment could be applied to a lot of discussions on the left, including those about Reed’s writing. One does not have to agree with everything Reed says. In fact, any serious engagement with his ideas would likely lead to disagreement and debate. But it is not worthwhile for us to pretend that he is a class reductionist or a crank so that we are not required to engage with him at all. •
- From Hannah S. Decker’s Freud, Dora, and Vienna 1900. The quotation is used as an epigraph in Otto Bauer, The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy. Edited by Ephraim J. Nimni, Translated by Joseph O’Donnell, University of Minnesota Press, 2000 – which is where I came across it.
- Rosa Luxemburg. “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.” The National Question: Selected Writings by Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Horace B. Davis, Monthly Review Press, 1976, p. 102.
- V. I. Lenin. “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.” Collected Works, vol. 20, Progress Publishers, 1972, p. 413.
- Otto Bauer, The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy, p. 19, 23, 21.
- Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950. Harper Perennial, 2005, p. 269.
- Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts, p. 269.
- Martin van Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh, and State: On the Social and Political Organization of Kurdistan, Utrecht University, 1978, p. 430 note 132.
- See, for instance, Adolph Reed Jr., “Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism,” New Labor Forum, vol. 22, no. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 49–57.
- Rogers Brubaker, Ethnicity Without Groups, Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 8.
- Kai M. Green, “‘Race and Gender Are Not the Same!’ Is Not a Good Response to the ‘Transracial’ / Transgender Question OR We Can and Must Do Better,” The Feminist Wire, 14 June 2015.