Solidarity Blues: Richard Iton on Race, Culture and the Left

Richard Iton’s Solidarity Blues was so good for thinking not just about how race and the American left have articulated, but the nature of the left in general. I use that word ‘left’ often, struggle with it, often distinguish between an elite left and a grassroots left (you all know which one I’m for). Iton takes a step back, to look at the broader ideas in motion:

I attempt to understand how the forces of individualism and collectivism interact in different contexts. (5)

This is much broader than the ‘left’, starts to capture some of the things that happen outside of movement. But I like his broad understanding of the left as well, looking at it in three different aspects:

  1. the conventional conceptions, labor movements and socialist parties

  2. the availability of a certain set or type of public goods

  3. the prevalence of a certain sensibility or set of cultural values. (6)

I like too, this case for just how different America is from the other ‘developed’ nations and how it contrasts with other countries where:

certain things are taken for granted: comprehensive health care, inclusive voter registration procedure, affordable higher education, and a certain standard of public safety. (7)

Not in the US as everyone knows. Which begs the question:

Why so slow, so reluctant to provide public goods?

the answer — constructions of race — and instead of choosing to allow race to disappear or lose its significance,

at every opportunity the choice has been made to remake race in some potent form at the cost of community. (22)

So, to summarise Iton’s arguments on the articulation of race with these three principal aspects of the Left.

Labour Movements and Socialist Parties

Labour movements are sustained by a collective identity of labour opposed to capital. In the US, this collective identity was fractured by race in three principal ways — that follow one from the other and that in themselves show the complexities of this I think.

  1. the popular identification of organized labor with racial progressivism (an association that was accurate at times and ironic at others)

  2. the energies consumed by internecine battles within the labour movement between nativist and racist constituencies and those advocating a more inclusive movement

  3. the decisions made by nativists, racists and their opponents to forego challenging the racial status quo and organizing immigrant workers, in the belief that a successful labour movement could be sustained without the participation of those groups, and that these issues and constituencies  could be dealt with at some later point… (25)

This helps explain the rise of someone like Samuel Gompers in the AFL — fucking Samuel Gompers, the UK has some responsibility for him too as he was born here. He promoted a focus on today’s battles rather than a broader struggle or movement — small wins, craft unions, the exclusion of people of colour, such an ugly politics that wasn’t arguably even practical given it created large pools of strikebreakers. He actually fought while in the cigar makers union to have white labels placed on cigars made by white labour so racists would know and could but white and union.

No wonder you get Du Bois writing that the  ‘AFL not a labor movement, but monopoly of skilled workers’.

There are some brighter lights, though they may have shone briefly. Hurrah, for instance, for the Western Federation of Miners, founded in 1893 in Montana (Montana! No longer somewhere such a movement could blossom I think). From them grew the IWW in 1905 — and of course Iton notes the greater homogeneity of the west coast and how it shaped their politics, it was easier not to be racist. But still. While Iton argues their importance was more symbolic, he does quote Dubovsky:

so feared were the Wobblies that probably no group of labor agitators before or since has as suddenly or disastrously experienced the full wrath of state and national authorities. (51)

On the whole though, Labor’s record in the US is dismal.

labor’s job is to ensure that its constituency can control the circumstances of its existence. Organized labor in the United States has largely either been afraid to do so, or, because of internal and external compromises, been unable to do so. (78)

Where it has been successful in building solidarity, Iton notes, it has actually been along racial lines rather than lines of work or labour.

Southern Politics and Parties

Nothing establishes better the broad weaknesses of the left, and how racial conflicts have prevented it from creating a more collectivist society, than a hard look at the impact of Southern ‘Democratic’ party politics. Iton summarises his argument that it created a:

  1. constant division of leftists activists over issue of whether organizations would be interracial, segregated, or separate but coordinated.
  2. popular rejection of those movements which have pursued interracial alliances …IWW, UMW, CIO
  3. …the race issue has just been a problem to be solved at some future date (84)

Jim Crow disenfranchised Blacks, but also increasingly poor whites, concentrating power in Southern elites against which the whole country has been held hostage through the Democratic party.

 

There was, of course, that brief period when Lenin in the 2nd congress of 1920 directed the Communist Party to support the self-determination of oppressed peoples within nations — this included the Irish and  African negroes as revolutionary groups, which ensured that the CPUSA  for a time did its best to pursue equal rights for blacks, and in South proposing in proposed a black belt nation. In the North, party activists began doing grassroots organizing work with tenants, particularly around rent strikes and the unemployed councils. In 1936 they formed the National Negro Congress, and at this time also began reaching out  to other race communities, such as Mexican farmworkers.

‘By 1935…11 percent of the party’s roughly 27,000 members were black, and in the South, blacks composed an even higher percentage. (118)

Change in CP policy led widespread abandonment of earlier causes, but this isn’t really mentioned. It does help explain some of the automatic connection between race equality and communism that is still so prevalent today, though I mostly think this has been a convenient labeling to facilitate isolation and repression. Of course, it meant the red scare had an even greater impact on those fighting for racial equality. Like Gerald Horne, Iton writes of this period after WWII, which saw:

a unique collapsing of the realms of racial and class politics…the effective end of the traditional left in American politics and a further truncation of the acceptable range of debate concerning economic issues and alternatives. (125)

The radical politics emerging from the Great Depression could have been a time when working classes came together, but instead they split over race. Party politics since then has not sought to challenge current attitudes, but work within the very limited gains staying within them can achieve… White privilege was just a little too strong I suppose. Old FDR himself maintained a 2nd home in Warm Springs Georgia, and promoted himself in 1932 election as a “Georgia planter-politician’.

And now? Iton cites Robert Greenberg’s 1985 study of Macomb ,Michicgan and the switch from Democrat to Republican among white working to middle-class Americans

These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything else that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a place a decent place to live. (129)

Bloody hell.

Beyond the Left

Iton describes how race conservatism has allowed rights to vote to be curtailed, slowed and reduced medicare and medicaid, opposed fair employment practices committee, ensured no best practices taken from Europe as US the only superpower post WWII. But this is a question that continues to pester me:

While I do not want to overstate the importance of the cultural politics of the post-McCarthy era from a progressive standpoint, the inability of the American left to survive the era that produced the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism says something about the American left, as well as American society. (218)

For Iton the why is at least partially found here:

the characteristically American resistance to collective strategies reflects an attachment to the rights and prerogatives of individuals over and above and particular communities. (234)

This of course emerges from Turner’s ‘frontier thesis, or Louis Hartz or Seymour Martin Lipset’s work.  But this doesn’t go deep enough, why this push towards individualism?

The liberal individualism Hartz and others have cited has been rhetorical residue remaining after the battles among the competing “we” claims promoted by different ethnic and racial communities. In other words, while an examination of the speeches of politician might reflect a particularly American preference for individual liberties, the unstated realities have often been shaped by the ethnic and racial calculations made by different groups. (235)

This has never been dealt with by the left in its goal to appeal to the broadest number of people and rejection of the call to help with the ‘maintenance and relaization of a collective sensibility and human civilization.’ (245-246). There is more to dig into here about the way that race has structured capital (see Cedric Robinson), or about how racism has help form a concept of whiteness tied to privilege (as does David Roediger), but the result has been tragic. The book ends with this thought:

The particular and exceptional extent to which the American left has been removed from the main stage of American life has been a direct function of its inability or unwillingness to transcend these hurdles in an especially demographically diverse context, and a result of the popular attachment to a realm — race — that can generate few larger meanings, resilient identities, or practical moralities. (246)

 

Iton, Richard (2000) Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture and the American Left. Chapel hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Leave a Reply