What is the basis for unity?
IN THEIR recent commentary ("Solidarity must be the guiding principle"), Sofia Arias, Keegan O'Brien and Lindie Lou critique a recent article written by Darkmatter, a trans* South Asian spoken word duo. I agree with many of their arguments, including the necessity of building a multiracial fight against racism and the importance of the demand for marriage equality. Yet I believe they seriously misrepresent a key point of Darkmatter's arguments.
Sofia, Keegan and Lindie argue that Darkmatter's perspectives undermine the possibility of multiracial solidarity through an "extreme brand of identity politics" founded on a dismissive attitude "toward people who are not yet radical and are new to activist politics." In particular, they assert that these arguments rest on the assumption that "white people are a homogeneous bloc--racist, privileged and part of the problem." They correctly note that such an assumption would be a "caricature" of white people, as it ignores class differentiation among them. Yet that assumption is completely absent from the arguments that they quoted from Darkmatter.
In fact, Darkmatter, in a statement quoted by Sofia, Keegan and Lindie, calls on progressive white people to "educate and organize other white people to commit themselves to solidarity, redistribution and substantive change." This clearly shows that they recognize not only the ability of white people to stand in solidarity against racism but also the reality that some already do so.
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However, Darkmatter also crucially notes that calls for class solidarity that ignore the reality of social oppression ring hollow: "[C]alls for 'unity' without seriously engaging the reality of difference are really just a way of incorporating the people you actively oppress into frameworks that continue to oppress them." This argument has long been made by many socialists and other revolutionaries.
For example, the 1974 statement made by the Combahee River Collective, an organization of revolutionary Black feminists, clearly articulated how racism in the mainstream feminist movement and sexism within the Black Power movement forced them to create a separate organization:
A Black feminist presence has evolved most obviously in connection with the second wave of the American women's movement beginning in the late 1960s. Black, other Third World and working women have been involved in the feminist movement from its start, but both outside reactionary forces and racism and elitism within the movement itself have served to obscure our participation...
It was our experience and disillusionment within these liberation movements, as well as experience on the periphery of the white male left, that led to the need to develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men.
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GENUINE SOLIDARITY requires that we not only recognize our shared material interest in overthrowing capitalism as workers, but also struggle against any remnant of oppression that exists within our own ranks. The recent crisis over a case of sexual assault within the British Socialist Workers Party clearly demonstrates the fact that recognition of shared material interest is insufficient if it is not paired with an explicit, anti-oppression practice. No organization can possibly hope to recruit and build cadre of revolutionaries who experience both class exploitation and social oppression otherwise.
The question raised by the Darkmatter article is not whether or not solidarity is possible, but what the basis of that solidarity should be. In this point, Sofia, Keegan and Lindie are completely right. The Marxist analysis of racial oppression as inexorably linked to class exploitation is crucial to understanding the history and present of racism and how we can finally eradicate it.
We should confidently debate this point with those who have alternative understandings of solidarity, such as the perspective articulated by Darkmatter. At the same time, we also should recognize that "identity politics" emerged in response to both the defeat of the left in the 1970s and the inability of some sections of that left to address oppression adequately.
We will win other activists to our understanding of solidarity as we continue to not only make our arguments but also demonstrate their validity through practice.
Tim Joseph, Columbus, Ohio