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.
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.
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.
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.