Workers of the world unite! - Some notes on class unity and identity politics

Workers of the world unite! - Some notes on class unity and identity politics

There's been several articles posted lately critical of identity politics from a class struggle perspective. This blog addresses some of the pitfalls of the class unity v identity politics debate.

I've been meaning to write something on this for a long time, but I've hesitated as class struggle critiques of identity politics are often clumsy and serve to gloss over very real oppressions and violence. This difficulty is probably why such critiques often open with arguments from identity, such as the opening line of 'Who is Oakland?': "This pamphlet – written collaboratively by a group of people of color, women, and queers." It's testament to the power of identity politics that even critiques of it require an identitarian disclaimer.

Of course, there's lots to be said for arguing from experience. The Oakland pamphlet is excellent, some of my favourite writing lately has been the work accounts on the Recomposition blog, and Liberté Locke's excellent piece went viral not too long ago too. But it often proves tricky to navigate between the politics of class unity on the one hand and the politics of identity on the other. So this blog is going to briefly focus on 4 sets of problems:

  • The problems with identity politcs
  • The problems of class unity
  • The relationship of identity to action
  • Class structure and subjectivity

The problems with identity politcs

This piece argues that "identity politics, as a political force, seeks inclusion into the ruling classes" - that is to say the creation of cross-class identities to demand that our rulers and bosses should reflect the identities of their constituents. This critique is further elaborated in the aforementioned Oakland piece, which argues that such a politics treats identity-based oppression as a matter of indivdual, interpersonal privileges, obscuring its structural elements. And in treating such cross-class identity groups as having shared interests, it proceeds by a politics of representation, with individuals incorporated into social structures speaking for 'the black community', 'the Muslim community' and so on.

In other words, identity-based oppressions are used as the moral claim to representation in and/or recogition by existing power structures, thus strenghtening the very structures that produce them. While there sound like some differences between the US and UK here, there are certainly strong similarities. While in the US activists from the 1960s liberation struggles are now to be found in the corridors of power 'speaking for' those they've left behind, in the UK the development of an insititutionalised multiculturalism has functioned similarly.

Since the struggles of the 1970s, the population has been parcelled up into identity-based, cross-class 'communities' which are then 'represented' by 'community leaders'. The effect of this move is to depoliticise these oppressions and to turn them into constituencies. However the Oakland piece also highlights the problems facing any critique of this liberal, representative politics:

"For too long there has been no alternative to this politics of privilege and cultural recognition, and so rejecting this liberal political framework has become synonymous with a refusal to seriously address racism, sexism, and homophobia in general."

This is a trap class struggle politics often falls into.

The problems of class unity

The basic problem with a politics of class unity is that the class is not united. The proletariat is positively striated in innumerable ways. There are hierarchies of income and social status. Divisions between citizens and shades of migrant through to the undocumented workers. The relatively securely employed through to precarious work and unemployment. There are divisions of language and culture which disrupt the circulation of struggles within workplaces and across borders. There are divisions of social power between roles, with some proles having disciplinary or supervisory functions. Prole-on-prole violence is endemic and structural - just look at the prevailance of intimate violence and rape.

Proles experience racism on a daily basis, from not just the state and police but customers, bosses and workmates... Civil rights are still striated by sexuality; witness the struggles over gay marriage (as much as libertarian communists might not care for the institution of marriage itself). Feminists in the Marxist tradition often draw attention to the division of labour, and particularly the division between production and reproduction, waged and domestic labour. Once reproductive, caring labour is included, women continue to do a significant majority of the world's work, and even when engaged in wage labour still do most of the domestic labour too.

A similar argument was the basis of Errico Malatesta's criticism of the apolitical syndicalism of Pierre Monatte in 1907, when he said that "there are therefore no classes, in the proper sense of the term, because there are no class interests. There exists competition and struggle within the working 'class', just as there does among the bourgeoisie." I would only partly agree with Malatesta (more on that in a moment), but it should be clear that simple appeals to class unity at best gloss over a whole range of hierarchies and divisions and at worst silence voices of less powerful sections of the class or become complicit in their oppression.

The relationship of identity to action

This is an enormous topic I can't do justice to here, so I'll follow a single thread. Take this quote from an old libcom piece:

"This is why we need a revolution. Firstly: of ideas. We need to stop believing in capitalism. We need to start seeing each other as equals and unite as workers, as a class, which has been successfully divided with racism, sexism and all sorts of stupid prejudices for centuries."

Here, we see an example of the problems raised above: the structural oppressions, hierarchies, power relations and violence just discussed is glossed as mere "stupid prejudices". Bad ideas. False consciousness. Identity politics thrives on the failure of class politics to address the lived experiences of the class, a politics of everyday life which speaks only to the everyday lives of a small minority. The criticism of privilege is of course answered with more appeals to unity - 'we're all workers!'. However, privilege theory is critiqued effectively in the Who is Oakland? piece, so I'll focus on the idealism.

The argument is explicit: revolution begins with a change in ideas, with everyone ceasing to believe in capitalism and identifying as proletarians with no country and nothing to lose but their chains. This shift in identity summons into being revolutionary action to overthrow capitalism. Proletarian identity is held to be a prerequisite of proletarian struggle. I would suggest it's the other way around - class identity is a product of shared activity, and in particular the collective power experienced in struggle. Judith Butler writes that:

"The foundationalist reasoning of identity politics tends to assume that an identity must first be in place in order for political interest to be elaborated and, subsequently, political action to be taken. My argument is that there need not be a ‘doer behind the deed,’ but that the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed."

While I have differences with Butler's account (which I won't get into here), it does highlight the similarity of argument between a naive class struggle position and identity politics. To resolve this we need to look at what's different about class.

Class structure and subjectivity

Class, I have argued before is best understood as a bipolar social relationship. At one pole, the proletariat, the dispossessed, at the other, capital, whose inhuman, vampire-like logic is exposed so meticulously by Marx. What we don't have here is people, subjects. We are talking simply of social structures and subject positions, i.e. social roles which can be occupied by people. And we also have a spectrum - not everyone is fully proletarianised or fully an agent of capital. It's possible to occupy multiple roles at the same time: a worker who is also a landlord for example.

For this reason and others, this kind of analysis isn't interested in classifying individuals, but in understanding the social field and the antagonisms within it.1 And so there's still no people. It's all stage and no actors. However, it's starting to show us what's different about class. Slavoj Zizek has written of...

"...the fundamental difference between feminist/anti-racist/anti-sexist etc. struggle and class struggle: in the first case, the goal is to translate antagonism into difference ("peaceful" coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups), while the goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite, i.e., to "aggravate" class difference into class antagonism. So what the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class."

It is precisely this antagonism which is lost from the kind of intersectional analyses which speak of "classism", reducing class to merely 'economic oppresssion'. Class is not an economic category but a social one. Class struggle is the struggle against being reduced to mere human resources and to assert our human needs. This has multpile dimensions. Economic struggles over wages, conditions and poverty are just one element of it. So is the imposition of work, the imposition of motherhood (think struggles over reproductive freedom), struggles against racism, patriarchy etc.

Judith Butler notes that this ubiquitous 'etc' signifies the irreducibility of identity to a pre-existing subject. Rather, she claims that the subject - the "I" (or by extension the "we") who has an identity - is created through the performance of its identity.

It could all get very abstract and academic here, so I'm going to gloss over some pretty huge theoretical issues. But recall Malatesta's claim that classes do not exist "in the proper sense of the term." Here we can employ Marx's distinction between the class-in-itself and the class-for-itself. The class-in-itself can be recast as a subject position: proletarian, dispossessed. All these proletarians necessarily share is their condition - and nothing else, no positive attributes (ages, genders, incomes, social status and so on).

But the actual subjects who make up this class do have such attributes, which contribute to multiple hierarchies, oppressions, divisions and identities, and these subjects are always much more than bare proletarians.2 However, while struggle requires some kind of collective identity, it doesn't need to start from the global proletariat! The 'us' could be as small as the workers in a team or department, the housewives in a street or black workers in one factory... to begin with.

The 'class-for-itself', class 'in the proper sense of the term' can be understood as a collective political subject that comes into existence through struggles. Numerous partial, provisional struggles can forge shared interests and transform identities.3 Think for example how 'middle class students' and striking electricians attempted to come together in London last year, or how in 1960 and 70s Italy feminist movements, student movements and factory-based struggles linked up to seriously threaten capital's rule.

This is not a question of seizing power, but of exercising it - collectively. Through class struggles, proletarian unity moves from a negative, abstract common condition to become a concrete political force against capital. Autonomist Marxism has called this process 'political class recomposition'. Insofar as this force fails to vanquish capital, it undergoes a corresponding process of decomposition as capital reimposes itself on the proletariat, and the fractures, hierarchies and striations of the class in itself return to characterise everyday life and struggles.

It would take a short book to do this argument justice, but hopefully I've sketched an outline of a class politics that neither glossses over identity-based oppressions nor lapses into identity politics itself. 'Workers of the world unite!' is a statement of intent, but that unity must reckon with the multiple hierarchies, striations, divisions and identities in the proletariat.

  • 1. This kind of bipolar analysis also allows analysis of processes of proletarianisation/embourgeoisement, commodification/decommodification, enclosure/making common, the division of family/market implied by the dominance of wage labour, the role of the state in creating these conditions and preventing them being torn apart, and many other matters besides. But these aren't our concern here.
  • 2. Where these individual subjects come from is one of the bracketed huge theoretical issues, and raises questions of structuralism vs post-structuralism, materiality and discourse, the meaning of subjectivity and agency... Gulp.
  • 3. There's nothing automatic about this, which is why radical movements have often actively fostered collective, class identities, which points to the importance of culture and discourse in constructing the shared identities which sustain material struggles. See: Music and the IWW: the creation of a working class counterculture

Posted By

Joseph Kay
May 18 2012 18:30


  • Identity politics thrives on the failure of class politics to address the lived experiences of the class, a politics of everyday life which speaks only to the everyday lives of a small minority.

    Joseph Kay

Attached files


fingers malone
Jun 7 2012 11:35

Hey, Spikymike, post us up more about that, please!

fingers malone
Jun 7 2012 11:44
Spikymike wrote:
That doesn't however mean making abstract calls for class unity but recognising the practical need for self-organisation and the assertion of power in confrontation between different groups of workers in the course of struggle..

Can you say a bit more about this Spikymike?

Jun 7 2012 12:31


Firstly there are two short articles on the Timex and Burnstall's s disputes under the 'Subversion' heading at:

Unfortunately the Imperial Typwriters article is not included and I don't have the facility to post it up from the original.

PS - I'm not claiming these articles were particularly brilliant.

Regarding my comment on not approaching struggle with 'abstract calls for unity....' etc I mean that in a situation where the working class is materially stratified and divided in a whole variety of different ways overcomming those divisions requires those with less power to self organise and confront those with more power and certainly not wait on, or depend on, any level of majority support accross any particular divisions before acting. Building unity in struggle is not just about the intelectual understanding of long term common interests but a process of negotiation, 'give and take' and building respect based on strength. I recall this kind of discussion being significant in the past when considering the relationship between unemployed 'job seekers' and the civil service workers who administer benefits during the anti-JSA campaign in Britain, but it is obviously relevant in situations where minority etnic workers are being discriminated against by an unholy alliance of 'white' workers, unions and bosses. As a more extreme example, though I'm not an advocate of violence as a badge of militancy, clearly some struggles will practically advance, in part at least, only if workers are prepared for it's use in some confrontational circumstances.

Not sure if that helps? I don't think I'm saying anything particularly significant here for what it's worth.

Jun 7 2012 12:32

Yes, what exactly does that mean Spikey?

Another example to be added to finger's list is the 20 odd month long Grunwick strike of mostly Asian women in a photographic processing plant. A militant strike against harsh and racist conditions it saw massive support and solidarity from white workers (quite a movement really) including miners, postal workers and London dockers (some of whom had followed Enoch Powell earlier). Sometimes there were thousands of workers on the picket line and the solidarity action of the local postal workers could have brought the company to its knees. But this was another set-piece that was ultimately defeated by the unions who agreed that the postal workers's action was "illegal" (ie, effective) and the union's role in reducing the effectiveness of the picket lines. The stalinist controlled unions of the 60s and the early 70s were, like the trade unions generally in Britain, racist. But in order to have some credibility in places like Grunwicks - and other examples that fingers gives - it was necessary to be more "multi-cultural", up to the point of pushing a black man forward to head the TUC.

I think that despite the examples of solidarity and militancy expressed by the struggles above one thing that we do have to recognise is that the long drawn out isolated strike is not a useful weapon for the class struggle and instead favours the ruling class. Rather than workers being cajoled and encouraged to "fight to the bitter end" there are practical steps that could be taken at the beginning of any strike by the workers themselves to spread the movement and there are no recipes in this respect that can be applied in advance. But the long drawn out strike leads to demoralisation, isolation and the strengthening of the forces of the state.

Jun 7 2012 12:35

Posted over Spikey's reply

fingers malone
Jun 7 2012 13:33
Spikymike wrote:
Building unity in struggle is not just about the intelectual understanding of long term common interests but a process of negotiation, 'give and take' and building respect based on strength.

What you're saying here is very relevant and to the point, mate.

Two things spring to mind.
Firstly, if you are the ones with less power, it's pretty common that the ones with more power just ignore you, or walk all over you. Now if you can get enough unity and militancy amongst the workers in your position, and there's enough of you, you can force people to have to take account of your demands, Mansfield Hosiery for example, the Asian workers struck twice and they got results. But I think that it would often be extremely difficult for people to be able to force a change.
Secondly I think people can easily develop mutual resentment based on previous betrayals that means they don't support each other in future struggles.

Jun 26 2012 06:50

Excellent blog joseph.

at the end it seems to me you leave it as a quandary, not posing a solution. the working class is a very large, very heterogeneous mass of people where various sub-groups have a worse situation than others for the sorts of reasons you mention...racism, gender inequality, homophobia, skill/educational differences, income differences, etc.

people learn about the world bit by bit, fact by fact, experience by experience. so it's natural that awareness of oppression arises first in regard to the oppression(s) one experiences. so a group of workers may come together and develop collective struggle against their employer, recognizing the assaults to their dignity, their exploitation. but they may conceive of this as a struggle against this employer, not generalizing it to a critique of the system, or they may conceive of the "us" as just their co-workers, or people who look like them.

historically in the USA the dominant union ideology which accepts capitalism & the imperialism of the federal state and just looks to modifications in the furniture in our cages developed back in the 19th century. and racism was then a key roadblock that made it hard for the early white male unions to think of a movement of the actual working class as a this would mean solidarity with immigrants and blacks.

and then this early pattern got sort of cemented via the increasingly repressive legal labor regime built since World War 2.

so only rarely has worker action broken out of the sectoral limits of a fight with a particular employer or industry. and this tends to limit the worker consciousness, of "us" the mindset tends to be shaped by the actual struggles that unfold & what people find they need to do to have an effective chance in that situation.

this type of labor movement was the background to the retreat from class in the social movements that arose out of the '60s/70s era.

to get around this problem it seems to me the key thing is for people who start out with an understanding of their own oppression in a particular situation where they are entering into struggles & actions to somehow also gain an understanding of the other forms of oppression that folks face. this is the process of working people developing a better understanding of the situation of the class as a whole, by understanding the oppressions of the various groups that make up the class. for example via alliances where feasible.

it seems to me that when a particular group of men are acting in a sexist manner, they are failing to understand the situation that women face in society, that is, the limits on their freedom...such as implicitly regarding their time as less important when it is assumed they will do all the cleaning up.

in the Marxist education of my youth we always used the term "class formation" to refer to the process of workers developing more of a mindset where they do come to oppose all the various oppressions that are suffered by the groups making up the class, as well as coming to oppose the system as such, aspiring to liberate themselves from it. I'm not sure if the Marxist autonomist term "class composition" has the same meaning or not. the discussion here sort of suggests it might.

anyway i would envision this in terms of an ideal of a grassroots social movement unionism that is overtly anti-sexist and anti-racist for example. If the slogan "an injury to one is an injury to all" is to be made real, then the injuries of any oppressed group can't be ignored. Thus saying that "unity" means avoiding gender & racial inequality issues fails to understand what class solidarity really would be.

"classism" seems to be used two different ways here in the USA I think. there are the liberals, like the NGO Class Action, who use it to mean prejudice against working class people. I think bell hooks, who also uses that term, meant to refer to the actual structure of class domination. Zizek's explanation of the difference between class & gender & race i find very obscure and not illuminating. It's possible to conceive of gender inequality being eliminated under capitalism i suppose (but it won't happen in fact), but not with elimination of class domination (since it's inherent to the capital relation). But I'm not sure what the practical implication of that is.

one last point. You write:

do we see
'the working class' as this sexist, racist mass over there we have to woo in, and thus see things
like anti-sexism and anti-racism as 'middle class niceties' which get in the way of class unity?

I just want to point out that this rhetorical question assumes that "working class"=white guys. This is an assumption we need to avoid.

Joseph Kay
Jun 26 2012 17:20

just on that last point, that's the point i was trying to make, i.e. to show how how for example saying feminism or anti-racism puts off 'the workers' presumes 'the workers' to be white males. this can be avoided by seeing class struggles as not just 'economic'/anti-exploitation but also political/social/anti-oppression.

rushing out in a bit, but also 'class formation' is probably similar to class composition. the latter includes a more cyclical schema (phases of decomposition/recomposition) and distinction between technical and political composition too. i might be wrong, but i think class composition is a specific way of theorising class formation in general.

Jun 26 2012 23:03
just on that last point, that's the point i was trying to make, i.e. to show how how for example saying feminism or anti-racism puts off 'the workers' presumes 'the workers' to be white males. this can be avoided by seeing class struggles as not just 'economic'/anti-exploitation but also political/social/anti-oppression.

okay but the oppression of workers in the workplace includes race & gender oppression, as with things like sexual harassment at work...a traditional mechanism used to drive women out of certain kinds of work. this was one of the practices that led to creation of female job ghettos. just as class power spreads throughout the society, so too does gender & racial inequality exist in the workplace. and this brings in a key area where bridging those divides can be worked at in workplace struggles. here in the USA at any rate a common practice among workplace organizers is to do mapping of the workplace to figure out all the various groups & networks, to try to find people from all the groups to participate on an initial organizing committee, and finding out what the beefs are of the various groups.

i would be interested to know what technical & political class composition are.

fingers malone
Jun 26 2012 23:19

JK's agreeing with that, not disagreeing with it.

We've often found it very difficult to bring those kind of things up in organising meetings, there is a feeling that you are causing division when you are in the middle of a big battle with the management, a fear that you will bring massive animosity on yourself, and also be called crazy.

At work I wouldn't say that we've ever successfully brought it up at all actually.

Jun 27 2012 01:42

what kind of diversity exists in the workforce in such situations? i was thinking more of getting people to voice their own beefs and concerns.

to take an example, in the construction industry in New York City racism has always been a problem. in the old days the unions were job trusts who recommended membership & jobs to relatives and friends who looked like themselves. it was racist de facto.

Once blacks & Latinos broke the job trust thru the "Coalitions" in the '70s through active shape up (invading job sites and demanding that contractors hire black & latin workers), a situation then evolved where the union leaders allowed the companies to have certain "regular" employees who weren't hired through the hiring hall. they were always white guys and they got the regular employment. women & blacks & Latinos were relegated to more irregular employment thru the hiring hall. Here a demand might be for all jobs to go thru the hiring hall.

Joseph Kay
Jun 27 2012 06:47

i'm a bit rusty, and i'm getting most of this from Steve Wright's book Storming Heaven, which I've been planning to re-read for ages, but iirc...

Technical class composition refers to the division of labour (including productive/reproductive), the organisation of the labour process, the social structures (families etc) and the sectoral composition (manufacturing, services etc) of the working class at a given time and place.

According to the autonomists (I think this originates with Tronti/Negri and the Quaderni Rossi journal), each technical class composition in time gives rise to a political recomposition, where workers find forms of organisation/self-organisation adequate to the conditions and thus form a political/antagonistic subject that imposes itself on capital.

Insofar as this doesn't lead to a revolutionary rupture, capital is forced to respond with changes to the technical class composition (e.g. off-shoring industry, changes to the labour process, recuperating organs of struggle into mediating roles), which in turn undermines the basis of that particular political class composition ('political decomposition'). This whole thing would be a 'cycle of struggle', which then repeats itself as workers recompose themselves politically under new conditions and force capital to react again.

I think this is a useful way to think about various oppressions, the challenging of which can be seen as part of the process of political recomposition (creating class unity), rather than barriers to it. E.g. Riots against police racism or feminist struggles for reproductive freedom (or indeed struggles against workplace harassment) are parts of the class developing adequate means of struggle under present conditions just as casualised workers getting organised is. The extent to which various struggles develop power and link up is an index of political recomposition. Like I say, I need to go back and re-read the relevant autonomist stuff before fleshing this out as I might be mis-remembering aspects of it.

Jun 27 2012 15:57

I think that is WAY too deterministic. but it doesn't surprise me for Negri. there is simply no such automatic relationship between the objective situation and the mindset within the class.

Joseph Kay
Jun 27 2012 16:01

tbh i'd read something other than my hurried recollections of a book I read 5 years ago before passing judgement. from what i remember it was aimed against determinism, the Operaist groups had a practice of workplace organisation and agitation which suggests they didn't see political recomposition as an automatic process. but like I say my autonomism's a bit rusty.

Jun 27 2012 17:12

even so, it shows that "class composition" is not the same as "class formation." Class formation is all about becoming a class for itself, "forming" itself to realize its own interests. the subjective as opposed to objective side of class. using "class composition" for both invites confusion.

fingers malone
Jun 27 2012 17:40
syndicalistcat wrote:
what kind of diversity exists in the workforce in such situations? i was thinking more of getting people to voice their own beefs and concerns.

Well, yeah, I was too. My workplace is pretty diverse I guess. what I was trying to say is that although there are a lot of women and black people working there, and involved in organising, they/we don't tend to feel able to raise those kinds of concerns.

Joseph Kay
Jun 27 2012 17:46
syndicalistcat wrote:
Class formation is all about becoming a class for itself, "forming" itself to realize its own interests. the subjective as opposed to objective side of class.

tbh, that sounds like 'political recomposition' (autonomist marxism is usually reproached for one-sided subjectivism, not objectivism!). but like I say I'd base a critique on something more solid than my paraphrases from memory. Steve Wright's book is pretty good iirc.

Jun 27 2012 18:59

Depending on who is using the terms and how 'class formation' and 'class composition' are synonyms. They're terms from different traditions that are for dealing with a similar range of problems.

In case aanyone cares, slightly longer definition of class composition here, something I wrote for a glossary of a book edited by a friend.

The class composition stuff was a big deal for me personally for a long time but it's not stuff I'm real into anymore. It is worth reading though (and Steve Wright's book is very good). Unfortunately there's a lot that's not in English, and a lot of what is in English tends to treat the term in a singular way when most of it was actually a subject of disagreement. As in, different people used the terms class composition, political composition, technical composition, etc in different ways and there were political stakes to those uses. Negri by far is the most translated person related to all this and he tends to talk and get talked about like he's summed up past debates, when I'm sure other people would sum up those debates very differently. Unfortunately the mini-boom in autonomist marxism has mostly led to some philosophical writing about the present and not much in the way of translations of material from the 1960s and 70s in Italy.

Here is a thing with my notes on how Sandro Mezzadra presents the intellectual history of 'class composition' analysis in the Italian New Left as well as a bunch of links to different pieces where people have picked up these terms and run with them in a variety of ways -

Jun 27 2012 20:02

thanks nate for the link to your little piece. but it just re-inforces my sense that that outlook is very dubious. Stalinism was characterized by an implausibly deterministic interpretation of historical materialism, and this may infect the outlook of the Italian far left of that era.

Jun 27 2012 21:12

Well, to reiterate JK's point, it's probly best to actually read some of the work in question or one of the decent secondary sources (Wright's book is the best, Cleaver's Reading Capital Politically is good as well) before drawing too much of a judgment about it based on some quickly dashed off commentary on the internet. I just put that up to be like "here's where the terms come from as I understand them." And like I said I think it's probly best to approach that material as a set of disagreements rather than as all of a piece. There are big problems with strains of thought in that era, but it's just false to suggest that the Italian New Left per se was deterministic. This is getting quite far afield from JK's post so I'll leave off here.

Mike Harman
Nov 14 2017 23:03
fingers malone wrote:
John Wrench and Satnam Virdee, Organising the Unorganised

Now in the library: (and a handful of articles on the Burnsall strike now