Revolution as ‘National Liberation’ and the Origins of Neoliberal Antiracism

Adolph Reed


This essay is motivated by the centennial of 1917 providing occasion for reflection on the great revolutionary projects of the last century and rumination on the status of the notion of revolution now. My concern is fundamentally ‘presentist’ and best characterized as demystification or ideology-critique. Specifically, my interest is in reflecting on the emergence of antiracism as a discrete political stance – that is, not simply a principled opposition to discrimination and bigotry – and the impact that it, along with other strains of what is commonly called identity politics, has had on contemporary left political thought and practice, including dominant ways of conceptualizing social transformation and revolution. I believe, for reasons that I trust this examination will make clear, taking critical stock of antiracist politics is a crucial task for the left, especially in the United States, where antiracism arguably emerged as a claim to a discrete politics, but elsewhere as well. Antiracist politics, and its corollary commitment to diversity, has become a significant American cultural export, as Bourdieu and Wacquant noted nearly two decades ago.

As the intellectual left moved both into the academy and away from an intellectual and epistemic commitment to class struggle, it by and large gave up the goal of radical social transformation and the objective of pursuing political power for the purpose of realizing that goal became less distinct from liberalism. Such a left, as Russell Jacoby notes, ‘ineluctably retreats to smaller ideas, seeking to expand the options within the existing society’. Militant embrace of the discourses of identity politics, most notably antiracism, has helped to sustain an appearance that the left is not in retreat but remains on the cutting edge of transformational politics. That is because of the prominence of a view that construes ‘oppressions’ rooted in race and gender, etc., as both foundational to American society – or the West – and so deeply embedded that most whites/men are in denial about their power. From that perspective the civil rights movement’s legislative victories in the 1960s were superficial and could not address the deep-structural sources of racism and sexism, which are effectively ontological and therefore beyond the reach of normal political or social intervention. Thus the struggle against these sources of inequality is always insurgent because their power never diminishes.

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