It’s been a year and a half since George Floyd’s murder catapulted racial oppression into the center of political debate. The evolution of that debate has offered much for activists and scholars on the Left to think about.
For most of the twentieth century, movements against racial oppression in the United States had a visible socialist and working-class component or were heavily influenced by one. From the 1920s to the civil rights era in particular, calls for racial liberation placed the interests of black workers and the poor at the center of their strategic perspective. Hence, this perspective went beyond just political enfranchisement and formal equality, so that economic demands for jobs, education, housing, and health care became strategic anchors for the movement. This not only implanted the black working class as the moral and political ballast of racial liberation but created a potential bridge for linking its advancement to the advancement of the working class as a whole.
Not so today. Politics, as the saying goes, abhors a vacuum. For some time now, the distinctive feature of mainstream black politics has been the near-total absence of a socialist or working-class organizational force. Instead, as Adolph Reed, Cedric Johnson, and others have persistently argued for years, political discourse has been hegemonized by a stratum of black politicos and professionals. The space that was once occupied by a socialist perspective on race is now occupied by this elite grouping, which has crafted a latter-day version of black nationalism to advance its own narrow interests.
This issue of Catalyst examines some central dimensions of this elite black nationalism. All nationalisms create a fictive history around an “imagined community,” the putative nation that the discourse seeks to represent. Imagined communities need imagined histories. In the opening essay, James Oakes presents a devastating critique of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, a historiographical enterprise that seeks to present slavery and racial conflict as the taproot of American historical development. Oakes shows that the project not only creates a fictional history but, in so doing, rather blatantly advances an elite political agenda.
In an essay complementing Oakes’s, Adaner Usmani and David Zachariah show that reparations politics is primarily designed to benefit the upper echelons of the black population and that, precisely for this reason, it has little chance of gaining traction. They argue, much as the progressive black leaders of the civil rights movement did, that the best way to achieve real material gains for the vast majority of black Americans is through a multiracial movement for economic redistribution.
The utility of racial identity politics as a conservative force has not been lost on European elites. Daniel Zamora shows that the French, long parodied for their putative anti-Americanism, have embraced this element of American politics: the culture wars, centered on race. And, much like its Yankee counterpart, the French “left” has taken the bait. The reason is not hard to fathom. The French left today is, like the American one, located in the professional classes and far more comfortable with the language of identity and culture than the language of class. The result, unsurprisingly, is the intensification of the Left’s marginality.
In this, France is only following in the tracks of the recent debacle across the English Channel. Daniel Finn shows that the British establishment was able to play the culture wars brilliantly against the resurgent Corbyn wing of the Labour Party, and indeed, that it did so with the active collusion of the Labour leadership.
Finally, we present an interview with Antoni Kapcia on the popular upheavals in Cuba this past summer. Much of the mainstream media presented the mobilizations as a signal of the Cuban government’s impending demise. But, as Kapcia argues, the 1959 Revolution still has deep roots in civil society. Over the years, the Communist Party of Cuba has been able to survive one crisis after another. While its future is not by any means guaranteed, it is far from the brink of collapse.