As the Democratic Party licks its wounds and lurches toward some kind of direction after the disaster of the Trump seizure of power, the term “identity politics” has come up. Representatives such as Tim Ryan from Ohio and Kurt Schrader of Oregon have taken aim at the “coastal elites” who champion issues related to white supremacy, patriarchy, and homophobia. Their concern is that progressives must do a better job of appealing to the “white workers” who have suffered economic hardship and have felt disenfranchised over the past decades. Even Bernie Sanders is part of this narrative, declaring that “[Clinton] should have won this election by 10 percentage points. The question is: Why is it that millions of white working-class people who voted for Obama turned their backs on the Democratic Party?”
The charge is ridiculous and, indeed, deeply racist. The suggestion is that white people who joined the Trump crusade (some low income whites can be found for sound bites but the majority of Trump supporters were solidly middle class) had grievances that were ignored. And even if they did join a lynch mob campaign, can’t we really feel sorry for them? It’s a particular quality of American politics that the most privileged population in the world manages to cast itself as victim over and over.
If we are looking at the fundamental problems of US and western societies, if we are trying to understand the engine of challenge and change, of course there is no question that colonial oppression, the conquest, killing, relocating, imprisoning, scorning, and starving of whole peoples is the primary contradiction. From the earthshaking Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movement to the Chicano Power, American Indian Movement, Puerto Rican Independence movement and others have come the critique and action for social justice; and internationally, the Third World struggles for national liberation – from Asia to Africa to Latin America – defined the fight for democracy and challenged white elite power at its foundation. Within these struggles, moreover, the leadership and special demands of women and LGBTQ people have deepened the fight.
These struggles take center stage in every institution of our society, from schools to housing, from health care to the environment and yes to the workplace. It is seen in Black Lives Matter, in the women’s march against Trump, in the May first immigrant walkouts. This is not coastal elitism; anyone who looks at the issues honestly knows where the movement gets its motion.
White workers, like all white people, have some challenging rethinking to do. Instead of demanding more for ourselves, we need to look at privilege – especially white, male, straight privilege. Economic hardships? Black people have been forced into poverty for centuries – denied housing, blocked from unions, locked out of the job market, and imprisoned; Chican@/Latin@ communities have been forced to do the worst, back-breaking work; the list could go on. Disenfranchised? Yes, that’s tough. Try being saddled with poll taxes, voting tests, gerrymandered districts, challenged registrations, and the denial of voting rights for ex-prisoners. The “appeal” to white workers, based on bread and butter self-interest ideas, is simply white nationalism dressed up in liberal rhetoric.
There is really no need to make this argument over and over. The Democrats are ridiculous and they may actually manage to cede more ground, including interim elections and the next presidential election, to the fascistic wing of the Republican Party.
My bigger complaint is with the Marxists – those who occupy the apparent critical left in US politics. For they have jumped on the “attack identity politics” bandwagon – uniting with the Democratic Party and saving their attacks for the liberation struggles. I shouldn’t concede the title Marxist, however, because anyone familiar with Marx and Lenin knows well their critique of imperialist conquest, their understanding of how colonial conquest creates a privileged working class in the imperial countries, their endorsement of the primary position of the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggles in confronting capitalism.
It was Lenin who raised the sharpest polemics against the mechanistic, class-only line of the Marxist movement. He argued that capitalism in the age of imperialism was characterized by imperialist conquest. That conquest was where super-profits came from – super-profits, which even allowed the capitalists to buy off the elite of the (white) working class, creating an “aristocracy of labor.” Moreover, in places like England and the US, this aristocracy label fit a very broad group of workers indeed. The crucial way to attack capitalism was then to support the dismantling of empire, the national liberation of the oppressed nations. Activists who focused only on “bread and butter” economic demands were only feeding national chauvinism in the imperialist centers.
This same polemic and position was taken up and elaborated by all the Third World revolutionary leaders of the 20th Century, from Fidel Castro to Frantz Fanon to Ho Chi Minh to Mao Tse Tung to Amilcar Cabral to Marta Harnecker, and on and on.
But you see the attack on so-called identity politics, the “class line,” the opposition to national struggles, all the time coming from the “Marxist” left, from publications such as Jacobin which features articles attacking postcolonial theory, reparations, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. They would of course attack James Baldwin too except he is too well respected, almost untouchable. You see it in Monthly Review, which subsumes struggles under the “multicultural working class.” You see it in the economist analysis of Richard Wolff who is regularly featured on Pacifica airwaves.
Most recently social media has been abuzz with the interview with Asad Haider in Seattle Weekly. Titled, “A Marxist Critiques Identity Politics,” it is a perfect example of how the “Marxists” have embraced the most right wing politics of the Democratic Party and catered to the punch line of the Trumpistas. Guys like this generally keep their heads down when powerful movements like Black Lives Matter blow up – then come back later to explain how they are all wrong. And in fact they argue that capitalism has managed to “resolve” the problem of racism so we should really move on to class. He states: “a governmental system which was once defined by the exclusion of people of color on the basis of legal forms of white supremacy, now suddenly was altered by the successes of the Civil Rights movement.” Oh joy. The Civil Rights Movement was a success. Race is so passé. Look through it for more zingers. The Black Panther Party is here recast as a group multinational-working-class Marxists – because they had differences with cultural nationalists like the US Organization. Note to Marxoids: they were called the BLACK Panther Party for a reason. And there are plenty of anti-imperialist Marxists, real Marxists, to be found not only in the BPP but also in Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere.
For the most part, the leftists who attack what they call identity politics are taking a cue from Todd Gitlin, former SDS president and long time scold against the radical uprisings of the 60’s. He coined the term identity politics in the 1990’s to demean and attack the struggles of various communities targeted by modern imperialism. Of course, these polemics, from Gitlin on until today, set up a straw dog argument, focusing on a caricature of activism that is sometimes seen on college campuses, something I would describe as “personal identity politics.” This phenomenon is a form of petty bourgeois, subjective politics. So personal identity politics is basically about how I’m feeling, what I’m complaining about, without reference to the broader struggle of targeted populations. I could go on about that phenomenon at length but that is not the point here. The opportunists of the left have used this straw dog to attack all national liberation, all anti-patriarchal struggles as “dividing the working class.”
But the truth is, imperialism has already divided the working class. The challenge is to understand the forms that oppression takes and to mount real struggles, popular movements, to defeat that oppression and win real participatory democracy.