Identity Politics – Considering A Few More Points

06/13/2017 05:05 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2017

I recently wrote a critique of the Marxists (and key Democratic Party strategists) who dismiss national liberation and gender equity struggles as simply “identity politics.” I got some blowback for that piece which made me think I should do a little more exploration of the issue.

I made the point then that there is a difference between narrow, personal identity politics on the one hand and the political movements of peoples, especially the anti-colonial struggles against imperialism both inside and outside the U.S., as well as the fight for women’s, gender, and trans rights on the other. The national liberation struggles have constituted the main challenge to capitalist power, the leading movements for humanizing society, throughout the history of the US and other European empires. The personal identity politics are another phenomenon altogether: this kind of activism is mostly limited to graduate school and other petty bourgeois spaces; it is about personal comfort and subjective states, and is generally divorced from the strategic movements of peoples for liberation. People like Todd Gitlin purposely conflate these two phenomena in order to more easily attack national liberation and gender rights. After all, they argue, such “cultural” struggles don’t get to the real base, the economic level, the class struggle.

My biggest argument is with the so-called Marxists who fail every time to ally with, to take leadership from, the national liberation struggles. I say so-called Marxists because in general these are the people who occupy the “left” space in political debates. They should be the ones with the most thorough critique of capitalism, right? Sadly, too many of them have betrayed the central principles of Marxist analysis. It seems that too many of these Marxists have discovered ideology, made it a matter of faith, and ignored the real struggles in the real world.

I’m not playing that specious game, “who’s the better Marxist.” But I am tired of the veiled attacks on Black Liberation and other struggles by those who contend that “class” is the most important issue. Class certainly is key but the narrow, economist, flat explanation of class is the problem.

Let’s keep in mind the central method of Marxist analysis, dialectical materialism. This means not thinking metaphysically, not believing that magic connections make things happen. The method calls for concrete analysis of concrete conditions. In other words, you have to attend to what is happening in the real world, in the actual unfolding of events. Marx demonstrated how this could be done, for instance, in his complicated and on-the-ground exploration of the Civil War in France in the mid-19th century. Engaging in a concrete analysis of concrete conditions we see clearly that the motive force, the driving and central and emphatic force of progressive and revolutionary struggle in our lifetimes (and before) has been the struggle against imperialism.

Especially in the period after World War II, the uprisings of the Third World constituted the most powerful force for transformative, revolutionary change. It is crucial to understand how colonialism and neo-colonialism work, to examine what Nkrumah described as the different forms of colonialism – settler, administrative, and domestic.

Those suffering national oppression inside the borders of the US, such as the African American and the Chican@/Latin@ communities, identified with this world revolution and did their part. This was the revolutionary turn that Malcolm X made in his analysis of the Black struggle and it is this that inspired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party.

The point that SNCC made in 1966 was that the struggle for Black freedom was not about racism per se, it was not about changing ideas in people’s heads. The struggle was for power over Black lives – because with power, it did not matter if white people had racist ideas; they would not be able to do harm. A corollary to this argument was the identification of the African American struggle with Third World struggles all over the world.

As one SNCC organizer put it: “We are not a minority seeking in to US society, we are part of the majority, the majority of Black and Brown peoples of the world fighting for liberation.” Such a call was not just radical, it was revolutionary. It advanced a struggle that shook white capitalist power to its foundations. It led to the formation of the Black Panther Party which J. Edgar Hoover rightly identified as the greatest threat to white racist capitalism (His actual words were that “the Black Panther party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”).

Did these struggles ultimately win? No, while they forced revolutionary transformation, ultimately they were defeated – leaders killed, hundreds of thousands imprisoned, and communities occupied. Hence the situation we are in today. What I take issue with is the (mostly white) left coming in after these defeats and doing ideological mop-up work, delegitimizing the national liberation struggles and putting in place a worldview more in line with traditional First World trade unionist consciousness. In other words, national oppression is the key to the ruling class staying in power so anti-imperialist activism is the heart of class struggle and the prerequisite for any class unity.

All the great challenges to the powers that be over these decades have been from national liberation struggles. And the struggles for women’s and queer liberation have likewise shaken the system to its core. But the Marxists have had to lay low – acknowledge the movement but then try to intervene, to move it back on the track to narrow trade unionist demands. Because, don’t you see (they say), this is where the base is, this is the key contradiction. After the storms have blown over or reached a period of quietus, these opportunists come back out of the woodwork and begin chipping away – criticizing the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance, or reframing Third World resistance as another moment for their “class centered” analysis to save the day. Because Coates lays bare these contradictions, because he has been embraced by the Black freedom struggle (just as James Baldwin was in the 1960’s) the attacks on him from the left are particularly slimy.

Although these debates go back to all political struggles through the centuries, I am most aware of the debates and activism of the 1960’s. During that time, those activists who decided that the key to revolution was the working class – a cross racial category of people with jobs – ended up often going into factories or doing trade union work. This included members of the Progressive Labor Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and so on. Let’s examine what was powerful in this work and what amounted to simply trade unionist reformism. Those tendencies which saw national liberation as the main contradiction were in such groups as the Young Lords, American Indian Movement, Black Panther Party, Weather Underground, and Sojourner Truth Organization. There were successes and failures here too, and similar problems of dogmatic thinking. The point is that people key their activist work on how they understand the world – on their theory of action. Let us be very clear on the theory of action that guides the First World Marxists.

Most who engage in trade unionist and similar economic work have argued that simple, bread-and-butter demands are easier to pursue in working class organizing, that self-interest is the basis for action. But this is simple opportunism. The problem we face is more complex. It’s more difficult to agitate, to organize, against privilege among white people; more challenging to pursue actual liberation. But that is our task.

It is interesting to note that Lenin faced the same challenges from the social democratic forces, especially the Mensheviks. They argued that bread-and-butter demands were key to rousing the Russian workers, that agitation against the imperialist war (World War I embroiled Europe at the time) was too abstract. Lenin argued that the workers were not stupid, should not be talked down to with simplistic organizing. But the war, the Mensheviks said, the war against the terrible German Kaiser was legitimate, they needed to support their troops. Lenin argued that, even though the Kaiser was terrible, their task was to oppose their “own” imperialism, that the German workers had the responsibility to oppose their own government.

One of the most telling debates that exposes Marxist opportunism today is the issue of de-industrialization, the Rust Belt, the way capitalists have moved production to the Third World. The capitalists started this drive in the 1970’s, in a search for cheaper labor and a way to undermine unions in the US. This certainly pointed to the disgusting greed of the ruling class. But how to respond?

I remember in the 1970’s when unions (and the Marxists within the unions) were agitating against the moving of manufacturing overseas, the campaign they mounted was “Buy American!” My friend Dave Gilbert pointed out then that this was a demand that did not advance solidarity with Third World peoples, did not educate about the nature of imperialism. Instead, he said, it would inevitably support xenophobia. And this xenophobia, racism, has matured today into the Trump fascist movement. Oh, the left tried to show some awareness of the suffering of these Third World workers – especially in the work to expose “sweatshops.” But even then it promoted a resentment for the move, a dream of returning hard industry to the US heartland.

These demands for a return of industry to the US suggest that the height of American industrial production was some kind of dream of a golden age –those wonderful years when Third World peasants labored in mines and fields to produce raw materials that could be sent to the US factories for final manufacturing. Did they really think things would stay like that indefinitely, or until the trade union work they were doing was paving the way for socialism? The relentless drive for profit meant that the corporate heads would take the next step, moving to a “global” economy with most manufacturing moved to the Third World.

The problem with our Marxists is the same problem that Donald Trump speaks to: the disappearance of heavy industry and the desire to have it back. You can rail against the moves, decry the cruelty and greed of the predatory capitalists. You can be upset that the US economy has been reduced to a service economy and an “information” economy (which means, essentially, fiddling with computers to move around actual commodities that are made in the Third World). In some places where manufacturing has left, the main jobs are as prison guards – so half the population is employed holding the other half of the population in cages. It is a disgusting situation, the evidence of a parasitic economy and a decadent political culture.

Marx denounced the cruel and craven efforts of the capitalists to enclose common land and drive peasants into the cities – thus creating a workforce for the new industrial revolution. But he did not suggest going back. He had no illusions that we could return to the land, dis-enclose the commons, and go back to a previous period. He recognized the new period that had been ushered in and strategized how to respond.

Our Marxists maintain a vision that is limited to the borders of the US. They see imperialism and the colonial oppression of populations outside and inside US borders as simply something bad that capitalists do – imperialism to them is a preferred policy of the capitalists. This is the very position that Lenin exposed in the works of the German socialist Karl Kautsky, who limited his vision to improving the lot of workers in the privileged centers instead of putting the struggle against imperialism at the center.

Kautsky’s approach, and that of most of our First World Marxists, ends up reinforcing chauvinism and xenophobia. The only way to understand globalized capitalism is in a global context, where we should be talking about an international class solidarity.

Here are factories all over the world making products to be consumed in the center and our Marxists limit their vision to the domestic economy and ignore the global working class and the form their struggle takes. We must recognize that the bourgeoisie has put the means of production, the control of manufacturing, into the hands of Third World workers. The entire edifice of capitalist production now depends on a fully integrated empire. And the empire is shaky, the resistance is coming from all sides. No wonder the US keeps the greatest military the world has ever known on full alert and in real wars everywhere. From the perspective of the ruling class, this is not irrational. It is the only way to protect their investments.

The industrial proletariat has moved to the Third World, and what do our Marxists do? They yearn for the return of big industry to the imperial center. The decline of the US empire is accompanied by great suffering – some by those who are losing their privileges but much more by those the ruling class lashes out at – peoples in the Middle East, throughout Africa, in Asia and Latin America, as well as African American and other oppressed peoples in the US, and refugees who have been driven around the world because of military and economic actions by the US and their allies. Moreover, the greedy drive for profits based on consuming fossil fuels threatens to destroy the planet. People suffer greatly. And we have to put the blame clearly where it belongs – with the one per cent who run society and who are destroying the planet.

But we will not advance the struggle by repeating a self-pitying story of those who were formerly the most privileged and we certainly should not promise that the movement will restore their privileges, will make everything hunky dory. The hard work is to confront issues of privilege, especially white and male privilege, in the US, and to support the work of those on the front lines of the anti-imperialist struggle. But that is the only work that offers the promise of allowing us to join the rest of the world, to have a stake in the fundamental change needed for true equity and freedom in the world.