Adolph Reed, now something of an elder statesman on the American intellectual left, has long argued for an understanding of race as a distinctly modern phenomenon, pushing back against essentialist notions in the process. Rejecting the idea that black people, within or outside of the United States, formed a single unified class, held together by communitarian notions of a shared culture, he has consistently argued that black politics cannot be understood in isolation from the broader currents of American society. Two landmark books, The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon (1986) and W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought (1997), took aim at twin icons of the movement, political and intellectual. In 1999, Reed published Stirrings in the Jug, an incisive analysis of the rise of a new class of black elected officials in the post-Civil Rights era. In 2010 he co-edited Renewing Black Intellectual History with the Chicago literary scholar, Kenneth Warren. Distinctively, Reed’s writing has operated across two, often overlapping, registers. The first is that of the measured scholarly study; the second is popular polemic, in which Reed, a brilliant stylist, is capable of producing turns of phrase which combine in equal parts contempt for liberalism’s sacred cows with savage playfulness. (On the aftermath of the sixties: ‘Martin Luther King became a holiday and a postage stamp, a meal ticket for his widow and hobby for Stevie Wonder.’) In both registers, Reed has pushed back against a rising tide of liberalism whose ideological assumptions about race much of the American left has implicitly accepted.

His latest book, The South, takes issue with the tendency to dehistoricize the experience of the region, seeing only ‘an unbroken arc of racial subordination’ from the era of slavery to the present. Allegories of a new Jim Crow are not only inadequate as analysis or explanation, Reed argues; they obscure the mechanisms that reproduce inequalities in the present. Striking a more personal tone than any of his earlier works, The South combines social history and memoir with the aim of describing the quotidian realities of the Jim Crow era and its aftermath. As he reflects, his age cohort is the last to have a living memory of what segregation meant in daily life. From this vantage point, he interrogates an ‘eerie sensation’ which often confronts him on visiting the new South. This is provoked by the discomforting compatibility of, and his own oscillation between, two theoretically opposed positions: one which insists on a continuity between past and present and the other which denies it:

I was constantly struck by how much the way that things had changed in the region seemed to underscore the ways they hadn’t; and, vice versa, how the ways things haven’t changed underscore the ways they have. Going there was like travelling back in time, yet at the same time not.

Born in nyc in 1947, Reed was initially a semi-Southerner, visiting Louisiana relatives every summer as a small child, before moving to Arkansas with his family at the age of nine, then relocating to New Orleans, his mother’s hometown, for his teenage years. His mother, Clarita Macdonald, descended on her maternal side from the professional black Catholic middle class; her father was Cuban, from Oriente. Reed’s father, Reed Sr, was a Popular Front intellectual, a friend of cpusa leader Ishmael Flory; born in the Arkansas Delta, he moved to Chicago, then New York, working for the American Labor Party, on which he wrote a phd at nyu. (When asked about his path to Marxism, Reed Jnr replied, ‘I inherited the family business.’) After a few years in dc, Reed Snr took up a professorship at a black state college in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. His son would go on to spend most of the next quarter-century in Southern cities: after high school in New Orleans, Reed Jnr studied for his ba at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Here he was active in Black Power politics—but, as he put it in a 2015 Platypus interview, ‘always the guy on the Marxist edge of the discourse.’ His ‘delayed adolescent rebellion’ involved a flirtation with the Trotskyist swp. Political militancy led to three years of organizing in the region, including working with anti-war gis. Increasingly critical of the ‘Plekhanovite Marxism’ of the maoisant Pan-Africanist groups in New Orleans and Atlanta, he gravitated instead to the Western Marxist authors being published by the Monthly Review press: Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy and György Konrád and Iván Szelényi’s The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power left major impressions, as did Lukács, Adorno, Marcuse and, later, Habermas.

By the mid-seventies Reed thought it clear that ‘left forces had pretty much been outflanked, or had outflanked themselves, with respect to the evolving dynamics in black politics’; in North Carolina, ‘a real black bourgeoisie’ now dominated the movement. Reed returned to school at Atlanta University, the oldest historically black college in the us, where he would write a master’s dissertation on the political philosophy of Pan-Africanism—Du Bois, Garvey, Nkrumah, Padmore—and then a doctoral thesis on Du Bois’s ‘liberal collectivism’ and the effort to consolidate a black elite. This was completed in 1981, under the supervision of political scientist Alex Willingham. Here the thoroughgoing materialism that has characterized Reed’s later output was already on full display: Du Bois’s thought was firmly situated within the political context from which it emerged. Reed characterized Du Bois’s politics as a form of Fabian incrementalism, which saw ‘socialism’ as the gradual rationalization of industrial capitalism. (Reed’s reworking of this material for the 1997 book on Du Bois produced a study of the sociologist that has yet to be surpassed.) As a graduate student, Reed had first-hand experience of the emerging political black elite as he worked as a policy analyst and speechwriter for Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta. In 1977 Jackson would reward those who still held onto the idea of a unified black political movement by firing nearly 2,000 sanitation workers to put an end to a strike. Reed was also on the editorial board of Telos where he would publish some notable essays, including ‘Black Particularity Reconsidered’ in 1979, before being ‘dropped without notice’ by the journal as it began its long migration.

This was the political and biographical background to The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon, whose subtitle, ‘The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics’, spelled out the stakes. Reed argued that Jackson’s bid for the 1984 Democratic nomination signalled a black political class fresh out of ideas. Rather than recognize the changing nature of black social life, the Jackson campaign attached itself to intellectually moribund and conservative cultural symbols, chief among them the church, an institution whose influence was overrated. Jackson, Reed argued, traded in a form of charisma that did not seek to formulate a programme through dialogue between members of an organized constituency. Instead, he relied on a reified notion of cultural homogeneity, justified by its purported morally uplifting effects:

If we assume the black population to be particularly susceptible to charismatic mobilization—if only because it is inherited and familiar—we must then ask whether responsible leadership should pander to an anti-rational, overly simple political style simply because it is driven by cultural inertia and is therefore convenient. Should not leadership—most of all leadership that bases its claims on moral authority—strive to inspire constituents to transcend those of their practices and dispositions which undermine the democratic values of autonomy and open community and which leave them ill-equipped to face the challenges that confront them as citizens? How should we judge the claims of a putative leadership that, like market research-based television programming, deliberately offers nothing that might stimulate an unpredictable reaction in those who are led?