Month: June 2020

James Livingston Responds to James Oakes**

My old friend Jim Oakes protests too much.  I’m not going to bother with a point-by-point refutation of the charges he levels against me, because that would bore him, you, and me.  But let me say emphatically that he’s plainly misreading me when he invokes “Livingston’s hostility to unions,” thus portraying me as an enemy of the most basic working-class organizations, and, by implication, an enemy of the people. That’s a cheap shot, Professor Oakes.  I wrote that, like socialism itself, unions have no predictable political valence.  This is an empirically verifiable fact, not a theoretical pronouncement, as witness social democracy vs. Soviet-style communism, or the Teamsters as against, say, the UAW. The form of Oakes’s argument determines its content.  He portrays me as a pointy-headed academic with no grounding in the empirical realities of our straitened time, something like those PMC types both he and Adolph Reed ridicule as unconscious traitors to the multi-racial, working-class majority. Oakes writes: “Reed is discussing the empirical realities of black political life and history.  Livingston responds by looking at an intellectual tradition.”  Does he mean that intellectual tradition is not an empirical reality that powerfully informs and animates current debates on the past, present, and future of black life?  Does he mean that ideas are not themselves material realities, forces of production in their own right–as in the political expectations that come...

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James Oakes replies to James Livingston on Race, Class, Capitalism

James Oakes is Distinguished Professor of History at the CUNY Grad Center.  Among his many books are three pathbreaking works: The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (1982); The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (2008); and Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the US, 1861-1865 (2012). ___________ Jim Livingston and I agree that we need a class politics of redistribution that has room for the politics of racial justice (and, we would also agree, gender equality).  Unlike me, Jim thinks identity-based antiracist politics can achieve that synthesis and that Adolph Reed’s politics are “class reductionist” (Reed’s denial to the contrary notwithstanding), whereas I think Reed’s politics encompass racial justice by definition.  Antiracism, by contrast, is not intrinsically redistributionist, which is precisely what it is daily proving itself so attractive to corporate interests. Reed no more believes that class is a blunt sociological category than does Livingston believe that race is a blunt sociological category—even though it sounds as though he does all through his essay.  Of course class is a relation grounded in struggle.  I learned that decades ago, not from Adam Przeworski but from E. P. Thompson and all those brilliant British Marxists.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t speak of a “working class” with interests that are distinct from, say, the Professional Managerial Class.  And this...

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Race, Class, Cops, and Capitalism

  How to think about the relation of race, class, and contemporary capitalism? We don’t have much choice except to, because C-19 has destroyed capitalism as we knew it–all the available ventilators are now affixed to its expiring body–and because Trump has forced us to see that the restoration of the status quo ante (“law and order”) means the subjugation of black bodies, the erasure of citizenship, the protection of property as against persons, black or white, and of course the deployment of ostensibly working-class people–the police, the military–to enforce this necromantic agenda. The practical question of the day–how to reform, “defund,” or abolish police departments–illuminates, or just is, the theoretical question I began with, asked in a different voice.  For it makes us think, at the very least, about the function of labor unions in articulating and enacting working-class goals.  Are unions, by definition, the instrument of class struggle and the medium of class consciousness? My short answer is, No.  (Yeah, Lenin had one too, but I beg to differ.) Here’s the long answer.  Until the 1960s, the American Left instinctively and rightly sided with both trade unions (the AFL) and industrial unions (the CIO).  The AFL-CIO’s complicity in the imperialist idiocy of counter-revolution in Latin America and then all-out war on Indochina alienated every component of the remaining pluralist Left from the labor movement, even after the...

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Dispatch from the NYC Protests

A Dispatch from the New York City Protests, May 28th to 31st Grayson Scott   I was born a few years before the Seattle WTO protests of 1999. The first images I remember from television were of the invasion of Iraq, but I saw nothing of the massive, global marches and acts of resistance that accompanied them. Occupy was over by the time I was in middle school. The first time I was arrested—briefly, and without being processed—was at a BLM action for a man named Jocques Clemmons. (The site of this demonstration was the Metro Nashville Courthouse, which...

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George Floyd’s Funeral Train

  The dead man mattered, the new life mattered — James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son” George Floyd’s funeral train departed from Minneapolis It was June of 2020 — mourners lined the tracks The tears of the onlookers watered the embankments and from that salty soil grew wiry tough roses His train passed through Milwaukee slower than slow so people could walk beside him on his way Chicago’s Union Station was draped in black bunting The car his casket rode in was called the Philando Castile because like George Floyd, Philando died in the Twin Cities. George Floyd’s...

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