The political reality is that identity politics, at least within English speaking countries, is far more popular and influential than socialist politics, especially among younger people. Therefore, there exists a large body of people who, while not socialists, are nonetheless politically engaged, understand many of the problems with modern society, such as white supremacy or patriarchy, and value equality and freedom. The problem is that these people generally speaking lack a good understanding of class politics. This can be seen in the fact that they often understand class oppression in terms of classism, such as middle class people talking down to working class people, and don’t advocate worker self-management or the abolition of the state.
The task of socialists in such a political climate is not to try and persuade people to drop identity politics in favour of socialism. This is for two reasons. Firstly, there is a huge amount of good ideas within mainstream identity politics, such as understanding the connection between police brutality and racism, or holding that victims are not to blame for being raped. This goodness is incredibly important when one considers how widespread racism and sexism is in our societies, especially historically. In other words, the problem with liberal identity politics is not the identity politics, but the liberalism. Secondly, critiquing identity politics is not an effective way of persuading people to develop socialist politics. People generally stop listening once you start attacking their core belief system. This is especially true if it is a belief system that they are emotionally invested in, such as a traumatised queer who learned to love herself by spending time on tumblr and reading about liberal feminism.
Reflecting on my own political development I cannot remember many cases in which a critique of my ideas made me change my mind. Instead, what consistently happened was that I read about a new political perspective, found it interesting, thought about the ideas a lot, and gradually over time dropped my previous political beliefs as I began to see flaws in them. I think part of the reason for this is that as you learn about new ideas you transform your mental landscape and become able to understand things you could not before. For example, I didn’t understand queer perspectives on gender until I’d read more widely on feminist views on gender and so understood the larger conceptual framework that queer feminists were coming from. In a similar fashion, it is unsurprising that many liberals do not understand socialist critiques of their politics. To understand these criticisms, they must first have a general understanding of socialist theory. But if they had an understanding of socialist theory then they would themselves be in a position to critique liberal identity politics from a socialist perspective.
Given this, instead of attacking identity politics, socialists should produce socialist identity politics which combines the good elements of mainstream identity politics with a solid class politics based in Marxism or anarchism. In particular, socialists should show how the core values which underpin identity politics, such as empathy for the oppressed or the belief that people should be free from domination, entail a Marxist or anarchist politics if they are consistently applied. For example, we could argue that if you support black lives matter then you should also support the abolition of the police and prisons. From there we could further argue that the police and prisons play a larger role in perpetuating class society and that, given this, the working class as a whole, regardless of race, has a shared interest in fighting state violence.
On this approach, socialist engagement with liberals consists in telling them the ways in which their politics could be better, rather than attacking them for having bad politics. The idea being that liberal feminists will, when presented with a better and more developed version of identity politics, work out for themselves the flaws with their old politics. Socialists should not expect such a transformation to happen overnight. They must be patient and understand that it takes time for people to learn a whole new approach to politics and to discard previous beliefs in favour of better ones.
To conclude, socialists must bring class politics to identity politics, rather than expecting liberals to drop identity politics in favour of socialism. We must try to blow people’s minds with socialist theory and have interesting conversations with them, rather than using socialist theory as a weapon with which to attack people for having bad politics and thereby prove our inherent superiority and radicalism. We must build a movement, not a sect.
If capitalism is to be overthrown it is essential that a mass working class movement is created and developed during the course of struggle. In other words, the working class must unite and organise together as a class if they are to liberate themselves. Some socialist critics of identity politics argue that given the importance of working class unity, we should reject identity politics because it fragments and dis-unifies the working class. For the purposes of this article, it should be kept in mind that when I speak of identity politics I do not mean terrible liberal feminism or politics which relies on essentialist notions of what it is to be a ‘women’ or ‘gay’. Instead I mean a kind of politics which emerged in the new left and organised along lines of identity, such as being a ‘women’, ‘gay’, or ‘black’, in order to fight the forms of oppression distinct to these groups, such as patriarchy or white supremacy. Given this definition, I have lots of points to make in response to the argument that identity politics is a barrier to working class unity.
The fragmentation of left wing social movements which identity politics does cause is not inherent to identity politics, but is rather part of a particular way of doing identity politics. For example, an overzealous call out culture is a harmful feature of many identity politics movements, but you can do identity politics without an overzealous call out culture. This has been demonstrated by discussions within identity politics itself, such as Asam Ahmad’s critique of bad call out culture or this everyday feminism article on calling in as an alternative to calling out. In short, the solution to bad identity politics is not no identity politics, it is good identity politics. Just as the solution to bad bureaucratic unions is good syndicalist unions, rather than no unions.
One of the main reasons why identity politics historically caused division within the left was angry arguments over whose oppression was primary or most important. For example, radical feminists would claim that gender oppression is most important, while black nationalists would argue that racial oppression is most important. This then led in turn to great hostility between different political groups divided along lines of identity. These arguments over whose oppression was primary led to the formation of intersectionality theory, which holds that “oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type”. (Collins 2000, 18) According to intersectionality, systems of oppression are not distinct separate entities that interact with one another. Instead, systems of oppression interlock and intersect with one another to form a totality which is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, racism and sexism as they really exist in our society are not separate social structures which interact, but are instead inter-twinned to such an extent that one cannot be separated from the other. Given this, “all struggles against domination are necessary components for the creation of a liberatory society. It is unnecessary to create a totem pole of importance out of social struggles and suggest that some are “primary” while others are “secondary” or “peripheral” because of the complete ways that they intersect and inform one another.” (Shannon and Rogue 2009)
The formation of women only, or lesbian only, or black only etc groups do not in and of themselves fragment the left. Such groups can be formed but be part of wider organisations, such as the IWW’s African people’s caucus, or can form alliances and co-operate with other organisations and movements, such as the black panthers being a black only group but organising with other working class movements, or black lives matter organising with Fight for 15.
If you are concerned with the fragmentation of left wing social movements then there is a lot more to be concerned about than identity politics. Historically the primary driver of fragmentation within the left has been tactical disputes, such as those between anti-state socialists and state socialists, and different splits within left wing organisations. The history of the UK left in the 20th century, for example, is a history of a huge number of splits within communist parties which has led to the formation of a myriad of organisations who have almost exactly the same name and spend most of their time arguing with one another. Despite this history, I do not see socialist critics of identity politics arguing that Trotskyism or Maoism fragments the working class and so should be rejected.
Capitalism is not the only oppressive structure. We live in a society which is patriarchal, racist, queerphobic and ableist. As a result of this, the working class is not an amorphous blob but is divided along lines of gender, race, sexuality, and disability. These divisions are not merely the product of the capitalist class dividing the working class. They are actively perpetuated by the working class themselves through the process of different working class people oppressing one another, such as straight workers attacking gay workers when they hold hands in public, or working class men sexually harassing working class women.
These structures of domination in turn produce identities among the oppressed and link these identities to negative self-conceptions, such as racism producing the notion of black identity and the notion that black skin is unattractive or that black people are inherently criminal. In reaction to this, oppressed groups construct positive notions of group identity, such as ‘black is beautiful’ or ‘black girl magic’, and through doing so un-learn the internalisation of their oppression. People not subject to systemic oppression on the basis of their gender, race, sexuality or ability often do not understand the importance of these positive group identities because they have not gone through their life being othered and oppressed on the basis of these features. When you have been, say, taught through violence and oppression to hate your sexuality, then you might understand why it is important to someone’s sense of self that they are gay and proud.
Given this reality, working class unity cannot take the form of differences of gender, sexuality, race, and ability being ignored. Most obviously, if we ignore these differences, then we are not in a position to understand oppressive behaviour that occurs within the left or society at large. We will merely see one human being oppressing another human being and thereby ignore the more important reality of a man oppressing a women and thereby perpetuating patriarchy.
Furthermore, ignoring the distinctiveness of marginalised groups because we are all human beings does not, under present conditions, result in a humanistic utopia. It results in cis, or straight, or white, or male people presenting themselves as the default human being or worker and so mistaking their experiences, interests and outlooks for universally human or working class experiences, interests and outlooks. If we are to abolish patriarchy, racism, queerphobia, and ableism then we must acknowledge and prioritise the distinct experiences, outlooks, and interests of marginalised groups, rather than assuming that cis, straight, white or male people speak for the whole of the human family or the whole of the working class.
This is a lesson which much of feminism has already learned. The reason why so much contemporary feminism emphasizes multiple forms of oppression is that historically the feminist movement had a tendency to equate womanhood with the particular experiences, outlooks, and identities of middle class, cis, straight, white women. For example, in her book ‘The Feminine Mystique’ Betty Friedan, “made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women”. Her famous phrase, “the problem that has no name” does not, as it is often alleged, describe the condition of all women in this society but instead refers “to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle- and upper-class, married white women – housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life.” (Hooks 2015, 1-2) If feminism has been attempting to be inclusive to differences of class, race, gender and sexuality within a women’s movement, then socialism must likewise attempt to be inclusive to such differences within a workers’ movement.
Socialist critics of identity politics should be weary of confusing unity with silencing and side lining. In practice, what is often considered to be working class unity is in fact cis-straight white men running the show and claiming to be acting in the interests of the working class, while at the same time oppressing women, people of colour, queers and the disabled. This false unity is then viewed as the default setting and resistance to this state of affairs is labelled as divisive and a breakdown of unity. To see things this way is to take the point of view of the oppressor, such as a cis-man viewing the creation of women only spaces as exclusionary and divisive. When of course, from the point of view of women, it is cis-men claiming that women only spaces are sexist which causes division. In other words, a key source of division on the left is marginalised people being oppressed in the spaces which should be fighting for their liberation.
It is therefore bizarre that socialists who are critical of identity politics spend far more time attacking identity politics than the sexism, racism, ableism and queerphobia which permeates the left. For example, left wing organisations lacking good procedures to deal appropriately with sexual assault or sexual harassment accusations is a serious problem which causes far more division than women loudly complaining about rape culture and sexual violence within the left.
The left will not be able to build a truly mass working class movement without the participation of women, people of colour, queers and the disabled. Therefore, the left must ensure that its practices are inclusive and do not push away people from these groups. After all, women, for example, will not remain active within socialist organisations if they consistently experience sexism within these organisations, or have their emancipatory goals dismissed as un-important. Unsurprisingly, one of the main reasons behind the formation of women only, or lesbian only, or black only political groups which are separate from the wider left has and continues to be experiences of oppression and exclusion within left wing organisations and movements.
Given this, one of the main factors fragmenting left wing movements is (a) the existence of patriarchy, racism, ableism and queerphobia within the left in particular and society in general, and (b) the failure of left wing movements to take these forms of oppression seriously. Therefore, if one was concerned with preventing the fragmentation of the left, one’s primary concern would be working to end oppression within left wing movements themselves and ensuring that left wing movements place importance on the emancipation of all of humanity from all structures of domination. Doing so creates a situation in which marginalised groups feel included and are therefore far less likely to leave movements or organisations due to experiences of oppression and marginalisation.
Throughout this piece I have been arguing for the importance of constructing a unity which respects difference. I think this notion has already been beautifully expressed by the Martiniquean poet Aimé Césaire in his 1956 resignation letter to the French Communist Party. He wrote,
I am not burying myself in a narrow particularism. But neither do I want to lose myself in an emaciated universalism. There are two ways to lose oneself: walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the universal.
My conception of the universal is that of a universal enriched by all that is particular, a universal enriched by every particular: the deepening and coexistence of all particulars. (Césaire 2010, 152)
One of the depressing features of historic anarchist movements is insufficient attention being given to women’s emancipation. When attention was given, it often came in the form of not very good articles or pamphlets written about women’s emancipation by men, instead of by women. For example, a 1901 article published in ‘The Rebel’ states that “Woman should be free, completely free—to think, to work and to love, but always sheltered and safeguarded by man.” (Suriano 2010, 95) This often went alongside the view that the main role for women as revolutionaries was to be a radical housewife. Their task was to ensure that the home was a “coveted paradise of love, the charm of our ideals” and that children were taught to hate religion, nationalism, and the state and thereby prepared to be the revolutionaries of the future. (Ibid, p96) The patriarchal gendered division of labour remained, albeit in service to radical rather than bourgeois ends. While in theory anarchists were opposed to patriarchy, marriage, and the nuclear family, in practice such ideals were postponed till after the revolution. In the meantime, women were expected to accept their fate as victims of male domination.
Several women, unsurprisingly, reacted angrily to the sexism within the anarchist movement. One of the best examples is the Argentinian newspaper called ‘women’s voice’. The paper, which was written explicitly by and for women, held that women were the most oppressed in contemporary society because they faced the dual oppression of capitalism and patriarchy. The first issue of women’s voice was published January 8th, 1896. The newspaper ran for a year, released nine issues, and printed between 1,000 and 2,000 copies per issue. (Molyneux 1986, 132, 124, 130)
Women’s voice first editorial read,
fed up as we are with so many tears and so much misery; fed up with the never ending drudgery of children (dear though they are); fed up with asking and begging; of being a plaything for our infamous exploiters or vile husbands, we have decided to raise our voices in the concert of society and demand, yes, demand our bit of pleasure in the banquet of life. (Molyneux 1986, 126)
The response by the anarchist movement to the first issue ranged from praise, to silence, to hostility. (Molyneux 1986, 126). In the second issue, the editors of women’s voice responded to men critical of their paper in no uncertain terms. They wrote,
When we women, unworthy and ignorant as we are, took the initiative and published women’s voice, we should have known, Oh modern rogues, how you would respond with your old mechanistic philosophy to our initiative. You should have realized that we stupid women have initiative and that is the product of thought. You know-we also think . . . The first number of women’s voice appeared and of course, all hell broke loose: “Emancipate women? For what?” “Emancipate women? Not on your nelly!” . . . “Let our emancipation come first, and then, when we men are emancipated and free, we shall see about yours.” (Molyneux 1986, 128)
The writers of women’s voice proceeded to label sexist men who opposed women’s liberation as “false anarchists” who only wanted to have a “submissive compañera” at their side to raise their children, cook their food, and do their laundry. “To you,” they said, “a woman is nothing more than a pretty piece of furniture”. Such men “better understand once and for all that our mission is not reducible to raising your children and washing your clothes and that we also have a right to emancipate ourselves and to be free from all kinds of tutelage, whether economic or marital.” Perhaps best of all, the angry anarcha-feminists of women’s voice threatened to go to the homes of sexist anarchist men and reveal to their wife and family that they were “all a bunch of chickens and crabs who talk about freedom but only want it for themselves.” (Suriano 2010, 95)
This opposition to patriarchy, both within the movement and society at large, stemmed from the anti-authoritarianism of these women. As issue 4 of women’s voice phrases it, “We hate authority because we aspire to be human beings and not machines directed by the will of ‘another,’ be this authority, religion, or any other name.” A supporter of women’s voice aptly labelled authority by any other name when she signed herself, “No God, No Boss, No Husband.” (Molyneux 1986, 129)
Molyneux, Maxine. 1986. “No God, No Boss, No Husband: Anarchist Feminism in Nineteenth-Century Argentina.” Latin American Perspectives, Issue 48, Vol.13, No.1, 119-145. (for summary see)
Suriano, Juan. 2010. Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires, 1890-1910. Oakland, CA: AK Press.