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Full Marx: Considering the history and modern usage of ‘identity politics’

Allied to class, identity is a powerful force – but liberalism is a killer, writes the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

THERE’S a sense in which all politics are identity politics. Politics are about group interests.  And groups are made up of people who share common characteristics, interests or identities.  

We all have multiple “identities,” some of them in tension. Some — our sex, ethnicity, family background — we’re born with. Others – job, hobbies, parenthood, age — we acquire in life. Many of us suffer disability of some sort. For each of us, such identities intersect to create a whole which is richer and more complex than each of its component parts (some theorists have called this “intersectionality” – something we’ll discuss in a later answer).  

The phrase “identity politics” was first used in the 1970s to characterise campaigns against discrimination mounted by disadvantaged or oppressed groups. Some formed their own dedicated organisations; others pressed their demands through established political parties, trade unions or other bodies. Such single issue campaigns have had considerable success in mobilising activists, challenging prejudice and discrimination, winning extensions of civil rights and protections, with benefits extending well beyond the groups directly affected. Some have spawned liberation movements.  

Often this has involved an accommodation to the dominant ideas in society — which remain always those of its ruling class. The limitations of such campaigns become most evident where they fail to address the underlying causes of oppression and discrimination.  

Most campaigners are also, whether they realise it or not, members of the working class. Campaigns are most effective when, in addition to fighting specific forms of oppression and discrimination, they also recognise what unites us. 

Equally, class struggle — the effort to build a better, more equal, socialist society — is most effective where it recognises and welcomes the diversity of individual lives and experience.  

Claudia Jones was born in Trinidad in 1915. She immigrated with her family to the US, settling in Harlem where like most of the black population she experienced racism and poverty. Aged 18, she joined the Young Communist League (YCL) and became a prominent communist, arguing in its theoretical journal that the “triply oppressed status of Negro women” was a barometer of US class oppression more generally.  

She was imprisoned several times for her activism and writing and was eventually deported to England, settling in west London where she founded the West Indian Gazette and the Notting Hill Carnival. She is buried next to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.  

Her ideas have been developed by many others, notably the communist activist Angela Davis in her book Women, Race and Class.  
Also born in 1915 was Max Levitas. Before his death in 2018 (aged 103) Max was the oldest and longest-serving member of Britain’s Communist Party and the last survivor of the 1936 Battle of Cable Street where Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts were prevented from marching through London’s East End. Max saw no contradiction between his Jewish identity and his identity as a communist.  Although not religious himself, he supported his local synagogue and was buried in an orthodox Jewish cemetery.

Another example is Mark Ashton, gay rights activist and general secretary of the Young Communist League in the early ‘80s when he founded Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners — an important element of public support for the 1984-5 miners’ strike. Probably the single most important influence in challenging contemporary working-class attitudes to homosexuality, Mark died of Aids in 1987.  The film Pride features him but studiously avoids mentioning the fact that he was a communist — something as important to Mark as the fact that he was gay.  

So identity politics, linked to class struggle, can be immensely progressive. But divorced from the realities of exploitation and class, it becomes a diversion.  

One of Margaret Thatcher’s achievements, symbolised in her declaration “there’s no such thing as society: only individuals (and their families)” was to decompose “traditional” class awareness into multiple identities; parent, council tenant, commuter, consumer, taxpayer (the list is endless), each with their specific needs all of which could, supposedly, be satisfied by reforms – the “right to buy,” phoney “choice” in education, healthcare and pensions, public-sector cuts — all of which, as a bonus, acted to reinforce the exploitative nature of capitalism and at the same time hide the class oppression that affects the vast majority of us.  

In parallel, the words “diversity” and “inclusion” have been appropriated by the rhetoric of consensus, colonised debate, becoming an integral element of institutional discourse and corporate strategy. From the “pink pound” and corporate sponsorship of the annual Pride march to glossy magazine articles and ads celebrating female “empowerment,” the appropriation of disability issues for corporate purposes, the adoption of Black Lives Matter symbolism by commercial advertisers (from Ben & Jerry’s to l’Oreal and Nike); single-issue “identity politics” — having perhaps helped to secure wider awareness — are then appropriated for corporate purposes and serve to de-radicalise, disempower and obscure the continuing underlying oppression of affected groups.  

Premier League footballers returned to action after the first Covid lockdown with Black Lives Matter emblazoned on their shirts, also taking a knee in memory of George Floyd. Crystal Palace (for example) publicly backed what they called “the principles” of BLM but at the same time distanced themselves from the movement, declaring that “organisations should not use this important force for change and positivity to push their own political agendas.”  

Collective, labelled group identities are never homogenous. Many who celebrate their Jewish heritage see that identity as the richer for being allied to (though never reducible to, never subsumed within) their parallel struggle against bigotry, prejudice and fascism.  Others see no such connection. Yet others have been willing agents in a process of purging the left of the Labour Party.  

Many former Yugoslavs greatly regret the disintegration of their country as a force for regional unity and a successful model of socialism in practice; others celebrate that collapse as providing a route to personal enrichment and/or a phoney “national” independence (social property in Croatia has been privatised and all the country’s banks, for example, are now foreign-owned).  

Though the term “identity politics” was coined fairly recently, there are much earlier examples of it holding back the advance of the working class as a whole. For example, in the mid-19th century, after the defeat of the Chartists, competitive capitalism entered its “golden age.” 

A minority of skilled workers formed the so-called new model unions to promote their sectional interests. They were able to benefit from Britain’s brief monopoly of manufacturing (“the workshop of the world”) to win higher wages, better conditions and greater security than the mass of “unskilled” workers. They attached themselves to the capitalist Liberal Party and resisted any efforts to create a separate mass party of the working class.  

Such people were conscious of their identity as skilled workers but oblivious to the fact that they formed part of a wider class, all of whom were exploited by capital. 

Their identity politics probably delayed the formation of a mass Labour Party by several decades.  

So identity politics are never progressive if they serve to divide and confuse. They can sometimes win concessions for certain groups, but that can be at the expense of the unity of the working class and its allies. 

Identity movements can waste energy and passion attacking the wrong targets. Identity politics also slide easily into extreme postmodernist approaches to “truth”: “if I feel this way then that’s the end of any rational discussion.” They can be hugely divisive when one “identity” becomes pitted against another. 

They can be and are used by the capitalist system to “divide and rule,” to prevent unity across the whole working class in its struggle for betterment. 

We are all composed of multiple “identities”: that’s what makes each of us unique. But one that most readers of this feature have in common is that we are members of the working class.  And in the struggle to build a better world, recognising this will help us, individually and collectively, not just to interpret that world – but to change it. 

The Marx Memorial Library and Workers School promotes a wide range of lectures and classes, including an online Introduction to Marxism course starting on March 9.  Details of these together with previous Full Marx answers can be found on the Library’s website www.marx-memorial-library.org.uk.

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