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.