Identity Crisis

Pieter Bruegel The Elder, The Tow­er of Babel, 1563.

On the evening of June 1, 1863, Har­ri­et Tub­man led a clan­des­tine raid on the banks of the Com­ba­hee Riv­er, near Beau­fort, South Car­oli­na, lib­er­at­ing over 750 slaves. A cen­tu­ry lat­er, in 1974, a group of black fem­i­nists chan­neled that col­lec­tive act of eman­ci­pa­tion to invent a new pol­i­tics for their time. They called them­selves the Com­ba­hee Riv­er Col­lec­tive.

Orig­i­nal­ly the Boston branch of the Nation­al Black Fem­i­nist Orga­ni­za­tion, the Col­lec­tive began with four black women gath­er­ing in a liv­ing room to dis­cuss how they came to rad­i­cal pol­i­tics. All four had cut their teeth in the anti­war, civ­il rights, Black Pow­er, or women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ments of the past decade. While those move­ments fought tire­less­ly for greater inclu­siv­i­ty, broad­en­ing the mean­ing of lib­er­a­tion, these women had grown frus­trat­ed with black nationalism’s per­sis­tent sex­ism and feminism’s con­tin­ued dom­i­na­tion by white women. If black and women’s lib­er­a­tion had mount­ed an inter­nal cri­tique of social­ist pol­i­tics in the 1960s, this cohort of black women set out to do the same for these move­ments.

Draw­ing on the fem­i­nist prac­tice of con­scious­ness-rais­ing, they did so by explor­ing their own expe­ri­ences as black les­bians who faced not one, but sev­er­al oppres­sions. As they explained in their famous 1977 state­ment:

A polit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion which we feel we have already made is the expan­sion of the fem­i­nist prin­ci­ple that the per­son­al is polit­i­cal. In our con­scious­ness-rais­ing ses­sions, for exam­ple, we have in many ways gone beyond white women’s rev­e­la­tions because we are deal­ing with the impli­ca­tions of race and class as well as sex.

They con­tin­ued, employ­ing what is like­ly the first use of the term “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics”:

This focus­ing upon our own oppres­sion is embod­ied in the con­cept of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. We believe that the most pro­found and poten­tial­ly most rad­i­cal pol­i­tics come direct­ly out of our own iden­ti­ty, as opposed to work­ing to end some­body else’s oppres­sion. In the case of Black women this is a par­tic­u­lar­ly repug­nant, dan­ger­ous, threat­en­ing, and there­fore rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­cept because it is obvi­ous from look­ing at all the polit­i­cal move­ments that have pre­ced­ed us that any­one is more wor­thy of lib­er­a­tion than our­selves.

Although crit­i­cal of exist­ing move­ments, the Collective’s aim was not to reject social­ist pol­i­tics. On the con­trary, insist­ing on their auton­o­my, shared expe­ri­ences, and uncom­pro­mis­ing com­mit­ment to lib­er­a­tion from all oppres­sions, the Com­ba­hee Riv­er Col­lec­tive hoped to deep­en social­ism by fore­ground­ing the inter­ests, desires, and strug­gles of all oppressed groups, espe­cial­ly the most mar­gin­al­ized. “We are social­ists,” the authors of the state­ment pro­claimed. “We are not con­vinced, how­ev­er, that a social­ist rev­o­lu­tion that is not also a fem­i­nist and anti-racist rev­o­lu­tion will guar­an­tee our lib­er­a­tion.”

Over the next few decades, these insights were cod­i­fied into what we now under­stand as “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics.” But in the process, what began as a promise to push beyond some of socialism’s lim­i­ta­tions to build a rich­er, more diverse and inclu­sive social­ist pol­i­tics, made pos­si­ble some­thing very dif­fer­ent. Root­ing polit­i­cal action in the iden­ti­ty of sub­jects offered a promis­ing response to the most press­ing polit­i­cal prob­lem of the time, but it left an open­ing that would soon be exploit­ed by those with pol­i­tics dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed to those of the CRC.

This strat­e­gy was recent­ly on dis­play when Jen­nifer Palmieri, Hillary Clinton’s for­mer com­mu­ni­ca­tion direc­tor, attempt­ed to explain the burst of anti-Trump protest fol­low­ing the inau­gu­ra­tion. “You are wrong to look at these crowds and think that means every­one wants $15 an hour,” she said in an appear­ance on MSNBC in Feb­ru­ary. “Don’t assume that the answer to big crowds is mov­ing pol­i­cy to the left … It’s all about iden­ti­ty on our side now.”

In Palmieri’s hands, iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics no longer sig­nals the fight against inter­lock­ing oppres­sions, but is now coun­ter­posed to strug­gling against exploita­tion, to improv­ing all work­ers’ lives, what­ev­er their gen­der, race, sex­u­al­i­ty, or cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus. In this con­cep­tion, pol­i­tics is not about chang­ing the world, but your con­sumer choice in fash­ion­ing an iden­ti­ty:

Women who are reject­ing Nordstrom’s and Neiman Mar­cus are say­ing this is pow­er for them. Don­ald Trump doesn’t take me seri­ous­ly, well, I’m show­ing you my val­ue and my pow­er, and I think it’s like our own ver­sion of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics on the left that’s more empow­er­ing …

Far from help­ing to build social­ism, iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics of this kind is now explic­it­ly wield­ed by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to keep it at bay. In this con­text, it’s under­stand­able that many have come to decry iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics as an obsta­cle to social­ist uni­ty. For­get­ting the roots of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics in rad­i­cal social move­ments, many crit­ics have mis­tak­en­ly come to see it as whol­ly alien to social­ism, pro­ceed­ing to denounce all its par­ti­sans – includ­ing oth­er social­ists – with a vehe­mence most of us reserve only for our vilest ene­mies.

To make mat­ters worse, instead of offer­ing a pos­i­tive alter­na­tive, most of these crit­ics res­ur­rect hack­neyed for­mu­la­tions, uncrit­i­cal­ly bran­dish­ing words like “class,” with­out try­ing to take into account the legit­i­mate needs of many rad­i­cals who have come to ral­ly behind some form of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. The flaw of these cri­tiques is their lack of acknowl­edg­ment of the eman­ci­pa­to­ry ori­gins of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, and the his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances from which they emerged. To move for­ward, we have to trace how the eman­ci­pa­to­ry pol­i­tics of the Com­ba­hee Riv­er Col­lec­tive have giv­en way to the reac­tionary rav­ings of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty hacks like Jen­nifer Palmieri.

Enriching Socialism

In the very ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, Amer­i­can social­ists found them­selves faced with an over­whelm­ing field of dif­fer­ences. They met wage work­ers and the unem­ployed, skilled crafts­men and shop­keep­ers, share­crop­pers and farm­ers. They con­front­ed dif­fer­ences in age, gen­der, lan­guage, reli­gion, eth­nic­i­ty, and cit­i­zen­ship. They dis­cov­ered immense region­al vari­a­tions, between the South and the North, the city and the coun­try­side, and the con­ti­nent and the colonies, which stretched from Puer­to Rico through the Philip­pines, by way of Indi­an reser­va­tions. To move for­ward, social­ists had to resolve an enor­mous strate­gic chal­lenge: how to unite these diverse social forces into a sin­gle move­ment?

In many ways, the his­to­ry of social­ism in this coun­try can be seen as a sequence of polit­i­cal exper­i­ments designed to solve this prob­lem, whose terms no doubt changed, but whose para­me­ters and stakes nev­er ceased to pre­oc­cu­py social­ists. To be sure, this was by no means a lin­ear his­to­ry. Social­ist orga­niz­ing was high­ly uneven, with rever­sals and dead ends lurk­ing around every cor­ner. When break­throughs were made, it was often through leaps, which involved rad­i­cal, unset­tling breaks with longheld ideas.

The most per­sis­tent of these inher­it­ed ideas, and one that iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics would come to define itself against, was class reduc­tion­ism: that the spe­cif­ic polit­i­cal demands of a par­tic­u­lar kind of skilled, male, and often white indus­tri­al work­er in the cap­i­tal­ist heart­land could stand in for the strug­gles of every­one else, alleged­ly pro­duc­ing a kind of uni­ty from above. Of course, while this reduc­tion­ism was often a part of social­ist think­ing, it was rarely part of social­ist prac­tice on the ground – and when it was, it seri­ous­ly com­pro­mised the effec­tive­ness of social­ist orga­ni­za­tions. For that rea­son, for­ward-think­ing social­ists fre­quent­ly chal­lenged this ide­ol­o­gy, and it was dealt its most severe blow by a wave of new strug­gles in the 1960s and 1970s. These move­ments opened hori­zons for the­o­riz­ing the uni­ty between social forces while at the same time time tak­ing into account their par­tic­u­lar strug­gles, needs, and inter­ests.

In those decades, a cycle of nation­al lib­er­a­tion strug­gles widened the inter­na­tion­al­ist scope of social­ism. While social­ists had always raised the ban­ner of inter­na­tion­al­ism, the depth of this com­mit­ment left much to be desired. Although sup­port for strug­gles in oth­er coun­tries, espe­cial­ly Poland, formed the basis of the Inter­na­tion­al Workingmen’s Asso­ci­a­tion, its inter­na­tion­al reach remained sharply lim­it­ed to Europe and North Amer­i­ca. The Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al fared lit­tle bet­ter, includ­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives from only one social­ist par­ty out­side the west, Japan.

As for the rest of the world, the major­i­ty of which suf­fered under some form of impe­r­i­al rule, some social­ists felt that col­o­niza­tion was in fact pro­gres­sive. Oth­ers vocif­er­ous­ly demand­ed decol­o­niza­tion, but argued that the lib­er­a­tion of the colonies could only fol­low the work­ers’ rev­o­lu­tion in the advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries. Even the famed Third Inter­na­tion­al, which made anti-impe­ri­al­ist inter­na­tion­al­ism a cor­ner­stone of social­ism, got off to a rocky start. As Leon Trot­sky declared in the man­i­festo of the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al, which he read aloud at its first con­gress: “Colo­nial slaves of Africa and Asia! The hour of pro­le­tar­i­an dic­ta­tor­ship in Europe will also be the hour of your lib­er­a­tion!”

Through pres­sure from the col­o­nized them­selves, the Com­intern soon revised some of these stag­ist assump­tions, throw­ing its weight behind anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gles across the globe. Even still, its inter­na­tion­al­ism remained uneven, as indis­pens­able mil­i­tary, finan­cial, and diplo­mat­ic sup­port for lib­er­a­tion strug­gles was some­times com­bined with a pater­nal­is­tic atti­tude and a ten­den­cy to reduce inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty to an instru­ment of Sovi­et for­eign pol­i­cy, which occa­sion­al­ly amount­ed to mak­ing deals with bour­geois states at the expense of local rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gles.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, lib­er­a­tion move­ments across the globe rein­vent­ed social­ist inter­na­tion­al­ism. From Cuba to Viet­nam, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies fought not only for their inde­pen­dence, but for the lib­er­a­tion of the entire plan­et, argu­ing that their rev­o­lu­tions could con­tribute deci­sive­ly to a tru­ly glob­al social­ist move­ment. As Viet­namese com­mu­nists put it in 1966: “while fight­ing for the inter­ests of our peo­ple, we also fight for those of the peo­ples of the entire world.” Instead of suc­cess­ful social­ist rev­o­lu­tions in the cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries serv­ing as the pre­con­di­tion for eman­ci­pa­to­ry rev­o­lu­tions abroad, the rev­o­lu­tions in the col­o­nized world now trig­gered a resur­gence of rad­i­cal­ism in the advanced cap­i­tal­ist world.

Sol­i­dar­i­ty with these anti-impe­ri­al­ist rev­o­lu­tions became the defin­ing prin­ci­ple of the rad­i­cal left in the Unit­ed States, lead­ing many young rad­i­cals to crit­i­cize cap­i­tal­ism, adopt social­ism, and embrace rev­o­lu­tion. Read­ing the writ­ings of non­white authors such as Mao Zedong, Frantz Fanon, Amil­car Cabral, or Che Gue­vara, and draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from those resist­ing the onslaught of U.S. impe­ri­al­ism, they embraced the most inter­na­tion­al­ist vision of social­ism yet.

These rev­o­lu­tions in turn rad­i­cal­ized the strug­gles of immi­grants and eth­nic minori­ties, who began to call for a deep­er diver­si­fi­ca­tion of social­ism in the Unit­ed States. Amer­i­can socialism’s record of racial and eth­nic inclu­siv­i­ty had always been check­ered. Although the Social­ist Par­ty even­tu­al­ly claimed a pre­dom­i­nant­ly for­eign-born mem­ber­ship, the par­ty had backed immi­gra­tion quo­tas, sup­port­ed unions that exclud­ed immi­grants, and fared poor­ly among African Amer­i­cans. The Com­mu­nist Par­ty USA made a far more con­cert­ed effort, com­mit­ting itself to black self-deter­mi­na­tion, orga­niz­ing ini­tia­tives in the South, and recruit­ing a host of tal­ent­ed black the­o­rists such as Har­ry Hay­wood and Clau­dia Jones.

In the 1960s, a con­stel­la­tion of black groups such as the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Action Move­ment, the Black Pan­ther Par­ty (BPP), and the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers, built on these lega­cies, fus­ing social­ism with black nation­al­ism. Although aim­ing to build a mul­tira­cial social­ist move­ment, they argued that social­ists could not pro­ceed by sim­ply ask­ing blacks to join hands with whites in strug­gle, as though the mere fact that both were work­ers was the only basis need­ed for uni­ty. Uni­ty, they right­ly argued, depend­ed on direct­ly con­fronting the spe­cif­ic oppres­sions fac­ing African Amer­i­cans, since these oppres­sions ulti­mate­ly imposed the strongest divi­sions with­in the work­ing class­es.

Draw­ing on ear­li­er argu­ments about nation­al self-deter­mi­na­tion, they argued that cen­turies of insti­tu­tion­al­ized racial oppres­sion in the Unit­ed States had repro­duced African Amer­i­cans as a struc­tural­ly mar­gin­al­ized pop­u­la­tion. Blacks were his­tor­i­cal­ly sub­ject­ed to not only the worst exploita­tion at the work­place, but wide­spread dis­crim­i­na­tion, legal seg­re­ga­tion, exclu­sion from polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion, the con­stant threat of vio­lence, and lim­it­ed access to decent hous­ing, health­care, and state ser­vices. In this con­text, African Amer­i­cans had their own spe­cif­ic needs, which required a degree of auton­o­my. As the first point of the Pan­ther pro­gram announced: “We Want Pow­er To Deter­mine The Des­tiny Of Our Black Com­mu­ni­ty.” This meant orga­ni­za­tion­al inde­pen­dence, but also cre­at­ing new, alter­na­tive insti­tu­tions: self-defense, edu­ca­tion, hous­ing projects, free break­fast pro­grams, and health clin­ics.

Respond­ing to sim­i­lar con­di­tions, oth­er minor­i­ty groups fol­lowed the Pan­ther mod­el. The Brown Berets, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary Chi­cano orga­ni­za­tion, orga­nized direct actions against police bru­tal­i­ty, estab­lished social ser­vices like free break­fast pro­grams and health clin­ics, and held edu­ca­tion­al class­es. The Young Lords, a Puer­to Rican gang that devel­oped into a rev­o­lu­tion­ary Marx­ist orga­ni­za­tion, did the same. The Red Guard Par­ty, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary Chi­nese-Amer­i­can orga­ni­za­tion based in San Francisco’s Chi­na­town, looked even more direct­ly to the BPP, which not only encour­aged them to adopt the name Red Guards, but intro­duced them to Mao. Fol­low­ing the pat­tern, poor whites even orga­nized their own group, the Young Patri­ots.

Although firm­ly defend­ing their orga­ni­za­tion­al auton­o­my, these groups all col­lab­o­rat­ed with one anoth­er. For them, auton­o­my did not mean with­draw­ing into autar­kic com­mu­ni­ties; it was the pre­con­di­tion for a deep­er uni­ty. In Chica­go, they worked towards a Rain­bow Coali­tion of African Amer­i­cans, Puer­to Ricans, Mex­i­cans, and poor whites. While these social­ists of col­or nev­er unit­ed under a sin­gle orga­ni­za­tion, U.S. social­ism as a whole was nev­er more diverse.

In addi­tion to widen­ing the inter­na­tion­al­ist dimen­sion of social­ism and diver­si­fy­ing its ranks, the strug­gles of the 1960s unearthed pre­vi­ous­ly over­looked forms of oppres­sion. While it is untrue that the social­ist move­ments of the past were myopi­cal­ly fix­at­ed on “bread and but­ter” issues, there were many forms of oppres­sion and exploita­tion that most social­ists either did not see or did not pay suf­fi­cient atten­tion to. All that changed in the 1960s, as rad­i­cals began to argue that lib­er­a­tion had to unfold in all spheres of life. Draw­ing on ear­li­er black cri­tiques, and inspired by anti-colo­nial texts, black rad­i­cals point­ed to the psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of their oppres­sion in the Unit­ed States, in addi­tion to oth­er more overt forms.

Mar­gin­al­ized with­in the very move­ments they helped make pos­si­ble, fem­i­nists quick­ly devel­oped this line of inquiry to show that women’s oppres­sion man­i­fest­ed itself in every­day inter­ac­tions that even per­me­at­ed the left. Through “con­scious­ness-rais­ing” groups, women dis­cussed their per­son­al expe­ri­ences, col­lec­tive­ly dis­cov­er­ing that what were con­sid­ered to be iso­lat­ed, indi­vid­ual prob­lems were in fact shared, social ones.

“One of the first things we dis­cov­er in these groups is that per­son­al prob­lems are polit­i­cal prob­lems,” Car­ol Hanisch explained in her famous essay, “The Per­son­al is Polit­i­cal.” Through this mon­u­men­tal polit­i­cal break­through, fem­i­nists rad­i­cal­ly expand­ed the polit­i­cal ter­rain. They showed that per­son­al spaces, like the kitchen and the bed­room, were sites of exploita­tion. Oppres­sion was not lim­it­ed to for­mal insti­tu­tions, but per­vad­ed every aspect of one’s life. By look­ing to their per­son­al expe­ri­ences to uncov­er these oth­er forms of oppres­sion, fem­i­nists argued that social­ism had to be much rich­er than pre­vi­ous­ly imag­ined. It had to mean the abo­li­tion of sex­ism and racism, lib­er­a­tion at the lev­el of the per­son­al, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and sex­u­al.

New Limits

In 1969, a group of rad­i­cals call­ing them­selves the Weath­er­men decid­ed it was time to esca­late the anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gle. To jus­ti­fy their think­ing, they cir­cu­lat­ed a man­i­festo, which bore an epi­graph from Lin Biao, the Vice Chair­man of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty who tried to uni­ver­sal­ize Mao’s dic­tum that the key to rev­o­lu­tion was encir­cling the cities from the coun­try­side. “The coun­try­side, and the coun­try­side alone, can pro­vide the rev­o­lu­tion­ary bases from which the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies can go for­ward to final vic­to­ry,” Lin Biao declared in 1965. “Tak­ing the entire globe, if North Amer­i­ca and West­ern Europe can be called ‘the cities of the world,’ then Asia, Africa and Latin Amer­i­ca con­sti­tute ‘the rur­al areas of the world.’”

For the Weath­er­men, this meant that social­ism would come to the Unit­ed States when it was enveloped by social­ist rev­o­lu­tions from abroad, with the aid of guer­ril­la actions by that enlight­ened minor­i­ty of rad­i­cal anti­war activists at home. While all U.S. anti-impe­ri­al­ists rec­og­nized the lead­er­ship of strug­gles abroad in the fight for a glob­al social­ist rev­o­lu­tion, the Weath­er­men now argued that only those “third world” strug­gles could make the rev­o­lu­tion. As Samir Amin lat­er explained, pro­po­nents of this crude Third World­ism “seize on lit­er­ary expres­sions, such as ‘the East wind will pre­vail over the West wind’ or ‘the storm cen­ters,’ to illus­trate the impos­si­bil­i­ty of strug­gle for social­ism in the West, rather than grasp­ing the fact that the nec­es­sary strug­gle for social­ism pass­es, in the West, also by way of anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gle in West­ern soci­ety itself.” Despite their best inten­tions to cen­ter the strug­gles of oth­ers, this kind of think­ing led the Weath­er­men to cre­ate fur­ther obsta­cles to uni­ty.

But the Weath­er­men weren’t alone. In fact, they rep­re­sent­ed a wider trans­for­ma­tion in the 1960s and 1970s: with­in these eman­ci­pa­to­ry move­ments, cer­tain ten­den­cies were begin­ning to gen­er­ate a new set of lim­its to uni­ty.

One of the most alarm­ing of these lim­its was guilt. Sud­den­ly rec­og­niz­ing the pro­found depths of oth­ers’ oppres­sion, as well as socialism’s his­tor­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions in strug­gling to over­come such oppres­sions, some rad­i­cals, espe­cial­ly white rad­i­cals like the Weath­er­men, suc­cumbed to a pol­i­tics of guilt. Feel­ing per­son­al­ly respon­si­ble for racism at home, or for the U.S. government’s mass mur­der of Viet­namese abroad, they effec­tive­ly reduced activism to self-fla­gel­la­tion, pol­i­tics to moral­ism. Iron­i­cal­ly, although they intend­ed to draw atten­tion to mar­gin­al­ized strug­gles, when white rad­i­cals fore­ground­ed their acts of pub­lic expi­a­tion, they recen­tered the sto­ry on them­selves.

The accom­pa­ny­ing com­pul­sion to denounce oth­er whites for fail­ing to acknowl­edge their com­plic­i­ty in racism or impe­ri­al­ism only aggra­vat­ed this ten­den­cy. At the same time that they policed oth­er whites, these rad­i­cals tend­ed to roman­ti­cize black and Third World mil­i­tants, ele­vat­ing their strug­gles onto pedestals. Con­vinced that rev­o­lu­tions abroad could do no wrong, anti-impe­ri­al­ists ide­al­ized these move­ments, with­hold­ing com­rade­ly crit­i­cism of some of their overt lim­i­ta­tions. By the same log­ic, some white women spared black men from a cri­tique of sex­ism. They assumed, his­to­ri­an Chris­tine Stansell explains, that black men were “exempt from male priv­i­lege, an idea that was high­ly irri­tat­ing to black women.”

This dynam­ic over­lapped with the relat­ed prob­lem of van­guardism. Although in many ways them­selves root­ed in such ideas, the new strug­gles of the decade implic­it­ly chal­lenged van­guardist assump­tions that one part of the world would blaze a trail for anoth­er, that the strug­gles of one class fig­ure would nec­es­sar­i­ly lead all the oth­ers, that the desires of one sec­tor of the work­ing class could stand in for those of every­one else.

These strug­gles point­ed instead to the neces­si­ty of inte­grat­ing a whole field of dis­tinct strug­gles: the uni­ty of advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries with those in the col­o­nized world, of waged work­ers with the unem­ployed, of racial and eth­nic minori­ties with whites. But instead of reject­ing the van­guardist par­a­digm of the past, some social­ist cur­rents invert­ed it. Instead of fol­low­ing the white fac­to­ry work­ers, they argued, they should defer to the lead­er­ship of the black lumpens. Instead of the advanced cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries lead­ing the way for the rest of the world, it now fell entire­ly to the “Third World” to make the glob­al rev­o­lu­tion.

Anoth­er grow­ing prob­lem was the ten­den­cy to homog­e­nize dis­tinct social groups in ways that erased their inter­nal dif­fer­ences. Increas­ing­ly, oppressed groups came to be seen as, and often saw them­selves as, undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed enti­ties. Some mil­i­tants in the Glob­al South, for exam­ple, spoke of a uni­fied “Third World project,” which tend­ed, in the words of Aijaz Ahmad, to divide the world into mono­lith­ic blocs. Evok­ing the idea of a uni­ver­sal “sis­ter­hood,” some fem­i­nists in the Unit­ed States claimed that all women, irre­spec­tive of class or racial dif­fer­ences, were unit­ed by the same expe­ri­ence. At the same time, many black rad­i­cals evoked an organ­ic “black com­mu­ni­ty,” to which all blacks were said to belong.

Indeed, in the 1960s, most black nation­al­ists, includ­ing the Black Pan­thers, spoke of the “black com­mu­ni­ty” as the basis of their polit­i­cal projects – com­mu­ni­ty defense, com­mu­ni­ty con­trol, com­mu­ni­ty empow­er­ment. But some Pan­thers made pains not to homog­e­nize the black com­mu­ni­ty into a sin­gle whole, exclud­ing, for exam­ple, those black busi­ness own­ers who refused to con­tribute to the Pan­ther sur­vival pro­grams. As Eldridge Cleaver lat­er put it, “We found that we had ene­mies in the black com­mu­ni­ty that were just as dead­ly as our ene­mies in the white com­mu­ni­ty, so the white com­mu­ni­ty and the black com­mu­ni­ty became mean­ing­less cat­e­gories for us.”

Nev­er­the­less, some nation­al­ist cur­rents argued that the racial uni­ty of African Amer­i­cans in the face of white Amer­i­ca super­seded all oth­er poten­tial divi­sions with­in the black com­mu­ni­ty. Although the idea had some basis in real­i­ty, and could serve the per­for­ma­tive func­tion of pro­duc­ing uni­ty, this con­cep­tion of an organ­ic black com­mu­ni­ty end­ed up flat­ten­ing cru­cial intrara­cial divi­sions, nat­u­ral­iz­ing the social con­struc­tion of the “com­mu­ni­ty,” and ulti­mate­ly paving the way for a pol­i­tics based on authen­tic­i­ty.

The focus on com­mu­ni­ty con­trol played an impor­tant role in the grow­ing empha­sis on the pol­i­tics of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, which includ­ed, but was not lim­it­ed to elec­toral rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Begin­ning in the late 1960s, black activists set their eyes firm­ly on cap­tur­ing state pow­er. Even the most rev­o­lu­tion­ary groups, like the BPP, began to pri­or­i­tize elec­toral strug­gle, with Bob­by Seale run­ning for may­or of Oak­land in 1973. The idea of the “black com­mu­ni­ty” played a cru­cial role in push­ing a wave of black politi­cians into office, but it was dou­ble-edged. “In the black com­mu­ni­ty con­struct,” Adolph Reed has argued, “those who appear as lead­ers or spokesper­sons are not so much rep­re­sen­ta­tives as pure embod­i­ments of col­lec­tive aspi­ra­tions.” This leaves the rela­tion between lead­ers and led “unmedi­at­ed.”

The con­se­quence, Reed points out, is a prob­lem­at­ic kind of polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion:

By the same token, in this view of black pol­i­tics the con­stituen­cy issue is resolved from the onset; there is one, gener­i­cal­ly racial con­stituen­cy, as all mem­bers of the organ­ic com­mu­ni­ty are pre­sumed to share equal­ly in its objec­tives and the fruits of their real­iza­tion.

What emerges, in oth­er words, is the assump­tion that all the mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty pos­sess the same inter­ests, and that rep­re­sen­ta­tives are there­fore imme­di­ate embod­i­ments of this col­lec­tive will. This was not with­out its chal­lenges. Oper­at­ing with such a deeply organi­cist con­cep­tion of com­mu­ni­ty, it became very hard to eval­u­ate rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The only way to con­demn a black politi­cian whose poli­cies did not ben­e­fit the alleged­ly undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed black com­mu­ni­ty they were elect­ed to rep­re­sent was by recourse to the lan­guage of authen­tic­i­ty: they weren’t real­ly black. In addi­tion, assum­ing the iden­ti­ty between rep­re­sen­ta­tives and a pre­de­ter­mined con­stituen­cy opened the door to a kind of tokenism. The result, Reed describes, was that white out­siders, social­ists or oth­er­wise, came to argue that since they were not a part of the black com­mu­ni­ty, they need­ed to iden­ti­fy black indi­vid­u­als or groups “who reflect the authen­tic mood, sen­ti­ments, will, or pref­er­ences of the rei­fied com­mu­ni­ty.” “This impulse,” he goes on, “places a pre­mi­um on artic­u­late black spokesper­sons to act as emis­saries to the white left.” Inter-racial sol­i­dar­i­ty risked being reduced to tokenism.

Last­ly, with­out a clear pro­gram, con­stant grass­roots pres­sure, and a durable con­nec­tion to mass move­ments, elect­ed offi­cials might fail to make fun­da­men­tal changes to real social rela­tions. Or worse, they could be absorbed into the state appa­ra­tus­es as a dis­tinct lead­er­ship lay­er, designed to to keep their con­stituen­cy in order. As Amiri Bara­ka pre­scient­ly quipped in 1972, “black faces in high places, but the same rats and roach­es, the same slums and garbage, the same police whip­pin’ your heads, the same unem­ploy­ment and junkies in the hall­ways mug­ging your old lady.”

The over-per­son­al­iza­tion of pol­i­tics spawned anoth­er set of poten­tial lim­its. Claim­ing the per­son­al was polit­i­cal nec­es­sar­i­ly implied that the polit­i­cal also had to be per­son­al, a line of rea­son­ing that could devolve into indi­vid­u­al­is­tic lifestyle pol­i­tics. Hip­pies could claim that grow­ing their hair long, smok­ing pot, or lis­ten­ing to rock and roll was a kind polit­i­cal sub­ver­sion. Black cul­tur­al nation­al­ists advo­cat­ed that African Amer­i­cans focus on chang­ing their lifestyles, wear­ing dif­fer­ent clothes, or adopt­ing African rit­u­als – even if this meant invent­ing new ones, like Kwan­zaa, invent­ed by Mary­land-born Ron Everett after he changed his name to Karen­ga, which meant “keep­er of tra­di­tion” in Swahili. Argu­ing that the per­son­al was the basis of rad­i­cal change, some rad­i­cal fem­i­nists burned bras, cut their hair short, and embraced polit­i­cal les­bian­ism as the only way to tru­ly break with patri­archy. Chris­tine Stansell sum­ma­rizes the log­ic: “If you could trans­form the pow­er dynam­ics of per­son­al life, then every­thing else – the law, pol­i­tics, edu­ca­tion, work, mar­riage – would fol­low.”

The turn to lifestyl­ism also met with fierce crit­i­cism. Rad­i­cals like the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Union claimed the coun­ter­cul­ture risked col­laps­ing into hedo­nis­tic indi­vid­u­al­ism that eas­i­ly lent itself to com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion – although the RU often bent the stick too far the oth­er way, instruct­ing its mem­bers to look “clean-cut” so as not to alien­ate work­ers. Oth­ers claimed the focus on sym­bols did not guar­an­tee a change in mate­r­i­al social rela­tions. The Black Pan­thers, for exam­ple, denounced the sep­a­ratist “pork chop” nation­al­ism of Karen­ga, which they coun­ter­posed to a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary nation­al­ism” based in the mul­tira­cial strug­gle to over­turn cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions. Mean­while, les­bians who spent decades strug­gling against homo­pho­bia took offense at the new­ly mint­ed “polit­i­cal les­bians” who often denounced them for not being “polit­i­cal­ly con­scious,” or worse, as still enslaved by mas­culin­ism.

This turn to the per­son­al led to an intense focus on the microp­ol­i­tics of every­day life. Since sex­ism was and is repro­duced dai­ly, and often in invis­i­ble ways, fem­i­nists right­ly scru­ti­nized inter­per­son­al inter­ac­tions and drew atten­tion to every­day acts of sex­ism. But while crit­i­ciz­ing offen­sive behav­ior was an indis­pens­able part of eman­ci­pa­tion, espe­cial­ly giv­en the per­va­sive sex­ism on the left, inces­sant pub­lic denun­ci­a­tion ran the risk of devolv­ing into an end in itself, detached from the larg­er, col­lec­tive strug­gle against insti­tu­tions and state appa­ra­tus­es.

“Trash­ing” as it was some­times called, was also poten­tial­ly self-destruc­tive, forc­ing many women out of the move­ment. “A vague stan­dard of sis­ter­ly behav­ior is set up by anony­mous judges who then con­demn those who do not meet their stan­dards,” explained Jo Free­man in an April 1976 arti­cle. Through inces­sant affronts, “trash­ing,” she con­tin­ued, “makes you feel that your very exis­tence is inim­i­cal to the Move­ment and that noth­ing can change this short of ceas­ing to exist.”

To be sure, this kind of tox­ic, con­fronta­tion­al pol­i­tics was not unique to fem­i­nism, but suf­fused much of the rad­i­cal left in those decades. Denun­ci­a­tions and humil­i­a­tions were com­mon ways of address­ing prob­lems, and offend­ers were often forced to pub­licly crit­i­cize them­selves for the small­est infrac­tions, lead­ing back to a pol­i­tics of shame and guilt. In such an atmos­phere, attempts at uni­ty became strained. Mod­ern day call-out cul­ture has its ori­gins here.

Identity Politics

Recod­ing polit­i­cal strug­gle in terms of “iden­ti­ties” was the most con­se­quen­tial of these ten­den­cies to emerge from the strug­gles of the 1960s and 1970s. Though com­mon­place today, the term “iden­ti­ty” only appeared as a pop­u­lar cat­e­go­ry of social analy­sis in the 1950s. Lead­ing the charge were soci­ol­o­gists, such as Erv­ing Goff­man, and psy­chol­o­gists, the most impor­tant of which was Erik Erik­son, the psy­cho­an­a­lyst famous for coin­ing the term “iden­ti­ty cri­sis.”

As Philip Glea­son points out, although they inter­pret­ed the term in dis­tinct ways, these intel­lec­tu­als all used “iden­ti­ty” to rethink the rela­tion­ship between self and soci­ety, a major top­ic of aca­d­e­m­ic inquiry in the 1950s and 1960s. Iden­ti­ty, Erik­son explained, con­cerns “a process ‘locat­ed’ in the core of the indi­vid­ual and yet also in the core of his com­mu­nal cul­ture, a process which estab­lish­es, in fact, the iden­ti­ty of those two iden­ti­ties.” By the mid-1960s, the term had passed into pop­u­lar usage, and against the back­drop of the tumul­tuous events of the decade, every­one began to make ref­er­ence to “iden­ti­ty” as a way of refer­ring to col­lec­tive sub­jec­tiv­i­ty.

It is in this con­text that “iden­ti­ty,” entered U.S. social move­ments, espe­cial­ly those, like black and women’s lib­er­a­tion, that empha­sized the psy­cho­log­i­cal, every­day nature of oppres­sion. Take, for exam­ple, Stoke­ly Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s usage in their 1966 book, Black Pow­er:

Our basic need is to reclaim our his­to­ry and our iden­ti­ty from what must be called cul­tur­al ter­ror­ism, from the depre­da­tion of self-jus­ti­fy­ing white guilt. We shall have to strug­gle for the right to cre­ate our own terms through which to define our­selves and our rela­tion­ship to soci­ety, and to have these terms rec­og­nized. This is the first neces­si­ty of a free peo­ple, and the first right that any oppres­sor must sus­pend.

As L.A. Kauff­man has sug­gest­ed, iden­ti­ty came to sig­ni­fy not only a descrip­tion, but a project – a sense of self shaped by the expe­ri­ence of oppres­sion, but also some­thing to be embraced, affirmed. Echo­ing the psy­cho­log­i­cal prove­nance of the term, which linked the indi­vid­ual to the group, it was also a com­mu­nal project. As Carmichael and Hamil­ton explained, Black Pow­er meant cre­at­ing a “sense of peo­ple­hood: pride, rather than shame, in black­ness, and an atti­tude of broth­er­ly, com­mu­nal respon­si­bil­i­ty among all black peo­ple for one anoth­er.”

Grad­u­al­ly, some activists took this line of think­ing to anoth­er lev­el. They argued that per­son­al expe­ri­ences cre­at­ed rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble iden­ti­ties, that every­one pos­sessed one of these iden­ti­ties, and that pol­i­tics should be based on the search for that iden­ti­ty and its sub­se­quent nam­ing, defense, and pub­lic expres­sion. Where­as many 1960s rad­i­cals once had argued that explor­ing per­son­al expe­ri­ences could serve as the first step to dis­cov­er­ing par­tic­u­lar oppres­sions, under­stand­ing how they oper­at­ed, and ulti­mate­ly devel­op­ing polit­i­cal strate­gies to over­com­ing them, some now came to insist on a direct and unmedi­at­ed link between one’s iden­ti­ty and one’s pol­i­tics. Rather than being a part of a polit­i­cal project, iden­ti­ty was now a polit­i­cal project in itself.

This idea that one could draw such a direct line between iden­ti­ty and pol­i­tics would become the basis of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics in its con­tem­po­rary form, the core around which all these oth­er ele­ments – guilt, lifestyl­ism, or the homog­e­niza­tion of groups – came to grav­i­tate around over the next decade. Although this kind of think­ing remained mar­gin­al at first, over the 1970s and 1980s, a vicious con­ser­v­a­tive back­lash, the destruc­tion of rad­i­cal move­ments, the migra­tion of polit­i­cal cri­tique into the uni­ver­si­ties, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of sin­gle-issue cam­paigns, and the restruc­tur­ing of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions all worked in unex­pect­ed ways to cre­ate the his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions that allowed iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics to even­tu­al­ly achieve a kind of hege­mo­ny on the left.

But its lim­i­ta­tions were clear from the out­set. Most impor­tant­ly, iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics tend­ed to flat­ten impor­tant dis­tinc­tions with­in oth­er­wise het­ero­ge­neous iden­ti­ties. It was in this con­text that the idea of “inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty” emerged. Although now regard­ed as syn­ony­mous with iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, the con­cept actu­al­ly orig­i­nat­ed as a cri­tique of its flaws.

“The prob­lem with iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics,” Kim­ber­lé Cren­shaw, the legal schol­ar who coined the term “inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty,” argued, is that “it fre­quent­ly con­flates or ignores intra­group dif­fer­ences.” She attempt­ed to over­come one of the key lim­i­ta­tions of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics by show­ing how some groups suf­fer not sim­ply from one kind of oppres­sion, but from the inter­sec­tion of sev­er­al oppres­sions. Thus, iden­ti­ty was not mono­lith­ic, but often com­posed of mul­ti­ple vec­tors, which meant the polit­i­cal sub­ject had to be clar­i­fied: not just black, for exam­ple, but black, queer, woman.

Although inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty the­o­ry added some much-need­ed nuance to iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, it, too, ran into its own lim­its. As Sue Fer­gu­son and David McNal­ly have explained, while “inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty accounts have right­ly insist­ed that it is impos­si­ble to iso­late any par­tic­u­lar set of oppres­sive rela­tions from the oth­er,” they have not devel­oped any coher­ent expla­na­tion of “how and why” dif­fer­ent forms of oppres­sion inter­sect with each in oth­er in some ways and not oth­ers. The result is often an enu­mer­a­tion of oppres­sions with­out an ade­quate expla­na­tion of their artic­u­la­tion into a struc­tured, though always uneven, whole. This is pre­cise­ly why, for exam­ple, par­ti­sans of this kind of inter­sec­tion­al iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics almost always revert to com­pos­ing breath­less cat­a­logues of injus­tice when try­ing to explain what they oppose – the colo­nial white suprema­cist het­ero­nor­ma­tive patri­archy, or some­thing to that effect. More­over, since the list is the only way to present the object of social strug­gle, fail­ure to include a par­tic­u­lar oppres­sion in the mas­ter list will often be mis­tak­en­ly inter­pret­ed as the will­ful rejec­tion or era­sure of a par­tic­u­lar strug­gle against a par­tic­u­lar oppres­sion.

In the absence of a the­o­ry explain­ing why these mul­ti­ple oppres­sions came to exist, how they inter­act, and why they are repro­duced togeth­er, a ten­den­cy to nat­u­ral­ize social­ly-con­struct­ed iden­ti­ties emerges. As a result, iden­ti­ties come to appear as ready-made, obscur­ing the com­plex his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions that cre­at­ed and con­tin­ue to recre­ate them. “Iden­ti­tar­i­an polit­i­cal projects,” Wendy Brown explains, trans­form suf­fer­ing into “essen­tial­ized iden­ti­ties,” but for­get that “suf­fer­ing can­not be re­solved at the iden­tit­ari­an lev­el”:

It may be easi­er to see this dy­nam­ic in dis­courses that es­sen­tial­ize con­flict in places such as North­ern Ire­land, the Mid­dle East, or South Africa. To for­mu­late the prob­lem in those re­gions as one of Cath­ol­ics ver­sus Prot­est­ants, Ar­abs ver­sus Jews, or blacks ver­sus whites, rather than un­der­stand­ing the op­pos­i­tion­al char­ac­ter of these iden­tit­ies as in part pro­duced and nat­ur­al­ized by his­tor­ic­al op­er­a­tions of pow­er (set­tler-co­lo­ni­al­ism, cap­it­al­ism, etc.), is a pat­ently de­his­tor­iciz­ing and de­pol­it­i­ciz­ing move — pre­cisely the sort of move that leads to mor­al­iz­ing lament or blame, to per­son­i­fy­ing the his­tor­ic­al con­flict in in­di­vidu­als, castes, re­li­gions, or tribes, rather than to po­tent polit­ic­al ana­lys­is and strate­gies.

In oth­er words, among many par­ti­sans of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, there is a ten­den­cy to uncrit­i­cal­ly use iden­ti­ties like “race” to explain phe­nom­e­na, when it is pre­cise­ly the his­tor­i­cal exis­tence of these iden­ti­ties that must them­selves be explained. These iden­ti­ties then tend to close onto them­selves as fixed expres­sions of life itself.

Only those who belong to a giv­en iden­ti­ty are said to be able to under­stand cer­tain oppres­sions. This implies not only that those who do not belong to the iden­ti­ty can­not under­stand that oppres­sion, but that all those who belong to said iden­ti­ty will have an auto­mat­ic knowl­edge of it: no white per­son can ever tru­ly under­stand racism, just as every per­son of col­or will nat­u­ral­ly under­stand racism sim­ply by virtue of hav­ing dark­er skin. It is then fur­ther assumed that this expe­ri­en­tial knowl­edge will nec­es­sar­i­ly lead to the right polit­i­cal stances against those oppres­sions.

One of the fun­da­men­tal prob­lems of con­tem­po­rary iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics is there­fore reduc­tion­ism. As the very term sug­gests, for par­ti­sans of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, one’s pol­i­tics are a direct reflec­tion of one’s iden­ti­ty. One’s gen­der, race, or sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, the assump­tion goes, will lead auto­mat­i­cal­ly to cer­tain polit­i­cal stances. Because you are a white woman, you will nat­u­ral­ly vote for Hillary Clin­ton. Because you are black in a fun­da­men­tal­ly racist soci­ety, then you must auto­mat­i­cal­ly have anti-racist pol­i­tics. If you belong to any mar­gin­al­ized group, you must endorse iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. In this way, iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics has come to erase the con­tin­gent medi­a­tions between iden­ti­ty and pol­i­tics.

As every­one knows, those who are said to belong to a cer­tain iden­ti­ty often – if not most of the time – fail to behave accord­ing to their ascribed inter­ests. When this hap­pens, a num­ber of argu­ments are mar­shalled to sal­vage the deter­min­ism of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. First, in lan­guage haunt­ing­ly sim­i­lar to the dis­cred­it­ed con­cept of “false con­scious­ness,” par­ti­sans of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics blame those who betray their inter­ests as hav­ing been duped. Sec­ond, they charge col­lab­o­ra­tion. For exam­ple, instead of engag­ing with the con­tent of their work, some crit­ics denounce writ­ers like Adolph Reed and Bar­bara Fields as “Uncle Toms,” even liken­ing them to Col­in Pow­ell and Con­doleez­za Rice. Third, those who devi­ate from the pol­i­tics demand­ed by their iden­ti­ty might be accused of not actu­al­ly being of that iden­ti­ty. This is why peo­ple of col­or who crit­i­cize iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics are so often accused of being white.


On April 12, 2015, six Bal­ti­more police offi­cers, of which three were black, mur­dered 19-year-old Fred­die Gray under the watch of a black police com­mis­sion­er, may­or, attor­ney gen­er­al, and Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. When thou­sands rose in protest, Barack Oba­ma took it upon him­self to denounce them as “crim­i­nals” and “thugs.” The racist mur­der, and the mas­sive state repres­sion that fol­lowed, Keean­ga-Yamaht­ta Tay­lor has argued, rep­re­sent a water­shed. “There have always been class dif­fer­ences among African Amer­i­cans, but this is the first time those class dif­fer­ences have been expressed in the form of a minor­i­ty of Blacks wield­ing sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal pow­er and author­i­ty over the major­i­ty of black lives.”

By insist­ing on diver­si­ty, fore­ground­ing the strug­gles of those whose his­to­ries have been so often effaced, and high­light­ing the ways that oppres­sions repro­duce them­selves in every­day life, iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics did diver­si­fy rad­i­cal pol­i­tics for a time, but it ulti­mate­ly rest­ed on high­ly prob­lem­at­ic assump­tions that recent events have thrown into cri­sis. Bal­ti­more showed that the quest for descrip­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion based in the illu­sion of organ­ic racial sol­i­dar­i­ty can­not end racism. “When a Black may­or, gov­ern­ing a large­ly Black city, aids in the mobi­liza­tion of a mil­i­tary unit led by a Black woman to sup­press a Black rebel­lion, we are in a new peri­od of the Black free­dom strug­gle,” Tay­lor writes. While undoubt­ed­ly still nec­es­sary, rep­re­sen­ta­tion remains insuf­fi­cient on its own. It mat­ters who these rep­re­sen­ta­tives are, what inter­ests they serve, what they do in prac­tice, and how they are held account­able.

This past elec­tion cycle pre­sent­ed yet anoth­er chal­lenge to our assump­tions about the direct link between iden­ti­ty and pol­i­tics. How, accord­ing to this view, could one explain the fact that 52% of white women vot­ed for a sex­u­al preda­tor? Or that up to 30% of Lati­nos cast a bal­lot for a man who called Mex­i­cans crim­i­nals? In short, how can one explain why so many peo­ple act­ed against the “inter­ests” alleged­ly demand­ed by their iden­ti­ty?

By forc­ing a short-cir­cuit between one’s back­ground and one’s spe­cif­ic polit­i­cal posi­tions, iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics has effaced the cru­cial mid­dle step: polit­i­cal strug­gle. The hard work of engag­ing with peo­ple, lis­ten­ing to their par­tic­u­lar needs, col­lec­tive­ly con­nect­ing their desires to a project, of build­ing a polit­i­cal move­ment through orga­niz­ing and strug­gle is replaced by an appeal to their alleged iden­ti­ty. As this elec­tion shows, not only does iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics rely on shaky the­o­ry about how peo­ple become politi­cized, it does not even work.

Despite its pro­gres­sive ori­gins, iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics has now increas­ing­ly become an obsta­cle to uni­ty. In an iron­ic rever­sal, what once began as a cri­tique of reduc­tion­ism with­in social­ist move­ments has now fall­en into the same con­cep­tu­al error. His­tor­i­cal­ly, many social­ist move­ments were mired by a crass “work­erism” that argued work­ers nec­es­sar­i­ly had the cor­rect polit­i­cal world­view sim­ply by virtue of the fact that they were work­ers. If any bad ideas had entered the move­ment, it was on account of pet­ty-bour­geois influ­ences. Those issu­ing from pro­le­tar­i­an back­grounds were laud­ed, while those who did not were heav­i­ly scru­ti­nized, forced to atone for par­ents’ occu­pa­tions, or pres­sured to change their “class iden­ti­ty.”

As his­to­ri­an Sheila Fitz­patrick has shown, in the Sovi­et Union, class was even biol­o­gized for a time, reduced from a social rela­tion­ship to a thing that one inher­it­ed from one’s par­ents. A sim­i­lar “blood­line” the­o­ry of class iden­ti­ty also appeared in Chi­na dur­ing the Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion. Behind all this was the assump­tion that one’s class posi­tion auto­mat­i­cal­ly deter­mined one’s pol­i­tics. All else was epiphe­nom­e­nal, an after­thought. In the 1960s and 1970s, women, African Amer­i­cans, immi­grants, queer folk, and oth­ers crit­i­cized this extreme class reduc­tion­ism, right­ly argu­ing that it posed a mas­sive bar­ri­er to uni­ty. But today, iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics has snuck deter­min­ism in through the back door.


Since what even­tu­al­ly became for­mal­ized as iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics orig­i­nat­ed in those explo­sive strug­gles that aimed to over­come the social­ist movement’s real lim­i­ta­tions, it’s often assumed that con­tem­po­rary iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics is the only way to ensure diver­si­ty and inclu­siv­i­ty. In fact, for many, the term “iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics” has become short­hand for respect­ing, includ­ing, and fore­ground­ing the strug­gles of mar­gin­al­ized peo­ples. Crit­i­ciz­ing iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics is there­fore often treat­ed as tan­ta­mount to silenc­ing mar­gin­al­ized voic­es and revert­ing to an old, class-reduc­tion­ist frame­work of social­ism.

But iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics rep­re­sents only one solu­tion to the chal­lenge of build­ing uni­ty. It need not be the only one, and giv­en its grow­ing lim­i­ta­tions, it seems nec­es­sary to col­lec­tive­ly fash­ion a bet­ter solu­tion. This does not at all mean aban­don­ing the par­tic­u­lar strug­gles, needs, and inter­ests of mar­gin­al­ized social groups, but find­ing a bet­ter way of build­ing mass move­ments. While it is impor­tant to crit­i­cize iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, it is far more impor­tant to find pos­i­tive alter­na­tives that bet­ter address the very real prob­lems that par­ti­sans of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics have tried unsuc­cess­ful­ly to resolve.

Of course, build­ing such an alter­na­tive strat­e­gy takes time, and can only be a col­lec­tive project. But one of the first steps is to invent more effec­tive con­cepts. This does not mean uncrit­i­cal­ly return­ing to the inher­it­ed con­cept of “class.” In fact, those who auto­mat­i­cal­ly coun­ter­pose “class” to “iden­ti­ty” do noth­ing to solve the prob­lem. Most often, their con­cep­tion of class, revealed in an obses­sion with a fic­ti­tious “white work­ing class,” is even more reduc­tion­is­tic than iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, offer­ing lit­tle to address the real needs of mar­gin­al­ized groups. We should return to the con­cept of “class,” but it, too, needs to be rein­vent­ed, not tak­en for grant­ed.

Instead of tak­ing for grant­ed the exis­tence of a col­lec­tion of bound­ed, undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed, organ­ic com­mu­ni­ties, per­haps we should look to the con­cept of class com­po­si­tion, that is, track­ing the cor­re­la­tion between the man­ner in which a class is mate­ri­al­ly con­sti­tut­ed at a spe­cif­ic moment in his­to­ry and the man­ner in which that class com­pos­es itself, or how it active­ly com­bines the dif­fer­ent parts of itself to con­struct into a sin­gle force. Instead of mak­ing assump­tions about the needs of mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple, per­haps it might be worth under­tak­ing con­crete inquiries and self-inquiries to dis­cov­er what peo­ple real­ly want, why they have adopt­ed cer­tain polit­i­cal posi­tions.

Final­ly, instead of assum­ing an auto­mat­ic link between one’s DNA and one’s pol­i­tics, we should turn to the con­cept of artic­u­la­tion to under­stand the con­tin­gent ways that dif­fer­ent sub­jects arrive at dif­fer­ent pol­i­tics. As defined by Stu­art Hall, artic­u­la­tion is a “con­nec­tion that can make a uni­ty of two dif­fer­ent ele­ments, under cer­tain con­di­tions. It is a link­age which is not nec­es­sary, deter­mined, absolute and essen­tial for all time.” Hall elab­o­rat­ed:

You have to ask, under what cir­cum­stances can a con­nec­tion be forged or made? So the so-called “uni­ty” of a dis­course is real­ly the artic­u­la­tion of dif­fer­ent, dis­tinct ele­ments which can be re-artic­u­lat­ed in dif­fer­ent ways because they have no nec­es­sary “belong­ing­ness.” The “uni­ty” which mat­ters is a link­age between that artic­u­lat­ed dis­course and the social forces with which it can, under cer­tain his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions, but need not nec­es­sar­i­ly, be con­nect­ed… Let me put that anoth­er way: the the­o­ry of artic­u­la­tion asks how an ide­ol­o­gy dis­cov­ers a sub­ject rather than how the sub­ject thinks the nec­es­sary and inevitable thoughts which belong to it; it enables us to think how an ide­ol­o­gy empow­ers peo­ple, enabling them to begin to make some sense or intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty of their his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, with­out reduc­ing those forms of intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty to their socio-eco­nom­ic or class loca­tion or social posi­tion.

By chal­leng­ing deter­min­is­tic think­ing, artic­u­la­tion can bet­ter explain why peo­ple adopt seem­ing­ly alien polit­i­cal posi­tions, why antag­o­nis­tic social forces enter into con­tra­dic­to­ry alliances, and why those who may not imme­di­ate­ly face a par­tic­u­lar oppres­sion may still be in a posi­tion to com­bat those oppres­sions.

Sev­er­ing the unmedi­at­ed link between iden­ti­ty and pol­i­tics means aban­don­ing the illu­sion that peo­ple will inevitably be drawn to rad­i­cal pol­i­tics – or oth­ers to reac­tionary pol­i­tics – sim­ply by virtue of their iden­ti­ty. This invari­ably makes our work more dif­fi­cult. But hav­ing the courage to break with this ide­ol­o­gy will reopen the space for polit­i­cal strat­e­gy, enabling us to invent a new, his­tor­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate solu­tion to the prob­lem of uni­ty. This is the only way to effec­tive­ly com­bat the iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty ide­o­logues like Palmieri, while hold­ing true to the eman­ci­pa­to­ry spir­it of the Com­ba­hee Riv­er Col­lec­tive.

Author of the article

is a founding editor of Viewpoint and a postdoctoral fellow in History at Bowdoin College.