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This Ain't Your Grandpa's Communism: Presentation 2

This is the second presentation in a recent event I helped organize.  The first presentation by Baolinh Dang was posted earlier, and the third presentation by Rachel Gorman, as I mentioned in the previous post, is unfortunately unavailable to post since it was delivered creatively and succinctly from the presenter's notes.

After all three presentations there was a lively period of discussion, which branched out into a few fruitful areas, and the event was generally successful.  One significant critique made about the event, however, was concerned with the lack of practical focus: "okay, so all of this makes sense but now what?"; or, what practical and revolutionary suggestions should this analysis lead us to make?; or, how can we connect all of this concretely to our visceral experience of organizing in or social context?  

This critique should be kept in mind when you read the following presentation (which I wrote and delivered) because, theoretical insights aside, it does lack the focus in question.  The problem for those of us who are both activists and academics is properly bridging the gap between practice and theory.  One of the reasons that I usually refuse to speak at activist events (perhaps a failure on my part) is because I would prefer to promote the events, participate from the floor, and do other activist work in these organizations––mainly because I know that I have been conditioned to descend too far down the rabbit-hole of theorizing.  Obviously the only way to learn how not to make this mistake is with more practice, just as the only way to create a culture of many confident speakers (and not a culture of an elite and tiny group of "experts") is to push others into the lime light.

In any case, here follows the second presentation of last Saturday's event:

I want to examine the problematic between identity politics and class essentialism mentioned briefly by Baolinh in order to discuss how both options fail to produce a concrete understanding of oppression.  On the one hand we have the identity politics approach that conceives of oppression, to simplify, as a multiplicity of identity positions: although this approach allows us to speak about race oppression or gender oppression, and ask questions about why racialized and sexualized identities are often excluded, it also lends itself to an atomization where people sometimes compete to see who is more oppressed, who has the right to speak, and occasionally leads to an argument over whose identity position is more "authentic."

On the other hand we have a class essentialism that rejects identity politics as idealist, arguing that "class trumps everything" and that talking about race and gender or any other oppression is useless, avoids the real questions, and cannot be revolutionary because it is not dealing with what is at the heart of capitalism: the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.   Generally speaking I feel that this approach, though often advertised as "communist", is another form of identity politics, and a very dishonest form at that.  Because, by arguing that questions of race and gender or ability or sexuality belong to the realm of an "identity politics" that cannot address the concrete facts of capitalism, we are actually presupposing a troubling notion of working class identity: that is, that the working class is primarily white and male.

The position that I want to argue is that, rather than simply see race and sex and class or what have you as competing sites of oppression (or by claiming that a certain notion of class is more important than other oppressions and should relegate these other oppressions to "secondary issues"), it is important to understand the oppressive sites indicated by the identity politics discourse as being connected to the production of class.  In other words, we need to have a broader and more sophisticated understanding of class––one that is actually a concrete understanding of a concrete situation––rather than accept the discourse that the composition of the proletariat (or the bourgeoisie for that matter) is somehow outside of these other oppressions, maybe parallel, though perhaps they might occasionally intersect.

The point I am trying to make is that we cannot simply see oppressions such as racism or sexism, for example, as separate and parallel struggles beside the class struggle.  Nor should we see these as simply chauvinisms invented by the ruling classes to "divide the workers", as some might argue.  If these are simply parallel struggles then what do they have to do with each other; if they intersect then how do they intersect––concretely, viscerally, in the real world?  And if they are just invented by the ruling class to divide us from each other, then how come they work so well dividing us in the first place?  Why do white workers, in Caledonia say, sometimes appear on the same side as the most noxious settler racists with such ease?  And did racism and sexism get invented one day by a bunch of rich folks who conspired to use these chauvinisms to split the working class?  No: we know racism and sexism both have long histories, the former emerging during the colonial era that produced capitalism and the latter having lingered for a much longer period of time.  These oppressions have a material history; they are connected to how we think and interact with the world.

And so they are also connected with how class is produced and composed.  Butch Lee argued in Night-Vision that "race and gender are class in drag" and what she meant was that economic class is never something that is abstract because it always wears specific clothing.  When class essentialists imagine "the working class" they don't imagine it as genderless and raceless, though they might sometimes claim they aren't talking about race or gender, because they are usually thinking of some stereotypical white worker who is in a union at a car factory, who maybe likes hockey, and listens to Blue Rodeo: in other words, they imagine a very white and very male and very heterosexual worker, as much as they may also say that these workers can be varied.  And the other side of the problematic, identity politics, often accepts the same discourse about class.

Although I agree that these sites of oppression often have separate and parallel articulations, I think it is primarily important to understand that economic class is produced through these other oppressions.  This is a very concrete fact.  Just look at the statistics of worker demographics both in North America and globally.  Look at the composition of workers performing migrant and contingent labour.  Look at the settler-colonial division of land upon which capitalist industry in the North American context rests.  Or look at the world and the amount of women and child workers, the vast majority from third world countries, who are doing the fundamental labour for the reproduction of the capitalist market.  We can also look at the Forbes list of the wealthiest people in North America: very few are people of colour, very few are women.  (The woman in the type five, it should be noted, inherited her fortune from her father.)

In any case, Marx and Engels' great insight about class was that it was made and not found––and it is not made just as we please but in circumstances directly encountered in history and society.  So class is produced through very real contexts of oppression that led to its composition.  To imagine otherwise is to assert some ahistorical and abstract notion of class that has nothing to do with reality.

Understanding class in this way, however, should lead us also to refounding our politics on a concrete notion of class struggle.  In the end it is about class, but not about class in the way class essentialists claim.  At the same time, though, recognizing that class composition is articulated through other sites of oppression should also lead us to a concrete understanding of solidarity that is not about counting competing oppressions.  People from racialized groups, for example, can become capitalists––though more is stacked against them due to the persistence of racism––which places them, regardless of racism, in the camp of the ruling class.  Fanon once quipped that in a racist context "you are rich because you're white and you're white because you're rich." 

Economic class, while determined by other oppressions, also determines them––though always messily––so if you come from an oppressed group but end up, by some fluke, a corporate mogol, it matters less to you that your white worker is a racist than to the racialized worker who has to work with that racist.  You can fire the racist worker and go home to your mansion; the racialized worker doesn't have the same options.  Again, this is not to say that this wealthy person does not experience racist chauvinism, but just to emphasize the importance of talking about social class in this larger and more concrete manner.

I want to conclude by flagging a possible concern with what I've said.  Some may complain that I'm arguing for a "class reductionism" by trying to recenter our understanding of other oppressions around the question of class composition and production.  Many well meaning marxists have argued that we can't simply "reduce" these questions to class and that we need to keep the realms of various oppressions exclusive.  But I think this is a dodge.  I'm not arguing that these oppressions do not sometimes function as exclusive, I'm simply arguing that they find concrete unity around the question of class.  And marxists who would argue that we have to keep them separate are being, though perhaps unintentionally, dishonest because marxists know that capitalism is contingent upon this question of class.  That is, capitalism persists because a small minority of owners are parasites on the back of a vast majority of labourers.  Therefore, to argue that this vast majority of labourers are not composed as the proletariat by way of other oppressions, and to argue simply that these other oppressions are separate categories, is to relegate them to secondary and not primary questions of anti-capitalist revolution.  And my point, as a communist, is that these other sites of oppression are also part of the primary contradiction between labour and capital.


  1. There's another type of rightism, too, working class _guilt_. It is prevalent among Trotskyist sectors and sometimes some of the more workerist Maoist varieties. There is an idea that ONLY _empirically_ working class people can form correct ideas and provide leadership. It also considers that the proletarian organization is somehow not "working class" and that it's goal is to deform itself to becoming working class in an identitarian manner- can we not see this in the thousands of youth, who are students, who may be of wealth or not, who constantly babble about the working class, adopt working class accents, and so on and so forth, as a kind of guilt? This is more nefarious in an organization when it pretends that the "working class line" is that of tailing the mass movements and engaging the white working class. It has a very postmodern bent to it- "we are not in the working class, maybe, and therefore, we have no right to speak, to lead, but only to guide." It certainly is a strange form of guilt I think a lot of our young comrades fall into, who may not have ever worked on the assembly line or slept on the streets. I think it is more like working-class worship.

  2. Indeed: this is one of the reasons I use the term "class essentialism" and I have complained about this in some of my previous posts. It really is prevalent amongst Trotskyist groups, and part of Trotskyist theory, where there is a nebulous idea that there is some Platonic working class "essence" that we can channel towards the revolution––some authentic working class identity that means that, if you're born into a working class family and yet by some fate turn into a millionaire, you're still "working class" (and is it carried biologically, and are your children then also working class?).

    Pointing out how it communicates to various postmodern approaches is what I was hinting at when I argued that this class essentialism was another type of "identity politics." And by fetishizing this authentic identity ("this is the true working class culture!"; "working class people hate intellectuals"), revolutionary politics becomes rather crude.


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