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

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.

Let’s start with that first sentence. Did I in fact write in Arc last month that the part of a sentence he quotes out of context here was the “theoretical basis” of something called “class-first leftism”? No, I did not.

Did I say that race was “socially constructed and therefore not ‘real’”? No, I did not.

It’s also worth noting that, much like Jordan Peterson accusing campus SWJs of allegiance to “postmodern Marxism” even though Marxism and postmodernism are incompatible doctrines, Berlatsky is here attributing to me both social constructivism about race and error theory about race. The first view says that race is real but that it is constituted by social facts rather than biological ones. The second says that the idea that human beings are divided into “races” is just pseudoscientific nonsense — what some black socialist scholars have called racecraft — and we shouldn’t try to rescue the concept by trying to come up with some non-biological sense in which something called “race” exists after all.

The difference between social constructivism and error theory might be large or it might be mostly a matter of emphasis. A lot depends on how you make sense of the metaphor of social “construction” — a surprisingly tricky philosophical issue once you start to think about it. At the very least these are two very different ways of talking about race.

Crucially, whatever you think of this debate, neither of these views entail that racism isn’t real. (Witches have never existed in any sense. They aren’t even socially constructed! But the phenomenon of witch-burning was absolutely real.) Do I believe what Berlatsky says I believe — that class is “the real, objective form of oppression” while “oppression by race, gender, or sexuality” isn’t “real” or “objective”?

Anyone curious about whether I believe that might want to look at the paragraph from which Berlatsky is pulling the quoted phrase. In that paragraph, I talk about trans rights. I also say that, “Racism and its effects are all too real…”

Elsewhere in the article, I say that “injustice takes a variety of forms, some of which are directly and obviously economic, and some of which have to do with identity.” I then talk about the need for robust anti-discrimination laws to deal with the structural impact of the latter.

How about the claims 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”? Do I believe either of those?

I literally don’t know what it means to say that class is the “main” form of oppression. The word “oppression” here is being used to mean not only very different things, but very different kinds of things. As I’ve argued elsewhere, capitalist economic structures exploit workers. You can call that “oppression.” Prejudice and discrimination on the basis of perceptions about identity categories exist and more extreme forms of discrimination that were legally institutionalized in the past continue to have devastating effects. The word “oppression” could be used here too. But one isn’t a more intense form of the other. They’re fundamentally different in kind. Berlatsky oddly contrasts class structures with “other forms of discrimination,” but economic exploitation isn’t a form of discrimination. Capitalists aren’t deciding to extract surplus value from workers in the form of profits because they hate workers. The process happens in exactly the same way if the capitalist truly believes that there’s no such thing as “class” and he and his employees are individuals meeting each other on the field of market exchange from positions of exactly equal power.

Berlatsky points out that there are sometimes ambiguities about who to classify as being part of the working class, and that sometimes theorists disagree among themselves on this question. That’s true enough. But it has nothing to do with anything I said. The reason I argued that “race” and “class” aren’t categories of the same type isn’t that ambiguous borderline cases exist in one case but not the other or that disagreements about how to classify people exist in one case but not the other. The reason I said they were categories of basically different types — even if you think there’s some vague sense in which both are “constructed” by social decisions — is that whether someone is a victim of racism or sexism depends on whether people perceive them as part of the relevant identity category. Whether someone is a victim of economic exploitation is a matter of their objective position in an economic structure. It has nothing to do with how either they or their exploiters think about that structure.

Do I think that racism, sexism, etc., would be “relative non-issues” if we achieved economic inequality? If “relative non-issues” just means “would be considerably reduced,” I think that’s true. Every society that’s ever existed that has one cultural or religious or “racial” group whose economic conditions are worse than others tends to stigmatize that group by coming up with some sort of story to tell about how they’re living in poverty because they’re innately inferior. A future society in which the economic conditions of black people and white people, for example, had been equalized would be a society with a lot less anti-black racism than this one. If “relative non-issue” means “hardly an issue at all” or “nothing to worry about,” then no, I obviously don’t think that. More on that below.

Berlatsky’s Ifs

An odd rhetorical tactic Berlatsky uses throughout the article are “if” statements that seem to be directed at what I (or some other unnamed “class first leftists”) think, even though he doesn’t quote or link to any examples of my (or anyone else) saying these things and even though they don’t follow from his initial definitions of “class first leftism.”

If class distinctions are the realest thing in people’s lives…

If class is the main thing…

The only one of these that seems to be even tenuously connected to anything I wrote is this one:

If the first form of exploitation is the realest…

He seems to be referring to this passage from my Arc piece:

It’s true that injustice takes a variety of forms, some of which are directly and obviously economic, and some of which have to do with identity.

I say “directly and obviously” since many supposedly non-economic injustices can be traced back to economic causes. It’s not as if the British Empire invaded India for the sake of culturally appropriating curry. As Barbara Fields famously put it, it’s absurd to talk about the history of race in America “as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco.” Nevertheless, prejudices that originally came about as rationalizations for fundamentally economic crimes like slavery and colonialism later took on a life of their own, and some of the effects of these prejudices require targeted solutions — like passing more and better anti-discrimination laws.

In this passage, I never make or come close to making the claim that economic exploitation is “realer” than other forms of injustice. Instead, I do two things. One is to endorse “targeted solutions” to racism, sexism, and the rest, like “more and better anti-discrimination laws.” (If you came away from this passage with the impression that I do not in fact think that these things should be dismissed as distractions from economic class struggle, then congratulations on your reading comprehension skills!) The other is to make the point that economic and other forms of injustice are deeply connected. Realizing this should in turn help us to think harder about how to tackle all of these injustices.

Berlatsky’s Strategic Assesments

From Berlatsky’s article:

Class-first leftists also argue that class provides a more universal basis for organizing. As Burgis puts it, “the movement against police violence would be more effective if it were primarily framed as a matter of urgent self-interest for poor people of all races.” This is again an empirical claim about which kinds of social movements are most effective. And in an American context, it is empirically inaccurate.

It’s true that I think that, while the problem clearly has a racial dimension (as I said in the piece Berlatsky seemed only to angrily skim) I also think that this dimension is only one part of a much larger problem of aggressive and militarized policing in poor neighborhoods. Part of the reason that its victims are disproportionately black is certainly racial prejudice by policemen but another big part is simply that, due to the economic legacy of Jim Crow, redlining and the rest, black people are more likely than white people to live in those neighborhoods. I tend to think that any movement that at least attempts to unite everyone afflicted by some problem on the basis of shared interests is, all else being equal, probably going to be more politically effective than movements that don’t attempt to do this. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about the racial prejudice aspect of the problem. It does mean, however, that we should think about how to frame the issue more broadly.

In response to this point, Berlatsky emphasizes that there have been gigantic protests since the death of George Floyd. That’s certainly true and I join him in supporting those protests. But a fuller picture of the realities on the ground would have to include the fact that public support for the movement actually considerably declined last summer. It’s true that over 50% of Americans still express some vague sympathy for its goals. On the other hand, polling over the summer showed a larger majority of the public supporting Tom Cotton’s call to send the military to American cities to quell the unrest, so Berlatsky’s apparent move from the premise that the protests were huge to the conclusion that what we’re doing is already working so well that we have no reason to consider a different strategy strikes me as pretty dubious.

Berlatsky also looks to American history for evidence against my claim that appealing to the shared interests of a broader group of people is generally more politically effective than talking about the interests only of a minority and framing everyone else as being merely supportive ‘allies.’

There have certainly been numerous, admirable, important labor fights that focused on poverty and class oppression. But the most effective movements to transform material conditions in the U.S. have been antiracist. During the Civil War, around 4 million Black people took advantage of the conflict to emancipate themselves and take control of their own labor and personhood. The Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s similarly led to a revolution in property laws, access to resources, and political power.

It’s certainly true that these movements were both “antiracist” in that they attacked institutions of racialized oppression. But leaving it here would be extraordinarily misleading. And Berlatsky’s grasp of the relevant history is worse than shaky.

First, the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s consistently used universalist language. Look at old pictures of the 1964 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” and try to find signs with he word “black” or “white” or “race” on them — as opposed to terms like “bias” and “discrimination” that appeal to universal principles. Second, as that “jobs and” would tend to indicate, the Civil Rights Movement put a lot of effort into connecting the struggle for civic and legal equality for everyone with universalist demands that would disproportionately benefit black people but do so by addressing the material needs of poor people of all races.

During the Civil War, enslaved black people didn’t simply “take advantage of” some conflict that happened to be going on at the time “to emancipate themselves.” The war happened in the first place because of the electoral victory of the anti-slavery political party led by Abraham Lincoln. Historians Barbara Fields and Adam Rothman summarize how that happened here:

[O]verreaching by the slaveholders taught many white Americans — at least in the North — that the agenda of the slaveholders threatened their own rights. The Gag Rule of 1836–1844 prevented members of the House of Representatives from considering antislavery petitions from their own constituents. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, federal marshals could require Northern citizens to assist in recapturing fugitive slaves. The Kansas–Nebraska Act set off a bloody contest over the introduction of slavery into territory where it had previously been banned. The Dred Scott decision called into question the ability of white citizens to exclude slavery anywhere in the country. These milestones of antebellum politics convinced many white Northerners that their own rights would be trampled and their livelihoods cramped — and that they, too, could be made into slaves — if the “slave power” were left unchecked. Even white Northerners who mistrusted abolitionists and disdained black people were attracted to the new antislavery party.

Moving to the present day, Berlatsky points out that white people are far more likely to vote for conservative candidates than black people. But it’s deeply unclear why he thinks that this undermines rather than reinforces the point that we need to try a different approach. Once again, Rothman and Fields are very good on this point:

The Republicans can still win a national election without a critical mass of nonwhite voters, but the opposition cannot unseat them without a critical mass of white voters.

Therefore, those seeking genuine democracy must fight like hell to convince white Americans that what is good for black people is also good for them. Reining in murderous police, investing in schools rather than prisons, providing universal healthcare (including drug treatment and rehabilitation for addicts in the rural heartland), raising taxes on the rich, and ending foolish wars are policies that would benefit a solid majority of the American people. Such an agenda could be the basis for a successful political coalition rooted in the real conditions of American life, which were disastrous before the pandemic and are now catastrophic.

Berlatsky’s Accusations

At the end of the article, Berlatsky’s rhetoric kicks into high gear. He tells us that “class first leftists” “often” have ethics that he describes as “reactionary garbage,” and that their political program amounts to “a new white male cishet boss taking the place of the old.”

Are my ethics “reactionary garbage”? I suppose that’s a matter of opinion. And perhaps I should be grateful for that “often.” Being told that you’re a prime representative of a group that “often” has reactionary-garbage ethics isn’t quite like being told that you yourself are a walking pile of reactionary garbage…although I have to say that the distinction reminds me a bit of Donald Trump ending a rant about undocumented immigrants being rapists and murderers with a hasty “and some, I assume, are good people.”

All I can say is that I try my very best not to traffic in reactionary garbage. In fact, I spend a lot of time debating people who actually do have right-wing views on subjects ranging from abortion rights to economic redistribution to whether racism is still a major social problem in the United States. (My ice cold take on that question was yes.) But I suppose that if I really did advocate “white male cishet” domination over all other categories of the population, the shoe would fit.

Even typing out the words “I do not in fact advocate the continued oppression of trans people, women and non-whites” feels like giving Berlatsky a bit more than I should. (Lyndon B. Johnson once supposedly spread a rumor that one of his political opponents had carnal relations with pigs. An aide asked him why he’d promote such an outlandish accusation and LBJ is supposed to have said that he just wanted to “make the bastard deny it.”) But, for what it’s worth, I really don’t.

RGE in Theory and Practice

Berlatsky gives four examples of things that “class first leftists” do (or might do) that allegedly displaying RGE (Reactionary-Garbage Ethics). This is worth quoting at length:

If class is the main thing, then you must focus on class and worry less about other oppressions in the name of solidarity. And if that’s the case, then anyone who raises questions about racism in the labor movement is undermining the most important effort. Similarly, raising concerns about sexual harassment in left-wing political campaigns makes you a traitor to the cause. This is why class-first leftists often rail against ‘identity politics,’ buttressing and echoing openly racist and sexist language from the right.

It’s also why class-first leftists like Angela Nagle sometimes find themselves allying with right-wing bigots like Tucker Carlson. Nagle infamously went on Carlson’s show to make the case against open borders, arguing that generous immigration policies harm American workers. Nagle sees class as the main vector of oppression, and wants to protect working class Americans first and foremost. Racism against immigrants isn’t of much concern to her; it’s not real oppression. The mantra of class-first becomes an excuse to shrug off racism and center white workers, so that Tucker Carlson becomes a more logical ally than antiracist activists.

So we have (i) using the phrase ‘identity politics’ to describe views we dislike, (ii) telling people not to raise concerns about racism in the labor movement, (iii) calling people traitors for objecting to sexual harassment in left-wing political campaigns, and (iv) allying with Tucker Carlson on immigration. Berlatsky piles on extreme accusations so recklessly it’s hard to keep them straight but let’s at least make an effort to separate them out and address them all.

It’s also worth keeping track of small details like Berlatsky’s use of the phrase “the mantra of ‘class first.’” This sounds to me like he’s referring to someone somewhere who uses that phrase as a mantra. It’s too bad he doesn’t bother telling us who does that. I know I don’t. Neither does anyone I’ve ever met.

On (i), it’s true that the phrase “identity politics” (or variants like “identitarianism”) are used by various people in various parts of the political spectrum to critique various things. Matt Bruenig has an interesting and thoughtful critique of the practice of identitarian deference, for example, and Ben Shapiro has what I’d regard as a dramatically less thoughtful critique of what he sometimes calls “identity politics.” But if we’re going to say that Bruenig is therefore “buttressing and echoing” Shapiro, we could equally say that Berlatksky himself is, by criticizing “class first leftism,” “buttressing and echoing” a common line of attack by centrists against the socialist left as a whole exemplified by Hillary Clinton saying that Bernie Sanders didn’t understand that breaking up the big banks wouldn’t solve racism. I’d suggest that we not play that game at all.

On (ii) and (iii), it’s telling that Berlatsky neither names any names of leftists who supposedly have these positions nor includes any relevant hyperlinks. The one link he does include that has anything to do with (iii) is to an article about the existence of sexual harassment on the 2016 Sanders campaign. But this article doesn’t include or even hint at the existence of anyone calling female Sanders supporters who objected to this behavior “traitors.” On (ii), Berlatsky doesn’t so much as bother with a hyperlink.

Perhaps (ii) and (iii) are meant to be merely hypothetical examples — sins that people might be led by the heresy of “class first leftism” to commit in the future. If so, the reasoning falls apart on even cursory inspection. Why would someone who cared about class want to undermine solidarity between white and black workers by tolerating racism in the labor movement? Why would someone who cared about the issues Sanders was running on want to alienate the young women who were the backbone of his movement tolerate sexual harassment? Berlatsky doesn’t bother to spell any of this out. He merely shares his evidence-free suspicion that class first leftism either leads or might lead people to take these positions and moves on.

On (iv), he at least comes up with a name: Angela Nagle. If he’d bothered to google my name in conjunction with Nagle’s, he would have found this video, which I made in the immediate aftermath of Nagle’s Tucker Carlson appearance. (Forgive the terrible audio quality. It was made in January 2019. I’ve gotten better.) While I’ve enjoyed much of Nagle’s writing, I’m very much on record as disagreeing with her position on immigration and have been since she first starting talking bout it. I’m also very much on record on the subject of Tucker Carlson’s bona fides as an advocate of the interests of working-class people.

That said, it’s a bit much to say that going on Tucker Carlson’s show is the same thing as seeing Carlson as a political “ally.” And, whatever my disagreements with some of Nagle’s positions, Berlatsky’s description of those positions is an ugly caricature.

In her book Kill All Normies, Nagle criticized what she’s called “an identity-base internet subculture” associated with, for example, Tumblr. In interviews about the book like this one, she’s gone out of her way to differentiate that from forms of “identity politics” she endorses:

Identity politics gave us the women’s rights movement, the gay rights movement, the civil rights movement, and so on. It would be absurd to conflate that entire radical history with this small internet subculture.

What I criticized wasn’t identity politics in general but a specific version of identity politics that was about performative wokeness, and in particular the reason I didn’t like it was because it was very inclined to censor and it was very inclined to gang up on people. I hate that, and I think it deserves to be criticized.

Comparing Nagle’s actual words to the reasoning that Berlatsky attributes to her when he says that, to Nagle, racism is “not real oppression” and it can therefore be “shrugged off” should make you pause and think about the standards of evidence that Berlatsky uses to ground his often wildly inflammatory accusations. I’ll leave the question of what all of this might say about his ethics to the judgment of our readers.

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.

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