Marxism and identity politics

July 11, 2008

Sharon Smith, a columnist and author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States and Women and Socialism, spoke at Socialism 2008 on how to understand oppression and identity politics.

NO MATTER what we think of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama as political candidates, it's also at the same time a reason for optimism and a reason to celebrate that in this election year in the United States, this society has finally broken through the iron walls of racism and sexism that have ruled mainstream politics in this country--and that millions of people have now embraced the prospect of making history by electing either the first woman or the first African-American president in U.S. history. And let's face it--this has been a long time coming.

Yet somehow, the Democratic primary season managed to suck the air out of the optimism of this election year. We all just witnessed, in horror, one of ugliest displays of "Who's more oppressed?" rhetoric emanating mainly from the Clinton campaign--which pitted the identity of white women against the identity of Black men in a vile slugfest that effectively reduced the future of U.S. politics to whether a white woman or a Black man was more deserving of the Democratic Party nomination, based on ranking the degree of oppression that both groups have faced.

Demonstrating for abortion rights in San Francisco in January 2005
Demonstrating for abortion rights in San Francisco in January 2005 (Josh On | SW)

It was ugly, and it was ludicrous. Here's Hillary Clinton, a multimillionaire, her income with Bill Clinton $110 million since 2000. There she was, posed on the back of a pickup truck, drinking shots of whisky and appealing to, in her words, those "hard-working white Americans" who couldn't stomach voting for a Black man.

It couldn't have been more vile until Geraldine Ferraro, a former vice presidential candidate. She takes the cake for stooping to the lowest political level in her support of Hillary Clinton, when she stated in an interview, "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position." As if he was not qualified for the job, but had an unfair advantage because he is an African American, contrary to all historical experience.

If there was ever any doubt as to Ferraro's point, she added a stronger dose as Hillary's campaign got more and more desperate toward the very end. It was standard racist fare that she wrote in the Boston Globe a couple weeks back. She wrote, "Perhaps it's because neither the Barack Obama campaign nor the media seem to understand what is at the heart of the anger on the part of women who feel that Hillary Clinton was treated unfairly because she is a woman, or what is fueling the concern of Reagan Democrats, for whom sexism isn't an issue, but reverse racism is."

From Socialism 2008

Some 1,000 people from across the U.S. gathered for a weekend of left politics and discussion at the Socialism 2008 conference on June 19-22 in Chicago. is publishing some of the presentations--click here for a list.

Significantly, Ferrao continued, "If you're white you can't open your mouth without being accused of being racist." Without a blink, Ferraro shifted from a committed feminist to a self-righteous, racist bigot.

Now, it's important to note that all this poison was spewed despite the fact that Clinton's and Obama's political positions are both standard neoliberalism and are virtually indistinguishable from one another. And for the record, neither candidate has offered anything close to the kind of challenge to the racist, sexist and homophobic status quo that is needed if we have any hope of actually ending oppression, which presumably would be the point.

SO NOW that we have this very painful example of the intrinsic problem whenever identities of oppressed people turn on each other when they are in competition with each other, we have to measure the theory to the practice.

In this meeting, I am going to be critiquing the theory of "identity" politics and counterposing a basic Marxist analysis as a much more effective means for fighting against oppression.

What else to read

Sharon Smith's Women and Socialism is a collection of essays on women's oppression and the struggle against it, with several taking up the question of identity politics.

She is also the author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, a historical account of the American working-class movement.

Smith takes up the Marxist case about identity politics in "The politics of identity," published in the International Socialist Review. Also see "Whatever happened to feminism?" and "Abortion rights under attack" in the ISR.

I plan to illustrate my argument with actual living experiences we can all relate to, including the recent Clinton-Obama debacle, in order to show that what we just witnessed in the primary season was not a fluke, but that the logic of identity politics leads to divisions between oppressed groups who have no reason to be fighting each other and every reason to unite and fight against all oppression.

By the way, though I'm not going to go into it much here, the theory of identity politics is really a product of academic post-modernism. They theory defines itself as a post-Marxist theory, and in reality, it's an anti-Marxist theory. So I just want to make it clear that this defense of Marxism isn't coming out of the blue, but as a defense against an anti-Marxist theory.

Now, before I move on, I want to make it clear what I'm not going to be arguing against, because I don't want there to be any misunderstanding. The starting point for this meeting is a recognition that racism, sexism and homophobia have skyrocketed in recent years--to a point where I often need to pinch myself to realize that this is not some kind of horrific nightmare, this is actually unfolding in real time.

Let's just review some of the highlights of the last year or so: Last fall, as I'm sure many students here are aware, Islamo-fascism week was held on many campuses around the country, depicting Muslims as die-hard terrorists and fascists, however much Hitler himself would have despised this particular population.

But that is the world we live in today. White students in Jena, Louisiana, hung nooses on a tree, and Black students ended up in prison. Fred Phelps and his wacko Christian crusaders picket outside funerals of gay dead soldiers, with signs proclaiming that they belong in hell.

This is outrageous enough, but as we know, the problem--and I know everyone here is aware of it--extends way beyond the extremist fringe and is part and parcel of mainstream so-called discourse.

From mainstream pundits who regularly blame young women, for example, for date rape, as if it's a figment of their imaginations--this is one of the main problems of feminism they like to go on about. There's no trouble finding experts in the mainstream media right now proclaiming that Islam is a violent and murderous religion. Forgetting the Christian Crusades and how murderous and violent that was. Forgetting that in the United States, not that long ago, so-called witches were burned at the stake.

We need no more evidence that racism is respectable in mainstream discourse than Geraldine Ferraro taking the side of racist whites. This is the last quote I'm going to have from her, but it's so important. I'm quoting from that Boston Glove op-ed piece. She says of racist whites, who she's defending: "They see Obama's playing the race card throughout the campaign and no one calling him for it as frightening...[W]hen he said in South Carolina after his victory 'Our Time Has Come,' they believe he is telling them that their time has passed."

Well, we certainly do hope that their time has passed. And that doesn't make us anti-feminists to believe that.

Now, before I continue, I also want to make clear that I am not, in any way, shape or form, making an argument against the legitimacy of individual personal identity, nor am I saying that people's individual experiences don't make up a great deal of everyone's personal identity. That goes without saying.

It makes perfect sense that a woman's personal identity is shaped in large part by her own experiences facing oppression in her own life--and that those experiences help her shape her political consciousness and awareness of women's oppression. In the same way, it makes sense that if you are African-American, Latino, Arab, Muslim--the list, of course, of racially oppressed populations is very long--your awareness of racism comes in large part from your personal experience.

No white person can ever fully understand what it's like to experience racism. No straight person can ever fully understand what it's like to experience homophobia. And even among people who are oppressed by racism, every experience is different. A Black person and a Native American person, for example, experience racism differently--as does a person from Mexico versus a person from Puerto Rico. A gay man and a lesbian have very different experiences in their personal lives. These are facts, and I'm not disputing any of them.

I want to make a clear distinction between what is personal and what is political: an individual's personal experience is quite separate from the realm of politics, which is about how to affect society as a whole. In the case of identity, a person's identity only becomes political when it moves beyond the realm of personal experience and becomes a strategy for changing society--and in particular, for fighting against oppression, in this case.

Every set of politics is based on a theory--and in this case, it's a theory about an analysis of the root causes of oppression. So the analysis of oppression informs the politics of social movements against oppression.

I want to clarify one more concept before I move on. All oppression is based on inequality. Women and men are not equals in society--men have it much better than women. Whites have it much better than African Americans and so on. Nor is there any doubt whatsoever that struggles against oppression will be led by the oppressed themselves. We do not expect men to tell women how women should fight back. Women will be the ones who lead the struggle for women's liberation.

How do we know that? We know that because it has always been that way historically. In fact, the 1960s in this country witnessed massive struggles against oppression: the movement for women's liberation, led by women; the first struggles for gay liberation, led by gays; and the largest and most powerful of all the movements against oppression were the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s and '60s.

But having said that, it's also true, however, that women and African Americans were not alone in fighting against their oppression. Thousands of men took part in the women's movement of the 1960s, fighting for the right to choose and so on. And many thousands of whites actively supported and participated in the civil rights movement.

Now, it is true that this wasn't the case with the gay liberation movement that was born with the Stonewell Rebellion in 1969. That movement did start out pretty much as a gay-only movement--not by choice. But society has caught up since then, with the majority of the population today favoring gay rights. The most recent poll that just came out last week showed that only 38 percent of the population in the U.S. today opposes legal rights for gay couples, either in the form of civil unions or gay marriage. That is a complete turn of the tables from 20 years ago.

This is a very important fact, and it's ignored by identity politics--that you don't have to personally experience a form of oppression to be able to actively oppose it. This very important fact hasn't been taken into consideration at all, because the central premise of the theory of identity politics is that only those who experience a particular form of oppression are capable of fighting against it--that, generally speaking, everybody else is part of the problem and therefore can't be part of the solution, and when you come right down to it, all men benefit from women's oppression, all straight people benefit from gay oppression, and all whites benefit from racism.

THE FLIP side is the idea that everybody who faces a common form of oppression is united in their interest in ending it. So since all women are oppressed within society, all women therefore share a common interest, no matter what social class they might come from. All Blacks are oppressed, and therefore all Blacks share a common interest.

According to the theory of identity politics, the root of oppression appears to lie not with a capitalist power structure, but with a white male power structure. Now that may sound like a like semantic difference, but it isn't. We hear that term all the time: white male power structure. Once again, it seems to make common sense because if you do look at the most visible power structures in society--if you look at who runs the biggest corporations, who sits in the highest government posts and so on--with a few exceptions, and they're important ones, but the truth is that it's pretty much white men in suits--I don't know how else to put it.

That's true, but it only tells half the story. It would be highly inaccurate at this point to say that all women are powerless in society, all Blacks are powerless and so forth. Because since the movements of the 1960s and '70s, a fairly significant number of women in particular, but also certainly a significant number of African Americans and Latinos have managed to climb the corporate and political ladder. They've been absorbed into various power structures and have achieved a fair amount of power in their own right.

That's why in the 2008 election, it's no accident the two Democratic frontrunners were a woman and an African-American, both of them millionaires. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, a white woman. The Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, a Black woman. One of the most powerful politicians in Washington is openly gay Congressman Barney Frank.

So the question we have to ask and we have to answer honestly is: Whose interests do those women and those African-Americans represent once they have achieved some power within the system? The answer, in my opinion, is very plain to see. If you look at their actions--not necessarily by what they say, but what they actually do--you can see that rather than fighting against the racist, sexist and homophobic policies of the system, they become part of carrying them out.

Let's take Barney Frank as an example. When the city of San Francisco first started to hand out same-sex marriage licenses back in 2005 (not this time; again, that's a cause for celebration that gay marriages are taking place), did openly gay Congressman Barney Frank embrace it as a step forward for civil rights? No, he called press conferences so that he could attack it, calling it "divisive" in the mainstream media.

Does Barack Obama champion the rights of Black men at a time when it's desperately needed? No, Obama has made it a regular practice to give a stump speech lecturing Black men for being too immature to take responsibility for their own actions and set a proper example for their children.

I'm going to quote from a speech Obama made to a congregation of Black worshippers a couple of years ago, back in his old church on Fathers Day in Chicago--and he reiterated the same themes on Fathers Day just a week or so ago, at a different Black church. I'd like to point out before I quote this that Obama's same words, if they had come from the mouth of a white politician, would immediately have been recognized for what they are, and that is utterly racist. He said, "There are a lot of folks, a lot of brothers, walking around, and they look like men...they might even have sired a child...But it's not clear to me that they're full-grown men."

What has been Obama's reaction to the virulent racism against him because his middle name is Hussein, suggesting he might--horror of horrors!--have some kind of affiliation with the Muslim religion, one of the largest religions in the world?

Not only has Obama reduced his defense to simply denying he has have anything to do with the Muslim religion, as if it's an embarrassment, but this past weekend, his campaign refused to allow two Muslim women wearing headscarves to appear behind him while he gave a speech at a rally in the Detroit area, for fear that they might appear on TV. Obama's campaign explained to these two women supporters that it would problematic for them to be associated with Obama "in this sensitive political climate."

Nor is it any more compassionate when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Black woman, travels to the Middle East to enforce Israel's racist apartheid against its occupied Palestinian population. Now let's go out on a limb and say: Iranian people will be no better off if and when the U.S. decides to bomb them with Obama in the White House than the Iraqi people were when the Bush administration decided to invade that country.

WHAT ALL these examples show is that there is no such thing as a common, fundamental interest shared by all people who face the same form of oppression. Oppression is not caused by the race, gender or sexuality of particular individuals who run the system, but is generated by the very system itself--no matter who's running it.

It goes without saying that we want to confront sexism, racism and homophobia wherever it happens. But that alone is not going to change the system.

The flip side of the theory of identity politics, which places all straight white men in the enemy camp, is equally problematic--because the entire element of social class is missing from the analysis.

The class divide has not been more obvious in the United States than since the Great Depression of the 1930s. This is not some side issue, but it is the centerpiece of the capitalist system. And it's getting worse by the minute. As we know, food and fuel costs are forcing working-class people to make a choice between filling up their tank with gas so they can get to work and putting food on the table for their families.

But the most basic class analysis is entirely absent from the theory of identity politics. At best, it acknowledges a word we've probably all heard: "classism" "Classism" pretty much reduced to snobbery or a problem of attitude. Now, of course, we're all against snobbery, and we should confront it. But confronting snobs--not that we don't enjoy doing it--does nothing to change the class system.

And this is where Marxism provides a much more logical analysis than identity politics. Figuring out who has an objective interest in upholding women's oppression and in continuing to promote racist ideology or anti-gay bigotry--who materially benefits from racism, sexism and homphobia--depends entirely on what social class you come from.

Contrary to what many people believe today, the special oppression of women, Blacks and the LBGT community actually serves to increase the exploitation and oppression of the working class as a whole.

First, and in a way, most importantly, the ruling class has always relied on a "divide and conquer" mentality. Why? Because it keeps all the exploited and oppressed fighting against one another instead of uniting and fighting against them. It's that straightforward. Unfortunately, Clinton supporters consciously played into this divide-and-conquer mentality when they unleashed their vitriol against Obama supporters during the Democratic primaries. As long as the capitalist class keeps the oppressed fighting against each other, the status quo will remain intact.

And at the most basic objective level, it's important to recognize that no one group of workers ever benefits from particular kinds of oppression. If you look at the U.S., for example, white workers do not benefit from racism--from the fact that Black unemployment is double that of whites, that Black workers earn so much lower wages.

The prevailing view is that if Black workers get a smaller piece of the pie, then white workers get a bigger piece of it. In fact, the opposite is true. In the southern United States, where racism and segregation have historically been the most brutal, white workers in the South have typically earned lower wages than Black workers in the north.

The same dynamic holds true for men and women workers. When lower-paid women workers enter an occupation--like clerical work, which happened in the 1920s--the wages in that occupation tend to drop. The dynamic is simple. It's about competition. Whenever capitalists can force two groups of workers into competition with each other, then wages tend to drop.

The same dynamic holds for the global capitalist system. When U.S. capitalists force U.S. workers into competition with workers in the poorest countries in the world, U.S. workers wages don't rise--they fall. And that's exactly why U.S. wages have been falling in recent years. The only class that benefit is the capitalist class, because they earn bigger profits, and that ensures the survival of the rule of the profit system.

But it's also important to recognize that all working class people--and this is not a popular opinion, but I'm going to lay it out here--suffer from some forms of oppression, even though it is much worse for women, blacks, gays, immigrants. All workers suffer, not just from exploitation at the workplace, but some degree of oppression in society.

Workers pay much higher proportions of their income in taxes. The Chicago sales tax is now 10.25 percent, the highest in the nation. They're literally balancing the budget on the backs of working class people in this city. Working class schools are typically under-funded and overcrowded, neighborhoods more run down, there are more potholes in the streets. And very importantly, something that shouldn't be underemphasized--the prevailing view that workers as a whole are generally regarded as too stupid to run society so it is better to leave it to the "experts."

So oppression is something that even most white male workers suffer to some degree. Not to put it crudely, but if we were to compare and contrast the self-confidence of the vast majority of white male workers next to Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice, it would be a no-brainer to understand that something more than personal identity is a determining factor in oppression. The problem is systemic.

THE POINT here is not at all to trivialize racism, sexism or homophobia, but to understand that the entire working class faces oppression and, more importantly, has an objective interest in ending it.

Of course, workers don't always realize this. Male workers can be utterly sexist; white workers, male and female, utterly racist; straight workers, Black, white and Latino, incredibly homophobic. We know this.

But that's where subjective factors become crucially important. Because unlike the objective factor, which is material interests, subjective factors change according to changing circumstances.

Most important is something I want to lay out at a very basic level--Marx's understanding of what he described as "false consciousness." The definition of false consciousness is quite simple: whenever workers accept ruling class ideology, prejudices and bigotry and what not, they're acting against their own class interests--precisely because these ideas keep workers fighting against each other instead of understanding the common enemy that they share.

One of the most obvious examples of false consciousness is when, as we see today, African-Americans oppose immigrant rights. That's racist. Many oppressed minority oppose gay marriage. That's homophobic. Puerto Rican people often are prejudiced against Mexican people. That's racist. Women call each other "sluts." That's sexist. These are all examples of false consciousness.

Whenever there's a rise in the level of racism, sexism and homophobia, the whole working class loses out--people don't fight back and living standards drop. Conversely, when workers do move into struggle against the system, false consciousness is challenged by the need to unite and fight back. This was demonstrated at the highest point of class struggle in the 1930s, but then again in the 1960s, in the civil rights movement. And it will be demonstrated again with the next rise in mass struggle.

As Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, in a way that really captures the dynamic, "This organization of proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier."

Put differently--and I think this is a good way to illustrate the idea--Marxists tend to distinguish between a working class "in itself," which holds the objective potential in a revolutionary direction, and a working class "for itself," which begins to act in its own interests. The difference is between the objective potential and the subjective organization needed to realize that potential.

Even in the absence of large-scale struggle, consciousness has been changing dramatically under our feet over the last few years--for the last 15 years or so, but even more accelerated between 2000 and 2008.

Let's look at the changes in consciousness in this country around the issue of race, gender and sexuality in the last few years. A 2007 USA Today/Gallup poll showed 94 percent of U.S. respondents said they would vote for a Black presidential candidate, while 88 percent said they would vote for a woman, and roughly the same percentages said they would vote for a Latino.

It's also important to appreciate this seismic shift. A Newsweek poll just a few weeks ago showed 70 percent of voters agreeing that the country is ready for a Black man to serve as president. Only 37 percent that agreed with that in the 2000 election. That's roughly double.

When it comes to legalizing same-sex relationships, it's important to realize that a clear majority of people today either approve of same-sex marriage or gay unions. That's the highest polling on this issue--they've only been polling since 2004 because it was never really an issue until the struggle developed around it, and it's been growing dramatically since 2004.

IDENTITY POLITICS does not address at all the issue of this seismic shift in mass consciousness. Moreover, there is an inherent contradiction in identity politics, which I want to explain. The problem is that oppressions overlap. So lots of people are both Black and female, or both lesbian and Latino or whatever.

If every struggle has to be fought on a separate front against a separate enemy, this can only lead to greater and greater fragmentation, and eventually to disintegration. If you are a Black lesbian from Puerto Rico, and all men are the enemy of women, all whites are the enemy of Blacks, you're going to be left with very few allies, and your movement is by definition going to remain small.

If you look at society today as if the main divisions are between those who face a particular form of oppression and those who don't, then the likelihood of ever really transforming society is just about nil. At its heart, the politics of identity is very pessimistic. It implies not just a rejection of the potential to build a broad united movement against all forms of exploitation and oppression, but also a very deep pessimism even about the possibility for building solidarity among people who face different forms of oppression.

The only organizational strategy it offers is not to build a large powerful movement that unites people, but for different groups of oppressed people to each fight their own separate battles against their own separate enemies. And the Clinton/Obama rift shows how ugly those battles can become, and play right into the divide and conquer mentality.

I've tried to lay out here the concrete reasons why Marxism provides the theoretical tools for those of us interested in ending oppression. There is a caricature in what often passes for a critique of Marxism in many circles today, which assumes that when Marxists call for the building of a united working class movement of all oppressed and exploited people, and that equals subordinating the fight against oppression to the fight against exploitation.

That caricature could not be further from the truth. That is because both exploitation and oppression are rooted in capitalism. Exploitation is the method by which the ruling class robs workers of the wealth they produce. The various forms of oppression play a primary role in maintaining the rule of a tiny minority over the vast majority.

In every case, the enemy is one and the same. Each form of oppression is different, and each individual's experience of it is different, but all oppression is rooted in a system that thrives upon oppression as well as exploitation for its survival.

So the point is not--and this never been the Marxist tradition--for the oppressed to wait until after the revolution to raise their demands, as is often the caricature. On the contrary, Marxism is about demanding that the entire working-class movement champion the rights of all the oppressed, thereby putting the collective strength of the working class behind the fight against oppression.

The argument here is straightforward: the lessons of building a united movement against capitalism trains workers to act in solidarity with everybody who is oppressed and exploited. As long as we can be divided, we can be conquered; once we unite in a common movement, we cannot be defeated. As the old saying, the people united can never be defeated--and that is the Marxist method.

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