OP-ED: Identities Mistaken: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

El Vendedor De Alcatraces, by Diego Rivera (1941). See g the intersections of class, race, and gendered otppression thoughout.


Jacobin Magazine recently published Melissa Naschek’s review of Asad Haider’s book Mistaken Identity. Many readers found it difficult to recognize Haider’s book in Naschek’s review. One explanation is that her piece is not so much a review of Haider’s book but a polemic about recent struggles in the Philly DSA.

Naschek’s caucus opposed a reading group on Haider’s book and Naschek, as co-chair of the Steering Committee, then censured a committee of the Local whose members independently organized said reading group.It’s helpful, therefore, to re-examine Naschek’s piece with a particular focus on how her ideas relate to debates within Philly DSA. R.L. Stephens just spoke from the macroscopic perspective on this crucial moment for socialism; what follows is a glimpse from the micro-scale of one chapter.

Throughout her recent article, Naschek contrasts demands that are rooted in “identity-based particularism”  with those rooted in “class-based universalism,” and claims that the latter is the only path to achieving socialism. However, the elements being contrasted are impossible to distinguish from one another when actual examples are substituted for generalities.

Compare Medicare for All, which she would recognize as a universalist demand, to abolishing ICE, which she would consider particularist. According to this view, Medicare for All advances a program that has broad appeal for all workers, while abolishing ICE fails to advance a universal demand since it advocates only for those targeted by the state because of their immigration status. But abolishing ICE can easily be described as a call for workers to receive the same treatment as capital when crossing borders, and as such constitutes a class-based universalist demand. Almost all similar demands that are labeled particularist can be reframed as advancing universal working class demands: as another example, workers should not have to live in fear of being gunned down in the street by police.

There is no way, ahead of time, to determine which of these categories will define a demand.  Instead, these two categories are only distinguishable in hindsight, with reference to the very thing we are not supposed to be invoking, namely people’s non-class-based identities. That is, we cannot know that a demand is particularist unless we already know that the issue is one primarily being faced by those marginalized by an identity other than class.

What “universalist” therefore seems to mean in practice are policies that would benefit the entire working class, but not racialized elements of it to a degree that white workers might take exception. Put in its starkest terms, the framing is itself white supremacist, in that it gives white people a weighted vote in determining the definition of which policies are universal, and therefore good, and which are particular, and bad.

History, which Naschek is convinced is on her side, provides some additional context for why this framing might lead to poor strategies. Those who tout universalist demands often point to the New Deal for examples of mass movements achieving such demands. The paradigmatic piece of New Deal legislation, the National Labor Relations Act saw the labor movement win employees the right to use their collective power to try to improve their working conditions, without threat or reprisal from the boss; and would force the boss, under pain of being held in contempt of court, to bargain in good faith with representatives of their employees’ choosing.

It is a beautiful story, and surely an example worth replicating, until one looks closer at the facts. In order to secure its support among Southern Democrats, and its ultimate passage, the Act had to be amended to exclude from its definition of employee agricultural and domestic workers, the two professions most heavily populated by black men and black women respectively. The Act therefore lacked a broad enough coalition to defend it from revanchism. Twelve years later Senator Taft and Representative Hartley were able to significantly weaken the protections of the Act. One could certainly imagine a similar scenario unfolding with the Medicare for All bill, in order to secure passage, being amended to exclude undocumented immigrants and felons, for example, only to later fall prey to significant reprivatization. This is all the easier to imagine given the universalist concessions to white supremacy discussed above, and its impoverished definition of social solidarity, to which I will now turn.

Naschek sees universalist demands as being “capable of fostering mass working-class solidarity.” However, what is her understanding of solidarity? Does she mean to imply that solidarity is only possible where people are facing the exact same issue? Experienced organizers know that human beings can form bonds of solidarity across difference. People are at least capable of reasoning that if they stand up for someone else this time that person might stand up for them next time, and many are also capable of solidarity based on genuine empathy.

The National Labor Relations Act again provides another instructive example here. Democrats have historically viewed the Act as protecting the exercise of this more expansive type of solidarity, whereas Republicans have attempted to narrow the Act’s protections to the narrower view of solidarity espoused by Naschek. If Naschek primarily takes offense at how the ideology of those advancing “particularist” demands is compatible with the views of mainstream Democrats, then she might consider how her “universalist” ideology is compatible with those of twentieth century Republicans, Trumpists, and ideologies even further to the right.

Naschek’s attachment to this false dichotomy results in another strategic shortcoming. Naschek points out that workers are among the people with the most potential power to have their demands met, because of their strategic location at the point of production. But even on Naschek’s own “universalist” terms, it does not follow that the first or most important demands in a coherent socialist strategy should avoid any mention of the particular.

Even on the class reductionist terms laid out in her article, Naschek neglects to mention the class that Marx referred to as the reserve army of labor. The demands of that class for food, water, shelter, etc. would also strengthen the working class as it would make the reserve army less desperate to be exploited by capital. Again, it is difficult, if not impossible, to characterize these demands as exclusively universalist or particularist.

Therefore, we should be asking ourselves around which demands socialists should attempt to organize both workers and the reserve army of labor, i.e. the ninety-nine percent? And more importantly, how? Here it is very important to recognize that simply making demands is not organizing. A mass movement will not coalesce around even the most “universalist” demand if it is shouted from a secluded mountaintop.

These questions become all the more difficult to answer when this class reductionist model is re-complicated by the realities of racial and gendered oppression. However, these questions also reveals a false premise of Naschek’s piece, namely that it will be easy to organize people around a campaign like Medicare for All, since everyone inevitably faces their own health issues, but difficult to organize workers around issues that only some of them face.

The truth is that it will be extremely difficult to organize a mass movement, and nearly impossible to predict what kinds of demands might spark one. Furthermore, many of us, including Naschek, are quite new to this work. She may have discovered the one true path to socialism, but it is much more likely that she has not, and our organizing should reflect this sense of humility.

My intuition, though, is that a broader type of solidarity will be necessary both to build a mass movement and to ultimately foster socialism – defined not by letting workers selfishly hoard the surplus value of their labor at the expense of children, the elderly, caregivers et al., but by workers allowing the surplus value of their labor to be exploited, not for a small capitalist class, but for society as a whole. Our organizing ought to foster that broader kind of solidarity.

Since there are ultimately no such things as universalist demands; all such claims are a political project. A person claims her own demands are universalist to try to convince others to support the demands she wants to see enacted, without being willing to support other demands her comrades might want to see enacted; that is without having to engage in the broader form of social solidarity. Naschek’s article is no different. It seems to advance a position that Philly DSA members focus more exclusively on Medicare for All canvassing, instead of doing work they may find more meaningful and/or strategic. In this context, when Naschek argues that we “can’t do both,” she appears to be saying that unlike most other DSA locals, Philly DSA cannot have both a Medicare for All and a Racial Justice committee.

This is disconcerting because Philly DSA is in the process of rewriting its bylaws. Members Naschek caucuses with–those who advance the Momentum strategy–wrote the resolution which jump started this revision process, and that tendency is also massively overrepresented on the Bylaws Committee created by that resolution. Unfortunately, this composition is not reflective of the larger makeup of the local. Borrowing a trick the Founding Fathers used when creating the Senate, the resolution that created the Bylaws Committee dictates that each committee, regardless of size, will have one member on the Bylaws Committee.

The Local Initiatives and Local Action Committee (LILAC), covered by DSA Weekly last spring, is by far the largest and most ideologically diverse of the committees. I am LILAC’s representative to the Bylaws Committee. The Momentum cadre mostly populates the other, smaller committees; and just as in the Senate, this structure leads to a skewed version of representative democracy. If their recommendations are to be adopted by the local, I worry that Philly DSA will not ever be able to “do both,” and not through lack of capacity, but by design. That would be a shame because DSA is, and has always has been, a multi-tendency organization. If there is any one true path to socialism, inter-left solidarity will be a necessary, albeit probably insufficient element of that praxis.

My vision for Philly DSA, other locals, and ultimately the national organization, is one where members are encouraged to organize with one another around the widest possible array of demands, strategies, and tactics; discuss what is and is not working; offer constructive criticism. But, at the end of the day, we would support one another’s organizing even if we remain skeptical of its value, because we recognize that we could very well be wrong and our comrades could very well be right.