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Thursday, November 21, 2013

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Class Struggle vs Intersectional Identity Politics: the False Dilemma

If you're familiar with the radical leftist discourse for the past 30-or-so years you've probably encountered the heated debates between staunchly Marxist/anarchist working class romantic and the identity politician. The Marxist/anarchist would say that identity politics, with it's roots in 60's post-structuralism, is a liberal form of distraction from the main issue of class struggle, and the identity politician would then point out how the Marxist/anarchist was merely idealizing white, heterosexual, cisgender male domination in their conception of the working classes.

Now, this post is not intended to resolve all the issues about this topic, nor does it present a programme or strategy to make the movement for economic rights more inclusive. It merely attempts to explains certain concepts and understandings of what class really is, and what identity politics is. 

Although the class-struggle is also emphasized outside of Marxist discourse, I shall use Marxism as the basis for my understanding of political struggle. My underlying assumption is that the people having this debate believe in and propagate, in one way or another, a political revolution. Therefore my arguments are not directed against or at social-democrats, left-liberals or other parts of the reformist left. 

"Revolutionary" as an analytical term or as a value-term.

Marxism is the science of revolution, meaning it is the understanding of the forces that create, shape and obstruct political revolutions. It's not just an understanding of worker/communist revolutions, but of revolutions in general. By this I do not say, necessarily, that Marxists are inherently better and more capable of revolution. I merely state that Marxism provides the analysis of how and why revolutions happen. It is, in this way, analytical. Revolution is a social act that has it's basis in material conditions, and our understanding of these conditions inform people who support political revolution how and when this is possible. In radical discourse, however, the term revolutionary or revolution is not always used in this way, but instead, as value-term. If something is revolutionary, it's good, if something is not revolutionary, it's bad. It is used to describe movements and discourses within the general leftist persuasion, to evaluate it and critique it. A person might say that something is not revolutionary, without meaning that this thing is incapable of carrying out political revolution. This might be an appropriate way to use this term in many contexts, but to avoid confusion, it is better that we stick with the analytical definition. That way, we can say something is not revolutionary without at the same time claiming that it is in someway bad, and we can claim something is revolutionary without at the same time claiming we approve of it. 

The working classes are revolutionary classes. 

Marxism holds that the working classes under the advanced stages of capitalism, is in a position to carry out a political revolution. This is because they have specific relation to the ruling class, the capitalist class. This relation is the class struggle. Marxism also holds that the bourgeoisie has been a revolutionary class in the past, as they overthrew the old feudal order. An important point to make here is that exactly what the revolutionary class is, how it looks, is dependent on the specific social and material conditions of the society in which they live in. Class is not a fixed concept. By it's very nature it evolves and progresses, as technology and internal contradictions within class society changes. Nevertheless, class struggle is the basis of our understanding of how and when revolution is possible. The problem within the Marxist discourse is that some take the idea that working classes are revolutionary and then imagines that this translates to "class comes first" or "class unity before individuals". This is not a Marxist position. Marx and Engels dealt with class because they were interested and active within the radical socialist movement at the time. Nowhere do they state that the proletariat must ignore all their other worries outside the spectrum of class. They state that, if we are to change society in a revolutionary way, we must do so from the perspective of class. Seeing identity politics as a liberal, individualist and self-obsessed imposition on radical left-wing politics is for many of us pretty obviously a sign of hidden racism, sexism, LGBTQ-phobia and ableism, among other bigotry.

Intersectional Identity Politics does not pretend to be, or need to be, revolutionary.

Intersectional identity politics deals with oppressed identities, their struggle for recognition and representation within the spaces they occupy. Identity politics does not state that all oppressed identities are capable of carrying out political revolution. Intersectionality states that one can both occupy oppressed and privileged identities at the same time, and points out that the struggle for empowerment and representation of one oppressed group can further the oppression of another oppressed group if it does not act self-critically with regard to it's own tactics and rhetoric. Although some people, mainly those of the lifestylist anarchist persuasion, is keen on making their own identity the whole of the revolutionary process, the majority of people in favor of identity politics do not have any illusions that their own particular identity is in any way revolutionary. This is not to say that an oppressed identity cannot be revolutionary, as this depends on the specific structure of the class system where this identity finds itself. A lot of oppressions of identities happens through class. For example in many places, past and present, racial differences can create revolutionary situations.  Let us also remind ourselves that a lot of intersectional identity politics has it's roots in a critique of the radical feminists who believed that a revolution consisting of an idealized white, middle class, cissexual group of women was necessary and possible. It is false to say that identity politics are inherently liberal (in fact, many people remark that a lot of the criticism and self-criticism in the intersectionality discourse resembles Maoist Combat Liberalism-esque debate). Obviously, identity politics is used in liberal discourse, but claiming it is inherently liberal is wrong. Many who study the oppression of identities do so from a materialist, Marxist point of view.

Intersectionality as a way to Class Unity.

Some claim that intersectional identity politics is some sort of liberal propaganda with the aim of obstruction of class unity. And yes, a lot of identity politics lead to infighting, exclusion and bitterness. But expecting that people from radically different backgrounds, who face radically different structural oppression by capital, is going to rally behind a radical group that is insensitive and/or indifferent to these differences is really not likely. Internal critique and debate is an important tool in our toolbox if we wish to ever find a sense of unity. Class struggle was never about a hivemind of working class people following learned dogmas and tactics. There is contradiction in everything, including the working classes, that can be resolved through criticism and self-criticism. As I said, I do not propose a strategic solution for how this is to be done. I have merely shown that the antagonism between the people who speak of a certain kind of "class unity" and those who put identity first is an antagonism constructed by people who do not understand either what class unity is or what intersectional identity politics is.

Because of time constraints, I have not included sources for the claims I'm making in this article. If you want to know the basis for some of the claims I've made, leave a comment. 

Jakob Pettersson.


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