Identity and liberation: A critical Marxist difference

By Neil Faulkner and Rowan Fortune.

June 19, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Anti-Capitalist Resistance — Depending on how it is defined, postmodernism can vanish into empty catchalls or fail to encompass ideas, philosophers, art styles, and tendencies associated with it. The idea itself is unstable, and often not especially useful. Even just taken in politically relevant forms, associated notions of identity politics, queer theory, intersectionality, and privilege theory are extraordinarily heterogeneous in themselves. This is how we loosely defined it in System Crash (2021):

Postmodernism – a portmanteau of related theories centred on the basic idea that no single over-arching ‘grand narrative’ is capable of explaining the world as a whole – has encouraged a multiplication of ‘discourses’ and ‘identities’ as a means towards self-valuation, self-assertion, and self-empowerment.

We made the following criticism:

Postmodernism has a rotten reactionary core: the idea that human-beings cannot arrive at a common understanding of the world as it really is, on the basis of which they might organise themselves collectively to change it. Instead of promoting the unity necessary to take on the power of capital and the state, postmodernism celebrates abstracted ideas of ‘difference’ and ‘diversity’. You and I can choose an ‘identity’, but the rich continue to rule because united historical struggle against oppression and exploitation is foreclosed.[1]

Identity politics, though widespread on the Left, often takes as its point of departure a politics at odds with Marxism. It usually lacks, or even makes impossible, the idea of revolutionary agency, which it substitutes with theories about difference, oppression, and power. However radical its insights, without incorporating the possibility of revolutionary change in a concept of historical agency, it can ultimately only accommodate to the capitalist system.

The question of how we know and change the world is crucial to a living Marxist project. While Marxism is unique in taking the working class as its pivot, Marxism has in common with American pragmatism, feminist standpoint theory, and phenomenology the view that how human beings change the world and how we know it cannot be separated. The roots of many Marxist and some postmodern tendencies have this in common. Human beings do not learn about the world at a remove, it is insisted, but through actively shaping their world. We know the world through changing it, and this process changes us too.

Standpoint theory, to take an example of a theory of identity, begins with the role of power, social positioning, and struggle in knowledge formation. That is, there is no way of knowing the world outside of these factors. Knowledge is historicised. The particular situation which a knower occupies shapes how the world is known. When standpoint theorists insist women have a ‘strong objectivity’, they call attention to how women (and other oppressed people) gain epistemic advantages by virtue of certain struggles, granting them a completer and more diverse knowledge than those who sit comfortably within the dominant ideas.

This position of the oppressed has been described by feminists such as Linda Gurung[2] in her summary of standpoint theory, as being ‘insider-outsiders’ with a ‘double-vision’. That is, women sit inside dominant ideologies, but as outsiders, they can perceive through a process of struggle both the dominant ideology and the obscured views of those excluded from it.

Marx claims something similar about the role of workers in struggle. Because of the social position of workers, when they express their agency their revolutionary perspective is qualitatively different to that of capitalists. Because they have no stake in preserving economic domination, they are uniquely able to create a universal society freed from class distinctions.

Understanding identity politics

Reification occurs when something abstract is mistaken for a real thing. It is a form of alienation that treats metaphors or other human creations as static facts of nature. A vulgar standpoint theory, like a vulgar Marxism, would minimise the role of struggle, and create a reified idea of epistemic advantage in which women could be said to possess it by virtue of an ineffable quality that adheres to them. When identity politics is appropriated, institutionalised, and commodified by mainstream bourgeois institutions, this is what happens. An egregious example of this is provided by Simon Hannah in Why we need an Anti*Capitalist Resistance (2021):

When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, some feminists said it would not have happened if it was ‘Lehman Sisters’. This is an illusion. There are plenty of illusions that capitalism will peddle to draw people into the system and to divide the working class.[3]

That is, some in the Establishment draw on a politics of tokenism, buzz words, and selective incorporation that they believe cannot upset their own class position. Such a politics might facilitate the advancement of rights where the social reproduction and production necessary to capital can nonetheless continue unimpeded.

The fact sexism, racism, homophobia, disablism, etc now meet with official disapproval even from some of capital’s representatives, constitutes a political advance; but, as with all reformist advances, this involves hard limits to inclusion and a process of de-radicalisation.

The greater prominence of some women, BAME people, queer people, disabled people, etc within capitalism is not the same as a united mass struggle against capitalism, and therefore against oppression and exploitation per se. Moreover, it always leaves some excluded. Advances, however welcome, are uneven. For example, while some gay people might find a welcome refuge in what was once the exclusively heterosexual marriage, many remain excluded from the advantages of this state-sanctioned institution because their relationships fall too far outside of heterosexual norms. In short, an identity politics that accepts such limits becomes a form of bourgeois liberalism. Here is how Asad Haider puts it in Mistaken Identity: race and class in the age of Trump (2018):

To demand inclusion in the structure of society as it is means forfeiting the possibility of structural change… In its contemporary ideological form, rather than its initial form as a theorisation of a revolutionary political practice, identity politics is an individualist method. It is based on the individual’s demand for recognition, and it takes that individual’s identity as its starting-point. It takes this identity for granted and suppresses the fact that all identities are socially constructed. And because all of us necessarily have an identity that is different from everyone else’s, it undermines the possibility of collective self-organisation. The framework of identity reduces politics to who you are as an individual and to gaining recognition as an individual, rather than your membership in a collectivity and the collective struggle against an oppressive social structure. As a result, identity politics paradoxically ends up reinforcing the very norms it set out to criticise.[4]

Dave McNally, writing in a recent collection of essays on social reproduction theory, exposed the bareness of a vulgar identity politics in philosophical terms. His essential point was that, like all forms of bourgeois politics, it involves a mechanical conception rather than a dialectical one; that is, it thinks in terms of separate and essentially static categories, instead of seeing social reality as an integrated whole in which each social phenomenon is shaped by its interaction with all other social phenomena, and in which everything is in motion, in process, in a perpetual state of becoming. Thus:

A concrete totality attains concreteness (‘determinateness’) through the differences that comprise it. At the same time, each of these different parts carries the whole within it: as elements of life, their reproduction is impossible outside of the living whole. It is with just this conception in mind that Marx writes, ‘The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse.’ Totalities or universals are not abstractions from the concrete diversity and multiplicity of things for Hegel and Marx. On the contrary, totalities are constituted in and through the diversity and dynamism of real life processes. This is what distinguishes the abstract universals of formal logic from ‘the concrete totality of the whole’ that animates dialectical thinking. The dialectical concept of totality thus involves comprehending a process of totalisation that unifies (without suppressing) the existing ‘in and through these manifold mediations through which the specific complexes – i.e. ‘partial totalities’ – are linked to each other in a constantly shifting and changing, dynamic overall complex’.[5]

This is an exceptionally dense passage, but it is necessary to quote because it cuts to the heart of the matter. The point of relevance here is simple enough: all oppressions are socially constructed, and they can be fully understood only in the context of the entire complex of social relations in which they are embedded; likewise, all identities based on an experience of oppression are socially constructed, and therefore the particular experience can only be fully understood by reference to the general character of the social order as a whole.

Vulgar theories of class

Lenin once wrote that ‘intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than stupid materialism is’. We could write today that an intelligent identity theory, which stresses agency, is closer to Marxism than a Marxism that reifies class. There is a problem with a Marxism (and broader Left currents) that, while giving class its rhetorical weight, obscure its agency and subjectivity (its standpoint, so to speak). Such a Marxism retains Marx’s language, but none of his revolutionary radicalism.

Many of the first standpoint theorists, often women well-versed in Marxist theory, were responding to a reductive Marxism that failed to encompass their lived experiences. Such a Marxism discounts and/or subordinates oppression to exploitation, treating the two processes as disconnected. The fatal split between the politics of the socially marginalised and the politics of class is a legacy of historical errors and defeats. It ignores that the oppressed are often exploited, that the exploited are often oppressed, and that even where oppression occurs in other social layers it serves to reinforce an oppressive and exploitive social order. Class politics has always been shot-through with these struggles and tensions: there is no ‘pure’ class politics.

When the Lexit Left embraces the reactionary nationalism of Brexit because it somehow unites the British working class (usually a caricature of even that subsection of workers) in a pure economic programme of state protectionism, this type of reductive politics is on full display. Class is reduced to a static identity, one shamefully rooted in nationalism, racism, and the preservation of the status quo. With such a compromised politics, revolutionary ambitions are quickly done away with in favour of appealing to (and even anticipating and engineering, much as a Tory politician might) the prejudices held by atomised workers.

When the Left discounts the struggles of the oppressed as a diversion from class struggle, rather than treat the oppression itself as an impediment to uniting workers into the class, they are confusing symptoms for causes. Under the sickness of reification, they take the struggle against the ruling ideas of capitalist society, ideas that emerge out of existing social relations, as natural. And then oppose that very struggle in favour of one leaving intact the modes of domination that reproduce capitalist social relations.

We are now in a position to contrast both (bourgeois-liberal) identity/intersectional politics and vulgar socialist (class-reductionist) politics with (revolutionary-socialist) liberation politics.

Liberation politics

Members of an oppressed group are the only people who experience their oppression – sexual violence against women, racist profiling and police harassment of people of colour, exclusion and marginalisation of the disabled, and so on. But members of an oppressed group very often do not understand their own oppression; and nor are they the only people capable of understanding it. As both standpoint theory and Marxism allow us to understand, women may assume that oppression arises simply because men are naturally sexist and predatory. People of colour may assume that racism is simply a matter of popular prejudice. And so on. Nothing about the experience of oppression need lead automatically to an understanding of its root causes. More is required.

Much of the Left has become hopelessly confused about the question of oppression and fails to make this vital distinction – between experience and understanding. The Marxist position is clear. Marx distinguishes between ‘appearance’ and ‘essence’. He talks about the way in which the ‘fetishisation’ of things – money, commodities, contracts, debts, etc. – obscures the social relations (of exploitation and oppression) underlying them. He talks about the way in which the social whole is experienced and understood in a partial, fragmented, superficial, distorted way, giving rise to the ‘false consciousness’ of bourgeois ideology. Marx discusses this mainly in relation to the experience of exploitation, but it applies equally to all social experience.

We want to draw out three conclusions from this discussion. First, a vulgar identity politics misunderstands oppression because it does not view it dialectically, as rooted in capitalist social relations as a whole, and therefore misdirects political activity away from united collective struggle against the system towards competitive individualism within the system.

Second, a class-reductionist politics is similar. It treats oppression itself as a distraction without serious meaning (an appearance without an essence). This is rarely done so nakedly, but uses the rhetorical power of socialist appeals to class unity to subtly erase the diverse nature of the working class. As a form of bourgeois humanism, its ‘universality’ holds up an existing oppressive ideal of human life as a substitute for a world that seeks to liberate human life in its diversity.

Third, a narrowness of focus in both of these politics leads inevitably away from a collective understanding of the system as a whole, thereby closing off understanding of the real roots of oppression and exploitation; in other words, both vulgar identity and class reductionist politics lead to false consciousness based on immediate experience (‘appearance’) rather than true consciousness based on understanding of the whole ensemble of social relations (‘essence’).

We are now in a position to insist on the wide gulf that separates such politics from a revolutionary/liberation politics. The latter is represented by the revolutionary Marxist and revolutionary Anarchist traditions.[6] Liberation politics boils down to two essentials. First, the self-organisation and self-mobilisation of the oppressed in the struggle for radical change. Movements of women, people of colour, queer people, GRT people, disabled people, and so on are an inevitable and necessary feature of any rising mass struggle against the system. This conception – of self-activity – is encapsulated in the slogan of the disability movement ‘nothing without us’.

But self-organisation is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. Because the second essential of liberation politics is: solidarity and unity in the struggle of the oppressed and the working class as a whole.

The rising confidence and empowerment achieved through autonomous self-organisation creates the building-blocks of a united, mass, fighting working-class movement. For no oppressed group can fully liberate itself. That is because: a) oppression is rooted in capitalist social relations as a whole; and b) no oppressed group is ever strong enough on its own to defeat the power of capital and the state and overthrow the system. Self-organisation creates building-blocks for the class struggle; but self-emancipation is a consummation to be achieved only through the victory of the working class as a whole.

Neil Faulkner is the joint author of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution. Rowan Fortune is an editor and revolutionary socialist. On their weekly blog, they write on utopian literature and imagination, why grimdark is the dystopian fiction of our time and more. They wrote Writing Nowhere: A Beginner's Guide to Utopia; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the multi-authored System Crash: An activist guide to making revolution.

[1] Neil Faulkner, Phil Hearse, Nina Fortune, Rowan Fortune, and Simon Hannah, 2021, System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution, London, Resistance Books, 101.

[2] Linda Gurung ‘Feminist Standpoint Theory: Conceptualisation and Utility’

[3] Simon Hannah, 2021, Why we need an Anti*Capitalist Resistance,

[4] Asad Haider, 2018, Mistaken Identity: race and class in the age of Trump, London, Verso, 22-4.

[5] David McNally, 2017, ‘Intersections and Dialectics: critical reconstructions in social reproduction theory’, in Tithi Bhattacharya (ed.), Social Reproduction Theory: remapping class, recentering oppression, London, Pluto.

[6] We insist on including the revolutionary Anarchist tradition. There are other Anarchist traditions which are petty-bourgeois and non-revolutionary. But the test of theory is practice, and there are many historical examples of socialist and anarchist workers fighting side-by-side in revolutionary struggle. No-one can read the history of the Spanish Revolution, for example, without noticing Anarchism’s revolutionary heart.