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 of saying “all men are created equal”? Does he mean that the mere recitation of “Black Lives Matter” hasn’t mobilized a global social movement?
Or again: “And it’s not just Ralph Bunche who represents Reed’s alternative to Livingston’s heroes [Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston]. It’s A. Philip Randolph. It’s Bayard Rustin. And what Reed is saying about them is not: I prefer their intellectual/political orientation, as though this were debate in a seminar room. He’s saying that Bunche et al. more accurately reflected the (empirically verifiable) interests of the majority of blacks.”
Here too my argument, which foregrounds a black nationalist tradition, is dismissed by Oakes as a merely academic, probably theoretical, and quite possibly frivolous diversion from reality. The fact is that Randolph criticized Du Bois in exactly these terms, as too “cultural,” “ephemeral,” “evanescent,” that is, too abstracted from the measurable material/economic interests of black workers and their comrades among white trade unionists. The fact also is that Du Bois criticized Randolph for a narrow focus on economic issues when the cultural revolution of their time had opened up new avenues of black expression, representation, and liberation. The fact, finally, is that racial solidarity has necessarily characterized the mainstream of movements for black liberation since 1890.
Oakes and Reed (not to mention Michaels, Warren, Johnson) argue along the lines of Todd Gitlin, Nelson Lichtenstein, Richard Rorty, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Gary Gerstle, and many others, who, back in the 1990s, denounced identity politics because its ethnic, racial, and gender idioms splintered the New Deal coalition that had dominated electoral politics until Ronald Reagan stole the white/ethnic working class for supply-side purposes.
In this sense, Oakes and Reed are arguing along the same nostalgic lines Thomas Frank summarized in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, a best-selling book published in 2004. Democrats lost to Republicans there, Frank’s story goes, because the DNC didn’t understand that a clear statement to voters of their obvious economic interest in another New Deal would have blunted the force of evangelical arguments against abortion, gay rights, and so forth. Democrats fought the culture wars, in other words, instead of appealing to pocketbooks.
That story was and is a fantasy because it allows you, Thomas Frank, or you, Professor Oakes, to say what the empirically verifiable material interests of the majority, whether black or white, in fact are. That allowance gives you a God’s eye view on an objective, external, uniform reality, to which all observers must assent, no matter their backgrounds, purposes, and methods. That reality doesn’t exist and never has, unless of course you believe in your own omniscience. If you don’t hold that belief, your invocation of “empirical reality” forfeits the conclusions you have offered as self-evident.
Adolph Reed is an esteemed political scientist, emeritus at Penn, James Oakes is a distinguished professor at the CUNY Grad Center, and I’m a tenured member of the History department at Rutgers. About the only thing we have in common is our standing as academics. You would think that this standing had equally equipped us with a respect for ideas–for intellectual traditions and their material, empirically verifiable results. But you would be wrong. It seems that even among us academics, ideas are immaterial.
**Thanks to Laura Kipnis, Bruce Robbins, and Christopher Fisher for reading this and recommending revisions.