Only Class Struggle Can Save the Left

Chris Wright

November 4, 2022

A striking paradox of the history of the left is that it is full of self-defeat. From the bitter divisions between statist and anti-statist socialists in the nineteenth century to the vicious rivalries between Communists and Socialists in the 1930s, followed by many more episodes of destructive sectarianism and flawed strategy up to the present, the left has often had trouble getting its act together. It isn’t clear why this is the case, although doubtless the usual lack of resources in comparison to the right (funded by business) has played a not insignificant role. It is indisputable, however, that the left has periodically suffered from a deficit of analytical and strategic intelligence. Confronted with the rise of fascism in the 1930s, for example, it was obviously suicidal for Communists and Socialists to train their guns on each other. In recent decades, a different type of suicidal impulse has gripped the left, both the activist and the academic left: a fixation on “identity” at the cost of a relative disregard of class struggle. It is high time that the left exorcised its death instinct.

There are, of course, a myriad of social and political hierarchies that deserve to be dismantled, and no consistent leftist would be unmoved by the oppression of women, people of color, homosexuals, transgender people, and other groups that have become associated with identity politics. The question is simply one of emphasis. Is it right to subordinate class organizing and class consciousness to organizing and messaging around gender, sexuality, race, and other such “cultural” identities, as leftists and left-liberals have regularly done since the 1990s? Or, on the contrary, should the message and practice of class solidarity be the basis for all left politics, the continually emphasized framework within which most other organizing and mobilizing takes place? Should, in short, class consciousness become the dominant theme of the left once again, as it was long ago?

In a new book, Cedric Johnson, in effect, answers that question in the affirmative. The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now: Debating Left Politics and Black Lives Matter is a provocative and insightful collection of essays and responses by Johnson and several of his critics, who are specifically responding to his award-winning 2017 Catalyst essay of the same title. Scholars Jay Arena, Touré Reed, Mia White, and Kim Moody write the (respectively) appreciative and not-so-appreciative replies, Moody in particular providing spirited criticisms. Johnson’s perspective aligns with that of so-called “class reductionists” like Adolph Reed, Jr. and Vivek Chibber (who writes an Introduction) in its critique of the Black Power nostalgia among left academics and activists today. “The premise of black exceptionalism,” Johnson writes, that underlies such nostalgia “obscures contemporary social realities and actual political alignments, and forestalls honest conversations about the real class interests dominating today’s neoliberal urban landscape.”

Before delving into Johnson’s book, however, it may be worthwhile to contextualize it with a more general critique of the left’s elevation of identity politics at the expense of class. The Marxist project remains an essential one, and, after the long reign of postmodern cultural theory, we could do with more forthright defenses of it.

In defense of common sense

Actually, Chibber has recently written a compelling defense of a type of “structuralist” Marxism in his book The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn (which I’ve summarized here). Predictably unpopular in left-wing culturalist circles, the book lucidly explains the primacy of class structures relative to cultural discourses and identities. But even Chibber’s succinct theoretical discussion is lengthier than it has to be, given the simplicity of the issues.