“Identity” — the bane of the contemporary Left

From a brief exchange

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The following is taken from a recent exchange that took place on Facebook between Michael Rectenwald and myself, and constitutes a reflection on the baleful effect of “identity politics” on contemporary left-wing movements. In a subsequent post, I’ll further specify what “identity” means in this context, because the term “identitarian” as used by Michael, me, and for example Adolph Reed is not identical to the term “identitarian” as used by Theodor Adorno. Both uses are valid, I will contend, but they address different problems.

Michael Rectenwald

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Identity is the bane of the contemporary Left. Should the forces of revolution rise up tomorrow, “leftists” will spot-check them, making sure they are comprised of the “right” identity groups. If they are not properly composed, the Left will call off the revolution, suggesting that more “marginalized” people need to be involved in the leadership, in speaking roles, and so on. It wouldn’t matter that the revolution would’ve benefited everyone, made life bearable and indeed even exhilarating for the entirety of the marginalized, inclusive of all the working class, the overwhelming majority of the social order.

Carole Brémaud, Le ruban blanc  (54 x 72 cm, acrylique)

Carole Brémaud, Le ruban blanc (54 x 72 cm, acrylic)

Nothing impresses the Left unless all of the proper identitarian symbolics are observed and lip-service is paid. The Left today does not offer universal human emancipation. All it offers is tokenism, and merely linguistic emancipation for token groups. Anything that promises more — the Left will check, stop-and-frisk, and put an end to.

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Ross Wolfe

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Historically, identitarian ideology is a product of the failure of the Left. The various forms of identity politics associated with the “new social movements” coming out of the New Left during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s (feminism, black nationalism, gay pride) were themselves a reaction, perhaps understandable, to the miserable failure of working-class identity politics associated with Stalinism coming out of the Old Left during the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s (socialist and mainstream labor movements). Working-class identity politics — admittedly avant la lettre — was based on a crude, reductionist understanding of politics that urged socialists and union organizers to stay vigilant and keep on the lookout for “alien class elements.” Any and every form of ideological deviation was thought to be traceable to a bourgeois or petit-bourgeois upbringing. One’s political position was thought to flow automatically and mechanically from one’s social position, i.e. from one’s background as a member of a given class within capitalist society.

Anyone whose working-class credentials were not considered impeccable were expected to go through rituals of self-criticism or “autocritique” [from самокритика, a crucial shibboleth in the Stalinist vocabulary] confessing one’s incorrigible bourgeois intellectual habits in order to purify himself. Maoism radicalized this with application Third World and minority contexts. Indeed, much of the tedious discourse of “privilege-checking” derives from this, as one commenter pointed out in response to a post on Kathy Miriam’s blog:

I see [identity politics'] origins in confrontational New Left styles of the late ’60s through the early ’70s (when lots of feminists were reading Mao’s little red book, believe it or not). These consisted in an accusatory calling-out of any person whose individual acts were thought to be based in structures of systemic oppression, even if only potentially. There was no sense of proportion — it was all or nothing, totally Manichaean, polarized into either “good” or “bad.” Breast-beating was required. Confession, as well (Maoism again). Lots of guilt and fear behind the attacks, too.

When identity politics emerged as part of the constellation of the “post-political” Left in the 1990s and 2000s, however, it did so in a more academic and institutionalized form. The “new social movements” had more or less ground to a halt, and so the center of political gravity shifted from the streets into the classroom (where it was even less effective). There was more jargon; the word “privilege” was on everyone’s lips. Of course, this is unsurprising: the New Left had entered the very institutions it once protested, as either professional academics or full-time activists.

Carole Brémaud, Untitled

Carole Brémaud, Untitled

The takeaway from all this should be the following:

Contrary to the assumptions of identity politics, many members of the working class will for various ideological reasons oppose a proletarian revolution that would emancipate them. Many women would oppose a revolution that would put an end to conditions of domestic servitude and the gendered division of labor. Many ethnic minorities (blacks, latinos, etc.) will oppose a revolution that would abolish all distinctions based on race. By that same score, moreover, many non-workers, men, and even whites will fight — seemingly against their own interest — for just such an emancipation.

It shouldn’t matter who people supposedly “are.” All that should matter is the kind of transformation they hope to effect in the world.

24 thoughts on ““Identity” — the bane of the contemporary Left

  1. Pingback: “Identity” — the bane of the contemporary Left | Research Material

  2. Anyone who believes banning “Zwarte Piet” will advance the fight against real racism has lost it. So please get rid of the black racists, islam appeasers, man-hating ultrafeminists and other identity nutters. Left politics will fail as long as it looks down on the majority and refuses to offer them anything other than insults & condemnation. But the ivory tower academics who form the backbone of this movement don’t care. They’re not into politics. They’re into a lifestyle of “being right”.

    • “Anyone who believes banning “Zwarte Piet” will advance the fight against real racism has lost it. So please get rid of the black racists, islam appeasers, man-hating ultrafeminists and other identity nutters.”

      First of all, oh Working Class Hero, I lived in the Netherlands when I was very small. I have vivid memories of that. Zwarte Piet was *incredibly* racist. Of course his existence as a folkloric figure can’t be seperated from the material conditions of Dutch racism (the medieval demonization of the Moors as a byproduct of the Reconquista, Dutch colonialism and Dutch racism against its own guest worker class, expressed as far right islamophobia). But that’s completely in line with one of Marx’s fundamental teachings, one that you forgot all about: it is your social being that creates your consciousness. That you can’t see that there’s a real, material incentive for the European native working class to be racist makes you the out of touch one. Anyone who caught the spirit of the Paris Riots would get that.

      So fuck you and your racist and sexist terminology lifted straight from Rush Limbaugh.

  3. A part of it is that the ‘left’ has become an identity. Class in this case is not totally irrelevant. In the lives of working people there is little long term advantage in playing highly upon one’s particular difference. In my workplace survival rests much on the inevitable requirement of cooperation. This is imposed in part by the regimen of power, the ‘bosses’ who just need to see the work done, as it is by our own need to focus on the safe application of our tasks without undue distraction or conflict. Co-workers who call attention to their difference in a manner perceived to be narcissistic fare poorly.

    In the middle class environment difference can be an asset–thus the wielding of identity as a club of power or control in seeking favor or standing. The chair of a department defends the position, The local politician plays to a specific demographic audience, the writer is desperate to differentiate her or himself from thousands of peers. This game is taught in the university environment as part of the survival skills necessary for success in middle class life.

    What you speak of when describing this left is a sort of caste that has begun to utilize the skills of identity power play to define its ‘political-orientation’ as an identity rather than as a set of defined social goals.

    This of course has nothing to do with the historic socialist movement described by Marx as having ‘no interests separate’ from the working class. In this case the matter of importance is not one of identity personal background or rank in order of suffering, but rather one’s sincere comittment to the struggle for the social liberation of the ‘class as a whole.’

    There will be no transformation of any large section of the left. Political parties who proclaim their position in relationship to ‘the left’ will either shatter or become obstacles to the struggle for the liberation of the class.

  4. Note 2.

    This approach by Dekkers “So please get rid of the black racists, islam appeasers, man-hating ultrafeminists and other identity nutters.” Is of course not productive. It plays in to the contest.
    The fact of structural racism, national oppression, patriarchy, sexism, bigotry, homophobia etc, and their systematization and carrying over from prior social forms by capitalism is not something to belittle or deny.
    While I appreciate the general tone of Mr. Wolfe’s comments I think one thing stated is wrong on two counts.

    “Historically, identitarian ideology is a product of the failure of the Left.” RW

    The rise of identity politics as such in the “post-modern’ era was as much a product of success as it was failure. If one understands the principal motor 20th century history to have been the defeat of colonialism (and I mean real colonialism under which colonial powers held political and military control over colonies) and the driving back of imperialism, and the successful establishment of bourgeois national republics in most countries of the world then what one sees in terms of the historic march of our class is more victory than defeat.
    In the mid 20th century the struggle of oppressed nations remained in large part the principle political objective over and above the kind of class differentiation which is now on the agenda in Egypt for example.
    The African-American middle class which can now assert it’s blackness as a mechanism of dominance in certain situations was not a possibility 50 years ago.
    There was no advantage to being Black or gay in the US in 1955–of course there is still no advantage in it for most Black or gay working people, though there can be for layers of the middle class and even bourgeoisie. It is the victories rather than the failures which have created this possibility.
    The victory of the overwhelmingly proletarian civil rights movement succeeded in establishing, in large part, the juridical equality of African-Americans in the context of what Marx called ‘Bourgeois Right’ in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. This must be the expected result of struggles based on the extension of what Lenin called ‘democratic tasks’ . These victories create the possibility of class differentiation amongst the formerly oppressed national group.

    Class differentiation amongst African-Americans in the US is radical and dramatic today as the US president is Black and Oprah owns a television network, while young Black male workers face police oppression, imprisonment, unemployment and social dislocation.

    A parallel condition exists for working class women vis a vis characters such as Janet Yellen, and again Oprah. That middle class individuals seek personal advantage while pretending to speak for the most deeply oppressed layers of society, who are still disproportionately people of color and female, should not come as a surprise.

    Revolutionaries who seek the triumphal day of revolution are doomed to disappointment. There is a parallel development in South Africa today nearly 25 years after the overthrow of the apartheid system. The once nationally unifying African National Congress is beginning to come apart under the pressures of the success of its initial task. Now that South Africa is a modern national republic, and no longer a colonial settler state, the axis of the struggle has shifted. But the overthrow of apartheid was among the great victories for the working class of the 20th century. And in no way a defeat. The historical progress of the class struggle will long outlive any party to this conversation. It will have no final victory. If we are attentive, however we may have the opportunity to participate in moments of great progress.

    • Lots of wordiness missing my point, namely that identity politics reinforces and perpetuates structural racism, national oppression, patriarchy, sexism, bigotry, homophobia etc, sometimes in inverted forms. We do need a stalinist purge, and Rawlinsview is one of the types that needs to go. Smartypants theorists who prefer the status quo because it allows them to play their little games are not helping. You are “of course” a middle class individual seeking personal advantage while pretending to speak for the most deeply oppressed layers of society, all the wile forgetting the vast majority of common people.

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  6. @ Dekkers.
    I am a working person, I am and have been employed in manual work since I was 15. I am a rank and file trade union member who holds no post. I have never held an academic post. I am just now at 49 finishing my undergraduate degree while working a job. The article on Preobrazhensky which I have been clipping in to my blog is the first long form serious thing that I have ever written. I do not expect for it to be published. I am a father. I coach soccer as a volunteer in the working class Hispanic area where I live.
    I am not sure which common people you think that I am forgetting. But This is all beside the point other than to say that you may sling your hateful garbage at someone else.
    Your assumption, that because I write or that I am interested in ideas that this somehow defines my class status is evidence of disdain for working people. But it is clear from your tone and statements that your disdain is universalized.
    “So please get rid of the black racists, islam appeasers, man-hating ultrafeminists …” really? This is not the language of someone who seeks to empower the “common people”
    That you would joke, even in a state of flippant perturbation, about Stalin’s Purges in which virtually every member of the original leadership of the Russian revolution perished, sets you apart entirely from both “the common people” and anyone worthy of their leadership.

  7. The identity politics that emerged out of the 1960′ 70′s and 80′s is largely to blame for the fractious failure of the left in the United States. At its most extreme, it is incapable of recognizing how its own struggle is directly links to the struggle of the entire working class. This reductionism has not only rendered the left impotent but it has severely handicapped identity groups from achieving their political goals. However, what I’ve read here so far fails to grasp the organic nature of identity politics. What I’ve read here so far seems to suggest that identity politics is a terrible inconvenient burden to the left and that if people were more enlightened, identity politics would be easily brushed aside in favor of a new consciousness that comprehends that the liberation of a particular group is only accomplished through the liberation of the entire working class. This line of reasoning fails to understand that identity politics is a natural response to real economic, social and political inequalities. If like this writer, one is a white male, one may have a particular difficulty grasping that certain groups within the working class, experience economic and social injustices far worse than anything one has known. These unique experiences are given a natural expression through identity politics. It is also unfair to broad brush all those who have engaged in identity politics with the presumption that they have no consciousness of how their political struggle is related to the struggle of the working class as a whole. Identity political activists are increasingly recognizing two things. First they are becoming aware that their own identity group cannot attain liberation until the whole working class is liberated. Second, they are becoming aware that other identity groups experience oppression as bad, if not worse than their own. Thus, there are feminists who call themselves socialists and who actively engage in political movements that work for the liberation of the working class. Malcolm X made the observation that blacks will not overcome 400 years of racism until there is socialism. Huey Newton was a black nationalist who called himself a socialist. Angela Davis is a Marxist sees the liberation of the working class as essential. Paul Robeson was a Marxist. The LGBT community is actively engaged in socialist organizations. There is nothing new about the left being concerned with identity politics. The Socialist Party under the leadership of Eugene V. Debs condemned racism and advocated voting rights for women. To pretend that we can simply wave a magic wand and make identity politics disappear, is to ignore the material conditions on which it is based. The solution then for socialists, is to assist identity activists in creating movements based on inclusion and to show how identity exploitation is directly linked to the exploitation of others within the entire working class.

  8. Oh please people, why do we have to keep on having these Zombie debates on ‘common people’, ‘feminism’, ‘patriarchy’ and whatever? Maybe originally these were useful abstractions of things, but today it’s more like empty signifiers employed in a hugely insignificant food fight.

    It’s a sure irony that just as the environment is collapsing and the communist movement is moribund, people are fleeing into such idealisms. Why not just realisme the material fact that you are both equals that should be dedicated to positive tasks and forget about your little neuronal obsessions.

    Marxism and communism are based on a creative materialistic worldview, which as a method is itself predicated on an equality that respects differences.

  9. Preobrazhensky chimes in ;)
    “ One of the forms of the oppression of man by man [sic] is the oppression of subject nationalities. Among the barriers by which human beings are separated, we have, in addition to the barriers of class, those of national disunity, of national enmity and hatred.

    National enmity and ill-feeling are among the means by which the proletariat is stupefied and by which its class consciousness is dulled. The bourgeoisie knows how to cultivate these sentiments skilfully in order to promote its own interests. …
    Yet these vestiges of inter-tribal enmity do not merely fail to become extinct, but actually glow with renewed life, when to the old causes of national ill-feeling there is superadded an antagonism of class interests or the appearance of such antagonism.“

    From the ABC of Communism Chapter 7 “Communism and the Problem of Nationality” c.1919 http://wp.me/p11GIr-DD

  10. Since we’ve been focusing on identity politics, introducing nationalism into the discourse is a bit off topic, but I will respond to this comment anyway. Nationalism can only be meaningful understood within the historical context in which it occurs. Certainly there is no dispute that the xenophobic, bellicose super nationalism which has been given expression by right-wing extremists in imperialist nations like the United States and Nazi Germany has created global destruction on a mass scale and has made it impossible to create anything resembling a unified global working class.

    However one cannot ignore that it has been nationalism throughout the third world which has been the primary driving force that has removed the oppression of imperialism. It has been the means by which the working class within nations has been unified in opposition to foreign domination. This has often included foreign multinational corporate domination. Marxists would be short sighted if they failed to support these nationalistic democratic liberation movements.

    Perhaps these movements are frequently not about socialism or worker control of the economy. It would be a mistake to conclude by this observation that they are not truly revolutionary. Far from it, they represent a historic phase of worker empowerment which can lead to a socialist transformation in the future. Admittedly too often these post-imperialist governments degenerate into corrupt highly exploitive regimes that subject their working masses to a terrible life. But Marx would say that it is within the class contradictions created by this that a new revolution of the working class will emerge.

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