Guest Post written by James Markin
The collapse of the ISO, and more recently the CWI has put front and center the issue of “identity politics.” Fairly recently a new organization representing the minority of the old leadership of the CWI put out a statement in which they claimed:
“The petty bourgeois pressure of identity politics has provoked a crisis not only in the CWI but throughout the revolutionary left. It was a major factor in the implosion which has taken place in the ISO in the USA. It has affected the SWP in both Britain and Ireland [and it] has provoked debate and upheavals throughout the Morenoite organisations in Latin America.”
With a group of significant size like the former CWI claiming Identity politics is responsible for several serious crises it is important for Marxists to be clear where we stand, and where historically Marxists have stood around “identity politics”. Which raises the question, what is “identity politics?” While Pranav Jani has already taken up this issue fairly comprehensively following the collapse of the ISO, not everyone shares the same definition. The former CWI leadership gives us an idea what they mean in the preceding paragraph. There, they say that they aren’t opposed to participating in social movements against oppression, but are particular about how Marxists should “intervene.” In their mind,
“as Marxists we must realistically appraise the positive feature of these movements and also recognize the limitations of them, including their multi-class character. It is necessary to intervene in them on a class basis with the socialist programme which we defend.”
Here the former CWI argues that Marxists should only “intervene” into movements against oppression in order to raise the socialist program. This is not only opposed to how Marx actually understood oppression, but it is a self-defeating policy. This is because, for Marx and those that came after him, this question was inexplicably linked with that of the nature of the working class and its internal divisions.
As Marxists we define each class based on the common relationship to production that all members of that class share. Thus, the working class is composed of the vast majority of people in society who must trade their labor for a wage to receive the money they need to survive. However, just because people share a relationship to production doesn’t mean that they immediately conclude that they need to organize politically on that basis. The working class is not merely something that appears out of nowhere, fully formed and politically organized, it is a social and historical product. As the Bolshevik revolutionary Zinoviev wrote,
“The working class takes shape gradually over decades: the rural population overflows into the cities, in part returning home and in part settling there; it simmers over and over again in the cauldrons of the industrial cities creating the working class with its characteristic psychology… It is not a chemical process which can be observed through to the end in a flask. In social phenomena one has to learn how to generalise and to probe more deeply into events and facts which embrace in their radius of action millions and tens of millions of people.”
As part of this process of formation, the working class has within itself internal conflicts and contradictions of interests. Not all workers feel like they are on the same side, indeed often they do not behave as if they are. The history of the development of the working class across the world, has deeply shaped the class as it exists today. For example, some American workers are the descendants of African slaves and some are not. Imperialism and colonialism have left similar marks. Perhaps deepest of all, the long-standing system of hetero-patriarchy, enforced by the family has led to extreme differences in the way that male workers, female, and gender non-conforming workers interact with the capitalist economy and each other.
This history has important implications for the modern world and how different working-class people are treated. While they all might be workers, it has created serious contradictions within the class. White workers set themselves above Black, Asian, Latino and other “foreign” workers, and Male, cis and straight workers continue to be embedded in violent systems of male dominance against those within their own class who are oppressed as female and gender non-conforming. As this is all going on, the capitalist class is exploiting everyone else, using every division to its own advantage.
In Marxist terminology we describe this state of affairs by saying that the working class comes into existence as a class in itself, that is all people in the working class share the same relationship to production. However, it is not yet a class for itself, not all workers are lined up against the bosses, instead, as described above, they are often enough lined up against one another. In order for the working class to carry out a socialist revolution and defeat capitalism it must move from a class in itself to a class for itself. Since divisions, such as oppression, help prevent this transformation, they are useful to the capitalist class and as long as capitalism endures, the capitalist class will use their position as the ruling class to defend such divisions. Thus, these contradictions cannot be completely resolved until the capitalist class is completely defeated.
That does not mean however, that it is acceptable to merely put off this question until the day on which we have achieved socialism. Indeed, if revolutionaries have this attitude than that day will never come. While historically many who call themselves socialists or even Marxists have made some variation of the “class reductionist” argument, which urges workers to ignore these contradictions in the name of unity. Marx, Lenin and Trotsky themselves argued that the struggle against oppression, that is the struggle against contradictions within the working class, is central to the struggle for socialism. Indeed these historical marxists argued that only in fighting oppression can class unity ever be built.
For Karl Marx, this became apparent while he was living in England. The heavy use of Irish labor by English capitalists, created a workforce divided between English and Irish workers which lead to a system where the capitalist class could easily make use of the chauvinism of their English co-workers to undermine class power. As Marx put it,
“Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker.”
For Marx it was clear that this antagonism between the Irish and English workers was stoked by the ruling capitalist class and deeply benefited them. He called the conflict between the Irish and English workers “the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization” as well as “the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.” Yet for Marx the solution wasn’t to solely remind the Irish and English workers of their mutual self interest and call them to put away their prejudices equally. Instead, he called on the workers movement in England “to make the English workers realize that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.”(footnote: emphasis original) Marx understood that the way to unify the working class was to fight against what was dividing them. However, this did not mean for workers to fight against nebulous cultural chauvinism on “both sides.” Instead, Marx argued that the working class should attack the material root cause of the Irish oppression, English national dominance of Ireland. He was clear that the road to class unity and self-emancipation for both the Irish and English worker was the victory of the Irish liberation movement. Only if the English workers joined the Irish workers in their struggle for political rights and independence could the class be united. Indeed, Marx did not believe that this was some very specific phenomenon that only applied to the working class within the British metropole. He wrote that the attitude of the English worker to the Irirsh worker “is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.” Thus, like the Englishman, the American white worker’s self-emancipation is also tied up in the liberation of their black co-workers from racial oppression.
As with much of his political work, Lenin extended Marx’s ideas about contradictions within the working class, particularly in his long polemical disputes with the European Marxists of his time. The Bolshevik revolutionary argued repeatedly that for such Marxists to say that the struggle for socialism would naturally resolve issues of national oppression, was merely veiled chauvinism that itself divided the working class, writing,
“The proletariat of the oppressing nations cannot confine itself to the general hackneyed phrases against annexations and for the equal rights of nations in general, that may be repeated by any pacifist bourgeois. The proletariat cannot evade the question that is particularly “unpleasant” for the imperialist bourgeoisie, namely, the question of the frontiers of a state that is based on national oppression. The proletariat cannot but fight against the forcible retention of the oppressed nations within the boundaries of a given state, and this is exactly what the struggle for the right of self-determination means. The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that “its own” nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible…”
Like Marx, Lenin here argues that without this struggle against imperialism and national oppression there is no basis of class unity around which workers can struggle against capitalism. By putting off issues of oppression, in this case national oppression, until the day that we have won the struggle for socialism, these European leftists were capitulating to imperialism and did nothing to unite the working class. Ironically, as Lenin points out, by claiming to put class first and making it superior to the issue of national oppression, these European socialists failed to create any international basis for working class unity, making international proletarian revolution nothing more than a slogan. This is because, without the struggle against imperialism Lenin argued for, attacking the true divisions between the European workers and the subjects of their nation’s colonies, that’s all it was, a slogan with no content.
In conversations with the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James and other comrades in the Socialist Workers Party, Leon Trotsky re-iterated these essential points and applied them to oppression and class struggle within the United States. Trotsky argued that these divisions within the working class created different strata with different attitudes, writing,
“We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard of the working class. What serves as the brake on the higher strata? It is the privileges, the comforts that hinder them from becoming revolutionists. It does not exist for the Negroes. What can transform a certain stratum, make it more capable of courage and sacrifice? It is concentrated in the Negroes. If it happens that we in the SWP are not able to find the road to this stratum, then we are not worthy at all. The permanent revolution and all the rest would be only a lie.”
Here Trotsky argues that the less oppressed sections of the class have privileges that make them more adaptable to capitalism, whereas the most oppressed section of the class is the most dynamic section and in the leading edge of the class in the struggle against exploitation. Thus, for Trotsky it is essential that revolutionary workers organizations make themselves places that oppressed workers want to join. To this end, in his discussions with James, Trotsky helps lay out a program for the SWP that would focus on struggling specifically and totally against racism and supporting black organizations that were already doing this work. This is because, as he put it,
“it is very possible that the Negroes also through the self-determination will proceed to the proletarian dictatorship in a couple of gigantic strides, ahead of the great bloc of white workers. They will then furnish the vanguard. I am absolutely sure that they will in any case fight better than the white workers. That, however, can happen only provided the Communist party carries on an uncompromising merciless struggle not against the supposed national prepossessions of the Negroes but against the colossal prejudices of the white workers and gives it no concession whatever.”
Like Marx before him, Trotsky knew that for white workers, the struggle against the oppression of black workers is “not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.” Only in attacking the “colossal prejudices of the white workers” as a class can class unity be forged. That is why it is a necessary precondition for social revolution, direct struggle by workers organizations against racism and other forms of oppression is needed to unify the class and build a class for itself ready to take on the task of revolution against capitalism.
With this understanding of where historical marxists stood, where should Marxists today stand on the issue of identity politics? Since the phrase has no obvious and consistent meaning, it is important for Marxists to be clear what form of identity politics we are for and what form we are against. Any Marxist that stands in the tradition of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, as demonstrated above, must also stand for every struggle of the oppressed everywhere. While we understand that the capitalist class will protect systems of oppression as long as it is the ruling class, and thus that ultimately defeating these systems requires the working class to take power in its own name, these struggles are still, as C.L.R. James put it, “a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.” That is why, despite what the former CWI argues in their statement, we should not enter into the struggle against oppression merely to raise a socialist program, but instead as part of our essential work as revolutionary socialists. This is because, as Marx, Lenin and Trotsky have argued, the only way to unify the class across the divisions caused by oppression is to join oppressed people in the struggle for better conditions. So, if identity politics means fighting for better rights, liberties, and justice for oppressed people, we are not only for it, but we should be trying to convince the entire working class to participate in these struggles together.