Noel Ignatiev's Blog

The Birth of PC

By Noel Ignatiev

I think I witnessed the birth of political correctness as a phenomenon. It was in the mid- or late- 1980s and I was having a conversation with my dissertation advisor at Harvard, Professor Stephan Thernstrom. Thernstrom had been something of a radical in the 1950s, of the anti-communist Cold War Michael Harrington variety, but had moved to the right in response to Black Power and the anti-Vietnam War movement on campus. He was reporting an exchange with his daughter Melanie, who wrote for The Nation and stood to his Left. He reported something he had said to her (which I forget) to which she had replied: “Dad, that’s not pc.” He explained that “pc” was short for “politically correct.”

It was from the first evident to me that Melanie and her friends used the term with a sense of humor, ironically and self-deprecatingly—what else could it be?—for the range of opinions they shared. They reminded me of what one of my other instructors called “cultural clustering,” an example of which was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In that book—does anyone read it any more?—the slave traders swear, drink whisky, and smoke tobacco while the antislavery people are all Christians, and foreswear alcohol, tobacco and strong language. Apparently it never occurred to Stowe that people could oppose slavery and take a nip of the sauce now and then. In the 1980s Cambridge, Mass, known by Harvard Square residents as the People’s Republic of Cambridge—there was even a tavern there of that name—was the capital of that sort of thing. Some called it or “granola fascism” or “yuppie totalitarianism.”

Shortly after that conversation with his daughter, Professor Therrnstom found himself under fire from several black students in his lecture class “The Peopling of America” for things he said that in their eyes showed “racial insensitivity” on his part—not “racism,” certainly not white supremacy, but “racial insensitivity.” Word got out, and Thernstrom was hurt and offended by the accusation, which he took to be tantamount to an accusation of “racism” (of which he, like many other white supporters of civil rights, could not imagine himself guilty), and after a brief sulk he retaliated by launching a counter-attack on “political correctness.” The term was picked up by The New Republic (edited by Martin Peretz, a friend of Thernstrom’s who had become a neoconservative) and others, and it was off to the races as it became the rallying call for a rightist counter-attack. (I had extensive dealings with Thernstrom, both as his advisee and as the TF in another of his classes. While we disagreed about many things, he never sought to impose his views on me, and I found that I had more latitude to pursue my researches and develop my ideas, which flew in the face of leftwing orthodoxy, than I would have had with any number of leftist professors who would have passed the pc test.)

Every bad current within the Left can be viewed as the price paid for some other bad current. “Political correctness” was a manifestation of postmodernism, which was a reaction to another set of bad politics.

From the end of World War II the Communist Party of France (PCF) dominated French political life, subordinating everything to the Confederation General du Travail (CGT), the giant labor union movement which it controlled and which it identified with the working class.  Its rule was so total that it was impossible for individuals even to get the floor at public assemblies without PCF approval. Some dissented—Socialism or Barbarie, the Situationists—but they were marginal.

Postmodernism, pioneered by Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrilliard and others, was in part a reaction to totalitarian PCF rule. Wikipedia’s definition will do:

While encompassing a wide variety of approaches and disciplines, postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection of the grand narratives and ideologies of modernism, often calling into question various assumptions of Enlightenment rationality. Consequently, common targets of postmodern critique include universalist notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, science, language, and social progress.

As Soviet-style socialism lost its allure and the national liberation movements—especially Cuba, Vietnam and China—came to represent the socialist vision, and as the “old” working class in industry, transport and communications declined in numbers everywhere in the West, postmodernism spread, becoming influential, if not dominant, in the academy.

I do not pretend to offer here an adequate history of these developments. In my view, the best treatment is by Ellen Meiksins Wood, Retreat from Class (Verso 1986, 1998). Wood describes postmodernism as a revival of the “true socialism” Marx and Engels criticized in the Communist Manifesto. The new “true” socialism (NTS)

prides itself on a rejection of Marxist ‘economism’ and ‘class reductionism,’ has virtually excised class and class struggle from the socialist project. The most distinctive feature of this current is the autonomization of ideology and politics from any social basis, and more specifically, from any class foundation…. effectively expel[ling] the working class from the center of the socialist project…

Again quoting Wood, who of course is drawing from Marx:

Class struggle is the nucleus of Marxism. This is so in two inseparable senses: it is class struggle that for Marxism explains the dynamic of history, and it is the abolition of classes, the obverse end-product of class struggle, that is the ultimate objective of the revolutionary process. The particular importance for Marxism of the working class in capitalist society is that this is the only class whose class interests require, and whose own conditions make possible, the abolition of class itself. 

Two points: 1) to demonstrate that something conflicts with Marx and Engels does not prove it wrong. 2) Demonstrating the shortcomings of postmodernist thought does not negate its contributions. In focusing on groups and issues that were neglected and suppressed by a certain current within Marxism, it contributed in some respects positively to human emancipation. Who can deny the insights contained in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish?

The charge of “class reductionism” can conceivably refer to one of two things: The first is the view that the working class is the only class whose self-emancipation depends on the emancipation of all. That is my view, and, I think, the standpoint of Marxism. The second is that the needs of sectors other than the working class are irrelevant to the working class, and play no part in helping it realize its ability to perform its historic function of abolishing all exploitation. That is, in my opinion, a distortion of Marxism; if that is what is meant by class reductionism, I oppose it, and think “identity politics” in part represents a response to it.

Identity politics holds that people’s racial, sexual, or other identity gives them insight to their oppression, an insight which is inaccessible to others who do not share that identity. It therefore rejects the claim, central to Marxism, that the working class can resolve the problems of all the oppressed. The most widespread expression of identity politics is Afro-pessimism, which holds that the experience of black people has been so unique that black people can rely only on themselves for liberation; a corollary is that the working class (“socialism”) has failed to—cannot—solve the race problem.

To repeat: identity politics is the price the movement pays for class reductionism—and vice versa; it is not possible to oppose one effectively without opposing the other.

I do not intend to argue my view here, beyond observing that the solution is to be found in the old watchword of the IWW: An injury to one is an injury to all. As usual I turn for guidance to CLR James. The following is from my introduction to A New Notion: The World View of CLR James:

For James, the starting point was that the working class is revolutionary. He did not mean that it is potentially revolutionary, or that it is revolutionary when imbued with correct ideas, or when led by the proper vanguard party. He said the working class is revolutionary and that its daily activities constitute the revolutionary process in modern society. James’s project was to discover, document, and elaborate the aspects of working-class activity that constitute the revolution in today’s world.

This project enabled James and his co-thinkers to look in a new way at the struggles of labor, black people, women, youth, and the colonial peoples, and to produce a body of literature far ahead of its time, works that still constitute indispensable guides for those fighting for a new world.

In “Negroes and American Democracy” (1956) he wrote, “the defense of their full citizenship rights by Negroes is creating a new concept of citizenship and community. When, for months, 50,000 Negroes in Montgomery, Alabama do not ride buses and overnight organize their own system of transportation, welfare, and political discussion and decision, that is the end of representative democracy. The community as the center of full and free association and as the bulwark of the people against the bureaucratic state, the right of women to choose their associates as freely as men, the ability of any man to do any job if given the opportunity, freedom of movement and of association as the expansion rather than the limitation of human personality, the American as a citizen not just of one country but of the world – all this is the New World into which the Negro struggle is giving everybody a glimpse…”

That is the new society and there is no other: ordinary people, organized around work and activities related to it, taking steps in opposition to capital to expand their freedom and their capacities as fully developed individuals. It is a leap of imagination, but it is the key to his method. If you want to know what the new society looks like, said James, study the daily activities of the working class.

He saw the autonomous activities of groups within the working class as a crucial part of its self-development. As a Marxist, James believed that the working class, “united, disciplined, and organized by the very mechanism of capitalist production,” had a special role to play in carrying the revolution through to the end. But he also believed that the struggles of other groups had their own validity, and that they represented challenges to the working people as a whole to build a society free of the domination of one class over another. In “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the U.S.A.” (1948), he opposed “any attempt to subordinate or push to the rear the social and political significance of the independent Negro struggle for democratic rights.” In that same work, written long before the Black Power movement, James spoke of the need for a mass movement responsible only to the black people, outside of the control of any of the Left parties.

He and his colleagues adopted a similar attitude toward the struggles of women and youth. “A Woman’s Place” (1950), produced by members of the tendency led by James, examined the daily life of working-class woman, in the home, the neighborhood, and the factory, and took an unequivocal stand on the side of women’s autonomy. They brought the same insights to the struggle of youth.

Were CLR James alive today, he would be called a class reductionist, as he might have in 1948 been accused of holding identity politics (had the term existed then).

I think the above is entirely consistent with the Hard Crackers project.

Back to Noel Ignatiev’s Author Page