Perhaps the strangest thing about identity politics is that it’s a political orphan—nobody wants to claim it as her own. Identity politics has become a philosophical punching bag, and yet it remains the underlying politics of the Left over the last thirty-five years or so, despite protestations of queer theorists and most contemporary advocates of intersectionality and privilege politics.
At its core, this is a talk about whether solidarity across gender, race, ethnic, and other lines is both possible and desirable. If those who advocate the politics of identity are right, then the prospects for unity are at best slim, and unity is neither likely nor desirable. If Marxists are right, then unity is not only possible but is actually in the best interests of the working class of every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth. So I would argue that there’s quite a bit at stake in this dispute between those who advocate identity or ID politics, or identititarians if you will, and Marxists.
Strangely enough, the origins of identity politics are actually far more radical than its later manifestations. It was the Black lesbian feminists of the Combahee River Collective in 1977 who first named it. They wrote:
This 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, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. . . .
We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. . . . Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.1
This is pretty good stuff, if you ask me, not exactly a classical Marxist viewpoint though they link ending oppression to ending capitalism. But like so much else from the 1970s, ID politics has not aged well. Think leisure suits.
In essence, identity politics has morphed into a worldview that holds that only those who actually experience a particular form of oppression are capable of and have a stake in fighting against it. Everyone else is considered to be part of the problem and cannot become part of the solution by joining the fight against oppression. The underlying assumption is that all men benefit from women’s oppression, all straight people benefit from the oppression of queer people, all whites benefit from racism, cisgender people benefit from trans oppression, and so on and so forth.
ID politics holds that oppressed groups are fractured and autonomous, even when in coalition, and though its advocates disagree with one another about the potential to end oppression, the ramifications of this perspective I would argue mitigate against the potential for ending oppression and lend themselves to settling for resistance without victory, atomized struggle without end, except if that end is merely self-empowerment.
What animates identity politics today are two central ideas: intersectionality and privilege politics. Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, is the theory that different oppressions, like racism and sexism, interact with each other to shape the lives of individuals and can’t simply be analyzed in isolation from one another. True enough, but we’ll get to its limitations in a moment.
The privilege discourse arose out of Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay “The Invisible Knapsack,” which argued that certain people are free of systemic oppressions and they accumulate invisible benefits from that status, ones that shape those people’s worldviews. McIntosh’s essay breathed life into the concept of “checking your privilege,” or stepping back and examining how your position in society might contribute to your deeply held assumptions. I agree that it is necessary for white people, for men, for straight people—in fact, for everyone—to take stock of the enormity of inequality in our society, the violence, the daily humiliations, and depredations of the specially oppressed. And to see how inequality is crushing us all—and to decide what you are going to do about it.
In my opinion, however, privilege checking is a deeply problematic practice that tends to lead to a circular firing squad of usually well-intentioned people. While I respect the fact that privilege discourse may be an attempt to correct the arrogance of those from dominant identity groups—male, white, cisgender—it presumes that cisgender white male workers aren’t oppressed as workers, and too easily devolves into silencing those who disagree. Or just as bad, it leaves sincere activists prostrate with guilt, which is just paralyzing and frankly useless. In fact, I think it has the unintended consequence of tokenizing specially oppressed people whose opinions are accepted regardless of content. As one feminist of color, Braden Goyette, puts it in an essay for Huffington Post, privilege-checking “lends itself to a kind of anxious narcissism” that “obscures the fact that everyone deserves to live in the absence of structural oppressions.”
In contrast to the ID politics that have knocked around the Left since the 1980s, Marxism is a method of understanding the world that advocates an end to all oppression and exploitation through the collective struggles of the international working class. Socialists argue that the global working class, which is Black and white and Asian and female and trans, etc., not only has an objective interest in challenging racial, sexual, gender, and other divisions, but that without directly confronting these oppressions the working class cannot end its own exploitation. Marxists see the struggles against oppression and exploitation as inextricably linked. Marxism identifies the roots of oppression in class society—not just capitalism, per se, but class society that even preceded capitalism—and advocates a universal solution, a united global working class revolution. Simple!
I think it’s important to acknowledge some basic things that Marxists and identitarians can agree on. We agree that everyone goes through life with a personal identity. We live in a society where transgender women of color, in particular, are murdered or take their own lives nearly every week. We live in a society where a young white man with a bowl haircut can walk into a church and massacre nine Black people in cold blood. We live in a society where millions of women are stuck living in violent and misogynistic relationships out of a combination of terror and economic necessity. Marxists and identitarians agree that awareness of oneself as a member of an oppressed identity group, and claiming that identity as one’s own, is central to our ability to challenge our oppression. The personal experience of racism, transphobia, or sexism—or all three simultaneously for our Black trans sisters—shapes our awareness of oppression and often fuels mass social movements for change.
In 1966, when Stokely Carmichael called for the overthrow of white supremacy with Black Power; in 1971, when the women’s movement took up Helen Reddy’s anthem, “I am woman”; and in the early nineties when LGBT people dying of AIDS by the thousands defiantly asserted, “We’re queer, we’re here, get used to it!”—they were all expressing this simple truth of their identity. The defiant assertion of our identities can be central to our ability to mount opposition to oppression.
Marxists and identitarians also agree that people who actually experience a particular form of oppression must and will be at the forefront of the struggles against that oppression. Socialists are for self-determination of the oppressed and so by extension women must be at the forefront of battles against sexism, Black and Brown and Asian people must lead the way in the struggles to end racism, and so on.
But advocates of ID politics and Marxists do not agree that the personal experience of identity leads to an understanding of the roots of our oppression nor dictate effective political strategies for fighting our oppression. We often experience oppression in the most personal, even intimate, of ways. A coworker tells racist jokes, a boyfriend doesn’t respect “no” and commits sexual assault, a neighbor is a homophobic bigot—these are the day-to-day ways our oppression is meted out and experienced, through interpersonal relationships. As crucial as these experiences can be to shaping our worldview, they can often mask the deeper roots of the behavior and obscure the forces at work behind individuals’ actions.
That’s why Marxists argue we need theory to shape a political strategy for fighting oppression, not just experience alone. Marx put it this way: “All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance of things and the essence of things directly coincided.” Nobody—except for FOX News reporters— would argue that we can understand climate change by looking at the weather report in Toledo. We understand that larger forces are at play. Yet when it comes to explaining the roots of oppression and how to fight it, the politics that have dominated the American Left for decades—identity politics—rest almost exclusively on the empirical experience of oppressed individuals. The emphasis on experience may be intended as a corrective to the dominant subjective understandings that prevail in our society, which are those of the powerful. But the ID politics notion of theory as simply a reflection of the consciousness and experience of the person doing the theorizing is deeply troubled.
Naturally, any worldview capable of taking on oppression must take into account individuals’ experience of oppression, but individual experiences are by nature only partial. And even people who share a certain identity, say Black women, don’t necessarily have the same or even similar experiences. Michelle Obama certainly experiences sexism and racism, but her wealth and power and gender presentation shield her from the same kind of experiences as a Black home health care worker or a Black homeless woman or a Black trans woman like CeCe McDonald.
Class is so thoroughly racialized in our society that white poverty and the oppressive conditions of many white working people’s lives virtually disappear. You’d have no idea from the corporate media that most poor people in the United States are white, but of course that’s intentional. As Amy Muldoon puts it in a piece that appeared in Socialist Worker, “in order for there to be a ruling class, there has to be an oppressed class. Class is about power: the power to shape our world and our lives. The working class is systematically excluded from decision-making as a class for the simple reason that capitalism rests on the rule of a tiny minority.”2
Class oppression can seem invisible. It’s the oppression that dare not speak its name. It’s unlike the special oppressions suffered on the basis of race, for example, which serves the purpose among the working class of “dividing both to conquer each,” as Frederick Douglass explained it.
All working class people face some kinds oppression, even an able-bodied, cisgendered, employed, educated white working-class man is oppressed. Marxists do NOT equate the lived experience of a white working class man with that of a Black woman, of course, but nonetheless it is true that class oppression has demonstrable effects in terms of life expectancy, health, education, housing, contact with the criminal justice system and so on. Class is not subjective—however one perceives oneself—someone either owns the means of production or sells their labor power to someone else who does.
Just as someone’s race and gender are lived through the experience of their social class, so too is class lived through a person’s gender and race. It’s dialectical.
Personal identity becomes political when it moves beyond the realm of life experience and becomes a strategy for fighting against oppression. Every political perspective is based upon some theory—in this case, an analysis of the root causes of oppression. So the analysis of the roots of oppression informs the politics of social movements against oppression.
How did ID politics go from linking the oppression of Black women with the need for some kind of socialism to rejecting the working class as an agent of change?
In brief, a ruling class offensive to privatize, monetize, and crapify everything in a wholesale assault on the working class and poor combined with a culture war against the racial and gender gains of the social movements of the sixties and seventies and succeeded beyond anyone’s imaginings. What we’ve come to call neoliberalism won out, with its attendant ideological backlash against women, LGBT people, and people of color.
In response, radicals who’d cut their teeth in the struggles of the sixties and seventies left the streets and developed an academic trend we now know as postmodernism. Radical social theorists, some of whom had partaken in the earlier struggles, saw the failures of Stalinism and Maoism from Russia to China, as indicators that Marxism itself and class analysis more generally was the “god that failed.”
Postmodernists’ rejection of class struggle as a means for liberating the oppressed lies not just in their disillusionment with the 1960s and societies that claimed to be socialist, but also in their assessment of the shifts taking place in world capitalism. Advances in the globalization of mass production and rise of the information age led some to argue that the United States and Western Europe had become “postindustrial” societies and therefore the working class was irrelevant. They denied the persistence of an industrial economy, but also denied that service workers like those in fast food and professionals like nurses and teachers were also capable of playing a liberatory role as workers in a new economy with shades of the old. A decades-long employers’ offensive that left tens of millions without health care and in precarious jobs or unemployed exposes the fact that all workers, even in the wealthiest nation, remain an exploited and oppressed class.
By theorizing out of importance the human force Marxists place at the center of struggles—workers—postmodernists sought out alternative agents for changing the world, and some questioned whether fundamental change is even possible or desirable.
Leading postmodernists, Ernesto Laclau and Chantalle Mouffe, proposed that “new social movements” could replace the “disappearing” working class. Each oppressed group, according to this notion, could form its own separate or “autonomous” movement, which came to be known in the 1980s as identity politics. Identity politics activists and scholars raise autonomy, that is separation from others as opposed to unity, to the level of principle. “The politics of identity must also be a politics of difference,” argues queer historian Jeffrey Escoffier.
Examples of this are everywhere in movement meetings where people are asked to separate themselves out into working groups of oppressed and allies, leaving many people scratching their heads about which identity silo to place themselves in. In fact the concept that a man who doesn’t directly face sexism, for example, is only an “ally” seems to indicate that men whose girlfriends are denied an abortion or whose wives are paid less than them means men do not have a stake in challenging these oppressive conditions that actually affect them quite directly. Instead, Marxists argue for solidarity, not allyship.
Facebook posts and blogs are ideal places to glean people’s unfiltered view of their reasoning—for better or worse. So you have the debate online by some very committed activists in the #BlackLivesMatter movement who argue against another targeted community, Muslims, taking up the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter. In contrast to the the quite justifiable anger about whitewashing the slogan of #BlackLivesMatter into #AllLivesMatter—which I agree takes the focus away from those who are racially oppressed—there seemed to be a notion that if we extend this solidarity to Muslims who are under attack in this country, tortured, disappeared, and deported, whose families back home are being bombed and droned to death, then the focus on Black lives will be diminished. An act of solidarity and an effort to expand on opposition to racial and ethnic violence instead was spurned as cooptation. I disagree.
There’s also the South Asian trans activist spoken-word group DarkMatter which posted in response to the celebrations of the Supreme Court verdict on gay marriage:
The history of the gay movement is a history of (re)producing the gender binary and gender conformity. It is a history of institutionalized transphobia. The gay movement is foundationally trans violence. It would not exist without trans violence. There is no gay celebration without trans violence. Love won because gender didn’t.
Frankly, this is just historically inaccurate and a little bizarre to me. Setting aside for a moment the fact that a rather substantial number of gays and lesbians are anything but gender conforming, if they’re referring here to the butch/femme dynamic when they write about reproducing the gender binary that historically dominated gay and lesbians self-expression, then they’re conflating survival mechanisms in a homophobic society that are too complex to get into here with institutions that have the power and interest in crushing trans’ and gays’ lives. (For greater detail, please read my book, Sexuality and Socialism.)
It’s one thing to challenge transphobia, including among gays, but quite another to situate the source of trans violence within the gay movement and its struggle for civil rights. It’s a kind of radical posturing that actually takes privilege checking up a notch by shaming queers for winning civil rights. Privilege checking, in my opinion, gives way too easily into an infuriating method of shooting down any argument simply on the basis of who’s making it. So a marginalized person’s very existence, rather than her ideas, is marshaled to refute any point. I’ve always seen it as sort of pandering or tokenism when extended to myself.
There’s a caricature of the debate between Marxists and identitarians. Advocates of ID politics say “gender”; Marxists respond, “class.” ID politicos say “gender and race”; Marxists respond, “class, class.” Identitarians say “gender, race, sexuality, disability”; Marxists say, “class, class, class, class.” This is not a very fruitful or compelling debate, as you can see.
And though there truly are vulgar Marxists out there (the World Socialist Web Site is a repository for this stuff) who make arguments that amount to “class reductionism,” that is, they assert that class divisions determine all oppression in some mechanical or linear fashion, it’s not really an accurate portrayal of the Marxist understanding of the roots of oppression.
Marxists start from the way things are structured in society, that is, we have a historical materialist view. We start from the totality of the way society is organized to make sense of anything because social constructions like race and sex can’t be understood on their own terms without reference to the institutions that gave rise to them. For Marxists, it’s not about asserting the primacy of the economic so much as revealing the laws of motion, if you will, between material needs of class society—exploitation to make profits—and the ideologies that are created and become reified—or take hold and become real—such as racism, sexism, and homophobia.
In Marx’s terms, we are “an ensemble of social relations.” One is never just white or just male or just cisgender or just working class—one can be a white cisgender male who is working class, however. We live our lives at the intersection of a number of unequal social relations based on a hierarchy determined by the capitalist mode of production.
In contrast to identity politics’ theoretically eclectic understanding of race, gender, and class which are perceived as interlocking but equivalent, Marxists argue the fundamental importance of class in having created, or socially constructed if you will, race, gender, and sex and divided us along those lines. Class relations are of paramount importance because our economic survival is determined by them. Here is the way one socialist feminist, Martha Gimenez, puts it: “To argue, then, that class is fundamental is not to ‘reduce’ gender or racial oppression to class, but to acknowledge that the underlying basic and nameless power at the root of what happens in social interactions grounded in ‘intersectionality’ is class power.”
Another Marxist scholar, Gregory Meyerson, puts it this way: “Oppression is multiple and intersecting but its causes are not.”
The most magnificent contemporary materialist explanation of the origins of race and racism comes from Barbara and Jean Fields in their absolute must-read book, Racecraft, in which they write this memorable line: “Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the U.S. as primarily a system of race relations—as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of sugar, rice and tobacco.”
Race, class, and gender in the world of identity politics become deracinated and exist outside class relations and institutions of power. In identity politics, the power of institutions that run our lives is withered into this concept of “classism” or a sort of snobbery as opposed to actual power that a few have and most don’t, regardless of their personal identities.
Marxists do see the primacy of the working class as the agent of change, that is, we see workers as the force capable of and having an objective interest in overthrowing the capitalist system. Though of course having an objective interest is not the same thing as possessing the social consciousness to do so at all times—that’s a separate question. The fact that the world’s working class is made up of women, gays, and people of color—in fact we are the majority of the world’s population—means that the struggles against racism and sexism and transphobia must be placed at the center, must be primary, if we are to ever unite as a class or even land a blow against the system.
Another key problem with ID politics is its essentialism. Let me explain. Claiming an identity can be a survival strategy, a way of taking ownership and control over the way society has branded us. We rally around identity in order to diminish an injury, to take comfort in all the positive things that have come out of a shared experience of otherness.
I think this is one of the reasons most leftists’ responses to Rachel Dolezal were so harsh—she is presumed not to have shared those experiences. Similarly, many LGBT people who grew up being totally marginalized, now—especially if they live in cosmopolitan areas—experience the normalization of gay life, or assimilation, as a kind of loss. Being part of an oppressed minority in a time of marginalization can be a powerful bond and source of pride in our collective resistance or even just our collective rituals and subcultures. “The tragedy of identity politics is that in rallying around our identities, we naturalize them as much as we build up the will to abolish the conditions that first brought about the need to rally at all,” as Braden Goyette aptly summarized the dilemma.
The focus on identity often leads to essentialism. Essentialism is basically the view that categories of people, such as women and men, or straights and queers, or members of ethnic groups, have intrinsically different and characteristic natures, dispositions, and cultures.
So with the Rachel Dolezal affair, it seems to me that both her anti-racist attackers and she herself in deciding to pass as Black share a common essentialist view of race. Now I’m not interested in defending the right of a white person to pass as Black—I don’t—and I think the outrage from the Left, and most Black people regardless of their politics, is a reflection of the rage people feel at the violence meted out toward Blacks as well as the gulf between Black and white opinions in mainstream society about racism—though it’s worth noting that the gulf in opinion is narrowing as the #BlackLivesMatter movement grows and spreads. But I think we have to challenge the notion that Black and white experiences are universal.
There’s a fascinating documentary on Netflix called “Little White Lie.” It’s about a woman in her twenties who is kind of the counter to Dolezal, she passed as white only without knowing she was passing. She was raised a white Jewish girl in the suburbs; everybody treated her as white, and she always thought of herself as white, though she wondered why her skin was so much darker and her hair was that super curly, hyper Jewfro, banana curls hair. But when she decided not to check the race box for her Georgetown application and just sent a picture, they accepted her as a Black student—as did all the Black students there—and she discovered in her twenties that her mom had had an affair with a Black man. Now, she had none of the Black experiences growing up, shared none of the experiences we take as Black cultural life, yet because race has been so equated to the visual, with phenotype, she now lives as a Black woman and is readily accepted as one.
Race, like gender, may be a social construction, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t very real, material impacts. Barbara and Jean Fields describe race as an invented political idea with no biological basis, but because of our collective buy-in to this idea, what they call racecraft, it has very real power and effects—ones that have profoundly shaped the contours of our society.
Whiteness is not an essential state, though it could be conceived as a social status and a state of mind fostered by that status. The status of whiteness could mean feeling like your experiences are the norm, and thus universal, because that’s the message society reflects back at you. It may even mean you never have to think about race because society doesn’t racialize you unless someone else brings it up.
Marxists reject the ID politics notion that white people are an undifferentiated mass. Likewise, we reject the notion that all men or straights or gays are reducible to their socially constructed caricatures. The same goes for queer identity politics in which terms like “heteronormativity” are thrown around as if all straight people share a common culture, lifestyle, and worldview. It seems to me when scholars like Lisa Duggan talk about heteronormativity what they really mean is bourgeois norms. It’s both historically and empirically inaccurate to talk about straight people across class and time as some sort of bland, vanilla, reflection of TV sitcom life.
When Marxists argue that sexism, racism, and homophobia are ruling-class tools to divide us, that doesn’t mean that we disregard the very real material advantages that men, whites, and straights have by comparison. It seems to me that in order for ideological tools to work, they must have some material basis. In order for racism and sexism to be effective, they have to be used not just to craft ideas of white workers and men but they actually have to create different conditions, or else why would anyone buy into these ideas? By its nature, capitalism puts workers in competition with each other for jobs, housing, education, and government assistance. This competition provides the material underpinning for the acceptance of racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas.
To paraphrase my colleagues on the ISR editorial board, Tithi Bhattacharya and Lance Selfa, Ideology isn’t reducible to propaganda. Elaborate policies that socially reproduce racism and sexism at state and civil society levels have to exist for male white workers to believe the mythology that is race and gender. Material inequalities—red lining, employment discrimination, the “new Jim Crow,” etc. are precisely how this ruling class tool works. It actively crushes, or does not allow to develop, multiracial communities of cohabitation, practices, and social relations of cooperation and solidarity.
Yet these relative inequities between white and Black workers are used to stoke divisions among the victims of capitalism, thus weakening their ability to unite against a common oppressor. Socialist historian Manning Marable advances this argument in his classic, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America:
The critical irony here is that neither the material interests of white workers nor those of labor unions as a whole are advanced by white racism…. The strength of racial segregation both within the civil society as a whole as well as within broad elements of the trade union movement in the region is commonly recognized by historians as the major reason for Southern labor’s failure to organize.3
Privilege is used to describe the unfair distribution of freedoms and comforts in our present society. Interestingly, when the inventor of privilege politics, Peggy McIntosh, stated in a New Yorker interview that she asks herself, “On a daily basis, what do I have that I did not earn?” Goyette responds, “no one should have to earn what the privileged already have. In the world I want to live in, everyone would be entitled to what we call ‘privilege.’”4
To Marxists, the key means of breaking these tools of oppression is struggle. Asserting and demonstrating struggle’s importance and the crucial need for conscious anti-racists, anti-sexists, and anti-homophobes, etc. to take part in these fights and challenge inequalities is actually what socialists spend most of our lives doing. The conundrum we often find ourselves in is that socialists spend most of our lives challenging oppression, yet are attacked for being class reductionists for having a material analysis of oppression’s roots. In a sense, our own stripped-down identities as “Marxists” are essentialized by identitarians to erase our actual lived experiences as women, trans, and Black Marxists.
We Marxists ask what are the implications of identitarians’ arguments that no matter what you do, no matter what you say, and no matter what you write that you live your life by, you are reducible to your socially constructed identity? So a man who wakes up Saturdays at 5 AM to defend abortion clinics alongside his feminist comrades is a sexist? The thousands of white people participating in the #BlackLivesMatter protests and writing and speaking out against racism are racists? This perspective reduces the power of institutions to the personal and erases the strength of collective struggle and the capacity for people’s ideas to shift from the equation.
In a very real sense, ID politics reflects the neoliberal era in which it was born. That is, the fierce individualism that runs through identity politics in some ways seems to reflect the individualism of our neoliberal era. For what is the essence of neoliberalism, its ethos, if not “you’re on your own, suck it!” In a distorted sense, individualism undergirds identity politics—we are each, in our own identity silos, on our own.
And yet, that is not an accurate reflection of our world. In my fifty years of life I have witnessed as a result of mass and sometimes small battles enormous transformations in consciousness, civil rights, and social norms regarding LGBT people. The same with racism. When I was born, less than 5 percent of Americans accepted biracial relationships between Blacks and whites, and marriage between the races was still illegal in some states. Today, nearly 90 percent of Americans accept, even celebrate biracial relationships, and 15 percent of us are in them.
Marxists advocate an uncompromising opposition to all oppression as a fundamental principle without which class unity is impossible. So when a white person wears an “I am Trayvon” T-shirt, she is not appropriating Black identity, she is expressing solidarity, and in a manner that is thousands of years old. After all, what was the defiant cry, “I am Spartacus!” if not the slaves’ defense of their leader and the ultimate act of solidarity till death.
- The Combahee River Collective statement, April 1977, http://circuitous.org/scraps/combahee.html.
- Amy Muldoon, “The Oppressed Majority,” Socialist Worker, February 26, 2015, http://socialistworker.org/2015/02/26/the-oppressed-majority.
- Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (Boston: South End Press, 1983), 42.
- Braden Goyette, “What Jonathan Chait doesn’t understand about identity politics,” Huffington Post, April 12, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/10....