On the Responses to the Ten Theses, Part 2
By Ba Jin
Critiques of method from Noel Ignatiev
Two lengthy responses, from Noel Ignatiev on the FNT site and Neftali on the Signalfire blog, critiqued the method I used to try to analyze the racial order. To get Noel’s views across, I will reproduce my summary of his argument here, which I believe he felt was pretty adequate:
I understand Noel’s critique to be about what methods revolutionaries should use to analyze society and develop strategies. Noel writes: “racial oppression, like gender and national oppression, is a specific form of oppression; its hallmark is the reduction of all members—not some or even most but all—members of the subordinate group to a status beneath that of the most degraded member of the dominant group.” If I’m reading his comment right, Noel upholds this definition of racial oppression, and believes no oppression in the U.S. today conforms to this definition; he thus thinks that if we try to understand oppression and resistance in terms of the racial categories we’ve inherited from the past, we will end up confusing ourselves and failing to develop a good strategy, because the racial categories we use will fail to map onto material reality. Instead, Noel suggests that we “start at the other end” and undertake a class analysis to identify, say, the stratum of the proletariat that we think has revolutionary potential. Once we’ve identified a stratum, we can then examine how different parts of that stratum have different racial or national labels for historical reasons, what strengths and weaknesses they bring to the table due to this history, and how to work with them. He believes this method is better than “reading” the present reality with racial categories that have become fairly incoherent.
I responded to Noel’s comment (one of the first to come in) on the original post on the FNT site, so I won’t duplicate it here. One thing I definitely take from Noel’s response, however, is that it is certainly essential to base any analysis of race on a fairly robust understanding of where class composition is at, and what the dynamics of class struggle are, in the U.S. Without this, it’s possible you will guess at the material forces reshaping the racial categories at work in society, but have an inaccurate understanding of these forces based on your own limited, individual impression of them.
Critiques of method in the Maoist Response
Neftali’s post on the Signalfire blog is by far the lengthiest response, and the one that most strongly questions the place of nations and nationhood in the Theses. I will respond to Neftali’s piece, but first I have to deal with his insinuation that I am engaged in “‘identity politics’ of a Brown/Yellow guilt type in relationship to Black oppression.”
This seemed the only part of Neftali’s piece that was truly uncomradely. Nowhere in my piece did I use the term “yellow,” but Neftali inserts it because he knows that I am Asian (yes, some militants on the internet know each other in real life.) His use of the term could imply two things: either the politics put forward in the Theses will instill guilt among “brown/yellow” people, or, more damningly, my analysis is ultimately driven by some guilt I feel as an Asian person toward black people.
In my experience, comments such as this, which insinuate that the argument one puts forward is actually a manifestation of a deep psychological need / hangup / guilt (etc) is a cheap shot. It’s a way to undercut the validity of an argument without addressing its content, by placing doubt in the reader’s mind as to the impetus behind it. After all, if an argument is really the product of individual guilt, why argue with it? Why bother engaging with an argument that has no rational basis? This is why Neftali inserts this barb early in his piece. However, for this jab to have any substance Neftali would have to do more than insinuate it; he would have to prove it. First, he would have to prove that my argument in the Theses is without substance. Then he would have to prove, using examples from my past writing and practice, that I display a lot of guilt toward black people. Short of this, Neftali’s insinuation remains petty slander, which has no place in principled political debate.
With that caveat, I can now address Neftali’s argument in his Maoist Response.
The main thrust of Neftali’s argument is that my Theses are fundamentally misguided, because I seek to understand race and not nation. Race, for Neftali, is part of the “superstructure” of society, while nation is part of its “base” or “structure.” In Marx’s terms, the “base” of a society is made of the social relations people enter into in order to produce the wealth of society, and the forces of production set in motion through those relations. The “superstructure” is comprised of things like religious, political and cultural organizations and ideas. While each influences the other, the base determines the superstructure in the long run. Marx offers a much fuller description of these terms in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and The German Ideology.
For Neftali, “race” refers to ideology, the superstructural ideas about racial difference that people have in their heads, and which disguise reality. “Nation,” by contrast, refers to a distinct entity within the base of society that really exists, and which is obscured by ideology. When I seek to understand the U.S. in terms of the former rather than the latter, I draw misguided conclusions, like a physician analyzing a patient’s condition in terms of “bad humors” instead of viruses and infections.
Neftali repeatedly insists on the primacy of nation over race. “The ideological production of anti-black racism,” he writes, “is a secondary aspect to the contradiction of white supremacist national oppression.” And again: “the primary aspect of the contradiction is the structure of national oppression, not its super-structural phenomenon.” And again: “the production of racial oppression becomes secondary to national oppression, the base determines superstructure in the last instance.” For Neftali, there is a “methodological issue” with the Theses “which marks this piece as an [i]dealist assessment which asserts superstructure to determine structure.” He believes the Theses imply that the ideology of race is primary, while the material relations of production—and the national blocs within them—are secondary.
In accord with much of the Marxist tradition, I share Neftali’s distinction between base and superstructure. However, his assertion that “race=superstructure/ideology” and “nation=base” is pretty unsupported. What have been called “nations” throughout history have clearly exhibited different bases at different times: some “nations” have been fairly developed capitalist economies that nevertheless lacked a modern political state; other “nations” have been composed of an existing state, perched atop a totally un-integrated series of local markets, language groups, and so on. What “base” is common to all these cases? Neftali could sidestep this problem (and others like it) if he could specify what configuration of forces and relations of production amount to a “nation,” and demonstrate how this configuration arose historically and is manifested in different contexts. But Neftali doesn’t do this.
Neftali provides no definition of nation or national oppression. Instead, he offers a lengthy exposition on the history and current condition of Afro-Americans (much of which I agree with), but without demonstrating how these events produced a “nation” according to a given definition. This section of his piece amounts to a retelling of history through categories he assumes from the outset, not a historical account of how these categories emerged over time; it is history, not dialectical historical materialism. In this way, more than anything else, Neftali’s piece reveals the degree to which the category of “nation” is fetishized and enshrined within Maoist thinking.
Yet even though Neftali doesn’t come out and offer a definition of “nation,” it seems like his argument still employs a definition that remains implicit throughout his piece. I will try to extract this definition from Neftali’s writing, and indicate its shortcomings in the process.
Neftali first describes the formation of an Afro-American nation during the defeat of Reconstruction in the U.S: “such political oppression and divorce of the black masses from any integral role in the system was the base of formation of the African-American people into their own nation” (my emphasis). From this statement, it appears Neftali believes nations may arise when political oppression separates a given population from an “integral role in the system.” We can assume he’s referring to an integral role within the capitalist system of a given oppressor nation.
Yet Neftali immediately backtracks after making this statement, because the history of black people in the U.S. contradicts such an account. If black people have been divorced from an integral role in U.S. capitalism, how does one explain the centrality of slavery to early U.S. capitalism, the role of black sharecropping and agricultural labor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the role of black industrial labor after the great migration? Neftali knows this counterargument exists, and so immediately adds qualifications to his statement. He admits that “dependency was always maintained within the Euro-Amerikan formation, and a certain economic integration of African-Americans was utterly vital for the capitalist system,” but asserts nonetheless that “political separation did effectively cut ties between African-Americans and Euro-Amerikans in basic civil society and prompted the necessity for internal development of African-Americans.”
From these statements, we can reconstruct Neftali’s definition: an oppressed nation is a group that, on the one hand, experiences oppression and political separation from the society that oppresses it, and on the other hand, experiences some degree of internal economic development, even as it remains economically integrated within the society which oppresses it and depends on it in turn.
This definition is simple enough, but as soon as it is made explicit, it raises as many questions as it answers. For example: aren’t there plenty of oppressed groups in society that depend on the larger society and are vital to in in turn, but which aren’t considered “nations”? What degree and quality of oppression, and what degree and quality of internal and autonomous economic development, is sufficient to call a group a “nation”? Does the existence of a niche market proper to a given social category indicate the existence of a nation? What about a merchant class? Small shop producers? Must the group of people composed through these markets or productive layers of society employ the same language? Must it inhabit a contiguous territory? And so on.
These are the kinds of questions that have preoccupied the leftist tradition since the early debates within the Second and Third Internationals, when figures such as Renner, Bauer, Luxemburg, Lenin and Stalin debated how to identify oppressed nations, and what political strategies should be undertaken in relation to them. In the 1980s, academics such as Ernst Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson made their own attempts to answer these questions. A full account of these vast debates is beyond the scope of this response; but for now, it’s enough to note that Neftali fails to engage, let alone synthesize and build upon, this history of thought and struggle. Thus he leaves unanswered all the questions raised within it.
Neftali goes further with his definition, however. At various points, he implies not only that oppressed nations display “internal development,” but also that this internal development exhibits a class structure similar to that described by Mao in pieces such as Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society and On New Democracy. Oppressed nations as Neftali describes them possess a divided bourgeoisie, with a “comprador” side that depends on and allies with the oppressor nation, and a “national” side whose development is constrained by national oppression, and which could potentially ally with the nationalist struggle. Also, the petit-bourgeoisie of oppressed nations are unable to integrate into the oppressor nation, and are thus inclined to ally with the nationalist struggle.
Neftali argues that blacks conform to this class typology at the end of his section on the Afro-American nation, and in a footnote. He counters my claim, that a social and wealth gap exists within the black population, by saying: “there is not a gap growing between the middle class and the working class of the nation.” He claims that “growth among the black middle class was only prompted within a short period of time by financial capital and the US state” through the recent financial bubble and subprime mortgage wave. For the most part, the black petit-bourgeoisie, like the black working class, has “not been integrated into the white supremacist capitalist structure.” How does Neftali support these counter-claims?
First Neftali admits “the empirical data that has been collected doesn’t show post-crash trends,” but he argues, “it would be hard to expect that the lower black petty-bourgeoisie faired out well without the very instruments which brought them quickly forward to begin with.” This is not an empirical argument, but a logical one based on Neftali’s unsupported assertion that growth in the black petit-bourgeoisie came from recent financial bubbles. This assertion, however, is contradicted by many studies that have documented change and growth in the black middle class since the 1970s. The Review of Radical Political Economics, for example, published articles detailing the existence a new black middle class as early as 1985—decades before the financial bubbles Neftali refers to had come into existence.
Turning to observable reality, Neftali argues, “90% of the black petty-bourgeois businesses make less than 50,000 a year and are concentrated in the core of black communities themselves.” Neftali doesn’t cite the source of these claims, but I don’t think this means he’s making them up. However, I would like to see his sources, since others indicate, on the contrary, that a growing wealth gap exists among blacks. For example, a 2011 Pew Research Center report indicated that the wealth gap among blacks expanded through the first years of the economic crisis, just like in all other racial groups, with the top 10% of the wealth ladder insulating itself from the downturn more than the remaining 90%. According to the report, wealthy blacks did this more effectively than wealthy whites.
Even taking Neftali’s data on its own terms, we may still be able to critique it. Judging from the numbers Neftali cites, his statistics seem to come from the most recent Survey of Business Owners released by the Census Bureau. When placed in context, however, his data doesn’t support his point as well as it might first appear. While it’s true that 87% of black businesses make less than $50k a year according to SBO data, for example, the same is true of 65% of all U.S. businesses. The gap between the two numbers is surely significant, but perhaps not significant enough to imply that black people must behave like a nation as imagined by Mao. Furthermore, while the counties with the highest percentage of black-owned firms have large black populations, this tells us nothing about where these firms are located geographically, whether they serve white clienteles as well as black ones, whether they hire and fire white workers as well as black workers—in short, it tells us nothing about the relationships between these black-owned firms and black communities, despite Neftali’s claim that such businesses are “concentrated in the core of black communities.”
Setting aside the black petit-bourgeoisie, Neftali further implies that the Afro-American nation, like China in 1926, possesses a “national” bourgeoisie that has the potential to side with the nationalist struggle against “comprador” elements. However, Neftali does not even try to demonstrate the empirical existence of a “national” bourgeoisie, as he does an excluded petit-bourgeoisie. Instead, he essentially sneaks it in the backdoor toward the end of his section on Afro-Americans. “Clear class analysis,” he claims, “reveals that in fact it is not the national-bourgeoisie or petty-bourgeoisie which have become more integrated into the white supremacist system, in fact empirically its demonstrable that quite clearly the national bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie of the African American people are tightly connected to the whole of the nation.” This would be a suitable conclusion, if it came at the end of a long analysis of the black national bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, it is the first time the national bourgeoisie has been mentioned in his entire piece.
Considering that Neftali’s main argument is that an analysis of race misses the fundamental national “base”, Neftali ought at least to describe the existence and character of such a base. If this base contains a national bourgeoisie along the lines described by Mao, Neftali is similarly obliged to identify and describe it. Thus we can ask Neftali: where is the black national bourgeoisie? Can he point to its existence in reality? Where is a layer of the black bourgeoisie that is capable of generating the black equivalent of the Kuomintang, and which “retains a certain revolutionary quality…in its opposition to the foreign imperialists and the domestic governments of bureaucrats,” as Mao describes in On New Democracy?
In his footnote, Neftali remains mute as to the characteristics of the Afro-American national bourgeoisie. However, he is much clearer as to which groups comprise the “comprador” bourgeoisie. The Afro-American struggle, for Neftali, is actually one of “the whole of the people”—meaning the black proletariat, petit-bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie—against “the comprador political bourgeois class who have utilized their position to grasp and take as much as they can for themselves.” “These poverty pimps and managers have fattened themselves historically through the state and have kept people tied to US imperialism,” he writes, and “Obama is one of their last grabs at legitimacy.” Thus, in Neftali’s piece, the oppressed New Afrikan nation is composed of a petit-bourgeoisie that is excluded from the oppressor nation, a national bourgeoisie whose existence we assume without evidence, and a comprador bourgeoisie that consists of managers, poverty pimps, and the president of the oppressor nation.
This is a big claim. One major shortcoming of this claim is that Obama hardly seems to fit the traditional definition of a “comprador”. He is not an oppressed capitalist or political leader whose position depends on the sanction of the colonial rulers or gunboat diplomats above him, nor does he function as a local enforcer of his own people on behalf of the oppressor nation. Obama administers not just black America, but the entire U.S. population in general; he is thus not a proxy leader for the white bourgeoisie, but a leader of the bourgeoisie in its entirety.
Furthermore, I would challenge Neftali to name another historical case in which a political representative of the comprador bourgeoisie of an oppressed nation assumed the presidency of the imperialist state oppressing his or her people. For comparison, this would be like Diem in South Vietnam being elected president of the United States in 1963. If such an example sounds bizarre, this is because it challenges the very categories Neftali is using to describe the situation: if someone you considered a “comprador” (in this case, Obama) took control of what you assumed was an oppressor nation, it would no longer make sense to conceive of the situation in terms of oppressor nation, oppressed nation, compradors and so on. The categories would be thoroughly unsuited to the reality. Instead of using them, one would have to do what Neftali seems so unwilling or unable to do: develop a new analysis appropriate to conditions, and risk being wrong in the process.
Neftali closes his piece with the assertion, “there exists no racial order as such, but there exists a racist ideological matrix which corresponds to the real oppression of distinct communities of people with qualitatively distinct relations to the means of production as social blocs.” I generally agree with this statement. However, unlike Neftali, I do not assume that “communities of people with qualitatively distinct relations to the means of production” must assume the form ascribed to them by Maoist orthodoxy. For me, both “race” and “nation” refer to particular configurations of, on the one hand, groups “with qualitatively distinct relations to the means of production,” and on the other, “ideological matri[ces].” Our task is to identify what kind of shifts of base and superstructure are occurring now, in what ideological and political terms these shifts will be understood by masses of people, and what kinds of strategies and interventions these developments make possible.
This task demands that we make new analyses of our situation, which, while they may start with the analytical categories we’ve inherited from the past, are willing to deconstruct, reshape or discard them in the process. Neftali seems unable or unwilling to do this, as his piece is preoccupied with opposing my attempt at analysis with Maoist categories he considers to be settled questions. This is the main difference between us: for me, and many who responded to the Ten Theses, there are questions, analyses, and the development of new strategies; for Maoists such as Neftali, there is only static dogma, into which our complex and inconvenient reality must be compelled to fit.
 His view that the base is strictly material, while the superstructure is immaterial ideas, is reductive, but that’s another argument.
 Boston, Thomas D. “Racial Inequality and Class Stratification: A Contribution to a Critique of Black Conservativism”. Review of Radical Political Economics. 17(3). 1985.