The Socialist Insurgent

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Upsets  Rep. Joseph Crowley In NY Primary
Campaign posters for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who defeated ten-term Rep. Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th district, on June 26.

Three Takeaways from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Primary Victory.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent defeat of ten-term Democratic Party establishment insider, Joseph Crowley in the New York Democratic primary for the 14th district is a welcome sliver of good news in these otherwise trying Trumpian times. Ocasio-Cortez’s June 26 win is a stunning victory against a seemingly invulnerable Democratic apparatchik who has long been eyed as a potential speaker of the house.

The 28-year-old Latina, a self-described democratic socialist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), sailed to victory on a Bernie Sanders-inspired platform of free college tuition, universal health care, and, perhaps most boldly, calling for the abolition of the renegade police agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Much has already been written about Ocasio-Cortez since her primary win. (She is all but assured victory in the general election this November.)

Here are three key takeaways:

Socialism is Back, Baby!

For the first time in my life we are witnessing the emergence of a potential socialist movement. Sen. Sanders deserves credit for solidifying it, but the early incubations were apparent during Occupy Wall Street in 2011, which was primarily driven by a nascent anti-capitalist sentiment.

Young Americans, in particular, are more open to socialism and socialist ideas than at any other time since the early part of the 20th century. A recent poll finds a majority of Americans under the age of 30 reject capitalism. A YouGov poll from November 2017 found 44 percent of millennials would prefer living in a socialist country over a capitalist one. Since Trump’s election, socialist groups like the DSA have seen an immense surge in membership and meeting attendance.

And it does not take an advanced degree in sociology to understand why working-class people are turning to socialism and the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels to better understand the world. As Paul D’Amato writes in the introduction to his 2014 socialism primer, The Meaning of Marxism:

[N]eoliberalism has lost its luster. Nobody believes anymore that a rising tide of corporate profits lifts all boats. More and more people are acutely aware of the fact that the wealth at the top comes at the expense of the labor and health of the vast majority. In spite of decades of media pundits and politicians telling us that we are to blame for our poverty, low wages, and lack of social opportunities, more and more people understand that the system is set up deliberately to benefit a tiny minority.

How these newly radicalized young people define “socialism” is another matter. Ocasio-Cortez’s own admittedly bland and generic conception of socialism is a little too vague and moralistic for my taste. (Then again, Ocasio-Cortez is a politician, and her wide-net definition of socialism may well be intentional.)

Some have argued, likewise, that Sanders is really more of a New Deal Democrat than a socialist. Indeed, Sanders’ hawkish foreign policy positions are quite at odds with those of his avowed hero, Eugene Debs — who famously went to prison in 1918 for speaking out against the first world war.

Still, a political tradition as old as socialism is bound to have developed a variety of strains, divisions, and sub-genres throughout its existence. Even within a room of 100 DSA members, one is unlikely to find a common understanding of the term “socialism.” While socialists of all stripes should definitely engage in comradely yet forthright debates over what sort of world we are fighting for, we must not become too sectarian or even “ultra-leftist” over who can and cannot call herself a “socialist.”

For the time being, I would propose that if you believe in workers’ rights, universal health care, ending poverty and you oppose the oppression of women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, and other marginalized groups, then we are on the same side and you are welcome among socialists.

Class Struggle Still Gets the Goods.

While the out of touch, know-nothing punditocracy puzzles cluelessly over Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise upset, her win is no mystery to the working-class voters of New York’s racially diverse 14th district. Like Sanders in 2016, Ocasio-Cortez spoke to working-class voters’ actual lived experiences. Unlike Crowley and the rest of the Democratic elite, Ocasio-Cortez understands working people’s struggles with unaffordable health care, skyrocketing rents, and jobs that do not pay a living wage or offer paid sick days.

As Ocasio-Cortez states flat-out in her authentic campaign advertisement, “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office. I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family.”

Perhaps most refreshing is Ocasio-Cortez’s refusal to play into the prevailing concept of so-called “identity politics,” in which race and class are constantly pitted against one another. “I can’t name a single issue with roots in race that doesn’t have economic implications,” she said in an interview with The Nation magazine, “and I cannot think of a single economic issue that doesn’t have racial implications. The idea that we have to separate them out and choose one is a con.”

But we are not dealing with rocket science, here. Ocasio-Cortez won because she spoke directly yet eloquently to working-class voters about the issues that affect them. In contrast to Crowley who, like Hillary Clinton two years ago, merely ran on his tenure and supposed “expertise,” — his pragmatic ability to “get stuff done” — Ocasio-Cortez had a clear, tangible message that resonated with voters. As one Sanders campaign sign aptly put it: “Finally, a reason to vote.”

But the Democratic Party still refuses to learn this rather elementary lesson (i.e. that class struggle gets the goods). This brings us to my third and final observation:

“Taking Over” the Democratic Party is a Pipe Dream.

The question over the left’s relationship to the capitalist, Wall Street-captive Democratic Party will become a central one as the working class continues to organize. Activists are already feeling intense pressure to muzzle their “radical” calls for abolishing ICE and instituting Medicare for all and obsequiously fall in line and vote for local Democrats in this fall’s midterm elections. That pressure is only going to increase as the 2020 presidential election looms closer and the left’s primary impetus becomes defeating Trump — even if that means electing a pro-business, corporate shill like Joe Biden, Kamala Harris or, yes, Hillary Clinton.

The fact is, the left has been attempting to “take over” or “take back” the Democratic Party for decades. Progressive candidates like Jesse Jackson, George McGovern, Dennis Kucinich and, more recently, Bernie Sanders, have waged spirited, inspiring campaigns to try to “push” the party into a more radical direction.

But not only has the Democratic Party apparatus swiftly shut down all of those campaigns — it has succeeded each time in absorbing the campaigns back into the “proper channels,” of Establishment politics. This is precisely what happened to Sanders’ campaign in 2016. The Vermont senator set out to spark a “political revolution,” only to end up endorsing and campaigning for — and rigorously shutting down left-wing opposition to — Clinton.

And this is the role of the Democratic Party. As Lance Selfa makes clear in his book, The Democrats: A Critical History, the Democratic Party has long been used by the ruling class to undermine, re-direct, and at times simply crush genuine working-class movements. Little wonder the Democratic Party is often referred to as the “graveyard of social movements.”

Therein lies Ocasio-Cortez’s dilemma. She has signed on with a party that is fundamentally opposed to everything she stands for. Indeed, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is already hard at work re-writing the party’s national campaign platform in order to make it harder for self-identified “democratic socialists” like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders to run for office on the Democratic ticket.

As the saying goes, “with friends like these…”

The working class needs its own political party — one completely independent of the two capitalist parties. There was a time when I believed the Green Party could serve this role. But the Green Party in Portland has all but imploded, due to its lack of party discipline and chaotic, anarcho-liberal orientation. Thus, a viable working-class party does not yet exist. It is up to us to create one.

None of this is meant to detract from Ocasio-Cortez’s inspiring primary win. Going forward, she and her supporters should use their influence to steer debates and legislation within the halls of power. But we must understand that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory within a party completely hostile to her entire progressive platform comes with certain built-in limitations.

As Selfa writes:

The many efforts of the inside-outside strategy [as it is known] … have not pushed the Democratic Party in a liberal direction. All liberal intra-party challenges, from Jackson’s to Kucinich’s, ended with their leaders delivering their supporters over to the more conservative Democrats against whom they had mounted their challenges in the first place.

… The real impact of these inside-outside challenges is, to paraphrase Jackson, to “keep hope alive” in the Democratic Party. These campaigns help to extinguish third-party movements. For those who want to build a genuine and credible left in the United States, there is no substitute for the slow and painstaking work of building movements on the ground, and of building a political alternative to the Democrats.

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at

Thanks for reading!



The Failure of Identity Politics

Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham, star of the HBO series, “Girls,” shows off her support for Hillary Clinton with a dress emblazoned with the Democratic presidential candidate’s first name.

I maintain, as I have previously argued on this site, that one of the greatest obstacles to developing a mass, diverse working-class movement to fight not only the Trump regime, but also the system that spawned it in the first place, remains the scourge of identity politics.

This political orientation, along with its associated practices of “privilege-checking,” and “calling out,” has rendered the left atomized, devoid of a concrete political vision, and largely incapable of joining together in solidarity. Indeed, even that word, “solidarity,” is quite threatening to practitioners of identity and privilege-politics, who regard it as a sort of “whitewashing” of real inequities in race, gender, and sexual orientation.

The absence of a clearly articulated class-oriented approach to social justice, combined with a generally low-level of class-struggle (recent resistance to Trump’s election, notwithstanding), has allowed the nebulous, postmodernist dictates of identity politics to fill the void. As a result, in places like Portland, Maine the framework of identity politics has become the default orientation of left-wing groups.

According to liberal identitarians all white people are inherently—and perhaps, irredeemably—racist, simply by nature of being white. And no amount of education, enlightenment, commitment to social justice, or personal growth can alter a “privileged” white person’s racist, prejudiced views. Thus, identity politics casts White People or even just “whiteness” as the enemy of the oppressed, rather than the structural racism intentionally perpetuated by the wealthy elite.

As the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass observed of the twisted genius of the capitalist ruling class in pitting white workers against black workers, “The slaveholders, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much of a slave as the black himself.”

“Both,” Douglass adds, “are plundered by the same plunderer.”

Proponents of identity politics, likewise, insist Donald Trump was elected president based purely on racism—and nothing more. They point to exit-poll data suggesting a majority of white voters—including a majority of white women—voted for Trump.

But this data is misleading. A majority of white Americans did not vote for Trump. A majority of the whites who voted did. This is a crucial distinction. Nearly 50 percent of eligible voters stayed home on Election Day or were barred from voting.

And, while racism no doubt played some role in Trump’s election, many of the working-class whites who voted for him did so out of legitimate economic grievances. As Jacobin’s Adaner Usmani puts it, “All Klansmen are Trump supporters, but all Trump supporters are not Klansmen.” It is crucial those of us on the left understand this if we are to have any hope of winning some of those working-class Trump supporters–many of whom voted for Barack Obama, at least once–to our side.

This is in no way meant to diminish the very real and insidious role of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and ableism in Trump’s electoral victory. It is merely to acknowledge that his ascension is more complicated to explain—his supporters’ motivations more complex and often contradictory—than the easy scapegoat of “racism” suggests.

Furthermore, it was the slave-owning Founding Fathers’ Electoral College which handed Trump the presidency—not the voters. If we lived in an actual democracy, where candidates were elected based on the popular vote (or, for that matter, if we had more than two candidates to choose from), then Hillary Clinton would currently be sitting in the White House.

But proponents of identity politics conveniently overlook all of these nuances, preferring a simplistic (and decidedly cynical) understanding of society and human nature as governed by nothing more than fear, hatred, and naked self-interest.

As such, Maine activist and blogger, Shay Stewart-Bouley, claims in a recent post on her “Black Girl in Maine” blog that a “fear of the declining value of whiteness is what brought us Trump.”

Stewart-Bouley goes on to admonish her white readers that people of color do not need their “white guilt” in anti-racist activism, only to then proceed to remind them that “racism is largely a white problem.” Sure seems like a guilt-trip to me.

But rather than explaining how white leftists can be better “allies” in the fight against racism, Stewart-Bouley echoes the familiar identitarian doctrine that black and white activists conduct their work in separate circles. This, she explains, is so white people can “have a space [of their own] to work out the kinks on their journey without harming me and other POC [People of Color].”

This insistence of separate spaces for black and white activists flows from the identitarian concept that it is “not the job” of oppressed people to educate others. White progressives, in other words, must “do the work” of educating themselves.

“Seriously, I am not Oprah or Mammy,” Stewart-Bouley writes, “and for my own well-being, I want people to know what they don’t know and work on it without being expected to have their hand held by me while they do it.”

As someone who has worked (albeit, briefly) in education, I can assure you: Dismissively telling students to “go educate yourselves,” with no additional guidance or direction from the teacher, is a surefire way to ensure the majority of them do not take the class seriously, spend the semester slacking off, and ultimately fail the course. And, when it comes to eradicating racism, and building a viable, multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-ethnic working-class movement, failure, as they say, is not an option.

Telling people to “educate yourself” or just “Google it” in response to legitimate questions about unfamiliar phrases, jargon, or histories, merely reproduces “neoliberal atomization,” as one of my comrades in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) phrased it in a recent internal document. That is, “sit by yourself in front of a computer and figure it out alone.” And this is to say nothing of the generally contemptuous tone of telling people, “It’s not my job to educate you!”

Part of being a revolutionary means being willing to educate, discuss and patiently debate with others—even those who may not be as radical as you are. Reading, studying, and debating collectively are indispensable components to building a sense of solidarity, and coalescing around a unified, cohesive political orientation.

Contrary to the dictates of identity politics, just because an individual does not personally experience a particular form of oppression does not mean he or she has no interest in fighting to end that oppression. Indeed, the system of capitalism—a system that is inherently exploitative— oppresses all workers to some degree. The ruling class has its proverbial thumb on all workers—though it presses down with greater force on some particularly oppressed workers (African Americans, women, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities), than others.

But all workers have an interest in cutting off the bourgeois thumb (if not, indeed, the entire hand it is a part of) and dismantling the system that keeps us all down.

As socialist author, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in her 2016 book, From Black Lives Matter, to Black Liberation:

Solidarity is standing in unity with people even if you have not personally experienced their particular oppression[.] The reality is that as long as capitalism exists, material and ideological pressures push white workers to be racist and all workers to hold each other in general suspicion. But there are moments of struggle when the mutual interests of workers are laid bare, and when the suspicion is finally turned in the other direction—at the plutocrats who live well while the rest of us suffer.

While the inclusion of more people of color, women, and gays in the corporate and political arena is certainly a welcome trend, the folly of multiculturalism is in viewing this diversity alone as a form of progress. The fact is, one can be gay, black, female, or trans and still be part of the bourgeoisie. Take figures like Caitlyn Jenner, Clarence Thomas, Oprah Winfrey, or warmonger “feminist,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, for example.

As left-wing professor Adolph Reed, Jr. writes in a stinging rebuke of liberal identity politics:

[A] society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people. It would be tough to imagine a normative ideal that expresses more unambiguously the social position of people who consider themselves candidates for inclusion, or at least significant staff positions in service to, the ruling class.

None of this is to suggest that class is “more important” than race or other aspects of identity. Rather, as Karl Marx observed, class and race are inextricably intertwined.

“In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic,” Marx wrote in Volume One of Capital. “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

The left must rekindle the old labor slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Only through solidarity—through a shared sense of class-struggle among workers of all genders, gender-identities, races, and sexual orientations—can we hope to fight the right, rebuild the left, and win nothing less than the self-emancipation of the working class.

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at

Thanks for reading!


“Centering” is Tokenism

Solidarity, Not Centering

Though well-intentioned, the practice of “centering” oppressed voices in left circles threatens to become an end in and of itself.

Anyone involved in activism during the last five-eight years is likely familiar with the practice of “centering” marginalized voices at rallies, protests, and demonstrations. This practice entails placing the voices of oppressed people—African Americans, Muslims, women, immigrants, LGBT people—front-and-center during speeches or pre-march rallies. The practice is sometimes referred to as “Passing the mic.”

In theory, “centering” is a well-intentioned concept designed to give space to oppressed individuals who often are denied a platform to speak publicly or whose voices are generally ignored.

But, alas, the “road to hell…” as they say…

The problem with “centering” is its complete disregard for the actual content of the speakers’ speeches. Protest organizers often assemble their multi-ethnic/multi-racial/gender-“non-conforming” panel of speakers with little to no concern for what, exactly, they are going to say at the event, or how a panelist’s views may differ from those of the host organization.

As a result, you wind up with black speakers who encourage participants to divest their money from corporate banks like TD, Bank of America and the like, and participate solely in “black banking,” or only patronize businesses owned and operated by African Americans.

Again, this is an understandable and well-meaning idea. But as a socialist I have to ask: How does shopping exclusively at “black businesses” in any way threaten or undermine the system of capitalism?

Answer: It does not.

Indeed, this strategy strikes me as all too similar to the naïve liberal belief that shopping exclusively at “small businesses,” or “buying local,” can create a more egalitarian world. While I certainly prefer shopping at a locally-owned coffee shop rather than at Starbucks any day of the week, the small businesses in my neighborhood are no less motivated by profit than a giant corporate chain is. Likewise, the baristas at the local coffee shop are no less exploited as workers than those at Starbucks.

(Voters in Portland, Maine defeated a referendum in 2015, put forward by the Portland Green Party, to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Most of the opposition came not from chain stores or corporate retailers, but from the city’s myriad “small” businesses and restaurants.)

But, as a white male, I am prohibited from offering this counter-argument to the “black business” strategy. That is because the practice of “centering,” in its effort to raise the voices of marginalized people, often excludes those of white, straight men, entirely. Protest organizers tend to be quite explicit about this. Your role at these demonstrations if you are white, male, straight or all of the above, is basically to sit down, shut-up, and defer entirely to people of color, women, LGBT folks, etc.

Other times, the speakers assembled will not express any coherent political philosophies or strategies at all. They will just rant.

The need to rant about racism, homophobia, sexism and “The System” at large, is no doubt an entirely natural, human desire—especially for those who must endure such pernicious forms of oppression on a daily basis. We all need to rant at some point. It is, I suppose, a necessary form of catharsis.

But merely ranting about the system will not change it. In order to do that, we need carefully thought out political theories, philosophies, strategies, and views. And we should debate those views among each other in a comradely fashion. Selecting speakers based on their gender, gender-identity, race or sexual orientation, rather than their political views, denies leftists this opportunity. As a result, leftists are less knowledgeable about how, precisely, to go about creating a world devoid of sexism, racism, ableism, and capitalist exploitation.

Finally, if the goal of centering is to provide a platform for those routinely denied one, why are poor or homeless people (of any race, ethnicity, gender, etc.) rarely among the speakers featured? Poverty is, after all, a form of oppression.

Socialists are often accused of “class reductionism,” or focusing exclusively on class while ignoring or downplaying the significance of other forms of oppression. This was the chief complaint among liberal women and people of color about Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Yet, these accusations of sexism and racism were—particularly in the case of the former—cynically stoked by the Hillary Clinton campaign, in order to discredit Sanders and his platform of democratic socialism.

Leaving aside the fact that socialists have historically been at the forefront of struggles against sexism, racism, homophobia and the like, identitarian liberals are rarely accused of class reductionism’s inverse: identity politics. The point is, just as oppression based on identity cannot—and should not—be ignored, neither can class.

As Sanders said in a widely mischaracterized speech during a post-election book tour last November, “It goes without saying that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans—all of that is enormously important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen.”

“But,” Sanders went on:

“… It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

These limitations beg the question: At what point does centering become little more than a politics of representation at best—or a cynical form of tokenism, at worst?

This is not to suggest there is no value in sitting back and listening more—especially for those of us (white men, mostly) who, admittedly, tend to do most of the talking. And marginalized people should tell their own stories, and lead their own movements. But centering—like all forms of identity politics—threatens to become an end in and of itself.

It is time for the left to move beyond the practice of centering and toward an orientation of solidarity. Our orientation should be the old labor slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

This is not to suggest we abandon the practice of centering, altogether. I do believe it has some value.

But if we are serious about ending racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia—and, ultimately, the capitalist system that perpetuates such forms of oppression in the first place—then we need to, in the words of the rap group, The Coup, “pick a bigger weapon.” And that weapon, in my opinion, is socialism.

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Thanks for reading!

Dickensian Days are Here Again

An homage to Charles Dickens


Charles Dickens, whose classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol is ubiquitous on television and local theater stages this time of year, is one of my favorite authors. The celebrated British novelist had a keen insight into the arrogant mindset of the bourgeoisie that remains unrivaled in literature to this day.

Consider, for instance, when Ebenezer Scrooge is approached by two social workers who solicit him for a charitable donation for the poor. Upon rebuking them (“Are there no prisons? …No workhouses?”), Scrooge admonishes the social workers:

“I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I mentioned. They cost enough. And those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

Fast-forward to president-elect Donald Trump. When asked if he was “sympathetic” to minimum wage workers’ demands for a $15 minimum wage during a Fox News “debate” last year, Trump seemed to channel his own inner-Scrooge.

“I can’t be,” Trump flatly told moderator Neil Cavuto. “…Our taxes are too high…. Wages too high. I hate to say it, but we have to leave it [the minimum wage] the way it is. People have to go out, they have to work really hard, and they have to get into that upper stratum.”

Leaving aside the obvious factual errors of Trump’s response (both taxes and wages are notoriously low in the U.S. compared to other industrialized countries; likewise, Americans already rank among the hardest-working people in the world yet only a tiny privileged minority make into that “upper stratum”), his callous rhetoric toward the poor is virtually identical to Scrooge’s.

Turns out the capricious mindset of the rich has not changed much in the last 200 years.

But as much as I enjoy A Christmas Carol, I find it unfortunate it is Dickens’ best known work. Indeed, the 1843 short story really only scratches the surface of Dickens’ literary talents.

Dickens’ novels following Christmas Carol–most of which originally appeared as serialized installments in magazines–featured intricately-woven plots, and delved into darker subject matter than his previous works. The classic Dickens storyline typically features dozens of characters—often, as is the case in Great Expectations and Little Dorrit, hailing from opposite social classes—whose fates are inevitably bound together somehow.

A master of wit and satire, Dickens’ stories tend to feature outlandishly cartoonish characters like the teacher Mr. M’Choakumchild from 1854’s Hard Times or the duplicitous Yes-Man, Uriah Heep from David Copperfield. Consider Dickens’ vivid description, as narrated by titular protagonist, David Copperfield, of Heep from the following passage:

“There I saw him, lying on his back, with his legs extending to I don’t know where, gurglings taking place in his throat, stoppages in his nose, and his mouth open like a post office… Afterwards I was attracted to him in very repulsion, and could not help wandering in and out every half hour or so, and taking another look at him.”

Dickens introduces Scrooge, likewise, as a “tight-fisted hand at the grindstone… a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” Needless to say, Dickens was never too keen on subtlety.

But it was Dickens’ passionate humanization of England’s poor and working class, and his scathing indictment of the ultra-rich that truly secured his legacy not merely as a writer, but as a social reformer as well.

Like George Orwell and Upton Sinclair, Dickens began his writing career as a newspaper reporter. His stories on the ills of London’s capitalist industrialization easily lent themselves to his literary exposes of child labor, homelessness, and the plight of the poor as depicted in Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.

Even Karl Marx took notice of Dickens’ socially-conscious writing. In an August 1, 1854 article in the New York Tribune, Marx praised Dickens as belonging to a “splendid brotherhood of fiction writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

Dickens’ concern for the poor came out of his own childhood struggles with poverty. At the age of 12, Dickens was forced to leave school to work full-time in a rodent-infested boot-blacking factory after his father was sent to debtor’s prison. Dickens would later denounce these prisons and the institutional criminalization of poverty, in 1857’s Little Dorrit.

Dickens’ own difficult childhood proved a near endless well of inspiration for his novels, nearly all of which feature child or young adult protagonists. For the leftist historian, Howard Zinn, who was greatly influenced by Dickens at an early age, this championing of the plight of children was something of a revelation.

“How wise Dickens was to make readers feel poverty and cruelty through the fate of children,” Zinn writes in his 1994 autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “who had not reached the age where the righteous and comfortable classes could accuse them of being responsible for their own misery.”

To be clear, Dickens was not a socialist and it is not my intention here to paint him as such. While Dickens understood all too well the dehumanizing effects of industrial capitalism, neither his novels nor his nonfiction writing offer anything in the way of an economic or political alternative.

Indeed, as a successful literary celebrity, Dickens likely had as much to fear from a working class uprising as the greedy capitalists he took such obvious pleasure in skewering. This fear is hinted at in the character of bloodthirsty revolutionary, Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities, whose motives have more to do with pure vengeance than any real political agenda.

“Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again,” Dickens writes in the conclusion of Tale of Two Cities, “and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”

This moralistic, “a-pox-on-both-houses” view of class struggle is all too common among center-left liberals who put their faith in piecemeal reforms and legislation to ameliorate what they describe as capitalism’s “excesses.” Dickens’ novels, likewise, stressed social reforms, a generic Christian kindness, and in the case of Scrooge, philanthropic charity from the wealthy.

Again, Dickens was no Marxist.

(A socialist re-imagining of A Christmas Carol would perhaps see Bob Cratchit organizing his fellow workers to forcibly wrest Scrooge’s business and wealth from him. Come to think of it, somebody should really write that book…)

These limitations of political vision aside, one is hard-pressed to identify a contemporary author who shares Dickens’ keen sense of social outrage.

And this is why Charles Dickens’ work still resonates in our own time.

Today, we find ourselves living in hard times not unlike those that defined Dickens’ Victorian England. In the wake of late-stage capitalism, and Wall Street’s trashing of the global economy, we are witnessing an unprecedented gulf between the rich and the rest of us. According to Oxfam, the richest one percent are currently on track to own more wealth than the rest of the world. This is a scale of global inequality the charitable organization calls, “simply staggering.”

And, in what is perhaps the most frightening indicator that we stand on the brink of a return to the dark, Dickensian days of unregulated capitalism, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, belongs to a right-wing think tank that endorses repealing child labor laws.

Perhaps David Copperfield‘s perpetually unemployed Mr. Micawber best sums up the plight of the working class:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen-six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Beyond Identity Politics: It’s the Economy, Stupid!


If there is a lesson to be gleaned from the wreckage of the 2016 presidential election, it is that the left needs to move beyond the narrow limits of identity politics and embrace a broad, class-based orientation of solidarity.

Hillary Clinton’s empty appeals to a corporate faux feminism failed to win over struggling working-class voters—including, ironically, at least 50 percent of white women who cast ballots for Donald Trump despite his repugnant history as a misogynist sexual predator.  And brow-beating women and Bernie Sanders supporters (“Bernie Bros”) by claiming, as Madeline Albright did, that there is a “special place in hell” for sisters who did not fall in line behind Clinton, did not help matters.

Even Sanders seems to understand the dead-end that is identity politics. During a recent stop in Boston on his current book tour/post-election-pick-me-up rally, Sanders urged progressives to “move beyond identity politics.”

“It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!'” Sanders told the audience. “No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

It is safe to say identity politics—along with Clintonian neoliberalism—died on Nov. 8. And I for one say good riddance.

But before explaining why I view the death of ID politics as a good thing, it is worth explaining what, exactly, is meant by “identity politics,” as there seems to be some confusion among leftists over the term itself.

Contrary to the argument put forward by Marcus H. Johnson in a recent story for The Establishment, identity politics are not the same thing as civil rights. Nor, for that matter, is Johnson’s oversimplified definition of identity politics as encompassing the “political interests of women, minorities and other marginalized groups in American politics,” completely accurate.

(Indeed, it is striking how poorly informed Johnson’s entire liberal article is, to the point where he lumps Sanders–a New Deal Democrat, essentially–into something called the “alt-left.”)

Rather, ID politics—which has its roots in academic postmodernism and, as such, is decidedly anti-Marxist in nature—suggests that not only do all members of an oppressed group share the same interests, but that only those members have a stake in ending that oppression. Identity politics argues, furthermore, that all whites benefit materially from racism and, as a result, have no interest in uniting in solidarity with black Americans to end racism—or sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

(A more ultra-leftist strain of ID politics goes even further, suggesting that all whites are racist, or all men are sexist, simply by virtue of being white or male.)

To be certain, as a white male, I can only imagine the hardships of enduring racism or sexism on a daily basis. I can never fully understand the lived experience of a black person in this country with its long, savage history of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation.

But just because an individual does not personally experience a particular form of oppression does mean he or she has no interest in fighting to end that oppression. Indeed, the system of capitalism oppresses all workers in some fashion through exploitation, wage-theft, income inequality, and surplus labor extraction.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in her recent book, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation:

Solidarity is standing in unity with people even when you have not personally experienced their particular oppression[.] The reality is that as long as capitalism exists, material and ideological pressures push white workers to be racist and all workers to hold each other in general suspicion. But there are moments of struggle when the mutual interests of workers are laid bare, and when the suspicion is finally turned in the other direction—at the plutocrats who live well while the rest of us suffer.

For too long now, the left has defined itself by what Chris Hedges calls the “boutique activism” of identity politics, multiculturalism, and political correctness. While these well-intentioned trends no doubt have called much needed attention to the previously ignored histories and narratives of traditionally oppressed groups, they have come at the expense of structural critiques of the capitalist system that causes this oppression in the first place.

As a result, the left has become atomized, disoriented, and rendered all but ineffective. Where the left once stood firmly opposed to war, empire, and economic inequality, it now agonizes over who has more “privilege.” Multiculturalism has become an end in of itself.

As Hedges argues in his 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class, “Making sure people of diverse races or sexual orientations appear on television shows or in advertisements merely widens the circle of new consumers. Multiculturalism is an appeal that pleads with the corporate power structure for inclusion.”

While the inclusion of more people of color, women, and gays in the corporate and political arena is certainly a welcome trend, the folly of multiculturalism is in viewing this diversity alone as a form of progress. The fact is, one can be gay, black, female, or trans and still be part of the bourgeoisie. Take figures like Caitlyn Jenner, Clarence Thomas, Oprah Winfrey, or warmonger “feminist,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, for example.

Consider, furthermore, that black Americans have lost ground in every economic category eight years after the election of the nation’s first African American president. This is because Barack Obama has done virtually nothing for the black working class. He promptly bailed out the “too big to fail” Wall Street banks, while leaving Main Street to further drown in debt, low-wage jobs, lay-offs, and home foreclosures.

Understand that in critiquing identity politics, I am in no way attempting to downplay the struggle of marginalized groups. Indeed, socialists are often accused of emphasizing the importance of class over race, gender or gender identity. (Curiously, liberal identitarians are rarely accused of the converse–ignoring or diminishing class.)

In fact, Marx himself correctly understood the complex interconnectedness of race and class. “In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic,” Marx wrote in volume one of Capital. “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

Marx understood racism as an inseparable byproduct of capitalism. Bourgeois capitalists intentionally stoke divisions of racism, sexism, “ableism” and the like in order to keep members of the working class fighting among themselves rather than turning their ire toward the capitalist system itself and the wealthy elites who profit from it.

But the contemporary left is disconnected from a Marxist analysis of society rooted in class struggle. Sanders’ campaign did a lot to renew interest in socialism particularly among young people–even if his central message was ultimately undercut by his unwavering commitment to the capitalist Democratic Party.

But we still have a long way to go to create a robust, organized socialist movement to counteract both the shallow superficiality of identity politics and the newly emboldened racist right. The sooner the left jettisons this academic trend–as well as its torturous unwavering commitment to the Democratic Party–the better.

Are there groups that will endure greater threats and forms of oppression under the incoming Trump administration…? Without a doubt.

But rather than limiting our focus to only those particular groups (immigrants, women, Muslims) while sneering at those who seemingly may not face as direct or immediate danger, “This isn’t about you!”, our motto should be the old labor slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” And let’s not kid ourselves: All working-class Americans–black, white, gay, straight, female, male, trans, disabled–are going to get viciously screwed in the coming years.

Only when workers unite and fight can we hope to obtain our freedom. Now is the time for solidarity. Now is the time for socialism.