Noah Berlatsky’s Critique of My Alleged “Class First Leftism”

Ben Burgis
16 min readDec 6, 2020
Marchers at the 1964 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom hold signs demanding equal rights, full citizenship, full employment, and decent housing

Noah Berlatsky claims in his article Why Class First Leftists are Wrong that I advocate something called “class first leftism.” This came as a surprise to me.

By the time I got to the end of the article, I felt a little bit like Jimmy Shorts in Martin Scorcese’s gangster movie “Mean Streets.” Joey ‘Clams’ Scala has just called Jimmy a “mook.” Jimmy asks what a “mook” is. There’s a brief discussion about what it might mean but within moments Jimmy has gone from confusion to anger, yelling, “You can’t call me a mook!”

When I started reading the article, I’d never heard the words “class,” “first” and “leftism” used in that particular combination. By the time it was over…well, I’m a much more calm person than Jimmy Shorts. But I’d certainly prefer it if Berlatsky didn’t associate me with whatever he imagines “class first leftism” to be.

Berlatsky’s Definitions

At the beginning of the article, Berlatsky describes “class first leftism” as “the belief that economic class is the main form of oppression in the U.S. and the world, and that other forms of discrimination relating to identity — racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. — would be relative non-issues if we could attain economic equality.” That’s actually two definitions and nothing he says as the article goes on clarifies how they’re supposed to relate to each other. Does he think believing either of these things entails believing the other? If not, do you have to believe both of them to count as a “class first leftist” or will believing one do? Nothing he says in what follows gives us any indication of how he’d answer these questions.

Things go from bad to worse in the second paragraph when he starts talking about me:

As Ben Burgis wrote in Arc last month, the theoretical basis of class-first leftism is the idea that “class, unlike race or gender, is an objective relationship to an economic structure.” Burgis argues that oppression by race, gender, or sexuality are based on transient identity (i.e. “race” is socially constructed and therefore not “real”). Economic structure, by contrast, is “objective” and real. Therefore, class is the real, objective form of oppression, and addressing it will address other oppressions as well.

Ben Burgis

Ben Burgis is a philosophy instructor at Georgia State University Perimeter College and the host of the Give Them An Argument podcast and YouTube channel.