Discover more from Everything Is Horrible
Why Class First Leftists Are Wrong
Defining leftism based on economics while excluding identity is theoretically, empirically, and ethically misguided
This piece first appeared in Arc Digital at the end of 2020. It received a lot of pushback. I still think it’s right though.
Class-first leftism is the belief that economic class is the main form of oppression in the U.S. and the world, and that other forms of discrimination relating to identity — racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.— would be relative non-issues if we could attain economic equality. Class-first leftists are a relatively small part of the left, but they have an outsize influence on intra-left debates, in part because reactionaries find aspects of their analysis congenial and eagerly amplify them to critique other leftists. As a result, class-first leftists make it harder to fight oppression on numerous axes, including, unfortunately, class.
Class-First Leftists Are Wrong on Theory
As Ben Burgis wrote in Arc, the theoretical basis of class-first leftism is the idea that “class, unlike race or gender, is an objective relationship to an economic structure.” Burgis argues that oppression by race, gender, or sexuality are based on transient identity (i.e. “race” is socially constructed and therefore not “real”). Economic structure, by contrast, is “objective” and real. Therefore, class is the real, objective form of oppression, and addressing it will address other oppressions as well. After all, people of color and LGBT people have economic problems too.
But race and class are more alike when it comes to realness than class-first leftists like to admit. Socially constructed categories have real, objective consequences. The fiction of race in this country resulted in the objective facts of racism, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, all of which involved the very real construction of institutions and hierarchies, supported by very real violence. “Race” may not be real, but when an agent of the state shoots you in the back because you are Black, that’s an extremely material oppression.
Class can also kill you, through starvation, preventing you from getting medical care, or various other means. And yet, the contours of class, and the exact definition of working people or the poor, are fuzzy and arbitrary, in much the same way that the contours of any identity are fuzzy.
Jewish people can argue all day about who is and is not Jewish (People who go to synagogue? Patrilineal descendants? Can we kick out Stephen Miller?) In the same way, it can be difficult to pin down who is targeted by capitalism, and who is targeting. For example, I’ve been told by serious academics that, as a freelance writer, I don’t suffer from labor alienation and exploitation under capitalism because I work for myself — even though I work for editors and corporate bosses who write up contracts for me to sign over whose terms I have little, if any control.
Then there’s the case of successful musicians. Prince compared his record contracts to slavery. Was he just some rich asshole being presumptuous, or did he have a reasonable insight into the way that even wealthy people can be exploited through contracts and capitalism? (Scholar Matt Stahl suggests the answer is “both.”) On the other end, Marx would have considered prisoners and sex workers to be lumpen proletariat, not part of the working class, and therefore not in the revolutionary vanguard. But is that an objective statement of material conditions, or a reflection of Marx’s prejudices?
Again, the difficulty in pinning down who is and is not working class doesn’t mean class doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. It just means that class is not an clearly delineated object. It is less like a chair, and more like, say, race.
Class distinctions that encourage deference to full professors over adjuncts, or which mean that Hollywood actresses need to kowtow to Harvey Weinstein to get jobs, have real material consequences. But they are themselves cultural constructs. They’re a way to create distinctions between people to control them — and can also be a way to organize around shared oppression to resist that control.
Class-first leftists don’t like the idea that class is just another form of oppression, not the one true (or at least predominant) one. But insisting that class is objective, or uniquely solid, actually makes resistance more difficult. If class distinctions are the realest thing in people’s lives, how do you overturn them?
But if you accept that class is constructed, you can recognize that deprivation and poverty are real, material inequities imposed by arbitrary human choice — much like slavery, or the closet, or patriarchy have been imposed by human choice. Labor exploitation exists because some human beings choose it and many others choose to accept it, and that’s enough to stop those who reject it from ending it. We can decide to change class hierarchies by giving the poor money, or by giving everyone a job, or by giving workers control of the means of production. Class is entrenched and brutalizing. But its reality is created by society.
Accepting that class is as contingent as any other oppression makes it easier to imagine a world without it. Class-first leftism, in fetishizing the materiality of class over other oppressions, makes it harder to accomplish the changes that the left claims to want.
Class-First Leftism is Wrong Empirically
Class-first leftism isn’t just a theory. It also makes a number of empirical claims. For example, class-first leftists argue that economic motives are behind virtually all oppression. The desire for wealth caused slavery, Burgis argues, and racial “prejudices that originally came about as rationalizations for fundamentally economic crimes like slavery and colonialism later took on a life of their own.”
It does seem likely that economic motives created strong incentives for codifying and elaborating racial prejudice. But the case for economics preceding prejudice in all cases is dicey.
Antisemitism, for example, long predates what we’d generally think of as capitalism. In Europe, Christian restrictions on proto-capitalist banking ended up pushing Jewish people into lending and business, which explains much of the economic component of modern antisemitism. In this case, you could argue that economic prejudices that originally came about as rationalizations for fundamentally religious crimes later took on a life of their own.
Nor does class have a strong claim to be the original oppression. As Shulamith Firestone argues in The Dialectic of Sex, there’s a much better case to be made for gender as the first, material basis of discrimination and exploitation. Body mass dimorphism has always given men a (supposedly) objective (supposedly) material ground for violence against women.
If the first form of exploitation is the realest, then patriarchy has pride of place over capitalism, and class-first leftists should convert to gender-first leftism. Or, alternately, they should give up the idea that historical precedence translates into theoretical or empirical precedence when it comes to oppression.
Class-first leftists also argue that class provides a more universal basis for organizing. As Burgis puts it, “the movement against police violence would be more effective if it were primarily framed as a matter of urgent self-interest for poor people of all races.” This is again an empirical claim about which kinds of social movements are most effective. And in an American context, it is empirically inaccurate.
There have certainly been numerous, admirable, important labor fights that focused on poverty and class oppression. But the most effective movements to transform material conditions in the U.S. have been antiracist. During the Civil War, around 4 million Black people took advantage of the conflict to emancipate themselves and take control of their own labor and personhood. The Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s similarly led to a revolution in property laws, access to resources, and political power.
These movements’ gains were partial, and did not result in true equality or justice. But no class-based movement in the U.S. has managed to build on direct action and moral resistance in the way these antiracist movements did.
As in the past, so today: antiracism now is a more universal, more powerful force for change than class-based organizing. As author Zoltan Hajnal explains in his book Dangerously Divided: How Race and Class Shape Winning and Losing in American Politics, our current political landscape is split by race much more than class.
In the 2016 presidential election, Clinton won 89 percent of Black voters and 37 percent of white voters — a 52 point gap. By contrast, 53 percent of those with incomes under $50,000 voted for Clinton, while 47 percent of those with incomes over $100,000 did — a mere six-point gap. Black voters were much more uniformly opposed to Trump’s agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy, erosion of worker protections, and racist attacks on immigrants. Class-first leftists argue that we should organize the working class to fight against class oppression first and other oppressions second. But in practice, it is Black voters whose antiracism leads them to turn out to oppose oligarchy.
Similarly, antiracism inspired months of protest this summer (2020). Black Lives Matter, a movement primarily organized around antiracism, not class solidarity, brought a variety of Americans into the street together and articulated a program linking racial exploitation to class oppression. “Defund the police” is not just an antiracist campaign. It is an economic call to action; a demand that we shift funding from violent agents of the state into avenues that improve Black communities, especially poorer ones.
Class-first leftists think that class should come first in organizing and should, in theory, provide a basis for universal organizing. But antiracist organizing has done a lot more to inspire mass movements in the United States, and has formed the basis for sweeping economic change. Ignoring the realities of organizing on the ground because it does not fit academic theories of change is the opposite of what leftists are supposed to be about.
Class-First Leftism is Wrong Ethically
Class-first leftists insist they are committed to ending racism, sexism, transphobia, antisemitism, and other forms of discrimination. But in practice, as intersectional leftists have argued, when you insist that class is the foundational and most important form of oppression, you inevitably end up tossing people who experience other forms of oppression under the bus.
The mechanism here is straightforward. If class is the main thing, then you must focus on class and worry less about other oppressions in the name of solidarity. And if that’s the case, then anyone who raises questions about racism in the labor movement is undermining the most important effort. Similarly, raising concerns about sexual harassment in left-wing political campaigns makes you a traitor to the cause. This is why class-first leftists often rail against “identity politics,” buttressing and echoing openly racist and sexist language from the right.
It’s also why class-first leftists like Angela Nagle sometimes find themselves allying with right-wing bigots like Tucker Carlson. Nagle infamously went on Carlson’s show to make the case against open borders, arguing that generous immigration policies harm American workers. Nagle sees class as the main vector of oppression, and wants to protect working class Americans first and foremost. Racism against immigrants isn’t of much concern to her; it’s not real oppression. The mantra of class-first becomes an excuse to shrug off racism and center white workers, so that Tucker Carlson becomes a more logical ally than antiracist activists.
To be clear, I am not saying class is unimportant. Class is a brutal and pervasive way in which people are exploited, violated, and harmed in our society. Many of the concerns class-first leftists highlight are vitally important, and many of their recommendation are laudable. We need stronger unions. We need full employment. We need free health care. We need to expropriate wealth to end inequality. We need workers to have control of the means of production.
Class-first leftists are right that in some cases, antiracism, feminism, and other liberation movements can be used to dismiss or minimize class oppression. Lean-in feminism, which encourages women executives to ask for pay raises, centers wealthy women, and often ignores or erases the exploitation of poor women (and poor people more generally). Corporate diversity initiatives can similarly paper over a company’s exploitive practices. Opponents of economic equality sometimes use accusations of racism or sexism in bad faith, just as opponents of racial liberation (like Tucker Carlson) will sometimes try to leverage the language of class oppression to stymie progress.
But you can’t oppose these tactics by finding the one true oppression and setting that up as the only one that matters. Leftists need to acknowledge that not all oppression is class oppression. While class oppression, racism, sexism, and other bigotries are intertwined, none of them is wholly reducible to the other. Class-first leftism wants to make things simple. But humans aren’t simple. And attempting to cut human experiences to fit a single outline inevitably means you saw off a bunch of necessary bits.
Class-first leftists portray themselves as the vanguard, but their theories are confused, their facts are empirically incorrect, and their ethics are often reactionary garbage. Liberation that isn’t intersectional isn’t liberation at all. It’s just a new white male cishet boss taking the place of the old.
Everything Is Horrible is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.