Building the largest possible movement to not only tackle the immense, and intensifying, problems facing humanity and the environment but to overcome these problems is our urgent task. Given the position the Left finds itself in today, serious discussions inevitably include a variety of perspectives, and that is healthy.
But sometimes these discussions can veer too far into an “either/or” dynamic. These debates center on who should be the subject(s) of a mass movement that can begin to reverse the European and North American slide toward the right, a direction that, at least for now, appears to be sweeping across Latin America as well. In the United States, following the shock election of Donald Trump, an “either/or” debate has taken shape in the form of “identity politics” versus “class politics.” But do we really have to pick a side here?
An example of an activist arguing that there has been too much focus in the U.S. on “identity politics,” Bruce Lerro, writing for the Planning Beyond Capitalism web site, argues that both the Democratic Party and the Left ignored working class concerns, catastrophically leaving an opening for a right-wing demagogue like President-elect Trump to fill a vacuum. Critical of what he calls a capitulation to “long-standing liberal ideology [that] all ethnicities and genders will be able to compete for a piece of the capitalist pie,” Professor Lerro writes:
“Calling people into the streets on the basis of attacks on ethnic minorities or anti-Islamic remarks alone ignores the results of the election. It reveals the left’s inadequacy in having next to no influence over all the working class people who voted for Trump as well as the 47% of the people who didn’t bother to vote at all. It continues the same 45 year history of identity politics which has failed to make things better for its constituents, except for all upper middle class minorities and women in law and university professors who benefit most from identity politics and who moralistically preside over politically correct vocabulary.”
It is true that liberal ideology tends to fight for the ability of minorities and women to be able to obtain elite jobs as ends to themselves rather than orient toward a larger struggle against systemic inequality and oppression. Leaving capitalism untouched leaves behind all but a handful of people who ascend to elite jobs. Barack Obama’s eight years as U.S. president didn’t end racism, did it? Nor would have a successful Hillary Clinton campaign have brought an end to sexism. A movement serious about change fights structural discrimination; it doesn’t fight for a few individuals to have a career.
But to say this is not to deny that racism, sexism and other social ills have to be fought head-on. So even a focus on class issues does not mean ignoring these issues, Professor Lerro writes:
“In criticizing identity politics I am not proposing that race and gender issues should not be discussed or that they don’t matter. My criticism of identity politics is that it has historically excluded social class. From an anti-capitalist and socialist perspective, race and gender are most importantly discussed at the location where capitalists produce surplus labor — on the job. So where there is white privilege over wages or the quality of jobs offered, this issue should be discussed openly by workers in and out of a union setting. At the same time, when we are organizing against capitalism and developing a socialist political practice, race and gender issues as they affect socialist organizing, need to be confronted. But the further away discussions of race and gender get from social class, the workplace and efforts to organize against capitalism and for socialism, the more they becomes discussions for liberals — not socialists.”
Racism and sexism in our own movements
Racism and sexism, however, are found outside the workplace, and have not been eradicated from social struggles. Certainly there can not be any going back to the open sexism of 1960s movements. There was a prominent demonstration of that era in which no women were invited to speak, and a group of women in response confronted men organizing the event about this, insisting that their demands be included. In response, one of the men told them that there was already a women’s resolution, which was simply a general plea for peace. Demanding that issues specific to women’s oppression be included, the male activist not only refused further discussion, but actually patted Shulamith Firestone, soon to be the author of The Dialectic of Sex, on the head!
Such degrading behavior would not be tolerated in a Left movement today, but it can hardly be argued that sexism (or racism) has been overcome once and for all in Left movements, never mind in larger society. The days when a Left movement can tell a member of an oppressed group to “wait your turn, it’ll all be better after we have the revolution,” really should be behind us.
Even after a revolution, these issues have to be worked on. Women, for example, made serious advances in the 20th century’s socialist revolutions but never sufficient advances, and there was often backsliding. The Sandinistas banned the display of women’s bodies in commercial advertising after coming to power in Nicaragua, but near the end of their first 11 years in power sponsored a beauty contest, nor did they legalize abortion. No woman sat on the Sandinistas’ highest body, the nine-member National Directorate, during those 11 years despite their fighting in large numbers, and even commanding, during the hard struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. No woman ever sat on the Politburo during the Soviet Union’s 74-year history.
Working people are oppressed, but not all to the same degree
The world’s advanced capitalist countries are far from a revolution, so all the more is it necessary to seriously make structural discrimination a component part of Left struggles, without forgetting the class dimension any such struggle must contain. In a typically thoughtful article in CounterPunch, Henry Giroux, while not losing sight of class issues, and the overall repression of working people under neoliberal regimes, refused to downplay the extra repression that rains down on minority communities. He wrote:
“Large segments of the American public, especially minorities of class and color, have been written out of politics over what they view as a failed state and the inability of the basic machinery of government to serve their interests. As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing.
As these institutions vanish—from public schools to health care centers– there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values, and the common good. With the election of Donald Trump, the savagery of neoliberalism has been intensified with the emergence at the highest levels of power of a toxic mix of anti-intellectualism, religious fundamentalism, nativism, and a renewed notion of American exceptionalism.”
Professor Giroux argues against a focus on what he calls “single-issue movements” but not in the sense of dismissing liberation movements based on specific oppressions, but rather argues for a joining together of struggles through drawing the connections among various social movements. He writes:
“Central to viable notion of ideological and structural transformation is a refusal of the mainstream politics of disconnect. In its place is a plea for broader social movements and a more comprehensive understanding of politics in order to connect the dots between, for instance, police brutality and mass incarceration, on the one hand, and the diverse crises producing massive poverty, the destruction of the welfare state, and the assaults on the environment, workers, young people and women. …
Crucial to rethinking the space and meaning of the political imaginary is the need to reach across specific identities and to move beyond around single-issue movements and their specific agendas. This is not a matter of dismissing such movements, but creating new alliances that allow them to become stronger in the fight to not only succeed in advancing their specific concerns but also enlarging the possibility of developing a radical democracy that benefits not just specific but general interests.”
Economic issues aren’t separate from other issues
All working people are exploited under capitalism. It would be the height of folly to sideline this fundamental commonality. But the levels of exploitation, and the intensity of direct oppression, varies widely and it would be folly to ignore this as well. Those subject to higher (often far higher) levels of discrimination have every right to focus on their own emancipation, and those in more privileged positions have an obligation to support those emancipations. Further, the perpetuation of class oppression central to capitalism depends on deep divisions within the working class, not only in terms of setting different groups at each other’s throats but in providing relatively better pay and conditions to some so that the more privileged set themselves apart from the less privileged, reinforcing hierarchies that maintain divisions among working peoples.
Therefore it is self-defeating to attempt to downplay racial, sexual and other divisions in an effort to “concentrate” on economic issues, as if these are somehow separate from other issues. In a very thoughtful essay dealing with the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in dampening activism and propping up the system they purport to critique, Sophia Burns goes on to argue that no fight against capitalist exploitation can succeed without women and People of Color playing central roles. If they are playing central roles, then the fight for their specific emancipations is central to the struggle.
Her discussion merits being quoted at length. Writing in The North Star, she argues:
“There’s an implicit notion that members of more privileged groups (men, whites, straights, etc) do not meaningfully stand to benefit from doing away with racism, sexism, etc. That underlies the moralistic connotations of ‘allyship’ — you support struggles in which you yourself have no personal stake, because that’s what an ethical person would do. Now, if you’re middle-class, that assumption is basically true. You aren’t part of the ruling class, but you have a degree of security, comfort, and control over your life. If you’re middle-class and white male, then pro-male or pro-white inequalities are pretty unambiguously good for you. So, the only reason you’d oppose them would have to be ethics, not self-interest.
But the working class has neither power nor security under capitalism. The fact that different parts of the working class are treated comparatively better or worse along racial, gender, etc lines does not change the fact that the whole class is exploited, oppressed, and ultimately powerless. However, white workers, male workers, and straight workers could not possibly defeat the ruling class alone. After all, it’s the middle class that is disproportionately white, male, etc — the working class has more people of color, women, and social minorities in general than other classes do. White men are only around 1/3 of the total US population, and an even smaller portion of the working class. So, because racism, sexism, etc exist within the class system and (combined together) directly oppress the large bulk of the working class, no working-class politics that rejects or ignores them has the ability to succeed. They’re components of the operation of the class system in practice, serving both to allow extra-high exploitation of female and non-white workers and to undercut the political potential of the class as a whole, which deepens all workers’ exploitation.
Racism and sexism are components of capitalism, and all ‘capitalism’ means is the exploitation by business owners of everyone else. So, when a white male worker understands capitalism as a class system that exploits the class of which he is part, it’s only through externally-imposed propaganda that he’s convinced that he has no stake in getting rid of racism and sexism. Economics is not a separate issue floating alongside others. Nothing that exists in capitalism is outside of capitalism.”
From the standpoint of the relationship to the means of production, white-collar middle class employees, as commonly defined, are of the same class as a blue-collar assembly-line laborer. Both are exploited economically in the same way, being paid a small fraction of the value of they produce. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that such middle-class workers (even if more properly understood as a strata within a working class that includes the vast majority of humanity) are privileged compared to other workers, and that their composition will be more heavily weighted toward dominant racial, ethnic or other groups in a given capitalist society, with the nastier and lower-paid jobs disproportionally held by disadvantaged groups.
Struggles against chauvinism are not an adjunct
The pervasive propaganda that denies that capitalism is exploitative or even refuses to acknowledge the different opportunities among different groups “is not a class-free worldview, but rather a worldview that’s natural for the middle class and that gets promoted because it serves the ruling class,” Ms. Burns writes. Thus, she argues, a false opposition is created between economics and other issues.
“Of course, because sexist and racist ideas receive the massive institutional sponsorship they do, working-class whites do have deep-seated racist notions and working-class men are often profoundly chauvinistic. The struggle against such beliefs and practices, even (in fact, especially) when they manifest within the working class, is not an adjunct to class struggle. It’s a central and necessary part of it. But when activist nonprofits and their supporters use an exaggerated account of working-class bigotry to dismiss working-class politics and a class struggle worldview entirely, they aren’t benevolently defending the marginalized. They are playing a useful role for the system that brings bigotry and privilege into being.
Neighborhood and workplace organizing, inside the working class and outside of the activist subculture, must include breaking down racism and sexism, within the class and everywhere else. But the self-interest of each part of a class is in the ultimate self-interest of the entire class. Even white male workers have a material stake in abolishing white and male privilege, despite the fact that it’s a long-term interest that isn’t acknowledged by mainstream ideas. Middle-class white men, of course, do not have that same stake. If a socialist movement is healthy, it’s not a middle-class affair.”
Let’s take this discussion a step further. Should we even use the term “identity politics”? Susan Cox, speaking on the Joy of Resistance: Multicultural Feminist Radio program on December 4, argued that being female is not an identity but rather is a material reality, and one of the most foundational realities that define the world’s social organization. She pointed out that women’s unpaid domestic labor props up the entire capitalist economic system. Defining feminism as a movement with a goal of global resistance wrenches it from the idea that it is an individualistic, lifestyle choice.
Further discussing this issue in an article in Feminist Current, Ms. Cox wrote:
“One would think being half of the damn population would make us more than some minor, divisive concern.
Women’s issues have been labelled “identity politics” for decades in order to belittle the feminist cause as politically unsubstantial/unimportant. In fact, the term first became prominent in American academia during its anti-Marxist ’80s in order to describe women as a fragmented group of individuals, rather than a class of persons with common class interests.”
It is reasonable to dispute the use of the term “class” in this context, but it should be indisputable that women face a particular oppression, one that although predating capitalism has long been an essential prop for maintaining capitalism. Racism is also necessary to maintain capitalism, and thus fighting it can never be an adjunct to a broad struggle for a better world.
Dismissing all those who voted for Donald Trump as bigots, “deplorables” or ignorant is not only simplistic and mistaken, it is bad practice. Some who voted for him can be described in such terms, but plenty voted for him, however mistakenly, out of a belief that he would bring back their jobs and because he represented, in their minds, “change.” Some Trump voters previously voted for Barack Obama — such folks can hardly be described as racists. Similarly, in France, many now supporting the National Front formerly supported the Socialist Party or the Communist Party. The United Kingdom Independence Party, however ridiculous we might find its name, is peeling off supporters from Labour.
Again, those trends do not mean there is no racism in such movements; that plenty of such exists is obvious. But economic insecurity is driving the rise of far right movements on more than one continent. Establishment politics has failed working people, and working people, including those without higher education, know it. They live it. At the same time, the far right movements that are gaining support among working people tap into the racism, nationalism, sexism and anti-Semitism that both exists within working classes (reflecting the whole of society) and is an inculcated weapon of division launched by elites who have every interest in our not uniting.
To “choose” between class politics and identity politics is a false choice. We are defeating ourselves if we decide to separate interrelated struggles and then debate which is the “proper” one. A multitude of tactics are just as necessary as fighting on multiple fronts, taking on the multiplicity of interconnected issues.