Diversity provides strength, and alternative identities and viewpoints generate the critical thinking that is so vital to change, argues DEREK WALL
DONALD McCLOSKEY transitioned from male to female in 1995, at the age of 53 becoming Deirdre.
In Crossing: A Memoir, her 1999 book, she noted how her transition caused consternation among some members of her community. Deirdre is an economist trained in the notoriously conservative, free market University of Chicago department, but the politics of liberation and shifting identities can cause disquiet on the left too.
The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism continues to evolve, from divorce to separation and back to uneasy cohabitation. Increasingly, the politics of gender fluidity, neuro diversity, ethnicity and allied issues of liberation is challenging those of us on the left. This is a feature of the Green Party, with a new generation of activists challenging older members to rethink their identities, politics and practices.
Too often, especially for bearded men over fifty, hostile resistance is the response. I suspect that there are similar tensions in a variety of organisations on the left.
The Green Party has certainly moved and changed over recent decades.
It is easy to forget that it was founded by activists who included ex-members of the Conservative Party.
The selection of Zac Goldsmith as Conservative London mayoral candidate is a reminder that his uncle the late Teddy Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist magazine, was the main intellectual inspiration for the Greens, when they were launched as PEOPLE, before becoming the Ecology Party and then the Green Party.
The conservative environmentalism of our founders was challenged, and in recent years the party has moved securely to the left, but the left are being challenged by a new left who advocate intersectionality.
Intersectionality is, as far as my limited understanding goes, an approach that argues that resistance and liberation are not based on one axis alone.
Social class, ethnicity, age, disability, gender, sexual orientation and other aspects can be sites of oppression and of opposition to oppression.
There are a number of ways in which such an intersectional approach can be challenged; however critique should not become an excuse for simple rejection.
None of us have a neutral position, personal experience powerfully shapes how we think and how we act.
There is a very great danger that we confuse our personal position with what is rational and correct, without questioning it.
Power shapes everything, including our thoughts and especially our politics, and those who advocate liberation are not immune.
We live in a particular society and like fish in the sea, we often cannot see the water. If nothing else the challenge of intersectionality makes us, hopefully, more aware of what we wrongly see as natural.
A good example is the 1789 French revolution, and another is the American revolution of 1776.
Both events drew upon a politics of liberation that attempted to reject kings, empires and established religion.
Both events were largely blind to the politics of race.
The American revolutionaries defeated the British empire, advocated the rights of man and established a secular society.
However, indigenous North Americans were attacked without mercy and Africans continued to be enslaved.
The revolutionary slaves in Haiti who overthrew their masters appealed to the new revolutionary republic of France but were rebuffed and assaulted. One person’s liberation sadly too often blinds them to another’s fight for freedom.
It is a feature of some of us on the left that we dismiss a range of issues as products of identity politics and of, at best, secondary importance, because they do not represent the decisive agency of change.
Marxists have long argued that the working class will liberate humanity, and this contention has been used to reject a range of other social identities in society as key.
I think this misses the point. Marxists since Marx and Engels have argued that women’s liberation is essential to revolutionary politics. Whatever the imperfections of Marxist politics and theory, and whatever one’s opinion on the question of agency, oppression matters and is far from purely a creation of class.
It is possible to go further and argue that an intersectional approach is not only ethically essential but contributes to the generation of a political alternative to contemporary capitalism.
Diversity provides strength, and alternative identities and viewpoints generate the critical thinking that is so vital to change.
The social theorist Alberto Melucci in his book Nomads of the Present argued that a revolutionary contribution of critical social movement was that it generated new ideas and new ways of living, moving unthought-of alternatives into society.
We live in a society where a woman leading a political party or a trade union is still unusual.
Our society is one where transgender people are often attacked and where a minority of white, upper or middle class able-bodied men continue to dominate science, literature, politics and culture.
The diversity of society is too often ignored instead of celebrated.
To note the importance of alternative dimensions of oppression and resistance, of course, leaves many questions unanswered.
The Canadian anti-capitalist Naomi Klein observed how her political activism as a student had been based on debates around feminism but ignored class politics.
She noted that a materialist politics around class remained essential, but in her book No Logo noted that women were increasingly making up a large part of the working class.
For her, post-Marxist accounts that moved beyond class were deficient because they ignored work-based oppression.
It is also assumed that all political discourse is calm, and that strong emotion destroys debate, yet strong emotional reactions to lived oppression make us angry. Anger can be used to dismiss arguments which are expected to be delivered dispassionately.
A materialist approach suggests, in contrast, that anger is often inevitable and cannot be used to reject a particular political point of view because it is presented in the wrong tone.
Engels advocated a scientific approach to socialism, and while it is too big a topic to debate here, was in my humble opinion right to do so.
Engels was a strong advocate of Irish republicanism. In this he was educated by his partner Mary Burns, a factory worker, who was the daughter of immigrants from Tipperary.
I doubt that Mary was unemotional when discussing a history of oppression in Ireland. Nevertheless Engels learned from her and no doubt changed his perspectives.
Liberation struggles demand critical engagement, but we need to recognise that criticism does not exist in a disembodied realm of pure reason, with no historical context. We need to sweep away capitalism and we need to create an ecological society. In doing so we should see a wider politics of liberation not as a distraction but as an essential part of a process of vital social change. If we are not being challenged, we fail to learn, and in proclaiming liberation we are in constant danger of rendering forms of oppression invisible.
Derek Wall is international co-ordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales