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Is there common ground between identity politics and class struggle?

by Lee Rhiannon on March 12, 2019
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This is my talk on “Is there common ground between identity politics and class struggle?” given at the 2018 Historical Materialism Sydney conference.

This talk is underpinned by a commitment to the global struggle for a fairer, more just world, for transformative change, for a socialist Australia. That struggle is only effective when we have some level of unity and we are not sidetracked or sidelined by ineffective or misleading strategies or tactics that undermine collective work to build social movements rather than enhance careers. 

For the Left we need to acknowledge and learn from the tensions that exist in the fight to oppose and end these inequalities. I am not running the line that racism and sexism are just a problem of capitalism, but history demonstrates that racism and gender abuse have served a distinct advantage to the corporate world and the state in fostering divisions and disputes among those who have every reason to be allies in the struggle against capitalism.

My talk on “Is there common ground between identity politics and class struggle?” is relevant to a conference on historical materialism. Marx’s writings on this subject were one of his great achievements. He deepened scientific thinking on the laws of social development. The materialist conception of history with regard to production relations and class structure laid the basis for the discovery of the ‘laws’ and rhythms of class struggle. The work of Marx and Engels advanced the understanding that society is not a sum of individuals.

For Marx the mode of production and the social forces thrown up by that mode were the driving forces of history but he was also an historian and aware that the consciousness of those social forces was partly shaped by their history, by their experiences and this would impact on their behaviour and aspirations.

First off I would like to set the scene for consideration of identity politics and class struggle with reference to historical materialism and Marxist writings on race. 

A pertinent question is, does Marx and Engels’ premise of the leading role of the working class adequately deal with the root cause of racism and how we eradicate it?

The writings of Cedric Robinson, author of Black Marxism and professor in the Department of Black Studies and the Department of Political Science at the University of California, are very relevant to this discussion. He sets out how racism arises, how it is exploited by the ruling class and how opposition to racism has been a foundation of rebellion and revolution.

Robinson writes about “… a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relation of production of colonialism.”

He also wrote, “ … between the mid sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, it was an African tradition that grounded collective resistance by Blacks to slavery and colonial imperialism.”

Robinson puts a strong case that revolutionary consciousness was historical and cultural and not a simple “mirror of production”. 

At first reading this appears to contradict the Marxist premise of the key role of class struggle at the point of production.  

Marx and Engels did explore issues of racism, colonialism, women’s oppression and the exploitation of nature as well as class issues.

In Das Capital Marx wrote, “Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.” 

Writing in the New York Daily Tribune on 8 August 1853 about British rule in India Marx stated:

“The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.”

Marx also wrote about colonial abuse in Burma and Ireland, as well as India. He covered struggles in China and North Africa, and the revolutions and political and military battles across Europe. 

Unsurprisingly Marx did not write about racism as we do today. He and Engels lived and worked under the objective conditions of the world in the mid 1800s – a time when capitalism was first taking hold and more people were starting to experience the exploitation and oppression of this new class system and of colonialism.

What I take from Marxism is a philosophy about progressive transformative change that is not dogmatic and recognises the need for flexibility in tactics according to the current objective conditions. Ending exploitation, oppression and discrimination depends on winning allies among the working class, but not just the working class. 

A key aspect of identity politics is building new ways of relating to each other. For that to have meaning at both the individual and society wide level and be effective the new ways need to strongly encourage cooperation and collectivism. 

Recognising and even celebrating one’s identity is not a transformative end in itself. Our political work has to amplify collective action. Solidarity of people of different races is essential in the fight against racism. And it must be solidarity with a commitment to not only condemn racist language, but to eradicate institutional racism, a foundation of capitalism.

Angela Davis in an essay on black radicalism wrote: “… we need movements that are prepared to resist the inevitable seductions of assimilation. The Occupy campaign enabled us to develop an anti-capitalist vocabulary: the 99 percent versus the 1 percent is a concept that has entered into popular parlance. The question is … to build upon this, or complicate it with the idea of racial capitalism.”

Eric Ward, a US civil rights activist and strategist, emphasises how identity politics should work to build movements for justice. These are Ward’s words from an interview with Tikkun magazine

“The problem with many claiming identity politics today is they often base their understanding of it on the belief that race is an actual, biological definition—ironically reinforcing the white supremacist narrative that race exists … Race, gender and sexuality are about social construction not biological definition. Race does not exist. What exists is racism.”

Why has identity politics – in its narrow form – taken off? The fact that it has coincided with the rise of neoliberalism is no coincidence. Neoliberalism fosters individualism, one of the most effective road blocks to the broad social transformations that the Left is fighting for. 

In terms of building people power that is fighting for democracy committed to liberation, ending all forms of discrimination and winning equality, identity politics is not the answer when it is defined as giving people a seat at the table of capitalism. It is merely an updated form of liberalism, adding some diversity to the cult of individualism, while maintaining hierarchy and exploitation. 

If identity politics is isolated from class analysis and collective actions the achievements of identity politics will be nothing more than opening the door for a few more people of race and gender diversity to experience a life of some level of opportunity and possible privilege. 

So there is no misunderstanding, I am not negating the benefits of people of different backgrounds and abilities becoming MPs, public commentators and taking on leading roles in government agencies and in the private sector and community organisations, but that is not a political achievement in itself. Thankfully there are many fine examples of people who move into such leadership roles who speak up for transformative change, support the leading role of social movements and help to resource such movements. This is the pathway for identity politics that can help build movements for change.

I would now like to move to the issue of the primacy of class struggle in fighting for and achieving the end of capitalism and the fair and sustainable socialist future that this world desperately needs. 

I’m not arguing that historical materialism dictates that class struggle must be the driver of all social movements and social change. Robinson and others associated with Black Marxism have set out a strong case that expands our understanding of the roots of revolutionary consciousness and action. But I do think we need to be wary that working class struggles, working class organisations and theoretical analysis that promotes a leading role for the working class are not sidelined.

I do find these days a discursive on the role of class is often minimised or forgotten when considering current political campaigns and tactics. I think this comes about largely for two reasons. There is the rise of a one dimensional form of identity politics where the call for people of gender and race diversity to stand for parliament or take on leading roles in government agencies and in community groups is seen as an end in itself. And there is the interpretation that because many white working class males are conservative personally and politically we relegate class politics. 

Earlier this year, at a Melbourne University public lecture on the demise of political feminism and the rise of individual feminism, Helen Razer offered the example of a woman made uncomfortable by what she saw as sexist attitudes by men standing with her at a picket line. Helen argued that the MeToo-era tendency is to value personal discomfort over a political goal. She wasn’t suggesting that the woman protester should grin and bear harassment. She was suggesting that there’s an emerged and impossible expectation that all participants in all political actions behave impeccably.

And what do our enemies say about this issue. These are the words of Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist to US President Donald Trump, when he left the President’s office last year: “The Democrats, … the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Bannon understands how identity can seem to completely exclude people who assume they are outside identity politics because they are not oppressed by racism, though they may be under great economic stress. If they are workers or small farmers they are oppressed as workers and small farmers, and their failure to identify with Black or Latino workers and small farmers makes their exploitation easier.

Eric Ward, the black civil rights activist and strategist who I quoted earlier, on a similar point writes, “We can no longer afford to accept distorted versions of identity politics that assert Americans who are white have no value *except* as an ally to people of color. That attitude is not only strategically problematic, it’s morally bankrupt. It’s a perversion of white supremacist narratives to imply people have less worth in our movements simply because they have been designated white in this society. Our social change and justice oriented movements aren’t here primarily to reorganize definitions of race, we are here to fully dismantle the remnants of a white supremacist system upholding the falsity of race.”

I think for this talk it is relevant to note that we have two older now-privileged white men, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, the most well known backers of progressive politics in the western world putting class back into the discourse on transformative change while recognising that identity oppression is real and must be combatted.

Reflecting on the objective conditions and the nature of struggle today it is essential that we do not retreat to our silos because we think that is the only way to keep our campaigns pure and focussed.  Not supporting working class struggles or recognising the root cause of economic dispossession or understanding the link between wealth and power, retards unity and our ability to build strong, diverse social movements that we know are the precursor to meeting the challenge of building post-capitalist societies. It also fails to recognise the diverse identities within the modern Australian working class. Identity does not exist outside a class frame, though of course people may believe it does until it comes time to pay the rent.

There is a common thread in race, gender and class struggles. While differences are inevitable our challenge is how we handle them. Contradictions in fact can be a positive force to assist us to work through the complexities of any struggle. But if contradictions become antagonistic then differences among the Left can become irreconcilable, movements for social change can stall and the progressive movements can be set back decades.

Although I am not arguing for a reductionist (or crude) primacy of class struggle in building social movements we do need to restore and enrich class analysis and elevate our collective work. At times there has been a failure of the Left to fully recognise that identity oppression is part of capitalist oppression and to ensure pathways into movement participation and leadership for people of diverse backgrounds. 

Recognising the importance of building social movements brings us back to the role of identity politics. In its one dimensional form it is a form of assimilation into the cause of the capitalist class.

Mark Illa, writing in the New Statesman America on “How the modern addiction to identity politics has fractured the left” said, “Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people – African Americans, women, gays – seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilising and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. By the 1980s, it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow, exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.”

So where does that leave those of us committed to building social movements. It is always necessary for the Left to address broad issues of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.

Parties openly pushing racist policies are gaining more public support. A report, researched by Centre Delas and co-published by Washington based Transnational Institute, documents the racist approach of extreme Right parties – a trend which is on the increase. In 28 European Union countries there are 39 political parties classified as extreme right populists. Germany, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Netherlands, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Sweden have xenophobic parties, which have obtained more than half a million votes in elections since 2010. 

With the exception of Finland, these parties have increased their MP numbers. The Alternative for Germany won 94 of 650 seats in the 2017 election. In the 2013 election none of their candidates were elected. The Law and Justice party in Poland won 235 seats in 2015. This was an increase of 49 per cent over its previous number of MPs. All these parties are opposed to immigration. 

Meanwhile inequality is growing, work is hard to find and workplaces are automating. In many areas racist attacks are on the rise. Many people feel they have no future. 

In the recent Victorian state election the Liberal opposition in lock step with News Ltd ran a major law and order scare campaign targeting young African men. While the Liberals lost badly and we should celebrate the rejection of their tactics by the majority of people and recognise the significance of the vote vindicating a multicultural reality and ethos, it is a reminder of the growing confidence of the extreme right to target their attacks on First Nations peoples, refugees and immigrants. 

Considering the desperate state the NSW and federal Coalition parties are in as we come into the 2019 elections we could well witness more attacks on immigration levels and other desperate, dirty, racist tactics to try and pull in more votes. 

The key as always is to build our social movements.

For this debate about where a class analysis sits in our discourse and our actions for social change the experience of the French yellow vest protests or gilets jaunes rebellion is informative. This is largely a struggle of workers from the small towns and cities of France. To date it appears to be largely white working class people taking a stand against the Macron government. Prosperous, middle-class, diverse Paris is largely or entirely absent. Some gilets jaunes have expressed homophobic and racist prejudices. That is no surprise considering the National Front is – terrifyingly – the party with the largest working class vote  in France at present. This struggle is primarily against the government of the rich so it provides an opportunity for socialists to contest and combat such prejudices in the actual struggle. It is noteworthy that the movement has not been side-tracked into attacks on immigrants and non-white French.

In Australia we need to determine our strategic campaigning priorities that deal with the issues that matter to working and oppressed people and that will foster unity.  It is about supporting struggles that foster mutual respect and working class confidence. Condemning racism and other forms of discrimination is necessary but what must go hand in hand with such condemnation is the narrative of why institutional and entrenched discrimination exists, who it benefits and how we dismantle it.

Fighting for workplace childcare, cost of living issues, job security, public transport and free higher education to name just a few issues are all part of the struggle to improve the lives of people disadvantaged in a range of ways and to build social movements for transformative change. 

The language of many campaigns these days fails to challenge the dominance and economic control of the status quo. Class privilege is not always only white.

So to answer my question – is there common ground between identity politics and class struggle – I would answer ‘yes’ if we are committed to: one, recognising the exploitative basis of such discrimination and who benefits from it, and, two, if we are committed to working in unity for transformative change. 

Lee Rhiannon
Lee Rhiannon has worked in the social justice and environment movement for five decades. She is a qualified zoologist and botanist. Prior to commencing work with the Greens, Lee was the Director of AID/WATCH, the coordinator of the NSW Coalition for Gun Control and a member of the Women’s Advisory Council to the NSW Government. She has worked for a number of unions. Lee is particularly committed to sharing the skills she has gathered over five decades of campaigning. She was elected to the NSW parliament in 1999 and the Senate in 2010. As a Greens NSW MP and as a Senator Lee worked on a range of issues including exposing corporate political donations, supporting local environmental campaigns, public education and promoting workers’ rights. Lee resigned from the Senate in August 2018. She continues to work with communities on local housing campaigns, solidarity with Palestine and supports many other campaigns.

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