Popular Front radicalism: A review of Adolph Reed, Jr.’s The South
Platypus Review 152 | December 2022-January 2023
Adolph Reed, Jr., The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives (New York: Verso Books, 2022).
THE SOUTH HAS RECEIVED a good deal of attention and its main points have been frequently summarized. Therefore, I’ll forgo doing much summary. As I prepared this essay, I read (or re-read) earlier texts by Reed as well as a number of interviews he participated in over the years. I did so because I hoped to understand the development of his thought in light of the political projects he was engaged in and the theoretical perspectives that he has identified as important. In light of the volume of his writings, however, I should make clear that this review of other texts was not exhaustive and I may have not looked at texts that would have altered my conclusions.
Reed generally describes his political development as internally consistent and occurring within the framework of Marxism. I am not so sure that this is the case. I believe that Reed’s writings since the 90s, especially those related to class and politics, are not as rigorously informed by Marxist thought as were his writings from the 70s. If Reed decided to move away from or beyond Marxism (as the case might be), that is of course his prerogative. I suggest, however, that his consistent embrace of Marxist as a self-description forestalls some important and necessary critical evaluations of his thinking. At the same time, his writings on race remain invaluable.
As has often been noted, New Orleans was not a typical Southern city (if there was such a thing) when Reed lived there in the 1960s. It was characterized by patterns of residential segregation far less severe than was common in other Southern and Northern cities at the time — with noticeable differences in the make-up of the residential population when going from one block to the next or even going from one side of a street to another. Similarly, the enforcement of segregationist codes governing daily life varied considerably from one social context to another. Those differences made for a lot of difference in the circumstances of Reed’s adolescent life.
Reed was not a native of the city — he was born in the Bronx, lived for a while in Brooklyn, then in Washington, DC and Pine Bluff, Arkansas before arriving in New Orleans. After going off to college, Reed lived in North Carolina and Atlanta and then, for about forty years, occupied faculty positions at different universities, almost all in the North. But he returned often to his hometown and traveled extensively across the South. He was never really an exile. Nonetheless, as Barbara Fields notes in her Foreword, in writing a book about his experiences of Jim Crow, Reed had the advantages of the “outside insider” — never quite completely familiar with all the subtle differences that someone who spent his or her entire life in the South might take for granted but also attentive to things that those others might miss (ix).
Reed came early to a radical political sensibility. In an interview in the Platypus Review titled “‘To unite the many’” he said:
I inherited the family business! My father was a Popular Front radical, basically. Before he was drafted, he was a member of the Joint Council of Dining Car Waiters, which was a red union. . . . So I thought of myself as a Marxist since well before I had any sophisticated sense of what it meant. I was raised with an understanding of class struggle as the key to history and, more specifically, as the key to making sense of racial oppression in the United States.
Reed went to college at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. When he arrived in the late 60s, student activists were working within a tradition established by the city’s early Civil Rights activists and in the context of a reactionary assault on that tradition led by the likes of Jesse Helms. The anti-war movement was gaining steam and the campus featured active Students for a Democratic Society and Southern Student Organizing Committee (affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) chapters. Among other things, Reed participated in a voter registration drive, volunteered as a tutor in a program operated by the campus YMCA/YWCA and joined a group protesting the local poverty program’s focus on a neighborhood beautification campaign. In 1969, cafeteria workers went on strike; Reed and a half dozen others were arrested and convicted for “strike support activities.” While he got probation, he was prohibited from “any disruptive activity” on campus for two years. He left the campus and became active in GI organizing around Fort Bragg and poor people’s organizing in Fayetteville.
After a few years in those community-focused projects, Reed concluded that the time of real possibilities had passed:
The sort of combative or contentious character of interest-based organizing among working-class and poor blacks steadily gave way to community organizing undertaken by groups that almost inevitably traced their funding streams back to the Ford Foundation. Under influences such as these, organizing was shifting more and more toward notions of community economic development, involving more or less fanciful ideas that depended on moral exhortation to do the work of customs control to develop an autonomous “black economy.” These ideas became increasingly dominant and the movement shifted more and more in that direction.
He returned to UNC, graduated and then went on to graduate school to “figure out how we lost and what to do next.”
During these years, Reed had been active for a bit in the Socialist Workers’ Party and then in a variety of organizations inspired by Pan Africanism, including the African Liberation Support Committee. Baszak and Leonard asked him:
SL: Was this early flirtation with black nationalism something that you argued about with your father?
AR: Actually, we argued more about Trotskyism than black nationalism! That’s one reason why I’ve come to perceive my flirtation with Trotskyism as a version of delayed adolescent rebellion.
One of the places where Reed looked for answers was “critical theory.” In 2015, Baszaak and Leonard also asked him about that:
SL: I believe you remark in “Paths to Critical Theory” that, “as I became ill at ease about Leninism . . . my Pan-Africanist colleagues found Marxism in its most stultifying and dogmatic variety, Marxist-Leninism with a Maoist slant. This is the context within which I encountered Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy.”
AR: I guess I should clarify that I was becoming ill at ease not so much about Leninism as about what Russell Jacoby would call a few years later “conformist Marxism.” I really just happened to stumble across Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy . . . around 1970 or 1971. . . . Korsch led me to Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness. I started to get excited about that Hegelian Marxist tendency, not so much for its Hegelianism as for the perspective that it opened to thinking about the relation between capitalism and mass culture and for its critique of positivism, as well as for its understanding of the open-endedness of history. I was just starting graduate school in Political Science and I was looking for a conceptual language within which to shape a critique of behavioralism. It’s actually because of Telos and the Frankfurt School that I became interested in epistemological questions and began to focus on capitalism as a social system rooted in political economy and stabilized and reproduced largely through an evolving cultural order. Those interests and perspectives remain central for me.
In a 1974 essay published in Endarch, a journal produced by the graduate political science program at Atlanta University where Reed studied, he revealed much of what was influencing his thinking at the time. His target was a mechanistic or magical Marxism that had increasingly been adopted by nationalist groups. He was especially concerned about the mistaken understandings of class that had been adopted by those who had embraced “scientific” socialism.
For them, “classes are perceived first of all as statistical aggregates whose components are classified and counted quite laboriously” and then the political consciousnesses of the members of those classes are inferred from their positions in the economic order. The assumption about the connection between aggregates and consciousness treats the aggregates “as organic, self-conscious things functioning in the world.” Reed objects and adopts the argument that “classes are not things but relations abstracted for purpose of analytical focus from the totality of relations which exist in society.” A compilation of aggregate characteristics has no political significance; there is, as Marx argued, a difference between a class-in-itself and a class-for-itself. The latter exists “as an element of latent possibility.” He favorably cites the Italian theorist, Lucio Colletti who had suggested that “a class can be said really to exist only if its members are conscious of themselves as a class. . . . The times at which one can actually see classes in the empirical world are very rare; in fact only in periods of sharp antagonism and rupture, i.e. only in revolutionary situations.” Reed concludes: “Therefore, class cannot be treated by us as a ‘hard’ empirical entity whose presence and impact can be rigorously assessed as would so many plants or molecules. Politically, we cannot view classes, particularly the proletariat, as given; our task is to create a revolutionary proletariat from the raw material of workers.”
I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself but I would suggest that these notions of class, and the grounding that they have in a broadly understood critical theory, bear little resemblance to the use(s) that Reed has increasingly made of class for almost thirty years. But, in light of his response to Spencer Leonard cited above, Reed apparently thinks otherwise.
Black Particularity Reconsidered
Reed’s 1979 essay, “Black Particularity Reconsidered,” remains a landmark in his political writings. It was crafted solidly within the tradition of critical theory and utilizes many of that tradition’s essential concepts (massification; one-dimensionality; spectacle; changes from entrepreneurial to administrative capitalism; lack of negativity, and severe criticism of the New Deal) to understand why “there is no coherent opposition to the present administrative apparatus.”
Baszak and Leonard asked Reed about “Black Particularity”:
SL: . . . what would it mean to come to grips historically with the Civil Rights Movement, with its success and its failure? The Civil Rights Movement dismantled Jim Crow, and yet an ideological confusion emerged from that struggle that was in some ways more intractable and opaque than what had come before. In this sense, to what degree do we continue to live today in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement?
AR: Well, there are some points I would make differently now, of course. But it’s true that the terms on which the Civil Rights Movement succeeded certainly advanced the direction of consolidation in black politics, for the reasons I discussed in “Black Particularity Reconsidered.” To the extent that black office-holders are no different than any other office-holders and don’t have an interest in popular mobilization, political demobilization became one of the outcomes of the Civil Rights Movement and this political demobilization continued over the 80s and 90s.
Reed was very precise in his analysis of how that demobilization had been orchestrated:
. . . Black Power presupposed a mass-organizational model built on the assumption of a homogeneity of black political interests to be dealt with through community leadership. It is this notion of “black community” that has blocked development of a radical critique in the Civil Rights movement by contraposing an undifferentiated mass to a leadership stratum representing it. This understanding ruled out any analysis of cleavages or particularities within the black population: "community control" and "black control" became synonymous. The implications of this ideology have already been discussed: having internalized the predominant elite-pluralist model of organization of black life, the radical wing could not develop any critical perspective. Internal critique could not go beyond banal symbols of "blackness," and thus ended up by stimulating demand for a new array of "revolutionary" consumer goods. Notwithstanding all its bombast, Black Power construed racial politics within the ideological universe through which the containment of the black population was mediated.
It would not be an understatement to suggest that, for Reed, the consequences were disastrous and have a tendency to grow worse over time.
Reed writes eloquently about the fiction of race. He suggests that even those who argue for the fluidity of racial categories
. . . treat race as a natural category, an essential marker of human difference rooted in biology. It is possible to be a racial hybrid or tri-racial only if races are real, measurable entities with clear boundaries. Notwithstanding the lucrative scams currently perpetrated under the guise of genetic determinism by both ancestry search firms and the pharmaceutical industry, they are not.
Racial identity is willed or imposed, or both. It has no foundation outside of social experience. . . . In biological terms, saying “I am black” and saying “I am not black” are equally meaningless statements (77–78).
Reed and his good friend, Barbara Fields, the co-author with Karen Fields of Racecraft (2012), are absolutists when it comes to refusing to accord any reality to races. They are, of course, not alone in this regard. It is the same position taken by Neville Alexander, the South African revolutionary, and Paul Gilroy, the British writer and activist. And it was also the position of those of us involved with Race Traitor.
Reed has some very important insights into the complexities and consequences of Jim Crow, many of which became more evident as the dissolution of the system progressed:
- While the Jim Crow order was explicitly and definitively about race, at the same time it was fundamentally not really about race at all.
- . . . the victories of the 1960s, while not ushering in a “colorblind” society, did provide space for making racelike distinctions [“subraces”] within populations already defined by race.
- . . . the assertion of the existence of an “urban underclass,” which gained currency over the 1980s to signal a distinct population imagined to be bounded by specific group characteristics, was, for all intents and purposes, a call for recognizing such a subrace (86–87).
As he moves toward a conclusion, Reed acknowledges that vestiges of white supremacy remain visible in the South. So much so that “it can seem commonsensical . . . to suspect that it continues to shape the limits of the new structures of routine life.” But common sense has its limits and assumptions that, for example, not much has really changed tend to preclude the “deep examination of the discrete processes that ground and reproduce inequality in the present” (110).
One last note about Reed’s account of Jim Crow. The book is often characterized by a curious detachment from emotional involvement in Reed’s reactions to what he experienced. The most startling instance of that detachment involved a friend being arrested and sent to prison and death. Here’s how Reed tells the story:
A friend of mine in high school, whose father was a junior high school teacher and had been a high school and college classmate of my mother, had a moment of youthful indiscretion not much more serious than my shoplifting escapade [previously recounted by Reed]. Shortly before his sixteenth birthday he went for a joyride with some neighborhood friends who had stolen a car. They were caught by the police. He looked a good bit older than his years, and, perhaps for that reason or to make an example of him or maybe just because they could do it, the District Attorney’s office tried him as an adult. No attempted intercession by his parents could help. He was convicted and sentenced to time at Angola. Within a year we heard that he was dead (40).
End of story! No reaction! I understand that Reed was not writing a memoir as such but this seems to be an instance when human emotion has been sacrificed and the power of that account diminished.
Class and race
In light of Reed’s consistent criticisms of political positions that appear to elevate race above class, it would appear to be axiomatic that Reed and the editors of Race Traitor would have all but diametrically opposed views on the relevant theoretical and practical issues on race. Let me therefore assert that those of us responsible for Race Traitor and Adolph Reed actually have some very similar understandings of race.
Reed all but explicitly endorses an historicized understanding of the making and re-making of the white race. His account is focused on events in Louisiana: “Sicilians who arrived later in the nineteenth century, in part to work in Louisiana’s cane and cotton fields, and other immigrants also had to navigate the Jim Crow order’s Procrustean racial binary and soon enough recognized that, no matter how implausible claims to be white might seem, at a minimum one should strive to be distinguished from blacks.” He expresses considerable sympathy for the choices they made: “In a rigidly hierarchical social order like that of the segregationist South, which is based on ascriptive status — that is, status defined by what you supposedly are rather than what you do — the inclination to differentiate oneself from groups consigned to the bottom, while not laudable, is reasonable and understandable.” Once membership in the white race for the naturalization of immigrants was established as a matter of law, “[i]mmigrants’ embrace, or pursuit of, white racial classification, therefore, was most of all pragmatically motivated; it was a necessary means to the end of attaining full civic membership in American, and especially southern, society. It did not stem from abstract commitment to white supremacy or hatred of blacks. . . . People from elsewhere did not come here steeped in that binary” (75–76).
This brings us back to some very basic matters. If judgments about the actions of groups of people are based on what can only be considered individual considerations, who would argue that individuals must choose the worse rather than the better — or else risk condemnation? But if the calculus is a different one — the calculus of class unity — the matter is different. Opportunism does not need to be intentionally motivated by malice; it simply represents the substitution of the interests of some for the interests of all. How we judge the actions of those who choose to become not-black depends on what we are hoping to accomplish. If we’re simply trying to understand the motives of what individuals or groups did and why they did it, reluctance to judge harshly is probably preferable. But being a scab during a strike or being a white race loyalist when treason is demanded is a different matter.
Interestingly, Reed addressed this matter in a somewhat different context:
My father always argued against the liberal orthodox view that imposition of the Jim Crow order in the South at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th represented some kind of victory for the white working class in politics. I recall from as early as 10 or 12 my father jokingly remarking, “Isn't it funny that if the southern white workers took power the only thing they would want for themselves is white supremacy?”
Unlike many of those who were preoccupied with anti-racism, Race Traitor was committed to building a revolutionary anti-capitalist movement and developed its analysis of white supremacy in the context of overcoming the internal barriers to that goal. Its origins date back to an essay, titled “The White Blindspot” that Noel Ignatin (his surname at the time) wrote in1967.In 1976, Noel wrote a revised introduction for a reprinting of the essay:
Let me repeat here that the article is talking about only one struggle, the proletarian class struggle, in which the rejection by white workers of white supremacist ideas and practices is crucial to the emergence of the proletariat as a revolutionary class.
The second point I would stress is that the “white skin privilege” line is not a general policy of lecturing white workers to alter their thinking and behavior. While some lecturing is necessary (and some fighting as well) the main thing involved is an approach toward strategy which is manifested in the choice of slogans and issues, the character of alliances, methods of organization — in all things which make up the total line of a revolutionary group.
The third thing I would underline is that “repudiation of the white skin privilege” does not mean that our major work should consist of asking white workers, one by one, to give up their relatively good neighborhoods, jobs and schools in favor of Blacks and other Third World people (although individual actions are certainly appropriate and effective at times). The phrase in quotes refers to a policy of struggle, of which mass action is the decisive aspect, against the ruling class policy of favoritism for whites — a struggle which the article tries to demonstrate, is in the class interests of the proletariat as a whole.
We were interested in breaking up the “white” race to establish the basis for working-class solidarity. We emphasized the cross-class and cross-ethnic character of the “white” race formation and repeatedly acknowledged that being in the “white” race did not exempt its working-class members from poverty or misery of all sorts.
Many years after we stopped publishing, we continued to argue that the time-honored “Unite and fight” approach would lead nowhere. Instead, when it came to slogans, we preferred: “An injury to one is an injury to all,” or, the same thing in a different idiom: “Remember them that are in bonds as bound with them.” Solidarity premised on the reproduction of inequalities within the working class, with the elimination of those inequalities to come later in “the sweet by and by,” is no solidarity at all.
And very importantly, we asserted that the remaking of the “white” race was not only a matter of the past and that it continued throughout this last period of American history (probably starting with the immigration law reform of 1965) with the incorporation of many of those previously considered non-white (especially individuals of Asian descent) into the “white” race. This simply meant that they enjoyed the advantages of whiteness; they may or may not have continued to experience other forms of discrimination. That is hardly exceptional — Jews in America have been considered white for three generations but they remain subject to anti-Semitism.
Race was never, never real. It could be bent to whatever shape was needed by changing circumstances — suggesting that it was real. But its reality was a myth, a fiction, a crime — no matter who perpetrates it — friend or foe.
By way of a conclusion
This review has hardly provided a definitive account of the depth and breadth of Adolph Reed’s thought. A number of important topics, for example, Reed’s commitment to and role in the U.S. Labor Party, were not covered at all. That was simply a matter of the space allotted for the review.
I have room for only one substantive conclusion. It’s a conclusion that brings us back to the beginning of the review. Adolph Reed, Jr. has consistently made clear his debt to and recognition of the political wisdom of his Popular Front radical father, Adolph Reed, Sr. After lots of puzzlement about why, after all was said and done, the revolutionary Adolph Reed, Jr. seemed to have become a social democrat, as evidenced by the kinds of demands that he advanced within the Labor Party (Medicare for All and Free Higher Education) and his active support for Bernie Sanders, I decided that it was the wrong category of analysis, Adolph Reed, Jr. is no social democrat; he is instead a Popular Front radical.
Earlier on, he had made clear his attraction to that politics: “By the mid-1930s the Popular Front and mass direct-action politics had emerged. This was the active, dynamic, and partly constitutive strain of black political activity until the victories of the Civil Rights Movement and the emergence of black political regimes in big cities between the late 1960s and the late 1970s.”
Popular Front radicalism is a devilishly hard position to argue against. It is characterized by an amalgam of opinions that are so profoundly influenced by what its adherents think its audiences are willing to hear, and not by what they should hear, that it’s often hard to know what the adherents really think. Adolph Reed’s audiences deserve to hear what they need to hear — not only about race but also about other matters. His politics would be much more interesting if he would engage in something different from warmed up Popular Frontism. |P
 Gregor Baszak and Spencer A. Leonard, “‘To unite the many’: An interview with Adolph L. Reed, Jr.,” Platypus Review 75 (April 2015), available online at <https://platypus1917.org/2015/04/04/unite-many-interview-adolph-l-reed-jr/>.
 On other occasions, Reed modified this recollection to include mention of his mother’s “Catholic Worker Left liberal” politics and suggested that what he had inherited was a commitment to political engagement. In light of the relatively small role that a coherent Marxism played within the Popular Front, this second interpretation seems sounder.
 Baszak and Leonard, “‘To unite the many.’”
 Jessica Blatt, “Adolph Reed Jr. On Organizing, Race, And Bernie Sanders” Public Thinker, June 24, 2019, available online at <https://www.publicbooks.org/public-thinker-adolph-reed-jr-on-organizing-race-and-bernie-sanders/>.
 Baszak and Leonard, “‘To unite the many.’”
 Adolph Reed, Jr., “Paths to Critical Theory” Social Text 9–10 (Spring-Summer, 1984): 254–58.
 Baszak and Leonard, “‘To unite the many.’”
 Adolph Reed, Jr., “Scientistic Marxism: Notes on the New Afro-American Magic Marxism,” Endarch I (Fall 1974): 21–39, available online at <https://radar.auctr.edu/islandora/object/endarch%3Afall_1974.005>.
 Lucio Colletti, From Rousseau to Lenin: Studies in Ideology and Society (New York: Monthly Review, 1972), 235.
 Reed, Jr. “Scientistic Marxism.”
 Adolph Reed, Jr., “Black Particularity Reconsidered,” Telos 39 (1979): 71–93, available online at <https://libcom.org/article/black-particularity-reconsidered-adolph-l-reed-jr>.
 Baszak and Leonard, “‘To unite the many.’”
 Reed, Jr., “Black Particularity Reconsidered.”
 See No Sizwe, One Azania, One Nation: The National Question in South Africa (London: Zed Press, 1979). No Sizwe was a pseudonym for Neville Alexander.
 See Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2000).
 See Race Traitor, eds. Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey (New York: Routledge, 1996), and the section on Race Traitor in this essay below.
 Although Reed might take exception to the assertion, his argument about the Sicilians is fundamentally the same as Ignatiev’s argument about the Irish in How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995).
 Baszak and Leonard, “‘To unite the many.’”
 Noel Ignatiev, “The White Blindspot,” in Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity, eds. Geert Dhondt, et al. (Brooklyn: Verso, 2022), 45, available online at <https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-1/whiteblindspot.pdf/>.
 For summaries of what Race Traitor attempted to do and the positions that it adopted, see the following accounts: John Garvey, “The Abolitionist Alternative in the Twenty First Century” (1999), available online at <https://thefutureinthepresent.com/the-abolitionist-alternative-in-the-twenty-first-century/>; Editors, “Abolitionism and the Free Society,” Race Traitor 12 (Spring 2001); and John Garvey & Noel Ignatiev, “Beyond the Spectacle,” Counterpunch, June 22, 2015, at <https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/06/22/beyond-the-spectacle/>.
 It appears that Reed is growing closer to a Popular Front influenced politics; recently he has embraced the heroism of the defense of the Soviet Union during World War II. See, for example, Adolph Reed, Jr., “Remembering Operation Bagration: When the Red Army Decapitated the Nazi Front,” Common Dreams, June 22, 2022, available online at <https://www.commondreams.org/views/2022/06/22/remembering-operation-bagration-when-red-army-decapitated-nazi-front/>.
 Baszak and Leonard, “‘To unite the many.’”