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Class Structure and Identity Politics

This post was motivated by a few concerns: a recent set of [always educative] conversations I had with my friend and comrade k. about identity politics versus marxism; a blog post by Ms. Marx about a heterosexist encounter; and a post on Workers Dreadnought about Sylvia Pankhurst.  The connection to all three of these sources, with the exception of the first, might now seem tenuous since, typically lacking an overall plan, my entries tend to mutate three paragraphs into their creation.  Generally this was inspired by my frustrations with a very privileged and very North American marxism that refuses to account (regardless of developments in marxist theory elsewhere since the Third International) for other oppressions (racism, colonialism and imperialism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia) outside of a very limited notion of class.

A prevalent "marxism" in North America (and perhaps one of the reasons marxism is less popular in North America than elsewhere) is a purist and dogmatic white-boy settler marxism.  This crude marxism prioritizes "class struggle" at the expense of other anti-oppressive struggles, rejecting anything that does not adhere to its essentialist notion of economic class as "identity politics."

Generally speaking I believe that the historical/dialectical materialist approach is the only approach that is capable of being revolutionary.  I also believe that an understanding of class and class struggle is necessary to explain society and history; what is often deemed "identity politics" can easily devolve into an idealist radicalism where multiple oppressed and oppressor subject positions are tallied and compared, where there is a paralysis of action, and where no one can really understand the concrete structure behind these subject positions in the first place.  The most simplistic post-structuralism, that uncritically rejects universalist and scientific accounts as somehow oppressive, is wielded to write off modernity and progressive potential without even trying to understand the dialectic between liberation and oppression and its connection to real and substantive social-historical relations.

At the same time, however, I am very suspicious whenever some self-proclaimed marxist (usually adhering to a very eurocentric marxism) denounces complaints concerning race/gender/sexuality/etc. as "identity politics."  For one thing, this denunciation speaks to a deep-seeded inability to question one's possible privilege.  For another and connected reason, this denunciation results from a very crude and essentialist notion of class that even classic marxist theory would find dubious.

I guess that if one rejects everything concerning multiple oppressions as "identity politics" then one doesn't have to question their own possible privilege.  Better yet, one can play the identity politics game without admitting to themselves or others their bad faith: "forget the fact that you're a woman of colour––I was raised by factory workers and am thus proletariat and therefore more truly oppressed and revolutionary than you."  Of course, this appeal to an authentic proletarian history, that I have critiqued elsewhere, is most often an appeal to a culturalist concept of class: being "proletariat" is understood in relation to some common understanding of working class traditions, values, and social manners (usually colonial and patriarchal) rather than in relation to production and the opposing bourgeois class.

Which leads to the second general problem with this simpleton marxism: an essentialist understanding of class.  Class does not exist outside of space and time like one of Plato's forms, some authentic inner nature that you either do or do not possess: it is a social relation and it is made.  Nor is it ever naked, stripped of race, gender, and multiple other oppressions.  It is codetermined by these other oppressive relationships just as, in turn, it is determined by them.  And those who imagine that it naked, ever garbed in the clothing of other oppressive relationships are implicitly dressing it up in the clothing of "white" and "male" without realizing that they are doing so.  We have to understand that social class, and the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie, is the universal contradiction of capitalism but we also have to understand, as Mao Zedong theorised in On Contradiction, that other contradictions structure class struggle.

We can understand class struggle as the concrete structure of every oppression because if one is wealthy and owns a factory it does not matter if she is a woman, a person of colour, queer, trans, or disabled: if she has the money then even her racist workers have to bow to her authority.  At the same time, however, in racist and patriarchal societies the chance of a woman of colour becoming a wealthy factory owner, let alone a millionaire or billionaire, is less possible than her white male and able-bodied contemporary.  Take a look at the Forbes list of North American billionaires, for example, and take notice of the ratio.

Moreover, when we look at the composition of the working class in North America and refuse to accept that the unionized factory worker defines the proletariat we have to recognize that the most exploited, most proletarianized, also occupy these other oppressed positions.  Migrant workers, temporary labour, undocumented care-givers from the global periphery, sex workers… And then there is the contradiction between colonizer and colonized, the settler-colonialism context that leads to a brutal exploitation connected to the land itself.  Reserves and ghettoes where the most impoverished reserve army of labour is living under the threat of genocide.  Kitchens and bedrooms where women are expected to play the part of unpaid reproductive labour.  Add to this the world division of labour, the imperialist creation of value that allows North America to remain globally privileged, and we have to recognize a global proletariat that is predominantly not european or american and is also primarily female.

And yet our simpleton marxist wants to believe that none of these things count as proletarian and that the working class is a small group of labour aristocrats who like meat and potatoes, play hockey or yankee football, and are generally anti-intellectual––it's like the highschool jocks are the only people who count as the working class in this country!  This is not to say that people without these values are not and can never be proletarian, but that this is a very limited concept of class.  For if we accept this notion of class identity then we have to also accept that the Glen Becks, Don Cherries, and Rob Fords are somehow spokespeople for the working class because they channel this class essence.  And clearly the poor people who occupy this settlerist sector of the working class associate their class position with this culturalism because many of them are willing to accept these populist goons as their spokespeople: hence the Tea Party, or the Toronto public's willingness to imagine that a millionaire mayoral candidate somehow represented working class interests because he was a football coach.

But for those of us who adopt an historical/dialectical materialist approach to reality it is necessary to account for the oppressed subject positions described by identity politics rather than simply clinging to a crude notion of class.  We uphold what some post-modernists denounce as a totalizing critique because we believe that all social-historical phenomena can be assessed and understood, though not without complications and debate, by this scientific approach; we have good reasons for believing so––our approach is the only approach that can explain the material structure of oppression.

The trap of accepting this scientific position, however, is that it can lead to a crude and dogmatic mindset, the type of mindset that permits a straw-person rejection of our "totalizing" theory.  All scientific theory might be totalizing but in order to be properly recognized as science it must be open to the future: scientific truth is always alive, always contested by the dialectic between oppressed and oppressor, always in development.  To insist that the scientific project is finished is to turn science into religious orthodoxy.  The refusal to understand how other oppressions intersect with the structure of class struggle, and the coextensive belief in an essentialist concept of class, is to social dialectics what phrenology and physiognomy is to biology.

We should critique "identity politics" for its inability to account for the concrete structure of oppression but only if we also possess a proper understanding of class and its intersection with multiple oppressions.  In fact, the simpleton marxism that rejects the critique of other oppressions as "identity politics" actually arms identity politics approaches by doing a disservice to the history of marxism.  There was a reason that race, gender, colonialism, and anti-imperialism were taken seriously in the Third International and by the best marxisms that emerged from this period.  There is a reason that the best and most explanatory critiques of race and gender, of colonialism and imperialism, are historical/dialectical materialist critiques.  It is time we stopped ignoring this history, stopped dogmatically searching for a pure marxism with pure class categories, and reclaimed the radical space that is occupied by identity politics.


  1. Thanks for this post... these are the exact concepts I am currently working on further developing for my thesis and upcoming presentations. I have one prof constantly referring me back to Patricia Hill Collins and another to Himani Bannerji... both of which I find great in many ways, but not entirely perfect... Not meaning to take over a discussion thread here, but it would be great if you could send me any suggestions for where else to look for this (academically) because I really like how you have articulated the issue.

  2. Hey Ms. Marx, thanks for the comments. Himani Bannerji is great: back when I was still a student I had the privilege to take one of her courses that was concerned with social class and its connection to other types of oppression.

    As for other authors who do this sort of thing… There are several I've mentioned and discussed on this blog already. For specifically race/class: Frantz Fanon (which you probably already know and love), J. Sakai's "Settlers". For class/gender: Hisila Yami's "People's War and Women's Liberation" (she is an ideologue of the Maoists in Nepal and heavily involved in the Peoples War), Butch Lee and Red Rover's "Night Vision" (that bell hooks, back in 1995, thought did a brilliant job of showing the connection between class-race-gender), and the Cell 16 journal "No More Fun and Games" from the late 1960s has some great articles. For general stuff in this area: Samir Amin's "Class and Nation" and "Eurocentrism" [second edition is best]... and for the theoretical marxist position that inspired Amin and a lot of the writers I've already mentioned, Mao Zedong's essay "On Contradiction" that examines how class is always filtered through other contradictions and that if these aren't engaged with first and one focuses only on a crude understanding of class then one is actually acting against proper class struggle.

    At least those are my favourites. There are so many more that will pop into my head later, but this is what I have so far. Unfortunately, since I really only study the class-race-gender area my knowledge is spotty when it comes to marxist theories that link class to heterosexism and other oppressions. Generally speaking, however, I think the concrete approach in "On Contradiction" that inspired pretty much of all of anti-eurocentric marxism and the radical feminisms of groups like Cell 16 provides an axiomatic method. And Butch Lee and Red Rover's "Night Vision" definitely has a queer dimension as well.

    Hope this helps: what are you working on in your thesis anyhow? I enjoy reading your blog and hope you post again soon.

  3. Thanks! My thesis is on access to post-secondary funding for single mother students. I look at how access to specific types of funding is directly tied into what types of activities count as work, and so far I have found that single fathers often do not have to take on any debt to get an education, but single mothers almost always have to take on substantial debtloads.

    And thank you for this list... I can see that I will now have a busy week of reading ahead of me, which I am excited about. With only 5 profs in my department, most of whom I have worked with for 5 years now, it is great to get input from other academics, so I sometimes seek advice from other bloggers and union/activist acquaintances.

    I do have other posts in the works and plan to start again as soon as I can find a few minutes to do so (full-time student, 2 kids, 3 part-time jobs, union executive work, conference submission deadlines... just seeing that list is exhausting)

  4. The context of your busy life explains your academic interests: social being produces social consciousness, as we marxists say! Also your specific interests look like you could also go, or are already possibly going, the Italian Autonomist-Marxist-Feminist route (like Sylvia Frederici, Selma James, etc.) and their concept of reproductive labour. I have a friend who sometimes comments on this blog, Xtina, whose academic work is focused on gendered labour and I think she's something of an expert on these theorists - so if she wants to factor into this tangental comment string?

  5. As a Native Marxist I often get accused of "identity politics" by representatives of the settler left because I give a damn about other oppressions. I agree 100% that this is largely indicative of an inability or a lack of willingness on the part of straight, white, cisgendered, male "radicals" to question their own privilege.

    Sakai's "Settlers" and Butch Lee and Red Rover's "Night-Vision" are essential reading. I hear that Sakai and Lee are working on a new book to be released at some point this year, and I imagine that will be one that should be read as well.

  6. Funny you should say that, my supervisor is an autonomist marxist and we've had Nick Dyer-Witheford speak about it on campus. I do use the work of Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa extensively in my thesis and would love to hear from Xtina!

  7. Ms. Marx: hopefully Xtina will comment here or on your blog - I'll mention it to her when I see her next. I know that it's always heartening, for me at least, to connect with people who work on similar topics with similar theory (unless they're competitive, and thus bourgy, jerks).

    bermudaradical: yeah, I've been hearing a lot about this book they're writing together (I think someone made a comment about that on another comment string) from various people. Apparently it's about Katrina and the ethnic cleansing of New Orleans.

  8. JMP did indeed mention this discussion thread to me. I'm similar in my approach to academic work -- I always love to talk with people who do the same work. My focus is on the feminist debates from the 1970s on the issue of women's work and social reproduction. I will post more soon in relation to the specific content of JMPs post, because I think its a very interesting and important discussion.

    Incidentally, I follow your blog as well Ms Marx, and really enjoy it. Also, I did my undergraduate degree and my MA at the same institution where you're currently doing your dissertation work (that's my home town). Small world!

  9. Also in response to bermudaradical's earlier comment/insight... sometimes the people who throw around the charge "identity politics" in order to silence and marginalize others are also the same people who will use identity politics logic when it suits them.

    There is also the fact that some of these people who actually claim that they're anti-sexist and anti-racist, etc. but still act according to a crude "class" struggle logic.


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