This is an edited version of a comment I made in the USYD Ethnocultural and People of Colour Collective regarding the debate between class/materialist politics and identity politics following a blog post by Tim Scriven. In order to respect collective autonomy, I have edited out mentions of other people in the group and their comments. Other things that have changed include the statistics for the gay marriage/minimum wage polls, which are based off a David Sirota article, that were slightly inaccurate the first time around.
I believe quite strongly in class struggle. I don’t think the analysis of class struggle as the primary struggle is one that says workers are more important than other oppressed groups, but rather, that oppression will not completely end until the class distinction between the bourgeoisie and proletariat is eradicated. Class politics is not opposed to intersectionality, because nothing in class politics denies that oppressions can overlap. Class, after all, is not an identity (even though Marx talks about ‘class consciousness’) but a mode of existence and a stratification in society. You can’t self-identify as proletariat or bourgeoisie – it is just something you are based on your positioning within society and capitalist means of production. It’s partially why I don’t think the term ‘low SES’ is that useful. I’ve read a lot of articles on the issue of class that came in after Marx, and the argument is that for class struggle to win, you need the liberation – or at least, the beginning of the liberation – of women, queer people, people of colour, people with disabilities, etc. However, the opposite is not true: there can be leaps forward for women within the capitalist state while maintaining the oppression of other groups.
Not only that, but there will always be an underclass of any oppressed group while capitalism still exists. There may be more female parliamentarians, quotas may be achieved for boards, etc. but that will just widen the gap between working class women and bourgeois women. Until class is abolished, the place of women within capitalism will not be abolished: the role of unpaid domestic labour, the role of the mother. That’s why so many modern socialists incorporate gender politics into class; even old socialists like Emma Goldman were renowned for being materialist feminists. There is not much point in making sure that women enter the ruling class, because that just changes the demographics of your oppressor rather than substantially liberating the oppressed. To put it another way: why does it matter if there are more female police when ultimately they’ll still be brutalising the working class while propping up systems of oppression, including the patriarchy? Same with class and race, and the politics of imperialism and fascism as functions of capitalism. Crises of capitalism lead to the Nazi Party – just one example of the connection between economic and racism. Another is warfare, a product of capitalism and the competition between states. War creates the nationalism that generates racist scaremongering.
I’m not that knowledgeable about queer class politics, but one example that’s quite interesting shows how the gradual liberation of certain oppressed groups is not a long-term praxis. In New York City, polls showed that 58% of New Yorkers believed in legalising same-sex marriage (fairly low for a progressive city) – however, it passed with support from Democrats and some Republicans. The reason was because a lot of rich donors – including a lot of queer donors – forced the Republicans in New York to. Good outcome, but what about for class issues? Polls to increase the minimum wage in New York from $7.25 to $8.50 had 78% support. However, it failed overwhelmingly. That’s because while in a liberal democratic state oppressed groups can gain gradual rights, there will always be a class of the proletariat in a liberal democratic state that is oppressed. Capitalism structures social imaginaries and ideologies so that the end goal of liberation is to move ‘up’ in capitalism, but that still leads to the exploitation of those below you. Its why having a black president in the United States, or a female prime minister in Australia, means nothing when the black president is willing to do a Grand Bargain with Republicans that destroys Social Security and other welfare services that are primarily used by black Americans, and continues a drug war that makes sure the majority of prisoners are black men, and the female prime minister is willing to cut welfare payments to single mothers, and both are willing to continue bombing overseas countries. Austerity is a war against the population, and until we have class liberation, those fortunate enough from oppressed groups to ‘move up’ are also fortunate enough to be in a position to exploit those from oppressed groups who can’t ‘move up’ – the poor.
That is why, going back to the queer example (and why class struggle is important for the liberation of oppressed genders, sexualities, ethnicities etc.), it is fine that there are rich queer people, but its the poor queer people who are the ones most at risk of mental health issues, suicide, etc.; it is poor women who are most at risk of sexual assault and limited access to abortion; and it is poor people of colour and Indigenous people that are most at risk of police brutality and racism. One reason is that the places where poor people live are the least secure, the most forgotten, and with the least access to services that can help them; these are also the places with the most heavy handed policing and the least oversight of police.
We shouldn’t stop the gradual gain of rights – I’m not abstentionist, I’m in the Greens etc. – but we should form a praxis that encompasses all oppressed groups. That praxis, I believe, is class struggle. Identity politics isn’t useless – it has a role in ensuring class struggles are held to account, that activist spaces are safe spaces, and that there is a continued body of literature of the experiences of the oppressed for allies (and non-allies) to read.
However, can identity politics radically change the state of oppression alone? I don’t think so – not only because it tends to focus on personal experiences and personal disputes rather than structures, but because it doesn’t incorporate into its theory the way to act on that theory and change society; it also (sometimes) relates back to liberal bourgeois structures. For instance, I know groups that advocate for more police on the street to make the streets ‘safer’ for various groups. However, this doesn’t work, and often makes it more dangerous for other groups, like the homeless or people of colour or trans people. Identity politics also doesn’t tend to galvanise mass movements – this is less of an argument because it can, but unlike class struggle, it doesn’t innately do so, whereas class struggle requires it as there is no option but to struggle when the bourgeoisie are refusing to budge. This also relates to the fact that identity politics, as I mentioned before, is often about personal disputes, and therefore, while it’s important for individuals – especially in order to remain healthy and not burn out – it doesn’t present any tactics or strategies on how to tackle the root of the problem.
I agree that the oppressed should lead their struggles. However, the goal should be that all struggles are united into one mass struggle – a revolutionary situation. Until then, of course, people of colour should lead people of colour struggles, with allies. It is also important for people to work to ensure the working class is radicalised to work for the liberation of other oppressed groups. There are many historical examples of anti-racists in unions working to fight fascists in the ranks, for instance. I’m not saying the working class are pure and have great politics now, but they have the potential for it. On the other hand, no matter how ‘progressive’ the ruling class seem, they will still attempt to crush you.An important example of autonomy meeting class struggle are the Black Panthers, an autonomous Maoist group that worked with other (non-black) groups, such as the Weather Underground and the White Panthers, for the liberation of black people. I think this is a good model to work off, and its a model that often comes about naturally. Consider Bangladesh, where the majority of the workers striking on the street are women. Not because of identity politics, but because the women came together from the most exploited industry in Bangladesh – garments – and began a mass struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is this that guaranteed them wage increases and will guarantee them a more liberated existence.
In saying that, we should ensure that our autonomous activist spaces are activist, progressive, and mobilised. There should, of course, be two roles to these spaces: one to provide a safe space and/or refuge for people who are afflicted with oppression – apolitical and should be for everyone – but also to fight for the rights of that oppressed group, and this must be progressive. In fact, it is inherently progressive. The right are opposed to the principles that we stand for – that is, the liberation of oppressed groups – and it is important we remain left-wing. There needs to be a continual radicalisation in activist spaces. Intersectionality and class awareness requires us to make sure that we never forget the other struggles, and why we need an ultimate struggle of the masses. It’s why we need to fight against a ruling class that includes the Liberals, Labor, the state, corporations, etc. and their lackeys, the police and the army.