This topic has been around for a while, but lately it seems like there are actual attempts at dialogue happening, and so I want to contribute to that.
First, I want to put some context around what I mean by “identity politics” (also sometimes abbreviated as idpol). As you may have surmised, this can be a challenging task. Among liberals, “identity politics” is sometimes perceived as a pejorative term employed by Marxists to describe anyone engaging in political organizing around identities like being Black or being gay. This is partially true, but the Marxist critique is also more nuanced, which this post aims to introduce.
Liberal identity politics are based in post-modern critiques of Marxist universality. Essentially, liberals are responding to the perceived unavoidable realism of capitalism resulting from our global failure to bring about communism in the last century. Idpol enters the conversation as a way to explain this. Marxism, they assert, fails because it centers an invisible perspective of white dudes. So, the answer is to re-evaluate theory from perspectives other than [straight, cis, able-bodied] white dudes. Over time, the Marxist elements of this kind of re-theorizing have evaporated, and we’ve now entered an era where liberal identity sectarians aren’t even sure what Marxists mean when we talk about class.
Also, arguably, many newer critiques misread or revise Marxist history, specifically the communist or socialist politics of people like Sylvia Rivera and Claudia Jones, or groups like the Black Panthers and the Combahee River Collective, but that’s a longer discussion for another day. The central difference here to note is that Marxists are concerned with ending capitalism. Liberals are either capitalists themselves, people who believe capitalism can be reformed, or people who aren’t even sure what capitalism is or how it is relevant to other political issues.
To further complicate matters, liberal identity politics aren’t the only ones out there. Following WWII, a white identity movement has been steadily growing in parts of Europe, and it can also now be found in the States as well. These groups frame their politics using similar language to liberal identity groups, but focus on identities like whiteness, conventional gender roles, and even Paganism.
Next, let’s look at some reasons why leftists reject identity politics, and some examples of what they propose instead.
Rejecting IdPol from the Left
I’ve divided this section into three areas of trouble with using identity politics on the left. My examples aren’t exhaustive, but if you search the internet or reach out to local Marxist groups, you’re sure to find other concerns that aren’t described here.
First, Who’s Included?
For organizing to happen based on identity, some shared identification has to exist. This works in some cases, but fails in others. A few examples I want to note are womanhood and whiteness. In case you’ve missed it, there’s ongoing dialogue between feminists over what womanhood even is. Most saliently, this has taken the form of debating whether trans women are women, but more broadly it also includes formulating a unified concept of womanhood if sex assignment at birth isn’t the shared factor. Similarly, many communities exist in a sort of liminal or conditional whiteness. Jewish people for instance are actively targeted by white supremacists and rejected from the definition of whiteness used by white identity groups, but often included in the idea of “white people” when classified from the left.
Numerous other examples exist demonstrating the unreliability of identities, but the critical takeaway is that there is neither an objective standard about who is included in what identity nor a singular politics that can be assigned to an identity. Marginalized people have vastly different ideas about both of these things. By focusing on solidarity and coalition work towards common goals like dismantling capitalism, leftists avoid falling into micro-level debates about identity that never seem to get resolved.
Where we are unable or unwilling to form cross-identity coalitions, organizing around our own identity has fractured us into even smaller pockets of community lacking the collective power to mobilize for anything we cannot provide ourselves. For instance, over the last decade, I’ve participated in numerous short-lived activist groups focused on heckling establishment liberals for trans femme and sex worker inclusion in their movements. In every case, this proved to be an entirely absurd strategy. Leaving aside that inclusion on speakers’ lists at rallies or even inclusion in party leadership does absolutely nothing to meet the survival needs of anyone in the present, we effectively isolated ourselves into tiny self-righteous groups no one wanted to help when we needed it most.
Identity framing may work in large urban areas or for statistically significant populations, but for fractions of fractions of minority populations, I am yet to experience success. Instead of this defensive self-segregation, leftists propose voluntary networks or coalitions working towards common goals like feeding one another, providing childcare, and dismantling capitalism’s impact on our communities. What could have been achieved if we’d organized with others around our shared needs rather than being “included” in liberal activism?
These concerns lead me to believe that identity-based organizing values maintaining social divisions. While liberals increasingly engage in a theory called intersectionality which is intended to unify various identity struggles, this unity is based on a “stay in your own lane” mentality. In right-wing identity politics, this outcome is related to an idea called ethnopluralism, where white identity groups desire racial segregation, but are willing to work together to maintain the discreteness of these borders. Leftists instead recognize that we live, work, fuck, love, and make friends in a messy, multiracial, multi-gendered way, and that there’s something resilient and magnificent about that maybe our activism ought to take its cues from.
Who’s In Charge?
Leadership can be scary grounds for left-leaning organizers. We tend to associate being a leader with having unearned social privileges, and as a result we like to experiment with alternatives. In the best scenarios, this works out perfectly, but many times an apprehension about identifying leaders leads to a movement or group that is leaderless in theory but led by a small group of strong personalities in practice. This “leaderlessness” makes it difficult to hold strong personalities accountable to the group, since they can always claim they aren’t actually a leader and that anyone else could express a dissenting opinion.
Organizing around identity functions like leaderless groups but on a larger scale. The people with the most resources and most power have the greatest means to project themselves as a voice of the identity in question. So, as a result, liberal identity politics often centers middle-class liberal values and goals to the detriment of more revolutionary ideas. In terms of issues affecting queers, this looks both like the sacrifice of trans-inclusive non-discrimination protections for the sake of advancing gay-only legislation, but also like the movement’s broader focus on issues like state recognition of same-sex monogamy, the ability to murder on behalf of American imperialism as openly gay or trans people, and making it illegal for destructive mega-corporations to fire people for being gay or trans.
To critique these goals is not to say that people advocating for these things do not also advocate for other issues. The critical distinction however is that identity-based movements claim the above issues while refusing to frame healthcare, an end to poverty, an end to homelessness, an end to imperialism, clean drinking water, and numerous other issues as queer issues, despite all the queers affected by these things. This is because centering identity necessitates reduces the identity to the least common denominator or shared characteristics affecting both the wealthiest, most privileged and poorest, least privileged. Many leftists instead propose broader critiques of the state and capital interests that enable political visions simultaneously addressing issues like imperialism and gender as a state institution.
Returning to micro-level organizing dynamics, when leaders do emerge, conventional leadership qualities like experience and strategy are often replaced by the capital of trauma and marginalization. You may have noticed this when groups give the most space and least criticism to the people claiming the most marginalized identities or the most emotionally driven reactions to situations, regardless of the actual politics they profess. This effectively turns many activist groups into group therapy sessions where the unacknowledged and unmediated emotional labor of letting other people dump their unresolved trauma replaces substantive, active work towards creating a better world. Identity-centered organizing uniquely capitalizes on these expressions of trauma because they validate the importance of identity over material political goals. Intimate experiences of trauma do grant us insight, but this insight does not necessarily translate to a realistic perception of the world that should objectively inform our politics. Ask any adult with irrational triggers based on childhood experiences.
In contrast, leftists tend to formulate politics based in theory and study of the world through understanding its historical context. Importantly, theory is not hypothesis. The organizing experience of groups like the Black Panthers, anarcho-syndicalists, the Bolsheviks, the Situationists, and others help refine our work today. Study helps us avoid past mistakes and better understand how present conditions emerge from historical factors.
Understanding theory and possessing objective knowledge of organizational strategy also provide leadership qualities that are easier to assess and capable of being developed by anyone. In liberal identity circles, a sort of tokenization often occurs instead, where leadership is claimed or expected on the basis of being part of an identity. This can frequently be seen when radical liberal groups heckle establishment liberal groups (or Marxist groups) on the basis of the (perceived) identities of their visible members. I have observed several instances where these establishment groups then turn around and offer inclusion to hecklers, only for radicals to fall back to a position of refusing to be the group’s token.
To some degree this is fascinating because the lack of tokenization is what these groups are being heckled for, but refusing to provide tokenization is also the moral position taken up by hecklers at the same time. This is also quite frustrating, particularly in non-demographically diverse areas where organizations or movements simply cannot reasonably be expected to be led by a person meeting all the identity-criteria demanded by hecklers. Overall, I believe this demonstrates the lack of resolution-envisioning engaged in by identity-centered groups, which leads me to the last section.
What Are We Even Doing?
Identity politics often end focus on identifying problems or differences that exist. For example, the heckler groups above or any case in social media where the perceived identity of people discussing a topic is wielded against them in place of critiquing their actual politics. This strategy shifts focus from political theory or goals to debating the value of the political insight allegedly bestowed by various identities. And since there is no unifying endgame political framework, no acceptable resolution (other than perhaps to get the target to stop talking or organizing) is necessarily shared by everyone in the identity group, so this identity-based debate is actually the peak conflict liberal identity politics want to bring us to.
On the other hand, leftists identify capitalism at the root of our shared exploitation in the contemporary era. We propose a revolutionary shift in economics to restructure our use of the commons and division of labor, often based on the principle “from each according to ability, and to each based on need.” This revolutionary restructuring of the world necessarily involves deconstructing the ways capitalism genders and racializes labor and gives false essential meaning to the identity classes we are thus divided along. But to do this we really need a lot of helpers! This returns us to leftist ideas about who to include. The answer is that dismantling capitalism requires more of everyone, meaning: more men, more white people, more straight people, more cis people, more. everyone.
This need bring us to one last hurdle identity politics provides. Among both liberals and right-wing identitarians, idpol characteristically identifies other groups as the source of their problems, regardless of their targets’ actual power. So, for example, when I was doing a lot of trans activism, cis people were usually positioned as our enemy (and in LGBT+ work this often meant specifically cis queer people, many of whom were gender non-conforming and had probably been dealing with a lifetime of transphobic bullshit before we came along). We would heckle organizations with “too many” visible cis people, we’d argue that all cis people are inherently transphobic, etc. You’ve probably seen this play out somehow. What you may have missed is that idpol on the right does the exact same thing. There, white identity groups identify Jews, Muslims, other people of color, and other groups as the source of all their problems.
In both cases, this essentializes oppression rather than interrogating why, how, or what motivations would cause unbalanced power dynamics to emerge. So, as an example, a few years ago I begrudgingly went to my friend’s “gender reveal” party for her baby. In the midst of me steaming silently over cissexism and the gendering of babies before they’re even fucking born, she pulled me aside to tell me that she was really hoping her baby turned out to be gay or trans or both because she realized how difficult it was to be those things in the South and she knew she’d always love her kids no matter what. Well, that just melted my heart. I looked around the party and realized that no one there was individually responsible for cissexism, heteronormativity, or whatever else.
The party wasn’t even really about gender or babies. It was about friends covering each other’s work shifts so a community could drop in and celebrate someone who was about to become a really great mom. I realized I’d excused the power of the state (assigning gender as part of an ID), the power of capitalism (dividing labor and consumer goods by gender), and the power of spectacle (this whole idea of “gender reveal” parties that seemingly emerged out of nowhere), and relocated them into people with very little if any power to change those institutions on their own. Even if my friend refused to gender her kid, doctors would, the state would, and the whole rest of the world would. What are we even doing?
I won’t say that’s the definitive moment when I peaced out of identity politics, but that was part of it. I spent the next few years trying to better understand power, institutions, and how we might more effectively change things. I learned that leftists identify capitalism as the why and how of our oppression, and competition in the production of capital as the motivating force pressured by the existence of this system.
This Was A Process
Hot take: a bunch of queer folks have spent the last 15 years or more “queering” everything and yelling on the internet, only to realize it was doing little to nothing for their friends being killed by disease and drugs, war and poverty, nazis and cops, so they re-evaluated their politics and adopted a hard Marxist analysis presently confusing the fuck out of everyone expecting them to constantly frame things from the perspective of being queer.
Frequently, liberal identity sectarians conflate Marxism with heterosexuality and cisgenderism. This is either ignorance or straight up gaslighting. Historically, early gay liberation groups considered themselves Marxists, and connected their struggles to the global revolt of the working class. Advances in sexual liberty have been enjoyed in the wake of socialist administrations, and queer workers have often achieved success in workplace struggles by aligning with other workers rather than retreating into queer-only politics. You can read more about these topics in Sherry Wolf’s excellent book, Sexuality and Socialism, which I’ve written notes on in four parts here (1, 2, 3, 4).
Today, many of the staunchest critics of identity politics and key organizers in grassroots Marxist groups are disabled queers, trans women, and queer people of color–the very folks who have been historically left behind by liberal identity struggles, and whose “inclusion” is often tokenized today in those same movements. So when outsiders propose that (cis/het) Marxism find a middle-ground with (queer/trans) idpol, the truth is that this is already happening in Marxism.
Lots of us enter Marxism through dropping out of liberal identity sectarianism. Importantly, this shift does not mean that we’ve headed back into the closet. It doesn’t mean our self-described sexualities and genders are any less valid or informative of the causes we work on. And it doesn’t mean that we’ve suddenly developed a shame regarding these aspects of our lives. What it does mean is that we have worked to the conclusion that identity politics offer an insufficient framework to achieve the liberation we seek. Part of this transition is intellectual, but this is not purely an abstract exercise. We are organizing for the survival of our communities.
Interested in learning more? Please come get involved. There is lots of work to do and everyone has a place in the revolution.
Pat Mosley is making magic in the Carolina Piedmont. His blog can be found at patmosley.wordpress.com. He is also a contributor at Gods & Radicals.