We Must Bring Socialism to Identity Politics

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.

What is Identity Politics

Within political discussions the phrase ‘identity politics’ is thrown around frequently. Rarely, however, is it ever defined by either adherents or critics of it. Instead the phrase seems to operate as a catch all buzz word for whatever features one likes or dislikes about contemporary and historic social movements focusing on the liberation of particular oppressed groups, such as women, queers and people of colour.

As I’ll be speaking about identity politics a lot in the future, I thought it would be helpful to start by defining the phrase itself. What we’ve come to call identity politics was initially developed within the feminist, gay liberation, and anti-racism social movements of the 1960s and 1970s new left. These social movements developed out of a reaction to sexism, homophobia, and racism within both the left itself and society at large. They organised along lines of identity, such as being a ‘women’, ‘gay’, or ‘black’, and sought to conceptualise and combat the particular kinds of oppression suffered by these groups. The many different versions of the politics of identity these social movements developed had in common three core beliefs. These beliefs in a simplified form are,

1. Structures of oppression produce shared experiences and identities among the oppressed. For example, white supremacy has produced a social group known as ‘black people’. Members of this social group are united by being positioned within society as ‘black’ and as a result of this societal positioning thinking of themselves as ‘black’ and experiencing anti-black racism throughout their lives.

2. The shared experiences and identities of an oppressed social group can be used as a basis for building a social movement aimed at the liberation of said social group. This usually takes two forms.

First, developing political consciousness by showing how experiences of oppression at the level of the individual are not isolated apolitical incidents, but are rather components of a society wide structure of oppression. A concrete historical example of this is feminist consciousness raising groups. In these groups women would meet and discuss every day experiences of patriarchy. As Carol Hanisch put it famously in 1969,

One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems. . .I went, and I continue to go to these meetings because I have gotten a political understanding which all my reading, all my “political discussions,” all my “political action,” all my four-odd years in the movement never gave me. I’ve been forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman. I am getting a gut understanding of everything as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings I had in “other people’s” struggles. (Hanisch 1969)

Second, producing positive group identities in order to help people unlearn the negative self-conceptions which oppressive social structures instil in them. For example, transphobia teaches trans people to hate and be ashamed of themselves. A positive notion of trans identity can help combat this. Other examples of this are notions like ‘sisterhood is powerful’, ‘black is beautiful’, or ‘#blackgirlmagic’. These positive group identities are important not just because they improve people’s mental health but also because they contribute to the development of the confidence, self-worth, and agency that oppressed people need to abolish their oppression.

3. The liberation of an oppressed social group must be achieved by the oppressed group themselves.

This isn’t to deny that people outside these oppressed groups can and should play a positive role in struggle. Rather, it is to affirm the importance of self-emancipation and the central role oppressed groups should have in struggling against their oppression.

My understanding of what identity politics is comes from how the term was used within the Combahee River Collective Statement, which was written in 1974 and published in 1977. The Combahee River Collective were an influential black feminist group in Boston, which also contained numerous black lesbians. In the statement the collective outlines their particular version of black feminism, which sought to fight white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and homophobia simultaneously. This was grounded in the idea that “the major systems of oppression are interlocking”, such that, “[t]he synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.” As a result, they sought to “combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face”, rather than only fighting on a single front, such as racism. Since the 1970s these ideas have been developed into what is now called intersectionality. (Combahee River Collective, 1977)

Of particular importance to the collective was the manner in which personal experiences of structures of oppression contribute to the development of political consciousness. For them,

There is also undeniably a personal genesis for Black Feminism, that is, the political realization that comes from the seemingly personal experiences of individual Black women’s lives. Black feminists and many more Black women who do not define themselves as feminists have all experienced sexual oppression as a constant factor in our day-to-day existence. As children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated differently. For example, we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being “ladylike” and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. As we grew older we became aware of the threat of physical and sexual abuse by men. (Combahee River Collective, 1977)

Initially these experiences made them have “feelings of craziness”. This was changed through consciousness raising groups in which they learnt to understand and analyse their experiences within a feminist framework. They write,

In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression. (Quoted in Heyes 2016).

The collective also placed importance of their identities as black women. They write, “focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity”. The core of their politics was thus the view that, “[b]lack women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy.”

Later in an interview, co-author Barbara Smith said on the term ‘identity politics’,

I think we came up with the term. . . I never really saw it anywhere else and I would suggest that people if they really want to find the origin of the term that they try to find it any place earlier than in the Combahee River Collective statement. I don’t remember seeing it anywhere else. (Quoted in Breines 2007, 129)

I cannot confirm Smith’s remark that they were the first to use the term “identity politics”. What I can say, however, is that when I use the term “identity politics” I am doing so in the manner that they did.


Breines, Winifred. 2007. The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hanisch, Carol. 1969. The Personal is Political. 

Heyes, Cressida. 2016. “Identity Politics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The Combahee River Collective. 1977. The Combahee River Collective Statement.

The Left Before Identity Politics: Daniel Guerin & Homophobia

There are many anarchists and marxists who dismiss identity politics and long for the return of a historic left they’ve imagined where class came first and everything was so much better. These same people just so happen to be ignorant about the huge amounts of sexism, racism, and queerphobia that existed within the historic left.

To take just one example of left wing prejudice, in France from the 1930s to 1960s the famous libertarian socialist Daniel Guerin was forced to hide his homosexuality from homophobic socialists. As he himself put it,

There were within me two men and two lives. In one life, I was exclusively an activist and in the other I was, depending on the period, more or less tormented by my homosexuality, but there was never any link between my two selves. I certainly refrained from broaching the subject in front of any labour activists. . . .  If other comrades were living with similar problems, it was only much later that I found out. There really was no interference between my two lives. (Quoted in Berry 2004, 17)

During this period several French socialist groups explicitly opposed homosexuality and were even violent towards homosexuals (the Maoists being the most violent). As David Berry puts it,

[Guerin] is emphatic about the abject misery caused for him personally and for all those in a similar position by the constant fear of being discovered and unmasked by a comrade whom one respected and admired, of losing their respect and even of becoming scorned and loathed. One was forced, at all costs, to remain silent, to dissemble, to lie if need be, in order to preserve a revolutionary respectability whose price could be measured only in terms of the abjection one risked falling into if one dropped the mask. (ibid, 18)

Identity politics is not ruining the left. The left has already been ruined for marginalized people by all those radicals who oppress those around them while claiming to struggle for freedom and equality for all. Identity politics is thus an essential corrective to historic and on-going flaws within the left. Flaws whose cost was and is the intense and long term suffering of already marginalized people within the very spaces that should have been fighting for their emancipation.


Berry, David. 2004. Workers of The World Embrace’ Daniel Guerin, the labour movement, and homosexuality.