identity politics

Kenny Mostern kennym at
Mon Apr 17 11:01:36 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.

The obvious point to be made here, of course, is that there are bad
marxists and bad identitarians, and the two consistently justify one
another.  Which is a real problem we as marxists have to deal with.  You
don't want marxism caricatured?  Don't caricature other people's
movements; indeed, learn in detail the tensions (many of which can be
explained through marxist frameworks--which is the point of us advocating
marxism) that have always been present within them.  And of course, when I'm
faced with the claim that race explains all oppression, I disagree.  And
it bears repeating that *how* I disagree depends in concrete ways on the
social relationship between myself and the person with whom I am
disagreeing, a relationship that necessarily entails the analysis of

> 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.
The question for me here is what "on par" means.  Since my claim is that
different social identities emerge from different determinate parts of
the social structure, I would not claim that race or gender has the same
relationship to the overturning of capitalism as class, but neither would
I suggest that class movements are sufficient for the ending of white
supremacy or patriarchy.  I do, actually, believe in something like
economic determination in the last interest (in spite of my relative
disinterest in Althusser's analyses)--perhaps I would say something like
"economic determination in the broadest instance", since the only thing
everyone on the planet has in common is a relationship to capitalism.
But inasmuch as instances are not independent from one another, this
still doesn't mean that one can work on getting rid of capitalism without
taking the conditions of race and gender oppression as centrally.
Indeed, in the same way that class is "broad", race and gender are lived
in concrete practice (Stuart Hall proposes that race is the modelity
through which class is lived; and Paul Gilroy added to this formula,
gender is the modality through which race is lived.  This might be too
neat, but its a useful thinking point.)  This is why I insist that a
marxist movement, at least in the U.S. (which is what I know best), would
*necessarily* begin as an identitarian movement.

Before I sign-off, I should mention that I don't accept the conflation of
identity movements with "communitarianism" in Justin's post.  Again, like
marxism, Black nationalism or feminism posit certain sorts of
communities.  But, like marxism, they need not see these communities as
an end.  I just reread Nikki Giovanni's 1971 Black nationalist
theoretical work, *Gemini*.  Its a strange and difficult book in lots of
ways; I'm not recommending it for its concrete relationship to political
struggles now.  But if you want to see the ways in which a community can
be posited, while at the same time the structures of difference within
the community are posed down to the individual level (she is a
self-declared individualist [and I am not]), its a pretty good place to
look.  The problem with right-wing rhetoric (including Bill Clinton's and
Louis Farrakhan's) is not that it poses communities, families, etc as
affective norms--they are affective norms--but that it sentimentalizes all
"affect" as if
to suggest that communities and families include only love, and never rape.
The difficult thing to come to grips with is that they include both,
sometimes even at the same time.

Kenny Mostern
UC-Berkeley Ethnic Studies Graduate Group

Against:  racism, sexism, homophobia, capitalism, militarism
For:  the truth--and the funk!

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