I support Bernie Sanders, but I think Ta-Nehesi Coates has raised good questions about the candidacy—far better than those raised by Paul Krugman or Charles M. Blow, who both suggest that “idealism” is a constraint on real progress. Coates addresses the shortcomings of a class-based model of politics and political change in history, not in theory, and in this country, not in a world elsewhere.
Remember, Coates isn’t objecting to socialism as such. He’s objecting to the centerpiece of socialists’ thinking, that the working class must be the vanguard of change, progress, revolution. This thinking derives in turn from two sources in the socialist tradition—on the hand, from the Marxist notion that work is the essence of human nature; on the other, from the assumption that economic issues must be given priority because cultural-intellectual improvement (like better social standing for women) is an index of economic progress.
Coates also objects, implicitly and explicitly, to the ways these priorities—of class, of work, of economic issues—tend to devalue or exclude the possibility of race pride and racial solidarity, what we used to call black nationalism or Black Power, what we now call identity politics.
In making these objections, he’s renovating an intellectual lineage that you could say begins with W. E. B. Du Bois, in 1897 with “The Conservation of Races” or in 1903, with The Souls of Black Folk, a lineage that was itself revived by Harold Cruse in 1967 with The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, then given new life by Cedric Robinson and Robin Kelley in the 1980s and 90s. (Of course you could also say that the lineage begins with David Walker and Henry Highland Garnet, before the Civil War, when Africans became African-Americans.)
Cruse argued against Marxism (as he found it) on the grounds that neither the category of class nor the priority of class struggle could explain or justify what he grasped as the nationalist mainstream of black politics and art (nor, for matter, could it explain the mainsprings of American politics). His favored text was a lecture Du Bois gave in 1926, “The Criteria of Negro Art,” as an argument against the priority of the economic in liberating black folk—it was a powerful cultural critique of A. Philip Randolph’s socialist magazine, The Messenger, which emphasized bread and butter issues facing black workers. Cultural revolution was the key, Cruse insisted, citing C. Wright Mills as well as Du Bois, and he also insisted that the solidarity of the black masses was the evident yet unknown reality that Negro intellectuals had to acknowledge.
In 1940, Du Bois himself steered close to the shore of black nationalism, in Chapter 7 of Dusk of Dawn, and here again, even in the aftermath of Black Reconstruction, the Marxist masterpiece of 1935 where he had treated slaves and freedmen as workers, he emphasized cultural separation of the races as the means to the end of diplomatic recognition, mutual equivalence, between white and black folk—not equality between individuals at the law, and not class struggle as conducted through a labor party. The economic premise of his argument came down to this: “We have lived to see the end of capitalism.”
Of course it is true that Du Bois later joined the Communist Party (he was always at least sympathetic to socialism). But from the 1920s into the 1940s, his position on the relative priorities of the economic and the cultural, or of class and race, was closer to the artists who made the Harlem Renaissance.
Coates is the heir apparent to this intellectual tradition and its political corollaries. Capitalism in the US, he keeps reminding us, has always been racialized, so a class-based politics doesn’t get us very far in understanding the economic dimensions of our pasts, or our present position. We ought to be able to honor this achievement.
One way to do so would be to listen in on Kenneth Burke as he addresses the American Writers Congress of 1935, an event organized if not officially sponsored by the CP: “There are few people who really want to work, let us say, as a human cog in an automobile factory, or as a gatherer of vegetables on a big truck farm. Such rigorous ways of life enlist our sympathies, but not our ambitions.”
In other words: To give ontological priority to class as an analytical category and as a political strategy is to ignore a simple fact: nobody wants to stay the same, not even heroic minimum wage workers. Not even Donald Trump. If this admonition sounds like an introduction to a straw man, listen now to Jodi Dean, who urges us to follow Lenin’s example. (Her remark at her Facebook page had over 180 “Likes” when I checked at noon today.)
“Bernie is calling for a revolution. Some of our comrades are skeptical about this, criticizing him from the left. This isn’t a crazy or disingenuous criticism (usually). After all, Bernie is not calling for the nationalization of the economy or the abolition of the wage. But what if we see his revolution as the February revolution, and support it, and then be the October revolution we want?”
To which my answer is, who’s “we”? Who still wants to be a Bolshevik and carry out a Great October Revolution over here? Last time I looked, that revolution didn’t work out real well for workers, peasants, intellectuals, and ethnic minorities. Kronstadt, anyone? Stalin, Beria? Call me a liberal, I’ll take Kerensky, thank you very much, also Nabokov.
The proletarian revolution is no longer a usable past. Ta-Nehesi Coates understands this. We ought to be listening more closely to his arguments, because they’re about Bernie’s campaign, not necessarily against the candidate.