Identity Politics and the Struggle Against Oppression
Identity Politics and the Struggle Against Oppression
By Hannah Sell /

In the search for a way to fight against discrimination and oppression, many young people in particular embrace identity politics. It can be an important first step towards the development of socialist consciousness – if it leads on to an understanding of the class nature of capitalist society and the need for united, mass struggle.

Over recent years there has been a growth in support for what can broadly be described as ‘identity politics’ among many mainly young people who are rightly angry about and radicalised by, their experience of sexism, racism, homophobia, prejudice against disabled people and other forms of oppression. In one sense, identity politics is an inevitable part of the political awakening of many members of oppressed groups within society. Recognising that you are oppressed, and that you can fight against your oppression through a common struggle with others who share the same oppression, is a vital first step.

However, the history of struggle against oppression shows that, on the basis of experience, those participating tend to go beyond identity politics as they recognise the root cause of their oppression lies in the structure of society. The highest point of the vast rebellion against racism in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, was reached by the Black Panthers, who were founded in 1966 with the magnificent concept: “We do not fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We do not fight exploitative capitalism with black capitalism. We fight capitalism with basic socialism”.

Today, both the #Black Lives Matter rebellion and the movement for $15 Now are the first stages of a new mass uprising against poverty and racism in the US. However, the pushing back of consciousness globally over the decades following the collapse of Stalinism in the late 1980s and the capitalist triumphalism that accompanied it, mean that the new movements did not begin where the Panthers left off, with a socialist outlook. Nonetheless, there is a growing anti-capitalist mood among young people in the US, which is a first step to drawing socialist conclusions.

At the same time, identity politics is many activists’ starting point. While those involved in struggle may see this mainly as a means to fight back, the form of identity politics that has emanated from the universities and has dominated over recent decades concentrates overwhelmingly on discussing personal experience of oppression rather than trying to find the means to end it.

This includes all the strands of identity politics that have become more prominent in recent years, such as intersectionality and privilege theory. In Britain these concepts remain little known in wider society but have become commonplace in, for example, university feminist societies. Intersectionalists argue that different oppressions ‘intersect’. Indeed, they do: a black working-class woman is triply oppressed, for example. But intersectionalists often see their role as cataloguing and describing oppressions and their intersections rather than abolishing them.

Supporters of ‘privilege theory’ are best known for telling people to ‘check their privilege’ during (often online) debates. The founder of privilege theory, Peggy McIntosh, argued that a white, upper-class, heterosexual man, for example, is carrying around an ‘invisible knapsack’ full of unearned privileges. The argument goes that power is not concentrated in the hands of one class, or in the state, but is spread throughout society and therefore exists in all social and interpersonal relationships. Privilege theory states that every individual is part of a multiplicity of oppressive relationships. It concentrates overwhelmingly on exhortations to individuals to change, to check their privilege.

But it is not possible to eliminate either oppressions or privileges merely by exhorting individuals to change their behaviour. In fact, in many countries there have been significant improvements in social attitudes to different forms of oppression in recent decades, but they have not resulted in the ending of the oppressions concerned.

Racism ingrained

In Britain, for example, while racist prejudices are still widespread, crude racist ideas are far less socially acceptable than they were 30 years ago. This has come about for a number of reasons, above all the determination and increased confidence of black and Asian people to fight discrimination and racism. Another important factor was the widespread involvement of black and Asian workers in the trade unions in a common struggle alongside white workers. Both of these factors helped to foster a strong feeling among a large section of the white population, especially youth, that racism is wrong and should be combated.

Nonetheless, racism remains deeply ingrained in British society. The police are up to 28 times more likely to stop and search you if you are black or Asian. The gap between average pay for white workers and those from ethnic minorities has actually increased over recent years despite an improvement in social attitudes. Over half of young black men are unemployed, more than double the unemployment rate for young white men.

In the US the situation is even starker. While deep-rooted racism remains there has also been an improvement in social attitudes. There has been the development of a black middle class and even a small black elite. Both processes are reflected in the election of a black man as US president. The vast majority of the black population, however, remain among the poorest and most oppressed in society, facing violent state repression. One hundred and thirty five African Americans were killed by the police in the first half of 2015 alone.

Racism does not just stem from individual prejudices but from something more fundamental: the nature of capitalism as it has actually developed. Malcolm X correctly declared that, “you can’t have capitalism without racism”. Capitalism, as Karl Marx famously said, came into being “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. (Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 31) He was referring, particularly, to the role of slavery in the accumulation of capital. With slavery came the development of all kinds of pseudo-scientific racist theories designed to justify the enslavement of African peoples. Racist ideas were then adapted to justify the colonial oppression of large parts of the world.

Capitalism was forced to abandon direct colonial rule as a result of the magnificent revolutionary movements that took place against it. Economic exploitation, however, is more brutal than ever. Two hundred and fifty years ago the gap between the richest and poorest countries was around five to one. Today it is 400 to one. Racism is used to justify this vast gulf and also that black workers are usually among the poorest and most oppressed sections of the working class even in the ‘rich’ countries.

Women’s oppression

Similarly, blatant sexism is no longer acceptable in the way it would have been in the past, particularly in the economically advanced capitalist countries. Women have won greater rights in recent decades. There are different factors that have led to this, including the development of improved and widely available contraception. However, many of these gains can be traced back to the growing confidence of women as a result of many more women working rather than being isolated in the home.

Nonetheless, women continue to be oppressed. This oppression stems, not merely from the attitudes of men, but from the role of women and the family in capitalist and earlier class societies. Most of us think of ‘the family’ as the individuals who make up our own family, who are often the people who are closest to us. Historically, however, the family as an institution has also acted within class societies as an agent of social control with the father as ‘head of the household’ having responsibility for disciplining women and children. While this concept has been weakened in the modern era by the growing confidence of women, it is far from eliminated. The idea remains deeply ingrained that women are possessions of men and that we need to be loyal and obedient to our partners, and that violence and coercion are acceptable means for men to achieve that, both towards ‘their’ women and ‘their’ children.

It is no longer socially acceptable to openly state that women are the possessions of men, yet these ideas were enshrined in law until relatively recently. Marital rape only became illegal in Britain in 1991, Spain in 1992, and Germany in 1997. While no longer legal or openly acceptable, marital rape is still widespread and rarely punished. It is estimated that in Britain only 15% of all rapes are reported to the police, and only 7% of those result in conviction. According to the UN, of all the women killed globally in 2012 almost half were killed by their partners or family members. In contrast, only 6% of killings with male victims were committed by intimate partners or family members.

At the same time, women continue to bear the brunt of domestic responsibilities despite increasingly also going out to work. In many cases women are still, as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it, the ‘slaves of slaves’. While in Britain, for example, most studies show men accepting that they should do an equal amount of domestic chores as women, there is still a considerable gap between intentions and reality. One survey showed that on average women did 17 hours a week of domestic chores (excluding childcare) whereas men did less than six.

It is true, therefore, that men get some gain from women’s disproportionate bearing of the domestic burden, in having a few more hours leisure time. The main gain, however, is for capitalism. By putting the main burden of domestic life, the bringing up of the next generation (from which the future workforce is drawn), and caring for the sick and elderly on women, they are removed from the responsibility of society as a whole.

Power concentrated in the capitalist class

To suggest that power is not concentrated in one class is to completely misunderstand the nature of capitalism. Today, wealth and power is concentrated in fewer hands – the owners of the major banks and corporations – even than when Marx was writing. According to Oxfam, the richest 85 people on earth – a double-decker bus full – have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. The richest 85 include five women and one African, although white men predominate. Their role in society, however, does not stem primarily from their colour or gender but that they are part of a tiny super-wealthy ruling elite.

The world’s 100 biggest companies now control 70% of global trade. Even if their boards of directors included many more black people or women it would not make any material difference to the exploitation suffered by the working class and poor worldwide, not least black women. Look at South Africa, where the incorporation of a tiny minority of blacks into the capitalist class has made no difference to the dire poverty suffered by the majority. And capitalism is increasingly incapable of taking society forward. Many of the rights partially taken for granted by previous generations in Europe, like a relatively secure job, home and pension, are now things of the past.

To say that social relations in modern society are capitalist relations is not to take an ‘economic determinist’ view of society: arguing that every aspect of the ‘superstructure’ of society – the state, politics, culture, social attitudes and so on – are rigidly determined by the character of the economy. On the contrary, there is an inter-relationship between the two. At the same time, politics and social attitudes reflect not only the current character of capitalism but also remnants of the past and – particularly in mass struggles of the working class and the oppressed – the seeds of a potential better future. Nonetheless, it is clear that as long as we live in a capitalist society, where wealth and power rests with the tiny elite who own and control industry, science and technology, then the superstructure of that society will also ultimately reflect and act in the interests of that ruling elite.

No amount of demanding that people ‘check their privilege’ will eliminate social attitudes generated and sustained by capitalism. While determined mass struggle can force capitalism to adapt to a certain extent – as has been the case with LGBT rights, equal pay legislation and other measures – permanent and deep-rooted change, particularly where it threatens the functioning of capitalism, will only be achieved by the socialist transformation of society.

The horrific bureaucratic degeneration and then collapse of the Soviet Union have obscured the importance of the Russian revolution in giving a glimpse of what socialism would mean for those suffering oppression. In Russia in 1917 the working class led a movement of the oppressed which successfully overthrew capitalism for the first, and so far, the only time. Russia’s extreme poverty and the isolation of the new workers’ state led to its degeneration. Nonetheless, in the early days it gave a glimpse of how a new society could overcome oppressions that had existed for millennia.

In ‘backward’ Russia, legal changes were introduced very quickly which were many decades ahead of any capitalist country. These included universal suffrage, civil marriage and divorce when requested by either partner, equal pay, paid maternity leave, the right to abortion and the legalisation of homosexuality. Oppressed nationalities were given the genuine right to self-determination. Measures were taken to encourage nationalities and cultures oppressed under tsarism, including the development of a written form of some languages for the first time.

Of course, legal or formal measures do not in themselves end oppression. Decades after the passing of equal pay legislation in Britain, for example, women still earn an average of £5,000 a year less than men. Addressing women’s oppression in the Soviet Union, Trotsky described how legal equality was a step forward but actual equality in social relations required a far more “deep-going plough”, capable of providing real economic equality and lifting the domestic burden from women, and transforming social attitudes ingrained over millennia. A whole number of measures began to be introduced in the aftermath of the Russian revolution (including free childcare, communal restaurants and public laundries) which, while never fully implemented due to the degeneration of the Soviet Union, gave a glimpse of how the domestic burden could be lifted. That, in turn, could have laid the foundations for the building of a society based on women’s equality.

Many intersectionalists put very little emphasis on campaigning for economic and practical measures to lift the burden on women, instead concentrating overwhelmingly on social attitudes, and trying to create spaces within society that are free of oppression. Yet freeing women from the heavy load of being the carers, cooks and cleaners for the whole of society is an essential prerequisite for ending women’s oppression. Twenty-first century capitalism, far from taking steps towards this, is driving in the opposite direction.

Austerity affects women severely. It includes huge cuts in public services that partially lifted some of the responsibilities that fall on women. David Cameron’s big society could be summed up as demanding that women compensate for the cuts to health, child and elderly care by taking the burden on themselves. This is a demonstration that under capitalism, even where oppressed groups make gains, they are never guaranteed to be permanent. This also applies to the devastating, sometimes life-threatening, consequences of austerity for disabled people.

Combating prejudice

Pointing out the need for fundamental change in society does not in any way downgrade the importance of combating oppressive and reactionary ideas and practices while we live in this society, including within the workers’ movement. However, this will by necessity be a constant battle. Intersectionalists call for ‘safe spaces’ with zero tolerance for anything considered an oppressive view. But it is utopian to try and create a safe space which is sealed off from the society in which we all live and are affected by. Turning inwards in order to concentrate on doing so – rather than turning out to build a movement capable of winning real change – is doomed to frustration and failure. Far from creating safe spaces, this can often lead to an undemocratic environment, where the individuals dominant in a particular ‘space’ assert that they feel oppressed by ideas and opinions they disagree with.

There is also a dangerous tendency to suggest that the value of someone’s contribution to a discussion should be based primarily on what oppressions they as an individual suffer from. This is completely false. Britain’s first and only female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, undoubtedly suffered individual oppression as a woman, but the neo-liberal programme she drove through was completely against the interests of working-class women. Recently, Jeremy Corbyn, the new left leader of the Labour Party, has been attacked supposedly for not having enough women in his shadow cabinet, although his front bench is the first that has been majority women. More women voted for Corbyn than for the other right-wing candidates (two of whom were women) in the leadership election because he stood against austerity. Had he chosen a pro-austerity woman as shadow chancellor rather than the left MP, John McDonnell, most of the women who voted for him would have correctly been deeply disappointed.

The issue of safe spaces also relates to intersectionalists’ views on gender: that the concept of two genders is a social construct and, in reality, gender is more like a spectrum. Emphasis is often put on supporting transgender people and all those who rebel against societal gender constraints. This includes some who do not identify as either male or female but as ‘gender-non-conforming’. This reflects a positive rejection of current gender relations and homophobia by a growing number of young people. Socialists, of course, support the democratic right of individuals to define both their own gender and sexuality. However, while there is radicalisation among an important layer on this issue, that does not mean it is possible to create, as some intersectionalists attempt, spaces within capitalist society completely free from societal pressures regarding gender.

Capitalism shapes the outlook of all of us from the time we are born, with all of the distortions of the human personality that creates. This includes how we are expected to behave appropriately for our given gender. It is not possible to fully escape this; in this society capitalist gender roles are an objective reality. Even rejecting capitalist gender norms means reacting to, and therefore being affected by, those norms. It is not possible to prescribe exactly how human relations, including the role of gender, would flower in the future when freed from the rigid straitjackets imposed by capitalism.

The role of the working class

The crucial issue for anyone determined to end oppression, therefore, is how to end capitalism and begin to build a world that is free of oppression: a ‘safe space’ for all. Today, just as when Marx described the working class as the ‘grave digger of capitalism’, it is the key force on the planet capable of ridding us of this bankrupt system. Both privilege theory and intersectionality would list social class – what they would describe as ‘classism’ – as one form of oppression. However, it features as one item on a list and is often discussed in terms of the prejudice people face because of having a working-class accent or postcode. The centrality of class in the structure of society is not recognised. The basic idea that a Nigerian worker would have more in common with a worker in Britain or the US than they would with Aliko Dangote, the only African to make it on to the list of the richest 85 on the planet, would not be understood. The fact that it is the working class that is ultimately responsible for the creation of the capitalists’ profits and that by collective action it is capable of bringing capitalist society to a halt is discounted as outmoded.

Yet the working class is not ‘disappearing’. In fact, it is potentially stronger today than it was at the time of the Russian revolution. Many countries where workers were a tiny minority of society a century ago now have large and powerful working classes. In the economically advanced countries, like Britain, deindustrialisation has meant that the industrial working class is much smaller. However, there still remain groups of workers with enormous power to bring society a halt when they strike – anyone who lives in London and witnessed the recent London Underground strikes knows that. Deindustrialisation has not led to young people becoming ‘middle class’, but has forced them into low paid, temporary work, often in the service sector. At the same time, large sections of the population – including teachers and civil servants – who would have previously considered themselves middle class have been driven down into the ranks of the working class in their living conditions and social outlook.

The history of the 20th century repeatedly demonstrated the preparedness of working-class people to fight for socialism. However, it also demonstrated that the capitalist class does all it can to cling to power, not least by attempting to divide and rule by turning different sections of the working class against each other.

In recent years, there has been increasing radicalisation and struggle globally, including revolutionary movements. Out of these, largely unsuccessful, struggles conclusions will begin to be drawn about what is necessary to change society. That requires a mass revolutionary movement, bringing together different sections of the working class – with different experiences and outlooks – in a mass party with a clear programme and a determined and accountable leadership.

Such a party would not be a model of a new society, but a tool to bring it about. Nonetheless, it is crucial that such a mass party would include in its ranks all of the most oppressed sections of the working class and that it is a vibrant and democratic force in which all participants feel able to express their views. Its programme, as was the case with the Bolsheviks in Russia, has to fight for the rights not just of the working class in general but also for different specifically oppressed groups.

Undoubtedly, such a movement would also win the support of wide sections of the middle class and even individuals from the capitalist class who saw the need for a break with capitalism. This would particularly include those who suffer oppression under capitalism and who recognise that the only way to end homophobia, racism or women’s oppression is to join the struggle for a new society.

Struggle itself unifies

It would be ludicrous and deplorable to argue that those fighting their particular oppression should hold back and ‘wait’ for a unified struggle of the whole working class. Mass struggle is a thousand times more effective than exhortations to individuals to change their attitudes in winning social progress. It is always the case that a movement has a greater chance of success if it is able to reach out to other sections of the working class, and that therefore it is important that the programme put forward by a particular movement attempts to do this. However, that is in no way to suggest that any group should artificially delaying fighting back until they, for example, convince more white or male workers of their cause.

Nonetheless, to permanently end racism in the US, for instance, will require ending capitalism and will therefore have to involve a struggle uniting different sections of the working class – black, Hispanic, Asian and white. This is a practical question. The African American population, who suffer the worst police racism, are 13% of the population and will not be able to win alone. The capitalist class will try to increase divisions between different sections of the oppressed, particularly at times of heightened struggle. The oppressed need to increase their strength by trying to maximise unity. The $15 Now movement in the US, and the election of Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant in Seattle, give a glimpse of the growing possibilities in the US to build a united workers’ movement.

Achieving unity does not mean downplaying the importance of combating the specific oppressions different groups in society face. On the contrary, it is vital that socialists campaign for the workers’ movement to fight to take up every aspect of oppression. The Socialist Party has a proud history of doing this – for example, spearheading the Campaign Against Domestic Violence in the 1990s which was central to getting the trade unions to take the issue up.

Intersectionality on university campuses in Britain has had a tendency to turn campus feminist societies inwards, focusing on a fruitless attempt to grade degrees of oppression rather than fighting to end it. However, many of those initially attracted to these ideas are searching for a way to change society and will quickly come up against the limits of identity politics in all its forms.

One small indication of this is the popularity among young people of the film Pride, which tells the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). LGSM recognised the common ground between their struggle against the Tories and that of the 1984/85 miners’ strike. Their attempt to support the miners was not without difficulties – with prejudices on both sides – but ultimately forged a real unity. LGSM understood that a victory for the miners would have been a massive defeat for Thatcher, the Tories and the capitalist class – and that was in the interests of LGBT people. They never once responded to white, straight miners, who were often initially homophobic, by telling them to ‘check their privilege’. One result of their heroic efforts was big parts of the workers’ movement wholeheartedly taking up the struggle for LGBT liberation, including National Union of Mineworkers lodges from across the country leading the 1985 Pride demonstration.

The miners’ strike was a major event in the class struggle in Britain, but it will be dwarfed by events that will take place in the future against the background of a crisis-ridden capitalism trying to drive the living standards of the majority into the dirt. For some intersectionalists it will require witnessing the power of the working class in action in order for them to draw the conclusion that the route to ending their specific oppression is not as part of fragmented separate groupings but by throwing their lot in with the class struggle. However, growing numbers of young people, particularly when they become active in concrete struggles, are already being attracted to socialist ideas as the only way to achieve real liberation for all humanity.

Hannah Sell has been a leading member of the Socialist Party and its predecessor, the Militant tendency since the 1980s. She was a member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party in 1988 and 1989 representing the Labour Party Young Socialists.

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Identity Politics and the Struggle Against Oppression