DAVID ROEDIGER’S newest work spans a dizzying array of topics within the arenas of race, class and Marxism.
He covers racialised labour in the transatlantic slave trade, alights on Ferguson and police brutality and wades through a century of analytical clashes over the intersection of race and class in socialist theory and practice.
There is a tendency to get lost in tangents, sidetracked into the minutiae of past exchanges in academia. But the urgency of the questions posed by Roediger is as palpable now as it was decades ago, when he was at the forefront of new developments in the critical study of whiteness and white identity.
The modern transatlantic left is miring itself in a debate framed around being for or against “identity politics” or “intersectionality.”
Its defendants hold that the older left — and even older feminists and anti-racists — have pushed aside and disregarded identity-based discrimination, while others allege that “identity politics” marks a retreat from transformative change into unproductive culture wars and liberal conclusions.
Angela Nagle’s recent Kill All Normies, which attacks online culture wars in progressive circles and links them to the relative success of the alt-right, has continued the debate around this theme.
Roediger provides a counterpoint to such thinking. While he has little time for liberal identitarianism, he also takes no prisoners among those sections of the left which have dismissed or sidelined questions of race in a bid to appeal to a “universal solidarity” that is taken for granted, with little effort to construct it.
From the socialists who lamented that the movement against police brutality is “not a material struggle” — it is — to the socialists earlier in the 20th century who imposed their organisational models onto black communities to little effect, Roediger tackles the subjects of his critique in a way that remains relentlessly focused on building the deepest and broadest movement along class lines.
His book is both a wealth of interesting historical insights and a breath of fresh air for anyone who feels there is a space to be found between the caricatures that “Tumblr social justice warriors” and “old white men of the left” paint of each other.
Class solidarity, Roediger reminds us, is the principal weapon in the hands of those campaigning for a better world. But building real solidarity requires acknowledging and owning the diffi culty of doing so.