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Marxism and the politics of identity

Setting out neither from what people “say, imagine, conceive” themselves as, nor from people  as “narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived”... Marx. The German Ideology. (Paraphrasing)

18 January 2020

The dispute and anger around issues of gender identity has been graphically illustrated following the recent sacking of researcher Maya Forstater.

Maya was dismissed by the Centre for Global Development after sharing her views on reforms to Gender Recognition Certificates.

The court was asked to rule that her stand - that there are only two biological sexes and it is not possible to change between them - could be accepted as a protected philosophical belief under the 2010 Equality Act.

However in a landmark judgment the court ruled that Forstater's views are "incompatible with human dignity and fundamental rights of others".

In his judgement the judge said: 'If a person has transitioned from male to female and has a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), that person is legally a woman. That is not something [Miss Forstater] is entitled to ignore".

A great difficulty is that people can self-identify as having transitioned. This is mostly not questioned and gives biological males the right of entry to areas which feminists have traditionally seen as safe spaces for women and to compete in areas of sport reserved for women. The dispute reaches into academia, where investigation of self-identity can lead to persecution and dismissal. Of course, those who break gender stereotypes are subject to vicious attack and discrimination and socialists must defend them. The unity of the working class can only be built by defending the most oppressed sections.

However many on the reformist left go beyond defence to support the idea that men who identify as women are women and that the act of self-identity cannot be questioned. In saying so, especially in an environment where many women have been assaulted and threatened, they stray very far from the methods of class analysis offered by Marxism.

As opposed to the postmodern idealism of intersectionality and gender self-identity, where people can define their own gender identity by an act of will or by referencing their own lived experience, Marxists argue a materialist philosophy, that human society, philosophy, politics and identity are a superstructure resting on a material base comprised of the objectively existing methods, or mode of production, by which people and society survive. This capitalist base is the material foundation underpinning the repressive bourgeois society that rests upon it and is the material basis of repressive social mores. While the defining feature of this society is the class struggle between the ruling class and the working class this does not mean for a moment that other oppressions should be ignored, but they have to be interpreted within the defining struggle between classes.

The jargon of the new movements transmutes terms into their opposite. Intersectionality, initially meant to unite different struggles, acts to divide them. Woke is a term that makes perfect sense among black activists trying to foresee imminent attacks but is less useful when used by white liberals to smell out the latest moral outrage.  Allyship means patronising the oppressed. Suffering is all that is needed to provide an understanding of oppression and the chief job of an ally is to keep quiet, and never question or debate.

Marxists argue that sectional struggles can bring change but all victories are temporary.  Gains by the oppressed cannot be maintained in a class society that has produced that oppression in the first place.  We have to fight to transform society, to obliterate capitalism and create a socialist society. The working class is the only force that can achieve this and other social movements in order to fully achieve their goals, rather than achieve a temporary alleviation, need to develop a class orientation towards the only social force that can potentially create a whole new society - the working class.
That doesn't mean subordination. The expropriation of labour power is largely invisible though workers do confront its affects at the point of production, in the workplace. It can only become more visible when all forms of social repression produced by the material basis of bourgeois society are confronted in struggle; when workers and the specially oppressed act together. In response to the wispy idealism of allyship which does nothing to threaten the material basis of oppression Marxists offer concrete solidarity, based on common action against a common oppressor. The pinnacle of solidarity is a revolutionary party of the working class that takes the demands of specially oppressed groups to their ultimate conclusion and is united in the struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois state and the destruction of the oppressive social mores that are produced by capitalism.

From this perspective socialists support the individual demands of suppressed groups but, if they are isolated, their division can be an impediment to the overall struggle. #metoo highlights a very obvious oppression of women, but it clearly does not mean #youtoo. It has proved very effective against a corrupt liberal elite, but ineffective against Trumpian reaction.

If identity politics is suspect, how has it supplanted socialism in popular discourse? The answer is that consciousness changes with the ebb and flow of class struggle. The working class and socialist groups have been in retreat. Workers try to survive and adapt. Even when they fight they cling desperately to existing leaderships that have proved ineffective. Activists concentrate on sectional struggles where they think some gains can be made.  Socialist groups switch to reformist and electoral politics and again look to sectoral groups.

The ruling class are well aware of the potential for divisions. Struggles for gay and equal rights in the past took place on the streets with socialist groups standing alongside the oppressed in the face of police batons. Today self-identity laws pass quietly through parliament with the quiet approval of major sections of the ruling class and punitive action is taken against those who demur.

The Irish struggle is a good example of how consciousness changes when struggles are defeated. It was understood across the world that the Irish were fighting an anti-imperialist struggle. However when it was defeated the British imposed a settlement that guaranteed their continued presence and a society based on sectarian identity.  That identity was accepted by the vanquished. So loyalism was able to define a PUL identity - Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist - that equated religion with politics with violence and sectarianism. Sinn Fein now define themselves around a programme of equality for nationalists rather than national liberation for the whole of society.

If the ebb of working class action feeds identity politics, clearly its flow will feed class politics.  A number of political currents have written workers revival off, but across the world we see growing spontaneous mobilisation against growing oppression, held in check by the decay of traditional leaderships.

The role of Marxists today is to unite in preparing for the coming struggles and to have at hand a programme for the socialist transformation of society, a programme that allows us to analyse and learn from the ongoing struggles of workers and the oppressed to escape their oppression.

For those outside the transgender and feminist movements the battle over identity politics may appear not to concern them, yet gender identity politics accepts the reactionary misogynistic stereotypes imposed by bourgeois society and has used them with devastating effect to attack and fracture the feminist movement. Likewise Zionism and right wing and racist currents used fake anti semitism charges that required no material proof to attack the British left. Above all else identity politics represents a direct refutation of the materialist method of Marxism. A new party of the working class and the specially oppressed will be built by calling for unity behind a working class programme and by using class analysis in the real world to help construct that programme, but most essentially to that end Marxist materialism must be defended against the distortions of a bourgeois ideology that sets out from individuals and groups as they 'narrate', 'think of' or 'imagine' themselves rather than from material reality.

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