Coming Back to Work: Towards a Synthesis of Identity and Class

by Sophia Burns on July 20, 2016


What should the Left make of the relationship between the “politics of identity” and the “politics of class?”

By and large, there’s only moderate overlap between the activists who describe themselves primarily as intersectional and those who characterize their orientation in terms of class conflict. For the former, class-war leftists typically ignore or at least downplay the importance of racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, transphobia and the other “isms.” They claim that a “class reductionist” point of view lies behind the failure of traditional communists to adequately address multiple vectors of oppression. Additionally, they point to the “brocialist,” “macktivist,” and “manarchist” phenomena, noting that persistent racial and gender violence not only undermine “class first” leftism, but also even turn many leftist spaces into locations of abuse and oppression.

(Note that while intersectionality was initially described as an alternative to identity politics, they emerged from the same sources and – more importantly – the same political milieu. By now, in practice, they don’t refer to materially separate currents. Sure, the difference may seem substantial to those immersed in either worldview. However, it’s not too far from the way the Hoxhaist and Maoist flavors of anti-revisionist Leninism understand themselves as different to the point of antagonism: seen from outside, the political distance barely spans a centimeter. They may take slightly different approaches to the same set of assumptions, but their ideological world remains essentially shared.)

On the other hand, traditional leftists’ critiques of identity politics range from moderately sympathetic to profoundly hostile. Reducing class to another “ism,” they observe, distorts the actual material reality of capitalism. Identity politics, they say, imposes itself as speaking for members of marginalized communities who may, themselves, actually prioritize concerns that identity politics neglects. The emphasis on personal experience and individual conduct, they assert, has produced an elitist and emotionally abusive subculture that defends multimillionaires, encourages counterproductive atomization, and can lead to truly repugnant conclusions.

Spend enough time around either scene, and you’ll start to see the merit in the other’s accusations. Conversely, each has persuasive positive arguments – respectively, that racism, patriarchy, etc deserve deep consideration in their own right, and that the large majority of people stand to benefit from the abolition of the class system through socialism.

Now, communists should know what to do when two conflicting forces both contain necessary truths. However, before we can resolve this dialectical contradiction through a synthesis, we need to explore the specific ways that each of the two sides emerged.


History of the contradiction

In the industrial-capitalist world, the concrete legacy of the pre-WW2 “Old Left” (the Third International, the social democrats, the class warriors of the Depression) ended up being the postwar “great compromise.” Capital conceded a welfare state and institutionalized collective bargaining. In exchange, the Left effectively dropped its revolutionary ambitions.

Cycles of mass politicization tend to end like that. There’s a few reforms, so most people are a bit better off, the protests die down, and capitalism chugs along like normal again. Then, the ruling class chips its concessions away, and the protest-reform cycle starts over. And indeed, a generation after the postwar compromise, the next wave of radicalism showed up. The New Left built itself through second-wave feminism, antiwar students, ecology, the racial justice and anticolonial movements, and gay liberation. That upsurge didn’t win either; the capitalist class and systemic oppression remain solidly in place. So, without a revolution, what “great compromise” did they accomplish? Instead of expanding social services and union power, they effected so-called “cultural” changes. Gay sex, abortion, and birth control got legalized. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts became law. De jure racial segregation ceased. Vietnam won its independence war. Then, the mass movements faded. Their hardcore participants collapsed into a subculture. By the 80s, the “politics of identity” took the dominant position within that increasingly-insular, still-extant activist scene. That became what we today think of as “the activist community.”

Beginning with the Maoist rejection of Soviet-aligned parties, the New Left defined itself in opposition not only to capitalism and empire, but also to the Old Left. Outside the Maoist milieu, the young movements analyzed and denounced social structures that, they noticed, the Old Left had largely ignored – gender, sexuality, un- or underpaid domestic work, and ecological degradation. They built their ideas explicitly against their Marxist and trade-unionist precursors’ “class-first” fixation. So, when the New Left’s “great compromise” came, it didn’t get institutionally integrated through social programs and organized labor. Instead, that took shape through a plethora of NGOs and the aforementioned subcultural clique of “progressives.” Additionally, particularly among the Eurocommunist and social democratic parties (and even the Democratic Party in the US), the New Left “non-class” set of emphases largely displaced the previous emphasis on union rights, welfarism, and (for some) working-class revolution.

(Obviously, my use of the terms “Old Left” and “New Left” oversimplifies each; both generations of radicals included many diverse currents and competing ideas, some of which directly opposed the prevailing tendencies. Neither actually operated according to a universally agreed-upon consensus. However, the “class-only Old Left” and “identity-first New Left” generalizations do represent the tendencies within each that, after their respective heydays, retained sticking power and lasting influence.)

A generation after the New Left, we have the beginning of a new mass upswing. Rainbow-stickered cops and drone war feminism ought to plainly disprove any belief in an inherent revolutionariness to the New Left’s legacy. As the postwar compromise washes away through neoliberalism, the latest rounds of primitive accumulation increasingly occur within the social, interpersonal, and cultural fabric of life. The service sector commodifies work that, fifty years ago, largely happened outside of monetized labor exchange. Facebook makes a saleable commodity out of conversations between friends (and discussions of left-wing ideas). Gentrifying developers sell not just condominiums, but also the “unique personality” of neighborhoods. The substance of neoliberal capitalism, much more than earlier capitalist forms, consists of the enclosure specifically of the social and cultural commons.

This includes identities and the New Left politics thereof. Feminism, queer politics, and mainline antiracism have been rendered not dangerous challenges to capitalism, but increasingly-commodified cultural commons that neoliberal capital encloses, monetizes, and sells. Sure, the racial, sexual, and gender oppressions that the New Left identified existed and still exist. The New Left criticism of the Old Left as fixated on monetized labor and narrowly traditional definitions of class also certainly holds water. We sometimes find calls to transcend neoliberalized, capitalized identity politics through a “return to class,” albeit often coupled with an observation that working-class economic strength benefits all oppressed people. That rings no truer than did the original Marxist denunciations of the New Left. So, when both sides of an opposition have a legitimate point, and both have proven unable to succeed on their own, what should communists do? Like good dialecticians, let’s negate the negation.


Approaching a synthesis

Let’s start with work.

What’s work? Work is human activity, of every sort. Simply existing in social relation to others is a form of work. So is continuing to metabolically expend energy to continue bodily life. That’s work each of us does for ourselves, but it depends on other people’s work, too. After all, no individual solely by themselves creates every single bit of their food, clothing, and shelter; no single person keeps the air they breath clean enough get by, or the water they drink potable enough to stay in their stomach. The more elaborate the human activity (i.e. the work) becomes, the more cooperation from others it demands. Work is human activity. Human activity is collective and social.

Work doesn’t have to be mediated through money. Even if it’s not monetized, it’s still part of the overall system of labor (currently, capitalism). Creating culture? Paid or not, that’s work just as much as carpentry. Housework and emotional care? Building identities, subcultures, interpersonal networks? If being an assembly line machinist counts as work, all of that does too. Further, all of it is every bit as collective as waged production; it’s equally social. That’s important – even those types of socially-reproductive and cultural work that aren’t monetized (yet; neoliberal enclosure spreads fast) form just as much a potential base for communization as the industrial labor beloved of the Old Left. In short, waged and officially recognized or not, all of us are workers (aside from the true capitalist class). We’re all the active proletariat.

That brings our synthesis to class. Of course, this isn’t a “return” to 19th-century or Old Left Marxism. Marxist feminism’s dichotomy of reproductive and productive labor, of the “production of commodities” against the “reproduction of persons,” rung true when the New Left emerged. After all, it contradicted the Old Left’s fixation on monetized work and commodified tangible objects, describing reality better. The older conception had to be negated. Negating the productive-reproductive negation, however, brings us to an even more complete idea of production. Human activity leads to results that bring some sort of benefit to someone. The generation of those benefits – in communist lingo, production – requires the cooperation of many people. Any benefit created through work also implies quite a lot of prior work. After all, didn’t it need the work that produced supplies, education, raw materials, and the workers’ own bodies, upbringings, and social existence? In other words, all production involves the whole fabric of social life, monetized or not. Every act of work depends on and, therefore, is a continuation of every other act of work. Every point on the grid contains and is contained by every other point. When the benefits of particular acts of work get sold on the market for money, those benefits have then become commodities. Selling commodities constitutes one of the foundations of capitalism. Contrary, however, to the Old Left’s fetish for tangible objects made in factories, services are no less commodities than goods. Service work and social reproduction are productive in every sense.  A car, a restaurant server’s smile, and an hour in math class are all, fully and equally, benefits made by human activity. Since they’re all sold on the market (under the direction of the ruling ownership class), they’re all commodities. Where, then, would we find a legitimate basis to privilege physical objects (and the assembly thereof)?

Not everyone does the same kinds of work. The complexity of the processes of human activity involves the division of labor. Some people cook or clean. Others create different kinds of culture. Still others sew blue jeans, print posters, or drive taxis. For communists, the end goal involves making this division of labor fluid, allowing each individual to choose work according to their changing inclinations. Currently, however, that’s not the case. The division of labor occurs at an abstract level first. The groups that do different work get constituted according to the work they do – and the work that produces the benefits they receive.

Take one example: some people do “reproductive” work for themselves and others. Different people largely receive those benefits without doing that kind of work. The members of those groups then do the further work of creating internal culture and social norms for themselves and each other. We call the former group “women” and the latter “men.” The abstract-level relationship between those groups involves exploitation. Firstly, the division of labor assigns certain work to a particular group; then, it assigns some of the benefits of that work to other groups. Exploitation means the unreciprocated receipt of the benefits of particular kinds of work, as established through social and economic structures. The different groups that do certain work and receive certain benefits are classes. Exploitation occurs only between classes; individuals come later, filling in the preexisting categories. The structural division of labor precedes any given person. Everyone gets sorted into pre-established classes. Under this exploitation-centered definition, different genders are different classes, as are different races. The division of labor and the assignation of benefits comprise two basic components of class. However, there’s also a third component: the agency to determine the specifics of labor division and benefit assignation. Class is also made of power. At the root, every class is created through and by this division of work, benefits, and power, and classes only come into being through their relationships with other classes.

There are many classes, most of which do important kinds of work. Let’s call those working classes – in the plural, moving past the Old Left’s singular working class. Different working classes do different work. Sometimes, the beneficiaries of that work include other working classes. That’s privilege. Many of the New Left’s insights hinge on the identification of privilege. But doing work and benefiting from it comprise only two-thirds of class. Who has power? Who gets to decide how work and benefit get divided?

That’s where the New Left analysis of privilege – exploitation between working classes – runs dry. On the question of power, the Old Left had more of the truth. Only one class has power. That’s the bourgeoisie. That’s the wealthy executives and business owners, the true capitalist class. What makes a ruling class isn’t just exploitation. It’s agency. It’s power. Members of some working classes – men and whites, for instance – do exploit other working classes’ labor. Men and mascs benefit from the unreciprocated labor of women and femmes; whites benefit from the unreciprocated labor of people of color. Further, members of those classes receive a degree of leeway to enforce those relationships of exploitation and class divisions. That’s why it’s so routine to see whites get away with racist vigilantism (or subtler discrimination, stereotyping, and microaggressions), and to see men get away with rape, harassment, catcalling, and abuse. But if those with privilege aren’t in the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class in the strict sense we’ve had from Marx on down, they still aren’t part of the ruling class. They lack the structural ability to decide anything about the division of labor and the assignation of benefits. A working-class man can be an excellent feminist, but he logistically can’t abolish patriarchy. A white can be an antiracist, but they lack the means to end white supremacy. Privilege isn’t power. Only the ruling ownership class actually gets to decide who exploits whom and how different classes get constituted. The only class with actual, structural power is the class that controls the means of production.

In the end, all the different working classes, despite all the exploitation between them, fall together into one big, hybrid class: the proletariat, the disempowered working class, monetized or not. The proletariat is singular and plural. Does this resemble the Old Left notion of two classes, proletariat and bourgeoisie? Sure. However, treating the proletariat as one class to which “additional discrimination” gets appended falls short. Either you can define class as Marx did, in terms of the exploitation of labor (and you should), or you can treat the proletariat as one singular class. Those two positions directly contradict each other. The synthesis to those antitheses lies in the notion of the proletariat as a diverse grouping of classes, some of which exploit others, but none of which truly have the power to decide who exploits whom. And as New Left privilege theorists have noted, particular working classes have an immediate stake in maintaining their benefit from other working classes’ exploited labor. Whites benefit from white privilege, and men from male privilege. However, once this insight veers into a reductionist “politics of identity” that effectively forgets who’s actually in charge, it fails. Even privileged working classes have a bigger long-term stake in doing away with class entirely, because otherwise they can’t be empowered. Power’s worth more than privilege. Individuals can only enjoy an authentically free life through the abolition of the division of labor, which demands a pan-proletarian revolution to disempower the ownership class and bring the means of production under communal control.

That’s the uniting principle. That’s the synthesis. True proletarian class unity means four things:

  1. All human activity is cooperative work.
  2. The division of labor and assignation of benefits occur at a structural level, creating classes that sometimes exploit each other, into which individuals subsequently get sorted.
  3. Some working classes exploit each other (privilege). However, all working classes share a lack of power over the creation of privilege, exploitation, and class, and thus a shared ultimate interest in abolishing class and exploitation entirely – their own privileges included.
  4. The ownership class of capitalists (Marx’s bourgeoisie) remains the ruling class: it not only exploits all other classes, but also uniquely wields structural power over the division of labor and assignation of benefits.

If you leave out the work of creating cultures and identities, the work of emotional labor and care, or the work of waged commodity production, you’ve broken class unity. Labor is broad and diverse and everywhere. Racialized and gendered kinds of work are, in their own right, class-constituting types of labor on a level with every other type. Proletarian politics should ignore that no more than it should ignore bricklayers in favor of pipefitters.

Could we envision, say, a whites-only “socialism” that maintains the class divisions of race, that empowers all members of a particular working class against the others? Sure, we can imagine (and, for that matter, observe) movements intended to accomplish that. However, they won’t and can’t succeed. Without proletarian unity, which means anti-racism and feminism and disability liberation, the ownership class will simply pit different working classes against each other. It’s done that plenty, and usually with success. Either we correctly name and target the actual enemy – the class that both exploits and exercises structural power – or we will find ourselves unable to break its hegemony. Truly isolating one class means uniting every other class against it; we have to do that to the ownership class, because if we don’t, its hegemony will cause any “partial proletarian” politics, a movement of one working class for its own supremacy over the others, to flow into intra-proletarian antagonisms that prevent the ruling class’s hegemony from actually being defeated. “An injury to one is an injury to all” is description, not prescription.

We in the many working classes – the singular and plural proletariat – share a duty to each other. We must organize together against all exploitation and disempowerment, against the ruling class and class itself, and for the absolute freedom of human activity and cooperation. Synthesize the Old Left and the New. Use the synthesis: set ourselves – and each other – free.


Sophia Burns is a communist and a member of The North Star’s editorial collective. An officer in both RATPAC and the Communist Labor Party, her work can also be found at Gods&Radicals.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

abraham Weizfeld PhD July 20, 2016 at 3:22 pm

This discussion has a precedent in the debates around the Jewish Bund. For a Bundist evaluaion see the Thesis ;
Nation, Society and the State :
the reconciliation of Palestinian and Jewish Nationhood–SOCIETY–AND–THE-STATE.aspx


Aaron Aarons July 23, 2016 at 2:39 am

How can one write over 3,000 words about the structure and dynamics of the capitalist society we live in without once using any word beginning with the letters ‘impe’? Can anything be explained about the class relations within the imperialist countries without mentioning that those countries’ economies are the product of ongoing imperialist and colonial looting and, in the United Snake in particular, internal colonialism?

Moreover, the identity politics we should be most concerned with opposing is not the identity politics of groups suffering special oppression, but the identity politics of the oppressors. In the U.S, the identity, “white”, is no longer fashionable as a basis for political argument except among a minority of “whites”, the identity “American”, especially when expressed as “patriotic American”, serves the same purpose of uniting a privileged population in defense of its relative privileges against the rest of the world, and particularly against the non-“white” world. This is the identity politics that may put a fascistic demagogue like Donald Trump in at least formal control of the world’s number one murder machine.


Max Thomas August 14, 2016 at 5:32 pm

A good read by still a 50 fifty year old ‘Trojan horse’ is clung to here in the west and most certainly not critiqued in this article…even the odd fem writer has connected the co-opting of their agenda by the neo-liberal globalized marketplace. I would more harshly judge that the ‘useful idiots’ were created as classic divide and rule…that weakened men, destroyed nuclear/extended blood family and weakened community (enabled at govt level by no-fault divorce and sole parent benefits), the flooding of a decreasing paid work market which ensured smashed unions enabled the change of work from full time to various states of impermanence and greater worker compliance alongside our ‘real work’ being exported to the 3rd world…how could ‘love’ not exist between the fems and the neo-liberals?


Sophia Burns August 14, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Abraham Weizfeld PhD – there’s so much of interest in the Jewish Bund! It’s a pity that so few contemporary leftists seem to know much about them.

Aaron Aarons – I’m not interested in abstract comparisons of ideas as ideas; when I say “identity politics,” in the context of a piece about the history of the US Left, I mean the actual, materially-real political tendencies within the Left, not a rhetorical/conceptual point about how “but aren’t racist etc politics a politics of identity too?!” This is about synthesizing two oppositional poles within the Left within the US, not what rhetoric can be applied to the Right (and just to be explicit, my goal wasn’t to reject the insights of leftist identity politics, but rather – again – to synthesize them with the insights of classical socialism).

Yeah, imperialism wasn’t something I went into much depth here (again, the concern mainly being the emergence of two tendencies internal to the US Left, and how they might be synthesized), although the analysis around multiple working classes and intra-prole exploitation addresses internal colonialism (albeit using different terminology). I also didn’t go into the nature of the state under capitalism, or questions of revolutionary tactics and organization, and other stuff that’s central and important but beyond the scope of an article that’s only 3k words.

Max Thomas – I’m honestly not sure whether your intended tone is approval or disapproval of what I wrote. However, I want to be explicit: antifeminism is wrong and destructive and reactionary. Toxic masculinity kills the Left (and kills women and LGBT people, and also men, to boot). The nuclear family was invented by the capitalist class and imposed through economic and state force on the working classes, and the sooner it can be done away with, the better.

The commodification of feminism etc under the neoliberal iteration of capitalism does not mean that feminism is somehow inherently neoliberal – it just means that capital is really good at commodifying things, and that the Left needs to go about everything in such a way that we can resist being co-opted as best we can.


Max Thomas September 3, 2016 at 10:54 pm

I thought some of your article worth consideration however I most certainly disagree with your reciting feminist dogma in relation to the west today. It is disingenuous to blame ‘toxic masculinity’ for the woes of the ‘left’ or indeed western society. Where in that ‘story’ is ownership of 50 years of feminist ideology impact on social policy/directions in our western societies?

Where is the ownership for overt attack on males (all men are rapist etc etc) and the destruction of nuclear family having weakened community which allowed the neo-liberal marketplace to make the changes wanted to our societies in the west. Add flooding the limited paid work market with excess workers which helped destroy worker power. Add these two significant ‘victories’ of feminism and the ‘obliging’ state together and realise how easy it was to export ‘our’ real work to the 3rd world.
How easy it was to change work from full-time to various versions of impermanence. None of that was ‘toxic’ masculinity.

In more recent times and increasingly the ‘toxic’ male has deserted the ‘left’ because of the impact of petty identity politics with its hierarchy of ‘victims’ clambering for the ‘soap box’ over real economic problems faced by men and women alike.

The ‘left’ is fatally flawed and part of that is playing ‘divide and rule’ for the real power holders. The ‘left’ as you present it places the neo-liberal Trojan horse of feminism above any critique despite 50 years of individual, family, community and societal impact here in the west. Pure divide and rule across the most fundamental level of our human species. No other species excels through direct competition between the sexes.

It is illusion that feminism has improved life for anyone other than a minority of educated women. It is not ‘toxic masculinity’ that hurts the ‘left’ or indeed society it was the marginalization of males inside blood family and within the ‘walls of education’.

Replacing the real father with ‘daddy’ state which is all part of the erosion of any actual freedom in the west traded for regulations, laws, ‘security’ via state systems to instruct and inform every relationship. The noose of totalitarian state deals to ‘us’ all.

The societal fringe and its dysfunctional behaviours is a growth industry. Providing many revenue streams for the shrinking middle classes and the ‘educated’ ‘professionals’ that still cling to that strata of society. Money blinds the ideological ‘winners’ to the co-opting of ‘their’ flawed endeavours.

I do not personally see any way forward this side of the globalised Ponzi scheme falling over and/or WW3 escalation from its present location.


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