Identity politics petit bourgeois radicalism

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ISO (US) Paul D’Amato. This document first appeared in an ISO Internal Bulletin in 1992.

The term “petit bourgeois” has often been hurled around among Marxists as a term of abuse. But “petit bourgeois” socialism or radicalism has a very specific meaning in the history of the Marxist movement. It refers to those forms of radicalism or socialism which neither originate from, nor base themselves, on the interests of the working class.
In the 1848 revolutions Marx and Engels began to see that, even in those countries which had not yet overthrown absolutism, the bourgeoisie had become a politically conservative force, preferring order and stability under any kind of regime to a democratic revolt which might stir the working class to action.
But the same could not be said for the petit bourgeoisie, that broad layer of people between capital and labor.
As Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto: “In countries where modern civilization has become fully developed, a new class of petit bourgeois has been formed, fluctuating between proletariat and bourgeoisie and ever renewing itself as a supplementary party of bourgeois society. The individual members of this class, however, are being constantly hurled down into the proletariat by the action of competition, they even see the moment approaching when they will completely disappear as an independent section of modern society, to be replaced, in manufactures, agriculture and commerce, by overlookers, bailiffs and shopmen.”
The situation of this layer was contradictory. It alternated between faith in the system and despair at its vicissitudes. Politically, sections of the petit bourgeoisie could be driven into activism – to the right or the left. Smallholding peasants, for example, could act as a conservative bulwark for a dictator, but they could also rise in spontaneous revolt and become a potential ally of radical urban classes. Small shopkeepers could seek salvation in a strong dictators (fascism) or tie their anti-big business sentiments to a successful working class movement.
In any event, although driven sometimes to militant action, this layer was incapable of independent political action. In the final analysis, its fortunes have always been tied to one of the two major classes.
Marx and Engels were not the only socialists in their day. The radicals in the 1848 revolution in Germany, who called themselves socialists and used fiery rhetoric, sought to subordinate the newly radicalized German workers to the limited goals of a bourgeois democratic republic.
In The Manifesto, Marx wrote a small section which refers to “other socialisms”. In this section there is a common thread running through all the other “socialisms” Marx criticizes – they all possess some critical insight into the problems of capitalism, but they all reject class struggle and the working class, replacing them with pious moralizing and universal abstract truths.
For example, Marx wrote of a group of German philosophers who had readapted French socialist and communist ideas. Their idea of socialism had “ceased…to express the struggle of one class with the other.” These writers, Marx argued, “felt conscious of having overcome ‘French one’-sidedness’ and of representing, not true requirements of truth; not the interests of the proletariat, but the interests of human nature, of man in general, who belongs to no class, has no reality, who exists only in the misty realm of philosophy.”
The utopian socialists, also, rejected class struggle. Men like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier developed both searing critiques of capitalism as well as fantastic descriptions of ways to reorganize society. “The underdeveloped state of the class struggle,” writes Marx, “as well as their own surroundings, causes Socialists of this kind to consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms.” As the class struggle developed, Marx argued, utopian socialism becomes reactionary, seeking to “deaden the class struggle and reconcile class antagonisms.”
Marx also had to contend with the ideas of anarchism, in particular that of the Russian Mikhail Bakunin. Bakunin rejected all authority and the State (with a capital S), therefore he even condemned the idea of a revolutionary state. Perhaps more interesting for our purposes, he argued that de-classed intellectuals and ‘lumpen’ elements rather than the working class would bring about revolutionary change.
The class basis of such politics in Marx’s day was the petit bourgeoisie.
Marx argued that these forms of radicalism reflected the class position of a class squeezed between labor and capital – vacillating between the two major classes, imbibed with individualism and a conception of its own interests as “transcending” class, representing the interests of “humanity” in general. In practice, these politics, in the guise of “broadening” the meaning of socialism or radicalism, actually sought to limit the aim and goals of social struggles to the narrow interests of the middle class.
The new middle class today
The traditional petit bourgeois described by Marx has not disappeared, but its relative size and significance as a class has declined. But as capitalism has developed, the increases in labor productivity and the massive expansion of capital has created a new middle class. The direct management of enterprises by individual capitalists has had to give way to an ever-expanding corp of professional managers who are hired to run companies. The expanding technical and scientific needs of the system has created a need for scientists, researchers, technicians and engineers – and an expanding system of higher education to produce them. Moreover, the expansion of the state – militarily and in terms of services and infrastructure maintenance – has also created an expanding corp of administrators and bureaucrats. The growing productivity of labor has entailed a significant shift from industrial jobs to service, “white collar” jobs as capitalism has aged.
Marxists define class not by income or status or self-image, but by a particular group’s relationship to the means of production. The ruling class is defined by its effective control over the means of production; the working class by its separation from the means of production and thereby its need to sell its labor power to the capitalists. Broadly speaking, the working class consists of wage workers.
Entire sections of the “white collar” sector are in fact part of the working class, consisting of women and men who sell their labor power and have neither control over their own or others’ labor. This category would include nurses, high-school teachers, janitors, clerical workers and so on. Their class position and collective interests place them in the same position as manual workers.
But another part – albeit a minority – are to one degree or another in a contradictory class position vis-à-vis capitalists and workers. Most obviously, middle managers and administrators fall into this category. Their jobs depend on their ability to make the business “work” on behalf of their employer, to squeeze as much work out of the employees as possible. For this they are rewarded with higher salaries than those below them. On the other hand, they are not themselves capitalists – they receive a salary and are compelled to work long and stressful hours. Another category, professionals, do not necessarily control the labor of others, but have a degree of control over their work not shared by the working class. Moreover, their conditions of life and work tend to reinforce their sense of individuality and careerism. Such are doctors, lawyers, professors and artists, whose salaries and outlook set them apart from ordinary workers. Members of this strata are differentiated form the working class by education and outlook. Callinicos in his article on “The New Middle Class” in ISJ 20, makes a guestimation that the MNC probably makes up about 20% of the working population.
As Tony Cliff points out in Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, this middle class is not homogeneous and is indeed more of a strata than a class. It therefore can be pulled in different directions, “toward or away from capital or labor, depending on the pressures upon them.” It is not a clearly defined grouping. At the top, managers shade up into the ruling class. At the bottom, technicians, frustrated artists and foremen shade into the working class. Those at the top of management or their professions are more likely to accept the system as it stands; those at the bottom more likely – in periods of crisis and instability – to be frustrated in their lives, more alienated and therefore more prone to seek radical “solutions” of both a right and left variety.
Politically, this class layer usually has little cohesion. It is schooled and trained in career individualism, professionalism and an aversion to collectivism which carries over into the character of its political activism.
Moreover, this sector is more or less likely to be moved politically depending on age. In particular, students, who are to a certain degree suspended socially, having yet to stake out a social niche or career, can be moved to political action. This applies especially for those students whose career opportunities are frustrated by economic crisis and limited opportunities in relationship to their expectations. This was true in the 1960s, particularly with young women who entered higher education in the 50s and 60s. It was the frustrated aspirations of thousands of women introduced to higher education only to find their road to successful careers blocked by discrimination which formed the basis of the women’s movement.
The character of political activism can also be affected by the above factors. The mainstream women’s movement was led and drew its inspiration primarily from professional women in the higher echelons of the “new middle class” and therefore sought “rights” within the existing framework of career and business advancement, making no attempt at doing away with status or hierarchy. Supporters of a more thoroughgoing transformation, those seeking “liberation” rather than simply rights, were drawn primarily from those groups of women in transition or in a position of greater alienation from the “mainstream” – students, recent graduates, women holding down low paying jobs who possessed career training above their current status, political lesbians, and so on.
The individualism of the middle class contrasts sharply with the experience of the working class. Workers experience collective situations in the workplace and can immediately see the need or collective action to redress grievances. Their conditions of life and work reinforce uniformity rather than a sense of individuality. Work is seen purely as a means to gain a livelihood rather than a source of fulfillment (however distorted and constrained it may be for the middle class). When workers are moved to organize and struggle, their orientation is towards a collective alteration of conditions of life and work. They draw strength and inspiration from the struggle as part of the collective.
Not so for the middle class. Their education and career orientation trains them to see themselves as unique individuals who can serve their own interests best through individual effort rather than collective action. They compete in the workplace for status as individuals and see to a greater extent than is possible among workers a “value” in their career. Members of the new middle class are brought up to believe that their own achievements are gained by “education, will and effort.”
But in times of deep social crisis the middle class can be driven into mass action and extreme forms of radicalism, either of the right or left variety. The lack of homogeneity and collective life experience of this strata, however, means that its outbursts of “extremism” have no social anchor and are therefore of a more short lived and volatile character than workers’ struggles. It achieves limited cohesion through means external to its working conditions; the mass street rally, the lifestyle collective.
Depending on the strength, organization and politics of the working class movement, the middle class can be won, at least in part, over to socialism. But, as with the petit bourgeoisie in Marx’s day, it is incapable of imposing its own, independent solution to social crisis.

Middle Class radicalism

The mass base of the radical movements of the sixties was primarily sections of the new middle class – especially students. Students in particular are in a temporary “de-classed” status which makes them open to radical ideas. Much of the ‘60s radicalism, confined often as it was to the campuses, took on a middle class moralistic coloring. But as the struggle developed, as students confronted police, as the various movements – for Black Liberation, against the war – developed, many students began looking for a revolutionary alternative, to look beyond the campus for answers as to how society could be transformed.

But the beginnings of the recreation of a revolutionary socialist organization in the US were thwarted in the early seventies by the short-lived nature of the working class revolt and the political distortion of Maoism, which looked to China as a model for socialism and Stalinism as a model for organization.
As the movements went into decline and the system began to restabilize, activists began to shift to the right. Many moved toward the Democratic Party. Many of the best elements rejected the idea that you could build revolutionary parties in the US. All of the worst aspects of ‘60s radicalism came to the fore – the moralism, the vision of the working class as stupid and bought off, the idea that one’s personal, sexual or ethnic identity was far more important than class. How you lived your life was as important, if not more important, than the collective struggle to change it.
Consciousness-raising, personal change and the focus on lifestyle all were central to the women’s liberation movement, in particular to its radical-separatist wing and continue to influence political activists today. The focus on the personal flowed out of the sense of alienation from the mainstream combined with a detachment from the collective social power to transform reality (an affliction not faced by the working class).
Callinicos’ description of the feminist wing of the labor left in Britain in the ‘80s also accurately describes a similar phenomenon in the US. He writes of the “narcissistic self-absorption of this class, its obsession with its own problems, appearances and personal relationships… What Marx called “human emancipation” has become narrowed down to the pursuit of ‘liberated’ lifestyles to small groups of people with the money and the leisure to experiment. The current vogue for a debased version of Utopian socialism is related to this phenomenon. London Labour Briefing admirably sums up the preoccupations of this social milieu, with its weird mixture of pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric, parish pump municipal politics and feverish sexual experimentation.”
The “lifestyle” approach has by no means been restricted to the women’s movement. It has also been prominent in the “Green” movement where a kind of anarchist utopianism pervades the movement. Like the 19th century utopian socialists, Greens share the view that society will be transformed (at least in part) through experiments in ways of living which by their superior example can spread throughout society.
The approach, however, is usually combined with various forms of political activism. To quote Brian Tokar’s The Green Alternative: “Greens in the United States are working today in many different spheres and using many different approaches. Some people are focusing their attention on specific issues of local and regional concern. They are working to curb the excesses of industrialism and to head off the social and ecological disruptions rooted in our present way of life.
“the second major current is reconstructive in its approach. It includes a wide variety of efforts to create living alternatives to our present ways – a wealth of experiments in cooperation and local democracy… It includes the development of alternative technologies and bioregional awareness.”
The anarchist guru Murray Bookchin says the same thing in a more radical sounding way, arguing that activists must prefigure the future society by living in a “revolutionary manner”.
What is most striking about this approach is that it is coupled with accounts of how it may be “too late” to save humanity and the planet unless we act with urgency. Thus we are asked to seek radical lifestyle alternatives which focus on the individual and the local community as a means for a global transformation that seemingly can’t wait another day!
This absurd contradiction is brought out even more sharply in Bookchin’s latest book, Remaking Society: “Unless we try – vainly I believe – to revive myths of proletarian insurrection, of a feeble armed confrontation with the vast nuclear armamentarium of the modern national state, we are obliged to seek out counter-institutions that stand opposed to the power of the nation state.” We are asked to see a mass centralized insurrection as “feeble” because the state is all-powerful. In the same stroke of the pen, as an alternative, we are offered lifestyle experiments!
The dichotomy between means and ends which afflicts middle class politics is here at its most extreme. But they follow once we accept the idea that workers are too “bought off” to change society and that only those who can detach themselves from the system and live differently can transform it. Of course, by definition, the creation of a “haven of liberation” implies the abandonment of the task of transforming society.
Lifestyle politics has until recently permeated the nature of political activism on the left. The Seneca, NY peace encampment in 1980, for example, was ostensibly a demonstration against nuclear missiles. In practice it became a utopian camp – a place for separatist lesbians to find a “space” to live and commune in various ways.
In this sense , what appear at first sight to be simply activities to achieve an end, become ends in themselves.
This kind of activism can be seen in ACT-UP and Queer Nation demonstrations – kiss ins, zap actions, outings and lewd chants designed to shock onlookers and draw media attention. In this kind of politics strategy and tactics are almost irrelevant; style and form are much more important.
The aim is not to build a mass movement to win demands or transform society at large, but to establish the moral superiority of the activists involved.
In practice this approach to activism unwittingly reinforces the idea that same sex orientation is “freakish” and shocking. Accepting a term of derision against gays – “queer” – as a badge of honor means not only accepting the separateness that capitalism foists upon gays, but glorifying it. This is in fact an inversion of the fight for gay pride that helped fuel the gay liberation movement in the sixties. One of the effects of “gay pride” was to make it easier for gays to come out and develop the confidence to fight against discrimination and bigotry. “Queer” identity does the opposite – it accepts the idea that one’s sexuality should mark one off socially from others – it enshrines the gay ghetto. And in its political practice it reinforces this idea. Outing, for example, simply mirrors the activity of the right wing – exposing public figures as being gay or lesbian – fueling rather than fighting the prevailing climate of bigotry.
In many cases the approach reflects an attempt – impossible in a period of reaction – to reclaim terms and practices used against gays. No matter what individual activists in Queer Nation may think, the terms “queer”, “dyke” and “fag” are terms of derision used against gays and lesbians – and are therefore not likely to be taken up by the masses of working class gays and lesbians as terms of pride.
Bookchin, as we saw, argues that the essence of the “revolutionary lifestyle …is defiance and a personal ‘propaganda of the deed’ that erodes all the mores, institutions and shibboleths of domination.” Such an approach to politics may create a haven for a handful of activists, but it is incapable of bringing about any large-scale social transformation or reaching large numbers of people.
As I’ve argued, the worst aspects of middle class radicalism came to the fore in the period of the decline of the mass movements of the sixties. One of those aspects is “identity” politics. The logic of identity is separation. If one is defined as being part of a “queer nation”, then one must separate from straights. If you are a lesbian, you must separate from men, including gay men and straight women and so on. That is why there is a constant tension between the desire by activists to see various struggles of the oppressed as linked to a common thread and the desire to separate off into small, ineffective enclaves. These politics are middle class because they posit a common “identity” for different oppressed groups which ignores class distinction – that there are, for example rich gay capitalists and working class gays that have very little in common; not just in class terms, but in terms of how they experience their oppression and the ways they go about fighting it.
As Marxists, we take a different approach to fighting oppression. We say that the fight against oppression must be linked to the class struggle – because workers have both the power and the interests to overcome both. Therefore, we do not make a positive virtue out of what separates workers from each other. Quite the contrary, we fight oppression in order to foster the highest possible unity of the working class.
We aim not to glorify the gay ghetto, but to end the bigotry that makes the ghetto necessary, to create a new society where one’s sexual preference is a matter of personal taste and where one is not judged or mistreated on the basis of one’s sexual orientation. We fight homophobia in the working class not because we are for the working class splitting up into different “identities” – capitalism accomplishes that task quite well – but because we want to break down those “identities” - of ethnicity, of nation, of sexual orientation, of gender and of race. We seek to instil in the working class a common hatred of all oppression and inequality and thereby a common identity as a class.
The organizations we’ve discussed have little interest in relating to ordinary workers, since their politics, as outlined, are virulently anti-working class. Again Murray Bookchin sums up the attitude when he writes, “The worker becomes a revolutionary, not by becoming more of a worker but by undoing his workerness… His ‘workerness’ is the disease he is suffering from….” He argues that workers must become “un-class conscious.”
Emma Goldman, an early 20th century anarchist and darling of whole sections of the radical left expressed a deep hatred for “majorities” and for “masses” that fits in well with the elitism of modern petit bourgeois radicalism. Workers, she argued, are “brainless, incompetent automatons”. She argued that only the enlightened few could really make a difference.
“I therefore believe with Emerson that the masses are crude, lame, pernicious in their demands and influence and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to drill, divide and break them up and draw individuals out of them. Masses! The calamity are the masses… The living, vital truth of social and economic well being will become a reality only through the zeal, courage, the non-compromising determination of intelligent minorities and not through the mass.”
The rejection of the working class is always coupled with an analysis which portrays workers’ struggles as limited and “economistic”. They may be able to unite to fight for better wages, the argument goes, but they are “trapped” within the confines of the system, being “bourgeoisified” and so on. Such a view is inherently elitist – workers are bought off, but we, the “chosen few”: who have opted out of the mainstream, are immune from the same pressures. The middle class radicals who hold these views are, presumably, not “trapped” within the confines of the system.
The alternative is to appeal to “humanity in general” much like the “true socialists” in Marx’s day. Murray Bookchin writes that the Green movement, since it looks to eradicating a threat to all of humanity, addresses “larger human issues than increased wages and class conflicts at the point of production.”
The problem with this analysis is that it completely inverts the reality. Appeals to humanity obscure the very real class divisions in our society, the massive inequalities and the fact that the whole system is driven by the exploitation of labor. In South Africa, for example, the ANC, in appealing to an anti-apartheid alliance across classes, subordinates the interests of the black working class, seeks to narrow and restrict it to channels that will not challenge the foundations of South African capitalism.
To use an example closer to home, the demand for “woman-controlled healthcare” which is taken up, for example, by Queer Nations, sounds very radical. In reality, it means very little. Which women should control healthcare? Wealthy women have more than adequate access to healthcare. Working class women may benefit from having a woman rather than a male gynecologist, but the crucial question is – will she have access to any healthcare at all? Access to healthcare is fundamentally a class question which the demand obscures rather than addresses.
Middle class interests thus tend to be narrower, to fall within the confines of what is acceptable to capitalism. The collective struggle of workers constantly threatens to spill over into a collective challenge to the system as a whole.
There can be no doubt that features of the “other socialisms” of Marx’s day can be found in left politics today. Radical ideas of a similar stripe still exist in the US – based on the weakness of a working class alternative in the post war period, the massive explosion of higher education and the creation of a “new middle class”. The hallmarks of this radicalism, strengthened in its most negative aspects by the decline of the mass movements throughout the 1980s, are (in no particular order) individualism, a focus on personal lifestyles (including a blurred distinction between political activism and lifestyle), a substitution of moral outrage and sentimentality for political analysis, elitism and anti-democratic methods of organizing and a politics of “identity” which focuses on fragmented social struggles of the oppressed as a substitute for the working class.
In the period of mass upswing of the movements in the ‘60s, of mass demonstrations and collective action, the weaknesses of middle class radicalism were not so apparent. In the period of decline during the late ‘70s and 1980s, the movement turned inward and imploded, not only fragmenting but making a virtue of that fragmentation. These ideas were particularly strong in the environmentalist movement of the 1980s, the radical women’s movement and are still to be found in such gay rights organizations as ACT-UP and Queer Nation. The dynamic in these groupings has been continual splits, charges and counter-charges of racism, sexism, homophobia and more splits.
Theoretically, the ideas have been bolstered by a battery of academic “post-marxist” writings – ideas emphasizing the fragmented nature of reality, denying that history is governed fundamental laws or that the working class has no “privileged” status as an agent for fundamental social change, that theoretical plurality of disparate movements, each with its own dynamic, will each in its own way contribute to social change.
To the extent that there is any attempt to create a picture of how these movements will bring about a unitary change, these theorists retreat into the heady realm of idealism, looking, as Marx describes in The Communist Manifesto, to “universal” ideals of democracy and freedom, abstracted from any real social content.
The effect to reintroduce a stale rehash of liberal pluralism with a radical gloss. A single example from Ernesto Laclau, Director of the graduate Programme in Ideology and Discourse Analysis at the University of Essex in Britain and one of the foremost spokespersons for these ideas, will suffice to give a flavor of the not-so-new theories emerging to justify what is essentially old-fashioned populism.
“The radicality of a politics will not result from the emergence of a subject that can embody the universal, but from the expansion and multiplication of fragmentary, partial and limited subjects who enter the collective decision-making process. It is in this sense that Chantal Mouffe and I have attempted to redefine the project of the left as the construction of a radical and plural democracy.
“The various identities arising from the fragmentation of the labour processes, the different categories of workers, social and racial differences – as well as those produced by the effects of environmental exploitation on the whole population – all have a stake, and must therefore participate in the global management of society.”
The new middle class is not homogenous and can therefore be pulled in different directions. In particular some students can be won to revolutionary politics and a working class orientation. As a strata, the middle class is incapable of developing an independent politics; in times of crisis it is compelled to side with one or another of the key classes under capitalism: the ruling class or the working class.
As revolutionaries we work among all layers of the population and are prepared to fight in all kinds of struggles against oppression and inequality. But in those struggles, we stress the importance of mass struggle and we uphold the centrality of the working class, drawing into our ranks the minority willing to break from their class background and devote themselves to revolutionary politics.
The beginning of a change in the social and political climate in the US has begun to produce small but significant new layers of young people looking to radical alternatives. The re-emergence of mass struggle and in particular, working class struggle, will create the social basis for diminishing (as it already has) the attractiveness of middle class politics. But these ideas will remain so long as an alternative is not presented and argued. It means that revolutionary socialist must not only get involved in the practice and leadership of struggles, but must argue against the politics which will fragment and weaken them. It means putting forward a clear socialist alternative.



Convention Discussion Document. Lance Selfa

Paul D’Amato’s contribution in IB 92:6 situated the phenomenon of “identity politics” within the broader context of middle-class radicalism so prevalent in the 1980s left. This piece seeks to flesh out some of the points that Paul makes within a more specific critique of “queer” politics associated with groups like ACTUP, Queer Nation and Outrage!

Movementism and the Retreat from Class

One feature of the recent queer activism – as well as the so-called “new feminist” organizations, like the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) – is a dismissal of “theory”. The argument runs something like this: we have little time for theoretical debate, it’s action – direct action – that counts. No matter what claims to the contrary, no political organization acts without some set of ideas or assumptions, whether explicitly stated or not. In this case, identity politics finds its expression in the theory of “New Social Movements”, whose gurus are Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (L&M) and Alberto Melucci.

In their book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Verso 1983), L&M make a case for rejecting the working class as the agent of socialist transformation – and for, in fact, rejecting any force in society as the agent for socialist transformation. Instead, they champion a multitude of partial struggles against oppression and exploitation (e.g. women, gays, peace, urban ecology, et al.( as being connected not in the fight for socialism, but in the fight for “radical democracy”. The ISO has referred to this theoretical position as “movementism”.
“The modern world, we are told, no longer consists of clearly opposed social interests [i.e. like workers vs. capitalists – LS],” Ellen Wood writes in a critique of L&M. “We live in an increasingly pluralistic society characterized by constant flux and mobility, where people partake of multiple and changing social identities. That is why ‘hegemonic politics’ – the politics of discursively created social identities, comes into its own as the dominant mode of politics…” (Wood, p.6)
A crucial element of their case against Marxism is their point that workers have “identities” other than that of class. Workers can identify themselves as women, as gays, as members of an ethnic group, as Americans, etc, rather than as workers. Moreover, workers often have backward ideas (racism, sexism, etc) which lead them to defend – rather than to challenge – the status quo. Thus, they argue, workers’ social position as workers doesn’t necessarily drive them to accept the need to overthrow capitalism or to fight for socialism.
These observations are, of course, obvious and hardly new to Marxists. Capitalism creates divisions in the working class as well as the ideological justifications for those divisions. In this sense, different identities based on those divisions are “discursively” or ideologically created.
For example, many people lived in same-sex relationships for thousands of years without being systematically oppressed as a group. Only in the last 200 years, when capitalism created the modern family, were people “defined by society and by themselves as different because of their sexual preference and…punished and oppressed for this difference…” (Carlin, p.107) Only since the industrial revolution could the ideology of homophobia arise – which opened the possibility for development of a specific gay consciousness or identity.
But L&M don’t understand the argument about the creation of “identities” in this way. Instead, they conclude that there must be no connection between material interests and politics. There are two main problems with this view.
First, if one accepts that identities are purely ideological inventions – with no material roots or basis in society – then a completely subjective element is injected into politics. If politics has no mooring in society, then politics can become little more than an expression of moods and feelings, rather than an expression of theories and strategies to fight oppression and exploitation. And without an anchor in the “outside world”, politics can become simply an expression of moods and divisions internal to the movement.
For example, there is no serious political reason why many cities should have several different AIDS activist groups – all with very similar agendas. Yet, the subdivision of AIDS activists groups along lines of different subjective identities (gay men with AIDS, HIV-positive women; straight and gay supporters of PWAs, etc) has been a fact in cities like Chicago. These divisions are usually justified not on the basis of political differences, but on the basis of personal feelings (“safe space”, “you can’t know what I’m feeling”, “trust”).
Another example would be the promulgation of a separate bisexual identity in the gay and lesbian political milieux. This is justified not by reference to the outside world – which persecutes bisexuals to the extent that they act as homosexuals – but by reference to internal dynamics of the gay movement. For “bi” activists, their “…main target is…not homophobia in society, but surprisingly biphobia in the gay community.” Bisexuals need a separate identity, argue these activists, because of “distrust” from both straights and gays. (Rotello p.37)
Second, identity politics ignores the fact that there is an unavoidable class division, which cuts through any attempt to forge a common identity based on some non-class division in society. It is unlikely, for example, that a “queer” identity, created largely by middle-class activists, will have much appeal ot the vast numbers of working class gays – many of whom are in the closet. If being “out” is part of being “queer”, then there are many working class gays – who face much higher costs (jobs, family pressures, etc) in “coming out” than middle class gays – who would be excluded from the “queer nation”.
L&M celebrate a “plurality of identities”, the idea that people can assert many different and varied identities. To them, identity politics is radical “only to the extent that each term of this plurality of identities finds within itself the principle of its own validity, without this having to be sought in a transcendent or underlying positive ground for the hierarchy of meaning of them all and the source and guarantee of their legitimacy.” (L&M, p.167)
L&M reject Marxism because it sees class as the fundamental divide of power in society. Marxists don’t view other divisions based on non-class oppression (sexism, racism, homophobia, etc) as somehow lower on the “hierarchy of meaning” or “lacking legitimacy”. The argument about the centrality of the class struggle to transforming society – and to fighting oppression – is an argument about power. Since the fight against oppression is a fight against the ruling class’s power, we attempt to relate those partial fights against oppression to the power to transform society – the working class. Class also provides a common ground which can unite workers who are already divided into many different “identities”.
Socialists do not believe that workers will automatically realize the need to fight all of the different oppressions. That is why Lenin argued for the need for political intervention of socialists in working class struggles. Socialist politics strives to unite different struggles around a common program linked to the class struggle.
Identity politics has no overarching theory that can unite disparate struggles. Marxism seeks to unite the oppressed and exploited, identity politics celebrates their “difference’. In fact, according to L&M, identity politics is valid because it rejects “totalizing” theories like Marxism. To them, identity politics is to be judged as “radical” not on the basis of whether it is effective, whether it accurately explains society, oppression, etc, but on whether it is developed “autonomously”.
While all this sounds nice – non-hierarchical, libertarian and so on – it can be a recipe for fragmentation and division, especially when a movement is in retreat. This is what happened – to disastrous effect – inside the collapsing women’s movement during the late 1970s. Divisions based on different identities (lesbian & straight; Black, white Latina, Asian; Jewish & gentile; able-bodied & disabled, etc) split the movement and accelerated its demise.
Melucci’s Nomads of the Present (Temple, 1989) takes the points L&M make to greater extremes.1 First, Melucci asserts the “new social movements” are not concerned with a battle over the distribution of societies’ material resources (read: class conflict), but over the control of symbols and information. Second, the participants in each movement are not as concerned with the ends of the movement as they are with its means. The new social movements serve the participants’ psychological needs and, as a result, they seek to create new forms of participation and behaviour which prefigure a new way of organizing society. Third, movements have both visible and “subterranean” aspects. Movements reveal themselves to the public through mass activity, but that activity presupposes a smaller network of “counterinstitutions”, utopian communities, etc.
Perhaps no clearer demonstration of the middle class nature of identity politics could be offered than in Melucci’s first point. A class which already has its material needs met is the only class which cold think that society has transcended class conflict. It is also the only class which would see involvement in political organizations as a form of therapy. (Melucci’s second point.).2
The other aspects of Melucci’s characterization of identity politics will be familiar to anyone who has observed ACTUP or QN in action. The idea that political struggle revolves around a conflict over symbols and information finds its expression in the seeming obsession of ACTUP or QN with media coverage and in QN’s attempts to “:reappropriate” insult terms like “queer”, “dyke” and “faggot”. Finally, the “subterranean” aspects of the “new social movements” simply reinforce a politics of lifestyle. “Counterinstitutions”, which in Melucci’s view would include such examples as the “pink economy” in urban gay ghettos, are given a political content despite the fact that they offer no challenge to the capitalist status quo.
Three observations flow from this review of identity politics. First, identity politics is not simply non-Marxist politics. It is explicitly anti-Marxist. Both L&M and Melucci developed their views as a rejection of and challenge to Marxism and Leninism. “Queer” theorist Michael Warner is as hostile to Marxism: “core elements of the marxist paradigm may have to be seen as properly ideological moments in the history of reproductivist heterosexuality.” (Warner, p.14)
Second there is an irresolvable contradiction which lies right at the heart of identity politics – the tension between (for want of better terms) “unity” and “autonomy”. Identity politics is supposed to be inclusive, mobilizing all gays, all women, etc, into political organizations and activities based on those particular identities. Yet, at the same time, identity politics’ stress on “difference” cuts in the opposite direction – to a multiplication of separate, exclusive identities. For example, which “identity” should a lesbian embrace: a “queer” identity, a feminist identity? A specific lesbian identity? All of them? None of them? “Queer” theorist Jeffrey Escoffier acknowledges this contradiction:
“…the politics of identity must also be a politics of difference. The politics of identity is a totalizing drive that attempts to universalize its norms and conduct; the politics of difference affirms limited, partial being.” (Escoffier, p.149)
Finally, for all of its seeming radicalism, identity politics is little more than a radical version of liberalism. Its guiding political philosophy is pluralism, the textbook description of American politics, in which competing interest groups and coalitions of interest groups fight for their goals. If it has an overarching goal, it is not revolutionary change in society, but, in L&M’s words, “radical
democracy”. Working within this fundamentally liberal framework supporters of identity politics would find no contradiction in engaging in direct action one day and voting for a Democratic candidate the next. Because it does not challenge society at its economic roots, identity politics’ appeals to “differentness” are perfectly cooptable in corporate- and government-sponsored celebrations of “diversity” in women’s and gay & lesbian studies programs in colleges, or in a “Rainbow Coalition” in the Democratic Party.3
If there is one place where identity politics is not only accepted, but is almost “common sense” among activists, it is in the main “training ground” of the new middle class – colleges and universities

Identity Politics and Student Politics

“Queer Nationals tried to be young and the concept of queerness has caught on most widely in the 25-and-under generation”, writes Amanda Udis-Kessler in the Guardian (June 24, 1992, p.9). In general, then, the main forces mobilized by identity politics tend to be college students (current or recent graduates) or people otherwise influenced by the student milieu. This is quite understandable. Why?

It’s not simply that colleges and universities are the only places where “postmodern” theory is retailed these days. There are material reasons as well. The conditions of student life and student politics provide a suitable environment for identity politics to catch hold.

  1. Student life produces a contradiction between the ideology of college as a place where students can develop their individual talents and the reality of large, impersonal classrooms and dorms. Students’ collective experience of bad housing, fee increases, cutbacks in classes and services can push them into collective struggle at particular times. But at most other times, the individualistic elements of student life (eg students compete against each other, choose their own programs, etc.) predominate. For this reason, student politics tends to reflect heavily individualistic sentiments.

  2. Because college life represents for most people (again, especially removed in the elite four-year schools) the first time they and their peers are removed from their parents’ supervision, it is a time of experimentation with new ideas, sexuality, living arrangements. This atmosphere contributes to the formation of quasi-utopian food coops; communes; separatist “communities” of political activists, of women of gays and/or of lesbians. Groups like Queer Nation also try to recreate this sense of “community” for post-college people. These “communities” can become quite insular – cut off from, and many times, hostile to – the “outside world”, the world of the unconverted.

  3. Today, radical political ideas can gain acceptance in the college milieu more quickly than they can in the “outside world”. But because political ideas in the student milieu are generally unconnected with the material conditions of student life (except, for examples, when the issues bear on cuts in financial aid, affirmative action, etc), student politics can take on a moralistic edge. Students join “causes” because of this tendency to see political questions as matters of right and wrong.

  4. Finally, because students have more time, face fewer personal costs for participating in political activity and have fewer personal pressures than non-students (i.e. they will not be fired; they don’t have children to support, etc.) they are more easily engaged in political activism. This is one engaged in political activism. This is one reason why campuses are good sites for recruitment to the ISO. Student politics stresses activism.

How do these factors contribute to the appeal of “identity politics”? First, the individualism of the student milieu contributes to the politics of fragmentation that identity politics groups so often show. In contrast, workers – whose work environment brigs them together – are strong only when organized collectively. The idea of trade unionists willy-nilly splitting and forming their own union every time they disagree with the union leadership is ludicrous. But such splits are quite common in political groups adhering to identity politics.

Second, the utopian aspects of communities of identity (“the women’s community”, etc.) provides activists with a skewed vision of who their audience is, what tactics they should use, etc. People accustomed to living in a “politically correct” (in the left wing understanding of that term) environment can find it difficult to relate their politics to people outside that ghetto. Rather than trying to influence the “unconverted”, identity politics activists often write them off as part of the “enemy.” Why should they care if “in your face” tactic alienate more people than they convince? They can always retreat to the ghetto or “safe space”.
Finally, moralism and activism show themselves in many ways among identity politics groups: dividing the political world simply between the converted and enemies; focusing on direct action zaps by small numbers as a form of “moral witness” rather than promoting activities which large numbers can join; “outing” which QN sets itself up as judge and jury. A sense of justice is a good starting point for politics. But for that gut reaction to transform itself into a movement that can sustain a long fight against oppression and exploitation, it must be generalized. What’s needed is a broader political understanding of how the system works and how it can be fought and how allies can be won to the struggle. Thus, moral outrage and activism is not enough.

Queer Nation and Identity Politics

All of the general points raised above apply directly to the practice of Queer Nation. Formed in 1990 from a group of dissident ACTUP members in New York, Queer Nation (or at least, its founders) made their first statement that year at the Gay Pride marches in New York and Chicago. They produced a leaflet entitled “I Hate Straights” which read in part, “Go tell [straights]to go away until they have spent a month walking hand in hand in public with someone of the same sex. After they survive that, then you’ll hear what they have to say about queer anger. Otherwise, tell them to shut up and listen.” It is clear that QN isn’t talking about gay-bashers and homophobes only. It is talking about all straights. In fact, the leaflet opens with the passage, “I have friends. Some of them are straights.”

The leaflet offered this definition of “queerness”: “Being queer is not about a right to privacy; it is about the freedom to be public…it’s not about the mainstream, profit margins, patriotism, patriarchy or being assimilated… Being queer is ‘grass roots’ because we know that everyone of us, every body, every cunt, every heart and ass and dick is a world of pleasure waiting to be explored. Everyone of us is a world of infinite possibility.” (Quoted in Berlant and Freeman) Or as Udis-Kessler defined “queerness”: “Queerness is a way of being in which style, fashion and attitude are as crucial as who one sleeps with, or how.” (op cit) It’s clear from these quotes that QN gives new definition to the terms “lifestyle politics” and “personal politics”. It’s also clear how empty and apolitical the ideas underlying QN are.
QN has been involved in campaigns of a more traditional kind, such as the sit-ins against the anti-gay policies of Cracker Barrel restaurants. It has organized marches against gay-bashing and has participated in the formation of gay self-defense patrols. It has also sent contingents to abortion-rights demonstrations.
But its signature activity has been “visibility” campaigns and/or actions such as “kiss-ins” or the “Queer Shopping Network”. Kiss-ins involve gay couples staging organized mass (and many times, small) displays of affection in public places like streets, town squares or straight bars. In Queer Shopping Network actions, QN members “produce an invasion” (in the words of two of QN’s academic admirers) into suburban shopping malls. QN members parade through the malls, dressed to call attention to their “queerness”, staging kiss-ins and handing out leaflets.4 Finally, QN produces leaflets/posters, etc (which QN wheatpastes around cities) which parody major Madison Avenue ads.
In light of these activities, it becomes clear that much of QN’s “bold new approach” to politics is a fairly trivial attempt to parody straight society. Since irony is not going to defeat homophobia, these tactics are, at best, useless. But at worst, they reinforce the notion that gay sexuality is something at which one should be shocked. Shocking people (presumably, straight people) is the point of kiss-ins and mall actions. These actions many times have the opposite effect than that which is intended. How does a group of QN members in a suburban shopping mall demonstrate their “queerness” except by, at least in part, playing into stereotypes of gay people that straights presumably hold? It’s also doubtful that these tactics succeed in inspiring closeted gays to come out.5 What’s more, some QN activists organize deliberately and consciously “’negative actions’… that will likely generate bad publicity for the cause. The measure of a Queer Nation action is, naturally enough, taken by its media ripple.” (Trebay, p.39)
QN and the “queer movement” as a whole, has also experienced problems derived from all the weaknesses of identity politics mentioned earlier. The problems of class and racial divisions in the “queer”: community, of reducing political differences to personality conflicts, etc, were illustrated in the demise of Queer Nation San Francisco. Publicly, the group dissolved in late 1991 because it could not agree on a speech code for meetings. In reality, the group split because it was unable to resolve a disagreement over whether to allow two lesbian cops to attend meetings.
A caucus of non-white QN members, the United Colors, opposed admitting the cops on the grounds that they represented the system of oppression and gay bashing that QN was supposed to oppose. Others, mainly white males, supported the cops’ admission on the grounds that they were as “queer” as anyone else who attended QN meetings. The position supporting the cops’ admission won out, precipitating the exodus of United Colors and most lesbians, who opposed the cops’ admission.
“Once the radicals left”, said one QN members, “all ideology went out the window and everything became personal experience. People would say, ‘This isn’t a queer issue’ when they really meant, ‘This doesn’t affect me personally.’” (quoted in Kauffman, p.20)
There is no way to predict what will happen to QN. But if past experience serves as an indication, QN could find itself continuing to split, spawning successor groups – each one smaller and more isolated than the one that came before it.


Carlin, Nora “The Roots of Gay Oppression” ISJ 42: 63-113.

Berlant, Lauren and Elizabeth Freeman, “Queer Nationality”, in Boundary 2, Vol 19, March 1992.

Cohen, Ed. “Who Are We? Gay ‘Identity’ as Political (E)motion (A Theoretical Rumination” in Diane Fuss (ed) Inside/Out (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp 71-91.

Escoffier, Jeffrey, “Sexual Revolution and the Politics of Gay Identity”. Socialist Review 82/83 (1985) pp119-153.

Kauffman, L.A. “Radical Change: the Left Attacks Identity Politics”, Village Voice, June 30, 1992, p.20.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. (London. Verso. 1983).

“Identity Crisis: Queer Politics in the Age of Possibilities”. Village Voice, June 30, 1992, p. 27-33.

Melucci, Alberto. Nomads of the Present. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1989).

Rotello, Gabriel. “By Any Means Necessary” Village Voice, June 30, 1992, pp. 37-38

Saalfield, Catherine and Ray Navarro. “Shocking Pink Praxis: Race and Gender on the ACTUP Frontlines,” in Fuss (ed), pp.341-369.

Trebay, Guy. “In Your Face”. Village Voice, August 14, 1990.

Warner, Michael. “Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet”, Social Text 29 9(4) (1991), pp3-18

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. The Retreat from Class (London. Verso. 1986)

1 It has to be said, however, that both L&M and Melucci write in often unintelligible “post-modern” prose.

2 Recall Alex Callincos’ characterization of the feminist wing of the 1980s British Labour left, quoted in Paul’s document: ‘narcissistic self-absorption of this class, its obsession with its own problems, appearance and personal relationships…’

3 A partial and important, exception to this characterization of identity politics is Black nationalism. Although Black nationalism is, strictly speaking, a politics based on Black identity, the nature of Black “identity” in the US is fundamentally different than that of women or gays. Racial segregation and the fact that the majority of Blacks are working class that an elemental Black nationalism will have a resonance among working class Blacks in a way that “queer” or “radical feminism” politics will not have for working class gays and women. This does not guarantee that Black nationalism always expresses itself in progressive directions (eg. Attacks on Korean stores during the LA uprising). But Black nationalist organizations have played a role in advancing working class (eg. The role of DRUM in the 1960s) and broader left (eg the role of Black Power organizations in the late 1960s) struggles. There can be revolutionary Black nationalist organizations. There has never been a revolutionary gay or women’s separatist organization. Middle class identity politics in the gay and women’s milieux often lead away from struggle into “personal politics”. Because of these distinctions, our attitude to Black nationalism and to middle-class radicalism must be different. We should be much more skeptical about supporting middle class identity politics organizations – and very often we will oppose them – because their politics are a recipe for a movement’s failure.

4 As Berlant and Freeman write: “’Mall visibility actions’ thus conjoin the spectacular lure of the parade with Hare Krishna style ‘conversion’ and ‘proselytizing’ techniques.” Berlant and Freeman are supporters of QN.

5 In an example in Chicago, a handful of QN members staged a kiss-in in the center of a large college cafeteria. They were taunted and jeered. For closeted gay students sitting in that cafeteria, it’s unlikely that the kiss-in gave them confidence to “come out”.

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