Magazine article Monthly Review

The Color of Politics

Magazine article Monthly Review

The Color of Politics

Article excerpt

The idea that the United States is an exceptional nation is as old as the country itself. Most variants of this concept trumpet the special uniqueness of America. Chauvinists from Hector St. John de Crevecoeur to Alexis de Tocqueville to Theodore Roosevelt to Louis Hart to Newt Gingrich have portrayed America as an expansive and inclusive democracy, an efficient and flourishing economy, and a superior and exemplary civilization, alone in a world either corrupted by Old World aristocracy, blighted by uncivilized hordes, imperiled by totalitarian Communism, stifled by big government, or contaminated by miscegenating multiculturatism. In every case, a supposedly exclusively American trait - diversity, religiosity, local democracy, individualism, liberalism, social mobility - has set the nation apart from, and above, all others.

Of course, variants of American exceptionalism exist on the left, too. Here, America is unique not for what it is, but for what it lacks: a socialist tradition, a labor party, and/or a strong labor movement. Many of the characteristics that chauvinists celebrate as evidence of American greatness are precisely those that left critics lament, and cite as the reasons America has no socialism - the lack of a feudal past, individualism, liberalism, religiosity, the frontier. Yet the left often adds another item to its balance sheet of American exceptionalism: race. The argument is straightforward: the American labor and socialist movements have been crippled by the racial divisions within the American working class. It seems undeniable, yet few explanations of American exceptionalism (why there is no socialism in the United States) have made race so central to their analysis as Michael Goldfield's The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics.

For Goldfield, racial division has been the Achilles' heel of the American left, "the key to unraveling the secret of American exceptionalism." (p. 30) Indeed, race has been "much more." "Race has been the central ingredient, not merely in undermining solidarity when broad struggles have erupted, not merely in dividing workers, but also in providing an alternative white male nonclass worldview and structure of identity that have exerted their force during both stable and confrontational times. It has provided the everyday framework in which labor has been utilized, controlled, and exploited by those who have employed it. And race has been behind many of the supposed principles of American government (most notably states' rights) that are regarded as sacred by some people today." (p.30)

To make his case for the centrality of race in American political development, Goldfield reinterprets American political history as a series of crucial turning points, historical intersections at which race set the direction of politics and from which the system of racial domination was created and perpetuated (albeit in continually altered form and content). These turning points were the late seventeenth-century creation of racial slavery, the American Revolution, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the "System of 1896," and the Great Depression and the New Deal. Heightened class conflict characterized each turning point, creating real opportunity and often real progress for black and white workers. Yet, in every case, racial division determined that the ruling classes would ultimately triumph over the working classes.

Throughout his retelling of U.S. history, Goldfield places the interplay of race and class at the center of his story. In his introduction, he critiques attitudinal, psychological, and cultural explanations of race, and insists upon "the class and economic roots of racial formation and systems of racial oppression." Then, as he works through the history, he tries to expose these roots and the poisonous fruit they ultimately sprout. He does a magnificent job sketching the class context - the balance of class forces - in which each of his critical political struggles take place, setting each successive contest within the race and class configuration left by the previous struggle. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.