identity politics

Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Sun Apr 16 19:28:12 MDT 1995

I do not find anything objectionable in Kenny's defense, as it takes it to
be, of identity politics, as he calls it. What I, and perhaps other
Marxists and liberals, find objectionable in what we usually call
identity politics, e.g., Black nationalist or some versions of feminism,
is not the assertion of the reality and value of group identities, or the
need to respect what is valuable in them inn doing class and coalition
politics. It is rather the vulgar caricatures of bad Marxism many of the
advocates of these positions maintain, asserting that their group identity
and special oppression is they to everything, along with the purging of
class from politics one often finds among advocates of this sort of
politics, and the refusal to cooperate seriously in common political
projects in favor of futile attempts at group self-sufficiency.

Obviously the classic Marxist project of creating a class-conscious
proletariat with solidarisric motivations and anticapitalist goals is a
project of creating a group identity on the basis of common interests.
This is what Marx means when he talks, e.g., about the class for itself
(The Poverty of Phuilosophy) or organizung the proletariat as a class (The
Manifesto). Just as obviously workers have multiple intersecting
identities which matter to them, and in some cases unobjectionably from a
class point of view, and obviously this is a realiuty which we have to
live with, complicated as that makes things.

Still, I would resist calling this an identity politics, as if it put
class consciousness and class membership on a par with other group
memberships, which I think it's not. And calling it that suggests that the
class politics we need tro create can be just read off group membership
in an unproblematic way, discovered, rather than made with difficulty and
struggle. I know from what he says here and has said elsewhere that's not
what Kenny means, by the very suggestion has to be avoided.

I have struggled with this question practically, of course, as an
organizer, but intellectually as well, through the prism of the
"communitarianism-liberalism" debate in recent political theory--Michael
Sandel and Michael Walzer versus Rawls, Will Kymlicka, and Amy Gutmann.
Marxists occupy a sort of ambigiuous place in the debate because we do, on
one hand, insist on the group identity and solidarity of the proletariat
as against the universalistic pretensions of liberalism, but on the other
hand we are deeply suspicious of "found" or given identities as
ideologically structured. I used to think I was a communitarian, but I
found the concessions to nationalism and conservatism in that company too
much to tolerate, and I came to appreciate the liberals' insistence on
irreconcilabvle disagreement over ends which should not be suppressed,
paternalistically, in the name of some common good that all do not share.

In this framework I think we should be neither communitarian or any other
sort of identity politics advocates, although we should acknowledge the
sort of things Kenny says and appreciate the communitarian critique of
liberal universalism, nor should be be liberals and aspire to an ideal
neutrality which is too abstract to motivate anyone. Finding the right
middle way through this dilemma is very tricky, as we all know from
practical work.

--Justin Schwartz

On Sun, 16 Apr 1995, Kenny Mostern wrote:

> I know, from substantial experience, that I'm going to be one of the only
> people on a marxism list to defend a notion of identity politics.  (Then
> again--and perhaps this would surprise many of you--I'd be essentially
> the only person on a postcolonialism or a postmodernism list to defend a
> notion of identity
> politics.  I'm always amazed by terms which have so many enemies, who
> themselves differ on so many points.)
> I have an elaborate argument which I cannot recreate here at this time,
> but is the heart of my dissertation.  What I will say here, now, is
> merely this:
> (1)  Marxism is an identity politics.  It posits a group, the "working
> class", gives an elaborate historical argument concerning why this group
> will come into self-conscious existence at a determinate historical
> moment, and posits that only this group is capable of finally overturning
> capitalism.  Obviously this is a caricature.  But it is necessary to
> begin with the notion that this is the basic form of other identity
> politics arguments (not all--I'm making no claims, at the moment, for
> those which posit biological bases to identity, which are of little
> interest and historically less common than those which don't).
> (2)  Identity politics is a determinate fact.  There are, and have been,
> right and left wing identity politics movements; these have arisen out of
> concrete distinctions within the social and indeed the socioeconomic
> system, distinctions which, at least arguably (I can't defend this here),
> are coterminous with the socioeconomic system.  They therefore address
> real needs of concrete individuals, who cannot be separated from their
> determinate groups except through a dialectical overturning--not at all
> unlike the working class, though at a different level of social analysis.
> (3)  There is no question that the bourgouisie of the dominated identity
> positions routinely uses identity politics to its own ends.  Big
> surprise.  And not terribly different to the white male (or any
> other) leftists who dismiss everyone who, not being as wonderful as
> themselves, is still caught within identity positions which are "false".
> (4)  Theory, art, friendship, love, social relationships which require
> *work*:  these things potentially get us out of the absolute distinctions
> which identity tends to imply.  Good.  Let's keep doing them.  None of these
> things are the totality of our social existence.  In numerous contexts
> our social practices require the recognition of our own identities and
> the privileges or oppressions which they imply.  Indeed some of us
> actually try to build our theories, arts, friendships, etc. out of such a
> recognition, rather than imagine that we ever reach the potential of
> dissolving all distinctions.
> (And Ralph, inasmuch as I have any idea what he's for, I'm quite certain
> this is Gilroy's political position.)
> Not for identity; not for politics; but for a complicated leftist practice
> based on the interaction between the two.
> Peace
> Kenny Mostern
> UC-Berkeley Ethnic Studies Graduate Group
> Against:  racism, sexism, homophobia, capitalism, militarism
> For:  the truth--and the funk!
>      --- from list marxism at ---

     --- from list marxism at ---


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