Issue 62 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Spring 1994 Copyright © International Socialism
Among many people on the left today the Marxist emphasis on the centrality of class and class struggle--as key both to understanding and to transforming society--is widely disparaged. Many who once looked to the working class movement as key to social change have shifted their focus toward the 'new social movements'. This term covers a broad range of movements which originated in the 1960s and 1970s, including those against the oppression of women, blacks and lesbians and gays, as well as those organised around ecology, disarmament and a variety of other issues. Key to this strategy for social change, which has been carried to its logical extreme more recently through the development of 'identity politics,' is the idea that only those experiencing a particular form of oppression can either define it or fight against it.
For people newly active on the left, this way of organising may seem like common sense: it should go without saying that those who are oppressed should fight against their own oppression. Moreover, the prevalence of sexist, racist and anti-gay ideas in society at large makes it sometimes appear as if the bigotry which divides people can never be fully overcome. This pessimistic notion forms the theoretical basis for identity politics. It is assumed that a particular movement must include only those who face a specific form of oppression. To one degree or another, all the other people in society are part of the problem--in some way they benefit from oppression and have an interest in maintaining it. For this same reason it follows that each oppressed group should have its own distinct and separate movement. Such movements therefore tend to be organised on the basis of 'autonomy' or independence--from each other and from the socialist movement. They tend also to be organised independent of any class basis.
But this logic is flawed. It would be disastrous, for example, if the fight against fascism in Europe today were limited to only members of those racial groups who are immediately targeted by fascists. The advance of the fascist movement is not only a threat to 'foreign born' workers, but to all workers. To most effectively counter the recent rise of fascists in Europe, all those who oppose the far right, whatever race they happen to be, should be encouraged to join the anti-fascist movement. Any fight against oppression, if it is to succeed, must be based upon building the strongest possible movement. And that can only happen when a movement unites different groups of activists into a common struggle. It is not, as is widely assumed within these political milieux, necessary to face a particular oppression in order to fight against that oppression, any more than it is necessary to be destitute in order to fight against poverty. Many people who do not experience a particular form of oppression can learn to identify with those who do, and can be enlisted as allies in a common struggle.
The politics of identity cannot point the way towards building the kind of movement which can actually end oppression. In fact, among existing organisations founded on the basis of identity politics, the tendency has been towards fragmentation and disintegration, rather than growth. More often than not among movements organised on the basis of identity politics the enemy includes 'everyone else'--perceived as an amorphous, backward blob which makes up the rest of society. Instead of seeing the class struggle as a way to overcome oppression, the working class is seen as a barrier to this process. At its heart, identity politics is a rejection of the notion that the working class can be the agent for social change, and a pessimism about the possibility for significant, never mind revolutionary, social transformation. As Stanley Aronowitz argued in his book, The Politics of Identity: Class, Culture, Social Movements:
...the historically exclusive focus of class-based movements on a narrow definition of the issues of economic justice has frequently excluded gender, race, and qualitative issues, questions of workers' control over production, and similar problems. The almost exclusive emphasis on narrow quantitative issues has narrowed the political base of labour and socialist movements and made all but inevitable the emergence of social movements which, as often as not, perceived class politics as inimical to their aims.1
Following this logic, the struggles against exploitation and oppression do not correspond. Within the politics of identity notions of radicalism and class politics more often than not are mutually exclusive. In practice this has meant replacing class politics with a politics of cross class alliances, and a strategy based upon 'direct action' tactics--attention getting actions carried out by the enlightened few, the aim being to shock and disturb the ignorant masses. In the US the very names of some organisations reflect this aim--Queer Nation, the Lesbian Avengers, YELL, and Random Pissed Off Women. Some of these groups, along with more conventionally named organisations, such as the Women's Action Coalition (WAC), use a variety of direct action tactics. Often these actions resemble guerilla theatre more than anything else. Queer Nation, for example, has been known for its lesbian and gay 'kiss-ins', while WAC members sometimes remove their shirts as a way of getting attention.
Sometimes these actions can seem quite radical--even a bit over the top. For example, as one of its first activities New York WAC protested at the opening of the new Guggenheim museum because of its 'racism, sexism, classism, ageism, Eurocentrism, nepotism, elitism, phallocentrism, and homophobia'.2 But beneath a bold veneer the programme is often standard liberalism. Thus at a Chicago WAC meeting in the autumn of 1992 members vowed defiantly to fight for 'patriarchal demolition', yet most adopted tacit support for the Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton. Within these milieux it is currently in vogue to dismiss any attempt to draw a causal connection between economics and politics, or between class society and oppression, as mechanical economic determinism, or 'reductionism'. And although undoubtedly many, if not most, of those active around identity politics are unaware of its theoretical underpinnings, it is heavily influenced by the particular offshoot of postmodernism3 calling itself 'post-Marxism', for which the explicit rejection of the centrality of class is something of an obsession.
A variety of postmodernist theories flowered in the last decade. Postmodernism is not easily defined, as many of its chief proponents disagree as to what it means. The key elements of postmodemism, however, 'stress the fragmentary, heterogeneous and plural character of reality, denied human thought the ability to arrive at any objective account of that reality and reduced the bearer of this thought, the subject, to an incoherent welter of sub- and trans-individual drives and desires'.4 Postmodernists stress that a transformed social reality--post-industrial or post-Fordist society--requires a new and different politics.
In this article I aim to show i) how the ideas of 'autonomy' gained a following on the left commensurate with the decline of the level of class struggle in the main industrial societies from the mid-1970s through the 1980s; ii) what is wrong with the theoretical basis of identity politics; and iii) why the politics of identity is not an effective strategy for fighting against oppression--it will not win liberation and cannot provide a strategy for transforming society.
During the 1980s an entire layer of socialists lost faith in the possibility of workers fundamentally transforming society and joined the ranks of reformism. The title of Andre Gorz's 1982 book, Farewell to the Working Class,5 fitted the mood. In the US this layer of socialists abandoned revolutionary politics to join the Democratic Party which, in the absence of a social democratic party, has traditionally absorbed reformists. In Britain Marxism Today provided a forum for both postmodernist and post-Marxist attacks on class politics. For example, the introduction to Marxism Today's special issue on 'New Times' in 1988 explained:
Our world is being remade. Mass production, the mass consumer, the big city, big-brother state, the sprawling housing estate, and the nation-state are in decline: flexibility, diversity, differentiation, mobility, communication, decentralisation and internationalisation are in the ascendant. In the process our own identities, our own sense of self, our own subjectivities are being transformed. We are in transition to a new era.6
Even as a witch hunt against socialists was being carried out inside the Labour Party, arguments that the working class was in decline helped to rationalise support for those Labour leaders carrying out the witch hunt.
But there is another reason why the politics of identity has found a wider audience, particularly among the radical sections of the women's and lesbian and gay movements. That has to do with the nature and the politics of the 1960s social movements--the women's liberation movement in particular, which grew up first in the US, and therefore helped to influence the social movements which grew up later in the US and elsewhere.7 In the US the radical wing of the women's movement developed as a series of split offs from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had become the main New Left organisation in the anti-war movement. After the break the women's liberation movement retained some and renounced other portions of the New Left's politics. Therefore in order to understand the subsequent evolution of radical feminist ideas it is necessary to understand the politics of the New Left.
In many ways the US student left was a product of its times. The US had emerged from the Second World War as the world's greatest superpower, while the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s had made the US by far the richest economy in the world. During this period, marked by progressively higher living standards for workers, the level of class struggle in the US remained relatively low, and this lowered class consciousness, especially among skilled white workers. For example, most white workers continued to support the US's involvement in the Vietnam War until well after the student anti-war movement had developed.
The role of US imperialism in Vietnam, the low level of class struggle, and the predominantly middle class composition of the student movement all helped to shape the political consciousness of the New Left which grew up in the 1960s. Most student radicals did not regard the working class, which many thought to be 'bought off', as even a potential ally. Instead they looked for alternatives to class struggle for social change--indeed, many looked away from the US altogether, placing their hopes for change in anti-imperialist movements. The 1962 Port Huron founding statement for SDS read, in part:
In a time of supposed prosperity, moral complacency and political manipulation, a New Left cannot rely on only aching stomachs to be the engine force of social reform. The case for change, for alternatives that will involve uncomfortable personal efforts must be argued as never before. The university is a relevant place for all of these activities.8
In this context the ideas of Stalinism, and its Maoist variant, were appealing to large numbers of student radicals. And in many ways, as Sara Evans points out in her history of the development of the 1960s women's movement, Personal Politics, 'Separatism was in the cards logically, for the New Left was focused on the need for all oppressed groups to organise themselves.' This was clearly true. From early on, women's liberation activists saw themselves oppressed not by capitalism, but 'colonised' by their relationship to men. The dominance of this kind of politics in SDS showed itself in a statement on women's oppression submitted by a women's workshop at the 1967 SDS convention, which drew a parallel between women's oppression and that of Third World people oppressed by imperialism. The statement read in part:
As we analyse the position of women in capitalist society and especially in the United States we find that women are in a colonial relationship to men and we recognise ourselves as part of the Third World... Women, because of their colonial relationship with men, have to fight for their own independence.9
While this formulation was confused, it represented a step towards recognising the existence of women's oppression in society. Moreover, it was a valid attempt by women to call attention to and raise demands around their own oppression within the larger movement. As such, it deserved support within the left. But the inherent weakness of the New Left's ideology, and the influence of Stalinism, with all its distortions of Marxist ideas, meant that most of the men on the New Left, at least initially, didn't support the demand for women's liberation. Worse, many were extremely hostile. Repeatedly, women who raised demands for women's liberation were heckled and ridiculed inside SDS and the other organisations in the New Left. As early as 1964, when women active in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) wrote a position paper called 'The Position of Women in SNCC', Stokely Carmichael gave a reply which became famous on the left: 'the only position for women in SNCC is prone.'10 At an SDS conference in 1965 a discussion of 'women's issues' elicited 'catcalls, storms of ridicule and verbal abuse'.11 Reports of similar experiences--including one incident in which women were pelted with tomatoes as they tried to read out their demands--indicate that early demands around women's issues met with derision and ridicule among a wide layer of New Left men.
This wasn't true for all men on the left, however. Some came to understand and support demands for women's liberation.12 And in 1968 SDS itself adopted a position on women's liberation, which, interestingly, was co-authored by a man, according to Kirkpatrick Sales' chronological account, SDS. SDS adopted the position that the 'oppression of women through male supremacy' was both qualitatively and quantitatively greater than the oppression of the working class in general. But old habits died hard. Even after the statement, one chapter of the organisation put out a pamphlet which said, 'The system is like a woman; you have to fuck it to make it change.' And two years after the SDS adopted a position supporting women's liberation, a group of women reported that they were still the movement's 'shit workers', while men continued to hold most leadership positions. Thus the picture inside SDS was mixed. But even the limited progress which was made showed that it was wrong to conclude that it was impossible to change the attitudes of men in the New Left.13
The women's liberation movement first surfaced among small numbers of women activists in 1967, initially as a part of the New Left. But feminists began splitting soon thereafter--pointing to the lack of equality for women in state capitalist regimes such as China, Cuba and Russia as 'evidence' that socialism doesn't win women's liberation. Thus, for most of the women who split from SDS, the break was more than a rejection of Stalinism. It involved a theoretical break with class politics, and a hostility towards all socialists. And unlike Britain, where the emergence of the women's liberation movement in the early 1970s coincided with an upturn in class struggle, the US working class remained comparatively calm, experiencing a much smaller rise in struggle beginning in 1970. For many feminists--themselves predominantly middle class--working class politics held little appeal, even among radicals. Soon after splitting from the New Left, the women's liberation movement began splitting as well. Separatists split off from so-called 'politicos'--those who wanted to maintain links with the socialist movement.
The newly emerging women's liberation movement quickly embraced the ideas of both separatism and consciousness-raising as its organising principles. So, for example, the New York Radical Feminists issued this as its founding statement in 1969:
We believe that the purpose of male chauvinism is primarily to obtain psychological ego satisfaction, and that only secondarily does this manifest itself in economic relationships. For this reason we do not believe that capitalism, or any other economic system, is the cause of female oppression, nor do we believe that female oppression will disappear as a result of a purely economic revolution.14
The ideas behind this manifesto were later developed into a theory of women's oppression, which was eventually adopted in one form or another by radical and socialist feminists alike: the theory of patriarchy. While different versions of the patriarchy theory emerged in the 1970s, they had one thing in common: they all separated the root cause of women's oppression from the needs of class society and located it instead with men. Juliet Mitchell summed up the essence of the theory of patriarchy when she argued, 'We are dealing with two autonomous spheres, the economic mode of capitalism, and the ideological mode of patriarchy.' Although socialist feminists attempted to integrate class politics with the theory of patriarchy, this proved extremely difficult to do, both in theory and in practice. As socialist feminist Heidi Hartmann said of the 'marriage of Marxism and feminism' in 1981, 'either we need a healthier marriage or we need a divorce.'15
But even before the splits which gave birth to separatist or 'radical' feminism, the idea that 'the personal is political' was well entrenched. This was another habit acquired from the Maoist style of the New Left, which placed emphasis on personal experience and emulated the Chinese practice of 'speaking bitterness'.16 Initially consciousness-raising was seen as a way to propel women into action. Thus an early group calling itself 'Redstockings', issued a manifesto in July 1969, which declared:
Our chief task at the present is to develop female consciousness through sharing experiences and publicly exposing the sexist foundation of all our institutions. Consciousness-raising is not 'therapy'...but the only method by which we can ensure that our programme for liberation is based on the concrete realities of our lives.17
But rather than channelling women into greater political involvement, consciousness-raising tended to lead women away from activity. The typical consciousness-raising group lasted nine months, and most women left the women's movement after that. For many of those who stayed, consciousness-raising became an end in itself. And it led to a turn away from politics and an ever greater atmosphere of personalism within the movement. Even Redstockings, quoted above, dissolved itself within less than two years of issuing its 'manifesto'. In the words of one feminist involved, 'When you stop looking out, and turn exclusively inward, at some point you begin to feed on each other. If you don't direct your anger externally--politically--you turn it against yourselves.'18
The politics of separatism exacerbated this tendency in organisations of radical feminists. Although set up as 'non-hierarchical', the picture was hardly one of mutual support. Instead the atmosphere tended to be intensely moralistic and extremely judgmental towards lifestyle. One woman who participated in a women's liberation group said afterwards, 'If [consciousness-raising is] all you do, then the enemy becomes the enemy within. First they attack leaders, then lifestyle, then racism.' Another described, 'In the name of anti-elitism, they were trying to pull off the most elite thing possible. The meeting ended with charges and counter-charges and a distinct lack of a feeling of sisterhood.'19 Some women's liberation groups carried the idea of lifestyle politics to an extreme, by forming living or other collectives based upon strict women-only guidelines. One extreme such living collective was Boston's 'Cell 16', which demanded that every woman living there practise celibacy; only one third of the women could be married; and any woman who had a male child was forced to give him up.20
Within a few years of its founding, the radical wing of the women's movement in the US had fragmented into inward looking consciousness-raising groups or personalistic living collectives. The slogan, 'The personal is political,' had been carried to its logical conclusion: changing one's lifestyle was what mattered, not changing the world. Radical feminists had rejected the socialist explanation that the source of women's oppression lies in class society, but replaced it with a theory which could not lead the movement forward. The reason was straightforward. The theory of patriarchy divorced the cause of women's oppression from class society--a system which oppresses and exploits the vast majority of people for the benefit of a very few. Instead it targeted men--and men's need to dominate women--as the root of the problem. This left the problem of women's oppression as one to be fought out at the level of individual relationships. And it excluded men, whatever their social class, from playing a role in fighting for women's liberation. Moreover, since separatism explains the division between men and women as biologically rooted, this means that the rupture must be permanent.
However radical the concept of patriarchy may have sounded in theory, in practice it was a recipe for passivity and divisiveness. Particularly when combined with the high degree of personalism which existed, the logic of separatism promoted fragmentation rather than unity on the basis of oppression. At the same time as it played down the immense differences which exist between women of different classes. The politics of separatism led directly to fragmentation even within radical feminist organisations. Although separatist theory argues that the main division in society is between men and women, it reduces women's oppression to a problem of personal relationships. If that reasoning is used to understand other forms of oppression, then men are not the only oppressors: whites are oppressors, straight people are oppressors, and so forth. And many women suffer multiple forms of oppression, as victims of national or racial discrimination, or as lesbians. During the 1970s, as activism declined, radical feminist collectives became more and more fragmented and demoralised, and whole organisations became internalised and splintered along these lines.
The biggest schism took place between lesbians and straight women. There were other divisions as well, including those over racism and 'classism' (used in this context, meaning snobbery) within the movement. But the radical women's movement never attracted large numbers of working class or black women, or Latinas, for the simple reason that the need to fight alongside men in the fight against racism or in the class struggle made separatist ideas unappealing. The black feminist bell hooks [sic] summed up the reasons in 1984. She argued that separatists 'did not question whether masses of women shared the same need for community'. And, she continued, because 'many black women as well as women from other ethnic groups do not feel an absence of community among women in their lives despite exploitation and oppression', the emphasis on 'feminism as a way to develop shared identity and community' doesn't help them to fight their exploitation and oppression.21
As the radical feminist movement disintegrated over the years, the assumption behind separatism took hold: that only those who suffer a certain type of oppression can fight against it. The concept of a unified revolutionary movement was thus replaced by one in which each oppressed group would form its own 'autonomous' movement. This conception, 'movementism', was the precursor to identity politics.22
Like the women's movement, the gay movement developed first in the US and then exported its ideas elsewhere, mainly to Europe. The gay movement erupted with the Stonewall Rebellion in New York in 1969, when police tried to raid a gay bar and touched off a riot among gays which lasted for three days. Shortly afterwards, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed in cities all over the US, its name an identification with the Viet Cong's national liberation struggle against US imperialism. The early gay liberation activists saw themselves as part of a wider revolutionary movement, and took inspiration from those involved in the women's liberation and black power movements. They debated the Black Panthers and convinced them to formally endorse gay rights. In 1970 Black Panther leader Huey Newton announced his solidarity with the gay movement, stating that 'homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in this society. Maybe they might be the most oppressed people in the society.'23
So the early gay liberation movement was genuinely radical in its outlook and practice, and identified with a larger social movement. But while the atmosphere was anti-capitalist, there was only a small socialist presence--and virtually no socialist influence. Here again the politics of Stalinism bore much of the responsibility. Instead of welcoming the emergence of a new layer of gay revolutionaries, Stalinists condemned gay sexuality as a 'bourgeois deviation'; some Maoist groups called it 'petty bourgeois decadence'. And both agreed it would disappear after the revolution. Although some independent socialists and Trotskyists eventually participated in the gay liberation movement, there was an overriding mistrust of socialists, and a tendency to dismiss Marxism as a way to understand and fight against forms of sexual oppression. In an essay from the British Gay Left Collective's Homosexuality: Power and Politics, Simon Watney argued of the GLF in retrospect:
For if gays had been left out of traditional Marxist analysis--together with most aspects of sexuality, which were seen as merely superstructural and reactive in an unproblematic way to the economic 'base' of society--then class analysis itself was likely to be left at the back of the political cupboard in the general excitement which characterised the development of sexual politics in the late sixties, and the gradual rethinking of the base/superstructure model of society.24
The gay liberation movement, particularly in the US, did not place the same emphasis on the development of theory as the radical feminists. But both movements shared a rejection of class politics, which led to an early emphasis on lifestyle politics. Thus Watney concluded in the same essay, 'The major division in early GLF was between the organised leninist [sic] party supporters, and the diffused forces of the alternative society. This division between what might be termed "actionists" and "life-stylers" is clearly evident in the history and theory of the GLF, and in its Manifesto [in 1971].'25
It wasn't long, however, before the politics of separatism also grew in influence inside the gay movement, and led to its fracture. Lesbians began splitting from the gay movement, using much the same rationale used by radical feminists who split off from the New Left. As Shane Phelan argues in Identity Politics: Lesbian Feminism and the Limits of Community, 'Lesbians in the gay rights and gay liberation movements found themselves in the position of women in the civil rights, anti-war, and New Left movements: conceptual appendages, and organisational housekeepers/secretaries/sexual partners.' Lesbians argued that when they tried to raise specifically lesbian demands within the gay movement, male leaders denied that lesbians faced any special problems because they were women. One male leader reportedly responded by saying that, 'the lesbian IS, after all, a homosexual, first and foremost--subject to all--yes all--of the problems of the male homosexual and with no special problems as a lesbian.'26
So undoubtedly sexist attitudes existed within the gay movement. But, as the experience between the GLF and the Black Panthers showed, it is possible to convince others within a movement to break with backward ideas in the context of solidarity and struggle. Nevertheless, groups of lesbians broke off without sticking around long enough to find out whether it was possible to successfully challenge sexist ideas within the movement. Instead the conclusion drawn by this Canadian lesbian was typical of the time: 'Gay liberation, when we get right down to it, is the struggle for gay men to achieve approval for the only thing that separates them from the "Man"--their sexual preference.'27 But many lesbian feminists were equally disappointed with the atmosphere in radical feminist groups, coining the term 'heterosexism' to describe an atmosphere which many felt was exclusive, placed too much emphasis on the problems between men and women, or avoided taking the issue of lesbian liberation seriously by arguing that sexual orientation shouldn't matter. The differences erupted early on. In 1970 the lesbian feminist Martha Shelley put out a pamphlet which stated:
I am personally sick of liberals who say they don't care who sleeps with whom, it's what you do outside of bed that counts. This is what homosexuals have been trying to get straights to understand for years. Well, it's too late for liberalism. Because what I do outside of my bed may have nothing to do with what I do inside--but my consciousness is branded, is permeated with homosexuality. For years I have been branded with your label for me.28
A section of lesbians within the radical feminist movement began to develop the argument that women must reject heterosexuality if they are to become full human beings. This idea was first put forward at the Congress to Unite Women in 1970, by a group of lesbians calling themselves Radicalesbians, in a position paper called, 'The Woman-Identified Woman'. This idea was carried to its logical conclusion over the next few years, as the notion that lesbians were the only true resisters of patriarchy began to take hold. The lesbian author Rita Mae Brown asked in an essay printed in 1975, 'If you can't find it in yourself to love another woman, and that includes physical love, then how can you truly say you care about women's liberation?' Later in the essay she concluded, 'Straight women are confused by men, don't put women first, they betray lesbians and in its deepest form, they betray their own selves. You can't build a strong movement if your sisters are out there fucking the oppressor.'29
Lesbian separatism represented the politics of radical feminism carried to their furthest extreme, and this led to a series of lesbian splits from the women's liberation movement between 1972 and 1974 in the US. Therefore, separatism was much more clearly articulated among lesbians than within the gay men's organisations. Nevertheless, the politics of movementism were echoed there. Among more political gay male activists the tendency was to accept the need for separate movements and the need for 'autonomy' generally. Thus, for example, the Gay Left Collective in Britain was founded in 1974 as an all male collective, because it accepted the 'division of interests and activities' between gay men and lesbians which had led to the split of lesbians from the GLF.30 The call for 'autonomy' led gay men to the same kind of conclusions that radical feminists had drawn, as this explanation of autonomy from a member of the Gay Left Collective demonstrates:
The theory of autonomy asserted our right to have control of our movement and formulate our own activities, independent of existing organisations which had for so long been oppressive in their attitudes towards homosexuality and unconcerned with sexual relationships in general... There was a rejection of authority, hierarchy and formal structure both in small groups and large meetings... The process involved in consciousness-raising groups and the participation in movement activities were important steps in building self-confidence and mutual support.31
Autonomy is more than an acknowledgement that separation is unavoidable. It is a positive affirmation of dissimilarity. In the same way that some lesbian feminists concluded that their sexual orientation to women made them more authentic feminists, the British GLF manifesto printed in 1971 stated that since gays existed 'already outside the family', they were 'already more advanced than straight people'. That same year it produced a handout which read:
We are fighting an entire culture... Conversion on a personal level is fundamental to our existence... We must be 'rotten queers' to the straight world and for them we must use camp, drag, etc in the most 'offensive' manner possible. And we must be 'freaks' to the gay ghetto world. Our very existence must provoke a questioning of society.32
As the gay and lesbian movements went into decline, the emphasis on the personal and on the notion of autonomy led to still further divisions between different groups of lesbians and gay men. Among gay men splits developed between drag queens and 'machos', while among lesbians rifts occurred between political and non-political lesbians, who were accused of being 'male-identified' because they remained in the bar scene. These sorts of divisions had plagued the movement from early on, but became more common as time went on.
The emphasis on autonomy also led to an increasing focus on personal, or individual, liberation. The act of coming out was an important feature of the gay liberation movement, and remains a precondition for developing a sense of gay pride in a homophobic society. However, as activism declined, coming out became an end in itself, rather than a way to build a broad, fighting movement. Moreover, it's important to understand that, so long as capitalism exists, coming out will be impossible for very many lesbians and gays. Most gays are forced to stay in the closet to keep their jobs or are married or otherwise unable to break from their families or communities. Seen as an end in itself, coming out will probably only be possible for a minority of lesbians and gays, most of them middle class.
Even the notion of 'power', once it has been divorced from the realm of class society and placed in the category of personal relations, becomes virtually meaningless. One can feel 'powerful' without including anyone else at all. Hence the term of personal 'empowerment' became the mantra of movementism in the 1980s. As one lesbian feminist argued, 'The subject of revolution is ourselves.'33 Having divorced the source of oppression from class society, and raised the notion of autonomy to a principle, it was only a short step from the politics of movementism to the politics of identity.
The women's and gay movements declined in size and shifted rightward politically along with the rest of the left during the 1970s and throughout the 1980s. As the movements declined, discussions of left wing ideas became divorced from any role in the struggle. In this context postmodernism flourished, particularly in the US, as former Marxists discovered they could build their academic careers by discovering new ways to prove class politics wrong. Volume after volume of theory was churned out at an ever higher level of abstraction. It was in these circumstances that the ideas of postmodernism, with their emphasis on language and ideology, found a wider audience--first among veterans of the 1960s social movements. For example in 1972 gay socialist Jeffrey Weeks, author of Coming Out, had argued, 'it is within the specific context of the capitalist family that modern concepts of homosexuality have developed...'34 By 1980, citing the influence of Foucault, Weeks had changed his viewpoint on this central issue:
we must begin to think much more in terms of the various forms of social definition of sexuality and their social conditions of existence rather than try to speak in terms of 'capitalism' oppressing 'sexuality' as if there could be a simple relationship between the two... The rejection of an 'essentialist' view of sexuality in turn challenges the orthodox model of the nuclear family as the sole locus of the oppression of sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular.35
In a 1985 article 'queer' theorist Jeffrey Escoffier summarised identity politics as follows: 'the politics of identity must also be a politics of difference... The politics of difference affirms limited, partial being.'36 For Escoffier, arriving at this conclusion involved a conscious repudiation of working class agency, and an accompanying sense of demoralisation at the 'flawed vision' of socialism:
We are now in a period of decline and discouragement. We have no objective guarantee that the working class recognises capitalism as the cause of the injustice and inequalities of American life. The recent history of the American working class clearly shows that it lacks the organisational and political capacity to struggle effectively for the fundamental transformation of society.37
The essence of 'queer nationalism' is the belief that gays should live in a separate culture from the rest of society. This approach necessarily engenders an atmosphere of extreme moralism and an emphasis on lifestyle. Writer/director Todd Haynes summed up these politics when he argued recently in the liberal magazine The Nation, 'I'd prefer that subjectivity as a queer not be ceremoniously confirmed by Hollywood. For the most that we can expect is that we will be depicted as "ordinary" ie, just like every heterosexual'[his emphasis].38
Perhaps the experiences of the organisation Queer Nation in the US best exemplify the problems inherent in identity politics. At their best, Queer Nation activists have been able to tap into the very real anger felt by millions of lesbians and gays in US society today. For example, in September 1991, after California governor Pete Wilson bowed to business pressure and vetoed a bill which would have outlawed job discrimination against gays, Queer Nation activists played an agitational role in the riots by outraged lesbians and gays in downtown San Francisco. In 1991 Queer Nation activists also took part in organising sit-ins and pickets against the Southern based Cracker Barrel restaurant chain after it began firing its lesbian and gay employees for violating 'American family values'. These sort of activities, which at times have attracted hundreds of gay activists, have shown the potential which exists for building a broad, militant movement among lesbians and gays in the US.
In addition, Queer Nation activists have been consistently involved in the abortion rights movement, and have organised marches against gaybashing in major cities around the US over the last few years. And Queer Nation doesn't usually endorse political candidates from either the Democratic or Republican parties, reinforcing the appearance of radicalism. These factors convinced many on the left that Queer Nation represented the future for gay liberation. This remark by Nation contributor Andrew Kopkind is a common view on the left:
What has changed the climate in America is the long experience of gay struggle, the necessary means having been first, coming out, and second, making a scene. Sometimes it is personal witness, other times political action, and overall it is the creation of a cultural community based on sexual identity.39
But the dominance of identity politics is a guarantee against building a lasting movement. The tendency among groups organised around identity politics has been to grow--sometimes substantially--for a short period of time, and then fairly rapidly to shrink to a much smaller 'core' membership. For example, the New York chapter of the Women's Action Coalition (WAC), a women only organisation, claimed a membership of 1,500 within a few months of its founding in early 1992. Within a year it was reduced to a small fraction of that size. Queer Nation's short history has followed a similar pattern. All of the problems which led to the fragmentation of the women's and gay liberation movements in the 1970s are magnified in Queer Nation: an emphasis on autonomy, rather than unity with other struggles; an atmosphere of self righteous moralism; and an overwhelming emphasis on personal, lifestyle issues. Instead of growing in size, Queer Nation chapters tend to grow smaller and disappear with the passage of time.
Queer Nation was formed in March 1990 by a group of New York lesbian and gay anti-AIDS activists interested in applying 'direct action' tactics to the gay rights movement. They vowed that Queer Nation chapters would be organised in a 'non-hierarchical and non-patriarchal' structure, to ensure democracy and prevent any person or persons from dominating or intimidating the rest of the group. In an interview later that year two founding members of Queer Nation were asked why they chose to call themselves 'queer', a term of anti-gay abuse. One replied, 'It's the idea of reappropriating the words of our oppressors and actually re-contextualising the term "queer" and using it in a positive way to empower ourselves... Now we can really rally around the word, and that confuses our oppressors. It makes us feel stronger.' The other added, 'We have disempowered them by using this term.'40
This reflects the belief that using certain 'politically correct' language can affect the actual conditions facing the mass of gays and lesbians in society. It does not. Whether or not Queer Nation activists feel personally 'empowered' by using the term 'queer', the vast majority of people will continue to regard it as a term of abuse. Indeed, many people will undoubtedly--and with some validity--regard their use of the term 'queer' as an acceptance of oppression, rather than an attempt to challenge it in any purposeful way. Whatever Queer Nation activists claim, words cannot be meaningfully 'reappropriated' without massive struggle. In the 1960s black power activists demanded--and won--the widespread usage of the term 'black', replacing the term 'coloured'. Women's rights activists demanded that the term 'women' replace the term 'girls' to describe adult females. And the slogan of the Gay Liberation Front was 'gay pride', expressing the optimism of a movement which hoped to achieve dignity and respect for gays within society as a whole. In each of these social movements activists fought for social equality--and this was reflected in their demands.
If anything, today's usage of the derogatory term 'queer' shows just how much political distance stands between today's gay activists and those who formed the Gay Liberation Front after the Stonewall rebellion. The equivalent would be using the term 'bitch' among women's rights activists, or the word 'nigger' by blacks. Few would argue that this would represent a step forward, even among those who have adopted the term 'queer'. Formulations such as those of Queer Nation's founders, noted above, represent defeat and demoralisation, and an expectation that the gay movement will remain a small group of the 'enlightened few', marginal to the rest of society. But 'queer identity' quickly proved itself to be about more than simply redefining the language of oppression. The Queer Nation founding manifesto was headlined, 'I Hate Straights'. It said, 'Go tell [straights] to go away until they have spent a month walking hand in hand in public with someone the same sex. After they survive that, then you'll hear what they have to say about queer anger. Otherwise, tell them to shut up and listen.' So from the very beginning Queer Nation ruled out the possibility of building the kind of movement which could act in solidarity with heterosexuals who supported gay rights. Black lesbian feminist Barbara Smith, a veteran of the 1970s movement, argued why such an approach is a recipe for disaster:
Queer activists focus on 'queer' issues, and racism, sexual oppression and economic exploitation do not qualify, despite the fact that the majority of 'queers' are people of colour, female, or working class... Building unified, ongoing coalitions that challenge the system and ultimately prepare a way for revolutionary change simply isn't what 'queer' activists have in mind... In 1990 I read Queer Nation's Manifesto, 'I Hate Straights,' in Outweek and wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that if queers of colour followed its political lead we would soon be issuing a statement titled, 'I Hate Whitey', including white queers of European origin.41
Furthermore, the call for 'direct action' has not usually meant building large, angry demonstrations. Most Queer Nation activity has been limited to fairly small groups of activists staging events often designed to do nothing more than startle passers by or create publicity. For example, one early activity called the 'Queer Shopping Network' brought groups of activists to area shopping malls, where men wearing tutus and women dressed in macho leather jackets staged kiss-ins. The GLF's 1971 demand that gay activists behave like 'rotten queers' in the most 'offensive' manner possible has been carried out by Queer Nation in the 1990s.
The controversial tactic of 'outing' perhaps best reflects the emphasis on moral witness which grew hand in hand with the development of identity politics. It first began in 1989, when the New York based magazine Outweek began exposing the homosexuality of gay celebrities on the grounds that they were remaining silent while thousands of gay men were dying of AIDS. In February 1990 the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force media spokesman Robert Bray threatened to expose the identities of all the gays serving in Congress:
We have a list of many of the over 50 gays in the US Congress. Many are very gay and vote pro-gay. Two of them are out of the closet. The others... hurt us yet they benefit from progress made for gays, like going to our bars and buying gay literature, and they benefit from the protection we have for protecting our privacy. We know who they are...42
There is a serious problem with this reasoning. Lesbians and gays should never be forced to come out of the closet, no matter who they are or what job they hold. The idea that those who remain in the closet 'benefit' from the actions of those who come out is dangerous, particularly when applied to ordinary working class gays. Moreover, instead of understanding that the nature of the system makes it impossible for vast numbers of gays to be open about their sexuality, this approach assumes the opposite: that coming out is the way to change the prevailing ideas in society.
The underlying assumption of identity politics is that only those who actually experience a form of oppression may define it or voice an opinion about how to fight against it. Rather than leading to collaboration, this assumption has often led to bitter divisions among lesbians and gays, frequently within the same organisations. For example, some lesbians and gays have argued that bisexuals are not really oppressed, because they enjoy 'heterosexual privilege'. Meanwhile, some bisexuals have argued that they are oppressed by 'both gay and straight communities'. This sort of atmosphere damaged the internal life of Queer Nation chapters from early on. The commitment to 'non-hierarchical' structures meant that groups generally operated by 'consensus'. This meant that a single dissenting opinion could embroil the group in hours of argument. Not infrequently meetings degenerated into shouting matches, and eventually into organisational splits.
The short history of San Francisco's embattled Queer Nation chapter is not atypical. Attendance at weekly meetings peaked at 350 when Queer Nation first formed in the summer of 1990. The group set up autonomous 'focus' groups for lesbians and bisexuals, as well as those who were racially oppressed. At every meeting two members acted as 'vibes watchers' to make sure that no one felt intimidated. At first the atmosphere was very positive and co-operative. Members dressed in drag and converged on suburban malls. They staged kiss-ins in the middle of Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco's biggest tourist spot. When Basic Instinct--which depicts a bisexual character as a murderer--began filming, they disrupted production. But by December 1991 Queer Nation San Francisco had shattered--after a fierce argument over the wording for guidelines prohibiting racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic comments within the group. After the meeting, which one member described as an 'incredible free for all', the handful of remaining members of Queer Nation San Francisco decided to disband. After the split one member concluded, 'Twelve people can reach a decision more easily than 500 can. If these 12 need help, they work with another group of 12. I don't know if we'll ever have a cohesive national gay organisation.'43
The April 1993 gay rights march in Washington, DC, attracted a million demonstrators. Again this showed the tremendous potential which exists for building a broad movement among lesbians and gays. After the demonstration, however, an anonymous group calling itself 'QUASH (Queers United Against Straight-Acting Homosexuals)' issued a newsletter called, 'Why I hated the march on Washington.' The newsletter argued against the 'assimilation' of gays into the rest of society. It stated that 'the racism, sexism, classism and internalised homophobia within our own communities devastates us more than the vicious attacks from the likes of [right wingers such as] Anita Bryant, Jesse Helms, George Bush and Sam Nunn.' Thus it concluded, 'Were there a million people? Maybe. But who gives a shit!' This sort of raving is not left wing. As Barbara Smith put it, 'When the word "radical" is used at all, it means confrontational, "in your face" tactics, not strategic organising aimed at the roots of oppression.'44 Rather, these sorts of politics can be summed up as 'middle class radicalism'--which, as Smith points out, isn't particularly radical at all.
This discussion of identity politics has focused primarily on the political developments within the women's and gay movements since the late 1960s--with little mention of corresponding changes within the black movement or among other racially oppressed groups. This warrants some explanation. Most importantly, even the most separatist forms of black nationalism do not share all the features of identity politics. For while it holds many of the same assumptions, identity politics cannot be reduced to separatism. It is distinguished by a strong element of middle-class individualism, in some ways akin to anarchism. Most forms of black nationalism today do not contain this component. There is no black equivalent to Queer Nation. To be sure, various forms of black nationalism continue to exist--although the politics are barely recognisable compared with those of the revolutionary black nationalist organisations like the Black Panther Party or the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) which dominated the black power movement in the late 1960s. Though nationalist, both of these movements were consciously part of the left. The Black Panthers argued, for example:
The Black Panther Party... will not fight capitalism with black capitalism, we will not fight imperialism with black imperialism, we will not fight racism with black racism. Rather, we will take our stand against these evils with a solidarity derived from a proletarian internationalism born of socialist ideology.45
Although both the Panthers and DRUM were black nationalist, the Black Panthers made important links with white allies on the left, while DRUM, which organised in the auto plants of Detroit, led strikes supported by a layer of white as well as black workers. During the 1960s cultural nationalism was quite marginal to the black movement. Large numbers of blacks took African name, and wore Afros or dashikis, but only a small number argued that this should be the centrepiece of political activity. Black Panther leader Huey P Newton strongly criticised cultural nationalists:
Cultural nationalism, or pork chop nationalism, as I sometimes call it, is basically the problem of having the wrong political perspective. It seems to be a reaction instead of responding to political repression. The cultural nationalists are concerned with returning to the old African culture and thereby regaining their identity and freedom. In other words, they feel that the African culture will automatically bring political freedom. Many times cultural nationalists fall into line as reactionary nationalists.46
Black nationalism today bears little resemblance to that which existed in the 1960s. Then, there was a strong working class component to the main black nationalist movements, and there was no room for doubting that the enemy was the state. These factors led to much greater political clarity among black activists. That kind of clarity is all but absent today. Mainstream black leaders--even black politicians--are able to use the language of black nationalism to justify doing nothing, or worse yet, to advance anti-working class policies. In its most backward forms nationalism has played a destructive role, rationalising deep divisions even between blacks and other oppressed groups in society. This was played out most dramatically during the Los Angeles rebellion in 1992, when among a significant layer of those who rebelled anger was deflected toward Koreans, who own a large number of small shops in South Central Los Angeles. In another recent instance, when Latinos claimed they were under-represented in Congress due to discriminatory voting policies, a group of black politicians argued that some groups of Latinos, such as Cuban-Americans, are not genuinely oppressed.
For the most part, black nationalists today place little or no importance on building a movement, or on strategies for far reaching social change. If anything, the rising influence of 'Afrocentrism' among a section of black intellectuals has represented a step further away from challenging the status quo. Afrocentrism involves the complete and permanent separation between African history, philosophy and culture from all other civilisations. Afrocentric theorist Molefi Asante has argued for 'every topic, economics, law communication, science, religion, history, literature, and sociology to be reviewed through Afrocentric eyes'.47 But, as Manning Marable argued about Afrocentrism:
Vulgar Afrocentrists deliberately ignored or obscured the historical reality of social class stratification within the African diaspora. They essentially argued that the interests of all black people--from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Colin Powell to conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to the black unemployed, homeless and hungry of America's decaying urban ghettoes--were philosophically, culturally and racially the same. Even the scholarly Afrocentric approach...[did not] speak to historical materialism, except to attack it. As such, vulgar Afrocentrism was the perfect social theory for the upwardly mobile black petty bourgeoisie.48
As Marable argues, the audience for Afrocentrist theory and other forms of cultural nationalism is to be found mainly among the black middle class in the US, which has grown significantly since the end of the movements of the 1960s. In 1990 more than 15 percent of black households earned above $50,000, while thousands of upper middle class black families earn over $100,000 annually. For this section of blacks, the economic aspects of oppression--poverty, unemployment and police brutality--which daily plague the majority of the black population can be viewed as consequences of racism, rather than the other way round. Thus, while no black organisations have been built specifically on the basis of identity politics, many of the same assumptions have filtered through and gained acceptance among anti-racists, white and black. As Ambalavaner Sivanandan wrote in an argument against those in the Labour left influenced by Marxism Today's attack on class politics in Britain:
By personalising power, 'the personal is the political' personalises the enemy: the enemy of the black is the white as the enemy of the woman is the man. And all whites are racist like all men are sexist. Thus racism is the combination of power plus prejudice... Hence the fight against racism became reduced to a fight against prejudice, the fight against institutions and practices to a fight against individuals and attitudes.49
Sivanandan goes on to list a series of cases which demonstrate this point. In one case, people participating in Racial Awareness Training (RAT) classes were so worried about being insensitive that some were afraid to ask for black coffee.50 And as Sivanandan argues brilliantly, the tendency of this sort of approach has been to shift the terrain of the struggle against racism away from movements and towards individual lifestyle. This pattern, of course, closely resembles that of identity politics:
Carried to its logical conclusion, just to be black, for instance, was politics enough: because it was in one's blackness that one was aggressed, just to be black was to make a statement against such aggression. If, in addition, you 'came out' black, by wearing dreadlocks say, then you could be making several statements... Equally, you could make a statement by just being ethnic, against Englishness, for instance; by being gay, against heterosexism; by being a woman, against male domination. Only the white straight male, it would appear, had to go find his own politics of resistance somewhere out there in the world (as a consumer perhaps?) Everyone else could say: I am, therefore I resist.51
At times Marable also argues forcefully against the concepts of identity politics. In a recent issue of the journal Race and Class, for example, he called for 'dismantling the narrow politics of racial identity and selective self interest'. And he argued that this requires that 'the black leadership reaches out to other oppressed sectors of society, creating a common programme for economic and social justice.'52 Yet at other times both these writers accept some of the fundamental assumptions of identity politics, demonstrating the extent to which such ideas have gained acceptance within the left. As Alex Callinicos argued about Sivanandan:
although he is very critical of the political conclusions drawn by Marxism Today, Sivanandan accepts its analysis of the emergence of a new 'post-Fordist' economy based on the destruction of the mass production industries and the working class these rested on. He merely argues that the effect of these changes is to shift the locus of resistance to the new 'underclass' which now bears the brunt of exploitation... This is... a remarkably pessimistic analysis.53
Marable's drift into the terrain of identity politics has been more dramatic. In his article, 'A New American Socialism', which appeared recently in The Progressive, Marable attacks white socialists in the US for not having had more success in recruiting blacks to socialist organisations. He wrote:
The left must ask itself why most socialist organisations... have consistently failed to attract black, Latino, and Asian-American supporters... The left should be challenged to explain why the majority of the most militant and progressive students of colour in the hip-hop contemporary culture of the 1990s have few connections with erstwhile white radicals, and usually perceive Marxism as just another discredited 'white ideology'.54
Marable answers this question by arguing that, 'No American socialist organisation has ever been able to attract substantial numbers of African-Americans and other people of colour, unless, from the very beginning, they were well represented inside the leadership and planning of that body' [his emphasis].55 Here Marable is rewriting history. Some of the most important struggles against racism in this century were built by the Communist Party (CP) in the 1930s--which began as a predominantly white organisation. There was nothing extraordinary about the CP in this respect. Socialists of all races have traditionally been at the forefront in fighting racism. When nine young black men, known as the Scottsboro Boys, were sentenced to death on a trumped up rape charge in Alabama in 1931, the mainstream black organisations shunned their case. A leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) even argued that his group did not want to be identified with a 'gang of mass rapists'. Yet the mainly white Communist Party built an international campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, and during the course of the 1930s united thousands of black and white workers around various anti-racism campaigns. Because the CP took fighting racism seriously, black membership in the party climbed to 5,000 by 1939.56
The contradictions in Marable's analysis demonstrate why it is not enough to break halfway with identity politics. While in one breath he attacks identity politics using class arguments, in the next he attacks socialists using identity politics arguments. Without a sharp break from identity politics, it is all too easy to lose sight of the source of oppression--capitalism--and to forget that all those who are oppressed and exploited by the system have a common interest in ending it.
The post-Marxist academic fashion which grew in the 1980s has provided a theoretical underpinning for the practice of identity politics. Two gurus of 'post-Marxism', Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, produced a book entitled Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics57 in 1985, which contains many of the themes which dominate discussion of the politics of identity. Laclau and Mouffe clearly share the postmodernist conviction that obscurity, abstraction and self importance amount to political sophistication, or at least create the illusion thereof. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is therefore filled with run on sentences laden with jargon incomprehensible to those not already schooled in the language of postmodernism.58
The ideas of post-Marxism fitted well with the mood of pessimism which dominated the left in the 1980s, and led whole sections to look for alternatives to the class struggle to change society. It is no coincidence that such ideas gained influence within the left in the 1980s, particularly among North American and European intellectuals, at a time when the political climate had moved rightward and working class movements were in retreat.
Laclau and Mouffe argue that the failure of revolutions from Eastern Europe to Kampuchea calls into question the entire basis for socialist thought; that the rise of the new social movements based on identity politics signals the end of the era of 'universal discourses' and lays the basis for building a new left based on a different theory. They share the postmodernist view that theories explaining 'totality', or 'universal reality', must be abandoned in favour of 'partial discourses' about social relationships. Both built their theory upon two key themes they inherited from the philosopher Louis Althusser: firstly, he rejected the idea of a 'totality' within society, rather seeing society as made up of many different structures--including political, economic, and ideological structures. Ultimately, economics plays a determining role, but for the most part the different structures develop independently from the rest--in 'conjunctural' rather than necessary relationships to each other. Secondly, Althusser saw history as a 'process without a subject'. He saw Marxism as a science which is developed outside the workers' movement by scientists--an obviously elitist notion--in which only those who devote their lives to the pursuit of 'knowledge' can rise above 'ideology'.59
As Norman Geras points out in his critique of Laclau and Mouffe, these themes are 'much more advanced than with Althusser--in the way that a malady, and not a theory, advances.'60 Althusser had emphasised 'autonomisation', or structural independence, but did not entirely break with the idea of the working class as an agent of social change. Laclau and Mouffe have constructed an entire theory around the concept of autonomisation. Social relations consist not as part of a unitary economic and political system, but 'in a field criss-crossed with antagonisms', which require the 'autonomisation of the spheres of struggle'. In this scheme, the working class plays no central role, and the class struggle is but one of many articulations of 'antagonism'.61 Again, building on Althusser, Laclau and Mouffe also carve out a special role for intellectuals, through their emphasis on ideology and 'discourse'. As Ellen Meiksins Wood argues, this theory
...necessarily ascribes to intellectuals a predominant role in the socialist project, insofar as it relies on them to carry out no less a task than the construction of 'social agents' by means of ideology or discourse. In that case, the inchoate mass that constitutes the bulk of 'the people' still remains without a collective identity, except what it receives from its intellectual leaders, the bearers of discourse.62
Stanley Aronowitz went so far as to argue 'provisionally' (of course) that 'in these societies in which the knowledge mode of production prevails and culture is an ineluctable feature of social rule, intellectuals may become the only genuine political class.'63
The post-Marxist argument exists at the height of abstraction. As such, it only stands as a negation of Marxist theory. If class is not the key division within society, then historical materialism is wrong. If autonomous movements form the basis for struggle, then the working class cannot be the 'privileged agent' for social change. If there is no connection between the spheres of economics and ideology, then the Marxist theory of base and superstructure is wrong. While Laclau and Mouffe describe themselves as post-Marxists, in reality they are anti-Marxists. In order to develop their arguments at each stage in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, it is necessary to strike down these central tenets of Marxist theory. This is therefore the main preoccupation of Laclau and Mouffe. They begin with a frontal assault on the very concept of historical materialism, arguing that Marxist theory sees the outcome of social development as 'predetermined from the beginning':
For Marxism, the development of the productive forces plays the key role in the historical evolution towards socialism, given that the 'past development of the productive forces makes socialism possible, and their future development makes socialism necessary'... According to this view, if history has a sense and a rational substratum, it is due to the general law of development of the productive forces. Hence the economy may be understood as a mechanism of society acting ... independently of human action.64
What is being described here is not historical materialism, but a caricature of Marx's and Engels' ideas. Nevertheless, this is the theoretical basis on which Laclau and Mouffe conclude that there is no connection whatsoever between the political and economic realms of society in modern capitalism. This leads them to insist repeatedly that the state itself is autonomous (and even within the state, the different branches can be autonomous from each other). This too is the basis on which they discard the revolutionary potential of the working class. Rather than the relations of production--based upon exploitation--determining the central antagonism in society, they argue that there are no 'historic interests' derived from 'class positions,' and no 'objective' relationship between relationship to the means of production and the 'mentality of the producers':
Here, the alternative is clear: either one has a theory of history according to which... an absolutely united working class will become transparent to itself at the moment of the proletarian chiliasm--in which case its 'objective interests' can be determined from the very beginning; or else, one abandons that theory and, with it, any basis for privileging certain subject positions over others in the determination of the 'objective' interests of the agent as a whole--in which case this latter notion becomes meaningless.65
This leads Laclau and Mouffe to argue that the central problem with Marxism is its insistence that 'the working class represents the privileged agent in which the fundamental impulse of social change resides'.66 For them, the working class is not just one of many agents for social change, but it may actually be less inclined towards revolutionary consciousness than others. They describe a working class which is deeply divided by sexism, racism, and fragmented due to the segmentation of the labour market. Moreover, elsewhere Mouffe argues that workers have no 'fundamental interest' in socialism: 'The history of social revolutions which have occurred until now strikingly proves this point, because none of them has been led by the proletariat.'67 Where does that leave Marxism? As Mouffe stated in a 1982 interview, 'Without a drastic recasting, Marxism not only is not going to be in the struggle for a socialist transformation of society today, it might even become a fetter.'68
Having dispensed with a materialist explanation for history, Laclau and Mouffe explain history as a series of accidents or contingencies, and society as riddled with free floating, cross firing--and always shifting--antagonisms. According to this picture of society, not only are antagonisms autonomous from each other, but there is no objective way to locate a primary source of oppression. Thus they argue, 'the ensemble of social practices, of institutions and discourses which produce woman as a category, are not completely isolated but mutually reinforce and act upon one another. This does not mean that there is a single cause of feminine subordination.'69 In place of systematic analysis we are given impressionism. By this method, oppression is something which is self articulated and self defined, having no objective basis in larger society. This approach can and does result in trivialising genuine human suffering--by lumping it together with all in society who define themselves as 'oppressed'--such as middle class consumers and anti-authoritarian or counter-cultural middle class youth, whose complaints may be valid, but who hardly constitute specially oppressed groups in society.
Relations of 'subordination' are defined ambiguously as being subject to the decisions of someone else. By this definition, a phone caller may be in a 'subordinate' relationship to a telephone operator, as may be a passenger in a car to the person at the steering wheel. Moreover, relationships of subordination do not automatically become relationships of 'oppression'. Only when that subordination is consciously articulated through 'discourse' does it constitute oppression. And only then can it become a site of antagonism, or struggle. Besides being unnecessarily complicated, this transforms the concept of oppression into an arbitrary, subjective abstraction. This is why they can write:
'Serf,' 'slave,' and so on, do not designate in themselves antagonistic positions; it is only in the terms of a different discursive formation, such as 'the rights inherent to every human being,' that the differential positivity of these categories can be subverted and the subordination constructed as oppression.70
Carrying this approach a step further leads Stanley Aronowitz to argue in The Politics of Identity that Italian-Americans constitute a 'white national minority' in the US. He makes this argument on the grounds that Italian-Americans experience higher unemployment rates and earn lower wages than most other whites. He also notes that, through films such as Mean Streets, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, Hollywood has traditionally stereotyped Italian-Americans as hoodlums prone to senseless violence. Finally, he argues that for more than a century Italian-Americans have suffered 'discrimination' from 'working class hierarchies', which has led to a relatively low level of class mobility.71 He writes:
Six decades of Hollywood stereotypes articulated with more than a century of discrimination within working class hierarchies, especially the fairly limited Italian-American mobility compared to Northern Europeans. This record invites comparison with others who have suffered the stigma of stereotypical cultural representations that correspond to their marginal position within the economic and social hierarchies, notably African-Americans.72
This assertion is nothing short of ridiculous. Many decades have passed since newly arrived Italian immigrants, never mind Americans of Italian descent, suffered from systematic discrimination and bigotry in the US. And although Aronowitz makes the disclaimer that he is not drawing an 'exact parallel' between Italian-Americans and blacks, such a comparison can only serve to trivialise the genuine discrimination suffered by blacks.
Moreover, according to Laclau and Mouffe, oppression is not only completely subjective, but it also can result from any relationship in which one group of people are subject to the authority of another or others. This method borrows heavily from the blind anti-authoritarianism of anarchism--which opposes any form of authority, regardless of who is wielding it and for what purposes. But there is a difference between the authority of those who are democratically elected and of those whose authority is imposed from above. Similarly, the authority of a picket captain in a strike is of an entirely different nature from the authority of a police officer, based upon each one's objective interests--based upon class position. But taken out of the context of class society, all forms of authority are equal and should be equally opposed.
Similarly, if objective working class interests are non-existent, then a party which sets out to represent those interests is at best pointless and at worse harmful. This predictably leads Laclau and Mouffe to oppose the concept of a Leninist party. According to Laclau and Mouffe, 'the relations between "vanguard" and "masses" cannot but have a predominantly external and manipulative character', on the grounds that 'political authoritarianism emerges at the moment when... a distinction is established between leaders and led within mass movements.' Carrying this logic to an extreme leads another post-Marxist, Alberto Melucci, to conclude that even the 'concept of a social movement' makes him 'uncomfortable', because of its 'grandiose political programs which have in practice resulted in tyranny and totalitarianism.'73
The forms of struggle which flow from post-Marxist theory consist of separate, autonomous struggles against specific relations of 'subordination'. In other words, they cannot be generalised. This is again explained as a negation of socialist 'totality':
The classic conception of socialism supposed that the disappearance of private ownership of the means of production would set up a chain of effects which, over a whole historical epoch, would lead to the extinction of all forms of subordination. Today we know that this is not so. There are not, for example, necessary links between anti-sexism and anti-capitalism, and a unity between the two can only be the result of a hegemonic articulation. It follows that it is only possible to construct this articulation on the basis of separate struggles... This requires the autonomisation of the spheres of struggle...74
Laclau and Mouffe have promised that the emergence of these sorts of social movements will unleash a new, more powerful kind of radicalism, which will result in a 'democratic revolution': 'What we are witnessing is a politicisation far more radical than any we have known in the past.'75 Thus, in the opinion of its theoretical pioneers, identity politics represents a step forward from the Marxist tradition. Stanley Aronowitz again echoes this viewpoint:
the new social movements of ecology, feminism, racial freedom, and gay and lesbian freedom are valid efforts to combat aspects of capitalist rule which oppress these sections of the new petty bourgeoisie of professionals, artists, and other intermediate layers of society who comprise the cadre for the movements... Implicit in this reply is a new conception of historical agent(s) that reduces agency neither to its class nor to other fixed determinations.76
This opinion, expressed in different ways, has gained widespread acceptance within sections of the socialist left. For example, reform socialist Manning Marable wrote in a recent article entitled 'The New American Socialism':
The Leninist vanguard-party model of social change... has finally been thoroughly discredited. The idea of seizing power by violence in a computerised, technologically advanced society is simply a recipe for disaster.
...But the central questions confronting the left aren't located within the left itself but in the broader, deeper currents of social protest and struggle among non-socialist, democratic constituencies--in the activities of trade unionists, gays and lesbians, feminists, environmentalists, people of colour, and the poor...
This means advancing a politics of radical, multicultural democracy, not socialism [emphasis added].77
In its striking simplicity, Marable's logic shows that the politics of identity are not compatible with socialism--they cannot be incorporated with a wider socialist view. Moreover, identity politics, rather than representing an advance, represents a major step backward in the fight against oppression. Despite Laclau and Mouffe's declarations to the contrary, there is nothing particularly radical about post-Marxism. In fact, the emphasis on autonomy--both the autonomy of the state and the autonomy of social movements--leads directly down the path to mainstream liberalism.
Their descriptions of the role of the state read like standard textbook definitions: terms such as 'liberty', equality' and 'pluralism' abound. They take great pains to refute the Marxist assumption that the state consistently acts on behalf of any one social class--arguing that sometimes, as in the case of 'feminist struggle, the state is an important means for effecting an advance, frequently against civil society, in legislation which combats sexism'. Not surprisingly, they conclude, 'It is not liberalism as such which should be called into question, for as an ethical principle which defends the liberty of the individual to fulfil his or her human capacities, it is more valid today than ever.'78
The concept of autonomous movements does not contradict a liberal framework at all. First, the goals of each autonomous movement or democratic struggle are limited to ending only a particular form of subordination within a particular social domain. In other words, Laclau and Mouffe are describing glorified pressure groups. Such a struggle may take the form of making demands on the state. Then again, it may not. In fact, it does not even have to involve more than one person:
The fact that these 'new antagonisms' are the expression of forms of resistance to the commodification, bureaucratisation and increasing homogenisation of social life itself explains why they should frequently manifest themselves through... a demand for autonomy itself... Insofar as the two great themes of the democratic imaginary--liberty and equality--it was that of equality which was traditionally predominant, the demands for autonomy bestow an increasingly central role upon liberty. For this reason, many of these forms of resistance are made manifest not in the form of collective struggles, but through an increasingly armed individualism.79
Here, Laclau and Mouffe lead their analysis to its final resting point. The pluralistic ideal so central to the form of 'radical democracy' they envisage amounts to nothing more than an acceptance that each and every subject of struggle, each individual antagonism, possesses a set of separate and distinct interests which prevent the possibility of unity. 'For this very reason, the possibility of a unified discourse of the left is also erased. If the various subject positions and the diverse antagonisms and points of rupture constitute a diversity and not a diversification, it is clear they cannot be led back to a point from which they could all be embraced and explained by a single discourse' [their emphasis].80 So identity politics is both a celebration of, and a resignation to, the inevitability of 'difference'--the polar opposite of 'totality', or a unifying movement.
Movementism, with its stress on autonomy and anti-authoritarianism, has much in common with the ideas of anarchism. Post-Marxism manages to combine these same anarchist elements with an insistence on the neutrality of the state. Moreover, struggles against oppression may take place entirely outside the realm of 'politics', ie without making demands on the state. As Laclau and Mouffe argue, since society is a field 'criss crossed with antagonisms', none more important than any other, each struggle against oppression is an entirely separate entity--which may interact with others, but remains nevertheless autonomous. In the world of abstraction such a formulation can seem plausible. But the minute this theory is confronted with reality, it is wrought with contradictions.
The evolution of US feminist Catharine MacKinnon provides a perfect illustration of the kind of contradictions engendered by identity politics when applied to real world situations. MacKinnon, a well known law professor, is also a self avowed post-Marxist whose analysis shares fundamental agreement with that of Laclau and Mouffe. She too insists upon the neutrality of the state. A neutral state can be ignored, or it can be pressured by different interest groups (men and women) to play either a positive or negative role regarding women's rights. Today, in MacKinnon's view, the state acts in the interests of men, but she believes that laws can be redefined on a 'sex equality' basis. This may, however, require abandoning the right to free speech. In her newest book, Only Words, she argues, 'Equality is a "compelling state interest" that can already outweigh First Amendment [free speech] rights in certain settings.'81
Like Laclau and Mouffe, she too regards the source of women's oppression as unrelated to class society: 'male power over women is a distinctive form of power that inter-relates with the class structure but is neither derivative from nor a side effect of it. In this view, men oppress women to the extent that they can because it is in their interest and to their advantage to do so.' The class struggle, therefore, is something which is simply 'the struggle of men against men'. For women, she argues, the Marxist method of dialectical materialism must be replaced with the feminist method of consciousness-raising.82 A longtime separatist, MacKinnon and her sidekick Andrea Dworkin initiated a campaign in the 1980s aimed at criminalising the production and sale of pornography on the grounds that it 'violates the rights of women'. Their campaign, called 'Women Against Pornography', succeeded in winning an ordinance criminalising pornography in the cities of Minneapolis and Indianapolis in 1983-4, but both laws were eventually overturned by a Supreme Court decision on the grounds that they were unconstitutional.
Far from challenging the powers that be, MacKinnon and Dworkin enlisted them in their campaign. In Indianapolis, for example, Women Against Pornography drew the enthusiastic support of a city councillor active in the Stop ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) crusade, and from the city's mayor and police, as well as from the Christian Right. It was pushed through the city council with the overwhelming support of Republicans. They, too, wanted to criminalise pornography, for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with women's liberation. The excuse of criminalising pornography, rather, fitted in nicely with their interest in finding any way to legitimise the routine police practices of raiding gay and lesbian bars, harassing prostitutes and committing acts of police brutality. Yet MacKinnon and Dworkin were only too happy to have the right wingers on board. As Dworkin explained in a New York Times interview in 1985, 'When Jerry Falwell [leader of the Moral Majority] starts saying there's harm in pornography, that is valuable to me.'83
More recently Dworkin's and MacKinnon's anti-pornography campaign has been put into practice north of the US border, in Canada. In 1992 the Canadian Supreme Court adopted the substance of a legal brief submitted by MacKinnon in its Regina v Butler decision. The Court declared that the right to freedom of expression can be superseded when sexually explicit material promotes 'harm', or is 'degrading' or 'dehumanising', particularly to women. The ruling vastly increased the jurisdiction of Canadian customs officials, who, predictably, have chosen to use their new found censorship powers primarily against feminist and gay publications. Since the ruling border guards have seized a plethora of literature, much of it feminist. One quarter of all feminist bookstores in Canada have had material withheld by customs. The books withheld have included such titles as Black Looks: Race and Representation, by black feminist scholar bell hooks--not to mention two titles by Andrea Dworkin herself! A satirical feminist cartoon book, Hot-Head Paisan, was banned for being 'degrading to men'. Gay publications have also been singled out, since Canadian customs' obscenity guidelines consider only anal penetration--as opposed to other forms--to be 'degrading'. A publication called Weenie Toons was banned for 'degradation of the male penis'. Even a September issue of the liberal US magazine The Nation was detained by zealous border guards. And the books of literary figures, such as Oscar Wilde, who were persecuted in bygone days, have been banned once again.84
None of this should be any surprise. The state is not neutral, but will use each and every opportunity to uphold the interests of the class in power. In the case of capitalism, whatever excuse is used, 'cracking down' will always be directed against those already oppressed by the system. MacKinnon's views on the nature of the state, in other words, have led her directly over to the side of reaction. But it doesn't end there. In MacKinnon's latest book, Only Words, she crosses the line into absurdity, describing a world in which there is no difference between that which is imagined and that which is really experienced. She claims that pornography should not be protected by the First Amendment because reading about or watching a film about abusive sex is the same as rape: 'protecting pornography means protecting sexual abuse as speech' [her emphasis]. She explains further, 'Unwelcome sex talk is an unwelcome sex act,' and, 'to say it is to do it, to do it is to say it.' In the book MacKinnon presents an overview of women's 'thousand years of silence', which reads like a psychotic rant:
You grow up with your father holding you down and covering your mouth so another man can make a horrible searing pain between your legs. When you are older, your husband ties you to the bed and drips hot wax on your nipples and brings in other men to watch and makes you smile through it. Your doctor will not give you drugs he has addicted you to unless you suck his penis.85
There is yet a further complication in applying post-Marxist concepts to the real world: separate struggles do not neatly correspond to 'separate oppressions'. Oppressions overlap, so that many people face more than one different form of oppression: many people are both female and black, and so on. Only in the world of abstraction can autonomous struggles against 'criss crossing antagonisms' be fought separately. This means that choices must be made. This can only lead to a dynamic of growing division and fragmentation even within autonomous movements, in much the same way that the women's and gay liberation movements disintegrated in the early 1970s. Moreover, if oppression exists not as an objective relationship, but is something which is self defined, the complications become even greater.
Let's take one last look at the politics of Catharine MacKinnon. Surprising as it may seem given her separatist analysis noted above, her version of sisterhood does not extend to all women. She has joined the chorus clamouring for greater intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina on behalf of Bosnian Muslims. From her viewpoint this places Serbs--all Serbs--in the enemy camp. She put forward this viewpoint in a speech at a recent human rights conference in Vienna, angering two Serbian feminists in the audience. They happened to be involved in a telephone hotline in Serbia set up to help women and children victims of physical abuse, and resented the fact that MacKinnon didn't acknowledge the existence of a Serbian opposition. MacKinnon's reply? 'If you were an effective opposition you wouldn't be here. You'd be dead.'86
The caricature of Marxism which the post-Marxists strike down leaves out the essence of Marx's view of historical materialism. To listen to Laclau and Mouffe is to be told that Marxism is a view of history without actors, in which the accumulation of the forces of production causes society to 'evolve' towards socialism. Far more than resembling the Marxist view, this formulation is similar to the fatalist view put forward in the Second International or later by Stalinists--the view that changes in the forces of production automatically result in corresponding changes in society. For some of the theorists of the Second International, like Karl Kautsky, such a view meant that the role of socialist organisation was not to intervene, but to simply wait for the inevitable transition from capitalism to socialism. Stalinists, meanwhile, used a similar mechanical framework to equate the development of industry in Russia with its procession to socialism.
It is worth noting that Althusser gradually developed a critique which broke with the Stalinist version of economic determinism. But in doing so Althusser abandoned the essence of Marx's notion of the relationship between the economic base and the superstructure. Most importantly, Althusser developed a theory which downplayed the idea that economic factors have a significant causal role in relation to the spheres of politics and ideology, or that human beings play a determinant role in making history. But Marx's notion of historical materialism has nothing in common with the mechanical formulations of either the Second Intemational or Stalinism. Marx did say that the 'relations of production ...correspond to a definite stage of development of the material productive forces', and he did argue that the development of the productive forces is cumulative, in that technological advances make it possible for societies to move forward, by increasing human beings' control over nature.87
But Marx did not argue that this advance proceeds automatically. The second part of Marx's equation involves the human, or social, factor: the relations of production. Marx described these as 'the social relations based on class antagonism. These relations are not relations between individual and individual, but between worker and capitalist, between farmer and landlord, etc.88
And the theory of base and superstructure does not simply describe the one way influence of the economic base. The relationship between base and superstructure is one of reciprocal, though not equal, influence. As Chris Harman argued:
So great is the reciprocal impact of the 'superstructure' on the base, that many of the categories we commonly think of as 'economic' are in fact constituted by both. So, for instance, 'property rights' are judicial (part of the superstructure) but regulate the way exploitation takes place (part of the base)... Far from ignoring the impact of the 'superstructure' on the 'base,' as many ignorant critics have claimed for more than a century, Marx builds his whole account of human history around it.89
Engels made a similar point in a letter to Franz Mehring in 1893. He criticised 'the fatuous notion of the ideologists that because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history we also deny them any effect upon history. The basis of this is the common undialectical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, the total disregarding of interaction'90 [his emphasis]. So the relationship between base and superstructure is genuinely dialectical. Far from being lifeless mirrors of existing relations of production, the various parts of the superstructure can be arenas of massive political and ideological struggle--between the old ruling class, which acts to impede the development of new relations of production which challenge its rule, and an emerging class, which seeks to revolutionise the relations of production.
The outcome of such struggles is far from 'predetermined'. Rather, it depends on the human element--the relative strength and organisation of class forces on either side. Within capitalism, as Engels argued in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 'The contradiction between socialised production and capitalistic appropriation manifested itself as the antagonism of proletariat and bourgeoisie.'91 Thus in the context of capitalism the working class is the revolutionary class in society--the class which has the potential to transform the relations of production. Or, as Marx wrote in a letter to his friend Joseph Weydemeyer, 'no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes.'92 Put differently by historian Hal Draper, the meaning is still clear:
To engage in class struggle it is not necessary to 'believe in' the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton in order to fall from an airplane... The working class moves toward class struggle insofar as capitalism fails to satisfy its economic and social needs and aspirations, not insofar as it is told about struggle by Marxists. There is no evidence that workers like to struggle any more than anyone else; the evidence is that capitalism compels and accustoms them to do so.93
The Marxist definition of the working class has little in common with those of sociologists. Neither income level nor self definition are what determine social class. Although income levels obviously bear some relationship to class, some workers earn the same or higher salaries than some people who fall into the category of middle class. And many people who consider themselves 'middle class' are in fact workers. Nor is class defined by categories such as white and blue collar. For Marx the working class is defined by its relationship to the means of production. Broadly speaking, those who do not control the means of production and who are forced to sell their labour power to capitalists are workers. The very conditions of work under capitalism lead workers to identify their interests as part of the working class and to organise collectively to defend those interests. Capitalism is based upon mass production, which draws workers together in large numbers under a single roof, and reduces the role of each worker in the labour process to that of a cog in a wheel. As Marx wrote in Capital:
All means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil...94
So workers' objective relationship to the productive process leads them to struggle, and to struggle collectively, as the only way to win. While workers may engage in struggle spontaneously, without prior organisation or class consciousness, class struggle helps to re-educate workers--sometimes very rapidly--challenging bourgeois notions which keep workers divided. When workers go on strike, confronting capital and its agents of repression, the police and national guard, the class nature of society becomes suddenly clarified. Racist, sexist or anti-gay ideas cultivated over a lifetime can disappear within a matter of days in a mass strike wave. The sight of hundreds of police lined up to protect the boss's property or to usher in a bunch of scabs speaks volumes about the class nature of the state within capitalism.
The process of struggle also exposes another truth hidden beneath layers of ruling class ideology: as the producers of the goods and services which keep capitalism running, workers have the ability to shut down the system through a mass strike. And workers not only have the power to shut down the system, but to replace it with a socialist society, based upon collective ownership of the means of production. Although other groups in society suffer oppression, only the working class possesses this objective power.
Sections of the middle layer in society, the petty bourgeoisie or middle class, suffer oppression--in some cases worse than that experienced by workers. Peasants, or even sections of the lower middle class during periods of economic crisis, may suffer severe deprivation. But while sections of the petty bourgeoisie may join a revolutionary movement, their conditions of existence prevent them from leading such a movement. Most importantly, the peasant or small shop owner looks primarily to individual, rather than collective, solutions to conflicts with the ruling class.
In contrast, the working class holds the potential to lead a struggle in the interests of all those who suffer injustice and oppression. That is because both exploitation and oppression are rooted in capitalism. Exploitation is the method by which the ruling class robs workers of surplus value; the various forms of oppression play a primary role in maintaining the rule of a tiny minority over the vast majority. In each case, the enemy is one and the same.
These are the basic reasons why Marx argued that capitalism created its own gravedigger in the shape of a working class. But when Marx defined the working class as the agent for revolutionary change, he was describing its historical potential, rather than a foregone conclusion. While capitalism propels workers toward collective forms of struggle, it also forces them into competition. The unremitting pressure from a layer of unemployed workers, which exists in most economies even in times of 'full employment', is a deterrent to struggle--a constant reminder that workers compete for limited jobs which afford a decent standard of living.
Without the counterweight of the class struggle this competition can act as an obstacle to the development of class consciousness, and encourage the growth of what Marx called 'false consciousness'--part of which is ideas which scapegoat other sections of society. The growth of such ideas divides workers, and impedes their ability to focus on the real enemy. For example, racism against immigrants can grow in times of high unemployment, undermining workers' ability to build a fightback against unemployment. But the dynamic is such that workers' objective circumstances are always in conflict with bourgeois ideology. Marx and Engels argued in The Communist Manifesto, 'This organisation 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.'95
Marx distinguished between a working class 'in itself', which holds objective revolutionary potential, and a working class 'for itself', which acts in its own class interests. The difference is between the objective potential and the subjective organisation needed to realise that potential. Draper described Marx's view of the working class as 'an objective agency of social revolution in the process of becoming'. An essential part of this process is the development of political consciousness among workers.
The role played by revolutionaries is crucial in the development of political consciousness among workers. The whole Leninist conception of the vanguard party rests on the understanding that a battle of ideas must be fought inside the working class movement. A section of workers, won to a socialist alternative and organised into a revolutionary party, can win other workers away from false consciousness and provide an alternative world view. For Lenin, the notion of political consciousness entailed workers' willingness to champion the interests of all the oppressed in society, as a part of the struggle for socialism: 'Working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected--unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic point of view and no other.'97
The prevailing view within identity politics circles is that issues of exploitation and oppression are entirely separate. In fact, this view argues that white, male, and heterosexual workers all 'benefit' from at least some forms of oppression. The Marxist view is quite different. The working class has no interest in maintaining a system which thrives upon inequality and oppression. In fact, the working class as a whole is oppressed, as well as exploited. And the special oppression faced by women, gays, blacks and other racially oppressed minorities serves both to lower the living standards of the entire working class and to weaken workers' ability to fight back. So even in the short term the working class has nothing to gain from oppression.
In Marx's and Engels' time there was little doubt that the working class suffered from oppression. Engels' book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845, described the complete immiseration of the British working class brought about by the industrial revolution.
Living standards have improved dramatically in advanced industrial societies in this century. Nevertheless, even in the richest societies in the world, including the United States, the working class still experiences oppression. Oppression takes many forms: regressive taxation policies; inferior schools; substandard or inaccessible medical care; the prevailing ideologies, which teach workers that they are less intelligent or less capable than the better-educated middle and upper classes; even the siting of toxic waste dumps, never installed anywhere but in working class areas--the list goes on and on. Oppression is necessary to (and a product of) a system based upon the rule of a tiny minority at the expense of the vast majority. In other words, oppression is endemic to capitalism.
The special forms of oppression experienced by women, gays, blacks, and other racial minorities in society are also endemic to the system. Women's oppression rose hand in hand with the family, along with the development of class society. Racism and anti-gay ideology grew up more recently with capitalism. Today these various forms of oppression serve to uphold the capitalist system in particular ways. But they also serve a more general function for capital: pitting worker against worker by creating divisions within the working class. The ruling class deliberately fosters antagonisms between different sections of workers by promoting inequality and discriminating against certain parts of the population. Using whatever means are at its disposal, including the legal system, the media, the educational system, and again the prevailing ideologies, the ruling class creates scapegoats to blame for society's ills, or to be relegated to second class citizenship. Harmful stereotypes are made to seem like 'common sense'.
When the ruling class is most successful those groups which suffer the most discrimination are also the most despised people in society. It is they, not the system, who are blamed for society's problems. Marx applied a similar analysis to the role of racism and slavery in the US. He said, 'In fact the veiled slavery of the wage labourers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal...' The black abolitionist Frederick Douglass summed up the purpose of racism in this simple phrase, 'They divided both to conquer each.'98
The period after the introduction of the Jim Crow segregation laws in the Southern US at the turn of the century illustrates this dynamic perfectly. Far from benefiting from the extreme level of racism brought about by Jim Crow, Southern white workers suffered wages lower than those of black workers in the North.99 Whenever capitalists can threaten to replace one group of workers with another, poorly paid, group of workers, neither group benefits. The only beneficiaries of this inequality are within the ruling class, who pay lower wages overall. The same relationship holds between the wages of men and those of women workers, which tend to be lower. In the US women's wages tend to hover at between 60 and 70 percent of men's. But this has the net effect of depressing men's wages, for they are made constantly aware that, if their own wage demands aim too high, they can be replaced with cheaper women workers. For example, the formerly male occupation of clerical work is now dominated by lower paid women workers. The effect of special oppression is to increase the level of oppression for the working class overall.
Besides this aspect, however, the oppression of women and gays involves another key feature of the capitalist system: the role of the nuclear family. The nuclear family first grew up hand in hand with the development of class society. During the early flourishing of industrial capitalism low wages forced entire working class families to work in factories in order to survive. This severely undermined the working class family to the point of threatening its existence. Indeed, Marx and Engels (mistakenly) believed that the working class family was disappearing under capitalism. But from the mid-19th century onwards, the trend was toward consolidation of the family: wages rose enough so that more working class women would remain within the home and make childrearing a priority.
The modern working class family developed as part of the superstructure, first and foremost to provide the system with a plentiful supply of labour. The working class family developed as a cheap way to reproduce labour power for capitalism, both in terms of replenishing the daily strength of the current labour force and also as a way of raising future generations of workers through adulthood. Capitalists have come to rely upon 'privatised reproduction', as Marx called it. It is doubtful at this point that capitalism could do without the family.
Engels argued that the role of the 'proletarian wife' meant 'the wife became the head servant... if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; and if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out her family duties.'100 In order to prop up the family, ruling class ideology compels both women and men to adhere to rigidly demarcated sex roles--the ideal of homemaker for women, subordinate to the family's male breadwinner--regardless of how little these ideals actually reflect the real lives of working class people.
An essential component of bourgeois ideology around the family is the portrayal of human sexuality as 'naturally' heterosexual and monogamous. This aspect of the ideology of the family is so essential, in fact, that the very existence of lesbians and gays who choose to live outside the traditional nuclear family poses a threat to it. Therefore, laws governing sexual behaviour and explicitly defining homosexuality as 'deviant' began to appear in the late 19th century.
Unless one understands the family's role in privatised reproduction for capitalism, it can seem as if the personal relationships themselves which exist inside the family produce oppression, particularly of women. Inequality between women and men does exist within the family, in that women take much more responsibility for housework and childcare than men. But the unpaid labour women perform inside the family is labour which benefits only the ruling class. Working class men have no objective interest in maintaining the role of the nuclear family as it exists under capitalism, for it places the entire burden of reproduction onto the shoulders of workers. Working class men also have an interest in a system in which housework is socialised and quality childcare is available whenever it is needed.
Some feminists in particular reject the Marxist view that the family is part of the superstructure, claiming that this downplays the importance of the personal aspects of women's oppression. But the Marxist view simply locates the source of all aspects of women's oppression as flowing from the needs of class society. This does not mean that Marxists disregard the personal aspects of women's oppression or of any other form of oppression. Since Marx and Engels, Marxists have understood that privatised reproduction through the nuclear family must be ended in order to end sexual oppression and to create the material conditions in which women and men can truly be equals in their personal lives. Engels himself said, in a passage from The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:
What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman's surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual--and that will be the end of it.101
Nor have Marxists underestimated the degree of inequality which exists between women and men in the family. Leon Trotsky once wrote, 'In order to change the conditions of life, we must learn to see them through the eyes of women.' Furthermore, Trotsky argued that,
in order to achieve the actual equality of man and woman within the family is an... arduous problem. All our domestic habits must be revolutionised before that can happen. And yet it is quite obvious that unless there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their equality in social work or even in politics.102
Rather than downplaying oppression, then, the emphasis by Marxists on the class nature of oppression leads to an understanding that capitalism must be overthrown in order to end it. Moreover, locating the root of oppression in class society explains why the working class has an interest in ending oppression in all its forms.
In the context of oppression the demand for 'autonomy' entails a deep sense of pessimism about the possibility of the working class movement fighting for the interests of all workers, and for all who suffer oppression in society. In the framework of identity politics, it involves a pessimism about the possibility for building solidarity even amongst the oppressed. Yet, as experience has shown, elevating the notion of autonomy to a principle, as identity politics does, makes it virtually impossible to build the kind of movement which can end oppression. Class provides the only unifying basis for fighting against oppression. Only a movement organised on the basis of genuine solidarity between all who are exploited and oppressed by capitalism, under the leadership of the working class, holds the potential to wipe out oppression in all its forms. The Marxist view is that the working class cannot hope to win a socialist society unless the working class movement is united on the basis of ending all forms of oppression and exploitation. Thus it is in workers' objective interests to fight oppression in all its forms.
The Leninist conception of the revolutionary party is one which represents the objective interests of the working class, and on this basis argues within the working class movement that the socialist movement must, in Lenin's words, be the 'tribune of the people'.103 But for a revolutionary party to act as the 'tribune of the people' it must unite the oppressed within its ranks, not give way to the pressure to fracture organisationally along lines of race or gender. Lenin made this point forcefully in reply to members of the Jewish Bund who wanted a separate revolutionary organisation for Jewish workers.
Lenin argued that, 'we must not set up organisations that would march separately, each along its own track.' This would not only weaken the working class movement as a whole, but it would weaken the struggle of Jewish workers fighting against anti-Semitism. He argued that the Bund had 'stepped onto the inclined plane of nationalism' which could only lead it into isolation and hamper its ability to fight back. He argued that, carried to its organisational conclusion, the result would be the complete compartmentalisation of struggle:
one who has adopted the standpoint of nationalism naturally arrives at the desire to erect a Chinese Wall around his nationality, his national working-class movement; he is unembarrassed by the fact that it would mean building separate walls in each city, in each little town and village, unembarrassed even by the fact that by his tactics of division and dismemberment he is reducing to nil the great call for the rallying and unity of the proletarians of all nations, all races, and all languages[his emphasis].104
Lenin's words do not represent the principles of a movement which ignores oppression, but one which seeks to bring together the greatest possible force to combat it: the working class. And the Bolshevik Revolution proved in practice that Lenin was right. In 1917 the same Russian workers who the Bund had argued in 1903 were too backward to champion the rights of Jewish workers elected Trotsky, a Jew, as chairman of the Petrograd soviet, Kamenev, a Jew, as chairman of the Moscow soviet, and Sverdlov, a Jew, as chairman of the Soviet Republic.
Lenin argued, the socialist movement must be the tribune of all those, regardless of class, who suffer oppression under capitalism. But the Bolsheviks also clearly understood that the class nature of oppression precluded the possibility for cross-class alliances among the oppressed. And class is nevertheless the key division within society. This means that class interests divide those who are oppressed. The Bolsheviks clarified this position in regard to women's oppression. As Alexandra Kollontai argued in The Social Basis of the Woman Question:
The women's world is divided, just as is the world of men, into two camps: the interests and aspirations of one group brings it close to the bourgeois class, while the other group has close connections to the proletariat, and its claims for liberation encompass a full solution to the woman question. Thus, although both camps follow the general slogan of the 'liberation of women', their aims and interests are different.105
But arguing against cross-class interests among women wasn't the end of the matter. The Bolsheviks also argued with men workers why it was in their class interests to fight for demands such as equal pay for women workers. At the First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions in 1917, Alexandra Kollontai argued in her address, 'The class conscious worker must understand that the value of male labour is dependent on the value of female labour and that, by threatening to replace male labour with cheaper female workers, the capitalist can put pressure on men's wages. Only a lack of understanding could lead one to see this question as purely a "woman's issue".'106
The Bolsheviks had made the right choice of allies. When the October Revolution took place, ruling class women fought on the other side, against the interests of working class women and men.107 But the working class movement embraced a full programme for women's liberation. The October Revolution was indeed a 'festival of the oppressed', as Trotsky described. All those groups who had been oppressed under the rule of Tsarism were liberated by the workers' government.
In a period of months after the October Revolution women were granted full social and political equality--including the right to vote and run for public office, at a time when no other society had yet granted women full suffrage rights. Legislation was passed granting women workers equal pay for equal work. Abortion was made free and legal. Divorce was granted by request, while age of consent laws were revoked. And despite the tremendous hardships of the civil war which followed the revolution, the Bolsheviks set up a women's bureau, Zhenotdel, which took the first steps toward relieving women of the burdens imposed by the family--by setting up communal kitchens and child care centres, and public laundries.
All laws criminalising homosexuality were repealed, in an attempt to rid society of the distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality. The Bolshevik Grigorii Btakis described the impact of the October Revolution on sexuality in 1923:
[Soviet legislation] declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured, and no one's interests are encroached upon--concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offences against morality--Soviet legislation treats these exactly as so-called 'natural' intercourse.108
But all the progress towards ending oppression that had been made during the early years of the revolution came to an abrupt halt with Stalin's consolidation of power in 1928.
The rise of Stalinism marked the beginning of a new period of massive industrialisation in Russia and the brutal consolidation of a bureaucratic, state capitalist regime. Millions of people were killed in this process--peasants, workers, and many Bolsheviks who had participated in the October Revolution. Stalinism, in other words, annihilated the workers' government and everything the Bolsheviks stood for. It is important to understand this, because many people make their case against Marxism on the grounds that various forms of oppression continued under Stalin's rule, and in other societies calling themselves socialist, such those in Eastern Europe, and Cuba or China.109 But Stalinism marked the defeat of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and buried the real Marxist tradition for six decades.
The politics of identity do not offer a way forward for those genuinely interested in transforming society. At its worst, the logic of identity politics can be used to bolster the ruling class's primary means of repression, the capitalist state--as is the case with Catharine MacKinnon's version. But even when organisations built around identity politics ignore the state, their strategies leave class society completely intact. The veneer is radical, but the substance is not.
Class is the main antagonism in society. This is as true today as it was in Marx's time. For working class people, the notion of individual 'empowerment' will remain an impossibility as long as capitalism exists. The emphasis on lifestyle so central to identity politics is the guarantee that such movements will remain middle class. Moreover, workers' objective role within the productive process places them in an objectively antagonistic relationship to capital. The lessons of the class struggle train workers to act in solidarity with all those who are oppressed and exploited by capitalism. The battle for class consciousness is a battle over ideas, but it is one which will be fought out in the context of the class struggle, not the musings of ex-Marxist academics.
Thanks to Alex Callinicos, Chris Harman, Mike Haynes, John Molyneux, John Rees, Lance Selfa and Ahmed Shawki for comments on the first draft, and to Andy Thayer for help in gathering information.