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)
People often claim that abolishing capitalism would abolish patriarchy. This argument usually rests on a particular way of thinking about the relationship between the economy and the rest of society. I’ll call this way of thinking economic determinism.
According to economic determinism, society consists of two distinct and separate levels. The economic base and the superstructure. The economic base consists of forces of production, meaning a given society’s technology and particular human capacities to produce particular things, and relations of production, meaning the social relationships through which these processes of production occur, such as wage labour. The superstructure is all other aspects of society, which includes forms of consciousness and in certain societies a legal and political superstructure, that is, a state or government and the accompanying legal apparatus. The content of the superstructure is primarily determined by the content of the economic base in general and the dominant mode of production in particular. These determinations largely take the form of the economic base shaping the superstructure such that the superstructure enables the reproduction of the economic base. The superstructure does also determine the economic base but the economic base is nonetheless primary.
On this view, patriarchy is a component of the superstructure and therefore (a) is primarily determined by the economic base and (b) is constituted so as to enable the reproduction of the economic base. For example, women engage in unpaid domestic labour because it ensures the reproduction of the working class, such as husbands having food cooked for them, or children, who are future workers, being produced and raised. Since this work is unpaid it means that capitalists do not have to pay the full cost of the reproduction of the working class and so can make more profit. Or, working class men abuse their wives because they are alienated and oppressed under capitalism. They take out their frustration and anger on their wives, instead of on the bosses.
It is then thought that if patriarchy rests on the foundation of the capitalist economy, then removing capitalism will result in the abolition of patriarchy. After all, if patriarchy performs the function of reproducing capitalism, then removing capitalism will remove patriarchy because a socialist society won’t require patriarchy to reproduce itself. This usually goes alongside the narrative that patriarchy emerged from class society, therefore if we abolish class society we’ll abolish patriarchy.
There are several things wrong with economic determinism.
The economy is not a foundation for all other social relations such that removing the foundation gets rid of the other social relations. Instead it sets the parameters in which other social relations exist because social organisation is contingent upon what is compatible with the daily reproduction of human beings. The economic base’s primacy should therefore be understood in terms of the economic base simultaneously enabling superstructures to take particular forms and imposing boundaries on what forms superstructures can take.
The economic base enables the superstructure to take particular forms because certain degrees of development of the productive forces and certain forms of relations of production are required for any given institutional component of a superstructure to exist. For example, a modern state is historically contingent upon the forces and relations of production that render such a social institution possible in the first place, such as modern telecommunications or railways.
The boundaries that the economic base imposes on the superstructure consist in the scope of possible forms the superstructure can take without significantly impeding upon the reproduction of the economic base. The consequence of these boundaries is that the superstructure cannot alter past a certain point unless the economic base does. The economic base imposes these boundaries upon the superstructure because a pre-requisite for the reproduction of the superstructure is the reproduction of the economic base, since a society will not last long without the production of items such as food or clothing, or without the maintenance of its infrastructure. This is what Marx is referring to when he writes in volume 1 of Capital that, “the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor could the ancient world on politics. On the contrary it is the manner in which they gained their livelihood which explains why in one case politics, and in the other case Catholicism, played the chief part.” (Marx 1990, 176) A core boundary imposed on the superstructure is the requirement that the superstructure contain those elements which the economic base needs for its reproduction, such as capitalism requiring a superstructure that enforces private property rights.
As the economic base and the superstructure develop they come into conflict with one another. There are two primary kinds of conflict. Firstly, the economic base develops in a direction which creates a new configuration of boundaries. This in turn exerts pressure on the superstructure to change in order to guarantee its reproduction. Secondly, the superstructure develops in a manner that is incompatible with the existing boundaries imposed by the economic base and thereby impedes or prevents the reproduction of the economic base. The conflict between the superstructure and the economic base will result in either an alteration to the superstructure such that it fits within the boundaries imposed by the economic base, or an alteration to the economic base such that it no longer places limits on the superstructure’s present development. These changes can take the form of either a modification to an existing social structure, or a transition to a whole new social structure.
The question which socialists must be asking is therefore ‘is patriarchy compatible with the boundaries that a socialist society creates?’. My answer to this question is yes, patriarchy is compatible with socialism. There is nothing inherent to worker self-management or the collective ownership of the means of production which prevents the existence of sexism and the domination of women, trans and non-binary people. This can be seen in the fact that patriarchy continued to be a massive problem during the Russian and Spanish revolutions, despite them establishing workers control on a large scale. It can be seen today within left wing movements that are patriarchal despite the fact that they organise through direct democracy and so prefigure the organisational forms of a socialist society. Therefore, abolishing capitalism won’t force patriarchy to end. Instead patriarchy will be mediated through different economic relations. You’ll have worker self-management but women will still be raped and abused. You’ll have direct democracy but men will still do all the talking. You’ll have the people’s microphone but survivors of rape won’t be believed.
The fact that x performs the function of contributing to the reproduction of y, does not entail that removing y will remove x. X can contribute to the reproduction of y without the reproduction of x necessarily requiring the reproduction of y. X can have its own means for reproducing itself. Patriarchy is such a social structure. Its reproduction is not contingent upon the reproduction of capitalism, despite the role it plays in reproducing capitalism. Rather patriarchy is reproduced via such things as abusive relationships, socialisation into gender roles, sexist stereotypes, people mirroring sexist behaviour they see growing up, lack of positive representations of women in art and so on. There are of course certain elements of contemporary patriarchy which do require capitalism. Sexist advertising for example can only exist if you have advertising in the first place. But this is not true of countless other examples, such as women scientists not being covered in science documentaries, or women being excluded from gaming culture.
This same point also applies to the argument that since class society produced patriarchy it follows that ending class society will end patriarchy. Patriarchy can be initially produced by class society, but come to develop its own mechanisms of reproduction which are self-supporting and do not require the existence of class society to function. While certain features of contemporary patriarchy may require the existence of class society, such as the gender roles which are specific to the ruling class, patriarchy as a whole does not require the existence of class society. In short, patriarchy has, like Dr Frankenstein’s monster, taken on a life of its own.
In the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ Marx asks us to consider human life in terms of “sensuous human activity”. (Marx 1845) Marx is asking us to consider human beings concretely as real embodied people with consciousness who engage in activity, have experiences, and think about things. The danger of abstract models, such as the base/superstructure metaphor, is that we can get caught up with the model and lose sight of what the model was meant to be describing, namely, real human beings. We must therefore understand that social structures do not exist as real physical structures like buildings. They are just a conceptual tool for thinking about the web of social relations which real human beings produce and live within during the course of their existence.
To say that capitalism has been abolished is to say that social structures have been altered such that people now encounter one another through socialist social relations. This in turn translates to people’s real daily experiences having changed from experiences of capitalism to experiences of socialism. Therefore, if we are to imagine the abolition of capitalism we must do so not only from the point of view of an abstract model, but also from the point of view of real people and their first person conscious experience. A person who has been raised to be a sexist, lives in a sexist society, and engages in sexist behaviour, won’t magically stop being sexist because capitalism has been abolished. They won’t wake up the day after the revolution and suddenly find that they no longer think women are sex objects and no longer want to beat their wife. They won’t suddenly stop being condescending to women or stop shouting sexual harassment at strangers in the street. Rather they’ll wake up and go to their job at a worker controlled art gallery and pick up some food from the worker controlled supermarket during their lunch break. They’ll know how to make decisions democratically and be happy that they no longer have a boss. What won’t change from the end of capitalism is their sexism.
If abolishing capitalism won’t abolish patriarchy, what will? The answer is conscious feminist struggle against patriarchy, which is not reducible to the struggle against capitalism because we’re struggling against a distinct set of social structures. If we want to create a free world, we must struggle against all forms of domination simultaneously. What we need, in short, is intersectional class struggle.