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)
I could not have put it better myself.
Césaire, Aimé. 2010. “Letter to Maurice Thorez”. Social Text 103, Vol. 28, No. 2.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge.
Hooks, Bell. 2015. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Routledge.
Shannon, Deric and Rogue, J. 2009. Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality.