Author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy
Asad Haider is a founding editor of Viewpoint magazine and author of a new book, Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy. He is speaking with Ben Tarnoff on the topic “What is to be done?” this Thursday (Nov 29) at the Lilypad in Cambridge’s Inman Square at 7 pm. DigBoston caught up with Haider to chat with him about his book and his views on contemporary politics.
Mistaken Identity tries to rework the concept of “identity politics” by interrogating the figures who birthed the term with very different intentions than its modern day inheritors. Could you briefly speak to what people get right and wrong about those figures?
I think it’s important to be very specific about political terminology. The term identity politics was advanced within a very specific political grouping and responded to very specific historical questions. The Combahee River Collective was a collection of activists who came out of various social movements in the ’60s and ’70s, like the anti-war movement, the student movement, the black power movement, and the feminist movement, and they determined that while black women were participants in all these movements, they were not represented. The analysis that the Combahee River Collective had was to say that these movements were all based on dominant identities and that the marginal identities of black women had been effaced.
So it was necessary to have an organization that was centered on this identity, this excluded identity, and centering the organization on this excluded identity meant disrupting all the existing forms of exclusion. That’s why their statement not only says that their politics comes out of their identities but also that winning freedom for black women means overcoming every other system of oppression and winning freedom for everybody. That’s the origin of the term, and I think that when people try to take the term and apply it to any different context at any point in history, for example to say that the civil rights movement was based on identity politics, means that the term loses all meaning.
You can see why it’s so specific if you imagine another identity group advancing the idea that the most radical politics come out of their identity. For example, if a group of white men tried to make the same claim, it would be a serious problem. So it’s less about a general statement of identity and more about a specific political intervention.
One thing I really admire about your writing is the way you balance rather ruthless critique with a shrewdness that maintains both compassion and pragmatism. How do you weigh the need for an ideological restructuring of the left with the fear of alienating key members of the movement?
This is a very important question, because I’m often asked, “Why criticize the term identity politics instead of calling for the term to be redefined?” Well, I think that we can’t just assign meanings to words according to our wishes. There is a real historical process extending 40 years after the initial appearance of the Combahee River Collective Statement, and there are real historical and political processes that have transformed the meaning of the term.
One of the really crucial transformations is that the term has been appropriated by mainstream liberalism. That’s something you see now if you turn on the TV. You’ll see this term being thrown around all over the place with all kinds of presumed meanings. So the reason I don’t call for some kind of redefinition or return to the origins is first that there are these historical changes that we have to confront, that we can’t just ignore, but also that words themselves have effects on the way we think and the way we act. If we try to understand every social relation having to do with race or gender in terms of the category of identity, that has a particular effect on the way we understand them, and I think it has a misleading effect. That is, I believe that we are missing the fact that race is a structural and material phenomenon, an institutional phenomenon.
If we start from an identity, which is about our own lived experience, our belonging to particular groups, and the way we are recognized and want to be recognized, then I think we miss this structural aspect of race. Our lived experience of race is the effect of this structure. That’s why I try to retain some level of specificity about these words. When working on the theoretical side of things we need to be precise and not make conceptual compromises. It may be that when using political rhetoric, to talk about the legacy of the Combahee River Collective, it’s worthwhile to demonstrate that identity politics could mean something else, that it once had an emancipatory meaning, and I totally understand that, but I think that when we’re dealing with terms theoretically we need precision.
Could you talk about your first encounter with the left radical tradition and maybe what you wish you had read or discovered earlier in your career as a thinker and writer?
I remember in my schooling often coming across the claim that communism was a good idea, but that it didn’t work in practice. I thought this made no sense epistemologically. How can something be a good idea and then not work in practice? If that’s the case, then it’s a bad idea. So I went to the library and picked up the Communist Manifesto and was very surprised to find that there was no description of communism, but instead an analysis of class society which I had come across nowhere else.
It was completely convincing in explaining the vast scale of inequality that I had seen in the world, especially having spent some of my childhood in Pakistan. It explained this inequality not as an aberration, but as an effect of a particular system, which was capitalism, and it called for this system to be overthrown. I was totally convinced by this, and became even more convinced when I picked up the autobiography of Huey Newton. Up to that point I had thought about society primarily in terms of race and racism, both in terms of my own experience of racism and my interest in the movements within the US that challenged racism. When I saw that one of the core anti-racist organization in US history totally aligned itself with Marxism, this was all I needed to be fully convinced.
In terms of what I wish I had encountered earlier, I think that’s hard to even begin to answer. At that time there was not a lot on the internet, and there were not that many books available in the bookstores, let alone in my public library. There was a lot of material that now is important to me that had not been translated into English, and at the time I couldn’t read other languages. So I think what I was missing would definitely be the whole scope of what we have available now, and the kind of research that’s since been published.
For example, I read the autobiographies of a few different members of the Black Panther Party, but the kind of histories that we now have were not available then. So I think it’s a very broad scope of material that we now have access to but that would have been really exciting if it existed for me as a young person. But for example, without access to the French and Italian Marxist theory that I now spend time writing about, I was reduced to just reading about the Frankfurt School, which I now don’t find so useful.
The theme of your talk is what is to be done. Some critics of your recent book suggest that it is a useful negative critique of left strategy but ultimately fails to offer a concrete positive platform for change. Is there any merit to this critique? To what extent do movements demand a spontaneous coalescence and to what extent are they a result of centralized planning and the guidance of theory?
I won’t respond in terms of an assessment of my book, but in terms of a more general claim that a book about these issues should provide a platform. I think this is completely wrongheaded. It is not the place of academics writing books to dictate platforms or programs to movements. Programs should be generated within movements through deliberation, open discussion, and practical action. These are the bases for generating programs. To simply write an article or a book that externally imposes a program first of all is an anti-democratic mode of operating—a bureaucratic mode of operating—and second it’s an ineffective mode of operating because it doesn’t respond to the actual capacities and constituent elements of an organization. So I think that this idea that we want the solution in a book is wrong.
What do the midterms portend? Will progressives be able to beat back the icy grip of the Pelosis and Schumers of Congress? Even if they do, will their strategy, in its current manifestation, be enough to stop Trump 2020?
Well, the Democrats are constantly trying to reduce expectations for their abysmal performance. We already had the disaster of the Trump election, which displayed enormous incompetence on the side of Democrats. Now there’s this idea that because they won the absolute minimum that was expected of them, control of the House, that this means they satisfied their goals. But the goal was to have a total sweep, to totally put Trump on the defensive, which they should have easily achieved. I mean, it’s ridiculous that they did not manage to achieve this. But in terms of the possibility of progressive challenges to the existing politics of the Democrats I think it’s something to be very cautious about.
I’m not opposed to participation in electoral politics in principle but one has to understand its limits and what it actually is useful for achieving. It’s useful in the sense that you can come into contact with a huge portion of the population which still understands elections as the primary form of politics. Because that’s what is permitted in this society. And to reach this population can be very meaningful. There was an important aspect of this in the Sanders campaign. But at the same time participation in elections reinforces the ideology that politics is all about choosing people to represent you, and deferring any participation in decision-making or any control over your own life to somebody else who is part of these institutions that are totally structured around the exclusion of the majority of the population. This is a dangerous ideology, one that is intrinsically opposed to any kind of politics which demands greater participation and greater control over our own lives.
So how do you participate in electoral politics without capitulating to this political ideology? Well, the important thing is that there has to be autonomous organization outside of the state, which can then apply pressure to the state. It can also apply pressure to progressive politicians, who without this pressure will become absorbed into the parliamentary machine and will have as their primary goal reproducing their own position within the state apparatus. Without external autonomous organization this is not going to happen. What I’m concerned about is when the enthusiasm for particular politicians leads to sort of absorbing organizational efforts into that politician’s campaign rather than maintaining the necessary autonomy.
Boston is a progressive college town with what some might say are too many colleges. Are colleges, especially private universities, actually an important base for movement building or are they a distraction from the real battlegrounds of social change? Either way, what advice would you give to current students trying to organize in 2018?
The whole kind of uniquely American drama about “cultural Marxism,” about the liberal university and political correctness and all of that, is kind of a false antagonism. You have the extreme right and then you have the liberals in the university who are slinging these words against each other, but really neither of them challenge the structure of society which surrounds the university. Of course, liberal ideologies exist in universities to some extent. They correspond, for example, to contemporary identity politics. But contrary to the fantasies of the extreme right, these are not oppositional modes of thinking. They are completely internal to the mainstream ideologies of society, and that’s not surprising because universities are what Althusser called “ideological state apparatus.” They ensure people operate according to the dominant ideology, and they reproduce the conditions for this particular social system that we find ourselves in.
I think that when you recognize that, you can take a kind of dispassionate view about the university. A lot of people who are responding to this right-wing discourse are tempted to defend the university as a site of free expression, or as a site of the generation of progressive ideas. Clearly, however, the university is the site where ideology is produced, and what we can do there politically is engage in ideological struggle.
If you find yourself located in the university, it’s important not to mistake it for the rest of society. When you’re located in the university you can try to introduce ideas which challenge the existing system, and you can potentially develop these ideas and disseminate them to the general public in a way that can break out of the ivory tower, break oppositional ideas out of this space in which they’re confined. Unfortunately, this is not the general practice among academics. We tend to specialize and become more and more technical and speak mainly to each other. But it is possible to begin to speak outside the university and to extend the ideological struggle beyond its current limits.