France. Class Struggle vs. Identity Struggles?

Sociologists Stephane Beaud and Gérard Noiriel castigate academics who espouse the “racial cause”. But by entertaining fuzzy notions in the midst of the campaign in France against so-called Islamo-leftism, their book is more polemical than scientific.

It’s a sequence of events that has sadly become commonplace in France: on 11 February 2021 Gallimard published a new essay by Gilles Kepel, Le Prophète et la Pandémie. Du Moyen-Orient au jihadisme d’atmosphère (The Prophet and the Pandemic. From the Middle East to an atmospheric jihadism) which berates in particular the “islamo-leftists,” de-colonial and other intersectional thinkers “who have the upper hand in universities and stand in the way of any critical approach to the Islamic phenomenon.”

That same day, public television ran, at prime time, a debate between Gérard Darmanin, the current Minister of Interior Affairs, and the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, slated to figure in the run-off of the presidential election. Unsurprisingly, both participants expressed their satisfaction with the current campaign of Islamophobic repression with quotes from the Minister’s recent book.1

The next day, Le Figaro ran an account of the debate under the title “How Islamo-Leftism is gangrening our universities”. Under this title, the article asserts: “The convergence between the Muslim fundamentalists and the ultra-left is making headway in our colleges. It is fuelled by militant concepts imported from the United States and recycled by certain student unions.”

Less than 48 hours later, the Minister of Research and Higher Education, Frédérique Vidal, upped the ante with her own denunciation of Islamo-leftism, which is “gangrening our whole society,” and announced she has commissioned the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) to investigate “all the schools of research on these subjects in the universities in order to distinguish between what pertains to legitimate academic research and what pertains indeed to activism and opinion”.

When, several weeks earlier, in the midst of a veritable reactionary tempest, Gérard Noiriel and Stéphane Beaud published in Le Monde diplomatique an article on “the political blind alleys of identity politics”, we might have imagined those two left-wing intellectuals unable to find superlatives strong enough to condemn this unprecedented offensive and the many assaults on the rights and liberties that have gone with it. Nothing of the sort. Castigating the Americanisation of French public life, the omnipresence of the “racial issue” and the identitarian drift of a left-wing which once was social and is today increasingly concerned with racial theories, the article resembled an umpteenth potshot in the sequence described above. It was a prelude to the publication of a book by les Editions Agone, Race et sciences sociales. Essai sur les usages publics d’une catégorie, a book which aims to “step outside the current agenda of politics and the media.” But does nothing of the sort.

Even though Beaud and Noiriel claim the opposite throughout the 400 pages of a work which has quickly become something of a best-seller, it is in fact an exceptionally misleading piece of propaganda which more often than not departs from every principle of scientific rigour. A political essay full of sweeping generalisations in which the authors are settling accounts with colleagues and research institutions, mocking the “cultural left,” the “identity purveyors”, the “post-colonial business”, the bogey of “State racism” and what they name the “fashions” of racial studies or intersectionality.

Vague concepts

Whereas they claim to be intervening in their respective capacities as social historian and sociologist to deal with the racial question, Beaud and Noiriel never provide any definition of the concept itself (nor of class, for that matter, though it is the mantra of their demonstration). Nor will the reader glean much more information about what is meant precisely, under their slanderous pen, by “identitarian”. The term is used to describe the Black Power movement (ca. 1968-1976) in the United States (p. 144), as well as the demands voiced by Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sedar Senghor (p. 114), while Frantz Fanon, the French title of whose book Black Skin, White Masks, is misspelled by the authors (p. 133), is praised for having kept away from “identitary mobilisations”.

The authors entertain an unacceptable confusion between race and the racial question, terms which they use interchangeably. Nor do they find it necessary to explain having chosen to begin their analysis in the 19th century, when serious historians start their study of the notion of race in 16th century Europe. It is peering through a persistent fog of vagueness that the reader must guess what Beaud and Noiriel mean by “the racial question,” supposed to be their chief concern. From the very first lines of their book, our incomprehension is complete:

The racial question suddenly popped into the spotlight again on 25 May 2020 when the images of the murder of George Floyd, filmed by a passer bay with her smartphone, were shown over and over again on the 24 hour news channels (p. 9).

Why did the racial question pop up again at that particular moment? And exactly why had it disappeared? Seeming to play it by ear in the matter, the authors inform us, for example, that “the return of the racial question in France occurred in the eighties as part of the polemics over immigration (p. 195), and then that in 1989 the affair of the headscarf in a school in Creil provided an opportunity for the media to bring the racial issue to the fore.2

The 2005 riots3 are perceived as the major event which touched off “a new radicalisation of public discourse” (p. 171). After which the authors deplore that the hypothesis of a “racialisation” of French society has gradually gained ground in the tiny community of academics studying racial issues and they question the “problem raised by the rehabilitation of race in the field of science, in history and sociology” (p. 181-62). Yet a few pages further on, they do an about-face, when we are told that “the racial question has been a constant bone of contention between the different political factions of the Republican movement” (p. 225).

The confusion between "racism” and “the racial question” is all the more problematic as these two notions refer to very different objects. While in its modern acceptation, the term race designates a “power relationship which structures, according to various modalities, in different contexts and periods, the social place assigned to this or that group in the name of the supposedly radical alterity of its geographical, cultural or religious origins” 4 and if it is indeed racism that creates a race, the racial question refers to something quite different. It deals as much with all the discourses produced around the notion of race as with the ways in which they are produced, the connections they establish with other issues, the imaginary to which they refer, etc. Studying the notion of race is absolutely not the same thing as studying the racial question and it is essential to distinguish between the two if we want to understand anything at all.

Good and bad marks

This lack of any definition of the notion of race and of any justification of the historical framework they have chosen, combined with the way the authors set themselves up as arbiters, handing out good and bad marks, are characteristic of their determination to decide for themselves what is legitimate and what is not from a position of power which is never acknowledged as such. This is the zero-point hubris analysed by Santiago Castro-Gómez, the claim made by observers of social issues “to be adopting a sovereign gaze upon the world, whose power resides precisely in the fact that it can neither be observed nor represented.”5 As denizens of the zero point, Beaud and Noiriel seem convinced that they are entitled to a point of view on which it is impossible to have a point of view:

We do not have many illusions about the way this book will be received. Experience has taught us that despite every linguistic precaution, the forces facing off over the questions of identity will use this or that argument of ours either to enlist us under their banner or to denounce us. The favourite argument of Marxist philosophers who would not accept criticism was to accuse their detractors of “playing into the hands” of the power structure or big business. Insults of the same ilk are used today by identitarian intellectuals who discredit their opponents by accusing them of “playing into the hands” of the racists or the Islamists “(p. 377).

A breath of fresh air for young scholars

The authors’ schematic analysis of the work of Colette Guillaumin6 is practically slanderous. Primarily, she is accused of having imported into France racial preoccupations hitherto confined to the USA. As poof of her guilt, we are reminded that she taught in France and in Canada. It is therefore “that familiarity with the multi-cultural context of North America that enabled her to introduce into the French cultural arena an approach to the racial question which has by and large been perpetuated to this very day” (p. 185).

By deploring that Guillaumin and her epigones have contributed to institutionalising the racial question in the most legitimate bodies of research, the authors are actually deploring the fact that this new area of theoretical research has provided a breath of fresh air for a younger generation of scholars of both sexes from minority groups. People who refuse to reduce all issues to their class dimensions and insist on calling into question the sacrosanct axiological neutrality of the researcher.

“Post-colonial racism is a long disaster which excels in concealing its origins,” writes Rachida Brahim, who points out that “the generally feigned neutrality of social scientists is in fact a form of epistemic violence which is part of this long disaster”. It “impedes the intelligence of each and every one of us by forcing us to give priority to analyses based on class relations, still perceived as sole guarantors of scientific objectivity.”7

By defending a genealogy of the concept of race founded in the academic world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the book reveals a nostalgia for a time when the “racial question” was discussed exclusively in polite company. A situation which offers a scandalous contrast with the present day when the anonymous masses chip in with their two cents worth, adding an element of hysteria to issues which only intellectuals are capable of formulating. The tone of the book becomes more vindictive towards the end: “On the social networks, people who do not possess the tools to develop an argument will continue to use the only weapons available to them: verbal violence and insults which they justify with considerations of a moral order.” (p. 377). And the authors are at pains to specify that their book is not intended for this type of reader.

Identity and racial polemics

For several years now, the social media are indeed brimful of various kinds of polemics about race. The slightest racist remark (and they are plentiful indeed) is immediately taken up and commented on by individuals and structures which unfortunately serve as sounding boards for their opponents. We flood the web—and waste our time and that of our entourage—with nothings (or next-to-nothings). And while this type of activity is not confined to the subject of “race”, we need to ask ourselves why we do it.

Because what this kind of verbal activism neglects completely are the systemic and structural aspects of racism. What becomes of everything that cannot be picked up immediately, seen and filmed? Are we not helping to erase even more effectively all those processes which, over the long term, weigh so heavily on millions of lives? “Whether we like it or not,” writes Marie-José Mondzain, “we must recognize the decisive role of the image question in the collapse of our political life”.8 Yes indeed. But certainly not the way Beaud and Noriel advocate.

Instead of producing a critique of the political scene with its debilitating polarisations, its “reciprocal blindnesses” (Jacques Bourdieu), the authors of Race et sciences sociales confine these failings to the racial question, dismissing back to back ” the entrepreneurs of race” who “share the same vocabulary as their right—wing competitors” (p. 243). Targeted as they are by the far right, identitarian demands (and we have seen how broad a definition the authors assign to these) keep racial polemics alive and well. The struggle against racism, the authors claim, reveals contradictions which the far right turns to its advantage. In France and in the US, two blocks face off in these identitarian battles: over there, the minority groups vs. the white supremacists. Here in France the Collectif contre l’islamophobie (CCIF) vs. Génération identitaire9, same difference.

Class vs. race

Beaud and Noiriel never tire of repeating it: they have no problem with the concept of race. They merely feel that it must remain in its proper place and be dealt with only as a “variable or special case, understood as part of a broader scientific problem” (p. 192). We are in complete disagreement with this, but we do agree with the authors when they assert that there is no such thing as pure racism, independent of inter-class domination. But this is also true of class relations, which never exclude racial or gender domination, which inclines us to “conceive both the irreducibility of the racial question and its inextricable link with relations of class and gender.”10

Now while race and class are closely associated, the injustices and wrongs suffered by racial minorities can nonetheless not be reduced to class relations, to capitalist domination. To reduce everything to class locks us into an interpretive framework which is both Eurocentric and economistic (precisely the one used in Race et sciences sociales). Yet a racial analysis will be legitimately faulted for failing to talk about class, though the opposite is rarely true.

The authors object to an assertion made by Pap N’diaye in the book quoted above with an argument that seems to them irrefutable: if we include in our analysis “heavy” social variables, i.e., occupation, profession, activity status and nationality, the category “black population” “loses much of its homogeneity and falls apart completely” (p. 239-231). But at a pinch the same could be said of every category, the same disparities are to be found in the working class, especially if one enlists the same variables, race, gender, etc. To speak of Blacks or Muslims is no more artificial than to speak of the lower classes.

For lack of a working definition of race or racism (of which we are told only that the term first appeared under the pen of Charles Malato in 1888) the authors naturally end up by adopting Bourdieu’s concept of “class racism” which is simply class contempt. Guillaumin was quite right to insist that such forms of social contempt are not racism.

Social left, identitarian right

“Yet it is undeniable that the political history specific to France has ended by perpetuating a polarisation between a left which prioritises social criteria and a right which emphasises national, religious and ethno-racial criteria” (p. 16). Far from sharing this simplistic notion we would say simply that the left does not racialise in the same way as the right. The difference is one of degree, not of nature, which the authors themselves seem reluctantly to admit: “Although the French as a whole were convinced they belonged to a people that was superior to those they colonised, this did not prevent them from disagreeing about how to put this superiority into practice.” (p. 49–50)

This schematic dichotomy, which requires a scrupulous separation between questions of identity and social issues, actually serves a two-fold strategic objective. In the first place, it enables them to excoriate the social democratic left (the book continually blows hot and cold in this respect) guilty of having abandoned the social question for issues of identity. The authors endorse the thesis which sees that left as having switched from the social to the cultural and do not hesitate to use several times the expression “cultural left” so dear to the far right.

This dichotomy then allows them to accuse anti-racist organisations of “dividing just a bit more those forces which used to fight side by side against all forms of exploitation and discrimination” (p. 179). According to the authors, it was because of their identity bias that certain anti-colonial movements distanced themselves from the French Communist Party (PCF) which prioritised class criteria, but was absolutely unconcerned by race-related considerations. We might easily quote here from a famous letter sent by Aimé Césaire (“identitarian” poet and politician) to Maurice Thorez, PCF general secretary, or better still from an observation by Frantz Fanon (whom the authors appreciate more) and who summed up the situation in a pithy formula:

In the colonial world, it used to be said that there exists between the colonised people and the working class of the colonising country, a community of interests. The history of the wars of liberation waged by colonised peoples is that of the non-verification of that thesis.”(Toward the African Revolution, 1964)

This community of interests is yet to be found. Between race and class, equivocation persists.

Translated from French by Noël Burch.

1Gérald Darmanin, Le séparatisme islamiste, Éditions de l’Observatoire, 2021.

2TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The Muslim headscarf worn by schoolgirls has been accused of violating the Republican principle of religious neutrality and a crypto-racist law has been passed banning it.

3TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Following the deaths of two teenagers chased by police into an electrical transformer site.

4Sarah Mazouz, Race, Anamosa, 2020

5Santiago Castro-Gómez, Zero-Point Hubris: Science, Race, and Enlightenment in New Granada (1750–1816), translated by Don Deere and George Ciccariello-Maher (forthcoming with Rowman & Littlefield International).

6Colette Guillaumin, Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology, London Routledge, 1995.

7Rachida Brahim, La race tue deux fois. Une histoire des crimes racistes en France (1970-2000), Syllepse, 2020.

8Marie-José Mondzain, Confiscation. Des mots, des images, du temps, Les liens qui libèrent, 2017.

9TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: A French white supremacist group, defending a “French identity” against the alleged threat of an immigrant invasion.

10Pap Ndiaye, La condition noire. Essai sur une minorité française, Calmann-Levy, 2008.