Book Reviews November 2017

Review: Class, Race and Marxism

Roediger asks us as readers to consider what privilege means in an era where everyone is struggling.

The 2016 Democratic Party primary laid bare a schism that has existed on the Left for decades—the role of the individual versus class identity. Clinton supporters charged that Sanders was so focused on economics that he, or at the very least his supporters, downplayed the lived experiences of racial minorities and women. These accusations were highlighted in the “Bernie bro” stereotype, which caricatured supporters of Sanders as privileged young white men. Taken to an extreme, some Clinton supporters have charged that there is effectively little difference between the criticisms of Clinton by Sanders supporters and those by Trump supporters. For those on the left, Clinton is seen as inheriting a Democratic Party tradition that, beginning with Bill Clinton in the 1990s, has turned increasing rightward on economic issues. In this Democratic Party civil war, issues of race and economics are framed as an either/or dichotomy.

class race and marxism
Courtesy Verso Books.

While this debate is shaping current electoral politics, scholars on the Left, largely working outside of the framework of electoral politics, have been articulating the relationship between race and economics as symbiotic for decades. One of these historians is David Roediger, one of the most respected Marxist historians writing today. He writes in the tradition of scholars who have produced towering works exploring the intersections of race and class, including such works as W.E.B Dubois’ 1935 book Black Reconstruction and Theodore Allen’s massive two-part work The Invention of the White Race published in 1994. Roediger’s new collection of essays, Class, Race, and Marxism, builds on existing literature, including the author’s own 1991 work, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. This compilation, while dealing heavily with race and class, is not necessarily a work of whiteness studies. The work is divided into two thematic parts with the first three essays focusing broadly on how race and class is written about in academia. The second part, according to Roediger, “speaks to matters of tone and to questions now being debated under the rubric of race and the logic of capital.”[1] This part also offers insight into the future of race and labor scholarship, and show that one can never separate concepts of race and economics.

While the book itself consists of a collection of previously published essays, the introduction offers many questions to think on when one considers the topic of race in America today. One of the most important issues put forth in this section is the idea of white privilege and the loaded implications of the term. Roediger asks us as readers to consider what privilege means in an era where everyone is struggling. He writes, “I think that we may be due for discussion on whether ‘white privilege’ now serves us well in naming patterns of white advantage inside a system in which most people are miserable.”[2]

This brief discussion in the introduction is worthy of a multitude of debates and discussions, some of which are already happening. Roediger clearly is not questioning the existence of institutional racism that, at the very least, contributes to an extreme and growing racial wealth disparity in the United States. Instead, he is emphasizing the point that many whites are now facing hardships such as declining overall health and feel that the political and economic system is rigged against them, too. Roediger’s work implies that we must choose our terms carefully if we hope to change the existing system which injures people across racial lines—despite its grounding in white supremacy. Roediger rightfully recommends more precise definitions around white supremacy.

David Roediger speaking at Macalester College. Courtesy

Although Roediger discusses recent developments in the struggle for racial equality including the Black Lives Matter movement, he does not address white racial resentment and the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Trump ran on a platform of populism and worked to appeal to working class white voters. Even though his policies as president clearly favor the rich, he maintains a base of support in this white working class. As a Marxist historian who has literally written the book on whiteness and the American working class, this is a topic that Roediger is plenty qualified to discuss. It is also one that many readers would expect to see examined in a book that discusses race in today’s political climate.

Roediger has incorporated presidential politics into his work before, with selections on both on President Obama and President Trump on his personal blog. In addition, the significance of the presidency is grappled with in his 2010 book, How Race Survived US History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon. An analysis, or at least a comment, on the state of Republican politics would have added greatly to this text. This failure to engage with current electoral politics is made more glaring by the fact that prominent analysts of race in American such as Ta-Nehisi Coates have cited Roediger’s earlier work when writing about Donald Trump. While the specific topic of electoral politics is not the focus on Roediger’s work overall, his writing hits on an important vein of political thinking that is being engaged with by the pundit class as well as other scholars of race such as Nell Irvin Painter in the New York Times shortly after the election. Roediger does deal well with our political moment and direct political action in the introduction, and does discuss pundit debates by Coates and others, but direct references to Donald Trump or the common fiction that white working class Americans helped to propel him to the presidency are lacking in this volume.

If one is looking for an introduction to whiteness studies, this book is not the place to start. The work is fairly esoteric, and the first half of the book deals broadly with the place of Roediger in the broader discussion of whiteness studies referencing many scholars that lay readers might not yet be acquainted with. More straightforward works, such as The Wages of Whiteness, or works that focus on particular white groups, such as Eric Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity or Noel Ingatiev’s How the Irish Became White, act as better introductions to the genre. This collection, while engaging with the existing literature in broad, thematic strokes, is not designed to give a single overarching narrative like other works.

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[1] David Roediger, “Introduction,” Class, Race, and Marxism (New York: Verso Books, 2017). 28.

[2] Roediger, 20.

Eric Morgenson is a PhD candidate in history at the State University of New York at Albany. His research interests include the intersections of race and class in the United States, the relationship between liberalism and the left in the twentieth century, and American Jewish history. Eric’s dissertation, The Last Step to Whiteness: American Jews and the end of the Civil Rights Coalition argues that allegations of antisemitism made against Black Power groups in the 1960s were part of a larger effort to distance liberal American Jews from the cause of civil rights. The work explores Jewish assimilation in the twentieth century. It emphasizes the impact that Jews becoming “white” i.e. culturally accepted had on the relationship between American Jews and African Americans. He received an MA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a BA from Concordia University-Nebraska, and an Associate of Arts from Southeast Community College in Lincoln, NE. Eric was born and raised in Bismarck North Dakota, but really hates cold weather. He currently lives in Connecticut where it is still too cold. He can be reached here.

1 comment on “Review: Class, Race and Marxism

  1. John McCarthy

    While some have taken the position that race is essentially an epiphenomenon that serves to obscure class relations in a classic Marxist sense, I agree with Roediger that race is not really divisible from class and is worthy of analytic attention. So much of the recent rhetoric of class makes substantive use of race, often in unspoken ways. Terms like the “deserving poor” suggest that there are undeserving poor who do not look like the speaker. There is a subtle, sometime not so subtle, suspicion on the part of the White working class that “others” (again people who do not look like then) are gaming the system and getting benefits they do not deserve. Of course, the facts do not support such notions, but cognitive dissidence (I will not let your facts get in the way of my beliefs) so often wins the day. Hence the election of so many Republicans, including 45, who are waging war on the poor. They are now so emboldened as to be expanding their war on to the middle class with the tax proposal.

    Liked by 1 person

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