Anarchism and Love

Something which doesn’t get enough attention is the role of love in anarchist politics. Love is a recurring theme in the writings of the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta.

Firstly, love is integral to Malatesta’s vision of an anarchist society and so the goal which anarchists are struggling for. Malatesta claims that anarchists “seek the triumph of freedom and of love.” (Malatesta 2015, p60) He writes that anarchists “aim at the good of all, the elimination of all suffering and the extension of all the joys that can depend on human actions; we aim at the attainment of peace and love among all human beings; we aim at a new and better society, at a worthier and happier mankind.” (Ibid, p15)

Malatesta argues that,

“Since all the present ills of society have their origin in the struggle between men, in the seeking after well-being through one’s own efforts and for oneself and against everybody, we want to make amends, replacing hatred by love, competition by solidarity, the individual search for personal well-being by the fraternal cooperation for the well-being of all, oppression and imposition by liberty, the religious and pseudo-scientific lie by truth.” (Ibid, p19)

Secondly, Malatesta says that he is an anarchist because it furthers his desire for a society based on love. He writes,

“I am an anarchist because it seems to me that anarchy would correspond better than any other way of social life, to my desire for the good of all, to my aspirations towards a society which reconciles the liberty of everyone with cooperation and love among men.” (Ibid, p18)

Thirdly, Malatesta argues that love is essential to anarchist politics because it is the emotion that motivates us to not oppress others and to act for the good of others. He writes,

“By definition an anarchist is he who does not wish to be oppressed nor wishes to be himself an oppressor; who wants the greatest well-being, freedom and development for all human beings. His ideas, his wishes have their origin in a feeling of sympathy, love and respect for humanity: a feeling which must be sufficiently strong to induce him to want the well-being of others as much as his own, and to renounce those personal advantages, the achievement of which, would involve the sacrifice of others. If it were not so, why would he be the enemy of oppression and not seek to become himself an oppressor?” (Ibid, p16)

Malatesta makes this same point in more detail when he writes,

“Apart from our ideas about the political State and government. . . and those on the best way to ensure for everybody free access to the means of production and enjoyment of the good things of life, we are anarchists because of a feeling which is the driving force for all sincere social reformers, and without which our anarchism would be either a lie or just nonsense. This feeling is the love of mankind, and the fact of sharing the sufferings of others. If I . . . eat I cannot enjoy what I am eating if I think that there are people dying of hunger; if I buy a toy for my child and am made happy by her pleasure, my happiness is soon embittered at seeing wide-eyed children standing by the shop window who could be made happy with a cheap toy but who cannot have it; if I am enjoying myself, my spirit is saddened as soon as I recall that there are unfortunate fellow beings languishing in jail; if I study, or do a job I enjoy doing, I feel remorse at the thought that there are so many brighter than I who are obliged to waste their lives on exhausting, often useless, or harmful tasks.

Clearly, pure egoism; others call it altruism, call it what you like; but without it, it is not possible to be real anarchists. Intolerance of oppression, the desire to be free and to be able to develop one’s personality to its full limits, is not enough to make one an anarchist. That aspiration towards unlimited freedom, if not tempered by a love for mankind and by the desire that all should enjoy equal freedom, may well create rebels who, if they are strong enough, soon become exploiters and tyrants, but never anarchists.” (Ibid, p17)

Fourthly, Malatesta claims that love motivates anti-authoritarian people in general. He speaks of non-anarchists possessing an anarchist spirit, by which he means:

“that deeply human sentiment, which aims at the good of all, freedom and justice for all, solidarity and love among the people; which is not an exclusive characteristic only of self-declared anarchists, but inspires all people who have a generous heart and an open mind.” (Ibid, p110)

From this I hope it’s clear that Malatesta loves love. As radicals we must remember that love isn’t the exclusive domain of hippies and ‘spiritual’ people. Love for 19th century radicals was primarily about building communism and we need to make love about communism again.

Bibliography

Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta, edited by Vernon Richards. PM Press

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What Is False Consciousness?

Marxists like to talk about ‘false consciousness’. But what exactly is it? The term false consciousness was used by Friedrich Engels in his 1893 letter to Franz Mehring. Engels writes,

“Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.”

His example of false consciousness is people thinking of the history of ideas as a succession of abstract thinkers producing thoughts independently of the society in which they lived and overcoming previous generations of thinkers with better thoughts. Such a view is a form of false consciousness since it ignores that the history of ideas is bound up with the history of society. Thinkers live in societies and so their thoughts change as society changes. Indeed, the very idea that the history of ideas is a history of great men with great thoughts who live outside of history is itself a product of a particular kind of society. Someone who ascribed to this view of history would therefore have false consciousness in two senses. Firstly, they would have a false view of the history of ideas. Second, they would have a false view about how they came to hold the views they do.

Building on Engels, we can hold that false consciousness refers to consciousness which is false or inappropriate in a general sense. Lorna Finlayson distinguishes between five different kinds of false consciousness in her book ‘An Introduction to Feminism’. These are,

1. A false belief about the world. For example, a worker who thinks capitalism doesn’t oppress them or a misogynist who thinks women are innately bad at maths.
2. An inaccurate representation of the world. For example, a woman who looks in the mirror and sees herself as ugly and larger than she actually is.
3. An emotional response that is inappropriate to the situation. For example, a victim of abuse who blames themselves for their abuse and venerates their abuser.
4. The failure to notice a relevant truth. For example, a white person who doesn’t notice racism and thinks they live in a “post-racial’ society, or a man who doesn’t notice the reproductive labour that women perform.
5. The failure to experience a certain emotional state. For example, a capitalist who doesn’t feel empathy for their employees or a trans-person who doesn’t love themselves because of internalised transphobia. (Finlayson 2016, 15-17)

A further distinction can be drawn between mere false-consciousness and ideological false consciousness. False-consciousness is not necessarily political since I am technically experiencing false consciousness when I think it is Wednesday but it is in fact Thursday as I have a false belief about the world. But the kind of false consciousness which Marxists are interested in is false consciousness which is produced by particular power relations and is therefore inherently political. This is ideological false consciousness, which refers to false consciousness whose existence and character is explained by its tendency to promote the interests of one social group over another. (Finlayson 2016, 18)

An example of ideological false consciousness is patriarchal ideology, which consists of the distorted ways of seeing, feeling and relating to the world which exist and have the character they do because of their tendency to further the interests of men, who are dominant, over women, who are subordinate. (Finlayson 2016, 18, 21) For example, the idea that women are naturally best suited to child care contributes to a situation in which women do the majority of child care and are expected to by people of all genders. This idea helps reproduce patriarchal gender roles and patriarchy’s gendered division of labour by ensuring that people think this arrangement is natural and should exist and by producing people who judge the worth of women relative to their success at being mothers. This in turn leads women to feel compelled to do the majority of childcare so that both others and themselves do not judge them as failing to be good women. The fact that this idea reproduces patriarchy in turn explains why the idea exists and permeates patriarchal culture. After all, young girls are taught these ideas as children in order to prepare them for an adulthood in which it is assumed that they will be mothers and wives.

One important feature of false-consciousness so understood is that it affects both the oppressor and the oppressed. In the case of patriarchy, for example, people of all genders possess patriarchal false-consciousness, although it takes different forms depending on sex, gender, race, class, the country you live in, the culture you grew up in and so on. (Finlayson 2016, 21) One of the most startling examples of this in the modern world is women who make their living on youtube by attacking feminists and validating the misogyny of their majority male audience. Since women are just as much subject to patriarchal ideology as men we should keep in mind that just because a women does or thinks something does not automatically mean that it is furthering the emancipation of women or that it reflects an accurate understanding of gender relations in our society.

In a similar fashion, both workers and capitalists experience capitalist false consciousness. A worker may falsely believe that there is no alternative to capitalism, while a capitalist may falsely believe they have earned their wealth through their own hard work, when in reality they have exploited the labour of others. Marx himself thought that the English philosopher and utilitarian Jeremy Bentham suffered from capitalist false consciousness. In Das Capital, Marx describes Bentham as “that insipid, pedantic, leather-tongued oracle of the ordinary bourgeois intelligence of the 19th century.” He continues in a footnote, “[w]ith the driest naiveté he takes the modern shopkeeper, especially the English shopkeeper, as the normal man. Whatever is useful to this queer normal man, and to his world, is absolutely useful. This yard-measure, then, he applies to past, present, and future. . . Mr. Jeremy a genius in the way of bourgeois stupidity.”

False consciousness is thus not a patronising idea about the benighted masses suffering under delusions consciously created by a conspiracy of capitalists. In reality, the capitalists and their ideologues are subject to a vast amount of false-consciousness themselves, as can be seen when one reads fortune magazine or neo-classical economics or when one watches interviews with silicon valley entrepreneurs talking about why they are successful.

Bibliography

Finlayson, Lorna. 2016. An Introduction to Feminism. Cambridge University Press

What Do Anarchists Think About Violence?

In the popular imagination anarchism is synonymous with violence. But what do anarchists actually think about violence? In this video I’ll be examining what the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta, who wrote during the late 19th and early 20th century, had to say about violence.

Malatesta held that the “main plank of anarchism is the removal of violence from human relations” (Malatesta 2015, 45) because violence is “the essence of every authoritarian system” (Malatesta 2014, 188). For example, Malatesta advocates the abolition of the state because it is in practice “the brutal, violent, arbitrary domination of the few over the many” (Malatesta 2014, 115) and so is based on the “coercive, violent organisation of society” (Malatesta 2015, 45). Malatesta likewise critiques capitalism because private property was historically established through “violence, robbery and theft, legal or illegal” (Malatesta 2005, 47), such as the English enclosure movement, and is still to this day protected by the violence of the legal system and the police.

If anarchism aims for a non-violent society then one might expect that Malatesta opposes violence completely. This is, however, not the case. Malatesta of course understands that a free non-violent society cannot be violently imposed on people. As he writes,

it would be ridiculous and contrary to our objectives to seek to impose freedom, love among men and the radical development of human faculties, by means of force. One must therefore rely on the free will of others, and all we can do is to provoke the development and the expression of the will of the people. (Malatesta 2014, 282-3)

But Malatesta is not naive and realizes that “those who benefit from existing privileges and who today dominate and control all social life” will oppose the creation of a free society “with brute force”. The ruling classes “have police forces, a judiciary, and armies created for the express purpose of defending their privileges; and they persecute, imprison, and massacre those who would want to abolish those privileges and who claim the means of life and liberty for everyone” (Malatesta 2014, 283) Not only is contemporary society “underpinned by force of arms”, it is also the case that “[n]o oppressed class has ever managed to emancipate itself without recourse to violence; the privileged classes have never surrendered a part, the tiniest fraction, of their privileges, except because of force or fear of force.” (Malatesta 2014, 201)

It is because of this that in order to achieve an anarchist society the masses must rise up and “get rid of the armed force which defends existing institutions”. This decision to engage in violent action “is not the result of our free choice, but is imposed upon us by necessity in the defence of unrecognized human rights which are thwarted by brute force.” (Malatesta 2014, 189) As Malatesta summarizes,

We neither seek to impose anything by force nor do we wish to submit to a violent imposition. We intend to use force against government, because it is by force that we are kept in subjection by government. We intend to expropriate the owners of property because it is by force that they withhold the raw materials and wealth, which is the fruit of human labour, and use it to oblige others to work in their interest. We shall resist with force whoever would wish by force, to retain or regain the means to impose his will and exploit the labour of others. (Malatesta 2015, 47)

In short, “violent revolt . . . [is] a factor of progress in a society based on violence . . . [and is] a necessary means of resolving the social question when the privileged have the guns on their side and are, as they demonstrate day by day, determined to use them.” (Malatesta 2016, 384)

For Malatesta, the violence of revolution is not only a necessity, but also moral, since “slaves are always in a state of legitimate defence” against “those institutions which use force to keep the people in a state of servitude.” (Malatesta 2015, 50, 49) Revolutionary violence must therefore not be ethically evaluated in the abstract, but instead be judged relative to the violence perpetuated by those institutions which revolutionaries seek to abolish. He writes that,

There is no doubt that the revolution will cause much misfortune, much suffering. But it might cause a hundred times more and it would still be a blessing compared to what we endure to-day. It is a well-known fact that in a single battle more people are killed than in the bloodiest of revolutions. It is a well-known fact that millions of children of tender age die every year for lack of care, that millions of workers die prematurely of the disease of poverty, that the immense majority of people lead shunted, joyless, and hopeless lives, that even the richest and most powerful are much less happy than they might be in a society of equals, and that this state of things has lasted from time immemorial. Without a revolution it would last indefinitely, whereas one single revolution which went right to the causes of the evil could put humanity for all time on the road to happiness. So let the revolution come! Every day that it delays means an enormous mass of suffering inflicted on mankind. (Malatesta 2014, 157-8)

Malatesta not only defended revolutionary violence but also critiqued three other main perspectives on violence which were held at the time. Firstly, Malatesta is opposed to the idea that we should be “opposed to all violence whatever, except in cases of personal defense against direct and immediate attack.” This is because doing so “would mean the renunciation of all revolutionary initiative, and the reserving of our blows for the petty, and often involuntary agents of the government, while leaving in peace the organizers of, and those chiefly benefited by, government and capitalist exploitation.” (Malatesta 2014, 187) In other words, if we should only engage in immediate self-defence then we should only use violence against the police or soldiers who are attacking us and not the members of the ruling classes who, while not personally attacking us with their bodies, do control the means of violence and have it deployed in their interests. Therefore,

as Anarchists, we cannot and we do not desire to employ violence, except in the defence of ourselves and others against oppression.  But we claim this right of defence – entire, real, and efficacious. That is, we wish to be able to go behind the material instrument which wounds us, and to attack the hand which wields the instrument, and the head which directs it. (Malatesta 2014, 189)

The second view on violence Malatesta rejects is strict pacifism. According to this view “we must endure oppression and degradation in our own cases and in those of others rather than do harm to the oppressor” and so not use “every available means to defend” ourselves or others. Malatesta is opposed to strict pacifism because someone who engages in it would “in practice and much against his will. . . be simply terrifically selfish. . . to let others suffer oppression without trying to come to their defence”, such as preferring to rather “see some class ground into misery, some people downtrodden by the invader, some man suffer trespass against his life and liberty . . . than that a hair on the head of the oppressor be harmed”. Therefore, “Tolstoyans . . . [are] those who would let the whole of humanity be ground down by the weight of the greatest suffering rather than trespass against a principle.” (Malatesta 2014, 203-4)

Against this highly abstract view of morality, Malatesta holds that our morals must be grounded in the actual conditions that we are acting in. He writes that “[t]he means we employ are those that circumstances make possible or necessary. It is true that we would prefer not to hurt a hair of anybody’s head; we would like to wipe away all tears and not to cause any to be shed.” (Malatesta 2014, 156-7) But we are unfortunately “forced to struggle in the world as we found it, on pains of remaining sterile dreamers, who leave untouched all the existing evils, and do good to no one, for fear of doing wrong to anyone.” (Quoted in Turcato 2012, 22)

The third view on violence Malatesta rejects is one in which violence is celebrated and transformed into an end in and of itself. Malatesta rejects “needless, harmful violence” because, “anarchists should not and cannot be avengers; they are liberators. We bear hatred towards none; we are not fighting to avenge ourselves or to avenge anyone else; we seek love towards all, liberty for all.” As a result,

let us have no unnecessary victims, not even in the enemy camp. The very purpose on behalf of which we struggle requires us to be kind and humane even in the heat of battle; so I fail to understand how one can fight for a purpose like ours without our being kindly and humane. And let us not forget that a liberating revolution cannot be born of massacre and terror, these having been – and ever so it shall remain – the midwives to tyranny. (Malatesta 2014, 203)

Instead of viewing violence as an end in and of itself anarchists “must be like the surgeon who cuts when he must but avoids causing needless suffering.” (Malatesta 2014, 159) Given this, while Malatesta is in favour of violence when it is necessary, he does prefer “passive resistance” when it is an “effective weapon” because “it would be the most sparing one in terms of human suffering.” (Malatesta 2014, 204)

Bibliography

Malatesta, Errico. 2005. At The Cafe. Freedom Press
Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. AK Press
Malatesta, Errico. 2015. Life and Ideas: The Anarchist Writings of Errico Malatesta. Edited by Vernon Richards. PM Press
Malatesta, Errico. 2016. A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione 1897-1898. Edited by Davide Turcato. AK Press
Turcato, Davide. 2012. Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments With Revolution, 1889-1900. Palgrave Macmillan

 

Despair and Being a Feminist

One of the consequences of trying to explain feminism to strangers on the internet is having to deal with a lot of backlash from people who are stuck on autopilot and repeat their anti-feminist or anti-identity politics script, rather than actually engage with what you’ve written. I have to remind myself that if it was easy then patriarchy would have already been abolished.

These experiences of knee-jerk reactions to feminism leads to despair and anguish as I find it difficult to deal with the hostility that people have towards the most basic commitment to genuine human liberation.

To recover from all of this despair I like to read Emma Goldman because I think we can all learn from her remarkable capacity to give zero fucks.  Emma Goldman had to deal with vast amounts of bullshit when she actively supported queer liberation by giving talks on homosexuality and campaigning for Oscar Wild’s freedom when he was imprisoned for having sex with a man. In her autobiography ‘Living My Life’ Goldman writes:

“Censorship came from some of my own comrades because I was treating such “unnatural” themes as homosexuality. Anarchism was already enough misunderstood, and anarchists considered depraved; it was inadvisable to add to the misconceptions by taking up perverted sex-forms, they argued. Believing in freedom of opinion, even if it went against me, I minded the censors in my own ranks as little as I did those in the enemy’s camp. In fact, censorship from comrades had the same effect on me as police persecution; it made me surer of myself, more determined to plead for every victim, be it one of social wrong or of moral prejudice.

The men and women who used to come to see me after my lectures on homosexuality, and who confided to me their anguish and their isolation, were often of finer grain than those who had cast them out. Most of them had reached an adequate understanding of their differentiation only after years of struggle to stifle what they had considered a disease and a shameful affliction. One young woman confessed to me that in the twenty-five years of her life she had never known a day when the nearness of a man, her own father and brothers even, did not make her ill. The more she had tried to respond to sexual approach, the more repugnant men became to her. She had hated herself, she said, because she could not love her father and her brothers as she loved her mother. She suffered excruciating remorse, but her revulsion only increased. At the age of eighteen she had accepted an offer of marriage in the hope that a long engagement might help her grow accustomed to a man and cure her of her “disease.” It turned out a ghastly failure and nearly drove her insane. She could not face marriage and she dared not confide in her fiancé or friends. She had never met anyone, she told me, who suffered from a similar affliction, nor had she ever read books dealing with the subject. My lecture had set her free; I had given her back her self-respect.

This woman was only one of the many who sought me out. Their pitiful stories made the social ostracism of the invert seem more dreadful than I had ever realized before. To me anarchism was not a mere theory for a distant future; it was a living influence to free us from inhibitions, internal no less than external, and from the destructive barriers that separate man from man.”

What I get from this passage is that it is important to remember that we’re not alone in this struggle. So many amazing people before us have fought so hard for feminism and if they could then we can too. We should focus less on the terrible anti-feminism that pervades the internet and society at large. Instead we should remind ourselves of all the gender queer people who have not killed themselves because of feminism, or of all the men who have re-connected with their emotions due to feminism, or all the women who have learned to better accept their bodies due to feminism, or all the women who have embraced their sexuality or discovered their true intellectual worth due to feminism, or all the women who have been able to flee abusive relationships because of feminist run shelters. It is these stories of people liberating themselves from both internal and external forms of oppression that we should fill our consciousnesses with and use them as a source of nourishment in the struggles to come.

 

The Politics of Trauma

I am Oscar. I exist. I have a body. I have to remind myself of these things every day. This is because I’ve spent a huge amount of my life not feeling like I have a body and not feeling like I exist as a person. Instead, I’ve felt like nothing. I’ve felt like a numb floating mind that isn’t connected to the world. I’ve felt totally dead inside. People will talk to me, people will hug me, people will have sex me. But I’m not there. I’m not experiencing anything. It all feels the same. I’ve felt like I’ve been watching a film of somebody else’s life, rather than living my own. I’ve felt that my own personal experiences did not happen to me, but happened to somebody else. If you’ve listened to my earlier videos, you’ll notice that my voice is very monotone. This is why. It’s hard to talk in an exciting manner when internally you don’t exist.

While I felt this way I did not know what was happening to me. I told stories to myself. I thought I was disconnected from my body and the world because I was a philosopher who spent their time reading about metaphysics. The actual reason why I felt this way was that I have developmental trauma disorder due to being raised by an abusive father and being bullied at school.

Trauma is not just something that happens to you. It, to quote the trauma expert Bessel van Der Kolk, “compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive.” (Kolk 2015, 3) As a result of this, “trauma makes people feel like either some body else, or like no body.“ (Kolk 2015, 247) By this he means that trauma causes people to develop (a) alexithymia: not being able to sense, describe and communicate what is going on inside yourself, such as not being able to sense or label your emotions or not being able to tell others what you’re feeling, (b) disembodiment: not feeling like you have a body and feeling numb all of the time, and (c) depersonalisation: not feeling you exist as a person, such as not having a sense of self or feeling like your own life is another person’s life you’re watching. A patient described alexithymia as follows:

“I don’t know what I feel, it’s like my head and body aren’t connected. I’m living in a tunnel, a fog, no matter what happens it’s the same reaction – numbness, nothing. Having a bubble bath and being burned or raped is the same feeling. My brain doesn’t feel.” (Quoted Kolk 2015, 99)

The reason why traumatised people experience alexithymia, disembodiment and depersonalisation is that they have lived in an environment inhospitable to human life and have, in order to survive, learned to stop existing. A 2004 study scanned the brains of 18 chronic PTSD patients with severe early-life trauma. Kolk writes,

“There was almost no activation of any of the self-sensing areas of the brain: The MPFC, the anterior cingulate, the parietal cortex, and the insula did not light up at all; the only area that showed a slight activation was the posterior cingulate, which is responsible for basic orientation in space… In response to the trauma itself, and in coping with the dread that persisted long afterward, these patients had learned to shut down the brain areas that transmit the visceral feelings and emotions that accompany and define terror. Yet in everyday life, those same brain areas are responsible for registering the entire range of emotions and sensations that form the foundation of our self-awareness, our senses of who we are. What we witnessed here was a tragic adaption: In an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.” (Kolk 2015, p91-2)

People often say that domination is based on the dehumanisation of the oppressed by the oppressor. But if trauma frequently causes people to not feel like they have a body and not feel like they are a person, then the emotional and physical abuse which composes structures of domination, such as capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and queerphobia, literally causes the brains of victims to not experience life as a person. Domination not only harms people, it takes away their humanity. It transforms the bodies of victims into living cages which, in order to defend themselves, cut the mind off from the joys of life. It is for this reason that a genuine humanism must be an anarchist one. Only in conditions of freedom can everyone have the real possibility to lead a fully human life.

Bibliography

Kolk, Bessel Van Der. 2015. The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Penguin Books

We Must Bring Socialism to Identity Politics

The political reality is that identity politics, at least within English speaking countries, is far more popular and influential than socialist politics, especially among younger people. Therefore, there exists a large body of people who, while not socialists, are nonetheless politically engaged, understand many of the problems with modern society, such as white supremacy or patriarchy, and value equality and freedom. The problem is that these people generally speaking lack a good understanding of class politics. This can be seen in the fact that they often understand class oppression in terms of classism, such as middle class people talking down to working class people, and don’t advocate worker self-management or the abolition of the state.

The task of socialists in such a political climate is not to try and persuade people to drop identity politics in favour of socialism. This is for two reasons. Firstly, there is a huge amount of good ideas within mainstream identity politics, such as understanding the connection between police brutality and racism, or holding that victims are not to blame for being raped. This goodness is incredibly important when one considers how widespread racism and sexism is in our societies, especially historically. In other words, the problem with liberal identity politics is not the identity politics, but the liberalism. Secondly, critiquing identity politics is not an effective way of persuading people to develop socialist politics. People generally stop listening once you start attacking their core belief system. This is especially true if it is a belief system that they are emotionally invested in, such as a traumatised queer who learned to love herself by spending time on tumblr and reading about liberal feminism.

Reflecting on my own political development I cannot remember many cases in which a critique of my ideas made me change my mind. Instead, what consistently happened was that I read about a new political perspective, found it interesting, thought about the ideas a lot, and gradually over time dropped my previous political beliefs as I began to see flaws in them. I think part of the reason for this is that as you learn about new ideas you transform your mental landscape and become able to understand things you could not before. For example, I didn’t understand queer perspectives on gender until I’d read more widely on feminist views on gender and so understood the larger conceptual framework that queer feminists were coming from. In a similar fashion, it is unsurprising that many liberals do not understand socialist critiques of their politics. To understand these criticisms, they must first have a general understanding of socialist theory. But if they had an understanding of socialist theory then they would themselves be in a position to critique liberal identity politics from a socialist perspective.

Given this, instead of attacking identity politics, socialists should produce socialist identity politics which combines the good elements of mainstream identity politics with a solid class politics based in Marxism or anarchism.  In particular, socialists should show how the core values which underpin identity politics, such as empathy for the oppressed or the belief that people should be free from domination, entail a Marxist or anarchist politics if they are consistently applied. For example, we could argue that if you support black lives matter then you should also support the abolition of the police and prisons. From there we could further argue that the police and prisons play a larger role in perpetuating class society and that, given this, the working class as a whole, regardless of race, has a shared interest in fighting state violence.

On this approach, socialist engagement with liberals consists in telling them the ways in which their politics could be better, rather than attacking them for having bad politics. The idea being that liberal feminists will, when presented with a better and more developed version of identity politics, work out for themselves the flaws with their old politics. Socialists should not expect such a transformation to happen overnight. They must be patient and understand that it takes time for people to learn a whole new approach to politics and to discard previous beliefs in favour of better ones.

To conclude, socialists must bring class politics to identity politics, rather than expecting liberals to drop identity politics in favour of socialism. We must try to blow people’s minds with socialist theory and have interesting conversations with them, rather than using socialist theory as a weapon with which to attack people for having bad politics and thereby prove our inherent superiority and radicalism. We must build a movement, not a sect.

‘Identity Politics Divides The Left’ – A Response

If capitalism is to be overthrown it is essential that a mass working class movement is created and developed during the course of struggle. In other words, the working class must unite and organise together as a class if they are to liberate themselves. Some socialist critics of identity politics argue that given the importance of working class unity, we should reject identity politics because it fragments and dis-unifies the working class. For the purposes of this article, it should be kept in mind that when I speak of identity politics I do not mean terrible liberal feminism or politics which relies on essentialist notions of what it is to be a ‘women’ or ‘gay’. Instead I mean a kind of politics which emerged in the new left and organised along lines of identity, such as being a ‘women’, ‘gay’, or ‘black’, in order to fight the forms of oppression distinct to these groups, such as patriarchy or white supremacy. Given this definition, I have lots of points to make in response to the argument that identity politics is a barrier to working class unity

Point 1.

The fragmentation of left wing social movements which identity politics does cause is not inherent to identity politics, but is rather part of a particular way of doing identity politics. For example, an overzealous call out culture is a harmful feature of many identity politics movements, but you can do identity politics without an overzealous call out culture. This has been demonstrated by discussions within identity politics itself, such as Asam Ahmad’s critique of bad call out culture or this everyday feminism article on calling in as an alternative to calling out. In short, the solution to bad identity politics is not no identity politics, it is good identity politics. Just as the solution to bad bureaucratic unions is good syndicalist unions, rather than no unions.

Point 2.

One of the main reasons why identity politics historically caused division within the left was angry arguments over whose oppression was primary or most important. For example, radical feminists would claim that gender oppression is most important, while black nationalists would argue that racial oppression is most important. This then led in turn to great hostility between different political groups divided along lines of identity. These arguments over whose oppression was primary led to the formation of intersectionality theory, which holds that “oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type”. (Collins 2000, 18) According to intersectionality, systems of oppression are not distinct separate entities that interact with one another. Instead, systems of oppression interlock and intersect with one another to form a totality which is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, racism and sexism as they really exist in our society are not separate social structures which interact, but are instead inter-twinned to such an extent that one cannot be separated from the other. Given this, “all struggles against domination are necessary components for the creation of a liberatory society. It is unnecessary to create a totem pole of importance out of social struggles and suggest that some are “primary” while others are “secondary” or “peripheral” because of the complete ways that they intersect and inform one another.” (Shannon and Rogue 2009)

Point 3.

The formation of women only, or lesbian only, or black only etc groups do not in and of themselves fragment the left. Such groups can be formed but be part of wider organisations, such as the IWW’s African people’s caucus, or can form alliances and co-operate with other organisations and movements, such as the black panthers being a black only group but organising with other working class movements, or black lives matter organising with Fight for 15.

Point 4.

If you are concerned with the fragmentation of left wing social movements then there is a lot more to be concerned about than identity politics. Historically the primary driver of fragmentation within the left has been tactical disputes, such as those between anti-state socialists and state socialists, and different splits within left wing organisations. The history of the UK left in the 20th century, for example, is a history of a huge number of splits within communist parties which has led to the formation of a myriad of organisations who have almost exactly the same name and spend most of their time arguing with one another. Despite this history, I do not see socialist critics of identity politics arguing that Trotskyism or Maoism fragments the working class and so should be rejected.

Point 5.

Capitalism is not the only oppressive structure. We live in a society which is patriarchal, racist, queerphobic and ableist. As a result of this, the working class is not an amorphous blob but is divided along lines of gender, race, sexuality, and disability. These divisions are not merely the product of the capitalist class dividing the working class. They are actively perpetuated by the working class themselves through the process of different working class people oppressing one another, such as straight workers attacking gay workers when they hold hands in public, or working class men sexually harassing working class women.

These structures of domination in turn produce identities among the oppressed and link these identities to negative self-conceptions, such as racism producing the notion of black identity and the notion that black skin is unattractive or that black people are inherently criminal. In reaction to this, oppressed groups construct positive notions of group identity, such as ‘black is beautiful’ or ‘black girl magic’, and through doing so un-learn the internalisation of their oppression. People not subject to systemic oppression on the basis of their gender, race, sexuality or ability often do not understand the importance of these positive group identities because they have not gone through their life being othered and oppressed on the basis of these features. When you have been, say, taught through violence and oppression to hate your sexuality, then you might understand why it is important to someone’s sense of self that they are gay and proud.

Given this reality, working class unity cannot take the form of differences of gender, sexuality, race, and ability being ignored. Most obviously, if we ignore these differences, then we are not in a position to understand oppressive behaviour that occurs within the left or society at large. We will merely see one human being oppressing another human being and thereby ignore the more important reality of a man oppressing a women and thereby perpetuating patriarchy.

Furthermore, ignoring the distinctiveness of marginalised groups because we are all human beings does not, under present conditions, result in a humanistic utopia. It results in cis, or straight, or white, or male people presenting themselves as the default human being or worker and so mistaking their experiences, interests and outlooks for universally human or working class experiences, interests and outlooks. If we are to abolish patriarchy, racism, queerphobia, and ableism then we must acknowledge and prioritise the distinct experiences, outlooks, and interests of marginalised groups, rather than assuming that cis, straight, white or male people speak for the whole of the human family or the whole of the working class.

This is a lesson which much of feminism has already learned. The reason why so much contemporary feminism emphasizes multiple forms of oppression is that historically the feminist movement had a tendency to equate womanhood with the particular experiences, outlooks, and identities of middle class, cis, straight, white women.  For example, in her book ‘The Feminine Mystique’ Betty Friedan, “made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women”. Her famous phrase, “the problem that has no name” does not, as it is often alleged, describe the condition of all women in this society but instead refers “to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle- and upper-class, married white women – housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life.” (Hooks 2015, 1-2) If feminism has been attempting to be inclusive to differences of class, race, gender and sexuality within a women’s movement, then socialism must likewise attempt to be inclusive to such differences within a workers’ movement.

Point 6.

Socialist critics of identity politics should be weary of confusing unity with silencing and side lining. In practice, what is often considered to be working class unity is in fact cis-straight white men running the show and claiming to be acting in the interests of the working class, while at the same time oppressing women, people of colour, queers and the disabled. This false unity is then viewed as the default setting and resistance to this state of affairs is labelled as divisive and a breakdown of unity. To see things this way is to take the point of view of the oppressor, such as a cis-man viewing the creation of women only spaces as exclusionary and divisive. When of course, from the point of view of women it is cis-men claiming that women only spaces are sexist which causes division. In other words, a key source of division on the left is marginalised people being oppressed in the spaces which should be fighting for their liberation.

It is therefore bizarre that socialists who are critical of identity politics spend far more time attacking identity politics than the sexism, racism, ableism and queerphobia which permeates the left. For example, left wing organisations lacking good procedures to deal appropriately with sexual assault or sexual harassment accusations is a serious problem which causes far more division than women loudly complaining about rape culture and sexual violence within the left.

Point 7.

The left will not be able to build a truly mass working class movement without the participation of women, people of colour, queers and the disabled. Therefore, the left must ensure that its practices are inclusive and do not push away people from these groups. After all, women, for example, will not remain active within socialist organisations if they consistently experience sexism within these organisations, or have their emancipatory goals dismissed as un-important. Unsurprisingly, one of the main reasons behind the formation of women only, or lesbian only, or black only political groups which are separate from the wider left has and continues to be experiences of oppression and exclusion within left wing organisations and movements.

Given this, one of the main factors fragmenting left wing movements is a) the existence of patriarchy, racism, ableism and queerphobia within the left in particular and society in general, and (b) the failure of left wing movements to take these forms of oppression seriously. Therefore, if one was concerned with preventing the fragmentation of the left, one’s primary concern would be working to end oppression within left wing movements themselves and ensuring that left wing movements place importance on the emancipation of all of humanity from all structures of domination. Doing so creates a situation in which marginalised groups feel included and are therefore far less likely to leave movements or organisations due to experiences of oppression and marginalisation.

Point 8.

Throughout this piece I have been arguing for the importance of constructing a unity which respects difference. I think this notion has already been beautifully expressed by the Martiniquean poet Aimé Césaire in his 1956 resignation letter to the French Communist Party. He wrote,

“I am not burying myself in a narrow particularism. But neither do I want to lose myself in an emaciated universalism. There are two ways to lose oneself: walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the universal.

My conception of the universal is that of a universal enriched by all that is particular, a universal enriched by every particular: the deepening and coexistence of all particulars.” (Césaire 2010, 152)

I could not have put it better myself.

Bibliography

Césaire, Aimé. 2010. Letter to Maurice Thorez. Social Text 103, Vol. 28, No. 2
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge.
Hooks, Bell. 2015. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Routledge.
Shannon, Deric and Rogue, J. Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality.