[From the Archives] Class Matters: An Interview with Adolph Reed, Jr.

Today’s post is an excerpt of an interview with Adolph Reed, Jr., from Issue 65/66 (Spring 2006).  The interview took place on 26 August 2005 in Adolph Reed’s office at the University of Pennsylvania. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, the editor of the minnesota review at the time, and transcribed by Nilak Datta, then a doctoral student in the Literary and Cultural Studies Program at Carnegie Mellon University. In this excerpt, Reed discusses the complicated intersections between race and class.

Williams: Your academic field is political science, although the people who read minnesota review are probably more familiar with your stuff in The Nation or The Progressive. They’re probably in literary and cultural studies, and people in literary and cultural studies are versed in a certain discourse of cultural politics, but they’re usually unfamiliar with political science. I think it’s a problem in cultural studies, that there’s a dearth of political theory.

Reed: Yeah, it almost seems like the more that people declaim piously and in favor of multidisciplinarity, the less inclined they are to read or engage outside their own narrow sub-specialty. There are not many disciplines, right? I’ve been struck at how infrequently the work ofhistorians or political scientists, or economists, or even sociologists, gets cited in the domain of cultural politics. I suppose you could say that the same is true on the other side of the ledger; most of what goes on in political science is pretty stupid anyway. It could be possible to be a competent theorist without immersing oneself in multiple disciplinary debates, but I think all too often people are drawn to what they imagine theory to be because they think it comes with no heavy lifting.

I’ll go into a bookstore and look at a book by the title of, say, The Political Economy of Gender in Late Victorian England. I pick it up and find out it’s an examination of six poems. That gives you the sense of a lot of cultural studies discourse: political economy is a phrase whose main function is to imply a kind of heft and demands to be taken seriously, but it has nothing to do with anything that anybody from Marx to Krugman would call a political economy.

Williams: One way to characterize your work is that you apply political economy to today’s politics, especially to what has been construed as race politics, for instance in your book on Jesse Jackson and the 1984 presidential election.

Reed: I try to. I was trying to make sense of the race-class debate. The years I was a kid in the movement, I was around the line of the old Left and the New Communist school, so I came out of the debates from the political environment of the late 60s and the early 70s. It seems clear to me that there are two options: you either embrace some sort of ontological notion of race, and what follows from that typically is something I would characterize as endorsing a racialist narrative. That is literally a double consciousness scientist. It takes another form in a cultural studies anti-Enlightenment pattern. There is this notion of’othering’ that emerged in the construction called Europe, during the moment called the Enlightenment, that has been carried over to the Western hemisphere, I guess dragging behind the Mayflower. To me that is just another version of the Jacob story—you have to call it the first coming. It’s a narrative propelled by some ostensibly damning quotes from Kant or Hegel in the Enlightenment, and then those get extrapolated to something called European.

Or, if you come at it from the other direction, from the ground up, it’s driven by commercial imperatives. It’s a commercial enterprise largely, and you look at the work of people like Edmund Morgan and others, and then you see the big problem to be resolved is that the people who led this commercial enterprise wanted a tractable labor supply. In that sense, notions of racial difference concretely and historically emerge in close relation to the foundation of the status of slaves in British colonial America. I quite like the work of Robert Steinfeld on this—he’s a legal historian up in Buffalo, who has done good legal-historical work on the realities of bound labor; his two books are The Invention of Free Labor and Coercion, Conflict, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century—and he makes the point that when you look at this historical side, you step outside the familiar line of classical economics, that capitalism calls for and requires free labor. You look historically and you find that the opposite is right, that what needs to be explained isn’t the persistence of forms of bound labor in the capitalist economy but how the notion of free labor emerged as an ideology and as an institution. He argues that in both the US and in Britain the notion of free labor emerged as a result of a struggle between workers and employers around specific conditions in society, constrained by law and class power and other ideologies. So if you come at the race issue from the ground up like that, I think you obviate another hoary, idealist debate. Does capitalism require racism? Well, they’re both empty abstractions. You can’t disentangle the two, just as you can’t disentangle when agrarian society becomes capitalist.

It’s hard to try to argue the point without being accused of some kind of reductionism, but I’m trying to find a way to talk about race and class that doesn’t presume them at any point to be different phenomena. Now, they’re distinct, but they aren’t different. I think the way that sociologists have approached the overlapping pyramid, the hierarchy, has ultimately done more harm than good in that it reinforces the sense that these are different categories. And I think one of the reasons it has become so difficult to be heard properly is that the debate itself has become reified in certain ways.

“Racism emerged in capitalist labor relations, but then it developed a life of its own,” some say in the effort to resolve the issue without giving anything up. I think that a shorthand way of talking about racism ironically makes it more difficult to make sense of the finely-grained and nuanced and distinct way that notions of race and the practice of the racial hierarchy work and get reproduced, because racism becomes a blanket category that covers a lot of different kinds of phenomena, a flag under which many different kinds of ships sail. And if all you talk about is the flag that the ships fly under, then it’s hard to figure out when you’ve got a dinghy and when you’ve got an aircraft carrier. So if you want to talk about race, the best way is to start from concrete labeling of a social relation—that race is a category for sorting the laboring classes—and to try to rebuild an analysis from that level.

There is one other thing I want to say about general theories of race and racism: one of the ways the problem shows up is in the difficulty that American scholars have, and I think particularly black American scholars have, when it comes to talking about race or race relations in other societies. The people look familiar, a lot of the rhetoric looks familiar, a lot of the social relations look familiar—and that’s the problem. It’s like why it’s so much easier for people to misunderstand the late nineteenth century than for people to misunderstand the seventeenth century, because the language and the cast of characters are just familiar enough. So when we find people going to Brazil, for instance, and sometimes to Cuba (it’s probably going to happen a lot in Cuba now), they ask why no race-conscious political movement has developed. But why should race be the rhetorical mechanism around which people who we would identify as black define themselves? They most likely identify themselves in a different way. It seems to me a more interesting or more productive, and certainly less imperialist, question would be, “Why have you organized the way you have?” Doing otherwise essentializes race.

For more of Jeffrey J. Williams’ interview with Adolph Reed, Jr., visit our archive for Issue 65-66. You do not need a subscription to read this or any article from that issue.

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