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A Theoretical Failure?

Recently, I have been receiving annoying comments, some of which I didn't even bother moderating, on my Ten Theses On Identity Politics post.  As usual, people who are annoyed that I have bothered to critique their political [lack of] practice would rather just insult me from a position of ignorance rather than take the time to think through my critiques.  What I find most interesting, and off-putting, is the claim that I am ignorant of the ideology adopted by third world anti-capitalist movements which, at least according to one angry commenter, is apparently influenced by identity politics!  Aside from the fact that these comments lack any significant argument, relying only on grand proclamations, is telling. Indeed, it made me realize that the ignorance these people attempt to ascribe to marxist movements––movements which are pursuing revolution in the global peripheries––is an ignorance they themselves possess, especially if they assume that marxism is just a tiny first world phenomenon and not, unlike identity politics, a popular doctrine of revolution.  In any case…

A rather odd and ahistorical position held by the advocates of an "identity politics" approach is that communism is a failed ideology, and thus an historical anachronism, due to its inability to address and comprehend the struggles of oppressed groups that fall outside of rubric of class.  Communism is only concerned with class-as-class, the story goes, and because of this concern has either been quite chauvinistic when it comes to the struggles of oppressed peoples whose oppression is not [supposedly] defined by class, or has just been incapable of addressing these problematics.

Communism can't do anything! Complete failure!

For example, we should all be aware of communism's historic inability to address the problem of heterosexism.  The Revolutionary Communist Party of the United States [RCP-USA] even went so far as to sublimate homophobia within its programme and attempt to "reeducate" its queer members––a practice that was quite similar, to be sure, as the reprogramming practices of fundamentalist christian organizations.  A paradigm example, some might argue, of communism's failure to properly comprehend, despite its claims about totality and science, social reality.

Oddly enough, decades after the period in which anti-revisionist Marxism-Leninism at the centres of capitalism proved itself incapable of responding to some of the demands raised by "identity based" oppressed groups, a strange narrative has emerged.  Some anti-capitalists who are not marxists will focus on this failure and argue, based on a selective reading of history, that marxism is thoroughly chauvinist and intrinsically ill-equipped to answer the questions raised by those struggles that are supposedly "outside of class".  Some anarchists seize upon these failures with glee, hoping to prove the superiority of their ideology… Lacking historical memory (as most anarchists do, due to the incoherence of their theoretical approach), they conveniently forget that even anarchist groups were chauvinist and dismissive of the same struggles.  More importantly, they are unwilling to confront the fact that the only real attempts to solve these problems, as minoritarian as they were, were marxist attempts: the Gay Liberation Front, the George Jackson Brigade, the LA Research Group, the critiques of the Sojourner Truth Organization… these were still initiatives, though sometimes unorthodox, well within the sphere of anti-revisionist Marxism-Leninism––and thus a sphere that quite often conjured the name of Mao Zedong.

What did non-marxist approaches have to offer these struggles at the time, right when they were being attacked by some marxist organizations?  Absolutely nothing: to imagine the opposite now, when there is no real evidence to the contrary and simply because non-marxists have currently claimed this terrain, is politically opportunistic.  What's more: it is willfully amnesiatic… But this kind of anarchism, I suppose, is always guilty of amnesia because of its disdain for history.

There was a time when I also thought that communism was a failed ideology––not simply because actually existing socialist societies failed and collapsed but because I assumed, based on what I was told, that marxist theory had never bothered to address those struggles surrounding race, gender, sexuality, etc.  I remember being quite surprised when I discovered those innumerable communist organizations and theorists that were indeed engaged in addressing these problems; I was even more surprised to discover that much of this theory was far superior to what was proposed by non-marxist schools of radical thought.

Thus, the narrative that communism as a theory failed because it could not address problems beyond a simplistic understanding of "class" is somewhat fallacious.  While it is true that many communist groups and individuals did fail to produce a scientific analysis of these "non-class" concerns, and we need to treat this failure seriously (especially when some groups veered into the territory of outright chauvinism), to simply pretend as if marxism was also a grand failure on this account is terribly ahistorical.

Those of us who come to marxism after being told that it failed to answer those questions about oppression that could not be solved by "class reductionism" are often surprised by the significant wealth of theory and analyses that marxist movements and intellectuals did produce in those areas of which they were supposedly ignorant.  We are sometimes even more surprised to discover that those analyses and theory that are connected in some ways to historical materialism have done a far better job explaining the myriad phenomena of oppression, regardless of their "class reductionism", then any of the contending radical theories.  They have also succeeded in focusing on revolutionary practice, and what it would mean to produce a movement that was not simply a theoretical movement of academics capable of ending oppression and exploitation.

None of this is to say that there weren't failures on the part of marxist organizations and ideologues, only that these failures were not as total as anti-marxist radicalism likes to imagine.  It is either dishonest or ignorant to maintain that marxism was only ever interested in a simplistic notion of class.  Indeed, one of the things that drew me to marxism was that it possessed the tools to demystify and explain the concerns that I was initially told were "non-marxist" concerns.  I actually recall being surprised, at some point near the end of my undergraduate, to discover that marxist analyses of the problems I felt were not explained by marxism not only existed but that many of them were far more concrete and precise than other theoretical accounts.

Clearly, as I have argued before, some marxists are entirely ignorant when it comes to the problem of identity politics and post-modern theory.  But not only is this ignorance shared, it is more significant on the part of those who adhere to identity politics and post-modernism because the most revolutionary movements in the most exploited regions of the world still evince a marxist position.  So here's the thing: the next time you want to accuse marxist theory of "failing" to address the problems you imagine you have addressed, at least do the hard work of reading the theory that concerns these problems.