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Keeping the Challenges Before Us

The Reissuing of 'Reluctant Reformers' and Its Contemporary Implications

Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States

Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States by Robert L. Allen and Chude Pamela Allen; Foreword by Jamelle Bouie.

Bill Fletcher Jr. is a longtime trade unionist, writer, commentator, and a past president of TransAfrica Forum.
Robert L. Allen and Chude Pamela Allen, Reluctant Reformers: Racism and Social Reform Movements in the United States, foreword by Jamelle Bouie (New York: O/R Books, 2021), 356 pages, $25, paperback.

I first read Reluctant Reformers shortly after it was published in the mid–1970s. Having been deeply inspired by Robert Allen’s earlier work Black Awakening in Capitalist America, I was eager to engage with his and Chude Pamela Allen’s analysis of the ongoing challenges facing U.S. liberal and progressive social movements vis-à-vis race. I was not disappointed. I found the book stunning, informative, and thought-provoking. It is no exaggeration to say that it deeply influenced my analysis and my approach to much of the work that I have since undertaken.

When I was asked to write a review for a new edition of the book, I assumed that I could speed through the manuscript, since I had read it cover to cover so many years ago, the memories deeply implanted. I was wrong. The book grabbed me on the first several pages. It drew me in and had me thinking not only about the issues that it covered, but also about how relevant the book has remained. And while I do not think that the 1983 postscript, included in this reissue, qualitatively added to the book, it certainly did not take away from its importance. Reissuing the book, as it turns out, is timely beyond what the publishers might have imagined—a point made in the excellent foreword by Jamelle Bouie.

Reluctant Reformers addresses what I think of as the tripwire of U.S. politics: race. But it does so by examining how several social movements, including abolition, women’s suffrage, populism, progressivism, labor, and the socialist and communist left, addressed the question of race and racism—and were in many cases confounded by it.

There are certain patterns that the Allens identify as critical in understanding the devastating impact of racism on progressive movements. These include a frequent assumption by white reformers that the United States is or should be seen as a white republic, into which various other populations may be incorporated—thus the tendency that emerged in the abolition period and continued after the Civil War to separate opposition to slavery from thorough emancipation (and the inclusion of freed Blacks as full citizens).

Additionally, they identify an opportunism displayed in numerous movements, whereby securing victory was believed to have been threatened by addressing race (a serious theme in the woman suffrage movement as well as among the Populists and organized labor). Furthermore, as the Allens summarize, there was a tendency within reform movements to disconnect the struggle against racism from the broader struggle against capitalism.

The Allens neither demonize white reformers nor canonize Black reformers. (I should note here that the focus is largely on African Americans and their relationship with whites, though at certain moments the authors do incorporate other racialized populations.) They critically examine each social movement and, very bluntly, surface contradictions within them.

There are immense tragedies identified in the book, not the least being the misdirection and collapse of the late nineteenth-century Populist movement. In reading their description of the evolution of the movement, I almost wished I could scream out, both in agony and to warn that the movement was heading into a cul de sac. The failure, as the Allens identify, of the white Populists to understand the nature of white supremacy and their tendency—at best—to treat racism as simply a divide-and-conquer technique resulted in the inability of the movement to break from a Euro-American centrism. Indeed, it served almost as a summary statement regarding that movement.

Reluctant Reformers is so compelling that one may be reluctant to offer any critiques or additions. But I will take a risk in offering a few comments on the book, as well as address its continuing relevance.

Though, in the chapter entitled “Capitalism, Racism and Reform,” the book offers an excellent overview of the construction of race, including a basic understanding of settler colonialism, it primarily focuses on the African-American experience with race and interactions with white reformers. This is not a problem in and of itself, but is something that should have been noted early in the book. Why? Because, even in North America, race was never a Black/white binary, which the Allens would be the first to acknowledge. From the very beginning, a racial construction was developed between the European settlers and the Indigenous. This was further expanded through the explicit construction of the categories of “Black” and “white” in the latter 1600s as part of the institutionalization of racial slavery for life. Over time, race morphed with the incorporation of new conquered and “racialized” populations.

Why is this relevant? The racial tripwire played itself out not only in the ambivalence of white reformers (a term I am using very broadly) toward African Americans, but also more generally. In various parts of the United States, different racial “pyramids” were constructed, with racialized populations—people of color—occupying distinct roles. A notorious example is from California, where the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association, mentioned in the book, applied for a charter to join the American Federation of Labor in the first decade of the twentieth century. Samuel Gompers, the founding president of the American Federation of Labor, sent a note to the Mexican workers telling them that they would be accepted as members only on the condition that they expel the Japanese.

Influenced by what Frantz Fanon would later identify as the colonial mentality, people of Mexican descent were regularly played off against the Indigenous, despite the Indigenous blood that flowed through most of them. Thus, white supremacist opportunism could morph in such a way that elements in oppressed racialized populations could come to identify not with other nationalities/racially oppressed, but with the oppressor. This has become increasingly important as an issue for the left to address with the rise of a right-wing populist movement that at times claims to be racially neutral!

Another point worth noting is that the book can be read as despairing at the prospect of multiracial and multinational struggle. Such a reading would be narrow. Reluctant Reformers disabuses the reader of any myths they may have previously embraced about some of the most iconic social movements in U.S. history. In doing so, the Allens highlight countervailing trends in these movements to demonstrate that none of them were monolithic and that they each contained the seeds of an alternative politics. In some cases, those contradictions were played out in the form of independent Black organizations and formations challenging the dominant narrative of the white reformers (there were also independent organizations of other racialized populations). In other cases, such challenges were racially/nationally mixed.

In the case of organized labor, for instance, the Allens point to the checkered history of the movement as a whole, but also specific examples like the Knights of Labor, which on the one hand organized African Americans, but on the other prohibited Chinese workers. They also highlight the work of the Industrial Workers of the World, which was consistently antiracist, but nevertheless failed to appreciate the scope of what can accurately be identified as white supremacist national oppression.

Perhaps the authors could have emphasized that there was an ongoing struggle within organized labor that engaged two vastly different views of trade unionism: one that was exclusivist and one that was inclusive. This might have helped the reader to better understand continuing tensions within the movement that are sometimes misidentified as being mainly about different forms of organization—for example, craft unionism versus industrial unionism.

In addition to the exclusive/inclusive contradiction, one major challenge for organized labor has been the extent to which it has seen itself as a white labor movement in a white republic, a sense that has clearly dominated the movement for most of its history. The future of organized labor in the United States depends, among other things, on breaking with that conception and embracing a new form of social justice unionism that sees the entire working class, not just white workers, as its home.

An underlying theme, drawn out explicitly toward the end of the book, is the danger that exists in seeing the antiracist struggle and the anticapitalist struggle as separate. This needs to be read and understood carefully. The Allens are not disparaging reform struggles that are antiracist yet not anticapitalist. Rather, they are arguing at the strategic level. To the extent to which antiracist reform struggles are viewed by their leadership as ones that can ultimately be resolved within the structures of capitalism, they will fail. Part of the reason for this is that antiracist victories under capitalism are never permanent and always under threat, as one can see today in the context of the attack on voting rights.

The other component of this, however, is to understand that the construction of race was inseparable from the development of capitalism itself. In fact, it is this conclusion that has divided much of the U.S. left since its inception. The white left, in particular, has tended to view race as an add-on to an otherwise defined socioeconomic system—capitalism. This view, largely embraced by the Socialist Labor Party, most of the Socialist Party, the Populist movement, and many others, led to the development of a politics that saw unity as arrived at through the identification of common economic demands that could bring us all together.

The Allens help the reader understand that such a separation is not only historically inaccurate, but brings with it strategic consequences, not the least a tendency toward abandoning struggles against racist and national oppression because they are perceived as divisive. Instead, what must be appreciated is that race is as central to the capitalist system as lungs are to a human being. The post-1492 construction of race was linked to and essential for the full development of the capitalist system. This was not the evolution of European ethnic bias, but, as the authors identify, related to the way capitalism was itself expanding, first in Europe, and later overseas.

As Bouie points out in his foreword, the issues addressed by the Allens continue to emerge. His frank look at the 2016 presidential election campaign and the contrasts between senator Bernie Sanders and former senator Hillary Clinton speaks to whether antiracism could be unifying. He equally addresses the reality that there are different forms of antiracism, including economically neoliberal antiracism, an antiracism that is anything but antisystemic.

I was deeply disappointed in 2016 by the approach of the Sanders campaign toward race, despite having been a Sanders supporter myself. While the Sanders forces’ approach to race and racial struggles improved by the 2020 campaign, it still seemed that they did not quite “get” race, in part illustrated by the poor work done by the Sanders movement (and the later campaign) in the South between the 2016 and 2020 campaigns.

There is an additional reason for the continuing relevance of Reluctant Reformers. Ostensibly progressive social reform movements can turn into their opposite if they fail to address race and racism. It is not just that the demands of the racially oppressed could be ignored, if not repudiated. It is that a movement can turn on its head and become a movement that defends the notion of the white republic, as the Populist movement has clearly shown. A movement that was antimonopoly, and supposedly antiracist, splintered, with a major section openly embracing white supremacy as a means of building an antimonopoly, antirich movement among white people.

Over the last fifty years, we have witnessed the rise of a right-wing populist movement—racist, sexist, xenophobic, authoritarian—that has hijacked much of the economic language of progressive and left forces. This became very evident with the rise of Donald Trump and his appeal to sections of organized labor, and a broader white segment of the working class. He claimed to be looking out for workers, while at the same time undermining their living standards, not to mention their right and ability to join or form labor unions. Ironically, he and the right-wing populist movement have turned against those segments of corporate America that made concessions to antiracist movements, including but not limited to the broad Black Lives Matter movement, claiming that corporate America is out of touch with the “American” worker.

It is in this environment that many people on the left argue that one defeats the right-wing populists generally, and the Trumpsters in particular, by crafting the sharpest economic argument, in some cases evading the so-called culture wars. Reluctant Reformers reminds us that such a course is a very slippery slope and in no way guarantees progressive unity or the advancement of democracy. In fact, such a course may give aid and comfort to the right-wing populists and help to advance their arguments. Narrowing the struggle to one of supposedly common economic demands ultimately limits the scope of the struggle to the degree that whites—in this case, white workers—are willing to extend themselves. The fight against racial oppression is not one of “culture,” nor one for the special demands of one group. It is a fight to extend democracy and eliminate the racial differential in treatment that consistently undermines unity among the oppressed and, indeed, undermines democracy itself.

At the end of the day, Reluctant Reformers attempts to grapple with how the unity of the oppressed can be forged in such a way that the interests of the historically marginalized do not continue to get…well, marginalized. Even in the case of racialized populations, the Allens note that the unity of the racially and nationally oppressed is not guaranteed by their common oppression, in part because, though there is a common oppression, there are also complex nuances based on the respective histories of each group and their experiences with white supremacist national oppression—a factor we can only ignore at our own peril.

For whites, the challenge becomes one of the extent to which they understand the need to become “accomplices,” with people of color, in the antiracist and anticapitalist struggle. This is a question most especially for white workers, but also for white women across class. To what extent do they keep on their white “uniform” in pursuing struggles for economic justice and gender justice, respectively, hoping that the larger context can remain intact? This question has confronted the oppressed since the first settlers arrived in North America. Without taking on this question directly, it will continue to exist as a permanent apparition; actually, as a permanent chain.

Reluctant Reformers is a must read, even if you have previously read it—even if it was over forty years ago.

2021, Volume 73, Number 6 (November 2021)
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