10 Theses on Identity Politics

by JMP on December 6, 2013

Some thoughts, in the form of theses, that require extrapolation.  Those of us at the centres of global capitalism who define ourselves as “marxist” and “historical materialist” are, to greater and lesser degrees, at this historical juncture of theory.  This is not necessarily a good thing…

1) By basing a definition of oppression on sites of identity wrenched from a materialist basis, there emerges a concept of oppression that lacks any revolutionary praxis.  There can be no solidarity in a theory that divides along multiple moments of identity and elevates these molecularities above the molar basis that actually divides a given mode of production into ruling and ruled classes.  While it may be unfashionable in certain academic circles to make this claim, the only basis of revolutionary unity is still the basis of social class since a given mode of production, as well as the momentum of history, is determined, in the last instance, by class struggle.

2) While it is correct to reject the class essentialism of a crude marxism that in itself produces its own form of identity politics (where the proletariat is automatically and erroneously overcoded according to a white, male, hetero, able-bodied, and cis-gendered identity), it is incorrect to substitute a post-modern politics of difference––which concretely means identity politics––in its place.  To argue that the proletariat’s composition is defined by these sites of oppression is not the same as clinging to a politics that speaks only of these sites, wrenched from the material basis of social class and treated in an abstract and intersecting manner, rather than the material fact of class division.  Class might be determined by these moments of oppression, but it also and simultaneously determines these moments of oppression.  Again: in the final instance we have to recognize social/economic class as the basis of revolutionary struggle.

3) The theory of intersectionality, a term flouted about by those committed to an identitarian approach, is ultimately banal.  While it is indeed a fact that class, race, sex, gender, nationality, etc. intersect, recognizing this fact is about as useful as recognizing that the clouds are grey when it is close to raining.  No theory of intersectionality proposed by proponents of post-modern and identitarian approaches has done anything more significant than inform us of the obvious fact that oppression intersects and overlaps; they generally fail to explain why and how they overlap, and more importantly they fail to provide a praxis of revolutionary unity.  Here the statements of intersectionality mean only the recognition of disparate trajectories that happen to intersect, just because they do, rather than provide a precise epistemology of intersection.

So wtf is the “unity”?

So wtf is the “unity”?

4) Revolutionary communists have known, for a long time, that disparate oppressions intersect in the moment of class which is the final instance rather than a separate identitarian trajectory.  By pretending that social class is something that is only a moment of intersection, rather than the material basis that makes sense of intersection, identity politics cannot challenge capitalism in a scientific manner.  Instead, all it can do is offer moralizations.

5) Those who champion the enshrined practices of identity politics––anti-oppression training, “safe spaces”, rarified theories of privilege, abstract movementism––are generally petty-bourgeois academics.  The irony is that while many of these people possess a significant level of intellectual privilege (and note that the post-modern theories behind this politics are currently accessible mainly to students and intellectuals) they do not grasp the privilege generated by their social class as the primary moment of privilege, or even recognize that they are economically privileged, when they speak of privilege, oppression, intersectionality, etc.  Hence the failure to produce a material analysis of oppression: under capitalism those who possess the most “privilege” are those who possess the most economic autonomy, i.e. the bourgeosie, and those who possess the intellectual autonomy to flourish in the spaces opened by identity politics also possess, in some very significant ways and regardless of their specific identities (oppressed or otherwise), the very privilege they imagine they lack.  None of this is to say that these practices were not at one point of time necessary, or at least the logical result of the class essentialism of a crude marxism, but just that they can be nothing more than a petty-bourgeois activism that produces neo-reformism.

6) Although there have been numerous marxist attempts to reject identity politics without falling back into class essentialism, most have ended up reifying the content of identity politics.  (Hence the recent bad faith appropriation of proletarian feminism where the same identitarian notion of “privilege” is presupposed and revolutionary theorists such as Anuradha Gandhy are poached by bourgeois feminists who replace exploitation with an idealist concept of oppression.)  Generally speaking, in our attempt to supersede a class essentialism while learning from the politics of identity, some of us tend to err more on the side of the latter in an attempt to overcome the problems of the former.  This error makes sense in light of the history of crude marxism and yet is still an error… for if we claim we are marxists, then we need to offer something more and beyond the simplest and idealist rejections of a marxism that belongs in the dustbin of history.

7) The legacy of identity politics has produced a problematic language idealism where we focus more on correct words and phrases rather than the material basis of oppression… And even in the moment where we imagine we are indeed combatting real world oppression we are, in fact, simply engaging with the level of appearance.  We often fail to recognize that those who lack the privileged education to understand the correct terminology and turns of phrase are not necessarily those who are chauvinist, just as we fail to recognize that those who possess the education to hide their chauvinism with the correct language are indeed the enemy.  This language idealism becomes nothing but a self-righteous exercise when it refuses to contemplate a praxis of mass pedagogy based on actually changing the material circumstances and instead focuses on anti-oppression training, atomized concepts of privilege, and how to speak correctly.  It becomes utterly rarified and intentionally ignorant when it demands that we waste our time examining every word and turn of phrase at the expense of changing the material circumstances upon which this language is dependent.  Moralism abounds.

8) Now there are innumerable marxists who appeal to identity politics in order to justify their lack of praxis.  It is no accident that those who are the least active in attempting to engage with the proletarian and declass are also those who most rigidly abide by the dictates of identity politics––indeed, the theoretical constellation of identity politics often provides the inactive marxist with an excuse to remain inactive.  One must not engage with the masses if they say the wrong words; one must not engage with concrete reality if it cannot be transformed so easily into a safe space.

9) We need to ask why the [lack of revolutionary] praxis mobilized by identity politics matters only to radicals at the centres of global capitalism.  Why is this set politics seen as petty-bourgeois by revolutionary movements at the global peripheries––movements that are tired of those intellectuals who, in the moment of theorizing about the subaltern’s ability to speak for itself, attempt to decide the manner in which this subaltern can speak in order to be understood as subaltern?  When we ask these questions we may be forced to recognize that identity politics is connected to a radical petty-bourgeois strain of what might be called the labour aristocracy––or at the very least a group of privileged migrant ex-patriates––and that its theorization of privilege is also an attempt to obscure its own especial privilege.

10) The fact that identity politics, and its theoretical basis in post-modern theory, is predominant only at the centres of capitalism is no accident.  This is not to say that the insights produced by this ultimately petty-bourgeois practice have not been useful and significant (indeed some crude marxisms it sought to correct were also petty-bourgeois) only that these insights are limited precisely by their petty-bourgeois idealism and inability to examine the material basis of reality––that is, social class.  Social class is precisely that which can be obscured at the privileged centres of imperialism.

(originally posted at M-L-M Mayhem!)

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Carl Davidson December 6, 2013 at 5:21 pm

This piece wants to avoid a ‘class essentialist’ reductionism, but it doesn’t. It’s assumption is class is a relation to production (correct) and is thus ‘material,’ while many key identities–nationality, sex, family history, religion and so on, are not ‘material’ which is simply wrong, and a back door into metaphysics.

I’ll just repost here a brief comment made in another threat here that is closely related:

I start with the notion of
‘conflicted consciousness,’ borrowed from Hegel, Gramsci and WEB DuBois,
on this matter. Viewed singularly, any given consciousness is a
hologram of colluding and contending interests, identities, core values
and beliefs. It has both the ‘I’ of reflectiveness and the ‘me’ shaped
by our social transactions.

I prefer it to ‘false consciousness,’ a term Marx never used, because
that implies a ‘true consciousness,’ which is a slippery slope to both
metaphysics and a backward elitism.

All this is my way of holding that it’s not ‘class’ vs, ‘identity’.
One’s class interest is shaped by one’s relation to production, while
one’s identities–and there are a lot of them–are shaped by one’s
family history, position in a social order, biology and so on. Values
are often embedded by family and church. and new values can replace
older ones over time.

As an organizer, one of my tasks in the practice of the ‘mass line,’
is to draw people out on these matters, so I might gather up all the
contradictions in their conflicted consciousness, learn some new things
myself (I am one with a conflicted consciousness, too), and then try to
find a progressive path, mobilizing all positive factors in our
thinking, isolate the negative, so we can move toward a more ‘awake’ and
all-sided revolutionary consciousness.

Finally, I’ll just note that the ‘mother lode’ on privilege is Ted
Allen’s ‘Invention of the White Race’ (Two volumes, Verso). Ted was
Marxist to the core, and saw the white-skin privilege, a term he coined,
in class terms, ie, as a social control instrument reinforcing a notion
of ‘race’ that has no existence in biology. He also saw it as not in
the class interest of any worker, any more than ‘the worm on the hook is
in the interest of the fish.’ Others may have made different uses of
the term, but I’d go to the source for a deeper understanding.


JMP December 6, 2013 at 7:18 pm

Maybe read the back links before attributing certain positions to this piece. Nowhere in this piece (which is about a year old) do I assert that oppressed identities are not material––hence the reason I linked to my previous work on this matter. Rather, I argue that a certain approach to identity/oppression is idealist. In fact, the back links explain what I mean by social class, which is different than what you have attributed to me.


Jeff K. December 6, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Good article, but I would argue that oppression based on identities other than class DOES have material consequences. However, I would also argue that the current postmodern paradigm of identity politics is insufficient and inferior to a non-reductionist Marxist analysis and praxis.


JMP December 6, 2013 at 7:21 pm

The problem with this article that I wrote about a year ago is that it is not an essay but summary of a position; it is thus incapable of addressing the problematic comprehensibly. I fully agree that there are significant material consequences for people who experience oppression based on their identity; I also would argue, however, that this is connected in some way to social class and we can understand it better in a sophisticated marxist framework. The back-links should explain this in more detail.


Olmo Dalco December 6, 2013 at 3:23 pm

“The theory of intersectionality, a term flouted about by those committed to an identitarian approach, is ultimately banal. […] No theory of intersectionality proposed by proponents of post-modern and identitarian approaches has done anything more significant than inform us of the obvious fact that oppression intersects and overlaps; they generally fail to explain why and how they overlap, and more importantly they fail to provide a praxis of revolutionary unity. ” There is nothing banal about analyzing a specific intersectionality. First of all it is still common among some old-school marxists to see other forms of social contradictions than class as something that is merely imposed by the ruling class to divide the working class and therefore they should be put aside. If this is the approach to “revolutionary unity” then we will never get it, because the social contradictions pave their way if we want or not. Simply suppressing them is therefore not an option.

Intersectionality in a not so banal way is not to acknowledge the fact that different contradictions intersect but to analyze the way how they intersect. This is part of what Lenin called the “concrete analysis of the concrete situation”.

Building revolutionary unity is not an easy task and it is definitely more than uniting the working class. It is the extraordinary hard task of forming a social block the goes beyond the particular interests of the interest united in it. This is where intersectionality comes in, not as a solution but as “posing a problem” (cf. http://www.leninology.com/2013/03/the-point-of-intersection.html.)


audiored December 7, 2013 at 3:00 am
Tanner December 7, 2013 at 8:09 am

This is another Sokal Hoax, right?


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